In The Spirit

Rum Discovery

Straight up sugar cane

By Tony Cross

In the spring of 2018, I was able to get into the five-year anniversary party at the mezcal bar Gallo Pelon in Raleigh. It was a fun night shared with close friends at one of my favorite bars. What made the evening even more special was my introduction to Oaxacan Agricole rum.

Near the end of every year, I place my order online for different spirits that aren’t available through our state’s ABC system (which would be many). It’s basically my Christmas present to myself. Copious amounts. It never dawned on me to search for rums from the Oaxacan region until that night. So I did, and grabbed a bottle from Haiti while I was at it. I drank both bottles bone-dry, and couldn’t remember my name or how to do times-tables for three days.

I’m lying. I was the first kid in my third-grade class to remember their multiplication tables; that will never fade from my memory.

Paranubes Oaxacan Agricole Rum

“Made in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, where a sparsely inhabited sub-tropical climate produces some of the best sugar cane on Earth. Third-generation distiller Jose Luis Carrera works with several local varieties of cane grown organically and minimally processed during distillation, using only the fresh, lightly pressed cane juice.”

That’s the first thing I read about Paranubes rum. The next thing I noticed is the whopping 54 percent alcohol by volume. Yeah, I had to give this one a go. When it arrived (along with the other types of spirits I purchased), it was the first bottle I opened. On the nose, I could definitely smell sugar cane as soon as I popped the cork. But once in the glass, there was a peppery smell to it that I couldn’t quite nail down.

The next day, my buddy Carter gave it a go, and before his first sip, he said, “Hmm . . . smells like ketchup.” That’s it! I should’ve gotten that; I eat ketchup on almost everything. We both agreed it was a beautiful rum, from the nose, to the back of the palate. Just straight-up sugar cane. No additives. I read on their website that Jose Luis Carrera is able to produce 85 liters a day — the bottle is one liter. He could distill more for a faster production time, but doesn’t want to compromise the balance of his rum. Talk about quality.

The first drink I made with this was the classic Ti’ Punch: just a touch of organic cane sugar, lime, and Paranubes rum made my holiday week a little less stressful. I’ll give a recipe below.

Clairin Sajous Haitian Rhum Agricole

What struck my curiosity with this bottle were two things: One, it’s only been on the market for a couple of years; and two, I’ve never tasted clairin before. It was introduced to me as an eau de vie, similar to white Agricole rhums. So, what exactly is clairin? In a nutshell, it’s a distilled spirit made from sugar cane juice that is produced in Haiti. It gets its name (kleren in Haitian Creole) from its clear color. This clairin comes from an independent distillery that sits in the northern high-altitude village of Saint Michel de L’Attalaye and is run by Michel Sajous.

Just like the distillery of Paranubes, the Sajous Clairin is organically cultivated. Sajous uses the cristalline variety of sugar cane. This type of sugar cane doesn’t yield as much juice when pressed compared to larger production rum companies, but the juice that it does hold has a ton of character. In fact, this type of cane comes from small villages that use machinery without electricity. The sugar cane is also cut by hand and transported by ox carts or donkeys to the distilleries.

Wild beasts and sugar cane. That’s it, folks. It smells stronger than it tastes: grassy, slightly fruity, and very clean. Don’t let the 107 proof on the label scare you — indeed, this is high-octane, but there is so much flavor to decipher, and the clean finish makes this a new staple in my bar. I’m ordering three bottles next time. I recommend the Clairin Sajous definitely in a daiquiri, or on the rocks.

Are you a fan of rum? I feel like there are two groups: Those that like common, molasses-based rum (Molasses is made by boiling sugar cane juice, and then skimming off the top while it’s boiling. After this process is repeated many times, the end result is a thick and sweet liquid.) and those who like Agricole rhums that are made from sugar cane juice. I say that the first group likes “common rum” because that rum is everywhere and is always sweeter. Agricole rum can be more effluvious or funky, and that’s the rum I prefer.

Ti’ Punch

1 teaspoon organic cane sugar

1 fat lime wedge (not that half-moon, sliver-of-a-lime nonsense)

2 ounces rhum agricole (I use Paranubes)

Place sugar and lime into a rocks glass. Gently muddle lime into the sugar. Release the oils of the lime into the juice without pulverizing it. Add rum and ice. Give it a quick stir. Take your time and enjoy. OH

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

True South

Dog Days of Winter

Because, well, outside dog

By Susan S. Kelly

You knew that sooner or later, there’d be a column on dogs. February may seem a strange choice, but when it comes to my dog — a black Lab named Babe — it’s appropriate, because February is a cold, dreary month, and I get a lot of grief about Babe because she’s always outside, no matter the weather. Listen, you strollers and walkers and joggers and drive-bys: She is an outside dog.

My husband and I had a knockdown drag-out about this years ago, with a different Lab, named Sis; so much so that I called the vet to find out the facts. “A Lab is made for cold weather,” he said. “They can go down to 2 degrees.”

We’ve tried, I promise. We’ve had the wooden doghouse, with the cedar shavings inside. We’ve bought the expensive plastic “Igloo” house, outfitted it with towels and more cedar shavings, pitched bones and peanut butter-coated chew toys inside. We’ve put a fluffy bed inside the tool shed, next to the water heater, and left the door open so she can come and go. We’ve tried dragging her indoors by her collar.

But . . . no dice. Babe has extreme canine FOMO. Babe is like Ariel in The Little Mermaid: She wants to be where the people are. The mailman. The UPS guy. The garbage men. The yard armies. And especially the dog walkers. They know her by name. They bring treats. They let their dogs off leashes so they can rodeo around the front yard with Babe. One dog walker, whose name I’ve never known, moved from the neighborhood but still drives over weekly and brings her French bulldog specifically to hang out with Babe.

Babe has more friends than I do. I have to give them Christmas presents. My husband’s daily walks with her around a six-block radius is so regular, making Babe so familiar, that when he’s out of town, and I’m left with the walking task, people stop and ask me if my husband is sick. Babe doesn’t want to go to the dog Hilton if we go out of town. Besides, a legion of neighborhood kids have depended on Babe’s needs for adolescent income.

Of course, having an outside dog, especially if the dog is a will-eat-anything Lab, has its problems. Collateral damage, if you will. The French drains, chewed to plastic bits, piled in the monkey grass? Dog. The screen door whose lower half is brown from fur dirt? Dog. The terrace furniture cushions, whose corners are raveled and spilling upholstery guts? Dog. The dirt clods scattered all over the driveway/front walk from a recent dig? Dog. The Pieris japonica shrub in death throes with a hollowed-out cavity at its root base? Dog, seeking shade from the summer sun. The multitude of slobber-encrusted, thread-dangling knotted ropes and bristle-bones and otherwise unrecognizable pet toys in the natural area/driveway/patio? Dog. Never mind the ruined hoses, which look like 20 yards of bubblegum to an outside dog. Because you can have a decent yard, or you can have an outside dog, but not both.

