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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Biggest Regret in College

No, this blog post has nothing to do with the Bike America trip we are currently on. I actually don't know why I started even thinking of this. Maybe it was because today I interviewed Kiersten, and she said some of the most inspiring things about standing up for what you believe in and making things happen no matter what the cost. And that got me thinking of my one big college regret. Yup, I only really have one. I don't regret any of my decisions for those 4 years, I don't regret guys I dated, tests I may have forgotten to study for, I don't even regret the mistakes I made - because they either turned out to be something pretty cool or I learned from them and became the person I am today. I absolutely loved my college experience at the University of Tennessee.

But the one thing I do regret, which is something I apparently was so passionate about if it still haunts me more than 2 years after I have graduated - is not doing more to unify the campus. It's no huge secret that there's a bit of an issue on campus with unifying students of different races. It's apparent to anyone who takes the time to really notice. Even walking into our cafeteria and trying to count the number of times you see students of different ethnic backgrounds and races sitting together at one table, you will find yourself searching for a good while. It just doesn't happen very often.

And no - (except for very extreme cases) I truly deep down do not believe that this happens out of racism or hatred... but just simply out of the lack of opportunity to do activities to get to know and make friends with someone of another race. And this is where my regret comes in - for not taking the organization I was deeply involved with, the organization I loved and have the best memories from, not trying with everything I have to unify the Greek Community.

There are the two organizations called IFC and Panhellenic (all sororities and fraternities on campus) and then there is NPHC (historically African American, hispanic, diverse fraternities and sororities). They are both wonderful, successful organizations on our campus that create friendships and leadership skills. However, they are completely separate entities. There were separate recruitment processes, separate events throughout the year, and even two separate homecomings - which baffled me because isn't the whole idea of homecoming to bring the entire campus together?

Now I understand how this might have come to happen - Greek chapters are very proud of their own traditions and events and of course NPHC, IFC, nor Panhellenic should have to stop doing their own traditions and events that makes them the chapter they are. But why not create a few new traditions that unify and include everyone? I'm not just talking about a once a year Greek Week cook-out. How can you possibly form meaningful friendships by plopping everyone together one day a year. Of course friends are going to sit with friends - and no diversifying will come from it. Why not sit down and think of an event or competition that will pair IFC and Pan with NPHC so we can all have the opportunity to get to know one another. Because that's all it takes to bring us all together - to just simply form friendships. I know this works, because that is exactly what happened in my own chapter.

When my chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha and the NPHC Fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha decided to pair up together for a competition called Carnicus, it became one of the greatest memories of my entire 4 years of college. It was the very first time a sorority and a historically African American fraternity had paired together for this competition. The VERY first time. And we had a blast. I cannot tell you the number of times I was laughing out loud at practices, the moments we all shared rehearsing night after night, and the friendships we formed through this one little competition. No we didn't win, but in the bigger picture - we won something no one else had ever sought after before - we won unity. My chapter and Alpha Phi Alpha stepped outside of the norms and did something different. And I have never been more proud to be a part of my chapter than in that moment.

From then on, we would meet up with those guys and all sit down to have lunch together in the cafeteria. We would go to support them at their step show competitions. They would support us at our philanthropy events. I will never forget hearing one transfer student comment on our friendships with the A Phi A guys and say, "Wow, this kind of thing doesn't happen on other southern campuses." It was a wonderful thing and we had so much hope this would create a spark and a realization that this kind of thing needed to happen within the entire community! The entire campus!! And heck who knew from there?! The entire region!

But it fizzled out. For one reason or another - the bumps and difficulties along the way became too much to continue to fight for what was right and important. At one point talk of a new yearly dance competition was in the works pairing teams of IFC/Panhellenic with NPHC. But because of traditionalist alumni (on both sides) this never became an actuality.

So yes, I do regret not focusing all my time and energy on this in college. I do regret not giving everything I had to help pave the way to something absolutely wonderful. Because the Greek Community on our campus were and are leaders, and if we can all show we are united - the trickle down of that message would be immense. It pains me that my time has long passed, and I don't know what I can possibly do now to help this happen. But all I can hope is that the ones in college right now, the ones who have the opportunity to bring unity to the campus - really go after it. Really make a difference.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Bike America - Utah

As we crossed the border over into Utah, leaving Nevada .... I started seeing little glimpses of life. Little chipmunks began to daringly dart in front of our camper, praire dogs would poke their heads in and out of holes like a whack-a-mole game, and every now and then an antelope would pop up out of nowhere. At one point we spotted a lonely antelope off in the distance, so we pulled over to get a closer look. I grabbed my camera and started walking slowly towards it, expecting it to dart away at any second. But this antelope must have been just as curious about me as I was it, because it ended up letting me get only 20 feet from it, and even posed on a dirt mound for a picture! After that, it became my favorite animal ever! I like to think we bonded over the fact of being on a new adventure all alone in the middle of nowhere, our family miles and miles away, ready to see this new land. Yup we definitely bonded ... except for when I ate it.

