Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 retrospective

Grove Park Inn, Asheville

At the end of last year, I said to 2012: Don't let the screen door hit you. Another year has gone by and this year there were even more peaks and valleys. The peaks were AWESOME but the valleys were so deep, I can honestly say it was a year of extremes. Just to be different, I'm going to divide up this entry into the valleys and the peaks, instead of the typical chronological description.

Section 1: We Must Go Through the Valley (not over, around, or under it)

More people I know died this year than any other year I can recall, starting with Aunt Mary Lois on March 20. Aunt ML and I were special buddies when I was growing up because I spent so much time at her house. She was a nurse by profession, a Navy wife, and highly regimented. As a young adult she traveled by car across the USA to California, and her travel stories mesmerized me well into my adult years. It was she who introduced me to National Geographic magazine. When I was a kid, she had every copy of NG going back some twenty years, and yes, they were stacked in order of date on a special shelf in her storage room. We had some good times together. No matter how old she got or how sick, Aunt ML always seemed so happy to see me, and I miss her very much.

Aunt Mary Lois 1923-2013

A few months later on August 28, my last remaining aunt, Aunt Ruth, passed away. Aunt Ruth was also a special lady. She worked as a reading teacher and after she retired from teaching, she worked in the retail industry for many years. She was always smiling, and she loved people -- all people. And she didn't care where they came from, what they looked like, who they loved, or anything else. There were no boundaries with Aunt Ruth when it came to people. I should also insert here that she had a particular fondness for roasted macadamia nuts, which I must have inherited from her. I took this photo in early August, at the time having no idea that she'd be gone within a month. I miss her, too.

Aunt Ruth 1925-2013

Less than a week ago, one of my dearest friends lost a battle with cancer. I'm still processing Karen's passing because I'd had such high hopes of her recovery. Karen was one of the coolest people I've ever known and she had this ability to bring people together, and it just seems to unfair that the Universe had to take her so young (she was 54). I'm trying to keep in mind all the joy she brought into my life (and the lives of everyone she met) instead of being upset. But it's hard. I'm having a hard time with this.

Karen (top right) 1959-2013


I loved them all. May they rest in peace.

Section 2: I'm on the Top of the World Looking Down on Creation

Thankfully 2013 brought had its peaks, too. Peaks typically appear in the form of trips, getaways, and fun diversions -- or other things that provide counterbalance to the valleys. Among 2013's peaks:
  • South Florida trip to visit Karen (February)
  • Iceland vacation (March)
  • Highlands special birthday trip (May)
  • Steve Martin & Edie Brickell (with Steep Canyon Rangers) concert in Greensboro (May)
  • Beech Mountain overnight + day in Boone (July)
  • Seagrove day trip (August)
  • Buddy Guy concert in Charlotte (August)
  • Time Jumpers (with Vince Gill) concert in Nashville (September)
  • Las Vegas/Grand Canyon/Sequoia National Park vacation (September/October)
  • Steep Canyon Rangers concert in Charlotte (November)
  • Asheville weekend at the Grove Park Inn (November)
  • Carolina Chocolate Drops concert in Charlotte (December)
  • Tryon (multiple trips)

Section 3: Maybe I should have done more . . .

For example:
  • I didn't read as many books this year (20 so far) as I did last year (36 in 2012).
  • I didn't blog as much.
  • I didn't have a garden at the farm this year.
NOTE TO SELF: I need to get better at those things in 2014.

Oh, well. Some years are better than others. Ciao, 2013.

Merry Christmas, Happy Boxing Day, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Slovenian Unity & Independence Day, Happy Day of Goodwill, Happy Rizal Day, Happy 2014! Or, to put it more succinctly and accurately because there is more than one event being celebrated in this great big world over the next week or so: HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!! :)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013 favorites

For several years now, I've ended the year with a list of my favorite things for that year. Here's my list for 2013.

Stuff I read

Favorite book of the year . . .  The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

General fiction . . . The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Crime thriller . . . Silenced by Kristina Ohlsson

New-to-me author . . .  Elif Shafak

Nonfiction  . . .  Nom Nom Paleo by Michelle Tam and Henry Fong


Music I listened to

Band . . . Steep Canyon Rangers

Artist . . . Rhiannon Giddens

Album . . . (tie) The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars and Paradise Valley by John Mayer

Song . . .  Because The Night by Garbage (featuring Melissa Paternoster of Screaming Females)

Artist Discovery . . . Shovels and Rope

Local (North Carolina) music . . . Steep Canyon Rangers

Song rediscovery . . . Stuck by Norah Jones


Things I watched

TV show . . . Nashville

New TV show . . . Masters of Sex


Miscellaneous things I liked or enjoyed

Game . . . Bookworm

Social Network . . . Twitter (second year in a row)

