Gawker’s Worst 50 States

I’ve been following Gawker’s newest series, The Worst 50 States. I’ve been enjoying following this series. In an effort to pin down not only the best states in the US of A, but, more importantly, the worst states, Gawker compiled a Gawker-invented rating system in order to rank our fair fifty. Granted, this rating system consists solely of the viewpoints of those on staff for Gawker, so the viewpoints are just about as biased as you would deem Gawker (Which might be not at all according to you!), but there’s some interesting stuff in there. Yes, they’re focusing on the bad more than the good, those damn pessimists, but all in all, fact or fiction, the commentary on the 50 states is makes me laugh. And, I’ll just throw this in there, I’ve been to 48 of the 50 states and much of every summary they make rings true to me. They’re not done wrapping up the states yet, but check out their analysis of most of the states here.

If you’re inflamed, saddened, or curling over with laughter after reading what’s so bad about your home state, come back here and tell us in the comments how Gawker made you feel.

Study Ranks States By Individual Freedom

Summer travel: best U.S. cities for localized food lovers

best cities food loversWhat’s that you say? Summer’s half over? Those of us living here in the Pacific Northwest had no idea, given the lack of sun in these parts. But even if you’re getting slapped by the mother of all heat waves, it’s still early in the season for the best produce summer has to offer. As for where to get great food featuring locally-sourced ingredients? Allow me.

Some cities are inextricably linked with food; they’re destinations unto themselves if you’re the type who plans trips around meals. I do. Museums are great and all, but personally, I’d rather eat.

As a longtime proponent of sustainable agriculture, I want to support local growers as well as get a sense of place when I take a trip (that the food be good is still number one). That’s why a city like Santa Fe is so intriguing to me. The cuisine is rooted in the state’s history, indigenous peoples, and native foods, and there’s a fantastic farmers market. The fact that Santa Fe is beautiful in its own right seals the deal.

If you also let your appetite guide your vacation-planning, I’ve listed my favorite U.S. cities in which to stuff my face, based upon repeat visits or previous/present residency. It’s like choosing a favorite child, but someone had to do it.

Seattle
I currently reside in Seattle, and work at a cheese shop in the 14-month-old Melrose Market in Capitol Hill. So perhaps I’m a bit biased when I say that Melrose rocks. But really, I don’t think I am. It’s the best thing to happen to Seattle since Pike Place opened in 1907 and became the model for public markets nationwide. But Melrose isn’t a tourist trap, and you won’t find anyone hawking crappy t-shirts. It’s housed in two adjacent, restored historic automotive shops built entirely of reclaimed materials; there’s a soaring cathedral ceiling, and lots of exposed brick.

[Photo credit: Flickr user La Grande Farmers' Market]

The Benefits of Buying Eco-Friendly Local Foodbest cities food loversAlthough home to just four dedicated retail spaces and a wine bar, sandwich shop, and restaurant, Melrose has garnered lots of national media attention. The Calf & Kid (aka My Day Job) is a European-style fromagerie, while Marigold & Mint is a lovely little nook full of antique apothecary jars and cut flowers and produce from the owner’s organic farm. At Rainshadow Meats, without question one of the finest local/sustainable butcher shops in the nation, there are hard-to-find cuts like pork cheeks, and excellent housemade charcuterie.

There’s also Bar Ferd’nand, a miniscule wine and tapas bar, Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop, and the jewel in the crown, Sitka & Spruce. Chef/owner Matt Dillon’s farmhouse mod space features an open hearth, room-length communal farm table, and rustic but refined, hyper-localized cuisine–this time of year look for foraged mushrooms, local goat cheeses, halibut, and Juan de Fuca spot prawns. Do.not.miss. Next door, Taylor Shellfish Farms–one of Washington State’s most beloved growers of oysters and Manila and geoduck clams–just opened a retail shop where you can scoop live shellfish from tanks, or puchase live Dungeness crab or housemade geoduck chowder.

