Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mr. and Mrs. Collins go to Washington or "Hey Y'all, is that Where Ol' Barry Lives? "

The weekend of September 19th-20th the Raleigh Collins took a trip to our Nation's fair capital for a visit with Sue and Mark and some sightseeing. Thanks to a little serendipity and great weather, we had the best unplanned trip on record.

Ashley flew up for a week of business meetings and power lunches, and got to spend some time in the Northwest part of the District. I'm pretty sure that in a few weeks photos will appear showing her meeting with lobbyists and congressmen - the legislation in question no doubt addressed the pressing question of universal Cooper suffrage. Canine issues notwithstanding, she found some great restaurants around the 14th St NW area (note: they were all out of our price range for dining; but delicious on someone else's dime none the less)

Casey flew up at the end of the week, and had a small public transit odyssey getting into the city. He flew from RDU to Baltimore (BWI), took the MARC train into Union Station, and then Metro'd and walked to the meeting spot. Air turbulence aside, the trip was fun - too bad Raleigh doesn't have any sort of reliable public transit. We would definitely ride a light rail system if they put one in down here. We ate a tasty lunch at Potenza on H St., where the food tasted as good as the place looked, and headed on down to Sue's office.

We got the high roller's tour at the Department of Education. Literally, the high-Rollers (ha ha, get it Sue?) and headed back out to Springfield, where Sue and Mark live. They were kind enough to tolerate us in their space (or we should say, Noel, their cat, was kind enough to hide so we could invade her space) while we took a whirlwind tour of all things D.C.

First up: The Library of Congress (LOC). Let's get a couple things clear about this LOC, from two library lovers and avid supporters: This ain't your average library. For starters, most of the books are kept in the restricted "card access" only areas. This includes the ever elusive "Rare Books Collection", which of course, is what we wanted to see most. Come to find out, you can obtain an 8-day "readers card" if you say you're doing some sort of "research"... just a heads up for those of you (like us) who wanted the Gold Standard for library cards. On another note, this was Casey's favorite building that he's seen in D.C. The majority of the inside is done up in mosaic tile, with designs honoring the great names in arts, sciences and humanities. We also saw the exhibit of Thomas Jefferson's library that showcases the remaining original books that Ol' T.J. offered to Congress after the original LOC collection was destroyed in the War of 1812. The collection is extremely impressive and varied, and contains many original printings of what are now pieces of classic literature. Jefferson possessed over 6500 volumes at that period is an amazing show of his appreciation of knowledge (and, let's be honest, wealth). When we go back, we're going in that dang reading room. A final note, their Bible collection is pretty cool too.

Next, we took an underground tunnel tour (by mistake and on purpose) to visit the Capitol, where we lucked into getting a tour at just the moment we arrived. After a brief video and summary by our guide of the main parts of the Capitol, we were handed tickets to the House Gallery (Senate was closed that day). See, luckily unplanned! Seeing no legislators in session, we continued on our merry way. On the walk back, we heard a (conspiracy) theory from a restaurant manager about how the beginning video is actually a screening room where Capitol security guards use body scanners on the entire audience to check and make sure no one is carrying any unauthorized ordinance.

After the Capitol tour (and no, no one screamed "You Lie" during our visit), we headed back home to eat dinner a nearby (sort of) Italian place. Sue and Mark are infamous for their "spots" and this one didn't disappoint. Best Fettuccine Alfredo ever - Sue, can you leave a comment with the name of that restaurant?

The next day, we opted for a stop over in the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Pretty neat; but we (of course) got stuck behind a terribly grouchy old man in an over-sized Rascal scooter who kept nudging my (Ashley) heels. After that we visited a place I will now recommend to everyone who visits DC: the Newseum. It is an absolutely fabulous place. Highly interactive (for the ADD folks like us) and had a little bit of everything (from a section of the Berlin Wall, to the Unibomber's hut, to a radio tower from part of the former World Trade Center). Visit it; it's worth $20 and can easily take 5-6 hours to spend the right amount of time in! And, since Mark lost us somewhere on the third floor and we were helped by a museum guide, we got a tour of their working TV studio (more unplanned luck). We didn't see him, but this is the place where George Stephanopoulos shoots his Sunday morning political roundtable.

After coming home, we had bite to eat at Mike's American in Fairfax. Fun atmosphere and good food; but they mixed up my side order of asparagus for beans and tomatoes ... not quite the same. Casey reports that their mashed cauliflower (similar texture to mashed otatoes) were good and their seafood is delicious.

Our last morning, we visited the Smithsonian's most recent offering, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The "national" museum is a bit of a misnomer, since this place showcases native culture and history from across the three Americas. This museum is visually and emotionally stunning, from the architecture to the exhibits. Oriented with respect to the four cardinal directions, every bit of the museum is built with a respect for and integration into nature, even though it stands out from other buildings on the Mall. It's a moving experience to visit - make sure you walk around the grounds outside the building if you go.

After an easy flight home and a slight hiccup at the off-site airport parking lot (the automatic carwash there blew off my side-view mirror), we were back home and rested. The D.C. trip was a fun little jaunt, and we'll definitely be back up again.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Return to Mt. Pisgah

This past weekend (Labor Day weekend), we took the pups (well, the big two) back up to Mt. Pisgah/ National Forest for a few days of hiking, site-seeing and fresh air.

Cooper, AKA: Mr. Too-fat-to-hike, stayed at Grandma Toni's house all weekend; where we were told that he "Earned a Hamburger"... I'm not even going to comment on how he earned a hamburger; aside from saying... if Cooper has a talent, it's certainly his ability to persuade food to come his way (for a prime example, visit the previous entry involving a NY Strip).

Anyway, back to main story...

Case and I took Arnold and Mattie back to Mt. Pisgah Family Campground. It's located off of milepost 408 off the Blue Ridge Parkway and is AWESOME. We reserved a campsite back in June; so we were able to take our time getting to the campground, resting assured our spot was waiting on us. (Note: previously, we drove up at 4 a.m. and by chance, parked ourselves in the VERY last available spot). This year's campsite D12 was great. Tucked up behind a grove of mountian laurel and pine; our spot was elevated, private and very great for the dogs.

Arnold, in fact, thought so much of it that he snuck out of the tent on the first night. This revelation played out a little something like this:

Casey wakes up: "Uh, where's Arnold"

Ashley wakes up (takes out ear plugs): "Is that a joke? What do you mean 'where's Arnold'? He's next to Mattie"
Casey: "Uh, no he's not. Is he over next to you?"
Ashley: "Casey, we're in a 6x6 tent, where next to me would he be laying?"
Casey: "Well, he's not next to me or Mattie... wait, why is the tent open?"

Both of us (plus Mattie) hurridly crawled out of the tent to find Arnold laying at the top of the site; smiling. Jerkface. Apparently, Arnold wanted to get back to nature, and sleep under the stars. He even made himself a nice little dugout nest.
Anyway, the rest of the weekend went by beautifully. We found several blueberry thickets along each day's hike; which was a great surprise. We probably ate 2 pints of berries walking along the trails.

Mattie also got to try out her new "hiking boots"; which are just booties we bought to go over her front two paws; which are irritated from her allergies. They turned out to be God sends because they kept her from losing her footing in wet/slippery spots and kept the mud out of her paws. Also, an added benefit is that the booties kept her from breaking her legs walking around Daddy's overly-Pledged, deathtrapped floors.
Arnold acted like a Tourette's Syndrome kid and spazzed out when we put a pair on him. Needless to say we didn't make him wear them hiking.

