South

The air smelled of wood smoke and leaf rot. I ran round the side of the mountain in what every small boy growing up in Appalachia knew was the fastest way to the top. It was futile to struggle straight up the side of those steeply pitched eroded plateaus. That was a sure way to recognize an outsider – as if it weren’t easy enough as it were. Within one sentence, spoken without our distinct accent that has been butchered by so many in Hollywood attempts to reconstruct our way of life for the amusement of the masses, an outsider was recognizable for what they were. Someone not from here. It was rare that the distinction need be determined by a single-minded determination to claw ones’ way straight up the side of a hill.

Going down, well, that was another matter. When we were kids, my brothers and I would dare one another to see how far we could jump down the side of a mountain. The terrain was so steep that you could be aloft for what seemed forever, skimming down, down the pitched earth, dry leaves rustling in your wake, your body only scant inches over the ground. It was exhilarating, maddening, frightening and bound to end up with one of us bruised and banged from landing in rocks. We would fling ourselves anyway, heedless of potential injury, yelling with glee as we defied gravity, sans parachute, with altitude our only hindrance.   

None of that was on my mind at that moment, although I would surely think of it again, after my race against the sun was over. I had just discovered a new cliff face, and like any mountain boy, it had to be climbed, again, and over again, until it was familiar territory, every nook, cranny and face explored and poked and excavated. I also had to see, simply must watch, the sun set off the top of my new fortress of solitude.

I was out of breath when I reached the top. Small wonder. I had just sprinted over a thousand feet up in vertical elevation, the last eighty or so literally straight up a rock chimney. It was a feat that would no doubt leave my adult self exhausted and sore for weeks, provided I had the courage to perform it. I faced out, west, watching the sun fall behind the mountains that marked the divide between counties in my small part of the world, thinking that someday, soon, I would follow that sun, see where it went.

Most of my books, beloved and dog-eared, described great adventures to be had in the direction of the setting sun. West, they would have you believe, is where all red-blooded American boys wanted to go, to the great painted deserts, to the endless prairies and the mighty Mississippi, further, onward, to the great Pacific Ocean, where you could ride giant waves generated by thousands of miles of storm cells building across the fetch of the great water. North was also just as magical, if not more so, with the frozen tundra and great white bears and endless miles of ice and suffering and adventure and kayaks and schooners frozen into glaciers while the men aboard slowly starved and read books and ate raw seal and dreamed of warm feet.

My gaze, inexplicably, did not hold in either of those compass delineations. Instead, inevitably, my wandering eye, even then destined to roam, turned south. To me, in my childhood imagination, south was a land of even greater adventures, where one could simply get lost in the swamps of the Everglades, wander the dunes of the Carolinas, or run the high trails, as my ancestors did, of the mighty spine of the Appalachian Mountains all the way into Georgia, then south and east into the sandy beaches where beautiful women were whispered to be, tanned and golden from the sun, where money was had to be gained and lost.

South was Mexico, a land of spicy foods and fish and beaches and cliffs and pirates. South was the Caribbean, where pirates still plied their desperate trade. This was the direction of derelict wanderers and warriors alike, where schooners were not frozen in ice, their occupants reduced to mad scribblings upon the dried skins of seals, destined to wait, helplessly, for springs thaw. No, South was where a man could drive his own destiny, unencumbered by the desperate plight of winter, nor chained as a slave to the mad longings of some greedy mine owner to the depths of the earth, clawing at the veins of coal, scrabbling for a living, emerging from the darkness as barely lit broken things, steaming of the muck of extinct swamps and long dead creatures.

South was my sirens song, as I clung to the branches from my perch high above all I knew. I dreamt of Miami, of Costa Rica, of surfboards and senoritas, of cenotes and monkeys and perfect, peaking waves. That was where the Incans were, and the Mayans, and the old ones whispered of in the legends past, dim mists of time forgotten. There was no predicting what one would find buried beneath the jungles and beaches and lost, remote, high mountain plains, blown dry and desolate with longing for an age long since passed.

Now, every chance I get, I go south. Nowhere else will do. My eternal compass points in that direction, always. On silent, cold, dreary, mindless short days when sunshine and warmth seem distant and impossible, when not a fire can be lit, I dream of the waves, the sand, the beaches, the food.

