Friday, December 23, 2011

The Goblins of Christmas Present

            I am caught between two times.  I have left behind, long ago, the age of innocence, where Santa and reindeer brought happiness and magic.  I have not yet attained the ripened age of wisdom, where the joys of life are grandkids and reminiscing.  I am caught in the middle, where life meets work meets responsibility.  I like it like that and am more than happy to meet the challenges of each new day.  After all, that's what I am supposed to do. I'm a man, an adult, and a father.  But Christmas brings with it new challenges.  I am now also Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, and Yukon Cornelius (and my kids believe I have a good deal of Burger Meister in me as well).
           I am Frosty.  To two children there is nothing more magical on Christmas then some snow.  I must find that snow around the holiday.  I must somehow talk Mom into allowing those children to play in that snow.  Even if that snow is just a coating, and playing in it means more mud sliding than sledding.  It is my obligation to fight with the more sensible spouse in order for the children to decimate the lawn and ruin a "perfectly good" pair of jeans.  And sometimes, there is enough magic left in my old hat to find enough snow and a big enough sled for the entire family to have at least one good laugh.
            I am Rudolph.  No matter what the hour.  No matter what the conditions.  No matter what the traffic.  I must find a way to get us to our farm for Christmas.  We will brave the crowded highway.  We will brave the blowing snow.  We will brave the dark of night.  I will drive relentlessly over the river and through the woods.  I will get us there, all while the rest of the family snuggle into their heated blankets and comfy travel pillows and sleep the journey away.  They will awaken fresh and ready for the festivities (and sledding) with a groggy, "I can't believe we're here already.  Did you take a shortcut?"
            I am Yukon Cornelius.  I am the steadfast, burly explorer that needs to take on the Abominable Snowbeast.  I must tackle with fervor all the hurdles the holiday throws at us.  The gifts ordered weeks ago that never seemed to arrive.  The groceries that need to be procured through the enraged throngs.  The selfish siblings that try to steal the Christmas spirit with self-centered nonsense and no concern for the sadness they spread.  The true challenges that do not rear their ugly heads until we somehow reach adulthood must be met head on, and somehow brought to a happy conclusion.
            I am Santa.  The jolly old soul that spreads cheer everywhere he goes no matter the circumstance.  Without thought for bills or money or consequence, I must ensure the tree is surrounded and laid thick with wrapped boxes of very special things.  I must wear a smile and a twinkle in the eye. I am the magical guy in the red suit that sneaks in at night to fill the stockings and eat the reindeer food (and maybe sneak in some milk and cookies).
            I am Burger Meister.  In the end, I must play my favorite role of the grumpy old man who outlaws the toys.  The kids love the dad that grumbles all day about the mess and the toys all about.  I must be the burly curmudgeon that stomps through the house bah humbugging the season.  The performance is easy as I wait until all the gifts have been opened and then, with wrapping paper and boxes thrown all around the tree, the kids remember the stuff all the way in the back.  My grumpy heart melts at the wealth of school-made and homemade presents, at my socks and underwear wrapped in candy cane paper, at all the love our family has to give.
            I am all these things and one more, content.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good holiday.
God bless us, everyone.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

            With the holiday bearing down on us like a wintry blizzard, my thoughts drift to so many present-surrounded Christmas trees of days gone by.  They haunt me.  The decorations, the smell of the homemade cookies filling the house, tins filled with sugary goodness stacked high throughout the house, sweet music floating in from the living room, and March of the Wooden Soldiers silently flickering in the corner.  The days prior were consumed by boxes from the attic brimming with collectible ornaments and trinkets made in different grades through school filling the space around the tree, waiting to be unpacked for another Christmas.
            I am overflowing with memories triggered by the smell of pine and baking cookies.  Some are of Army men under the tree or my first racetrack buzzing around wrapping paper on Christmas morning.  Others are of bouncing on Mom and Dad's bed as they pretended to sleep and the sprint to the Tree.  Memories of my uncle, withered by cancer, opening his presents on his final Christmas weigh heavy while my daughters' first holidays lighten my spirit.  My oldest found the box her first teddy bear came in to be the best toy anyone could ever make.  The food seemed to never end and relatives visited late into the night.  Many of those Christmases were snow-covered events with all the joy those flakes bring to young hearts.
            Of course, these vision are seen through the tinted glasses of childhood, where everyone is happy, the mood perfect and each present thoughtfully chosen.  There was no such thing as work or responsibility.  The presents somehow merely appeared and weren't saved for all year or bought with overtime money that had been squirreled away.  Each and every visitor stopped by the house to spread cheer and not out of feelings of obligation.  Dysfunctional was a good thing back then and the tinted glasses kept the holiday grand.
            With the blizzard of Christmas quickly coming, I prefer to don those childhood-tinted spectacles and keep the Christmas spirit.  Everything seems to sparkle.  I welcome the wintry weather.  The overtime doesn't seem to be that bad.  And the memories were worth the journey.  They haunt me and I do not mind...especially the smell of baking cookies.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Little Red Tractor

            The local Girl Scouts recently asked me to help them with building a float for the town-wide holiday parade and tree lighting ceremony.  Seeing as both of my daughters are scouts and my wife has not only been a volunteer helper for several years but is now making her rookie appearance as a troop leader, it was difficult to turn down such an "opportunity".  They had planned for months to get their hands on a decent size trailer to cover in Christmas lights, center a tree, lay out wrapped gifts, and top off with an inflatable snowman.  One sticking point for the float was the means of towing it in the parade.  They did not want a simple car or truck pulling their creativity down the street.  The girls wanted something a little more memorable.  And so, my three girls decided to offer an antique tractor from our farm to pull their float.  It would keep with their 100th anniversary of Girl Scouts celebration as it is an old piece of Americana.  But it needed to be transported from our farm down to the city and it needed a driver.
            To say the least, I was not entirely happy about borrowing the truck and trailer for transporting the old tractor from work and making the late night trek through the mountains for three hours after work.  I did not look forward to arriving at the farm at dawn to load up the old iron and head back to the city with my heavy cargo and little sleep.  I especially did not want to attempt to find a parking spot on my crowded street and fight to get an old farm tractor off the trailer among all the tightly parked cars.  The whole ordeal seemed rushed under the time constraints and left little sleep for the delivery person, me. 
            With the tractor delivered and hooked up to the float, which was wonderfully done by the scouts, the final step needed attention.  The scouts wanted their float to be pulled by Santa.  I had never played Santa before and my daughters actually wanted their Grandpa to fill in, due to his extensive experience with the role.  Their concerns were not quite satisfied with Grandpa's lessons on being Santa over the previous weeks.  They quizzed me on Ho,Ho,Ho's and proper Santa laughs and waves.  The scouts wanted a traditional suited jolly fellow but some how the suit was misplaced.  I wasn't especially keen on parade route waving and jelly-bowl-jiggling laughter, especially on minimal sleep.  But I stuffed my overalls with a Santa belly, donned my snow-white beard, fitted my Elmer Fudd rabbit-fur hat, and presented Farmer Santa for the tractor-pulled, 100 anniversary Girl Scout holiday float.  Grandpa's stern warning of the importance of playing Santa weighed heavily upon my shoulders.
            The tractor rumbled to life and the float lurched forward, blaring Christmas music.  The old, dim headlights seemed brighter than usual.  The Christmas lights behind the tractor had more sparkle than usual.  The float was well received by the community and all the scouts that hadn't had a chance to view the completed project.  We rolled along the parade route at a snail's pace, the Girl Scouts walking behind their float waving and glowing.  And somewhere along that route the magic of the season swirled.  In the crowd along the sidewalks, kids yelled out for Santa, grown-ups waved, and the older folks nodded their approval with a twinkle in their eyes.  Most had never seen an old tractor up close, and Santa was up the in the seat.  I waved without thinking, smiling behind the beard and the ho,ho,ho's seemed to flow out.  It was easy to have a glow about you with so many people smiling and waving and looking on with a little amazement at the whole scene
            At the end of the parade route, by the town Christmas tree, the crowd closed in around the girls and I parked the float in its designated spot.  People flocked to it, asking for pictures with Santa and a chance to climb aboard the old red tractor.  Christmas cards were created, the girls took turns taking pictures in front of their creation, and I was far from tired.  I was given the greatest Christmas present ever.  I was given the chance to bring smiles to so many people, most I didn't even know.  I was given a chance to be Santa.  Folks are still talking about Santa and the old red tractor from two weeks ago, happy at the memory.  And I am thankful for the opportunity and the Girl Scouts for allowing me to have it.  Merry Christmas from Farmer Santa.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Success Through Failure

