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Bill Warhop

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Get away to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

We came for the bourbon. Like a growing number of tourists—more than 2 million in the last five years—our crew went where true bourbon was born, by the clear limestone waters of Kentucky. This was where eighteenth-century settlers began distilling whiskey aged in oak barrels, stamped with their origin in Bourbon County, and transported down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers on a journey into booze legend.

Bourbon is the quintessential American spirit. All but a couple of U.S. distillers are located in Central Kentucky—none, ironically, in Bourbon County, which is a remnant of its original size. Through the 1980s and 1990s, vodka and other clear, easy-to-swill spirits dominated American drink culture. But in the last decade, bourbon has enjoyed a renaissance. Credit the national fascination with Southern culinary culture, as well as a recent shift in consumer tastes back toward serious cocktails with potent brown liquors.

Like us, more folks are also curious about the spirit’s roots. Six makers formed the trademarked Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour back in 1999—with a “passport” to be stamped at every stop—but there are some seventeen distillers across eleven counties, most offering free tours and tastings. Each stop takes a couple of hours, and some are more than an hour apart. (Don’t worry, drivers: The half-ounce samples are designed to entice, not intoxicate.)

We launched our trek at Bardstown, the “Bourbon Capital of the World.” The pungent scent that welcomed us—an aroma of sweet potatoes and boiled peanuts—was actually fumes of corn mash wafting from nearby Barton 1792 Distillery. It propelled us straight to the famous tasting room at Kentucky Bourbon House, a Federalist-era inn on the town square. (Our cottage there proved spacious, if a bit frilly for a man trip.)

The proprietor, Colonel Michael Masters—who bears a goateed resemblance to Colonel Sanders—is a seventh-generation local steeped in whiskey lore. He helped us select flights of five tastes, expounding on their subtle hints of spice, caramel, and vanilla. The other patrons around the small communal tables were all couples, including two men from Ohio who insisted we take the Buffalo Trace Distillery tour in Frankfort, their favorite of five they’d just visited. When we started comparing the bite of bourbon to the peaty smokiness of Scotch and Irish whiskey, sips of Famous Grouse suddenly appeared—the Scotch provided gratis with a refined flourish by the Colonel. A woman requested another mint julep, but her husband waved dismissively and called, “Just bring her a glass of whiskey with a sprig of mint.” Apparently, we weren’t alone in our mission.

With regrets, we skipped the family-style dinner with our new friends at Kentucky Bourbon House and crossed the square to Old Talbott Tavern, a storied inn built in 1779 that has hosted Abe Lincoln, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and Jesse James. As tourists, we were obligated to try a Kentucky Hot Brown: an artery-clogging, open-faced sandwich of turkey (and at Talbott’s, sugar-cured Virginia ham) on toast, smothered in Mornay sauce and topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, and tomato.

Bourbon treats Bardstown well. The picturesque, historic town is the west anchor of Kentucky’s bourbon country and sports kitschy attractions such as My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, a two-and-a-half-hour rail tour in fully restored vintage dining cars. There’s also a summer musical about Stephen Foster, composer of Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” held at the State Park containing the Georgian-style home itself. For golfers, the park’s eighteen-hole course is a Golf Digest four-star must-play.

The next morning we were up early to catch the tour at Barton’s. Our guide detailed the distilling process, from grain selection (all the corn comes from within 100 miles) to how charred oak barrels help give bourbon its trademark color and flavor. She pointed out the mold-darkened trunks and branches of nearby trees, caused by evaporation from the distilleries—as good as signposts for still-seeking revenuers during Prohibition. After gawking at thousands of barrels mellowing in storage, we bellied up to the small visitors center bar and savored the happy burn of small-batch whiskeys and dark chocolate bourbon balls.

In the afternoon, we drove up the Blue Grass Parkway to Lexington, girded on all sides by pastoral horse farms. April and October bring daily races to Keeneland, its sprawling horse park and track. Race weekends draw huge crowds, including college students from Lexington’s two universities. You can avoid the fratty trackside chaos with quieter seats in the grandstand.

