Green Mountain state of mind

I’m in Vermont for a couple of weeks.


kids on shore



champlain2Between the lakefront trails and the blueberry picking (with bagpipe accompaniment!) it’s pretty much been one misery after another, but I’m trying to keep up a good front for my nieces. Tonight we’re taking a picnic dinner to Shelburne Farms for an outdoor concert. I believe Josh Panda will be singing and even though I really enjoyed his performance at the blues festival last summer and even though there are baby goats in the Barnyard, I’ll try to pretend I’m having a good time. Wish me luck.

in which I do nothing

I’m happy to announce that Cactus Camp is over and even happier to say that, for the second year in a row, there were no fatalities.

What’s that? You don’t know what Cactus Camp is?

No, I suppose you wouldn’t, although it’s hard for me to recall a time when I was that innocent. I will attempt to elucidate.

Cactus Camp, to the best of my recollection and understanding—both of which have been called into question recently—started last year when my sister Angela brought her children to visit us during their April break. At the time, the girls were 7 and 10 and they’d been here a couple times before. Our house isn’t very interesting to most adults, and has even less to recommend it to people below the legal drinking age. (Those above that limit might be mildly pleased by the prospect of sipping grapefruit margaritas on the back patio in late afternoon sun.) Anyway, I was concerned that the kids might get bored. More than that, I was concerned that I might then be required to take them to the zoo.

I loathe the zoo.

As it happened, we did end up at the zoo last year, but it wasn’t out of boredom. It was because Cactus Camp sent us there. Cactus Camp sends us a lot of places. It sends us into the desert and into rivers and even into museums. Cactus Camp runs us all over the state of Arizona.

But we don’t know who runs Cactus Camp.

We’ve never met anybody who claimed to work for Cactus Camp. We’ve never seen so much as a stray lanyard lying about or caught a polo-shirted counselor out of the corner of our eyes. Things just appear. Challenges, clues, riddles, and vague warnings, all printed on large index cards that seem to manifest out of nowhere. The first signs of Cactus Camp—the very first appearance—were found on top of the inflatable mattress that the kids share when they come to visit. It’s a queen size airbed that I borrow from a friend and it takes up most of the floor space in my office. When the two sleepy girls tumbled into it one night in April 2013 after a long plane trip from Vermont, they snapped awake and started giggling like…well, like little girls.

There was a card on each pillow. They were identical and they said:

New Cactus Scouts
Cactus Camp is seeking new scouts.
(Don’t ask what happened to the last ones.)
If you like exploring deserts,
having daring adventures,
accepting dangerous challenges,
meeting wild creatures,
and baking chocolate chip cookies,
then, you too, can be a Cactus Scout.

Are you brave enough to try?

The mysterious (and somewhat sinister-sounding) camp challenged willing participants to find an adventure log, which turned out to be a simple booklet made of a posterboard cover bound with ring clips. Later challenge cards came pre-punched with holes to enable the eager campers to add them to their books. And those campers were eager. Despite recurring allusions to former campers and unsolved disappearances, they pounced on every challenge. Angela and Ryan and I scrambled to drive them to and fro and accompany them on hikes and swims and various outings and also keep everyone fed. By the end of the week, they went home with log books filled with drawings and lists of things they’d seen and done and a printed record of their adventures. Apparently this is considered a Cactus Camp success, because when they got home, I hear they got packages in the mail with souvenir t-shirts and certificates of survival.

And apparently, Cactus Camp was a success with the girls as well, because as soon as their mother and I had confirmed the dates for this year’s visit, I heard that they wanted “to do Cactus Camp again.”

I have precious little influence in this world, but I tried to get word to the appropriate authorities. That’s no easy task when you don’t know who or where they are. But it must have worked, because the day before the girls were to leave Vermont, I heard that they received letters in the mail. No, not letters: cards.

Camp Registration
And Liability Waiver

I, __________________________,
(print your name)

want to attend Cactus Camp 2014.
I promise to be brave
and not to scream too loud
and also to brush my teeth.

Both girls signed up, which means that we adults did, too. By the time the visitors arrived, welcome notes had again appeared on their bed—although the fact that their flight arrived 45 minutes early might have thrown off the Cactus Camp log book assemblers, which I noted didn’t show up until the next morning.

However, the morning had a surprise that raised our eyebrows far higher than a mere log book could do. On Sunday night, when the Vermont contingent arrived, Angela told us  she had forgotten to pack sun hats. She had confessed the oversight to her kids while they were waiting out the layover in Dulles. Now this was a serious issue, Arizona being a land of brutal sun. We figured we’d have to go shopping in the morning.

