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

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Gluten-free Miracles, and Corta-Lima: Lexington, KY, part 2 June 2021

 . . . “Shaker Village is reconnecting its campus to inspire a new community of adventurers, learners, makers and doers. . . . Find architectural wonders, plant a backyard garden and taste a new dish fresh-from-the-garden.”–shakervillageky.org

“Have you heard of Pleasant Hill?” I was asked.

In fact, I had not.  Hmm . . .

John, my husband, and I were staying in Lexington, KY, for a few days.  Since this wasn’t our first visit, we wanted to ensure we were visiting new spots.  As I read about Shaker Village, a year-round destination, it seemed right up our alley.  A 3,000 acre attraction honoring and remembering what was, at one time, the third largest community of Shakers in the United States from 1805 to 1910. 

The Historic Centre, The Farm, and The Preserve, all part of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, provide activities and events for a wide range of interests.  From history to religion, from science to art, from cooking to gardening, from technological advances to Appalachain ingenuity, from dining to shopping, from day trips to overnight stays, from hiking to boating, from paddling to horseback riding, and so much more, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is a one-stop source of inspiration and fun.  Visitors can opt for self-guided tours and activities, or join in one of the multiple-daily group led events. “Inn fact” (pun intended), BBC once named this Kentucky icon a “top hidden travel destination.”

The on-site Inn is unique due to the fact that visitors can stay in traditional guest rooms or suites, but can also choose to stay in one of 13 private cottages that are restored Shaker buildings.  The rooms, whether choosing a cottage or Inn room, make use of Shaker furniture replicas, hardwood flooring, and offer Kentucky countryside views.  While staying overnight, visitors can dine at the on-site restaurant, likewise appointed with Shaker-style furniture.  The restaurant’s menu features from-the-farm dishes and meals–changing as the growing seasons change–making for a unique year-round dining experience.

While visiting Shaker Village, guests can browse all three shops on its campus featuring local foods, art, and, of course, plenty of distinctive Shaker-style pieces and gifts.  Plus, they offer an on-line shop; therefore, allowing you to shop their one-of-a-kind wares at any time.  If shopping is not your thing, there is so much more to do at Shaker Village.

Since the Shakers believed that living a healthy lifestyle was an integral part of their spiritual life, Shaker Village offers numerous out-of-doors adventures.  There is a 36-mile trail system for hikers of all levels of experience, including family-friendly trails or more advanced treks. While hiking, take in a bird observational site, a 50-foot waterfall, High-Bridge, the first cantilever bridge in North America, or the 1866 Frame Stable, where the Shakers provided a change of horses for stage coaches.  If you prefer a more guided experience, most weekends in Shaker Village offer some form of special emphasis experience or trek, focusing on topics such as wildflowers, geology, foraging, birding, conservancy and so much more.  The village hosts seasonal runs, paddling expeditions, and other mind-body-spirit events. Additionally, you can even volunteer the third Saturday of every month to help the village in their efforts to remove invasive species.  There is just so much to do, see, and experience at Shaker Village. John and I were fully immersed and engaged for the entirety of our day there, and we only scratched the surface. We look forward to a return trip to explore more of what this destination has to offer!

The Farm at Shaker Village

Our day-long exploration of Shaker Village, as well as our previous day-tripping experiences, required proper fueling.  Boy, did we EVER find the dream! Miracles Bakery, located on 145 Burt Road in Lexington, was about a 10 minute drive from the Airbnb apartment in which we were staying.  What a miracle it was!  

“Miracles Bakery is a faith driven organization changing lives through the power of food, while helping folks with their journey.”–miraclesbakery.com

Since being diagnosed with celiac disease in my forties, all products containing gluten, wheat, barley, and rye are off limits. Therefore, I rarely ever indulge in truly decadent pastries, much less enjoy quality tasting bread.  Walking into an entire store dedicated to gluten-free baking as well as other allergies and diet specialties, I was overwhelmed with food choices for the first time in many years.  In fact, I thought I would cry.  

Meet Meghan Kerbyson, Manager, at Miracles Bakery.

Donuts, cookies, muffins, breads, cakes, cupcakes, pies, pizzas, pizza rolls, sandwiches, even biscuits–flakey, short and dreamy biscuits . . . .  Paleo, keto, vegan, and other dietary restrictions, such as egg, soy, or nuts?  Not a problem here.  Miracles Bakery truly looked like heaven, but John, who does NOT have any food allergies, and I had to put it to the taste test.  

Drum roll, please. . . We ended up eating brunch there three consecutive days!  Plus, we departed their store each day with a treat, or five, for later in the day.  On our last day, Saturday, their donut day, we brought home ½ dozen of those precious gluten-free and vegan gems.  Sweet blessings from above!  If you, or a loved one, has ANY sort of dietary restrictions, and you’re visiting Lexington, KY, Miracles Bakery is a MUST eatery.  Dine-in or carry-out.  You won’t go away hungry or leave disappointed.

