Thursday, March 24, 2011

2011 New Thing 5 + Challenge 2: A Weekend of All Things Maple

Vermont is a year-round destination.  People come in the winter for the skiing and other snow-based activities in the Green Mountains, they love hiking and paddling in the summer, and the fall, of course, is full of some of the best foliage displays in the country.  About the only time that Vermonters don't suggest for tourists to come is now -- the beginning of mud season, when the rocks protrude through the diminishing snow on the ski slopes and the dirt roads become impassable and every morning it's any one's guess whether it will snow or rain or feel like a sunny spring day.  The silver lining to mud season, though, is that it's also maple season, and there are dozens of maple sugar houses that kick into high gear to get their trees tapped and sap boiled for the year. Each year one weekend is specially designated for all the sugar houses to open their doors and welcome the public, and last weekend was that open house time.  Chris, Siham and I headed up on Route 15 to the area of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom to check out some of the sugar houses there.

Lots of Vermont farms do maple syrup production in addition to producing other agricultural products, and our tour began at one of those places, the Boyden Valley Winery.  It was packed, and after checking out the boiling room, we headed back to the car for a path a little less-travelled.  We quickly found it, just down the road at the Lasting Spring Farm, owned by the Hunt Family.  They've had to sell off much of the family farm, but still operate a saw mill and the kids of the family had only just put out the flags saying they were open for the day.  The Hunts obligingly explained all kinds of things about their operation to us, from the layout of the tubing system that conveys the sap to the boiler room to the fact that Saint Albans, about 50 minutes north of Burlington is actually the hub of syrup production equipment for North America.

Chris getting some lessons in the science of syrup from one of the long-time experts at Boyden Winery

Siham saved her questions for the Hunt family.  Their brand-new sugar house (made from trees they milled themselves) is just down the road from our first stop.
After visiting the Hunts, we headed still further north to the town of Johnson, where we left off our quest of all things maple for a detour to the Johnson Woolen Mills, another Vermont institution for the past 167 years.  We tried on many forms of flannel before hitting our final syrup destination of the day, the Dodge's Sugarhouse at the Mansion House in Johnson.  This one was particularly appealing to Chris because it involved a 3.3 mile drive to the end of a heavily rutted dirt (mud) road.  There we had still more maple samples and syrup on snow, and finally broke down and bought syrup and maple cream as mementos of our days' travels. 
Siham and I couldn't resist trying on some (a lot) of things at the Johnson Woolen Mill.  The giant flannel shirts were pure Vermont but the hats took me back to my hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho.

For those who have never seen it, this is what fresh, hot maple syrup on snow looks like.

The next day it was time to put the syrup to use, and I tried my hand at modifying baking recipes to incorporate real Vermont maple syrup. The results turned out pretty well, I must say.  That night Chris, Siham, Josh, Dan and I tried out a pretty good mix -- salad with maple vinaigrette, roasted Brussels sprouts in a maple reduction (Sihams's contribution) and three new baked goods -- maple-cranberry scones, maple sugar cookies and maple rugelach.  Josh has been not-so-patiently waiting for a cookie named after him and I thought it would be the maple sugar cookies.  But when the group unanimously decided that the maple-chocolate rugelach I concocted was the best thing in the batch, that became his cookie of choice.  Hereafter the rugelach will be known as M.R. (Maple Rugelach) Hoxies, and I've promised to make a second batch in the near future for people to try.
Here's Josh holding the cookie that I thought was going to be named in his honor  But after trying the rugelach, he declared that it was the rugelach that would henceforth carry the name of Maple (Rugelach) Hoxie.

Here was the day's haul of baked goods .  The smaller plate has MR Hoxies and maple sugar cookies and the larger one has maple-cranberry scones. 

Despite the crutches it was a fabulous weekend, and proof that there really is no bad time to visit Vermont.  Even in mud season, there's lots to see and do (and eat).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

2011 New Thing 4. Not what I had in mind for a new thing: learning to get around on crutches

My big plan for spring break 2011 (March 14-18) was to stay right here in lovely Vermont and soak up all the opportunities that came my way to work on my 2011 challenges during that time.  And I was off to a good start.  I went skating on Monday and then with Ali on Wednesday.  The ski season will be drawing to a close soon, and I was resolved that I'd go at least twice during the break as well.  On Tuesday Alexsis and I went to Smuggs and had a great time.
A happy day at Smuggs.  Note that Alexsis isn't even wearing her coat!

