I’m drinking coffee, and I’m just gonna finish blogging about my trip so that we are all happy. Let’s do this!

We left Chattanooga after lunch and headed to the Great Smoky Mountains. We had made a reservation at the Cades Cove Campground for two nights. I was pretty nervous about camping—I hadn’t been since I was a kid. As a kid, I had camped a LOT. We camped on beach trips, weekend mountain trips, randomly, and most interestingly, for two multi-week road trips from South Carolina to the National Parks of the West. One trip went basically from South Carolina to LA, another went more northwest all the way to Banff, Canada.

I saw lots of National Parks–Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns, Petrified Forest, Sequoia, and more.

Standing on the four corners. Louie, you’ll notice my inappropriate footwear. I will always wear sandals in the summer unless it is absolutely imperative that I don’t.

Leslie and I at the Badlands. Did I ever mention I had a perm and perhaps even a slightly awkward phase in middle school?

Jesse (my brother) and I in Sequoia National Park. Fashion was my strong suit.

But anyway. Enough old pictures, right? Sometimes I’m amazed at what my parents accomplished with three kids, honestly. We must have been really annoying to travel that far with.

Louie is really into camping and I promised him I’d give it a shot. One difference between my childhood camping and today is that I had a pad to put under my sleeping bag, so that seemed promising already. I remember many nights sleeping on the ground of the tent and having a small rock or tree root exactly where I wanted to be sleeping and having to avoid it.

We had packed some camping supplies—all the requisite sleeping equipment, a camping stove and cooler, camping pots and pans. We hadn’t packed some other things like plates or bowls, and of course a trip to the grocery store was in order before we got the campground. Now that I’ve been I know what we forgot and what will make our lives better if we camp again (though Louie mentioned backpacking and I started to get nervous again…). The campground would have running water and toilets, but no HOT water or showers…

We made it to the National Park before 6 pm, with the thought of maybe doing something active, but we decided to just set up the tent, forage for firewood and make a fire. It ended up being a really nice relaxing evening. We talked to a ranger and got an idea of the hike we wanted to do the next day, and we were ready to go!

I should go into more detail of our talk with the ranger. We asked, what would you do if you were just here for one day? Well, she freaked out that we weren’t spending enough time in the park, and then recommended a hike that would have been a 2 hour drive away (each way!). We finally got her to give us an idea closer to the campground (that we could walk to) and didn’t really think about the fact that a “13 mile hike” is indeed a fairly big deal. My thought process when she mentioned the distance was that 1) Louie didn’t seem concerned and 2) I run half marathons! That’s not far! Also the ranger told us that we would see a bear up there. The park has a problem with bears—you can’t leave ANY food out and you have to put your trash in special trash bins.

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(We started at the horse, went up the Anthony Creek Trail to the Bote Mountain Trail to the green line which is the Appalachian Trail. Then off to the right for a bit, back across Spence Field, down the Russell Field Trail back to the Anthony Creek Trail.)

Note to readers: it is far. Especially when you add on another 1 mile spur to try to see something the ranger mentioned that you couldn’t exactly recall what it is or how far she said. And another 1 mile or so finding the trailhead. In a nutshell, I’m pretty sure we hiked around 15 miles, which I’m pretty sure is the longest I have ever traveled on foot in a day. And that was up and down mountains, which is even harder than running in downtown St Louis. If I had known how hard it would be I probably wouldn’t have done it, which is just as well then.

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The views up the Anthony Creek Trail were really nice!

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Lots of bridges across the creek like this one.

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There’s something about trail signs that I really love.

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This was the top. Basically. We were on the Appalachian Trail, and it was honestly, really beautiful. We got caught in some rain on the way up the mountain (thank goodness I had thrown in some emergency ponchos) and everything at the top of the mountain was foggy and green. We couldn’t see much of anything, which was pretty cool in itself because we felt like we were alone in the world. Except for the other hikers we saw and a family of turkey vultures or wild turkeys.

