Posts Tagged With: ice cream

Vergood Times in Vermont

West again. From the land of low skies and moist air, the highlands of the northeast, we turned from the coast and puttered through central Maine and into New Hampshire. We took small, two-lane state highways and backcountry roads and found ourselves in a number of quiet, New Hampshire hamlets and at the shores of many a placid pond. The country was so green and arboreal that the desert travel from home through Texas seemed like a decades’ old memory.  The roads wound north and south and north again such that there was, in fact, no straight route from Bar Harbor to New York.  But as the sun climbed and hung and then began its descent again we got closer and closer to our destination.

White River Junction.

The name may mean nothing to many people. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century it was one of the most important railway junctions in the region. Now, though, at 2,200 people an uninquisitive traveler while passing through might not take notice of it. The sleepy town rests at the bottom of a steep valley, thick with trees and life and winding streams.  Though the middle of summer, we ached to see how beautiful it would be when winter came.

For me, though, the town is the home of the Center for Cartoon Studies.  “What?!” You say. “Yes,” I say “read on.”

The Center of Cartoon Studies, a place that, apparently, most locals don’t even know about. When we stepped into a grocery store for directions we were met with blank faces like we were speaking Rapa Nui. The manager, fortunately, had gone walking in the town before and gave us some quick directions. Under a railroad bridge and around a corner we found it, a street straight out of the depression with old department stores, a post office and a bar with a sign that read “OPEN” but may or may not have been referring to a day 15 years prior when it was in fact still open.

Why must you be so far and so expensive!?

And there, on the bottom floor of one of the old department stores, with a polished glass storefront and a clean black and white logo on the door, was the school. The sun had already fallen behind the valley walls and the streets were getting dark but I wanted a peek.  I ran across and peered in the window, the lights still on but the halls empty. Artwork hung on wires against the far wall. The door was locked. After a few moments of taking it in, realizing my family was tired and hungry, I turned to leave. But then I heard the door open and I swung around and bumped head-on into a tall, bespectacled man with thinning hair and thick brow.

I excused myself and spewed forth my interest in the school hoping to justify my awkwardly creeping about on the sidewalk. He recommended I come back the next day for a tour and then dismissed himself with a humble “I’m just an old guy who likes to draw.”  Later that night at a KOA, after we had set up camp, I was doing a little more research on the school when I saw the face of the man I met. James Sturm, epic cartoonist and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies! Just an old guy who likes to draw. Right.

The skies opened up on us that night and we swaddled ourselves and settled in for some rest. The next morning we returned to the CCS and I managed to slip in with a personal tour. It was like a movie, or a dream, or, dare I say, Heaven?

How can a place like this exist, a place dedicated to the study and pursuit of cartooning, where one can learn from and be mentored by people like James Sturm, Alec Longstreth and Jason Lutes?!  Everywhere around me was inspiration and hope and excitement, the nervous methamphetamine-like energy of creation. It felt safe and innocent and sweet, like childhood. It had been so long since I felt that purity of excitement over visiting a place. White River Junction is charming enough, with its old diners and coffee shops, cartoonists’ work pasted up on the walls, railroad tracks and stone masonry. CCS made it feel more home, somehow. A stranger in a strange land forgets their strangeness when they focus on the utterly familiar and endearing.

Vermont had more for us, though. As rain drizzled down on us we left the valley and wound our way over a flooded river and, by way of a pot-hole plagued dirt road, arrived at a farm.  We had heard about this place that offered free cheese, jam and honey tasting. In the workshop of an old farmhouse we were led from one cheese to the next. Old ladies and young girls worked side by side, preparing orders to be shipped round the country. We picked up some genuine Vermont maple syrup, some wholesome cheese, and some jelly and said goodbye to a young cow tied up outside.

Are you kidding, Vermont? You keep getting better and better!

On we went, further into the wooded country, stopping for some cookies and a baguette from the King Arthur flour company, and veering north for a spell, through Montpelier. I somehow expected more from a state capitol. It was a beautiful little town, charming streets and buildings, clean and green with the sheen of fallen rain (you like that rhyming?). It definitely seemed like a nice place to live and put-put about but it’s hard to compare it to Sacramento or Atlanta. Maybe that’s why I liked, unassuming as it was. But at any rate, we kept on until we ended up (somehow, I have no idea how, really it was just a coincidence, we had no idea, just kinda happened) at the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, VT!

