Chacos. Right Now.

I bought my first pair of Chaco Sandals in May of 1997. A seemingly meaningless purchase, it nevertheless had outstanding repercussions for the rest of my life.

Until that particular moment in time, which occurred while I was standing in Back Country Outfitters in Blacksburg, VA, my wardrobe had been noticeably dated. Sort of like the 1980’s met with K-Mart at a Holiness Tent Revival and bought some clothes. Serviceable enough for hard labor, jeans mixed with the appropriate flannel or t-shirt for everyday wear, jeans with white shirts for church. There was also the requisite Carharrts for the work I did; coal mining, heavy construction, farming, cooking, and all the brutal exercise associated with those tasks.

Interesting enough, the clothes I purchased for work were the most expensive items in my closet, or more accurately, on the floor of my closet and some would argue the most stylish. There was also the omnipresent pair of camo shorts, rarely worn except to class along with white socks and tennis shoes. Or work boots. I was hopelessly unaware of fashion trends or anything even remotely related to such a thing.

That unseasonably hot, sticky May morning in the top floor of a gear shop was the beginning of a change in my life. I had long been chaffing at the predictability of my future, realizing with an ever-increasing sense of dread that my entire life was unfolding before my eyes, a path, well-trodden by my family and all those others in the small area of the Coalfields of Virginia. I was married, too young. I was graduating from college, too late. I was only a few years older than my peers at Virginia Tech, but I felt ancient and out of place in the classrooms and laboratories where we shared assignments and peered at minerals through microscopes and broke rocks with shiny new hammers purchased from the bookstore. My hammer was worn, rusted, beaten and well used. The grip on the handle was nicked and slick with use. The pointed end was already worn away noticeably by the thousands of rocks I pulled from the top thousands of feet underground, sweating and gasping in the summer, freezing in the winter.

My clothes reflected who I was. I meant to change that. I was uncertain in the store, wondering which shoe to buy and not wanting anyone to know, those suddenly hip workers with their dreads and stinking gear and bare, calloused feet clad in their cool sandals. I felt hulking and hot amongst them, burdened by my jeans, pressed and suitable for church, tennis shoes and long-sleeved lightly starched white shirt with a button down collar. L.L. Bean. A gift from my very soon to be ex-wife.

Subconsciously, I was gearing up for a total shakedown of my life. I had liquidated every asset that I could for cash. I was surprisingly cash rich for a guy not quite graduated from college who was from one of the poorest places in the U.S. I had scrapped, worked, and saved since I was a kid. I picked and sold berries and jam, chased down honeybees through the mountains to rob their hives, fished for catfish which some would still eat, pulled from the still depths of the dying river, stiff with disease and ruined by heavy metal and acid mine runoff. I split wood and fence rails, mowed yards, dug ditches, sold hay, collected metal, worked for my family in their cinder block factory and mining operations.

I swept and cleaned my school after hours, hoarding every dollar I could. I had bought a small parcel of land soon after marrying, a purchase that I made reluctantly, under the advisement of a zealous father-in-law who insisted that I live with his daughter next to his farm. For the rest of my life.

My new Chacos stayed in their box for a few weeks. Maybe even a couple of months. The mining company I worked for rewarded my efforts in obtaining a B.S. in Geology with a huge raise and more responsibility, more hours, more work. My wife set about the business of spending everything she possibly could of my new paycheck. I discovered just how much a redneck girl could spend at Walmart. The answer: All of it.

We somehow ended up with a singlewide house trailer on the back 40 of her daddies’ farm. I worked increasingly insane hours, desperate to save up enough to escape from this prison I was somehow incarcerated in. The money vanished as quickly as I made it.

I still had my stash of money, well hidden in my little sisters bedroom. She is many things as an adult, but then, we were very close. She would have not given up any information on me under the threat of death. All my secrets were safe with her. Her learning disabilities, which troubled most, bothered me not at all and never interfered with our relationship.

So it was that I showed up on my parents back porch one day. They were moving, had sold the family farm. The place had belonged to the Matney’s since way back. My father, under orders from God, sold his birthright to move his beleaguered family to a small shack a mountain or so over. I was wearing my Chacos and my camo shorts. My canoe was on top of my truck, along with a bag of clothing, gear, workbelt, boots, work clothes, and supplies. My sister retrieved the box, stony faced in her shock. She had never shared a bedroom in her life. Now she was to be lumped into a small room with her two baby sisters, a prospect that had her terrified. I took the box and counted out her take. She shook her head no, quickly, and hard. I saw the last of the fight go out of her blue eyes as she prepared herself for the life I was fleeing at that very moment.

Twenty years later, I just bought my third pair of Chacos. They are amazingly tough shoes. I unwrapped the box from Zappos and breathed in the good smell of new rubber and non-slip soles with their network of confusing straps that ensure the shoe stays on your foot, no matter what. I did a bit of a happy dance. My life has changed yet again, as my wife and companion of ten years and our new son journey with me into the uncertain future. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and we have learned to make five year plans with no small amount of humor.

We are not rich. My penchant for making money seems to have evaporated over the years, along with my old wardrobes, relationships and ties to my childhood. I say good riddance. As I discovered long ago, with the box of cash under my arm and no plan beyond the next day, life is too short to become entrapped. Live for the now. Right now.

With Chacos strapped to your feet.

Travels to SWVA

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My front stoop on our old house, now on the market.

My front stoop on our old house, now on the market.

Last of Fall Produce

Last of Fall Produce

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I feel like I’m missing something. Once largely regarded, for those who even knew it existed, as the backwaters of a terribly misunderstood state, Southwest Virginia has quietly become ground zero for all things good in the world of food. Restaurants like River and Rail in Roanoke, The Palisades in Eggleston, Mountain Lake Lodge in Newport, Lucky’s in Salem, The Black Hen in Blacksburg, Metro! in Roanoke, Cuz’s in Pounding Mill, and a plethora of others are cooking on the cusp of the envelope. Chef’s such as Aaron Deal, Ashton Carter, Kevin White, Devin Giles, and so many others are unassumingly working on the edge of Southern Cuisine, infusing their own experiences and relationships with farmers into their menus, changing things up almost constantly in response to what is available. Food once thought of as trash, Appalachian cooking techniques and all things local are turning up on tables everywhere as people increasingly join the ever growing ranks of individuals who are grouping together in their appreciation of what the Appalachian Mountains, with it’s high meadows and cold, clear creeks, have to offer.

In a fit of homesickness, I have decided to re-visit my homeland and some great friends, enjoy some amazing food, split some wood, warm my bones by a wood fire in a cottage deep in the mountains, check out signs of an early spring and clear my brain. I’ll work hard on this post, and I promise you won’t be disappointed!

On Forgetting

The chainsaw is exactly how I left it. Its cutting chain is bright with edge and lubricating oil. The tank is full. I’m standing in my shop with a Phillip’s Head Screwdriver in my left hand and a tape line in my right. I have boots on, but they aren’t laced. My jacket is where I left it, I think, somewhere inside. I’m already shivering, even though I’ve only been in the shop for a few minutes, but it is as cold as a meat locker in here. A pile of half-finished projects sit before me, taunting me a bit, I think.

