One Picture, A Few Words: B & W Photo Challenge Day 6

Scout-the-Lab's feet in black and white
Stinky Feet

We are tired. All of us. Yesterday Scout and I ran five miles, the longest run we’ve undertaken together. We reached a familiar milestone on the Battenkill I once met with Clarence-the-Canine, and then turned and headed back to the car. We did not run as fast as Clarence and I ran, but we stopped to chase chipmunks, important work. Scout does not yet possess the endurance of a veteran German Shepherd runner. And his human has a chronic foot injury and extra baggage. Still, we finished our run, and it felt effortless—we scarcely broke a sweat on a temperate New England morning in October. That is good news.

The rest of our weekend has been hijacked by preparations—for winter and for our upcoming move, which is right around the corner. Snow tires have been hauled out of storage, air conditioners have been pulled out of windows and cleaned up and boxed ’til they’re needed sometime in June, curtains have come out of plastic bins to be washed and pressed and readied for new windows, and everywhere furniture has been shifted around, cobwebs cleaned away, bug carcasses vacuumed, and inventories made: keep, sell, pitch, pack. The soundtrack for all this is the unrelenting rhythm of life—grocery shopping, laundry folding, vegetable chopping, and dog washing. A dog whose filthy feet and stinky coat finally came clean today after weeks of dodging the bullet.

With succulent, steaming chicken in hand, I was finally forgiven.

Yankee Flour, Southern Biscuits: Sunday Photo Essay

Breakfast sandwich on a Southern biscuit made with yankee flour
Southern Biscuit, Yankee Breakfast

Changing your address can change your life, chirped a too-cheerful woman in a slick TV advert for planned community living.

We are long accustomed to cranking out some pretty impressive cuisine in our outdated, strapped-for-space, apartment-sized kitchen. We’ve made do using a teeny kitchen table that belongs to our landlord as adjunct counter space, perfected a risky bowl-balancing technique at the T-shaped junction of our rusty divided sink where it meets the lip of the unfortunate formica countertop, ditto the V-shaped metal dish drainer, and in a pinch have even pressed into service the flat top of our stainless steel garbage can to hold some large cooking vessel or other when there was absolutely nowhere else to put it. (Scout’s food storage bin doubles as a decent cookbook holder, I have discovered.)

Vintage glass mixing bowl with flour and fork, just cutting in the shortening
Favorite Vintage Glass Mixing Bowl

But if I had to fault this kitchen for a single thing above all others, it would be its darkness. At times this vexes me enough to send me into a tailspin for a solid evening, when I can’t find my damn readers, and that on top of badly compromised eyes in the first place.

Fork in stiff biscuit dough
Fishs Eddy Fork in Dough

I’ve taken on the black-and-white photo challenge for the past few days, the one everybody’s doing. I decided to edit these in black and white, too, but the absence of light in our little kitchen speaks volumes through my Sunday morning biscuits in the make. That, and my inexperience with a camera. I expect more of our soon-to-be kitchen, a wide-open space with light fixtures everywhere, loads of natural light, and a pleasant collision of interesting 1936 cabinetry and storage with 2017 finishes and appliances. Yes, that change of address will indeed change our lives.

Dough ball kneaded four times, as Granny would say
Need to Knead

White Lily flour is the gold standard for Southern biscuits, and for over a century was milled at a factory near a familiar intersection just northeast of downtown Knoxville (the company closed its Knoxville plant in 2008 and moved operations to the Midwest). It was what everyone bought and baked with, a pantry standard along with Hellmann’s mayo and for many years, JFG coffee, if you lived in Knoxville. For a while Williams-Sonoma peddled White Lily at a stupid price in its brick-and-mortar stores and catalog; they seem to have come to their senses. Anyway, up in these parts King Arthur flour is the thing, and is what I put in my biscuits this morning.

One cut biscuit, one hole in rolled dough
A Drinking Glass Makes the Best Biscuit Cutter

My mama begged my great-grandmother Grace—Granny Grace—to tell us some of her beloved recipes many years ago, long before she died. I am sure Granny had recipes tucked away somewhere, but by then most of what she routinely created in the kitchen was stored in her noodle, and so she simply quoted from memory. Granny’s vagueries were maddening sometimes (‘put in about that much milk,’ said gesturing with tar-stained fingers between puffs on her ciggie, or ‘bake it ’til it’s done’). To her way of thinking it was obvious.

The White Lily biscuit recipe
Self-Respecting Southerners Know

This morning I did a side-by-side of her biscuit recipe and the one on the White Lily bag, and dang if they’re not pretty much identical. I clipped the White Lily version from my last bag of flour, the one I schlepped all the way to Vermont from Tennessee with me. It’s on the door of the fridge, right next to my mom’s potato soup recipe—soup she routinely made and brought to me the year I was going through my divorce, when I would eat nothing else. I’ve begged her to send it to me for years, and not long ago she finally called and quoted it to me over the phone. It reads pretty much like a Granny-Grace style concoction—a little of this and a little of that, until it looks right, and cook it ’til it’s done. She comes by it honestly, anyway. And when I protested, she merely quipped unapologetically, you live with a chef: figure it out.

Beautifully baked biscuits on sheet pan
King Arthur Makes a Respectable Biscuit

The biscuit sandwich I made this morning assuaged my days-long desire for a made-from-scratch biscuit. It was not exactly what Granny Grace would eat: in lieu of her crispy bacon, for example, mine had a leaner applewood smoked turkey slice. There was no fried egg, but instead a small egg whites omelet folded, and folded again; I did not cook it in bacon grease as she might have done, but instead used coconut oil. I schmeared the biscuit with a little bit of apricot preserves, no butter, and layered on crisp, fresh spinach, the year’s last from our favorite farm stand. I still have a few tomatoes in the windowsill that probably come close to Granny Grace’s high standards for tomatoes, and so I added a thick slice. (She would wait until lunch for hers, sliced and laid out on a plate or saucer and doused with salt, taken with strong black coffee and another smoke.)