Well - to be fair, I didn't eat this particular antelope. Instead I ate the jerky meat of one that was more than likely processed a good while ago. How this happened was while driving alongside a small highway in Utah, we saw a sign that read:


So obviously, we pulled off. Gotta have protein on a trip like this! Kiersten opted for the Buffalo jerky, while I picked the 2 animals we had seen thus far on this trip ... Antelope and Rattlesnake. We went back to the campsite and spread out all our new found meats to experiment. The buffalo jerky was delicious. It was sweat and chewy and flavorful, we were big fans of it! The antelope meat on the other hand, was very dry and kind of spicy. It was hard to chew and made my mouth feel so dry. I think that was my pay back for eating the kin to my antelope friend. But then came the rattlesnake. UUHHHHHH hold on I have to let this chill go through my body before I can drag this up from my memory again....

The rattlesnake was in a can. I could hardly wait to open it so I could feel like a wilderness woman chomping down a dangerous desert creature! But when the can cracked open, an aroma of a mix of tuna fish and formaldehyde filled our nose. We looked down at the can and just saw brown liquid. Ok maybe it wasn't going to be so bad. So Kiersten took a fork and fished out our first bite. She felt a piece of meat and lifted it up, but as the meat broke past the brown water .... it kept going, and going, and going. She pulled out what looked like half the rattlesnake and let it flop on the paper plate. We looked closely at it, and could see remnants of the scales. Am I grossing you out yet? Don't worry we felt the same queasiness.  But we had to try it! We had to! .... so we grabbed a squirmy little piece of meat, tilted our heads back, and swallowed it down.

My face grimaced at the thought of what had just happened, but then surprisingly the grimace turned into a shocked expression. I suddenly felt like Simba in the Lion King as the first thought in my head was, "slimy, yet satisfying." It tasted like a piece of tuna fish, it wasn't terrible at all! That being said, once we started having to pick the spine bones of the meat (which were perfectly in tact) we had to stop eating and wash it down with ice cream instead.

After our stomaches settled from that experience, we decided to do a little canyon exploring. First up was a place called Bryce Canyon. I cannot tell you how excited I was to see the red rocks, it was to a point I looked down and my hands were physically shaking from excitement. I felt like I was 8 years old again and going up to get an autograph from the first REAL LIFE movie stars I had ever seen ... Chip and Dale at Disney World. It was so exciting to me, because I had only seen red rock formations in movies and postcards. It was like a fantasy land to me, mars in America.  And Utah did not disappoint.

Fast forward a few hours to accidentally losing Kiersten and her mom, and finding myself wandering on a path alone through towering red rock formations. That was the moment I found myself on the most incredible hike I think I will ever go on. The path started out heading down a cliff and taking a  sharp turn only to be faced with a steep incline. The only way down was a back and forth descending path down into a red rock cavern.

Once you scaled down the path, you found yourself in what looked like a little cave that tinted every one that walked through red. And when you made it through the red cave, you found yourself starring up at a giant tree, growing right in between the rocks!

Then walking on - there were many rocks shaped like towers, alien heads, holes in the wall - you name it, I found it! It was so entertaining! But the most breathtaking part was looking straight up to the sky, and seeing such a stark difference between the deep blue color of the sky and the bright orange rocks.

The other beautiful site we saw at Bryce Canyon was the very first look out point we went to. It was called "Inspiration Point". The feeling I felt as I began walking closer and closer to the edge of the canyon, looking out at this huge canyon dyed red and vast as I could see .... the only one word I could describe this feeling ... would be BUTTERFLIES.

Yes butterflies because I was in awe by the beauty, but also butterflies because you cannot help but image how long it would take you to hit the bottom if you slipped on a lose rock and cascaded down. Not to mention we were venturing to the places were there were no guard rails and nothing stoping you from the unfortunate fate below. That being said - YES it was definitely my choice to go up as close to the edge of the canyon as I could get. I've learned to love the feeling of butterflies, because even though they come from nerves, or fears, or excitement ... they almost always end in a spectacular experience. I got butterflies before making the big move to New York, I got butterflies before jumping out of a plane to free fall back to Tampa, and I got butterflies looking out to Bryce Canyon... ALL of which I am so happy I did anyway. And that beautiful image of Bryce Canyon is now forever etched in my memory :) so embrace the butterflies I say!