All in all, Mt. Pisgah continues to be one of our favorite North Carolina destinations. This year, we ventured a little further into part of the Shining Rock Wilderness and part of the Art Loeb trail. It's quiet, refreshing and just plain relaxing to be there. And since there were no black bear encounters this year, we left with a little more confidence for our next trip. We're thinking of taking a short overnight backpack excursion here in the near future. We'll at least come next summer for all the blueberries.

We packed up camp and headed back to Stately Rankin Manor, where we were greeted by a very content Cooper. I mean, after all, he had a hamburger, a bed to sleep in and the leather chair to nap in. If he had a glass of scotch and cigar it may have been Heaven to him.

We celebrated Lilly's 2nd Birthday with ice cream, cake and hamburger meat for the pups; and pizza, ice cream and cake for the humans.

It was a good weekend had by all apparently.

Check out our online album for some more shots

Stay tuned for updates on the DC trip and general info on our lives (not like it's that exciting!)

Friday, August 28, 2009

August Synopsis

It's been a while since we had a good post, so here's the catch-up post:

We kicked off the month with several veterinary visits in a few days. Dr. Regina visited Mattie for yet another round of treatments for her ear infections and allergy issues, and Cooper for a slightly scarier procedure - a tumor removal from his abdomen. While Ashley had a nervous week in anticipation of her "baby boy" going under the knife, Cooper eagerly anticipated the surgery and tooth-cleaning for his reward. I'm pretty sure that this is the only house that cooks their tiny black dog a rare strip steak after a doctor's visit. As you can see, he was quite excited about it. He also got to have a "doggie cigar" and a glass of scotch with that, but Arnold made us take that photo down since he's a bit of a teetotaler.

Casey's taken several trips to South Carolina for work, which resulted in a few good photos. Here's one from Clemson's Death Valley - obviously this summer before the start of football season. Though the picture doesn't show it, this stadium seems massive to be located in the middle of campus (as opposed to Carter-Finley situated out at the fairgrounds). Not too shabby of a facility, although we still remain quite partial to the ole' State College grounds.

Here's a few other photos just for fun. See if you can guess where they were taken from:

In other news, our crazy neighbor continues to mow our grass - and"mowing" is a stretch - cutting the lawn at several different heights, mowing some areas and forgetting others, and completely ignoring our requests to let us take care of our own landscaping.

Speaking of which, our quite fertile backyard produced several volunteers this summer, most notably five cherry tomato plants and several types of basil. During July and August, we were averaging about four pints of small tomatoes per week, with about another two pints rotting on the vine! This was a nice surprise, given that our intentionally cultivated larger varieties produced hardly anything, and our planter-box herb garden was supplemented nicely. Needless to say, we ran out of ideas for things to do with cherry tomatoes, and resorted to giving away a lot of the bumper crop.

Joe and Toni joined us for the NC Beer, Bourbon, and Barbecue festival on August 15th - it was a pretty fun event, although mixing all three of those in the dog days' sunshine resulted in just a touch of seasonal discomfort. I hope the event planners can move it back a month or so in the coming years. Sweating and "glowing" aside, it was a fun time, and we even got some small commemorative glasses.

The master bath is coming along, and we'll have a complete wrap-up post and picture gallery once it's finally finished. We'll also post about our Labor Day camping trip to Mt. Pisgah, and in a week or so, expect a report of our odyssey to our nation's capital to visit some of the clan currently residing in that area!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Baking Illustrated Challange... is it even possible?

So, this month's bookclub book was Julie and Julia. Basically, (for those who haven't read it or seen the movie) this lady, Julie Powell, dedicates a year of her life to cooking all 524 recipes in Juilia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Since I'm hosting bookclub this month at our home, I've been trying to get my hands on an used copy of the book to make it a 'theme night'. So far, no luck; but that's where Google is very helpful. I'll post pictures and an update on what I end up cooking (BTW: Bookclub isn't until August 26, so I have a little time to plan)

It got me thinking... maybe I should attempt to bake my way through Cook's Illustrated: Baking Encyclopedia. Is this crazy or even possible? We'll have to have volunteers from our friends, neighbors (well, maybe not them) and homeless people to help eat it all, that's for sure.

Anyway, we've both started new books this past week (well, I finished mine two nights ago). Casey is reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 6 got him hooked) and The Last Fish Tale by Mark Kurlansky. I was reading The Lovely Bones. It was good, a little wierd, but had a really interesting take on what Heaven will be like. I won't spoil it for those who want to read; but I do recommend it.

Also, this weekend is going to be awesome. Daddy and Toni are coming to Raleigh to attend the NC Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival with us. 40 types of bourbon, 60 types of beer and tons of BBQ. Could it get any better? We'll post pictures and a few thoughts on Sunday.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Happy Birthday Aunt Sue!

Just a quick note to say "Happy Birthday" to my dear Aunt Sue. Sorry we're so slack and can't remember to call but we'll put the card in the mail this week!! We love you!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

biscuits, babies and brunch

We literally haven't been doing anything fun or exciting for the past few days. Mainly work, work and more work.

For those that didn't know, I (Ashley) recently started a new job within Syngenta handling internal communications. The new job is a great step towards my ultimate career goal of science writing and communications; but right now its really busy. Actually, to say it's really busy is an understatement. Its insane; but I asked for it so secretly, no matter how crazy it gets, I love it.

Casey's job is just as hectic. This past week, he was on a business trip and went on a version of Le Tour, but instead of Le Tour de France, he went on the Le Tour de South Carolina in his truck. Not nearly as glamorous. He's been working hard drumming up business for his company and sales guys with new projects happening right and left.

Also, our house-cleaner moved back to Wisconsin. That's really just rubbing salt in the wound!

To top it off, we've also re-started the "no sweets except on Sundays" policy; which has yet to last a full seven days. This means, on top of being crazy busy with our BlackBerries surgically attached to our hands in a house that reeks of dog hair and dust, we've also been cranky from either: 1) Sugar withdrawals or 2) Guilty consciences from sneaking Skittles when no one is looking.

So-- I tell you all of this this to say: WE NEEDED A BREAK. We capitalized on this weekend to catch up on some much needed R&R. This meant: BlackBerries in hibernation, kayaks hung back on their precisely-engineered (thanks, Casey) pulley system racks, no biking, running, hiking or otherwise tiring activities and no plans. It was fabulous. Really.

Saturday, we got up and tried out a new restaurant near NCSU. We had breakfast at the Flying Biscuit Cafe. (Sue, this was in honor of you!) For those that are unfamiliar with this Atlanta-born cafe: it's a hipster-esque, quaint, little restaurant in Cameron Village that serves a "healthy" and fresh version of breakfast all day (but with less sodium and bacon grease than Cracker Barrel). Overall, the food was pretty good (buttermilk pancakes and egg over easy with tomatillo salsa and blackbean cake) but it was SLAMMED and Casey says that his biscuit was sorely undercooked and gooey.

Afterwards, we took a trip to the NC State Farmers' Market and Whole Foods. We've been really trying to stick by a couple of policies surrounding our purchases lately:
  • Buy Local when possible
  • Buy fresh, whole foods (read: no Cheetos, processed Lean Cuisines or frozen burritos-- much to my dismay)
  • Buy environmentally sustainable products when possible (cleaning products, household goods, etc.).
Shopping at the Farmers Market each weekend enables us to meet two of the three criteria. After all that public interaction (it wears us out!) we took a nap and cooked a delicious new recipe for dinner. We should also mention that the Johnston County farmers grow some of the best canteloupe ever.

