Maybe I Could Be A Land Guy

US Space & Rocket Center

Astronaut is the career I’ve always kept in my back pocket. As in, “Well, if this writing thing doesn’t work out I can always be an astronaut.” There are others, of course — professional tennis player, long haul trucker, theoretical physicist, train conductor, flight attendant, assistant manager at the GAP — but astronaut has been the go-to for as long as I can remember. It’s the perfect daydream fodder for times when work is dragging on or I have writer’s block: I could be floating in outer space right now. All I’d have to do is go back to college and choose a different major and join the Air Force and learn to fly and overcome my crippling fear of heights, flying, and darkness, but I could totally do it.

As a potential future astronaut, the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama was a no-brainer destination. A mere two hours from Nashville, it’s an easy road trip straight down I-65 South. A couple weeks ago, Nick and I finally got the chance to go.

I’d been dying to visit ever since we drove past the famous roadside rocket on our way to Florida and I had an early mid-life crisis about every choice I’ve ever made that didn’t lead to a career at NASA (what have I been doing with my life?!?!). When we finally pulled into the parking lot, my demeanor could best be described as “poorly trained, easily excitable terrier arriving at the dog park,” but maybe even more excited than that because this metaphorical dog park was actually the BIRTH PLACE OF AMERICA’S SPACE PROGRAM.

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We entered through the gift shop, making mental notes of all the NASA-branded swag to purchase on the way out — mousepads, keychains, flight suits — check, check check. Then we continued on to the exhibits: an in-depth collection of artifacts and technological innovations that ultimately put Apollo astronauts on the moon. Like the t-shirts in the gift shop said, “Actually, it IS rocket science.”

The museum part of the Space Center is an odd mix of state-of-the-art and painfully dated. Behind a thick pane of glass that seems like it should house an impressive chunk of meteorite or a reanimated alien, there’s instead a painstakingly detailed recreation of a previous NASA director’s office. The diorama includes a desk, a chair, and a TV screen looping a video of his secretary talking about how, despite his genius IQ, he could never remember his umbrella (I feel you, dude).

Upstairs, in an exhibit dedicated to the International Space Station, another TV screen grabbed my attention as I was walking by. “You’re probably wondering how we go to the bathroom in space,” a male astronaut, floating in zero gravity, said earnestly into the camera. I stopped, looking behind me momentarily as if to make sure this pre-recorded video from the 80s was, in fact, talking to me. Then I happily parked myself in front of the screen for the next 10 minutes to enjoy his explanation and reenactment of disposing of human waste in space. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but I will say it involves a lot of suction tubes.

After learning about NASA directors’ interior design preferences and the intricate art of pooping in space, Nick and I ran outside to the best part of the museum: Rocket Park. Rocket Park is exactly what it sounds like: a park full of rockets. We cantered back and forth between rockets, staring up at them in awe, climbing around underneath, trying and failing to capture a perfectly timed “jumping in front of a rocket” photo.

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I couldn’t stop giggling and saying, “Nick! That’s a fucking rocket! Look! It’s another fucking rocket! That’s a real fucking rocket! Fuuuuck!” Being in such close proximity to these marvels of human engineering made me feel like a giddy schoolgirl. Specifically, a profane schoolgirl who’s not great at jumping.

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I was staring up at one of the rockets, gleefully swearing under my breath, when Nick gasped. “They have rides!” he cried and grabbed my hand. “Come on! Let’s go!” (Apparently both of us turn into excitable children when exposed to the magic of Rocket Park.)

Nick pulled me over to a blastoff simulator ride, where they strap you into a seat attached to a giant column and launch you 140 feet into the air at a speed that approximates blasting off in an actual rocket. It looked like a terrifying, unpleasant experience. I’ve never liked rollercoasters or thrill rides of any kind. At amusement parks, I tend to skip any ride that has a minimum height requirement and go straight for the kids’ rides, bickering with the attendant about the maximum height requirement (“Listen, if I take off my sandals and arch my back slightly we can both see I’m short enough for the Thomas the Tank Engine Toddler Express!”). Nick is exactly the opposite: he loves any thrill ride, the scarier and more vomit-inducing the better. He happily joined the hordes of middle schoolers in line for a ride. I hung back behind the spectator barricade with the other grandparents and chaperones.

“Aren’t you gonna ride it?” Nick asked.

“No way,” I said.

“How are you gonna become an astronaut if you’re too scared to ride the blastoff simulator?” Nick yelled as he was strapped into his seat between two giggling 12-year-old girls, all their legs dangling freely beneath them.

“Maybe I could be a land guy,” I said, “like George Costanza in the Coast Guard?”

Nick laughed just as the ride launched into the air. He rode it 7 more times. He didn’t even take a break between blastoffs. He just stayed in his seat, letting different tweens fill in the empty spots around. Upon further reflection, I think maybe Nick is the one who should be an astronaut, if he ever gets tired of being a pastry chef.

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I did, however, go on the other ride in Rocket Park: the G-Force Accelerator, a spinning circular pod that uses centripetal force to simulate 3 Gs pushing on your body. We watched the group ahead of us stumble out, tripping over their feet and massaging their cheekbones. Then we walked into the lowly lit circle, about the size of a studio apartment, and strapped ourselves into place against cushions ringing the inner wall.

A joyless woman in the middle of the circle operated the ride. The lights turned off when the ride started, but I could see her face remained expressionless even as the speed increased and all of the riders’ cheeks were pulled back against the wall.

“What do you think it’s like to be in here all day?” I struggled to yell to Nick, summoning all my strength to move my jaw enough to form the words.

