Friday, February 5, 2016

Crowders Mountain

The weekend of the Porziņģis game in Charlotte was the weekend of the giant snowstorm here in the Upstate. School was cancelled Friday and Monday, and about three inches on the ground ensured the boys got their fill of snowball (iceball) fights, sled rides, snow pants, boots and wet gloves on Friday and Saturday morning. By noon Saturday the highways and all the roads in our neighborhood were clear (more due to the high temperatures and sunshine than any action on the part of SCDOT) and we were on our way. It wasn’t until Sunday that we encountered any snow-related hiccups in our plans; the majority of places we had considered stopping on our way home (to stretch our legs and take a short hike) were closed due to icy conditions. Although the highways were clear, small roads were hazardous as neither of the Carolinas is well-equipped to deal with snow and ice.

Right on the border between North and South Carolina and a little less than halfway between Charlotte and home is Kings Mountain National Military Park. If you know this stretch of I85 than you know it’s rather flat: however, right there around Kings Mountain you’ll suddenly find some terrain, some mountains. Having seen pictures of some incredible views taken from these peaks, I had looked into visiting the neighboring state park – Crowders Mountain.

Two peaks, the Pinnacle and Crowders Mountain, are linked with Kings Mountain SP and Kings Mountain NMP with miles of challenging trails. We had not planned on summiting either of the two, but had hoped for some scenic views. After discovering that Crowders Mountain has a Track Trail leading around the 9-acre lake we decided on that one – until we saw on their website that the park had been closed until further notice.

Fortuitously Crowders Mountain State Park had cleared the parking lot to Sparrow Springs Access, and although the park office and majority of trails were closed, the Fern and Lake Trails were open to hikers; all this was patiently explained to me when I called to inquire about the closure. Just a short distance from the interstate we could see the peaks, and soon we were pulling into the Sparrow Springs visitor center parking lot. 

We suited up in our snow pants, boots and waterproof gloves and set off on the Track Trail. Utilizing Turnback Trail, Fern Trail, and Lake Trail, the loop totals 2.1 miles and took us through the woods that would have been filled with ferns and wildflowers in a different season. We emerged from forest to a beautiful view of the lake.

The park was created in 1973 but did not open to the public until 1974, and it wasn’t until 1978 that the summit of Crowders Mountain was incorporated into the park. The goal was to protect the area from mining, the devastating effects of which can be seen on what’s left of Henry’s Knob in SC a little to the south. Ten years later the Pinnacle was acquired, and in 2000 an additional 2,000 acres were purchased connecting the park to Kings Mountain.

In addition to hiking, there are dozens of other activities that can be enjoyed at the park, such as camping, rock climbing, fishing and water sports along with educational and interpretive programs offered by the park rangers. Of course that’s when they’re not snowed in. We found the trails and roads that were open to the public to be perfectly safe, but the half of the parking lot that hadn’t been cleared and was cordoned off to traffic was a skating rink, providing much entertainment for the boys. I can only imagine what the ridge and cliff trails look like after a winter storm! Luckily we were content with our lake hike, especially as the snow and semi-frozen lake offered a completely different dimension to the excursion.

Within easy driving distance from Greenville, Spartanburg and Charlotte, this NC State Park is definitely worth the trip. We’re putting in a conscious effort to return a different time of year with the goal of climbing one of the peaks; not only will the scenery be completely different, I believe the views of the Piedmont will be a suitable reward.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Kristaps Porziņģis fanclub in Charlotte

Porziņģis. The Latvian basketball phenom has become a household name, a long ways from draft day last year. Selected 4th overall by the Knicks, New York fans weren’t happy with the pick, making their displeasure known with boos and even tears in the case of one young fan. Kristaps quickly went to work on making new friends, debuting against the Milwaukee Bucks with 16 points and 5 rebounds. Over the first 18 games he averaged third among all rookies in scoring with 13.7 points per game, and second in rebounding (9.3 rpg) and blocked shots (1.89 bpg).