This winter was no different. My wife and I, silent partners in our fascination for the warmth of the equatorial sun, set out for the Yucatan, where eons ago a celestial body of colossal dimensions slammed altering the face of our planet forever. We rode jungle trails, celebrated a wedding with a family we adore, basked in the sun, and avoided tourist hordes as if we feared some contagion, brought about by their sunscreen smeared blank stares. We ate, we lived, we saw, and we went home – to restlessly place our port sides to the setting sun, and stare into the Chesapeake, dreaming once again of adventure.

 

Over the Hills and Down the Mountains…A Plan Gone Awry.

“It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”  I was always a bit disappointed in the character portrayals of the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I became addicted to Tolkien as a teenager, when I discovered the three books, plus “The Hobbit” while assisting my uncle in remodeling a house. The books were rather strategically hidden, but nothing really escapes the relentless gaze of a teenager in their never ending quest for knowledge. Around age fourteen, my own quest for anything new quickly morphed into a frenzy of planning on how to get out of there. Preferably as far away as I could go, where no one knew me and I could start over, somehow rising above the ashes of a broken heart and contaminated soul…it was at this point that I usually broke down into tears, wallowing in my undeserved self-pity as only a teenager can.

Despite my broken heart and despondent soul (from which I always recovered, especially with the advent of another blonde, wannabe model with “Baby” tattooed on her shoulder blade into my life. I never did lose the desire to travel and see new places, even though it seemed more impossible as years went by. Then I discovered something! Something huge! Magical! Terrific! If you packed a small bag with a few clothes, not many, a little money, not much and a little food you were ready to go! The world was at your fingertips!

I’ve lost count on the number of times I’ve just simply wandered away, telling know one for certain of my plan, as I usually didn’t know myself. That didn’t stop me from being vague and mysterious up to when I left, as though I were indeed an angel whose wings had been ripped away in some  epic recapitulation of events as only I, the purveyor of legend, the immortal Highlander (remember that shit?) could somehow recall, if only I could stay sane in the telling.

Welcome to my childhood.

This roadtrip had all the drama of the others, only this time it was real life drama. My wife and I had bought a new home in Easton, MD near St. Michaels. We have a son, not quite two. We have a feral cat, age unknown. We have not yet sold our previous home, where we had lived for eight years, despite all our improvements. My wife is crazy busy with photography, and I am still suffering physically from HE, the side effects and symptoms of acute liver cirrhosis. Traveling, extended trips in the car, physical exertion or just simply standing too long sends my system into toxic shock. All of that notwithstanding, I chose to babysit our movers and drive up separately, over what I planned to be a few days of time, easy drives, and visiting with friends and new restaurants along the way.

That’s not what happened.

On Monday morning, I did manage to talk our cat, Stubbs, who is large and in charge and almost completely feral, into a small cat carrier that I bought for him. Astonishingly, he went willingly. He became my companion through the whole trip, until I lost him. More on that later.

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I said goodbye to Nolan, without crying (I saved that for later, I was only going to be one day, right?). He grinned his normal devil may care grin and he and his Mom piled into her Cadillac and off they went, headed for our new home in Easton, Maryland.

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I finished loading my Ford, met with the movers, who just so happened to be a great bunch of girls and guys, in spite of some gross misunderstandings throughout the day. The problem was, I was getting sicker by the minute on Monday, how sick, I didn’t really know at the time. That didn’t stop me from having a great day, nonetheless. The homemade wooden rack worked like a charm, thanks to my Dad and Brother James, who took their time on the rack-to-truck attachment to ensure it was as strong as possible, held everything I could possibly want, and kept all the bed features available. Thanks, James and Dad!!

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While the movers were doing their thing, I tried to mostly stay out of the way, although it nearly killed my pride to do so. By mid-morning I was beaten down pretty badly, but still on my feet and moving. I did a lot of sightseeing, visited Palisades, Eggleston, Pembroke, picked up a new canoe for calm water use, visited Moonsown Farm for some happily raised pork and boar, ate a hot dog, grabbed some sandwiches from Tangent Outfitters and in general had a pretty good day.IMG_0204

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I tried to help pull a guy out of a ditch, to no avail:

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Wrapped most everything up at the house, then cruised on over to the Inn on Main Street and visited my favorite dive, Underground Pub. They gave me my old coffee mug for luck, without anything but tea in it this time, my bourbon years are long gone:

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The next day found me in the hospital, where my plans for traveling north through WV, stopping to see my mentor Chef and documenting food all the way were changed. Instead, I started a bleary three day journey to our new home, which held it’s own set of adventures that I never planned for.

