Finding the calm in chaos, that’s what you have to do when you’re a traveler. There’s often no routine to keep your path straight. The universe provides you with directions, and it’s not always clear which one you should take, but you have to commit to the one you choose. Like a storybook with alternate endings, you control your destiny. However, the control that you have isn’t in where your journey will take you. No, that part of the story has already been written. What you do control is how you manage yourself while on that path.
If, while on your journey, your mind is made heavy by regrets, you’re doing it wrong. Because giving weight to things you cannot control is like adding bricks to the basket of the balloon that represents your life.
Prior to this road trip, my adventure mutt and I had travelled through 19 states- all west of the Mississippi River. This road trip was taking us into territories previously unexplored- geographically and socially. We would not only be traversing nine new states, but we’d be doing it with companions.
Michele (human) and Zeva (dog) were on their annual trek to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Their trip, typically, was 12 hours round trip. That was when they lived in Maryland. This was Michele and Zeva’s first year in Austin, and the trip was considerably longer.
38 hours longer, and a total mileage of greater than 3,500.
Michele and Zeva graciously invited Sid and me to join. We happily agreed to tag along.
The plan was to make it to Carova Beach, NC by way of New Orleans, LA and Charleston, SC. The way back to Austin would happen with stops in Asheville, NC and Nashville, TN.
I was excited to see the new states, cities, cultures and foods, but most of all I was excited to have a human subject to photograph for once. Michele reluctantly agreed to assume this role. She’d often stress how she’s “not a model” and doesn’t know how to pose, but as you’ll see in the images from the trip, she’s a natural.
Beauty is beauty, and Michele is beautiful.
We left on a Friday morning. Like usual, I was running late, and I could tell I was trying Michele’s patience, although she hid it quite well. Hitting the road a few hours behind schedule, with an eight-hour drive ahead of us, I made sure to point out all of the positives of running late. “At least we’ll miss traffic in Baton Rouge!” I exclaimed. Whether or not I actually believed this justified my tardiness was another thing, but my optimism prevailed and we were on our way with happiness plastered on our faces.
It didn’t take long before our music options went stale. A five-hour, carefully selected, playlist doesn’t last as long as you’d think. Plus, we were quickly exhausting our data plans. Regardless, we were excited about what was ahead, and we had plenty of idle conversation to keep entertained (something Sid has always been terrible with during our solo road trips).
We didn’t make many stops on the way to New Orleans, and fuel stops were few and far between thanks to Michele’s Prius. It was averaging a ridiculous 50mpg.
We did, however, stop along the causeway for a handful of photos.
Just after sunset we arrived in New Orleans. My college friend, Gillian, was waiting for us with a freshly made bed, Moscow Mules, and a relaxed plan for the evening. We went to a bar that wasn’t far from her house, had beers, I had a burger, and we returned to the house- in bed by midnight.
The next morning we awoke early so that we could swing by a café for some beignets.
New Orleans was humid- more humid than I remembered from my last visit. The presence of humidity on this trip cannot be overstated. If there was only one thing I could take from this summer road trip through the south, it would be how freaking humid it was.
We suffered through it. Thankfully, the beignets and coffee improved the situation. We then said our goodbyes to Gillian, and hit the road again, adventure mutts in tow.
It was a 12-hour drive to Charleston SC, which was about two hours out of the way, but a city I had always wanted to visit and one Michele was quite familiar with. She went to college in Charleston, and still had friends there.
We arrived in the evening with every intention of going out for drinks once we arrived, but after a shower, and a sit on the couch, it was clear that we were ready for bed.
We stayed with a friend of Michele’s. Her name was Candice, and she lived in a condo/apartment that sat right on the beach. Actually, it was on an island called Folley. Candice was attending a Michael Jackson cover band, so we were able to stay in her bed that night. We woke up early, took the dogs for a walk, and found our way to some pretty killer food.
Michele and I then went to downtown South Carolina to explore. OMFG was it humid! My weather app said it was just 91º, but with the humidity it felt like 120º. It was on this day that I learned something new about Michele. She loves to power walk in extremely hot weather and is completely unfazed by what I could only describe as heat exhaustion.
I tried my best to keep up, and act like I wasn’t on the brink of passing out. I would try to take longer strides as I walked and escape to the shade as often as possible, but after about two miles, I suggested we escape to some AC.
Michele was in a desperate search of frozen yogurt, with no luck. The city had changed since her college days. She recalled three fro-yo places in Downtown Charleston, but apparently they had closed. Unfortunately, it took what felt like 10 miles of walking for us to find that out.