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On the way down (when we were exhausted, dirty, sore, and pretty sure) we ran into another couple we had seen many hours earlier (this hike took us from 10:30 am to about 6:30 pm and we walked the whole time, worried about getting home before dark). We chatted with them briefly, they then went ahead of us and then we heard them crying out in excitement.

It turns out a black bear had gone right across the trail in front of them, crossed the creek and was in a tree on the other side. It didn’t see us, but we could see it. The others wanted to see it more up close, but the other woman kept saying “it moved so fast!” and I thought, well, it could be RIGHT BACK HERE any minute now. I was pretty terrified, especially because people always joke, you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other people, and I didn’t think I could. On the other hand, they say there’s safety in numbers and that as a group you have a better chance of scaring the bear away (making loud noises, throwing rocks) than on your own. Nonetheless, I was eager to get away from there and managed to pull Louie away—he was trying to get a picture.

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(didn’t know this at the time, but awesome, right? This is backwards from what we did, for the record.)

We made it back to the campsite. Worst part: no showers. I had fallen down once, nothing major, but my legs were covered in mud. I managed to clean off a bit and then we enjoyed hot dogs and wine by the fire. I can’t believe we managed to hike that far—it was seriously amazing and difficult, and probably a little stupid, but I was so happy about it. Oh, and I didn’t know this but do now: black bears climb trees.  Of course they do.

The next day we needed to go home but we decided to drive around Cades Cove Loop first. The Smoky Mountains Park is different than many other parks in that people did live in the area before it was a National Park, and Cades Cove is one of those areas. People were bought out and forced to move. Some of them were allowed to stay for the rest of their lives but their children could not. The history was fascinating. We saw a bunch of old houses and churches, and in fact, some churches that were built AFTER the house that I live in now (1906) which I found very interesting, because my house had electricity and plumbing from the beginning and these did not. Being in a city was so very different from being in the mountains!

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The Cades Cove Loop is a one way road, and it was really nice to drive around and SEE the mountains. The day before we’d be in the mountains and hadn’t really seen them, and now we were down looking up. I actually prefer that view—once you are on the mountain it is harder to see them!

We left the first cabin and then the traffic was totally backed up. I was annoyed at first, and then we realized that it was because everybody was looking at a black bear in tree a little ways off the road! We pulled over and Louie got out to try to get some pictures. I think he did, but he hasn’t uploaded any shots yet. I stayed in the car because I felt I’d seen it enough from the road and thought it would be safer this way.

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For our last park adventure, we decided to drive (well, not me, but Louie was driving) out of the park on Rich Mountain Road, a one way gravel road that was closed in the winter. The ranger we spoke with assured us that while it wasn’t a shortcut, it would be passable in a car and was a nice drive. I don’t think we realized QUITE how slow going it would be (probably about 10 to 15 mph) but it was an amazing winding road up the mountain and then back down again on the other side.

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All in all, we had a most wonderful week of vacation, and I wish it could have been longer. We made it home safely and not terribly late, and I look forward to our next adventure!

How DOES one talk about a week long vacation in less than four blog posts? I’m not going to try. So here’s the third part. It’s long, but don’t let that bother you. Plenty of pictures too!

Priceline was good to me in Chattanooga. I thought, let’s see how cheap I can get a downtown hotel. And BOOM. Got it on my first try…which actually made me sad because I should have tried cheaper, even though Priceline warned me that I was already trying to bid too low.