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I was given an autographed copy of a book, met some seriously cool people, learned yet again that every single day is a blessing and realized that I hate Doritos. I still haven’t found Stubbs, but I will. He has a way of showing up. Nolan was happy to see me and I celebrated by sleeping for about two days.

More on all the rest of this later. In the meantime, watch that front door!

Pura Vida!

Shame In Mississippi

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I’m embarrassed by my last trip to Mississippi. Not by one of the greatest states of the South, I love it with all my heart. I’m embarrassed by myself.

Maybe it was too much alcohol. That is very likely. Sporting a hangover and DT’s for one of the first times in my life, I had agreed to go to this Southern Mecca with a truly great friend of ours who was kind enough to take us to his hometown, introduce us to all his friends and family, take us to his favorite bar: An out in the woods, bud-light and whiskey only, smoke inside or out, no air conditioning, clapboard, gotta know someone to get in, loud, real, might-get-shot redneck bar. The kind of place that would make “Roadhouse” look just as fake and stupid as it is.

You bet your ass that was a run on sentence. I don’t know how else to write it. Our adventure started at our house in Eggleston, VA, progressed to somewhere in TN, then landed for a night smack dab in the middle of Memphis. I felt at home on Beale street, with my fancy trendy way-to-new slip on hiking sandals with lots of straps, pressed shorts and fat guy shirt. We ate and drank and listened to music until my wife and I stumbled back to our hotel. My wife’s buddy (she knew him first, and he had to approve of me), let’s call him Nic, shut down the bar, listed his way home, then took us to breakfast. I knew I had a problem with alcohol then, but I liked it too much to quit, and by then sobering up hurt too damn bad anyway. The music and vibe was great on Beale Street, don’t get me wrong. What was wrong was that I, around hundred of tourists listing about, with their I heart TN shirts, cameras, shorts and lily white legs, fit in.

We drove down to Tupelo after our behemoth breakfast first thing, which I could not enjoy with my stomach rolling at each look at a plate. It was “Big Mommas Place,” I think.   I took the first shift driving since I knew it would be all downhill from there. A couple of hours later, I was right. We arrived at Nic’s sisters home just in time for me to take a slice off the shakes and tremors with something that no doubt was very expensive. By then I didn’t care. Drain cleanser would have been fine by me, as long as there was alcohol in it. We ate ribs somewhere, I wandered about the house to find the owner of the place sitting on his front porch, dressed in a pajama suit, slippers and robe; reading a John Grisham novel, smoking a cigar and drinking fine Scottish Whiskey. I joined in, and he left me an hour or so later in my drunken glory, drinking by myself under the front porch light while the meanest mosquitos I had ever seen took turns dive bombing me. I felt like England in WWII.

The next morning I found that England looked a lot better after the war than I did. We waded around in a pool until I felt well enough to travel. Nic raised his eyebrows a bit over my condition, but like any good friend, didn’t say much. He did suggest that we not drink that night.

His suggestion was ignored. We arrived in Tupelo and I was hell bent on getting a drink on. Sweating and obnoxious, wearing an even more obnoxious fat guy shirt, I was first led to a trendy new bar, where all the waitresses had on tiny football team shirts, boob jobs and lots of glitter. They sold shots at two bucks a shot, circulating with trays full for people like me. On a self-identification free fall, and drank until they pulled me out of that bar to go to the “real” bar. The one mentioned earlier.

It took Nic an inordinate amount of time to find it. Reflecting on it tonight, with my feet up and my wife and son asleep beside me, I am a bit ashamed. Hell, I’m mortified. If I were in AA I would just go find a fence post in Mississippi and apologize to it. You see, I had left my heritage behind on that trip. Only one side trip for unknown food (crawdads and alligator), more alcohol than Anthony Bourdain in Thailand and those stupid ass flowered shirts from Jos A Banks. I would have shot me too. Turns out Nic was hoping I would sober up a bit before we landed headfirst in a bar that could have walked straight out of my hometown. The air was so humid it was like swimming. Bugs doubled as flying dinosaurs. Who knew those things were still around? We were in the middle of nowhere, in a field, in a clapboard structure that only sold pork rinds (in a bag) for bar food, was stacked with pool hustlers of all shapes, colors and sizes and was cash only. Of course I didn’t have cash. I had an AmEx, which my wife wisely panned from me, three maxed out credit cards and an outfit that screamed “Fat White Guy on Vacation.”

