What I Ate in North Carolina

I would normally have more to share than a handful of restaurants after visiting a new place. Alas, because I was in North Carolina for a conference, I actually had to work. I spent most of my days in hotel conference rooms, soaking in the interesting and informative lectures. In between learning, I did manage to fit in a few delicious meals.

Of course, the plan was to spend the partial day I had before the conference exploring a bit. That plan was rather disrupted when housekeeping knocked on my door that morning. Somewhat baffled by housekeeping bothering me quite so early in the morning, I looked at the clock. Only to realize that it was after 11 pm. Jet lag, man. So, not quite so much time to explore, but, with my first trip to NC, I did get to enjoy legit fried chicken, actual sweet tea, and still-warm-from-the-oven cornbread (oh how I miss Southern food). I visited a charming French bakery, chowed down on wood-fired pizza, and met up with college friends for dinner.  Although I spent most of my time either at the conference or eating, I did also find time to stop in at a fantastic and accessible museum.

Without further ado, here is my quick overview of places (okay, mostly restaurants) to visit if you find yourself in Charlotte, NC. I am so glad to have friends who make such great recommendations!

Mert’s Heart and Soul: When I think of things I miss about the South, home cooked Southern food is high on the list. In fact, it is probably right behind friends and family on the list and well above the weather. Which might not be on the list at all, as a matter of fact. Being in NC, I knew I would not be getting quite the home cooked experience, but Mert’s came pretty darn close. My co-workers and I headed there upon a recommendation from my friends in NC and I do not think anyone regretted the choice. I went all out, choosing fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and okra and tomatoes. With sweet tea of course. And the cornbread. Oh the cornbread. I could write poems about the cornbread. This is definitely a place to check out while in Charlotte.

The good stuff

Amelie’s: Another recommendation from a friend, this seemed like the perfect spot for lunch after waking up a little later than intended that morning. From the moment one walks in the door, it is hard to not be completely charmed by this spacious and unique bakery. And the food was perhaps even more impressive than the decor. My choice (not an easy one, to be sure) was the chicken salad sandwich and a side of truffle potato salad. You had me at truffle. Oh, and an iced coffee. Did I mention I was rather jet lagged? And you know I saved room for dessert. That was an even more difficult choice. Thankfully, many of the desserts came in a mini-size. The sole purpose of a mini-dessert’s existence is so that you can eat more of them without feeling guilty.

Life is full of difficult choices

Tupelo Honey: The fact that this is a chain restaurant did not make it any less delightful. Of course, that could have been the company, as well. One night while in NC, I had the privilege to meet up with two of my friends from college, who I had not seen since, well, college pretty much. I love that I have friends all over the US and the world. And that sometimes even when I am far away from home, I get the chance to see them. As I sat on the restaurant’s balcony, happily eating fried green tomatoes and “burnt” okra while enjoying the cool of the evening, I was so thankful to be spending an evening catching up with old friends.

Mama Ricotta’s: Although I could happily have eaten ALL the Southern food, this Italian restaurant was a nice change of pace for my last evening in NC. Fair warning if you decide to enjoy a meal here, this place was packed! Thankfully, my co-worker/friend and I got there in time for an early dinner. By the time we left there was a line out the door. And it was easy to see why. The food was fresh and authentic. With plenty of garlic. I don’t think there are many better food combos in the world than pizza, salad, and wine. There is, of course, turkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce, but that is for another time.

Levine Museum of the New South: Obviously, this is not a restaurant. Other than seeing what was to be seen walking around downtown Charlotte, this was the other non-food stop I experienced during my time in NC. I was, after all, there to actually attend a conference. Despite being non-conference related, I did learn as I perused the museum. The Levine Museum focuses on the history of the South, especially in and around NC, since the end of the Civil War. The main exhibit is interactive and engaging, even for an adult. It was well worth the time spent and the $8 entrance fee. I would recommend this as a stop to anyone visiting Charlotte.

Of course, there was more I would have liked to do while in Charlotte. But, I feel like I made the most of my time. And I got to attend a wonderful conference. I will not bore you with the details of that. Just trust me on the food.