Sunday, we took brunch over to see our favorite set of triplets and their parents-- Eva and Jay. We can't say enough good things about the Melameds. They're the closest thing to family we have nearby and their kids are really cute. The Trips have moved to pureed foods now, so we got to help out with the lunchtime feeding of macerated chicken, cauliflower and apples. Yum. After we got home, we spent a little time picking up the dumpster that is our home and lounged.

See, I told you we didn't do anything fun. We're heading to see Harry Potter this weekend in IMAX and saying goodbye to our good friends James and Amy Goody (collectively called "The Goodys) who are moving to Texas next week.

PS: Where are the comments? I know we have more than just our parents and Sue reading... anybody out there?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Neuse River Day Trip

Today we took a trip down the Neuse River in the kayaks - the first time on the river with the new boats, and the first time off of flat water. Ashley, in her yet-to-be-named pink boat, and I, in the trusty "Cooper II," set off right below the Falls Dam at the south end of Falls Lake for an eleven-mile paddle. We were excited to go and expecting good things - the weather was fantastic, low humidity and such, and with the rain last night the river looked to be sufficiently high and swift enough to avoid bottoming out. As we were told by the guys at Paddle Creek (the kayak/canoe shop across from the dam, who frequently lead tours), "bro, the river is at like 250 right now!" We have no clue what this meant, but with such enthusiasm it had to be good.

Luckily, the excitable canoe guide was right - the river was running clear, and for the most part, moving at a decent pace and depth. There were a few shallow spots (the Neuse doesn't really widen up until you get closer to the coast), a good amount of logs, and a few small rapids. Although there's certainly no whitewater, there are enough obstacles in the water to keep things interesting. FYI, here is the rating system for river/rapid difficulty.

As I stated above, we did an 11-mile section of the Neuse, which is easily accessible from City of Raleigh launches, and about as far as you can go in Wake Co. without portaging around a dam. Unfortunately, we don't have many pictures because we don't have a waterproof camera, and aren't too quick getting the camera we do have out of a dry bin. We did see several blue herons and some larger raptors - hawks, ospreys, and what looked like a falcon (though I doubt that's what it was). There are a few old pumping stations, abandoned since the construction of new water system intake pipes and treatment plants, and several storm runoff lines flowing in - though the river is visually clean.

The City of Raleigh maintains the paddle launches (quite well, by the way), and their map and website are here. Next, we'll probably try out the Eno River (near Durham) and South Fork River (near McAdenville).

Sunday, July 12, 2009


It's been way too long since we posted anything, but we've been busy going all around the state for the last month! So let's go in chronological order:

Beach Trip-lets
A few weekends ago we went down to Emerald Isle with all five Melameds and some other friends and family. We had a house full of crazy with nine adults, three infants, two dogs, two kayaks, and one motorboat. It was a surprisingly relaxing and low-stress weekend, and Jay and Casey got the Melamed boat running (after a three-year layup). The highlight and downfall of the trip was the short boat trip we took through sound, which was the triplets' first time out on the water. The hardest part was getting the Trips' into their lifejackets (akin to stuffing a 15-lb sausage into a nylon casing) , but after that they went to sleep with the humming of the engine as we rode along the channel. Zev didn't have a great day in general, but you can't blame him too much - it was hot, sunny, and his bottle was too cold. We did anchor for a bit and let the babies "swim" with assisstance, which they loved. The warm water felt great, and as long as you watched out for oyster shells, it was nice to wade around in. Further trips are definitely warranted.

Ashley Birthday
Fourth of July weekend we went down to McAdenville to celebrate Ashley's birthday with her Dad, Mom and family.On her B-day we went out on Mountain Island Lake (right south of Lake Norman) with cousin Anna and her husband Billy, who ferried us out there on their boat for a relaxing afternoon. We mostly just cruised around - it was a fantastically pristine lake, not at all like Lake Norman or Lake Wylie - saw some wildlife, and stopped briefly on a sandbar to let their two dachshunds out to play.

That evening we had Ashley's birthday dinner at Joe's house, where the menu consisted of skirt steak with chimichurri sauce, rosemary-lemon grilled chicken, grilled squash and zucchini, and a field green salad with creamy lemon-chive vinagrette. We had a good wine from Rag Apple Lassie vineyards , and finished off the meal with a birthday cake and ice cream (Brenda's in Belmont is now highly recommended).

The next day we went back up to Winston for Evan's graduation party, which was highlighted by the attendance of one Mr. John Gruenfelders, a Swiss-born friend and guest of Leah's family. It was not just John's presence, but the interaction between he and Granny that made the occasion. To recall, it went something like this:

John: "Hello, I am John, very nice to meet you."
Granny: "Ooh! You've got an accent! Where are you from?"
John: "Well... it is near Germany..."
Granny: "Ooh, Italy? (No.) Austria? (No.) France? (No). Holland?
John: "No, Switzerland!"
Granny: "Ooh, can you speak some Swiss!? You know, I love The Sound of Music - have you seen it? Do you remember World War Two? You know, that family just escaped right over the border away from the Germans and...

The conversation went on and on, both of them seeming to enjoy it, as they were still seated at the same table when we left two hours later.

We drove back to McAdenville for Michael's birthday celebration, but didn't get to partake because he was Shanghai'd to Tennessee in an attempt to surprise him. That's all we'll say about that.

After that, we headed up the Lincolnton to check out "Ashley's Birthday Fireworks" with the Cook clan. In all seriousness, the city of Lincolnton has the most elaborate fireworks display that I've ever seen. It probably rivals those of D.C. or New York, although really much fancier on a per capita basis. We enjoyed our seventh serving of birthday cake for the day with Karen, Carson, and Jerry, and then called it a night.

Kayak Purchase
When we were down in McAdenville we noticed that several stores were having kayak sales over the Holiday weekend, and we had been in the market for a while - so we went ahead and took the plunge (horrible pun intended). After we got back home and a Raleigh store agreed to match prices we saw down near Charlotte, we got two single boats, one slightly larger for that extra Cooper-carrying capacity that sometimes you just gotta have. We also got the requisite safety equipment and paddles.

Initial Kayak Trip
We took the yak-yaks out this weekend on Lake Crabtree for a try-out. It's about a 225-acre lake, so not too bad for paddling around on Saturday, plus we could get a feel for everything before we go down some rapid rivers. First off, kayaking is a LOT OF FUN. We just tooled around for about two hours, and had a blast. It was extremely windy out there, so the water was choppy enough to be slightly challenging. The lake itself is too close to the airport and RTP to have too much wildlife (save for a few herons, ducks, and catfish, but it's still a great little refuge in the middle of an otherwise developed area. The park is primarily attended for one of the best off-road cycling trails around Raleigh, but there are plenty of small sailboats, kite fliers, and canoe and kayak paddlers out too.

We had enough fun Saturday that we went out Sunday too. Cooper will give his impressions as soon as we find his lifejacket and can take him out.

