Unlike last summer, I spent a large portion of this one traveling to and from New York. Before I left for the first time though, I was lucky enough to go to the old Dominos factory in Brooklyn to see Kara Walker’s heartbreaking sculptures on the sugar trade that flourished using slavery.
It was a moving exhibit, marred only by the constant selfies that many of the visitors took as they horsed around and posed alongside these tributes to a people on whose backs this empire was built. Sigh.
On a less sombre note, some friends and I also drove up to a beach on Long Island to enjoy the first taste of the summer sun. There was no lifeguard on duty and the beach was pebbly, but the upside was that we had it to ourselves for the most part. After picnicking in the sun and walking gingerly along the kelpy water’s edge, (and availing ourselves of the swings), we were happy to rinse off in the boardwalk showers.
We continued on to Mattituck, which had the requisite bookstore, specialty food store, upmarket cafes, a pet store, and a classy clothing store. (The pet clothes probably cost more than the people clothes, though I cannot swear to this as the former was closed.) Long Island is also vineyard country so we stopped by a winery, only to find it closed for a private event. Determined, we kept going till another one came into view. The friendly staff offered us some flights of local wine (not free) and we mixed and matched their products. My nose and palate for wine are fairly limited but I didn’t spit any out, which should count as a win.
Once the summer got going, I left for a trip across the pond on Air Berlin, a budget airline that has several connections from the East Coast to Germany and then to other parts of Europe. For the next month, I tramped around Greece, Italy, France and Spain with a convertible backpack that weighed under 20 pounds. As much as I enjoyed wandering the ruins and relics of Europe, however, I was glad to return to New York, especially since it was a mild summer and the garbage didn’t stink as much as it usually does.
For the following month, I stayed home, going into Manhattan just twice for Summer Streets. On all Saturdays, the festival was offering walking tours of the city, which are my favorite way to see any site. I joined one about the Lower East Side and Five Points led by the Municipal Art Society of New York and one by the NY chapter of the American Institute of Architects on significant buildings on Park Avenue and Park Avenue South between Grand Central Station and Union Square. I am enamored of cities in general and the urban archaeology of places like New York reveals the city as if through a historical stereoscope.
I also love learning about the hidden parts of the city, or the ones we overlook. For example, one of the guides told us that Grand Central terminal stretches below Park Avenue from 42nd to nearly 90th street. That’s insane!
The six on the clock above the terminus is actually a window and is opened periodically and one can actually put one’s head out through it, so large is the clock itself. There are infrequent tours of all the nooks and crannies of Grand Central that are usually off limits to the casual visitor; you have to know somebody who knows somebody and can get you on one so you can descend twelve stories deep into the basement, go high up along the catwalks, and crawl poke your head out of the clock.
And speaking of clocks, the tour also explained what those rolling numbers on the south side of Union Square Park mean–they’re a digital clock that can be read forwards and backwards (and not the national debt, as I’d always assumed. Whew.)
After all this immersion in the city, toward the end of August, a friend and I drove up to a rural stretch of Vermont for a self-designed writing retreat at a cabin she had found.
The drive from here to the “North East Kingdom” takes just over six hours, though we took longer because we stopped for lunch in Northampton, MA, and then loaded up on groceries at the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier (pronounced Mont-peelier in these here parts). While we kept our noses to our laptops for much of the week, our occasional excursions were surprisingly varied, thanks to my friend’s intrepid searching of the interwebs. A walk in the area led to interesting sights
but we also drove around dirt roads and sleek highways, with our first stop at the Von Trapp Family Lodge and resort in Stowe. I had no idea the family had settled here. I suppose I had imagined them all hanging out in Switzerland after that long walk but apparently, that’s not quite how it happened. The Lodge offers history tours for those of us misled by the movie, so we signed up for one, and the garrulous guide walked us through hairy coo meadows (with poop)
and up and down the sides of the resort as he explained the true story of the Von Trapps. The property even has a small cemetery for the family, including the Captain, Maria, and some of the children.
We followed up the nostalgia with a trip to the original Ben and Jerry’s factory
where we saw another graveyard–for old flavors
and got a tour (as well as some free ice-cream). You can buy ice-cream as well, of course, and though we stuck with the smallest size advertized, it was a bit too much of a good thing for me. At some point in the afternoon, we managed to balance out the sweet by going to the Cabot Cheese store and tasting about a dozen or more kinds of Cabot cheeses, spreads, and salsa. It’s important to maintain a healthy balance of flavors, I think.
