Basking in Beauty and the Many-Splendored Wonders of a Colorful Autumn in the Heart of Appalachia (Part II)

October 22 – November 5, 2019: checking out the hip vibe of Asheville, North Carolina and environs; a visit to Greenville, South Carolina to take in the burgeoning food, culture and arts scene; a sobering visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian; much waterfall chasing and hiking in pristine forests; a glimpse of Georgia’s “Deliverance” country; and indelible memories camping on the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River.

“Wonder. Go on and wonder.” – William Faulkner

Made famous by Asheville native son Charles Frazier in his 1997 eponymous novel (and Anthony Minghella’s 2003 cinematic interpretation), iconic Cold Mountain in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains is a sentinel landmark in the Shining Rock Wilderness of the Pisgah National Forest.

From Knoxville, Tennessee, it’s on to Asheville, North Carolina – 108 miles distant, a sign just outside the city limits indicates. We’re eager to see what all the fuss is about in what has lately (and quickly) become one of the country’s top destinations to relocate to. Our itinerary will take in a large swathe of the Blue Ridge Mountains, several National Forests, dozens of historical sites and landmarks, beautiful creeks, rivers, waterfalls and hiking trails, and small artsy towns contained within a 205,000 square mile area defining Appalachia USA: 13 states, from northern Mississippi to southern New York. Our circuitous route will wind through parts of four of the Appalachian states: Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. And all points in between, surrounding, abutting and leading to beauty and history.

Asheville, North Carolina skyline viewed from the famous resort, the Omni Grove Park Inn.

We’ve got a few hours to burn before settling into our accommodations for the next two nights at “Mark’s Place” in Canton. Judging from previous guests’ appraisals, “Caroteo” is a highly touted Airbnb. After several nights in hotels in the big cities of Tennessee (see Part I), we’re looking forward to a “place of our own” in a tranquil, rural setting.

Transcendent fall colors and crisp clean air – hallmarks of autumn in Appalachia country – make for enjoyable “forest bathing” to oxygenate the mind and body.

First things first. A quick internet search turns up a promising hiking area near Sylva – Pinnacle Park, located in the 1,088 acre Fisher Creek Watershed. Though we don’t see a single pinnacle, the gentle, woodsy setting offers a perfect respite, truly a breath of fresh air, for a couple hours’ worth of leisurely hiking along a sing-songy brook beneath a colorful canopy of trees. Not a bad first introduction to the wonders of Mother Nature in North Carolina.

Looking north, pretty view from Foothills Parkway of densely forested hills and ridgetops of sub-ranges of the Appalachian Mountains.

But only later do we find out about the famous “must-see” Judaculla Rock located a few minutes away in some farmer’s field. How on earth in the atlas of strange places did we manage to never hear of the Judaculla Rock? For centuries the eroding soapstone boulder has been a sacred and enduring spiritual marker to Cherokee Tribal people. Lost in the mists of mythological memory, little is known of the hazy origins of Judaculla Rock and its mysterious inscriptions of bizarre hieroglyphic like symbols, estimated to be perhaps 4000 years old.

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Over 1400 glyphs are carved into this large soapstone boulder located outside Sylva, N.C., whose mysterious origins are believed to date from as early as 2000 B.C. (Photo credit: Warren LeMay.)

According to Cherokee legend, Judaculla, known as Tsul’kalu, was a fearful beast who leapt from a mountain top and left its 7-clawed imprint in the rock. Many spooky stories have been handed down through generations about ghosts and bizarre energy associated with Tsul’kalu. Tom Belt, a Cherokee Tribal native and educator, says the ancient symbols, which remain undecipherable, are sacred and important, connecting the Cherokee “not only to our own people in the past, but they connect us to that time, the element of time, and it makes it all then like we’re still here. We’re still here and we never left.”

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Mural at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian depicting exhausted survivors at journey’s end of The Trail of Tears (and Death). During the two year arduous ordeal (1838-1839), an estimated 8,000 Cherokee, 4,000 Choctaw and 3,500 Creek human beings (along with many Muscogee, Seminole and Chickasaw people) perished due to starvation, disease and exposure to harsh elements. No doubt many were also outright murdered.

Tom Belt is referring to the spiritual imprint of place and sacred sense of belongingness that the Cherokee still feel and deeply reside in karmic memory – despite having been “relocated” as a Tribal people nearly 200 long painful years ago. “Relocated” really means forcibly removed (in 1838) from their homeland to Indian Territory on the Oklahoman frontier by the fiercely anti-Indian Andrew Jackson administration in the historic tragedy known as the “Trail of Tears” . . . a multi-pronged land and water course trajectory that swept the Cherokee homelands clean of their presence, the Trail of Tears overlapped with our roundabout itinerary, serving as a constant reminder of what poet Edgar A. Guest described (in another context) as a “winding trail of wrong that time may never right.” Today the Trail of Tears is memorialized in monuments, plaques and museums dedicated to a resilient unconquered people. (More on this down the road when we visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.)

Mary walking across foot bridge over a burbling brook in Pinnacle Park near Sylva, NC.

Back in Canton, we pull into Caroteo, our Airbnb for the next two days and base from which to launch forays into the surrounding area to hike, explore, see what’s what and where’s where in this part of the country we’ve never been to before. A master carpenter, Mark designed his functional home with a zen-like sensibility, including guest lodging upstairs to take advantage of the many travelers passing through seeking a cool place to stay.

Curvy lines and rustic “wabi-sabi” touches add to the charm of Mark’s Place, aka “Caroteo”.

Though we have a private room, all other areas are shared common spaces. While garrulous and needy for attention during our common time together preparing meals or watching a movie, Mark proves to be an amiable host and charismatic person with lots of knowledge to impart about places to go and things to do. Hilariously, he’s also a dead ringer for, and talks just like, Woody Harrelson! Yet despite encouraging usage of his “shared space” with guests, he’s a hair on the proprietary side, as we learn our first morning on waking when he’d arranged all of our dry and refrigerated food and kitchen items in a manner more to his suiting.

Mark’s Place one frosty morning, with Cold Mountain in the distant background.

There’s also a woodworkers studio attached to Mark’s property, and one day as we’re leaving to go on a hike, we stop to chat with one of the craftsmen who gives us a friendly wave. Turns out he’s a Native American elder from Minnesota by way of Canada who regales us with a stories of his traditional upbringing and later activism with the American Indian Movement, joining in on the occupation of Alcatraz Island among numerous other acts of protest. He also is Leonard Peltier’s cousin, so we get an earful about Leonard’s plight before thanking him for sharing his personal story, knowledge and wisdom with us. (Wish we’d taken a photo.)

Big East Fork (Pigeon River) is a gorgeous tributary of the Tennessee River in the Shining Rock Wilderness of the Pisgah National Forest.

The next day, October 23, dawns crisp and clear, heralding blue skies and perfect hiking weather, so we pack a lunch and drive the short distance to the Big East Fork trailhead off Highway 276 in the Pisgah National Forest – wilderness designated land boasting sparkling streams, steep ridges and rugged 6,000 ft. peaks draining two forks of the Pigeon River.

Stopping to pay respects to an ancient rock outcrop along the Big East Fork of the Pigeon River.

Hiking along the Big East Fork could last for a couple of hours, take all day, or occupy several days of backpacking, depending on your timetable, inclination, and abilities. We choose to saunter along a leaf-splattered, stream-side trail, one of those slow-moving, take-it-all-in outings where one “distraction” after the next prevents us from covering much ground, but, oh, what little glories and supremely heart-felt accomplishments, to witness such beauty in our midst, and take in the small miracles of creation oft-unnoticed in the speedy hiker’s impatience and rush to move through the landscape in search of bigger and better views. That insatiable yearning to forge ahead at breakneck speed we knew all too well in past days of long-distance hiking prowess.

This sign beckons us to hit the trail for another day’s adventure.

But today, it’s enough to just discover the simple sights and sounds of what’s around the next bend. Right where we are: “Deep in the quiet wood“, as poet James Weldon Johnson reminds us. Where we find our better self. Where crap melts away and mental detritus dissolves. Where the carnal incrustations of life’s oppressive weight are shed, and society’s rude demands made a bit more bearable. Deep in the quiet wood, rife with birdsong and the soothing melodies of water running over rocks, and the gentle rustle of leaves tickled by a fair breeze, “Filling earth for you with heavenly peace and holy harmonies.

Big East Fork of the Pigeon River is a marvel of sublime beauty in a sacred place of solitude and serenity.

In our less hurried mind frame, in more attuned moments of slowing down, we are able to stop, look, listen, and see things, at once more mindful and mindless; when we make every effort to sharpen the senses in order to fully appreciate “the daily and hourly miracle of the usually unnoticed beauty that is close at hand” as Joseph Wood Krutch says. Maybe all this lyrical talk is just our way of making up for no longer being physically capable of engaging in those rollicking, strenuous pursuits of youthful days, when we were forever in search of the bigger, the longer, the farther, the better . . .

Serene reflections of painterly trees in the placid Pigeon River near Brevard, NC.

Next up, a day and night in Asheville at Julie’s place, a sweet Airbnb in a walkable neighborhood. Come to find out, most of Asheville is walkable, and we spend the entire day proving that point to ourselves. We check out hoity-toity galleries in the arts district; tool around the cozy downtown area people watching; poke our noses into shops and more galleries; and enjoy a spell of shopping and chit-chat with locals at a bustling farmers’ market in a quintessentially Southern Americana scene. That night we dine at a fabulous vegetarian restaurant (The Laughing Seed Cafe) and have just enough energy to slog back to Julie’s place and collapse with aching feet, too tired to even watch a movie, hitting the hay early to refresh for the next day’s hiking adventures in the glory lands of the Pisgah National Forest.

Hokey signs adorn a display at the Asheville WNC Farmers Market offering up classic Appalachian preserves, including several variations of Chow Chow relish, an old Southern favorite.

So much to see and do in Asheville for such a big little city! One day we tour the historic Omni Grove Park Inn. Construction on the mega-hotel complex was completed in 1913, instantly attracting the rich and famous, including presidents, movie stars, and assorted luminaries for its hot springs and spa-resort appeal.

Lobby of the Grove Park Inn where people gather around the cozy fireplace to read, converse, and chill with a glass of wine.

Over the course of two summers in 1935 and 1936, the woebegone F. Scott Fitzgerald rented a pair of suites (one for writing) for a triple dose of the R’s: “rest, relaxation and respite”. (His bipolar wife, Zelda, was institutionalized in 1936 in Asheville’s Highland Hospital.) Recovering from tuberculosis, Fitzgerald holed up to concentrate on reclaiming his writing skills, and rehabilitate his declining reputation. His time at the Grove Park Inn was neither happy, fruitful nor restorative, according to reports.

Mary posing with friend Jen Aly, former Yoga student, Bay Area resident and recent Asheville transplant who met us for a 3-hour tea party on our final day in town.

Probably drunk, given his legendary intake of “fifty ponies of beer a day” (trying to wean from a gin addiction), he broke his shoulder while diving, preventing him from accomplishing much in the way of writing. A New York Post reporter paid a visit for an interview, and described Fitzgerald as “a very broken man, who’s physically feeble and mentally very pathetic.”

Old Sport in better days.

A tainted legend and dark chapter, indeed, in the life of the the once nonpareil writer and soul of the jazz age, but a somewhat happier ending was in store when he returned to Hollywood, moderated his drinking excesses, and wrote his unfinished masterpiece, The Last Tycoon before dying in 1940 at the ripe, young age of 44.

Vista of the Omni Grove Park Inn where we walk around the gorgeous grounds for a couple of hours, enjoy a glass or three of wine and sit around a huge fireplace in the main hall.

Another day in Asheville. We stroll around the beautiful manicured grounds and woodsy paths of the North Carolina Arboretum adjacent to the wide, lazy French Broad River, one of the oldest waterways in the world judging from the ancient rock through which the river carved its course. We follow a sinuous path that takes us to the Arboretum, and then veer onto Bent Creek Road to admire the National Native Azalea Collection and a most impressive Rhododendron thicket, while exploring the small, intimate charms of little old Bent Creek.

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Taking a break from a stroll through acres of lush forest and cultivated gardens at Asheville’s North Carolina Arboretum.

No superlatives here, only a lovely little place, nothing of outstanding grandeur or magnificence, mind you, just more of the same: an abundance of small miracles and simple beauty, hidden in plain sight there for the looking. Native trees in colorful foliage. Riparian flora abloom. Moss-carpeted rocks begging to be caressed, and painterly streaks of bark-splotched lichen, inviting a curious gaze such as one would cast upon works of art in a museum. Odd-looking fungi popping up all over moist creation.

Asheville is a big music town, from humble country roots to an outgrowth known today for “extreme metal bands” with scary-sounding genres like “Neocrust”, “Sludgegrind”, “Post-metal”, “Brutecore”, “Spacethrash” and “Techdeath”. Yeah, baby, bring it on!

Leaving Asheville temporarily, we extend our “deep in the quiet wood” reverie for two nights camping down a little-used Forest Service road off the main Highway 276. We maneuver Homer over a couple of puddles and muddy ruts to find a perfect site situated amidst sylvan splendor far from any other campers in the peaceful bosom of the Pisgah National Forest. As far as we can tell, we’re the only ones encamped along the six mile stretch of backroad the Forest Service allows for camping specifically for people like us to escape the noisy, party types crowded together in smoke-choked “official” National Forest Service campgrounds with their fire-rings, hook-ups, stinky pit toilets, etc. (If you can call that “camping”.)

Dispersed camping for two nights in the Pisgah National Forest where people were sparse, solitude prevailed, privacy reigned, and vice-versa.

Elated to have the entire surroundings to ourselves, we settle in for forty-eight hours of pristine solitude, a complete break from all the hustling and bustling around. The only people we encounter are other cyclists when we hop on our bikes and ride along a flat service road, through a beautiful painted leaf forest, a few miles to the desolate trailhead at Wash Creek Horse Camp where a few cars are parked, all mountain bikers.

Mary taking stock of things down on a gorgeous ol’ country “crick . . .

A friendly, fresh-faced Forest Service ranger is attending to duties and we engage him for a few minutes, curious to learn more about the sign posted near our camp screaming in capital letters, WARNING CAMPERS! The Forest Service is considering closing this area to all camping. Why?”

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One day we hop on our mountain bikes and ride a matrix of endless fire roads and hardly see a single other person.

Yes, why? WHY ARE PEOPLE SO RUDE AND IGNORANT? Why do they despoil the water in their own well? Why must they bring their depraved city ways to tarnish and debase the purity of wild areas? Why must they leave their trash, toilet paper and garbage strewn about – not like animals, that would be an insult to animals – but like the disrespectful morons they are? At our site, we actually have to clean up a nasty mess before we can even set up our tent – enough crap left behind to fill a garbage bag! We report it to the Ranger, who duly notes it with a kindly nod and a knowing sigh of disgust, and then gets to talking about what type of odious people are responsible for such blatant bad behavior and disrespect for nature. And it turns out, not just bad behavior and disrespect, but potential danger. The ranger tells us how he’s constantly harassed and threatened in the course of his rounds when he must approach and fine scofflaws and evict squatters, often not the friendliest of individuals.

If you want to continue camping here . . . then SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT!

“It’s difficult,” he laments, “because we are not law enforcement, and they see us as powerless. And calling for an officer is useless because we’re so remote and the radio connection is shaky, and these guys know it. But I love what I do, so it’s worth it for me to try to educate people without angering or alienating them, but legally, there’s not much we can do to enforce the laws. Our only recourse is to close down these dispersed camping sites, which then punishes all you good people who obey the laws and respect nature.” The ranger then points out on a map he unfolds a half-dozen camping sites that have been shut down recently. “Site # 8 – your site – is next on the list, probably, so count yourselves fortunate you got it when you did” We shake our heads in sad resignation, thank him for his service, commend his bravery and dedication, and resume our bike ride.

Prime time fall colors dominate the countryside with scenes like this from an Old Master’s palette.

The next day, as we’re leaving the way we’d come in, we recall having spotted two beater vehicles illegally pulled in the thickets, defacing the earth with muddy tire tracks and uglifying things with their course presence. The occupiers had sheared branches from trees and slung up ratty old tarps. Coming in we’d caught a glimpse of these sketchy characters the ranger had warned us about later on – two sleazebag chicks and a mean-looking dude – swigging Miller’s and smoking cigarettes. They begrudgingly waved as we slowly passed by trying our best to ignore their stares. During our conversation with the ranger, he’d told us about his tense confrontation with them earlier, and had given them 24 hours to vacate. Driving by, we notice they were gone, but, true to poor form, they’d left a bunch of garbage for the ranger to clean up.

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The 218-mile long French Broad River is thought to be one of the world’s oldest rivers, here viewed in Asheville flowing on its way to the confluence with the Holston River in Knoxville to create the Tennessee River.

Another day, in pursuit of countless wonders yet discovered, like Annie Dillard at Tinker Creek, we “wake expectant, hoping to see a new thing.” So off we go in search of it, cruising scenic Highway 276, stopping along the way to admire heartrending beauty right off the roadside, the kind of sights you’d normally have to hike in ten miles to appreciate. Thundering waterfalls. Majestic creeks. Pretty forests. Far-flung views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its lonesome backwoods “hollers”, filled with old growth trees and the specter of sauntering bears, prowling mountain lions, lost Cherokee paths traced by the quiet ghosts of hunters and trackers.

The AWE, the WONDER, the GLORY of things!

Our imagination runs wild envisioning Appalachian Trail through-hikers slogging their way toward their final Valhalla, the wind-whipped, rugged Mount Katahdin in far wood-shrouded northern Maine. And with a longing in our hearts to be there, there, there! Before realizing the importance and necessity of being here now, here, here, here! Right where we find ourselves in perfect harmony with our incomparably beautiful surroundings. Despite the hordes in our midst, we find a way to achieve harmonic balance with being caught in the clutches of a madhouse situation, and finding escape to tranquil pastures untrodden by the masses.

Scenic Highway 276 is notable for a number of pull-overs to witness sublime sights like Looking Glass Waterfall.

In tow with a mob of other gawking sight-seers, we pull off the road to pay homage to Looking Glass Waterfall, fed by a beautiful creek of the same name tumbling out of the rugged hills. It is stunning. As the crowd begins to thin out, we linger to soak in the magic and revel in luxurious isolation, fully appreciative of the miraculous nature of water that nourishes and sustains all life.

Looking Glass Creek downstream from the falls flowing through tranquil woods.

We give thanks and praise, and can’t help but wonder: what is it about water? Especially water gushing over rocks and down cliff ledges. Precious, sacred water that draws us to it, that fills us with surges of primal energy, envelopes us in pristine ecstasy, hijacks our central nervous system for the day. Writers, poets, mystics and philosophers throughout the ages have attempted to understand water.

Heavenly palette of autumn colors reflecting in the Chattooga River.

D. H. Lawrence observed that “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes water, and nobody knows what that is.” Helen Keller referred to water’s “mystery of language” revealed to her in an epiphany when she suddenly realized that W-A-T-E-R meant “the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, joy, set it free.” Hermann Hesse understood water to be “the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of perpetual Becoming.” Rumi suggested we use “wisdom’s water” to “wash the dust” from our souls and hearts.

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At an unexpected pull-over on Highway 276, a couple of miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway, stunning Looking Glass Falls awaits the casual visitor, nature lover, photographer, or quick gawker. However you take it in, it is a breathtaking sight to admire.

And so, before leaving this magical spot, we close our eyes and let the splish-splashing song of the creek fill our souls with peaceful energy, losing ourselves in a blissful reverie, internalizing the sound of W-A-T-E-R and feeling every bit ONE with the precious substance that makes us, and the Earth, a unified whole. Enveloped in rapturous sensations of earthly delight, we stop to hear “the voice of the wood” and the song of W-A-T-E-R, welcoming the soft caresses and blessings of the Undines come to titillate us in our dreamy, timeless idyll by W-A-T-E-R’s edge . . . whenever we can, we bathe and baptize in its sweet cleansing, healing wisdom. To wash the dust from our hearts and souls.

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Sliding Rock Recreation Area is a madhouse during hot summer days when tourists flock to frolic and swim in the cool water gushing down natural slickrock.

What adventure awaits now? What next up on the bucket list of exciting things to check off? Just down the road from Looking Glass Falls is another W-A-T-E-R wonderland: Sliding Rock Recreation Area showcasing a year-round beautiful creek, and because it is “off-season”, sans the namesake’s Recreation part of screaming kids and slap-happy adults in their big amusement park. We have the run of the place. A true luxury to have it all to ourselves, to just revel in silence and beauty, the purity and simplicity of things. We stroll down a lovely path to a pool at the base of the slide, breathe in the fresh mountain air, hug a tree, caress a velvety blob of moss, and dip our feet in the chilly water. Another soulful respite from all the driving and rushing about to see everything we can pack in – when it’s all right here, right now, right under our feet.

The creek just before the slickrock slide. In summers, inner tubers and swimmers turn this into an amusement park-like scene of screaming, shouting and merriment. It’s all yours, folks! But for now – it’s all OURS!

Same with our little stroll on the Andy Cove Nature Trail, at first blush not “much of anything” but as we immerse in the deep, quiet wood, we realize we’ve been transported into an inner sanctum of precious and delicate beauty. We opt for a short loop, less than a mile, that takes us three whole hours to traverse. Not that we’re in a hurry! It’s just that every little thing along the way commands our attention and focus. The key to all such sensory attuning being what the old naturalist John Burroughs called “the art of seeing where things escape us because the actors are small.” Long ago in another time, Burroughs exhorted us “to look closely and steadily at nature” and take pleasure in the “minute things” about us. As we’ve gotten older, and a bit creakier, gone are the days of gallivanting about like billy goats, so we’ve become more adept at taking such advice – stopping to smell the roses – enjoying the small miracles and quiet reveries, the happy notes of bird song, and meditations of gurgling brooks, the satisfying, sensual communion with animist nature spirits that our earth-loving ancestors – and oh, don’t we, too! – worshipped.

Information panel about all the birds to see along the Andy Cove Nature Trail. We hear plenty, see just a few.