We plan to spend the next few weekends at home-- finally finishing up that bathroom project and home projects that we've been backshelving for the past year. This coming weekend, though, we plan to take a day paddle down the Neuse or Eno Rivers. Also, we're heading out to see Bruno with the Melameds, Cecelia and other friends. We've been neglecting them all for so long; we are having to relearn how to interact with others besides each other for a while :)

By the way, if you have good boat names for the kayaks, please leave them in the comments!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Today we had a little Sunday brunch to catch up with some folks now that we had a weekend back in town. Ashley made a delicious baked French toast dish (Sue, the gauntlet has been thrown down), a quiche, and some fresh berries and cream. Absolutely delicious, and enough food for an entire day. She also channeled her inner Betsy and laid out some nice small flower arrangements cut from the deck garden.

The Melamed babies were in attendance, raising the cuteness factor of the gathering by a factor of two to three Coopers each. Towards the end we let the dogs out to see their interaction with the Triplameds; Cooper, aside from being upset that they were on his couch, could not have been less interested. Arnold didn't pay them much attention because they're not mobile, and Mattie was convinced that baby foot tastes like ice cream, and thus, should be licked repeatedly.

The weekend was otherwise relaxing but uneventful. We got the house cleaned up, and Casey continued to work on the master bathroom renovation - we're almost ready for the tile to go up. He also weeded about half of the garden - no small challenge since it's been growing wild since this spring. We at least have proof that we've got very fertile soil in our beds. Next weekend we'll finish weeding and plant, probably with corn, squash, zucchini, and bush beans, and some marigolds to keep out the dang rabbits and bugs.

This week Casey has a business trip to Charleston (hopefully coming back with some good pictures). Ashley's trying out working from home this week while they get her trailer (seriously) office ready at work. We've got the National Weather Service on speed-dial just in case a tornado looks like it's coming through to tear up the Syngenta trailer park.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

50 years of marriage, canine landscaping and relaxation

So, it's been a while since we've blogged-- mainly because we haven't done anything (really, we mean ANYTHING) since we got back from Peru.

That being said; we did manage a trip back to McAdenville this past weekend to help celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my (Ashley) great uncle and aunt- Dick and Judy.

Dick (my grandfather Rufus' brother) and his wife Judy have always been a staple in the Rankin Family. Just ask my Dad. They were practically second parents to his sibilings and him. In fact, as we found out this weekend, my father and his cousins essentially had their own little "Lost Boys" pack who caused chaos on the streets of McAdenville. We wish them another 50 years of happiness. On another note, Ashley's aunt Sue and uncle Mark flew in for the little lunchtime gala, which is always a good time and good conversation.

Our dogs (yes, all three) came along for the stay at stately Rankin Manor, and that will never happen again. They essentially got themselves banished for 1) stirring up trouble with the Chihuahuas (that's a two-sided thing), 2) digging up flowers in Toni's garden while blazing a through-the-center-of-the-Earth trail to China, and 3) throwing dirt all over the patio, coming dangerously close to the pool. Other than that, the weekend went well, since leaving all three outside meant they ended up very tired at the end of each day. In the meantime, Cooper and Mattie would like us to join with Aunt Sue in reminding Grandpa Joe that well-polished hardwood floors are not exactly "dog-friendly." Though they do appreciate his hospitality and leather recliner.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Day Four Entry

Waking up on day four at Phuyupatamarka ( we found ourselves with an absolutely beautiful view of Salkantay, the second-highest mountain in Peru. One of our guides (Freddy) told us that typically it's too cloudy to see it, but it is truly a beauty to behold - make sure to check out the pictures.

I have to mention at this point that things were a little shaky politically back down in the towns and villages. David pulled us aside on the third night at Phuyupatamarka to tell us that several porters and guides were hearing news of a indigenous worker's strike set to begin the day we were returning to Cusco - and in fact, might prevent our return to town. The day before we arrived we just missed a farmer's strike, and there was a protest parade in the main plaza in Cusco the first day we got there (which we artfully avoided and stayed in the hotel). Peru has a lot of socioeconomic/ class warfare problems, which are certainly not helped by the fact that the current president Alan Garcia went into a self-imposed exile in the 1980's, waited until the statute of limitations expired for the crimes he committed, and returned recently to be re-elected to the presidency. The farmers, who were protesting over the improper use of rivers and other natural resources, are generally peaceful and simple people, but we err on the side of caution where mobs are concerned.

Anyways, the hike on day four was relatively easy. Starting at around 3200 m, we descended to the Intipata ruin site, and continued on to Winaywayna, which is essentially the last trail control point before Machupicchu. Winaywayna (the hiking stop) actually has some semblance of modernity, with electricicty, showers, and a bar. Winaywayna (the ruin site) also served as a checkpoint/ rest stop for Quechua messengers running throughout the empire. It also served as an agricultural production site that supported the priests and artisan classes living at Machupicchu.

Continuing from Winaywayna, the trail falls and rises a few more km's through sub-tropical rainforest until you reach the sharp, vertical climb to Intipunku, the Sun Gate and final Inca checkpoint. From here, you can see the amazing wonder that is Machupicchu. It should be noted that Intipunku also served an important astronomical purpose for the Incan calendar - during the winter solstice, the sun passes over Intipunku and through the middle window in the Temple of the Sun (in Machupicchu).

After about 45 minutes more of hiking and a few hundred meters descent, we arrived in Machupicchu! I know this seems a bit anticlimactic, but it's much better for everyone to view the picutres here than for us to write about it. It certainly is a breathtaking place and we have no words to do justice to this New World Wonder. We were lucky to have a private tour with David - who is a native Quechuan and has studied extensively the ancient culture and the entire Incan Sacred Valley - to offer significant insight into each individual structure at Machupicchu.

Here we have to revisit the conversation about the strike (please note that for the majority of the following events, we didn't take pictures because it could have really stirred things up). We had to cut out our next-day visit to Machupicchu short because the workers' strike was imminent. It essentially came down to the choice of 1) Being stuck in Aguas Calientes (the closest town to the archaeological site) for two extra days with more expensive lodging, fewer supplies, and much less safety, or 2) Leaving Aguas Calientes on the last train and hopefully getting back to Cusco and staying in the hotel. We opted for option 2 on the advice of David and Carlos. It became immediately clear that this was the best option after we arrived in Aguas Calientes - when we stepped off the bus we were greeted (literally) by Amazonian tribesmen who had apparently miscommunicated with the strike organizers and showed up a day early. These men, who were carrying spears and bows with their signs, were sitting on the train tracks stopping the trains from going out. This was strange, even for the locals, because Aguas Calientes is probably over 1000 miles from their home (there has been some suspicion that Hugo Chavez is behind their efforts, providing transportation and signs printed in english, despite the fact that most of the natives don't speak even Spanish as a first language, let alone read and write in another).

There was no violence, and many of the natives were friendly, so we calmly went about our business of eating our first restaurant meal in four days - Casey had lomo saltado (kind of like a beef and vegetable sautee), and Ashley ate a Peruvian-style hamburger (plain, of course), and both enjoyed a cold Fanta and a Cusquena. A table away our guides were eating, and we later found out that David had been in talks with the strike leader to see if he could get our group out of town - otherwise, we would need to hole up in the hotel and hope to stay out of the way. Aguas Calientes is a very small town - it literally has about a half-mile stretch of shops and hotels, all situated one way by the Urubamba river, and another by the railroad tracks. David was also negotiating to get us (himself included) train tickets out on the 9:10 PM train - no easy feat because the PeruRail tickets are usually booked up well in advance by hikers, and it was the last scheduled train for three days, thanks to the transportation workers also scheduled to strike. We finished dinner and strolled around town a bit, visited an internet cafe, and had some ice cream. Upon our return to the street, we found out that David and Carlos had gotten us onto the train, and David had talked the workers into leaving the tracks to let the train pass!

