Beaches have sand.

At 5pm on what turned out to be our last day in Asheville, we decided that we were going to drive to the coast of North Carolina… or at least as far as we could before we got too sleepy.  It turns out that “as far as we could,” meant the Walmart parking lot on the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina.  Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time wandering around Walmart at 3 in the morning… but it was not our best night’s sleep.IMG_2214 IMG_2215

We arrived at Hammocks Beach State Park on the North Carolina coast around 9:30am and it was already hot as hell.  We took the 11:30 ferry to Bear Island (a barrier island along the Outer Banks), which meant we arrived right when the noon sun was in full force.  Everyone else on the ferry was just hanging out on the beach for the day, so they just had little coolers, lawn chairs, and towels, and were already wearing their swimsuits.  Kevin and I stood out a bit with our hefty backpacks and hiking boots on.

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The campsite!

We made the long trek past all of the sunbathers, sweat out our whole body’s water supply, and eventually arrived at our campsite.  Holy crap, it was gorgeous… and sunny.  There was absolutely no shade to be found on the Island, so we had to create our own.  Originally, the island was known as Bare Island due to the fact that there was basically no vegetation (and definitely no bears) to be found.  Someone made a spelling error somewhere along the line and that is why it is now known as Bear Island.  Seeing a bear on this island would be like coming across a polar bear in Hawaii.  (Lost reference, anyone?)

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Shade fort!

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What was great about camping on this island was that there was literally nothing to do but relax.  We swam, we read, we napped, we built sandcastles, we built a fort, we ate…  It was pretty great.  One kind of strange thing about the island was that it was right next to an army base, which meant that there were constantly helicopters and other military aircrafts flying overhead, and the sounds of guns being shot over and over again.  It was kind of creepy.

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Apparently you can eat the skin of a kiwi! Who knew?!

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We saw some cool creatures on the beach.  We became mesmerized with the tiny little mollusks (some sort of shelled… thing) that we spotted right where the water met the shore.  While staring at the sand, we noticed that after a wave passed over, hundreds of what we thought at first were pebbles would emerge from the sand.  When the water came back over them they would bury themselves back down again in the sand.  It was hypnotizing!  Don’t worry… I included a video below.  We also saw a beached Portuguese Man O’ War and a crab chillin’ by our campsite.  After we returned to civilization, we researched the Man O’ War and found out that they are made out of four separate organisms that can only live by working together.  You can read more about them too if you click THIS LINK!  Wow… fancy technology.  Are you impressed?

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Crabby

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Portugese Man O’ War

 

The one thing I forgot about the beach was that it is full of sand.  I realize that this is a pretty stupid thing to forget.  We tried our best to keep the sand out of the tent, but it was impossible.  Sand.  Was.  Everywhere.  I am still finding sand.  We left the beach 19 days ago…

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Cities

There are no edges in nature, only gradients.  I first heard this concept expressed in the book “Seeing Nature” by Paul Krafel, and it helped redefine my view of the world.  (This is the sort of book that if you get to the end and you don’t think about the whole world differently, you must not have paid much attention.)  The past few weeks have afforded us a remarkably tangible experience of this concept.  Two weeks ago we were in the mountains of North Carolina.  I had been there once before, this past fall, with my brother Brian.  Brian had been spending large amounts of time hiking through the mountains of Arizona, and it was in the Smokeys that he taught me about mountains as spiritual places, metaphors for our internal journey.  Each rock and root, each turn of the trail, represents our own struggles to transcend what we are.  As you near the top, the troubles of the conventional world seem increasingly distant.  Existence and the quality of your consciousness shifts radically.  Small, otherwise mundane experiences become Cosmic Happenings.  The wind in your hair rushes through your spirit.  The heart rests, the mind’s shackles loosen and fall away.  When you finally reach the summit, just as in the journey through and into yourself, you are free.  There is nothing to hold you down, you can see everything, and there is absolutely nothing to be done.  How wonderful!

Sort of like climbing a tree, too.

Sort of like climbing a tree, too.

