Archives for posts with tag: road trips

What is it about lighthouses that captures the imagination—mine, anyway—and directs it out to sea? Their silent performance of a thankless duty? Their stoic disregard of the extreme marine climate? Their stark but elegant beauty and strong but lean engineering?

Whenever I see one, I immediately start to think about how the beacon might appear to a passing ship or, more appropriately, a boat bound for whatever harbor is nearby. What does the lighthouse look like from a mile or two offshore?

Not much, probably. During the day, details of coastal structures are difficult to make out. A lighthouse may seem immense to someone standing at its base but from afar, even the tallest tower will be dwarfed by the mountains and cliffs that often loom over coastlines.

And at night, all that can be seen is a ray of light.

I can’t recall ever spotting a lighthouse beacon from a boat or ship (truthfully, I’ve spent very little time on water) but I have seen one from afar. A few years ago, we spent a delightful early summer weekend in Bermuda. Our resort was on the southwest coast of the island, facing the North Carolina shore, only a few hundred miles away.

Bermuda is small enough and sufficiently isolated from other places that its night sky is truly dark. Looking out through the sliding glass door of our room early one morning, we detected the motion of a faint beam of light as is it flashed across the horizon.

The source of the light fell well below our view (by several miles, at least), but the sweeping path the ray of light followed was immediately recognizable as that from a lighthouse beacon. It was somehow comforting to see evidence that across the lonely expanse of open ocean lay our home.

Back in the golden days of ship travel, it must have been heartwarming to those returning from a long voyage across the ocean to see a first sign that other people were preparing for the ship’s arrival, that at least one person was waiting up in anticipation.

Nowadays, that comfort is a bit cold. While visiting lighthouses here in Maine (of which there are many, given the state’s craggy shoreline), we have learned that most, if not all, of the facilities are automated. The charming cottages that were once home to lighthouse keepers (and their families, if they were lucky) are now vacant.

Fortunately, there are historical societies and preservation groups such as the American Lighthouse Foundation to tend them and offer tours. And, as we learned at Owl’s Head Lighthouse, the United States Coast Guard still sends someone around to ensure that the lights are in working order so that even if no one is home, someone has left a light on for us.

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As noted on their license plates, the State of Maine is known as Vacationland. And now I know why.

Rachel and I have driven up to Rockport for the weekend (we’re mixing Rachel’s business and our vacation) and have discovered that the Maine coast is just one big family resort. The woods and forests are pristine, the coastline long and scraggly, and the air is clear and fresh. There are also some good restaurants here (lobster, anyone?).

But, most of all, the climate is perfect. Here we are in the middle of August—the summer’s peak, really—and the midday temperature is in the mid-70s. That’s warm enough to wear shorts and a tee shirt with no worry of overheating. It might be as humid as it is at home (that would be due to the proximity of the ocean) but it’s so moderate in temperature that it feels comfortable.

In short, the weather is perfect for spending the entire day outdoors. Anything that can be done outside is at its best when done here: Hiking, boating, swimming, cycling…

…and gardening.

It turns out that there are many lush gardens in Maine. Most of the houses we’ve seen have a plot of vegetables or flowers—or both—in their yards. And a garden center near our hotel is one of the biggest I’ve seen anywhere, with an astonishingly diverse assortment of growing things. Who would have expected it?

Not me. I always thought that with its short growing season and cold, icy winters that Maine would not be ideal for gardening. The climate (I figured) might be suitable for evergreens and chrysanthemums but not tomatoes.

What I failed to consider is that although the growing season may be short, the growing day is long. Sixteen hours of sunlight per day, it appears, more than makes up for the loss of May and September.

After potting up the herbs and deadly nightshades (see April 25, 2014) and before leaving on our road trip (to visit friends and their Belgian Tervuren at the ABTC National Specialty event in Huron, Ohio), I sowed seeds for two varieties of summer squash and two of cucumbers. Optimistically (hope springs eternal, my father always said), I also planted a third batch of orange bell pepper seeds. I left them all (along with the rest of the seedlings and outdoor garden) in the very capable hands of Rachel’s mother.

