Backyard Explorations: Smithfield, Virginia

Funny thing about spontaneity – you have to leave space for it. It’s difficult to pick up and go when you’re busy all the time.

I doubt I’m alone in my tendency to occupy every moment of the day. With good stuff, important stuff, but the stuff adds up and before I know it a month’s gone by and I haven’t done anything cool.

So my friend Tessa and I occasionally plan to leave space for doing cool things together. Spontaneously.

_Smithfield

Home of the Smithfield ham, and a repository for peanuts and dairy farming, Smithfield, Virginia, is a quiet little place with bits of charm tucked throughout. Specifically the Porcine Parade – a series of eight painted pigs celebrating Smithfield history.

One of the eight pigs on parade - Swine and Roses

One of the eight pigs on parade – Swine and Roses

We bunked at Smithfield Station, a beautiful and comfortable hotel with a view of the lake and a delicious buffet brunch.

_hotelview

It’s a good day to wake up in Smithfield.

Walking around downtown Smithfield is an exercise in cute. From the quirky juxtaposition of architectural styles to the sweet people running the shops, it’s a treat for a quiet weekend. The Smithfield Store fed us ham biscuits and provided a variety of Virginia-themed treats to stock up for later. I got a slab of uncut bacon and some unique varieties of toffee.

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Photo op with Ben Franklin (what’s he doing here?)

_colonial

Just typical cuteness.

_Victorian

These Victorian style houses shared the street with the plainer Colonial variety. A startling combination.

_bird

Pretty bird!

It wasn’t exactly the tourist season when we went, so things were a bit silent. But we had a blast gadding about the tiny downtown area – a couple of streets with shops and an art gallery.

We visited the Smithfield museum and learned all about the World’s Oldest Ham (it’s 111 years old… and it has the wrinkles to prove it), as well as the making of the largest ham biscuit ever. It was enormous.

All you’d ever want to know about curing techniques (and being two foodies, we want to know a lot), and a good amount about peanuts. And a replica of an old timey general store, featuring a penny game and lots of badly acted voice recordings depicting pioneer days in southern Virginia.

Or maybe they weren’t badly acted. Maybe people really sound like that 200 years ago.

I guess we’ll never know.

I love cool houses.

I love cool houses.

Being so close to Surry, we skipped down to Bacon’s Castle – which I confess to secretly hoping would be an elaborate pork tower, but in reality is a big house. A big house built by a colonial planter, which was at one time commandeered by the uprisen Nathaniel Bacon in 1675.

I also quite like old houses.

I also quite like old houses.

_SaintLukes

Saint Luke’s historic cemetery

_cemetery

One last stop at Fort Henry in Virginia Beach – to take a gander at the lighthouse. The historic one is out of operation, but there’s another newer one right next to it. We had some trouble finding it, but the guard at the wrong entrance we went to first was very kind and redirected us.

_CapehenryLighthouse

This is the new one, viewed from the old one.

_lighthouseview

All around, a fine weekend. Let’s plan to spontaneously go somewhere else cool.

Point Dume State Beach

pointdume

Point Dume is a state preserve, different from your typical beach in that the sand ends about 100 feet above the ocean. I would show you, but I was too chicken to get close enough to the edge. But one can still enjoy the beauty and relaxation of ocean waves from a safe perch on the sand.

pacific1

The view from my perch.

If I were feeling more adventurous, I would have scrambled down the haphazard path to the beach. But this was primarily a reading and journaling mission. And scrambling back up the sandy cliff was not really on my list of priorities.

Maybe next time.

I spent a considerable amount of time gazing at this house.

house

House-hunting in Malibu. If it has a clock tower and a finished basement, I’ll take it.

A number of large birds roamed the sky. They looked like herons or cranes (though I’ve never seen a heron fly). At one point a whole bunch of them swooped out of nowhere and dispersed over the ocean, looking for lunch I expect.

I thought that sounded like a good idea. It was a good thing I had food with me, because this place is substantially off the beaten path. It’s quiet and peaceful, even on a Saturday. A few miles off the PCH, it comes at the edge of a neighborhood of illustrious, well propertied (and typically gated) houses.

