Monday, August 17, 2009

Day Twenty - Boone, North Carolina

The contrast between life in New York and that in Boone really is almost immeasurable when I look at pictures of both parts of the trip. In New York the camera worked overtime keeping up with my snap-happy fingers, framing and committing to memory almost any sight of note. It was, looking back with 20/20 vision here, a race to keep up with the city itself. In Boone there was no race track, never mind a race in and of itself which is why when I look back at the twentieth day spent in the United States, I have but a handful of pictures. It’s not that we didn’t do very much, well actually it is, but it is the type of things done that I suppose didn’t really merit a picture but rather were best committed to my own memory so that when such menial things were done at home I would remember how these things felt when done so many thousands of miles away. Throwing a Frisbee in North Carolina isn’t all that different to throwing a Frisbee in Cork or Kerry but I did think about this while engaging in some frantic throwing and the odd dive that dyed my shorts a shade of green over the cream and grey excuse it had for a pattern. The Frisbee is the same, the throw is the same, the wind is the same annoying one that makes a fool out of you by pushing the disc toward you before then, just as you have committed to a hyperbolic lunge/dive, pulls it back and lands it three feet opposite to where you’re knee fell to the ground from 4 feet up. Fecking wind. Even the scenery was similar, lovely as it was, for let’s face facts here, Ireland is not known as the Emerald Isle for the colour of some of its seaweed. The difference was in the distance.

Yet again the day had started off in a lazy fashion, no one really got up early which suited me for you already know how I feel about getting up. In fact you already know the painfully slow workings of my mind in the morning and my solidarity with people of the same mentality. Another difference between Boone and the earlier parts of the trip was the amount of sport-type activites which we engaged in. The day before we had gone hiking and squeezed in a trip to the Mast General Store which is, apparently, one of Boone’s more famous gifts to the world, or at least to the US (which according to a recent survery IS the world). With the hiking all of us tagged along so we had a full Honda Civic on the go (5 seats for 5 people) but today wasn’t in anyway planned. I’m not saying the hiking was but the sentiment for it had been laid down the previous day, the Frisbeeing was completely off the cuff though. Allison stayed in the apartment and Jessica was……..actually where was Jessica? It was only when we were leaving the apartment, Frisbee in tow, that it dawned on me that Jessica was clearly not around. If I had been paying attention to conversation the previous night I would have known she wouldn’t be but clearly I had heard and not listened, a phrase I am borrowing for this from my own mother whom I so frequently “didn’t listen” to when younger and, taking a wild guess here, also at present. She was going out to a festival with her Dad, something I had been told about before that conversation the previous night but which I had confined to the back of my memory because I was too entwined with the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains out of the car window as we passed the fair site where she was going with her Dad. It was a Scottish festival and her roots go all the way back to that bonnie land so she was going to the festival this Saturday with her father, it all made sense now. I also remembered that she had said that we could meet her father that morning if we were awake. I was asleep. The kind of asleep where you are in the bed, blanket warmed from sleeping there all night, blanket on top of you, pillows under your head and thoughts of “ah, no pressure to get up, this is much too comfy yet”. Refer to my explanation about how my mind works at this early hour of the morning in order to fully fit in with this line of thought…read it twice if you are one of those early risers who just loves the mornings and thinks everyone else will if you rub into their faces just how awake and happy you are at 7am. Twice for you. As I was lying there I could hear Jessica’s father come in the door and felt that I should really get out of bed and introduce myself for I guessed that the chances of him bursting into the bedroom to do likewise would be slim at best. I moved in the bed a little wondering how long he would stay and I could hear that he was mispronouncing Donal’s name. Donal was yet again to be “Don-Al” not “Dough-Nal”. You’d understand it more if Donal had actually written out his name and handed it to Jessica’s father by way of introduction but he didn’t, he said it out and all that had to happen was a repeat of what Donal had actually spoke. If I found it strange, which I did, I can only imagine how Don-Al felt – this was the second person of any note who had managed to get it all wrong. Poor fella was all alone in facing this onslaught on his name too, although I could hear Jessica chirp in with a correction but I was thinking that this could get particularly awkward and maybe if I was there it might not be so difficult. There was no way I could make the shower without passing the living area and thus having to stop and chat…there was no way I could make it really. The blanket was lovely and warm anyway and he’d be leaving soon too. Logic told me this would be a first and last impression for Jessica’s father (when would I ever see him again?!) and weren’t Americans very demanding when it comes to first impressions? Surely my hair, tossed and coming out in all directions wouldn’t be a nice sight. The excuses rolled on until I heard the door close and a small bit of guilt crept in. The thought of some nice morning coffee, with the vanilla flavour (both natural and artificial) got rid of that. I should have gotten up though.