Here’s the best part: The hotel was the Chattanooga Choo Choo! It was an historic hotel made from converting both a train station AND a train into a hotel. The lobby of the hotel used to the be the train station and is a gorgeous dome, and the train (yes, the Chattanooga Choo Choo) was outside, with lots of cars that contained hotel rooms. Sadly, priceline did not get us one of those rooms, but there are also three other hotel buildings with regular rooms. It was amazing, and hard to describe in a way that doesn’t sound cheesy. Oh wait, it WAS cheesy, but in a fabulous 1970’s way, that made me think it would be the perfect place for a getaway for a family like say, in Don Draper’s time—several restaurants on the property, one with singing waiters and advertising an “all you can eat shrimp and salad bar”, and others that completely reminded me of places that, in my childhood, I would have thought were just amazing. Not to mention there was a pool for each hotel building, and yes, we tried out several of them. The hotel is going to be renovated, and in fact parts were in progress, and supposedly the singing restaurant will be turned into something a bit more modern (I’m disappointed we missed our chance, but there were so many more appealing places to eat, though none had an unlimited shrimp bar) and honestly, I’d totally stay there again if I were given the chance. That’s my review.

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So I believe I left off with the Tennessee Aquarium, so I’ll pick up after that. We went to a great seafood place downtown called the Bluewater Grille. It was really good and we happened upon a great wine special to go with dinner. It had been nice and cool when we arrived in Chattanooga earlier, and there was a big storm during dinner, and it remained cool. Why do I mention this?

Well, the next morning…it was ridiculously hot. Hot hot hot. We’d thought we might leave for the mountains that day but were so enamored of the hotel and the town that we extended our stay, and decided to spend the day walking around seeing the sights.  IMG_0266 IMG_0267IMG_0270

It wasn’t too bad in the shade, but it was really hot in the sun. We walked by the river a bit and made our way up a hill, and found the Art Museum.

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I hadn’t felt like going the Art Museum in Nashville and wasn’t planning on this one…but we stopped in to get water, and discovered that water and bathrooms were for patrons only…and it was really nice and cold inside…and we decided that it was the perfect day to see the Hunter Art Museum. It was a nice museum, made of three connected buildings, one which was an old mansion and the other two in entirely different styles, which made for an odd building but unique.

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We spent a few hours at the museum and then decided to have lunch at Big River Grille and Brewing Works. I always like to try local beers when I can (we’d had one the night before at a hilarious place called The Pickle Barrel from a different brewery). After lunch we decided to brave the heat and walk across a pedestrian bridge to the other side of the river. I should add that Louie really enjoys walking all over cities to get the feel for them, whereas I am a little more of a “let’s check the guidebook and see what’s best” and “let’s take a break at this coffee house and have a coffee” sort of person, so it was really fun and interesting combining our two styles. I maintain that eating fabulous meals and walking all over cities definitely fits together well!

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You can see my finger AND the art museum in this photo!

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Home of the Donut Sundae. I don’t know how to feel about that.

On the other side of the bridge there were some more cute shops and restaurants and a nice park with a carousel and other stuff. We wandered around a bit, getting totally overheated (to the point where I insisted we go to a drugstore so I could get a gatorade because I thought I was going to pass out)…but it was nice. I just wish it had been less sunny.

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Finally we decided to head back to the hotel and do some swimming to cool off and then go somewhere for dinner.

We decided to have dinner at Urban Stack Burger Lounge which was very near the hotel. It reminded me of Bailey’s Range, a local place, except BETTER! I don’t remember exactly what I ordered (gosh, this is why you should write stuff down right away) but we definitely split an order of pickled vegetables, which was delightful. I recall saying that we needed to try to pickle cauliflower in the future, and Louie suggesting that while it was neat to eat, it was probably a terrible idea to try that at home. I don’t know how involved the process of pickling cauliflower would be, but I suppose it’s easier to steam or roast it.

We finished the night at the Terminal Brewhouse, also right near the hotel. I like hoppy IPA’s and am generally pretty happy just drinking that. So I was pretty happy.

Okay, the next morning we had one more thing to do in Chattanooga, and that was something that had been advertised everywhere. See Rock City.

Here’s the thing: there were tons of billboards about Rock City, and how there were amazing views and you could see 7 states, and all this. So with that and my friend April’s recommendation, we decided to shell out $19.95 each for the views. It was up on Lookout Mountain which is a nice drive up.

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Rock City was named because people thought it was like a city with roads between the rocks. The path got very narrow in places and it was impressive to see all the giant rocks!

