Road Trip XI, Days 11-16: What Woods These Are I Definitely Know, Or, What Really Makes an Easterner

Greetings from Durham, NC, my hometown. I’m actually writing this from the living room of the farmhouse I grew up in, and where both my parents still live. I know. I’m beyond lucky, for a person of any age–and I’m 60!

The Mate and I have been pinching ourselves as we crossed this enormous country/continent west-east, waiting for the usual weather trap…but so far, none has sprung! No ice storms, tornadoes, swirling dust, nor blizzards. Not so much as a thunderclap. Yet. We still have a long trip to go. But for now, I’m free to write about stuff you can notice when your nose isn’t buried in a weather app.

Like forests, which I can see very clearly, thank you, even while seeing the trees. Last week we had the pleasure of camping in eastern Arkansas…oh, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First we stopped in Little Rock to ride our bikes along the Arkansas River, which is famous there for its

This being the south, ya gotta add those quotation marks.

I thought I saw swans on the river, masses of them–only to realize, those are pelicans! In Arkansas! Go figure.

Maybe seabirds enjoy an inland vacation once in a while?

At the end of a long day’s drive, we camped in a state park that’s notable mostly for its location alongside part of the Trail of Tears. We got there late enough in the day that I only had time for an hour’s walk before dinner, and what I noticed was–I could be home in NC! The woods looked exactly the same.

Sun setting on maples, oaks, tulip poplar…and The Mate

Even though we still had the Mississippi to cross, not to mention the entire length of Tennessee and the Blue Ridge, these woods felt like home to me. Which of course brought up the decades-old debate between North Carolinian me and my Californian Mate: Are deciduous woods beautiful in winter?

My answer: 100% Even without the garnish of rhododendron, leafless winter woods are, to me, maybe even more striking than green leafy woods. They’re showing you the bone structure of the land!

My Western Mate, and both our Western sons, always insist the winter woods of the east look “dead” to them. I mutter, “Huh,” raise my chin, and feel sorry for them.

Running out of time for a second night of camping, we opted for a motel right outside Smokey Mountain National Park (taking pains to avoid the shudder-inducing town of Pigeon Forge/Dollywood). One more quick walk before dark yielded a swinging bridge over the Little River…

…but unfortunately, all the river banks are locked up in private property, so no beautiful hikes there.

Next day we got to drive through the park, up and over the Appalachian Trail…

I know–how could we pass up “Sweat Heifer”? But we had friends waiting to hike with us in Asheville. And Mt. Katahdin was a little too far.

…and into North Carolina! Asheville is very hip these days, so we were happy just to stick with our friends at their house & eat homemade food. But I did snap this sunrise photo of the city waking up behind Beaucatcher Mountain:

Sure can’t blame all those folks who want to live there! (And maybe you can go home again. #TomWolfeReference)

I mean–what’s not to love about those trees? “Dead”? C’mon, people!

Our last stop in the mountains, before making our way back to the good ol’ Piedmont, was the tiny community of Celo (pronounced See-low), in the South Toe River Valley.

South Toe River at your service

Wayyyyy back in 1981, after two years at Harvard, I decided I needed a break from urban college life. It wasn’t so much the stress that weighed on me, but the lack of purpose. What was this all for? Being privileged enough to be able to take a semester off without working for money, I was steered by a mentor to sign on as an intern at a tiny junior high school serving both day and boarding students: Arthur Morgan School. AMS still exists–look it up here!

Quakers Crossing!

AMS isn’t officially Quaker, but I believe it’s actually more Quakerly in practice than many so-called Quaker prep schools. The kids do all the chores and the cooking, start each day with 30 minutes of singing folks songs, go on weeklong backpacking trips and 3-week field trips. In fact, they were off field-tripping when we got there, leaving us free to tour the campus I worked at 40 years ago. I didn’t feel like taking pictures of buildings, but I did capture the mountains behind the community soccer field.

There’s a school in there somewhere.

(But can we talk about how those trees grace the ridgeline like grey velvet? Can we?)

Without going into detail, I need to say that my time at AMS changed my life…by redirecting it. Two years in Cambridge had been swerving me toward a “sophisticated” ethic of city fashion and fierce academic competition. SO not me. AMS and Celo reminded me of who I really was: a country girl. A girl hopelessly in love with mountains and the trees that grace them.

Those creeks! So clear and pure! When, in 1990, I abandoned the Southeast to become a Pacific Northwesterner, I swear I recognized that Blue Ridge Mountain purity in the waters of the PNW.

The creeks (or “cricks” or “branches”) in the Piedmont are pretty sluggish & muddy. But mountain waters…

Also–swinging bridges are a thing in the Blue Ridge–or used to be. In 1982 I used to cross one regularly, with two more down the road. In 2022, I could only find this one:

Oh well. (But the trees are still pretty.)

Something else I forgot about those mountain folks: their driveways can be STEEP. (That’s neither here nor there, but I couldn’t resist a picture.)

