WEDNESDAY:  Elise at The Sweet Onion

WAYNESVILLE, North Carolina—Nestled on a quiet side street among galleries and specialty shops in the thriving downtown of Waynesville, NC (pop. 9,900), the Sweet Onion was an ideal location for us to catch up with my cousin Elise.  Rich wood tones and a spring onion motif decorated a cozy dining room with tables centered around an open-walled kitchen.  The food delivered what the décor promised, starting with the basket of buttery biscuits delivered to the table as soon as we arrived.

GREENSBORO, North Carolina—Before leaving Greensboro on Friday, we had one more stop there on the first course of our Meals on Wheels tour, but there was no food involved.  When we first visited London back in the 1980s, I fell in love with the sturdy little London taxi and wanted to bring one home.  Doing so wasn't feasible for a litany of reasons, not the least of which was the right-side driver seat.  Yet my interest in this iconic vehicle has never diminished.  Indeed, it has only grown each time we've been back to the United Kingdom.  Finally when we were in Edinburgh earlier this year, Ken began to develop an affection for the hackney carriage also.

Lucky 32's chef ferries fresh food from the market to the restaurant.
What a surprise when we saw a London taxi sitting in the parking lot of the Lucky 32 restaurant when we met Marion for lunch on Thursday!  Even though it was painted dark green with fruits and vegetables scattered across the sides, that telltale shape was unmistakable.  Inquiry and a bit of research led us to Baker's Automotive, a Greensboro auto repair shop which has rather accidentally become unofficial headquarters for London Taxis in the USA.

Larry Baker, American guru on the London Taxi
It all started when the Lucky 32 owners decided to purchase a couple of London taxis to ferry guests of their O. Henry Hotel for special events.  After scouring the city for a trained mechanic to maintain the vehicles, they found Larry Baker, not an expert but a very willing learner.  In the process, Larry developed a passion for the bubble top, bug-eyed vehicles.  In 2009, when the official parts supplier for London Taxis in the U.S. decided to close, Larry purchased the inventory.  Now in addition to selling parts, he restores the vehicles and brokers sales.

A North American-adapted London Taxi
An affable ambassador for the vehicle, Larry welcomed us to his shop and spent half an hour educating us about the car and his involvement with it.  By law, taxis in London must have a turning radius no larger than 28 feet so the cabbie can drop off a passenger on one side of the street and pick up another on the opposite side.  In 2003 and 2004, about 275 London taxis were manufactured for the North American market equipped with a left-side driver's seat and compliant with American and Canadian emissions and safety standards.  Efforts to market the vehicle on this side of the Atlantic were unsuccessful because domestic cabs could be had much more cheaply.  So this small inventory continues to be passed around in the niche market of London taxi aficionados.

Passenger compartment
Other than its funky squat appearance and the sheer novelty of the vehicle, the car has numerous appealing features.  These taxis are famously spacious.  In the roomy passenger compartment, the back seat can fit three large adults with space for two additional riders on fold down seats that face the rear.  Clearance from floor to roof is 55 inches—to allow a gentleman to enter without removing his top hat, according to legend.  With a steel body bolted to an ultra strong steel chassis, the 4,500-lb. vehicle is notoriously safe.  Fuel efficiency averages about 30 miles to the gallon, and the car will last a minimum of half a million miles with regular oil and filter changes and not much more in the way of maintenance.

What's not to like?  On top of all these admirable qualities, Larry informed us that a reasonable price for a car he restores to the equivalent of factory certified condition is about $22,000.  We were poised to give him our contact information and ask him to look for a car for us when we realized we had never really seen the front seat/driver compartment of a London taxi.  When we took a peek in the window of one in his shop, our excitement came to a screeching halt.  The space where most vehicles have a front passenger seat is a luggage compartment!  Would one of us really want to ride in the back with the other in the front?  Larry said he could put a fold-down seat there with a seat belt but space is very tight since the integrated frame is steel and can't really be modified.  Well, dang!

