6) Visit one of the Great Lakes. Visit all of them.
Or you could just decide what really matters to you, and start right now. Happy New Year!
6) Visit one of the Great Lakes. Visit all of them.
Or you could just decide what really matters to you, and start right now. Happy New Year!
I’ll be taking a week off from blogging for a very festive and much needed break. However before I left I wanted to share one of my favorite observations.
If it’s your first time in a new city, you’re guaranteed to find yourself in the tourist section of town at some point. Every city’s got one. There’s Old Town in Albuquerque and City Market in Savannah. In Seattle it’s the waterfront, and there’s a similar set of piers in San Francisco. And in every tourist section of every tourist city you’ll find a few commonalities. There is always a place to get ice cream and fudge. There is always overpriced parking. And there is always a Christmas shop.
It’s astounding to me how many businesses across the United States make their year-round living selling Christmas decorations. It’s very possible to duck into a shop in August to escape the 95 degree heat, only to hear Frank Sinatra singing “Let it Snow.” These Christmas shops are claustrophobic with merchandise. Knick knacks are stacked upon knick knacks, and whole forests of fake Christmas trees block the aisles to display the huge inventory of ornaments.
While traveling I would always imagine the type of person who patronized these shops. The type of person who takes great pride in her collection of Christmas decorations. Who sets aside several days, if not several weeks, each November to prepare the house for the season. The type of person who adds to her collection no matter where she is, and proudly points out to her holiday guests which ornaments she picked up on her last trip through Kentucky.
I think the reason we take such joy in the Christmas season is that it demands everything change, if only for a little while. The whole mood of the world shifts, and you with it. Despite knowing that we should strive for joy, giving, and gratitude year round, we hold this month up as the most ideal time to seek such virtues. I suppose I can understand why someone would want to look for that feeling the whole year, and in every location. Not to mention that picking up Christmas ornaments on your trip means an automatic, annual remembrance of your travels. Every year you decorate your Christmas tree, and every year you pull that tacky little armadillo ornament out of the box. And you remember that long weekend you spent in Texas visiting your cousin, and how the two of you went shopping together before dinner that one night. And you remember her, and you remember the place, and you think how nice it would be to see her again. Maybe this coming spring. You should probably give her a call next week anyway.
After all, it’s Christmas.
I still had most of the day ahead of me when I settled in at my campsite at Little Sand Point. The campground is one of many surrounding Piseco Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. With plenty of time to spare, I asked the man working the ranger booth about nearby hiking. He recommended Panther Mountain as the go-to destination, since the trial head was just down the road from camp. I went back to my car and started to put together my hiking pack. It was almost lunch time so I made myself a sandwich to eat at the top, and added a few extra snacks and two bottles of water (one for the hike and one for the sandwich). And of course my usual hiking gear: binoculars, sweater, pocket knife, first aid, etc.
I parked at the trailhead and saw a pair of elementary schools kids pulling up with their grandparents. Their group would end up passing me on the trail, as would a man with a baby carrier on his back. When faced with the prospect of being passed by a four-year-old who was insisting on climbing the whole thing by herself, I started to wonder when hiking became so hard. I made it up and down the Grand Canyon, what had changed? Was it because there was too much in my pack? Had I been spending too much time in my car this week? Why was it suddenly so hard?
I decided to take the difficulty as a sign, and an opportunity. I’ve always had trouble being too focused in hiking, looking at my feet instead of the scenery. I sat down on a nearby rock and let the four-year-old and her parents pass me. I took a sip of water and admired my surroundings. After a bit of time I started up the mountain again, but when I saw the little girl, I stopped. I had decided I would go no faster than the four-year-old. She would be my pace car.
When I finally made it to the top, an area known as Echo Cliffs, I was the only one without children and/or a baby. I took a seat on one of the large, warm, flat rocks and ate my lunch while taking in the view of Piseco Lake. It was clear from the conversations the young boys were having that this was not their first time to the top. I started to wonder if I had psyched myself up for a hike, while everyone else saw it as a fun walk. Perhaps I should have taken fewer things with me. At the same time, I was hiking alone. That freedom comes with certain responsibilities. I can’t afford to be unprepared. I had no way of knowing how crowded the trail was, or how close assistance would be.
Perhaps the real lesson is the futility of comparing yourself to others. Had I been alone on the trail, I probably would have felt nothing but accomplishment upon reaching the top. I wouldn’t have wondered if other people would be able to do it faster, or if knowing the area would have changed my preparations. I would have just gone on a hike, as I’ve done so many times before. I shouldn’t let other people’s hikes damage my own. Perhaps that’s the curse of the solo traveler: you’re always alone, and you’re never alone.
I drove back to the campground and decided against renting a canoe. The day before, looking out upon the quiet beauty of Brown Tract Pond, a solo canoe ride sounded heavenly. But at Piseco the lake was too big, the waves too large, the wind too cold. This is yet another curse of traveling alone: your standards for enjoyment shift. Had I been with other people at Piseco Lake and got invited to jump in a kayak with them, I probably would have done it. Paddling around with friends will be fun almost anywhere. But by myself, Piseco didn’t look fun. Brown Tract would have been fun. It was peaceful and still and nestled far away from boaters and skidoos. I suppose it seemed like a lake worth paddling alone specifically because there was no one around. But there were so many people at Piseco, a solo canoe ride just sounded like work.