Plated biscuit sandwich in profile, in color

I’ll keep on making Southern biscuits wherever I live: some things should never change. And I know Gracie would agree.

October in Vermont: Season of ‘Lasts’

Staring into the sun on an exquisite October afternoon
It’s unfair to name October a season, which more properly belongs to fall. But it does mark a big transition in these parts, a time beyond which the air feels more authentically like winter to a person with Southern roots. Not once in the five Vermont winters I’ve seen have we missed a respectable snowfall—a ‘plowable’ snow—before Thanksgiving; if the trend continues we’ll have our first one soon. It won’t hang around for long, not like the snow from a nor’easter does, the kind that takes down the power grid and leaves you wishing your elbows did not have bursitis when you pick up the snow shovel, the one you forgot to leave by the back door, the reason you now have snow melting inside your boots. Rookie mistake. Nature has a sense of humor: thirty years ago last week a surprise early snow knocked out the power for five solid days, the news said. HCB remembers it.

That kind of snowfall comes later mostly, in February and March, and buries the landscape until spring thaw. January in Vermont can be oddly pleasant thanks to a phenomenon known as January thaw. But the big storms here often persist right into April, until winter has no choice except yield to the sun’s new angle in the sky. The miracle of life after all that never fails to amaze me, the idea that underneath those sinister layers the planet is birthing something new and wonderful. I always felt the same about spring in the South, but here the sensation is exaggerated.

In spring the Battenkill will roar through our little hamlet in an angry torrent. It will lick the low-hanging branches on its banks, leaving icicles that dip down into the water, exotic crystalline formations that will finally relent on a sunny afternoon. It does not feel like spring here, not a proper spring anyway, until June. Vermont winters are long, quipped the man connecting the phone cables in my cottage basement back in 2012, shaking his head while he worked. I get it now.

Ice and angry torrents on the Battenkill
Meanwhile the air feels more like late summer; Nate will pound us with rain for the next couple of days. The kids are playing soccer with padded shinbones, still dressed in summery shorts and tank tops, not for long. It’s Columbus Day weekend, a time when droves of tourists pour into the state (not in numbers like they once did, insists HCB) for the foliage and to buy the same syrup they can probably get back home at the neighborhood Kroger for less. Give them their syrup: they pump dollars into the local economy, and anyway it’s more fun to buy some where you can watch it being made while you lick sticky sugar from your fingers, the sugar that coated your apple cider doughnut a moment ago. It’s what fall is about, or October at least. Best to enjoy that doughnut this weekend, because there’s not much foliage to see, still a lot of green on the trees and it is raining indiscriminately—if Nate had come any later he’d have left us a naked landscape, but these trees are not quite ready to let go.

Still, October is about lasts. It is time to polish the silver for the last time—not for the last time ever, one hopes, but for the last time in this little cottage in the woods. And HCB will chide me for it, because we have bigger fish to fry. Polishing silver is my default strategy whenever I hear the words ‘pack and move.’ It is procrastination through and through.

Moving from Tennessee to New England inspired the most silver polishing: that is one heck of an undertaking, disemboweling a home where you’ve lived for sixteen years, prying apart what is yours from what is his, stuffing as much as you can onto a crowded moving truck, and saying goodbye to the stuff that refused to stuff. No use crying over spilt milk, but I cried plenty.

My first lakeside home in Vermont’s Upper Valley was exquisite but beyond my reach in spite of the best-laid plans, as fate proved. I squeezed out enough cash for a year, maybe to my detriment, but in hindsight it was probably important for me to live there. Vermont winters never suffer fools gladly, and my first one was forgiving in that cottage, exploding pellet stove and zombie basement notwithstanding. Life there was a sojourn, a pause I needed from the misery I left in Tennessee. It had its terrifying moments.

Lake Morey through my cottage window, winter of 2013
Thence further inland towards the central part of the state, where I said farewell to my beloved Clarence-the-Canine and finally grasped a new reality: that year and a half or so forced me to square my shoulders and face the music, as it would anybody with a dwindling bank account. Getting a handle on living expenses came at the expense of living among people. I understood people who had gone before me found healing in that beautiful setting I was lucky to call home—180 pristine mountainous acres—but I did not. It was instead an exercise in adapting to isolation, living in fear and living lean, leaning on the lessons I learned growing up during rough years in my mama’s house in Memphis: you can survive if you’re smart. I had that at least going for me, but occasionally I also wondered whether my time there resembled anything like a monastic life. Maybe I needed simply to shut up and listen. I left my beloved Clarence-the-Canine buried on that land, a reminder that life is transient and nothing belongs to any of us forever. Maybe there was healing after all and I failed to recognize it.

Clarence at the loft in Sharon
Combining two households almost three years ago made sense. It’s true two can live cheaper than one to be sure, but there’s also the sheer joy of being together with the person you love instead of a two-hour drive from him, to say nothing of the great satisfaction of writing a new chapter, a big one, and importantly, a hopeful one. Moving here has not been without its vexations: the outdated infrastructure in this tiny little house in the woods can’t support two full-time, full-size human adults, plus one part-time teenager (a while back there were two of them) without protesting. It is a place bursting at the seams—with the landlord’s stuff, HCB’s, and now mine; overflow went into storage. Since I moved in almost three years ago we’ve dealt with bears unafraid of people, with dangerous, law-breaking neighbors, with a fallen maple that badly damaged one new car and left the old car parked next to it with a good-sized flesh wound, and with one tragic visit to the emergency room after a dog bite last October. We are still somewhat isolated on this mountain top, in spite of living in a neighborhood. On an icy morning it takes a while to carefully navigate a dirt road before reaching the highway down below. But we are together.

