Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas Greens

(a spray of boughs adorns my mother's childhood sled, on my back porch in 2011)

I love having an abundance of Christmas greens.  Every year my mother and I go to "secret" locations near my parents' home in Saratoga and gather many varieties of evergreens and berries.  Most prized are the red winterberries that grow near swampy areas.  We wear waterproof boots just in case we slip off grassy hillocks into pools of icy water.

(a vase by the kitchen window in 2010 has a nice mix of greens, along with the poisonous white sumac berries)

One year we were very excited to come across white berries!  How lovely to mix the red, white, and deep green.  We divided up our spoils and I headed home to Albany, my mother making her arrangements back in Saratoga.

A couple of days later, we began to itch in strange places--the top of the hand, between the fingers, behind an ear, up the side of the neck.  I didn't think too much about it until my mother called.  She was in far worse shape than I.  My father insisted we were allergic to our greens.  The only new plant added to our collection was the white berry.  It didn't take much online research to learn that our great new addition was poison sumac!  I left mine in my bouquets, then carefully, with gloves, threw them out at the end of the season.

Each year, as we head out, my father stands in the doorway saying with a mischievous smile, "if you get arrested, don't count on me to rescue you.  I'm not bailing you out if I get a call from the county jail."  Then we laugh and wave as we drive away.

In fact, we are very careful about where we cut greens.  We do not go on posted lands, or near houses.  We do not go on Forest Preserve lands, parks, or farms.  We look, instead, for abandoned properties, and woods without fences or clear signs of ownership.

Our greatest concern is development.  For many years, we had a perfect location, gathering an amazing 9 different varieties of evergreens near an abandoned house, far from other houses.  One year we saw bulldozers nearby.  The next year a small condo complex had arisen.  After that, our greens were gone.  Now a huge condo complex covers the entire area. We looked long and hard for an equally good spot.  Although we haven't found one quite as perfect, we've done well for a few more years on another road in a different direction.  (Note I said "different direction." Just in case you know of the new condo complex, you won't catch me giving out any clues about our new place!)

(besides greens, we also find some picturesque December scenes)
Blue sky days with a little snow cover are a bonus.  We often go in a slight drizzle and mud, but now and then our holiday outing really looks festive.  We found lots of red berries at this marshy spot last year.  This year, we drove past the same place three times, not recognizing it.  Not only was it completely dry and appeared to be a grassy field, but the red winterberries that crave water were non-existent.  The winterberry trees may have made it through our hot dry summer but they did not produce lush berries as they had in the past.

(in 2011, my mother found lots of red winterberries)

Still, this week we headed to our most recent new find.  Since no snow freshened the woods, we expected some mud, but we were taken aback by an abundance of cut logs.  Last year's little logging road now looked like it was being prepared for a housing development.  We worried, "where would we go next year if this disappears?"

(our current greening area looks like it is heading for development)

But there was work to be done, so we put those unpleasant thoughts aside and hiked deeper into the forest, our eyes peeled for spruce and pine.  Once we saw this section (below), we knew we had found our spot.  Nevertheless, we continued walking on the road a bit farther, enjoying being out in the woods and also making sure we weren't missing any better trees.

(this year, we were still able to find lots of spruce and pine)
(my mother makes almost imperceptible cuts)

Even though a bulldozer could clean this place out in a week, we are very careful.  We cut our boughs from underneath or behind, and take just what we think we will use.  Only a very careful observer would ever know we had been here.

By the time we got back to the house, we had five different kinds of evergreen, and one lonely sprig of red berries.  The car smelled delicious.

Then we went out for lunch. This year, we chose Elizabeth's Table, a restaurant new to us.  We sat in the front tastefully-decorated window with a view of Broadway.  We both chose the cranberry apple tuna sandwich on homemade whole wheat bread. A tasty side dish of cucumber salad completed the lunch.  For dessert, I had cupcake and my mother had a cookie.  The perfect ending to a very successful morning!

(my drive to Albany will be very aromatic with this bounty!)