I considered going for a swim but opted to stay on the dock due to the previously mentioned wind, waves, and cold. No one else was swimming anyway. After a nice chunk of time sitting around doing nothing I decided that tonight was a good night for s’mores. I had been engaging in a complicated relationship with s’mores on this trip. Every time I started a campfire I wished I could have had a s’more. It’s a Pavlovian response to campfires I’ve spent years building up. But I had limited space in my car and no other use for marshmallows. Graham crackers make for a good road snack and I can make any number of chocolate bars disappear, but marshmallows only ever come in one size of bag, and it’s always too many to eat by myself. However we all have our breaking point, and by the time I hit Piseco Lake I was sure I didn’t want to watch another campfire go by without roasting a marshmallow or two.
I went to the tiny nearby store and picked up my supplies: a box of graham crackers, two chocolate bars, and a bag of too many marshmallows. I looked around to see if I needed anything else and a woman asked where I had found the s’mores fixings. I pointed to the bottom shelf in the corner and she discovered that I had grabbed the last bag of marshmallows. The clerk told the woman and her family there was another store about ten miles to the north that would probably have some in stock. I bought my groceries and walked out to my car. I looked at my big bag of marshmallows.
“Well this is stupid,” I muffled to myself, and went back inside. The father of the family was standing near the door. “Do you need a whole bag of marshmallows,” I asked him, “or would half a bag work?”
“Half a bag would be plenty,” he said with hope in his voice.
We went out to my car and I portioned out half the bag into a ziplock . He gave me a dollar for his half of the marshmallows and thanked me. I couldn’t have imagined a more elegant solution to my excessive marshmallow problem.
I had more logs than usual so I started the fire early. I found a nice, solid stick and used my pocket knife to whittle it down into a high quality s’mores utensil. I ate my dinner. I waited. Something that we don’t often consider is that sitting around and watching a campfire is only fun in a group. Watching a fire by yourself produces a finite quantity of enjoyment. As the coals of my fire finally began to make themselves known, I started on my s’mores. I ate four of them, which is more s’mores than I ever recall eating in one sitting while growing up. I would have eaten more if I could have. But maybe that’s the other curse of the solo-traveler: it’s easy to overeat when you don’t have to share.
I should have bought more chocolate.
I didn’t have much of a plan for the Adirondacks other than camping. A campground near Rollins Pond had been recommended, and I bought some wood at the local grocery store in anticipation of building a fire. By the time I got to Rollins the rain was coming down hard. I figured as long as it was too wet to camp I might as well keep driving and get a few more miles in. Ninety minutes later the rain had stopped and I found myself at a secluded campground on Brown Tract Pond. I managed to snag the last open site next to the water, and had plenty of time left in the day to enjoy it. Unfortunately, right after the ranger ran my credit card the rain began to pour so bad I could barely make it the four feet from the ranger booth to my car without getting soaked. I pulled into my spot and looked out onto the pond. It was beautiful. Or rather, it would have been.
I sat in my car and wrote for awhile. When the rain finally stopped I took a look at the sky. It was clear. And it was daylight. I still had time to make that campfire. I pulled the logs out of my car and got the flames going. I’d been practicing using a flint and steel to start a fire, but I wasn’t about to bother this time. Just as the fire was almost going strong the rain returned and the flames died. There were still coals burning so I couldn’t put the logs back in my car. If I left them out they were sure to get soaked and become unusable. I shoved the wood towards the corner of the cement pit. I had recently realized the umbrella I brought was on the verge of worthlessness, and I made the executive decision that I would not feel bad if I accidentally set it on fire. I propped the umbrella up over the wood, but the sorry little bumbershoot wasn’t going to be enough. I grabbed the map of Portland, Maine from my back seat. The paper was a bit glossy and I figured water would be more inclined to bead off of it rather than soak through. I covered the whole pile with the map, repositioned the umbrella, and hopped back in my car.
I blasted the hot air to dry off, then got back to writing. More time passed – maybe a half hour – and the rain stopped again. I got out and looked at the sky. It seemed clearer than before, like this time it was really over. It was like those times in dreams when you start to question if the place you’re in is real, but then convince yourself it is. Only when you wake up do you realize how foolish you were before. That was a dream. NOW the world is real.
That was just a break. NOW the sky was clear.
I pulled the umbrella and map off of the wood and tried my fire again. It lit up instantly – much faster than I’d gotten a fire going all summer. By covering the hot coals I had inadvertently smoked the wood for 30 minutes. The logs were hot and dry on the inside even if the ground and bark were wet. I enjoyed my little fire, cooked my dinner, and started getting ready for bed. The rain never came back.
Once the fire was low enough to leave unattended I walked to the nearby bathroom to brush my teeth. When I returned, a large fifth wheel RV was pulled in directly behind me, and two people were pointing flashlights into my car.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said a woman, “You can you move your car, you’re in our spot.”
