There she goes . . . again, a parent’s prayer

There she goes.  There she goes again.  Racing through my brain.  And I just can’t contain. This feeling that remains.”–as performed by Sixpence None the Richer 

What is it about a child? No matter how old they are, the imprint of their tender ages remains with you, especially when you see them struggle.  You want to help, but you know that in order for them to transition, you must allow them to struggle and figure things out.  Sometimes, no advice is the best advice you can give your child as they journey along their own unique life path.

Photo by Tobi on Pexels.com

Therefore, watching my own daughter, Madelyn, figure out her own way in the world has been a mix of bittersweetness.  Like many parents, I have observed her growing pains and celebrated her milestones.  I’ve cheered her on through uncertain times, and I have stood back when she needed her space to figure things out her own way.   Most of all, I have just loved her no matter what.

Of course, she also has her dad (John, my husband), grandparents, aunts/uncles, family, and friends who each offer their own unique form of perspective and support.  In fact, I am grateful for the influence and love bestowed upon her throughout her life from others. Their rich perspective and knowledge offer Maddie a quilted tapestry of life in which she can wrap up and take comfort at any time of need. 

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

Therefore, as we recently helped Maddie move for graduate school to Athens, Ohio, a town where she did not know anyone, my mind raced to how fortunate she was, and still is, to have so much love and support, albeit at a slight distance, from that network of friends and family during this time of transition. While Athens is new territory for Maddie, it is familiar to John and me as it is home to our alma mater, Ohio University. With over 21,000 students enrolled in graduate and undergraduate programs on-campus (with a total over 28,000 when you factor in regional campuses), OU is by far, the largest university Maddie has attended since starting her college education.  

By contrast, the program in which she is enrolled is extremely small.  In fact, within her immediate field of study, art education, there are only three other students, two of which are married and with kids.  Not ideal circumstances for connecting and making friends.

Nonetheless, given the nature of Maddie’s program, a blend of working with two currently practicing Athens art teachers in their classrooms, a graduate assistantship, in-person classes, and virtual classes with a broader scope of students, Maddie will have much in the way of work to occupy her time.  

Athens, and the Ohio University campus, remains the ever charming setting I remember from all those years ago.  Situated alongside the Hocking River, amidst the iconic rolling hills, Ohio University is the oldest university in Ohio. From its historic Cutler Hall, the oldest building on campus, to its quintessential alumni gateway, and from the sprawling campus, filled with classically designed traditional, older-looking buildings, to its state of the art facilities contained within, Ohio University is certainly a source of inspiration.  Plus, it offers students a wide array of activities–no matter their interests.  

I couldn’t help but notice that the same energy I felt as an undergraduate all those years ago during the 1980s, still imbues the streets today.  Although the names of the businesses may have changed from back “in-the-day,” uptown remains vibrant and more lively than ever.  In fact, Maddie recently marveled at how busy those sidewalks and businesses can quickly become as the students embark uptown before, during, and after classes.  That said, like the other students, there is no denying, she too finds herself frequently drawn to that uptown vibe when her time permits.

On the weekend in which we first helped Maddie move into her apartment, John and I decided we needed to check out a few local spots for future dining and recreational adventures.  To begin, we found a fantastic location in which to stay, just outside of Athens proper, and approximately 10-15 minutes from Maddie’s apartment.  It’s called The Barn at Shamrock Farm, and it can be found on Airbnb and Facebook.  We were fortunate enough to stay during a discounted weekend, which made it a much more budget friendly option, right along the price point of local hotels. 

Unlike the hotels, however, The Barn offers so much more in the way of amenities and space. Host Kerry, and her husband, Michael, were incredibly responsive to their guests, and their property is located amidst the idyllic scenery of a working farm. From the stunning and comfortably appointed house/barn to the ample out-of-doors seating area and additional fire pit, and from the meandering trails over which stretch your legs for hike to all the special touches found throughout the entire home and property, this Airbnb rental is perfect for those looking to visit Ohio University or those desiring a weekend getaway!  

While there, John and I discovered, along with Maddie, several dining options that we found both enjoyable and tasty.  With regards to casual dining for breakfast, lunch, and/or coffee/snacks, we visited Fluff Bakery and Bagel Street Deli. Both of these diners offered personal, attentive service, freshly made food at a pocket friendly price level, perfect for the budget-minded student and parent alike. Both unique establishments offered a blend of made-to-order items, along with freshly baked goods, and crisp, colorful bowls of salad and fruit. If you’re a bagel fan or fond of baked goods like us, then both of these spots are for you!

Additionally, we tried a couple of local restaurants for evening meals.  The evening of the actual big move, we were sweaty, tired, and very hungry.  After communication with Kerry, back at The Barn, she and Micheal recommended the casual atmosphere of Gran Ranchero.  This allowed us to get away from the busyness of uptown, relax, unwind, and enjoy some comforting, traditional Mexican food.  This establishment did not disappoint!  Not only was the staff attentive and efficient, the beverages were cold, the food was exceptionally fresh and tasty, and we all left with full stomachs!

The following night, we were just as worn out and hungry, so we went with another local favorite, Pizza Cottage.  With a menu brimming with not only a wide variety of pizzas, but also wings, salads, pasta, calzones, subs, desserts, and so much more, Pizza Cottage filled the bill with our desire for comfort food after another long day of work.  The atmosphere was casual and light, the service was friendly and quick to offer help/suggestions, and the food was the perfect blend of spice, sweet, salt, and tanginess that one would expect from a casual Italian eatery.  

In the end, there remains that familiar parental pang now that Maddie is once more away on a new life adventure.  Still, it is worth remembering the old adage, “Give them roots, and give them wings.”  

Therefore, my prayer for all of the dear daughters and sons heading off in a new life direction. . .  May Divine Providence keep them all safe; may they learn, grow, and thrive in their new environment. May they be girded in the knowledge that even on their most challenging day, they are supported, loved, and encouraged by a community of loved ones back home. And, may they always return home safely. 

Godspeed to all young adults entering, or returning to, a new phase along life’s journey.  May you soar . . .

Visit Phoenix, Arizona, fifth largest state in the U.S.

“You know you live in Phoenix when the four seasons are: tolerable, hot, really hot, and are you freakin’ kidding me?”–Unknown

View of the surrounding mountains from our room in the Marriott.

If you would have asked me what the fifth largest city in the U.S. was a week ago, I would not have been able to guess.  In fact, I would have not even come close.  Now, I know.  In fact, I can say I have been there.  

Phoenix, Arizona is the fifth largest city in the United States. It’s geographically bigger than Los Angeles as it covers 500 square miles.  This desert city’s population is over 1.6 million, and, according to The New York Post, Phoenix has recorded the fastest growth of any major US city.  Although there is a growing tech industry, much of the attraction of Phoenix comes from its number of resorts, golf courses, and retirement locations.  

Entrance to the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa

I had the good fortune, along with my husband, John, to visit one of those Phoenix resorts, the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, located in Sonoran Desert Region, the hottest desert in both Mexico and the US.  We were there for the NWEA Fusion 2022 Conference, along with our school’s principal, Dr. Carol Templeton, and Jennifer “Jenn” Hornyak, Associate Superintendent of Technology and Accreditation of the Department of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (WV).  

Entering the Conference Center early in the morning before thing began to heat up!

And, hot it was–both the weather and the conference itself, especially the featured speakers, Michael Bonner, Hamish Brewer, and Marli Williams!  While the temperatures were climbing towards 110 degrees outside, along with a smattering of dust storms rolling in the afternoons, these amazing consultants were heating things up inside the conference center at the start of day.  Each of these talented, charismatic, and socially connected speakers brought the roof down, reinvigorating school personnel after what has been an unquestionably challenging period during these past COVID pandemic years.

Bonner, an influencer and educator currently Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta

Bonner, an animated, inspiring educator at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, kicked off the week. His good-humored, side-splitting, affirming discourse was filled with a series of inspiring stories, ideas, and catch-phrases.  In the end, he created an atmosphere of palpable motivation for the pursuit of creating innovative, effective, and relevant classroom environments.  

