North Carolina

Butler Shoe Repair in Durham, NC


In 1910, Senior Butler opened Butler’s Shoe Repair in downtown Durham. After three decades, he passed the business on to his son and mother, who operated it for another 40 years.

Sin Kil Yu—who worked four years as a certified pipe welder for a nuclear plant in Apex, North Carolina, after emigrating to the United States from South Korea—began apprenticing with the Butlers in 1983. Two years later, he took over the shop and has run it with his wife ever since.

Though the predominant culture in the United States directs people to discard objects when they break and buy new ones, Sin Yu’s work promotes a more thrifty, less wasteful ethic that infuses worn objects with new life.

I visited Sin Kil Yu on a spring afternoon to see what his work involves.


Bull City Pride: 2014 NC Pride parade and festival

Named America's Most Tolerant City by The Daily Beast in 2012, Durham, North Carolina, has a strong sense of Pride. The city hosted the state's first Pride parade back in 1981. Since then, the event has become the largest LGBT event in North Carolina and the five surrounding states. The 2014 parade took place this past Saturday.

Revelers in feathers boas and rainbow tutus and sparkles and wigs, on floats and on foot, filled the streets around Duke's East Campus and Ninth Street. Bands played, music blasted and spectators and participants whooped and danced.


I attended the parade as part of a street photography course with New York City documentary street photographer Harvey Stein, offered through the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (loved it, would highly recommend!).


Backpacking Mount Mitchell: when you start at the top, there's nowhere to go but down (and up, and down)


My sister Laura and I hoisted on our backpacks atop 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell — the highest point east of the Mississippi River — and lumbered 4.5 miles north along a ridge to a camping spot at Deep Gap. While the hike along the Black Mountain Crest (aka Deep Gap) trail was not horizontally challenging, we did find ourselves navigating a lot of steep vertical change.

Though we were away from "civilization" for only 24 hours, we managed to see a lot:


The hike took us up and over Mount Craig (at 6,647 feet, the SECOND highest peak east of the Mississippi), Big Tom, Cattail Peak and a place called Potato Hill. 


One of the highest and most bio-diverse landscapes in North Carolina, Mount Mitchell State Park contains more than 65 rare plant species.


A couple especially steep spots required the assistance of rope.


Just past prime, but still pretty.


Wood like bone.


Butterfly closed... NBD.


Butterfly open... WHAT?!?! 


Translation: sweat the small stuff, not the bears.


On top of Big Tom, named for Thomas "Big Tom" Wilson, a famous guide and bear hunter who found the body of Dr. Elisha Mitchell in 1857. That's all the plaque said, so that's all I know.


We managed to not dress in identical outfits on this trip. It's the small victories we celebrate.


How do you make sure no one sets up a tent right beside yours? Act weird and take up space!




Losing at gin (While optimistic, aiming for a seven-card run is not a winning strategy.)


The solitaire that followed the gin.


When epicureans go camping... (Also: Heat-and-serve Tasty Bites are perfect for when your campsite is miles away from a water source.)


Laura thoroughly enjoyed her insulated mug of jaipur vegetables and jasmine rice. She also thoroughly enjoys this vest.


The winds blew strong all night, and clouds swirled around the summits we passed over on the hike out in the morning. 


Lichen on a tree trunk.


Mirlo Beach: Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream

Wave Breaker
Wave Breaker

Two decades ago, Mirlo Beach was a thriving oceanfront community on North Carolina's Outer Banks, located along NC-12 between Nags Head and Cape Hatteras just north of Rodanthe (the village featured in the 2008 film Nights in Rodanthe). The sand along this stretch of shore has been eroding at a rate of 14 feet per year, however, putting the place in jeopardy.

When the house pictured above — appropriately named Wave Breaker — was built, it was three streets back from oceanfront. No longer. (Note: Wave Breaker has since been moved.)

Needless to say, Mirlo Beach is NOT the first place you'd choose these days for a nice, relaxing vacay.

Mirlo Beach street
Mirlo Beach street

People who own houses in Mirlo Beach — mostly out-of-towners— are currently begging the NC legislature for a beach nourishment program to replace the eroding sand.