Should you make it over to the Scandinavian-flavored Ballard neighborhood, be sure to dine at La Carta de Oaxaca (get there early or be prepared for a very long wait). Seattle can’t do Mexican food to save its life (I speak as a native Californian), with the exception of this Oaxacan treasure, where everything is made the slow, traditional way. Best of all, two of you can fill up–including beers–for under 30 dollars. For a more upscale treat, hit Bastille, a truly beautiful bistro featuring produce and honey from its rooftop garden.
best cities food lovers
Portland, Oregon
Portland has a vastly different vibe from easy-going Seattle. And while the attitude may be a bit much at times (do not raise the ire of a barista), it’s also got a phenomenal food and mixology scene (and yes, better coffee than Seattle). There’s no one neighborhood with all the great eats; they’re scatted throughout the city: Southeast, Pearl District, Alberta Arts District

Carnivores won’t want to miss Beast or Olympic Provisions (which also makes its own charcuterie for retail). There’s Cheese Bar, which specializes in beer parings, six glorious farmers markets, distilleries, artisan ice cream, and new favorites Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty (wood-fired pizza in the former–and much-missed–Lovely Hula Hands space) and Little Bird Bistro, the sister restaurant from former Food & Wine Best New Chef Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon.

If street food is your thing, Portland is swarming with food trucks, carts, and stands: Mississippi Avenue and downtown are both hot spots; check out Food Carts Portland for the inside scoop. If you feel the need to work off some calories in between food cart visits, (this is one of the best cities for outdoorsy types, after all), sign up for the Grub on the Go bike tour with Portland Urban Adventures.

Santa Barbara
I grew up near Santa Barbara, and have lived there a couple of times. It’s truly one of the most picturesque cities in the world, and over the course of 30-plus years, I’ve watched it evolve from sleepy small town to L.A. North. Spendy boutiques aside, Santa Barbara really didn’t start turning into a sophisticated dining destination until about five years ago.

The original hidden gems focused on locality–Bouchon, and the venerable Wine Cask (which recently changed hands and is now co-owned by the very genial owner of Bouchon) are still going strong. The executive chefs at both restaurants now lead farmers market tours, which I highly recommend. Both the Saturday and Tuesday farmers markets are major community events, and the sheer breadth of offerings–dozens of varieties of citrus, tropical fruit, olive and walnut oil, goat meat–is dazzling. Seafood lovers won’t want to miss the Saturday Fisherman’s Market, held at the Harbor.

The Hungry Cat
is my favorite restaurant in town (it also has a raw bar), followed by the superbly fresh Arigato sushi. Milk & Honey makes fantastic cocktails (and the small bites aren’t bad, either), as does Blue Agave. My true addictions, however, are Lilly’s Taqueria–a downtown hole-in-the-wall where for under five dollars, you can stuff yourself senseless on the best street tacos this side of the border. I also never fail to get an adovado or carnitas burrito at Taqueria Rincon Alteño. The same guys have been running the place for at least ten years, and it always feels like coming home.
best cities food lovers
Oakland, California
Nearly a decade of living in Berkeley, on the Oakland border, has enabled me to see this much-maligned city grow up, both aesthetically and culinarily (it’s always had a great Chinatown and taco trucks). In the gentrified Temescal neighborhood, you can literally hit a different restaurant every night of the week on the block between 51st St. and 49th St. on Telegraph Avenue. There’s Asmara for Ethiopian, Chez Panisse alum eateries Bakesale Betty and Pizzaiolo; Doña Tomas, and the new outpost of San Francisco’s wildly popular Burma Superstar (delicious). On 44th, late night chef’s haunt Koryo has great, cheap Korean bbq. Just around the corner: the wonderful Sunday Temescal Farmers Market.

Nearby, on 51st and Shattuck is the new Scared Wheel Cheese Shop, while down on Grand Avenue, by Lake Merritt, is Boot and Shoe Service (sister to Pizzaiolo), Camino (chef/owner is longtime former Chez Panisse chef Russ Moore). Don’t miss Market Hall Foods in nearby trendy Rockridge.

Brooklyn
I admittedly don’t know Brooklyn well; I couldn’t tell you how to get from Point A to Point B. But I know that some of the best food in New York lies within this dynamic borough. In Williamsburg, keep an eye out for Leeuwen Ice Cream’s roving, butter-colored truck–after you enjoy the heavenly pizza at Fornino. I also love the Brook Farm Genbest cities food loverseral Store, which has all manner of lovely vintage and vintage-inspired items for the kitchen and dining room. Bedford Cheese Shop and Stinky Bklyn (in Cobble Hill) are two of the country’s finest cheese shops, full of esoteric domestic and imported selections.