We went to the train station, where the National Police had also been called out to escort tourists onto the train and to keep things safe (if necessary). We ended up waiting for the train until about midnight, when it finally pulled into the station. We're not sure exactly what happened between nine and midnight, but we think the rail workers needed some convincing to keep working, and to make sure that it would be safe for them to operate the train, and that there would be no more strikers sitting on the track. We arrived by train in Ollantaytambo around 2 AM, and got on a bus for the hour and a half ride to Cusco. Getting out of town and onto the highway was no problem, but once we neared Cusco the bus got a police escort to get down into the valley where the city is situated - the road down to Cusco is very narrow, cuts through several rundown neighborhoods, and is poorly marked.

At 4 AM we got back to the hotel, where we took much-needed showers and finally slept in a bed! We didn't wake up until 1:00 in the afternoon, and spent the rest of the day packing up and walking through town. We found out later that protests in the morning at the Plaza de Armas had shut the city down.

To finish this up, we'll say the following: Although these protests were not reported by any mainstream media (the Peruvian government has broad censorship powers), we were there to see it and are glad that we did. It prevented us from having a second day at Machupicchu, but it also gave us some exposure to things that happen in the world that we would have otherwise not been aware of. Plus, we really got to spend some extra time with David and have some really great conversations about his work and things that he's passionate about. Politics aside (and with hopes that Chavez is not behind this, as he certainly has a selfish agenda), there are some horrible working conditions and horrible treatment of natives in Peru, and we don't wish that on anyone.

Day Three Entry

Monday, May 25th

Day Three started out MUCH better than the previous day. We had the most amazing pancakes and dulce de leche that we've ever had. After a short but very strenuous climb out of the valley we camped in, we got to tour several Incan Ruin sites along the hike.

The first was called "Runkuraqay"(the image above). Because the Incans didn't have a written language, it is assumed that this (and the other spots we saw on Day 3) were used as 'rest stops' and control points for messengers running between Cusco (the Incan Capital) and the 'mini-capitals' (called "Tambos") like Machupicchu. These messengers would carry a series of knots and dyed llama wool to help communicate important warnings or messenges.

The Incan Rulers used the Tambos as a way to expand and build their empire. By building tambos and control stops in the valleys that sit in between rocky mountians, they were able to see the messengers and/or enemies coming well in advance and also have a place for Incan governers to reside and rule from.

Also, we noticed that all of the Incan Ruins were built with all the doors and windows in a slight, trapizoidal shape. In fact, we were told that all Incan doors and windows are built with an exact angle between 13-14 degrees. They believe that this was to help protect against damage from earthquakes; which, whether by coincidence or not, occur in Peru every 50 years. The Incans believed that nature should never be tampered with and built their structures and paths around natural elements (like giant stones or lakes) often, including them into their intended buildings.

The second half of day three took us through part of the sub-tropical rainforest here where we saw a lot of different plant and flower varieties. Also, the path (which was part of the original Incan stonepath) took us through several natural caves and tunnels. Its really amazing to think that this was the same path that was used over 500 years ago!

We arrived at our campsite just before sunset and were treated to the most spectacular views I've ever seen. Our site was located just on the edge of a mountain cliff (above the cloud lines) and it looked as if we were literally on the edge of the world! The clouds settled in over the nearby mountains and we could also see the back side of Machupicchu Mountain from here. At night, the stars were breathtaking. We felt like we could just reach up our hands and grab one, we were so close. We even saw about a dozen or so shooting stars.

Day Two

Sunday, May 24th

Day Two started after a night in our first campsite. Firstly, I have to tell you a funny story about what happened in the middle of the night. Typical Ashley...

Around 11Pm (or around 4 hours after going to sleep!) Ashley had to get up and go to the bathroom. It was very dark, very quiet and the bathroom (and by bathroom, we mean, hole in the ground with a shack built around it) was three terraces down from our tent. She couldn't find her glasses, and was in a hurry, so she just went out with a flashlight/headlamp and without good vision. Just as she was about to reach the bottom terrace where the Bathroom Shack was, she saw movement. She tried to shine light on whatever it was and saw two hind legs, a swishing tail, and two beady eyes reflecting the the flashlight beam. Not having her glasses on, she ran back to the tent to get Casey to escort her and protect her from what clearly was a Puma (the only really dangerous animal that lives in the Andes). With Casey by her side, they walked back down to find not a puma... but a small, miniature horse munching absentmindedly at some nearby grass! Apparently, our campsite butted up to a villager's farmland. Needless to say, the guides didn't let that one die.

After the night's adventures, we woke up to hot tea served at our tent and were cooked a delicious filling breakfast of porridge, omelets and toast (I told you, the porters were awesome). Then we began our hike. To be honest, and fair, we were forewarned about how the second day's hike could be very difficult. We could have paid the porters about 50 soles (or less than $20) but decided to "rough it" and carry our own packs. Immediately, it was a choice we regretted.

Just as we left our comfy campsite, we began the long, difficult climb to the highest part of the Inca Trail: Dead Woman's Pass. At 4215 meters in altitude (13,829ft), we were dizzy, dehydrated, tired and breathless when we reached the summit. Literally, every step for the first half of the day was uphill and sometimes, a sharp vertical climb. It was a test of both mental and physical endurance. Just as we could see the top of the Pass, I didn't think we would be able to finish it. The last 15 meters were practically a vertical climb up a rock ladder.

Needless to say, when we did finally summit, inch by inch, sometimes literally crawling, we took a much needed and well earned break to enjoy the breathtaking view from the top. Local tradition is to carry a small pebble from the bottom of the Pass and place it on top of the piles when you summit. We did this and then, sat down for a long, long while.

What we didn't realize was that, after the break; we would begin an even more difficult and harder descent into the valley below, where our campsite was being set up. What took us nearly 5 hours to climb, would take us another 3 hours to descend. I never knew that climbing down stairs could wear out your knees and legs as much as it did!

By the time we reach the bottom (which should have been in time for lunch but we reached it around 4PM), Casey had a migraine from dehydration and I was so ill and tired that we both just retreated to our tent and relaxed. That night, we camped in the valley below Dead Woman's Pass at an altitude of around 3200m. The photo at the top is the view from our tent on the morning of Day 3. We got to see sunrise over the nearby mountains.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Camino Inca - Day One Travel Journal

Today we started the Inca Trail. After waking up at 5AM, and eating a quick breakfast of cheese, toast and coffee, we met David (our tour guide) and the NC State Group at the Hotel Garcilaso. We saw Carlos Schwalb again (the organizer for Casey's study abroad trip) and he say all was well with his family and the Study Abroad Program.

Leaving from the Hotel, we took about an hour and forty minute bus ride to Ollantaytambo to get a few supplies (Gatorade, bathroom breaks, and coca leaves). We also picked up a walking stick and some choclo, which is a large-kerneled maize varitey that is native to the Andes.

The Inca Trail (or at least the most popular part) Trailhead begins at a location known as "Kilometer 82", where we passed through a checkpoint and crossed the Urubabma River and were on our way. Because the Inca Trail is so popular, the Peruvian Government only allows a maximum of 500 people a day to begin. This number includes Trail Guides, Porters and Hikers so if you're thinking about going, you should expect to reserve your trail permit at least 3-4 months in advance during the busy season (May-September).

