Road Trip: Shawnee National Forest – Part I The Garden of the Gods and Rim Rock Nature Trail

The Shawnee National Forest, in Southern Illinois, consists of over 28,000 acres of land situated between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  There are many different trails to choose from depending on how far you want to hike or how much effort you want to put in.

The Garden of the Gods is one of the most photographed trails down there and for good reason.  It is breathtaking.

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The trail itself is only ¼ mile long and is nicely paved with flagstone.  The sandstone rock formations can be walked across, how far out depends on the daredevil in you.  But you don’t need to risk your life to fully experience the panoramic views from that high up.

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We were there in November and the leaves were mostly orange and there was still some snow from the early snowfall that hit the area a few days before.  This only added to the beauty.

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Rim Rock Nature Trail is nearby and another short hike.  Unless you veer off the path like we did.  More on that later.  The trail itself is a 1.7 mile loop that includes an upper and lower trail.  The lower trail takes you down a steep staircase and then through a maze of rock formations.

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From there, the trail is rugged in some places and a bit of a climb back up to the parking lot.  The views along the way are mostly sandstone bluffs that tower above you.

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There is a point in the loop where you can take a side trip away from the trail.  It is another ½ mile path that, unfortunately, does not loop back into the original trail.  So, you have to hike another ½ mile to get back on track.  The bonus, however, is the detour ends at Pounds Hollow Lake.  So you can relax on the “beach” before you head back.

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I already cannot wait to go back in the Spring or Summer to see everything in bloom!

Adventure Film Festival

Not from the Chicagoland area?  This is a traveling film festival and could make a stop in your state.

Adventure Film began in 2003, according to their website, with “a vision of a community-based, mission oriented outdoor adventure film festival that tied indie film with art and activism.”

Over 400 films were submitted this year, from all over the world, covering all aspects of adventure.  The Boulder Festival in Boulder, Colorado is the kick-off event before the world tour.  The selection committee narrows it down to the top 30 films, all of which can be screened at the kick-off event.  This is also a multi-day festival that includes speakers, outdoor activities, and a street fair.

The world tour is not as extensive, depending on where you live, but totally worth your time.  Chicago hosted their 4th annual Adventure Film Festival this year at the Music Box Theater on November 11, 2018.  Here, they narrowed it down to 11 films that were screened over three hours (plus a short intermission).  The shorts varied in length from 3 minutes to as long as 26 minutes.  Below are the films we had the privilege to see this year:

Adventure Films - part I

Adventure Films - part 2

These were not just films about adventure seekers jumping off cliffs or skydiving in volcanoes.  No, these were human interest stories that made you appreciate the good that people do for others.  And also for themselves.  There was one story about Lonnie, a blind man who found a love of kayaking and travels all over the country teaching other blind people how to kayak with their disability.  Another story covered the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and how a rock climbing community is using their unique skills to help clear trees and roads in Puerto Rico.  Our favorite story followed three U.S. veterans, all of whom did tours in Iraq, who returned to that country to explore the natural beauty of the country absent of the war.  They actually went skiing in the mountains!

There were two options for admission.  You could simply purchase a general admission ticket ($20) which covers the screening of the films.  The VIP option ($45) included the screening, a private VIP reception that included food, two Revolution Brewing beers, a small popcorn, and a gift bag.  Here are the goodies from our gift bags:

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There were also some pretty good raffle items available.  All of the proceeds from this event went to the Sierra Club’s Chicago Inspiring Connections Outdoors.  Chicago ICO is, according to their website, “a volunteer-run community outreach program that provides opportunities for urban youth to explore and protect the natural world, while developing their leadership skills and honoring a love of the outdoors.”  They take kids hiking, canoeing, camping, etc.  They raised over $6,500.00 for this small event.  It might not seem like much but it will go a long way for an organization like this.  And we were happy to be part of it.

Look for this event next year and make you way into the city for an inspiring evening!  You won’t be disappointed.

Jack’s Pumpkin Pop-up – An Adult Pumpkin Farm

Jack’s Pumpkin Pop-Up is an interactive pop-up experience in the city.  It sits on 2 acres of land in the Goose Island neighborhood.  This past weekend were the final dates for the 2018 season but I’m sure it will be back again next year.

While they are promoting themselves as an “adult” pumpkin farm experience, it is open to all-ages.  When we went, on a Friday night at 7:00 pm, there were only a handful of kids there with their parents.  The “adult” part seemed to simply be the three bars set up on the property.

