Road Trip IX, Days 27-32, Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C.: Country Roads, Make Me Run

I’ve written before about my father’s passion for distance running, and the way that passion shaped our family. Nothing like being back on the “old home place” for a week to bring back powerful memories of my baptism and rearing in the Church of the Holy Workout.

See, once my dad learned, in the mid-sixties, about the long-term health effects of distance running, I think he must have settled on the logic that, quod erat demonstrandum, NOT running would probably kill you quickly.

My dad, at 88 and a half, on his bike–he finally switched to an electric wheel a few years ago

At least that’s how it seemed to my 8 year-old self back in 1970. My sisters and I were, ahem, encouraged to run one mile a day, and three on Sundays. Most of that running involved the country roads near our house—some recently paved, some dirt.

But quite a lot involved the vehicle-free gravel roads of Duke Forest, maintained by Duke University’s School of Forestry (which I admire and love equally as much as I despise and loathe its men’s basketball team 🙂 ).The scenery was pretty. And the hills were STEEP.

Every year since we moved away in 1990, I go back to those forest roads, thinking, “they can’t really be as steep as I remember them.” And every time I rediscover—oh. Yep. They are.

Hard Climb Hill–putting the “mont” in Piedmont

The jury’s out, in my opinion, on whether making running mandatory for your children is a good idea or not. As it happens, I still run, thought I’ll never know if that’s despite, or because of being thrown into the deep end of the track (to mix sports metaphors). But since I’m lucky enough to have grown up entirely in the same house, it’s pretty cool to imagine how many miles I’ve logged over the years on those humble paved and unpaved roads.

I imagine Atticus Finch musing, “You never really understand a place until you consider things from its country roads…until you pull on your running shoes and run a few thousand miles around its hills.”

I’d show an even steeper hill, but I didn’t feel like wading across New Hope Creek

Or spot its wildflowers. I can’t complete a description of my childhood running routes without celebrating the subtle wildflowers of its woods in early spring.

Like the Trout Lily. Spot one…and suddenly they’re everywhere!

About as showy as they get…hiding in some invasive periwinkle leaves

Bluets, or Quaker Ladies. These always reminded me of my mom.

And while we’re at it…all praises be to good ol’ New Hope Creek itself. Humbly beautiful, and quite shockingly free of garbage considering it’s right smack in the middle of the Hillsborough/Durham/Chapel Hill Triangle.

Thanks for all the miles I’ve run past you while you were running past me!

I find myself wondering…what versions of my country roads do y’all share? What routes, walked or run or skated over a million times, make up the soul of YOUR childhood?

Road Trip IX, Days 23-26: The Appalachian Ocean

Consider this post a small gravel-chunk in the stretch of road that constitutes the travelogue of Road Trip IX. The Mate and I just spent four days and nights in Appalachian Trail country—northern Georgia, western North Carolina—and I want to capture my musings on these mountains before we arrive back in Tarheel Territory the Piedmont and give ourselves over to a week of screaming at the TV, eating BBQ and fried chicken, raising our arms for luck on free throws catching up with old friends over the ACC basketball tournament.

Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia…near the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Fellow native east coasters, I must confess to you: since moving to Washington in 1990, I’ve become a horrible Western Chauvinist. One of those people who comments that the tallest mountain in the east—Mt. Mitchell, 6,683—comes up to less than halfway up our Mt. Rainier (14,110).

Shame on me.

Height doesn’t matter.

Four days of hiking and riding around the Appalachians has reminded me of this simple truth: you can’t compare them to western mountains.

Western mountains are formidable ranges, awesome volcanoes, places of raw wilderness and dazzling danger. But the Appalachians are a sea.

Sometimes a sea of fog.

There are two reasons for this contrast, two interconnected reasons. The great age of the Appalachians has subjected them to forces of erosion and plate-stretching that have created mountains in the shape of waves.

Waves at sunrise (taken through the window of Amicalola Lodge)

A wave is a crest and a trough. In the Appalachians, the myriad valleys and hollers are as much a part of the mountains as the peaks…because people can live there. They’ve been living there for millennia. Even European settlers have been there for over 250 years!

Waves at sunset

Of course people live high up in the Rockies and the Cascades, here and there. But the very steepness and height of those ranges rendered them inhospitable to permanent settlement back when Europeans first got there. That’s why they have no equivalent culture, identity, or musical heritage to Appalachia. (Sorry–John Denver doesn’t count.)

