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Health and Wellness, Self-improvement

Owning and Embracing Your Introverted Self

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My name is Amber, and I am an introvert. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asocial or a recluse. I need human connection just like anyone else; I just don’t need as much of it as some people do.

I love and cherish my partner, friends, and family — and they’re easy to spend time around because I know them so well. But nine times out of ten, I would rather stay at home and do my own thing than go to a social gathering with a bunch of people I don’t know as well.

I have to admit I’m not really much for parties, concerts, or other noisy events with big crowds. I’ll go to one every now and then and enjoy myself for a bit, but as soon as I leave, I pretty much need to go home and retreat into my cave for a while before I can face the world again.

I’m not into a lot of the things that other people my age are into. I’d rather read, play music, or do art than have a rowdy night out on the town. I am so not a night owl, it’s not even funny. I am neither trendy nor hip, and the vast majority of pop culture references go right over my head.

And I’m completely okay with it.

I didn’t always love this part of myself, though. I grew up in a culture that rewards, encourages, and praises extroversion. Being loud and outgoing is valued over being quiet and reserved. Extroverts tend to dominate the social scene and the cultural conversation because, well, they talk more than we do. Our voices aren’t always heard over the commotion, even though we have plenty to say.

But in our silence lies our strength. There’s so much more to us introverts than meets the eye. I feel strongly that it’s time for us to stop seeing our introverted nature as a weakness and start owning and celebrating all of who we are. Being an introvert isn’t anything to hide or be ashamed of; it’s a gift.

Living in an Extroverted World

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The truth of the matter is that we live in a world that strongly caters to extroverted personality types. As a result, we’re often misunderstood by people who don’t share our tendencies. Author Susan Cain talks about the “extrovert ideal” that Western culture idolizes. In an interview with The Guardian, she says: 

“Western society is based on Greco-Roman ideals of the person that can speak well, a rhetorical ideal. We have always been to some extent a society that favors action over contemplation.”

How many of us can relate to this? We’re taught growing up that we need to be gregarious, confident, and “alpha” in order to succeed in life — all stereotypically extroverted traits.

But what if we’re not all of those things? Are we destined for a life of stunted growth and missed potential? Are we doomed to be overlooked and underestimated time and time again simply because we don’t always attract as much attention as the extroverts in our midst?

Hell no, we aren’t. 

We’re not broken, even if we learn to believe that we are from growing up in a society that holds up extroversion as the “ideal” personality. What is broken and deeply wrong is the societal messaging that tells us we’re not okay the way we are.

There’s nothing at all wrong with being outgoing and energetic — if that’s your natural orientation. But feeling constantly pressured and forced to act this way when it’s not who we truly are can make us feel ashamed of ourselves. It sends the message that there’s something wrong with us — even though nothing could be further from the truth.

If you identify as an introvert, I highly suggest you read Susan’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s full of research and deeply comforting wisdom about the unique gifts that introverts bring to the world. 

How Do You Know If You’re an Introvert?

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There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what it means to be an introvert. Many people confuse introversion with shyness, but they’re not exactly the same thing. Although introverts can be shy, not all of us are. Moreover, not all shy people are introverts.

What’s the difference, then? Shyness is a mild form of social anxiety where you feel timid around others and worry about what they might think of you. Shy people don’t necessarily enjoy being alone; they just have a lot of fears around social interactions.

Being introverted does not mean you’re afraid of social situations; it means you draw more energy from being alone than you do from being around people. We introverts can enjoy socializing on our terms — I definitely do — but too much interaction drains our energy, and we have to spend time alone to “recharge”. We usually need and want a lower level of stimulation than our extroverted peers.

Also, introversion and extroversion exist on a spectrum. Most of us don’t neatly fall into one or the other category; instead, we have a mix of introverted and extroverted qualities, but usually lean one way or the other (except for ambiverts, who fall right in the middle).

If you’re not sure whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, you could take a personality test like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (there’s a free version online). Or, take a look at the following list of statements and ask yourself how many you identify with:

  • I truly enjoy my own company.
  • I can think more clearly when I’m by myself.
  • I am very aware of myself, my feelings, and my motivations.
  • Social situations usually leave me feeling drained.
  • I am easily overstimulated by big crowds, lots of noise, and commotion. 
  • Some people have said I am quiet.
  • I have a small but close-knit circle of friends.
  • I tend to think and consider my options before acting.
  • I value my independence and solitude.
  • I’m good at listening and offering advice to others.
  • I have little patience for small talk and casual conversation.
  • I am very observant of the world around me and notice things other people don’t.

Sound familiar? The more of these statements you can relate to, the more likely you are to be an introvert. And if that’s the case — welcome to the club, my friend. You’re in good company here.

The Gifts of Introversion

As introverts, we may be quieter and less “out there” than our extroverted peers. We may never be the life of the party, but our personality type brings a lot of unique gifts to this world. Here are just a few of them.

Creativity

Many introverts are unconventional thinkers with vivid imaginations. A lot of us enjoy thinking outside the box and finding new ways of looking at things. We are deeply connected with our inner selves and often long to express ourselves through creative outlets.

We may very well be artists, although not all of us are. Those of us who are artistically inclined might enjoy activities like drawing, painting, writing, or playing music.

Introspection

If you break down the word “introvert” into its Latin root words intro and vertere, the meaning is “to turn inwards”. Instead of turning outwards towards the world of people and things, introverts turn within. We spend a lot of time in a rich inner world that enables us to explore who we are, what we care about, and where we find meaning in life.

When we take it too far, we can become a bit detached from reality, living too much inside our own heads. But we have a strong capacity to self-reflect, and we make decisions with an awareness of ourselves and our values.

Compassion

Introverts’ self-awareness and sensitivity can provide us with keen insights into how people work. Often, we are empaths who soak up the emotional energy of people around us — which can be part of why it’s exhausting to spend too much time around others. We need to spend time alone to get back in touch with ourselves.

And yet, these same qualities give us the ability to understand and relate to others on a deep level. So when we do extend ourselves and invest in relationships with others, we have a strong ability to love and care for those people.

Thoughtfulness

Although some of us can be impulsive at times (like me!), introverts are usually known for thinking before they act. We tend to be contemplative and think about issues from multiple different angles. We often have a strong sense of right and wrong and well-thought-out philosophies on life that we love to discuss with others. 

Perceptiveness

We may not always share everything we observe, but we introverts take in a lot of information from our surroundings. We notice beauty in our surroundings and small details that other people might overlook. We’re usually observing rather than joining the fray, so we see patterns and dynamics between people that may be subtle. 

Finding Happiness as an Introvert

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In my opinion, the most essential part of living happily as an introvert is to accept that we are introverted. Being introverted (or extroverted) is an orientation towards the world, and it usually doesn’t change much over the course of a person’s life. We need extroverts in the world, for sure, but introverts bring balance to society and provide a different outlook on life. We are the yin to their yang.

So we have to find ways to trust ourselves. We must learn to believe that we are valuable, that we are okay, that we matter and that there’s a place for us in this world. Sometimes, we have to un-learn the societal messaging that we learned growing up. It can take time. But can we do it? Absolutely.

With greater knowledge of what it means to be an introvert, and awareness of the blessings that come with our personality type, we can feel more confident in ourselves. We can identify any negative or limiting beliefs we might have about introversion and start to question them. And most importantly, we can learn to embrace our many strengths and celebrate all of who we are.


How about you? Are you a proud introvert? I’d love to hear about your journey, wherever you’re at, in the comments below.

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Health and Wellness, Mental Health, Self-Care

How to Stay Mentally Healthy During Winter

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As the daylight wanes and the weather starts to get chilly, many of us might be starting to feel the first pangs of sadness about the coming of winter. I know I am.

For me, it seems to start after the fall colors have faded and daylight savings time has ended. I find that my energy and motivation starts to dwindle, especially as night begins to fall earlier and earlier each evening. I usually fade fast once my daylight is gone, and I start to adopt the bedtime habits of a grandma. (8:00? Is that too early to go to bed?)

All joking aside, seasonal dips in mood and energy can really take a toll. Those of us who suffer from anxiety or depression might struggle a little extra with the coming of winter. Plus, we all tend to be less active and stay at home more during the winter anyway, and with the pandemic still raging, we might feel the effects of isolation even more acutely this year. 

I want to talk today about how we can prepare ourselves for this season — how we can take steps to love and care for ourselves now to stay resilient, adaptable, and able to handle the lows that may be coming in the months ahead.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

If you struggle at this time of year, you’re far from alone. It’s common to feel a little under the weather as the winter approaches. But for people who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it’s more serious than a case of the “winter blues”. SAD is a form of cyclical depression that usually sets in during the fall and lingers through the winter. 

Somewhere around 5% of American adults experience SAD symptoms such as:

  • Feeling down or sad
  • A loss of interest even in favorite activities
  • An increase or decrease in appetite
  • A change in your sleep patterns
  • A low energy level
  • Restlessness
  • Feelings of guilt or low worth
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions

Although it usually starts to subside when spring rolls around, SAD can make you feel miserable for a few months. And if you’ve got underlying anxiety or depression to begin with, your symptoms could be more severe.

