High Keys

For those living in Florida’s coastal region, autumn can be stressful.

It’s peak hurricane season, and with that comes the looming threat of what could happen should those warm, swirling Atlantic Ocean waters take on a more organized, ominous form. The stakes were particularly high for The Perry Hotel Key West in September of 2017. After all, the newly minted property had just opened its doors to guests a mere four months earlier and was finding favorable footing as an alternative refuge to the bustle (and cruise-hopping crowds) of the downtown district when Hurricane Irma came hurtling towards the Florida island chain. A little windblown and minus a few palm trees, The Perry came out of the Category 4 hurricane mostly unscathed, thus passing its first true test as a bonafide citizen of the lower Keys. More than a year later, not much has changed but the tide.

Stock Island Savvy

Although only a few miles from typical Key West postcard scenes like the famous Mallory Square sunsets and Duval Street dives—a quick drive on the A1A across Cow Key Channel, and you, too, can stand in line to take your photo at the Southernmost Point—The Perry Hotel is firmly ensconced in the .9-square-mile snow globe of Stock Island. Rather than trying to mimic its tourist-centric neighbor to the west with bells-and-whistles attractions, the hotel has chosen to harness the mellow, saltwater-splashed persona of its surroundings into an experience that is distinctly vintage Key West.

That’s not to say The Perry is without its upscale frills; the 100-room lodging features an outdoor pool overlooking Stock Island Marina, three luxurious suites, fire pits, and a glass of bubbly at check-in. However, it was a conscious design decision to adopt a motif that somewhat narrates a visual timeline of the close-knit community’s heritage, chronicling its abiding cultural ties to the maritime industry, uncluttered lifestyle, and, more recently, a love affair with local art.

Photography courtesy of The Perry Hotel

Echoes of history reverberate off antique boat propellers and retro snapshots that stud the walls, salvaged teak hardwoods and flooring inlaid with words of wisdom from Key West’s omnipresent ghost of cocktails past, Ernest Hemingway. Clean lines, handcrafted, regional artworks, and contemporary industrial pieces give the digs a modern punch that hedges the dicey “all look, no touch” trap many boutique properties fall into. Here is a haven for taking it easy—sure, you can arrange an adventurous outing from the hotel’s waterfront marina through the concierge, but there will be no judgments passed if your Key West vacation takes place entirely in one of The Perry’s poolside hammocks, rum-soaked and rocked by the thick Florida breeze. Word to the wise: save the deep-sea fishing for after the hangover.

Getting Your Sea(food) Legs

The Perry Hotel’s most overt homage to its nautical roots is perhaps better sampled than seen. Let’s face it, no one comes to Key West to eat a cheeseburger (except maybe Jimmy Buffett), and you’ll be hard-pressed to find more authentic, dock-to-table dining than what’s plated at the property’s two in-house restaurants: Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar and Salty Oyster Dockside Bar & Grill.

Well-versed in the quirks of cuisine served below the Mason-Dixon line, Executive Chef Kalen Fortuna, who grew up in the Charleston area, knows a little bit about working with what you’ve got in the kitchen. Brought on board in December 2017 to head up both eateries, Fortuna immediately set to crafting an evolving menu that embraced a lifelong passion for taking his main course straight from the hook into the fire,  metaphorically speaking.

It’s not unusual to see the young chef striding across the marina dock loaded down with a morning haul (either of his own efforts or from one of the area’s many local fishermen), off to excise the most tantalizing parts from whatever sea creature he’s landed and transform it into that night’s featured special. Fortuna has a natural knack for revamping traditional Southern fare with coastal flair, proffering indulgent dishes that check the boxes of a quintessential Key West spread—wild-caught pink shrimp, shellfish, full raw bar, fresh daily catches done six ways from Sunday—without feeling like worn versions of the same ol’ seafood platter. 

Perusing the menu, there are indeed recognizable favorites: roasted snapper tacos topped with orange jalapeño slaw; smoked fish dip served with Ritz crackers; baskets of beer-battered fish and chips; shrimp po’boys stuffed into crunchy French bread; raw oysters, tuna tartare, yellowtail ceviche, shrimp and lobster in iced tackle boxes; shrimp over stone-ground grits. But the true standouts are the dishes where Fortuna has had room to experiment.

Take the beignets. An inherent icon of New Orleans cuisine, Fortuna’s fluffy, crab-filled version is complemented by a creamy aioli derived from yet another staple of the Southern spice rack—Old Bay Seasoning. The Carolina seafood chowder is a throwback to Fortuna’s Holy City roots, with an assortment of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, tasso ham, potatoes, crayfish, and sweet corn swimming in perfect creamy harmony. Classic braised short ribs are kicked up with an espresso-based glaze and rounded out with a golden cornbread mash. If you’ve saved room for dessert (or even if you haven’t), the skillet-baked peach cobbler and refreshing key lime tart crusted with coconut macaroons add the perfect crescendo to Fortuna’s epicurean opus.

