Mine Sweeping

We attempt to go for a walk this morning.  But it’s getting late by the time we leave so we are forced to do the short loop through the park.  We realize that someone new must have moved into the neighborhood because of the dog poop on the sidewalk.  There are three separate piles along the way.  Each one looks older than the last, like the piles are from three separate days.  I wonder if the new dog owner is French–they’re not allowed to pick up dog poop because it’s someone’s job.

Stopping short of doing forensics on the dog poop piles, we walk around cautiously, avoiding getting any on our shoes successfully.  Then, we are greeted by three women, each with a small dog.  We’ve met these women and their dogs before–these women pick up after their dogs.  The little dogs have fun racing around together, but they don’t stop for a pet.  Although one is willing to let you throw its ball.  Today, we let them go on by without attempting to pet them.

Convinced that there is no dog poop to step around in sight, my eyes go to the sky.  I am hoping to see the Red-Shouldered Hawks who hunt in the park, but instead, I spot a flock of much smaller birds hanging out in the tree tops where they are back lit and there is no hope of getting a good look at them.  From their size and shape, I would guess they were a group of Cedar Waxwings, but who knows.  The call of the White-Throated Sparrow catches my attention.  I point it out to Pat, but he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, having failed to notice a bird was singing.  I realize he is probably thinking about our dogs, long gone, and missing them.

I try to imagine having a dog again.  I feel certain that some day, a dog will walk into our lives and stick.  But, for now, we are dogless and content to remain so for a while.  In the meantime, we console ourselves by petting other people’s dogs.

We return home and I work.  Our walk seems to have been symbolic of what I will face during my work day–I seem to spend most of my day trying to avoid land mines.

At the end of the day, it’s getting late and we have nothing to eat in the house.  It’s been raining since mid-morning, but it’s not that cold.  We decide to walk over to the Japanese restaurant by Coolidge park.  I pull on a rain jacket with a hood and find an umbrella.  We make our way carefully, leaping over deep puddles that have formed, dodging the splash from cars, and peeking from under our hoods before crossing the street.  I can’t help but feel my entire day has been about avoiding traps and obstacles.

When we get to the Japanese place, we discover it’s not open on Mondays.

We head for the Italian place at the end of the street.  It’s the restaurant furthest from our place on this strip, which means another block of dodging puddles.  But, we are happy to learn that tonight there is a special.  Fat Tire for $2.50 a pint and 20% off all pizzas.  We decide to give their pizza a try.  At the end of our meal, we discover that we’ve just eaten the cheapest meal we’ve ever had in Chattanooga.  Since the Japanese place tends to be the most expensive, we’re happy that they were closed today.

Now that we are warm and full, it’s time to go back out into the rain.  I pull on my raincoat and steel myself mentally.  We rush through the darkness, holding the umbrella so that it partially covers both of us. When Pat tips the umbrella, the water runs off onto my shoulder and into my purse.  I straighten the umbrella in his hands several times before I finally take over holding it.

We run across the streets, black silhouettes against headlights.  I realize we should have worn something with reflective strips on it.  Instead of avoiding mines, now we are dodging bullets.  When we make it back to our building, a man with a backpack is sitting on the steps up to the entry.  The steps are sheltered.  We assume he is homeless and trying to get out of the rain.  We greet him and continue on by, entering the security code to get into the building and making sure no one follows us in.

We walk into our place dripping with rain.  I strip off my rain jacket and find a spot to set the umbrella so it can dry.  After shaking away the wet, I get myself ready for bed.  I feel as if I survived some sort of test today.  Walking in the rain, especially after dark, always feels like an adventure.  I wish the end of my work day gave me the same rush that walking in the rain does.

Wandering and Belonging

Sunday morning, we take our time leaving Columbus.  We have all day to get home and nothing on our calendar.  We decide to stop at the Wildflower Cafe for breakfast before heading out of town.  We’re surprised by their almost empty parking lot at 10AM–there used to always be a line by this time.  I wonder if the fact that they’re now open for dinner has diluted their breakfast and lunch crowd.

I think about having a small, healthy breakfast.  Something my body would much appreciate after nearly a week of a “see-food” diet.  However, I have a hard time resisting the eggs benedict on their Sunday brunch menu.  And while I’m at it, I might as well have their potatoes, which are sliced thin and pan-fried to a nice crisp brown on the edges.  I tell myself I’ll start eating healthy again tomorrow.  I laugh at my optimism–seems like I’ve been telling myself that for many months now.

After stuffing ourselves and trying not to drink so much coffee that I have to stop every 15 minutes, we take turns using the restroom before getting on the road.  I don’t feel like a visitor today even though we’re about to leave–the owner recognized us when we came in and the restaurant is just so familiar.  It feels like there’s been a time warp and we never really went anywhere.  But, as we head out the door, the prospect of a long drive looms before us and I feel like a visitor again.

Pat drives and I write.  But I am not feeling prolific today.  I suddenly realize that we will have only 3 days at home before we’ll be packing again for our Thanksgiving weekend trip to the Smokies.  We’ve decided to spend the long weekend at a lodge we discovered on the way home from Great Smoky Mountain National Park over Labor Day weekend.  Originally, Pat’s family was going to come down to see us for Thanksgiving.  Then, Pat’s sister was going to join, so the date changed to when she could be gone from the store she manages (which is not Thanksgiving weekend).  Unfortunately, she couldn’t travel on a date when we didn’t have a commitment, so she went to Youngstown instead and the rest of the family decided not to come for Thanksgiving.