Brewer, a thought leader, known as the skateboarding principal, in northern Virginia. Brewer is also featured in the skateboarding humanitarian documentary Humanity Stoked.

Brewer, a fearless, engaging, skateboarding principal in northern Virginia, followed up the second morning.  His break-the-status-quo, love-up your students, high-octane presentation had the audience on its feet dancing and cheering.  Brewer delivered the goods by filling minds with sparks of creative, colorful, and impactful ideas for retooling, reimagining, and rethinking school culture.  

Marli Williams, a popular thought-leader and self-described “joy instigator”

Finally, Marli Williams, an enthusiastic, empowering, self-described “joy instigator,” wrapped up the conference.  Her vivacious, go-get ‘em tiger delivery wowed those in attendance.  She emboldened the audience to give themselves permission to explore more joy, and show-up, not only for your school community, but also for your own well-being, while exploring a more playful attitude–within both the educational setting and within one’s personal life.

 The conference setting for Fusion 2022 was spectacular, and its stunning design seemed to rise from the desert.  Covering 316 acres, the Marriott is surrounded by an arresting array of desert life and stately mountains.  Additionally, there is an abundance of activities that can be explored both on and off-site, including golfing, swimming, biking, shopping, hiking, sightseeing, horseback riding, and so much more.

Numerous peaks abound for hiking as seen from the airplane!

Initially, we had hoped to hike both nearby Pinnacle Peak Park and Camelback Mountain, but we were unable to complete exploration of either site due to the extreme late afternoon heat that we would have experienced at the end of each day’s conference sessions.  In fact, we were strongly warned by local residents that newcomers to the area have a tendency to hike in the high temperatures of the afternoon/evening only to suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke.  It was further explained that countless visitors, unfamiliar with the fact that sweat evaporates quickly in dry heat, don’t realize they’re overheating until it’s too late.

However, we did go off-site for dinners to soak up some local atmosphere. On our first evening, we visited a popular chain establishment, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, that is not available in our home area, for a relaxing dinner while we planned out the coming days.  By the next night, we were ready to explore more local establishments.

The first local restaurant we visited was The Italian Daughter located in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Our watier, Bobby, offered extraordinary service with his vivacious personality and his experienced attention to detail.  All pastas, pizzas, and dishes were made to order with accepting and easy accommodations for those with special dietary needs, food allergies, or any other meal modifications.  We spent a lovely evening at this location, and I would highly recommend it if you are ever in the area.

Another restaurant we visited was Thirsty Lion Gastropub.  While this is not technically local, since they do have a few locations in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon, it was local-enough for us!  Given the name, we initially expected more traditional English food.  Instead, we discovered an eclectic variety of multicultural cuisine, made from scratch, and an accommodating attitude to special dietary requests/modifications.  This was another evening full of belly laughs and good food.  I would absolutely recommend it when traveling in the West.

For our final night’s dining stop, we visited Barrio Queen.  With three Arizona locations, this establishment offered a menu full of regional, authentic southern Mexican dishes based upon family recipes.  Our waiter, Carl, was extremely knowledgeable of each dish, and quick to make helpful recommendations.  On a fun note, he was familiar with the Tri-State local area as he grew up in a community just north of Pittsburg.  If you ever visit Arizona, and you like quality Mexican food, this is your place!   

Overall, traveling to the Phoenix area and attending the NWEA Fusion 2022 conference felt like a once-in-a lifetime opportunity.  Still, if given the chance, I would love to return to the area once more, but during a cooler time of the year.  There was so much distinctive surrounding beauty I feel certain I would have enjoyed  exploring under other circumstances.  One thing is for sure though, I now know, and can say, I have visited the fifth largest city in the US!

Desert Flowers and if you look closely at the last sunflower pictures, you see native AZ green birds (I just don’t know their names!)

Cactus Life and with a couple of hares

Stirring up afternoon dust storms

Majestic Mountains were the daily backdrop

A few more images shot from the airplane

Hello and Goodbye to Phoenix AZ

Cincinnati, Ohio–what a place to visit

“Humidity notwithstanding, summer seems to bring out the best of Cincinnati.”–Bill Dedman

I love all three of the states that make up our Tri-state area: Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.  In fact, even though I was technically born and raised in Ohio, due to the fact that I live in its most southern section, I feel like a resident of all three states.  I have family in all three states, I have worked as an educator in all three states, and my husband, John, and I absolutely love to travel, visit, and explore all three states. 

Therefore, when the school for which John and I worked chose to resume the pre-pandemic tradition of the 8th grade trip–this year to Cincinnati–I was stoked.  Ok, so maybe stoked isn’t the right word. After all, we would be two of the chaperones of 8th grade students, which meant little sleep and a steady stream of focused vigilance, but what a great place to take students!  Professional demands notwithstanding, we would still get to see some sights and soak up the ambiance of this vibrant river city.  

St. Joseph Catholic Middle School 8th grade students at The Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, OH.

Ohio’s Queen City, Cincinnati, is known for many things, one of which is its professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, and this was our first stop on our grand, post-pandemic adventure.  I would later learn that the Reds were the first professional baseball team to play under electric lights, with President Franklin Roosevelt flipping on the switch in 1935.  However, no special lighting was needed for a mid-day 12:35 first pitch start against the Milwaukee Brewers that our group attended. Little did we know we would also be witness to a piece of baseball history in the making. 

According to AP news, Brewer’s Chris Yelich tied the record for completing his 3rd cycle, all of which have occurred against the Reds. This means Yelich hit a single, double, triple, and homerun all in the same game.  Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the Reds, his efforts were unable to help the Brewers as Cincinnati won 14-11.  Nonetheless, it made for an exciting game for the students to attend.

St. Joseph Catholic Middle School 8th graders jumping for joy at the Cincinnati Museum Center
St. Joseph Catholic Middle School 8th graders at the former Union Terminal.

Another stop in our three day, two night adventure, was Cincinnati Museum Center, once known as the train station icon, Union Terminal.  It is considered one of the last great American train stations to be built, and it is known for its art deco style, including the largest half-dome in the western hemisphere. With its so-called magical whispering fountains and the Winold Reiss mosaics, this once former grand station of transportation (trains, buses, and taxis) now features three museums, an Omnimax theater, and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives.  While there, our students were able to view the Cincinnati History Museum, with its contemporary addition of 15 hidden Marvel movie characters for visitors to spy, and the Museum of Natural History and Science, with its interactive physical science lab, Dinosaur hall, Neil Armstrong Space Exploration Gallery, and Ice Age Gallery.

BB Riverboats, at the Port of Cincinnati, was a first-time visit for not only the students, but also for John and I.  However, it will not be our last! Our students enjoyed a delicious buffet of freshly prepared food, three decks of sight seeing featuring one of Mother Nature’s spectacular sunsets, along with a DJ and dancing on the top deck. Sipping on Shirley Temple’s, the students enjoyed a wonderful evening of cruising on the mighty Ohio River with scenic views of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.  Personally, I have to give a shout-out to the May 12 evening crew and kitchen, not only for the specially prepared, and oh-so-tasty gluten-free, plant based meal for me, but even more so, for the way in which they treated our students and staff.  They were courteous, attentive, and very helpful–especially when we had one student become sick.  Thank you, BB Riverboats! It was an evening our students will long remember.

St. Joseph Catholic Middle School 8th graders at Newport Aquarium on the Levee.

Newport on the Levee and the Newport Aquarium were also fantastic stops on our whirlwind Cincinnati visit. The Levee offered plenty of dining options for the students to explore and savor.  There were also options for retail and entertainment, but our focus, after eating, was the Aquarium.  Students and chaperones were able to view all forms of aquatic creatures such as the dwarf seahorse, albino alligators, upside down jellyfish, stingrays, eels, cuttlefish, penguins, and so much more.  Plus, we were able to test our bravery by crossing a rope bridge over shark infested waters!  Well, maybe it wasn’t so much bravery that we tested as much balance. Regardless, the Newport Aquarium is always a great place to visit, especially on a hot day!

