Friday, May 30, 2014

Willie Nelson hits the Upstate

Sometimes it can take a lot to get our favorite New Yorkers to come visit us. Like Willie Nelson.

Turns out it’s a heck of a lot easier to get good tickets at the Charter Amphitheatre in Simpsonville, SC than at the Radio City Music Hall.

I was first introduced to Willie by my father via The Highwaymen, and although Johnny Cash will forever remain my favorite of those historic four, Willie Nelson has a special spot in my playlist. It doesn’t hurt that Roberts also loves Willie – one of the few musical tastes we share.

This one's for you, numurs viens

Everything was kicked off by The Devil Makes Three, a band out of Vermont that plays a mix of bluegrass, old time music, country, folk, blues, jazz, ragtime, and rockabilly. Having toured with Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, they are currently in Europe playing sold-out shows in France, Italy, Germany and Spain.

Next up was Alison Krauss & Union Station (featuring Jerry Douglas). Blown away. Gorgeous voice, talented musician, and geez, those lyrics! She’s got a new fan.

Willie Nelson and Family played a non-stop, get-you-on-your-feet, can-you-believe-this-guy-is-81? show full of favorites such as On the Road Again, Whiskey River and Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys. Toby Keith’s Beer for my Horses got quite a reaction, as did Superman. My favorite? Always on my Mind.

The guy can still rock a full house.

I'm drowning in a whiskey river,
Bathing my mem'ried mind in the wetness of its soul.
Feeling the amber current flowin' from my mind.
And warm an empty heart you left so cold.

Whiskey River take my mind,
Don't let her mem'ry torture me.
Whiskey River don't run dry,
You're all I've got, take care of me.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The best small zoo in America - the Greenville Zoo

A favorite place of ours here in Greenville is the zoo. Certainly not as big as Brookfield Zoo, nor integrated with a museum like the Greensboro Science Center, it does however have the benefit of being conveniently located just outside of downtown, and of being “do-able” in an hour or two. This is our second year with a membership, which has a few advantages. One being the opportunity to visit as often as we wish, there is also less pressure to linger; if the boys would rather play in Cleveland Park that day, I don’t feel obligated to get "my money’s worth." (Although the entrance fee is reasonable, $8.75 for adults, $5.50 for children ages 3-15) Other perks to the membership include early sign-up and discounts on programs and special events like Boo in the Zoo, free or discounted admission to more than 130 zoos in the US, and extra guest tickets. If you've been to the zoo lately, then you know our little landmark is in for some major changes; the Greenville Zoo 20-year master plan proposal was recently unveiled... and it includes tigers!!!

Source: Greenville Journal, Friday, May 16 2014: Vol. 16, No. 20

The first exhibit upon entering is the African elephant enclosure. Sadly, one of the two elephants passed away this March, and with revised AZA standards regarding elephant enclosures requiring zoos to have three female elephants and room to house a bull, the second elephant Joy will soon be relocating to her new home, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, CO.

Across from the elephants is a small pond that is home to several species of turtles, but also serves as the home to birds during a quarantine period for new arrivals.

After climbing the stairs or circling around with the stroller we come to the primate section. The critically endangered black-headed spider monkeys, Schmidt’s red-tailed guenons, the black & white ruffed lemurs and the Angola Colobus monkeys are always fun to watch, whether they are eating or swinging around their cages.

Just next door is the reptile building, which houses all the cute and cuddly creatures such as the Madagascar hissing cockroaches, the gulfodulcean poison arrow frogs, tarantulas, rhinoceros iguanas and a slew of snakes including pythons and rattlesnakes.

Keeping right will take you into the loop with Ruppell’s griffon vultures, thought to be the world’s highest flying bird sometimes cruising up to 36,000 feet with the jetliners. The three vultures have a view of the two bear sculptures, the misting station and the zoo jeep that the boys always request to have their pictures taken on.

A little further are the lions, two half-brothers that came from the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia. A big part of Greenville Zoo’s recently unveiled master plan is a new lion enclosure, so we’ll be saying goodbye to Chuma and Saied in the coming years, and welcoming a pair of males and one or two females who will begin a breeding program. The new exhibit will also include an elevated viewing platform.

The Masai giraffes are neighbors to the lions. Last October the female Autumn gave birth to Kiko, broadcast live via the Giraffe Cam, which boasts over one million viewers from all over the world. Walter and Autumn are expecting their second baby in July, so we’ll be able to share the experience of being preggers during the summer in the South.