I was flustered, not sure what to say. “I’m sorry,” I finally managed, “but I paid for this spot.”
“So did we,” said a gruff man’s voice, “We reserved it months ago.”
There was some mumbling back and forth between the three of us. They had a big black dog who sniffed at me. I don’t like being around strange dogs. I couldn’t see much of the two of them, but I could tell she was a large woman with an imposing gait. Her and I shared a few more stunned words with each other before I quietly eked out, “Well, where am I supposed to go?” It had been dark for more than an hour. It was late. We were in the middle of the woods.
The man crossed around in front of their truck and walked back over to us. “I can’t move it anyway,” he told his wife. They were parked directly behind my car, blocking me in. Even if either party were willing to leave, neither of us could. I told them that I was heading out in the morning anyway. He noted that obviously there’d been a misunderstanding and we should all just go to sleep.
I went to bed furious, especially at that confrontational woman with the oversized clothes. Rude New Yorkers, I thought. I had to listen to them bang around and watch them shine their flashlights as they got ready for bed. I was positive that in the morning they’d be just as surly and entitled and I’d demand a refund from the park. I had already been rained out, I didn’t want to be kicked out, too.
I woke up at 7AM to the sound of the man unloading the canoes from their truck. Not wanting to make what I was sure would be an awful situation worse, I started getting ready. The man went back inside the rig, but I decided to keep packing up. I wanted to be ready to move at the first available opportunity. I had been planning on a slow morning, and being forced to get up early angered me even more.
The couple finally emerged. They were very nice, very kind, and I realized that she was a rather petite woman. They were smiling and clearly not angry anymore. It was hard to keep up my own anger with nothing to fight against. I realized that they were probably not even from New York, since their accents didn’t seem local. They mentioned my Washington license plate and asked if I was on a cross-country trip. We were talking about my travels when their black lab ran out of the rig and pooped immediately.
“Poor baby,” said the woman, turning to her husband, “I told you she needed to go. I’ll get a plastic bag.”
Two young boys popped out of the rig, still in their pajamas. They looked at me curiously. The man and I talked some more. He was sad that I didn’t get to see more of the area because of the rain. He told me they came every year, and recommended I come back if ever I get the chance. When I mentioned I was ready to leave, he happily got in the truck to move the rig out of my way.
On the somewhat long drive out to the ranger station I went back and forth about what I was going to do. I wanted to demand a refund of at least half of my money. I was angry at the park for making me angry at those people. And I was mad on their behalf. After what was probably a long, late day of driving with two kids and a dog they had to deal with me rather than their perfect, empty campsite.
When I got to the booth no one was inside. There was a small cabin next to it and two old men were sitting on the porch. They told me the ranger wouldn’t be out for another 10 minutes. I explained what happened, and my frustration. I said that I’d like to know how I ended up in someone else’s site. I had no idea who these men were or what exactly their job was, but one of them said I was welcome to wait for the ranger. I asked him what he thought that would solve and he shrugged. “Maybe you’ll get your questions answered.”
I decided that holding onto this anger AND waiting around for another 10 minutes was too big an investment. I drove off, trying to figure out if I was still mad or not. I considered writing to the state parks department and demanding a refund. I thought for awhile about what I’d say and when I would do this. Eventually I realized I shouldn’t bother. The campsite was $20, and getting that money back wouldn’t be worth the cost in frustration. Ultimately, I knew the money wouldn’t make up for the real cost – how much longer I’d have to stay angry to get it. I realized that I could simply stop being angry at that moment. That all harm that could be done had already been done, and that the only possible benefit left would be a lousy twenty bucks, assuming I could even get that. And I’d have to keep up that frustration and pain for so long – certainly for the rest of the day until I could write up my letter, but probably much longer until I could get online and look up the contact info for the parks department. Realistically I would probably have too much to do in the next few days anyway, and would have to put it off until later, maybe even until after I got home.
The prospect of staying mad about something for the rest of my trip sickened me. The choice was easy. And turning it into a choice made me feel better instantly. Neither the situation nor the anger were ultimately out of my control. I still had the power to make a decision about how I wanted this event to affect my trip, my life. And I decided that it was in my own best interest to consider my $20 an investment in personal growth. It was the price I had to pay to realize that I always have the power to control my response. And in the end, the things that are outside of my control – the rain, the rangers – are insignificant in the face of the unending power of my response.
You probably didn’t notice. Most of you weren’t even regular readers at the time. I referred to it as “a last minute detour.” It was the first day of my trip. Even though I left in the morning, I didn’t get to Portland until nine o’clock at night. I’m talking about those extra hours between Seattle and Portland. I didn’t want to talk about it then, and I wasn’t sure I was ever going to want to talk about it. Even now, as I type this, I’m not positive I want to make this post public.
I got the phone call from my mother back in February. My Uncle John had been suffering from a bad cough, and finally went to the doctor. They told him he had esophageal cancer. And it was bad. Very bad. They said if he did nothing he had two months to live.
