Category Archives: Outdoors

Big, Black, Bright Stillness

City life has many things to offer and engaging with the cosmos isn’t one of them. Lately, I’ve been feeling about the night sky the way I felt about the sun when I lived in Seattle for three years—I miss it. I saw part of that lunar eclipse three weeks ago, which was amazing, yet on a night-to-night basis, I can count on one hand the number of stars I see from my backyard or from my front step. Neighborhood street lamps and that massive light bulb across the Hudson River known as Manhattan block out a substantial chunk of natural sky. New York City is America’s biggest city, something I feel acutely whenever I ride the subway, wait in line for a bagel, or try to enjoy anything remotely celestial. Look up from my backyard and you’ll see United Airlines crisscrossing with some transatlantic flight crisscrossing with some rich guy’s Cessna (we’re also near Teterboro Airport) crisscrossing with the occasional police helicopter. Sometimes, on a clear night, you’ll see a star or two, which, one of them you later learn turns out to be Venus. In the winter, I can usually spot Orion, but that seems to be the only visible constellation from my little corner. This weekend while driving around the Catskills, I stood under a black, cold sky punctuated by millions—no gazillions—of stars. I saw the Big Dipper for the first time in ages.

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I’ve met people here who find the silence and vastness of rural landscapes and open sky overwhelming. They need the buzz of urban life to feel tethered. I increasingly prefer the country. If walking around the forest changes the brain (and I did that in the Catskills, too, and genuinely felt calmer afterward), my guess is stargazing at night also positively affects our synaptic energy. But under proper conditions, like what I enjoyed Saturday night. No planes. No helicopters. No anything trying to go anywhere. Just big, black, bright stillness.

Escaping the city for the something more pure is about as old as New York City itself. The word “vacation” is said to have been created here during the previous turn of the century because the rich regularly vacated the city for more pastoral backdrops, Theodore Roosevelt among them. I find myself craving starscapes, feeling pulled toward big open spaces so I can drink in that sense of awe that is the night sky. I’ve never been a very successful student of the sciences; I earned a C in my freshman astronomy class. When looking up, I have no idea what I’m looking at and I’m okay with that. I trust everything Neil DeGrasse Tyson says. I like the mystery of what’s above. Night skies are humbling, with a depth and complexity that surpasses mountains and oceans, perhaps because unlike mountains and oceans, the sky is untouchable. Simultaneously aloof and daring with a rhythm that we are a part of but where we have no say. The last time I witnessed a sky so pregnant with stars was when we were in Taos, New Mexico, a town that preserves much of the outdoorsy mysticism once in abundance in this country, and perhaps explains the alien lovefest that still thrives there. New Mexico is a place where people look up. New York City is a place where people look down, eyes glued on smartphones, away from each other.

Inside the Catskills farmhouse where we were staying, I thumbed through a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”. On the subject of stars, would it please Thoreau to know that on Amazon—an arbiter of the unnatural world—“Walden” averages 4.2 out of 5 stars, with more than 530 reviews? Even online, more stars is better. And would he be intrigued by the conversation happening in the reviews of “Walden” where people discuss the generation gap among those who appreciate Thoreau’s observations and ideals? I appear to be in the middle of this gap. Thoreau’s phrasing is thick—paragraphs go on for a page—and while I enjoy a long read and resent the current listicle-ADHD online reading culture, the pages were a commitment.

But I want to keep going and read more. Thoreau struggled with respiratory illness much of his adult life and wrote about the restorative powers of being outside. “I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” he said, “unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Truth. Though who does four hours of anything anymore that doesn’t involve WiFi? I’ll be the first to admit I’m not very good at being outdoorsy. Camping is a lot of work. I don’t own gear. I hate bugs (I’m allergic to hornet and wasp stings). I can’t read a map. I don’t really care for trail mix.

But I do love being outside and grabbing what little pieces of it I can. Thoreau might find today’s ideals of communing with nature somewhat ridiculous. So much as been pushed out that great effort is made to create sanctuaries for what’s left, such as the one square inch of silence in Washington State’s Olympic National Park. Noise pollution is just as much of a problem as sky pollution (though the suburbs are quieter here, just not very dark). Who besides Zen monks and hunters spends hours of uninterrupted time surrounded by trees and silence? My last four-hour stint with Mother Earth was hanging out in a nest at a Big Sur glamping resort where I could walk uphill for sushi. Saturday night, I lasted less than 10 minutes just standing alone on the frosty grass watching the stars, no street lamps interrupting my view. Temperatures had dropped to the thirties, and while I wore a hat and warm coat, my body was still holding on to September.