Our final Cincinnati highlight was the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.  This expansive zoo is the second oldest zoo in the United States, opening in 1875.  Currently, its Reptile House is now the oldest zoo building in the country, and it is one of three buildings on site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  However, none of these bits of trivia were why the students were there, they wanted to see the animals!  Featuring 21 different animal habitats, there were plenty of creatures for all of the varied students’ interests.  Our group spent five hours there, and even with that much time, there was no way to see all of the animals.  However, it was time to head home as we were all worn out.

Hanging out with the girls at Embassy Suites Cincinnati Rivercenter
Hanging out with the guys at Embassy Suites Cincinnati Rivercenter.

A great trip to Cincinnati must include a great place to stay, and our group certainly drew the lottery ticket for that. Embassy Suites Cincinnati Rivercenter, located in Covington, Kentucky, was the ideal location for a large group, but would also meet the needs of traveling families and individuals.  It is located on the south bank of the Ohio River, and it offered our group spectacular views into Cincinnati proper, especially at night.  The hotel served a daily breakfast buffet featuring made-to-order foods which was perfect for our group. Additionally, it offered a fitness center, pool–both of which our students loved– as well as pet-friendly rooms, on-site restaurant, business center, and so much more. The staff, featuring Danyelle Doherty, Sales Manager; Trish Buda, Reservation Coordinator; Kris Bridge, Front Desk; and the Food Beverage Crew for our stay–Ali, Tasha, and Al–offered outstanding, attentive service.  In fact, having chaperoned several of these trips in previous years, they offered, by far, the most helpful, thoughtful, and courteous service I’ve experienced with a school group.  If you’re in the area, we certainly recommend you consider staying with them.

On a final note, our trip would not have been possible without A Goff Limousine and Bus Company out of Charlottesville, NC.  Driver, Jackie Young, was not only an excellent, safe driver–exactly what you would expect when traveling with a school group–but she was incredibly flexible when it came to our schedule.  If something needed to be adjusted at the last minute, she was always amenable.  A former school bus driver, Jackie was relaxed and comfortable with students while still remaining professional.  Thank you, Jackie!

In the end, overnight school adventures, such as the one described here, are never easy and take teamwork to plan and execute.  John and I were/are fortunate enough to be part of such a team effort. From those who went on the trip, to those who were part of the planning, it would not have been possible without their support and planning. Additionally, our students made us proud as they behaved well and even remembered to tip.  I believe they returned home with many special memories for years to come.

Chaperones ready to go! Left to right: Me, Anisa Dye-Hale, Brittani Buckley, and John.
A student snapped this picture of John and me on BB Riverboat.

I Run, Therefore, I am a Runner

“No matter how slow you go, you are still lapping everybody on the couch,”–Unknown

I try to be careful about how I write/talk/post about my so-called running practice.  When doing so, I typically attempt to lower the expectations of the readers/listener with some sort of self-deprecating humor.  Why?  Beside the fact, that I can’t take myself too seriously, I’ve also had too many encounters with those competitive souls who immediately insist on knowing my stats/pace/race times in order to determine, it seems to me, how to best classify me:  Real competitive runner or the oh-aren’t-you-so-cute-in-your-attempts-to-jog?

Personally, I am not ashamed of my snail-like pace when I run, but I have allowed myself, at times, to feel less-than, especially in conversations with those runners who throw around finishing times and running paces like bodybuilders flexing their muscles in a gym mirror.  If running paces were bicep bulges, then mine would be that proverbial image of a skinny kid with biceps drooping down like a lowercase u.  Okay, maybe not the best illustration, but the point is this: I still cover the same distance and cross the same finish line as any other runner, and I have finally decided to no longer feel like a less-than runner because I am not as fast.

“We are all runners, some are just faster than others. I never met a fake runner.”–Bart Yasso

Since the week following Thanksgiving 2021, I followed a training plan for the 2022 Shamrock half marathon/marathon weekend in Virginia Beach.  I had previously trained for and ran this virtual event last year, which was highly restricted due to COVID.  Training, at that time, was challenging, not only because I was returning to running after several years of a hiatus, but also due to the snow, ice storms, flooding, and other winter events that seemed to plague last winter.  Therefore, most of my training, including those all important weekly long runs, were mostly completed on a treadmill.  

During 2021 Shamrock weekend, the Virginia Beach boardwalk was nearly devoid of visitors. This was not the case for 2022

This year, however, I committed to completing as many of my long Saturday runs as possible, outside, despite winter weather with the goal of running in Virginia Beach.  I also made changes to my weekday training, moving my workouts to early morning, before my workday began, as well as incorporating more strength training, stretching, and a weekly yoga session. Since this was the 50th anniversary of the Shamrock, it was sure to be a big event for the town, especially with many of the COVID restrictions of last year lifted.  Nonetheless, runners still had the option to run it virtually. 

Therefore, traveling to Virginia Beach this year, I knew I was ready to give it my best–nothing record breaking, but it was my best, and I was ready to enjoy the fruits of my consistent winter efforts!  Upon Thursday’s arrival, John, my husband, and I could sense the town’s atmosphere–full of anticipation, joy, and celebration.  Signs welcoming visitors were posted throughout, and we met numerous people in the service industry expressing their genuine excitement for the “first event of the season,” especially after the challenges of the past two years. 

The famous Shamrock sandcarving is safely blocked off until the day of the event.

On Friday, John and I interacted with an abundance of the participants while attending the Shamrock Sports and Fitness Expo. Like me, they were there to not only pick up their race day bib and shirt, but also to browse the vendors’ displays and soak up the levity leading up to the event. Walking around the large arena, what surprised me the most was that there were so many other runners who, like me, did not fit the so-called mental construct that is often associated with what it means to be a runner.  All ages, shapes, shades, sizes, and any other manner of differentiation–it seemed–were represented as if every possible background category box was checked. Oh, to-be-sure, there were plenty of competitive runners who obsessively talked to anyone who would listen about finish time, pacing, and other stats, but the majority of runners seemed to be there in order to have fun and relish the experience.

Let’s go!

Perhaps, I always knew this about running, and had not allowed myself to see this, but surrounded by the high spirited energy of all those different types of runners made me rethink my own feelings—so much that I recall telling John, over dinner that night, that I was no longer going to choose to feel less-than because I am not a fast or competitive runner.  

I run, and therefore I am a runner.  

Bottom line, I find joy in any movement, but especially running.  Running is what I do to reduce stress, increase my sense of energy and positivity, it provides me the ability to sleep soundly, and other countless benefits. Furthermore, after years of experiencing the captivity of an injury, I feel grateful for having the ability to recover and move my body freely.

Let’s make friends and have some fun!

Ultimately, this year, I decided to virtually run the half-marathon on Saturday, instead of Sunday, when the actual Shamrock was scheduled.  I made this choice in order to have the rest of Saturday, after my 13.1 mile run, to enjoy beach and relax before making the seven-hour drive home on Sunday.  This meant I would have to slightly modify the route, due to the fact the actual Shamrock course looped through Fort Story, and that section of the course would remain closed to runners the day before the event.  Nonetheless, if I ran the course as an out and back route, I would still cover 13.1 miles.

John and I were fortunate to watch a beautiful sunrise over the ocean the morning of my 13.1 mile virtual run.

Saturday morning, I began my personal half-marathon at the starting line area at 7:30, the official start time of the following day.  The roads were not closed, as they would have been during the actual event, so I had to carefully navigate the sidewalks through town and run the bike path section of the isolated, four-lane stretch of Shore Drive.  Fortunately, it was not a work day, so traffic wasn’t as busy as it might have otherwise been. Still, there were a few times in which I had to hop off the lane to make way for curb-hugging cars and/or bikes.  

As a runner, especially on those long runs, it’s always good to know where the “Elite Seats” are located!!

All the while, John kept driving in a loop, repeatedly checking on me, and shouting out encouragement through the car window.  As part of the plan, John met up with me at the halfway point.  This allowed me to pause for a quick drink break before turning around and heading back into town.  

