How to Make the Most of a Short Road Trip to the East Coast

Road trips are often an excuse to get on the road and go somewhere.  A lot of people have a destination in mind but if you really want to make the most of it and have fun with those whom you are travelling with — don’t plan so much.  Instead, why not turn it into a game or a quest?  Of course, this can be applied to any road trip.  Not just one to the east coast of the United States.

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Since I changed jobs earlier this year in May, I’ve had to acknowledge that I have significantly less vacation time than before.  This meant shorter road trips or in some cases, no road trips!

Fortunately, I had one road trip planned and approved of prior to my move to a new job.  Road trips are often an excuse to get on the road and go somewhere.  A lot of people have a destination in mind but if you really want to make the most of it and have fun with those whom you are travelling with — don’t plan so much.  Instead, why not turn it into a game or a quest?  Of course, this can be applied to any road trip.  Not just one to the east coast of the United States.

Waking up to a sunrise over Hawaii 2 and Lake St. George.
Waking up to a sunrise over Hawaii 2 and Lake St. George.

When the folks at Cards against Humanity purchased an island and renamed it Hawaii 2.  The first thought that crossed my mind was to find it and go there.  If we happened to find some other things to do along the way, so be it.  Just as my friend and I were about to set off to find this island, I discovered that The Holy Donut also resided int the state of Maine.  This turned into an amusing road trip that we dubbed “The Search for Hawaii 2 and the Quest for the Holy Donut”.  (I’ll write about my experience finding Hawaii 2 another time).

Here were some highlights along the way and back:

Never stayed in a lean-to before so why not give it a shot?   No need to worry about a rainfly and pretty warm.  Just had to deal with my friend's snoring...
Never stayed in a lean-to before so why not give it a shot?   No need to worry about a rainfly and pretty warm.  Just had to deal with my friend’s snoring…
Had no idea what the weather would be like but we ended up hiking the tallest mountain in Vermont (Mt. Mansfield).  Yes, that is a storm approaching, and yes, we got caught in it on the way down.  Not super pleasant but it was a great experience to take in.
Had no idea what the weather would be like but we ended up hiking the tallest mountain in Vermont (Mt. Mansfield).  Yes, that is a storm approaching, and yes, we got caught in it on the way down.  Not super pleasant but it was a great experience to take in.
Stopping by for a quick hike or two in New Hampshire on the way into Maine.  Great views.
Stopping by for a quick hike or two in New Hampshire on the way into Maine.  Great views.
Who would've thought one would encounter a piece of the Berlin Wall in Portland, Maine?
Who would’ve thought one would encounter a piece of the Berlin Wall in Portland, Maine?
Looking at all the options at the Holy Donut.
Looking at all the options at the Holy Donut.
Local food.  Local cuisine.  Always important to enjoy.
Local food.  Local cuisine.  Always important to enjoy.
Road side attractions and stops are always a must.  Don't ignore them, each has their own unique story to take in.  The owner of this giant root beer barrel told us that it took him and his friend over 850 hours to build this out.  It was rainy that day but we still stopped to take a seat and enjoy a bottle of local root beer and a root beer float.
Road side attractions and stops are always a must.  Don’t ignore them, each has their own unique story to take in.  The owner of this giant root beer barrel told us that it took him and his friend over 850 hours to build this out.  It was rainy that day but we still stopped to take a seat and enjoy a bottle of local root beer and a root beer float.
We couldn't really plan for when we'd be able to see the sunrise over Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. Weather was rather unpredictable so we drove up (extremely slowly) through the fog up to the top where we slept through the night.  Extreme?  Maybe.  We weren't the only ones though!
We couldn’t really plan for when we’d be able to see the sunrise over Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. Weather was rather unpredictable so we drove up (extremely slowly) through the fog up to the top where we slept through the night.  Extreme?  Maybe.  We weren’t the only ones though!
I had never encountered so many wild blueberries on a trail before.  We just kept picking them while hiking through the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge.
I had never encountered so many wild blueberries on a trail before.  We just kept picking them while hiking through the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge.
On the way home, we passed by the Bread and Puppet Art Museum in Vermont.  It was a brilliant place to stop off on the long drive home and quite inspirational.
On the way home, we passed by the Bread and Puppet Art Museum in Vermont.  It was a brilliant place to stop off on the long drive home and quite inspirational.
Across from the Bread and Puppet Art museum was the Cheap Art Store.
Across from the Bread and Puppet Art museum was the Cheap Art Store.

We did all of this and more in about a week and were never in a real rush.  Everything was chill with plenty of time to just talk about the meaningful as well as enjoy the nonsensical banter.  I also tried applying a twist on to the music as we drove home by building a playlist that only involved songs with ‘home’ in the title or reminded my friends of home.