The best part? You’re only steps away from the comforts of your room, where you’ll inevitably hit the hay with visions of Key West Pinks dancing in your head.

The Perry Hotel Key West, 7001 Shrimp Rd, Key West, Florida. (305) 296-1717, perrykeywest.com


PLAY

Downtown Key WestThe Perry Hotel guests are provided complimentary shuttle service to downtown Key West. Check out the nightly turtle races (yes, you read that correctly) at Turtle Kraals; pay a visit to the feline residents of the Ernest Hemingway House; catch one of the famous Mallory Square sunset celebrations; or just wander along Duval Street to answer the eternal question of which bar makes the best rum runner.  Locations vary. (855) 539-9378

Stock Island Marina VillageThe Perry’s favorable waterfront location provides easy access to a wide range of seafaring excursions. On-site outfitters furnish fishing charters, sunset sails, deep-sea dives, jet-ski tours, snorkels, kayaking, and more. Plus, the Marina Village is home to a number of local artisans. 7005 Shrimp Rd, Key West, FL. (305) 294-2288

EAT

Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar: Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, The Perry’s flagship restaurant serves up innovative American-style dishes with a seaworthy touch that comes directly from nearby marinas and distributors. 7001 Shrimp Rd, Key West, FL. (305) 294-3939

Lost Kitchen: Social pop-up dinners are themed by their various host venues around the community, and frequently feature guest-chef collaborations, seasonally curated courses, and paired libations. Locations vary. (305) 896-2087

Salty Oyster Dockside Bar & Grill: The Perry’s casual poolside spot is highlighted by quick bites—think Cuban sandwiches and citrus lime-dusted chicken wings—as well as a fully stocked bar. We recommend the Perry Punch. 7001 Shrimp Rd, Key West, FL. (305) 295-6363

Bowl Game

I don’t care what the USDA or any other federal regulatory agency says. There’s only one food group that matters, and that food group is “noodles.” They’re slippery, chewy, slurpable, and just plain more fun than most other food. They’re an invitation to make weird faces and weird noises, and to take your food a little less seriously. There’s nothing that embodies “cheap and cheerful” more fully, so here’s some inspiration for some cold-weather noodling.

// Bring the Heat

If you’ve ever squirted a ton of hot sauce into pho broth, stop. You’re upsetting the clean finish and balance of the broth with a chili-garlic suckerpunch. Instead, if heat is what you’re after, Bún bò Huế is the way to go. The dish originated in the ancient Vietnamese imperial capital of Huế, and while it bears similarities to its cousin pho, there are a few notable differences.

The noodles—a rice vermicelli—are thicker and rounder, and the soup—a murkier, red-tinted broth that shimmers with a spicy chili oil sheen—is rich with a complex balance of spicy, sour, salty, and umami. In Mekong’s rendition, lemongrass breathes brightness into a broth, which has solid backing from its beef-and-pork-bone base. Sliced pork, braised beef, and even the odd pork knuckle (tender, chewy, and gelatinous) make it hearty. Garnish with the provided cabbage, lime wedges, basil, and cilantro sprigs for some crunch and fresh aromatics.

Bún bò Huế (#43, spicy beef and pork noodle soup), $9. Mekong Restaurant, 2013 Wade Hampton Blvd, Greenville.

// Old Reliable

Banish the thought of foil flavor packets and starchy noodle bricks. There’s nothing instant about tonkotsu ramen. The broth—which is what separates tonkotsu from other ramen varieties—is made by boiling pork bones for hours. That milky flavor bomb of concentrated smoky goodness gets ladled over satisfyingly chewy noodles. Ramen noodles are made using alkaline mineral water, which is what gives them their yellow hue and signature structure. They’re also made for slurping: kinked noodles help broth coat each strand, so when you start inhaling them—as you should—you get a little extra soup to go.

Menkoi Noodle House’s version adds spinach and bean sprouts, a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) for a little ocean umami, a few slices of chasu (fatty braised pork), a slice of narutomaki (the emoji-looking fish cake with a pink swirl), and a soft-boiled egg with a perfectly fudgey yolk. A garnish of chopped scallions leavens the intense savoriness with just a bit of green freshness.

Tonkotsu ramen, $7.50. Menkoi Noodle House, 241 N Main St, Greenville.

// Glassy-Eyed

Some noodle soups are meant for heavy burdens like curing colds and mending broken hearts. Others are just for a regular Tuesday lunch. Bánh canh is one of the latter. Another non-pho Vietnamese dish, bánh canh refers to thick tapioca noodles cut from sheets of uncooked dough. Saigon Fast Food tweaks the formula by substituting thick cellophane glass noodles.

