navigating the normal



Rattlesnake Lodge Ruins

Just A Mountain House
Don’t let the name fool you. In my opinion, “ruins” is an overstatement. When imagining “ruins” one thinks of grandeur and importance. I did not feel either. The plaque in the middle of the surrounding fallen stones, unfortunately, does not answer any of the important questions I had about these “ruins.” Why is this place so special? Why is the National Park Service erecting a plaque for them? Why do I care?

Regardless of my unanswered questions and the underwhelming ruins, the hike was loverly. The day I went, it smelled perfumey from the blanket of tiny  flowers spread across the ground. And hiked to the consistent sound of crickets jumping through the brown leaves. I treaded (carefully) out on to a rockface to stare at the rolling mountains beyond and soak up some of the warm sun and feel the warm breeze on my face. The ruins were obviously not the point of this small hike.


Trailhead:There is no trailhead. There are multiple points along the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) that you can begin in order to reach the ruins.
Length: 3.9 miles
Type: Out & Back (with a little loop)
Where: Blue Ridge Parkway
Description: You can begin anywhere, but I used the All Trails app to find this hike. Follow the white blazes (for the MST) until you reach the ruins. Then, you can follow the blue blazes in either direction because they form a circular trail. I did not realize this at first, and I ended up continuing down the larger trail and had to back track.
Directions & Parking: The All Trails app had me park at one of the pull offs on Ox Creek Road. Take the Blue Ridge Parkway north until you turn left on Elk Mountain Scenic Highway. Then continue straight onto Ox Creek Road. I parked at the pulloff after you hit the crest of the ridge and begin descending down the mountain.



Walker Creek Trail

The Water Is The Payoff
The drive through Barnardsville from Asheville to get to Walker Creek Trail is windy and grogeous. The road sits at the bottom of the mountains, and the landscape is dotted with old houses, barns, and wide fields. All of my pictures were taken along the creek, with moss-covered boulders and rushing water. The sound of the water could almost be deafening among the silence of the forest. There are no sweeping views at the top. I went before the leaves made their debut this spring, and I could see the outline of the mountain ridge. This hike is about enjoying that soothing creek as it follows you half way up the mountain.


I found this trail via the All Trails app. The path I took based on information I got off the app made the trail into a loop that became longer than the actual trail’s 1.8 miles. You begin the trail before you see the trailhead marker. Instead of following the path to the left (toward the trailhead sign), I followed the creek up. The creek veers off, but you keep climbing to the top of the ridge. It’s a pretty vertical and quick ascension. The trail is large and taken care of. There was hay put down all along the trail when I went out. When you get to the service road, you take a left onto it. It looks as if you cross the road and keep following the trail, but to loop back to your car, follow the road. After following the road for a bit, you will come back to the trail that looks as if it crosses the road. Take the path on the left.

Trailhead: Walker Creek Trail
Length: 4.1 miles
Type: Loop
Where: Pisgah National Forest from Barnardsville
Description: There are a few other trails that shoot off from this one. It’s not clearly marked which way you should be going. Following my pin on the All Trails app is what reassured me that I was going in the right direction. It’s a relatively easy trail. Although, I did pause a few time on the incline.
Directions & Parking: The National Park Service has perfect directions to reach the trailhead. There is little parking along the road, but it is doable. There appears to be private property at the entrance of the trailhead. There is a sign that warns you not to drive over the bridge. But it’s very tempting because there are charming, little lodges on the other side of it. NPS urges you not to drive beyond the the pull-off.


The Queen City

Charlotte, North Carolina
When taking a daytrip most people think to get out the city of Charlotte and head to the great outdoors of Asheville. Because I do things a little differently, I’ve been taking day trips to Charlotte over the past few months–to get out of town, to see shows, to meet up with the bestie. Charlotte certainly isn’t anywhere I want to live–ever. But it certainly has its fair share of food, drink, and entertainment. It is a quick two hours down the mountain, and like a pig on the truffle hunt, I can root out the places worth spending your money and time.