Suzanne, Donal and I drove down to the university playing fields which seemed to be much like UCC’s Farm (not for animals despite the name, for sports…although Gaelic football is played there so perhaps there is a connection with animals). Suzanne explained that the car park we were leaving the car, and my camera in, is where you have to park as a first year student due to parking restrictions on the main campus at the other side of the town. A bus, the Appal Cart, would bring you to the college for free. Not that I really looked into it, although I probably should have, the Appal Cart actually was a town wide bus service and was free. Imagine the number 2 being free into Patrick’s Street (and yes it does go there but only after 7pm)? The sun was shining, it was a lovely day as we stepped from the car and walked down towards the fields. There didn’t seem to be any particular layout to it but we walked, crossed a small river with an ornate and roofed bridge and set out to throw the disc around the place, and hopefully catch it too. As we walked across the cut grass I thought that a football would be a much better idea, we could kick it around, run, pass, curl it around. There was a girl around, friend or not, so obviously you’d have to look as macho as possible and I reckoned a football would allow the machismo to be better showed. Still the Frisbee throwing was fun, I hadn’t done it in quite while and the surroundings were perfect for it. There was a relatively steep hill on one side, the car park over some fields on the other…actually we were in a bit of a bowl as there was hills on all sides really, some closer than others and this made it into quite a picturesque place. Perhaps the hills were also a reason for the lack of any real breeze and with the sun taking its toll I took off my shirt so that I wouldn’t have to wear a virtual damp sponge. I could also get a bit of a tan as well I thought because I didn’t want to be labelled with the usual “farmers tan” tag that a lot of Irish people receive when they come back from holidays. Thinking about that now perhaps it’s just an item of begrudgery because you have been on holidays and they haven’t and for that, they (whoever “they” are) must find some fault with you. Best to be one step ahead of those people. Actually it’s best to ignore them really but…

Anyway we threw the Frisbee around and the wind did indeed sometimes make a lot of fun out of all of us, except for Suzanne it seemed, for Donal and I were both having to run and try to catch or slap our hands together expecting there to a disc in between when what was actually happening was the Gods of Frisbee were having a laugh at watching the disc fall to the ground a few feet ahead of the clapping hands. This necessitated some diving, or at least I thought it did. There was a few reasons behind this line of thinking, one being that if I couldn’t play football then I should at least be allowed to dive around a little and also it felt good to jump through the air and cool down for about half second before landing when it became apparent that I now had double the sweat on my brow than when I started out. It was good fun all the same but eventually we began to ask each other the time, always an indicator of an activity going stale. It’s funny how it’s done really, no one wants to push anyone else to stop but at the same time a signal is being sent to people. When the time came we all stopped and sat on the grass after asking each other were we hungry, which was a valid question seeing as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and was also useful at calming any remaining embers of enthusiasm for throwing the Frisbee. Sitting on the grass with no top on was a little strange for the grass was almost spiky and not soft like it is at home. I suppose with less rain grass is like this, it’s normally soaked back home so the mud bath you inevitably end of sitting in at some point is bound to be soft. Suzanne then started to use a blade of grass to emit a shrieking sound much like a bird call. It was brilliant, a great party piece if there had been a party on at the time but even still I wanted to know how it was done. And this was my downfall of course for I couldn’t do it. I tried and I tried and when Donal managed to do it I had to try harder but it wasn’t happening. I was sitting there wrapping grass ornately around my thumb trying to do a shrieking noise. Eventually I managed to get it, a few times as well just to prove that it wasn’t a fluke but all the same it wasn’t easy and after a few goes I decided to leave it go…quit while you’re ahead and all of that.

