Monday, September 9, 2013

The Appalachians and Other Adventures

I told the Pilot that I thought the Smoky Mountains looked "squishy".

They do! See:

I grew up in the shadow of the Rockies. Which are aptly named. In Colorado, mountains that don't have a tree-line aren't mountains. They are Very High Hills.

Seriously, though, the Smoky Mountains ought to be named the Squishy Mountains. They are like masses of green gumdrops– if you were to fall into one of those mountains from an airplane, surely you'd bounce!

On a side note, I know why everyone calls them the Smokies, but I still prefer the Appalachian Mountains. Appalachian is a delicious word– folksy and fruity and wild all at once.

Anyway, Labor Day weekend was my first experience of them. The Pilot had come home, a week prior, and said, "I get a four-day weekend! Where shall we go?" and I said, "The mountains!" because of course I'm homesick for mountains. Planning just a week in advance meant that most affordable-yet-not-creepy hotels in most of the little towns we might want to stay in were already booked, but when we looked at Gatlinburg, there was a Super8 with a room to spare, so that is where we went!

We drove the scenic route through the Smoky Mountain National Park, and I had my first experience of being on a winding road leading very steeply up a mountain side, but being unable to tell just how far up we were because the winding road was pretty much a leafy green tunnel. Fortunately, the kind people who made the Smoky Mountain National Park provided convenient pull-offs at the Scenic Views.

This butterfly kept flittering around me before it kindly consented to pose for the camera. 

A nice middle-Eastern couple offered to take our picture if we would take theirs. 

We drove to the Clingman's Dome trail parking lot and hiked the short trail up to the observation tower. It's the highest point in the park. The trail is steep, but perfectly paved, so this Colorado-girl didn't have any excuse for puffing or panting... and I didn't much. And I giggled to see the people who had walking sticks and tons of gear for a 40-minute round-trip hike– of course they might have been hiking the Appalachian Trail, which crossed over our path at one point. 

The sad-skeleton trees are ones that have been eaten up by some kind of beetle.

The curve of the ramp leading up to the observation tower. It was fairly empty when we were there, and the Pilot said we got lucky: usually on holiday weekends it's so jammed you can barely get a place at the edge to see the view. 

There are just as many trees at the top of the mountain as there are everywhere else, so they had to build an observation tower so that people could actually see the views!

After this it was dinner-time, so we left the park for Gatlinburg– which I was surprised to see is literally directly outside the park beginning. I hadn't expected it to be in the mountains, and I enjoyed the picturesque backdrop to a town that is the most perfect archetype of a Tourist Trap that I have ever been in. Not that I didn't enjoy it! Tourist Traps can be quite fun in their own way, particularly if you like people-watching. I felt like I was once again in Rome– a city I remember particularly for the crowds of people swarming like ants out of anthill. You never got to the end of the crowd. Gatlinburg was similar, in a smaller, very American, redneck sort of way. The main thoroughfare of the little city is lined with restaurants, candy shops, arcades, haunted houses, shooting galleries, hotels and motels, "Old Tyme" photograph shops, and other attractions that give the whole place the effect of a carnival that moved into town and forgot to move back out again. The street was jammed with the cars of those unfortunate enough not to be situated near enough to that main funnel-street to walk. Fortunately, our humble Super 8 was just up a sidestreet, within an easy walking distance. We had a rather inedible dinner the first evening at Shoney's and made up for it with Orange Leaf frozen yogurt and miniature golf. The miniature golf course is very aptly named "Hillbilly Golf" and the course was built along the sharply-ascending mountain side. We had to ride a miniature trolley to get to the top, and then zig-zag our way through the holes back down. Certainly the most unique game of miniature golf I've ever played!

Hiking Day came next. We had packed a picnic in a cooler from home, and we set off into the park to find a trail that would satisfy the Pilot's wish of being challenged, my wish of not being exhausted, at the end of it, and our joint wish of not being absolutely swarmed with tourists. Abrams Falls looked likely, so we drove fifteen miles through the park to get there. We were delayed on a one-way scenic tour loop when, inexplicably, all the cars ahead of us slowed to a dead crawl. When we got through the obstruction it became apparent that somebody had seen a bear close to the trail and decided it would be a delightful idea to get out of their cars and chase after it, and thirty or forty people behind them followed suit. We saw them traipsing back through the field towards their vehicles as an irate park ranger chastened them, and the Pilot and I made some rather uncharitable remarks to each other about rednecks feeding the bears.

This was our healthy picnic! (Note in particular the sugar-snap peas.)

Whenever my family and I went on hikes when I was a child, I would always pretend to be a pioneer girl in a wagon train, blazing the frontier. This was a good trail for traveling back in time, imagining what kinds of people wandered under those trees and crossed the river.


