Eagles Are on the Nest

I had a fascinating encounter with the bald eagle family of Lake Rescue this morning. They live there year-round, and have been residents for years, entrancing the human residents of this lovely lake in southern Vermont.

When I came around the bend in my kayak at 6:45 AM, the mother eagle was waiting for me in a tall tree nearby. Can you spot her?

Mother eagle, perched on a branch on the north end of Discovery Island. The nest is in a cove just beyond the south end of the small island.

I checked the nest: empty.

Then the baby popped up.

Mom immediately flew over to him.

She landed on a nearby branch and the two interacted for a long time.

It’s so awesome to start the day with this!

We Are Back, Baby! … Well, Almost

We are back in Vermont, we are vaccinated—twice—and May 18 is the official date that we are emancipated from the threat of COVID-19!

We have spent the last six months in Pennsylvania closing down Bob’s late mother’s condo while the kids finished their semesters of school. In the meantime Lisa has been working on the final edit of the Young Adult novel she began in late 2019, and both of us have been studying Spanish ardently.

We moved back up to our second home in Ludlow, VT, this past Sunday, and after months of cleaning out a lifetime’s worth of stuff, then packing up, moving out of one home, and moving back into another, we are frankly exhausted, physically and emotionally.

The trees are still brown on the mountains in Vermont and the weather is cool.

So of course, the first thing we did was relax in the hot tub with mimosas to celebrate the moment and toast the future.

Its good to be back. Bob really missed the hot tub.

There is so much to do here in Vermont—kayaking, hiking, birdwatching, visiting breweries, exploring New England towns, enjoying outdoor concerts, going to farmers markets, shopping, enjoying so much that Vermont has to offer. And we have started planning our next travels. Watch for that in the next Messy Suitcase blog!

Hasta La Vista!

Gimme Shelter! (AT Style)

We found the Tucker Johnson Shelter at the cold halfway point of a recent hike on the Appalachian/Long Trail south of Pico Mountain, just when we needed it. We had hiked a mile and a half up the mountain, to a point where the wind was becoming quite biting on a crisp November afternoon, so we were happy to take refuge in this three-sided building.

The Tucker Johnson Shelter

The trail guide that I use said that a shelter was going to be built sometime “after 2012,” and the building was a welcome sight. The shelter looked brand new, its blond wood barely weathered.

I did a little digging and discovered that the shelter was constructed by Green Mountain Club volunteers in fall 2018. (Read the story here.)

The shelter was open on one side, and had four bunk beds. A sign on the wall instructed hikers on how to hang their food so they wouldn’t attract unwelcome bear scavengers. There was even a privy (outdoor toilet) nearby, the lap of luxury for through-hikers.

I imagine a night of shelter can be a welcome respite in the middle of a long hike.

Graffiti Storytelling

There was very little graffiti on the inside, attesting to the youth of the structure, but we enjoyed the stories the etchings told.

Trail Book Storytelling

Inside, we found a sign-in book inside a sealed plastic bag, with lots of travelers’ comments as they stopped for shelter along the trail.

I enjoyed flipping through the book, where travelers with nicknames like V for Vendetta, Missing Person, andEarly Bird shared snippets of their lives on the trail. The first entry was in July 2109. The last was the one I left, signed by “The Hammster,” my new trail name.

Here are a few of the entries. If you click on individual pictures, they will expand so that you can read them better.

Choose Love

The last thing I noticed was a heart-shaped, painted stone that someone had left in the shelter. Choose love, my friends.

The Birds of Lake Rescue, Vermont

We have been summering at Lake Rescue in Ludlow, Vermont, and the sheer magnitude of the wild birds that make their home on and around this 184-acre body of water in the Green Mountains is breathtaking. The secret to seeing the most avian activity is to rise early and get out on the lake, preferably in a kayak, to observe the birds’ early-morning fishing routines before the human population begins to intrude. Here are a few.

(If you click on the pictures, they will expand to full size.)

Duck Duck Goose

Ducks and geese are by far the most common bird we have found on the lake. They are bold and will swim right up to your boat or climb on your dock.

Loons

Common loons have been living on Lake Rescue for more than a decade.