Here’s where I ought to have some pictures of good ol’ Appalachians doing good ol’ Appalachian things like playing bluegrass or drinking ‘shine. But since I wasn’t thinking about a blog post when we were hiking and biking and driving through, all I have is pictures of The Mate with some friends.

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” anyone?

So thanks, Appalachians, for slapping me upside the head with this reminder. If they’re lucky, all those gorgeous western mountains will look like you in a few million (billion?) years. 

Till then–stay warm!

Thanks. You too.

The East Coast’s Secret Weapon: Fireflies

If you’ve been reading my blog for even a few months, you probably know I’m a homegrown Southerner who left the South decades ago and never looked back except to visit my family, cheer for the Tarheels, eat some excellent greasy meat and smell the oak trees. 

In short, I’ve become one of those terrible west-coast snobs. Northwest, in particular.

But last week I got slapped upside the head with one huge, enormous, unforgettable advantage the eastern half of America has over the western: FIREFLIES.

(All credit and kudos to Radim Schreiber for that video.)

You might well ask how anyone could forget something so magical. Here’s the reason: fireflies are a summer phenomenon. And since North Carolina’s hot, muggy summers are one of the factors that sent me and the Mate fleeing for the west, I have made it a point to visit only in the other three seasons. So I simply have not seen fireflies. Out of sight—apparently, sadly—out of mind.

For the scientifically minded, here are some quick, wikipedia firefly facts:

  • They are winged beetles, commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous use of bioluminescence during twilight to attract mates or prey.

  • Fireflies produce a “cold light”, with no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies. 

  • About 2,100 species of fireflies are found in temperate and tropical climates, especially in marshes or in wet, wooded areas.

  • In many species of fireflies, both male and female fireflies have the ability to fly, but in some species, the females are flightless.

  • They are endangered, mostly due to habitat loss.  [Thanks, Wikipedia!]

But for your inner child, here’s all you need to know: being in the presence of fireflies, in the moist, breathing darkness, is beyond anything videos can capture. It’s otherworldly…the kind of other world where nature is that benign goddess-mother we all love to imagine. Nothing bad can happen in the presence of fireflies, can it? They twinkle one’s breath away, but unlike the stars, they don’t make one feel small. Just blessed.

For a visual representation of fireflies’ geographical distribution, and to learn more about all things firefly, click here on the Massachusetts Audubon’s firefly page.

Thank you, magic creatures of “cold light.” Thank you, Mom & Dad, for raising me in a place of magic. To all y’all who haven’t been to the rural east in the summer to experience the glow: I hope you can give yourself that gift someday. (And have some greasy meat while you’re at it.)

Road Trip VIII, Days 28-31, Durham, N.C.: The Five Things I Miss About My Hometown

Spending a full week in Durham and Chapel Hill has me reflecting on the answer I give to folks who ask me what I miss, since leaving the South 27 years ago. It’s a short but sweet list.

1. My family. Officially, all that’s left here are my amazing parents—Mom shown here with a salad containing the last of the Traveling Avocados that ripened as we crossed the country.

Mama knows what’s good for you

Unofficially, our “family” now includes friends the Mate and I have known in some cases longer than we’ve known each other. But that’s another category. I do know, as a 56 year-old, how incredibly lucky I am to still have both healthy parents living in the same house where they raised me.

Mom in her truck, pulling her horse trailer

My dad’s collection of shoes reveals his active life better than anything.

2. Friends—both tribal and non-tribal. I’ll explain that in #5.

Respect the oak.

3. Oak trees. I’m not talking those scruffy things they have out West. With a few exceptions—talking to you, Laytonville, CA—those oaks are piddly, short things with prickly leaves. But the white oaks of the east? They have GRANDEUR. And their dead leave smell like life.

The next generation of red oak—so vibrant

4. North Carolina-style pulled pork BBQ and Mama Dip’s fried chicken. With fried okra, and hush puppies, and greens. Sweet tea optional.

I’ve blogged enough about soul food—I’ll just leave it at this.

5. Tarheel basketball. With the Tribe—a.k.a. a bunch of over-educated lefty lawyers, professors and administrators, and retired ditto—who gather once a year to eat #4, above, and scream at 20 year-old guys tossing around an orange ball. I didn’t want to violate my friends’ privacy by posting their picture, so here’s a shot of a Chapel Hill fire truck—just to give you some idea of the grip Tarheelism has on this town.