Despite having grass very near our mouths we remained quite hungry as you can imagine and we made our way to a peculiar place called Cook Out. I had heard Suzanne talk about this place before in conjunction with bbq-ed food and other such tasty delights and was quite looking forward to see what fare they had on offer. The only problem was that there was really no way to see what fare was indeed on offer. You see the principle behind Cook Out, as indicated by the name really, is that they cook the food and you take it out. Cook Out. Actually sorry that doesn’t make sense, it only does when you think of this place as providing the cooking service for the BBQ you want to have In the garden but for which you couldn’t be bothered heating the coals up for. Handy really, but then it takes the fun out of the BBQ too, especially if it is a gas one from which you can compete with your friends in a “how high can the flame go” contest by smacking oily meat on the grill and watching the flame go high. We queued up for our food seeing that orders were being taken at a booth and the food being taken from that same booth. Donal went first after quickly examining the menu and then I went myself after spending a bit of time going through all of the forty variations they have of milkshakes. Forty! I think I settled for the Oreo chocolate chip although with that many flavours on offer I am sure that I could have asked for an oxtail flavoured milkshake. Think about that when you feel like binging on food. George W Bush always had a way of leaning on his podium as he spoke with one arm and I did the same myself at this booth, the guy on the inside noting my Cork accent, as I leant and ordered my meal. Suzanne went next and after we paid we headed back to the apartment. Everything was set out nice and tidily on what looked like disposable versions of the TV dinner trays you’d normally see in 1950s TV shows. I must say, this detracted somewhat from the feeling of eating BBQ outdoors; the fact that we were eating this indoors was also a probable factor too. Cook Out was an interesting little place though, set in a very motor-centric area of Boone where there were essentially no footpaths! If you wanted Cook Out without a car you’d need to cross a 4 lane road first, a busy four lane road.

In a way then Cook Out boiled down what America is synonymous for, the car and personal transport over public transport and walking and the link between the car and food. This link has been there since the 1950s but in Cook Out you didn’t even have the option of sitting in, you had to take the food away with you (although I would have liked to have seen what would have happened if I had sat outside the one story building and eaten there in the little car park). There was a drive-thru option of course, there’s a drive-thru option for everything over there including dry-cleaning , but there was also the other non-drive thru booth in case you felt like parking the car ten feet away and taking a leisurely stroll to the order window. I thought it nice of them to give some people at least an introduction to walking.

The food itself was actually quite good and the milkshake was well worth whatever I paid for it which really wasn’t much I don’t think. Maybe the Frisbee made up for the fat intake…it must have, especially when coupled with that ten foot walk to the order booth.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Day Nineteen - Boone, North Carolina

The previous day hadn't been easy on anyone, Suzanne and Allison had driven for 6 hours up and back from Raleigh, while myself and Donal had competed in our own Olympic sprint event to reach the train from DC to Raleigh before strapping ourselves in for the 3 hour drive from Raleigh to Boone. Not to say that that drive was anything but fantastic, it was a little taste of the Great American Road Trip, in an American made car (though it was a Honda) with possibly the most hospitable American people ever to grace that nation. It has always been a dream of mine to see America through my own eyes - don't find that too confusing, I did see New York et al with my own eyes, I didn't borrow anyone else's, but I would like to some day go exactly where my eyes look, whenever I want to. That's a garbled explanation if I ever came across one but what I am trying to say is that, while the train down to Raleigh was very comfortable and public transport in the cities so far was more than adequate, there'd be nothing quite like seeing the next road sign and just following it. I'm on two wheels myself, a proud biker but even if it was done on four wheels it would be a dream. Even getting a little taste of that on the Interstate for a few hours was fantastic. In that sense then the drive to Boone was more than a drive, it was a preview of a dream, a dream that one day I hope to fulfill but really the stay in Boone was about more than this for staying with friends, mobile friends (meaning they had a car for they call mobiles "cell phones" in the US) , meant that I had more choice in what I wanted to see and where I wanted to go. This freedom, a freedom within the freedom of the great travel already undertaken, was supposed to still be years off, only within reach when I myself would be in control of the bike or the car. And that freedom involves getting out of bed at whatever time you want, in a room that, at least temporarily, you can call your own. Upon waking in Boone, this was just what I had.