It occurs to me that while Thanksgiving has been the holiday we spent with my husband’s family vs my own for many years, this will be the first time in my life I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving without getting together with any family members.

I stop musing and start talking to Pat about our upcoming plans.  We are both looking forward to the mountain lodge–a mere two hour drive instead of an 11 hour drive to Pat’s family’s house.  I find myself wondering if we should have stayed in Columbus a few more days and then driven up to Youngstown for Thanksgiving, though.  We need to think more about how to get together with Pat’s family now that the drive is so much further.  It’s hard for us to stay in Columbus that many days, but it’s easier than trying to work from Youngstown.

In any case, this coming weekend, we will be in the Smokies enjoying the mountains and relaxing.  I am looking forward to the relaxing part as we haven’t really done a lot of that lately.  To ensure I can really relax while we’re there, I am working on writing blog entries ahead of time.  That way, I can have all my blog posts scheduled to run without me and I don’t have to worry about keeping up on my blog in case there is no internet access from there.

The drive flies by for me.  Between writing and napping and talking with Pat about his plans for his business, we seem to arrive in no time.  Pat, however, is stiff and sore having driven the entire way himself.  I feel guilty that I didn’t do any of the driving, but it did allow me to use the time productively.

We pull up in front of the entry to our building and unload the ridiculous amount of stuff from the van.  Even though I reduced my load by a couple of bags on the way out, Pat picked up a bunch of guitars while we were there, so our load looks vaguely reminiscent of moving day.

A neighbor comes in while we’re unloading and gives us a nasty look.  I’m not sure why, but it’s the same one that was irritated the day we were moving in because we had an elevator blocked.  Apparently she didn’t realize she could push the button and the other elevator would come and she stomped off with a big “huff” to the stairwell.  Another neighbor comes along with a friendly dog who I greet while Pat is parking the van.  When he returns, we load our stuff into the elevator and head upstairs.  I think to myself that we really ought to just invest in a cart if we’re gong to continue to do this on a regular basis.

We get unpacked and then head out to grab dinner.  We end up at Taco Mamacito’s because it’s close and decision-free.  We talk about our trip to Columbus and how much more enjoyable this trip was.  Besides having a get together with friends we haven’t seen in a year who came in from Seattle, we also enjoyed the pace of a Saturday vs a trip where it’s all weekday time.

I contemplate the impact of not having an assigned office at work anymore.  There is something freeing about it–like not having a door with your name next to it implies that no one is waiting for you to show up.  It feels, finally, like we really have moved and when we go to Columbus, we really are just visiting.  As we sit in this restaurant where at least half the wait staff recognizes us contemplating sleeping in our own bed tonight, we feel the sense of having returned home in a way that we haven’t felt here in Chattanooga before.  I find myself wondering how important wandering is compared to having a sense of belonging somewhere.

Chocolate Chunks

It’s our final evening on this trip to Columbus, we will have dinner with friends we met when we were neighbors int he Walhalla Ravine.  They are picking us up tonight, in the alley behind the house where we’re staying.  We stand in the garage waiting for them.  When a car comes up the alley, we try to judge if it could be them or not.  In the dark, the glaring headlights obscure the shape of the vehicle behind it.  It’s impossible to tell.  When a car stops several houses before they one we’re at, we step out and wave.  But they aren’t looking our way and we are unsure if it’s them or not.

Eventually, they see us standing in the road and pull up.  It is them.  We arrange ourselves in the truck, me and Cindy in the back and Jeff and Pat up front.  I tell Jeff that  there is a home OSU game and that George suggested taking North Broadway to avoid traffic.  North Broadway is the opposite direction from where we want to go and seems out of the way, so Jeff decides to take us straight through the heart of campus instead, hoping to take Neil Ave to Lane Ave.  We’re eating at a new restaurant in Upper Arlington, so this would be the most direct route.

Unfortunately, as less optimistic Columbus locals might have predicted, Lane Ave is closed through campus.  Had Ackerman been open, there might have been some hope of getting out that way, but the bridge is being replaced and we cannot get over the river.  We head back up Lane in the opposite direction we want to go.  We next try going down Pearl Alley.  It’s back-to-back traffic with no where to go.  It’s now about time for our reservation.  I look up the restaurant and let them know that we’re on our way, but caught in game traffic.  They say it’s no problem, so we all take a deep breath and relax as Jeff wrestles his way through the thick of OSU football traffic.  We end up on Fifth Ave eventually, working our way back to Lane.  After a few more turns through traffic, we make it to Lane Ave feeling like we’ve gone on an OSU safari.

A half an hour after our reservation, we arrive at the restaurant.  Fortunately, they still have a table for us and we sit down to enjoy “Asian Fusion.”  I’m always a little perplexed by “fusion” restaurants.  Somehow, the use of the word “fusion” in the context of food makes me think they are preparing two or more distinct styles of food and then searing them together with a blow torch or something.  Given that this has never turned out to be the case, I find myself wondering why they don’t say “blend.” Or how about, “Americanized <type of food>.”  Is there something inherently appetizing about the word “fusion” that I’m just not getting?