Lurching off the London Taxi roller coaster we had been on, we thanked Larry for his time and teaching, and we headed for Raleigh.  On the way, we did a bit of research, hoping we could rent a London Taxi and try it to see if we could make it work.  Oddly enough, the company we found that rents the cars was also in North Carolina!  Now we need to make plans to visit Wilmington.

In recent months, we have attended family events that drew large numbers of relatives.  While we enjoyed the opportunity to visit briefly with everyone, we realized that our interaction with each person was much too brief.  To really catch up, we needed more time with fewer people, not less time with more people.  Hearkening back to our old Polar Express treks to deliver holiday gifts to our nieces and nephews when they were young children, we conceived the Meals on Wheels Tour.

Like our long ago winter whistle-stops in Santa’s footsteps, the idea of the trip would be a brief visit with one family unit only.  To ensure it would not interfere with their regular routine, we would meet them at a restaurant of their choosing.  That way they wouldn’t need to worry about cleaning their house.  The meal would, of course, be at our expense, and at the end of it we would part ways.

After we volunteered to drive our travel buddy Steven to Alabama for a visit with Nanamama, his return home to Tennessee seemed the perfect time to implement the first course of Meals on Wheels.

SUNDAY:  Kathy and Steven at Drake’s

FRANKLIN, Tennessee—It was Easter Sunday, the last day of his spring break, when we drove 13-year-old Steven back home to Franklin, Tennessee.  Rachel had come home from college for the weekend and we just missed her by a few hours, but we’d catch her on another stop.

Fortuitously, we had the opportunity to participate in Steven and Kathy’s clever restaurant lottery game.  Last year, they compiled a list of restaurants in Franklin, and there are many—both local fixtures and regional and national chains.  The names of all these eateries were inscribed on index cards and placed in a bucket.  Each Sunday Kathy and Steven draw three cards from the container and pick one of those three for a meal.  Having three options keeps the game interesting and lively because they still have an element of choice.  The ones not selected are returned to the pail.

Steven and Kathy, a great pair of trivia partners!
As we discovered, today’s options were somewhat limited because several of the places initially selected were closed for the Easter holiday.  Nonetheless, we eventually settled on Drake’s, a Kentucky-based regional chain of sports bars featuring the unusual combination of burgers, sushi and craft beer.  Ample vegetarian choices were on the menu, and the sweet potato waffle fries were the hit of the meal.  We chanced upon Trivia Night, and though we arrived a bit late to be in the official competition, we all enjoyed the challenge of trying to answer the questions. 

The biggest news we learned from Kathy and Steven was about Steven’s plans to attend a special three-week college campus program through the Duke University Center for Summer Studies.  Scoring in the top 1% nationally among seventh graders in math on the ACT was his ticket to eligibility.  This 13-year-old is very excited about getting a taste of college this summer. 

MONDAY:  Alison at Crescent City Po Boys

GALLATIN, Tennessee—Cousin Alison, a teacher of gifted middle schoolers much like Steven, was our lunch date for Monday, her spring break beginning as Steven’s came to a close.  We met in downtown Gallatin near Alison’s cherished First United Methodist Church, where she has been singing in the chancel choir for 16 years.  The church was a short walk to the reinvigorated Gallatin town square and Alison’s favorite local restaurant—Crescent City Po Boys, purveyor of fresh, authentic Cajun and Creole food.   

A little place with a big impact on downtown Gallatin
Raised and trained in Louisiana, the Crescent City chef has contributed to the revitalization of the traditional downtown of his adopted city by hosting events such as monthly crawfish boils with live music.  Alison was fascinated with the stunningly intricate tattoos on the arms of our waiter, and he was quite flattered by her interest, sharing his future plans for the continued development of his dermal canvas.

