Friday, October 11, 2013

Stateside in September

Welcome back. Song of the Day: Winter Song, The Head and the Heart

The night before we left for Tennessee, Owen stopped by to help us clean our fridge. 

As we were eating, he asked what we were looking forward to the most. Of course, Kenz and I both thought seeing friends and family was the most exciting thing, but that wasn't really the point of the question. That was the easy answer. What Owen really wanted to know was what type of American thing are we looking forward to the most. So, we thought again and came up with shallower answers.

I said, "driving".

Proud Kenz, having packed her bag with just the right amount of stuff to land at the exact weight limit.

It wasn't until later the next night that I realized I'd jinxed us.

We don't usually fly into the US on the weekend. The decision not to hasn't ever been a deliberate one. That's just the way it has always been. Our flight out of Heathrow was delayed, but, again, that's just the way it has always been. In over two years, we've never left London (or Knoxville, come to think of it) on time. We weren't too worried, though, because our pilot assured us we'd make up time in the air.

We arrived at Dulles at 6pm on a Saturday evening, ten minutes behind schedule, knowing we had one hour to make our connecting flight. Again, nothing too bad. We've come to consider ourselves old hat at this London --> Knoxville route. Our landing cards were prepared, nothing was in our pockets (because we knew we'd have to go through security again before boarding the connecting flight to Knoxville), our shoes were loose (because they make you take your shoes off in America), etc.

We rounded the corner to find an immigration line about four times longer than normal. An hour later, our passports were stamped. We collected our bags, dropped them off, and then found ourselves in a security line that took another hour to get through. Needless to say, we missed our connecting flight. We walked from C2 to C21 to find the United "customer service" desk wherein we found out it was "the airport's fault", not United's, and that there were no more flights to Knoxville that evening. Or Atlanta. We also learned that United doesn't reimburse for rental cars because, "you could die in a rental car; we don't want to be liable."

But Kenz and I had rescheduled our tickets in order to get into Knoxville on Saturday night, by god, so we were going to get to Knoxville on Saturday night! We rented a car and drove eight hours, arriving at the Gibson's at 2am. We had been awake for 25 hours by that point. Kenz stayed awake for 7.5 of the 8 hours, eventually driving us the last twenty miles once I got too drowsy to stay behind the wheel.

Be careful what you wish for. Sure, I was looking forward to driving a car, but eight hours down highway 81 immediately after a transatlantic flight wasn't what I had in mind.

At least we got to listen to college football on the radio.


By the following morning, it was time to start making our rounds. Kenz intended to plant herself on the couch with the dogs for the day and I had Brian pick me up for an afternoon of all things Knoxville.

Kenz wasted no time, smashing Lucky Charms upon waking.

NFL at Craig's. Preston was there as well.

BBQ in the park post-NFL
We went by Kara & Jerry's house because I hadn't seen it since they'd moved in. It's pretty baller. And by "pretty", I mean "outrageously".

Debating whether or not Jerry is simply "organized" or verging on OCD.

Color-coded closet. T-shirts on hangars. I'm voting the latter.

Brian noticed that K&J have the official hardwood floor cleaner of the NBA.

It was pretty awesome to get to drop by and hang with them for a hot minute. 

The impetus behind our visit was a pair of weddings that would bookend our trip. The first was for my friend, Craig, who I've known since we were about twelve years old. There's a group of six of us who are pretty tight as a result of suffering through puberty together. Some have known each other longer than others, but we all started hanging out as a unit from sixth grade on. We pick up right where we left off, no matter how long it's been since we've seen each other.

Craig and Brian live in Knoxville.
Derrick lives in West Virginia.
Dustin lives in Texas.
Darren lives in Atlanta.

It's a rare occasion that the six of us get together at one time. The last time was early summer 2003. Things get harder as careers begin, marriages happen, and kids come along, naturally. I was pretty stoked for the reunion.

Brian and I surprised Dustin and Taylor at the airport on the Wednesday night prior to the wedding.

It was Taylor's first time to Tennessee.

Brian cooked yummy dinner before we headed out (they didn't arrive till 10pm).

We also wound up getting a "snack" at a BBQ place that had been converted from a gas station.
Hiding behind a pillar for the surprise.
We went back to the house in which Dustin grew up. His was the house that was furthest from civilization, near the lake, always dark, and somewhat creepy. We'd always try and scare each other in the dark at his house, and relived old memories as we gave Taylor the grand tour. Luckily for us, his parents haven't sold it yet, despite having recently relocated to Dallas. It still smelled the same.

Dustin showing us what is likely the oldest "big screen" projection TV any of us have ever seen. 

He used to sit in that little space in front of the TV, despite it not being a chair.

Brian found a 10 year-old Grandma's Cookie candle in Dustin's old room.

We spent two hours catching up around the kitchen table.
Thursday started with Dustin, Taylor, Brian, and I meeting up to head to Lenny's Subs for lunch with Dustin, Darren, and Craig. We knew Craig wouldn't be able to hang out much over the weekend (what with him getting married and all), so we wanted to capitalize on Thursday's time.

D & T at Brian's house.

Dustin, Brian, and Darren each worked at Lenny's when we were in high school. It has maintained as the lunch spot ever since. Whenever anyone comes in town, we'll meet there for a sandwich and inappropriately loud laughter. Tearful laughter.

From left to right, Craig, Taylor, Dustin, Darren, Brian, and Derrick. 
Afterward, we kept up the "glory days" tour with a disc golf trip to Admiral Farragut Park. Craig had just enough discs left in his trunk for each of us to have one. It was wet and we all sucked, but damned if we didn't have a grand time sharing memories and more laughter.

