A view of Marazion, Cornwall, from the small island of St. Michael's Mount, the Cornish counterpart to Normandy's Mont Saint-Michel. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Nancy Nathan for The Washington Post.
Cornwall, at the stunningly beautiful southwestern tip of England, was too much for the Romans and the Saxons, who halted their invasions of Britain before they got that far, leaving rocky Cornwall to the Celtic tribes who controlled the area first inhabited in about 10,000 BC.
It’s still no picnic to get down to Cornwall, and you really need a car to explore it. My husband, Dave, and I had driven many other parts of England and Scotland, he putting up with my cathedral obsession, I supporting his golf habit, both of us appreciating the layers of history from prehistoric to Victorian in so many spots. I convinced him that before we stopped exploring the British hinterlands we should make a point of seeing out-of-the-way, largely unchanged Cornwall. We knew it would be special.
The small peninsula rewards the intrepid traveller. In long expanses, it is little changed from the Iron Age, when fields were squared off by low stone outlines, which you still can make out on green hillsides by the sea. In fact, it is only the occasional ruined tin mine that interrupts vast mosaics of heather and gorse, stretching from the coast roads to rocky cliffs.
DH Lawrence wrote an ode to Cornwall’s “high shaggy moor hills, and big sweep of lovely sea”. He lived in the tiny town of Zennor when English painters and writers were drawn by the coast’s unmatched scenery and brilliant light and established an artists’ colony at nearby St Ives 100 years ago.
Lawrence stayed at the 13th-century Tinner’s Arms, which is tucked into a hillside and where visitors still can enjoy a pint of Tinner’s Ale. A few yards from the inn is the main attraction at Zennor: a very large rough carving, made in the 15th century, of a mermaid on the end of a pew in the Church of St Senara. The legend is that she was attracted to the town by a young man’s songs. Nothing seems to symbolise Cornwall’s marriage to the sea like the lovely long-haired mermaid, comb in one hand, mirror in the other.
The Mermaid of Zennor, whose legend has inspired books and films, echoes another Cornish landmark that also is the stuff of legend: the Merry Maidens, a late Stone Age circle of 19 standing stones just a few miles away, believed to date to 2500 BC The legend says the maidens were petrified for dancing on the Sabbath. The circle is said to be the most perfect of those dotting Cornwall’s very southwestern end. There are about 150 Bronze Age (from about 2200 to 700 BC) or earlier monuments – stone circles, tombs, standing stones – in the area.
The sites are unguarded, and also largely ignored. When we were at the Merry Maidens, the only thing stirring was a hundred yards away, where a farmer was mowing around two tall standing stones known as the Pipers, which legend says played for the dancing maidens. The ancient monuments remain largely undisturbed despite the ages of English history that have passed in that small peninsula.
Crowning hillsides and standing along the coast in this same small corner of Cornwall are towering cylindrical stone stacks, remnants of deserted tin mines. They glow in the sun and are strangely romantic, although they survive the Victorian mining heyday that exacted an enormous human toll. Driving the coast road called Tinner’s Way you pass severe stone villages from which entire families trekked several miles to the mines. (Women and children sifted tin from rock above; men worked deep below.) This is “Poldark” country, where the BBC filmed the hit series about an Englishman returned from the American Revolution who revives his family’s derelict tin mine.
While we had a rental car, we found that the best way to see the Neolithic sites and the mining stacks of the Penwith peninsula is to hire one of the local expert guides for a half- or full-day group or private tour. Their fees are low, they provide wonderful commentary and they pick you up. We saw several of the most significant sites in a half-day tour. Without a guide, finding them is tricky. Many of the back roads are paved cow paths tunneling through ancient Cornish Hedges, towering rock walls containing soil and vines that can terrorise a rental-car driver.
We continued up Cornwall’s West coast, to lovely St Ives, where I declared the famous Porthminster Beach Cafe’s version of fish and chips the winner of my trip-long personal survey. A few miles farther north is tiny Port Isaac, the setting for the television series “Doc Martin,” a comedy/drama about the town’s only doctor. And no wonder that it was chosen for filming. It’s the quintessential unspoiled fishing village, with stark, white buildings against bright-green hillsides, above huge, dark-gray rocks and truly sparkling blue water.
So far, Port Isaac seems to have controlled tourism by channeling cars into lots before they reach the edge of town. While we had Penwith’s stone circles and the Mermaid of Zennor to ourselves, this was another story. We paid to join a “Doc Martin” walking tour that set off from the May Contain Nuts cafe on the path entering town. The others on our tour were true DM aficionados, interrupting the guide (a guy who was eager to tell the flock about his role as an extra) with probing questions about which house belonged to which character in the show.
As we walked back to our car, we spied in the distance and around another breathtaking cove, our next stop: Tintagel, birthplace of King Arthur and site of Camelot – if there was a King Arthur or a Camelot. An excellent exhibit at the foot of the cliffside castle ruins lays out the roots of the Arthurian legend and makes a good case that someone like Arthur lived there.
Just about everything you visit in Cornwall is tough to reach, whether because of narrow roads or remoteness. But Tintagel presents a new challenge: you walk across a wide chasm, created in the 14th century by a “landfall” that separated the castle’s cliff from the mainland. The climb is up 100 steep steps on a narrow, vertical path, with others coming down as you work your way to the top, trying not to look at the huge rocks below. The day of our visit was sunny; I cannot imagine the climb on a wet day.
Tintagel is probably one of the three best-known Cornish tourist sites. Another – the Eden Project – is 30 miles across the peninsula to its East Coast and as new as Tintagel is ancient. Two towering biodomes, comprising the largest greenhouses on Earth, were built in 2001 and conceived by a visionary named Sir Tim Smit, who was determined to demonstrate the interdependence of people and plants.
The larger biodome contains a rain forest with every sort of tree, colorful birds, small mammals, vines, waterfalls, skyways and pools. The smaller (but still enormous) dome houses a Mediterranean ecology. During the summer Eden is packed, but in September we found it easy to navigate. By its very nature, a dramatic experiment about future sustainability, Eden doesn’t offer much by way of enchantment. But a traveller might take a lesson from the British – who, judging by attendance figures, seem more focused on this stunning achievement than on Neolithic sites.
Cornwall’s third major tourist landmark is St Michael’s Mount, just past the faded town of Penzance, where the trains from London stop. The Mount is Cornwall’s iconic twin to Normandy’s Mont St. Michel. Just as with it, you can walk from the mainland at low tide on a stone causeway once used by the pilgrims. We missed low tide, so we took the small foot ferry that runs continuously. A side benefit to the ferry is that when you step out on the other side you see a bronze shoeprint marking the spot where Queen Victoria stepped in 1846 when she and Prince Albert had stopped by, unannounced.
And just as at Mont St Michel, there’s a steep and rocky climb to a medieval Benedictine abbey with an unmatched view. But there is also a castle of the ruling St Aubyn family, featuring the grand Chevy Chase room, named for the 17th-century hunting-scene frieze around the cornice.
Our base for all of this was the well-known, charming Old Coastguard hotel in Mousehole (pronounced MOW-zell). It is the tiniest of fishing villages and better than Penzance for your side trips around the Penwith peninsula’s Neolithic and mining sites. Mousehole also is a great place to stay if you’re headed to the famous Minack, the Greek theater that clings to the rocks at Porthcurno Cove a few miles from Mousehole. Plays are performed through the season under the wide-open night sky, but visiting during the day also lets you appreciate the remarkable rock construction, looking out over the ocean.
