Sunday, April 17, 2011

First Hike of 2011!

I wasn't happy when I woke up Sunday morning and it was still drizzly. I felt desperate to go for a hike and this was the first free day Bill and I had had in weeks. Granted, hiking is not ideal during mud-season, but I had figured it would be worth getting into the woods if for nothing more than to smell the mud.

As some of you know, I absolutely loved our snowy winter, but now, I was ready to put my hiking boots back on. I also had just read Jackie Donnelly's blog, ( Jackie had found all kinds of early Spring wildflowers in Skidmore Woods. I was eager to see what I could find in the woods.

With a forecast of sunshine as the day went on, I decided that we could still get to Monument Mountain, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and back within a reasonable amount of time even if we didn't leave home until noon. All of a sudden, at 11:15, a huge patch of blue sky opened up and sun streamed through the livingroom windows. I threw some fruit into my backpack, grabbed our boots and hiking poles, and we were off.

I had not been to Monument Mountain since 1998. My sister and I had brought our children to this area of the Berkshires because we had spent so much of our own childhood here when our grandparents had lived in nearby North Egremont. I have a picture of my sister on top of Monument Mt. in 1963. I don't know if I ever made it to the top as a child. My only memory is of eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the base of the mountain and having bees swarm around me. I dropped the sandwich and ran. My grandfather always teased that I ran half-way up the mountain. No bee-laden sandwich for me! My sister, on the other hand, sat calmly eating her sandwich, flicking away any bee who happened to land on the bread.

Over the past few years, I have hiked up and down Berkshire County and back. From Connecticut to Vermont, this edge of Massachusetts is one of my favorite places. But, Monument Mt. had not interested me. It was too short a hike, 2.7 miles round trip, and has a treacherous rocky summit--a hard place to sit and soak up the view. Today, it appealed simply because it is shorter. Also, it would not be high enough to have much remaining snow, or low enough for a lot of soggy ground. Besides, my friends Herb and Gillian had told in their blog about a great ice cream shop in town ( ).

After just an hour's drive from home, Bill and I arrived at the trailhead. The sun came and went...mostly went..., as we started up the Indian Monument Trail. The Indian Monument Trail is longer but more gradual than the Hickey Trail which also begins from the parking area. It is also easy enough for children. Little ones can still get tired, though. In 1998, my son, Thomas, carried my four-year-old niece on his shoulders. So if you have a very young child along, bring a doting teenager with you too.

Many Berkshire trails are fairly pedestrian old farm roads, giving the hiker a chance to smell the damp smells and look for wildflowers without falling over roots and rocks. In addition, literary connections abound. I never hike in this area of the Berkshires without imagining Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and other Transcendentalists strolling these paths. In fact, Hawthorne and Melville met while hiking this mountain and talked about Melville's plans to write a story about a whale.

I didn't see any signs of Spring, but I had my camera ready. I was impressed to see other kinds of signs, such as these (below). Monument Mt. is owned by the Trustees of Reservation, which owns many beautiful properties not just in the Berkshires but in all of Massachusetts ( These signs were new since I had been here last.

At the junction of the Indian Monument Trail with the Hickey Trail, we turned right heading up to Squaw Peak . The intersection is marked by Inscription Rock, which tells how the property was donated to the public in 1899.

The trail gets steeper, gaining 800 feet from the parking area. Although the sun still hadn't emerged, we had warmed up and appreciated that the stubborn gray dampness accentuated the luscious Spring smells of mud and wet pine needles. In the photo, a few small mountain laurel plants (which retain their leaves all winter) looked fresh for the season. In another two months, these woods would be lush with white and pink blossoms.

Since my mind had to pay attention to a more demanding terrain, I found that I was attracted to a swath of sedimentary rock. Powerful forces first pushed these rocks into plate-like layers, and then turned them on their side.

It felt good to huff and puff a little. Although I had done a lot of walking and some biking this past month, I hadn't gotten a sturdy workout since the snow was waist-deep. Still, this was a short stretch and didn't overtax us on our first day out since March.

True to my memory, the final approach to the summit was a series of jagged quartzite rocks. In 1998, my sister and I had been very watchful of our children. Some of the rocks tower high and drop down hundreds of feet. If you bring children, keep a close eye or hand on them!

Still, craggy spots like this one where an old pine, wind-beaten over many years, with a mountainous view in the background, are a great visual reward of colorful nature.

