Beach run micro-trilogy

A family vacay to Crescent Beach, just south of St. Augustine, gave me the opportunity to resume my running regimen. My mileage had steadily decreased to zero over the past half-dozen years, but the road to fitness would start in northeast Florida. I ran every morning during our mid-July week at a beachside condo. (Good thing, as I enjoyed a dose of key lime pie most every night.) On those hot runs, when I wasn’t thinking about dying, I thought a lot about the beach.

TidePoolMmmmm … beach

What is it about the beach that makes it so longed-for? I think it starts with the image. We love looking at water, whether it’s a creek, lake, fountain or river. And the bigger the expanse of water, the better. The ocean, of course, stretches forever on your right, left and to the horizon in front of you.

Then add motion. A placid lake is gorgeous, but an ocean’s constant motion is mesmerizing. Crashing waves. Shimmering seas. Rolling—always rolling.

And when you involve the other senses: the surf’s methodical pounding, the aromatic salty air and the sea breeze on your face, the beach is flat-out intoxicating.

Steve Spurrier’s house

Do you think about buying a vacation home when you’re at the beach? Of course you do. Realistic or not, owning a place at the shore has to cross your mind as you lounge by the pool or stroll along the surf.

I have those vacation-home dreams while I run. As slow as I am, see, I get an extra-long look at each beachfront home. Some are cottagey and cozy, others are more modern. All windows and beams. I like the ones painted in pastels, with wide porches and a few Adirondack chairs. But if I were to ever buy a beachfront house, I’d want one with more bedrooms than my family needs because, as I’ve learned from watching House Hunters, your friends and relatives are going to visit you, like, constantly. So I’d need sort of a big house.

But not like Steve Spurrier’s.

The former college football coach is, according to my son’s friend who lives here, building the enormous house a couple of miles north of our condo. It sticks out like a sore castle. And I don’t like it. I don’t like Steve Spurrier, is the thing. While he was aw-shucks and easy-going during interviews, he was relentless and cruel as a coach, making his Florida Gators routinely run up the score on Kentucky. I mean, he was probably thinking more about his team’s progress than his opponent’s ineptitude. And maybe it was nothing personal, but still … he didn’t have to humiliate the boys in blue.

On the morning of my longest run of the week, I found myself approaching the Spurrier spread. The massive structure was visible from way off, but I had never reached it on earlier runs. As I was plodding along that day, though—and picking a spot for a turnaround point—Spurrier’s house was maybe only 10 minutes away. It would be easy to use it later, when I drove into town, to measure the length of my morning run with the car’s odometer.

But I decided against it. “Hell with him,” I thought. “I’m not going to use that damn guy’s house as my running goal.”  So I turned around a few houses south of Spurrier’s palace.

When I turned around I saw two guys sprinting toward me at full speed. One was 20 or so, and the other might have been his dad, and they were flat-out flying across the sand, huffing and puffing from the effort. They blew by me in an instant, and I could tell by the sound of their footsteps that they immediately eased off the gas; their sprint was over. Twenty yards later it hit me: They were using me as their finish line. “Race you to that fat guy!” was probably what started their sprint.

I was glad I had turned back home—toward the speedsters—and deprived them of a target. I know it was nothing against me personally. But still, who needs that humiliation?

Slogging another 20 yards up the beach, it hit me: Maybe just being inside Steve Spurrier’s territory brings out the butthole in everybody.

Beach boy

Each day’s run was rewarding, but for the absolute best beach run of the week, I was a spectator.

If you’re familiar with beaches, especially the wide, flat type I’ve seen in the Carolinas and—this week—in north Florida, you know that the tide has a dramatic influence on the amount of beach that’s either exposed or covered by the ocean. When the slope of a beach is extremely gradual, as it is here, a little bit of incoming tide travels a long way up the beach toward the dry sand. Similarly, a receding tide backs away quickly, leaving a tightly packed sand that can triple the amount of beach that’s available for sun tanning, bicycling and strolling.

Even a flat beach isn’t perfectly flat, and a slight beach bump will retain a bit of water as the tide ebbs. These tide pools typically run in narrow fingers parallel to the shore, as pictured above. They hold water for 10 or 20 minutes after the tide has abandoned the sand that surrounds them. Just “up beach” of a tide pool is the hard sand that makes the best running surface … unless you’re a little kid.

