At Least We’re Getting Out

My idea of a “hike” is about 8 miles with at least 1,500 feet of elevation gain. We haven’t done anything like that lately, so I haven’t blogged about our outings.

Call today my catch-up day.

In the past month, between the torrential rains and the snowstorm, we’ve managed to get out for four-, five-, and six-mile “walks” in DuPont State Park, the Biltmore Estate, the North Carolina Arboretum and Pisgah National Forest. These are all places chosen for their accessibility: we don’t want to take our car on back roads that will surely be very muddy and may be inaccessible due to fallen trees (see “torrential rains and the snowstorm”).

DuPont has wonderful waterfalls, which were in full rush. The arboretum has an unexpected diversity in trails and access to the Shut-in Trail as well as Lake Powhatan, allowing us to extend our walks.

The Biltmore is always a nice hike. We start at Antler Hill Village and walk up along the French Broad River before turning up a hill to the mansion, check out the view from the terrace and retrace our steps to the Village, where we have the tough decision of a drink at the tavern or ice cream.

At Pisgah, we did the Cat Gap Loop, which had some lovely uphill so that it was more my idea of a hike than a walk.

Oh, and we’ve done the two-mile loop to the top of Bearwallow Mountain a few times because our homesite is nearby and it’s hard to resist a little uphill jaunt on a nice day when we’re up there. I’m expecting many more such trips as we start building our house – any day (week?) now. We hiked Bearwallow alone, then with Lauren and Bobby at Christmas and then again on New Year’s Day with our future neighbors on a group hike.

The more we’ve gotten out in the woods, the more excited I’ve gotten about all the hikes in our future. There are so many trails, state parks and national forests and we haven’t even started exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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Roaming versus Wandering

Two years ago Walt’s daughter gave us a photo-a-day calendar using our own photos. It showed places we’d been, events we’d attended. Every day was a reminder of good times had and a promise of good times to come. We loved it so much that we took it on the road with us when we left home 18 months ago and I did another one for us for 2018 and 2019.

Our 2018 calendar was 365 days of mostly just the previous year, when we’d traveled and hiked so much. We spent a delightful year wondering “we are we today?” every morning. Sometimes it was easy to determine: the Hoover Dam, Arches National Park, LaCloche Silhouette Trail’s beautiful lakes. Others, mostly those showing us smiling at the top of some mountain, were very difficult to determine. Is that New Hampshire in the summer or Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park in the spring?

The 2019 version is heavily weighted toward our Sedona hikes last winter but we also have pictures from our Florida travels and our Adirondack hikes last fall. We have the Biltmore Estate in spring, summer and fall photos (it’s never not gorgeous). Overall, it’s much less varied than the previous two calendars.

Which is why I’m thinking about our 2020 calendar and what it will look like. We don’t plan to travel much this year, other than visits to family, because we are building a house. We bought a beautiful piece of land last summer and spent months designing our retirement home. We will break ground soon (mid-January?) and expect to spend a great deal of time checking on the house progress, choosing finishings, sealing the colorful concrete tiles for the mudroom, etc.

So I’m thinking 2020’s calendar will be dominated by baby and house-building pictures. Photos of the two kitties we’ll adopt once we’re in an apartment, I’m hoping. But we’re also more determined than ever to get out and explore the many, many hiking trails Western North Carolina has to offer (one of the prime reasons we’re re-locating here).

We’re also committed (we hope, anyway) to just getting out more, which means that even though it’s been raining a lot lately and trails are muddy (and we try to keep our low-slung convertible off muddy trailhead parking lots), we will walk at Biltmore Estate, the North Carolina Arboretum, the trail behind our new apartment and the trail up to Bearwallow, just above our house site. All of which could get confusing: is that a view from a trail we hiked once or is that just the same old Bearwallow trail taken at a different time of year?

I’ve loved our far-flung adventures but the more I think about it, the more excited I am for this year’s adventures close to home! The wandering car will be more like the tethered car, but we’ll still have lots of room to roam.