“I don’t know,” Nick mumbled back.

“Do you think she ages in reverse?” I asked.

“Why would she?” said Nick.

“I don’t know, it just makes sense.”

Again, NASA, if you’re looking for a new recruit, I’m available.

At this point I noticed a group of teenagers on the other side of the circle trying to get my attention (we were two of about 7 adults in attendance at the park that day). Trying to get someone’s attention in a loud metal sphere when your entire body is being pasted against a wall under the force of 3 Gs requires quite an effort, but they somehow managed to twitch and peep enough to do it.

I strained to raise my eyebrows in their general direction, a tiny gesture meaning, “Yes? How can I help you? I’d be more friendly under other circumstances but I can’t move my face right now.”

“Your shoes!” they yelled, as the G-forces ramped up and their cheeks were pulled taut. “They’re…on….fleek.”

I can now confirm that shoe compliments are 10 times better when received in 3Gs, and if that wasn’t worth the price of admission to the rocket museum, I don’t know what is.

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On the way out of the Space Center, chewing the requisite astronaut ice cream Nick bought at the gift shop, we talked about how much fun we had, and how we couldn’t wait to come back. On the way home I checked to see if NASA had listed any astronaut jobs on Craigslist, you know, just in case.

The Best Little Honky Tonk In Nashville

Nashville Palace

A few years ago, Nick and I visited Nashville for the first time, for a long weekend.

On Sunday night, we put on our country best and went out to the honky tonks downtown. It was a good night to go out, because both of us hate crowds, and on Sundays the bars are more chill and stocked mostly with locals enjoying cold beer and good music.

We walked up and down Broadway, popping into different honky tonks (never a cover charge!) and staying for a song or two. The music, across the board, was fantastic. My love for banjos and steel guitars borders on a sexual fetish, so I was in heaven.

Once we got to a honky tonk called Layla’s, we loved the vibe and the music so much we decided to hang out there for the remainder of the night. We danced to a rockabilly band playing chunky, gleeful renditions of “Ring of Fire” and “White Lightning.” I drank 3 cowgirl cosmos, which were strong enough that by 2 in, I started telling Nick that if he were a baby horse, I would gladly sell him to the fair for a bargain price. And no, I don’t know what that means either.

The whole experience was so ridiculously, genuinely, undeniably fun — more fun than we’d had in a long time. There was nothing pretentious or ironic about it. And being from Portland, the world capital of irony and pretense (no offense PDX I love you!), that was such a refreshing change. I’m pretty sure it was there in that honky tonk, balancing on a couple of decrepit bar stools, dropping $5 bills in the mayo tub tip jar, that we first looked at each other and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to move here?”

Six months later, we sold all our stuff, packed up my Jetta, and did just that.

I still love Layla’s, but today my favorite Nashville honky tonk isn’t even on Broadway — it’s 15 minutes from downtown, across the street from the Grand Ole Opry and a sprawling outlet mall, next door to the Willie Nelson Museum and a place called Cooter’s. I’ve very purposefully decided to never find out exactly what Cooter’s is. I feel the same way about Cooter’s that I feel about God: even if its existence could be proven and defined, I’d rather not know. I want to revel in the mystery, all the awe-inspiring possibilities.

Anyway, my favorite honky tonk is called The Nashville Palace, and I love it so much that every time I go there I get a little emotional about it. Especially if I have a few drinks. Then I’m suddenly not just trying to sell Nick to the fair but repeating, over and over, “I just love this place so much. I’m so happy. I’m so happy here!”

Here’s why:

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On any given night, the majority of the clientele ranges in age from around 50-85.

Every Friday and Saturday night, an elderly couple drive an hour from their rural town to tear up the dance floor here. They slowly twirl and two-step to Loretta Lynn covers and Buck Owens ballads, the woman’s hair perfectly sculpted into a foot-high beehive that doesn’t move no matter how enthusiastically she dances. When they pass your table on the way back to theirs, they will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Why aren’t you dancing?” When you finally do go out and dance, they will clap for you.

If you order a coke, the waitress will say, “We have RC Cola,” and you’ll say, “Even better.”

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There’s a wall of shelves filled with old cowboy boots of every size, shape, and color. On the top shelf is a bedazzled jacket. If you ask about it, the bartender will tell you, “Dolly Parton left that jacket here,” and then you’ll say, “Like, in the lost and found? Shouldn’t we return it?” and the bartender will laugh and say, “No, she left it here on purpose. So we could put it on the shelf.”

There’s always a guy sipping whiskey at the bar in a big white cowboy hat. And a guy sitting next to him in a big black cowboy hat. And a guy sitting next to him in a denim vest with an American flag decal sewn onto the back.

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The servers and bartenders will call you honey, baby, sweetie, love, darlin’, or some combination of all of the above.

Randy Travis was a dishwasher here before he became a country star, and they have a plaque on the wall to prove it.

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Their vodka lemonade will get you real tipsy, real quick.

So will all their other drinks.

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You won’t hear modern country hits here. You’ll hear classic country and western swing, played by women in frilly apron dresses and men with bolo ties who have played backup for the biggest country stars of the past century. Sometimes the band will start playing the opening riffs to a crowd pleaser like “Sweet Home Alabama,” and then they’ll stop and say, “Wait, we don’t play that kind of music here,” and laugh as the crowd boos. Then they’ll play Merle Haggard instead.

They have the best fried pickles and grilled cheese sandwich you’ll ever eat.

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When the bass player comes around with the tip jar, she’ll ask you where you’re from, and how you like the music, and how often you come here, and if you have any kids, and if you’d like to go see her son’s band play.