Winter and Isolation

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For a lot of us, winter also means that we don’t get out and about as much. This year, the pandemic will probably keep us at home even more often since it could be a challenge to safely spend time with friends and family. Feeling cooped up at home could lead to feeling lonely and isolated.

We’ve got some unique challenges ahead for the coming winter, but that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to feeling lousy until spring arrives. Here are some ways we can proactively bolster our mental health and keep ourselves well throughout the winter season.

Tips for Staying Well Throughout the Winter

Eat a balanced diet.

I know that eating healthy probably sounds like really obvious advice. We all know eating a balanced diet is good for our long-term health — but did you know the foods we eat can also have an enormous impact on how we feel day-to-day?

I should know. I’m a stress eater. I eat pretty decently most of the time, but I have a tendency to load up on junk food and sweets when I’m stressed or in a low mood. And in the moment, sugar does give a quick boost of feelgood chemicals. It activates reward centers in your brain and boosts levels of dopamine — the same neurotransmitter that cocaine releases in huge quantities.

The problem is, after the dopamine high wears off, your blood sugar plummets, and you wind up feeling more crappy than before. According to Healthline, eating a high-sugar diet increases the odds of mood disorders in men and women. Sugar is also addictive and can make you reliant on its fleeting mood-boosting effects.

You don’t have to swear off all sweet treats. But especially if you know you’re prone to anxiety, depression, or SAD, you might want to reduce your sugar intake this winter and opt for more nutrient-rich foods to support your mental health.

Make sleep a priority.

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Along with eating a nutritious diet, sleep is crucial for good mental health. Our bodies and brains need this time to regenerate, repair, and rest. Poor sleep not only leaves us feeling cranky and on-edge; it actually reduces our ability to manage stress. Studies have also shown that people with insomnia may have twice the risk of developing depression as people who sleep normally. 

Of course, stress and depression can also make sleep more challenging, which may create a vicious cycle. Practicing good sleep hygiene –such as sticking to a regular bedtime and unplugging electronics before winding down for the night — could help you develop healthy sleeping habits. Doing a little breathing work or mindful practice before you go to bed can calm your mind and set the stage for a good night’s rest.

If you’re struggling with getting adequate sleep, you may want to talk with your doctor. They might suggest taking supplements or even medications to aid with sleep. And a therapist can help you work through anxiety or other issues that are keeping you awake at night.

Ask your doctor about light therapy.

Light therapy is a recognized form of treatment for SAD. It involves sitting near a box that radiates a bright light, similar to the natural light you’d see outdoors. The extra light exposure is believed to alter brain chemicals that affect your mood and sleep patterns, which can alleviate some symptoms of depression.

Although it’s generally safe, it comes with some risks and possible side effects — so make sure to check with your doctor before beginning light therapy. 

Get creative.

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Expressing yourself through creativity is a marvelous antidote to anxiety, depression, and winter doldrums. Taking part in creative activities has known benefits for mental health, such as reducing depression and anxiety, increasing positivity, and possibly even boosting our immune system.

And creativity doesn’t only include artistic activities like drawing, painting, or playing a musical instrument. Most of us are creative in some way. Think about what you enjoy doing or making, whether it’s cooking up new recipes in the kitchen, quilting, webpage design, or flower arranging. All of these hobbies have a creative component, and all of them can potentially boost our happiness. It’s about finding something that’s meaningful to you and making time to do it.

Even if you’re feeling a little blue, you might be surprised at how doing something creative can lift your spirits and brighten your day.

Connect with friends and family.

While it might be hard to gather with friends or family in-person right now, it’s vital to stay connected with the ones we love. If you don’t already have a video chat app such as Zoom, Google Duo, or Skype, I highly suggest you download one of these programs, sign up for an account, and learn how to use it before the winter comes. 

Having virtual chats with your favorite people can be almost as good as seeing them face-to-face, and you won’t even have to leave home to do it. Another huge upside of these apps is that you can use them to host (or attend) virtual gatherings — so you can see all of your nearest and dearest ones for the holidays without compromising anyone’s safety.

Stay active.

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Physical activity is one of the best stress-busters I know of. Even during some of the hardest times in my life, if I could get myself to work out, it always made a positive difference in how I felt. 

Exercise is extremely effective at reducing anxiety and depression — it releases endorphins, refocuses your mind on something new, and gives you confidence, all of which can give your mood a boost. When you’re in a funk, it can be hard to find the motivation to work out. But staying active can help you blow off steam, clear your mind, and arrive in a clearer, more peaceful headspace. 

And you don’t have to go to the gym to add some movement to your day. With all of the online options available these days, you can easily find online yoga routines, Zumba workouts, and fitness classes to do from the comfort of your own home. 

Create things to look forward to.

Many of us aren’t traveling or going out a lot right now. But if possible, start making plans for fun things you can do in the future — whether it’s this weekend, a few weeks from now, or a couple of months down the road. 

You could set dates to meet up — in-person or virtually — with your friends and family. Or think about the next road trip you’d like to take. Or plan a Netflix night with your sweetie to watch a new movie as soon as it comes out. Pick some things that get you excited about the future so that you can give yourself something to look forward to.

Distraction isn’t always bad.

I’m going to share something with you that my therapist told me once: sometimes, when you’re in a really bad place, one of the best things you can do is distract yourself

I’m generally a huge proponent of mindfulness and delving into difficult feelings to find what’s at the root of them. But if we’re starting to spiral out of control, focusing more on those feelings only magnifies them and makes them worse. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to distract yourself until you’ve calmed down. Turn on some music and sing at the top of your lungs. Watch an outrageous movie, or a few Youtube videos filled with adorable baby animals. If possible, resist the urge to self-medicate, no matter how tempting it may be.

Once you’re back to feeling calm, you could try some meditation or breathwork to gain some clarity on what you’re feeling. But if you’re not there yet, don’t force it.


What about you? What do you do to lift your spirits when you’re feeling down? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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Gardening

8 Steps to Winterize Your Garden Beds

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Now that we’re well into the fall season, the weather is starting to feel more wintery — at least, it is where I am. As I write this, snow is lightly falling outside, blanketing the yard and the trees in velvety white.

For those of us who live in temperate climates, it’s safe to say that the gardening season is nearing its end for this year. We’ve spent months carefully cultivating our little patches of earth, and hopefully, we’ve been rewarded with a bounty of delicious home-grown foods. But now, with colder days approaching, it’s time to get our gardens ready for a long winter’s rest.

Why Winterize Your Garden Beds?

I’ll be honest; I never used to do anything to prepare my garden for winter. Around late August or early September, I usually lose steam for gardening; I get lazy about tending to my plants and I start to just let the little guys fend for themselves. When things start to wither, I let them go. And in the past, I never bothered with clearing out all the gnarled dead branches and leaves — I figured I’d just let nature take its course.

But I’ve learned that taking just a few simple steps to get the garden ready for winter can help ensure a better growing season next year. For one thing, clearing out all dead plant material creates a clean slate for next year, allows you to amend your soil if needed, and helps remove diseases and pests from your garden. If the plants were happy and healthy, they can also make good compost.

Amending your soil now with nutrients and organic matter gives them a chance to settle into the soil so that it’ll be ready for planting come spring. A layer of mulch will insulate your perennials, protect your garden beds, and keep weeds under control when the weather turns warm again. Now’s a great time to plant any spring-flowering bulbs, and there are even some cold-weather crops you can plant for late fall and early winter harvests.

How to Prepare Your Garden Beds for Winter

Winterizing your garden beds is fairly simple and doesn’t have to take a lot of time or effort. Simply follow these eight steps and your garden will be winter-ready.

1. Harvest any leftover fruit, veggies, herbs, and seeds.

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If there’s anything left to harvest from your garden, now’s the time to go collect it. By this point in the season, there may not be much left, but make sure to harvest anything you might use. Produce can be frozen, canned, pickled, or made into preserves for a longer shelf life. Flowers and herbs can be bundled and hung up to dry.

One of my favorite parts of harvesting is gathering seeds for next year — it’s fun, easy, and saves you from needing to buy more seeds. It’s simple to harvest seeds from fruits and veggies like tomatoes, zucchinis, melons, peppers, and pumpkins. However, you can also gather seeds from herbs, flowers, and many other plants. All it takes is a little research to find where the plant stores its seeds — some have pods or capsules along their stems, while others store seeds at the base of their flowers.

Photo by Amber Carlson

To harvest seeds from a plant, let it go to seed and then wait for the seedheads or pods to completely ripen — then, you can extract the seeds and store them in labeled envelopes or baggies. A note here: if you’re in doubt about whether your seeds are ripe, wait a little longer! Harvesting too soon can give you immature seeds that won’t sprout. I like to wait until the plant has completed its life cycle and has started to dry out.

2. Move non-hardy plants inside.

If you want to keep some of your non-hardy plant babies alive through the winter, you can move them indoors to a place where they’ll get the light they need and be sheltered from the cold. Potted plants are the easiest to move, but you may also be able to dig up plants from the ground or garden beds and transplant them inside.