It wasn’t an easy time to get the news. My family was still mourning the passing of my grandmother, who had died a year earlier. Almost exactly a year to the day that Uncle John was diagnosed. I don’t remember much of the conversation with my mom. It was a difficult mix of not understanding the truth and not being able to believe it yet. I think I must have asked her how she was doing, because the only thing I remember her saying was, “Well, it’s hard.” I heard her swallow a lump in her throat. “He’s my little brother.” I asked my mom to keep me posted and hung up the phone. I turned to Rob and said very simply, “My Uncle John has cancer. He’s going to die.” He brought me over to the couch and sat with me while I cried.
I cried again a few weeks later. It was after church and the whole congregation was downstairs for coffee hour. Normally people make prayer requests up in church during announcements, but I’m always downstairs with the Sunday School kids during that time. I stood next to our priest, Fr. James, and began what I thought was going to be a very basic and straight forward request for prayers. I had planned to simply say that my uncle had cancer and he didn’t have long to live, please pray for him and our family. I don’t remember how far I got before my words got caught in my stomach and Fr. James put his arm around my shoulder to comfort me. Everyone in the church was very supportive, and while I dried my eyes they shared their own stories of losing loved ones to cancer.
It was the day before Easter, known as Holy Saturday, when my sister Nikki and I drove the two hours over to Yakima together to visit Uncle John and Aunt Linda. He had lost a lot of weight. Too much. Linda told us he was eating nothing but cereal, since that was the only thing that didn’t seem to upset his stomach these days. The four of us sat there in the living room talking. We told them about my trip and our plans to have Nikki join me when I hiked the Grand Canyon. Our cousin Trinna came over to say hello. Trinna is very smart. Too smart, at times. Last year she told her high school counselor that they had to do something to challenge her more in school, or she would have to drop out. The school’s solution was to have her take the next two grades simultaneously, which she did. She was also going with John and Linda when John was getting his chemo treatments. She would ask the doctors and nurses questions. She wanted to know about his cancer, about the chemo, about the needles and the drugs. Trinna’s the only person I’ve ever met who I think could become a neurobiologist by accident.
As Nikki and I left, we made sure to promise that we would come visit again soon. Linda had mentioned before that John was getting really depressed. He liked having so many people come to visit, but he couldn’t help but think that every time he saw someone it was for the last time. I made it clear that I would be back before I left on my trip. This was not the last time he would see me.
About two weeks before my departure date I called Aunt Linda. Nikki and I had been trying to work out a good time to come back together, but none of our dates matched up. I told Linda I was hoping to come by on my own the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, right before I left. She told me there was no need, her and John were planning to drive over for the party at my folks’ house that weekend. John wanted to see everyone anyway. I told her it sounded like a great idea, and that I would see them then.
In the days leading up to Memorial Day, John got very ill. He went to the hospital for a little while, then came back home. On Sunday my mom called. She had just talked to Linda, and they weren’t going to make it over.
“I should go there, shouldn’t I,” I said to my mother.
“I think so,” she said. “I don’t think he’s going to be here when you get back.”
I looked at my calendar. I was leaving in three days. There was no other time. I called Linda and told her I would be by on Wednesday. They would be the first stop on my trip around the country.
It rained for most of my drive to Yakima. I parked in front of the house and breathed deeply.
Uncle John had grown frail. It’s hard to explain how devastating this was to watch. My Uncle John had always seemed like such a huge man to me. Some men are just like that. They are tall and have broad shoulders and walk around like they intend to take up space. I know in real life he wasn’t so giant, but in my memory one always had to look up to see my Uncle John. That was gone now. Pound after pound had fallen off, and his face was thin. He couldn’t stand up much, and Linda rushed to get him back to the couch after he stood up to greet me.
The three of us sat talking for awhile. The TV was on, and occasionally we would all collectively get distracted and start watching it. Linda had to leave for a while to pick up one of their granddaughters, and John and I were left alone. I feel like I should regret how I spent those hours with Uncle John, because for most of the time we just sat there, watching Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network. I can’t even pretend that it’s one of those sweet memories, like, “Uncle John and I always used to watch TV together when I was growing up” or “we both loved talking about food.” No. Prior to that day I can’t recall any memories of watching TV with Uncle John. And by the time I came to visit he could barely eat at all. Honestly I was a little surprised the show didn’t make him sick to his stomach.
I sat there for much longer than I planned. I knew how long it would take to get to Portland. I knew I was going to be much later than I had intended. But I sat there, because I knew what would happen when I left. That would be it. That would be my last memory of Uncle John.
Eventually Linda came home, we talked some more, and I forced myself out of the chair. They offered to let me stay for the night, but I had already told my host in Portland that I was coming. I gave Uncle John a hug, standing there with him as long as I thought he could manage. I walked out to my car. I made sure I was across town and almost to the freeway before I started to cry.
It was 22 days and 3,000 miles later when I looked at my phone and saw a missed call from my mother. I was sitting in the living room of a man I’d just met, my couchsurfing host in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He and his friend had their guitars out, and they were letting me share in their impromptu jam session. I excused myself and went outside. It was hot and dusty, two things that can be said about all of New Mexico. I called my mom. I knew what it was about.