Bulldozers are tasked with maintaining the dune separating NC-12 through Mirlo Beach from the ocean. The day we drove it (during a Nor'easter, it so happened), the bulldozers — Sisyphus-like — scooped sand off of the road at the same rate it blew back on.

Mirlo Beach
Mirlo Beach

Note: I visited Mirlo Beach as a fellow with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources based out of Montana.

Wood, in its various forms

On a recent drive from Asheville, North Carolina, up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I encountered a wall of kiln-dried and neatly stacked firewood three times my height and, on Ox Creek Road a few miles later, a stable so dilapidated the weather was the same inside as out. Then, along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that parallels the Parkway in that area, I walked upon the remains of Rattlesnake Lodge, the summer home of Dr. Chase P. Ambler and his family. The two-story structure, originally surrounded by a terraced garden, tennis court and swimming pool (!), burned in 1926, a mere 13 years after it was built. Crumbling stone walls are all that remain amidst the hardwood trees.

Ocracoke Island, 300 years later


Lighted coals smoking in his beard, the pirate Blackbeard terrorized the Atlantic seaboard for years, stealing merchant ship cargo and murdering all who challenged him. The savage pirate met his demise near Ocracoke Island, the southernmost of North Carolina’s Outer Banks in November 1718 at the hands of British Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. According to legend, when Maynard beheaded the pirate and threw his body in the water, the body swam seven laps around the ship before sinking to the bottom of Pamlico Sound.

My family and I spent a peaceful Thanksgiving holiday in Blackbeard's former stomping grounds. We stayed in a three-bedroom house on Fig Tree Lane, ate seafood for dinner and walked everywhere we went.

img_1244 Boat docks in Silver Lake, on the western side of the island

Ocracoke Island sits 23 miles off the North Carolina coast and a quarter mile south of Hatteras Island. It usually measures 17 miles long and a mile wide. The deserted, windblown beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore make up the northern 90 percent of the island, and a small village of hotels, restaurants, shops, homes and the smallest K-12 school in the state, makes up the southern 10 percent.


With no bridges connecting it to the mainland, Ocracoke is accessible only by the Cedar Island, Swan Quarter and Hatteras ferries that arrive and depart several times each day. We waited in the rocking chairs at the ferry terminal for the mustached men to give us permission to board and, once cruising across the sound at a steady 12 mph, could see dolphins leaping in front of the ferry and pelicans and seagulls hovering behind.


In case of emergencies

Ocracoke's whitewashed lighthouse, built in 1823, is the second oldest of those still in use in the United States. It's light reaches out 14 miles over the sea.


A couple buildings in Ocracoke Village stand more than three stories tall and a few shops sell kitsch like keychains and coozies, but many parts look as if they haven’t been touched for a hundred years. Gnarled oaks, red cedars and wax myrtles are rooted in the island’s sandy soil; crushed oyster shells litter the unpaved roads (making bare feet a bad idea); and every now and then, you come across a fenced rectangle containing the mossy headstones of a family graveyard.


My family strolling beneath the oak trees shell-covered Howard Street


Pelicans perched over Silver Lake


Mallards resting in the rain

Island natives — whose surnames are often Howard, Styron or Garrish — still speak with a brogue inherited from the Scotch-Irish who settled the island during the 18th century. On their tongues, "there" becomes "thar," "fire" becomes "far" and “high tide” becomes “hoi toide.”

Music is central to island life. Every Wednesday night from June to September, local musicians perform for a crowd of locals and visitors at the Deepwater Theater, a screen-enclosed deck tucked among a grove of low, crooked trees. Under the tin roof and the rafters strung with lights, performers sing lively and sorrowful stories to a crowd sitting captivated in green lawn chairs.

In addition to eating a feast of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce during the holiday weekend, we walked on the beach, explored the shops and art galleries about to close for the winter and listened to a post-Thanksgiving Ocrafolk music concert in the community center. It was there I purchased a piece of homemade gingerbread cake and dropped it on the floor before paying.


