We have a tradition of spending a fall mountain weekend with my sister and her family in Asheville, which involves activities like apple picking, hiking and baking. Each year we set the date in hopes that our trip will coincide with peaking foliage. Some years we've hit it on the nose; other years we're off by a week or two. This year we could smell success as we drove west toward the mountains, color erupting around us.
What we didn't anticipate was a freak winter storm that blew in on Halloween night and dropped snow over the brilliant leaves. My sister and I, Minnesota natives, couldn't remember a single time in our lives we had seen snow accumulate over peaking leaves—and certainly not in the subtropical state of North Carolina.
But let's back up a moment. Here is what her backyard looked like on the afternoon of Halloween.
My sister and I took a walk that afternoon. She showed me a slave graveyard, tucked into these peaceful woods. In all the years I've visited her in Asheville, I never knew this graveyard was a stone's throw from her home.
The littles requested that instead of trick-or-treating, we hide the candy around the yard like the Easter egg hunt we did earlier this year. It was a smashing victory for all. Then we went to sleep and woke up to an inch of snow—just enough to cover the ground and add stunning contrast to the changing leaves.
The snow was perfectly sticky for snowballs. Poor Nora had forgotten what it felt like to be cold and started to cry in confusion over why her hands hurt.
We tried to drive the girls up to the Blue Ridge Parkway so we could take in the view while they napped, but we only made it a few hundred feet before finding it closed due to weather.
By midday the snow (and winter) had melted in the valley, and we were back to blustery fall day.
We've been on a fall travel binge with two mountain trips over the last two weeks and a blustery beach trip just ahead. How lucky we are to have family sprinkled across the country in so many beautiful places. Our area doesn't typically have a dramatic leaf peak, so we headed up to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley for some color and cousin time. (You can find posts on our last summer trip to Virginia here and our last winter trip here.)
I've become a serial drive-by photographer. Jeff drives (and rolls his eyes at me) while I take photos out the window with my iPhone. Here are a few shots from our late afternoon drive over the mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley.
The leaves weren't quite peaking in the valley, but as we drove up the mountain to Shenandoah National Park for a hike, we wove through bands of red, yellow and orange. By the time we reached the park's highest elevations, the leaves had mostly fallen.
No hike is complete without getting a lift from your older cousin along the way, right?
I kept walking around a bend to find my niece waiting for me, ready to pose for a photo.
On our way out of town, we stopped at Carter Mountain Orchard in Charlottesville to pick apples. Cricket was so excited she choreographed an apple dance.
We've been on the road and in the skies so much this year that I haven't gotten a chance to post about each trip, but I've been spending a lot of time on Instagram. You can find me at @jsoplop. (You don't need an Instagram account to view my photos.)
Adventures: Roly-poly lion cubs
No, this post isn't a field dispatch from East Africa. I wish. But for now the North Carolina Zoo will have to do. We visited these (then 8-week-old) lion cubs there last month and fell in love. I spent a lot of my college years studying biology and animal behavior, so watching family groups interact (even just in a zoo setting) makes me nostalgic for a more adventurous time of life. And watching the siblings tussle with each other reminded me that the behaviors—good and "bad”—I see in my own girls are all just a standard and necessary part of development. It amazed me how much the cubs resembled my human children when they played!
Jump! (Next to an incredibly vigilant mama.)
Next time my child bites me, I will remind myself it doesn't hurt as much as it would if my child were a lion.
Cuddling with Mom.
Clockwise: It's so hard to stay awake.
My mother-in-law gave me a funny look when I rattled off the activities my solo weekend in Colorado entailed.
"I thought you might...sleep in or something?" she said. But seriously. Who could sleep in when there are kid-free mountain adventures awaiting? Certainly not I.
After catching sunrise from Red Rocks Amphitheatre, my sister and I headed to the patio at Highlands Cork & Coffee for mochas and bagel sandwiches that were so good we have yet to stop talking about them. Then we took my ginger-haired niece and nephew dogs for a walk around this lovely reservoir at Denver's Crown Hill Park (below).
By the time my brother-in-law rolled up from work, we had all our camping gear piled by the door and were lacing up our boots. We drove several hours south through two of my favorite areas: South Park (the grassland basin, not the show) and the Upper Arkansas River Valley. The views here are BIG. From the back seat, my ginger seatmates and I enjoyed watching the storms broiling over distant mountains and not-so-distant cattle ranches.
