Category Archives: Travel

The Irony, It Hurts Us

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Roy and I benefited from a nearly-miraculous confluence of circumstances – we’re both on sabbatical at the same time, we had an invitation to do a professional dog-and-pony show in Denver at our convenience that entailed several days in Denver and airfare paid for by someone else, and it’s winter.  Or early spring, but still winter as far as skiers are concerned.  For skiers, winter starts with the first white ribbon of death, and ends when it’s impossible to make it down the mountain without taking off your skis and hiking more than twice per run.  Roy and I never get to do travel in the spring because his spring break comes a week or two before mine.  No overlap, ever.  But at our convenience?  Free airfare to Colorado, at our convenience?  When else could our convenience be but during Ski Season?

Thus we found ourselves with several days in Denver meeting professionally with quite a few other professors who, shall we say, Place A High Value on Flexible Scheduling, Especially In The Winter.  It was the first professional event I’ve gone to where people were just as happy to talk about skiing as accounting. The Wonder Horse, I hope, continues to recover from his “fat eye” (cellulitis), and the cat is at home slutting out on the house sitter whilst planning his Acts of Revenge for when we return.  Otherwise, here we are, in Glorious Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat Springs has a number of claims to fame.  One is the number of Olympic winter athletes who call this place home.  One is a funky town that is not insanely and creepily touristy.  One is that the ski area itself is an entire mountain range.  And one is it’s snow.  They’ve trademarked the term “champagne powder” in Steamboat.  No, really, they did.  I believe it’s what the name implies: light, frothy, effervescent.  I have to go on belief because I’ve never seen this kind of powder in person.  Only in ski videos.  New England has different kinds of “powder”.  There’s the “powder” represented by the 3 inches of new snow that is now coating the icy surface of the hill.  Then there’s New England Powder, which is 2 inches of finely pulverized ice chips created by the grooming cats covering and recovering the hill for a week or so after a melt/freeze cycle.  Then there’s the stuff that comes out of the fan guns.  It’s powder-y.  Otherwise, when New England gets a massive snow blast in a New England Special, you know that stuff started with freezing rain and sleet, then changed over to the wettest, heaviest snow possible for 18 inches before it changed back to sleet and more freezing rain.  Our “freshies” in New England are heavy and wet.  This isn’t actually a problem: it makes for a really good base, and we all know how to ski on it before, and after, it turns into ice – which it always does.

New England skiers ski on ice.  I, personally, can ski on six different kinds of ice, more if you go after the finer distinctions.    The question in New England is not “Will I have to ski on ice?” The question is “How many kinds of ice will I expect to encounter in a single run down the hill?”  If you’re a New England skier, you have skis that are specialized for skiing on ice.  They’re rigid, they have extremely hard edges, and those edges are kept extremely sharp.  The edges on my ice skis (a Volkl RTM) are sharp enough that I can shave off arm hairs with them.  Really.  That’s how sharp you keep your edges when you’re a New England skier.  It’s a matter of safety, for one, and for enjoyment, for another.

So, one of the things I was most excited about with this Steamboat junket, was the prospect of skiing on snow.  Maybe even some of this “champagne powder”, although, truth be told, I don’t think I would have the first idea about how to ski on that stuff.  I don’t think it’s even something I would recognize as “snow”.  In any event, I was all on board for some nice spring skiing under that sunny blue Colorado sky.

2 out of 3 isn’t bad.  I got the sunny sky and the blue sky.  But it’s too warm here right now, bloody polar vortex again no doubt, and we don’t have early spring conditions, we have late spring conditions.  Mountain melts during the day, and then refreezes over night.

We understand this situation better in New England, probably because we have to spend so much more time and effort grooming our mountains than they do out in Colorado, what with all that dry fluffy snow and stuff.  In New England, one understands that when this is occurring on the mountain, the best time to groom is after the mountain freezes.  That way, you’re running the groomer over ice and chewing it up to make something soft-ish.  New England Powder if you’re really lucky.  Wall-to-wall death cookies over packed powder if you’re not lucky.  At least you can still dig an edge in.

That doesn’t seem to be what goes on here, though.  Here they seem to be grooming it before the mountain freezes…which means that in the morning, one is confronted with a ski area completely covered with impenetrable and chattery corduroy-shaped-ice.  Yuk.  Even if you can ski on this stuff, and not everyone can, not even every ice skier, you don’t ever have any fun.  No edging with this.  And edging?  It’s how skiers turn, and turning is how skiers control their speed.  Ice you can’t get an edge in requires Jedi Master Ski Skillz to navigate safely, let alone have fun with.

But I didn’t know that, and couldn’t have known that, bef0re I left.  This winter, everyone agrees, is freakish – and we’ve had enough profoundly freakish weather in New England this winter that I’m prepared to believe just about anything.  In short, a bunch of us had a fairly deep pow-wow over the question, and the ultimate answer was that I should ship out a pair of my own skis, and that this not be the Volkl ice skis I’ve been riding all winter, but a ski more suited to nice soft snow.  Born for the western slopes, in fact.  Rossignol S3: 98 underfoot, twin-tipped, maximally rockered.  No edges to speak of, not at this point. Ultimate fun on soft snow.  Ultimate.  So I shipped them out to await my arrival here, and then the weather started to change.

Fast forward to my first trip down a Steamboat run.  I was checking out some novice runs for Roy to take later in the week, and started with the ski areas big green cruiser.  Usually I really love big green cruisers because they’re so easy that I don’t pay much attention to the skiing and I can take in views and stuff.

What happened instead is that I found myself on this unspeakably narrow run, maybe 20 feet wide, with a steady non-stop gentle incline (and you can gather some serious speed if you have enough distance on a gently sloping run).  With numerous hairpin (180-degree) turns.  Covered in an fully impenetrable sheet of ice that any New England resort would recognize as a total disaster.

