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    Shoot! Darn! Heck yeah!

    If you think it’s easy, you’re way off the mark.

    Maybe it’s the raw power; maybe it’s the threat of real danger. Whatever the case, it’s most certainly a rush.

    You’re in Gastonia at the city’s Skeet and Trap Range. Goggles on, earplugs in, you move to the first shooting station, the shotgun heavy in your hands. You stand next to the throwing house, where the clay targets burst from, and at your signal you’ll soon see if you’re a skeet-shootin’ son of a gun.

    You load the shotgun, nestle it firmly against your shoulder, press your cheek to the gun’s smooth stock and eye the sight. Good-to-go, you call out “pull.” From your right, an orange blur flashes in front of you, you guide to the target, squeeze the trigger, and...nothing.

    “Pull.” Miss. “Pull.” Miss. “Pull.” Miss.

    A shooting coach gives you some advice; you make adjustments. Then it starts to click. “Pull.” You squeeze the trigger and, finally, the orange disc shatters into smithereens. With each target you blast your confidence builds.

    Feeling good, you stick around to watch the Gaston Young Guns—a skeet team of local youths that compete nationally.

    The boys and girls, some as young as 10, are here with their parents to prep for an event. The kids are lights out; they rarely miss. But these modern-day Annie Oakleys and Daniel Boones are more than amazing shots, they’re terrific kids.

    They inspire you to get better. So you make plans to come back soon—and aim a little higher.

     
     
     
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    a leap of faith

    First of all, it’s not natural. Not in the least.

    You’re 13,500 feet above the ground, perched at the threshold of an open door of a perfectly good airplane. You’re going to jump. Voluntarily. Wind howling, heart thumping, there’s one thought racing through your mind: Can I do this?

    Yeah, it’s about to get real up in here.

    And it all started here—at the Triangle Skydiving Center in Louisburg. You’ve suited up, gone through their extensive safety instructions, and are securely strapped to your jump instructor. Two peas in a maximum-security pod; you’re in this together. Still, you’re the one peering over the edge.

    You oscillate from scared to anxious to excited to petrified.

    Your instructor calms you, tells you it’s gonna be a blast. You inhale and, on his count, you rock forward and fling out into the wild blue yonder. A shocking burst of cold air hits you as you hurtle toward earth at 120 MPH! For 60 seconds you free fall but the sensation is one of flight. It. Is. Euphoric.

    At around 5,500 feet, your instructor pulls the ripcord. You feel a reassuring jolt as the chute deploys and you go from a wild car chase to a relaxing (albeit, adrenaline-fueled) Sunday drive. For the next five minutes, you descend. You relax, you breathe out, you take in the breathtaking view.

    As you pull up your legs to land on your bottom, you’re in a state of bliss. You hit the ground, grinning.

     
     
     
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    the s’more the merrier!

    You settle in around the warm glow. The picture most definitely hi-def. But there’s no sofa, no remote, no screen in sight.

    No, you’re outside. Out-of-doors. Out in nature. Your family – all four of you – is on the Tar River Paddle Trail in Tarboro.

    You’ve unpacked the gear, set up your tent, made a fire pit. With your campsite good-to-go, you take the kids out in the canoe to paddle the scenic Tar River. You take turns splashing, giggling and chasing tadpoles in the shallows. You explore the sandbars, get your toes muddy, study a row of turtles sunning themselves on a log. You breathe in the fresh air and drift with the current. You let your mind drift too.

    You watch your kids being kids. You’re in awe of their joy.

    That pure, boundless joy that’s only experienced playing outdoors. Your heart swells.

    Later, you all go in search of kindling and the perfect sticks for roasting marshmallows. You build a fire. The little ones – giddy with anticipation – find the right spot to brown their marshmallows just so. They snuggle between you; they’re mashing the charred marshmallow and chocolate between graham crackers, creating their very first s’mores.