Herons

I was fortunate to encounter Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets fishing early in the morning on Round Pond, at the north end of Lake Rescue. The grasses on the isthmus between the lake and the Black River, and the sand bar created by storms, provide and enticing place for birds to walk and fish.

Ospreys

We discovered ospreys, on the direction of a neighbor, in a cove near the Red Bridge.

Bald Eagle

A bald eagle family maintains a nest in a cove near Discovery Island, and returns year after year to hatch new eggs.

Easy Hikes to the Top of the World

Vermont has an endless bounty of hikes, from the challenging Appalachian/Long Trail that traverses the entire state, to short hikes with big rewards. All of them are steep, because these are the Green Mountains, after all!

Here a couple we enjoy that can be done with the kids, or with people in your party who aren’t used to long hikes. Both will reward you with outstanding views for not too much effort. Don’t forget to pack your binoculars or a camera!

Hike to the Top of Okemo

There’s a short hike to the top of the Okemo Mountain Road that gives you an awesome vantage point with less than a mile of hiking. You can hike through dense, magical woods up a steep, rocky trail, or you can hike up a relatively easy road. At the top you have a mountain-top view from the Okemo Peak that lets you gaze down upon the Village of Ludlow, Lake Rescue, and mountains all the way to New Hampshire. You’ll see the ski lift and can climb to the top of the Fire Tower (if you’re not afraid of heights). It’s less than a mile round trip. There are some pull-offs with scenic views on the way down. Learn more.

Directions to the Trailhead:

Turn left on Route 100, then left at the end. Make a right onto Okemo Mtn Rd. Drive up to the Okemo Lodge, continuing up the private road to its left (OPEN from late spring to late fall). This road will switchback straight up the mountain for about 4-5 miles until you reach the top. You’ll be able to park at the end and either walk on the road or go up the trail to the left.

Echo Lake Vista Trail

Children as young as five can successfully navigate the hike up the Echo Lake Vista Trail. It’s steep but not brutal, and the views of Echo Lake, okemo Mountain, and the whole area from the top are breathtaking. there’s a nice rock there where you can relax and enjoy a snack. It’s only 1.5 miles round-trip. Learn more.

Directions:

The trail is located at Camp Plymouth State Park Distance. Go north on Route 100 (turn right from Benson Point), North, then turn right onto Kingdom Road at the Echo Lake Inn, follow 1 mile to Boy Scout Camp Road, and turn left to Camp Plymouth State Park. Park for free in a parking lot on the right before the road crosses the creek. The trailhead is past the cabins on the right, or you can go farther on the road and access the trail by old wooden steps that take you through an ancient cemetery.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

OK, so we can’t go to movies. We can’t go to restaurants. We can’t explore new cities, make new friends, photograph churches, practice Spanish, soak up the culture. But we can get outside and explore nature!

So while we have been living in Grandma’s condo in Mechanicsburg, PA, this Spring and summer, we at Messy Suitcase have been spending a lot of time on foot exploring the Appalachian Trail here. You can access an interactive map to get info about the trail in your region, if you live in the northeast United States.

Here are a few facts about the AT:

Total Length: 2,190 Miles

Number of States the ATTraverses: 14

Approximate Gain/Loss in Elevation: 464,500 Feet

Visitors Each Year: 3 Million

Here in Cumberland County, the trail has its lowest, flattest stretches, but there are still some hills to climb. Much of it runs along the Conodoguinet Creek.

How to Hike Safely in the Age of COVID-19

We have several rules we follow when hiking. We wear lightweight gators around our necks to pull up for use as masks should we pass anyone. We start early (to avoid heat) or hike during off-peak times because NO ONE else bothers to mask. We move well off the trail to let people pass. We wear long pants because of ticks. We are gluttons when we pass wild black raspberry or wild raspberry patches.

Frozen Pineapple Margarita

If you can’t be adventuring because of COVID-19, then it’s time to go on some journeys of the palate! So last night I created Frozen Pineapple Margaritas. I didn’t have Triple Sec but Simple Syrup did the trick. Here is the recipe:

Ingredients

frozen pineapple margarita
  • 1 cup ice
  • 1/2 cup frozen pineapples
  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila (White is recommended but reposado is also delicious)
  • 1 ounce triple sec (or Simple Syrup)
  • 1 ounce lime juice
  • Garnish: Slice of lime

Instructions:

  • In a blender chop ice and pineapples. You may need to add lime juice at this stage.
  • Add other ingredients.
  • Blend until smooth.
  • Poor into chilled class with lime garnish.
  • Enjoy!