Reaching the halfway point, I felt strong. However, since I had trained through winter, I was acclimated to cold temperatures.  It had been months since I had run in the 70 degree temperatures for which I found myself running.  Therefore, my pace began to slow the closer to the end I came.  Still, I finished.  I. Ran.  In fact, I ran slightly over 13.1 miles.

“Running slow isn’t a character flaw: Quitting is.”–Unknown

Dear Reader, I am a runner, and I will never allow myself to again feel slighted by my pace, my age, my stature, or any of those supercilious definitions–AND neither should you–no matter what your endeavors.  God designed our bodies for movement, and we should celebrate and enjoy that ability.  One day, Dear Reader, I may not be able to move freely, but that is not today . . . and so, I will continue to walk, hike, move, stretch, and, yes, even run. 

Time to start!
That feeling when it’s over, and the distance is covered!
John and I can relax now relax on the beach!

Greybeard Overlook and Douglas Falls–Stepping into Faith

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.–Marcel Proust

There are times in life when you have no idea where the path onto which you have stepped will lead.  For example, if you have been married for a number of years, think back to the day you said, “I do.”  When you examine the innumerable moments between the “I do” to the present day, it is sometimes astonishing the ways in which the life journey of a marriage meanders and leads.  Even if you aren’t married, or haven’t been married long, once you hit a certain age of awareness, you begin to witness how very unpredictable life can be with all of its plot-twists, side paths, and meandering stops, starts, and–SURPRISE–unpredicted events. 

The weekend before Thanksgiving, my husband, John, and I, spent a few days in the Black Mountain/Asheville area of North Carolina.  Our intent was to take a break from the work routine and spend some time hiking through the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains.  We had researched a few hiking trail options we thought we would enjoy tackling, but we had also selected a couple back-up alternatives in case those didn’t work out.  

We had hoped to hike to the top of Craggy Pinnacle, instead we ended up hiking the area around it.

Typically, another part of our travel habits is mindfully allowing time to relax and not adhering to a said schedule since our work life as school teachers is very schedule driven.  Therefore, when traveling, we usually try not to rush through our mornings to get out of the door.  Additionally, we both enjoy experiencing new dining venues as part of the fun during out-of-town expeditions.  This often means that part of our relaxed morning is savoring a late morning meal (sort of a brunch). The downside to this habit, when hiking, is that it can cause us to arrive at a trailhead anywhere between the hours of 11:00 am and 2:00 when numerous other relaxed hikers are likewise arriving.  This is why we’ve learned to have several hiking paths in mind for any given day as many trailheads have limited parking.

Other than one other couple, John and I encountered no one on this meandering part of the MTS trail.

There were two trails at the top of our list of preferred hiking experiences–one that led to Rattlesnake Lodge and another to the top of Craggy Pinnacle. Unfortunately, we were not able to hike either one.  Instead, on one of the afternoons during our trip, we found ourselves at the closed-for-the-season Craggy Garden Visitor Center, with its ample parking area and scenic views, staring at a map of hiking trails that could all be accessed from the parking lot.  We picked one that wasn’t part of our so-called list-for-the-day and headed off down the trail without conducting any research. Why not, right? After all, we had already successfully hiked one of the trails shown on the map on a previous trip; therefore, how much more difficult could another trail in the same area be? 

John led the way during this uphill section

Stepping onto the trail, which was part of the 1,174 mile long Mountain to Sea Trail that crosses North Carolina, we saw a trail marker indicating that Greybeard Mountain Overlook was a “mere” 2.8 mile hike and Douglas Falls was only 3.6 miles away.  Perfect! We had plenty of time, as it was early in the afternoon, and the mileage didn’t seem insurmountable–silly, unsuspecting fools that we were!

Without prior research, we were completely ignorant of the level of effort required on this section of the MTS trail.  In hindsight, we would later learn this section of the MTS trail was rated at a difficulty level of 5, across a multitude of hiking platforms–on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the easiest and 5 the most difficult. Plus, let’s be honest, John and I are definitely not spring chicks.  While we both maintain overall good health, we are not near as young and fit as we once were.  Nonetheless, we knew nothing of the trail’s ranking, so we persevered on, writing off the exacting switchbacks, arduous ascents, and demanding descents to our age–oblivious to the fact that the segment of MTS over which we hiked would challenge even the most fit.

Up and down, over and around, slipping and sliding, grasping and pulling, we made our way over the craggy, uneven, and mountainous terrain. We paused here and there to catch our breath and/or rest our legs–especially John’s right knee, which no longer has a meniscus thanks to an injury and requisite surgery a little over a year prior to the writing of this piece. In spite of it all, the quietude we experienced on this trail was serene and surreal, even when our hearts were often pounding in our ears!  With each pause and rest, we would gaze all around at the wondrous mountain scenery and soak up the calmness that accompanies the whisperings of nature. 

Nearly two hours later, we encountered a trail marker at a fork in the footpath informing us that Greybeard Overlook was still 1.1 miles away down one fork, and Douglas Falls was still more than 2 miles away along the other fork.  What?  Surely, this was not possible.  Had we accidentally wandered off the trail, or were we really moving that slowly?  Cloud cover, throughout our hike, had gradually been increasing, which meant that darkness would envelop the mountains sooner than the predicted 5:20 sunset.  It was already after 3:00, we were deep into a cavernous crevasse, so we felt the safest choice was to turn around without reaching either destination.  

I wavered.  I wanted to see more.  Therefore, John, used to my enduring curiosity and energy level, said he would wait while I explored ahead a bit more. While he sat down to rest on a large rock, I carried on to the Greybeard fork which began climbing once more. Continuing further along, the path became more wet and somewhat less rocky. I stepped through muck and oozing mud as small rivulets trickled along this part of the path. To my left, through statuesque trees, I spied those aegean tinged Blue Ridge Mountains, sentinels of the BRP, standing watch over it all.  I wanted to continue further, but visions of being trapped in a rocky ravine overnight surrounded by bears and numerous other critters kept me from straying too much further up the path, perhaps only hiking a ¼ of a mile more!

Turning back without having reached our destination was heartbreaking at first.  What was the point of hike without some sort of distinctive destination?  Nonetheless, as we made our way back up, over, and around the formidable trail, John and I reflected upon the rewards of this trail’s experience–from the scenic views to the tranquil stillness and from the heart thumping ascents to the balance-demanding descents–we challenged our mind, body, and spirit in new and unpredictable ways.  We hiked by faith, and our faith grew as God met us there on the mountain path.  Isn’t that like life?

Life finds ways to force us out of our comfort zone in order to step out into the unknown.  Through living, we experience mountain top high life events, endure darkened valley can’t-see-the-sun-for-days-on-end time-periods, and live through all manner of ups, downs, and unforeseeable meanderings.  Life is not about the destination, but about gathering experiences. Furthermore, life is best met through faith, appreciation for all the Creator has given us, and a recognition that the great Sentinel stands watch over us, no matter the path we trod.  

How blessed we are to live in a world with mountains, valleys, and an assortment of craggy paths!

 

 

 

South toward Grassy Branch–Traveling in the footsteps of those who have gone before us

Still round the corner, there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.–J. R. Tolkien

Hearts-pumping, legs moving, a brisk wind periodically scoured at our cheeks as John, my husband, and I began our hike into the autumnal colored woods just outside of Asheville, North Carolina.  Porcelain blue skies interspersed with frothy, opaque clouds expanded above the deciduous tree line.  To our left, as we made our way along the trail, was an expansive valley enclosed by the cerulean heights of the Blueridge Mountains–a 550 mile expanse of the Appalachian Mountains.  To our right, and above our heads, was the Blueridge Ridge Parkway, but we were moving lower and lower into the gap further away from any sounds of traffic.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Sunshines from porcelain blue skies as part of the path we hike was once an old wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge.

