Robert’s grip was as strong as steel. His heavily tattooed arms were as thick as my quads and in his grip I felt helpless. You see, Robert was a convicted murderer and even after spending almost four days with him, I wasn’t prepared for what came next. His tears…running down my neck, staining my shirt, and carving into my soul. What could I possibly say to this man that would provide any level of comfort?
Robert (not his real name) was an inmate serving two consecutive life terms at Perry Correctional Facility. And I was there as part of Kairos, a non-denominational Christian ministry that goes into prisons to minister to inmates. I’d met Robert my second day at Perry when we were placed at the same table. Me, two other servants, and six inmates spent the better part of three days getting to know one another then listening as the men eventually confronted their past, and tried to make peace with their future. And through it all, there was Robert. It was obvious from the first morning that he was looked up to by the other men and it wasn’t because of his size (all of six feet five and rippled with muscle) but rather because of his demeanor. He was calm, confident, and had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was told he would often break up arguments with insightful reason, fights with requests to settle things via discussion, and disputes through mediation and concessions. And I believed it because I saw him do this several times during our discussions. He was conscientious, well-read, courteous, and an excellent negotiator. And several times during that long weekend I listened to him speak and pictured these inmates in street clothes and realized that if we were at a Starbuck’s, no one would be able to tell that these men were all doing hard time.
Kairos has been around since World War Two and its mission is simple: listen, listen, love, love. In order to participate, the inmates must be vetted by the prison chaplain. And the servants, the visitors from the outside, must be willing to be a conduit, to lead these men to a conversation about the love of Jesus Christ. What I learned on those visits is the men I met came from broken homes and rarely had anyone listened to them; until they came under the influence of a gang, or other criminal element. The gang provided the family that they were devoid of at home. Most of our men had been in prison for years and most were looking at many more years of incarceration. What did they do to end up behind miles of concertina wire? I don’t know and we don’t ask, we just listen. We read scripture, sing a bit and conduct team-building exercises that would be familiar to any office group. And those exercises gradually become more meaningful, more spiritual as the weekend goes on.
And on our final day, after our lunch, after our church service, and maybe twenty minutes before me and the other servants would pack up and leave, Robert pulled me aside because he wanted to tell me something. In short order tears filled his eyes as he told me his story, familiar yet vivid. He was the product of a broken home, of a Mother that spent time working two jobs and battling alcoholism, of a life on the streets that started when he was old enough to remember. He wiped his eyes then turned to me. “If only I’d had someone like you in my life; a man, a father, someone to teach me the difference between right and wrong, to teach me how to treat a woman, to drag me to Sunday school. Maybe things would’ve turned out different for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have pulled that trigger. Maybe.”
Then he hugged me and through his tears choked out “Thank you and God bless you.” What could I say? I would soon leave for my comfortable home and warm bed, and he would have to trudge back to his tiny cell where he would likely stay until he died of old age. The only words I could muster were: “God bless you my brother.”
The men I’ve met through Kairos, men that are doing hard time, twenty, thirty, fifty years, they all have the same story and the same wish. They all came from broken homes. They didn’t blame their situation on the government, on gun laws, who was or wasn’t President, their attorney, or the cop that arrested them. And every one of them ached for a father figure. Not a fancy car, not a huge house, a pile of cash, tailored clothes or an in-ground pool. They just wished for a Dad. Every. One.
Our culture glorifies violence at every opportunity, 24/7. We’re inundated with it. It’s in our video games, on Youtube, TV commercials, music; I could keep going but you’re probably already shaking your head in agreement. At the same time, culture loves to mock Dad. He’s clumsy, dimwitted, inept, and muddles through life clueless to the many attractions of modern culture.
And inside the prison system, the men I’ve met that were looking at another thirty years inside their cramped, stifling prison cell ached for that man. That bumbling, inept man that knows the difference between right and wrong, how to treat a woman, how to throw a baseball, how to fix a leaky roof. The man that knows the value of a steady job. That was the man they never knew. And that was the man they wished they had. That was their dream.
Take time to be a Dad, to be a mentor, the father figure someone else didn’t have. Reach out to that young apprentice, the one wearing Wal Mart slacks and a clip-on tie, take the time to listen to someone’s story. You just might be all the difference, all the positive influence that someone needs.
“Where are you taking Amy for your 30th anniversary?”
“The Bahamas.” I answered
“Oh you’re going to love Atlantis”
Carriearl Hotel on Great Harbor Cay, Bahamas
My mind suddenly filled with visions of turbo-charged slides rocketing screaming kids under shark filled pools while sea turtles languidly swam through massive salt-water tanks tugging signs for “all you can eat conch fritters.”
“Uh…well we’re not actually going to Atlantis.”
Not us. We’ve been to Disney World many times so why bother with a Bahamian version? We wanted to see the real Bahamas, up close and personal. For years we’ve seen the commercials and often wondered; is the water really that blue, that clean, that amazing?
Yes the people are very friendly in the Bahamas, especially LeeAnn at Sandyport
Are the people really that friendly? Are the starfish really that big?
The starfish are huge!
Six months ago, with our 30th anniversary on the horizon, we started to plan our trip. We knocked around a multitude of destinations and we both kept coming back to the tropics. We’ve never been to the Caribbean and the thought of sinking our toes into a place that keeps time with the tides, where the sea is the clock, where we could enjoy the peace and serenity that only a natural setting offers was just too intriguing. And as we looked around we were captivated by the Instagram profile of one Katie Storr.
She’s a dive master with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas and her underwater photos sold us on the Bahamas.
We blocked off our calendars and made our plans. We would stay at Sandyport Beach Resort, go bird watching with Scott Johnson, a science officer with the BNT, snorkel on Sandyport Beach, take a cooking class at the Graycliff Hotel, find the best bar in Nassau, seek out Bahamian cuisine, take in the national art Gallery, take a seaplane ride to a small hotel on another island, leap into a 600-foot-deep blue hole, and of course go diving with the folks at Stuart Cove. After we’d made our plans and were counting the days, the owner of Carriearl reached out and asked if we’d mind being their guest chefs for a night.
Would we mind? Are you kidding me? So how was it and what did we learn that would be of assistance to those planning their own Bahamas adventure? Well for one we brought too much underwear and I’ll explain later.
Now that’s why you want a window seat.
On a miserable, dreary day, we flew out of Charlotte, NC and had a bumpy flight dodging thunderheads until we were off the coast of Florida. The weather broke, the clouds and turbulence gave way to a gorgeous horizon that slowly turned from black to a shimmering turquoise. Bahamas means “shallow sea” a name given by Christopher Columbus. If you’ve never been to the Bahamas, the sight of that water can really bring out the child in an adult. As we eased below ten thousand feet and the vista opened, animated voices filled the aircraft. We touched down at Lynden Pindling International, so named for their first Prime Minister.
