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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Backpacking versus Backpacking: a Comparison

Alisha McDarris

Two kinds of backpacking? What? Most people probably couldn't explain what one type entails, let alone two. But be assured: there are indeed two types of backpacking. And the only thing they have in common is that you are, in fact, carrying a backpack on your shoulders from point A to point B. But now that I've piqued your interest, you probably want the full breakdown, right? Well lean in and get ready to find out how backpacking is different from backpacking.

The first type of backpacking: backcountry backpacking

Backcountry backpacking requires certain equipment. Fun equipment. Equipment that chops things and catches things on fire and generally makes you feel like a mountain man (or woman).

This is what most Americans probably think of when they hear the word backpacking, though I find that many don't really know what exactly backpacking is (that's like, camping, right?). Well I'ma tell ya. It's not hiking, it's not camping, it's not heading into the woods to find a nice spot by the river to dip your fishing line, though backpacking may contain aspects of all those things. Backcountry backpacking is loading everything you need to survive for at least one night, likely several days or more, into a large backpack and heading out into the wilderness.

This type of backpacking involves no cell service, no bus pass, and dreadlocks are optional. You've got your stove, tent, sleeping bag and all your provisions for however many days or weeks you're planning to be off the grid, all stuffed in your pack. You hike in with everything you need and you hike out with everything you brought in. The woods are your toilet. You start a fire with a flint and a pocket knife and cook your freeze-dried meal over a tiny camp stove. You drink weak instant coffee every morning before you pack up camp and move everything to a new campsite for the next night. You have to take Tylenol PM to fall asleep when you can't ignore the sound of what you assume is a bear in the bushes. You follow Leave No Trace principles to the letter. There's dirt under your fingernails and you haven't showered in days. You sleep under the stars (or more likely in a tent or hammock) and commune with nature sans technology and the only other people you see are other sweaty backpackers and maybe a few day hikers and you smile and nod at all of them because you are backpacking and that's what you do. At the end of the trail, you walk out smiling, hopefully with no blisters on your feet, and smelling like the business end of a Saint Bernard. And you love it.

Got a pretty good mental picture? Good. Moving on.

Second type of backpacking: Nomadic backpacking

nomadic backpacking travel
Sub an iPhone loaded with music for the Walkman and a sun hat for whatever that safari head-topper nonsense is and you've got the right setup for international backpacking. Don't forget the uke! (

This is the type of backpacking that most Europeans bring to mind when they hear the term. It's associated with gap years, traveling, and living in hostels or the back of a van as you traverse a country or continent for several months or longer. It might include hiking, but not necessarily. This is really the only type of backpacking that most other nations think of when you mention the word because they (wisely) have a whole other lexicon for backcountry backpacking: it's called tramping or trekking. But you use the word tramping in the U.S. and folks get an entirely different mental image. You know what? Just avoid the term tramping when you're stateside, OK?

This type of backpacking involves crappy cell phones that only work on WiFi, a willingness and ability to sleep on overnight trains, and slightly more bathing (but not necessarily), and dreadlocks are still optional (though more common). Instead of a stove and tent and freeze-dried meals, your pack is full of souvenir snacks that you'll probably devour before you even arrive at your next destination, no more than two pairs of shoes that you've carefully selected to match every outfit in your bag, and an excessive number of maps that you can't bring yourself to throw away (What if you go back or make a friend that's headed there next?). You shower in flip flops because the cleanliness of the free showers at the local health club are dubious at best, you wear earplugs to drown out your hostel roommates' snoring so you can sleep for more than two hours before wandering around Berlin all day, and you get to hang with awesome fellow travelers from all over the world every night. You say a prayer and stick out your thumb in hopes of catching a free ride to your next destination or at least into the city and camp out at coffee shops and cafes for hours just so you can use their wifi to figure out the local bus system. You're regularly lost in cities that weren't clever enough to design their streets in a grid pattern and probably searching the web for the cheapest place with the most filling options within walking distance. You're almost constantly dirty, sweaty and tired and just want your Couchsurfing host to message you their address already. And you love it.

See the difference?

hitchhiking backpacking
Hitchhiking: an essential part of backpacking. Either kind, really. (vector created by Iconicbestiary -

So basically...

Americans need a new vocabulary to differentiate between these two very different types of backpacking, especially those of us who frequently participate in both disparate activities. We've backpacked in the Grand Canyon and Big Bend and backpacked around Australia and Europe (no, we did not hike through Germany or stay in a hostel in a National Park-but you've got that figured out now, haven't you?). Tell you what: I'm gonna try out the word trekking on some folks and see how it goes. My hopes are not high. Wish me luck and throw on a pack and get out there and explore.

Wander on.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Terradrift guide to Florence, Italy

Alisha McDarris

I'm not gonna lie: I very nearly gave up on Florence, Italy. For reals. In my defense, we arrived late in the afternoon after a tenuous train trip, our "hostel" (it was a shack at a campground) was less than ideal for the price I had paid, and I was hungry. Oh, and almost the entire first day it was raining. Have I ever mentioned how intrinsically my mood is tied to the weather? Well, I'm mentioning it now: intrinsically. Besides, I was becoming increasingly suspicious after spending our first few days in Italy in Rimini that Italians don't really like travelers. But more on that later. Fortunately, free museums and a sunny day mostly remedied me calling the entire city a wash, but it was a close one, let me tell you.