In any case, the food is OK.  It’s a background to catching up with our friends, so I can’t say I really care that it’s not exciting enough to distract me.  Not that I don’t like to combine visiting with friends with really good food.  But, not great food goes down a lot easier when smothered in friendly conversation.

These friends have not been reading my blog, either. This is a relief to me.  First of all, I hate repeating myself, something I do more and more often even without considering the blog.  Second, Cindy is an editor for a newspaper and I’m not sure I can handle the pressure of knowing a pro is reading my blog.

We have plenty to talk about.  But, sometimes recounting what we’ve done just seems dull.  The thing I really want to talk about is how bad I am at hang gliding.  Really, it’s the realization of what it’s like to be really bad at something and to keep struggling and struggling to learn it that fascinates me.  Jeff and Cindy seem to get this.  The experience of a level of empathy that I’ve never really fully experienced for this type of situation before.

We swap stories of what we’ve been up to and what our plans for Thanksgiving are until all the food is gone and it’s time to wrap up and head out the door.  I suggest we walk over to Graeter’s for dessert.  After all, it’s our last day in Columbus and we have yet to eat any Graeter’s since arriving.  We all agree and head out the door.  It’s surprisingly warm for mid-November.  I expected to be freezing all week, but there has been only one day that was bitterly cold so far.  The wind is kicking up, but it actually has a balmy sort of feel to it.  This is good because it’s hard for me to enjoy ice cream when I’m shivering.

The black raspberry chip is as delicious as usual.  The big chunks of dark chocolate melt from too-cold chocolate into a creamy mouthful of goodness just like always.  I have tried a lot of ice cream in my life, but none has ever compared to Graeter’s.  Not famous Italian ice in Rome, not farm fresh ice cream in Utica, not Tilamook dairy ice cream in Oregon, not Ben and Jerry’s, and not even home made.  I will take Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chip, the only fruit-flavored ice cream I’ve ever liked, over any of it.  The transformation of the chocolate from solid to liquid in your mouth is a religious experience.

We sit and talk over our ice cream before venturing back across the street to the car.  There are teenagers in this place.  I try to remember being an age where you want to be out doing amazingly fun things but you don’t really know what to do, so you go back to something age appropriate that you know you like.  Oh wait, that’s now.  And look, we all ended up at the same place.

The Deserted Office, Desserts, and Death

Today is Wednesday.  No workout this morning.  No face-to-face meetings scheduled.  But my calendar is full of conference calls.  When Pat drops me off at the office, I go upstairs to discover an empty floor.  Those who were there the day before are all either off, working from home, or traveling today.  There is no one to say hello to, no one to catch up with, not even anyone to ignore.  I find this oddly distracting.  Given that I even have calls through lunch, I find myself wondering why I bothered to come in at all.  I do not rate a window office, so I sit in my empty office with no view and miss my home office with a fantastic view.

An interesting thing I have learned about myself in the age of ADD:  I need low-level distractions in order to focus.  It’s as if I need to give the “Squirrel!” part of my brain something to do so that it stops nagging at the rest of my brain when I’m trying to concentrate.  Background noise at the office helps.  Just knowing there are people outside my door helps.  When I work at home, I have an easier time remaining focused on an intense task when my husband is home doing something on his own than if I’m home alone.  I’ve found that listening to music helps in the absence of other distractions, but that’s not possible when on conference calls.  Within an hour, I am coming out of my skin.

I don’t know what exactly it is that I experience when there is not enough going on at once–is it anxiety, boredom, hyper-activeness?  I’m not sure.  All I know is that I begin to work on one thing, I think of something else and open that, then I think of something else and open that.  All while I’m on a conference call.  Before I know it, I have about 40 documents open, 8 instant message conversations going, I’m halfway through answering 9 emails, and I’m in a complete state of confusion as to whether I’ve actually accomplished anything or not.

Complicating this state of task-hopping (let’s face it, there’s no such thing as multi-tasking) is the memory factor.  Another thing I’ve learned about the scattered mind combined with a faulty memory is: when I start to do something, it often creates a memory of having done it.  Whatever the function is in my brain that checks of to-do items, starting a task can trigger that little check.  Once the item is mentally checked, I forget all about it.  So, the more task-hopping I do, the more items I’m at risk of believing I’ve completed when in fact, they are only partially done.  To combat this, before I close things, I carefully look at each window I’ve opened, figure out why I’ve opened it, and then determine if that item is complete or not.  When I have a day like today with back-to-back conference calls where I’m able to just listen for my name during the first one (giving me the opportunity to open a lot), but the rest of them I have to listen and participate (preventing me from finishing anything I opened during the first call), I will often get to the end of the day and not have time to do a graceful shutdown, so-to-speak.  Then, I put my laptop to sleep and hope it will wake up later and that I will remember where I was with all the stuff that’s still open.  Of course, the more stuff I leave open, the more likely my laptop will hang and require a reboot, which essentially reboots my memory right along with the laptop.

It’s the end of the day, we have dinner plans with friends we haven’t seen in two months, and, as predicted, I have too many things open and must put my laptop to sleep and clean up later.  Given that our friends are expecting a baby in about 2 weeks, I imagine we will not be out late and I will have time for this tonight.  But, I hate going to dinner with things hanging unfinished both on my laptop and in my mind.