Trying to beat the heat, I ran early in the morning, but not crazy-early. Folks would have arrived at the beach to shell or stroll. And of course, families with little kids would have already been up for hours.

One morning I trotted slowly—always, slowly—toward a family that had set up chairs and an umbrella, and each of them was engaged in a different project. Mom was wading in the surf, no doubt trying to detect rip tides; Dad was working to drive the umbrella deeper into the sand, making their day camp hurricane-proof; sister was picking up shells: coquinas and chipped cockles; and baby brother was on the run.

Maybe one and a half years old, the boy was motoring close to Dad as I drew near the family, but then he veered off in my direction. Rather than face certain death by entering my path, he headed for a tide pool. When he hit the warm, shallow water, he found beach bliss. Kicking up big splashes with each step, the boy gave a long, “EEEEEEEEE!” as he ran. The look on his face was that of delighted surprise … sheer joy.

The tide pool would soon dry up, of course, and the kid’s vacation would soon end. Mine, too. But for that one moment, happiness took over the lives and strides of two runners on the beach.

Graduation, rhythm and anxiety

I didn’t expect to experience anxiety over somebody else’s graduation. Granted, it’s my two sons who are graduating this year—one from college and one from high school. Same day, actually. Nine hours apart.

But why am I feeling anxious? My boys have made excellent plans. Both will stay in Kentucky: Steele at law school in Louisville and Clay at Centre College. And look, Kentucky isRouseBros2015Cropped familiar territory. My wife and I raised our sons in the town where I grew up, and both boys went to my high school.

Where we took different paths was athletics. They both played baseball; I played trombone. And I think it’s the damn baseball thing that’s eating at me.

I did play baseball, you know—Little League in fifth and sixth grade. How I spawned two varsity players, I don’t know. (And I’ve been asked—seriously.)

My boys never showed major-league potential, but both played high school ball each spring, plus summer ball and fall ball. Over the past 15 or 16 years, we just fell into the rhythm of the sport.

I took them to practice. I threw with them in the back yard. Mary Beth and I went to their games. We drove to towns and cities and dusty fields throughout Kentucky and surrounding states. And we did all this with other baseball families—players and parents—for hours and seasons and years.

I can write a book about baseball; I really can. I’ve actually outlined its chapters. It won’t be about the actual sport. It’ll focus on the lessons I’ve learned from being in the rhythm of baseball: the games and the players, the hopes and frustrations, the wins and the disappointments.

Staying flexible is the most important lesson I’ve learned. The game itself is traditional and often plodding, but living it day-to-day is a daggone crapshoot. Coaches seek greener fields, better results and more promising players. Schedules, rosters, lineups and locations change at the drop of a mitt. Each season brings a different cast of characters to the stage.

And rain threatens, as do cold April nights and easy-bake July days.

But I settled into an unsettled rhythm. Baseball was always predictably unpredictable. Reliably fickle.

During Steele’s high school days, we plugged along as a so-so team for years—until the week we won the state title. In baseball terms, that’s like bunt, walk, bloop … GRAND SLAM! I know about baseball terms, see. I told you about that book.

But baseball isn’t only about the bloops or the weather or even the games. It’s about the people. They provide harmony to the rhythm. Not always in tune, of course. They were often loud. But funny. Or obnoxious. Yet enjoyable. Mostly. But sometimes irrational. Occasionally ugly. But mostly caring.

It’s a full damn orchestra, for sure.

And with Clay leaving high school, there’s no more high school baseball. The orchestra is disbanding. The rhythm of baseball will halt.

Life will go on, of course. I just don’t know where I’ll pick up the beat. Thus my anxiety about somebody else’s graduation.

But hey, I’m flexible. Right?









Worth Crying About

Yesterday was a full day for me: full of activity, full of special people and full of emotion. I cried, but only once.

The day began for Mary Beth and me with a trip to a state university with Steele, my oldest son. Steele is likely going to law school in the fall, and we attended an event for accepted students. The faculty and staff were impressive, and they gave Steele a lot to think about, wherever he ultimately attends.

Back home in Woodford County, we met my other son, Clay, with his prom date at a scenic site. Along with four other couples, the two posed in front of a scrum of parents snapping pics with smartphones. The kids were clad in impossibly elegant tuxedos and gowns; the parents wore jeans and athletic wear.

Then we were off to Lexington for a college reunion. My wife and I are both graduates of Transylvania University, and while 1980 is my year, I also affiliate with the Class of ’81. As a transfer student, I endured orientation with these people. Besides, they throw a tremendous party, and together, we conjure up and repurpose memories of our youth.