I looked around the room, it wasn't huge by any means but a decent size nonetheless and reminded me of a bedroom in my Nan's house. I had the only bed in there and didn't have to worry about any other people waking up in a bed opposite mine with red eyes but the most upbeat morning mood ever. Nevin and mornings don't really go together, I can do mornings but generally I am a night owl and getting up in hostels, was, I found, a tiresome enough process for if others were in the room you had to keep quiet and if those people were awake then it was quite possible that they could see your liathroidí when you drop the towel to put on the shorts after your shower. You had to think and plan everything as if it was a military operation but here in Boone I could easily go around the room naked admiring my fine body in the mirror; I'm not sure which I am more unsure about, my "fine" body (ahem) or there being a mirror in the room! Well I can always say that I have been naked in North Carolina, which is nice.

It takes me a while to actually get out of bed after waking and when I eventually did put my feet on the ground I took my clothes and towel and went for a shower. Looking back on it now I'm surprised at how little time it took to do this for normally I have to talk myself into getting out of bed, I have to reason with myself. "Nevin, it's 9:30am, you set the alarm for 8am, isn't an hour and a half enough of a lie-in?"...."hmmm...but it's half nine now so what's another half hour, at least that would round it up and I'd be more prepared for actually getting up". Honestly this is a real example of the thoughts that go through my head on a typical morning. I'm surprised they can be so diplomatic actually because my general reaction to people in the morning is one of contempt or at best a sort of begrudging observation that they are alive.

"Good morning Nevin, how are you on this beautiful summers day?"
"Well I was much better, wrapped up in my bad mood, than before you decided to barge in with your morning sunshine and good mood, now why don't you go and have tea with a hippy?"

You can be sure that if you say good morning to me at too early a time, or in the wrong way, then this is the response that is going through my mind only waiting to come out from between my lips. I blame it on Mother Nature, it's too early in the morning for blame anyway, besides blaming people for being nice and happy, in which case the earlier the better. The rule does bend a little though for if the other person says "good morning" in a noticeably moody way (the deep voice and rubbing of the eyes normally gives it away I find, seeing as that is how I am) then I will generally acknowledge them nicely (though with a deep voice and rubbing of the eyes) and develop a "morning respect" for them for you know that they feel just like you do. Remember algebra rules? Two minuses make a plus.
When I entered the sitting area where Donal slept seeing as he had fallen in love with the sofa contraption in there I bid him a grudging good morning, received one back and when Suzanne and Allison came along, a similar repetore was followed. I could tell that they weren't going to be regaling to me, stories of them hopping out of bed at 5am in order to eat their cereal as the sun rose up and that wasn't it great to be alive. While it is harder to tell if a female should be offered morning respect, seeing as they don't really get the deep voice thing us male gets, they seemed slightly less chirpy than they had the night before and were still in sleeping attire. Thus morning respect was given and few enough words were exchanged as we ate cereal. Suzanne put coffee on and despite being less chirpy and slower to reply to things than she had been the night before, she made a considerable effort to make sure I had enough milk (and knowing where to get it) for the cereal and went to the trouble of putting coffee on, coffee with vanilla extract (natural and artificial flavours said the packet, always good to use a mixture of man and nature) no less. At this point I was wondering should I add some kindling to the fire and get the day going by cracking the morning silence, something my still cobwebbed brain was telling me not to do but if I was to do this I'd need a topic. The vanilla coffee, having never seen it back home, was one, so I latched on to that but quickly retreated after mentioning it realising that it would be better if I just drank the coffee appreciatively and having let the caffeine take effect, guage whether I, or anyone else, was ready to converse. It was as I drank the coffee, at the table near the door, that my mind thought back on my nights sleep. I had actually slept on the sofa and Donal on the more solid couch but having woken at the very early hours I removed myself to the bedroom I was given due to my side feeling a little sore. A supporting pole going across the centre of the sofa was stabbing into my hips, as I remembered, the coffee duly doing it's role, but I also remembered that before I moved, I had debated the merits of doing so in my mind. It's probable that I tried to either put a cushion underneath me or else take an angle grinder to the culprit of my discomfort...anything to avoid me having to get out from under the blanket. And to think I had ensured everyone in the house the night before that the mighty Nevin would not fall asleep on the sofa, this coffee was unearthing too much! But it did taste really good.