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Your options for entry can be just general admission or it can include +1 or +2 drinks.  If you choose the later option, your drink choices are limited.  You have more choices available if you purchase your drinks separate from the admission.  The other “adult” aspect is they allow you to walk around freely with you drinks.

Having lived and raised my kids in the suburbs, I can tell you I have been to much larger pumpkin farms.  This was smaller, but unique.  Every couple of feet or so was another set up for the perfect photo opportunity.  Giant chairs, shadow boxes, old cars, farm equipment, and lights everywhere!

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Not to mention the most incredible skyline as a backdrop for many of your photo-ops.

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In addition to the selfie/Instagram/snapchat photo ops, there was a small corn maze, some carnival games, and a real camel ride (didn’t expect that one, did you?).  There was also one food truck there that night.  Not sure if that was a rotating option or if it was the same truck for the whole run.

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And yes, there is discounted admission on Groupon if you can go on a Sunday-Thursday.

A Girl’s Gotta Eat – Food Hall: Eataly

Not to be confused with a food court (the fast food variety usually found in shopping malls), a food hall is an artisanal shopping and eating experience all under one roof.  The concept is said to have originated in Europe and is fast becoming a go-to dining experience here in America.

Since we were going downtown for a smaller activity, we decided to make a day of it and include one of the more well-known destinations, Eataly, into our plans for the day.

Eataly is an Italian food hall concept that was brought to America through a partnership that includes famous Italian chefs such as Mario Batali*, Lidia Bastianich, and Joe Bastianich.  They have locations in Los Angeles, Boston, and two in New York.  The one in Chicago is considered to be the largest in the U.S.

This two-story location is overwhelming when you first walk in but, fortunately, they have a map and guide that walks you through each department so that you don’t miss out on anything.

Self guided tour

We decided to do the self-guided tour and, as directed, we started upstairs and got a glass of wine.  You can walk around with it so, sure.  From there, we hit the olive oil department, and this is where you realize what you have really gotten yourself into.  ROWS and ROWS.  I had no idea there were so many types and flavors of olive oil.  I expected this from the wine department but not olive oil.  Every department is like this.

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And bring your appetite – hence the Girl’s Gotta Eat connection.  There are a few sit-down restaurant style options.  They are smaller spaces, but we had no problem getting seated.  Take away counters are available as well for sandwiches, panini, and other Italian specialties.

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But don’t fill up upstairs.  Once you get back down to the main level you have way too many desserts to choose from.  There is a gelato bar, pastry counter, cannoli bar, and Nutella station.  Oh, and coffee.  I’m getting full just remembering this visit.

So, all in all, this was a great way to spend a couple of hours together and share some great food as well.

*For those of you who are aware of the sexual misconduct allegations against Mario Batali, Eataly has terminated its relationship with the chef and all products bearing his likeness have been removed from the shelves.

Day Drinking AND A Girl’s Gotta Eat – Bacon and Beer Classic

Bacon.  AND Beer.  What?!?!?  Yes.  And it was just as good as you are imagining.

This year was the 4th annual Bacon and Beer Classic in Chicago.  You can also catch this tour in other cities but the food and beer vendors will be representative of those locations.  The event was held at Soldier Field and took up the entire walkway on the Mezzanine level.  There were over 100 beer vendors (craft beers) and over 30 bacon dishes.

General Admission* got you entrance into the event, three hours of eating and drinking, and a really nice souvenir cup.  No throw-away plastic here.  This one was ceramic.

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There was also a VIP option (which I might consider upgrading to next year).  You get an additional hour of tasting (before the General Admission crowd comes in), designated bathrooms, and a lanyard that hold your souvenir cup.  Trust me when I say this would have come in handy when I was trying to juggle the mini cup and all of the food I was sampling.

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As I mentioned before, there were over 100 craft beer vendors.  Some were brands you might know like Pollyanna, Bells, and Founders.  My SO and I are always up for something different so we were trying out the local vendors.  There were also a couple of cider vendors as well as a few spiked sparkling water booths.  A little something for everyone.  One stop that put a smile on our faces was the bacon bourbon table.  I wish I could tell you what it tasted like but they were mixing it with their special brand of Bloody Mary mix.  So it looks like I’ll be making a trip to Binny’s (I already Googled it.  They carry it.).