The top of Smuggs is very picturesque.  There's a guy stationed up there taking pictures to sell, but of course, Alexsis and I took our own.

But then on Thursday it all went, as the British like to say,pear-shaped.  Thursday was, of course, Saint Patrick's Day and the Mad River Glen ski resort was offering a killer deal: wear green and get a lift ticket for only seventeen dollars.  Who could resist that?  Certainly not Chris and I.  The catch is that Mad River Glen is not your ordinary ski resort.  In fact it's unique in a number of ways, beginning with the fact that it is technically a cooperative, owned by its members.  It also relies solely on Mother Nature for its snow since it has no snow-making equipment.  But it's two biggest claims to fame are that it is one of two resorts left in the country (the other is Alta in Utah) that doesn't allow snow-boarders and it is home to the last operational single chair lift in the country.  It also has a local reputation for having very challenging runs, so much so that its slogan is "Ski it if you can." 
Here's Chris riding the country's last operational single chair lift.

In our regular skiing trips to Smuggs Alexsis and I developed the habit of trying to do at least one run during the day that was a real challenge.  So, I thought I'd try to apply the same logic to Mad River Glen.  After spending the morning skiing trails marked as intermediate with embarrassingly diminutive names like "Bunny" while Chris raced down all kinds of black diamond (expert) runs, I thought I should try just one.  Yet another unique thing about Mad River is that while other resorts mark their advanced trails as single, double or triple diamonds, here they just put up a single black diamond for everything hard and let the skiers sort it out.  So, I selected one called Canyon because it had a short upper part and I figured if it were too much I'd get off after that and go to something easier.

Chris warned me that it would be hard, and stayed at the top of the trail so he could follow me to collect my skis when I inevitably fell and lost them on my way down, which is exactly what I did.  After doing a bunch of stop and start turns around the moguls (the hills of snow that make it so hard to navigate), I tried to do a few consecutively, got going too fast and crashed.  My skis came off, my knee got twisted and I slid downhill much more rapidly than I'd been skiing. Chris helped me collect myself and after I got back together I took my humbled self back to my easy trails.  My knee hurt but I didn't want to be a wimp, so I skied a couple more runs before realizing that it really hurt and I probably should stop.

After a sleepless night of not being able to find a way to place my knee that didn't hurt a lot, I got up the next morning to discover that I couldn't actually unbend it all the way.  I spent the morning at the Fanny Allen walk-in clinic, (where I had an only-in-Vermont moment when both the doctor and the nurse who saw me teased me for thinking I could handle Mad River Glen as a novice skier) and discovered I had strained my medial collateral ligament (MCL). Happily, it turns out that this is one that tends to heal on its own. 

So now I am hobbling on crutches and discovering what many other people already knew, which is that the world does not go out of its way for the temporarily or permanently disabled.  The hardest part, which I had never given a thought to before, is that if your hands are full with crutches, they can't be used for carrying things, which makes grocery shopping an interesting experience (but fine if you have a loyal friend like Siham carrying your basket around for you).  And stairs are a very major pain. For the first time ever I am welcoming the fact that it's mud season here in Vermont, because it's a lot easier (albeit messier) to keep upright in the mud than on the ice that coated the sidewalks just a week or two ago.  Luckily for me, I think my MCL will heal quickly (my knee already has a lot more range of motion than a few days ago), but the experience has taught me some important things about my own limitations (on the ski slopes and off) and about how great it is to have supportive people in one's life.  Lots of people offered all kinds of help, everything from running errands for me to giving me rides to work, and Chris and Siham (who was up for the weekend) especially have been champs.
Happily, my crutches didn't keep us from celebrating Maple Syrup weekend.  Here are Chris, Siham and I on Saturday during our tour of the Northeast Kingdom's sugaring operations.  That was its own New Thing, and together with the maple cook-a-thon on Sunday, will get its very own post.