The next town we made a pit stop at, was a place called Moab, Utah. As we drove through the town and saw all these little shops with signs that read "Whitewater Rafting Here", "Rock Climb Moab", "ATV Adventures", all backdropped by a breathtaking red mountain wall - we knew this was going to be a fun few days.

The next day we took off to Arches National Park, and Kiersten rode her bike around some of the most incredible rock formations I had ever seen. We walked up to some of the arches, which I am STILL baffled as to how they are made! But they were incredible and made me want to climb up them and slide down the other side!!!! .... which is sort of what happend the next day when we went rock climbing...

No, neither one of us had gone rock climbing on ACTUAL rocks before. Yes, the closest thing to this we had done was climbing on little indoor rock walls. But there was no color coordinated hand and foot holes for these red monsters. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but once again the whole message of this trip is "do the impossible" and trying new things to enjoy the beauty of our country! Plus we would get to say we learned how to rock climb on the red rocks of Utah! So we headed out with our little rock climbing group complete with a guide who taught us all we needed to know. He explained the rock rating to us, anything using a rope is called a "5" and the difficulty level ranges from "5-0" to "5-16"

He started us all off on a 5-6 ... not very steep, easy to get up as long as you look for the right footholds. When we all got to the top of that we felt very confident! Up next was a little bit harder of a challenge, something called a "Chimney Climb". This basically meant that we had to "shimmy" up a crevasse in between two rocks, using our back and our feet pressed against either side of the rock walls. This was way tougher than it looked, but once you got a groove going it was fairly easy to get to the top. I now feel confident to volunteer if Santa ever needs a back up replacement.

But alas, we got to a big one - a 5-9 climb. Looking at this climb, it looked fairly vertical to me with smooth, shiny rocks.  How the heck were we going to climb up this? I need my color coordinated foot holes!!!!!

I started the climb up and already was having problems even getting both feet of the ground. Everything was just too slick! And the only place to put your feet were tiny bumps in the rock or 1/2 inch pieces of rock sticking out. I kept slipping and slipping and slipping until FINALLY I got a good foot hold and climbed up a few feet. But then, I hit the dreaded area where NONE of us could make it past. There was just no where to put your feet, and as you stood there contemplating the next move, your fingers began to shake from gripping the rock above with all your might, and you could feel the sand on the bottom of your shoe start to slowly make you lose grip. After countless attempts, my legs gave out and I was lowered to the bottom.

UGH I felt so defeated!!! I HAD to do this climb! I had to make it to the top!!!! So after a little break I tried it again, this time after watching our guide climb the same area - and do a sideways walk move at the area we kept slipping. When I got back up to try the climb again, I copied what the guide had done, found myself talking to myself "Come on, Annie... COME ON!" and low and behold... MADE IT TO THE TOP!!!!! Ah I had never felt more accomplished as I was rewarded with a very cool view of the Colorado River. I felt such an adrenaline rush, I tried the final climb - a 5-10. At one point, you had to reach your leg so far out to the right, that you had to let go of all your gripping on the left and have faith you get a good hold. I actually jumped at this point and thankfully made it to the next ledge. Right after this I heard the guy next to us scream bloody murder as he tried something similar and fell 7 feet down. His belayer caught him just in time, but left enough free fall to give him a heart attack. Eek I'm glad my people were on top of their game!

At the end of the day we were tired, and a bit banged up, but so happy. We could not have picked a cooler place to learn how to rock climb. Not even 30 feet down, petroglyphs lined the same rock wall we were climbing. It was like we were climbing up a timeline of history.

As we left our Utah adventure, the Super-moon popped it's head out behind the mountains.  A great way to end a fantastic, unplanned "pit stop".

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bike America - Nevada

Ahh the beautiful mountains of California, the cool breeze, the giant pines, the .... 

brush .... dust .... brush .... casino .... brush.  Welcome to Nevada. 

I must say my very first impression of Nevada was not the best. As we rolled into the RV Park and I hopped out of the car, and everything suddenly turned to slow motion. A blast of heat immobilized me in my tracks. I suddenly it felt as if I was trying to walk through an invisible wall of jello. Only the jello was a heatwave of 110 degrees. With sweat starting to drip down, I could not run to the pool fast enough. Jumping into the water, I am pretty sure I heard a "pizzzzzz" of steam coming off the splash. Why would anyone who lives here EVER leave their air conditioned houses. 