Parking consists of about ten spots on the side of the road, and the posted signs limit you to 2 hours. Which works out okay, because with no food and no bathroom, you’re probably not going to want to hang out all day.

pacific2

For a quiet perch to write and read, however… Point Dume is perfect.

Backyard Explorations: Point Dume

For we wanderlust sufferers, it is easy to overlook the fact that getting away from it all doesn’t necessarily require a big splurge on plane tickets and hotels. Next time you need a change of scenery, consider looking in your own backyard.

canyon1

Topanga Canyon

LA has been my neighborhood for almost three months now, and it’s high time I did some exploring. Work pressures and writing commitments have been piling up. I could use some perspective.

And my motto is, when the going gets tough, the tough go driving.

The Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH, for cool) is the famous road that follows the coast of California. It runs all the way up to San Francisco and beyond, but I was not planning to go that far today.

canyonview

My eyes were too busy watching the road to notice where the camera was pointing.

In order to get to the coast, I took the 101 freeway west and followed Topanga Canyon Boulevard up, up, up and down, down down – winding around the mildly frightening mountainous terrain with my game face on. I even managed to hack a few photos with my free hand.

canyon3Coming down the other side, the first thing I noticed (aside from the gorgeous canyon views) was a distinct drop in temperature. After 90 degrees and climbing in the valley, those first whiffs of 69 coming over the hills was dreamy.

Topanga Canyon is a really charming part of the world, with barren hills suddenly boasting civilization. Signs for businesses and houses and even a Post Office. I felt a little nervous for the safety of several cyclists hugging the teeny margin of street next to vehicular traffic, but nothing horrible happened.

pch1

I wish I could do it justice (you’ll have to go see it yourself sometime), but suddenly out of all this up and down comes a stunning ocean view. This being a Saturday, the view was made slightly less stunning by the volume of cars lined up all along the side of the road.

These beaches do offer paid parking, but most visitors would rather take their chances on the side of the road than waste their nine bucks.

I drove the PCH for eight or ten miles, just looking around and soaking in the atmosphere. It reminded me of weekends in Virginia Beach – the smoosh of locals clamoring for some beach time on their day off.

Once I hit Malibu, public beaches gave way to houses built right on the coast (completely blocking the view). I thought these might be fun and eccentric like the ones in Florida, but they were mostly forgettable. Still the main drag feel was fun and funky, with a mix of fast food and kitschy Mexican establishments lined up together.

The first glimpse of something promising...

The first glimpse of something promising…

I set my sights on a quieter, less commercial part of the world. On the map, Point Dume State Beach (I pronounce it ‘Dyoom’ so it doesn’t sound so ominous) forms sort of a horn protruding into the ocean. I imagined a wide swath of sand from which you could enjoy a 180 degree view of the Pacific.

Who knew if that’s what it’s really like, but it’s fun to imagine.

I had a dream when I was planning my Key West road trip that the highway through the keys was just two lanes right on the water. I know that’s probably impossible, but come on, engineering has absolutely nothing to do with the way my mind works.

oceanview

So there I was, beginning to look for my next turn, and the world opened up before me. The traffic, the busy Saturday, the deadlines, the questions about the future, they all fell away.

This is what exploring can do for you, folks. You take a break from your schedule. You simply behold.

This is discovery, in my book.

More on Point Dume tomorrow, but for now: when was the last time you followed a road you’ve never seen the end of? Maybe that should happen soon.

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Success!

Two major things happened this week: I moved out of my Virginia Beach oceanfront paradise, and I sold an article. Both on the same day, ironically.

The article was kind of an experiment. I’ve toyed with the idea of submitting some of my work to publications, and actually sent a short story to a few mystery magazines when I was in high school (still have both rejection letters). 

So when I came across the magazine for a national association of estheticians, I thought maybe I can write for these folks. I have skin. I’ve learned some stuff about it.

So I pitched a few ideas, came up with an outline, and finally wrote the article on spec since I didn’t really have any other samples to show them. And they liked it! My article will be printed in the Sept/Oct issue, and I will officially have one writing sample! And a check!