    All four of you are tuned in to nature. The very picture of happy campers—creating warm, gooey memories that will last a lifetime.

     
     
     
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    Nautical by nature

    The language is foreign. The lure is universal.

    Jib. Boom. Tack. Keel. They sound like names celebrities might give their kids; you learn they’re actually sailing terms. And in terms of sailing, you discover that Lake Norman is the ideal spot to learn the sport.

    More precisely, that spot is NC Community Sailing & Rowing at Blythe Landing Park in Huntersville. Here, you can master the skills needed to be called “Skipper”—all without feeling like you’re Gilligan.

    Before hoisting a sail, you lower yourself into a chair for a quick primer. You learn safety. You learn how to find the wind.

    You learn about theory and how the flow of wind over the front and back of a sail moves the boat.

    And then you’re on the dock—getting ready to put theory into practice. You rig a 19-foot Flying Scot and set off in search of a breeze. Before long, you’re getting the hang of it. The language that was once foreign is growing more familiar. You’re tacking and jibing; moving the sails to catch the wind.

    You come to realize that the sensation of speed in a sailboat is remarkable. At four knots you’re humming. At eight knots you’re flying!

    In three hours you’ve captured wind and captured a feeling that has moved men (physically and spiritually) for centuries.

    It’s an unexpected gust of sheer glee you yearn to experience again and again. And with a little more practice – and a little wind – you will.

     
     
     
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    give your life some balance

    You spy them from the shore. You’ve seen them before.

    Tall figures gliding effortlessly on gleaming water. They stand upright on paddleboards—the picture of serenity. You think to yourself, “That looks fun; I could do that.”

    Then a gentle voice from within reminds you of a powerful truth: Life is not a spectator sport.

    You listen, you abide. And now it’s your turn. You’re in Apex at Jordan Lake, your toes digging in the wet sand listening to another gentle voice. It’s the voice of Allison Martin-Attix, founder of LYFSUP, a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) and yoga outfit dedicated to instructing folks on the joy of this growing watersport.

    A natural teacher, Allison runs you through the basics. She provides safety instructions, helps you adjust your paddle and gets you prepared to hit the water. Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious. Her encouragement is non-stop. She tells you to smile. Says you can’t have a bad time when you’re smiling.

    She shows you how to get on the board, how to stand up, how to paddle. Even how to fall. (Yes, there’s a right way to fall.) You’re up, you’re wobbly at first but you’re getting your legs. You find your balance. You’re smiling.

    From a nearby beach, people are watching you. They’re thinking, “That looks fun; I could do that...”

     
     
     
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    Helmet? Snug.
    Harness? Secure.
    Heart rate?... Stampeding.

    With ground training behind you, you’re geared up, pumped up and moving up.

    Up a winding flight of stairs to the first of eight ethereal landings. Each landing wraps neatly around a tree to form a cozy perch where, with a little guts – and a lot of gravity – you’ll soon be darting through a pristine forest at speeds of up to 40 MPH!

    You’re not in Costa Rica. You’re not in Thailand. No, you’re in Fayetteville. Yes, Fayetteville—home of ZipQuest Waterfall & Treetop Adventure.

    For the next two and a half hours your feet will not touch terra firma. And you’re going to love every single gravity-defying second of it.

    From first takeoff to final landing, the excellent ZipQuest staff ensures you’re securely hooked to a half-inch galvanized steel cable, which supports loads of more than 22,000 pounds. You’re safe but that won’t diminish the rush you’ll feel as you rocket from landing to landing and traverse three “Indiana Jones” suspension bridges.

    Each run you see something awe-inspiring, including Carvers Falls—the largest waterfall in the central and eastern regions of both Carolinas. Each landing your guide drops some encyclopedic knowledge on you. Back on solid ground, slightly exhausted, you’re still walking on air.

     
     
     
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    how do you one-up a one-upper?

    Easy. You two-up ‘em, of course.