Returning to the loop we find the Aldabran tortoises: females Aimee & Yin, and male Bubba. With life spans up to 200 years, these giants are the second-largest species of tortoise in the world. Visitors might notice a second, smaller enclosure off of the main space, separated by a series of posts. The purpose of this second enclosure is to provide a haven for the females when the male is being ‘aggressive’; the posts are spaced just wide enough to allow the two smaller females to pass through.

We take a break in the playground before continuing on, as the shaded area with comfortable seating allows for a place to hydrate and rest during the warmer months. Then it’s on to the orangutans  who are often playing very near the viewing glass. Bob was born to Chelsea and Mia in 2006, but despite being eight years old he still often engages in playtime with his parents.

The master plan proposes an expansion to the orangutan exhibit, as well as the leopard exhibit just next door. The Amur leopards, Emerald and Jade, arrived in Greenville as cubs in 2011. A few years ago a female was introduced in hopes that they might breed, but as far as I know the effort wasn’t successful. The leopards are often seen pacing near the viewing glass during the cooler hours of the day, and I’ll be glad for them to have some extra space after the expansion.

The Siamang gibbons can often be heard all the way out to Cleveland park, howling and calling away. They share a plaza with the Palawan peacock pheasant, Prevost’s squirrel, the red pandas and the wreathed hornbills. Although the gibbons have become a favorite (Lauris and Mikus often set up the dining room chairs into a ‘cage’ and then hop around moooo, mooo, mooo-ing), I enjoy the colors of the squirrels, which remind me of the native fox squirrels that live in Southern forests that range in color from albino to black and everywhere between, sometimes with spots and patches.

After passing the gift shop and concessions (for which major improvements are also in store as part of the master plan) we turn right out of the loop, passing the restrooms and coming to the Toco toucan, Ava. The bright orange beak always commands the attention of one of the boys, especially if she’s making the unusual sounds which can startle if unexpected.

My favorites are the ocelots. Often napping on one of the raised platforms, they can sometimes be seen pacing the length of the cage. The master plan calls for a new two-story rainforest exhibit, and I wonder if this will include the ocelots… (Their habitat includes the forests, marshes and grasslands of South and Central America)

The most interactive of exhibits is the white-nosed coatimundi that lives next door. When in a good mood he will race up and down the length of his enclosure with anyone willing. Even Lauris and Mikus running in opposite directions doesn’t dampen Sid’s enthusiasm!

What used to be the aviary house is currently an empty lot, as the old structure was demolished to make way for the new bird aviaries. Previously home to sun conures, a plush crested jay and a northern helmeted currasow, we’re awaiting to see if any new friends will join once the aviary reopens sometime this summer.

The lagoon takes up a large portion of the south end of the zoo. Residents include Chilean flamingos, black swans, white faced whistling ducks, ruddy ducks and hooded mergansers. We’ve seen a host of other waterfowl “visiting,” as well as a black rat snake or two, and the boys are always excited to count the turtles sunning themselves on logs.

The icing on the cake is the alligator enclosure. Home to two American alligators Feisty and Raina, and also two alligator snapping turtles, there is a great viewing station that allows visitors an underwater vista as well as an above-ground view.

Next is the barnyard, featuring four goats, a Vietnamese potbellied pig and a dozen or so chickens and ducks. Crackers to feed these animals (and others in the zoo) are for sale at the front gate.

Last, but certainly not least is the great horned owl. I’m lucky enough to have seen the grand birds in the wild, but an up-close look is certainly interesting in its own way.

I hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit the Greenville Zoo (if you haven’t already), but if not I hope you enjoy this virtual tour. The zoo is certainly an educational resource for the city of Greenville, and I’m glad the funds have been allocated to update the aging infrastructure. Touring the grounds today, it is hard to believe the zoo first opened in 1960 – however great the changes may be. *Interesting fact: the first Greenville Zoo was located in McPherson Park and had ducks and buffalo among several other animals!* As one of the main Greenville attractions with more than 300,000 visitors annually, it’s my hope that the new campaign will find a way to utilize more of the 14 acres that are zoo property (currently occupies only 6) and that the habitats for many of the larger animals will be modernized. Of course we’ve got two boys who are pretty excited about the new tigers…

Monday, May 26, 2014

On a growing garden... and family

As much as I love the outdoors and gardening, I don’t have the greenest of thumbs. I think this is partially because I haven’t ever lived with one garden long enough to really build the soil up, figure out what does and doesn’t work and learn about the particular region I'm in. It doesn’t stop me from trying, and this being the second summer with our garden I must say I’m rather proud of the progress we’ve made in two years’ time.