Same applies to packages. A neighbor called to report that the front yard was dotted with scraps of blue fabric and bubble wrap. That was my Rent-the-Runway dress for a black tie party. (Despite a dangling cap sleeve, I wore it anyway.) The teeth marks all over the $2-per-card stationery. The borrowed-and-returned books with no covers left on them — hardback and paperback. I need a delivery drone that aims for chimneys instead of doors. And if you are delivering, watch where you place your feet, because . . . dog. Go, Dog, Go.  And they do. Anywhere. Everywhere.

Through five decades of dogs, I’ve always wanted one that, like Lassie, would put its head on my lap and do that “I love you” whine. I’ve finally got one. Babe is such a people-person dog that I can no longer sit on the (raveled, ruined) terrace furniture with a (coverless, chewed) book because she’s got her head in my lap, doing the “I love you” whine and jiggling my arm, and therefore my glass, and I’ve got a half-dozen wine-stained shirts to prove it. It’s been said before in this column but bears repeating: Be careful what you wish for.

Still, she’s perfectly happy to gobble down all my boiled peanut shells. She’s perfectly happy to gobble ice cubes, for that matter. And I have a yard full of birds who feel perfectly safe raising their young in my pyracantha and wisteria vines because Babe in the yard means no cats or snakes in their nests.

You know those T-shirts that say my parents went to wherever and all I got was this lousy T-shirt? My Master of Fine Arts cost $20,000 and the only thing I really learned or remember is this advice from a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor: No one wants to read about dreams, dogs, or how you lost your virginity.

Well. Two out of three’s not bad.

By the way, did you accidentally drop your white, knitted toboggan in my yard? Here it is, resembling Swiss cheese. Because . . . (outside) dog.  OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

Featured Artist

“Homewoods, Winter”, 2019, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

Jeremiah Miller: Finding Solitude

Jeremiah Miller used to paint models, posing them in front of windows. Eventually, he became more enchanted with what lay beyond the panes.

“I thought painting landscapes was more liberating,” says Miller, “It’s about finding solitude . . . When I’m painting, I’m positing my own personal ideas. That’s the way I communicate.”

GreenHill, a Greensboro showcase of North Carolina art, hung three of Miller’s communiqués in its recent Winter Show.

For inspiration, Miller wanders the woods around his home in Belews Creek, as his painting Homewoods, Winter, suggests with its striped birch trunks, clinging beech leaves, and veins of shadows stretched across pillows of white.

“I’m always fascinated with the color of snow shadows. They go from blue to gray to lavender,” says Miller, whose background in photography helps him to see deeply.

His brush follows where his heart leads.

“I believe in aesthetic emotions,” he says. “There’s something that might attract me. It might be the pattern of the light or textures. Usually, if I have a really strong feeling about that, it’s going to be a painting I feel good about.”  OH

— Maria Johnson


Short Stories

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

With one exception: Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony! A musical joke so typical of the maestro, Symphony No. 45, as it’s also known, was composed as a plea among the musicians in the retinue of Niklaus 1, the Hungarian Prince of Esterházy, to end their unusually long stay at his summer palace and return home to their wives. Greensboro Symphony Orchestra will perform the piece on February 20 and 22 at 8 p.m. at Dana Auditorium (5800 W. Friendly Avenue). Before saying good-bye, they’ll entrance you with Puccini’s Capriccio Sinfonico for orchestra and Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar concerto, with guest Artyom Dervoed strumming guitar. Tickets: (336) 335-5456 ext. 224 or

Puff Piece

Which is not to imply the lack of substance of a lecture/workshop at Paul J. Ciener Botantical Garden (215 South Main Street, Kernersville). On February 20 at 10 a.m., Nicolas Askew will present “From Farm to Charm,” a discussion of his life on he family farm and the business of harvesting and storing cotton and creating cotton wreaths. In addition to learning how to use one, and you’ll take home with you an 18-inch wreath, which you can use year round. Cost for the workshop is $80 per person. Space is limited. To register: (336) 996-7888 or

Coup de Gras

What’s it gonna be? Étouffé and a filet gumbo? Beignets? King cake? Find out at 6 p.m. by signing up for “Welcome to New Orleans,” at Reto’s Kitchen, (600 South Elam Avenue). The class takes you on a tour of NOLA cuisine as a nod to Fat Tuesday, but what we’ll call Thick Thursday, February 27— before you relinquish any culinary indulgences for Lent. For now: Don a mask, and some purple-green-and-gold Mardi Gras beads, and laissez les bons temps rouler! Tickets:

With a Song In Your Heart

And on the lips of a tuxedoed quartet of gents from the Greensboro Tarheel Chorus! Time’s a-wastin’, but if you hurry, you might have a chance to send that special someone a singing Valentine on February 12, 13 or 14, courtesy of a genuine barbershop quartet, belting out classics, such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” in four-part harmony. Music, after all, is the food of love. To schedule, go to   

Net Worth

Weatherspoon’s got game this month with the opening of To the Hoop: Basketball and Contemporary Art (February 1–June 7). This intersection of art and sport explores themes ripe for visual interpretation: urban versus rural settings, fashion and merchandising, race, gender, economics — not to mention the balletic grace of athletes. But then, we’ve always known Michael Jordan was poetry in motion. Info:

Bodies Electric

That would be the acrobats, flying through the air with the greatest of ease, twirling aerialists that make your head spin and the pretzel-like twists of contortionists performing in Cirque Diabolo. With added panache of colorful costumes, music sound and light effects, the spectacle, which comes to Carolina Theatre (310 South Greene Street on February 13 at 7:30 p.m., is sure to enthrall. Tickets: (336) 333-2605 or


One of the world’s greatest love stories is Americans’ passion and devotion to their cars. Express your, uh, auto erotica by admiring the souped-up, tricked out, fancified wheels on display at the Shriners’ Drag Racing & Hot Rod Expo on February 14 and 15, (5:30 p.m. and 9 a.m., respectively) at Greensboro Coliseum’s Special Event Center (1921 West Gate City Boulevard). Admission is available at the door.

Royal Flush

Don your black tie — or not — and bet big on a guaranteed winner: the arts. From 7 to 10 p.m. on February 8, High Point Arts Council is bringing back its fundraiser, Casino d’Arts 2020 at High Point Country Club Emerywood (800 Country Club Drive), featuring casino games, heavy hors d’oeuvre, a cash bar and entertainment. Cash in your chips at the end of the evening for the chance to win a door prize, or bid in a silent auction on furniture, jewelry, vacation trips and more. Aces! To reserve: (336) 889-2787

Ogi Sez

Ogi Overman

Well, now that I’ve broken all those well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions, it’s time to make a new list of more reasonable, doable ones. Ergo, be it resolved that I, Ogi Overman, will attend live music shows and support live music in general more than ever before. Hey, I can do that even though I’m still overweight, haven’t finished my book, haven’t landscaped the backyard, and will never learn to play the accordion.

• February 9, Durham Performing Arts Center: In this month’s installment of “Hurry Up, Tanger!” I present to you the one and only Tony Bennett at DPAC.  Mercifully, in a few months we can eliminate those jaunts down I-40 East to see top-level talent. Of course, I’d travel farther than that to see the greatest living crooner.

