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?)

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Just typical cuteness.

_Victorian

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

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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.

Traveling Light

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I love to travel. I hate to pack. But whenever someone picks me up at the airport, they invariably note my two carry-on bags and say, “Wow, you travel light.”

It was not always this way.

I’m one of those nerds that thinks they’re going to spend an entire week reading. I’m one of those indecisives that thinks they’re going to need clothes to suit every occasion for three different kinds of weather. I’m one of those “fashionistas” (I use the term relatively) that needs four pairs of shoes for one weekend.

But one day I go to a conference with a few coworkers. One of whom has his entire two days’ belongings tucked neatly into a laptop bag. A bag zipped and snapped securely, not misshapen and barely clinging together (as mine would have been).

As I lug my backpack and rolling Samsonite to the car, I gaze enviously at his light and elegant baggage. I am inspired.

Surely if he can distill his weekend necessities to one small bag, so can I.

This is an ever-evolving practice, but I’ve simplified life, conserved energy, and saved some cash with the following travel tips. I hope you like them too.

1. Make a list

Important things seem to pop into my head at inopportune moments. Rather than trying to remember all the stuff I need/want to pack on a trip, I really benefit from keeping a running list. It’s much harder to forget anything important, and much easier to avoid packing the truly unimportant (and weighty/bulky/misery-inducing).

2. Your carry-on

What will you need while traveling? And I mean, really need? Will it all fit in your purse or an easy-to-carry backpack or shoulder bag (that closes)?

I plead with every traveler to do away with the notion that you need a purse and a laptop bag and two or three shopping bags on a plane. Not only is it annoying for everyone you’re traveling with, but it’s such a headache for you. Why do that to yourself?

Streamline this process by taking the important things out of your purse (if you normally carry one), which in the grand scheme will probably boil down to: your wallet.

Put the wallet in your carry-on and pack the purse in your checked bag. That way you are only carrying what you truly need during the flight, and are not beset by half a dozen bags dangling from your appendages as you scurry to make your connecting flight.

I always bring snacks on a flight. A bag of nuts or trail mix and maybe cut fruit will do the trick. These don’t take much space in your carry-on, and won’t go south in un-refrigerated conditions.

I also bring a notebook. Writing is one of my favorite things to do on a plane, and I often get a ton of ideas since I’m just sitting there for hours at a time.

A good book rounds out the inventory, or if you are so blessed as to own an Amazon Kindle, bring it. My Kindle Fire is really a marvelously efficient travel companion, with storage for as many books as I wish to borrow, buy, or check out from the library. I can also listen to music and watch movies on it. It’s now a necessity (and I really mean that, no one paid me to write it).

Toss in a lip balm and a brush and I’m ready to fly. Without pulling my shoulder out of socket lugging my junk all around the airport.

3. Your wardrobe

In my experience, the bulk of my suitcase is filled with clothes. So combining outfits and sharing big accessories (like hats, belts and shoes) can really save space.

For instance, I have three skirts that can be worn with boots. The boots are easy to get on and off, but bulky, so I can wear them on the plane and only need to pack one other pair of shoes for non-boot-appropriate outfits.

It’s like a game. See how many outfits you can create with just a few variables. Rather than packing 7 sweaters, 7 tops, 7 bottoms and 7 pairs of shoes, you can get creative with half the volume.

4. Ship ahead

If you’ve pared your mountain of belongings down to a reasonable level and still find you can’t fit it all in a carry-on, consider mailing the extra. The US Postal Service has a flat-rate box that ships Priority Mail for less than the cost of most bag checking fees.

If it comes down to traveling with two carry-on bags or a carry-on and a checked bag, try mailing the extra items to yourself in your new location. A quick call to the Post Office should give you the skinny on rates and delivery times. Even if no one will be there when your box arrives, you can pick it up from the nearest Post Office within a few days of the initial delivery.

And when all is said and done, try not to sweat it. Traveling light is a state of mind as much as it is a state of being. We don’t need to lug all our favorite things from home in order to enjoy the new place we’re going to explore.

It’s a new experience in a new environment. Embrace the possibilities.

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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.

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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.

California Bound

What an undertaking it once was to migrate in America. A trip out west used to be a major ordeal fraught with danger, death, disease, robbery, and even barring any of those difficulties, it certainly involved sacrifice of life-changing proportions.

Nowadays I can buy a plane ticket Wednesday, pack a bag Thursday, and five hours later I’m in Los Angeles. And the worst thing that happened was the airport food.

courtesy of noirbabes.com

But I think the experience of venturing from home and familiarity to parts unknown is still similar. Granted, the pioneers made a choice for life, no turning back. But the decision to swap coasts has certainly become a defining one in my life. You see, I’m going to live here. Soon.

Today I’m flying. The countdown to my cross-country move is at four weeks, two days and ticking down each moment.  So I go briefly to scout the territory. To seek friendly waters, a safe haven, and opportunities to make my living as a screenwriter in the great Wood known as Holly.

Tomorrow I’ll be volunteering all day at the Biola Media Conference, which will be a fun opportunity to rub shoulders with other entertainers and make some friends in my new neighborhood. I’m really excited because I get to work the registration desk, which I’ve always wanted to do.

Then Sunday to Wednesday is all about finding a church, apartment-hunting, meeting friends and making industry connections. All in four days. Overbook much?

Meanwhile I write! I write in the airport and on the plane. I run into the airport convenience mart to buy markers because I somehow failed to pack a pen in my carry-on bag. Notebook, yes. Anything to write with, no.

I write on the metro. I write in the hotel. I write on the back of a receipt while I wait to pick up my dinner order. I write every spare moment, because that is what I do. That’s why I’m leaving a comfy life in Virginia to pioneer my own little corner of California. Writing is what I want to do in this new stake I’m claiming on the other side of normal.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sleepless in Saint Louis

Saint-Louis-Dawn

Dear STL:

I was so excited yesterday I woke up at 4:30am. I didn’t need to get up that early to drive to Washington, DC, then fly to Saint Louis, MO. I had a wonderful time gallavanting around the MetroLink system, with learning the ticket validation system and people watching and refusing to speak to strangers who approached and asked if they could talk to me. Although I felt a little badly about that last one. And I really enjoyed spending time with my dear Saint Louis friend, Lina, and her adorable 1-year-old son, who showed me all his cow toys and played peek-a-boo with me to no end. But it is 5am now and I’m tired, and I haven’t worked on my screenplay at all. What should I do?

-Sleepless in Saint Louis

******

Dear Sleepless:

Do you know you can ride to the top of the stainless steel Arch for a spectacular view of The Gateway City? Too bad you weren’t here for the thunderstorm the other night – the Arch was struck by lightning! It was pretty incredible. Or why not explore Forest Park, home of the 1904 World’s Fair? There you will find the art museum, golf courses, the zoo, not to mention walking and biking trails. And as long as you’re not sleeping anyway, check out our nightlife! Laclede’s Landing features some of our hottest bars and dance clubs, most of which are smoke free and open until 3am. Then there’s always the theater, the casino, the botanical garden… you will never run out of things to do in Saint Louis!

******

Dear STL:

Thank you for the recommendations. I wish I were going to be here for another week, but it’s just today, so… I’ll let you know how it goes.