Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Enjoy Every Sandwich

When I was a little boy, my grandfather would make me sandwiches. I would sit at the table and watch him prepare them with ritualistic reverence that at the time I thought was unique to him alone. He used Pepperidge Farms white bread and he carefully cut off the crusts with a huge knife that was stained black with age. The crusts were set aside, to be fed to the ducks at a local pond later. Cains mayonnaise was spread on and scraped off, the excess returned to the jar. I don’t remember him using mustard. A floppy leaf of iceberg lettuce, a thin piece of ham from the deli, and cheese, from a time before cheese was extruded from cellophane. The sandwich was cut into triangles and served with Lay’s potato chips and iced tea that he made in a big pitcher filled with lemon and orange slices and brewed by the sun while sitting on the railing of the front porch.

This story came up recently as I sat in the breakfast room drinking my first cup of coffee. It wasn’t 6 a.m., yet I was joined by a recently retired gentleman traveling with his children and grandchildren. He was a dedicated coffee drinker, polishing off several mugs long before breakfast began at 8. He tasted his first cup like a sommelier, aerating the coffee with a discreet sip, humming his satisfaction. We both agreed that the first cup of coffee in the quiet of the early morning was a simple pleasure in life that should not be overlooked. That’s when I told him the story of my grandfather and his sandwiches. He nodded solemnly and sipped, perhaps thinking of his own sandwiches.

Sandwiches have been on my mind. My oldest son and I traveled down to the flatlands to help my mom move into her new apartment. It was a long drive, and since neither of us are chatty, we simply enjoyed the ride and the music. I took the opportunity to foist my entire collection of Warren Zevon on him, sharing the wry and sardonic master of stories and unexpected chord progressions with a college student.

Zevon’s demise from mesothelioma was well documented, from his appearances on David Letterman’s show, to a VH1 documentary, to his final album, studded with guests like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. But Zevon remained resolute to the end, and when Letterman asked him if he’d learned anything about life as a result of his sickness, Zevon said, “How much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”

Ever since I heard Zevon say that, I’ve thought about my grandfather, and that first cup of coffee, and the forgotten art of feeding ducks crusts of bread. I lost one of those little things this week when my old friend, Damon Kashar, died unexpectedly. He wasn’t little to look at—a big man, with a big personality—but we came of age together, mostly because we shared lots of little things. We shared lots of sandwiches.

We spent lots of time adorning the paper covers of our school books with the logos of our favorite bands. Mine were The Doors, The Beatles, and Bruce Springsteen. Damon’s were Human Sexual Response, the Jim Carroll Band, and Soft Cell. He routinely mocked my mainstream tendencies, and I have him to thank for becoming a musical adventurer. Our adventures weren’t confined to music, however. Once we skipped school and drove up to Notre Dame Academy in Hingham, where we joined by a few like-minded schoolgirls in plaid skirts. We spent the day in Boston eating food from street vendors. The whole thing was Damon’s idea; it was one of his sandwiches.

Sitting here in the middle of life I realize I might not be in the middle anymore. I make sandwiches for my sons, when they’re home, and my dad, when he visits. I’m glad for the sandwiches I’ve been able to enjoy—the sandwiches of my grandfather, the ones guests share with me here at the inn, the sandwiches Damon made for me—and I’m sad that I’ve missed out on some. But I’m not going to wait around for the right moment to have one. I’m going to take Warren Zevon’s advice: I’m going to enjoy every sandwich, and I’m going to keep you in my heart for a while.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Rediscovering an Old Friend

In October, 1990, Chantal and I went to a bike shop somewhere in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. It was a cool, crisp night, close to Halloween, and we were going there to buy new bicycles. But these weren’t just any bikes; these were Giant Sedonas, mountain bikes that cost almost $350 each. The bikes were coming with us to France.

We were on a sort of spending spree, making sure we had the essentials needed to survive the next few years in Europe: bikes, skis, stereo equipment, music, hiking boots, chewing tobacco. My father bought me an internal frame backpack. I couldn’t figure out how to bring my pickup truck, a 1986 Ford F-150 with Wrangler radial tires, Keystone chrome rims, a sunroof, and a hose-out interior, so that was for sale. But the bikes were the most important thing for us.

We ended up in Brighton because that was the only Giant dealer around. We had done some research and learned that Giant was a good, middle-of-the-road choice for us. Cannondales, retailing around $600, were out of the budget. And the used market was almost non-existent: mountain biking was in its infancy, and the Internet was still a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye.

In France we lived in the region of Alsace, in the foothills of the Vosages Mountains, which are similar in size, shape, and age to the Green Mountains, except in Alsace the foothills are covered in vineyards that pump out some of France’s best least know wines. I like to refer to Alsatian wines as the Charles Portis of wines.

We rode our bikes everywhere we went in Europe, and I spent a lot of time riding the well-marked network of hiking trails in Alsace, never with a helmet, which I paid for dearly on a couple of occasions. But our bikes were as good as advertised, and we accessed tons of territory.

Since moving to Vermont, Chantal and I have been primarily road bikers. I’m not sure how this happened, but I do know that when we moved to Stowe in 2000, mountain biking was truly a wild experience. That’s where Rick Sokoloff comes in. For years Rick and a dedicated group of bikers had carved out their own network of trails wherever they could make them in the forests of Stowe. Soon a local mountain bike club popped up, and more trails were built. And now Stowe is one of the premier mountain biking destinations in the country, if not the world.