Yet that ten minutes mattered. I felt my nerves disentangle a bit, my pulse settle, my thoughts slow down. Watching the whorls of stars, a wave of calm moved through me, something I hadn’t experienced since being out on the California coast last summer. The night sky made me feel small. And for that I was thankful.

The Adirondacks: A Small Place With Big Allure

On September 12, 1901, when there were maybe just a few hints of fall color touching the Adirondack Mountains, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt went for a hike. Vacationing with his family in his beloved North Country, he decided to climb Mount Marcy, New York State’s tallest peak at just over 5,300 feet. While hiking, some local man named Harrison Hall was trailing Roosevelt, carrying probably the most important piece of paper he’d ever held in his hands—a telegram with news of President McKinley’s life-threatening injuries. The Vice President got down the mountain, boarded a wagon and made it to a railroad station where he inched his way across New York State to get to Buffalo where McKinley had been shot. McKinley died on September 14, and Roosevelt was sworn in as America’s 26th president.

I think of this story every time I’m in the Adirondacks, which is where I spent this past weekend. Why this story? Because I think of how this understated 6.2 million acres of landscape used to attract some of the biggest names and most adventurous people. I mean Theodore Roosevelt chose to spend his down time here, where, 114 years later, I was spending my down time. This got me thinking how the Adirondacks’ timelessness appears indefatigable despite forest fires, global warming, and industrialization. Thirty-one years after Roosevelt became president, Lake Placid, the region’s biggest hub, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and did such a good job hosting that they got the gig again in 1980, drawing some of the world’s best athletes to this tiny town surrounded by blue peaks. The area, once known for back country lumberjacks and rural poverty, was now under the global spotlight entertaining some of the best of the best who had crossed sea and sky to reach this place. Today, the Olympic Games tend to go to bigger places with bigger budgets, and presidents vacation in luxurious locales like Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii. The Adirondacks is not Aspen or Jackson Hole; there are some four-star accommodations and awesome eats, but it’s still mountain country where grizzly guys are out in the open driving their rusting pick-ups. Outside of the American Northeast, people have heard of the Rockies and the Ozarks and maybe even the Smoky Mountains and the Olympic Range, but few people seem to recall the Adirondacks unless you specifically say “Lake Placid, where the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union” and then you get a nod of recognition.

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On the ground, Lake Placid obviously looks quite different than it did during Roosevelt’s visits or even the 1980 Olympic Games. Towns, like lakes and mountains, are their own ecosystems, always evolving and adapting, as they should. But while kayaking alone on Mirror Lake yesterday morning, I looked around the mountains and sky reflecting off the water’s surface, Mirror Lake living up to its name, and thought of how much nature still manages to move us even while we’re all IV’ed to our smartphones. The buildings and roads in between the Adirondacks’ peaks and valleys change, but the impact the region has on those who live here and visit has not. There are still many, many places throughout the Adirondacks where you can’t get any cell service, and as long as there’s no emergency, this feels like a wonderful thing. To kayak alone on a serene lake without my iPhone on me, to be out there early enough before all the paddleboarders and boaters woke up, and to feel like I had the sky and lake and mountains all to myself, was intoxicating. And I imagined this was the pull that Theodore Roosevelt felt when he hiked Mount Marcy nearby. Maybe, like me, he thought “This is mine,” even though we knew otherwise.

There are countless beautiful places on this earth—the Adirondacks and Mirror Lake being among them—and it’s getting harder to keep them beautiful. Lesser-known corners of our planet struggle to hide from capitalism, climate change and population growth. Globalization means just that, where everyone’s backyards are connected even if it doesn’t feel so. When I kayaked across Mirror Lake, I thought “How much longer?” The state-protected Adirondack Park is home to 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of streams and rivers, including the birthplace of the Hudson River; Mirror Lake is shockingly pristine compared with some of the others. Powered boats aren’t permitted and no one is dumping cow shit into it unlike the farms surrounding nearby Lake Champlain, the almost-sixth Great Lake that divides New York and Vermont (equally stunning though not as clean as it could be). The clarity of Mirror Lake’s shoreline sometimes reminded me of the Caribbean. Yet the area deals with salt contamination due to aggressive salt use as part of winter road maintenance. Folks there shovel more than 100 inches of snow per year; 86 percent of salt and chloride buildup has been directly attributed to road salting to help keep roads as dry as possible. Pollution comes from neighbors, too: many of the Adirondacks’ lakes suffered depletion due to acid rain as a result of wind patterns mixing with Midwest plant emissions.