Seriously? In snow & ice?

Oh, and a quick plug: if you’re looking for a sweet and healthy vacay or staycay, you can’t do better than the Celo Inn.

You’re welcome!

My time at AMS was short, only half a school year, and I’m still not sure why I pushed myself to return to Cambridge so quickly. But in those six months I learned guitar, strengthened my singing voice (30 minutes of Morning Sing for 6 months!), re-connected with my true nature, and The Boyfriend Who Became The Mate & I acquired lifelong friends who still host us to share memories, and waffles.

Waffles With Ward (not pictured: Ward)

Our friends Herbie & Marnie have a sign above their door that sums up Celo best:

Amen.

Do the bare eastern woods embody the “imperfect life”? Or do they simply remind me that woods are the whole package–trunks and moss and rocks and streams and whatever else is to be noticed–not just green trees. That’s what I go to bat for when I insist on the beauty of my dear eastern forests in the not-green time. Who’s with me?

Road Trip VIII, Days 19-23, Nashville to Asheville: Don’t You Westerners Start With Your “These Ain’t No Mountains”

We’ve made it to North Carolina, my home state. But not, as yet, to my hometown. For once we aren’t fleeing weather on this trip, which means we’ve been able to slow down and enjoy time with friends in the Blue Ridge.

That means lots of walks and hikes on steep, rocky pieces of earth which, to me, are most definitely mountains, thank you very much, but to my Californian Mate…not so much. Please ignore him. These mountains are old, they’re beautiful, and they’re full of old, beautiful music, songs full of references to valleys and hollers, songs I can’t get out of my head when I’m here. I love these mountains.

Sunrise from the front porch, up on Butler Mountain

But I’m not about to set up a head-to-head beauty contest between them and my beloved Cascades or Olympics. I mean, let’s be realistic, okay?

So on our hike yesterday, I went small, ignoring huge oaks and laurel thickets and waterfalls for something subtler…and also very welcome, after all the desert we just crossed: fungus.

The first I came across are what’s commonly known as a British Soldiers. Usually their heads are bright red; I’ve never seen pink ones!

Maybe they’re all wearing their Pussy Hats!

Then there were these beauties on a fallen tree:

Who knew decay could be so lovely?

And this little guy, doing a good impression of a tide pool creature:

Sea slug? Chiton? Nope—fungus.

Finally, on our way back, these fragile white fans:

I know, I know. We have pretty mushrooms in the northwest too. But let the east shine for now, ok?

Since I mentioned Nashville in the heading I should mention that, yes indeed, the Mate and I paid our respects to Music Row, and ate some kick-ass ribs at Acme Feed and Seed (which I did not take a picture of ’cause I already felt conspicuously touristy).  But neon and cowboy boots are not our thing. I’m happy for those who love Nashville and all it stands for, but we were just as glad to get back to our motel and watch the Tarheels play. 😊

And speaking of Tarheels…next up, Durham, Chapel Hill, and the ACC tournament! And…where will Traveling Avocados #5 and 6 find their destiny?

Road Trip V, Days 12-14, Cookeville, TN-Asheville, NC: Counting Blessings

I realize that the topic of traffic accidents may be painful to some, so—fair warning. We just walked away from one, and I want to write about it.

For the record, I lost both my uncle and my grandmother in separate auto crashes (the former, before I was born; the latter, when I was fifteen). But I’m willing to bet most families can list one or more members lost that way. There’s a reason so many of us sign off our conversations and emails, “Drive safely!”

The Mate and I were heading east on I-40 in the middle of Tennessee in a blinding rainstorm. We had just stopped for a satisfying bike ride (Mate) and run (me) on a rail-trail along the Cumberland River outside Nashville. (For most folks, Nashville = Grand Ol’ Opry. For the Wings, Nashville–or any other city–= “Where do y’all keep your bike paths?”) We had changed into dry clothes, and were looking forward to an arrival in Knoxville early enough that we might even take in a movie. I was on the iPad, checking dinner options.

Both of us noticed that Red Rover felt a little…squiggly. I tapped on the iPad. The Mate drove.

Suddenly, crossing a bridge over a flooded creek, Red Rover was skidding sideways. Her left rear slammed into the concrete divider, bouncing us back across the freeway with such force that the right-side slam spun us 180 degrees. When the entire slo-mo sequence ended, we sat staring the oncoming traffic in the face from the safety of the shoulder.

Of course it wasn’t safe. I was convinced that the next second would bring another car, or one of those semis, hydroplaning right through our windshield. But Red Rover re-started, and after only a few moments–though it felt endless–the traffic parted enough for The Mate to do a U-turn and rejoin the eastern flow.

~A rest area appeared in the next two miles.
~A nice man inside showed us on a map where we could find a good mechanic in the next town, Cookeville.
~Red Rover showed barely a scratch.
~The Mate and I suffered only shaky knees.
~Cookeville was 20 miles away. We spent that drive marveling at our blessings.