Pronounced chris-stops pour-zin-gis, the 7 foot 3 power forward was born in Liepāja on August 2, 1995. After working his way up in the youth squads he played for Cajasol Sevilla for four years at which point he was old enough for the NBA. Having competed with the Latvia youth national team at the 2013 FIBA Europe Under-18 Championships, every single Latvian basketball fan has their fingers crossed that he’ll join the Latvian Olympic team for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

We caught the Knicks against the Hornets in Charlotte a couple of weeks ago. Although New York started off strong, they seemingly ran out of steam, finishing for an 84-97 loss. They’ll get a rematch on April 6th on the Knicks home court.

The Knicks are currently 10th in the Eastern conference, Porziņģis leading the stats in rebounds, and in the top five for points per game, steals, free throw % and even 3-point %. After 50 games our hero is third-highest scorer on the Knicks, his 13.9 points/game surpassed only by Carmelo Anthony (21.3ppg) and (just barely!) by Arron Afflalo (14ppg). Just yesterday he was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for the third consecutive month.

He’s earned the support of not only Knicks fans, but Latvian fans worldwide. Despite a poorly worded sentence early on in his NBA career, there have been two rap songs written about the superstar, and although Porziņģis fans failed to get Kristaps to the All Star game, he was the only rookie in the ballot's top 50, finishing a few slots behind his teammate Carmelo Anthony. There were at least a couple of Latvian flags in the Time Warner Cable Arena that night, and quite a few Latvians in the house to see KP play.

For us, the passion for basketball has been reignited by KP’s arrival on the NBA scene. The two older boys got to high-five him on his way off the court and there have been dozens of basketball and Porziņģis related questions since; with both boys playing bball this season in the parks & rec league, we’ve got a serious case of basketball fever! Let me know in the comments – what’s your favorite Kristaps Porziņģis nickname?


Monday, February 1, 2016

A Gaŗezers party

We celebrated the middle son’s fourth birthday starting on Friday, the ‘real day,’ and ending with a little party Sunday. House rules are jubilārs vēlās – Mikus was in charge Friday. The morning started with memory games bearing pictures of construction equipment such as ‘wheel loader’ and ‘material handler’ vs ‘track loader’ and ‘telehandler’; is it any wonder mom lost?

After a lunch date with dad we picked up big brother and headed to a tea party. A bunch of kids sitting around a table drinking tea and eating small cookies is about the cutest thing, although I don’t know about entrusting my boys with irreplaceable china!

Mikus requested dinner at Runway Café, but as it was dark we couldn’t play on the playground. However, we could see the lights on the airplanes taking off and landing, and the chatter from the tower kept the boys attention throughout dinner.

Leave it to Mikus to select the theme ‘Gaŗezers’ for his birthday party. A little hard to manage in the middle of South Carolina, we opted to celebrate all the things he likes to do at the Latvian center/summer camp up in Michigan, such as go fishing. My mother made this amazing tablecloth, an exact replica of the shape of Long Lake – complete with Dūņezers and Clear Lake nearby. We added the Gaŗezers welcome sign even though our guests wouldn’t recognize it. At some point we'll sit down with cloth markers and draw all of our favorite places, roads and other landmarks in. 

The fishing part was fun. A fishbowl on the table had two little electronic swimming fish. I dug through the boys' Toobs and toys for turtles, frogs, birds and other animals that we often see in Gaŗezers, and fishing net pieces and a few lures (without hooks) formed a nice backdrop. A few mini-lanterns were painted to look like giant bobbers, which together with balloons and streamers provided a festive atmosphere.

We used the same tackle box that I had filled with gummi worms and bobbers for the Camp Vilis party, this time filling it with healthier snacks – goldfish, pretzels, nuts and dried fruit. Along with chips, crackers, hummus and guacamole, this kept the kids from starving until it was time to eat dinner.

