“Life, Liberty, & The Pursuit of Cheese Curds”

Alternate title: “My Week of Christmas Trees, Red Barns, and Midwestern Charm.”

Hey, blog.

As you can tell by the two titles, I’ve just returned from a vacation in the Midwest. My best friend from the DCP lives in northwest Iowa and eastern South Dakota, so I was so excited to finally make the trek up north to visit her and her family!

Also, as you can tell from my “trek up north” comment, I do not reside in the Midwest, so everything I experienced was so. Much. Fun. And new! And adorable. And eccentric. All wonderful–magical, even. Charming as heck.

For reference, I like to think of myself as a Texoman–I divide time between the Lone Star State and Oklahoma. (Yeehaw, I guess?) I say “Y’all” religiously, Whataburger spicy ketchup runs through my veins, and I know my state songs forwards and backwards, partly due to overt/obnoxious pride, and partly because we were required to learn “Texas, Our Texas” in the fourth grade. I sang the song in front of the class, as did every little Texan in my school.

I digress.

Let me tell you, I love experiencing new places, especially new regions of our country. In the past, I’ve fully experienced the deep South, Florida, and Texas/the lower Midwest (what I call Oklahoma), but I had never really experienced a place like Iowa/South Dakota. As I was driving north, I noticed some differences in the physicality of the land.

First: Christmas trees. Evergreens! Everywhere! On farms! Beside the road! Just chillin’!

I couldn’t stop saying, “Look at all these Christmas trees!” I loved them so much–Allyssa’s (my friend) childhood home had so many just hanging out in the yard, so that alone could make a girl happy.

But there’s more.

Did you know red barns exist? That they’re not just on postcards? Or on Thomas Kincade prints?

Red barns, my friends, actually do existUsually in an idyllic little grove in the middle of corn fields, as did most of the farms I saw. When I got closer and closer to Allyssa’s homestead, it was late afternoon, stupidly (perfectly) sunny, and my head kept swiveling to-and-fro to catch glimpses of these perfect little barns, some stamped with a decoration that indicates they are part of a “century farm,” a farm that has been in the same family for at least one hundred years.

Can you believe that? I don’t know where I’ll be in two years, and these folks and their family have been running a farm for more than one hundred. (!!!)

Of course, I knew red barns existed before this trip, but where I’m from, most of the barns I see are abandoned and collapsing by the side of the road–I’m from Texas, yes, but not in an area dominated by farmers and/or ranchers. I’m a suburb gal, so the sight of these red barns–bright red, trimmed with white, beautiful, clean and pretty barns–made me so happy.

Let’s move on to the different attractions I experienced. I’ll give you a quick rundown:

Obscure museums, tours, a corn palace (yes, you read that right), a small-town Fourth of July parade, fireworks, a stop at a cathedral (I’m still a Catholic school girl at heart), walks around an entire town (because it’s that small), bingo, a pie auction, and quality chill time with my best friend and her family.

There was probably more–we did so much during my short visit.

Let me discuss the most quirky/charming/wonderful activities, because this trip was chock-full.

The Corn Palace. Yes. It’s what you think it is. In Mitchell, South Dakota, there’s a big building that’s covered in corn, corn husks, and other corn bits. The corn composes intricate murals that interpret the theme of the year. This year’s theme is “South Dakota Weather,” so the Corn Palace was covered in murals depicting snow, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and more. The Corn Palace is one of those iconic roadside attractions–like the world’s largest Ketchup bottle, or ball of yarn, or polyurethane cow (anyone watch The Middle?!)–and, let me tell you, I’m a sucker for that stuff. I live for all things quirky, and I love a good gift shop.

It was no surprise I went nuts for the Corn Palace. I bought a hat and three postcards. The hat is now my most treasured possession.

The Corn Palace = a-MAIZE-ing.

Ha. Haha.

Let’s talk about the pie auction. It is possible, out of everything Allyssa and I experienced, that the pie auction was my most favorite.

A little background: I was in town for Allyssa’s hometown’s Freedom Days, a weekend full of Fourth of July themed fun. There are tons of fundraisers that happen for Freedom Days, and the pie auction is one of them. The proceeds help pay for next year’s fireworks display (which was incredible, by the way; #thankyoupies).

The gist: people in town bake pies, a real auctioneer auctions them off, and the bidding starts at $50.

Yes. $50.

I CANNOT BEGIN TO EXPRESS HOW INCREDIBLE THIS EXPERIENCE WAS. Pies went for $100! $200! $300! $400! $500!

The biggest bid?

$1,025!

I KNOW, RIGHT?

Apparently, this bid holds the record as the largest in the town’s history. To be a part of this historic night was magic. I even bid on a pie (thank you to Allyssa’s dad for being the sweetest ever), and came home the winner of a S’mores concoction.

Victory tastes sweet.

Speaking of food–let’s talk about FOOD. Midwestern food.

