Million Bees Roadtrip 2016, Part One: A Sweet Natural Eye to the New Hip Moon*

“. . . We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset . . .” –Allen Ginsburg, Sunflower Sutra

I woke up with nothing to say.   It was a dreary morning in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and I was tired. I’d driven a long time through New York and New Jersey (which I will explain in a moment) and I’d had a fitful night’s sleep in a motel room where the raindrops from the air conditioning unit above mine drummed down in an unpredictable syncopated staccato on the metal outside the window beside my bed. I’m supposed to be resting but I’m weary.

After the New Jersey Barbecue Adventure I had pushed on until my eyes were drooping in the Pennsylvania night and I pulled off the highway to find a bed in Bethlehem. The air was raw and damp and the night sky was low with fog. This particular Pennsylvania off ramp dumps into ridiculous road construction smack dab in front of the appallingly tacky Sands Casino. And the Sands stands smack dab in front of the decrepit old steel stacks of a recently deceased industrial behemoth. It’s as if an anger-issues Invisible Hand of the Market punched a hole in the sheetrock and somebody hung a Thomas Kinkade print on the wall in front of it. It’s a simple solution but I’m not sure it’s the best solution.

I found a bed and woke up Wednesday morning in a gray mood. I set out in search of a cup of coffee in a town that has, quite simply, seen better times. And I drove around thinking of Ginsburg’s “gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery” and I saw two people in matching red shirts planting plants in a barrel by a stoplight. As I thought, “Starbucks must have seen a sign that said ‘Abandon Hope’ and refused to enter here” I saw another few people in those self-same red t-shirts and they were planting plants at the base of a bike rack. I sort of noticed some red flags and red balloons as I searched for a cup of goddamned coffee to start my day.

I finally found a double-long parking space (because I’m dragging around this stupid 10-foot trailer) within reasonable distance of a place called Deja Brew and I ran in for a latte. As I drove back toward the highway I realized there were dozens, maybe scores, maybe more people who had dedicated a dreary, drizzly Wednesday morning to planting flowers around this once-beautiful town. The shirts, flags, and balloons bore the logo of Wells Fargo Bank. I presume they sponsored an event but I can’t seem to find any information on the internet. Perhaps the project is not just for publicity. But, good people of Bethlehem, when all those flowers start blooming you know which bank to thank.

IMAG2199I’d set off on this year’s (two) Million Bees Roadtrip on Tuesday around the middle of the day. Loyal readers will recall last year’s fiasco with The Curse of the Chocolate Donut and this year I decided to try my luck with an entirely different donut from an entirely different donut shop: The sweet potato-ginger donut from The Holy Donut served as a delicious lunchtime entrée and I pressed on toward Brooklyn.

Phil’s Philosophies of Life, #48: Give yourself a difficult and pointless quest from time to time:

IMAG2204On the Big Map it makes sense – Bill Fletcher is the brother of a dear friend of mine. He runs an amazing barbecue restaurant in Brooklyn. My brother-from-another-mother Anthony lives in Short Hills. Only the Holland Tunnel and a few miles of highway separate the two. So it makes perfect sense to leave Maine at lunchtime, pick up a big bag of barbecue in Brooklyn, and then shuttle it out to Short Hills for a delicious supper, right? Forget for a moment the rush-hour traffic and the ten-foot trailer behind my car and the plan is perfectly logical.

Few people have been my friend longer than Anthony. (I won’t bore you with details but suffice to say without Anthony The Honey Exchange would not exist.) His mother, Clara, is my “work mother”. She taught me (at the age of 20) how to be a dedicated boss and a kind, caring person at the same time. Her return to work not long after brain surgery gave me a new definition of “work ethic.” So when Anthony told me Clara would be joining us on my brief pass through the mid-Atlantic I thought, “this barbecue better rise to the occasion.” Fletcher did not disappoint. I enjoyed a wonderful but fleeting evening with Anthony, his beautiful wife, and a couple of their friends. The only disappointment was that I arrived so late I only had the chance to meet two of their four children and the meeting was all too brief. And I was too late getting to sleep in Bethlehem.

