Monday, November 1, 2010

Expand Your View in Villa Grove, Colorado

When it starts turning cold, the mind naturally turns to all places warm. And in the high desert, the only places that stay warm in the winter are hot springs. Fortunately, they’re all over the place. You just have to know where to find them. (And then, when you do, you just have to be prepared to A) hike in and B) encounter possible nudity. Most are clothing optional.)

This summer a friend took me to Valley View Hot Springs in Villa Grove, a rural enclave in southern Colorado with one general store/restaurant (Villa Grove Trade, which has a great buffalo burger). It’s the kind of place you would never discover without an introduction. The springs themselves are high up in the mountains above Colorado’s San Luis Valley, an area best known for its potatoes as well as a fascinating little New Age town called Crestone, which has facilities for every major world religion.

But once you’re in the know about Valley View Hot Springs, it’s almost like you’re part of an incredibly devoted family. People who come here have been coming for years, as a ritual of relaxation and cleansing. The overnight camping rate is just $30. And, to ensure that the experience would never change, the owners converted the place into a public trust (the Orient Land Trust) that ensures a continuing set of stewardship practices and guest policies.

During the 4.5 hour drive from Albuquerque, my friend told me not only about the unique “public ownership” aspect of Valley View Hot Springs but also the magical and healing qualities of the spring water, which pours out of the mountainside in a series of descending pools. The thing is - you just can’t believe it until you experience it for yourself. But it IS unlike any other spring water I’ve encountered.

First, the water temperature (96-98 degrees) makes it so that the water feels like a second skin. It’s not too hot. It’s not too cold. It’s just right. It’s also incredibly silky and soft and soothing. But perhaps the most amazing thing is that as a result of all this, you never wrinkle, and you never feel like you have to get out. You could easily soak in the springs for hours without any issue – not even sunburn, as several of the pools have shaded areas.

That latter detail was quite imperative as I arrived at Valley View with a nasty case of sun poisoning. I had a number of worries about sun exposure as well as hot water being potentially irritating. But they all faded away along with all sense of time, stress and “the real world.” I headed for the shady corners of each pool, and the water truly did abate the itching and redness. Life soon eased into a lazy rhythm of soaking (moving from this pool to that pool), sleeping and eating.

Adding to the enchantment is the pristine campground. Under a canopy of trees, tame deer walk right up to you, and steaming brooks of hot spring water babble down the mountainside, creating a feeling of “Gorillas in the Mist.” We set up camp at the intersection of two streams, making for the most narcoleptic sleeping conditions of all time. I was ready for a nap anytime I approached our tent.

Impressively, the entire place (including the public bathrooms, showers and a number of rental cabins) is powered by harnessing the hydrothermal energy of these hot water streams. It’s off the grid and completely self-sufficient, not to mention low-impact. There’s a respectful understanding on the part of every guest, and no one would even think about leaving a piece of trash at their campsite.

Beyond using one of the complimentary “noodles” to free-float in one of the upper pools, another great way to take in the "Valley View" is from the swings, which allow you the giddy pleasure of feeling as free as a child as you gaze down on the vast valley below. You feel so incredibly far away from everything down there. And you are.

Friday, October 29, 2010

No Reservations Is One Thing. No Destination Is Another.

Traveling without a plan? C’mon now. If you know me well, or even if you know me a little, you’ll know I have never done such a thing. Or at least not willingly. I’m Type A, after all.

When I have a trip coming up, I research, research, research. Then I research some more. It’s partially out of some deep instinctual need to know what I’m doing (or ahem, shall we say be in control). But it’s also for pleasure. Honest. I love making lists of restaurants we might want to try. I like reading reviews on and I like getting oriented – and anticipating things.

(And, by the way, research shows that anticipation increases happiness – as well as what you gain from the overall travel experience. Don’t believe me? Check out this fascinating New York Times article called “But Does It Make You Happy?” The takeaway for me was that my alter ego Planny Plannerson is not something to be embarrassed about, but in fact a vital component to my happiness.)

That said, I confess that I have often longed to be one of those spontaneous travelers, the kind who just lets fate direct them. Who doesn’t stare at the map. Who doesn’t worry about where to sleep tonight – or at least not until nightfall. Who doesn’t use guidebooks. But who manages to find him/herself in the craziest situations. And thus, who comes homes with amazing stories that make jaws drop and bellies ache.