Our first backyard project upon moving in was building two raised beds in one corner of the yard. We used blueprints from an old book I found in a garage sale, the idea being that the beds can be easily moved (once the soil is removed) by just taking out the anchoring rebar. I was very disappointed in last year’s harvest (the cucumbers and sweet potatoes did well with all the rain, but the tomatoes hardly fruited and the beans and peas fizzled out early in the season), so we’re holding our thumbs and so far, so good. As luck would have it we came by some horse manure to till in with our compost, and the tomato blossoms bring me hope of mozzarella/basil/tomato tarts and tomato-bocconcini-basil sandwiches. Two healthy strawberry plants but no fruit, cilantro that for the second year in a row has gone directly to seed and a first sowing of sweet potatoes that never came up have me shaking my head, but the snap peas – oh, the snap peas have climbed the trellis and wanted more, so I gave them rope to hang themselves on and now the boys and I have something to snack on every day in the garden. The vitelotte potatoes are looking solid, the summer squash is already taking over, and the cucumbers and herbs are hanging in there. Oh, and the tomato I planted a tad too early that got scorched by frost, well it has bounced back and is the bushiest of the six plants.

One project this year was to convert a pallet into a wall garden. The salad I planted in the bed last year gave up way too early due to a combination of heat and digging squirrels, and our peppers never matured as they were destroyed by the squirrels my neighbor feeds. So far the pallet garden has proved to be an improvement, as we’ve been harvesting salad and spinach since our visitors were in town a month ago and it's only now going to seed. The green peppers are progressing nicely as well, and the only trick is to keep everything watered, as the soil dries out quicker than the raised beds.

The blueberry bushes survived the winter nicely, and we ate our first raspberries last Wednesday. It looks as if the black currant will still not produce fruit this year but I think it takes several years to mature, and although the plant is self-pollinating it has not yet produced blossoms. We tucked a blackberry in next to the house, just to see what it will do; there are dozens of places wild blackberries grow here in the Upstate, but most of them are roadside, trailside or in right-of-ways where herbicides are used regularly.

The rosemary and Anna’s lavender survived another season, but neither is thriving as I had hoped. My lovely neighbor has gifted me iris bulbs for the second year in a row that she has separated from her garden, and last year’s plants already flowered this spring – magnificent purple blossoms that have explained why Southerners tend towards irises and daffodils over tulips. My beautiful red tulips were predated this past winter, and those that the squirrels missed never flowered; I’m not sure if it’s the soil or the sunlight, but the irises are thriving in the same conditions.

The two chrysanthemums which returned with such vigor last spring weren’t hardy enough to make it through this winter’s temperatures, but the lily of the valley I planted two years ago finally made an appearance this spring, although it didn’t bloom. The mint my friend Sarmīte's mother planted for me is doing well, despite the various disruptions including two-legged (Mikus and Lauris), four-wheeled (the little John Deere the boys tear around with) and the shovel-bearing kind (Roberts in a well-meaning attempt to rid the garden of monkey grass). For now that monkey grass is the last thing standing between the mini-garden and wood chips, so it gets to stay…

Finally, a mystery. Upon moving in I was happy to find a muscadine growing along the back fence, similar to the scuppernong we had in our previous Greenville home. However it never fruited last summer, and upon doing some research I found that there are male, female and self-pollinating plants. My neighbor had a mature plant that produced like crazy, but she couldn’t reach the berries and so it happened that I did the picking in exchange for jars with freshly made jam. When she decided in the fall that she wanted to grow something else in that location I was over in a flash to help her dig it up, and we made space beside what I had decided was the male plant in our backyard. I must not have gotten enough of a root ball though, because the transplant landed on this winter’s casualty list. We’ve put in a supposed “self-pollinator” but now I ask you (because google images has been of very little help), if those aren’t immature grapes pictured above, what are they???? And they occur on both plants, the (supposed) male and the new addition!

Even as I’m working on growing a garden outdoors, I’m growing something else… we’re waiting on our newest addition this August. Roberts has promised me a girl, and I’m dreaming of my little “eggplant” even as I’m tucking marigolds into the flower beds. A thank you to Inese and Arianna for noticing last week :) I’m nervous entering my third trimester, mostly at how I’ll handle the Southern heat, but as we’re so busy with everything going on this time of year the pregnancy so far has seemed to flash by. And if it’s a boy? Well, I know several moms of three (and even four!) boys that survived – without losing their sanity….

