Archive for July, 2009

When Mother Nature checked in for the night

July 30, 2009

I arrived at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Concord, NC, (just north of Charlotte) last week all happy. I had my work planned out for the next day and life was good. I’m not sure I’d ever stayed at a Hampton Inn, and I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was. Funky little artistic touches, everything was clean, the free wireless worked, the lobby was inviting. People were even hanging out there.

Man balances on his heels wading through the water

Guest entering second-floor room practices feet-raised-through-puddle maneuver

About half an hour later, a giant storm blew up, first thunder and lightening, then driving rain, and then hail. Being a storm lover, I had to go see it for myself. I was on the fifth floor, the top, and took the elevator down to the lobby. I was alone, save for a guy puffing away on his cigarette. Rain poured down in sheets and lightening crackled. I clung to the cement post, thinking, if this were metal, I would not be out here.

The storm waxed and waned a couple times and finally I headed back to my room, commenting to the desk clerk, “That was a great storm!” She said something like, “are you kidding me?” Then she relayed what I said to someone else behind the desk.

All hotel guests were evacuated after the fire alarm went off

All hotel guests were evacuated until firefighters could check out the situation

Soon, I understood her reaction. Further down the hall, water was pouring down a wall. Pouring. A guest in the hall said, “you should see the second floor.” I walked toward the two elevators and one had water dripping down the outside. I took the stairs. The hallway was under water. Not a lot at all, but still. Ick. Thirty minutes later the fire alarm went off and we were all evacuated for 30 minutes or so until firefighters arrived to decide whether we could stay.

Guest are leaving for dryer grounds

Some guests had to leave for a drier hotel

One couple I talked to had taken the elevator pre-evacuation and once they reached their floor, the doors wouldn’t open. Somehow they managed to pull them open. Yikes! I used to have major elevator paranoia, so the thought of that freaks me out. Meanwhile, several of the ceiling panels buckled under the weight of the water from the second floor, which now had fully flowed to the first-floor hallway and part of the lobby.

The firefighters has a busy night in Concord

The Hampton Inn was but one of the many stops firefighters had on this stormy night

Long story short, the firefighters gave us the OK to return to our rooms, though most people on the first two floors had to go to a different hotel, which the Hampton Inn folks arranged for them. I heard different theories as to why the leaks occurred, but never anything official. Bottom line: too much water came down in too short of a time. There were flash floods all over Concord, as well as a few other evacuations.

I was in bed by 1 a.m., thinking, no way will we be getting breakfast. Wrong. In the morning, except for damp carpet and barrels under holes in the ceiling, everything was in order, with fresh coffee brewing and food laid out. Amazing. I heard several customers checking out, with the desk clerk offering them a full credit for their stay —  and several of them refusing! That is a powerful testament to the notion that if you treat customers right, they’re much less likely to be cranky. (Airlines, take note.)

Giant fans and dehumidifiers were used to dry the hallways

Industrial-strength fans and dehumidifiers were used to dry the hallways and rooms

By the next morning, a disaster-response company called Advance Catastrophe Technologies  was there in full force, drying the hallways and rooms with giant fans and dehumidifiers. It was a class act. Because the Hampton Inn is a franchise operation under the Hilton umbrella, I can’t speak to others, but the Concord site did things right. Though no one, of course, can control what happens when Mother Nature checks in for the night. 


Secret location of ‘Secret Life’

July 27, 2009
The Secret Life of Bees (photo Fox Searchlight)

Stars from "Secret Life of Bees" buzzed around Watha, NC (photo Fox Searchlight)

North Carolina, which has an active film industry based in Wilmington, has not done a very good job of promoting sites in the state that have been in films. So let me fill you in on one I thought was very cool — the big pink house that was the primary site for the 2008 film “The Secret Life of Bees.” The movie, featuring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo, is based on the book of the same title by Sue Monk Kidd.

The Secret Life of Bees (photo Fox Searchlight)

The pink house as seen in publicity photos (photo Fox Searchlight)

I put off reading the popular “Oprah” book for a long time because I thought it would not be “literary” enough, snob that I am, but I quite enjoyed it when I finally got to it, save for the too-tidy ending. The movie, however, was everything I feared the book would be, way too polished. But I love the story line, about a white girl running off with her black housekeeper, only to end up on a peach farm (in South Carolina in the story) that she had a mysterious connection to. Lots of good themes, mainly the wonderfulness of women and the evils of racism.

