Sunday, January 23, 2011

Scrooge Takes a Trip

Recently an enquiring reader and prospective tramp asked me how someone such as myself, with a scanty income at best, can make big trips that involve anything other than a dismal routine of hitchhiking, orphanages, and dry crusts of bread. I have always prided myself on being a cheapskate, but this question made me realize that the art of scrimping may not be so natural to some as it is to me, and I could potentially share some secret advice with you to make your trip planning easier, and travel more accessible.

When it comes to budget travel, it is as much about things you do in preparation for your trip as things you do while traveling that will allow you to travel farther distances, for longer periods of time, and with greater comfort and flexibility, without needing to become a penny-pinching miser in the process. For me, it is important not to waste money or spend excessively when you do not have a steady income, but also not to let yourself become so obsessed with budgetary considerations that you stop having fun. If you refuse to see museums or historic sites because of admission prices, or eat only gruel for every meal, you will hardly notice you are in a different city anyway, so you may as well just stay home and sulk there.

With that said, there are sooooo many little tricks for squeezing every last drop of awesomeness out of your funds, however limited they may be. The possibilities are endless, but here are a few things that I generally do beforehand, with trekking on the brain.

At home...

Trim your expenses. Everyone has heard the typical tips like:

Eat out less.


Cut down on what some people would call "retail therapy."

But I take it to the next level. First and foremost, take advantage of free things as much as possible. Working at a youth hostel, people leave travel food* behind all the time, and I always snag it and put it to good use. Thus, I end up spending a maximum of about 50 dollars per month on groceries, most of which is at the farmer's market, which is cheaper, healthier, and more fun than the grocery store anyway. Carpooling is a great idea as gas prices creep up** but I dare you to get rid of the car entirely if possible and save that monthly insurance bill. I know this is not very feasible in some of our suburban environs unfortunately, but I only go by train, bus, feet and bike, and that cuts out a lot of costs in my daily life.

This next idea may sound a bit too obvious, but I will offer it anyway; I have virtually cut out shopping as idle entertainment. I have about four outfits, and if I tire of them I dig in my parents' attic and find some old thing from high school to rotate into my wardrobe. I buy new socks when mine get holes. If I do buy apparel or household items, I get them used or from discount stores with awesome close out bargains. I generally borrow books, movies, and music from the library instead of buying them. It is free, opens me to a huge realm of genres, and keeps me from cluttering my space and hoarding too many things***. And when you hang around the public library I promise you will meet people even more intriguing than on the train.

Furthermore, I know this is not possible for people with houses and families and the like, but every time I leave to travel for a period of more than three months or so, I get rid of everything but a few essentials and give up my apartment. This way, I am never paying rent in a place that I am not occupying. If you would rather not take up a homeless status, you could always consider subletting your dwelling for the duration.

Perhaps this was a bit more about every aspect of my daily life than you bargained for- you are welcome!

Next time, more questionable ways live a life of frontier zen asceticism, but while your trip is in progress. Think


*Oatmeal, peanut butter, apples, rice, beans, trail mix etc. As a rule, I generally eat like I am on the Oregon Trail.

**And, as we are train fans, we have no business driving cars around anyway!

***The fewer things you own, the fewer things hold you down and keep you from getting out and adventuring.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Year! New You!

It is very cold. I have been collecting research about railroad history and contemporary function since October, and have followed the rails from the Pacific Northwest to the Southernmost Point. But my studies are nowhere near complete! There are still loads more routes I need to ride, weird museums to visit, and insane people to meet. However, in order to replenish one's wanderlust and endurance one really must allow oneself a brief respite from the grueling demands of the nomadic lifestyle every once in awhile, in order to keep fighting the good fight. I intend to do precisely that for the rest of the winter, until daylight extends past the tragically early hour of 4pm and temperatures rise above "no coat could protect me from this torment" degrees Fahrenheit.

During this time I will be relocating my base of operations to Washington, D.C. on a semi-permanent basis.

I decided on this change in coastal alignment for a few reasons, namely to increase my potential for productive personal development and general seriousness, as the inhabitants of our nation's Capitol are known for their drive and ambition, and the city is rife with mid priced chain eateries and Irish pubs that will in no way distract me from my work.