My uncle Jim tossing a disc for his dog Sammy along the national seashore

We also walked around Springer's Point, the highest spot on the island and home to a grove of especially impressive trees, like this one:



The headstone of Ikey D., the favorite horse of Sam Jones, former owner of Springer’s Point

Not like the other boys

I'm not sure when it was, exactly, that I realized I was different from the other campers. Maybe it was when they started a fierce splash war, and I had no interest in participating. Or when the conversation turned to hunting knives, and I had nothing to contribute. Or it could have been when I noticed that everyone else could stand up and pee from their canoes, while I had to paddle to shore and get out.

OK, fine: I am not pubescent, and I am not male. But there's not THAT big a difference between a 27-year-old woman and a 14-year-old boy, is there? Boy Scouts is for everyone, and plus, I think bathroom humor is funny too!


I joined Greensboro's Troop 203 on a paddling trip down the White Oak River last weekend. It's the troop my father scoutmastered for 10 years and is still involved with today. And, in my defense, there were many adults along, several of them women.


We slid our canoes into the water near the coastal town of Maysville, North Carolina on Saturday morning, setting off on a 20-mile journey down a blackwater river toward the Atlantic.

Rain fell steadily all the first day, and the mist that hung over the water lent a peaceful but eerie mood to the setting. The narrow river twisted and turned, cut back on itself and changed its mind. The boys belted out songs, laughed loudly, cursed each other for not paddling.


The decomposing plants in the swampy White Oak River Basin produce tannic acid, which naturally discolors the water, giving it the appearance of black tea.

We pulled off and camped beside the river as it began to grow dark. Burritos on a campstove. A thunderstorm at night. I wore about 50 more layers than my fellow campers, who walked around in shorts.


The burrito-making machine. Mmmmm.


Pumping water from the river so we don't all die from bacterial infections.

The sun came out on the second day. As we neared the ocean, the river widened, the trees on shore gave way to grasses, and the wind picked up. We rolled up to the takeout around noon, packed wet gear into our cars and begged our dads to stop at Bojangles on the way home.

Confessions of a Jazzerciser

The energy and rhythm of the mob swept me up, and before I fully understood what was happening, I was Jazzercising with the rest of them.

If you had asked three days ago, I would have told you Jazzercise died in the 80s along with mall bangs, leg warmers and belted leotards. But that is just not the case. Jazzercise is alive and kicking.

It is also tapping its feet, swinging its arms and thrusting its pelvis.

The women of the Jazzercise Fitness Center in Greensboro led an hour-long Jazzercise session to warm up participants for a 5K walk/run to benefit breast cancer research last weekend. I participated. Accidentally.

Aerobics does not come easily to me. The only other experience I’ve had with the activity was a step class I took toward a PE credit in college. It ended badly. As everyone else in the class kicked and stepped, turned around, and kicked and stepped again, I jumped and flailed and tripped over my platform. I tried to sneak out in the middle of class, but had to put away the platform AAAAAND the four blocks under it. Not very subtle.

I felt only slightly more coordinated on Saturday. Following our leader, 200 women and I stepped three to the right, kicked, stepped three to the left. We rolled our shoulders, popped our hips, and did a series of exaggerated pelvic thrusts, all in unison. It was actually kind of fun.

When I told my sister Laura about my experience later that day, I met silence on the phone line. “Jazzercise, Christina?" she said. "You are no longer allowed to make decisions for yourself. From now on, run everything by me.”

Learn Jazzercise moves, including the Jazz Stretch, Attitude Lift, Flick Kick, Heel Hop and Hip Rock, here.

Become a Jazzercise instructor here.

Swim—bike—run—eat ice cream

It was 5:30 a.m., too early to be awake, let alone dressed head to toe in spandex. But there I was, walking in the dark toward a field of bicycles, wearing more skin-tight elastic than a cheap hooker.

I participated in the 2008 all-women SheROX triathlon a couple weekends ago at the Latta Plantation Park, a 19th Century cotton plantation near Charlotte, North Carolina that's now a living history farm and 1,343-acre nature preserve. The sprint-distance event included a 700-meter swim, a 17-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.