Wednesday’s drive was a fog removed from time; I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow but my goal was to arrive in time for an evening meal in western Virginia with a friend I had not seen since I graduated from college a very, very long time ago. Twenty-seven years is a lot of catching up to do over a single supper but a few precious gems of our conversation are relevant to the story I want to tell: Ellen’s field is environmental cleanup.

In the course of our chat I mentioned to Ellen how at least ¾ of our beekeeping students in every class are women and she jokingly said, “we’re taking over.” I agreed, and wished them well because things haven’t really gone so perfectly while the men have been in charge. I thought of Ginsburg’s “blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery” and how Ellen and a few other remarkable people had dedicated their careers to cleaning up after the mistakes and carelessness of commerce and military might. And I recalled the red Wells Fargo shirts on people who had dedicated a dreary Wednesday morning to putting plants in the ground of a town that needs reminding that we’re all golden sunflowers inside.

I think the world is healing. It’s healing in baby steps but it’s going in the right direction. And the sun came out in Virginia and I’m feeling good about this trip again.  Tomorrow is a brighter day.

[*a special thanks to Allen Ginsburg, who gave me no permission to steal his words, but I honestly don’t think he’d mind.  The complete poem is not entirely suitable for audiences of all ages but it is worth looking up if your are an adult who is unfamiliar with the work.]

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A Story About Bad Choices . . .

. . . and bad choices averted:

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We got a call through the Maine State Beekeepers Swarm Hotline about a swarm in the Martin’s Point neighborhood in Portland.  When I called the woman with the problem she told me a “lot of bees” were in her air conditioner.  I had to ask her to describe what a “lot of bees” meant to her; sometimes homeowners have a different definition than we swarm wranglers do.  But she described a mass of bees that had completely covered her working window AC unit.  Hearing a lot of “splat” from bees hitting the fan, she had turned off the air.  Most of the bees then went inside the air conditioner and a bunch of bees made their way into her house till she duct taped the openings inside.  This was not a good PR situation for honeybees and I had to go check it out.  An air conditioning unit is a profoundly stupid place for a swarm of bees to alight.  As I’ve said to many new beekeepers – bees, like any other animal, sometimes make very bad choices.

When I got to the house it was clear a swarm’s worth of bees were in and around the AC and around and above the roof of the house.  They weren’t hanging in a cluster as I had hoped but were indeed inside the air conditioner.  I believe what had happened was the queen, for reasons we’ll never understand, had flown into the AC and had been atomized by the whirring fan.  I can’t find any other explanation for the bees’ interest and fascination with the entire air conditioner, not just a single spot.  The whole AC must have smelled like their team leader.

I hurried back to the Honey Exchange and gathered up some gear:  an extension ladder (I believe I’ve explained before I am no fan of climbing up ladders but duty calls); a 5 frame nucleus box with an old frame of brood comb; a strap for said nuc box; some lemongrass oil (to mimic the “come together” scent of a beehive); Fischer’s Bee Quick and a rag.  Then I headed back to the house to test out my plan.  Put simply, it was to make the AC smell like something bees dislike (without making the machine unusable in the future) and drive them into a hive full of smells they like.  The video below shows the process:

At the top of the ladder my plan seemed to be working.  The homeowner, her visiting friends, and her neighbors were all fascinated and entertained by the absurdity of the situation.  And everyone was kind and concerned about the welfare of the bees.  I went home that evening feeling pretty certain the bees would move into the nuc box.

That night I had a thought:  What I really ought to do is go out and screen up the entrance to the nuc box in the darkness to be sure to get the whole colony while they are inside for the night.  But I’d had a couple of beers and decided against getting in the car.  Slowly the realization came to me of what an insanely bad choice that would have been.  Clambering up a ladder to a second story window in the middle of the night?  What am I, Bruno Hauptmann?

Instead I waited till morning.  We arrived at work to find a message from the woman who had called to say she had looked up at the nuc box and the bees seemed to be all in the hive and no longer in the AC.  I went over, screened up the entrance (leaving a few flying bees to duke it out with the whirring fan – I can only do so much), and moved the hive to a bee yard at the other end of town.  After they had settled down I inspected the colony and couldn’t locate a queen.  I gave them some brood to look after and I’ll check them again next week.  If they need a new team leader we have some good queens available.  We should be able to find one who won’t make such bad choices.