So far, I’ve begun to work on seven different tasks since I got up this morning. The irony is that I don’t remember what I started with in the beginning. I know there are seven, for I am wearing seven different rubber bands on my wrists, reminders that I am working on something. I walk with great purpose towards the workbench, striding even. I learned over a year ago while I was in a kitchen it was important to never show weakness, to never appear as though I had forgotten what I was going to the walk-in to get. By the time I made it to the actual refrigerated space I had usually remembered what I went after. If not, then I could save face by grabbing something that I’m sure I needed, such as garlic, shallots, scallions, potatoes (I always needed those, it seemed) or green tomatoes. If I ever ran out of anything to do, I could always slice and bread tomatoes for the freezer to be fried later. We never had enough of those.

I’m trying to save face now, just as I did then, approaching my work bench with great purpose, as though I am a man tasked with splitting the atom, combating a strange new venereal disease through microbe manipulation, or just some dude that needs to hang his surfboard straighter. Admirable tasks, all.

The problem is that none of them are what I set out to do, with my screwdriver and measuring tape. It’s a soft tape, not a hard retractable one: The one I’m holding is a tailors measuring stick, flexible so that it can easily pass round the curves of a human form. Or around a board for more accurate measurements.

I’m not a tailor, and I have no reason to measure my own form for fitting. I’m not planning to buy a suit and I have the proper attire for my brother-in-law’s wedding, the day fast approaching. I puzzle through what I’m working on. A half-assembled beehive sits in front of me, the project on hold until I get consistently warm temperatures for a day or so for painting. My chainsaw is sharpened. My saw is put away. The floor space is swept. I’ve scratched the small humidor project, put aside for the time being by my lack of interest in fine cigars. They seem to be a waste for someone who enjoys it only slightly and would rather enjoy a salty bite of mackerel roe or kimchi if I must live dangerously. A hot dog is preferable to a cigar for me, even the service station type, with its accompanying crock pot of chili from unknown origins, created from cast-offs of bits of meat, fat, spices, beans and no doubt Hormel products. These nuanced flavors, however cast, with raw onions, spicy mustard, jalapenos, all piled on a stale potato roll. This is preferable to a cigar.

Back to the problem at hand: What, exactly, was I doing? I’ve always been a bit scatter-brained, but this memory loss is downright annoying. It is an amusing, if not slightly dangerous side effect of years of drinking, associated comas, medications and toxins arriving, unfiltered, into my brain stem. I used to consume things with little cause for worry in regards to my health – foodstuffs with color additives, artificial preservatives, excessive sodium, hormones, pathogens, ammonia, bacterial strains, antibiotics, aerosols – any of these things, even in small amounts, have a cumulative effect on my memory functions.

It is an interesting task to sit and write without conscious thought, to see where afterwards the path my brain takes, now off the rails without constant guidance. My thoughts wander as much as my attention, with vivid detail in the least of circumstances, then lines and hooks left open and dangling, for the reader to ponder upon after the writing has ended. Even I am puzzled. What exactly was I trying to say? At least my patterns thought are in order least.

But it’s not all bad. All things considered, it is still amusing, but not crippling. I still run on autopilot just fine, remembering, most times, the day and date, how to cook, how to do and be successful at the myriad of all tasks that are required to be human. I am so far trustworthy, able to always be, or close enough, on time for meetings, dates with my wife, and I still have a basic internal clock as do all cooks that ticks in the background when multiple items are in or on the stove or grill.

I’m thankful for that. On more than one occasion, while battling my last real approach to the inevitable course to the big unknown, I cooked meals for people who raved about them. I didn’t remember. One such dinner stands out, as it was for our Nanny. The term Nanny only fits as nothing else really does. Captain? Chief helper and person we now don’t know how we did without? A graduate student in Veterinary Science, she was a more than qualified person to care for our son, and, in a pinch, me. For some reason of her personality, she was able to guide me, despite my innate willfulness, in a better direction when I was suffering most from hepatic encephalopathy. I apparently made a risotto of some sort and have no memory of doing so. She raved about it later.

As long as I stand intact and whole in this world, I have every reason to be grateful. It is too easy to wallow in self-pity and ungratefulness, to develop an attitude of suffering and despair. It is not my way, yet I have to be on guard for those thoughts and feelings which could lead me to further illness.

Wait a minute? What was I writing about? What was I doing? Oh, yeah. Fixing the doorknob on the front entrance to the house. Why do I have my laptop? What day is it?

Pain and Peaches

My uncle watched me as I tried to ignore him. My boots were miles away, perched as they were at the end of my legs. All I needed to do was tie them and our strangely quiet conversation would be over. My mother watches quietly from her solitude over the kitchen sink, amidst the bubbles and effervescent warm water that would make clean what was once dirty. Three is a kerplunk of a pan, which held eggs and melted cheese, along with toast and grits, my favorite breakfast with black coffee, only a moment before as it plunged into the water. It was early in the morning. Very early. The night sky still rode across, as Orion ran upon Aries in the southern solstice to the west. A mist had fathered at the gurgling creek, laughing quietly as it prepared itself for a day of dappling about in the mix of sun and shade, cool and comfortable in the day’s heat to come.

A fox barked softly, once, nearby. My Mom’s favorite hens, small and black, still warm with feathers fluffed against the soft cold of the night, gentle with their brooding, pecked about my feet.

I was bruised and beaten to a pulp. One eye was black and swelled nearly shut. Grotesque bruises ran round my rib cage, radiating out from my lower back, where my fall had been broken the day before. My hand was twice its normal size, wrapped in gauze from the tending of my mother. One lip was split and I could still see a ring of fog about my inner eye if I focused too much. I didn’t.

I tied my boots anyway, despite their distance from my head, which loomed unnaturally large and heavy. My mother and her brother watched me still.

He dug in his pocket for his chewing tobacco. His first chew of the day appeared immensely satisfying, even to me. First, there was the careful placement of chew into his right hand, measuring exactly the right amount, a movement perfected by years of practice. Then the characteristic three dip – shake over the pouch, flinging free any wayward bits of black, uncured plant matter back to join it’s fellows. Then the mass would be inserted into his mouth, where it would be chewed, mauled, and positioned into the perfect plug, dripping its heady concoction into the distended capillaries screaming for their addiction.

I had fallen the day before. We had a brief rain just after our morning break, while the railroad operators were switching out cars into our siding for cleaning. We were contracted to clean out the one-hundred ton cars of detritus before they were tracked into coal preparation plants for loading. The caveat was we could keep what was in them. The downside was we didn’t know, unless we looked, what was contained in the cavernous, echoing, clanging metal beasts.

The easiest way to look was to walk the cars, dropping from a vantage place just above them as they trundled to their stop against the deadman. Once upon the roughly four-inch wide side, it was a simple matter to navigate ones way from car to car, marking ones full of coal, keepers, and ones full of trash, the cleaners. No simple task, unless you were a circus performer, or a nineteen-year-old boy with a superman mentality.