In addition to hearing the latest news about her family, we learned from Alison how to determine a dog’s previous name.  Last year her family adopted a ruggedly handsome Bouvier des Flandres (Flemish cow herder), a black-coated shaggy dog, from a local animal shelter.  Learning that their new pet was almost five years old, Alison was convinced he had a name from his prior home, though the shelter staff had no information available. 

This Crescent City food didn't last long.
To ease the dog’s transition into her household, Alison employed a brilliant bit of deductive reasoning.  Once she got the pup home, a little research turned up the most popular dog names.   Armed with the list, Alison parked herself near the dog.  One by one, she called each name and watched for a response.  When she spoke “Riley,” the dog lifted his head and walked to her.  Bingo!  And Riley he is again.  This simple but ingenious technique could be a big help to shelters who offer dogs for adoption and to the canines’ future families.

MONDAY:  Rachel and Gavin at The Cheesecake Factory

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee—After a brief walking tour of downtown Gallatin, we drove east for our dinner date with niece Rachel and her friend Gavin.  They chose The Cheesecake Factory near the University of Tennessee campus.  With almost 200 locations around the world, the restaurant had its humble beginnings in 1972 when Detroit natives Evelyn and Oscar Overton moved to Los Angeles and opened a bakery selling cheesecakes made with recipes Evelyn had spent 30 years perfecting.  With a flair for business, their son David soon opened a restaurant featuring both entrees and a wide variety of desserts to showcase his mother’s creations.  The Cheesecake Factory was born.  In the intervening years, the chain has built a faithful following with its eclectic menu and generous portion sizes. 

It had been at least 20 years since we visited a Cheesecake Factory.  After our delicious dinner, we wondered why.
Rachel and Gavin arrived promptly on time, and we were glad for the opportunity to catch up with our niece and meet her Canadian American friend.  Attracted by the music industry, Gavin’s parents moved to the Nashville area from their rural home north of Lake Erie before Gavin was born.  His studies focus on construction management, and Rachel has finally given in to her passion for politics.  Taking three political science courses this semester has only reinforced her interest in the subject, and she recently decided to declare it as her major.  She talked animatedly about the current Presidential election and about a study abroad opportunity in London between her junior and senior years at UT.

The lovely Rachel and charming Gavin
After finishing our meal with a sampling of some of the restaurant’s legendary cheesecakes—tiramisu for Rachel and Gavin, salted caramel for us—we hugged our goodbyes and smiled wistfully as the two college kids trundled off to campus in Gavin’s vintage cafe au lait Ford pickup truck.

TUESDAY (Knoxville to Asheville)

With no engagements on Tuesday, we letterboxed our way from Knoxville to Asheville along a picturesque section of I-40.  Near the state line, we had parked on the shoulder of a side road to fetch a letterbox hidden on the Appalachian Trail nearby.  From our vantage point on a hill overlooking the road, we noticed another car pull over behind our vehicle.  After disembarking, the driver took a quick look around.  Finding no one in the vicinity, and with a look of desperation we recognized only too well, she demonstrated that it is indeed possible to view a full moon in the middle of the day. 

Check out the blazes.  We're on the AT!
Other boxes led us along portions of the scenic and tranquil Blue Ridge Parkway.  One was hidden near the ruins of a seven-bedroom hunting lodge constructed by the Vanderbilts near their still thriving Asheville estate, Biltmore House.  It was no surprise that the lodge had been located on a ridge with a spectacular view overlooking the nearby mountains.

A million dollar view
We spent Tuesday night in Asheville in preparation for beginning of the North Carolina part of this first course in nearby Waynesville the next day.

SWEET HOME, Alabama—When we heard cousin Richard was coming all the way from Oregon to visit the family farm in Alabama, we couldn't resist an opportunity to see him without having to travel across country, especially since he recently escaped a very close call with cancer.  Since nephew Steven was on spring break in Tennessee, we picked him up and took him with us, arriving at Nanamama's on Thursday evening.  Nephew David and his family, sister Jeanne, and cousin Steve also rolled into town, making for a sweet little mini-reunion.