The first lesson you learn when trying to hike in one of the flattest areas of the state is that CrowdERs is crowdED. And of course it is! It’s the closest state park to the largest metropolitan area in North Carolina. It’s a touch uphill climb to the summit of Crowders Mountain State Park. Once you summit, you can start making your way down and through the miles of other trails in the park. Here’s a useful hiking analogy: state park hiking is to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom as national park hiking is to an actual African safari. All danger and surprise and hard work has been removed from state park hiking, but it’s still there and it still exists to appreciate the real thing and offer something to those who don’t have the ability or desire to do the real thing. Regardless of its complexity (or lack thereof), I enjoyed the views of the Charlotte sky line. And all the green. I’m so happy all the green is back. Welcome to summer!

Crowder’s Mountain State Park is an excellent place to be outside. The trails and trailheads are marked well. You can craft your own path to go as short or as long as you would like.

During my colder-months venture when hiking wasn’t an appealing option, Ikea was my method of steps accumulation. I hate shopping. Except at Ikea. We used to trip it five hours to the Woodbridge Ikea before it finally came to Charlotte seven years ago. So a two hour drive to hang out at Ikea for a minimum of three hours ain’t bad.

Beyond hiking around a mountain and a massive Swedish retailer, there’s plenty to eat and drink in the Queen City. My favorite places I found to drink were Birdsong Brewing Company and Bulldog Beer and Wine. The beer, the outdoor space, and the barrels of peanuts at Birdsong won me over. It really doesn’t take much more than those three elements for me to call a brewery a success. Bulldog was a little divey with cornhole (ugh), darts (yay!), popcorn (hell yes), and Foothills Jade. They also had a Ballast Pointe (I heart San Diego beers) Mango IPA.

I did not enjoy The Olde Mecklenberg Brewery. It’s not my scene, and I didn’t like the beer. They had no pale ales or IPAs. The closest they came was a pilsener. It wasn’t even a good pilsener. The place had a good outdoor space, but it was full. If Crowders Mountain is the Disney World of parks, then Olde Meck is the Ghost Town in the Sky of breweries.

A quick rundown of the food and a note about paying it forward. The salted caramel brownie at Amelie’s is decadent and delicious. It’s open 24 hours, which is the best part. Late dessert is the best dessert. The Common Market was a great place to chill with a beer and a sandwich–regardless of the Bernie stickers peppered everywhere. Perhaps they’ll change them out to Hillary soon. Little Spoon was just alright. They served their coffee in bowls and their bacon tasted more like pork chops than bacon. It was too expensive, and the cinnamon toast I make at home was leaps and bounds better.

After my hike at Crowders, I headed to Price’s Chicken Coop. Fried chicken. Potato rounds. Cole slaw. Hush puppies. Merita roll. Sweet tea. There was a lot, and it was hot. In a white to-go box, I sat on the street corner with my tiny packet of ketchup for the mound of potatoes and grease dripping down my hands from the juicy wings and breast. Price’s is a take-out establishment. It is also a cash-only establishment. I had none, but a very nice man named Victor offered to buy my lunch for me. He asked me to pay it forward. When I get the opportunity, I most certainly will.

Charlotte gets all the shows. And sometimes we must go to the music when the music does not come to us. This year that included Santigold and X Ambassadors at the Fillmore. The venue is bigger than I’m used to with the Orange Peel (and basically any other venues I elect to see concerts at), but you simply can’t discount it because they book everyone. It’s not a bad venue.



Cataloochie Divide Trail

A Symbolic 12 Miles for National Park Week
It’s National Park Week! All National Parks have free admission this week. Of course, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is always free. Spending the first day of National Park Week in the Smokies was more symbolic than thrifty. While deciding which trail I wanted to hang out on Saturday, I found out about the Smokies Centennial Challenge–Hike 100. To honor and celebrate the 100 years of the National Park Service, Park Superintendent Cash is hiking 100 miles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is challeneging others to do the same. As I am one who is always up for a challenge, I’ve decided to try it. I’ve got until December to hike 100 miles in the park. For my efforts, I will receive a pin and a dinner. Two summers ago my challenge was a mere 13.1. This is seems much easier. And more fun!
The Cataloochee Divide Trail is blazed along a ridgeline with Maggie Valley (and private property) to the left and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park to the right. It skirts the border of the park, and you can clearly see it. You follow an old fence that opens up quite a bit to allow for picture-taking on the other side. The first 4.6 mile section of the the trail ends at crossroads with no payoff and nothing spectacular to see that you haven’t already. As you begin the 1.8 mile trek along the Hemphill Bald trail, you come to an outcropping of on a small bald with a hammock, adirondack chairs, and a swing. This is the beginning of the Swag House’s property. There were hikers utilizing the amenities as I passed, and on my return, I ate my lunch in one of the adirondack chairs overlooking a beautiful panorama from Maggie Valley to the presently-abandoned slopes of Cataloochee Ski Resort. There are clear demarcations in the fence that seems to allow hikers to take advantage of the area. After the output, you continue walking adjacent to the property until you hit Hemphill Bald. I turned around here as I had already hit my quota for the day in that direction (and still had 6.4 miles to go in the reverse). The path continues up Hemphill Bald along a barbedwire fence. I do love a bald!

