Day 4: Driving Across Texas

Before leaving San Antonio that Monday morning at the end of February, we had to get another good Mexican meal in our stomachs. The west of Texas was waiting; we better be prepared.

Taco Taco is a small taco shop that’s been featured on Food Network and in national food magazines. Bon Appetit proclaimed it to have the best tacos in America. The interior and food is nothing fancy–seat yourself at one of the small tables, so close together that your chair may be touching another customer’s. While we opted for breakfast plates rather than tacos, our dishes still came with the soft, warm homemade tortillas, served in a cast iron comal. My dad ordered huevos mexicanos, while I enjoyed my huevos rancheros. While not as spicy as some may hope for, the food was flavorful and fresh.

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After that breakfast–and accidentally sleeping in–our day was off to a late start. We didn’t leave San Antonio until about 11 a.m.   And then we drove. And drove. And drove some more. We stopped frequently to fill up our gas tank, and fear of running out in west Texas convinced us to pay ridiculous amounts per gallon at one station. Every few hours, we’d also stop for some more drinks–teas, juices, sodas, plus the many water bottles we filled at the hotels each morning. Hydration was key.

Perhaps the most important part of our drive through west Texas was our purchase of The Da Vinci Code audiobook that took a few hours to download onto my dad’s phone. Suspense and intrigue kept our attention for miles and miles, chapters and chapters. I’d never read it before, and though it meant we didn’t even have time to listen to any podcasts or NPR newscasts or music on the radio, we were OK with that. This book may be difficult to listen to on shorter road trips, but for three full days, it occupied our minds. If we missed even a few minutes of the audio, we were lost. Listening to the complex and ever-evolving story also prevented either of us from napping for the entire 3,000-mile trip.

Our single stop of any notable length was in Fort Stockton, around 4 p.m. Home to the world’s second largest roadrunner statue, this seemed like a town we couldn’t miss.  Right? That, and Rachel (and the two of us!) needed to walk a bit. At first, we couldn’t even find the Roadside America-famed statue, but then lo and behold, there it was, at the intersection by the visitors center and Main Street. Paisano Pete, as the statue is named, used to be the world’s largest, but was unthroned by a roadrunner made of recyclables in neighboring New Mexico. Stop in the visitors center though, and they’ll still give you a free pin to remember your stop. Plus, next door was a beer-thru, so after our pb&j’s, we picked up a 6-pack of Texas-brewed Shiner Bock to drink whenever we finally made it to our hotel in the next state.

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Hours passed in the car, and we drove onward, past tiny towns that were no longer towns and parallel to mountain ranges in Mexico. We drove through traffic-heavy El Paso and, finally, into New Mexico. A lack of dog walking time left Rachel very anxious and unsettled that night, and fetch-on-a-leash, walks around the hotel and around the hotel again, and lots of bone chewing didn’t help. Not until she hopped into my bed did she finally start to settle down, slightly, and we could all get some much-needed sleep.

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Day 3: San Antonio

Don’t let the title of this post fool you. Texas didn’t swallow the three of us up, with it’s sky-sized flags and cowboy hats. We made it to San Diego long ago–I have a job! It’s sunny! We need to buy furniture!–but first, I want to finish telling you about how my dad and I got here.

After leaving snowy Virginia, driving through flat Mississippi and eating tasty fried seafood in Baton Rouge, my dad, dog and I began the drive into Texas. Let me tell you, it’s a huge state, more than a day’s drive across. I-10 keeps going and going and going. Luckily, this first day wasn’t too bad, for we only drove 5 hours from Lake Charles, Louisiana (home to many oil refineries) to San Antonio.

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The country’s seventh largest city, San Antonio is more than just the Alamo. We even decided to skip the historic site. Having only a few hours to take in as much as possible, touring the shrine from the Texas Revolution didn’t seem to be the most captivating spot. Plus, dogs can’t go in, and if Rachel couldn’t see the Alamo, then we didn’t want to either.

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OK. I lied. We did stop for a photo op!

