Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Changing of the Season

     With the clinging humidity seeming to relent and the rays of a scorching sun slowly cooling from a boil to a comfortable simmer, summer seems to be on schedule to be dismissed in the next day or two.  I may miss the sounds of laughter and splashing water from the days at the lake, swimming in the cold mountain water.  The quiet trickle of the ice cold water as it flows around me saving me from the summer swelter as I relaxed in the creek will always stay with me.  Memories are built on the tendrils of charcoal smoke that rise all around you at any state park on a hot Saturday.  It only takes a little whiff of that magic scent to conjure up a whole host of wonderful thoughts and bring a smile to my face.  This summer I spent a relaxing afternoon savoring all of these things at Oquaga Creek State Park.  The park had all the ingredients of a perfect summer memory, the splashing, the laughter, the escape from the oppressive heat, the charcoal cooking at every grill, even a warm breeze slightly swaying the shade trees.
     I hold these memories close but not nearly as close as the woodsmoke that hangs low as the temperature begins to drop.  The splashing can be easily replaced by the sounds of hayride tractors and rustling, crunching leaves in brown and red and yellow.  That warm breeze is trumped by the chilly caress on my face of its autumnal brother that brings with it the promise of a night's frost.  The colors of the day turn from vivid green and stunning blue to more muted shades of brown and gray with a bright splash of orange from the fruit of the season, the venerable pumpkin.  There is fresh-pressed apple cider to drink and glorious cider donuts and the pies, oh the pies, pumpkin and apple.  Days at the lake are replaced by crisp mornings at the orchard picking apples or comfortable afternoons gathering pumpkins.  Wood calls for splitting for the winter to come and some for the fire pit to fend off the chill and the creeping night that comes earlier and earlier.
     Fall is the best season.  The excited anticipation of holidays quickly approaching.  The ghouls and ghosts begin to gather.  The turkey is preparing for the feast, as well as family.  There are seasons to be in the woods with friends and family.  The windows can once again open to the fresh outside air that is not trying to suck the very life from my skin through its intense heat.  I feel a new energy, an excitement, a sense of adventure renewed.  I am reinvigorated and ready, for the woods, the pies, the cider, the day trips to the farm markets and roadside stands, the essential pumpkin beers and harvest ales (their brown, dark, nutty goodness haunts me all year long.  They are my trick or treat.).  We are on the brink of autumn and I am more than ready.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Coastal Thoughts

     I am not a seafaring, sand in your shorts, bake on the beach type of person and, luckily, we are not that type of family in general.  However it would not be summer without at least one visit to the ocean.  A road trip to coastal Maine would be the cure for the dwindling summer days.  It is a quick five hour run from NYC to Saco, Maine and the trip is made even quicker if you can nap in one of the seats that does not have a steering wheel.  The school year was in its first few half days and departing at lunch time on a Friday would have us smelling the salty breeze of the Atlantic before we laid our heads to sleep.
     The sun was just setting as we crossed into Maine and we watched the sun disappear from our seats in one of the common rooms of The Run of the Mill Brewpub in Saco, mere minutes from our cabin for the weekend.  The pub fare and local brew was good and we ate with the hunger of empty bellies grumbling from the road.  We arrived in a quiet grove dotted with faux log cabins neatly placed to make the most of the property.  The three room bunkhouse was fake camping at its finest and we made ourselves at home in the blink of an eye.  The morning held an even better surprise than the comfy cabin, fresh Maine blueberry pancakes hot off the griddle were easily had a few steps from the cabin.  The campground, with its cabins and pancakes and swimming pool and hot tub, ensnared my wife and kids into securing a KOA value card in an attempt for them to convince me that they love camping, especially at these luxury campgrounds.
     I smiled.  They were going to need their stomachs full of blueberry pancakes to tackle the adventure courses and zip-trek at Monkey Trunks, right down the road.  I had made morning reservations for the three of them to strap on climbing harnesses and helmets and zipline through the canopy of trees surrounding the complex.  After a two hour zip-trek from obstacle to obstacle, they were set free upon the adventure course to tackle 50 different aerial challenges before ziplining back to Earth.  This is a solid half-day adventure and than some.  If you were to bring a bag lunch, one could easily spend the day mastering their inner monkey.  This is a family favorite and everyone should try this at least once.
