Category Archives: Just for Fun

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Emerson said, “life is a journey, not a destination.” When I heard about cross-country train trips, I knew I had to go. My dad, mom, sister and I spent three vacation days taking an Amtrak train across the US (well, almost).

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The Planning

It began by telling my dad plans to take a solo train trip from Pittsburgh to San Francisco on the California Zephyr and evolved into a week-long family ski trip (don’t ask me how – it escalated very quickly and included an atlas). Rather than ride the track the entire way to San Francisco, we decided to hop off in Utah to ski. I wanted to experience the magic of train travel; my family was mostly interested in the travel after the train.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr officially runs from Chicago to San Francisco. A one-way coach ticket will cost you about $200, while a ticket for a sleeper car costs double that, though does have meals included. Amtrak’s website can be tricky to navigate – you don’t buy a “Zephyr ticket”, but simply input your departure and arrival stations (train speak!) and it’ll calculate the cost.

Zephyr Route 2

Zephyr Route 1

We found it was only $10 more to include the leg from Pittsburgh  to Chicago so we purchased Amtrak tickets from Pittsburgh, PA to Provo, Utah. We opted to get off at Provo for two reasons: it has fantastic skiing and it let us ride through the majority of the Rockies (thanks, atlas).

Our 2,000 mile trip included a daunting 43 hours of train travel from start to finish (9 hours from Pitt to Chicago, with a 5 hour layover, then 34 continuous hours from Chicago to Provo). When my mom convinced my sister to come with us, she mistakenly told her the trip was 28 hours. It wasn’t until day two that she found out it was much longer. Needless to say, she was not happy.

The Trip

We arrived at the Pittsburgh Amtrak station two hours before our train departed since Father Bill likes to be early. I was unprepared for how casual the boarding process was. You wait in an indoor boarding area (similar to an airport gate), then a few minutes before you’re ready to board, you take your bags and walk onto the train platform. Someone scanned our tickets, assigned us four seats, we walked what felt like 5 blocks to a passenger car and were off. Simple as that.

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Amtrak wasn’t strict on their carry-on or luggage policy. We had two large suitcases and each had two carry-ons. Again, super casual – you carry on your luggage, stow on the bottom car, then find your seat on the upper level.

We left Pittsburgh at midnight and arrived at Chicago a little after 9:45am. This was poor planning on our part (though the cheapest option) since this meant we essentially slept on the train and didn’t get to do/see anything until we arrived in the Windy City the following morning. Sleeping on a train isn’t bad, but it’s not good. The chairs recline 45 degrees and have two foot rests (the bottom of your seat extends and the other is a bar that pulls down from the chair in front of you). Still, not ideal and my sister and I traded taking shots of Zzzquil to help us sleep. But for $10, it beat having to fly to Chicago. We brought pillows and “train blankets” and settled in for the ride.

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I’d been to Chicago years ago and was excited to show my family the city. We only had a 5 hour layover but took advantage of the time. We checked our bags at the station ($18 for 24 hours) then walked from Union Station to Millennium Park to see the iconic Bean. It was freezing out (9 degrees!), but the 1 mile walk was refreshing. Afterwards, we enjoyed deep dish pizza before walking to the oldest library in the city. We explored the historic building, shopped a bit, then Uber’d back to the station.

01- Bean

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We barely made it back in time since we got our track number wrong (Track #5, not Train #5!), but thanks to Amtrak’s lax boarding policies, we ran up to the platform, had our tickets scanned, boarded and 10 minutes later, we were on our way out West. Close one. Father Bill was sweating.

The first 20 hours of the second leg weren’t exciting. We headed from Chicago into Iowa, through Nevada and towards Denver. The land we could see for 3 hours until the sunset was flat and uninteresting. After that, it was darkness and a restless night’s sleep until we got to Denver.

The train arrived at the Denver station a little before 8am. My sister and I woke up from our Zzzquil-induced stupor to the train loudspeaker announcing this was a ‘fresh air’ stop. We  immediately started mapping a route to the nearest Starbucks.

We arrived in Denver, bounded off the train, asked a man for directions as we jogged out of the station (“You can trust him because he’s wearing Patagonia,” asserted my sister) and found a Starbucks three blocks away. My mother did not support our coffee dreams and said if the train left, we were on our own. We made it back with a few minutes to spare and didn’t even show tickets as we walked around the  corner of the train station building and back onto the train. Nothing stands in our way when coffee’s on the line.