• February 11, Cone Denim Entertainment Center: Although there have been a couple dozen Wailers since Bob Marley’s death in 1981, the continuity remains intact with guitarist Donald Kinsey, who performed with Marley and Peter Tosh, as well as such notables as Albert King. They still claim the biggest-selling reggae album of all time and continue to be the most popular international touring act of the genre.

• February 20, Ramkat: As anyone who saw him at the recent N.C. Folk Festival will attest, Booker T. Jones easily lives up to his Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Yes, he plays all the hits — “Green Onions,” “Time Is Tight” and the rest — but his show is a litany of all the hits on which he has played along with fellow legends with whom he has collaborated. And with apologies to Steve Cropper, son Ted Jones is a bona fide monster.

• February 21, Upstage Cabaret: While he is not as well-known as Jerry Douglas or the late Mike Auldridge, it is Dobroist (yes, it’s capitalized) Rob Ickes who is the most awarded instrumentalist in the history of the International Bluegrass Music Association. His current touring and recording partner, Trey Hensley, has a voice made for bluegrass. The duo was nominated for a Grammy in 2016. BTW, the venue is the third floor of Triad Stage.

• February 23, Carolina Theatre: OK, after two rescheduled shows, this is the last time I’ll send folks to see Gordon Lightfoot. Still, if you could read my mind, you’d know I’ll be there by sundown. Again.

February Poem

The Arrow

I tried to explain Cupid to a 4-year-old today. 

He was making a Valentine for his grandmother, 

festooning a pink paper heart with stamps and stickers, 

writing ‘I love you’ across it in big, shaky letters. 

Then he asked about one of the stickers: 

Why does that heart have an arrow through it? How sad.

Even after I told him that it was more like being ‘struck by love,’ 

he held his hand over his chest. 

I don’t want Cupid to shoot me, he said. 

That would hurt.

I couldn’t disagree.

— Ashley Wahl

Creative Crossroads

For artist Kelly Rightsell, home is an ever-changing canvas

By Nancy Oakley     Photographs by Amy Freeman

I always have this feeling: It would be great to have this blank place to work where there are no distractions,” Kelly Rightsell admits as she starts a tour of her house near Latham Park, her boisterous yellow Lab, Mary following close on her heels. “I do go through and try to get rid of stuff.” But with her youngest son, Ben at home and a full plate teaching art part time at Canterbury School, the artist admits it’s hard to find the time to “scale back” and start purging. “I probably need to but haven’t,” she adds with a self-deprecating chuckle.

But where Rightsell sees a “mess” in her light-filled studio, converted from a screened porch on the second floor of her home of 20-plus years, a casual observer immediately sees a colorful explosion of the artist’s restless muse within. On a compact work counter, jars of paints and paintbrushes flank a small landscape in greens, pinks and grays; more canvases reminiscent of Matisse or Cézanne are propped up on easels or a counter on the wall opposite — a colorful interior scene here, a seascape here, an abstract or figure painting there. Tubs of paints and other tools from the artist’s toolbox and stacks of vintage children’s books, such as a dog-eared copy of Uncle Wiggily, (named for the floppy-eared rabbit and main character of popular kids’ books at the turn of the 20th century) fill a couple of bookcases.

The art supplies and books are a telltale indication of the long days Rightsell and her husband, Brian, put in for nearly 15 years: creating and selling a line of wallpapers, trim, rugs, ceramic sets, among other items, for children’s bedrooms under the handle Kelly Rightsell Designs. “This is my wallpaper book from years ago,” she says, flipping through a tome of pages with patterns featuring fanciful animals rendered in a light hand — rabbits, bears, lions, frogs — in various settings. “This was one of my favorite ones,” Rightsell says, pausing at a page depicting a cheerful menagerie in an entirely blue palette reminiscent of Delft china. “Then we did catalogs,” she continues, picking up a publication from the late 1990s that includes one of her earliest designs: an elegantly rabbit clad in a Harlequin suit, replete with ruffled collar, and a companion print of an elephant.

Rightsell designed the prints about 25 years ago, shortly after her first son, Owen, was born, when the family was living in Kirkwood. “I couldn’t find anything I liked for his nursery,” she recalls. She remembered that her high school art teacher in South Carolina had created prints, so Rightsell reached out to her former instructor and figured out how to mass-produce her own paintings. She and Brian then took them to the gift show in Atlanta. “And we sold $10,000 worth of art,” she remembers. Tapping into an unfilled niche, they expanded the line to include rugs and other home accents sold through children’s specialty stores. The business thrived, with Kelly on the creative side of it and Brian tending to daily operations and marketing. “It was really a neat thing. We could do it together,” the artist reminisces. “We had so many stores all over the country . . . and they just all went out of business.” The Great Recession would require the Rightsells to create a new life.

But recreating and revising is part and parcel of any artist’s journey. The family had by then moved to their forever home near the park. Early on, Kelly used its standalone garage as her studio, but relinquished it to accommodate an addition to the side of the house where a spacious den is now situated off an equally spacious kitchen. “Now I kind of miss my studio,” she says, her easygoing laugh returning. “I mean, I love this room, it’s nice. But you know how it is, the grass is always greener.”

And who wouldn’t love the airy space, thanks to a series of long windows that let in the afternoon light? Or the comfy sectional and oversized ottoman, animal print cushions, which, along with more of Ritsell’s paintings, many of them abstracts, lend a collective vibe to the classic room with its handsome built-in bookcases? On these are several volumes, family photographs and a series of charming painted, wooden figures. “An uncle carved these people,” Rightsell says, pointing to yet more figures occupying a shelf in a nearby hutch. “We have a whole lot of artists in the family,” she adds, reeling off a South Carolina cousin who makes jewelry, another who paints portraits, and her own daughter, Kathleen, who’s eyeing a career in art therapy. And then there’s Rightsell’s mother-in-law, Helen Farson, who lives in Greensboro, who is also a working artist. The two have taken painting workshops together and often joke that “Our children aren’t going to get anything but art when we die!” Kelly says, laughing yet again. “But that’s fine with me; I love art.”

So it will come as no surprise that there are D.I.Y. projects waiting in the wings all around the comfortable house: maybe reverting the dining room just off the front hallway back into a den, as it was when the Rightsells first moved in. “It is so cool to have that fireplace,” Rightsell says of the wood-burning feature. She would have to find another place for her grandmother’s furniture — a long dining table and chairs, and a stately china cabinet atop of which sits a smirking Staffordshire dog, both traditional counterpoints to the more casual straw rug, a chandelier from the Red Collection, yet more of the artist’s paintings and what’s this? An old-timey brass cash register perched on a sideboard? “My grandfather was a barber and had this in his barbershop. I couldn’t get rid of it,” Rightsell says, mentioning her fondness for estate sales, dating back to visits to flea markets with her grandparents and cousins. “I’m sure nobody has one in their dining room,” she adds wryly. “But I can’t get rid of this stuff.”

