¡Felices fiestas! Happy Holidays! It has nine months since my last blog post, and while I don’t exactly get a surplus of messages asking for more content, I figured those of you who consider yourself Loyal Readers may wonder what the heck I’ve been up to. The answer – that I’ve been up to quite a lot but also not much at all – may seem contradictory, so bear with me as I explain.
Travel and Hiking
Poor gringo. At last count, I had set foot in 41 U.S. states, 73 countries, and six continents. While that is nothing to sneeze at, I haven’t visited any new states since 2012 (Utah), new countries since 2017 (Nicaragua and Cuba), or new continents since 2009 (Africa). A lot has changed since those respective trips and years. The pandemic. Financial uncertainty. The general state of the world. And me personally.
I have, to considerable extent, lost my wanderlust. While many destinations still make up my travel bucket list, travel to new destinations just doesn’t seem as important anymore. A few exceptions notwithstanding (Maine, Ecuador, Antarctica), I would rather make return trips to places I enjoy and explore them in further detail than to seek out new destinations. Charleston, SC comes to mind, as do Mexico City, Mexico and Seoul, Korea. The fact that there is comfort in the familiar is part of it, but so, too, is the fact that I am older and have become more of a homebody. I have learned since the pandemic that the staycation is a supremely underrated way to spend one’s vacation time; surely there are few ways to better relax and recharge than by simply staying home and sleeping in, right?
I did visit my sister and her extended family for Thanksgiving and am pleased to report that everyone, with the possible exception of my cantankerous nephew, was on their best behavior. Additionally, I made a follow-up trip to Savannah last April from the same time one year prior (read about the 2021 trip here) to further explore coastal Georgia’s great, grid-like city of Spanish moss and pre-Civil War architecture. I had a wonderful time revisiting favorite neighborhoods, trendy River Street, and the wonderful Forsyth Park, which played host to a chalk drawing contest during my visit that produced striking results, including fresh takes on such iconic works as Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” as seen below.
I explored the region in greater detail as well. I journeyed south of Savannah to St. Simon’s Island and the little-visited National Park Service site of Fort Frederica National Monument, where I photographed the site’s pre-Revolutionary War powder magazine, barracks, and canons, and hiked through the surrounding marshland among four deer, 30,000 mosquitoes, and nary a single snake. I also traveled north of Savannah via the Talmadge Memorial Bridge to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, and to one of the newest NPS sites, Reconstruction Era National Historical Park, which was inaugurated by former President Obama, which resides in the lovely town of Beaufort SC, and which commemorates the proud work and residency of post-Civil War African-Americans in the region. Finally, I topped off the trip by spending a few relaxing days on Hilton Head Island, where I got to see how America’s top one percent lives. Shew!
I have continued to hike – not as often as I can but a couple times/month. In June, I summited Mount Mitchell, the highest point in North Carolina at 6,684 feet (2,037 meters) and the tallest peak in the U.S. west of the Mississippi River. The view, as seen below, is lovely on a clear, cloud-free day, of which I am told the mountain doesn’t have many.
Vehicle access to Mount Mitchell State Park is via the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, which travels from Shenandoah National Park, VA to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC. There are countless waterfalls, rock formations, and scenic vistas to enjoy as you travel the scenic byway. I returned in late October in the hopes of viewing some fall foliage. The colors were already past peak at the higher elevations, but I still enjoyed my hike to the Craggy Pinnacle Summit. Although it was a beautiful sunny day when I made the hike, the trail had patches of snow and ice, and I was surprised to discover that the road itself was closed to vehicle traffic due to ice just past the nearby Craggy Gardens Visitor Center. Somewhat unique, it was still open to foot travel, so I joined others in hiking through the vehicle tunnel just past Craggy Gardens to the trailhead itself.