Makes 1 margarita. Obviously multiply the recipe to make more. A blender will have enough room for three. Feel free to add extra ice depending on how thick you like your margaritas and how hot it is outside.

5 minutes

The Coronavirus, Grandma’s Condo and Toilet Paper

When the coronavirus started to get serious, my husband Bob and I were at a Mexican resort, trying to take one last vacation before the world shut down, unable to enjoy watching pelicans dance with the waves because of worry.

Acapulco was gorgeous but we were too worried to enjoy it, and left early to start the journey home

Our oldest child, Aryk, was hunkered down at Keele University in England, one of the last students still on campus, trying to decide if coming home would disrupt their chances to graduate this summer. Our youngest, Gavin, was in Vermont, gathering up their things (and their emotional support cat) from college.

Bob and I had stopped working full-time in 2018, envisioning an adventurous retirement spent exploring the world. We rented out our house and happily hit the road. The kids went to college. We explored Mexico. Life was good.

But the coronavirus changed everything. In a blink of an eye, we needed a family home, and to reel in the kids, ASAP. Since Bob’s mom had passed away in January, we decided to move into her Pennsylvania condo instead of selling it. We hustled to purchase plane tickets for kids before borders closed, flew from Acapulco to Mexico City, packed up our truck, and began the five-day, 2,500-mile odyssey north from Mexico City to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

Thus all four of us journeyed toward the empty condo of a dead woman from different points on the globe.

Bob and I, driving 8-10 hours a day in our trusty Toyota Tacoma, worried about picking up the virus from every gas pump, every hotel room door, every person who coughed near us in a rest stop on our way to the bathroom. Shoulders tight, we fretted that the Mexican border would close before we got through, that we would get sick or be stopped and quarantined along the way, that we wouldn’t be able to get food to eat.

When we crossed the border into the United States, I cried with relief.

At the same time, we worried that our kids would pick up the virus as they traveled. Gavin had to fly from Mexico City (where they were visiting us for Spring Break) back to Champlain College to pick up their books, clothes and their emotional support cat, then from Burlington, VT, to Harrisburg, PA. Aryk had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Atlanta , GA, before boarding a plane to Harrisburg. Both then had to take Ubers to Grandma’s condo.

Gavin arrived at the condo first. He was already experiencing coronavirus symptoms by the time Aryk showed up a few days later. They wisely isolated from each other as Bob and I powered northward, white-knuckled. By our final travel day, Gavin was coughing and feverish. Of course, we ran into a traffic jam in the last few hours to further exacerbate the tension.

Gavin with his trusty cat in Grandma’s condo, getting his temperature taken

But now we are together, and I am grateful. Gavin is on Day 10 of what we presume is the coronavirus (though the PA State Health Department declined to test him), still with a fever, extreme dehydration and no energy, but thankfully, the disease has not lodged in his lungs. The rest of us have no symptoms, but Bob and I are keeping six feet away from Aryk for 14 days, just to be safe. I serve Gavin meals and meds and massive pitchers of water wearing a hospital mask and rubber gloves, and pray I don’t catch it. We all wash hands and doorknobs voraciously. When Gavin is no longer ill, the 14-day quarantine clock will begin for us all.

Out walking with Aryk, always six feet apart

Every day that the three of us don’t experience symptoms is a victory. Every tick down of Gavin’s thermometer is a relief, though the subsequent day it always goes back up, so we are not out of the woods yet. We are all quarantined, getting food delivered and staying inside except to exercise.

But I’m grateful we are together, that we have a place to stay that feels like home. I’m grateful that Grandma left us some unexpected gifts, in addition to the condo, such as two thermometers, and masks and gloves to protect me from Gavin’s virus. I even found an electric keyboard in a closet, which will keep me busy for the next year re-learning how to play. I think Bob’s mother would be happy to know that, in death, she is taking care of her family so well.