Afterward, Darren, Craig, and Derrick had to go tend to various other activities. The rest of us went to get groceries for a BBQ at the Gibson's house that evening.

Brian taught Dustin how to smell a cantaloupe for ripeness. 
We followed Brian's instruction for food prep

Derrick returned in enough time to lend a hand. 

The ladies stayed outside, drinking and munching on chips'n'salsa.

As we sat outside, enjoying the weather, Dustin told us about Taylor's appearance in a talent show when she was in 4th grade. She did a stand-up comedy routine. In 4th grade. We insisted on a joke (I'm going to botch it):

There once was a fly that came into a new house. Each night, that fly noticed that all the other bugs went to the pantry, got on top of a jar, and started to dance. One day, the fly asked why all the other bugs were dancing on the jar...

They responded, because it says 'twist to open'... (Taylor, standing up, doing the twist).

She was embarrassed, but we loved it.

Dinner is served!

This panorama didn't work out so well, but you get the idea. 
 Darren arrived after dinner for a heated few rounds of shuffleboard, Cranium, and the dice game.

Dustin & Taylor vs. Kenz & David vs. Darren & Brian & Derrick
Not only did D & T get screwed with hard challenges, but Dustin can't draw to save his life.

We admired Darren's Bill Murray Tattoo
And then it came time for the dice game (otherwise known as left, right, center):

Everyone antes three dollar bills. One player at a time rolls three dice (one for each dollar). Numbers 1-3 mean you keep your dollars. A 4 moves a dollar to the left. A 5 moves a dollar to the right. A 6 moves a dollar to the center pot. The number of dice you can roll corresponds with how many dollars you have in front of you (up to three dice, despite having as many as four or five dollars in front of you). No one is ever out of the game, because the dollars are always shuffling around the board; the person to the left may roll a 5 and have to pass you a dollar.

If you roll three 6's, everyone has to push their money to the middle and buy back in with three new dollars.

If you're only rolling two dice and they turn out to be two 6's, the same applies.

When the final person has the last dollar, they have to roll a 1-3 to keep the pot. If they roll a get the idea. Push the money in the middle and start again with a doubled pot.

At first blush, it seems like a docile game. But, with seven players and several doubled pots, the game gets ROWDY. By the time the last few dollars are on the table, yawps of FIVE, FIVE, ROLL A FIVE are being exclaimed without regard to anyone else in the house (Kenz's parents) trying to go to sleep. It's a helluva fun game - if you've got a family that likes to get together and gamble, I highly recommend it.

This is Taylor's family's game. She explained the rules to us. 

The inevitable buy-back

Derrick wound up winning both games - $105 in all.

Brian, Derrick, and Darren were groomsmen in the wedding, so we didn't all get together on Friday afternoon. Dustin and Taylor visited other Knoxville folks. A few of us got together at the end of the night to hang for a bit.

Little did we know we'd see Knoxville's best Larry David look alike.
We found out that night that Taylor was a big Titanic fan (the movie and the boat). Apparently that was one of those movies she watched on repeat as a kid, and she wound up jumping headfirst into researching the history as she grew up. Knowing she'd never been to East Tennessee before, Kenz and I decided that taking her up to Pigeon Forge was a great idea.

The four of us loaded up and drove out to the Myrtle Beach of the Appalachians to tour the Titanic museum and ride go carts.

We couldn't take pictures inside. 
Any trip to Pigeon Forge isn't complete without at least one ride in a go cart. We went to the NASCAR Speedway and rode all 8 tracks.

Me, starting in pole position with Dustin right behind

Taylor & Kenz with no chance of passing me

There was one track that required drivers to show their license before getting in a cart. Bigger seat belts and helmets were requisite as well.

We lost track of time and barely made it back in enough time to shower before the wedding. The reception was at the Southern Rail Depot. 

The groom's cake

Our reception table

I finally got a picture with Derrick's wife, Chasse, in it. 

Everyone danced late into the night, but Strutz took home the game ball with his moves.

Taylor and McKenzie decided they were BFF

Congrats, Craig and Maddie! 

I'm not someone you'd expect to see at an afterparty of any type, but this was a special occasion. Everyone congregated in Market Square until 3:30am. Dustin and Taylor decided they'd just crash at our place afterward. Everyone was pretty haggard the next morning, but we had plans to do brunch with Brian and Jessica before Dustin and Taylor had to fly back to Texas.

Still half asleep

Brian's wife, Jessica, had been in Virginia at her cousin's wedding. Luckily, she had returned late Saturday night in order to hang out for brunch and the inevitable extra round of the dice game.

Bagels, eggs, grits, and bacon. And lots of water for the haggard crowd. 

Another botched panorama

Taylor has been playing this game her entire life and has yet to win a pot...

...and she continued her losing streak. Brian walked away with the cash.

Again, about this dice game:

New players always seem a bit reticent about it, but soon find out that the energy of it is so contagious that they can't help but jump in headfirst. This was Jessica's inaugural game. By the time we reached the third buy-in, everyone had run out of money. Without hesitation, Jessica jumped off the couch, saying, "hold on - I think I have more cash in the bedroom."

All in all, a great weekend. As Kenz and I returned to her parent's house, I began to slip into an emotional hangover...and then I remembered that Kara and Jerry were throwing a "welcome back" BBQ in our honor.

As soon as we pulled up to their house, I saw what Kara had done and was barely south of being mortified: She'd enlarged an old photo of Kenz and I to poster size and taped it up to her front door.

