At the end of October, I finally got my chance. I started the week by flying to Boston to put my dissertation proposal hearing behind me. Dropping back into my home of 6 years for less than 48 hours was dizzying. Four months can really change your perspective on a place. I had to quickly reorient myself to the world of public transportation, triple deckers stacked as far as the eye could see, and thousands of 20-something students with lattes in hand, all of which seemed so strange after adjusting to life in Detroit where cars and single families rein. I stayed with a friend whose house was perched high up on a hill (also strange). Their guest room allowed me to wake up to the sun rising over Bunker Hill, which was pretty spectacular again to these Midwestern eyes.
During my short visit, I took a cab, rode a bus, grabbed a latte (I'm normally a coffee girl but I was feeling caught up in the excitement of it all), took the commuter rail, and then a shuttle to the university. After I took care of business and quickly caught up with as many people as I could in such a short visit, I was back on a flight back home. Home. As in back to the flatlands.
I was overdue for a couple days off with no work and a friend's wedding was the perfect opportunity. The morning after Boston, we jumped in the car and headed an entirely new direction. South for the wedding in Charlotte. In the last 6 years while living in the Northeast, I'd been to the south a few times but never by way of car and definitely never through Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia. Just as going back to bustling Boston seemed strange, going on a classic midwestern road trip to North Carolina also seemed exotic.
Our route took us through the back roads of Ohio for a few hours, which was all so quaint and delightful after years of New England scenery. Driving behind tractors and past winterized ice cream shops named "Twist and Shout" was a lot more exciting to me than it probably should have been. "Oh look, a field full of pumpkins!" "Oh look, Mrs. Johnson sells greeting cards out of her garage!" "Oh, look, an Amish woman in a horse drawn buggy with a baby in a car seat bouncing along on the front seat!"
After a couple hours of trying and trying to put some miles behind us, we couldn't resist anymore and took a sharp right turn into the parking lot of an antique mall. I have no idea what town it was in, but it was a little piece of vintage heaven.
Being the wander lover that I am, this little globe came home with me, along with a 50 states board game. Matt also scored a vintage children's Noble and Cooley drum. I wanted to take it all home.
I'm still thinking about the left-behind U.S. Presidents wood burning kit and the 'Travel the U.S.' coloring book from the 1930's.
After the slow drive through Ohio which allowed us to make it almost all the way through Amy Sedaris' "I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence" on audio book, we called it quits for the day in Charleston, West Virginia. We planned to camp on the way down, but the early nightfall and 30 degree temperatures talked us down from that ledge. Instead we got a hotel room in town and tried to find a dinner spot for a picky peskitarian in a town full of steak joints. We ordered the asparagus tempura sushi and were amused when it arrived fully deep-fried.
We'd arrived. We were were in the South. The New South. Where there is deep-fried sushi and Rogue beer.
For over a year, my 'just finish your dissertation proposal already' incentive was that I would go on a big hike after the ordeal was done and passed. Probably laying on a beach would have been a more sensible reward, but for reasons I can't pinpoint, I prefer to take the more demanding way through life.
Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia was not too far off our route to Charlotte, so we headed west. The state park was not only near the highest peak in Virginia, it also connected to the Appalachian Trail and had wild ponies. Matt was really keen to pet a wild pony. But then he was disappointed when we were instructed in rather explicit language not to mess with them. They are wild after all.
I didn't really expect to actually see wild ponies. I assumed they'd all be hiding, like most wildlife. But to our surprise, we'd walked no more than 5 minutes when we ran into a few right on our path.
They had no intention to move out of the way, so we decided to chose another route and got ourselves a bit lost for awhile. It was a pretty spectacular kind of lost where you're out in the open with 180' views of the Blue Ridge holding on to the last of their fall leaves.
Eventually we found our way back to the trail and hiked up to Rhododendron Gap and a little bit past it.
We sat for a spell and looked up to see a guy taking a piss off the top of a peak, which was both amusing and repulsive. Maybe that's been his daydream. Or maybe he just had no manners. Hard to tell.
Leaving the Whites behind in New Hampshire was on the hardest parts of leaving New England, so being back up high again was a thrill. I love the Midwest but I'll be leaving as often as possible to escape to the mountains. This stretch of the AT would be the perfect beginner backpacking trip and a great camping spot. Huge views. Open skies. Some decent climbing to keep it interesting but flat stretches too. I wanted to keep going all the way to Maine.
The wild ponies made it a great spot. I will admit they scared me a little, but then on our way out, a fearless little girl was walking up to them and petting their manes. Matt gave in, against all warnings, and pet a wild pony. It was definitely a highlight of the road trip. I'm not one to break rules, but I reached in for a little pat before we headed back to the car.
We left the mountains, reluctantly, and got back on the road. We crossed over into North Carolina and passed tobacco drying shacks on the way. We stopped in a small town, and walked into a pizza joint where everyone in the place turned around to stare at us northerners. The pizza was terrible.
A few hour later we arrived in Charlotte, the shiny new "Queen City". It's truly the New South, with financial centers Uptown, design boutiques, fish taco joints, and organic farmer's markets. It's really lovely there.
Saturday morning we bopped around town to check out the South End and the NoDa arts district. Ironically, we chatted a bit with a guy in a furniture store who was quite enamored with the fact that we lived in Detroit. He said he was fascinated with urban decay. Driving through the shiny streets of Charlotte, urban decay seemed about 670 miles behind us.
It got Matt and I thinking and talking quite a bit about where Detroit is headed. Sure, we want to see our city transformed, to "rise from the ashes" as its motto hopes for, but hopefully it'll find its own path to regeneration so that whatever fascinates people about Detroit's industrial past won't be transformed beyond recognition. Mainly I think we hope for people to feel safe, to have the means to raise their families, and for more green resting spots in the midst of the hardness of the city. Like every good road trip, it had us thinking about home in a new way.
In the afternoon we headed to the park for the wedding, which took place under this beautiful willow on a little island. As all good weddings, it was the perfect reflection of them as a couple. It was also a very etsy.com decorated wedding, which made it all the more lovely. We celebrated, enjoyed a big Southern brunch Sunday morning, and then got back in the car to complete our journey. After a week of traveling, it felt really refreshing be back home.