Plan B

So after a windy, chilly day spent indoors, we are headed back up the Blue Ridge Parkway to hike to Frying Pan Tower from the same parking lot where we started last week’s short hike to Mt. Pisgah.

Except that four miles from the parking lot, there’s a gate closing the parkway. We hadn’t expected this. Neither, apparently, had any of the dozen or so cars that are turning around at the overlook parking area. As we turn I see a sign for the Mountains-to-Sea (MST) trail, which I know runs along the parkway.

So we park and head up the trail in the same direction that we were headed on the road. We agree to hike for 90 minutes and then turn around. At our average 2 mph, we should get in a 6-mile hike. It’s not my favorite type of hike, I do much better with a peak destination but it’s a gorgeous day. There’s not a cloud in the sky and barely any breeze. Too good in mid-November to pass up this opportunity.

It’s hard to believe we were up here just a week ago. Last week there were lots of beautiful trees, now, after days of wind and rain, there’s pretty much only tough, rust-colored oak leaves left on limbs. We still get layered mountain views, a nice little workout and some sunshine.

We’ll have to remember to check the parkway website before we plan any more hikes off it this winter.

Mount Pisgah

Since we’ve been at sea level, warm weather and not hiking for the past month, we decided to make our first Asheville hike an easy one. It’s a lovely 20-mile drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway to the parking area for Mount Pisgah and only 1.5 miles with 712 feet (or so the sign says) of elevation gain, nothing compared to our tortuous Adirondack hikes in September.

I know it’s 50 degrees but it’s sunny so I’m wearing pants, hiking boots, wool socks and a wicking t-shirt under a fleece under my Patagonia Nano-puff, my buff and my green hat, and I’m thinking I’m set.

Until I open the car door and feel the wind.

It is dang chilly!

We head up the trail and Walt asks me if I have a warm hat and gloves. Well, yes, I do, but not with me. I just wasn’t prepared for this. Yesterday at the Biltmore Estate, I wasn’t even wearing a fleece between my t-shirt and puff and I got hot enough to need to take off the puff a couple of times.

As nippy as the wind is, the sky is clear blue and the trees are gorgeously colored. We persevere.

It’s not very long until the trail starts to climb. There are a lot of other people out (this is a very popular hike) as well as many, many happy-looking dogs (tails wagging, sniffing everything, eagerly moving forward, in case you’re wondering).

It’s lots of stone “steps” to the top, giving me plenty of time to think about the difference between Adirondack trails and most other trails. Adirondacks trails are a full-body workout, with so many places that you need to use your hands to help pull you up. They also require so much more thought about “where am I going to place my hand?” than your normal hike pretty much anywhere else (and we’ve hiked on 4 continents).

Up we go, getting warmer to the point where I take off my fleece, keeping my wind-resistant puff. I’ve also borrowed Walt’s gloves.

At the top, the views are well worth the effort. There’s a viewing platform with nearly 360-degree views. I say “nearly” because there’s a communications tower also on top that blocks a sliver of view. No matter. It’s gorgeous. Just layers and layers of mountains in every direction. There’s still plenty of color on the leaves. We can see Asheville. And we spot the Biltmore Estate.

After a few selfies, we head back down. The wind has died a bit, which makes the downward trek even nicer.

Not a very challenging hike by our standards but a nice return to the mountains. We drive back on the Blue Ridge Parkway with the top down, enjoying the foliage and the lovely views over the mountains.

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Home (ish) Again

So we’re back in Asheville, North Carolina, where we’d like to build a home (again, that’s another story). I’ve been nervous about returning to Asheville because it’s Autumn here in the mountains. You know, sunny days with highs in the 50s? Lows at night in the 40s. Breezes if it’s sunny; winds if it’s cloudy. When we left in September, the weather was in the 80s and 90s during the day and didn’t cool off much at night.

