Merry Christmas!

Last week Mr. U and I took a micro trip over to Leavenworth, Washington. Nothing quite gets you into the Christmas spirit like a visit to this little town. Leavenworth is a Bavarian village tucked into the Cascade Mountains. All of the buildings are Alpine style, and the entire downtown is decorated with Christmas lights. There is an abundance of delicious German food and draft beer. We picked up a few last-minute Christmas gifts, ate some brats (with over ten different mustards to pick from), and took some time to relax and take in the beauty of the season before the Christmas festivities began. While we did not do it on this short trip, you can take a horse drawn carriage ride through town, go on a sleigh ride through the forest, or visit a Reindeer Farm. Being there takes you away to a different place and time. Travel and Leasure even listed this little village in their 25 best Christmas towns in the U.S.

Leavenworth is especially festive at Christmas, but it can be fun any time of the year. The Wenatchee River flows through it, so there are plenty of activities for the outdoor enthusiast, such as rafting, kayaking and river tubing. There is also some great hiking, and it has ski areas and wineries nearby. Something for everyone. If you go there in the summer, you simply must get tickets to the outdoor production of The Sound of Music. It is put on every year by the Leavenworth Summer Theater and was featured in The Washington Post. It is a magical performance out under the stars and truly in the hills. Of course, in the fall they have the tapping of the keg to begin Octoberfest. I would recommend booking accommodations early on the festive weekends, because they fill up quickly. However, you can always stay in nearby Cashmere or Wenatchee if you do not book a place early enough (like we had to do when we decided on this last-minute micro trip.) If you are ever in the Pacific Northwest, it is definitely worth a brief excursion to the enchanting town of Leavenworth. Particularly during the Christmas season.

However you celebrate the holidays, I hope that you are able to exhale, enjoy some relaxed time with those you love and appreciate this wonderful, precious life.

Autumn People

Some people are fall people and some people are autumn people.  Fall people go through the motions of living with the change of weather.  They rake the leaves, dutifully put a few pumpkins on the porch and then go inside to stay warm.  While autumn people intentionally walk through the leaves and kick them up just to hear their crackle and reminisce about being a kid and walking to the bus stop through the leaves.  Autumn people smile as they gather pumpkins, lumpy gourds, baskets, mums, and unruly corn stocks to decorate inside and out.  Then they wrap up in a favorite sweater, light an apple scented candle and sit quietly to soak it all in.  Autumn people will go out of their way to see a forest of deciduous trees perform the miracle of changing from their green cloak to golden yellow, and blazing orange and red.  I am an autumn person.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

L.M. Montgomery

I took a hiatus from my blog and social media to spend a couple weeks immersing myself in autumn.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I needed to try and slow life down a little bit.  I needed to reignite my creativity and feed my soul.  I have always wanted to see the Great Smoky Mountains, particularly in the fall.  Mr. U was a willing partner as we booked a trip to drop into Nashville and then drive through the Smokies. 

As seems to be our MO, we were a little too early to see the full-on change of colors.  This appears to be a trend with us.  The first year I retired we took a trip to Massachusetts and drove up through Vermont to do a little leaf peeping.  That trip we were a little too late to see the most robust change of colors.  When you live clear across the US, it is difficult to get over there and see it at the perfect time.  Even though we were a little early this time, it was still gorgeous, and my soul is refreshed.   

We spent a couple nights in Nashville and then headed east.   I think that every girl getting married in the next six months had her bachelorette party in Nashville on that Saturday night.  It was quite a dichotomy to go from the music venues and night life of Nashville to the serene mountain trails.  The lights, throngs of people and music scene in downtown Nashville was stimulating, but I wilted from it after 24 hours.  I needed the mountains to heal my fractured brain. 

First, we drove north through the backroads to see Cumberland Gap, with a detour for a night in Dale Hollow.  Doesn’t that name just whisper southern backroads?   Once in Cumberland Gap we booked a night at the Historic Old Mill Inn; a delightful little B & B that maintained much of the history of the area.  After a day hiking through the Cumberland Gap, we stopped at the Nineteen 19 Grill.  While it wasn’t much for atmosphere, the food was great, and the bartender created his own apple beverage that was like drinking apple pie.   So good.  

