Katie and Mr. Finley Walk the Shire

Get ready for the coolest possible way to get some steps in. In late spring, a curious ad popped up in Katie’s social media. It was a call for adventure, one that Katie answered with her intrepid pup, Finley.

Specifically, it was THE LORD OF THE RINGS Virtual Challenge series, offered by Conqueror Virtual Challenges. An online community that provides virtual fitness experiences and encourages participants to hike famous trails, you can meander through historical locations or climb massive mountains. There are challenges as short as 20 miles through Angor Wat, or as long as 2,485 miles to complete the entire Pacific Coast Trail. The cost varies between $30 to $50, depending on the challenge. THE LORD OF THE RINGS has five different sections you can complete individually for $50, or you can follow the entire journey from The Shire to Mordor for $200, which is a stunning 680 miles. Katie signed up for just one challenge, The Shire, which starts in Hobbiton at Bag End and ends in Bree. Take it away Katie!


In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins recalled sound advice his cousin, Bilbo, had once shared with him: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” It was Bilbo’s adventurous spirit that led me to The Conqueror Virtual Challenges LORD OF THE RINGS adventure. After registering, you gain access to an app that allows you to virtually follow your path through the location.

You either manually enter your miles (or kilometers) or you can sync your activities from your smartwatch or fitness tracker. Participants can walk, run, bike, swim, row – it doesn’t matter how you get there, it just matters that you are meeting your fitness goals and making every mile count. And you can see other participants on their journeys!

As you travel, you are sent digital postcards to commemorate the distance or to share information about your location. Here’s the first one I received:

Another very cool thing? For every 20% of the challenge you complete, you choose to either plant a tree or stop 10 plastic bottles from entering the ocean. In the spirit of the Ents, I decided on trees. This was my first one:

Most of my miles were completed while walking with my own Samwise Gamgee, my pup Finley, who was more than happy to accompany me on this epic trail. Finley and I typically walk three miles a day around our neighborhood, but there were times when we found ourselves strolling down city streets or on a winding footpath in the woods. I also discovered the route I take on Princeton’s campus from the parking garage to Cotsen is exactly one-mile round trip. And here are me and Finley heading to an outdoor concert in Madison, WI this summer.

I left Bag End on June 2 and arrived in Bree on July 14, trekking 145 miles in 42 days. I thoroughly enjoyed checking in on the virtual map. The digital postcards were a nice added touch of encouragement, along with knowing I planted five trees. Here’s my finish screen:

What shocked me was the medal I received after I completed the challenge. You get one for every section of the trail you sign up for. It was mailed to my address, and arrived about 10 days after I crossed the finish line. The medal is AMAZING! It is beautifully crafted on both sides with stunning intricate details. Here’s the front:

The back includes an envelope that contains the One Ring, which you are instructed to “Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe.”

And yes, if you look closely, you can see that ring does have the famous Mordor inscription in Tengwar! The Conqueror Virtual Challenges are fantastic motivation to either kick-start a personal exercise plan or to encourage you to keep moving forward on the path to good health. And now that My Precious… I mean… the One Ring is in my possession, I must continue the journey to Mordor. I’m going to extend my subscription and further the adventure!

And just one more triumph to add…today is officially Finley’s “Gotcha Day!” Adopted two years ago from Texas, we are so happy to have him as part of the blog family!

The Pumpkin Pro

Alex Wer the pumpkin geekWhat crafter, artist, or DIYer doesn’t dream of making a living off their creativity? From the women who invented those awesome fabric snowballs to the vast empire of Young House Love, you always wonder how they managed to turn fun time into full time.

Today, we are delighted to introduce Alex Wer, a.k.a. The Pumpkin Geek. It all started in 2009, when Alex’s wife asked him to carve an artificial pumpkin for her office’s open house. It was a huge hit, and orders – from company logos to children’s portraits – started rapidly accruing. Alex’s carving talents and his expansion to Comic Cons earned him a Geekie Award in 2013. In 2017, he left his day job to be a full time pumpkin carver.