Soon it will be the last time to navigate that treacherous road, and weather gods willing, maybe we won’t at all. Instead we will take on the new challenges of living in a distinctly urban setting, in and among a community of people, in a house that is waiting for us at this moment. The walls in our 1936 ‘New Englander’ hold the stories of generations of families who have gone before us, to which we’ll add our own. Vermont winter will still come to us there, and we’ll be ready for it. Next October I might polish the silver, or maybe I’ll let it wait ‘til Thanksgiving. But next Halloween I shall certainly pass out candy to neighborhood children. And I shall walk to Main Street with Scout-the-Lab and HCB. I’ll say hey to people I know when I pass them, people I’m about to meet, a couple of whom I know already.

Next October will be a season of firsts, at last.

New Sycamore Stories

Scout’s Big Epiphany

Scout-the-Lab knows where all the chipmunks are
I Know Where All the Chipmunks Are

Whatever life experiences shaped Scout-the-Lab before he came to us last December, there is this one truth about him, and about all dogs says the vet: they forget nothing. Scout’s skittishness is authentic, part and parcel of who he is. I may have envisioned a goofy, tail-wagging demeanor in my early quest for this dog, and that is my own folly. People at home and at work are sometimes crestfallen when he rebukes overtures of affection, when he shies away from an outreached hand, or jumps out of his skin at the slightest provocation, or even cowers when an unexpected human comes barreling around a corner. Taking these reactions personally is a human problem, not a doggish one, just as my own expectations of what Scout would be when he came to us were based on my own preconceived notions of a Lab, and not on Scout as Scout. And anyway, the first time our vet cupped Scout’s chin in her hands and peered into his evocative eyes, she said, Oh Scout: you are a Chessie.

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is not known for its effusive personality. It does not really matter.

I’ve always loved the name Scout, my favorite literary character in my favorite piece of Southern writing, the little girl with whom I identified growing up. (Never mind that Scout-the-Lab is a boy dog.) But if I had to draw a parallel between my Scout and a single character in that exquisite story, I’d be more inclined to link him to Boo Radley, the tragic, misunderstood character, “with his shy ways.” He is who he is.

Scout digs for chipmunks

Scout digs more furiously for chipmunks

Scout has his head in the ground hoping to reach the chipmunks

A few weeks ago when we launched on our Dogged Adventures with Scout comfortably tucked into the back seat of the Subi, I worried he’d be unable to reconcile what was going on in that little noggin of his. After his tenure with two separate families in Texas (humans who loved him, to be sure), he went into foster care for a couple of weeks. Thence onto a transport van with others of his ilk, rolling all the way from Austin to Brattleboro, Vermont, arriving on what was the coldest calendar day in New England at that point, turns out. Thousands of miles across the country, and into the arms of two perfect strangers, who seemed nice enough on the face of it. But surely, without ascribing too many human emotions to a trembling dog in a foreign land, I believe ‘bewildered’ must have described his condition, at least in part.

Scout was long familiar with climbing into the car and going when it was finally time for our vacation—going to work with me most days every week, going to dog camp one afternoon a week, going up to my financial planner’s office once in a while on a big elevator (head tilts for days), going to the store, and even going inside some stores. But this time the going would keep on, well, going. I worried Scout might imagine he was being rehomed. Again.

What happened instead was a week’s worth of adventures with the sweetest rewards: being invited inside the home of some friends down in Knoxville and socializing with their dog for a bit, exploring all kinds of worldly venues with me, my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, and my twenty-something, enjoying some extended outings in nature on a couple of occasions, eating exceptionally well, and—joy of joys—sleeping in a big bed with humans, a thing he can’t do at home because of the Dreaded Spiral Stairs. By the end of our trip Scout had grown accustomed to looking for the bed first thing when we checked into another hotel: Ah, there you are, bed. <check> Now, let me just <muscles twitching, preparing to jump>, THERE we go. Yep, this one’ll do fine. <circle around, plunk, exhale>

Earlier in the week when we checked into our Asheville Airbnb it took him a bit longer to get his bearings, because we had an entire apartment to ourselves. He split time between our bed and the twenty-something’s futon in the adjoining room, but always slept with us, alternately curled or sprawled between us near the foot of the bed. One beautiful morning as we began to stir, HCB reached his long arm down to scratch Scout’s noggin, and in a single, perfectly coordinated movement Scout lengthened his sinewy body until his head rested on the pillows right between ours. We lay there and giggled and continued to dole out affection: it is fair to say the dog was content to indulge in the moment, as were his humans.

Still, there must have been this unrelenting question: where are we going?

The final, sunny afternoon of travel when we began the steep ascent up the twisty Vermont mountain road to our home in the woods, Scout sat up in the back seat and surveyed the familiar landscape. As the car rolled to a stop in our drive, I hoped everything—the events of the past week, and now this moment—would crystalize for him: I am home. There had been no aha! moment on that cold Brattleboro day back in December. Only the passing of the leash from one hand to another. Here, I hoped, we had arrived at the place where everything would finally make sense to Scout: this is my home and my family—we do things together.

I had to wait until the next morning for my answer, early on Monday when it was time for post-vacation work reentry. Curled up comfortably on the sofa in his favorite spot, Scout only barely lifted his head to acknowledge me when I told him it was time to go. Nah, he yawned sleepily, you go on: think I’ll lay here and watch some telly, maybe get a little shut-eye today. Have a good one, see you on the flip side.

Scout is indeed home.