Of course not. It’s fodder for that restless muse, who deems the house as much a canvas as those used for Rightsell’s paintings, including the latest inspiration that has taken hold of the artist’s imagination: one day painting a mural in the front hall with motifs of trees and birds similar to those on a chinoiserie vase or screen.

But that will have to wait, like a lot of other things, although she loves teaching art to the kindergartners, first-, second- and third-graders at Canterbury. The part-time position is the perfect solution for now to the demise of her design business post-recession (Brian has since gone on to work full-time in sales at Browns Summit’s paper-and-packaging giant Morrisette). “It’s nice to have that rejuvenation being around kids,” she says of her charges’ unbridled creativity. She nourishes their budding talents by submitting their works for publication in the newspaper from time to time, recalling the thrill of her own work published when she was a girl. And her efforts are bearing fruit: Their works caught the eye of Downtown Greensboro, which will reproduce them on electrical boxes downtown as a part of a student art project. “They’re so excited!,” Rightsell says, channeling their enthusiasm.

She has worked with her students on other community projects, such as soon-to-be-unveiled mural in the women’s wing at Cone Health and a painting auctioned off at the annual JDRF gala a few years ago. Rightsell describes it as an “Impressionistic background” consisting of thumbprints of children with Type 1 diabetes that set into relief figures drawn in her own hand. “I was really nervous,” she says of the gala, “because it was a live auction.” She needn’t have been: The painting sold for the tidy sum of $7,000. “I’ve always wanted to do stuff that helps or affects children,” Rightsell adds. “It’s a great thing to be able to use your talents.” She’s also lent her artist’s brush to United Way of Greater Greensboro’s Handbags for Hope, along with Hands for Hearts, a nonprofit founded by her good friend Kathleen Little, that supports research into congenital heart defects.

Even so, her muse keeps calling. “Our business was great when it was going,” Rightsell reflects. “But I’m trying to figure out the next big thing,” she says. “It’s such a big range, the things that I do,” she says, nodding at a figure painting of four young girls standing against an open sky, their backs to the viewer. And there may be yet another turn in the artist’s path owing to the one vestige of her children’s line: needlepoint kits for Christmas stockings. Holding up a pattern adorned with a congenial, smiling bear, Rightsell explains that she’s had several inquiries about the festive items.

Like any artist, Rightsell expresses what’s in her heart, but having run the design business for so long, suppressing her entrepreneurial instinct is challenging. “What do I want to paint without thinking: ‘What does somebody want? What’s cool?’” Rightsell posits. “It’s hard for me to shut that off, because for so long that’s what I did: What do I have to have new for the next season?”

Whatever it is — a rabbit, a frog, a smiling bear — she’ll surely pull it out of her hat to the enchantment of all . . . including her mutable but never muted muse.  OH


Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of O.Henry.

The Accidental Astrologer

The New and the Proud

Transformation is the name of the game

By Astrid Stellanova

The new year’s percolating, the stars are circulating and a new you is brewing. . .  Or an old you looking like it is walking back, doing the Benjamin Button reverse strut.

Time to make self-renewal an inside job, Star Children. It is a brutally difficult process, true enough, but ignore at your own peril. Otherwise, we will be tsk-tsking all of 2020 about how nobody has ever done so little with so much.

Aquarius (January 20–February 18)

In simple terms, karma is best put: “Ha, Ha, Ha!” Someone has made your life complicated, and it appears they have wedged themselves into your reality and have started occupying more than a little space in your head. Evict them. Honeybun, you don’t have to be a cactus expert to recognize a real prick. 

Pisces (February 19–March 20)

Hush up, Puppy! You got what you want, and like the dog chasing the car, you gotta figure out what to do now that you’ve caught it.

Aries (March 21–April 19)

If it’s the thought that counts, Sugar, you could be sitting in jail. You’ve had to face off with a worthy adversary, so now find your inner peace before they shred that, too.

Taurus (April 20–May 20)

Good heart, bad mouth. That would just about fit on your tombstone. A kinder, gentler world may begin with small things, like you giving up cussin’ and swearin’.

Gemini (May 21–June 20)

Time to get your own health and life on track to avert scary stuff. The seesaw you’re on has you stewing in your own stress, and believing a balanced meal is a cookie in both hands.   

Cancer (June 21–July 22)

This month offers chances to alter your life from status quo sis boom blah, to va-va-voom! The changes you crave are reachable; begin at the beginning. Choose differently.

Leo (July 23–August 22)

Yankee or Y’all? Pick a team. Influences have made you question your roots, values, sense of self, even your identity. Honey, get grounded, meditate and re-evaluate.

Virgo (August 23–September 22)

Under threat, you tend to hide in your comfort zone, which is like a sleeping bag kind of comfort; but with no style. Even Norma Kamali couldn’t make over this schleppy look.

Libra (September 23–October 22)

Obsession looms large for you this month. A hobby overtakes you. Were you crazy even before the goat yoga? Check that tendency to overdo anything worth doing.

Scorpio (October 23–November 21

Time to plunge both hands into the cookie jar. Get piggy with it. Allow yourself to get totally wrapped up in something. Immersion will finally cure an old itch for you.

Sagittarius (November 22–December 21)

Y’all ain’t right. But it has been so much fun playing, you might not want to stop. In the meantime, pay attention to numbers around you. Sugar, seven signifies something.

Capricorn (December 22–January19)

Attitude adjustment: Yeah? No. Say the word, often and firmly, to a very stubborn close one who thinks they will always, and should always, get their way. It stops now.  OH

For years, Astrid Stellanova owned and operated Curl Up and Dye Beauty Salon in the boondocks of North Carolina until arthritic fingers and her popular astrological readings provoked a new career path.


Speed Dating and Mating

For mallards, timing is everything

By Susan Campbell

For some birds — like mallards here in central North Carolina — spring comes early. While other birds are simply eating and sleeping to survive the worst of winter, with little else on their minds, the drakes sporting their finest feathers, and the hens are on the lookout for a safe neighborhood to raise the next generation of ducklings.

Mallards are familiar to just about all of us — found nearly worldwide, thanks in large part to their popularity as a game bird. The males, with their glossy green heads, curly tail feathers and well-known, loud voices are perhaps the most readily identified fowl on the planet. Females, on the other hand, are much less noticeable but still readily identifiable given their mottled plumage, yellow bills and stereotypical “quacks.” The affinity for living and nesting near people is unparalleled. Although a large percentage of mallards found throughout our state have been domesticated to varying degrees, many behave more like their wild cousins than barnyard fowl.

Truly wild mallards are indeed wary and are unlikely to waddle up to arm’s length for handouts. These so-called “puddle ducks” favor forested areas with ponds and small lakes that provide plenty of emergent and submerged vegetation. While foraging, it’s bottoms up for mallards who are given to feeding heads’ down on leaves, shoots and roots in the shallows. You can also see them diving for food below the surface. They’ll feast on invertebrates when abundant, as well as fruits that may fall into the water. Mallards can also digest mast and so may be seen gobbling up nuts (such as acorns on land) in fall and winter too.