Even the paramedics bleed Carolina blue

Last year our team won the National Championship, but they did so in April, when we were already back home in the northwest…where nobody cares, except to inquire, “What IS a Tarheel, anyway?” So, yeah—I miss that.

Go Heels!

If you are someone who no longer lives in your hometown, what are your five things? Take your time and think about it.

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 VIII, Days 1-4, Tacoma to Oakland: Making The Familiar Strange

“Poetry is making the familiar strange.” That’s an unattributed quote I used to give my students, and it came to my mind as the Mate and I began the first leg of this, our eighth cross-country sojourn to North Carolina. It’s true that even though February travel argues for a quick race to the south, we have multiple routes available to us for that purpose. We don’t have to go Tacoma-Eugene-Redwood Coast-Oakland-Los Angeles. Yet we’ve taken that route six out of eight years.

That raises two questions. The first, Why? is easy: people. Specifically, dear very young people who are changing so rapidly that missing a year is like missing three, and dear older people whose health we never want to take for granted. We WILL go where they are, while we can.

…like these guys😍

The second question is tougher: how do we keep fresh our enthusiasm for this well-traveled route? And that’s where that quote comes in. In this first, familiar leg of our journey, I am giving my Noticing Muscles a workout, determined to keep the familiar strange.

So, walking in Tacoma’s beautiful Point Defiance Park, I ignored the shining trunks of the madrona trees to capture this bright red Oregon Grape.

Nothing like Christmas in February!

Then, instead of taking a classic picture of Mt. Rainier in all her fresh-snow glory, I focused on this cloud flexing its muscle.

We can do it!

In Eugene, walking with friends along the Coast Fork of the Willamette, I substituted a shot of moss-draped oaks for this intriguingly blank sign.

For when you’re feeling especially self-directed…

Not pictured: flock of wild turkeys.

Just before the California border, heading toward Cave Junction on beautiful US 199, we passed this sign (admittedly not our first glimpse, but I finally got the Mate to slow down so I could take its picture):

Apparently fully intentional—hey, let’s celebrate veggies AND dyslexia!

In the redwoods—oh, I have so many pictures of redwoods!—I forced myself away from the big trees…

OK, just ONE MORE big tree picture…!

ahem, I say, I forced myself to look down instead of up sometimes, and found…

British Soldier lichen!

And…

Tiny tree doing yoga!

Finally arriving in the Bay Area, the Mate and I went for a bike ride along the top of Tilden Park in Berkeley. And there…well, it’s not so much that my noticing muscles gave out, as that bikes aren’t the best mode of transport for photography.

So I had to settle for this fairly obvious shot:

Good ol’ Golden Gate in the distance

Not pictured: a pair of the glossiest ravens I’ve ever seen.

But no worries—most of the “view” I’m seeing in these well-travelled parts of the West are memories…and I haven’t found a way to capture those with my smartphone yet.

It’s That Time Again: Wing’s World Hits The Road

If you’ve been following Wing’s World for at least a year, you know by now that Wing & Mate take to the road in February with the regularity of migrating swans–minus, of course, the awesome grace.* Also we’re heading east, not north, and also, swans have that life-or-death impulse behind their travels, while ours is more…let’s say … discretionary.

(*please, no Wingspan jokes)

OK, bad metaphor. But anyway, for you newbies, fair warning: Wing’s World is about to morph into a travel blog for the next several weeks.

The original draw for this trip is described in this earlier post; click here to read.

For now, I’m going to enjoy throwing out a few teasers from past trips, answering the question, “Why take seven weeks to drive across the country in the off-season?”

  1. Beautiful places at their least crowded. Like…

    Like Guess Where National Park

2. Beautiful places we’d never even heard of

The Source of the Missouri River, in Montana.

3. Faraway friends with ridiculously cute kids who are growing up way too fast.

NC Wildflower Walk!

4. Hidden cool spots of cities we didn’t even think we liked.

Watching an ambitious grafitti artist at work in Dallas

5. Ridiculously cute animals on the farms of family members.

Ben the Sheepherding Donkey in Vermont 

6. Deserts!

Arches National Park (duh)

7. Mountains!

Long’s Peak in Colorado

8. Desert mountains!

Anza-Borrego SP in California

9. Bike paths! (We are FOOLS for bike paths.)

…like this rails-to-trails path along the Illinois River Canal

10. and…let’s not forget FOOD.