We recently had a chance to connect with Rick because he launched a new company, 4 Points VT, offering mountain biking lessons, guided tours, and brewery tours. Rick invited us, along with several of our innkeeping Mafiosi, up for a two-hour lesson and tour of some trails up at Trapp Family Lodge. Though I’d been mountain biking since the early days of suspension-less bikes, I still learned a ton in the clinic Rick put on for us. And the riding was gorgeous. Though there had been a downpour just a few hours earlier, the trails were dry, thanks to great engineering and planning. The grounds of the Trapp Family Lodge are spectacular, and seeing them on mountain bike is one of the best investments you can make.

Chantal and I would like to thank both Rick and Trapp FamilyLodge for hosting us. And we highly recommend engaging Rick for a tour. His knowledge and skills are peerless, and you won’t be disappointed. And it was great to rediscover an old passion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Le Tour: Not Like a Box of Chocolates

Writers employing simile invite danger into their prose. The temptation to cobble two items together to paint a vivid picture for the reader often leads to vague and ridiculous bedfellows. Despite the cultural touchstones of leaders like Forrest Gump (“Life is like a box of chocolates…”), simile used without forethought descends into the absurd: Life is nothing like a box of chocolates, which have the varieties printed on the inside of the cover, for the very purpose of avoiding the unknown that Mr. Gump and his mother were trying to explain. So when I say that innkeeping is like the Tour de France, I understand fully the pitfalls awaiting.

I’m guessing most readers have never watched the Tour de France—or, as it’s referred to in France, Le Tour. On the surface, grand tour bike racing (where racers spend up to three weeks racing a single race) may appear to many as a ridiculous way to contest sport. From 10,000 feet, it looks like the same thing over and over: Preying Mantis-shaped humans climb aboard space ships disguised as bicycles, then spend most of their time huddled in a great mass, until they’re 300 meters from the finish, when they all start sprinting, and after 200 kilometers somebody wins.

Looking at innkeeping from the same time and distance produces not dissimilar results: people check in, the innkeepers educated them on the local offerings, breakfast is served the next morning, people depart, room are cleaned…and then people check in again. While the cycle for innkeepers is not three weeks, it’s still a cycle: winter, summer, autumn; check-in, sleep, eat breakfast; lather, rinse, repeat.

But drill down into these two things and differences are nuanced, at best. Le Tour—and its two other grand tour bookends, the Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta a Espana—is one of the most human cultural events to happen in sport. Riders are on teams, and the teams race together and against each other year after year. During the race, riders converse and plot with each other—even if they’re not on the same team. For instance, during one of the stages this year, Daniel Teklehaimanot, an Eritrean riding for team MTN-QHUBKA, won the right to wear the Polka Dot Jersey signifying the best climber so far During one stage that featured three climbs, all with points at stake, Teklahaimanot was discussing strategy with the two other cyclists who were in the chase for that jersey. After some conversation between them while riding, the two other riders deferred to Teklahaimanot, allowing him to become the first African to win the King of the Mountain Jersey during a stage of Le Tour.

Cooperation like that is not unknown among innkeepers. When the health inspector is in town, phone lines blaze with warnings between innkeepers: “Hose down the kitchen, get the goats back outside, and for God’s sake, put some pants on! The health inspector is coming!” Assuring full occupancy is also another area of synchronicity, at least in this town: “I’m full for next weekend, and I just got a call—want me to send them your way?” the same holds true with undesirable guests: “I just had a guy walk out, and I think he’s coming your way. Turn out the lights and lock the door.”

Le Tour and innkeeping are alike within the narrative element, too. This year I’ve been regaled again with the EuroSport commentary of Carlton Kirby and Sean Kelly. Kirby is a distinguished professional broadcaster who can handle the most nimble of pronunciations. Kelly is a retired Irish cyclist whose lilting delivery provides a soft and solid bass line upon which Kirby dances and parries. Some of my favorite lines from Kirby:

  • ·      On the disposition of a cyclist whizzing down an Alp at 80 kilometers an hour: “Oh, and it looks like several riders have run into a herd of goats meandering across the road. Well, Sean, after a tussle like that, some of the riders look chuffed, not to mention completely knackered.”
  • ·      On local fishing opportunities: “Sean, this is the place to go if you fancy tickling a trout.” (Full disclosure: I thought “tickling a trout” was a sexual metaphor.)
  • ·      On the Tourmalet ski area condos, in the Pyrenees: “Who on earth signed off on that as an architectural structure? I know it’s supposed to mimic the mountains, but it looks like a collection of shoe boxes, Sean.”
  • ·      On history: “This particular village was home to a local conflict in the fifteenth century called The War of the Maidens, which turned out to be a bit of a transvestite tussle. I don’t think our riders will face any such sartorial schisms today, do you, Sean?”

To his credit, Kelly never rises to the bait, remaining calm and focused on the race: “Well that may be true, but I think Alberto Contador would be happy just to survive this climb intact.”

The breakfast room hosts similar declamations from innkeepers imparting local knowledge.

  • ·      To the seriously out of shape, flip flop-wearing guests who want to hike Mt. Mansfield up the Hell Brook trail: “That ain’t gonna happen. Here’s a coupon for the Toll Road.”
  • ·      To the TripAdvisor-reading guest who thinks he knows what the best restaurant in town is: “Didn’t you hear about the chef’s recent divorce? And his recent bout with the flu? And that incident with the goats in the kitchen?” (He wasn’t part of our phone tree.)
  • ·      To the guests who think they are going to drive over Smugglers Notch in the winter because their GPS told them they could: “Take some extra blankets.”

How much more could Le Tour be like innkeeping? Your imagination is the only limit. But I will tell you this: goats are probably involved. And they won’t be using “like” or “as.”