Coming out of the mountains, I underestimated how much I would miss them, and it did not help that our very next night was spent in our car in a Walmart parking lot, choking down the thick, hot, muggy air of the lowlands.  I was similarly refreshed, however, upon arriving at our next camping location on the coast of North Carolina.  In under twenty four hours, we had gone from one of the highest to one of the lowest points in the state!

The ocean is an entity with which I am not well acquainted, and its power is awesome (and I use the word in its truest sense).  Water scares me, and I would not say that quite so bluntly about many things.  It terrifies me to be out swimming in open water.  I will do it, to an extent, but never without second thoughts!  We were on an incredibly pleasant beach at a time when the waves and tides were mild, yet as we played in the water, I could not help feeling that we were dancing on the toe of a giant.  Watching the waves crash against the shoreline, I felt as if I am paying a visit to infinity.  These waves, after all, have been crashing here since before life was on this planet, and will continue long after life (at least human life) has disappeared.  We walked along the sandy remains of the mountains we were enjoying the day before, and after the soul-crushing visit to Walmart, my spirit soared once again!  The subtle terror of the expansive ocean was ever-present, bringing a sort of vibrancy to my awareness that never seems to come out of being totally comfortable.

Molly seems unafraid of the giant.

Molly seems unafraid of the giant.

The ocean is not a kind place, nor is it cruel.  The ocean, along with the rest of the natural world, is powerfully ambivalent (or ambivalently powerful, I suppose) to our existence, just as we are ambivalent to the existence of individual microorganisms, or miniscule insects.  If one dies or comes into being we definitely don’t notice, and we probably wouldn’t care if we did.  And so we stand in relation to the enormity of Nature.

Wow!

Wow!

But there are no edges in nature, only gradients.  As we move north, stopping in Charlottesville, VA, Washington, DC, and making it into the Big One, New York City, it occurs to me that these places are on the same spectrum as the wilderness we recently were calling home.  The heart of a city is fueled by the same energy that fuels the ocean waves, the mountain springs, the night sky.  It all runs from the same spark, and it is equally impartial across the board.  In our recent visit to New York, I began to see the city as an entity of its own, that will readily consume the ill-equipped, weak, or merely unfortunate people.  I could look around and see people playing all different roles; the arms, legs, eyes, mouth, of the Beast.  I could see people in various stages of digestion, torn to pieces by a lifetime in a terrifying and uniquely modern living situation, while others seem to be able to use the city’s energy to vault up to a mode of existence that would be nearly or entirely impossible to achieve anywhere else.

Spending time in large cities has always been a struggle for me.  It kills me to see the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich walk past each other on the street, the homeless man staring pleadingly at the businessman who does not give him a second thought.  I feel uncomfortable with how desensitized I feel after only a few hours in such a place.  When you see someone, hopeless, utterly destitute, on every street corner, you learn to deal with it as part of life’s scenery.  Scenery!  What a way to classify a person, as if the humans with whom interactions are immediately relevant are the actors, the significant characters, and the rest are the scenery.  We normalize those who exist in our field of awareness but are not obviously and immediately relevant, much as we normalize horrific news stories, and justify our non-participation with lame excuses, as if doing nothing and merely thinking about the problem (or not thinking about it) is a better answer.  Somebody else will take care of the problem.  Somebody else with more than me will be generous.  There are shelters and food pantries for the people, they’ll just spend my money on drugs or alcohol.  Those people who are hungry are three thousand miles away, what am I supposed to do?  To be able to feel for all of those in need, to be able to help wherever possible, to be able to retain your humanity and compassion in the midst of such an environment, is all too difficult.  When you pour out your heart and soul to people without being careful, you may end up with nothing left.  It’s a bit like the oxygen masks on airplanes.  If you aren’t able to keep your own head up, you probably won’t be much help to others.  Many can do it, some actually do, but it could never be enough.  There are too many people.  There is too much anonymity.  And so arises the ambivalence of cities, another manifestation of the universe’s impartiality.

Actor, or scenery?