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Our hop-off, hop-on stunt made me feel a bit like a hobo, but like Michael Bluth says, you’ve got to watch for hop-ons… cause you’ll get hop-ons.

After Denver, the scenery started to get interesting. We immediately began our ascent through the Rockies, going through what someone said were 26 little tunnels as the train slowly increased its altitude. We spotted a large herd of elk in the hills beyond Denver and were enthralled with the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. I don’t know if it was the flatness we endured in Iowa, but I was loving the views. They were incredible. This is the reason you take a cross-country train trip.

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My dad and I spent a few hours in the sightseeing car and took in the endless snow-covered mountains. Anna and my mom soon joined. We’d point out mule deer or coyotes as our eyes scanned the breath-taking landscape. At one point, my father turned to me and said, “Thank you for taking me on this trip. It’s incredible.” Those are powerful words coming from an engineer. When trying to get my sister to appreciate the same views, she said “Jayna, I have been looking at the same rocks for the past five hours. I don’t want to look.”

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The sun set behind the red hills of Colorado and it was amazing having nothing but mountains surrounding you for miles.

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It was close to 11pm when our train halted to a quick stop in Provo, Utah. We said goodbye to our metallic home for the past two and a half days and hailed an Uber. We couldn’t get to our horizontal hotel beds fast enough, no Zzzquil needed.

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The Food

Having read a few articles beforehand, we went in with the assumption that train food was unappetizing and expensive, so we packed snacks for our journey. My thoughtful mother brought chocolate (of course), granola bars, nuts,  PB&J sandwiches, water and lots of fruit. We had enough food to last us during our two days on the train, but did break down and bought hot dogs ($5) the last little part of the the trip.

The Amenities20160112_153037

  • Two outlets at each seat
  • Reclining chairs with plenty of leg room
  • Sightseeing car, dining car, sleeper cars and coach seating for the paupers
  • Four bathrooms per coach car
  • No showers, no wifi, intermittent cell service

Not a luxury ride (we didn’t spring for the sleeper cars), but a lot better than expected. We passed the time talking, sleeping, reading, walking through the sliding train cars and taking in the landscape.

The Consensus

If you’re considering taking an extended Amtrak trip, DO IT. It’s an experience. It’s slow, it’s soothing and it’s unlike any other form of “modern” travel. You’ll adopt a new standard of hygiene (we wore the same clothes for three days) but you’ll get to see the heartland of America.

My friend sent me this horrifying article detailing the perils of Amtak travel the day before we left (thanks, Mel), but we found it to be an overall great experience. Bathrooms weren’t horrible, the ride was relatively smooth and the train people (conductors?) were friendly.

9 out of 10 we’d do it again.

The Final Leg

After saying goodbye to the train, my dad, sister and I skied at Robert Redford’s getaway, Sundance Mountain Resort, and enjoyed the steep hills and  notoriously fresh powder of western US skiing. My sister rated it one of the best days of her life.

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From there, we drove to Salt Lake City, flew to Denver, rented a car and drove 2 hours to Vail, CO. We stayed at an Air BnB, then skied the following day in Vail (conditions were a little worse than Sundance and the mountain drive treacherous), but when you come that close to Vail, you ski Vail.

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Our trip ended in an uneventful drive back to Denver and evening flight to Pittsburgh. My sister expressed her gratitude (multiple times) that we were not taking the train back and I’ll admit it was nice to cover 1,500 miles in 3 hours instead of 40.

Overall, it was an action-packed family vacation. We got to travel through small towns, sweeping mountains and secluded forests. Moral of the story is that if you’re considering taking a cross-country train trip of any length on an Amtrak, GO! One thing that’s certain is you’ll have an adventure.

A Trip to Asia: Vietnam, Thailand & a Little Shanghai

My last post was about making last-minute Christmas presents. How embarrassing! What’s even more dismal is that I’ve not had much time to crochet in the past weeks. I’ve been traveling and planning the trip hasn’t left much free time. I promise, there will be new projects soon!

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For this vacation, I met up with friends who are living in Shanghai and we took a two week trip to Vietnam (Hoi An and Saigon/Ho Chi Mihn City) and Thailand (Koh Lanta and Phi-Phi Island). It was magical! It was my first time in Southeast Asia. I probably knew only 10% of all I saw, tasted and experienced before I went on this trip. I even got to spend 3 days in Shanghai which was fantastic as well.