Did I cry? Almost at one event and undeniably at another.

The prom pic-fest has never done much for me, and while I am routinely overwhelmed to see Clay edging into manhood, the prom thing doesn’t move me.

The reunion thing does. There were a lot of hugs and back-slaps, but also, I had a moment with one person. I’ll keep the details private, but I must tell you that reaching out to reconnect can generate a powerful impact you might never have anticipated. I nearly cried.

Where I shed real tears was at a luncheon of strangers. At the law school’s last-ditch recruitment event, I was seated slightly behind Steele as we turned our chairs to face the speakers at the podium. When Steele reached up to swipe his bangs a bit, I focused on his hair and his head. Sounds weird, I know, but he was right in front of me.

I found myself staring at the whorl of hair on Steele’s head. It’s always been there, of course, even when it was the wisps of a newborn. And when it was baby blond, right beside my face as I carried him onto playgrounds or upstairs to bed. It was often covered up through the years by caps, either the baseball or graduation kind. And soon he’ll graduate again and move on. And move out.

Nobody saw me cry, I hope. With my napkin, I faked a mouth-wipe and edged up to the tear ducts. It’s not rare for me to get a bit choked up, but I don’t normally get overwhelmed by the progress of life and loved ones. I did yesterday, though.

And I might again today. Maybe when I think about that little blond-haired boy. Or that conversation at the reunion. Or maybe when I look at those prom pictures.

Yikes. Life is worth crying about.

Fight Fire with Pliers

“Did you break down?” my son asked as I entered the garage. Then he saw the fire extinguisher. “Oh! Did the DR mower catch on fire?”

“I don’t know,” I answered calmly. “Maybe.”

I mean, what is fire? If it’s shooting flames, then no. If it’s a lot of smoke and some smoldering bits of stuff, then yes, the DR caught on fire.

I love my DR mower. Officially, it’s a field and brush mower. You walk behind it and it chomps up big weeds, small trees, used cars and new bicycles. I think I read that DR stands for “Done Right” (painfully lame), but I think of it as “Destructo-Rotor.” It plows a damn path.

Only today it was on fire. Or nearly on fire, as we discussed. I had generated a good deal of smoke with the DR once before, when the weeds I was cutting got sort of tangled up in the engine and began to smolder. Today, though, it wasn’t weeds. It was a mouse house.

When the DR started smoking, I pulled from the engine area charred pieces of grass, shredded paper and what looked like insulation. A mouse’s nest. That part of the engine is marked “CAUTION HOT” and it was. After I fried the fingerprints off two fingers, I went to the garage and fetched my No. 1 tool of all time: needle-nose pliers. (Full disclosure: I am ignorant about tools and engines, even when fire is not a factor.)

And I grabbed a fire extinguisher as well. Better safe than seared-ey.

Extracting the smoldering bits of mouse house went much better with the pliers, but the smoke was still rising. I decided to gamble on blowing hard into the engine block. Best-case scenario was blowing out the fire, something I routinely did while trying to start a fire in the fireplace. Worst-case scenario was supplying air to a few sparks that needed only oxygen to become a full-blown blaze. And the gas tank was close by.

I checked to make sure I could reach the fire extinguisher. What’s the correct technique for using one? I tried to remember the directions. “Sweep the left” went through my mind several times, until I realized I was confusing fire-fighting advice with the order from the evil sensei in “The Karate Kid.”

“Sweep the leg.”

Did I have a problem with that? No, nor did I have a roaring fire. After a few rounds of blowing and plucking out scraps of the mouse’s nest, the smoke ceased. I then returned the fire extinguisher to the garage—briefly explaining its role to my son—and went back to mowing.

Maybe I should have let the DR cool off awhile longer or maybe waited to take it to a repair shop. I wasn’t worried, though. I had kept the needle-nose pliers in my pocket.

My One-time Tour

Equus Run

My one-time tour for Bluegrass visitors included a stop at Equus Run Vineyards.

I put on a tour operator hat this week, and while it wasn’t a perfect fit, the experience was enormously gratifying.

When a conference for public relations professionals in the travel and tourism industry scheduled a landing in Lexington, Ky., I knew I had to be part of it. I’m the PR guy for the LEX-based National Tour Association, which is composed of people from tour operator companies and the places that tour groups travel to.