One of the lovelier things about going on double-digit mile hikes is how different the path, vegetation, and mountains look in the changing sunlight. One of all my all-time favorite scenes from living in this area is the way the sun scatters over them to highlight all the ridges and waves that make up what most of the time looks like one mountain. On the hike up to Hemphill Bald, I saw perhaps one flower. By the time I was headed back down, the planes and trail were filled with tiny purple and white flowers that had opened from the afternoon sun. Some might escchew a long out-and-back trail thinking it could be boring seeing the same thing twice. If one stays out long enough, the trail back is much different than the one hiked in on.IMG_8479

Trailhead: Cataloochie Divide Trail
Length: 12.8 miles
Type: Out & Back
Where: Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Description: From Cove Creek Gap to Hemphill Bald. It is not technical. It’s difficulty comes from its length and uphill climbs. It is very well marked with different trailhead signs and mileage. There aren’t any colored blazes, but you don’t need them.
Directions & Parking: From Asheville, take I-40 West to Exit 20. Take the ramp until you turn right on Cove Creek Road. Follow Cove Creek Rd until you see the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sign. The road starts paved but becomes dirt. It is very windy. There aren’t many parking spots, but you can park around the sign. The trailhead is clearly marked on the path across from the National Park sign.



More Than Just A Campaign
I don’t remember when or where I first found the #findyourpark tag, but the first picture I posted on Instagram with it was in July 2015–in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park–the most visited National Park. It is truly my favorite hashtag. I love using it, but I really love finding reasons to use it–hiking in national and state parks. I’ve even tagged other people’s pictures with it.

I do remember that my interest in national parks piqued after watching all 16 hours of Ken Burns’ documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” in the cold, boring 2016 winter. I decided to visit and hike as many national parks as I could. My first endeavor–Joshua Tree.

The hashtag is a campaign by the National Park Service to celebrate its centennial anniversary this year. Did you know that Yosemite might have been the idea for the institution of National Parks but Yellowstone was the first? The Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited place in the National Park System.Here’s some more data for you: Most Visited Places in the ServiceInteractive Map of Visistor Use Statistics; and America’s Best Idea.

But what the hashtag has truly done for me is force me to find different ways and places of being outside. Since my awareness of the campaign, I’ve visited Gorges State Park (NC); Fort Macon State Park (NC); Great Smoky Mountain National Park; Eno River State Park (NC); various national momuments and memorials (DC); Cherokee National Forest (NC); and Grayson Highlands State Park (VA). Moreover, I have planned a trip to drive half way across the country this summer to visit four National Parks including the Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain; at least two state parks, and countless national forests, recreation areas, and monuments.

The #FindYourPark campaign hasn’t only created awareness for me (and my unsuspecting Insta followees) about national parks, it’s literally expanded my horizons.

PS: The National Park Foundation (along with OARS and Southwest) are giving away a Yellowstone and Grand Teton Adventure. You can enter once every 24 hours until May 11, 2016.


Louisville, Kentucky
Bourbon and horse racing are likely the most prominent associations with Louisville, Kentucky. I spent four days there and didn’t partake in either. Instead, I spent the time scouting high and low art; walking pedestrian bridges; chewing buttery modjeskas; browsing floors of collectibles and antiques; trying White Castle for the first time; stalking the graves of the fried chicken kingpin; and dancing at the Garth Brooks concert—the most entertaining show to which I’ve ever been!

Because food, beer, and coffee are the of course the most important, check out my recommendations for all things food and beverage. The map has many other places to eat and drink (coffee, beer, bourbon, and brandy) that I found during my research or that were recommended to me by our Airbnb hosts . It also has the things to do around town like walking the Big Four Bridge to Indiana, visiting Cave Hill Cemetery, checking out the Speed Art Museum on the campus of the University of Louisville (it’s free on Sundays); the Ohio River Greenway; and a few photo opps.