And wait, there’s more.  The run was three (3) miles long.  A three-mile long, twenty-foot-wide sheet of ice.

And wait, there’s more.  Steep drop-offs.  Some of them cliffs.  Right at the edge of the longest, baddest White Ribbon of Death I have ever encountered.

Fortunately, as I said, I can ski six different types of ice, and this was one of them.  The skis were completely wrong for it, but I made them work for me, and did linked pivot slips for three miles to maintain a speed of approximately 5 mph, which is an absolute crawl.  Anything faster, though, and I wasn’t going to be able to make those hairpin turns and was going to shoot right off the edge of the run and down god-only-knows-how-far.  Into the trees.  And rocks.

So I did it.  The effort left my legs on fire, and cut my ski day short big time, and left me with burning quads and knees the next day. But it was controlled, it was smooth, and it was safe.  Nothing like rocking some advanced Jedi Ski Skillz on a green slope to really fry the brain.  One thing became crystal clear to me on my way down that run, and believe me, I had a lot of time to think about it all.

I was going to need a different pair of skis.

This mountain felt exactly like home, only twice as tall and 10 times as large.  And whatever I could hope, using my beloved S3s before noon wasn’t on that list.  Problem with the argument of “just go later” is that there’s a fairly narrow window of opportunity between the time the mountain starts to soften up and the time it’s totally skied off and you’re left with ice again. Not sure how long that window is, but there are plenty of people in this ski area to grind down the runs, so I’m guessing that the answer is “not long”.

So I was going to need a different pair of skis.

I dropped my skis in the rack, and hied me unto the ski shop.

“I need to demo some skis today.” I said.

“OK.” they said. “What did you have in mind?”

Good question.  When you demo skis, you pick them.  In a flash, I knew exactly what ski I wanted to have under my feet, more than anything.  My own skis.  My ice skis.

“Got a pair of Volkl RTM 84s?” I said.

They whistled.  Maybe.  Very popular ski, that.  No, they didn’t have it in the length of my actual skis, but they had the next-longer length.  Not as nice as my own skis, of course, which have been babied and pampered, and have edges so sharp they’ll shave hair off.  But close.  Almost but not quite identical to my skis.  The skis I decided I wasn’t going to ship to Steamboat, because I didn’t think I’d need to ski ice.

I had to rent my own skis on the fly.  Ouch.  But. But. But they were perfect.  This irony is a sword that cuts both ways.  My main skis really are that great.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  And, at least, the shop had them in stock.

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The Wild Life

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Roy and I just took a ski junket to Jackson, New Hampshire – a short hop away from Canada, and a shorter hop away from Maine.  Jackson is a classically charming New England village in the White Mountains, within spitting distance from Mount Washington and the Presidential Range.  The inns are fabulous, the downhill skiing is terrific – in that New England way – and the scenery is incomparable.

And wild.

Now, I’m no stranger to wildlife.  In Texas, where I come from, just about everything you see in Nature will attack you, if it’s not already doing so.  We have giant flying cockroaches that will dive-bomb you.  We have every kind of venomous snake on the planet.  We get scorpions in the plumbing on the outskirts of the city.  In the country, everyone has shotguns to deal with snakes that go after the mice that infest barns, and the odd coyote that will carry off the small pets of the house.  Even the plants are dangerous, with long sharp spines that are hard enough to puncture the sole of your Tevas.   The time I’ve spent in the Smoky Mountains gave me an appreciation of black bear, and why it’s important to make a racket when you hike in the woods even if you’d rather be silently appreciating the grandeur of Nature.  We get black bear in the town where I live, which has a good quantity of conservation area mixed in with the residential zones – every spring the paper runs articles on the Evils of Bird Feeders and the Need To Secure Trash Cans, and covers the inevitable story of how some bear cub got caught in a garage/on a mud porch/stuck in the back of a pickup or how someone saw a bear on the bike trail, with reminders about the city’s Leash Laws.

But these encounters are still fairly…innocuous.   After all, Massachusetts, despite the conservation land, is still a pretty densely populated state.

I forget how densely populated, until I visit a place like Jackson.  I still think of this as dense, with ski condos, inns, restaurants, and bars, but the truth is that these are islands of civilization surrounded by quite a lot of wilderness.

Roy woke me at 1am, as I slept in a soft bed under a thick pillowy comforter.
“PSSSST.” he said.
“huh?” I said.
“WAKE UP” he hissed.
Then I came awake with all the reflexes of the childless person who is wholly unaccustomed to unexpected sleep disturbances.
“WHAT?!!?”
“Shhh,” he said. “Listen.”

I listened.

And in the distance, but not far enough off in the distance, I could hear it clearly.  It sounded like belling hounds, or barking zebras.  Coyotes.  A whole pack of them.  And they were hunting.

They weren’t stalking, they weren’t concerned with silence.  They were concerned only with communicating to each other over distance in what sounded like a high-speed chase.  This wasn’t a house cat meeting its doom, it was something big, fast, and scared, likely a deer.  The hunting cries echoed through the woods and off the mountains, until suddenly they fell silent.

My first thought was “wow, that was cool.”

But then I thought how different it was to experience this from a comfortable bed in a room with a fireplace than it would have been to experience it from, say, a tent.  Or a cabin without a lock on the door.   And then, some tiny ancient and very primitive piece of my brain started to fire, and I understood, suddenly, how terrifying the experience of the early settlers must have been.  I understood better why Huey spooks as he does.

It was cool, yes, but it was also creepy as hell.

There’s blood on the snow this morning, and I’m just grateful it isn’t mine.