The secret pink house in Watha, NC

The house as it looks a year later

So a funny little story about finding the house, in Watha, just a few miles west of Interstate 40. The tourism folks there in Pender County didn’t even know where the house was, and the film folks never told me either! Finally, after pressing Pender, I guess they asked somebody for an address, but the result was quite puzzling. I was already in the area doing farm research, and so headed for where they told me, only to find a nondescript light pink house that I knew wasn’t in the film. I was annoyed. Did someone simply say, “find a pink house for that pushy writer”? Leaving “town,” as it was (which it barely is, with 200 residents), I saw a couple old buildings, and decided to go up the street they were on just for fun. Suddenly I passed by a big old pink house on the main street. Bingo!

The back of the pink house

The back of the pink house

There was not one clue that the house had been part of a major motion picture. Unfortunately, not until I was home did I find a great article about it by Allison Ballard in the Wilmington Star-News last year, which also mentioned that the stone wall that held the notes the character May wrote was still there, as well as the honey house. Oh well, next time, now that I know where it is. I liked Allison’s decription of the color of the house — “a shade that falls somewhere between raspberry sorbet and Pepto-Bismol.” (I think it’s closer to the sorbet.) Sue Monk Kidd also wrote a fascinating blog entry about being there for part of the filming. According to my GPS, the address is 500 Watha Road.

The other movie location nearby Lumberton

Another "Bees" location, in Lumberton, and the house Lily lived in with her father

This wasn’t the first “Secret Life” location I’ve visited. My research for “Farm Fresh North Carolina” earlier took me to Geraldine’s Peaches and Produce in Lumberton, where Geraldine and Roy Herring loaned a part of their peach orchard for the filming. The building there was portrayed as the childhood home of Lily Owens, the main character, before she ran away from her father, T. Ray.

True to movie-making form, because the filming had to be done in the winter, peach tree leaves were made of silk and the fruit was plastic.

The address is 10728 Highway 41 North, about 8 miles east of I-95 in Lumberton. The seasonal farm stand is a great one, and if you ask nice, Geraldine will let you drive back and see the house. Tell her I sent you.

A joy ride, complete with pain

July 23, 2009
See why it's called Blue Ridge?

See why it's called Blue Ridge?

At 74 years old, our beloved Blue Ridge Parkway has its problems. But it is still a glorious 469-mile joy ride along the Appalachian Mountains, from Virginia to North Carolina. Next year, during the 75th-anniversary hoopla, there will be the usual long list of media events and celebrations, but the best way to appreciate the Parkway is in silence from an overlook or during a hike or, for Wessel and me, a bike ride.

Diane races downhill during a ride in 2007

Diane zips downhill during a ride in 2007

Recently, near Waynesville, N.C., we took our 10th ride together on the Parkway, since moving to North Carolina in 2003. (But don’t forget, y’all, that I’m a native, which is why I can say y’all.) 

Though Wessel and I are woefully out of shape, with me sitting on my derriere in the car half the summer while researching “Farm Fresh North Carolina,” we rose to the challenge. And I do mean rose. During only 20 miles of riding, we climbed a total of 2,900 feet!

View on parkway from the Waterrock Knob Overlook

View of Parkway from Waterrock Knob

I’m glad I hadn’t known that ahead of time. The only thing I insisted on, because I did know from our elevation map in “Bicycling the Blue Ridge” that this would be a grueling-up and screaming-down ride, with no in between, was that we would end the ride going down. That’s just a little obsession of mine.

Wessel at the Waterrock Knob Overlook

Wessel at the Waterrock Knob Overlook

It was July Fourth, and the weather was perfect. Surprisingly, the car traffic was very low. As always, the “other” biker traffic was quite high, as the Parkway is a magnet for motorcyclists. Only at the end of our ride did we see other bicyclists. The highest peak we reached was Waterrock Knob Overlook at 5,718 ft (milepost 451.2). We could have walked half a mile to the summit lookout, at 6,400 feet, but we didn’t want to tax our legs even further.

The Parkway is famous for native flame azalea

The flame azalea is native to this region

While air pollution has diminished the views from the lookouts by some 80 percent since the Parkway first opened, they’re still something to behold. The summer haze, as well as the pollution, gives the mountain ranges a dreamy gray/blue wash. Sadly, some of the overlooks have been closed because they’re totally overgrown, one of the many problems brought on by the park’s $250 million maintenance backlog. (Some of that will be erased by the $14 million in federal stimulus money approved for the Parkway this year.)

