Look In Your Own Backyard

Look In Your Own Backyard

A good vacation doesn't have to break the bank!


Abundant free time and empty pockets are not great partners in a grand vacation. Or are they? Curiosity bloomed like flowers as I watched birds flying from the woods behind my house to the feeders hanging from the roof over the deck.

I sprang into action. A major shift in perspective was needed. Unwittingly, I equated vacations with locations far from home and considerable expense. With my laptop in hand, I searched for things to do in my own backyard – Southern Illinois. Despite having grown up here, I found many unfamiliar places.

Illinois, aka the Prairie State, would be described by most who have driven its roads as a flat plain filled with vibrant green corn fields. A trip off the beaten path to explore the less familiar reaped a treasure trove of hills, caves, forests, and sandstone and limestone cliffs and rock formations.

Vacations should be quests that take us to places that are beautiful, unfamiliar, and strange. I narrowed my choices down to those that fit that description and met the other all-important requirement – they must be free. I decided to spend a weekend hiking and exploring the hills and trails in the Shawnee National Forest – the same hills and trails explored by Lewis and Clarke!

I set out on the first morning for Larue Pine Hills. I began my hike up Inspiration Trail, a trail that stretches 1¾ mile from Pine Hills Road to the bluffs of Inspiration Point. The early morning air was crisp. A partially cloudy blue sky canopied a tree-lined trail. Dried leaves crunching underfoot, and chirping birds created a rhythm as I walked.

I carried my backpack (compass, map, water, extra shirt, first aid kit…) and Canon DSLR, and I walked at a slow but steady pace. About 30 minutes into my walk I stopped to rest and take pictures. I sat on a small round boulder near the trail, listening and watching. The smells of the forest and nearby Mississippi River were intoxicating. I heard a rhythmic knocking sound. The leaves of the trees were so thick that it was difficult to locate the origin of the sound, so I put the zoom lens on my camera and used it as binoculars. The scarlet redhead and black and white body were unmistakable. It was a red-headed woodpecker. I focused and snapped several photos.

I continued up the trail as it wound through the lush green forest and climbed toward the limestone bluffs of Inspiration Point. Animals were talking to each other – birds singing and squirrels chirping. Suddenly, a brown rabbit scampered across the trail with a red fox following closely behind. Taken by surprise, I stood there cursing under my breath that I had missed getting that picture.

I reached the basin of the bluff and climbed up to Inspiration Point. I was in awe of the beauty that lay before me as I gazed down the cliff at the sprawling lush green trees and undulating hills of the Shawnee Forest and meandering Mississippi River. I sat down on the bluff and let the peace close over me. Again, I used my zoom lens as binoculars. I saw heron and egrets along the shores of the river.

I sat there for an hour, entranced. Just as I stood up to say goodbye a bald eagle soared over the forest. I raised my camera as the majestic bird turned and flew toward the bluff. I snapped the photo at the moment that the eagle turned and tilted its wings as if to say goodbye.

My curiosity bloomed like flowers, and my search reaped a treasure trove of things I can do when I have abundant free time and empty pockets. You, too, should look in your own backyard.

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I Visited The "Shameless" Houses And Here's Why You Shouldn't

Glamorizing a less-than-ideal way to live.

After five hours of driving, hearing the GPS say "Turn right onto South Homan Avenue" was a blessing. My eyes peeled to the side of the road, viciously looking for what I have been driving so long for, when finally, I see it: the house from Shameless.

Shameless is a hit TV show produced by Showtime. It takes place in modern-day Southside, Chicago. The plot, while straying at times, largely revolves around the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. While a majority of the show is filmed offsite in a studio in Los Angeles, many outside scenes are filmed in Southside and the houses of the Gallagher's and side-characters are very much based on real houses.

We walked down the street, stopped in front of the two houses, took pictures and admired seeing the house in real life. It was a surreal experience and I felt out-of-place like I didn't belong there. As we prepared to leave (and see other spots from the show), a man came strolling down on his bicycle and asked how we were doing.

"Great! How are you?"

