Monthly Archives: January 2008

Landscape: Vermont’s Covered Bridges

Taftsville Covered BridgeCovered bridges are a unique aspect of the Vermont landscape, adding—I suppose—to the state’s old-world charm. Over 100 covered bridges can be found across the Vermont countryside, many of them historic sites. On recent family roadtrip trip to Killington, we were able to see a few covered bridges in Vermont’s South Central region (the Woodstock/Quechee/Rutland part of the state). In the 1800s, many Vermont towns charged a bridge toll to help pay for the construction, but we weren’t charged anything to drive over (or under) the ones we crossed. My big question about covered bridges was: why are covered bridges covered in the first place? No one on the roadtrip knew the answer for sure, but I just visited the Vermont Only website to find out. No—it’s not because they would get slippery in all of the snow, as we speculated, but rather that a cover over a bridge helps protect the trusses that keep it together. All of that sun, wind, rain, and snow might only allow the trusses to do their job for a decade, but once covered, they’re good for a century. Good to know. Pictured at right and below is the Taftsville Bridge:

Taftsville Bridge Side View

The Taftsville Bridge is located just outside of Woodstock, and it was built in 1836. It is the state’s third oldest bridge. A newer bridge we crossed was the Quechee bridge, built in 1970:

Quechee Covered Bridge

If you’re entering Quechee from Highway 4, you’ll cross this bridge. While the bridges, themselves, add to the landscape, it’s worth getting out of the car to see what’s running under and around them. Here’s a nice dusky evening view from the Quechee bridge:

View From Quechee Bridge

One bridge worth mentioning is Middle Bridge in Woodstock. I don’t have any photos, but if you’re walking around in Woodstock (which I highly recommend doing), you can walk to the bridge from the town center. Middle Bridge was built in 1969 as a reproduction, and even though it’s not really that old, it looks ancient, and it would have made a good photo–if only I had taken one. Anyhow, seeing things first-hand is better than a photograph anyway, so put Middle Bridge on your list of things to explore next time you’re in Vermont!

Literature: Cahalan’s Abbey: A Life

“Write right. Write good. Right Wrong. Write on!” –Edward Abbey

Abbey’s Arches National ParkJames J. Cahalan’s Edward Abbey: A Life (2001) tells the story of one of my personal heroes in a very real way. Edward Abbey (1927-1989) authored some twenty books, including two of my favorites: Desert Solitaire (1968) and The Monkey Wrench Gang (1976). Abbey was an environmental activist, a champion of the desert landscape, a cantankerous old man. Edward Abbey is regarded as one of America’s finest “nature” writers—even though he both embraced and distanced himself from that categorization, depending on his mood. Instead of glossing over the less desirable aspects of Abbey’s life, Cahalan’s biography searches for the facts that may help explain them, and it also addresses criticisms of Abbey as racist, as misogynist, and as a stretcher of the truth. Abbey had five wives and many more affairs. He drank so much that his late-life health problems probably stemmed from his habit, and he sometimes told stories that mingled too much fiction with fact. What struck me about Cahalan’s telling of Abbey’s life was how he portrayed Abbey as a normal person—as in, just like you and me—despite the extraordinary things he did during his lifetime. In biography, I find this refreshing, and maybe it’s not so much about Cahalan’s telling of Abbey’s life but more about how Abbey really was. As I have been reading more biography lately, I find it almost depressing to hear about how person X achieved thing Y by age 5, or how so-and-so overcame Z in order to become the best at A, B, and C (by age 30). Edward Abbey failed frequently—even in his writing, but he somehow just kept going in his life and in his work. Cahalan’s story isn’t a story about success; it’s a story about perseverance, breakdown, and a wild commitment to living life in the midst of it all.