Scout is perfectly at home on the sofa

Dogged Adventures: Asheville Is Noisy

Not Noisy from Here
The metal carabiner-like clip that fastens to the harness part of Scout-the-Lab’s seatbelt is maddening, like that childhood game Barrel Full of Monkeys: just when you think you’re about to get it clipped—or unclipped as the case may be—an irksome little hook (think crochet needle) gets hung up and refuses to slip through the metal clasp on the harness. At least, when you’re trying to do it one-handedly. Scout sits there patiently waiting for his lady-human to correct the situation while she tugs and pulls his harness this way and that, cursing under her breath, or sometimes plainly for the world to hear, depending on her mood. There! she finally spits out when the damned thing does as it should. The inventor of that childhood game must be complicit with the designer of the Kurgo dog harness, I am sure of it. Good thing Scout’s long familiar with the ritual, as we repeated it countless times over the course of nine days of Way Down South adventuring.

Asheville Adventurer
This was Scout’s big epiphany during our Dogged Adventures: he is a Dog of the World, schooled in long-distance travel, in navigating loud city sidewalks crowded with people and other dogs, and importantly, in waiting when he is told—waiting to jump down from the car, or to jump up into the car, waiting before bolting out of the hotel room’s open door, waiting for the automatic doors to open, waiting for the traffic signal to change, and sometimes, merely waiting. Waiting is also what happens when you go to a dog-friendly eatery with outdoor seating; the best ones bring you a fresh bowl of water and give you a pat on the head. But mainly, you lie down and wait; sometimes you snap at a yellow jacket until your human warns you to stop because this pastime can only end badly for you. But in spite of being asked not to snap at yellow jackets and being made to wait, you are glad to do it, because the rewards are sweet. Smoked barbecue, for example, is completely worth waiting for. Ditto bites of succulent grilled chicken, or crumbles of a grass-fed beef burger smothered in Vermont cheddar. Call it manna from heaven, if you like—good things come to those who wait, and Scout completely gets this.

Farm Burger Waiting Dog

Farm Burger Still Life

You Can Eat Like This in Your Twenties

Vermont Cheddar in Asheville

Sweet Potato Fries Are Health Food

Collision of Lines
No self-respecting chef embarks on a vacation without doing his culinary homework. HCB wanted barbecue from the get-go, and he wanted the best. One of his homies down in Asheville made recommendations, and because Scout-the-Lab was with us, we opted for number two on the list (see dog-friendly eatery above). This worked out fine, and nobody was disappointed: leftovers supplied a homemade pizza topping for one gluten-free twenty-something, a couple of sammies, and general late-night noshing with the fridge door wide open at our little vacation rental. We ate it with the abandon of people off their diets and on vacation, all of it, and mopped up what was left with remnants of homemade corn bread.

Butt Rubbin’ Goin On

12 Bones Smokehouse

A Pie Tin Is Your Plate

Perfection
Asheville has always held appeal as a quirky but still somehow metropolitan mountain city, separated from its neighbors by, well, mountains. You kind of have to work to get there: eastbound I-40 out of Knoxville gets steep and curvaceous all of a sudden, and just when you think you can’t take any more careening up a steep, fast-moving highway wedged between a cement barrier on one side, and a long caravan of tractor trailer rigs on the other, you’re there. What struck us about Asheville on this trip is her ancient infrastructure long outgrown by the burgeoning city around it, crying out to be replaced (as the twenty-something correctly observed: because there are no turn lanes, traffic backs up for days). The seamier, industrial parts of town have elevated graffiti to high art, and damned if it does not work beautifully. We spotted an entire group of people photographing it on tripods, part of a class assignment we guessed. Downtown is fun, and treacherous, and did not slow down one jot no matter what time we were out and about. But for his part, Scout-the-Lab seemed to know exactly what to do after our excursion with him in downtown Knoxville. Dogs are amazing and resilient.

Graffiti 1

Graffiti 2

Graffiti 3

French Broad Chocolate Has New Digs

Chocolate Makes the World Go ‘Round

Asheville City Dawgs I Know
We also took a small hike from our rental (on the outskirts of downtown, and on the edge of the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s campus, as it happens) to the UNCA observatory, high atop a ridge overlooking the city. The area around it—the paved road leading up, the street lights, and a tall concrete stairway reaching from the road below to the building above—have been let go, it’s fair to say. Nor have the gardens around it seen much love in recent years, although the most determined flowering plants have elbowed their way to life in spite of the overgrowth around them: you can tell it was once really something. Meanwhile the observatory itself is still brought into service several times a year, and opens up for public viewings. We happened to be there for one which was unfortunately full, but anyway cancelled thanks to the overcast remnants of Irma. The boy said he could tell the top of the building slides open, and when we got back to our place I looked it up, and sure enough. Meanwhile, we got outside, exercised a little, and took in the incredible vistas from the top; my whiny kid said he had no interest in going, and then all of a sudden he was right there with us. Wish I had used that strategy in my younger parenting years instead of pleading, reasoning, and brow beating. Hindsight.

The Little Free Library at Our Airbnb

The Neighborhood Has Excellent Taste in Literature
There’s no place like home. And there’s no place like the South; I miss it like crazy, content for now to busy myself with hopeful goings-on here in Vermont, about which more later.

Postscript: I meant to include this photo of my ghostlike dog-and-chef in the Knoxville post but somehow missed it. Serendipitous—I have no clue how I did it, something to do with shutter speed and the absence of light probably. It was late, we were going down stairs in a downtown parking garage. Mistakes can be beautiful, after all.