Dad built a cardboard boat as I was worried it would be too chilly to play outside (which we outfitted with a life vest, nets and magnetic fishing reel set), but it turned out to be just warm enough to expend some major energy in the backyard before coming in to eat.

The dozens of Garezers shirts finally come in handy...

Dessert was Martha’s one-bowl chocolate cake, baked in bread tins and sculpted to resemble a fishing boat. With a fisherman figurine in back and set adrift in a lake of Jell-O jigglers, the boat was complete with outboard motor and steering wheel.

For party favors I found fishing lure organizers at Cabela’s that I thought all the kids would love, as they are great for organizing all those little treasures – marbles, colored stones, acorns, pennies, paper scraps. Not wanting to give them to our guests empty, I filled them with tiny turtle and frog figures, gummi worms, Swedish fish, octopus and shark candy, before tying them with twine and adorning with a bobber.

The birthday boy enjoyed his weekend, that is until announcing that “he was so sad he has to wait an entire year for his next birthday.” Me too, buddy - we’ll just have to play an extra couple rounds of Go Fish and the Big Trucks and Diggers memory game these next couple of weeks!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Dining in Chattanooga

With various attractions and our lodgings in Chattanooga covered in previous posts, all that’s left to share is our dining experience. I would have skipped it, but we really lucked out – each meal was better than the last!

An old art deco restaurant across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo

For inspiration and suggestions I have to thank Grant and Marie from the blog Marie, Let’s Eat!, who although based out of Atlanta, seem to have a firm handle on the current dining scene in Chattanooga. I used this interactive map to get started, and although our choices were partly luck of the draw as far as where our hotel was located/which attractions we visited, I relied heavily on Grant’s reviews.

Enjoying lunch at Mojo Burrito
Mojo Burrito

After our Ruby Falls visit on the first day, we came down from Lookout Mountain to Mojo Burrito. One of three locations in Chattanooga, the chain was established in 2002 and serves up farm fresh Tex-Mex. We built our own burritos, polished them off, tried a quesadilla off the kids menu, ordered more chips and guacamole because mom should never have picked a quesadilla for a boy who needs to see what's inside his food, and finally thoroughly enjoyed the beers that were ordered as an afterthought. The atmosphere was hopping, and although grabbing a table for a large party was sort of complicated during the lunch rush, the food was good, filling and reasonably priced. I definitely recommend the St. Elmo location as a lunch stop if you’re on the west side, and as it’s conveniently located across the street from the incline railway station, you can eat before your ride up Lookout Mountain.

For dinner we walked across the street from our hotel The Chattanooga Choo Choo to The Terminal BrewHouse. The history of the building is closely tied to that of the train station, as the Stong building was built in 1910 as a hotel and café catering to the travelers arriving and departing by rail. Legend has it that over the years the building housed a speakeasy, an illegal casino, and even a house of ill repute. Chester Davis (a porter at the train station) purchased the building in the 1940s, becoming one of the first black business owners in Chattanooga. Sold again and restored in 2006, the building now houses The Terminal BrewHouse.

The brewery, the bar, the kitchen - action!!!
The Terminal Brewhouse

We were seated upstairs, in almost the very narrowest part of the building (which is in the shape of a wedge). The service was great, complete with excellent recommendations on dishes and accompanying beer. We tried over half of the beers brewed right there on site, and although I definitely liked the IPA, you should try the various brews and seasonals yourself; they’ve got a good variety, so chances are you’ll find one you can drink. I like that they are a locally-minded company, sourcing, selling and building a community on the south side. They’ve also got the green thing going – a green roof, a cistern, waterless urinals… Go ahead, take a look at their menu, their beer list, their homepage – next you’ll be putting this Chattanooga hot spot on your short list of restaurants to visit.

