Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Pause To Say Goodbye

We were working our way back from Canada and doing some touring in Vermont and New Hampshire when the word came that Aunt Dot, my mother's sister Dorothy, had passed away at the age of 91. The picture of her below with me and my sister Barby was taken a year ago, almost to the day, after she had taken a mighty fall, broken her hip, which in turn triggered one complication after another. She resided in a nursing home at the time of her passing, although she had remained extremely independent in the family home of my maternal grandparents until the fall changed things and not for the better.

Dot was a most exceptional human being! Ordinarily I would feel badly that a relative of mine had passed away while staying in a nursing facility, but in this case I suppose it was a touch of genius that she was there. For starters it was a bright, cheery, clean, and actually quite pleasant facility. First floor room with a nice view out over a well landscaped field. Dining hall, chapel, TV room, beauty shop, game room just around the corner and down the hall a bit. A well trained, very polite, cheery bunch of nurses and additional support staff and more than adequate smiles to go around and lift the spirit. This is perhaps (I'm no authority on nursing homes, nor do I claim to be) out of the ordinary. Wish that were not the case, but quite possibly is. Anyway, this is about Aunt Dot and not the nursing home.

She herself was a life long nurse. And a mighty fine one. I should say a great one. She started her career as a military affiliated nurse and worked at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC. There she was instrumental in getting the Walter Reed nursing program up and running. That corp is legendary and I know she helped to get it to that point. But she was not a high power, limelight seeking nurse- just a highly skilled one, who always sought to put herself to work where she could best help others, not herself. She traveled the path of private nursing following that stint, preferring to work where she was more part of a family than part of a team. She made life long friends not only of patients but also of their families, who seemed to think of her as one of their own. She worked from DC to Maine and back again. But then it came to pass that my grandfather had a brain tumor and required full time care for nearly a decade and so the nurse who had always put patients before herself now made the life changing decision to put her family before her career and moved home to fill the need for a full time care giver. She traded her career, her income, her pension, her personal life to do that which always came naturally to her- taking care of those who needed taking care of. It was a decision that had major financial and personal ramifications, but one which I am sure was made automatically. Simply put: she always did what she seemed to have been born to do. Whether it was a good decision or not is not for me to say or judge. But it was certainly the right decision for her. Nothing has ever garnered my respect for someone more that that they be true to themselves- and she was always that! And then some.

But why would I think it fair turnaround that she would be in a nursing home at the time of her death. Because in the house of her parents where she lived in her later years, it was hard to get out, harder still to see friends and neighbors, and next to impossible to take care of her own affairs. But here in the nursing home, once she got the lay of the land, she not only could be taken care of as she required, but she was actually able to return to her own care-giving nature and go about the business of nursing to her roommates and those around her. On one of our visits to her, the call to dinner came. As we prepared to depart for the afternoon, Aunt Dot gathered roommates to the wash basin and made sure they washed their hands before dinner and were all ready for the march down the hall.

To the very last, she knew when her meds and her treatment were correct and when they needed adjusting. She was an advocate for her companions. She was a teacher and a care-giver and a beacon for life in a place which is so often associated with death. I always joked with her that it was only a matter of time before she "would be running the joint." And had she had more time, perhaps she might have done just that.

Respect comes to those who know how to give it. She did. Many nurses do. They are a special breed. And for those of us who have ever been in a hospital for matters more than casual, we always know one thing when we leave. It is not the doctors, even the most wonderful among them, that we remember well. It is the nurses that rubbed our back or held our hand or fluffed the pillow or spoke softly to us when a needle in the backside and medicine alone was not as powerful as a soft word spoken gently. When a smile was not prescribed, but was exactly "what the doctor ordered."

I have a rose from the casket spray drying in a vase. It is all she had left to give me. But more than I could ever have asked for.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

All Aboard! Cog Railway

With the dawning of a second picture perfect (not a cloud in the sky) day, we headed off to do the one thing in New England that you never ever want to do on a bad weather day - climb Mount Washington. I’m talking Cog Railway here, not a boot camp hike up a rocky trail or anything like that. To tell you how truly magnificent a day it was, the temperature at the top was nearly the same as at the base, and it usually is some 20 to 40 degrees colder- which would have put it in the 20’s at the top on this day. Brrrrr. And 50 mile an hour winds at the top are reasonably common place and on this day it would not have been windy enough up there even to fly a small kite. My kind of day.