Vacation . . . Iceland

Weekend Getaway . . . South Florida

Food . . . Eastern NC BBQ

Restaurant . . . New South Kitchen

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Desert, mountains, huge trees


After seeing the marvelous Grand Canyon, we drove a very long 9 hours or so to our next destination: the town of Three Rivers, California. In order to get there, we had to go through the Mojave Desert. It was my second time driving that stretch of I-40 through Needles, but the first time for everyone else. Guess what? The desert looks exactly the same as it did when I drove through in 1990. :)

A few miles from Three Rivers, we passed an overlook where the scenery was so pretty, we had to pull over and take some photos . . .


We went to Three Rivers because it's the town on the edge of Sequoia National Park and Forest and near Kings Canyon National Park.


The redwoods and sequoia trees are AMAZING!!! There's nothing else like them in the world. The giant sequoia called General Sherman is one of the largest living trees in the world. It's over 80 meters tall (approximately 275 feet) and over 2,000 years old!!!


We put a lot of miles on our rented Ford Explorer and we saw all kinds of landscapes. It was great that Mom & Dad got to see these places since they'd never been before. And now Dad can say he's been to California. I think he might be ready to go back, maybe to Yosemite next time. :)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's Grand


Have I really not written since August? Well, gosh. Time flies when you're having fun, I guess. Perhaps I should start by getting caught up.

In September, S & I took my parental units on a trip Out West. So here's the deal. My Dad turned 80 this year, and my Mom turned 75. I really wanted to do something to celebrate their milestones. It had been a while since we'd done a trip together (actually, the last time I did any significant travel with my parents was in 1995 when I took them on a road trip to New England and Quebec). Anyway, it was time.

We asked them where they wanted to go. At first, they said Maine. But something kept bugging me: I knew that Dad had never been west of El Paso, Texas. It took some convincing since Dad doesn't like to fly, but finally, he agreed to my proposal. We flew out to Las Vegas, then rented a car and spent a week on the road. Our first major stop was the Grand Canyon in Arizona. (Our first actual stop was Hoover Dam, but we were only there for about an hour.)


I wish you could've seen the look on their faces when they saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. We arrived at the South Rim a few minutes before sunset, so they got a peek of its largeness before the explosion of colors took place. Mom just stopped a few feet away from the railing, her mouth agape. It was much bigger than she ever expected, she said.

Dad couldn't quite make himself get too close. He has vertigo and I think his head must have been spinning just walking on the sidewalk with the huge canyon at his side.


S & I returned early the next morning with the hopes of seeing the sun rise over the canyon. Lucky us! This photo was taken just moments after. We were really surprised with the number of people who joined us. Lots of Japanese tourists, and plenty of German speakers, as well! A very international experience.


Later that same day we returned with Mom and Dad. We drove to the east side of the canyon, where we had a completely different view . . . it's amazing how the geography and flora are so different just a few miles away. We had dinner at El Tovar and watched the sunset again, and then we said goodbye to the Grand Canyon.

I'll reveal our next major stop in my next post.

Monday, August 19, 2013

North Carolina pottery


This past weekend we visited Seagrove, a town in pretty much the exact geographic center of North Carolina that's known as the pottery capital of the state (or the world, depending on who's telling). With over 100 potteries in the area, there's definitely a lot of creativity in this area. We visited five or six potteries and a couple of co-ops, and it didn't take long for me to determine my favorite potter. I ended up with several pieces, including some soup bowls, a cobbler dish, some coffee mugs and a couple of square plates. I can't wait to go back and get more!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Another girl gets a guitar

This photo is intentionally blurry b/c I'm trying to be artsy.

Look out, world. My favorite niece now has her very own guitar. Things will never be the same!

Pickin' Parlor


Another highlight of Summer 2013: a spontaneous trip to Columbia, South Carolina for an evening at Bill's Music Shop & Pickin' Parlor. While I (unfortunately -- big mistake on my part) didn't sample the Blenheim Ginger Ale, I did get a dose of some local bluegrass and gospel music, and I had a foot-tappin' good time. Can't wait to go back here again!

Carolina BBQ


I've been getting back to my Carolina roots like crazy this summer. For some reason, I can't seem to get enough BBQ, hush puppies, and pimento cheese. I'm even listening to bluegrass music and watching NASCAR. (OMG. WTH? IDK.)