The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or Il Duomo

Il Duomo, Florence, Italy

Italian Trains are my nemesis

It started with trying to get a train out of Rimini to Florence. The station was packed, there was zero information on schedules or routes anywhere to be found (in English or Italian), and the only place to buy a ticket was at unmanned kiosks. This was not helpful. I could have skwarked (that's a new word that I just made up) my way through the process if the language had been the only issue, but it was one of those deals that the available tickets only show the final destination, not the stops in between. And you'd think there might be a mention of cities like Florence along the way, right? Wrong.

Since we hadn't memorized every possible train rout out of Rimini, we had no idea which ticket we needed and the one ticket attendant that was roaming the crowded hall was zero help. Zero. He basically pointed to a city on the big overhead schedule and shooed us away. So after several minutes of Google mapping and searching the ticketing website for a solution, we purchased a ticket that we were only about 80% certain was the right one.

And then we proceeded to discover that Italian trains are possibly the worst trains ever. It was like those pictures you see of buses in India where there are so many people on board they're hanging out windows and climbing on top... Obviously, there was none of that on a train, but we were packed in so tight you couldn't turn around. I was less than enthused. And in case you're wondering, yes, my disenchantment with Italian public transportation did continue to spiral as we journeyed in Florence and Rome.

The stops are never labeled, you have no idea where to get tickets (nearby news shops, bars, even gelaterias sell them), and there are no maps or stop alerts on the buses. Also, no one is going to help you figure it out, except maybe another traveler who has already managed it.


We arrived in the afternoon, waltzed around the city a bit, took a ride on the most hilariously tiny public bus I had ever seen (they have to be tiny to navigate the city's narrow streets), and then once again attempted to find the right bus to take us to the campground some 5 miles away where I had booked what appeared to be a small room but turned out to be more or less one of those trailers you see by worksite where they threw in a window and a cheap bathroom and called it temporary lodging.  Plus there was no Wi-Fi and it smelled vaguely of sour milk. You had to hike down a hill to a disgusting shared kitchen (even by campsite standards) and then Josh proceeded to ignore my urgings to go get a bottle opener for the wine and instead broke a key and cut his finger--rather badly--trying to do without.

Look at this comically small bus in Florence, Italy
Buses have to be small to fit down Florence's narrow streets

However, even with Google maps telling us more or less where to go and which bus to take, we could not freaking find it anywhere. And, once again, when we asked an employee at the bus station, even showing him our phone with the route name on it, he just waved us off. Suuuuper helpful. By now I was getting a little restless and just about to the point where I was considering starting to punch anyone in the esophagus who even looked at me funny. True story. Ask Josh. It's my go-to threat for just about any occasion. Did I mention I was getting hungry? You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry.

By the time we did find a (different) bus to take us to the campsite, it was dark and I had just about had enough of people asking me for money (I realize this probably makes me sound like a terrible person, but you see how you feel after an exhausting day and no fewer than six people in two hours come up and either ask you for money or try to sell you a flower for 10). But we did make it to our disappointing lodgings where we hoped the next day would be better.

It wasn't.

But that's probably my fault. Weather, remember? We had good wet-weather clothing and all, but I still hated it. And then I was tricked. Walking to the bus, a seemingly innocent nice old man stopped us on an empty street and started talking to us in Italian. Between my limited understanding of the language and animated hand gestures, we mostly had each other figured out--he was suggesting where to go and what to see on a nearby hill--but then things got weird. He saw we were married and started pushing us together because he thought it was appropriate for us to kiss. We did not want to kiss in front of a stranger. Especially one who was practically man-handling us into it. And then he asked for money. For crying out loud! You should know this about me: the only way I have happily parted with spare change when asked by a beggar or homeless person is when they are snarky, comical, and in no way trying to scheme me into feeling sorry for them. A veteran in a wheelchair straight up asked me one time in Austin as I exited a cash-only business (smart old man!), "Can ya spare some change for a cranky ol' bastard?" And I gave it to him. That's all it takes.

Add that to the fact that I could find almost nothing interesting to do for free in the city that wasn't outdoors and you've got yourselves a recipe for mopiness. We didn't want to explore parks or go on a walk because it was disgusting and chilly, but fortunately, somewhere around lunchtime, I discovered it was the first Sunday of the month and that meant almost all of the museums were free! For those of you who don't know Florence, that's a huge deal! We're talking Uffizi, Medici Chapels, Accademia Gallery, Bargello Museum. It's insane! The number of artistic masters that called this city home is an art-lovers dream!