She was as pleased with herself as I was embarrassed.
One thing that Kara and Jerry have in common is that neither of them does anything half-assed. There were 20 adults and 10 children at the BBQ, complete with a table for everyone, centerpieces, snacks, dinner, a million beverages (they got everyone's favorite), lawn games, and a piñata!

This was the most enjoyable, casual, and relaxed BBQ I'd ever been to (so casual, in fact, that I forgot to take pictures during the majority of the evening). It's a testament to Jerry & Kara, really, to see the types of people they surround themselves with (or, maybe, the types of people that like to hang out with them). We milled around, caught up, and enjoyed burgers, beans, and various mayonaise-based salads. It got a kick out of watching Jerry leading the piñata-hype-express, blindfolding, spinning, and guiding the kids. I had a brief glimpse of what it'll be like for the four of us to be doing this with our kids, rather than everyone else's. 

They're serious party planners. I mean, is it just me or is everyone else impressed that they had the forethought to put a blanket down?

Cousins in poor lighting! 

We finished the night transitioning between cleaning up and watching/mocking the Miss USA pageant.

When Kenz and I finally arrived back at the house, we each fell into a deep slumber, aided by the inevitable emotional hangover and exhaustion of the previous few days.


Random photo break:

Apollo (L) and Willow (R) have learned how to effectively beg for food...

...notably this type of food (steaks cooked for me by my father-in-law).

Speaking of fathers-in-law, did I mention mine trusts me to drive his '69 Stingray around town?

I got to stop by Bearden's wrestling practice a few times to visit with longtime friend, teammate, and co-coach, Donnie.

We ate breakfast with Lucy.

Badgering the in-laws! 

Surprise breakfast picture!
Kenz sitting in front of her own chalk drawing at a local Knoxville restaurant.

Dinner with Rob & Casey - a candidate for most flattering picture of this entire post.

Kenz's creation: (veggie) Bacon, lettuce, tomato, and jalapeño pimento cheese on a bagel. 

West Town Mall has segway security

Creepy ad? Or creepiest ad?


Kenz and I knew this trip would be closer to a workcation than a vacation. Each of us had various deadlines and assignments to keep up with during the week, but still found time for various adventures here and there. Kenz's adventures were usually spent sunbathing poolside; mine were a bit more out of the house.

I was telling Brian that I was pretty curious about this whole "Costco thing" when he mentioned he had a membership. I toured around with the type of speed and fascination that I usually reserve for the British Museum. 

The place is massive.

We spent a solid 20 minutes at this machine (for sale), ignoring the envious stares of young boys with their parents.

I look like a tired mom. 
We got to go over to the Bushman's for dinner midweek. It was primarily jokes, backyard games, food, and laughter [translated: it was great]. Pauline and Nathan's home reminds me of a Norman Rockwell painting; they're the quintessential American family. Mark busies himself sharing stories about school and bringing us all his new toys while Charlie fiddle farts around, too young to talk and obnoxiously adorable - all while Nathan and Pauline tag-team dinner prep, setting the table, and making sure the family dog stays out of trouble.

Pauline and I share the exact same birthday. The very first thing she said to me when we came into the kitchen was, "so, how do we feel about turning 30?" I had successfully gone an entire day without thinking about it up to that point and was essentially speechless (me, speechless!). We shared in morbid dread at the impending birthday, doing our best to console each other.

I got to enjoy the rare feeling of knowing Kenz was planning a surprise birthday party for Pauline while we were over there for dinner. There were no hints or clues given - just that smug feeling of knowing that Pauline was going to be surprised two days before our birthday. More on that later.

Mark, chasing Roxy, as Nathan watches Charlie climb the playset.

Salmon, pork, mozz'n'tomato, rice, and fruit salad!

Nathan and Mark play catch, Kenz and Pauline observe, Roxy thinks dog thoughts, all while lil Charlie sleeps.

Kenz flew out to Myrtle Beach for a bachelorette party that weekend (she was in the second wedding). I stayed in Knoxville and had my friends, Jason and Kimberly, come up from Chattanooga for a visit. It hadn't rained in several days, and we were planning on spending all day Saturday playing disc golf. As luck would have it, the one day the rain came was Saturday. We improvised.

J & K roll prepared!

Friday night dinner with friends.

We ate veggies and mixed nuts for a 4-hour breakfast under the covered porch as the rain fell.

We called up Rob & Casey and told them to meet us at the movie theatre. But, beforehand, we had to grab some sneak-em-in-snacks. I was reminded how the US comes correct with Halloween preparation.

I'd forgotten about candy corn. I bought a bag without hesitation.

I wondered how many people bought treats in September, only to have eaten them before Oct. 31st.

Kimberly found the exact thing she was looking for.

The theatre concessions had been upgraded as well. Anything you want, fried. Anything.

Post-movie lunch

Robert is a luminary of fashion: strips & plaids all day long.
Luckily, the rain had abated by the time the movie was over and we spent the rest of the day on the disc golf course. It was one of those days where the hours seemed like minutes. We were all aghast when, after arriving on the course at 3pm, we checked our watches to find that it was already 7pm.

One more meal before the Chattanoogans head out. All we do is eat? Yea, kinda. 

While I was getting muddy on the course, Kenz was keeping the bride company in SC.

You'd think that, after our Dulles debacle, Kenz would have better luck with flights. That was not the case. I was scheduled to pick her up at 3:20pm on Sunday afternoon, after having gone over to Kara & Jerry's to watch the NASCAR race. In the same moment, Patti told me Kenz's flight was delayed for an hour and Kara asked if I could push back my arrival until 2pm. Great, I thought, at least I won't wear out my welcome at Kara's. 