Our destination? The Angel of Shavano Campground in the Sawatch Range, which greeted us with a double rainbow and a camp host who tipped us off to the best site to catch first light creeping over the mountains.
The night was quiet and clear, and we did indeed have the best view of sunrise.
From here we hopped on the Colorado Trail, which took us up along the valley of the North Fork of the South Arkansas River (confused yet?). If I have my bearings right, the Sangre de Christo Range is in the distance, with Hunts Peak on the left.
The trail also took us through a massive stand of aspen and a glorious, wildflower-filled alpine meadow.
You may recognize my fantastic hosts from the engagement session I posted here earlier this year. (You can also check out the posts from my previous Colorado trip for their February mountain wedding here, here and here.)
I had passed by Salida a few times over the years but never stopped to visit its historic downtown. I almost regret stopping on our way home...because now I'm obsessing over it. Salida is mountain biking country. And rafting country. And skiing country. And art country. Okay, most Colorado is, but I really liked Salida. It's a tiny, cash-or-check-only-please kind of town with a lot of character. We grabbed a post-hike lunch at Ploughboy, then stopped for coffee at Cafe Dawn before walking around town.
The sky during our drive back up to Denver was at least as stunning as on the way down.
By the time we arrived in Denver, we summoned just enough strength to order pizza and watch Titanic. And then reminisce about 1997. And Leo circa 1997. What better way to end any trip, right?
Click here for more Adventures. Click here for more Nature. Please join me on Instagram @jsoplop.
Years ago my mom gave me a book called "Always We Begin Again." It's a little book filled with big notions—short meditations on living deliberately. I wish I could say I read it daily, but mostly it sits on a shelf. Every once in a while, I do read through it, but more often than that the title catches my eye and offers a subtle reminder that tomorrow will always bring with it a fresh start. Sometimes that's all I need to get through a tough day.
Watching sunrise gives me similar comfort, reinforcing the fact that no matter what is happening in my small life, the world resets the same way each morning with a stunning, dramatic burst of light and energy. Always we begin again.
Last week I made my second trek of the year to Colorado. (The first was in February for my sister's amazing mountain wedding. You can view those posts here, here and here.) This was a solo trip to recharge my batteries, so naturally I dragged my sister out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and hauled her up to Red Rocks Amphitheatre to watch the sun rise over the Denver skyline and the plains.
We wove up the road to the amphitheater in the dark, greeted by a couple of deer grazing next to the road. By the time we climbed the stairs to the top, the sky looked a little something like this.
We were so content with this sky that we forgot the sun hadn't even made an appearance yet and were pleasantly surprised when an orange disc arrived on the horizon just behind the skyline.
In the foreground of these images you can see the famous red sandstone surrounding the amphitheatre. In the middle sits the Dakota Hogback, a ridge that divides the Rocky Mountains from the Great Plains. The Great Plains spread from there to the horizon.
I threw on my zoom lens to capture the image below of the skyline (as well as the top photo).
My sister taking in the view.
Once the golden hour of soft light set in, we made our way down the steps and back to the city. To begin again.
It had been more than a year since our last trip to visit family outside Charlottesville, VA, so we packed the car—and by car I mean new minivan, because, yes, it actually happened—and drove northwest until that unmistakable blue of the Blue Ridge Mountains rose into view. When we weren't watching the girls play games, swim and weave bracelets with their older cousins (read: heroes), we meandered along idyllic backroads and wound our way through Shenandoah National Park a few times. This gentle, rolling swath of country makes my heart happy.
Above: Sunset over the Shenandoah Valley from Shenandoah National Park.
Below: Farmland around Harrisonburg and Charlottesville. Views from Shenandoah National Park. Racing around the Charlottesville downtown pedestrian mall.
I came across this tiny country chapel last year and had to stop by again.
A sprawling farm outside Harrisonburg.
It's always tough to get the girls to bed when we travel, so I had the brilliant idea to head back up to the park with Nora to catch sunset over the valley. I figured she would fall asleep on the drive, I would get to watch and photograph the sunset in peace, then would drive home and transfer her to bed. Right. She didn't sleep a wink and spent the evening free-climbing the stone wall at the outlook. But it was a much funnier and more memorable experience than if she'd fallen asleep like she was supposed to. Isn’t that how life always pans out with kids in tow?
Goodnight, Blue Ridge.
