One afternoon in November, Fran Serenade led me and her daughter Barbie down a steep section of the Appalachian trail. The sun was high and Fran hiked briskly, ducking the blue-green diagonals of fir trees, her hair wild behind her. She wanted to show me her log cabin, which was off the trail next to a red barn by a blue lake with a pretty waterfall. Outside the barn, we met Fran's kitty, Amici, and a handful of other cats, all of them wearing knit caps. Fran pet Amici, who followed her, mewling.
Inside the cabin, a fire raged in the fireplace. Fran pointed out her favorite things: an antique icebox; an embroidered tablecloth; a crochet basket. Then we were off to Tai Chi practice.
With her mountain of blonde curls, heart-shaped face, hip-hugging jeans, and tiny waist, Fran recalls a young Dolly Parton. She's so pretty, she's almost doll-like. Barbie is slim and pretty, too, though, in her leopard print vest and red lipstick, her look is less country, more glam. Mother and daughter both wore heels, even as we hiked.
It turns out heels work perfectly well on virtual trails, no matter how steep. The trail and cabin we visited exist inside an online virtual world called Second Life. They were designed to recall a real-world trail and cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where Fran once lived. Fran Serenade is the avatar of Fran Swenson, an 89-year-old former nurse with a head of silver curls and a Brooklyn accent. Barbie is the avatar of Barbara, her daughter in real life.