It’s been a summer of water and the road.

July 4th weekend, our friends Holly and Jeff had invited us to her parent’s place on Chebeague Island, Maine, off the coast of Portland.

We drove to a park n’ ride to hop a bus to the ferry that would take us the island. You know it’s a laid-back kinda place when the parking lot sports a hammock.

The bus — a sky-blue school bus — was so dog-friendly the driver keeps a box of treats by the gear shift. We felt out of place not because we had a dog, but because we didn’t have a retriever or a lab.

Holly’s parents, Bob and Nancy, had forsaken more fast-paced lives for the island that her family has called home for almost a century. They built a super-green friendly house, and Bob got into the green building business. Nancy is a teacher, and seemed to have a hand in everything related to the small school that serves the 300 or so year-round families.

The island was heaven. Lazy days floating on the cold water, a fast sail tacking around lobster trap buoys. Cocktails around 4pm, dinner around 8pm with plenty of wine, followed by fresh bakery pies (we brought the first night’s, a gift to our hosts. A friend of our hosts had dropped another by the next day).

Holly’s parents keep garden boxes where other families have yards. Dinner teamed with their produce, like fresh-trimmed salad greens, the season’s earliest wild blueberries, and spices fresh from a bush.

We stayed four days, and to help around the house, I offered to help make dinner with Holly one night. There was a massive lamb shoulder. She had no idea what to do with it. I hit the computer, and with a little Internet inspiration, came up with a riff on Beuof Borginon. Holly suggested the slow cooker. I had spotted kale in the garden, and suggested that as a green. Holly tackled pesto toasts (her father had made fresh bread the day before) and the last of the fall’s winter squash from the deep freeze.

I like cooking because it’s creative. I look at recipes as a starting point, and riff from there, with whatever’s around and might taste good. Sometimes it works brilliantly (my apple cider steal-cut slow cooker oatmeal), sometimes not so much (several curries better left unmentioned). No beef stock? Chicken sounds good. No open bottle of red wine? Light sherry provided an acceptable alcoholic kick.

For the kale, I perused the spice rack.

“What are you looking for?” Holly asked.

“I don’t know, just seeing what you have.”

This baffled her a little, a think.

But then I caramelized the onions. I shook out some mustard seeds and toasted them a little in the center of the pan. In went the kale, and as the leaves wilted, a heavy dash of the sweet blueberry balsamic sitting beside the stove sizzled.

The verdict?

At dinner, Bob asked for a second serving, before admitting that he usually hates kale — and asking me for the recipe.

The lamb that earned us a return invite

1 very large lamb shoulder

About 5 carrots

1 onion

5 cloves garlic

Handful of small sprigs of sage and thyme

A box of chicken stock (or more, to cover the meat in the slow cooker)

A heavy splash of light sherry

Salt and pepper to taste

Oil for sautéing/browning

Brown the meat on a large griddle (stovetop or electric). Chop the carrots and onions, and feel free to toss in mushrooms too. Sautee them all until the onions start browning and the carrots soften. Add broth and cook a few more minutes. Add sherry to taste. Dump the whole thing in the slower cooker with the lamb. Set to high.

Hit the beach.

Go swimming.

Head home, shower.

Open a bottle or two of wine.

While drinking said wine, spoon half the sauce into a pan and reduce on the stove to a thick-ish sauce, about 15 minutes or so. Use tongs, or just a large spoon, to take the meat off the bone and put on a plate — by now, the meat will just fall off the bone.  Serve, with the sauce on the side.

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For most of her life, as we knew her, Sirus wouldn’t touch the water. A paw, maybe. But wetness was not her friend. We spent years coaxing her into lakes. Two summers ago she finally waded in, a ball as her incentive. But she’d never swim.

Last summer, camping in the Catskills, we took her for a walk around North-South Lake. A momma duck and her ducklings quacked close to shore. Temptation. She jumped right in — and started swimming. The ducks quaked and swam. Sirus barked and swam. Quack bark, quack bark, round and round.
We tried in vain for a duck-less repeat. At the ocean a few months later, she ran from tiny wavelets. For months, we’ve tossed her ball in the local park dog beach — but she just wouldn’t pick up her legs.

On July 4, something changed.

In Maine, with a pair of dogs born to the ocean, Sirus finally started paddling. Maybe it was because we took to inner tubes and left her alone (though only a few feet away) on shore. Maybe her alpha-dog-ness kicked in, with the others showing her up. Whatever the reason, she ventured out. Farther and farther each time. She swam out to our tubes. She swam for the ball. With each paddle she gained confidence. The next day she went out for more.