And just beyond the Minack along the coast road is the stop every guidebook warns against. It is Land’s End, now a theme park where the British take kids on holiday. But how could we possibly not go to England’s westernmost point? Park in the big lot and just head to the rocky coast, ignoring the carnival entrance. You’re at Cornwall’s outer limits, and it is just you and the endless ocean.
Why would a young, dynamic person pack up and leave buzzing Lisbon for a life in a dilapidated stone hamlet with just 40 residents? It didn’t take long for my guide, Pedro Pedrosa, an environmentally conscious entrepreneur and avid mountain biker, to make the case. I was instantly enamoured with my accommodation, a contemporary cottage stocked with homemade cheese and fresh-baked bread, and with the hamlet’s serene picnic spot where tables were nestled in a cluster of cork trees.
When Pedrosa first stepped over the threshold of this village, Ferraria de Sao Joao, in 2005, these and many other features didn’t exist. Long neglected, as so many farming villages have become after being left by young people, it was a collection of cracked, crumbling houses overgrown with weeds and vines, and animal sheds in heaps of rubble. And lots of stone, predominantly limestone and quartzite, plus a little schist – the coarse rock, often featuring dark bands, that glints in the light and dominates much of the surrounding region.
Pedrosa saw the potential: an authentic land where the old ways lived on, where he and his family could slow down and be immersed in nature, yet not be too far from the city. “All this in a village that could be reborn from the ashes, with the help of the new Schist Village project that was starting up,” he said. So, using his own money and a government grant, he began building his house and the guest accommodations.
Ferraria de Sao Joao and 26 other rural villages built wholly or partly of schist are now part of the Aldeias do Xisto (Schist Villages), an ecotourism complex located in a mountainous region of Portugal’s interior that is geologically rich in this metamorphic rock. Sixteen years ago, a regional department of the national government, with the help of funding from the European Union, resolved to reinvigorate what were largely abandoned villages as hubs for tourism, binding them together with a grand philosophy: Embrace an intimate connection with nature and treasure the old ways while offering goods and services for the 21st century.
From the moment I heard mention of these stone communities, hidden in a rugged landscape, some clinging to vertiginous slopes, I was intrigued and knew I had to experience them. That’s when I turned to Pedrosa, the co-owner and operator of A2Z Adventures, a small company running socially responsible biking and hiking trips in Portugal, including ones in the Schist Villages. For several idyllic days, he guided me on day hikes throughout the region, sharing his love for, and commitment to preserving, this land.
After a two-hour drive from Lisbon Airport, suddenly, past clusters of tall eucalyptus trees, Pedrosa veered right at a whitewashed chapel, with asphalt giving way to cobbled limestone as we entered his home village of Ferraria de Sao Joao. The only sounds: creaking branches, whispering leaves in the wind and an elderly resident’s cane tapping on the street.
Pedrosa pointed out his home and, next door, my accommodation, the Vale do Ninho Nature Houses – three former animal sheds reinvented as chic, minimalist cottages, with blank stone facades. “The windows all face southwest,” said Pedrosa, to maximise solar exposure. After studying environmental planning in Lisbon, he became a seeker of sustainable solutions. This Schist Village is his passion. Constructed of locally sourced stone and paneled inside with sustainably gathered pine wood and cork – with solar panels covering the adjacent bicycle garage and laundry room – these edifices rose from a battered jumble of rocks.
From my sunny compact studio, I delighted in the sylvan views: groves of olive trees and, in the distance, an original forest of chestnut, oak, pine and eucalyptus. In the back yard, I alternated between relaxing on the terra cotta patio and joining other guests cooling off in the communal natural swimming pool whose waters are purified as they circulate through a nearby regeneration bio-pond Pedrosa created, lush with botanicals. Inside, the bathroom was stocked with handmade soaps using oil from local olive trees; my bedside lamp was sculpted from the wood.
Even breakfast was an eco affair: My kitchenette offered a cornucopia of locally sourced delights. I found it stocked with eggs from Pedrosa’s chickens, honey and oats from a nearby village, homemade yogurt, local jams and goat cheese provided by a resident shepherd, Fatima.
After a walk to the other end of the village, Pedrosa and I came to a tangled forest of lovely old cork trees – where Fatima herds her goats up the hillside early each morning. I spotted initials carved in many of the trunks, and Pedrosa explained that they are part of an innovative programme to raise funds to purchase picnic tables as well as to defend this protected species and the village’s cultural heritage. “The trees come in three sizes,” he said, “a different price for each; we’ll carve your initials or paint a custom symbol in the one you choose to adopt.” (The cork trees aren’t harmed; they thrive even when the bark is removed during harvesting.)
Driving to another village in the network a mere six miles away, we passed a handful of mountain bikers attracted by the network of trails in the area. In short order, we came to a dramatic setting: The Schist Village of Casal de Sao Simao stretches across a mountain ridge of rugged cliffs, framing a yawning canyon. “Only two people live here full time,” Pedrosa said as we strolled past grand stone houses showing off flower-bedecked facades and impressive timber balconies fronting the canyon.
To experience the wild landscape, Pedrosa led me on a two-hour loop down to the canyon bottom and then back up. Wandering beside threads of rushing water along an ancient irrigation canal, we spotted remnants of a bygone way of life: an abandoned mill owner’s house now draped in ivy, with massive millstones once used to grind corn and wheat. “Some of these chestnut trees are centuries old,” Pedrosa said as we navigated through the well-shaded forest. On the ascent, we encountered a scenic river where couples and families picnicked on the pebbled beach, and teens hopped from boulder to boulder, plunging into swimming holes. My only distractions from this cheerful scene were several birds of prey – eagles, black kites and kestrels – soaring above the majestic clifftops.
Though I spent my nights stargazing, the area also offers other sources of nighttime entertainment. In Penela, a town 25 minutes away, I satisfied my oenophilia by visiting D. Sesnando, a restaurant whose owner is a wine connoisseur. I lingered over a glass of the Monte da Peceguina, a dark red with floral notes, that paired well with the warm Rabacal cheese drizzled with local honey. Another night I visited nearby Espinhal, which was in the middle of a three-day arts festival. I joined what appeared to be most of the town – including the mayor and his family – in the main square to listen to the contemporary Portuguese band Pensao Flor.
If I were seeking other diversions, I could have gone to a movie house in Coimbra, where there are also places to listen to traditional Fado music. And the picturesque Schist Village of Candal, which I visited on one of my excursions, has an open-air cinema in August.
It’s either up or down stone staircases in Candal, which is completely constructed of schist and located about an hour’s drive from my lodging. Above, Restaurante Sabores da Aldeia, a shop and cafe, shows off wares from contemporary regional artisans. I couldn’t resist buying a piece of schist brightly painted with an image of a cottage, as well as a colorful felt beaded necklace. Two talasnicos, tart-like baked goods rich with chestnuts, honey and almonds, made for an energising snack before our planned one-hour trek. Our path – narrow, dotted with boulders in spots and rimmed in ferns – eventually brought us to car-free Cerdeira, the most remote of the Schist Villages. The traditional cottages – eight of which are now charming accommodations – cling to the steep verdant valley slope.
Lunching under a grapevine-draped pergola at Cafe da Videira, Pedrosa introduced me to Kerstin Thomas, a wood sculptor who moved here 28 years ago when there wasn’t even a sidewalk or electricity. As we dug into a thick slice of baked goat cheese and vegetable pie, I learned how she and 30 of her friends from Lisbon were the driving force behind repurposing this village into a vibrant art center, complete with artist residencies and a no-smoke kiln created by a master Japanese ceramist.