He’s only sleeping because he can’t smell ice cream being made yet.

( Before )Sample Time!
Flavor Graveyard-Never knew of it but glad it’s there
( After )See the look of madness in her eyes?

The tour was straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Bright murals lit up every wall. There were candies and statistics and souvenirs and history timelines and videos and ICE CREAM! At the end of the tour, having seen the conveyor belts and mixers and flavor dispensers, we got our samples. Never having been a fancy-ice cream fan I was hooked immediately. The gusty, wet weather outside did nothing to dampen our excitement over our ice cream. Even Eli had his first lick. His pupils dilated and a siren popped out of the top of his head, AAAOOOOOOOOGGGAAAA!!! And he was off! He ran around and around and swung under the hand rails and up and down the ramp.

Eliot loves flattened-penny souvenirs

When the ice cream ran its course we got back into Captain Kiwi and started thinking about where to bed down for the night. We were met on the highway with beautiful, thick, grey clouds and serene sloping hills. Everything about the state made us sigh with relief. It was so good to be somewhere so beautiful. When would we have ever come here? What would have brought us out of the comfort zone of Pasadena to say “Let’s go to Vermont”? We were so happy to be where we were, with each other in our little bus, puttering down the highway.

On the Highway

We ended up, that night, at a small state park hidden in the backcountry and accessible by more than a few twists and turns of dirt roads and narrow streets. The first impression was “We will die here, tonight.” It was that kind of a woods. But after meeting the camp hosts and parking and throwing some dinner together we fell into a comfortable peace.  The isolation was cathartic, the silence of the woods, broken but for a gust of wind or pattering of rain, was like a warm blanket over our spirits.  We awoke and were only slightly surprised by the beauty that surrounded us in the dense forest.  Eliot jumped out and played on the wet grass, we ate breakfast and poured ourselves some coffee.

Captain Kiwi was packed and prepped. Before we left, though, we went on a short walk, chasing Eliot through a field of open grass, feeling the crisp wet air on our faces. (Not to say we didn’t have moments when Eli was crying and throwing fits, when we were scared a mountain lion would attack us as we came out of the bathroom, or when we tried to reassure ourselves that the bus wouldn’t tip over in the night…but as a whole this is the experience we are left with, what was imprinted on our hearts and what we will remember as having more value.)  The Captain rolled on and we returned to the highway.

Goodbye Vermont
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Father’s Day in Lancaster, PA

We cleansed our palate from the sour taste of Baltimore with a drive into the Pennsylvania farm country.  We had hoped to see the beauty of the Lancaster countryside, to experience Amish culture as much as we could, and to have a genuine experience, to see the Amish people as people living an intentional and spiritual way of life and not as targets of tourism. But we realized as the daylight slipped from our grasp and settled on the western horizon that these hopes may not have been fulfilled. It was Saturday after all, and we had spent most of the day already driving aimlessly through the city of Lancaster looking for something interesting while simultaneously trying to track down a random $3 part for the Volkswagen. Disappointed by both, we were directed northeast and as our stomachs rumbled we realized we were getting closer.  We pulled over and ate at a restaurant advertising good ol’ Dutch food. Eliot giggled with delight at his first sight of a horse drawn buggy.  On our way out to the van another buggy rolled by and Eliot and Jamie gave them a wave. An arm reached out and waved back.

We piled back into the van and headed further into town, noticing window after window of CLOSED signs.  The next day was Sunday and we realized that any chance we might have had to meet and connect with anyone was probably gone.  Jamie was disappointed. The quiet town was falling quieter and we hadn’t even thought about where we would be staying that night in the sparsely populated Lancaster area. A soft and gentle glow spread across the road ahead, the way only the light from an ice cream shop can do. When in such a mood and in such a situation, sit and eat ice cream.  So we did.

