Friday, October 28, 2011

Fall Getaway

Go to the bathroom and get yourself a snack...this is another long travelogue of a post!

Normally, I come home on Friday night to a lonely Rosie and an otherwise empty house.  I look forward to either crashing from a busy week with a book, or doing a few fun chores: using up old bananas in banana bread, finally getting the floor vacuumed, or even catching up on blog stuff.  (No, vacuuming is not fun, but it's soooo nice to have a carpet without wads of black dog fur all over it.)

Last Friday was odd.  When I got home, Miss Chef's car was there.  Not only was she not at work, but her car was parked on the street, as if she were planning to leave before me in the morning.  I came in to find her sitting at the computer, dressed in street clothes.  No chef jacket?

I plopped my bags on the floor and asked her what was up.

"Well," she said, shutting down the computer, "Remember how I wouldn't really commit to anything this weekend, when you asked if I wanted to go to the fair?"
"Um, yeah."
"I have a surprise for you..."

She had reserved a hotel room in Flat Rock, arranged time off, taken Rosie up to Maria's, and even packed the car.  We were ready to leave for a weekend in the mountains!  I was impressed--I'd been thinking longingly of our trip last year to Brevard and Hendersonville.  Not only had she read my mind, but she'd been really devious about it, too.  She'd texted me the night before that she had to work a double because the line cook was sick...she signed off that message with "See you Saturday."  Little did I know she'd arranged a month ago to switch shifts.

Sneaky.

So into the car we jumped and off we drove.  Miss Chef had a folder with directions to the hotel, as well as a few places she thought we should visit.  Not only had she planned everything, but she was paying for everything and doing all the driving.

Yes, I know how lucky I am.

We got to Flat Rock late, so it wasn't until Saturday morning that we headed out to really enjoy the mountains.  Miss Chef had also ordered a perfect fall weekend, with blue skies, bright sun and temperatures in the high 60s.

Our first adventure was to Chimney Rock State Park.  The natural monument and 64 surrounding acres was purchased in 1902 by a Dr. Lucius Morse for $5,000.  He and his family developed the area as a park open to a paying public, expanding their landholdings to 1000 acres.  It remained in the Morse family until 2007, when the state of North Carolina bought the land for $2.4 million.  That's quite a good investment!

Here's why people come from around the world to visit Chimney Rock:


We'd already driven up and up and up to get this far...that jutting rock is another 315 feet above the parking lot.  Think about climbing to the top of a 30-story building, and you've got the idea of our task.  I thought the guy at the ticket booth at the park entrance was joking about an elevator being closed--an elevator?  To a mountain?  But yes, they have an elevator.  And yes, it was closed for upgrades.  Whatever.  We were here to climb.

We warmed up with a stop to enjoy the view from the parking lot.



Below us we discovered Lake Lure.  This is an artificial lake, created by damming the Broad River in 1927.  This was also the work of the Morse family--Dr. Morse's wife is credited with naming the lake.  Trivia: parts of several movies, including Dirty Dancing and Last of the Mohicans were filmed here.  Ooooo....

As we set off up the trail to the top, we passed by some people taking rock climbing lessons.


About this time, Miss Chef realized she couldn't find her keys!  Well, there was no point in panicking; we'd come to climb the rock and climb we would.  The car wasn't going anywhere.

I hadn't realized that we'd be climbing stairs the whole way.  I thought we'd be scrambling up steep trails, but it was way steeper than I knew!  (These are actually stairs down to another trail...which we eventually did climb back up later in the day...but this gives you the general idea.)


I had to take many, many breaks!  It probably took 20 to 30 minutes to get to the top.  I was very happy Miss Chef was patient with me and didn't care how often I had to stop.

Yes, I know how lucky I am.  :)

This picture should give you some idea of how high we were.  The walkway is part of a (temporarily closed) side trail that was about a quarter of the way up.


Of course, we didn't spend as much time looking down as we did out.


I patched together this view from 3 different pictures.  You can click on it, then on "show original" to biggerize it (and see where my patches don't quite meet, lol).

Here are some more, regular pictures:



Can you tell we were enjoying ourselves?



Yours truly, soaking in the sights.  Like my hat?

Although it obviously wasn't peak color yet, we still found some beautiful leaves to ooh and ahh over.



Miss Chef gets credit for these.  I actually made a conscious decision to put the camera down and just enjoy the colors.  So I didn't get anything as spectacular as last year's photos.

We met a lovely couple at the top, and sat chatting with them for a while.  We admired the several dogs that had made the climb with their owners, and I admired the young couples who had packed their infant children up all those stairs.  (You can rent backpack-style carriers at the base.  Maybe I'll ask Miss Chef to carry me up next time.)