This came as very welcome news, as I paused to take a break from stuffing all my earthly possessions into my Hyundai Elantra. The time has come to move to Los Angeles, but that means I must first move away from Virginia.

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My beach with a rainbow after a storm.

Living in Virginia Beach has been – in a word – delightful. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you find yourself needing a place to live for a few months during the off-season, consider wintering here. It’s really affordable, and there are still plenty of warm days between October and June.

Being here has given me space to sort of re-imagine my life as a writer. The ocean has beckoned to me when I was so wiped out and frustrated with my work that only toes dipped in the waves would help. It’s been a haven and an inspiration. And a launch pad.

And now it’s time to go! I left many new friends, a few old ones, lots of household items and a piano. A little piece of my heart. But it’s time.

I’m so excited about moving to California! I’m so glad to be moved out, because it’s soooo much work to move! But I will miss my little slice of oceanfront and the people that made it special.

And I’m really jazzed to sell my article.

One Morning in Richmond

Counting down to June 2, at which point I will no longer be a Virginia citizen! In honor of my home state, I re-post these meanderings in Richmond a couple summers ago. A breezy read that just may inspire you to visit.

Going Places

In which a quick road trip and a visit to my cousin is really just a foil for the lengths to which I will go for a great haircut.

It’s Saturday morning, calm and breezy. Warm but not too warm – yet. This is summer in Virginia, after all. My dear cousin, Carly Childers has recently become a stylist at Blackbird Salon in Richmond and I have an 11:00 appointment.

I-95 was busy, not too surprising for 8am on a beach day. I rocked out to great hits of the 60’s and 70’s through the Fredricksburg traffic and pointless rubbernecking and made it to the salon with moments to spare.

Blackbird is on North Lombardy Street, right near Carytown, and a very picturesque area of Richmond. It’s highly residential, with some of the houses converted into shops here and there. Blackbird Salon appears to be one of these, which makes…

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Key West

In which I find out who really runs the island.

Cock-a-doodle-doo! That’s the first thing I hear Saturday morning. It was really early, reeeally loud, and it sounded nothing like that, but it’s the common spelling for the outlandish sound roosters make at outlandish times of the day.

A little tip for next time I visit Key West – make sure the fan is running in my room before going to bed. There be wild chickens in these here parts, and they crow allll morning. Early morning, mid-morning and noontime – I could still hear them when I hit the road Eastbound at 12.

The edge of America

Day 6 – the Last Day – started way too early. I had not slept well and debated whether to ignore the region’s natural alarm clocks or go out and see what’s going on. Lucky for me, I chose the latter.

It was still pretty dark around 7am, so I chanced a scurry across the street and perched on the edge of the island to watch the sun come up. Seems like it took forever, but eventually the few clouds on the horizon took on the pink, orange and finally yellow light of the bright ball hiding behind them. When the top of the sun peeking above its fluffy mask, I decided it was breakfast time.

Wassup?

The hotel parking lot was occupied by 2 roosters, 2 hens and 2 chicks. Coal black and loitering around the premises like they just didn’t know where else to go, one of the roosters favored me with an ear-splitting ‘Ehr-ah-ruh-rah-RERRRR’ before I fled to the continental breakfast bar and comforted myself with yogurt and toast.

The Florida Keys really offer some unique vegetation. Not only were there coconuts on the palm trees, but there were intriguing plants and trees of other varieties.

Just begging for a tree house

Super cool man-eating star shaped flowers!

Meandered around town for a bit, observing the variety of tiny houses crammed into an island 4 miles long and 2 miles wide. As usual, there were a few places for sale or rent and I fantasized about what it would be like to live here.

If my mom were to move to Key West, this is what her house would look like

It was only 9 or so, but plenty of folks were out and about. Islanders had been nothing but friendly, and this proved true even in the morning. After awhile, it got so I could distinguish the difference between locals and tourists by (among other things) whether they would look me in the eye and say hello. Tourists quickly avert eyes and pretend you don’t exist.