Well, it would seem that she has a very green thumb (thanks!). I hardly expected the seeds to germinate by the time we returned two days ago—only six days after planting. Well, they germinated all right (probably after three or four days) and the seedlings have also surged to a height of over four inches. When I went downstairs to check on them Thursday, they were pushing up on the seed tray’s clear plastic cover.

On closer inspection, I found that not everything had sprouted. There was no sign of the Orange Sun bell peppers. The third time is not a charm for these seeds which must be past their pull date (contrary to what is printed on the seed packet). It would appear that not even the greenest thumb can resurrect them.

Further (or lesser, in this case), only one zucchini and only one pickling cucumber seed have germinated, in contrast to the six crookneck squash and five slicing cucumber seeds that sprang forth. Again, there is not much we can do about older seeds except to resolve not to plant them. Next year, we’ll be buying everything fresh.

I wasted no time moving the squash and cucumber seedlings into the tallest plastic pots I have. After placing them back on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, I hitched up the fluorescent light fixture to its highest position. At the rate the cucurbits are growing, they will be brushing against the bulbs well before we set them out on Memorial Day weekend.

We couldn’t visit Saratoga Springs without spending some time at the racetrack.  After all, it is one of the main attractions—if not the main attraction—in town.  The purebred horse trade, which includes polo and horse auctions (see “The Hamptons on the Hoof” in the New York Times for a discussion of the latter), ensures a steady flow of tourists at all income levels and fuels the local economy.

The New York Racing Association has done a great job of making horse racing—and gambling—at Saratoga Springs a wholesome family activity accessible to novices and bookmakers alike.  There are plenty of seating options and many food choices that range between the cheap and casual to the formal and expensive.

What the NYRA has not done is make their pricing structure transparent and straightforward.  Because there are so many variations on seating, they are all priced separately.  And surprisingly, a ticket for a seat will not get a spectator through the entrance gates; admission is an additional charge.  We purchased tickets for our grandstand seats in advance online but had to buy our admission tickets at the will-call window.  The only thing more complicated is the betting but that would take an entire blog to explain (after I figured it out, that is).

We watched—and bet on—the first four races.  The first was a steeplechase on the innermost turf (the track has three concentric ovals, the outermost of which is dirt while the inner two are grass) with four jumps, located at each end of the turns.  The horses were started from a walk without the use of gates (I’m not sure how they handle false starts) and were at full speed by the first jump.  The field was mostly well matched and remained closely grouped for the entire race.  When they encountered each gate, they seemed to flow over it rather than jump.  Our horse, Alajmal, came in second to last.

The second race, a five-furlong sprint on the outer track, was over in a flash (well, 58 seconds).  The horse we picked to win, Pure Sensation, was part of a three-horse group that led the field by several lengths for the duration.  The colt could not hold on, though, and lost to Corfu by half a length.  In the third race (another sprint), the saucily named filly Chase My Tail won handily while our horse, Handshakesnkisses (we chose her for her name) came in last.  According to the race analysis, she was “no factor”.

Easily the most exciting race for us was the fourth.  A friend had asked us to bet $10 on the third horse in the fourth race.  Number 3 turned out to be Miss Valentine.  She (and her jockey) came out of the gate strong and led for most of the race.  After fading in the home stretch, she appeared to be boxed out by the front runners but with a last burst of speed, made a dash for the win.  At the line, it was Miss Valentine, Clear Pasaj (No. 2) and Willet (No. 5), nose to nose.

The race too close to call, we waited—with great anticipation—for the photo finish to be reviewed.  Sadly, Miss Valentine came up short.  The final result was Clear Pasaj with the win, Willet to place (by half a head) and Miss Valentine to show (by another half head).  A disappointing outcome but it was a lot of fun to watch.  Those horses move fast!

A day at the races made for a nice break from gardening but we had had enough of it (and only lost $30).  We left before the fifth race bell and, after stopping at Hattie’s Chicken Shack (highly recommended) for fried chicken (what else?) and hushpuppies (the best I’ve ever eaten), headed for the Thruway south and home.