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We were enjoying the nature…and then we realized that the bird sounds we were hearing were NOT actual bird sounds, but piped in bird sounds. And then this happened:

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I began to suspect something strange was happening.

But we kept going as if this was just a lovely nature site full of natural sights.

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I got a little nervous walking out onto the balcony there…

And obviously, looking at my pictures, no, this isn’t entirely natural.

But then, we took a little detour and we saw:

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There was a sign saying that the original path in Rock City in the 1930’s went by this (yes, a rock, it looks like a witch…IF we put a pipe in the mouth!) and then a new path diverted and for decades no one saw it. Here’s the thing, I LOVE this stuff. I love thinking about how people used to live, particularly in, say, the 1900’s through 1940’s. I don’t know why, but I am a sucker for seeing stuff about that time period. In fact, anything during the 1900’s is pretty fascinating for me. So I loved seeing this, and thinking about people going on vacations, just like we were, and seeing this kind of stuff.

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Now, the next bit, unfortunately, my pictures just aren’t good.  We entered a cave called FairyTale Caverns, which was damp, dark, and cool…and full of scenes of various characters from stories and nursery rhymes plus more gnomes, under black light. It was so totally unexpected and odd and I LOVED IT.

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My pictures didn’t turn out very well overall, so I’ll just beseech you to GO TO ROCK CITY YOURSELF.

After we left, still shocked by everything we had seen, I did some online research on the place. It has a fascinating history!

This is a great article about the history of Rock City. Here’s another great summary of a visit to Rock City. “Where was I? What was that?”

One more post to go: Mountains, camping, and bears! Coming soon!

Okay, so I left off with the idea that I was done talking about Nashville, but I forgot about Cheekwood Gardens! We stopped by Cheekwood Gardens on our way out of town. It was a hot day, but nice enough to walk around a bit outside.

There was a special exhibition of large wooden bugs while we were there.

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Case in point.

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Japanese Gardens

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Really tall chairs.

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Creepy sculpture, part rabbit, part woman.IMG_0205

Interesting fact, particularly since I was staying (do I always say we or just I? Am I entirely too used to saying we all the time? Do I lack individuality or am I using the royal we?) at the Maxwell House Hotel: The gardens were donated as part of the former estate of one of the owners of Maxwell House Coffee. As the docent at the museum said, “This is the house that coffee built. Maxwell House Coffee.”

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The mansion was there but had mostly been renovated into a museum. There was a neat exhibit on Andy Warhol and his flower drawings and other information about him. Never stop learning!

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After the gardens it was time to go to Franklin for lunch. We’d decided to try a place there (south of Nashville, advertised as a quaint historic town, yada yada) called Grey’s on Main. It did not disappoint! We walked around the town a bit after lunch in search of a coffee while I sweated profusely. I did learn on this trip that I sweat a lot. I’m assuming it’s because I’m in such great shape, but still. It’s pretty ridiculous to feel one can never wear normal clothing and should always be wearing tech clothing and workout attire, and perhaps should change clothes several times a day.

After lunch we were off to Chattanooga. The plan was to get there and visit the Tennessee Aquarium before it closed. We managed to accomplish this, but barely as we didn’t realize that we were heading from Central to Eastern Time! The Aquarium was really cool in all senses of the word. I didn’t take as many pictures inside because it was dark, but the set up was terrific—two buildings and the path just flowed from one exhibit to the next so you really got to see everything without worrying about going into separate halls or backtracking. It was pretty empty too since we were there towards the end of the day and overall was one of my favorite things! Admission wasn’t cheap (I think around $25) but it was a really nice way to spend a few hours and was really well done. I’d only been to one other Aquarium, in Chicago, and I preferred this one.

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The otters were great, and one was named Louie.IMG_0232 IMG_0228

Who knew, the geodesic dome was inspired by a tortoise!