The first few km's were relativley easy and offer a great view of Mount Veronica. Mt. Veronica is so named for the first person to climb it (An Australian Lady, named Veronica). At over 6,000 meters, it's snow-capped year round.

Back in the valley, we bagan our short ascent for the day, followed by a few up and down climbs that followed the river.

Passing by two Incan Ruin Sites (used as agricultural centers to support the Royals/priests that lived in Machupicchu) and several small villages (where you can buy water, fruit and even Gatorade), we were able to see alot of the Peruvian Mountian wildlife. During the 11km hike on Day one, we saw more varieties of chickens and several types of short-legged horses (better to climb the mountians with). Most of the people here appear to be of native descent and live a subsistence life; but all are very friendly and happy.

Our last few Km's were over a sharp climb that lead us over a small mountian and down to the first campsite. The porters (mainly native people hired to carry supplies for the group) had already run ahead (literally) and set up the tents on the terraced hillside. They were also already preparing dinner when we arrived around 6:00PM.

We ate a delicious dinner of vegetable soup, a plate of rice, potato and stuffed pepper. Because of the altitude, it's easier to digest a vegetarian diet, so our meals consisted of mostly starches. Of course, the night was capped off by sevearal cups of tea.

The view of the stars here is amazing. No picture or words could ever describe the sight of the stars on the first night. Without the presence of light pollution that we see so frequently near the cities, we were able to see constellations and even the Milky Way! Also, we could see the Southern Cross. Everything here is magnified: Taller, Steeper, Bigger, Sharper.

(LINK WORKS NOW) Pictures are posted: Here!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Safely Off El Camino Inca

Just a short post to let everyone know that we made it safely and successfully through the Inca Trail! We're currently at an internet café in Aguas Calientes, which is the closest town to Machu Picchu, where we finished the trail. The only word to describe the hike is "AMAZING." This has truly been a life-changing journey, and we can't wait to share the pictures with everyone. We kept a travel journal along the way, and we will post details and pictures as soon as we can, which will probably be this weekend since all camera batteries are dead and internet connections are not as fast as in the U.S.

We will be riding the train back to Cusco tonight to reclaim the belongings we left at the hotel (and to shower!) and will then start preparing for the trip home. We'll probably be spending an extra day in Cusco, as it looks like the flight times have changed - not to worry though, we'll be safe and we have travel insurance. This means that no, Moms, you do not need to call the Embassy. We'll call everyone when our plans are confirmed and when we are boarding planes. Or maybe we'll just stay and live here!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pasamos el tiempo en Cusco

Hi everyone-just a quick update from Cusco before we head out on the Inca Trail tomorrow(leaving at 6 AM for the trailhead at Ollyantaytambo!

Last night, on the advice of our guide David Tejada, we went to see a theatrical production at the Cusco Cultural Center. The show was a music and dance production of ancient Incan ceremonies, folklore, and history. The costumes featured some extremely scary masks and very colorful garb, and the dancers were accompanied by some great live music. One of the musicians might actually be the oldest Incan man alive, but played a mean fiddle. Note: Susie, you would have loved this show!

We ate dinner at a random restaurant, which was chosen because there were only Peruvians dining there, so you know it was the real thing. They eat a lot of grains, including quinoa, rice, and oddly enough huge portions of pasta with vegetables. In total, we spent about 50 Soles (about $18) for more food than we should have eaten and two Cusqueña beers.

Even crossing to a different continent over 3000 miles away, we learned that we cannot escape dogs barking to wake us up. Although the strays aren't in our room, it sounded like an entire pack migrated to the sidewalk outside of our window. We'd also like to thank the construction workers restoring some ancient stonework for their efforts in getting us up on time (These were the only people in the city working that early, as the rest of Cusco doesn't really start moving until about 10 AM.

We spent today at the artisanal market finding some souveniers for us and everyone else that sent a request, but you'll have to wait until we get home to find out what you're getting. Ashley's favorite find was the type of giant shawl used to haul things on your back, including but not limted to: corn, coca leaves, human babies, hay, and alpaca calves. After shopping we ate lunch and then found a great ice cream shop, which was actually our #2 choice. We were disappointed that the #1 shop in all of Cusco is out of business (as relayed to us by a kind elderly shopkeeper), but the ice cream was more than plentiful and included papaya at the bottom. To Casey's delight, our Latin American adventures continue to include lots of delicious fruit.

We are adjusting to the altitude, feeling more like our old selves instead of needing to take a breather after climbing one flight of stairs. At over 11000 feet, the headaches and general malaise were worse than expected, but are lessening just in time for the hike. The coca leaves help, as do the steroids provided by our doctors.

The weather today started extremely cold, turning to extremely warm, and then back to very cold tonight, with a little bit of rain and clouds mixed in throughout. Once we're on the trail, it's expected to be much colder (25-30 F) at night, so we're glad to have good sleeping bags and new alpaca toboggans.

That's all for now, we're going to eat our delicious bakery treats for dessert (we Collins know a good Pastelería regardless of the country) and pack up for the hike tomorrow. We'll write in a few days if we can find a cafe in Aguas Calientes (the nearest town to Machu Picchu) and post pictures as soon as we can! We love you all, leave comments if you can (that includes you Joe Rankin)!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Estamos Aqui

Dear family and friends,
We made it here, to Cusco safely. Actually, the trip so far has been amazing. Our flight from RDU to Atlanta was kicked off by the captian saying that to make up for the fact that we were running behind, he was going to <> no, not kidding.

The flight from Atlanta to Lima was very smooth and we were delighted to find that each seat had its own personal entertainment center so we could choose movies. Then we spent the night, literally, in the Lima Airport for 5 hours, where we alternated sleeping and guarding the bags. When we get to a better internet cafe, we´ll update the picture gallery.

Our tour guide, David Tejada, met us at the Cusco airport and took us to the hotel. We cannot say enough nice things about David and his hospitality. How often do you get to come to a different continent and be welcomed as if you were returning home to old friends? Tonight we´re going to an Incan music show in the town square. We have been eyeballing several great souveniors for everyone and of course for us!!

Ashley is having a hard time deciding which to adopt more of: The stray dogs (of which there are plenty) or tiny, precious Peruvian children. Seriously, they are the cutest kids on the planet. Sorry, Melameds.

Brian Potter: Dwayne has already had several fun adventures with pictures to prove it. Including but not limited to: SLeeping in the airport and Drinking Cusqueña beer. Also, he may or may not be taking a ride on a tiny alpaca toy.

The altitude is killing us, but we{re hoping a good nights sleep will help tomorrow. Plan B is to take a few of the meds that we brought to help combat it.

Tomorrow, we are going on a short tour of the city here and the nearby Incan ruins. HOpefully we can find a better internet cafe with a more functional keyboard.

Miss you all and we{ll update more tomorrow if we can. We start the hike on Saturday and will out of touch until Wednesday.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Busy Bees

The past few weeks have been really busy for us. Here are just a few things we've been up to-
Evan (Casey's brother) graduated from Appalachian State University last Saturday. This means, aside from seeing Evan and Leah receive their diplomas, we also got spend a little time in Boone.
Thanks to a generous invitation from the Browns (Casey's cousins) we spent the night at their mountain top home with the following for our wake-up view. We missed western NC more than anything when we saw this.
We proudly watched Evan graduate and then headed on down to McAdenville for a last visit at stately Rankin Manor before the Peru trip. We checked out the mega-garden down there, where Master Gardener Paw-Paw (Ashley's step-granddad) has more vegetables growing then the entire extended family could eat: corn, squash, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes, onions, herbs, and more. He's also got a few varieties of chickens in a henhouse - where he found and killed two blacksnakes eating eggs.