Instead, once we pulled off the interstate, and located a large green spot on the iPhone map, which turned out to be the spot for Sunday afternoon tailgates for native San Antonians. Hispanic families, with a dozen or more members and their friends all in tow, hauled grills, smokers, stereos and speakers to the 343-acre park, where the city’s river begins. If most Americans spend Sundays tailgating before the sports game, I think I prefer the San Antonio way, enjoying the park and family atmosphere, rather than focus on football. (But, please don’t make me move to Texas.) Cars had double parked through the park, and we wondered what time some families had arrived to stake out their spot for the day. A few dads must have arrived early for a prime table for a birthday party, marked by streamers and balloons on surrounding trees. The smells of smoking meat permeated the air, and dad and Rachel probably would have liked to stop for the rest of the afternoon.

Instead, our tummies were fueled with a sandwich and soup from Joseph’s Storehouse Restaurant & Bakery. One surefire way to convince my family to stop is to hang a sign proclaiming yourself the city’s best bakery. A few blocks from the park, this bakery-turned-church-on-Sundays seemed our best choice. We shared a veggie crunch sandwich, full of sprouts, cabbage, carrots, sunflower seeds, guac, monterey jack and tomatoes, served on fresh baked bread, along with a bowl of red beans and rice soup. Two huge housemade iced teas completed our meal, that we enjoyed at the park, where Rachel eyed a river full of colorful ducks and other waterfowl.

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After checking into a recently remodeled and dog-friendly Red Roof Inn in downtown, we walked the few blocks to the popular River Walk. Built one story beneath the streets of downtown, the River Walk is a public park lined with restaurants and shops. It began as a flood control project, and has become a must-stop for visitors and residents alike. The temperature noticeably dropped as we walked down the stairs, after a quick photo-op in front of the nearby Alamo. The pup was so excited to walk along the river, and wanted to jump in and chase ducks, or grab dinners of the tables lining the walkway. She wasn’t allowed to do either, until a boat ramp offered a chance for a quick dip. Sunday’s miles of walking through the park and along the river were a nice escape from the confines of the Camry. (Rachel slept well that night too, though we did wake up in the middle of the night to her getting sick.)

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For dinner, we decided to finally head out to a nice restaurant. Pearl Brewery, also located along the river, is a brewery-turned-mixed use development, with apartments, offices, lots of restaurants and a campus for the Culinary Institute of America. From the crowd in line, La Gloria seemed to be popular, and for good reason. A pair of locals we chatted with in line for drinks said this was one of their favorite restaurants, and it’s been recognized by national media many times. Our favorite picks that night: a prickly pear margarita and our first-ever ceviche, with shrimp, scallops and crab in a spicy tomato sauce.

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Day 2: Tuscaloosa to Baton Rouge to Lake Charles, LA

Mississippi is flat and full of pine trees. The best fried fish swims on one end of a building and gets fried on the other. And dogs DO NOT like tigers, statues or the real animal.

Those were among the lessons we learned on Saturday, Day 2 of our cross-country road trip. We left our not-so-great Motel 6 south of Birmingham very, very early that morning (7:30 a.m.!), since neither of us slept well. Rachel made herself quite comfortable on my bed that night, a habit that I’m hoping to break immediately after this long drive. But, she’s stressed, and doesn’t know where her new home will be, so, I’m OK with it for now.

A search for green spots on online maps showed that the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa had a nice-sized arboretum with trails. We got off the interstate in a rundown section of town and didn’t see any evidence of the massive college. The road took us to what appeared to be a back entrance to the arboretum—gated. As we sat in the car, the website didn’t want to download, and our iPhone maps told us this was actually a golf course. Not ready to give up, after a few more minutes of driving and hoping maybe there’d be somewhere else to walk, we saw signs and finally found the arboretum, apparently adjacent to land that used to be a golf course. The pup was more than ready for a walk through some quiet woods.

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From Alabama, we drove through Mississippi, a long state with a pine-tree lined interstate and little else. And that’s all we really have to say about Mississippi. My dad did enjoy the free cup of coffee at the first rest stop, our only stop in the state.

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When planning our trip, we realized we could be in New Orleans on the first Saturday of the months-long Mardi Gras celebrations. Never having wanted to go before, this seemed a prime chance. Except, we have a dog. And hotel rooms were booked, with all that’s available a $700 room in the French Quarter or a $38 travel inn motel with one star in Slidell, an hour away. After a few hours of creative brainstorming for what to do with Rachel so we could partake in beignets, king cake and a Saturday night parade through the French Quarter, nothing seemed reasonable.