Now to find an Uber. Uh…first lesson learned, Uber hasn’t made it to the Bahamas and there are no taxi services, only private taxis. Each taxi is independent, so if you’re at a hotel or Airbnb, the manager will have a few drivers he or she prefers.
As the Bahamas are surrounded by 20 mph salt-laden air, the cars tend to look like outcasts from the latest Transformers movie. And they drive on the wrong side of the road. So, our first impression was a bit of a culture shock.
“We drive on the proper side of the road, John,” claims our friend Serena Williams. If you don’t know, this group of islands was a British territory until 1973. And apparently the British left behind so many right-hand drive vehicle and wrong side of the road drivers, it made sense to carry on this tradition.
Our first three days were spent at Sandyport Beach Resort. If you’re looking for a shimmering steel and glass high-rise hotel where a bucket of ice costs $5.00 ($6.50 with tip), look elsewhere.
Sandyport is about five miles from downtown and an equal distance from the airport. Their rooms are tailored for those of us a little more self-sufficient. There’s a laundry, fully stocked kitchenettes, and three or four restaurants within walking distance. Many more if you don’t mind a mile’s walk.
Room with a stunning view at Sandyport Beach Resort. From our balcony we saw all manner of sea life in this little harbor including sea turtles.
Their beach is a very short walk away. Prior to check in, Serena brought us to a local market and we picked up some gorgeous local grouper, tuna, and a few necessities, such as rum and limes.
Vernon Moss welcomed us with a disarming smile and a beefy handshake. The hotel’s General Manager, he was also our concierge and de facto guide for our stay. He’s a native Bahamian and happy to share the ins, outs, and quirks of the Bahamas. Our second day we were schedule to fly to Andros island via a local airline with a 6:45 am departure. He wisely recommended arriving an hour early. As it was, we departed 25 minutes early. Why? Because all the passengers were there. Thanks, Vernon.
Vernon Moss, Sandyport’s General Manager
Check in, had a quick look around then into shorts and off to the beach. And it’s breathtaking. The water is well, see for yourself
Our Keens are dangling over six feet of water so clear, one could almost count the scales on the yellowtail snapper
Two hours into our vacation and this is our first view from the beach. The bartender actually said “It’s a bit hazy today. Maybe tomorrow it will be beautiful.” Sandyport is more than a hotel, there’s condos, apartments, shops and businesses. And they are all connected by a small harbor. The view from the balcony is worth the price of admission. From here we saw a multitude of fish, rays, birds, and even sea turtles. We were told a manatee and her calf dwelled in the harbor, but we did not see them. The staff at Sandyport offered us snorkeling gear and we were off to the water.
View of the beach from the Blue Sail Cafe
If you’ve never snorkeled, the Bahamas is a great place to learn. The water is clean enough that if you accidentally gulp down a quart, you won’t become ill. Try that on an Atlantic coast beach and you might end up in ICU. And because the water is so shallow there’s little waves so you won’t be dodging surf boards. The small rock jetty at Sandyport provided a haven for all manner of sea life including snappers, grunt, angelfish, sea stars, barracuda, porcupine fish…I could keep going. Complimentary snorkel gear, a three-minute walk to the beach and we were swimming through a massive saltwater aquarium. We’d been in the Bahamas less than three hours and we were already on sensory overload. When it was time for a drink, we didn’t have to go far. The Blue Sail Café, owned by Chef Jacques Carlino, a Frenchman for a penchant for turning out amazing pastries, is right there. And with this view, why get into a taxi? The lunch menu looked familiar to anyone that’s dined at a country club in the states. A variety of sandwiches, burgers, cold salads and macaroni and cheese. Wait a minute. I thought I was in the Caribbean? Where were the mangos, papayas, pineapples, etc. “Sorry Chef. This is the West Indies, not the Caribbean. There’s little agriculture so not much locally grown fruits and vegetables.”
We settled on the wood fired pizza, and it was damn good especially when it was paired with the local beer Kalik. Soon we were back in the water for another swim because we wanted to earn our massage. We don’t do yoga poses or juice cleanses, but we’re all about a real massage. And Sandyport has a great masseuse and an amazing setting for a massage.
How’s this for the setting of a massage?
Who needs a TV with this view?
Eventually we made it to downtown Nassau for a visit to the Graycliff Hotel and a cooking class with their chef, Elijah Bowe. Many years ago, Chef Bowe spent time in South Louisiana working for Chef John Folse, so we had plenty to talk about. Like me, he’s a disciple of Paul Prudhomme. Chef Bowe is a natural showman, he engaged with us readily, and entertained us with vignettes of his career and life in the Bahamas. He provided a station for each of us to join in on making conch chowder, snapper en papillote, Caribbean slaw and macaroni and cheese. The Graycliff is perhaps the most well known restaurant in the tropics due to their 200K+ bottle wine list.
our fellow culinary student and Bahamian multimedia personality, Ianthia Smith
The Graycliff Hotel
In the kitchen of the Graycliff Hotel with Chef Elijah Bowe
That’s some entrance.
Enjoying Chef Bowe’s conch chowder in the glorious dining room of the Graycliff Hotel
Our class was a 3+ hour affair and if you’re one for cooking classes and having fun in a professional kitchen, you’ll certainly enjoy this. After our class, it was time for a walk around downtown Nassau.
Queen Elizabeth sweats it out at Parliament Square
The Bahamas National Gallery has some stunning works of art, especially the captivating paintings of Thierry Lamare
Famous mass-murderer Christopher Columbus
That evening, Vernon Moss and his wife took us to the Fish Fry neighborhood for Bahamian cuisine. Finally, I thought, we’re going to have something local and authentic. And the menu is closer to a Calabash, North Carolina fish house than what I was expecting. Fried fish, shrimp, conch, chicken wings, and cheeseburgers. French fries, slaw, and macaroni and cheese.
Local food at Oh Andros
Vernon senses my disappointment and explains how everything on the islands must come in on a boat or barge. And due to the shallow topsoil and limestone, agriculture is tough. Alright, I understand the limitations of transportation, however, if we’re going to stuff a barge full of French fries and hot house tomatoes, we could just as easily be sailing in tropical fruit and vegetables. I was dumbfounded as to why someone wasn’t serving or at least trying to create Bahamian cuisine. Sure, we had delicious conch dishes, but I couldn’t find a distinct cuisine. Macaroni and cheese? Sorry but there’s nothing about that dish that can lay any sort of geographical stamp to the Bahamas or West Indies. Yet it was everywhere. Yes, we had delicious food at the Graycliff and the conch chowder, poached snapper and guava duff felt very Bahamian/Caribbean, but that was it as far as local dishes. Everywhere we went we were greeted with burgers, fries, pizza, etc. The place several Bahamians recommended to us, Oh Andros!, served us a mountain of fries, rice, Cole slaw and macaroni and cheese. I understand it’s tough to grow anything and most of the tourist clientele are American, but how come some Bahamian chef hasn’t stepped up and defined a Bahamian cuisine?