     As is always the case, everyone was hungry "from all the climbing" and the exertion of zipping through the landscape.  It was time to get down to the real reason for visiting Maine, the lobster.  A short, scenic ride along the coast would lead us to Kennebunkport and the quaint shops and shacks filled with maritime brick-a-brack and the address of Allison's Restaurant.  Allison's is a pub, a dining room, and a notable lobster roll destination made more prominent due to a role in a Food War episode.  The entire table nearly dove into the fresh mussels steamed in a locally crafted ale.  My youngest would noisily savor a petite lobster roll before testing the New England clam chowder.  Lobster was on all of our plates and the buttery goodness could not be denied.  After our seafood feast, we retreated to our cabin for some relaxing, and maybe a turn in the hot tub to soothe sore muscles that Monkey Trunks had proven had not been used in years.
     Our final morning was spent wandering the waterfront district of Portland.  A couple of Sunday morning hours can not conquer the cobblestone streets strewn with boutiques and eateries, gourmet ingredient shops and brewpubs, and the wharf filled with bay cruises and whale watching ships.  Our true destination here was the International Museum of Cryptozoology.  The tiny door that hid the museum opened up into two large rooms cluttered with "evidence" of the existence of every folktale known to walk or swim the continent.  The Jersey Devil, the jackalope, large snakes, chupacabras, two-legged fish, mermaids, and sea serpents were all represented.  The main character of the whole place was Bigfoot, Sasquatch, in all the scientific glory.  There were showcases filled with footprint casts and collected hair samples and newspaper articles.  Making a special limited appearance was the Iceman, a subhuman thawed from a block ice and now displayed in glass.  Roadside America at its best.  All you nonbelievers really need to visit this place.  The truth is out there.
     With our bellies full of lobster, our heads filled with Bigfoot folklore, and a cooler flush with Barreled Souls, we drove up the highway ramp and prepared to cruise the 300 miles back to reality.  The summer was ending and school was starting and it was time to return home.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Traveling the Green Mountains

     The road melts away beneath us mile after mile.  We are headed for the Green Mountains of Vermont and the treasures they hold.  This is our first road trip in a while and it feels good to be counting the highway lines as they blur by.  It would be a short trip, a long weekend, but it would hold plenty of stops and sights and places.  I have never been one to have an empty slot on the itinerary.
     Three hours is all it takes to retreat from the hustle and bustle of NYC and find some quiet.  These particular three hours took us north through Connecticut to Deerfield, MA and the flagship store of The Yankee Candle Company.  The store is filled with an overwhelming amount of scents that nearly assault your nostrils.  They carry every kind of Christmas ornament and knick knack for the home.  Wind chimes are in one corner, mason jars filled with anything in another.  There are recipe books and kitchen utensils, gifts galore, and make your own hands, feet, candles, crafts, whatever.  There is a cafe and a candy shop and always some kind of entertainment.  We filled a basket with a few favorite scents to fill our home when the weather cools enough to open the windows to a fresh breeze.  The flagship is worth a stop at least once especially to stretch the legs on the way to another destination.  As a side trip, a few blocks away we accidentally found the Berkshire Brewing Co.  They may not have such accommodating tour hours or any snacks when you do visit but they were super friendly and pointed us to a local shop that carried everything they brew.  We put a select few brews in our empty cooler and put Berkshire and Yankee Candle in the rearview.
     Morning was giving way to lunch time and we had crossed into Vermont, nearing our food pit stop.  The Long Trail brewery was to be, however, a disappointment.  Even though it was 1 pm on a Friday, the parking lot, dining room, and patio were all jam packed.  The license plates in the lot held a variety of states and a table couldn't be found until near dinner time.  Oh wait, there was a little road side drive-in not far back down the road.  The little road side shack had the perfect lunch that fit right through a window and even allowed customers the use of the creek out back to dip your toes or enjoy a burger sitting atop a boulder in the middle of the running water.