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Highlights: 

  • Scootering around the Thai and Vietnamese countrysides on motorbikes
  • Snorkeling with sharks in Phi Phi
  • Eating like kings for about $4/meal (favorites were Bahn Mi, dumplings, Korean BBQ, baracuda tar-tar, pho, multiple curries, Thai pancakes and fresh mango smoothies)
  • A Thai cooking class where I learned that unlike American cuisine that keeps most flavors separate, Thai food seeks to feature all four flavors in one dish (sweet, salty, sour and savory)
  • Surviving nine flights, one of which was on Air Asia
  • Watching multiple sun sets over the Adaman Sea/Indian Ocean
  • Touring the My Son ruins in Vietnam
  • Crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels the Viet Cong used to hide in during the Vietnam War
  • Dining in the dark – the entire meal is served in total blackness and you have to use your sense of smell and taste to identify your food. All servers are blind
  • Ringing in the Chinese New Year on a rooftop bar
  • Traditional Thai massages (painful!)
  • Beating Escape rooms (twice!)
  • Releasing lanterns on the beaches of Thailand and floating rives of Hoi An
  • Sipping caipirinas on the beach

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It was such a nice break from the freezing temperatures we’ve been having in Pittsburgh (went from 0 degrees to 95 degrees Farenheit!) and the responsibilities of life. Who doesn’t love vacation? Can’t wait to go back!

 

Pittsburgh Knit & Crochet Festival: 2014

Last weekend (March 14 – 16th), I attended the 10th annual Pittsburgh Knit & Crochet Festival in Cranberry, PA. I’d heard of the festival before, but was never in town to attend. The festival attracted over 70 different booths and some big name teachers. I talked to the coordinator, Barb, and she said there were well over 3,000 attendees. Not too shabby for a knitting festival!

Pittsburgh Knit & Crochet Festival

From my perspective, the festival was largely geared towards knitters, but I didn’t mind – it seems to be the preferred craft among fiber artists (don’t worry, crochet, you’ll always be my first love). I’d say about 90% of the classes offered were knitting; only a few were crochet. Vendors also offered knitting patterns and had knitted samples of sweaters, blankets and accessories, but only a few crochet items.

I purchased a two day pass for Friday and Sunday and zipped up to the festival after work on Friday to check things out. I got there for the last two hours and spent the time looking at vendor booths and talking with other crafters.

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On Sunday, however, the real fun began.

I’d purposefully signed up for “Borderline Personalities: Knitting on the Edge” for the sole reason that it was taught by my all-time crochet hero, Lily Chin. While Lily is a master crocheter, she’s probably better known for her skills with knitting needles. Meeting her was a DREAM COME TRUE. She’s a feisty 5-foot tall woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone. She kept the class moving, called out students who were knitting the wrong thing, yet was personable and talked with me at the end.

An exclusive, inside look at what a knitting class looks like (I know you’ve wondered).

Lily doing what Lily does best - teachin' knittin' class.

Lily doing what Lily does best – teachin’ knittin’ class.

The class was 3 hours long and the best $50 I’ve spent in a while.

Lily Chin and Me. I know, RIGHT?! Lily the crochet master Chin.

Selfie with Lily Chin. I know, RIGHT?! Lily ‘the crochet master’ Chin.

I didn’t end up purchasing anything at the festival (I’m on a yarn sanction), though I did pick up a mannequin bust for $55. I envision using it to 1. display scarves rather than begging my roommate to model and 2. taking it to craft shows as part of my display.

The other notable part of the weekend was getting to see two Olympic sweaters from Sochi. One of the few things I love more than the Olympics is knitting, so to see both combined in the sweaters for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies was a dream come true. (I hope my true excitement is coming through – If not, maybe this picture will convey my love for the games.)

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 Opening & Closing Ceremony Knit Sweaters from the 2014 Sochi Olympics

Opening & Closing Ceremony Knit Sweaters from the 2014 Sochi Olympics

Overall, great weekend, even though I didn’t spend much time at the festival. Next year, I’d like to go with other people who knit/crochet because you can only walk around a large hall filled with yarn so many times by yourself before you look creepy. If you get the chance and are in town for next year’s Pittsburgh Knit & Crochet Fest, definitely make it a priority to go!