Thankfully, there are already signs of ecological recovery, for mountain folk are fiercely protective types. Because of their efforts, we had a gorgeous, lazy day on a pretty clean lake Sunday. No floating garbage. No slimy muck pooling at our feet. Locals and tourists apparently playing by the rules. I’m so grateful for this region and miss it the moment we leave. It’s a side of the American Northeast people don’t think of; our colonial history and that stress-junkie lifestyle that defines the Boston to New York to Washington, DC, corridor often overshadows the quiet, mountain interior that appealed to Roosevelt. But it’s still there, and if you have the chance, go and experience it before it changes into something I wouldn’t recognize.

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My Quixotic Search for Small

Maybe it’s because I live in the shadow of the Empire State Building or that I’ve been in a car accident during rush-hour commuter traffic on the George Washington Bridge or that a homeless guy in the West 4th subway station peed on my foot (I was wearing flip-flops, a no-no in New York), but lately my travel interests have shifted to anything that feels smaller, more green, less crowded, and reflective of the past because my day-to-day can be too big, too gray, too busy and sometimes too 21st century.

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(American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930)

It’s a tall order. Small, green, uncrowded and old are hard to come by in this sprawling, metropolitan, monochromatic area of millions where too many people dress in black year-round. History lives on every block, but New Yorkers themselves don’t seem to have an awareness of these places. Ask strangers passing through the subway where George Washington threw a party to bid farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War and you’ll likely get a quizzical look (it’s the Fraunces Tavern, a great place for charcuterie and live Irish music). Washington’s name is all over the Big Apple, but 21st century New York City doesn’t seem to remember its 18th century self after so many face lifts. The Fraunces Tavern down in the Financial District near Battery Park is a great example of old, but it can get crowded. Heading north of the tavern to Chelsea, the High Line is a great example of something green, but it’s always crowded. Continuing north, I suppose Central Park is somewhat old and usually green but it’s way too crowded. Long story short, occasional bouts of green and vintage can be found across the city, but nothing uncrowded, even if I were to inch my way up to the Bronx and into Westchester where there’s a lot of green.

So where in America can a gal stretch her legs and quiet her mind?

Plenty of places, but not many that I find super-inspiring (with exceptions of our national parks; I’m talking about unprotected land). I’ve driven coast-to-coast three times so far and have become increasingly turned off by what I see, the “golden arches,” rampant obesity, billboards for Walmart, malls, malls and more malls. Yes, there are many Americas in America, but the one I just described is the one that’s most obvious from the highway, and it makes me wonder what the United States looked like before corporate consumerism swallowed us whole. I’m looking for something very particular, old like a random 19th century farmhouse on a slow road, not manicured Colonial Williamsburg-old. Or something not golf course-green, but an uninterrupted forest green like Vermont (it’s in the state’s name after all), where billboards are illegal and the farm-to-fork movement isn’t a movement but daily practice.

Ok, so farmhouses are often smallish—at least smallish compared with McMansions—uncrowded and green and old, right, so maybe I’m on to something there? I can already hear my 11-year-old’s eyes rolling with this one (though she does like my idea of AirStreaming through Canada into Alaska and picnicking on salami and salmon along the way). I do like farmhouses, so maybe I drive around America checking out old farmhouses and taking pictures of them the way photographer Robert Dawson and his son Walker traveled America photographing public libraries. Nearby in Brooklyn is a Dutch saltbox farmhouse built in 1652 that has successfully weathered urbanization as well as generations of hippies, hipsters and the craft beer revival. It’s called the Wyckoff House and it looks like a fun day trip, but it’s also spittin’ distance from a BJ’s, so not very green, and definitely not uncrowded. I could meander up the Hudson into the Catskills, back into Vermont’s verdant valleys, around New England and find some old farmhouses in sparsely populated towns there. Maybe that will quell this urge. We’ll see.

My quest for smaller, quieter space is undoubtedly a Quixotic one, but I’m convinced these places, these old farmhouses and less developed nooks in America exist, though they are getting harder to find because so many are being encroached by suburbanization. (Suburbanization is simultaneously ruining cities; stand in the middle of New York’s Union Square as I recently did and every store front can be found everywhere else: Children’s Place, TGIF Friday’s, Barnes and Noble, Staples. Yes, Union Square has a bustling farmers’ market but those veggie stands are besieged by Corporate America.) Lately, I’ve been wondering what Washington would think if he could see America now? Would he applaud our entrepreneurship or mourn the loss of land and landscape?