So. OK. Cog Railway. “She” will not be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes! No. She will be headed straight up. Up inclines so steep that they reach a whoppingly steep 37 degrees at the steepest. How steep is that? The front of the passenger car is 15 feet higher than the back of the car as it travels upward. Since the train is kept in place on the tracks by a single gear wheel called a cog wheel- one hopes and prays that none of the teeth on that wheel have been recently damaged. Yes, there is a brake on the single passenger car being pushed up the hill in front of that engine, but were anything to go wrong, the normal hour or so run to the summit could become a 2 minute roller coaster ride to the bottom.

I expected to be a bit apprehensive about the height and the incline and the rumbling, rocking and rolling of that little old steam engine in whose hands our lives were entrusted. No way are you getting me on a roller coaster! So I was surprised to find that the majesty and awe of the trip replaced any fear long before it could settle in. The trip up was great. Heading down was a bit weird especially when everyone in the train car put their hands up in the air like you would do if you were a thrill seeker in the front of that proverbial roller coaster and about to take that first hair raising, breath sucking initial plunge down the first hill in your path. But again, the engineer and fireman and two brakemen did a super job of controlling the descent and, even though we were now looking down instead of up- it really was not a bad gig at all. I rather liked it. For sure it was beautiful. And for certain, the good lord could not have offered up a better day in any way.

At the train station at the foot of Mount Washington, where you hop aboard the train, there is a gift shop and snack bar and a museum. The train ride is the attraction and not the museum, but I did find something that caught my undivided attention and begged for a photo- a May 1958 LIFE magazine cover featuring an article about the Cog Railway. However, it was the headlines on the issue, not the photo of the Cog Train that caught my fancy and I thought it might bear mentioning in light of what the current events are as I write this post. Housing Market (“The Bubble“) is broken and in certain recession, the economy is weak, we’ve had a crisis in confidence in the financial system of serious magnitude and our beloved stock market has headed south for the winter. I’m a political guy and so are many of my friends. Some set up their tent in the same camp as I do and others stay on the left bank of the river, if you get my drift. I find politics fascinating and economics even more so and I try to think things through to the point where what I think should and shouldn’t be is really what I think and not what someone I may or may not be associated with thinks. Anyway, the Life magazine headlines talk about signals in the housing market, the recession, and what you can do about it NOW. Sound familiar? So I Googled the chronological list of presidents of the US just to make sure I hadn’t slept through anyone’s term- and lo and behold- in 1958, with headlines reading nearly the same as they do today, there was absolutely, positively no one named Bush in the White House at that time. Point being, the economy in general - including the housing market, the financial market, the real estate market, the stock market itself - all travel round and round in a cycle. News Flash: NO ONE is to blame! Not a Republican. Not a Democrat. Although no doubt we will continue to play those games. Life itself and everything within life travels in a cycle. If you must see things in black and white and in two dimensions rather than three, then just remember: The pendulum always swings back in the direction from which it came. But eventually, it too makes a circle.

Mount Washington. Up the mountain. Down the mountain. It’s a good place and a good way to think things through.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cruising Kancamagus

It was just plain the kind of day when, despite the price of gas, you thought the best thing you could possibly do was take a ride in the country. The early Fall air was crisp and the sky was blue-bird blue. Leaves were just beginning to find an identity other than green and the streams, rivers and creeks were all running swift and clear even after some heavier than normal rain sessions. So we jumped in the van and headed out of North Conway, New Hampshire, to hook up with the renowned Kancamagus Trail. One of America's most touted scenic drives it has one panoramic vista, flowing stream, hiking trail and waterfall after another- so many in fact that you have to pick and choose where to stop and what to see. Much of it is available just by pulling over to the side of the road. Some of the special places are a short hike in. Here's what we found on the adventure du jour....