Except this superman couldn’t fly. Not up. I had avoided the worst of the fall by pushing my way off and away from the metal ladder, which would do nothing but lacerate and maul. I landed, rolling, by some miracle, on the sloping lower sides of the car and gathered my wits just enough to slide through the doors on the bottom into the lower hopper feet, rather than head, first. I bounced hard off the rail for the locomotive and spun down into the plastic-lined chute, where I was rudely deposited onto the moving conveyor belt. I had just enough time to flatten out on the hot rubber before I was swept under the lowest overhang of sheet metal and out into the sun, ringing my head on the side for all my quickness.

My mother had frowned when I came home, stiffly unmounting my highly customized cycle, my vehicle of choice in those days. She had doctored me as best she could, which was more than the local hospital would have done, with their patchwork of drunken, castoff and foreign doctors, all of whom had ended in this place in Appalachia in disgrace or from lack of options, not by choice. She had nothing to say. She was the daughter of a coal miner, the mother of a coal miner – a champion raiser of children and constant warrior in the face of keeping seven children happy and fed. She had patched us up, held our heads, prayed over us in the dead of night when the coughing would not stop and the pox ran amuck and roughshod over our family. Her face, lit by tears and holding the golden reflection of our wood stoves light from her Bible, is permanently engraved on my conscious to this day.

My uncle shifted uncomfortably as I finished lacing my boots. I held my breath at the bottom of my stretch, by abdomen resting comfortably on my thighs as I drank in the morning’s redolence.

“Can you work or not?” My uncle’s impatience, heightened by both the irritation of an injured relative and the knowledge that, if hurt, an injury report would need to be filled out in accordance to the law and insurance requirements. This would result in a possible investigation into safe work practices and environment, something that could kill a small enterprise in the communistic zeal about which underworked and overstaffed agencies latched onto any small slight of the law, real or imagined.

I nodded. My mom sighed and went about her work. She bustled about for a moment, then appeared on silent bare feet with my lunch pail, where a bologna sandwich, made better oh so much by her sourdough bread, homemade sweet pickles, sliced onions and giant wedges of tomato, stored in a separate Ziploc to keep the bread dry. There would be two of these, I knew. Along with a peach or two, just ripened yesterday and hastily picked in competition with the chickens, children, groundhogs, foxes, raccoons and all other lovers of good things.

There would be a small container of soup beans from the night before, with a portion of fatback and the remnants of biscuits and cheese from this morning. It was worth going to work for.

I straightened my younger self against the pain and walked stiffly off the porch to the truck. My uncle made a quick detour and grabbed two peaches. My mother handed him half a loaf of sourdough. There was not another word.

The sweet spring air poured through the cab as we munched our peaches, wrapped in paper towels soaked by the escaping juices. We were soon drenched in sweetness as we gobbled greedily, our appetites huge against the work to come. The stiffness passed from my young muscles and bones as the hereditary healing gene, a blessing and a curse, bumped into play against the injuries, which time and again helped me avoid hospitals and emergency rooms. It would also wreak havoc on me later in life as it allowed me to drink myself nearly to death before succumbing to the side effects of thousands of gallons of alcohol.

That morning, the peach alone, with the smell of the warm earth and work to follow, was enough for me. I grinned at my uncle. “Did you think me hurt bad?” He grunted, and grinned in reply, hunched over his steering wheel, trying to wipe peach bits from his beard.

We rode on through the gathering morning.

Uncharted Territory

My laptop screen blinks at me faster than the human eye can detect. My eyesight, failing me for the first time in my hawk-like existence, can’t pick it up. My brain does. Too much time in front of a computer screen and I get screaming headaches. Just maybe one of the myriad of reasons that I don’t fit in this weird world we now live in.

I’m trying to decipher what my doctors have written me in response to my question. Two years ago, I was given somewhere between three and six months to live. That was if I stopped drinking. I stopped. In spite of what everyone thought of what I could or couldn’t do, I stopped. Three days after I walked out of the rehab center, where I was expected to last a day or so, if that long, I walked into a restaurant and went to work for the best damn chef on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. It was plain dumb luck.

Now, I’m still alive. Despite everything, I’m still here. I’ve been in and out of hospitals for most of the time since the diagnosis. I nearly slid into a coma and only some last minute decision making by my wife and therapist landed me in the emergency room and saved my life. A few months later, I was operated on without consultation from my liver transplant team. I walked out of the hospital, to everyone’s amazement, about an hour after I woke up. Three days later, I was bleeding internally, out of my head from the side effects of millions of unfiltered toxins hitting my brain stem at the same time. Only some quick thinking by my Mom and our Nanny saved my life that time around.

All in all, I’m doing pretty damn good. Sobriety is just as I remembered it: Awesome. I had forgotten how good life is. The joys of a good nights sleep, for example, is heaven. Carrying my little boy around on my shoulders, something I never thought I could do is better than any drug, any bottle of the finest whiskey. I didn’t think I could write if I were sober. That was a mistake. I can write better than I ever dreamed, which still isn’t very well, but who cares? I can cook. Damn, I can cook. I can cook like nobody’s business. What I lack in skills I make up for in passion. My taste buds work. My sense of smell is amazing. So what if my eyes aren’t 20/10 anymore? At least I can see.

My question was simple: Can I run with cirrhosis? Will it hurt me? Specifically, can I run if I’m having fluid buildup in my abdomen due to ascites? I didn’t get an answer. For three months, my doctors dodged around the subject.

Their message, finally, was this: If it doesn’t hurt, and seems to help, then yes. They can think of no reason why I shouldn’t engage in sustained physical exercise. Their reply included that they had never, not ever, been asked that question before.

That has stumped me all day. I ran three miles this afternoon, slowly, of course. I’m not out to break any records. I don’t even record or think of how long it takes. All I know is, I’m travelling through the winter shadows under my own power, and of my own volition. I enjoy the cold on my face. I listen to the birds prepare for the upcoming “Polar Vortex,” whatever the hell that means. It’s been getting cold for millions of years. I don’t know why that is suddenly newsworthy.

The stars deepened in spite of the sunset. I was in the twilight zone. My brain was off. All I could hear were my footsteps, which were more or less in rhythm with my heart. My blood pressure is not on par with an Olympic Athlete. But it’s pretty damn good for a dead guy.

I help my neighbor carry groceries in from her car, and we discuss stuff, I don’t remember what, exactly. Human stuff. I run on through our neighborhood, my brain still on autopilot. I don’t think of my illness, any discomfort or anything. Instead, my brain triggers images, memories. I remember my grandmother, arriving at our little house with a car loaded with groceries. I think of her, of her strength, her gift to her children and their descendants. A smell, faint but unmistakable on the breeze, reminds me of a perfume an old girlfriend, mostly forgotten.

Squirrels chase one another around a pin oak and I remember hunting with a recurve bow when I was a little kid. I disappointed my Dad. I didn’t bring any of them home that day. They were just too, alive. I hear the unmistakable blast of a shotgun and the honking of geese and I wonder if the hunters were successful in bringing food home to their families. I know it’s mostly just a show of masculinity, but it still carries evolutionary nostalgia.

So, what is keeping me alive? How am I healing? How am I running, just this afternoon? I don’t know. I do know that I listen to my body. For the first time, I listen to what it is telling me. If I’m hungry, I eat carefully. For the most part. Sure, I still take my chances. I like sushi, shellfish, raw meat, hot dogs from unknown sources and questionable fried chicken. I’ll eat it. I am a cook, after all.