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

Driving north on the New York State Thruway, on the way to Saratoga Springs, I noticed that several clumps of brown leaves pockmarked the foliage of the many normally verdant trees that line the right of way.  It looked strange—the lush green of the deciduous forest is one of the characteristics that distinguish summer in the northeast from other, drier, places I have known, such as the Central Valley of California where I grew up (everything turns straw-colored there).

At first I wondered what could be afflicting the trees, most of them maples, which I think of as resistant to disease and insects.  And then it came to me:  the brown and drying branchlets are sites of 17-year cicada eggs.  Female cicadas gnaw shallow notches in the branches into which they deposit their eggs; the notches cause the branches to die.  This phenomenon is considered the only significant downside to the emergence of the insects which otherwise cause no permanent damage (even if they do create a mess).

I do not recall observing any dead branches after the last cycle (in 1996) but I have noticed a few on some of our trees this time around.  Luckily, the condition is temporary and the trees should return to normal next year.

One of the must-see attractions on Maui is Haleakala National Park, the site of a dormant volcano at the center of the island.  A popular itinerary involves driving to the summit before dawn, catching the first rays of the rising sun (well before it reaches sea level, 10,000 feet below) and then cycling down the narrow, windy park road to a well-earned breakfast.

We wanted to see the park again this trip but even the idea of getting up in the dark held no appeal.  After consulting with our friends, we decided to go there for sunset instead.  This allowed them to spend the morning on the beach (while we were exploring the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth; see February 26, 2013) before we met in the early afternoon to drive up to the park.  On the way, we planned to stop by the Surfing Goat Dairy and the Alii Kula Lavender Farm.

To make part of a long story short (unusual for me, I know), the goat farm was less than exciting (to be fair, we did not take the tour) and the lavender farm was just closing when we arrived there at 4:00 pm.  But the weather was beautiful and because our friends had rented a convertible, we were able to enjoy the drive with the top down.  Getting there was at least half the fun.

It was late in the afternoon as we started up Highway 378 towards the park entrance.  As we climbed in elevation, the air grew cooler and, eventually, we had to put the top back up (convertibles work well for the driver and front-seat passenger; for those in the back seat, the effects of weather are amplified by the fast-moving air).  When we were still a few miles away, we entered the clouds that seem always to cling to the upper slopes of the mountain.

The entrance to the park is at about 7000 feet of elevation (for reference, this is the same as Donner Pass and Echo Summit, the two main highway crossings through the Sierra Nevada).  When we finally arrived, we were deep into the clouds; it was rainy and dark with passing squalls.  In this weather, sunset would not be visible and we weren’t sure we wanted to go on.  But the informational signage kindly provided by the National Park Service reminded us that conditions at the top are often different from those at lower elevations.  Encouraged, we paid our fee ($10) and proceeded.

We had forgotten two things from our previous visit to Haleakala (for sunrise) in 1989.  First, the summit is a long way from the park entrance:  about 10 miles of narrow, windy road and another 3000 feet of elevation.  Reaching the park entrance gave me the feeling of having arrived but we still had another half-hour of traveling ahead of us.  Getting there might turn out to be more than half the fun.

At about 9000 feet of elevation, we popped out of the clouds—like an airplane reaching cruising altitude after taking off on an overcast day—and into the sunshine.  It was an exhilarating experience.  The summit is above the tree line (in truth, not much else grows up here) and the terrain is otherworldly.  The rocky terrain and absence of vegetation makes me think of photos of Mars and being above the clouds adds to the sense of being in a place not exactly of the earth.  It felt more like being on the edge of an adjacent planet, looking down over the clouds at the ocean and low-lying lands of Earth below.

The second thing we had forgotten about the summit is that it is cold up there!  The ambient temperature was a brisk 40 degrees and with wind chill taken into account, the effective temperature was well below freezing.  It made taking photographs difficult.  None of us had brought appropriate gear and so, with an hour left until sunset, we opted to head back down the mountain and enjoy it from a lower—and warmer—elevation.