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Anyway, I didn’t mean to break these posts up so much, but I think it’s better for me to publish a short post now rather than wait until I have the time for a long one. I find myself so short on time with the usual constant feeling of being behind, and vacation recap blog posts are no exception, BUT I really want to write about it so I can at least look back later. I keep thinking of a million things I want to say on the blog while I’m driving around or doing other stuff, but then I end up doing other stuff, mostly mundane, or practicing (SO many upcoming performances, including a recital that involves solo Bach!—and I need to blog about it too so you local readers can attend)—but that’s life. It just stays busy, and mostly that’s great. I feel so much less stressed after vacation, simply busy in a good way. With that thought, I’m off to get ready for a wedding gig, and our next installment (see what I did there?) will be about Chattanooga and more of my trip.

So last week I did something fun I hadn’t done in awhile. I took an honest to goodness vacation! The boy and I decided to take a road trip from St Louis, and we had in mind to go to Tennessee, specifically—Nashville, Chattanooga, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and hoped to get as far as Asheville. We didn’t make it that far because we kept staying at each place longer than we’d thought we might, but it was a great trip and it was so much fun to get out of town and explore!

Highlights from the first few days:

Lunch in Paducah, Kentucky

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Why yes, that’s “tamales” and chili. An odd choice perhaps but it seemed to be what the restaurant specialized in. Note to travelers, Paducah is a cute place, but there is very little open on Sunday afternoon.

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Grabbing the bull by the horns, of course.

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We walked down to see the Tennessee River up close.

As we left, knowing we wanted to get to Nashville before too late, I remarked that we surely could have spent another hour walking around to see more of the sights.

Note to travelers: The Priceline app is pretty good, and unlike online where (at least in the past) you couldn’t bid again without changing something other than the price (i.e. geographical location or star rating) you could just start low and keep bidding. We got a “downtown” hotel for a decent price, and ended up staying at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel. Which isn’t downtown, but had a shuttle that would drop you off there. It was a nice hotel though.

We braved our fear of honky tonk and country music and visited a few places in the “District” which was full of tourists, which we figured included us. The musicians were all fantastic—that’s the thing about Nashville, all the musicians are great, even if you don’t like their style of music.

The other thing about Nashville is that there is a lot more to see than we thought! We wandered around the farmer’s market (open everyday) and downtown, looking at various sites. The Bicentennial Mall was really cool and there was a ton of steps up to the Capitol Building, which of course I wanted to climb since I’m such a tremendous athlete.

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(Outside of the farmer’s market)

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The original site of the Maxwell House Hotel. We learned over the course of our days there that the coffee is named after the hotel.

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We had dinner at Sunset Grill and lucked into “Restaurant Week” so we got a better deal than we might ordinarily have. Delicious Shrimp and Grits.

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Louie did some Karaoke. I figured I perform music enough that I didn’t feel the need. (Also, I don’t know any songs.) (Why yes, I do have video.)

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We also visited Centennial Park, where the World’s Fair was held in 1897. They decided to build a replica of the Parthenon for the event, and after the fact couldn’t bear to tear it down. Since it was made of temporary materials it did start to crumble and they decided to rebuild it. That’s what you see up above. And then they made a replica of the giant Athena statue. It was odd, surreal, strange, but pretty cool.

Our last night in Nashville we had to relocate hotels since the rate on ours skyrocketed or wasn’t even available (not entirely sure)…it turns out that there was a “New Direction” concert and all the downtown hotels were either booked up or ridiculously expensive. We moved to an amazing (by that I mean, cheap, kinda awful, but not as bad as it could have been) Rodeway Motel a few miles north of the city. We decided to get a REALLY nice meal at a wonderful place called the Silly Goose, and it didn’t disappoint. I don’t seem to have taken pictures, but the food was amazing.

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Afterwards we listened to more live music and just wandered around enjoying the nice (fairly cool) weather and all the people watching.

Next: onto Chattanooga. (Traveling is fun. I missed it.)