With an hour to kill before the Hemingway House would be open for visitors, I hit the cemetery. I don’t think it’s morbid. I like to read the headstones and think about the people they memorialize, trying to decipher meaning from the words etched there, the years lived, the other people implicated in said etching. The presence or absence of flowers.

Anyway. Here’s another picture.

 

The Hemingway House was interesting – a mansion on 1 square acre of uber-valuable island space, built by a seafaring gent who purposed to engineer a hurricane-proof house. Seems to have worked. When said seafarer died, there was such an influx of false claims to the property, the house stood vacant until Ernest Hemingway picked it up for $8,000 in back taxes.

I’m sure it was a lot of money back then, but probably still not nearly enough. In any case, he lived there with his second wife and 2 boys for quite some time. Plus he had a really nifty writing studio set apart from the main house, which he could walk to via catwalk. He could go right out of his bedroom and across to his studio.

Unfortunately, it did not occur to me to take any pictures.

But I was inspired to actually read one of Hemingway’s books. I liked it.

hot

At 11:30 am, Key West was sweltering and I had a flight out of Miami at 4. So with sadness that my adventure was coming to an end, I resignedly headed back across Route 1 for the Florida mainland.

With 2-3 hours of driving ahead of me, I stopped at Publix for fruit and a sandwich from the beautiful, well-stocked and very busy grocery store. On my way in, a fellow my grandpa’s age greeted me with a smile and a nod, and then, “Hey, did I see you out watching the sunrise this morning?”

It’s an island. Just a matter of time before you start bumping into folks.

Day 6 stats:
Miles: 163.8
Chicken sightings: 5
Hours of sleep lost: Let’s not think about it
Great Expectations: Finished it! Hooray for Pip and Estella.

Charleston!

In which… well, you’ll see.

This is the first morning I woke up and didn’t know where I was. Thankfully a few moments’ reflection brought it all back. I was really starting to get tired by now. Not road weary – just physically tense and a bit ragged from all the late nights I’d been keeping.

Just a typical gorgeous tree-lined avenue in gorgeous downtown Charleston

It is interesting to note how just four days into my trip, I was mentally constructing a calendar based on where I was going rather than days of the week. “I’m going to Orlando, so it must be Day 4. Which is… (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday) Thursday. Okay.”

Wait a sec – Orlando??? What was I thinking? There’s no way I can drive all the way through Georgia, part of Florida and arrive in Orlando by nightfall and still remain in my right mind.

I was torn. But in the end Charleston won out and after misleading myself yet again (easily adding an hour to my drive time for the day… grrr), I finally found it!

Palm trees!

Having suffered through a devastating earthquake, two wars, and innumerable hurricanes, Charleston has rebuilt and restored itself many times, yet it remains one of the South’s most beautiful cities. Impressive neoclassical buildings line the streets, especially in the older, upmarket sections of town south of Broad Street and along the waterfront Battery. Charleston’s many small, lush gardens and parks make it ideal for aimless exploring on foot rather than by car.
(from Road Trip USA, http://www.roadtripusa.com)

Gotta say, I do like the look of palm trees in the city. What a charming place this is! I stumbled across a lovely tree-lined walk bedecked with a garden that featured a fountain in the middle. A plaque on the sidewalk informed me that this is ‘Wragg Mall’, dedicated by Mr. Wragg to the people of Charleston in 1801.

I hope he didn’t mind my enjoying it too.

Wragg Mall

Wandering the quiet residential streets, I eagerly absorbed the unique (and probably really expensive) homes, basking in the breezy humidity. I believe I was experiencing that ‘glistening’ which southern women do. And it was only 10:30 in the morning!

Charleston has that rugged elegant look, like it’s seen a thing or two. And lived to tell about it! I drove down to the battery and beheld even greater glory and grace. There on the one side was a prospering body of water and majestic, imposing yet inviting mansions on the other. I just looked and looked, grateful to be one of the few cars on the road and no need to hurry past.

Charleston battery

I didn’t see anything in Charleston I didn’t like. Even when I missed 17 and drove into the other side of town, featuring much less grand but still interesting houses. I wish I’d had more time to explore, but this is definitely a place to come back to.