For this method to be successful, the plant does need to be fairly small; bigger ones have more developed root systems and are much harder to move. Some species also don’t like having their roots disturbed, period, and can die from transplant shock. I suggest doing research on the plant you intend to move to maximize your chances of a successful transplant.

3. Clear out all weeds and dead vegetation.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Removing all dead plant material from the garden is an essential step in getting your garden ready for winter. I’d say that if you were pressed for time and could only do one of these eight steps, it should be this one. The biggest risk with leaving dead plants in place is that it can allow insects, molds, and diseases to linger in your garden over the winter and re-infest next year’s plants. Bad news!

Start removing annuals from your garden as they begin to die off for the season. While you’re at it, pull any remaining weeds (roots and all) so they don’t come back with a vengeance in the spring. Healthy plant matter can be composted or discarded, but any disease or pest-infested material should be thrown in the trash or burned.

4. Cut back perennials as necessary.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Since perennial plants come back year after year, you don’t want to pull the roots from the ground — unless you want to remove the plant, that is. The above-ground parts of the plant (stems, leaves, and flowers) die back for the winter, while the roots or bulbs beneath the ground survive and send out fresh shoots the following spring.

Certain perennials can benefit from being trimmed to the ground once hard frosts have started to kill the leaves and stems. Bee balm, phlox, and hosta should all be trimmed since they can carry mildews and pest eggs. Other herbs and flowers do well with trimming, but certain types (especially evergreen perennials) should be left alone. 

If you’re unsure about specific plants in your garden, The Old Farmer’s Almanac has more information on which perennials should and shouldn’t be trimmed.

5. Amend your soil as needed.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Now that you’ve cleared old plants out of your garden, you may want to take the opportunity to beef up your soil. If you had a stellar growing season and all of your plants stayed happy until the end, you might not need to worry about this step, but if you suspect that your soil quality is lacking, now’s a good time to make some adjustments.

You can buy kits to test pH, moisture, sunlight, and levels of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in your soil — or you can have your local nursery or gardening extension service test it for you. Once you have the results, you can add compost, manure, fertilizers, minerals, and other ingredients to balance out and enrich the composition of your soil.

If you’d rather not mess with testing or your soil’s not in need of a massive overhaul, you can’t go wrong with mixing some good-quality compost into your beds. Compost adds nutrients, boosts beneficial microbes, and improves soil texture for healthier plants.

6. Plant cold-weather veggies and bulbs.

Tulip bulbs. Photo by Amber Carlson

Once you’re happy with your soil, it’s time to plant any cold-weather crops you’d like to grow. Even in temperate zones like mine — and I live in hardiness zone 6A — it’s not too late to plant leafy greens like spinach and kale, or veggies like carrots, garlic, and onions. While they may not survive the whole winter, you may still get a good harvest or two out of them.

Fall is also the time of year to plant any spring-flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils, or crocus — they need the cold of winter followed by spring warmth to snap out of their dormancy and grow. I planted some tulips and grape hyacinths in my front bed and I can’t wait to see how they turn out next year!

7. Cover up your soil and perennial plants.

Put your garden beds to rest by tucking them under a blanket of mulch. Photo by Amber Carlson

With most of the hard work done, you can now cover your soil and perennial plants with mulch to put them to bed for the winter. Mulching protects your soil from erosion, helps it retain nutrients, and controls weed growth — and some mulches have the added benefit of enriching your soil.

You can use traditional mulches such as wood chips or straw, but one excellent (and free) alternative is to mulch with fallen leaves in your yard. All you have to do is run your lawn mower over piles of dry, crunchy leaves — the blades will chop the leaves down into a rich organic mulch that will break down and turn into compost for next year’s garden.

Whatever mulch you choose, layer it on top of any garden beds you’re done using for the season. Adding compost on top of and around perennial plants can give them some insulation and help them come back more vigorously in the spring.

Some gardeners opt to plant cover crops, such as winter rye, that can help build your soil while serving the same purposes as a mulch. Or, if nothing else, you can cover your garden beds with plastic, cardboard, or old carpet.

8. Reflect and make notes on the growing season.

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At this point, all that’s left to do is look back on the growing season you had this year. What worked well? What didn’t work? If you have a garden journal — or if you’d like to start one — make notes on what you observed this year, how well your various plants grew, and what you might do differently next season. 

Part of what makes gardening so fun and rewarding is trying different things, learning from experience, and becoming a more knowledgeable gardener each year. Keeping detailed notes can help you remember what you did in the past so that you can make your next growing season even better.

That’s it — you and your garden beds are now ready for winter! With these simple steps done, you can rest easy knowing that your garden will be ready and waiting for you in the spring. May you enjoy the remainder of this beautiful fall season and have a safe, peaceful winter.


Do you have any other fall gardening tips and tricks to share? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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Culture, Holidays and Traditions, Travel

Día de los Muertos: Embracing the Union of Life and Death

Have you ever been curious about the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos? Read on to learn the history of the holiday and how it's celebrated. #holidays #dayofthedead #sugarskulls #mexico #culture #travel
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For one night every year, the dead walk the earth. People dressed in skeleton outfits with skull face paint fill the streets, rattling their noisemakers, singing, and dancing all through the night. Families build altars, light candles and hold vigil for lost loved ones. Marigold flowers and petals are strewn everywhere, illuminating sidewalks and cemeteries in vivid shades of orange and red.

On the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos — or Day of the Dead, in English — people gather to celebrate and honor the dead, and to welcome their spirits back to the land of the living for one night. The vibrant colors and joyous, exuberant spirit of the festivities is a burst of light amid the darkness of a long autumn night.

Origins and History of Día de los Muertos

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Although many people think of Day of the Dead as “Mexican Halloween”, the holiday actually isn’t related to Halloween at all — it has an entirely different history and cultural background. Día de los Muertos also didn’t originate from the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day or All Soul’s Day, although the dates coincide (November 1 and 2).

Day of the Dead has been celebrated in Mexico for thousands of years, since long before the arrival of the Spaniards and their Christian beliefs. The festival has its roots in indigenous Aztec, Toltec and Nahua traditions. People from these cultures believed it was more respectful to celebrate the lives of those who had passed than to mourn their deaths. The Aztecs also worshipped a god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, who watched over the souls of their loved ones and aided them in their transition to the afterlife.

To these indigenous Mesoamerican peoples, death and life were deeply intertwined. They understood and accepted mortality as an integral part of being human and alive, and they embraced the cycle of existence in its entirety. Families and communities continued to honor and celebrate their departed members, and they believed that the spirits came back to Earth for one night each year. Hence, Día de los Muertos was born; a lighthearted celebration of life and death, a joyous dance between light and darkness.

How It’s Celebrated

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There are many different ways to celebrate Day of the Dead, and traditional ways of celebrating vary between different parts of Mexico. But some of the best-known traditions include ofrendas (altars), marigold flowers, papel picado (perforated paper), cemetery visits, calaveras (skulls), and costumes.

Ofrendas

A traditional ofrenda in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by Photo Beto via iStock/Getty Images

To prepare for Día de los Muertos, many people build ofrendas for their loved ones in their homes, schools, workplaces, cemeteries where their loved ones are buried, and public spaces. These altars, brightly decorated with items such as family photos, crosses, flowers and mementos, are meant to help welcome the visiting spirits back to Earth. It’s common to leave offerings of food and water as sustenance for the spirit’s journey between worlds — pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) is traditional, but other foods and drinks may be left as well. And copal (resin) incense is often used to cleanse and purify the altar space.

Marigold Flowers

Photo by Silvia Corradin via Pexels

If you visit ofrendas or cemeteries in Mexico during Day of the Dead, you’ll notice that many of them are covered in brilliant orange marigold flowers and petals. Marigolds — or cempasúchil in Spanish — grow throughout Mexico in the fall, and they are an integral part of many Día de los Muertos celebrations.

According to Inside Mexico, the symbolism of marigolds comes from an Aztec myth about two lovers named Xochitl and Huitzilin. Huitzilin goes off to war and is killed in battle. Heartbroken, Xochitl prays to the sun god Tonatiuh to reunite her with her lover; the sun then shines down upon her face, transforming her into a radiant, twenty-petaled orange flower. Huitzilin, who has been reborn as a hummingbird, comes to the flower to drink her nectar, and the petals open, filling the air with the aroma of marigolds.

Marigolds have a strong association with the sun, the spirit world, and rebirth. Many believe that their scent helps to attract the spirits of the dead back to Earth. The vibrant, sunny color is also a reminder to celebrate life rather than mourning the passing of loved ones.

Papel Picado

Papel picado in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Photo by SandraRose via iStock/Getty Images

Although you can find papel picado hanging in Mexican streets and homes at any time of the year, it becomes especially widespread around the time of Day of the Dead. Artists cut intricate designs (often depicting skulls, skeletons and flowers) into brightly-colored tissue paper, then string them together and hang them across alleyways and in living spaces. The colorful streamers symbolize the air element as well as the fragile nature of life, and on Día de los Muertos, you’ll often see papel picado hanging at ofrendas.