“Corto Lima is a mid-scale Latin inspired restaurant specializing in a new brand of Latin cuisine with a modern interpretation.”–cortalima.com

Another food discovery, while visiting Lexington, KY, was Corto Lima, located at 101 Short Street.  This cozy, stylish corner restaurant has limited seating, but the line of waiting customers that John and I saw on a Friday evening, reinforced what we experienced: a dining experience worth waiting for!  Corta Lima describes itself as a, “mid-scale Latin inspired restaurant specializing in a new brand of Latin cuisine with a modern interpretation.”  According to their website, Chef Jonathan Lundy, creates delectable dishes, drawing inspiration from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as the American Southwest.  Corto Lima’s menu features housemade artisanal corn tortillas, fresh ingredients, and offering gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options as well as plenty of meat-centered dishes.  Additionally, their beverage menu, created by Director of Operations/Owner TJ Cox, focuses on Tequilas, Mezcals Rums, and wines of Latin origin.  In fact, Corta Lima boasts the best Margarita in Lexington!

John and I were challenged over all of the varied and eclectic options.  While pursuing the menu, and asking our server/bartender, Nigel Haddad, multiple questions, we noshed on salsa trio, featuring salsa verde, pineapple serrano, and fire roasted tomato: so, so good!  Eventually, I chose a side of black beans and Quinoa Chaufa, and John gleefully selected freshly made Tamales–two orders!  Surrounded by a warm, sunny atmosphere, plenty of terra-cotta potted plants, a lively room of diners, and an attentive staff, our dining experience at Corta Lima was certainly memorable. We highly recommend it and hope to return!

Nigel Haddad, Bartender and server extraordinaire

A mere two hour drive from the Tri-State area, Lexington is a great jumping off point for mini-getaways at any point of the year!  The town is welcoming to all walks of life. It’s vibrant and full of the vitality and vigor for which Kentucky hospitality is known!  Spend a weekend or spend a week, you’ll find something for nearly every interest in Lexington.  Be sure to hit me up on social media with your favorite Lexington spot or share with me at stephsimply.com!  And, if you visit any of the locations mentioned here, be sure to tell them Steph simply sent you!

Lexington, KY, June 2021, Part 1: The Adventure Begins

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

Ready, set, go . . . travel!  Yes! After months of not traveling, like many people across the country, John, my husband, and I, were ready to hit the road for adventures.  As educators, we have the opportunity to use June and July as months readily available for travel, but last year, of course, was a different story.  In fact, our biggest trip last year was to local home improvement stores for plants!   While we debated the merits of one big, blow-the-budget-trip, we instead settled on more frequent, pocket friendly exploits.  Thus, for our first short venture we decided to visit a beloved friend, Lexington, KY.

Having been to Lexington on several previous trips, we decided to add a twist:  stay downtown.  Looking on Airbnb, we found a cute downtown apartment just off Short Street–which made me giggle since I am 4’11”!  Hostesses Susannah, and assistant, Heather, were excellent communicators to ensure we had a clean, comfortable place to stay.  Additionally, Susannah provided us with her personal guidebook to Lexington.  Full of information, this guidebook proved to be a valuable asset as we wanted to explore new parts of the city.

Rainy weather and storms forced us to modify plans and go with the flow.  However, Lexington is the perfect place in which to do this as there are plenty of indoor and outdoor sites.  One such modification led to a serendipitous stop.  

One of my student’s parents recently gifted me with two books by Kentucky & Appalachian author, Crystal Wilkinson’s books.  According to the backs of both books, Wilkinson and her partner, a poet and an artist, owned a bookstore in Lexington–Wild Fig Books and Coffee.  Based upon the book cover’s description, the store sounded right up my alley (Plus, I would have personally loved to chat with Ms. Wilkinson if the opportunity presented itself.), but I was unsure if the bookstore was still in operation due to conflicting Google searches.  John and I were never able to find it, and I later sadly read afterwards that it was permanently closed.

Nonetheless, in our search for the book store, we happened to encounter Greyline Station, which describes itself as, “A dynamic public marketplace in the heart of the bluegrass.”  This 65,000 square foot marketplace felt very grassroots and community driven as John and I walked around, visiting the numerous and varied vendors. Built in 1928, the building was home, in the 1940s, to Southeastern Greyhound which was, at one point in time, the largest employer in Lexington.  As the years progressed, this building had several reincarnations before becoming forsaken. Then, in 2014, the abandoned building was added to the list of National Register of Historic Places. Four years later, revitalization began, and it now houses eateries, bars, offices, a radio station, retail stores, event space, and a public market. John and I can only imagine the exponential potential this unique area has for growth.  We are eager to return to Greyline Station in the coming months to witness the further expansion of this vibrant and community-centered hub. 