The temps in Saratoga were cooler some days during our mid-September visit, but for a solid month we’ve been in hot, sometimes too hot and humid (I’m looking at you St. Augustine) weather. We just skipped over the whole gradual cooling off. A week ago we were at Disney’s Blizzard Beach enjoying all the thrills of the water park. Now we’re wearing pants, long sleeves and light jackets.

We get our car unloaded and make a run to FedEx to pick up the bags we shipped from Walt’s sister’s in Hilton Head – we visited Hilton Head and Durham to see family on our way from Florida to Asheville. Unpack our boxes and make a run to the storage facility to pick up a few things (including our car cover). Unpack those and head to the grocery store. Unpack, early dinner and done for the day.

We wake up to clouds that turn to a downpour as we’re out running errands. But the rain ends in time for us to explore the first Friday Art Walk among the art galleries in downtown Asheville. We did this when we stayed in Asheville a year ago but not since. It’s fun to wander the galleries. There are some wonderful painters, glass artists, wood artists and jewelers showing in town. We duck into the Chocolate Fetish, one of three gourmet chocolate shops in town that we’ve never visited, restraining ourselves to two pieces each.

The clouds blow out overnight, leaving us with a sunny fall day to visit the Biltmore Estate. We’re not going to see the house (decorated for Christmas already). Instead we drive to Antler Hill Village walk the 2 miles up to the mansion, enjoy the view from the terraces, visit the gardens (awash in mums but still with roses blooming as well) and walk back along the French Broad River to the Creamery for cones.

Sitting in the sun, enjoying the beautiful foliage, eating ice cream. I’m OK with fall.

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Blizzard at the Beach

After a half-day at Cocoa Beach (washed out by afternoon rainstorms), we are ready to hit Disney’s Blizzard Beach. Walt and I love waterparks and haven’t been to one in several years. We’re very aware that we’re the oldest people riding the rides without children but we enjoy ourselves and don’t really care what anyone thinks.

We arrive and scope out the park map. It’s obvious which is the most daring of the rides: the Summit Plummet towering over the park. In keeping with the park’s “snow” theme, the slide is set up to look like a ski jump. Riders go under the “ski jump” and straight down the slide. I want to do that one first on the theory that tackling the hardest, scariest ride first will make the rest of them seem easy. (I said I like waterparks, I didn’t say I’m not scared.)

We take the “ski lift” to a spot about 50 feet below the summit and walk the ramp and stairs up the rest of the way to the top. There is no line on this cool, slightly overcast October Saturday but I need a moment to catch my breath. I always go first because I do get scared, and waiting while Walt goes ahead of me only makes it worse. He doesn’t get scared.

As with all of these types of slides, you just sit down in shallow water, crossi your ankles, wait for the bar to be raised, and push off, crossing your hands over your chest. I close my eyes as well. If I want to know what it looks like, I’ll go to YouTube and watch someone else’s GoPro video.

I’m not sure how fast I traveled but I could feel it when I slammed into the water at the flat bottom of the trough. Don’t even ask about the post-ride wedgie.

Walt comes down, laughing, and we walk back up to the stairs to the Slush Gusher, the second-most-intimidating ride in the park. While much smaller than the 120-feet Plummet, the Gusher has curves that let you get a little air under your tail as you speed toward the bottom. The attendant at the top says some people tell him this slide is scarier than the Plummet, which I realize afterward is a result of that air on the hills; there’s definitely a sense of “I’m flying now” and “where will I land” but this ride also goes by very quickly.

With those under our belts, we head off for all of the rides, except those for the littlest kids. We hit the toboggan racers, downhill double dippers, runoff rapids, etc., and the park’s version of a lazy river before heading back to the Plummet and Gusher for one last run at each.

Sadly we have no photos of us on the rides but trust me, we had a really good time.

Space-bound

Walt’s been great about indulging my desires to see art museums, manatees, Hemingway’s cats, etc., so today we’re headed to the Kennedy Space Center, which he really wants to do.

I would be more interested if I hadn’t visited when I was a kid some 40 years ago. All I remember of that tour is being on a bus, the heat when we walked outside and going into the mission control building to see the iconic room full of computers that controlled space launches, where it was also blazing hot.