Friday, May 23, 2014

A little bit of Greece in the Upstate

It has been close to two years since our time in Greece, but the intense sun on whitewashed brick is imprinted on my memory as if it was yesterday. Thank goodness the heat hasn’t reached us here in the Upstate just yet, and although the SC beaches are exceptional they aren’t Santorini or Paros, but the Greek tradition came to Greenville last weekend as it does once a year since 1986 in the form of the Greek Festival.

This year’s festival included a tour of the beautiful church, live Greek music, folk dancing performances, an iconography exhibit, children’s rides and shopping on the plaka. We started with Greek coffee and a frappe before strolling over to the Hellenic Center to check out the dining options. The Center was built in the early 1980s to provide facilities for the Greek Sunday school and fund-raising events, but today was a giant dining hall with an extensive menu and pastry shop. As some of the offerings were also available outside we opted to skip the moussaka and pastichio and instead head directly for the sweets. Bumping into a friend from our time in France behind the counter was certainly motivation to load up, and we came home with a tray full of baklava (with and without chocolate), kataifi (shredded dough with nuts and honey), amygthalota (almond cookies) and galaktoboureko (a baked custard dessert). I also learned my lesson not to attend the festival on the last day – they were all sold out of dipless, the crisp folds of pastry deep fried and then topped with syrup and nuts.

Then as the boys headed back to the children’s ride portion of the festival I crossed over to the Cathedral. I pass this magnificent building if not daily, then at least a couple times a week but had yet to see the interior. The St. George Greek Orthodox Parish in Greenville was established by Greek immigrants in 1936, and a church seating 260 was completed in 1942. As the community grew, so did the need for a larger church, and in 1995 the current Cathedral was completed. The tour started in the narthex, but soon we entered the nave for an informative lecture on the history and architecture of the church.

Allowed a glimpse into the sanctuary, we then descended down to the lower level. Here the history of the first church is preserved, with icons, pews and stained glass windows from the original church preserved to form a smaller church within a church – complete with sanctuary. After our gracious host finished his lecture and answered our questions, I ducked into the side room where the introductory tour to iconography was presented.

Namesake St. George, slaying the dragon

Stomach growling it was soon time to rejoin the boys, and luckily I bumped into them a short distance from the outdoor stand featuring saganaki. This flaming cheese is traditionally torched in the kitchen, not in the dining room as is often the case here in the US, but the cook managed to maintain authenticity since the “kitchen” was in plain view. Lauris got an especially close view of our appetizer as it went up in flames, and we were soon enjoying the delicious dish at a nearby table. Opa!

Next we tried a gyro, and for the record although the food can’t be compared to what we dined on in Greece, it was good and filling for an outdoor festival. Then while the boys waited on the balloon clown we tried an order of loukoumades, donuts soaked in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon.

The morning drizzle had delayed the traditional folk dance presentations, but while we waited we enjoyed the live music of Nick Trivelas and "Night in Athens.” Soon dancers had taken the floor, and both boys were entranced at the stepping and dancing taking place onstage.

It wasn’t meant for us to stick around to hear the Byzantine chanting and choir presentations this year, but we did stop by the outdoor dining tent one last time before heading home. The tiropita (feta filled filo-dough triangle) didn’t even make it to the car with Mikus working on it!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A spring fling with Park Hop, Storyventures and Arts Alive

With summer slowly approaching the calendar is filling up! A few of our favorites include a new program at the Greenville Library, Storyventures, and the LiveWell Park Hop, an annual summer-long event with LiveWell, all the parks and recreation departments in Greenville county, plus Paris Mountain State Park. The opening celebration was Saturday in Conestee Park, and despite the gloomy weather we headed out to play games and compete in the scavenger hunt. The new Park Hop passport was unveiled, and this year’s clues can be found spread wide over Greenville County, from Paris Mountain State Park to the Greenville Drive and Children’s Museum. Designed to help participants discover parks within the community as well as stay active through physical activity, we found it last year to give us motivation to visit areas we might not otherwise have seen, such as Cedar Falls Park. To register and download your copy of the park passport, visit the LiveWell Greenville website

Storyventures is a new program at the Hughes Main Library, and we signed up for the April program featuring the senses. Based on the Reggio Emilia learning philosophy, the hour-long program is geared towards children age three to five and takes place every Friday over the course of a month. During April we explored the senses, discovering the color green, texture, smell and light. Mikus tagged along, even participating in storytime and some of the activities. I had the opportunity to learn techniques for guiding and documenting the boys’ explorations and discoveries, and we are looking forward to the program restarting in October. For more information and registration, please contact the Hughes Main Library.