Like anybody, I’ve organized a group to meet for dinner. But tour operators orchestrate complex trips. Along with those dinner reservations, they’d also book air and hotel reservations for the group, plus transportation and a week full of activities.

I know what our members do, of course. I read and write about it all the time. But until this week, I didn’t know how they feel.

I joined PRSA, the organization holding the Lexington conference, so I could attend the event and become a more complete PR professional. (Note: It got me up to about 7 percent complete.) But I also wanted to use the opportunity to repay a friend from New Orleans, where my association held our big convention earlier this year. Tara orchestrated a parade of local media to cover our event, and she also starred in a seminar I led that would have bombed without her.

I promised Tara that when she came to Kentucky, I would introduce her to my home

Shaun (in blue) answers questions as visitors emerged from a horse barn.

Shaun (in blue) answers questions as visitors emerged from a horse barn.

state. The guy I called to fulfill my promise was Shaun Washington, tour guide extraordinaire. He knows the Thoroughbred industry, has incredible access to the farms and is a natural storyteller.

As long as I had a tour guide and a comfy van, I figured I would include more visitors. It was my first PRSA event, though, and I didn’t know anybody. So, like a tour operator forming a group, I had to do some marketing. I sent out a few emails to conference attendees from cities where my association will soon hold events. I gave them plenty of notice and promised them a good time and a great tour. No response. Oh, and it’s free, I added. Still … no replies.

As we got closer to the conference dates, I asked mutual friends to assure my invitees that I was not Random Man luring innocent victims into a van. Most of the mutual friends played along, I guess, as a few conference-goers emailed that they would possibly join the group. Of course, after they arrived in Lexington and had bacon and eggs beside me in the morning (and Bourbon in the evening), they realized I was legit. And they told a few of their friends. I told them all to gather in the hotel lobby at 5:15.

I began worrying at, oh, 12:15. I hadn’t been as nervous since my wedding day. What if nobody comes? What if word spread and everybody comes? What if Shaun doesn’t come? These people were nearly strangers, but I felt an enormous sense of responsibility. I had promised a great tour … what if I couldn’t deliver?

Shaun showed, of course, and he delivered a fantastic experience to the sixteen folks who risked joining the Random-Man Tour. As we cruised beside lush Bluegrass fields, my guests listened to Shaun’s tales. At KatieRich Farm they swooned over the foals and mares Shaun enticed to meet us at the plank fences. Many of them took their first sip of Bourbon from a chilled bottle I brought along. (I took cups, too, BTW.) We were close to Midway, Ky., and when we worked in a visit to Equus Run Vineyards, the smiles just multiplied.

Including a smile of my own. I am never happier than when I make others happier, and with the help of Shaun and Equus Run, I hit the happy jackpot. When the tour concluded, Tara and my new friends expressed their true appreciation for the land and lives that make this part of Kentucky a special place. They enjoyed their authentic experience.

I was filled with pride of place, but also, I felt the immense satisfaction that comes with meeting new people and enriching their lives. It must be like that for tour operators every day. And as much as I enjoyed the warmth of success, I don’t think I could tolerate the chills of uncertainty that lead up to it.

I am enthralled with the group tour experience and more appreciative than ever of the people who work to cultivate and orchestrate travel experiences. Sign me up for the next tour … just don’t expect me to lead it.

Sailing from Stockholm

We left Stockholm under overcast skies, slipping beside one island after another—thousands of them. I could have viewed the archipelago through the wall of windows in our cabin but chose to go on deck for a more organic look.

Another cruise ship loomed into view, coming up quickly from the other side of a large island to our starboard. I hoped we would edge ahead and beat this boat to the spot where the shipping lanes converged, but I saw right away that the ship of strangers was moving faster than we were and would soon draw clear and assume the lead. I decided it was likely pre-arranged by the harbormaster (or whoever serves as sea traffic controller), and when I looked aft I saw yet another cruise ship in line behind us.

Three sea behemoths, taking thousands and thousands of one-day visitors away from Sweden, where only 90 minutes before we had filled the cobblestone streets of the capital city. And I do mean we had filled them, as we had filled the alleyways of Tallin, Estonia, the day before and crammed into the churches and palaces of St. Petersburg, Russia, the day before that.