So, if you’re looking for a fine meal in the Bahamas, you’ll end up at the Graycliff or a French or Italian themed restaurant. On one of our evening forays into Nassau, we spent a pastoral hour at bar of Café Matisse. BJ Ramsay, their bartender, was the perfect antidote for a hectic afternoon downtown. He’s the bartender that every fine restaurant should have, a knowledgeable, engaging soul with an appreciation for spirits.
Bartender BJ Ramsey at Cafe Matisse, Nassau, Bahamas
After asking me if prefer Scotch or Bourbon, (Bourbon), he poured me a glass of locally produced, wood-aged sugar cane rum from Jab. And damn was it good. Notes of dried fig, apricot, white pepper and vanilla bean and that sweetness of cane. I’ve got a small bottle now at home.
When we left Café Matisse about 6:00 pm, downtown Nassau had rolled up the sidewalks. When the big cruise ships are docked, Nassau is teeming with activity. When the ship’s whistle blows at 4:00 pm, most of the shops close too. By 5:00 pm there’s not much going on. On our fourth day, we headed to Carriearl Hotel on Great Harbor Cay, via Tropic Ocean Airways. When we first thought about a tropical vacation, Carriearl was what we had in mind. A boutique hotel, only four rooms, on a quiet island with little distraction save for the water and adult beverages. When the opportunity to stay at Carriearl came around, we were all in.
On a trip of many firsts for us, perhaps my favorite was the seaplane flight. Our pilots were professional and courteous while they entertained all of my questions. While Amy and Serena enjoyed the ride from the cheap seats. During our thirty-minute flight, the visual majesty of the Bahamas was on full display. Shades of turquoise, sapphire, crystal, and indigo floated across our field of vision. In every direction, stretched out to the horizon the water shimmered and glistened like a Monet in motion.
Flying out of Nassau, headed to Great Harbor Cay
Soon we were over Great Harbor Cay. We flew parallel to the island, spotted our hosts on the beach, then cut across the island and landed perpendicular to the beach. When we touched, the water dispersed by the floats sparkled like diamonds in the sun.
Thank you to Tropic Ocean Airways
We taxied to the beach, the engine was cut then Kent tugged the Cessna in backwards while Marty and his son Oliver helped us off. Seriously that might’ve been the coolest thing I’ve ever done. From there it was a short walk to Carriearl.
The grand entrance to Carriearl Boutique Hotel
So how do I accurately describe a visit to Carriearl? Again, if you’re looking for a Disney-style vacation, Carriearl is not for you. Great Harbor Cay is sparsely populated. No theatres, no museums, hardly any night life. However, if you fantasized of spending real down time in with 48 hours or more to do as little as possible and do it on the prettiest, quietest beach in this hemisphere, then Carriearl is waiting for you. Go for a swim, grab a book off their shelf, a beer or rum at the bar then disappear into the luxury that such solitude can supply.
While our bedroom had an excellent air conditioner, we spent a lot of time in their common room which was anything but. In the morning, Marty would open the expansive glass doors and their common area became an extension of the beach. Of our three days there, the highs were in the mid 80’s with a steady sea breeze.
Angie and Marty have owned Carriearl for 12 years and turned into a hotel in 2012. Built in 1965 by Earl Blackwell, New York’s “Mr. Celebrity” and the publisher of The Celebrity Register, named for his parents, Carrie and Earl, it’s easily the most memorable hotel we’ve visited. Since we arrived on a Saturday and we were their guest chefs for the evening, we didn’t have much time for lounging. Two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts had to be prepared. When we agreed to do this, we didn’t ask for anything special in the kitchen. Great Harbor Cay is no different than the rest of the Bahamas, plenty of great seafood but very little locally grown anything. So along with Chef Eddison Lightbourne, we went to work. Chef had local shrimp, sweet and spicy red peppers, garlic, onion, romaine and that became Grilled Romaine lettuce with pickled shrimp and spicy rouille. Loaves of whole wheat bread, English peas, lemon, fresh mozzarella, and pea shoots became Welsh Rarebit with an English pea and lemon puree. My bride turned almonds, eggs and fresh mint into almond macarons sandwiched with mint buttercream and vanilla ice cream. By 7:00 PM their dining room echoed with that happy sound of satisfied diners. It’s a combination of forks on plates, glasses being hoisted, bread being buttered and wine being poured. For those of us behind the scenes, we often judge the satisfaction level of our guests by the tempo of the dining rooms melody.
The next morning, one of our guests, Steve Johnson, local harbor master and legendary bush mechanic, along with friends Jay and Karen Campbell, took us to Hoffman’s Cay where we snorkeled through spectacular water and caught enough conch for us to make a heavenly lunch of conch salad. As conch are over fished by commercial operators, Steve was careful to make sure we only used the larger conch, and we only used what we needed.
Conch are incredibly beautiful. Photo by Jay Campbell
Harbormaster Steve Johnson shows me how to clean conch. Photo by Jay Campbell
Earning my keep with fresh conch salad. Photo by Jay Campbell
With Steve Johnson at the 600 foot deep Blue Hole of Hoffman’s Cay. Photo by Jay Campbell
After a long day of boating, fishing and swimming, we were grateful for the comfort of Carriearl, the cold beer and the hospitality of Angie and Marty. Did I mention they are British? On Sunday evenings, Chef Lightbourne prepares a classic English Sunday dinner of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding (popovers to you and me) and roasted vegetables. Sure, it feels out of place, but so what? It was an amazing dinner, expertly prepared and graciously served.
Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, fresh roasted vegetables, and two gravies
The bedrooms at Carriearl come complete with Paddington Bear
Remember I mentioned taking too much underwear? Well on this leg of our adventure, we realized we had too much clothing. If you’re headed to the Bahamas, it’s likely you won’t need but one pair of dressy clothes. A nice pair of slacks and shirt for the men, a simple black dress for the ladies. It’s warm and of course humid so keep it casual. Dress loose and light. Shorts, loose clothing walking shoes, swimsuit and definitely a wide-brimmed hat are necessary. The sun is relentless and there’s plenty of shallow water and shiny sand for those rays to bounce off, so use sunscreen. Keep in mind that snorkeling is a great way to fry your head. Our hotels had a solid supply of snorkeling gear so we’re glad we didn’t bring any along. Seriously though, when you’re hanging out at a bar with a view like this, you’re not going to care what you’re wearing.