“Greyline’s 65,000 square foot building has a storied history. For almost 100 years, the building was home to bus & transit companies, and was deemed historically significant in 2011. Come explore Lexington’s newest place to Shop, Eat, & Meet.”–as seen on the official website

With the rain clouds tentatively staved off, it appeared that we had a decent window of time to visit what was described by AirBnB hostess, Susannah, as a local favorite, the Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, located on the UK campus near the football stadium.  Described by Susannah as a “three-mile walk/run path through beautiful gardens,” John and I were positively stunned by the sheer number and variety of flowering plants.  Identified as Kentucky’s official botanical garden, this 100-acre public garden provides visitors with both native and not-so-native flowers, trees, shrubs, and other plants. From the Children’s Garden to the Visitor Center, from the Walk Across Kentucky displays to distinctive horticultural displays, and from the Kentucky Utilities Ornamental Tree Collection to the fragrance and roses gardens, this botanical paradise has much to offer visitors.  It was clear this was a favorite spot for exercise due to the number of walkers/runners we saw in the parking area and exercising on the various paths–until lightning flashed, the thunder clapped, and the heavens dumped buckets of rain.  John and I earned an extra cardio boost as we ran to the car during this gully washer, ending our visit far too soon.  Therefore, the Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky will definitely be at the top of our list of places to return!

“The Arboretum celebrates nature, fosters an understanding of relationships between humans and their natural world, provides cultural opportunities for the community, and serves as a community center for environmental education, horticulture, and urban forest renewal.”–as seen on the official website

Heading back to the apartment to wait out the storm, we discussed dinner plans.  The great thing about Susannah’s location was our ability to walk to dinner each night.  On the previous evening, we walked around and through Thoroughbred Park. Dedicated to the Thoroughbred Industry, this 2.5 acre park features numerous bronze sculptures by artist, Gwen Reardon, and it was located right across the street from one of our favorite Lexington eateries, Carson’s Food and Drink. Their diverse menu offers John plenty of meat-centric dishes as well as gluten-free plant based options for me.  Carson’s service is always on-point, and the food never disappoints.  This is one restaurant upon which we always look forward to returning.

“A rustic, yet refined atmosphere with chef-driven recipes paired with prohibition cocktails, hand-selected wines, and craft beers.”–Carson’s Food & Drink

Another one of our favorites places to dine is Pies and Pints, and Lexington has one!  Conveniently located across the street from both Triangle Park and the Lexington Convention Center, it is also a short walk to Rupp Arena.  Thus, making it one hot location on the night of concerts, basketball games, and other public events. Pies and Pints, personally speaking, offers me a rare opportunity to eat a pizza that is both gluten-free and vegan while still offering all of the traditional favorite pizza toppings, such as sausage and pepperoni, for John.  Plus, they have wonderful apps, salads and sandwiches, all of which have gluten-free options.  With attentive service, 35 taps for those so-inclined–including ciders and root beer, and a wide array of one-of-a-kind pizza toppings, Pies and Pints remains high on our list of go-to eateries in Lexington.

“Stop by for lunch, dinner, happy hour or anytime you want to enjoy a delicious pie & brew while cheering on the Big Blue.”–Pies & Pints, Lexington, KY location

Next week, I will share more of our Lexington adventures–including two, new-to-us food stops and a historical location that is also a base for several types of out-of-doors adventures.  In the meantime, if you haven’t put Lexington, KY on your short-list of friendly, tourist attractions, be sure to take time to add it.  Then, plan your visit soon, and hit me up on Instagram, Facebook, or at stephsimply.com with any questions you may have.  With so many points of appeal and interest, you’ll be glad you visited Lexington, KY!  And while you’re there, be sure to tell them Steph simply sent you!

Against the Wind

“I’m older now but still runnin’ against the wind”–Bob Segar

It started out as an email.  I get a similar email every year due to the fact that my daughter and I once ran the 8k event of the Shamrock Marathon/Half MarathonWeekend in Virginia Beach while she was still in middle school.  Since she’s nearly 22, and the emails have never before planted a seed, it seemed unlikely that the December 2020 email would plant such a seed.  Nonetheless, the seed was planted, wriggled, niggled, and forced its way through my gray matter until it could no longer be ignored.  