Grandma’s unexpected gift

Most of all, I am grateful to be with my husband and kids. I pray we all make it through unscathed, not just the ones in my household, but my stepmom and six brothers and sisters, their spouses, my nieces (one pregnant) and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, aunts and uncles, and many, many cousins. Traveling the world seems like a distant memory. Now my dream is that my family and friends survive this and we can all restart our lives next year.

And I am eternally grateful that Grandma hoarded toilet paper.

By Lisa
Hamm-Greenawalt

Drive to Mexico 2020

Our second time driving across the Mexican border was a bit different from the first, even though we used the same crossing – Colombia Solidarity Bridge in Laredo, Texas.

Getting Us Into Mexico

The first time we crossed, in January 2019, we had Mexican Visas, the first step in attaining Temporary Residency in Mexico, because we expected to stay long-term. This time, our Temporary Residencies had accidentally expired because of the extra time we spent in the States taking care of my sick mother, and we knew we are going to stay less than three months, so we entered with Tourist Visas.

The difference was that this time, we each had to pay a Tourist Visa fee at a cost of $575 MXN, about $390 US. (Note that this fee is included in your airline ticket fee when you fly into Mexico). This entailed the initial stop at Immigration office, a stop to pay at the Banjercito window, and then another stop at Immigration to finalize our paperwork.

Getting our Truck Into Mexico

Next, we had to get the Temporary Import Permit for our car. This cost $400 USD, which is supposed to be reimbursed when you leave Mexico, plus a processing fee of approximately $51 USD. I wasn’t as prepared this time as I was previously and I had left copies of my driver’s license and passport buried in a folder in the back of the truck, so we chose to stand in the copy line at the border facility and get those copied.

Registering the truck

Next, we had to drive through Customs. It seemed as if every car was chosen for inspection, and ours was no exception.

Inspecting the Cats

This time was that they asked for documentation for the cats. We were traveling with only two because Ellie, the third, was now living at Champlain College in Vermont with Gavin, our youngest. Effective January 1, 2020, you no longer need a Certified Health Certificate to bring a cat into Mexico, but they can physically inspect the cats for open sores, health problems, etc., and you need to prove they have rabies vaccines. The Inspector made us pull out the paperwork, which unfortunately was stored in the far reaches of the truck, entailed a near-total unpacking. He very thoroughly reviewed the paperwork.

Noxy and Kaylee patiently waited during the truck inspection

X-Raying the Truck

Next, Lisa and the cats had to get out of the truck while I, once again, drove it through the x-ray machine. Once they reviewed the x-rays, we were free to go.

The truck x-ray machine
Our truck is inside this x-ray machine

In the end, it took us about 1.5 hours at Mexican Immigration and Customs. Fortunately, there weren’t lines (which is why we like Colombia), or this could have been much longer.

Welcome to Mexico!

And then we were in Mexico! We didn’t take time to celebrate, but pressed forward to get to our first night’s lodging before dark.

Lisa’s favorite sign

We drove about 6 hours to Matehuala, where we had a reservation at the same cat-friendly motel we stayed at last time, Las Palmas Midway Inn in Matehuala.

Our new Garmin GPS seemed to under-estimate our travel time, by about an hour both days. We didn’t run into traffic either day, so that wasn’t the issue. Maybe it was the fact that many of the Mexican roads we drove on incessantly changed speed limits, going anywhere from 110 kph to 60 kph and back. It may be difficult for the GPS to deal with that along with the fact that there may be few people driving those routes and providing route time feedback. It could also be that we drive the speed limit while many Mexican drivers don’t necessarily do that. I don’t really know how the GPS time estimation works, so this is all just a guess.

We love our new Garmin GPS

Another thing that may impact the time estimation is the number of toll booths. Overall, we passed through 10 of these booths at a total cost of $924 MXN, or about $50 USD.

Stopped by the Mexican Cops (the Federales)

Finally, the last thing that was different on this trip was we were stopped by the Federal Police on two occasions. The first of these seemed to be more friendly. The second one was at an organized Federal Police checkpoint. Here they pulled over several people and performed inspections. They asked me 3 times if I had weapons or drugs (armas, pistolas, drogas) and then had me open the back of the truck and open selected suitcases, even going to the point of asking me where my shoes were in one of them, which I had to subsequently dig out. They also frisked me. Asking me to empty my pockets, patting me down and having me lift up my pant legs. So, that was a different experience than last time as we weren’t selected for the inspections as we drove through several of those checkpoints before.