Back behind Chimney Rock, we could see the next stop on the further climb--can you see the people behind the railing?  (Click to biggerize.)  That spot is called Opera Box.  What a clever name!  The profile of the cliff to the right reminds me of a champagne cork.


We opted not to continue on up that way to Exclamation Point, the highest part of the park available to visitors.  I had had enough stairs (I get a touch of vertigo on them, but mostly my legs were a bit shaky), and Miss Chef's bad knee was really bothering her.  

It was a lot faster going down; as we started our descent, I wanted to give folks on their way up a high-five and say "Good job!"  Once back at the parking lot, Miss Chef got a number for a car-unlocking service from the gift shop, and we ate lunch while we waited.  It was an hour and a half wait, but the weather was gorgeous, and we had lots to look at.

I have to say, every single person we met on our weekend was unfailingly friendly and lovely.  Tourists, parking rangers, locals, everybody.

Once we got back into our car*--after a lesson from the friendly car-unlocker man about how to hide a key on your car--Miss Chef put her knee brace on and we headed out on another trail.  This one was to Hickory Nut Falls, which we knew nothing about.  But we were still in the mood for a walk in the woods, and this was a much easier trail, with no stairs.

*Although I promised Miss Chef I'd take a picture of the unlocking process to embarrass her post on this blog, I got distracted and forgot.  Dang!

It was about 30 minutes' walk along a wide gravel trail to get to the falls.  There were a lot of people on the way there and back, but it didn't really feel crowded.  Here's a picture looking back at the last bridge approaching the falls.  Makes me glad the Morse family did such a good job creating these trails!



It was hard to get a good picture of the falls, so here's a video instead.  Not the most impressive falls I've visited, but picturesque all the same.

video

After the hike back, we decided we had done our exercise for the day, so we headed on out.  I drove down the twisty road, which was kind of fun.  Miss Chef kept a tight grip on the passenger side door; maybe she was afraid the unlocking guy had damaged it?

We stopped to buy apples and cider--the road back toward Interstate 26 was lined with orchards every 500 feet!  Miss Chef bought a peck of cameos and a warm fried apple pie.  I opened the cold apple cider before we made it back to the car--I was thirsty after all that climbing!

After a brief stop back in the hotel room, we headed into nearby Hendersonville for dinner.  




I love the historic downtown area.  We parked on the south end of the 5-block center of Main Street and strolled up and back, peeking in closed shop windows and reading menus.  We finally settled on Mezzaluna, an Italian place with a casual, open feel and slightly upscale food.  Miss Chef had veal saltembucca, I had fettucine with prosciutto, asparagus and peas in a creamy sauce.  I did not take pictures.

We didn't stay for dessert, because we had already ascertained that Kilwin's, a sweets shop up the street, would be open until 10 pm.  (As I type this, I am munching on the last of the chocolate-covered pretzels we bought there.)  And that was enough excitement for one day...we headed back to the hotel and a well-earned rest.

Sunday was apple day!  Miss Chef's folder included directions to Skytop Orchards just minutes from our hotel.  Once we turned off the main road, we knew why they named it Skytop--the road was even steeper than the one to Chimney Rock!  The views were gorgeous, with plenty of gold, orange and red blazes to keep me pointing out the window.

Skytop Orchard is quite the destination.  They have a big shop full of a dozen varieties of apples, cider slushees, hot cider, jugs of cider, apple breads and cakes...and hot, fresh apple cider donuts made right in front of you.

We had just had breakfast, so we decided to hold off on the treats.  We were there to pick our own apples. We eventually found the fellow in charge of handing out baskets and got directions.  Turns out we were right at the end of the season; all that was left were some gold varieties and pink lady.  Also, the directions included a twenty-minute walk and the phrase "beyond the dropoff."

We were in for more climbing.

But this was more fun.  No stairs, for starters.  And gorgeous views.


video

I swear, I did not plan Miss Chef's cameo.  We just make a good team.

Once we made it to the far, far edge of the orchard land, we finally found some apples still in the trees.  Most of them were yellow...


...but we were mostly interested in the pink ladies.  Truth be told, we found most of the best ones already on the ground.  We didn't care where we found them, the hunt was the thing.


Miss Chef was busy finding more apples than we could possibly eat, so I stopped picking to take more pictures.  I've adjusted the saturation and contrast of these to make the colors more like we saw them in person.


Above is the bottom part of the dropoff we were going to be hauling our apples back up.  Below is the woods at the far edge of the orchard.



After dragging Miss Chef away from the trees, we hauled our apples back up the dropoff to the main shop to pay for them.  As we walked into the building, I noticed a woman writing a whiteboard sign "Skytop is picked out," and another woman erasing the varieties available off another whiteboard.  Good thing we got there first thing in the morning!

The farm also includes a sort-of barnyard with sheep, goats and geese for the kids to feed and maybe pet.  I distracted two very domineering sheep in this pen so Miss Chef could make nice with the lone little goat.