     Setbacks wouldn't hold us back as the gravel road and covered bridge brought us to Sugarbush Farm and all the great samples of homemade Vermont cheddar and maple syrup.  The cooler once again opened wide to accept all the goodies we would bring home to adorn our tailgate tables of cheese and crackers.  This down-to-earth farm setting has everything to make a great road trip stop, a woods tour of maple syrup making, food samples, tourist gifts, and friendly folks.  Right down the road was Woodstock Barley'N'Hops, a beer geek's paradise of local brews.  I had to mention this stop solely on the merit of the staff.  And the cooler yet again opened wide for ciders and beers.
     We would stretch our legs for the final time Friday reaching the bottom of Quechee Gorge.  This is a nature trail and tourist stop with a little city of antique stores that grew up around it.  For the outdoorsy types, take the hike to the bottom and dip your toes in the ice cold water or even take a swim on a hot afternoon.  For the sight-seers, stop in the little shops and maybe grab a bottle of local wine.  Either way, stretch the legs, use the bathroom, grab some brochures, and get back on the road.  And down that road we spent the evening relaxing poolside at the local KOA campground and a quaint cabin that definitely makes it feel like cheating when it comes to camping.  Bring a sleeping bag and some marshmallows and it's camping made simple.
     Saturday morning we followed the fog to Brookfield and one of only four floating bridges left in the U.S.  It is a simple piece of roadside America that is situated in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a tiny town accessed by dirt roads.  The bridge has been newly reconstructed and easily handles the weight of a car but it still is strange driving across a pristine country lake as the sun rises on a piece of floating wood.  There is little here to see but the woods and the sky and the clear water and a plaque at the end of the bridge explaining the historical importance of this piece of civil engineering.  I love history.
      In appreciation of the kids' indulgence of my quest for quirky history (whether they like it or not), the next stop would have to be Ben & Jerry's famous ice cream factory in Waterbury.  A tour, a taste, a visit to the flavor graveyard, pictures by the bus always bring a smile no matter how many times we visit.  The road beyond the ice cream brings farm stands and cider mills and antique stores and finally a ski resort.  Stowe allows cars to drive up the ski slopes (well the ski slope maintenance road) during summer time.  We cut through the trees under the ski lift and above tree line to reach a parking lot next to a small visitor center where a trail began that led to the peak of Mount Mansfield, the tallest in Vermont.  The hike is about a mile and a half one way to the summit but the magnificent views began only ten minutes down the trail.  Our late afternoon arrival did not allow for a summit bid but the kids have earmarked this for a return road trip (and so has Dad).  For any road tripper the road through Smuggler's Notch and the Stowe toll road are a definite destination point.
     As the sun set we were able to catch a ferry across Lake Champlain and the kids watched carefully for the mysterious Champy (the sea monster that frequents this lake).  Disembarking in NY after only 10 minutes left us at the doorstep of the Plattsburgh Brewing Company to fill our bellies with great beer and satisfying fare.  We all quickly drifted off to sleep at the local Hampton Inn and were ready for the last leg of this road trip bright and early.
     Ausable Chasm has an adventure trail with steep steps, cliffside tippy-toes, Tyrolean traverses, ladders and laughter followed by a short raft trip or tube float down the waters of the gorge.  This is another great piece of roadside America and well worth the stop.  Half the day quickly passed as the kids swung along the ropes criss-crossing the gorge and we would have to bypass a few side roads to stay on schedule.  Traffic on the NY Thruway would not cooperate and dinner would need a quick check on the smartphone to put us back on track.  Thankfully Albany was in sight and the Albany Pump Station would yield yet another great road meal and a few more beverages for the cooler.
     In the end, our beds at home quietly, comfortably welcomed us back.  Perhaps we were more worn out now than when we had left but we created some great new memories and had planted the seeds for future trips down the road.