Cemetery Visits

Family members gather by a grave at Tzintzuntzan cemetery in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Photo by BeteMarques via iStock/Getty Images

Many Mexican families will visit the graves of loved ones on Day of the Dead. They spend time cleaning and washing the gravesites, decorating with candles and flowers, and setting up ofrendas nearby. In some parts of Mexico, families gather and eat meals next to graves, telling stories of their lost loved one and sharing memories with one another.

Calaveras

A collection of colorful ceramic calaveras. Photo by simm18pl via iStock/Getty Images

On Day of the Dead, you can hardly go anywhere without seeing images of calaveras (skulls) and skeletons. While all the “death” imagery might seem macabre to an outsider, Mexican culture doesn’t shy away from images of death. Artists inject levity into the dark subject matter by making skeletons look like they’re having fun, whether they’re strolling around a park, playing a guitar, or riding in a hot air balloon.

Skeleton art comes in many forms, but one of the most famous images is La Catrina — a lady skeleton dressed in elegant French garb and a frilly hat (a “catrin” is a person of high stature who wears fancy clothes). Cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada created an early version of her in the early 20th century, and other artists subsequently put their own spin on the image. With her posh attire, La Catrina is sometimes seen as a commentary on inequality between socioeconomic classes, but her dress also adds humor and lightness to the image of death, which makes her a perfect symbol of Día de los Muertos.

One of the most popular traditions involving calaveras is making sugar skulls — sweet treats molded to look like skeletal faces. People decorate the skulls with colorful icing to represent particular loved ones who have passed on, sometimes imitating their facial features and other distinguishing characteristics.

Face Paint and Costumes

Photo by Genaro Servu00edn via Pexels

As part of the holiday festivities, many people dress up in skeleton costumes and paint their faces to resemble the calavera Catrina. Some wear nice suits and elaborate dresses to the celebrations to match Catrina’s stately apparel.

Where the Biggest Celebrations Are

People celebrating Day of the Dead. Photo by YinYang via iStock/Getty Images

Although Día de los Muertos is observed throughout Latin America, the biggest and most traditional celebrations are still in Mexico. While Mexico City is famous for its parade, it’s a relatively new addition to the festivities; you’ll find a more traditional celebration in the suburb of Mixquic, where family members join in a mass procession to the community cemetery with candles and flowers. Many of the other larger towns in Mexico hold parades and parties, as well.

Observing With Respect

If you are drawn to the idea of celebrating your ancestors in these ways, you’re not alone — there are Día de los Muertos celebrations around the world! If you visit Mexico in late October or early November, you’ll get the most authentic experience of the holiday — just be mindful that this is a time for families to come together and celebrate the lives of their loved ones, so there may be some parts of the festivities that aren’t meant for outsiders. No matter where you go, always approach locals with respect and curiosity for their traditions.

If you’d like to attend a celebration outside of Mexico, consider going to a parade or cultural event that is open to the public. Non-Mexicans should be careful about wearing traditional clothes or skull face paint because it can be seen as cultural appropriation, but there’s nothing wrong with taking part in authentic, Mexican-organized festivities with their permission. This article does an excellent job of explaining cultural appropriation and how to respectfully celebrate other cultures. 


Whether or not we partake in an official celebration, Day of the Dead is a beautiful opportunity to remember those we’ve lost, reconnect with our roots, and celebrate the joy of life. Do you have your own story to share? What do you love most about this holiday? Feel free to tell me about it in the comments below.

Food and Recipes

Slow Cooker Meals: Southwestern Green Chile

Have you ever wanted to make Southwestern green chile at home? It's easy -- learn how with this slow cooker recipe. #easydinners #recipes #comfortfood #southwestern #stews #slowcooker
Photo by Amber Carlson

Green chile (chile verde) is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods, especially in the fall and winter months. It’s a food that is near and dear to my heart as a native Colorado girl; my dad used to make pots of the stuff when we were growing up. To this day, I still love a bowl of chile to warm myself up on a cold day.

One thing I adore about green chile is how versatile it is. You can eat it on its own like a soup, perhaps with some fresh tortillas on the side for dipping. I used to like to smother it on top of fried eggs for a simple breakfast. It makes an excellent topping for burritos, enchiladas, and fries. At Thanksgiving, my aunt usually makes a batch of her signature, rip-your-lips-off chile — and we pour it over our turkey and mashed potatoes like gravy. There are a thousand ways to eat green chile, and they’re all delicious.

About This Recipe

The recipe I’m going to share with you is based on the green chile that my dad used to make with a few of my own modifications. It is savory, tangy, and can be made as spicy (or not) as you’d like.

By far the most important ingredient is the chiles. While you can use canned green chiles, I’ve always made my chile using fresh, whole roasted peppers. Canned chiles are a huge time saver, without a doubt, but the flavor and aroma of the fresh peppers is incomparable and adds a complex richness to the stew.

Photo by Amber Carlson

I should warn you that prepping fresh chiles is a tad labor intensive. If you buy whole peppers to use — which I strongly suggest you do — you’ll need to go through the process of roasting, peeling, seeding and chopping them, which does take some time. I have a whole separate article where I explain how and where to find the best peppers and walk you through how to prep them. Whether you’re using fresh or canned chiles, you’ll want to have them ready to go before you start this recipe.

Apart from that, you don’t need anything too fancy. Pork butt or shoulder should do well for the meat, but you can omit the meat or substitute tofu for a vegetarian chile (veggie stock can also be used instead of chicken broth). The recipe is naturally dairy-free, and although flour is traditionally used to thicken the stew and brown the pork, you can easily do this with a gluten-free starch instead.

This hearty stew is easy to make in a slow cooker. After just a bit of prep work, you can leave it to simmer all day long until you’re ready to eat. You can make it on a stove, too, if you don’t have a slow cooker; it’ll just take a bit more watching.

Ready to try it? Let’s go!

Ingredients

Prep time: 25-30 minutes
Cook time: 6-8 hours
Makes about 12 cups of chile

  • 1 lb pork butt or shoulder, diced (or tofu)
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour (gluten-free if desired)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Cooking oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 14.5-oz can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 14.5-oz can of green enchilada sauce
  • 3 cups of chicken broth (or vegetable stock)
  • 4 cups of roasted green chile peppers, peeled, seeded and diced (canned or fresh)
  • 1 TB ground cumin
  • ⅛ tsp cinnamon
  • A handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

Optional sides/garnishes:

  • Flour or corn tortillas
  • Cheese
  • Sour cream
  • Hot sauce

How to Make

  1. Coat and brown the pork.

Combine the flour, salt, and a touch of fresh-ground pepper in a small bowl. Whisk the ingredients together with a fork until blended.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Next, place your diced pork into a large bowl and add the flour mixture. Using a spoon or spatula, stir and toss the pork with the flour mixture until all of the meat is coated. The starch will help thicken up the stew.

Photo by Amber Carlson

To brown the pork, heat a couple of tablespoons of your preferred cooking oil over a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meat and stir until the pieces are lightly browned on all sides, but not cooked through. Once it’s done, remove from the heat and set aside. Leave the browned bits and flour residue in the pan.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Technically, browning the meat is optional — you can skip it if you’re in a hurry. But I highly recommend doing it because it caramelizes the surface of the meat, which adds flavor and deliciousness to your stew. 

  1. Saute the onion and garlic.

Re-heat the same pan you used in Step 1 on medium heat with a little more cooking oil. Add cumin and cinnamon; stir to spread throughout the pan. Toast spices for 30 seconds, just until fragrant. In one of my previous recipes I talked about the benefits of “blooming” spices — it’s just a way to release more of the aromatic oils for a fuller flavor.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Turn the heat up to medium-high; add the onions and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes, just until the onions turn slightly tender and translucent. Don’t worry if you still have toasted flour and spices stuck to the bottom of the pan; we’ll address that in the next step.

Photo by Amber Carlson
  1. Add the tomatoes and green chiles.

Now, it’s time to add your tomatoes and green chiles to the pan. Stir the tomatoes and green chiles into the onions and garlic. Allow the vegetable mixture to heat to a boil, then simmer for 5-10 minutes.

As the tomatoes and green chiles simmer, their water and juices should help to loosen anything stuck on the bottom of the pan. Stir occasionally, using your spoon or spatula to scrape any leftover flour or spices from the pan and fold them into the veggies.

  1. Put everything into the slow cooker and let it cook.

Finally, add your pork and veggie mixture to the slow cooker. Turn the cooker on at its low heat setting; add chicken broth and enchilada sauce, stirring to combine all ingredients.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Close the lid and cook on low for 6-8 hours, until pork is cooked all the way through and the chile has thickened a bit. Turn the cooker down to its warm setting until you’re ready to eat.

At this point, do a taste test; if the chile could use a little more spice, add a few dashes of your favorite hot sauce. Now’s also a good time to add more salt and pepper if needed.

5. Garnish and serve.

Spoon chile into bowls. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve it while it’s hot! Eat your chile on its own or with tortillas, cheese or sour cream — dairy does a great job of mellowing the spice if your chile is too hot for your liking.

Photo by Amber Carlson

And most importantly, enjoy!


Did you like this recipe? Do you have any comments or suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!

