Saturday, September 24, 2005

So, J!’s wardrobe consists mostly of t-shirts he bought at a store in Chicopee called “Savers” and so a lot of the stuff he wears has some sort of affiliation with a local high school athletics team (for example, Hingham High PE Staff). For his job with Berlitz, however, he’ll need some more professional clothes. Luckily, J!’s dad bought an amazing wool suit twenty-five years ago that he never wore, and dragged out of the closet last week. Who would have guessed that it would fit him perfectly!! Plus, his dad had this sweet leather coat that weighs at least 10 pounds.

Indiana J!.

Friday, September 23, 2005

One of J!’s friends from CTY now lives on Cape Cod and works at the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute. We went out to visit him for a few days and got a grand tour of the Institute, Wood’s Hole, and Martha’s Vineyard. RR’s a fun guy to hang around with and even better, he knows all the best restaurants in town. Wood’s Hole is a really cute part of some town that begins with an “L”—I can’t remember what it was called. Martha’s Vineyard was nice—I think it is probably a great place to visit if you can spend a whole day there, biking around and maybe bird watching. Some great boutiques, too, but not quite my style. The highlights of Martha’s Vineyard were definitely the beadniks store and the cooking demonstration we stuck around for. If you can, go to the Zepherus restaurant—the chef was amazing (I think his name was Brian). I’ve put below his recipe for a delicious green bean salad.

for six:

2 handfuls of haricot vert
(fancy French green beans,
but probably regular green beans would also taste lovely).

3 peppers—one red, one orange, one yellow

1 red onion

½ cup truffle oil

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

salt (preferably coarse) and pepper to taste

Blanch the green beans and then chill them in the refrigerator. Julienne the peppers. Just a tip: slice off the inside part of the pepper—the part that looks like tiny bubbles. According to the chef, what will be left is all the stuff with the flavor. The colors will be much more vibrant, as well, and the slices of pepper will be smaller. Slice the onion, French style (halve the onion and cut out the tiny yellow center; place the onion with the flat side down and cut at an angle, down to the center--this will make your onion slices evenly sized). Mix together the peppers, onion and green beans in a large bowl and pour over them your truffle oil and olive oil. Make sure the vegetables are evenly coated and then serve when ready.

My first east coast lighthouse!

RR and J-Ro, together again!

View of Wood's Hole, from the lighthouse.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Highlights, part drei

Miss Emily’s House:

J!’s a big fan of the Belle of Amherst—not so much of her poetry, but mostly because she was so odd. I think he rather likes the idea of being an eccentric poet in an old moldy house. For Dickinson fans it doesn’t get much better than Amherst (kind of obvious, since the only other place she ever went to was Boston). We cruised by the house to see if tours were available, but there seemed to be A Gathering in the parlor. We decided to give the horde of middle-aged, Miss Emily fans a skip and instead we toured around her garden a bit and then walked into Amherst itself.

Miss Emily and Robert Frost chatting together under a tree.
Guess she’s not as shy as she used to be.

Two poets, sharing a special moment.

Mt. Holyoke greenhouses:

I’m a sucker for greenhouses and these ones are particularly nice. The collection isn’t huge, or even that great, but the actual greenhouses themselves are quite old and so they are fun to walk through. Plus, not only are the greenhouses free for visitors but Mt. Holyoke has a lovely collection of orchids, the keepers will give you a free plant, and they have a mimosa pudica, or “sensitive plant.” This little plant, like a Venus Fly-trap, will move if it is touched. We spent some time stroking the leaves and watching it shy away.

The mimosa pudica, after J! pet its leaves.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Highlights, Continued

Mt. Monadnock:

According to the inside of the bathroom door at the state park, Mt. Monadnock is the most climbed mountain in the world. Mt. Fuji used to hold this distinction but as it turns out, so many people now arrive at the top of Mt. Fuji by car, bus, or other means that Mt. Monadnock is now number 1. I can’t tell if the park rangers are proud of this fact or if they think too many people climb the mountain who shouldn’t. There were signs all over the place explaining how one should always take things like water and a long sleeved shirt while hiking. It is a great mountain to hike, though—the lower half of it is covered with trees, which I’m sure must be beautiful in the fall when the colors begin to emerge, and then up above the tree line you can enjoy a great view of the entire valley. I was told that on a clear day you can see six states from Mt. Monadnock. I confess, however, that we didn’t reach the top. Not because we got tired but we started a bit late and we were worried that there wouldn’t be enough light to see by when we got down near the bottom of the hill. Too bad we didn’t bring a light—but really, the signs only mentioned water and jackets, not flashlights.