On Friday, Ken and I drove to the city of Mobile to visit some dear ones there and take care of a bit of business for the country cemetery we've been volunteering for.  Kathy, one of my dearest college friends, whom I met my first quarter on campus and rumbled with for the next four years, has spent too much time in hospitals in the last year due to a variety of health issues.  I wanted to see her in person and was thrilled to find her at home for a change.  We met her two roly-poly cats and enjoyed a companionable visit chattering about our coterie of mutual friends and catching up on each other's lives.

UnkaJim and his lovely wife
Next stop in our Mobile meandering was at the home of the inimitable UnkaJim and his charming and hospitable wife Dean, both of whom have been battling health problems of late also.  As usual, we found them full of smiles and good cheer, rising above their difficulties.  Cousin Sport, their spoiled and justifiably contented dachshund, insisted on a little quality time of his own.  After doing our part to indulge the pup and hearing the latest news about Dean's grandchildren and UnkaJim's nine, but soon to be ten, great-grandchildren, we drove back north, relieved to see both of them (and Sport) looking so well.  (For the record, Sport is blessed with an extra dose of charisma.  Even his dog sitter asks for play dates with him when he has been away from her too long.)

Friday night our PNW cousin Rich and his brother Tommy, who lives locally, came over to Nanamama's for a good dose of her Southern cooking.  And what a spread she prepared!  All manner of veggies, cornbread and some 'cued ribs left everyone soporifically sated.  We were all eager to catch up with the goings-on in each other's lives and spent the rest of the evening in lively conversation.

Lonesome Pine Farm
Saturday was farm day.  The farm in question is five miles from Nanamama's place, which was christened Knightwood last year.  Divided between Nanamama and her siblings when their parents died, the land was gifted to our great-great grandmother and great-great grandfather by her father.  Pretty generous of g-g-g-grandfather when you consider that he had 22 other children.  But that's another story.

When UnkaJim inherited the farmhouse and the property immediately around it, he changed the name from Clover Hill to Lonesome Pine Farm.  He now lives in Mobile but still enjoys visiting Lonesome Pine, as do his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Four-wheeling cousins
Since UnkaJim wasn't in residence today, we visited other parts of the farm inherited by his brother and sisters.  Jeanne and I rode ATVs with the Duncan boys down to an area along the creek which cousin Steve has dubbed Moccasin Lane.  This part of the farm was inherited by their high-spirited and fun-loving mother, our Aunt Claire.  Ever the Eagle scout, Rich started a fire in Steve's fire pit by the creek using just a flint.

Rich shows Jeanne how it's done.
While the cousins were chilling at the creek, Ken, David and the kids were fishing for dinner at what is affectionately called "Lake Jose," part of the farm which was handed down to our witty and widely traveled Uncle Joe.  Fishing at the pond was a favored activity when we were growing up, and Jeanne has introduced that enjoyment to her children and grandchildren.

What's for dinner?
Our final stop at the family farm was the pièce de résistance from the kids' perspective.  Yes, four-wheeling is cool, and fishing is fun, but for them, nothing can compete with the giant sandbox on that part of the farm that went to Nanamama in the division process.

The giant sandbox
Known locally as the gravel pit, this stretch of land is characterized by sandy topsoil over layers of clay and more sand.  It has been mined as a sand quarry for many years for local roads and other construction, leaving big granular hills perfect for kids to run up and slide down.

For older kids, the gravel pit offers a safe place for a bit of target practice.
The biggest problem with taking kids to the gravel pit is getting them to leave.  Never in my recollection has a kid declared him or herself ready to depart.  Even the teens like to go, albeit for a different reason.  Those who have AT&T cell service have no signal in this rural area—except from the top of the hills in the gravel pit.

There's some fried fish on that table, thanks to our fishermen, and Nanamama, our wonderful cook.
Another fine spread of down home cooking was awaiting us at Knightwood when we all returned from our farm adventures.  David quickly prepped the big catch, and Nanamama fried it up.  By then David's wife Tonya and son Andrew had arrived to join us, and we all ate until we coudn't.