            Welcome back.  Hunting season has drawn quietly to a close.  This season was the first of hopefully many that was not focused mainly on the pursuit of game but my children's hunting experiences.  My wife also made her return to the woods after a few years off, staying in the house and/or cabin to tend to cooking chores and the children.  The kids were usually good for only a short while out in the woods and so my wife kept the fireplace, and hot chocolate, warm awaiting their early returns.  This year saw the beginning of the next generation of hunters in our family spread their wings and join us in the hunt.  And so, these past few days were dedicated more to their experience outdoors and the time spent with parents and grandparents without distraction than to actual hunting.  I, along with others, passed on some opportunities to harvest an animal in exchange for my kids being able to see those same animals.  Their beaming faces and the excitement of the moment, of being in such close proximity to the wild, was satisfaction enough for a lifetime.
            However, in the failure to harvest a deer, success grew.  My kids tried harder each day to see the deer sooner and sooner.  They began to try to anticipate from where the animals would come or at what time.  They tried to put the lessons they learned just the day before to use.  They were never discouraged by the lack of success and merely tried harder the next day.  They looked forward to trying harder, to improving, to persisting.  They were not discouraged.  They were determined.
            In the last few days, my children taught me plenty.  They taught me several lessons from my childhood that I had forgotten, and thinking about it now, probably most of us have forgotten.  They taught me to stay focused and determined, to not give in.  They sure didn't.  They also taught me the joy of discovery, as they happily went about the task at hand or sat patiently listening.  Everything to them was new and exciting.  My kids did not worry about the day ending or problems at work.  They did not spend their day before it even started.  They were just happy to spend time and to be doing something together.  And when that something turned into nothing, they simply shrugged, tried to figure out what could have been done differently, and looked forward to trying again tomorrow.  Life had returned to being simple.
            And that is exactly what I hope to continue to do, return to being simple.  To take each day for what it is and try harder tomorrow.  To not worry about the things I can not control, but figure out the things I can.  To not waste the time I have on days that have not arrived yet.  Being simple.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Seasonal Friends

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part V)

           For a short time, our hunting party grew and there were several seasons that saw an eight person "hunt".  We hunted with Danny (the wanna-be cop who eventually became one) and Chester (the twin), Drew (the chain-smoker who tried), Tony (the fishman that wanted to hunt), Steve M. (the old truck driver), all friends and quirky.  Danny would carry so much ammo that he sank in the marsh and couldn't get out.  Drew would shoot anything, usually at close range, and leave only feathers, and shoot the feathers again for good measure.  Tony was easily distracted and would work the field edges of the line until he wandered off only to be seen again for lunch.  And lunch was Steve's nap time until we headed home.  Chester liked to four-wheel the trails but didn't like the leaves touching his Jeep. 
            The years were good and the seasons near comical.  A bird a piece was a good take and I cleaned them all.  (This was a chore of much distress for the "hunters".)  Those were good years.  They started in the early '90's.  Pheasant season was the time of year my brother, Jason, and I actually saw eye to eye.  We had many close moments in the woods during that time, hiking, hunting, and just talking.  We spent so many weekends hunting back then that the rest of our friends, the "hunters", all applied for their hunter education cards.  They all went together and happiness ensued.
            By 1995, my parents had bought 50+ acres in Laurens, NY, right between Cooperstown and Oneonta.  A raw piece of land for hunting in rural NY.  It was shotgun country on top of a hill that swept into a valley.  My parents and I both bought our first ATV's to explore this paradise.  We bought wall tents and expedition tents, and spent every chance we could four hours from the city.  Deer came back into the picture and they were here to stay.  Laurens, NY became Stress Mountain and that became Deer Camp.

            Thank you for following along in my early exploits as a young hunter.  I thought it appropriate to share some stories during this time of year.  The story continues but for now it is time to be in the woods.  This blog has been interrupted for the end of hunting season.  When it returns so will thoughts on the "real" world and the woods will be left behind for now.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Growing Up

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part IV)

             There were a good number of years lost between those early days and my next turn as a hunter.  I forfeited alot of time afield to pursue school and sports and, to a lesser degree, girls.  I foolishly let time slip by without making time to be in the woods.  As a family, we still camped occasionally, until my parents bought a house in the Poconos.  We water skied and casually fished but hunting was on the sideline.
            In 1990, with the end of high school near, and my eighteenth birthday come, gone, and behind me, I started my walk in the woods anew.  I applied for and obtained my firearms purchase permit.  I bought, with money saved from several jobs I held, a Ruger 10/22 and a Mossberg 500 combo shotgun, both for $199 each.  I let out on my own with a tent and a packed car and toured the campgrounds of New England.  And, most importantly, I didn't go deer hunting.  Instead, my brother and I chased pheasants.  The season was longer and the action faster, and the access better.  I was outside again and hunting.
            Small game season was something to plan for, pack for.  I set up a hunting box for my gear, collected maps of management areas, and began driving all over NJ in search of hunting grounds.  I drew maps, took pictures, and hiked miles, looking for spots to hunt.  The search for places to hunt small game became a safari in itself.  Finding and mapping a new spot was almost more important than finding animals to hunt.  Fishing and camping helped find new spots, as most of my public fishing spots were also on gamelands.  And so I became a fisherman by way of hunting.
            In that return to hunting, the group was small, my father, brother and I.  We hunted pheasant along the Delaware River from the Gap to Milford, PA.  A tangled mess of briars broken occasionally by a cornfield.  The strip of WMA's was along the Old Mine Road, a sort of forgotten road back in time with only one lane and dozens of dirt tracks spewing off of it, leading deeper into the woods.  The bird hunting was okay in those years but it came with a price.  The parking lots were crowded, as were the primary fields, the ones the stocking trucks could easily navigate.  Many of the hunters were yahoos with itchy trigger fingers and untrained house dogs.  The horror stories are many but easily overlooked.  Some were quite memorable, however.  The hunter that beat his dog senseless for not coming to heel and wanting to hunt with our lab instead.  The hunters that left their beagle in the parking lot because he wouldn't run rabbit.  The near brawl in the field with the two men that shot at us through a thicket at a hiding bird and then sent their dog to fetch the downed bird  after it flushed  and we shot it.  There was the guy who shot the perched bird out of the tree, ten feet above us and our parked trucks, fifteen minutes before opening day.  And the numerous pellet showers we took during water breaks in the middle of the fields.  The stories go for a long while but they bring smiles now and no regret or anger.  For in those same fields, I have seen the "elusive" New Jersey black bear, cuddly as ever.  I have watched eagles soar above the Delaware and have laughed with friends.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Through the Early Years

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part III)

          I still carry those licenses from the first couple of years.  I hold them every once in a while and cherish them.  They are pristine, almost, not filled, no tags torn off.  I only hunted deer back then, and the seasons and management were much different than today.  The deer did not seem as abundant nor as willing to be seen as they do today, especially in NJ.  There was only a doe "day" and a week long buck season.  Between work and school, archery season did not count, Dad fit ducks and pheasants in between work shifts, of which there were many.  That left that one week for deer camp.  Schools in NJ (and in the shadow of NYC) frowned upon hunting and there were no sick days or school closings allotted for hunting.  I realize there are still mythical places where family traditions and hunting rites live on and are accepted even by the local board of education as viable, important tools in the growth of a community and it's children.  Where I came from, and the timeframe I grew up in, that simply is not the case.  (Perhaps it is a contributing factor to our current social situations?)  And so a week a year it is, with school and work, at best two weekends and maybe a day during the week.
            Our deer camp was a small "farm" in northern Jersey that backed up against some public land.  My father worked with the old man and, as with most deer camps, traded some chores around the homestead for permission to hunt.  During the year we would periodically stop in and check on the old farmer and his wife (Ann & George) and lend a hand with any chores that needed to be done.  He had a single calf and a flock of chickens.  His garden was huge with an additional cornfield.  The occasional bear would visit and come knocking on the kitchen door.  This little farm was the base of operations for more than one urban hunter and we spent more than one night sharing the living room floor with several hunters. 
            There was a Christmas party and a couple of unforgettable Fourth of July picnics where one of the other hunters (I believe his name was Cliff) brought a truckload of Macy's-quality fireworks.  We dug holes in the ground for the spectacular mortar shells and were awed by the massive shower of sparks that followed that evening.  The early '80's  (1982, 1983, 1984) were a magical, romantic time for me and my early hunting life.  Nothing could replace the memories of that little place - the picnics, the living room floor, the seeming feeling of camaraderie.
            During those early years, the hunting wasn't all that successful but it matter not at all to me.  I spent alot of those seasons shivering on a rock or tree stump listening for deer.  My father would make circles around me trying to drive the deer toward me.  Often I would fall asleep from the boredom and silence, or I would play air guitar with the butt stock of my shotgun, or simply daydream.  A couple hours would go by but it always ended the same, with my dad saying, "Did you see the deer go by?"
            I only half-believed then and I still only half-believe now.  The real truth was he tried to keep my interest even though we had not seen anything.  He'll never admit it but his laugh and smile give it away.  The amount of deer, or other wildlife, we saw back then was never important to me and the fact I drifted off to sleep was nothing.  The importance was in the early mornings before the sun rose, bumping along in the old Chevy on our way to the woods.  It was the time spent with my dad and his hunting buddies, being let into the secret club.  It was the feel of that old side-by-side 16 gauge.  Nowadays, it is just plain illegal and improper to allow a 10-year-old to sit alone in the woods with a gun, but back then, to me, it was pure magic and a solid foundation for the future. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Young Hunter