Small things add up to make your journey a truly memorable one — and to add to the fact that you return from your ‘quest’ successfully, just makes it even more fun.

So to sum things ups:

  1. Turn your road trip into a quest.  Make it realistic, not impractical.
  2. Allow yourself time and the attitude to just enjoy the silence, the journey, and the nonsensical banter between stops.
  3. Don’t miss out on roadside attractions that you may just spot along the way.  Give yourself permission to stop — rather than rushing towards the destination.  The destination isn’t going anywhere anyhow.  You may not find this roadside attraction again.

Getting Lost in a Corn Maze is Awesome

Ever since I discovered the Vermont Corn Maze one autumn day many years ago, I’ve been looking around for a solid corn maze to venture into in the Toronto area.  Having experienced the poor excuse for a corn maze (i.e. too tiny) and the 5 to 10 acre ones, I sought out something really substantial and then I came across Hanes Corn Maze, which was 20 acres!

Ever since I discovered the Vermont Corn Maze one autumn day many years ago, I’ve been looking around for a solid corn maze to venture into in the Toronto area.  Having experienced the poor excuse for a corn maze (i.e. too tiny) and the 5 to 10 acre ones, I sought out something really substantial and then I came across Hanes Corn Maze, which was 20 acres!

Eventually, I rounded up enough friends who dared to step into the maze with me just before the last week of October.  They weren’t really willing to tackle it at night so it was just a day trip that started off with picking up everyone along the way.

We had arrived around 11 or so in the morning and it was exciting just to drive up to the lot.  My friends were already gushing from seeing the giant wall of corn in front of us.  To walk the corn maze and visit the farm animals cost us about $11.50 (CDN) per person which wasn’t bad at all.

Getting ready to enter the unknown...in the corn...
Getting ready to enter the unknown…in the corn…

As we paid to get into the maze, we were given a clipboard with a map.  I had not realized it but there was a scavenger hunt with a puzzle to solve.  It would make sense considering I could simply walk out of the maze pretty easily.

The gist of the scavenger hunt is this:

On the map of the corn maze, there are fields under the checkpoints where a participant has to jot down a code.  Each code is revealed if you can locate the checkpoint.  Once you collect all the codes — you exit the maze and try and solve the puzzle.

The tricky part is that not all the checkpoints are revealed on the map.  Some are hidden away!

Every so often, there'd be a lookout point amidst the maze.
Every so often, there’d be a lookout point amidst the maze.
Just when you think it might be possible to cheat, here's the view from the lookout point. [photo credit: Lisa Sit]
Just when you think it might be possible to cheat, here’s the view from the lookout point. [photo credit: Lisa Sit]

I have to say that the scavenger hunt was a lot tougher than I anticipated. A couple of my friends were beginning to give up because we were circling around trying to find the right checkpoints butkept encountering the ones we had already found.  Using the map was actually making it confusing at times because of where we thought we were in the corn maze.

Eventually we began using the very edge of the corn maze as reference points and made it out — to some degree.  There were a lot of families, teenagers, and kids who approached us about trading checkpoint codes, some were in the maze for 2 or 3 hours!  I’ll leave that to your discretion. We only spent 1 and 1/2 hours thanks to our willingness to exchange a couple of codes.

Successfully exiting the maze! [photo credit: Lisa Sit]
Successfully exiting the maze! [photo credit: Lisa Sit]

After the maze, we were able to solve the puzzle and claim a small prize.  Nothing major but it was nevertheless fun to achieve.  Our eyes were however, trained on the bakery.  It was a very small space and there were so many people lining up to pick up a pie or some other sweet goodies.  I picked up a nice apple pie myself and a chocolate overload square (which was amazing).

Dropping by the Tiny Shop Bakery. Full of pies, cookies, and squares of all sorts. Way too many choices!
Dropping by the Tiny Shop Bakery. Full of pies, cookies, and squares of all sorts. Way too many choices!

This was only part of the day’s adventure!  Hanes Corn Maze is quite close to the Spencer Gorge Wilderness area where there are a couple of nice waterfalls and we eventually satisfied our hunger at the Thirsty Cactus, a local pub and grill in the town of Dundas.

 

Off to Koya-san!

Eventually I stepped off the bus into the middle of town.  It was quite bit cooler than it was in the city — no wonder why everyone kept thinking ofThe architecture and detailed designs of the temples and small buildings along the main street amazed me.  I think I just stood there looking around for a while before I began walking back and forth along the main street of the town looking for the monastery that I would be staying at for one night before I began the Kumano Kodo trek.