Actor, or scenery?

Cities are what the environment become when we strip away everything that is not made by humans.  When a natural area is stripped of its natural functions and components to make room for humans, then we must accept that it is humans that need to fill the gaps.  There are many gaps to be filled.  Therefore, the various abstract roles of existence are redefined in an entirely human context.  We have created a new food in the City: money.  It is not particularly new, nor is it exclusive to the City, but it becomes an even more vital component of survival the closer one moves to civilization.  City dwellers require more money to do basic things, and it is increasingly difficult to carry out basic survival needs without it.  For example, it would be rather difficult to set up a tent, start a subsistence farm, and hunt for wild game in Manhattan.

I'm not sure we can camp here, Molly.

I’m not sure we can camp here, Molly.

So what’s the difference?  It’s still an extension of Nature; the rules are similar, but the players are different.  There is plenty of reason to believe that there is as much suffering in the mountains or the desert or the ocean as there is in the city (unless you hold the strange belief that animals do not suffer).  As I spent time in various parts of New York City over the last few days, and Washington DC before that, I was trying to reconcile this.  I love nature.  I am deeply in love with its unpolished beauty, its harshness, and its mystical interconnectedness, yet all of these things exist in a city as well.  It’s the same system, just a different part of it.  There are mountains, deserts, marshes, anthills, glaciers, beehives, oceans, farms, cities, all of these are different systems following the same underlying, invisible Way.  So what is it about cities that makes me feel so much more anxious, fast-paced, and unsettled?

In the natural, nonhuman world, there are many factors that are dangerous, potentially stressful, and fast-paced.  There are reasons to be on edge, just as there are reasons to relax, open your heart, and surrender to it all.  In a city, however, there are no outlets from humanity’s pull, from the collective Mind that a city generates, and that, I believe, is the major difference in my mind.  There are parks, there are museums and lots and lots of art, but these are no substitution for something entire inhuman.  A city without parks is like a room without windows, but windows do not make a good substitute for the great outdoors.  In the natural world, my mind more easily opens into a broader consciousness, tapping into a beautiful and terrifying emptiness that is eternally present.  The type of emptiness you might access during your deepest sleep.  In a city, however, everything I look at is either a human or specifically created by humanity, for humanity.  It is like being surrounded by your own neuroses, trapped in a bizarre hall of mirrors but imagining that it is the world.  There is a reason why mental illness rates are higher in cities than in the country, and it is the same reason I feel more tense in the heart of a city.  There is too much psychological pressure without enough of an outlet!  It can break a person if they are not careful, or if their mind is naturally one of those minds that does not fit neatly into our social norms.

Brainspace.  Not much of it in a city.

Brainspace. Not much of it in a city.

Despite how it may sound, I think cities are incredibly valuable to our modern world.  They are, in many ways, on the cutting edge of what it means to be human, acting as doorways to an alternate dimension, accessible throughout the world, but only where there are cities.  They resemble the future, and leave a wake behind themselves that gradually spreads to the rest of the world.  They are like mountain tops, similar to each other, but radically different than the landscapes in between.  All of that psychological energy can catapult minds into spirals of ideas that would otherwise never occur, and are of great value to our world.  Minds within collective minds, within collective minds.

Wilderness, on the other hand is the empty canvas.  It is the air that we breathe without noticing.  It is the blackness behind the stars, the silence behind words, and the consciousness preceding thought.  There is an infinite world out there beyond us humans, and there is a great deal of value in venturing out there, physically, mentally, spiritually, and then coming back.  When we do this, we bring back something, something amazingly intangible, or is it nothing?  Either way, it is of utmost importance.

Nature is Awesome!

Nature is Awesome!

On Asheville, fresh mountain air, rice cakes, and consumerism

After a few days or so of camping and hotel stays in strange small towns (where we were introduced to dry counties), we made it to Asheville, NC.  Now that I’ve been there, I definitely understand why no one has anything but great things to say about it.