My parents had been up in Gold Bar, WA, leading a camp for high schoolers. She had done this for years, and this was the last one she would lead before her retirement. Mom and Dad had been down to see John and Linda recently, but while at camp my mom got a feeling. That happens to her sometimes. She turned to my dad and said, “I think we need to go to Yakima.”
After a few hours of visiting, my parents drove back up to the camp. As they were pulling in they got the call from Linda. Uncle John had passed away just before five o’clock in the evening. Linda said he must have been waiting to say goodbye to his big sister.
I didn’t cry when I hung up the phone in New Mexico. I took a deep breath and walked back inside. I said nothing. I managed, quite successfully, to pretend for the rest of the night. For several days, in fact. At some point later I know it hit me, but for some reason I can’t remember where I was at the time. I can remember so much so distinctly, but I can’t remember that. It was probably at some forgettable roadside stop on some forgotten highway.
I was in upstate New York the day of the memorial service some two months later. Everyone said my mother’s eulogy was beautiful. Not long after I got home I got a package in the mail from her. She had sent me a copy of the service program and printouts of the reflections that were given, including hers. Everyone was right. It was beautiful.
I cried three more times for Uncle John. The first time was when I was writing the 3rd paragraph of this post. The second time was 700 words later, around the 9th paragraph. The third is still more than 300 words away. I don’t know about it yet – these are words from a future self who will come back later to edit them in. This cry will be the worst of all, and it will come as soon as I finish typing.
I wonder sometimes, why I didn’t take better advantage of that last day with my Uncle John. I wonder even more why I don’t feel regret about wasting it in such a manner. I think perhaps it’s because I know there wasn’t a better way to spend it. As I sat there I considered asking him questions about his life, about how he was feeling. I thought about asking if he had any thoughts on death, if his beliefs about it had changed at all. But I just couldn’t imagine he actually wanted to talk about any of that. My poor uncle had being dying for three months. And I don’t think I wanted to hear his answers, either. Not like this. Not while he was sick and thin. I didn’t want a heavy discussion, the kind that would be burned into my brain. I didn’t want to tell people about “those last few hours with my uncle, oh the things we learned about each other!” I just wanted to sit there with him. I can only hope he wanted the same thing.
As a result of me sitting there, saying nothing, my memories of my uncle dying are few. I have, in fact, listed every one of them here. The entire rest of the picture, all of those times we were together when he wasn’t dying, that’s what fills in the rest. That is where the majority lies. That’s where it ought to be.
In the long line of memories, one stands out above the rest. It’s a strange one, because he wasn’t actually present for it. Uncle John was born on December 25th, Christmas Day. John and Linda always spent Christmas in Yakima, and my family was always in Seattle. Every year when people would come over to my parents’ house for Christmas dinner we would gather around the food and hold hands. My dad would say grace, and he would always point out that we were in fact celebrating three birthdays: Jesus, our good friend Carol (who was often in attendance) and my Uncle John. I remember celebrating my Uncle John’s birthday, on his birthday, every year, for my entire life.
This year will be the first Christmas without Uncle John in the world. He would have been 62.
I only stopped at the Shelburne Museum because Jake and Michelle recommended it. I wasn’t in the mood for a museum, and looking at it from the road the place didn’t seem all that impressive. But I had a lot of time to kill before I was supposed to be in Burlington, so I decided to pull into the parking lot and buy a ticket.
The woman at the counter gave me a map and directed me to the door on the other end of the gift shop. I walked through it to find myself back outside, looking out over a field. There was a foot path and a sign pointing to the left for the Round Barn, an architectural feature which for some reason people always find intriguing. I walked over to the barn and began looking at the antique farm equipment and horse-drawn carts kept inside. The barn itself was an artifact, having been moved to the museum from its original location. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “It’s one of those homestead museums with stuff about rural life 100 years ago.” I continued to look around.
Outside I saw another sign on the path directing me towards the Circus Building. I looked over and saw a carnival carousel full of children. My brain struggled to connect what I was seeing with where I had just been. I pulled out my map and confirmed that all three of these structures were part of the museum. The field was part of the museum. In fact, the Shelburne Museum sits on 45 acres of land and is comprised of 39 buildings, 25 of which are historic structures that were relocated to the grounds (such as the barn). My map indicated a shuttle route I could take advantage of if the walking became too much for me. This was a lot more museum than I had anticipated.
Behind the fully functional carousel was the Circus Building. It was shaped like a horseshoe and I slipped in through a door on one end. The shape of the building created a single, long, curving hallway. On my right were historic carousel pieces – horses, sleighs, lions, etc. They were lined up in rows, one right after the other. On my left was a continuous glass case which held miniature circus figures lined up in a parade. There were tiny llamas and elephants. There were figures of monkeys riding donkeys led by clowns. There were horses and dancing girls and lions in cages. And this went on through the entire building. The whole way around there were carousel horses on my right and tiny trapeze artists on my left. I must have seen several hundred figurines. Near the end there were about a dozen old circus posters that read like the lyrics to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
After the easily 15 minute walk through the circus building and a brief stop to see a large rifle collection in the Beach Gallery, it was clear that I didn’t have time to see everything. My map included a “Highlights” tour for those with limited time, and I decided to follow it. The nearest building on the list was actually a ship – the Ticonderoga steamboat. This National Landmark is 220 feet long, 107 years old, and sitting in the middle of a field in Vermont. The entire ship had been renovated and filled with period-appropriate pieces from the days back in the early 20th century when the Ticonderoga sailed the north-south route on Lake Champlain. I caught the tail end of a free tour and learned about the hardships of shoveling coal.
