Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Disappointment and Redemption, Pt. 2


     Sunday was a new day, filled with hope and sun and fresh air.  In order to not allow the day to go by on the couch or fighting crowded supermarkets for the week's rations, I had concocted a plan from the previous night's disappointment.  The family would hop in the car and travel a short distance to a wooded nature reserve.  We would spend the day hiking, geocaching, picnicking, and enjoying the weather.  They were slightly worn out from Saturday's birthday party and shopping spree.  Last night's dinner was a forgettable memory and fading fast.
    We arrived at the first parking area of the state forest and readied ourselves for the day's adventures.  Our initial hike was a short jaunt down a fire road where we came upon an unused telephone pole and a puzzle for searching geocachers.  The whole "event" was wonderful, amazing, and truly well-crafted and thought out.  I will not divulge the details of this woodsy puzzle to keep the quality of the experience intact for any who should seek it out, but to get kids outside this is definitely a treat.  It also bode well for the rest of the day. 
      Throughout the day we traveled down dirt roads and leisurely back roads passing farms and woods and ghost towns and fishermen.  We sat by the stream and admired the water and the Spring colors blossoming and the fish outsmarting the kernels of corn on the ends of the hooks bobbing in the current.  We grabbed several small walks down short nature trails along the stream until we came upon Buttermilk Falls.  The climb is steep, but not oppressive, up NJ's tallest waterfall.  They have placed stairs now to gain the top.  One used to have to actually climb to the apex.  Our youngest adventurer wished to lead the way and she had us climb well beyond the top of the falls and probably would have had us climb to the clouds if she had her way.  We finished our day with a two-and-a-half mile hike that felt more like a forced march by the end.  The sun was setting and our legs were tiring as we made our way back to the truck.  Our feet howled from the long day but our bellies rumbled even louder.
     A nearby brewery would be our savior, and hopefully redemption from the previous night's disappointment.  Krogh's is shadowy inside, filled with cubby-hole booths and log-hewn tables.  The bar is separate from the dining area and has a different entrance.  For those wishing fresh air and scenery, there is a quaint patio outside in front.  The dishes are comforting, large, and filling.  The desserts are homemade mountains of sugary sweet goodness.  The staff is efficient, knowledgeable, and loyal (a plaque on the wall shows many employees staying beyond 20 years).  The sampler of their goods comes in a handmade wood platter holding seven different brews, a true treat.  The only thing better than the meal and the beer and the day would have been a nap in the fading glow of the afternoon.  But the road home beckoned and away we went, headed for home, feeling not only redeemed but quite happy.

(I do not usually write true reviews of places, restaurants, etc.  I may offer suggestions or opinions about certain things but normally do not attempt to steer a person away from experiencing it themselves.  However, in this case, the two brewpubs were so similar in style (local "dive" bar) but so glaringly different in overall experience, that I could not help but to see one so negatively while finding the other so satisfying.  I would easily steer anyone to Krogh's but I would be hesitant to give directions to the Gaslight.  If you are in search of beer try both just to say you did, if not follow the Krogh.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Disappointment and Redemption