One of my favorite BBQ joints is Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, North Carolina. It's a drive from Charlotte, but I've been here three times this summer. I like getting the BBQ tray, which comes with coleslaw and the most awesome hush puppies ever. They've also got some yummy banana pudding. Thank you to my soul sista J for introducing me to this place. I'll never be able to drive through Shelby without stopping here, ever again.

Sunset Beach & Calabash


It's kind of embarrassing that I've been back in North Carolina for three years now and haven't yet had a beach vacation. But I did get to spend fifteen minutes at Sunset Beach on Fathers' Day in June.


The truth is, I'm not really a beach person. I like to stick my feet in the water and walk along the shore and all that, but I don't like being in the sun for very long, and I don't like that ikky feeling of sand sticking to my skin.  Also, I hate the crowds, not being able to find a parking place, the scorching heat of the sidewalks and concrete and dry sand.

I'd much rather go to the beach in November or December or March when hardly anyone else is around.

But there's something therapeutic about the ocean, so I was glad that I had my fifteen minutes. :)


I also like the marshes near the beach. This one is on the river in Calabash, the town that's famous for its fried seafood.


Speaking of seafood . . .  here's a plate of Calabash-style: fried fish, fried crab, fried oysters, fried shrimp, fried potatoes and coleslaw. There are at least a billion calories on this plate, and this stuff is not for the faint of heart.

Yet for some reason I find myself getting hungry just looking at it. :-O

RIP Misha


The saddest day of the year so far was the day in June when we had to say goodbye to our sweet feline friend Misha.

Misha joined our family in 2002 when we adopted her from the Southside Animal Shelter in Indianapolis. At that time, she was about two or three years old. She was named in honor of S's brother who had just a month or so earlier predicted that our family would expand. She was a patient and kind big sister to her canine siblings, and had excellent rodent hunting and assassination skills.

Unfortunately, at the (approximate) age of thirteen she developed diabetes and her health quickly deteriorated. Making the decision to end her life was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. We miss her terribly.

RIP, Misha girl.

Art night

Photos from "Paint Your Pet Night" at Wine Palette in Charlotte, June 2013. The sketches were already done when we arrived (based on the photos submitted) so we just had to take it from there. I did Chelsea's painting and S did Cody's.

Chelsea

Cody

Chelsea

Cody

Chelsea - final

Cody - final

Highlands


I'm going to be doing several entries today to try to make up for the time I've lost by not blogging since April. (I have no excuse for that other than I just decided to take a break from technology for a while.)

Memorial Day weekend (in May) often coincides with S's birthday, so we like to do something special that weekend. This year, we went to Highlands, North Carolina, where we stayed in the Old Edwards Inn. I've stayed in lots of amazing hotels/inns all over the world, but I must say, Old Edwards is one of my favorites! So for those of you looking for an awesome place to stay in western North Carolina, please go there as it gets my highest recommendation! (Yes, we did spa treatments, and OMG!!! Just go.)

The town of Highlands is close to several waterfalls, and we visited three of them: Bridal Veil Falls, Dry Falls, and Glen Falls. My favorite was Glen Falls. You have to walk down the mountain to get the best view, which of course means you have to climb back up. But it was worth it!


Another Highlands highlight is Sunset Rock. This is the kind of place where I could take a picnic and sit for hours enjoying the amazing scenery. But most folks go to watch the sunset over the town of Highlands.

Waiting for the sunset.

About 15 minutes after the above photo was taken.
All in all, a fabulous trip and a special birthday (S says it was her second favorite, after Ireland in 2005. That says a lot.) I look forward to re-visiting Highlands and the Old Edwards Inn again!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Azalea house


I have no idea who lives in this house, but it's on the way to the farm, so I drive past it at least once a month. Every April, it becomes apparent that these little green bushes (there are a couple of hundred of them, so this photo doesn't really do it justice) aren't just greenery. They're azaleas. If I'd taken this photo just one week later, you'd be blinded with shades of pink!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tulip time!


I can't believe I haven't written in a month. Things have been crazy busy. I actually got to go to New York for work last week! I don't do a lot of work travel in my current role, so that was really special. Anyway . . . I think it's safe to say that Spring has finally arrived in the Carolinas. Here are the lovely tulips at my office complex. Happy Spring, y'all! :)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Icelandic saga, part 4 (the final chapter)

This way to the Blue Lagoon

We may have only been in Iceland for four days, but we packed a lot in. Monday 04 March was our last day there. We checked out of our hotel and took a special bus out to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's famous geothermal spa. Everyone said to wait until the day we were going back to the airport since it's just up the road from Keflavik. So that's what we did. Of course, Monday turned out to be the coldest day we were in Iceland. The temperature was about 22F/-5C, but the wind chill made it feel even colder. It figures!