I may succumb tomorrow. But I will go out the way I want: With my families respect and my honor more or less intact. In the meantime, I will live as if I will never die.

Kitchens, Sex and Cher.

It was just another night in the kitchen. Dinner service was done, over, kaput. We had nearly finished prepping for breakfast the next morning, or rather, I had nearly finished prepping for breakfast the next morning while everyone else worked on the remnants of a bottle of cheap scotch. Nobody of any worth gives a shit about breakfast in a typical kitchen. Except for me, since I was in charge of it. I had volunteered for it, in fact. I enjoyed the silence of the early morning stations, dimly lit pilot lights, cold hearth and the 360 degree view of the early morning sky from the front steps of the hotel, perched as it was on the banks of a rapidly shrinking lake high in the Appalachian Mountains. There was nothing better than that view. Ever.

But that was still hours away. Half tore up, the cooks and tired ass front house staff were bonding over shared bong hits and snorts of cheap whiskey (Maiden’s Piss, my Scottish geology brethren had called it), both of which would work wonders for their complexion the following afternoon, as most of us were pulling doubles. It was summer and no one gave a shit. Not even me. At that point, I’d drank enough alcohol for three lifetimes and was lucky to be there, so my persona as the responsible one was hysterical, at least for me. But nights such as those were few and far between, as most everyone was usually too tired to even think of bonding after work, as celebrity chefs will lead you to believe. Honestly, most everyone in a kitchen drags their sorry ass home to bed, stopping along the way to fill up on their help me forget until morning drug of choice. Or the please let my leg stop cramping and my right hand from seizing while I sleep pills.

This night was different. A rather raucous game of “Who would you fuck if…insert scenario here” had broken out between the cooks and the front house staff, each group trying to outdo the other in different directions. The front house staff, mostly female, were picking fairer members of the male populace, with the actor Scott Speedman leading the charge. I had no idea who that was until someone informed me that it was the actor opposite Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, at which point I had to agree that yeah, if I were a woman, or gay, or in prison, or trapped on a desolate island, or if we were the last two men left on the planet, like, for real, then maybe I would hold his hand. This nearly got me out of the game, but not quite.

The cooks had, as usual, degenerated rapidly in their choices. Possible fuck mates went from the laughably implausible to downright disgusting, quickly. Kate Beckinsale held her own for a few moments, with the sole female chef holding out for Brad Pitt, if he and Anthony Bourdain had a baby and the baby were grown and legal. The male choice went downhill to a degenerate pornstar named Gauge, who most of us had to promptly use the Chef’s computer to identify. It turned out she was a tiny little brunette with braces on her teeth from Arkansas. Her sexual repertoire included unspeakable three ways and orgies while performing handstands. Admirable enough, but disturbing on many levels.

I was doing quite well in avoiding any questions until a waitress with long red hair, a penchant for weed, stiletto heels and other girls pinned me to the wall. “What about you, Ron?” She pointed her middle finger up at me nonchalantly. “Who would you fuck?”

Of course. This game had been played many times all around me, and I had adeptly dodged it. Until now. Now I couldn’t. Now, for the first time, as I chopped and blanched potatoes for home fries the next morning (It didn’t occur to me to ask if there was a fry cutter in the kitchen. It didn’t occur to anyone else to tell me.) “Yeah, Chef, what about it? Who?” The new speaker of the house was the sole person of color working in the restaurant, a very angry cook from Mexico City who had apparently made a very wrong turn on his way north and ended up in the south, in the mountains, in a snowy white redneck college town turned upside down and dumped into the mountains. It irritated him that I had been mistakenly referred to as the Chef one morning during breakfast service when it was actually he that should have been given credit. He carried a grudge.

I thought for a few moments, and the kitchen actually went quiet. I didn’t realize until then that I was a non-person in the kitchen. I had shared virtually nothing with anyone since I had started. Nobody knew my background, where I came from, who I was, if I was qualified (I wasn’t), had the experience (I didn’t) or the kitchen know-how to even be there. I didn’t drink, or do drugs, which baffled the other employees, as I bore all the signs of a hard boozer. They didn’t know that I was sick, had cirrhosis, was terminally ill, married, nothing. They knew I had a son, as I paraded him around every time I had a shift off. I was so happy to be working in a real, live kitchen that I felt it was akin to paradise. I wanted my infant son to see it. I wanted him to be proud of his dad. I wanted my wife to be proud of me.

The pay sucked, the hours were long, but I had started to fit in. Do you know what that means to a reject like me? I had a B.S., two M.S. a PhD dissertation, ten years of engineering and miles of mining experience. I had wandered everywhere, and had bored of everything almost immediately. I had been a professor, a technical advisor, a geotechnical engineer, a teacher, a coal miner, a construction worker, a fry cook, a dishwasher, a mechanic, an electrician, a research assistant, a writer and so many other things. My resume looked like Ben Franklin and Samuel Clemens had a son and he threw up on it. What I truly loved to do was right there, in that kitchen. Cook. That’s what I loved to do.

So, I considered my response for oh, about 0.00001 nanoseconds and responded straight from the gut. A disconcerting habit that I have which has consistently gotten me in serious trouble since I was six. (My Mom: “Who were you hiding from?” Me: “Ummm. You!”) It got me in even more trouble after I started dating (Angry Girlfriend: “Who the fuck do these slutty ass hoop earrings beside your bed belong too?” Me: “Ummm. You?”)

I had a throwback for a moment, circa 1990. I was driving a Ford Escort, one of the saddest date cars ever built. It wasn’t even a GT. That was for the cool kids. I had an Escort Wagon. L. Not even a GL, just an L. It didn’t have a radio. The passenger side window was down, as the driver’s side window didn’t work. I was going as fast as I could make the car go without getting out to push, which I thought would somehow make it look cooler. My girlfriend of the month had cheated on me with a friend of mine. Not unusual in a little town. The girl may have been of questionable ethical and moral standards, but she could sing. Damn, she could sing. With tears running down her face, she faced me and sang the entire “If I could Turn Back Time” song by Cher. Don’t act like you don’t know which song I’m talking about.

I don’t know what made me think of that song at that moment, except that maybe I was once again reminded that I didn’t fit in then, and I didn’t really fit in now. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Cher. 1990. Thong, lace and leather. On a fucking Navy Gunship.”

Everyone was staring at me like I had stepped out of a wormhole covered in goo. Me, not the wormhole. The silence was deafening (Yeah, I used that tired analogy). In the silence, without saying a word, the angry Mexican cook started to clap. A few seconds later, everyone was applauding. My ears were red. My boss, the sous chef, clapped me on the back. “Damn, son. (He was about 20 years younger than me.) You’re sick. That was totally fucked up, man. Let me show you where the fry cutter is.”

On my way home to my family I tried to get my CD player to play my one remaining Cher album. It was too scratched up from all the years of bounding around in glove compartments to do anything but skip and make puzzling warbled sounds. I was exhausted. My feet hurt. My back screamed in agony and my shoulders cramped. I was embarrassed by my outburst. But, still. I felt damn good, son.