But come morning, things got weird. Or weirder, if you would have already found it weird that someone had left notes lying around your house while you were at the airport. After last year, we were prepared for that. But we weren’t prepared for the series of challenges on Monday morning that led the girls throughout my house and yard, stringing together hidden clues that culminated in the discovery of two Western-style hats hanging in trees. The hats fit perfectly, but at no point did we learn who was measuring heads and monitoring packing lists. The mystery deepened.

After that start, we didn’t fret as much about the cryptic instructions that appeared throughout each day. We just helped to parse the riddles and we chauffeured the kids wherever they needed to go to meet the day’s challenges. On Monday, we learned about saguaros at the botanical garden and then freshened up at a desert oasis—which, to a cynical eye, might look a bit like a splash park. On Tuesday, we were charged to see as much of the Sonoran Desert as possible in one day. We tackled that with a road trip to Tucson to visit the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum.

As we were leaving the botanical garden on Monday, two docents had approached the girls and given them new Cactus Camp cards. The campers’ faces registered a mix of shock and delight. But when I asked the docents about Cactus Camp, they denied any involvement, saying only that someone had asked them to give the cards to the girls. Said the younger camper: “Okay, this is getting really random.”

So when the same randomness occurred at the Desert Museum, our eyes got very large and round, but nobody had much to say. By then, Cactus Camp was omnipresent. We’d get back to the car after one adventure only to find cards in the back seat, proposing a new destination. Cards appeared in the girls’ shoes, under their pillows, tucked into the bathroom mirror. Some arrived in the mail with no return address. Nobody ever knew how the cards got there, just as no one ever found out what had happened to the ill-fated former campers. No one ever heard a door open in the night or saw anybody sneaking around, not a person or a rabbit or an elf. The cards just kept coming, so we kept going.

On Wednesday we rode horses through the Verde River and through so many of the surrounding desert canyons that without having met them, I can assure you that the Cactus Camp organizers have cushier posteriors than I do. On Thursday, I packed a picnic and we went swimming at Canyon Lake, then explored a spooky ghost town. A spooky ghost town with a very-much-alive general store that sells prickly pear fudge. Why thank you Cactus Camp, this almost makes up for the saddle sores. And thanks also for Friday’s assignment to visit the Musical Instrument Museum, which aside from being just plain cool, was also a pleasantly air-conditioned reprieve from the hottest temperatures of the week.

I believe there were other challenges, too, although it’s beginning to blur in my mind. By the time the final riddles led the campers to their completion prizes, they had completed 20 challenges and collected a few incidental notes and bonuses. When they left on Saturday, their new log books looked at least as full as the old ones. I didn’t get one. Nor did I get a snappy t-shirt with glittery saguaros or a Cactus Camp survivor certificate, although I did feel as if I had survived something.

I mentioned that feeling when we were in the car on the way to the airport. Angela concurred. But her daughter, my now eleven-year-old niece, set us straight:

“Why should the adults get one? You hardly had to do anything for Cactus Camp.”

Maybe not, kid. But I have an idea about what happened to the last campers.

cactus kids

They survived. For now.

In between

As I was waiting for the train this morning, I mentioned to my sister that one of the many things that I like about train travel is the feeling of being outside of place. I sit next to the window and I see cornfields and rivers and depots pass by but I can’t touch them. When the train stops at Waterbury and Amherst, the train is in those towns, but I don’t feel like I am. Until I step out at Penn Station, I’m neither here nor there. I’m in between.

In between is also a fair description of the past few weeks of my life. I’ve been making my annual August tour of New England—a couple weeks in Maine, a couple weeks in Vermont, a couple days in New York City, then back to Phoenix. I’ve had a lot of family time, a lot of being out of doors in the green, a lot of swimming, and a bit of drinking beer in the afternoon. I’m not sure that I have anything profound to say about it, but it’s been a good trip so far.

Wanna come along?

wiltWe begin in Phoenix, where the sunflowers on my kitchen counter explain everything you need to know about why I decided to go elsewhere in August.

sandbeachstreamThis is elsewhere, and I was standing in it very soon after I arrived.

sand beachSand Beach. You know you’re in Maine when you have to specify that a beach has sand.

sandbeach_dunesI am just now realizing that most of these photos include water, which became something of a theme. A light rain was misting when I got off the plane in Trenton and my skin drank up the humidity as if I’d been living in a desert or something. The mist, the fog, the rain that lasted an entire day, the midnight thunderstorms, the lakes, the ponds, the streams and rivers and ocean. I drank it all up. Well, I didn’t literally drink the ocean.

inthedrinkBut I came close.

That water is cold, by the way. Very cold.