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part II)

           My journey started in a classroom inside the old armory in Jersey City.  A ten-year-old sitting, with butterflies in his stomach, among men mostly twice his age.  They seemed like giants back then, but most were probably teenagers or twenty-somethings.  They were not nearly as intimidating as the true titans that lined the walls.  All of them were rugged men with beards and heavy boots, adorned in flannel, plaid, or olive green.  The session and test are a blur, now as they were then.  We filed out to mingle around the outside of the building and the men joked and planned and shook hands.  The hunters, new and old, piled into pick-ups and station wagons, a time before the modern SUV, when trucks were four-wheel-drive with manual transmissions and manual hubs, large metal beasts with rumbling exhausts that a person climbed into instead of just getting in.
            We finished the indoctrination into the hunting fraternity in the meadows.  The place has long since disappeared into the marsh, but years ago a tower stand stood above the cattails, throwing clays out into the swamp.  A shooting range was arranged nearby, but both fell victim to development and the fear of hearing shotguns too close to the suburbs.  It was at night, surrounded by those same grizzled faces.  The tower would throw clays spinning out over the cattails and into the darkness.  I stood there, stomach in knots, with a lump building in my throat.  I almost tiptoed up to the instructor and the station at which I needed to stand.  I was carefully handed an old single shot and I robotically followed the steps to safely load and handle the firearm.  I nodded my readiness and the clay flew out and froze against the dark night sky.  The shotgun thundered and the night time exploded.  This was no youth model.  It wasn't even a 20 gauge.  This was the one-size-fits-all, one-gun-does-it-all 12 gauge.  The recoil bruised my shoulder and the muzzle flash befuddled my senses.  I wish I could tell you if the second shot was better, if any of the clays were broken, or anything else that happened after pulling that trigger, but excitement, adrenaline, and a little bit of terror consumed my entire body.  I can say I vaguely recall, as if sleep walking, the slaps on the back and shoulders as I left the range and retreated to the truck.
            My body was buzzing on the way home and for days later.  I had become a hunter, or at least had taken the first major step in becoming one.  I now possessed "the card", my hunter education identification card.  I was one.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Hunter's Tale

    Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part I)

              It could be said that the journey started years ago with my dad bringing home ducks and rabbits, pheasants and an occasional deer.  They were mostly taken from the meadowlands surrounding our home and the public forests of northern New Jersey.  It could possibly be said that it started with my mother hunting those same woods, pregnant, and all the stories and misadventures that go along with those sort of things.  Or it could go deeper, I guess one could suggest, to a grandfather I did not know.  A memory of pictures and stories told, of photos of old-time, black and white deer camps and meat poles, when men of the community went off to far off states to hunt deer and drink and play cards.  A time of history where deer camps had names, his was "Dogpatch" and they wore patches to proclaim their allegiance.  There were dogs, beagles in days gone by, and Labrador retrievers for as long as I have been alive.
             But this is not their journey, it is mine.  And, although my roots may have been sown in that fertile piece of history, they sprouted in an entirely different time.  My journey has brought me to a time of completely different values and views.  I am caught between two worlds, two generations, two separate mindsets, so far apart it seems that I can't even imagine where or when the split came but I know that it is huge.
             Before I speak of the present, one must know and understand from where I began.  This is my journal, my life, my journey.  It is a record for my family, by family, so as they get older the stories can be remembered and retold, so they do not fade like so many other things in life, both more and less important.  It is a hunting journal of sorts, but also a story of life and how the two are intertwined.  My thoughts and memories may meander sometimes between true hunting and merely being outdoors.  Yet are the two so different?  To me, hunting is not solely the act of pulling the trigger or releasing the arrow, it is not merely the taking of life, it is the prologue to the act that carries the heaviest of weight.  The scouting, the stand preparation, the land stewardship, the details like packing, practicing, and pictures, the anticipation, these are the important things to me; and most of all, the sharing.  What good is a story without an audience?  Of what importance is food without mouths to feed?  What is a life without a family to share it with?  In an act based largely on solitary pursuit, camaraderie plays an amazingly important role.  There is no deer camp without hunters.  There is no true family without dear companions.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tis the Season

            The holiday season began in October, with Columbus Day.  We didn't actually celebrate Columbus coming to America and discovering people living here already (I guess the Indians do not count as explorers or discoverers).  As I have previously chronicled, Halloween comes early in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire.  That is the kick off to our holiday season.  Maybe holiday season isn't an accurate description, outdoor season could serve as a better label.  For it is with the changing of the leaves and the cooling of the air that we truly begin to embrace the coming months.  It is also the start of hunting season and time to be in the woods.
            Through October and into November, we prepare for the snow, and the holidays, by preserving our hard-earned garden harvests.  We finish putting up bales of hay to keep the animals through the snowy months.  The tractors and farm equipment are winterized.  Firewood is stacked, with excess piled near the splitter just in case.  The chores are many but between we fit hunting and the preparations that go with it.  It is a family endeavor, with even the kids pitching in.  Placing stands, clearing brush and downed trees, cutting back intrusive branches along the access trails, just being in the woods together. 
            During this time, we dabble in hunting, taking advantage of the cooler, sunny days.  We set aside a few hours on the weekends to take the kids out to chase squirrels in the colorful treetops, or tromp through the thickets to jump at grouse bursting out of the brambles, or try to teach patience to a seven-year-old by sitting at the base of a tree straining our eyes in an attempt to spot a turkey before it can spot us.  It is only a few short hours, sometimes not even that as the fidgeting starts early, to share, but the memories will last forever.  It is not about killing our prey but spending time outside, away from phones and video games, from work and school, just family time without distraction.  It is amazing how slowly time moves perched in a tree waiting for deer with my daughters beside me.  If I could only bottle the essence of that quality time.
            Thanksgiving marks the middle of our holiday season, the calm right before things begin to ramp up.  Opening Day is near.  Deer Camp is about to start.  It used to be a busy time for us.  A Thanksgiving meal filled with friends and family.  It has slowed some as everyone has grown older and further apart.  But this time is important to our family.  With the hustle and bustle of life pulling on each of us from every direction, we have set this time aside for family.  Raising two daughters,  I have made it a point to try to instill the meaning of these family traditions in them.  I understand that with time and life, they will eventually grow up.  They will establish their own lives and families.  Hopefully, they will remember these lessons from the woods.  Thanksgiving is a tradition of family, deer camp a place to return to each year, the forest a sanctuary to escape from the rigors of everyday.      
             I can only pray, as I sit quietly in my tree and watch the forest come alive, that along with my wife and Grandma and Grandpa , I have nurtured my daughters' love of the outdoors and their sense of pride in family traditions.  No matter where life takes them, their seat around the campfire, their plate at the Thanksgiving table, and their places within my heart, will always be here.  For now I will cherish every moment of those little hands holding mine as we walk through the woods together.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Smokehouse