Eat & Drink
I don’t think the trip would have been nearly the success without Please and Thank You. They are famous for their chocolate chip cookies, but everything we put in our mouths from this trendy, little coffee shop exceeded expectations: the Spanish latte was sweet and silky; the iced miel latte was cinnamony. The carrot cake muffin, which they toasted to my delight, was spicy and rich. The breakfast sandwiches were perfection!

Modjeskas are lighter-than-store-bought marshmallow wrapped in buttery caramel. I chose to visit Muth’s Candies for our introduction to these delightfully airy sweets. The standouts of the small handful of treats we chose were the triple caramel (a candy made of a thin layer of caramel, chocolate caramel, and marshmallow) and the pecan modjeska. The pecans were fresh, and I immediately regretted not buying more of everything.

Indiana isn’t really know for it’s bbq, but we took a little jaunt across the river to check out Feast. The succulent ribs fell off the bone and the collards were noteworthy. But the piece de resistance of the meal were the tater tots topped with bbq, creamy slaw, and ketchup-based sweet bbq sauce.

Perhaps the best meal (and certainly the best beer) of the trip was Monnik. I went with two beers at different ends of the spectrum: the IPA and the King George ( an English brown). Both were drinkable enough to another  of each. The same with the burgers. After eating one, we decided we need another!

I’m not a huge fan of maple flavored food nor am I fan of adding bacon to everything—specifically baked goods, but Nord’s maple bacon bar converted me. The only reason I even ordered one was because every single mention of Nord’s (and there were many in my research) included nothing but the maple bacon bar. Upon eating my first bite, I got it. It was as if I were eating an entire breakfast in one bite. Beside Nord’s is Sunergos coffee, which reminds me of my favorite coffee shop in Asheville with its 1970s gold and orange comfy couches and chairs. The coffee was good and the shop was a perfect place to drink a latte, eat a doughnut, and read a bit while the sky spit a wintery mix of snow, ice, and rain in the middle of April.

No one needs a review of White Castle’s sliders, but what shocked me were their pre-packaged cake doughnuts. Upon seeing them, I promptly bought one of each (plain, chocolate, and powdered). I had a hunch, but as soon I smelled them, I knew they would whisk me back to childhood and eating the small Sweet Sixteen doughnuts by Merita. Next time I see a White Castle, I’m stocking up.

El Taco Luchador was a great, quick, cheapish lunch of tacos and guac. Excellent flavor in colorful surroundings. And a patio!

Our biggest (and really only) miss of the weekend was Against the Grain. We could tell quickly, from its location that this would be mediocre. At best. What they called pickles, we called vinegared vegetables. There wasn’t a cucmber on the plate. The food, beer, and service were all underwhelming and left us disappointed that we hadn’t chose better.


A Note About Garth Brooks
With nothing else to do Friday night, we decided on whim to see the Garth Brooks show. In fact, there were four Garth Brooks shows in Louisville while we were there. Two each night for two nights. After standing in the wind and rain waiting for the first show of the first night to let out and clear the crowd and after being told by a security guard that we were not allowed to get back in line once we got our tickets at willcall, we finally got to our seats and realized they were pretty damn good. We didn’t even have to leave our seat for drinks because there was a beer tent beside us. What were about to find out was that our seats were going to get so much better. Event staff came up to us and the people in front of us asking how the night was going and where we were from. He promptly handed us two tickets for the second row and escorted to our new seats. From our newly upgraded spot in the KFC Yum! Center, we were surrounded by crying girls who knew every word of every song the man sang; I was displayed on the Jumbotron throughout the concert; and we watched the most entertaining concert of my life.

Garth Brooks not only knows how to put on show, but he wants to put on a show. It is clear that he does it all for the fans, and he’s still happy to be on that stage. Furthermore, his band and back up singers are happy to be on that stage. The entire cast of characters has smiles on their faces right through the second encore at 1:30am. I found a wealth of respect for that man in Louisville on Friday night. Regardless of what one thinks about his music, one quickly realizes that show ain’t about the music, it’s about the performance. And damn what a performance it was!

Google Map with Things To Do, Eat, & Drink

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