The Blue Lagoon

Despite the cold, nothing could have stopped me from going in the water, which averages around 100F/38C. The water is naturally heated because the Blue Lagoon sits in a lava field and the water contains lots of minerals that are really good for your skin, so it doesn't just feel good -- it's therapeutic. My muscle aches and pains disappeared. In fact, it's been over a week now and I still don't have the horrible pains I usually have in my neck and back.


Inside the Blue Lagoon

I'll admit that once I got in, I didn't want to get out. Not only because I was scared I'd freeze to death on the way back indoors. But because it felt so GOOD!!! I enjoyed it so much that when we got back home, I looked up 'mineral baths' online to see if there was someplace closer to home that we might go to sometime.

But nothing else on Earth is like the Blue Lagoon. So if you ever go to Iceland, you must go. On your way back to the airport. Because that turned out to be really good advice.

Well, that was it for the Iceland trip. It was a short trip, and we used our time wisely. Thank you, Iceland, for a great time. We like you very much! :)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Icelandic saga, part 3

The road to Thingvellir

Sunday 03 March was our third day in Iceland and on tap was a "jeep" tour of the Golden Circle. We were the only two people on the tour, so we had a guide and a ride all to ourselves. The "jeep" was a very nice Nissan Patrol with leather seats and serious a$$-kicking 44" tires. Our enthusiastic guide took us down snowy roads to Thingvellir (Þingvellir in Icelandic -- Þing means meeting or assembly, vellir means plain or field), a national park where back in the year 930, the first Althing (Icelandic parliament) took place.

Thingvellir


The Mid-Atlantic ridge runs through the plain, technically separating North America from Eurasia, and it's slowly splitting Iceland at a rate of about 1 inch per year. Someday, the island will split. Hopefully not anytime in the next several million years.

It was cold up there on the plain. I mean, really cold -- the coldest day of our trip yet -- probably around 28-30F but with a wind chill of what felt like 90 degrees below zero. Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon: We're here. Take photo. OK. Let's go. I'd love to go back in the summer, though, when everything is green and the weather is warm. Er.

Next up was the Hvítá River (which is supposed to be awesome to raft) and the nearby geothermal area where there are several geysers including The Great Geysir and Strokkur. It wasn't as cold here, which is a good thing, because until then, I'd never seen a geyser before and I have to say, it's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. Strokkur goes off about every 5 minutes or so, and I must have stood there for half an hour . . . in total awe.


Strokkur, I think. Maybe it's The Great Geysir.


We had lunch and shopped for souvenirs at the visitor center. Then it was time to move on. Our next stop was Gullfoss ("gold waterfall"), and as we were driving up, a 'rainbow' suddenly appeared over the waterfall. We ran out to get photos, and for a few minutes we could even see a double rainbow. We were spellbound and ended up hanging out there for quite a while, walking around the many pathways and taking photos from every possible angle.


The 'rainbow' at Gullfoss.
Someone being silly at Gullfoss.

Somewhere along the Golden Circle route, we stopped to see the beautiful Icelandic horses. We slid out of the 'jeep' and walked toward them, and they returned our curiosity by eagerly meeting us at the fence. I've seen lots of horses in my day, but these horses had the sweetest temperaments of any I've ever been around. ***S wants me to point out that Icelandic horses are special and you should read more about them here.***


Sweet Icelandic horses

We kept going to Kerid (Kerið), a volcanic crater lake where, according to our guide, some really good concerts are held. He said they put pontoons on the water, and the bands set up on the pontoons. The acoustics are supposed to be amazing.

Funny thing though, I've not been able to find any photos of any concerts here, so I think maybe our tour guide was pulling our legs on that one.

Kerid

We made a few more stops, briefly visited a geothermal power plant, and went four-wheeling through a river. On the way back to Reykjavik, our tour guide sang to us. He told us that he'd visited a fortune teller, who told him he was supposed to be a great singer. Yeah, right. At the volcanic crater. On a pontoon.

After dinner at the hotel, we went back to our room and opened the curtains, hoping to see the northern lights without going back out into the cold. Around midnight, we looked out the window and saw a sort of green mist in the sky. The northern lights! OK, so they weren't the bright, dancing lights we were expecting. But we did see them.

I've got one more entry I want to do about our last day in Iceland. I'll write it as soon as I can. Check back soon.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Icelandic saga, part 2

Mýrdalsjökull, South Iceland

On Saturday -- the second day of our Iceland trip -- we went on an organized tour called Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Excursion. Our guide picked us up at the hotel, and we very quickly noted that his English sounded as if he'd lived in the States or Canada. When we asked, he replied: "I grew up in North Carolina." Turns out his parents went to professional school at UNC, so he lived in Chapel Hill during his elementary years. This wouldn't be the only "small world" moment we'd have that day. I'll get to that shortly.