Why not run a half marathon?  Let’s see. There’s a global pandemic raging.  My job is more challenging than ever.  Life is busy.  A back injury required me to step away from running for over three years.  I only returned to running in May 2020 via a walk/run program.  It’s hard.  I’m 55 for heaven’s sake. The list could continue.  However, like a pesky fly on a horse’s rump, no matter how many times that horse swishes its tail, that fly keeps returning, so too did this seemingly crazy notion. Throwing caution to the wind, I downloaded the beginner half-marathon training plan, and I was, dare I say, off and running. 

“Run for your life my love,

Run and you don’t give up”— Isaac Slade / Joseph King as performed by the Fray

The Shamrock was virtual, but with in-person hybrid options.  I did not have to travel to Virginia Beach; and in fact, when I initially registered for the event, I did not plan to go there. However, since John and I were both fully vaccinated, and the pandemic–though not gone–was beginning to wane a bit, we ultimately decided to travel to Virginia Beach.  

In-person participants could choose to run at any time from 7:00 to 5:00 pm on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.  The various courses were mapped and marked, but no roads would be shut down.  No more than ten participants could be at the starting line at any given time, and participants were encouraged to wear a mask throughout the entire event, but required to wear masks at the start and finish line area.  Water bottle refill stations were provided at designated spots along the route with social distancing requirements, and participants were encouraged to run safely, stay on the route, and wear their numbered bib visibly as a form of identification.

“Ride like the wind, Bullseye!”–Woody, Toy Story 2

With an early wake-up, as planned, on Friday, I was up and ready to run.  However, the weather, like the rest of 2020 & 2021, offered an unplanned twist.  Strong winds and storms had ravaged the east coast Thursday evening.  In fact, winds were galing around 31 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph, wreaking havoc throughout the town sending scaffolding and signs down, debris soaring, and flags flapping at right angles to their poles.  Additionally, rain was moving back into the area and temperatures were dropping by the hour from the low 50s into the 30s.  I could technically put off running until Saturday morning, but with an 11:00 am hotel check-out, I would be short on time–especially given the fact that I am not a particularly fast runner.  

John did not want me to run for the sake of my safety, but I wanted the experience.  This was what I had trained for! Throughout my training, I envisioned running along the Virginia Beach boardwalk, basking in ocean views and sunshine with a gentle breeze caressing my face.  Okay, so in reality the day was cloudy, wet, and the breeze was not so gentle, but it would certainly qualify as a memorable experience!

I compromised my running plan, due to the weather, and ran the 8K route rather than the 1/2 marathon route because the 1/2 marathon route would have kept me in town longer where debris was soaring through the air like a child’s frisbee.

In the end, I compromised by running on Friday but only for the 8K distance.  While it broke my heart to NOT run the actual mileage for which I had trained, my instincts told me that I needed to respect the weather and my personal safety.  I’d be running alone in wet, cold, and windy temperatures with random windborne projectiles.  Given my natural clumsiness, there was a definite increased risk of injury. 

There was no climatic build up of pulsating music.  No welcome speeches and heartfelt prayer given by a local pastoral dignitary.  There was not a gun fire start either.  Show up with your runner’s bib on the outside of your clothing, mask on, and then, unceremoniously take off running.  Push, step, step–the tempo began.  

With the start/finish line right behind me, I used my ear band to not only protect my ears from the chilling winds, but to also hold my hat down! Notice, my mask is in my hands at the ready.

The first mile was like running straight down the steepest possible incline even though I was gliding along fairly flat ground.  With the wind thrusting me forward, I could have sworn that either I had a superpower, or God was at my back not-so-gently imbuing me with momentum and speed.  I giggled aloud repeatedly. At times, I windmilled my arms to keep from toppling forward.  Meanwhile, sand bit and clawed at the back of my exposed calves and ankles.  Push, step, step. Then, came the turn-around point.

Winds that had felt like the hands of God, now felt like Satan’s strongest snares.  Was this what it felt like to push a football blocking sled?   Push, step, step.  That is when the rain began to fall, needling my face.  My glasses were covered with droplets. Push, step, step, the cadence continued.

The race director drove up beside me in his warm, dry-looking truck.  He was checking on runners. He offered words of encouragement, as I headed towards the in-town section of course, and stated the conditions would be less challenging.

“Dust in the wind

All we are is dust in the wind”–Kerry Livgren as performed by Kansas

Ha! False hope!  The wind speed, along with the rain, increased.  Furthermore, at the end of every block, between each building, a trapped swell of wind would send me sideways, like dust in the wind, running nearly in place to hold my own.  Push, step, step. Water splashed out of my shoes with each step.  Two more miles of this. 

The final mile loomed ahead.  Half of it would be more topsy, turvy in-town-running, and the other half returned me to the boardwalk again with the wind surging me forward once more.  Push, step, step.  God at my back again. The Divine sure does have a sense of humor. 