I’d forgotten that the whole space shuttle program ran in the intervening years, and that even the federal government has gotten much better about providing interactive, interesting attractions.

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Walt’s plotted our course so I follow him to the Space Shuttle Atlantis building, where the shuttle herself is the centerpiece. Perched on an iron stand in the middle of the huge room Atlantis looks small to me because I’m imagining half a dozen people living in it for a week in space! The exhibits are great. I fail at a simulated landing. Walt thinks it’s just me until he tries a simulated docking at the International Space Station and fails as well. We’re reading the fun facts and enjoying ourselves when we bump into an interactive exhibit. It’s a 3/8 scale of the space station’s tubes. We’re invited to leave our shoes in a cubby and crawl through. Now I’m a little claustrophobic and Walt doesn’t like tight spaces like this. But it looks pretty short so it won’t take us long. Two men walking by encourage us, saying “you’re here, you’ve got to do it.”

So off come our shoes and into the tube we go. Naturally, I’m wearing a dress today, and not my longer one. Walt is laughing. “You go first, so I’m the only one right behind you,” he offers. Sounds like a good plan: he may be amused during our trek but at least he won’t see anything he hasn’t seen before. It’s only 30 feet or so to a connection spot and then we’re in a slightly smaller tube made entirely of plexiglass. Since we are suspended about 20 feet above the floor, I’m now crawling through a clear tube with people potentially walking under me. Normally I would enjoy looking down from such an interesting perch but today I am scooting along as fast as I can while keeping my legs as close together as possible and clutching my dress at the back of my thighs.

When we get out, I turn to Walt. “I don’t think there was anyone directly below us to see anything.”

His calm: “Except the two guys who urged us to go in the tube,” does not make me happy. He’s kidding, of course, but still…

As we walk down to the bottom level, Walt makes a beeline for the “shuttle launch experience.” I’m not sure I’m ready for a simulated shuttle launch but Walt’s not the kind of person to let me back out just because of a little fear. Despite all the hype – “astronaut” photos, a long walk up to the waiting area, a pre-launch video, safety warnings, etc. – it’s really not that big of a deal. I mean it’s fun, it’s just not wicked-scary fun. That’s all right with me.

Having spent a couple of hours, we peruse a small exhibition about the current and future rockets that are going up to space before heading for our two-hour bus tour to see launch pads, the huge Vehicle Assembly Building (the 500+-foot-doors on one bay are open), the various launch pads (from a distance) and the Apollo/Saturn 5 Center with its huge rocket suspended horizontally from the ceiling. It’s all far more interesting than I remember as a kid and a very enjoyable day. The only downside of the trip is that we didn’t make enough time to see one of the IMAX movies and it started to pour during our guided tour of the “rocket garden.” Still, it was a great day.

 

Miami – Sort of

Miami2We’ve left Key West, headed to Cape Canaveral for a few days. But since we have time to kill on our drive up, we stop off at the Perez Art Museum Miami,which I’ve read is a wonderful contemporary art museum and “must see” in the city.

We’re first struck by the beauty of the building itself. There’s a neat set of open stairs from the parking garage that lead to the mezzanine outside the main entrance. There are sculptures and huge hanging forms filled with live greenery, sort of like a living wall, if the living wall was a round cylinder hanging from the ceiling.

Walt and I both like modern art but many of the pieces on view make no sense to me, even after I read the detailed explanations that hang alongside the pieces. However we soon come across several interesting exhibitions, including Lynne Golob Gelfman’s Gridsexhibition and Liliana Porter’s work, El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves – Venecia 2017 (Man with an axe and other brief situations – Venice 2017). I’ve never heard of either of these artists but I find their works compelling.