The band was amazing, and fucking LOUD. The place was nearly coming apart at the seams. Everyone was smoking. I disdainfully turned down an unfiltered cigarette from a very large, very intimidating, very sincere man with a mullet. I pissed him off. I complained. There was no food. I scoffed at the beer. I wanted single malt. They didn’t have any. They had rye whiskey and Bud Light. I started to slightly sober up and became more obnoxious. Nobody can hear me anyway, I shouted when my wife suggested that I turn down the volume a bit. I didn’t. Everyone there, and I mean everyone, was wearing worn boots still dirty from the day or some sort of eighties footwear. For some unknown reason, I thought that was funny. Worse, I even pointed it out.

I’ve written before about the day I was accused of “Being a Damn Yankee.” I managed to have just enough sense about me to dodge a major ass beating by agreeing that I liked it “Just fine here in the South.” Looking at myself in the mirror, I was shocked into silence and some semblance of sobriety to realize that I was the one being made fun of here. I didn’t fit in. At all. Worse still, I didn’t recognize me either.

A year or so later, I sobered up. It’s been one year now since I’ve had a drink of any kind. My work jeans flannel shirts and boots are worn enough to raise eyebrows in most cities. I remember my years as a coal miner, day laborer, drill monkey, carpenter, trailer dweller and enjoyed my time as a dishwasher, prep cook, truck unloader and breakfast cook. A woman a few years older than me taught me how to properly clean a kitchen again. I cleaned toilets, lit myself on fire and worked until I was hospitalized. Then went back again. Why? Because of that day in Mississippi. I am who I am yall, and I aint shamed. I wanted to meet that guy again. The guy that superglued the tip of his finger back on, wrapped in black MSHA approved mining tape and kept working. The one who shook a copperhead off his hand as if it were a mosquito. The wood splitter. The backwoodsman. The reader, the quiet one. The one who took no greater pleasure out of life than to work as hard as I could, all day long, then still have the energy to kiss my wife and play with my boy. My wife had not met that person.

If the state will have me, I’m going to go back. I’m going to find the biggest damn redneck with the most honest mullet, cut off sleeves, boots still shit caked from the day, let my accent fly, apologize to him for all my wrongs and by him as many drinks as he wants. I’ll smoke his hand rolled cig, even if it kills me. I’ll marvel at his work ethic, world-be-damned attitude, admire his mud truck and let him know I’m from the South. Appalachian Mountains, to be exact. Near Hurley, VA to be even more exact. Used to have one of them trucks. A ‘burban. Diesel. Rollin on Forties. Beat up. travelled and lived in. We will no doubt connect and most likely be cousins.

My boots need a little more breakin’ in first. They fairly broke in now, but don’t have no shit on ’em. Soon as I get done kilt this pig, I fix that proper.

No puns intended. Hell, I’m sorry ’bout all the ‘cussin. Momma took to ‘raisen me better en at. Soon as I feel worthy, I’ll come back, Tupelo. It’s me again this time. You may not have recognized me then, but you will now.

With my boots on.

Into the Beginning

On April 26th, 2006 I submitted my last geotechnical report to my boss in the greater Washington, D.C. area. I was out of dress in sandals, surf shorts (baggies) and a shirt that my mother had given in me when I graduated from high school in 1990. I still had sand in my hair from the surf the day before. I waited impatiently for him to give me a nod, a goodbye, a job well done, a thank you for your effort, a word of gratitude for sticking around a month longer than I had agreed to after I turned in my resignation. Something. Anything. Even a big fuck you, so long, sayonara or a big kick in the ass would be welcome. Just something to recognize that I existed and had been there in that office for three straight years and more or less been in his employment for six would be nice. So, I waited. He continued drafting a letter by hand on letterhead as his secretary stood obediently behind him waiting for him to finish. His pen scratching was driving me insane.

Not for the first time, I wondered exactly how many resources were currently being wasted because this guy is stuck in the 1950’s and stubbornly refuses to learn how to type. His solution to reviewing a report is to pencil in corrections on additional sheets of paper, code them to underlined sections in the draft and then submit all of them to typing, where they get passed to various temporary employees or secretaries that then type his suggestions, give them back to him to review and type further revisions for him to review once more. All changes are included with the originals, including the handwritten reports, which are then returned to me in all their senseless glory to assemble. People wonder where there money goes when they hire a consultant.