By the time I had left to go to their house, Kenz, Patti, and I had shared about five phone calls, debating the options Kenz had: the flight got cancelled. She could stay in Myrtle for another night, she could ride with Kathryn back to Raleigh and rent a car from there, she could fly to Atlanta and rent a car from there, or she could coerce one of the bridesmaids to drive her to Florence, SC to catch an evening flight back to Knoxville. She chose the latter and wound up spending the entire afternoon sitting outside the (comically small) Florence airport, reading her book. She had been dropped off at 1pm; her flight was at 6pm. Her connecting flight in Charlotte was delayed as well. She didn't land until 10:45pm. She could've just driven back from Myrtle and gotten home faster (but, after an 8 hour drive from DC on our first night and knowing we'd have a 6 hour drive to Raleigh the next weekend, that wasn't an attractive option).

I went over to Kara and Jerry's to watch the race. Then we ate linner. And then I helped Kara with some arts and crafts project she had for work. And then I watched a bit more TV. I finally did realize it was 8pm on a Sunday evening and I was likely wearing out my welcome. I drove back to the Gibson's, watched the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad (as it aired, for a change), and finally went to pick Kenz up from the airport.

Kara's favorite new house toy: the nest. Don't ask. 

We spend most of our time laughing at each other. And ourselves. Yes, that's a cow table.
Jerry spent most of his time post-race doing home improvement projects. That man is constantly tinkering. His DIY knowledge is unparalleled.

This was about the time I realized I should get going.

Kenz was happy to have finally returned to her Apollo.

Another random photo break:

Brian and I speed hiked House Mountain one afternoon in about an hour.

House Mountain selfie.

The types of steaks Gibby cooks for me.

Again, House Mountain
Kenz and I met her Uncle Bobby and Aunt Kathy for lunch one afternoon. We dipped into the Beef Jerky Outlet because America. Regretfully, I forgot to take a picture of the four of us.

We decided to get Owen a bottle of Ass Blaster hot sauce. It comes in a wooden outhouse.

Stay classy, bumper sticker.

Street preachin'

North Carolina gas station: Yes they are No you can't

North Carolina gas station

NC gas station

NC gas station

A different NC gas station

The second NC gas station. 

Another mall segway cop.

Another steak cooked especially for me by Gibby.
Wacky wavy inflatable-arm flailing tube man!


Our final full (scheduled) weekend in town was spent traveling to North Carolina for Kathryn & Josh's wedding, in which Kenz was a bridesmaid. As we pulled into Raleigh, Kenz and I restarted our age-old debate about whether or not Raleigh is awesome:

Me: I love Raleigh. I miss it.
Her: I hate Raleigh. Raleigh sucks.

That's about it. I don't think we'll move back there anytime soon.

Kenz's road trip specialty. She can name every seasonal Little Debbie cake variant.
We arrived with just enough time to shower and iron clothes before the rehearsal dinner. Kathryn was Kenz's closest friend in Raleigh, and the two have maintained a relationship since we've moved. We got to meet Josh for the first time last September when we visited for an altogether different wedding.

Josh & Kathryn
Dinner was catered by a local BBQ place, and there was a ton of food. As I was making my way through the buffet line, my eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas Day when I saw the banana pudding on the dessert table. The caterer saw my reaction and smiled as I said, stone cold, eyes deadlocked on his, pointing at the pudding, in the most serious tone he'd ever heard, "I'll be back for that."

Thirty seconds after sitting down with my food, an entire plate of nanner pudding appeared over my left shoulder, descending toward the table, and was placed directly in front of my (rudely overfilled) dinner plate. Equally astonished, grateful, and proud, I looked up at that man and briefly considered giving him a hug. Not only was there as much banana pudding on that plate as there was dinner on my plate, but he had also made sure to include an absurd amount of nilla wafers. Essentially, this man had reminded me of God's love.

Half of our dinner table hadn't yet returned with their food. They arrived, one by one, and each gave poorly-hidden sideways glances at my plate of pudding. I beamed like a proud father.

There wound up being leftovers. I took a styrofoam "to-go" full of BBQ, fried chicken, hush puppies, potato salad, and slaw. And I took an entirely separate (but equally large) "to-go" case full of pudding. When it comes to banana pudding, I don't front.

Our rehearsal dinner table
The next day, as Kenz participated in wedding festivities (hair, nails, makeup, etc.) with the bride and other bridesmaids, I headed into downtown Raleigh to meet my friend, Nicolette, from NCSU. She's living and teaching in Raleigh, and we get together each time I'm in town. Her entire family is awesome. And her entire family loves bluegrass the way I love banana pudding. And it just so happened that Raleigh was hosting the International Bluegrass Festival, soooo... I got to say "hi" to her whole fam before they scuttled off to see a ticketed event. Theirs is a family that can make anyone welcome.

Nicolette and I stayed out on the main street that was hosting free live music and burned through two hours of conversation without either of us taking a breath. Before we knew it, it was time for me to get back for the wedding.

Acoustic jam session while waiting for a sound check.

Way more people than I expected to see.

Some 12 year-old killing it on a side stage.

Sneak attack!

Sir Walter Raleigh, oft decorated for events, holds a banjo.
To discredit Kenz's assertion that Raleigh sucks: on that Saturday, there was a 5K Color Run, the International Bluegrass Festival, and an NCSU football game. Raleigh's got it going on. I don't care who ya are.

The wedding went off without a hitch. Another bridesmaid's husband, Jeff, and I sat together as we husbands of bridesmaids at weddings wherein we know essentially no one are wont to do. I tried my best to make Kenz laugh as she walked down the aisle. She knows better than to look at me.