It’s all about the BBQ. With hush puppies, slaw, and fried okra. Not pictured: sweet tea.

‘Scuse me, I just got very hungry for some reason. But I’ll see you from the road!

Real Soul Food: 30 Years of Marriage, and the Best Damn Fried Chicken in the Country

On September 6, the Mate and I celebrate 30 years of marriage. I don’t know what we’ll have for dinner. All I know is, it won’t be fried chicken.

Not because we don’t love it…but because we do. Specifically, we love Mama Dip’s fried chicken from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where we met in 1977 and were married ten years later). We loved Mama Dip’s chicken so much we got her restaurant to cater our wedding. So now we’re spoiled; no one else’s fried chicken comes close.

Mildred Council, a.k.a. “Mama Dip” (courtesy WRAL)

***Sigh…might as well have spaghetti…***

Of course with fantastic fried chicken come all the fixins: fried okra, stewed greens and tomatoes, black-eyed peas, cornbread, biscuits, corn on the cob…Some folks would add mac ‘n’ cheese to this list, or Brunswick Stew, or pulled pork, but to me those are meals in themselves, demanding their own sides: cheese grits, home fries, slaw…OK, I’ll stop.

“Care for dessert?” Are you kidding? I’ll just start over with another meal. (courtesy Black Hair Media Forum)

The Mate and I are very health-conscious people. We’re lifelong athletes–in fact, distance running is how we met. But we LOVE our soul food. In fact, I love even the IDEA of soul food.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

Soul food is a variety of cuisine originating in the Southeastern United States. It is common in areas with a history of slave-based plantations and has maintained popularity among the Black American and American Deep-South “cotton state” communities for centuries; it is now the most common regional cuisine in southern cities such as New Orleans, LouisianaCharlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. Soul food influences can be commonly found as far north as Richmond, Virginia, as far east as Jacksonville, Florida, and as far west as Houston, Texas. The expression “soul food” may have originated in the mid-1960s, when soul was a common word used to describe Black American culture (for example, soul music).

Home, sweet home. (courtesy TripAdvisor)

I TOTALLY dig the idea of food feeding one’s soul. Soul food is culture, family, love. Yearning. Nostalgia. Gratitude. Nourishment of your deepest parts.

The Mate and I might not be southern by heritage; we might have abandoned the south to live all the way across the country. But Mama Dip’s chicken and okra and cornbread fed us and our 250 guests on a day of torrential September rain back in 1987, and that food and those memories continue to nourish us daily in this hard-work miracle known as marriage.

Since we can’t be in North Carolina on September 6, I’ve asked my parents, who still live there, to go out to Dip’s for us. Their own marriage is in its 63rd year. Guess they must have found some soul food of their own.

 

Road Trip VII, Days 17-21, Durham, NC to Shaftsbury, VT: Marching Madly Back Into Winter

What kind of idiots drive north into a named winter storm…when they don’t have to?

Allow us to introduce ourselves: Wing & Mate.

We did make a few prudent choices. We delayed leaving NC for a day to let the worst of Stella pass. And we stayed as far east as possible, away from the storm’s edge, even though that meant sticking with ugly ol’ I-95 instead of taking the prettier inland route. We may be idiots, but we’re not STUPID.

We also opted to take it slow, leaving late in the morning and spending the night halfway to Vermont, in a motel in Wilmington…where we got a good lesson in reality.

Reality can thin out a bit on road trips. In our little car-bubble, whatever we’re used to becomes whatever IS. So I got heartily sticker-shocked at that motel. But since it was the last room available I swallowed hard and paid–I’m embarrassed to say how much–to avoid the losing proposition of racing around the internet just before rush hour trying to find a better deal.

The motel was full of families. In summertime or over Christmas this is expected, but we could tell these weren’t folks on Spring Break. Sure enough, we learned that a major power outage had forced them from their homes. And here we are, on a purely discretionary trip! Talk about perspective. I chatted with a couple of ladies over breakfast, and when they wished me “safe travels,” I wished there were a way to say, “safe stay-at-home!”

The New Jersey Turnpike took all my attention as navigator, as other freeways snaked in and out, trying to lure us into NYC. Nothing looked attractive, even under snow, which tells you something. (Sorry, NJ…maybe someday I’ll discover the “Garden” part of your statehood.) But once safely in the Hudson Valley, headed for Albany, we both relaxed, enjoying real mountains for the first time since Asheville. 