So, my ski season for this winter has come to an abrupt end.  Here's hoping for a quick recovery and a chance to get back to the other challenges of 2011.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

First Challenge List Update for 2011 -- Seizing the Moment While in Travel Limbo

I just finished a new thing that I very much hope to never repeat: being trapped in an endless travel cycle of movement that doesn't get me any closer to home. Much as I love, even adore Vermont, at the moment I'm a little peeved with it's cavalier approach to weather.  I just spent the weekend at a meeting of Health GAP, the global AIDS activist organization with which I've volunteered for a decade now.  One of our members, Staci, opened up her Manhattan home to host the twenty-some group of us during the meeting, and my good friend T. Richard, let me stay at his place in Brooklyn at night.  Walking to the subway I spied crocuses on the verge of blooming and knew(or thought I knew) that spring had arrived. 

And then I got to the airport Sunday night only to have my flight cancelled  because of weather in Burlington.  After spending an hour or so standing in line, got to talk to a ticket agent, who re booked me for WEDNESDAY (it was Sunday night) and far down a stand-by list for the Monday flights.  I then decided to go into the city to try to catch the midnight bus that went on an incredibly long (eleven hour) indirect route to Burlington.  I took the air train out of the airport and just as I was boarding the subway to go to the city, the ticket agent called me to say she's put me on a confirmed flight for Monday morning.  So, I got out of the subway and went back to the airport to get my new boarding pass, then spent the night in the airport to ensure that I'd definitely be the first in line and definitely get on the flight, since there were three flight's worth of cancellations competing for seats. The next morning there were three hours of delays, and then they announced that the Burlington airport had closed for an indefinite period, the flight was cancelled and others for the day would probably be as well.  I had now lost my Wednesday reservation and they were working on ones for THURSDAY, and I was now sitting on an even longer wait list. So, I decided to do what I should have done before and bite the bullet, go into the city and buy a bus ticket.  On the bus I learned some good news and bad news. The good news is that (at least some) Greyhounds now have WiFi! The bad is that they have bus drivers who roll their eyes when they see tickets connecting bus travel to Burlington and issue ominous warning about how that bus may or may not be running when I try to make the 1 am connection. As it turned out, the connection was made, and the bus did run, and I got into Burlington only an hour behind schedule, at 5:30 am.  I retrieved my car from the airport lot and drove home to find I couldn't park because the city had completely plowed over every single driveway entrance on Main Street. So, the one-hour flight had become a 36 hour epic journey that ended with me parking at the Y parking lot downtown and walking through the drifts back to my house.

However, the silver lining is that I optimistically brought some grading to do, and I did it. Then I realized all these delays were a good opportunity to do something I've been meaning to do since last weekend when Leah and Siham were up.  In addition to our fabulous dog-sledding adventure, we did our first list overhaul of 2011, and changed some things and made some new plans.  So, here's the first re-vamp of the 2011 Year of the Challenge List.

New Things.  Although this is officially the Year of the Challenge, we're all still planning to keep up our habit of new things.  I've done three new things in 2011 so far: moonlight snowshoeing, visiting the Snowflake Bentley Museum and dog sledding.  Leah has offered to host a weekend trip to her neck of the woods, New Bedford, where I can do some more new things, including boarding a tall ship, the Ernestina, on which she used to work.
One thing about dog sledding -- the sled is not big.  Best to get along with your fellow rider, since there's not much space between passengers.  Here are Leah and I loading in.

Challenge 1. Become a better skier/snowboarder.  Although I have concentrated solely on skiing, I am pleased to say that this challenge is definitely on-track.  Thanks to Chris, Alexsis and Josh, I've been out pretty regularly this winter, and the big dump of snow that just turned my travel plans into nightmares should make the next couple weeks pretty sweet for skiing opportunities. Anyone want to put in some time together at Smugg's, let me know please.