    This past weekend was filled with a little bit of everything.  We had a birthday party to attend, filled with fun and games and cupcakes.  It was a marathon of amusements, laser tag, and arcade games.  On the off chance that my family and I stay down by the city on a weekend, I attempt to cram as much as possible into the two days.  Staying local means grabbing as many local attractions as we can.  There are plenty of diversions but it is also too easy to laze away an afternoon relaxing in the yard or on the couch, taking a breather from being on the go.  These two days would not be a breather.
    Saturday found us with a birthday party on the schedule.  My daughter's best friend had invited her and her sister to a local arcade/amusement/funplex.  There would be magic and lasers and video games and the constant whirring of kids and machines.  Before we even thought of the party, the weekend was started with a Spring walk through the cherry blossoms of a nearby park.  It was nice to be out as a family, strolling along in the crisp morning air.  The party brought us near a shopping center and so after several hours of laughing and playing and singing, we stopped by some stores to refresh the kids' wardrobes for the coming warmer months.  As shopping usually does, our bellies began to grumble, which leads us to our disappointment.
     To say the day was long would be an understatement.  To say we had our fill of fresh air and activities would be a mild description of the day's events.  We were hungry and ready for a good meal.  I had, as I am wont to do, decided to finish the day at a brewery.  A sample of new brews made in a nearby town would be a decent end to a long Saturday.  Breweries/brewpubs are usually known for their quality pub fare and some even excel at more ambitious dishes.  This particular spot was near several colleges and with such a pedigree should prove to be a worthy dining spot.  The Gaslight Brewery and Restaurant is a confusing and confused little spot.  At first glance it seems to be a local dive bar (that's the door you come in and the scene you are greeted by).  We entered into an everyday bar, no hostess, no one to seat us, no one even to greet us as we looked for a table in a place that had several rooms of seats.  Most of the seating was at bar tables with high, stiff chairs.  We found our place to dine without much ado but something was off.  There were plenty of wait-staff but everything seemed to be in slow motion, as if underwater.  Our waitress was courteous and attentive enough yet she never offered any direction or insight to new guests about ordering or the homemade brews available.  She was just sort of lost.  All the bar tables appeared crowded, with plates, glasses, what have you, merely because they were small.
     We had come to a place with an identity crisis.  It was not a restaurant, though it touted itself as one.  The prices on the menu would have you believe it was a restaurant but the tables spoke of a small-town bar.  It was not a brewpub, or even a bar, again the prices on the menu would not allow it.  The management wanted the place to be a restaurant with a refined menu and priced accordingly but they failed in the endeavor.  The establishment had a homey closeness to it.  As a dive bar with fresh-brewed beer it would have excelled if not for the pretend family atmosphere that was put on to attract customers in order to justify the menu.  If one would turn down the lights, serve the requisite pub fare done right, and continue brewing decent beers, I would agree with the decision, give it two thumbs up, and leave the family at home as I enjoy a local ale.  As a restaurant, one would have to expand past the tiny bar bathroom, extract the local bar hounds from the corner stools, add real tables, and train the staff to hawk the place's hand-crafted wares.
     To our disappointment, dinner was lacking.  I had found the first brewery ever where I could not get a sampler of their craft. And the day ended flat.  We would have to wait for tomorrow for a shot at redemption.  I was truly disappointed that a day spent away from the farm had ended so poorly.  There was not hunger strong enough to make our dinner seem filling nor throats dry enough to find the beer quenching. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Catching Caching

    It is not often that I get to spend some time with my niece and nephew.  They seem to always be involved in one activity or another, sports, clubs, just being busy.  To some degree, I do not know them that well.  They know my kids and they know who I am, we live in the same two-family house.  However, we do not find time enough to truly interact.  A few times a year I usually ask my brother and sister-in-law to let the kids travel with us the 150 miles to our farm.  We all get to spend some quality time together to reconnect and they get to spend some time with their grandparents out on the farm as an added special bonus.  They run free, playing with the goats, chasing chickens, riding ATV's, being kids.  Ice cream and pizza for dinner, mud and water and sunshine during the day.  Grandma and Grandpa usually have some special gifts squirreled away for these weekends.  These are jam-packed, fun-filled weekends.
      Our last foray with the kids into the wilds brought an opportunity of sun, snow, and a gorgeous mountain day to go for a hike.  My kids ran for their gear, knowing a hike usually consists of also finding a cache or two.  Now, for anyone that follows the Gravel Road already knows, caches (geocaches) are little, hidden treasures found by downloading coordinates from a computer to a GPS and then following the GPS to "ground zero" of where the treasure is hidden.  The treasure is usually a small ammo box or Tupperware filled with silly little trinkets stashed out of sight along a hiking, biking, or walking trail.  As the now attached stat bars alongside this writing can attest, the kids truly enjoy the treasure hunt.  And they were more than eager to share their secret searches with their cousins.
       The day was bright.  The roads were muddy.  The snow on the trail was deep and crunchy.  The kids were vibrating with excitement.  They couldn't get down the trail fast enough.  The four of them were running from tree to tree, from rock to rock, glimpsing at the GPS as they ran.  I had to call my kids back, to allow their cousins a chance to find the hidden box.  Searching in the rocks of an outcrop, reaching under fallen logs, digging through the snow, the search was chaotic and fun.  My young niece finally found the box safely tucked under a tree root sticking out from the short rocky ledge.  She excitedly sifted through the baubles inside, looking for a keeper.  There was a victory dance and some trash talking before the box was rehidden and we returned to the hiking trail.  The kids sprinted back down the trail to the truck, hooting and hollering along the way.  They cried out for another set of coordinates, for another cache.
       A short drive brought us to a secluded Boy Scout camp in rural upstate NY.  The kids scrambled out of the truck in a tangle of arms and legs, trying to be the first to secure the prize.  It was cute seeing three young Girl Scouts debating the whereabouts of the hidden container in the middle of a snow-covered dirt road before climbing the entrance wall to the camp and discovering the Boy Scouts' cache.  We left them a special trinket with a mileage tracker and special story as well as their unique Girl Scout swap.  With one short trip, and two fairly quick finds, the kids were hungry and the big people were ready for home.
      The rest of the weekend flew by, with more games and adventures.  The trip home found us interrupted by a bathroom stop along the highway.  To keep the kids busy while awaiting the bathroom-breakers, I found a cache nearby and everyone again piled out in a rush to find the hidden Tupperware.  The stop was short and just a distraction before we hit the road again, and the rest of the trip was filled with snores and quiet, sleepy grumbles from the backseat.  At the journey's end, my niece and nephew quickly returned to their at-home routine, as "Uncle John" had brought them home after their scheduled bedtime on a school night (What a rebel!).  Our time together had ended without much ceremony or fanfare. 
     It was not until a few days later when we received a text message and saw an accompanying segment on Facebook of the "wonderful new world of treasures and adventures" that my niece had found so enthralling.  She had brought home a new hobby, a new interest.  She has since dragged my brother out in the dark of night in search of new, local caches.  During weekends, she has tried to run and find some hidden goodies in between soccer.  It would be a lie to say that I do not feel a little twinge of pride of opening up a new world to my niece.  I can not say that it does not make me smile to know that my brother is now haunted by little plastic key chains hidden in public parks searched out by kids young and old.  To know, in some little way, that my family has contributed to the memories that his family now makes brings a satisfying grin.  I can not wait for our next trip together, for our new adventures, for what is hidden under the next fallen tree or down the next hiking trail.  Though our time with them is short, it is always special. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Fruits of Winter

