Joey Phoenix Media
Photographer • Videographer


Salem, MA Portrait and Event Photographer

Chasing Black Squirrels All the Way to Ohio (Part 2)

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Cuyahoga - by Sierra Shepherd

I don’t ask much of a place, really
Just that one thing which brought us all into this world
The water-birth
Maybe it comes of growing up in a place where “drought” was synonymous with “daily life”
It’s a survival instinct
Always looking for water
The depth the width the perfunctory rushing
Little more than a creek beside the Animas
My invincible heart-river
The river of the dead, so well-suited when
All my writing turned into ghosts
But still closer to my heart than the slow-moving black
Styxes of the East Bottomless and uncompassioned

Kent at Midnight

After pulling into her new driveway just before the witching hour on July 3rd, I stepped out of the car and breathed in the warm Midwestern air.

Her boyfriend, Adam, was there to "greet" me.

"No offense," he began, after shaking my hand. "But what the hell took you so long?"

Apparently, Sierra's call to inform him that we were imminently arriving had awoken him. He was short-sightedly grumpy. So was I. It had been a long day.

We moved her mattress upstairs to await her arrival. I grabbed a beer. We sat on the porch steps and talked about the pointlessness of the American University system.

Independence Day

I awoke slightly after dawn to humans downstairs, probably human neighbors, possibly neanderthals, screaming ALASKA! ALASKA! as if they were Vitus Jonassen Bering and his team of Siberians.

**I would later find out that Adam had an Alaskan license plate, that this happens to him a lot, and that the overenthusiastic neighbors thought we were all from the northwest extremities. 

I rolled over and peeked my nose out over the windowsill, and confirmed they were human. Then the cat leapt onto my back. I guess I was going to have to wake up.

Sierra did not emerge from her bedroom until 11, and when she did, she was fully naked and seemingly triumphant.

It was nice to see her so happy. It had been a while.

Our coffee rations for the day were provided by the lovely Tree City Coffee- a charming and spacious coffeehouse in downtown Kent that also sells environmentally-responsible wine. Unfortunately they didn't have any vegan pastries (no surprise there), but I had grabbed donuts from Red Fern the day before so all was not terrible. The Iced Soy Vanilla Latte I ordered was tasty enough.

While she checked things on the interwebs, I picked up a copy of the Akron Beacon Journal, which had been lying next to the fireplace,  and brought it back to the table. The front page was taken up by Independence Day happenings interspersed with Bible verses, mostly Psalms.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Liberal America anymore.

Properly caffeinated, we returned to her apartment (within walking distance of just about everything in Kent), and prepared to unload the uHaul. My legs were trembling in anticipation. Fortunately, if not a touch reluctantly, Adam was there to help. Sierra was visibly ecstatic about this, taking it as proof of his sincere and honest affection.

I was grateful for the extra human who could actually lift things. I am quite bad at lifting things, although excellent at lending an ethereal glow to the contents of the van in close range of my luminous presence.

30 minutes or so into the process, Sierra's new downstairs neighbor Sherry emerged from the house to chain smoke and ask Sierra a million questions. In the midwest, the desire to know the people around you manifests in a phenomenon known as "visiting" whereby you drop by someone's house unannounced and talk their ear off for a long time and get all the local gossip. This community aspect is heartwarming and lovely but it will get in the way of productivity (particularly frivolous notions like eating and sleeping); and chatting while doing other things is completely out of the question.

And so, to honor this regional tradition, Adam and I took a break from our heavy lifting until Sherry departed sometime later, but she didn't leave until after announcing she was having a yard sale.

When? Sierra inquired.

Oh, you know, tomorrow. Sherry responded.

Yep, yard sales on Wednesdays.  In the afternoon.  At the end of a shabbily paved, infrequently traveled street.  Why not?