            With the trees nearly bare and the falling leaves slowly giving way to gently falling flakes, it is nearly past time to preserve the fruits of this year's harvest.  My wife does her part to ensure home grown goodness through the coming cold months by canning as much as she can in the too short weekends.  Her and the kids love making applesauce, salsa, and relish.  Grandma adds to the pantry apricot jelly, pear butter, more salsa, and zucchini breads.  Mason jars quickly fill the shelves.  The dehydrator hums as it produces apple chips and other dried fruits and veggies.  My contribution, and a new sort of fall hobby, is jerky and smoked meats.
            Years ago a family friend spoke of an idea to build a true smokehouse, something reminiscent of days gone by.  It would be an old shed, a larger structure, with an outside smoke source, a firepit of sorts.  The idea never made it out of the dreaming stages, but his tales of jerky and turkey legs slowly smoked to perfection caught my interest.  I experimented with liquid smoke, dry rubs and wood chips before putting the meat in the wife's dehydrator.  Nothing ever turned out just right and recipes never made it out of the experimental phase.  And so I ordered up a real smoker.
            The Bradley electric smokehouse arrived last year and found a home on the back deck.  It simplifies the whole process by automatically feeding little pressed wood discs into the smoke chamber.  There is a control for low heat also and a digital thermometer reading.  Just set the heat timer, the degrees (up to 300) and the smoke duration and the smoker is ready.  There are six racks to hold plenty of meat.  I can usually make about five steaks worth of jerky at one time.  The wood discs come in a wide range of flavors to match any type of meat or taste.  This is the easiest, most convenient way of making jerky (or smoking fish or ribs) I have found.  And the chimney to control the amount of smoke lets out tendrils of smoke during the process to fill the nearby air with tantalizing smells of campfire and BBQ.
             At the end of the day, there is jerky and mason jars full of homemade offerings.  For me, the best part is sharing all these creations with friends and family.  We all try to make enough to not only get us through the winter but also to share.  There is no better feeling than the satisfied grins on the faces of all those enjoying the product of our farm and our work.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Non-Holiday

            It should be right behind the Fourth of July.  It should be held in higher regard than all the rest.  There is no reason for it to be forgotten.  Parades and ceremonies and fireworks simply are not enough.  This is a day to truly be thankful, a day that should be met with football and giant dinners and family gatherings.  It is the one day that should never be taken for granted.  Today is Veteran's Day.
           The company I work for, like most companies theses days, does not recognize today as a day worthy of remembrance.  It is a normal Friday.  The union, as willing to accept dues as they are to concede recognized holidays, does not consider today a day worth fighting for.  I wear the American flag stitched upon my work clothes, but can not recognize the heroes of this country without a sick day.  The men and women who have fought and sacrificed for my rights and freedoms are not worthy of a day of recognition according to many, my company, it's customers, Local 807, and most of the rest of country included.  The beginning of Summer is more important.  The "unofficial" end of Summer is more important.  A fictitious fat man in a red suit is more important.  Watching a giant ball descend a pole while partying with friends is much more important.  The veterans of this country are not as important as these things.  However, without them we would not celebrate such frivolous matters.
            For many years, I hunted with my father on Veteran's Day.  We used to meet in the morning and drive to the Delaware Water Gap and walk the fields there in search of small game, pheasants and squirrels mostly.  We never mentioned that it was a holiday.  We just walked the woods together.  Spending time together was enough, no hoopla.  As my parents left New Jersey to reside in the slower pace of Pennsylvania, my father and I still made plans to meet on Veteran's Day to walk the same fields.  Times have changed since those youthful hunts.  The holiday calendar at work has grown lean on what is considered an important or allowable day off.  I, at one time, resorted to sick days to keep the tradition of hunting with my dad on Veteran's Day going.  Recently, I have used seniority and vacation to ensure that this day is spent with family.
            My father is a disabled veteran of the Vietnam Conflict.  He carries many scars of all kinds with him.  There were years when those scars took their toll not only on him.  I lost some years to those scars, too.  The loss was of time and chances to make memories and I refuse to allow that to ever happen again.  My children take pride in the fact that their grandfather was a soldier and fought for this country.  I will not allow them to lose the opportunity to make memories of time spent with their grandfather.  They proudly celebrate this day knowing they are, in some small part, connected to it.  It is his day and he should have it.  He has surely earned it and continues to earn it, everyday.
            My story is only one of thousands, perhaps millions by now.  My experiences of the effect of war and the cost of politics and freedom are merely a blade of grass in a meadow of such experiences.  All of those stories deserve a place, a day of recognition, a moment to reflect and remember, and a small word of thanks.  These stories are attached to lives, to families.  They can not be allowed to fade from the memory of a nation.  They have sacrificed for every American.  They have earned their day. 
            Who wants to be the one that takes their day away?  Who wants to be the one that allows their memories to fade?  Who wants to be the one that keeps their stories from being told? 

             It will not be me.  Mine is but a small inconvenience compared to their scarifices.  It will not be me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


            We have just returned from our annual autumn road trip to Cooperstown, NY.  Every year we return to the area where the wife and I tied the knot.  At the top of Mary Brown Hill Rd, just passed the Stress Mountain sign (a sign that still hangs there), lies the original acreage purchased by my parents that started the whole quest for a place in the country.  Up on that mountain overlooking the valley, my father built the trellis under which my wife and I were married.  The mountain is a few short miles from Cooperstown, just a quick ride from Oneonta.  We always detour off the highway to meander down those country roads, chasing the memories of those young days of our time together.  We laugh at the good times we had there as we slowly drive by the old woodlot.  A little further down the road we come to an intersection and turn left.
            Aside from our special little place near Cooperstown and the regular baseball tourism making the pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame, there are some wonderful antique shops, old time candy stores, and loads of twisting roads for the two-wheel enthusiast.  There is also the destination of our road trip, Fly Creek Cider Mill.  The mill is a quaint place filled with samples of every kind.  Dips, salsas, syrups, jams, jellies, sauces, wines, and candies, all fill the shelves of the barn-turned-store.  The outbuildings hold a bakery and snack bar, as well as, an antique tractor display and chicken coop.  It is a worthwhile detour, especially for the person looking for a present or a reminder of their trip.
            Our next stop, and make sure you leave room to eat, is the Brewery Ommegang.  A Belgian brewery right outside Cooperstown.  Drive up the lane, under the arch, and find a parking spot.  Take the tour and sample some of the finest beers made in America, some of them more than just beer.  The brewers added a cafe to the visitors center.  The food is excellent, consisting of fondue and a variety of crepes, both sweet and savory.  The bratwurst paired with the Witte is a can't miss lunch.  The PB&J waffle for dessert will even have the adults fighting over the utensils.  Do yourself a favor and make sure you do not pass on any of the desserts and don't think about sharing.  I wouldn't think of visiting the area without stopping here.
            If you still need more beer, or root beer, and need some Hall of Fame souvenirs, stop by Cooperstown Brewing, just down the road from Ommegang.  This is a more baseball oriented brewery.  All of the beers are adorned with baseball names and labels.  The shop is small and deals in growlers.  It doesn't have the character of Ommegang but is worth a visit.  This also holds true for the winery a little further down the road, Bear Pond, for the wine tasters in the group. It is a little place with warm, friendly folks happy to share their knowledge and their wine.
            As always, we return from our journey down some back roads with full bellies, happy spirits, and a truckload of stuff.  The back of the truck is filled with beer, wine, jams and jellies.  The cooler holds cheeses, pies, cider and fruit.  The kids are giddy with pockets full of candy and fudge.  Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad are smiling with old times and new memories.  And we all talk of our return trip next year and the places we missed or didn't have the time to stop by this year.  The area is golden brown this time of year and the farmland is the perfect backdrop for a road trip.  There's a ton of other places to find along the way, or rediscover from years gone by.  It is a region where a person needs to slow down and take their time to find all the hidden gems.  I intentionally miss a stop here and there to ensure we have something to look forward to next year.

Game Day

            For some it is the day of the week during the time of the year to look forward to most.  You have tailgating, the buzz of the parking lot and the smell of charcoal filling the air.  Parking spaces are turned into small communities that thrive on the anticipation of the coming game.  There is food and drink galore, mostly homemade comfort foods.  The place is a sea of team-colored apparel, jerseys displaying a favorite player or a nickname.  The stadium is ready to erupt with the collective cheers of the masses or deflate with their joined sighs.  This is game day.
           The bars are filled.  Most of the patrons wear the same uniforms as the parking lot crowds.  The cheers are almost as loud, the sighs just as deep.  The food is of the wings and beer kind.  There are TVs everywhere, enough to watch the game and some of the more important rivalries.  A betting man could keep track of nearly every score without leaving his place at the bar.  The beer flows and the party doesn't end until the final whistle of the final game televised for the day.  It is a day-long escape from any other care in the world.
            The final bastion of team support, the living room.  A place where folks take pride in their homemade BBQ sauces and spinach dips.  Friends and family gather to scream at the screen and taunt one another for team allegiances.  It is more intimate setting.  The menu more personal.  The beverage choice more direct and dedicated.  The jerseys are still worn, the cheers still loud, the sighs still collective, but the barbs are far more pointed.  It is a weekly party planned for all week, for seventeen weeks, with hopes of continuing the planning into the playoffs.
            In my neck of the woods, game day is slightly more sedate.  It includes buzzing through the chores a little earlier, filling the lungs with fresh, crisp air.  We still don jerseys.  We still fill the air with tasty aromas of comfort foods by the pot-full.  We plan all week and shop for months readying the menu.  Homemade salsas and chilies, artisans cheeses from local farms, fresh made bread, wine bought from a local winery, personally selected craft beer (or two, maybe three) and seasonal desserts created by little hands adorn the table.  Sometimes there is a heated discussion over the value of a player.  Sometimes our bodies sink a little too deep into the couch, engulfed by pillows and blankets and quiet snores.  Halftime finds us walking the woods in an attempt to clear our heads and eyes of  the encroaching grogginess and make room in our bellies for further indulgence.  If the flakes are flying, a crackling fire in the fireplace will accompany the game, as will thoughts of how many sick days I have remaining.
            It is game day.  Different everywhere but still the same.  An escape from the week as a new week begins.  A day of community and camaraderie and getting together with friends.  It is game day.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Place in the Country