The table nearest the stage has a sign taped to it that says, “Reserved for Burt and Carol.”

On the way to the bathroom, you’ll pass life-size cardboard cutouts of Dolly Parton and Alan Jackson, and depending how many vodka lemonades you had, you might try to hug them.

Nashville Palace

Nashville Palace

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There is a 70% chance someone will call you a “purdy little thing,” no matter your gender, age, or how purdy you actually look.

The entire dessert menu is as follows: “Moon pies…$1.”

When you get up to leave, the band will nod and smile at you and the bartender will say, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” and you’ll say, “Oh, I will. I most definitely will.”

Nashville Palace

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is a popular bucket list item for good reason: it’s a geothermal spa full of bright blue water that’s said to possess healing powers. It looks like a scene from an ’80s movie about mermaids. In pictures and in person, it is hard to believe it’s real.

I had a vague plan to visit the Blue Lagoon during my two days in Iceland, but when a giant man selling tiny donuts in a park in Reykjavik told me I had to go, well, that settled it. I woke up early the next morning, tossed my swimsuit in my backpack, zipped up my jacket that was still soaking wet from the rainstorm the day before, and set off into the biting cold toward the bus station.

It takes about an hour to get from the city center to the Blue Lagoon, and most of the drive is on a shockingly well maintained highway that cuts straight through lava fields. Behind you, in front of you, on both sides, all you see is black rock. Then, as you near the Lagoon, you’ll catch a glimpse of water here and there. Pockets of turquoise glimmering in the bleak landscape, proof that the pictures in the brochures weren’t Photoshopped — the water really is that blue.

The bus pulled into the parking lot and we all filed out, walking on a path curving between high ridges of jagged volcanic rock that led to the futuristic visitor’s center/spa. After waiting in line and paying an exorbitant amount for the privilege of renting a robe and a locker, I changed into my swimsuit, showered, and stepped outside for my first glimpse of the Blue Lagoon.

The steam rising up off the water made it hard to see anything but silhouettes of people against the turquoise water, but the whole scene was still stunning — the brilliant blue of the water contrasted with the black rocks, the dark clouds in the distance, the mist.

It was starting to rain lightly, and the wind gusts were so cold they made my skin hurt. I took off my robe and sprinted toward the water, easing myself in up to my shoulders. Oh my God. Suspended between the freezing air and the warm water, I was stunned into a daze of excitement and gratitude and disbelief. I couldn’t believe I was actually here, in Iceland, submerged in these calming, healing waters, heated by the earth. And then —

“WOOOOOOO!!!!”

A chorus of male voices snapped me out of my meditative state. I looked to my right and saw a large group of twenty-something dudes raising beer cups in my direction. “YEEEAAAHHH!” they yelled, running their hands through gelled hair and adjusting their mirrored sunglasses. I looked around and saw that the lagoon was filled with groups of similarly outfitted guys, sloshing beer and mixed drinks into the water and hollering in different languages.

Once I accidentally went to a pool party at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. There was a DJ playing Sean Paul remixes and frat guys fist-pumping from lounge chairs and a girl dry-heaving in the pool while her friends yelled, “Not here! Hold it in!” It was terrible, but I was at a pool party in Las Vegas, so it was exactly what I had expected. I was not expecting a Vegas pool party in the Blue Lagoon. It had occurred to me that I might see a mermaid or a water sprite here, but douchebags yelling pick-up lines and waving around plastic cups of beer? And a lagoon-side bar to cater to them? I couldn’t wrap my head around it, and the cognitive dissonance was giving me a migraine.

Staying low and avoiding eye contact, I made my way over to a far corner of the lagoon, sheltered from the wind and the Treasure Island party scene. I smeared my face, neck, and chest with some of the complimentary mud that’s provided in tubs around the water’s edge, took a deep breath, and let myself tip backwards below the surface, trying to find peace and buoyancy.

Soon I was floating, ears submerged. Occasionally a round of laughs and cheers would echo in my ears, but for the most part I was enveloped in silence. After a few minutes trying to calm my own thoughts and center myself, the people and ruckus around me disappeared.

Bobbing gently in the warm water, looking up at the cloudy Iceland sky, I should have been content. This was a bucket list moment, after all. The fucking Blue Lagoon. But I wasn’t content. I hadn’t been content for a long time.

A few months before, I’d quit my full-time writing job. I knew I needed a break — from writing, from the internet, from trying to force constant creative output when I felt completely and utterly burned out — but I didn’t know much else than that. I’d put in my notice without a backup plan, expecting that within a few weeks I’d figure something out, or at least have a renewed zeal for writing that I could channel into new job opportunities. Instead, months later, I had a dwindling savings account, a part-time retail job, and zero interest in picking up a pen or opening my laptop. Not writing — not wanting to write — was new and terrifying territory for me. Each day that passed plunged me deeper into uncertainty and insecurity, not just about the future of my career, but my entire concept of self. If I wasn’t a writer, what was I? Who was I?

When people at parties asked, “So, what do you do?” I’d avert my eyes and mumble, “I have no idea.” If the question had been “Who are you?” or “What is your passion?” or “Why are you on this planet?” my answer would have been exactly the same.

And now I was in Iceland, floating in the Blue Lagoon, on a trip that had depleted the remainder of my savings (and then some, thanks to a massive miscalculation at a Reykjavik ATM). I was flying home the next day. The need for an epiphany, clarity, guidance — anything — felt more urgent than ever. So I did what any sane person would do: I asked the water for help.

I didn’t say any words out loud, but I concentrated all my energy into one question, envisioning my plea reverberating out through the lagoon, and the water bringing an answer back to me.