My need for these quieter, unvarnished slices of Americana is in direct reaction to the suburban affluence that surrounds me. As I write this, construction workers are hammering away at a couple McMansions; two are going up right now on the next street over. I jog or bike by them daily. Mid-century homes are getting bulldozed left and right while my husband and I work to renovate our quirky 1926 Colonial. We’re getting backyard chickens this spring, and, yes, while Brooklyn hipsters are also doing this, I know my interest in raising hens is to create at home what I am losing in my community, something small and sweet, hopefully green, not too busy, with some age to it—before someone knocks it down.

Vermont: A Study in Red and White

Zigzagging over Vermont this week brought to mind this very meditative William Carlos Williams’ poem titled “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which was first published in 1923:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

In February, actually—I’m guessing throughout much of the winter—the Green Mountain state is a study in red and white, red barns dotting snow-covered fields so white and smooth and completely unblemished they look lakes reflecting the sky. A few times we would look at a field and ask aloud “Is that a pond or a field?” because there were places where the two appeared identical and we couldn’t tell what lay beneath all that alabaster snow. There are several weeks, actually a few months more to go before white chickens and red wheelbarrows will be back outside, but the poem repeated in my mind like a song as we drove scenic Route 100, a north-south road that twists through the center of the state’s forests and farms.

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Everyone drives a Subaru Outback in Vermont, but the red barn is the state’s true workhorse, the one that has weathered not just the 20th century, but the latter half of the 19th century as well. No one can convert a Subaru Outback into retail space or houses of worship, but Vermonters have converted old red barns into artists’ studios, ski shops, flower shops, restaurants, welcome centers, event space (with for rent signs out front), and one peach-painted barn served as the town synagogue. I stopped to look at a red barn decorated with weather-beaten Buddhist prayer flags. Some red barns simply stored hay, housed cows and served as a place to keep tractors until grass grew again. I learned about this beautiful, five-story barn that’s part of the Farmhouse Inn in Woodstock, Vermont. Built in 1915, this barn protects about 40 dairy cows from harsh winter weather. I wanted to go inside, but we were just passing through on our way to meet a friend for lunch in Brattleboro.

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I drove by some gorgeous red barns that I wanted to stop and photograph, but there were no where safe places to pull over. Plowing had created four-foot high snow banks alongside the road, so I reluctantly passed up some gorgeous, iconic red barns, some still with Christmas decor clinging to giant front doors. At our lunch in Brattleboro, our friend told us about his brother’s annual fall festival barn party and I invited myself simply to go spend an October weekend partying in someone’s barn—because partying inside a historic barn probably feels a lot different than sipping cocktails on some midtown skyscraper rooftop. I grew up surrounded by barns and sometimes miss them living in suburban New York City. Red barns exude endurance and hospitality. There’s something very reassuring in seeing these barns stand strong against windy white winters; someone has taken great care of the land that nourishes the animals and people residing there, that inside the barn it is warm and safe and welcoming, that the snow will always melt and that spring will always return.

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Laying Low in Stowe

Nope. This isn’t the Bahamas, which is where we were planning to go until over the weekend when our area was placed under a high-wind advisory. One plane out of Newark had to turn back due to severe turbulence the same day we were scheduled to fly south. Meanwhile, the forecast for our island was cloudy to partly sunny with thunderstorms rolling through and temperatures barely reaching 70 degrees. That didn’t bode well for beach time.

I don’t fly well, and the unpredictability of winter weather sends my flying phobia into the stratosphere. So I surprised my husband and kid by announcing a change of plans. And here we are. In Stowe. Where it was eighteen below during breakfast this morning. Where it is so cold that the horses across the street are unwilling to leave the barn and pull us around for a sleigh ride (I don’t blame them). Where it’s too cold to roast s’mores over a fire pit because your fingers might go numb from sudden frostbite. Where even the locals, who historically never shy away from inclement weather, appear impressed.

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Like Iceland, Vermont specializes in creating warm, inviting interior spaces that make you forget the fury unfolding outside. So we’re cocooning Vermont-style these next few days, which involves lots of wool sweaters and socks, crackling fires, stacks of steaming flapjacks, interesting things to read and hot toddies. Tomorrow is the balmy day of the week: a high of 24 degrees! We plan to ski and watch evening fireworks at the mountain. Thursday’s high will be 12 degrees; Friday’s will be 6.

Winter can be harsh, and this winter in the northeastern United States has been particularly cold and windy and unforgiving. But winter is also beautiful in its eerie, stubborn way. The earth needs to rest. And this is how it’s done, with blankets of white snow that stretch toward icy blue horizons.