Today we'd be going on a trail, up the mountains, something I thought I'd only ever get to do if I came over with a license to drive or ride a bike but it's funny what life throws up at times. I donned my Cork City jersey, thinking it'd be a good idea to wear that in order for it to wick any sweat away from my skin (what with it being a football shirt and made to do that sort of thing) and was out the door and into the front seat of the Civic. I was feeling a little bit guilty about taking the front seat all of the time even at this early stage but seeing as we ended up going along some of the Blue Ridge Trailway, it was a joy and I imagined myself going through it on a bike, two wheels transverse beneath me, leaning the weight of man and machine into the sweeping bends and straightening it up to enjoy the magnificent views we were now looking out at. Land and more land, green with tall trees rising and falling until the eye could no longer see. The clouds tipped the top of the trees as it became a blur near the horizon, this was truly amazing. Obviously to be out and about in this, to be physically in touch with this awe-inspiring exhibit of nature was an experience to behold and stepping from the car we all, quite gingerly began our walk up through the Tanawha Trail.

I say gingerly at least for myself here. Suzanne had done this trail before as I am sure Allison and Jessica had also but I was determined to keep up with the pace despite not knowing what was ahead of me. Now it would have been foolish had I just jumped to the front and taken over the walk but the path had already accounted for such foolishness by being only wide enough for one person to go through at a I suppose we were much like a human train and being stuck in the middle of this train I noticed that the girls were wearing sandals. This seemed a little strange because back in the apartment Donal and I had been told that we'd need to wear some sturdy footwear. When I hear "sturdy footwear" normally I think of those hiking boots that come into Lidl or Aldi every Springtime when the Aldi or Lidl bosses think we are all in the mood for climbing mountains with their brochures ordained with pictures of happy couples gazing admirably at Austrain or German hills (because they love hiking over there apparently). Unfortunately I hadn't packed, or come to think of it, every bought, this kind of footwear despite sometimes thinking that I might do. And so I went along the trail in my Adidas runners, the blue, white and red ones that had been admired a year earlier in no less a place than Times Square. By a young black man. No higher praise for stand-out runners really but they were never made for a path like this, dry mud, the odd wet section, slippy moss covered rocks and bushes on either side that you had to become intimately acquainted with whenever another group of people decided to walk in the opposite direction to us. I mean had they not thought of just waiting at the top until we could all go down in an orderly fashion or did they think the trail was another embodiment of the Interstate!

We didn't reach the top as such, which I will say now was a little disappointing, but that was through no one's fault but the weather's. Clouds were moving in, we could no longer actually see the top that I had so wanted to reach and some of the path was becoming a little slippy from the odd drops of rain that were falling. Still the view was amazing as we sat on a massive rock on a jagged rise. I looked out in front of me as I sat, legs folded, on this massive chunk of rock as Donal continued his impression of a Southern gay guy which was, at this stage, becoming annoying. They seemed like hills but size is perceptive and when everything around is huge then even the biggest of things doesn't manage to stand out and so these mountains were hills for hills never stand out for being hills alone. The lines graduating towards the horizon were shaped as hills, with their gentle curves but there was just so many of them and all covered with a deep, rich, green blanket of pine trees which actually allowed you to see just how massive these hills were, rolling through the land. Turning around showed me just how high up I was and just how deceptive these hills were when I looked over the edge and saw the top of trees way below me. Looking back at it now what a contrast this height was from the height experienced standing at the top of the Empire State Building in that massive metropolis known as New York City. I wasn't afriad of either one but the sense of awe was certainly different as in New York I gazed over miles and miles of bright lights and a city still alive deep in the night while here in the mountains of North Carolina I could see the Blue Ridge Parkway but no other sign of civilization, it certainly made you feel very very small and humble. Well it did for me anyway, I can't speak for Donal's southern gay persona!

Our next stop in the Honda Civic was at Mass General Store, a chain of Western style traditional shops which sell lots of sweets and jeans and cowboy hats. It was impressive it must be said. Going into the shop I was delighted that I didn't have any kids because if I did then this would have been the perfect place from which to ring the bank manager to allow him prior notice of the emptying of my account in return for tons of sweets. Admittedly I have a bit of a sweet tooth myself but I kept myself back from buying too much, limiting myself to some chocolate covered something-or-others. Chocolate bars just aren't the same in America, they're too oily rather than milky, but I was willing to give these treats a try and later on that night I was glad I did for sitting down to watch a movie they turned out to be fantastic!