On our first blueberry-picking trip to Herndon Hills Farm in Durham, NC, we encountered a serious dilemma: whether to eat the blueberries immediately or drop them into our buckets to take home and bake into a delectable treat.
Predictably, Nora (2 years old) couldn't stop shoving the berries in her mouth and, when it was time to leave, presented me with a completely empty bucket. Cricket (3 years old) tasted a few, but continuously reminded us that blueberry muffins awaited. And what would her cousins say if we showed up to their house on the Fourth of July without baked goods? Needless to say, her bucket was brimming with berries as we finished.
When we returned home, I read that Design Mom is bringing back her Love the Place You Live series today. This announcement arrived at a perfect time for us for two reasons. First, I shot way too many blueberry photos (iPhone only on this adventure) and needed an excuse to share them. And second, we're debating a move within the next few years and are always tallying up pros and cons of living in the Triangle area of North Carolina.
Was picking organic berries at Herndon Hills Farm a pro? Absolutely. Will we go back again? Yes, and soon. This time around I know which little lady I can trust to fill her belly and which I can trust to bring home the goods.
(I've participated in the series twice before. You can check out the posts here: Historic Hillsborough, NC, and Eno River State Park, in Durham, NC.)
Reflections on our Florida visit
I’ve had a hard time pulling together this post. Two months ago, we spent a week in the Naples/Fort Myers area of Florida. It was a poignant trip on several accounts: we celebrated Jeff's grandmother's 85th birthday with his entire family and also got a chance to visit with and say our final farewell to my grandmother, who will be leaving us very soon.
The birthday celebration for Jeff’s grandmother in Fort Myers was a happy occasion. She is a warm presence in our lives, and to watch her take advantage of these later years and derive such joy from her ever-growing family inspires us.
I look at his grandmother and think these things: without her, my caring mother-in-law would not exist, and without my mother-in-law, my incredible husband would not exist, and without my husband, my beautiful daughters would not exist. I’ve only known this woman for seven years, and yet she has profoundly influenced my life; without her living just as she did, my little family would not exist. This idea leaves my head spinning with gratitude for her.
Below: Growing up, my family made an annual spring break pilgrimage to this Naples beach to visit my grandparents and soak up the sun. If you've lived in a Minnesota-like climate, you know how precious such a trip is in the middle of the long, long winter. It was surreal to watch my girls play here, right in front of my grandparents' home of 30 years.
The memories of my final visits to my grandma in Naples are bittersweet. They stick in my throat, and I'm having trouble finding the words to make sense of them. Here is what I have parsed out so far:
It is a strange thing—watching someone you love slowly recede into dementia until she is all but gone, though still alive. As I write this, it has been more than a week since Grandma has eaten and her breathing is changing. I am waiting for the call from my mom that she has gone. I imagine my grandpa up there waiting impatiently for her (this impatience is one of several things I inherited from him). "Come on, Ruthie," I can almost hear him say. "You're late!" After 71 years of marriage, a year apart is far too long.
I remember, as a child in school, being asked to name my hero. It was always Grandma. But it occurred to me as I sat with her that perhaps I had never told her. So I leaned over and whispered in her ear, "You've always been my hero, Grandma." She smiled and whispered an enthusiastic, "Thank you!" as she fell asleep. I hope somehow, for even the briefest of moments, those words sunk in.
The girls and Jeff came with me to visit Grandma three times. We were fortunate to catch some of the last glimpses of her—a moment here, a few seconds or minutes there. She was the most lucid at our last visit as a family. How she loved to see the girls play by her bedside in their bright, retro swimsuits! Nora was talking non-stop, and Grandma laughed and said, “I’m just trying to decipher her version of the English language.” I think it was the only full sentence I heard her put together during our visits, and it was so Grandma.
Our trip overlapped with an aunt and cousin to whom I am very close. On my last visit to Grandma, I picked up my cousin and we met my aunt at Grandma's place. When Grandma fell asleep, we took a walk together. We cried and hugged and laughed. We remembered. And we talked about the future. How surreal to think that Grandma has been such a monumental part of our past but will not physically be a part of our future.
I want to share more with you about this wonderful person, Ruth Leslie Bean, but it’s too hard right now. I’m waiting by the phone. I’m praying. And I’m feeling grateful that my daughters have had the good fortune to know three of their great-grandmothers.
Below: Thanks to Bridget for taking this photo of Grandma and me. I will treasure it.