Finally, the Virginia Beach icon, King Neptune sculpture, was once more in sight, right where I had earlier left him, at the starting/ending point.  Push, step, step. I laughed all the way to him, pushed by a force greater than me.  I didn’t resist.  I welcomed the opportunity to work with it, rather than against it.

Push, step, step–the rhythm came to an end. There was no cheering crowd in the end.  No congratulations, high fives, or “Way-to-go” cheers.  I started as I began, without fanfare or festivity.  Nonetheless, I quietly knew what I had accomplished, from the taxing Saturday runs to the tiresome after-work-I-don’t-feel-like-running-but-I’m-doing-it-anyway runs, all of those moments had led me to facing down the storm’s winds, learning when to resist the winds of change and when to work with them; and the realization that even when plans go awry, God will have my back the entire journey.  What a metaphor for life.

No.  I did not run a half-marathon.  Instead, I opened my heart to an opportunity that I most likely would not have ordinarily permitted.  My reward, if you will, was an experience I will always remember, and a first hand lesson, like no other, about the ever-presence power of God.  And for that, I am eternally grateful. 

“I run for hope

I run to feel

I run for the truth, for all that is real . . .

I run for life”–Melissa Ethridge

My hair standing straight up says it all! What a scarey image!
The official training plan!

Exploring WV, Part 2: the Greenbrier River Trail, Beartown, Droop Mountain, Renick, Marlinton, and Watoga State Park

“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.”–Walt Whitman

In the face of COVID-19, travel warnings, and headlines of superspreader events, it may seem impossible to plan a summer getaway.  However, for those of us living in the Appalachian Region, a 205,000 square mile area that covers all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states, including Ohio and Kentucky, travel destinations abound as the wonders of Mother Nature are all around.  Therefore, if you’re willing to rethink what travel can mean and look like, a world of outdoor adventures awaits–all within an easy drive’s reach.

Recently, John, my husband of 31 years, and I, did just that.  We took off towards the Greenbrier River Valley area and explored parts of both Greenbrier and Pocahontas Counties.  Whether you’re planning a day trip, camping, or cottage/cabin excursion–this area of WV offers plenty to see, do, and experience while safely maintaining social distancing.  What’s more, these types of adventures are pocket, family, and/or solo-friendly.

On this most recent summer of 2020 trip to the GRV area, we once more stayed in Lewisburg in a cottage called, “Stone Throw Retreat,” which we found on Airbnb.  During our first full day, which I described in a previous piece, John and I explored Cranberry Glades, the Falls of Hills Creek Scenic area, and stumbled across the birthplace of author Pearl S. Buck.  On our second day, we took the same approach as we had taken on our first–no itinerary. We just hopped onto US 219 and began traversing this scenic and meandering road, deciding where to stop while enroute.

The first place that struck our fancy was Beartown State Park. When John and I first arrived at the 107 acre natural area, located within both Greenbrier County and part of Pocahontas County, we discovered, much to our surprise, that this park has a connection to Huntington, WV!  The land that is now known as Beartown State Park, according to a marker found inside the park, was made possible, in part, through a donation by, “Mrs. Edwin G. Polan of Huntington, in memory of her son, Ronald Keith Neal, a former student employee of the West Virginia State Park System who lost his life in the Vietnam War on April 21, 1967.”

Beartown State Park derived its name from residents local to the area because the land is filled with numerous cave-like openings that look like perfect winter dwellings for black bears known for roaming WV.  Additionally, these rock formations, with their narrow passageways that look like streets, date this so-called ancient-town-of-rock to approximately over 300 million years ago! 

 

The park itself is simple, with a ½ mile carefully constructed boardwalk, zigzagging in, through, and around the rock, as the singular point of interest.  It was clearly built with the idea of preserving the integrity and uniqueness of the land while still allowing visitors to enjoy the  natural rock-like garden.  The walk, in fact, is so spectacular, that I would think it is possible to visit repeatedly and still notice something new each time.  If you’re looking for an opportunity to hear the whisperings of God, John and I highly recommend a trip to Beartown State Park! 

Continuing our drive further northeast along US 219, John and I made an impulse decision to stop at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.  With full knowledge that monuments to the Civil War are currently under high levels of scrutiny, our decision to visit this mountain had to do more with our genuine desire to experience the view from the top of the mountain, named for its drooping appearance, especially with regards to the perspective from the tower overlooking the GRV.  Little did we know that the park also included eight hiking trails, two picnic shelters, and an old-time playground that harkens back to the type John and I once enjoyed in the late 60s and early 70s!