At least forty minutes worth of the
climb looks just like this.

Some pretty lakes.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Conneticut River Valley

J!’s parents live in what is known as the Connecticut River Valley in a tiny town called Chicopee. Chicopee is nice—parks, brick school, good donut shops, and most of J!’s relatives have, at one point or another, lived there. This makes touring especially fun, because J!’s parents can point out all the houses where relatives/cousins used to live but no longer do, or where they still live but why those cousins are no longer on speaking terms. I don’t think Chicopee is especially small, but it does seem like everyone around here could play the six-degrees game via J!’s family. For example, the lady at Costco, who sold J! a new pair of glasses, just bought a house from a cousin of his mother’s, whose father gave the cousin the house but now lives next door. And also, the Costco lady didn’t like J!’s mother’s cousin’s mother. See what I mean?

There are a lot of small colleges around this area so we had fun touring all the college towns. J!’s parents had a great time driving me around, showing me all the little country roadside stands where one can buy local produce. It seems like every family owned dairy in the area has cashed in on the home-made ice cream market. Naturally, we had to stop and sample the local fare. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like snacking on a huge waffle cone full of delicious coconut ice-cream while breathing in the fresh aroma of the very cows that produced your tasty treat. Yum!

The Highlights

Paper City Brewing Company:

Paper City Brewing Co. isn’t really the best microbrew in the Springfield area. For that, according to several locals, you should look to Berkshire Brewing Co (BBC). My own personal favorite while I was a guest in Western Mass. was the Wachussets Blueberry Ale, which I highly suggest. But back to Paper City. The best thing about it, really, is that PCBC hosts a Friday night happy hour of sorts in an old factory in Holyoke, MA, on the eighth floor. For $5 (or $4 and a non-perishable food item) you get a plastic cup and as much of whatever they have on draft as you can handle between 6 and 8. After that, you can go back to drinking BBC at some other bar in town.

Souper Bowl:

Yeah, this is a soup place. As far as I know they also make some salads and maybe a sandwich or two but mostly it is just soup. This place opened when J! was a sophomore in college at UMASS. He went there often enough that when we went there last week to get some soup they still remembered him, even though he’s been on the West coast for two years now. The corn chowder is great.

Eric Carle Museum:

When Eric Carle was out in Davis for a book signing J! and I went--along with every child between the ages 2 and 8--to get our copies of The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar signed. When he finished autographing J!’s book, Mr. Carle looked up at my boyfriend and said, “so, you grew up with the caterpillar?” Such a sweet old man. Anyway, the museum has a lovely selection from Eric Carle’s personal collection in one of the galleries. The other gallery rotates, usually showcasing a well-known children’s book illustrator for about two months. I admit though, that much as I enjoyed the galleries, the bathroom was my favorite. I can’t speak for the little poet’s room (as J! calls it) but in the little scholar’s room, some of the tiles were decorated with animals from Eric Carle books and there was even a step stool so that tiny girls could reach the sink to wash their hands.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Granger, IN to Niagra Falls, NY to someplace outside Rochester, NY

I admit it--I thought Niagara Falls was going to be an highly overrated tourist trap. I also thought it was mostly going to be tall and skinny. I was completely wrong, I happily admit. Touristy, yes, but justifiably so. Cool things I learned about Niagara Falls: they keep getting bigger over the geological eons and in fact a huge chunk on the American side dropped off a few decades ago (there's a great photo of a lone tree that hung onto the edge of the Falls for a month before toppling over); a lot of ice builds up at the base of the Falls every year and in fact one year the Falls themselves completely froze; on the Canadian side a large boat got too close to the Falls and had to sink itself--you can still see it in the middle of the river; a while back the Army Corps diverted the water to go over the Canadian side and completely stopped the American Falls; finally, lots and lots of people have tightrope walked/jumped over the Falls--I thought it was only one or two but I was way off. I would have loved to have seen that. Actually, I'd love to see the Falls in the winter, too. This was our last stop on the Test Drive, which was fortunate because J! and I were both pretty tired, at this point. Also, the mini Niagara falls in the car every time we turned right or left was becoming extremely annoying, especially as it got worse. As a follow up--it turned out the drainage tube was blocked. J!'s dad unblocked it without too much trouble, but unfortunately he couldn't dodge the deluge quite fast enough and ended up with a week's worth of old air conditioner water on his shoulder. Gross. Our final campground was also a KOA near the Finger Lakes in NY. Pretty nice campground but way overpriced, at least for a tent site. If you are a serious KOA fan, on the other hand, this is the place for you--a stocked pond, paddle boats, and a diner. Also, you can rent a go-cart if you are willing to pay the steep $10 per half-hour fee. Go crazy.