            With a respite from work looming a mere 48 hours away, I catch myself daydreaming of a quiet, country place.  Recently, I have been told that I am made up mostly of rustling leaves, the smell of damp earth, and cool breezes.  That suits me just fine.  I'd rather be known for the simple things rather than stress and drama and headaches.  I would rather be seen as fresh air than a reminder of the everyday.  The remarks about my make up were pointed more towards the contents of my thoughts and ramblings and asking if I could reference work life a little more.  I replied with a smile and a nod but also with the statement that I write what I know and feel.  For the most part I am trying to forget the mundane workday and concentrate on the more important and interesting things that make life so exciting.  This is not to say that job-related observations do not creep into my thoughts, but, for me, I try to keep work those thoughts within the confines of my time card.  Bringing work home is the fastest way to drive both yourself and your family insane.  Family time is just that.  I trade my time for money nearly everyday, so when I have a little extra to spend with my family (or an even smaller amount with my thoughts and a keyboard), I refuse to squander them with intrusions from work.
            And so I return to daydreaming of a quiet, country place.  A place my wife and I purchased, along with my parents, a handful of years ago.  My parents traded a smaller plot by Cooperstown, NY and a summer home in a lake community filled with city-folks in the Poconos, for a more permanent farm setting in which to retire.  My wife and I traded every extra dollar we could muster from our paychecks for a place in the country where our children could run barefoot in the grass.  This would be a place our kids could spend countless hours with Grandma and Grandpa.  They could chase chickens and goats, build snow forts and sleigh ride, jump in leaf piles and grow pumpkins.  We could all retreat from the hustle and bustle and breathe again.  With our combined interests, we were able to find 100 acres of magic during a snowy drive over a Christmas weekend.  A defunct farm, slowly being overtaken by weeds and the forest, was to become once again a thriving homestead.
            Over the last few years, Grandma and Grandpa have turned up the farm factor.  They have added horses, goats, rabbits, and chickens to the barnyard.  Tractors are slowly outnumbering cars.  We have repaired the barns and the fences.  Brush hogged the pastures and spread manure to encourage fresh growth.  Apple trees have been pruned and new ones planted.  Pumpkin patches have been established and the ponds have been mowed clear to allow for cane pole fishing.  Raised bed gardens have replaced rocky areas and fallen trees have been split into firewood.  Deep within the forest, a forgotten cabin has been brushed clean of cobwebs and the old woodstove is once again warming the cozy inside.  The cabin is a secret retreat within a retreat, an even more secluded spot in an already out-of-the-way locale.
            Down by the city, it is easy to look forward to returning to an area where cell phone reception is non-existent, electricity is not a certainty (and routinely is not available), and most of the traffic is of the tractor kind.  I daydream of throwing haybales in the summer (work devoid of drama), splitting wood in the fall (the cool air making quick work of any sweat), planting gardens in the spring (nothing more rewarding than fresh veggies), and plowing snow in the winter (warm, comfort food seems to taste better).  Hunting and fishing, planting and harvesting, maple and mud are seasons.  The rising and setting of the sun are the only time clock.  Working and daydreaming, and something more to look forward to than bringing work home, that is my place in the country.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Scariest Halloween

            The toothy-grinned jack-o-lanterns lay frozen to the ground.  Everything is covered in a blanket of white.  Trees, still vibrant with fall colors, are toppled with the extra weight of the snow.  Some of these have seen fit to rob nearby homeowners of precious electricity.  The roads and sidewalks have have been cleared but still hold the hazard of some left over snow and ice.  Many schools and businesses have been closed until the debris can be removed and the power restored.  There is an eerie quiet about the scene.
            The search for candy may have to be postponed until next year.  Oh the horror.  For some, there is no longer a need for a costume as their classes have been suspended.  Oh no.  There will be no parade of little giggling goblins for fear of the lack of streetlights.  Eeeeek.  Halloween, this year, will be ruined, nonexistent.  Aaaaawwwwwww.
            With visions of Irene still lingering, I do not quite understand the dilemma.  Is Halloween not supposed to be a little odd?  Should the holiday for spooks not be scary?  Is this not the time of year when we shut the lights and try to capture some fear?  And, most importantly, what do we teach our children about life, to just hide inside, shrug our shoulders, and give up our special day, hoping someone else will come and make it better?  Should we not light some candles and truly capture the spirit of Halloween?  Should we not start the generator, re-inflate the decorations, and put out the candy bowl, defiantly shaking our fist at Mother Nature?  Should we fiendishly laugh into the night wind and take our children on an extra special trick-or-treat adventure?
            This Halloween is not scary for our children, it is a day of disappointment.  This Halloween is scary only for the parents, who have come to rely too much on conveniences and too little on flexibility.  It is scary for the adults that do not, for a few terrifying hours, have access to the Internet or phone service or a light bulb.  They fear the same wet boots that the children can not wait to dunk in puddles along their route.  The scariest part of this Halloween for me is seeing how soft the once resilient population of America has become, hiding and whining, cowering beneath the covers afraid of slippery sidewalks (and the litigation of lawyers).
            This should be the best, most memorable Halloween of a great many years, a time to recapture the spooky magic of yore.  Perhaps I will let the children trick or treat by lantern light, like it should be.  And light the pumpkin with candlelight, instead of batteries.  And allow the shadows to do their best to send chills across the neighborhood.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Contagiousness of Laziness

            I've been gone awhile, sorry about that.  I caught a bug.  It crept up on me when I wasn't looking.  It seems to be going around at work and it doesn't let up.  There is no pill or medication for it.  You need sheer willpower to overcome it.  Most of my workplace is seriously infected with it.  I would call the CDC to quarantine the place if not for my wife telling me it has already spread to her office too.  While I was down with the bug I had some time to check the news on the TV and it seems the disease has spread alot further than just locally.  It is quite possibly a national epidemic.  I believe the technical term for it is laziness.
            It has been determined, as with my case, that long term exposure to it can lead to contamination. That's how I caught it.  My ailment was only temporary and I was able to pull myself free.  However, I have to stay vigilant because I am surrounded by it on a daily basis.  I can fall prey to it at any moment due to the massive amounts that I am exposed to.  It is a wonder that the economy has not fallen further than it already has due to the breadth of the infected area.  Production is nearly at a stand still, as are most of the workers I know.
            The age old adage of a fair day's work for a fair day's wage is a thing of the past.  Today's worker needs to be rewarded merely for performing their normal workday tasks. Just making it to work deserves at least a two hour bonus.  Perks have now become standards and bonuses are factored into a salary instead of truly being a "bonus" for a job well done.  Extras are expected and calculated not appreciated and worked toward.  The hourly wage is a figure that comes with being hired and not actually the hours worked.  If a person works then they receive the hourly wage plus extra compensation as reward for actually performing the assigned task.  If a person does not work or is unable to gain employment then he or she is paid a weekly wage to stay at home.  I can see how this system would promote a high level of motivation along with a sense of pride in one's work.
            Management is not free from this sickness, as the hopelessness of leading unwilling workers slowly overtakes them.  The offices of America are filled with zombies staring at computer screens watching the clock and thinking on ways to avoid actually working.  Facebook and YouTube are excellent diversions for just this sort of thing.  When managers begin to believe that there is no change in the future, they devolve into the same lethargic entity they are trying to oversee.  Consumed by the masses, they no longer lead but simply put time in at their assigned work station waiting for the inevitable end.
            I have become determined to not allow this plague to infect me.  I will protect my family against such an evil epidemic.  I will meet my employment obligations daily (though I may think twice about covering my coworkers assignments upon completion of my own).  I will not allow the days to run together to create one long, blurry, forgettable week in which time has slipped through my hands.  I will strive diligently to not become jaded by the rewards heaped upon undeserving co-workers for under performing in their jobs.  I will fight tooth and nail to protect my integrity as a professional.  And in the end, I will be consumed by the crushing forces of the creeping, mumbling masses shuffling their way through the work week.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beer Drinkers and Drinking Beer