Several grueling hours and a light rain shower later, the truck was unloaded and all of us were ready to fall over. So, we headed out into the world to gather supplies: beer from 101 bottles - which is an excellent establishment and quite the time investment, as not looking at every bottle of beer to create the perfect 6 pack would be a travesty (so Sierra protested as we dragged her out half an hour later).  We also requisitioned food and sparklers from the grocery store (called Acme) - yes Ohio sells sparklers in grocery stores, however, they seem to not sell very many meat-free options (at least, not anywhere you could reasonably expect them to be) - but they did have curly fries.

Necessities acquired, we returned home whereby I slept for three glorious hours.


In the evening, Adam came back over and after a desperate search for cooking implements (the piles of boxes were many) we fried up dinner. Adam and Sierra were feasting on foot-long sausages that looked about as disturbingly suggestive in the pan as you might imagine. It was boca burgers for me. Beers were all around.

Once the sun began to set, we headed outside for SPARKLER MAGIC. As an unabashed pyromaniac, I had been looking forward to this for weeks.

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Adam, poised reluctantly on the cusp of adulthood, seemed afraid that exposing his inner child might incite the almighty powers to deem him unfit for his probationary period as Grown-Up, which meant more sparklers for Sierra and me. The fireflies were also out to join us, and our combined light dance was a radiant display.

At one point during this small celebration Sierra took off across the road and into the field, a sparkler in each hand, looking every bit like a will-o-the-wisp in the twilight.

Acorn Alley


Neither of us got out of bed until after 11 the following morning, my body was on the verge of shutting down after all the driving and moving so the rest was most welcome.

We began the day at Scribbles Coffee Co. - home of Black Squirrel Themed T-shirts, exquisite chai flights, and tables you can draw on. There's also gobs of books (everywhere books!) - if I lived in Kent I would be here always.

From there we wandered the city, stopping wherever it suited us. Some of the stops included Bent Tree Coffee Roasters (the smell of this place was overwhelmingly pleasing) , Acorn Alley (Dedicated to those ubiquitous black squirrels!), Last Exit Books and Coffee (where I picked up a copy of Mark Twain's "Roughing It" for a whopping $2), The Empire of Magical Thought (impressed by our ability to automatically locate the Salemest store in all of Ohio), and the Kent Co-op (because I desperately needed vegan cheese).

Since we were both starving by then, we began our search for foods! Our initial attempt to grab burritos proved fruitless as Fresco Mexican Grill and Salsa Bar was not quite so vegan friendly as we had hoped. So instead we headed down to Newdle Bar because BAM! They were having half-priced sushi.

Sushi places are great for vegans, surprisingly. Especially this one. It was exactly what we needed. Also the decor was Soviet-retro throwback which was highly amusing.

Convinced we had seen everything in town worth seeing, we headed back home to rest for a spell before going to the COOLEST LAUNDROMAT ON EARTH. No, seriously. Laundry 101 is not only a laundromat, it's also an arcade, and a bar. So basically, it's wonderful and Salem should have one.

The only thing wrong with this place, despite the frightful Attila the Hyena, is that you have to drive there. Although, I suppose this does prevent people from engaging in drunken laundry debauchery (detergent in so many unintended places).


Laundry and Drinking successfully accomplished, we dropped off our stuff back at the house and after spending some time organizing and casting a commemorative eye to the squirrel scene in the Sword in the Stone, we walked back into town. Our destination: Hookah.

We stopped in at this place called Firefly, which was mostly empty. I guess few people like to smoke Hookah in the midafternoon of a Wednesday. It's also quite possible no one was there because the music - an EPIC mix of the world's worst mashups which sounded like a nightclub throwing up on a seniors only open mic night. Tupac and Stevie Nicks make particularly strange bedfellows.

Our choice of flavors was passionfruit, and since there was no alcohol on the menu (huh?) we ordered Raspberry iced tea and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  The ubiquitous boyfriend did make an appearance, and I found him to be considerably more pleasant when the flattering ambience of effervescent smoke wreaths allowed him to envision himself as cool.