Locals built everything using traditional methods and materials from the area, and different artists, including Thomas, decorated each guest cottage with their works. Later, after clamoring up the schist lanes zigzagging the hamlet’s length, I visited the art gallery displaying creations by these sculptors, ceramic artists and painters. A sculpted wood chair shaped like a hoe was especially inventive and eye-opening, as was my entire journey through these revitalised stone villages, transformed from desolation and decay into an enchanting new life.
Last December, I had an urge to visit Europe – I wanted gorgeous architecture, a rich cafe culture, fabulous wine and cheese, wide avenues to stroll and narrow cobblestone streets to bike.
Instead of flying across the Atlantic though, I fly over the equator, to Buenos Aires, “the Paris of Latin America” where, it was explained to me when I was there in 2012, the residents are “Italians who think they’re French and speak Spanish.”
Yes, Buenos Aires is a longer flight from my home in Wyoming than the Paris of France, and Buenos Aires is in South America and not Europe. But, between December and April, Buenos Aires is 90 degrees and sunny; winter in Europe means rain or snow and darkness. This December was a particularly cold one for Wyoming – it is about 15 degrees below zero when I board my plane at Jackson Hole Airport – so I am willing to trade Europe for a warm, sunny European-ish city.
My travel partner is one of my best friends from high school. Our last international trip together was to the real Paris. This trip was long ago enough that I was perfectly fine sleeping on the floor of Kevin’s friends, who I had never met. For six days, I happily ate nothing but crepes filled with Nutella and bananas. Fifteenish years after our trip to Paris, Kevin and I book our tickets to the Paris of Latin America. Although Kevin is the Spanish speaker, he entrusts me, one who does not speak Spanish at all, with trip planning. Because my tastes have matured beyond Nutella crepes and friends’ floors, I start with hotel and dinner reservations.
The Alvear Palace is a graciously Old World, Belle Epoque hotel in the Recoleta neighborhood. Servers at its L’Orangerie breakfast buffet wear white gloves. Placards on each floor remind guests of the dress code: In public areas, attire should be “formal or smart casual; shorts, Bermudas, or sleeveless T-shirts are not allowed. If you jog you may leave and enter the hotel in your running apparel.” Bathrooms are marble with brass fixtures. The doormen wear tuxes and top hats. We will be European aristocracy, at least for several days. There is a personal butler.
Conveniently, one of the restaurants I want to eat at, La Bourgogne, is in Alvear Palace’s basement.
Two blocks from Alvear Palace is Palacio Duhau, designed as a family home in the early 1930s by French architect Leon Dourge in the style of the Chateau des Marais, a neoclassical palace outside of Paris.
In 2006, after extensive restoration work and the addition of a 17-story modern tower, it opened as a Park Hyatt. Sitting in front of my computer in Wyoming, scanning the hotel’s website, it doesn’t take much imagination to transport myself to its outdoor patio, which overlooks the city’s largest private garden, for afternoon tea. I also make a reservation for a cheese tasting at the hotel’s Vinoteca, where the city’s only maitre fromager works.
While Recoleta might be one of Buenos Aires’ most European-feeling neighborhoods, we do want to explore the wider city. Our first activity will be a seven-hour, guided bike tour. To immediately get us into a Euro state of mind, I insist that Kevin and I walk from Alvear Palace to Biking Buenos Aires’ storefront in the San Telmo neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest.
We’re late because I can’t stop taking pictures of the architecture. (Also because I misjudged the distance we would have to walk.) At one intersection of two cobblestone streets, buildings range from Edwardian to Brutalist, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco. Maybe planning an architecture tour is in order.
In our first hour with bike guide Pepe Rivas, we pedal down narrow, one-way stone streets and on designated bike lanes along the edges of wide, leafy avenues. We ride through Lezama Park, which, with its numerous sculptures and large esplanade, where two couples are making out, feels decidedly European. This makes sense when Rivas tells us that, at the turn of the 20th century, it was a French-Argentine landscape architect who remodeled the park’s original design. Lezama’s jacaranda and rosewood trees pull me back to South America, as does a massive monument honoring Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza, who founded Buenos Aires in 1536.
I watch groups of men pass around cups of mate, a caffeine-rich tea made from ground leaves of the yerba mate tree and designated by the Argentine Senate as the country’s “national infusion.” It is easy to recognize people drinking mate because it is always drunk out of a very specifically sized and shaped “mug” – actually a hollowed-out gourd – and through a metal straw called a bombilla.
We pedal past La Bombonera stadium, home to the Boca Juniors soccer team, whose colors are those of the Swedish flag – blue and gold. Rivas tells us what I’m sure must be a tall tale – that, over a century ago, after losing a game against a team wearing similar colors, Boca promised to adopt the colors of the flag of the next ship arriving at the nearby port. Fact-checking Rivas’s story later, I find it to be true.
In Caminito, an area of La Boca settled mainly by immigrants from Genoa in the early 1900s and today popular with tourists because of its abundance of Italian restaurants and the colorful facades of its wood houses, the air smells like southern Italy – anchovies and olive oil. Here in a small park kitty-corner from a number of women dressed in tango outfits that pose for photos and then demand several pesos, we take a break for a mate lesson. “To understand Argentina, you must understand mate,” Rivas says, and then he makes a gourd-full for us.
To Kevin and me, its taste is as bitter as Rivas’s preparation of it is precise. Rivas assures us it won’t take long for us to acquire a taste for it.
Since we do so poorly with the national infusion, Kevin and I double down on the Senatedecreed national drink: Argentine wine. We are committed even though our first opportunity to drink wine is at the Frenchiest of Buenos Aires’ French restaurants.
Before I can worry whether it’s acceptable to order non-French wine at La Bourgogne, I worry whether our clothes make the cut of the restaurant’s dress code. Male diners are supposed to wear sport coats. Not being a banker nor a diplomat, Kevin didn’t pack one. The only reason I’m appropriately dressed is because our personal butler arranged for my wrinkled clothes to be pressed. It turns out that Kevin’s button-down shirt is just fine.
Surfboards line an alley near the famous Waikiki Beach, hot spot for many a surfer. The author ended her 50-state quest in Hawaii - a fitting choice, as it was the last state admitted to the union.
My father, a travelling businessman, likes to joke that I would happily tag along with him to Ames, Iowa; Gary, Indiana, or any other American town that’s not on most tourist maps. It’s true. If you have an open mind and an adventurer’s spirit, every place has something worth your time.
Had I believed the nonsense about Nebraska being a “flyover state,” for instance, I would never have herded cattle on horseback through rolling grasslands lush with purple wildflowers and tall pines. Had I stuck close to home, I might not have tasted heavenly banana pudding in Selma, Ala., or bought stamps from the cutest darn post office you’ve ever seen, snuggled in the snow in tiny Plymouth, Vt. Rooting out such gems has been a longtime joy of mine, and around 10 years ago I realised that I had gone to 30-odd states in the process.
That’s when I started getting serious about seeing all 50.
I pinpointed my weak spots – the Great Lakes, the Dakotas, parts of the South – and planned how I’d get there. I didn’t set a particular deadline, but prioritised about two states a year.