I guess all Type A’s long to be this person at times, and perhaps that explains the recent trend I’ve seen of “plan-less” travel journalism. In September, the New York Times began a monthly travel feature called “Getting Lost.” The idea is to plop yourself in a foreign destination with no maps, no GPS and zero research – and just see what happens. The first piece was “Lost in Tangier,” a seemingly perfect destination for confusion given its labyrinthine center. The problem? The writer ran into people he knew (and who knew Tangier quite well), and after that, he was no longer lost, I would argue.

But the second piece, “Lost in Ireland,” revealed greater challenges in the “purposefully lost” concept, given the isolation of traveling by car instead of foot. The writer barely interacted with anyone for the first three days and found loneliness setting in until he decided to just accept being alone. For me, this is the part I think I would really stink at. Being lonely on vacation sounds awful. I also don’t like the idea of missing out on something really sublime right around the corner – because I don’t know about it. This writer, for example, never found that classic Irish pub full of storytelling, singing men.

The Times series, however, invokes less anxiety than another article I read in Oprah magazine, which takes impulsive travel to a new extreme. It’s called “Traveling to Toyko Without a Map,” but it’s not just that the author took off without a map. She left home without a destination. She packed a bag, went to the airport and asked a stranger where she should go. The response was “Tokyo,” and thus, she bought a flight to Toyko. From there, she asked people on the plane where to stay, people at the hotel where to eat and so on. Every aspect of her trip was determined by the advice of others.

It’s a head-spinning idea, and of course, it’s only possible if you have the funds to buy a ticket anywhere last minute. But it really intrigued me. Would you find that elusive thing only a local could tip you off to? Is everything you need available from a random person on the street – and you just have to ask? Unfortunately, I doubt I have the cojones. I mean, what if your random stranger said a place where it might be dangerous to show up with no idea what you’re doing and no one around who speaks English? Those type of fears aside, there’s no doubt that kind of trip is going to be a story like no other. Maybe even a bestselling novel, later adapted into an award-winning film.

And that’s why I’ll always wish I could be that kind of traveler. And why I’ll always read these type of travel articles with keen interest and admiration. But let’s face it. I’m not that person. Which is why I have to run. I have research to do for an upcoming trip.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

It’s All Happening in Harlem

Boarding the shuttle from Boston to New York recently, I picked up a NY Times and settled in for the short flight. I was on the way to join my partner Kevin, who’s been working in Harlem on a renovation project. I’d become so jealous of all the fun he was having in this newly revitalized neighborhood that I wanted to check it out for myself. “It is so happening here,” he told me.

Well, wouldn’t you know, I flip to the Weekend section of the Times and spot an article called “Going Upscale Uptown,” a roundup of several hip new restaurants and bars that are bringing Harlem into the limelight. The excitement of Manhattan came flooding back, despite it being what I once called “the coldest of all my exes.” I hadn’t even arrived, and I was already plotting which spots to try.

That night, having forgotten all my city slicker instincts, I urged Kevin to hit up some of the places in the article. We walked over to Frederick Douglas Blvd. between 112th and 120th, the stretch featured in the article, only to find that everyone else in New York had read the article and decided to do the same thing for their Friday night. The places were packed. No tables open. Nowhere to stand. Yes, I should have known, but such things don’t happen in New Mexico. Crowds? Waits? Not things I think about anymore.

But in New York, you better think about it. So I did, and like a smart urbanite, we returned to one of the smallest spots, 67 Orange Street, in the middle of the week. Much better. We got seats at the bar (which actually afforded more room than the tiny table we tried first), ordered some appetizers and cocktails (the Brazilian Jig for me, The Emancipation for Kevin) and chatted with Karl Franz Williams, the owner, whose photo had been in the Times.

Life had been good for him that week – after the Times piece came out, he did four more interviews, he said. That’s good news for his two places – he also owns Society Coffee just a few blocks north, which has a very community-oriented vibe – and good news for Harlem. The word was out about the rebirth (depicted in the mural shown above), and everyone was showing up. Blacks, whites, Latinos, tourists. Lots of tourists. We kept seeing them everywhere we went.