For the hundredth time during this voyage, I thought about the citizens of the Baltic burgs we besieged. Did our dollars and euros and kroner outweigh our enormous imposition? At each port our ship bullied into the harbor and belched up legions of tourists into the city, where we shuffled and jostled our way into every prescribed place. We photographed every statue and bauble, often unsure of their significance, while we interacted with the locals only to ask how much, which train, and where oh where is the water closet? But not in their language, unless the more learned of us knew it, or the more daring of us attempted—and butchered—it.

Yet we made a difference, right? The onslaught of tourists bought up crafts and geegaws, fine linen and plastic, and we ensured jobs for guides and drivers, servers and barkeeps, clerks and costumed greeters. We came, we saw, we consumed.
But did we connect?

I thought about all that as our great ship departed the final port of our spectacular vacation, gliding between the islands dotting Sweden’s outer banks. A brief shower drove me inside for cover, but as soon as the rain let up, I went back on deck. I stared at the houses build near the shorelines of each isle. Through my binoculars, I studied the homes, the cars, and the pontoon boats.

Then I noticed people. Some alone and some in small groups, they had come outside to watch the parade of floating hotels lumber past. They probably stared at the same parade every week, or perhaps every day of their limited summer. Were they glad we came? Glad we were leaving? Sorry they hadn’t connected?

I saw a bald man who had strolled twenty yards from his house to get a better view. I waved, but he didn’t see me—or he chose not to respond. Three islands later I hailed a man and woman on the deck of their sailboat. But our massive ship offered a feast of details, and they overlooked me.

I watched how the wake of the ship in front of us reached each shore just as we passed it. Lapping the rocks, bouncing the little boats, and rocking the docks to which they were tethered. Then I saw one dock with a half dozen people. Not together, really, but apart. Individuals. They appeared to be waiting for a ferry.

I focused my binoculars on one of them, an older woman with a red patterned scarf on her head and a canvas bag in her hand. As I looked at her, she looked at my ship. I had already passed her when I raised my arm. I waved. And she waved back.

We connected.

Written July 1, 2014, aboard the Norwegian Star

The Real Miami Heat

I’ve been hot before. I broiled in the 105-degree heat of a youth baseball tournament in Knoxville last year. I ran a 5K on the dark clay of Lexington’s Red Mile harness track at high noon some 20 Junes ago. I rode in the way-back seat of a vacation station wagon before air conditioning was available in Ford family cars. So I’ve been, you know … hot.

But I was introduced to a whole new hell-hot in South Florida last week. And it involved heavy manual labor, whose acquaintance I seldom make.

Along with 300 other volunteers, I journeyed to the Sunshine State as a participant in “Tourism Cares for Miami.” I figured I’d work during the day and then maybe explore the city. On the flight down, I toyed with the idea of getting a ticket to the Miami Heat game, as LeBron James and company were playing a pivotal playoff game at home.

Background: Tourism Cares is a nonprofit organization that strives to preserve and enhance travel destinations. It’s funded mostly by people in the tourism industry as a way to “give back” (an act we used to describe as “give”).

The Tourism Cares model is to gather up hundreds of office workers and put them to work, accomplishing in one day a load of labor that would take a crew of professionals as long as, oh, four days to complete.

Our tasks were twofold: 1) clean up all kinds of crap at the soon-to-be-restored Miami Marine Stadium and 2) plant native trees and sea grasses at Virginia Key Beach Park. I say “our tasks,” but we were divided into two groups, one for the trash and one for the planting. I was assigned to the group of planters, and after breakfast and a series of welcome speeches, we formed work groups of three. Our group had four (because … math), which we inexplicably reduced to two groups of two.

At the work site, organizers distributed the tools we would use—a shovel and a mattock. The latter, in case you’re unaccustomed to hand tools, has a pickaxy point on one end and a half-hoe on the other. (Insert half-hoe joke here.) A local expert doled out safety tips, which included the avoidance of the following: prickly plants, poison ivy, heat stroke, snakes, sunburn, alligators, mosquito bites and chopping your colleague’s hand(s) off. Because I had just the one colleague, Maria, my odds of accidental hand-chopping were relatively low.

By then the sun was sitting fairly high, and the long-sleeve shirt I had been instructed to wear was doing a great job of holding in my body heat. After Maria and I chopped and dug our first hole, I traded her for the mattock so that I, the manly male of the duo, would perform the more demanding task of ground chopping.