Carriearl harkens back to a different time. It’s an oasis in the middle of the sea, a simple, rustic retreat that’s delightfully luxurious and properly British. Even though there’s wi-fi, we tried to stay off it. Because Facebook will always be there, but a view like this was only going to be ours for a few days. And in those days, we danced across the prettiest, most secluded beach, swam with an amazing collection of fish and sea life, jumped into the deepest blue hole, enjoyed wonderful meals, and made friends for life.
Airport security office at Great Harbor Cay airport
Paradise in the West Indies
Enjoy this short video I’ve made on our flight and stay at Carriearl.
Eventually it was time to return to reality, and Nassau. We had one full day left before headed back to Greenville and it was spent with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas. After four or five snorkeling trips, it was time for something bigger and better, SNUBA.
who’s the whiny kid ruining my photo?
You need to do this! Snorkeling and diving with Stuart Cove
With SNUBA, one is attached to an air tank that sits in a raft. The raft holds two tanks, one for each couple, and each diver has about 25 feet of airline. The dive master (Jody Ford) is on tanks and she tugged the small raft while we swam. The tank gave each couple over 45 minutes in the water while Jody kept her eyes out for something unusual. She had several and signals, one being for a shark which she used about 30 minutes into our dive. Myself and Nick were down about 20 feet when she pointed to the shark. We took off in the direction of the shark so enthusiastically that she had to show us the “Whoa!” sign. We were dragging the raft, and our wives, towards the shark and for whatever reason, they didn’t share our enthusiasm.
That’s Stuart Cove divemaster Jody Ford
We came within twenty feet or so of a four-foot reef shark that obviously saw us and paid no attention to us. We watched him/her languidly swim across the coral for a few minutes then he slipped out of focus and was gone. It was one more first on a trip of many. If you’ve never snorkeled or gone diving, don’t worry. Stuart Cove provides a thorough hands-on training session prior to getting into the water. Our final day in Nassau was spent at Sandyport and our last Bahamian meal was a fine latte and an exquisite almond tart, courtesy Chef Carlino.
The Bahamas isn’t perfect. It’s a bit on the funky side and there’s a level of organization it hasn’t achieved. If you prefer your vacation destinations to aspire to a Four Seasons level of cultivated reality, best to look elsewhere.
Conch Salad shack, Nassau, Bahamas
While we were told to watch out for crime, we never felt threatened. So, if you’re looking for a Caribbean destination and you revel in authentic travel, absorbing the local culture, snorkeling or diving, and you’re able to unplug and truly relax, you’re going to love the Bahamas.
Nassau has a few homes such as this one. Gorgeous Caribbean/West Indies architecture that’s crumbling into the limestone.
One vignette sticks out. One afternoon we boarded a # 10 bus to head back to Sandyport. Another couple came on then the husband asked the driver if he had a minute to run around the corner to grab a sandwich for his wife.
Blue Sail Cafe at Sandyport Beach Resort
“No problem, mahn. I pick you up.”
After our bus filled up, we made a short detour and picked him up. No problem.
Queen’s Staircase in Nassau
Dinner at Sandyport Beach Resort, courtesy yours truly
Care to book a room at Sandyport Beach Resort? Click here
The solitude of Carriearl more to your liking? Click here
Nuclear chemist, forensic toxicologist, and crime lab director; dad to Amy, and my father-in-law; David Todd Stafford has passed away. As a young nuclear chemist for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he researched radioactive fuels for the Department of Energy, as toxicologist for Shelby County, TN (Memphis) coroner’s office, he wrote the toxicology report on Elvis Presley. As Director of the Chemical Pathology and Toxicology Lab at the University of Tennessee (Memphis), he taught forensic pathology, as a contractor to Hewlett Packard, he traveled extensively helping crime labs come to terms with gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers.
Dr. David T. Stafford
What’s a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer? Imagine a machine that can break down a substance to the atomic level while providing DNA-like information on that substance. Naturally it’s a rather complicated machine, and for years this was his favorite toy. With it he was able to find accelerants in the ashes of a suspicious fire; chemical combustibles in the ruins of a fraudulent gas line explosion, opioids in the body of someone burned beyond recognition. And his professional experiences led to an enormous amount of published works in journals, books, and presentations.
In his later years, as a professional witness, his 18 page curriculum vitae often succumbed fraudulent cases before they went to trial. A traumatic amputation at a factory followed by a massive lawsuit? Once Dr. David Stafford was on the job, if the injured had any illegal substance in his body, he was going to find it.
In the late 90s, the FBI’s crime lab suffered a mountainous scandal and its director was fired. When the search was on for a new director, David was on the short list. That’s how significant his reputation was.
In his signature gruff manner he answered their queries with, “What the hell would I want to do that for?!” He was too private a man for such a public position.
Incredibly self-sufficient, born in rural Kentucky and working by the age of 12, he insured his own path to college with exemplary grades and a full ride to the University of Louisville, followed by a master’s degree and Ph.D in chemistry, courtesy Virginia Poly Tech.
He loved Kentucky Bourbon but only if he wasn’t driving. He loved his daughters, his grandkids, true BBQ, camping, and his adopted state of Tennessee. Years ago he took us to the UT – Vanderbilt game and when the Volunteer’s band broke out Rocky Top, he stood up and sang right along, at that moment as happy as only a Tennessee fan could be.
A slight man with a full beard, he had a giant of an intellect. For years Amy’s extended family would get together at Pawley’s Island and I’d always bring him a book as a present. One year I gave him the biography of Nobel prize winner and physicist, Richard Feynman. Four hours later he handed it back to me and pronounced it fascinating, all 500+ pages of it.
Dr. David T. Stafford and his favorite dog, Percy
After watching Amy’s grandmother languish away in a nursing home, he begged me to “hold me under the water until the bubbles stop” if he ever became incapacitated. It didn’t come to that. After 82 years he was still sharp as a tack yet his body had repeatedly failed him.
So with his only surviving daughter, son-in-law, and grandson holding his hands, he slipped quietly away while Willie Nelson sang “Blue eyes crying in the rain” and the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy lashed at the windows.
On that day one of my tasks was to contact all his attorneys to let them know he was passing away. One of them sent me an email, a judgement he had pronounced on a fraudulent employee that had a six pack in the plant’s parking lot, proceeded to cause an accident, then blamed it on her employer. David’s well-reasoned opinion and composure on the stand was still vital to this attorney, 10 years later.
David was a man of facts, of numbers, of research. He was a ruthless card player, a crime fighter, an excellent gardener, and a patient teacher. He sent many physicians into the world of health care better prepared to cure and save. He was also a loving father with a gentle soul. Godspeed, sir. To whom shall we now turn for our fatherly advice?
I’m not kidding. And after we moved in, we set about utilizing the many opportunities that come from having acreage. Now here we are nine months later and we now have a dozen chickens, we’re looking for honey bees, and we’d like to get something a little larger next year, such as a couple of alpacas.