This is warmer:

lakewoodLake of the Woods. More generally known these days as Lakewood, but where’s the romance in that?

trees and rocksI went for a hike.

dripping rocksAnd found water.

hadlock brook

hadlock brook

cedar swamp

noriThree years ago, I spent most of the summer at Nori’s house and we hiked every mountain in Acadia. Nori is what you might call a Trusty Hiking Companion. Here she is at the top of Cedar Swamp Mountain.

However she can’t hike the Precipice Trail, on account of this stuff:

precipice trailBut for those of us who can manage it, the view is delightful.

champlain viewAnd now I’m getting a little sleepy from the train, so let’s relax with some scenic side trips. One rainy afternoon, I ducked into the Somesville Meeting House to dry off.

somesville meeting house

rain windowAnd then went back out into the rain and walked across that sweet little arched bridge that you see in the background. And wiped out hard at the far end. My elbows were purple for a week.

No pictures of my elbows.

If you leave MDI for a couple days, and head south down Route 1 toward Rockland, you’ll pass Windsor Chairmakers just outside of Lincolnville. I’ve driven past that place many, many times. This time I went inside.

windsor chairs greeter

windsor chairs planesThey have a lot of tools at Windsor Chairmakers.

windsor chairs benchAlso: chairs.

And now I’m starting to slip into the train daze, wherein I have lost all reference points and am not sure who I am or where in time I might find myself. It happens to me often on long trips, but maybe it’s worse today because I’ve been revisiting places that I was in a couple weeks ago, but also years ago. The decades and towns are shifting around for me, sliding on rails, and the sign out the window says that I just passed through Windsor, Connecticut, which is doing nothing to interrupt this fugue state. Windsor Windsor everywhere.

belfast bridgeAnd then we’re in Belfast. That’s Belfast, Maine, not Belfast, Ireland. Wow, this really isn’t helping.

belfast harbor

bluehill sculptureBlue Hill Harbor. And this time I’m sure. The sculpture is from the Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium and if you don’t know what that is, you should.

blue hill falls bridgeBlue Hill Falls.

blue hill falls

blue hill falls flowersA long time ago, when I lived in Maine but not near the ocean, I came down here sometimes to see the sea and be happy.

blue hill falls rocks

blue hill falls shells

sailboats brooklinBrooklin, Maine.

fence brooklin


bowdoinThe schooner Bowdoin has made 28 trips north of the Arctic Circle since she was launched in 1921, She is now owned by Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. And I am a walking guide book.

preble cove splashQuick, before I lose track of myself entirely amid harbors and fog, let’s loop back to the island for some quality rock skipping in Preble Cove. With a side order of fog.

fog beachAnd then we’re off to Vermont and there are no pictures of the trip itself on account of I was driving. But as soon as I unpacked, I begged the locals to take me hiking. We climbed Stowe Pinnacle, which is a fine thing to do.

pinnacle3From the top, you get a big view of Mount Mansfield and the Worcester Range. Plus a lot of farms.

pinnacle1We got back down to the bottom just in time for sunset.


pinnacle7Speaking of sunsets, one of my favorite things to do when I’m in Burlington is to watch the sun sink over Lake Champlain, turning the Adirondacks purple across the water.

batteryparkThis is the view from Battery Park up on top of the bluff.

champlain sunsetAnd these are from the bike path.

champlain blue

champlain sailboat

circles sunset True, that last isn’t a lake. But it seemed to represent something about Burlington. And since we’ve already swerved off topic, let me just casually mention that I rode up the Depot Street hill three times last week. Without stopping.

However, we don’t need to dwell on my accomplishments, impressive though they may be. Let us instead take a hike and enjoy a view of the Ethan Allen tower. This is not a view from the tower, mind you, because the tower was locked. locked outWhich is not to say that it is uninhabited.

rapunzelAnyway, since the tower is a bust, let’s go to the beach one more time before we skip town.

Oh, but there are no pictures from the beach outings, because there was entirely too much swimming to do and too many children to splash and who wants to bother with cameras? Take a moment, if you’d like, to imagine blue skies, shady trees, the gradual slope of beach easing under cool (but not cold) water, some exaggerated squeals, a snack-seeking duck, sun-dazed smiles on the way back home, and then the drizzle of sand falling out of our swimsuits onto the floor. It was a lot like that.

Here’s the lake at least.

last lake

And that brings us to here and now. Here means Seat A, Row 14 on the next to last car of the Vermonter, somewhere outside New Haven, Connecticut. And I think that now means Saturday, September 7, 2013. But then again, maybe not.

train ctWon’t know for sure until I get to New York.