Nonetheless, we arrived in Mexico City with enough time to unload, park the car and find an extremely nice restaurant to have a couple of beers, dinner and watch the Super Bowl (in Spanish).

New Orleans, Part 2: The National World War II Museum

On our single full day in New Orleans, we opted for history instead of entertainment and headed to the National World War II Museum. It was, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular, illuminating museums I have ever experienced in my life. This museum, which started out as the D-Day Museum in 2001, and is located in New Orleans because most of the landing craft used on that turning-point day in history was manufactured here. The D-Day Museum was so well received that it was expanded a few years later to become the National WWII Museum.

Lisa’s dog tag

You start by getting a dog tag to represent a soldier you will be tracking all day at check-in stations, and board the same kind of train many soldiers took when they embarked on their journeys. It was a truly immersive experience as, with seats rocking, the train whistle blowing and the grainy black-and-white landscape flying by, the conductor welcomed you aboard.

Beyond Boundaries Film

After getting off the train, we started our explorations by watching the 48-minute film Beyond Boundaries, a 4D experience narrated by Tom Hanks that used film and other sensory effects, including a 1930s wooden-cabinet radio, falling snowflakes, a plane cockpit that lowered from the ceiling to punch out an air battle scene, and more to introduce us to the sheer magnitude of World War II. The mini-documentary stunningly put into perspective the global threat presented by German Furer Adolph Hitler, Italian Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito of Japan, the Axis leaders who wanted nothing less than global domination. It ended at the climax, the bombing of Pearl Harbor that dragged the United States in the war and engaged every person in the country in the fight for the very survival of democracy.

We learned how the ill-equipped United States, previously hesitant to join in the war as Nazi forces took over country after country, stepped up when it came under attack. Men young and old rushed to join the war effort and defend their country against the invaders. Women, who were home raising children, took factory jobs and churned out an incredible volume of planes, jeeps, weapons, artillery and more.

The European Theater

The WWII Museum is comprised of five buildings, and we only had one day, so we chose to enter the Road to Berlin: European Theater gallery. I don’t even know how to describe the experience after this. We spent five awe-struck hours being assaulted from all sides by grainy black-and-white film, sound and lighting effects, real-life voices telling their stories, radio broadcasts, flashes and explosions, and much more.

This breathtaking exhibit took us through the major steps in the European campaign, starting with North Africa and moving across Italy, southern France, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, England, and  Germany, that culminated in the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. We experienced the shock that troops felt when they discovered the atrocity of the concentration camps and the slaughter of 6 million Jews, as well as millions of others deemed inferior to Hitler’s Aryan race. We met military leaders and foot soldiers, journalists (including Ernie Pyle’s life and death) and pilots. We saw airplanes and jeeps, nurses’ uniforms and bomber jackets. We shivered in the snowy woods in Germany and leaned away from incoming anti-aircraft fire from a small plane. I thought of my three Troisi uncles who flew many missions in Europe and for the first time had a concept of what their experience was like.

A plane goes down during an air battle

My dog tag soldier, John, was a 17-year-old who went to Canada to pursue becoming a pilot when the United States rejected him because of a previous broken neck. He ended up doing bomb runs for Canada, and then England, before the United States decided to let him join. He won a medal of honor and was a prisoner of war in Germany for more than a year.

Planes, Jeeps and Submarines

We also visited the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where we saw a number of WWII planes and jeeps, as well as the Medal of Honor Exhibit.

Wartime aircraft
Medal of Honor recipients

We still need to go back to see the other Campaign of Courage: The Pacific Theater, especially since that’s where Bob’s dad was stationed on a Destroyer Escort in 1943-45. There’s a whole hall, the Arsenal of Democracy, that we didn’t have time for, and a doomed submarine experience I’m interested in. The outdoor area is under construction to create a Freedom Garden.

New Orleans is about a lot more than Jazz and Jambalaya. If you visit this city, definitely devote a day or two to the National WWII Museum. To get the full experience of the museum, watch Bob’s video on the Messy Suitcase YouTube channel.

By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt