geography, travel tips

The Map on the Kitchen Table

Although I was born in Oregon, I don’t consider myself an official Oregonian until age three. My family moved to California when I was just a few months old, but they later decided that Southern Oregon was truly home and moved back a couple years later. After renting for a short time, we moved into a lovely suburban home that not only had a dining room for our dining room table, but there was a space inside the kitchen for a table as well. I remember going to furniture stores with my parents, until they finally brought a bench seat corner table set into our home. But with my preschooler tendencies, plus the anticipation of another child, my mom was well aware that this table was just one accident away from spilled juice or coloring off the paper. To protect the wood, she decided to cover the table in plastic, but knowing that would look tacky, she made a creative decision that would not only protect the table, but would provide a lifetime of curiosity and learning.

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My mom found a U.S. map about the same size as the table, and laid that out before wrapping the table with a thick plastic sheet. Even though my sister (who wasn’t even born when we got this table) and I are adults now, we know that this protective plastic coating is never coming off- it gives the table its character! Sure, we had to replace the aging map once, and my family has moved, but this kitchen table was sure to find its way in my parents’ current home. Whenever a few of us are gathered around this, it always turns into either a geography lesson or a story about someone’s American Adventure.

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Guests always loved looking at our table. Of course, the first place everyone has to locate is where they call home- which, for many of our guests, has been good old Southern Oregon. People love pointing out their birth town, places they have lived, interesting places they’ve visited, and where their family is from.

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I’ve always appreciated the detail of such a large map as it makes it easy to figure out where exactly my friends and relatives live. Many of my relatives live in Southern California, and I’ve been able to locate every single city they live in! When planning family visits, we often used our finger to trace our route down the I-5. When my parents, sister, and I travel separate from each other, we often gather around this table afterwards and trace out everywhere we went. It’s not quite like joining them on the trip, but it gives the rest of us a more realistic perspective of what the trip was actually like! While living in the Midwest, I would come back for Christmas break and enjoy pointing out the trips I took, especially my long solo road trip between Nebraska and Ohio.

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Nowadays, one of my favorite routes I like to trace on this map is the bus trip I took across the country. I remember while on that trip, probably somewhere in Wyoming, another bus passenger stated that she wished she and her family knew American geography better. I immediately thought of this and told her all about how my family sealed a map on the kitchen table when I was growing up. She was interested in the idea, as many of our guests have been, and I recalled all the fun memories that took place seated at this table. Who would have guessed that, of all things, I would be looking forward to once again seeing the map on the kitchen table?

resources, saving money, travel tips

Free Substitutions for Everyday Expenses

What would you rather spend your money on: a super-amazing trip of a lifetime, or day-to-day costs? Of course you want to be able to live well, but when you’re saving for a trip or other big goal, you may realize that you’re spending money on things that you don’t need to spend money on. But going on a spending freeze does not mean you have to stop enjoying the things you love. It just means you have to go about things differently. Here are twenty-one expenses that many people have, along with some cost-free substitutions.

Instead of paying for network television… many channels upload some of their popular shows onto their website or onto the free version of Hulu. ABC, CBS, and A&E are just some of the channels whose websites you can visit for free shows. Yes, this does mean watching on your computer, but if you really want to watch on a bigger screen, you can consider a one-time cost of buying a cord that will display your computer screen on your television. If your favorite show is not offered online, see if a friend who has that channel would be willing to host a weekly screening night.

Instead of going out to dinner… enjoy time together by cooking a meal at home. Begin by looking up a recipe (for free online, of course) for a dish you’ve never made or tasted before. If you don’t have the ingredients at home, make shopping at the grocery store part of your dinner date! This can be your opportunity to try out crazy cooking methods and use your finest dinnerware. You can even make it formal by busting out the cocktail dress or suit and tie! I realize that technically, this still costs money as you’re buying the ingredients, but you need to eat anyway, right? As long as you’re not purchasing new cookware or exotic foods, this memorable night in can cost just as much as any other meal you cook at home.

A former roommate and I spent an evening shaping and baking pretzels!
A former roommate and I spent an evening shaping and baking pretzels!

