The Natchez Trace
I have continued north along the Natchez Trace Parkway, and I’m loving every minute of it. This place is beautiful and a great place to find the solitude I’ve been craving. There are still plenty of opportunities for human interaction with fellow travelers, but I spent so much time in cities and surrounded by people that some peace and quiet is appealing, even for this massive extrovert. I’m writing today from the Jeff Busby Park along the Trace. I could move on today, but I’m taking another day of rest and low key activity. When I last wrote, I was staying at the Natchez Trace State Park near Natchez, MS. There were many wonderful sights to see in Natchez and along the trail near the southern terminus. Remember, the rail is about 440 miles long, and that campground is at about mile 10. I stayed there for several days, but finally decided to move on. As with so many places, I’d have been happy to stay there much longer. I expected to like MS, but I’m really falling in love with this place. It seems that happens a lot with me, though. My original plan was to drive straight up to the Jeff Busby Park where there is free camping, but that’s at mile 193. That’s far enough to skip a lot of the trace as well as Jackson, which I wanted to see, so I decided to have a short travel day and spend 1 night at the Rocky Springs Park. That was enough to see both the park and the city. Rocky Springs was huge in its day with a peak population over 2600, now 0. Evidence of the old town is visible along certain trails. There are sisterns, safes that were too heavy to move, and erosion that is evidence of poor farming practice. They cleared the land to plant cotton and didn’t manage it. well. I wasn’t surprised to see references to slaves, but I was surprised to see there were over 2000 of them. That’s more than 3:1! Some historical signs pointed to the civil war as a contributor of the town’s demise and also included a quote from a local land owner lamenting the loss of his livelihood. I might have been reading into it, but it looked to me to say “This area would still be prosperous if we had just been left alone”. By now we all know my feelings on this topic so I’ll leave it alone. I might have been mistaken about the intent as well, but it did come close enough to make me wonder. I have yet to hear a reference to the “war of northern aggression”. I’ll have to bite my tongue if I come across that one. Like seemingly every town and city down here, they also suffered massive losses to yellow fever. It’s amazing anyone survived it. I get the impression that it was every bit as bad as the bubonic plague. Mobile, New Orleans, here, everywhere I visit in the south has had multiple mass casualty events that sometimes doomed entire towns and cities. Whole armies abandoned certain regions instead of fighting for the territory they wanted when they just couldn’t take it anymore. Local descendants of Rocky Springs’ original residents have maintained and still use the church and cemetery. It’s small, but nice. It’s private property, but a sign invites you to tour respectfully. The door is open and you can go in and pray or meditate or whatever works for you. It’s very peaceful.
Jackson seemed nice enough, but I didn’t feel called to explore it that much. I’m sure it has a lot to offer, but I got the impression it was more of a Framingham than a Boston for you MA readers, a city that is more focused on function than culture. Don’t take that to the bank though. It was just my impression. My entire stay consisted of going to a food coop with a restaurant inside. However, I stayed for hours because both were so good! The food at the coop was stellar. I particularly enjoyed the quesadilla, but the chili with jalapeno corn bread, cake, and macro-bowl were also great. I spent double what I had intended. Prices may have been a little high, but I also bought expensive things like a big bag of nutritional yeast, goji berries, and the biggest jug of apple cider vinegar I’ve ever seen. I use that for my acid reflux and in my hair. Incidentally, I’ve got terrible acid reflux if it’s not managed. I have a leaky valve near the top of my esophagus. I also can’t burp properly. How’s that for too much info? Well, I share this in case you have acid reflux, too. I used to take medication once or twice a day with extra for acute situations. I now take nothing, and I don’t have to avoid coffee or alcohol which are both triggers for me. I simply add 2 table spoons of ACV to a glass of water and drink that once a day. It completely manages my heartburn. Now, it takes a few days to really take effect, and the taste takes getting used to. I also did this twice a day at first, but once is good for maintenance. Now, no medication is necessary whatsoever. Low acidity diets are also key. All meat and all dairy are acid forming in your body. That’s yet another reason the vegan thing works for me.