Spectacular sunrises are common out here.
Yet I’ve been very happy to wrangle some of our farm’s tiniest inhabitants, its wild yeast.
In case you didn’t know, yeast is a single-cell plant and it is literally everywhere. Although it can be found on your grocery store’s shelf, it can also be found on the leaves of your plants, the dirt in your yard, in your armpits, or under your toenails. However, once yeast gets into a warm, moist environment and has access to food (carbohydrates), that’s when the fun starts. As yeast dissolves carbohydrates, such as sugar, flour, grains, etc., it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. And that gas, CO2, is responsible for so many wonderful things and yet we often take it for granted. Just for starters (baker’s joke), yeast and/or bacterial fermentation is responsible for beer, wine, Kimchee, coffee, chocolate, pickles, champagne, sauerkraut, yogurt, vinegar, and bread.
And that’s why I despise those hand sanitizers that confront us at every grocery store, bank, or doctor’s office. Our bodies are covered in bacteria and most of that is good bacteria. We need the good stuff to keep the bad stuff in check. And those sanitizers kill everything they touch which leaves the door open for the bad bacteria to reproduce and consequently leave us vulnerable to infection.
So back to yeast and our farm. We have a peach tree. And back in the fall I removed several dozen leaves and placed them in a bowl of flour. They stayed like that for 48 hours and every time I went into the kitchen, I shook that bowl. That process dislodged the wild yeast from the leaves and deposited them into the flour. Then I removed the leaves, covered the flour with water, stirred in some of my neighbor’s honey, left the bowl on the counter, and waited.
Peach leaves and flour
In about five days I had a bubbling, oozy stew. Sourdough starter. And for hundreds of years this is how bread was made. For many generations, from American cowboys to ancient Egyptian bakers, sourdough starters were created in this manner then carefully protected and carried across continents or across town. That commercial yeast in the little yellow packet has only been around for about 75 years.
Now that you’ve created a sourdough starter, you’ve got to care for it. First, keep it in a large jar, much larger than you need. Because one day it’s going to go mad and produce enough CO2 to spew a sticky morass all over your refrigerator. And if it’s in a small glass jar, it just might blow up that jar exercising its desire to travel. Second, it needs to be fed often. Much like a teenager, your starter will become sullen and mopey if it isn’t fed. So a couple of times a week it’ll need a few tablespoons of flour and water. If you’re going to make bread, it’s ideal to feed your starter the day before so it’s quite active. And if you make bread on a regular basis, you’ll need to feed this starter more often.
I keep a very large Mason jar of starter. When I feed it, I add flour and water then shake vigorously after I’ve screwed the lid on.
There is no perfect recipe for a starter because there’s so many varieties of yeast. The yeast in my pasture can be quite different from the yeast in your backyard, your water might be different, the ambient temperature in summer will cause your starter to be more active than in the winter, etc.
Now let’s make some bread.
I’ve got friends that bake professionally, on a large and small scale. Lionel Vatinet, Kurtis Baguley, Ryan Martin, Jenni Field. When they bake they do so with a commitment to proportions and scales. And I don’t do that. I’m not saying I’m a better baker, but I’m only baking for two, and I don’t charge my wife for the bread. Occasionally I give my bread away but if I were in a large kitchen, baking bread daily, I’d be carefully measuring every scoop of flour. I promise.
My good friend Kurt Baguley. He’s a pastry chef at Disney World and he owns Pane D’or bakery in Orlando.
Kurtis is the one that helped me refine my bread technique. To achieve a great loaf of bread, the dough must be stretched, then baked covered and when I started out on this sourdough journey, that’s where I was remiss. So let’s start with a basic recipe that works for me, and it might work for you. Because bread is like that sometimes.
Pour about a cup of starter into the bowl of your stand mixer. I use a Kitchen Aid because Kitchen Aid gave me this one and it’s probably ten years old and still works like a charm.
Now add in about a cup and a half of warm water, body temperature warm. If your water is too hot, you’ll kill your starter. If your water is too cold, that’s not a big deal because you won’t kill the yeast but you will increase the proofing time. Yeast like a warm, moist environment so they’ll need to warm up before they start eating the sugar and flour.
For reasons unknown to modern man, sometimes a sourdough starter gets super happy and does this.
Then a cup of whole wheat flour, and three cups of bread flour. Plus a tablespoon of salt and two tablespoons of honey. Or sugar, or brown sugar, or molasses. Or leave the sweetener out altogether. But keep the salt. The bread flour is important because it has a higher amount of protein, about 15%, than all-purpose, which is about 11%. And that extra amount of protein (which is gluten) is going to give you that crispy crust you’re looking for.
Using the dough hook and the lowest speed, mix until you have a cohesive ball of dough.
Sometimes my starter is thick, sometimes it’s a bit runny. So long as it’s bubbly, it’s all good.
Is your dough looking soupy? Add in a bit more flour. Is your dough stiff and dry? Add in a bit more water.
Now remove the dough from the mixer, cover it with plastic wrap and leave it on the counter. For how long?
I don’t know. Maybe overnight, maybe 24 hours. You got somewhere to go? After the dough has doubled in size, put it in the fridge. Remember we’re dealing with a live substance here. If you place your dough in a cold environment, you won’t kill the yeast, only slow it down. If you give the yeast a warm, moist environment, such as the kitchen counter in July, you’ll make it happy but like any wild party, it’ll quickly burn out. If it’s late February and 38 degrees outside, leave it outside for 24 hours. A long, slow fermentation will work wonders for the complexity of your bread. Just ask any brewer or winemaker. And as a bonus, that fermentation will convert the starches into sugars and alcohol which will create that characteristic sour notes and deep flavors.
The point is to understand fermentation. And fermentation is not an exact science. Personally I prefer to ferment my bread dough for a minimum of 48 hours in the refrigerator then for another six to eight hours at room temperature.
In order to achieve an enticing crumb and crust, the dough needs to be kneaded then stretched about an hour before baking. That overlaying of the dough creates that wonderful interior. This loaf was made prior to my knowledge of the purpose and benefits of stretching. It was also shaped into a boule then baked on a sheet pan.
My first loaf was delicious but a bit too predictable and the crust not nearly crusty enough.
Now in order to create a crispy, crackly skin, you’ll need to bake your bread covered. After experimenting with different vessels, I found the container of my crockpot works the best, and as a bonus, one of my All Clad lids fits perfectly. I spray the inside with Pam first, add the dough, let it proof for a couple of hours then into the oven.
This set up works great for me.
I bake the bread at 425 degrees for 35 minutes, remove the cover, then continue baking to 195 degrees. I use a Taylor thermometer inserted into the middle of the loaf.