A Year and One Post Aren’t Long Enough

When I last left off, Brandon and I were in the middle of our weekend trip to Bend to celebrate our first year together, the first of what will hopefully be many years together. I had fully intended to share the weekend in a single post, but some things are too big for that. I am so thankful to love and do life with someone who can fit so much living into a single weekend.

And I love that, even when we are away on our adventures, we still find ways to incorporate the routines we love when we are home. For instance, one of our favorite things to do on the weekends is to go out for brunch. Unfortunately, one limitation of Roseburg is that there are approximately two places to go. It is a wonderful change of pace to do one of our favorite things in a place with a few more options.

Saturday we began the morning with breakfast at Riverhouse’s onsite restaurant, Currents. I really cannot think of a better way to start a morning than drinking a blood orange mimosa and eating huevos rancheros while sitting next to a river on a sunny day across from my favorite person. Well, maybe the day would be slightly better if that river were in Europe and not Oregon, but only slightly.

It may seem like a lot of food, but really we needed the fuel. I promise.

As you may remember, at the beginning of the year we had also spent the weekend in the Bend area. One of our favorite things that we did that weekend was take a cave tour. We toured the only cave in the area, Boyd Cave, that is open in the winter. The other caves are hibernation habitats for bats and are closed beginning in the fall. Brandon really wanted to see some of the other caves while they were open over the summer.

And that fact – Brandon wanting to go caving – leads me to this: sometimes, I wonder how we are together. Like when he wants me to watch shows about cars with him (which I do, because love) or when he convinces me to do things that require a hardhat. Sometimes we have very different definitions of fun.

Our first stop was Arnold Ice Cave, which is one in the system of lava caves that are sort of, technically, but kind of not really, open to the public. You see. People are terrible and do things like throw parties and leave graffiti in the caves. Which adversely impacts the cave habitat. Therefore, many of the signs marking directions to the caves have been removed to prevent people from finding them. So yes, in the summer most of them are not barred shut (a few are shut all year, although with Wanderlust Tours there are some tours that give you access to these otherwise completely closed caves – we had a great experience with them in January), but you have to do a bit of sleuthing to actually find them. And then drive down a gravel road or two.

Arnold Ice Cave, thus named because it was once a solid sheet of ice inside (and I imagine still is in the winter months) and at one time was even mined for ice to sell in the nearby city. We could tell that there had been some infrastructure in place. For instance, there was a parking lot of sorts along with the remains of a staircase inside the cave.

But any infrastructure was either no longer maintained or had even been actively destroyed. But that just means it is even more fun, at least according to this guy:

The descent to the mouth of the cave was reasonably steep and required a bit of scrambling. The cave did not go really far back. Although I can only take Brandon’s word for that because I got a bit stuck on the climb in because of short legs. And perhaps some unwillingness to further risk life and limb.

It was a fun spot to explore, though, and it was interesting to see how the cave, despite being in the same cave system, was distinct from the one we crawled through earlier in the year.

We initially planned to return to civilization and explore Lava River Cave, part of the larger Newberry National Volcanic Monument. It was, after all, on my Oregon Bucket List. Unfortunately, we were thwarted by white nose syndrome and honesty. White nose syndrome is a fungal growth that affects bats and is believed to be carried from cave system to cave system by human activity. The syndrome is deadly to bats. Who need to not die because they kill mosquitoes. Save the bats! Because Arnold Ice Cave and Lave River Cave are in different cave systems, we couldn’t bring anything into the cave that had been worn in another cave unless it had been washed. We could have lied when the nice ranger asked us about previous cave activity, but that would have just not been cool.

So on to an as yet unformed Plan B. After a bit of googling, we settled upon the short drive to Smith Rock State Park, which was also on my Oregon to do list.

Oh. My. Goodness. This place was beyond, beyond words. And the pictures come nowhere close to doing justice to the immensity of it all. I can’t even.

May I bring your attention to the seemingly tiny bridge that is actually built for humans to walk on even though this picture makes it look like something made for the scenery of a model train track. Also, please do not miss the switchbacks on that trail.