The next day was Easter, and everyone dressed in their spring finery.  All too soon, it was time for us to depart so we could get Steven home to return to school the following day.  As much as we missed the cousins and siblings, aunts and uncles who couldn't be there, it was another fun time on the farm.

More Photos from Our Trip to the Farm

On the way south, we stopped to visit nephew David at the University of West Alabama, his new coaching home.
Very close to the farm is the resting place of many other relatives.  We like to visit them also.
Sport, the wonder dog
Cousins reunited:  Richard, Steve, Di, Tommy and Jeanne
Three of the Duncan boys (We all missed Bruce, who was in rehab in Tallahassee!)
Richard, a city boy on a country lane
Like the farmhouse, Lake Jose once had another name.  Our grandmother called it Mirror Lake, for obvious reasons.
Steven and Carson play "together", each on his individual device.  "We can talk; we just can't listen," Carson explained.
Sister J gets the big catch of the day.
As kids we called these sand columns with pebble tops "fairy castles," but I've never been able to find the real term for them.
Spring on Moccasin Lane
Look out below!  Here comes Lizzie!
David and family looking good, even without their Easter bonnets.

For years we have talked about visiting Key West, but we were put off by its party central, wasted-away in Margaritaville reputation.   And yet it hovered on our list because of our friends’ enthusiasm about its eccentric personality and tropical allure.  And there were the literate types like Hemingway and Tennessee Williams and even Robert Frost who found it compelling.  Finally we had to see for ourselves, so we spent three days in Key West from March 11 to 13.  Though we did a modicum of research prior to our departure, we learned several major lessons that would have made our trip much more enjoyable if we'd had the knowledge beforehand.

1.  Check the calendar.

Time after time we've read that March to May is the best window to visit Key West—after the busy and expensive winter season and before the heat of summer and hurricane threats of fall.  What all the advice failed to mention is that Key West has become a popular spring break destination for college students.  And that the second and third weeks in March are prime spring break time.

In blissful ignorance, we planned our visit smack in the middle of the spring break frenzy.  And as we have experienced on numerous occasions, groups of high school and college kids often wreak havoc in hotels.  We like to think it’s because they simply haven’t been taught hotel etiquette, but the desk clerk at the Doubletree told us a group of rowdy breakers had destroyed furniture in their lobby the night before we arrived.  That goes a little beyond bad manners.

Had we but known of the scheduled invasion, we could have easily gone at another time and missed the frat parties we've forgotten how to enjoy.

2.  Find a place to stay in Old Town.

Ever eager to cultivate our Hilton points account, we booked a room at the Doubletree, which is actually located a bit east of the city of Key West.  The hotel runs a shuttle service into downtown, and we were foolish enough on our first night to believe the hotel staff’s horror stories about the Gordian knot of traffic downtown.  Not wanting to wait 45 minutes for the shuttle bus to leave, we left our car at the hotel and opted to take a taxi.

When we arrived downtown, we wondered what all the fuss was about.  Traffic was not that bad, but there we were without our car so it didn’t really matter.   After we walked around a bit and spent some time relaxing on the porch of a wine bar in a historic home, we returned to the Doubletree by taxi—having paid $60 in taxi fares to learn a lesson about blindly accepting someone else’s judgment without testing the water ourselves.

Not until our last morning in Key West, after we had decided to cut a couple of days off the trip, did we really explore Old Town.  Then we understood that we should have rented a cottage in that area.  By that point it was too late to change course.

3.  See the town on foot or bicycle.

 As mentioned above, traffic, though not as overwhelming as we were led to believe, is a bit of an obstacle in the town.  Trolling through the streets in our car, we would see a place we might like to check out, but by the time we found a parking space a block or two or three away, it was sometimes difficult to retrace our steps to the place we wanted to visit.  Scooters, golf carts and other vehicles are widely available to rent, but still leave you with a parking issue.