I decided to deviate from my Highlights tour in order to visit the Apothecary Shop. I can’t understand how any person could pass up a visit to an Apothecary Shop. The shop was connected to the General Store, and both were filled to the brim with artifacts. There were old bottles lining the walls and antique tin cans advertising the high quality hair pomade that was once inside. The docent in charge of the General Store insisted I also take a look at the Dentist’s Office.
On the second floor of the building was a fully furnished dental office, including an old dentist’s chair and some terrifying tools. There was still a part of my mind that couldn’t understand where I was. There was the barn with the farm equipment, then the figurines of dogs riding Shetland ponies, then the giant steamboat, and now a room full of scary doctor’s equipment above a fake store pretending to sell vials of snake oil. I suppose the thing that was really putting me off balance was that I had absolutely no clue what expectations to have for each successive building. I was starting to feel like nothing could surprise me, because everything did.
I made my way past the Heritage Garden and the 1782 Dutton House and Tavern to get to the Hat and Fragrance Textile Gallery. The tour described it as “A riot of quilts, rugs, samplers, and more.” In case you’re wondering, it takes an awful lot of quilts to form a riot. There were so many quilts on display that some of them were sandwiched between panes of glass and lined up in an accordion-style viewer like cheap posters in a college bookstore. Guests could thumb through the giant pieces from the 1800s while even more impressive textiles loomed over them on all sides. After walking past a room full of so many Persian rugs that they had to be stacked on top of each other, I found an intriguing side area full of glass cases. Inside each case was a tiny scene. There would be a seamstress’s shop with the most impossibly small spools of thread. Or maybe an old Victorian home that could be mistaken for the most ornate dollhouse you’ve ever scene. I assumed this is what they mean by the “and more” part of the gallery description.
Right outside was the Smokehouse. You know, one of those old buildings constructed to house a slow-burning fire that would smoke a variety of hanging meats to preserve them for the winter. A simple, 4×6 foot smoke house. From 1820. Across from the Toy Shop.
In the Stagecoach Inn I got to see folk art sculptures and paintings, along with weathervanes and duck decoys. This is to say nothing of the whirligigs. Every museum ought to have a full collection of 100-year-old whirligigs.
I walked by the Covered Bridge, which was once the main entrance to the museum. It had been brought over from Cambridge, Vermont, and was now used only by maintenance vehicles. I had seen something about the Covered Bridge back at the entrance but wasn’t quite sure what the big deal was. It was easier to understand looking at it. Consider for a moment that we’re talking about a two-lane bridge, not a single lane bridge. The thing is huge, made of wood, and was built in 1845 for a road 40 miles away.
I was getting tired. I had already been at the museum for much longer than I anticipated. But there were two more buildings on my tour, near the entrance. I hopped on the oversized golf cart shuttle and got off at the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building. Most of the buildings at Shelburne were named for their purpose or contents – the Weaving Shop, the Meeting House, the Artisans Shop. This was one of only a few buildings named after a person. I assumed that like so many wings of so many hospitals it was named after a big donor to the museum. That is, as I found out, a supreme understatement.
In 1910 Electra Havenmeyer married James Watson Webb, an heir to the Vanderbilt family fortune. Perhaps her most distinguishing feature was her ability to recognize the value of American history long before anyone else did. She was collecting Americana art before anyone realized it was art. After many years of unique taste and unlimited finances she had enough objects to start a museum, and that museum became the Shelburne. She wasn’t just a major donor. When the museum started, she was the only donor.
Upon entering the memorial building I was greeted by a docent, who asked if I would like some help navigating the exhibits. She pointed to the rooms on either side of her and up the stairs and began reciting their contents.
“Here is where you will find the family’s living room,” she said, “and over to the side are the impressionist paintings – be sure to go into that room over there where we have four Monets -“
“Monets?” I asked her, positive I misheard.
“That’s right,” she said, “It’s the closest you’ll ever be to a Monet.”
I was too distracted by the thought of a place having both a barn and a Monet that I didn’t bother to ask for an explanation about the phrase “family’s living room.” I walked over to the Monet room, which was the only place on the museum grounds where I had seen a security guard. Seizing the opportunity, I stuck my nose as close to the paintings as I could, then stepped back to see the difference as the abstract strokes turned into figures. I felt the guard looking at me and worried I was getting too close for his comfort. He approached me.
“If you look at this one you can actually see where some of his brush hairs came off,” he told me. I moved to the painting in question and marveled at my own proximity to the leftover tools of the founder of Impressionism.
In turning to the center of the room I couldn’t help but notice I was in someone’s dining room. Not in a room made to look like a dining room, or a gallery that included a nice dinning room table. I was in their actual dining room. One room over I found myself in the living room, and later in a bedroom. This building included, brick for brick, several fully furnished rooms from the 1967 Park Avenue apartment of museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb. In every space there was a small photo album with images of the original rooms, each looking exactly the same then as they do now.
