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

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!