In fact, we soon decided European tourists (particularly German) were more in the know about Harlem than we were. They had camped out at Yatenga, the very cool French bistro where we had planned to brunch on the patio and watch the African American Day Parade (pictured above), and they also knew about the Sunday afternoon Parlor Jazz series at pianist Marjorie Eliot’s apartment. A friend tipped us off and we arrived – along with all the Germans – to see Marjorie and a flutist/saxophonist make improvisational magic.

But I can tell you now exactly what the Europeans know. There is some seriously good eating and drinking to be done in Harlem these days. On the soul food front, I have to be a heretic, though. I say forget Sylvia’s, the famous restaurant where tour buses now frequent. I thought the Queen of Soul Food's Fried Chicken and Waffles were just okay. The cake-like cornbread was really the best part. Amy Ruth’s? Well, I can’t even say as the Sunday brunch line was so out-of-control, I refused to wait in it.

I can vouch for brunch at Melba’s (photo below), run by Sylvia’s niece. Melba serves chicken and waffles too, but she’s added a modern touch to everything from to her decor – sleek and sophisticated with a bopping jazz soundtrack – to her menu. She serves Mimosas and Mellinis, for example, and her cute mini waffles come with this insanely good strawberry butter. I opted for the Sweet Potato Pancakes, however, and I did not regret it. They were moist, heavenly and repeat-worthy. Kevin’s Salmon Croquette was also quite good (and better than Sylvia’s, he said.)

But the best meal I had in Harlem was at Zoma, an upscale Ethiopian restaurant next door to 67 Orange. We stumbled in without knowing anything about it. I’ve always thought Ethiopian food was interesting, and that the communal eating was fun, but this was my first experience with crave-worthy Ethiopian. Beside the delicious Doro Wett chicken, I can’t stop thinking about a vegetarian side dish we had called Shiro Wett – chickpeas, lentils and peas in a berbere sauce with “a multitude of spices.” The menu called it “Ethiopian comfort food,” and yes, it’s as comforting as mashed potatoes.

I know you don’t believe me ("chickpeas and lentils!?"), but it’s true. So if you ever find yourself at the top of Central Park, within five minutes walking distance of the many beautiful blocks of Harlem brownstones just to the north, stroll on up Fredrick Douglas Blvd. and see what I’m talking about. You will not leave hungry – nor will you fail to notice the incredible, diverse energy of this resurgent area.

Oh, and I'm sure you'll bump into some Europeans too (for proof, see the ones behind Kevin above). As a final parting shot, below is a photo of Kevin giving directions to some French tourists. They wanted to know where they could see some basketball being played. No, I am not joking. The racial cliché had us giggling the rest of the afternoon.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Budget Travel's Coolest Small Towns 2010

As a longtime Budget Travel subscriber, I've always been titillated by the magazine's annual "Coolest Small Towns in America" issue. And of course, now that I'm a recent transplant to a very small town myself (only 1,500 people), I'm even more keen.

But this year, for the first time, I am unfamiliar with all 10 finalists - which are voted on by readers and must have a population under 10,000 people. Looks like I'm losing my edge, folks.

Here are this year's winners, dubbed as small towns "with more personality than cities triple their size":

1. Ely, Minnesota
2. Cloverdale, California
3. Brevard, North Carolina
4. Saugatuck, Michigan
5. Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
6. Bandon, Oregon
7. Cuero, Texas
8. Medicine Park, Oklahoma
9. Nyack, New York
10. Egg Harbor, Wisconsin

Agree? Disagree? Been to any of them? (Check out the the full article and photo slideshow to learn about all ten.)

Turns out two of these small towns - Cuero, Texas, and Medicine Park, Oklahoma - are within striking distance in neighboring states. Maybe a road trip is in order.

Here goes that wanderlust again!

p.s. You may also want to peruse the 2009 winners. At least I was familiar with two - Lexington, Virginia, and Rockland, Maine - and could feel reasonably good about myself.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Tao of Taos, New Mexico

We’ve been trying to get to Taos since we arrived in New Mexico. But the 2.75-hour drive makes it tad bit longer than a day trip.

Then, as luck would have it, a friend in LA connected us with an old friend of hers who lives in Taos, and we were extended an invitation to come up for a weekend. This is one of many examples of the immediacy of New Mexico. You meet people, they’re incredibly friendly, you become friends with them, you go stay with them.