City Ghosts

Dogged Adventures: No Complaints About Rainy Days

The best that Irma could muster

When it’s cold-ish, rainy, and a bit blustery on vacation, you spend a fair amount of time in your cheap hotel room doing mainly nothing. Or riding shotgun around town with your twenty-something while he shows you new stuff and changed stuff and plain missing stuff. Five years is long enough for the landscape to morph so dramatically in some places it’s no longer recognizable, five years of freeze and thaw cycles, stormy seasons, and a recovering economy. Midday Monday found me sitting with the boy in the drive-through lane at his favorite eatery, idling over the same pavement where I clocked so many hours with him snapped into the back seat booster, tired, hungry, a peanut-sized malcontent who never really met the world’s expectations from a tender age. This was a better scenario.

My whole life has been a lie, observed the twenty-something about the fake towels at the pricey department store

We can deal with boredom, content merely to be off the clock for a few days. My ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister has had a much rougher go of it in Charleston. I hate that we missed our visit, but hate it more that she and Waco-the-Lab are dealing with what they are. And there is that fickle José doing dog-knows-what out there in the Atlantic, a bit too close to Charleston.

Meanwhile the eternally agreeable and exercise-deprived Scout-the-Lab was positively giddy for his four-miler in a beloved city park in Knoxville, Tennessee Monday morning, a romp squeezed in before Irma arrived in these parts (she threw some cold rain and wind our way, and then moved on). HCB did eight miles in about the same amount of time it took me to cover four. The paved trail in the park was new, seems like yesterday. Now it is broken up in places, marbled with root incursion (a visual nightmare for somebody like myself with no depth perception); running in this case was a euphemism for playing hopscotch along the serpentine and hilly path. Scout explored every nook and cranny with the joie de vivre only a dog possesses; we should watch and learn.

Southern vacation requisite and best ever post-run carbs

Lakeshore Park was once the sprawling campus of a large residential mental hospital, the ‘loony bin’ as insensitive locals sometimes called it. In the late 19th century it was named the Eastern Hospital for Insane officially, then in the 1920s the more sanitized sounding Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital replaced it. And true to a trend, the residential services in the hospital came offline in pieces starting in 1990. For a time the grand old 19th century brick structures remained, some of them anyway, where patients continued to receive outpatient care. Then many of those services fell by the wayside, too, and the big, empty buildings served only as a snapshot of history, what was once a self-sufficient operation with its own dairy now a thing of the past. By June of 2012 the hospital was officially a hospital no more, replaced by legions of city athletic fields, and the new pathway around it filled with stroller-pushing moms and now hopscotching middle aged folks and their shy doggies. I halfway thought I’d bump into somebody I once knew and then it dawned on me most of these folks were mere children the last time I made this circuit. Time marches on.

In the space of only a few days Scout learned this truth: sleeping in a huge, soft bed with your humans is divine. He does not enjoy this luxury back home in Vermont because a vexation known as spiral stairs makes it impossible.

Scout’s most amazing discovery: the joy of sleeping in bed with the humans
Sometimes you find beauty in unexpected places, even near a nondescript hotel
Monet writ small in Knoxville
Found somebody pretty busy in a clump of honeysuckle near the hotel

Scout meets Prometheus, the Shiloh Shepherd who lives with the boy

Funny that a 60-pound dog could scare the bejeebus out of a much larger shepherd, but that is precisely what happened when Scout-the-Lab invited a skeptical fraidy cat to play.

The culinary highlight of our time in Knoxville was authentic Cuban fare eaten on our laps from Styrofoam takeout boxes, since doggies are no bueno inside a restaurant with no patio. We also caught up with my dad for a happy couple of hours and obligatory family photos with lots of chiding dad about his ancient phone technology. He insisted the groovy clicky noise and the animated shutter on his phone trumps the benefits of a smartphone any day, but HCB’s missing head suggests otherwise.

Authentic Cuban sandwich
Meat-filled empanada
Needs empanadas
Twenty-something with his granddad and mama
Family portrait
Family photo with headless chef

Scout-the-Lab is not only the Most Agreeable Traveling Canine Ever, but can now also claim expertise as a city dog. I had reservations about this, mainly about folks wanting to approach and touch him. But when we spent an evening in downtown Knoxville they came at us fast and furious—I could not run interference on every single encounter, nor did I need to as it happened: Scout seemed to get it. He was happy to be approached and petted and in fact enjoyed the attention. Urban night life proved a treasure trove of delicious new experiences for a dog keen to take it all in.

City Dogs
Expert at city sidewalk dining
You can still spot the work of the ‘cathedral guy’ in downtown Knoxville; many thanks to the boy for a much better photo than I got
Nekkid ladies hold up the old Miller’s Department Store building in downtown Knoxville

When I was a young student at the University of Tennessee, I routinely stepped over the busts of naked ladies in the basement of the McClung Museum on campus, where they sat in storage when they were salvaged from a beloved downtown department store after its conversion to Something Better. In the last couple of decades as Knoxville came to its senses they were restored to their rightful places. I caught them hard at work as they should be, from our sidewalk table at this little eatery, where earlier we bumped into a pair of dear friends, and were waited on by the daughter of another. It was the perfect finale to our time in Knoxville.

With apologies to friends, family, and one beloved professor and a couple others I could not see this time around, more soon from the mountains of Asheville, NC.

Dogged Adventures: Where the South Begins

Stoic and Resolute

Just a few yards past mile marker 152 and nine tenths on Virginia’s southbound Interstate 81 stands a tall clump of vegetation completely engulfed in kudzu—fully involved, the fire department would say—like some unfortunate character from Middle Earth awaiting release from a centuries-long curse, or maybe more like the creatures the White Witch turned to stone in Narnia. There they stand by the side of the busy highway, and there is where the South begins, because I say so.