Pieces of long-dead royalty in reliquaries inside the Medici Chapels

The stunning ceiling inside the Medici Chapels

The bejeweled hallways of Uffizi

Art and sculpture inside Uffizi

Now, I wouldn't call us art lovers, though I do appreciate art of all kinds, and we're not museum fanatics, either, but when in Rome (or rather, Florence)... Besides, you can't pass up the opportunity to see gleaming reliquaries and paintings like The Birth of Venus. And one thing I did learn about myself is that I am a huge fan of sculpture. I'll take in some good paintings at a leisurely pace, but you put me in a room with a few marble sculptures (or hundreds, as is often the case in Florence), and I could spend hours examining the craftsmanship from every angle. And Michelangelo's David? If you've never seen him in person, let me assure you that he is worth all the hype. And then some. He is the most beautiful piece of artistry ever to carved out of marble. Even Josh was impressed, and he doesn't impress easily. I mean, just, wow. Wow.

Michelangelo's David inspiring awe in Accademia Gallery visitors

One more time, with gusto...

Day two was slightly better. The sun decided to come out, making the city look a lot more impressive. We decided to walk a bit since we missed our bus and didn't just want to sit and wait. As a result, we came across this large, stunning cemetery. The gate was open, so we went in for a look. We wandered around the empty cemetery, saw a few guys working, but when we went to leave a woman came out of the office and started speaking in Italian. No idea what she was saying, but between her motioning to the gate and going to close it behind us, best we can figure is that we weren't actually supposed to be there. Well, then you shouldn't leave the front door wide open. Worth it. I like old cemeteries, OK? It's not weird.

An old cemetery outside the city center

But since the sun was shining we could finally go to some of those parks and gardens. Except we couldn't. Because for some reason unbeknownst to anyone, all public parks and gardens are closed on the first and third Monday of the month. We were not the only ones to find locked gates all over the city and grumble under our breath. Instead, we walked along the Arno River, went to Piazzale Michelangelo to see the bronze version of David and get a look at the city from above, and visited the fine Catholic Chiesa di San Salvatore al Monte and the Palace of Bishops and Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte, complete with an impressive cemetery with monstrous mausoleums. All free.

We even found a lovely little rose garden adjacent to the Piazzale where Josh napped and I caught up on journal entries as we lounged in the grass between flower beds and a handful of other travelers. It was quite lovely. The only thing left to do was to stake our claim on a bench near Michelangelo Plaza to watch the sunset. I was glad we decided to stick around the city instead of paying the $30+ for a day trip to Pisa.

A view of the Arno River in Florence, Italy

Outside the Palace of Bishops in Florence
The hallowed halls of the Chiesa di San Salvatore al Monte

The food

Vegan food in Florence? Not stellar. I was disappointed to discover this. Grocery store options weren't bad, which was good for stocking up for dinner, but meals out were either uninspired or super duper expensive. We attempted one decent vegetarian restaurant, Nirvana, with good reviews and were a bit peeved to be served a (small) plate of greens and marinated seitan (that's vegan protein for all you non-vegans) that had to be remade because the menu said it was vegan but was topped with cheese. It cost 10 plus a 1.50 "cover charge" and 2 more for sharing the meal. Not even remotely worth it for a dish that was barely an appetizer for one.

We picked up hella fresh bread at the Mercato Centrale that's brimming with food vendors (and tourists), and the coffee and gelato in Florence were on point. We had both every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. You can get a macchiato with plant-milk for 1 (vegan-friendly Shake Cafe was our favorite stop each day), a cappuccino for 1.50, and a couple scoops of vegan gelato for under 3. If there's one thing I love about Italy it's the cheap, quality coffee. We also found little
Pasticceria Gualtieri on the way back to our campsite that served vegan pastries, so that was a thing that happened every morning. Unfortunately, none of these cafes offer a place to sit down, relax, plug in and check your email. Cafe culture just isn't the same there. You order your espresso and you go on your way. Nobody is setting up shop for the afternoon and writing their screenplay at a cafe in Italy. Well, most cafes in Italy.

The vegan-friendly Shake Cafe

The Mercato Centrale in Florence is home to food vendors of all kinds

Can't get enough gelato and macchiatos

The last train out

We left early the next morning for Rome licking our wounds and counting our losses. I'd say what with rose gardens, stunning architecture and David (let's be honest: David alone would have been worth the trip), we just about broke even. But that's travel for you. Full of ups and downs and surprises. But you'll never know if you never go!

Wander on.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Backpacking in Big Bend

Alisha McDarris
Big Bend South Rim

It's got desert, it's got mountains, it's got one big ol' winding river: it's Big Bend National Park, and it's one of only two national parks in Texas. The other is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in case you're wondering. Hard to believe, right? I mean, Texas is the second largest state in the country, you'd think it'd have more than two national parks, right? Well, it doesn't. So if you're in Texas and looking for a desert hiking experience in a national park, get thee to the Bend. We did. And in case you need some inspiration or instruction, here's how we went about backpacking in Big Bend.