Back in Albany, I unloaded my boughs onto the back porch.  Next week I will create a big mess in the kitchen as I make arrangements around the house, setting off the decorations with backdrops of greens.  When it's all done, the clean up is another, smaller, project--vacuuming the rugs and giving the kitchen floor a quick mopping.

Then the house is ready for company. This year Bill and I will host 12 members of our family for Christmas dinner with another 3 or 4 coming for dessert.  Food smells will mix with the aromas of fresh evergreens. 

And when guests ask, "where do you go for your greens?" I hedge.  "We find secret locations," I say, and change the subject.

(the diningroom hutch in 2011--a mix of Christmas treasures and fresh greens)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

At Home in Albany, NY

For a long time, I had an ambivalent relationship with Albany.  I loved the little house we bought in 1983 when Thomas was 9 months old; I had made friends, and we had good neighbors next door, but it took years for me to get used to living in the "city" (pop. 90,000).  Bill, the real country person of the two of us, immediately embraced the convenience and benefits of being in town.

(our house)

At different times over the years, we put our house on the market and looked for properties with acreage, where I envisioned our kids playing in our own stream and cutting Christmas trees on our own property.  And then, for different reasons each time, we would take our house off the market.  Each attempt at moving, and then deciding to stay, prompted a few home renovations and a new thought process, planting us just a little deeper into our community.

What fun, on a recent September weekend, when new friends, Roger and June, came for a visit and wanted to "see Albany."  As we shared downtown with them, I thought about the various aspects that had made Albany, admittedly a city with pluses and minuses, the place where we now plan to stay.
(Roger and June on the Empire State Plaza with the Egg in background)
When I told my Co-op friends that we had visitors coming to see the city, one of them said, "Be sure to show them the sculptures on the plaza!"  We intended to walk the plaza, both to see the Egg and the south side of the Capitol, but the sculpture? I hadn't given it much thought.  June especially liked this one, below.

(Plaza sculpture)
And who can resist the Egg?  I had chaperoned school field trips, and gone to concerts and special events there.  For years, Thomas had called the skyline of Albany, "the greatest city known to man."  Despite the hyperbole, the Empire State Plaza has a lot to offer.

(architectural detail on Capitol Building)
I had thought that the focus of our excursion downtown would include a tour of the Capitol. A dozen years of restoration has made the Capitol an even more fascinating destination with newly re-opened skylights and cleaned sandstone.  I was disappointed to discover that the building is closed to tourists on weekends. Filling in as tour guide for the outside, I remembered to tell June and Roger about the 17 steps on the West side of the building and the 76 steps on the East.  Symbolism abounds. 

(New York State Capitol)

I find it interesting, also, that Governor Teddy Roosevelt, over 100 years ago, had halted construction on the Capitol because it seemed never-ending and an ongoing huge expense; and just last year, Governor Cuomo had called for an end to the restoration of the Capitol for the same reasons.  Now with the cranes and scaffolding gone, our guests could better appreciate the architecture. They'll have to come another time for the inside tour.

City Hall is also striking.  Bill described the weekly carillon concerts which send music across downtown.  I remembered battles fighting for our neighborhood park, when I attended many Common Council meetings at City Hall.  A proposal had been made to develop the park in the early 2000s.  Although it created tension across the city, now I look back at how our neighbors worked together, meeting at one another's houses, pooling our skills, eventually winning and saving the little park for ourselves and for future generations.  I almost hate to admit that this battle, so negative and literally fighting "city hall," made me feel more connected to my greater community. 
(Albany City Hall)
In addition, the battle to preserve green space not only confirmed Bill's and my lifelong environmental leanings, but became a catalyst for me to become a Sierra Club member and environmental activist.  The Sierra Club had gone to bat for us when we needed it.