While I loved the city itself, what stood out most to both of us was the surrounding nature… oh also the crazy weather, but we’ll get to that.  Of the four nights we spent in Asheville and the nearby area, only one involved sleeping in a bed.  On the stormiest of nights, we stayed in Sweet Peas Hostel, which I can honestly say was the cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed in.  I was very impressed!  The other three nights, we camped in the Pisgah National Forest in the southern Appalachians.

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Kevin pointing out our location. Thanks, Kevin.

After spending the previous 2 weeks sweltering and melting in the southern heat, the cool mountain air was very refreshing.  One of the highlights of hanging out in the mountains was driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway and checking out sweet trails and views along the way.  The Blue Ridge Parkway goes through Virginia and North Carolina for over 450 miles, and runs through the Appalachian Mountains.  It was a pretty windy drive on a narrow road with a long drop off the side… so, needless to say, Kevin did the driving.

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Looking Glass Rock overlook on the Parkway

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Don’t look down!

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Kevin being a cheerleader at the highest point on the Parkway

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Can we go back now?

We climbed to the top of the highest peak along the Parkway and when we got to the top we met some people who were banding and studying birds.  They were super nice and walked us through the process for a couple of birds.  It was pretty sweet.  We also hiked down to a beautiful waterfall called Skinny Dip Falls where we were planning on swimming.  As I mentioned before, the mountains are a lot cooler, so the water was pretty darn cold (our guess was roughly in the 30s).  Like a sane person, I decided to sit it out, but Kevin went all of the way in… he couldn’t feel his toes until later that night.

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While in the city itself, we enjoyed awkward picnics, torrential downpours, better grocery stores, cool bars, and sweet graffiti/murals.  It had been pretty difficult finding gluten free food in the south (they didn’t even know what hummus was in the grocery store we went to in Mississippi) so we ate pretty strangely.  We’ve had a lot of rice cakes with peanut butter and raisins.  I swear, if I see one more rice cake…

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I know I posted this picture before, but now I totally agree with it. I’m so over rice cakes!

When we got to Asheville we were very happy to see a Whole Foods grocery store where they actually label items as gluten free, and have better produce… and awesome chocolate!  On our one day staying in a hostel in Asheville we spent a lot of time walking around in the rain, getting cold, taking refuge from the rain, and going to bars.  Overall, it was a grand day.

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“Come play with us.”

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Hen.

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Awkward picnic #1: Seeking shelter from the rain in a slightly sketchy parking lot.

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Awkward Picnic #2: Avocados at the Nature Center.

We met some really cool people while we were in the area.  The first person that comes to mind I guess I didn’t technically meet… but she was pretty darn awesome.  I was in Urban Outfitters browsing the sale section (no I don’t want to pay $50 for a pair of pants that looks like someone angrily threw bleach at them at stabbed them with a knife…but that’s just me) when I saw a little green person.  By “little green person” I mean a child probably between the ages of 7 and 10 dressed in a lime green spandex onesie that covered her face, also wearing a baseball hat and athletic shorts.  This little green person was dancing all over the place and being generally awesome.  I saw the little green person’s dad in the store and he said to me, “I just let her do what she wants.”  Though it seems like she probably just saw something on a youtube video and decided to reenact it, I like to think that she was making a larger statement.  Probably something about consumerism (hence the choice of the green onesie) and how it’s all some sort of sick joke that the government has come up with to support itself, by using the media to brainwash us into believing that consumerism is an integral part of human existence, but when it comes down to it, all we really need to do is be ourselves without fearing the judgment of the lemmings who still buy into consumerism, and then others will eventually follow our examples and be freed from the chains of capitalism and then we’ll all like… be communists or something.  Or maybe not… I didn’t ask her.

New Orleans

If you were to look up New Orleans on the internet, the most common word you’d find in describing it would be “crazy.”  I cannot think of a better way to describe it.

During our visit to New Orleans, we stayed with Marisa and her roommate Kim… who we had never met before…and they were awesome!  They even had two bathrooms in their apartment!  We felt like royalty.  Marisa is the girlfriend of Kevin’s friend Jake who we stayed with in Minneapolis.  That’s not confusing, is it?  It was really nice of them to let two strangers stay with them… we could have been ax murderers!  We’re not though.