Our hike had actually begun by parking in a small lot at Craven Gap and walking across the BRP.  Fortunately, due to either the Thanksgiving holiday week or the chilly temperatures–although to John and me, the mid-40 fahrenheit range was perfect hiking temperature–the BRP wasn’t too busy, allowing us to safely cross.  We followed the stoney steps down the beginning of the trail that eased our gradual descent into the ridge-hugging trail.  Before taking a more serious turn and further drop, we crossed over a large log that had been allowed to remain across the path, but had been roughly hewed half-way down mid-way up its trunk to allow easier access across.

As we walked, my mind roamed, and my senses soaked up my surroundings: the occasional call of a bird, the scuffling of our feet along the path, the aromatic scent of damp earth, and the multi-hued assemblage of leaves in all shapes, colors, and sizes.  I was reminded of the expression, forest bathing, often used by the health and wellness industry, to encourage people to spend more time in nature.  Despite its marketing association, I was certainly benefiting from this scenic Blue Ridge immersion.

How many years had this tree stood as a witness to life?

John and I paused to admire an expansive trunk that had been a victim of ice, lightning, landslide, or other natural calamity.  We admired the seemingly countless lines of growth circling the inside of the tree’s trunk.  Its age had to be more than one hundred years old.  Running my hands across those lines, I couldn’t help but wonder how many different lives this tree had touched.  How many families, dogs, squirrels, birds, insects, and other creatures either traveled past this tree or even called it home?  It felt as if I was touching a piece of unspoken history. 

Life finds a way.

Walking deeper into the wooded crevasse, John pointed out another fallen tree.  While it was much smaller in circumference than the previous downed tree, there was a unique start of what appeared to be a maple tree attempting to grow from its trunk. The leaves on it numbered less than 20, but they were changing into their fall coats of colors.  What a marvelous example of life finding a way to continue even in the midst of decay.  

Further down the path, we entered a darkened area lined with bare trees whose branches looked like works of twisted, wire art stretching out into wandering, curving lines.  This part of the path was also carpeted with aromatic, long, thin, and tan pine needles, which was unlike any other part of the path.  It felt as if we were entering a page out of a fantasy novel, and at any moment, elves, hobbits, dwarfs, or maybe even a unicorn, would enter onto the path in front of us and send us on a discovery quest. 

Christmas green ferns sprouted here and there near large rocks sank deep into Mother Earth.  Random leaves of striated emerald green emerged from piles of tawny leaves discarded from the bondage of their former trees. Moss, in shades of pistachio, pickles, and pears blanketed rocks and trunks of trees–live and fallen.

The headwaters of a spring flowing down the mountain.

Trickling headwaters of small, silver springs melodically spilled over rocks, debris, and other forest detritus on its way down the mountain.  Oozing mud, slick and thick, filled gaps between rocks on the footpath crossing these singing waters. Sucking sounds slurped at the bottom of our hiking shoes.  Above our heads the backup singing wind, provided three-part harmony, as the layers of air moved over us, rustling the tree branches, and echoing over the Grassy Creek Valley below.

Throughout the footpath, gem-stone colored leaves dotted the path with images of once per year beauty.  Blackberry jam tinged stars, mustard-stained clusters, garnet and black tear drops, mahogany and green points, butterscotch lined with granola bristles–the hues seemingly painted on the leaves were as varied as the shapes of the leaves. It was as if God left a jigsaw puzzle scattered across the forest floor.  

Sunshines from porcelain blue skies as part of the path we hike was once an old wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge.

At one point along the pathway, John pointed to what appeared to be a game trail.  This began a quiet discussion and subsequent ponderings of the first people who traversed this particular area.  Had they been following game trails to make their way through the dense forest and rocky mountain side?  What did the mountain look like for them?  What challenges must they have faced in order to travel over and through such rugged terrain?

Mountain to Sea Trail Marker

Later, when John and I made our way back to the home in which we were staying in Black Mountain, NC for a short getaway before Thanksgiving, I did a bit of research about the route we hiked.  We had covered over five miles moving south towards Grassy Branch, as part of the 1,200 mile long Mountain to Sea Trail that stretches across North Carolina.  This unique trail begins at Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains, and it ends at Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.  Having visited both places on separate trips, years apart, I had to marvel at the trail’s length and diverse terrain.

However, there was more.  A wide section of the path John and I hiked, according to early maps of the area, was part of an old road bed that appeared to be part of a bygone wagon road to Rattlesnake Lodge, a summer home built in 1904 by Dr. Chase Ambler for his family. Named for its infamous living room ceiling that was covered in rattlesnake skins, the home was eventually sold, and it is believed that the lodge was destroyed in the 1920s due to lightning strike.  However, its remains can still be visited via another hiking trail–a footpath John and I hope to travel on another trip.

It is remarkable to think about all of those who had traversed those paths before us, and it is made further marvelous to consider those whose feet first touched its ground hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Did those who originally made their way through the Blueridge Mountains have the same thoughts of appreciation and awe as John and I did as we hiked on that magnificent day in November?  What were their thoughts, their experiences, and their intentions?  What stories must that one path hold?  How many more stories do those mountains and all the other paths keep secret?

 There were others who blazed the way, and there will be more who follow us.  Beyond all of that, however, is the Creator, the ultimate source of all creation.  Perhaps, it is that ultimate commune–communing with nature, our ancestors, and our Creator, in addition to all the natural beauty, adornment, and seasonal dressing, that beckons me again and again into the forest, in mountains, onto wooded paths, or near peaceful bodies of water.

Black Mountain, NC, The New Cool

“Although I deeply love oceans, deserts, and other wild landscapes, it is only mountains that beckon me with that sort of painful magnetic pull to walk deeper and deeper into their beauty.”–Victoria Erikson

After all of the freedom of mask-free living, travel, and dining, it looks as if we might be heading right back into those not-so-care-free-mask-wearing days again–vaccinated or not.  Regardless of what position you take on COVID, vaccines, and masks, there is one topic on which most can agree based upon the summer of 2021–our collective love of travel.  Perhaps, it’s hard-wired into our DNA from the hunting-gathering days, but as a whole, a large part of our population embraces that wanderlust feeling–hitting the open road and taking off for a change of scenery in order to relax, recharge, and renew.

While my husband and I did not travel as much as we would have liked this past summer, we did discover an off-the-beaten path destination that we hope to return to in the near future–Black Mountain, NC.  Ideally, we would like to visit it again during the fall months, but since we are both educators, extended fall travel is not possible.  However, for those of you with the opportunity to travel during the fall months, I would encourage you to consider a visit to this charming and scenic area of NC.  Even with mask-restrictions, it’s an ideal travel destination due to its fine dining, shopping, museums, breweries/distillery/cideries, crafts, art, music, and more.   Plus, it also offers a plethora of out-of-doors activities in which you can practice social distancing if that’s your preference.  

Using populars travel apps such as Airbnb, VRBO, TripAdvisor, or Yelp, you will not only find an abundance of ideas for activities in the vicinity, but also a wide range of places to stay sure to fit any budget, including rental homes/condos/apartments, bed and breakfasts, quaint inns, camping or glamping sites, resorts, and hotels. In fact, John and I were overwhelmed with all of the choices, but ultimately went with a VRBO rental home one mile from downtown Black Mountain called Getaway Disoway.  The owners, Tony and Tricia Wilkerson, were fantastic and responsive communicators, respected our privacy, and provided us with a clean, comfortable, and cozy cottage built in 1941 that we absolutely loved.

What’s not to love about squirrel watching as you relax on your mountain view deck?!

In the same way there are a myriad of places in which to stay in Black Mountain, there are likewise ample choices of eateries! This was good news for John and me since we have two different dining preferences.  I have to eat gluten free due to celiac disease, but I choose to also eat plant based; whereas, John is MUCH easier to feed as he is your basic meat, potato, salad kind-of-guy!  In spite of our differences when it comes to how we eat, we come together on our preference for eating at eclectic restaurants that are locally owned, and Black Mountain certainly has those!

