Sunday, July 26, 2015

Our New Home in Maine

“The first time that you begin moving in an unconventional direction is the hardest beginning,” according to modern-day adventurer Alastair Humphreys. "After that, you can’t imagine moving in any other way."

Since J & I returned from New Zealand, we had a dilemma and were at another crossroads. We have challenged ourselves to live differently and have done so successfully since 2011. Everything we've done so far is interrelated in one way or another and most importantly, closely mingles with the lifestyle we've chosen. Could we keep the momentum going and continue on this path? The simple answer is yes, we can make the decision to do so. 

Once again, we chose to work together in the hospitality business. We are in northern Maine running Chesuncook Lake House and Cabins, a remote wilderness lodge. There are a few twists in this job that present new challenges and opportunities for us. It is hard to describe this place and how unique this experience will be, but let me try to set the scene. 

We are north. Waaaaaay north. We can see Canada from our front yard. Our home is "the North Woods," quite literally because we are one of the few specs of civilization among 6.5 million acres of forest surrounding us.

We travel 50+ miles of dirt, pot hole-ridden private roads to get here from the closest town. It takes 2.5 hours. We are either going to get a flat tire or hemorrhoids this season. Or both.  

We are off-the-grid. Forget the fact that our closest resupply point is 2.5 hours away, Chesuncook Lake House & Cabins operates on solar and wind power, with 2 generators as the backup. We use electricity sparingly and run out if we are not conscious (still working on this learning curve). Most of the lights are propane and we don't have take-for-granted appliances like a coffee maker, toaster, crockpot, microwave or TV because they take too much power.  So we use a percolator for coffee, oven for toaster and imagination for TV. Mail does not deliver here. No cell phone, no landline. But, we have satellite Internet! In case of emergency, please e-mail 9-1-1. 
There was a medical emergency with one of the village residents this week! 

We are so far north and east, the sun comes up at 4am. The flip side is, during the winter, we will only see sun (if any) between 9am-3pm. 

The lodge is nestled on Chesuncook Lake (pronounced Cha-SUN-cook), with mile-high Mount Katahdin as its focal point. Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park and is close, only as the crow flies. Everything is close as the crow flies. 
A number of rivers feed in and out of the lake, including the very popular paddling river, the West Branch of the Penobscot. Even though our kayaks are tucked in storage in Colorado, we have canoes and kayaks at the lake house that will put us on that river hopefully very soon.     

Chesuncook Village, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is not the "village" you are envisioning. There are no more than 2 dozen "camps" here along a 2-mile strip and many sit unused because of the difficulty in getting to and fro. No one lives here year round, but for the summer period, we have a handful of very welcoming neighbors. 

Lumber was the lifeblood of the area. From the 1860s through the 1970s, steamboats traveled the lake and other waterways with log booms (literally dragging the logs behind the boat). Back then, there were no roads and this is how the lumber companies operated their paper businesses. Lumbermen relied on villages like Chesuncook as they traveled through. Chesuncook Village had 247 residents in 1920! Even Henry David Thoreau canoed up Chesuncook Lake in the 1850s. 

As the logging business changed as roads multiplied, the village became purely a getaway for fishermen, paddlers, hunters, snowmobilers, wildlife and birdlife lovers. For a century, visitors came only by boat, then by float plane more recently. Just in the past 5 years, the state built roads, making these remote camps just a long, bumpy ride from town. Road access has its pluses, but more minuses if you ask the long-time locals. 

Chesuncook Lake House & Cabins was built as a farmhouse in 1864. For years, Maggie & Bert McBurnie provided services for the lumbermen and sportsmen. Bert, who was born & schooled here, is now buried here in a graveyard that has more plots than current residents. The graveyard, with tombstone dates as early as 1815, was relocated away from the shoreline when the loggers raised the lake level. We just found out that a true rite of passage for "villagers" is to camp in the graveyard. Hmmm … 

The current owners of Chesuncook Lake House, David & Luisa, bought the property 16 years ago and ran the business while raising their 5 children here. With everyone grown up, they have purchased other booming businesses (campground, sporting camp) closer to town. That's where we come into the picture.