Other “Down and Out” posts on Edward Abbey include:  

Literature: Abbey’s Road

Literature: Abbey’s Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Literature: Abbey’s Desert Solitaire

Literature: Abbey on Thoreau

Life: Down-Home Vermont

Shawna Macnamara skiing KillingtonVermont is real, at least this part of it: Killington, Chittenden, Woodstock, Quechee, etc. I’m currently on a quickie roadtrip with my parents and The Sister (pictured right). We all met up in NYC on Thursday afternoon and drove a rental car up here on Thursday eve. We’ve been staying at a lodge in Killington and fully enjoying what this nice state has to offer. There’s more than maple syrup in these parts, I’ll have you know. Impressively good snow at Killington on Friday made for a good day downhill skiing with The Sister. And Saturday’s trip to Woodstock was way down-home. Places not to miss in this little town include the F.H. Gillingham & Sons General Store, established in 1886:

F.H. Gillingham

Gillingham’s sells local cheeses and jams, and it has a nice wine section right next to the kids toys and books. Gillingham’s also stocks birdseed, facial products, garden tools, kitchen appliances, and—of course—a wide selection of maple syrup. The impressive thing about Gillingham’s, though, is that it doesn’t have that mass-produced/made-in-a-foreign-country feel, and as I’m writing this, I’m feeling a bit sad that it’s the exception rather than the norm now in this country to go somewhere that still has local character. Gillingham’s would be that kind of place, evidenced here in the rows of homemade jams with little cloth cozies covering the lids:

Gillingham Jams

Woodstock also has this amazing chocolate shop, the W.M. Winand Chocolatier. We took a break from our leisurely walk through Woodstock to sip Winand’s gourmet dark hot chocolate (extra thick). Cheers, from the family:

Cheers, Winand’s.

When I get together with my family, I’m reminded that the adventurous spirit runs deep in this clan. The Momster and Dad were out on a four-hour snowshoeing excursion while we skied, and everyone has been keen to try at least something new. From seared brussel sprouts to cross-country skiing, dogsledding, and snowmobiling, the family adventures here in Vermont have been nonstop.

Landscape: Where the Buffalo Roam

BuffsOkay, so the buffalo don’t roam freely anymore in Colorado, at least not along Highway 9. They’re contained behind little wire fences so that we don’t run into them on the road. But it’s still cool to see buffalo out there, and I’m psyched to have them in my state of residence. I don’t think that there are any buffalo—even behind little wire fences—in New York City. For the past few weeks, I’ve been dividing time between Boulder (on the weekends) and Breckenridge (during the week). This means that I’m commuting over mountain passes in a really crappy car, a rusted-out 1992 Toyota Corolla, constantly threatening to go kaput. It sputters and chugs up the passes, such as this one here: Wilkerson Pass—

View from Wilkerson Pass

Wilkerson Pass is one of the high points on the drive from Colorado Springs to Breckenridge (the other being Hoosier Pass). What rocks about Wilkerson Pass is that once you’re on top of it, you can see all of the Summit County peaks—and all of the snow. Big snow lately in the mountains: powder days last week at Arapahoe Basin and Vail. I’ve been spoiled properly in the past few weeks by such good conditions—but am heading out for a family vacation to ski in Vermont. We’re road-tripping from Manhattan (sister’s place of residence) to Killington, where icy slopes await. More news upcoming from the road…

Literature: Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts

“If somebody reads my strip everyday, they’ll know me for sure—they’ll know exactly what I am.” –Charles Schulz