Bride & Groom!
I love Protestant weddings: twenty minutes of ceremony and an entire nighttime of food and dance. The reception was at the University Club. As I walked in (alone - Kenz was taking pictures), I wondered how many universities have clubs. NCSU's is pretty cool. Katharyn and Josh are both members of the Wolfpack. Go Pack!

First dance.

Yum dinner - syrup covered sweet potatoes as a side!
A quick touchup. 
I was worried they'd run out of cupcakes until I saw reinforcements being brought from the kitchen (really, I was mortified that they'd run out of cupcakes, evinced by the fact that I was the first adult to grab one).
After dinner, we danced for two hours straight.

Kenz, Katharyn, and photo-bombing-maid-of-honor-Karla.

I don't think I've ever seen a sign like this at a wedding. I like it.

Kenz shows a cupcake who is boss. 
After the reception, I left Kenz with the rest of the wedding party downstairs in the hotel's bar and crashed hard. The next morning, I woke up to find out she'd ordered late night pizza and eaten it quietly as I slept. Of course, I'd done the exact same thing the night before with my to-go banana pudding and BBQ, so...

Sunday brunch was with Tom and Kayla at Big Ed's, a well regarded local farm-to-table establishment.

Raleigh, aka Oak City

We got in early, knowing it gets way too crowded on the weekends. The line for a table was only six people deep when we arrived.

Tom & Kayla
Tom was a year ahead of me at NCSU. When I was visiting as a potential student, he took the time to make sure I felt welcome and answered any questions I had about the department. The following summer, as we were moving to Raleigh, he invited me to partner up with him on an independent research project. Within an hour of our first meeting, he and I realized we were aligned on virtually everything from food to hobbies to politics to research interests.

In fact, we even approach ordering meals with the same strategy: see what the wife is getting first. If she's getting what you want to try, great. If she's not, try and convince her to get this other thing that you want (but don't want to waste an entire order on) so that you can get the original thing that you wanted before that other thing caught your eye.

Kayla and Kenz refused to play our games, so Tom and I ordered that extra thing we both wanted. Sweet, I know. We wanted half a pancake and some corned beef hash on the side (c'mon, where else do you find a friend that shares in the love of cat food/corned beef hash? You gotta keep ahold of a friend like that!). We saw that the pancakes were called "The Big One" and that if you could eat three (on your own), you got them for free. We scoffed at the idea there could be a pancake large enough that one couldn't easily put three away. It wasn't until our food arrived that we realized how serious a pancake this was.

That's one

London is rubbing off on me. I ordered fried catfish. I had never ordered fried fish in the US before. Ever. 
We opted out of this purchase

As we left, the line was out the door.

Clear eyes, full tummies, can't lose! 
It took about thirty minutes for Kenz to fall asleep on a belly full of Big Ed's egg'n'cheese biscuits.

We'd left Raleigh, but wouldn't return to Knoxville for yet another day. Our plan was to stop in Highlands, NC to visit Dad & Mel. The drive into Highlands is great. About twenty miles after exiting the highway, you begin to get into the real Appalachians [Read: sparsely populated, windy roads as well as undeniably stereotype-confirming sights/structures/people]. Kenz and I always tell people we're "from the mountains" while in London, but there's the mountains and then there's the mountains:

Two bits of context about North Carolina before this next unnecessary vignette:

1. Upon your first DWI offense, you'll lose your driver's license for a year. If you get arrested for DWI a second time within three years of your first arrest, you lose your license for four years.
2. You don't have to own a valid driver's license in order to own/operate a moped.

I learned this during one of my many summers working at a camp in Hendersonville. When I noted the disproportionate amount of mopeds on the town's roads, my (local) friend schooled me on the state DWI/moped situation, them's liquorcycles.

Kenz and I had exited the highway for a DQ pit stop when she noticed that there were three liquorcycles within the .1 miles from the highway to the DQ. I explained the law, we shared a collective "huh" because neither of us had anything more to say about the topic, and then promptly forgot about it.

DQ pit stop. Man, is this a food blog?
But, then, after about an hour, we pulled off the highway to begin the final leg of the trip (which is a series of roads, funneling down from 4 lanes/55mph to 2 lanes/40mph to the final 2 lane/30mph winding backroad). As soon as we turned off the exit lane, I had to slam on my brakes in order to avoid crushing into the back end of a liquorcycle, complete with two bubbas riding tandem on the exhausted, coughing moped, up a hill. 

Five minutes later, at the bottom of a massive hill, we pulled to a stop as the traffic light had just gone from yellow to red. And then we heard it:


We turned to our right to find the liquorcycle bubbas careening down the hill, at maximum speed, unable to stop, blowing through the red light, barely avoiding collision with left-turning traffic. I turned to Kenz, "this is the mountains."

Enjoying the mother-in-law's drop top.
We arrived, safe and sound, and immediately began playing with the new kitten, Jack.

Five minutes after that, Kenz learned that you could feed the ducks at the local pond/lake (plake? lond? whatever). She was a kid in a candy store with a bowlful of crushed corn.

The queen of faces, at it again. 
If I could be any animal, it'd be a duck: they can swim, walk, and fly. What's not to love?

The ducks got pushed out by the geese and Kenz very nearly had a nervous breakdown, not knowing how to escape.

Jack helps with computer problems.
The four of us enjoyed a yummy dinner and spent the evening relaxing and catching up on everything under the sun (including the folks' favorite new TV show). It was exactly what the doctor ordered after a busy weekend of wedding festivities.