I learned more about Electra when I went to my final stop, the Center for Art and Education. This was the most modern of any of the buildings – it had only been open for four days. I realized when I got inside that it was supposed to be my first stop, rather than my last. The center includes a small sample from nearly every collection on the campus. There was a single carousel horse and one large rug. There was a stack of a dozen hatboxes where earlier I had seen a hundred. The Center was a collection of the collections, organized to show what the curators felt were the four common themes in the museum pieces: Color, Pattern, Whimsy, and Scale. When put like that, I could finally see the connections. Color in the paintings, pattern in the rugs, whimsy in the circus clowns, scale in the dollhouses. In the Center for Art and Education I saw pieces I had missed from the buildings I didn’t have time to see. I examined my map again, suddenly realizing the scope of what I had passed by: the Horseshoe Barn full of stagecoaches and carriages, the Blacksmith Shop and the Jail, the full-sized steam engine replica. I struggled with the thought. Even after spending the day there it was hard to imagine a place where you could get so distracted by a doctor’s office or a Degas painting that you don’t notice a train.
The Shelburne isn’t a museum, it’s an amusement park. It’s a town. It’s a spectacle. It’s a sideshow. It is the most eclectic damn place I’ve ever seen. I never knew what would be around the next corner and I found that sense of discomfort to be delightful. I wish every museum could hit us with such surprise and confusion. Or maybe I just wish the Shelburne was closer to home. I would go visit every summer. And I would never see it all.
I can’t believe I only took four pictures.
About two weeks before I was supposed to land in Vermont I got in contact with Jake and Michelle. They were friends of Mark and Connie from New Orleans, who were friends of my parents. Jake said that they were about to set out on a long vacation, biking around New England with “no set itinerary.” Already I knew they were my kind of people. Jake told me I was welcome to stay at their house anyway, he’d just tell the house sitter when to expect me. About 24 hours before I was supposed to show up at their door to meet the sitter, Michelle emailed me with an idea. They were camping near Middlebury, what if I met them there instead? I thought it sounded like a terrific idea, and drove across New Hampshire and Vermont to end up in Branbury State Park.
When I arrived, Michelle had just hopped into the shower after a long bike ride the two of them had completed together. Jake and I began to set up dinner, including some veggies I had picked up at the local roadside produce stand at Jake’s request. Michelle got back from the shower and the three of us feasted on a wide array of chopped up fruits and veggies. She mourned over a handful of tomatoes she had left on the dashboard of their van in hopes that they’d ripen in the sun. Instead she ended up with mush under the skins. Each tomato squished in your hand like a water balloon.
This was the end of their camping trip – the three of us would be spending the following night at their apartment in Burlington. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity to add their leftovers to our veggie feast, including some extra Indian food and scraps of delicious cheese. Jake kept offering me things – drinks, extra food, utensils – and joking about how he wanted to make sure he got credit in my blog for being nice. “I just want it to be known that I offered her a paper towel when you were in the shower,” he told Michelle.
As we finished dinner, Michelle began throwing all the dishes together in a cooler, insisting that nothing really needed to be cleaned since this was their last night of camping. I set up my little tent and the three of us wasted the night away staring at the campfire. It was nice to finally share a fire with someone.
The next day Jake and Michelle planned out their bike route. The two of them are avid cyclists, and they couldn’t fathom getting through the final day of their trip without at least a few miles of riding. I helped them clean up the camp and they gave me tips on how to spend my day. Michelle scribbled her suggestions for me for Burlington on a small sheet of paper, and they were off on their bikes.
It was only about an hour drive between Branbury and Burlington, so I had plenty of time to kill. I began with Jake and Michelle’s recommendation for breakfast – the Three Squares Cafe in the nearby town of Vergennes. I feasted on french toast covered in fresh fruit, cinnamon whipped cream, and a healthy serving of Vermont’s famous maple syrup. I walked down the three blocks of interesting town that made up Vergennes and began to realize how disgusting I felt. When every night is a new bed, it’s easy to lose track of how often you should shower. I had clearly gone too long, and there was enough grease in my hair to prove it. I started to wonder if I would be able to make it all the way to the evening, when I would have the chance to shower at Jake and Michelle’s apartment in Burlington.
Undaunted by my personal feelings of yuck, I continued with my list of recommendations. After a lengthy stop in one of the most interesting museums I’d ever seen (more on that in the next post), I had made it to Burlington. Michelle had listed off several places to visit and things to do. I drove down to the waterfront, hoping to find a public beach where I would be able to jump right into the lake. If I couldn’t take a shower, at least I could get soaking wet. But I couldn’t find a parking lot, much less a nice stretch of lake access. I took another look at my scrap of paper listing the fun ways to pass one’s time in Burlington. I flipped it over to the back and realized that Michelle had written the words “No. Beach for Swimming.” No beach? Numbered beach? I pulled out my phone and started searching the map of the city.