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Now, let’s talk about the food.  With the exception of a few places, you were only getting a tasting portion.  Which was fine because there were over 30 food booths.  A few of our favorites were a pork belly fried rice, a bacon beignet, and a bourbon glazed shredded pork over mashed potatoes.  Seriously, they weren’t playing here.  But hands down, our two favorites were the bacon topped jalapeno popper and the spiced pork belly with a pineapple relish.  We went back for seconds on the latter one.

Bacon favorites

My one tip for you – if you pass a beer or food vendor and don’t want to stand in the long line, you will not be able to go back later.  Well, you will, but the chances are pretty high that they will be out of their product.  Especially the first-time and local vendors.  Trust me, the line was long for a reason.  I found out the hard way when I missed out on a bacon topped Krispy Kreme donut.  Someone is in the dog house for convincing me we should come back later.

*I thought I saw this event on Groupon but, since I already had tickets, I did not save the link.  Look for it next year.

Day Drinking – Whiskey Acres

Whiskey Acres Distilling Company is a true “seed-to-spirit” operation.  A certified “farm distillery”, Whiskey Acres is located in DeKalb, IL.  The Walter family decided to turn some of their farm land into crops to be used to produce their own brand of whiskey and bourbon (and some vodka too).  The corn, the wheat, and the rye are all grown right there on their land.  And you can tour the farm and distillery to see where the magic happens.

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They started opening the distillery to the public in 2014.  Our guide, Cherise, has been leading those tours since they opened.  Her knowledge of the process and passion for what they produce added to our fun-filled experience.

The tasting room is open from 1:30-8:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and again on Sundays from 1:30-5:30 pm (from April thru November*).  Tours are given at the top of every hour.  The cost for the basic tour is $10 and gets you the tour, a tasting, and a souvenir shot glass.

You can upgrade your tour to include a full drink (or two).  This was a no-brainer.  Especially when they had bourbon slushies on the drink menu.

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The journey begins with a view of the farm and a story about the history of the family and the crops they grow there.  What I found fascinating was the variety of corn they grow and the various flavors they can instill in their spirits as a result.  The photo below shows some of those “specialty” corns.

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From there, you get to see the stills and learn about the distilling process.  They discuss the mashing, fermenting, and barreling of each batch they produce.  After that, they age it, bottle it, and ship it out themselves.  They even host “bottling parties” that are open to the public.  I definitely want to get in on one of these.

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Once your tour is over, you are welcome to stay on the property and enjoy more of their libations.  They have a really cute cocktail patio and even encourage visitors to bring their own snacks or lunches.  We packed up a small cooler with cheeses, crackers, peanuts, etc.  It was a beautiful sunny day and they have plenty of seating.

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*They are currently in the process of building a new visitors center.  The plan is to have it completed by the end of November.  This new building will enable them to remain open year-round.  The current visitor center is only 400 square feet and feels like a cozy bar.  Except that, with 40 people in our tour group all trying to buy tour passes and cocktails, it felt less cozy and more cramped.  The new visitor center will be around 4,000 square feet and will seat around 60 people (with more than enough wiggle room for standing room only).

Old visitor center

New visitors center

I was able to see the new building when I was there, but it had only just been framed out.  I guess I will have to go back again to get all of you an update.  Twist my arm.  This was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.  I highly recommend taking the road trip!

Chicago Blackhawks Training Camp Festival

First off, let me say, I love hockey.  The first signs of fall don’t make me think of Halloween or pumpkin spiced whatever.  It reminds me that hockey season is about to start.  Every September, the Chicago Blackhawks kick off the beginning of their season with a training camp festival.  It is a celebration of a new season and the fans who support the organization.

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Tickets are only $5 per person.  ONLY $5.00 people!  You do not need to be a season ticket holder to purchase tickets.  You don’t even need to know a season ticket holder to purchase tickets.  This ticket will provide entry into the festival and into the United Center for the scrimmage game.  You still have to pay for parking but even that is discounted.

The festival is an all-ages event but there is something for everyone.  From an adult perspective, there was a giant beer pong game, bags, and beer.  There was a band playing and plenty of opportunities for photo ops.

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In the parking lot, they had the Blues Brothers car, a Blackhawks race car, and a Hawks Zamboni.

Car collage

In the new atrium, you could get your picture taken in front of a mock-up of the locker room.

