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By this Author: rachwells

Walking in Thoreau's Footsteps at Walden Pond in 2017

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View New England - October & November 2017 on rachwells's travel map.

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"We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure..." --Henry David Thoreau

In high school (and even still), I studied and loved 19th century literature. (Yes, it is okay to call me a literary nerd. I wear the badge proudly.) Particularly, I admired the Transcendentalism movement - the poetry, the individualism, the love of nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson... Henry David Thoreau... Walt Whitman... you get the idea.

So when I started planning my first autumn trip to New England, I got very excited when I found out that Concord (which is the hometown of some of my literary heroes) is on a train line and that Walden Pond is walking distance from the center of town. And when I first saw Walden Pond from the train as I rode into town, it looked like something on a postcard - incredibly, awe-inspiringly beautiful. So, what did I do as soon as I dropped off my bags at my hotel?

I walked to Walden Pond from Concord (a two-mile distance each way) because I always prefer walking when I can, within reason. Only one problem -- I discovered that Walden Street loses sidewalk for part of the journey. I considered turning around and investigating rental car or Uber options, which seemed awfully silly and unnecessary. But, I decided to keep going on foot, and I placed myself as far to the side of the road as I could. I felt a little bit weird, as if the car drivers were looking at me funny as I walked along this small highway, hoping not to get hit by a vehicle. Luckily, after part of a mile, I gained a narrow bike path for the rest of the way.

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When I reached Walden Pond, I felt ecstatic. After a few moments of quiet contemplation by the shoreline, I hiked the trail to the site of Thoreau's cabin. Along the path, I admired the warm golden hues of the crisp autumn foliage and the whispering rustle of the leaves crunching on the ground beneath my sneakers with each new step I took. On this partially-cloudy Thursday afternoon in early November, there were not many people at Walden Pond, so the quiet beauty of this magnificent spot shined even more. It was an amazing feeling to visit such a gorgeous site and to think that I was standing in the exact spot that once inspired the famous work of one of my literary idols.

That night, in my hotel room as I read up and refreshed my memory about the life of Thoreau, I realized that there were some important lessons that I could take from this great writer's example. (Some of it I already have been doing on my own as well.) He purposely followed his own path, a little outside the norm. He lived on the outskirts of town and kept a journal to record his nature walks and deliberate contemplations about life. Why did this resonate so much with me?

I have a great life for which I'm very thankful. That said, I also think that life in the year 2017 moves at such a stressful, fast pace for so many people (including myself). It is really hard to slow down and to get perspective when there's so much to do and so many societal expectations. Modern technology and social media do a great job connecting us to friends and family, but it also can get tiring to feel pressured to be constantly available, and logged-on 24/7. It's nice to remember that some aspects of life are timeless - that nature can be a calming force, and that lessons from historical figures can have resonance in today's world.

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The next day, I visited the Concord Museum, which currently has a special exhibit about Thoreau since the year 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. Luckily, I got to hear a talk led by a local art historian, and her perspective was fascinating. She described Thoreau's two-year cabin retreat to Walden Pond as a piece of performance art. I was blown away - because it makes total sense.

When I was in high school, without knowing the exact map location of Concord or Walden Pond, I assumed that Thoreau retreated to a remote place very far away from society, but that's not the case. The town of Concord is situated 19 miles northwest of Boston. And from my own experience on the previous day, I now knew firsthand that it's actually walking distance to go from the city center in Concord down to Walden Pond (even back then). In other words, Thoreau deliberately went to the woods just outside of town so that neighbors could curiously look in on what he was doing and why he was doing it. Thoreau wanted to make a point in his own individual way about the need to slow down, follow one's own path, and appreciate nature. (It's amazing how your understanding of historical figures and events can change when you actually visit the sites where they were.)

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After admiring Thoreau's nature field notes and other writings on display at the museum, I felt inspired and decided to visit the Concord Bookshop where I bought a blank journal. I've kept many personal journals throughout my life, but this new one felt a little bit extra special. That night, I put pen to paper, and the words flowed onto the page naturally, almost faster than my hand could keep up. I reflected upon my explorations over the previous two days, and I realized that it wasn't just visiting Walden Pond that I enjoyed so much. The small town charm of Concord had enchanted me.