Let It Snow, Let It Snow…

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I’d planned, this morning, to pay a visit to The Wonder Horse, dust him off, bond with him, give him a treat, and send him back to the Great Outdoors (or, at least, as much of it as is enclosed by his electric fence).  A quick glance at the weather changed my mind.  It’s 11 degrees.  I just can’t see stripping my horse nekkid, even in the barn, and obliging him to stand still just so I can fluff his air and shine him up.  Yes, he needs to be groomed for health reasons.  No, it doesn’t need to happen today, not at 11 degrees.  Besides, the thinsulate in my barn gloves is wearing out.  I discovered this when I went by to say a big “hello!” to him, give him four carrots and two horse muffins.  After that fairly brief foray, the tips of every one of my fingers was on fire.  Also, anything liquid in my grooming kit (like his Anti-ZAP Spray) was frozen like a rock.  The heck with this, he’ll get clean on another day.

We’re under our first winter storm warning of the season, and it’s just started to snow.  National Weather Service is saying maybe 6″, maybe a foot, maybe a little more.  I have the inclination to be thrilled because my ski hill is rolled into the Warning area, which means more trails open, more fresh snow, and a whole lot of fun.  I have the leisure to be thrilled because school’s out of session, I don’t have to commute to anything but the grocery store, the barn, and the ski area, and I can afford to keep the terrifyingly ancient and massive barrel in my basement full of heating oil.  So, from where sit, this winter storm is great news, pure and simple.

It’s not without its inconveniences, though.  I know, for example, as I look out of my window, I am probably seeing the clear surface of my driveway for the last time until April.  And last night was, in all likelihood, the last night for the next four months when parking my car and Roy’s in the driveway was completely uncomplicated.  And Huey’s farrier is coming out on Wednesday to pull his shoes off for the winter, but right now, things are just a little on the slick side for him, which strikes a little arrow of fear that he’s going to injury himself AGAIN horsing around in his already snow-covered paddock.

Then, of course, there’s the grocery store.

Now, I’m from Texas.  Houston, in specific, but I spend plenty of time in Austin, San Antonio, and College Station.

In Texas-speak, “flurry” means that someone on the freeway saw four things that they thought might be snowflakes.

In New England-speak, “flurry” means that it isn’t snowing hard enough to make it impossible to drive.  It’s been “flurrying” like this pretty much all week up at the ski hill.  On Tuesday morning, we had “flurries” that put an inch and a half of snow on the car in the space of a few hours.  Yesterday, it was “flurrying” all morning long, making it impossible to ski without goggles.  Not that I want to ski without goggles – cold air, contact lenses, stray tree branches, and stuff – but my goggles fogged up on the chair lift despite the anti-fog coating, and started raining inside, so I had to take them off for the rest of the run in order to be able to see anything at all.  But I then had to stop every couple of minutes and scrape the “flurry” out of my eyelashes.  And the plows were out, treating the roads on the way home.  That’s a New England “flurry” for you.

In Texas, a weatherman using the word “Flurry”, or “Sleet” is a Sign of the Apocalypse.  It’s the signal for everyone in town to get in a car or board a bus, and stampede to the grocery store/Costco/Sam’s/Walmart/package store and empty it out.  I’ve seen desperate people brawling in the aisles over the last case of Pellegrino.  You can’t find a can of beenie-weenie, chili, or soup anywhere in the territory covered by the weather station.    Parking lots become a madhouse, but that’s nothing to compare to the violent rodeo of the checkout line.  Panic reigns supreme.

In New England, no one pays any attention at all until the weatherman starts using the words “winter storm warning.”  A watch?  Pshaw.  If it’s not a “warning” it’s not happening.  The weather in New England is inherently unpredictable, according to my Harvard Physicist Buddy who knows about these things.  She says that it’s the density of the mountain range, which makes them act more like a big tall range than the short one they are, and the proximity to the ocean, and the proximity to the giant plains of Canada.  No one here with two brain cells to rub together pays any attention to the long term forecasts, and by “long-term” I mean “more than 18 hours out”.  It was different in Texas, and Wisconsin, for that matter.  The weathermen there could forecast the approximate half-hour when some weather system was going to roll in.  Here in New England, we’re lucky to get accurate forecasting for what’s going to happen in the next six hours.  Both of the days I went skiing the week, for example, had forecasted “mix of clouds and sunshine” and “precipitation 0%” at 8am when I left the house, when what we actually got was a total of 4 inches of snow.

So they don’t use the words “winter storm warning” here unless 1) the storm isn’t on the doorstep, but it’s been sighted walking up the path to the front door, and 2) it’s going to drop truckloads of snow, and maybe some ice.  Or, in the wrong time of year, or under evil circumstances, truckloads of ice, and maybe some snow.

The thing is, even when the forecasters do use the words “winter storm warning” what happens is that some people go check the woodshed to make sure it’s still full, some people double-check to make sure the storm windows are in place, and all the people who planned to do the weekly grocery shopping tomorrow decide to do it today instead.  No panics, no raids, no fights breaking out anywhere.  It’s really quite dull.

Now, what you also have are a pile of skiers paying very close attention to those forecasts, and you might wind up with a minor traffic jam on some country road in the Vermont mountains as a critical mass of people flee into the storm … just to be certain of being a skip and a hop away from the base area and chairlifts when the weather kicks in – or for the saner of us – when the wind starts to die down a bit.  That kind of excitement I can absolutely get behind.  Roy and I were part of one of those epic junkets last winter, as a matter of fact.  I wouldn’t want to be traveling up Vermont 100 right now.  Not because of the snow, but because of the massive exodus of sport utes from New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.  With any luck, the Massachusetts State Police Operation Ski Trap is in full swing, lining our coffers and engaging wealth transfers to pay for roads, state parks, and essential social services.

Anyway, there’s nothing that makes me feel quite as Festive as a mid-December snowfall.  It’s feeling like time for a mug of hot chocolate.  I might even have a candy cane to stir it with.    I need to go say “goodbye” to my driveway.  See you next spring, you gleaming asphalt strip!  Au revoir, curbs!  Two-way streets, later alligator!  Catch you when the seasons turn again, and hopefully, that won’t be until April!