Arriving in Japan this past summer in July, I had already anticipated a very humid and hot experience.  After spending a couple of days in Osaka visiting an old friend, I made my way to Koya-san (Mount Koya).  It was a pleasant break away from the hot and humid city where I felt like I was roasting in an oven.  I was very fortunate to have my friend who was familiar with interpreting the local transit rail lines.  For someone who had learned very basic Hiragana and Katagana — I found that figuring out the right trains to take and their schedules to be quite challenging.  Thankfully despite the obstacles, I met so many friendly local Japanese people who were willing to assist me and point me in the right direction (or on to the right train!).
Though the navigational understanding of the train system is a bit challenging, I was immediately taken with the efficiency.  I never encountered any delays.  The trip to Mount Koya involved a long train ride to Gokurakubashi Station but it was worth having the opportunity to see the landscape evolve from a highly dense urban environment into the lush green country side.  I was surprised to see how untouched much of the mountainous regions were.

Along the way by train to Mount Koya.

After reaching Gokurakubashi Station (it is literally at the end of the line), I ended up hopping on to a cable car that took a handful of visitors up to Koya-san.  It took very little time to climb the mountain and soon afterwards, we would hop on to a bus to reach the town centre of Koya-san.

The buses were also a bit of a challenge for me too given that they primarily identified stops in Japanese and payment for bus fare was also tricky for foreigners.  There is a specific slot for exact fare, and a slot to obtain change — which I often mixed up.  Fortunately the bus drivers were very patient with my inability to follow instructions!

The interior of the cable car.The cable car up Mount Koya.

Eventually I stepped off the bus into the middle of town.  It was quite bit cooler than it was in the city — no wonder why everyone kept thinking of  The architecture and detailed designs of the temples and small buildings along the main street amazed me.  I think I just stood there looking around for a while before I began walking back and forth along the main street of the town looking for the monastery that I would be staying at for one night before I began the Kumano Kodo trek.

After a long train ride from Osaka and my first bus ride in Japan, I arrived in Mount Koya and was greeted with beautiful monasteries.The common vending machines.  Some of them even speak.A map of the town on Mount Koya.

Eventually I saw an opportunity to visit Okuno-in before I made my way to the monastery.  As I approached this ancient cemetery, I saw buses full of tourists.  This was a hauntingly beautiful path that people often used for larger hiking and trekking route.  It was unfortunately also a major breeding ground for mosquitoes and I was immediately gifted with a few itchy bites as I stopped to take some photographs.

The entrance into Okuno-in.  An ancient cemetery / graveyard area.A part of the cemetery in Okuno-in.Many jizo statues lined up to watch over people.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the Okuno-in cemetery are the jizo statues that are lined all along different tombstones or even just the path.  They are supposed to watch over people and people often leave a form of tribute.  I eventually found them throughout the Kumano Kodo trail as well.

I was uncertain about why the jizo statues were decorated in certain situations but it was nonetheless beautiful to see the practice in person.

A jizo statue along the path in Okuno-in.Many beautiful statues in Okuno-in.The path through Okuno-in served as a much larger hiking trail that many people used.  I wish I had the time to walk through all of it but as I was only spending one night in Mount Koya, I wanted to make a visit to and see the other temples in town.

After spending time immersed in Okuno-in, I reluctantly left the ancient grounds to see the temples in the area.  The temples were often filled with visitors, tourists, and people so I would only drop by and take a look around before moving on to the next temple.  Kongōbu-ji in particular was very busy, but I believe it is the main temple in the area.

Eventually I’d make my way ahead of the crowds and enjoy some tranquil moments wandering around the larger structures in the sacred area like Danjo-Garan.  Personally speaking, as much as I was impressed by the size of other structures, I preferred the earth-like nature and feel of Kongōbu-ji.

Arriving at Kongōbu-ji TempleWalking towards Danjogaran Koyasan

Whilst walking around in awe of the natural beauty of the area and the structures built within the environment — heavy rainfall began and I quickly walked to Saizenin where I was staying.  I wasn’t sure where I would be staying but when I first saw the entrance, I questioned whether I was walking into the right place!  Fortunately I was and I was immediately greeted by a very kind woman who offered me shelter from the rain as well as a towel to dry myself off.

This is the monastery in which I stayed at -- Saizenin in Mount Koya.  Beautiful and very tranquil place.  I just needed to locate where it was and then I continued walking around.The monastery I stayed at was beautiful.  I didn't expect it to include television but I never turned on the telebox anyways.Just as I had arrived at the monastery, it was pouring rain.  The woman who welcomed me was very kind and even offered a towel to help dry off.  This is the view from my room.  Even in the rain, it was tranquil and beautiful.