Instead, I got in touch with my friend Liana, who interned at the paper two summers ago and had recently moved to southern Mississippi with her photographer boyfriend. They met us in Baton Rouge. Our trip planning had been very preliminary, essentially just a rough sketch of our drive. Thank goodness for smart phones though. One of the first items Google pulled up was a brand new 36 Hours article from the New York Times. The travel writer included a blurb about Tony’s Seafood Market & Deli, a place north of town where a sign proclaims: “Swimming on This End. Fried on the Other End.” This sounded exactly like the dive-type spot my mom would find. Guess I’m more like her all the time. We had to stop.

But first, the dog. While waiting for Liana and Daniel, we found a large park nearby, and Rachel commandeered the single tennis court to play fetch in. Fetch! Running! Tennis balls! She was happy. (She’s teaching me how to be a good mom for one day when we have real kids, and, apparently for years, it’s all about making them happy. And finding beers for the boys.)

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And then, it was finally time for lunch, our first real meal of the trip. Tony’s is a combination market and deli. When you walk in, catfish swim in tanks on the right side, though I didn’t see any that Saturday afternoon. Around the market, fresh and frozen seafood is for sale–my dad eyed the huge bags of oysters. The deli is on the left, with two lines–one for po’boys, and the other for more seafood and sides. Overwhelmed when we walked inside, leaving the crowded parking lot where deputies oversee traffic, my dad and I must have looked lost.

Photo by Daniel Lin

Photo by Daniel Lin

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A nice man in a Tony’s polo asked us if we needed help. Yes, please! I asked about the boudin balls, which I anticipated being sausage. William walked to the back, and emerging from the kitchen a minute later, popped something from a paper bag into his mouth and walked over to us. He shared samples with us: boudin balls, a mix of rice and crawfish and spices then fried into balls, and fried catfish strips. The Cajun spice hit you just right, but didn’t linger. Liana and Daniel walked in at that moment, and William brought them a bag of samples too. He also left two Cajun mixes for us at the exit. Though not a traditional lunch spot, we couldn’t be happier. My dad and I ordered a lot of food: crawish boudin balls, a shrimp po’boy, a catfish po’boy, corn, and a bowl of crawfish etouffee, a buttery sauce of onion, bell pepper and crawfish tails, over rice. Using the hood of my car as a table, we stood in the busy parking lot to eat our Louisiana feast.

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Even Rachel enjoyed lunch, licking the buttery corn bowl clean. Stuffed, we drove to the LSU campus for a sunset walk. The highlight was the real tiger that lives next to the stadium. A bronze statue greets visitors outside the singe zoo-type habitat, crouched in a hunting position. Immediately, the pup felt threatened and her tail slunk between her legs. She growled, barked, and acted scared around the statue. The tiger’s smell probably made the statue seem real, and, she may have even seen the real animal. He was huge, and paced around his home. Dog and I didn’t walk directly next to the habitat, for she was unsettled for some time. Daniel got some great shots of Mike the Tiger, a Bengal, before we all hit the road. That night, we still had two more hours to go, over the Mississippi River and through the bayous to Lake Charles, La.

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Photo by Daniel Lin

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Photo by Daniel Lin

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Photo by Daniel Lin

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Day 1: Roanoke to Birmingham

The nearly record breaking snowstorm only set us back by about 2 hours Friday, and we left Wilbur Road around 11 a.m. with 122,557 miles on the Camry. Tissues, dog bones, lots of water bottles and Valentine’s Day brownies tucked in the little car, the 3,000-mile trip began.

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The first day of driving, aside from the snow, was fortunately uneventful. On Interstate 81, we passed several tractor trailers overturned in the median and other wrecked cars in the ditch. So glad that we had heeded the advice to stay home Thursday when 8+ inches of snow was still falling, and, really, that we had planned anyways to leave Friday morning. The sun reflecting off the snow along the interstate was so bright! Who said sunglasses were only for summer?