The cellophane noodles—so called for their translucence—are slippery, but have a firm bite, almost like al dente pasta without the starchiness. The soup, made from a chicken broth base, is clear and flavored primarily by fried shallots and chopped cilantro: fresh, but with a savory kick. Shrimp and sliced pork (tôm and tht, respectively) add substance without being overwhelming, while bean sprouts for garnish give a little crunch to each mouthful. In short, it’s satisfying and warm, but light enough that you won’t need to budget for naptime afterwards.

Bánh Canh Tôm Tht (#72, clear jumbo noodle with pork and shrimp), $10. Saigon Fast Food, 1011 N Pleasantburg Dr, Greenville.

// Local Cue

Want something that bucks convention? Well, you might look to the Village of West Greenville for Golden Brown & Delicious’s ramen. The exact composition changes regularly, but it’s always anchored by a bowl of GB&D’s house-made noodles. A recent incarnation featured a duck-and-pork–based broth, slices of roasted duck, local oyster mushrooms, slow-cooked egg, tatsoi (sometimes known as spinach mustard), quick-pickled cucumbers, and house-made kimchi, all topped with benne.

So here’s the thing about GB&D’s ramen: it’s not really about the noodles or the broth. The noodles are thicker and have a solid chew, and the broth is light but packed with umami. Though you won’t be slurping it up at speed. The noodles are short, and there’s not enough broth to drown your sorrows. But they are solid dance partners for rare roasted duck that’s tender and rich; meaty oyster mushrooms; the slight bitterness of tatsoi; and the sweet crunch of quick pickles. And the slow-cooked egg adds just enough body to the broth. Whereas these elements would be secondary in other dishes, here, they are responsible for a playful back-and-forth volley of flavors and textures.

Ramen, $16. Golden Brown & Delicious, 1269 Pendleton St, Greenville.

Ankle Action

Crafting textiles in the Upstate for 175 years, Kentwool knows a thing or two about selling socks. But don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes—the manufacturer knows how to give them away, too. Since socks are a highly requested apparel donation item, the company has donated 30,000 socks, valued at $600,000, to local organizations, prioritizing charitable investment in the Upstate by supporting more than 100 non-profits in the past 15 years. For more, visit kentwool.com

Heel Yes: Louise et Cie Kealy anthracite sandal with 19th Hole Performance Series red striped sock. Socks from Kentwool; shoes from Muse Shoe Studio.


Wool Worth: Louise et Cie Kealy anthracite sandal with men’s Tour Profile midnight blue sock; Pelle Moda Bonnie blush velvet heel with men’s 19th Hole Performance Series solid gray sock; and Jeffrey Campbell total red crinkle patent leather bootie with men’s 19th Hole Performance Series red stripe sock. Socks from Kentwool; shoes from Muse Shoe Studio.



Leg Work: Band of Gypsies Andrea corduroy bootie with 19th Hole Performance Series Columbia blue striped sock. Socks from Kentwool; shoes from Muse Shoe Studio.

Perfect Harmony

Phillip Lammonds has written songs for The Blue Dogs, Edwin McCain, Hootie & The Blowfish, The Steep Canyon Rangers, Craig Morgan, and Kellie Pickler, among many others. His songs have appeared on more than 30 albums, and he’s managed to carve out a 20-year career in Nashville, which is not a place known for fostering longevity in the music business. After all this time, one might think that the best moments in Lammonds’ life come when a platinum-selling artist chooses one of his songs to be on a new album. But in fact, the fun comes for him during the writing process itself.

“I write songs every day,” Lammonds says. “I just like hanging out with the other songwriters and being in the room with them. Half of the session is us just joking around with each other. We talk about the songs, we talk about other things, we pick on each other, and there’s an intimacy built into the process.”

Perhaps that’s why Lammonds has sought to keep that sense of intimacy in the series of Songwriters in the Round shows he’s been curating and participating in for the last 20 years. The idea came to him when he was looking for a unique way to raise money for his children’s school.

“We were looking at alternative ideas for fundraisers,” Lammonds says, “and I’d been involved with a lot of guitar pulls (informal gatherings where songwriters trade off playing songs with just an acoustic guitar), and I just thought it would be a neat idea. And it ended up getting really popular, so we do several of them a year now.”

One of Lammonds’ in-the-round fundraising shows will take place at the Old Cigar Warehouse in downtown Greenville on November 15. The show, presented by the South Carolina Governor’s School Foundation, will raise money for the Governor’s School’s resident high school students.

Lammonds usually performs with three other singer/songwriters, trading off songs and stories. This year, he’ll be sharing the spotlight with Brice Long, Tyler Reeve, and Hannah Dasher.