At night, I decided to build a fire. The campground was well picked over, but on my walk around the town site, I saw that there were tons of down and dry wood away from the camping area that people hadn’t bothered to plunder. Thank god for laziness? I decided to take two trips dragging large branches behind me, the largest I felt I’d be able to break down into firewood by hand. Fortunately, someone had left a few larger logs in my campsite. I’m guessing its wood that they hadn’t gotten to, but now I wonder if someone left it on purpose. I wish I had thought of that and left some for the next guest. Once and engineer, always an engineer, I’m coming to believe. You can’t really turn it off. After making a spectacle of myself loudly dragging 12 foot long branches down the paved road through the camp site, I proceeded to break them down and pile them by size, twigs, a little larger twigs but still maybe under 1 inch, and things 1 inch and over where I either couldn’t break them or it took a lot of effort. I wondered what to use to start the fire. The twigs were nearly small and dry enough. Patience with a lighter might work. Gas is always an option, but oof, I hate to go down that road, and I was out of paper and cardboard. Then I realized I had a half used roll of paper towel. I considered making some carefully constructed structure, but it was now late. Beautiful moonlight now lit the campsite, and I was eager to get the fire started. I lit the paper towel roll and heaped half the small twigs on top of it. It caught quickly so I heaped the other half on. As the fire grew, I added half the larger twigs, and then the rest. I started to worry that my fire would be out in 10 minutes! Oh well, it wouldn’t have bothered me if it had. The fire was perhaps 4 feet high at this point and I was satisfied. I kept laughing at myself as I worked through the best way build up and sustain the fire. Any normal person would have just sat and enjoyed it like, well, like a normal person. Still, it was fun for me and the fire did end up lasting hours.
The next morning I proceeded to Jeff Busby, home of Mississippi’s highest point. As I write this, I arrived yesterday and will be leaving tomorrow, Thursday March 24. Yesterday, Tuesday, I had a little cooking party for one. I love to cook. It brings me peace and this campground is even quieter than Rocky Springs was. I made green smoothies to last 2 days, a cashew cream salad dressing with lemon, black pepper, dill, and fresh garlic. I’m a slow chopper, so salads take forever, but it’s fine. This salad was huge. It filled my largest pot and my largest salad bowl, but as was remarked on my Facebook post about buying all of those groceries, I’ll still mow through it pretty quickly. After that, I walked Peggy up Little Mountain to watch the sunset. It was beautiful. I also interrupted Wanda and Dub’s sunset picnic celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary. I was apologetic, but they insisted it was fine and we had a great conversation as we watched the sun go down. They live in Houston, MS, not too far from here, and offered me a spot to park, a home cooked meal, and a place to do laundry. That’s so nice! I’ll have to see if that fits my travel plans. I’d like to see them again. It was great to share some time with them. Just back from a cruise to Cozumel with 23 of their closest relatives, they decided to keep their anniversary simple. They road up to the mountain with their nearly brand new 3 wheeled motorcycle, a sharp looking machine. Wanda worked at the post office, and Dub on oil rigs. They had interesting stories and were curious about my background as well. What a great couple. We parted as the moon was coming up, and Peggy and I came back down to relax and finish up House of Cards on Netflix. This was a pretty good season by the way, but I won’t spoil it for you here.
Wanda had recommended getting up for sunrise and moon set the next morning. I kept waking up last night, and happened to feel wide awake in time, so Peggy and I walked up the hiking trail. I’m glad we did. The morning was perfectly still in the dim predawn light. Hiking trails are generally places of pure tranquility for me, but this was especially so. As we climbed the short trail, the clouds burst forth with purple, then pink, then a fiery orange. We reached the summit in plenty of time. The moon was enormous as it sat low in the sky directly opposite the ascending morning. It was fading as the sky brightened, and in fact, it disappeared from view just before touching the horizon as the sky became too bright. Almost simultaneously, the sun peaked up from the other side of the Earth, a glorious moment that sent shivers down my spine. This was perhaps the best and most peaceful moment of my journey thus far. It’s what compelled me to sit down and write right away. I didn’t take pictures as my phone had died. Thank you House of Cards. However, I’m glad I didn’t. It was nice to be entirely present in the moment. Pictures wouldn’t have come out anyway.