I didn't know how we were going to survive the next week, slowly inching down the sizzling roads of Nevada. I didn't know how I was going to survive the day! But then things started to turn around as soon as the sun started to set. 

We followed the echo of an announcer on speaker and found a rodeo being held by the local casino. Cowboy boots, cowboy hats, leather, sounds of snorting bulls - this was going to be awesome! The first event we got to see was not the bull riding however, but goat riding. Yes, children as young as 4 or 5 years old would strap themselves on the back of goats and hold on for dear life. They were bull riders in training!  

And then the real bull riders came out and did their thing... VERY cool! But the most impressive members of the rodeo in my opinion were the bull ranglers that came in at the end and tried to push, pull, yank, and lasso the bull into a tiny little exit in the gate. THEY were some talented cowboys! 

Leaving the rodeo, we grabbed some concession food. But this was not just any ol' hot dog - what they had for sale were things called Indian tacos and Indian fried bread. I had forgotten how many Indian reservations dot the Nevada terrain, and I had always been so curious about the culture on these reservations. But in the short time we had, all I got to ask the woman at the stand was about the types of food they cooked! She explained that Indian tacos consisted of all the same ingredients as a Mexican taco, but the real diference comes from the bread. The bread they use is fluffy and fried, crunchy on the outside - and like air on the inside. Then the Indian fried bread, which is what I got, was very similar to a typical carnival funnel cake - only it felt like I was biting into a cloud! Yum. 

After the rodeo was over, they invited the crowd to the after party at the casino, where they would "buckle" the bull riding winner with the big gold belt buckle. Kiersten and I went for a bit, and even decided to gamble a little to really get into the Nevada atmosphere. We both chose the penny slot machines, because at least that way you get the most turns for your dollar! I put in $2 and started pressing the "bet 1" button over and over and over. At times I would win another nickel or so, and the machine would sing to me and light up! It was fun! But then the rolling thing landed on something that said I got 6 free turns. The machine started going for these turns on auto pilot, so during my little break I ran up to the front and tried to submit my rodeo ticket stub for a drawing. Well, it turned out I was too late for the drawing .... but not to late to still win. I walked back to my machine and Kiersten was like, Annie ... I think you are winning? We looked at my screen at it was flashing and blinking and showing that I had won $200!!!!! Without even being around it!!!!!!!!  

... I was beginning to warm up to Nevada. 

Right off of Hwy 50 
The next few days riding through Nevada all blended together. It was beautiful, the terrain was vast and the roads wide open. But it was also the exact same view for miles and miles and miles. However, when I finally got the chance to hop on my motorized bicycle to ride along with Kiersten, I suddenly got to experience Nevada in a way I never could have imagined. There is something so freeing about riding through the desert on a bicycle, even a little motorized one. All I could here was the little motor putt putting, all I could feel was the wind on my face, and the best part - I could sing songs at the top of my lungs and absolutely NO ONE could hear me for miles.

Kiersten riding down the Loneliest Road in America Hwy 50
As I was cruising down Hwy 50 (also known as the Loneliest Road in America) I watched the buzzards circle around Kiersten and me - maybe we were one of the first live things they'd seen in awhile, and maybe they were hoping we wouldn't survive the 320 mile stretch. I cranked my throttle and putt-putted ahead of Kiersten to get a shot of her rolling past me a few miles ahead. As I started racing down the Highway as fast as my little 66 cc motor would let me, all of a sudden what looked like a tornado rose up right beside me. I turned my head and realized I was starring right at a dust cyclone. It decide to ride alongside of me for a good 2 miles or so! That was the coolest feeling - in my head, I imagined myself in the movie "Twister" trying to outrun the tornado riding along right beside of me.

Two Dust Cyclones!
Then, not 5 miles up the road, we started seeing "WARNING DO NOT CROSS FENCE" and Navy Air Base signs. Kiersten stopped her bike and turned around to tell us she knew exactly what this was - a Navy air base to test bombs.

BOOOOOOOOOOOM. Just as the words left her mouth we felt a vibration in the ground and a low rumble that gradually got louder and deeper. The sound reminded me of one time I went to the zoo with my family, and out of nowhere the lions started roaring so loud and so deep, every bone in our body shook. We looked over and a few miles out, we saw the dark smoke risking into the air - the aftermath of a bomb that had just dropped.
A bomb just dropped in the Navy Air Base

But dust cyclones, bombs, and buzzards were not the only startling things on the road. One of the first days we rode through Nevada, a storm started to roll in. Kiersten thought she could beat the storm for the most part, so she kept on riding as the sky started to darken and the wind started to pick up. I was ridding behind her when I almost fell off my bike from the CRASH sound of one giant lightning bolt that, with no exaggeration, filled the entire sky from left to right. I had never seen anything so big, so terrifying, and so beautiful! But that being said - we hopped right back in the car after that and didn't take any chances riding through a storm.

Our final stop in Nevada (just outside the Utah border) was a city called Baker. This place was absolutely minuscule  They had one restaurant and one grocery store (if you can call a place that stocks up on only beans and chips a grocery store). The people who lived there were so outdoorsie, and had jobs like rangling up rattle snakes during the day, and giving star tours during the night. We went to one of these star sessions, almost every single constellation shone clear as day. That's the one good thing about living in a small town, you get to see all the stars.

Starry Night Sky in Baker, NV

So all in all - I think once you get past the repetitive landscape, the impossible heat, and the mile stretches of not one human being in site .... Nevada actually has some really beautiful parts to it, things you cannot see anywhere else in the world. I'm very excited about hitting Utah next, but I am pleasantly surprised with how incredible of an experience riding through Nevada actually was. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Bike America - Journey through California

It's hard to believe it's only been 5 days since we started this trip. So much has happened  it is almost hard to keep track of! I am currently in a cute little coffee shop called "Alpina Coffee" in South Tahoe, trying to salvage the few hours of electricity we get before heading back to our campsite for the night. But let me back track the best I can...

Day 2 of the trip went pretty smoothly. Kiersten and her biking buddy James went off to conquer 80 miles, 5 straight miles consisted of a constant incline. I drove ahead with the support vehicle to their ending destination that day in Davis, California. Davis was one of the most interesting towns I had ever seen, because it was one of the first places I saw more BICYCLE traffic than CAR traffic. Speed bikes, hipster bikes, mountain bikes, parents biking with 3 children hooked on the back in kiddie seats. This place was the biking capital of the world.  You felt so comfortable walking around, not having to look twice because you knew the cars would stop for you. At one point we walked by a train station. I watched the train stop, the doors open .... and bicyclists roll out in a line RIDING their bikes! It looked like a magic trick! How did they all fit in that train and have enough space to hop on their bikes to ride out? No walking necessary. I was in awe of this place... and it made me kind of want to hop on a bike of my own.

Day 3 my wish was granted. I was originally suppose to hop on my motorized bicycle to follow Kiersten down the American River Bike path this day - but was dismayed to learn that the pathway didn't allow motorized vehicles. But Kiersten suggested I hop on her spare bike and ride with her. I laughed at this suggestion, and when it hit me she was serious ... I considered the options. No, I hadn't ridden a bike in years. No, I had no idea how to change the gears of a road bike. Yes, I realized this was one of Kiersten's really expensive bikes and if I crashed I could damage it... and my camera equipment that would be strapped to my back. But when I looked at the big picture, I remembered the message of this entire Bike Across America ... to accomplish things that seem impossible. That inspired me.

The morning started off slow. Kiersten had to change out the pedals for me since I didn't have the proper biking shoes with clips. It took a lot longer than expected, but it was nice to wander around Old Sacramento for a bit before we started our ride. I felt so cool because Kiersten had dressed me up like a professional bicyclist, even down to the padded bike shorts! But realization hit that I was NOT in face a professional, when I started taking the first few strides of the bike. It was so difficult for me to balance, I couldn't even get it going at first. My camera kept sliding down and smacking my knee and throwing me off balance, but Kiersten didn't give up on me. She took my camera from me even though it added extra weight to her pack. And she hopped on her bike and told me to follow her. After a few wobbly turns and clumsy hand break moves ... I finally started to get the hang of it!

Eventually I felt comfortable enough to ride with my camera once again strapped to my back. I felt the wind hit my face and began to see all this BEAUTIFUL scenery around me, and before I knew it Kiersten announced that we had already gone 10 miles! She asked if I wanted to stop or continue on the 35 miles. I didn't know if I could make it for sure, but I wanted to try. I hadn't had enough of it yet! So we continued on and it was one of the best decisions I have made on this trip. I got some great footage of Kiersten by pedaling ahead and having her pass me, then hoping back on the bike and catching up.