What's even better, because it was Happy Hour (Kent has happy hours for EVERYTHING), the total cost of this adventure was $7. Which is ridiculous but fabulous and I'm glad I don't live in Kent because I would be there every day.

Final Day, Cuyahoga and the Journey into Cleveland

My mood was bittersweet as I woke up the morning of July 6th. That evening I would be hopping on a plane back East, back to guinea pigs and my darling and my, you know, life. I had only been gone a few days...but something about driving to a destination quite peculiar from your own that changes your perspective.

Everything about Ohio is quieter, softer. People move at a less frenzied pace, and seem to be less occupied with constantly doing. It's lovely. Upon closer inspection, however, my hummingbird heart would have a hard time adjusting.

To reinforce that sense of calm, we drove up to Cuyahoga Valley National Park just outside of Cleveland. We found a place to pull off, it happened to be a bike trail, and set off to explore.


The trail was just slightly more than 2 miles, and we had to stop quite a lot (not because we were out of shape, mind you!), because we were constantly in peril of being run over by cyclists. Also, we met up with an extremely acrobatic Eastern Milk Snake, who whipped 3/4s of his body into a freestanding circle to avoid a menacing bike tire.

After our endeavors, Sierra took me to undoubtedly the best restaurant in Cleveland. It's called Melt, and its massive menu is dedicated entirely to the art of MELTING CHEESE (including vegan cheese).

Heaven? Yes I think so.

Also, and this was never explained, the decor was holiday inspired. I mean, every holiday. Pumpkins, Easter Bunnies, creepy Santas... if you could steal it off an ill-fated lawn, they had it.

Mostly satisfied, but needing dessert, we popped next door to Campbell's Sweets so she could acquire some cupcake truffles. She promised me that shortly we would find a vegan bakery.

In the meantime, we embarked on a wild goose chase – if I had done proper research before we searched, this would've been avoided, but alas – to find Zubal Books. Apparently Zubal's is one of the largest booksellers on earth...and it's steeped in a mystery akin to that of Mr. Penumbra's 24 hour Book Store. What we didn't know, however, is that despite its positive reputation, Zubal's has not been open to the public since 1998, because apparently the owner is a misanthropic hermit who no longer wants to deal with the public.

Articles surrounding this reality claim that the owners were tired of being robbed, which I suppose is a fair point, although of books or of money remains inconclusive. The location isn't in the best of areas.

Whatever works for them, fine, but sad day for me.

I consoled myself by picking up a chocolate cupcake from A Cookie and a Cupcake on West 25th street. The cupcake itself really wasn't that great, it was far too crumbly and not sweet enough, but the space was adorable and air conditioned so I was grateful. It was pushing 98 degrees that day.  According to our subsequent conversations, now that I have gone vegan food options are revealing themselves to Sierra absolutely everywhere.  Apparently Ohio hadn't quite finished decorating for my arrival before I left.

After this, there was only one thing left on my list that needed to be done (apart from spending more time at Sheetz (all the time, really)). I wanted to see Lake Erie up close.

So to Edgewater Park we drove. Naturally we found a beautiful shady spot under a willow and listened to the seagulls argue over hot dog bun scraps.


It's such a weird experience going with someone to help them begin a new life somewhere else. You have the chance to glimpse a new beginning, one that's not your own. You get a taste of the excitement and the anxieties and the hope. The hope is the most important thing.


It's my great wish that Kent, OH opens up its arms to her and treats her with the respect and warmth she so justly deserves. I hope that she enjoys the hell out of having a laundromat-bar, spends countless hours chasing black squirrels all over her back yard, and allows herself to enjoy long afternoons at a pace much more suited to her lovely mind.  I hope she finds what she's looking for, whatever confirmation the world has to offer that she needs to know she made the right decision.

Note: This post was originally written by the author.  Anything that seems uncharacteristically self-congratulatory was probably later added by Sierra.

© 2016 Joey Phoenix