Turn it out onto a baker’s rack and let it cool before slicing it.
Oh who am I kidding? I slice right into that sucker then slather it with butter and honey.
After months of experimenting with the starter, I used some to make a sourdough pizza, and jeez that was amazing.
And a duck egg and cheese sandwich from a loaf of rye.
Now if you’re looking for a recipe with more precision, just click here, but watch the video below first. That’s a loaf of roasted sweet potato, cinnamon, oatmeal, pecan, and honey sourdough. Once you get the hang of a basic bread recipe, you can think of that recipe as a starting point for all sorts of wonderful additions, such as pecans, and chocolate, and raisins, and basil pesto, and…
The sky in front of us was crowded with angry, dark clouds. The kind that only a summer storm can produce. Clouds so low, the green tops of the surrounding pine forest threatened to skewer them as they waddled towards us. In another half mile, we would be in the thick of this storm and the only thing separating us from the asphalt was a half inch of rubber.
Deep breath. Now add up the positives.
A passing photographer caught Mark Kelly leading the group through the storm. He’s in white at the front, I’m to his right behind, third one back.
There was no lightning, the rain would cool us off, most of us had lights and it was a Sunday morning in July, near Givhans Ferry, SC, so traffic was practically non-existent.
I slipped to the outside and asked everyone to give themselves just a bit more room then tucked back in and waited. Then I reminded myself that a year ago I could barely walk, and I had much to be grateful for.
The darkness grew closer and the rain was so thick it resembled a grey curtain hanging in front of us. Well…we only had about 40 miles to go before we reached Charleston, the rain wouldn’t last forever, and Mark Kelly was on my right shoulder. If I had to pedal through this Carolina downpour, Mark’s the guy I want next to me.
Since my return to cycling in 2014, I’ve spent a lot of time on the road with Mark and I’ve enjoyed every one of those miles. Cycling is an amazing way to spend a pretty day and we happen to live in a very beautiful part of the country with a vibrant cycling community.
Cycling is also about suffering. There’s hills and mountains to climb, faster riders to try and stay with, and goals to achieve. My racing days are well behind me but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to push myself. And in 2014 when I asked Mark Kelly to join myself and Bill Englert in the Ride to Remember, I was hoping he would push me.
Bill Englert, Mark, Father Bob Chiles, and myself
In the three or four months we had to get ready, we got to know each other on a deeper level and our friendship grew as strong as our legs. While riding, Mark is the guy that forced me to go just a bit faster, climb a bit harder, push myself a bit longer. And when we lined up for that first Ride to Remember, even though I didn’t feel ready to ride across the state, Mark convinced me that I was.
Brian Hale, Mark, Bill, me, Emily Banks, and Kate Plumer at the start of the 2014 Ride to Remember. We called ourselves the Coast Busters and at this point we had each raised an average of $1800.00 for the SC Alzheimer’s Association.
Three days and 250 miles later, we crossed the Ravenel Bridge into Mount Pleasant and stopped at the top for a photo. A lady that was jogging past asked us if she could help and when Mark handed her the phone, she asked us where we had ridden from.
“Greenville” he replied.
She raised one eyebrow with a look of disbelief. “Oh isn’t that nice.” She handed the phone back and quickly jogged off, convinced she was in the company of two delirious drifters.
Mile 251 of the 2014 SC Ride to Remember. With Mark Kelly at the top of the Ravenel Bridge.
In the last three years we’ve shared a lot of miles and sweat. We’ve marveled at God’s hand in creating the Upstate of South Carolina, and treated each other to espressos and the occasional doughnut or cinnamon roll. And wouldn’t you know, he’s usually been faster than me.
On one ride up North Carolina’s daunting Skyuka Mountain road, Mark gained a thirty second advantage on me. Which was fine. About half way up this five-mile climb, a gentleman in a pickup truck passed me as he was headed down. He stuck his arm out the window and pointed up the road and encouraged me with “That fella’s just around the next corner.”
I smiled and thanked him. “Yup. And that’s where he’s gonna stay.”
At the top of Skyuka, we spent a few minutes enjoying the San Francisco style fog. His enthusiasm for the ride, even though our view was obscured, was unabated.
Mark Kelly at the top of Skyuka Mountain looking down at the Green River valley.
Looking back, I wish now I would’ve been able to stay with him. That would’ve given me a few more minutes in his company and perhaps another memory to share and cherish.
Last week Mark told me he’s moving to Washington, DC. He’s a professional whose knowledge is highly sought after in the higher education field and he’s been presented with a significant opportunity to share that knowledge with a broader audience. I’m happy for him and his wife and if I were in his shoes, I would’ve made the same decision. That doesn’t make parting any easier.
After the shock of the news wore off, we made small talk about how much we both love DC and that it’s only a short plane ride away. And how much he and his wife love Greenville and naturally they’ll return as often as possible to visit friends. In that moment I saw us on the road, three years prior, shoulder to shoulder, facing a torrential downpour and he’s there to provide a few calm words of reassurance.
Life is dynamic. We learn, we grow, we live and love and in so doing we’re often presented with opportunities. And in those moments we either press on, or we pull over. Perhaps to seek shelter, perhaps to wait out the metaphorical storm. Mark is the guy that presses on. Because on the other side of that storm we were greeted with sunshine and a gorgeous Carolina sky. And now Mark has an opportunity to press through a storm of change and he’s moving forward.
Damn. I’m really going to miss him. My rides won’t be the same because every time I look over my shoulder, I’ll look for his confident shadow and his calm presence.
Godspeed and keep the rubber side down, my friend.
The big, twin rotor helicopter thundered down our beach. My son, all of three, with his mop of curly brown, salt-crusted hair, was mesmerized. As it passed in front of us, the gentleman in the doorway in his olive drab uniform and glistening white helmet, waved a giant’s wave.
“Oooh Daddy!” was all my son could say. His eyes glowed as we watched this enormous machine, rotors beating the air, turbines whining, march steadily north. When it slipped out of sight, I grabbed a stick and drew a helicopter in the sand, big enough for the two of us. I gave him the stick and the pilot’s seat and we lifted off from our little piece of beach and flew out over the ocean. We dipped and dove and chased seagulls, dolphins and the setting sun. For a few minutes we enjoyed a perfect fantasy, a father and son moment of fleeting magic as pure as the sparkle of those tiny fish that glide through the breaking surf.
We came in for a landing when we were told it was time for lunch. When we returned to our helicopter, the tide had washed it away. No matter, I assured him, I would carve a new one. But our imaginations had moved on to something else and we never flew another helicopter.
Fifteen years later, I’m on that same stretch of coast line. And all I see is beach, and sand, and salt water. A helicopter approached from the south and buzzed past.