I had a decent head start: Growing up in Maryland (and taking frequent sojourns to Walt Disney World) meant that I had been to most of the Eastern Seaboard. Two years of graduate school in Colorado allowed for easy camping or hiking adventures to Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas and Arizona. Reporting trips took me to Idaho, Rhode Island, Michigan, Alaska and Mississippi.
When I could, I tacked new states onto trips to visit friends and family. My sister-in-law in Peoria, Ill., for instance, lives a short drive from Iowa, where I hiked among the songbirds in Lake Macbride State Park.
In September 2016, I ended – you could say with a bang – in Hawaii, watching fountains of bright-orange lava spew from the Big Island’s Kilauea Iki Crater.
I felt elated, but also a bit like an oddball.
That’s because most people I know can quickly count off how many countries they have visited, but have only a vague idea when it comes to states. I wondered if there were others out there like me.
Are there ever. The All Fifty States Club, I soon discovered, has about 2,800 members who have accomplished the same feat, from all 50 states and 13 countries. Like me, many get the idea once they hit 30-or-so states and finish on either Hawaii or Alaska – the farthest, priciest, and most time-consuming trips to plan, says Alicia Rovey, who founded the club in 2006 to celebrate and encourage travellers on their journey.
The organisation, which operates on the honour system, asks that you put your foot on the ground and breathe the air of a state. (My own requirement was having a meal in a town.) Send in $13 with a membership application and you’ll get an official certificate; for more bragging rights, you can buy a T-shirt, pin or other wares on the website.
“The club makes it more official,” says Rovey, who lives in Nashville and hit her 50th, Oregon, in 2015. “Sometimes, you want that extra recognition that the goal is validated.”
There’s no typical 50-stater, she says – some are motivated by patriotism, meeting new people or a desire for new experiences. To her, the objective also infuses vacations with a greater sense of purpose: “You’re not just going to Hawaii to lay on the beach, you’re going to Hawaii to complete this lifelong goal of visiting all 50 states.”
Members often have their own spin on exploring the union, setting records along the way. Sweden’s Douglas Eriksson is the youngest, at 5. Some have done it twice or more, including James Marchino, with nine (yes, nine) repeat visits to all 50. Several people have sky-dived or golfed across the nation. John Fitzgerald ate a slice of pie in every state, and Boomer Mentzer drank a beer in each. (President Barack Obama – who has visited every state as president, and Al Roker, who has reported the weather in all 50, are honorary members.)
Though the few 50-staters I talked to had various missions and methods, we all had something in common: Travel has rewarded us in ways we didn’t expect.
To celebrate his 50th birthday, David Miller, of Orinda, Calif., set his sights on an epic year-long trip. He carefully mapped out a bicycling route throughout the United States – avoiding New England winters and Southern summers – with his Weimaraner, Max, from October 2011 to November 2012. Miller asked his supporters to donate to four charities in the name of his project, Bike 50 at 50.
“The very first lesson that I learned is that we so underestimate ourselves,” Miller says. “If you’re willing to take that one step forward out of your own comfort zone, you realize, ‘I can do this.’ “
Anne Corlett, a landscape artist from Saugatuck, Mich., was newly single in 2010 and “wanted a big project, the visual equivalent of the big American novel.”
Eventually, the idea came to her: paint a landscape in each state. “Travel is a powerful thing, which I didn’t even think about when I started,” says Corlett, an honorary club member.
Not only did she build up her confidence traveling solo, she challenged herself as an artist, painting environments so different that they could have been on the moon, she told me.
“I realised later I was testing my courage,” Corlett says.
Like Corlett, the more I explored the country, the more I learned to trust myself and be resourceful. When badly blistered feet forced me to backpack through the Grand Canyon in sandals, I found out I was tougher than I had thought.
Another common theme: We all experienced the kindness of strangers.
On Miller’s bicycle trips, random people on the street gave him money a few times, pushing bills into his hand even after he told them he didn’t need it. “I don’t have enough fingers and toes and arms and legs to count all the times I had extraordinary, surprising, wonderful interactions,” he says. While I was visiting Greenwich, N.J. – which threw a little-known tea party to protest the British in 1774 – Joe Felcone and Linda Hull Felcone invited me to dinner and showed me their historic home. Corbett says she was similarly “adopted” by a couple while in Mississippi.
Longtime blood donor and club member Al Whitney, of Avon Lake, Ohio, is accustomed to doing things for others. “I don’t sight-see,” says Whitney, who completed his 50 between 2007 and 2012. “My goal is to get to the blood bank.” But when he went to South Dakota in 2009, “my wife made me promise to go to Mount Rushmore,” he says. In the gift shop, a woman nearly knocked him over in a bear hug to tell him she owed her life to a blood donor. (She had noticed a Platelets Across America logo on his jacket.) “I was shocked,” he says.
If you’re thinking of joining the club, a few pieces of advice: Keep costs down by staying in state parks or short-term home rentals. Add new states to trips to see friends and family. “Be intentional,” Rovey says – plan a long trip to a particular region, say Yellowstone National Park, to visit as many states as you can in one go.
A view of Columbus at sunset from the Scioto Mile.
I have a terrible confession: I never saw Ohio’s capitol. A weekend in Columbus and not even a glimpse of the rotunda. But I have a very good excuse. I was lost in a 32-room bookstore. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was also preoccupied with selecting a writing utensil from a lifestyle store founded by a guy with a beard and an office-supply obsession. And drinking hand-poured coffee from a cafe named after a Belle and Sebastian song. And sizing up turquoise bulldog bookends from a shop in an emerging neighbourhood. And watching a diner stuff a skyscraper-tall burger into his mouth. And drinking more coffee, this time made of Fair Trade-certified beans from Guatemala. And I’m not even a coffee person; I drink tea, except when I am in Columbus.
Columbus kept me busy and surprised. Though I knew the facts – it ranks as the third-most fashion-forward city in the country and has a lower median age than the rest of the nation – I didn’t fully understand the burble of creativity and innovation till I found myself face-to-backside with a man made of oven roasting tins. Based on my experience, I expect the newest stylista accessory will soon be a Columbus pride T-shirt. I will have to make room in my drawer, moving my Austin and Nashville apparel to the side.
• Ron and Ann Pizzuti are sharers: The Pizzuti Collection, open since 2013, organizes exhibits based on the contemporary art that the Columbus couple has amassed over 40-plus years. “We like to think of the gallery as an extension of their living room,” said Mark Zuzik, its programs coordinator. The Pizzuti has a sculpture garden with permanent works, plus changing exhibits, inside the former insurance building.
• The Scioto Mile, a revitalised stretch of green-and-blue space along the river, offers a continual flow of attractions. At the Bicentennial Park, a summertime fountain sprays water 75 feet into the air. Farther south, on a reclaimed industrial site, the Audubon Center provides a bird checklist that is color-coded by season. Keep your pencil ready for such winter residents as the hooded merganser, the great horned owl and the golden eagle.
• COSI is so hands-on, you will get a shock – a buzzy lesson on electricity. The nationally acclaimed science center, which celebrates its 53rd birthday this year, encourages active learning. You can ride a unicycle on a high wire, submerge in a submarine or cheer on basketball-playing rats. You can also contribute to the body of science by participating in an Ohio State University research project on language science, the ciliary eye muscle or pharmaceuticals.
• At North Market, founded in 1876, follow the edible maze of more than two dozen vendors. Many of the purveyors tout local roots: You can taste the hometown pride at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Katzinger’s Little Deli, Hot Chicken Takeover and Destination Donuts, which often incorporates produce from the seasonal farmers market held in outdoor stalls.