Instead of spending money on movies… some production companies have movies available for free online, often available to stream straight from YouTube! There are also dozens of websites dedicated to providing free documentaries to the public. Now this takes care of your movie subscription services, but what about the movie theater experience? If you’re a business owner, ministry leader, or even a blogger, not only can you attend movie screenings for free, but you can see them before they come out. Since getting into the Lifeway Films advanced screenings, I’ve been able to see several free movies over the past few years in the best theaters in town!

Instead of buying books… the obvious recommendation would be the library, but I realize that it is not a viable resource to everyone. Even if you do have a local library, it may not have the kind of selection you want. Many communities have some sort of book exchange, which could be anything from a mailbox on the sidewalk, to a bookshelf in a store, to a whole building filled with free books! Sure, you may have to give up some books, but in return you can get an entire selection of new books! If your area doesn’t have a book exchange, consider starting one up! A great way to get brand-new books is to enter contests, often sponsored by either the author or the publisher. Even if there are no advertised contests, a nice fan letter sent to the author may be returned by free books- possibly autographed!

Instead of shopping online Craigslist, eBay, and other online stores… you can look for a local free group on Facebook. This has a similar philosophy to the Freecycle website, but because it’s on a regularly-accessed social network, it tends to be better utilized. Once you join your local group, all you have to do is either post what you’re looking for, or post something that you want to give away. Your neighbors will then be able to help you out in your endeavor. In addition to this, never underestimate the good old-fashioned method of telling your friends what you’re free-shopping for!

When I was moving, someone on a local Facebook group was fortunate enough to take this custom-made bed out of my hands for free!
When I was moving, someone on a local Facebook group was fortunate enough to take this custom-made bed out of my hands for free!

Instead of purchasing clothing… you can try trading with friends. Of course, this only works if your friends have similar size and style. You can also take up sewing and upcycle your current threads. You can prolong the life of your clothes by patching up holes, or you can give your wardrobe a complete makeover and turn one item of clothing into something else entirely. If you get creative, you can turn a t-shirt into a skirt, or a skirt into a scarf!

I upcycled twelve camp t-shirts into a no-sew blanket!
I upcycled twelve camp t-shirts into a no-sew blanket!

Instead of buying school books… share with a friend who is also taking the class, or borrow from someone who took the same class the previous semester. If you don’t have these kinds of connections, many school libraries, and sometimes local public libraries, carry the current school books and allow students to borrow them for a short time as needed. If you can, contact the instructor before the class starts and ask what books are actually required. (Sometimes what the school thinks is read and what the instructor actually assigns can be different.) All the above options typically only work for books that are not read on a daily basis. You probably will have to buy some books, so find them used for as cheap as you can online, and after your class ends you can sell them directly to another student for almost the same amount that you bought it for. Even though it requires putting a little money down, many students find that this method will help them break even in the end.

Instead of purchasing souvenirs… take lots of pictures. Go geocaching and trade for an item that will remind you of the area. Keep a travel journal. Collect your ticket stubs, itineraries, and brochures. Find rocks, shells, or other natural objects and label where you found them (make sure this is legal before taking them). The souvenirs you want to buy are likely made overseas and simply stamped with your destination’s name. Another bonus of free mementos is that they often better represent your vacation spot.

The only "souvenirs" my friends and I have from this hike are the photos we took and the trinkets we traded in the geocaches.
The only “souvenirs” my friends and I have from this hike are the photos we took and the trinkets we traded in the geocaches.

Instead of giving pricey gifts… find a way to spend time instead of money. Newlyweds may need a house- or pet-sitter while they’re on their honeymoon. First-time parents often need help catching up on housework and yard work, or getting the nursery ready. Not-first-time parents may be looking for babysitting for their older kids or meal preparation. You could also get crafty and make a unique, quality gift out of items you already own. Used gifts are sometimes okay as long as it’s a gift from the heart, such as an antique family heirloom being passed down. Just make sure that your free gifts don’t come across as stingy or unwanted. In some cases it is better to buy a (couponed, on-sale) gift for a dear friend than hoarding away a few extra bucks.