We sat on the steps out front and thought about what to do next, enjoying the peacefulness of the quiet street and fading light.  Then a small Amish family, walked past into the shop, their infant daughter in hand, and we smiled at each other and said hello. On their way back out, they stopped and asked if that was our van parked around the corner. The husband said that he was looking for us after he saw it and said that they had ridden by earlier when we were at the restaurant and waved.  We chatted a little more and then they invited us back up the hill to watch fireworks with them. There was a town culture festival that night and in the nearby park hundreds of youth were gathered to watch the sky light up with fire. But there we were a few minutes later on blankets in the parking lot of the town library, waiting for the show to begin. In the time that passed we all got to know each other.  Elias and Linda grew up in the area, had large families all around them and a large family, themselves.  We told them about our trip and where we were headed and how we lived out of our van. Then we told them about where we were thinking of staying that night.
“Wal-Mart most likely. Don’t really know.”
“Oh, well, why don’t you stay with us? We’d feel much better knowing you were parked out by our barn than in Wal-Mart.”
I didn’t see that coming. At that point I was only thinking about our family having a safe comfortable place to spend the night and I was grateful for the hospitality.
We spent the rest of the evening talking about everything from our families and our faith to our work and the state of Lancaster county.

It was nice to just sit with good people after all the traveling we had done and just enjoy the moment, wherever that was and wherever that took us.
After the show, though, that took us down the hill and into the park where Amish youth, most of them in Rumspringa, were hanging around. We picked up a few more of Elias and Linda’s children and took them back to their buggy.  What struck me that night and the next day as I spoke to Elias was how incredibly Same we all are. From the madness of southern California, the fast-paced car and movie-influenced culture, to the hills and valleys of Lancaster county, rural and fertile, our children are children. Our teens are teens.  And as we age and grow and adopt labels and clothe ourselves in the titles of Us or Them, beneath it all we are really the same people striving for goodness, struggling against temptation, rising above or succumbing to adversity.

As we spoke in their house the next morning, breakfast cooking in the kitchen and their girls playing with Eliot in the living room, we learned so much about how exactly Same we were.  In any demonination there are expectations and rules and those that see beyond those guiding principles to what the faith really leads them toward and then there are those who substitute the path for the destination. Labels fade and clothing blurs as real connections are made between people.  We were welcomed into their home and shown the warmth of a living breathing family. And that is what they were to us. A family, not a label. We were taken on a drive through the countryside, Elias showing us the points of significance in his valley, explaining Amish life and practice. We were taken next door to his brother and his brother’s family, and then one door down for his father and mother’s house.  At some point during the day plans were made for a picnic down by the creek between their homes.  As we walked down the narrow path we saw a sign the girls had made, “Happy Father’s Day,” and a table for food.  We sat down as the whole family joined us from across the fields, there in the shade of trees by the creek, carved with the names of their children. A fire was built and by the end of the meal it was a S’more manufacturing fire. S’mores.

We couldn’t be with our own families on Father’s Day. In fact, we couldn’t be much further from them. But in the shade of those trees, with the sound of laughter, children splashing in the creek, and the smoke taking turns drifting into each person’s eyes, at least it felt a bit like home. We were privileged guests in this family’s world.

Like any chapter, though, this one was ending and as the sun slowly fell we realized we would have to move on. We said our goodbyes to people we had known for less than 24 hours but whom had become genuine friends and pulled off the dusty road back to the pavement. Our hearts were heavy and our minds were still trying to grasp what we had just been given. The road had long ago become a refuge for cloudy thoughts and unripened conclusions so it would be there we would have to let it process.

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Why isn’t Virginia called East Virginia?

From the small towns of North Carolina and on into the wooded hills of Virginia, rain settled over the road.  The clouds took turns drip-dropping their seeds across the countryside as they passed. We took our first stop at Williamsburg, a colonial town not unlike Old Town San Diego or a Universal Studios set, but real. Almost.  But for the presence of Coke, Sprite and Dr. Pepper on tap behind a few old timey wooden refreshment stands it might have been believable. Something in me couldn’t help but see the 17 year old behind the get-up, the one who would throw his buckled shoes in the back of his Toyota Camry when he got off work, and speed off to meet friends at the beach, while The Arctic Monkeys boomed from his stereo.  And a colonial bakery should have fresh, homemade-tasting goodies, right? Not so in the 1700’s. Back then they bought their cookies and brownies from the day-old tray in the supermarket bakery like everyone else.  We walked the soggy streets in the mist and humidity until we saw enough.