Challenge 2.  Become a better cook.  This is the other challenge that is definitely on-track, due in no small part to the enthusiastic participation of others.  So far, I've tried or hosted whole groups trying Greek food, pretzels, traditional Jewish food, and a whole galaxy of crepe varieties, and as a cookie inventor (and at least, namer) I've definitely gone to town.  In the past couple months there have been Chris Crinkles, Siham Surprises, Almond Bennetts and Lemon Driskies.  Josh, Leah and the two Kates have all let it be known that they are next in line for cookies named after them, and I am envisioning a couple new experiments -- one a peanut butter and jelly-based bar cookie that may become a Kate Square(d), and the second, in homage of maple season here in Vermont, a maple flavored and glazed short bread or sugar cookie whose name is to be determined.  In fact, I think the next cook-a-thon is going to be one where all the recipes use maple syrup or flavoring. Or it might be a Vermont Brand night featuring maple syrup and cabot cheddar.  Anyone got and opinion, and who's in to do it?

Although my first two challenges are cruising, I need to step it up on the rest.  Here's the outlook:

Challenge 3.  Become a better ice skater.  The good news is that I have found a skating inspiration and Wednesday morning skating buddy in Ali, who is a seriously fabulous skater.  The bad news is that illness and work has made our meeting attendance less than perfect.  But it's a start. Here are a couple pics from a recent morning skate.
Unfortunately, I just missed the backwards spiral Ali was showing me in this pic but it was awesome, like all the fancy stuff she knows how to do.  Next time.
Here I am working on a much-easier forward spiral.

Challenge 4. Finish a marathon.  This is the first official fail of the list.  I have had to concede that I am just not cut out for 15 mile runs (however slow) on weekends where we get record-breaking levels of snow.  Even my marathon class coach at the Y has thrown in the towel for this season, and down-graded to training for a half marathon because long run conditions outside have been so abysmal.  Leah, Siham and I have agreed to find a half marathon to complete this summer instead, so that's our new challenge training goal.

Challenge 5. Become a better rock climber.  No excuses on this one except extreme lack of time.  My plan for spring break next week is to use the week to get back on Challenge track, and in this case to hit the climbing gym at least once, and better yet twice during that week.  Who's up for going?

Challenge 6. Write a book with students.  The MDG book is moving along, but we need to start a big push of getting some draft text on the chapters in.  The last couple weeks I've been working with the returning SMC students on grant proposals to help fund them (and potentially others including me) to do research field work for our four case studies (Ecuador, Bangladesh, the Occupied Territories and Rwanda).
At the last MDG meeting we broke out into Chapter groups to work on some draft text.  Here are Julia and Alyssa brainstorming their thoughts.
The other members of Kate's group (this is the Kate who is 1/2 of the Kate Square cookie idea) couldn't make the meeting, so Kate found a spot on the floor to do some composing.

Challenges 7.  Take a cargo ship to Alaska.  The original plan had been to do this during my upcoming spring break, but alas, the ships don't take passengers during what is for them still the winter months.  So, last weekend Siham, Leah and I re-committed ourselves to this goal, but it will now be a summer trip, to be scheduled to fit in with our other summer plans.

Last weekend we also fleshed out our lists a bit more in terms of other challenges on tap for the remainder of 2011.  My list of currently uninitiated challenges looks like this:

Challenge 8. Begin studying Arabic.  I've gotten as far as having my friend and student Connor lend me his copy of Rosetta Stone which I've loaded on my computer.  But I have to get a microphone for the speaking part, and haven't done it yet.

Challenge 9. Expand my hiking horizons. I'm really excited about this one, and I'm hoping to include some new destinations -- like the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, and the Hell Brook trail of Mount Mansfield, but all will have to wait till mud season is over and the trails open up for none-winter hiking here.

Challenge 10. Work on my mechanical skills.  Despite last year's excellent tutelage by Nigel, this is clearly just not something that comes naturally to me. Chris has offered to give me lessons, and I'm still kicking around the possibility of signing up for a beginning night course in either bike or auto maintenance once my spring semester is over ( found a beginning auto maintenance class but it directly conflicts with my Monday evening global studies course at Saint Mike's this semester.)

Challenges 11 and 12.  Leah, Siham and I deliberately left the last two open in this go around so we can think some more about what we want to get out of 2011. We'll fill them in during a future meet-up and joint participation on challenges and new things.

All challenges are more fun (and easier to do) with others, so if people see something on this list they want to take on, shoot me a post or email and we'll do it together (in-person or long distance).