Instead of paying for a pet… pet-sit for your friends and neighbors and you could get paid to snuggle with a furry friend! You can also get your animal fix by volunteering at, or even just visiting, an animal shelter. You could also volunteer or work as a farmhand and be exposed to a variety of creatures! Remember that a pet does not typically fit into a traveler’s lifestyle. You either have to hope to find pet-friendly lodging and camps and pay the extra pet fee, or pay for a kennel or pet-sitter back home. This is a huge expense in addition to the regular expenses of food, immunizations, etc.

Not having pets didn't stop me from playing with my Nebraska neighbor's puppy!
Not having pets didn’t stop me from playing with my Nebraska neighbor’s puppy!

Instead of buying paper products… use reusable! Many people already have plenty of towels and other paper product replacements already in their homes, but even if you don’t have enough cloth towels to replace paper towels, you probably have enough material to make your own. Bandannas can make festive napkins. Old t-shirts can be cut to any size of rectangle for whatever you repurpose them as. Even old socks are great for scrubbing and wiping down when cleaning. If you don’t feel like washing rags, use a small piece of salvaged cloth for the task and then throw it away.

Instead of purchasing periodicals… think about why you’re really reading it. If you only buy magazines to read one or two certain sections, search for those topics on Pinterest and you’ll get thousands of pins linking to articles on that topic. Remember that lots of magazines publish their most popular articles online for free. As for the newspaper, I’m not sure why they’re even still in print, but you can find all that news online and immediately after it happens. If you want something you can hold in your hands, there are free subscriptions, or at least trial issues, to many magazines. They’re getting rare, but they’re still out there! Finally, utilize free magazine racks, check out magazines at the library, and trade magazines with friends. As long as it’s your first time reading it, who cares if the magazine is several months old?

Instead of paying to exercise… work out at home and on the road. If you are traveling and there is no price difference between an accommodation with a pool or workout room and an accommodation that doesn’t offer any workout equipment, choose the place where you can be more active. As long as you have decent walking or running shoes, you can turn any place into a gym. Motivate yourself to exercise more at home by doing small, vigorous tasks such as unloading groceries, walking to the mailbox, or vacuuming. Also, there are many workout videos available for free online streaming. Some may recommend simple exercise equipment, but you can replace a yoga mat with a towel and use water bottles filled with rocks instead of weights.

You can save money on exercise AND transportation if you decide to walk EVERYWHERE like I did on my Niagara Falls trip.
You can save money on exercise AND transportation if you decide to walk EVERYWHERE like I did on my Niagara Falls trip.

Instead of buying shipping material… save the packaging from items shipped to you, cover your address with a new label, and ship it out! If your shipment requires cushioning, you can use already-used wrapping paper, the contents from a paper shredder, or any other needs-to-be-recycled paper from around the house. Oh, and you can also save the bubble wrap that gets sent to you for later use. You can even place fragile items in the center of the package and surround it with other softer, non-fragile items. If you plan to ship through Priority Mail at the US Post Office, don’t even bother trying to find packaging. All post offices provide Priority Mail boxes, envelopes, tape, and address labels for free. Whenever you have to mail just a small envelope, consider if you could send the information online instead. If you’re careful about your shipments, you can get away with only spending money on stamps!

Instead of buying video games and gaming devices… I’m not entirely sure why the gaming industry is so big when there are so many games you can play for free. If you have a smart phone, you’re probably already aware that you can download free gaming apps. There are also many free online gaming sites with many different genres. And a bonus to parents and students: there are a ton of fun, free games that are also educational! But, in my opinion, video games will never be as fun as traditional board games. You probably have a few hiding in the back of your closet; why not pull them out and play a few rounds?

Instead of paying for a hotel room… don’t do it! I understand the merit behind hotels and motels, but I believe that they are used far more than they need to be. Read my article on ten alternatives to hotels. All of them are cheaper than a hotel, and several of the suggestions are absolutely free!

Lounging in a lodge... that we stayed a night in FOR FREE!
Lounging in a lodge… that we stayed a night in FOR FREE!

Instead of an expensive friends’ night on the town… enjoy a night in! Have a potluck (depending on what dish you make, you could actually spend less than you would for your own personal dinner), and spend the night watching movies, playing games, or simply catching up. If you volunteer to host a night like this, your friends will probably realize that they can also host low-key, low-cost get-together at their house. There will be fewer pricey nights in town and more times celebrating friendship in the comforts of each other’s homes.