We eventually decided to turn around and head back to the car. I was hoping to check out a couple landmarks for which the city was known. I wanted to see the plantations and the magnificent Angel Oak-- really any historic sights I could see, but it was a Sunday and most of the sights had shut down by 5pm.
Charleston was a beautiful city, and I feel fortunate to have been able to stop there on the trip, but I wish we could have spent more time there. I guess that’s true for all the cities we visited, but the spirit of Charleston was captivating.
Sunday night we had dinner and prepared for an evening departure. Michele’s family’s beach house was quite literally that, a house on the beach. So much so that it was only accessible during low tide. It was about 10 miles beyond where the paved road ended. Because of that, we had to arrive at low tide, which was at either 7am or 5pm. We opted for the 7am option, which meant we had to drive through the night. Personally, I don’t mind the night drive because of the minimal traffic, but the downside was the lack of scenery.
It wasn’t long after we had crossed into North Carolina that we encountered another downside to driving through the night, one that we certainly did not anticipate.
I was driving, cruise set at 75mpg. I signaled and merged into the left lane to pass a slower moving SUV. Once I had moved ahead of the SUV, I signaled and merged back. Well, the car in that lane wasn’t too happy about that. They accelerate, around me, into the left lane and proceeded to give me the finger.
I, being the excellent driver that I am, took offense to this gesture and flashed my lights at the vehicle as it crossed in front of me. And that’s when it began.
The vehicle put on its breaks and got right behind me, and proceeded to blast its brights while driving a few feet from the bumper of the Prius. It was about 3am when this was happening.
I was hopeful that this driver and their road rage would work itself out, but it didn’t. The vehicle sped ahead of me, slamming on their breaks, then worked it’s way behind me again to blast me with its brights. This went on for about 30 miles. Michele and I were at our wits end. When the car was ahead of us, we slowed down to 40mph in a 70mph zone with the hopes of creating distance between the two of us. That worked for only a few seconds, as the obnoxious driver immediately did the same. Finally, I called the police. I told them what mile marker we were at and asked them to provide assistance.
About 7 miles after the phone call, a police officer showed up. The deputy on the phone asked us to pull over once they pulled over the SUV that had been harassing us. We did, and got front row seats to a failed field sobriety test. The officer told us the driver was intoxicated. I wrote down what we had witnessed, along with my information, gave it to the office,r and we were free to go.
At the time, I didn’t consider the gravity of the situation. I was just upset the guy was being a nuisance on the road. It was only after the officer thanked us for calling that I realized that situation could have been much worse. Maybe this guy would have made it home safely if I hadn't called, or maybe not.
After that encounter, we were back on the road, and I was wide-awake.
Arriving on the Outer Banks
Michele went to the back of the car and laid down with the dogs for some sleep, while I powered through. We arrived in The Outer Banks as the sun began to rise. This was the first of a series of sunrises I would see in the next week, and it was beautiful. I saw more sunrises on this trip than I have seen in my previous 27 years of life. If ever I become a morning person, it will be because of the sunrise.
We pulled up to a grocery store just before the road ended, where Michele’s mother, Krista, waited in her pickup. We emptied the Prius, transferring our possessions and pets to the truck bed, and traveled the 10 miles to the beach house.
Riding on the packed sand just past the ocean’s crashing waves, I took in the scene. It was just a year prior that I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Seeing the Atlantic for the first time in the early morning hours was even more majestic.
I was tired from driving through the night, but the fascinating new landscapes, people and scenes kept me up long enough to at least make conversation. We arrived at the beach house, and it was gorgeous. I felt like I was in a movie, which may very well have been because I was running on fumes, but it was so picturesque.
The big white house sat one hundred yards from the seemingly infinite ocean horizon. There was only a sandy beach and a wild grass-covered dune that separated the two. The scene was majestic, but sleep was my priority. Michele and I entered the house, and the dogs raced ahead of us to survey the new environment. They had to make sure every inch of the house was sniffed, and all targets neutralized before they could be sure it was safe for their humans.
We had a small meal, and I headed to bed. I slept through the afternoon and woke up to a lazy evening.
The daily routine of beach life looked something like this…
All the foods.
Lay on the beach
Lay on the beach
It was pretty consistent, with the exception of the occasional nap. Oh, and frozen peach margaritas. Peaches are a big deal all over the east coast, I learned. Michele brought a couple of Texas peaches on the trip for us to compare to those down from Maryland which arrived by the box. I ate more peaches in this week than I have in my life. They were delicious. And as I learned, if you freeze them, and make them into a margarita, they’re even more amazing.