Southward to Georgia. I had to pass a visit to Savannah, although now I wish I had at least driven through it. However, the US-17 route through Georgia offered a smooth pass-through on many intriguing towns, most of which featuring a stoplight or two, a restaurant (the one I tried to visit had already closed at 2), a few homes, a mechanic, and possibly a motel, including one that had clearly been closed for business longer than I’ve been alive, but still seemed to be home to a few folks. The juxtaposition of grand houses and historic plantations with short single-level houses and trailer parks was a consistent theme along the main highway.

Georgia wildflowers

With no traffic to speak of, I crossed the border to Florida late in the afternoon. The sunshine state was experiencing a steady downpour, but when I sought highway A1A and the ocean suddenly rose before me, I liked the gray and misty appearance. It formed a nice contrast with the placid waters of the Carolinas. You could barely tell where the stormy sea ended and the stormy sky began.

Adorably quirky houses lined the beach, but I was allowed a peek at the water here and there before highway 9 took me on the roller coaster bridges that got me around Jacksonville. Whew! My heart started thumping just at the sight.

An irrational fear that I would flip over backwards kept me gunning for the high point of each one. But once I’d crested the upward angle, the magnificent view over the side! It was worth the near heart attack. And then I was glad to be alive, which made everything feel better from sheer relief.

I wonder what manner of men these early explorers must have been, striking out into unmarked territory with no certainty of provision and much certainty of danger! And then those that came behind them engineering and building so that I can come along and do my exploring in safety and ease.

No doubt this trip would’ve been harder if I’d had to row across all the waterways.

These explorations of mine are nothing new from a global or historic perspective. Type in ‘Florida’ on Google Earth and you can find a map and detailed satellite photo. This is far from undiscovered country in that sense of the word. But it is full of new discoveries for me, and I’m so grateful I’ve had the chance to make them.

Day 4 stats:
Miles: 494!
Things that make you go “yay”: 6
Freak-out moments: 2
Chapters: A lot – I think I was a little over halfway through all 59 of them by the time I reached Orlando

Next stop… Key West!

Ocracoke and Beyond

Okay, where was I?

Standing guard at the Back Porch restaurant

We docked at Ocracoke Island and everyone took off down the road. Only one road, only one way to go. If you couldn’t figure it out yourself, just follow the Element in front of you.

On a side note, I really enjoyed the Elantra I rented. It handles so well and got great mileage! This could be my next car.

The north end of Ocracoke was undisturbed and desolate for several miles. Then all at once, like a reassuring hint, the posted speed limit began to dip until it reached 25 and suddenly I and my ferry companions were amongst civilization.

There it is!

I drove the whole community in about two minutes, reaching the south end of the island at roughly 6:34 pm. I found a sign posted at the ferry office announcing that boats leave every 2 hours, and the next one would go at 8:30. So you see I was forced to poke around a bit.

Feeling the need for something fresh in my on-the-road diet, I toodled around looking for a promising place to eat. I popped into the tiny community grocery, but the pre-washed salad offerings were brownish and dry. If they hadn’t been five bucks I would have settled for it, but they were so I didn’t.

Good eats

Instead I splurged on The Back Porch, which according to their brochure is the best restaurant in Ocracoke. I got a table for one and tried the Chana Masala, which is basically spinach, chickpeas and rice in a buttery sauce. YUM. I ate it all.

It stormed all through dinner and through the open windows I saw that people on bikes and driving golf carts carried on without much noticing. Starting to feel the laid-back, island style of living.

Around 7:45 I figured I’d better get a ticket for the ferry, since I didn’t have a reservation and I would hate to miss it. As it turns out, I shared the boat with exactly two other people, so it was really okay.

Both Google Maps and my GPS estimated the ferry ride at a little over an hour. Both of them lied.

We put out at 8:30 and arrived in Cedar Island no sooner than 10:45 pm, and I still had over an hour of driving ahead of me. Thankfully, I was able to doze a bit during the ride, although I have to tell you it is a strange sensation to be sleeping in a car while adrift at sea. The temperature took a nose dive after sunset and thunder rumbled dully as lightning flickered behind dense clouds. If there was ever a time to feel sorry for yourself, this was it.