Before: You had to drive 20 miles to a horse farm to sample the beers produced by Rockmill Brewery. Now: You can stay within city limits and pair any of the brewery’s 15 beers on tap with the Rockmill Tavern’s seasonal dishes, such as the deviled duck egg and the black truffle grilled cheese. The decor is haut-stable, with wood interiors constructed out of Michigan barns and tables built out of trees harvested from inside the Columbus beltway.
A quick primer on Fox in the Snow, a bakery and coffeehouse open since 2014: No WiFi, no gluten-free and no pressure to know the intricacies of the coffee industry. “Not everyone cares,” says manager Jack Morgan. But for those who do, the coffee comes from Central and South America or Africa, is roasted in Portland, Maine, and is hand-poured in plain view (the baristas can handle up to six orders at a time). In addition, the sweet and savory treats eschew a current food craze: “Everything has gluten in it,” Morgan noted.
To eat at the Thurman Cafe, a third-generation family operation in the German Village, you’ll need the wide jaw of a snake and the protein cravings of Mr. Universe. The ne plus ultra of burgers is the Thurmanator, which the restaurant created for competitive bodybuilders in the 1980s. A recent diner named Clarence Smith III admitted that the likelihood of finishing his meal was “zero,” but he plunged a fork into the teetering stack like a true warrior.
At the Top, the oldest steakhouse in Columbus (est. 1955), you won’t be judged for devouring a Flintstone-size filet or double-scooping from the sour cream bowl. Diners chew to a symphony of martini shakes and lounge tunes featuring a 90-year-old pianist, Sonia, and her sidekick, Justin, who can belt out Judy Garland without spilling his gin gimlet.
• At Robert Mason Heritage Supply, a lifestyle store that is barely a year old, pen concierge Henry Dolin approached the Pen Bar and selected a Paper Mate InkJoy for a left-handed writer. She never smudged again. Writing utensils are just one of the founder’s many favorite things. Robert Grimmett clearly hearts office supplies and vintage-inspired accessories, such as his eponymous line of canvas carriers named after family members; beard-grooming products (good for women’s tresses, too); toppers and watches; and candles that smell like a barbershop.
• During football season, the Saturday uniform in Columbus is a T-shirt from Homage, an apparel business founded by a guy who sold shirts from his parent’s basement. After 10 years, the gray top with the black “Ohio” lettering is still a classic, any day of the week.
• The staff at Helen Winnemore’s continue a tradition from 1938: supporting North American artists and offering a hot beverage to visitors. Each year, the two-story gallery features about 200 artists who design clocks, jewelry, greeting cards, wooden animal puzzles, pottery, pillows, fingerless gloves, leather satchels and even the mug holding my cup of welcome coffee.
• With 32 rooms and up to a quarter-million books, be sure to grab a map of the Book Loft at the front desk. In Room No. 26, I found two mentions of the 40-year-old independent bookseller in “100 Things to Do in Columbus Before You Die.” And in Room No. 2, one of two spots for serious bargains, I discovered Jane Austen for $3.49 and Dave Eggers for $5.99.
• Le Meridien Columbus, the Joseph, the newest hotel in the Short North neighborhood, acts as a satellite gallery for the Pizzuti Collection. (Present your room key for free admission to the nearby museum; see Attractions.) After a craft cocktail at Soul, repair to your room and browse the catalogue of Ohio artists whose works appear in the guest quarters and public spaces. The “I’ll Never Leave You” screen print by David Skeen, which adorned my bathroom, costs $250 – about the same price as the nightly rate.
• At the downtown Westin Columbus, more than a century of overnight visitors have elbow-shined the marble front desk. The former Great Southern Hotel, which opened in 1897 with an adjoining opera house, has retained many of its original charms, such as the august lobby with the pink marble wainscoting. The renovated rooms, however, have been Westinized. And, yes, the beds are Heavenly.
• We are not a shopping destination but we’re becoming one,” said Katie Schultz, manager at Elm & Iron, a home furnishings store with a quirky vintage flair. Indeed, Clintonville, which borders the Ohio State University campus, is on the cusp of a moment. Many of the new arrivals – Flowers & Bread, Bareburger, Vintage Toast, Little Eater and Whit’s Frozen Custard – are sprouting up along High Street. They make nice with some of the older establishments, such as the Global Gallery Coffee Shop and Wholly Craft. The two stores have been around for at least decade, proving that Fair Trade products, local handicrafts and the DIY spirit are always au courant.
• The German Village Society explains the dramatic arc of the 233-acre German Village, a neighbourhood that was created by 19th-century immigrants, struggled with anti-German sentiment during World War I and blossomed during the preservation movement in the 1960s. To experience the booken
ds of time, wander the brick lanes lined with Italianate-style homes and businesses selling such German staples as kraut und pork and nutcrackers. The 23-acre Schiller Park, the city’s second-oldest park (dating to 1857), maintains its original purpose as a gathering place for residents and visitors.
For nearly two decades, I have eagerly collected Japanese tea and sake sets, woodblock prints and geisha figurines. They delight me with their elegant and distinct design, with depictions of intricately shaped maple trees and dazzling silk kimonos and the I-know-something-you-don’t-know gaze of the women wearing them. My collection started spontaneously with a love-at-first-sight purchase of colourful geisha bookends from the 1950s. Stamped “Made in Occupied Japan,” they were at a flea market near the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California, where many Japanese immigrants once worked in the orchards, and they led me to muse about another world and era.
Yet it was only in November that I finally made it to Japan. My tour started in Tokyo and included Kamakura, Hakone and Kyoto. Like so many visitors before me, I thought I would make Kyoto the centerpiece of my visit, but I was also keen to veer from the traditional tourist’s path and discover Japan for myself, to see if or how it reflected my deep and rather mysterious affection for the country.
As it turned out, the dozen or so ryokan, or traditional Japanese guesthouses, in Kyoto that I contacted were fully booked. Discouraged and disappointed, I eventually resigned myself to overnighting in Nara, about an hour’s train ride to the south.
I knew Nara had its own bragging rights. As Japan’s first permanent capital, it easily maintains its noble stature with eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Daibutsu – or giant Buddha – bronze statue housed in an imposing wooden temple, as well as the tame and friendly descendants of sacred deer, which are anointed as national treasures, that roam freely among the temples, pagodas and forested parks. It sounded dreamy.
Staying in Nara, too, would put me close to Ise, or so I thought. My California friend Hiroko, who is a Tokyo native, had visited the small town a year earlier, and told me of its Shinto shrines – an astonishing 125 in all, making it essentially Japan’s version of the Vatican and a principal pilgrimage destination for many Japanese people. Spread out around Ise and its outskirts, the shrine area is the same size as Paris. Knowing very little about the Shinto religion, I was curious about how so many shrines could exist in a place I hadn’t heard of until Hiroko had mentioned it, though I later learned that the 2016 G7 Summit had been held there in April.
I related this to Kayoko Kuwahara, my host at the tiny Guesthouse Sakuraya situated along a quiet residential street, as we sat sipping tea on my first evening. A fierce wind had picked up by the time my train from Kyoto had pulled in, and after a short bus ride to the suburb where Sakuraya is, I had to walk some 10 minutes in the cold to reach the guesthouse. But upon entering, I was enraptured.