When Bill and I arrived at the top, the sun came out. Big patches of blue popped up all around us. Bill found a perch while I took photographs. In minutes, he had taken a picture with his phone and posted it on Facebook.

We saw a few other couples come and go. This a popular spot. Everyone commented on the sudden sunshine and how good it felt to be outdoors.

I continued to clamber over boulders for pictures in every direction. Looking South and West, we could see the still-snowy ski trails of Catamount, and the rounded peaks of Washington Mt. State Forest. Soft shades of late winter and early spring would soon give way to a tender green, but, today, the crisp chilly atmosphere and changing sky added drama to the pastoral scene below.

Looking North, I could see Mt. Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts, and Mt. Equinox in Vermont. A wetland seemed just made for migrating birds.

I was disappointed to see this view just below to the East. The high school, upper left, had always been here, with a huge new complex on the right. I did not like looking at the more industrial area in front, where construction equipment had dug up the landscape and what appeared to be a small landfill encroached surprisingly close to the school and wetland.

After eating the apples and oranges that I had packed, Bill found another rock where he could lie back and soak up the sun. I joined him, gazing toward the northern view.

Heading back down, we decided to make a loop along the Hickey Trail. This trail is a bit steeper than the Indian Monument Trail and is known for its spring waterfalls. I have two Berkshire trail guide books. One suggests making the loop as we were doing, and the other suggests going in the opposite direction. So you decide whether you like a more gradual ascent or descent.

In minutes we came upon a small stream rushing between the rocks and trees. Crossing a couple of log bridges, we followed the brook as it splashed ever-downward.

I still kept looking for wildflowers. Maybe this is why I didn't find any:

Winter had not quite let go in the Berkshires.

The little stream grew as it gathered water from inside the earth and from snowmelt. A short side trail led us to this fast running cataract as it slid down a slab of rock and over a cave.

Through a forest of tall pines, their trunks black from the previous rain, we arrived back where we had begun, and it was only mid-afternoon. Monument Mt. had been the perfect outing for this day and a good introduction to this year's hiking season.

But we still had places to go. Just where was that ice cream place Herb had mentioned? I knew that SoCo Creamery was on Railroad St., and following Bill's GPS on his phone, we soon placed it right off of Main Street.

I confess that I have come through Great Barrington all of my life, even in recent years driving down Main St., and yet I never knew about Railroad Street's charming shops and restaurants. Great Barrington has become the kind of village destination that Bill and I seek out when we travel.

We parked the car at the top of the hill, stepping out to the aroma of wood-fired pizza. Strolling down Railroad St., we passed a kitchen shop, a restaurant down a side alley, small boutique clothing stores, and yes, SoCo Creamery!

This is not just any ice cream store. This is hand-crafted deliciousness made right down the road on Route 7. Always on the lookout for some combination of coffee and chocolate flavors, my eye gravitated right to Espresso Cookie, coffee ice cream loaded with oreos.

Bill went a little more exotic and tried Earl Grey Supreme ice cream. A fan of Earl Grey tea, he pronounced this flavor having the perfect nuances of bergamot.

The "small" cones were large. We didn't have any trouble polishing ours off, given that we had only had a couple of pieces of fruit since we left home, but next time, unless I'm really famished, I would go for the "kiddie" size. And maybe I'll go for a fruity gelato or sorbet...or maybe not ( ).

As we walked back to the car, I stopped in the kitchen shop and Bill looked at menus outside of restaurants. Someday we'll come back and eat here. Today, we drove through the rolling hills of North Egremont to New York State. We knew that the sun would have warmed our porch at home. I had a simple spaghetti dinner planned which we could just barely fit in before the temperature began to drop, chilling the porch.

Clouds were just beginning to return as we pulled into our driveway. Rain was predicted for the next day, but I was pleased with my rediscovery of Monument Mt. and Great Barrington.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sad Pants

First, I want to thank all of you who read and shared my previous blog post about New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. As of this writing, I have had an impressive 250 hits.
( )

This week my father was in the hospital. His simple outpatient, half-day, procedure turned into a five-day event. While the original surgery went smoothly, his heart rate was all over the map. At 87 years old, he landed in the Cardiac Critical Care Unit.

My mother thought she would be at my house just from Thursday evening until Friday afternoon, but her stay extended through Tuesday. I ran between my house, the hospital, and a daunting schedule of orchestra rehearsals and a concert. Both of my parents often expressed their gratitude for my help, but these are my parents--this is what family is all about.