These new friends, as it turns out, could not have been better guides to Taos. She grew up in the area and works at a prestigious museum. He’s an artist and furniture maker. And together, they know just about everyone in Taos. No wonder we got to attend two parties and a wedding reception in one weekend with them.

Of course, it’s not that hard to get to know people here. In fact, we ran into two people we’d met at our first party while grabbing coffee at World Cup near the plaza. This was clearly a common occurrence that surprised no one. And to top it off, we learned we’d see them both again later in the day for another party.

While exploring the small downtown (including the John Dunn Shops, housed in the infamous gambler and stagecoach driver’s former home), we also checked out the Harwood Museum of Art’s new photo exhibit of the Taos Pueblo from the beginning of photography to present. This iconic UNESCO World Heritage adobe structure has been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years (chew on that for a minute), and the exhibit features shots from the last 140.

In part, it was this close proximity to a vibrant Native American community that drew so many artists to Taos in the early days to paint the pueblo and its inhabitants. The Taos Society of Artists was founded in 1915 by prominent transplants from New York, Paris and other major cities, and this worldly artistic sensibility continues. (Everyone we met had lived in New York or LA previously, it seemed.)

Of course, they were also drawn to the beauty of the area, with its ancient cottonwood trees, snow-fed streams and grassy valleys. But what really sets Taos apart is the perfect ring of mountains (including Mount Wheeler, the highest in the state) that encircles it, making for breathtaking views in all directions as well as world class skiing, which attracts an entirely different set of affluent visitors.

Maybe that’s why Taos just doesn’t seem like a town of 6,000 people. With its natural pulchritude, famous residents (including Julia Roberts) and international tourists, it feels more sophisticated than a small town…and yet decidedly rural and rustic. I’m still trying to put my finger on it, but the vibe is very distinct, very free, very appealing. Even more than Santa Fe, whose name alone inspires certain lifestyle aspirations, Taos is just cool.

Since I found myself rather drawn to it (okay, full-on crushing on it, let’s be honest), I guess it’s a good thing it’s so far from a major airport. Otherwise, I might have had some second thoughts about whether we should have looked into buying there instead. But given how much my partner’s profession involves travel, it just wouldn’t work logistically. And I guess that’s what keeps Taos the way it is.

Life’s not about logistics if you live there. It’s about…life. In fact, it seems like the kind of place where you have to have your own income or your own thing going on already, be it art or otherwise. Which reminds me - Dennis Hopper, another famous part-time Taos resident (he fell for it after shooting Easy Rider there and was a renowned artist in his own right), loved getting away to Taos so much that he wished it to be his final resting place. Below is the San Francisco de Asis Church in Rancho de Taos, where his funeral was held.

So while I can’t have Taos as my mate, it’s definitely got all the makings of an in-state weekend cheat. I’m dying to get back and see the Taos Pueblo in person, for one. Perhaps I’ll attend one of the religious ceremonies they invite the public to attend throughout the year. I’ve been told that the Procession of the Virgin on Christmas Eve is something special – with bonfires lit everywhere and a blend of Catholic and native traditions.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Last Garment Maker in Denver’s LODO District

“The West is not a place. The West is a state of mind.

– “Papa” Jack A. Weil, 1901-2008

A year before we moved to New Mexico, my partner Kevin visited Denver and brought me back a t-shirt from Rockmount Ranch Wear. It featured a bucking bronco and read “Styled in the West by Westerners.” You could say it stood out from the other t-shirts in my urbanite’s closet. He got himself a vintage Western shirt with saddle stitching, sawtooth pockets and white pearly snaps, which reminded me of something an Austin hipster might wear. Very retro. Very now.

At the time, I had never heard of Rockmount, nor did I know how many celebrities wear it. But when we drove up to Denver earlier this summer, I got a chance to find out what all the fuss is about. Turns out Rockmount is something of a legend – as was its recently deceased Founder and CEO, Jack A. Weil, who ran the company until his death in 2008 at age 107. His book, Ask Papa Jack: Wisdom of the World’s Oldest CEO, dispenses his famously opinionated lessons.

I knew I liked the guy when I flipped through his book at the Rockmount headquarters in Denver’s historic LODO (lower downtown) district – where gold was first discovered, industrial warehouses later sprung up, and more recently, trendy stores, clubs and restaurants have proliferated – and landed on a page where he was bashing Sam Walton, Wal-Mart's founder. “Sam Walton was nothing but a hillbilly."

Weil’s disdain may in part be personal – they were acquainted – but also professional. Rockmount refuses to sell to chains or discounters like Wal-Mart, and in fact, Weil felt those very outlets were responsible for ending clothing manufacturing in America. He may be right given that Rockmount’s historic five-story building (built 1908) in LODO is the only clothing manufacturer remaining in the area.

Rockmount’s finely tailored shirts, skirts, ties, scarves and more are still made mostly in the US. Accordingly, they’re not cheap – around $70-$90 a shirt. But as Kevin says, they’ll last forever. You can find more modern “relaxed wear” Western styles, and you can also find vintage fitted designs from the 40s, 50s and other eras, including "high wattage" shirts with hand chenille embroidery, fringes and rhinestones. The original bling. Recognize these two?

A trailblazer as well as a holdout, Rockmount introduced the sawtooth pocket and was the first to add snaps to Western shirts, now a common practice and part of the rockabilly aesthetic. The reasons were quite simple. Buttons come off, cowboys don’t like to sew, and it’s easier to wiggle out of a shirt with snaps if you get caught or snagged out on the range.

And that’s the Western state of mind, folks.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I Didn't Order The Vitamin Soup - And Stuck with Copywriting

I’m a freelance writer, and I telecommute from wherever I am at the time of the assignment. That’s what's allowed me to travel for longer periods of time, and consequently, that’s what enables me to write this little blog about the places I fall for.

When I say I’m a freelancer writer, most people ask, “What publications do you write for?” Then I have to explain that I’m not a freelance journalist, but a freelance copywriter. That I write websites, newsletters, emails, ads, brochures and “marketing stuff.”

At this point, their expression usually turns to one of disorientation or disappointment. But it's okay - I don’t take it personally. I understand that journalism has more romance than copywriting. It’s just that I like being paid on an hourly basis rather than per word.

Five years into my freelance adventure, I’m still okay with why I took the direction I did. I’m still self-employed, after all. I’m still getting to travel. And I even managed to buy a house…with another freelancer. (Different industry, same glorious uncertainty/flexibility.)

And if you’d like to know even more about why I didn’t pursue travel journalism after flirting with it, I’ll directly you to this painfully amusing excerpt from a former freelance journalist (now a staff newspaper writer). Sure kills the romance, doesn’t it?

Excerpt from “Seven Years As A Freelance Writer, Or How to Make Vitamin Soup" by Richard Morgan:

Freelancing is pitching two ideas to a new editor at the Times, after having written for the publication for five years, and being told (quoting exactly here): “I think you’d have better luck pitching your stories elsewhere.”

Freelancing means walking from the West Village to the Upper East Side and back because you don’t have enough money for the subway. Freelancing means being so poor and so hungry for so long that you “eat” a bowl of soup that’s just hot water, crushed-up multivitamins and half your spice rack (mostly garlic salt).

Freelancing is being woken up on a Monday at 8 a.m. by an editor who gives you the following assignment: “Put together everything interesting about all the city’s airports by Friday,” doing it, and then not getting credit when it runs… as an infographic.

Freelancing is having your mother send you a book called $ix-Figure Freelancing which lists as helpful resources, on page 198, the dictionary, thesaurus, and

Freelancing means your editor will reject your pitch and then, seven month later, run the story you pitched—with the same language as your pitch—and then have it submitted for a National Magazine Award.

Freelancing is having an editor tell you that he really loves the story you’ve filed and wouldn’t change anything, and in fact suggests you expand upon the characters a bit—and also cut the story in half. Because, in an editor’s world, it’s possible to expand upon characters and not change the structure while you also cut the story in half.

Freelancing means having to chase down checks every time, even when that means waiting two years for $1000. It means having stories killed and being told that the editor-in-chief gave no reason, but that the same editor would love to work with you some more.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Following the Old Santa Fe Trail to Colorado

From Santa Fe, it’s an easy six-hour drive to Denver on I-25N. Back in the 1800s, however, this route – which parallels the historic Santa Fe Trail most of the way – was pretty grueling, thanks in part to the treacherous mountain crossing at the Colorado border. Today the most dangerous aspects may be avoiding hitting an elk or veering into another lane while admiring in the vast scenery.