“The crowd really enjoys it,” he says of the in-the-round setup. “You get to see the interaction. And since we don’t really have time to rehearse, we don’t know what songs we’re going to do. We’re in a jousting match. In that kind of setting, I might try something that I’ve never done, and I’ll just tell people to bear with me and I may mess up in the middle. It’s not a gimmick; it’s pure honesty.”

10th Annual Songwriters in the Round, Thursday, Nov 15, 7 p.m. $200. Old Cigar Warehouse, 912 S Main St, Greenville. For tickets or more information, visit scgsah.org/giving/events


WHO’S WHO at SONGWRITERS IN THE ROUND

Tyler Reeve

“Tyler is an up-and-comer here in town who’s had some hits with other people (Luke Combs, Love & Theft), and he has a solo career that is building,” Lammonds says. “I like to find one person who’s had some hits and another that I can introduce to people. That’s the core to the success of these shows . . . people are seeing someone they won’t see anywhere else.”

Brice Long

“Brice is sort of a non-conformist to musical authority,” Lammonds says. “He’s written a bunch of hits (for Gary Allan, Chris Stapleton, Garth Brooks, and George Strait, among others), but he doesn’t do things like everyone else. He’s a really accomplished singer and songwriter who could’ve been George Strait or Blake Shelton if he’d wanted to, but he decided he liked it where he was.”

Hannah Dasher

“Hannah is Janis Joplin meets Patsy Cline,” Lammonds says. “She’s crazy good. There’s a lot of brilliance there. She just signed a record deal, and I think she’s the most likely to find some immediate success as a performer on big stages.”

Fields of Color

Andy Gambrell has lived in New York City, Paris, Miami, Atlanta, and most recently in Hong Kong, so it’s surprising to find an artist of his stature painting in a small studio he built behind his house in West Pelzer, South Carolina. Yet coming back to his rural hometown has always been part of this artist’s journey. “My lifelong plan,” Gambrell says, “has been to acquire the skills, experience, and credibility to return to the Upstate to paint full-time in a studio that I own in the place where I am most inspired, West Pelzer.”

That creative journey began at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities and continued at Furman University. While at Furman, a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in NYC proved life-changing. “Coming from a blue-collar background, Modernist art struck me as a sort of game, a conspiracy where people were making money on nonsense,” he concedes. “But when I saw Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman and Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) by Jackson Pollack, I was thunderstruck by them. I was absolutely shaken to my core.”

After graduating with a double major in studio art and art history, Andy turned down a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to pursue his MFA in painting at the University of Miami. There he studied with Modernist masters—including Darby Bannard, a key figure in the Color Field movement.

Gambrell, who taught art for 13 years, is now concentrating full-time on his own painting practice. His large canvases exert a gripping presence with their bold acrylic colors and geometric angularity—a stellar geometry that derives from his love of stargazing. The subject matter comes from the natural world around him. It’s an alchemy that he has spent more than 20 years cultivating.

“I see my work as part of a dialogue with art history,” says the artist, “but in a more immediate way, the work is a response to my visual environment in South Carolina. I try to simplify nature to the point where it looks monumental. I boil out all the extraneous details and put in as few pieces as necessary to have as much impact as possible.”

Currently, he’s building a body of work and talking with galleries regionally and abroad in order to assert his paintings into the market. As he prepares for the next chapter in his career, Andy feels a sense of cultural responsibility to the area he calls home. In addition to mentoring up-and-coming young artists and helping connect the dots for them to the international art world, he fosters the arts in his own community.

“West Pelzer is a really exciting place to be right now,” Gambrell observes. “I’ve worked to turn around communities in Miami and Atlanta, and I really want to do that here. Quite literally, I want to paint West Pelzer into being.”

Check out Andy Gambrell’s work at andygambrell.com, and look for his paintings via Blue Spiral 1 Gallery in Asheville, bluespiral1.com.

Quick Draw

Located off Highway 153 in Piedmont, Saluda River Archery is a go-to for all your bow-and-arrow needs. The pro shop sports a wide range of gear, as well as rentals and equipment upkeep. For deer hunters, compound bows like this Mathews Archery TRIAX are popular alternatives to rifles. Bows have a shorter range, requiring better accuracy, skill, and concealment techniques. In some of South Carolina’s wildlife management areas, archery season for deer opens as early as August 15 and extends through December. For more information, visit saludariverarchery.com.


Straight & Arrow: Mathews Archery TRIAX bow from Saluda River Archery, 3318 Hwy 153, Piedmont. (864) 385-4117, saludariverarchery.com

Sea Change

An oak tree along a plantation road in South Carolina soaks up the morning sun.