At one point we were going around a corner and we saw this guy off of his bike, motioning his hands for us to stop. We put on our breaks just in time to see a HUGE snack slivering across the bike path. I hoped off the bike and pulled out my camera just in time to get it slivering away into the forest. I had seen snakes in Brazil before, but they were always so small and colorful. This one was so big! It was after I crawled up within a few feet to get the shot that the guy decided to tell us that was a rattlesnake. UHHHHHH..... had I known that I might not have gotten so close. But it was so exciting to have seen my very first rattlesnake in the wild!

3 1/2 hours and one very sore butt later, we finally got to our destination. I was exhausted, my legs were burning, but I felt so accomplished. I can now say I contributed by riding for Bike America and what it stands for. And I definitely want to do it again!

Day 4 - this day took a turn for the worse. We drove up to meet Kiersten at her first checkpoint, and as we saw her heading towards us ... off her bike ... and limping.... we knew something went wrong. It turns out Kiersten's Garmin took her on some really dangerous roads. And after getting honked at and almost pushed off the road by a guy driving a truck, she took a hairpin turn too fast and fell hard. She didn't get her feet out of the clips in time, and the twisting of the bike as it hit the ground really messed up her knee. She made a tough decision to stop riding for the day because she didn't want to push boundaries and permanently injure herself.

But what was looking like a pretty horrible day, actually turned out pretty cool. In the support vehicle, we accidentally stumbled upon a beautiful lake. Kiersten, being injured but still wanting to enjoy the beauty of America while we are all doing this - said we should turn off and jump in! So that's exactly what we did. I have never felt more refreshed jumping into a body of water. Then when we got back in the car, Garmin kind of failed us and took us the wrong way back. But low and behold we ended up at Lake Tahoe! So we decided to take a few days to explore here and get Kiersten's leg better.

Northern California is one of the most beautiful parts of the country I've even seen. I'm sure I'm going to say this many times during this trip - but I have never seen so many breathtaking sites in one day. From the snow cap mountains, to the crystal clear lakes, to the giant trees that just fill the air with fresh pine scent .... it's so easy to fall in love with nature here.
So far on this trip I have learned to not be  afraid to try something new. Even if you fail, you still learned something new that day. And if you succeed, you will be able to take that with you for the rest of your life.

I've also learned to take the time to enjoy the beauty of the world around you. This morning I took a little hike on my own and discovered a beautiful creek! I climbed up on this fallen log and dangled my feet over the babbling water ... it felt so wonderful. I have to admit, I have been very stressed out about this documentary and making it the best I possibly can. I get nervous about finding the story and asking people the right questions and having the camera rolling at the right times. But I need to keep reminding myself to take a deep breath, and everything will work out. By taking myself out of that stress and allowing myself to experience the beauty of this trip first hand, only then will I be able to tell a good story.

So let the journey continue ....

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bike America - Day One - San Francisco to Napa Valley

Well today was officially the first day of the Bike America journey. Kiersten has so graciously let me tag along on her adventure to film what I hope will be an epic documentary about it all. The Downs family has been so amazing - Kiersten's mom and dad picked me up from Indiana, and I got to ride with them across the country to San Francisco where we met up with Kiersten. That was my first cross country adventure, and even though it only lasted a few days - we drove through some amazing sites!

Some of my favorite sites were the cowboy towns of Wyoming, the mountain ranges in Utah and Nevada, and the CRAZIEST one in my opinion ... the Bonneville Salt Flats. It felt like we were in Alaska with snow all over the ground as we were driving through these never ending salt flats. And it didn't make the trek through any easier when we looked down and realized the gas tank was on empty. With a little bit of faith and a determination - we just BARELY made it to a gas station before being stranded on the side of the road. Luckily for us, even if that had happened, we had 3 bikes right in the back of the camper to save us!

After arriving to San Francisco, picking up Kiersten and having a crazy media frenzy day (MTV and VA production crews) the day finally came for Kiersten to take the first stride of her pedal. Day one of the journey, and I opted to ride with the support vehicle instead of hoping on my motorized bicycle. Kiersten said that going across the Golden Gate Bridge on my bike would be both dangerous and terrifying. With the narrow way, crazy wind/height, and my lack of experience on this machine .... I agreed whole-heartedly!

We arrived to the Golden Gate Bridge at 8 AM and met up with 3 student veterans/supporters of Bike America. The four of them took off only an hour later, and Kiersten's parents and I watch them disappear into the majestic red pillars of the Golden Gate.