Following this storied trail – which turned Santa Fe from an isolated outpost into a commercial center – gives you a lot of time to contemplate, given the countless acres of wide open grazing land you’ll pass, as well as several glimpses into history. A stop in Las Vegas (yes, that would be Las Vegas, New Mexico….not Las Vegas, Nevada), an hour north of Santa Fe, is one of the largest eyefuls. With its leafy colonial plaza and creaky storefronts, the entire downtown is like a living Western movie set. (Over 900 structures are on the National Register of Historic Places.) No wonder numerous films, including No Country for Old Men, have been shot here.

Founded in 1835 with a land grant from the Spanish government, Las Vegas was the last Spanish settlement established in the US – and soon became the prosperous epicenter of the Southwest, thanks to its location along the Santa Fe Trail, and later, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. It had four opera houses and electric railcars. But it also had an infamous underbelly. Doc Holliday practiced dentistry and owned a saloon here – until he had to leave town after shooting a local. Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James and every other outlaw passed through too, giving Las Vegas a reputation of harboring murderers, con men and bandits.

Storefronts like Tome on the Range and “OK Café” on Old Town's Bridge Street remind you of this colorful history. And of course, there’s the Plaza Hotel (built 1882), which is the epitome of the grand frontier hotels and the place where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders held their first reunion in 1899. Still operating today, it is home to the Landmark Grill as well as Byron T’s Saloon. Many of the nearby buildings still need restoration, though, and hopefully someday someone will pump a few million into bringing them back to life.

Two hours north, Trinidad, Colorado, offers another turn-of-the-century flashback. Now known as the sex-change capital of the US (the phrase “taking a trip to Trinidad” has become code for such a procedure), this mining town was the place that weary wagon-bound travelers would pull into for supplies after making it through the Raton Pass at the Colorado border. It’s another Santa Fe Trail boomtown gone bust – and yet with hints of a comeback.

A prime example is Danielson Dry Goods, a sophisticated café-meets-gift store housed in the restored Five ‘N Dime store on Main Street. The owners wanted to help transform the depressed downtown area – and clearly, they’re leading the way. On the left side of the building, you can order the signature Corazon Chicken Salad and a sparkling soda and sit in a booth lit by a chandelier. On the right side, you can browse picture frames and greeting cards decorated with quotes (manufactured by the owners’ design company, now the largest employer in southern Colorado) as well as soaps, perfumes and more.

After stopping for breakfast or lunch here, you too may get inspired by seeing how the past can be preserved for the future. These two Old Santa Fe Trail towns are not yet widely recognized tourist destinations, but they have all the history required – and just need a little more revitalization. I know it’s possible after seeing my own hometown’s shuttered downtown turned around in two decades.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Find Your Slice of the (Clam) Pie in Cape Cod

Every year, my friend Laura and I take a weekend trip to a place we’ve never been. Last year, it was the capital of cool: Austin, Texas. This year it was the capital of summer: Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

You could say our theme is simply a “girl’s getaway.” But more accurately, it could be called a “girls’ gastronomic fling.” From start to finish, our itinerary is dictated by where and what we will be eating. And as a requirement, we do not consider the impact on our waistlines. That’s life back home – and this is a fling, after all!

Given that we’re both known for having a raging sweet tooth, our first stop was naturally Four Seas Ice Cream, known for its homemade Peppermint Stick ice cream. If you can think of something that tastes more like summer than this winsome pink scoop, I’d like to hear it. But trust me – you won’t. It was the most refreshing thing ever.

Unfortunately, it only made us hungrier, though. After dipping our toes into the surprisingly warm waters of the Nantucket Sound, we made our way around Lewis Bay to The Raw Bar (not the famed original location in Mashpee, but the Hyannis “Hyline Location,” referring to where you catch the high-speed ferry to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard). Our mission: to consume what I’d read was “the best lob-stah roll on the Cape.”

Now, everyone has an opinion on that, but the lobster roll here is known for two things: a ridiculous amount of fresh lobster meat and a hefty price ($25). I can confirm both. But as I’d come to find out, it’s also known for its “purist’s” presentation: the only ingredient beyond lobster and the roll? Mayo. That’s it.

If you love the taste of lobster unadorned, this could be your dream meal. For me, though, it was incredibly bland. I mean, would a few fresh herbs mixed in with the mayo hurt? Or what about a little butter on the roll? (You see buttered rolls in other places, but “not on Cape Cod,” a local told me, indignant at the very suggestion.) I tried to feel nonchalant about disliking a signature item – but I was now a little desperate to try another.