Somewhere along the way, once we crossed into Tennsessee, we turned on the first audiobook: Tina Fey’s Bossypants. When you accidentally re-listen to an entire chapter and its jokes twice–and still laugh the second time–you know it’s funny. This book got us through the first state-and-a-half, and we’d highly recommend it. Fey, a UVA grad, narrates the audiobook herself, and you hear about how she learned about womanhood (or didn’t) as a preteen, hiked Old Rag in the middle of the night, raises a daughter while working til wee hours of the morning, and the details of the weeks surrounding 30 Rock winning Emmy’s while also portraying Sarah Palin on SNL. (Our second audio book choice failed a chapter in–we need action! suspense! laughs! not details about your alarm going off at 5:30 then you hit snooze then you slowly woke up and pet your cute rescue dog yawwnnnnn–so my dad’s looking for another now.)

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Somewhere in Tennessee, we pulled out the great insulated bag of food and snacks, and slathered peanut butter and my mom’s homemade strawberry jam on sandwich bread. And, because I have a great mom, we enjoyed still-warm brownies baked that morning with red and pink M&M’s, a little something for Valentine’s Day. Thanks, mom :) Brownies and wine became “dinner of champions” in our Motel 6 that night, so, we’re serious with our gratitude. They sustained us for days.

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While driving with a dog, we’ve been looking for green spaces on the iPhone maps. She needs somewhere to walk, and, it’s good for us to get some exercise out of the car, instead of plopping onto hotel beds to watch Olympic figure skating for the rest of the night. Chattanooga’s riverfront park offered a sidewalk along the Tennessee River, a massive body of water with a strong current that Rachel really wanted to jump in. Sorry, pup, not this river!

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Lots of couples were enjoying the waterfront and the downtown restaurants, many dressed up and perhaps at least one preparing to propose. We certainly didn’t fit in at any of those places though, a dad and a daughter with a dog, one full of energy and the other two sneezy and sniffly. So after one hour, onward we drove to our hotel, just south of Birmingham. And had we hoped to stop any sooner that night, we couldn’t, for there’s really nothing along the stretch of road between Chattanooga and Birmingham, except for a pounding rain storm and very, very few exits.

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Roanoke’s third worst snow can’t stop us

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We started our cross-country road trip in the midst of Roanoke’s third worst snowstorm, ever. Twenty to 25 inches of snow fell Wednesday afternoon through late Thursday afternoon, stopping interstate traffic and trapping Virginians in their houses. Meteorologists started saying over the weekend that this wouldn’t be one of those over-hype clipper systems; this was the big ‘un. And it was. After my parents helped pack up my house and fill in the dog’s holes in the backyard over the weekend, I spent my last two days of work running errands to the post office, UPS (quite the sticker shock for some of those 50-pound boxes), UPS again and Goodwill. Plans to wrap up my life in Fredericksburg on Wednesday had to change quickly–I wasn’t messing with this storm, and it wasn’t messing with us.

So I said goodbye to friends and coworkers, played Tetris with my remaining bags and boxes in my car, and drove to southwest Virginia late Tuesday night. The snow began just about 12 hours later, flakes immediately sticking to the frozen ground and accumulating on roads. The world turned gray, and cars skidded on slippery roads. The next morning, we had about 1 foot, but plows had already come through our neighborhood once. My dad and I thought we would be set… and then, it started snowing again.

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Over Thursday afternoon, another 8+ inches fell as a system swirled over and over Roanoke. We watched the radar, and the gray blob kept circling. Cars, patio furniture and tree trunks disappeared, but Rachel found all this snow to be one of the best things ever. She leaped and bounced and smiled as her lean body plowed paths through our yard. If only she understood this would be her last snow for awhile. Using a fair share of s#!&’s and other appropriate words, my dad, aunt and I shoveled out the little Camry from the front yard, hoping plows wouldn’t block it back in, if/when they returned. All we could do was eat soup and wait.

When we woke up Friday, amazingly, our road had been cleared, and the warming sun  was beginning to soften the remaining snow.  Other streets in our neighborhood, and three-quarters of the city, hadn’t been touched even once, so I’m incredibly grateful to Roanoke City for taking care of us. My little sister had loving shared her stupid cold with the two of us, so, on top of it all, the two of us were sneezy and sniffly. (We’ve since been quickly working through a few boxes of Puffs Plus and a bag of drugs.) But, we were determined to begin the trip. A tarp on the snow became our staging area, and we ferried boxes and bags down the driveway to where the car had been parked before the storm.