An unexpected treat along the Blue Ridge Parkway was the Blue Ridge Folk Art Center, a combination museum and gift shop displaying works of art by local residents. Much of the art is for sale, and although I only purchased a magnet for my dad’s lady friend, the Folk Art Center absolutely merited a stop. There is still much for me to see in this area; I would like to make a return visit next summer to re-hike Mount Mitchell from a different approach (I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess); to check out Blowing Rock, not far from the Virginia state line; and in the opposite direction, check out Chimney Rock State Park, just 20-ish miles off the parkway and the filming location for much of the 1992 Michael Mann/Daniel Day-Lewis collaboration “The Last of the Mohicans.” Additionally, the train crash from 1993’s “The Fugitive” was filmed near here, and the crash ruins are still on display. All of this, of course, is in addition to the North Carolina side of one of my favorite places, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have logged a lot of trail miles at GSMNP, including two 2021 summits of Mount LeConte. At 6,593 feet in elevation (2,010 meters), LeConte is the premier destination for peak-baggers in the area, even though Clingman’s Dome, elsewhere in the park, is higher. I have barely set foot in the North Carolina-side of the park, however, and I hope to fix that soon. Check out the picture below of an approaching bear on my descent from LeConte via the Boulevard Trail. We passed without incident, but the moment was both exhilarating and terrifying.
Work and Family
2022 has had some surprises on this front. My dad turned 80 and my nephew turned four! For the former, we celebrated at his favorite German restaurant, Freiberg’s, in Johnson City. For the latter, my nephew destroyed an entire house. I am exaggerating of course, but only slightly. The 300 Spartans and Xerxes’s entire army are little match compared to this handsome young terror. I missed the kid’s birthday but hung out with him at Thanksgiving instead. He was on his best behavior during our trip to the renowned Memphis Zoo, but I remember one point during the visit when he jumped in place and screamed for 60 nonstop minutes. Okay, I’m exaggerating again, but it was exhausting to watch him torment the family dogs, Lucky and Sarge, each of whom have the patience of Job, and listening to him blow a raspberry in response to each request by his long-suffering mother to sit still. (Contrary to popular opinion, I did not teach him how to make that farting sound with his mouth, although I did ask him once, just for laughs, what the clitoris was.) All signs point to him being a real heartbreaker when he gets older.
Six weeks ago, I was given my walking papers at my job of just under five years. The job loss was not because of anything I did; rather, it was a corporate restructuring in which I was downsized along with a few other newer leaders based on the dreaded “last-in, first-out” mindset. This surprised me as my perception of the company was that it was flush with cash, and as I seldom worked less than 50 hours/week. Time, I think, will tell all. I promised myself that I will do my best to keep a positive attitude and approach this as a win; although I was good at what I did, I sometimes felt that I had advanced as far as I was ever going to. From this standpoint, change can be good, albeit never right before the holidays. For now, I am pursuing a few freelance opportunities and am finishing up a long-gestating writing project…
…I have written a novel! The novel is finished after a gazillion rewrites, although I am awaiting final feedback from my editor and test readers, and I’m still searching for an illustrator for the cover art. “My Friends Time Traveled and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” (try saying that three times fast) follows a group of Illinois teenagers, circa 1987, as they investigate the disappearances of their friends, who may have been abducted and sent forward through time to work as involuntary laborers in a very different future. As the tongue-in-cheek title suggests, the story, while ultimately a somber tale, is sprinkled with a generous dollop of humor, including lots of pop culture references that date back to the 1980’s. Picture “Stranger Things” meets “The Tomorrow War,” perhaps, or “Back to the Future” meets “Children of Men.”
I dunno. What started out as a young adult sci-fi novel somehow evolved into something much bigger (and, I think, much greater). The writing came in fits and starts, but midway through the process, as 200 pages turned into 300 pages and 300 pages turned into 400 pages, I realized that I was no longer in charge. The story began to write itself, and went to some fabulous – and bizarre – places. It won’t see the hardbound or e-book light of day until sometime in the first half of 2023, as I suspect there is probably still one more rewrite needed. But it’s getting there. I will update you via a new blog post once the book is back from the printers. For now, I thank those of you who lent me moral support during this labor of love, and I suppose my unexpected job loss can offer the trade-off of extra time to get the novel just right.
So that’s it, really. Staying healthy, avoiding the ‘rona, turning into something of a homebody, hiking when I can (which is to say, not often enough), and keeping an open mind regarding the unexpected career interruption that transpired in early November.
How have you been, Loyal Reader? Drop a line in the Comments section to say “hi,” “hola,” “Happy Holidays,” or whatever!