We headed down State Street, where Roger, who had grown up in Schenectady, recognized the SUNY Central Building, and we talked about its Belgian architecture.  From there we continued on Broadway to the Riverway, walking across the bridge to the Hudson River.  And what did we find?  Sculptures of Dutch shoes that we could sit in!  Bennington has its moose, and Saratoga has its horse sculptures--how totally fitting for Albany to celebrate its Dutch heritage with these.
(Virginia and Bill in the Dutch clog--notice the Egg in lower right)
Since the Capitol was closed, our afternoon focus was a visit to the Albany Institute of History and Art which had just that day opened an exhibit on American Impressionism.  I knew June and Roger loved art and we spent a couple of hours in the museum.  This weekend was also Larkfest, which we took in for a few blocks on Lark Street and then headed down a side street of historic row houses.
(1851 house on side street)
I came to know almost all of Albany's neighborhoods through our kids' various school friends.  Acquaintances used to raise their eyebrows when I said my kids went to the public schools.  "Middle School?" they would ask.  "High School?"  It wasn't all good, but it sure wasn't all bad.  Like anyplace, we had our great teachers, and our mediocre ones, a number of frustrations and lots of satisfaction.  Bill, who had had a rural high school graduating class of 34 students, was amazed at the variety of courses and opportunities our kids had. 

(Madison Avenue houses)
Working together with other parents and teachers to make things better took time and energy.  In the end, our kids did well and now have multiple degrees, but it wasn't always an easy path. As residents of New York City, they credit Albany High with their comfort living in a big diverse world.  

Showing off these row houses (above), that were once featured in Architectural Digest, is always a highlight for me. Our guests noticed the windows, balconies, and entryways.  The more interested the tourist, the better tour guide I become!  Only time constraints kept me from spouting off an entire dissertation.

(Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception)
I knew that Roger and June, practicing Catholics, would want to go to church, so I chose Albany's premier Catholic institution, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  Bill's sister had gotten married here in 1991 when the cathedral was a dark dreary building.  Now it is restored both inside and out (see my blog post "Cool Places for a Hot Day").

(Washington Park)
We were hungry by the time we passed through Washington Park and were thinking about dinner back at our house, three miles west.  Still, I was curious to see the fall plantings and flowers, as I regaled our guests with stories of Albany's glorious tulip display.  These autumn gardens made a nice showing. 

Do I sometimes still wish for a home in the country and a view of rolling countryside out my kitchen window?  Of course, but times have changed and so have we.  We like being able to ride our bikes to work, the library, and the food co-op, and we find plenty of excuses to make excursions out of town, as evidenced by many of my previous blog posts!  Besides, it would take a couple more decades to make another place feel like home.

When June and Roger were leaving, I waved them off saying, "there's still more to see in Albany for future visits!"  And then Bill and I went inside to read the newspaper on the porch, one of the additions we made to the house in 2005, the last time we had debated whether to move or not...and had decided to stay.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Adirondack Whirlwind

(Linda stands on a bridge rebuilt since Hurricane Irene)

When my friend, Linda, and I spent a day hiking the West River Trail to Rainbow Falls in the Ausable Club Preserve, I lamented not spending more time in the Adirondacks.  "I'm homesick for the lakes," I told Linda.  "I'm not sure what I think I need," I added, "maybe I'm just wishing for old times when I camped with the kids."

In fact, I did wonder if I was in some sentimental place where I longed for those childhood years when Thomas and Meredith could hardly sleep because it was so exciting to be in a tent at Indian Lake. 

Linda and I had a refreshingly cool sunny day in the midst of a hot humid July.  "I want to see Rainbow Falls," she had said.  "Ron went there in the winter and it looked beautiful."

We quickly discovered that, despite the summer's drought, waterfalls, both large and small, tumbled over rocks along the entire trail.  Sometimes the trail ran alongside the water, and other times we were high above and could only hear the sounds of fast-running water.  We chatted as we walked through cool hemlock forests.
(Beaver Meadow Falls)
Occasionally we saw evidence of Hurricane Irene in rock piles along the brook's edge. Tumbled-down trees lay like match sticks here and there.  Still, serene beauty and silence made the tumult of last year seem very long ago.

( Beaver Meadow)

By the time we reached Rainbow Falls, we had begun to rate the beauty of the many cascades we had passed in our three-mile hike along the river.  The crown jewel of the trail, Rainbow Falls is huge and dramatic.  We had to tilt our heads back to see the top, but we decided that it was the trail as a whole with its great variety that really drew us.