I won’t bore you with the details of what we learned from the mechanic about the probable cause of our skid. Suffice to say we’ll be visiting a Subaru dealer when we get to my hometown, Durham. And our poor ol’ bike rack needs some first aid. But this post is about blessings.

We were able to drive away from an accident that could have killed us in several different ways. We were able to afford new tires, and a night in a motel a little nicer than our usual Super-8 level. (They gave us milk and warm cookies when we checked in.) I posted about our accident on Facebook and received dozens of caring responses. The next day we drove safely out from under Winter Storm Thor and made it to the home of our friends in Asheville, who spoil us rotten.

"Goin' back to Carolina, bless my soul, bless my soul..."

“Goin’ back to Carolina, bless my soul, bless my soul…”

Me & The Mate, happy to be alive in the Blue Ridge.

Me & The Mate, happy to be alive in the Blue Ridge.

At this point, all I can do is borrow from Anne Lamott one of her three favorite prayers: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”*

(Courtesy Indiebound.org)

(Courtesy Indiebound.org)

(*Lamott’s other two prayers are, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Oh, wow.” I’ve borrowed those plenty too.)

What else is there to say?

OK, I’m Home–Now How Do I Hang Onto All Those Memories?

10,000 miles. 20 states (OK, 19 plus Puerto Rico). 60 close friends and family members. 23 local, state and national parks. 

We’re home. Time to caption & share the photos. That should do it for capturing memories, right?

For any normal person, maybe. But for capturing the full vibrancy of a past moment, I like to play “Best of.” It’s a game we started with our kids when they were small, and I think it rubbed off more on me than on them. Here’s how it works:

Best Hike of Trip: Nevada Falls in Yosemite (3/28). (I mean, really, how could anything in Yosemite NOT win Best Hike?) Eating an orange way too close to the edge with my son who’s about to disappear into Central America for 2 months…

Casey

Runner-up: El Yunque Peak, Puerto Rico (3/7) Getting drenched with The Mate on the way down…after all, it IS a rain forest…

Honorable Mention: Nevada Falls again (3/27). Yup, I went up twice in a row. Didn’t have enough time the first day.

Best Bike Path: Turtle Bay, Redding, California (3/29). An old favorite, not a new discovery, but nothing beats this wonderfully curvy path with its little roller-coaster section, wild bunnies, blooming redbuds…

Runner-up: Provo River, Utah (3/23). Exercising nervous tension before Carolina’s final NCAA game…

Honorable Mention: Bettendorf, Iowa (3/20). Who knew the Quad Cities were so into fitness?

Best Dinner: That little hamlet near Ceiba, Puerto Rico that served fish with sauteed onions and lime (3/6). Giant as-yet-uncaught fish patrolled the waters beneath the restaurant deck, probably scarfing the entrails of our dinner.

PR

Runner-up: a tie between Mama Dip’s Fried Chicken in Chapel Hill (3/14) (Mama Dip catered our wedding back in 1986!) and our friend Ben’s braised lamb shanks in Asheville, NC (3/1). Ben OWNS lamb.

Honorable Mention: fried pork and plantains, El Yunque (3/3 and 3/4). Good thing we got out of there; that diet would have killed us. But we would’ve died happy…

Best Lunch: Allen & Son’s BBQ with fixins (3/13). OOOF. No possible runner-up.
image

Best Breakfast: El Yunque Inn’s creamy oatmeal with fresh mango (3/4). Since all our other breakfasts were cereal, that one kinda stands out…

And, lest you think with me and The Mate it’s all about exercise and food…well, it is. On road trips, we are rarely in Museum Mode. But we do branch out occasionally.

Best Cultural Experience: Bluegrass & Beer at Asheville’s French Broad Brewery (3/1). It’s the name of the river, silly, not some Parisian chick…

Runner-up: My own (first!) author reading at The Regulator Bookshop in my hometown, Durham, NC (3/11). 🙂
20140317-135105.jpg
Best Unexpected Find: Great Basin National Park, Nevada (3/25-6). Aspens. Quiet. Wild turkeys.

Runner-up: Rock Canyon, Provo, Utah (3/22). Whoa, those rock climbers are all so happy!

Honorable Mention: Tie between the Ceiba Country Inn, Puerto Rico (3/5-6)--all those dogs!--and the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s 100-acre sculpture woods (3/19). Is that a spaceship sinking in that lake?

Notice a pattern here? The bolded words are the real memories. The whole “contest” is just an excuse to push my brain to run through all those thousands of possibilities, reinforcing the synaptic connections of every single one of those 49 days. 

Oh, and the dates? That’s just my nerdiness. See, my grandma lived to be 103 and kept a razor-sharp memory till the end. Just in case I’ve inherited her longevity genes, I’m keeping my own brain in SHAPE.

So that’s how I remember good times. Do you have other tricks? Memorabilia? Rock collections? Or are you so glad to be home you just let it all go and move on to doing laundry?