About Big Bend National Park

First of all, this park has it all: the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the U.S., a snaking river as much of its border, the only mountain range contained entirely by a National Park, plus it has the darkest sky rating in the lower 48 and is one of the best spots in the U.S. for birdwatching. How's that for impressive? Plus it's home to some 59 types of cacti, 56 species of reptiles, and 25 mountain lions, give or take one or two. I realize those last two reasons might actually dissuade some more timid folks from exploring the deserts of Big Bend, but not us adventurers! It's not an experience unless you spot a Mexican black bear, right? (We did not, in fact, spot a Mexican black bear...or a mountain lion...or any reptiles...womp womp.)

But you don't need all the deets to know you want to do some backpacking in the park.

Camping Big Bend
Our secluded campsite in Boulder Meadows in Big Bend National Park

Backpacking Permits in Big Bend

If you read our post on backpacking in Grand Canyon National Park, you'll know how complicated and convoluted their backcountry permit system is. You either have to plan way ahead or show up and cross your fingers. Well, Big Bend isn't as popular as Grand Canyon (though 2018 is already showing record visitation), so getting a permit is easier.

To obtain a backcountry permit at Big Bend, just show up between 15 minutes and 24 hours before you want to head into the wilderness and simply ask for one. They'll take down the nights you want to spend in the backcountry, make sure you have proper supplies (like enough water), and help you map out your route and preferred sites if necessary. We didn't know where we wanted to hike or camp, so we moseyed into Panther Junction at about 3:00, looked at a map with a park ranger who made some suggestions, and we moseyed out with a backcountry permit for two nights on the Pinnacles Trail for that very evening.

The permits cost only $12 (not per person or per night, just $12 flat). So we paid our fee, bought an annual parks pass for $80 instead of paying the park entrance fee of $25 (we plan on hitting up a lot of national parks this year), and drove on to the trailhead.

Mexican Jay in Big Bend
We were frequently treated to greetings by Mexican Jays

Our Route

There are many routes to choose from. Initially, we wanted to spend two days and nights on the Marufa Vega loop, 14 miles of tough desert trails, but we were warned that even in February the trek could be a hot, dry one and we weren't sure we brought enough water vessels.

Instead, we opted for two nights at Boulder Meadows on the Pinnacles/South Rim Trail. We hiked in about an hour, set up camp, and the next day started on a day hike to complete the entire loop, about 12 miles of up and down mountain trails with spectacular views from the South Rim of the mountains. We made it back to basecamp in time for dinner and hiked out the next morning.

For the third day, we planned on finding a site at one of the campgrounds and then setting off on a lengthy day hike around Marufa Vega, but by the time we hiked out, found one of only two campsites available (most sites are first come-first serve unless you reserve at least two days in advance), it was too late in the day to start a 14-miler.

Book Canyon South Rim Big Bend
Bet you can't guess why it's called Book Canyon...

boquillas canyon big bend
A vista from Boquillas Canyon Trailhead in Big Bend

Pinnacles trail big bend
Just a hike on the Pinnacles Trail in Big Bend

Finding a Campsite at Big Bend

There are several campsites we could have stayed at, including Chisos Basin, Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village (all of which are scattered across the park). We opted for Rio Grande Village. We didn't have a reservation (it was only Thursday morning, after all) but by the time we arrived at about 10:00 am there were only two spots available. Of course, we tried--and succeeded--setting up our tent at two reserved campsites first because we didn't see the reservation card and the date on my watch was somehow wrong, but we managed. Just barely. After you find a site, you fill out a card, stuff an envelope with $14 per night, and slip it in a pay box at the entrance. Easy peasy. Sort of. Obviously, we struggled. It was embarrassing, really.

Rio Grande village campsite big bend
The Rio Grande Village Campsite at Big Bend

Day Hikes in Big Bend

Since it was nearly noon, too late to start on Marufo Vega, we opted for several short hikes instead. We spent 45 minutes to an hour wandering down the Boquillas Canyon Trailhead where we not only walked along the river and clambered over a sand dune and cut ourselves on thorny desert plants (well, I cut myself, anyway; Josh made it out unscathed), but we also witnessed several Mexicans fording or canoeing across the Roi Grande to place (presumably) handmade knickknacks and painted walking sticks along the trail for hikers to purchase. Little beaded scorpions were labeled with a price and a jar would sit nearby to collect payment on the honor system. At one point there was just an empty milk jug that said, "For the singing Mexican." And indeed, as soon as we passed it a Mexican started singing from the opposite bank.

mexican souvenirs at big bend
Souvenirs hauled across the river by brazen Mexicans

big bend national park
Nothing like cheap entertainment at Big Bend 

There is also the eight-mile roundtrip Ore Terminal trail, six-mile roundtrip Daniels Ranch Trail, four-mile roundtrip Window Trail, and the easy .3-mile Window View Trail and .5-mile Dugout Wells Trail, which we did not hike. There are more day hikes on the west side of the park, but we didn't venture that direction. We did hike the quick and easy Rio Grande Village Nature Trail right off the campsite, which would have been a great place to watch the sunset, and took a short walk to the Hot Springs near Langford Ruins.

hot springs at big bend national park
The hot springs at Big Bend alongside the Rio Grande are a perfectly relaxing place to chill after a day of hiking