“What is my life purpose?”

Over and over again I silently asked this question, getting more and more desperate for an answer. What is my life purpose? What is my life purpose? What is my life purpose?

For a long time, there was silence. I started feeling frantic. I couldn’t go home without an answer. “Please, please, please,” I was begging now. “What is my life purpose?”

Then, three words came back:

“To find it.”

The answer came from within me and around me. It was a forceful whisper. I heard it and I felt it.

To find it.

I couldn’t help but laugh at what a perfectly definitive non-answer it was. It reminded me of the Zen koans my dad used to recite to me growing up. It was an answer that chased the tail of my question right back to the beginning, but it was also the most beautiful, comforting idea I’d ever been forced to consider.

My life purpose was to find my life purpose.

After two hours in the lagoon, I got out, retrieved my nearly frozen robe, showered, and got dressed. Settling into my seat for the bus ride back to Reykjavik, I felt calmer than I had in a long time. Suddenly it seemed like everything — the uncertainty, the internal struggles, the aimless wandering — was part of the plan. Nothing was certain, but there was something freeing about that, about knowing how much I didn’t know. The end might be the beginning. The question might be the answer.

Maybe I’d write again, maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d figure out a 5-year plan for my career, maybe I’d go with the flow and see what happened. Maybe I’d fail, maybe I’d succeed. Maybe I’d realize those two concepts aren’t so different.

But right now, I was on a bus in Iceland, hair dripping with Blue Lagoon water, surrounded on every side by indistinguishable black rock that stretched out to the horizon. I didn’t know what direction I was heading, but I knew I was trying to find my way, and maybe that was the whole point.

P.S. Read more about my Iceland adventures here!

Scenes From A Solo Trip To Memphis

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I’m listening to podcasts in the car, alone, on the 3-hour drive to Memphis. Stephen Tobolowsky is on The Nerdist talking about the health problems he’s faced throughout his life and what he’s learned from them. “The greatest gift in the world we have is time,” he says. I keep hitting rewind to listen to him say it again.

I’m sitting at a bar in Overton Square, openly sulking because my best friend Katelyn was supposed to meet me here, for a fun night together, but her flight from Portland got canceled. I’m drinking a watermelon cocktail called “the farmer’s daughter.” The bartender keeps looking at me sympathetically and saying, “Are you OK, babygirl?” There’s a couple next to me on a first date. They sip their drinks in silence for a long time and finally the guy says, “So, do you like Dr. Who?” The girl says no. Twenty minutes later, he asks again.

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The next morning, after breakfast, I’m walking around downtown. I’m still in a serious funk, feeling lonely and sorry for myself. I like traveling alone, I think, but not when I was supposed to be traveling with my best friend. I’m playing the victim card, hard. Ignoring the sidewalk cafes and beautiful old buildings and even the majesty of the Mississippi River one block over, focused instead on my tragic plight. I decide to call my mom. “I’m in Memphis alone and I’m depressed,” I say. I tell her about Katelyn’s canceled flight and that I basically just drove 200 miles by myself to have a pity party. My mom genuinely empathizes for about 30 seconds and then gets to telling me — in the kindest way possible — to snap the hell out of it. “Nona, you’re in Memphis! You have a whole day to do whatever you want to do! What was it that Kurt Vonnegut said? ‘Unexpected travel plans are dancing lessons from God.’ SO GO DANCE.” Her words are like a bucket of ice water dumped on my head. Jarring, energizing, exactly what I needed. By the time I thank her and hang up the phone, I feel reborn. I’m ready to dance.

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Now I’m walking along Beale Street at 8 in the morning, in the rain. There’s no one else around. Just empty blues clubs and wet sidewalks. For the first time since I arrived, I’m happy to be alone. It feels like a strange, wonderful gift to see such an iconic place on my own — not just alone on the street itself, but alone in the city.

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On the way to the National Civil Rights Museum, I turn a corner and am suddenly face to face with the Lorraine Motel balcony where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It’s been preserved to look exactly as it did on that day, right down to the vintage cars parked underneath. My breath catches in my throat. Getting closer, I hear his speeches being played on loop. It’s still early in the morning, but there’s a large group of people gathered here, listening. I join them. The history, the loss, the pain, it’s all palpable. It’s real and immediate. It hurts.

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I’m sitting on a bench overlooking the Mississippi River, thinking about life and history and time. The greatest gift in the world we have is time. The greatest gift in the world we have is time.

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I’m at a candy shop. There are rows of glass jars filled with toffee, gummy bears, caramels, jellybeans, chocolate-covered everything. I fill two little baggies with chocolate-covered cashews and chocolate-covered Oreos, which are $11.15 and $15.40 per pound, respectively. Both look like generic clumps of chocolate to me, and neither bag is labeled, but the guy at the counter instantly keys their prices into the register before I can even tell him what they are. “Can you tell the difference between all these candies just by sight?” I ask, gesturing to the 30 different jars of identical, marble-sized balls of chocolate behind me. “Oh yes,” he says. “The only two that give me trouble are the dark chocolate espresso beans and the dark chocolate peanuts. Those can get a little tricky.” For some reason I love knowing that there’s a man in Memphis who works at a candy shop who can identify a hundred different chocolates but can’t quite get the peanuts and espresso beans.