Southern Camping

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The Mason-Dixon Line is a bewildering boundary. Officially, it marks the South from the North, a reminder of the past, of iniquities real and suffered and penned into the history books. It is poorly understood, by both sides now, who wonder why there even are sides. The South is a conundrum of contradictions. Both old and new, stubbornly hanging on to the past while passive aggressively evaluating the new. It’s a place where old families still rule vast areas of land and wield incredible power, both over the vote and football. A place where old cuisines are being preserved and rediscovered nearly as quickly as they are being lost. Red Eye G­­­­­ravy and Cheesy Grits, once a staple of the poor and working class only, have earned their place in the hippest and trendiest restaurants in the United States. At the same frustrating moment, it is a place stereotyped by deep poverty and ignorance, attributes which strike even the casual observer with the question: Why?

The food culture of the South has always had its roots firmly in necessity. The mountains of Appalachia cut a deep swath through the majestic countryside to the west, surrounded by the lowlands so bloodied by the riches available through exploitation of slave labor for hundreds of years. One has always influenced the other. Appalachia was ruthlessly pillaged for her natural resources. Majestic stands of old growth hardwood, some believed to the remnants of ecosystems before the last ice age, were clear cut to provide timber to not only the ports and plantations of the South, but to the world as well. Ships laden with lumber planned from giant Chestnut Trees plied the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic for centuries. Fur, gemstones and precious metals were collected from the same unique microclimates and travelled the same trade routes as the hardwood, coal, cotton, corn, tobacco and other raw materials, making a few wealthy beyond all measure while enslaving an entire populace to the land and their taskmasters.

Through it all, culinary influences migrated from country to region, following the people who were forced to scrape something from the few morsels and scraps abandoned by their overseers. Spanish rice followed maize crops, black-eye beans, grits, lard, abandoned parts of otherwise valuable animals became staples across the south. Appalachia contributed their own influences as well. Desperate for calories, laborers in coal and logging camps invented lard biscuits, made from a few cups of flour and whatever fat they could render, most often from pigs turned free into the mountains to avoid property taxes levied upon the owners.

Red-eye gravy became a breakfast staple, a way to consume half a days’ worth of fat and calories into one simple and hardy meal. Sausage and egg biscuits were easy to wrap and carry and the Southern King of all foods, fried chicken was born out of the necessity of keeping priceless nutrition from spoiling during the heat and dirt of the day. Brined in tea, dusted with flour and spices, the Cajun and African roots of this dish are undeniable.

Every food around the world has its influences from somewhere else. Tracing a culinary common root is impossible: Even more so in the South. Especially in the modern South. The New South has risen again, dusting off the ashes of centuries of bloodshed and horror, stigma and exploitation to become something else. Where only a few years ago the presence of heavily tattooed, bearded white men would have been a sign of a deteriorating neighborhood, now it earmarks a place as an up and coming residential gold mine.

The young are migrating in spades to the New South. Once a home only to aging retirees, seeking solace in the land of eternal sunshine while taxing the finite resources of the crippled infrastructure with unlimited air conditioning, now Central and Southwest Florida is becoming a place for hipster bars, artist communities and organic farmers. Chefs, no longer bound to the once American Quest for superstardom on the Food Network, follow the influx of migrant populations to serve the food that they have always wanted to cook. The food they grew up eating, the food of their lives.

Chefs like Sean Brock, Ashton Carter, Aaron Deal, David Chang and so many others are earmarking their clients by cooking food that they themselves want to eat. Food they are interested in. The food industry will likely always be driven by the desire of the masses, but there is a select clientele that are truly interested in good food: Not the shit served to the oblivious or obnoxious, but instead to the appreciative.

A quick stop at an orange grove in north central Florida gave testament to the theory of a changing South. Gobbled up by conglomerates and subsidized giants, the citrus groves of old are largely gone. Just as their northern counterparts, small fruit growers were nearly annihilated during the Cold Wars of global food sublimation. A few families banded together, refused to sell and began selling local citrus in roadside stands, banking on the curiosity of weary travelers. It worked. Just as local apple and peach orchards in Georgia and further North, near the Mason-Dixon Line, began hawking their wares at farmer’s markets, newly popularized by the trend in healthier food.

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Savannah, Georgia is barely recognizable to me. On this recent trip, I’m struck by how much everything has changed in the past fifteen years. Me. Savannah. The populace. Mostly me. Fifteen years ago I was a stressed to the bone twenty-something graduate student struggling to find my way into a suitable career. With a sizable monkey on his back. Now I’m a forty-something newly minted Dad, much more relaxed and sans monkey.

What I remember as run down old shops on the waterfront have now given way to carefully restored four-star accommodation’s, each one preserving the old in order to give life to the new. Three-hundred year-old knotty pine planks, destined for the trash heap, were salvaged and refinished to provide flooring for dozens of structures. Brick and stone architectural notes, ancient by American standards, their mortar spilling a thousand stories of slavery, bloodshed and war down their weather beaten surfaces, remain behind as cornerstones for new elements.

Our room was a reminder of such. Two giant king beds with uber-soft, yet perfectly firm mattresses, parallel an ultra-thin television, not much thicker than a half-deck of playing cards. The bathroom is no less elegant, with tile floors salvaged from another locations, lovingly and painstakingly restored and placed for my barefoot, dripping enjoyment as I emerge from the steam shower. Hand hewed granite stones, significant historically by their geological origins from far away, give testament to the trade routes that once plied Savannah with raw goods, labor, and money.

Paula Dean’s shop beckons. We don’t enter, our morbid curiosity satiated by years of her drawl and stubbornly contradictory southern standards. We cross the square honoring John Wesley, my brother’s namesake, and I regal my wife and son with the history of this strange individual, curiously small in stature and demeanor, who was forced to leave England behind due to reported rendezvous with a church members daughter. I muse on how little things have truly changed over the last few hundred years, and then I realize I have lost them both. Another truth I must accept as a Dad: Nobody really listens to me anymore.

We wander on, back to the river front, strangely drawn by the past and present, and also by the warm winter sun, tanning our faces in the unexpected glow. My son plays, a testament to the past and the future, as he carts around his Tonka truck in one hand and his tablet computer with the other. I feel suddenly sorry for him, for some reason I don’t understand.

We eat breakfast at a trendy spot that our doorman recommended. We were the first customers through the door, and didn’t think to google the menu until after we had been seated. It felt better to just not know for a change. We started to twitter our meal, then thought better of it and enjoyed our fried chick pea sandwich and fried green tomatoes in peace. With hollandaise sauce. Our two year old son, who has decided that food is for the delight of mere mortals and not something he should be wasting his valuable time with in his quest to conquer the world, or at least the restaurant, by noon, refuses to eat one delicious morsel. Until we are ready to go. He then settles down and back content to be fed spoon by spoon, while he regales his loyal subjects, which consist of a table of giggling senior citizens, with tales of his glory and conquest. He’s not in the least embarrassed by the fact he has a very poopy diaper. If only our world leaders could be so oblivious.

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At the orange grove in central Florida, the temperature is already seventy degrees, despite the fact a cold spell is gripping the northeast and blizzard conditions are expected in our new hometown. We change delightedly from our Carharrts and Patagonia and Ibex cold weather gear into board shorts, t-shirts and flip flops. We return to the truck, an old F-150, yet another staple of Americana and sheepishly put our long sleeves back on. It’s still too cold for that.