Dinner time!
Couch time!
The next morning, Dad and I strolled down to the local breakfast shop for two hours of biscuits, gravy, bacon, eggs, coffee, and a multitude of conversation topics. It was grand.

Afterward, the four of us did what you do in a lil NC mountain town: walked around and window shopped.

Kenz continues to be powerless over any dog she encounters (I looove you, doggie!)

Shakespeare and Company bookshop (a Floridian woman who collects/sells used books).


Pond/lake sans ducks

Puzzle time!

Email time! 
We eventually got back on the road, somewhat reluctantly, feeling refreshed, relaxed, and wanting maybe just another night of the company and quiet, cool mountain air. But, alas, we were headed into our final week, had work to do and errands to run.


As I previously noted, McKenzie had been planning a surprise birthday party for Pauline. It was scheduled to happen on Wednesday night. The original plan was for Pauline to arrive at 7pm, but Kenz told me, day of, that the plan had changed to 8pm. Apparently Pauline's work meeting was pushed back an hour. Brian and I made plans to hike House Mountain (the tallest "peak" in Knox County 2,100 feet above sea level) again, because the first time was too rushed and we never made it to a lookout. As I got in Brian's car, I mentioned that I needed to be back early enough to help set up for the party (I had a chore list from Patti):

Me: Yea, if you could get me back by 6:00pm, that'd be great. (I wanted two hours to shower and complete my chore list)
Him: We've got all day. No need to worry about time.
Me: Sure...but 6 would be great. I'll need to shower and help set up.
Him: 6:30 - 7. You'll be fine. Shower doesn't take that long.
Me: OK, but I think 6 would be best...
Him: 6:30. Don't worry about it.

I let it slide. Brian and I have discussed driving time estimates (for fun, because we're nerds) for nearly a decade. He estimates 8 minutes when I estimate 12. I figured this was just another situation where we simply disagreed on how long it would take to get back, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it made me slightly nervous. I didn't want to be the son-in-law who didn't get back in enough time to help set up for the party. And I knew I'd be sweatier than a ... I knew I'd be sweaty upon return. I need my time. I need my punctuality. But, whatever. It was essentially my last day to do some intrinsically Knoxville activity (save the lunch we scheduled with Craig the next day), so I refused to stress too much about it.

We had the trail to ourselves all day. There are two lookouts on the top of the mountain; we went to both.

The first lookout isn't as impressive as the second.

The second lookout
We had lunch at the second lookout, spending upward of two hours, eating, listening to music, swatting stink bugs, and building pipe dreams.

We eventually left, leaving the rock to a recently-arrived trio of boisterous hikers. My punctuality-driven stress had retuned by the time we got back to the car. Kenz had asked me to call her when we were leaving so that she could tell me to pick up any party supplies that she may have forgotten.

Her: Bag of ice.
Me: Done, no worries. We'll be home shortly.
Brian (interrupting): Well, I gotta grab a few things before I drop you off.
WTF? Brian has to run errands on his way back to drop me off? Who runs errands while dropping someone off?
Me: Well, Brian says he has to grab a few things. I may be running a bit late. But I'll be sure to do my chores first. 
Her: No worries. Take all the time you need. I already did your chores. 
She's such a sweeet wife. 
Me: (to Brian) Dude, we got the green light. All I need to do is shower. We got time for whatever.
Him: We're headed to Market Square. I wanna drop by that Knoxville t-shirt store.
Me: (yawn)
Him: And get coffee.
Me: Awesome.

We were surprised to find that Knoxville now has a street performer - a painted man posing as a green Army action figure, complete with a green piece of wood for his feet.

I asked his business partner how much he rakes in: $200 on a Saturday with the farmer's market.

We eventually made it to the t-shirt shop. I browsed around, checking out the recent additions (I already own 3 of their shirts - they're comfortable and they rep hard). I saw one that had the logo of the '82 World's Fair and mentioned to Brian that this would be the one I'd buy if I were him. He grabbed it, bought it, and promptly handed it to me, "Happy Birthday." I had no clue that's why we were in the store. Boss maneuver.

We finally made our way back out west to the Gibson's house, sweaty and smelling the part. Brian had asked if I was going to get to see Mom'n'Tom while I was in town. "Not this trip, unfortunately. There just wasn't enough time - each weekend was already booked, the weekdays were spent working, and most weeknights had been tied up trying to scramble around to see Knox folks. It'll be ok, though, we'll get to see them in December."

Brian reminded me of the bag of ice I'd forgotten. When we pulled into the cul-de-sac, I noticed that there were way too many cars lining the street. Kenz was in the driveway. I got nervous - Pauline was definitely going to notice the cars. We pulled into the driveway and Kenz approached us, looking over our shoulders.

Her: They're here. They're pulling in right now.
Me: Shit! I've got this bag of ice right in my hands! And I haven't taken a shower yet! I'm so sorry! You said take all the time we need. I thought you said the party was at 8. It's only 7!
Her: I know. Pauline's work meeting finished early.

I tried to hide the bag of ice behind my back as Pauline, Nathan, and Mary Anne (Pauline's sister) approached. We all exchanged awkward hugs. I felt horrible. Here I was, ruining Pauline's surprise, Brian's awkwardly walking down the driveway with us, into a party he's surely not been invited to, and I'm still disgustingly covered in sweat and some surely obnoxious man musk.

We rounded the corner to the back patio for the big reveal: there were tables all set, decked out in birthday signs, cards, appetizers, etc., but no one was downstairs. Then I looked up on the deck. Oh, I thought, as I saw a few of Pauline's friends, they're waiting to surprise her from the deck. Two seconds after that, a swath of forty or so people rushed to the rail and yelled, "Surprise!"