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I’m at a Mexican restaurant, sitting alone at a table for two near the kitchen. The waiter is insistent on learning my name, so much so that he’s writing it down on a napkin. “W-Y-N-A-D-A,” he spells out triumphantly. “Is that right?” I laugh and tell him no, it’s Winona, like Winona Ryder? He says, “Oh. Well I wouldn’t know how to spell her name either.” Then he squats down next to the table to tell me the specials. “We are famous for our tableside guacamole. It’s perfect for sharing with — oh.” He looks over at the empty chair and grimaces, then turns back to me and says, sympathetically, “Well maybe you can come back with a friend someday and try the guacamole?” I laugh about this exchange until my oyster tacos arrive. They’re delicious.

I’m in the car on the way to Graceland, eating chocolate-covered Oreos and listening to Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” The road is winding through forests, passing old cemeteries and new outlet malls. I’m singing with the windows down, unabashedly loud. Shouting, really. “I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland!”

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I’m standing in Elvis Presley’s living room. I’m standing in Elvis Presley’s fucking living room. I’ve never considered myself a huge Elvis fan but I am absolutely giddy about this. I tap the man next to me on the shoulder and say, “Can you believe we’re here?” He squints at me over his glasses and frowns, “My iPad tour is stuck on the dining room.” The iPad tour is required for all Graceland guests. It is narrated by John Stamos.

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On the way home there’s no radio reception and my phone battery is dead, so I have a lot of quiet time to think. I’m thinking about Memphis, and how I want to go back soon. I’m thinking about my best friend, about how much I miss her since I moved away. I’m thinking about being alone, how difficult it can be. I’m thinking about Elvis’ dance moves, and dance lessons from God, and how maybe they’re the same thing.

Donuts & Loathing In Louisville

Louisville

We chose a weird day to go to Louisville.

It was a Monday, first of all. My brother Devin had been visiting from Portland, and was leaving super early the next morning. My boyfriend Nick had just worked something like 11 days in a row, early morning shifts, and was enthusiastic but understandably exhausted. A formidable thunderstorm that had sparked tornadoes across the midwest was headed our way, pointed directly at the route from Nashville to Louisville. If you’ve never been in the south just before a big storm, believe me when I tell you it’s a strange experience, on a few different levels. The atmosphere is uncomfortably hot and balmy, punctured by sharp wind gusts and crackling with electricity. There’s something else in the air though: anticipation. You can feel how close the storm is, how badly the sky needs to break open and release all that built-up rain and lightning and fury. The best way I’ve found to describe it is, “Imagine you’re crammed inside someone’s nose and they’re about to sneeze…for like 6 hours.” It fucks with your sinuses and your emotions equally. Before a storm, I get a migraine and a nagging sense of anxiety that doesn’t let up until the first clap of thunder.

On that Monday morning, getting ready to leave, I felt a familiar throbbing in my temple. But we wanted to take Devin on a southern road trip and damnit, this was the day we were going to do it. The three of us piled into my car at 8AM. Nick fell asleep in the passenger seat almost instantly, leaving Devin and me to practice raunchy Italian phrases and civil war trivia for the three hour drive.

By the time we arrived we were starving. We followed signs off the highway pointing toward a “historic district” – because that must be cute, right? – and stumbled across an adorable little bakery called Nord’s. A quick Googling revealed this was one of the “must eat” places in Louisville. How serendipitous! How meant to be! So even though none of us were particularly in the mood for sweets, but hungry and tired and in dire need of protein, we went in.

We were met by large glass cases full of donuts and a woman with one of those faces that exudes sunshine. “Morning, y’all!” she said. “What can I get ya?”

We each chose a donut, and she asked how our day was going while bagging them up. I told her it was our first time in Louisville.

The woman smiled. “Well,” she said, “We need to get you a welcome gift!” She grabbed some extra donut bags and started filling them with donuts — filled donuts, jelly donuts, eclairs, maple bars, cinnamon swirls. She held up a maple bar coated with crushed nuts and cinnamon. “This is my favorite kind,” she said, filling up a bag with 4 of them and handing it to Nick, “and I don’t even like nuts!”

We thanked her profusely and left with 3 armfuls of donut bags. Nick spotted a coffee shop just down the block, so we waddled over, ordered iced coffees, and sat down in a corner to enjoy our spoils. I took a bite of the cinnamon nut bar that was the donut lady’s favorite. It was so good I finished it off in 3 bites.

Devin, who can give you a detailed breakdown of any movie star’s fitness regimen and is prone to saying things like, “My body is a temple,” ate half a custard-filled round before announcing that was the first donut he’d eaten in 10 years and he could already feel the sugar poisoning him. Nick and I ate two donuts a piece. Maybe two and half. Maybe three. Maybe four. Maybe five. Those minutes are kind of a blur now, to be honest. A sweet, delicious blur.

Louisville Bakery

Louisville

Louisville
Dangerously high on sugar, we crammed the leftover donuts in the trunk and piled back into the car to head downtown.

I have an annoying tendency to latch onto a word or phrase that I believe sums up whatever new place I’m exploring, and then repeat it nonstop for the entire time I’m there (in Birmingham, for example, after seeing a number of impressively sculpted hairstyles, I kept saying, “People here are so well-groomed!” until Nick was finally like, “What does that even mean?”). In Louisville that word was “urbane,” as in, “This place is so urbane! People here are so urbane! Look at that guy! Look how urbane he is!” I think Devin actually said it first, while we were navigating the hurried swathes of young professionals on their lunch break downtown, but I fixated on the word because it perfectly summed up my surprise at how different Louisville was from Nashville. They’re both friendly southern cities to be sure (just ask the free donut lady), but Louisville struck me as more formal and sophisticated. People here were more dressed up, a little more serious. The downtown area is rich in history, full of  brick buildings and candy-colored storefronts, but there’s a sense of modernity and worldliness that reminded me more of downtown Seattle than other southern cities I’ve been to.

Louisville

Louisville

Louisville

Louisville
We walked along Main Street for a bit before ducking into a gorgeous little cafe called Proof for lunch. After sitting down we realized the restaurant was connected to a hotel which was also a modern art gallery (say it with me now: how urbane!). The route from our table to the restrooms was stocked with large-scale paintings, sculptures, and interactive exhibits. A tiny television screen over the sink in the women’s bathroom flashed staticky video of a man’s eyes watching you as you wash your hands. Unsettling, but cool — the way art should be, right?

Everything we ate for lunch – a bison burger for Devin, gulf shrimp roll for me, cauliflower sandwich for Nick – was fantastic, but I have to take a moment to pay proper respects to the complimentary baguette they served before the meal.

Nick is a pastry chef and is usually a super harsh critic of baked goods. Like, to an entertaining degree. One of my favorite things to do upon spotting a deflated-looking croissant in the pastry case of a coffee shop is nudge Nick, point at it, and wait for the inevitable dramatic sighs and muttered comments — “That thing doesn’t even deserve to call itself a croissant!” I’m positive he was a temperamental Parisian chef de cuisine in his most recent former life. As you can imagine, getting a compliment from Nick about a baked good is a rare thing, a huge deal. And this baguette they served at Proof, this perfectly crunchy, chewy, light, airy, golden brown baguette? Nick deemed it the best baguette he’s ever eaten. We really should start carrying around a plaque and a mariachi band for such occasions. (The baguette was from Blue Dog Bakery, by the way. Well done! Your plaque is in the mail.)

I’d say lunch was the high point of the day, literally, because we were still riding a massive sugar high from the donut binge just before. Unfortunately you can’t soar on the wings of fried dough forever, and as soon as we left the restaurant we crashed in spectacular fashion. Suddenly the three of us had no energy. We dragged our feet in the heat of the early afternoon. The wind was picking up, strong enough now to knock you off balance. “I forgot how to walk!” I whimpered to Devin and Nick, who both seemed to be struggling too. We limped over to look at the Ohio River from a waterfront promenade, breathing heavily. We all stared at the choppy water in silence, surely thinking the same thing: “Why the fuck did we eat so many donuts on an empty stomach?” My head started pounding. Finally Nick said, “Cool bridge.” That seemed like as good a summation as any, so we got back in the car to go explore other neighborhoods.

Louisville

Louisville

Louisville

Louisville

Louisville

The next couple hours included a bit of shopping and browsing in NuLu, an area of little shops and cafes in beautifully restored old buildings, and a lot of sitting on benches staring into the distance. Somehow, late in the afternoon, we ended up walking slowly along Bardstown Road. I don’t even remember how we got there. “Louisville is so cool,” Devin said, “but all I want to do is take a nap in the car.” (The next day, a few hours after dropping Devin off at the airport, I would get a text from him: “Hey, I realized why I was being so weird in Louisville. I have the flu.”) We were about to call it a day and head home early when I noticed a bookstore on the next block. Carmichael’s Bookstore.

Last year Nick and I sat next to a man from Louisville at a wedding. We got to talking. He said he owned a bookstore. I was taking a break from writing at the time, and honestly, feeling so burned out I wasn’t sure if I would ever write again. This man told me to keep writing, and when Nick mentioned that I had written the first draft of a children’s book, he promised to stock it in his bookstore when it came out. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I think the name of that bookstore was Carmichael’s.

And what a beautiful bookstore it was. I looked around and unfortunately didn’t see my literary fairy godfather behind the counter (maybe he was off inspiring other frustrated writers), but I did see floor-to-ceiling shelves and quirky art work and a warm, welcoming space. Nick, Devin, and I split up into our favorite sections (cooking, history, and poetry, respectively). I plopped down on the floor with a stack of haiku anthologies and instantly felt my migraine subside.

Louisville

Louisville

Carmichael's Bookstore

I don’t know if it was the quiet time, surrounded by the serenity of books, or the fact that the sky finally, mercifully let loose a massive downpour while we were there, but by the time we left the bookstore, the three of us felt rejuvenated and renewed. Within a few seconds we were completely soaked, but we were also cogent and energized and giddy for the first time since arriving in Louisville. Thank you, Carmichael’s.

Just down the road was an old church that had been turned into a bar called Holy Grale. We ran inside to escape the rain and get some food. Sitting upstairs, sipping beers, watching the rain pour on the roof outside the thick window panes, we all took a deep breath and reflected on the day. “We’ll come back here,” I said dramatically, raising my glass. “We’ll come back on a day when the weather’s better and we’re well rested and we won’t eat any donuts or just a normal amount of donuts, and we’ll have an amazing time.” Cheers.

Louisville

I was dreading driving back in the downpour, but as soon as we got in the car, the rain stopped. On the way home, we were treated to the most beautiful Kentucky sunset. Maybe the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. Orange and blue brush strokes across the sky, framed by green rolling hills. It lasted for what seemed like a very long time. And we all watched it in silence, savoring every second.

A Road Trip To Florida, In Numbers & Pictures

Navarre Beach, Florida

Miles from Nashville, Tennessee to Navarre Beach, Florida: 451

Amount of time we thought it would take to get there: 6.5 hours

Time it actually took: 9.5 hours

Number of dead armadillos we saw on the side of the highway: A truly alarming amount.

Number of times I called my brother to ask if seeing 1,000 dead armadillos in one day was a bad omen: 2 (he said “no” and “well, probably not”)

Frequency with which Nick and I said some version of, “Wait, why didn’t anyone tell me Alabama is fucking gorgeous?” while driving through Alabama: Once every 10 minutes.