With a population of approximately 17,000 people (as of 2010), Concord does not have many traffic lights, so it has a classic New England small town feel, while also having enough proximity to Boston for a daily commute. Yet, in Concord, you feel like you are out in the country and you can't help but slow down to marvel because the place is just too pretty to be in a rush. I loved looking at the white church steeples, the cute small shops, the world-famous New England autumn leaves, and the grand houses that have such great character.

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Some of my other favorite experiences exploring the town -- I walked northbound on Monument Street and visited the Old Manse (which is the house where Ralph Waldo Emerson penned his famous piece "Nature" and where Nathaniel Hawthorne drew inspiration to write Mosses from an Old Manse) and the Old North Bridge (the famous location of an American Revolution battle). These two sites are right next to each other, and the nearby open fields are such a peaceful, amazing spot for a casual stroll. Earlier in the day, I also thoroughly enjoyed going to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where several notable literary figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau are buried at Authors Ridge. (See, literary history really is all around town in Concord.)

I can't say enough how much I enjoyed my visit to Concord and Walden Pond. Because I visited in early November, I know it is considered off-season, and I heard from some locals that at least one tourist attraction in town was closed while I was there. But, with fewer visitors around, I felt like I could really savor the quiet beauty of the town in peace. After this visit, I definitely have a much better understanding why this special place inspired so many writers. I have a feeling I definitely will come back again in the future. Until then, it is time for me to sign-off for now from this online blog journal so that I can update my paper journal...and then pick up where I left off reading a certain famous literary work written by Henry David Thoreau about a famous body of water, located just outside of town.

Posted by rachwells 06:55 Archived in USA Comments (1)

My Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts

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This year, I spent Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts, and it was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had. It's like one big neighborhood block party - part carnival, lots of costumes, a little spooky, live music, fireworks, and more. Here are a few of my favorite memories from my time in Salem:

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The Salem Witch Museum
A great activity to do when you first arrive in town, at the Salem Witch Museum you are led as a group of visitors into a large room where a 1692-themed diorama narrates the events of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Although some of the historical facts, which I had learned a long time ago in school, came flooding back to my memory, I also learned important, interesting details that I never knew.

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Guided Walking Tours of Salem
I took two (very different) guided walking tours of Salem. On my first night (October 30th), I learned about the haunted, paranormal occurrences in the town with Spellbound Tours; they told some great stories, and it gave me chills, in a good way. As for the second tour that I took (on October 31st), since I was visiting the place known as "Witch City"... I wanted to hear more about what is considered fact versus fiction; and as a curious observer with an open mind, I learned a lot during the Salem Witch Walk.

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The Witch House
This home (known as 'The Witch House') is the only one in Salem with direct ties to the Witch Trials of 1692. It's owner Judge Jonathan Corwin was a local magistrate who investigated the infamous accusations. Structurally, the house itself is a neat historical landmark and the interior furnishings help you get a sense of what it was like to live like a wealthy 17th century family. You can walk around self-guided at your own pace, and there are knowledgable, friendly staff who are happy to answer questions.

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There's so many more stories I could tell about my trip to Salem, but I will finish this blog post, instead, with a few recommendations for if you decide to take a trip to Salem for your own Halloween adventure:

1) Expect big crowds and difficulty finding parking, especially on weekends and on Halloween in October.

2) If you take the train: There are no ticket vending machines at the Salem station. Instead, you can purchase a ticket onboard the train (cash only), or online if you're using the train to go back to Boston.

3) I highly recommend staying overnight in Salem. I lodged at the Hawthorne Hotel, which is right off of Essex Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, and it was such a central, convenient and nice place to stay.

4) Some tours and activities sell out, so make plans and reservations a few weeks in advance. Use hauntedhappenings.org, which has an easy-to-use, well-organized event calendar and additional information regarding restaurants, hotels and other helpful guidelines about visiting during Salem's busiest time of the year.

Posted by rachwells 19:24 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Divine Times in Santa Barbara & Los Angeles

No matter where I go and how often I travel to different places across the country (on average 4 - 5 times a year), something always periodically pulls me back (on average every 1 - 2 years) to Southern California, specifically Los Angeles - a place I used to live, yet always feels like home every time I come back to visit.

