What: AR 2008
Where: Alexandria, Va.
When: August 14–18, 2008
Why: To network, make new friends, educate ourselves and others, and have fun!
The Scoop: You have to love the annual AR conferences. First, the crowd is lively in a way that other conference crowds are not. And by lively, I mean you'll likely find everyone at the hotel bar at evening's end, laughing, shooting the breeze about serious and not-so-serious matters, and letting go of the stress that's generated when we learn about and are reminded of the horrific stuff animals endure.
Second, the folks at FARM—the conference sponsors—switch it up every year, hosting the multi-day event in DC half the time, and LA the other half. This year, I got to travel to DC for the first time ever, and couldn't wait to soak up that humidity like a sponge, to expand my animal-rights knowledge a bit more, and meet some cool, like-minded folks.
After a fitful red-eye flight from San Francisco and a two-hour layover in New York, I finally arrived in DC and shuttled myself to the Hilton, only to find that the room Katie and I'd be sharing wasn't yet available. Thankfully, the hotel pool had comfy reclining chairs, and since the conference didn't start until the next day, the two of us headed off to relax and unwind after our travels. Sharing the poolside ambience was a youthful gang of conference attendees glugging energy drinks and noshing what looked like Doritos corn chips. Cheesy Doritos? At an animal-rights conference? "I think those might be the new vegan Doritos I've heard about," said Katie. Are you kidding me? Where've I been? "Excuse me, but are those the vegan Doritos we've heard about?" Yes! Came the enthusiastic reply. "You want to try some?" Do we ever!
Newlywed Katie Paul modeling vegan Doritos
They were good, too. Darnit!
Next day, the two of us worked our butts off at our booth selling subscriptions, but we also managed to squeeze in some schmoozing and socializing. We were lucky to have our friends from Organic Athlete and Vegan Bodybuilding right across from us, so we spent quality time with Jeremy Moore and the always-fun-and-chatty Robert Cheeke, and we also met up with The Traveling Vegetarian, aka Yvonne Smith, plus the fun and funny Erica Meier from COK, new NYC girlfriend Emily Elkins and her two darling doggies Lola and Bella, and VN contributing writer Eric Prescott.
That evening, I had plans to meet with my new fun friend Dustin Rhodes, whom I met at Vegetarian Summerfest and whose wicked sense of humor kept us in good spirits despite the crappy weather. Dustin works at Friends of Animals and lives in DC, so he's equipped with insider knowledge on the best places in town to eat. We decided on Ethiopian and headed over to Dukem restaurant for what might've been the biggest veggie-combo-for-two-platter I've ever had the good fortune of indulging in. As usual, I ate twice as much of everything as Dustin, including the most delicious curried potatoes that tasted more Indian than Ethiopian, plus collards, lentils, peas, and salads. I'm actually considering relocating to east Africa now—or the East Coast at the very least.
Next, we headed to Busboys and Poets, where the joint was jumping and the atmosphere felt festive. Too bad our stomachs were at full capacity, 'cause I sure would've liked to try the vegan calzone (never had one of those!) or the vegan pepperoni pizza. Next time! After throwing back a few cooling adult beverages and chatting about everything under the sun, we realized the witching hour was approaching, and it was time to say so long. Dustin walked me to the Metro and we called it a night. Arriving at the Hilton in the early hours of the morning, I could hardly believe the size of the crowd converging at the hotel bar. Holy smokes, guys!
Saturday was to be my first time representing VegNews at the first of two panel discussions, and once I got that out of the way, the relaxation could begin. Popping next door to the Pangea booth, I shared a packet of vegan doughnuts and a cinnamon roll with Katie, who isn't the least bit ashamed of her sweet tooth, and who later indulged in an ice-cream cone from the Chicago Soy Dairy booth. We were on a sugar roll, because later we met and tasted the wares of young entrepreneur Emily Mainquist of Emily's Desserts, who is making some really delicious vegan-certified cookies that you'll hopefully get to try soon. My favorite flavor is Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip. No, wait: make that Coconut Cranberry!
Surprisingly, there was no sugar crash to prevent us from fully appreciating that evening's dinner and awards ceremony, so six-ish or so, Katie, Joe, and I lined up for the big buffet—an interesting melange that included quinoa salad, a tofu-and-veggies combination, and some breaded fake meat-type thing with stuffing inside—and headed into the great-big ballroom. Sharing our table with a nice family from Ohio, we chit-chatted until the first presenter took the stage. Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society gave the keynote speech, and big winners included HSUS' Paul Shapiro, who was inducted into the AR Hall of Fame, and animal activist/anti-landmine campaigner Heather Mills, who won the Celebrity Animal Advocate Award. Turns out she's a real champion for animals, and a generally lovely person. Hearing her speak made us all forget about our rather uninspired dessert: Tofutti Cuties served on a silver salver. No, really!
Celebrity Animal Advocate Award-winner Heather Mills, and VN's Aurelia d'Andrea