Food and Recipes

All About Chiles: How to Roast, Prep and Cook With Chile Peppers

Ever wanted to know how to prep chile peppers for use in your favorite recipes? Find out here. #food #recipes #veggies #kitchenbasics #cookingtips
#
Photo by Amber Carlson

Chile peppers are a staple of Southwestern cooking. Their tangy, zesty flavor adds personality and a spicy kick to dishes. You can cook and eat chiles, use them as a spice, or consume them for their medicinal properties — capsaicin, the main bioactive ingredient that gives peppers their heat, may relieve pain and help promote weight loss. They are also rich in nutrients such as vitamins A, C, potassium, and antioxidants.

If you’ve ever been curious to know more about these fiery fruits (and yes, they are technically fruits!), read on to learn about where chile peppers come from, where and when to find them, and how to prepare fresh chiles for cooking.

A Bit of History

The chile pepper plant (capsicum annuum) is not native to the US; according to Amy Behm of the Pueblo Bonito Inn in Santa Fe, chiles originally come from the Caribbean islands but were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus, who called the spicy fruits “peppers” because the zippy flavor reminded him of peppercorns. 

Although doctors on board Columbus’ ships were initially interested in peppers’ medicinal properties, Spanish monks began using ground, dried chile peppers in cooking as a substitute for peppercorns, and peppers gained popularity around Europe, eventually spreading to Asia via trade. In the late 16th century, Spaniards colonized what is now New Mexico, bringing their chile peppers with them and establishing the plants as part of the region’s agriculture. 

A few hundred years later, Dr. Fabián Garcia developed the Hatch strain of chile pepper that went on to become a sensation — it’s the main ingredient in pork green chile stew. You can now find green chile (and chile peppers) throughout the Southwestern US, but the peppers have the strongest ties with New Mexico and Colorado.

Where and When to Find Chiles

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The best time to buy chile peppers is in the late summer and early fall, when they are ripe and in season. August and September tend to be the peak months for harvesting, and the time of year when chile stands start to open up. Although these stands aren’t open year-round, they typically have the best, freshest peppers to choose from, plus a variety of spiciness options. Chile stands also tend to be small, family-owned businesses that I enjoy supporting.

I’m not sure how common chile stands are outside of Colorado and New Mexico; you could try doing a Google search to see if there are any near you. If you happen to live in the Denver area, here’s a list of some local stands that should be open through October or November.

My favorite thing to do — which I learned from my dad — is to visit a chile stand in September or October, buy an entire bushel (basically a large basket) of peppers, and prep and freeze them for the winter. All you have to do is fill your basket with whatever mix of peppers you like — mild, medium, hot or Dynamite! — and the folks at the chile stand will roast them for you over an open flame.

If you don’t happen to live near any chile stands, you can also find the fresh peppers at some grocery stores. They’re also known as Hatch, Pueblo, or Anaheim peppers, and they may be red or green in color (depending on when they’re picked). Choose ones with smooth, shiny skin that are firm to the touch and free of dents or spots.

A Quick Guide to Roasting and Prepping Chile Peppers

As I mention in my green chile recipe, prepping chile peppers is a bit of a process. First, make sure that the peppers are roasted — it deepens the flavor of the peppers and makes the skins easier to peel off. Again, if you pick yours up at a chile stand, this step will likely be done for you. If you bought peppers from your local grocery store, you can oven-roast them to get the same effect (I’ll explain how to do this).

After roasting, you want to “sweat” the peppers in an airtight bag to loosen the skins. Next, you pull the skins off of the peppers, remove the seeds, and dice the flesh. The chiles are then ready to use in green chile or any other recipe that calls for them. 

That’s the process in a nutshell. Although it’s fairly easy, the work can be a little time-consuming. Depending on how many peppers you need to prep, it can take 1-2 hours. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow.

1. Roast and sweat the peppers.

If your peppers are not already roasted, preheat your oven to 400°F. Place whole peppers on a lightly-oiled baking sheet and roast for 20-30 minutes, turning the peppers occasionally until the skins have turned black. You can also toss the peppers on your grill or over the flame of your gas stovetop; they’ll blacken a lot quicker this way (usually about 2-3 minutes per side).

Regardless of how you cook them, what you’re looking for is a good char on the skins. You’re going to be peeling off these burnt parts, anyway, and the charring tells you that the flesh underneath is thoroughly cooked.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Once the peppers are roasted, seal them in an airtight plastic bag and set aside. Allow them to sweat at room temperature for 15-20 minutes.

2. Remove the skins and seeds.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Before you begin this step, a word of advice: if you’re using peppers that have a little bit of spice, you may want to put on some gloves before handling them. The last time I tried peeling and seeding spicy peppers without gloves, my hands burned for the rest of the day afterwards. Go bare-skinned at your own risk.

As soon as the peppers are cool enough to handle, pull the peppers from the bag and lay them on a cutting board. Peel or gently massage the skins off of the chiles with your fingers and remove the stems.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Then, using a small knife, cut open the pepper so that you have a flat layer of flesh. Rinse the flesh under warm running water to remove any seeds, stringy material, or skin debris.

3. Dice the flesh.

Finally, chop your peppers into approximately ½-inch squares and place in a bowl. 

And voilà — your peppers are now ready to use! If you prepped an entire batch of chiles in one go, you can save whatever’s left over after you use what you need. Simply portion the peppers out into Ziploc bags and pop them in the freezer. I like to do 4 cups of chiles per bag because that will yield one batch of green chile — so anytime I feel like making some, I can just thaw out one portion.

Happy cooking!


Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let me know in the comments below!

Travel, Travel Guides

A Short-and-Sweet Guide to Bozeman, MT

Thinking about a trip to Bozeman? Check out this travel guide to help you make plans for your time there. #travelguide #ustravel #bozeman #restaurants #hiking #sightseeing
Sunset over Bozeman as seen from the top of Peets Hill in Spring. Photo by bmswanson via iStock/Getty Images

Bozeman is a charming little college town nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Montana. With a population of just under 50,000 people, the town has a fun and lively character but doesn’t feel as crowded as some of the bigger cities in the US. It’s a lovely destination for outdoorsy types as well as city dwellers who enjoy good food and drink.

When our truck broke down and derailed our plans for a northwestern US road trip, my partner and I ended up staying in Bozeman for close to a month waiting for the truck to be repaired, and over the weeks that we’ve been here, it’s become one of my favorite cities in the US. Seriously — if I wasn’t such a wimp about cold winters, I’d live here in a heartbeat.

If you’re planning a trip to Bozeman, here are some of my personal recommendations for where to go, what to see, and how to get the most out of your time here.

How to Get to Bozeman

Photo by Leah Kelley via Pexels.com

There are several different ways you can get to Bozeman. Driving here may be your best bet, especially if you are leery of flying during the pandemic — we certainly are. The heart of town is located just off of I-90, about 200 miles west of Billings. We drove here from Denver with our truck camper and found it easy to find and access by road (it took us about 10 hours in total).

If driving isn’t practical or you’d rather fly, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) is conveniently located just 15 minutes northwest of the town center. It’s a fairly small airport, though, and only a handful of cities offer direct flights to and from BZN. Kayak and Skyscanner are my go-to services for finding inexpensive flights.

Whichever way you decide to go, travel insurance might give you extra peace of mind when planning. These policies can reimburse you for many non-refundable travel expenses if you should need to change or cancel your trip plans.

Where to Stay

Bozeman has a handful of hotels right in the heart of town. If you like hostels, Treasure State Hostel is rated well and located right along Main Street. There are also plenty of options to choose from on Airbnb and Vrbo

If you are coming to Bozeman during the summer months to camp (whether by tent or RV), I would highly recommend the Bear Canyon Campground. It’s only three miles southeast of downtown and easy to access via I-90. Bear Canyon was clean, safe, and reasonably priced. Plus, they have Wi-Fi, a swimming pool, and friendly staff who went above and beyond to help us when we needed to extend our stay for much longer than originally planned.

When to Visit

Photo by Amber Carlson

In Montana, you’ll probably get the best weather in the summer. We stayed here for the whole month of September, and although we had a couple of cold snaps, the weather was mostly pleasant with temperatures in the 70s and 80s and lots of clear, sunny days. The early fall here brings vibrant, colorful foliage that is a beauty to behold. During the wintertime, you can expect lots of snow and temperatures averaging in the low teens. 

If you’re a skier or snowboarder, though, it could be worth braving the winter cold for a trip to Bridger Bowl Ski Area or Big Sky Resort. Both are less than an hour from downtown Bozeman, and each one has thousands of acres of alpine terrain to play on.

Getting Around Town

It’s easy to get around downtown Bozeman by walking; most of the restaurants and main attractions in town are either on Main Street or within a few blocks of it. The town is also very bicycle-friendly, so if you’d rather travel on two wheels, you should have an easy time getting around. The Streamline bus system offers in-town public transportation, as well, and local rideshare company Blink Rides provides electric scooters for the area.

If you are planning on getting up into the mountains or just want a little more freedom to go where you please, you may want to rent a car. This site lists a few different car rental options in Bozeman. In general, you should be able to get by pretty easily without a car, but it’s good to know that you have options.