Over in Bushwick at Roberta’s, chef Carlo Mirachi, a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef winner, fires up pizza and other treats in his wood-burning oven, and utilizes produce from his rooftop garden. If you’re still hungry, other tasty stops: Fatty Cue or Fette Sau (both in Williamsburg) for barbecue, Saltie for crazy-good sandwiches, (Williamsburg), and the oddest ice cream flavors ever at Sky Ice (Park Slope). Be sure not to miss the various weekend Brooklyn Flea markets, where you’ll find all manner of good-to-eat treats, artisan beverages from Brooklyn Soda, and retro kitchen equipment. Note: every Saturday is the Flea’s new dedicated food market, Smorgasburg, in Williamsburg.

My other top picks for great food, made with local ingredients:
Chicago
Denver/Boulder
Santa Fe
Portland, ME
Drop me a line and I’ll be happy to give you some tips on where to get your feed on!

[Photo credits: Portland, Flickr user qousqous; courthouse, Flickr user Silverslr; Vietnamese food, Laurel Miller; pizza, Flickr user h-bomb]

5 great ways to explore national parks under your own power

Traveling through the national parks under your own power is its own rewardThere is no doubt that America’s national parks are popular tourist destinations. The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of visitors to the parks, and many of them have been setting attendance records as a result.

With the summer fast approaching, many of us are no doubt making plans for our vacations, with many electing to visit a national park once again this year. The vast majority of those visitors will never wander far from their car, but to get a true sense of what the parks have to offer, you really should ditch the vehicle and strike out under your own power. In doing so, you’ll get a much better sense of the landscapes around you, and have a better chance of connecting with nature too. Here are five ways that you can do just that.

Hike the Great Smoky Mountains
With more than 800 miles of trail in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there is a route for just about everyone. From short excursions and day hikes, to multi-day epics for the backpacker crowd, this is a park that is sure to please any outdoor enthusiast. With lush green forests, crystal clear streams, and breathtaking mountain tops, the Smoky Mountains have it all. But you can’t experience the best they have to offer from you car, so put on your hiking shoes and hit the trail. I recommend the 8-mile round-trip hike to Charlies Bunion, a popular mountain walk that is more than worth the effort.

Raft The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is truly one of the great natural wonders of the world. It is so vast in size and scope that you simply have to see it to truly understand just how large it really is. That size is magnified even further while you’re rafting the mighty Colorado River, with the mile-high walls of the Canyon looming far overhead. Visitors have a number of options when it comes to paddling the river, ranging from short half and full day excursions to multi-day options lasting as much as 25 days in length. The whitewater in the Grand Canyon will have your heart pounding in your chest, and once you’ve calmed down from the adrenaline rush, you can enjoy a gentle drift down the Colorado, with those amazing landscapes completely surrounding you.
Go Climbing In Yosemite
In addition to being one of the most beautiful places you will ever see, Yosemite also happens to be one of the great rock climbing destinations on the planet. Each year, climbers from all over the world descend on the park to test their skills on its legendary rock walls, some of which are so famous that they are well known by their unique names. There are routes available for all skill levels, including beginners, but obviously this is not an activity for everyone. For those not wanting to climb rock walls, I’d recommend the Half-Dome Summit Trail, which offers access to the top of one of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks along a route that includes cables to help you make your way. (Permit required!)

Kayak The North Woods in Voyageurs
Voyageurs National Park, located in the extreme northern border of Minnesota and Canada, is one of the best hidden gems in the entire National Park System. It is remote, pristine, and quiet, with some of the thickest forests you’ll find in the U.S. The best way to explore this park, no, the only way to explore this park, is from the seat of a kayak. Visitors can paddle through a series of interconnected waterways that wander past wilderness islands and shorelines with plenty of wildlife to view along the way. If you have more than a day, you may want to camp at one of the campsites that are only accessible by boat.

Cycle Through Acadia
With its spectacular mix of ocean views and mountain vistas, Acadia National Park, located in Maine, makes for a fantastic summertime destination. But to really see the park, you should leave your vehicle behind and hop on your bicycle instead. The 27-mile long Park Loop Road is an excellent ride for those who want to explore the park, but that route can get crowded with cars, especially in the summer. For more solitude, hit the Heart of Acadia loop trail, which is a 22-mile long road that is completely free of motor vehicles. The path is best suited for mountain bikes, but offers some of the best views in the park, including scenic overlooks that will take your breath away. You won’t be disappointed!