Instead of spending money on music… many cities of decent size will have free concerts going on at least a few times per month. These may be small, one-man shows inside coffee shops, but this could be great as you’ll really get to know the artist. For in-home entertainment, Amazon often offers free downloads, and up-and-coming artists will give some songs away on their website to get people interested in their music. Of course, if you don’t care about owning music, you have plenty of options for listening to music, such as YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and, of course, the traditional radio.

A few years ago, I bummed a ride with friends to South Dakota to attend Lifelight, a huge, FREE music festival!
A few years ago, I bummed a ride with friends to South Dakota to attend Lifelight, a huge, FREE music festival!

Instead of buying snack foods… go foraging! First study up on different types of edible plants that are native in your area, and which ones can be poisonous if ingested. Then go into the forest or perhaps even your backyard or another area that doesn’t get sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Some leaves can be used as spices or to make herbal tea, and there are plenty of other nuts, flowers, grasses, fruits, and roots to enjoy. Foraging may not fill an empty belly, but it will give you a greater appreciation for food and hopefully these wild, organic options will lessen your consumption of junk food!

Instead of spending money on sporting events… watch the kids! In most communities, sporting events for children in middle school and under are free to attend. Even if you don’t have any kids in sports, this is an easy, free way to show your support in the community. Check with the local schools and Little League for game times. You could also check with community clubs, churches, and other organizations that may play intramural sports and ask if you can come watch a game. Local games can be just as interesting as the big leagues. If you’re set on seeing the professionals play and you don’t get any free sports channels, you can stream some games online.

Even some college games are free! When Penn State Men's Volleyball came to challenge Ohio State, it didn't cost me anything to cheer on my cousin!
Even some college games are free! When Penn State Men’s Volleyball came to challenge Ohio State, it didn’t cost me anything to cheer on my cousin!

Instead of paying a monthly phone bill… make phone calls using Google Voice. If you’re in the United States, you can call for free to any other phone number in the United States. However, there are some caveats. First of all, you need to be connected to the internet, which usually isn’t a problem with the prevalent free WiFi and the fact that so many people use data plans. The worst part is that you cannot provide a number for people to call you, and you cannot leave voicemail. But since Google Voice will take care of most of your outgoing calls, consider getting a cheap pay-as-you-go phone for when you need to receive calls and leave messages. You can get a Tracfone for as little as $10 (they even have smart phones for a slightly higher price), and all of their phones come with at least 10 free minutes upon activation. If you prefer texting, there are many websites that will allow you to text over their website, and will even provide recipients with a temporary number for them to text you back.

What swaps have you made to save money for your adventures?

moving, road trip, saving money, travel tips

Across America By Bus (Greyhound Perks and Pitfalls)

This is Part One of the Across America By Bus series.

This past July, I backpacked around Niagara Falls. My primary goal of this trip was to have a ton of awesome new experiences. My secondary goal was to keep it minimalist. Both of these goals came into play when I decided how to get to Niagara Falls. Because I was living in Central Ohio, it seemed almost pointless to fly. Besides, the Niagara Falls airport is nowhere near the actual Niagara Falls. Driving was out of the question. I already find driving to be somewhat stressful, and it would be even worse figuring out directions, navigating traffic, and driving my car that was already on the fritz. And although I did enjoy taking a train trip a few years ago, there are no Amtrak stations in Central Ohio. That only left one option:

The Greyhound bus.

I had never ridden in a Greyhound before, but I had heard and read plenty of horror stories. But it would be a new experience for me, and I would save a lot of money. Besides, it wasn’t that long of a trip, so surely I could handle it.

I took three different buses there and back. One from Mansfield, Ohio to Cleveland, one from Cleveland to Buffalo, and from there I took a New York Trailways bus to Niagara Falls. It turned out to be a great experience! Right away I started telling my friends, family, and fellow travelers the perks of riding the Greyhound:

-You save lots of money!