An important dream
Ok, so I find I need to write about something I said I wouldn’t, something I have been avoiding. As I’ve travelled, though, I find it’s been weighing on my mind and I’m not sharing completely if I don’t. I’m choosing now to unpack it a little because it’s the reason I didn’t sleep well last night. It’s hard to say how long my last relationship lasted. It depends what you count. We were on and off, and sometimes even when we were on we were off. It’s safe to say that she was emotionally important to me for about 4 years. I’ve thought of her a lot as I’ve traveled. I left Boston in mid-January, only about a month after it ended for this most recent time. We definitely loved each other a great deal. For my part, I always will. There are people who remain important to you long after they permanently leave your life. We started from impossible circumstances. She was not actually available when I fell for her, and I was freshly divorced and not well positioned to begin something meaningful. The early times were filled with longing, broken promises, and hurt. It was not an ideal place to build trust from. We would stop talking from time to time and the universe would bring us back together. I would see other people in the meantime, but could never get her out of my mind. We’d start up again, but things would quickly go bad. It was rocky, a wonderful, magical, hellish roller coaster ride sometimes. The other day, my iPhone memory reached capacity. I literally couldn’t take a single picture without deleting one for one. I spent a couple of hours removing all pictures from my phone. Many if not most of the pictures were of her and good times we shared together. It made me very sad, but I was finally ready to not have them at my fingertips. We were supposed to take this trip together. Costa Rica was booked with the intention of us traveling together. This entire journey has been one of healing in that respect. I’m genuinely looking forward, and it does continuously get easier, but so many experiences take me back and remind me of her. There are times when it hurts badly, and all I want to do is reach out to her, but I don’t. I know that it was not good or healthy for me overall. As she was breaking up with me, she admitted that she has so much love to give, and for some reason, cannot consistently give it to me. There are times I’m all she wants, and yet it’s not enough. It’s more complicated than that, but I’d like to avoid sharing her personal details here and focus on my own experience. I loved her so much that I was trying to overlook all of that, but I wasn’t always happy. Neither of us were our best selves around each other. Sometimes yes, but the result was that we would hurt each other, badly at times. Last night I had a dream that I felt was a milestone. It’s the reason I’m sharing this now. I dreamt that I bumped into her. She told me what she’s been up to and said that she’s still working through things, but that she’d like me back in her life in the meantime. I told her what I’ve been up to, about meeting other people, people who treat me the way I want to be treated and with whom I am closer to my best self as it seems are they. We talked it over in some detail. It was a vivid dream, the kind where you wonder if the other person is really dreaming it too, at the same time. I ultimately said no. I can’t go into it further without really oversharing. However, it seemed important to share this personal story. I don’t necessarily need to find a relationship on this trip. I’m open, but have never been specifically looking. It’s more about looking back at some of my patterns and trends, and giving some thought to the type of relationship that will be healthiest for me. For those of you keeping score, I haven’t seen Emily in a while now, but we’re still in touch, and I’m excited to see what might become of that down the line.
Back to the Trace
On Wednesday, I took a day trip up the Trace from Jeff Busby Park. I brought Peggy as I usually do. By this point, I’ve seen each type of site on the Trace. It continues to be interesting, but now it’s just variations on a theme. I’m enjoying learning bits of information that are starting to fit together. Out at historical sites, they try not to overwhelm you with information all at once. If you go to enough sites, you end up collecting a level of knowledge that begins to feel like inside information. For instance, at first I learned that the Lousiana area was traded back and forth a couple of times. The French were at war with the British, so rather than let the Native Americans have it back, the French sold it back to the Spanish before they were defeated on the condition that the Spanish not sell it to the British … which they promptly did 10 days later. There’s always the superficial story, but it always gets juicier if you dig deeper. Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame may have committed suicide, but he may also have been murdered. He had been called to DC to explain his illegal misappropriation of government funds to his private business and died of gun shot wounds on the way. Did he shoot himself in the chest and then also in the head as is the going theory? That sounds implausible to me, but perhaps. As I’ve learned more about our history, I’ve gotten emotionally invested at times as described above. However, the more I learn, the more I’m beginning to look at it as a continuous saga that never ends, one that you can step back from and see as a spectator. We tend to get very passionate about the issues of today, but I suspect that most of us fail to see that these same issues have come up time and time again in one form or another for all of US history and often beyond. Furthermore, the specific circumstances around today’s issues did not occur in a vacuum. They are the culmination of years, decades, and centuries of events, all building on one another. US history starts to look like a very short story in the grand scheme of things where the 1700s are relatively recent, and our current situation is not really that far removed from then. It makes me wonder how we’d all feel about politics today if we were better informed about US and world history. I know many highschools require these topics, but how many of us got into very much detail then, or bothered to remember it as adults?