Our first food stop was FRESH: Wood Fired Pizza, featuring a classic menu of pizza, pasta, salads, and desserts.  The chef, Mark Tomczak, an award winning ceramics artist, worked as an assistant chef at The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls, in Hocking Hills, Ohio.  Later, he became head chef at The Colonial, in Jackson, Ohio, before merging his talents.  FRESH features Tomczak’s fine food and pottery creations in a vibrant, funky atmosphere featuring ample outdoors dining.  Additionally, due to fact his youngest daughter, Emma, has a gluten intolerance, Tomczak’s menu offers multiple gluten free options, and his staff go out of their way to prepare gluten free food separately from the rest of menu items in an attempt to try, to the degree possible, keep their gluten free foods from being cross-contaminated.  John and I loved FRESH so much, we ate there twice!

The next day, we visited Cousins Cuban Cafe, where we met the chef and owner, Beatriz “Betty” Sperry, while trying to decide what to eat.  Sperry took charge immediately, asking questions, and based upon our answers, making recommendations.  Sperry, a first generation American whose parents immigrated from Cuba to Miami, FL, proudly shared with us the story of her family.  Their pictures adorn one wall of the cafe.  Sperry described Cuban cuisine as being robust and full of flavor, but without being too spicy.  Oh my, was she ever right, and they also had THE. BEST. COFFEE. EVER.  The cafe’s food was like none other we had previously experienced.  Sperry made John and I feel like one of the family as we sat at a small table near the kitchen, chatting with her and soaking up the atmosphere as the kitchen staff jovially, but quickly hustled to feed the ceaseless stream of hungry diners coming in for lunch.  We will definitely return to this homey breakfast/lunch bistro.

If you’re going to hike around mountains, you need to fuel strongly, and that’s exactly what John and I did twice at Blueridge Biscuit Company–home of the gluten-free biscuit!  Unfortunately for me, since we were on vacation, we slept later than we normally would, so the advertised gluten-free, 9 oz cathead biscuits were regrettably sold out both mornings!  No worries for me though, they had numerous other gluten-free offerings, including house made granola and plenty of hot coffee!  John appreciated the varied biscuit sandwich choices. (Yes, his biscuits were also 9 oz catheads too!)  However, biscuit-based meals were not the only foods served up at this breakfast/lunch eatery, there were plenty of waffles, eggs, proteins, sides, and such, sure to please even the pickiest eater.

What vacation isn’t complete without a little Mexican food to spice up the experience?  Which is why we had to visit Ole’s Guacamole.  Full confession:  I am a BIG eater when it comes to Mexican food, especially vegetarian fajitas.  John and I visited Ole’s on an evening after our longest hike, and we were hungry.  However, the portions at Ole’s were so generous, even I could not eat all of my food!  What’s more, my margarita was so big, I couldn’t drink all of it either!  Nonetheless, you did not hear either one of us complaining, and based upon the crowd, Ole’s has plenty of adoring fans ready to take on the clean-plate challenge! 

Last up, on our Black Mountain dining adventures was Black Mountain Bistro.  This locally owned and run restaurant offers an eclectic food and drink menu, including vegan/vegetarian and gluten-free options.  While dining there, we met Jaiden, our server extraordinaire who answered all of our questions, made recommendations, and even made time to discuss her favorite hiking spots in the area.  Our food was outstanding, the atmosphere was inviting, and it appeared to be a local favorite hang-out based upon the people we met.  We had hoped to return, but our trip turned out to be one day shorter than planned, thanks to my poor booking skills! 

All-in-all, John and I left a bit of our heart in Black Mountain, NC.  It is full of ample out-of-door spaces to explore, stunning scenery, a vibrant arts and craft scene, a hip, but welcoming vibe, and just the right amount of one-of-a-kind locally owned shops, restaurants, and businesses.  Stay tuned for more as we are already planning for a second trip to this mountain haven. 

Craggy Life Lessons

“Yonder were the mountains:  The sunlight revealed their tiny heads and wide shoulders, craggy and purple, with small black trees, delicate as eyelashes, on their slopes.”–Paul Theroux 

It never ceases to amaze me the ways in which life can manage to not only survive, but thrive.  As an experienced educator, I have worked with countless students, including those who come from the most anemic of backgrounds–impoverished in experiences, impoverished in love/emotional support, or impoverished financially.  Miraculously, many of those disadvantaged students still manage to not only survive their hardscrabble circumstances, but also find enough sustenance outside of their own rocky homelife for growth.  These kids are like camels–able to soak up enough goodness and nutrition from one or two smaller sources, such as a church, school, sports, and so forth, that allow them to flourish through long stints of inadequate and insubstantial living situations.

Craggy Pinnacle, elevation 5,817′, can be driven through via Blue Ridge Parkway tunnel or hiked to the top for epic 360 degree views.

Visiting Craggy Gardens, north of Asheville, NC and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was reminded that not only can humans survive ramshackle environments, but also a wide array of plant life can likewise do the same. Craggy Gardens are part of the Great Craggy Mountains, or “the Craggies,” which is a rock-filled area of approximately 194 square miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains that border the Black Mountains.  The highest point of the Craggies is Craggy Dome rising at an elevation of 6,105 feet, but there are several other high peaks of interest in this unique geological and botanical habitat, including Craggy Pinnacle, through which visitors can drive and/or hike to the top along the scenic BRP. 

A few ancient symmetrical trees dot the bald of Craggy Flats which is mostly covered in grasses, shrubs, rocks, and few flowering plants.

The Great Craggy Mountains are known for its exposed rocky, aka “craggy,” surfaces, high altitudes with spectacular vistas, and an elevated bald known for its rhododendrons, mountain laurel, flame azalea, other colorful wildflowers, and heath.  There is both a picnic area at milepost 367.6 and the Craggy Garden Visitor’s Center at milepost 264.4; plus, there are several hiking trails for a variety of hiking skill levels. Additionally, the Craggy Mountains are known for its twisted trees, May-apple flowers, Turkscap lilies, autumnal leaf colors, the clusters of red berries that decorate the Ash trees in the fall, and its rare and endangered plant life.  In fact, according to the Blue Ridge Parkway Guide, “Craggy Gardens has been recognized by the state of North Carolina as a Natural Heritage Area and has also been recommended as a National Natural Landmark.”

During our visit to the Craggy Mountains, John, my husband, and I stopped at the Craggy Garden Visitor Center.  At an elevation of 5,497 feet, the air was significantly cooler than when we left town, hovering in the high 50s.  Inside the visitor center, a warm fire blazed in a wood burning stove in a far corner with several rocking chairs around its hearth.  Outside, posted along the front wall, was a map of the different hiking trails in the vicinity.  

The Craggy Pinnacle Tunnel as seen from the Craggy Garden Visitor Center.

As newbies, we decided our first hiking experience in the Craggies should be uphill along Craggy Gardens Trail which led to the Craggy Flats at an elevation of 5,892 feet.  Since our visit was in late June, we were hoping to see the renowned Catawba rhododendron; however, John had already been warned that these infamous flowering pink and purple shrubs had come and gone with little fanfare.  Nonetheless, I was not to be deterred in my enthusiasm for the potential adventure that awaited along the trail.

Craggy Garden Trail

  “Nature is a book of many pages and each page tells a fascinating story to him who learns her language. Our fertile valleys and craggy mountains recite an epic poem of geologic conflicts. The starry sky reveals gigantic suns and space and time without end.”–A. E. Douglass

Trekking along the path, twisted trees and shrubs formed tattered tunnels through which we traversed higher into the altitude until we reached Craggy Flats.  This area is signified by a large shelter with paths going uphill to either side of the shelter.  Once at the top, the views were spectacular, allowing us to see layer upon layer of mountain line overlaid with cloud shadows.  While as a general rule, a bald is considered a treeless area, the Great Craggy Mountains’ bald was not entirely treeless as there were a few beauties with their broad limbs fanned out in perfect symmetry.  Mostly, the bald was covered with small flowers, grasses, dirt paths, and a few shrubs that were ablaze with orange flowers–a type of rodondendum called a flame azalea due to its flamboyant flowers.  

Vantage point of tree limbs

The Craggy Gardens Trail is often identified as one of the busiest trails in the area, but on the day/time John and I chose to explore it, there weren’t too many other hikers.  The hikers we did encounter were friendly and helpful, offering different pieces of advice for locating specific scenery.  In fact, one pair of sisters that I met during my exploration of the bald area remembered I was from Ohio and referred to me by shouting “Ohio!” whenever they found something of interest along the trail they thought I would want to see. 