            The fridge was filled top to bottom, front to back with rows upon rows of aluminum cans, all neatly stacked with labels facing out.  The recycling bin was larger than the regular garbage container.  I was drinking beer.  For years, I drank beer, lots of beer.  I dabbled in variety but mostly stuck to the major label stuff.  The taste, color, and maker was of no real consequence as long as the refrigerator was full.  The only important factor was quantity.  Filling the recycle bin was a contest.  How fast can I fill it?  I was pretty good at drinking beer.  I was young and afraid the party would end.
            However, the party did end, for me anyway.  I grew tired of the headache, and treating that headache with more beer.  Dry-mouth and bad breath mornings got old.  Forgetting how I got to bed or the good times I had with friends was no longer cute.  The smell of the toxic perspiration as it oozed out of me the following day was not worth the flavor of the poison going in.  The tasteless liquid did nothing in quantity but dull my taste buds, keeping them from true flavor.  Propping up a bar stool and frequenting a bar where everyone knew my name and my drink was not a legacy I wished to leave. With the arrival of my wife, who was amused at the sight of my bachelor fridge overflowing with the food groups all contained in a can, and later my children, I no longer wanted to make memories that I couldn't remember.
            Parties still have their place and I overindulge from time to time, but I have "matured" into a beer drinker.  I have gone back to the reason I started drinking beer in the first place, the taste.  I cut my teeth on craft beer before quantity became important.  Long Trail Ale will always be the first, best beer to me.  I would rather try a six-pack of different micro-brews than swill cases of tasteless yellow water.  The experience, the act of tasting, the aroma as it leaves the glass, these are now important to me.  How the beer compliments the rest of my meal, how it brackets the contents of the day, the way it contains the flavor of the season, is now the most important aspects.  I am coming close to beer snobbery.
            To this day, I still love beer, all kinds of beer.  I have traveled hundreds of miles in search of it.  Road trips and vacations have been scheduled around the opening and closings of micro-breweries.  Travel routes have been altered to swing by a particular brewery in order to obtain a special seasonal offering.  Collecting beers and breweries has grown into a strange hobby.  Seven states to date have been scoured for multiple places to find beer, with hundreds of other spots already mapped.  I have visited over thirty different craft breweries and have tasted hundreds of different recipes.  This is something that will never grow old and the memories will not be forgotten, swirling in a foggy haze.  Some will even hold the moment in the waft of its nutty nose and the sting of its bitter finish.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


            They call to me, always.  Everywhere I see them, hanging, framed, unframed, in bags, in shoe boxes.  Pictures.  Some may say I am obsessed with photographs, and more importantly so, the devices with which to take them.  I change cameras as quickly as some people change cell phones.  My ailment has had a hold on me, however, for many more years.  It originated with 35mm and little black plastic cases.  That technology seems ancient, almost prehistoric, nowadays.  It progressed through APS, 1.3 megapixel behemoths the size of VCR's, mini CD's, 5 megapixel pocket cameras, all the way to a 14 mp Sony Alpha.  I finally had to stop there for now due to money and storage constraints.  The cameras just seemed to pile up, but they were and are used incessantly.
            This is one obsession my wife wholeheartedly supports.  Most of her childhood passed without any record.  The few remaining remembrances have been lost to family movement.  She holds dear the rare pieces of her past that have been saved.  She protects them dearly, hiding them away, those lonely memories hardly ever see the sun.  With the foundation of our family, she has vowed to never allow her children to grow up without being able to look back fondly and hold their youth in their hands.  And so, I have been tasked with catching their youth on any media available.  If I do not have some kind of camera in hand, then she is right beside me with a backup.
            It has become second nature now to carry a camera, to throw the camera bag in the truck.  I try to save all the little moments when no one is looking.  Several years ago, when my kids started school, the teacher asked me to write something about what makes my children special.  It was an easy enough assignment, all I had to do was look around the room at all the memories already made in their short time with us.  That assignment got me to thinking and I found a photo, added some words, and created a memento for my kids to remember those early school days.  This was my thought,

"Time goes quick and each moment needs to be caught and shared and kept special.
Because yesterday was diapers and today is already gone and tomorrow,
in their eyes, is forever, but in ours, it's only a few hours away.
This is one of those moments and catching it is rare
and holding on to it nearly impossible.
But, hopefully, there will be more chances to try...
because my children are incredible and my time with them a blessing."

  Never waste today spending your tomorrows,
 greedily hold the moments as if each is special,
 because it is.
 I try to catch every second.  They call to me, always. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Gloomy Ending

            The weather was amazing, sunny with a light breeze.  The landscape was awash in moving colors, leaves swaying in the breeze.  The traffic was light.  Everything was perfect.  Perfect, that is, until we crossed the New Hampshire/Vermont state line.  White River Junction seemed well enough with its flea markets and antique shops.  We quickly made our way further into Vermont and pulled into the visitor center for Queechee Gorge.  A small attraction with a trail leading into a steep gorge below a dam, it has been a stop for us for many years.  The place is also home to a winery, flea market, and food stand.  The kids had not been there since they were small, my youngest couldn't walk yet.  I was looking forward to showing the kids the beauty of this little place, deep in the gorge with the fall colors popping and the water rushing, hopping from rock to rock.  However, it took less than half of the trail to realize that this place had been forever changed by Irene.  The heartless bitch known as Mother Nature had struck down the trees, had wiped away the ground, and had covered the gorge in a monotone brownish-gray mud.  The place no longer existed, not the way it was for so many years. 
            My mood did not improve as we made our way through the rest of Vermont.  Old farms were ravaged.  The pastures were buried under feet of mud.  Buildings littered the riverside.  The kids witnessed antique covered bridges dashed apart like so many toothpicks strewn about the rocks of the river.  Some areas were wastelands, flattened by bulldozers trying to level out a new starting point from which to build anew.  The only oasis within the desolation was the Long Trail Brewery.  They were holding a fundraising event for the local people, selling a newly brewed beer, Good Night Irene.  We pulled into the overflowing lot only to find that the place was past capacity, food was over an hour away and the beer could only be had on tap.  Hungry and disappointed, although feeling somewhat better to see a local business doing its damnedest for the community, we headed back out.  (As a side note, I will buy Long Trail not only because it is some of the best craft beer made and I have been visiting them for twenty years, making road trips seasonally just to get cases of their locally available beers, but also because they do alot of community-based events.)
            We were able to salvage our journey home by visiting Sugarbush Farms, filled with homemade cheeses (great for football Sundays), syrup, and locally made goodies like jellies and jams.  The kids loved sampling everything and being able to escape the truck.  The crowds were a bit much and the counter-lady mentioned this being their busiest day of the year.  Our next stop, as our moods improved but our bellies grumbled, was Bennington and the Madison Brewing Company, a place well received by the children and adults alike.  The Irish pub had better than average pub fare along with some interesting beer varieties.  Our final stop before everyone fell asleep, and left dad to the whine of the highway and the last 150 miles, was a small farm stand not unlike all the rest we had stopped at or passed by.  The big difference in this stop was that they sold raw milk, a special treat for the kids.  Cereal for school in the coming week would be bathed in milk straight from the udder and into a mason jar.  The only people to handle this wonderful refreshment would be the person on one side of the farm stand and the person on the other side of the stand.  Simple, how farming and life should be.
             I can not say if I were more tired before or after I left home on this trip, but I can say I was more than refreshed upon my return.  I laid my head on my pillow each night exhausted but not weary from the day and I slept this Sunday night contentedly.  The journey was everything I had wanted and it wiped away the crust that had built up from tedious days of work and nonsense.  It had refreshed my outlook once again.  Every now and again it is good, maybe even necessary, to stop and look around before not only your life but the lives of those you love pass you by.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Waterfalls, Monkey Trunks, Woodsmoke & Pumpkins