(Rainbow Falls)

Although I had spoken as if I had no plans to spend time at an Adirondack lake, in fact, a group of us had organized a women's overnight at Lake Durant for the middle of August.  Little did I know that this was just the kick-start to what I later called my two-week Adirondack whirlwind. 

(Sharing some laughs at Lake Durant)

Last summer, I had tried to organize a Women's Camping Overnight through the Adirondack Mountain Club.  My friend, Claudia, was the only respondent and she and I had a great time at Lake Durant.  This year she took on the task of gathering friends and finding a site, while the rest of us contributed gear and food.  We had lots of laughs, told the best stories, were amused by being caught in a downpour in the middle of the lake while canoeing, and shared fabulous camaraderie.

(Lake Durant at evening from the campsite)

After we dried off from our drenching, we walked around the camp area scoping out sites we might consider for next year.  In the end, we said, "the one we're on is one of the nicest," and, even though we were only camping for about 24 hours, we all agreed that this should become an annual event.

I got home to more than 50 emails, but one caught my eye. Peter, a friend of my father's described a kayak outing he had been on with the Crooked Canes, a hiking group of retired people that my father belongs to.  The group had gone to Lens Lake in Stony Creek.  He offered to be a guide, if I wanted to go there.  I had been trying to think of a nice place for my father and me that wasn't too far from my parents' Saratoga home, and decided to take Peter up on his offer.

(My father and I kayaking on Lens Lake)

As my father's Alzheimer's progresses, trips like this are more complicated and I was glad to have Peter in charge. I also knew that my father would have even more fun with his good friend along. 

What a day!  Perfect weather, a calm lake with just a touch of Fall, great company, and a pair of herons flying in graceful swoops back and forth across the water. Although I expect to have many more small hikes with my father, I was reflective and grateful here, thinking that next year a kayak outing would probably no longer be possible.

In between my comings and goings, I spent a couple of days at home doing laundry, making dinners, and mowing the lawn.  I hoped my occasional touch downs would keep the place running while I was out playing.  Fortunately, Bill was not envious of my excursions as he came home from work to camping equipment drying across the clothesline and my detritus strewn about.  He was still reveling in our earlier outing to Vermont (see my previous post).

(Late afternoon at the Flowed Lands)
And then it was time for Meredith's and my annual High Peaks' backpacking trip.  We planned to conquer Cliff and Redfield, our 40th and 41st peaks. Since these peaks have unmarked trails and do not show up on hiking maps, I do lots of research so that I will feel safe heading into the woods.  We would backpack in 4 1/2 miles one day, hike the two mountains the second day, and backpack out the third day.  In all of my reading about trail conditions and hazards, somehow I had missed that our two-night camping spot at the Flowed Lands was a stunning location.  

(Our little tent nestled in the hemlocks at Flowed Lands)

In the evenings and mornings, we ate our meals on this rock, either watching the sun come up or go down. 
(Meredith at breakfast with our bear canister of food)
Not only had I not read about the beauty of the Flowed Lands, but I had had no idea that the summit of Redfield would offer this! Clearly, I had focused on things like finding the trailhead, or conquering the slippery bogs and treacherous rock cliffs on Cliff Mt. The advantage of my focus on the more dire aspects of the hike was that our jaws dropped when we stumbled upon gorgeous views.
(View from Redfield.  Meredith and I have walked the entire ridge in this view, one step at a time.)
I was surprised when, shortly after my hike with Meredith, Thomas called and asked me to join him at Indian Lake. 

(Thomas cooking marshmallows)

Unfortunately, he and Marlie had had plans for a few days there, but she could not get the time off from her new job.  Thomas said, "I still need to get away.  Would you want to go with me Saturday to Sunday?"

(early morning walk to a misty Lewey Lake)
He knew what my answer would be, although I did feel bad about Marlie missing out.

Thomas and I canoed to our favorite island in Indian Lake and swam, had a fire and s'mores, and hiked to Puffer Pond, just as we had over the nearly twenty years when Bill and I had brought the kids here for family vacations. 

I came home, put away the camping equipment, cleaned the mud off my hiking boots, and looked at all the beautiful pictures I had taken. It was time to get back into an at-home routine.  I could not play forever and responsibilities waited on the doorstep.