After that we took the backroads towards the Smoky Mountains to stay at Pigeon Forge as our base.  When we planned the trip, we were debating between staying there or Gatlinburg.  So glad we chose Pigeon Forge because Gatlinburg was way too commercialized.  And while I love Dolly (who doesn’t) we opted not to go to Dollywood.  We were out to see autumn in all its glory.  Our hotel had a balcony overlooking the river and we enjoyed sitting out there having our morning coffee and watching the wildlife.  The electric fireplace was cozy to come back to after a day out hiking, sightseeing, shopping and test tasting a little moonshine. 

Our next destination was Charleston, South Carolina to, ironically, see a country music concert.   There weren’t any big names playing in Nashville while we were there, but Charleston had the Riverfront Revival Festival the weekend we were in town, so we booked tickets.  I am a big Lainey Wilson fan and Mr. U really likes Darius Rucker.  Both were playing at the concert.  Apparently, Darius is from Charleston, so he had a big fan base there to see him play.  Both artists, as well as Niko Moon, did not disappoint. We have been to Charleston before and loved the architecture, trees, and seafood.   Really, what is not to love about this beautiful area packed with history? When we were there previously, we did the obligatory horse drawn carriage historical tour, walked the market and went on a tour of a southern plantation, so this trip was more about relishing in the sunshine and going to the concert. 

After a couple days in Charleston, we headed west back towards Nashville.  I would recommend a stop in Helen, Georgia.  It is a bustling alpine village set in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The entire village has a German theme, similar to Leavenworth in Washington state.  It was a fun place to spend the night, listen to music and eat some German food.  The drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains the next day was gorgeous with lots of lakes, streams, and charming country stores to poke around in. 

After 12 days of living out of suitcases, we were ready to catch our flight in Nashville and head back to our little corner of the world where most of our peeps live and we can tuck in and enjoy the change of colors that occurs in between the tall green pines. 

A few things always strike me when I travel:

  • We are just one very small, minuscule speck in a vast world
  • The United States has an amazing amount of diversity and culture within the 50 states
  • We do not have the only corner of natural beauty where we live
  • You can count on travel to open your mind and stimulate your creative side
  • There are nice people and mean people everywhere
  • There is no place like home

Today we are just reveling in being home again. I am decorating for fall, making a big pot of soup and trying our hand at baking a loaf of bread in the pizza oven. We will see how that goes. I hope you had a good couple of weeks and are taking time to breathe in the color and scents of autumn!

The Mystery of Time

I have been wasting a lot of time lately thinking about the passage of time.  I feel like these wonderful retirement years are going by way too fast and I want to slow them down.  Put the brakes on.  Of course, we all have the same 24 hours in a day, so it is really our perception of time that is the problem.

I doubt there is a person over the age of 60 that hasn’t pondered the fact that we have more years behind us than ahead of us.  After a holiday, or if I miss out on something I wanted to do, I wonder how many more opportunities I will have left to experience it.  How many more summers do I have, how many more sunrises will I witness, or how many more Christmases will I celebrate with my family? 

We recently sealed the family time capsule and I slipped a letter in before I closed it.  It was a letter to my family in case I am not alive when they open it in another 17 years, reminding them of how much I love them and how proud I am of each and every one of them.  Well, I did have to add a little motherly advice for them too in case I am not here to harp share it with them.  It doesn’t help any that, at this point in life, we have all lost friends and acquaintances to an early death.   It is a stark reminder that none of us have any guarantees whether we will be here in 17 years, or next year, or even tomorrow.   

I try to keep this blog fun and positive, so I don’t want to dwell on this alarming awareness of the passage of time.  As I often do when I am struggling with something, I started reading about it.  Why does it feel like time goes faster as we age and how do we slow down that perception of time so that we can squeeze out every single juicy minute of this wonderful life? 

I am retired so where the hell does the time go?