-It’s the most environmentally-friendly way to travel

-You can take a carry-on plus one checked bag for free

-Footrests

-Reclining Seats

-Large panoramic windows are perfect for drive-by photography

-Centrally-located drop-offs and pick-ups

-Personal adjustable air vents

-Free WiFi (woo-hoo!)

-Power Outlets (double woo-hoo!)

-Enough rest stops so you never have to use the mysterious bathroom in the back of the bus

-A sense of community you can’t typically find on an airplane

(Note that these features are based on the new bus models; some older models are still in commission, but they are getting rare.)

As mentioned in previous posts, I moved from Ohio to Oregon a few weeks ago. It was the biggest move I ever made. I had to travel through ten states and four time zones all the way across the country. And guess how I got there?

Yep, the Greyhound bus!

Because I didn’t want to spend days on end inside a bus, I bought four separate bus tickets so that I could stop at a few different cities, see the sights, and visit some friends. I bought a ticket from Columbus to Chicago, from there to Omaha, from there to Denver, and finally, to my home in Oregon. The bus ride combined with several days of mini vacations ended up taking me nearly eight days to make this trip. During this time, I did see the darker side of Greyhound. While I think overall Greyhound is a worthwhile experience, these are some of the pitfalls:

-Regardless of the time of day, stops are made every 2-3 hours, so it’s really hard to sleep

-The seats don’t have enough legroom

-The overhead compartments are usually too small to hold typical carry-ons, which translates to even less legroom

-Small children can have meltdowns on long rides

-Some (not all) bus drivers can be in very bad moods

-The buses run late more often than they’re on time

-You have to transfer your own luggage every time you change buses

-Fellow passengers can be cranky, annoying, or have body odor

-YOU could be cranky, annoying, or have body odor

No, traveling cross-country by bus is not for the faint of heart. However, I think everyone can benefit from taking a bus ride that’s only a few hours long. I was really glad to have the experience of my Ohio-to-Niagara bus ride before embarking across America. Because of it, I was able to come up with some handy tips that probably saved my sanity. If you’re heading on a Greyhound trip anytime soon, here’s some tried-and-true advice you may want to consider:

-Buy your tickets online and several weeks in advance. You’ll save a ton of money that way.

-If you plan to sleep, come prepared. I brought melatonin tablets, lavender lotion, a Snuggie, and a pillow. You may want to bring a neck pillow instead of a full-size one, and earplugs may also be beneficial. I’ve heard some people suggest bringing an eye mask, but I would advise against it. I think you’re much more likely to get robbed if you’re already blindfolded!

-Unless you enjoy eating nothing but fast food and convenience store snacks, bring a few healthy foods along with you. Yes, food and drink are allowed on the bus!

-Bring hand sanitizer and keep it convenient. The 3.1 ounce liquid rule doesn’t apply to buses, so feel free to bring an industrial-sized bottle!

-Don’t expect to look your best. I always kept my hair tied back and covered with a buff, hat, scarf, or some combination of all three. I changed my clothes once per day and brushed my teeth during layovers. Other than that, just make sure you apply deodorant, and don’t even bother with hair styling, make-up, or fashion.

-Pack as light as possible. Because I was moving, I had a lot to carry. It was a hassle.

-You may find some sketchy people on the bus. Sit near the front of the bus where you can easily call for help from the bus driver. I even wore a rescue whistle under my shirt. I never had to blow it, but it could have saved me if I got into a dangerous situation.

-Try to keep track of where you’re going and how much longer you’ll be on the bus. For some legs of the ride, I pulled out my GPS so I could follow the route and know exactly where we were at. When I didn’t use it, I sometimes wouldn’t even know what state we were in!

-Using the WiFi is a great way to pass time, but don’t expect it to always work. (And even when it does work, you cannot use it to stream videos.) Other things I did to pass the time included watching DVDs, writing in my travel journal, napping, and conversing with my fellow passengers.

-Try to talk at least a little bit with your fellow English-speaking passengers. It will make everyone more comfortable.

-If it’s light outside and you have a several-hour layover in any given city, do yourself a favor and get out of the bus station! Because stations are centrally-located, you’ll probably see quite a bit on a short walk.