Like all waterfowl, mallards pair by early winter. Pairs may be seen swimming in tandem, and you may even catch them copulating, early in the calendar year — well before the mercury begins to rise. Also watch for drakes defending their mates from unmated males in duels that can be quite violent as well as loud. As winter turns to spring, expect the behavior to escalate — not unlike their human counterparts. In the world of waterfowl, males outnumber females by as many as four to one — so competition can be fierce.

By early March the hens will have found a suitable nesting site. Wandering away from the water’s edge, sometimes as much as a quarter mile, a female mallard will create a simple scrape in a protected spot to start her family. She will lay an egg a day until the clutch is complete. She may lay more than a dozen eggs by the time she’s satisfied with her stash. Each morning, after each egg is laid, she will add down from her breast to the clutch to insulate them from the cold. She will also cover them with pine needles or other vegetation that is present in the proximity of the nest to protect them from the elements. But what’s most important is the blanket that will hide the nest from the eyes of potential predators.

Nest placement for mallards is the key to success. Should she be spotted by crows, the eggs will be eaten in short order. If the nest is sniffed out by raccoons or foxes, it will be consumed in no time flat. Therefore, many hens have learned to lay eggs within the thickest of vegetation — or to nest very close to human habitation. I had a mallard nest in the flowerbed literally right outside my front door for several seasons while living on a lake in the Sandhills.

So should you happen to witness mallards courting nearby in the coming weeks, it could mean the appearance of fluffy yellow ducklings by early spring. Indeed the days are lengthening and these well-known birds are quite aware of the importance of timing, even in the absence of a calendar — or smart phone. Imagine that!  OH

Susan would love to hear from you. Send wildlife sightings and photos to


Simple Life

The Winter Gardener

There’s plenty of life stirring beneath the season’s snows

By Jim Dodson

As you read this, the first winter of the new decade is drawing to a close.

Like a certain fabled snowman who danced with the village children until he began to melt away, I rather hate to see it go.

Winter, you see, is my favorite gardening season.

Perhaps this is because I am a son of winter, reportedly born during the height of a February snowstorm on Groundhog Day way back in 1953.

Or maybe my wintry affection stems from two decades of living on a forested hill in Maine, where the snow piled up before Christmas and I learned most of what I know about resourceful living and “making do” — as they say in the North Country — including the art of keeping the home fires burning and loved ones warm.

The light of winter is another of the season’s charms. Clear winter stars over our hilltop provided a dazzling show of celestial beauty, and the feel of the winter sun on your face on a cold, clear afternoon is like a benediction in Nature’s chapel.

Whenever I’m having difficulty falling asleep, I remember cold clear nights when I donned my red wool Elmer Fudd coat and toted a 50-pound bag of sorghum pellets to the spot at the forest’s edge. There, a family of whitetail deer waited patiently for their supper in the arctic moonlight during the hardest nights of year — a memory of fellowship with mythic creatures that never fails to ease me into sleep on my own winter nights.   

It’s possible that my fondness for what poet Christina Rossetti called the “bleak midwinter”  is simply written in the stars. Both my parents were Aquarians with midwinter birthdays just days before my own in early February. Ditto my firstborn child, a beautiful baby girl who appeared during a January blizzard that left the world quilted in white as the golden morning sun spread over Casco Bay, moments after young Maggie’s debut.

When we carried her home to Bailey Island, our unplowed lane lay so deep in snow we were forced to park at the village post office and slide down a steep hill to our back door just steps from the cobalt blue sea. The memory of my newly arrived Southern mother giddily whooping as she tobogganed down the hill on her bottom still makes me smile. Maggie made the trip all bundled into my arms — and claims to remember the journey to this day.

Winter’s other gifts included our annual winter solstice party where friends and neighbors came out of the frigid night to sing and dance for their supper and — because I married into a clan of real Glaswegian Scots — a Hogmanay celebration on New Year’s Eve that included dancing to fiddle reels and toasting with good Islay-made Scotch with Big Ben dialed up on the shortwave radio at 7 p.m. — and sing in bed by nine. The drunks in Times Square could never compete with that.

To some extent or another, of course, every one of these seasonable pleasures can be found in North Carolina winter as well, including cold nights, clear stars, holiday lights, good Scotch and fiddle reels and — despite global warming — the occasional surprise snowfall that stops a madding world in its tracks.

But winter here has one significant advantage over life on a snowy hilltop in Maine.

In the North Country, once the deep cold and snows arrived, I could only tend the fire, browse seed catalogs and picture the ambitious things I planned to do in my garden once the frozen ground thawed and was fully in view again — generally around Easter time, if we were lucky.

Thanks to kinder and gentler Southern winters, however, I am able to get to work planning and digging even before Hogmanay arrives. With Nature at parade rest and stripped to bare essentials, I not only can see the architecture of my garden, but also take stock of last summer’s botanical successes and bonehead miscues.

This year, for example, with the new decade just hours away, I spent five blessedly solitary hours getting gloriously dirty in my winter garden on New Year’s Eve. To briefly review my loves’ labors, I dug up and transplanted seven rose bushes and nine ornamental grasses; moved a mophead hydrangea to a shadier spot and six Russian sages to a sunnier one. I also planted a splendid Leland cypress, raked up the last of the autumn leaves and spread a dozen wheelbarrows worth of new hardwood mulch.

By the time I was finished — and the work finished me — the mistress of the estate required me to strip bare at the side door before entering her gleaming New Year’s kitchen, though she’ll flatly tell you that she never sees me happier than after a few well-spent hours digging in my winter garden, headed for a good soak in the tub or a hot shower.

Dig in the soil, goes the old gardener’s ditty — delve in the soul.

Even William Shakespeare seemed to find this time of year irresistible for contemplation of life’s passing seasons.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

His theme, of course, is the brevity of life.

As February dawns, such wintry thoughts come naturally to my mind as well, for I reach my mid-60s this year and am both amused and astonished how quickly the notion of “old age” has arrived.

Save for a pair of dodgy knees that make gardening’s up and down a bit more challenging, I honestly don’t feel a day over 40 — yet I know I’m in the midwinter of my allotted visitation time, with scarce time to waste for being present in my own days, whatever the season.

“Tho’ I am an old man,” as Founding Father Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend Thomas Willson Peale in August of 1811, “I am but a young gardener.”

Two and one-half decades ago, when I really was in my 40s, I spent the entire month of February by my own founding father’s bedside, serving as his caretaker as he slipped the bonds of Earth.

What a fine and joyful life he’d led — my nickname for him was “Opti the Mystic” — and what a privilege it was to simply sit by his bed talking about this and that, weather and wives, golf and grandchildren, nothing left unsaid, saying thank-you as his life gently ebbed away.

The end came a few days into March, after a night of sleet gave way to a stunning spring morning full of sunshine and birdsong.

My oldest friend Patrick turned up, seemingly unbidden, suggesting we go play the old goat farm golf course where we learned to play as kids.

I have no memory of how we scored or even what we talked about, though it was the perfect thing to do. Opti would surely have approved.

That afternoon, I dug up some of my mom’s peonies to take home to my snowbound perennial beds in Maine.

