Part Three: It’s Like Smokey and the Bandit, but with Bees and Liquor

DSC_0910I was treated to the most beautiful day imaginable and I spent it exploring some of the byways of Kentucky’s bourbon country.  After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast I set out for Buffalo Trace Distillery, a place rich with history.  Whiskey has been distilled along this bend of the Kentucky river since shortly after the United States became the United States.  It is lovely to behold and lovelier to smell.  You can sense its intoxicating aroma from a quarter mile away.IMAG2211

It turns out I was not the only one to have the idea to visit Buffalo Trace.  Apparently the Kentucky Derby is tomorrow and many people make a weekend of it in this part of the state.  The place was absolutely filled with visitors.  A crowd like this one can have the potential to be obnoxious but everyone seemed to be in a splendid and generous mood.  I can’t remember ever being in as big a group of people who were all this courteous and friendly.  I took the one hour tour and learned a lot about the history of the area and about the making of bourbon.  I need to get a good night’s sleep tonight so I am not going to take the time to recount it all here.  IMAG2215

After that I set off on another difficult and pointless quest.  A friend of mine back in Portland is a huge bourbon fan.  He has an extensive collection and I went to see if I could find some rarities on his wish list.  I was also in search of a particular bottle of rye for myself (as I’m more of a rye whiskey man).  Here was my takeaway:  the demand for boutique bourbon is so immense right now that the producers are sending much of it away to other markets, much of it overseas.  There are still a few gems to be found here but it was not as easy as I had anticipated.  I found one oddity for my friend (and struck out entirely for myself) but he had another much more simple request:  there is a brand of “regular old bourbon” he loves that is not available in Maine.  I saw it on the bottom shelf of every liquor store I visited.  After I had visited three liquor stores, and driven past scores of others (all with drive-thru windows – something very foreign to a guy from Maine) I decided it was time to head toward my hotel, set up my trailer for tomorrow, then pick up a few bottles of bourbon when I was out getting some food for supper and for the roadtrip.

It seems my hotel is in a dry county.  I circumnavigated the entire town.  No liquor stores.  So I put a search into the google.  A few places showed up, 45 minutes away.  I really didn’t want to go back the entire distance I had traveled this afternoon.  One place did come up in the search that was only 20 minutes away.  The sun was setting and the evening was mild and delightful so I thought I’d continue a lovely drive.   I followed the instructions coming through my phone until the voice said, “You have reached your destination.”  I was surrounded by empty fields for as far as the eye could see.IMAG2217

I headed back toward the little town of Leitchfield and found yet another delicious meal at a local Mexican restaurant.  (I might not have repeated that after last night but Leitchfield is not a town rich with choices and the Chinese Buffet didn’t sound appealing.)

DSC_0912DSC_0913The weather prediction for tomorrow has me fretting yet again.  It should not be as bad as last year (think happy thoughts about that) but I’m definitely going to encounter some rain.  I’m better prepared, with new and improved sides and a roof for the trailer.  And I am going to be much quicker to stop and cover up when the rain comes hard.  So far the prediction is for rain that should come and go.  It may be slow going but I don’t think it will be a disaster.  Wish me luck.

 

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Million Bees Roadtrip 2016, Part Two: Drive. Write. Sleep. Repeat

horsesToday’s drive wore me down. Meghan had convinced me to add an extra day to the Million Bees Roadtrip this year to try to give the trip some semblance of the “vacation” I always joke that it is. So I divided the downward leg into three days instead of two and have added some excursions and diversions. Tomorrow I don’t have any driving to do and I’m going to give Bourbon country the attention it deserves; that should be fun. Today had a mere five hours of driving but it felt endless. I spent a lot of today fretting about Saturday’s 24-hour drive.

The time behind the wheel yesterday and today was fraught with contradiction and it left me feeling unmoored and rudderless. The weather is making me anxious. It’s been very rainy and I keep being reminded of last year’s difficulties. The light through the low clouds and drizzle amplifies the greens of the landscape. Pennsylvania was electric. The breathtaking mountains of West Virginia are more vibrant than ever but navigating tortuous roads in the rain is wearisome. Through long stretches of each day the direction of the sun was barely discernible; it cast no shadows. In know intellectually I am travelling vaguely west-southwest but the sky provides no sense of bearing. The light also gives no indication of the time of day so the road is giving me an unsettling, hypnotic sensation of being removed from time and direction. At some point in Pennsylvania I pulled off the highway to buy a few snacks and soft drinks for the road. I found a mall with a Wegman’s grocery and found myself with a dizzying sense of having been there before. I knew I had never stopped in this part of the state and it wasn’t déjà vu I was feeling. It was a sense of sameness. It’s one of the curses of trying to go long distances efficiently. I don’t have time to browse so I keep finding myself in malls that feel exactly the same. I’ve written before about this sort of commerce being an invasive species. I feel about Home Depot the way some people feel about Japanese Knotweed. Still, you have to admire the two things for their similar ability to out compete the things around them. They are what they are because they keep winning. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prevent the invasives from destroying your garden.

As the owner of a small local business my need for simplicity and reliability are often in conflict with my better instincts. I am an unapologetic coffee snob and I know I can get a dependable latte at Starbucks. Yesterday I wrote about looking for a Starbucks and coming across a wonderful local coffee shop. I had the same good fortune the day before when I stopped for a tank of gas in Westford, Massachusetts and came upon the most wonderful smelling business I have ever had the pleasure of entering. The Stem and Bean is part coffee shop, part flower shop. It is entirely heaven. If you are ever anywhere near Westford, just go there. Even if you need neither coffee nor flowers, go there. Take my word for this.

stem and bean

I’m going to stop complaining and get some sleep. I’m just tired and there are silver linings in the clouds. Both yesterday and today the day ended with a lifting of the gloom and I was treated to clear skies and a beautiful sunset in both Virginia and Kentucky. I lucked out once again when I found a Mexican restaurant in Lawrenceburg and had the best Carnitas I’ve had since leaving Chicago. (If you find yourself in this part of KY, stop in at La Isla. It’s delicious.)

And I’ll leave you with this thought: Whenever possible, buy what you can from an independent local business. You’ll still find plenty of reasons to end up at Starbucks, or Wegmans, or Home Depot. But believe me, your dollars mean a lot more to a hard working small businessperson with a family to support than they do to some anonymous shareholder.

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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:

IMAG1952

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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