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2015 Bees Roadtrip, Chapter Two

Enjoy Virginia WinesPlan A was an excellent plan. I had learned from the 2013 Million Bees Roadtrip if I leave Portland at 7:30 am and drive steady on, the timing works perfectly to miss rush hour traffic in any major metropolitan area all the way to Washington DC. Plan A was to make this drive on Friday May 15, 2015. As the saying goes, man plans and God laughs.

The nucleus colonies I am going to get need to be inspected by the West Virginia state apiary inspector before they can change hands. As I was making preparations two days before the 15th we received word at The Honey Exchange the inspector was unavoidably delayed and our pickup would have to wait a week, till Memorial Day weekend. I should have made a new plan but I really liked Plan A. It had me passing through the D.C. area with a little cushion of much-needed leisure time when I could stop and see my sister, who lives in Arlington, and drop in on my friends Karla and George, who live in Gainesville, and pick up some of their wonderful honey. George Backyard Hive

burnt microwaveI got a late start. I had to use the trailer to take our old microwave to the dump. It had been tossed unceremoniously on the side lawn after the fire three weeks before and the neighbors were starting to talk.  And I was able to secure a glazed chocolate donut from the Cookie Jar for good luck. I don’t think an earlier start would have saved me; I’ve lived near the small city of Portland so long I’d forgotten what big city holiday traffic really means. But we’ve covered that subject and I shan’t speak of it again.

Saturday I awoke in Fairfax, Virginia to a gorgeous early summer day. Over a cup of exceedingly bad hotel room coffee it was time to reinvent my plan.

Let me provide a bit of family background before I go further:  My brothers and sisters grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where our parents still live. We are now scattered about as far as a family can scatter. I have a brother in Texas, my sister Cathy lives in Arlington, and my other sister lives in Uganda. [For my Maine readers, that is in Africa. So many Maine towns are named for other places one might reasonably believe there is a Uganda, Maine. I assure you there is not.] It might seem like we were all getting as far from our parents as possible but it simply comes down to genetic wanderlust. We are a wonderfully loving family, if not demonstrably so. We suffer from (as Strother Martin once put it) “a failure to communicate.”

So when my sister learned via Facebook I was within miles of her in Virginia, she sent me a quizzical text. I explained I was cobbling together a plan and we arranged to meet for a proper cup of coffee then go see George together.

We're a CRV family.  My other sister, Anne, drives one in Uganda too

We’re a CRV family. My other sister, Anne, drives one in Uganda too

You may remember Plan A involved seeing Karla, who is married to George. As my bad luck would have it Karla had to be out of town this weekend for an astoundingly dull sounding conference on qualitative research, the subject of her day job. I know Karla as a beekeeper, and she’s an amazing one.  I met her through the friend of a friend who went to college with Karla.  We connected on-line and it turned out she was already a friend of my beekeeper friend, Erin.  Karla seems to have a supernatural ability to meet people and she has impressed the beekeeping world locally, through her involvement with the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association, nationally through the Eastern Apicultural Society, and even internationally at the British Beekeepers Association.  Her hives make delightful honey but more importantly Karla makes nucleus colonies, and she teaches others about how this is the future of sustainable beekeeping.

I was sad to miss Karla but I’ll always gladly go out of my way to spend some time with George. George seems to have lived his life by his credo, “If it ain’t fun I ain’t doing it,” and has achieved the rank of raconteur. He spent his formative years as a horseman, has traveled extensively, and now spends part of his time as a beekeeper and part of his time as a winegrower. He manages the vineyards for the Winery at Bull Run and Cathy and I were eager to spend a beautiful day visiting there.

We stopped in at Karla and George’s home to pick up a case of Backyard Farms honey for the Honey Exchange and were treated to a walk around some of the hives and the gardens at said backyard, and an hour or so of lively conversation on the screened porch surrounded by a truly flawless Virginia summer day.