There was also this pretty little pond with some ducks happily soaking in the sun.



After getting to know The Boyz at Morning Bray Farm, and Linda's heard at the 7MSN Ranch, I was hoping to meet some donkeys, but this was as close as it got...

"I wish I could be a real boy..."

...so I consoled myself with some of those apple cider donuts we'd been eyeing earlier!


It was a delicious ending to a lovely, relaxing weekend.  We did a brief trip back into Hendersonville for lunch (okay, and maybe we had to hit Mast General Store), and then headed back home.  It's amazing how quickly we drop out of the mountains as we drive east toward Charlotte; next time we may have to venture a little further in.  Because surely, there will be a next time.

Here's a last picture from Hendersonville...they do love their bears!


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sneak Peek

I know it's going to be a week or so before I have to chance to write about our getaway weekend in the mountains...so here's a sneak peek.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Away

I was going to write a post tonight, but Miss Chef has surprised me with an anniversary weekend in the mountains.  So I just wanted to put something here to keep the blog alive.  But mostly I wanted to brag about what a wonderful wife I have.  :)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Paddle Report

usnwc 10 30

Oh, yes, some of you have had snow already…but we’re unashamedly reveling in perfect fall weather.  When I noticed the leaves starting to turn, and read the weather report, I knew I had to get back on the Catawba to see Mother Nature’s dress-up show.

I hope you can stand another post about kayaking at the Whitewater Center.  This one has lots of pictures.  Because I was thinking of you, my bloggy audience.

usnwc 10 29

They have loads and loads of kayaks there…I suspect they just invested in more.  At the far end of the dock, you can see another new option: 25-foot long canoes for 12 people.  Wow.  I wouldn’t want to try turning one of those around!

There were a few other kayakers around, but not nearly as many as on a hot July afternoon.

usnwc 10 25

As you can see, my timing wasn’t quite right…either I arrived early to the show, or this isn’t going to be as good as last year’s.  It was still worth being out in the gorgeous weather, at any rate.

And there was still some color lurking about, here and there…

usnwc 10 06

usnwc 10 07

usnwc 10 09

usnwc 10 11

usnwc 10 20

I even took a little video to share with you, as I slid beneath a colorful display (never mind the grating noise of my sliding over a submerged branch).

video


Now, here’s a little mystery I solved…as I wound my way back into my favorite creek, I heard what at first I took to be bikers on the trails high above me.  Then I realized the brisk breezes were shaking something out of the trees.  They rattled down through the branches and leaves below them, before shooting into the water with mysterious “ploop!” sounds.

Ooo, what could they be?  The only trees I could identify with the sun shining in my face were poplars, which, as far I knew, weren’t known for their nut production.  As I returned back out of the creek, I spotted one floating on the surface and paddled under the canopy to scoop it up.

They looked like pecans, but I’m not sure what they are.  (The water bottle is for reference.)  (Yes, those are my bare feet on either side.)

usnwc 10 26

Then I spotted something entirely different, which at first I thought was a small apple.

usnwc 10 27

I took a sniff, and instead of the sweet smell of fruit, I got the piney, pungent scent of black walnut.  They grow them big down here!

Then I spotted another one floating nearby and decided I should get out from under the trees before the next breeze came by.

Besides the changing of the leaves, the slide into fall was also marked by a distinct absence of turtles.  Normally, every other decent-sized log lounging in the water had a mini-party of reclining reptiles.  Today I saw only two, on two different sections of the stream.

usnwc 10 22

I also saw the neighborhood great blue heron and osprey.

usnwc 10 04

It was just a plain ol’ beautiful day to be alive.

usnwc 10 23

usnwc 10 24

I spent about two hours paddling up and down the river, finding out the cut-through in the island was too low to paddle, and wandering around the south end of the island (oh, there you are, Mr. Heron).  The hardest part of the whole thing is hauling my wet tushie out of the kayak and up the steep hill through the woods.

Once back onto the main grounds of the Whitewater Center, I took a break to watch some of the whitewater kayakers.

video

That’s what Miss Chef was not even close to being able to do.  You’ve got to respect those skills.

Tomorrow's big adventure is the Carolina Renaissance Festival, which we've gone to for the past 4 or 5 years.  I'll probably take pictures, but it might be awhile before I can post anything here.  (Of course, you could always check out this post from 2009.)

In the meantime, I think I'll go take some ibuprofen...my shoulder seems to be a bit, er, tired.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ode to a Season

IMG_1608

Growing up, I hated fall.

Perhaps that’s a bit strong.  Winter, I hated.  I grew up in the snow belt, on the eastern side of Lake Erie, from which the cold Canadian Clipper picked up moisture, to dump as snow in generous portions on our town.  I lived in a farmhouse built in 1847, before fiberglass insulation and double-paned windows.  No matter where you were in that house, you felt when the wind blew strong; the quality of light changed depending on the height of the snow outside.