It fell silent as the man stopped in front of the Gallagher house, opened the gate, parked his bike and entered his home. We left a donation on his front porch, got back to the car and took off.

As we took the drive to downtown Chicago, something didn't sit right with me. While it was exciting to have this experience, I began to feel a sense of guilt or wrongdoing. After discussing it with my friends, I came to a sudden realization: No one should visit the "Gallagher" house.

The plot largely revolves the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. It represents what Southside is like for so many residents. While TV shows always dramatize reality, I realized coming to this house was an exploitation of their conditions. It's entertaining to see Frank's shenanigans on TV, the emotional roller coasters characters endure and the outlandish things they have to do to survive. I didn't come here to help better their conditions, immerse myself in what their reality is or even for the donation I left: I came here for my entertainment.

Southside, Chicago is notoriously dangerous. The thefts, murders and other crimes committed on the show are not a far-fetched fantasy for many of the residents, it's a brutal reality. It's a scary way to live. Besides the Milkovich home, all the houses typically seen by tourists are occupied by homeowners. It's not a corporation or a small museum -- it's their actual property. I don't know how many visitors these homes get per day, week, month or year. Still, these homeowners have to see frequent visitors at any hour of the day, interfering with their lives. In my view, coming to their homes and taking pictures of them is a silent way of glamorizing the cycle of poverty. It's a silent way of saying we find joy in their almost unlivable conditions.

The conceit of the show is not the issue. TV shows have a way of romanticizing very negative things all the time. The issue at hand is that several visitors are privileged enough to live in a higher quality of life.

I myself experienced the desire and excitement to see the houses. I came for the experience but left with a lesson. I understand that tourism will continue to the homes of these individuals and I am aware that my grievances may not be shared with everyone -- however, I think it's important to take a step back and think about if this were your life. Would you want hundreds, potentially thousands, of people coming to your house? Would you want people to find entertainment in your lifestyle, good and bad?

I understand the experience, excitement, and fun the trip can be. While I recommend skipping the houses altogether and just head downtown, it's most important to remember to be respectful to those very individuals whose lives have been affected so deeply by Shameless.

Cover Image Credit: itsfilmedthere.com

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I Went Paragliding In The Swiss Alps, And It Was Nothing Like I Could Have Ever Imagined

When I woke up in the morning, did I expect to be strapped to a Swiss lady named Judith, and then consequently run down a steep hill at full speed? Nope.


A lot of people have asked me how my spring break was, and I only thought it would be appropriate to sum up through my paragliding experience.

Paragliding in Switzerland is like football in America. You grow up hearing about it, your brother plays it, and even though you don't really understand the rules sometimes, you are a groupie anyway. Interlaken, especially, is known for paragliding.

Interlaken is a small town in the middle of Switzerland and in the middle of the Swiss Alps. If you take a 30-minute train ride, then you will find yourself close to one of the highest points in Europe. This place is absolutely insane. Like, "pinch me, is this real? I must be dreaming!" insane. Since this place is in the middle of the Alps, there are many opportunities to drive up random mountains, and run down them at full speed with a piece of cloth and a bunch of strings attached to you, because why not!!

So, here's what happens. You register online through a website that has a lot of capital letters and exclamation points, and you arrange a pickup spot where a guy in a van comes and tells you to get in. You then drive up a mountain for about an hour, while a guy with a thick accent and a good sense of humor explains to you how, when you get to the top, you are going to be strapped to an experienced paraglider and then you will collectively run down an extremely steep hill before you become lifted up and air bound.

This is exactly what happens. I was strapped to Judith, and Judith yelled "3, 2, 1, go!!" and I started to run down the steepest hill I have ever seen in my life, at full speed, until I eventually got lifted up, and there I was- air bound in the middle of the Swiss Alps, with a setting that seemed photoshopped.

That was my spring break. When I signed up for paragliding, I didn't expect to be told to run down a steep hill. I didn't expect it to be snowing at the top of the mountain. I didn't expect it to be as impactful as it was. But that's how traveling is. It's surprising, it's enlightening, and it will, quite literally, lift you off of your feet.

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