This tall flowering plant is, in fact, Phantom Joe Pye Weed. How do I know that? Because my mother-in-law and I picked it out and transplanted it into our back garden patch last month! It was growing everywhere around the river– often in clumps reaching up to three or four feet high, like this picture.

The waterfall! 

We were nearly at the end of the hike when the plastic covering of the sole of my athletic shoe actually separated and started flapping in protest at every step I took. I was delighted– I've had those shoes for six years now and I want to get new ones, but when anything is still technically usable I feel guilty throwing them away. Now I didn't have to! I left them in the trash can of the Super 8.

That night we had dinner in a delightful, ritzy restaurant, making up for the previous evening's travesty. If I was a culinary dish, I would want to be caprese salad. The crisp bite and tang of arugula paired with  sweet tomatoes and soft threads of fresh mozzarella, all drizzled with balsamic reduction that is so yummy I just want to drink it– but I digress.
After dinner we rode the Sky-Lift up the side of the mountain and watched the lights of the town start to twinkle as the sun went down, and saw the swarms of people looking very much like ants scurrying along one of those ant-tunnel kits.

On our way home the next day, we stopped for lunch in downtown Asheville. But for the absence of the Rockies in the background I could almost have sworn I was in Manitou Springs. I had not realized that one could encounter rednecks and hippies in such profusion in the same part of the country! We ate at a restaurant called the Local Taco and I had a taco made with duck medallions. No doubt the ducks were locally grown. And then I had a taco made of portobello mushrooms, and I know those were local because this was on the wall:

I wonder kind of a man Keith Byrom, Mushroom Forager, is? I am sure that he has a long dark beard, and wears a corduroy cap. He is probably a vegetarian, too, and keeps rabbits as pets.

For dessert we indulged ourselves at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge– I had "sipping chocolate" which was exactly like drinking a glass full of cool liquid truffles. I convinced the Pilot, who hadn't had coffee that morning and was therefore inclined to be a zombie, to get the "Jitterbug", an iced concoction involving pure chocolate and two shots of espresso. Needless to say, he was abounding with energy the rest of the afternoon.

This is what happens when I tell him to "look French".

The last place we went was a little stationary shop, because I am an English Major and a nerd. I found this line of products, which were just too utterly weird and unique not to buy.

I mean, what self-respecting writer can resist a little book of Mr. Elli Pooh's Elephant Dung Paper?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Looking for Stories

One of the saddest things about our American culture is the shallow veneer with which we gloss our lives– airbrushing out all that makes us human and real and photo-shopping ourselves into caricatures, mannequins. Mannequins don't have stories at all, and caricatures have only the gross exaggeration of stories, jagged scrawls of a plotline, devoid of real pain, real joy. We ogle the caricatures on the fronts of magazines at supermarket checkout lines with voyeuristic interest in their lurid scandals, break-ups, affairs, and the glossy sheen of their (short-lived) marriages and successes, but it is the same interest we take in the characters of Downton Abbey, or any other scripted television show (and sometimes the fictional characters garner more attention than the "real" caricature-celebrities. Anyone read some of the articles after Matthew Crawley "died"?) Tabloid headlines promise us "the real story", but what they really promise is a kind of pathetic comic-strip. We are a culture that has forgotten how to listen to real stories. Real stories of real people bore us. They are too tedious, too ordinary, too ugly, too uncomfortable, too full of the kind of stuff that fills our own every-day lives. We want to be titillated, entranced, shocked, horrified– we do not want to be touched, we do not want to be saddened, we do not want to feel truly or deeply, because to feel truly or deeply is to bring to light the immense neediness of all humanity, including ourselves, and our deepest horror is of being needy.

Is this part of what causes us to push each other away, to appropriate to ourselves the superhero's spotlight (because the superhero is the one who has no needs) and to consign everyone else a bland, blank supporting role– essentially a mannequin– as though all others existed merely to supplement our own existence, as J.T. Bushnell wrote in a recent Poets and Writers article. We cannot stand to acknowledge the needs of others because we are too busy protecting the dirty little secret of our own neediness. When we enter into the wounds, the tragedies, the battles of others, we risk bringing to light that we are not as strong, as polished or airbrushed as we want to be, that we too have our wounds, our tragedies, our battles. And even then, if we dare to let those things come to the light, it must be in a dramatic, glossy way– the kind of way that makes us look noble and long-suffering and heroic and strong. Weakness is forbidden. When was the last time you read a feature in a newspaper or magazine about someone's battle with cancer or racism or poverty that emphasized the person's weakness?