I’m writing this section on Friday, and rather than recount all of the individual sites I’ve continued to see along the Trace, I’ll just direct you to my Facebook page. The Trace, as I’ve mentioned, is well worth a visit. There have continued to be additional experiences though, that I haven’t put on Facebook, unexpected personal experiences that I’ll share now. At one site, I came across James from Tupelo, MS. James was resting at a Trace site I stopped at, sitting on a short wall next to his bicycle. He was in jeans with a studded black leather belt, a gray t-shirt, a thick chain with a cross around his neck. He struck me as probably not that old, but perhaps a man who had seen some rough times, with bright eyes and a weathered face. The bicycle, an orange mongoose, is a perfectly fine machine, but not one known for performance or quality. It’s designed for function and cost. I stood near James, reading some of the materials. We were quiet at first, probably each wondering if the other wanted to talk. I said hello, and he piped right up. James ended up sharing a lot with me, and I with him over what became a relatively extended conversation. Here was a man who I’ll suggest that a mother with small children might have avoided. He didn’t look at all sinister to me, but I would guess that more timid people might have avoided him. I was thoroughly rewarded for my curiosity. James had indeed seen some rough times. There had been several deaths in his family, infighting amongst the rest, financial set backs, a car fire, a motorcycle accident (James was rehabbing his leg on the bicycle), and yet here before me was a man with a positive attitude. He wasn’t shy about some of his political beliefs. For instance, that Obama has done nothing right, save for somehow being responsible for the cell phone currently in James’ hand, and that he was a Muslim. He also felt that the terrorist situation had been handled all wrong. I listened intently as I’m genuinely interested in the different perspectives found across America. However, after sharing all of that, he described an almost zen-like perspective. He felt that people need to stop hating, all hating, everywhere. We didn’t drill down into that too deeply, but he has totally forgiven his family, and doesn’t dwell on his misfortunes. His eyes are on the future, and he is optimistic about his prospects. It was a real pleasure speaking with James. I’m not sure we have much in common in day to day life, and we did not exchange information. However, he enriched my life that day by showing me that, despite our significant differences in background and opinions, that indeed all you need is love.
James said one other thing that stuck with me. He had no knowledge of my current minimalist attitudes when he said this. Honestly, I don’t even really know what prompted it. It seemed a little out of the blue, but he said something to the effect of “those who say money isn’t everything should try living without any”. I’ve had a couple of days to think about that now. It’s relevant to my current musings. I have explained how I felt that my possessions owned me and that by getting rid of them, I have found greater happiness. It now occurs to me that what I’ve done is not just downsize, but rather, change the ratio of assets to debts or financial liabilities. I am not wealthy in the traditional sense of the word, but relative to my meager expenses, I am. The point is that it’s really about spending much less than you make or have. In this context, James’ point really seems to be that there’s a floor to living expenses in America. If you want food, clothing, shelter, and transportation, you can’t get lower than monthly expenses of X, whatever X is. For those that make less than X, life is very stressful. It’s probably pretty stressful even for those who make a little more, but not much more. This one seemingly random comment of his helped me connect my life experience with that of those who have been much less fortunate than I. This is an important consideration as I ponder what career to embark on or perhaps continue with next. I am very grateful for my interaction with James.
For what it’s worth, I’ve not gone into my interactions with other people that I’ve met on this trip, but with whom I shared similarly unexpected encounters. Just today I met two men on a brief walk at one of the Trace sites. Keith and his friend whose name I did not get did not immediately strike me as friendly, and were perhaps people I might not want to approach. Keith was dressed head to toe in camo, and for some reason I found this disconcerting. Clearly I’m still working on non-judgment. It’s important to me, and it does seem like practice makes perfect there. Sure, keeping an eye on safety is key, but every time I’ve pressed my luck, it’s been fine / interesting. In this case, Keith and his friend were locals who gave me some additional information on the site I was visiting and tips on other local sites. By talking to them, I ended up meeting two cyclists who were biking all 444 miles of the Trace. This is all just reinforcing my attitude that people are people. We are all the same with the same core. Our experiences change us and morph us into a wide range of people, but we’ve all got the same core, and that seems to be the key to all communication, compromise, and compassion.