After signing into the monastery, I was led to my room and wow, I was impressed.  I thought it would be rather tranquil but plain.  Instead it turned out to be elegantly designed but minimalist room with tatami flooring.  I was informed when dinner would take place and at what times the baths would be open so I decided to rest a little given I was still a little jet lagged from just arriving in Japan two days prior.  When the rain stopped, I decided to step out before dinner time to see a bit more of the area nearby.  This led me towards the Daimon Gate and some of the bluest flowers I’ve ever encountered.

The details of this temple are intricate and beautiful.I have never seen such blue flowers in my life.  They seemed to be everywhere in Japan.Thought this was a fitting shot for the Daimon Gate (literally translates to Big Gate).

Moments later, a monk arrived and arranged my dinner and indicated to me that it was best to be seated towards the window and enjoying the view when eating dinner.  As anticipated, this was a vegetarian meal and there was interesting mix of dishes composed of vegetables, broth, rice, tofu, as well as some fruit.

After dinner, they removed the dishes and tray and immediately set up the traditional futon (kakebuton) which was very comfortable.  More comfortable than my standard camping mat, I was grateful to have the opportunity to have a restful sleep in the cool environment before making my way to Takijiri where I would begin my Kumano Kodo trek.

I was informed to sit facing the garden looking out the window whilst eating.  FYI the tempura was amazing.The bed prepared right after dinner.

The next morning, I woke up early to join the other folks staying overnight at the monastery to partake in the morning chant ceremony.  I didn’t fully understand what was taking place but the room was beautiful and the ceremony and the rhythms of the chant very fascinating.  At a certain point, the folks including myself — one by one — were invited to participate (which I believe may be to perform a small ritual involving our own prayers).

After the morning chant, we were served a traditional breakfast and then I proceeded to pack up and make my way to begin my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trek.  More on this later!

Off to Japan

Will be away for the rest of July so it’ll be a while before I post again but you may keep up with me on Tumblr.  I’ll likely post some photos whilst in Japan when I have access to some WiFi.
I’ve been keeping up with the news of the super typhoon passing through parts of Japan so I hope I’ll still be able to trek the Kumano Kodo in the coming week. Fingers crossed!

Daimonzaka28-640.jpg

Daimonzaka28-640” by 663highland663highland. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

We Stopped for the Blue Skies

A beautiful view of a small town in a valley in Vermont

It was 2002 when I first laid eyes on the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  My family and I were on a road trip to this beautiful state that we had never set foot into.

This was the beginning of my fascination and enthusiasm for hiking mountains.  I was never much of an outdoors person to begin with.  You see, when you tend to be allergic to everything and experience everything from hay fever to hives and rashes — you don’t really think of the outdoors as your best friend.

Nonetheless, after stepping foot on to the top of Mt. Washington by car — I said to myself that one day, I would return to hike the white mountains.  That day would not arrive until 2007 when I finally had saved up enough money (dirt poor after so much school) and recruited a couple of friends to go on this one week road trip.

On the way to New Hampshire, we passed through Vermont.  During our long drive we just had to stop to take photographs along the way.  The blue blue skies, lush green lands, and the small pastures and farms were a beautiful and tranquil sight for this relatively clueless city kid at the time.

Highlights from a westbound Journey to Wyoming

Some of my favourite moments involve watching other tourists in Yellowstone.  I’m blown away when I think of how many photographs we take when we travel — much of it as a result of the introduction of digital photography.  Maybe we spend so much time looking through the lens of the camera or making sure that we capture the moment on film; that we forget to really experience and cherish how we feel in that moment.

This … is a really late post and very much long overdue 🙂
A timely road trip is vital.  I probably booked my time off from work quite appropriately ahead of time — because this could not have come at a better time.  With numerous and significant sudden changes that I’ve been confronted with at work and some heavy coursework from my part-time studies, I was looking forward to some time to take a breather, step back, and let my thoughts drift to and fro concerning my current situation as I drove thousands of kilometres away from home.

I tend regard my travels in a rather philosophical manner and this two-week pause (in terms of short-term demands) gave me the opportunity I needed to evaluate the direction I was taking over the past year or so.  This road trip did not have any real destination other than checking out Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton National Park; so it resembled very much my state of mind over the past few months — I knew I needed to move in a specific direction but I just wasn’t sure where.  So during this two week road trip, I let myself drift across the mid-western United States.