Pastimes and activities for the upcoming months are as follows:

Compile notes and ramblings from past months and prepare for future tramping,

Be a crappy intern at pseudo-governmental organization,

Learn to Lindy hop,

Start dabbling in grad school, 

Develop hair brained scheme for the procurement of small green pieces of paper to pay for all of the above.

This is a tall order, but I am optimistic. I will also keep writing periodically in this locale, addressing more travel and history topics, as well as taking some local trips and riding the DC Metro to keep my rail transit instincts honed. So please, no one panic that I will go AWOL and leave you with no other recourse than to read the writing of legitimate, trained journalists*.

I have two last pieces of important information before I sign off for this post. The first is that I partook in a Myers Briggs personality indicator test and found that I have the exact same personality profile as my hero, Mark Twain**. The second is that the story of my crossing the US with my father was published on indie travel site, Boots 'N All! Though for some reason they used other people's pictures and not my glorious photographic masterpieces.

(How could you not want to share this with the world?)

Next post, by fan request: Ways to save money to travel, and spread that money as far as it will go once you are on the road.


*The horror!
**I am currently reading his fifth and last travelogue, Following the Equator, in which he compares the railways of various countries the world over and says the following of New Zealand's railroad: "Where there is comfort, and no need for hurry, speed is of no value- at least to me; and nothing that goes on wheels can be more comfortable, more satisfactory, than the New Zealand trains... When you add the constant presence of charming scenery, and the nearly constant absence of dust- well, if one is not satisfied then, he ought to get out and walk." We are obviously soul mates.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"White River Junction: It's Not That Bad!"

So read the very modest town motto displayed on the municipal website. But what an understatement it was. In fact:

I am proud to announce that I am awarding the 2010, "Underrated Railroad Town of the Year" Award to White River Junction, population 2,059. Congratulations, Vermont, for this enviable achievement.

We took a bus* to the outskirts of the city, which is actually made up of five distinct hamlets that have all banded together for support and more interesting parties, and were immediately scooped up by their free municipal transit system, which dropped us off on Main Street, around the corner from the glorious monument to the railroad era that is the Hotel Coolidge. The huge brick structure was built in 1849, about ten steps from the railroad depot, and originally served as a railroad hotel. Now, it retains the stateliness of the bygone era, but with a multipurpose use and a healthy dose of loneliness and dreamy nostalgia**. The Coolidge is part hotel, part Hostelling International affiliated hostel, and part student housing for the nearby Center for Comic Studies***.

(Be Still My Beating Heart)

I really do not think that I can express passionately enough my love for this place, you really need to go there and experience it. The staff was extremely helpful and sweet, the kitchen and bathroom facilities were spotless and well-stocked****, the room was toasty, the beds soft, and the lights were controlled with dangling chains that you pull to turn them on and off, which were so much fun! There are beautiful portraits of trains on the walls, and the creaky wooden floors and long hallways give the whole place an ancient, mysterious feel that inspires one to go hunting for friendly but misunderstood ghosts of train conductors and loggers and barmaids.

We set out to exploring right away, with our first stop being Revolution, a boutique-cum-espresso bar that sells beautiful vintage things as well as the work of local designers. Continuing our snowy wandering, we came to a bright workshop full of the most beautiful fabrics and crafts and butterflies and fantastic creatures, and we were drawn toward it like moths to the flame. Inside we met an amazing matriarchal family led by Rubina, a super-feminist genius artist, who has been working for over a decade designing custom wedding dresses and constructing costumes for operas and ballets from Montreal to London. She told us her wedding dress philosophy, explaining why she refuses to design gowns that are white or strapless in a valiant attempt to work against the established wedding dress industry.

The family invited us to have dinner with them after we sifted through their labyrinth of period costumes, and then they made a call to the proprietor of the Main Street Museum, and he agreed to open his trove of curiosities to us for a private, late-night viewing. This is why it pays to get to know the locals. In the cavernous, dimly-lit space were exhibits of tiny shoes, embalmed cats, old dolls, and a horrifying, pig-like swamp creature in a glass case. There were also tributes to train hobos, examples of essentially every animal that one can stuff and mount on a wall, and a research area where visitors can select books from the proprietor's vast library***** and read and take notes on them at their leisure. The Main Street Museum is certainly, as they say, a "Must-See."