While at the Jeff Busby campground, a black cat approached me. It was clearly in desperate need of both food and affection. I was confused, because this cat was familiar with people and its fur was in good condition, but it acted like a stray. I asked around the campground to see if it belonged to anyone, and finally someone pointed out a sign on the billboard. Officials are aware of a large number of feral cats. They’re trying to round them up and rehome them. Please do not feed them. Well, too late. This cat was already fed. The cat had already come in the trailer and socialized with Peggy. I began to consider taking the cat on my trip with me. I’d get it checked out and could see if it would be a good fit on the road and with the dog. If it didn’t, what would be the harm in finding it a no kill shelter, or better yet, directly finding it another home? I left it out at night since I didn’t have a litter box, and sure enough, it was waiting outside the next morning. I brought it with me when I left. However, at the local(ish) vet, I discovered that the poor thing was chipped and already had an owner! It was a neutered male, not a young non-spayed female. This cat had strayed more than 10 miles from home and had been missing for an unspecified time. He was a relatively recent rescue from a shelter, but the woman didn’t really like him. He was too needy. In her words, he kept mounting her older female cat. Now that I have seen his behavior, I see that it’s not sexual mounting. He “mounts” Peggy, but not how you might think. He is just a little aggressive about his snuggling. He likes to lay right on top of Peggy if he can, across her body, or even on her face. I don’t think it’s a dominance thing. He also lays at her butt and spoons with her. He’s an opportunist snuggler. For her part, Peggy seems to have mixed feelings about this. At first she had a deer in the headlights look about it. The more I pet her while he’s snuggling with her, the more she gets accustomed to it. She seems to like it generally speaking, but late at night when she’s trying to sleep, she get’s up and moves if he’s too much. I have caught them snuggling a bunch now, though, and it’s going well. The owner did not want him back. If I didn’t take him, he was going back to the shelter she had gotten him from. I guess I can’t judge. I don’t know the details. It’s just hard for me to relate to. It would take a lot for me to return a rescued animal, and I can’t imagine being indifferent towards any animal’s whereabouts or safety. Anyway, now I have cat! It’s going well, and I’m optimistic about it.
On Saturday, finally having completed touring the Trace, I took a day trip to Nashville. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or what I was even looking for. I’m not a huge fan of country music. I don’t hate it I guess. I like good music, but I don’t gravitate towards country, especially the popular radio stuff. I had skimmed a pamphlet, but it was packed with things I wasn’t interested. I’ve seen my fill of museums and historical landmarks for the time being, and despite my time on the Trace, I wasn’t in a rush to head back into crowded cities. I did a little internet searching, and started to get some information that worked for me. First, I found a vegan place for lunch out near Vanderbilt University. There’s a large city park and some music venues out that way. Then I went downtown and checked out the Bourbon Street of Nashville. It was fine, but I wasn’t immediately in love. Then I started to make this area my own as well. I passed by several bars until I found one with some decent live country music and a good beer selection. Next I upgraded to a venue called the Listening Room where there was a scheduled show of 3 artists playing together. They were all fantastic, one from Carlisle, MA, right near where I lived most recently. The $7 cover was totally reasonable, and my day was definitely improving. Like so many cities, I’m discovering that you can find what you are looking for if you scratch beneath the surface. This was pretty good music! It was not at all like the mainstream country that is so popular, and yet it was clearly still country. It was nice to hear innovative music in this genre. They call Nashville “Music City”, so I figured I’d continue my evening with a trip over to the Exit / In to see 2 more bands. They were fine, but honestly, I liked the stuff at The Listening Room better. Exit / In, though, has an impressive list of bands that have played there posted on their wall above the bar. I’ve seen several, but so many more are on my to see list.
There is so much more to see and do in Nashville. Now that I’ve gotten the lay of the land, I’d love to see more of it. However, I find I’m feeling restless. I’ve seen several cities already, and while my time on the Trace did have me outside and in nature more, I’m craving some serious outdoor activities. It’s so challenging to keep everything in balance! There are so many things I enjoy and want to include in my trip! It’s a constant but pleasant struggle. I have tickets to the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville. It starts Thursday. Today, Sunday, I relaxed with a movie and did some chores. Tomorrow, I’ll head east in advance of the festival. I’ll be able to have 2 or even 3 days of real hiking in the Smoky Mountains with Peggy. I didn’t expect to be making a loop this early in the trip, but Knoxville is very close to
Asheville, NC. Dedicated readers may remember my failed attempt to visit Asheville on my way out of Boston early in the trip. I may hit that after the festival.
Knoxville, Big Ears
Ok, so I definitely should have posted what I’ve written up to this point instead of waiting. As I write this portion, I’ve now been to the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville, hiked Mt Camerer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hiked Mt Mitchel in the Black Mountains National Forest, visited Asheville, driven to Chicago, and spent a weekend here visiting friends. As with everything, I’ll have to hit just the high points, so here goes!