So, that was the Test Drive. On the whole, I'd say the Honda did pretty well--held all our stuff and the only problems we had were with the air conditioning. Also, no one ripped us off and the car didn't get stolen. We didn't even find out until a couple of days after we got to J!'s parents' home that the clutch was about to go. Fortunately by that time J! had already sold it back to his dad.

J!, enjoying the hurricane deck.

Niagara Falls--the American side
(looking towards Canada).

Again, the American side (looking towards
the US/Canada bridge).

Lovely Canada, in the background.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Kanakee, IL to Chicago, IL, to Granger, IN

number of free tix received: 2; number of miniature rooms witnessed: about 20; number of times we walked around the same block looking for the entrance to the art institute: 3; number of towels used to soak of air conditioning water from the floorboards of the car: 1.

Chicago seems like a very cool city--I'm afraid we were only able to see about six city blocks worth, but hey, that gives us an excuse to go back! On the other hand, the worst traffic on our 2500 mile long trip came in Chicago, which was a bit of a downer. The Art Institute was nice--not my favorite art museum but the Thorne collection of miniature rooms was great. Plus, we didn't even have to pay to see the artworks--the museum was hosting an exhibit on Tolouse-Latrec and Montmarte and a nice woman whose two friends couldn't make it gave us their tix. That was really about all we saw of Chicago. Granger, IN, on the other hand, we toured extensively, which wasn't hard given that it consists of about 1 street. Cute town, though--right near South Bend, IN, which is home to Notre Dame. There’s a good brew pub in Mishawaka that’s worth the visit—Mishawaka Brewing Co.

Millenium Park, Chicago

Guess who designed this bad boy . . .

Monday, September 12, 2005

Lake of the Ozarks State Park, MO to Kanakee, IL

number of free tix received: 2; number of creepy campgrounds encountered: 1 (total at this point: 3); number of runs scored by St. Louis Cardinals: 2; number of runs scored by NY Mets: 7.

Illinois was kind of boring. I'm sure it is a fabulous state and there's lots of fun stuff to do there, but in all honesty, it was boring to drive through. On the upside, J! called his parents to find out if the Cardinals were in town and as they were playing the Mets and Martinez was pitching we decided to catch the game. Just to make J!'s dad feel better, we parked in a really dingy part of town near the stadium, put on our Red Sox hats to make sure all those Cardinals fans knew what was up, and went to the stadium to find out about tix. As we were standing in line, a nice man from ballpark services (he must not have seen our hats, I think) gave us free tix! So lovely. We got great seats--next to a lady who was such a fan that she was carrying around baseballs to be autographed.

Our original plan was to stay about an hour outside of Chicago in Chebanse, IL, at a KOA there, then to drive into Chicago the next day. Of course, when planning this trip back in Phoenix, we hadn't expected to go to a baseball game in St. Louis, which meant we were a bit late in getting to Chebanse. Around 11 we finally saw the sign for the campground on the freeway, exited and drove five miles east (a bit of a surprise for us as we'd been used to camping about five yards away from the interstate). Finally, some peace and quiet out in the country! As a disclaimer for my next comment--I'm sure, in daylight, the KOA in Chebanse, IL is a lovely, child-friendly kind of place where puppies delight in prancing around and no one ever gets mad. At eleven at night, however, this is the Bates Motel of KOAs. We pulled in and espied a flickering light on the top floor. Looking back, it probably read "Welcome tired campers!" or something equally harmless, but at the time we were both fairly convinced that it was a human skull. And also there was some kind of skeleton dressed up in a KAO t-shirt. But maybe they were just decorating early for Halloween. Anyway, we pulled in and backed out again in about 30 seconds and found a Motel 6 a half-hour up the Interstate.

Yeah, Martinez!