For breakfast the next morning we took a little longer of a walk, swinging west on Main Street to reach the Mean Mug CoffeehouseMean Mug has been on location since 2011, serving locally roasted Velo coffee and artisan pastries made in-house. Every table in the cafe was full so we hopped up on seats at the bar, and before long we had coffee and enormous breakfast plates in front of us. Between the seven of us we tried an assortment of items on the menu: the breakfast plate, the egg & avocado toast, the hoff & vegan sandwich (chickpea salad with Hoff sauce, spring mix, carrot, red cabbage and sprouts on wheat bread), the quiche of the day, the biscuits, and finally a scone from the bakery case.

Mean Mug Coffeehouse

It was all fresh. Delicious. Affordable. We should have ordered additional sandwiches to take with us for lunch, but then we never would have found our lunch spot...

Rembrandt’s Coffee House in the Bluff View Art District is just a hop and a skip away from the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Walnut Street Bridge. A coffee shop serving up traditional French pastries and hand-dipped chocolates, we ordered from their lunch menu of sandwiches, paninis and salads. The day was warm enough that we could enjoy the garden terrace seating, and once again it was tempting to order an entire second lunch to eat later.

Rembrandt's Coffee House

The Bluff View Art District is a charming little neighborhood; complete with a bakery, art gallery, bed & breakfast and several restaurants, it also has gardens, plazas and courtyards to explore and enjoy. With more great views of the Tennessee River from the Paver Gallery Sculpture Garden, it was really tempting to put off our departure for Greenville another couple of hours - but it just wasn’t meant to be. With three rather tired children (and two tired sets of parents/grandparents!) we loaded up the car and headed east - into the mountains and into the evening. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Walnut Street Bridge and an antique carousel

It was lunchtime by the time we finished our exploration of the Chattanooga National Battlefield’s Point Park, and so we drove down from Lookout Mountain, bypassing Rock City. Judging from the parking lot it is an immensely popular destination, but over lunch we decided to skip “seeing Rock City” and instead head towards the riverfront for three reasons: we had already seen some fantastic views of the Tennessee River Valle y from Point Park, we had crossed a waterfall off our list on that trip (albeit underground) the previous day at Ruby Falls, and although reduced for the month of January, the entrance fees were still rather steep for our party of 7 ($15.95/adult and $9.95/child). To See Rock City is still on my Chattanooga checklist – we’ll just have to return someday in the near future.

After eating lunch we walked towards the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Tennessee River. The art museum is perched on an 80-foot bluff with stunning views of the river, the surrounding mountains and the city from the scenic viewpoint.

We descended to the restored pedestrian bridge spanning the river, the Walnut Street Bridge. Built in 1890, it was the first to connect Chattanooga with the North Shore. Historically significant as a long (2,376 feet) and old example of its type, the bridge was eventually closed to motor vehicles in 1978 and sat in disuse and disrepair for two decades before the completion of its restoration in 2010. Walnut Street Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 23, 1990.

A steady stream of people were out walking, enjoying the sunny day despite the cool temperatures. Pointing out Lookout Mountain to the boys, we also discussed the mechanics of drawbridges, as there is a good view of historic Chief John Ross Bridge, which now handles the vehicular traffic crossing the River.

Having crossed the mighty Tennessee we found ourselves in Coolidge Park. A small part of the urban renewal Chattanooga has undergone in recent years, the park is home to an interactive water fountain, a rock climbing wall, a military memorial and the century old Dentzel carousel.

The 1894 antique carousel was restored by local master wood carver Bud Ellis and his team, providing an afternoon of entertainment with 52 hand carved animals and a calliope band organ. Tickets are $1 per ride, and the carousel is available for birthday parties and family reunions. As I watched the boys (and even grandmother) take a spin, I was reminded of our visit to Jane’s Carousel, in DUMBO, Brooklyn…

Of course the fountain wasn’t operational, but we took a closer look at the animal sculptures that spout water in the summer before climbing the stairs back to Walnut Street Bridge. The view was completely different crossing in this direction, a panorama of Lookout Mountain, the bluffs with Hunter Museum of American Art, and the Chattanooga Skyline accompanying us back to the southern shore.

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