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Coming really soon, I hope!

Giving Thanks

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The daughter of a very good friend has been making daily posts to Facebook this month, expressing gratitude for one thing every day. It’s very inspiring.

So is this:

So now there’s Science telling us that expressions of gratitude are the Fast Track to Happiness.

I’ll bite.

So here’s what I’m grateful for this Thanks-Giving.  In no particular order.

I’m thankful for what has to be the World’s Best Horse Husband, who understands that giving presents to the horse is giving presents to me, and says things like “I think that Huey ought to have regular massages.”

I’m thankful for Huey.  I always, always, ALWAYS wanted a horse.  And while the Horse Of My Dreams was shiny and clean and happy and always sound and made a special noise any time he (or she) saw me and we would ride for hours on rainbows…the Horse I Have has the personal habits of a hog, and is accident-prone and seems always to be on the DL and picks fights with the other horses and is about as Imperious as you get and is perfectly comfortable totally ignoring my presence unless he thinks I might have a treat…I wouldn’t trade him for the world.  And not just this world, which has been getting pretty dodgy of late, I wouldn’t even trade him for a Better World.

On that subject, I’m thankful for my barn owner, who lives right there with Huey, and puts up with all his crap, including his Imperious Attitude, his fits of temper when Some Other Horse Gets To Eat/Go Into The Barn/Go Out Of The Barn BEFORE HIM, cribbing, and filth-generation, and still seems to love him almost as much as I do.

I’m thankful for my cat Buster, in the last hour at least, when he’s been cuddly.  I’m not so thankful for his late-night zooming around the house, and I’m definitely not thankful that his favorite place to sleep is on my ankles or knees, which makes my back hurt.  I am, however, thankful that at Age 10 he still acts like a kitten.  And he has really amazing fur.  And I’m extremely thankful that when Animal Control brought him into the Dane County Humane Society in early 2004, badly damaged from a collision with a vehicle, the person on the receiving desk “had a feeling that he’d make a good pet” and decided to funnel him into medical care instead of sending him for a Merciful Release…which would have been totally understandable.

I’m thankful for my job, and especially thankful for my Department Head, the best manager I’ve ever had in my life.  He’s organized.  If you aren’t in Academia, you may not realize how rare an attribute that is.  I remember the first time I met the guy who would become my dissertation chair.  His office was bursting at the seams with cardboard boxes.  I said “Oh, you must have just moved offices” and he said “No, I’ve been here for years.  Why would you think that?”  And he was regarded as being Pretty Organized.  My department chair is incredibly organized, and – best of all possible worlds – he makes meeting agendas and then sticks to them, and he doesn’t call a physical meeting unless this is Absolutely Necessary.  Go ahead, talk to any college professor you might know, and just say one word to them:  “meetings”. It’s like that scene in Lion King where the hyena says “MUFASA” and everyone shudders.  Only no one in academia is ever going to say “Say that again!” about meetings.

I’m thankful for the town I live in, where people open their pockets freely to support Shelter Sunday to help the plight of the homeless and destitute.  I like living with people who care about what happens to other people, instead of living with people who blame those who have fallen on hard times for their misery.

I’m thankful for the trend I’ve seen over the last few years for marriage equality.  My own marriage doesn’t mean everything it could while people in loving, committed relationships are forbidden from having that commitment legally recognized.  Just say NO to Second Class Citizenship for anyone.

I’m thankful for my friends, who are spread out over the continent, and I’m actually thankful to Facebook for providing a venue where I can stay in contact with them much more easily than was possible previously. I’m thankful for the technology that has put me back into contact with people I’d lost touch with for decades.  I’m happy to have them back in my world again.

Of course, I’m thankful for the food on the table and the roof over my head and a car that starts when I turn the ignition key.

I’m thankful that circumstances led to my discovery of Skiing.  I’m thankful that I live an hour-fifteen from my ski hill.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to get to ski only five or six days per year.  I’m thankful for my Awesome Ski Gear, and I’m thankful that my ski hill is owned and operated by a family that cares about it, and cares about the employees, instead of just treating it like a cash cow and sucking money out of the local economy to line their personal pockets.  I would probably still ski there even if it were some kind of soulless corporate hell, but I’m deeply appreciative that it’s not.  I’m thankful, by the way, for their tremendous snowmaking capacity, which means that I’ll be able to go skiing over the Thanksgiving holiday.

I’m thankful for my near neighbors, who have a wood stove.  It means I get to have that wonderful Wood Smoke On The Cold Air experience…without having to deal with termite risk, tending the thing, or cleaning it out.

And I’m thankful for the entire State of Maine.  State of Vermont, too, while I’m at it.  Heaven on earth, and it’s only a few hours’ drive away.

I’m also thankful that I have the best pumpkin pie recipe on the planet.  And now you will, too.

Super Human Pumpkin Pie From Real Pumpkins

Makes 2 pies.

4 lbs pie pumpkin.  Do not use those honkin’ huge jack-o-lantern pumpkins.  The little ones are what you want here.
1¾ C sweetened condensed milk.  I know…but there really is no substitute, and you really can’t scale back on it.
2 eggs
1 t salt
Generous splash of vanilla extract
1 T raw sugar, or demerara sugar
pie crust for 2 crust pie
2 T flour
4 T raw sugar or demerara sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
2 T butter, cut into bits
1 C chopped pecans
1 C chopped walnuts

Heat oven to 375.  Cut pumpkin in half, remove seeds and weeds, and cut into large chunks.  Grease a roasting pan, put the pumpkin chunks in it, skin-side up, and cover pan tightly with foil.  Roast 90 minutes, remove foil cover, and let sit until cool enough to handle.  Remove skins and let sit, or put in fridge, until totally cool.  It is essential that this pumpkin have no residual heat before proceeding.