But there is another, darker side to our airbrushing of real stories, real lives, into comic strips. Even if, in our own lives, we manage to acknowledge the existence of real stories and real need– it is our own story and our own need that absorbs us. Learning to stop airbrushing our own lives is difficult, but learning how not to automatically airbrush the lives of our neighbors takes the regenerative power of the grace of God. We need to see our essential neediness– true– but stop there and we will drown in our own selfishness. How do we begin to see the needs of those around us?

I find, again, that Story helps. Stories literally humanize us– in perceiving the story of another human being, I am acknowledging their humanity and dignity (and at the same time their need, just like my need) and in that acknowledgement I become more human and less selfish caricature. When I stand in the checkout line at the grocery store, I tend to behave (in my mind) as though I am the only "real" person in the place. The woman in front of me is Obese. The cashier is Slow. Those teenagers over there are Annoying. That child is Cute but Hyperactive. And by airily assigning them their caricatured parts to play, I thus dismiss them all the better to focus on what really matters– namely myself– my own perfection or my own need, depending on which I prefer to dwell.

But what if I stop and ask myself– what are the stories that lie behind the outward appearances of these people whom I so blithely wrote off as unworthy of a second glance– suddenly I am moving towards humanity and humility. What battle might lie behind the face of the weary woman in front of me? What do I know but that it might be an act of incredible courage, or fortitude, or self-sacrifice, that she stands with her cart in the check-out line at Walmart? What wounds lacerate the soul of the cashier who is fumbling with the produce? What fears hound those teenagers into their jaunty flaunting? To ask what are their stories? is to ask what are their needs? 

When we ask that question, we are close to learning how to love our neighbor as ourselves.

In some instances, like standing in checkout lines, perhaps I can offer nothing to to the needs of people around me but to see them as real, to "outgrow the notion that other people's existence merely supplements my own". To stop looking at the outward appearance, and hesitantly stumble towards the attitude of the Lord who looks at the heart. I remember, those short five months I worked in fast-food, what a difference it made to me when someone came up to order from me, and smiled and called me by the name emblazoned on my name-tag, when someone asked me kindly how my day was going. God forgive the selfish excuses I mumble about being an introvert and not liking small-talk with strangers, that have kept me from ever imitating that behavior when I am the one standing in front of the counter. It is not about introverts or extroverts– it is about seeing people as real, and seeing human interaction as an opportunity either to bless or to curse. Every time I treat a fellow-human being with disdain or even with total indifference, am I not defacing someone who bears the very Image of God? 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


As Sleigh Bells seem in summer
Or Bees, at Christmas show --
So fairy -- so fictitious
The individuals do
Repealed from observation --
A Party that we knew --
More distant in an instant
Than Dawn in Timbuctoo.
~ Emily Dickinson

It is has been September for three days now. Since my summer began in March (which is when temperatures in Phoenix start to hit 80) I believe I have had above and beyond my fair share of this season. I find it most illogical that the autumn equinox is at the end of September. It seems hardly fair– September bespeaks the crunchy tang of apples, the tinge of gold brightening the trees, cool nights and crisp mornings, that moment when you realize that you can pull out your favorite sweater from last year and put it on. The sky ought to get higher up and farther away– a more distant blue, as the earth, weary of the sun's company, tilts away. This is what September means, which is why it is very aggravating to wake up in September and find that I still have three weeks of summer to go and no apparent let-up in South Carolina's heat or humidity.

My birthday is in September, too (fortunately, on the other side of the autumn equinox! I do so love having a fall birthday) and so it always seems as though the weather owes me that shift which I desire.


But if we Julian-calendar-abiding members of Western Civilization want to go on with our summer weather for three weeks more, then I propose that we shift the calendar three weeks backward– allow September 1st to fall on Fall, so that at least by the end of that magic-spicy-golden-sounding month we'll have some hope of putting our summer shorts and sundresses away for the year. Of course, that would make my birthday September 3rd (or 4th, depending on if the present equinox is on the 21st or 22nd) but I would be willing to make that change.

This is what I want to wake up to in September. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Changes, changes!

I feel I ought to begin with some sort of explanation for why it's been three whole months since I've graced this poor blog with a post. There are a number of reasons...

1. The Pilot and I moved! The B-course (F-16 training) in Phoenix ended, and once more our possessions disappeared into a mountain of cardboard boxes and brown paper. We stuffed what was left over into suitcases and took off for South Carolina! Glory hallelujah, we decided to ship my car so that we wouldn't both have to drive 2,000 miles, and that turned out to be a splendid decision (though the our car-shipper apparently didn't have his trailer license updated, and my poor car almost ended up impounded somewhere in New Mexico... fortunately it all worked out, and we got a nice discount.) 