A few hours later, Kiersten's parents and I drove to the first checkpoint - a cheese factory about 40 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. We sat down, I got the cameras set up, and we waiting. Then we waited some more. Then we kept on waiting.....

By the time the 5th hour passed since the crew took off that morning, we started getting a little bit worried. Had they had a problem? Was there an accident? Or did they simply just keep on riding to the next destination?? We had no cell service and no way to tell.

As the 6th hour approached, Kiersten's mom decided that we should continue on to Napa Valley and hope that they just kept on riding. As we drove away from the cheese factory and cell service was retained.... ALAS!!! A TEXT MESSAGE FROM KIERSTEN saying that they had decided to continue riding so they wouldn't lose the daylight!

Whew, I'm not going to lie - I was a little bit nervous that the entire trip would end tragically on the very first day. But mama and daddy Downs always had a positive outlook and knew she'd make it one way or another. Just goes to show parent's know best!

Tomorrow I will be riding with Kiersten from Napa Valley to Sacramento. Say a prayer that I don't accidentally rev the motor off a cliff or something crazy! (mom don't read that)

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Many Benefits of Visitors

Hold tight this is going to be a long post!

So one great thing I’ve found living in New York, is there is always someone you know visiting the city on any given weekend, If not visiting YOU. Which means … doing fun touristy things you might not have made time to do normally!  Here’s a list of some of my favorite things I’ve done in the city with my visitors.

Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island

Although it’s much more cost effective and a great view to see the Statue of Liberty by taking the Staten Island Ferry, it’s still a very cool experience to actually take the Statue of Liberty tour and listen to the history of the ol’ lady! My sister and I decided to go the tour route, and we learned all kind of facts – like the Statue of Liberty’s nose is 10 feet tall, she is hallow inside and as thin as a penny, and she is made of copper and was originally brown. We also heard a story told by a woman who remembers coming to America when she was a little girl. She said they spent days on a crowded boat, suffering on their journey in order to reach freedom, and when they finally arrived – her dad picked her up and said “Look at the pretty lady”. The site of the Statue of Liberty made her feel at home.

Then at Ellis Island, we took another headphone tour when took us through the journey of newcomers to America. There were so many steps you had to take in order to be deemed “suitable” to enter the country. If you were too old, too unhealthy, or mentally disabled – they could send you right on back to where you came from, separating you from your family possibly forever.

Cindy listen to these interesting facts
It was such an interesting experience stepping back into time. But I also found much entertainment stepping back to modern days and realizing this was a part of the movie where they filmed Hitch. Oh silly Will Smith and your quirky ways.


A place I visited with both my mother and my sister, on behalf of one of our favorite movies, Serendipity! Usually an hour long wait (with the exception of how lucky my mother is) we were so happy to get an iced cold frozen hot chocolate, and relax our exhausted legs from all the tourist walking.

9/11 Memorial

I believe I have visited this location more than any other tourist spot in the city. And every time it fills me with such an odd feeling of gravity. I think this is due to the fact we all actually lived through this tragedy, so suddenly the memorial brings personal emotion back on the table. Before we would even enter the memorial, I’d look up and see how close the new Freedom Tower felt to us on the streets of New York, and think what it must have been like to look up and see the twin towers engulfed in black smoke. 

The actual memorial consists of 2 large fountains cascading down into what looks like a bottomless hole, standing right where they two towers stood. I don’t know if this is suppose to represent the falling of the towers, or the emptiness felt by the country after the event – but whatever it represents, it’s impactful. The fountains are bordered with the names of the people who didn’t survive.

Being in New York for the Sept 11th anniversary suddenly brought me first hand right into the emotions the people felt in the city. I watched a showing of a documentary about that day, after the documentary was over – the director took questions. There in that audience were various people who had lost husbands, children, sisters, and parents in the towers. Seeing them cry instantly brought tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat. But most of them just wanted to thank the director for helping them feel a little more at peace with her documentary.

Brooklyn Bridge

The iconic, the majestic, the wonderful Brook… “BIKE ON YOUR RIGHT! MOVE, MOVE!!!!” Walking across Brooklyn Bridge is all those things, while also constantly watch your back for the insane cyclists that must be training for the Olympics for how seriously they take their daily rides.

Walking across the bridge at sunset is the absolute best time to enjoy the view, and it also means you’ll step over to the Brooklyn side right when it gets dark and the city lights come on. Which means seeing one of my favorite views of the city, the buildings of Manhattan and the Bridge lit up and reflecting in the East River.

