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.”

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Drive

The State of Maine has recently crept back into my consciousness. With a son attending the Maine Maritime Academy, occasional 6-hour jaunts from Stowe to Castine have popped into the GPS of my institutional memory. I know Maine. I went to the University of Maine at Orono, where I lived in Stephen King’s dorm room in Hancock Hall. I learned to hunt deer while staying in Albion Smart’s cabin, the “U-Needa Rest,” on Boyd Lake, in LaGrange. I sold my first short story, “The Deer Men,” to Harry Vanderweide at The Maine Sportsman. I drove a 1977 Chevy Malibu named “State o’ Maine,” after the character of a bear in John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire. One of my college roommates once said, “Once Maine gets in you, you can never get it all the way out.”

Making the drive from Vermont to Maine again, I was reminded of the state’s diversity: diversity of geography, diversity of weather, and diversity of people. It’s not that the people of Maine are racially diverse; they’re individually diverse. Each resident is a different nation unto himself. But what impressed me the most was the state’s similarity to France.

Americans generally think of France as a single country. But it’s really a collection of regional duchies, consolidated fiefdoms stitched together under the flag of La Republique: Brittany, Alsace, Burgundy, the Alps, Lyon, Paris, the Basques…they all have their own geography, culture, and language. Maine itself was named after a region in France. And to drive through Maine is to be reminded of the differences within its borders.

We enter the state on Route 2, in the western mountains, a boreal place with deceptive peaks that look inviting, but are steeper than their evergreen-cloaked slopes display. Bethel is a place we considered moving to, a mountain town adorned with the quirks of the ski area up the road: plenty of pizza joints, some former manufacturing, lots of lumber, a railroad, upscale digs mixed with quirky guest houses.

From there we head down Route 26 to West Paris. The land between there and the Lakes Region is what I call Stephen King country. The novels Pet Sematary, Christine, and The Tommyknockers could be set in any one of the towns along this stretch of road, where dust and desolation conspire with the imagination. We average 60 miles per hour along deserted, sparsely habited lands, places that seem to be populated with more schismatic churches (“The Church of the Fellowship of the Second Coming Welcomes All to Worship, Sundays at 11AM”) than supplicants.

The capitol district sits in the valley of the Kennebec River, one of the greatest logging and lumber waterways in the history of the earth. Beyond that, due east, lies the coast, the brackish breeze announcing its presence long before we see the commercial fleet bobbing in Belfast Bay. Here are the hotels and gift shops of Searsport, a taste of the Maine tidal coastline that stretches for 3,500 miles, from New Hampshire to New Brunswick, as jagged and craggy and tough and beautiful as the people who live there.

And, finally, the coast itself. The broad waters of Penobscot Bay surround the head of land called Castine. The wind snaps up Pleasant Street, past the only two places to get a drink in town, Danny Murphy’s and Dennett’s, past the Pentagoet and the Castine Inn, past the athletic field, head on into the new science building. The roads are ripped up for construction this year, but we tiptoed past the backhoe, down to the dock, overlooking the Bowdoin, in the shadow of the T.S. Maine, which stands for Training Ship, not Technical Sergeant Garp, the man who gave his seed to give life to T. S. Garp in John Irving’s The World According to Garp.

As I learned long ago, you never really leave Maine. You go away for a while, and it grows inside you, occasionally blossoming, sometimes into fiction, sometimes into a son who chooses to spend part of his life there. You leave, but like my roommate said, you never get Maine out of you.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The End of Something

We sat in lawn chairs in the muddy parking lot, gazing up at the Front Four, and the Nosedive, bits of Perry Merrill, and the bottom half of Gondolier. Cold beers cooled our hands, recently released from sweaty gloves, recently released from a season of pole plants, recently released from computer keyboards and toilet brushes. Around us, grills smoked, centering groups of men and women encamped like a hippie army charged with leading dogs and Frisbees into the twilight of the another season of skiing on Mt. Mansfield.

We skied through spring snow that showed no signs of corning, before descending to our tailgates and our coolers and the rest of our years. Conversations moved easily from food to work, dissipating into punctuated silence whenever a skier in colorful costume beat the shadows down the mountain, or when the woman in the truck across the parking lot stripped off her ski gear, down to her underwear, before re-suiting and drifting off to one of the clutches of boozy friendship.

We circled the makeshift kitchen, a Coleman stove simmering chili and a portable grill flaring from a collection of rendering meat. Bags of chips littered the space between the circle of chairs, and dogs visited the edge of our meals and fires, reenacting a 10,000-year old ritual. The food and talk and spring air mingled into a perfume that suggested something beyond the observable universe, something beyond imagination or inspiration, something we hungered for, our full mouths a poor substitute.

We watched the sun drop behind the ridge of the mountain and felt the temperature plunge five degrees in five minutes and heard vehicle doors slamming shut across the encampment and smelled the last of the smoke fires twisting up into the chilling air. The mountain had won again; the mountain always wins, and a steady stream of cars began moving down into the valley, past the lone cop posted by the resort entrance, past the hulking structures of the soft side, bumping over newly minted frost heaves, where some would peel off into muddy parking lots for more beer, trying to delay the melting runoff that rushed under their feet, as another season, another religion, another passion, loses the contest with time.

Photo courtesy of innkeeper extraordinaire Tom Barnes.