Even after spending too-many-hours-to-count on the bus, I can’t wait for my next opportunity to ride the Greyhound. I signed up for Greyhound’s Road Rewards, and between my Niagara Falls trip and my Ohio to Oregon trip, I earned enough points to get a free companion pass on my next trip! I’m excited to introduce someone else to the joys of riding the Greyhound. But first, I need to figure out where to go!

Stay tuned for “Across America By Bus, Part Two”, in which I actually tell you what I did at my stops across the country.

Accommodations, day trip, destinations, road trip, travel tips

Central Ohio: Amish Country and More

I just moved to Oregon a few weeks ago, but before that I spent a year (plus one week) living in Central Ohio. My sister Jen had been working at a orphanage mission in Mexico for part of that year as well. Upon returning to America, she wanted to visit me. Of course I was excited to see her again, and I was excited to be her tour guide for her first-ever visit to Ohio. But then I remembered…

I live in Central Ohio! What will we do?

Outside of Columbus, Central Ohio is a pretty middle-of-nowhere area. I lived in Marengo, which has a population of 342! But despite the lack of people, there are actually plenty of things to do! Some things may involve driving over an hour, but here are a few things Jen and I ended up doing:

President Warren G. Harding’s Home and Tomb, Marion

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Did you know Ohio has given our nation seven presidents? Warren G. Harding is one of two presidents that lived in Central Ohio, and even campaigned on the front porch of his home! We both enjoyed the first half of the guided tour of this historic house. You may be wondering why I only said we enjoyed the first half. You see, Jen passed out in the upstairs hallway! We missed the middle part as I was helping her to recover. After the color returned to her face, she rested in the gift shop and I returned for the last part of the tour.

At the end of the tour, we were both feeling great again, so we drove a few miles through downtown Marion to reach the tomb of President Harding and his wife. This tomb is something you’d expect to find in Washington, D.C.! Except here, there’s a lot less people, and security, so we felt free to walk around the memorial at our leisure.

The Columbus Zoo, Powell

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Despite being told multiple times that this zoo was really awesome and I needed to visit, this was actually my first time here. The last zoo I had been to was the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo over a year ago, and Jen had visited the San Francisco Zoo a few months prior. Even though these are considered the top two zoos in America, we both found the Columbus Zoo to be just as good! A new Africa exhibit had recently opened, and we ate there at a restaurant that overlooked the “savannah” filled with giraffes, lions, and other creatures. Collectively, our favorite animals were apes, red pandas, penguins, polar bears, and flamingos. However, the thing we liked best about the zoo were the statues of animals that we found throughout the park. We had to pose with every single one of them for pictures!

After spending most of the day at the zoo, we went to the nearby city of Powell for something sweet. Rita’s and Jeni’s both have excellent frozen treats!

President Rutherford B. Hayes’ Birthplace, Delaware

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This is more of a joke than an actual trip. While driving near Delaware (the Ohio city, not the state!), I asked Jen if she would be interested in swinging by President Hayes’ birthplace. I then proceeded to drive to a BP gas station. Once at the station, I announced “here we are!” She was confused. She thought I had stopped here to fill up the gas tank, but then I pointed to a memorial plaque. This gas station was indeed the birthplace of Rutherford B. Hayes!

Of course, back in his day, it wasn’t a gas station; it was his family’s home. Long after he grew up and moved out, his house was demolished, paved over, and transformed into the (British-owned!) gas station we see today.

Amish Country, Holmes County

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Now THIS is why people visit Central Ohio! Holmes County has the largest population of Amish, and many of them are welcoming to us “English” as we visit their shops, tours, and eateries. Because we arrived on a Sunday and the Amish take this day of rest very seriously, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. So we visited Guggisberg Cheese Factory (where Baby Swiss was invented), and then checked into Blessings Lodge.

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Blessings Lodge is located within walking distance of downtown Berlin, Ohio, and is a wonderful centralized location for everything going on in the heart of Amish Country. Although it has the conveniences of indoor plumbing, electricity, and cable television, it still reflects the Christian values that are shared with the Amish.
Each room at the Blessings Lodge is unique, and my sister and I enjoyed our stay at the “Faith” Simple Blessings Cabin. It was her first visit to Holmes County and my third, but it was the first time for both of us to stay at this cabin, which we agreed was our favorite part of this getaway! The porch offered amazing countryside views (and there were binoculars to gain a better perspective). The kitchen allowed us to save money by making our own meals, and we were surprised to be greeted with Amish cookies waiting for us on the kitchen table! The bathroom featured a Jacuzzi tub, and there were enough beds to sleep up to seven people. These were just a few of the amenities. The owners did an excellent job providing special touches to make the Blessings Cabin feel like home, such as games, books, and décor that can only be found in Amish Country.

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After a restful night’s sleep, we headed into the tourist area to make the most of our day. Lacking a plan, we decided to do anything that sounded interesting at the time. We began by walking around and visiting shops in Walnut Creek. This town has a street filled with all kinds of gift shops, a woodworking shop, and best of all, Coblentz Chocolate Factory! Just down the street was Der Dutchman, where we enjoyed an authentic Amish lunch.

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We then decided to tour Yoder’s Amish Home. It has a gift shop filled with Amish-made goods, a barn full of farm animals, and two houses that represent Amish living. Our tour guide was formerly Amish, and many of the employees here were practicing Amish themselves! It was very fun and educational.

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Our last stop was the cheese factory of all cheese factories: Heini’s Cheese Chalet! With samples of nearly every cheese they make, plus a variety of fudge samples, we didn’t even need dinner!

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Bridge of Dreams, Brinkhaven

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On the way to Holmes County, we saw a sign for Ohio’s Second Longest Covered Bridge. We decided that we would definitely stop by on the way back. I’m glad we remembered to! It was fun to drive across, even though it ended up not going anywhere and we eventually had to turn around and go back. Later, through researching online, I found out that this is called the Bridge of Dreams. It’s 370 feet long and was originally built in the 1920s. I also learned that Ohio is the state with the second-largest amount of covered bridges, coming in just behind Pennsylvania.

At the end of this week, I realized that Central Ohio actually has quite a bit to do! We didn’t even do it all! Here are a few other things I could not do when Jen was in town, but did on my own:

-Malabar Farm State Park, Lucas

-Mansfield Reformatory, Mansfield

-A slew of things in Columbus, such as COSI, Topiary Garden, German Village, Ohio State Campus, Art Museum, the site of the first Wendy’s, and the World’s Largest Gavel

Note: This post was made possible in part by Blessings Lodge.

day trip, destinations, tour

Mansfield Reformatory of Central Ohio

(Originally published July 6, 2014)

I got pulled over yesterday afternoon. And then I went to prison. No, the consequence for speeding isn’t THAT harsh; in fact, the whole reason I was driving in the first place was so I could go to prison. I guess I should explain…

Whenever I have an uninterrupted weekend off from my “real” job, I try to travel somewhere. Because of the holiday, I had a full 72 hours off, but in the midst of planning for some big upcoming trips and recovering from the adventures of the previous week, planning a Fourth of July trip wasn’t exactly on my mind. So there I was, on the birthday weekend of our nation, with nothing to do. After a bit of research, I decided to celebrate my freedom… by going to prison.

Mansfield, Ohio, isn’t too far away from my current home, but even though I’ve lived in the state for over 10 months now, this was one city I still hadn’t visited. It seems like there is lots to do here. There’s a Bible-themed wax museum, a carrousel park, and several beautiful natural parks and museums. But since this was only a spontaneous afternoon trip, I decided to choose one thing to be my main event in Mansfield. So of course, I had to choose the most unique thing I could find… the Mansfield Reformatory.

Since I was visiting a city that’s over 100 times bigger than the population of my current village, I decided to use this opportunity to run a few errands. (And yes, I got pulled over on my way there, and no, I don’t want to talk about it!) I found out where the bus station is, got gas that’s over twenty cents cheaper than anywhere else nearby, and scoured the clearance section of the Mansfield Kroger, which is what I always do whenever I’m near a new Kroger. Then I went to the Reformatory, which on the outside looks like a castle. The inside, however, looks much more grim.