Located on the border between Greenbrier and Pocahontas Counties, Droop Mountain is considered one of WV’s smaller mountains, rising 3,597 feet above sea level.  Nonetheless, the view from the top was nothing short of spectacular!  The day in which we visited was bright and clear with abundant sunshine blessing the valley below.  The wind whistled through the trees and a feeling of peace settled in our bones as John and I surveyed the numerous WV mountain tops surrounding the valley through which we were traveling.  Gaining a different perspective of the landscape from the Droop Mountain tower, at least to me, was awe-inspiring as I tried to comprehend the passage of time the mountains and the river valley represented–not to mention the greatness of Divine Providence’s hand in forging such magnificence.  The landscape from the Droop Mountain tower is highly recommended.

“In every walk with nature one recieves far more than he seeks”–John Muir

We ended day two with a four mile walk along the Greenbrier River Trail at Renick.   Despite the fact that it was a warm afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-90’s back home in the Huntington area, in the shade of the GRT, the temperatures were much more moderate with a continuous gentle breeze.  Along the trail, we saw several people kayaking the river, flowers blooming, and listened to birds sharing their sing-song.  I couldn’t help but notice that we walked past mile-marker 24 of the 78, or so, mile long trail.  Towards the end of our walk, John and I encountered a couple of fishermen who recommended we explore the other Renick entry point to the GRT in order to see an eagle’s nest.  We decided to make that our first priority for day three.

Thus, our third day began with John and I driving through Renick proper and taking site of what must have been, at one time, a thriving, if not quaint, farming community.  The streets were quite narrow, and most of the homes reflected the bygone days of another era.  It was a peaceful, but short drive as it ended right at the Greenbrier River’s edge as the fishermen from the day before had said it would.

Stepping onto the GRT from this point of entry, John and I trekked four more miles in the opposite direction from the previous day, moving more northward.  Walking in this direction, we were indeed able to spy the eagle’s nest just past an old swinging bridge that was, unfortunately, locked up–or I would have climbed upon it and crossed to the other side for sure!  The nest was located on the opposite side of the river, but even from our vantage point, we could view the vast size of this majestic bird’s nest.  While taking pictures, a biker drove past, then stopped to chat at a socially appropriate distance to share his experiences of pedaling the GRT.  Once our conversation came to a natural end, we finished our walk, and decided to head towards Marlinton, WV, the county seat of Pocahontas County, and attributed as being another excellent location for GRT exploring as recommended by the same fishermen from the previous day.

Back in the car, traveling US 219, we put our sites on Marlinton in hopes of another adventure.  After a long-ish drive, we stopped by Appalachian Sports, a business we recognized from our previous day’s conversation, to learn more about their bike rentals as a potential experience for a future visit to GRT.  While there, we learned that Marlinton is home to the Roadkill Cook-off and Autumn Festival that began in 1991, but had, unfortunately, been cancelled for this upcoming fall due to COVID-19.  However, good news for roadkill lovers, it’s already slated for a return on September 25, 2121–just in time for my birthday! 

While in Marlinton, we drove through parts of Watoga State Park, the largest state park in WV.  Covering 10,000 acres.  WSP offers camping, cabin rentals, an eleven-acre lake for paddle- and row-boating as well as fishing, 15 miles of roads for biking, and 40 miles of hiking trails.  Additionally, there is a lodge, although we never found it, that does offer a commissary and restaurant.  Our navigation through the park was filled with wooded beauty, ample dappled sunlight, and wildlife wonders.  It is definitely another state park that John and I agreed we needed to visit.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart . . .and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.”–John Muir 

All-in-all, our exploration of Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties was a wonderful, grounding experience.  We were safely able to vacation while still maintaining social distance.  What better way to get away than in wild and wonderful West Virginia–where an adventure awaits around each curve of its mountainous roads!  

From our home to yours, John and I wish you safe and healthy travels!

Explore WV, Part 1: Pearl S. Buck birthplace, Cranberry Glades, and the Falls of Hill Creek

Pocahontas County has the largest concentration of public lands in WV.  Over 62% –totaling 349,000 acres–is either state or federal property, including five state parks and two state forests.

800 miles of hiking and biking trails can be found in Pocahontas County. 

Although there are approximately 9,000 residents in Pocahontas County, more than a million tourists visit the county each year. 

Eight WV rivers’ headwaters are located in Pocahontas County–All facts courtesy of WV of Tourism Research.

The Falls at Hills Creek in Pocahontas County, WV

We wanted to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary with an excursion. However, there was (and is) no escaping the new reality of COVID-19–although, at the time of planning, cases appeared to be on the decline. Still, questions had to be asked.  Is it safe to take a vacation?  What risks are we taking?  If we do decide to try one, where do we go and for how long?  

Populated areas were immediately ruled out.  Additionally, we felt we should travel only a few hours away in case we needed to make a quick return trip home.  We kicked around several locations within our three state region in which COVID cases were low.  Then, I read the book, The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb about the Greenbrier County ghost, and I knew where to visit. 