Recently I spent a few days of solitude on Edisto Island, trying to make headway on a novel I’m writing and a keynote address I’d soon deliver at a writers’ conference in Tennessee. I’ve lived in the Upstate nearly three decades, but the Lowcountry is the land of my people and the place of my birth, so a trip “home” for a writing sabbatical always includes spending time with my father, one of life’s greatest joys.

I’d begun to scratch a few notes for that speech, not finding a trajectory, when my favorite T-shirt came to mind, the one with a William Faulkner quote: “I write when inspiration hits me. Fortunately it hits me each day at 10 a.m.”

Ol’ Will wasn’t just whistling Dixie.

My one steadfast piece of advice to beginning writers has always been this: Write. I was reminded yet again that that pearl of wisdom is easier said than done as I stared at the fits and starts on my note pad. Why write anyway? What is the point? I was still mulling these questions as I drove to meet my dad for church on Sunday morning.

A few years ago my father had begun attending the Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island, founded in 1685. There’s something special in the timbers of that historic, beautiful structure. Plus, Dad liked the people, the pastor, the quality and brevity of her services (always over in one hour!), and the parish’s renowned covered-dish luncheons. For years my father worked around heavy equipment and also spent much of his leisure time in duck blinds and dove fields in close proximity to shotgun blasts, so his running commentary that particular morning on every parishioner, while endearing, was slightly louder than I’d have preferred.

“Well, that lady there sure has a good suntan!” He said, his voice a few decibels above a whisper. I nodded, looking at the bronze woman, likely a vacationer from nearby Edisto Beach.

“See that fellow?” Dad jutted his chin toward an elderly man across the aisle. “Your Grandmama once told me that that man’s future father-in-law asked her out on a date in high school, but an old woman on the island advised your grandmother she’d find higher bush and better berry elsewhere.”

What the . . . ?

“What?” I had to ask.

“It means she married your Granddaddy instead,” he said with a chuckle. I shushed him. “You’re loud,” I whispered, though I was still mulling that berry and bush thing.

The opening hymn was followed by “Words of Welcome and Hospitality,” during which first-time visitors were asked to raise their hands to receive welcome gifts. A few hands went up and the usher delivered small, lavender-colored paper goody bags to each guest. Except he missed a lady in the front right pew. A dozen or so helpful parishioners’ arms shot up, pointing toward the neglected guest who clearly desired one of those bags. My dad and I were seated in the back pew, which happened to be just in front of the small stash of gift bags. As the usher returned to grab one more bag for the woman, he leaned in between my dad and me and whispered, “Lord, have mercy. Everybody wants something for free.” The usher and my dad were friends, and, of course, he was joking to get a rise out of my dad, but Dad, (loud equipment, shot guns) didn’t hear the joke and wondered why I had begun giggling.

“What?” he said.

“Later,” I mouthed.

With haste the usher graciously delivered the visitor the small sack of Presbyterian swag. As the pastor made her way to the pulpit I noticed a high-pitch whining which, at first, I thought must be the air-conditioning system struggling to keep up with the already steamy morning. The irritating sound increased to the point that heads began to turn in various directions, seeking its source. The wise pastor stopped the service, put her hands to her ears and said, “Everyone. Please. Check your ears. Someone’s hearing aid is BUZZING.” After about ten more seconds of necks craning, the usher tweaked his ears and the church was again silent, except for a few lingering giggles, mine among them.

What I’m getting at here is that the mood was light in that cool, sun-filled ancient church, nestled among mammoth oaks, on that hot morning. My mind was far away from novels and speeches; I was just enjoying spending a pleasant hour with my dad. As soon as church let out, I would return to my desk for my date with inspiration.

When the time came for the sermon, the pastor summoned all children to the sanctuary. She lifted a large sack from behind the pulpit and before she could explain its purpose, a child I suspect was the pastor’s son shouted, “I know what’s in there!” More chuckling from the congregation. The pastor explained the bag contained large toy bricks. She split the excited little congregants into two groups, telling them she planned to spill the bricks between them. She emptied the bag, and on her command the children were to construct a wall using all the bricks. She would time them. “Ready, set, go! One . . . two . . . ”

In thirty-three seconds, the children constructed a perfect wall. Thirty-three seconds is fast for most things in this life, but in church, where the only voice is the pastor’s slow, methodical counting, Thirty. Three. Seconds. Takes. A. While.

Once the job was done, she praised their well-constructed wall and asked them, “What would be necessary if all you children wanted to gather together to play a game? What if your friend is on the opposite side of the bricks? What would you do then?”

“We’d punch it down!” a little one shouted, clearly excited at the prospect. “I’ll time you again,” the pastor said. “Let’s see how long it’ll take you to do that. Ready, set, go! One.” 

And the wall came down. 

