Category Archives: Outdoors

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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Barn 2

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.

Stowe

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.

The Beauty of Travel Bans

Until recently, New York City didn’t stop for anyone or anything. But last night, a travel ban was issued, silencing Manhattan’s streets and subways. The last time the subways were stopped was during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Yesterday was the first time in the subway system’s 110-year-old history that trains had been sidelined for snow.

But the Great Blizzard of 2015 was quite anti-climactic, shifting east so that the Big Apple was spared while Boston was blanketed. The travel ban was lifted this morning; cars and buses were allowed back on the streets at 7:30 am while subways started inching along around 9 am.

Which is too bad. I wish Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo had kept the ban in place until nightfall. Just for fun. The city needs the break.

You see, New Yorkers have trouble slowing down so they need outside help. Intense snow fall works. I’ve seen it.

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In January 1996, I was living on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. I had just returned from spending the holidays with family in Rochester, New York, near the heart of the Great Lakes Snow Belt region (I think Buffalo can rightly claim being at the epicenter of Snow Belt fun). I lived in an overpriced studio facing the Empire State Building. To be 22 years old and to go to bed every night with your pillow facing a glowing, towering Empire State Building was truly special. The city’s fifth largest snowstorm began January 7, 1996, dumping 20.2 inches on Central Park. Schools were obviously closed, taxis got stuck in snow drifts, but Broadway performances were cancelled and the New York Stock Exchange shut down early (although the subways kept going). I had just returned from being away and had no food in the apartment. So being a true New Yorker, I ordered takeout during a blizzard. I ordered from my favorite Indian place. My saag paneer and basmati rice arrived as if it were all sunshine and daisies outside (yes, I remembered what I ate because I always eat the same thing at Indian restaurants). I ate my dinner and listened to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and watched the snow fall. To this day, I still associate that song with snow fall.

The following morning I went outside to walk to the corner grocery store, and that’s when I saw a different New York.

A soft silence had quilted Bleecker Street. No heaving buses. No obnoxious taxi horns. No grunts and groans of city dwellers trying to simply get from point A to B. The only sounds I heard were the giggles of a few people throwing snowballs at one another and the scraping of shovels. One guy was cross-country skiing down LaGuardia Place, the street adjacent to my apartment. If there were power outages and food shortages, they weren’t happening on my block. That morning, we were that cheap snow globe tchotchke sold in the Times Square tchotchke shops, twinkling and magical. The Twin Towers still stood then, and so between the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers, my neighborhood was having the best damn snow day imaginable. What was happening uptown or midtown, who knows, but on that day, Greenwich Village was doing what Greenwich Village has always done best: rolling with it.

Later that year, I left Manhattan to move to New Hampshire for my first newspaper job, and two years after that, I was living in Seattle where rain fell far more often than snow. I missed East Coast snow days and skiing in the Cascade Mountains didn’t alleviate that homesickness.

Today has been a fun snow day with kids sledding, homemade chocolate chip cookies and endless cups of tea. I know heavy snow fall scares a lot of people, and last night’s headlines of a “historic” blizzard sent Snowmageddon types grabbing the last loaf of bread on the store shelf. I see blizzards as opportunities to step off the wheel, and mandated travel bans help with that. Maybe that’s the Snow Belt gal in me after all these years. Cross-country ski down a street usually clogged with traffic. Throw a snowball at a friend. Build a snowman on the curb. Make a snow angel. Split a chocolate chip cookie with someone. Manhattan after a Nor’easter is something eerily beautiful and quiet and unique, a giant, gray beast silenced by fluffy white snow, a side of New York that only resurfaces now and then.

Who Speaks for the Trees?

Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park is always a quieting experience. The park marks its 100th anniversary as protected land next year, and although we like to think of our national parks as “timeless treasures,” Rocky Mountain National Park and others like it across America are beginning to show their age. It’s like seeing a friend who’s just gone through a very stressful period; you can see the fatigue around her eyes, a few new lines that weren’t there before. The stress of climate change has done just that to our national parks.

Yesterday, a few not-so-vertical, light hikes in the “family-friendly” areas of Rocky Mountain National Park revealed quite a bit. I was shocked to see the number of fallen trees, and many, though still standing, appeared ashen-faced, ready to fall over with the slightest wind. I last hiked this park in 2011, and didn’t recall seeing so many downed trees. Some had fallen into the water, many crisscrossed one another over the ground. The dead trees looked like vertebrae, backbones of once mighty creatures now growing pale under Colorado’s intense sun. What I was seeing was the impact of the mountain pine beetle, which I had read about in Michael Lanza’s wonderful book “Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks”. Warming temperatures have led to less brutally cold winters in Colorado, giving the gluttonous mountain pine beetle more time to feed on trees. National parks shouldn’t feel like cemeteries.