Then I carved a helicopter in the sand and for a brief moment he was three again, and we climbed into that sandy patch of magic and took off. We buzzed the tree tops and seagulls, boats and dolphins, pirates and whales until she asked: “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
I sat down in my helicopter and waited for the water to wash away my sins. And I saw moments in time; of tempers flaring and patience lost, of rash decisions and time stolen, and I asked for forgiveness, from him, and God. And I asked for one more flight with that little sandy haired boy in that magical helicopter.
One more flight.
And my answer was a salty wave that washed across my toes, streaked across my face, and carried my helicopter out to sea.
From the minute I walked into my first professional kitchen, I knew I was meant to be there. I loved everything about it. The pace, the intensity, all the insane foods that I’d only read about and the impossibly high standards set by a larger than life Parisian-born Chef. You did not question his methods, authority, or technique but you observed, you learned, then emulated. Every day in the kitchen of Christian’s was an immersive experience and every day I learned something new, every day I got better, faster, cleaner, more efficient and more respectful of my Chef, the ingredients and the experience that diners were paying for. And what I found was joyful. Unlike many other occupations, people arrive excited to see you. Who loves going to see their attorney, dentist, or their mechanic? You may love the level of service you get or the job your mechanic performs, but dropping off your car for a day or more isn’t exactly the highlight of your day. I think the world of my attorney and doctor friends and value their abilities immensely but the thought of a professional visit to their office isn’t on my list of weekly highlights.
Aah, but being a professional cook in a sophisticated downtown bistro or an up and coming brasserie on the East side; that’s a different story. Dinner at a new or established restaurant? This is an experience we look forward to, plan our week around, post on Instagram about. And to be able to provide that sort of expectation and experience is a feeling of value and worth that’s tough to put a number on. So how come no one wants to cook anymore?
The Lazy Goat, Fried Green Tomatoes, Firebirds, Diggers BBQ, Adam’s Bistro, Eggs Up Grill, Bacon Brothers, and the list goes on and on. All of these restaurants are looking for cooks. And now as summer rolls to a close and a lot of short term help heads back to school, the skilled labor situation will just get tighter. Is the labor market for the culinary arts so precipitous that Greenville could see another high-profile restaurant such as Breakwater, close its doors, too? Many in the hospitality field are quick to blame the current labor shortage on Greenville’s recent growth spurt but I’m not sure this is the case. In my younger days, when I was running kitchens and cooking, it was no different. New Orleans, Charleston or here in Greenville, there was always a shortage of good cooks, and restaurants were always on the lookout for a solid pair of hands. Why?
Well there’s several reasons but I think the most obvious is that the skills required haven’t evolved much at all. Sure there was a brief flirtation with high-tech machines and molecular gastronomy but for the most part, a professional kitchen still relies on flames, pots, pans, knives, and steel. Those basic pieces of equipment aren’t going away any time soon, either. So while other industries may have evolved and moved forward, professional cooking’s evolution has taken place not in the kitchen but rather in procurement. We all want to know about the local tomatoes, chicken, mushrooms, etc
Also, in the past ten years or so, Greenville has attracted a new crop of high tech manufacturing, marketing, and IT firms that source their own labor force. Positions with these types of firms pay quite well and that can up the cost of living in an urban area like Greenville’s. Naturally there’s going to be entrepreneurs that want to take advantage of a growing customer base but the average chef/cook in the Southeast US makes about $36,000 annual. If you’re a cloud-based IT firm that’s just wrapped its hands around a 50 million-dollar investment, you’ll have no trouble attracting, and paying, top talent. If you’re the local Southern bistro that’d like to feed those folks, well you can’t afford to attract top talent if you’re only offering 13.50 an hour. The real advantage of cooking at a creative or innovative restaurant is not monetary, but rather because the owner or chef provides an avenue to entrepreneurship or promotion.
And that’s the secret that Anthony Gray, Executive Chef and owner at Bacon Brothers, tries to remember and reinforce daily. “If I get a good one, I’ll try to do anything to groom that person to grow with the restaurant. The ones that stay have an appreciation for quality ingredients and hard work, it’s (Bacon Brothers) not an easy kitchen to work in.”
Good cooks aren’t going to move here from Austin, San Francisco, or New York to make 13 or 14 dollars an hour. Those good cooks are going to come from your local labor pool. And even though an ad for a cook may get a dozen applicants, maybe more, the challenge is finding the right set of qualities.
Jeff Kelly, Executive Chef at the Peace Center believes his “biggest challenge is finding people that can produce consistent results. And there’s drive, integrity, passion and they need to have the willingness to put their heads down and learn.”
Photo courtesy the Peace Center
It’s a natural tendency to label one’s own generation as better than a succeeding generation but Jeff Kelly believes this latest generation has little respect for the traditions of the kitchen. “It’s not like it was when I was coming up. So many of these young cooks think they deserve a (salary) position without paying their dues.” And paying dues means learning how to make a proper Hollandaise, an aromatic veal stock, handmade pasta, or a smooth and creamy veloute’ before you plop grilled local asparagus on a plate with a sprinkle of salt and proclaim it as innovative.
On the other side of town, Chef Brian Province works in Greenville’s health care field and he believes the key to retention is no different. He’ll receive dozens of applications for a single cook’s position, maybe phone interview a quarter of those, then set up one on one interviews only to have a handful even show up. “That’s the worst problem.” His key to retaining cooks? “Your people have to feel needed and have an ownership mentality.
Cooking is a tough, physically demanding job and if one is going to succeed in the culinary arts, one must be willing to give up a lot. Weekends, holidays, birthdays, and healthy knees are all casualties of this business. Yet its rewards are multi-dimensional. And while other industries may succumb to out-sourcing, robotics, and high tech downsizing, a professional cook will never lack for work and with a lot of hard work and diligence, will have the opportunity to make their own way in this industry.
Chef Anthony Gray of Bacon Brothers
The restaurant business has always been, and always will be challenging. Slim profit margins can get even slimmer when rent, or the cost of that local asparagus goes up. Your favorite chef-driven bistro probably has a profit margin of about five percent so the question of “why not pay better” isn’t an easy option. The restaurants that survive, and thrive will be the ones that do everything just slightly better, including attracting, retaining, and motivating their staff.
And if you enjoy my writing, perhaps you’ll enjoy my novel, Doughnuts for Amy. Published by Winter Goose Publishing early this year.
Many years ago I was the Executive Sous Chef at the glorious Mills House Hotel in Charleston. When I took this position, I really thought I would soon be their Executive Chef. During the interview process the Executive Chef repeatedly told me he would soon be headed to a hotel in the Caribbean. His position in the Caribbean never materialized, and I left the Mills House after 18 months. He was still there ten years later.