Wessel and I still have a lot of ground to cover on the Parkway. We’ve ridden 274 miles on it, but that’s always up and back, so we’ve explored only 137 miles on our bikes. Here’s to the next 332!


Aping around in Africa

July 20, 2009

(“Where they Went,” published May 24, 2009, Boston Globe)

Debra Walk on safari in Seregeti, Tanzania

Debra Walk on safari in Tanzania

WHO: Debra L. Walk, 60, of Revere.

WHERE: Tanzania and Uganda.

WHEN: Three weeks in November and December.

WHY: “When I turned 50, at a spa in Utah, I thought, in 10 years, you’ll be 60. Where do you want to be?” Walk said. An African safari was the answer. “Elephants are my favorite animal, and the thought of being so close to them was really exciting, with me being confined and not them. I saved for 10 years, and it was worth every penny.”

Debra at at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania

Posing at Ngorongoro Conservation Area

INSTANT KARMA: Walk started with a two-week “classic safari” with Thomson Safaris, which featured several days of wildlife viewing. When she spotted an elephant the first day, “I screamed,” she said. “Later we were so close to them we could see their eyelashes. Our jeeps were surrounded by them. It literally took my breath away. We spent four days on the Serengeti, and we were there during wildebeest migration.”

Debra with guides before boarding the plane to leave the Serengeti to Arusha, Tanzania

Debra with her Serengeti guides before boarding the bush plane for Arusha

KINFOLK: Walk arranged for her final week to be in Uganda, and set up gorilla and chimpanzee activities through Adventure Trails. She’s drawn to the animals because “they’re our cousins and I think eventually they’re not going to exist anymore out in the wild. Humans are destroying their habitat.”

GROUP OUTING: She spent the first few days in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a rain forest known for its mountain gorilla population. “You’re allowed to spend up to an hour with them. You can’t eat anything, run around, or make eye contact with the silverback, the leader, and you can’t use a flash. There’s a good chance you’ll see them, but it’s not guaranteed.” Walk was lucky enough to see gorillas on both outings. “We spent an hour with the second group. The silverback’s first-in-command was no more than five feet from us and actually posed for us.”

Debra standing on the equator in Uganda

Debra straddles the equator in Uganda

PERSONAL ATTENTION: Her trip ended with three nights at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Lake Victoria. “Even though elephants are my favorite animal, my favorite day was on Ngamba when I got to walk with the chimpanzees. One of them jumped on my back and I gave her a piggyback ride. I have a tattoo on my wrist, and she was grooming me, trying to get it off with her fingernails. She untied my shoes, pulled out my laces, and tried to relace them.”

Rock sliders take to the mountains

July 16, 2009
Both sliders and spectators enjoy Sliding Rock

Sliders and spectators enjoy Sliding Rock

We first saw Sliding Rock in December, a few years ago. The small park, located in mountainous Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, was deserted, not surpisingly. We read signs that the rocks on this 60-foot natural waterslide were open for sliding in warmer weather, and we couldn’t imagine what that was like.

Two weeks ago, on a hot July day, we saw it in action. Yee-haw!

People patiently queuing for their slide

People wait patiently for their slide

Some 50 kids and adults were lined up alongside the rock to wait their turn to enter the slide one person or small group at a time. They sit down (required, and who would want to stand?!) and let the force of 11,000 gallons of water a minute move them down the granite slabs before depositing them into a wicked cold natural pool about seven feet deep.

These girls used a nose-pinching technique

These girls used a nose-pinching technique

It thrills and amazes me that the US Forest Service turned this natural playground into an official recreation area. It seems to have “lawsuit waiting to happen” written all over it. So hooray for them in this era when more than half the nation’s bodies of inland waters are lined with “no swimming” signs. While two lifeguards are on duty and kids can’t go unattended, it still seems pretty extreme for the park service. I’m not usually in favor of raising fees, but I think they could even justify doubling the entrance fee to the park — only $1 a person!

Group sliding down the rock

Friends who slide together stay together

Great access points overlook the action. You can’t help but laugh and smile along with all the adults and children sliding, many of them screaming with joy. We didn’t have swimsuits, but weren’t really tempted, weenies that we are. But watching was a blast. We loved when friends and families would make a train or chain and slide down together, with various stages of success.

Family plunges in cold pool

Family plunges in cold pool

The recreation area is open year-round, but the bathrooms and changing rooms are only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, also when lifeguards are on duty. I can’t find anything close to an address. From Brevard, NC, travel northwestward on US 276 for about eight miles, or, a few miles before Forest Discovery Center at the Cradle of Forestry center (also worth a stop, but a little pricier at $5 for over 15 years, though free on Tuesday). Pisgah Ranger District can be reached at 828-877-3265.