Last weekend, our four-legged land-lubber officially found her sea-legs.

Sirus swims

A not-young dog, learning new tricks

She spent hours fetching a green rubber ball. Jet ski wake didn’t faze her. She swam out to Michael as he paddled a canoe. She swam to me as I turned a kayak. When we stopped throwing her ball, she swam to the float marking the anchor for another family’s motorboat, and tried desperately to pull the white stick to shore.

She even inspired others.

Michael adopted Sirus when she was 18 months, after a puppy-hood in Arizona and Idaho — far from water, I assumed. I didn’t think we’d ever teach her to make the plunge. But now, at about 49 in dog years, she’s not only taught herself a new skill, she’s come to find that something she was kind of scared of, she actually really loves.

That’s a lesson for us all.

The state budget cuts hit home. The sweet little campground we hit last summer, which included all-access to the massive North-South Lake area but with none of the crowds and hassle, has been shuttered for the summer due to budget cuts.

We discovered this when we went to make reservations for this summer.

At a time when more people are seeking cheap getaways close to home, was it really necessary? Did the primitive campground really cost that much to maintain? There are plenty of folks, like us, who probably would have chipped in on cleanups, setups and breakdowns if the state, or anyone, had asked. Such efforts would be a small price to pay to insure a responsibly maintained primitive site remained open to all.

Amid the wedding-planning mayhem this summer we took a long July 4 weekend to camp in the Catskills — specifically, Devil’s Tombstone. It wasn’t easy to find a relatively last-minute place to pitch a tent on a holiday weekend.

Getting there was an adventure. M. got stuck in Albany for work — with the car. I was in Brooklyn — with all the gear. So I overstuffed my pack and, leaning precariously on Subway train walls and poles, made my way to Grand Central to catch the Metro North to Poughkeepsie. Me with hiking clothes, crazy stuffed Osprey with boots and sleeping bags dangling off, and a train full of Manhattanites with lap-dogs bound for Catskill summer homes.

M. borrowed from friends in Albany what I couldn’t carry on the train, and picked me up at the station.

We rolled into the campground right at 9 p.m., right when the park office closes.
But the duo who run the campground stay open an extra 15 minutes on summer weekends just in case city-folk like us get stuck in traffic, or some such.

The guy running the place was rugged and muscular, with about 20 years on us and looking like he could still out-outdoors us in every way. Our campsite was on a small clearing overlooking the road, surrounded by trees — and no light. Knowing we’d have to set-up in the dark, he came to check on us. He couldn’t have been nicer. The tent couldn’t have been more uncooperative. (A lesson we know well, but clearly needed to relearn — kids, never attempt to set up a new tent for the first time in the dark.)

We gave up and slept in the car. Our Mountain Man friend was clearly disappointed in us, but we were far too tired to care. We know from experience that us plus dog fit very comfortably with the seats down.

Day dawned, and we explored. Devil’s Tombstone is a small, primitive campground, with a bathroom and not much else. But it was quit, blissfully so. No electricity meant no RVs, or radios, or much other noise but the occasional (very, very occasional) car on the road below.

Because it’s so small, state parks and rec granted us access to the massive North-South Lake Campground — as noisy and packed as our campground was serene. We strolled around the lakes on the Loop trail. Sirus, lured by a passel of ducks, actually swam.

A map of the area from the NSL office showed a more rugged route starting just before the formal park entrance, and so we had a second-day adventure along the Catskill Escarpment above Kaaterskill Clove.

(We thought about hiking up to the popular Kaaterskill Falls — I had never been. But the weekend crowds dodging traffic to the trail entrance quickly dissuaded us. On the escarpment trail, we met perhaps a handful of people.)

The trail took us up up up, around the backside of a small peak, and to the front again. Rain had come hard that week, so while the sun broke for us, the footing remained muddy. This isn’t a trail for the unsure of foot, and frankly, I’m not sure I’d tackle it again with the dog. On the far side, the trail narrowed precipitously with a steep drop to our right, nothing but a few scant inches of grass between my right pinky toe and things I’d rather not think about.  Sirus kept wanted to pass to our right. I yelled at her more than I should have, out of nervousness.

Our payoff — two overlooks, slightly cleared openings around granite outcroppings, with views to Connecticut and down the Hudson Valley.

Good friend, it’s been a while.
A wedding, a honeymoon, various summer hikes…
I’m overdue.
And now, I’m back.

I mentally shook myself and wondered if the clerk had just done what I thought she did.

For years I had wanted to visit the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, MA, having heard raves about the food, the programs and the scenery. A stay is steep, but since I saved, oh, $2,500 by not jetting to New Zealand, I figured $155 a night was a steal.