That’s the last thing I remember until lunch, when I ate a Cubano sandwich, consumed a massive slab of flan and downed two frozen lemonades. Sugar will melt under high heat, and I surely dissolved in the after-lunch work session. I hope I was still planting trees, but I might have been digging up already planted trees. Or I could have planted Maria. I was a little heat hazy.

My next memory is walking (stiffly) to a post-labor celebration at the Miami Seaquarium. At that point I was willing to be fed to the killer whales just so I could cool off. Instead, we were seated and offered a non-Cuban meal, which I did not sample. (No flan, no fun, I always say.)

I do remember a sampling of conversations I had with other volunteers. We were bone-tired and stinky, but we were satisfied. Even though we had worked without keyboards and cell phones, we accomplished an incredible amount. Our (big) group planted 785 trees and 11,000 sea grass plants. The other group filled six huge dumpsters with trash and debris. We pushed both projects forward in giant steps, and because our efforts were covered by local TV stations and the Miami Herald, we helped create local momentum.

More than one of my fellow volunteers marveled that we had just done for free what we routinely pay others to do in our own back yards. And that’s what made it all the more gratifying. Working outside my comfort zone – and my own back yard – to aid a cause that’s important to others made it worth all the sore muscles.

And the spirit of teamwork multiplied the effect. It was the force that brought us together, pushed us forward and enabled us to do more than we ever would have tried on our own.

But gawd, was it hot.

As I soaked in my tub at the hotel, I abandoned all thoughts of finding a ticket for the basketball game, where the Miami Heat eventually won their way into the NBA finals. The city went wild. But for my money, the real Miami heat was a warm feeling that stayed with me even as the dirt of the day went down the drain. I had put in a hard day’s work. I had accomplished something that matters.

I’ve been hot before. But Miami heat was different.

Pineville Proud

I’m proud to be from Pineville … even though I lived there only one weekend.

I just returned from the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival, hosted by the people of Pineville. The town of 1,732 rests rather snugly between the Cumberland River and Pine Mountain in Bell County, the southeast corner of Kentucky.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to the festival, but I don’t think the experience will ever leave me. The highlight of the weekend is the crowning of the queen; the 19 candidates each represented Kentucky colleges. I attended because my son Steele was the official escort of his girlfriend, Shelby, who represented Campbellsville University.

The first KMLF was held in 1931, making it the oldest continuous festival in the United States. I’m sure many things have changed in the past 83 years, but I sensed that many had not. The event is dripping in tradition, and I got soaked. Gladly. I drove to Pineville thinking the event might be a bit hokey, and it was, but it’s a happy, wholesome hokey.

As (ahem) parents of an escort, we were invited to a couple of receptions. Mary Beth and I left work early on Friday to attend these parties, and they truly set the tone for the weekend. The first included queen candidates, their escorts and members of the governing board. Many of the latter are Pineville natives who moved away but return each year for the festival. It was there I first learned about the leadership structure that guides and funds Mountain Laurel. The four-day event is a massive undertaking, but it’s a labor of love.

As my friend (and past queen) Libbi Justice Taylor later told me, “These people are carrying on the work their families did for the festival in previous generations.”

The Mountain Laurel Festival is a quirky-quaint celebration of community that combines the comfort of tradition with the beauty of youth. The queen candidates wear long white dresses and gloves, they promenade in an old fashion Grand March, and they aren’t allowed to drive. But their skin is smooth and their laugh is giggly. And for each of them, a limitless future lies ahead.

The reason the girls gathered in Pineville was for a chance to be crowned queen. And the coronation (that’s really what they call it) was gorgeous. In a fairy tale setting, each candidate strolled across a carpet of grass against a backdrop of pines, and the audience sighed. Even the candidates were caught up in the splendor.

“It’s just … so … beautiful,” the girl from Eastern Kentucky University whispered as she wept. I had to chuckle when I heard about her breakdown. And while the coronation was cool (even under a baking sun), the highlight of my weekend was the Saturday morning parade. It was honey-dipped in hometown sweetness. Bands marched, floats rolled and topless queen candidates waved. By that I mean they were riding in convertibles.

All the college kids stayed with local families, and Steele was hosted by a friend I worked with years ago. The rest of my family (including my in-laws) stayed in a cabin at Pine Mountain State Park. In reality, though, we were all hosted by the entire town.

And on Sunday morning, when the festival leaders told stories about Mountain Laurel stalwarts from years gone by, I could no longer laugh at Miss EKU. I got a little teary-eyed myself.

Heck, it was all just … so … beautiful.