We passed that milestone a little while ago, road-weary, none the worse for wear, looking forward to reaching our first destination tomorrow with the stoic and resolute Scout-the-Lab in tow. The last couple of hours always drag on to eternity. That’s when I started a game I called ‘Name the Contents of That Trailer.’ For example, I told HCB, that one is full of Pampers and Pullups headed down to clothe the hurricane babies in Texas and Florida.

How do you know? he quipped.

Because I said so (see the South above), and you are not the boss of my trailer story game. Your turn: what’s in that one up ahead?

Mattresses And Trampolines, And Onions, he said.

What?

Yep, he continued: look on the back. It says ‘MATO.’

Well okay, but you must instead say ‘Mattresses and Trampolines, Onions,’ because if you are using the ‘A’ for ‘And,’ then you can’t invent ‘And’ if it does not exist before ‘Onions.’

He then changed his mind to invent an acronym that included ‘Massachusetts’ and some other words you can’t say in polite company.

Hurricane Irma would not leave us alone, starting this morning when we confirmed with my ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister that we did not have the constitution to come see her down in Charleston as planned, even though she is sitting out this still-unknown event, because it will still be bad in spite of the spaghetti models, and because of this miscreant known as a Predecessor Rain Event, and I am not making that up—she texted it to me last night, and she is smart. In short, the wind and rain will be horrid, there will be flooding, and the last thing she needs is a house full of dogs and people and no power.

Earlier today standing in line at Arby’s to get HCB some vacation curly fries, I listened to the truckers around me warning each other to stay safe on the road. It was clear these folks belong to a special brotherhood, strangers united in a singular mission to drive trailers full of supplies into dangerous and needy territory. We passed and were passed by a squadron of cherry picker utility trucks from New Jersey all day long, each one flying an American flag, and one besmeared with a homemade ‘#IRMA.’ These guys need a special prize for the work they’re doing.

I hope everybody stays safe, but know some will not.

And I hope they get something useful like food and water instead of pens and racing skis, as HCB suggested one truck was carrying.

What?

Yep, he said. Look—it’s a Penske truck.

It’s how we roll. More soon from our Way Down South Trip, Part the Third.

Might Be a Good Jumpin’ Bed

 

Dogged Adventures: Preparing a Shy Dog (And His Humans) for Travel

Kibble for the Road

When I moved to Vermont five years ago I had Clarence-the-Canine in tow, my beloved German Shepherd Dog who saw me through the worst chapter in my life, and then left the planet when he knew I’d be okay. My then-teenager came with us to help during the first week of this huge midlife reboot, but also because I thought it was important for him to see where I’d be living and working in my new life so far away from him. And then Clarence and I put the boy on a plane back home to his dad in Tennessee, wistfully.

Traveling with a dog five years ago was pretty easy, especially with extra hands there to help. We had a single overnight in Harrisburg, PA, where I found a great dog-friendly hotel after a little web research. And once I was settled in my new life in Vermont I happened upon an exceptional dog sitter, a vet tech who’d grown up with complicated shepherds and understood them. Perfect. So for the traveling I did back in those days Clarence was happy to hang out at home with his new human friend.

Resources here in the southwestern corner of the state where I live now are limited. The sitter I found for Scout-the-Lab—a person he knows and loves—is on vacation herself the week we embark on our Way Down South Trip, Part the Third, which is just around the corner. And while Clarence’s former sitter would be happy to take Scoutie for us, the logistics involved are complicated, and he has enough issues still rattling around in his noggin after his big resettlement from Texas that leaving him with somebody new seems fraught with peril. Which left us wondering how to make this happen, and in the time it takes to sit-stay and high-five, we figured we’d just bring him with us. So we’re about to undertake a new adventure, this time with a tender, sometimes fearful four-legged passenger along for the ride.

Sometimes You Need to Scratch Your Face

I think he’ll be fine.

I’m not new to traveling with a dog, but it’s been a few years, and HCB has never done it. I figure the voluminous content I’ve written on the subject recently in my professional life will come in handy, although we’re traveling on a tighter budget than the average consumer who lands on those web pages.

We’ll spend a couple of long days on the road headed down to Charleston, SC, where my sister and her black Lab Waco (pronounced WAH-co, like the aircraft for which she is named) will again host us, this time for three indulgent days instead of a brief overnight. After that we’ll head inland to the mountains of Asheville, NC, destination one nifty little Airbnb rental close to downtown. Asheville’s downtown is vibrant and walkable, with lots of dog-friendly eateries (eateries are important when you’re traveling with a chef), and of course the original Mast General Store, where dogs are welcome. We will probably run over to Knoxville at some point to see family, an easy couple of hours one way, if that. And there is this one leetle footnote: Hurricane Irma is roiling out there somewhere in the Atlantic. If she plans to come ashore in the Carolinas, we’ll defer to Plan B, which is Knoxville-to-Asheville instead. A thing that seems to have changed, even in the last five years: most hotels these days are dog friendly, at least the ones we’ve researched for this upcoming adventure. While Plan B is less desirable, it is at least possible because of this.

When Scout first came to us his Texas family warned us he might be carsick. Not great news, because I knew he would go to work with me most days each week—that’s 40 minutes in the car each way, on a twisty, hilly rural Vermont highway. The reality is, he’s been sick only a couple of times since his arrival last December. Now he’s a commuting champ; he knows every twist in the road, where to pop up and look, understands animal nomenclature and alerts on critters when I point them out to him (squirrel gets the biggest tail wag, but also chipmunk, chicken, deer, turkey, bird, horse, cow, and bear), and generally seems keen to go with me; a couple of times he’s asked to stay home for the day, thank you very much.

