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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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?

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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.

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!

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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Warm Sweet Potato and Lentil Salad with Maple-Mustard Dressing; Packing Lunches for Long Days

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Today is going to be a long day. Snow that’s slowly approaching on the radar may change my schedule for work–a 10 a.m. ceremony is already canceled, so keep your fingers crossed for meetings at noon, 1:30, 3 and 7 p.m., phew!–but either way, my meals are packed and prepped. Covering government meetings makes every other Tuesday challenging. I don’t particularly mind sitting in the board chambers, or listening to local elected officials volley ideas back and forth. There’s always something new to learn, and I feel so very fortunate to be a journalist. [Update: No meetings today!]

But honestly, if I can let you in on a little secret, what most concerns me is what I’m going to eat. With no microwave or refrigerator or even a table, what to pack for a lunch and/or dinner calls for creativity. I typically leave my lunch bag in my car for a few hours too, meaning nothing should be prone to spoilage. Peanut butter and jelly or banana is always a safe choice, but sometimes, I want some more vegetables, more flavor, more variety.

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Warm up 2014 with Mark Bittman’s Chili non Carne

Happy 2014, everyone!

We’re off to a bitterly cold start here on the East Coast, and I’m just starting to get back into my normal routine after a busy holiday season. We’re thawing out from our -3 degree, 25-minute walk, which required layers upon layers to protect my body. Pup didn’t mind, of course. But frostbite isn’t a joke, I read multiple places! For my legs, two pairs of socks, running leggings layered under lounge pants with thick JMU sweatpants worn on top; to warm my core, a long sleeve shirt, fleece, sweatshirt and winter coat; thick gloves on my hands; a knitted scarf around my neck, with a running headband over my ears, a fleece hat, my coat’s hood pulled up and another wide scarf wrapped across my face.

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The next few weeks will be just as hectic as the last three, so I’m thankful to have this morning to slow down, cuddled in a blanket, Rachel nesting in the rug nearby.

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