A day or two after we arrived, we were joined by the rest of the traveling beach-goers, who made the six hour trek down from Michele’s hometown in Maryland. There were about 12 of us in total.
It was great to meet some of Michele’s people. Since Michele was new to Austin, I was always introducing her to my people; this was a nice change of pace.
Together the group ate, drank and relaxed. The house was full of folks who took pride in cooking. No one went hungry, and we all ate well. It was truly a delight.
Typically, trips are jam packed with things you have to do, tedious schedules, and long lines. This trip was quite the opposite, and I knew it would be difficult to leave. Beach life was something I could easily grow accustomed to.
There were wild horses that roamed the Outer Banks, and they seemed just as relaxed as all the people there. They’d peacefully roam and graze, which wasn’t much different than what we were doing.
The days seemed to slowly pass. Michele celebrated her 25th birthday with a sunrise walk on the beach.
We ate and drank some more and our final night on the beach was celebrated with a small fireworks show.
I remember during the first day or two thinking we had so much time at the beach. I was looking forward to the time ahead of us, but as they say, all good things come to an end. Those days seemed to just fly by.
Michele’s mom gave us a ride back to our car, 10 miles south of the house, and we prepared to drive through the night, to our next destination, Asheville NC.
The drive was easy, but there was one major snag that, again, we could have never predicted. I drove, as Michele and the dogs slept in the back. I needed a break to refill fuel and water, and also stretch my legs.
It was a truck stop, around 3am, where we stopped.
Michele and I went in to use the restroom; Michele returned to the car before I did to let the dogs out.
As I approached the car, the dogs were doing their business under Michele’s watch. The Prius’s back hatch and back left door were open. I climbed back into the car, and began getting situated while the dogs finished finding “the spot”. It was at this point that I realized the horrifying mistake we had made.
The dome light of the car was on. The air around the dome light was occupied by the largest swarm of mosquitos in the history of man (exaggeration). There were millions (exaggeration)! Maybe even billions of the damn things (exaggeration).
I panicked, and hastily told Michele to close the doors. She had yet to realize the tragedy that was unfolding. Once we were all back in the car the gravity of the situation set in. There was really nothing we could do to get the mosquitos out, and every second spent outside of the car we were being eaten alive by the ones that called the truck stop parking lot home.
So we jumped back in the car, rolled the windows down, and sped off as quickly as we could. There had to be AT LEAST 50 (billion) mosquitos flying around the car. Rolling the windows down seemed to make a big dent in their population, but it didn’t solve the problem. These mosquitoes were smart. They made their way down to my ankles, away from the airflow of the car windows and proceeded to bite incessantly. I spent the next hour and a half swatting anything that felt like a mosquito. In that time, the carcasses began to pile up--on the windows, my leg, on the passenger seat, on the dashboard; they were everywhere.
We knew the show must go on! As their numbers began to dwindle, I looked on the bright side. They kept me awake, and if it hadn’t happened, I’d have nothing to exaggerate about now! ;)
We continued on, through the night, and arrived in the Blue Ridge Mountains just before sunrise.
Michele was still doing her best to catch up on sleep. I tried to do the same, with the car parked on a Blue Ridge Parkway turnout. Our plan was to sleep for two hours and then catch breakfast, but sleep just wasn’t in the cards for me.
I tried to stretch out in the back of the car, but my body was just too long. Who would have guessed that a Prius wouldn’t comfortably sleep two humans and two dogs?
So, I sat outside the car, and watched the sun come up over the mountains. It was sensational and keeping with the sunrise theme of the trip. Fog settled in the gaping valleys and slowly became saturated by sunlight.
I watched, and photographed for about an hour and a half. Several cyclists passed by, as well as two other cars. One was that of a woman who had with her a cup of coffee, blanket and book. It appeared to be her morning routine.
The other was a mother, who just dropped her daughter off at school and was about to make the drive back to wherever it was she came from. She parked and walked near the woman drinking coffee. I could tell that she wanted someone to talk to by the way she tried to make eye contact with the coffee drinker. After a few moments of nothing, she walked down to me. I happily made idle conversation. It seemed we both just wanted to share this moment with someone, and since my someone was in the Prius struggling to catch up on sleep, this enthusiastic stranger played the part. After a few minutes of chatter and gazing, she jumped back in her car and drove off.