Then he took us over to the winery. I found it remarkable how one person after another locked eyes and exclaimed, “George!” and came to him for a hearty two-handed handshake or a big hug. Apparently it is impossible to not love George. He showed us around the grounds, treated us to a few tastes of delicious wine, toured us around the winemaking facility and brought us up to the vaunted General’s Club that overlooks the breathtaking and sprawling property at Bull Run.

George Fermentation Tanksbarrel roomIMAG1850

After a perfectly relaxing and congenial afternoon I bade farewell to my fine company and drove off in the bright sunshine with the GPS pointed toward Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I fell back in love with the landscape and have a feeling my luck there can only improve.

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2015 Million Bees Roadtrip, Conclusion

Preface to the Conclusion:

Few things the world will make you miss being in Maine more than Jersey Turnpike traffic on Memorial Day weekend. Signs on the road warning of “delays past Exit 4” were terrifying in number, distance in advance, and in the fact that I had a hard time conceiving of how traffic could possibly be worse than it was already. I thought of the line from The Perfect Storm when the boat is warned, “You’re headed right for the middle of the monster!” I got off at Exit 4 because I needed to find a grocery store anyway.

Listening to iTunes on shuffle in the car can make for odd coincidences. As I pulled into the sprawling mall parking lot in a particularly sprawling part of New Jersey, Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II” came on the radio. And red shopping carts were moving around the lot of their own accord, like they were being pushed around by ghost shoppers. In a surreal scene with a superior soundtrack I tried to shoot a quick video on my phone but had to stop and jump out when I saw a cart careening toward the side of my car.

I don’t doubt the possibility of the supernatural, especially in New Jersey, but the natural explanation for the self-propelled carts was a howling wind. The sky for my journey so far has been brilliantly bright and blue but the wind whipping the car from side to side reminded me of my last trip. All through the Mid-Atlantic States the locust trees are exploding with white blossoms and from time to time the wind would swirl them into a snowstorm of petals. At one point the snow was combined with a showering of helicopter seeds from the red maples that hit the hood like a plague of locusts.

I’m taking a circuitous route to West Virginia once again and I’ll explain why in a moment but I should tell you the end of my last story before starting this next one . . .

IMAG1828

I haven’t been writing because I’ve been busy with stuff like installing our new microwave

Conclusion: Cold Torpor Makes My Blood Run Cold

In rain-drenched, deserted Fairmont, West Virginia I had finally stopped. In retrospect, I should have stopped much earlier. At a gas station I looked at the packages of bees in the trailer and could not guess how many colonies I had lost to the cold and wet. I feared the worst. Many packages toward the rear of the trailer had the entire population lying motionless on the bottom. (These “swarms” normally hang in a bunch from the top of the package.) The best I could do was cover them up and let all 150 warm one another while I slept the night.

The next day I set my alarm for sunup and got myself moving slowly, took a shower, and had a cup of coffee while I waited for the air to warm above 40°. I also looked up the nearest store where I could find a thin sheet of plywood. My intention was to make a roof over the back end of the trailer in the event of further rain. I drove a few miles to the address of a Lowe’s, following my GPS, and found nothing. I turned; I circled; I returned; and eventually I noticed a fence perched high on a hill above me and followed it as it wound down toward a lower parking lot. I followed a hillside road unsullied by any manner of signage and eventually found the lonely Lowe’s. I loaded a sheet of plywood and brought it around to the panel cutter. A young man in a blue vest came over to inform me the panel cutter wasn’t working. I wanted to ask, “and is there no one and nothing in this hardware store that might be able to fix it?” Instead I politely asked, “Is there anything else we could cut it with?” He replied, “We might have a hand saw.” I was imagining perhaps something from the power saw section of the store but I left without quarrel. I was rapidly falling out of love with West Virginia.

It turned out I would not see any more rain for the remainder of the trip. In fact, once I left Lowe’s the skies got clearer and the temperature rose slightly with each passing hour. After seven hours of deep sleep the night before I was able to drive straight on. There are no photographs of the day because I didn’t stop for any. I had packed a few sandwiches and I ate at the wheel. I stopped only for gas and bathroom breaks. At the first break the temperature had reached the low 70°s and I saw, miraculously, at least some of the bees were moving around in every package I could see. We had taken a beating but it wasn’t a catastrophe.