     The first day of Spring has come and gone.  The sap is running from the trees and overflowing the buckets.  The Easter eggs have all been hidden and found and turned into egg salad.  Snow still covers some shady areas and the wind still bites as it blows through the naked trees.  Mud has become the color of the landscape and the road and the woods.  The sky wages a daily war against the weather to change from grey to blue.  Winter clutches greedily to the world not wanting to relinquish its cold grasp.
      In the barnyard the animals are becoming antsy.  They can feel the changes of the season.  They yearn to run in the pasture.  The barn is slowly becoming empty as the hay reserves grow low from the long months of frigid air and hungry goats.  The shed is hidden by great clouds of steam as the sap boils its way down into syrup.  The impromptu sugar shack is a sure sign that Spring is right around the corner.  The workshop is a buzz with ATV's and motorcycles and oil changes and tires being aired, tractors being greased for the coming sun, and big, open doors letting the air finally circulate through the building.
       As the grass fights its way from brown to green and the first buds of the season can be seen on some of the hardier trees, the yard seems to be slowly waking.  The birds have returned.  Wood ducks have been spotted on the open water of the pond.  The new chicks have arrived to bolster the flock and increase our egg stock.  The damage from the onslaught of this winter's hurricanes and storms can finally be assessed.  The fences need mending, trees strewn across the trails need to be turned into firewood, and some of the drives need to be regraded yet again.  There is plenty to do outside and the fresh air stirs not only the soul but the stomach as well.
        Inside, baseball has come to the TV.  It is a funny thing, drinking the dark, hearty beers of winter, the porters and the stouts, while enjoying a few innings.  But those few remaining winter warmers will go nicely with the venison stew simmering on the stove and filling the house with belly-grumbling wafts of garlic and onion and gravy.  The stove is cluttered with pots.  The stew is cramped on all sides by boiling syrup in its final stages of production, adding a sweet smell to the savory scents filling the house.  Mason jars of the finished syrup sit next to fresh-baked biscuits.  The biscuits are torn between a bath of brown gravy and fresh stew or melted butter and warm maple syrup.  We may just have to save a few biscuits for breakfast, if we can wait that long.
     Though Spring may have sprung, it is the fruits of winter that have filled our freezer with meat and our cupboards with syrup.  The fridge is stocked with the last of the hearty brews.  Our bellies will be full and bursting and ready to fend off the outside work to be done.  Though some may find the chores daunting, they are merely good excuses to be outside in the air, in the world.  They are hidden gems, precious fruit, time to spend with family working together on our own piece of land nestled in the woods.  The in-between seasons are the best of all.  Mud and snow, cold wind and warming sun, wood smoke and open windows, the best of all seasons.