Below: Porpoise just south of Doctors Pass. I wonder how many of them we've seen at this very spot over the years.
Below: Grandma enjoyed watching the girls walk by her window on the way to this pond in search of turtles and alligators.
Below; Grandma's neighbor, who provided the girls with endless entertainment.
Below: The girls were quite taken with shell collecting.
Below: Cricket decked out for a birthday celebration.
Below: Sunset on final approach. I've been looking at this photo a lot these days.
It's not often I get a chance to travel solo since having kids. (And by "not often," I mean never.) Needless to say, last week's trip to New York City by myself was monumental.
I went to visit my best friend of 20 years (eek!), Rachel. We grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same school, studied abroad in Switzerland together, shared an apartment in New York for a few years, and on and on. Oh, and everyone thinks we're twins. People literally stop their cars on the street to ask if we're twins, which we never understand because 1) we're not twins and 2) who would stop a car to ask if two people were twins?
Anyway, we have a lot of history and getting together means serious business, namely: walking, talking, eating and drinking (alternating between coffee and wine, obviously). It's what we do, and New York makes those tasks easy, especially since being friends with Rachel is like having a personal concierge. She organized a fantastic itinerary for our weekend.
On Friday we wandered the MoMA and Met before grabbing lunch at Alice's Teacup. We may have then stopped for macaroons at Laduree...Dinner was pizza at John's.
(Photos from this trip are iPhone only.)
Above: Manhattan off the wing.
Below clockwise from top left: My favorite room in the city: The Temple of Dendur at the Met. A bit of Picasso at MoMA. Mocha from Blue Bottle Coffee. Un peu de Monet chez MoMa. Macaroons and pastries from Laduree.
On Saturday we stopped for pretzel croissants at City Bakery and coffee at Blue Bottle before walking the High Line, a former freight line elevated above the West Side that has been converted into a public park. Naturally we were famished after walking the 20 blocks of the High Line, so we headed to Monmarte for brunch with a lovely friend from high school.
Below clockwise from top left: Images of the city, Hudson River (and Rachel) from the High Line.
We spent Saturday afternoon wandering Chelsea Market and the West Village, hitting up the Antiques Garage and Sokerbit and relaxing on the back patio of Buvette with a glass of wine. Eventually we made our way to Village Taverna for Greek salad.
On Sunday we brunched at ABC Kitchen.
Below clockwise from top left: Central Park from the plane. Adorable wine list at Buvette. Bling from the Antiques Garage. No, we're not twins. Manhattan skyline at take-off. Sweet illustration at Blue Bottle.
One of the best parts of my weekend away was the surprise I came across at the airport when I landed in Raleigh. People probably thought I had been gone for a month instead of 48 hours by my reaction. But sometimes a few days away is all you need.
Click here to check out more adventure posts.
If you've been following this blog at all over the last few months, you know I've been entirely immersed in my little sister's wedding. (Previous wedding posts: here and here for more Colorado trip photos, here for save-the-dates and programs, here for wedding invitations, here for engagement photos, here for bridal shower photos and here for a DIY travel journal.) Well here's my final related post: photos from the wedding weekend.
There are so many things I want to recount and remember about this event, but first things first. Let's set the scene.
Planning a wedding in the middle of the winter in the middle of the Rocky Mountains at 8,300 feet was a risky maneuver, but boy did it pay off. The ground was covered with four feet of snow, and it snowed lightly but consistently each day of the trip. The wind was gusting up to 80 miles per hour. But to the crew of 50 guests, mostly hailing from Minnesota, Wisconsin or Colorado, these conditions were nothing to write home about. They just provided a dream-like backdrop for the big day.
The wedding took place at the Wild Basin Lodge, which sits at a remote entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, along the St. Vrain River. Most of us stayed at the lodge or cabins within walking distance of the lodge.
Above: My immediate family has grown from 6 to 15 people in the last few years. I wonder what the next couple years will hold? (Thanks to my cousin, Katie, for taking this photo.)
Below: A stand of aspen in snowdrifts in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Here are a few winter scenes from in and around Rocky Mountain National Park's Wild Basin entrance. Oh, did I mention the wind was insane?
My mom took this photo of me held up by the wind in the park. Plenty of sledders hit the hill in the backyard of our cabin, including...the mother-of-the-bride (top center)!