Across the way, out of sight of the main parking lot, which provides a proper spot for two BMW’s, one Jaguar, a Land Rover, and at least three other mid-to-high end SUV’s, there are a couple of old cars and vans idling away. A worker pulls around back of the warehouse end, the business end, of the orange processing facility, where organic oranges become organic juice, which wing their way into organic aisles at Whole Foods far north of the Mason-Dixon line, where they are guzzled by toddlers on their way to swim class from their non-PCP certified Sippy cups.

Black women descend from the old cars at a sign, unnoticed by me, from the worker in his forklift, who leaves a giant crate of oranges out of plain site from the parking lot housing the upscale imported sheet metal. The sort through the fruit quickly and efficiently, pausing to take juicy bites as they work, loading the vitamin C laden food into plastic shopping bags. They are stare at me with some hostility until I take an orange from the bin and more or less try to join them, peeling an orange with my spring-loaded Case Knife, with a carbon heavy steel blade ordered just for me as a Chef. The woman across from me is greedily eating hers in big chunks, pulling it from the skin as she works, dropping the peels in the refuse bin for the compost heap. It is organic, after all. Certified.

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Field after field of citrus pass by as we hurtle south on back roads. I-75 is under construction, so google maps redirected us onto the byways of the state. We speed almost constantly, irritated by the extra time it is taking us. We make a pit stop in a small town, not more than a service station and a basic grocery market. All the signs are in Spanish. I’m stuck for a bit asking for the key to use the restroom. The lady behind the counter finally takes pity on my lack of Spanish and gives me the key and tells me to have a good day. Drive safe. In perfect English. I feel stupid. She looks at me warily, as if I may steal the key.

Outside, day laborers are squinting in the early morning sun, dragging hard on this sunny Monday. The wear tattered khaki pants, greasy torn t-shirts festooned with cartoon characters and reflective vests. They all wear either rubber muck boots or no shoes at all. One is singing something to himself in time with the Spanish radio station as he hoses out his cooler with a cut hose attached to a leaking pipe just outside the building. I am embarrassed to greet him as I pass by, revolted by the bathroom I just unlocked. Why it sports a padlock is beyond me. Maybe to lock some truly evil, barely human being in while awaiting deportation to another realm by a wizened Keanu Reeves type? I start the truck and hurry away, punching stations until I find a country song. Darius Rucker is singing “Wagon Wheel.” It’s my son’s favorite song and my wife and I both sing along to the lyrics, making up words as we go. Fields full of crops, intermixed with Thoroughbred horse farms blink by us. We barely notice.

**********

We arrive in Tampa right on schedule, unbelievable timing with a toddler. Not that we have a schedule, but it’s hard to leave a world full of deadlines, reservations and appointments behind in a day or so. It will take us a few days. We don’t exactly leave our search for hotels to chance, and once again google suggests something right in our price range. The Tahitian Inn. At first we think it’s closed, as at least half of it is under construction and the only activity that I can see is a young black man behind the reservation desk in a deep conversation with an equally young Persian man about women. One particular woman, to be exact.

We get our room key, which is much cleaner, or at least passes the visual and olfactory test, than the one from earlier in the day and find our room. It smells of chlorine and detergent, which is far better than a few alternatives that I have experienced. Nolan trams about the room, commandeers the phone, the remote and the dresser drawers. He really does act like a world leader. I unplug the phone and he doesn’t notice, just continues to give orders in his sing-song baby speech, which will one day soon turn into a command of the English vocabulary, including phrases that will likely shock his Nana speechless.

We don’t tarry, but dash out the room and back into the truck in search of an authentic Cuban meal. Google directs us at once to the oldest restaurant in Tampa, established in 1902. We arrive rather parched and dusty, with my stomach rumbling in surprise hunger pains. I haven’t felt those this strongly in a long time. Not since before rehab and nearly two years of battling symptoms caused by cirrhosis. My greatest fear on this trip is that they will return in all their agony, ruining our vacation. We’ve been lucky so far.

We cruise through the dining room after accidently entering the place by the wrong door. Literally hundreds of diners sit in large groups, sipping on or chugging drinks in glasses adorned by tiny umbrellas. They are all white and reek of tourists. I notice more than one fanny pack amongst the sea of gray hair and beer bellies and wonder where they have all parked. There is not a car in sight outside the restaurant. The waiters seem nervous, all men of color in three piece black suits. My wife and I realize two things: Not one table has any food and there is not another child in sight. We bolt through the front door just in time to hear someone complaining that they had left after an hour wait without getting anything to eat.

Another place, another google search. This one is a combination café and dining room, with an attendant serving their part of the room. The menu is in Spanish and cheap: Our entire meal was around twenty dollars. We feel that we have won a battle of some sort and we are inordinately pleased with ourselves.

*********

Day three in our camp. In my experience, it takes three days to settle into a campsite. The first day is spent trying to get the tent up, an outdoor kitchen (in our case, that is a must have) organized and sleeping cots assembled, dried out and placed in the tent. With a toddler, we find that this is more of a challenge than it used to be. His rapid and sudden change in environments results in an immediate temper tantrum, complete with wailing, green snot and eye buggers. Miserable with diaper rash from spending the last two days in the car but safe in his cocoon of familiarity, he tries to get back inside the truck. We pull him freed of his trappings and set him on the ground to wail at the other campers as they beat a furious retreat.

We did make it through the third day. The second day is spent looking for things, blaming one another for things forgotten and astonished by what you brought and didn’t bring. In our case, the fearless author completely forgot a freezer full of frozen portion sized yogurt, ready to be thawed and eaten. I also forgot a simple staple of camp life: A short sleeved button up shirt. I had several put aside to bring, but, I forgot them. Laura, in her excitement of being somewhere warmer than the Great Frozen North, neglected to bring a proper coat or warm clothes to sleep in.

Thank God we did remember the baby, who has also settled in by this third day. Our bodies and minds are adjusting rapidly to the sunrise and sunset, time to go to bed, time to nap, time to eat. We’ve already figured out a cooking rhythm at this point, and have fallen into the familiar tasks of home, only now it’s outside. We have packed plenty of beans and rice and various other sundries: Canned peas, dried pasta, noodles, quart jars of Ramen Stock, frozen chicken, fish and a little beef, all separated into portion sized parcels for thawing individually. That part we have finally gotten down. Nothing leaked meat juice into the cooler ice, which we still eye cautiously in memory of scarfing down icy rum drinks at night years ago only to discover the next morning that we had been gloriously sucking down raw chicken blood, antibiotics and god only knows what else with our swill. Our uneasy stomachs were a product of not only too much alcohol, but all the other stuff we’d been drinking.

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So we learned our lesson. We also learned to take cheese out of its wrapper, label it, and portion it before placing it in the cooler, so we’re batting pretty well right now, all things considered. I make a glorious Ramen in the cool evening with soba noodles and scallions, and all seems right.

Looking around for the first time as my body remembered how to ride a bike again, I am once again examining the South for traces of what it may be. We are just north of the Everglades now, a place I paddled into as a much younger individual, only to paddle even more rapidly out of. In the words of my father, there were things in the swamp that would BITE YOU. Now, older and with nothing to prove, I have no intention of leaving this island. For now.