It wasn't until that happened did I realize half of them were my friends. What the hell are they doing here? They don't know Pau - ooooh shit. This is for both of us! I looked to my left to see Brian filming our reaction on his phone. That asshole was in on it! That's why he argued arrival time with me!

McKenzie told me she was throwing a surprise party for Pauline. She'd invited Pauline to a surprise party for me. Neither of us thought twice about it. I was aghast, speechless (again, I know! Me! Speechless!).

And then Kenz grabbed my hand and yanked me over to the basement - out came Mom'n'Tom! They'd driven in from South Carolina. As soon as we finished hugging, I turned around and saw Nancy Rucker's glowing face - she'd flown in from Charlotte, NC! The next twenty minutes was a series of smug faces hugging me, happy to have been in on one truly effective surprise party. It's strange to be the victim/subject of a surprise like this. You prepare for one thing and, all of a sudden, you're in the midst of a swarm of people, trying to navigate the inundation of attention. You want to be able to thank everyone for taking the time to come to the party, but you're still reeling from the fact that the party is happening in the first place. It's heady. I didn't get used to the idea that this was our party for at least an hour. All the Knoxville faces were there - for both Pauline and I.

Not only was it a great birthday party but, for me, a wonderful opportunity to say goodbye one last time before Kenz and I flew back to Londontown. McKenzie Gibson: queen of power moves...and faces.

Birthday buds: celebrating together since 2000.
My phone battery was on its last leg, so I didn't get the opportunity to take many pictures of my own (otherwise I'd have a picture of everyone that attended being forced to side-hug my sweaty back). We had a hugagous dinner of fried chicken, ribs, green beans, potato salad, and slaw. And cupcakes!

Mom, Tom, Kara, and Jerry


Brian and Craig got me a pair of shoes but wrapped each in a separate box. As if I needed to be messed with.


Tandem candle extinguishing!

Later in the evening, once folks had had their fill and wished us one last "happy birthday," the remaining partygoers learned a lil gambling game. That's right. We had a few epic rounds of the dice game.

Brian explains the rules.

Nance got accosted by Murphy.

(A sliver of) Nathan, Kara, Jerry, Jenae, Kenz, and Patti.

Patti, Mary Ann, and Pauline.


Mom, Tom, (a sliver of) Nancy, and Nathan.
Queen of Faces won the first pot of the night.

And her mom won the second pot. A family affair!

Mary Ann (aka Jude Law) fell asleep amidst the yelling of round two, to everyone's disbelief.
Mom'n'Tom gifted us new copies of the same cookbooks I got them back when I was 12 years old: 365 ways to cook chicken & 365 ways to cook pasta. These reign as the best birthday gifts I ever gave anyone.

As I walked Pauline to her car, the two of us agreed that it's pretty badass that we share the same birthday. We've got another friend from high school who has the same birthday and my niece, Lucy, has the same birthday as well. But this particular one was especially sweet. Pauline is Kenz's best friend. And Pauline was the one who played matchmaker for Kenz and I; she invited me out to lunch with the two of them as we shared our annual birthday phone call eight years ago (and subsequently coached me into drawing up the requisite courage to ask Kenz out on an actual date). Turning 30 was something neither of us was looking forward to, but we got to do it together - right along with Kenz, the 26-days-younger woman who we both adore - all because of the party she'd deviously orchestrated behind our backs.

"I felt like I was having an affair with Nathan and Brian planning it all! I even had to break into your computer to find email addresses! I had to tell Pauline 7 and you 8 because I knew you'd want to be early! There were so many lies, David. I didn't think I could hold it all together!" - Kenz

The next morning, Kenz and I had Cracker Barrell brunch with the out-of-town partiers: Mom, Tom, and Nancy.

This is likely the worst picture of this entire post. Sorry I didn't get a better one. Whoops!


I spent Thursday packing and having lunch with these two dudes. 

Friday was the last hurrah before our Saturday flight back across the ocean. The Gibsons loaded us up in the truck and we headed 60 miles north to Hickory Creek Farms, home to family friends, Terry and Jane. I've posted pictures of our visits to the farm before, but this stuff never gets old.

Gibby is ready!

Kenz and I promptly took the RZR out for a spin.

Unloading shotguns, pistols, .22 rifles, and an AR-15.

Looking out toward the shooting range.

Terry's favorite thing to say to us: Hey, we've only got one problem. We got too much ammo and gasoline. Let's go burn some up! 

With 800 acres that back up to a 250k acre reserve, you'd be hard pressed not to find a way to burn through some gasoline. And, with a seemingly unlimited supply of clay pigeons, the same holds true for the ammo (despite the fact that few of us can actually hit the clay birds. Terry's second favorite thing to say (after a miss): Well, that bird's safe!).

Kenz sported the do-rag to protect her recently applied green/red/purple hair dye.

Terry showcased the new guns in the arsenal.

The bullet for the AR-15.

He also recently got two remote-controlled, automatically loading traps. He positioned them to criss-cross.

Kenz peruses her options as Terry continues to get set up.

Just enjoying the quiet of the mountains.

Which way are they gonna be coming from?

Kenz was the best of the day: 8 in a row and 10 for 12.

Gibby has a try.

My best was 4 in a row. I swear it didn't bother me that Kenz "won".

More folks arrived not long after us. Kieth and his daughter, Alex, showed up ready for action. And, in a surprising turn of events, Whitney got out of her class early and promptly sped all the way to the farm. She got there just in time to do that which scares her the most: shoot guns.