The literature confirms that most of us feel like time goes faster as we age, what is not clear, is why we feel that way and how to slow down that perception.  My grandma was in her 90’s when she would lament how quickly time went by.  In my young naive mind, she was very old and just sat around her apartment watching T.V., with the weekly excursion out to breakfast and church. I assumed that time would have weighed heavy on her.  As Mr. U’s elderly aunt used to say, “the days drag on but the time flies by.”  My 96-year-old dad says he doesn’t understand where the days go when he doesn’t really accomplish much.  I get it now. Clock time and our perception of time can be quite different.   

Researchers have come up with a few theories on why it feels like time flies by faster as we age.  Below are the most common thoughts on it. 

  • Our time perception is in relation to how many years we have to compare it to.  For example, when you are five years old, a year is 20% of your life.  If you are fifty years old a year is only 2% of your life.  It makes sense that 20% of your life feels a lot longer, than just a mere 2%.   The 2% is a much smaller portion of our lives, so it feels like it went by quickly. 
  • Some research suggests that, as we age, the rate at which we process the sequence of mental images that make up our day, slows down.  More time passes between processing each image so it feels like there is not enough time and it is going too fast.  Younger people are able to process many more images per second.  It is likened to a slow-motion video that captures thousands of images and all those images have to be processed, so it feels like more time.  Whereas processing just one or two images feels quicker.
  • As we get older, we may not have as many different life events or as much variety in our lives.  We get settled into our routines. If we are doing the same thing every day, the days tend to blend together and there isn’t much to set them apart, so it is perceived that time went by quickly.  The less rich your days are, the more it seems like they went by quickly. 
  • My theory.  I can’t help but wonder that as we age, we have a heightened awareness of our mortality and so we perceive that we are moving too quickly towards that time.  Think about when you were younger and looking forward to Christmas.  It felt like the days dragged on until that delightful morning when you could tear into those packages that you had been anticipating.  However, if it is something that you are not looking forward to, such as having to clean your room, the start of school, or becoming frail, then the time goes by too fast before that dreaded moment.  No research study to prove this, just my school of thought. 

Putting on the brakes.

When we perceive that time is going too fast, it causes anxiety.  Think about a timed test versus one without a time constraint.  How about the stress you feel when you need to get something done on a timeline?  While some people work well under such pressure, it still creates anxiety.  One of the benefits of retirement is that we should be under less stress.  I spent enough years under the gun, rushed and trying to make every minute count just to keep my head above water.  I don’t want to feel that kind of push/pull and stress in retirement. 

So, how do we slow down our perception of time and thus decrease anxiety?  Below are some recommendations from the literature:

  • Make our days richer and more interesting.  Adding new experiences to try will make your time feel longer.  So, taking a class, trying a new hobby or going on a trip somewhere new will add time expanse to your life. 
  • It seems counter-intuitive that living a routine life makes time go faster, but that is one of the theories.  Therefore, if we change up our daily routine frequently, it will help slow down our perception of time.  Take a different route to the gym, go to a different coffee shop or try a new recipe for dinner.
  • One study from Cambridge suggested that being well rested will help slow down our perception of time because we are able to be more active and accomplish more when we are rested.  Hence, we have more mental images which will slow down our perception of time. 
  • One of the most common recommendations to help slow down our perception of time is to be more mindful.  By the time we retire most of us have learned the fine art of multitasking to get everything done we needed to.  But research suggests focusing on one thing at a time.  Get fully engaged in something to help slow down our perception of time.  This has the added advantage of decreasing anxiety. 

And so…

We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We can’t control that.  However, to some extent, we can control how we perceive time.  My take-away from this is that we need to add variety and texture to our days and weeks.  We need to try new things and change up our routines.  We need to be more mindful and focus totally on what we are doing. We need to be shaking things up a bit and be fully engaged in life.   Doesn’t sound all that hard to me. Matter of fact, that sounds pretty darn fun. And it should have the side benefit of slowing down our perception of time.

On the home front.

Mr. U had a birthday last week.  We celebrated with family the week prior, so I wanted to surprise him with something on his real birthday.  (Maybe doing something unexpected would even slow down our perception of time.)  I had been trying to get a reservation at Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort for several months, but they have been booked solid.  Desperately looking for a place to stay on his birthday, I took one more look at their reservation website and found they had a cancellation on his exact birthday.   I booked the room quickly before it got snatched up and told him to hold the day aside. No explanation.