Driving through deserted highways in the middle of the night is not my favorite, but Dickens kept me company and the two other vehicles I had shared the ferry with were going my way, so I focused on keeping up with them. There was a strange sense of loss when each of them eventually split off to their own destinations. I was bound for Havelock, NC, a small town about 30 minutes away from the popular attractions with lower prices to match.

I powered through nature preserves and neighborhoods without incident, and arrived at the Days Inn shortly before midnight. Got to sleep around 1 am.

Not a gorgeous place by any means, but quiet and safe enough for a place to crash and shower. I don’t understand how most hotels seem to have such a smell about them. A cross between stale smoke and I don’t know what… that odd uninhabited aroma. Anyway, it had the best bed; nice and firm with an assortment of pillows so you can pick the one you like best.

I slept until 9 (a miracle for me), antsy to get out and do it all again.

Day 2 stats:

Miles covered: 250ish (on the road) + 2 ferry rides
Disappointments: 3
Delights: um, about a hundred
Chapters: 10

Next stop… Charleston!

Delights and Disappointments

In which I discover that driving “within sound” of the ocean is pretty much negated by the rush of air you create when you go above, say, 5 miles an hour.

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. What a world the Lord has made. I mean, look:

Mirlo Beach, NC

Multiple bridges, two ferry rides, and a few hundred miles later, I am still so enjoying this tour of the Atlantic coast. A little disappointed that the water is so infrequently visible – even where there are no buildings, sand dunes and trees block much of the view. But then the sudden glimpses of blue that come upon you are all the more exciting.

Plus there are some pretty fantastic bridges.

Day 2 got me into North Carolina pretty quickly, and before I had much time to think about it I was in Kitty Hawk. The weather was perfect; the traffic, nonexistent. It was a blast.

Signs for Roanoke Island lured me away from my main route to pursue some history and education. The notion of this ‘lost colony’ is intriguing, and the bridge from the outer banks to the island was magnificent.

This just doesn’t do justice

The lost colony exhibit was a bit of a drag, unfortunately. Maybe I’m just spoiled living near Washington DC, where we know how to present these things. What I found was an ‘earthen fort’ – basically a man-made sand dune circling a flag. It looked like a toy.

The effect was not enhanced by a sign directing visitors not to climb on the earthen walls because they are ‘fragile’.

Somewhat less than desirable for a fort.

I hunted around for an hour and gave up to google it later. Here’s the gist:

Fort Raleigh logoOn these small wooded grounds lie many stories of families and their struggles that have continued through time, resulting in the creation of a nation and its people. Here, the first infant cries of English colonization in the New World (1584-1590) burst upon the world.
These efforts, sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, ended with the disappearance of 116 men, women and children, including two that were born in the New World. The fate of this “lost colony” remains one of the world’s great mysteries.
(National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov)

The long drive through Hatteras was peaceful and mindless. There’s only one road on the island, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Civilization is slight and well spaced, but I did get to witness a bunch of people kite surfing off the edge of the island opposite the ocean. I’ve never seen that before.

Welcome to Mirlo Beach?

The clouds rolled over the sun as I continued south and the empty beaches of the Hatteras nature preserve seemed forlorn. I stopped at one of the rare inhabited portions of the island to stretch and look at the water.

Quiet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing how it can be so warm outside and so frigid in the water!

 

I was a little nervous about the ferry, having never done it before. Can you imagine, all these years alive on the earth and never driving onto a ferry boat? Well, that is all behind us.

 

My feet got so swollen from driving!

The ferryman was very friendly and seemed genuinely pleased to see me. That was heartening, and I drove confidently onto the boat behind a Honda Element. There’s something comical about that car.

Five minutes into our voyage the raindrops fell.   The weather flipped back and forth and mixed all the rest of the way, between sun, showers and both. You can kind of see from the picture what a weirdly mixed up sky it was.

But then this happened.

It went from end to end, all across the sky.