2. Related to reason #1– I find it very difficult to write in the midst of disorder. I am not exactly OCD, but when my house being in chaos or my life is in the midst of major transition, I find it difficult to sit down and form thoughts on the page that I would actually want someone else to read. 

3. I have also been struggling with writing in general (not just blog posts) and questioning whether I am a writer, whether I was ever supposed to be a writer, what being a writer means, and if writing is what I ought to be doing right now. I have had a convenient list of excuses for the past year and a half for not pursuing writing in a disciplined way (...I had to finish brain was fried from finishing school... we were going to move again so wait till that was over) but now I have run out of excuses. 

4. I realized that I have locked myself into a certain expectation for my posts on this blog, and I further realized that I will not be committing treason if I allow myself some variety. 80% of my posts on this blog have been essays/meditations on working out my faith into my life. I enjoy writing those kinds of posts, but in order to write them there are certain requirements: first of all, something has to have happened to inspire that kind of reflection, and then I have to achieve enough perspective and distance from that happening to write intelligently about it. I also have to feel comfortable with other people reading about it. Lots of things have happened to me in the past three months to challenge me and grow me in my faith, but I'm not yet at a space where I want to write publicly about them. 

5. At the same time, I've been jealous of some of my blogging friends who use their blogs to write about the things that happen in their life, but not necessarily in a reflective/meditative way. I have friends who, like me, live far from their families, and who often use their blogs to give their families a more intimate glimpse into their lives. Tonight I awakened to the fact that there is no rule that a blogger can write only one type of post in her blog, and that much better than limiting myself to writing only reflective/meditative/essay-type posts and thus writing very little, I ought to just write what I feel like writing (like newsy posts!) That might seem painfully obvious, and I can only say that when I'm thinking about writing, the mind games I play with myself are often painfully ridiculous.

So, to waste no time, here's a short narrative of our move (with pictures!)

My friend Angela and her husband Pete, who was a couple of B-course classes behind my Pilot, were gracious and lovely friends who let us move in with them for the last five days in Phoenix, so we could empty out and clean our house. Angela and I met each other after I moved to Wichita Falls, and we got to spend seven months drinking tea together and deepening our friendship in Phoenix.                           

Pete is going to fly with the National Guard in Wisconsin. At the moment it's not unheard-of for an active duty pilot to do a 3-year assignment with the Guard, so I have fantasized about that happening to us so that Angela and I can live near each other again and spend long afternoons over tea and conversation. 

With high hopes (and a feeling of "just-in-time" as the Phoenix temperatures crept up towards 115) the Pilot and I commenced our long trek across the country! The best part of the trip was being together in the truck. We listened to a lot of music– as the DJ for most of the trip, I took turns indulging each of our eclectic musical tastes. The Pilot is fond of up-beat pop music and down-home country; I mixed it up with bluegrass-Celtic crossovers, my "wailing woman" music (as the Pilot calls Florence+Machine) and my "anemic" music (as he dubs artists such as Joshua Radin and Coldplay.)

After three days on the road cruising through New Mexico (mountainy and beautiful), Texas (icky), and Louisiana (so many trees!) we arrived in Jackson, Mississippi for the day I had been eagerly awaiting for several months– the reunion with my younger sister. Maggie and I had not seen each other in over a year, and really we hadn't had any quality time with each other since before the Pilot and I got married. So short though it was, we made the most of the day we had! 

The best thing about sisters is that no matter how long it's been since you've seen each other, you can immediately be as wacky as though you were still living in the same house!

The Pilot was an excellent photographer... and he obligingly held our purses while taking our "aren't we just disgustingly cute?" picture.


Maggie played us a preview of part of her senior recital– Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. As I watched her hands, powerfully belting out some of those excruciating chords, I was awed not only at her skill, but at her humility. I'm not just being a bragging older sister– my li'l sis is talented! But she's also the furthest thing from full-of-herself you can imagine.

After we bid Maggie goodbye, the next stop on our (nearly) trans-continental journey was to Atlanta, to stay with the Pilot's parents. What fun to celebrate his birthday with them!

Our plan was to drive up to Sumter the next day. Since I was the one who picked out the house, we thought it would be nice to arrive the day before closing so that the Pilot could see the house in person before we signed away our lives for it. But a mysterious stomach virus inflicted itself upon the Pilot and we ended up spending an extra day in Atlanta in an UrgentCare and the ER. We were both so thankful that it happened while in Atlanta with his parents, who knew where to go and took excellent care of us– it would have been so much more miserable if it had happened earlier on in a city where we didn't know anyone.

Given that hiccup, we managed to arrive in Sumter two hours before we closed on our first home...

... the Carolina Cottage!