Huge Cross #2!
This one was more impressive--it even
included the 14 stations of the cross and
the scene at Golgatha with the theives.

Our Motel 6 bathroom counter came
conveniently equipped with a bottle opener
for those times when you want to
wash your hands while you drink a beer.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Twin Bridges State Park, OK to Lake of the Ozarks State Park, MO

number of bats encountered: 1. number of minutes spent building our first campfire: approx. 60; number of minutes spent enjoying our first campfire: 30; number of times I stalled out while practicing driving stick shift in the campground loop: 3; number of minutes I drove during the Test Drive: 20; number of leftover logs we stored in the car for the rest of the trip but never used: 1.

Lake of the Ozarks is really, really beautiful and I wish we could have spent more time there. It was a short drive from Twin Bridges, so we arrived in the early afternoon. This left enough time to take a tour of the Ozark Cavern, which I highly suggest. I'd never been in a cavern before and this was a good one to start out with. A few tidbits from the tour: Ozark Cavern contains a unique natural phenomenon: Angel Falls. Water drips out from the ceiling of the cavern and drips down to the bottom. Over the years minerals in the water have built up and created Angel Falls, which looks a little like a shower head dripping into a basin. Rock formations like Angel Falls are very rare--there are, I think, 14 known formations around the world and only 4 in North America. Most of the cavern looks like Angel Falls--mineral deposits that appear soft and silky and curve into little spouts all over the place. Another cool aspect of Ozark Cavern is the fact that it has been used and explored for so long that there are still remnants from early spelunkers. In the 19th century, a man crawled through the cavern (using most likely a candle or flame lantern) and actually signed his name on one of the cavern walls. He's not alone--many others have also left a signature, but his is the oldest. What's more, you can still see it on the cave wall. As water dripped over his signature, it created veil of mineral deposit that is still so thin that it is translucent and you can read what he wrote. Wish I had a picture of that, but at this point in the tour the guide made us all turn out our lanterns so that the cave was completely dark. I pretty much forgot about the photo op at that point.

Bonus: it was at the Lake of the Ozarks that we noticed the air conditioner started spitting frigid cold water onto my feet every time J! made a left turn and onto his feet every time he made a right turn. J!'s father seemed unconcerned: when called about the problem he simply advised his son to avoid turning right.

Old Testaments--New Prices!

J! gets ready to spelunk.

Angel Falls

Lake of the Ozarks, MO

Friday, September 09, 2005

Elk City, OK to Twin Bridges State Park, OK

number of state campgrounds avoided (total): 3; number of touchdowns scored by the Rangers: 0; number of members on the Rangers team: 10; number of cheerleaders for the Rangers: 15.

I loved Oklahoma. Granted, before this trip, I knew nothing at all about most of the middle states, but I was really surprised by Oklahoma. Northern Oklahoma was full of green, rolling hills with some lovely little towns. And Oklahoma City was wonderful--I've never been in such a clean downtown. They must sweep it about twelve times a day. In case you haven't been, I highly suggest the very cool botanical gardens (in a huge glass cylinder which is suspended above a man-made pond and surrounded by a public park) and the new public library. The art museum is also worth a visit--the Chihuly installation there is beautiful. On the flip side, the National Cowboy museum is a bit of a disappointment unless you want to see John Wayne's horse, stuffed.

So, originally we'd planned on staying in Bernice, OK, which is a campground on the Grand Lake O' the Cherokees but since we'd been having bad luck with actual campgrounds we decided to give it a skip and stay at Twin Bridges, which was closer to the Interstate and would therefore require less driving if we ended up backtracking. Twin Bridges is a tiny little campground near the town of Seneca, MO, which is right on the OK/MO border. We were very excited about visiting Seneca since it was a Friday night and really, there's nothing like a small town Friday night football game. As it turns out, the high school team was playing somewhere else that evening, but we did catch the first half of an 8 man game between the local Christian high school and some out of town visitors. The Rangers weren't doing so well when we left, but as some of the parents pointed out, the members of the other team weren't playing like good Christians.

A word about Twin Bridges State Park: This state park is very, very small--only about ten campgrounds. There are a few more up the hill, I think, but the campground is essentially cut in half by a state road. Judging by the state roads in Texas, we figured this wouldn’t be a problem since they seem rather empty. As it turns out, though, this particular state road was the major thoroughfare for the local dairy factory in Seneca. In other words, a milk-laden 18 wheeler drove by about every ten minutes. And as far as J! and I could tell, it was a 24 hour factory. But, at least they had free showers at the comfort station. No shower curtains, but that's roughing it.