Katie caught up with Alex to ask him about his incredible creative journey that we’re NOT envious of. Well, maybe we’re a little envious. OK…we’re totally envious.


You started carving pumpkins as a favor as your wife, and now you do it full time. Did you ever imagine your career taking this turn?

Of course I never imagined it! At the beginning of what I call my “orange obsession,” it was just – how detailed can I get? Or, how photo realistic can I get? Then, my wife and I were talking and I said, “If I do a Comic Con instead of just waiting for people to find me, I’m going to be in front of tens of thousands of people. That will be a true test to see if anybody is really interested in what I do.” That conversation sparked what is now my full time job.

20000 leagues pumpkin by the pumpkin geekHow many Comic Cons do you attend each year?

I do two Comic Cons a month. I just came back from Baltimore and I think that was my 18th or 19th convention this year. I’ll be in Atlanta at the Walking Dead convention the last weekend of October. That’s my last convention for 2018, but I’ll start again in January.

What tools you use when you carve the pumpkins?

I use a Dremel. I basically have two Dremels with two different bits, so I don’t have to change them. I use a standard drill bit for cutting out things and then I use a shading and graving tool to flatten areas of the face when I need to smooth it out. It’s pretty much just two bits.

Can you describe the process of carving a pumpkin from start to finish?

Let’s say someone wants an Indiana Jones pumpkin. Unless they have a specific image they want me to use, I look online for Indiana Jones images that I think might work and will look good. Once I find the image, I create a template by enlarging it and stenciling it onto the pumpkin. Once it’s drawn onto the pumpkin, I start carving.

harry potter pumkins by the pumpkin geekWhat happens when you make a mistake?

I’ve been doing this long enough to tend not make mistakes. I tell people to think of me as a tattoo artist. Tattoo artists, once they place the image template on your skin, are just filling in the gaps. I’m basically tracing with the drill.

How long does it take to finish a carving?

The drawing and the carving portions – probably about 4 hours. The online research portion can be 5 minutes, to 5 or 10 hours. There are some images and some characters that are very hard to find, and sometimes finding the image takes me just as long, or longer, as the physical carving portion.

lord of the rings pumpkins by the pumpkin geekTell me about your five layer carving process.

If you look at my carved pumpkins, the brightest, almost white, portion is cut all the way through. That’s the first layer. Then there are three graded layers coming closer to the surface. This is where I define cheekbones, eyebrows, hair texture, things like that. Then there’s the fifth layer, which is untouched for dark eyes, black hair.

What is your most popular design?

People are really shocked when they find out about my number one design. Number 3 is Beetlejuice, which makes sense. Number 2 is Harry Potter, which also makes a lot of sense because in the Comic Con world, Harry Potter is popular with both adults and kids.

Number 1 is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from The Avengers. I did conventions in Seattle and Chicago and he was at both conventions. I had no idea he had such a fan base! There were women who traveled from Indonesia, Australia, the UK, just to meet him! In one day, I got 17 orders for Loki. Before that, I don’t think I’ve ever had 2 orders for 1 character in the same weekend.

loki by the pumpkin geekWhat locations have your pumpkins shipped to?

Obviously anywhere in the US. I’ve also shipped to Hawai’i, Canada, Germany, and the UK. I just shipped 2 to London. I’ve shipped pumpkins to 7 or 8 different countries.

Are you on a first name basis with employees at your local craft store?

Yes, I am! Everybody there knows me, and have known me for about 8 years.

What’s your favorite pumpkin?

It’s hard for me to say! I enjoy projects of fandoms that I’m not necessarily familiar with. For example, I had heard of Doctor Who, but once I started doing conventions I realized Doctor Who has a big Comic Con and geek fandom. So it’s always fun for me to do something that’s outside of my fandom. And, of course, Star Wars and Spiderman were things that I grew up with. So I love doing those pumpkins.

favorite pumpkins by the pumpkin geek


Images courtesy of The Pumpkin Geek