Despite the rough start, it wasn’t long before I’d happily devoured some of the other favorite eats and drinks on the Cape. In touristy, gay-friendly Provincetown (aka “P-town”), prior to an unexpectedly hardcore bike ride through sand dunes, humid forests and cranberry bogs, we wolfed down all manner of lobster delights at the famous Lobster Pot at the wharf. Lobster bisque. Lobster ravioli. Lobster salad. All very tasty.

In Chatham, a charming, walkable village on the Lower Cape that was our misty home base for the weekend, the non-stop tour of Cape specialties included the stuffed quahog (a yummy clam appetizer baked with cheese on the shell) at The Red Nun (named after a type of channel marker, not a pious woman), the crab cakes, calamari and clam chowder at the boisterous Chatham Squire, a local institution that’s one of the few places to stay open late, and a cold pint of Cape Cod Red Ale and Wachusett Blueberry Ale, micro-brewed locally and in Western Mass, respectively.

The piece de resistance, however, was the Clam Pie at the unbearably cute Marion's Pie Shop. This may not sound appetizing to you. It didn’t to me, either. But after ingesting way too much saltwater taffy (in flavors ranging from Beach Plum to Cranberry) from the Chatham Candy Manor, I wanted something that wasn’t sweet.

Trying to look past the beguiling pastries and fruit pies, I asked Marion what pie put her on the map. “Clam pie,” she said. No hesitation. Huh. I bought one, figuring I’d bring it back on the plane for my seafood-loving partner, Kevin. And I got an Orange Citrus Roll, the largest I’d ever seen, to split with Laura. (Some things, especially a sweet tooth, never change.)

Little did I know how good it would smell heating up that little six-inch Clam Pie in the oven – or how the thick, buttery crust would be among the best I’d ever tasted. As for the insides? Perfectly seasoned, nicely textured (no chewiness to the clams) and not a whiff of fishiness. For someone who only came to appreciate seafood in her late twenties thanks to an early hang-up about “fishiness,” I was beginning to truly believe Kevin when he said fishiness only happens when fish isn’t fresh. I tried more seafood dishes in a 48-period in Cape Cod than probably ever in my life, and not one of them was “fishy.”

As if I need anything else to make the place seem dreamier. As a parting image, check out the little outdoor seating area in the back of our B&B when we arrived. The couple had two champagne flutes in hand, as if ready for their photo shoot. Life is just too good here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sane or Insane?

Back in the fall, I put up an anonymous poll asking: “What do you think of Amy moving to New Mexico?” The verdict was 66% of you found my relocation “insane.” It was a bit shocking that so many of you think I’m completely cuckoo, but hey, I asked.

Now that I’ve had time to look back at this life-changing decision, I thought I’d do my own analysis of the “saneness” of a geographic 180. I’m going to try to be as objective as possible (if it is possible). I’ll also try to answer those of you who’ve asked if I’ve had any “buyer’s remorse” or shall we say “mover’s remorse.” So here goes…

Arguably insane factors:
•Moving to a place where you know no one and have no family
•Going from a city of 11 million people to a hamlet of under 2,000
•Relocating to a different state that you’ve only visited four times
•Buying a house in this new place without living there first
•Choosing a town smaller than your hometown (which felt small)
•Leaving the world's best temperate climate for true winters

Arguably sane factors:
•Doubling our living space without paying more per month
•Fulfilling the dream of home ownership where buying makes sense*
•Invigorating our personal growth with a conscious lifestyle change
•Moving to a lower cost-of-living area where we can save more money
•Following our gut instincts about what places inspire and soothe us
•Taking maximum advantage of the benefits of our flexible careers

So what I see here is that this move was equal parts sane and insane. It’s a matter of perspective. Is it insane to want to both get more and save more? Is it insane to want the opposite of what you have? Is it insane to think you can make friends anywhere…at any age? Is it insane to crave space and tranquility after once dismissing it? Is it insane to want to buy a home but not stretch financially? Is it insane to seek to change yourself? Is it insane to just leap?