From either the pier side or the DUMBO side – it’s an incredible sight. Plus if it’s not too cold you can get some of the best ice cream in the city at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory!

China Town

I will say this, I am not much of a brand name shopper so I never fully experienced the adventure of shopping for fake purses, sunglasses and watches in this part of the city. But I DID walk through this area with my sister, and we honestly felt like we had stepped into a different country. Especially when we went to a post office to mail a package, and they had to find a translator for Cindy and I because no one spoke English! Haha a true other country in a city.

Central Park Biking

Central park is always such a wonderful place to enjoy nature while still seeing a pretty cool skyline of the city buildings. We wanted to see as much of the park as we could, so the best way we thought how – would be to bike! Well, now looking back and realizing how huge Central Park is, and considering my lack of cycling athleticism, this turned out to be quite the work out. Who knew New York had so many HILLS in the park?!

But it was cool to see how many things fit inside that enormous area. A zoo, a swimming pool, a few baseball diamonds, soccer fields, lakes with kayaks floating by, fountains, and mountains of rocks around every bend with fearless children running all over them.

The craziest bike ride I ever had occurred when my friend Chelsea came to visit. We rented bikes from a very cheap place, which we quickly realized was so cheap because we had to pick up the bikes in Time Square … and ride them all the way to Central Park. Dogging taxis in the middle of Time Square on bicycles is an unforgettably surreal experience I never want to have again.

Criff Dogs

My cousin and I stumbled upon this hidden gem, where the world’s best hot dog lives. You may think I am exaggerating, but I would serve this hot dog at my future wedding. A hot dog, wrapped in bacon, and slices of avocado placed snug inside the bun … ah it was a the best heart attack food I ever tasted. Not to mention our tables were Pac Man arcade games!

The other cool part about this restaurant was it doubled as a Speak Easy. If you entered the phone booth in the corner, picked up the telephone, and dialed – a secret door would open and you would find yourself in a little fancy, hidden bar! The speak easy was really awesome, but really expensive – so we enjoyed our cheap, delicious, amazing hot dogs instead.

Grand Central

It takes only a few minutes to take it all in, but it’s still a sight to see! To walk around in the main concourse and realize how many flash mobs have taken place there, and how movies have been filmed there, it’s pretty incredible.

Plus there is a hidden gem of an area right beside the main concourse, called the Whispering Room. If one person stands at one end of the room, another person stands at the very opposite end – and if you whisper into the wall … the other person can hear you as clear as day!


One of the oldest and most famous pizza places in the city. The best one is right over the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a converted old bank and oddly looks like Gringot’s from Harry Potter (direct quote from my friend Katie). Getting any kind of this brick oven pizza accompanied with an old fashion cherry soda – such a satisfying meal.

Yankees and Mets

The very first baseball game I went to in the city was a Mets game, because it was the cheapest. When the Cubs (my FAVORITE team) absolutely demolished the Mets, I realized why the tickets were so cheap. But there is still something to say about eating a pretzel and enjoying a baseball game with friends.

The first Yankees game I went to on the other hand, wow. You could feel the energy of the stadium as soon as you stepped out of the subway! Everyone in the crowd was cheering, everyone was singing to old fashion baseball songs, the benches would rattle whenever a Yankee hit a homerun, and we saw them beat the Red Sox in one of the best baseball games I’ve ever seen! I felt like I had been apart of such a great New York tradition!


Art museums in New York are a plenty. There are tons, such as the Met, the Guggenheim, and MoMA.

MoMa, or the Museum of Modern Art, is both incredible … and confusing. For those of us that don’t really understand modern art unless it is blatantly spelled out for us, some exhibits may seem a bit odd.

But it was amazing to get to see famous pieces of art such as Starry Night up close and personal!

My absolute favorite museum however, is the Museum of Natural History. We walked through dinosaur bones, travels about different cultures, warped through galaxies, and saw a bunch of rocks (yea the geology section was one of the less exciting ones).

The exhibit I both loved and hated the most was the aquatic section. The only reason I hated this part, was because a giant life size blue whale hung above the heads of all of the visitors.

I have always had an odd terror of whales, and seeing just how big it is – I got the chills. But seeing all the fish and creatures that life in the ocean, THAT was really incredible. There was even one exhibit of a giant squid fighting a whale! I didn’t know which one to root for?

Those were just some of the fun touristy things I got to do when visitors came to town! My experience here wouldn’t have been complete without them!