The modest demonstration hit me like, well, a ton of bricks. Children take a concept to basic, essential terms. If we want to play together we’ll knock down any wall standing between us and we’ll squeal with delight as we do it.

The pastor sent the kids out the side door for children’s chapel with the usher’s wife, and then she began her sermon based on Ephesians 2:11–22, Scripture with which I was unfamiliar. Scripture about walls—both physical and metaphysical, about divisions among God’s people, and ultimately about unity. The deceptively simple message snuck up on me, striking me solidly in the heart. As a novelist I often consider the ways human beings are more alike than we are different. And as the pastor said, “When we construct walls, divisions are counted and unity is lost.” Tears I’d not expected blurred my view of her. That’s what happens to me when I’m feeling lighthearted and suddenly something unexpectedly profound jolts me. I reached over and held my dad’s hand. He gave it a warm squeeze.

If we ignore the walls and the divisions we institute among ourselves, we are dismissing Christ’s peace, the pastor said. She expounded on the morning’s Scripture, then finished her sermon saying, “Here’s the challenge. Consider this: How many walls that divide us are we building? How many walls that divide us are we destroying?”

Louisiana-born author Walker Percy said, “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” My dad’s pastor didn’t expound on hot-button politics that Sunday morning. Hers was a message involving kids’ building blocks, friendship, unity, and the human condition.

If bad books lie about the human condition, then good books must do the opposite. They speak truth and shine a light on our connectedness. I think all good stories should do that. As the service ended and I headed out the door into the bright morning, water-colored memories of my childhood Sunday school lessons came to me. In those old memories, Jesus stands, surrounded by captivated children, engrossed in story. I imagine what good stories those must have been.

Sometimes we just need to get out of our own way. I knew exactly what I needed to say in my keynote. I thought of the little boy who shouted with glee that he’d “punch that wall down” in order to get to his friends on the other side. I’d tell those writers not to shy from hard truths about the condition we share, to strive to evoke our common humanity, to illuminate the ways we as human beings are connected, despite the complexities of the human heart, despite our differences.

I’d read them the Percy quote and tell them not to lie.

And I’d tell them to get to their writing desks and make sure inspiration struck them, even if they had to throw the first punch

Call of the Wild

The tour was going just as planned. Sun glistened off the salmon-filled stream. An eagle soared high above. Suddenly, brush broke below as an 800-pound coastal brown bear ambled toward the group. Pitch-black claws ripped through the hillside, while the powerful hump on its back swayed with each stride. Guide Luke Meyers spied a tuft of white on the bruin’s chest—leftover polar bear DNA.

“I’m locked, loaded, and the safety’s off. I’m ready to smoke him if I have to,” the outdoorsman recalls of the heart-stopping encounter. “He was 20 feet from me, and you could see there was something going on in his head. I just talked to him and said, ‘Why don’t you go back down there and get some fish?’ I talked in a real small, soothing voice, which I’d seen some of the natives use.”

The panting beast turned around and walked away.

Bear Tracks

Life in Hoonah, Alaska, couldn’t exist in starker contrast to Bob Jones University. But Meyers, a 1998 grad, wouldn’t have it any other way. “I wasn’t a conformist, ever,” Meyers says. “I was never going to do a nine-to-five.” The congenial rebel’s “office” is now 200 miles of logging roads in southeastern Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. His primary task: spotting bears for tourists.

“Where I track bears varies by season,” he reveals. “Early on, they use the logging roads as game trails. Later in spring, they move to clear-cut areas where wild blueberries, huckleberries, and salmonberries grow. Then later into summer, they go to streams—once the salmon start running.”  Passengers bounce along in his large, Ford van, missing what’s obvious to trackers: “Destroyed skunk cabbage, paw prints going from one side to another, bear scat.”

Years after guiding his first group, he still gleans “bear signs” from the local ranger and indigenous friends. Once in a while, Meyers spies some “repeat offenders,” like Patches at Hoonah’s dump. But usually, each creature is different, providing a captivating glimpse of Ursus arctos sitkensis, a subspecies of brown bear that almost uniquely resides here. Sometimes, the best show plays out on his client’s faces. “I had a group from a big city, and we didn’t see anything for three hours. Then, we spotted a bear going in the bushes. It reemerged, looked right at us. One of the women was crying out of joy, and that made me tear up. That was magical giving her such an experience.”

Leaving the Den

Adjusting to life beneath the Northern Lights has been just about as perplexing as his initial move to Bob Jones University, after growing up in suburban Phoenix. 

“It was a haze!” the bearded adventurer says, reminiscing with a hearty laugh. “I came from arid Arizona. Everyone had clean haircuts; I’d had a ponytail and earrings. I was very disoriented.”