The island is a curious paradise. Just below Ft. Myers, it is accessible by bridge on one end only. The toll is much less than I seem to remember, most likely because disposable income was not a thing that I had, at all, fifteen years ago, when I first arrived on these fair beaches. Not that I have much now. The toll still stings a bit.

Once a mecca for the aboriginal people who lived here, the island is now entirely inhabited by Senior Citizens. These curious individuals have indeed found the cure for getting old. Move to an island that is populated by the elderly, governed by such and priced accordingly. Looking at property values, we are both grateful for our tent, which is pitched at the only campsite allowed on the entire island.

We discover immediately that bikes rule here. Big cruisers and little Townies alike, with an occasional three-wheeler and the odd emaciated looking person on a lithe speedster doing his best to impersonate an elderly Lance Armstrong, there are bikes everywhere. Bike lanes. Bike rules. Bike paths. We find it rather glorious, as Laura gets to use her giant beach cruiser I bought her for Christmas ten years ago. I am jealous: I wish I had one.

We are trying to find the south, and here, we have found a new interpretation of it. The old meets the older, everything is convenient and comfortable and pleasant and as new parents, we love it. Everyone coos over our son, who is still shamelessly stumping for votes, poopy diaper and all, everywhere we go. I’m suddenly the “Young Man” with a small family, instead of the old dude in the kitchen. It’s nice. We eat at one restaurant, eyeing the comfortable menu that you find all over the United States, order a fish sandwich and don’t go back.

We do find a taco stand on our wanderings and vote to go back to visit ASAP, after Nolan calms down for a day or so. He is reacting to restaurants with something akin to fury right now, I’m not really sure why. Laura and I find a small coffee shop so she can upload some files and send out some contracts. We end up paying $6 for a small tea and $5 for a cup of coffee, plus tip, which ended up being nearly a third of what we pay for our camp site for our privilege of getting wireless.

I see no sign of the south that I know and love here, although it has plenty to like. As long as we eat what we cook, we’re in no danger of going over budget, and eating out becomes a technical and financial disaster. Nolan prefers stacking votive candles over watching their cheery, fake glow, which I must say I rather agree with. If he stopped there, that would be fine, but when the decorative artificial candles become missiles, then we become liable in the likelihood of a flipped comb-over. The perils of that are too great and we elect once more to stay in our campsite for meals.

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A sign of the new south is where we least expect it, but should have guessed. A convenience store next to our campsite, which is located way over in the corner, as far away from unsuspecting retirees that may be disturbed by a toddler in the wee hours of the morning. Early morning conversations in Spanglish serenade me into full wakefulness on our second morning. I was mostly awake anyway, my arthritis howling at me over the indignity of placing my old bones on a cot, padded by my sisters hand-me-down yoga mat. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We saved eighty bucks by borrowing one sleeping pad and utilizing the mat for sleeping. Besides being uncomfortably hard, it also smelled like my sister’s dog and my old habit with marijuana, with cigar smoke and ass sweat mixed in for good measure

I headed next door to find the source of the racket and following my nose to what was smelling oh, so good. There was only one thing that smelled like that, and I was not wrong. I bolted through the back door just before opening to find a sleepy eyed cook pulling chicken out of a giant vat of buttermilk, dredging them in flour, cornmeal and spices, and dropping them into a deep fryer full of peanut oil. At six a.m. $2 gets you a piece of chicken, a pickled jalapeño and a cup of cheap coffee. I’m very nearly in heaven. I watch the eerie pre-dawn light fade to morning as I crouch with the day laborers, mostly Latino, and munch on greasy, wonderful chicken with bites of hot pepper and a scalding hot sauce that they pass around. I know I’ll pay for it later in the morning. What the hell. It’s the best breakfast I’ve had so far that someone else cooked on this trip.

My wife is not as thrilled as I am as I rush back into camp with grease in my beard, babbling about fried chicken. She’s not very trusting in my judgment of what is and is not edible. I used to take great offense at this, and sometimes I still do, sulking at her for not even trying something I’m excited about. This morning, I really don’t care. She can eat it or not, but I vow to go back in a morning or two and get two pieces this time, with peppers and hot sauce, and bring it back to camp to use in a morning Ramen bowl. She blearily sighs at me just as our son starts to wake and I blather on about the historical significance of fried chicken in the south and to immigrants in particular when I realize I am once again just talking to myself.

So we’re left with the conundrum: This is not the South that I was looking for and hoping to find here. It is its own place, with its own ebb and flow of snowbirds migrating as far away from the northern winters as they can, much as we are. The island has its own brand of tranquility. Bicycling is the way to get around, food is overpriced, Yankee accents are thick and nasally, but it is still paradise. Just in its own way.

Camp life after a few days begins to have a personality all of its own. Deadlines slide into the background as your schedule now follows the sun. Sunup, you’re up, stomping off the cold and waiting on the tea to boil while you uncover the tailgate kitchen that, by now, is as good or better than anything you have at home. For one thing, spills aren’t quite as big a deal as in your outdoor kitchen. If a few crumbs hit the ground then so be it. Even the sight of your toddler eating food straight out of the sand seems, well, ok. It’s not like it’s “dirty” or anything. Books become old friends as pages turn with astonishing speed by headlamp after the sun bids goodnight and the stars, filtered a bit by the light pollution from Fort Myers, slide into place.

Bike routes become familiar, a favorite thing to do before the beach in the afternoon. Tooling around nature preserves, marveling at the diversity, you can’t help but be thankful for the vision of a few, so many years ago to preserve the island as best they could. There are no stop lights and no fast food restaurants allowed on the island, save one lonesome Dairy Queen, grandfathered in after 1974. So what if the restaurants lean their offerings to mimic the chains that Midwesterners are used to? Parking tickets and hefty shelling fines pay for the upkeep of some truly marvelous preserves. The Sysco trucks idle their way through 25 mph traffic, their drivers irritated, no doubt by the lack of eye candy on the way to the beaches, unless you count a particularly fit 70 something sporting new Under Armor leggings. It’s a place into and of itself.

**********

We wake even earlier Sunday morning, perhaps more excited than we should be. Nolan catches on to our energy and charges about the campsite until the neighbors begin to emerge from their tents like space age time travelers, sleeping through time and distance as the known worlds, old and familiar, become distant and gone, giving way to new worlds, betrothing in their unfamiliarity. The noise of a happy toddler isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I’m starting to believe that anyone who can’t respond kindly to a grinning two year old bearing a gift of sand covered cheese has something seriously wrong with them. He makes his rounds, saying hello to his fans, stopping long enough to gorge on milk and for us to chase him with food. A toddler is hell for a chef. They will disdain your best efforts for leftover ice cream in a trash can or dog food stolen from Fido. It keeps you humble.

We eat lightly and head for the Farmer’s Market, some two miles away, only a fifteen minute ride or so on our bicycles. Nolan is so excited that he starts leaning from side to side, causing his mother, at the helm of their great red Cadillac of a bicycle to list from starboard to port in an alarming manner. She fusses at him and he quiets down, but nothing is getting rid of that huge, toothy grin. He knows fun is afoot.