What to Do

Bozeman is a vibrant town with plenty to do and see. There’s no shortage of excellent places to eat — foodies will enjoy the fun and eclectic restaurant scene. For hikers and mountain bikers, there are a handful of easily-accessible trails in the area. If you’re looking for fun and unique activities to do in and around town, here are some of my favorites.

Walk along Main Street in downtown Bozeman.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Every Bozeman travel guide probably mentions Main Street — and for good reason. The busiest, most bustling street in town is lined with cafes, cocktail bars, and boutiques. Victorian brick architecture dominates the landscape, giving the area an elegant, old-school vibe that juxtaposes nicely with the town’s hip, modern eateries and social hotspots.

It’s fun to just stroll along Main Street and see what you find, ducking into stores and stopping for a drink when the mood strikes. If nothing else, it’s a great spot for people watching.

Go to the farmer’s market in Lindley Park.

Photo by Amber Carlson

If you visit Bozeman during the summertime, make sure to check out the farmer’s market on Tuesday evenings in beautiful Lindley Park. Local farmers, artisans, and eating establishments set up shop beneath a canopy of pine trees that will make you feel like you’re somewhere deep in the woods. Take your time enjoying the scenery as you meander around between the various tents and food carts.

Visit the Montana Grizzly Encounter.

Brutus the Grizzly after a splash in the pool. Photo by Amber Carlson

If you love bears but aren’t so keen on seeing them in the wild, you’ll want to visit the Montana Grizzly Encounter, located about 10 miles east of Bozeman. It’s a small sanctuary that cares for rescued grizzly bears, providing them shelter and habitat while educating the public about these incredible creatures. For an $8 per-person admission fee, visitors can view the bears from a safe distance away while the animals are out and about.

Pick apples and berries at Rocky Creek Farm.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Spend an afternoon picking fresh fruit at Rocky Creek Farm. There’s a small shop in the barnhouse that sells seasonal produce as well as orchards and growing areas where you can pick your own fruit. We spent an afternoon picking apples and we got quite the harvest. This is a great activity for families, friends, or anyone who’s feeling a bit nostalgic for a simpler time.

Take a scenic drive through Hyalite Canyon.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Hyalite Canyon, located just southwest of Bozeman in Gallatin National Forest, was easily one of the most beautiful places we visited. Drive along the winding mountain road, you’ll be surrounded by dense evergreen forest and pristine wilderness. If you’re visiting during September or October, you can catch a glimpse of spectacular fall colors as the leaves start to change.

After heading south on this road for about 30 minutes, you’ll reach the beautiful Hyalite Reservoir. Close by there is a short hiking trail leading to a dramatic waterfall — more details on the Palisade Falls Trail can be found below.

Go on a hike.

Bozeman is surrounded by mountains and foothills in all directions — with the Bridger Mountain Range to the north, the Spanish Peaks to the south, and Yellowstone National Park less than an hour’s drive from the city center. Although there is a network of walking and cycling trails in town, hiking trails are easy to find and access for those who love to get out into nature.

Whether you’re looking for an easier hike or something more challenging, there are options for hikers of all levels, and many of the trails are dog-friendly. Bears do live in the area, so you may want to bring a can of bear spray with you. Here are a few of the best hiking spots we found in and around Bozeman.

Bear Canyon Trail

Bear Canyon Trail is an easy-to-moderate hike just southeast of town. You can do the trail as an out-and-back, turning around after 5 miles at the Bear Lakes Trail junction, or you can hike all the way to Bear Lakes for an 18-mile round trip with a total elevation gain of 1,400 feet. 

We only hiked a total of about 3.5 miles, but the trail was beautiful, well-shaded, and not overly crowded. The sound of water rushing by in the nearby creek was lovely to listen to, as well. Just make sure to bring bug repellent!

Mount Ellis Trail

If you’re up for more of a challenge, try the 10.1-mile Mount Ellis Trail. With a total elevation gain of over 3,100 feet, this one is a true mountain climb and is rated as a difficult hike. If you want to make it shorter, you can just do the lower section of the trail, which is 6 miles long and goes up 2,400 feet in elevation. 

Photo by Amber Carlson

We found parts of the lower trail to be a little strenuous, but still doable. We hiked part of the way up the lower trail and then turned around. The good news is that even if you don’t get all the way to the top of the lower peak, if you go on a clear day you’ll still get some amazing views of the Gallatin Valley below.

Palisade Falls Trail

Photo by Amber Carlson

The Palisade Falls Trail, located near Hyalite Reservoir about 30 minutes south of Bozeman, is a 1.1-mile paved path leading to a dramatic waterfall tumbling down a towering rock cliff. It’s got a little bit of an incline but should be accessible for hikers of all levels. This easy, quick trail is perfect if you want a short hike with stunning scenery, and the drive through Hyalite Canyon to get there is gorgeous as well.

Where to Eat

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

Bozeman is chock-full of excellent restaurants — from breweries to new American bistros, from sushi to Thai food, you’ll find a huge array of options to choose from here. We ate out a lot and it was hard to narrow down my list to just a few favorites, but in the interest of keeping this guide fairly short, I’ll just tell you about a small handful of places that really knocked our socks off. All of the restaurants I’ll mention have outdoor patios so you can stay safe and socially-distanced while eating.

Revelry

For lunch, dinner, or weekend brunch, Revelry does not disappoint. The eclectic new American fare includes sandwiches, burgers, steaks, fish and salads with some gluten and dairy-free options. 

For a simple appetizer, try the marinated olives and bread — the herbed citrus marinade is unique and delightful. If you’re in the mood for pasta, their homemade cheese tortellini is an indulgence not to be missed. And for brunch, the loaded potatoes are seriously awesome — your taste buds will rejoice at the melding of creamy, cheesy and spicy flavors.

Revelry also has a great selection of wines, beers, and ciders, and their outdoor patio has both covered and uncovered sections. We ate there three times in four weeks and we’d absolutely go back for more!

Fresco Cafe

Fresco Cafe is a charming, upscale Italian eatery. Their patio and courtyard area out front is full of trees and borders a creek, which made for a lovely ambiance. And the food and wine were top-notch. They offer a selection of pasta, meat and seafood dishes (and gluten-free pasta is available for most dishes) plus suggested wines to pair with each. I enjoyed my pasta carbonara, but my partner loved his creamy penne with salmon — it’s one of their signature dishes. 

We finished the meal with a scoop of the honey gelato. It had such a light and airy texture that I felt like I was eating a cloud. The honey flavor was strong, but not overpowering. Our meal was a bit pricey, but totally worth it for the all-around excellent experience we had. 

Urban Kitchen

With their new American brunch, lunch and dinner options, Urban Kitchen became one of our other go-to restaurants in Bozeman. Their patio area is behind the restaurant and away from the street, so it’s a little quieter than some of the other patios in town. I tried the brunch hash, the eggs benedict and the gnocchi (on separate visits, of course!) and all were excellent.

If you’re into fun and unique cocktails, make sure to try the cotton candy martini. The presentation is half the fun: your server brings out a silver shaker in one hand, and in the other, a chilled martini glass filled with a towering pouf of pink cotton candy. After a quick shake, they’ll pour the drink mix on top of the cotton candy, and you get to watch as the candy melts right into your glass. The result is delicious and not as crazy-sweet as you’d expect it to be.

Little Star Diner

Although the word “diner” is in their name, Little Star Diner is no greasy-spoon establishment; it’s an organic, farm-to-table restaurant that’s open for brunch and dinner. We only tried brunch at Little Star, but my partner was thoroughly impressed with the griddled maple corn muffin — I only got to sneak a couple of bites before it was all gone. It had a flavor and texture like soft, fresh pancakes and maple syrup, and was served up with fresh Montana peaches. Delightful.

I went with the cheddar scrambled eggs — and they did an excellent job of transforming a simple dish into something memorable and delicious. Bacon fat and sheep cheese added complex, savory notes to the eggs, and the greens on the side were a zesty blend of fresh spinach, basil and Italian parsley.

Aside from that, we enjoyed sitting on their rooftop patio and admiring their planter boxes full of fresh herbs for cooking. And our server gave some of the friendliest, most attentive service we had during our time in Bozeman.

Nordic Brew Works

If you’re into craft brews and cocktails but also want to enjoy fabulous food, Nordic Brew Works has got you covered. Neither of us are beer people, but we loved the Rosebay and Hot Norlander cocktails. Also, we tried the dirty potatoes after reading raving Yelp reviews about them, and I can tell you: they are not exaggerating. The unusual combo of curry-spiced potatoes with beets and creamy aioli sauce is outstanding.

For dinner, we both had pizzas, which were tasty as well. Nordic offers a gluten-free crust, which I tried on my Pigs of Parma pizza — a pie with prosciutto, arugula, blue cheese and fig jam — and I was very satisfied. The crust had a nice, soft texture and wasn’t too thin or crumbly.


Although we hadn’t originally planned on spending so much time here, Bozeman has been a delight. I’ve loved our time here, and although it’s a bit far away for a weekend trip from Denver, I have a feeling we’ll be back.