I definitely felt lighter when I left – $155 lighter, and enlightened by the knowledge that I had finally done something I had always wanted to do, even if I never, ever wanted to to do it again.

My $155 bought a bottom bunk in a glorified hostel, three meals of various pilafs, yogurts and tahini dressings and rather uninspiring yoga on sweaty carpet desperately in need of a good shampoo.

Part of it’s my fault. Seeking relief for repetitive stress injuries when I first moved to Albany, I tried Kripalu. The slow pace, easy stretches and simple breathing weren’t for me. Vinyasa yoga – a more athletic style – hooked me, and I never returned.

The Kripalu Center offers Vinyasa classes, but intimidated by the toned yoga bodies, I stuck with the easy class since I haven’t practiced regularly in about a year. I shouldn’t have been so shy. I remembered quickly why I didn’t like the Kripalu style.

The center offers biking and kayaking, but only in small guided groups. Guests can’t just sign out a boat or bike on their time. The center owns land down to a lake, where I sat and watched the rosy reflection of sunset clouds play across the water – after wandering around the property for an extra 20 minutes because the trails aren’t marked.

But the kicker was the room. When I entered, I found the previous occupants’ underwear, magazines, paperbacks, peach pits and Kleenex. I’m all for glasses half full, but that doesn’t mean I liked having mugs still sporting someone else’s coffee dregs on the dresser. After dinner I asked a woman at the reception desk if the trash could be cleared off. She questioned me: was I absolutely sure the girl had left? Then she told me to check back after my wander down to the lake.

Ninety minutes later I returned. She needed a moment to remember that she had spoken to me earlier. She asked if I had gone to the room. No, I said, she told me to check back. I said this in an even tone – I was patient, I wasn’t upset, though really I had every right to be. The woman looked at me and then – I swear to God – stretched her arms to the side, pinched her fingers, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply, holding the breath for a moment before exhaling slowly.

Now, she may have had a rough day. I don’t know what problems came before me, and she may have just been stressed by the situation. But whatever the reason, she felt it so necessary to de-stress herself that she had to interrupt a conversation with a guest to take a yogic breath and center herself before continuing.

Really? I mean, is life so tough?

I was too shocked to say a word. I went upstairs. The peach pits were gone but the dirty underwear lingered. I just went to sleep.

The next day I before I left I bought a cookbook in the gift store. Standing in line to pay, a woman approached me, asking where I found the book. I pointed. I knew the clerk heard me, so I turned to him and joked, with my most personable smile, the one that’s won over scores of journalistic sources: Glad I could be of service.

He looked at me confused for a minute.

I was joking, I told him, because I told the customers where the book was?

Ah, he said very seriously, thank you.

And with that, I left, never to return.

Slightly embarrassed (and still completely nonfunctionally out of it, thanks in small part to a show at the Roseland ballroom last night and in vast quantities to the insanity that was the diverted Q train to Brooklyn last night, I’m barely sitting upright and I think Michael and I yelled at each other this morning but I honestly don’t even remember, I was so out of it) to learn that Bolt is actually a subsidiary of Greyhound, founded this spring to compete directly with the Chinatown buses. Early reports list the service as NY-DC only, although now the company has a Boston run too.

The question is – isn’t Bolt now competing with itself, ie Greyhound? Why couldn’t they just cut costs on the regular Greyhound line? Will this force the Chinese buses to get more organized and clean?

This also begs my two personal bus pet peeves – why can’t American buses install those amazing double-wide faux-leather Lazy-Boy-recliner seats with the radios in the arm rest like the awesome Spanish buses? And why can’t there be an attendant who brings around tea or coffee, hot towels and blankets to tuck you in at night, like the South American buses? (They do this in Turkey too, but the gentleman on that bus took a creepy interest in a friend of mine and she woke up with him beside her staring and I think almost touching, if not outright, so I’ll leave that off the list).

The list of East Coast bus services is getting long, so I’ll leave with one last question – what’s the best?

I ask not just for me, but for also for Mom, who has been pondering ways to take a weekend trip or two solo once we have our new place in Park Slope, and I think there’s some buses that will pick her up in Salisbury on the Norfolk-NY run, but I’m not sure nor do I know how nice they are.

Blogging from the bus isn’t just for political wonkheads anymore. Not if I’m doing it too – as we speak! (Or as I write, and you read, but you get the point).