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Somehow, it all fit. Even the three extra boxes of pint glasses, the half-full bottles of liquor from the Firefly Distillery, the Kitchen Aid mixer and two trash bags of extra clothes that I was trying to avoid paying to ship. The car is cozy, for the side contains our overnight bags, a blanket and pillow, a huge bag of snacks to tide us over the next 3,000 miles, a lunchbox of yogurts and hummus, and a whole bag of refillable water bottles, which we go through daily. Pup has about half the back seat, which is at least more than what she had on our trip home to Roanoke.

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And by about 11 a.m. Friday, we were off. On to Tennessee and Alabama for Day 1.

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Emma’s Mac-A-Roo, the ultimate macaroni and cheese

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That’s my silly sister, on a day long before end-of-the-year work consumed her life. 

Emma put in 14-hour days all week just so she could be home for my last weekend.

Busy season for accountants on the audit side is January and February, and 12-hour days aren’t uncommon, as she’s learning in her first year as a newbie at one of the Big Four. Saturdays are required too, unless, apparently, you present extenuating circumstances like your oldest (and favorite) sister is moving across the country. So she clocked in at 7:30 a.m. all week, getting home at 10–or later–at night. And, she still had to spend a few hours with a calculator and laptop and scary spreadsheets while our pups played. (And mind you, she wasn’t as happy as she was in the above snapshot, taken before a UVA game this fall. Far from it.)

But, Emma: I’m so glad you were here. It may be awhile before we can again cuddle, lunch with a great friend, or shop for running sneakers together. Or, eat mom’s macaroni and cheese.

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Perhaps most memorable this weekend, we dined on some favorites: Mac-A-Roo and later, grandpa’s fluffy and delicate pancakes. Watching “The Wizard of Oz”–she’s obviously seen this classic too many times and knows every single line–while cozied up in grandpa’s living room wrapped up a low-key evening. (Along with this dark chocolate caramel panna cotta.)

For some reason, Emma and I refused to like homemade macaroni and cheese when we were kids. Was it too saucy, too different than what’s from the blue box, too flavorful? But then, our family went to Outback. And life changed. Emma ordered the kid’s Mac-A-Roo, a simple bowl of noodles tossed with a rich, creamy cheese sauce. My mom, astonished, said, “I could make that at home!” With the macaroni and cheese recipe from Betty Crocker, homemade Mac-A-Roo quickly became a favorite for our family.

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It’s simple and hearty–start with a roux of butter and flour, whisk in milk (for a bechamel sauce), and then melt in cheese. My mom tends to use a mix of American (no longer available in a blue box though, she lamented, just sliced) and grated cheddar. Spoon it over pasta for a saucier dish, creamy cheese clinging to the tiny ridges on the penne, or bake and allow the noodles to soak up the extra sauce and the whole dish will get crusty on top. Emma prefers it unbaked, but my favorite is baked; this weekend, she won. A side of peas always complements Mac-A-Roo, though I don’t know why. That’s just what we’ve always done. The peas are a tad sweet, green (and thus healthy), and blend in well to a bowl of ultimate richness.

Like Dorothy says, there’s no place like home.

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Mac-A-Roo (aka Macaroni and Cheese)
From Betty Crocker

2 cups / 7 oz. uncooked pasta
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground mustard
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cups milk
2 cups / 8 oz. cheese (equal parts American and shredded cheddar)

If baking the finished dish, heat oven to 350ºF.

Cook macaroni as directed on package.

While macaroni is cooking, melt butter in 3-quart saucepan over low heat. Stir in flour, salt, pepper, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and bubbly; remove from heat.

Stir in milk. Heat to boiling, stirring constanly. Boil and stir 1 minute. Stir in cheese. Cook, stirring occasionally, until cheese is melted.

Drain macaroni.

Choose how you’re going to serve: Either spoon the sauce onto bowls of pasta, or, mix the sauce and all cooked pasta together and pour into ungreased 2-quart casserole. Bake uncovered 20 to 25 minutes or until bubbly.

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I’m moving to San Diego!

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The cake worked. The next Monday was sweeter, brighter.

And now, life’s about to be a whole lot sunnier.