The toughest part about taking Scout into a world of people, is the people. He appears to love all dogs: he gets growly with one dog only, who lives in our neighborhood. But because he is a handsome fella with a sweet face, people—especially children—are drawn to him and want to touch him. He’d like not to be touched, and on the occasions where a rogue little person has made a beeline for him, I always position myself between Scout and child to block unwanted advances. He enjoys visiting a flagship retailer near us where dogs are welcome, if people keep their distance. The staff offer him cookies galore, which he politely and gently accepts from them, and then deposits them on the floor. (He devours them greedily on the ride home.)

A Day of Interaction Is Tiring

We had lots of doggish boxes to tick ahead of our beachy-mountain adventure, including hunting down Scout’s current rabies certificate in Texas (which was trickier than I thought it would be), and also getting him inoculated weeks ahead of our travel for canine influenza, which is a thing in the Southeast. We don’t have it up here in Vermont—Lyme is our disease of choice—but the vet tells me it takes only one dog, and it’s merely a matter of time. And my sister says if we wish to play on one particular beach, Scout will need his Canine Good Citizen certificate, something she’ll help us obtain once we’re there; he knows his commands and I expect will perform well on a test. I must admit I am anxious for Scout-the-Lab and Waco-the-Lab to go on at least one beach romp together: Scout’s entire demeanor lights up when he is around another dog, especially a girl-dog, and I anticipate he will adore the smart and eternally sweet Waco.

Then there is the dog travel gear: we will not have the fancy accoutrements I write about at work, but instead the proletariat version of most of them. No collapsible food and water bowls, just regular ones in stainless steel and plastic. And Scout’s things—food, toys, the preventive meds he’ll need to take right on schedule in the middle of our trip—they will all be packed neatly into a canvas bag, with his food pre-measured in the correct portions for each day. We have extra leashes and collars, we’ll bring along the fantastic portable crate in my office to use at each of our destinations, his rear seat harness (which he’s long accustomed to wearing by now and is required by law in some states), and a file folder full of his Important Papers. And there will be ginger snaps, an entire box of them: I learned the power of a ginger snap to settle an upset canine tummy on a long adventure through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest with a pair of vomiting puppies, true story.

The one thing I splurged on after a failed experiment with a lesser product: the rear car seat cover. Having decades of experience with Siberian Huskies, German Shepherds, and one gigantic Shiloh Shepherd, I consider myself a veteran when it comes to dealing with hair, mud, and general dog filth. I underestimated what a smallish Lab was capable of doing to the back seat of a car, even when he appears in the rear view mirror to only sit there innocently looking out the window, mainly. This seat cover is bigger, thicker, padded, plush, waterproof, washable, and I’m sure some other things I’m forgetting. Yesterday I spent several long hours scrubbing all manner of dog detritus out of the back seat of the Subi before I installed this fabulous new cover, and I expect it will perform far better than the first one.

We’re excited. HCB and I have worked hard in 2017, Scout has made a huge transition to his new life with new people far away from the people he has known, and we all need a break. I leave you with a single request: please leave me a comment (I’ll moderate in all reasonable ones) about your own experience traveling with dogs. I’d love to hear your tips, advice, what worked, and what didn’t. (No warnings about the risks of leaving a dog in a hot car, or about taking enough water or pee breaks: I’m well aware.) I’m not a newbie, but I’ll never turn down a bit of wisdom if some clever travel strategy worked well for you and your dog on a long road trip. And we’re always open to reviews of dog-friendly venues in the Southeast.

More soon, from the road.

Just Give Me a Cookie

 

Photo Essay: End of a Vermont Summer

Hangers On

One thing I’ve noticed about the changing of the seasons in Vermont: nature gives you a teeny taste of what’s coming before she says, Nah, just kidding. Then the weather maintains the status quo for a while longer before it finally relents to the tilt of the planet passing the sun. It’s happening just now: feels like fall outside in the early mornings. I drove to work Friday with my seat heater and the heat turned up for the first fifteen minutes or so. A couple of trees are starting to turn, too: fallen leaves here and there glow like embers against a gravel road. I confess they make me sad. In a few days we’ll head Way Down South for another taste of high summer, though, and there will be some sultry days yet up in these parts.

Experimenting still with rudimentary equipment, no zoom, poor lighting, and an amateur hand. I need my reading glasses when I shoot, and never have them. What I can’t capture the way I want I can sometimes fake with photo editing. (Yeah, I meant to make that picture all blurry.) Meanwhile, the end of summer gives us dappled sunlight, still-blooming plants, and abundant offerings from my favorite farm stand.

 

 

Family Vacations: The Summers of My Discontent

Family vacations are dumb.

Nothing sends me into a tailspin faster than a technological mishap: this would include power outages and car problems, to say nothing of broken laptops. I’ve been in a tailspin since the first week in August, the week my shiny new laptop failed catastrophically on a Saturday morning, an incident that prompted a series of irritating phone calls and remote sessions with tech support, and no fewer than five trips in the car over an hour one way to try to deal, because we are underserved in Vermont. That’s more than a tank of gas and five days I’ll never get back again. This coming Saturday will mark the sixth. I remain skeptical at best, even with another new laptop in the offing: an evil vortex has settled in over me, ready to stir up trouble with any device I bring into this house, I am sure of it.

New equipment should not fail, tech support should be smart, and people on the other side of the planet who are enlisted to ‘remote’ into your computer, with your personal stuff on it and all, should not be loading weirdo media players in another language onto your laptop without your permission. I submit these are the folks who refused to do their third grade homework but still walked away with ‘participation’ ribbons, never learned manners but were coddled in the name of self-esteem boosting, and possess not one shred of respect for personal property, because if it’s broke you just buy a new one. I bet they leave crusty bowls of half-eaten ramen noodles sitting around at home. And now here they are inside my electronics doing god-knows-what, but failing miserably at fixing the problem I invited them in to fix to begin with. (You need more RAM. Wait—how could that be the case on a new laptop?)