The first part of the self-guided tour was of some offices and the warden’s living quarters. Because it hasn’t been used for years, It is very run-down. The negative thing about that is that there is chipping lead paint EVERYWHERE, making this tour unsafe for little kids and making me feel gross by the time I finished the tour. On the positive side, it did contribute to the historic charm, and for some, it allowed for ghost stories. Yes, they have lots of ghosts sightings and ghost hunts here, and there is even a “Ghost Hunt Manager” on staff! But of course I was much more interested in other aspects, such as the architecture. There were video kiosks situated around the Reformatory, and one mentioned how the staircases were stainless steel in order to be fireproof, but in order to look nice they were painted to look like wood. The videos also showed some scenes for Shawshank Redemption. That was one of the movies that was filmed largely in this building, along with Air Force One. In Air Force One, some of the extras were actual prisoners! I enjoyed going around the warden’s quarters to find scenes from Shawshank Redemption, which in the film was used as offices and conference rooms. Although I haven’t seen the movie before, this is the second place I’ve visited that was part of the set, so I kind of want to see it just so I can say “yeah, I’ve been there”. Here’s me recreating one scene from the movie:

After going through the offices and living quarters, which in itself took quite awhile, the tour led to rooms that the inmates were more likely to see. One of my favorite rooms was the chapel. It had some of the art preserved from when it was in operation, and although it looked fairly ugly now, you can tell that in its day it must have been one of the most beautiful rooms in the prison!

On the stage of the chapel, there was a window with the sign “photography through this window is strictly forbidden!” While I followed the rules, I was of course curious of what there was that I couldn’t photograph. You see, while the reformatory no longer holds prisoners, the newer correction facility right behind it certainly does. I spent quite some time just seeing what was going on, you could see hundreds of people in their uniforms spending time outside. I’m not sure why it was so intriguing, but it was the first time I really got a glimpse of a prison!

After peeking at the modern-day prison, I was soon led to an in-depth look at the old one. The Mansfield Reformatory has two cell blocks. The east one, also known as the world’s largest free-standing steel cell block, is six stories high with one hundred cells on each story- that held a total of 1200 inmates! The tour starts you out on the very top, and even though there was a fence to keep people from falling off (and perhaps preventing suicides back in the day), I was nervous the entire time! I was still frightened even as I went down the next couple of floors, but my longing to explore the cells helped me overcome it. Although all the cells look pretty much the same (except for the operator cells, where an employee would do things like open the cell doors), many of the cells are open to go inside, so of course I had to take some pictures of myself playing inmate!

Seeing the conditions that the inmates lived in was very sobering. I thought my bedroom was small, but the cells were half the size, with a toilet and sink, and shared with someone else! And there were thousands of people who lived here, and, according to one of the kiosk videos, some died here. They did have a library, which was way too small for the 1900 people staying there at any given time, plus it was used as a hospital when necessary. They could shower twice a week, but the public showers looked more like a sprayer you’d find in a barn. The original kitchen and dining area were oh so tiny, no way to make homemade food and certainly no time to taste it! After this I visited the smaller west cell block (only holding 700) and finally the solitary confinement, but that was certainly too saddening to take any pictures.

At the beginning and end of the tour, there were museum-type rooms that contained not only artifacts from the movies on the location, but from several apsects of the Reformatory. There were theatrical posters, cast scripts, a replica electric chair, and creative inventions made by the inmates using their limited resources. After nearly three hours, I knew that there was still so much to explore, but I was getting tired and the building would soon close. (Being trapped alone at night in this building is NOT on my to-do list!) Besides the standard gift shop, the tour ended with hand sanitizer (thank goodness!) and brochures for nearby attractions. I got some information for places that sounded interesting, and even found a coupon for a bulk food store I had heard of earlier. So I decided I would go to Pumpkin Seed, and I’m glad I did. They had all kinds of healthy food, and although some were pricier than what I’ve seen elsewhere, there were some very good deals. I bought discount peanuts and freshly-ground peanut butter, and then headed over to the Gorman Nature Center, where I enjoyed a bike ride/hike and contemplated whether or not I wanted to go the fireworks display that was in a state park fifteen miles away. When I realized that the reformatory itself made for a full day, I decided to head home, going exactly the speed limit the entire way. Besides, next week I’m going to a place where there will also be fireworks…and I’m sure the display will be much, much better. Stay tuned!