Downtown Lexington is equally festive after the races. The Gratz Park Inn, a favorite home base for Keeneland horse owners, is a posh boutique hotel adorned in dark woods, rich upholstery, and old money. If the restaurant is too crowded, pull up to the bar for the chef’s pimento cheese grit fries and a glass of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, a local beer with delicious hints of caramel and vanilla from used barrels.

For our last day, we took a scenic drive up U.S. 421 to Frankfort, Kentucky’s quaint riverside capital. The Buffalo Trace Distillery lived up to the Ohioans’ hype. A short, loud, white-haired guy named Don cheerfully gave us a two-hour tour. We followed him to the premium labeling room and hovered over the shoulders of distillery workers as they painstakingly hand-labeled rarities such as Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year and single-barrel Eagle Rare—labels we were now much better prepared to savor.

This article originally appeared in our April 2012 issue.

The Kudzu Kid

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Sixteen-year-old Jacob Schindler has already treated three patches on an acre of kudzu when his mother, Julie, trips over something big. “Jacob,” she yells down to her son as she bends to grab the baseball-bat-thick kudzu root that just snagged her foot. She tugs on it, and the kudzu shakes all around her. After three hours of trying to eradicate the cultivar from a Decatur backyard, this vine—three inches in diameter—could be the secret to it all. This is the parent plant. Kill it, and you kill all the smaller vines that branch off of it. “You haven’t even seen this. This is the mother lode!” Julie says excitedly.

Jacob wipes away sweat from under his shaggy bangs and adjusts his glasses before trudging up the machete-hacked path toward his mom. He’s been right past this root at least a dozen times today, going back and forth into the shadeless, kudzu-covered hillside. Jacob—and his parents—have toiled and hacked and drilled on this humid August day, fumigating kudzu roots with helium. Five years ago, while experimenting for his sixth-grade science fair project in his hometown of Valdosta, Jacob discovered the inert gas was somehow poison to the vine—and, in the process, may have stumbled upon a way to rid the South of one of the most hated agricultural scourges since the boll weevil.

>> Video: See Jacob in action

Jacob lugs his weapon—a 19.2-volt cordless drill with a patent-pending three-foot steel bit—up to the parent root. He inspects it, wiping more sweat from his brow. This is his first paid gig using the technique; the Decatur homeowner, who discovered Jacob while surfing the Internet for ways to kill kudzu, is watching. Today hasn’t been easy. After he and his parents made the four-hour drive from Valdosta, Jacob realized he’d brought the wrong size hose to connect his drill to the helium. They ran to Home Depot, got more hose, and wrapped the connections with electrical tape. On the third application, the drill hit something solid—stone or maybe buried concrete—that prevented the bit shaft from drilling deep enough to get the shaft’s pinholes, where the gas seeps out into the soil, underground. Jacob’s dad, Eric, unchucked the bit from the drill and pounded the steel shaft down with a sledgehammer. The bit came out bent. “We can straighten it,” Eric assured his son. Jacob shook his head miserably in a moment of teen angst: “No. We can’t.”

But now, with the sinewy parent root in hand, it seems Jacob’s luck has turned. Until the drill’s batteries run down. And the valve handle to control the flow of helium to the bit shaft comes off in his hand. (“Obviously not made in America,” he observes wryly, patting down the pockets of his baggy blue jeans for an adjustable wrench.) Then it takes ten minutes to find a pliable spot for the bit to descend into the topsoil.

The kudzu surrounds him. Bring it, kid, it seems to say. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Jacob loves outer space. He once built a miniature satellite probe with a realistic-looking radar dish out of Legos, which now shares a living room shelf with other Lego creations and several of his awards from the FFA (formerly the Future Farmers of America and now known simply by the old acronym). A fifties-style Silver Comet model rocket hangs from the ceiling in his bedroom; a Star Wars poster hangs on his wall. So when it came time to create a sixth-grade science fair project, he told his mother, “I want to reclaim Mars.” In other words, to find something that would grow there.

In later years, Julie would become very supportive of Jacob’s science endeavors, but at first, she was skeptical. “Jacob, are you friggin’ insane?” she asked. “And how, pray tell, are you going to reclaim Mars?”

“I want to plant kudzu.”

“Okay,” Julie said. “What’s kudzu?”