On the other side of the museum, we find Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s: Surrounded Islands Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980–83: A Documentary Exhibition. I’m a huge fan of the couple’s work, having visited The Gates project in Central Park and having followed the installation and viewed a documentary on both The Umbrellasand Running Fence works. I don’t even remember hearing about Surrounded Islands, but then again, I was in high school when the project came to fruition. My interest in art didn’t start until a year or so later, when I accidentally took an arts history class (it fulfilled a humanities requirement) and fell in love, eventually earning a minor in art history.

Anyway, we are thrilled to find this exhibition. I am both entranced by the photos of 6.5 million square feet of woven pink polypropylene fabric surrounding 11 islands in Biscayne Bay and awed by the complexity of the engineering it took to realize the project. It’s a huge exhibit with drawings, large rolls of the fabric, photos of the surrounded islands, as well as documentation of the legal battles that took place before the project was approved. One document cited concerns about the project: concern for flora and fauna was down the list at about number 5 while the number 1 concern was that the work would be “tacky.”

I’m very glad that there were people who understood how glorious the islands would look wrapped in the amazing fabric and that they prevailed. My only wish is that this project had taken place 5 years ago instead of 35; then we would have wonderful, high-resolution photos taken from airplanes and satellites. The photos on display don’t, I think, do justice to the wonderful pink fabric floating in the bay’s blue-green waters.

Since we’re in the neighborhood, we take a swing through the Art Deco district in Miami Beach. We’re in it for the Art Deco hotels, not the “beautiful people” which is good because we see a lot of the first and none of the second. It’s fun enough to see the buildings from the car, so we don’t stop but keep driving up the highway to visit the manatees.

 

 

Six-Toed Kitties & Zombies on Bikes

 

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The drive down through the Keys is as pretty as I’d hoped. Blue skies, turquoise waters, palm trees. It’s all so pretty. The roof’s down. The sun’s shining. I’ve done a little homework and have found a place that purports to have some of the best key lime pie, made with home-grown limes. We stop for a little afternoon snack. The pie is really good, tart with no artificial “lime” color.

Fueled up, we continue our drive. Once unpacked at the hotel, we walk around the neighborhood, heading first to the thing I most want to see in Key West: Hemingway’s house and his polydactyl cats. Hemingway lived there less than a decade but wrote many of his most-famous works while in residence. Walt likes the urinal Hemingway dragged home from the wreckage of his favorite watering hole. Hemingway’s shocked wife tiled the fixture and added to the bottom of an antique olive jar-turned fountain. I like the cats. They’re wandering the yard, walking around the porches, drinking out of the pool and, to my delight, there’s a black kitty curled up, sound asleep in the middle of Hemingway’s bed. There are signs forbidding visitors from picking up the cats but we’re allowed to pet them. Some are friendly, some are skittish and some are busy napping or hunting – lizards? bugs? other cats?

 

After our tour, I’m hoping we’re headed to the water to find a place for dinner and a famed Key West sunset. But we find ourselves on Duval Street. I’m totally baffled. Why would anyone want to sit in a dark bar without any sun or surf or view?

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Walt persists and finds us a place on the water for dinner where we watch a beautiful sunset, enjoying the breeze, the water, the view and some very nice food. We manage to avoid Duval Street on the way back to the hotel. I don’t think I could take another pass at it, especially at night, when I’m sure it gets much weirder. Remember, I like to hike and go to art museums. I have never been a nightlife, bar-hopping type of person.

The next day finds us on foot, exploring the Key West Cemetery. We find a memorial to the US Maine, some very interesting headstones – one shaped like a seashell and another shaped like a tree stand out – and, after some hunting, find the grave of a woman who was known to be a hypochondriac. Her headstone reads: “I told you I was sick.”

We wander through the lovely residential neighborhoods with their white or pastel-colored houses, beautiful flowers and shrubs, huge palm trees. I stop at a cart for a Cuban coffee (iced) and we continue wandering, stopping at the “0” mile marker on Route 1. We find ourselves at the Truman Annex, also a lovely neighborhood. I’m more intrigued by the sign describing where the first federally authorized Weather Bureau was housed. We take a peek into the Truman “Winter White House” but pass on the tour. It’s hot so we head back to the hotel for some pool time.