Chesuncook Lake House has 4 interior rooms for rent and is all-inclusive; we cook breakfast, lunch & dinner for our guests. The 3 Chesuncook Cabins offer a more primitive option (yes running water, but no electricity) and guests bring in their own food. The business is seasonal for the summer and fall, with a break, then again later in the winter following the holidays, followed by another break in the spring. We liked the idea that we essentially have the opportunity for year-round work, but with breaks for our bigger adventures. 
Summer business has always been steady, but on the slower side than other businesses we've run, according to the owners. But we are here for when guests want to come and stay. We will cook, clean, maintain the house and yards and run shuttles for people wanting to canoe the river. We're not envisioning it being a terribly busy summer, but enough to get us by in a setting that I usually only dream of. Except for the squadrons of black flies and mosquitoes, it is quite idyllic with the hummingbirds buzzing by day and the loons haunting us by night. Can't forget about the moose, bear and deer that outnumber the people. Don't worry, we will keep a count for you. 

Now winter, that's where all the action is. Spending a winter in Northern Maine is probably a nightmare for most. Winters are so harsh up here, even the moose complain. However, it is the stuff snowmobilers salivate over. Miles and miles and miles and miles of trails to nowhere. With a cozy and inviting Chesuncook Lake House smack dab in the middle of the wilderness to stop for lunch and a beer, or perhaps an overnight stay. 

Hopefully I will have lots of good stories to tell about our time at Chesuncook. As usual, you are all invited to visit. That is, if you can find us. And if not, you can live vicariously through our crazy adventure we call the life less ordinary. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Currently: July

Currently just departed from: New Jersey. We were in NJ from July 1-17, with a few brief side trips, like for the high points and HCA reunion. Once again, it was great to visit with so many friends and family, celebrate birthdays, see our niece's first play and just enjoy everyone's company. 

Current plan: this deserves a blog post all on its own. Be patient; it's in the works. But there could be some clues to at least a location in this post. 

Current mood: adjusting to a new situation, so we'll get back to you on this one.

Currently thankful for: unrestricted views of lakes, mountains and wildlife!

Currently excited about: being in a remote area with our favorite wildlife (moose and bear) and birdlife (loons and hummingbirds) 

Currently not excited about: massive mosquitoes, black flies and slow, limited Internet (again).

Currently worried about: I feel like this one is always a health concern for my side of the family and July is no different. My dad is having an angiogram on Wednesday to see if he has any blockages because his heart has been weaker than normal lately. If there are blockages, he will get more stents (he has 15). All of this is disconcerting because he is no spring chicken and gets tired/stressed from walking to the mailbox, let along being hospitalized and worked on. Send good vibes his way!!!

Currently regretting: leaving our kayaks in Colorado. In continuing our nomadic lifestyle, it is always hard to decide what to leave in storage and what to take with us. As it turns out, we would have used our kayaks a lot this summer. 

Currently amazed by: my mom's ice cream eating abilities. Her 4'10" frame and all 97 pounds can down 3 sundaes in one sitting. I never once questioned where I got my sweet tooth from; it is something I had since in utero.

Current confession: J did not do well on his Vegas trip last week, but at least he had fun celebrating his friend's 40th bday!

Currently reading: "Girl on the Train" thanks to my sister for getting it for me as an early birthday gift!  

Current guilty pleasure: Cable TV, which I enjoyed at my parents' house the last month.

Currently watching on Netflix: Nada. May have to switch to the mail plan again. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Why I Once Lived in Phoenix: My HCA Story

Last weekend, J & I met 3 other couples and their kids in Beckley, West Virginia, for our 15-year reunion as Holy Cross Associates (more on that later). 

 The Holy Cross Associates, minus 2 members
The Holy Cross Associates, plus spouses and kids

I know you are wondering why in the world we would end up in Beckley for any reunion, but it was the most centrally located for everyone (except for us, who come from nowhere). Amazingly, we were able to coordinate everyone's schedules and pull off something we've been talking about for years. We rented a house for the weekend, rotated meal duties, played Cards Against Humanity (after the kids went to sleep of course) and checked out the New River Gorge National River and Bridge (the 4th highest steel arch vehicular bridge in the country!). You would think J & I would have done some whitewater rafting, rock climbing or bridge jumping while in this area, but Cards Against Humanity and trying to finish off a 30-pack of Miller Lite between 8 adults was as wild as it got.  