All Jacob knew about kudzu back then was that people hate it because it grows like crazy—up to a foot a day in the summer—which is why it seemed a good candidate for terraforming Mars. His mother drew his gaze back to terra firma, and Jacob tried another angle: What about using kudzu to reclaim deserts? For a sixth grader in Valdosta, desert is only slightly more accessible than the red planet. These ideas, Jacob wrote in his science fair paper that year, weren’t “sensible . . . since the locations were neither near nor reproducible.” He “felt the focus should first be on the virulence of the plant. If it isn’t as strong as people think, then it may not be strong enough to survive either of these extreme environments.” So the project morphed into this: What effects do concentrated gases have on kudzu?

Kudzu may never make it to Mars or the Sahara, but it’s everywhere in Georgia, tangling in pines, climbing telephone poles, encroaching on roadways. It roots as it grows to create new crowns from which more vines will spread like a rash over farmlands and embankments. It climbs anything vertical, enveloping entire stands of trees until they become leaf-covered beasts of every shape—dogs, octopuses, T-rexes—and eventually blocks out sunlight, killing the vegetation below. This plant is part of what makes the South the South.

At least now it is. Kudzu is native to Southeast Asia, not North America. It came to the United States in 1876 as an exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, brought from Japan as a lovely vine that sprouted purple flower clusters in late summer. It showed up in New Orleans ten years later at another expo. Over the subsequent decades, the vine proved a nutritious forage crop for livestock. Farmers loved it, no one more than the original “Kudzu Kid,” Channing Cope, who wrote a daily farm column in the forties for the Atlanta Constitution. He used his column and his book, Front Porch Farmer, to espouse kudzu. He organized a fan club with 20,000 Georgians. He used it as feed on his farm southeast of the city. And he wasn’t the only one. In 1943, the U.S. Agriculture Department published a booklet, Kudzu as a Farm Crop. By 1945, kudzu covered a half million Southern acres. It really did seem to be, as Cope championed it, “the miracle vine.”

Kudzu also turned out to be great for erosion prevention. Anyone with a bare hillside or an open expanse of dry flatland knows that when there’s no vegetation, soil goes where the rain flows or the wind blows. Overuse of farmland, too, degrades soil quality, sometimes to the point where nothing will grow anymore. This deterioration created Providence Canyon, a 1,100-acre, 150-foot-deep chasm in the clay and limestone just south of Columbus that didn’t exist prior to the early 1800s. During the Great Depression, the new Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu to stop this type of erosion.

By 2005, though—when Jacob first visited kudzu stands around Valdosta, potting small samples of the plants in sealable containers—the vine had been out of control around the South for decades. Using buried IV tubes, he experimented with gassing the roots with nitrous oxide, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and helium. All the plants eventually died, but the one fumigated with helium died almost immediately, after only one treatment.

Other projects followed, under the tutelage of the Lowndes County FFA chapter and Jacob’s FFA adviser, James Corbett. “Georgia’s really on the cutting edge of agricultural education in the nation,” says Corbett. In fact, Georgia ranks third among states with the highest FFA membership, in the neighborhood of 30,000 members. Agriculture is an especially big deal in farm communities such as Valdosta, the Lowndes County seat; the only two national agriscience students of the year who came from Georgia came from the Lowndes FFA.

“It was a good project,” Corbett says of Jacob’s first experiment. “It was very in-depth, very well done.” Corbett suggested Jacob try a “simulated live-growth” experiment for his seventh-grade project. Jacob planted sixteen Loblolly pine saplings in containers with two kudzu plants per tree. He gassed them with carbon dioxide, oxygen, and helium. This time, only the helium completely killed the kudzu. Plus, the pine trees exposed to helium showed accelerated growth even while the kudzu died.

Jacob’s third-year project in 2008 obliterated several stands of kudzu around the Valdosta area using the helium kill; the kudzu never grew back. For his fourth-year project, he designed the drill shaft and used it to destroy kudzu in several more locations around Valdosta in 2009. So far, the helium has killed nothing but kudzu, and it’s worked almost flawlessly each time.

Jacob doesn’t think much about space anymore; since the first kudzu experiment, the plant has taken over his life much like it takes over everything else. Even though all this kudzu killing has brought a lot of attention to Jacob—newspaper stories in the Valdosta Daily Times, radio interviews on Georgia News Network, a web video on Georgia Farm Monitor (“[The attention is] a lot easier than the work itself,” he says)—he’s really just a teenager who likes science. Sure, there are stereotypes about kids who excel in the subject (his mother gleefully shares that Jacob’s favorite sitcom is The Big Bang Theory because “it’s about nerds!”). And granted, he does like to toss out trivia about Archimedes, war inventions, and feng shui over dinner. But he also plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on his computer and listens to Coldplay on his iPod. In the summer he hangs out with friends on the Withlacoochee River. He turned seventeen in December, and a 1995 Ford F-150 awaits him when he gets his driver’s license next month. (His parents bought it so he can haul helium tanks.) But the kudzu has pushed him in a certain direction, and he’s still on that overgrown path. He took agricultural science eight times in middle school, writing his own curriculum after the fourth. As a freshman, he took environmental science with mostly juniors and seniors. And though he’s good at science, he struggles with math. “But six holes is not algebra,” he says, pointing to the three-foot drill bit.

That hollow steel bit with the pinholes and the gas valve won him first place in the Senior Engineering division of the Georgia Agriscience Fair last April and took Jacob to Indianapolis to compete in the national convention in October. It was his second appearance at the national convention with a kudzu-themed project. Even though he didn’t place this time at nationals (in 2008, he took second), his mother contacted a patent lawyer. “I did it because I saw potential for him to actually make something that’s feasible—that could be sold, marketed, used,” Julie says. She hopes he’ll be able to get a scholarship out of his research; as an osteopath, she’s still paying off her own medical school loans and fears she and Eric can only help Jacob out a little bit on their own. “We wanted to have it protected. I told him he’s not going to the science fair without a patent pending.”

That patent could mean big money if the portable process continues to work. The annual cost of controlling invasive species in the U.S.—Japanese climbing fern, Chinese tallow tree, Chinese privet, cogon grass, and the most invasive plant species of all, Japanese honeysuckle (which we just call honeysuckle)—is around $120 billion. Still, kudzu is the poster child for creeping, pesky plants, says Dr. David Moorhead, codirector of the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. “Those dense mats of kudzu will just smother other plants out,” he says.

In his Tifton office, Moorhead clicks through digital images of kudzu infestations in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. The vine now covers around 7 million acres in the South. “Here, it doesn’t have some of the natural predators [like insects] and pressures [like weather] that it might have in its native range,” explains Moorhead. Recent droughts aside, our traditionally long and wet summers encourage aggressive growth. Short, mild winters keep the subsoil from freezing and killing the root crowns. The roots store enough starch to keep the plant alive just below the surface, so when spring hits, new vines spurt forth from the crowns right where last season’s growth ended. Miracle vine? More like devil weed.

As devastating as kudzu can be, it also has benefits—in certain places. “It will grow in poor-quality soils,” Moorhead says, which is why it was planted so widely in the South in the thirties and forties. “Look at some of the early plantings on highly eroded sites, at how much leaf area gets recycled every year as a mulch. It’s part of the soil-building process.” Moorhead clicks an image on his monitor, an aerial shot of a Mississippi infestation. A green carpet of kudzu covers a dozen or so roadside acres. Afternoon shadows reveal the deep, veinlike pattern of a vast gathering watershed, a baby Providence Canyon, perhaps, that once threatened to wash away the land until kudzu came in to stop it. “In some places,” Moorhead observes, “kudzu is literally the only thing holding the world together.”

The Decatur kill didn’t quite work.

By October, the only obvious dead kudzu was along the machete-hacked path, though Julie was convinced the kill had worked on the plant’s lower layer. Not only that, but two weeks before this paying Decatur gig, Jacob treated a large patch of kudzu by some railroad tracks in Valdosta. After about twenty minutes of hacking through vines with a machete and a small hatchet, he found a thick parent root, drilled one hole, and emptied a small party tank of helium into it. Six days later, his mother sent pictures of a car-sized patch of brown, desiccated vines where the kudzu had shriveled up and died, just like it had for all of Jacob’s science fair projects. But come October, Jacob said it, too, was growing back.