Yes, I said hot springs. I cannot physically pass up a soak in some hot springs. It's an easy stroll on a dusty path and visitors can soak in a shallow 105-degree pool with a sandy bottom and direct access to the Rio Grande. There were at least a dozen other people there when we arrived, chatting and relaxing and easing aching muscles after grueling hikes in the desert. The afternoon was cool, so the water felt great, but so did a refreshing dip in the Rio Grande where an easy current escorted you 50 feet or so down the river to a rocky shore where you could climb up to the bank, walk back to the hot springs, and do it all over again. And naturally, after a couple kids swam across the surprisingly unimpressive river to step ashore in Mexico, we had to do it too. Don't tell border patrol we swam to Mexico.

stargazing at big bend
Big Bend National Park is a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Place

Stargazing in Big Bend

Birdwatching, which is popular in the park due to the 400 species of birds including peregrine falcons, isn't really our thing, but stargazing is. Not to the point where we lug around expensive telescopes to better view celestial bodies, but we like to look up in awe at the night sky. So naturally, we were excited about Big Bend being a Gold Tier International Dark Place. We didn't bring a tripod for some reason (it probably had to do with getting up at 5 am to leave Austin), and it was the first time we tried to take night sky photos with our mirrorless camera so the results could have been better, but that didn't stop us from enjoying the spectacle overhead after the sun (and the moon) went down. On several occasions, we set an alarm to get up in the middle of the night so we could get a good look at the stars with no residual light from the setting sun mucking up the vista. The stars out there are magical.

To be sure, the drive is a long one. It took about 7-8 hours from Austin and you don't pass much after Fredericksburg. But Big Bend National Park is a great retreat from the stress of the city and an ideal respite away from the modern world in the one-of-a-kind landscape that is the American Southwest.

sunset big bend national park
A stunning sunset reflected on the cliffs behind the Rio Grande Village campsite at Big Bend

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Where and How to get an Annual National Parks Pass

Alisha McDarris
america the beautiful national parks pass

So you're planning a few visits to some of the United States' fabulous national parks this year. Great! We've got tons of them! Over 2000, to be precise (including federal recreation sites and national monuments). And they are all varying levels of spectacular; it just depends on what you're looking for. Massive, towering trees? Sequoia National Park's got that. Red desert vistas? Head to Arches National Park. Tree-covered rolling hills? Smokey Mountain National Park. A giant hole in the ground (and I'm simplifying, here)? Grand Canyon National Park. No matter where you are in the U.S. there are amazing protected places to explore. And an annual national park pass grants access to just about all of them.

Because park entry fees don't come cheap. True, there are usually a handful of times each year that entry to the national parks is free, but if you don't happen to find yourself in the immediate vicinity on one of those exact dates, you're gonna pay. At most major parks (like Yosemite, Yellowstone or Grand Canyon), that fee is $30 per vehicle or $15 per person if you're heading in alone. But if you're planning on hitting up at least three parks in 12 months, the annual national parks pass, also known as the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, is worth it.

The annual pass costs $80 and covers the same carload of people (up to four) as the normal entry fee, but instead of paying at the entry booth, you'll just flash your handy plastic card and go on your merry way. But where does one acquire this handy plastic card? You have a couple of options:

1. Show up at a National Park and fork over the cash
This will usually be your best bet as you're obviously headed to the park anyway. When you arrive at the entry station, just tell the park ranger you'd like to purchase the annual pass and she will get you all set up. You won't even pay sales tax. Easy peasy.

2. Order online
If you'd rather have the card in advance, say if you're headed to a park or recreation area where passes aren't sold (check the list here), then you can order a pass at It'll be mailed to you, but in addition to it taking up to three weeks, you'll also pay a processing fee of $5, so it's not ideal.

3. At your local REI
Depending on your store, you might be able to show up and buy a pass off the rack for the same $80. If it's not in stock at your store, you can order it on where shipping is free, but you can also have it mailed to the store nearest you (or nearest the park you want to visit). If you still have an REI gift card left over from Christmas you're set.

Fun fact: Passes are free for U.S. Military, National Park volunteers, anyone with a disability and U.S. fourth graders. You just have to show some proof that you belong in one of those categories. And if you're over 62, an annual park pass for seniors is only $20 or you can splurge for a lifetime pass for $80.

Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

So get yourself a pass and start exploring! Wander on!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Tiny House Shower: Take 2!

Alisha McDarris
Let me start right off by saying I loved our tiny house shower/tub combo. I loved the way it looked, I loved that I got to have a soak on cold winter days (even if I had to curl up in the fetal position to submerge 3/4 of my body. Unfortunately, we had no idea what we were doing, but sure thought we had a great idea. We built a nice box around our hefty rubberized trough, we hung some dope vinyl tiles on the wall and grouted between all the joints. It was beautiful! It was brilliant!

Look at those vinyl tiles in our tiny house shower! Love.