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As we’re heading to the lovely porch at Backyard Louie’s for dinner, we run across the Zombie Bike Parade, part of Fantasy Fest that’s just starting to wind up (we’ll be heading north by the time the fest gets into high gear). We have no way of knowing how many zombies we’ve missed but during the 15 minutes we stand there, enjoying the show, several hundred pass us. There are zombie dogs, zombie kids, zombie mimes, lots of “sexy” zombies. There are zombies riding little bikes, big bikes, even a unicycle.

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After dinner that includes conch and more key lime pie, we head to the Southernmost Point before avoiding most of Duval Street on our way back to the hotel.

Somehow we’ve managed to avoid many of the “must-do” Key West activities: sunset at Mallory Square, whatever that bar is with all the dollar bills, the “mile high” key lime pie but we’ve very much enjoyed walking the pretty neighborhoods, doing a little shopping on Fleming Street, eating some very good food.

Airboats & Gators, Oh My!

I’m skipping over 10 days of travel – driving from St. Augustine to Tampa, flying from Tampa to San Diego for three days of business (for Walt) then back to Tampa only to drive to Naples for five more days of work (Walt, again). Not that any of it was heavy lifting; Walt enjoys his very limited work-related functions and I get to enjoy the lovely places we stay and seeing a lot of great people. I don’t spend a lot of time writing about these events because other than eating together (very well), we usually don’t do much together during these times and this blog is about our shared adventures.

Now that our obligations are out of the way, we’re headed south (again). We thought it would be fun to drive to Key West – barring any more threatening weather – so we’re driving the Tamiami Trail through Florida.

We’ve stopped at Everglades City for an airboat tour of the glades. I’m a little apprehensive taking off, not because I’m afraid of boats or water or speed or even alligators (I mean I’m not afraid of being in a boat on waters that have alligators; I have a healthy fear of them if we’re standing on the same ground). I’m nervous because all of a sudden I realize being on a boat in muddy waters in hot, humid weather is a little bit too reminiscent of the trip we took to the Bolivian jungle a couple of years ago. I remind myself that this is only an hour tour, not a five-hour boat trip followed by two days of searing, un-airconditioned heat, massive bugs and a return boat trip in a cold rain. (The best part about the Bolivia trip was that it set the bar for us: if we’re doing some activity that seems unpleasant, we’ll look at each other and say, “Well, at least it’s not the jungle.”)

We take off from the Everglades dock, going slow at first but soon we’re zipping along narrow waterways, the mangroves closing in on both sides and overhead. I keep my eyes out for pythons overhead (none) and alligators. A large heron takes off from a limb just to the left of Walt. Very cool. Our guide takes us to a small bay where he says he’s seen a mama and calf manatee. We search for a few minutes but no luck. We move on, speeding through the mangroves until we come to another bay where we spot a large alligator hanging out along the edge.

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The alligator’s not moving so we take off again. As we’re speeding down the mangrove canal, Walt sees something big in the water. The canal’s not much wider than the boat so the manatee dives under us. No propeller on an airboat so the sea cow’s OK. The boat captain saw it off the back but he’s the only person besides Walt who did.

All too soon the trip’s over. We didn’t see much wildlife but we didn’t really expect to see much. We enjoyed the boat ride, especially since the captain sped up in the bays and hit the brakes so the boat would spin.

Back on the dock, however, there’s one last little thing. We’d noticed while we were waiting for the boat trip to start that there was a box with a 2-foot long baby alligator in it. Now he’s out, muzzle in place and being held by his handler. It’s obvious that the gator is available to be held. Walt pushes me forward. My face in the photo says it all: this is not an experience I’m enjoying.

The gator’s skin is firm and cool, not at all slimy. It’s also relatively soft, as in its skin is not the crusty-hard shell I expected. It’s also not “velvety” as his handler proclaims although the creature sits quietly in my hands. After the handler takes photos of Walt and I with the gator, I hand it back and we get back on the road again.