I'd competed in three triathlons before this one: one in North Georgia and two along the waterfront in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I love swimming and cycling and can tolerate running well enough, and the three sports back-to-back make for an exciting challenge.

The sun began to rise during the second half of my there-and-back swim through Mountain Island Lake. With every right-side breath, I could see the pinkish glow of the sky reflecting off the calm, dark water, and I would think to myself, “Am I there yet?"

Just over 14 minutes later, when the answer to that question was finally ‘yes,’ I ripped off my swim cap and ran barefoot up to the grassy transition area, where my bicycle awaited among 400 look-alikes. Fortunately, I had memorized its position and managed to locate it without too much trouble.

After clipping the strap on my helmet, fastening the velcro on my cycling shoes and wheeling my bike out the wrong exit, back into the transition area and out the right exit, I was off, pedaling the country roads at speeds not too hard to fathom.

At the end of the bike ride, my legs and my lungs (which tend toward asthmatic when heavily taxed) were ready to take a break in a chaise lounge by the lake. But I forced them to push through the run.

Ow. Legs.

It took me just over an hour and 37 minutes to finish, placing me third in my age group and 15th overall. I came home with the first trophy I've received since my high school swim banquet nine years ago — and celebrated it all with a tremendous waffle cone of Moose Tracks ice cream.

Glad to be sitting

Butt sweat art

Back in the U.S.A.

After straddling the equator for a bit, I chose the northern side — just in time for my third summer in a row. Yes, it's true. I've returned to the United States after nine months living and working in South America. I am living temporarily at my parents’ house in hot, humid Greensboro, North Carolina — 6,000 miles from where I lived in Chile and 2,500 miles from Quito, Ecuador, the last place I visited.

Me, backbending over the equator near Quito.

It’s nice to be reunited with friends, family and fluffy bath towels, with wardrobe choices, Claussen pickles and my bicycle. At the same time, though, I miss South America. I liked seeing women spinning wool on the sidewalks (that just doesn’t happen in Greensboro), men selling fresh-squeezed orange juice on street corners (sooo much tastier than concentrate from Bi-Lo) and long-lashed llamas strolling the central plazas with their owners (those underbites are so damn adorable). I liked cramming myself into the overcrowded collectivos, the vans that transport you as far as you need to go for 10 cents, and striking up conversations with whoever was mashed against me. The colors and smells in South America are so vibrant. I don't get the same sense of vitality driving around here in my air-conditioned car.

In the name of nostalgia, and before I forget, let me share a few stories from my travels with my sister Laura:

- Many of the women in Bolivia and Peru, especially those who live in the countryside, wear bowler hats with their traditional pleated skirts and woven shawls. We learned that a hat’s shape and style indicates its wearer’s hometown and maritial status. The cab driver who drove us to and from a trailhead outside Huaraz, Peru, appointed himself our personal headwear translator. “That woman is looking for a husband,” he said in Spanish, as we rumbled, windows down, past a teengage girl in a low bowler. “She’s married,” he said as we passed a woman standing in the doorway of a house. Then, a few minutes later, he pointed at a woman in a field by the road and shouted: “WIDOW!”

OK, so these women weren't among those whose civil status our cab driver identified — these two live on floating reed islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca — but, they ARE wearing bowler hats.

- The garbage trucks in Huaraz, Peru blast music from loudspeakers as they collect the city’s trash. Several times as we were walking through town, we heard symphonies and concertos blasting at top volume. We looked around for the source of the noise, then realized it was coming from… yes, the garbage truck.

- The mousy middle-aged woman tending our hostel in Valparaiso, Chile, was very concerned about keeping the place safe while the owner was out of town. “Don’t let any strangers in,” she told us in Spanish as she handed us the keys to the front door. “People in this city are liars and thieves. They’ll tell you anything to get inside, then steal all your things.” Later that day, as she slipped on her coat to run an errand, she stopped by our room to issue another reminder: “I’m going down the street,” she said. “Don't let anyone in while I'm gone.” Laura looked at me in mock confusion after she had left, bolting the door behind her. “I don't quite get what she's saying," she said. "Is it OK to let strangers in?"