            The second day of our trip saw warm temperatures and bright sun.  Motorcycles ruled the roads and the leaf-peepers were everywhere.  Some back road winding led us to Conway and a little further south to the site of Monkey Trunks.  A high ropes adventure course with ziplines, cargo nets, and balancing act obstacles, Monkey Trunks is worth a stop if you're in the area.  Our purpose for seeking this place out was a little girl with a big attitude over her older sister being able to zipline at a recent Girl Scout camp-o-ree.  Monkey Trunks participation starts at age 5 and is well supervised for the younger kids.  A two hour pass is more than enough to get little arms quivering like Jell-o.  And, though the will was there, my two girls could not pull themselves across anymore obstacles after their two hours.  This was a great way to spend the morning and to allow the kids to vent a lot of the energy stored from the previous day's long ride.  The smiles were undeniable and my little one is already counting the days and inches until she can come back and try to conquer the bigger course.  I keep telling her that someday she might get to that magic number of 48 inches.
             After a quick lunch, we headed back north toward our cabin and some of the hiking trails along the route.  Although their arms were rubber, the kids' legs were ready for some woods wandering.  I found a turn-off for several waterfalls trails and a short hike to a hidden pond called "Dismal Pool".  They scampered down the side trail like rabbits hopping from bush to bush.  And they thrilled at Dad allowing them to scramble the last hundred feet through the boulder strewn gorge to reach the water's edge.  Mom was none too happy about the drop down into the gorge but she was able to capture some pretty nice pictures from her perch on the ledge above.
            Following the same trail back, we were able to cross the road and continue our adventure by climbing up two different waterfalls.  Almost commonplace by this point, the beauty of the multi-colored leaves and soaring mountain peaks was everywhere.  Each climb did not come close to even making it halfway up either falls, but the sense of adventure for the girls was visible through their beaming faces.  The bottom of the falls flowed beneath the roadway and into the gorge we had just left.  The pavement was perilous, filled with tourists slowing to view the falls but not wanting to leave the comfort of their cars.  Some of the cars were intent on their destinations and did not even slow for the groups of people gathered on the side of the road trying to photograph the scene.  Sitting on a boulder a couple hundred feet from the road, my oldest daughter turned to us and asked, "Why don't those people slow down?  Can't they see all the beautiful things here?"
            We left the crowds of dayhikers and made our way back to the campground, where the kids were able to jump into their ghillie suit costumes and partake in the Halloween festivities.  After visiting every spooky campsite and enjoying the October atmosphere, they returned to have more fun handing out candy than actually gathering it.  The neighboring campers invited the kids to a drive-in style showing of a kids Halloween movie.  As the sky darkened, the movie shone on a large bed sheet spread between trees.  Many of the kids from the campground gathered around in costumes and lawn chairs, eating popcorn by a campfire, laughing at the movie.  I found a wooden chair on the porch of the cabin and listened from the background.  I heard the movie and the laughter, watched the faces of the kids, big and small, flicker in the light of the movie, eyes sparkling in the firelight.  I looked out over the bog in front of the cabin, glowing in the moonlight and let the smell of the campfires envelope me, as the woodsmoke hung low in the cool night air.  I sipped on a pumpkin ale drinking in the spiced refreshment as well as the relaxation all around me and whispered to myself,
"Can't they see all the beautiful things here?"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Moose Alley

           We had beaten the traffic out of the city, had weaved our way through the commuters of Connecticut, and had filled our bellies at the tables of Polly's.  Our arrival at Mountain Lake Campground was ahead of schedule and the unpacking and set up of our weekend rental cabin went off without the slightest hitch.  We were now faced with an afternoon open to possibilities.  There were nearby options and we could just relax on the cabin's porch, of course.  Or we could take the 50 mile run up to Pittsburg and try an impromptu self-guided moose safari along the Daniel Webster Highway.
           The decision was easily made and after a short break to allow the kids to blow off some energy in the camp's park and a little snack, we all piled back into the truck.  The fifty or so miles from Lancaster to Pittsburg were the same vibrant swath of color our eyes had finally started to acclimate to.  It was one breathtaking scene after another, each bend in the road bringing yet another wonder of nature.  With so much to look at, we reached Pittsburg in no time at all.  And then the sign loomed ahead, "Brake for Moose."  All the other signs we had previously passed were low-key moose crossings, not any different from the deer crossings signs that litter the sides of highways.  This particular one, however, was a billboard, bright yellow and unmistakable.  It served as the starting point, the gateway to Moose Alley.
            Moose Alley is a simple twenty mile stretch of two-lane blacktop from Pittsburg, NH to the Canadian border.  It is touted as one the best spots in the Northeast to see a moose, and possibly see one without ever leaving the roadway or your car.  As we started down the lonely road, for there are no services along this last U.S. section , the trees seemed to grow larger and tighter to the road.  The feeling was almost claustrophobic as the flora strangled the roadway.  At some points, the trees grew so tightly together it did not seem possible to walk between them.  If an animal, especially the size of a moose, somehow found a way onto the pavement, it was highly questionable whether or not it could find a way back into the forest because of the trees.  The kids sat at attention in the backseat, windows open, eyes tearing from the wind, trying not to blink for fear of missing that one fleeting chance to see an elusive creature. 
             We passed the first two of the Connecticut lakes and several dirt road turn-offs without seeing anything more than reds, yellows, and oranges.  The final Connecticut Lake arrived with a warning sign that this was the final turn-out before Canada, a mile further down the highway.  Pulling into the little dirt parking lot brought another wonder of nature, as the spectacle of the fall was reflected in the crystal waters of that lake.  The mirror image was no less impressive than the real thing that rose above it.  Time had stopped, no sound was heard, no breeze brushed our skins, all was still.  It was just the four of us standing there quietly.  And then the lightbulb flashed, minds raced, children hollered across the silence, "Let's walk to Canada."  To avoid an international incident and the whining about the absence of moose, I found the nearest dirt turn-out and headed into the Great North Woods.
            What was noted as a road to a fire tower quicklty turned into something less than a jeep trail.  Again the foilage was blinding and suffocating.  The truck bumped slowly through the wilderness.  Grouse continually flushed in front of and beside the vehicle.  Everyone jumped each time the feathers broke the air.  This was grouse hunting nirvana, flush after flush, thicket after thicket, berry bush after berry bush. The unmistakable smell of Christmas hung heavy in the air.  My wife and kids breathed deeply, greedily, trying to capture as much of this air as possible, afraid it might disappear at any moment.  And then the trail ended, right at an embankment, a port-a-potty, and a steep mile hike to the Mt. Magalloway fire tower.  With the sun quickly fading behind the treetops and the air beginning to nip at our faces, we decided to mark this spot on our GPS for a return trip and start our run home.
             We bumped our way the eight miles back to the Alley, passing fly-fishermen trying to land the last bit of sunlight before calling it a day and leg weary bird hunters resting on the tailgates of their pick-ups.  Returning to the paved road brought a screeching halt the quiet.  The highway, at dusk, had become a traffic jam of holiday weekend tourists idling along in an attempt to spot a moose.  Not a single car had a destination, just a purpose, a four-legged furry purpose.  The passenger seat started to grumble about food and cold and hunger and food and cold.  The daylight was gone, our asses were sore from bouncing down the jeep trail after eight hours of commute, and Polly's was a fond memory.  The only solution would be to find a place to grab a bite along this desolate path.
            The sure sign of a good place to eat for any driver should be the amount of trucks parked in the lot.  Outside of the normal truck routes, the second best way would be the number of pick-ups in the lot, fortified further by the number of hunters and/or fishermen contained within those trucks.  But what really set this parking lot apart, and a trick I learned in rural Pennsylvania, was the number of ATV's (during snow months look for snowmobiles).  I yanked the steering wheel and slid the truck into a spot outside the Buck Rub Pizza Pub.  It was a race to the door of the little log cabin and the warmth of the woodstove inside.  The place overflowed with people and character.  It was a showroom of camo, Carhartt, and trees.  The table tops were rough-cut trees with the bark left on with matching chairs.  The bar was the same as the tables only it must have been cut from one large fifty foot log nearly three feet in diameter.  I asked the barmaid to return with us to the city to teach the servers down here the art of serving a frosty mug so cold the foam begins to freeze and tickles the upper lip.
            A pub fare menu hid the quality of the food there.  What was described as a cheeseburger was actually an half-pound of perfectly grilled meat piled high with mushrooms and onions and held firm by crafted cheese.  The onion rings hinted of beer and freshcut.  The cheesesteak was really an honest-to-goodness steak slathered in peppers, onions, cheese, and I don't know what else riding in bread that had never seen plastic.  My kids wanted soup but were handed stew instead.  One received french onions with cheese and a little broth as an afterthought, marvelous.  The other feasted on clam chowder done right, with bacon, potatoes, and more than a fair share of clams. The oatmeal dessert should have been on the entree menu and should come with a disclaimer, especially for children. This is where outdoorsmen go to stoke the fire after a long day afield.  This is a place where one does not leave hungry.  This is a place worth relocating for, or at least revisiting whenever the craving arises and maybe before that. 
            The ride back to the cabin was quiet, as everyone contentedly slept, wrapped in blankets.  The miles flew by as I listened to quiet country songs on the radio.  I had to bundle the kids tight to ward off the mountain chill inside and outside the cabin walls.  My wife snuggled against my back trying to steal my warnth, as I drifted off to dream of woodstoves, cold beer, and hearty meals with the smell of Christmas still strong in the air.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fall Foilage Magic