Alabama
Length of time I sulked after seeing the roadside rocket in Huntsville, Alabama and realizing I’m 30 now and I still don’t work for NASA: 2 hours

Number of coffee shops in Birmingham that were closed when we stopped there for a coffee break: All of them but one.

Birmingham, Alabama

How much we loved the one coffee shop that was open, on a scale of 1-10: 10

Birmingham Coffee ShopTime we finally rolled into Navarre Beach: 10:30 PM

Navarre Beach, Florida

Number of restaurants that were open within a 20-mile radius of our hotel: 1 (what up, Mellow Mushroom!)

Florida

Amount of time we had on the beach the following morning before the first thunderstorm rolled in: 20 minutes

Florida

Number of dolphins we saw frolicking in the waves that more than made up for said storm: 15

Number of times an angry fisherman stomping around on the pier muttered, “Fucking dolphins!” under his breath: 10

Number of tourists wearing Margaritaville t-shirts pointing at the fucking dolphins yelling, “Are those great white sharks?!”: 3

Navarre Beach, Florida

Navarre Beach Florida

Navarre Beach, Florida

Florida

Amount of time it took me to convince Nick to give our hotel’s continental breakfast a chance: 1 hour

Number of waffles from said continental breakfast Nick ultimately ate over a 3-day period: 7 (with maple syrup, crumbled Reese’s peanut butter cups, and whipped cream, natch)

Navarre Beach, Florida

Number of days it rained while we were there: 2 out of 3

Number of possible rainy day activities, according to the barista at a nearby coffee shop: 2 (mini golf at the mall or betting on billiards at a bar down the road)

Nick in Navarre Beach

Episodes of “Cutthroat Kitchen” we watched during a particularly ferocious rainstorm: 5 (god that show is amazing)

Navarre Beach, Florida

Amount of boiled peanuts we bought at a road side stand: 1 large styrofoam cup

Navarre Beach Florida

Number of angry ducks who attacked us for said boiled peanuts: 2 (“They’re friendly, said the boiled peanut vendor, “as long as you give them all your peanuts.”)

Navarre Beach, Florida

Number of months that have passed since Nick bought a pair of rollerblades at Goodwill: 6

Number of times since then I’ve tried to make him give them back to Goodwill: 50

Number of times he’d used his rollerblades before this trip: zero.

Navarre Beach FLorida

Number of seconds after he put on his rollerblades and struck this pose that I admitted I was wrong, his rollerblades are amazing, and he should absolutely keep them forever: 5

Navarre Beach, Florida

Hours it took to get home, thanks to massive construction delays: 11

Number of those hours I spent asking Nick “clever” conversation-starters, like, “How would your life be different if you were named Steve?”: 10.5

Number of vegetable side dishes offered at the roadside cafe where we ate lunch on the way home: 3

Florida

Number of those vegetables that were poundcake: 1 (“We count it as a vegetable here, honey,” said the waitress.)

Weeks it took to fully recover from our sunburns: 2

This Is The Story Of A Jar Of Jam

Paris
Nick and I had spent almost a month in Paris before we made it to the Canal Saint-Martin, which, according to every guidebook, is an absolute must-see. It wasn’t an intentional snub by any means; it’s just that our preferred mode of sightseeing is to wander around randomly, get lost, binge on pastries, and see what cool things we stumble upon along the way. We’d stumbled upon many amazing sights, neighborhoods, and croissants this way, but somehow, our ambling, carbohydrate-fueled path had never led us to the famous canal. But with our trip winding down, and our current apartment within easy walking distance, there was no excuse.

That morning we woke up early, got dressed, and started walking in the canal’s general direction. After two blocks, we popped into a corner brasserie for an espresso. We stood at the counter until the stern-looking man behind the counter nodded in our direction.

“Un espresso, mon soir,” I said, before Nick nudged me and I corrected myself, red in the face. “Monsieur!” I said authoritatively. “MONSIEUR.” The man eyed me with a mix of confusion and amusement (I hope?) and started pulling our shots.

Somehow on this trip I’d gotten it in my head that “monsieur,” the French word for “Sir” and a necessary formality when greeting any Frenchman, was pronounced “Mon-SWAAAHHH,” which translates to, I guess, “My eeeeeeevening?” It’s a very strange thing to say to someone who’s about to serve you coffee or cut you a piece of brie, especially in the overly dramatic, Quebecois accent I’d picked up from listening to Celine Dion.

Luckily espresso in Paris, even espresso ordered in a shameful deluge of mangled French, is always perfect. We stirred in cubes of sugar, looking around at the grandiose bar and admiring the old men sipping white wine and reading the morning newspaper. We left a couple euros on the counter and continued our trek. The weather was perfect – sunny, blue skies, pleasantly breezy. After a few wrong turns and a stop at a Turkish bakery for breakfast – fried balls of dough slathered in honey and rose syrup, because why not? – we arrived.

Canal Saint-Martin

The Canal Saint-Martin was indeed beautiful, winding through a tree-lined neighborhood and criss-crossed with arched foot bridges that looked to be straight out of a fairytale. The view was breathtaking. The smell was breath-stifling. Judging by the odor, the “water” running through these canals was 90% urine. But who cares? We were in Paris on a perfect sunny day. Not even a suffocating urine smell could hinder our good moods.