The rehearsal dinner took place at a cute little Italian restaurant called Mama Rose's on the river in Estes Park. It was dusk and snowing as we drove down into the beautiful town (below top center). I'd love to explore that area more on my next trip.
My mom recently discovered an envelope that belonged to my great-grandmother, on which was written: "The ten (10) cent piece worn in my shoe when I was married. Aug. 24—1907.” Apparently it is a Scottish-Irish tradition for the bride's father to place a coin in the bride's shoe just before the ceremony. So my parents surprised my sister with this re-discovered tradition and my great-grandmother's coin from her wedding day more than 100 years ago.
Below right: Flower girls Cricket and Iris check out their dresses before go-time. They couldn't get over the fact that they all got to wear matching outfits.
The ceremony was supposed to happen outdoors with a view of the river and mountains, but it was too blustery and snowy. Instead it took place in the entryway of the lodge in front of a huge stone fireplace with a roaring fire. Life doesn't get more picturesque than that (though I don't actually have pictures, because I was busy being in the wedding). For official photos, you can check out a beautiful blog post by the wedding photographer, Meghan of Visual Poetry. You'll see the space was small—with just enough room for three or four rows of guest—which made it even more intimate and special.
To prepare for Mari's entrance, we were led outside and up the back stairway. I will never forget holding her train and helping her up those stairs as light snow was falling and landing on her amazing red hair. Yep, it was a fairytale from start to finish.
There were many moments from the ceremony I won't forget either, like watching Andy's expression when he saw Mari and when the flower girls walked down the aisle holding hands and Cricket stopped to hug her new uncle. Also: bagpipes! I know my Scottish grandpa was smiling from above.
We took bridal party photos in front of the frozen St. Vrain River, surrounded by aspen and foggy mountains.
Right middle: Sweet "Just Married" blanket, stitched by Andy's mom.
Bottom middle: My sisters and me. It's not often we're all lucky enough to be in the same place at the same time.
Bottom left: The flower girls (my girls and their cousins).
(Thanks again to Katie for taking those last two shots.)
The details and decorations at the reception were unbelievable. My sister is lucky to have crafty friends who were endlessly generous in giving their time to help with decor. (I should also note that when one friend, who played guitar and sang beautifully during the ceremony, found out the wedding was supposed to be outside, she began practicing in her backyard on cold nights to make sure her fingers were agile enough to play in adverse conditions. Now that is loyal friendship.)
One thoughtful detail was the canvas below (top center). Mari found wedding photos of Andy's and our parents and grandparents and had them printed to look like Polaroids. It was hard (for me) not to cry looking at all those beautiful images of lifelong commitment.
The floral arrangements by Floral Designs of Europe were incredible and unique.
Below right: I love the basket full of river stones and pine cones Mari and her friends devised to hold the wedding programs.
Below left: The flower girls couldn't keep themselves off the dance floor while watching Mari dance with my dad.
Below bottom center: The seating chart was adorable. Everyone's names and table assignments were written on little blocks of birch stuck to this board. Next to the board, you'll see canvases of the engagement photos we took in January.
Below right: Bride and groom pine cone cake toppers!
It should also be mentioned that my family has many wedding traditions. One is that the bride and groom drink champagne from a special double silver cup. Another is that toasts are a really big deal. My dad always gives a thoroughly researched, footnoted, intricate tear-jerker. And then my sisters and I do something ridiculous. And that ridiculous something might have been an ‘80s cover with words re-written for the happy couple. And that ‘80s cover might just be documented here. (Yes, I'm rocking a snowshoe guitar. And yes, I will probably receive many threats for sharing this footage.)
Not pictured: The girls fell asleep on our shoulders as we danced the night away at the reception. I will always remember bundling up their sleeping little bodies and walking them back to the cabin—just the four of us together in the pitch dark mountains. Fresh snow was falling. It was silent except for the sounds of our boots crunching on the snow-covered ground and coyotes howling in the distance (and by distance, I mean a few yards away...). My heart was full-up.
Below: This is how you leave the mountains: quite precariously with three men pushing your car out of a steep, snowy, icy driveway. And this (right), is a Rocky Mountain sunset send-off from the Denver airfield.
After four months of planning and preparing and traveling and photographing and blogging, I'm officially signing off from the coverage of the amazingly beautiful and unique wedding of Mari and Andy. Congratulations to them on the beginning of their new life together!
And just like that, my parents have married off the last of their four daughters!
My new book is out! Click to learn more about it.
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.
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