Heat oven to 425. Put the pumpkin chunks into a food processor and blitz until completely pureed.  Add condensed milk and eggs, and whirl until combined.  Add salt and vanilla extract and 1T of the sugar.  Whirl until totally combined.  The whole thing should have the texture of custard by the time you are done with this step.

Pour into the pie shells and bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the flour, remaining 4 T sugar, and cinnamon in the (cleaned) food processor and blitz until it’s the texture of breadcrumbs.  Stir into the nuts and mix it up well.  I usually have to use my hands for this step.

Take the pies out of the oven, turn the temperature down to 350, and sprinkle the topping over the pies.  Bake another 35 minutes.  Remove from oven, serve hot or cold or room temp.

The pie filling freezes beautifully, so I usually make it all even though I only want one pie at a time.  Freeze the rest, and pull it out for a Magic Zero Effort Pumpkin Pie later on.

Saturday Market

Yukking It Up In The Ha-Ha Room

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Every hotel has one.  It’s the room that they don’t let out, at least not to anyone they want to see again.  Maybe it’s next to the elevator.  Maybe it’s next to the 10-story building’s main furnace.  Or it has a view of a brick wall six feet away.  Or it’s impossible to find at the end of a corridor.  It’s the room that gets given to people who the desk staff think won’t complain.  Or, as I said, people they don’t expect to see again, ever.

While every hotel has one of these dreadful spaces, you don’t typically find them in inns.  Especially not inns that are competing in a market characterized by words like “pampering” or “luxury” or “five-star” or “boutique”.  Usually those kind of inns are patronized only by people who can absolutely be expected to complain if something isn’t right – because the clientele are usually paying very handsomely for the privilege of racking up under that particular roof.  And the Gold Standard for such inns is the Repeat Guest…preferably, the sort of guest that leaves reviews on TripAdvisor saying things like “We come here every year” and “I wouldn’t stay anywhere else.”

Roy and I – both of us having plenty of personal experience with the concept of “roughing it” – him, in terms of sleeping in Greek caves or being awakened by getting sprayed with a fire hose in the Athens city parks back in his Salad Days, me, in terms of occupying an endless series of difficult-to-erect tents in places where the flora is hostile and prone to attack, and the fauna is as well, occasionally with life-threatening consequences, and doing it inclement weather – scorching hot, pouring rain, oppressive humidity, and high winds at nearly arctic temperatures, and sometimes all of these within a given eight-hour period, because such is the lot of anyone who goes camping in Texas.    Now I have the income of a Professional, and so does Roy, and the kids are out of college, and we have some disposable income…and no taste at all for “roughing it” or anything like.

We like to go away, and when we go away, we like to be treated very well.  Comfortable beds, overstuffed armchairs, gas fireplaces, large bathtubs with bottomless hot water, fine dining, and hot chocolate, cider, or tea laid on with fresh baked goods at 3:30pm.  We have extremely discriminating tastes, and we like to Stimulate the Local Economy through payments to innkeepers, waitstaff, and housekeeping tips.  It’s a win-win.

Within this love of Going Away, we have our little habits.  One of which is the Great Anniversary Getaway.  We were married shortly before Halloween, and celebrate that occasion every year by Getting Away From It All, typically to some place best characterized as “high-end rustic Vermont Country Inn”. “Rustic” in this sense indicates to the availability of a wood-burning fireplace somewhere on the premises, and easy access to vast tracts of scenic hiking terrain.  The last several years, our Great Anniversary Getaway has been fraught with…excitement.   Who can forget the Thrills and Chills of paying Over-the-river-and-through-the-woods in the post-Hurricane Irene landscape of southern Vermont during the Great Halloween Blizzard of ’11?  Or the Electrifying Adventures of the Hurricane Sandy blackout?  The tumult of recent history has given us two great take-aways: 1. Always park the car behind the house when we leave, not on the street; and 2. Avoid scheduling trips that involve air travel around Halloween.

This year, as a direct consequence of the pandemonium of prior years, we elected to change up our game plan, to forego the Rustic Vermont Country Inn, to forego the charms of foreign parts, and to stick close-ish to home and do a City Vacation instead. Every year on our way  up to the Great Annual Maine Summer Vacation Week we pass through Portland, a town with every evidence of charm, culture, and significant amenities.  Every year we say “we should come visit here sometime!”  And this, children, is the year we chose to do this.

Now Roy, I may have said before, is very much a Creature of Habit.  He even puts the cat to shame in terms of his firm commitment to Tradition.  So it bears mentioning at the outset that he was not, shall we say, completely on board with the decision to abandon the overstuffed armchair dozing in front of the fire, and particularly, he was not on board with bailing out on the jacuzzi tubs one often finds in the High End Rustic Vermont Country Inn.  However, he agreed that our recent luck with these destinations was sufficiently poor that we could try something else, which is how I wound up looking to book a room in the city center of Portland, Maine.

To my utter surprise, this task proved far more challenging than expected.  The first four places on my list were booked to the eaves for the weekend in question.  The fifth place – having earned that position by the…somewhat…varied…reviews provided by the TripAdvisor Faithful, was not quite full.  And that, friends, is how we settled on Room Six.

This is Room Five.  Not the room we booked, but I feel that it’s useful to provide it as a reference point.

other room

It looks nice enough.  Lovely large bed, apparently soft, plenty of pillows, good lighting, large bathroom, carpeted floor.  All-in-all, a solid contender.  But, alas, not available for the entire weekend.

This is Room Six.

as advertised

Now, as a Seasoned Consumer of Internet Marketing Practices on the part of a massive array of inns coast-to-coast, this picture left me with some questions.  The first among which was “How big is that bed?”  Without more in the way of floor space it wasn’t possible to know.  “Roy,” I said.  “Before you book that room, call the inn and find out if that’s a queen bed, or a double. If it’s a double, we don’t want the room.”