We will be participating in the summer reading “Explore Your World” program as well, which kicks off Friday, May 30th at the Main Library with children’s activities, a children’s book sale and Lollipops concert. Starting that Friday you will be able to register at the library location you visit most frequently to pick up a reading log. The program runs through July 26th and more information can be found on the Greenville Library website.

A few weeks ago we headed out to Stone Academy for the annual fundraiser, Arts Alive. Organized by the PTA, it featured dozens of games and activities for children of all ages, food, live music, auctions of artwork created by the students, and a raffle which this year included prizes such as a diamond necklace and a restaurant dining package worth over $1,000. Although we didn’t luck out in the drawing we had a great time, filling up on snowcones, popcorn, M&Ms, hot dogs and iced coffee.

Even with all the programs and festivals taking place, we have a few projects going on at home. Plus, the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship is taking place in Belarus. Coming through with a big win against the US last week in the preliminaries, the Latvian team is once again surprising the world with their excellent defense and teamwork. Back to back games Monday and Tuesday landed them just outside of the quarterfinals, but I know we’ll be seeing more of phenomenal goalkeepers Gudlevskis and Masalskis, as well as legends Daugaviņš and Girgensons.

source here

Enough to stay busy for a while, don’t you think? Greenville has an amazing list of programs for kids this summer, and if you are looking for fun activities to participate in I hope you'll join in! 

PS I wrote about last year's Park Hop and summer reading program here.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Campbell's Covered Bridge

A recent playdate brought us 40 minutes north of Greenville, to Campbell’s Covered Bridge in Landrum, SC. I hadn’t been in quite some time, and was looking forward to spending the morning exploring this historic covered bridge and Beaverdam Creek with the boys. The structure was built in 1909 by Charles Irwin Willis to replace a flat bridge that was washed out in 1908.

The bridge was restored in 1964, and after Pleasant Hill Road was rerouted in 1951, the bridge was eventually closed to vehicles in 1984. In 1990 Campbell’s Covered Bridge was once more restored, and after buying up several acres from adjoining holdings, owner Sylvia A. Pittman sold the now 15-acre parcel to the Greenville County Recreation District to be developed as a public historic site in 2008. The last remaining covered bridge in South Carolina, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

My last visit was in March of 2002, and the difference was noticeable. The gravel parking lot I remembered just next to the bridge was gone, replaced by a public lot closer to the road. A paved path leads to the bridge and picnic areas, and a 0.5 mile hike takes visitors on a tour of the area. The banks have been nicely landscaped, allowing easy access to the shallows at the base of the bridge. I was hardly surprised to learn that Beaverdam Creek has been popular for picnics on a hot day, a place for engagements and romantic strolls since the day the bridge was built, as we spent a couple of hours splashing in the sandy pools.

From 2002: old parking lot visible

35 feet long and 12 feet wide, the trusses lay on natural rock abutments on either end. As the rest of the bridge was built to fit, the resulting structure is actually not completely square. With a four-span Howe truss (commonly used in railroad bridges), Campbell’s features diagonal timbers and vertical iron rods.

The bridge is named after Lafayette Campbell, the owner of almost 200 acres in the area and the grist mill just downstream. In 1938 a new grist mill was built on the same site, this one operating until the 1950s. The foundation is still visible, as are the foundations of the Smith House, the home of Joseph Daniel Smith (who built the second grist mill). The home was transformed in 1992 by then-owner William Pittman, who added interesting bits of geology into the steps, walls and patios, and although the house burned in 2001, pieces still can be found in the public spaces in the park; in more than one spot the boys found marbles, shells and other oddities embedded into the various steps and retaining walls surrounding the bridge. The old springhouse still stands as well, cold water flowing out from underneath the steps.

Campbell’s Covered Bridge is an excellent spot to visit with kids on a hot summer day. Amenities include picnic tables, trash receptacles in the parking lot and informational placards, however there are no public restrooms or changing areas. Watch out for poison ivy (which we saw quite a bit of on the trail near the river), ticks and other biting insects, but don’t let it keep you from enjoying this historic site! We’ll be back soon, this time with a few shovels and pails to settle in for a longer playtime in the cool mountain creek.

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