(Note the helpful equation at the top left)

Before racing to the southbound Vermonter the next morning we also had a chance to buy organic, grade B Vermont maple syrup at the tiny, adorable food co-op, and have gingerbread lattes at the trendy new cafe in town, the Tuckerbox Café.

(The co-op offers free fruit to kids, which is a great idea, but caused me to have an epic moral debacle regarding my questionable status as a child)

Before I can finish this post though, I just want to reiterate the glories of this place, rated one of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America by Budget Travel, a legitimate travel publication.


*Yes, I know I swore I would not take any more buses this year, but the 1.5 hour drive through snowy forests with my dear friend was really quite cozy, as the three other passengers were all sleepy skiers and not strung out axe murderers as per usual.

**Which are to me like food and water to most other humans.

***The college is obviously an important, thriving part of the community, and comics and zines are proudly displayed in all of the local businesses in town.

****Towels, washcloths, shampoo, fabric detergent, or anyone? How about free hummus in the fridge and and blender and French press at your disposal? Don't mind if I do!

*****When I asked him how he had developed his impressive collection, he said that every book on public display had at one time been attributed with changing the life of either himself or someone he knew. Obviously this man is a genius.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Winter Solstice

Certain cities seem to have a kindred feel about them, something that connects them despite potentially vast differences in size, population, geography, and history. Maybe it is the same thing that connects individuals and creates that rare, amazing chemistry between strangers when they first meet. Or maybe it is just a scientific equation, like:

Universities + Water + Mountains and Forests + Local cultural pride + Temperamental weather - Suburban sprawl - Chain restaurants/stores =
An Awesome City Such As San Francisco or Burlington

Either way, Burlington proved to be a very comfortable place for us, wandering amongst little shops along the snowy pedestrian thoroughfare, Church Street, sipping homemade soups in cozy organic restaurants like August First, and couch surfing* with a charming photographer couple, who invited us to a fabulous winter solstice party in their beautiful gallery. In preparation for said celebration, I got to fulfill my dream of baking spicy ginger snaps, which I shaped into beautiful mermaids, unicorns, pac-men, and a camera with a flash. Everyone was duly impressed with my artistry.

A highlight of Burlington was The Bobbin Sew Bar and Craft Lounge, a DIY space for people to experiment with their own sewing projects as well as the workshop and showroom of the founder, who naturally hails from San Francisco. Another was Anjou and the Little Pear, a beautiful and moderately priced emporium of antique home furnishings so enticing I nearly decided to move there just so I could fill my hypothetical home with their wares. A lowlight was Junktique, a vintage store that had an awesome name, yet was filled with the most useless and non-functioning bits of trash I have ever seen for sale for US dollars, and was staffed by surly, bushy young men who probably used to set squirrels on fire for fun as children.**

Unfortunately, the three historic scenic train routes in Vermont, one of which runs along the beautiful shores of Lake Champlain, only are in service during the milder months of the year, so if you have an interest in trains*** you may want to plan your visit accordingly in order to experience them. The seasonal activity we partook in, on the other hand, was hunting for icicles and eating falling snow, as well as spotting the most epic holiday sweaters in the western world.

(If I ever have any success as a writer and can afford to hire an assistant, I promise they will take pictures for me so I won't have to torture us all with photos like these.)

Our next stop would be the little-known town of White River Junction, which would once again prove my theory that the smallest and least typically touristed towns prove themselves to be hidden gems time and time again.


*We stayed the first night at The Burlington Hostel, which was very clean, well appointed, and centrally located, but something about the uninspired decor was offensive to me- it was like the owners had read one chapter of a 1996 Lonely Planet Thailand guide and determined that all backpackers wanted to surround themselves with was poorly replicated versions of folk art from around the world, and had gone to a clearance bin at Walmart in order to procure sloppily painted decorative pots and tie dyed sarongs to hang on the walls, then celebrated the accomplishment with a 12 pack of Budweiser. Awful.
**You know the type I mean. Big creeps, they are.
***Which you probably do if you are reading this, or else you are just very, very bored.