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I write a lot in a little on Twitter for my small biz, Real Richmond Food Tours, and though it makes sense that food comes up often, as it does on part 1 of my Holiday Gift Guide for Richmond, art and nature are other themes that keep showing up. And I keep buying what keeps showing up. Makes sense, since those are some of Richmond’s strengths and what is such a pleasure to tout on our tours and on Twitter. Apologies that photos are few and far between. I’m in an igloo with very little bandwidth, let’s just say. Here’s #1-18 for 2014.

#1 Chocolate Balsamic Vinegar because salads need chocolate, too!

#2 Give the gift of Cider Club  Blue Bee Cider to give them an apple a day all year long!

#3 Membership to  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with a bauble from the gift shop. They’ll be grateful & artful!

#4 A James River Park System license plate is a gift to our big backyard and your special someone.

#5 No 2 snowflakes are alike and all that– Design your ornament from

IMG_3672

#6 This beautiful serving tray from Nest Home   SORRY, it’s long gone!

#7 Little late! Tix to Sat. Dec. 13th Pizza Tour of Shockoe Bottom w/ etc.   Owe you another. How about Case of the month from J Emerson?!

#8 Holiday Gift Box from packed w/local love, beans & booze+

#9 Signed books from like this sweetie from , Dam Good Sweet

#10 Get your eagle on with Discover the James river tours! Gift certificates available.

#11:The Artists Coloring Book w/ w/ at Atlas Mkt!

#12 (Oy, a duplicate!)  Tomorrow’s Shockoe Bottom Pizza Tour 2 w/   Owe you another–A shrinky dink painting from Orange in Carytown!

#13  Something meaty from and a Meat Juice t from

#14 Virginia Fizz and from make great stocking stuffers!!

#15  Ornaments or decor or gorgeous poinsettias from the Garden Shop

#16 You don’t have to like what you see in the mirror to love these mirrors from Orange!

#17  Forget a day of beauty. People want a day of foodie: gift certs to  @harvestrva

#18 Spice it up their life w/ gift certs to and Sauer’s spices!

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Going to be showing off Richmond’s riverfront (even that phrase seems almost funny as I write it–Richmond hasn’t had a riverfront so much as a river in the backyard) with Off the Eatin’ Path: Richmond’s Riverfront starting this Sunday, May 6th at noon. We’ll start in Shockoe Slip and wander around the canals and Brown’s Island and wind up at Canal Bistro at Off the Hookah for lunch. 1.5-2 hours of art, architecture, adventure and me blabbing in between bites! The RVA Street Art Festival sure spiced up one section of our route with the fun (and possibly ephemeral if a buyer buys the Hydroelectric Plant and wants them removed) multiple murals that live there now. Get down there to see them one way or another, please!

see what's behind the scaffolding...

You know I’ll season the tour with lots of James River Park System info, ways to get out and enjoy the river and the creatures who frequent it–not all of them fitness-crazed people yelling “Hoo-rah!”–and several lesser known historical tidbits. It should be a relaxing yet exhilarating tour. The high school group who were my guinea pigs for this tour in March said I saved their lives by taking them on the tour. I don’t recall pulling any of them out of the rapids, but maybe I was so engrossed by RVA’s riches that I didn’t notice that part of the tour….

All Aboard!

On our typical food tours, I push the river as worthy of a visit all sorts of ways. I’m glad that on this route the James will get to speak for itself.

a flood of interest in the James these days...

The pair of bald eagles nesting on the south side of the James River near a part of JRPS, but on private land, have their own paparazzi and don’t seem to mind one bit. The sit and flit and scare off intruders and sit some more. It’s a glamorous life on the south bank. I don’t open the Times-Dispatch Eagle Camera every day since I would not get any work done if it were in my face constantly, but it is pretty fun to pull it up and see and hear what’s going on. Every once in a while I forget I have it up and I am startled by the sound of a coal train rumbling through my office–even if it is 4 miles away to the east.

I’ve caught both ma and pa eagle sitting in the nest together, but more often I see one sitting on the eggs and another flitting around and about. The eggs are due to hatch in a couple of weeks. Just now when I went to the camera, I had it minimized so I could hear what was going on and the eagle started talking to another eagle, presumably her partner. Something like, “Where the hell are you? Get back here now!” Then some faraway sirens started up in reply and the eagle seemed to have more to say.

I have less to say. Listen to the eagles instead.

 

I gave a 5 minute talk last night at Midlothian Middle School to middle schoolers, their parents, teachers, and other book-loving folks, sharing the stage with much better known and accomplished writers Sheila P. Moses, Sue Corbett, Brooks Smith, Connie Lapallo, and Gigi Amateau. It was a most pleasant way to spend an evening, full of stories and inspiration. Look these other folks up and buy their books at your local bookstere. You won’t be disappointed.