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Colorado 2

For the past year, I’ve been working on a novel manuscript, which features travel through forested areas of North America and references climate change and the effects of the mountain pine beetle on the landscape. As we all know, it’s one thing to read about what’s going on in the world; it’s another thing entirely to see it. You don’t have to go far into the Rocky Mountains to literally trip over the impact of climate change. Politicians can debate science until their next election, but in the meantime, the trees are in desperate need of some Seussian protection; someone needs to speak for (and act on behalf of) the trees sooner rather than later.

To get ideas for my book-in-progress, I started taking pictures of the fallen trees in color, but then switched to black and white because black and white better captured the starkness of what I was seeing. I started thinking of how I would revise certain passages in my book to more effectively entice the reader to follow in my own footsteps, and while I felt excited for firsthand inspiration, I felt saddened that I was seeing it at all. Again, hiking the Rockies is always a quieting experience, but this was different than past hikes. The majestic mountains still make a hike through Colorado feel like you’re walking through a postcard, but the countenance of the mountains has changed, and why wouldn’t it? Below them, trees continue to fall. Above them, skies continue to warm. So much is changing, yet little is being done.

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Getting Our West-of-the-Mississippi Fix

In the thick of another hazy morning in downtown Los Angeles, my thoughts were clear. We had spent too much money on travel in 2013, and I knew we had to change our ways. A two-week summer trip that combined Los Angeles with Monterrey would be expensive (and totally awesome, but expensive), and if 2014 was going to be our year of a self-imposed travel diet, of putting money towards upgrading our old house and following “the rules” a bit more by spending less and saving more, then we needed to skip California in 2014. We had been flying out West almost every year for a number of years, and it was time to take a break I told myself, looking out at the Hollywood sign and the stillness of the palm trees outside our apartment window. I didn’t want to skip California, but I thought we should. My husband agreed. Our daughter was disappointed. For years she had referred to this corporate apartment in downtown Los Angeles as “our summer home,” as if it were some charming, private chalet in the mountains, not a two-bedroom in a high-rise. Everyone concluded California wasn’t going anywhere (or so we hoped), so we’d be prudent in 2014, and return another year.

And so what happens? I’m flying to San Francisco next month, and I’m flying to Colorado next week. And it won’t cost me a thing. I had enough frequent flyer miles for both trips, and Mike’s company is paying for the hotel in San Francisco because he will be working from their Golden Gate office. And relatives have been kind enough to put us up while visiting Colorado. The travel gods were generous.

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We’re returning to Fort Collins, Colorado, later this month to see family, welcome a new baby (theirs, not ours), and hang with Mike’s super cool literary agent, the Divine Miss Sara Megibow. Fort Collins is a pristine place criss-crossed by bike paths. It is a beer snob’s paradise, and one of the few American towns I’ve come across where I can get Himalayan food. Fort Collins’ secret of being so awesome and clean and friendly has gotten out, and the long-timers there seem annoyed because they don’t want more people moving there wrecking a good thing, and they don’t want Fort Collins to become the next Boulder with its boutique-y ways and soy latte lifestyle (for the record, I love Boulder). Speaking of Boulder, if you live there or you’re passing through on July 2, swing by the Boulder Book Store . Mike and Sara will be hosting an event, and discussing Mike’s second book.

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Two weeks after that trip, we’re back in the sky heading west again to San Francisco, a city I tried to unsuccessfully move to, yet the jobs led us elsewhere. Mike will be there for work, aka his day job, and I’m tagging along because I had the frequent flyer miles. I plan on jogging along the waterfront, hanging out on the beach again like I did during that freezing August afternoon in 2012, giving vintage store shopping a go (I lack the patience to pick through all that clutter to find the “find” but I’m going to try because I like vintage things), and eating so much Japanese food it will feel like I’m back in Japan (gosh, I LOVE that country!).

So I will get my yearly California fix after all with a side of Rocky Mountain awesome. And the main floor of our house is getting painted and a few minor nips and tucks in household renovations are being made this summer. Not bad for a travel diet.