“I have no clue how the helium is actually affecting the kudzu,” Jacob freely admits. Nor does he know why the adjacent plant growth seems to accelerate, at least in his controlled experiments. Familiar by now with the scientific method, he has hypotheses. Valdosta sits atop the sandy Coastal Plain of Georgia, but Atlanta’s Piedmont soil is rich in dense red clay, which may have limited the dissipation of the helium through the soil. August is peak growing season for kudzu; all the successful eradications in Valdosta had occurred in the early fall, “when kudzu starts receding and sending all of its nutrients and starches down into the roots” in preparation for winter hibernation, Jacob says. Maybe that’s when kudzu is most vulnerable.

The Decatur job raised some questions, but the method still shows potential to Dr. Stephen Enloe, an assistant professor of agronomy and soils at Auburn University. He heard of Jacob’s research through Internet chatter and is helping Jacob apply for research grants from the Weed Science Society of America and the Alabama Invasive Plant Council. Enloe calls Jacob’s science fair research papers “impressive.” Of the most recent results, he says, “It’s very fascinating to see differences like that. One thing we know is, not all kudzu patches are created equal.” Jacob’s theories on the soil density and time sensitivity of the kill are good ones, but Enloe says the age of a kudzu stand could be a factor; older patches may have much larger and deeper root tubers, which could be more resistant to the helium method.

“Helium is biologically inactive,” Enloe explains, which means it doesn’t typically bond with other elements to create new substances. “My hypothesis is the helium is purging other gases [such as oxygen and carbon dioxide] from the system.” Enloe has discussed the process and Jacob’s research with colleagues at Auburn, including a soil chemist and a soil physicist, and hopes he can leverage some Auburn resources for Jacob in addition to what the teen might get from research grants. “You can often do quite a bit when you’re resourceful with a little bit of money,” Enloe says.

Jacob came back to Decatur in early October to hit the stubborn patch one more time. Based on his theory of dense soil, this time Jacob riddled the ground with twenty holes using the steel bit. Instead of using the bit to disperse the gas, he used two irrigation hoses from his third-year project, each with ten shorter branch tubes, to flood the subsoil with helium from two large tanks that each cost about a hundred dollars. A week later there is an overall dwindling of the kudzu, with some leaves looking slightly yellowish. But cooler temperatures have knocked back summer growth everywhere.

What happened where it counts, down below the soil? When spring puts away another Southern winter and April rains send a biological wake-up call to those starch-filled roots, what will the kudzu do?

Jacob can only wait. He’s looking at his data, gathering reinforcements with help from Auburn, charging those drill batteries, and preparing for another battle.

The kudzu waits, too. Bring it, kid, it seems to say. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Photo by Michael Cogliantry / Design by Eric Capossela

Chattanooga, TN

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Chattanooga has come a long way since Walter Cronkite called it the dirtiest city in America in 1969. A renaissance that arose in 1992 with the glass pyramids of the Tennessee Aquarium has spawned a pedestrian-friendly downtown with a vibrant arts and dining scene. Only ninety minutes from Atlanta, it feels more Midwestern than Southern, with hints of Europe along the river bluffs.
STAY
The full-service Chattanoogan Hotel is strategically stationed along the city’s north-south thoroughfares, between the bustling riverfront and the artsy Main Street district (and only one block from the free electric shuttle that connects the two areas; it runs till 11 most nights). Luxurious suites offer views of iconic Lookout Mountain, as does an indoor pool and spa. The Chattanoogan’s martini bar, the Foundry, draws a sharply dressed crowd on weekends for live jazz. For a more intimate stay, the Bluff View Inn sits atop a cliff, with a cozy patio overlooking the Tennessee River and Maclellan Island. The inn’s 3 turn-of-the-century homes offer 16 B&B rooms in the quaint and scenic Bluff View Art District. Wander over to Rembrandt’s for midmorning coffee.
 
