Congaree National Park

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Congaree National Park is not going to win any awards among national parks for splendor but there is beauty to be found here if you look carefully. It is essentially a swamp containing a dense old growth forest of bald cypress, tupelo and oak trees, some of the tallest to be found. Consequently, most of what one will see here at ground level are the massive trunks of these trees. On our traverse of the 5 mile Weston Lake loop trail we encountered more spiders and dragonflies than any other form of wildlife.

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Pictured below is a sequence of images showing a spider molting.  It was a fascinating process to watch and it took me some time to understand what I was witnessing (I initially assumed I it was two spiders mating or fighting). I think it is safe to say that this is something I will never again see in my lifetime and am thankful I had the chance to document it so well.

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The dragonflies were quite large and very beautiful.  I kicked myself a hundred times for not bringing my macro lens with me on this trip.

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The occasional snake and bird were few and far between. Plenty of wild pig tracks, but none to be seen.

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After visiting the park we were quite hungry and in the mood for some famous South Carolina BBQ.  I programmed my NAV system for the nearest establishment. When we arrived at an unsigned store front that looked like anything but a place where food is served, we were hesitant to enter. Thank God we did.  What we stumbled onto was the flagship restaurant of Big T’s Bar-B-Que. Larry or “Teddy” “Big T” Brown has served barbecue to the greater Columbia, S.C. area for over 30 years. In 2003, his reputation prompted a request from incoming Governor Mark Sanford to cook for his inaugural barbecue. I have never had a pulled pork sandwich that even comes close to what I enjoyed on this day.

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With full and happy bellies we started the long multi-day journey back to Concord making it as far as the Virginia border where we paused for the night at the KOA campground in Fancy Gap.  Our new 4-person tent has been serving us extremely well and working together we can put it up or down in a matter of a few minutes.

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Clingmans Dome

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Our morning drive to the Clingsmans Dome Visitors Center offered several view points which made clear why the Great Smokey Mountains are so named.  From the visitors center we made the steep hike to the top of Clingsmans Dome sitting at 6,643 feet above sea level.  From there we walked along an elevated spiral path to the futuristic tower which offers an unrestricted 360 degree panoramic view of the magnificent mountain range. What a joy to behold.

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After exited the national park we stopped briefly on the adjacent Cherokee Indian Reservation to hike to Mingo Falls which drops some 120 feet.

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On the recommendation of my sister Mayela, we stopped for a late lunch in Cashiers, NC.  Afterwards we explored a quaint little country store called the Farmers Market where we picked up some locally grown peaches to sustain as as we travelled on to South Carolina.

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Great Smokey Mountain National Park

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Jeanine jumped at the chance to have coffee at this tiny little shop in the middle of no where rather than have me prepare my special camp brew for her.  Once she was properly caffeinated we drove to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park by way of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN.  We paused at midday to make the 2.5 mile hike to Laurel Falls before continuing on to Cades Cove where we setup camp and I prepared a nice bruschetta with a side of sliced apples and cherries for lunch.

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After our late lunch we made a leisurely circumnavigation of the Cades Cove loop road stopping at the John Oliver homestead and Cable Mill historic area.

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Jeanine treated her toes to a cool massage in Mill Creek before we returned to our campsite for a light dinner.

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As dusk approached we made another lap around the loop road in search of wildlife. Our effort was rewarded when we encountered a medium size black bear some 30 feet from the road.

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Valle Crucis

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During the family reunion, Mark’s family and mine shared a luxurious (hot tub, pool table, big screen TV) rental cabin which slept 12.  We squeezed every last minute out of our departure deadline of 11AM before heading our separate ways. We travelled a full 30 minutes before reconnecting with Kyle, Nicolai and Karuna to watch the Italy versus Spain Europa Cup soccer match at a sports bar in Boone.  Jeanine and I then left for Valle Crucis where we spent time at the Mast General store, built in 1882. Jeanine purchased several items but not the locally sourced honey pictured below, a choice which she still laments.

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We found a campground in Hot Springs, NC where we spent the evening and explored the French Broad River as dusk approached.

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Reunion Day 3

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No Calabria family reunion would be complete without levitation photography.  A trip to the Moses Cone Memorial Park near Blowing Rock provided the perfect backdrop. Some of our first time recruits are still working up to their full potential.

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An attempt at inverted levitation was unsuccessful but will be practiced for the next reunion.

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Reunion Day 2

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New arrivals today included my cousin Anita and her extended family as well as my sister Alissa, her husband John and their son John Jr.

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In addition to several more rounds of soccer juggling the entire assembled group made an excursion to Grandfather Mountain where we climbed to the Mile High Swinging Bridge and out onto a precipice which overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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When we returned to the cabin I took advantage of the afternoon mountain light to create portraits of everyone present.  The full set of weekend photos can be found by following this link. My favorite of each of my offspring can be found below.

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Normally it can be challenging to get a large number of people to pose for a group portrait. Not so when the completion of said portrait is all that stands between them and a pig roast.

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Reunion Day 1

Dark Hollow Falls

Jeanine and I got an early start for a short but steep hike to Dark Hollow Falls, a 70 foot high cascade located near the lodge.  We then dragged my mother away from the lumberjack size breakfast she was devouring and set off for Fleetwood, North Carolina where my sister Mayela and her husband Stephen recently purchased a cabin in the mountains and where my side of the family will converge for our reunion this weekend.

The view from their cabin porch is absolutely stunning and likely even more spectacular with autumn colors.

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Relatives started arriving from all directions throughout the day and it did not take long for the fun to begin. Soccer was the most popular activity despite the fact that an errant pass would wind up half way down the mountain before it could be retrieved.