No, by comparison, fall wasn’t deserving of hate, but I greeted it with disappointment and distrust.  Every year, such a beautiful season, explosively brilliant in the land of the sugar maple, inevitably invited in its companion, winter.  Each August I heard the first flock of honking Canada geese with a sense of panic, of not having finished up with summer and being unprepared for school buses and snow shovels.

Then I moved South.  South, to the land of summer that sits on your body, literally stunning you with its oppressive humidity.  I know some who love it and thrive in it, but I’ll always be a Yankee, bred from northern European stock and raised in an igloo the cold.  Since my first year in Mobile, over a decade ago, summer has become my hibernation time, chased indoors by a merciless sun I never could have imagined on the hottest July afternoon of my childhood.

Thus, fall and I started a new relationship.  There was still school (I was teaching in Mobile), but the end of summer vacation also meant the end of an imprisonment.  The windows would open, the azaleas would bloom again, and the patio furniture became useful once more.  Plants and lawns that had stoically maintained themselves through the blistering heat became lush again, as if they could relax and recover, after a long battle with an implacable enemy.

It is possible I’m reading too much into that.

Whatever the plants’ feelings—or lack thereof—I have yet to make it through a summer here in North Carolina without neglecting the garden, the yard and every outdoor chore imaginable.  This year was worse than ever.  Having decided I wouldn’t plant a summer garden because of our two-week absence in June, I still magically ended up with vines of tomatoes and beans.  And thanks to fortunate rainfalls and the help of some garden-friendly friends, the dang thing was in surprisingly good shape when we returned.

Things went downhill from there.  I think I never re-adjusted to “yes, we have a garden this summer,” and I would…well, I forgot for weeks at a time to go out there.  It didn’t help that we finally found a reliable lawn-mowing service.  Now nothing forces me into the backyard, other than helping Rosie find her toy when she’s left it behind the AC unit.

About three weeks ago, the temperature finally dropped below 90, and I slowly have emerged from the house.  Actually, it was Miss Chef who came out first, enjoying her oh-so-short break from teaching with a long day weeding some beds and replenishing them with fresh dirt.  I followed behind with some pansies and some bulbs we’d bought but never used last fall, planting 60 crocuses that may or may not emerge in the spring.

Pansies 10 01
Oh, what will you look like in spring, I wonder?


I also delved into food gardening again, planting more mesclun seeds and—for Miss Chef—some kale seeds I didn’t know we had.  We can garden just about year-round here, and we patronize two farmers’ markets that boast local food all through the winter.

As I moved around the yard, greeting the trees and beds like friends coming back to school after a long vacation (“Wow, you’ve really put on some growth.  You look good!”), it seemed my neglected garden welcomed me with some surprises:

IMG_1317

The beans said, “We forgive you for not watering us for months, because, in our little beany hearts, we just like to give!”

The raspberries said, “Yes, we know, we saw those blackberries give up all their fruit while you were gone.  We saved you a few delectable bites to remember summer by.”  In fact, this is a better harvest than we had this spring.  It’s still a tiny one by any measure, but the taste is incomparable.  Spotting these berries felt like finding treasure.

IMG_1323

But there, across the yard, quietly inconspicuous, Miss Chef’s fig tree proudly held one last bold surprise:

IMG_1326

The tree we planted last fall died over the winter, but sent up healthy new shoots very quickly.  It has set several fruits, but they seem to disappear before harvest.  Rabbits?  Deer?  Crumple-horned snorkacks?  Blind neglect? (I mean, how can you harvest a fig when you don’t look at the tree??)  Well, today was my lucky day.  In fact, I’m not sure if it’s ripe or just this side of rotten, but when Miss Chef comes home, I will present it to her as if it were a diamond.

Around here, that’s true love.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Another Rosie Video

It takes for-ever to load videos (we have a slow connection), so I have to keep them short.  But a little Rosie is better than no Rosie, I always say.

video

Thursday, October 6, 2011

New Colors

It's fall, what can I say?

It's been a crazy hectic week.  I went back to teaching, Miss Chef's schedule has changed from crazy early morning classes to crazy late night classes, and a cook was fired at the restaurant, so she's got more shifts to cover.  Plus she recently started an online MBA course.  Tonight is the first time I've clapped eyes on her since a brief meeting in an office Tuesday night, and she's over there --> on her laptop doing homework.

And I'm ok with that.  She's home, she's healthy, and Rosie is lying right behind me.  Things could be worse.

I'll try to post something this weekend, to keep the blog alive.  In the meantime, TGIF baby!

My new profile picture was taken almost exactly a year ago, during our 10-year anniversary trip to Brevard.