Friday, September 12, 2008

Alpacas and Poetry

En route to the Fryeburg Fair, we made a visit to The New Millennium Alpaca Farm in Lancaster, New Hampshire. There we learned about the animals and the business of alpaca farming from some good neighbors who were taking care of business on the farm while the owners were otherwise occupied. While we've always thought they were "cute" animals, we had no idea of the values associated with the breeding, fiber production, and sales of the animals, so this was a real eye opener. The herd sire of the farm is "Jedi Knight." With a name like that, and a farm guarantee of ribbon winning results for other breeders who breed their quality females to this stud, how can you go wrong, Skywalker! While Alpaca prices and fees from stud service rate all over the place, we were surprised to learn that some of these "cute little critters" were worth 10's of thousands of dollars, and the web site linked above is, as of this writing, listing animals for sale from 750.00 to nearly 20,000.00 and that is not to say that some of the animals are not valued significantly higher.

With an 11 month gestation period, the young are born only once a year, and because this is New England, births are timed to fall into the time of the year when the young have a chance to grow an adequate coat to protect them from the cold through the winter. Apparently, exposure to cold climate (which the alpacas can handle without too much difficulty) is not a prerequisite for quality fiber, since they can be raised nearly anywhere and in any climate. Quality is more a function of breeding than of climate conditions. This little guy was the youngest in the herd at the time of our visit and he was wearing a little jacket to keep him warm when we arrived. It was a bit chilly for a new baby. Neighbor and fellow alpaca farmer Eric Rosseland of Harmony Grove Alpacas was kind enough to show us around the farm, fill us in on the basics and help us with the photo ops.

The farm had a range of different color animals and they seemed to get along quite well. Note the little one right smack dab in the middle of the feeding frenzy as the fresh bale of hay was dropped in the pen.

From the pastoral setting of the farm, to the quiet countryside home of one of the best known poets of all time: Robert Frost. While the official biography of Frost says he lived much of his time in Vermont and Massachusetts, he also had a homestead in New Hampshire and this is that "place."

The simple house sits in a small field surrounded by mountains and forest land. Pathways cut into the field and wood lead the visitor around the property to wooden plaques of some of his most noteworthy poetry which have been posted for your contemplation. On our visit, the old cellar doors stood open and inviting as though the poet himself were present- and in a way, I suppose that is the truth as the home is inhabited by a resident poet, although it most assuredly is not Frost, who" slipped the surly bonds of earth" as Reagan once said of the shuttle astronauts, in 1963.

Above, one of the paths around the property and below, one of my favorite verses, although not my most favorite.If you have the time, read The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost, posted below for your consideration. In a world filled with sameness, we value the "less traveled road" but often live our lives in such fear as renders us unable to travel it. I hope I can in some small measure wind up at the end of my road never wishing I had traveled in a different direction. The choices are many and consequences impending. And we shall not know where we arrive until the end of the journey.

Here, then, is my Favorite Frost poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Franconia Notch

I've seen the Old Man of the Mountain before. Actually, I should say I have seen him. Period. Because in 2003, the forces of gravity, water, and chemical erosion brought the Old Man to the point of collapse. You might say it was jaw dropping experience. That was the beginning of the end. He is no more. So what used to be the Old Man of the Mountain is now just the Old Man Historical Site. It's still a pretty impressive piece of nature's work, but without the "Oh Yea. I see him!"
A sign at the observation point at the foot of the path and down by the crystal clear lake describes the process of the collapse and illustrates it very well. Life goes on, but without him. Now he is a story for the ages and a living memory only in those who shared his time in the sun. Such is life. What goes up must come down. The turmoil within the inner earth pushes upward and outward only to have the natural forces of wind and rain, freeze and thaw struggle always to bring things back from whence they came. Beginning and end. Over and over again. The cycle of life plays out before our eyes every day in every way. It can be observed and appreciated, but not changed....and so it goes.
Meanwhile, a fisherman casts flies for brook trout in the clear icy waters of the lake that reflects the mountain. And a beaver gnaws at some trees to bring them down in order that he may build his dam and his home up. Water levels rise until the force of the water tears down what has been placed in its path. It's all quite a marvel.