Maybe the first thing I’ll mention is that, since taking that down day, it’s been literally two weeks of non-stop activity. Sympathy is not warranted or deserved, but I’m feeling a little wiped out! Driving with Hank at first was horrible. He barfed within the first 15 minutes, then would poop on the floor. I started crating him, but that only served to keep the car clean. He quickly coated the inside of the crate and himself in filth. However, in desperation, I picked up some supplies in Asheville, and the drive to Chicago went much more smoothly! He still cried, but fell asleep more quickly and did not have any “accidents”. The trick was a liberal application of cat nip and pheromone spray. We still took breaks, but he basically held himself together for a 14 hour day!
In Knoxville, or rather Maryville, I found a “Boondockers Welcome” home to stay at. What an amazing and welcoming family! The mom, Barbara, homeschools her two kids, and is a wonderful person. They invited me in for dinner the first night, and we shared food, watched an episode of Heroes, and generally chatted for a while. The topic of ice wine came up. Since I was staying there for so long, about 5 nights, I went out and picked up a bottle for them as a thank you. They in turn shared it with me on a separate night. It was such a pleasure meeting them.
There driveway was my launch pad for all things Knoxvillian. I started with a pretty substantial hike up a 5000 foot peek (3000 foot ascent). Peggy and I ended up on a 16 mile loop covering about 5 miles of the Appalachian trail. We hiked with Rachael, a through hiker who had started 3 weeks earlier and was covering 18 miles that day. Meeting through hikers is just about the best thing that can possibly happen on a hike in my opinion. They are super heroes, and they all have amazing stories. Rachael was just finishing her work with the National Guard and this was her break before taking her life in a new direction. She hopes to complete the route in about 5 months. It normally takes 6 to 8, but she knew a trail runner who did it in under 5. Good luck Rachael! Peggy wants to do whatever I’m doing, and she can hike big mountains like a champ. She took one power nap, but spent the rest of the time hurrying me along, that is, when she wasn’t pulling my arm off to sniff something … like what was most likely a bear cub. I figured pulling her head off with the leash was better than being eaten by a mama bear, so I had no problem pulling hard against her unyielding and strenuous objections to moving on. It was a beautiful day, but I was glad to be down. My hiking boots feel more like light hikers than light back packers. I’m used to a more rigid boot and my feet were feeling it. I decided I wanted pizza and saw that there was a Mellow Mushroom nearby. Imagine my horror when Gatlinburg punched me in the face. Gatlinburg is a carnival, one big carnival of a town, and it appears magically, abruptly, and without warning, like an eruption of crassness from an otherwise pristine landscape. I’m not knocking carnivals or people who like them, but this was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise given my day of peace and relative solitude in nature. Still, I made the best of it. Plus, I love the pizza at MM.
Big Ears is an entirely different music festival than Okeechobee. Both were tons of fun with high quality acts, but Big Ears felt like a lot more adult of a festival. I liked referring to it as the fine dining of music festivals. Okeechobee felt more like a party. At Big Ears, I went to see the symphony perform music by artists like Bryce Dessner. I am a huge fan of Bryce’s work. He and his brother play in a band called the National that I like a lot. They are also heavily involved in the Boston music and art scene. Big Ears is a city music festival where shows are spread across 8 venues that span about a mile. Walking between them one night, I overheard an older couple talking about Bryce. One said something like “Well, Bryce is …”. During their pause, I blurted out “ … a genius?”. They laughed and asked if I knew him. I said no but mentioned some of his work that I liked, particularly an evening of performance art at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. They knew exactly what I meant and then told me that they were his parents. I couldn’t believe it! We were headed towards the same venue and we talked the whole way there. It was great. I offered to buy them a drink when we got there, but they declined and we parted ways. They seemed pleased to meet a real fan. Big Ears also included performances by Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo, and Angel Olsen, a few of the main artists I went to see. There were instrument specific performances like guitar, percussion, harp, etc. from big name and extremely talented musicians. Often musicians would play collaboratively with each other. For instance, Bryce played with Yo La Tengo, the conductor from the symphony, one of the harpists, and the a saxiphone player unexpectedly. Lamb Chop played as a super group with Yo La Tengo as well. Some bands played traditional sets of their own music. Others played totally non-traditional more experimental sounding music. There was trance inducing “drone” music, high energy music to dance to. I loved every second of this festival and wish I could have bottled it up to take it with me. I even bumped into people I knew there. A friend from Chicago had come down to the festival. I hung out with him and some of his friends at different sets and joined them for the free festival BBQ meal. It included vegan food! Knoxville is cool. There are lots of great bars. One in particular, not a Big Ears venue, did have live music similar to the festival music. I wandered in there and was pleasantly surprised by an excellent local artist called Hudson K. I visited a winery that I kept parking near as well. It was perhaps the best wine I’ve tried on this trip! The venues for the festival were interesting. One was brand new. Another was a church. Two others were theaters with individual seats, one of which you were issued an assigned seat for. This was a perfect festival for me, and it makes me excited just to think of it now. I saw very few traditional performances. There were so many different kinds of instruments integrated into the vast majority of the performances, sax, flute, and sooooo many different string instruments! I saw almost no basic band set ups with a guitar, bass, drums, and singer. Come to think of it, over the 3 day festival, only 1 comes to mind. I enthusiastically endorse this festival. I could happily write extensively about it, but I’ll move on now.
