There was a time when babies were delighted to see me, and vice versa. It wouldn't take more than a smile and lean-in to make them wiggle and light up.
Not so with the one-year-old Staypuft Dresden doll belonging to my hosts in Tennessee. I hugged his mamas, one a former coworker of mine, and mooned over his dogs, but baby boy's face crumpled up into a distressed mess when he saw me.
I think infants can smell the metallic tang of cynicism that's built up around me like copper left to the elements over the years. My smile is genuine, but so is my exhaustion and disappointment.
Or maybe it's because I'm loud. Who cares.
We stuffed ourselves at Liberty Park Grill for dinner, a steak house overlooking the water and glorious sunset. Many of our fellow diners had left the muggy, buggy patio for the air-conditioned indoors, and I realized I missed how fat and discomfort-averse Southerners can be.
The view from our table.
It was one of the many dissimilarities I saw between Colorado and the dyed-in-the-wool red states of the confederacy where I spent half my life.
Another difference: waitstaff.
Conversing with a Southern server outside the slim and subway-tiled confines of the nouveau South restaurant is an ambling, rambling pleasure.
Once the formalities of "Hello" and "How are you" are out of the way, we can finally get to talking about their Christmas plans, grocery store preference, and brother-in-law's unemployment. Three minutes in, they'll all but pull up a chair, and you start to wonder if they'll ask a server from the next section to bring them a sweet tea.
Our server was a young Prince lookalike, right down to the cascading curly pompadour and side-eyed pout. Within a minute he knew the backstory of the friendship that brought us to this table, and that I was on the road from Colorado covering a third of the U.S. in the span of three weeks.
Colorado caught his ear and he wasted no time trying to confirm if it was as boring and Midwestern as the incredibly far-reaching rumor mill of Clarksville, TN, implied.
With a cluck of his tongue, I could hear the overture of "Bless Your Heart: The Musical" starting up, sung by so many Dixie librettists. There is no keener tongue than that of a effete Southern man.
The conversation skipped along at a clip, going nowhere but getting there with incredible speed.
We ate silly amounts of food, and I was proud to finish what would have been, to a weaker mammal, an insurmountable quantity of mashed potatoes. We left for the house full and smiling.
That night, I gently insisted on letting my hosts' dogs sleep in my bed and thought back on my day from the grounding perspective of my air mattress.
Eight hours earlier, I was wandering through Patti's 1880's Settlement (est. 1977) in western Kentucky. I didn't mean to stay there as long as I had, but I got lost on the property while running away from a successful photo-bombing of some tourists (likely also from Kentucky).
When a set of double-doors spit me out of the settlement onto a street I didn't recognize, I took a minute to meander over to a lopsided antique shop.
The Home Place. Pithy.
The shop was closed, but some rustling to the left of the stairs caught my ear and eye. Lo(w) and behold: under the building was a bumper crop of kittens.
Moments like these are the exact reason you need to heed the call of a roadside attraction.
That, and gift shop fudge. It makes for an excellent host gift, and they have no idea how much of it you ate before arriving.