Westward to the mountains

We headed northwest and climbed ever so higher into the Appalachians. The country stretched its arms, let out a yawn, and welcomed us with that tired, squinty-eyed smile that it’s known to offer travelers. It nodded hello again and again as we passed through small town after smaller town, populations decreasing as the elevation increased. The hills became twisting, curving mountains and Captain Kiwi shifted into lower gears. Then we were at the gates of Shenandoah National Park, a secret among National Parks if ever there was one.

Sperryville Entrance

We turned and drove south onto Skyline Drive toward our campsite.  It might have been the glow of dusk, it might have been the music on the radio, or it might have been something completely Other, greater and more wonderful than ourselves, but the place was magic.  The setting sun cast long shadows through the woods, where the ferns and brush were thick and soft.  The road straddled cliff on one side and sloping hill on the other.  We passed lookout after lookout, catching glimpses of worn and ancient peaks across the valley, storm clouds heavy in the distance. And then suddenly there was an open field and the turnoff for our site.

Skyline Drive

Forest through the trees

We claimed a spot and paid our fees and hurried back to the general store for supplies before they closed. We parked and hurried past two gnarly looking travelers resting on a picnic table, beards thick and clothes damp and dirty, their backpacks at their feet. As we came out a few minutes later with a new sticker for the bus and some snacks we passed by the table. Something made me want to stop. They didn’t seem like just campers.
“Where you guys coming from?”
“Georgia” one of them said, like the state itself was just the town around the bend. We all got talking and found out they were hiking the Appalachian Trail. The whole thing, from its one end in Springer Mountain, Georgia, to its other in Mount Katahdin, Maine. 2184 miles. They were about two months into the hike with 3 months to go.  We couldn’t have been more excited to talk to these two, sharing perspectives about traveling, their experiences on the trail to date, their preparation. Pancho taught in Asia for a while to save up money while Dane, or Great Dane, his travel companion, only saved up for a month. It’s a surprisingly cheap endeavor, we learned, to do the AT.  Pancho told me that hikers earn nicknames or claim one for themselves on the trail. Great Dane is originally from Denmark while Pancho earned his because of his repeated and resourceful use of his rain protector.  He shared how just the day before he stripped down and hiked with only it as his covering because of the rain and the ravaging effect that moisture and friction can have on a person’s thighs. We spoke about the Pacific Crest Trail, about Dane’s experience on the Camino De Santiago de Compostela, our hopes for future travels, and what possibly lay ahead for us all.

Pancho and his shoes.

Dane and his lolly

Dane and his lolly.

You could tell they were good. Souls with that spark, not content to wait or to drift but to pursue and pursue and rage, rage against the dying of the light. We shared ice cream with them until, satisfied with the connection we had made and each of us eager to get comfortable for the night, we bid each other well on our respective journeys.  I hoped, secretly, to cross paths with them again, to hear how their journey ended, to hear if their journey ended. I hoped that ours would crisscross and weave around theirs and those of others like a spider web spun in the branches of a tree.

We made it back to camp after catching the surreal sight of a dear playing with a black kitten in the parking lot and then we cooked dinner. We made s’mores on our stove and let the day settle on our minds.  The clouds that skirted the peaks of the mountains earlier in the day had crept closer and closer as the sun set so that as I went out to brush my teeth I saw a massive thunderhead formed in the distance and the sky between it and the trees was an eerie white against the deep blue of the night.  The thunderhead lit up, miles and miles wide, and again and again. Thunder rolled like a freight train in the distance.  I told Jamie and the two of us with Eliot sat out on the road and watched, silent and rapt with awe. The clouds morphed and grew toward us, first lighting up like lampshades and then exposing the giant streaks of lightning beneath as they traveled across the sky.  We were powerless and microscopic compared to those clouds, that storm coming closer. We were nothing.

But in the great scheme of things, neither was it. It was a tiny speck of cloud mass on the face of this planet. The heaviness of that sense of perspective both sank and lifted my heart.  We are nothing but we are so much, each of us an individual. So much has been given to us and so much is possible.  We are possible.

Eli’s view from the top.

[Godspeed and blessings, Pancho and Great Dane.]

E.D.

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