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Or maybe we are…
(photo courtesy Jar O’ Sass)

We found out very quickly upon our arrival to Hammond (the town where they live about an hour outside of New Orleans) that things were a little different down there.  On our first night in town, Marisa fixed me up a drink and she, Kevin, and I went to one of the many daiquiri drive-throughs we would see on our visit.  First of all, the idea of a drive-through where you can buy alcohol is pretty strange.  I’m pretty sure that in most places I’ve been there is no open alcohol allowed in the car, but I guess Louisiana is special.  I think the reason that this is allowed has something to do with the fact that they hand you your drink with a wrapped straw, which technically makes it a closed container.  Strange logic.

We began our first full day with a trip to the swamp!  We held an alligator.  It was sweet.  I’m thinking about getting Charlie a little alligator friend.  Good idea, right?  Our next task was to find some gluten free gumbo, and find it we did at Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop.  Chef Ron is the man!  After making these two stops on the way into New Orleans, Marisa taught us an interesting way of getting free city parking.  We gambled our way to free parking!  Harrah’s casino gives you free parking if you gamble for 30 minutes, so we each put $1 into the slot machines and mindlessly pushed a button for a half an hour.  We ended up making a $1 profit!  High rollers.

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Marisa with our new alligator friend.

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Lyle.

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Awesome gumbo and jambalaya.

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K-Man the big better.

While in New Orleans, we enjoyed the food, the music, the scenery, the culture, and the weirdness.

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Beignets from Cafe Du Monde. Roughly 5 lbs of sugar you see there.

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Frenchman Art Market

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We ate ALL of the oysters.

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Al.

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Great music at the Spotted Cat.

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Beautiful architecture.

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Piano in a bathroom. Duh. Where else would you put it?

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In New Orleans, money grows from the ceilings of bars. If you don’t have enough money for your drink, you just take money down.

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Zombie Jesus was directing/ heckling traffic and chatting up firemen.

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The Mississippi.

We had a great visit with wonderful hostesses.  I know that there was a lot more to do and see, but we had to move on to our next adventure…

The South: An Analytical Approach

The following statement probably does not come as a shocker: the South is different from the other regions of the United States.  Profound, right?

Here are some of the main differences we’ve noticed:

1.  Cheaper gas.

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I promise this isn’t photoshopped.

2.  There are a lot of abandoned businesses and homes.  Some of the businesses are actually still open, but they look as if no one has done any sort of repair work for the past 50 years.  Even though it’s sad to see decrepit, falling down buildings, there is something that I find to be very beautiful about it.  There is a story behind every place, and even if it doesn’t seem significant, it is still important.

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Preston trucking company went out of business in 1999. 14 years later… here is one of their trucks in Somewhereville, Mississippi.

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A beautiful out-of-business gas station in Mississippi.

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Oh my gosh it’s downtown Hot Coffee!!!

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Hot Coffee doesn’t seem to be too hoppin’ today…

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Hot Coffee residents… where are you?

3.  It is slower paced, and the people are very polite.  I had heard this about the Midwest when I was moving there from New Jersey, and it is true to a certain extent, but it is even more evident in the South.  In Wisconsin, it is not uncommon for a stranger to smile at you on the street and say “how’s it going?”  The response is usually “oh great, you?”  In New Jersey (at least where I grew up) if you said the same thing to a stranger on the street they would probably be very confused.  They would be thinking, “Do I know this person?  Should I know this person?  Is this person important?  Why are they talking to me?”  By the time they have finished their thoughts (flustered, tripping over their feet), you have probably already passed them and feel rejected.  Here in the South, the politeness of strangers feels less fake than in the Midwest.  I’m not trying to say that Midwesterners are fake, but there’s a kind of Midwest politeness that means you probably won’t end up telling a stranger that you are having a crap day when they ask you how you’re doing.  The people we’ve talked to in the South seem to be more real.  If they are having a bad day you will definitely know it.  If they have having a good day, they’ll talk to you for as long as you want.  Obviously these are all gross generalizations.  But what is a blog for if not to make such gross generalizations and to be completely biased and opinionated in your information sharing?