I focused on the part of writing where I’m not stuck with the seat of my pants in a chair. Made me think I need to take my own advice! Here’s more or less what I said. Those Midlo folks are chomping at the bit to come into Richmond and take advantage of what it has to offer. That’s exciting to me.

Not me ziplining across the river (which would be cool, but isn't possible yet!), but a WIld in the City guest ziplining across Belle Isle Quarry. I had the pleasure of that trip another time.

I’m doing a couple of things this week that might rattle some nerves—public speaking and rappelling down a 25 storey building downtown as part of Over the Edge, a Special Olympics extreme fundraiser.  I’m doing both of those heart-pounding things this week because I’m a writer. And I feel very lucky to be doing both.

Chester Filbert in Nothing Ever Happens on My Block—one of my all-time favorite picture books– has a perpetual sneer on his face. I’ve been known to have that look, but there’s a big difference between me and Chester Filbert—he doesn’t see what’s all around him—he can’t get outside of his head—of his preconceived notions of how dull his life and his neighborhood is.

Chester says longingly, “Some places have marching bands or haunted houses, courageous hunters hunting, ferocious lions and tigers, pirates and buried treasure…” on and on..  He’s so busy wishing for what he doesn’t have that he misses what is going on right in front of his face.  Disgusted with his lot in life,  he finishes  with “But nothing ever happens on my block., and snarls, “When I grow up, I’m going to move.”

It’s easy to think our lives are dull and boring and for some stretches they are, but here’s the thing. Something is happening on everyone’s block—you have to be out there and be open to seeing it.  To be an effective writer, I need to spend some time stuck inside my head for sure—contemplating, questioning, revising, but I NEED to get outside my head and my house even more—meet people, ride horses, ask questions, rappel, go rafting, try new things, look at art, eat at cool restaurants, explore what’s around. All that feeds my writing and my life.

When I wrote Insiders’ Guide to Richmond, I was well aware that many people say nothing ever happens in Richmond a la Chester Filbert. It’s not D.C. or New York or Chicago.  It’s stuck in the past, dull and boring. Who would ever want to visit? There’s nothing to do! I’ve heard it all. And I don’t believe it!

So I drew on my experiences living here 19 years, being an outdoorsy, involved, art and history-loving, quirky and curious type and wrote an upbeat book that makes it easier to find the good stuff in our city and region.

WIth apologies to Ellen Raskin:

Some places have a free and fantastic Folk Festival along the river, –did you go?! Class IV and V whitewater you can raft through downtown, one of the 50 most beautiful buildings in the country, awesome mountain biking and multi-use trails. Some places have torchlit walks on a Slave Trail, and herons roosting along the Pipeline, a Final 4 basketball team, artsy and involved universities, a Native American village to visit, bald eagles soaring above  the James, one of the best art museums in the country that’s open every day and free!!! And will be full of MUMMIES next month, a creepy crypt under a historic church, sites related to revolutionaries you’ve heard of:  Patrick Henry and GW and  Thomas Jefferson, and sites related to ones you might not have: Gabriel, Maggie Walker, John Mitchell, John Jasper. Some places have a one night internationally-curated light exhibit INLIGHT this Friday night at Tredegar!!!!  NASCAR, recreational tree-climbing, even Mid-lothian Mines Park where 9 year olds once worked down in the shafts doing the dirty work  And that place is Richmond. (And I could go on. For another 300 pages, but I won’t! I didn’t even mention that war you might have heard about….)

Chester Filbert said “When I grow up, I’m going to move.” Once again poor Chester has it all wrong!.  Don’t wait till you grow up to move. Move NOW!  Don’t worry–I don’t want you to move away from home or away from Richmond! I mean MOVE! Don’t stay in one place! Don’t say there’s nothing to do or sit staring at computer or television screens. Get out on your block in your neighborhood, in the city and the region and be active and involved, observe and experience. Think outside the block! Be a part of the world—not apart from it.  Be a part of Richmond–not apart from it.  And if you’re in Shockoe Slip Thursday around 3:45, look up at the SunTrust building and wave!  That’s where I’ll be hanging out.

Hope to see you around town!

After signing a bunch of books and talking to the people at the event, I know I will see them around town. Cool!

Richmond has finally marked the 2.5 mile Slave Trail that tells the story of slavery and its consequences in Richmond and the U.S. with 17 handsome and instructive markers that make the journey well worth it now, even without a guide.

The trail begins South of the river just west of Ancarrow's Landing

As a Friend of James River Park, where the trail begins, I was with Ralph White, James River Park System park manager, to help unveil the second marker near the old Manchester Docks where Africans centuries ago disembarked from slave ships to find more misery in Virginia.  Later hundreds of thousands were shipped from Richmond, “sold down the river,” when Virginia had excess slaves that the states in the deep South wanted. A small group of us read the litany with him, promising to remember those who had passed through here, denied their dignity and rights, and acknowledge their strength, survival skills, and stories and those of their descendants.