Just then my friend, June, called, "We're in the car on our way to Lake Placid.  Can you come up and go for a hike?  Plan to stay overnight."

June and Roger have a timeshare at Whiteface Lodge.  I had to shuffle a couple of things on my calendar but I didn't hesitate to say yes. This time, Bill would have enjoyed coming along but it was crunch time for him at The College of St. Rose.  I went up in the late afternoon.  Whiteface Lodge offers comfort and amenities antithetical to camping!  

(View of Whiteface in late-summer color, from the livingroom of our friends' timeshare)

June and I chose to hike Rooster Comb, a mountain whose trailhead is right off of route 73. Rooster Comb boasts one of the rare Adirondack Trails that was planned and laid out with switchbacks.  It is not your usual clamber-up-a-creekbed trail.  That does not mean it's easy, but very manageable with 6 miles round trip and 1700 feet of elevation gain.

(June dwarfed by tree roots on the trail)
We saw a few other hikers and ate our lunch on the open summit, admiring views to Giant Mt. in the east and Mt. Marcy farther away in the southwest.

(view of Giant Mt. near the summit of Rooster Comb)

Later that week, back in Albany, my friend, Linda, and I met for a walk in the neighborhood. She commented on my Adirondack whirlwind saying, "And you were feeling bad that you wouldn't have much time up north!"  Instead I had been near and far, with friends and family, every time in gorgeous weather. I had even had overnight trips with Thomas and Meredith.

Now I was ready to get some food in the house, dig up monstrous crabgrass that had invaded my garden, and talk to Bill!  I looked forward to my orchestra schedule resuming, and I knew that Sierra Club responsibilities would get more numerous with upcoming elections.  My plate would fill up, but, right now, it all looked good.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Woodstock, Vermont Getaway

(covered bridge in Woodstock over the Ottauqueechee River)
Nearby Vermont is always a draw for us.  This year we planned a two-night trip to Woodstock, a town of 3000, about 120 miles northeast of Albany.  Having vacationed there decades ago, we felt well overdue for a return visit!

(pretty New England homes line the streets)
Voted the prettiest small town in America by Ladies Home Journal in 1998, Woodstock continues to acquire awards, most recently the 2011 Great Streetscapes of America commendation by the American Planning Association.

(Farmer's Market on the village green)

We agree that, with its buried power lines, well-kept 200 year-old homes, a picturesque village green, and Elm and Central Streets shopping area, all nestled in the rolling farm and forestland of the Green Mountains, Woodstock is a great getaway.  We spent a few hours wandering the streets, taking pictures, admiring flower gardens, and perusing charming shops.

(Hey, I thought we were going to hike the Long Trail!)
Although restaurants abound in town, when we got hungry, we headed a few miles west to Bridgewater Corners and the Long Trail Brewery, definitely one of Bill's reasons for wanting to visit this area.  I admit that, although I've seen my share of breweries and once you've admired those big cylindrical tanks and pipes and smelled the hops you pretty much have seen them all, Long Trail was one of the nicest breweries I've been to. 

Advertising a German-style beer garden, this offered a little of Germany and a lot of Vermont.  I was pretty content sitting under tall shade trees next to the Ottauqueechee River with some yummy pub fare and a slight breeze.  And, as Bill debated his beer options, I walked down the rock stairway and explored the riverbank.

(1836 Taftsville covered bridge is half destroyed)

Later, as we drove on back roads and through nearby villages, we saw considerable remaining damage from Hurricane Irene. Now, a year later, we could hardly imagine how devastated the area must have been. 

(This sugarhouse washed into a pile of rocks, has a sign on it that says, "we lost everything.")

A mobile home on its side on top of rocks in a field, tall trees lying cross-ways in the rivers, another house propped up on its foundation at both ends but with the middle a gaping hole...and everyone we talked to had a hurricane story. 

Along with the loss of fall foliage tourism last year, followed by a poor winter for snow, and a very brief maple sugaring season, Vermont's economy has struggled. Still, hardy New Englanders joined together in the recovery and Vermont's timeless beauty remains breathtaking.