Here are some other things we’ve seen in the South:

1.  Sun Studio in Memphis!  We took a tour and it was sweet.  I touched the same walls and walked on the same linoleum floor tiles as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison… and apparently Def Leppard…  How cool is that?!

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2.  Graceland… sort of.  I thought it would be funny to see where Elvis lived.  When we got there, we decided that spending $70 was not worth the giggle.  The only part of Graceland that we saw was the ticketing area, which looked liked the entrance to an extravagant (but trashy) movie theater.  It kind of creeped me out.  It felt very disrespectful. Touring a significant person’s home that has been made into a museum is one thing, but what has been done to Graceland seems more like a tacky carnival or amusement park.

3.  The open road!

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(insert clever title about camping here)

Kevin and I have spent the past 30 minutes trying to figure out which dates we spent where over the last 3 weeks or so.  It was a lot harder than I expected.  When you don’t have a work or school schedule, the days tend to blend together in a strange way… even though every day on the road is different.

We’ve been doing a lot more camping on this leg of our journey (it’s easier with the whole no-more-snow thing), which has been awesome.  Camping has a way of clearing the mind, and making everyday problems seem less… problematic.  I was never much of a camper growing up (unless you count my dad setting up a tent for me and my friends in our backyard in the burbs of New Jersey), but I’ve been really getting into it.  Campsites have a way of blending together, but we found some strange ways of distinguishing one from the other.

Rustic Acres (Illinois): The one where we were the only ones in a tent, and clearly the only ones who didn’t live there all season.

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Mammoth Cave (Kentucky): The one with all of the ticks.

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Fuller State Park (Tennessee):  The one that was just an awkward field on the outskirts of Memphis.

(we have no photographic evidence)

Bienville (Mississippi): The one with the spiders.

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No spiders to be seen in this photo.

De Soto (Mississippi): The one with the lake no one would want to swim in.

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Oak Mountain (Alabama): The one where we went swimming and some little kids were arguing about the existence of sasquatches.

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Cherokee National Forest (Tennessee): The one where it rained all night and we took cover under a shelter.

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The aforementioned shelter.

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Not being awkward.

Pisgah National Forest (North Carolina): The one where it rained and we stood, barely sheltered, under a tree eating our undercooked veggies due to the failed fire.  Also the place we saw a bear!

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While this may look like a raging inferno, it will soon be put out by the onslaught of water falling in droplets from the sky.

Don’t be fooled!  Just because it looks like while camping I just stand around posing awkwardly while Kevin constantly tends the fire, this is only partially true.  I promise we do more than just that.  Like eat.  And sleep.

Nashville discoveries

1.  Nashville takes eating seriously.  The only problem is if you want to find a grocery store in the city.  Most of what you will find are convenience stores.

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And for those of us who DO eat rice cakes (on account of the whole no gluten thing) they are truly impossible to find in Nashville.

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I like their logic.

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Candy and soda store. Not for the faint of heart.

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GF pancakes at the Pfunky Griddle. You make your own with the batter and toppings they provide on a griddle built into your table. Yum.

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Yes… Pop Rocks.

2.  Nashville also takes their coffee very seriously.

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Flavor clarity chart at Crema coffee shop.

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It’s pretty serious.

 


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Located in an old garage, Barista Parlor is about as hip as you can get.

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High quality coffee, great setup, hipster haven.

3.  We can’t forget about the music!

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Records, galore! (mostly country…)

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If you look for it, you’ll find live music other than country… like blues. I liked some of the country music, but it was nice to find something else too.

4.  Nashville is full of surprises

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Oh my god it’s the Parthenon!

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Funny…. I always thought it was in Athens.

Overall review of Nashville:  It made us realize that we are not as cool as we once thought we were.