Togetherness with Roy is one of the great joys of my life, but as we’ve learned in our decade of relationship, a double bed is just a little too much togetherness.

He duly called, discovered it’s a queen, and we booked in.

Things started to get a little sketchy early in the week before the trip, when I had to check the website to get the directions, etc.  That’s when I realized that the room description indicated that the private bath had a shower.  In Inn-Speak, this means it only has a shower, no tub.  Uh-oh.  “Roy,” I said. “I have some bad news.”

One of Roy’s favorite things about Getting Away From It All is the availability of large tubs with plenty of hot water.  We only have one tub in our house, and it’s more of an apartment-sized tub, spacious only to someone the size of a six-year-old child.  And our water heater is oversized, but doesn’t quite satisfy Roy’s desire to immerse himself completely in water hot enough to cook a lobster, even if the tub was large enough to immerse more than the upper or lower half of an adult body, which it’s not.  I knew he was going to be devastated by the lack of a tub.

And I was right.  I just didn’t know how right.

Friday afternoon of the weekend in question found us pulling up to an small historic building in a charming and slightly funky section of the Portland city center.  Oddly enough, however, there was no designated street parking zone for people checking in.  This really is odd – most of these places are very careful to ensure that their clientele have some place to stow the car where it won’t draw the attention of the Meter Maid or of Wandering Thieves.  Usually, it’s marked “15 minute parking for guests of…” or “reserved for check-in” or some such.  This one, however, featured no such amenity – not even after we circled the block searching for one.  Eventually, we left the car in a COMMERCIAL LOADING ZONE, STRICTLY ENFORCED spot.  Roy, as a native of New York City, is far more comfortable with every variety of illegal parking activity, including some I had never even heard of before driving in the City with him.  Double-parking is probably my favorite version of this, especially the one were the driver whips in next to someone parked curb-side, sets the Hazard lights going, and say “Stay here in case the police come by.” before getting out of the vehicle.

So we left the car illegally parked and went to meet our innkeeper and check in to the room.  The second question we were asked – after “Your name?” was “Is there anything you don’t eat, so we know for breakfast?”

I should say here that this inn advertises itself as offering a “five-star” dining experience for breakfast.  I’m not much of a breakfast person, but Roy certainly is, and it’s always interesting to see what these innkeepers come up with.  “Oh, yes,” I said. “He doesn’t eat anything made of pigs, and I don’t eat anything made with sodium nitrite, so we usually solve the issue by going vegetarian for breakfast.”

Now, this isn’t exactly a controversial stance.  I’d say that the vegetarian breakfast has a fine, healthy, active multitude of adherents, nationwide.

And yet, the innkeepers face fell. “Oh, I was going to make a bacon quiche.” “Nope,” I said, “We definitely can’t eat that.”

There was one of those awkward little conversational pauses, where someone should have spoken but didn’t, and the other party to the conversation is waiting politely for the response that doesn’t come.

“Ah.” the innkeeper finally said. “Well, is it OK if you have a yogurt, or some oatmeal?”  Now, there was no serious question about this being something cooked like Steel-Cut Oats.  I knew instantly that we were talking about a paper packet of instant oats.   And a plastic cup of yogurt.

Hardly what I’d regard as “five-star” dining. Because I don’t go for breakfast much, it’s pretty easy to impress me.  A fresh omelet with a good handful of melted cheese and sliced button mushrooms is Serious Breakfast to my thinking.  Top it off with a spoonful of Hollandaise sauce or a remoulade, and a side of crispy home fries, and I’m in my own personal “five-star” land.  I’m much more selective about dinner.  But breakfast?  Easy peasy.

But a cup of yogurt and a packet of instant oatmeal?

I don’t think so.

There was another one of those awkward silences, this one made more…interesting…than the last by the Rising Tide of steam coming from Our Roy.  I doubt the innkeeper was aware of it, but this is my mate, and we have a Spiritual Bond, and I am extraordinarily attuned to his emotional state.  I could feel something Switch On.

Something I should say about Roy before we go any further is that he is extremely, one might even say, excessively, even-tempered.  He’s the single most optimistic person I know.  He’s regarded as a Precious Ray of Sunshine, Lighting Up The Darkest Moments with Happiness, even when that happiness has had to be prized out of the deepest, darkest recess of his nasal passages.  One of his favorite things to tell me, when we discuss our relationship, is that he’d be happy to be hanging out with me even in the Bus Station of Secaucus, New Jersey.   I’ve never been to Secaucus, New Jersey, but I have spent time in plenty of Bus Stations, as has he.  And I assume that – as a native New Yorker – his choice of the Secaucus, New Jersey Bus Terminal is not a random one, and that this Bus Station stands as a metaphor for the Very Pits of Hell.

But he was already cranky at having to give up the fireplace in the room, and his prized Tradition, and the jacuzzi tub, and being offered a yogurt and a packet of instant oatmeal – even though this is what he would eat at home – was starting to slather icing on the cake of his discontent.

I peeled my lips away from my teeth in something that could have been mistaken for a smile.  “Or,” the innkeeper suddenly said, “I could make another quiche.  One without bacon.  How would that be?” “That would be fine,” I said quickly before Roy could Weigh In.  He can be a little bit of a Loose Cannon when he gets going.

She reminded us our room had a “private entrance” (that was in the description, yes) and suggested we walk out the front door and around the corner, where she’d meet us to show us where to go.  While she walked through the house.  I thought that was…odd.  Usually, the innkeeper just takes you directly to the room.  But who were we to say no?  We went out, walked around the corner, and met her on the sidewalk.  She let us in through a wooden fence to a door, and pulled it open.  We then got our first glimpse of Room Six.