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There were plenty of chances for meet and greets as well.  Tony Esposito, Denis Savard, Troy Murray, Steve Konroyd, and Eddie Olczyk were all on hand this year for autographs and pictures.

Embassadors

Then there is the game.  First, let’s go back to the cost of attending.  Since everyone is paying $5.00/seat, the ticket is general admission.  The upside of this is that, if you get into the rink early enough, you can get a prime seat in the 100 level.  On the glass even.  The downside is that, since it is general admission, you need to get into the rink right when they open the doors to get great seats.

They play a full three period scrimmage.  Most would assume that, since it is just a scrimmage, you will not be seeing the top skaters.  Not true.  Not only are the big names (Kane, Toews, Keith) on the roster, they play through the third period.  While it’s great to see the regular players return to form, my SO and I like to see how the prospects/rookies look and maybe get excited to see what they could bring to the team this season.

roster

And best of all, whether you are Team Red or Team white, at the end of the game you can still shout – HAWKS WIN!

Don’t forget to walk around the United Center (inside and out) at some point.  They have a new atrium area with a HUGE fan store.  Outside, you will find some great statues honoring some great players.  Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and the 75th Anniversary statue are all worth a visit.

Hull and Mikita statue

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The Cavalcade of Homes Tour

The Cavalcade of Homes Tour is a showcase of new homes and the creativity of the companies that built them.  It is a great way to visit a builder’s work if you are in the market to build new or remodel a room.  But you don’t have to be.  I love walking through model homes for decorating ideas.  My SO looks forward to checking out the finished basements (not available in all models).

The tour this year consists of 18 model homes.  You have to purchase a ticket to get scanned before you enter each house.  Tickets can be bought online or purchased at the entrance to the first home you decide to tour.  The cost this year is $12.00 but it is not limited to one day.  The tour this year runs from September 7-16 so if you didn’t see all of the homes on the first day, you can finish up the next day (or the following weekend).  We are hard-core and knocked them all out (with the exception of the homes in Ottowa) in one day.

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One great thing about this tour is that, even though the houses are spread apart, they have a fantastic app that, once downloaded, you can pull up each listing and get directions to the next stop.  We started our day arriving at our first location in Sugar Grove around 11:00 am.  Shout out to our longtime friends, Greg and Rosie Millen with our favorite kitchen and bath company, Heritage Home Decor & Design.  They did the kitchen, master bath, and laundry room in this model.

Greg kitchen

We like looking at new improvements in the kitchen when we tour these homes.  It all goes on a bucket list for when we finally do remodel our kitchen.  One of the more popular attractions this year seemed to be the pull-out microwave.  Yes, you read that right.  The microwave is built into your cabinets, like a drawer.  Check it out in the photo above and in this close-up from a different house:

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Trends seem to change every couple of years with bathrooms as well.  Double sinks are great and seemed to be the norm in all of the master bathrooms that we saw.  Some had normal sized bathrooms with standard sized vanities and then some of them had this:

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I mean, come on.  It takes up a whole wall.  And it has a TV.  If I had this, it would take me twice as long to get ready.  Especially if I have Netflix on the TV and I am watching reruns of Parks and Recreation.  Or Scrubs.

Another big master bath trend is the open shower concept with multiple shower heads.  Walk-ins with benches.  Rain shower and massaging shower heads.  And stand-alone tubs.  Built in whirlpool soakers are dinosaurs now.

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Now for a couple of my favorites.  One of the models had a fireplace and a wet bar in the master bedroom.  If there was a TV over the fireplace instead of the picture, my SO and I would never leave this room.

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There was one home that had a stand-alone tub IN the walk-in shower.  It was like a spa.

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And finally, this walk-in closet.  What is this?  Maybe it’s what heaven looks like.

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This Cavalcade happens once a year in the Western Suburbs.  It is a fun way to spend an afternoon (or a whole day) together.  Even if you are not in the market to build or remodel, you would still have fun checking out the latest trends and maybe putting some of these on your “future” list.

Urban Adventure Quest – Chicago

Urban Adventure Quest is a scavenger-hunt using your smartphone.  But it is not your typical “find this item” type of pursuit.  That was my biggest concern before trying it out in Chicago.  I did not want to walk around the city just looking for the “most photographed sculpture shaped like a bean”.  Ok, that was on the “find” list, but at least the challenge that accompanied it made it interesting.