After a day of isolation, getting together with friends is even more welcome.  Our friends include a little one who arrives in his mother’s arms half asleep.  I try to remember what it feels like to have to jerk yourself out of sleep, rouse yourself and be social.  He’s only 4–too young to have learned that skill set yet.  He wants to be held by his mother, tiny and nearly 9 months pregnant.  She holds him and I wonder how that’s possible.

Our small friend does come to life during dinner.  He makes it through his meal with the promise of ice cream dancing in his head.  There is a Graeter’s next door.  Even though we still have Graeter’s in the freezer at our hosts’ house, I am just as excited about going next door after dinner as the 4-year old.

Outside, there is an event for a dog rescue.  One woman has a tiny Chihuahua on a leash.  He poops toothpaste-consistency yellow poop on the patio without his owner noticing.  I think back to our Mastiffs and how I used to tell my friends that with Mastiff poop, you worry more about tripping over it than stepping in it.  The Chihuahua’s poop is about 1/40th the size, just like the dog.

I watch as first one dog steps in the soft pile, then another.  I tell a volunteer and she gets out a bag, but before she can clean it up, the Chihuahua owner steps on it, completely covering the mess with her Ugg boot.  Amazingly, when she takes another step, it’s as if the entire pile has desinegrated and been absorbed into her sole and the patio pavers, leaving only discoloration behind.  The volunteer looks at me and says, “Was it her dog who pooped?” I answer in the affirmative and she winks and says, “Retribution!”

After enjoying a scoop of pumpkin pie ice cream, watching the dogs, and watching our small friend attempt to play “Cone Hole” (Graeter’s humor–an ice cream place’s name for “Corn Hole”), we say our good-byes and head on home.  It’s barely 8:00PM.

When we arrive at our hosts’ house, we eat some more ice cream and talk about the news of Steve Jobs’ death.  Oddly, I feel more likely to buy an iPhone 4S because Steve Jobs died.  There is no logic to this and I cannot explain it.  We ponder what the impact will be on Apple and whether they can continue his legacy when he was so heavily involved in the details.

I find myself wondering what his personal life was like, if he was happy, if the legacy of Apple was worth whatever he sacrificed.  I wonder what was most important to him and if he believed, in the end, that he lived his life according to his values and his priorities or if he struggled with regrets over the things he didn’t do.  Then, I begin to wonder if building something like Apple is more or less important or valuable than building a family or anything else that someone dedicates their life to.  But, this is too deep for contemplation right before bed, so I let the thought drift away as we say our goodnights and head upstairs.

Fitting in Friends

On the second day in Columbus, I start off my day by working out with my old workout partners. By old, I mean “former,” because I am not far enough behind them in age to call them old. This means getting up early enough to get completely ready and wake Pat up so he can get up and take me to the gym by 7:00AM. When I get there, I drop off my stuff in the locker room and head outside for my familiar loop through the local park. When I make it to the restored prairie area, I’m surprised by a new crop of yellow flowers blowing brilliantly against the browning foliage. It’s beautiful in the sunrise glow–I enjoy this start to my day.

The workout is more of a social event, although one of my partners isn’t there. We catch up on what’s going on and swap gossip while we workout. The workout goes by quickly and I’m soon on my way to the locker room and then rushing off to my office. The morning flies by and before I know it, it’s time to take one of my friends out for her birthday. We debate where to go and then decide on the Longhorn Steakhouse, not to be confused with the Longhorn diner in Chattanooga. When we arrive, another friend is sitting at the bar eating by herself. We join her and enjoy catching up. I suppose the odds of running into a colleague at a restaurant that’s right around the corner at lunch aren’t that astronomical, but since going to lunch has become a rarity for most of us, it seems almost miraculous that the three of us have run into each other this way.

At the end of the day, I call Pat in time to get him to come pick me up so we can meet more friends for dinner. Tonight, we are taking our hosts out to dinner. We are all meeting at our favorite Mexican restaurant. I told myself that I was going to try not to eat so badly while in Columbus. After only gaining a couple of pounds during our two weeks in Germany, I will gain 5 in 4 days in Columbus if I don’t have some self-control. Unfortunately, all my resolve dissolves in just a sip of margarita and I find myself ordering a shrimp chimichanga. Oh well, maybe I can walk the fifteen miles to work tomorrow morning.

We eat and laugh, a lot. I wonder how many calories laughter burns? After dinner, Pat and I decide to stop at Graeters to pick up dessert for all four of us. While I don’t exactly understand the mental process that goes from “Oh, my, I’m going to gain weight!” to “we really should eat Graeters while we’re here since we don’t have Graeters in Chattanooga,” once the thought of Graeters Black Raspberry chip ice cream enters my mind, there is no turning back. We pick up two pints of black raspberry chip and a third of mint chip for George.

When we get back to the house, each of us sits around the living room with our bowl of ice cream discussing the announcement of the iPhone 4S and the reaction. I go to bed with my belly full of ice cream and my head full of questions about the new iPhone. I’m not all that excited by the prospect of upgrading, but I’ve been waiting a long time, so I will have to investigate further tomorrow. Right now, sleep is all that’s on my agenda.