I planted them as the spring thaw finally arrived — sometime around Easter.  OH

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at

The Love Connection

Avid Aggies and organic farmers. Foodies and Philanthropists. High school sweethearts and high-stepping seniors. Meet five couples who share a common passion — and the joy of being together.

True Blue & Gold Aggie Love

Frank & Vicki McCain

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by Mark Wagoner

Frank and Vicki McCain are living proof that timing is everything in the mysterious ways of love.

They met 38 years ago when both were high school students attending a gathering of North Carolina student councils in Raleigh. Frank was president of the statewide organization and president of his senior class in Charlotte. Vicki Hinton was senior class president at Rocky Mount Senior High School Down East.

“He was wearing a Kelly green sports coat and looked so confident and handsome,” she recalls with a laugh.

“Oh, you better believe I noticed her too,” says Frank with a chuckle.

One year later, they were both freshmen at North Carolina A&T State University. Vicki was rooming with a girl from Charlotte, planning to major in accounting. Frank was studying marketing and management.

“One evening there was a knock at our dorm door and there was Frank McCain,” she remembers.

“You’re that girl from Rocky Mount,” Frank said with a smile.

Their love affair began — as many enduring ones do — with a strong friendship, time spent in classes together and conversations around campus.

Two years later, Vicki was attending the Aggies’ away football game against N.C. Central with friends from back home, when Frank happened to be there. He offered to drop off her friends at their campus in Durham after the game and give Vicki a ride back to Greensboro. 

Dropping her off at her dorm, he boldly asked to kiss her goodnight.

“Naturally,” she says, “I said no.”

Frank McCain is living proof that faint heart never won a fair maid. He kept asking Vicki out, and she finally consented to a first date to Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant in the spring of 1986.

On the drive back to A&T, Frank calmly spoke from the heart. “I want you to be my wife,” he told Vicki. “And I want you to have my children.”

She was sure her was joking. “I laughed till I cried,” Vicki remembers. “We were just great friends at that point.  I couldn’t believe he was serious. But when I looked at him, he wasn’t laughing.”

“We’ll see who gets the laugh,” Frank said with a stoic shrug.

Upon graduation in ’87, she took an accounting position with Cargill Corp. in Memphis, Tennessee. Frank went to work for First Union Bank in Greensboro.

During one of his visits, Vicki informed him that when he left, she was going with him. A more promising job awaited her in Richmond, Virginia. They loaded up her Chevette with her belongings and headed home to Rocky Mount. Vicki soon moved on to Richmond.

From December of 1987 to late summer of ’89, the couple managed to see each other every weekend. During a weekend visit to Georgetown, Frank proposed marriage. Vicki told him she needed to speak with her mother, Lucinda “Miss Tab” Hinton, who affectionately called Frank “Hotdog” because of his name. Vicki also said she needed to pray on the proposal.

They got married August 12, 1989, at Vicki’s childhood church in Rocky Mount. It was really the first time Vicki had a chance to get to know Frank’s extended family.

Something lovely happened before the service. Vicki was all alone in a room, dressed in her wedding gown and watching guests arrive, when there was a knock at the door and Frank’s father, Franklin McCain Sr., stepped in to have a quiet word with the bride.

Franklin McCain was an American icon, one of the four brave A&T State freshman who staged a peaceful sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth on February 1, 1960 — a moment broadly regarded by historians as a key moment in the birth of the nonviolent American Civil Rights Movement.

“He knew I was nervous and calmly told me ‘You look mighty pretty, Sugar.’” McCain then asked her if she was absolutely sure she wanted to marry his son, she recalls. “He explained that marriage is a serious commitment and that if I had any doubts I was free to change my mind.”

She didn’t. This pleased him. “Big Daddy was such a wise and reassuring man. That meant so much to me. We became such close friends.” 

After the couple exchanged vows, the groom couldn’t resist a gentle dig. “I guess I got the last laugh after all,” he told Vicki with a chortle. 

Today, Frank McCain carries on the family tradition of public service as vice president of United Way of Greater Greensboro, and Vicki serves as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Cross on Phillips Avenue and works as a royalty auditor for Centric Brands. Both are deeply involved in A&T alumni affairs and athletics.

In fact, three generations strong, they may be the poster family for Aggie Blue and Gold.

After graduating from Ragsdale High with high honors (serving as homecoming queen, varsity head cheerleader and student government president as well) daughter Taylor, 25, attended UNC-Chapel Hill and today works as operations manager for a major snack company in Miami.

Son Frank III — whom everyone calls “Mac” — a graduate of Dudley High Academy, is a star footballer whose key interception in the closing moments of the 2017 Celebration Bowl led to MVP honors in a win over rival Grambling State and a perfect 12–0 season for the Aggies. The redshirted McCain picked up two All-America honors and snagged eight interceptions during his first two years, running two of them back for touchdowns, including a 100-yarder against East Carolina for the victory.

Last December, Mac McCain helped guide the Aggies to their third straight HBCU national title with a third consecutive win over Alcorn State at the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta. After battling food allergies and injuries, he is now in graduate school at his alma mater studying agricultural business and preparing for a fourth season in Aggie Blue and Gold.

“We are blessed to have children who are such good people,” says Pastor Vicki. “We’re also proud to be part of the A&T community, which is really our extended family.”

“A&T allowed us all to grow,” agrees Frank. “It’s who we are — and who we will always be. Aggie pride is nationwide!”  OH

Providential Pairing

Katie Clark & Branyon Spigner

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Bert VanderVeen

If they get married as planned, Katie Clark and Branyon Spigner won’t have to worry about becoming one of those couples who start to look like each other.

They already do.

With their broad, easy smiles, their clear blue-green eyes and their rosy 19-year-old faces, they could be mistaken for sister and brother.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘You’re like the same person,’ “ he says.

Their differences stood out the first time they met — or became aware of each other.  They were in seventh grade, doing a walkathon on the grounds of Mendenhall Middle School in Greensboro. Katie was strolling with friends behind Branyon, who, having already experienced a growth spurt, was 5-feet-9-inches tall, by far the biggest kid around.

“I was like, ‘Why is there a 16-year-old at our walkathon? And what’s his name again?’ I couldn’t say his name,” Katie recalls.

It’s Branyon, rhymes with canyon.

They had English class together the following year.

“I remember, I heard her talking about a Christian football movie, When the Game Stands Tall. I was like, ‘Hey, I love that movie,’” he says.

They were too shy for conversation in person — she hid behind a locker door to avoid making eye contact with him in the hall — but they struck up a friendship by texting, mostly about their faith in God.

When Katie’s friends threw a surprise party for her December birthday, they invited Branyon.

“Most people gave me gift cards,” Katie remembers. “He gave me a plaque with Proverbs 3:5.”

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding.

“I thought that was charming,” she says.

They talked face-to-face. It was a good sign.

“It was like, ‘OK, we can talk without a phone.’” says Branyon.

They held hands at a New Year’s Eve party.

She invited him to a community theater production of Sleeping Beauty, in which she played the lead role.

“It was funny,” Branyon remembers. “The first girl I fall for, I have to watch her kiss a 17-year-old.”