This time, a combination of random signs from the universe pulled at my heart strings - at the beginning of the year, I saw the movie La La Land; a few months later, one of my favorite bands Cold War Kids came out with a new album paying homage to...well, you get the idea. I also noticed that the band had an upcoming concert in Santa Barbara. Fast forward to August 2017...

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After landing at LAX and taking a shuttle bus to Union Station, I boarded Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner train headed northbound towards the picturesque shoreline city known as the American Riviera. The last 30 miles of the journey, it's a postcard-perfect view of the beach and the ocean.

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After arriving in Santa Barbara and checking in to the Bath Street Inn (where they had a 5:30 pm wine & cheese reception with homemade baked goods, by the way), I explored the shopping along the main thoroughfare State Street and watched the sunset at the pier.

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The next day, I didn't have any set plans for the morning & afternoon - I just set out on foot and ended up having a great time at some of the city's historic landmarks, including the courthouse (which has a beautiful Spanish style architecture), the Old Mission, and the El Presidio. That evening, I had a great time at the concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater perched in the foothills of the city.

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"City of Stars..."
The next day, I took the train back to L.A., and after checking in to my hotel in Pasadena, I continued the Metro / shuttle bus hopping to the Griffith Observatory. I had been to the observatory once a few years ago during the daytime, but this time, I purposely came in the early evening to watch the sunset and to attend their open-to-the-public 'Star Party' where the staff bring out telescopes to look up at the night sky. I already love astronomy, so getting to look at Jupiter through the lens was cool enough...but exploring the grounds of the observatory as the sun disappeared into the twilight? Divine. There's an amazing view of the James Dean statue against the backdrop of the Hollywood Sign, but the even more truly awe-inspiring site is the night-time panoramic view of the twinkling city lights of downtown L.A. It's a view I will never forget.

Posted by rachwells 19:11 Comments (1)

In Plain Sight: Hidden Treasures of Chicago

Before this summer, I had never visited much of the Midwest, except for a couple of brief layovers. So why did I decide to visit Chicago in July 2017? Earlier this year, I came to a realization: I had visited the West Coast (Pacific Ocean) numerous times, been to the Gulf Coast a few times, just recently visited the beach in Florida (the Atlantic Ocean side) for the first time...but I had never been to one of the Great Lakes! The Windy City seemed like an obvious choice - plus, friends and acquaintances of mine have raved about how much they love the city. And guess what? They were right. I literally had no idea what to expect before I arrived, but I literally ended up having so much fun in Chicago.

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Chicago Temple
It was a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early July, and I arrived at the ornate skyscraper building - dressed in my nice skirt and heels - not to go to a religious service at the Chicago Temple, but to take the elevator to the lower level...where I attended a non-affiliated live theatre performance of one of my all-time favorite stories, Great Expectations, adapted from Dickens' classic tale to a setting in 19th century India. Not only did I love the show, I also enjoyed the unexpected location of the performance space - a fully functioning horseshoe-shaped theatre - inside of this landmark place of worship in the Windy City. It was a perfect introductory experience for my trip to Chicago.

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The Starting Point of 'the Mother Road'
On a busy, congested street corner of downtown Chicago, it is a landmark sign that can be easy to miss unless you're purposely looking for it: the beginning of the famous Route 66. I know it sounds like a small thing, but it's not -- if you've ever driven the whole (or in my case, partial) stretch of this famous path, which in its total goes from Illinois to California, then you know how important and satisfying it feels to see the landmark sign (especially after making the long journey). I've seen it's West Coast counterpart several times over the years. This time, it felt nice to see the one on the other side. Some day, I would love to take a road trip from point A to B - the entire path of Route 66 - in order to get the full experience.

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Chicago Tribune building
Want to see 'a piece of' almost every iconic location from around the world? It's probably fixated on the outside of the office building for the Chicago Tribune. The Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, House of Parliament in London, and so many more. It's worth at least a 20-minute break from shopping along Michigan Avenue to catch your breath and look up at some truly amazing sites.

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Safehouse
A spy-themed restaurant, Safehouse commits to the act, with a sense of humor and very creative nuances to the aesthetics. After myself and a few other customers entered the red door, we were greeted in a 1960s-style office/foyer by an 'agent' who asked us to prove that we were arriving as 'friendly' spies...by doing the chicken dance in a circle around the room. (I never thought I would flap my arms and cluck in a high-pitched annoying tone amongst strangers in order to enter a restaurant...but I didn't care, so why not.) The best part of the entire experience? While you're sitting down eating your food and enjoying the ambiance, you can also watch on TVs a live feed of newly arriving customers going through the same silly initiation you got upon entering the front door.