Big Ears included a number of interesting film exhibitions, but sadly I made it to none of them. I had every intention of it and a strong interest, but something always seemed to stand in the way. There were actually a few films showing on Sunday. The festival primarily ran Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Sunday was a bit of an add on, or so it felt to me. I wanted to see the Sunday offerings, but decided to move on. I figured that if I headed straight to Asheville, I could have two non-travel days there, one to see the city, and one to hike. I’d have a rushed and long drive to Chicago, but it seemed worth it, and it turns out I was right. Monday, April 4, was my birthday. I spent that wandering around Asheville with Peggy. I found a vegan restaurant and a separate donut shop. I had intended to head down to the River Arts District, but I never made it. I also intended to hit several breweries to try the local offerings. Clearly I need to go back to Asheville. Peggy and I met so many friends at the first brew pub we went to, Wicked Weed, that we never made it to any others. I spent hours sampling the beer and talking to a few different groups of people while Tame Impala played in the background. I left there and found a new place for dinner, another vegan place recommended by Casey, the friend from the 311 shows in Nola. The friends from the bar invited me out, but I was tired and wanted to get Peggy back to the campground. It was very near town and super convenient. When I had arrived on Sunday the 3rd, I had thought of heading into Asheville then, but I ended up hanging out with the group of campers next to me from the mid afternoon until late evening. We played cards against humanity and a similar game involving ridiculous accents. Then we had a camp fire, roasted marshmallows, and watched the walking dead outside in the dark. It was kind of perfect actually. I continue to be thrilled with the people I am meeting on this trip. This continues to be such a rich, dense, and positive experience. There is nothing I could possibly write that would even begin to convey the experience, but I hope you’re getting the gist from these ramblings.
On Tuesday, April 5, I hiked Mt. Mitchel, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Peggy and I took an 11 mile route that was largely up and back, but with an alternate path to make it vaguely into a loop. The peak is also accessible via auto road off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Closed in winter, it had just opened on the first. There were few people there. I mostly had the mountain to myself. The large parking lot was nearly empty and I was able to have a reasonably solitary summit experience. Clearly this would not have been possible in the height of summer. It reminded me of the summit of Mt Washington in NH which has both an auto road, the cog railway, and a large weatherstation with cafeteria on it. You hike for hours and come out to senior citizens with walkers. I’m glad its accessible to everyone. It’s just a surprise when you come out of a trail to civilization unexpectedly, just like Gadlinburg. I found the first third of the hike a little annoying, just a bunch of switchbacks up a rather steep hill. However, the majority of the hike is beautiful. They are having trouble with insects killing many of the trees, but it’s still a great hike with amazing views. After I returned to the base, I drove down the parkway and went back up the mountain via auto road to get pictures in the near sunset light. I could have done without the dude and his drone, but that’s fine. Then I drove down the parkway to the closed end to see the sunset fully over the mountains. I had hoped it would be open all the way back to Asheville, but it was not. It was still too early in the season. It appeared they need to clear the fallen rocks from the road. The drive down to the parkway and down the mountain road back to the city was challenging in the dark, but manageable. I made it back to camp and prepared for my 700 mile drive to Chicago the next day.