We drove south, past hundreds of steam holes coming out of the ground. Iceland's electricity comes not from coal or nukes but from geothermal energy. We drove past an impressive geothermal power plant and what seemed like miles of orange steam pipes laid out in zigzags. We saw several large greenhouses, and were told that a great deal of the food in Iceland is home-grown. We even saw a strawberry farm. In Iceland!

Get your free steam here!!!

Our journey took us through the city of Selfoss and beyond to the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, which is easier to pronounce than you might think. Often referred to as "E15" when air traffic between North America and Europe was disrupted for a couple of weeks back in 2010 -- maybe you remember -- Eyjafjallajökull isn't a volcano at all, but a glacier (jökull is Icelandic for glacier -- or more specifically, for ice cap) that sits on top of a volcano. 

Our destination was Mýrdalsjökull, the glacier which sits on top of an active volcano called Katla. OK, I'll confess. Had I known we were going to be hiking on top of an active volcano, I might have never gone. Fortunately, I didn't know until the glacier hike was over. So it's true what they say: Ignorance is bliss.

I'm not good on ice. And I'd never worn crampons before, so when I put them over my hiking boots and started walking, it felt weird. Our guide kept saying: "Feet flat and wide! Feet flat and wide!" and that became a mantra that ran through my head, along with "Stand tall! Don't you fall!" (to the tune of that old song from the 70s). In the photo below, you can see the concentration on my face. Oh, and for the record, I was wearing four layers of clothing, including a very thick wool sweater that my Mom made me several years ago. And the Icelandic wool hat I bought on Day 1.

Feet flat and wide!


In case you're wondering, here's what else that was going on in my head: OMGOMGOMG. What if I fall. What if I break something. We're so far out, they'd have to call a helicopter and Medevac me outta here. Wait. I didn't sign a waiver. They didn't ask me to sign a waiver! If this was the States, not only would we all have to sign waivers, we'd also have to watch a 30 minute safety video AND wear helmets! And there'd be guardrails everywhere! And . . .

And on and on.

Fortunately, it didn't take long for me to get the hang of it. Up I went. One step at a time.

The 'blue' ice is kinda special and we were lucky to see it.

The view from the top.

When we got to the top and I looked down, I was nearly overcome with emotion. I had what can only be considered A Religious Experience, a moment when you realize how amazing and beautiful the world is and how it can't just be a bunch of randomness.

And then it hit me that I was going to have to get back down.  Going downhill is ten thousand times scarier than going up. But look at me here, standing tall, walking (not sliding) down the hill.

Focus! There shall be no sliding!

Actually, once I got over my initial shock, I found out that crampons work going downhill, too. Soon we were back where we started. I felt this amazing feeling of accomplishment, and I was ready to do it all over again! But the glacier hike was over and it was time to move on. As we drove away from the site, that's when our guide told us that we'd been walking on a volcano. "One day you're going to hear on the news that Katla has blown and you can say you walked on it. They're expecting Katla to erupt any day now."

And I'm thinking: Dude, thanks for sharing that after the fact.

Our next stop was just down the road at Skógafoss. By the way, foss is Icelandic for waterfall, and Skóga means forest. So Skógafoss is forest waterfall -- which is kind of funny, since apparently there are no trees in Iceland. Regardless of what it means, it's beautiful.

Skógafoss

It started to rain while we were at Skógafoss, and the clouds just kept thickening. Our hopes of seeing the northern lights on the so-called Northern Lights Excursion were fading fast. But there was still dinner at the Hotel Anna to look forward to, so off we went. 

And this is where the other "small world" incident took place. When we sat down to dinner, I looked over at the young woman sitting next to me and asked where she was from. "Northern Ireland," she said with a smile. Turns out, she grew up in Dungiven, which is just down the road from where S lived when she was a kid. During the conversation we learned that the house where S and her family lived (which eventually became a hotel -- we stayed there when we visited in 2005) has since burned and is now derelict. We were shocked at this news and could hardly wait to get back to internet land to confirm it. I'm sorry to say that the story is true.

We did not see the northern lights that evening. It was way too cloudy. We got back to Reykjavik late, and once in our room, we couldn't sleep. So we channel-surfed, landing on an episode of The Walking Dead, which was subtitled in Icelandic. We thought that was a funny way to end our second day in the Land of Fire and Ice.