After Kayoko showed me to my room – one of three she rents to guests – I took in the heavenly view from the sliding glass doors: an enclosed courtyard and dimly lit garden, a carefully shaped arching pine and a palm tree among moss-covered steppingstones. Kayoko later told me that she had bought the building in 2008 from a married couple who had operated a workshop on the grounds to produce calligraphy ink. Neither of their two daughters was inclined to carry on the family business that had existed for 130 years.
When the aging couple put the property on the market, there was intense interest in the traditional wood-and-stucco structure in this attractive district where mostly merchants had lived and worked. Kayoko felt very lucky to be the selected bidder; she had dreamed for years of opening a ryokan and saw great potential in the home. She set about clearing the enclosed garden area – “It was a jungle,” she told me – and remodeling the interior. The Sakuraya is at once modest and dignified.
From the moment I set foot inside, my perch felt privileged – so much so that when Kayoko cautioned me that reaching Ise would require a very early start and three hours of travel on four different trains, I was loathe to book an overnight’s stay closer to the shrines. I wanted to return to my oasis. Moreover, it occurred to me that in the spirit of religious pilgrimages, the long and complicated journey to Ise and back would be fitting, if not adventurous. Part of the trip, Kayoko told me, would be through picturesque canyons and pretty countryside.
Before the long journey, however, I took a day to explore Nara, first indulging in some shopping along the open-air Higashimuki Shopping Mall and practically squealing with delight at the fine ceramics, brightly colored kimonos and fans on display. From there, walking eastward, I was gradually greeted by some of Nara’s ubiquitous and cordial deer, making it clear I’d reached Nara Park and was near i-ji temple.
I had seen photos of the temple and what’s known as the cosmic Buddha housed inside it, but these don’t prepare the visitor for the awesome, towering bronze sculpture, flanked on each side by the golden Kokuzo Bosatsu – or bodhisattva of memory and wisdom – and Tamonten – called the lord who hears all. Completed in A.D. 798 and arguably one of Japan’s most striking sights, the three towering figures held my attention. I took my time walking the perimeter, considering meanwhile what I’d read earlier, that the construction of these mighty sculptures had employed, legend has it, some 2 million laborers and had nearly bankrupted the country, in part because the statues were covered in gold leaf.
But more impressive to me was the 8th-century Kasuga Taisha Shrine, tucked deeper in Nara Park and painted a jolting red. Entering the complex, I was immediately riveted by a long passage filled with hundreds of golden and bronze lanterns, all of which surprised me, because from what I’d read of Shinto shrines, they are mostly austere edifices, void of color and decor.
After that, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Ise. The next morning, soon after departing eastward from Nara, the train passed through a long and misty corridor of bamboo stalks and then hugged the edge of a plunging forested ravine covered in radiant fall foliage. Part of the journey wound through farmland punctuated by snug villages with black-tiled roofs, small groves of crimson-coloured Japanese maple trees, well-tended family gardens and solemn pagodas and temples atop grassy hills, some with simple cemeteries encircling them. In this remote corner of Japan, on this clunking rural train, I saw no tourists and few residents.
But once I reached Ise and found my way to Geku, or the Outer Shrine, I was surrounded by other pilgrims. I was among them as we crossed the wide bridge leading to the shrine area, washed my hands alongside them at long stone vessels with wooden ladles and followed them under soaring torii, or gates, marking the sacred entry.
Following a map here and later at the Neku, or Inner Shrine, some 20 minutes away by bus, I came upon shrine after shrine, quickly seeing that visitors could only get so close to the forbidding and venerated wooden structures dating to the 3rd century, all unadorned, fenced in and removed from the pathways bordered by impenetrable Japanese cedars.
The longest flights in the world are just getting longer. Emirates’ latest route from Dubai to Auckland clocks in at a whopping 16.5 hours-it’s the lengthiest flight on the market-and Qantas plans to launch a new 17-hour route between Perth and London in 2018. But painful as long-haul flights can be, it’s their aftermath-jet lag-that you should really be dreading.
That might soon change, though. The medical community has taken the next step toward finding a jet-lag cure, thanks to a Salk Institute study published last year in Cell. According to Dr. Ronald Evans, the lead author of the study, a protein called REV-ERBa (pronounced ree-verb-AY) may be the key to unlocking a regular, healthy circadian rhythm no matter where (or when) in the world you are.
Turns out, the circadian rhythm, a physiological cycle that roughly matches up to the length of a day, doesn’t just regulate when we feel sleepy-it also regulates when we get hungry and when we feel most active.
“Under normal circumstances,” Evans said, “we sleep when it’s dark, and wake up and eat when the sun rises.”
Eating is a key point: circadian rhythm is about both sleep and metabolism. In other words, you can fight jet lag by consuming (and burning) calories at the right times as well as trying to sleep at proper times.
Your circadian rhythm doesn’t regulate itself: REV-ERBa does. According to Evans’ study, the protein acts as a sort of master switch that coordinates the “turning on and off” of genes that regulate our circadian rhythms, including those involved in metabolism.
Pinpointing that master switch and understanding how it works is the first step to controlling it artificially. By regulating both the amount of REV-ERBa in the body as well as how much it fluctuates over the course of a day, we might eventually find a cure for jet lag. And it doesn’t end there: the same science may eventually offer relief to people with chronic sleeping issues and other chronic conditions that can develop as a result of a disrupted circadian cycle.
A pill that prevents jet lag is still years down the road, but there are plenty of simple but specific strategies that let you take matters into your own hands. Yes, different strokes work for different folks-frequent road warriors tout everything from popping a pill before take-off to doing yoga upon arrival to apps-but the more we understand the mechanisms that create jet lag, the better equipped we are to pick and choose our tactics. Evans’ biggest takeaway is to place equal importance on all three of those pillars of circadian rhythm when re-setting your schedule in a new time zone. The sooner you’re moving around, sleeping, and eating at the right times, the sooner you’ll adjust. The heightened role of diet in fighting jet lag led us to call in nutritionist Kimberly Snyder for extra advice; her clients include A-listers like Kerry Washington, Channing Tatum, and Ben Stiller, and she’s recently co-written a book with Deepak Chopra that discusses circadian rhythms at length.
Her pro tip: Skip the hotel breakfast. And don’t even think about room service.
Instead, says Evans, you should wake up at a normal hour and head off-site for a morning meal: it’ll reset both your activity and feeding cycles while getting you some fresh air and forcing you to wake up at a reasonable time. Counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s far better than easing into your morning under the hotel duvet with a cup of coffee.
“We can use food and light exposure to adjust more rapidly by timing when we eat, sleep, wake up, and are exposed to natural light,” she advises. Sunlight, she says, “helps signal and reset our circadian rhythms,” allowing our bodies to adapt more quickly.
Snyder adds that what you order for breakfast can also make a difference. To combat the stresses of travel, avoid those fatty, sugary foods we all crave when we’re sleepy and instead eat foods rich in amino acids and antioxidants such as asparagus, broccoli, avocado, spinach and garlic. Avocado toast and veggie omelettes never looked better.
More tips for weary travelers:
• Get ahead of the game. Some shift their sleep schedules before a trip; thanks to Evans’ study on REV-ERBa, we now know that you can shift your meal schedule, too. Snyder says “we should fast while on the plane, and then eat soon after landing, in order to reset our rhythm.” And if you land with a ravenous appetite at midnight, try to avoid an absurdly late dinner. Instead, “time your first meal to match the nearest meal time of your new time zone,” she said.
• You are what you eat. “Be sure not to eat a protein- or fat-rich dinner the night before travel,” said Snyder. “Not only will that make you feel heavy [on the plane], but it also directs energy into digestion through the night.” This makes it harder to fall asleep in flight-as if it wasn’t challenging already. Skipping the plane food doesn’t hurt, either.