But it also wasn't terribly functional. Some of you will see the issues right away. Some of you, like me, might need them pointed out but then you'll be all, "No, it'll be great! We'll pull a Tim Gunn and make it work!" And we did. Sort of. But not really.

We built our tiny house bathtub out of pallet wood if you can believe it.

Here was the first issue: see those corners and edges of the box surround? The ones that sit lower than the edge of the black tub? That was a design flaw and it was all on us. Seemed like the easiest way to get a cutout that fit without having to be perfect was to design it so the tub would just drop in and the lip would hide any imperfect cuts or measures. On that count, it worked perfectly. But when one goes to use the shower, water tends to pool in those corners and just sit. And no matter how much sealant or lacquer you put on a wood box, ain't nothin' gonna stop collecting water from daily use from damaging the wood.

We tried to solve the problem by putting absorbent material in the corners. But they still needed to be wrung out every day, so that didn't work. Then we resorted to a full 360 curtain surround, but if it wasn't closed perfectly water still splashed and sprayed out and made a mess. Plus it had a tendency to make the shower seem a lot smaller. Not something you want in an already relatively close space.

The next problem was with the tiles. I don't know if vinyl self-adhesive tiles like this weren't meant to be mounted vertically (probably) or the adhesive we used wasn't strong enough (possibly) or the movement of the tiny house when we towed it was too much for the grout (you never know), but that crap started to bubble and separate from the wall not long after we settled in.

So finally, after renting our house out all summer and coming back to a bathroom that suffered a bit of water damage from an imperfectly designed system, it was time for a re-haul.

Mid tile removal. And yes that is a pizza cutter in the bottom right corner. They're very handy for wedging behind vinyl tile to help pop them off the wall.
We considered just paying a little extra for a proper shower surround, but when we considered that the drain would have to be in the exact same place as our current drain and couldn't find a model that was the right size anyway, we gave up on that.

We considered buying vinyl flooring by the foot, painting the walls with that heavy-duty waterproof paint name it, we considered it. But what we ended up with was 4x8 sheets of plastic sheeting found with the decorative wall panels at Home Depot. It was plastic, 100% waterproof, and about 1/4 inch thick. There were even handy little end caps and corner pieces to cover up the cuts we would make that would doubtless be far from straight.

The walls of the shower went up first.

We cut one piece for each wall, then made a frame out of 1x1 boards to go around the tub lip so our new top would have something to sit on and be flush with the tub, thus preventing puddles. We--very carefully--measured and cut out a topper to go over the frame and the tub, cut pieces to trim the edges and make it look all clean and snazzy, and caulked the crap out of everything.

The finished tiny house bathtub, sealed and ready to go.

Is it perfect? No. Apparently even with killer wall panel adhesive and a vinyl roller tool we still can't seem to mount walls without getting that weird bubbly effect here and there. But I bet you can't tell. I can tell, but I'm hoping you can't.

It's just another adventure in DIY tiny house living!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Strange and Sordid History of Valentine's Day

Alisha McDarris

Love it or hate it, Valentine's Day is weird. Like, really weird. Not so much these days, what with all the red and pink and hearts and candy, but if you head back to medieval times and look at where some of the foundations of this holiday came from, you might be in for a surprise. Personally, we're not really that into Valentine's Day; never have been. Except for when mom would make us truffles. That we were into. Dad taping balloons and flowers to our lockers in middles school when our egos and reputations were painfully fragile? That embarrassment we could have done without. (Although in hindsight we can see clearly how adorable and parent-brag worthy that was.) But we are into strange and sordid history and pointing and laughing at folks who base romantic escapades on it. Wanna know what we're talking about? Course you do. Check out these weird facts and histories about Valentine's Day:

1. Valentine's Day may or may not celebrate a dude that was martyred
On the 14th of February, as a matter of fact. Of course, Saint Valentine could possibly have been two different men, maybe even three. Nobody seems too sure about this point. But we think it's a guy from Rome who was beheaded for helping couples get married in secret. Or possibly a Christian martyr who's last written words were to his love from, "Your Valentine." Seems like a stretch, but what are you gonna do? These days, he's the patron saint of happy relationships, but also beekeeping, epilepsy, fainting, and travel. What?

2. Valentine's Day may be a product of the classic Church declares new holiday to replace pagan Lupercalia
The church did this a lot back in the day, Christmas included. They'd be all fed up with the pagans celebrating in the streets, so they'd find a way to make the holiday their own and make a bit more palatable. Lupercalia was a fertility festival in Rome in mid-February during which, among other ghastly rituals, men would slap women and crops with bloody goat hide to make them more fertile. Not sure how that worked out for them, but seeing as they didn't have birth control yet, they were probably pretty prolific with or without the flayed animal flesh.

3. Love literally involved the luck of the draw
Part of Lupercalia may have also involved all the single ladies (cue the Beyoncé) putting their names in a pot to be drawn from. The local dudes would draw and the couple hooked up for a week or a year or some such nonsense. So much for a woman's right to choose.