While these are perfect examples of national park adventures sans cars, nearly every park in the U.S. system has similar options. Need further incentive to explore the park under your own power this year? Consider this, the price of gas is expected to hit record levels this summer, which means you can save a little cash by leaving the car behind and exploring on foot, bike, or other means.

[Photos courtesy of the National Park Service]

5 great domestic adventure destinations

Five great domestic adventure destinationsBack in early January we posted our suggestions for the best adventure travel destinations for 2011, with places like Ethiopia, Croatia, and Guyana all earning a nod. While we gave plenty of praise to those exotic locales, we also gave a big tip of the hat to the good ole’ U.S. of A. as well. We went on to espouse the virtues of adventure travel right here at home, which includes not only plenty of great destinations but also the ability to visit them without breaking the bank in the process.

So, whether you’re into climbing mountains, hiking trails, or paddling whitewater, here are five great domestic adventure destinations guaranteed to fill your need for an adrenaline rush and help you conquer that wanderlust in the process.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
It may be hard to believe, but the state of Michigan is actually home to a spectacular wilderness area that has a lot to offer the adventure traveler. The Upper Peninsula, or “U.P.” as it is known, is the perfect setting for outdoor enthusiasts year round. There are hundreds of miles of trails to be hiked or biked in the warmer months and during the winter they serve as excellent cross country skiing or dog sledding routes as well. Paddlers will enjoy the Lake Superior coastline, which offers an experience not unlike sea kayaking, while campers and backpackers will appreciate the dense, but beautiful, state and national forests that are found throughout the area. Wildlife is in abundance as well, with black bear, deer, wolves, coyotes, and many other creatures inhabiting the wilderness as well. Perhaps the best reason to visit the U.P. however is for the solitude. The peninsula makes up about 1/3 of the entire size of the state of Michigan, but only about 3% of the state’s total population actually lives there, which means there are plenty of wild spaces and few people to bump into on the trail.
Five great domestic adventure destinations.Yosemite National Park, California
One of the most spectacular outdoor playgrounds in the entire world is located right in central California. Yosemite National Park is well known for its spectacular scenery that features towering granite cliffs, sparkling clear waterfalls and streams, and thick forests that include groves of Sequoia trees. The park has more than 750 miles of hiking trails alone and whitewater rafting along the Merced River is also a popular summer time activity. In the winter months skiing, both downhill and cross country, are permitted within the parks boundaries, and snowshoeing is a fantastic way to explore the wilderness as well. Yosemite also happens to be home to some of the best rock climbing in the world, with the legendary El Capitan drawing climbers from across the planet. That rock face isn’t for beginners however, and if you’d prefer an easier way to the top, you might want to consider hiking up Half Dome, another one of the parks major attractions, instead.

Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming
Often overshadowed by other national parks in the area, Wyoming’s Grand Tetons National Park is a spectacular destination in its own right. With more than 200 miles of hiking trails, it is an ideal destination for backpackers. But less experienced hikers beware, due to its combination of remote backcountry and altitude, it can be a challenging place to explore. The park also happens to be bisected by the Snake River, which provides world-class fly fishing opportunities and easy kayaking as well. Mountaineers love the remote nature of the Teton Mountains, which afford them real opportunities to test their alpine skills on any number of challenging peaks, including the 13,770-foot Grand Teton itself. The park has plenty to offer wildlife spotters too. While visiting, keep your eyes peeled for moose, grizzly bear, wolves, coyotes and much much more.

Maine’s North Woods
For considerably easier, but no less satisfying, mountains to climb, look no further than Maine’s North Woods. The region is a dramatic, and mostly untouched, wilderness that is a fantastic destination for hikers and backwoods campers, offering thick forests and plenty of low altitude (read 2000-3000 feet) peaks to bag. As you can imagine, wildlife is in abundance here as well, with moose and black bear making regular appearances, along with otter, deer, and even bobcats. Paddlers can choose to enjoy a serene day in a canoe on one of the many lakes that dot the area or elect to head over to Maine’s Atlantic Coast for a decidedly different, and more challenging, experience in a sea kayak. With over 3.5 million acres of forest spread out across northern Maine, there is plenty of backcountry to explore.