The search for the Catawba Rhododendrone

On the way down from the bald, at the base of the flat, was a rhododendron upon whose backside (the back of the official Craggy Gardens Trail) was covered in purple Catawba rhododendron blooms!  I trotted back up the off-the-beaten-path to the top bald where the two sisters were admiring the flame azalea. I recalled they were looking for Catawba blossoms to photograph, and I wanted them to know about the hidden purple gems I had just found.  Excitedly, I led them down the hill while they readied their cameras; then I headed back to a shelter area where John was resting.

It seemed that while I was helping the sisters find rhododendron, John had made an acquaintance with a hungry squirrel that had discovered an abandoned banana peel.  It was quite the scene as John attempted to move in closer with his camera to video the squirrel. Meanwhile, the squirrel entertained John with its acrobatic attempts to eat the inside of the peel. It was certainly an “appealing” sight!

After the squirrely entertainment, John and I meandered down the hill to a gazebo overlooking the mountainside.  If we had chosen to continue further downhill, we would have traveled into the official Craggy Garden Picnic Area, but since we still wanted to visit Mount Mitchell, a bit further down the BRP, we chose to retrace our steps back to the visitor center.

Walking back allowed me to more thoughtfully take in the gnarled trees and shrubs with roots winding over, around, and sometimes even through the rocky and rugged terrain.  Several roots appeared to have a large hole at the base of their trunks, and they still seemed to support life.  In fact, it was a marvel that any life at all could be supported in such a craggy area.

It further occurred to me that most lives–at some point in time–become rocky, rough, and even craggy, like several of my past students’ lives.  The miracle is that no matter how broken and stony life becomes for any of us, we have the ability to survive. Like the Craggy Mountain plants whose limbs twist this way and that to find the sunlight while their roots lengthen and stretch to find nourishment and water, we too, through faith and perseverance, can find ways to stretch, grow, and resiliently root into sources of life-sustaining nourishment.  Even if our roots develop a hole of loss, we can still rise up like the trees, shrubs, and other plant life of the Great Craggy Mountains.

Mount Mitchell and the Blue Ridge Parkway: An Inspiration to Soar High

“Mountains know secrets we need to learn. That it might take time, it might be hard, but if you just hold on long enough, you will find strength to rise up”–Tyler Knott 

As a kid, my dad loved to take the family out for a Sunday afternoon drive.  With no real destination in mind, it was a great, inexpensive way to calm rambunctious children. Put us in a warm car (This was the pre-air-conditioning days.) with the windows down, and the bright sun shining, we were all sure to be lulled into sleep–or at the very least tricked into quietude because there’s no sense trying to talk with open windows. 

I couldn’t help but think of those Sunday drives as John, my husband, and I made our way onto the Blue Ridge Parkway while staying in Black Mountain, NC.  Leaving town, we traveled west to Asheville in order to access the BRP. Moon roof opened and windows partially lowered, John and I relished the refreshing mountain air.  The higher in elevation we traveled, however, the higher our windows lifted as the air temperature decreased. Regardless of the temperature, we never tired of the breathtaking vistas along this ribbon of roadway.  It is no wonder that the BRP is often known as America’s Favorite Scenic Drive.

When traveling the BRP it was important to note that there were no gas stations along the way; however, there were plenty of places to hop off the parkway and travel into nearby towns to fill up.  The speed limit was 45 miles per hour, but steep curves and bicyclists slowed down speeds even more.  That was okay with John and me as we enjoyed our leisurely drive.  Furthermore, we couldn’t help but notice, in addition to a plethora of bicyclists, there were large numbers of motorcyclists taking advantage of the challenging, but spectacular winding stretch of road.  There were no tolls on this route, and nearly all of the stops along the way were free with plenty of places to picnic, take social media-worthy photos, hike/walk, or simply rest, relax, and take in the majestic scenery.  With mile markers and signage along the parkway, attractions and overlooks were easy to locate and identify. In fact, according to several sources, since being fully completed in 1987, the BRP has become the most visited National Park Service sites. 

With only a couple of days to explore the BRP due to torrential rains at the beginning of our stay, it was hard to decide which sites to visit.  Therefore, before heading to the BRP, I asked several Black Mountains residents for their favorite spots to visit and/or hike.  Mount Mitchell was a clear favorite.  Located about 35 miles north of Asheville at milepost 355.4, we could drive almost to the top of the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  While driving to the “apex of the Appalachian Mountains,” John and I listened to the Mount Mitchell AM radio station with its delightful, homespun monologue that managed to be both entertaining and chock full of information. 

This marker shows the precise highest point east of the Mississippi.

Of interest, Mount Mitchell is one peak located in the J-shaped Black Mountains which are considered part of the Blue Ridge Province of the Southern Appalachian.  It was once known by the Cherokee as Attakulla, which means “leaning wood” or “wood leaning up,” and was later named Black Dome by white settlers. However, the name officially changed in 1858 to commemorate Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a geologist, educator, Presbyterian minister, and beloved professor at the University of North Carolina, who passionately pursued his belief that Mount Mitchell was the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains.

Dr. Mitchell’s story is epic and full of intrigue.  In fact, I could write pages on his story alone, but I’ll keep to simple facts.  Using barometric readings, mathematical formulas, as well as repeatedly journeying all over the mountainous terrain, Mitchell labored for years to prove his hypothesis. Sadly, in his zealous pursuit, Mitchell slipped and fell 60 feet into a pool at the bottom of what is now known as Mitchell Falls, ultimately hitting his head.  It is believed he died instantly.  Mitchell’s trail was doggedly tracked and his body found days later by well known mountain guide and storyteller, “Big Tom” Wilson, who had guided Mitchell on previous expeditions.

Without any of the modern technological advances, Mitchell’s work estimated the summit to be 6,672 feet. While scientists now know that Mount Mitchell is actually 6,684 feet high–Mitchell died not knowing how close his calculations were. His body is buried near the summit of his cherished Mount Mitchell to honor the magnitude and devotion of his work to this mountain.

The observation deck and Dr. Elisha Mitchell’s burial site are located directly behind John and me in this picture.
Dr. Elisha Mitchell’s burial plaque. It is interesting to note that this marker refers to Mitchell first as “Reverend,” an indication of faith’s priority in his life.

From the parking lot, John and I made the short ¼ to ½ mile steep hike along the paved path to the observation deck at the summit with its 360 degree view.  Initially, our panorama was blurred due to ongoing cloud cover traveling over the multitude of mountain peaks.  However, when the sunlight finally broke through the mist, the views were heart-quickening. According to information read in the museum, we were viewing mountain tops as far as 85 miles away! 

The cloud cover in parking lot when we first arrived at Mount Mitchell around 3:00 PM
Video of the cloud cover of parkinng lot.
Watching the clouds clear, allowing us to see mountain peaks 85 miles away.

No matter how tall the mountain is, it cannot block the sun. Tenacity and adversity are old foes.–Chinese Proverb

I felt as if I was floating on an island in the sky with the sun warming my skin. (It was around 50 degrees at the top, and it is worth noting that the top portion of Mitchell has a climate more similar to Canada than NC with many of its plants and animals reflective of northern Alpine country.) I couldn’t help but marvel at the wondrous carvings of mountain tops–at least that is how the layer upon layer of mountain peaks appeared to me.  In that moment, I sensed the greatness of our Creator, the awe of those old mountains, and felt gratitude for having the ability to be right there in that moment. It was one of those times that I placed my hand on my heart without thinking about it.  Then, realizing what I had done, I quickly moved my hand away–face feeling hot with embarrassment.

“We are now in the mountains, and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”–John Muir

Sauntering back down the path, only a few feet from the top, John and I took time to pause at the gravesite of Dr. Mitchell.  Reflecting over what I had learned about Mitchell’s life, it occurred to me that he was quite literally committed to maintaining higher ground with his fervent faith and understanding of science.  Even though this caused a rift between Dr. Mitchell and his former student, it did not deter Mitchell from his drive to uphold what the data substantiated and what he believed in his heart to be true.