The book that inspired our trip.

Returning to Lewisburg, WV, designated one of the country’s coolest small towns, was the perfect fit for my husband, John, and I.  It is only 2 ½ to 3 hours away from the Tri-state area, it is a friendly town, close to out-of-doors/nature attractions, and home to several of our favorite eateries.  We could spend most of our time, weather permitting, bonding with the beautiful WV landscape, but still come back to town in time for dinner. (Again, at the time of trip planning, WV had very few COVID cases, and numbers nationally were on the decline. Little did we know . . .)

Originally, John had hoped that we could find a cabin along the Greenbrier River and its namesake trail, but all of the small cabins within our pocket-friendly budget appeared to be booked through most of the summer.  Instead, John happened upon a charming bungalow on Airbnb called, “Stone’s Throw Retreat” located, well, a stone’s throw from downtown Lewisburg.  It was super clean, comfortable, and well-appointed for our day-trippin’ needs.  Plus, the host, David, was attentive, communicative, and most helpful.

Nestled on a hillside, the bungalow was the perfect leaping off point for this trip. Located just off US Rt 60, and only two or so blocks from US Rt 219, aka, The Seneca Trail, “Stone’s Throw Retreat” allowed us to quickly escape town and head out to the less populous, and-oh-so-scenic, WV mountain side.  On a personal note, I did chew through an entire pack of gum during our trip to stave off car/motion sickness from the kiss-your-bottom curves winding up and down the mountains, but it was well-worth it–even if John bemoaned driving slower than he preferred to help assuage my heaving stomach, swimming head, and popping ears!

On this trip, we explored both Greenbrier County, and its next-door neighbor, Pocahontas County.  Both of these scenic counties offer plenty of options for out-of-doors explorations.  However, unlike other trips, we made very few plans regarding which sites we planned to explore!  In fact, with the exception of two locations, most of the locations we traversed were spur-of-the-moment decisions based upon what we saw along The Seneca Trail.

On our first full day in Lewisburg, we decided to explore parts of Pocahontas County, with the ultimate goal of hiking the Falls of Hills Creek Scenic Area.  This was a suggested spot by Jamie Surgeon, an employee of Del Sol, the restaurant in which we dined the evening of our arrival.  (Del Sol has a strict mask and disinfectant policy with large areas of empty tables in order to distance diners, and of course, offer take out options as well.)  What a great suggestion this turned out to be!  While in Pocahontas County, we spontaneously made the choice to visit two more places that were in route.

Our first spontaneous stop of the day was at the Pearl S. Buck birthplace in Hillsboro, WV.  This picturesque country home is located alongside The Seneca Trail. Unfortunately, due to COVID19, the museum and home were closed.  However, it was still wonderful to stand there and honor the memory of a noteworthy female author who began her life in WV and won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Peace Prize. Additionally, the road alongside her homestead was lined with beautiful wildflowers in all of their blossom glory seemingly bowing their heads in the breeze in homage to Buck’s memory.

 Next, we made the impromptu decision to visit Cranberry Glades Botanical Area.  This protected area of bogs is the largest in WV.  Bogs, which are unique and ancient acidic wetlands, are typically found in northern regions of the US or, more commonly, in Canada.  Many of the plants, located in these four bogs, are said to be descendents of seeds from nearly 10,000 years ago, and a few of the bog plants are even carnivorous!  The half-mile boardwalk, constructed for visitors to view this unique landscape without harming it, was under construction for repairs/maintenance at the time of our visit, so we were only able to see part of the bogs.  Nonetheless, the sounds, pure air, and scenery were peaceful, serene, and certainly worth visiting!

Last stop of this day was the intended, Falls of Hills Creek, and we were certainly glad we saved it for last.  For one reason, it is stunning–not just in the vivid greens and varying luscious shades of chocolate, but also in the surround sound of rushing water, the caress of a breeze brushing skin, and the comforting scents of earth!!  However, the second reason for making it the last stop of the day, was that while it was a delightful descending hike into the bottom of a breathtaking gorge with its cascading falls, it’s uphill all the way back!  Trekking downhill, the temperature dropped, the deeper into the vegetation and ravine we plunged; unfortunately, that was not the case on the way up!

The Falls of Hills Creek Scenic Area is located on 114 acres and contains three waterfalls–each more spectacular than the previous–with the last falls offering up the greatest torrent of white water tumbling off rock.  In fact, the lowest falls has a height of 63 feet making it the second tallest waterfall in WV.  Whereas, the first falls are 25 feet in height, and the second falls are nearly double in size at a height of 45 feet.  Who needs a calming app when you can simply hike in WV to see, smell, and listen to such tranquil sounds?  Seriously, this lovely place was well worth the hike!   (Thank you, Jamie, for the recommendation!)