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Friday arrivals included Maya (drove here with Nico and Karuna by way of Shenandoah and the Great Smokey Mountain National Parks), Kyle (directly off a red-eye from California), and nephew Mario (returned yesterday from a 4 month semester abroad in Chile).

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Nicolai and niece Sophia arrived via limousine after winning first place in a matching eye contest.

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Niece Rosie arrived by piggyback courtesy of Karuna, Nico’s girlfriend.

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Nephew Rory walked here from Minnesota with his brother on his back while second cousin Toni slid down from the top of the mountain.

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My brother Mark and his wife Marie came directly from a two week  chin-on-hand, head resting clinic where they both received high grades.

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At 87, my mother remains the picture of health and danced her way here from Albany, New York.

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Sister Mayela and husband Stephen are our hosts for the weekend. They share their lives with two Jack Russel Terriers. One is very affectionate, the other will bite you for looking at him the wrong way. He is not pictured for fear of injury to the photographer.

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My cousin Heather, her husband Burton and Jeanine arrived under the influence of a libation known locally as “moonshine.” Judging by their respective reactions it is a wonder they did not get lost on the way.

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Shenandoah National Park

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The Big Meadows Lodge in the Shenandoah National Park was our destination for the evening. We drove in by way of Skyline Drive which affords spectacular views of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain and Piedmont Mountain ranges.  The lodge accommodations were very cozy and our dinner was much nicer than what I have come to expect of the national park service.

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Experiencing ballroom dancing withdrawal symptoms, my mother attempted to interest a rather hairy guy she met in the lobby to join her for a turn on the floor.  He was very shy and did not accept her invitation but did not seem to mind posing for a quick picture.

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We enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the porch before retiring for the evening.

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Gettysburg

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Jeanine, my mother and I travelled to Gettysburg today en route to North Carolina for a family reunion this weekend.  We arrived in time to visit the museum and take a guided tour of the battlefield.  During the 8 hour drive we listened to the  Pulitzer Prize winning historical novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (highly recommended), which enhanced our understanding of the pivotal battle that took place here and helped us to fully appreciate the circumstances that led to it and contributed to the outcome.

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It is sobering to walk on the hallowed ground were tens of thousands lost life and limb to support their principles.  The scars on our society have far outlasted those on the land and I hope we will not forget the terrible price that was paid for a nation divided especially at a time when our politics have become so polarizing.

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The family of birds I found nesting in the canon muzzle below gave me hope that even an instrument of death can serve the world in a more peaceful way if we just give it a chance.

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Road Trip

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Nicolai, Karuna and Maya began a 10 (or so) day road trip this morning. Jeanine, my mother and I will rendezvous with them on Friday in North Carolina where my side of the family is gathering for a reunion at my sister Mayela’s mountain cabin. From there, Nico and Karuna will head all the way down to Florida to visit friends, Maya will fly back to Boston, and Jeanine and I will extend our road trip to take in a couple of national parks in the area before returning home late next week. The kids will be camping during their journey and left with the Audi packed to the gills with their gear.

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Moon Dance

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Jeanine and I returned from a rare joint shopping excursion to discover a beautiful full moon rising over our backyard field. Since the advent of electricity, humans, by and large, have lost touch with the night sky and it was nice to be pulled back into the awesome spectacle, if only for a short while.

Sweeter Seventeen

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The problem with children is that they grow when you feed them.  Jeanine started feeding Maya exactly seventeen years ago and now look what has happened. She is all grown up and only a year away from leaving the nest. We celebrated her birthday this afternoon with cousins Johnny and Rachel, brother Nico and Karuna and the “rents”.

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Johnny prepared two magnificent birthday cakes with some assistance from Karuna and Rachel.  He spent several hours over two days creating the cake featured in the movie “Burnt” as well as a peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake (I think I will go sample another piece right now).

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I too was celebrated on this Father’s Day and am seen below modeling one of two shirts I received from the kids.  The only thing that would have made the day better would have been to win our soccer playoff match this morning.  Instead we finished the spring season one game short of competing for top honors in the state.

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Win’s Graduation

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We joined the Edwards family to celebrate the graduation of their son, Win, from the Perkins School for the Blind. Aliza is one of Jeanine’s dearest friends and it was a joy to share in the family celebration. A complete set of photos from the event can be found here.

New X1

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For two years, I have waited patiently for a Tesla Model X.  I am 100% sold on the future of electric vehicles and Tesla is the only company today offering range up to 250 miles. My car arrived in Boston almost a month ago with a cracked windshield and Tesla has been attempting to repair it since then.  A consistent pattern of delays and lack of communication have exhausted my patience with Tesla and my desire for a pre-damage $100K car has evaporated.  Today I purchase a new BMW X1 to cover my long distance and off-road travel needs. I will continue to use my electric BMW i3 for local commuting. Audi is working on a long range electric SUV scheduled for availability in 2018 and so begins another 2 year wait. The X1 is a baby brother to our five year old Audi Q5.  It gets 32 mpg on the highway, is huge inside for a compact SUV, and is unequivocally fun to drive.  I hope to put its all wheel drive, off-road capabilities to the test on our upcoming cross country road trip.

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UN Soccer Ambassador

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On very short notice the Dutch mission to the United Nations invited representatives from the American Amputee Soccer Association to participate in an event promoting different forms of adaptive soccer.  Nicolai was available and left last night with Karuna to attend the event which was held today at the UN headquarters in New York City on their enclosed outdoor rooftop soccer field. They spent the night at the home of a friend whose family lives in an apartment overlooking Central Park.