Anyway, as I explained above, this is an app that you download onto your phone.  The cost is $49/city hunt but, you can get it for a discounted price with a Groupon (of course) promotion code.  The game allows you to input anywhere from 2 to 5 team member names.  It gives you a specific starting location and, once you are there, you hit the “start” button that will take you to the first puzzle.  Here is what that puzzle looks like (and the only one I will be sharing with you):

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Two things I will recommend to you:

  • Wear comfortable shoes. This walking tour/adventure will take you 2-3 hours.
  • Bring a pen and piece of paper. We ignored this suggestion and regretted it.

The challenges/puzzles ranged from super easy to difficult.  The pen and paper will come in handy for a couple of different puzzles.  For one of them, you have to create a word find using words from a famous quote and then solve a riddle from it.  There is another challenge that requires you to fill in artists names in a blank crossword puzzle.

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At Cloud Gate, aka The Bean, once the challenge was complete it was optional to take a selfie in front of this very famous sculpture.  Here is my incredibly cooperative family contribution:

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What I appreciated about doing this in my own city was that we found things that we had no idea existed.  The quest showed us that there are some really cool stones embedded in the façade of the Chicago Tribune tower.  According to this article by Chicago Architecture, there are 149 of them.  Stones from the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and the Great Pyramid.  We wished we had more time to explore them all but, this was a timed competition and all.  And we were in it to win it.

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The quest also took us to a beautiful piece of artwork on Dearborn Street called “The Four Seasons” by Marc Chagall.  Six Chicago scenes are created from hundreds of thousands of mosaic tiles.  It is a fantastic backdrop for taking pictures.  My photo below is a close-up of one of the clues to a challenge but does not do justice to the magnificence of the whole piece.

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Another great thing about this online game is that you are not limited to the city you live in/near.  They currently have 60+ locations to choose from.  I think this is a fantastic way to explore a new city and I can’t wait to choose my next adventure!

Volunteer – Race Day

There are opportunities to volunteer for races in every community, for every charity, all year long.  My SO has participated in 5K run/walks on various holidays (4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc.) and for various charities (Race for the Cure, Run for the Zoo).  He has also taken on the Chicago Marathon and other half marathons in his running career.  I’m not bragging about his accomplishments, I am simply pointing out that you can find an event like this, year round, no matter where you live.  And they are always looking for volunteers.

My community hosts a mini triathlon every year and I have volunteered for the last 3-4 years now.  I worked the Tri for the first time back in 2012.  My son needed community service hours for school and we thought this would be a great opportunity.  I found out at this event that two of my neighbors had also signed up and had been working the Tri for several years.  Mark and Chris are at the first water table as soon as you transition from your bike to the run.  They enjoy working this spot and request it every year when they sign up.

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So, inspired by them, two other neighbors and I decided to follow their lead and start volunteering.  The first year we were assigned the main pool and we have requested it every year.  My job is to get everyone lined up by their assigned bib number and keep the line moving once the race starts.  That’s it.  Not so hard, right?  I like this location because it gives me a chance to talk to some of the participants while they are waiting to get in the pool to start.  Many of them are doing this triathlon for the first time.  And, seeing as a tri has a swim, bike, and run component, you might assume that all these athletes are in great shape.  Not necessarily.  Some are doing it in an effort to get in better shape.  Some are doing it to check off an item on their “bucket list”.  Whatever the reason, color me impressed.

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This triathlon also hosts a kid’s version.  Fewer laps in the pool and a shorter bike ride and run.  The number of participants has grown each year that I have volunteered.  They are a little more excited to get in the pool (i.e. antsy) and they are a lot chattier in line too.  Which is great because I have already had my full tumbler of coffee by the time they start 😊

Once an athlete crosses the finish line, there are tents set up in the parking lot with food (bananas, granola bars) and drinks.  Many of these items are available to the volunteers as well.  Racers can get massages.  They can buy new gear.  My SO’s favorite tent after this race (any race really) is the beer tent.  Go figure.

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I look forward to working this event every year because I get to cheer on my husband (in the pool anyway), I run into friends and neighbors who are racing, and I get to hear inspirational stories.  My favorite athlete this year was the 68-year old who was doing her first triathlon.  I want to be her when I grow up.  Minus the triathlon part.  As a final bonus, I got a t-shirt and some swag too.  So, get out and volunteer.  Your community needs you!

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