I raced up to the north end of town with renewed enthusiasm and had no regrets about paying eight dollars for parking when I got there. I changed into my swimsuit and piled my belongings near someone else’s empty beach towels. I always try to leave my things near other people in the hopes that it will deter any potential thieves. I don’t know how well it works but I didn’t care at that point. It was hot and I was sweating. I practically ran to the shore and dunked my head into the cooling waters of Lake Champlain. It was wonderful.
I floated along, watching the other beach-goers and excited children. I scratched at my head to push the water between the individual hairs. It had been hours since I first realized how much I wanted to jump into a lake, and it was well worth the wait. After a few minutes of floating and soaking, I went back to the shore. I spread my towel out on the sand and laid in the sun, occasionally getting too hot and jumping back in the water. What a beautiful day it was, what a much needed rest. Being covered in lake water never felt so cleansing.
After changing back into dry clothes I realized I was famished. I had been so focused on getting clean that I had skipped lunch. I still hadn’t heard from Jake and Michelle, who were planning on going paddle boarding after their ride. I figured we wouldn’t be getting together for dinner, and turned to my list for suggestions. The first choice was a burger joint called The Spot. When I arrived I found a sign on the door indicating that while they are normally open on Wednesdays, they would be closed early on this specific Wednesday. I didn’t think it was a big deal and I moved onto the second option, a pizza place called Bite Me. When I arrived I found out that they were only just starting their pizzas for dinner service, and weren’t officially open for another hour. My last possibility was El Cortijo, a Mexican restaurant just off of Church Street (the local pedestrian drag). I found a decent parking spot and walked towards El Cortijo with trepidation. It’s not often one must turn to their Plan C just to find a decent meal. Fortunately for me, they were open and happily taking customers.
Just after I had finished up my meal I got a call from Jake. They were at the apartment, showering and generally getting their act together. I ended up joining them and a friend of theirs for a second dinner to celebrate Michelle’s birthday. After dinner the four of us walked down to a place called The Skinny Pancake, known for its delicious crepes and live music. Jake was excited to see tonight’s act “Joshua Panda and the Hot Damned.” Joshua Panda is a young singer-songwriter with a nice smile and the sort of tousled hair that only attractive musicians can pull off. The Hot Damned appeared to be just one other guy, and both he and Joshua sat in chairs with their guitars on the outdoor patio of the restaurant. Jake is clearly a huge fan of Joshua Panda, and he stopped talking the moment we sat down so he could listen to the music. Michelle kept poking fun at him for being such a fanboy, and the best Jake could muster in response was an embarrassed blush.
Not long after we’d sat down an older woman handed each of us a flier for Joshua Panda. She wore a long, white, see-through lace dress over a hot pink tank top and matching shorts. On her finger was a large ring with a flashing light on it.
“Are you his mother?” Michelle asked, taking a flier from the woman.
The old woman laughed. “No, it’s funny, many people ask me that. I’m his devoted fan and . . . spiritual connection.”
I looked at the flier, which was a hand-drawn depiction of the singer that honestly didn’t look anything like him.
“This is how I see him,” the woman told Michelle, indicating she had drawn it herself.
She wandered off, passing fliers out to everyone in the restaurant and being sure to snag people as soon as they sat down. As I sat there enjoying the music, I casually examined the flier. I realized it contained no actual information other than his name. When the woman returned to our table later, we got to talking. I told her I was leaving for New York state the next day.
“Oh! Take me with you!” she said with a smile, placing both hands on my arm.
“You don’t like Vermont?” I asked.
“Look at me,” she said, stepping back and holding her lace dress out to one side, “I’m a little flashy for Vermont.”
Michelle and her friend opted to head out early to get some ice cream, leaving Jake and me to watch the rest of the show and split a crepe. Near the end of the night I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I was leaving Jake said, “Wait until you see the hallway.” The long and zigzagging hallway to the bathroom was decorated with the sights – and sounds – of endangered species. The whole thing was painted floor to ceiling with tigers and birds and rhinos, and the sounds of the jungle played over hidden speakers.
When the show ended, Jake told me he wanted to go up to talk to Joshua. Jake runs a nearby ski resort and was planning on putting together a partnership with The Skinny Pancake where musicians like Joshua would play a gig at the restaurant followed by a gig at the resort the next night. Of course Jake adored Joshua so much that he suddenly became shy and couldn’t work up the courage to talk to the man. We left and Jake assured me that he thought it was better for him to talk directly with Joshua’s management.
That night at the apartment Jake and Michelle set up the futon couch for me and I got to take that much needed shower. I never got to see their house up near the resort, but I had much more fun hanging out with them than I would have were I left to my own devices. And it was nice to experience the people side of Vermont. The northeast has a way of being so liberal it’s conservative about it. There was public art on the streets, but it was very precise, very intentional – never chaotic. I came across a bench that instructed me not to sit for too long, since other people might want to use the bench. It was a piece of public service so concerned with serving the public that it was asking the public not to use it. I think I may head up to the area again someday to see the famous turning of the fall leaves and re-visit my new friends. Until then, it’s probably best that my time in Vermont was so short. I may be a little flashy for Vermont, too.