The market is glorious. It is beyond my expectations. It is beyond my dreams and hopes and dizzying in its array of glorious fruit, vegetables, citrus, strawberries, blueberries, tropical fruit we’ve never heard of before. I gorge on samples, taking full advantage of my limited Spanish and the eagerness of the sellers to trap you into their stall. It works: More often than not I spend a few bucks at the stands with the friendliest vendors. We eat samples of grapefruit and orange, mushrooms and starfruit, a spiky fruit I’ve never seen before that explodes with flavors of grape and mango when you bite into it. We eat tamales standing up in the street as a sea of people stream by us: Northerners of all dialects, Eastern Bloc accents boom unfamiliar tones as we listen, German wafts by, followed by small blond, impossibly tan boys. Nolan runs to play and they interact as only children can, squatted in the dirt inspecting various insects and shells, all invisible to adult eyes.

I hear Cantonese dialects, a few Southern drawls and the unmistakable honk of the Midwestern accent. A soft Vermont tone interrupts us in our fascination with this unbelievably good thing that we have found, this open air market where people are talking, conversing, laughing, eating and gouging prices with the ebb and flow of shoppers. Our neighbors in the campground, two hippies like us, only from a generation before, Vermonters fleeing the harsh winters, stand and chat as the crowd flows around us. A sea of senior citizens, in all shapes, colors and sizes, peppered here and there with other generations and the sellers themselves, all young and of various origins in the human mash-up of genetic migration.

We chase Nolan through the crowd, rescue a lady from his persistent little boy attempts to throw rocks at her, for what reason we still don’t understand. He vanishes so fast, running on his nimble feet on the sand causeways, darting to and fro through the maze of human limbs, prosthetics, canes, wheelchairs, shoes and bare feet. Laura stays on his trail like a Cree Indian, relentlessly pursuing him by sight, while I, on some unspoken agreement between us, swing wide through the crowd, reading reactions on adults faces as they are arrested by the smile of a child, tanned strong legs and blonde curly hair, playing as children should.

We never lose sight of him or his direction, between the two of us, but we sometimes wonder what it would be like for just one of us. It takes a village to raise a child. I believe that now, and sometimes wish our world was still composed of settlements, clans of humans dedicated to their families and the survival of those of their tribe. It’s hard to imagine evil in a place such as that. I have a hard time getting the movie “Minority Report” out of my head while we chase him, but we keep him close and people are kind.

We gorge later on tomatoes, grilled pineapple, oranges, onions, black beans and rice, grilled chicken with lime and lemon and spices and eat like kings. I am happy manning my station behind the tailgate kitchen, as any cook is who has good ingredients. I grill and taste, stir and add spices, chop and dice, paying little attention to anything around me. Laura watches Nolan as I make my mentors proud and pull a meal from our horde worthy of any restaurant, anywhere.

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Laura asks me over a spoonful of dinner: “Would this be as good at home?” I think on that for a spell. I grin at her, my love, my wife, and I have no real answer. She is beautiful with long, lean tan legs and a body that would make a teenager jealous. Her bare feet swing back and forth and she is sporting the tiniest bit of sunburn on her left shoulder. I just smile. I’m thankful to be here. Regardless of what sort of south we may be in.

The trip ended, as they all must. Ours ended in a whirlwind of impromptu packing as our son broke out in hives on all exposed skin and his face swelled to twice its normal size. We toughed it out as long as we could, correctly identifying it as an allergic reaction to something, what we didn’t know. We stayed one more night after his face began to swell, but packed up and bolted the next morning. Like all new parents whose child has never been sick before, and in that we are truly blessed, we make decisions in rapid fire and sometimes against common sense. We wander about Ft. Myers in search of a doctor who will see him, something taken for granted only a few years ago. We were turned away at the first practice, regardless of our excellent insurance and credit cards on display. We sat in a private children’s hospital for three hours as his swelling became worse, panicked and bolted for points north.

The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me. In a Walgreens a pharmacist, no doubt noticing my stricken look, tentatively diagnosed it as a reaction to sunscreen and gave me skin treatment suitable for babies. A nurse in Tampa left her post and hospital to evaluate him in the parking lot, worried that we wouldn’t be able to find health care in the labyrinth of our medical system. A rural doctor, wrapping his hands around his considerable girth, toyed with our emotions by playing with Nolan for a full fifteen minutes before pronouncing him allergic to an ingredient in sunscreen and prescribing steroids, the first dose of which was administered there in his office.

We stopped to visit family, including my wife’s large, loud, wonderful, exuberant, extended southern family in Georgia, just outside Atlanta. We were promptly fed until we felt we would burst. Nolan’s Auntie, as he dubbed her, much to her delight, made us at home immediately and we were all chattering like magpies in the kitchen within ten minutes of our arrival while Nolan showed off for his newest fan by banging on his toys as loudly as he could.

The night stretched on as I found it hard to leave these people, both nights we were there. They made me homesick for my own family as they talked over one another, laughing constantly and delightedly, at no one’s expense save those present. They passed giant bowls of cole slaw, green beans with bacon, savory chicken pot pie, bread and of course, the omnipresent pecan pie, all whipped up with little to no effort by our motherly host.

Time flew by too fast and we were in the driveway, saying goodbye, loaded down with coffee and fruit for our drive, Nolan pouting over leaving his Auntie. We all wave until we are far down the road, reluctant to say goodbye, but knowing that we will be back. The mountains of Georgia, the beginnings of the mighty Appalachia, nod goodbye to me, shrouded in the endless mist, rain and sunshine. My heart longs for the hills of my heritage, the green mountains and the mighty river and dirt lanes.

We dashed on north, back towards our home, although I was reluctant to return. The eastern shore, to me, is northern, regardless of its position on the map. We visit my sister in Charlotte, NC, living large in a small local restaurant where we can barely taste our food as we try to get caught up. Her husband has long since joined in the boisterous southern calamity that is our way of greeting one another and remains calm as we nearly shout at one another over endless plates of food, eating from one another’s bowls without a thought or care, something we’ve done since we were kids.

Then, suddenly, we are outside of D.C. after a wonderful and unexpected Indian breakfast conjured up by Laura’s Indian sister-in-law to be, full as we can be and savoring the exotic tastes of preserved lemon, fish cake and savory pancakes, smothered in cheese sauce, and eastern shore favorite. I can already tell that this will be a new family favorite.

I am becoming a bit exhausted and sentimental as we close the final gap to our new house on the Eastern Shore. I begin to feel homesick for the mountains, but the Bay welcomes us home with open arms. Not a breath of air is stirring on the still waters as we cross the bridge. The air and water become one as I gaze off into the expanse of horizon to my right, Laura at the wheel of our Ford truck, which has seen us through so many thousands of miles and we hope, for many thousands to come. I feel a glimmer of welcoming in the warm day as the now familiar salt air flows through the cab, carrying with it the smells of the earth and water. I become restless in the confines of the cab. I want to be out, planning our garden, ordering fruit trees, getting starter seeds washed and planted. Maybe I’ll get a few chickens this spring. Nolan will love the chicks. I imagine them in our workshop, dashing about under a heat lamp, surrounded by young tomato saplings and herbs awaiting the warm spring sun. I am home. Regardless of the Mason-Dixon line.

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