When It Rains, It Pours

After taking the Cherohala Scenic Skyway from Robbinsville, NC towards Chattanooga, we arrive in Tellico Plains just in time for lunch.  As we enter the town, we spot the Tellicafe and decide to give it a try.  Our expectations are low given that we haven’t really had good luck with restaurants on this road trip.  But part of me hopes to be surprised.  We enter the cafe and find the main dining area mostly full, but since we’ve fallen for this before as a sign of good food, I try not to get my hopes up.  The waitress seats us in a second room that has only one other couple in it.  We sit in a big cushy booth and study the menu.

A display on the table advertises their desserts with the special highlighted as “Cinnamon Napolean Cheesecake.”  It’s described as cheesecake baked in a pastry, sprinkled with cinnamon and served with ice cream.  I am tempted, but decide I should eat real food for lunch.  The waitress comes over and I indulge my now triggered sweet-tooth with sweet tea.  The waitress takes my drink order and says, “I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who wears socks with my Chacos!”  I am confused at first, forgetting that I’m wearing my Chaco hiking sandals, let alone with socks.  Then I realize what she’s referring to and I laugh.  I’m impressed that someone her age would walk around in socks and sandals.  When I was that young, I would have been too embarrassed.  Now days, I like my comfortable sandals and warm socks when the weather warrants it just fine.

The food comes and it’s the best meal we’ve had in days.  I ordered the stuffed shells special and the shells taste like they’re home made.  While I could have done without the thick layer of mozzarella melted over the pasta already stuffed with cheese, I simply lift off the extra cheese and enjoy the hot pasta below.  The sweet tea tastes just like my grandmother’s used to.  Best of all, there are no signs in this restaurant telling us how to behave.

After stuffing myself on stuffed pasta, I’m still tempted to order the dessert.  Only the thought of cheesecake stuffed inside a buttery pastry shell stops me from ordering it–it sounds too rich.  It’s really the ice cream I want.  I decide to wait for a chance to get just ice cream.

We head on down the road in the rain, which seems to be intensifying.  About an hour later, I am dozing off in my seat when suddenly something cold and wet hits me on top of the head.  I look up and discover the sunroof is leaking.  My husband loves his cars and takes tremendous pride in getting a ridiculous number of miles out of them.  This 1990 BMW is a low-mileage car in his book–it hasn’t even crossed the 200,000 mile mark.  But, the paint looked like it was every bit of 21 years until we had it repainted a few months earlier.  However, they partially disassembled the car to paint it and when they put it back together, the sunroof seemed off somehow.  Well, we just discovered how.  As it continues to rain, each time Pat slows or accelerates or turns hard, more and more water runs in on my head.  I zip up my rain jacket and pull up the hood, trying to stay dry.  Soon, water is running in streams when Pat stops hard.  It pours into my lap now, soaking through my pants and leaving me sitting in a wet puddle.  I am reminded of Pat’s winning argument as to why we shouldn’t hike in the rain today–he didn’t want to end up riding home in wet underwear.  I’m certain that if we’d gone hiking in this rain, my underwear would be drier.

Pat finds this hilarious.  Of course, his underwear is still dry.  But as the situation worsens, water starts running in from his side of the sunroof and even from the trim piece that the rearview mirror is mounted on.  I remind him that he knew the sunroof didn’t close properly and he was supposed to get it fixed before we left Columbus.  He goes from laughing to annoyed and informs me that he did have it fixed, but no one could tell it would leak.  I sit silently in my wet underwear and sulk.  These are the moments in marriage when you know you’re being ridiculous, but you just can’t help yourself.  Really, I celebrate my husband’s attachment to his cars.  After all, he’s saved us tens of thousands of dollars in the course of our relationship that has contributed to our ability to afford the things we find more meaningful.  But right now, I’m a little irritated that I let him talk me out of buying a new car.

About the time I’m soaked through, we arrive at the entrance to 75.  However, it’s backed up and the entrance ramp looks flooded.  When we look up the highway, we see brake lights and slow-moving cars.  We decide to cross over to 58 and come into Chattanooga the back way.  We follow the GPS, but it has us making multiple turns that seem like they’re taking us the wrong direction.  We’re pretty sure we’re lost when we find ourselves on a country lane with a fallen tree laying halfway across the road.  We are able to pass unimpeded and after one more turn, we see 58.  In the meantime, water continues to stream on me as Pat maneuvers through the turns.  It’s gotten to the point of such complete ridiculousness that even I cannot continue to sulk–it’s just too funny.  Each time Pat turns and a new stream of water pours on me from a new place, we burst out laughing.

Finally, we find ourselves home.  We pull up outside the entrance and unload our gear from the trunk and onto the covered walkway where it’s protected from rain.  It’s raining so hard that our stuff gets wet even in the split second that it’s in the rain.  As we haul our stuff up via the elevator and pile it up on the living room floor, all I feel is tired.  I can’t say I regret the day–it was its own kind of adventure–but I’m relieved to be able to get out of my wet underwear.

Dinner in Maggie Valley

After taking our hike in the Balsam Mountains, we are starving.  Since we did not plan any meals prior to leaving (one of the advantages of not backpacking–we have the flexibility to drive somewhere to eat), we head into the closest town to find a restaurant.  Neither of our AT&T phones nor my Verizon 3G iPad has service up on the mountain, so we are limited to searching for restaurants in our Tom Tom GPS app.  This is one of the reasons I bought the Tom Tom app.  It downloads all of its data to your phone, so you can still navigate when you have no cell signal.  However, the data isn’t quite as complete or up to date as what’s available when there is a signal and searches from the web are available.  In any case, we find a list of restaurants in Maggie Valley, which is only 4 miles away.  We pick barbecue.  After all, we’re in North Carolina, barbecue should be good.  When we get a route, we discover it’s actually over 8 miles away–apparently if we were crows it would be 4 miles, but the road does enough twisting and turning to double the distance.