4. The holiday is official
In 1537, King Henry VII declared February 14 officially St. Valentine's Day. Whew. Think of how close we might have come to not spending hundreds of dollars on fine dining, flowers and jewelry every year! No seriously, think about it. Men spend an average of $150 on gifts each year. Women only about $75. Guess we're just thrifty that way.

5. People freaking love cards with cheesy hearts on them
Valentine's Day is the second largest card-giving holiday. That's according to Hallmark. They would know, right? Let's assume the first is Christmas. And I'm told this love-lettering showed up all the way back in the 1400's, but mass production of Valentine's Day cards started in the 1840's when some lady started cutting up her grandmother's good lace and pasting it to red cardstock. Of Course, Hallmark didn't step in until the early 1900's, but I guess that's probably when all the romantic handwritten letters stopped. Thank goodness for other people expressing your feelings for you!

6. Valentine on display
St. Valentine (don't ask us which one) is supposedly on display at several cathedrals around Europe. They call that sort of thing "reliquaries," but really, it's just bones put on display so people can be like, "Oooh, is that the skull of St. Valentine? Maybe if I can just stand next to it my beekeeping business will finally succeed!"

You do you this Valentine's Day. But seriously, maybe avoid drunkenly charging up and down city streets with bloody strips of animal hide. Girls don't like that.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Things to do in Budapest, Hungary

Alisha McDarris

First of all, let's get one thing clear: It's pronounced Booda-pesht. Folks'll be impressed if you manage to get it right. Secondly, Budapest is a wonderful Eastern European destination.While still being fairly popular with travelers, it's far from overrun like Prague or Amsterdam. The wide streets and eclectic walkways provide ample space for wandering and exploring and the city's combination of old and new strikes just about the perfect balance. We spent far too little time there. So, basically, in a nutshell, Budapest is worth a visit. And to prove it, here are some of the things you can do for free (or really cheap) in this city of duality.

Getting Around Budapest

A major train station and comprehensive bus and tram routes make the city super easy to navigate.

Buses, trains and trams: Public transport is cheap in the city at 350 HUF (Hungarian Forint or Ft) or about $1.40 for  a single ride or 530 Ft ($2.15) for a transfer ticket to jump from metro to bus to tram. You can also get travel cards for unlimited trips in a set number of hours. But be wary of the ticket machines located near stations: they don't give change. It's often easiest to purchase a ticket book from a local convenience store. Buying a ticket on board will cost a bit more. Buses, trains and trolleybuses operate on the honor system, and while we never saw officers checking tickets in cities with similar structures (Berlin and Prague), at least once there was an officer manning a Budapest station to make sure riders were following the rules, so don't risk it.

Bike share: MOL Bubi is the city's bike share program. It's not the cheapest we've found in Europe, but it'll do. For 500 Ft ($2.00) you can get a 24-hour "ticket" (1,000 Ft for 72 hours) that allows you unlimited rides up to 30 minutes. Use the bike longer and you'll pay a bit more. There's a 25,000 Ft refundable deposit, too.

Walk: Budapest is a totally walkable city. It's pretty flat and no matter where you are there are always interesting sights or buildings to appreciate, so try taking a stroll instead of spending on a bus ticket. You'll experience more.

Free Things to Do in Budapest

Put your wallet away. These are things that don't cost a dime.

The Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest is one of the most attractive I've ever seen

Marvel at Parliament: Budapest's parliament building is probably the most impressive I've ever seen. It's built in my favorite architectural style (neo-gothic) and massive, to boot. And when you're finished straining your neck to take in all the brilliant details or the stone structure, take a snap in front of the Budapest letters, too. And on October 23, it's free to check out the inside.

In Memorium: 1956, October 25 is deep, dark and haunting

In Memorium: Right outside parliament is a staircase that goes down into the ground instead of up. Beneath the hustle and bustle of the street you'll find a mini museum about the massacre of October 25, 1956 and Hungary's challenging struggle for independence. It is a haunting display that reveals the bleak points in the city's history. Nearby is another downward-leading staircase that has old bits and pieces of important structures like the Parliament building on display.

60 pairs of steel shoes represent Jewish men, women and children who were murdered during WWII

Shoes on the Danube: This memorial to the Jews that were murdered, shot into the Danube River, is chilling, to say the least. A vision of all shapes and sizes of shoes left behind, marking the spot where they were murdered and sent to watery graves, is a solemn reminder of the devastation the city suffered during WWII.

The view from Gallért Hill on the Buda side of Budapest

Gallért Hill: You'll find the Citadel on top, but the walk up is just as inviting. Not only is it quite the hike, a myriad of sprawling paths and trials offers dozens of ways up, down and around the hill. You can see the Cave Church cut into the side of the hill (which costs extra to enter), a great view of the city, and there's a pretty killer playground with trampolines and super slippy slides about halfway up. Take a break and have a play!

The gardens of Buda Castle are perfectly picturesque

Buda Castle: It costs to enter the interior of the castle, but it's worth the trip just to have a stroll around the gardens and along the tops of castle walls.

Vajdahunyad Castle in Varosliget Park in Budapest is a lovely place to spend an afternoon
Josh found Bela. Can you?