Their own first kiss came a few weeks later, on a snow day when school was canceled. They went sledding then walking in the woods with friends. Suddenly, the friends vanished.

“I think they all planned it,” Katie says of the couple’s instant privacy. “We talked for a while and then he kissed me. It was cute.”

They went to a Christian music festival on Valentine’s Day.

They became each other’s best friends in high school. Their friends called them Mom and Dad. Or KatieBranyon. Neither drank. Both were on student council and participated in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and in the faith-based organization Young Life.

He joined her youth group at Lawndale Baptist Church.

“It was so natural,” she says. “It felt like we’d always been together.”

He played varsity football for three years at Page High School, and she stayed until the end of every game, partly because she was in charge of the pep club and partly to get post-game pictures of her and Branyon.

“It was nice to have that support,” he says.

They planned to go to different colleges, she to Carolina to study psychology, he to N.C. State to study civil engineering.

She was accepted by both schools, but State offered her a scholarship, and a campus Christian group reached out to her. She changed her mind about going to Chapel Hill.

“It was a God thing,” she says. “It was a bonus that Branyon was at State.”

Now, they live in the same dormitory, in suites one floor apart. When he’s done studying, he’ll text her to see if she has time for a visit. Sometimes, they meet in the dining hall.

Like any couple, Katie and Branyon quarrel at times.

“At first, we didn’t really understand our differences,” he says.

“We tried to look past them,” she says.

“We needed to understand where the other person was coming from,” he says.

“Now it’s more like, “What do you need from me?’” she says.

For a while, they thought they would get married in college, but now they think they’ll get engaged while in college and get married right after graduation in 2023, after he starts a full-time job, possibly with the construction company he will intern with this summer.

Katie has changed her major to communication, with a minor in Spanish, to prepare for a more flexible career should Branyon’s future employer send him to another city.

“All of our ducks are almost in a row,” he says.

They look at each other with the same eyes. 

They smile the same smile.  OH

Planned Spontaneity

Paul Russ & Lynn Wooten

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Mark Wagoner

Cooking, art and philanthropy cinch the relationship for high-profile Triad couple Paul Russ and Lynn Wooten.   

Food is the extra ingredient: It was in a Triad restaurant that they met and they were married in another, with a celebratory party thrown on a later date at an art gallery.  

In 2006, Russ and Wooten had a blind date for brunch at Greensboro’s Green Valley Grill. Then they took the blinders off. “It’s unusual, because less than a month before we had seen each other across a room,” says Wooten, with Russ completing the thought “ . . . at a Durham film festival.”  

With a shock of recognition, the pair discovered they lived parallel lives.  

They were the same age. 

The Russ-Wootens simultaneously attended UNC-Chapel Hill with studies overlapping three out of four years.  

They earned the same degree (Journalism).   

Russ’ good friend lived next door to Wooten. “And we’d never met!” Wooten exclaims.  

“We had to have met, at some frat party, or walking across the quad,” muses Russ.

“Or on an elevator,” offers Wooten. 

“Or basketball games at Carmichael,” adds Russ. A bit like the romantic comedy, Sliding Doors, he says. 

“We were not meant to meet before we did,” agrees Wooten, who invited Russ to a Durham party. “We were inseparable from then.” Synchronicities abounded.  

Each transitioned from journalism to public relations. When they met, Wooten worked at UNC-Hospital; Russ worked at Hospice and Palliative Care of Greater Greensboro.     

“We both were involved in nonprofits, volunteering and helping out,” Wooten says. “As corny as it sounds, we both liked giving back,” he adds. 

Then there was a shared joy of cooking — and eating well.

“We love food,” he confesses. “There are very few ways we differ.  He won’t eat goat cheese and I won’t eat raw tomato,” sighs Wooten.

“I can watch cooking competitions ad nauseum,” confesses Russ.  

Both laugh.  

The foodies married in 2015 at 1618 West — the restaurant’s first wedding. 

For the celebration held at GreenHill, Ibby Wooten supplied a Japanese-made cake topper featuring Lynn snapping a selfie — a signature move. Her brother paused for a selfie during the ceremony.  “I did it at the end!  I pulled out a selfie stick, popped the camera up, and got the photo with everybody behind us.  It turned out great.”

Russ is now vice president of marketing and development for the newly merged AuthoraCare Collective, formerly hospices in Greensboro and Alamance/Caswell.  Three years ago, Wooten became vice president of marketing and public relations for the Well-Spring Group.)  

In those roles, they meet people who are farther along life’s pathway. 

“At Hospice I’ve learned more about living than dying,” says Russ. “We’ve met people with the capacity to do great things.”

Working with seniors and those with fewer days apportioned to them, they also have learned something valuable.  

So the couple, who have both done a lot of public service work as volunteers and on various boards — e.g., Triad Stage, Weatherspoon, the Public Art Endowment — discovered the need for “me time.” 

“Paul rules the finances,” says Wooten. “I do the calendar.” In which he occasionally writes, “Do Nothing.” 

On those special weekends, they may not leave the house, one filled with antiques, books, and an art collection amassed together. Russ is in the kitchen cooking. Wooten reads or naps.

They reserve uncommitted weekends for forays or outings to restaurants they haven’t yet experienced. (A recent such trek was to Acropolis, the downtown Greek restaurant.) “It was great,” enthuses Wooten.

They call this, “planned spontaneity.”  

“We love fun, good experiences. It’s a simple life,” says Wooten.  OH

Happy Trails

Sue Beck & Bill Haney

By Nancy Oakley     Photographs by Bert VanderVeen

“You really gotta like someone a whole bunch to sleep in a tent and walk every day with a pack on your back,” says Bill Haney with a broad grin. But Haney has done just that for most of the 44 years he’s been married to Sylvia “Sue” Beck.

“I had always wanted to do hiking,” says Sue, now 83, while Bill, whom she affectionately describes as “just a kid,” at 80, “was interested in wherever we both went.”

“Actually, I was interested in her,” he chimes in, his Cheshire Cat grin reappearing.

The two met in the mid-1970s when Sue was completing her master’s in music at UNCG and needing some education courses to fulfill teacher certification requirements. She landed in two of Bill’s classes one summer. An avid athlete, Bill’s interests included cycling and rock climbing, and, as Sue would later discover, swimming and diving. “That’s what really got me interested in him. I saw him diving and wow! He was amazing!” she says with a soft, low chuckle.

They took their courtship slowly, having both been married before, “and not anxious to get into that mess again,” Sue says with her ready laugh. But they tied the knot in 1975, blending families, and working — Sue with the Guilford County Schools, Bill with the Employment Security Commission.

As they approached their late 50s, the couple had heard about classes offered at Guilford College’s Wilderness Center. “Canoeing, backpacking, climbing,” Bill recalls.

“So we took the backpacking thing, and I loved it,” Sue waxes, explaining her deep appreciation of the outdoors and the natural world. “I’m an explorer at heart,” she adds, “but I could never have done it without Bill.”