The lowdown on Lowcountry cycling

July 8, 2009
The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge connects Charleston with Mount Pleasant

The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge connects Charleston with Mount Pleasant

We bicycled by a bunch of fancy waterfront homes on Sullivan’s Island a couple weeks ago, and I’m guessing we rode right past the weekend getaway for SC Governor Mark Sanford and his poor/rich wife, Jenny. If houses could talk….

The residential island was one stop on an action-packed ride we took around Charleston. I’d never thought of the area as a cycling spot, but indeed it is.

Before heading out, we stopped off at The Bicycle Shoppe in historic downtown. You can rent bikes here (they also deliver to the various outlying islands), shop for bike stuff, or just get some friendly advice from this family-owned store in business for more than two decades. (We’d brought our own bikes.)

We were pointed to the guidebook Lowcountry Bike Rides, which details rides within an hour’s drive of Charleston. It costs $15 and is produced by the nonprofit Coastal Cyclists, a wonderful and very active advocacy group in the area. I’ve been in several such groups, and putting out a book of bike routes is no easy feat. I’m impressed! (Some of the routes are on their website.)

Diane prepares mentally for crossing the Cooper River bridge

Diane prepares to cross the 2.5-mile bridge over the Cooper River

We started out cycling over the massive 2.5-mile-long cable-stayed Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, known locally as the Cooper River bridge. We had, in part, the Coastal Cyclists to thank for the awesome separated bike/ped path. When the bridge was being built (it opened in 2005), bike advocates had to fight the many folks who considered the lane a waste of money. Instead, it’s filled with walkers, runners, and bicyclists. At the top you get a great view of the Cooper River and the city, though the way the bridge shakes is a little nerve-wracking.

Fort Moultrie's canons are pointed to the entrance of Charleston Harbor

Fort Moultrie's canons are pointed to the entrance of Charleston Harbor

Wessel missed our turn for the scenic route, and we had an icky traffic-filled ride to Sullivan’s Island.  Once on the wealthy residential island, we visited Fort Moultrie and the Toni Morrison Bench, to commemorate the spot where hundreds of thousands of slaves were first brought from Africa.

Fort Sumter can be seen in a distance from the shores of Mount Pleasant

Fort Sumter can be seen in a distance from the shores of Mount Pleasant

We made sure to take the scenic way back through tree-lined residential Mount Pleasant, which we so enjoyed. It was filled with more million-dollar homes, but most of them historic and understated. The sweetest part was the commercial “Old Village,” which at one point was the center of this now suburban area first settled in the late 1600s.

People enjoy a late-day stroll in Battery Park

People enjoy a late-day stroll in Battery Park in the historic section of Charleston

When we rode back over the bridge it was filled with an after-work crowd, while the roadway traffic was bumper-to-bumper. They shoulda been cycling. We cycled along Battery Park in Charleston, a famous promenade looking over the harbor and passing even grander multi-million-dollar historic homes, and then through residential streets downtown (more gorgeous houses) and finally to our hotel, The Mills House. They were nice enough to let us roll our bikes through the lobby, into the elevator, and into our room. Some hotels are very uptight about bikes. Not this time.

My only word of warning about cycling in historic Charleston is: watch out for the cobblestone streets! You might end up lower in the Lowcountry than you want to be.

Happy Fourth in photos

July 1, 2009

Most of America’s patriotic songs are about appreciating the wonders of our country, “from sea to shining sea.”  Wessel and I often travel over the July Fourth holiday, and usually to small towns. This year, we’re off to Waynesville, NC, in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains. Here’s a little photo homage to some Independence Days past, in cities large and small, at home and away. Where will you be this weekend?

Fireworks Boston

Boston Harbor in 2003, my last summer there, and Wessel's first and final

Uncle Sam in parade in Hingham, Mass.

Uncle Sam (really) at a parade in Hingham, Mass., 2003. Is he still around?

Wessel celebrates Fourth with socks

Dutch citizen Wessel practices his American patriotism

Celebratory glasses

Diane allows pal Alison Carpenter the honor of wearing her Fourth shades

Community band plays along banks of Ohio River in Paducah, Ky., 2007

Community band plays along banks of Ohio River in Paducah, Ky., 2007

Indepence Day yard props

Festive Independence Day decorations adorn a home in Wilmington, NC