Later at the big ceremony at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail site, where Governor McDonnell, Mayor Jones, Congressman Scott, Delegate and Slave Trail Commission Chair Delores McQuinn and many other dignitaries spoke to a crowd of nearly 1000 people of all ages and complexions, I teared up several times. Once when Claude Perkins, president of Virginia Union University, which rose from an earlier incarnation of a school for free blacks on the same site where the notorious slave jail had been, asked everyone in the audience who ever attended VUU to stand up. Such a proud moment. Goosebumps. I could feel the connections over the centuries vibrating in the air. I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. It made it clear that the trail is much longer than two and a half miles and it commemorates much more than slavery.

Just a small part of the assembled crowd

 When the One Voice Chorus sang a spiritual and James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, and I saw so many people singing along, that got me, too, and then when the Mayor let it rip with his Sunday best, I was about ready to sign up for church again.

It was nice to see Del. McQuinn lauded for her tireless work to get this thing going. I wouldn’t bet against her when it comes to future plans she hinted at. Thank goodness one of the last speakers recognized Ralph White, Nathan Burrell, and Peter Bruce for all the work they’ve put in to taking care of the Slave Trail for 18 years with approximately no budget.

Peter Bruce and his helpers have done so much for so long.

Cricket and Ralph White were instrumental in making the trail whole.

They were a huge part of the group who turned what looked like nothing into one of the best somethings Richmond has to offer. I wish that everyone who ever sets foot in Richmond walks this trail. And remember, it’s bad form to complain about ANYTHING on the slave trail. Elegba Folklore Society’s torchlit trail walk will be June 18th this year. Put it on your calendar.

Some weeks lend themselves to getting out and about and appreciating the spring thing. This is not one of them, so I will cheat and throw in photos from a week or two ago when the Cherry Blossoms were in full swing down on Brown’s Island.

Pink Island

The weekday I was wandering around on Brown’s Island and Belle Isle I ran into at least 3 people I knew out taking in the spring splendor in the middle of the day. Playing hookey, perhaps. We couldn’t have picked a better place to do it though in my defense, I was working on a new and exciting route for Real Richmond, my food tours (& more) biz.  I even ran into a gal who had been on the previous week’s food tour of Shockoe Slip. She was there with her Goochland Elementary School’s 4th graders, taking in the Civil War museums at Tredegar and she told me that because our tour had taken her to TJ’s Capitol, she’d asked the bus driver on her school field trip to take the class there for a class picture. Hope they return for the full-fledged visit soon.

Old stuff is cool.

One of the flaws of the very worthwhile Tredegar area is that there is no place to buy snacks or lunch there. There’s space for a small cafe and perhaps one day it will appear, but until then, you will have to be resourceful like I am and either pack your own chocolate chip cookies or do what I won’t tell you you can do because I’m about to launch a new Real Richmond product that will be really fun but I can’t tell you what it involves quite yet. That is mean. Oh well. I’m really very nice and generous on our actual tours–but they’re only 2.5 hours, so that explains that. There are tickets available for this Saturday’s 2-4:30 p.m. tour of The Wards–April 2nd. If you email me at tours@realrichmondva.com mentioning this blog post, you’ll get a two-for one deal, while supplies last.

Last week while the James River was still running at flood stage, I went down to the Pipeline Trail, just east of the Christopher Newport Cross near the Floodwall at 12th and Byrd St. (Parking is available in a small lot there.) The roosting Great Blue Herons were visible in their Dr. Seuss-like nests in the middle of the river and my friend, Mary, who has a bit of a fear of heights, braved the ladder down onto the actual pipeline that put us close to the action of the river and the wildlife and right under a working railroad track. What a great combo!

Herons come home to roost in Richmond.

I love that Richmond has places that are not Disney-fied and perfect and perfectly safe yet are still available to the public. Go at your own risk and try not to be too dumb, public! We managed to stay on the pipe–there are rails for much of it–but had to turn around where it was blocked off due to high water. We saw some fish fighting the current, but we weren’t  tempted to behave badly since the water was pushing hard. When a loaded coal train rumbled overhead, we were happy that somebody built that trestle to last. It’s often a great spot to watch expert kayakers ply their trade.

Not related to expert kayakers in the least, the first time I rafted the James, our guide wanted us to surf the Pipeline. In the roar of the river, we couldn’t really hear what she was telling us, but it seemed like she wanted my husband and a friend’s husband up in the front of the boat, so we shifted accordingly.  We surfed for approximately no time at all and the guide said, according to our husbands, “It takes two guys to surf the Pipeline.” Their chests puffed out accordingly, completely missing the facts that we a) hadn’t really surfed the Pipeline and b) the guide had actually said, “It takes two guides to surf the Pipeline.” and c) what she didn’t say but meant was “when the guys are as lame-o as these two.”