    Here's how: Go to Cornelius and schedule time on Lake Norman with Ernest Pruitt; he’s the owner of LKN Flyboard and the Carolina’s only provider of the Jetovator. There, you can experience two of the most thrilling water sports sweeping the country.

    “Flyboard? Jetovator? You’re making up words," the one-upper says dismissively.

    "Well," you patiently reply, "few people have heard of them. Even fewer have tried them."

    The one-upper is stymied. The wheels in his mind, the ones that continually turn to find ways to trump any and all, have derailed. He’s listening now. Like the rest of your friends.

    “It’s hard to describe,” you admit. "The flyboard, for example, is like a snowboard. You’re strapped in boots to a board, which is connected to a jet ski by a hose; the propulsion thrusts you in the air. It’s ... it’s like being a superhero."

    The inglorious braggart is scratching his head.

    So you pull out your phone and say, “Here, lemme show you.” It’s a video of a helmeted person exploding out of a lake; great plumes of water pushing an intrepid soul skyward and then, improbably, levitating 30+ feet above the surface.

    “You did that?,” he asks with envy. “That is me,” you state matter-of-factly. A friend yells, “Dude, you’re Iron Man!”

    The one-upper watches the video in awe, mouth open—yet speechless. Your super powers know no bounds.

     
     
     
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    it takes guts to get the glory

    Eat ‘em up, keep ‘em down. It sounds easy enough; it’s anything but.

    At 10 minutes, the contestant has polished off three pints. Fans above are whirring but he’s starting to sweat. Fans below – the ones crowding the raised stage where he’s sitting – are cheering but he’s focused on the fork.

    He’s in a zone.

    He’s in Ayden—in a collard eating contest. He’s in the lead. And he’s in for what may be the longest 35 minutes of his life.

    At 16 minutes, he’s pulling away as other contestants fade. At 22 minutes, the crowd’s chanting his name. Willing him on as his stomach protests. At 25 minutes, he’s eaten more than five pounds of collards and he’s hit a wall. He stands up, sips water, continues to shovel in the greens. Slower, much slower, than before.

    Mercifully, the judge counts down the final seconds. In 30 minutes, he’s put away 6 1/2 pounds of collards! More than anyone else. But he hasn’t won yet. For the next five minutes he must keep the collards down. Cruel but it’s a rule. So he waits. To the spectators, it feels like hours. To him, it must feel like an eternity.

    The five minutes tick away. He’s done it. He’s won! The victory, the experience, the roaring crowd ... it’s so much to digest.

    But first, the collards.

     
     
     
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    Whoa Nelly! Nice ride.

    A cherry red Mustang revs its engine but your eyes are locked on a shiny black hybrid. A mule to be precise.

    The four-legged beast canters casually past you. What the hay?!

    You’re in Benson, at their annual Mule Days Celebration. Mules are indeed in the street, on the berm, trotting along like they own the road. Which, for four days, they do.

    Cowboys and cowgirls, decked out in boots and hats, are riding the mules. Some are driving wagons. It’s an awesome – almost shocking – sight. You become a rubbernecker.

    You park and find your way to the grandstand to watch a mule race. Two riders thunder around barrels for two laps; the mules’ hooves kicking up clouds of dust and claps of approval from fans packed in the bleachers. Next up? The mule pulling contest where the beasts show off their brute strength.

    You wander the grounds and chat with mule owners—such friendly folks. You learn that mules aren’t the same as donkeys.

    Nope, they’re the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. The road’s original hybrid. They tell you mules aren’t as stubborn as donkeys, are much smarter than horses, and are as strong as oxen. You nod studiously.

    You learn why Benson devotes four days of fun and games to this exceptional equine. You could kick yourself for not knowing it sooner. No matter. You’re revved up now and plan to be here next year. You’re learning. Yee-haw!

     
     
     
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    Something worth tweeting about

    You enter with trepidation. The heavy screen door swings shut behind you. You flinch. It’s hard not to.