4.  Find your way beyond the superficial façade and talk to some locals.

No doubt Key West caters to tourists and attracts them by the thousands.  Even when spring is not breaking in full force, cruise ships are spewing hordes of tourists onto the streets almost daily.  We learned a bit late that if you’re not careful to leave Duval Street, where the souvenir shops and trendy nightspots beckon to the casual tourist, you will never encounter any locals, who can tell you what the real Key West is all about.

 5.  The scenic Overseas Highway is not all that.

We have traveled extensively in the United States, having visited most states multiple times, and we’ve had the pleasure of seeing some amazing scenery.   After considering the efficiency of flying directly to Key West, we rejected the idea because of the reputation of the Overseas Highway as one of America’s most scenic routes.  That was most definitely not our experience.

Seven Mile Bridge of the Overseas Highway.  Who wouldn't want to drive this scenic road? (image from Wikipedia)
When you search Google for images of the Overseas Highway, the vast majority of photos at the top of the search results are aerial shots.  And they are breathtakingly beautiful.  Driving on the highway is another experience entirely.  In our Acura MDX, your eye level is about five feet above the road surface.  At that height, you do not see the “teal waters dotted by distant islands.”  Even on the famous Seven Mile Bridge, you see precious little water.  You see mostly bridge.

Same bridge as pictured above. (L) view from our dash cam.  (R) Google Maps street view
The cameras mounted atop the Google Street View cars sit another five feet higher, about the same level as the driver of a semi truck, and their view is considerably better, though still nothing like the aerial shots would lead one to expect.  Even an RV would have a better viewing angle.  Assuming we won’t be driving any of those vehicles, if we ever return to Key West, maybe we’ll just fly.

What We Did Right:  Dry Tortugas National Park

By far the best part of our trip was the flight to Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles beyond Key West between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.  Rejecting the notion of a three-hour ferry ride out and three back, we opted for transport by Key West Seaplane Adventures.  In a ten-passenger seaplane, we reached the visitor center at Fort Jefferson in just forty minutes.

Approaching Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park
Though we opted not to, quite a few people were snorkeling off the island and proclaimed it great.  We took the self-guided walking tour of historic Fort Jefferson, started in 1846 to control navigation into the Gulf of Mexico and protect Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade.  Though never completed and finally abandoned by the Army in 1874, the fort did serve as a Union military prison during the Civil War.   Its most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Lincoln.  After the doctor stemmed the spread of a yellow fever epidemic at Fort Jefferson, he was later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.

Fort Jefferson
Now that we've learned what not to do, we may return to Key West one day.  It certainly does have its charms and armed with a little bit of knowledge, it could be a lot of fun...just as so many people have told us.  As the photos below suggest, that tropical atmosphere does confect some appealing eye candy.

Photos from the Keys

Lined up for a photo op at the famous Southernmost Point "buoy"
Quiet little wine bar on Duval Street
Magnetic boxes attached to rust bucket old trucks--a favored letterbox hiding style in Key West
But don't get caught letterboxing in the Key West Cemetery!
Grave shelters offer protection from the heat and rain for the deceased and their visitors.
Schooner Western Union, the last tall ship built in Monroe County, FL
Where US 1 begins (or ends).  The northern terminus is in Maine at the Canadian border. 
One of the many chickens that range freely all over Key West
An amazing kapok tree near the terminus of US-1
Robert Is Here Fruit Stand in Florida City, just north of Key Largo
At Robert Is Here, a goat visits the shell station.
Banyan tree at a bird sanctuary in Tavernier on the Overseas Highway
At Dry Tortugas NP, a wheelchair made to be used in sand!
Just a few of the 2,000+ arches at Fort Jefferson
Garden Key from Fort Jefferson
The light station at Fort Jefferson
Strolling around the Fort Jefferson moat
Our seaplane transnport