I loved being a part of this hotel. Its location, architecture, the team I worked with, the steady influx of interesting visitors, and its numerous quirks (the ghost on the fourth floor that liked nothing better than scaring a housekeeper) of this 140 year old grande dame all made for a memorable 18 months. My main responsibility was the gorgeous Barbadoes dining room and upon accepting the position I was told to “make the customers happy.”
So when I saw an ad for Executive Chef of the Mills House, my heart skipped a beat. Wow…should I apply?
And then I read the ad in its entirety. After a very short job description, the ad rolled through the “fundamental requirements” of the position, most of which I’ll share with you. The BOLD is all mine.
Work with other F&B managers and keep them informed of F&B issues as they arise.
Keep immediate supervisor fully informed of all problems or matters requiring his/her attention.
Coordinate and monitor all phases of Loss Prevention in kitchen areas.
Prepare and submit required reports in a timely manner.
Monitor quality of all food product and presentation.
Ensure preparation of required reports, including (but not limited to) Wage Progress, payroll, revenue, employee schedules, quarterly actions plans.
Oversee all aspects of the daily operation of the kitchen and food production areas.
Respond to guest complaints in a timely manner.
So reading between the lines, one would think the Mills House is a hornet’s nest of problems. Notice all the negative words and connotations? The first requirement is to handle “issues” which we all know is code for “problems.” The second requirement is to tell your supervisor about your problems. The third requirement is to keep an eye on your staff because they’re going to steal, or allow food to spoil. The fourth requirement is to fill out reams of paperwork detailing the theft and problems in your kitchen, the fifth requirement is to “monitor” quality and food presentation. So if the food looks terrible but I monitored the process to make it look terrible, I’ve fulfilled my requirement, correct?
And notice the seventh requirement is to respond to guest complaints in a timely manner? Monitor, problems, comply, reports…shall I keep going?
What Debbie Downer wrote this job description? And who’s going to respond to this in a positive manner?
Come on, people! This is one of the best known hotels in the South, in one of our country’s most heralded food cities. So why wouldn’t you look for someone that can “excite your guests” or “lead a staff of dedicated professionals” or “spot and encourage excellence in your team” and “define and interpret the lowcountry cuisine of the Mills House”?
Think about this the next time you’re looking for help in your company. What corporate picture will your job description paint? Will your candidates see a Pollack-like abstract of chaos with problems, distrust, and paperwork or will they see an opportunity to join a cohesive, goal-oriented team and the chance to make a difference?
I’ll be staying in Greenville for the foreseeable future. And while I’m here, if you’re looking to inject a little spice into your company, especially if you write job descriptions for Wyndham Hotels, perhaps I may be of assistance?
My alarm will go off at 5:00 am but I’ll probably wake up at 4:00. My team is coming over for breakfast at 6:00 am and we’ll spend an hour trying to shake off our nervous energy. I’ll bake an egg, potato, bacon and cheddar cheese casserole and make some sweet potato waffles. My wife will bake a batch of blueberry muffins and we’ll eat until as much as we can stand. One cup of coffee for me and a small one at that. Lots of water, juice, and some electrolyte tablets.
We’ll all make one last bathroom visit, fill our water bottles and load up. When everyone’s here, we’ll probably go over our bike’s chain, air pressure, brakes, etc. one last time.
It’s a 25 minute ride to Heritage Park, the start of the #SCRTR, and we’ll want to be there at least an hour before the start. And while we’re there we’ll make another bathroom stop, and even though we just did it, we’ll check our tire’s air pressure, and our brakes, and our gear.
L to R: From 2015. Brian Hale, Mark Kelly, Julian Loue, Emily Banks, Steven Banks, me, Tudor Malik, Scott Roark, Brian Kenna. Scott and Mark are riding with different teams this year, Daniel isn’t in this photo.
There’s four riders on this year’s Coast Busters team, and five volunteers. Myself, Brian Hale (electronic engineer for Gulfstream Aviation in Savannah), Julian Loue (insurance adjuster for Allstate Insurance), Daniel Soloway (process engineer for GE Turbines) and myself. Brian Kenna (pharmaceutical rep), Emily (Physical therapist for AnMed) and Steven Banks (self-employed plumber), Bethany Loue (aesthetician), and my wife Amy (Events coordinator at Christ Church) will volunteer. And that means sitting under a thin shelter, in July, on the side of a secondary road for hours on end. The #SCRTR provides water stops every 15 miles and those stops typically have two or three folks.
We’ll have a boatload of TV coverage this year with live remotes by all of our local stations, plus we’ll have one of the stations providing aerial coverage.
We’ll sign in, say hi to a lot of other riders, stock up on food and probably drink more water. at the start line we’ll line up according to average speeds, and we’ll all start at the front. We’ll have a few last-minute instructions from Ashton or Aundi (SC ALzheimer’s reps), we’ll be led in prayer by Reverend Bob Chiles of Christ Church and then we’ll be waved off.
310 Riders this year. That’s a lot of spinning metal. In my experience, you’re prone to being involved in a crash in the very beginning (lots of nervous, excited folks in tight quarters) or towards the end of a long ride when you’re exhausted, dehydrated, and low on common sense and decision making ability. So at the start we’ll all stick close to one another and hopefully avoid a slow-speed entanglement with a too-nervous rider. It happens.
After the first couple of miles, things start to shake out and we’ll pace line with a group of probably 40 other folks. If I get dropped, so be it. I’ll pick up with the next group of riders that comes behind me. And I’ll settle in and enjoy the ride. The route to Newberry is quite pretty and has very little climbing and it’s the shortest day at 67 miles. I’ll probably roll into Newberry at noon.
The trick to a multi-day event like this is to constantly eat. So while I’m riding I’m eating for tomorrow. Day two is the tough day at 89 miles. We’ll spend more time in the sun because we’ll spend more time in agricultural areas so that means less tree-lined roads. The last 30 miles into Orangeburg can be brutal. It’ll be scorching hot, humid, and we actually climb into Orangeburg so we’ve got some hills in front of us. And I need to finish day two with enough in my tank to pull off a 100 mile ride on day three. So my jaw will be sore from chewing and eating and drinking.
And if I even think for just one second about how miserable I am, I’ll turn to the rider next to me, smile and say “Hey I’m John. Tell me your story.” Because that’s what my Mom would expect of me.
I’ve raised my money, and I was an integral part of our sponsorship committee that brought in $75,000. I’ve encouraged others, offered enough advice to newbies, and helped organize a team. What’s left?
I’ll ask for your prayers for safety and encouragement. But I’m prepared to fail. I might crash, I might collapse. It’s entirely possible. If I do, I’ll do so giving my all for a worthy endeavor.
Thank you for your donations, your encouragement, and your prayers. I hope to return them all, with interest, this Sunday afternoon. And if you’d like to make a donation in my name to the SC Alzheimer’s Association, just click here.
“What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?” ~ John Green