Burdened by food, we then drove out to the Little River State Park and did a section of the history hike. It takes you to various scattered sites that mark homesteads from the 18th and 19th century, including one that is still standing. It’s a peaceful area, the scattered remains of farming implements and homes testifying to human stubbornness and nature’s implacability.
Having worked at least some of the afternoon’s gluttony out over the course of the two hour trek, we then headed to a swanky restaurant called Hen in the Wood, only to be turned away with the gentle suggestion that we need to make reservations three months in advance. Guess that shows us New Yorkers not to assume everything outside the five boroughs is a provincial backwater! Instead, we ate salads, local beef–naturally, it being Vermont–and quiches at a smaller, less pretentious cafe called the Bees Knees, while being serenaded by the local chanteur.
On another outing, we braved the rain to stand in line for bread at the Plainfield farmer’s market because one of the stalls apparently sells phenomenal sourdough, which is soon to be just a legend. After the purchase, we dawdled a little in the tiny downtown, looking at the cemetery,
and at books and posters in the local bookstore, but soon found ourselves scarfing down the bread (along with Vermont cheese) in the car like a couple of junkies. It was pretty amazing and we were glad that we bought two loaves so we could keep our carb addiction fed for a couple of more days.
On the weekend, we made our way to Pete’s Greens, a farm that has been growing rapidly over the last dozen years. Thanks to a summer celebration, this was a Saturday that they offered farm tours and free food, and we availed ourselves of both.
Not content with one farm tour, we then proceeded to Sterling College, a working Liberal Arts school that focuses on environmental science/farming. We’d learnt that they were offering a tour of the campus (including the farms) and pizza-making lessons at their outdoor oven. Despite having stopped for a Creemee
we could not pass up the pizza. So led by three friendly students and staff members, we walked all over Sterling’s property, including their cattle meadows, vegetable and fruit gardens, pig enclosures and rabbit barns, and rounded off the afternoon by loading up their in-house ingredients onto their in-house pizza dough for dinner.
For a quiet stretch of Vermont, it had a lot to recommend it. Not least of the area’s attraction is that it was the site of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry,
an absurdist mystery that we were able to rent from the Montpelier video rental store–there are still some of those stores left!
To complete the day, we ended up at the Greensboro Arts Alliance Writers Forum, held at the historic Lakeview Inn. For a nominal fee, there was a reception and readings by Gish Jen, David Huddle, and Lynn Stegner. It felt surreal to be sitting in this amazing house on a hill that afforded spectacular views of the sunset and listen to some extremely good writing.
We skipped out on the Open Mic portion of the evening so we could end on a high note!
The highlight of the trip was a visit to the famed Bread and Puppet theater in Glover, which offered a tour of the museum before its circus performance on Sunday. Led by Elka, one of the founders, we walked around the museum’s rich collection of puppets as she explained the art form and their use of it for political theater.
We then drove out to the grounds where the circus is held and baked in the sun while watching dozens of artists of all ages regale us with commentary on contemporary political and economic life while wearing the most incredible costumes. The main performance was followed by another one about events in Gaza, done on a peculiar scale that gave it the feel of a medieval pageant but with extraordinary resonance for our time.
I headed back to New York the following day, taking the Amtrak from Montpelier-Barre to Penn Station, a trip that takes about 8.5 hours. Luckily, there were no delays, and I was able to continue writing in the dining car (under the disapproving eye of the conductor who wanted me to free up the table for diners–I pretended I was one by nursing an enormous cup of tea.)
The train trip was the same day as the opening ceremony of the U.S Open Tennis championship, however, so I missed it, but was lucky to get reasonably priced seats the next day to Arthur Ashe stadium, which was hosting the first round matches of Roger Federer and Serena Williams.
Attending a Grand Slam to see the world’s best tennis players at a stadium that is less than 15 minutes away from home–it was a summer showstopper that would be hard to top.
So that was this year’s New York summer. As the planet tilts away from the sun and autumn is in the air, it feels important to catalog summer’s many stages, to recognize that seasons are how we measure out our lives. None of it should be a blur, just one more thing you photographed but can no longer remember. So wherever you spent your summer, I hope you take a moment to look at the photos you took, remember the chats you had with friends and family, recall the hours you spent in a hammock, or reminisce about the unhealthy food you ate at a state fair. Here’s wishing you summer memories that will warm you even in the cold of winter.