He pressed every boundary at Bob Jones (his father’s alma mater and the only education his folks would fund), but skirted just shy of the demerit cap, to grab a degree in counseling. It was time to bust out of the bubble. First stop: Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and then the Dominican Republic where he worked with at-risk students. 

“There’s something about my brain, and I can’t do something that’s expected of me,” admits the middle child. “I get bored really easily. In the D.R., when I had to shower out of a bucket, eat foods I’d never eaten before, and speak a different language, these things were fun and new.” Once the newness wore off and money wore thin, he returned to Greenville, where he flipped houses and worked at Stella’s Southern Bistro.

As much as he loved hiking Pisgah and Paris Mountain, his soul yearned to explore more. He built furniture in Oregon, but something was missing. At a low point in his mid-30s, a classmate from Bob Jones, a native Alaskan, invited him to the town of Hoonah to repair a roof. “I stayed two weeks, and kept calling the airline to delay my return. I finally came down, got my truck and drove back.” 

That’s when Meyers stopped wandering. His restless spirit finds peace on Chichagof Island, a panhandle known for the densest population of coastal brown bears in the world. (Think Northern Exposure on the ocean, with a quirky Alaskan mix of 734 eclectic personalities.) “We’re like a big happy, dysfunctional family,” Meyers explains. “I don’t lock the doors to my house. Everybody knows me. I’ll find plates of fish and crabs in my truck.”

The bear whisperer has learned to can his own salmon, knows the exact island spot for cell service, and leads Sunday services in the small fishing village. “I host trivia nights on Wednesdays, and we have a Well-Fed, Well-Read group. We pick a piece of literature from somewhere in the world, like Japan, and we’ll talk about what we read and eat Japanese food.”

Work is a mix of passions and hobbies: carpentry, construction, and guiding. He even plans to open his own tour company in 2019, where he’ll continue to carry his .45-70 lever-action Marlin for protection. He has never had to pull the trigger, despite several close encounters, including one with Darrell. “We used to call him Little Bastard because he gets right up in your business. If you’re fishing, he just starts walking toward you and you have to throw rocks at him to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t cool. We need boundaries dude!’”

Meyers’ boundaries now encompass the world. During the winter, the journeyman leaves Alaska to travel. This year’s destinations include Ethiopia, Gabon, and Greenville. Yep. You can look for him at Stella’s, where he’ll be happy to share a beer and some bear tales.

Glam Squad

Whether it’s pampering you desire or a bit of glamour you require, to prepare for this season of celebrations, you’ll want to surround yourself with professionals who will make you feel sensational. We’ve rounded up the best to help you shine.

Illustration by Katie Sutton

Massage

River Falls Spa Festive body indulgences worth seeking out at this downtown mainstay include the hydrating, anti-aging chocolate truffle body treatment, the espresso limón slimming body wrap, the nourishing and toning honey herbal body treatment, and the exfoliating body polish. On the massage menu are hot stone, deep tissue, sports, or relaxation modalities in this serene spa. Your body will thank you. 130 S Main St, Greenville. (864) 240-2136, riverfallsspa.com

Nails

Hanna Nails Spotless and friendly, Hanna Nails delivers an array of services. Go for classic manicures and pedicures, plus the healthier-than-acrylic NextGenNails or Signature Nail Systems (commonly called SNS or “powder dip”), which use no UV light and last flawlessly for well over two weeks. Dozens of color choices are available, from subtle hues to glittering sparkle. 409 Mills Ave, Ste 202, Greenville. (864) 520-1702

Hair Extensions/Spray Tanning

The Beautiful Co. If you want to turn heads, head over to The Beautiful Co. This sophisticated salon specializes in 100 percent human hair extensions to add volume and length, which are the secret weapon for thick, magnificent manes, either wavy or straight. Pop into the customizable spray tan booth, and you’ll have a South Beach glow in five minutes. 100 Green Ave, Greenville. (864) 501 2678, beautifulsalon.co

Facials

Tausend-Schoen Beauty Flawless skin is the foundation for any holiday beauty look. It starts in this private salon where European owner Silvia Fischbach determines a custom facial from her menu, suited to your skin type and utilizing high-quality, imported creams and masks. Thanks to an annual European trip, she remains current on cutting-edge technology such as healing light therapy and exfoliation techniques. 905 E Washington St (upstairs in the Waterstone Dentistry Building), Greenville. (864) 201-9633

Lashes

Venice Lash Lounge Venice Lash Lounge makes absolutely sure that the focus will be on your peepers. In an hour or two, the team will have you amazed at the difference that lash extensions, a lash lift, brow shaping, or a brow tint will make to your visage. 404 River St, Greenville. (864) 567-5654, venicelashlounge.com