Can’t miss Greenville, South Carolina, next up. We’ve heard a lot about Greenville, another appealing scene on the rise – another get there while you can place to live on the growing list of formerly down on their heels small cities being transformed by a diaspora of techies, entrepreneurs, musicians, artists, young people and retirees, an inexorable influx, all ditching expensive and overcrowded, formerly desirable places, seeking more livable and lively communities to settle in. We’re off to have a look-see for ourselves, discover the recipe of what makes Greenville the new Asheville.

Greenville, South Carolina’s revitalized downtown area hosts boutiques, shops, art galleries and superb restaurants.

We arrange to stay a couple of nights to give Greenville its just due. We sense the cost of living is less expensive and the city equally appealing in terms of all the “KPIs” (key performance indicators) that rank in desirability: proximity to nature venues chief among them. Forbes Magazine rates its downtown as one of America’s best. In the midst of the Blue Ridge mountains, Greenville boasts a thriving music and arts scene, superb restaurants and boutiques, festivals, historic architecture, sites and museums. Not much to not like, we’d say.

Pleasant outdoor seating in downtown Greenville where we pass a couple of hours wining and dining and schmoozing with the waiter when he comes to attend to our needs.

Yessiree, Greenville appeals to the aesthetic sensibilities of the young and old alike, everyone flocking from everywhere to find the next great place to turn into the previous great place lately overrun and too costly to live in. Get there while you can, we keep saying to ourselves. Because like in Bend, Oregon and a dozen other once sleepy communities, the time’s they are a-changin’ – the times they have a-changed! – and soon you’ll be on the outside looking in, wishing, hoping you’d made the move sooner than later, if ever.

The Reedy River in Conestee Park runs through downtown Greenville to create a space for residents seeking respite and relief from the hustle-bustle of the urban environment.

One day we hike the beautiful trails around Lake Conestee Park, spending the better half of a long day doodling around the Nature Trail Loop circling through a swampy backwater and the Reedy River, a classic deep south lazy “old man river” that captivates us at every bend with pretty views of lush scenery and magical reflections of colorful foliage in the river’s surface.

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Swampy wetlands on periphery of Reedy River along the Nature Trail Loop.

And more simple walking, walking, the meditative exercise of the soul, where nature comes alive beneath our feet and in our hearts. Zen poet Gary Snyder tells us that “out walking, one notices ecology on the level where it counts.” So true, we slow moving walkers find out with each and every step we take in our soft and loving tramping upon sacred ground.

Clemson University graduate waiter who regales us over tapas and wine extolling the history and hip scene of Greenville and why he’d never think of living anywhere else. He has the walk, the talk, and look of a good ol’ Southern boy who knows how to kill with kindness and humor despite being busy with several other tables.

There really is a ton to see and do in the Greenville area, and we try to pack it all in, which is not possible given our limited time frame. See, to backtrack a bit, we’re on a mission to return to Asheville to hook up with Shannon and Meg, two friends of Mary’s brother and sister-in-law, Kurt and Jane. The lovey-dovey pair graciously had offered us lodging in their room for a night before our Greenville intermission (they were out of town), and departing that morning for Greenville, we’d forgotten a phone charger cord, plus we had left on their bed a small token of our appreciation – a card with three peace cranes Ora Lora had hand-crafted – that their dog, adorable Tulsi, had ripped to shreds in a fit of anxiety or jealousy, or who knows what, but Shannon and Meg returned to find a mess all over their bed! So, it was swell to return to Asheville and actually meet them and present them with three more of Ora Lora’s peace cranes (we had a ton of them from her memorial back in August). Plus, we had a small window of time to visit with a former Yoga student and friend of Mary’s, the sweet southern Tennessee belle, Jen Aly.

Tulsi giving us the evil eye, apparently, after denying her access to our bed – well, our hosts’ bed, Shannon and Meg, who’d invited us to sleep in it one night when they were out of town.

But we still have a couple of days in the Greenville area to tick off a few more bucket list items: Lake Jocassee, a big blue reservoir, no doubt a complete maaaaadhouse during busier summer times. We notice a group outfitted in scuba diving gear preparing to submerge in the lake, and approach a guy at the parking lot stripping out of his diving gear to ask what the story is with all the diving. He tells us Lake Jocassee is one of South Carolina’s hidden treasures, an especially great diving spot with deep, clear water holding secrets of submerged graveyards, wrecks and reefs. His enthusiasm almost makes us us want to try our hand – or lungs – at scuba diving!

Heading out to scuba dive in the clear waters of Lake Jocassee, a well-kept locals’ secret in the Greenville area.

As October gives way to November, we find ourselves on one of our wandering explorations at several more delectable waterfalls, but not first without a detour to check out Oconee Station and the William Richards Stone Block / Traders Brick House. Beginning in 1792, until 1799, Oconee Station served as a garrisoned outpost, erected to defend the westernmost frontier from “savages”. Make that indigenous Cherokee and Creek peoples defending their homeland from invading hordes of white Europeans (perhaps the real savages, after all).

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Oconee Station and the Stone Block House (Irish immigrant William Richards’ sumptuous residence) became a trading outpost in 1799 when it replaced an armed garrison to keep Indians at bay.

In 1790, Creek Chief Hopotble Mico traveled to New York to negotiate a peace settlement but he was rebuffed in a failed treaty attempt, and returned to Oconee country to carry on the fighting, the raiding of settlements, engaging in skirmishes, and disrupting as much as possible further encroachments onto their sacred lands and hunting grounds that had sustained their cultures for millennia. Well, guess what. Time to scram. As Andrew Jackson so cold-heartedly put it a few years later, in his shameful campaign that precipitated the Trail of Tears, “Build a fire under them, and when it gets hot enough, they’ll move.”

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Okana-Stote, Chief of the Cherokee Nation, 1761, shaking unseen hand “in good faith” and with an abundance of naivete to think anything good would come of relations with the White Man.

By 1799, disease and warfare had decimated most Cherokees in the area. Eventually, the Oconee outpost went from being an armed garrison to a vital trading post, further sealing the disruption of a millennial-long lifeway. The two-story Traders Brick House, which Irish immigrant William Richards built in 1805, was an anomaly in a frontier inhabited by poor settlers dwelling in rustic log cabins. Richards stoked his wealth on the backs of eleven enslaved workers and eventually amassed thousands of acres of land and was known to be a “go-to” guy for flints, furs, bear and deer skins, ginseng, and valuable sundries hard to get in the frontier.

Original building from Oconee Station standing in good shape after all these years.

Today the site is illustrative of a complex and changing history revealing strained relationships between southeastern Native Americans and expanding white Christian settlers driven by “manifest destiny” to colonize the “untamed” lands. You get the picture: subdue (= eradicate) the native peoples (= savages), make the land “productive”. The sad history of U.S. / Native American relations in an rotten acorn nutshell.

Group photo with Shannon, Mary and Meg, who is holding a handful of peace cranes we gave them as a gesture of our appreciation for letting us spend a night in their place while they were out of town. We caught up with them the next day.

Our last night in Asheville we enjoy a lovely dinner at another wonderful vegetarian restaurant downtown on Lexington. Rosetta’s Kitchen is a cozy scene on a rainy night, with excellent food and atmosphere, including a Kombucha bar in the center of the space. Mary’s so enamored of the place that upon leaving she forgets her purse slung on the back of her chair. Of course, despite momentary panic, the lovely wait staff takes care of it until we can return in the pouring rain to retrieve it!

Rosetta’s Kitchen on a rainy evening is a perfect place to tuck-in for some mighty tasty vittles! (Photo courtesy of Rosetta’s Kitchen website.)

An absolute highlight of our peregrinations in and around the South Carolina / Georgia border is primitive camping for several days along the stunning Chattooga River in the heart of Appalachia country. Established as part of the historic Wild and Scenic River System in 1974, the Chattooga wends its way through the Andrew Pickens Ranger District of the Sumter National Forest (South Carolina), alternating between wide, lazy stretches and roiling white water tumbling through rocky channels suitable for rafting and kayaking adventures. Or just kicking back and enjoying the views.

We have the pick of the best camping spot along the road opposite the Chattooga River, affording us smoke-free solitude and serenity in a pristine forest absent of people. (We are only misanthropic when bothered and invaded by noisome hordes of disrespectful people in nature, which, sadly, is more often than not.)

In late October / early November, the trees along the banks of the Chattooga come alive with color, flaunting their polychrome regalia in glorious reflections in the placid surface of the slow-moving river. We while away many hours strolling up and down the streamside paths mesmerized by the sublime mirror image effect of this tree-lined pageantry of dazzling autumnal beauty.

So much to explore in this 50 mile long, 15,432 acre corridor of magnificent protected wilderness . . . we barely scratch the surface but still manage to squeeze in some hikes and daydreaming reveries along the river.

Nights are colder than expected, in fact so chilly that we’re forced to crawl in our sleeping bags and tents by around 7 pm, which makes for very long but cozy nights huddled together, but the horrors of having to rouse and crawl out of our slumber on all fours like bent over nocturnal creatures to relieve ourselves in the dead cold of night is a laborious effort repeated twice nightly, at least for one of us. Such are the things to complain about when encamped on the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River with no one about except a friendly fisherman dude from Atlanta set up in his sweet Teardrop rig about a hundred yards down the road who invites us over for beers and schmoozing one night.

Mesmerizing scenes of colorful trees reflected in the cerulean waters of the Chattooga River endlessly captivate our attention.

We squeeze in a few more hikes in and around the ultra-scenic mountain hamlet of Highland, NC (population about 1,000; elevation 4,118 ft.). This part of the Blue Ridge Escarpment encompasses three states (Tennessee and the Carolinas), all within easy driving distance of at least a dozen major waterfalls dotting the area.

View of top tier of Glen Falls, a gorgeous sight of thundering water pouring down out of the Blue Ridge Escarpment at 4,000 ft. elevation.

The fabulous Glen Falls is a short out ‘n back hike up and down a steep switchback trail to take in majestic views of a stunning 200 ft. tall triple-decker falls originating from the East Fork of Overflow Creek in North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.

Yellow Branch Falls elicits a sense of timeless serenity deep in a quiet wood.

Three prime attractions in South Carolina’s Sumter National Forest are well worth the effort: Yellow Branch Falls is a beautiful, easy hike through lush forest leading to a huge rocky outcrop with a tickling cascade of rainbow spray flowing over it, easing the eyes and soothing the soul.

Little lizard resident of the waterfall environment out ‘n about searching for a quick bite before he becomes a quick bite for a bigger resident.

As judged by the presence of many people come to gawk, the can’t miss 100 ft. tall Issaqueena Falls is a real stunner, giving us a glimpse into Creek Indian folkloric history amid a gorgeous sylvan setting. Issaqueena Falls is named for a Creek maiden who feigned her death by “jumping” off the falls to avoid capture by Cherokee warriors, who did not pursue her, scared off by their belief that “evil spirits” inhabited waterfalls. We feel no such thing – only supremely beneficent water spirits pouring their delightful cargo over the cliff face and spraying refreshing mist into the air.

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View of Issaqueena Falls from an overlook spot.

And never enough and not too much, we can’t resist cramming in a third waterfall of the day – the 60 ft. high cascade of Station Cove Falls tumbling out of the Blue Ridge hills of the Oconee District, a lovely vision of Mother Nature’s handiwork in what ecologists call a “spray community” creating perfect conditions for organisms such ferns, moss, liverworts, salamanders, crayfish and aquatic insects to exist and thrive.

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Station Cove Falls enchants with an aura of magical solitude along a serene brook with no one about to spoil the picture-perfect photo op.

And so idyllic days come and go, and more still to come, a constant push, push, push forward in an ever-changing itinerary, always moving and seeking our next destination, plotted out by lines on a map representing alluring territory, but representing so much more than a mere topogeny of place names we longingly wish to experience and know. There’s always next time, right . . .

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Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.” – Henry David Thoreau

If only it wasn’t turning into winter, though, why then we could venture forth into the Great Smoky Mountains, which we’ve barely skirted. Or get on the Appalachia Trail and do some real backpacking for once. Ah, if only . . .

Rainbow spray at Station Cove Falls.

Gearing up to kiss Southeast Appalachian country goodbye – before heading deep into Alabama and on to New Orleans by way of an unexpected detour to Destin, Florida – we tack west to Cherokee, North Carolina, and end up spending two nights in Franklin at the High Country Haven Camping and Cabin (Ashlie’s Place). We love our rustic little scene, as you can see how cute and darling it is.

The author working on his Great American Novel (not!) . . . (but wishing, hoping!) . . .

We’re back on the road to check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, North Carolina, gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains which will have to wait for our next visit. Someday, but not another 65 years that’s it’s taken to get here the first time!

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Early photograph of visitors to The Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

On a rainy day, a museum tour is the perfect activity, though as you can imagine, a somber experience given the tragic history photographically and physically documented throughout the museum, a vivid accounting on full display of the horrific treatment – crimes – against the Cherokee, and by extension, against all Native American peoples.

Wax figures of three Cherokee Chiefs returning from (or on their way to?) Europe.

Exhibits, murals and dioramas focus on social and cultural history / legacy, and artistic accomplishments, with a heavy emphasis on the period of time referred to, in the Cherokee language, as Nvnohi Dunatlohilvhi – “The Trail Where They Cried”. Now a National Historic Trail, The Trail of Tears, as it is known in English, was a fanning out network that included land and water routes to forcibly march and transport 16,000 Cherokee people westward to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

The Trail of Tears land and water routes from ancestral lands to “Indian Territory” in the Oklahoma frontier.

It’s shocking to learn about the true history and fate of the Cherokee and so many other Native Americans throughout the Southeast (and the decimation of indigenous peoples throughout the Caribbean and all of the Americas). A vicious, bloody tale of betrayal, sabotage, war, disease, and cultural disintegration. The museum’s exhibits are unsparing in their presentations and depictions of callous, inhumane, genocidal mistreatment of the Cherokee by “God’s chosen people”

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Unimaginable suffering depicted in this mural symbolizing the pain and plight of 16,000 Cherokees deported from their ancestral homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia in 1838.

In 1811, though, Tecumseh branded the invaders as anything but. Earlier, in 1775, the “wicked white race” conned Cherokee leaders out of 20 million acres of ancestral lands in what is now Kentucky and Tennessee in the sham resolution known as the Sycamore Shoals Treaty. And that’s not the half of it, with much more deception, duplicity and malicious flim-flam to come foisted on Cherokee leaders. Evil windbag Andrew Jackson’s hollow deceitful words remains the epitome of a liar’s creed when he proclaimed to the Cherokee people, “your white brothers will not trouble you, they will have no claim to the land, and you can live upon it, you and all your children, as long as the grass grows and the water runs, in peace and plenty. It will be yours forever.”

With the notable exception of the community of Qualla town, which owing to a separation from the Cherokee Nation in 1820, residents were legally not required to be force marched along with 16,000 other Cherokees. Many fugitives had escaped into the Smoky Mountains and later rejoined the Qualla town band, forming the nucleus of today’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Well, “forever” lasted just a few years, leading up to the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the subsequent 1836 decision by Congress to ratify the Treat of New Echota (passed by one vote) which mandated the forced removal of all Cherokees from their homeland within the next two years.

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A chat with Tribal elder and artist Richard Saunooke to get a taste of “Living History”.

It’s a sad, sobering, and moving experience – enough to leave our own little trail of tears as we make our way from one diorama and mural to the next depicting unimaginable savagery and brutality heaped on the Cherokees at the hands of white conquerors and settlers. Certainly, African-Americans shipped over from Africa as chattel slaves bore the brunt of inhumane barbaric treatment seared into memory like a firebrand, as did the Jewish people who collectively suffered a nightmarish history and ineffable atrocities at the hands of the Nazis, and in no less painful terms the Museum of the Cherokee Indian likewise forces us to confront the sorrowful reality of genocide of Native Americans in order to establish “this great nation” of ours. The legacy of tragedy continues to this day in the form of cultural impoverishment, high crime rates, drug and alcohol addiction, and a general feeling of hopelessness, dissolution and despair on many Indian reservations. All in all, the exhibits are a powerful reminder of a big fat lie and wrongdoing perpetrated, a concerted, conscious effort to exterminate “savages” blocking the way to “progress” in settling the great American continent and upholding its “liberty and justice for all” ennobling ideals.

The Cherokee alphabet, invented by Sequoyah, “who made the leaves talk”, immortalized on Grandfather Bear. According to an exhibit at the museum, he is the “only individual in 5,000 years of recorded history known to devised a complete writing system without first being literate in some language.”

Finally, winding things down, a quick swing-through in Georgia, stopping long enough to get a taste of Helen, the touristy but dead-empty at this time of year German-themed town, and get a feel for Clayton, Rabun county, home of Billy Redden, the banjo playin’ backwoods mountain boy in John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance, who, left embittered and broke, claims to have been shafted by everyone out of his rightful share of profits and future movie deals. Probably truth spoken by the famous fiddler reduced to an indigent life working at Walmart.

Tallulah Gorge, and river, scene of the famous 1000 ft. tall cliffs scaled by Jon Voigt in the movie Deliverance and where Karl Wallenda tightrope walked across in 1970.

And gasp at the beauty of Tallulah Gorge and Falls State Park, on whose vertiginous cliffs Jon Voight scaled in said flick, and where the tightrope walker stuntman Karl Wallenda famously made history tippy-toeing across the gorge on July 18, 1970. The detritus of his daredevil endeavor lies strewn about near the lookout at the top of the cliff.

Helen, Georgia, a German-themed tourist town on the Chattahoochee River was a non-happening, vacant scene at this time of year.

We wind up our drive-about / walk-about Appalachian Tour with yet another hike along a gushing creek to see Raven Cliffs falls near Dahlonega, Georgia (for the record), and spend one final cold-ass night camping down some lonesome “hunter’s” road in the Chattahoochee National Forest. The cold foretells winter about to bear down, a sure sign we need to start heading south to warmer climes. And so, back on a major freeway, we’re headed to Selma, Alabama, to take in some more sad, sobering history in the city of “Bloody Sunday” made famous in 1965 for its violent civil rights marches led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, among many other brave protesters. Read our account in the next chapter of our journey along America’s Trail of Tears.

These great YOU-nited States of America . . .

For now, it was adios, goodbye, see ya later, it’s been good to know ya, Appalachia Country. Hope to do it again sometime soon.

BONUS LIVE FOOTAGE

COUNTRY HONKY-TONK ON STREETS OF GREENVILLE
LOOKING GLASS FALLS SPECTACULAR BEAUTY
BIG EAST FORK OF THE PIGEON RIVER NEAR ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
THE CHEROKEE ALPHABET VOCALIZED

COMMENTS FROM PEOPLE WHO DID NOT POST DIRECTLY TO THE BLOG:

 Hey Tom, Thanks so much for brilliant Appalachia blog, so near and like the rural Kentucky of my roots. Thank you so much for sharing the Cherokee perspective as well. All of this beauty and wonder is their birthright murderously stolen from them and ravished. Despite America’s best efforts, some small pockets of little disturbed beauty and majesty can still be found. My great grandmother on my moms side was half Irish and half Cherokee and I am blessed to still hear at times the ancient voice of the Grandfathers. The human being is puny and deluded, a blind fool measuring itself against the vastness of eternity and the majesty of the cosmos. Long after man is gone and forgotten the Glory of nature will resound. This certainty gives me some peace.  All of truth and mystery, all of understanding and healing constantly surrounds us and supports and sustains us. It requires heart and courage to bear the weight of the Glory. Thank you for sharing. As ever, Matin (Frank Lawrence)

Wow. What an amazing time you had. I’ve never been to Appalachia, but thanks to you and your write-up (and photos), I feel like I have! Now I can’t wait to visit one day. Thanks for sharing this. I’m so glad you guys had such a great time. Cheyenne Richards

Perused your Appalachia trail blog and as usual enjoyed the photos – soooo much – yes the water water – you know I can’t imagine going camping if not near it. Boadiba

Oh my Tommy, what a super trip!!  Thank you for sharing with me!  So glad you are still able to do all that hiking and biking! Alice Williamson

Thanks for sharing another increment of your epic search for America. Started reading it last night, gorgeous photos. Ebou Camara

Love this! Thank you for the adventure. WOW! Dahlusion

Thank-you, Tom, most enjoyable pictures.  I do love that mountain range. Spencer Brucker

Great writing as usual.  Perhaps you should self-publish a travel guide with a collection of your adventures. As you may recall I grew up in the Baltimore area and I spent a fair amount of time in the Appalachians, particularly as a boy scout (my troop hiked all the Maryland and Pennsylvania sections of the Appalachian Trial over the years I was in it) and I worked summers at a boy scout canoe base in Western Maryland on the Potomac.  I still have a fondness for Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers join up. In my younger years, my parents took us on trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway and I know we covered Virginia and North Carolina.  The last time I was in Asheville was for a niece’s graduation (she went to Warren Wilson).  Your journal reminded me of how awesome it is there, so I have added to my mental list of places I want to re-visit. Andy Oppel

Oh my my my! I loved this. As a kid I lived in West Virginia from about age 5 to about age 10. My dad was a chemist and got his first job after his doctorate at Union Carbide in Charleston. My stepmom and I wanted to do the Blue Ridge a few years ago but life got in the way. I’m going to forward your wonderful story and totally awesome images to her as a worthy substitute for our dreamed-of trip. Thanks Tom and Mary…for taking us along with you! Mary DeShaw

Your blog is fantastic! Annnd you were spot on: Tulsi sure did have an anxious episode. We still have those wonderful peace cranes from Ora Lora and an open door, for whenever the world reopens again. Meg ‘n Shannon

A Grand Tour Through the Appalachian Heartland Seeking Natural Wonders, Rekindling Old Friendships, and Exploring Revitalized Cities (Part I)

October 16 – 22, 2019: Part I of our swing-through checking out the many-splendored autumnal wonders of Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas; a stop-over to visit old friends in Athens; a diversion at a little-known prehistoric site on the Duck River in Tennessee; then on to acquaint ourselves with three Queen Cities of Tennessee: Chattanooga, Nashville and Knoxville.