My mother's stress level mounted, especially when we arrived at the hospital on Saturday to find that my father had been put on oxygen and that his mood was running the gamut. At first, he had joked with the staff, then he became angry. We were all exhausted.

In the end, all he needed was a simple ablation procedure (beyond the earlier minor surgery), and by Tuesday, he was ready to go home. He looked like his usual ruddy self in his plaid flannel shirt, corduroys, and Irish cap when I drove them back to their Saratoga home.

Independently, we had just received a letter stating that exemptions on my parents' home had not been filed, and absolutely had to be taken care of this day or my parents would have to pay an additional $500 in school taxes. I hoped to resolve the problem in the brief time between leaving my parents at their house, and getting back to Albany in time for my French class (some readers may remember my January post about taking French

Pressure mounted while, on the sneak as my father ate his lunch in the kitchen, my mother and I scoured the kitchen, office, and basement, for the papers I would need. It would not do to have my father worked up about money in his first hour at home. I took a variety of forms, none of which looked official, to the Saratoga Springs City Hall Assessor's office. All I have to say is, if you live in Saratoga and you ever have a property tax issue, you could not find a nicer assessor than the woman who helped me. Within twenty minutes, the problem was solved.

I was excited about my success, but I had only fifty minutes to get from downtown Saratoga to the College of St. Rose in Albany, and to find a parking place. I love my French class. It is fun and different from anything else that I do. Getting there today became my whole focus. Checking the clock as I drove, I figured I would be late. I rationalized, "A few of the students arrive late for every class. It won't kill me if I'm not exactly on time."

I had ten minutes left when I pulled onto North Main Ave., and there was a spot just waiting for me. I parallel parked and walked the couple of blocks to the class building, getting to my seat with a few minutes to spare.

My French professor has created a participatory experience, giving the students many opportunities to speak in French. Our class is relaxed and the professor appears to love his job. He went through the homework assignment asking each student to read a sentence and pick the appropriate picture on the paper that fit the sentence. He asked me to read one that said, in French, " This is my grandmother. She is a widow..."

After I read the sentence, the professor said, "This is actually quite sad. What is sad in this picture?" I looked at the picture of the old lady, standing a bit bent, leaning on her cane. She did not look sad to me. After all, I had spent the last five days visiting the Cardiac CCU at Albany Med. She sure looked a lot happier than any of the folks there.

But, good heavens, what was she wearing? If there is anything worse than an old woman wearing capri pants, it is her wearing capris with a loud floral print. While some of you know that my sense of fashion does not stray far beyond L.L.Bean, if you see me someday wearing pants like these, please pull me aside and find me something else!

When the professor asked what was sad about this picture, it took me only seconds to respond in a clear straight-forward voice, "her pants." He looked up. Apparently, this was not the answer he had expected, so I qualified my statement, saying, "her pants are saaad!" At this the entire class, including the professor, began to laugh.

I realized how absurd my answer had been, and could barely stop laughing as he brought the class back to order, and began to describe the fact that the woman was a widow and had to use a cane, ending by saying, "and she's having a bad pants day." I was in stitches again. I had what my mother would call "a jag on," and it crossed my mind how close laughing is to crying. I pulled myself together, and remained quiet for the duration of the class period.

To add to an already crazy day, I had to be in Schenectady for an evening orchestra rehearsal, and only saw Bill in passing until nearly 10 p.m. At last, I proceeded to tell him my sad pants story. I could hardly get it out, choking with laughter as I stood in the livingroom while he sat in a chair with the laptop computer. Finally, I ended the story by reiterating the professor's words that the old lady, otherwise sad from being a widow with physical problems, was also having a bad pants day.

My story finished, Bill suddenly played a woman's voice coming from the computer, rattling off a sentence in perfect French. With his customary black humor, Bill explained that the voice was saying, "the old lady is happy that her husband kicked the bucket, but her pants are sad." He played it a couple of times over with the impeccable school-teacher voice making my original statement even more hilarious. The next evening, while he dried the dishes, Bill stated, sotto voce, "her pants are sad." It would take a while for me to live this one down.

I wondered what my fellow students thought of me. I could do worse than be viewed as a middle-aged nut case. Now a few days later, I am going to go with Charles Dickens, who once said that it was better for people to "wrinkle up their eyes in grins" at someone else's expense than to have "less attractive forms." Besides which, I have been back to French class, and so far have managed to behave myself.