It may be. And it certainly would be – at different points in time. But for me, at this age and stage, it’s also the fullest realization of being a telecommuting freelancer. I’ve traded job security for the risks and uncertainties and financial fluctuations of “going it on my own.” But I’ve also bought myself the ability to live how and where I please…and now I’m finally capitalizing on that. It’s a way of paying myself back in intangibles that makes the equation fully add up.

As for mover’s remorse, we were frustrated at being snowed in this winter…three separate times. I had “a moment” during the last major snowstorm. But that’s about it. Because I already feel at home. I’ve already made some new friends. I’ve already felt a change in myself. I’ve already gotten used to the quiet. (A car alarm in Santa Fe this weekend was like a traumatic flashback.) And I’ve already fallen in love with the simple life again – in a way I probably never could have if I hadn’t lived and breathed the excitement of the big city.

Freedom means many different things, but to me, this is it. “You are free to move about the country,” as the Southwest Airlines slogan goes. It may sound insane (and it is, partially) to pick up and move somewhere you barely know, but I’ve never felt saner.

*See the New York Times' very helpful "Buy Versus Rent Calculator" to determine where it's smart to buy...and where it's better to rent. Based on our previous rent and current mortgage, as well as assumptions of a 3% annual rent increase and a 1% annual home value appreciation, we will save $29,697 over six years by owning here, with an average savings of $4,950/year.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kidding Around in the East Mountains

Last month I got to experience “kidding season” for the first time here in New Mexico. This was not a month-long April Fool’s Joke, as it turns out, but the time of year when baby goats or “kids” are born and bottle-fed on goat dairy farms.

For reasons I have yet to uncover, the East Mountains area of Albuquerque is rife with goat dairy farms. This has turned out to be a serious perk of living here given that my partner Kevin is lactose intolerant and may well be the top consumer of all goat dairy products, including goat cheese, goat milk, goat yogurt and goat butter. We used to only be able to get these products at Whole Foods. Now we can now get them right down the road. Who said country living wasn’t convenient?

Our first tip-off was finding a surprising number of local goat cheese brands at Whole Foods and the wonderful Montanita Food Co-Op. After trying Old Windmill Dairy’s amazing Holy Chipotle Chevre, I went to their website (beyond my taste buds, they’d captured my interest with their cute tagline: “The Little Dairy on the Prairie”) and discovered they offered cheese making classes. I had barely uttered the words before Kevin agreed that we should sign up.

The following Sunday we drove down many, many dirt roads until we found our way to the Old Windmill Dairy a bit late. Fortunately, we were still in time to sample all of their chevre flavors – my second favorite soon became The Great Caper – and learn how to make goat mozzarella cheese. Bottom line: it’s not easy! They were still working out their exact recipe in fact before going into production.

Beyond yummy snacks, I also got a real appreciation for all the science involved – not to mention the pitfalls. Exact temperatures. Sterilized equipment. Very clean goat utters. There are a lot of things necessary to make safe, bacteria-free cheeses that taste great – and not “goaty.” One of them is making sure the male goats stay very far away from the females. Why, you ask? Because as Ed, one of the owners, explained, they stink (it’s their natural musk for mating) and like to pee on females.

After the class, we got to go see the baby goats, some only a few days old. My favorite moment was watching this bleating herd of kids chase the farm hand – their long ears flapping comically. (See the picture below.) But this was soon eclipsed by getting to bottle feed a baby goat ourselves two weeks later. Ed informed us that we actually lived on the same road in Edgewood as another goat dairy farm – South Mountain Dairy. We couldn’t believe our luck! And, as it turned out, they hold bottle-feeding open houses every Sunday in April.

So of course, we had to go to that too. Fortunately, the timing was perfect as we had friends visiting that weekend with their toddler, who loved playing with all the goats. We bottle-fed a fidgety kid, we walked around the high-tech goat housing (the owners of South Mountain Dairy both retired from Sandia Laboratories) and we eagerly bought all the products they had on hand, including drinkable raspberry yogurt, apricot chevre and lemon chipotle marinated feta. All fantastic. All different than Old Windmill Dairy’s product line (which you can buy in CSA fashion). Score.

So between these two dairies and an organic CSA farm called Frost Hill Organics that’s started up five minutes away, we should be able to buy a lot of what we eat from people we actually know. And, after watching Food Inc. (the Oscar-nominated documentary about the industrial food system), I’m pretty happy about that.