In the early 1900s, the logging industry nearly decimated Mount Mitchell, raising concern across the state, including those of North Carolina governor, Locke Craig.  This led to the declaration of Mount Mitchill becoming North Carolina’s first state park in 1915.  Present day, Mount Mitchell State Park offers visitors seven hiking trails of varying lengths and challenge levels, a visitor’s center, museum, gift shop, and restaurant–although the restaurant is actually closed for remodeling until 2022. 

With more than 91 species of birds identified, an abundance of balsam firs–fragrant with the scent of Christmas–fresh blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries for visitor picking in August, an extensive number of rare plants and animals, and a number of dramatic historical stories attached to the mountain, I could not help but marvel at Mount Mitchell’s beauty and rich history. The story of Dr. Mitchell’s integrity, perseverance, and determination–along with the unparalleled mountain top views were/are a source of wonder, inspiration, and awe.  A visit to Mount Mitchell definitely leaves you feeling closer to the Divine and filled with a sense of the Creator’s peace.  

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”–John Muir

As seen on Instagram @ positiveenergyalways

Crabtree Falls: Spotlighting a cascade of blessings in the midst of shadows

“There is a hidden message in every waterfall. It says, if you are flexible, falling will not hurt you!”–Mehmet Murat ildan

Crabtree Falls, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville, NC, is a photographers dream!

The dawning of the day brought forth memories of the day before: light sweat forming, the sound of heavy breathing, the curves of mountainous proportions, the ups and downs, and the taste of sweetness at having reached one incredible summit.  I wanted to do it again. Was it love?  Not exactly.  Instead, I was recalling the hikes from the previous day, including one short, but incredibly steep trek up to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River.  There is a reason for the slogan, “the mountains are calling” has been popularized!

John and I were fortunate enough to recently spend a few days in Black Mountain, NC, a delightful small town in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.  Named after the mountains that surround it, the town of Black Mountain is a walkable, quaint town filled with over 200 businesses featuring local art, crafts, artisans of types, music, unique shops, galleries, breweries, and plenty of food venues for every dining desire.  Located about 15 miles from Asheville, NC, Black Mountain is also a hub for outdoor activities, but it is the surrounding mountain line that perpetually commanded the attention of John and me.

Our initial goals were to visit both Black Mountain and Asheville as well as enjoy a few hikes.  However, weather often alters best laid plans, and it certainly influenced ours.  In fact, on our first full day, we woke to a low-visibility/heavy fog warning for the surrounding mountains  due to the soaking, overnight rains that continued throughout most of the morning curtailing any hiking plans. 

On the positive side, this allowed us to fully explore and experience the warmth and creative energy of Black Mountain.  As we made our way through the town, browsing through one interesting shop after another, I asked locals to name their favorite hiking spots.  Granted it was a challenging question given the fact there are substantial choices in the area.  Nonetheless, certain locations kept emerging, including Mount Mitchell, Craggy Gardens, and Crabtree Falls. 

Thus, on the following day, John and I made our way to both Craggy Gardens and Mount Mitchell.  However, we were so enamoured with Craggy Garden that we did not spend as much time at Mount Mitchell as we had hoped.  No worries, or so we thought, we would return the following day on our way to Crabtree Falls.  Of course, if you want to make God laugh, tell him you have plans, right?

“I like the muted sounds, the shroud of grey, and the silence that comes with fog.”–Om Malik

As the following day evolved, our plans became, well, foggy, and we were not sure if the conditions would permit us to hike it given how the day started.  In order to get to Crabtree Falls, we had to traverse the Blue Ridge Parkway for nearly 90 minutes–not that this was a bad thing since this drive was, and is, oh-so-scenic! However, on this particular day, we watched with wonder as we drove through great clouds of layered gossamer drifting over the elevated mountainside, enveloping the road–and the scenic view.  

Air, so crisp and refreshing at the lower elevations, quickly became damp and bone-chilling as the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and our visibility became drastically reduced.  Initially, our plans were to stop by Mount Mitchell before, and possibly after, visiting/hiking Crabtree Falls.  This was an attempt to experience a more clear view from the top of this summit.  Unfortunately, as we made our way up the access road towards the top of Mount Mitchell, the blanket of fog became more dense.  Stopping at the Mount Mitchell State Park Visitor Center for a map, it became clear that the cloud cover was set in for the next several hours.

Since we had never previously visited this part of the BRP, we envisioned that it was only a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Crabtree Falls!  Wrong!  Thirty minutes later, driving mostly through pea-like soup conditions, we finally arrived at Crabtree Falls Campground just past mile marker 339.  Finding the trail and determining the best strategy for tackling it was another story.

We had received what we thought was solid hiking advice from another couple.  They had advised us to start at the trailhead, and make the .9 downhill hike to the falls.  Then, instead of finishing the rest of the 1.5 trail to its end, this couple suggested that we turn around, and return the same way.  This shorter route sounded perfect since we wanted time to return to Mount Mitchell on the off-chance of cloud clearing.  It might have worked, if we had started at the trailhead!

Unfortunately, we did not see this sign until we finished our hike at the trailhead since we mistakenly hiked the trail in reverse!

After happily discovering restrooms in the campground before beginning our hike, we became turned around, and began the hike at the point in which most hikers consider the trail’s end!  We were on the 1.5 side of the trail that gently started and seemed pleasant, but it soon became rugged with thick, rambling roots acting like the proverbial bully sticking out his foot to purposely trip passersby.  In fact, for a large portion of this hike, we worried if we were even on the right path, but the few hikers we did encounter kept encouraging us that we were headed in the right direction.

We’re off to a pleasant start!

We kept traipsing, tripping, and trekking down the mountainside. Despite the air becoming cool and refreshing, we were sweating nonetheless. Along the way, we caught glimpses of Crabtree Creek and its numerous miniature falls creating a soothing natural soundtrack. Still, we wondered, was this all there was to see until another friendly family of hikers assured us that we were close. Our efforts and time, they assured, would be rewarded; however, they warned us that the next section would be a steep descent, full of mud, and slippery rocks.

Fun images along the gentle beginning–which was really the end!

Carefully continuing lower into the ravine, it began to feel as if we were descending into the damp cellar of Mother Nature with a fully opened, unseen spigot in the crevasse below.  Meanwhile, poor John, who had surgery on his knee ten months prior to this excursion, experienced jolts of sharp paint with each precipitous, downhill step.  Persevering through it all, I think we both felt hope rising as our minds whispered, “Wait, wait for it . . .” 

Crabtree Creek flowing alongside parts of the trail.

Crabtree Creek meandering alongside the trail.

Obstacles and slippery footing along the path.

“There’s no better place to find yourself than sitting by a waterfall and listening to it’s music.”–Roland R Kemler

There it was! Gushing, plummeting, and splashing over 70 feet of rock, Crabtree Creek, God’s ultimate shower. We stood in awe, witnessing such a magnificent creation from the hand of the Creator.  Moments ticked by, and then with great dramatic flare, a sunbeam spotlighted the falls.  I felt tugging at my heartstrings.

“Far away, there in the sunshine, are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”–Louisa May Alcott

I reflected on the challenges of the hike down–from starting at the trail’s end to encountering all of the rocks, roots, sharp and sudden dips, as well as the slippery sections filled with mud.  What a likeness there was to life’s challenges–especially during the pandemic months.  Through it all, the shadow side of the mountain, like the shadow side of life, Divine Providence was present; and there, in that moment, we were bearing witness to blessing cascading from the heavens above.  

It was all uphill on the .9 return to the campground/parking area, but the worst was behind us.

We now faced a .9 mile uphill slope, but the worst was behind us, and we were not completing it alone.  Mount Mitchell would wait for another time.  For now, we would stay a while, resting beside the cool, celestial waters.

“Be still, and know that I am God . . .I will be exalted in the earth.”–Psalm 46:10