Moments later, I then did the same, driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway to a breakfast spot called Biscuit Head. I pulled off the road periodically to photograph the fog that sat at the low points of the road. I even went as far as to wake up Michele and ask her to be my subject for a few photos.
I’m sure that at the time she wasn’t keen to the idea of sacrificing sleep for my creative agenda, but I think now she’s happy she did.
We made it to Biscuit Head nine minutes after it opened, at 8:09am, on a Sunday morning, and there was a line almost out the door. Just about the last thing you want to see when you’re hungry, tired, and trying to manage two dogs who did not want to be left in the car while we ate.
But the line was well justified.
The food was AMAZING. Biscuit Head was recommended to us by one of my friends who lived in Asheville. The reviews online confirmed my friend’s opinion. The restaurant was quaint, had a nice patio, and colorful patrons.
Michele’s interest was peaked at the sight of their gravy and butter ba, which featured an assortment of homemade gravies and butters. If we ate there every day for a week, we would still fall short of trying all of the options.
I went with a fried chicken, poached egg and biscuit breakfast, while Michele decided on a more traditional meal. Her order was some sort of egg and ham thing.
It’s safe to say she was jealous of what showed up on (and quickly left) my plate.
After breakfast we headed to our Asheville home. A campsite found on Air BnB. I’ve never stayed at a campsite from Air BnB and after this experience I don’t know that I will again.
The site was sandwiched between a road and train tracks, next to a river with tick filled trees. It was $25 a night, and required a $25 pet fee (which we refused to pay). It was frustrating, but it worked. We set up our tent just before noon and caught up on some sleep. It wasn’t long before the sun popped through the trees and warmed the tent like an oven.
Michele found us an easy hike that wasn’t too far away. It was the Craggy Pinnacle Trail, just .7 miles to the peak, and totally worth it. When we reached the pinnacle, you could see everything in all directions. There was a storm rolling in, and the overcast sky cast unique light on the rolling mountain hills. We stayed there for a short while, and then headed back to the car.
We wound up in Downtown Asheville in search of food, hoping to eat at another restaurant my friend had recommended, but it was closed. After some debate, we settled for burgers at a place called Farm Burger. My burger was pretty good, but quite expensive. Michele ordered a salad that was undersized and underwhelming.
Michele had been to Asheville before and remembered a brewery that she enjoyed called Wedge, so we went there for some patio beers with the dogs. They brewed a beer that was 11% abv. We each had one and began to feel the alcohol. There was a little back and forth on whether we wanted to commit to one more, or to head back to our tent, but I took the initiative and grabbed another. That decision put us into a precarious position.
The sun began to set and the sky grew dark, while we finished our beers. Sure enough, we were caught outside, with our two dogs, in torrential downpour. We were optimistic that it would pass, but after 20 minutes of the situation getting progressively worse, we decided it was time to get out of there. Fortunately, we were under a large umbrella, but every wet gust of wind made us wish we were indoors.
I decided to sprint to the car and rescue Michele and Zeva, Sid followed me to the car. We all piled in, and the windows instantly fogged up.
Driving back to the campsite, I feared the worst. If it was raining half as bad there as it was at the brewery, we were going to be in for a long night. Fortunately, as we drove south from downtown, it appeared the storm was fairly isolated. We didn’t get rained on at all.
Once back at camp, we made use of the on-site showers, and I built a fire. We had a bottle of grapefruit flavored vodka and decided to have a little before going to bed. I poured several shots onto some ice that was kept cold by my handy thermos, and paired the vodka with our water ration. I’m not sure if it was the melting of the ice or the amount of alcohol in our systems, but what began as a pretty gross drink turned into one that wasn’t too bad.
We traded sips and talked about this and that. The fire was small, because the surrounding wood was wet, but we managed to keep it going for a couple hours. In that time Michele and I shared experiences from our past, learning about one another. I recall even talking about high school (I know, right?!).
It’s rare to find someone who you can talk to about nothing, and feel like it’s something. If we had more dry wood, and refill of our cup, we probably would have stayed up all night talking about nothing. And, it would have been perfect.
That next morning, we packed up our camp and headed to town for breakfast. Asheville is a funny place. People like to compare it to Austin, but it’s on it’s own wavelength. It seems the youth idolize a transient lifestyle and consider regular bathing to be repulsive. As we walked on the downtown streets to our breakfast spot, Tuplo Honey, I couldn’t help but notice the population of youth just hanging out on the corners and in the shade. Most of them had dreadlocks and a well-weathered instrument strapped to their back.