To get to Smith Rock requires a walk down into the canyon. Which was rather pleasant if one could ignore the pressing thought that what goes down must come up and that getting back to the car would require a painfully steep and not exactly brief hike back up the trail. Once at the bottom, there are many ways to explore the park.

One of the most popular trails, the 3.8 mile Misery Ridge Loop, is one that we would love to return and hike. Like, I must return and hike that trail one day. This day, however, we had nonnegotiable (because there was no way I was missing out) dinner reservations for which we were getting all dressed up, so we contented ourselves with walking along the River Trail.

He is just so handsome

Of course, by the time that we got back to the top, we felt like this:

Although hiking is usually our activity of choice, Smith Rock is a hugely popular climbing spot. It is also a popular spot for crazy people. As we pulled into the parking lot and got out of the car, we noticed someone slack lining across the canyon. I was on my way to pay the $5 fee for parking, so I excitedly asked Brandon to hurry up and take a picture of the crazy person walking across a death defying drop into the space between really tall rocks on nothing but a too thin piece of rope. I was sure this was a unique sight that must be captured on camera immediately to document the insanity before the person either fell or crossed to the other side. After all, there could not possibly be more than one such crazy person in the park.

The thing is, this was not an isolated event. The entire time we were there, we saw people doing this. Smith Rock must be some type of magnet for adrenaline junkies with no proper sense of danger.

As much as we would have loved to explore longer, as I mentioned we had dinner reservations. At Brickhouse. It was so delicious last time, that we knew we had to eat there again.

All cleaned up and ready to eat delicious food
Brandon ordered an old fashioned and I tried something close to a lemon drop with elderberry
We shared baked brie and roasted garlic to start, the kind of dish that is simple perfection
Brandon’s choice was the seafood pasta I had ordered the last time we were there. I may have stolen a bite. Or two or three.
Despite kind of wanting to be boring and order the seafood pasta again, I branched out in the knowledge I could steal some of Brandon’s dinner and instead ordered coconut shrimp.

Of course all of this, the amazing food, the even more amazing company, would pale in comparison to how the dinner ended. To fully appreciate this, you must understand that I am an Arkansas Razorback fan. In my family, watching Razorback football on Saturdays is second only to going to church on Sundays. At any given family gathering, at least 50% of those in attendance will be wearing Razorback red. This is not a thing that is taken lightly. Sadly, since moving to Oregon I have not been able to see much SEC football. That is why I hardly paid attention to the TV in the corner of the bar of the fancy restaurant where we were eating a sophisticated dinner, attention lovingly focused on one another as it should be during a romantic anniversary dinner. As I polished off the last of my coconut shrimp (because I’m not so sophisticated that I leave perfectly good shrimp on the plate) I happened to glance up and then return my attention to Brandon because we were, after all, on a date. And having your date stare at football the entire time is obnoxious.

But then I realized what I had seen. Of all things, THE RAZORBACKS WERE ON TV!!!

With all apologies to Brandon, who handled the situation with much grace, I became rather distracted. I was disappointed that they were losing to TCU, but thrilled to be watching the game. And then, with seconds left in the game Arkansas tied it up!!! I mean just picture this. I am all dressed up, in a nice restaurant, celebrating my one year anniversary and it is all I can do not to stand up and call the Hogs. As one overtime became two became a Razorback victory, I was inhibiting all kinds of noises that would have been entirely inappropriate. I would say that Brandon became acquainted with an entirely new side of me that evening. He even put up with the post-game texts between my brothers and me. Oddly, it was just so perfect. Of all the things and of all the days.

Because I was hyped on adrenaline by then, the only thing we could do was go back to the hotel and order dessert at the lounge. Because I so needed to add sugar to the mix.

It was another perfect day and the trip was not over yet.

Remember the Lave River Cave that we couldn’t see the day before? We returned on Sunday to visit there before heading home.

It has definitely been more developed than other caves in the area, but for good reason. The mile-long lava tube is the longest continuous lava tube in Oregon. The bridges and stairs at the beginning get you over the uneven and steep parts rather painlessly and then the cave continues on, the floor flat and alternating between sandy soil and rocky areas. In order to explore, you must have some type of light. We brought our own headlamps, but lanterns are available to rent if you don’t happen to keep headlamps in your trunk like Brandon. But really, who doesn’t keep headlamps in their trunk? It gets completely dark quite quickly and although the walk for much of the cave is relatively flat, there are unexpected rocks and dips in the floor that have probably caused a sprained ankle or two.