The Basin, a massive granite bowl carved by glaciers of the past and raging waters of the here and now makes for a most amazing geographical feature. Not one that is easy to convey its majesty through the medium of photography, it none-the-less impressed me as one of the best we have seen anywhere along our journey so far. It was a great place to just pause and enjoy what nature has created.

A two mile hike up the mountain through The Flume Gorge was a mighty workout ( I didn't count the number of steps built into the Flume and I'm frankly glad I didn't) but the scenery rivaled the energy output and was well worth the hike.

The largest lichens I have ever seen anywhere were growing on the rock walls of the flume and can best be seen by enlarging the photo below and studying the left-hand side of the photo. Clearly the light and cool and dampness of the walls made for a perfect growing environment for them.
We reached the top just about the same time my legs were telling me they couldn't handle another flight of stairs, and there were two beautiful specimens waiting there to thank us for taking the time and effort to visit: this beautiful butterfly...

and this beautiful stand of mushrooms.

The downhill portion of the hike was only a bit easier than the uphill, but like the Old Man proves: What goes up, Must come down.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sampling Vermont

The slogan on the t-shirt in a Vermont Gift and Souvenir shop read:
“What Happens In Vermont, Stays In Vermont - although not much happens here!”
Quaint it is. True it isn’t. There are many and varied small businesses, many of them agriculturally based, but certainly not all. And this is the state where I dare say many of the “name” brands you use nearly every day are produced. On our two day stay in the Danville and St. Johnsbury, Vermont area, we packed in visits to as many of those specialty businesses as we could. Here’s what we did:

First, a visit to Cabot Creamery. As the name implies they use their co-op style base of dairy farmers to produce some of the best known milk, cheese, butter and other dairy products in the country. You will find them at most retail grocers and also as the dairy base providers to places like BJ’s and Costco. The plant tour includes a video production, a “from behind the glass” walk through the facility, and an introduction to the complete product line. While the tour was interesting and informative, the samples room spoke pretty well for itself. They have some “to die for” cheese products and my cholesterol levels will just have to get over the fact that I pretty much tried them all.

One good dairy tour deserves another, so off to the world renowned Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory we headed. I was expecting a quaint little ice cream joint- not the mini Disney-like venue we arrived at. But the tour was great, complete with corny cow jokes and the like. Did you know that because Vermont cattle are raised on hilly terrain they have developed two legs longer and two legs shorter- thereby rendering them as “lean” beef? Well, then, mooooooving right along…..Sample of the day was the John Lennon inspired “Imagine Whirled Peace.” Delicious! Inside the production plant photos were not allowed, in case I was writing this blog as a Haagen-Dazs spy. Or so they said. The personable guy who gave the tour was a riot and should probably fill out an application for Last Comic Standing. Not that I think he will win, mind you, but I should like to hear his repertoire one more time.

Apple Cider, once only a seasonal treat, has now become a year around drink of choice for many thanks to modern apple storage techniques. Cold cider? Hot spicy cider? Maybe a touch of hard cider? Sure. Next stop: Cold Hollow Cider Mill. Samples? Yes. Yum. Also a behind the glass tour of the processing area- but this time with a twist. The guys running the line noticed I was taking more than the typical number of shots…and invited me in so I wouldn’t have to shoot through the glass. That is a first class thing to do, and I thank them for their courtesy. The basic process involves washing the Vermont Mac apples, mashing them into a pulp, pumping that pulp onto stacking trays and wrapping it in cloth which catches the pulp, then milling the cider from the pulp through pressure on the stack. The amount of fluids that they were able to produce and capture was amazing. The pile of pulp produced juice for well over half an hour before it had pretty much squeezed everything dry. Seemed as though it should stop at any time, but just kept going and going and going. Fascinating. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but….