There was supposed to be one other couple there, but she is pregnant and had not been feeling well enough to be far away from her regular doctor (and potentially have to use medical care in Beckley, WV - that should scare anyone). So we settled for FaceTime. 

So, about Holy Cross Associates … sit back, grab a cuppa and listen to the story of how I know these jokers. 
Chris continues to be best joker in the house.

Back in the year 2000--when airport security was nonexistent and we had to develop our film--I did something crazy that ended up shaping my 20s and taking me in a completely different direction than my 22-year-old self could have imagined.

With a new and shiny college degree in my hand, I decided to forgo a paying job and do a year of volunteer service through the Holy Cross Associate program. 

The program was under the umbrella of Americorp (Peace Corp) and was built on 4 pillars--service, community, simplicity and spirituality. College grads were paired together to live in a house while doing service. It is best described as "Real World: Catholic Style."

I became familiar with the program at my own college (King's)--being a Holy Cross school and having Associates on campus. One of my roommates was planning to enter in the program and it really peaked my interest. So I signed up and was accepted. 

I received my work placement, list of roommates and a 85009 zip code. Admittedly, I didn't even know where Phoenix, Arizona, was (I have since improved my geographical knowledge after 2 dozen cross-country road trips). In July 2000, I boarded a Greyhound bus with 5 other strangers for the next 48 hours. We were allowed to bring 2 bags and a carry-on bag as our supplies for the whole year, as there was no going home allowed. 

This is all of us after we stepped off the bus. Direct quote: "Let's move away from the wave of heat from the bus exhaust. Oh, wait, that's just Phoenix." 

The program provided a roof over our heads and living expenses--albeit small. We all had full-time jobs, but the service aspect of that was that we didn't get paid for them. My job was with St. Joseph the Worker, which provided job placement services to low-income and homeless individuals (I loved it). Our shared grocery budget was $250/month and we had to work out what made the list and what didn't. Beer-yes. Tortilla Chips-yes. Feminine hygiene products-no. We lived on a stipend of $60/month for our personal expenses. We shared 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms (guys and girls bathrooms). We shared ONE car--a 1980s Buick Century, which had a window that didn't go down, a door that didn't open, an odometer that didn't work and a back window that eventually blew out because of the heat. I was a control freak back then and couldn't deal with being late to work, so I rode a bike to work every day in hot Phoenix traffic. My butt got very big and I got hit by a car only once (broke 6 ribs). 
I'm not going to lie. Living with 5 strangers--2 other gals and 3 boys--was awkward at first. On the Greyhound bus, we swapped seats and went on 5 first dates. "How many siblings do you have?" "What was your major?" Certain personalities were stronger than others. One of the girls was like a bison; she liked her personal space and spent the first 3 months locked in her room (she was the only one who had her own room; I love her to death now and we are very close friends, btw). We inherited each other and fought like brothers and sisters. It was often like West Side Story; we rumbled at midnight. 

But, we slowly figured it all out. We held weekly "nuts and bolts" meetings to work out, well, nuts and bolts. With our basic needs covered, the year was really about digging deeper and focusing on living life at a level beyond our wildest dreams. It was up to the house how we wanted to live out the 4 pillars of the program. I am proud to say we embraced all the pillars. For simplicity, we implemented practices that helped us live like the homeless we worked with. We had the occasional no electricity night. We slept outside. We agreed not to put on the air conditioning until May 31 (which almost killed a friend of mine who was visiting). We worked at the soup kitchen every Thursday night and after serving 500+ homeless and low-income people dinner, we cleaned the 2 bathrooms they used all night (I made J do this on one of our first dates when we met in 2002 … surprisingly, he didn't run in the other direction). 

Most of all, we had fun. Man, did we have fun. Every Wednesday, we had Community Night and rotated cooking and a group activity. We did things like scavenger hunts, karaoke, bowling, mystery night, and playing some drinking games (there was a lot of drinking games). We had our inside jokes and knew what buttons to press with each other and what not to press. We really gelled with the church community in which we lived and worked. They became our family. 