How do these folks even get these jobs in the first place?

See? Tailspin. But I digress.

On a recent day trip over to neighboring Upstate New York to meet again with the homework slackers, HCB and I got to talking in the car as we are wont to do. We came around a twisty bend in a sleepy rural highway and crossed another busier highway to continue our trek, which took us past a lake dotted with docks where small watercraft are moored at the edge of unassuming vacation home properties; a single golf cart was sitting idle on a patch of asphalt near the edge of the lake, a beacon of leisure on this sunny summer afternoon. This tiny lake’s more or less a poor man’s paradise, cheerful nonetheless.

I never had the kind of camping experience you had growing up, I said aloud to HCB. I vaguely recall one summer when I was barely beyond my toddler years (maybe three) when my parents and I visited with my grandparents—my dad’s folks—at a place near Chattanooga called Camp Ocoee. I’m not sure we even spent the night. What remains in my head after all these years are washed out memories of rustic board-and-batten structures with wraparound screen porches and creaky screen doors. And my grandmother’s crafty ceramics class in one building. And dusty pathways, possibly a swingset, and a boy called Chris Cunningham who accepted my heartfelt passions only reluctantly. That is all I remember, and probably the only reason I remember any of it at all is the legacy of a few photos and some family folklore. (Chris: where are you now? Did you do your third grade homework, or did you get participation awards?)

I did not have cooties.

Camping was big in my family, said HCB, and he went on to describe it. The girls had better games, he said—they were more complicated and involved and fun. The boys were just idiots. Playing with the girls was your best bet.

I remember long car trips in the summer, I said, and always asking to get out of the car when we stopped at a scenic overlook or passed some landmark or monument. No, came the answer always.

I know why, I went on: it was my brother’s fault. He was a pain in the ass to travel with. We never made short trips—we were either eastward bound for Knoxville and Chattanooga all the way across the length of our squished parallelogram state from Memphis to visit family, or worse—to a remote Texas destination for a family convention tied to my dad’s work, which meant two solid days in a hot car to get there: the crayons always, always melted, and my brother always, always Crossed The Line in the back seat to my side, to purposely detonate the big sister bomb and then sit back and enjoy the explosion. This was to be expected of a seven-years-younger brother, but of course I could not appreciate that. If I were my parents, I’d want to get there, too.

Here is the truth about my brother in those days: he simply could not shut up. He sang to himself, talked to himself, and ran out of breath mimicking the noises of choo choo trains. Trains, for god’s sake. They were his everything.

The Talker

One time on the way home from a Texas vacation, my brother drove my mom to the brink of insanity with his ‘prattling,’ as she called it. We were in Arkansas, with Memphis squarely in the crosshairs by then, so close to home we could almost taste it. My mom had cleverly outfitted the back seat of the car with two vinyl shoe racks hung over the front seat headrests—one for my brother and one for me, a strategy she’d read about in a parenting tome. Mine was still fairly organized by the end of our vacation, stocked with a few new treasures acquired along the way, but his was chaos. Long weary of his toys, he busied himself with jabbering. The kid simply could not. shut. up.

THOMAS! snapped my mama about an hour away from our suburban home. SHUT YOUR MOUTH.

He complied, but continued to make all kinds of creative sounds with closed lips, including weird gurgling noises that required lots of spit.

HCB erupted in giggles when I told him this story, and then started making his own version of close-lipped noises. Two peas in a pod, I imagined, while agonizing at the thought of traveling with not one, but three siblings in a closed space. Perish the thought.

For my part, I yearned for my bicycle and my neighborhood friends about a second after we reached our vacation destination. That bicycle meant autonomy and freedom, from boredom, from a brother who followed me around like my shadow, from tiresome grown-ups. You can’t escape any of those things on a hot summer vacation with your family.

But no, we never camped as a family, and we did not get out of the car much, because dad was hell bent on getting from point A to point B. The upshot of this for me is, I have no interest in camping, never have as an adult and never did as a parent myself, but I do love me a good road trip, especially off-the-beaten path trips into the American countryside, the kind that put you in the back yards of farmers, and take you down remote highways dotted with derelict billboards, leaving your imagination to reinvent a place that is no more, and anyway what happened to it and to the people who once worked there or patronized it? I can entertain myself in silence for a long time making up a story. Lately I’ve fabricated one closer to home, about some goings-on on the rural road where I often run: in short, I have invented an entire narrative to explain the activity I have observed on a particular property for the past few weeks. It involves tawdry behavior and a messy divorce and a property dispute and unhappy children.

You don’t have evidence for any of your assumptions, HCB tells me.

What’s your point? I ask. Give me my story: I am not hurting anybody.

He smacks his hand over his face and shakes it in disbelief.

Family vacations with a younger brother are bothersome and that is all. On that very trip—the one where my brother made the gurgling noises—he also spat out his chewing gum in my long, silky ballerina hair right as we were crossing the Mississippi River from West Memphis, Arkansas, into downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

I howled in agony, ruing the day he was born, gnashing my teeth and wishing I could tear out my hair.

My mom was at once horrified and delighted: she knew just what to do to get it out, and it involved peanut butter—she’d read it in that damned book, the same one with the vinyl shoe caddy tip.

Little brother, your sister has a blog: it’s payback time at long last.

I wish I had a laptop. Because I like laptops.

Nota bene: My brother is enjoying a long and successful career in the railroad industry. He is a hard worker and a problem solver, character traits for which he is beloved in the workplace. He also holds a patent for a piece of machinery that is helping revolutionize the modern locomotive engine.