...a cup of coffee seemed to be in order, so down the road we went to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. If you like the smell of coffee in the morning (or anytime) you’re gonna love this place. It’s not technically a tour. You do see the plant and the cafĂ© and you have a tremendous selection of their product in the store, but for sanitary purposes what you get is some interactive displays and a good video, rather than an actual trek through the plant. A cultural presentation is made on many of the areas where the coffee beans are grown and harvested. We purchased some decaf versions of specialty coffees I have not seen elsewhere- ever- for future use. Mmmm, that hit the spot.

No doubt you will notice the shot with Marilyn’s face up against the “flavor wheel.” You can spin the wheel of fortune as it were, then press the button for a “puff” of air that smells like the coffee will taste if that flavoring is selected in production. There were many flavors- but we all know Marilyn. She kept sniffing the chocolate!

It wouldn’t be fair (or forgivable) to visit Vermont without a visit to the number one Maple Syrup and candy producing company in the world- Maple Grove Farms of Vermont. So we did just that. As you will see from the pics this is NOT a behind the glass tour of the plant and hair nets are a MUST, not an option. So what looks like instruction to the line crew, is actually our group taking the tour. Never one to be big on sweets, these maple tree flavored products are sure tasty, so I enjoyed the samples that were offered here as well.

While we were here on our brief (for now) stay in Vermont, a friend of ours (Hi Alita!) wrote us from storm ravaged Florida and gave us some more places to check out in this, her home state. Good ideas all, and on the “to do” list for next time or as time permits. Never spent much time in Vermont, even though we lived in nearby Maine for most of our adult lives. It’s beautiful and filled with interesting things to do and see. Two thumbs up for Vermont!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

About Face

Today we find ourselves back in the USA en route to Vermont, the last of the New England States we need to visit for our States Visited Map. We actually had no intention of coming here at this time, but weather conditions in the Maritimes continued to deteriorate to the point that the new 12 mile bridge to Prince Edward Island, where we expected to go next, was CLOSED on the day we intended to travel there. And frankly, we were sick and tired of the constant rain, fog, high winds, and soggy ground that seemingly found us everywhere we went. At our first stop in PEI we knew our camp site was to be on grass. At 37,000 pounds, our parking on grass that is waterlogged is not a good idea, and the last few sites had already been iffy. We actually made it to the starting point for the bridge before deciding we would have to be nuts to continue along this route and this plan at this point. So without a whole lot of further discussion, we turned left instead of right and headed back to the states. The first 4 1/2 hours of what we then knew would be a very long day were terrible. We had Fox News on the satellite radio and were listening to coverage of Hurricane Gustav as it came on shore in Louisiana. Admittedly after cat 5 Mitch when we lived in Honduras, then 8 more hurricanes while we lived in Florida, we do have a bit of post traumatic shock syndrome working every time we hear the word "hurricane." I shutter at the mere mention of The Weather Channel. But on this day, driving in the lightning and thunder, the heavy winds that kept lifting the wipers right off the windshield, rains so heavy that pulling over regularly was the order of the day, we felt exactly like we were living Gustav, not just listening to it on the radio. It made me think how it must have been for people listening to Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast so many years ago. When we finally drove out of it some 5 hours into the trip, the rest of the drive to an overnight stop near the border at Houlton, Maine, was a piece of cake, even though the wind stayed with us all the way.

So for now, we say "adieu", about the only French I know, to PEI and the intended next map target of Quebec. While we had hoped to color them in and see what they had to see, the fact of the matter is that we are doing what we are doing- touring in a motor coach and writing a blog- because we came to learn the pluses of the invention of the wheel. A house on the beach and a house on the river and a house on a canal- are sitting ducks when it comes to crummy weather. But a bus? That has wheels and can roll away from anything it wants to roll away from. And so we did. Because we didn't want the weather we had. Because we no longer wanted the place where we were. Because this was the idea all along- plans not withstanding. And because we could!

At the border crossing I pulled very slowly into the narrow cutoms gate, as I always do. My window was open to hand the passports to the agent on duty in the "Campers and RV's" lane. He observed the size of the coach and remarked to me upon coming to a stop, "She's a big one, isn't she?"
Marilyn popped her head up from behind her maps and said loud and clear, "He better not be talking about me!" With a big grin, he wished us a nice day and we were on our way- back to the US of A.