The rest of the week was pretty boring, as Casey was in Columbia, SC for meetings until Friday - this meant that I (Ashley) had to spend the last triathlon training sessions alone.

But boy, did those last minute trainings pay off. We did it! In under two hours, we completed my first/Casey's third triathalon. After getting kicked in the face and swallowing half the pool's water, being passed by all but about 10 people on the bike course, and (suprisingly) breezing through the run portion... we crossed the finish line. Together. I have to say, we'll be back doing more after Peru. Matching Tri Suits are optional:
Today, (Sunday) we cooked brunch (baked French toast--thanks Ann for the idea, berries and whipped cream and cherry cream cheese muffins) for our dear friends Eva and Jay (and the triplets). They don't make outings very often with the trips (understandably, with three kids; it takes A LOT of planning) so we were very flattered that they stopped in at our house on their way to the beach for Memorial Day. We weren't able to make it to Jay's suprise birthday party last night, so this was a good Plan B to celebrate with them before we left. While Casey had fun entertaining Sarah as we ate, we all took shifts holding all the babies. Being around the trips makes us want to start planning for our own babies someday and also serves as the best form of birth control ever. (Just kidding, they're really cute and snuggly) Besides, who wouldn't want to have babies with a guy that uses his finger as a pacifier.

After they left for their family vacation, we started packing for ours. We finally get to start loading up our backpacks for our trip to Peru. Packing for a trip in which we'll be away from most modern conviences poses a lot of challenges. There's a fine line between taking too many clothes, taking the perfect amount, and not taking enough that really, its just unsanitary. We called in Head Safety Officer Arnold to inspect the bags and to offer the proper ergonomic analysis for "real-world" scenarios - you know, in case we get attacked by llamas.
Be sure to check our picture page (click here) for more pictures of the past week and also, check back to our blog on Thursday or Friday. We'll try to blog and update when we get to Cusco and before we start the hike. In a place that barely has a hospital, you can rest assured, there will be more internet cafes then New York City. Not kidding.

Nos vemos en Peru, nuestra familia.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Updates are coming, we promise!!

As if you couldn't tell already... We're BUSY!!

Between App State Graduation, Mother's Day, business trips and triathlon and Peru Trip anxiety attacks... we haven't had time to post much on here.

But rest assured dear friends, we've got pictures lined up and words ready to write.

Updates coming this weekend before we leave for our "adventure vacation" next Wednesday. Get ready... it's sure to be a LOOOOOONNNGG entry.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Deliverance (on the Haw River)

Since the weather was so nice (we hit 92 F last Saturday), and we had already planned it, we went to the Yee Haw Paddle event on the Haw River for a short kayaking adventure. Even though we've driven across it probably a thousand times over the last decade on trips to W-S, Lincolnton, and McAdenville we've never noticed much about before (Interstate 40 crosses the river near Graham, and the town of Haw River has an exit also).

We were planning this excursion with our friends Curt (and his cousin Brandon), and Meghan (and another friend) for a few weeks. After a tandem kayak rental from Paddle Creek, we drove the 45 minutes to Swepsonville. Arriving at the festival, we weren't expecting much, because parking for the event was at the sewage treatment plant. Seriously. All smells aside and a limited knowledge of wastewater treatment facilities, it was a nice place, and if you're in the area they have free mulch and wood chips.

We loaded the kayaks onto the shuttle trailer and hopped in the van, where the event staff rode us up to the starting point at Red Slide Park, so we'd finish closer to where we parked. I can't find any history on this event, but it may have been the first time they've put anything together. But I'm glad they did - the event staff were very friendly and knowledgeable, consisting of college kids, old kayakers and canoers, soccer moms, and the occasional nutball old hippie environmentalist.

The paddle trail starts off near an old Cone Mills plant, and there's evidence of a demolished dam that makes for a tricky start. All of the concrete in the water made for some fast moving rapids, but a lot of fun! There were no big drops, but plenty of rocks to dodge, limbs to get stuck on, and bridge pylons to steer around. The Haw was generally much swifter than the Neuse. Everyone made it down the river safely, although Meghan and Nikki got stuck on some rocks and got swamped (not a problem though, it was shallow enough to wade safely). All were in good spirits after a quick meet-up at Tyler's Taproom on the way home (family, if we ever have an excuse to take you over to Durham together, we'll go to the American Tobacco District).

The picture to the left generally sums up the rest of the weekend. The newly-purchased hammock played a central role, in which we both took turns napping, reading, and eating ice cream while swaying in the hot breeze. It was a nice respite from cold and rainy, and we also got to enjoy our new deck vegetation. For those keeping score, the hammock ranks in the top five of all purchases ever made (that list also includes the iPhone, bicycles, backpacks, and Cooper - Mattie and Arnold were adopted free of charge).

In other news, Ashley finished reading the entire Shopaholic series in about a week, since Confessions of a Shopaholic was her book club book for this month. Note that book club is one part book discussion, one part sangria and five parts gossip. Casey went to Iowa for a work trip (about 12 hours in Iowa, and 18 hours in the Atlanta airport), and to Boone for a work trip. The picture to the right is Pilot Mtn, as viewed from the Rag Apple Lassie vineyards in Boonville (he stopped there on the way back home).

Also we got our vaccinations for our Peru Trip from a travel clinic called Passport Health. Hepatitis A, Typhoid Fever, Tdap and Yellow Fever prevention were never so painful (and horribly expensive) but really, its probably better to play this one safe than sorry. As expected, Ashley happened to be one of the 3 of 100 that get side effects from the vaccines.

This weekend, aside from joining up for a group run on Saturday morning at Fleet Feet Sports (followed by mimosas and free food at Whole Foods) we're not going to be up to much.

Its the last free weekend we have before our much hyped May activities. We were thinking of having a cookout but all our friends are up to other things and it would just be us (which is ok too). So, if you're reading this and want to see us before we leave call or just stop in. We'll be here (as usual).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect

This weekend we practiced for several things in hopes of perfecting our techniques for upcoming events--

1- Triathlon: Surprise, surprise we're still training for the tri. In less than 28 days we'll be swimming, biking and running for real in my (Ashley) first and Casey's third triathlon at the Statesville Rotary Tri. We knew we had a few other things to get done on Saturday so taking a 30 mile bike ride wasn't in the plans, so we decided on a short, 15 mile course. About 2/3 way through however, we noticed signs for "Detour" and "Road Closed"... naturally, we just ignored them and as you can see in the photo, we inadvertently took ourselves on a dicey little path. By "road closed" they really meant "road demolished, take this steel beam over a small creek"...

2- Gardening: Because we'll be gone for so long in May and because of Raleigh's unpredictable Spring weather, we're delaying the start of our big veggie garden for a few weeks. That being said-- we had the Old McDonald bug and were itching to plant something! So, as a compromise, we planted some herbs, a couple tomatoes, peppers, a strawberry plant in pots on the deck and a blueberry bush (in the yard). We also did a general 'spruce up' of the back deck and all in all, made it a really nice place to enjoy our Lilly's Pizza (where they will either forget to make your pizza totally or make it right away and then tell you to come in 30 mins; but it's so delicious, we just deal with those minor inconveniences) margaritas and homemade strawberry pie on Saturday night!