In an article in this month’s (i.e., November’s) Bon Appétit, the writer Michael Chabon describes his family’s Thanksgivings as having never been bound by geography (“Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is”).  His clan has no permanent host or default cook and each year they do something different (and non-traditional in the strictest descendents-of-the-Mayflower sense).  That got me thinking about the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday and the roles of Guest versus Host in its celebration.

Lately, I consider Thanksgiving to be a stay-at-home holiday, a day when I would need a very good reason to go someplace else.  For many years now, we have been hosts to a small number of guests and we cook a fairly traditional meal.  After much trial and error, we’ve gotten to a point where we can get several dishes on the table, most of them still hot (sliced turkey, for instance, cools off very quickly), at more-or-less the appointed hour.  It is heartwarming to be able to say that for a few of our friends and family, when they travel over the river and through the woods (quite literally), it is to our house that they go.

But this has not always been the case.  When I was a kid, hosting the Thanksgiving get-together was shared primarily by my parents and by my maternal aunt and uncle.  The venue would alternate between our house and theirs but the guest list remained fairly constant and large:  my family’s six, my aunt and uncle’s seven, and my maternal grandparents.  As my siblings and cousins got older, the crowd swelled with the addition of new spouses and—a few years afterwards—nieces, nephews and cousins once removed.

When I left home for college, I continued to be a guest at the Thanksgiving meal although when it was located at my parents’ house, I would assist in its preparation.  This remained true after I met Rachel (being at Cal at the right place and time is something I am eternally thankful for!) with each of us visiting our own family for the holiday.  (One year, Rachel celebrated with the family of her then-boyfriend, but let’s speak no more of that!).

My last year as an undergrad, though, my two roommates and I took our first stab at hosting and cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  We scheduled it for about a week before the actual holiday—when most of us would be traveling elsewhere—and planned a menu based on our collective family traditions (there was a good deal of overlap).  We gathered our recipes, made several shopping trips (we probably never had so much food in that apartment) and spent the entire day cooking.

I don’t remember where we got tables and chairs we needed to seat the eight people who joined us that night (all of whom brought a dish to add to the menu) but we managed to fit everyone in a diagonal arrangement crossing the kitchen and living room.  The meal was a huge success, everybody ate and drank until filled and all were happy they came.  We were thankful to have them.  We all ended up guests at our respective families’ formal dinners but we got a healthy taste of what hosting the event felt like.

I didn’t try hosting Thanksgiving again until a few years later when Rachel and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio (Rachel was a professor at Oberlin College).  The first year we were there, we spent Thanksgiving with her parents (it was a welcome dose of the familiar during a period that was marked for us by tremendous change, both cultural and personal).  But the next year, Rachel’s parents and brother came to us—a road trip of at least eight hours duration—and we spent the holiday and most of the weekend together.  Once again, we planned, shopped for and cooked a traditional dinner.  It was a very satisfying—even if stressful—experience.

When we moved to New York City, the following year, we spent the first few Thanksgivings with Rachel’s parents.  At first, we assisted with the meal preparation—making us both host and guest—but soon, we had commandeered the kitchen and were cooking the entire meal.  We were on our way to becoming the traditional Thanksgiving hosts even if the meal was not always completely traditional (for the several years that we ate vegetarian, our menu included everything you’d expect except a turkey).  The only thing we needed was our own home in which to do the hosting and that followed after a few years (the story of which is fodder for separate posts).

And so, fast-forwarding several years, we have become one of the more constant elements of the Thanksgiving holiday.  But we have no delusions that this is any indication of stability or a resistance to change as Michael Chabon might fear.  For one thing, while our menu is usually based on a traditional template (turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and something green), it is different every year.  And although we usually act as hosts, we can be enticed to experience the holiday as guests and to partake of—and be enriched by—what constitutes tradition in other families’ homes.

The only thing that is truly constant and will never change is that we are thankful for our wonderful families and friends and grateful for every opportunity we have to share a meal and a few moments of togetherness with them.