Many of the people we passed had dogs, as well. The city seemed to be a happy place to live as a dog. There were water bowls outside of most storefronts and occasionally some dog treats.
We got to our breakfast spot and were greeted by an awkwardly crass waiter. It seemed he was trying to assert his position as a “cool” serve, because he would make off-handed remarks about not giving a hoo, and liberally used curse words. We took no offense, but it was a little unusual.
Tuplo Honey was known for their biscuits and jam, and they didn’t disappoint. The meal, however, did. It’s not that the food was terrible, but I need a few more calories than what they provided for $9.25. Fortunately, Michele let me scarf down what she didn’t finish and that made me feel like I broke even. Though, it was certainly no Biscuit Head.
We left brunch and immediately hit the road, Nashville bound!
It was a beautiful drive with winding roads and massive rolling hills, but the best thing about the drive was that it was the shortest of our trip!
Just five hours.
The trip was quick and in what seemed like no time, we were in Nashville, ready to explore. Well, we thought we were ready to explore. My friend, Sharp, let us stay at his place. When we arrived, he had left little post-it notes all over the house welcoming us and giving us instructions because he couldn’t be there to tell us in person. Michele and I decided to lie down for a moment before venturing out. As much as we had intended to do some exploring, our short break turned into a long nap and our day all but disappeared.
Sharp got home around 6pm and greeted us with enthusiasm. It had been something like 3 years since he and I had last seen one another, and the reunion was a sweet one.
One of the things we had hoped to do while in Nashville was to meet up with the Internet star, Doug the Pug. His owner, Leslie, had messaged me a few months ago, congratulating me on Sid’s viral success. I told her that if ever I was in her neck of the woods,, I’d be sure to get in touch, so while in Nashville, that’s what we did!
The three of us, and Sid, met up with her, Doug and her boyfriend at a pizza place. It felt like an arranged marriage and was fun to meet the human behind the dog. We sat and ate for an hour or two and then parted ways with the possibility of meeting up the next day to get some fun social media content.
When we returned to Sharp’s place, his darling rescue dog, Carly, was waiting ever so patiently for our return.
It was a very relaxed evening, and we were in bed early. We woke up behind schedule that next morning. The first thing we did was swing by a coffee shop called Crema. It was one Michele heard of and wanted to check out.
Crema was a super trendy coffee shop; it reminded me a lot of a few spots in Austin. Michele ordered an Americano, and upon tasting it, she was convinced it was the best she’s ever had. I ordered a red-eye, and it was great. Michele also opted to try some over priced chocolate, imported from Iceland. I can’t remember what she thought of the chocolate, and because of that, I have to assume it didn’t live up to her expectations.
(Oh, we had ice cream, too)
Our team, comprising of two humans and two dogs, then made our way to meet up with Doug and Leslie, again. We filmed some footage of Sid and Doug sharing ice cream, and Sid denying Doug access to the hotdog Sid proudly held in his mouth, and were on our way. Sometimes Sid can be strictly business. This was one of those times.
I’m glad we were able to meet these two for collaboration. I’m pretty sure Sid had a blast, too.
After that, we headed to check out Centennial Park. It was a very worthwhile place to see.
While wandering around, we encountered a freaking Parthenon. I definitely didn’t know that was there. We took a few photos and enjoyed the nice day. I jumped in a game of Frisbee that was going on at the park for some exercise, but before long, we were headed back to Sharp’s for a little dinner and wine.
Unfortunately, on the way, a storm took out a traffic light and threw the entire city’s flow off. It took us 20 minutes to get to the park, and because of this issue, it took us almost an hour and a half to get back.
Sharp encountered the same problem while attempting to run to the grocery store. He eventually gave up and turned around. That night we grilled pretty much whatever he had in his cupboard. Although it wasn’t quite we all had in mind, it did the job.
Michele and I debated whether to wake up that next morning and drive the 12hrs or to leave that night. The promise of being home that next morning was enough to convince us to drive through the night. I drove the first 8 hrs, Michele drove the last 5, and that next day was actually pretty productive for both of us.
So that was our trip. That was our adventure. And I don’t think I would change a thing about it, other than maybe extending it another week or two. It was a great test, as well. Sure, Michele and I (+dogs) already live together, but this trip showed us that we make good travel partners, too. I learned a lot about Michele in these two weeks, and it only strengthened the way I feel about her. Traveling, like life, can and will present you with unpredictable obstacles. And now that we have conquered a few small ones together, I feel confident about what lies ahead! Michele is quickly becoming the calm that keeps my chaotic life in balance.
Alex (& Sid)