            With the long weekend behind us, there is much to look back on.  During this week, I will try to recapture some of the magic my family and I found in the fall colors of New England.  I previously supplied much of the logistics and a host of travel information to plan a New Hampshire road trip, but in that, some of the actual details and experiences might have been lost.  These details, the sights, sounds, and, quite often especially, the smells are what make memories.  The next few installments will, hopefully, capture the memories.
             Rising early used to be a normal practice in my household, out the door by 5:30, the kids not far behind with school at 8.  With the last decade spent working the night shift, that early starting point has moved closer to 7:30 for all parties involved.  This past weekend would be a return to the early days of rising before the sun and heading out.  The reasons behind the early start, getting a jump on the NY traffic, allowing for time consuming pit stops along a 6 hour route, and to make it to Polly's Pancake Parlor before they closed at 3 o'clock.  The last reason being the most important factor for everyone but the dad driving.  All would be well as long as the truck pulled into the grassy parking lot of the pancake place before they discontinued accepting hungry travelers.  And so, Friday morning saw our departure, bright and early. (Note: It is important to leave early on Friday due to traffic on the George Washington Bridge but also because Polly's is near impossible to get into on long weekends during the fall.)
             Surprisingly, the traffic was avoided and the first leg of our trip went smoothly.  The highways cooperated and the passengers slept fine.  Our first stop for coffee, donuts, and bathrooms came at a quickly reached 9 o'clock.  Three hours down, an actual bathroom break, and some fuel, and we were on our way.  This would be considered by my family as a small miracle, to actually have the truck stop for longer than a few seconds and only halfway through our journey.  I felt this was as good a place as any to stop in order to keep the little gremlins of grumbling bellies and bursting bladders at bay.  We would also be nearing the Vermont state line and the highway was about to become wide open and bursting with scenery.  A short 60 miles would bring us to the exit from which our trip would be overtaken by back roads and even more picturesque landscapes.
              In short order, we had arrived at our main destination for day 1 of our weekend, Polly's Pancake Parlor.  The magnitude of the mountains rising up all around the small parking lot, and the opportunity to take so many colorful pictures, was overwhelmed by one thing, the subtle, smoky flavor of bacon that fills the air all around the place.  It is almost as if the smell of this wonderful meat candy was the breeze itself, not a product of the little farm-shed-turned-eatery but the air itself was bacon.  A person, if so inclined, could lick the air and taste smoky, maple-covered pork.  Our noses were assaulted like this for the 20 minutes it took to secure a table.  By this point the whole family was a wild-eyed, syrup craving bunch.  I can not tell you who ordered first or what they ordered, only that perfectly formed pancakes were arriving faster than we could slather them in maple cream, maple sugar, maple butter, and maple syrup.  The bacon that had been teasing us outside covered our plates, cut more like small steaks than any bacon bought out of a common grocery.  The breakfast ham looked like something cooked for Thanksgiving.  And my youngest, devoid of all humility, covered her entire platter of food in Hurricane Sauce, a sweet addiction made from sliced apples candied in sugar and maple syrup.
            We slowly moved to our truck in a food daze, bellies full and souls content.  Our first order of business for this weekend was successfully completed.  We piled into the truck, trying to fend off that Pied Piper-like aroma that seemed to follow us down the road.  The tendrils of smoke from the chimney spread like fingers through the woods and along the road, down into town, chasing us back to the highway.  The have sunken their nails deep into our stomachs, the smell hangs hauntingly within our nostrils, the taste sits on the back of our tongues.  They return when we talk of our stop at the parlor, teasingly in the background, just out of reach, pleading for our return.  The pancakes, the waffles, all the maple goodness, and the bacon, the bacon beckons our return.  The bacon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Halloween in New Hampshire

            For the last twenty years I have ventured to New England at least once a year, most times in the fall for the great colors and cool air.  Each year I have taken a different route and tried to visit different places while sprinkling in a few, well-liked waypoints.  Some years I concentrate on the craggy coast of Maine and the scenic Route 1 that winds its way from Portland to Bar Harbor and beyond to the eastern-most part of the country.  Other times, the route takes me into the green mountains of Vermont, and the markets filled with cheese, ice cream, and fresh farm fare.  As of late, as my family grows up, I have met in the middle, and travel to New Hampshire.  It is a blend of craggy, bald mountains that meet the coast and vibrant green pastures of farmland on the western side of the mountains.  It is rugged country, to be sure, and an outdoorsman's paradise.  For hikers, campers, hunters, mountain bikers, it is everything one could ask and more.  It is a motorcycle mecca, free of helmet laws and overflowing with twisting, turning backroads and roadside taverns.
             Most campgrounds, and alot of other tourist-based stores, close after Columbus Day.  Therefore, Halloween comes early for most theses places.  The campground we found several years ago, during a summer tour of several New England states, holds an Halloween Extravaganza complete with contests for decorated campsites and costumes, pumpkin carving, hayrides, and trick-or-treating.  Mountain Lake Campground is right on the border of the Great White Mountains and the Great North Woods.  The people are friendly.  The place is quiet, allowing for personal space and tranquility.  It allows for easy access to Mt. Washington and all the waterfall hiking and scenic charm the Presidential Range has to offer.  It is also a gateway to the Webster Highway, Moose Alley, and the wild hunting grounds of the Great North Woods.
             The area surrounding Mt. Washington, and the Auto Road (which needs to be visited at least once, if not for anything else but the old-school "This car climbed Mt. Washington" bumper sticker), has grown into a tourist magnet during all seasons, filled with outlet centers and major hotel chains.  Yet under that, still lies the granola-fueled hiker community that can not get enough of the endless miles of trails that criss-cross the mountain range.  This is a great starting point for anyone's first trip to New Hampshire, with "can't miss" sights such as the Auto Road, Kancamangus Highway (Rt 112, a biker's dream of twist-and-turns with plenty of turn-outs for pictures), and, for the kids, Monkey Trunks (a high ropes adventure course complete with ziplines, even for the smaller kids). 
             The Great North Woods is as wild as the name implies.  We spent the day exploring the backroads of this area and several of the lakes that dot the map.  We followed the Webster Highway, the road that leads into Canada, and turned back about a mile from the border at the Third Connecticut Lake, filled with lake trout.  Moose Alley did not give up any moose but it held tons of grouse.  We followed the bird hunters and recreational ATVers, who parked in the same lot as us,  to the Buck Rub Pizza Pub.  Filled with handmade tables and chairs hewn from rough-cut trees and a wonderfully rustic bar, the tavern served traditional pub fare in a cozy, wood stove-warmed atmosphere.  The food matched the atmosphere, warm, comforting, hearty.  The New England Clam Chowder was perfect.  We will be back to this region and to this bar, probably sooner then later.
            The kids threw on their costumes back at the campground and joined in all the Halloween festivities.  They enjoyed the stroll around the place gathering candy from all the decorated campers.  They were invited for an outdoor spooky movie at a neighboring campsite.  We all then hunkered down for one more night of mountain air before the journey home.  And a journey it was, overflowing with stops along the way.  From NYC, this is a six hour jaunt to the mountains, so stopping along the way has become mandatory for mostly reasons of sanity with children in the backseat.  Bathroom breaks used to be few and far between, usually when the gas ran out.  But over the years, destination determination has, for the most part, given way to journey enjoyment.  Don't get me wrong, we still need to carry "emergency snacks" for when the truck just refuses to find just the right restaurant, but those bouts of insanity have become less frequent.
            And so, with this six hour run in mind, along the way do not miss out on some of these roadside attractions:  Polly's Pancake Parlor (a long wait but worth it at least once, just plan ahead),  Yankee Candle (passing by in Massachusetts, just make sure there's only a few buses), Monkey Trunks (for kids of all ages, especially good to knock some of the hyper out of the backseat), the Cog Railway (if hiking or driving isn't your thing but pictures and scenery are paramount), the forest fire tower lookouts (if hiking is your thing) and Madison Brewing in Bennington, VT (the Irish Fries are awesome) if you take the long way, along RT.7, home.