Canal Saint-Martin

Paris

Paris

Canal Saint-Martin

Nick and I strolled along the canals, holding hands and noses, scheming, as always, about how we could move here one day. We took off our shoes and sat on the edge of the water for awhile, playing one of our favorite games, Senior Pictures, in which we take turns pretending to be a high school student getting their yearbook photo taken by an obnoxious photographer. (“Smile like you’re being crowned prom king! Gaze off into the distance and squint slightly like you’re looking into your bright future!”)

Canal Saint-Martin

Pretty good, right?

Canal Saint-Martin

Harvard is my safety school.

The shops and restaurants in this area had a much different feel than other parts of Paris. They were younger, funkier, a little hipster. Store fronts were painted hot pink, lime green, and bright yellow, and teenagers in skinny jeans and Ray-Bans smoked cigarettes while waiting in long lines outside trendy cafes.

Paris

 

Paris

We popped into a small boutique that caught my eye with a display of crocheted jewelry in the window. The inside was stocked with handmade accessories, art, and vintage clothes. Heaven, in other words. The woman who worked there smiled brightly when we walked in. “Bonjour!” she said with open arms.

“Bonjour!” we greeted back, and then she launched into an exuberant flurry of French, none of which we could understand.

“Je ne parle pas Francais,” I said with an apologetic expression. “Je suis désolé.”

“Oh, OK,” she said, still smiling. “I speak a little English.”

We chatted with her as we browsed the shop, trying on rings and picking up wildly printed vintage dresses. “You would look like Beyonce if you wear that,” she said, giggling. “Do you enjoy Paris?”

“YES,” Nick and I both said in unison. “We love it here. We want to move here.”

“I’m from Lorraine,” she said. “Do you know this place?”

We shook our heads.

“It is beautiful, and we grow a special fruit there. Mirabelle. Do you know it?”

Again, we shook our heads.

“Hmm…it’s like a cherry? But no. Like, peach? But no.” She held up a hand, motioned for us to hold on one second, then ran behind the counter and grabbed her iPhone. She typed something into it and then held up the screen to show us a what looked like an orange plum. “Mirabelle!” she exclaimed.

“It looks so good!” we said. “We want to try it!”

“It is THE BEST. I look at it and I want to eat my phone!” She said, pretending to gnaw on the screen. “You must try it. We make jam with it. You must buy some mirabelle jam.”

And that’s how we came to spend the next couple days searching furiously for a jar of mirabelle jam to bring home with us. We went to large grocery stores and specialty food purveyors, but there was no sign of mirabelle. I’m told now that it’s very easy to find in France, but for whatever reason, fate or dramatic effect, it wasn’t until our last evening in Paris that we were able to track down a jar.

The sky was getting dark and shops were starting to close up for the night. It looked like our mirabelle mission was going to be a failure.

“We cannot leave France without a jar of mirabelle jam!” Nick said, an edge of desperation in his voice. “We will push our flight back if we have to!” And then we saw it: a little gourmet food store on the corner a block away.

“Are they still open?” I said, squinting to see if their lights were still on.

“Who cares, let’s go!” Nick cried, and took off running. We sprinted up to the door and pulled the handle. It opened. Glory glory hallelujah, it opened. The shop was stocked with all kinds of glorious treats – chocolates, aged vinegar, sardines, herbs – and there, nestled onto a shelf of preserves, were 3 little jars of bright orange mirabelle jam. We danced in the aisle, then we bought them all. The next morning, we left for the airport.

Back home in Nashville, we opened the mirabelle jam and took our first bites. It was totally worth the effort. The taste was like a combination of apricot, plum, and mandarin orange. It was sweet and refreshing, with big chunks of chewy mirabelle. Nick made fresh baguette and we ate it with butter and mirabelle jam every morning, dreaming of Paris.

But alas, mirabelle jam, like all wonderful things, must come to an end. When we scraped the last bit out of the bottom of the last jar, we mourned for the traditional 3 month period, and then we were jonesing for more. Could we have ordered some on Amazon? Probably, but I thought it would be more fun to get it straight from the source. Since plane tickets to France weren’t in the budget, I sent a Facebook message to my friends Sarah and Shawn, who happen to live in France. Sarah is from there, and met Shawn while she was going to school in Oregon. They’d moved back to France together after getting married, and were currently living in Lille. I miss them.

I told them the saga of our mirabelle jam quest, how we’d found it, eaten it, run out, and needed more. Would they be interested in sending us some in exchange for some goodies from Tennessee?

They wrote back: “We have the mirabelle jam, but it’s handmade by Sarah’s grandma.”

Life. Dream. Status.

In another bit of serendipitous news, it turned out Shawn was coming to Georgia to visit relatives the following month. Mailing the jam from one state away instead of an ocean away would be much cheaper, so he wrapped up our jam and nestled it into his suitcase. That’s how it happened that one day we got a package in our mailbox, postmarked from Shawn’s family’s town in Georgia, with a jar of handmade mirabelle jam from Sarah’s family’s town in France.

Mirabelle Jam

We opened it up and set the jar of jam, adorably packaged and labeled by Sarah’s grandmother, on the counter in our little house in Nashville. Then we dug in with spoons.

Between talking about how this was by far the best jam we’ve ever had, and yelling at each other to “Ration it! Ration it, for the love of god!,” I thought about that happy lady from Lorraine in the boutique by the Canal Saint-Martin, the iPhone that let her show us a photo of her favorite fruit, the gourmet shop that was open late on our last night in Paris, the social network that let me ask my friends – half a world away – if they might send us some more, and the planes that had criss-crossed the Atlantic carrying people and memories and little glass jam jars.

All the things that brought us to this very moment, this moment of awe at the amazing world we live in. The moment I realized gratitude tastes like a mouthful of sweet mirabelle jam.