Giving up on an acknowledgement of my existence, I head for the door. I hesitate and take a look back. He still has sunburn rings from his goggles obtained on one of his recent skiing trips in the Alps. Or the Rockies. Or somewhere that I had likely been, but I would not have been someone that he would have noticed. I would have been the guy he mistook for a bartender or waitress, or perhaps a chef or maybe a member of the house staff. Someone anonymous, in the background, a person there to pick up a phone for him or shine his rented SUV so he could arrive back at the airport in style.

He looked briefly up from his musings. “Can I help you?” He’s pleasant enough, but I know when I’ve been dismissed. I start to begin an angry retort, something peppered with words far beyond his limited understanding of the English language, but I’d learned long ago that there was nothing whatsoever gained in a battle of intelligence with these people. It’s like mud wrestling with a pig. Or throwing shit at monkeys. They both love it and either way, right or wrong, you lose.

So I grin my most charming and obnoxious smile, the one that has knocked females off their rockers for as long as I can remember, the exact same one that my son will wear many years later and close the door behind me. Forsaking the elevator, I wave to everyone through the glass reception area. My co-workers flood out for a moment to say goodbye, wishing me luck and godspeed, reminding me to keep them posted. One of them, no doubt a beauty in her bygone years, flashes me yet another glimpse of her massive breasts, barely contained within the confines of her top and tells me to stop by and say hello. Please, any time. I agree, knowing that while they may remember me today, tomorrow I will be a ghost in the shadows, yet another human animal passing through on their way to somewhere else, someone who will, in spite of all their pent-up resentment and rebellion against the mythical machine that drives our lives, crumble before it.

But not yet. I meet my wife-to-be in the lowest level of the parking garage, flinging my green backpack into the rear of my old Suburban that has been quietly rusting in the dark for the last three years. Our belongings, such as they are, are stowed away, given away, trashed or sent in front of us. My mattress, camp stove and essential tools necessary to keep a thirty year old relic running are where they should be in the ruck and a first aid kit is stowed properly in between the front seats. Rocky, older now, rocks the truck in his flying leap over the rear tailgate. Laura dives into the front seat of her car and follows me out of the darkness of the parking garage into the light of day.

As the sun sets over the mountains in the distance and my left arm slowly colors back to normal from the sunshine and wind flowing into the open window, I almost weep in relief. I suddenly feel free, unfettered and released. Rt. 460 West stretches before us, free of traffic, blaring horns, shouting people and hurry. Stress turns to tranquility and the sound of a tractor reaches us from far away. Rocky has his head so far out the window that he’s nearly out of the car.
We have no idea then what the years may bring. We don’t know that they will be filled with joy, sorrow, longing, resentment, anger, tears, happiness and the full spectrum of human emotion. What we do know is that on this day, on this journey, we can leave one place behind and begin life anew.

Over eight years later, we start a similar journey east. Rt. 50 is our way, our vehicle of choice a Cadillac. We our older, wiser, somewhat damaged, banged up physically and emotionally. Our son holds his feet in his car seat and lets us know that he has indeed learned to yell. Loudly. Rocky has passed out of our lives, along with a great lab with a heart as large as the universe. Too large, it turns out. We have laid to rest grandparents and loved ones, and a small gray Manx Cat with impossibly green eyes keeps watch over our river home from her resting place under a great oak, piled with alluvial stones deposited millions of years ago when the New River was a great, roaring, unimaginable torrent of water carving its way through the ancient bedrock.

My wife slides her hand into mine and smiles at me, more radiant than ever. We head east into the future, propelled into the future by the most human of all emotions: Hope.

July 10, 2014. – R

Wistful Waves and Cooking

I’m not, nor have I ever been, one to really look back and daydream or play the “What if” game. What if I had not gone to college? What if I had not moved to D.C.? What if I had never become an engineer? Today, for some insane reason, I couldn’t help myself.

This picture was taken nearly a decade ago by the girl who became my wife and the mother of my child. That shy girl would likely be unrecognizable in personality to those that know her now. She had the same grit and backbone then that she does today, it had just not yet had the opportunity to manifest itself.

I asked her out on a date when she told me she’d love to see Pitch Black. Since I owned about three copies of it, that wasn’t much of a date, so we went to see Dodgeball instead. How romantic. She was completely confused by me, as I was to myself at that time. I was an engineer for a large and wildly successful firm, was great friends with the CEO and had nowhere to go but up in my career. I’d had my share of adventures, more than some people, less than others and should have been happy.

The thing is, I was never content working in an office or being an engineer/geologist. I didn’t like traffic, didn’t like D.C., didn’t like my ex-girlfriend who was, at the time, constantly trying to worm her way back into my life without letting me into hers. In retrospect, she was actually a good person, we had just simply grown apart over the years and she never really cared very much for my spontaneity and tendency to jump on whatever train was leaving the station in my thought patterns at the time. That likely didn’t make a lot of sense to a lot of people, but some of you will get it.

Side note: Day old biscuits that were baked with duck fat in a cast iron skillet really aren’t all that great cold. They leave a very distinctive duck taste in your mouth that isn’t as good as you would think. I’m debating eating another one. They’re horrible for you, so I’m keeping a careful eye on the sneaky suckers. If they make any sudden moves I’ll eat them.

The only job that I consistently enjoyed was cooking. I loved the camaraderie,  the inherent danger, all the cute waitresses and adoring customers. The pay sucked, especially for someone who put themselves through college by working as an assistant foreman in a coal mine, but I never really cared all that much about money anyway. Chalk it up to never having any, but I found money to be irritating and draining. What to do with it? Do I freeze it? Bury it? I have a pair of camo shorts, a pair of board shorts, a surfboard, a tent, a truck that’s paid for and some t-shirts along with a small grill, duck tape, super glue and a bottle of antibiotics, just in case. Cell phone? What’s that? Rich people have those.

My first real gig cooking was at Southwest Virginia Community College. They were having a catered dinner and the cook/chef didn’t show. Someone finally had the brains to call the jail, where he was sleeping off a three day binge. I was yanked out of the darkroom, where I was happily working by those funky lights that dimly lit the room with a smoking hot underage girl with an astonishing rack. What do you know? Ron can cook! I split my four years of community college between mining and cooking, with either job offering a better than average chance of being blown up by gas build up.

To make a long story shorter, I cooked (nothing ever complicated, more often than not breakfast), deep fried nearly everything under the sun, washed dishes and stored deliveries off an on for years.

Last year, still reeling from a stint in rehab and still in the throes of DT’s, my wife insisted that I interview with Chef Rork at Mountain Lake. I was so out of shape and in so much pain that I had to rest twice going up the steps to the kitchen and ducked into the restroom to catch my breath, wipe the sweat off my face and stop shaking. I did not pretend. For once in my life, I didn’t sugarcoat my abilities, or harp on my so called kitchen experience which was really nothing more than frying frozen shit at various beaches and towns during my wandering years. He asked what I did and I shrugged. A geologist. He hired me on the spot. He didn’t know it, or maybe he did, but he helped save my life. I was so eager to work and so thankful to be in a real kitchen that I lived for a few months in fear that I would screw up. Alcohol never crossed my mind.

So, the morning of this picture, I was actually contemplating not going back to my job. The surf was flat and I had sneaked out of the tent (I thought) to enjoy the sunrise and the peace and thinking – fuck it. I’m not going back. I heard the sound of a camera shutter and my future wife, complete with one hell of a tan, tangled sun bleached hair, dressed in a bikini – grinned at me over the camera with her board stuck in the sand beside her. She is silent as a ghost when she wants to be.

I went back home to D.C. Less than a year later, we set sail to the New River Valley and a life that stretched so far in front of us that we dared not think of it.

If you have a dream, a passion, a desire to DO something else – then for fucks sake, do it. Life is really, really short. Let’s go throw these god-awful biscuits away before I eat another one. Peace.

-R

surfing

P.S. What living at the beach does to you.

couple of rednecks and fire

Hank’s Drive-In

As a writer and a cook, I rarely need to look very far to find a story. I usually have more ideas than time or attention span and as an editor once told me, I need to “SLOW DOWN.” Sometimes stories are so compelling that you actually don’t know what to do with them or who to tell or how to write it.