Our Holy Cross Associate bond became and will remain unbreakable. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

High Points #35 and #36: Maryland and Kentucky

Our goal of reaching all 50 high points has really taken a back seat to some other adventures of lately. We didn't bag any high points in 2014. But being we had a little more flexibility this summer, we thought we'd put it back on our agenda.

We took a little road trip last week to Maryland's and Kentucky's high points. I wouldn't call them "on our way" to anything, but they were close enough to fit perfectly into our plans.

Maryland's high point came first. We camped nearby at Big Run State Park right on the Savage River in the western panhandle, scenic section of Maryland. Great campsite for just $10, but we got there really late and left pretty early the next morning, so we couldn't enjoy it as much as we would have liked.

Getting up Backbone Mountain to Maryland's Hoye Crest (3,360 feet) requires a short, clearly marked hike (2 miles roundtrip) with an elevation gain of 700 feet. On the trail, you actually start in West Virginia and cross into Maryland, signified by a weathered 1910 concrete state marker. Even though hitting the summit wasn't particularly exciting (no views), Maryland is definitely one of those states that takes pride in their high point. There was a plaque, a huge rock cairn, a picnic bench, a mailbox with the sign-in book and certificate and even a platform to put your camera for a timed photo.

Next up, we camped 2 nights at Breaks Interstate Park in Jefferson National Forest right on the Virginia/Kentucky state line. They call the Breaks the "Grand Canyon of the South" because of its 1,650-foot gorge. We had never been through this hidden gem of an area and really enjoyed passing all the once-thriving coal mining towns and the steep coal-rich hills.

Getting to Kentucky's high point (Black Mountain at 4,145 feet) meant driving on steep roads with more curves than Jennifer Lopez. Apparently, the road to reach the high point is famous for putting cars in the trees and getting people car sick (guilty). We picnicked at the overlook, which is the only view you get. You can actually drive the last 1.4 miles from the overlook lot to the high point, but we opted for walking up the road. Only a handful of high points are on private property, but Kentucky's is on property owned by the Federal Aviation Administration. We had to mail in a waiver for permission to access it.

With numbers 35 and 36 done, we can now say we've climbed all of the high points east of the Mississippi!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Made in the USA

The U.S. manufacturing sector may appear to be shrinking, but it's making a comeback at the same time. American production remains as hip as recycling and microbrews, particularly in the outdoor industry.

We are proud that a few of our preferred gear companies produce homegrown gear. We visited our first stateside factory in April 2013, when we toured Cascade Designs (Therm-a-rest) to see the making of the very air mattresses we use in the backcountry.

Princeton Tec makes all its headlights and lanterns in good 'ol New Jersey, and being we were going to be in the state again, we arranged a visit to their made in the USA facilities last week in time for celebrating America's birthday. ***

Let me set the behind-the-scenes action. About 150 workers are seated at various stations in a room the size of a football field. During a single shift, they produce thousands of lights a day. And when I say they, I really mean that production is by hand. From plastic mold creation to lightbulb connectivity to quality control testing to boxing it up and shipping it out. All done by hand. I was under the wrong assumption this whole time that a machine assembled my headlight.

I love to see the behind-the-scenes action because it gives you greater appreciation for the product. In the backcountry, we use PTec's Vizz headlights (step-by-step assembly pictured above).
The Sync headlight won Backpacker Magazine's Editor's Choice this year! 
The Helix lanterns are the latest and greatest from PTec. 
Perhaps the best part is that PTec INCLUDES batteries with all their products. It's the little things that excite me. 

Princeton Tec has been around the block, creating personal lighting products for 40 years. Still family owned and operated, the business has outgrown a few factories. The company started with making lights for scuba divers in the back of a small dive shop in Princeton, but now, they have lighting solutions for industrial workers, the military and a wide variety of outdoors activities. They are in the process of moving to bigger space again. Like most success stories, Princeton Tec is one of innovation, doing things other companies aren't doing and an unprecedented attention to detail, craftsmanship and quality control. Best of all, they are made in the USA.

***We initiated this visit to Princeton Tec and they did not solicit us to write about the visit. I just thought you all would enjoy a peak behind the scenes too.