EAT
A stone’s throw from the river and the aquarium, Hennen’s American menu specializes in fresh seafood such as grilled cobia over salad greens with fingerling potatoes and onion dressing. Its sidewalk patio is an inviting place to linger on a crisp fall day. The Bluewater Grille, also near the river, is a laid-back spot for a Sunday jazz brunch before an afternoon of touring the aquarium or gallery-hopping in the Bluff district. Head to the fun and quirky Terminal BrewHouse, across from the historic Choo-Choo (now a hotel), for seasonal, house-brewed ales and lagers. The pub livens up traditional bar fare by partnering with local vendors such as neighbor bakery Niedlov’s Breadworks.
 
DO
The impressive Tennessee Aquarium has both freshwater and ocean displays and is situated along manicured riverfront trails, the bases for various boat tours and water taxis. Walk over a glass-bottomed bridge to the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Bluff View Art District. The area anchors the south end of the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge. On the north side, Coolidge Park (with its restored indoor carousel) borders the hip NorthShore District, a bohemian community of shops and cafes. Edgy Main Street is lined with public sculptures and numerous galleries, such as fine craft gallery Area 61 (61 East Main Street, 423-648-9367). Don’t miss the vistas of the Tennessee River valley from Lookout Mountain, and if you’ve never done it, heck—see Rock City.
 
Photograph courtesy of Chattanooga CVB

Space Coast, FL

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The oceanfront home of America’s space program stretches more than 70 miles along Florida’s Atlantic coast, from Titusville to south of Melbourne. White sand and ripping surf will always draw beach bums and sun lovers, but an era of spaceflight ends this year. The last two space shuttle launches ever are slated for September and November. Go ready for crowds.

STAY
Titusville has motels galore, but Cocoa Beach’s lodgings are closer to shopping and nightlife. Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort, named for the world’s largest surf shop a few miles down highway A1A, offers condo-style studios and bedrooms with full kitchens. With a pool, waterslide, lazy river, restaurant, spa, and private access to the beach and nearby Jetty Park (a prime spot to watch a launch), the amenities may tempt you to ignore the rest of the coast. The Inn at Cocoa Beach caters to couples, with romantic balconies, parrot mascots, a beachside private courtyard, and an evening wine and cheese service. In Melbourne, soak up the laid-back atmosphere at a local B&B such as the waterfront Crane Creek Inn, only a two-minute walk from the quaint historic district’s shops and restaurants.

EAT
Watch the launch or celebrate afterward above the surf at the Cocoa Beach Pier’s Mai Tiki Bar, 800 feet out at the boardwalk’s end. At the pier’s 500-foot mark, watch the tide roll beneath you while dining on fresh seafood and tangy Key lime pie at Atlantic Ocean Grille. Later, dance on the beachside deck of Coconuts, the go-to nightspot. Pop into the Pig and Whistle pub (240 North Orlando Avenue, Cocoa Beach, 321-799-0724) for hearty British fare, including the sometimes-on-Friday lobster potpie (call ahead to check). Less-touristy Melbourne lights up its historic district once a month for Friday Fest. Start with a steak and live jazz at the Firehouse, then stroll the shops or join the street party—drum circles and belly dancing may occur.

DO
Anywhere along U.S. 1 in Titusville is prime viewing for a shuttle launch, but the best—unless you have a NASA pass—is Space View Park (Broad Street at the Indian River), less than 15 miles from the shuttle launchpads and one of the few locations that track the countdown and have public restrooms. A short trip south is the Kennedy Space Center’s Astronaut Hall of Fame, with inspiring artifacts such as Gus Grissom’s Mercury space suit and Wally Schirra’s Sigma 7 capsule. The same KSC ticket gets you a second day’s visit, so take a bus tour to the shuttle launch observation gantry and the massive indoor Saturn V exhibit. To really appreciate the beauty of the coast, head north just off the Space Coast map to Ponce Inlet and climb the 203 steps to the top of the tallest lighthouse in Florida.

Photograph courtesy of Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse

Against the Odds: James Kinsey

Maybe James Kinsey swerved to avoid an animal. Maybe his cell phone rang. Maybe, as the investigating officer suspected, he dozed off at the wheel on Old Fountain Road, just a half mile from his home in Dacula, after a long night shift. Whatever the cause, his Chevy Aveo crossed into an oncoming lane and was struck by another car. Too tall for the Chevy’s tiny cabin, the six-foot-one Gulf War veteran smashed his head against the door frame. The seat belt saved his life.