Vajdahunyad Castle: On the east side of the city there's another castle. Again, there's a 1,600 Ft admission fee for entry into the museum and tower, but it's located in lovely Varosliget Park, so gardens and cool architecture make it worth the walk. Also, see if you can find the bust of Bela Lugosi that somebody randomly placed in a little alcove some years ago!

The monument to fallen heroes in Heroes Square

Heroes Square: Right next door to that is Heroes Square, complete with towering monument and pillars commemorating all the people who gave their lives for the country's independence.

Memorial to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence, Budapest, Hungary

Memorial to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence: While you're over in that direction, hit of this ominous monument. It's eerie and gleaming in the sun, sharp and striking. Hungary's history often gets overlooked in American history classes; this work of art makes it impossible to ignore.

Margaret's Island: Take a stroll on this lovely island in the middle of the Danube. It's free to get to the island, just walk over on Margaret Bridge and relax on the grass under a shady tree somewhere. Maybe next to the fountain or the Japanese Gardens.

Cheap Things to do in Budapest

Spend a little, experience a lot. Budapest is cheap!

KuglerArt Szalon: This little gallery is set up in a homey space and dedicated entirely to Roma (gypsy) art and culture. It's about 620 Ft to enter, but it's the only thing like it in the city and not overrun with visitors. It's worth the hunt to find it.

The interior of St. Stephen's Basilica
Yep, that's St. Stephen's severed right hand; a holy relic

St. Stephen's Basilica: Technically it's free, but the church requests a donation upon entry. Suggested donation is 200 Ft, but you can drop in whatever you think is fair. Once inside, marvel at the detailed craftsmanship and artistry, but don't forget to head to the back where you can drop in another small coin (or follow somebody else who will drop one in first) to light up the box that contains the severed hand of St. Stephen himself. It's a weird story, but the hand gets carted around the city once a year in a parade. Admiring the exterior of the impressive cathedral is free, of course.

The view of Gallért Hillfrom Buda Castle

Buda Castle: These days it houses the National Gallery (1,800 Ft, free on national holidays), History Museum (2,000 Ft), among other attractions.

Tour Parliament: The view from the outside is free, but if you want the inside scoop, you'll need to take a tour. It costs 2,400 Ft for EU residents, 6,000 Ft for everybody else, but on October 23, a national holiday, it's free and open to the public.

Take a "Free" Tour with Free Budapest Tours: Yes, technically it's free, but you are more or less expected to give a donation at the end to help pay for the guide's time and expertise. That said, feel free to give whatever you think the tour was worth! You might just learn something.

Visit some Museums: Among the interesting and popular museums you can visit in Budapest is the Terror House (3,000 Ft), Hungarian National Museum (1,600 FT), and The Museum of Fine Arts (which unfortunately is currently closed until fall 2018). Many are free for students or EEA residents under 26 at least one day a month. If you don't know what an EEA resident is, don't worry about it: you're not.

Cheap eats in Budapest

So much cheap food. So much.

Josh enjoying a traditional Trdelník

Trdelník: Or kürtőskalács. These are a traditionally Hungarian food. While not typically vegan, they are a tasty vegetarian sugary treat; like a cinnamon roll cooked on a revolving stick and served up in a hollow, pull-apart street snack. Don't buy one in the city center, though. Those will run you about 900, while stands on the outskirts of the central district are only 200 or so.

Great Market Hall, aka Central Market Hall

Great Market Hall: Also known as Central Market Hall. If you want to stock up on fruit, veg, or meat, this is the place to be. The upper stories are reserved for souvenirs, but you're likely to find better prices on the same items elsewhere.

360 Bar: This has to be one of the coolest rooftop bars in the city. It rises far above surrounding buildings, so you get a great view of Buda, Pest, and the river in between. Plus, a nice bar, comfy and swanky seating and food drinks make it a cool place to be day or night.

Falafel: Pick a spot; it's everywhere. It's cheap, most places can do a vegan version, and it's filling. Humus Bar, Tik Tak, Falafel Sziget, are all vegan friendly.

Quirky and abstract Csendes Létterem, a cafe in Budapest

Csendes Létterem: This quirky cafe serves up a mean latte. But be careful not to spill it down your front when you're trying to take in all the weird stuff on the walls. It's definitely a unique space.

Istvanffi Burger: Ignore the unpronounceable name. This small chain serves up veggie burgers and chunky fries for cheap! Like, as little as 790 forint! That's $3.15! There are multiple vegan patties to choose from, some of which are gluten free, and everything is tasty. So fill up!

Govinda: A pay-by-weight buffet affiliated with Hare Krishna. It's simple food, but cheap, warm and tasty. There are several locations to make it extra convenient.

Vega City: Some items in this vegan, cafeteria-style restaurant are priced individually (like burgers), and some are priced per weight. Pick what you want and eat up (including dessert)! Prices are reasonable and food is fresh and tasty.

Have any of your own fave hot spots in Budapest? Share 'em! Seriously. We'd go back in a second. Wander on!

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