Winterizing the trailer took longer than expected, so I got a late start to Chicago, leaving at 1 PM from south of Asheville. Still, the drive was nice. The ride through the mountains is breathtaking, but it takes a lot of focus. The highway winds through up and down narrow passes and through tunnels appearing in quick succession, better than an amusement park ride. I was due in Chicago by 7:30 AM on Thursday morning, but my late start meant that I only covered 500 miles by the time the animals and I were spent. We pulled into a truck stop just north of Indianapolis and got 4 hours of sleep before getting up early to complete the drive. At least we had the time change on our side!
I made it to Veronica’s parents’ house on time, but they live on a busy street. I was able to back into their driveway successfully, but not on the first try. I blocked traffic twice for a couple of minutes. It was a challenging procedure and the added pressure didn’t help. I backed the trailer into the neighbor’s mailbox and knocked it over. I didn’t even know it was there! Veronica’s dad, Carlos and I easily repaired it later that day. By 8 AM, I was parked and we were on our way to pick up my friends Veronica and Meredith at the airport, just coming in on their flight from Boston. We went out to breakfast and had a nice reunion. Thursday was a pretty low key day. We were all pretty tired. Later that day, we met up with our friend Mike and went to a local bar. Sleep deprived and stuffed full of home cooking, I drank half a beer and promptly fell asleep at the bar. Well, I was in and out. We still had fun but called it an early night. I slept in the next morning, sadly missing out on yoga with the friends. I figured I’d have more opportunities to go with them, but I did not. Friday we joined Veronica as she met a local friend for coffee. There, we bumped into a highschool acquaintance of hers who suggested a different bar that night. Mike and another friend of Veronica’s, Fouzia, joined us that night. We all had a great time. There was live music and a DJ who promptly ignored most of our requests, but not all. This time, I had all of the energy. We packed it in as the others got tired. I was ready for yoga bright and early, but the others were feeling relaxed and sleepy, so we had a peaceful and quiet morning at home. No complaints here! Veronica’s mom had made delicious vegan scones, perhaps the best I’ve ever had! It’s such a pleasure staying with her parents. We’ve visited before, and they are always so welcoming and accommodating. Her mom made sure to have ample vegan food on hand all weekend. She cooked for us on Saturday night when we decided to stay in, and even after Meredith and Veronica left early on Sunday, they continued to invite me in all day. I’m writing this Sunday night, and I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. By the way, her mom’s mushrooms are quality. My mouth is watering just thinking about them now. I spent hours today hanging out with Carlos and Debbie. They are so easy to talk to for hours. As we had all weekend, we covered all manner of topics such as family, politics, my trip, their trips, etc. During this weekend, we barely visited Chicago at all. I don’t mind. I’ve been here numerous times. I love it, but was happy to hang out with my Boston friends and Veronica’s local friends and family. Her sister even came down from Madison, WI to visit us as well. We did head into the city briefly to check out an art museum that was having a Van Gogh exhibit, but we didn’t realize that it closed so early. We had less than an hour there. It was till fun. We saw some really interesting things, although they don’t let you into the Van Gogh area that late in the day. I did get to see the Ferris Beuler painting and American Gothic amongst other things. We had a good time and were glad we went.
There were a number of “small world” connections this weekend. We went to lunch on Saturday with another of Veronica’s friends. Meredith also has a friend from college who lives in Chicago. It turns out that this friend, Margarete, works at a hospital and is involved with a clinical trial being run by the company I just left. She knows many of my old coworkers … including my ex, the one who would have been at that very lunch if we hadn’t broken up and she had come on this trip. Weird.
I’ve been torn about what to do next when I leave the area. There are many things I want to do in this region, but it’s cold. It has rained and snowed while I’ve been up here. As I mentioned, it was necessary to winterize my trailer just to come. I’ll come back through when it’s nicer. I think I’ll start heading towards Austin ultimately, but with many stops along the way. I’ve made arrangements to hit stay at a winery outside of Cincinnati for the next few days. This will give me a chance to see some of Ohio and Kentucky, two states I’ve never really seen as well as an opportunity to visit Emily. I’m looking forward to that. After that, I’ll probably head across to the west side of the Mississippi to hit new states, but we’ll see. This past two weeks has been pretty agenda driven. It’s been wonderful, but it’s taken me out of my blissful drifting through life place. I want to slow down a little again and get back to that time and space for contemplation that I’ve talked so much about. It’s true that I’ve begun to mull over what might come next career-wise, but there’s no rush on that. I’m not done with the focus on personal growth that I consider so important, and I’m very happy that I have no further commitments of any kind for the duration of my trip at this point.