The “Bar-B-Que Shak” sounds like it’s just what’s in order given that we’re not exactly fresh from our hike, a “shak” sounds like a place we’re likely to fit in.  We pass several closed restaurants as we enter Maggie Valley.  These are decrepit looking buildings with sagging roofs and trash scattered on the property.  It looks as if the tourist industry has taken a big hit in recent years.  As the road descends into the valley, we pass a tourist trap with a giant tower behind the main store and big signs that say “The Most Photographed View in the Smokies.”  The tower is constructed of wood and doesn’t look particularly well engineered.  We look at the scene behind it and wonder why that would be the most photographed view.  Then we wonder how anyone could measure that.  We pass on by, not disappointed that it appears closed.

We find the Bar-B-Que Shak and are dismayed that there is only one car in front of it in spite of the sign that says “Best Bar-B-Que in Town.”  Although, it’s 7:30PM, so we hope that maybe they eat early here and the dinner rush is already over.  We always take comfort in crowds at restaurants, though.  An abandoned lot speaks volumes.  The “shak” is not fancy.  It has a log cabin sort of feel although it’s not made of logs.  Two large rooms connect and one is roped off, containing the crowd to the smaller of two rooms.  No one is sitting in the dining room and the proprietor is talking on the phone when we walk in.  She hangs up quickly and greets us in the loudest drawl I’ve ever heard.  Her voice is high in pitch and hits a note that would make a dog whine when she says hello.  I wonder if she is hard of hearing.  She recommends the pulled pork, so we both order it, me in a sandwich and Pat as a dinner without the bun.

We take a seat and wait for our food.  The dining room wallpaper catches our eye.  It’s not wallpaper at all but rather a collage of puzzles.  Every square inch of the wall has puzzles pieced together, covering the wall from floor to ceiling.  I can’t imagine how long it took to put all the puzzles together and then adhere them to the walls.  I find myself thinking about dust and dirt working its way into those puzzle pieces–they don’t seem to be coated with anything and some of the pieces have started to peel off of their cardboard backings.  It does lend a certain down-home ambience, though.  In one corner, a collection of stuffed and toy pigs sits proudly displayed.  I suppose I am a bit squeamish about being reminded of the animal I am eating, but I have a hard time looking at any of the cute, pink pigs in the eyes.

When the food is ready, the owner calls to us in her painful voice, making every vowel two syllables, “He-ey, y’all, you wan-na co-ome ge-et your fo-od?”  She is pleasant enough and well-intentioned, after all, how much control does a person have over their voice?  The food is served through a window off the kitchen.  Pat jumps up to collect our tray and brings it to the table.  The pork tastes good for about 3 bites, but then the salt starts to get to me.  I add extra barbecue sauce and it adds moisture (the pork seems dry), but makes the salt situation worse.  I try mixing the pork with the cole slaw instead and that helps.  The cole slaw is sweet and saucy, providing moisture and offsetting the saltiness of the meat.  We are too hungry not to eat heartily regardless.

The owner returns to the phone and calls back whomever she was talking to, talking on the phone in the same volume she used to call across the restaurant to us.  Pat, with his back to her, thinks she is talking to him when she asks “Do-o y’all wa-anna co-ome ge-et a pi-ece a thi-is pi-ie?” of her caller.  He turns around to respond, but she is so short that she is completely hidden behind the cash register, so he’s only more confused as to whether she’s talking to us or not.  I laugh and end his confusion, having seen her take out the phone before sitting on the stool behind the register.

After wolfing down our large platefuls of food, we get out tip money and try to figure out the logistics.  The owner calls to us again, seeing our confusion, “The-e tra-ash i-is o-over the-ere.  Y’a-all ca-an ju-ust le-ave yo-our tra-ays on to-op.”  Now we don’t know what to do with the tip given that she apparently doesn’t come out from behind the counter and there was no tip charge by the register.  We decide we’re not supposed to tip when we serve ourselves and bus our own table, so we pocket the money feeling slightly guilty and head out the door.  She thanks us and encourages us to “co-ome se-ee” her again the next time we come up to the park.  We smile and thank her and think we might actually do that–after all, what’s a little extra salt in comparison to someone actually wanting to see us again?

We drive back up to our campsite in the growing dark.  The elk is still out although he has moved up the road.  It’s too dark to get any more shots of him, but we drive by slowly.  He is now right next to the road and we pass only 20 feet from him.  He raises his head and looks non-plussed as if he recognizes our car as we crawl by.  Arriving at the campgrounds, we decide to stop at the bathroom on our way in and get ready for bed.  I am still gathering my toiletries when Pat returns to the car and informs me that there are no lights in the bathroom.  We dig up a flashlight and Pat chivalrously tells me to take it.  I remind him that we have another flashlight somewhere, but he says he’ll be OK in the dark.  I wash my face and brush my teeth in the strange light from the flashlight sitting on a window ledge.  I stand there dripping with the realization that I forgot to grab a camp towel and there are no towels in the bathroom.  I try to wipe the water off my face with my hands, which I dry on my pants.  When I return to the car, I dig up a towel and dry myself more thoroughly.  I am ready to turn in for the night even though it’s only about 8:30PM.