Part of the Pipeline Rapids

If you’d like a guide, there will be a Richmond Audubon-led tour of the Heron Rookery this Saturday, March 26th at 10 a.m. Park at the boaters’ 14th St. take-out parking lot, but remember that the 14th St. Bridge will be closed some on Saturday, so you’ll have to arrive from the north. Guys not necessary.

Not sure why I stashed this in the drafts pile for several months, but setting up some book signings in the hinterlands for Insiders\’ Guide to Richmond, I was reminded of the autumn Sunday I spent out in Short Pump at the B & N there doing a book-signing. We will not go into the reasons someone would do book-signings for a book that doesn’t make her a dime when it sells.  I have ’em. Some of them are unselfish and boosterish;  some of them are selfish, or at least Real Richmond-ish. At any rate, I like talking all things Richmond with people.

The first half of my couple of hour stint was great–a writer friend I don’t see often enough showed up with her daughter to buy a book, James River Park lovers chatted with me about our website and the license plate, and I met a couple of exceedingly pleasant families who were visiting or had just recently moved to the area.  A perfectly great book-signing, by all accounts.

But then the clock chimed and the wind changed and the cafe ran out of caffeine or something and suddenly everyone who walked by sneered or coughed on me or used my table as their trash can–ouch. No one had heard of the James River Park.  Not sure they had heard of Richmond. This crowd couldn’t imagine doing anything on a lovely Sunday but driving around to stores to shop in high heels for more high heels and buy magazines with women wearing even higher heels.  It was depressing. It doesn’t hurt my feelings if people don’t buy my book, but if you don’t like being outside, I don’t know what to say.

Thank goodness, at my lowest point a knight in shiny leather walked through the door and winked at me. Never seen him before in my life, but he turned out to be the highlight of the day.  An older cool dude decked out all in biker black, he was wandering around with his family. I asked him if he spent time in the James River Park and he told me he used to date someone who is now married to someone that all of Richmond’s park lovers know and love.  That was a hoot enough and then I introduced myself and he said he was Ronnie Soffee. My jaw dropped. I had just finished reading his niece’s, Anne Thomas Soffee’s two books, Nerd Girl Rocks Paradise City and Snake Hips: Belly Dancing and How I Found True Love  and this very Uncle Ronnie whose hand I was shaking had shown up at crucial times in the books.  He has a way of doing that. He’s a legend, and I was tickled to be having a quintessential Richmond experience of making twelve intertwining connections with someone who had been a perfect stranger three seconds before…and in very un-Richmond Short Pump.  Thanks for saving the day, Ronnie!

To have sex, of course. Right there in public, outside even, along Riverside Drive in Stratford Hills, a little west of Pony Pasture.  Since that cute Yellow-Spotted Salamander is the  mascot of Friends of James River Park perhaps we should change our name to Lovers of James River Park. No, that’s ok.

I've never had the pleasure....

This photo is from last year, and it pains me to look at it because it reminds me that I struck out twice last year in  my attempts to see these salamanders who call my neighborhood home come out of the mud on a rainy night in February or March to cavort as only salamanders do.  My friend sent me that photo, but by the time I got there, all I got was a bunch of spring peepers going nutty.  Maybe this year will be the one. Hope springs eternal, in matters of love and yellow-spotted salamanders.

I was lucky to be at a classy event last evening at The Boathouse at Rockett\’s Landing sponsored by Rocketts Landing and the Friends of James River Park. The event was a celebration of the James River and a welcoming party for the recently added 2,000 lb. cast iron sculpture, Deepwater Sponger, by Richmonder Charlie Ponticello. The Friends are usually the ones pulling half-empty beer bottles out of the mud in the park, so it was quite nice to mingle with folks overlooking the river with wine and beer in hand and sipping butternut squash soup instead of picking up trash.

He's a real hunk!

Charlie spoke a bit about his sculpture which is installed on the waterfront next to the Boathouse and perfectly suited for clambering on and posing.  Not sure if most people who will see it realize you are standing right across from the wastewater treatment plant. Let us remember that only a few miles upriver, the water treatment plant pulls river water in for our use. A river runs through us–and the city.

Anne Wright, Assistant Professor of Biology at VCU, board member of the Friends, and self-styled “insect geek” spoke about some fascinating research finds doctoral students at VCU are finding right here in our river. Mostly good things…evidence of insects who don’t tolerate pollution living right here in the city–even some varieties that typically are found only in the mountains. They love city-living, it turns out. And regarding the sturgeon’s comeback, she had the video of sturgeon sperm to prove it.  In lieu of caviar, I think.

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