I have been lucky to have supportive parents and family throughout my life, parents who are always there when I need them, who care about whether or not I succeed and how I’m doing. Not everybody has that. Not everybody has a lot of things that I was fortunate enough to grow up with. I never worried about food. I never worried about my personal safety. I always had a bed to sleep in (unless we were camping, ha!). I always had parents at home to take care of me, parents at school events, parents at PTA conferences, parents at concerts I was performing in. I always knew that I would be graduating from high school and going to college.  One of the most difficult things I remember learning as a kid is that not every person has had the advantages that I had. I remember learning that there were people in my hometown who didn’t have enough food, or a place to live. I felt awful about that. It’s funny how as you get older you feel less awful…I guess you can’t care about everything all the time though, or you’ll just go crazy.

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I think our world would be better if we all tried to imagine how people different than ourselves view the world and are viewed by the world, rather than only caring about ourselves. I know I’m as guilty of this as other people, but it’s something I want to challenge myself to improve on. Rather than judging someone, we should try to walk around in their shoes.

Atticus Finch

There’s been a lot of civil unrest in St Louis over the past few days. I hope that we as a community can come together and heal, and get some answers to our problems, and work together. I am always hopeful that the future will be better than the past and that people are generally good people and want the best for their communities and the world around them. I don’t presume to know what the answers are though.

I have so much to tell you guys! If you are still reading…I know my posting has been sporadic, but life has just been absolutely crazy, and is finally (famous last words…) settling down a bit. This has been a ridiculous summer. I’ve been waiting since June for things to settle down and they just haven’t. Part of that is me saying yes to possibly too many things, but honestly, it’s been a fun time, and I’ve worked a bunch and done so many interesting projects! In between all of that, I moved…again…which meant packing and packing, actually moving, and now unpacking and working on some house projects. It’s been a really fun summer, but I’m exhausted and looking forward to the next few weeks: just a bit of teaching, a week of vacation, and then back to regular teaching schedule WHICH after the weeks I’ve had will be a relief.

Note to everybody: moving is harder than it seems. Try to avoid scheduling as many things as possible during the time leading up to, during, and immediately thereafter a move. Unless those are awesome things like quartet concerts, recording sessions, opera, family visiting, etc, and then you just have to do it, and hopefully come out stronger on the other end. I learned that I can do it all, but that I can’t do it all as well as I’d like.

I can’t possibly fill you in on everything I’ve been up to since I last visited this space, so I’m just going to dive right in.

Last night my boyfriend Louie (yes, I have a boyfriend now, that I’m mentioning on this here blog, which is possibly big news for you all, and possibly you’d already picked up on that…) and I rode our bikes in the Moonlight Ramble. The Moonlight Ramble is a ride, not a race, so there’s no timing. It is evidently the oldest nighttime bike ride and this was the 51st time it was held. The ride started at midnight, with two options, a short (9 miles) and long (19 miles) course. We definitely wanted to do the long course, even though I was pretty nervous as that was longer than I’d ever biked before! An additional challenge for me was that the ride was right after my last performance with Union Avenue Opera (in the pit, of course!) playing “A Streetcar Named Desire” so I had to go directly from a three hour opera to a two hour bike ride. The advantage was that I didn’t have to wait up for the ride since I was working!

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There we are getting ready to go. We ran into our friend Matthias as we were figuring out where to go (tried to post a picture with him but it was upside down and I can’t fix that for whatever reason) and then ended up waiting until around 12:30 to finally get going on the ride. It was a tough ride (for me at least!) with lots of rolling hills, but the weather was amazing—cool and clear—and the ride was well marked, busy enough throughout, and so much fun! I finished and felt really accomplished and proud of myself.

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I miss blogging regularly, and I hope to be back to it. I feel like if I stop writing now, I’ll have more to say soon! That is, I have so much to say, and so much that I’ve been doing and plan to do, that it’s hard to sit down and write about it. But I love having this little space of me on the internet and I love sharing my life (to an extent) with you all, and I love keeping a journal, so here’s hoping I’m back to it!

Oh and:

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