Snowy mountains. You gotta love any scenery that calls to mind words like “serene” or “majestic.” 

Majestic, shmajestic–I wanna make footprints!

“Whose woods these are I think I know…” (snowshoeing along a section of the Appalachian Trail)

Snow angel! (We coastal Northwesterners can’t get enough of this.)

OK, snow is cool. But the REAL draw of this adventure? Cute little cousins.

…and cheese-eating dinosaurs

And their adorable sheep-herding donkey Ben:

March is a terrible time for lambing in VT. Cousin Jesse had to bring the flock into the barn.

Ben being modest. He has work to do.

So: March Madness in basketball, yes. And in the lives of good ol’ Wilmingtonites just trying to make it through winter. But the northeastern roadways? Piece o’ cake. Shame on us for doubting the Yankee ability to deal with snow.

Road Trip VII, Days 10-16: Tobacco Road (a.k.a.Durham and Chapel Hill, NC) During March Madness

Spending a week in the house you grew up in will, when you’re my age, make you think. A LOT. First of all, I’m one of the VERY few people I know in their mid-50s whose parents both still live in the house they raised me in. Which means I can, in fact, go home again–with apologies to fellow Tarheel Thomas Wolfe.

That’s a pretty rarified privilege right there.

So I’ve been spending the week thinking about privilege. Not just white privilege, which has been much on people’s minds since, say, Trayvon Martin, with the 2016 election as a nice little underline that this shit is real. No, I’m talking about about a more generalized idea of privilege. The kind you breathe growing up, to the point where you’re not aware of it. Like air, it’s just THERE.

That’s how it feels to be a Duke or a Carolina basketball fan.

Yes, the two programs, at either end of Tobacco Road, are  bitter rivals. One’s private, one’s public. But like their colors, both share only slightly different shades of the same blue-bloodedness. While some universities would give their eyeteeth to be able to join the NCAA Big Dance even as a lowly 16-seed, Duke and Carolina people are shaken to the core at the mere possibility of coming in anywhere lower than a 6. (Yes, it has happened, and no, I don’t wanna talk about it.)

Full disclosure: I’m a Carolina fan who was practically raised on the Duke campus. So I know what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about walls–visible and invisible. I’m talking about that sense of safety and well-being that comes with belonging to an exclusive club. I’m talking about walking onto a park-like campus of huge trees and gracious architecture thinking nothing more than, “Hmm, a chicken biscuit sounds good right now” or “That’s a cool shirt, maybe I’ll get one of those.”

Order yours today.

[Note: a major component of club-belonging is in-jokes. Case in point: the above T-shirt, which would take so long for me to explain to you that I’ll just mention the hashtag and move on: #theceilingistheroof ]

The other day I took a break between watching ACC basketball games with my fellow Carolina Tarheel fanatics*** and went for a run along Bolin Creek in Chapel Hill. There I saw a young woman lying in a hammock strung between two trees, on a tiny island in the middle of the creek. She was working on her laptop, in the hammock. (I don’t generally carry a camera when I run, so you’ll just have to imagine it.)

[***since, for those of you new to Wing’s World, watching ACC games with our Tarheel Tribe, from our former NC lives, is the reason the Mate and I started road tripping to begin with]

That girl was, I decided, the perfect symbol for this feeling I was trying to capture: confident in her ability to creek-hammock without asking anyone’s permission, in her safety to do so without getting bothered, in her artless joy in the beauty of her surroundings. Laptop in hammock in creek? Can’t get more privileged than that.

The wall surrounding Duke’s East Campus doesn’t keep anyone out. It just sends a message.

That was my whole childhood: supported, surrounded, embraced. I had Duke Forest practically in my backyard to run and ramble in, the Duke track to train on, Duke coaches to consult with (during my high school years) and hone my athletic talent and (I suspect) help me get into the college of my choice.

One of the Duke Forest entrances. Anyone can enter…but does everyone feel, as I did, that it was really mine?

Of course I’m not saying that everyone who walks onto the Duke or Carolina campuses comes from circumstances as lucky as mine. I know most of them must face, or have faced, adversity of some kind–financial, emotional, physical, all three. But once members of those Duke or Carolina tribes, we are somehow blessed for life, whether we choose to think about it or not. We belong. We expect our team to win.

So what?

I’m still thinking about the “so what” part. I suspect it has to do with empathy. What, I wonder, do you think?

PS: Go Heels!