When Dr. Michael Stechison saw Kinsey the morning of April 21, 2009, the neurosurgeon’s assessment was almost hopeless. Kinsey arrived at Gwinnett Medical Center’s ER with every type of cerebral hemorrhage possible. The brain function assessment was grim. “He was in the deepest level of coma that one can quantify,” Stechison says. “It was almost beyond our ability to really do anything.”

The only hopeful sign was a gag reflex, so Stechison, who has more than twenty years’ experience in neurosurgery, wasn’t ready to give up. Without time to contact family, he immediately prepped for the rare procedure of simultaneous surgery on both sides of the brain. Stechison started on the left side, removing a large piece of skull so he could access and suction out three deadly clots. He did the same on the right, leaving a strip of bone down the middle similar to, as he describes it, “a T-top on an old Camaro or Corvette.” While Stechison was working on the right half, Kinsey went into cardiac arrest. The operating room staff had no choice but to start pumping his chest. Stechison had no choice but to finish surgery. “I timed my scissor cuts,” he recalls, “synchronizing them with the chest compressions so I could continue working while they were trying to revive him.”

After more than two hours in the OR, Stechison closed up the skin around Kinsey’s head and applied a dressing. The brain was so swollen it was literally rising out of the skull openings. Kinsey’s wife, Sun, had received a call from the emergency room at around 11 a.m. from her husband’s phone. She, their two sons, and her minister met with Stechison after the surgery. He leveled with her. “He said, ‘If you need to contact your family, go ahead, because he’s probably not going to make it tonight,’” Sun Kinsey says, her breath catching. A nurse asked about organ donation.

Sun and Stechison have something in common. She wasn’t ready to give up, either. She stayed, and she prayed. “One of my church members said, ‘Hold his hand, he can hear your voice.’ So I grabbed my husband’s hand and said, ‘Honey, if you can hear my voice, can you grab my hand?’ And he [squeezed] my hand and started moving his legs. All of the nurses went, ‘Don’t make him too excited!’”

Kinsey made it through that night, and all those that followed. His recovery hasn’t been easy: seven more surgeries to install a shunt to drain excess brain fluid, to remove built-up spinal fluid, and, finally, to replace the skull flap on the right and create an artificial one for the left. Eight weeks at Shepherd Center and continued weekly therapy at Glancy Rehabilitation Center at GMC-Duluth have restored Kinsey’s ability to walk, talk, and laugh at jokes. But the accident left him blind in his right eye and stole much of his memory. In addition to forgotten names and places from a life that included twenty-four years in the Army, he doesn’t recall the accident. Sun points out the spot where it happened whenever they drive by. James never remembers the place, but she keeps trying.

Pictured: James Kinsey, left, with his wife, Sun, and Dr. Michael Stechison at Gwinnett Medical Center; photo by Neda Abghari

Expert Advice: Ring of Fire

Longer evenings are upon us, and as twilight creeps westward it brings the chill of autumn. With that nip in the air, crackling flames in a backyard fire pit are a primal comfort.

“Fire pits are better than fireplaces,” says David Gatti, owner of P.O.P.S. Landscaping in Marietta and builder of some 900 fire pits (and countless fireplaces, too) in his twenty years in business. “With a fire pit, you can see the fire all around. It’s a conversation space. People will gather around it.” Whereas a typical outdoor fireplace costs $15,000, a basic, professionally installed fire pit is around $2,500—DIY versions are as cheap as $250 (see Gatti’s do-it-yourself design below). Running a gas line from the house—whether for just a starter or to power gas logs—can cost another $3,600 or more.

Every fire pit is a gathering place, so consider where people will sit. Chairs can be functional—like a built-in bench that doubles as a retaining wall on a hillside—or more decorative, such as ever-popular Adirondack chairs. Ideally, permanent seating should be constructed from rugged, weather-resistant materials like stone or architectural block.