How about you? Have you spent time in Bozeman? Where are some of your favorite places to go in town? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Health and Wellness, Self-Care

8 Self-Care Tips for the Fall Season

Feeling a little off-balance? Learn some of my favorite self-care tips for keeping yourself healthy and well in the fall. #fall #health tips #meditation #mindfulness #selfcare
Photo by Amber Carlson

Fall is the season of deepening shadows; of longer nights and ever-shorter days. The trees turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange, red and purple as they shed their leaves and sink their roots deeper into the earth; animals gather food and seek shelter for a long winter sleep. There’s a slowing down of the summer festivities as we unpack our cool-weather clothes and shift into a quieter, more introspective season.

This time of year makes me want to cozy up with a mug of hot tea and spend whole mornings writing, sketching, or dreaming. I can just as easily spend afternoons cooking green chile or spiced apple cider while my house fills with delightful aromas. Fall seems to bring out my creativity, and yet the mood is bittersweet as the daylight begins to fade and the nights grow colder, reminding me that winter is on its way.

As a gardener, I feel a little melancholy around this time of year because fall brings the end of the growing season. My beautiful plants that thrived and bore fruit during the spring and summer months are starting to die back. In a few weeks it’ll be time to clear out the garden beds and get them ready for winter. The summer went by too fast, as it always does. And yet, I understand: the earth needs its time of rest. Things have to die and go back to the soil so that new life can come back next year.

Photo by Valiphotos on Pexels.com

And just as the earth needs time to regenerate, so, too, do we need periods of quiet and stillness for rest and contemplation. Fall provides us the perfect opportunity to slow down, to take stock of our lives, and to give thanks for all that we have. Because it’s a season of change and transition, fall can also leave us feeling a little anxious and unsettled, and our bodies can become more vulnerable to illness as the weather turns cold.

I’m always an advocate of self-care no matter what time of year it is, but as the fall arrives it seems especially helpful and important for us to nourish ourselves in various ways — at least, it does for me. So in case your body, mind or soul is also feeling in need of a little TLC, here are eight of my favorite self-care tips for the fall season.

1. Cultivate gratitude for your life.

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If you don’t already have a gratitude practice of some sort, now is a great time to begin one. As the summer activities wind down, it might be easier to find a little more space in our days for quietly reflecting on everything we have to be thankful for. According to Psychology Today, practicing gratitude on a regular basis improves our physical and mental health, makes us more empathic, and increases our self-esteem. 

And the more often you take the time to be thankful, the more you’ll find you have to be thankful for. You may start noticing smaller, more subtle things that you’ve previously taken for granted as you shift towards a more positive mentality. Cultivating a sense of gratitude will open your eyes to the beauty that is already around you.

Having a gratitude practice doesn’t have to take a lot of time or energy. It can be as simple as spending five minutes before you get out of bed in the morning. If you like, you can keep a specific journal for writing lists each day of what and whom you feel grateful for. I like to give thanks before each meal because I feel lucky to have food on my table (not to mention a wonderful partner to share it with).

Another idea? Every time something positive happens in your day, write it on a slip of paper and drop it into a jar. Keep filling this jar with beautiful moments, uplifting experiences, and even inspiring words people have said. On days when you aren’t feeling so great and need a boost, you can open the jar and read these stories of sunny moments to lift your spirits and remind you of how wonderful life can be.

2. Ground yourself through meditation.

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I wrote a previous post about how beneficial meditation can be, and how little time it truly takes to have a regular meditation practice. The changing weather of fall can leave us feeling a little extra stirred-up, so I like to focus on re-grounding at this time of year. I find it helps me stay focused and centered.

There are tons of ways to do a grounding meditation, but one of the best ways involves (literally) sitting on the ground. Go outside on a nice day and sit underneath a favorite tree, perhaps with your back against the trunk. Once you’re comfortable, close your eyes and drop your attention inward. 

Take time first to notice your breath and the way your body feels, and then sense the earth beneath you. Visualize sending roots from your sit bones down into the soil, going deeper and deeper with each breath. Each time you inhale, imagine drawing nourishment from the earth into your body. Stay here for several more minutes, mindfully breathing and deepening your roots as far into the earth as you can imagine.

3. Keep a journal.

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Because fall can provide more space for stillness and reflection, it’s also an excellent time for personal journaling. I’ve been keeping a journal in some form since I was 10 years old, and I can’t imagine giving it up. For so many years now, it’s been my private space for thinking, feeling, reflecting, processing, dreaming, and making meaning of all that has happened in my life. It’s allowed me to explore my mind, heart and soul at a level of depth that I wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise. It’s helped me develop my awareness of who I am and what’s important to me.

There’s no “right” way to keep a journal. Some people use theirs for documenting what happens in their day-to-day lives, and others write more sporadically. I don’t write in my journal anywhere near every day. Usually I only feel moved to journal when something important is happening in my life and I need to sort through my thoughts and feelings about it. But every person is different, and your journal can be whatever it needs to be to support you in your journey. No matter what your personal practice looks like, journaling can be profoundly healing, impactful, and illuminating.

And one of the best parts? If you keep journaling over the years, you’ll start to accumulate collections of old journals that you can read through for years to come. You’ll be able to trace the changes that happen in your life over time and the ways you evolve as a person because of it. If you’re feeling nostalgic, you can take long walks down memory lane and spend hours reminiscing about bygone days. Sometimes, reading through old journals can even provide fresh insights about life or remind you of long-forgotten dreams. These letters from your previous self are a gift unlike any other.

4. Go for a walk in nature.

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Another way to re-center yourself is to take walks outside. Being outdoors boosts your energy, reduces stress, and improves sleep, and if you live in a temperate area, you won’t want to miss the magical fall colors! They usually only last for a few weeks, so make sure to get outside and enjoy them while you can.

Leave your phone at home (or put it in airplane mode) and treat yourself to a mindful stroll through a park, open space, or along a hiking trail, savoring the sights and sounds you encounter along the way. You may want to bring a camera so you can take pictures of anything and everything that inspires you. Go as slowly as you want — you can even turn it into a walking meditation, only taking a single footstep each time you breathe. You’ll be amazed at how much more you notice and take in when you slow down the pace.

5. Take a hot bath.

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Nothing is more luxurious and soothing than a hot bath. The heat calms your mind and relaxes your muscles, and you can add other elements such as bubbles, a book, or a cup of tea for a truly indulgent experience.

Set aside 30 minutes when you won’t be interrupted, then draw a bath with water as hot as you can comfortably handle. Add scented oils, a bundle of herbs, a bath bomb, or whatever accoutrements you’d like to the water. Pour yourself something to drink, light a candle, put on some music, and let yourself soak for up to 15-20 minutes. (Just make sure to drink some water afterwards since the heat can be dehydrating.)

6. Give yourself a massage.

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Doing a little self-massage can be a lovely practice, especially just before bed or immediately after a shower or bath. Massage is famous for its stress-reducing, pain-relieving benefits, but it also increases feelings of connection and well-being. And in the fall, giving yourself (or your partner) a little love can leave you feeling comforted and nourished.

For extra grounding effects, focus on the feet and lower legs. You can use a scented massage lotion or oil, if you have one, or you can just grab an oil you already have at home (such as sunflower, olive, or coconut oil). Apply a small amount of oil or lotion to your hands, then use your thumbs and fingers to massage the soles of the feet, toes, ankles, calves, and muscles of the shins. Cover feet with warm socks when you’re done to help them soak in the moisture.

7. Sip on hot tea.

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Although I’ve become a coffee convert recently, I’ve always been a tea lover at heart. “Real” teas, made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, come in varieties such as white, green, black, oolong, and pu-erh (all coming from different ways of oxidizing and preparing the tea leaves), but if you prefer a caffeine-free variety, there are all kinds of herbal teas that are lovely for sipping on chilly days.

Teas with chamomile or lavender have relaxing effects, while peppermint or ginger brews can help with digestion. Herbal teas such as nettle, raspberry or blackberry leaf are full of nutrients and have a pleasant, earthy taste. Hibiscus or fruit blends have a delicious sweet-tart flavor that will leave you craving more. For a quiet afternoon indoors, try brewing a whole pot of tea and slowly enjoying it cup by cup.

8. Cook with warming spices.

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When fall arrives and the weather starts to cool down, I like to start eating more warming, spicy foods. Southwestern pork green chile is always a favorite of mine, but soups, stews, and spiced meats with roasted vegetables are other fall-time options.The foods don’t have to be spicy, necessarily (although I like a little heat), but spices like chile peppers, garlic, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon will heat you up and may even have some immune-boosting benefits.


What are your thoughts on these ideas? Do you have any favorite ways to take care of yourself in the fall? Please share in the comments below.

Productivity and Life Hacks, Self-improvement

Why Organizing Matters More Than We Think

Curious to know why organization is so important? Read on to hear my thoughts. #productivity #organization
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A few weeks ago I wrote about why I love Bullet Journaling and how much it’s helped me with keeping my life organized. I use my BuJo not just for my daily to-do lists, but also to track habits like exercise, spending time outside, connecting with loved ones and making progress towards goals. I also use it as a notebook, jotting down ideas as they come to me, taking notes on new things that I learn, and making long-term plans and timelines. 