3- Kayaking: Yes, I'm serious. Somehow, my co-workers have convinced me to try a kayaking trip this coming weekend on the Haw River (Called the "Yee-Haw River Paddle").

Now, to fully appreciate how rediculous this really is, you need to know two things-- one: I almost died in a whitewater rafting trip in high school on the New River (needless to say, I'm a little hesitant around fast moving water) and two: when I told my father about going on the paddle trip, his first response was "Make sure you have on a life vest, you're not a very good swimmer." Enough said.

So, before we signed ourselves up for a 5 hour rapid-filled adventure without having ever laid eyes on a kayak, we thought it best to try out a 1.5 hour "quick-trip" on the much calmer Neuse River. Thanks to Paddle Creek boat rentals, we were able to accomplish this (all inclusive) for $25.

After that little trip, we registered for the 3 hour "Family Paddle" this weekend, as both of our shoulders were worn out, we nearly got divorced because of my spastic and erradic paddling and because I nearly flipped the boat (twice) in still water. Really, its much safter all around.

Check back later for updates and pictures on that!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Link to our photos

So, we figured out how to link to our photos from various trips, adventures, etc. Click here to visit our web albums.

Alternatively, you (read: Joe Rankin) can copy and paste this link: for the photos as well.

Updates this weekend, we promise-- bike trip, brick workouts (which I've been informed are comprised of running and biking, so I may need a stretcher afterward) and garden prep.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Trail Hounds (warning - really long post)

This past weekend we took at camping trip to Stone Mountain State Park, up in the northwest corner of NC. Though it's still east of the Blue Ridge Mountains (only by about ten miles), it offered us a nice cool-weather camping stay and some hikes at a decent altitude - the peak is a granite dome that tops out at 2300 feet.

We headed out of Raleigh last Wednesday evening for a brief stopover in Winston where we stocked up on food and dropped off the tiny man (Cooper). He spent the weekend "camping" with Mom and Granny on a few indoor couches (no photos of that, but I'm sure it was hilarious and involved a lot of eating). On Thursday morning, we loaded Mattie and Arnold in the truck and headed out towards the mountains. Since the park is only about an hour and a half drive from Winston-Salem, we arrived early enough for a full day.

We got camp set up, where Mattie promptly made herself comfortable while we had a pre-hike snack (note - Ashley found a new energy bar that doesn't taste or look like poop, Luna Sunrise blueberry bars - they actually do taste like a blueberry pastry). We decided to test out our backpacks for Peru and hike the Stone Mtn. summit trail which takes you to the top of the 600-ft bald dome, and around to a few other cool landmarks in the park.

The 4.5 mile trail only has about a 600-foot elevation gain, it accomplishes that in about 1 mile through a series of switchbacks that take you right up the eastern ridge. As we left from the trailhead, we noticed the wind and vegetation change as soon as we hit the rise. A cool breeze is a nice change from stuffy humidity (already coming on) in Raleigh. Living in the Triangle, we also forgot how many more hemlock trees there are in the western part of the state, which, sadly, show signs of hemlock beetle destruction. Those hemlocks, plus the appearance of mountain laurel and rhododendron, definitely make us feel closer to home. Anyways, we hit the peak of the dome relatively quickly, ate a quick bite, and snapped a few photos. In the background of the picture of Ashley and dogs are the Blue Ridge Mountains. Directly behind her the rock drops off into a sheer face, but the surface makes me think of the moon - there are a lot of pockets and rivulets from water erosion. It's also extremely windy up there, especially with the lack of trees.

On the way back down (careful to avoid some redneck kids who kept running past us and then falling down--cue Safety officer Arnold) the mountain drops sharply, and the trail parallels a very clear and cool stream for a few miles. There's a lot of underbrush, and several places where the trail crosses the creek (plenty of chances for dog drinks). Arnold, of course, knew the exact path to take for optimum efficiency and safety, avoiding slippery moss-covered roots and slick rocks. There were signs identifying the stream as a trout habitat (side note: 7-inch minimum size for keepers, daily limit of 4 fish - sounds like good eatin') but we only saw minnows and tadpoles.

At the base of the dome is the Hutchinson homestead (one barn shown in the picture at the top of this post), which was occupied up until the 60's and was a family's working farm. There's an old tobacco barn, corn crib, cabin, barn, and outhouse (I verified that one personally). There are also a few other deserted homesteads and liquor stills (moonshine country) dotted around as well. Since Thursday was clear, we could see people climbing and rappelling off the rock face.

Towards the end of the trail we saw a bunch of soaked tiny dogs - some carried, some walking on their own, so we knew we had to be closing in on the Stone Mtn. falls. This 200-ft fall looks like a really awesome waterslide, except that you'd crash to your death on the rocks at the bottom. It's neat to see the path that the water has worn in the granite over the years.

To get back to the trailhead, you have to climb up a wooden stairway next to the falls - 279 stairs to be exact. We weren't expecting this and were quite displeased when we realized it was our only way back to the tent! Since dogs and humans were tired after about 7 miles, and the sun was on its way down, we headed back in for the evening and a dinner of hotdogs and hamburgers.

Friday started with a big breakfast of bacon, eggs, and pancakes hot off the grill and campfire, followed quickly by the first rain shower of the day. We decided to go ahead with hiking anyway, with a slight change of plans. The trail we wanted to do was not well marked or mapped, and seeing the storms coming, we didn't want to be stuck at a higher altitude on top of a bald mountian with thunder and lightning while doing a 13-mile trail. We started out back down to the falls, where we could find the spur leading to Wolf Rock & Cedar Rock (two other bald peaks). About two miles into that hike, the rain started again, but with no signs of t-storms (yet). We got to the top of Cedar Rock and had another great view of Stone Mountain. Cedar Rock did have plenty of cedar trees circling the bald spot, but we didn't stay long because the granite was slick, and we heard thunder coming our way. We scampered down, only to have the sun come out when we reached the bottom. Arnold was very thankful to follow all safety procedures.

After reaching the bottom, we followed Big Sandy Creek again to the lower and middle falls trail, where we hoped to see the other two waterfalls. We never found the lower two falls, but Mattie did spend plenty of time in the creek barking at sticks and rocks and fast moving currents. The hike was good, though, and it added another two miles. Heading back to the main trail, we then went back up the 279 steps and headed towards our campsite. On the road back, we ran into a group of young deer, and were able to get within 10 yards of them - very tame.

Concluding about 10 miles of hiking that day, we headed back for dinner - pork tenderloin, silver-dollar potatoes, and green beans cooked over the fire, and dog food w/ pork tenderloin for humans and canines, respectively. We had covered up firewood and collected dry kindling prior to hiking, and quietly noticed that we were one of the few camps with an evening fire. We made sure to get an extra tarp up over the tent since the clouds were coming in lower. No sooner did we get everything under the tarp and in the dry storage bins, that the rain started pouring. Luckily it was still cool, and two wet dogs and two wet people were tolerable only after a long day of hiking. We could see the bright flashes of lightning and hear thunder until well after midnight.

Morning found us relatively dry (surprisingly - not bad for a cheap tent) and safe. The campsite was a muddy mess, and we had to pack up wet gear, but it was a great way to spend a few days. Good for the soul. A return trip is warranted, as soon as the Collie and the 'Rock-wilder" recover. We're attempting to set up a photo site so we can share all our pictures-- so far, its harder than we thought so keep checking for an update on that!