I think Lava River Cave is certainly worth a stop. Plus, it’s two miles of walking in what is essentially perfect climate control, even when it is hot outside. With temps in the 40s, you will want to bring a jacket, but it is actually quite pleasant. It was the ideal last stop before the drive home.

Brandon planned the perfect weekend. And then the last minute changes in plans and the unexpected surprises made the weekend even better. I look forward to many, many more adventures together!

The Year I Resolved to Go

I was never one to make New Year’s resolutions. I mean, I appreciated the idea, but it was just not something I did. But as 2013 changed to 2014, I found myself resolving to have a better year. And I did. As 2015 transitioned to 2016, I resolved to be grateful, making the most of every day while being open to new possibilities. And I believe I was generally successful, those resolutions in many ways leading to me meeting and falling in love with Brandon.

The beginning of this year, though, felt a bit different. As I began 2014 and 2015, all I could see were the possibilities, the potential of all the things that could happen in the course of the year. Equal parts scary and exciting, those were years where I did things like move across the country and take a last minute trip to South Korea. But as 2016 began, I felt a subtle shift, an almost imperceptible nudging at the edges of my mind. Now, as I look back on the year, I think what I was perceiving was that this was, perhaps, the end of something. Somehow, after this year, life would be more settled, my (carefully) impulsive decision making would need to be curbed, and my life would become simultaneously smaller and yet bigger, too, I think.

And that’s why I believe, without fully knowing why, I quietly resolved to simply go. My half-formed idea was that at least every other month I would take a trip. It didn’t have to be far or long, but I wanted to take at least six trips over the course of the year. I think I wanted to fit as much travel and adventure as I could into a single year (while also working full time, living far away from family, being responsible for a dog who is rather emotionally needy, etc.).

With that idea in mind, these are the places I went:

January: We rang in the New Year in Bend and enjoyed a weekend getaway to the coast.

February: Brandon and I spent Valentine’s weekend in Portland before I took a solo trip to Iceland later in the month.

March: My aunt came to visit and I got to show off Oregon.

April: I think I actually managed to stay put, other than some local hikes (or attempted hikes…).

May: This month brought an amazing birthday trip to Hawaii! And let’s not forget, my first camping trip in several years.

June: We camped and got to share the amazing Oregon summer with my parents.

July: I attended my first music festival ever – the Cape Blanco Country Musical Festival was a weekend of camping, music, and friends.

August: I bought a house. I think packing and moving and, you know, buying a house, pretty much ruled out going anywhere for a few weeks.

September: Brandon and I celebrated a year together with another trip to Bend. At the end of the month, I flew to Arkansas for my annual roommate reunion and to see family.

October: I took a work trip to North Carolina. It was my first time in North Carolina and I got to catch up with some old friends. And eat Southern food. It was a great time.

November: We celebrated Brandon’s 30th birthday with a trip to Washington (details to come, I promise!!).

December: This was, other than April, possibly the least exciting month of the year.

If you were counting, that was a grand total of twelve trips, an average of one per month. That number doesn’t even include the weekends when I hosted company, a full count of the camping trips, or the many single day adventures we enjoyed. Whew! I feel tired just thinking about it. 2016 was a great one!

Yes, this year may have been the end of something, the last of its kind in my life, at least for now. I have LOVED this year, the adventures, the new places, the lightness and carefreeness of it all. And most of all, getting to do so much of that with Brandon. I do feel sad about leaving this behind sometimes. And scared and excited. But the end of one thing means the beginning of something new. The next season of my life will be its own kind of adventure I imagine, full of unexplored territory and beauty and sometimes pain. But most of all love. A love that encourages me to let go of the past and move into the future. And although I will miss this phase of my life – it has been one of the best – I think I’m ready for the next one. Maybe there won’t be quite so many faraway trips and the weekend getaways will be less frequent, but I am guessing there will be some great surprises in store. Here’s to 2017. Here’s to new beginnings.