J! presents the OK Botanical Garden fountain.

awww, so pretty.

Go Rangers! (Also, notice the serious mullet
on the left side of the photo?)

A whole country? Is that necessary?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Grants, NM to Elk City, OK

number of times creeped out by a campground: 1 (twice, in two days!); number of state campgrounds avoided (total): 2; number of ginormous crosses witnessed: 1; number of times I'd like to go back to the Panhandle: 0.

We crossed the entire Panhandle in one day. Let me just say that the miles and miles of grasslands north of Amarillo just kind of freaked me out. They were so empty; I couldn't believe it. Even the roads were empty--long, long roads with absolutely no one on them. Pretty good radio stations, though. Anyway, we drove north of Amarillo for about 45 minutes to get to Lake Meredith State Park. According to the website Lake Meredith is an extremely popular place for boating and fishing aficionados. This might be true during July but on a Thursday in September Lake Meredith is an abandoned sinkhole. We drove to three different campgrounds and saw only two people. The large signs warning of rattlesnakes all over the place were also a bit of a turnoff. We stayed for about three hours, even picked out a campground, and then got weirded out by how lonely it was, so we packed up and headed for Oklahoma. For those of you traveling across the country, I don't really suggest the Elk City KOA--it is in between the freeway and an exit ramp and they charge you an extra $6 to take a shower. Those of you more rugged than I probably wouldn't mind this, but then you probably would have stayed at Lake Meredith, too.

The Cadillac Ranch!
east of Amarillo, TX

J! tries to put a little happiness into this sad, sad place.

Huge Cross #1

The Honda Accord Test Drive America

So, two years ago when J! came out to CA from Western Massachusetts, he bought a 1997 Honda Accord of his dad for the hefty sum of $1. J! figured that because the car got better gas mileage than his dad’s SUVs, Papa Romano might be interested in a sweet bargain (taking into account inflation) of a slightly used car (but with a brand new windshield!). Naturally, before selling off such a gem of a vehicle, J! thought it would only be fair if we drove the car for a while, to make sure it didn’t have any intermittent defects. Hence, the Test Drive.

Phoenix, AZ to Grants, NM

number of KOAs: 1. number of times creeped out by a campground: 1; number of times slept on gravel: 1. number of signs we passed advertising "knife city": 4; number of times we stopped at "knife city": 0.

We got to Grants in pretty good time, exited the freeway (our good friend Interstate 40) and headed towards our first campground, Bluewater Lake State Park, NM. I was really excited about the camping, I admit. I figured we'd get into these lovely scenic places, hike around a bit, take some breathtaking photos and enjoy a brisk campfire before turning in. Let me just say that Bluewater Lake State Park was a bit of a disappointment--actually, to be more specific, we never actually saw the lake and I have no idea what the park was like. As it turns out, to get to the park you have to drive through a small one street town that looks like it hasn't seen a tourist in about twenty years. Not so bad, you say--plenty of hometown charm and undisturbed tranquility. We thought so too until I hopped out of the car to get a park permit and passing by us on the road were three men on bmx bikes, one of whom was being pulled by two dogs. The place was creepy, and the town was even worse. Plus, we didn't actually have anything to eat except about five pounds of red vines and the only store in town was named "Johnny's Country Shack" but as far as I can tell only sold liquor. So, we headed back to Grants and decided to try instead El Malpais State Park. Unfortunately, El Malpais (aptly named, meaning "the bad country") is a bit undeveloped--no restrooms. Actually, no campgrounds, either. We went back to Grants again and stayed at a KOA about 100 yards away from the Interstate.

A few notes about Grants, NM: There's a large mountain to the north of Grants that used to be a volcano. A lot of Grants is actually cooled lava, which is pretty much all over the place wherever it hasn't been developed. Our KOA had a large area in the middle of the campground that was off limits, labeled with a sign "Please Stay Off--Lava Bubble!" We saw a lot of these from the Interstate as we headed east--kinda cool.

Bluewater Lake State Park, NM. If you look carefully,
you can see one of the bikers in the background.

J! not keeping off of a lava bubble.

They cleverly hid the Interstate
with that sound-proof wood fence.