In two weeks–likely on Valentine’s Day–I’m moving West, to San Diego, where a 70-degree heat wave at the end of January coincided with yet another “polar vortex” in the East. Sweaters are staying in Virginia. Kitchen supplies are coming with me. And pup’s along for the ride.

Here’s the plan: My wonderful parents are helping to box up my belongings next weekend. We’ll ship them cross country, and my furniture will find new homes. My last day at the newspaper is Feb. 11, and  I’ll spend a day or so back in my hometown. Then, the bulky Kitchen Aid and dog crate will get stowed in the trunk and I’m sure we’ll cringe at how little space there actually is. My dad’s a pro a figuring out the puzzle on car trips, so, hopefully we’ll have room for a few suitcases, a cooler of treats, some books on CD. The two (three) of us will spend the next five-ish days bonding in the 2000 Camry, with plenty of dog/human stops along the way. If all goes well, we’ll find a few adventures, and maybe even snap a photo at that little spot you may have heard of, the Grand Canyon.

At the end of the road, we’ll be able to pick up lemons and avocados at farmers markets, and shells and sand dollars at the many, many beaches… and more!

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It’s a huge, scary, life-changing, nerve-wracking, major leap of faith. Leap of love. And I couldn’t be more excited. Three thousand miles have stretched between Tom and I for two-and-a-half years, longer than I would have ever guessed if you had asked me back in October 2011, when he and his dad packed up the U-Haul for his own adventure. And finally, within days, we’re going to be together–with the pup–in a sunny California city of 1.4 million.

The move will also be a personal challenge, for, as I have learned, California is really, really far from Virginia, where my family and friends live. Making this decision has been quite an endeavor, with many tears and questions and doubts over the past few months. But, knowing Tom’s there, that we’ll finally be in the same place, and lemon and orange trees abound, that makes it worth it. Timing couldn’t be better, and really, I’m not yet 25, so what better time is there to drop everything and embark on such a huge, invigorating (expensive) change?

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After writing over a check for two arms and a leg, we have a bright little apartment next to Balboa Park that we’ll call home for the next 12 months. I’m excited to decorate, though compromising on colors and furniture will likely be our first challenge to overcome. Plus, I’ll be on quite the budget until I get the whole job thing sorted out. If only Rachel could bring in a paycheck, too.

I’ll share what I can as we drive, and as we start this new part of our lives. Rachel and Tom will certainly have some acclimating to do with each other, while I get over freaking out that I’ve gone from a small Civil War-obsessed town of 27,000 to being surrounded by 50 times as many people, many who surf. Fredericksburg is 10 square miles, San Diego is 372. The differences are just beginning.

So. If you have tips, advice, questions, warnings, restaurant recommendations, frugal decorating tips, relationship suggestions, dog traveling tips or just some love, please share! This is big, and I need you with me! And I really can’t wait for the adventure, and to take you along with me. Let’s go!

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Sock-It-To-Me Cake

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My newspaper’s bankruptcy filing, mice in kitchen cabinets, snow and days of below-freezing temperatures, a friend’s engagement (!!!), another best friend laid off, being denied an apartment, an interview set up (!!), still not having a firm moving date… This week, you guys, was too much. (In perspective, of course, thankfully everyone is still ok, my family and friends are healthy, everyone has a home.) But still, what a roller coaster few days, on top of this months-long state of upheaval.

Growing up, I’m learning, isn’t so easy. Decisions to make, relationships that change, jobs and homes and money on the forefront.

It wasn’t like this as a teenager with light-hearted responsibilities and few life-changing decisions to make. (Back then, I wasn’t too concerned/conscious about what I ate, either.) Some of my favorite memories are weekend-long camping trips with my small Girl Scout troop. We’d set up our tents at one of Virginia’s many great parks, like Douthat and Fairy Stone, and spend hours on the lakes, sunning and paddle boating, building campfires at the campsite, discovering itty bitty frogs on hikes in the woods, having fun and eating well. Menus stuck to this route–silver turtles in the fire, good ol’ sandwiches, biscuits in the Dutch oven with sausage gravy, and one of my favorites, sock-it-to-me cake. My longtime friend Sarah, would always bring this classic jacked-up cake mix, made by her mom, Ellen, who has baked it for as long as Sarah can remember. Not worried about calories, I could nibble on slice after slice at all times of the day.

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