It reminded me of the staging portion of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, the one were everyone goes into a little room with portraits, and the lights drop, and then so does the floor – exposing previously unseen and very creepy portions of those portraits.  The charming young woman with the parasol turns out to be dancing on a tightrope over snapping alligators.  That part of the ride.

So in that vein, we were greeted by Room Six:

as advertised

Whereupon the eye slid inexorably upward to see the undisclosed features of the room:

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There’s nothing I like to see more, in an room in an upscale inn, than lots of exposed plumbing.  And artistic and no doubt Highly Historic cracks in the ceiling plaster.

I should take a moment and comment that this inn is in a building that is about 160 years old.  I, myself, live in a house that is 120 years old.  I understand old buildings, and I understand historical plaster.  Possibly better than most.  But what I understand about Historic Plaster is this: you repair it when it cracks.  You don’t just leave the cracks and say, “Oh, it’s old!”  You fix it.

I can’t really comment on the exposed plumbing.  I just don’t have words for it.

I turned around, in awe, regarding the absolutely minisculity of the room – no wonder they didn’t capture the corner of the bed, they couldn’t get far enough away.  The innkeeper (or rather, Deputy Innkeeper) was explaining about how it’s an old building, and so sometimes you have to wiggle the door a bit to get it to lock.

This is what I saw.  The door, at this point, was as closed as it could get…without throwing the full weight of a grown adult against it and flipping the lock at the same time.  This required the reflexes of Jack Burton.

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I said, weakly, “Super.”

In the meantime, Roy’s attention had been riveted by the vision of the side window:

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From a distance of eight feet away – even with my own head whirling in astonishment – I felt his blood pressure start to hit the Red Zone.

The innkeeper, I think, must have noticed something, because she said “Let me give you the tour of the house!”  And, continuing in a chirpy tone, informed up about how next spring, the owner of the inn was closing this room permanently and going to gut it and join it up with the room overhead, and pointed out the angled roof line where a walled-in stair case disrupted the tiny back of our room.  More on that in a minute, though.  At this point, she showed up the other door into the room, and said “You can get to the rest of the inn this way!”  And led us up a short flight of stairs that terminated…in the kitchen.

“Ah,” I thought.  “That explains the ‘private entrance’.  We’re racking up in a converted coal cellar.  How…charming.”

We finally parted ways with the innkeeper, who was exhibiting increasing anxiety – and for good reason.  This room should never have been rented at all.  She was embarrassed of it, and rightly so.  They ought to be embarrassed.  Roy and I reconnoitered back in the room.  His face was nearly purple with Suppressed Emotion.

We sat.

“OK.” I said. “Speak.  I know you want to.”

“This room is a disgrace,” he hissed. “Look at that.  That window is broken. BROKEN!  A BROKEN WINDOW!  I can’t believe this place.”

“And,” he continued hissing, caught in the throes of powerful feeling, “Can you believe she was going to give us YOGURT? FOR BREAKFAST?  She wasn’t even going to offer to make another quiche.  What kind of place is this?”

It felt just like Brad and Janet, coming to grips with the old Frankenstein Place.

I encouraged Roy to process his feelings, since I knew quite well there was no other room in this inn, and no room available at the nearby inns either.  I discovered later that there was some kind of whiz-bang food-and-wine festival going on in town which answered, I think, for the paucity of available rooms.  Finally I suggested that Roy take a spin through the ‘hood while I unpacked the bags and settled us in.  He set off in a huff.

I took a closer look at the room, which appeared to have been furnished out of someone’s grandmother’s garage.  The chest of drawers would have done good service in an attic, somewhere, or maybe on the curb of a residential street with a placard reading “FREE” in magic marker taped to the front.  The nightstand…well, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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The image quality from my cell phone cam is lousy, so I’ll explain.  That is a perfectly hideous oblong end-table with drop leaves.  It’s a good 2 1/2 feet deep, which puts the near corner in perfect position to ram into the knee of anyone getting out of bed in the middle of the night.  Also, it’s hideous.  The other nightstand isn’t any better, but  – more importantly – doesn’t match this one.  The room looks like it was furnished out of a yard sale.  Probably was.

The process of unpacking facilitated further exploration.  Roy’s laptop surfaced, as did his power cord, so I began the inevitable search for an outlet.  And the outlets were, surprisingly, easy to find…and not a single one of them was grounded.  Two prong, all the way.  I finally discovered a desk under the walled-up stairway, and the alcove featured a proper grounded outlet…halfway up the wall.  A drawer in the bureau had revealed a power strip, not a typical accessory for a room in this kind of inn.   Given the general atmosphere of…neglect…that characterized the room, I made the instant assumption that the only reason the innkeepers were providing a surge protector was because it was necessary and that some other poor guest had discovered this the hard way, and ensured that the experience had come home to roost on the innkeepers.  Here’s the very charming and quaint arrangement that is necessary to get power to the computer:

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Isn’t that nice?  Just what I’m used to from an expensive hotel.

And yet, the Stirring Discoveries had not yet attained their peak.  Or their nadir, as is more properly the case.

Because I realized in short order that the computer desk alcove, here:

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Is actually the bathroom vanity.  Yes.  One-stop-shopping for your personal electronics and your toothbrushes.

Because this is the bathroom.  I will keep the commentary to a minimum on this, because, largely, words fail me.

 

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So much for the promised “luxury toiletries”. That’s a wall, there, running down the right hand side off this picture. The sink “booth” is about as wide as the sink, which, yes, has exposed plumbing as its base.

 

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Artistic details of more of the exposed plumbing interior decor. Painted a cheerful yellow, as if to say “We meant those to be there!”

 

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This is the bathroom storage. All of it. Martha Stewart never had it so good.

 

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Ah. The toilet booth. Just what I expect from a high-end hostelry. Just think of how many naked thighs have buffed this wall while someone was doing their Business.