(carriage path going up Mt. Tom)

Hiking Mount Tom in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park was on my list of things to do.  Like so many 19th-century estates of the rich and famous, this property is riddled with carriage paths laid out to maximize views.  We chose to hike on a traditional hiking trail to Mt. Tom's summit and to descend via carriage paths, making a loop of just over four miles with 600 feet of elevation gain.

(looking towards New Hampshire from the summit of Mt. Tom)

This National Park was founded "to tell the story of conservation history and the evolving nature of land stewardship in America."  Although the Marsh, Billings, and Rockefeller families had little connection beyond their love of this area and consecutive ownership of the property, each made major contributions to conservation from the early 1800s through the late 1900s.  Successive generations struggled to find new ways to protect natural resources within the economic and technological demands of their times...ideas that continue to ring loudly for us in 2012.

(The Pogue, a pond tucked in the Park's mountains)
Despite the scenic trail and gorgeous summit views, the warm humid weather left us eager for some ice cream on Central Street in town.  Bill chose cookies and cream gelato from an Italian shop we had passed, while I went straight for homemade coconut chocolate chip ice cream a few doors farther along. We found a comfortable bench, next to a babbling brook across from an old mill, to sit and enjoy our treats.

(an amazing variety of flours is available at King Arthur)

Our second day, we made a pilgrimage to nearby Norwich to visit the King Arthur Store. Heading straight for the bakery, Bill bought a bear claw and I had a sticky bun.  I've had enough sticky buns in my day to know when I've had one that's really fabulous.  This was the best sticky bun I had ever eaten. The bakery also has a wide variety of breads and an array of sandwiches, but we were holding off for a later meal at the Harpoon Brewery just down the road.

(me on King Arthur's throne, Lancelot, and my bag of purchases)

I had not really thought of buying much at King Arthur, but you can see I came home with a pretty full bag. Taken with the flour and cocoa options, I bought a package of Harvest Grains that would add interesting texture and nutrition to my everyday bread recipe, and I couldn't pass up the Black Cocoa that would make my brownies and favorite chocolate cake even richer. 

It would have been easy to spend a lot of money on kitchen supplies, cookbooks, and more varieties of baking chips, extracts, specialty ingredients, and baking mixes than I had ever seen.  Every one looked delicious; I had to exercise considerable self-restaint. 

After a fair amount of time at King Arthur's, we were ready for a pub lunch at Harpoon. We were both a little disappointed that the afternoon had become way too hot to eat in their beer garden.  Still, Harpoon fortified us for our next adventure back in Woodstock.

(Jersey cows in soft light provide cream for Cabot and Grafton cheeses)
Across the road from the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, the Billings Farm and Museum was the farm that went with the estate. We debated whether to tour the farm.  Besides our own childhood farm experiences, we have visited many places like the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown.  Did we need to see another one? 

In the end, we decided that the combination of a quilt show in the main display area and our interest in the Billings Farm's relationship to the National Park made this an attraction we shouldn't pass up.  While the farm was interesting and the quilt display beautiful, our greatest fascination did indeed lean toward the connection between the wealthy estate and its farm. 

Besides the economic affiliation, an unusual respect and friendship existed between the mansion's residents on one side of the road and the farm family on the other.  In addition, the farm manager came up with, and put into practice, agricultural methods consistent with the natural resource and conservation philosophies of the wealthy owners.

(corn as high as an elephant's eye)
After walking the mile-long trail past Jersey cows, gentle work horses, tall cornfields and the Ottauqueechee River, we again felt the need for ice cream.  Fortunately, we didn't have to go far.  Museum staff served up generous portions of Vermont's Wilcox ice cream next to the Buttery under a big shade tree.

We lingered as long as possible before heading back to Albany's hot humid 90-plus degree weather.  The rural ride down Route 100 postponed our departure from bucolic scenery, and a stop at the Vermont Country Store in Weston broke up the drive.  By the time we got home, we felt like we had been gone a lot longer than a couple of days, and, after all, Vermont is just across the border.  It shouldn't be that hard to go back for a future getaway.