Chinatown buses have plied the NY-DC corridor for years now, but a couple of non-Chinatown companies have started cashing in too – and for the same price, about $20 one way. That’s compared to $72-$170+ for Amtrak, $45 for Greyhound, and who knows how much for driving. I checked out megabus.com (see: previous post) and saw they picked up right outside of Metro Center at the corner of G and 11th streets, NW. I wanted to use cash, so I figured I’d take my chances and try to pay on the bus instead of getting my ticket in advance.

Outside the Metro stop, I asked one of the nice gentlemen the city pays to answer all a tourist’s questions (and others, since I don’t consider myself a tourist in DC). There’s no office but the buses come right here, he said, pointing at the curb two feet away.

Turns out at least two bus services stop there – Megabus.com, and Boltbus.com, with almost identical pricing. The latter came first, at 11:30am about 45 minutes before the former, so I decided to give it a go.

The flaming orange Bolt bus is a relatively new luxury coach, with a bathroom but without that Greyhound smell (you know what I mean). The bus driver efficiently directed everyone on board with a smile (a smile! From an inter-state bus driver!), answered questions, and had us all ready to go within 10 minutes. I paid $25 as a walk-up.

Once aboard she introduced herself as Carolyn and reminded everyone not to smoke, to turn their cell phones down and to otherwise be polite to the neighbors.

The bus stops at 33rd and 7th in Manhattan, apparently by S’barros, which is close enough to Penn Station for me.

So I lied.

Tales of me vs. the yogis will have to wait.

Today Howard – aka Twerp, aka little bro’ – and I declared a beach day, and off we fled to Ocean City. After three hours in this heatwave, we were seriously baked crabs. We hit the boardwalk for soda and ice cream, and there we discovered perhaps OC’s most unsung entertainment: the memorial plaques on boardwalk benches.

The benches themselves are totally unremarkable – park benches that trade green iron for white. But it’s quite fascinating to see what some people decide they want to etch in cheap metal for the world to see.

Among the gems, forever immortalized (or at least until the next hurricane):

“Bob Smith – Fisherman and Cowboy Attorney” (Bob Smith wasn’t the name, but the rest of it was there – so was he a fisherman? A cowboy? A lawyer for fishermen and cowboys? Are there any cowboys in Maryland? The mind reels.)

“The Moeller Family People Watching Bench” (Very practical, because this is what one does on said benches, but H wanted to know if the Moellers ever let other crowd scanners sit there.)

“…from sweet dumplin’ to her loving husband”

“… from your 9 children, and their spouses”

Since I nixed New Zealand – collapsing into a ball of stress the night before, bemoaning the weightiness of life and everything in it – I decided that I still needed a vacation. And so I vowed to do a bunch of things I’d always wanted to do but never took the time to near Albany.

You know how it is: these things are always there, and so close, and you know you’ll get to them one day… and then never do.

I vowed to do them all.

Or at least a couple.

I have never been berry picking. Apples yes (and pears, and some nasty end-of-season peaches, which devolved into a game of peach pitching, which in turn ended with a mighty Sploosh of rotten peaches all over my jeans and much general hilarity – but I digress). Berries no. All summer I kept meaning to take Sirus out to Thacher Park, about a half hour drive from our house, and there was a berry patch on the way.

So that’s what we did one lovely Tuesday afternoon. It was actually quite overcast and threatening to rain, but that didn’t matter. I was on a mission. We fled Albany into the far flung suburbs where the water lines don’t even run, to a patch of strawberries hugging the easements around electric towers (minor pause to wonder what happens if a thunderstorm strikes, but I just refused to go there). Sirus burst from the hatch like a steam engine, flying three times around the wooden shack where the local teenager collects the cash. Said teenager was clearly worried about this craziness on four legs and instructed that I keep Pups well away from the berries. We picked our way carefully through the vines. I tied her to an apple tree and she happily sniffed the crazy country smells as I bent over and plucked juicy red berries from their nest.

It’s an undeniable rush to pick your own food, a connection directly from the ground to the bowl and eventually to the car, table and mouth. And then I realized what a luxury it truly was to pick berries, that I could dash in, play around and leave, without any of the hard labor of sowing and fertilizing and rising before dawn of actual farming – I got all the easy parts and none of the really hard work, and I felt absolutely decadent and a bit guilty all at once.

And let me also add that $12 worth of grocery store strawberries is enough for smoothies for, say, a week. While $12 worth of hand-picked berries was good for smoothies for two – and strawberry-lemon-ginger muffins (which didn’t rise, I think I need new baking powder) and strawberry oatmeal bars (the best of which I can say is that I know how I’m tweaking the recipe in the future) and strawberries for salads and enough strawberries in general that, by the end of the week, I craved blueberries.

Next Post: Intrepid Traveler vs. Zen Yogis, and the yogis send me packing