When I was at Radford University, a favorite place for us to all go after having a bit too much fun the night before was to Hank’s, as we referred to it amongst ourselves. Set in a sea of fast food restaurants, this beach-like, shack looking place was home to the cook we all knew and loved. We would pile in around a vinyl covered table in his one room restaurant/eating area that could seat around ten or so at max capacity. Everyone else pulled up in their cars, placed their orders and waited, generally eating in the parking lot at a few tables scattered about or on the tailgates of construction trucks as the constant stream of customers at the McDonalds across the street drove away with their mystery meat sandwiches, blissfully unaware of the true treasure trove located about thirty feet in front of their steering wheel as they pulled away with secret sauce dripping down their faces.

Hank would work the line, cash register, take orders, say hello, tell stories about being in WWII, all without missing a beat. That was in 1999, as best I can remember. Burgers were three dollars and he would form the burger by hand while he was talking to you, never once burning, overcooking, lighting himself on fire or the million other things that I’ve done wrong in kitchens.

The place was really on my mind the other day. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, craving a cheeseburger and a sense of my past. I loaded up Laura and my 16-month old son and we went on a day trip in the direction of years gone by.

The place was where and how I remembered. There are more fast food joints than there used to be. Hank now has an assistant and moves a bit slower than I remember. He also had no recollection of a group of climbing junkies who used to pile into his place for a late breakfast of burgers, fries and shakes. Why should he? As I’ve learned, cooks tend to live squarely in the present. To dwell on the past can cause hesitation and self-doubt, both of which have no room in our lives but can take complete control if we let it.

Hank is also now quite deaf and we had to shout a bit to get our order in. He grinned at our little family, mumbled to himself and at the cranky old stove, and cranked out three of the most unapologetically American cheeseburgers I’ve had in my life. Perfectly seasoned, medium done, toasted bun, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles, tomato. Our crinkle fries were served the way they should be, in a little paper sleeve, just as I remembered. Some days I hope that will be me when I’m 86, doing what I love for people that care.

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A Baby’s Trip Over the Mountains and Down the Valley

My Mom and Dad are being a little boring again lately, so I’m trying to get everyone motivated to go do something! I watch the birds outside the window where the snow is falling fast. I’m so glad Dad built a fire last night even though he did cheat and use a chimney starter with charcoal to get the fire started, but he was tired and I didn’t tell Mommy. My thumb is good this morning and my blanket is warm so I start to plan our day.

As I’ve said before, Dad will do nearly anything for a really good cheeseburger, and I’m feeling like an adventure to boot. Daddy’s truck is fun to drive ’cause he can do things like put wood in it, haul dirt for me to eat and haul lots of rocks. Plus, he lets me drive when we go to the Palisades sometimes on Sundays to listen to music, but last time Mommy put her foot down. I don’t know what she put her foot down on, but boy she was mad! I felt bad for Daddy, he’s just trying to let me do big boy stuff, but like Mom says, the car seat is safer!

I listen to them talking about picking up bison from a supplier in Paint Bank, VA for the restaurant Daddy works for. I like the kitchen. It’s big, and shiny and there are lots of things to play with. So, with my usual persuasion, I talk them into visiting the Swinging Bridge Restaurant!

First I have to post this picture of me in a pot.

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This was a month ago and I’m a lot bigger now and I won’t fit in the pot but it would be nice! I do a bit of research so I can tell them where to go:

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Then I remember that Daddy is a legend in his own mind or something like that and knows every back road and four wheel drive trail in Southwester Virginia, so I don’t bother with telling him directions. He packs up the truck with my car seat, bag of goodies, some toys for me and tea for Mommy. I don’t like the tea very much, but I do like juice!!

The drive to Paint Bank is gorgeous. It’s snowing so hard that we can barely see out the windows and Mommy can’t take any pictures without ruining her camera. I forgot my point and shoot, but everything was so gorgeous! Just imagine it!

We get some grubbage at the Swinging Bridge Restaurant:

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I try to start a fire but I get distracted with the Lincoln Logs. The food was ok, but the décor was awesome! There were all sorts of stuff to look at and we buy lots of candy for Easter. Dad meets the supplier for bison and we’re on our way back across the mountain in the snow! Just when Mommy and I are thinking Daddy might really be lost, we see Mountain Lake Lodge through the snow!

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Dad packs away all the bison and talks with his boss, CHEF and we head for home. Full of hot chocolate and tired from all the instructions I had to give Daddy for driving in the snow, I go to sleep. I wonder what we’ll do tomorrow???