Dinner on the Bluff

My sister-in-law, Megan, is staying with us only briefly–she has been traveling for the past three weeks between work and delivering my nephew to college, so we feel especially honored that she has driven out of her way to spend the weekend with us on her way back to Indianapolis from New Orleans. A special visit requires a special dinner, so we decide to try out the “most romantic restaurant in Chattanooga” (all right, so romantic may not quite be what we’re looking for, but the restaurant is up in the Bluffview Art District, which has a great view of the river). The Back Inn Cafe sits on the Chattanooga Riverwalk and caught my attention several times as a place I’d like to eat when I went by on my bike purely because I’m a sucker for a view.

After spending a busy day sight-seeing and relaxing with an afternoon nap, we decide tonight is the right occasion to give it a try. Pat, my husband, Megan and I head out on foot towards the Walnut Street Bridge. The sun is low in the sky, creating the orangey glow on the bridge that always makes everything look magical. Arriving at the bridge, we find crowds of people making their way towards their evening destinations as well as groups for whom the bridge is their destination. The former weave their way around the latter, moving at a faster pace. We have allowed an hour for our 10-minute walk, our dinner reservation not being until 8PM, so we move slowly and stop often. With the sun low and the breeze kicking up, the temperature has dropped and encourages us to linger.

A couple below is out on the river on paddle boards. We watch for a while as they stand on over-sized surf boards, paddling themselves along the river. It appears this is their first time–they move awkwardly across the river and turn suddenly away from an oncoming boat moving rapidly across the far side of the river as if they are afraid the wake will capsize them. The boat is far enough away that they rock only gently when the wake finally reaches them.

We make our way to the other side, arriving at the glass bridge. Megan takes the bridge in stride, but comments on the strangeness of walking over a highway on glass. I smile and recount my own first experience crossing this bridge, feeling proud that it’s now become a familiar experience. We linger some more around the Hunter Museum, enjoying the view from its patio, which juts precariously over the ledge. Then we walk towards the outdoor sculpture garden just outside the Back Inn Cafe. The sculpture garden surprises us with a melding of setting and sculpture. It nestles into the side of the cliff, providing a fascinating combination of scenery and art. Not being much of an art buff, I don’t know if art aficionados would appreciate the sculptures or not, but I enjoy the sense of place created by the garden. Each corner provides a new view while the sculptures elicit a sense of time standing still. A father and son are captured there, eternally caught in the intense embrace of parental passion. A school of fish are frozen in time as they struggle against a small waterfall. There is something about sculpture that makes me sad. The thought that one moment is all there ever is and all there ever will be for its subjects disturbs me. The paradox of being in one moment across all moments gives me the sense of being on to a profound realization that remains just outside my reach.

Returning to the practicality of life, we check the time and make our way to the restaurant. We sit at a large, round table for 6 out on the patio. We group together along one side so that we all have a view. The view from our table is not as good as the view from the sculpture garden, but the patio is lovely and the sun has now dropped below the buildings behind us, placing us in a cool shadow. We try things from their menu like peach caprese and fried green tomatoes served with goat cheese (I can never get enough goat cheese). The peach caprese is interesting, but I have to say I prefer tomatoes with mozzarella. We order a bottle of wine after checking to see if they will re-cork it since only Megan and I are having wine. However, since I order a stuffed filet, I find myself enjoying the complex red zin a little too much with the entree. By the end of dinner, there is only half a glass left, which hardly seems worth carrying home. I forget that 2 glasses is my limit (which I probably passed half a glass ago, but who’s counting?) and polish off the wine.

As we make our way back over the bridge after dinner, a cop on a Segway rolls up. We smile and wave and he stops to chat. We learn that this 3-wheeled contraption is not actually a Segway, which puffs up Pat a bit since we’d had an argument about this on the way over. We also learn that the cops patrolling on these funny vehicles are actually off-duty police paid to patrol Chattanooga pedestrian areas by a federal grant received due to gang activity. We are shocked to learn that even here there is violence. He assures us that the patrols have been effective and problem areas are now contained to places we make a mental note not to wonder into. He let’s me stand on his vehicle for a photo op before we move on.

Returning to our apartment, we take turns in the bathroom getting ready for bed–I realize this is the first time I’ve lived in a place with only 1 bathroom since I was in college. The extra glass of wine is hitting home and my stomach reminds me why I don’t drink more than 2 glasses. As I sit on the couch and close my eyes, the room begins to spin slowly. I open my eyes and curse myself for making myself feel sick on what was otherwise a perfect day. Next time, we will order wine by the glass.

All three of us fit on our oversized, ugly couch. We sit and doze as we watch a little TV, tired but happy. After each of us has nodded off several times, we decide it’s time for bed. Pat and I step around the air mattress in the middle of the living room, which Megan has insisted on sleeping on even though we insisted she should sleep in our bed. I am reminded that it’s been 15 years since I didn’t have a guest room with a regular bed in it to offer guests. The downside of downsizing. But Megan assures us she is perfectly comfortable as we turn off the lights and call it a night.