• You’re also what you drink. “Drink plenty of water, and bring natural vitamin C or antioxidant packets to mix into your water on the plane and after your flight,” advised Snyder. She said travellers should also avoid alcohol and caffeine prior to, during, and after travel since both are dehydrating and can have deleterious effects the nervous system. If you do drink, go with the frequent travellers’ rule of thumb: two glasses of water for every glass of wine or cup of coffee.
•Supplements help. You know to take melatonin if you can’t fall asleep in your new time zone. But what about magnesium oxide? It can keep your digestive health in check (we’re talking about the end process of nutrition here) which contributes a “regular” circadian rhythm.
• Be realistic. If you don’t recover from jet lag in the first day or two, don’t beat yourself up. Some travellers are faster adapters than others, and circadian clocks can only be adjusted bit by bit.
A helicopter operated by pioneer CMH Heli-Skiing hugs a powdery peak in British Columbia.
I’m airborne. Powder swirls around my body. I dart through the spaces between giant spruce trees. Somehow, my brain calculates the pitch of the slope and my balance holds. Seconds after hurtling off a small cliff deep in the Canadian backcountry, I land, carve a few turns and come to a dramatic stop.
“J’ai la patate!” I exclaim, heart racing, adrenaline surging. “I have the potato!”
This is my new motto, bestowed upon me by my two new Frenchmen friends at Galena Lodge, Fabrice and Sebastian, who told me I had the potato (a French idiom that means being in top form) after our first run.
I’ve come to British Columbia in early January for a week of helicopter skiing – a seven-day reprieve from reality doing run after adrenaline-packed run down 3,000-foot slopes with an aircraft as my ski lift.
There’s a saying, famous among a certain type of skier and snowboarder: No friends on a powder day. These types of skiers (for better or worse, I consider myself one of them) don’t wait for their friends when the conditions are deep and light, because skiing powder is as close as you can get to flying. Resort lift lines stack up after a big dump. Powder hounds guard their stashes of untracked, deep snow as if they were state secrets.
Imagine, then, a world where there is not a mad rush to the top of a run and a frenetic charge down the slope.
This is helicopter skiing at its essence.
Here, there are friends on a powder day because every day is a powder day. There is an unlimited supply of “cold smoke,” the type of snow known to change life trajectories. Add in the helicopter to whisk you to the top and suddenly the only limitation to skiing the best snow known to mankind all day long is your physical endurance.
CMH Heli-Skiing offers the oldest helicopter-skiing operation in the world. Founded in 1965 by the late Hans Gmoser with headquarters in Banff, Alberta, it has exclusive permits to fly helicopters and guide skiers in 11 backcountry areas which, combined, encompass more than 3 million acres of British Columbia, an area roughly one-third the size of Switzerland. Heli-skiing is essentially Alpine skiing in remote, mountainous areas, minus the chair lift. Helicopters ferry groups of skiers and their highly trained, avalanche-savvy, extremely athletic guides to the tops of runs. After dropping everyone off, the pilot meets the skiers at the bottom of the descent, loads them up and does it all again.
Each territory includes a lodge owned by CMH, and each lodge has its own personality. Galena, where I stayed, is considered “rustic,” which translates as intimate and down-to-earth. There’s a dining room and bar, a game room with billiards, darts and ping-pong, a ski shop (guests can use company skis at no additional cost), and a spa area with massage rooms, a sauna, a steam room and a hot tub. Compared to some of the tents I’ve slept in during winter-camping excursions, Galena was luxurious. But return visitors were quick to point out that some of the lodges are quite posh. In fact, Ski Magazine once named Valemount one of the five most luxe ski lodges in the world. Of course, I was just there for the skiing, so my modest twin bed and bathroom more than sufficed.
When skiers register, CMH asks them to assess their skill level. This is key, since lodges are assigned accordingly. Once they arrive, each skier and all their gear is weighed. Groups of 11 people are formed on the basis of weight (so as not to exceed the choppers’ carrying capacity), skill, and, of course, individual preference. Those who came with friends naturally want to ski with friends. However, the guides reserve the right to rearrange groups based on ability. As Aurelian, a Swiss banker, said: “Everyone can get down the terrain, but it’s a question of how fast and hard they want to go.”
Like most, I said I wanted to go fast and hard. I was put in an eclectic, international group of French, Portuguese, Australians and Canadians. Although all were technically impeccable skiers, they were not champing at the bit as I was. My wild-eyed approach suggested I might fit better with a different crew. The guides recognized this and let me ski with the faster groups for the rest of the week. It was the best of all worlds as I got to ski with almost every guest at Galena. I also made friends, was able to practice my French (heaven for a former French major like me) and skied hard, logging 143,216 vertical feet over seven days.
A good chunk of those vertical feet were logged high above Galena’s storied forests. A bitter cold front settled in the valley during my stay. Morning temperatures at the lodge were about minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit and the skies were clear and sunny. The cold weather contributed to relatively reliable snow stability – meaning the risk of avalanches was pretty low – so the guides took us to the tops of the giant peaks and let us schuss down steep, open bowls and through narrow chutes before leading us into the forest. Return guests remarked that they had never before accessed so much above-treeline terrain. There are few sights that can compare to sunrise from a pristine peak in the heart of a massive western range.
The truth is, I expected the sublime skiing and the scenic mountain vistas – why else would anyone shell out thousands of dollars to heli-ski? What surprised me were the connections I made. Come with your friends and of course you’ll have a bonding experience. But it’s nearly impossible to coordinate a group of 11 friends who all have the time, money and skill (not to mention the desire) to spend a week heli-skiing in Canada. Which means you have to be prepared to go it alone, as I did. I thought I might be lonely or, worse, an interloper. Instead, the bonds that formed on the slopes carried over: Before I knew it, I was playing in a ping-pong tournament, cracking jokes and splitting bottles of wine at dinner.
I left with new friends from all over the world. I’m planning on visiting Ian and Paul, who became my dining companions, when my family and I head to Britain next summer. Perhaps I’ll ski again with the Frenchmen who told me I had the potato. Same goes for the Swiss couple, the Aussies and the American contingent.
We’ll reminisce about that one perfect run that started among burned snags, remnants of a long-ago forest fire, and then pitched into a rock garden. Or we’ll recall the trail that galloped through old-growth spruce before charging to the helicopter landing, where we arrived breathless and ecstatic. Or, better yet, we’ll meet again in the Canadian backcountry, where we’ll climb out of a helicopter and click into our bindings before carving new memories that will sustain us until the next time.
Most people know very little about groundhogs, which is kind of weird considering how obsessed we become with the little fur-balls every Feb. 2.
Think about it: What other animal inspires more than 20,000 people to embark on a pilgrimage to a small Pennsylvania town and hold an all-night vigil, through biting wind and snow, just so they can witness the animal’s emergence from hibernation? What other creature can depend on news outlets (like this one!) to devote whole segments and articles to the weather prowess of one of its kind – in this case, a marmot named Punxsutawney Phil?
When you look at it that way, Groundhog Day is more than a little bizarre. (Am I right or am I right or am I right?)
So in an effort to add a little biology to the boondoggle, we’re going to get to know the world’s most famous ground squirrel. That’s right, groundhogs are technically rodents of the squirrel family and the tribe Marmotini, but you may know them as woodchucks and whistle pigs.