I need to learn a bit more about cold torpor but I’m having a hard time finding good answers. What we do know is this – a honeybee’s muscles will go torpid (stop working) if they fall below 45°F. Many novice beekeepers have told the story of collecting “dead” bees on top of the snow in winter and bringing them inside for examination only to find the bees begin flying in the warm house. The question for which I can’t find an answer is: How long can a bee survive in cold torpor? Also, bees drown. A honeybee doesn’t have lungs. Air moves in and out of the exoskeleton through spiracles and is transmitted to and from the cells through tracheae (tubes). So our bees got wet and they got cold. Some died. What remains a mystery to me is why the majority did not.

In the end, we readily admit these were the worst packages we have delivered in four years. Some of them were great and we tried to provide the best ones to those beekeepers who needed a strong population to build out new foundation. For beekeepers putting a package into a drawn comb hive a slightly depleted population is not a terrible setback. We set aside the worst packages and put those into small nucleus colonies and are nursing them back to strength. About 10% of the colonies had dead queens and we added the live worker bees from those to the hives we are nursing and we replaced queens for the beekeepers who discovered their queen dead when they hived the package.

In short, at The Honey Exchange we do our best but we don’t promise to be perfect. We do promise to be honest. And honestly, we are dealing with livestock and the whims of nature. Some years are less fun.

Which brings me back to New Jersey . . .

For those of you who are just learning, there are two main ways to populate a new hive with bees: Package bees (which we have discussed aplenty) and nucleus colonies, or “nucs.” I am on the road to West Virginia to load the trailer with 36 Russian nucs.

Day One of Roadtrip #2 is not a great story. Again, there are no photographs to share because the trip was a non-stop slog of relentless driving. The first half was quick and pleasant enough as I listened to music and yet another Bill Bryson book on CD. Then I hit the Jersey turnpike and holiday traffic pretty much through to Washington, DC. As for why I was going along this route, you’ll have to tune in for my next episode. It’s late now and I’ve got a big day tomorrow.

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2015 Million Bees Roadtrip, Intermission

intermissionThe alarm went off in my hotel room in Elizabethtown, KY in time to get me to Kelley Beekeeping in Clarkson by the time they opened.  My room’s window looked out over the vinyl windows above the hotel’s pool and the rain hitting that surface sounded like a torrent.  I looked out over the morning and the rain was steady but not brutal though the sky was foreboding.  However, when I arrived in Clarkson the rain had let up and with the help of the incomparable Mike Curry we had loaded the trailer without a drop falling on us.  I covered the trailer with a sturdy tarp and a few droplets of rain began to fall as I got into the car and started off toward home.  I had the passing thought, “some time my luck is going to run out.” As I drove northeastward across Kentucky the tarp billowed toward the back and obscured the view from the rear view mirror but I had my side mirrors and I watched the temperature of the bees in the trailer and it held steady at a temperature of a cellar.  (When we deliver packages in lousy weather we advise beekeepers to keep their package in the cool dark of a cellar until conditions improve enough to put the bees in a hive.)  All seemed well and it reminded me of the first time Jim and I had come to Kentucky for packages.  We had driven home through temperatures in the fifties, clouds, and occasional drizzle.  It had turned out to be the perfect conditions to get the bees home safely.  After a couple hundred miles I stopped for gas and found the back end of the tarp had torn off from the wind of highway speed. I had no idea when it came off because of the obscured rear view.  But I recalled the trailing edge of the tarp had frayed on our first trip and at this first gas station stop all the bees looked just fine. I had been looking in on Weather.com at points along my route for days and as of my last check the forecast had told me once I got clear of the threat of thunderstorms in western Kentucky I should encounter cloudy skies turning to sunny around Pennsylvania (though I’d be hitting Harrisburg just after nightfall if everything went well.)  Everything did not go well; my luck was indeed about to run out. As the highway wound through the mountains of western West Virginia the rain got steadily heavier and the temperatures dropped to the low fifties, then into the forties. I kept convincing myself the skies looked brighter around the next bend and the next, hoping for the forecasted clearing (and foolishly not wanting to take the time to stop and double check.)  By the time I stopped for gas in central West Virginia I realized the tarp had frayed a critical few inches more and several packages on the very back and exposed corners had gotten sprayed with rain and mortally chilled . I called Meghan who was just finishing up the day at Command and Control and she took a close look at the updated (and much diminished) forecast for the upcoming miles of my journey and after much consternation we decided the only thing to do was to cover the trailer with the backup tarp, sit still so the bees can keep themselves warm, and wait till it stops raining.  The best case scenario is the rain will let up around 11:00 tonight and if it doesn’t get too cold I can press on and keep an eye on the trailer temperature. Otherwise I’m stuck here in the ironically named Pleasant Valley Road in Fairmont, West Virginia till the sun begins to warm things tomorrow. Thanks to the wonders of technology and the wifi hotspot function on my phone, I am able to write and post this while sitting in a car parked on a frontage road by Highway 79. I was also able to check Facebook. I have a friend in Alabama who I hope is about to stop worrying about tornadoes (and I’m grateful that is not on my list of worries here.)  Friends in Virginia are commenting about the insanely cold temperatures there.  One friend from Maine has posted, with what I assume is dismay, a photo of his necessarily blazing wood stove and I can’t think of anybody who isn’t looking forward to seeing the taillights of this year’s endlessly foul weather.  I know I am.