A Valparaiso hillside through power lines

A mural we found at the top of one of the city's ascensores, or elevators

A ship in Valpo's port

- Our Peruvian guide through Machu Picchu, God bless him, spoke in English with such unusual pronunciation and sentence structure that it was nearly impossible to understand him. He leaned forward, clenched his fists and closed his eyes anytime he had to squeeze out a word of more than one syllable. And, rather than speaking in sentences with subjects, verbs and direct objects, he strung together various words semi-related to the same topic. “The water mirror, the observer, the reflection of the sun, the reflection, the star of the night,” he explained of a pool of water within the ruins. My sister Laura and I found his animated but incomprehensible delivery absolutely hilarious. But it’s not OK to laugh at someone. It’s very rude, in fact. And so we separated from each other so as not to feed each other’s hysterics. “Sad thoughts, sad thoughts, sad thoughts,” I told myself, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. I managed to reign in my laughter, but just barely. On the other side of our group, Laura was not so successful. By the end of the guide’s explanation, she had tears streaming down her face. The guide noticed her disheveled state and approached her. It’s OK, he said. Many people find Machu Picchu to be a spiritual place. It’s not unusual to cry. “Oh, good,” she said.

- We found ourselves running to and from the bathroom a lot more than usual at the high-altitude Hualla Jarra hostel, located in the middle of the stark Bolivian desert. During one trip to the co-ed bathroom, I stood up after using the toilet and found myself face to face with a Dutch guy, tall as me, peeing in the adjoining stall. While still taking care of business, he turned, looked me in the eye, and said, “Did you know that altitude increases bladder capacity?” I'm still not sure what his name is.

Alexis in the breezeway of the Hualla Jarra hostel (not peeing, but probably thinking about it)

- The driver of a pickup truck would not let our bus pass him on a narrow dirt road through the Bolivian countryside. When our driver finally managed to edge his way around the stubborn truck, his assistant leaned out the window and emptied a cup of water into the offending vehicle’s open front window. The driver was drenched, and we were off.

- In La Paz, we went to a soccer game between the capitol's two teams — El Club Bolívar and The Strongest. Against the better judgment of the boys in our group, we decided to root for Club Bolívar because their name wasn't in English and their uniforms were prettier (light blue, compared to black and yellow). I think we might have been the most devoted fans there; We showed up a full hour before anyone else and were constantly ready to kick ass.

Our team didn't do so well during the first half of the game, causing the boys to want to defect to The Strongest side. Fortunately, they stayed faithful to the underdogs, and Bolivar pulled off a tie (probably because they looked so good in their uniforms). I must say, though, I'm impressed with all the players, who manage to sprint around for an hour at 12,000 feet above sea level.

- For some reason, our backpacks exploded every time we uncinched their straps. We never had any casualties, but there were some close calls.

How does this happen?

I hope, as I reacclimate to life in the U.S.A., I can hold onto some of the things I learned during my travels. I'd like my adventure to be something that impacts who I am and how I experience life.

For one, I'd like to continue living with the same simplicity as in South America. OK, so maybe I won't wear the same shirt EVERY day — but, I'd like to keep in mind that for nine months, I lived out of a backpack and was absolutely fine. Too much stuff clutters me up and weighs me down, even here, where I'm not carrying it all on my back.

I'd like to maintain the same resourcefulness and flexibility I developed on the road and remain as open with other people as when I was traveling.

In addition, I hope exposure to different cultures and ways of life can inform my own — can make me more aware of the varying backgrounds and situations of people in the United States and more grateful for the opportunities I have in my life. So many people we saw in rural South America follow their parents into farming or herding and never leave their villages because they don't have the chance. While their's is just as valid a way of life, I'm grateful for the choices I can make about what to study, where to work and how to live — and the opportunity I have to travel and see other parts of the world.

Finally, I'd like to maintain the friendships I built in South America, especially in Patagonia, where I lived the longest. Each of my friends there — and from the road — enriched my experience tremendously, and I hope we can stay in touch for a long time to come.