Road Swill

Back in Columbus as visitors, we find ourselves eating out every meal.  As much as I love to sit and relax while someone else brings me delicious things to eat, I don’t love what it does to my waistline.  Finding myself back in Columbus with little time or opportunity for exercise or healthy eating, I lament not planning better when it comes to food.

First, there is the road trip cuisine.  I suppose we could plan our road trip differently.  We could, for example, take time to stop in towns along the way and sample decent restaurants instead of focusing on getting to Columbus as quickly as possible and hitting only fast food stops.  But I have an appointment in Columbus at the Apple store.  My dear, sweet iPad suffered a cracked screen when it fell out of my lap and landed on its corner on our concrete balcony.  I feel like a negligent parent that I have so abused what has become such a big part of my life.  “Well, you had your good times,” the Apple store service guy tells me as he takes my battered iPad away and brings me a new one.

But is getting my iPad replaced worth the hit to my health to eat at Wendy’s and Subway for a day?  Maybe for a day.  Unfortunately, my diet doesn’t recover after arriving in Columbus, either.  We start by taking our hosts to La Casita for dinner Sunday night–an old tradition of ours that includes shrimp chimichangas for me.  Not exactly the healthiest choice on the menu.  Then, the next day, I manage a reasonable breakfast at the office cafeteria of cottage cheese and fresh fruit.  I even do OK going out to lunch with a blackened salmon salad, but I’m pretty sure there are at least 1000 hidden calories in the dressing.  But I skipped yoga class in order to spend time with a friend, which means none of those calories have anywhere to go but my waist.  I can’t say I regret that decision.  As much as I love yoga class, I’ve figured out that time with friends has to be my first priority for free time when in Columbus.

After a long day working and taking care of appointments, quick and easy pizza seems like the right choice for dinner.  I manage to contain myself to only 1/4 of a pepperoni pizza.  That’s only 800 calories, right?  About half a day’s worth of calories with plenty of saturated fat, white flour, and not a single vegetable.  What more could I ask for?

On our 2nd full day, I do get a workout in that morning, including a 2-mile walk through a park near the office gym and a 30 minute workout with my training buddies and the gym trainer.  The park surprises me with a new sweep of blooms across the section that is restored prairie–the late summer flowers have blossomed since I last walked here.  Unfortunately, enjoying the flowers doesn’t increase the caloric burn.  And I don’t have time to grab a healthy breakfast because I spend too much time swapping stories at the gym and end up in a rush to get to my first meeting.  I eat chocolate-covered peanut butter cookie things out of the vending machine instead.  Peanut butter is good for you, right?

This rapid, downward spiral from eating a reasonably healthy diet to eating crap out of a vending machine happens to me whenever I travel.  Now that I have hit rock bottom from a nutritional perspective, I take the attitude that I might as well live it up and enjoy whatever sounds good and is convenient.

The peak of my indulgence comes when we go to Z Cucina in Grandview on our last evening in Columbus.  I must have their home made mozzarella appetizer, right?  And Bell’s Oberon beer is on tap, which I can’t find in Chattanooga.  And the red snapper special with the risotto and goat cheese cake cannot be missed.  And Rick, the owner, brings us a piece of lavender-infused blueberry pie with Jenni’s ice cream to top it all off.  I can’t say that I regret that meal–it was too good to have missed–but as I carry my bulging stomach out of the restaurant, I wish it would have been my only indulgence this trip.

Things don’t improve the next day.  I run out of time to eat lunch and end up having a bag of peanuts from my friend, the vending machine.  It’s the healthiest thing in the machine, but the nuts are roasted in oil and salted.  Plus, let’s face it, there’s nothing really satisfying about eating a bag of peanuts for lunch.

The finale to our road trip binge comes at Burger King.  Our last stop on our way home, it’s getting late, we’re hungry and tired.  We pull off at a truck-stop type exit and find the Burger King attached to a gas station.  We are just outside of Knoxville, still an hour and a half from home.  The man behind the counter is older, probably in his early sixties.  When Pat orders a Jr. Whopper with cheese, the many says, “You know it’s not a dollar, right?”  Pat looks at the menu and says, “It’s $1.49, right?”  The man says in a slow drawl, “Well, it’ll be $1.69 with the cheese.”  Pat smiles and says, “OK.”  The man hesitates, as if he’s unsure that Pat really wants to spend that much on his burger.  He explains that they get a lot of visitors from up North and that apparently Jr. Whoppers are only $1 in the North, so people get upset.  Pat reassures him that it’s OK and he rings up the sandwich.  Our mid-western accents have given us away.  While we wait for our food, the man starts telling us about their milkshakes.  He tells us they are made by hand with real ice cream.  He tells us they are really good and we should try them sometime, but they’re a lot of work to make.  He tells us this 3 more times before the burgers come out.  We are unsure as to whether he is trying to sell us a handmade milkshake or trying to prevent us from ordering one because of the effort involved in making them.  We take our sandwiches (with no milkshake) to go.  We are too tired to make small talk about making milkshakes.

Pat and I have frequently talked about how to improve our eating habits during road trips.  We talk about planning our meals and going to the grocery store before we leave so we can have healthy choices readily available and still make good time.  We have often discussed the best type of cooler to get to serve this purpose.  However, we still haven’t bought a cooler and we’ve never made it to the grocery store in advance of a trip.  It seems like such a good idea.  Maybe after I get on the scale I’ll be motivated to try it next time?