Trying Our Hand at Arm Knitting #Pun

About once a month, my coworkers get together for “Craft Night”. Each girl takes a turn hosting and all from the office are invited. We’ll sometimes work on a joint craft like glitter pumpkins, or sometimes we’ll bring individual projects to make. Wine and cheese are necessities. 

This month, we chose to test our hands (literally) at arm knitting.

Arm Knitting

The inspiration came from Vickie Howell’s project.  The week leading up to Craft Night, Pinterest links were shared and talks of yarn combinations took place on the way to (and sometimes during) meetings.

Arm knitting is relatively new to the craft world and pretty simple to pick up. It’s gained popularity through its instant gratification and short supply list – all you need are your hands and some yarn. The craft uses similar principles as ‘real knitting’, so those familiar with needles will have an easy time grasping the concept. The entire group (Jenna and Dani, we’re looking at you…) made great scarves.

The group learned by watching Vickie’s how-to arm knit video (highly recommended) and by the end of the night (about 45 mins?), each of us had a lovely, hand-knit scarf.

The rockiest parts of the project were getting started, though once we learned how and what to loop and over which hand and when, it all came together. The key, we learned, was all in the yarn. A few strands of super chunky strands made the best scarves.

If you’re thinking about arm knitting, go for it! Call up a couple of friends and learn together. It’s a great wintery night activity to do with a group.

The following day, we wore our scarves to the office after making feeble, though sincere promises the night before, “Of course I’ll wear mine if you wear yours!” Coworkers complimented and boys belittled and we were proud. We, the women of DSG, had conquered arm knitting!

What’s next on the list?

If You Have Etsy + A Website, Use Etsy Mini

I had to give my blog a facelift a couple weeks ago and the new layout deleted my “Etsy Mini”. I just got around to putting it back up on the right sidebar and it’s something I should have done weeks ago.

(If you don’t know what an Etsy Mini is – read “What is an Etsy Mini and How Do I Make One”: https://www.etsy.com/help/article/216). If you have a website and Etsy shop, I highly recommend you set yours up. It’ll take you no more than 2 mins.

As proof, here are my shop analytics. Can you tell when I added it back to my site?

Etsy Mini

Statistics for JJCrochet’s Etsy Mini

I was pretty shocked to see these numbers for such a simple task. You upload code to your site one time and from then on, Etsy automatically displays recent product listings (I use the 5 x 2 option).

Etsy Mini isn’t a new feature, but it’s one I’ve rediscovered – figured I’d pass along. Has anyone else seen similar results from using this plugin?

Book Review: Women in High Gear

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During ice-cream-after-work that turn to dinner-and-tea, my friend Rachel told me about a book her husband’s aunt had written. (Her husband, Andrew, and I studied Entrepreneurship together and can’t help but chat  about web stuff when we’re together. He’s brilliant and runs a growing inbound marketing agency in Pittsburgh).

The book is about successful women in business, as told by Anne Deeter Gallaher and Amy D. Howell. Rachael and Andrew both said I’d enjoy and gave it to me to borrow.

They were correct.

I was able to finish the short, 13-chapters this morning (while eating vanilla granola from Trader Joe’s).

The book, Women in High Gear, is packed with practical advice for women who want to take control of their professional developments. It was inspirational and one of those, “Let’s get out and do it!” books. The kind that wants to make you forget your friends and pour 20 hours a day into making your business dreams a reality.

As a lifelong business-lady (read: business camp during high school, career day speaker, FBLA, B.S. in Entrepreneurship, and JJCrochet), I can’t get enough of material like this.

I especially appreciated the charge to create strong networks with respected people in the industry and local communities, as well as the advice tailored to corporate women in their 20s. Often the only content us 24-year old girls hear is how to make our gel manicures last longer (prime your nails with lemon juice), but never how to advance our careers.

Amy advises:

I often tell young women in their 20s without children yet to work hard while they can and use this time to invest in their careers. It’s so important to their futures… Assume you know nothing. Don’t try to exert your wisdom if you don’t have it. You must earn your place by working hard and self-study. If you try and push, you’ll get the push back you are looking for. If you do, be ready.

What great advice.

The women also talk about having emotional intelligence and resilience, being decisive, and the power of being able to tell your own story–both on and offline. Though a short book, I found it refreshing to hear from women who have used social media and business accumen to transform their careers into “high gear”. Both the women are Christians which to me, makes their stories more relatable.

If you have an hour of two and are looking for something to give you that boost you need–whether for your craft business or corporate job–I’d encourage you to check out this book!