If you’re unfamiliar with the modern meteorological predictions made by the marmot, the theory goes like this: If Phil sees his shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter. The tradition is scientifically bonkers, of course, but it’s rooted in something tangible. Before they immigrated to Punxsutawney, German farmers would start planting their crops when hedgehogs started to emerge from hibernation. When they got to America and found no hedgehogs, they subbed groundhogs into the game.
Strange as the festival may seem – a bunch of guys in top hats yanking a whistle pig out of a fake burrow – it’s actually sort of perfect, if you know a little bit about hibernation.
Hibernation is critical to a groundhog’s existence, said Kenneth Armitage, a population biologist and professor emeritus at the University of Kansas. It allows marmots to live in extreme environments, places where food disappears for several months of the year. Hibernation dictates when marmots can reproduce, whether they’re social and how they act when they’re not hibernating.
Lots of animals hibernate, of course, and it can look different from species to species. But marmots hibernate like a boss. For instance, hibernating bears can sustain body temperature losses of only a few degrees, while groundhogs allow their bodies to sink to temperatures just above freezing. Their hearts, which normally beat at about 85 to 90 beats a minute, switch into slow motion, beating maybe three times in the same interval. Their torpor is so extreme, in fact, that they nearly stop consuming oxygen.
Groundhogs can remain in this suspended animation for four to five months, waking only to shiver up some heat every 10 days or so if their body temperatures get too close to freezing, Armitage said. When spring approaches, the groundhog will assess the world around it and determine whether it’s time to get up and feed or dip back into another hibernation bout. It’s this “arousal cycle” that the Groundhog Day celebration mimics.
But here’s the thing about male groundhogs whose living conditions are more natural than Phil’s: They don’t just poke out their heads to see if the sun is shining. They’re looking for love.
“Marmots have to get reproduction going as soon as they can,” said Armitage, who spent 41 years studying the critters at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.
On a chilly night in the fall of 2015, Tom Perry steered his pickup truck into D.C. for a meeting with Phillip Valliant. It was part pleasure – the two had met while duck hunting with friends on the Eastern Shore and had hit it off – but mostly business. Valliant, who worked at Rappahannock Oyster Bar, was interested in starting an oyster farm. Perry already had one.
The two 20-somethings had a few beers, then headed outside to examine and taste a few of the oysters that Perry had brought up from his farm. “Holy Jesus,” was the first thing Valliant remembers saying. “I had never seen oysters like this. They looked like they had been grown in a laboratory. Every one was the same size and shape.”
Within a few minutes, a small crowd had gathered around the pair. Within an hour, they had shucked and shared more than 100 oysters with passersby. “Something clicked for me that night,” said Perry. “If I could get all my oysters to D.C., we could turn this into something big.”
A little over a year later, Perry and Valliant, now a full-time employee, are on their way. White Stone Oyster Co. has an elite restaurant clientele in the District, including Blue Duck Tavern, Le Diplomate, the Dabney and Rose’s Luxury. And the pair hope to burnish the national reputation of Chesapeake Bay oysters by offering deep-cupped, sweet and meaty oysters that compete with desirable – and pricier – West Coast varieties such as Kumamoto and Kusshi.
“They are one of the best oysters on the East Coast, easily,” said Jeremiah Langhorne, chef-owner of the Dabney, which celebrates the ingredients and cuisine of the Mid-Atlantic. “When you start doing the Pepsi Challenge with them – putting them next to the other oysters that are around – you instantly see how much better they are.”
The Chesapeake Bay was, once upon a time, what oyster expert Rowan Jacobsen called the Napa of oysters. They grew wild, billions of them, made plump and sweet from the brackish mix of waters where rivers including the Rappahannock, the James and the Potomac meet the Atlantic Ocean. But more than a century of overharvesting, along with rampant water pollution, put an end to the bounty.
A boom in aquaculture has returned oysters to the Bay, cheering locavores and environmentalists, who laud the bivalves’ ability to filter and clean the water. But many Chesapeake oysters, especially in the less-salty northern regions of the bay, lack the distinction of prized varieties such as Olympia from Washington state and Wellfleet from Massachusetts.
Small and plump, White Stones have a delicate salinity. When tasted alongside New Brunswick’s Beausoleil oysters and Miradas from Washington state, they split the difference between the briny Canadian oyster and the deeper-cupped West Coast variety. The first taste is a burst of salt that quickly softens into a long, creamy finish. The texture is ideal for oyster skeptics who fear the sometimes-snotty consistency of other East Coast oysters.
They’re Crassostrea Virginica, the same Atlantic oyster species that produces Malpeques, Wellfleets, Rappahannocks and many others on the East Coast. What makes them different? The answer is both the location of the farm and the way Perry raises them. The spot is Windmill Point, Va., just north of the mouth of the Rappahannock, a place where plenty of ocean water floods in to give a salty depth to the oyster meat. (Perry found his location by stalking Google Earth, then kayaking through potential areas using a GPS to pinpoint locations with the ideal depth, bottom and water salinity.) To grow the oysters, Perry uses floating cages, rather than the ones that sit just off the bottom and are more common in the Chesapeake Bay. Here’s how it works: Oyster seed, each about the size of a pinkie nail, are bagged, then placed in cages that are anchored into the ground and kept afloat by pontoons. Atop the water, the waves toss and jostle the oysters, polishing their shells and creating the deep cup that leads to a meatier oyster. The constantly moving water also provides a steady stream of oyster food, such as photo- and zooplankton. “The system is not easy for me or for whoever has to go after them – especially at this time of year, where you get vicious, cold winds,” Perry said. “But this is what you have to do to get the end product we want.”
Floating cages are not new; the system is all the rage on the West Coast. But Perry is one of the few using it in the Chesapeake Bay. (Another is the Tangier Island Oyster Co., of which former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli is a co-founder.) The technique does have its downsides. For example, many people, especially those who own waterfront property, complain that hundreds of cages floating in the waves ruin the view. But, says Julie Qui, who blogs about oysters at In a Half Shell, the method does produce a thicker, smoother shell that makes shucking easier – a big plus for anyone who, like this reporter, has tried to open an oyster and turned it into a sloppy tartare.
Perry has almost 1,000 cages in the water and is harvesting 30,000 oysters a week. He hopes to triple that over the next three years. In addition to restaurants in the District, he is selling to such respected Charleston, S.C., chefs as Mike Lata and Sean Brock and, through a distributor, to a few places in New York City. “We want to grow. But we’re not trying to be the biggest,” says Perry. “We are trying to do the best oyster in the world.”
White Stone oysters can be ordered online at whitestoneoysters.com. Price: 50 for $70, 100 for $120 or 200 for $200 (sent via FedEx; price includes shipping). They are also are available at the following Washington-area restaurants:
Blue Duck Tavern
201 24th St. NW, 202-419-6755
On the half shell, $3 each.
122 Blagden Alley NW, 202-450-1015
Half-dozen on the half shell, $16.
1601 14th St. NW, 202-332-3333
Half-dozen on the half shell, $18.50 (or $37 for one dozen).
Johnny’s Half Shell
1819 Columbia Rd. NW, 202-506-5257
Half-dozen on the half shell, $15 (or $29 for one dozen).
717 Eighth St. SE, 202-580-8889
Marinated, two for $6.
2010 Clipper Park Rd., Baltimore, 410-464-8000
Half-dozen on the half shell, $18; five wood-roasted, $17; Chesapeake oyster stew, $13.
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