Here are food/restaurants I savored while experiencing the Midwest to its fullest:

  • Culver’s (Hello, Cheese Curds! I LOVE CHEESE CURDS! Those things just don’t exist down here.)
  •  Pizza Ranch. Delicious.
  • Culver’s frozen custard.
  • There was more, but for some reason, I can’t remember.
  • Oh, yeah! Allyssa’s fam cooked brats (my first time trying those, and holy cow, so good), burgers with the best-tasting beef, and “barbeque,” which is our version of Sloppy Joes. All delicious.
  • And Taco John’s. I find the whole concept of Potatoe Oles wonderful/wacky–remember, I’m a Texan, and we think our Tex-Mex can do no wrong.
  • Okay, I still think that. BUT. I loved Taco John’s and its “West-Mex.” Apparently, that’s a thing.

Overall, experiencing some of the cuisines of the Midwest proved fun, tasty, and new-to-me. I loved it.

The best part of the Midwest?

The people, of course. Adorable accents and all (everyone had an accent–Midwesterners seem to skip over their vowels altogether, at least compared to us Southerners. Also, the vernacular: “Pop” instead of “soda” or “Coke,” phrases like “shoot a pickle!” [FAV], and more. Oh, I could dissect dialects ALL DAY).

The people are so nice. I felt so welcome by everyone–Allyssa’s family (I love y’all), the townspeople, our tour guides on our many excursions, etc. There’s a lyric from “Iowa Stubborn” (from the musical The Music Man) that sums up the people of the Midwest perfectly:

“But we’ll give you our shirt/ And a back to go with it/ If your crops should happen to die.”

Good, good people with the biggest hearts. What more can I say?

Thank you, Allyssa and fam, for being my hosts and my guides to all things Iowa/South Dakota. Not only was last week a week for catching up with my best friend, it was a week of new adventures and new experiences. I had the most incredible time.
Now, if you excuse me, I’ll be here craving cheese curds for the rest of the year. They are just so dang good.
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Disney Trip 2017: Animal Kingdom Lodge

Jambo, everyone! I hope you are having a magical day.

If you’re not familiar with Swahili, “jambo” means “hello.” I was fortunate enough to say a hearty hello to Walt Disney World for six days last week for vacation.

I was super fortunate to say jambo to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge for the first night of my vacation. This DAK-loving girl’s heart was so, so happy. Remember: DAK equals Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Huge shout out to the DCP BFF (and real-life BFF, let’s be honest) for scoping out the best deal in the universe. She’s on her second college program, and she met up with me for a week of epic “staycation-ing.”

Oh my goodness, guys. We had a blast.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, to put it simply, is the most gorgeous place on this planet. This statement might come across as a teeny hyperbole, but I don’t even care. If I ever become a Disney Vacation Club member (#goals), this resort will be my home.

I began my stay at the lodge by attempting to capture everything with my hand-me-down DSLR camera, a camera that’s been in the family since about 2006. It’s still goin’ strong, and I think it did a fantastic job documenting my stay at the lodge. You’ll find some select photos in this post, and don’t hesitate to call National Geographic and suggest me and my skill set for an all-expenses-paid African photo safari.

Ha. I kid. (But not really.)

If you’ve never been to DAK Lodge, you might not know that it doubles as a top-notch zoo. Select rooms look out onto a savannah littered with giraffes, ankole cattle, types of gazelle, ostriches, zebras, the common Disney duck, and so much more. The back of both lobbies (Kidani Village and Jambo House…we stayed in the latter), lead out onto observation areas where helpful animal guides talk about the animals and are open to discuss their own culture. Every single guide is on an cultural exchange program at Disney; they are originally from Africa and are there to work for a year or so. My mom and I once had the most incredible conversation with a guide from Botswana.

I spent a good hour or two in the observation area, taking photos of the animals and taking in the unique vibe  Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge embodies. I fell in love with giraffes on this trip because they ventured so close to us lucky guests. Below are a few photos I’m quite proud of. (Humor me.)

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Aren’t they gorgeous?

Because of this unique experience, I was  swayed to purchase a wooden giraffe mask from the gift shop, perfect for the Animal Kingdom-inspired gallery wall going above my bed in my new apartment. I just couldn’t resist.

After Allyssa (DCP BFF) got off work, we checked in and headed to our room.

Our room! Oh my goodness! The savannah view room was so pretty, and the details were impeccable: woven baskets hung on the creamy walls, wallpaper that resembled vintage maps, pamphlets useful for identifying animals, and so much more. Of course, I wasn’t smart enough to take pictures of the whole thing, but I did take a picture of my favorite element, the curtains. See below:

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Do see a Disney friend embroidered in the dreamy fabric? Friends from The Lion King were scattered throughout the curtains, and I internally screamed.

We ended our evening roasting marshmallows in the observation area (free for all guests; ask a cast member for times), dining at the Mara, the quick service restaurant, and watching the sunset from our savannah view room. The experience was something out of a Walt Disney World ad–the sky was a brilliant red-orange, giraffes and zebras moseyed tangibly close to our vantage point, and Allyssa and I were reunited, anticipating a busy week of park hopping. I was so happy, and I’ll cherish that moment forever.

We checked out the next morning after a wonderful breakfast from the Mara.

I never really checked out of the lodge, mentally. I’m always daydreaming about my stay at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Kwaherini (“Go well”) for now, friends. I’ll leave you with some more shots of the lodge–maybe they’ll fuel your sense of adventure and spark an appreciation for this beautiful planet we call home.

Maybe you’ll just call your travel agent. Either option totally works.

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