Next week, I’ll share a few other magical places worth visiting–even if just for a day excursion–along The Seneca Trail!  You most certainly do not have to stay in home like we did, WV is full of places to camp and/or take day-trips.  Get away from the blaring news, headlines, and the never-ending barrage of negative social media, and instead, reconnect with nature and its Ultimate Creator.  Your heart will smile and your spirit will feel revived.

From our home to yours, John and I wish you safe and healthy travels!

It Only Takes a Spark: Words Ignite

“Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”–Samuel Johnson

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Many of my recollections are beginning to take on a dream-like quality, such as the time I was home with Madelyn, our daughter, who was a toddler at the time.  Maddie was sick with a virus.  Continuously, I trotted Maddie to the bathroom, so she could throw up or upstairs to change her diaper.  It seemed impossible that a human so small could continuously produce so much vomit and repeatedly fill diapers.

Things had calmed momentarily, and we were cuddled up together on the couch, when I could feel her stomach begin its heavings.  On instinct, I began my rapid try-not-to-jar-her trot, but still boot-scoot-hurry to the bathroom, so Maddie could once more throw up.  Unfortunately, I could tell there was no stopping the oncoming rush of fluid.  I halted at the kitchen sink, the closest receptacle I could think of, and held her tiny, shaking body there, as she retched into the sink.  (Not the most sanitary choice, I know, but I chalk it up to sleep deprivation.)

Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

That’s when I felt the primal niggle.  My brain had noticed something important.  Glancing out the kitchen window, I saw flames spewing forth from the roof of our neighbor’s home.  Orange, red, blue, and yellow flames licked hungrily at the sky.  Black ashes rimmed with orange and red sparks soared toward our house.  I am sure if this had been a movie, the camera would have zoomed in on my widening eyes as the recognition of what was happening began to sink in.  

Fortunately, our neighbor’s were not harmed, their house, though damaged, was repairable, and our house was fine.  The sparks fell silently like dark, angry snowflakes, and without fuel, their brightly burning edges dwindled on the gray concrete on our driveway. 

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

As a teenage girl, I loved the song, “Pass It On.”  

“It only takes a spark/ to get a fire going/ and soon all those around/ can warm up to its glowing/That’s how it is with God’s love . . .you want to pass it on.”–Kurt Kaiser

Photo by Tomáš Malík on Pexels.com

Words are sparks.  Tiny, miniscule notations of black and white either written or unleashed as phonemes by the tongue, teeth, and lips of a speaker. Eyes or ears take in the message.  Brain receives the message, attaches it to the current mental scaffolding of the reader or listener, and the process of comprehension and interpretation begins.  Input, analysis, and potentially, output.  Information computed, more sparks formed, knowledge is available to pass on.

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com

Words can be exhilarating.  Finding just the right words increases one’s ability to express a more precise and exact message.  Communication, I would argue, can be down right intoxicating.  Babies can spend countless moments babbling for pure pleasure. Once babies  grasp a few words, however, and realize that those few intonations can command the attention of another human, they want more.  Like a fire blazing in the hearth, the flames of linguistic command demand more fuel in their desire to communicate and exert some measure of control.

The birthplace of Pearl S. Buck, Hillsboro, WV.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the birthplace of Pearl S. Buck.  The site itself was closed, but as I stood along the old homestead’s fence line, I imagined Pearl as a baby within those walls.  As I understand it, Buck and her family lived in that home for only a few months.  Nonetheless, my inner narrator could envision her mom singing to her as diapers were changed, and I could hear the voices of both parents talking to baby Pearl throughout the day.  Her parents could not have known that one day Pearl would become a prolific writer, winning both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize for the way her writing promoted empathy, compassion, and understanding. They were simply passing on to their daughter the power of communication, and through their ultimate missionary work, modeling beneficial ways words can be used.

Like the floating sparks of the long ago house fire, ashes can soar fiery red, greedily seeking fuel for which to consume, or they can burn down into a pile of harmless ash.  In fact, an accumulation of ash, such as that left over from burning wood in a hearth, can be used as fertilizer for plants as it is full of lime, potassium, and other trace minerals that promote plant production.  Likewise is the potential for the messages we speak and write–fuel for the fire or fertilizer for nourishment.

Tweet. News. Memo. Email. Instagram. Facebook. Snapchat. Tik Tok. Rumors. Innuendo. Gossip. Reporting. Posting. Blog. Website. Novel. Novella. Fiction. Nonfiction.  The list goes on.  Big words. Little words. Powerful words. Meaningless words. Hurtful. Helpful. Salacious. Compassionate. Implication. Understanding. There is no end in the ways in which words can be conveyed.