Ninety percent of the fire pits P.O.P.S. builds are stackable stone, with only the capstone mortared for stability. (“Kids like to sit on the edge,” Gatti explains.) He recommends natural rock such as fieldstone or flagstone. Eschew pinks and creams for darker colors, which he says indicate denser rock that weathers elements and repeated heating/cooling better than lighter stone.

A fire on a cold night is a comforting friend, so, as Robert Browning once wrote, “Heap logs, and let the blaze laugh out!”

Photograph courtesy of P.O.P.S. Landscaping

Build Your Own Fire Pit

David Gatti, owner of P.O.P.S. Landscaping in Marietta, details how to build your own backyard fire pit for around $250. The catch? Lots of digging, lots of rocks . . .

Materials: 10 to 12 fieldstone “basket boulders,” each around 20 inches tall; approximately 400 lbs. of “river rounds” (softball-sized river rocks); 2 bags of 56-stone gravel; four pieces of 1-inch steel (at least 12 feet total)

1.    Dig a circular hole 8 inches deep and 5 feet wide. This is where your basket boulders will sit to create the fire pit wall.
2.    Dig a second 8-inch-deep hole within the first. The top should be the interior diameter of the fire pit wall. (If your basket boulders are uniform in size, double the width of one and subtract that length from 5 feet to determine the diameter of this hole.) Angle the walls of this second hole approximately 45 degrees.
3.    Dig a third hole in the middle of the second, at least 16 inches in diameter and 16 inches deep. Make the side perpendicular to the ground.
4.    Fill the bottom hole with gravel. (This acts as a 16” x 16” French drain to prevent rainwater from collecting in your pit.)
5.    Fit the basket boulders together on the ledge created by the first hole. The outer edge of these rocks should extend about 12 inches above the ground.
6.    Fill the secondary hole with river rounds by stacking the stones in a bowl shape. The edge of this “bowl” should come up to 6 inches below the tops of the basket boulders.
7.    Cut steel into lengths approximately the diameter of the fire pit. Lay two pieces on top of the river rounds parallel to each other and about one-third of the diameter apart; lay the remaining two pieces of steel in the same manner but perpendicular to the first two.
8.    Stack some dry wood on the steel bars. Put a match to the wood. You’ve got yourself a fire pit.

Fire pit design and sketch by David Gatti

Atlanta Yoga Club

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It wasn’t a good day for outdoor yoga. Piedmont Park was soggy, the late-morning temperature was an unseasonable 57, and clouds blocked the sun. I arrived early for the Atlanta Yoga Club class, expecting to find it canceled. Yet there on a knoll overlooking Tenth Street sat Lisa Cohen, one of AYC’s certified instructors, cross-legged on her mat and looking very yogic.
The Atlanta Yoga Club, launched in March, is a grassroots organization aimed at getting yoga outside and accessible “for the masses.” Instead of expensive lessons in a strip-mall studio, the club offers open-air sessions in various styles for only $5. The group—which anyone can join through meetup.com—assembles Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday at Piedmont Park and Saturday at John Howell Park. AYC plans to offer classes every day and expand to the burbs (there’s already a satellite session in the Lawrenceville/Suwanee area), but as cofounder Melanie Snyder, who organized the club with her sister Rebekah, says: “You have to start with a core.” And isn’t the core what yoga’s all about?
My inadequacy as a yoga virgin is irrelevant, but I wasn’t alone: At least four of the dozen attendees were first-timers or rookies. Cohen moved among us, lightly tweaking our Vinyasa positions and expounding on the merits of yoga. “I got into this for the yoga butt,” she said, “but when you’re eighty, you’ll just be glad you can pick up the keys when you drop them.” A more practiced and focused yogi wouldn’t have noticed, but as I twisted toward Tenth Street into a wobbly Side Warrior, I was keenly aware of glances from parkgoers and dog walkers. A homeless guy heckled us, but Cohen deftly turned the disruption into a meditation on focusing inward: “The one thing in the world you have control over is your perception,” she waxed philosophically.
So I let my mind drift with the breeze that stirred the dogwood blossoms. Ducks quacked down at the lake. Somewhere a band warmed up their instruments. And during our last Sun Salutation, a ray of sunshine peeked through the clouds and saluted us back. meetup.com/atlantayogaclub

Illustration by Juliette Borda

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