Traci J. Macnamara on Schulz and PeanutsI have no particular interest in cartoons or cartooning, but I found David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography to be a good read. People fascinate me, and I generally enjoy reading biographies, so maybe that had something to do with my interest in this book. I also recently saw that this book was picked by Louisville’s The Courier-Journal as one of the top ten books of 2007. I can see why: Michaelis is a meticulous researcher, and he knows how to make a person’s life readable. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz (1922-2000) was a fascinating man; even though Peanuts became the most widely syndicated cartoon on the planet, Schulz battled insecurities and loneliness in the same way, perhaps, that his characters Charlie Brown and Lucy fought out their differences on the page. This book tells the story of Schulz personal and professional development, from his beginnings as an art teacher to the high point of his career, during which he earned between $26 and $40 million annually. Schulz (the artist) is not the same person as Charlie Brown (the artist’s creation), but readers will find themselves rooting for Schulz—often the underdog—in the same way that Peanuts readers find themselves sympathizing with Charlie Brown. Schulz could be contradictory and enigmatic, intense or lighthearted, just as his characters were, and that’s what keeps this book interesting. One drawback? With over 550 pages of text, this book is a brick. Sometimes Michaelis goes overboard with detail, such as offering the street addresses of Schulz and his acquaintances throughout the book, but the story’s pacing is even, and its subject’s personal drama is likely to keep readers tuned-in despite the author’s enthusiasm for minutiae. Nonetheless, as the first full-length biography of Charles Schulz, this book does a great deal to help us understand the cultural relevance of cartooning and to relate the person who created Peanuts with the characters we have grown to love.

For more on this book, click here to read my review of it on the Contemporary Literature website.

Landscape: A Day Out

FriendsThe mountains are special places, and exploring them with friends somehow seems to make them more beautiful. I can’t seem to get these images out of my mind from a recent trip to the French Alps, so I figured that I would just share them. In Chamonix, it’s possible to walk out your back door and walk straight up into the hills, which will eventually turn into big mountains, which will eventually taper off into perfect, pointy peaks. Trains and busses regularly run through the valley’s main road, so even without a car, it’s possible to get there (wherever that may be) and back before it gets dark. After a big snow, my pal Andy and I took the train up valley from Les Tines, each of us sitting by windows to watch the world scroll slowly past their frosted panes.

Les Tines Tracks

Our destination that day was the Glacier d’Argentiere for a bit of ice climbing on the basin’s left side. From the top, we could see the glacier’s seracs on the right with the Chardonnet and the Aiguille d’Argentiere on the opposite bank. Little avalanches broke away on that side all day in the sun, and we shivered safely on our side in the shade.

Argentiere Basin

After a short ski out of there, we got the last cable car back down to the valley. Orange light danced over the tips of the Aiguilles Rouges as we slithered downhill.

Slithered Down Hill

It wasn’t long before we were back indoors, hanging our dripping gear over the fire, drinking bowls of spiced tea, dreaming about when we’d get a day like that again.

Life: The Dark Side

Randon-yea!Happy New Year from “Down and Out.” I’m not huge on resolutions that relate to a specific time of the year. It’s possible, I think, to muster up the strength to make a necessary change when the time is right. And that could happen at any moment. The change could be as little as deciding to toss recyclable trash in the right bin. Or as big as switching from snowboarding back to skiing, which is what I recently decided to do. When I told a snowboarder of this decision, he chided me for “returning to the dark side.” Well, the “dark side” has never been so fun, I say, especially as I discovered the joys of skiing with an AT (alpine terrain), or randonnée (as the French call it), set-up on my recent trip to Chamonix, France. This ski system has a releasable binding so that it’s possible to skin up steep terrain with an unattached heel and then click back in (voilà!) to descend, as if on alpine skis. The benefits of this system are numerous, but the biggie is that this set-up makes it possible to access more off-the-beaten-path terrain. Or just to get a good burn going in the thighs skinning up groomers when the lifts are closed (as they were here, above Vallorcine):

Skinning Up

Since I’m basically skiing downhill these days with the ability of an out of control fifth-grader, I feel more nervous about skiing with a big backpack than I feel about climbing with one. Nonetheless, my scary-talented ice-climbing friend convinced me to ski into a climb, and all went surprisingly well (here I am whacking away after his stellar lead):

Axe Slinger

Maybe the one good thing about this time of the year is the forced celebration. It is as if a series of festivals have been woven into the fabric of American society, and instead of dwelling on the commercial absurdity of it all, I’d rather think of the holidays as a time to celebrate our families, our friends, our communities, a time to celebrate this life that we have. Thank you for the memories, friends in Chamonix (scary-talented ice-climbing friend pictured below):


And “Down and Out” readers, you are a part of my community, too, so thank you!