Makeup

Cotton Rouge Having your makeup professionally applied will up your confidence and make you feel like a VIP. From a natural look to a dramatic difference, the pros at Cotton Rouge can show you how it’s done. Hire them for a makeup application or a lesson at their studio—or they’ll come right to your door. 250 Mill St, Taylors. (864) 416-1254, cottonrougeandcompany.com

Styling

Robbie Randolph No time to shop and no idea of what to wear? Robbie Randolph is a personal shopper and wardrobe stylist with great taste who can pull selections from local boutiques, assess and work with what’s already in your closet, or accompany you on a shopping trip to buy new shoes, accessories, and clothing. (864) 567-6805

Out of the Woods

Greenville-based Slab Guild designs high-quality home and kitchen wares that excel in both form and function. Products include cutting and serving boards, rolling pins, spoons, along with custom-crafted pieces like tables and bars, which can be spotted at local hotspots Methodical Coffee, The Anchorage, Fork & Plough, and El Thrifty. For more Slab Guild products, visit slabwoodworking.com.

Ready to Roll: (Left to right) long-handle spoon made from black walnut wood; French rolling pin made from ash wood; spoon made from maple wood; stirrer made from cherry wood; rolling pin made from cherry wood; and cutting board made from brass and black walnut wood

Creative Gifts

In its humblest form, artistic creation is a charitable act. When a work is fashioned, vulnerability is required, and the creator gives of herself in a personal, meaningful way. Each November during Greenville Open Studios, a host of visionaries open their doors to the physical spaces where this intimate action is shaped and curated. This year, the Metropolitan Arts Council presents a special preview to the weekend event with A Square Affair, an exhibition featuring the works of Open Studios participants, like the above painting by Laura Nance. Pieces are presented in a 12 x 12 inch format, allowing guests a small taste of the artist’s ability and inviting them to take a peek behind the curtain into their natural creative environment.                                   

A Square Affair will be on display at the Metropolitan Arts Council Gallery through December 14. The gallery is located on 16 Augusta St, open Mon–Fri, 9am–5pm. Greenville Open Studios will take place Fri–Sun, November 9–11. For more information, visit greenvillearts.com.

Say Cheese

My husband likes to joke that pasta is his love language. Consider me fluent then. Neither of us came to marriage with any meaningful connection to pasta, but somehow it became the food that says the most to us. 

The big meals in my memory—the Michelin-starred restaurants, the celebrations, the award-winning chefs—are special, but fuzzed over in a happy, celebratory haze. Not the pasta. The simplest dinners are sharpest, etched in my mind because food is never only about the things we are tasting, but the people we are with. Pasta has been for us a clearing in the thick overgrowth of ordinary life, an open place to park shallow bowls and pour wine and linger, longer.

The first time I made this leek-Manchego mac & cheese it was for our best friends and it was because we had a secret to celebrate. When we announced I was pregnant, their shock mirrored our own from a few weeks earlier. Manchego, with its sophisticated, earthy, nutty notes, felt right here: it steered a familiar dish into new territory. I couldn’t drink the wine, but I was comforted by the pasta’s luscious creaminess, the gratifying crunch of toasty golden breadcrumbs.

The reason for that winter night’s celebration is three years old now, and he devours this very pasta (and all pasta) with gusto, as if we needed further proof he is ours. I remember the tiny glasses of Spanish wine and candlelight from the first night we ate it, and I remember the spilled sippy cups of milk and highchair percussion from the last time. I remember every bowl of pasta in between and the people we are and the people we have been and the people we are surely becoming, speaking to each other the way we do best, around the table.


Leek and Manchego Mac & Cheese

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

7 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 bunch leek greens
(from 1 ½ pounds of leeks), thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
10 ounces Manchego cheese, shredded (2 ½ cups)
1 pound elbow macaroni
¾ cup panko breadcrumbs
2-4 sprigs fresh thyme

Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet. Add the leeks and cook over high heat, stirring until slightly wilted, 5 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until very tender, about 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with the sprigs of fresh thyme. Stir in the panko breadcrumbs and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until golden and toasted, about 3–4 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs and set crumbs aside.

3. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the flour and cook over medium-high heat, whisking for 2 minutes. Add the milk and bring to a boil, whisking until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add 2 cups of the cheese, season generously with salt and pepper, and whisk until melted.

4. In a large pot of well-salted boiling water, cook the macaroni until nearly al dente. Drain well. Add the macaroni and the cheese sauce to the leek greens and stir until combined.

5. Transfer the macaroni to 8 ramekins (or a 9×13-inch baking dish) and sprinkle with the remaining ½ cup of cheese. Top with breadcrumbs. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for about 25–40 minutes (depending on baking vessel), until bubbling. Turn the broiler on and broil the mac & cheese until golden-brown on top, about 2 minutes.

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