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Oz Park
Somewhere...in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, a beautiful city park contains statues of Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man on street corner perimeters of the area. (The Dorothy statue even includes the iconic ruby slippers!)

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Architecture Cruise
Sounds pedantic and pricy right? Actually, it's arguably the city's best tourist activity. Before you take this tour, yes, one of the first things you notice is that Chicago has a huge, dense number of skyscraper buildings. But from the comfortable setting of the upper level deck of these large boats, you get to relax and hear a knowledgeable guide talk about the various styles, the time periods of construction, and how integrally architecture weaves into the history and personality of Chicago as a city.

Additional 'Must-See' Attractions & Locales
Please go visit the new American Writers Museum, which opened in May 2017; I thoroughly enjoyed my entire visit, but in particular, I geeked when I saw the temporary display of the original scroll of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Also, I wish I spent more time in Wicker Park - a fun neighborhood which had great bookstores and other neat shops. In addition, Chicago is a particularly great setting for a bike ride - there are rental bike stations at great locations in the city, and I enjoyed taking a stroll from the Oak Street Beach up the shoreline towards Lincoln Park. And finally, live theatre, museums, the beautiful Millennium Park -- I can think of these and so many more reasons why Chicago is also just a great place to hang out and enjoy life.

Posted by rachwells 11:39 Comments (1)

Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and Phoenix

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A couple weeks ago, I spent a few days bouncing around 225 miles of Arizona, visiting three distinct areas: Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and Phoenix. I must admit, though these locales have been on my (long) travel wish list for quite some time, I'm not sure when I actually would have visited each of them if not for the fact that I have family who now lives in the state. I'm glad I have an excuse to keep coming back, and each time, I see more than I expect to find...and more places in the state to put on my (getting even longer) travel wish list. For now, here is an overview of my most recent time in Arizona:

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Shake It Out: Jeep Off-Roading in Sedona
Yep, I went off the deep end! Well, sort of. It's actually an optical illusion - a clever, perfectly safe photo-op on a sloping surface. The rest of the off-roading tour was no joke. Bump, shake, up, down, left, right...a full-on thrill ride. It was the funnest activity I've done in a long time. I was holding on for dear life, and smiling ear-to-ear having the time of my life. I came to Sedona looking for peace, and ironically, I found myself literally shaking off my worries and stress while bouncing around boulders in a moving vehicle.

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A Grand Canyon Express Tour
In the past four years, I passed through Flagstaff three times on separate long distance road trips and one other quickie weekend trip further south in the state. This time, I finally made it to the Grand Canyon! I took a guided Express tour from Sedona, which meant it took two hours each way and you get maybe a total of three hours at the Canyon in two different spots. But here's the thing: For me, it was a great way to do my first visit to this national (and internationally-renowned) landmark. I saw just enough to have the experience, including hiking a little bit along the Bright Angel trail, and getting ideas for what I would want to do if/when I come back someday for a longer visit.

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Desert Oasis in Phoenix
The morning I left Sedona, I shivered in my sweatshirt while waiting outside for my shuttle. Two hours later when I reached the Sky Harbor International Airport, I literally went into the bathroom and changed into shorts and a t-shirt...because it was around 100 degrees in Phoenix. Yes, it is very hot outside, and but during this trip, I got to see and experience some of the city's real gems. Some of my Phoenix favorite experiences included lunch at Taco Guild, photographing saguaros & cacti at the famous Desert Botanical Garden, and walking around the historic Coronado neighborhood. Also, one day while driving around the Phoenix outskirts for the fun of it, my sister and I happened upon Goldfield, a ghost town tourist attraction at the foothills of the Superstition Mountains.

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Where to next in the Wild West?
I'm sure I will come back to some of these areas again in the future. But while I was in Arizona this most recent time, a couple travel guides (separately) recommended additional destinations in the state, and thus, I have started to research and daydream about: Jerome (a ghost town nicknamed "the Wickedest Town in the West") and Antelope Canyon (an area near the Arizona/Utah state line which is supposed to be breathtakingly gorgeous).

Posted by rachwells 19:39 Comments (1)

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