While she carried “around 35 pounds,” he would shoulder a heavier 45- to 50-pound pack as the two began to hit various hiking trails in the Southeast. “He just sort of put up with it,” Sue laughs.

“There were times when either one of us would have enough for that day and throw a fit,” Bill concedes. Like the time they had run out of food a day before reaching Nantahala Gorge. “I get very grouchy when I’m hungry,” Bill admits. Or the times they’ve been injured, or when their camp stove once blew up. But taking the mishaps — how else? — in stride, Sue remarks, “We’ve had some fascinating experiences and we’ve met some amazing people.” Particularly groups of other hiking enthusiasts they’ve encountered on the Appalachian Trail.

In 1988 the two hiked a southern portion of the famed 2,200 route stretching from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine and would periodically hike various sections of it. “We just jumped around. We’d hike for a weekend. Or maybe during a vacation period for 10 days or something like that,” Sue recalls. “And all of a sudden I said to Bill: ‘You know what? We’ve hiked a lot of this trail, why don’t we just do the whole thing?’”

Under the trail moniker, “NC Pole Cats,” a nod to their use of ski poles for balance and safety well before it became accepted hiking practice, the two completed their goal, encountering a cast of characters along the way: the Four J’s, three guys and their unseen fourth, Jesus; or The Three Little Pigs, three gals who described themselves as “looking like pigs and smelling like pigs,” says Sue. And the ultimate payoff: Mt. Katahdin. “The end of the trail at Katahdin is spectacular,” Sue enthuses. “There’s a beautiful campground at the bottom. Then you have to hike up, up, up.” She recalls going by a beautiful waterfall. And as they got higher and higher, it turned out to be not so much a trail as a jumble of rocks. “Huge rocks. Car-sized rocks” she says. “And they’re all piled up on the top of this mountain. And just before you get to the very end, it becomes a trail again. It’s very challenging.” Here, Bill’s rock climbing expertise was crucial. “I don’t think I could have done it if he hadn’t been there to explain to me where to put my foot next and my arm next,” Sue observes.

By 2001, Bill and Sue earned their AT patches that they proudly wear on the sleeves of their camp shirts, along with their perennially young hearts. They’ve become an example, if not an inspiration to their peers, sharing their experiences with local groups such as the Shepherd’s Center, or Abbotswood, where they live. Its nearby 3-mile loop and regular yoga sessions keep them in shape for excursions to favorite hiking destinations such as Hanging Rock and Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia, with its “beautiful rock formations and wild ponies,” says Sue. They’ve trekked through Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland, and imparted a love of hiking and the outdoors to their grandkids. And though age has necessitated some modifications — no more 50-pound packs for Bill — the two have “a long life to live,” Sue says, laughing, and as long as they’re able, they’ll continue speaking their love language — step by step.  OH

For Love of Family & Good Food

David & Nneka Williams

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by Mark Wagoner

A dozen years ago, David and Nneka Williams made an important decision about their quality of life and young family.

“We decided it was time for a healthy change in the food we ate — realizing that what we were eating was simply not making us healthier,” explains David.

“It was an epiphany for us.”

The roots of this awakening lay in his evolution as a landscaper who, in the early 1990s after graduating from Northwest Guilford High School, started out with New Garden Landscaping & Nursery. Williams eventually opened his own business, having morphed into a specialized personal landscaping designer with a dozen private clients he works with to this day.

Out for an evening in 1998, he happened to bump into pretty Nneka Little — pronounced “Nay-Kay” — a UNCG dance major and ballet dancer who grew up in New York City. David was shy. Nneka wasn’t. They swapped phone numbers but she had to call him first.

Your classic case of country mouse meets city mouse.

“I’m a city girl. If you’ve ever seen the movie Big,” Nneka says with a laugh, “that was supposed to be my life.”

Because David grew up on a family farm in Stokesdale, he had no interest “whatsoever” in returning to the farming life — or so he thought.

Lightning struck fast. The next year the pair were married at a quiet family ceremony in Stokesdale.

When their sons Logan and Gavin were 5 and 3 respectively, it bothered them that both children suffered from allergies and asthma, requiring daily breathing treatments. Nneka also required her own medication for allergies, and everyone in the family was putting on weight.

Fearing years of medical issues, the Williamses boldly switched to a vegan diet and experienced a quick and remarkable turnaround. “Healthy organic food was the answer,” says David. “It healed our bodies and resulted in making all of us dramatically healthier. Within a few years, everyone in the household was off meds and had lost weight.”

Moreover, their shared passion for healthful food led to an exciting new chapter of life. A backyard, raised-bed organic garden fueled their growing knowledge of organic gardening and in 2011 led to visits to a pair of sustainable farms in Saxapahaw.

“That was all I needed to see,” says David, who began meeting with a farm consultant to plan and gather ideas for their future organic farm.

For the next two and a half years the couple searched for the right piece of property, eventually settling on a rolling 13-acre parcel off Church Street extension, in the rural community of Midway, just into Rockingham County.

A week before Christmas in 2015, the Williamses moved into a handsome energy-efficient 3,200-square-foot house they designed and built themselves. Soon thereafter, they completed work on their first high tunnel–heated greenhouse and started building their washing and packing facility, just in time for their first harvest.

Sunset Market Gardens was born.

Today, its fourth year, the farm boasts three state-of-the-art large greenhouses (plus two smaller ones) filled with a bounty of USDA-certified organic produce that looks almost too good to eat — spectacular Asian greens and several varieties of gourmet lettuce, bok choy, baby kale, radishes, beets, carrots, spinach, scallions, plus turnips and collards. Ditto various herbs, ginger and turmeric, and pasture-raised eggs. As February dawns, new potatoes, summer squash, cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes are already planted in immaculate rows, working their way to market. The Williamses even sell organic bread and have an online store. No surprise that their customer base is growing robustly.

The farm’s prime sales venue is the historic Greensboro Farmers Curb Market on Yanceyville Street along with their own ever-expanding farm store, open Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Sons Logan and Gavin, at 15 and 13 respectively, have grown into impressively polite young men, homeschooled by their mother. They run the farm store and ultraclean packaging operation. Two other mouths to feed and two more pairs of potential helping hands have expanded the Williams family.

“It’s not been a easy life but it’s such a rewarding life,” says Nneka, as she spoon feeds organic veggies to 5-month-old Kieran while keeping an eye on Falynne, age 2, playing in the gated living room. “David is a perfectionist about the farm — his passion — and the boys are learning valuable lessons about work and life and sustainability.

“My mother’s dream was to live in the country and have a farm like this,” she adds with another laugh. “Whenever my parents come to visit, they’re so excited they hardly come in the house because there’s so much to do and see.”

“For us, this is really is a dream come true,” adds David, who continues to beautify the property’s landscape with plans to eventually offer farm suppers and special events on the grounds.

“To think how far we’ve come in such a short period of time makes me humble and very grateful. That’s something we love to share with people who buy our produce and come out to the farm to see how we grow our food — a love of family and good healthy eating.”  OH

For more info: Sunset Market Gardens, 346 Woolen Store Road, Reidsville  Open: Wednesdays 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Phone: (336) 362-1344   |