A few months ago, I discovered time blocking, a productivity hack that involves breaking your day into “blocks” of time that are set aside for various tasks and purposes. If you’re someone who has a lot of competing responsibilities and activities (and many of us are), time blocking lets you decide how you’ll spend your day so you can allocate the right amount of time to each item on your agenda. 

I started using my BuJo to visually block out the different parts of my day using my fancy colored pens — every task or item I need to do is coded with a different color. Check it out:

Photo by Amber Carlson

A Bullet Journal is truly the Swiss army knife of planning tools; it’s a blank book that you can structure and fill in any way that suits you. The only limit is your imagination. And for me, it’s worked incredibly well.

But sometimes I wonder if I’m not taking this whole “organization” business a little too far. I’m extremely detailed and thorough in the way I go about staying organized, but surely not everyone sees the need for this. Surely not everyone is that into, you know, planning. I can almost guarantee that not everyone invests the kind of time and energy into it that I do.

Is there a way this could all be made simpler? Yes, perhaps there is. But I suspect that life would need to be simpler in order for that to happen. Sometimes I yearn for that kind of ease and simplicity; the kind of life where I could just take each day as it comes and not worry about planning or structuring my time. Freedom.

Photo by Olga on Pexels.com

As wonderful as that sounds, I’m starting to think that that life doesn’t exist; not in the real world. Our lives are complex and full of moving parts. We have responsibilities that continually multiply, and interests and passions that never stop evolving. There are relationships to attend to, dreams to pursue, fires to put out and worlds to explore. 

Life is an incredible gift that I am deeply grateful to have been given, and yet it can feel like so…much. And that, my friends, is where organization comes in handy: it’s a way of dealing with the “much-ness” of life and transforming the chaos into something meaningful. Here are the three main reasons I’m so passionate about organizing, explained:

Organizing helps life feel less stressful.

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Being organized is about so much more than crossing items off of a to-do list. Of course, lists like these are part of everyday life, because there will always be chores to do, errands to run, and things to fix around the house.

These obligatory tasks aren’t always fun. But taking care of mundane responsibilities matters. When we accomplish these tasks that need to be done, we create more order and peace by taking items off of our plates. We effectively declutter our minds, and we can proactively head off stress by staying on top of these routine tasks that we know we need to do.

And, even better, when we clear unnecessary clutter and stress from our lives, we create space for what really matters to us. When we aren’t bogged down by small to-dos, we free our minds to tackle bigger goals and dreams.

Organizing helps us prioritize what really matters.

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Organizing our lives makes us prioritize. We have to make decisions about what is most important right now and focus on those things instead of trying to do everything all at once. Getting clear on our priorities and understanding what we’re working towards makes us more effective at achieving our goals.

When we get serious about pursuing big life-dreams, we have to realize that dreams don’t come true without a plan — and keeping organized keeps us accountable to those grand plans. Through being organized, we learn how to transform big, faraway dreams into concrete, actionable steps that will carry us in the direction of the lives we desire.

Organizing helps us make the best use of limited time.

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I often feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day to do everything I want and need to do. Sometimes I wish that sleep weren’t medically necessary so I could get back that third of my life and spend those hours in a different way. But that’s not the reality we live in.

The reality is that we have only so much time in a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime. It’s all finite. I’m constantly aware of this — and I’m positive that that is a big part of what keeps me focused and drives me forward. Keeping organized helps me make sure that I’m spending my time in ways that feel purposeful.

Being aware that your time is limited is actually a great catalyst and motivator. When I really started to grasp that life doesn’t last forever, I stopped waiting around to live my longest-held dreams. I started taking more risks, opening my heart wider, and spending my days in ways that are more meaningful. I feel more motivated than ever to get out and live my life while I have it, and staying organized helps me do that.


Becoming organized has truly been a game-changer for me, and it can be for you, too. Organizing is vital for keeping your stress levels down, staying on track with your goals, and making the best possible use of your time here on Earth.

How about you? What are your reasons for staying organized? How has it changed your life? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Travel

Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too: How to Take an RV Work-Cation

Want to travel but can't take time off of work? Here's how you can see new places without using your PTO. #travel #rvlife #roadtripideas
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

If you’re pretty much any working adult in the US, loving to travel and longing for a more adventurous life can leave you feeling torn. You want to get out and see the world, but you have work (and possibly family) responsibilities keeping you at home. And in the time of coronavirus, travel might feel like a distant dream.

But if you travel by RV, you can do it all: you can take “home” with you and hit the road for a while. Social distancing is easy when you have your own private space that lets you stay as isolated as you want. And if you are in the fortunate position of being able to work remotely, your work can be done from anywhere, so you might as well take advantage of that fact, right? You can continue doing your job while simultaneously experiencing the thrill of visiting new places. It’s the best of both worlds.

My partner and I are on a kick of taking these types of work-cations in our truck camper, and we’re starting to get our system down. We’ve got a list of everything we need to do to prepare and pack before we leave. We create our route plan and book a lot of our campsites ahead of time. Plus, my techie boyfriend ensures that our camper is rigged with the latest and greatest devices to help us get decent phone and Internet service even when we’re far away from all civilization. It’s pretty great.

And now that we’ve done a couple of trips like this together, I can tell you from experience that this kind of travel works and is totally doable. Today I’d like to share some pointers on how you, too, can have your own work-cation experience if you so desire.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

Make a plan for your trip.

If you are planning to work while on the road, I highly suggest you plan your route ahead of time. Decide, at a minimum, what cities you’ll visit and how long you’ll stay in each place. Unless you’re up for boondocking (aka dry camping), it’s a good idea to reserve most or all of your campsites ahead of time if you can (some places tend to book up well in advance).

You’ll also want to think about the roads you’ll be traveling on. GPS can help you navigate around accidents, construction and closures, but plan in advance for local road and weather conditions in the places you’ll be visiting. Make sure your vehicle can handle conditions like snow and ice if there’s any chance you’ll be driving through them. You might even like to get an old-school paper map and draw out your route in case, for whatever reason, you lose access to your phone or GPS.

The key is to take as much of the guesswork out of traveling as possible. Of course, it can be really fun to fly by the seat of your pants and spontaneously go from place to place — but if you’re intending to keep working while you’re away, it’s best to keep surprises and potential mishaps to a minimum.

Photo by Malte Luk on Pexels.com

Make sure to get your RV serviced and in good working condition before you leave.

Seriously, it’s worth it. If you’re going away on a long trip, it’s smart to have someone take a look at your RV before you leave and make sure everything’s working as it should, especially if you haven’t driven it in a while. At a bare minimum, according to Camperland, you should check that these essential items are in good shape:

  • Oil levels
  • Battery
  • Engine belts and hoses
  • Oil, air and fuel filters

Even if your RV isn’t having any problems that you know of, there’s a lot to be said for doing preventative care and making sure things are running as they should. Mechanics can spot potential issues before they become a problem so that you can have a smooth and safe trip.

Optimize your RV for productivity.

If you’re going to be away from major cities and you’re at all concerned about having reliable phone and Internet service, there are ways you can enhance your signal quality. Equipment like WiFi hotspots and cellular boosters can help you stay connected even in places that are pretty remote. You’ll want to get these set up and test them to make sure they work properly before you head out on your adventure.

Also, think about where and how you’ll do your work on the road. What equipment will you need? Is there a space within your camper where you’ll be comfortable setting up a mobile “office”? In our camper, we didn’t have a space like this — so my boyfriend built us a simple wooden table with swiveling boat chairs to sit in. It works great and it’s big enough for both of us to share during our workdays.

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Indulge in some sightseeing.

Once you’re on the road, there’ll be so much for you to do and see. No doubt you’ll have all kinds of great stops planned for your trip — so make sure you allow time in each place to take in your surroundings and experience the things that drew you to visit. You may still be working, but don’t forget you’re still allowed to travel and have fun while you’re doing it.

Plus, when you’re on a road trip, half of the fun is the journey of getting from place to place. Whether you’re driving through majestic mountain ranges, wide-open desert plains or wild grasslands, you’ll find all kinds of scenery and hidden gems along your way that will inspire you and lift your spirits.

Be ready to change your plan on a moment’s notice if needed.

The final piece of advice I have is this: remain flexible, and go with the flow. There are always things we can’t predict or control when we travel, and that’s part of what makes it exciting — but it also means that sometimes, things just won’t go the way you plan. You have to be ready to think on your feet and come up with solutions to any problems you might run into.

Case in point: we just planned a 5-week trip around the Northwestern US. We did everything right — we got our truck checked by a mechanic before we left, we updated our phone and Internet gadgetry, and we packed all the stuff we could possibly need. We got all the way from Denver up to Bozeman only for our truck to start showing signs of engine problems. The truck’s still drivable, luckily, and should be for a little while longer, but sadly, it does mean that we have to cut our trip short. We’ll most likely be heading home within the next couple of days.

Disappointing? Sure, absolutely. But this is life when you’re traveling. You can spend weeks planning and preparing for your trip, but once you’re out on the road, anything can happen. It’s still been an adventure, we’ve still gotten to see a new place, and it’s still an experience I’ll look back on fondly. In the end, we can’t ask for more than that from a trip.


How about you? Are you ready to try your own RV work-cation? Or have you done it before? Tell me all about it in the comments below!