The general route - over eight thousand kilometres travelled

Some of my favourite moments involve watching other tourists in Yellowstone.  I’m blown away when I think of how many photographs we take when we travel — much of it as a result of the introduction of digital photography.  Maybe we spend so much time looking through the lens of the camera or making sure that we capture the moment on film; that we forget to really experience and cherish how we feel in that moment.  As I travelled, I realized that I wanted to take fewer photographs and spend more time on thinking and observing.

Tourists checking out the geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone was packed with tourists wherever I went but fortunately tourists still like to sleep in so I managed to get some quiet time by waking up extra early and driving out to the different quadrants of the park.  The month of May was definitely colder than I had anticipated and to make things even worse, I forgot my sleeping pad at home and was sleeping with a sleeping bag that just didn’t cut it.  I meant to use it as a test but without the sleeping pad, I was having a hard time getting to sleep at night as it colder.  Nevertheless I stuck it out and gradually worked my way south.

Geyser in Yellowstone National ParkHiking in Yellowstone National Park

I had wanted to take on a hiking trail or two in Yellowstone but huge mounds of snow blocked my way.  If only I had brought snowshoes with me!

Waterfall and rainbow in Yellowstone National ParkGeyser in Yellowstone National Park

After a few nights of freezing my butt off, I decided to push south into the Grand Tetons.  I have to say that of all the areas in Wyoming, the Grand Tetons was definitely my favourite area.  I could just stand there staring into the mountains and horizon in breathtaking awe and serenity.

View of the Grand Tetons across the lakeStorm approaching over Grand TetonsDriving through the Grand Tetons National Park

There were occasions during my trip where I had the opportunity to see wildlife but never did I get stuck in a traffic jam with so many fellow hikers in the early morning on the way to Inspiration Point — thanks to a family of moose.  We just stood there quietly waiting for the moose to move along.  I think it delayed us for about half an hour (some folk were pretty impatient, but I quite enjoyed the chance to just sit and watch).

Moose in the Grand Tetonshiking to Inspiration Point Inspiration Point in the Grand Tetons

After spending some quality time in the Grand Tetons, I started making my way back east very gradually.  I was feeling a bit unsettled — not knowing where to go next — driving from one country road to the next.  Eventually, I ended up with the crazy romantic notion of driving all the way to Manitoulin Island.

This is how I ended up in a very peculiar main street part of town.  I was actually looking for the best milkshakes in the state but I found a deserted street instead.  Still pretty awesome.

a deserted main street

As I travelled north east, I decided to stop by and visit the Crazy Horse Memorial which is rather quite the sight and impressive vision once I learned more about the future of this land.  Supposedly this won’t just be a monument for all Native Amerindians, but also evolve into a campus and community.  I really admire the ambition and goal of where this project is aiming to strive towards, and definitely will be keeping an eye on it.

Crazy Horse National Monument

You can’t pass through South Dakota without taking a pause in the long drive and checking out the Badlands National Park.  It’s simply a lot of fun to walk through although I can see how easily someone could get lost just simply by wandering around.

South Dakota Badlands National Park

Now I had heard about an amazing pie place in Minnesota but never did I expect such a challenge to find it.  The Aroma Pie shop is nearly in the middle of nowhere (no offense to the townsfolk) — it is actually in a very nice community but there are so many twists and turns that one has to make to find this “little slice of pie heaven” that it makes you wonder how many people drive there?

Actually, from what I observed, no one seemed to drive to the Aroma Pie Shop but rather cycled there!  Many people simply purchased a slice with some ice cream and sat in the porch area watching the hummingbirds come by and drink from the nectar feeders.

Fantastic blueberry pie from the Aroma Pie Shoppe

And of course, no road trip into the mid-west is complete without driving through a crazy storm.  It was pretty unbelievable to see a cloud like this.  On my way back into Ontario, I had to stop or slow down many times on the road because the rain was just insane.

A crazy storm on the way back home

After getting through Chicago (note to self: I need to stop driving through Chicago, the traffic is insane), I decided to make a final stop in Detroit so I could visit the Motown Museum.  You can’t take any photographs of the interior but it was such a fun place to visit.  It is a guided tour and the tour guides are very talented singers themselves!  Expect to sing along and dance. 🙂

Motown Museum

There were a lot of unexpected surprises and no I didn’t end up making it to Manitoulin Island despite the crazy idea that popped up in my head.  At the very least it gave me a sense of direction and along the way, I met some very kind and interesting people.  This time off gave me the break I needed to put some thought into life and work in general, and one of the things I walked away from this trip was that I wanted to spend more time sketching.  Expect to see more sketches in the future.

I definitely want to visit the Grand Tetons again, and I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to also learn more about Minnesota and Wisconsin as I travelled through those states.  I now want to explore those two states more.  Whenever that will happen is to be determined but it’ll be added to the list!

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