*Coda:  IMAG1824If you ever have the opportunity to stay in Fairmont, West Virginia (and you have a choice as to whether or not) just keep on driving.  After much hemming and hawing and consultations with Command and Control it was established that I was needlessly sitting idle in the car, unable to get any rest, and still have a long road ahead of me.  Though it stopped raining at about 10:00 I looked at the overnight weather forecast for where I was and where I was heading.  If I were to leave now the temperatures would continue to drop until I was in Pennsylvania in the wee hours and the lows would be dipping into the mid thirties.  That and what promises to be still damp roads would not be the best way to keep these bees alive and healthy.  So it was decided I should find a bed and get some proper sleep.  After all, we haven’t promised anyone I’d be back before The Honey Exchange opens on Monday at 10:00.  So I drove up to the Holiday Inn Express, mostly because it was the first driveway and also because I like those ads where the guy does amazing things at when asked about his great skill he says only, “I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.”  I wanted to be that guy.  But when I approached the desk, there was a little sign saying “back in a few minutes.”  After waiting well longer than the requisite “few minutes” I went out to snug up and dry off the tarps on the trailer to give the bees the best chance at staying warm for the night.  I went back in to the Inn and waited another ten or so minutes.  There was the sound of crickets and I swear out of the corner of my eye I saw a tumbleweed blow past.  Disheartened, I got back in the car and drove across the parking lot to the neighboring Super 8 Fairmont.  At the desk was a little sign saying, “back in a few minutes.”  I waited a few.  A guy came down the stairs and my heart soared until I realized he was a guest, he looked a bit haggard, and he was holding a little baggie with two prescription bottles full of blue and white pills.  He loped through the lobby, looped around the entryway, then headed back upstairs.  A while later a pizza delivery guy came in.  He went upstairs to deliver the pizza.  A few minutes later he came down, went down a side hallway to buy himself a soda from the machine (and why he didn’t bother to just get some soda from his place of employment remains a mystery), saw me and said, “still nobody?”  “Nope.”  A young, tired-looking couple came in.  I told them I’d been waiting for a very long time and I wasn’t sure if anyone worked at the hotels in this town.  Mind you, I’ve been checking in to hotels for somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 years and I have never waited for more than a moment before at least being told if there was a room available or not.  I went back out to the trailer and was puttering about and adding some extra zip ties to the tarp in preparation for pushing on up the road when the tired-looking young man of the aforementioned couple waved me in.  After he and his wife had finished checking in the front desk clerk looked up without so much as a “sorry for keeping you waiting”, wordlessly, with eyes that said “what do you want?”  I asked if there was a AAA rate and she replied “$70, you need one bed or two?”  I said, “one” and she checked me in, handed me two room keys and I was on my way to a cigarette-stinky non-smoking room where I had to turn on the heat.

The only redemption to the day is that I made a single well-planned stop in Pennsylvania three days ago and stocked up on one of my favorite beers in the world: IMAG1825

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