Brilliant autumn color reflected in Georgia’s Wild and Scenic Chattooga River in the Sumter National Forest. You’ll hear more about this gorgeous place in Part II.

“… a Southerner is BORN into the lifestyle, there just ain’t no choice about it. Yer either a Southerner or ya ain’t. – Chad B. Hanson

The scenic South offers up a bounty of gorgeous waterfalls, lush forests and stunning natural wonders that rival beauty found anywhere in the country, leaving one humbled and awestruck.

After our wonderful stay in Atlanta as guests of niece Marilyn, her husband Brian and their two delightful little scamps, Nax and Maris, we bid our adieus one Monday morning and set off on the next leg of our adventure – a grand tour of the Great Smoky Mountains and Appalachia country. Having never explored this part of the country, we knew not what to expect, and set no expectations, other than to have a great time exploring as many parks and forests and waterfalls as we could in between visits to three of Tennessee’s big four cities (sorry, Memphis, another time.)

Group photo with Richard and David after a swell few hours enjoying a tasty vegetarian lunch at The Grit – thank you guys for your generosity! – followed by a little spin around town highlighted by a swing-through tour of the Old Athens Cemetery, and then back to the country comforts of their rural home for chit-chat and an impromptu reading of one of Richard’s plays he wrote and produced.

But not without first diverting up to the venerably hip enclave of Athens, home to the University of Georgia Bulldogs and a premier music town as well, nurturing the alt-rock and new wave careers of the B-52s and R.E.M., as well as the likes of Indigo Girls, Drive-By Truckers, and for you musically arcane fans, the national acts of Widespread Panic, Danger Mouse, and Dead Confederate.

Richard and David gave us the grand tour of the expansive ranch-style home they live in with a dear friend, replete with books galore and lots of original paintings and photography and memorabilia picked up from around the world, including their sock monkeys! (Which we were happy to see since we have been traveling with our own sock monkey family!)

But our real reason for visiting Athens was to see our two sweet old amigos from my high school days who decided a couple of years ago to forgo their peripatetic ways and retire: the fun-loving, theatrical, long-time couple, Richard Chaney and David Swisher, who have been together for like, ever! (Since 1972?) It was a perfect opportunity on a gorgeous fall day to dart up to Athens for a quickie stop to hang out for a few hours with these two beautiful soulmates who have been in my life ever since Richard snagged a teaching position at Benton Central Junior-Senior High School in Oxford, Indiana and imparted some edjumacation in this yere cornfed country boy (though I ain’t no southerner!) and learned me some basics of journalism, even naming me co-editor of the county-renowned school newspaper, The Stampede!

A tombstone commemorating the burial site of a Confederate soldier, indicating Athens’ importance as a rebel stronghold during the Civil War. In August 2020 a Confederate memorial was taken down near the University of Georgia Arch.

On graduating in 1973, Richard cleared the way with my mom (Ora Lora) to accompany him on a road trip to New Orleans (David had flown down in advance) where they were to take up residence for the next several years (followed by other 7-year-itch living stints in San Francisco, Seattle, Tucson and Washington, D.C.) Back in those early traveling days, Richard and David graciously offered up hospitality and nonstop fun times in New Orleans on my way to and back from Latin American vagabondage with my then traveling companion and girlfriend, Marie Ceccanese. Throughout the years, we have kept in touch with one another – keeping tabs on our creative endeavors, professional lives, and all manner of doings, comings, and goings. Hey, boys, it’s been good to know you – a jolly good time, too, we had, albeit ruefully brief, in Athens!

Peaceful reflections in the Duck River, a riparian habitat rich in natural resources that hosted Native American ritual activities for at least half a millennium, and then in the mid-1800s became a bustling industry of paper, pulp and wrapping mills, no doubt polluting the once-pristine waters with toxic off-loads of smelly effluvia. But as you can see, it’s a clean and beautiful river 170 years later.

Next up, on the way to spend a couple of nights checking out Chattanooga, was a stretch our legs stop-over for a hike and look-see at the State Archaeological Park of Old Stone Fort, a 2000 year old ceremonial Native American site along the Duck River near Manchester, Tennessee.

Old mill ruins along the Duck River. Funny, a couple of websites I researched misidentified these stone structures as prehistoric in origin.

Although we were heading north, we were still in the south. It felt good to get out of the car and slowly saunter along a beautiful trail through an autumn-tinged forest with reflections of colorful trees in the slow-moving river. Small cascades and alluring pools beckoned us to water’s edge for quiet time and reverie, giving us time to reflect on and wonder about the prehistoric Middle Woodland peoples who designed the entrance of the fort to greet the rising sun of a sacred summer solstice morning heralding the advent of seasonal cycles and propitious augurs for a bountiful harvest, happy hunting, good health and community spirit.

The summer solstice sunrise aligns to within one degree of the orientation of the parallel mounds at the Gateway Entrance, middle right. This visual representation is from the on-site museum offering displays and dioramas to help interpret the ebb and flow of seasonal cycles at the Old Stone Fort where not much archaeological evidence exists for permanent settlement; rather, it functioned as a gathering place for seasonal rituals and sacred ceremonies.

“Chattanooga is a fine old town, sugar babe . . .” – Johnny Cash

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The pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge – a classic example of “Phoenix wrought-iron truss” bridges built between 1884 and 1923 – connects downtown Chattanooga’s hopping arts and cultural Riverfront district with the North Shore’s Renaissance and Coolidge Parks hipster dining and shopping scene.

We rolled into Chattanooga planning to spend just a night, having heard good things about the city, but in our minds we were thinking it was still just a big, ugly transit hub of an industrial wasteland – how wrong we were!

Our first night in town we discovered City Cafe Diner adjacent to our hotel and – well, we couldn’t very well resist these delightful southern baked confections, now, could we?

After reading a bit about how it’s become a “go-to” place for young families, artists, hipsters and entrepreneurs (what place isn’t nowadays?) looking for an affordable, decent place to live, we decided to stay and experience the Chattanooga Choo-Choo for two nights.

Chic architecture lit up at dusk gives Chattanooga a distinctly modern flair.

We checked into a nice hotel and spent the next couple of days cycling the Riverwalk / Bike Trail; day-hiking the surprisingly rugged and ecologically diverse North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area; and spent languorous evenings strolling around the renovated (gentrified) city, peering into shop windows, stopping in brew pubs for a cold one, and walking slowing across the lit-up pedestrian-only historic Walnut Street Bridge spanning the Tennessee River to check out the North Shore’s offering of more hip restaurants, shopping and entertainment venues.

Cycling a stretch on the boardwalk spanning a tributary creek of the Tennessee River: peace and quiet, except for the chittering and chattering of amazing bird life!

The Riverwalk / Bike Trail extends 22 miles along the scenic Tennessee River, but the first part of our ride was anything but. At the beginning, a large stretch of trail was closed off for construction, so we had to detour onto busy streets. Another lengthy section followed an industrial line of ugly factories, right about when we stopped to chat with a passing cyclist who proudly proclaimed, “Oh, yes, we’re lucky to be living in Scenic City!” We found an alternate path on a boardwalk overlooking a pretty little creek for some good views, excellent birding and solitude, but eventually it came to a dirt path with a couple of more factories visible. Finally, we turned around and headed the other direction from where we parked, and found a truly beautiful stretch of trail, but by then, we’d expended all our energy and called it a day. All this is not to say we didn’t have a wonderful bike outing!

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A pretty stretch of the Riverwalk / Bike Path extending several miles to its terminus at the TVA dam.

Walking about the pedestrian-friendly city provided ample opportunity for people watching. Like anywhere, a mix of young and old, urban professionals, artists, hippies, punks, down on their heels buskers, and a fair share of street people, presumably homeless.

Old-timer strummin’ his gui-tar at the entrance to Walnut Street Bridge, hoping and praying the song he was singing, “She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft”, would encourage passers-by to toss a buck or two his way.

We spoke with a few folks who’d moved to Chattanooga recently, and they all praised it for its “livability” factor, citing an influx of creative people fostering an infusion of arts, culture, beer gardens, great restaurants, urban renewal architecture, and tourist attractions like the Tennessee Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga Zoo, and the Hunter Museum of American Art. Adding to the city’s cachet of attractions is its proximity to gorgeous nature locales such as Ruby Falls, Rock City, Raccoon Mountain Caverns, the Ocoee River offering up a bounty of water sports and fun, plus nearby access to the fabled Cumberland Trail in the Appalachian Mountains.

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Stopping on Walnut Street Bridge to admire pretty views of the Tennessee River and surrounding cityscape.

We loved strolling across the historic Walnut Street Bridge with its pretty sunset and night time views of the Tennessee River and Chattanooga skyline. We traced a few blocks along the Passage, a pedestrian link between downtown and the river, marking the beginning of the deplorably sad saga known as The Trail of Tears – a sobering encounter with history indeed.

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Walking in the steps of those who perished along the heartbreaking Trail of Tears, memorialized in the Cherokee tongue as “Nvnohi Dunatlohilvhi” – “The Trail Where They Cried”.

In the Year of the Devil, May 1838, some 7,000 federal troops under the command of General Winfield Scott began rounding up Cherokee peoples who had refused to move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Ultimately, 17,000 natives were marched ruthlessly westward in a grueling journey in the middle of a dry sweltering summer, and 4,000 anguished souls perished under harsh, brutal conditions.

Mural detail of journey’s end from the Cherokee Museum in Cherokee, North Carolina. Authorized by Congress in 1830 under The Indian Removal Act, the Trails of Tears is a dark, unforgiving chapter in U.S. history.

Somehow, though, we managed to miss the “weeping wall’ representing Cherokee tears and the ceramic disk sculptures narrating the centuries-long, grand story of the highly accomplished Cherokee Nation, whose most famous member was Sequoyah, “the Cherokee who made the leaves talk” when he devised a complete writing system – the Cherokee Language – without first being literate in some language (a first in history!). Today, the Cherokee Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the U.S, and since the forced removal from their indigenous homeland in 1838 – 1839, are located on a reservation in northeastern Oklahoma.

“When we move, we shall move by the cause of nature to sleep under this ground which the Great Spirit gave to our ancestors and which now covers them in their undisturbed peace.” – The Cherokee Nation, 1830. (Their “undisturbed peace” was rudely interrupted 8 years later.)

It was time to ditch the city for a while, and get out to nature for a breath of fresh air. We thought about visiting Ruby Falls, Lookout Mountain or the Caverns, but we were scared off by internet reviews of those places being “madhouses” overrun with tourists so we tacked the opposite direction and found ourselves hiking in one of the most beautiful places we’d yet been to in the Southeast – and had never heard of prior to our online search: the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area where we looked forward to making some tracks on a portion of the Cumberland Trail.

Named for a tribal band of the Cherokee, the North Chickamauga Creek tributary (of the Tennessee River) can turn into a turbulent frothing artery of water cutting an ever-deepening gorge through the Georgia, Middle Tennessee-Chickamauga Watershed.

We were so eager for a nature immersion! Just the words creek, gorge, and natural area said it all . . . WILD and BEE-U-TEE-FULL!

The ten mile long gorge is thickly forested with sandstone bluffs and huge boulders dotting the creek.

Leaving the world behind, we entered a lichen and moss-rich diverse forest and riparian zone – a biota wonderland, in fact, with many endangered or threatened plants, with bald eagles and peregrine falcons soaring high above the gorge, and a plethora of bird, reptile and amphibian life. We had stumbled into Heaven’s Back Forty, and there we remained for most of the day, picnicking, wading, exploring small miracles here and there – a lizard doing push-ups, a painted leaf caught in the clutches of a mini maelstrom, the sound of birdsong – we just kicked back taking in the immeasurable peace, quiet and beauty of the place – all to ourselves! And in no special hurry to get back to civilization with its hustle and bustle and gritty hubbub.

Though water levels were low, the creek was still an alluring presence; a special intimacy prevailed in the gorge’s deep interior where we hiked five miles through pockets of oak, hickory and pine trees to arrive at a place of singular charm.

But of course, we eventually had to leave this little slice of paradise and head back into town . . . for a final stroll across the old bridge at sunset to gaze out into the clear Tennessee night, and eventually continue on to the North shore of the river to locate that groovy vegetarian restaurant we’d read about: Sluggo’s!

Tennessee River from the Old Walnut Street Bridge on our final night in town.

After our glorious nature outing, hungrier than a couple of bears, we tucked into (why am I using this “foodie” expression I so loathe?) some real tasty grub to the beat of Sturgill Simpson (why am I shamed-faced to admit that I had to inquire with the cute waitress who, exactly, was belting out those damn good tunes?), hung around reading some books on the shelf, groovin’ to Sturgill, and after some dessert, headed to people-watch as we slowly strolled hand in hand across the bridge.

Books on Sluggo’s shelf included a tome by Bertrand Russell and this – “The Odyssey” by Homer!! (!! Hint !! = we named our Honda Odyssey “Homer” and we are on a peregrinating Odyssey ourselves!!)

And, then, too tired even for an after dinner brew or more strolling, we headed back to our hotel with sated bellies and light hearts, eager for the next leg of our adventure. It was time to get off the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, wondering, hoping, when, if, there would be another boarding of the fabled train. Certainly, there are enough attractions and diversions to get back on for another ride someday.

Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art – built / renovated in 2005 as centerpiece of three historic buildings spanning 100 years of architecture.

Everybody now thinks that Nashville is the coolest city in America” – Dave Grohl

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Buskers and poseurs abound in Nashville – so many street musicians, all hoping to be “discovered”, all aspiring for the “big break” to take it to the next level. Sorry, folks, it ain’t meant to be for 99.9% of you.

In our peregrination across “these great United States”, three music-centric cities stood out as “must visit” destinations. Two of which still needed to be ticked off the bucket list – New Orleans and Austin – but now, first, and finally, we were touching down in Nashville, Tennessee! (If only we were “true southerners”, we could pronounce it NASH-VULL!)

Our final morning in Nashville, Cindy, our lovely host and friend, suggested we – CAN’T MISS! – breakfast at the famous Loveless Cafe. Just the piled-high eat all you can biscuits and home-made jam was worth the 40 minute drive there!

Rolling into the city, with Dylan’s famous Nashville Skyline cued up in our music player, we were giddy with excitement, hard to convince ourselves we’d never been to Music City. Outside of VEGAS and NAWLINS, NASH-VULL ranks high on the list of Party Capitals of the U.S.! We were about to find out why.

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The putative “World Famous” Tootsies – never hoid of it! We wanted to go in and check out the scene, but it was too loud and crowded for our tastes, so we moved on to the next place, and the next . . . all too loud, rowdy and crowded.

A sense of deja vu washed over us as we rolled into town – like we’d been here before, it felt familiar and lived in. Maybe it was all the stories we’d heard from sister Tina and her husband Joe about their many business / pleasure visits here and all the fun and crazy times they shared with us.

Dude I named Slim – or maybe that really was his “handle” – working the grill behind the bar at Robert’s Western World, home to the best honky-tonk music in Nashville, and, they say, hands-down, serving up the best fried baloney sandwiches this side of your mother’s 1965-era kitchen.

When we visited them in Walpole last August (2019) and told them of our eventual plans to spend a few days there and experience the zany bar scenes and raucous commingling in the streets for ourselves, they both immediately chimed in, “We’ll see you there! Can’t wait” Well, that never happened, disappointingly, but we weren’t let down by the city’s fun, frenetic energy.

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These mobile arks filled with party animals honk and clang around town, clogging up city streets in a manic shit show of drunken revelers – ain’t that what you’re supposed to do in Nash-vull?

Though saddened that Tina and Joe couldn’t hop on a flight down to join us for some hearty partying, our visit was extra-special because we were about to meet our super-host Cindy – not of the Airbnb variety – who’d invited us as guests while in town. There’s nothing more wonderful than having a dear old friend invite you in while visiting a place for the first time.

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Cindy’s fab pad – 23rd floor! – on Demonbreun Street, “symbol of urban revitalization for Nashville.”

Well, actually a dear old friend of Tina’s from Walpole. Years ago, we’d met Cindy and her three little children (now all grown up) when she lived up the hill from Tina’s “Plimptonville” pad in Walpole (at the time married to her prestigious doctor husband of Chinese ancestry whom we’d never once met because, I understand, he was always on call, or mostly away working at New York City’s most famous cancer hospital as head surgeon).

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JoJo, Cindy’s compnion pooch, had wise, old soul eyes. You could just tell he was listening and knew what you were saying and in a way he communicated his sentiments through his eyes that struck a chord in your heart.

Well, Cindy laughed, and said, “You can imagine how that turned out!” So she’d up and moved to Nashville to be around her daughter, Emma, who was attending Vanderbilt University. But mostly, it was a chance to begin a new chapter after years of living in Walpole defined by her traditional role as wife and mother.

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There were only so many honky-tonk heavens one could pay homage to, and we were told “you can’t miss Robert’s Western World” and so we didn’t. But, dammit, we never made it to The George Jones 😦

Well, not no’ mo’! The “new and improved Cindy” was ready to bring it on, don her rodeo hat and put on her cowgirl boots and paint the town red! At least for a few months of unwinding and good times, and we were fortunate to have landed smack dab in the middle of her new chapter.

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Sturgill” and a honeybun dancing their brains out while Nashville Skyline rocked the house. Really dug the cowboy doorman screening people and collecting their $5 entry fee.

A native Floridian (who has since relocated there), Nashville was, for the time being, comfortably close to her beloved southern roots. We found her in fine fettle re-inventing herself after the split-up and the kids had gone their separate ways.

Mary decked out in her Angel Wings – fly high, my love!

Ever in lively spirits, and exploring being in a new relationship (since split up), all in all Cindy was just in a very good place, mentally, spiritually and location-wise. She kept saying how hard it was to beat the nonstop electric vibe of Nashville. “I just love it here!” she said.

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Sunset view of Nashville atop Cindy’s high-rise apartment balcony.

Uber-happy, free of entanglements and obligations, she was in an “anything is possible / anything can – and will! – happen” frame of mind, and she treated us like dear old friends, too, showering us with some downright southern hospitality. Funny how it all worked out. We had reconnected back in August (2019) at Mom’s life celebration, and when she found out we planned to party down in Nashville sometime in the coming months, she jumped at the chance to extend an invitation to us. We were overjoyed and a bit shocked by her generous offer.

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Even just sittin’ and enjoyin’ an anonymous beer at a nowhere bar, there’ll be someone singin’ about becomin’ a country star.

I mean, here’s a person we barely knew, really, only that every time we saw her over the many years of going to Walpole to visit Mom and Tina’s family, we loved her effusive energy and fun-loving style. But at Mom’s memorial, I embarrassingly admit, I almost didn’t recognize her, the transformed vivacious woman, full of vim and appearing, seriously, half the age I thought she was! I espied her sitting at a table with my 25 year old nephew, Joey, and honestly thought she was his new girlfriend!

Sunday Brunch at Rudy’s Jazz Club was a sophisticated New Orleans-esque departure from honky-tonkin’ Nash-VULL!

Oh, I imagine, Cindy, you will get a huge kick out of that! We hugged between tears and she said, “You guys just have to call me when you get to Nashville and stay with me for a few days!”

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Robert’s Western World grill grub – baloney and Velveeta “cheese” sandwiches on Wonder Bread – yummy! (NOT!) We settled for a beer and fries!

We had to work around her timing to make it happen, because she was off to a Kripalu Yoga Teaching Certification Workshop, where she was to become a freshly-minted certified “500-Hour Kripalu Yoga Teacher”, telling us in a text “the mind-blowing last module I did was life changing! I’ll fill you in when y’all get here!”

Nashville Skyline kickin’ out some rockabilly tunes – this one was a foot-stompin’ rendition of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On the Road”.

Yep, everything clicking for Cindy! So we zigged here and zagged there for a couple of weeks to ensure we would not miss our time with Cindy in Nashville.

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We spent a good three hours schlepping around the vast confines of the Country Music Hall of Fame – well worth the price and expended energy and hassle of crowd-dodging, though, to see all the amazing memorabilia on display. It took three hours before museum fatigue set in, a record for personal endurance at a museum!

Cindy resided in a modern upscale apartment complex about a fifteen minute walk from the main drag where all the action, bars and music venues were, but Nashville being Nashville, there was action, bars and music venues everywhere, even right across the street from her apartment on Demonbreun Street, where we had easy access to any number of bars, the best being Tailgate Brewery, Two Bits, Dawg House Saloon, and South. And within walkable distance, famed locales such as The Gulch, Downtown, and Music Row awaited to be plucked of their mystique.

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Cindy and her friend, “Sturgill” – eligible bachelor doing his best to pick up eligible bachelorette, but it wasn’t meant to be. But ol’ Sturge cut a mean rug and went around asking all the ladies to dance with him. By the end of the night, though, he was fairly shit-faced.

After greeting Cindy and her wise, wonderful old pooch, JoJo (aka “The Inspector”, “Dodi” and “Joseph P. Withers III, Esq.”), we settled into our bedroom with a large window overlooking the Nashville Skyline, and then proceeded to sit down for an endless “catch up” chat about everything under the sun. In a few short minutes of conversation – detailing our road trip adventures, hearing about her deep friendship with Tina, what her kids were up to, her recent Yoga teaching certification, and her love of and memories of Ora Lora – we learned more about Cindy than in the past three decades!

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This is actually a normal-sized guitar, and I must have taken the pill that shrunk me down to size.

We enjoyed a wonderful few days with Cindy – when we could squeeze her in between overnight visits with her new squeeze – but we managed to have a few doozies of a night on the town, dancing to great honky-tonk music at Robert’s Western World, where we sat at the bar and watched a dude named Slim prep fries and baloney sandwiches on the grill, digging to his rhythm as he rocked to “Six Days On The Road” and other country classics pumped out by a band named, appropriately enough, Nashville Skyline.

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Hard-drivin’ honky-tonk bass player baring his soul at Robert’s Western World.

We were very appreciative of Cindy’s hospitality and generosity. One day, she treated us to Sunday brunch at Rudy’s Jazz Room in a dark, neon-lit, intimate setting with a live band performing while we slurped cocktails and drooled over a buffet of delicious New Orleans-Creole style cuisine. I think I went back for thirds.

The lovely couple poses for an after aperitif (can’t you tell?) photo at Rudy’s Jazz Club.

After a couple of hours, we had to pull ourselves away or we would have closed the place down at 1 in the afternoon! And we had a full day ahead of us, including several walkabouts slated for JoJo, who despite his age, took on a well-heeled dog a third his age in a shocking display of aggression. Well, come to think of it, Cindy had warned us about “The Inspector’s” tendencies!

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“Finally Friday” line-up at the Dawg House Saloon featured, among others, up and coming singer from Kenosha, Wisconsin, Fallon Schulz.

One day we just walked around the crazy streets jam-packed with tourists and – get this! – it was an especially maddening blitzkrieg of a weekend flush with a crowd-crushing influx of college kids in town because – imagine the insanity! – of a triple-header series of football games being played that weekend!

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The “watch where yer steppin’, buddy!” scene on Nashville’s main drag.

It was nearly out of control with boisterous partying drunken fools stumbling up and down the streets and riding idiotic party buses – but we took a deep breath and reveled in watching the street scene pandemonium unfold.

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Me and Frankie Gene Courtney, a singer-songwriter from Florence, South Carolina, also on the line-up at the Dawg House Saloon. After his set, he approached us outside and mentioned he’d noticed me filming and watching him play, and he figured I was a record agent! Once he found out I wasn’t, I was chopped liver as he disappeared pretty quickly back into the crowded bar with his friends. (Now, c’mon, do I look like a record agent?)

One thing for certain: lots of homeless and street people in Music City: decrepit vets, down-and-out druggies, broken-down run-aways, gritty chicks on street corners looking for a hand-out, and depressed looking musicians crowding one another out for space in front of prime venues or consigned to play some lonesome bar for peanuts at 2 in the afternoon.

One of dozens of uncared-for, forgotten, street-dwelling (homeless) vets, hanging out in downtown Nashville.

A tough way to make an easy living. And, nope, not a single celebrity sighting, in the city famed for famous residents, like Jack White, John Prine (RIP), Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, Dolly Parton, and the list goes on. Of course, mostly they stay out of sight, hiding themselves from the unwashed masses. Can’t blame ’em.

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JoJo took a moment to oblige the photographer (Cindy) with one of those memorable, enduring images that seems to say, “OK, whaddaya think, I’m gonna fly away?”

And so, once again, with another few days of memorable events added to our ever-expanding list of truly incredible sights and people, we said farewell to our beautiful friend Cindy and the great city of Nashville, with a final quick tour around North Nashville to see what was up there – not a whole lot, we determined – but hoping to run into Todd Snider, maybe. No such luck.

Yep, they weren’t kidding about being “Real Southern Food” – I couldn’t resist and ordered the Whole Pork Butts for the table!

Before leaving, Cindy said we could not leave with going out to breakfast at Loveless Cafe for some “Real Southern Food”, so we took separate vehicles there, since it was on the way out of town toward the direction we were headed – our next destination, another grand belle of a sister city: Knoxville.

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A few of my musical heroes – posters from the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Knoxville: America Concentrated in One Spot” – Kristen Combs, Director of Communications & Social Strategies

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Mary paused on the winding stairway of one of Knoxville’s 30 some art galleries.

KNOX-VULL, we’d been told in that pronunciation by a struggling musician on the streets one night, is “way cooler” than NASH-VULL could ever hope to be. It was just a matter of whether you wanted to live in a cynosure of neon glitz, over-hyped country phoniness, a magnet for the homeless and down-and-out, and, let’s face it, a gross tourist bedlam, or, no poison to pick here, he pointed out proudly, “my home town” – a friendly, mellow city with an equally fascinating legacy of country roots and historic backstory as its more famous neighbor to the west.

Mary approaching one of Knoxville’s two historic, renovated theaters, the Tennessee.

Dude went on to praise his home town for being more down-to-earth, easier to get good paying gigs without competing with a million other aspiring musicians, and twice as authentic as Nashville in terms of country roots and tradition, nurturing the stellar careers of icons Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Flatt & Scruggs, Dolly Parton, and bluesman Brownie McGhee and the Everly Brothers. He said, “It ain’t called the Cradle of Country Music for nuthin’.”

Hank Williams spent his final night among the living in Knoxville (New Year’s Eve, 1952) before dying in the back seat of his Cadillac car of hard livin’ (heart failure) at the tender age of 29 on New Year’s Day, 1953.

Like with St. Louis’ Walk of Fame, where we learned surprisingly about dozens of luminaries from the city, so too with Knoxville. Apart from the musically famous, other well-known sons and daughters of Knoxville include: James Agee, Quentin Tarantino, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Christina Hendricks, Nikki Giovanni, Jack Hanna, and for the esoteric literati among you, Joseph Wood Krutch.

Famed Dolly Parton mural in downtown’s Strong Alley, defaced in April 2020 by vandals who smeared her lips with black paint, was soon restored with a complete make-over befitting the “Queen of East Tennessee” by artist Megan Lingerfelt who decked her out with a new curly do, a butterfly alighting, earrings, a denim shirt and new glossy red lips.
The new Dolly (courtesy Knoxville News Sentinel).

So take that, Nashville, and stick it you know where, he was basically saying, pigeon-holing the three of us on a side-street for darn near half an hour, blocking sidewalk traffic and regaling us with an insider’s hard-earned wisdom of the artist/musician’s struggle in Nashville. (Mostly, can’t blame him, he was entranced with Cindy giving him the time of day.) “Helluva lot easier to make a livin’ in my hometown of Knoxville,” he said. “And anyway, I’ll put it up against Nashville any day.” Which prompted me to ask him, “So why are you here in Nashville.” He said he was giving up and going back to his hometown any day now.

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Musician we met on the street who gave us the low-down about the struggles his kind endure to “make it” – playing at empty dives at 2 pm on a Wednesday, closing down rowdy honky-tonks making $30 a gig, busking on the streets for hours and an empty hat to show for it.

We wished we had spent more time exploring and getting to know Knoxville, named one of America’s TOP 100 for places to live. Like everywhere that’s become (becoming) gentrified owing to exorbitant cost of living and congestion / pollution / crime issues in formerly desirable places to reside (uh, the Bay Area, Seattle, NYC, LA) . . .

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At first I thought it read “truly autistic” . . .

. . . historic Knoxville’s growth has been propelled by the same forces of civic development and expansion that has fueled growth in formerly once not so desirable places to live (a long list), as artist/ hipsters, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, the whole lot of ’em flocking to the next “best place to raise your family” and transforming towns and cities across America.

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Knoxville’s Cathedral of Entertainment and Libations, as it calls itself, but we didn’t have the energy – or apparent nerve – to enter, as one patron’s review scared us off: “This place attracts, rude, angry people!” Probably an overstatement.

All contributing to the meteoric growth in any number of once-sleepy, down on their heels towns in the Industrial (Rust) Belt or poorer states, places that have become beacons of such change, magnets attracting hordes of outdoors buffs and nature lovers, people sick and tired of cramped city living, and insanely wealthy brogrammers and other nouveau riche types.

A “mary walking series” photo of a quaint alleyway near the artsy-homey breakfast joint OliBea.

You just know these places without even having to mention the state: Bend, Asheville, Reno, Tulsa, Fort Collins, Spokane, Austin, Mariposa, Sedona, Albany, OKC, the list is endless as a mass exodus of people out of no longer livable cities to rural, semi-rural and manageable mid-sized cities – places where they can (re)create the social and cultural zeitgeist they left behind.

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Proud home to the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee, founded in 1794 as Blount College.

Knoxville seemed like just such a new livable place recreated in the image of the hippest, coolest Berkeley neighborhood: art galleries, artists community and art galleries, fancy restaurants, high-tech startups, cool street festivals, hip wine bars and micro-breweries, cannabis dispensaries, rock climbing gyms, bars, music halls, and meet-ups with like-minded refugees from never-never-again land.

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Belting out the Old Crow Medicine tune: “So I hauled my load into Knoxville town, I met me a gal and we knocked around . . .”

Throw in a smattering of pretty parks, sculptural gardens, and public squares lined with historic buildings in an arts and entertainment district, and, amazingly, two renovated world-class historic theaters, the Bijou and the Tennessee, not to mention nearby nature attractions – or escapes – and voilà, you’ve got yourself a bona fide culture-rich habitable city . . . that is, until it’s the next over-run, ruined, high cost of living, congested, polluted, crime-ridden example of rampant gentrification.

Old “Cigar City” – an unofficial nickname for Knoxville; my grandpa Oreste Spadafora was a cigar salesman back in the 1920’s. He may well have swung down Knoxville way to peddle his stogies.

Well, for now, it looks like Chattanooga and Knoxville (not so sure about Nashville) have escaped that fate, but both cities, nearly 200,000 in population, have bloomed between 7% to 10% in the past decade, and growing ever-faster owing to the allure of all mentioned herein, not least of which is a (supposedly) hot job market, diverse economy, and “good schools.”

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Dog-friendly, with 50 brews on tap, Merchants of Beer packs ’em in, but it was closed when we chanced upon it on our final stroll around town early on the morning of our departure. It was listed as TripAdvisor’s #40 of 183 things to do (“Breweries”) in Knoxville. Sorry we missed it. And about 173 other things . . .

Also, of the two cities, Chattanooga seems on pace to out-do Knoxville, as its population growth has outpaced the national average for more than 20 years. And with its reputation as a high speed fiber optic hub, nicknamed “Gig City” – there ain’t no slowin’ down in sight.

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Market Square, founded in 1854, still serves its original purpose – a farmer’s market – but has since expanded its attractions to include shops, nightclubs and restaurants.

Though growing exponentially, like Chattanooga, the city felt contained and manageable. Walking around was leisurely and non-hurried. We found parks to sit in by ponds and fountains, and enjoyed tracing a line of country music icon markers of famous sons and daughters, and stopping here and there to learn about its 225 year old history as a railroad and industrial center.

Bronze Oarsman sculpture at S. Gay St. & W. Church Ave., by David L. Phelps (1988).

The morning we left we had a great breakfast at the cool artsy-fartsy eatery, OliBea, and took another quick spin around an architecturally famous area, and then climbed in Homer and said goodbye to Knoxville, see you the next time . . . and hauled off toward our next destination in our Appalachian tour: Asheville, North Carolina and environs, and a chilly (nights) camping adventure in the gorgeous Chattooga and Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. Tune back in for Part 2 of “Our Grand Tour Through the Appalachian Heartland Seeking Natural Wonders, Rekindling Old Friendships, and Exploring Revitalized Cities.”

With a belly full of fine vegetarian provender at OliBea just before departing on the next leg of our swing through the South to Ashville, North Carolina and vicinity.

BONUS FOOTAGE:

Enjoy this snippet of a cool honky-tonk band beltin’ out a song that, as the late Jerry Jeff Walker wrote “don’t it make ya wanna dance.” Check out the pure joy emanating from the smiling guitar player, contrasted with the dopey drummer, who was probably just plain sick and tired of it all after a million gigs of the same old same old. Maybe was just sleepy.

And this one from the boys in Nashville Skyline: a punkish looking lead guitarist, a hard-workin’ bass player straight from the “Streets of Bakersfield”, and a drummer who looks like he coulda been an uncle of mine back in the sixties.

Oh, Atlanta!

A visit to the Peach State to see the sweetest peaches we know, Mary’s nieces Marilyn and Chelsea, the daughters of Mary’s brother Rich. And to meet the freshest little fruit of our family tree, Miss Maris McKinley Norman. From Oct 11 – 17, 2019

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through
Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind. ~ Gorrell / Carmichael

 

Mary’s recollection:

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I saw my lovely nieces, the two of whom define that word in completely different ways. It would be like trying to describe the beauty of a sunrise compared to that of a sunset. From the same source, yet vastly and contrastingly distinctive. Though a full year has passed, the lively spirit of this visit lingers deep in our hearts.

Leaving our friends in Punta Gorda, Florida, we dropped in for an overnight at a hotel in Valdosta, Georgia with the friendliest staff imaginable and photographs of Woody Harrelson all over the lobby walls – apparently he stayed here while filming Zombieland. We learned that other films have been shot here over the years making it a sought after location for producers and directors looking for a solid Southern backdrop. Who knew?

After a long and sugar-sweet confabulation with the hotel front desk clerk, we headed out early for Atlanta. We considered a stop in Macon to visit the Allman Brothers Band Museum but, missing the exit and feeling the desire to stay on the road, like a “Ramblin’ Man”, Tommy pressed on. As a side note, I met Gregg Allman in an interminable line at the Whole Foods one evening many years ago in Berkeley CA in the days he briefly lived there. He turned around to look at me and said hello. I humbly gave him his full due for enhancing my teenage years with his soulful voice and special brand of southern blues rock.

Southern rockers, The Allman Brothers Band, in their heyday

Arriving at my niece Marilyn’s home in Atlanta proper where she lives with her husband Brian, son Nax (short for Greek philosopher, Anaximander, who is the first person in recorded history to recognize that the earth exists as a solitary body – in case you were wondering!) and baby daughter Maris, we were welcomed in with southern hospitality firmly intact. A sweet home in the Loring Heights neighborhood of Atlanta, we felt immediately at home with family.

Ever inquisitive Nax has all kinds of questions for the family guests for the weekend.

It was a Friday and Marilyn had taken the afternoon off work from her full time job to prepare for the weekend. On Saturday, a celebration of Maris’ first birthday was planned and others would be arriving soon. A dinner party was in the works for this first evening and we would be gathering with my other niece and Marilyn’s younger sister Chelsea, their mother and my brother’s ex-wife, Linda Marti and Linda’s sister Carmen who was flying in for the weekend from Michigan. Fun was certainly in store with this crew, I had no doubt.

Nax welcomed us in joyfully and showed us around, freely expressing himself in his excitement. The boy is not shy, he is adorable and full of energy and lots of questions, to say the least. A real boy’s boy, Nax was at the time of our visit one year ago on the cusp of four years old, growing and expanding each curious day in leaps and bounds! The family’s home was lovely and so welcoming to relax in with the Corbin/Marti/Norman clan.

Brian, a true Southern gent, arrived home from work within a couple hours looking dapper and handsome as usual but ready for the weekend ahead. Within a very short time, Chelsea, Linda and Carmen arrived and bottles of wine and champagne were flowing, dinner was being attended to and before long, we were all gathered around the table enjoying each other’s company in fine form. I hadn’t seen Carmen or Linda in a long while and it was great catching up with them. Brian, who has a sassy sense of humor, kept things joyful and lively at the helm of this female dominant affair!

First night dinner party: from front left and around: Linda, Chelsea, Nax, Marilyn, Tommy, Mary , Carmen and Brian.

 

Mary and Carmen

The Marti sisters and daughters are such wonderful women to share company with!

Post Dinner Chat with Linda, Chelsea and Marilyn. The conversation never ends!

Do we have an opinion about something? Of course we do. We are all strong, thoughtfully inquisitive and vocal women and there is no time for a dull or false moment. I love the company of the Marti women, though rare, it is always nourishing, supportive and interesting.

Sharin’ the love, Tommy and Chelsea on our first night in town.

The next day was the big event, Maris’ 1st Birthday party, held outside on a lovely Fall afternoon at a nearby neighborhood park. Tommy and I got turned around on our walk over and had to summon Brian by mobile to get us back on track. The setting was lovely for this small gathering of friends and family there to celebrate Maris. 

Maris Norman turns one year old in style!

With an Alice in Wonderland theme, the picnic tables were bursting with stacks of cupcakes, “Eat Me” macarons and party favors. Maris wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, especially that cake!

Brian in the park

 

Proud parents on Maris’ 1st Birthday

After the party in the park, we ambled back through their charming neighborhood to hang out on the comfy back yard deck. More wine and champagne and pizza worked their way into the afternoon and plenty of lively banter and laughter ensued.

A toast to united Women Power!

“Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.”  ~ Marilyn Monroe

 

Maris tires to figure out just what her Great Uncle Tommy is all about!

 

Linda and Brian kicking back

Feeling the day sink in, the evening could have been passed gracefully into the wee hours right there on the deck. But Chelsea had other ideas for me and Tommy. A dance performance across town was on the docket and we eagerly agreed to check it out with darling Chelsea, so we hopped into an Uber and motored across town to experience a dose of the arts a la Atlanta.

Classic Atlanta house in the Inman Park neighborhood near the performance space.

We arrived near our destination and hopped out to stroll the Inman Park neighborhood and get a feel for the area filled with old southern homes, coffee houses, restaurants and bars. As we found our way to the performance venue of the Whitespace Gallery through a pretty and romantically lit courtyard, we grabbed some drinks. We wandered in and out of the collection of various viewing rooms of this contemporary/alternative space to check out the art and live music prior to the performance of the Zoetic Dance Ensemble.

One of the main gallery rooms off the courtyard of Whitespace Gallery.

When the performance began, dancers clad in neutral shades of lingerie ambled slowly across the courtyard and through the crowd. The performance, subtle yet captivating, unfolded as a beautiful expression of the power of women: Our natural beauty and strength individually and collectively, our diversity and complexity, our empathy and support of each other. A perfect theme for this particular weekend.

The Zoetic Dance Ensemble of Atlanta performs at Whitespace Gallery

Expressed in a contact-improv style performance, the ensemble moved slowly into and out of each space as the audience stood to watch or followed the dancers along from room to room. Occasionally one or two dancers would break out into a solo piece then integrate back into the group. It was poetic. It was breathtaking and life-affirming, soothing and dynamic, all at once.

“I would like be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” ~ Maya Angelou

 

 Afterwards, we mingled with the crowd for a bit then began our long walk through the city via the Atlanta BeltLine, a former railway corridor through the core of the city, redesigned as a non-motorized and pedestrian only thoroughfare passing through different neighborhoods of the city. Currently running a 22 mile stretch and under development through 2030, the BeltLine is a great way to traverse the city and experience a variety of views and vibes.

Passing lively outdoor patios, brew pubs and restaurants, skateboard parks, music venues and open greenspace, we finally spilled out into Ponce City Market and called an Uber for the ride home. Thanks Chelsea for having that event in your back pocket,  turning us onto the arts scene and showing us some of your city! 

Upon returning to Marilyn and Brian’s, we found them having never left the back porch, hanging out with their next door neighbors and ready to plan some things for Sunday. The biggest agenda item was where to indulge in a big Sunday breakfast, Atlanta-style.

Brian, literally  floored, upon learning that we had never been to The Waffle House

After Brian explained the finer points of The Waffle House on Saturday night, the morning rolled easily into place and we ended up packing into two cars and heading for something even more classic to the region, The OK Cafe, where we got a big dose of throwback southern food and atmosphere.

Southern food done right at the OK Cafe in Atlanta.

The OK Cafe has an adjunct take-out shop with great visuals and prepared foods.

Pancakes, eggs, biscuits and more, all served up with a heaping helping of sweet southern hospitality. Afterwards, we wandered into the adjunct take out shop to eye some of the goods and some funky art.

Workin’ the grill at the OK Cafe

Funky and fun art adorns the walls in abundance at the OK Cafe

Another piece of art at the OK Cafe, part of a big wall of portraits

After breakfast, a chill day was in order for Brian, so Marilyn, Nax, Tommy and I met up with Chelsea at the High Museum for the afternoon, which just happened to be having an exhibit of one of my all time favorite artists Romare Bearden. 

Romare Bearden exhibit

One of the paintings in the Romare Bearden exhibit

We also took in several other rooms of the museum. This one in particular had Marilyn on her toes explaining to Nax the “what” and “why” of the paintings in the Mutiny on the Amistad exhiibit.

So many questions about what was going on in this painting!

An interesting design of museum space, it was fun just being here, catching the tail end of a local high school jazz performance, viewing the various exhibitions and immersing in the energy of family day at the museum.

Inside the High Museum in Atlanta

 

On Monday, everyone was off to work. Able to break away for the afternoon, Chelsea met up with us for a visit to the fabulous Atlanta Botanical Garden. We’ve been to many botanical gardens all over the States but this one really takes top billing. Linda works on the grounds here primarily in the beautiful children’s garden and we hoped to have another chance to chat with her before we left town.

Magical creatures abound all over the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Gorgeous grounds and exhibits, a true urban oasis, we were treated to a multitude of stunning visuals, including a special Halloween exhibit tucked in and around the landscape.

One of a multitude of Halloween inspired installations around the grounds.

Mary and Chels walking the beautiful grounds of the Botanical Garden

Another whimsical character in the Halloween display

 

Another outdoor exhibit was one dedicated to Alice in Wonderland. Truly spectacular we had the luck of seeing it just before it was being dismantled.

 

Part of the Alice in Wonderland exhibit, just as workers were about to begin the laborious dismantling.

Indoors at the Fuqua Conservatory, housing 5 separate exhibition spaces, we wandered through a maze of delights highlighting tropical and desert environments, including a fascinating amphibian exhibit with tropical frogs.

Tropical frogs, many hidden in plain sight, at the amphibian exhibit.

 

These guys were easy to spot, though others were quite elusive!

Good advice from Alice, I’d say

We walked the bridges and pathways of the vast garden grounds and got lucky to happen upon Linda on a short break. What a nice surprise!

One of the many connector bridge pathways running through the gardens.

A stunning botanical goddess on the grounds

 

On Monday night, it was relaxation time. After a bedtime story for Nax, all any of us needed to do was hang with family, drink some wine and confabulate. 

Almost bedtime for busy Nax.

 

Chelsea explaining something to us in her usual eloquent and thoughtful fashion.

Well deserved relaxation for Marilyn, busy working mother of two

Tommy and I weren’t the only guests staying at the Norman home that weekend. Marilyn and Brian were dog-sitting their friend’s dogs, Pfeiffer and June Bug, one of whom was not about to give up his end of the couch paradise for anyone. 

“You want this spot, huh? Don’t even think about it!” Pfeiffer rules.

The other dog, June Bug, who I nicknamed “Mud Pie” because he looked like he hadn’t had a bath in over a decade, preferred to be outside.

June Bug aka “Mudpie” was in need of a bath big time. But a loveable old soul, nonetheless.

Well, the long weekend and then some began to wind down with everyone back to work full swing. We stayed another day to have some work done on the van and then it was time to get on down the road and let this busy family get back to regular life.

Thanks Chelsea, Linda, Carmen and Marilyn, Brian, Nax and Maris for bringing us fully into the fold. Such precious time with family is unforgettable and so good for the soul!

Until we all meet again, be well, be happy and keep on living the sweet southern life!

 

“Oh Atlanta, oh Atlanta!

I said yeah! yeah! yeah! Atlanta!

Got to get back to you.”

~ Lowell George/Little Feat

Florida (Part 1): A Hedonistic Interlude with Friends in Punta Gorda

October 5 -11, 2019: A major detour into the Sunshine State, swinging down the sub-tropical Gulf Coast, to meet up with our St. Louis friends in the sauna-like heat and humidity of Punta Gorda, to . . . party our butts off in style . . .

Mary beckoning me to get my hot, tired, dripping with sweat ass into the air-conditioned comfort of our guest house, rented courtesy of friends Michael and Sheila.

Fuzzy memories recollected by Tom:

In our sightseeing, bucket list journey across the States, we’ve packed in more fun and adventure than we can keep up with, at least when it comes to keeping up on our blog. While generally adhering to a semi-fixed itinerary, zigging here and zagging there, we’ve enjoyed wonderful visits with friends and family in Utah and Colorado, the Midwest, the East Coast, and down into D.C. and Virginia, and there was more on the docket. Our running (driving) joke got to be, “Oh, nooooo! Here comes Tom and Mary!”

Beautiful waterfront of Punta Gorda.

Upon departing our dear friends’ company in Charlottesville, we tacked south in a splendid detour to the resort area of Emerald Isle for a few days of rest and relaxation in a gorgeous vacation home courtesy of Mary’s friends, Sarah and Brian Fagan, and after that sweet but stultifying hot interlude (sans the Fagans, unfortunately), we figured we’d keep heading south, not knowing if we’d end up in Florida or the Yucatan Peninsula. We still had friends and family to visit in Atlanta, Nashville and Houston, and certainly had to somehow swing back up to Asheville, the Smokies and back down to New Orleans in some kind of crisscrossing big loop, but then, what about Florida? Well, the Florida dilemma conveniently resolved itself when our St. Louis / Lake of the Ozark friends, Michael and Sheila, followed through on their invitation to meet up with them in – say where? Punta Gorda is where.

Mary walking along the waterfront where it was a little cooler, but still, she’s hustling to get to an air-conditioned bar to enjoy a TCO.

During our stay with them (July 2019) at their beautiful home on Sunrise Beach, Lake of the Ozarks, Sheila and Michael had told us about their trip to Florida planned for early October and – hey! – why not meet up there if we were going to be anywhere in the vicinity at that time. Since were we in Savannah, with a coin toss as to which way to head next, it seemed like the stars were aligning and our timing would be perfect to avail ourselves of their wonderful, kind, generous offer to spend time with them in an exotic locale. Because, after all, it’d only been like, what, 40 years since either of us had been to the Sunshine State. It was definitely time for a visit.

Backside view of our pad, not bad, eh!

So with nothing pressing to do or magnets pulling us in another direction, at least for now, we figured, why not, let’s shoot down to Florida and hang out in a luxury pad for a few days with our good friends. From there, we could then seriously consider continuing our journey farther south hugging the gorgeous aquamarine waters and white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, and – why not! – nothing stopping us! – we could then push on to the Keys, or if the bug were to bite us hard enough, figure out a way to cross the Gulf of Mexico and spend the winter kicked back on the mellow Caribbean beaches of the Mayan Riviera. (Now, that’s what retirement should be lookin’ like, eh!)

Sunset view from our back yard of the pretty waterfront consisting of a labyrinthine system of interlacing canals.

And so we bid Savannah adieu and departed Georgia with a full tank of gas and a plan to someday return and spend more time when the weather was more amenable to being outdoors. Crossing the state line into Florida felt like we’d entered a different country. Wealthier, ritzier, and, from the look of things, big-time MAGA country. Trump bumper stickers adorning SUVs, and Confederate flags proudly flying, including a 100 ft. tall monstrosity greeting motorists along I-75 outside of Tampa (temporarily taken down on June 1, 2020). Nothing to do but keep driving, stay in the right (left?) lane, and be kind to everyone.

View of canal in back yard of vacation rental.

We were also struck by how horrendous and unskilled most motorists were – just downright rude sonsabitches for the most part! – barreling down the highway with reckless, self-absorbed urgency, creating traffic backups and veering in and out like maniacs liable to cut you off without notice. Let alone the massive parade of speeding big rigs balling jack and bearing down menacingly. Then you had a ridiculous number of vacationing mom and pops tooling along in their absurdly huge 8-cylinder pickups towing mega-sized trailers and RVs towing jeeps down straightaway stretches of freeway where, to keep from getting bullied, or run off the road, I had to drive as fast as all the other Floridians and out-of-staters. It was an unregulated free-for-all verging on total traffic anarchy on Florida’s Interstate Highway 75. I was surprised not to see a single wreck, and honestly, I don’t recall seeing a single police officer patrolling for these contemptible motorist scofflaws – speeders, texters, drinkers, distracted idiots on their phones, people making illegal lane changes, failing to use turn signals, etc. The prevailing rules of the road on Florida’s I-75: Be Rude and Drive Aggressively. Every Asshole For Himself. (Most definitely HIMs.) Seriously, the level of incivility and “get out of my way, asshole” style of road rage inducing driving was unlike anywhere I’d ever been while behind a steering wheel, including – and this is hard to beat – Massachusetts and Chicago!

Sheila cooling off poolside enjoying a refreshing libation.

Well, phew! We made it safely past godforsaken Jacksonville – thought the sprawl was never going to end – and just when we thought we were cruising along, got badly hung up in a nightmarish jam on the outskirts of Gainesville, where we thought it might be nice break up the drive, check out the college town, and spend the night. But we couldn’t find a decent available hotel within our means, or, barring that luxury expense, a camping spot for the life of us, which was always and forever a difficult proposition, given our extreme dislike of mainstream camping and (misanthropically, I am loathe to admit) mainstream campers. So, despite being thoroughly trashed behind the wheel, I boned up and suggested driving another couple of hours to spend the night in a Best Western Plus, which turned out to be located forty minutes off the freeway in Leesburg, an old fart resort area in aptly named Lake County, for its surrounding complex of interconnecting lakes, which, of course, attracts all the big boaters, jet skiers and fishermen. Plenty of beauty but simply overrun with too many people engaged in activities geared for zero solitude and very little peace and quiet.

Michael relaxing in the enclosed pool area of their luxury vacay pad.

After our respite for the night – just another $130 lodging tab is all – we arose early the next morning to partake of the BW+ complimentary continental breakfast (truly sucky food) before setting off on the final push to Punta Gorda, another three hours away. We made a quick stopover in Sarasota to buy some groceries at the deluxe Whole Foods; and what we saw of Sarasota was pretty much gigantic mall-land and bustling intersections and no sidewalks or pedestrians, but certainly there must be attractive areas, if only we’d had the time, and inclination, to check them out, and visit a cousin who lives there I haven’t seen in probably forty years. Anyway, that possible visit and swimming with the manatees and strolling the boardwalk would have to wait for the return trip, as we were due to meet our friends at noon or so.

Mary and Sheila deciding, “Now what? Must be time for Happy Hour again!”

Traffic was horrible, maddening, as usual, with everybody in an anxious mental mush and super-rush to get their relaxing destinations, hell-bent and god-be-damned if they made it there safely or caused someone else to die in a wreck. We were delayed just long enough to miss the gang greeting us with hugs and high fives, which was fine because, frankly, we were bushed – psychically taxed from the driving, mostly! – and so Michael, Sheila and Julie had decided to go out boating without us. We made ourselves at home, and did what we do best under such circumstances: lounging around, relaxing in the air-conditioning with occasional forays out into the intense heat of the day for a quick dip in the cool pool, noshing, waiting for them to return so we could get down some real partying. Sheila called Mary at one point, offering to swing by and pick us up dockside in an hour, but we declined, as it was just too torpid for us to expose ourselves to the serious heat and humidity. Julie chimed in that there was a bottle of Prosecco waiting to be popped just for us in the fridge, so why go anywhere, right?

Me with Sheila and Julie at – inevitably – another Happy Hour celebration on the waterfront.

They eventually returned and one look at their wind-blown and sun-burned faces, and sagging body language (they got into a bit of a scrape out on the water), we were relieved we had declined to join in on the sailing tour. Unlike in our younger days, when we could go biking in 108 degree weather and deal with heat, sun, humidity, wind, and not be . . . I guess hot and bothered is a good way to put it . . . today we’re so much more careful, me in particular having suffered from a couple of bouts of severe heat stroke in recent years. But after a dip in the pool, showers, and acclimatizing to the air-conditioning, the merry gang all seemed none worse the wear, in good cheer, and broke out cold beers, the chilled wine, and the vape pipe. And so began Day One in Punta Gorda, and it pretty much didn’t let up for five days.

A fun evening enjoying the bluesy rock LA band, Live and Learn, at a Tex-Mex restaurant – Dean’s South of the Border – filled with partying, inebriated Boomer types, including us, I suppose.

Though we were forced to spend most of our time indoors, it provided a wonderful opportunity to re-connect with Michael and Sheila, and surprise! – Julie – who had also made the trip down. It was party-central, even though Michael and Sheila were ensnared in a landlord-renter conflict that was stressing them out quite a bit. Their tenant was this asshole guy renting their Punta Gorda investment home who was causing lots of trouble over nothing really, other than to give them a hard time over a broken air-conditioning unit a few weeks before and a downed wifi connection which they had remedied as soon as possible, and now here he was interfering with their agent trying to show the place to sell, and the jerk was threatening to refuse to vacate, all of which was mental energy-zapping, but at least it provided for lively, endless, strategizing about what to do conversation. All in all, our time together was special and we made the best of things despite the heat and humidity that prevented us from enjoying so many other activities . . . so Happy Hour and Happy Times prevailed!

Punta Gorda’s beautiful waters under threat of rain – a marine estuary and huge river outlet lending a spacious, infinite, eternal feeling to the scene.

Evenings were more amenable to being out and about. We enjoyed a few nights on the town, listening to Boomer crooners and Jimmy Buffet style bands in bars and restaurants (banal but evoking nostalgic sentiment), and partaking of many languid Happy Hours, absorbed in conversation and enchanted by the beautiful scenery of the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor.

Party Central at Dean’s South of the Border (photo courtesy of “One Shoe Diaries”).

We kicked off our first night in Punta Gorda gulping down margaritas and Coronas at the rooftop bar of the luxury Wyvern Hotel where we were treated to great sunset views and priming us for the evening of fun with our friends. Later on, we landed for dinner and drinks on the patio of Dean’s South of the Border, a lively Mexican restaurant and cantina with live music – Live and Learn, an LA-area band busting out raucous versions of Stevie Ray Vaughan tunes.

Sheila, Julie and Mary putting down their Happy Hour drinks long enough to pose for a timeless photograph of the three bon vivants and old friends going waaaaay back to their St Louis days.

We truly regretted how the weather prevented us from enjoying all of Punta Gorda’s activities and attractions. It would have been fun to go sailing and do a little cycling, take in a sunset cruise, and visit the wildlife estuary and mangrove wetlands exploring in a kayak the alluring maritime and coastal ecosystem supporting over 600 species of birds, fish and other wildlife. Oh, well, there’s always next time. Should we ever make it back to Punta Gorda.

We celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary in Punta Gorda with Sheila and Julie – unfortunately, Michael had flown back to St. Louis earlier in the day.

Punta Gorda’s motto – “Come for the weekend – stay for life” – is meant to attract people seeking a lower key lifestyle and more integrated community spirit from other more popular places on the Gulf Coast or elsewhere along Florida’s 8,436 miles of ocean shoreline and endless lakeshore frontage. And it’s true: a distinct laid-back vibe prevails in the small city of 17,000 souls, many of them retirees and on and off residents. Politics seemed to take back seat to hedonism. There was a touristy flavor to the scene, not too, too off-putting, but it certainly was a scene geared more toward the older, shall we say, Boomer crowd, than it was a young, hip scene.

Peace Out . . . on the Peace River.

Had the humidity not been so suffocating, we might have enjoyed the city’s diverse array of things to see and do much more. That was our only regret for making the long ass drive from Savannah, and then, as it turned out, not heading farther south, but reversing direction back up to Georgia. But it was special enough just to be there with our friends, enjoying their company and camaraderie in a different sort of place from anywhere we’d yet been to in our criss-crossing of the States. Florida felt different, looked different, smelled and was different. It was a taste of the exotic we hoped to experience again.

Happy Hour view.

We figured we’d save the Keys for later, and beeline straight up to Atlanta where Mary’s niece, Marilyn, and her lovely family, had an open invitation for us to stay a few days. It was now or . . . who knows when? So that’s what we did, jammed back up north, figuring we could always swing down to Mexico after completing a loop of the Southeast and Gulf Coast – all those places we’d missed since leaving Charlottesville for Emerald Isle and Savannah. It was a lot of backtracking, but we were carefree lucky souls, able to go wherever and do whatever we wanted to do, whenever . . . or so we thought. We couldn’t imagine when or where . . . or if . . . Florida (Part 2) would ever materialize. But it would, in good time.

Of course, shopping . . .

Thanks so much to our friends Sheila and Michael for bringing us into the fold once again with such generosity and style! And to Julie for keeping us all in party spirit. Cheers!

Aaaaaaaaaah!
Paradise Peek-a-boo!
Crooner dude singing Jimmy Buffet songs and other befitting lazy come-what-may beach tunes.
Sunset beauty on the canal.

A Double Dip into the South

Late September 2019: An unexpected trip to Emerald Isle, North Carolina; hot nights in Savannah, Georgia.

The Fagan’s big, beautiful beach house in lazy, humid Emerald Isle, where we are thrilled to be able to spend a few days of utter, do-nothing leisure.

Emerald Isle Idyll (as told by Mary):

A big spread with a backyard swampy maze of twisty waterways.

“Sing me a love song in a slow, southern drawl to the tune of sunny days . . . ” – Kellie Elmore, writer, 1967- Present

After leaving the cozy nest of the Nolasco homestead in Charlottesville, Virginia (see our previous post), we pushed on a little deeper into the southern states. We would likely never have made a trip to Emerald Isle, North Carolina, but for the grace and generosity of Sarah and Brian Fagan. Out of the blue, while we were in DC I got a message from Sarah – who I knew as Sarah Mann growing up in St. Louis – saying she had been following our blog and asked if we would be interested in staying at her summer place in Emerald Isle!

Posing on the deck on a refreshing morning before the heat becomes too oppressive.

We were thrilled with this gesture, though dismayed that it would not include a visit with Sarah and Brian, as the family, who reside in nearby New Bern, were on their way to Florida. But the southern hospitality of this fine lagniappe was astonishing and received with abundant gratitude! After a catching-up phone call with Sarah, we made our plan.

A beachcomber’s delight to find pretty shells and pebbles and the occasional washed-up jellyfish or crab, Mother Nature’s little treasures.

I met Sarah in the 8th grade when my family moved across town thusly tossing me into a new school district and new junior high. She was one of the first girls I met in a crowd of tight-knit friends welcoming me quickly into the fold. Sarah, originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was a southern belle at her core.

Of an evening, or morning, a perfect, pleasant peaceful place to pause and reflect.

I remember that even her family home resembled something more befitting of the south than St. Louis, Missouri, with its whitewashed pillars and grand lawns and long driveway, a home filled with a grandeur that spoke to something other than our beer and baseball town. A classic beauty, Sarah possessed a mischievous spunk and, while looking sweet as pie, innocent as rain and as pretty as a girl could ever hope to be with her blond locks, kind eyes and child-like grin, Sarah seemed always to be hatching up some antics to surprise and entertain us all.

Judging by this picture of Sarah, she is still the mischievous, fun loving belle she ever was. Cheers to you, Miss Sarah!

Pulling into the circular driveway mid-day, we beamed at the beauty of their lovely summer home nested between the Atlantic Ocean and Bogue Sound, beckoning us to come inside and set a spell. On a mother of a hot and sticky humid day, we parked Homer and wandered over to the frog filled pond in the center of their front yard with its picture-perfect porch swing built-for-two under the respite of a huge shade tree. You could just feel it was a place where Sarah and Brian have had loads of fun with their beautiful family and friends.

Ah, nothing like a catnap for the ol’ dog! (Or a dognap for the ol’ cat!)
Colorful vacation homes up and down the wide open sandy beach.

We made our way up to the front deck and thankfully into the cool environs of the three story house. What a lovely place to hang our hats for a few days. Every creature comfort was at our disposal and the only thing missing were our friends Sarah and Brian. “Where are you guys!”

Sunsets (and probably sunrises) are spectacular on Emerald Isle!

The Fagan’s summer home had all the markings of life well-lived with family. A sweet and comfortable interior for true R and R, big front and back decks, a sprawling backyard leading to a private boat dock on the Sound and a separate structure serving as a private “man cave” for Brian. He served 20 years in the Marine Corps as a marine helicopter pilot, retired in 2008 and is currently an instructor for the Osprey aircraft at the marine corps air station New River.

A fun frolicking ride one morning before the heat drives us back to our air-conditioned sanctuary.

But we managed to have some good fun while we were there despite their absence. Though mid-days were hot and muggy, early morning rides along the Emerald Isle bike path were a great way to explore the island. The paved path runs 11 miles from the Indian Beach town limits all the way to The Point at Bogue Inlet with a variety of side paths leading to the beach. We ditched our bikes at one or two and took beautiful strolls along the beach both mornings and at sunset on more than one occasion. Or we would set out on our bikes or stroll the neighborhoods closer to the Sound behind the Fagan’s property. Upon return, a chilled white wine would be begging to be popped open, to be sure.

Appropriately, a Welcome Sign welcoming us to The Beach Chalet for a few days of languor and intimacy.

Shades of the Confederacy peek through an otherwise sunny disposition of a beach town of vacation rentals and summer getaways on streets with names like Plantation Drive and Mangrove Drive commingling with Lobster Lane, Pelican Court, Ebb Tide, Clam Digger and Outrigger Drives. Squeaky clean whitewashed multi-storied houses and pastel mansions set against the back drop of sparkling, blue waters of the Crystal Coast’s sandy white beaches whisper sweet poetry if you listen closely enough. This place instills a calmness, an invitation to laziness and easy livin’ – given the opportunity to be on the right side of history. And weather, for that matter. The town has been the destination of more than one hurricane to hit landfall as recent as August 2020.

Big vacation homes like this dot the coast up and down for miles.

One afternoon, as a diversion, we drove to Beaufort, a nearby town that Sarah suggested we check out. So we took the short drive cross the bridge spanning the Newport River and the Bogue Sound and spent a few hours strolling up and down the main drag – Front Street – lined with antebellum-style homes and many shops and restaurants. Before the day heated up to frying pan hot, we strolled around the shady grounds of the historic cemetery – The Old Burial Ground – taking in fascinating history writ in old time etching on decaying tombstones.

Thanks again to the Fagans and their lovely hospitality. Next time, it’s in shared company together, my friends, to raise a glass to life well lived.

Blessed, dramatic cloud cover enabled us to walk the beach one afternoon and enjoy this spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, with its pounding surf and mystical lighting.
Heading “home” after a beach stroll and gorgeous sunset.
Historic Beaufort Harbor’s alluring waterfront, given short shrift owing to excessive hot temperatures.
Old stately mansions with impeccably kept lawns figure prominently in the town’s history.
Beaufort once boasted a major ship building center; a peek inside the Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center, across the street from the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
Many historic interments in the Old Burying Ground include Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War Confederate generals and soldiers, as well as a plot devoted to a “massacre” of settlers in the Tuscarora Indian War of 1711.
From “mary walking series” . . . by an antebellum home.
The Old Burying Ground, in search of Revolutionary War and Civil War headstones.
Scenic Beaufort Inlet with cruising and sailing boats for locals and tourists alike.


Part Two:  A Sweet Southern Sojourn to Savannah, Georgia (as told by Mary):

Lush parks with statues and fountains dot the cityscape providng respite and refuge for those exploring the historic streets of Savannah.

“You learn to forgive the South for its narrow mind and growing pains because it has a huge heart…I am less a part of the South than it is part of me. It’s a romantic notion, being overcome by geography. But we are all a little starry-eyed down here. We’re Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara and Rosa Parks all at once.” ― Amanda Kyle Williams, writer, 1957 – 2018

The Olde Pink House, an elegant Colonial mansion, where inventive Southern cuisine and live music in the cellar tavern create an indelible atmosphere and impression of the veritable Olde South. 

Savannah! I’ve always wanted to visit this place! And here we were finally in the midst of horse-drawn carriages, tucked away eateries, magnificent homes and weepy southern live oak trees. Just like I imagined it. The book, “Midnight in the Garden and Good and Evil”, later made into a movie starring John Cusack, Kevin Spacey and local transgender entertainer and Savannah denizen Lady Chablis, was coming to life before my very eyes.

Returning from a night down on the waterfront along historic cobblestone streets, also called “Ballastones” from their usage as ballast on slave ships crossing the Middle Passage. On arrival in Savannah, after an unimaginably brutal months long trip, African peoples were forced to unload the heavy stones for eventual placement as city walkways.

The heat persisted, making it tough to be out during the day so night time was our time to be out and about exploring the city’s charms and treasures. We walked and walked up and down old stairways and back alleys and for blocks and blocks through the park from one end to the other.

Poor Tommy got so overheated one night – I looked over at him dripping in sweat like he’d been running a 10 miler – so we had to beeline back to the hotel so he could take a cold shower and regroup. Luckily, he felt refreshed enough to venture out again in an hour or so to wander around the shops and throngs on River Street! Good recovery, baby!

Historic paddleboat docked at harbor waiting to fill up with scads of tourists.
Sweet scene down on the historic (overly touristy) waterfront.

As the oldest city in the state of Georgia with a recorded history since 1733, Savannah was founded under inauspicious circumstances atop a sacred Native American burial ground, and of course lives with its inglorious slave past, but it also has a long and colorful story full of interesting characters. The environs are filled with manicured parks, horse-drawn carriages rolling down cobblestone streets, old town trolleys, classic riverboats and ornate antebellum architecture. And apparently a few restless ghosts. You totally feel squarely in the South. And Savannah has known its hardships, too, having suffered two devastating fires, in 1786 and again in 1820, that each left half of the city in ashes. In 1820, an outbreak of yellow fever killed nearly a tenth of the population. But, like any resilient city, Savannah managed to rebuild and thrive.

Neighborhood stroll and there the # 108 in my life pops up!
Gigantic monument to the “Confederate Dead” . . . doesn’t look like this behemoth will be coming down any time soon.

During the Civil War, Savannah was saved from the fires set by Union soldiers throughout the Southeast. Supposedly, Union General William Sherman was so impressed by the city’s beauty that he would not allow it to be destroyed. He evidently then offered Savannah as a Christmas present to President Abraham Lincoln. 

City park that is the quintessence of Savannah charm and mystique.
Central plaza of shops, outdoor sculpture and music venues.
One way to explore and experience Savannah’s gloomy, mysterious side rife with paranormal phenomena. Famous for its haunted history, Savannah’s inglorious past created its restless ghosts of the future from its origins having been built on sacred Native American burial grounds, and then becoming the horrific scene of indentured labor on the waterfront where hundreds perished from soul- and bonecrushing hardship.

As for historic structures that grace the city, dubbed the “Sistine of the South”, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist towers into the sky and boasts 81 stained glass windows in its interior. We aren’t guide book types, but we did just happen upon it on one of our evening strolls. Which, in my mind, is more interesting and fun.

The Basilica (photo credit: Tim Pierce)
Reflective beauty on the Savannah River.
Waterfront stroll at night along mysterious streets and buildings which once housed African slaves up for auction; some still show chain holes from their captivity.
Sidestreet view of old Savannah.
Green Fire Pizza, in our humble opinion, lays claim to not only the best pie in Savannah but maybe the entire South!
Classic Savannah promenade.
Night time charm along River Street.
200 year old cobblestone streets add to allure and charm of anything but an ordinary stroll through history.
From “mary walking series” – the Historic Steps (at her own risk).
Savannah is a great walking city with lots to see – historic buildings, lush parks, old fountains, creepy cemeteries, and diverse characters.
Elegant old mansion fallen into disrepair – a great fixer-upper for some “flipper” to snatch up and make a mint, no doubt.



The Mercer Williams House on Bull Street (now a Museum), built in 1860 for the great-grandfather of Johnny Mercer.


The childhood home of famed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor.

The Armstrong House was also featured in the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Incredible historic mansions abound. The Gingerbread house, aka The Asendorf House, weighing in at 108 years old (wink) is considered to be one of the most outstanding examples of Steamboat Gothic Gingerbread carpentry in the US. I know, I’d never heard of that either! The house is so-called due to its elaborate gingerbread arches and spindles on the side balconies and front porch. It’s been featured in many films over the years.

One could and does spend a day walking the boulevards to take in these magnificent and historic homes. And what’s also lovely about walking this city is each block over is another long walking park with a central square – that often has a monument to someone important to the city’s history at the center of it – all running parallel to the one you were just in, making for a lot of zigging and zagging exploration. Then it’s back to real life in the city.

Night time action on the happening streets of Savannah.
A common sight around town – poor old horses on hard surface and in heat.
Monument to American Revolution soldiers of African descent (from Haiti) who fought nobly as free men – “Les chasseurs volontaires de Saint Domingue” – to liberate Savannah from the British in 1779.
Beautiful park, streets are amazingly devoid of people . . . maybe the heat was too much for them. It certainly got the best of us!
Railroad tracks paralleling cobbleston streets running along waterfront and tourist district.
Chic hotel hoping to attract legions of Bohemians.
Another boutique lodging establishment.
Beautiful fountains grace gardens and parks of Savannah.
Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona . . . wait! Make that Savannah, Georgia!
Wild beast on Savannah plain . . .

A Final morning stroll before leaving Savannah.

It was hard to leave this city so soon but we needed to press on. I’d like to return to Savannah one day for a longer visit in a different season and get to know it a bit better. I think this place has some hidden mystery that needs to be explored. In any event, it’s a city that stays with you long after you’ve left.

As Johnny Mercer sang back in the day:

“Days may be cloudy or sunny, we’re in or we’re out of the money. But I’m with you always, come rain or come shine!”

A Trip to Charlottesville to Rekindle the Love with Kindred Spirits

Mid to late September, 2019: A visit to Charlottesville, VA to visit “my Vin” and his lovely Aimee, darling daughter Bella, and Zen Master Chester the talking cat.

As told by Mary:

Life is short, short, brother! / Ain’t it the truth? / And there is no other / Ain’t it the truth? / You gotta rock that rainbow while you still got your youth!” -Yip Harburg, lyricist (1896-1981)

Now, this family, they rock that rainbow. That is for sure. Vince, Aimee, 5 year old Bella and Chester the cat welcomed us into their superb love nest in Charlottesville for a week of unbridled merriment that will be remembered as one of the Best. Weeks. Ever!

I met Vince Nolasco (aka, Vinny, Vincent Earl, My Vin) in 2000 when I was hired to work in a seasonal position in the Finance department at Backroads, an adventure travel company based in Berkeley. The atmosphere was conducive to making friends, which I did quickly with the most excellent group comprised of Vince, Deepak, Nicole, Jen and Guenza, and a few peripheral others, who would become tight mountain biking buddies.

Seemed like just about every weekend Tom and I would meet up with this crew of 20-somethings for a fun-filled outing. When we couldn’t wait for Saturday, we’d make an after work hard scramble to the Marin Headlands biking hard and fast up rugged hills and screamin’ down to Muir Beach for the sunset. Then digging deep for true grit, we’d chase the light back up again, followed by some cold ones at a brew pub on one side of the bridge or other. But all things must pass, and those days did as everyone dispersed to different edges of the country to raise families, leaving me and Tommy to face the trails without them.

Vin and Tommy chillin’ post-hike at Tennessee Valley beach, Marin headlands

Vin, who grew up in Virginia Beach, woke up his surfer boy past and moved to Maui where he met his love, Aimee, his precious gem from Ithaca, NY. The two sweethearts got married and eventually moved back to Virginia to be near both of their families. Bella (Isabella) was born to bless their lives with her sweet, fun, smart and loving nature. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, let me tell ya. Both Vince and Aimee are the embodiment of those traits.

An earlier family photo of Vince, Aimee and Bella

Upon arrival to their lovely C’ville home nestled in the trees, 4 year old Bella warmed to us, immediately asking, “Guys, can I show you my room?” Why yes, sweet princess, introduce us to all your warm and fuzzy friends in there!

The lovely Nolasco homestead in C’ville
After a short neighborhood walk, it’s back to the homestead

After a bit of chill time, we packed into the car and met Aimee’s sister Mandy, boyfriend Ray and Aimee’s mom who lives on an adjacent property for dinner – pizza and beer at Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie. Yummmm!

The next day Vince and Aimee were off to work, leaving me and Tommy to chill and rest up for the week ahead with these love bugs. After a day of pure R’n’R at their lovely and airy aerie, Vinny, who works as a Certified Recovery Specialist with a sports/fitness physical therapy group, had shorter workdays than Aimee and prepped us for a late afternoon getaway. After picking Bella up from pre-school at the private school where Aimee works her magic, Vin whisked us away up to Carter Mountain Orchard.

Apple donuts at Carter Mountain Orchard

Set high into the hills with sweeping views of the scape below and beyond, we wandered around the property and shopped for yummy treats, including apple donuts that Bella encouraged me to eat simply “because they are really good”. Sounds like ample criteria to me.

the store at Carter Mountain Orchard
View from the Carter Mountain Orchard

On another day when Vin had just a half-day of work, we met him and his affable older brother Owen for lunch at a restaurant along the charming Downtown Mall, one of the longest pedestrian malls in the United States, running a total length of eight blocks. Piling up our plates at the buffet of Himalayan Fusion and taking a table outside, we curry-n-naan’ed-out and got to know Vin’s brother a bit before he had to rush back to work. Afterwards, we strolled the mall checking out the shops, topping off our meal with some ice cream to fuel our wandering a bit more.

The charming pedestrian only Charlottesville Downtown Mall

On a more sobering note, Vin walked us to Fourth Street, just off the mall, to show us the shrine to the young and beautiful Heather Heyer, the 32 year old woman who was struck down and killed by a madmen who plowed his car into a crowd of protesters on this street on August 12, 2017. The block was renamed “Heather Heyer Way” and is replete with memorabilia in her honor.

Heather Heyer, killed at a protest on Fourth Street, August 2017

On that treacherous August day in Charlottesville, white nationalists descended on the city to “take America back” by rallying against plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. According to the New York Daily News, hundreds came to protest against the racism but it was not clear whether Heyer was with the demonstrators counter-protesting, or simply an innocent bystander, when her life was stolen from her.

Too young to die a martyr
Walking along Heather Heyer Way
After a stroll around the downtown mall, buddies in blue pose for the camera

Rolling back to the love nest, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal with the fam, dining al fresco in their lovely screened in porch in the trees. Catching up and reminiscing on days of yore, we had a great time just hanging out and relaxing. Our lovely digs on the bottom floor always provided a good nights sleep in our private room and bath.

On yet another day of hang time with Vin – all of us missing Aimz so much on these outings! – we took a ride to the Monticello Visitor’s Center to immerse in a bit of local history of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, albeit unsettling via the Sally Hemmings story and the woeful legacy of slavery. To rinse our hearts of the saddening tales, we followed a network of trails along the tree-lined boardwalk of the Saunders-Monticello Trail, just adjacent to the Center.

Checking out the exhibits at the Monticello Visitor Center
Awesome stroll on the boardwalk of the Saunders-Monticello Trail
A blissful afternoon on the boardwalk

What did we even know about Charlottesville, this town of nearly 50,000 set along the Rivanna River and Blue Ridge Mountains, before our visit? The University of Virginia is here, founded by Thomas Jefferson who made his home in Charlottesville during his Governorship.

A legacy of Charlottesville, VA: Portraits of Thomas Jefferson side by side with Shannon LaNier, great grandson of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine

Unlike much of Virginia, Charlottesville was spared much of the horrific massacres of the American Civil War, enduring only one major battle – the skirmish at Rio Hill, in which Union officer General George Armstrong Custer briefly engaged the Confederates before retreating. Despite so-called emancipation, after the Reconstruction Era (1865-77) Charlottesville’s black population suffered under Jim Crow laws that segregated public places, continued to limit opportunities and tacitly sanctioned racist atrocities that carried on here well into the 1950s.

Early C’ville circa 1900s, the Reconstruction Era

But there is more to C’ville than its past. Present day denizens enjoy a multitude of charms including several craft brewpubs and wineries, indoor and outdoor music concerts, the youthful energy of a college town, parks and hiking trails and a fairly bucolic existence for a town of its size.

Returning home to Aimz’ heart-warming smile after the day’s outing, we chilled out on the porch to play a little pre-supper Mini Corn Hole. Then it was Tommy on dinner duty, cooking up a pot of soba noodles in spicy peanut sauce with a bottle or two of white to wash it all down.

Tommy’s night to cook. Soba noodles with a spicy Peanut Sauce anyone?

Evenings were so relaxing and fun with this crew! Tommy and Bella had a collaborative evening together scribbling up silly drawings together on the couch and cracking each other up!

Team TomBel in an artistic collaboration

That Bella already has a sense of how to have a good time with pals! At other times, she was so content to play on her own, share a story about her day at school with her friends, tell us a joke or sit quietly painting a picture at her table. Such a little darling!

Another delightful dinner on the porch
Where it happens every night. Hey, where’s that mini-cornhole game!

Another afternoon took us out to nature, meeting up with Vin’s friend Jaron for a great hike to the top of Humpback Rocks! The hike was about a mile up to sweeping views on a rocky cliff. Vin and Jaron were comfy on the cliff’s edge while Tommy and I took a back seat on a safer-feeling perch! After a slow amble back down to the parking area, we hung out tailgate-style for a good hour or so just yammering away, cavorting with a local or two before reuniting with Aimz and Bella at home.

Vin tackling the climb up with aplomb and joy
A shady respite on the climb up
Vin, Jaron and Mary at the top
Post-hike chill time at the trail head parking area

Finally Friday rolled around and it was time for the whole family to let things loose. After a trip into Crozet for some errands and a brief but refreshing visit to a local brew pub there, Vin, Tommy and I headed home to meet up with the girls.

TGIF for Aimz!

After another great dinner on the porch, we fell into the uber-comfy living room for some fun and games. Tonight was Karaoke night at the Nolasco home and it was a real potpourri of musical genres that night, let me tell ya. Bella was up first, dazzling us all with her talent singing some sort of show tune! Papa followed with his rendition of Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun”. Aimz grabbed the mic next and ripped us all a new soul as she belted out Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It”. Tommy pulled up the rear with a country twang-a-lang and apropos Cal Smith tune “Lord Knows I’m Drinkin'”.

Princess Bella taking center stage on the mic for Friday Night Karaoke at the Nolasco home

Come Saturday morn, though it seemed like it could rain, we headed out for a day at IX Park for a music festival. The Nolasco’s like to travel to music fests so these guys are outfitted and ready for anything and everything like nobody’s biz. We were in awe of their compact and well-thought out gear for the day’s outing! They had a canopy, stainless steel, insulated mugs with lids, a cooler stocked with cold adult bevs, snacks and games all packed up into an easy wheeling cart to keep all of us happy, comfortable and entertained. Aimee’s boss, Rob, joined us for most of the day.

Vinny and friend Rob setting up the canopy
A little bluegrass on a Saturday never hurt nobody!
Tommy kickin’ it at the festival (wondering if his ragged John Muir hat still has cred)

The crowd gathered slowly and leisurely but the threat of rain kept many away. When the storm did hit, we seemed to be the sole survivors as revelers scrambled to take cover or get to their cars. But we weathered the storm under the trusty Nolasco canopy with no need to go anywhere.

Bella in her babushka wondering about the rain

The downpour hit suddenly and got a bit hairy with wind, blowing rain and thunder but we were safe under the Nolasco’s sturdy cover! During the storm, a few revelers trying to get to their cars used our canopy as a welcoming halfway spot to take cover!

“Is it still raining?” Lovely Aimz enjoying her Saturday
Bella explaining her game to Auntie Mary
A little or a lotta rain won’t spoil Miss Bella’s fun!
Our groovin’ scene under the canopy
The little love bug toolin’ around on her love mobile

Afterwards, it was time for a grocery stop and some dinner courtesy of the handy air-fryer! Did we put a frozen pizza in there, I’m not sure, but just about anything we could put in there, did go in there!

Vin displaying a post-repast grin. “Love me my air-fryer!”
A little Vin-sanity? Vinny in full-on storyteller mode: “It’s a ‘worrrrsch’!”
Chester the Zen Master. I kid you not, we did not have too many cocktails. This cat speaks English!
Bella, the budding artista!
Uncle Tommy and Bella looking at fun photos of animals

Tucking in for a night of bedtime stories for Bel and the Marvelous Mrs. Maizel for us big kids.

Such a great Daddy!
Vin sizing things up before he takes that tree down with his saw. Dont forget to yell “Timberrrr!”

It was hard to say goodbye to these guys. And Vin had a few parting gifts for us – well for Homer – to enrich our experience back on the road, making our ride more comfortable. Thanks Vin! You’re the best! And kid you not, the morning of our departure while Tom packed the van, Chester rested on the window ledge watching him pack, making little curious cat sounds. At one point, I swear I heard “Where are you going?” coming from his corner of the window. I looked up startled. Did I just hear that? Looking around the room, I called out to Vin but he was outside or in the garage or somewhere. There was no one but me and the cat in that room, for sure! Chester looked over at me and we had a moment of psychic mind-meld. I got up to go out and help with the packing and, as I was opening the door to go out, I heard that darn cat say in his little cat voice “I love you”.

Chester, aka Chester McGoggins, aka Cheddar, keeping watch over Bella’s turf

“Guard within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.” – George Sand, novelist (1804-1876)

My Vin, he is the kindest, most generous fella you could ever meet. He’s always quick to a smile, a hearty laugh and goofy fun. I love ya, brother from another mother. You know I told you once you were one of my favorite people on the planet. I meant it then and always will! Mega-Thanks to you, Aimz and Bella for being such fun-loving, warm hearted souls. We are blessed to know you. And Chester, I love you too!

The Many Faces of Vincent:

Before and After Haircut #1
Another Before and After Haircut #2 – Covid era “What is this crazy world”

Until we meet again, dear friends, Happy Trails to you!

Capturing a few precious recollections before the ravages of time’s passing effaces them from memory (as reported by Tommy):

The irrepressibly enthusiastic and loveable duo of Aimee and Vince . . . here at the pizza joint on our first night. We were blinded by the intense glare of the overhead light – Vinnie said it was like we were being interrogated – and asked the server to dim the switch, please.

“A great time” doesn’t even begin to describe the great time we had with Vince, Aimee and Bella during our several days’ stay with them in their rural Charlottesville home, a big beautiful home befitting their generous and hospitable nature. After bear hugs and excitable reunion catch-up talk, we were shown our downstairs “digs” – a sweet little apartment we immediately took to as our own. Thanks, guys for making us road warrior vagabonds feel right at home!

One day Vinnie got a hair up his butt to cut down this old snag of a tree in his woodsy backyard that was aesthetically unpleasing to his discerning eye, and so he busted out his chainsaw, wielding it with an expert flair (despite his lovely wife’s severe misgivings and apprehensions), and gave me a whack at it, too. The thing dang nearly came crashing down on my head!

Can’t really add much to Mary’s all-encompassing, wonderful account of our time spent with these fine Virginnie folk, other than to second, third and fourth every word, sentence and paragraph she so accurately and lyrically penned. Also, the photographs speak for themselves, even though we did add in captions to accent our special affection for our three – make that four – special sweet friends.

Trail of steps leading to Humpback Rocks overlook . . .

The heat of the day kept us from being active on our bikes and hiking other than the one day we huffed and puffed up to the top of Humpback Rocks for sweeping views of the valley landscape beholden at the dizzying precipice of jutting rock outcrops that left me feeling queasy and wobbly legged, but ol’ Erl and his buddy, they set up right at the edge for several minutes of death defying camaraderie and face stuffing, while Mary and I settled for a “back seat” less vertiginous view and picnic in a shady nook.

The hike up to the top of the world . . .

It was a roots, rock ‘n reggae trail, as I like to call ’em. Afterwards, we kicked back at the trailhead and sucked down a few cold brewskies, sharing stories and small talk in the shade of a big elm tree. I was tellin’ the group about my “abandoned shoe” series on Facebook and Instagram, when at that very second I glanced up and there they were! Incredible! A pair of abandoned shoes hanging from a limb, baring their soles much to our delight and amazement.

Pair of abandoned shoes hanging from limb right above where we were sitting and moments after I menioned it!
This friendly fellow sauntered over our way to start up a one-way conversation about some story totally lost on us . . . as we sat and politely listened . . .
One day we stopped in this brew pub for some tasty samplings of IPAs . . .
Erl just had to make a stop at the famous roadside “King’s” stand for some deee-licious gourmet popcorn . . .
One Saturday morning, I accompanied Vince to Bella’s soccer practice. I have a feeling she’s going to be a force on the field soon!
View of the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains from Rockfish Valley overlook . . .
Hauling all the gear and then some a family and friends need or may need on a rainy day festival outing . . .
MO-derne art sculpture at Chez Nolasco . . . musta been the heat or something that caused their water bottle to crumple up like this!
At the festival with my Tablet which enabled us to watch a very important football game Erl was keen on not missing, so he thanked me for it profusely.
Festival patrons fleeing the downpour . . . while we enjoyed the weather event from the comfort of our dry awning.
The intrepid boys at the precipice of a 500 ft. drop, overlooking the Shanandoah Valley. Pox on the vandals who spray-painted the sacred rock.
Couple of characters up top whose chit-chat I eavesdropped in on; I could not understand a word the guy on the right was saying, such was his vernacular Appalachian accent.
Though he appears to be lost in thought, Erl be one proud papa watching his daughter at soccer practice . . .
Strolling the pedestrian mall of downtown C’ville – a shady retreat from the bustling streets.
The gorgeous trail up to Humpback Rock overlook. Lots of photogenic “series” material: “sacred trees”; “magical rocks”; “leaf splendor”; “lichen, moss & fungi” . . . oh, yeah! “abandoned shoes” . . .
Doing a crossword puzzle on a quiet morning home alone . . .

And so, another chapter in our journey across the states, reconnecting with dear old amigos, re-establishing the bonds of friendship, comes to an end, as it is finally time to move on, next headed to the Carolinas and Georgia. Despite the old saw of overstaying one’s welcome and ending up smelling like three-day old fish, Aimz and Vinnie tried their best, as did little Bella, and notably, Chesty MacGoggins, the Zen Master coolest Cat of ’em all, to get us to stay on another week, and Lordy knows we would have loved to, because how could we not, why would we not want to, remain in the company of the sweetest, funnest, funniest, kind-hearted people we know. But Emerald Isle was calling, the lure of the sultry tropical Outer Banks of North Carolina, the sweet lazy call of the South urging us on, and so it was time to bid sorrowful adieu on a hot Monday morning. Oh, dear sweet friends, when will we see you again? Let’s hope soon! May we forever be part of your beautiful life!

A Whirlwind Tour of Our Nation’s Capital: Washington, D.C.

Mid-September: A fine visit indeed with a dear chum of Mary’s from art school days, Laura Takacs, and her husband Bob Payne, and their two kids, Maxine and Sam; a fleeting reunion with high school flame and dear chum, Bobbi Wade; succumbing to inevitable museum fatigue; a sobering visit to the Vietnam War Memorial; biking and strolling around the city.

The U.S. Capitol Buiding on a glorious fall day. Did not spot a single politician, but the vibe of chaos and dysfunction “on the Hill” was palpable. Andrew P. Napolitano writes in “Lies the Government Told You: Myth, Power, and Deception in American History”: “Both parties promote ‘changing Washington’, but in reality they like Washington just the way it is: little gets done that they don’t like, and none of our officials are truly held accountable.”

It was nearly 45 years ago since my first (and only until now) visit to Washington, D.C., and I don’t think Mary had ever been to the District of Columbia, so from the Big Apple, we naturally set a course there to visit our friend Laura Takacs and her family, excited to reunite and have the chance to explore this vastly interesting city of panoramic American history: so rich in ethnic and cultural diversity (15% of residents speak a different language from English in their home); so alive with a distinctive international bent; rife with political and palace intrigue; of worldly importance with 170 embassies; and blessed with eye-candy neoclassic architecture on every corner it seems. On top of all this, the perennial tourist magnet is famed for premier arts venues and cultural centers, showcased, highlighted and dominated by the world-class Smithsonian complex of 17 museums, galleries, outdoor sculpture gardens, and the National Zoo. You could spend a month in D.C. and barely scratch the surface of what Charles Dickens called “the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions,” and what J.F.K. described as a “community of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”

Mary the Artist posing before two larger than life paintings at the National Gallery of Art. I know she’s dreamin’ and itchin’ to splatter a bit o’ paint on a big ol’ canvas!

In August of 1974 – a distinctive year of political chaos and corruption – one of my sisters was attending Georgetown and, oddly enough, was waitressing at the Watergate Hotel. How cool was that, I remember thinking. I happened to be on my first road trip with Oxford compatriot Joe “Burl” Bowman, having dropped out of college after a dismal freshman semester (ahem, taking a “gap year” before the term “drop out” was euphemised), tooling around the states in his red ’68 Opel partying like mad with every hitchhiker we stopped to pick up; in similar circuitous fashion, then, as now, we found ourselves in Our Nation’s Capital, visiting and hanging out for several days during the historic Watergate Scandal era. I reviewed my road journal (the inimitable “Pleasantly Warped”) to see what nuggets of memory I might have preserved therein. I found few insightful scribblings but for a taciturn entry or two, one describing a half-assed visit to the “Space Museum” (“Far out, man!”), and another noting a “high”light visit to the National Gallery of Art to check out an M.C. Escher exhibition – on acid! (Well, those were my hippie daze !) Other than that, I don’t think we did much of anything, that I can recall, except look for beer joints to play pinball in and tool around the streets in Burl’s Opel cruising for chicks. (Hey, c’mon, we were just 19 year old stoner hippie guys from small-town Indiana – but there we were in our youthful glory, road tripping and visiting Our Nation’s Capital.)

Posing in front of ol’ Abe, enshrined forever, at his Memorial. “Whatever you are, be a good one,” he wisely counseled.

Now, all these years later, grown up, mature, having overcome a lifetime of accumulated existential angst and shed off the carnal encrustations of six decades of life’s hard knocks . . . I’d like to think today I am infinitely wiser and more capable of seizing life by the balls and, Thoreau-like, sucking out all the marrow of life. Here and now in Our Nation’s Capital. This time with my beautiful wife in the era of another “I am not a crook” con artist and sham man – an inconceivably backwards era – of Agent Orange, the current buffoon in the Oval Office.

World War II Memorial, established April 2, 2004.

Yes, D.C. was a pleasant revelation – of discovery, of historical anecdotes and relics, a veritable fount of many a fine photo opp: americana, architecture, street people, art, and abandoned shoes. Things also seemed smaller and more compact than I remembered the city being, or imagined how it should be: frenzied chaos! As though prescient of just such a future, it was organized in logical grid fashion, laid out in 1791 by Pierre Charles L’Enfant; it later served as a heavily fortified military center from 1861 to 1865. Yet in 1862 after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, 30,000 fugitive slaves sought refuge and were welcomed in D.C. as the nation’s first emancipation city. Somehow, nearly half a century ago, I recall being flummoxed by the dizzying traffic and blurring whirlwind of a buzzing, madhouse crime-ridden city; but today, it held little of that hazy memory, and rather exuded a neighborhoody, liveable, hip and international vibe, which is why, I suppose, our friends, Laura and Bob, chose D.C. as a place to settle down to call home and raise their two wonderful children, now on the verge of exiting teendom.

At the Library of Congress.

We were very grateful to have been invited to spend some time with them, reacquaint and rekindle our friendship, and explore the ins and outs of a fascinating city defined by so much history, political shenanigans, cultural upheaval, racial strife and – perhaps undeservedly – an unsavory reputation. Today, it did not seem particularly dangerous (well, hailing from the murder capitals of Oakland / Richmond, that’s understandable); even so, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry’s doublespeak from thirty years ago probably still rings true: “Outside of the killings, D.C. has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.” (What crimes, exactly, are we taking about, Mr. Mayor? Yes, plenty of poverty induced petty and serious street crime, but what about unaccountable high crimes against humanity and nature by elected and appointed officials in the Pentagon, the White House, Treasury Department, the FBI, ATF, CIA, NSA, and the no-Justice Department – where does it stop? Jus’ wonderin’ . . .)

Gang of Four smiling for the bittersweet departure on our last day. Sam was not present for some reason. (Bob taking photo.)

As with other dear friends whom we had not seen in decades, Laura, too, after the passage of so many years, had been anticipating our arrival and periodically checking in on our status for over three months as we made our way from the Bay Area, across the Midwest, all the way to Maine and back down the Eastern Seaboard states. We were excited to announce, “Yes, Laura, we are finally here!” When we pulled up and she came out to greet us with mama bear hugs, it was like, well, just last week that we saw her. It’s such a distortional time mystery, how three decades can seem like nothing – for in fact, the last we saw of her was in 1992 when she was living in Cooperstown and we met up in New York City and bummed around Soho and the Meat Packing District checking out cutting edge art galleries and chic boutiques. Then a year or two later, we met again in Oakland when she dropped by to visit and introduce us to her beau (and current husband), Bob Payne. In the intervening years, Laura became a professional pilot and flew junkets on East Coast / Florida / Caribbean runs, raised a family, retired, and now enjoys a happy, healthy, creative life. Bob is an Agile Management consultant with a flourish for culinary arts – the whole family is into cooking and preparing delectable meals, of which we were served and indulged heartily in quite a few. In an odd twist of tolerance and acceptance, Laura is a vegetarian and Bob is a die-hard carnivore!

Bob and Maxine in the kitchen cooking up some Indian food delights.

We enjoyed several days with Laura and Bob taking in the sights, events and soaking in the vibe of D.C. Laura and Bob were wonderful tour guides, ensuring we had a splendid time. We got an insider’s take on many local spots of interest (bookstores, markets, cafes, small galleries, parks and the famed Congressional Cemetery). We spent one day with Laura riding the Metro – nothing like crazy BART in the Bay Area – and wandering around the National Gallery of Art intrigued by the Alexander Calder exhibition, random sculpture displays, and marveled at the stunning Library of Congress with its stately architecture, historic murals, and baroque art and ornamentation covering the walls and columns. Another day we took a long winding bike ride on D.C.’s great greenway for cyclists and joggers along the Potomac River. And for a couple of days, we were left to our own devices to explore the city center, the Capitol and White House, and the plethora of memorials and monuments on the National Mall, among them the Washington Monument, World War II and Korean War Memorials, the Vietnam War Memorial, and the quartet of FDR, Jefferson, Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials – sad reminders of a violent and turbulent past, standing in mute testimony to the tragic arc of history . . . hopefully, bending more and more toward justice.

National Portrait Gallery, where we diligently viewed and read over the biographies of each and every presidential portrait until we could take no more, but lingered as long as possible because it was about 108 degrees outside and the air conditioning was a life saver. All in all, the tour was quite edifying, learning about these “great” leaders in U.S. history. Got to give props to what Daniel Ellsberg wrote, “The fact is Presidents rarely say the whole truth – essentially, never say the whole truth – of what they expect and what they’re doing and what they believe and why they’re doing it and rarely refrain from lying, actually, about these matters.”

We also felt compelled to squeeze in a few more museum exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It’s truly amazing to consider that all the museums are FREE! On this terribly hot day, we chose to rode our bikes through chaotic traffic, dripping with sweat, seeking air-conditioned venues to cool off. We capped this exhausting, heat-stroke inducing day of tramping around by checking out the historic Ford’s Theater where Lincoln was assassinated, and gawking at splendid buildings and parks and fountains before calling it quits and heading back to hang with the gang where a lovely Indian meal and an evening of fun board games with the family awaited us.

The Vietnam War Memorial, dedicated on my WW II veteran father’s birthday, November 13 (1982), with 58,276 names inscribed on the Wall.

One evening, Laura suggested we go check out the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial. We’d already had a long day, but she insisted we had to see the monuments at night. She was right – it was an extra-special spectacle. In particular, the inscribed wall of fallen soldiers was a solemn and sobering experience that had a real impact on me, forcing memories to surface I hadn’t reflected on in years. Designer / architect Maya Lin, only twenty years old at the time, won a competition among 1400 submissions to implement her subtly suggestive design of entering a tomb in a slow descent in to the bowels of the earth. Dedicated in 1982, and not without controversy, Lin described her vision as, “a journey that would make you experience death and where you’d have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead.” We descended a slight incline following the black slab of stone – the Wall of Faces – with 58,276 names etched along a row of flickering candles and somber lights – befitting an eeriness and immediacy to the monument that sent shivers down my spine, especially since I knew people who served in the criminally injust war, some who survived and some who did not. (Big shout out, for one, to brother-in-law, Greg Chapman, an Army medic who saw death up close and experienced horrific battle scenes); alas, four young men from my home town of Oxford, Indiana, came home in body bags, or not at all, KIA / MIA, remains never recovered.

PFC Wendell Slavens was a track star at Oxford High School in the mid-60’s before he was drafted and shipped off to Viet Nam, where he died a hero’s death on May 1, 1967, in Binh Dinh Province. His death by “multiple fragmentation wounds” (a mere 2 weeks and 3 days into his tour of duty) was attributed to “friendly fire” on the website “Wall of Faces.” He earned the Purple Heart. [Panel 20E, Line 19.]

These brave young men – cannon fodder barely out of high school – were a few years older than me, but two were neighbors and one was the brother of my Little League coach. Their names are now etched along with an incomprehensible number of other American souls who perished in the decades-long illegal war. (It must be mentioned that upwards of 2,000,000 North and South Vietnamese souls died at the hands of the U.S. military invasion; to this day, the U.S. government estimates a quarter that number perished.) Me – I was lucky to have been born in 1955, just barely young enough to have missed the call, though I was old enough by 1973 to be included in the last official draft held in the U.S. Good fortune had my number coming up at 365, the last possible draw, which meant even had the war raged on, I would not have had to worry about being drafted, unlike the four Oxford youths who were not so lucky. Also, no doubt my endowed white privilege / headed to college status would likely have spared me the horrific iniquities of the battlefield, unlike the majority of men and women who were drafted without hope of deferment. But, seriously, just in case, I had drawn up plans to “dodge” to Mexico. Instead, the following year, while people were still dying gory deaths in far away tropical provinces, I was of age, a 19 year old stoner hippie kid on a road trip with Joe Bowman heading to Mexico for high times south of the border.

PFC David Greenwood lived a block down the street from me and I always knew him as a happy-go-luck trickster and neighborhood nice guy who liked to give me a hard time, but in a friendly way, because he knew he couldn’t get away with too much as my Mom was his teacher. I remember when he enlisted in the war (I was just 12, so it was all a bit mysterious to my naive world view), and I thought it was pretty cool when I saw him one day in his uniform just before shipping off, where he, too, was killed on December 27, 1967, and declared missing in action (just under 3 weeks into his tour of duty), in Phu Yen Provence. He earned the Purple Heart. [Panel 32E, Line 72.]

After looking up on the internet where they were listed on the wall, then figuring out how to find their names on the panels using an ingenious system of aligning vertical and horizontal dots, I found the four names of Oxford’s fallen soldiers, paying silent homage to each: David Greenwood, Wendell Slavens, Tom Parker, Bill Jennett.

Specialist Four Bill Jennett was the brother of my teacher and Little League coach, Doug Jennett. One day, during practice, Coach Jennett called a halt and summoned us all in a tight circle near home plate where he grimly announced the death of his brother, who perished, apparently by his own hand (and less than 7 months into his tour of duty) as the result of “accidental self-inflicted injury” on April 26, 1968, in Tay Ninh Province. At the time, none of us kids knew anything other than yet another guy from Oxford, Indiana had died in a foreign war we knew nothing about. Being just 12, it was impossible to understand what it all meant. I remember hearing anti-war protest songs like Fortunate Son and Give Peace a Chance, but was a clueless child still. Years later, I wondered if Bill, unable to stand the madness and horror, took his own life, as many soldiers and vets ended up doing. [Panel 52E/Line 20.]
Petty Officer First Class Thomas Aquinas Parker, a career Navy man, was killed along with eight others by enemy fire while saving comrades’ lives when his medical evacuation helicopter was blown to smithereens by a command detonated mine on April 5, 1967, in Quang Ngai Province. He was declared killed, missing in action, body not recovered. I used to mow his parent’s lawn, the town dentist, “Doc Parker” and his wife, “Peachy.” I remember standing at her door a few days after his death, sensing her grief, trying to understand what had happened. Tom was 17 years my senior, so I never knew him, but through Peachy’s grief, I felt a bit of her heart’s anguish. [Panel 17E/Line 106.]

And before long it was time to bid adieu to our generous hosts. They insisted we stay for a few more days, but our dear old friends in Charlottesville were itching to see us. Bob told us one final story (for he had many stories) about the time some Middle Eastern guy he knew through work needed a place to stay for a week or two and ended up crashing on their living room couch for two months, no strings attached. They barely spoke or interacted he was so shy. After relating the story, Laura and Bob insisted that we stay for two months, too, or at least until next week. Oh, oh we’d love to, dear old friends! Maybe another day . . . but for now, as my dear old dad used to say, “We’ve still got more places to go, people to meet, and things to do” . . . So, until we meet again! Thank you for everthing, Laura and Bob! We love you!

A BRIEF POSTSCRIPT FROM MARY:

Laura and I met during art school when a mutual friend introduced us when I was looking for a new roommate at my Parker Street apartment. She had just returned from a study abroad program in Florence, Italy and was in need of a new place. I liked her immediately and we shared that apartment together very harmoniously until I went off backpacking to Europe for 6 months, but not before getting one of her improvisational and very short haircuts as a send-off!

Two young artists dreaming of making it big in the Big Apple (ca. 1992).

After my return, Tom and I eagerly invited her to be our roommate at the house we found on Webster Street in Oakland, dubbed “the pink palace”. What a great friend and super wonderful person she is! Dear Laura, such a kind, smart, gentle spirit you are, I am blessed to know you! Thank you so much for hosting us, it was such a joy to be in your presence again and to hang with your superbly playful and joyful family. We loved all the post-dinner games, tours of the city – and your next door neighbor’s amazing art house – meeting your friends and sharing incredible meals! Max, thanks for sharing your basement scene with us! You guys are the best, we hope to see you again soon! Love and hugs, Mary

Enjoy these additional photos of our time with the Takacs-Payne family.

The Lincoln Memorial at night draws hundreds to witness its beauty and pay homage to the “Great Emancipator.” Lincoln sure got it right, I believe, when he spoke this truth: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Mary admiring the patchwork intricacies of Mark Bradford’s “Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirshhorn Museum.
Mary and Laura discussing Alexander Calder’s whimsical creations at the National Gallery of Art.
Tom and Laura mugging for the camera in their cozy diner nook.
Ford’s Theater, site of Lincoln’s murder the evening of April 14, 1865 while watching a producion of “Our American Cousin”.
Mary and Laura analyzing the long and short of it.
Next stop: the Gallery of Rogues and Scoundrels . . . er, the National Portrait Gallery. For a wonderful character study of these vainglorious men, read Holland Cotter’s New York Times article, “Presidential Portraits: Staring History in the Face.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/arts/design/presidential-portraits-staring-history-in-the-face.html)
Laughably idealistic, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
According to Frank Goodyear, former National Portrait Gallery photo curator, “This is the last formal portrait of Abraham Lincoln before his assassination. I really like it because Lincoln has a hint of a smile. The inauguration is a couple of weeks away; he can understand that the war is coming to an end; and here he permits, for one of the first times during his presidency, a hint of better days tomorrow.New York Times writer Holland Cotter wrote, “Only 56, he was clearly worn to the bone.” (February 5, 1865)
William Jefferson Clinton’s official presidential portrait by Chuck Close, described by New York Times writer Holland Cotter as “a grinning clown.” Both men were the subject of “Me-Too” allegations and charges, so Portrait Gallery curators chose to include a disclaimer / explanatory plaque on why they left the image intact in the museum.
Kehinde Wiley’s elegant portrait of Barack Obama in deep contemplation.
The 555 ft. tall obelisk, Washington Monument, in night’s reflective beauty.
Fat cat lazing on counter top had the run of the place. After he licked the butter, Laura nonchalantly scraped it off and carried on with her recipe.
Across the street from Ford’s Theater stands the “House Where Lincoln Died”.
Laura and Bob have a huge yard / lot for a city residence, extending 50 feet back from this view to a vegetable garden and shade trees. Unfortunately, the mosquitos were horrible and they had to have it sprayed one day.
Genial Bob and lovely daughter, Maxine.
Mary and Laura on a stroll through their neighborhood.
Powerful visuals at the Hirshhorn.
Rosa Parks roughed and cuffed, ‘nuf said.
Mary admiring Elaine de Kooning’s 1962 portrait of J.F.K.
At the Congressional Cemetery. Great article on this little-known dime-bender and Hollywood movie star who hobnobbed with Charlie Chaplin and the likes: https://househistoryman.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-man-who-could-bend-dime-with-his.html?m=1
This beautiful fountain revs up to a gushing syncopated spray on a ten minute cycle, a refreshing spectacle and respite on a very hot September day.
At the Congressional Cemetery, Mayor Marion Barry’s elaborate monument. Mayor of D.C. from 1979 to 1991 and again from 1995 to 1999. In 1990, he was ensnared in controvery when the FBI videotaped him in a sting operation smoking crack cocaine; he served six months in a federal prison, then rebounded to win re-election. The Washington Post wrote “to understand the District of Columbia, one must understand Marion Barry.”
The hallowed grounds of the Congressional Cemetery (Washington Parish Burial Ground), established in 1807, has lain to rest the famous and not-so-famous alike, including Thaddeus Stevens, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Peter Doyle (Walt Whitman’s partner), Matthew Brady, John Philip Sousa, Push-Ma-Ta-Ha (Choctaw Chief), Marion Barry, and J. Edgar Hoover.
Love strolling around cemeteries looking for unique tombstones.
Fantastic view of historic buildings viewed from this long horizontal window at the National Gallery of Art.
Bucolic stretch of greenway we biked one lovely day.
Pondering sculptural artist Ron Mueck’s “Untitled (Big Man)”.
“The American Elm that Grew Along with America– planted in 1850, it’s now 170 years old and counting . . .
Mark Bradford’s electrifying exhibition, “Pickett’s Charge”, encircles a giant room at the Hirshhorn Museum with four inter-related panels of . . . THIS!
Cool view of “infinite porches” from Laura’s and Bob’s porch.
From mary walking series # . . .
Mary and Laura, the two artists, wrapping their heads around the meaning of this sculpture.
Oktoberfest going on near the waterfront.
The interior of the Library of Congress. George Washington on the great institution: “I conceive a knowledge of books is the basis upon which other knowledge is built.”
Lincoln Memorial lit up. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. lit up the place with his spine-tingling “I Have A Dream” speech: “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
Irrepressibly cute and charismatic Bobbi Wade, my friend, and briefly my girlfriend, and fellow thespian from high school. We were star-crossed lovers in our high school’s 1972 production of “Our Town” (George and Emily Gibbs), attended Indiana University together, then lost touch until she, her husband, Richard, and daughter, Emily, visited us in Berkeley (where this photo was taken) a few years ago. I knew we would see her again when we got to D.C. and sure enough, despite her incredibly busy schedule as a successful children’s speech pathologist and therapist, we enjoyed an evening together reminiscing over dinner in the loudest restaurant imaginable which made conversing strained and difficult, but all very worthwhile to see sweet, lovely Bobbi, the Silver Goddess. Check out her website @ https://www.iahp.com/bobbiwade/
My beautiful artist wife is ready to get her own studio and begin to create big works of art again! I can’t wait to see what her strokes result in.
Andy Goldsworthy installation of wooden mounds. Yes, we were wondering the same thing: where are all the people?
Laura and Maxine – such cut-ups!
Another priceless display of oddball creativity.
Outdoor sculpture garden pyramid.
National Gallery of Art.
Mary and Laura taking a break on a hot day after a long ride. We enjoyed some refreshing home-made ice cream nearby.
Museum fatigue and aching feet setting in by now . . .
I wrote in one of my journals thirty years ago: “Art exists to expose and elevate truth. How sad we live in an age of bad art, and therefore lies.” What’s your opinion? Is this even art? I guess as Andy Warhol affirmed, “Art is anything you can get away with.”
I have a Facebook series called “Here’s All Ya Need” – a collection of vehicles one might consider for a road trip . . .
Laura’s still-life impressions.
Love this installation I called “Mernie’s Pencil” – a nod and homage to Mary’s conserving-minded mom who judiciously wielded her pencils down to bare nubs.
From mary walking series # . . .
Lovebirds in the cozy dining nook at Laura’s and Bobs.

I Happen to Like New York

“If we listen, the air is heavy with poems, ripe for plucking” -Yahia Lababidi, contemporary poet

A juicy bite of the Big Apple after a brief visit in Mystic, CT and camping at Hammonasset Beach on Long Island Sound. Mid-September 2019.

As told by Mary:

Leaving Boston early in the morning, blowing through New Jersey, we stopped for lunch in Mystic, CT. No, we did not have pizza but we did have a nice walk around this cute little port town and an early lunch before pushing on.

Strolling across the bridge in Mystic, CT. Below: Mystic Pizza; an early lunch at a local café on Main Street; a stop into the beautiful Mystic library.

Driving on, we decided to camp for the night and landed at Hammonasset Beach on Long Island Sound.

a view of the Sound

Not much in the way of fond memories made here outside of a lovely walk to the shoreline and “bathrooms most closely resembling those in a hotel” I’ve ever seen in all my days of car camping across the country.

Our humble campsite, just before the crowds descended for the weekend

Other than that, it was like camping in a parking lot outside an all day concert event. In short, not our scene really – full of loud, drunk people, music blasting, torch lights, cars, cars and more cars. But there was one redeeming feature, a lovely bike/walk path directly from our campsite to a long stretch of a nearly empty beach to escape the chaos.

The next morning, though, we couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Besides, we were heading to New York City that morning and that couldn’t wait, um, another New York minute to get things rolling in that direction. Stopping for a hearty breakfast at “The Coffee Break” in the nearby village of Clinton to soothe a sleepless night, and thinking ahead to our next destination, we booked a last minute deal on a hotel in midtown Manhattan between bites of pancakes and real maple syrup served in its own little bottle reminiscent of an airplane size Jim Beam. Then off we went.

NYC nightscape – photo by Quintin Gellar

I happen to like New York, I happen to love this town. I like the city air, I like to drink of it
The more I see New York, the more I think of it
I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it
I happen to like New York.”
~ Cole Porter

Some people hate New York City or any city for that matter. I am not one of those people. I’ve been to this stewpot of culture and clamor, desperation and glamour numerous times and I never get tired of it. It’s different every visit and different every second. This visit was probably one of the best yet.

The first time I went to New York was in 1986, fresh out of art school to visit a friend who had just left Berlin to find his life in the Big Apple. Groggy from a redeye, I stumbled out of an early morning taxi to arrive in the Lower East Side to wake up the place.

Somewhere in the Lower East Side

Ringing the bell several times, my sleepy friend finally opened the door and ushered me quietly up the stairs through an odd layout of courtyards and rooms shared with several Italians spread across three floors. Making strong coffee, we caught up. An hour later, vodka came out. It was still morning but who was looking?

The Italians by now were looking, that’s who, filtering in and out of the shared kitchen to make espresso and see who the latest guest was. From that day, I knew I would be back to visit New York again and again. And I have. To visit family. To practice yoga. To see art and theater, to dance and hear music, to eat and eat, to walk and walk and walk. To ride the subway, the buses and speeding taxis. To feel the non-stop vibration of this place.

A first visit to New York City must be the most indelible for most people, a sensory mash-up hardly containable or definable. Landing there in my early twenties during the fiery spark of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and mere months before Andy Warhol’s departure from this earth, was candy for a just-graduated art student.

1986 in New York was once described as the last flowering of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s New York, the last act of 1960s New York. But, alas, all things must change and they do.

Weird synchronicity happens here. I didn’t know it but my boyfriend (now my husband Tom) who had been in Mexico for six months, then Europe, was in New York at the same time on his return to the States and it’s a mystery that we didn’t just run into each other on the street. No, I say that because every time I have been to this city, I have by chance run into someone I know from somewhere else. People walk. They’re out in it. You run into each other. But in the days before mobile phones, Tom discovered that I was there when he called my apartment in Berkeley and spoke to the woman subletting my room but he had no way of getting in touch with me. In the following years, however, we would spend lots of time in New York together, especially after his mother moved to Brooklyn in the early 1990s.

During that first visit to the Big Apple, I was invited to move into my friend’s apartment and become another roommate but I returned to California saying I’d think about it, gather up my things, tie up loose ends there, etc. But Tom and I reunited in Oakland and life just picked up where it left off. Not seizing that opportunity is maybe my only regret about choices made along the way but one never knows what a different life would have been like. So I return to visit, see new sights, taste new tastes, feel the different air there. And this visit, the first with Tom when it was just the two of us with no agendas or family ties or plans of any kind – was a unique one. Pure spontaneity and fun!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Back to the moment – we got into New York around noon and headed for our Midtown hotel check-in. Somehow we ended up in the parking garage of the hotel next door and had to maneuver a very tight and tricky space to get out and re-direct to our proper entry. Upon arrival at the garage to our hotel, we were told we had to remove our bikes and put them inside the vehicle and get anything we needed out because there was limited access once the car was parked. That was fun. Ask yourself, how easy is it to figure out – and find! – everything you might want or need while in New York for 4 days after you’ve been camping and living on the road for several months?

After having my whole life in Homer readily at my fingertips, I had to think fast. And where to put two big mountain bikes inside the chaos of Homer was a task only an adept like Tommy could handle superbly, efficiently and at record speed! At that moment, we were reminded that on only one other visit in the past did we have a car in New York, always flying in and using public transit – the only way to be in that city. But that was literally the biggest hassle of this whirlwind visit, so no big deal.

a small but lovely room on the 21st floor

Still exhausted from the previous 24 hours, we took some time settling into our small but wonderful room on the 21st floor, Room 2108. If you know Tom, you’ve likely heard about his “thing” with the number 108, so he was chuckling as he scanned the room key. We got unpacked and headed out for a late Saturday afternoon stroll in our new neighborhood. First, we ducked into a hole in the wall for a slice of pizza or two and landed in Bryant Park for a solid sit down and primo people watching. Logistics finally settled, we were free to roam about this fabulous city.

a stroll in Bryant Park looking for a good sit-down
Coffee in Bryant Park

The weather was perfect and there was nothing else we needed to do. With two bars on either edge of the park, gourmet coffee, stunning views of the Empire State Building and a laid back vibe, though astir with all manner of people, we were quite content.

Starting fresh the next morning we had breakfast in the hotel and headed out for more stimulation, New York style. The best thing to do here, in my opinion, is to just walk with a loose agenda, letting the day unfold. But knowing we were just there for a brief visit, we tried to pack in a few known things, too. On a whim we wandered into the Hudson Theater on West 44th Street – a theater that bears the distinction of being both Broadway’s oldest and newest theater. You get to figure that one out. We happened to notice that Jake Gyllenhaal was performing in Sea Wall / A Life, a two-act show, for two more weeks and bought tickets for the Sunday matinee.

Lots of wandering ensued. And before you know it, the day is gone and dissolved into another balmy soiree in Bryant Park relaxing and taking in the emerging nightscape backdrop against the open scenery of locals and tourists sprawled across the grass, doing yoga, picnicking, enjoying life.

our backyard at the moment, Bryant Park, provided great relaxation at the end of the evening

Meandering the two blocks back to the hotel and the obligatory stop into a bodega or two, we sprawled out for an hour to unwind and refresh.

A view of the sunset between the building-scape, as we walked in search of a rooftop bar

After a bit, we went out in search of a rooftop bar in our locale. Ducking into the lobby of a nearby posh hotel, we waited in line until the elevator attendant allowed us on for the journey upward to the Refinery Rooftop Bar. Riding the elevator to the top with a group of twenty-somethings, we spilled out into a loud and crowded scene with nary a seat nor standing space to be had. Great views kept us interested for a bit before we went looking for yet another spot.

By the end of the night, we seemed to always gravitate back to Bryant Park for the mellow urban vibe and action and close proximity to “home”. Strolling over to one corner of the park, we watched a very competitive bocce ball match among a mix and match group that were quite serious and skilled with their pastime.

A serious bocce ball match in action

A beautiful night eventually enticed us into the opposite corner of the park, where we had a late al fresco dinner at one of the outdoor cafes.

Sunday morning we ventured out and rode the subway to Canal Street and wandered around SoHo and the East Village, taking things in spontaneously.

There’s always something interesting around the next corner. “And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” … the Dr. Seuss book comes to mind.

The feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy

We happened upon an Italian street festival on Mulberry Street in Little Italy – the Feast of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Napoli – that had several streets blocked off teeming with colorful booths, music and street performers, accordions and endless food stands with loads of meatballs, fried pickles, pasta, sausages, clams, wine and cheese, cigars, contorni, calzone and cannoli, pignoli, biscotti and gelato.

“Too much of a good thing is never enough” – Bob Payne, husband of our friend Laura Takacs

What are you hungry for? The Feast of San Gennaro has it for you

Tom tires easily of mobs of people and though I could have spent the day here, there was more to explore in a short window of time.

Casual “peace keeping” at the street festival
A busy East Village eatery

So, we ambled on down the road, exploring quieter back streets, ducking into a gallery opening of colorful abstract portraits, briefly interacting with the artist, then wandered into a couple of funky boutiques.

Sunday afternoon in the East Village

After a while, the heat was rising so we sought respite on a shady bench in Washington Square Park where some further people watching ensued. Nearly losing track of our time to get to the theater, we walked a few blocks just to be out in the mix, then jumped back on the subway to Times Square.

We arrived just in time to join the queue at the Hudson, switching gears into yet another sensory feast.

Jake Gyllenhaal at the stage door greeting fans after the show

The production was very engaging in this beautiful theater with each actor performing a solo monologue in a storytelling of life’s tragic yet tender moments. Both Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal delivered tales of love and loss, how life can change in an instant, in sets that were separate yet overlapping. After the show, we followed the crowd to the stage door to catch a glimpse of these modest stars.

Another great surprise: It just so happened that we were in town during the Biennial at the Whitney, a museum I hadn’t been to in many years. And never have I taken in the Biennial so I was excited about that. With a later rendezvous planned to meet an old friend, we headed over to the West Village to take in the exhibit.

a quiet moment on a tree lined West Village street

After an arduous task of finding a parking spot for Homer, we walked a few blocks across the village to the museum, traversing lovely and charming, treelined back streets with classic brownstones. We happened upon a filming of something on a side street with several onlookers … but we were on a mission to get to the Biennial.

Finding my color scheme twin at the Whitney Biennial

The exhibit boasted three floors, including outdoor decks, of art by 75 American artists who are purported to be the best of the best of contemporary American art at the moment.

One of the rooftop sculpture exhibits

Painting, sculpture, film/video, installation, photography and sound, exploring topics of race, gender, and equity. Some of it was amazing, some puzzling, and some downright ridiculous. Just what I expected!

What’s your interpretation?

After the visual feast and then some, we walked through Greenwich Village and the West Village and landed at an outdoor cafe with Italian food to wait for Charles, an old friend from Berkeley who moved to New York in 2000 to work as a photographer. He lives in Chelsea – how convenient! – so he walked over to meet us for a late lunch at Wild.

Nothing is sweeter than a visit with an old friend on a lovely September afternoon in New York.

Tommy chillin’ for a bit at Wild

We aimed to catch up on the past years as best we could before heading out on the road again while the bittersweet ticking of time oozed out of our hearts and souls. So good to see Charles, hear his wonderful voice, share stories, connect, however brief. Then, sadly, it was time to push on.

Greenwich Village

Though our time in New York was so brief, we packed in a lot in true city fashion. My hope is that it wont be long before another visit. Penning this reminiscence feels particularly poignant as I realize how different this city is at the moment amid the Covid-19 crisis. May the vibrancy and vigor of this grand urban playground be restored soon!

London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it. There is excitement ever running its streets. Each day, as you go out, you feel the little nervous quiver that is yours when you sit in the theater just before the curtain rises. Other places may give you a sweet and soothing sense of level; but in New York there is always the feeling of “Something’s going to happen.” It isn’t peace. But, you know, you do get used to peace, and so quickly. And you never get used to New York. ~ Dorothy Parker, writer, 1893 – 1967

“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” – Emma Lazarus, poet/playwright, 1849-1887.

Movie References: Mystic Pizza; Manhattan, After Hours, Do the Right Thing, Gangs of New York. Way too many to mention, add your favorites to the list!

Massachusetts Memories

“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Early to mid-September, 2019: Reveling in quaint delights and picturesque sights of historic Cape Ann towns (Rockport, Gloucester, and Manchester-by-the-Sea); enjoying precious time with Tina’s family at their “Plimptonville” home in Walpole; and braving a drive into the bustling heart of Boston, a great American city rich in history and beauty.

Known as Motif No. 1, the most celebrated fishing shack in New England was leveled in the blizzard of 1978. A faithful replica was rebuilt to commemorate the quintessential building originally constructed in the mid-1840s. Appearing famously on a postage stamp, in a cigarette ad, and on a bourbon bottle label, Motif No. 1 celebrates its own festival every May 16 that attracts legions of tourists and art lovers. This identical composition has no doubt been duplicated a million times.

After a six-week whirlwind circumambulation through Maine and New Hampshire, chronicled in the previous two blog posts, we ended up back in Massachusetts on the tail end of summer to visit the Callanans (Tina, Joe, Caitlin and Joey) and hang at their Rockport vacay pad for an extended stay before bolting south to New York City, Washington, D.C., and points farther south into the Great Smoky Mountains and Appalachia, to be chronicled in upcoming blog posts – so stay tuned for more on those adventures!

But first: Let the good times roll and may the memories be forever preserved like a prehistoric dragonfly trapped in a chunk of petrified amber.

Biking the cobblestoned, narrrow and oft-clogged with traffic streets of Rockport is a fun (but potentially hazardous) way to cover a lot of ground and take in diverse sights.

Our arrival in Rockport presaged perfect timing, as the vacation home just happened to be unrented for the next ten days – a wonderful turn of events for us weary road warriors! What good fortune to have the run of the place, and a sister and brother-in-law who extended the courtesy of an invitation to stay at their cute ‘n cozy rental in the charming seaside town of Rockport, where they’ve been retreating to for, oh, the last twenty years. Soon settled in and off on our first sunset walk, the petrified amber broke open and an avalanche of youthful summertime memories quickly spilled out – of past family reunions and nostalgic summer gatherings, of fun and games with the kids during their growing-up phase, of days of days gone by. Now, here we found ourselves far into the future from those more innocent times, drenched in vivid memories and clinging to nostalgic recollections in the midst of present day immediacy and the poignant intimacy of heartfelt living over the years.

One of Rockport’s old burial grounds by the sea, Langsford Cemetery (established ca. 1857), is the final resting place for important citizens, politicans, and common folk alike.

Tina drove the white-knuckle crazy couple of hours on maddening Highway 128 from Walpole to hang out with us our first day, and we dutifully plowed through a couple of bottles of something white, sweet, and deliciously alcoholic – bibulous perfection on a lazy, do-nothing summer afternoon. We sat out on the patio talking up a storm, reminiscing about Mom and all the crazy, fun times with the family, and catching up on our adventures on the road. Tina and Joe, we love you! Thanks for your generosity and hospitality.

Mary Catherine and Tina Teresa toasting family, friendship, and good times. (And probably hoisting one in honor of Ora Lora!)

Our plan – besides majorly chilling! – was to reacquaint ourselves with quaint Rockport, and devote some time, for once after all the years, to exploring the nearby Cape Ann towns of Gloucester and Manchester-by-the-Sea, made famous by the eponymous award-winning film. It was another town we now could add to our list of “movies filmed on location”. We loved our Rockport base, having our very own place, where we felt more like locals than tourists. We walked the streets and peeked into shops, bought fudge and cookies and ice cream, rode our bikes around town and ventured farther afield exploring the Cape’s backroads, coastline, inlets, and forested preserves. We hiked around pretty lakes, checked out old granite quarries, romped over jumbles of boulders at Halibut Point State Park, poked around macabre graveyards, marveled at iconic architecture and “clabbard” buildings from centuries past, admired views of classic Americana frozen moments in time of bobbing boats in harbors, and the world-famous uber-scenic “Motif No. 1” at the end of Bearskin Neck, the most painted and photographed fishing shack in the world, and spent endless hours lollygagging on heartachingly lovely beaches, capping long langorous days with gobsmackingly beautiful sunsets that just absolutely set our hearts afire with passion and wild energy to be alive, to experience the sheer joy of . . . being part of it all, here and now, forever!

Beautiful beaches and fabulous sunsets are in ample supply in Rockport. This indelible moment commemorates a phantasmagoric sprawling sundowner at Old Garden Beach, where families come to stroll and beachcomb, and divers explore hidden mysteries in the shoaly depths offshore. Others come for meditative introspection, nature immersion, and communion with spiritual energies.

We ended our spell in Massachusetts visiting with Tina and Joe and the kids in Walpole (both down from Boston for the week), relishing precious moments together eating, laughing, taking walks, sitting and reminiscing fondly by serene green shimmering Mill Pond, watching birds come and go – observing two of Mom’s favorites, the regal Great Blue Heron and the imperious Swan – and listening to the divine sound of “psithurism” – that is, the breeze gently whispering in the old birch tree leaves. Come evening, after the last embers died of another timeless sunset, creatures that populated my youthful pursuits and interests – fireflies – emerged to lend a twinkling phosphorescence to the darkness, and we’d sit up confabbing tipsily late into the night over a few bottles of delicious vino. Here’s to you, beautiful world! Cheers, Mom! We feel your spirit with us!

Geese on the pond – they are lovely birds, but over-breed due to protections, the consequence being lawns and greenswards covered in “peace goop” (!) Disparagingly, some call them “flying rats.”

One day Mary and I stole away for the better part of a day bumming around Boston – a first for me and Mary after so many visits to Walpole, where the focus was always – well, just Walpole, Mom and the family. Which was always fun and enjoyable, if a bit intense, but Boston was always on the back burner as an option to spend a day away from – well, just being with Mom, first and foremost. We had really looked forward to taking the train up, but missed the early departure, so what the hell, we drove Homer into the mad fray of Boston traffic – and survived! After finding nearby parking, we set off walking the old-time streets zigging and zagging through one historic district after another, along the well trodden Freedom Trail, stopping every five minutes to gawk in awe at architecturally magnificent buildings, inspect old burial grounds and hallowed churches, and marvel at a plethora of absorbing sights and events predating and presaging the birth of our nation. Somehow, though, we missed Bunker Hill, and doubtless much more in our limited time and aching feet from all the pavement pounding! But we squeezed in plenty of people watching and stuffing our face with delicious goodies from all the food stalls at Fanueil Hall.

Rockport Harbor with its colorful fleet of fishing and pleasure boats on a dramatic day threatening a downpour.

I also stole away for an intimate moment at one of Mom’s favorite places – Adam’s Farm Preserve. A year before she died, our last time together in nature, we sat under the protective roof of an open air building during a magnificent summer storm – of thunderous wallops echoing across the sky and lightning boldly streaking, all a bit too close for Mom’s comfort. You could see it in her eyes, she was scared and cold, but didn’t want to let on, and I felt badly for bringing her here knowing the weather could turn inclement. But, secretly, I could tell she loved the excitement and drama of being outside, in the middle of it all, witness to Mother Nature’s grandiose display of power. I’ll never forget the day she passed away a year later, on June 13, 2019, when without warning, an electrical storm brewed, and tenebrous skies over Salt Lake City burst open with the roar of mighty thunderclaps and freaky streak lightning – Mom’s grand entrance in the Gates of Heaven!

Moments before things got hairy and scary with thunderclaps and lightning streaks.

At Adam’s Farm, I hiked to a secret labyrinth to sprinkle some of her ashes along the pathway and on logs and plants, invoking her prayful energy with each step. An hour later, I stopped at a hidden nook on the Neponset River up from the Old Mill Pond at Tina’s to spread the remainder of Mom’s ashes, gentle tears inching down my cheeks, invoking the Great Spirit, offering a prayer, as her sacred remains sank to the bottom of a small pool before releasing into the river’s flow to pass through and into the beautiful pond Mom considered sacred and so loved and passed countless hours and days in quiet, serene contemplation of beauty, alone with her mysterious inner thoughts, often falling asleep to the gentle rhythmic swoons of the woods and pond – her Walden Pond, she might have thought. I shed more tears, but happy knowing her spirit would be forever part of the water and landscape of Plimptonville.

Lovely, easy road cycling along 127 and 127A during the low tourist season in Rockport and environs. We managed to cover about 11 leisurely miles on this day of perfect weather and high energy.

So as never to forget, so as always to remember, like the strata of an archaeological record, the many wonderful memories are preserved in our hearts and imprinted in our minds. Like clouds drifting lazily across the sky, like water merrily gurgling along in the streambed, they are destined to pass and be replaced with new memories, overlaid with new experiences. So be it. Time flies as it always does, and before we knew it, we were bidding adieu to the Callanan family and heading on down the road to see what new adventures awaited, what new memories were to be forged. Meanwhile, before the clouds dissipate and the water evaporates, like the palest ink, or the best memory, sit back and enjoy the picture show of this wonderful interlude in our travels. Breathe it in, experience it vicariously, this, what precious memories are made of.

Judith Sargent Stevens Murray lived her life during the Revolutionary War and wrote plays and essays. Far ahead of her time, she openly advocated for equality with men. Today, the museum in Gloucester honors her memory and accomplishments.
Goose Cove Reservoir in the Dogtown area of Gloucester treated us to a sweet 3-mile hike around its sylvan perimeter, exploring old historic stone markers and mysterious walls and big boulders.
We delighted in the Winslow Homer exhibition at the Cape Ann Museum. Homer painted the first of many famous marine-themed watercolors in Gloucester in 1873.
Fascinating but musty interior of old Gloucester book and antiquities shoppe.
Mary ‘n a couple of crusty old locals catching the vibe at a classic Rockport establishment.
So this is what retirement looks like, huh? I could get used to this real quick! Note to self: I HAVE gotten used to this!
Quiet nook among colorful, textured boulders at Manchester-by-the-Sea’s Singing Beach, so named because the sand “sings” (more like squeaks) when you drag your feet across it. (I thought I caught a glimpse of Casey Affleck over there!)
Hard not to love wandering among the lichen-encrusted headstones of Rockport, squinting to make out the faded epitaphs, straining to imagine the lives of these people, who they were, wondering about their vanquished legacies, here remembered, though, writ in crumbling stone.