    You are, after all, about to have a close encounter—a close encounter of the bird kind!

    You’re in Scotland Neck, home of the Sylvan Heights Bird Park; you’ve just entered The Landing Zone. In your hand is a feed stick, a popsicle stick with millet seed glued on the end. To your left, a mosaic of color flutters on brown branches.

    You step forward slowly as your pulse races; instinctively you extend the stick. And then…WHOOSH! A squadron of budgies (small parakeets) erupts from the branches and zooms toward you. You flinch, again. Shut your eyes. Hear a screech. Was that you? Somehow you unlock your eyes and focus on a brilliant yellow bird nibbling noisily on the feed stick in your hand.

    All around, birds swoop and swirl, descend and depart. One lands on your shoulder. Now your head. It zips away. You get used to the commotion. You relax and study the budgie’s colors, beak, feet. You’ve never been this close to a bird before.

    It’s fascinating.

    You leave The Landing Zone bolder now. You stroll the park’s 18 lush, natural acres. Spectacular and rare birds are housed in aviaries designated by continent. You realize you’d have to literally fly around the world to see this many species of birds.

    You walk on, marveling at the array of birds and their magnificently colored feathers. You’re tickled pink.

     
     
     
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    wings and a prayer

    Look! Up in the air. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s… Wonder Woman?

    It is Wonder Woman! She’s soaring through the air atop the wing of a 1943 Super Stearman.

    You crane your neck as the vintage aircraft climbs up, up, up; you watch the plane turn and nosedive corkscrew-style toward earth—a ribbon of white vapor dissipating in its wake.

    You’re at the Warbirds Over Monroe Air Show and – like everyone else there – you’re oohing and aahing as the plane swiftly levels off and zooms by. Wonder Woman’s still on the wing (whew!), waving and smiling at the cheering crowd.

    Show over, you wander the grounds. You marvel at the collection of classic aircraft. It’s rare to see so many beautiful old flying machines, let alone touch them, tour them, see them in action. It’s one of the coolest history lessons you’ve ever experienced. Later, you watch AT-11 WWII bombers streak through the sky (their ominous roar preceding their arrival) and then witness a simulated bomb attack complete with exploding orange fireballs and billowing black smoke. It’s shock and awe. Greatest Generation style.

    And that’s when it hits you.

    You clapped at the high-flying theatrics of Wonder Woman. A brave act, no doubt. Yet, on the ground, you’re reminded of all the heroes whose uniforms weren’t quite so flashy.

    So you send a little prayer skyward to honor our veterans and those actively serving our great nation. “Godspeed,” you say.

    “And God Bless America.”

     
     
     
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    no wet blankets allowed

    They go to the lodge not for serenity—but for excitement. They won’t be disappointed.

    The boys enter wide-eyed; they do 360s, trying to take it all in. Their sister doesn’t know what to make of the great commotion, yet she senses something special.

    Mom and dad have done good.

    They’ve brought the family to Great Wolf Lodge® in Concord. With swimsuits on, they open the doors to the lodge’s sprawling water park, eager to hit its many activities. Like a rogue wave, the park hits them first.

    In every direction, water gurgles, shoots, sprays, sloshes. If you’re a kid (or kid at heart), staying dry is not an option. Mom takes the little one to the toddler area to splash and giggle. Dad and the boys venture to Fort McKenzie™ just in time to be soaked under a 1,000 gallon bucket. They go down slides, shoot hoops in one of the four pools, test their agility on the Big Foot Pass™... so much to do!

    “Where do we go next?!” becomes a constant refrain. Dad smiles, nods in a direction. The boys have been waiting for this. They climb the stairs chattering anxiously about what it’ll be like, and then climb into an inflated raft. They hold tight and swirl down a six-story funnel called the “Howlin’ Tornado.”

    Dazzled by the drop, dad asks, “Wanna go again?” It’s a rhetorical question. The ride lasts only seconds. The thrill of it all will last much longer.

     
     
     
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