After this little tour, I had to pause to Collect Myself.  I could not rid my mind of the unbidden vision of Roy’s countenance when he should discover this development.  Doubtless as a function of his upbringing in cramped New York City domiciles – of which this room reminded more more and more with every passing minute, to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised to see evidence of some kind of vermin – Roy has a passion for Sanitary Facilities.  The more they resemble a Greek Temple to the Goddess Hygenia, the better.  He wants the big sink.  He wants a throne worthy of the name.  He wants to spread out and consume space while he shaves his chin and laves his body.  He wants a shower large enough to perform Downward Dog comfortably – or, better yet – Triangle or Warrior II.  He wants capacious, spotless, thick and luxurious towels.  He wants perfumed unguents of every type.  He wants too light to shave by.  He also wants total, complete, cone-of-silence privacy while he uses all of the facilities.

Instead, he was going to get this:

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That thing that looks like a hanging string is a chain that you pull to turn on the light.  How charmingly primitive.  And that’s the door to the rest of the inn in the background.  And, no, these walls don’t actually go to the ceiling.  It’s not a bathroom.  It’s a stall.

Just about then, Roy returned from his wanderings.  I am sorry to say that he was Much Reconciled to the situation.  Sorry, primarily, because I was well aware that nothing but an uninterrupted stream of Highly Unpleasant Surprises awaited him.

“Roy,” I said. “I have some bad news.”

Fortunately, his discovery that the bathroom afforded zero privacy were delayed until the following morning, which at least spread out the dreadfulness over an extended time period.   In the meantime, though, I discovered that the showerhead was leaking continuously.  Plink, plink the water went on the plastic floor of the shower booth.  Plink. I attempted a fix.  Plink, plink, plink it relentlessly continued.  “Roy,” I said. “Be sure to keep the bathroom door closed.”  Otherwise, I knew, we’d both rise in the morning, ready for the straight jackets.  Nothing makes a person go certifiably insane faster than having to listen to a dripping faucet all night long.

We headed off for dinner, only to return to additional unpleasant surprises.  But wait! There’s more?  Yes.  The overhead light was on.  The room was boiling hot.  I discovered that the heat was served by a steam radiator, and there was no thermostat anywhere to be seen in the suite.  I feel that I must call it a “suite” in light of the separate computer/bathroom vanity alcove.  And the rest of the…amenities.  No thermostat.  I began to open windows. finding that the main window had storm windows installed, and was not currently possible to open.  My attention turned to the window with the broken pane. “For god’s sake, don’t touch that window,” Roy said. “You might sever an artery.”  I ignored him, my desire not to sleep in a sweltering room overcoming my concerns about broken class.  This window, thankfully, was not insulated by a storm window, and I got it open without breaking the glass all the way out of the frame.

I feel the need to raise the question.  Why put storm windows up over only half of the windows in the room?  In ordinary circumstances, the mind would boggle.  However, I found, my mind has a finite capacity to boggle, and had passed that threshold some time around the moment I discovered the thigh-polishing qualities of the toilet booth.  I was just grateful to get some fresh air.

Next, I turned my attention to the overhead light.  I looked for the switch.

I did not find one.

I mounted a Full Red Alert Search for the switch, even considering the possibility that it might be located outside the room.

No switch.

I considered the possibility of having to sleep in this room with an overhead light glaring all night, and began to lose my temper.  “This place is a f*****g pit” I said.  Then I took a closer look at the light fixture.

???????????????????

 

It registered on me that there was another chain dangling down.  “Ah ha!” I thought.  More of the same primitive action as with the bathroom light.  I pulled the chain.

It started the fan.

I cursed and looked more carefully.  There was another chain, one approximately 4 inches long, dangling against the light fixture on the other side.  “Roy,” I said. “I have some bad news.”  When Roy discovered that he was going to have to climb up on the bed to access the “off” switch for the light he started using language that I did not know he had in his vocabulary.

At least the mattress was reasonably comfortable.

First thing in the morning, Roy always rolls out of bed and right into the shower. Plink. Plink. Plink.  He emerged from the bathroom. “I can’t get hot water.” he said. “Just wait.  Hopefully, it just takes a while for the water to get here.” There was a pause, and then I joined him in the bathroom. “I have a problem,” he said, from the shower booth.  I looked.  We did, in fact, have a problem.  There was a minor Plumbing Issue with the showerhead that was causing it to shoot a small but high pressure stream directly out of the side of the shower booth, with enough velocity that it was going directly into the closet where our clothes were hung.

I have never had a problem, before, with my clothing getting wet from the shower while it was hanging in the closet.  I did not know such things were possible.

I hung a towel over the metal framework at the top of the shower and started laughing.  I told Roy we’d passed the Threshold of Absurdity, and that all we could do was laugh.   Later, I heard him request that the innkeeper turn down the heat in our room and do something about the dripping showerhead.  She promised to turn it down and see to the shower.  Then he began to renegotiate our room rate with the innkeeper’s assistant, something I have certainly never seen him do before.  He was partially successful – I feel that a reasonable rate for this room, all things considered, would be about $25 per night.  He got them to drop it to $120 per night.  It’s still Highway Robbery, but I did promise him that I would not reveal the name of this Prize Gem in any writings I had to offer on the subject, accordingly.  I am pretty sure he wants to reserve that pleasure for himself when he gets home and logs on to TripAdvisor.  My aunt and uncle were once innkeepers, so I know how hard these people work, but this one?  They’ve brought it on themselves.  This room should not ever have been rented out.

At present, I must just ask myself:  What other Delightful Surprises are lying just around the corner for us?

And Roy answers me: the heat in the room is now completely off.  Evidently there are two settings for the radiator:  Burn in Hell, or Freeze.  “For God’s sake, Roy,” I said, “Don’t get them to do anything else.  I can’t stand the suspense.”