Taos, New Mexico
Located in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountain region, Taos is one of those towns that sits at the epicenter of an outdoor enthusiasts’ paradise. In the winter, it is one of the best ski and snowboard destinations in the entire country, and the miles of local trails are fantastic to explore while snowshoeing as well. During the summer, those same trails make Taos a world-class mountain biking destination and rock climbers will love the variety of challenges they find in the nearby mountains too. The warmer weather also brings excellent whitewater rafting, as well as fantastic opportunities for horseback riding, hiking, and trail running through a pristine wilderness that never fails to surprise visitors with its beauty and wonder. The village of Taos is a great destination in its own right, enchanting travelers with its down home charm, and it serves as a prefect base camp for those who come to play in the backcountry.

There you have it. Five great domestic destinations to that will give you plenty to see and do no matter what time of the year you visit. It’s still plenty early in 2011 to start planning your own escape to one of these outdoor paradises.

[Photo credit: Attila Nagy and chensiyuan via WikiMedia]



Nation gears up for Civil War sesquicentennial: reenactments, exhibitions mark the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict

Civil War, civil warA hundred and fifty years ago, the United States descended into a bloody Civil War. Young men on both sides eagerly signed up for what they thought would be a short and glorious conflict. A typical example is this private from the Fourth Michigan Infantry, pictured here courtesy of the Library of Congress. He poses, way too young and unconvincingly cocky, in the early days of the war in 1861. It’s so early, in fact, that he hasn’t been issued a uniform.

All across the United States, museums, historic sites, and reenactment groups are preparing for a series of events to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

South Carolina was the first to secede on 20 December 1860, so the anniversaries have already started. Actual fighting, however, didn’t begin until the famous attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Rebel artillery opened fire on 12 April 1861 in what are generally considered the first shots of the war.

Fort Sumter is now a national monument and the National Park Service is planning special exhibitions this year for the anticipated flood of visitors. Yet this isn’t the only anniversary in 2011. After Fort Sumter the war flared up all over the country.

The Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial lists events for almost every week this year. Abe Lincoln will give speeches, reenactors will show off their weapons and uniforms, and museums across the state are setting up exhibitions on different aspects of the conflict. Missouri had one of the first battles of the war at the Missouri River port of Boonville on June 17. A Union force routed a group of secessionist Sate Guard troops in less than 20 minutes. The rebels retreated so quickly that both sides dubbed the fight “The Boonville Races”. While the battle was short, it opened up the Missouri River to Union steamboats, cutting the state in half and making it much easier for Union troops to control Missouri for the rest of the war. On June 17-19 the battle will be refought and this forgotten skirmish will get the credit it’s due.

%Gallery-116977%The first epic battle was at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21. The battle is called First Manassas by the Confederates. Many Civil War battles are known by two names. It was a huge victory for the South and sent the Union army scampering back to Washington, DC. Historic Manassas Inc. is planning a four-day series of events that will include reenactments, concerts of Civil War music, and even a Civil War baseball tournament. One of the less-anticipated outcomes of the war was the popularization of baseball, which was played by soldiers of both armies. The idea of the game spread with them as they marched.

Besides the big sites and state-sponsored events, smaller organizations will be remembering the war too. The Echoes Through Time Learning Center and Civil War Museum will have a series of events over the next four years. Set up by a group of reenactors and amateur historians in a shopping mall in Williamsville, New York, this museum epitomizes how regular people are involved in Civil War research and education. These folks gather in Civil War Round Tables in almost every state and are always ready to welcome new members.

Even states that didn’t have any battles are marking the occasion. Maine’s Civil War Sesquicentennial will commemorate the men from Maine who fought and died. Their website has an interesting daily series of newspaper articles from Democrat and Republican papers from Portland. The political spin, name calling, and anger could be straight out of 21st century television news.

This is one of the things the Civil War can teach us. When Americans start thinking of other Americans who think differently as “the enemy”, the whole country can fall apart. The Civil War killed more than 600,000 soldiers and and more than 50,000 civilians. In an excellent op-ed in the Richmond Times, Charles F. Bryan, Jr., says he cringes when he hears people talking about “celebrating” the anniversary. He feels there’s nothing to celebrate about a war brought on partly by “grandstanding extremists and blundering politicians” that cared more about short-term political gain than helping the nation they claimed to have loved.