Kieth, Terry, and Gibby

Terry is, of course, exceptional at shooting.


Jane had a custom iPhone case made for Terry. This is, by far, the coolest phone case I've ever seen. Yea, that's an elk. They reintroduce them from Alaska into these mountains (where they used to live as well).

Whitney, scared of a .22.

She had a bit more reason to be reticent about the AR. It's loud.

Alex stepped up like a boss. No hesitation. Itchy trigger finger.

Oh, nothing, just sorting a multitude of weapons. And ammo.

She's wearing the appropriate TN flag shirt.

The neighbor's dog, Olly, spends the weekends on the farm (he's good at begging for scraps).
After an hour or so of shooting, it was time to load up in the various 4WD vehicles and take a 20-30 mile ride out through the hills toward the waterfall. Everyone divvied up and headed out.

Patti & Gibby

Kieth and Alex took the UT vehicle.

Whit rode solo on the ATV

Kenz and I rode in style, in the RZR, which had a radio. We blasted the only radio station we got: country.

I decided it was too cold to jump in.
The ride out is usually relatively safe. We take our time and don't get caught up in too many bogs. It's by design - Terry and Jane want to make sure everyone gets re-acquainted with how to drive on the trails and whatnot. But we leave on a different, much more muddy trail. Kenz had opted to ride on the ATV with her sister. The two of them promptly got stuck in a mudhole.

That wouldn't've been such a big deal. It's happened before, in fact.

This time, however, the girls had stirred up an underground bee's nest. All of a sudden Terry began darting around like his pants were on fire. He then yanked the girls off the ATV and they scurried away. Whit escaped. Kenz got hit once. Terry got tagged six times. 

Oh shit, bees!

Kenz and Whit continued to struggle in the mud, even on their own two feet.
Not long after that, Patti and Gibby slid sideways into a ditch, broke the windshield, and very nearly flipped over. Kieth and I rushed out to help pull the right side back to the ground. It was hilarious. Kenz, Whit, and Patti proceeded to give Gibby hell for being a bad driver (it wasn't entirely his fault) as Terry, Gibby, and Jane figured out how to fix the windshield. Keith and Alex watched. I took pictures.

Kenz's muddy feet.

The end of the trail has a watering hole. The girls got in to wash the mud off. Kenz had the brilliant idea to try and take Whitney down. It didn't work out for either of them. I held my breath, knowing these two often start out with smiles and laughter but finish with absolute meltdowns. Luckily for everyone, they resolved the stalemate amicably.

Kenz's horrible "I'm going to get you" poker face.

Seriously, takedown efforts ensued.
We finished the evening with more photos and a hamburger dinner, complete with (candy corn!) birthday cake.

I was the only one that ate a piece. Happy birthday me!

Gracious hosts, Jane & Terry.

Whitney never did get fully clean before the ride home.


And then, so soon, it was Saturday. We packed up, weighed bags, said goodbye to the dogs, and rode out to the airport. 

The "Can we take him with us" face. 

This Xmas gift has been passed back and forth between Patti, Whitney, McKenzie, and I for about four years now. They wrapped it in a huge box one year - to trick me - and we've been hiding it in each others' beds, pillows, purses, and suitcases ever since. Kenz found it in her purse once we'd passed through security.

What a great trip, we thought. Time to get back to London, we thought. But Kenz decided she wanted to score a turkey. Or a hat trick. Whatever you want to call it when you go three for three. After spending four hours in McGhee Tyson, listening to announcements about our flight to Chicago being delayed for thirty minutes, and hour, two hours, and then eventually a "we might leave in an another hour, but it could be longer," we realized we weren't going to make our connection to London.

The "seriously? again?" face.
Rather than spend the night in O'Hare, we opted to just take the next day's flight. But, wait! Kenz's parents went to the (epic) UT vs. UGA football game! Who can we call?

Kara freaking Ashburn! 

Her: Hello?
Me: Whaddap
Her: WHADDAP! I thought you were gone!
Me: Can't make our connection due to delays. You think you could come get us from the airport?
Her: (no hesitation) HEEEEELLLLL YEA! Gimme five minutes and I'm on my way!

The most legit turn of events possible? From cancelled flight to hang out session with the Ashburns!
We wound up getting back to their house in enough time to watch the final fifteen or so minutes of the football game. I've not gone from being that low (cancelled flight) to that high on adrenaline (three 4th down conversions, overtime) to that low again (c'mon, Pig Howard! Keep control of the ball!) in a long time. Crushing defeat.

Seeing as how we weren't flying out until the following evening, Kara and I made plans to get together for a jog the next morning. For the record, I don't advise running with Kara. She's the energizer bunny. Seriously. She just keeps...running. Later this month, she'll be participating in a team-based 24-hour race. She'll run three times in a day. Baller.

The stud tests out her new compression socks. "Yea, I think I'll go for another run this afternoon."
After two glasses of water, two cups of coffee, and about five pieces of bacon with Kara and Jerry, I returned to the Gibson's. We all went out to brunch before they took us back, once again, to the airport.

Thanks for all the love, family!

Kenz got that guy that leans all they way back as soon as he's allowed to.

We returned to some birthday gifts from Owen, which ameliorated the homesickness. (yes, that's Rich Froning on the bday card).

Part of Owen's gift was a bag of the best coffee in London. And we both needed it this week. Each of us hit the ground running. Below is the best summary of our first week back:
mmmmmorning coffeeeeee

Lawdy, that was a long post. If you made it this far, you deserve a high five. Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.