It is not easy pulling off a surprise for someone when they live with you.  I had to be stealth.  I packed our bags and loaded the car with presents, birthday candles, matches, and a cooler with beverages, snacks and a small cheesecake (Mr. U is not a fan of regular cake.)  I covered it all with a blanket (I am so tricky) and slipped it into the back of the car.  He had no clue where we were going, or that it would be overnight, when we set off.  He did figure it out when we were about halfway there.  Understandably since there is not a lot out that direction. But it was fun keeping him questioning up to that point. Of course, the first thing he asked was whether I brought him some cloths and a swimsuit. Lucky thing I remembered to pack for him too.

Quinn’s is about 2 ½ hours from us, tucked under the vast mountains and open sky of Montana.  The cozy wood lodge is alongside the banks of the Clark Fork River.  When we checked into our room we were greeted with a complimentary bottle of wine and snacks. They also provide guests with big, fluffy white robes to wear while roaming back and forth to the pools. We donned swimsuits and our robes, poured a couple glasses of wine and sunk into the warm pools as evening descended.  The hot springs are tucked into a rocky hillside, and they silently demand a quiet hush as the steam rolls off the water.  The smell of sulfur reminds you that these are natural hot springs, which just adds to the magic.  Between the hushed voices at the pool and everyone in white robes, we might have looked just a bit like a monk monastery.

I got a late reservation for dinner at the Harwood House restaurant which is one of two places to eat at the resort.  Other than that, there are not any restaurants close by.   The atmosphere continues with the cozy lodge feel and the food was prepared perfectly. 

I am not sure the theories about slowing down our perception of time worked, because our short stay went all too fast.  But looking back over the course of the week, it should, theoretically, slow down our perception of time.  In the meantime, I hope you do something to shake things up, add some extra images to your week and slow down your perception of time.  Speaking of which, I am not good at wasting time in retirement.   So, I am taking a couple weeks off from my blog to waste a little time, play, do something new and see if I can’t slow down my awareness of time.   See you in a couple of weeks!

How I Know it is the End of Summer

My mom was the initiator of family traditions. It is one of the many gifts she left us. There is nothing that holds a family together more than saying, “we always do…” It creates a bond. It builds shared memories. It gives us our roots. It is a gift we can give that benefits generations to come.

There is one annual tradition that signals the end of summer for me. It is our extended family campout over Labor Day weekend. I come from a large Catholic family of six kids. Five of us siblings, along with many of our own kids, and our kid’s kids, live in the area. This makes for big, fun family gatherings. (Think… My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only not Greek.) We have gotten so big that we hardly fit in anyone’s home anymore. So, the annual family camping trip is a perfect way to get together and still have some breathing room. It originated years ago when my siblings and I were young parents. Then life got in the way. But now our own kids are adults with young children of their own, and a few years ago and my son, niece and nephew decided to resurrect the extended family camping trip. Now they reserve the group campsite and put the word out to the rest of the family. It is so nice to have the next generation taking on this tradition, and… all we have to do is show up! Getting older has its privileges.

The campground is close enough to those that live in the area that some can attend just for the family dinner and cornhole tournament on Saturday. My dad even came for a few hours this year. Those that can, stay for the weekend. We’ve had family come from as far as Wisconsin, Texas, Montana and even Japan to be here for the annual family campout. It helps that it is always over Labor Day Weekend so people can plan to attend, if life permits.

These guys. Son #2, second from left, is our fearless organizer for the event.

A few days ago, my grandson told me how excited he was for the family campout and then school starting. They have a great time roaming with their cousins. It has become a fun tradition for all the kids to come over to our camper in the morning for hot cocoa. (Hum…I wonder if it is just so the parents can get a few more minutes of shut eye?) We love visiting with them (and getting them hyped up with sugar in the morning – “sweet” revenge).

What is a family event without good food? Even the food has some traditions, such as my sister-in-law’s macaroni and shrimp salad and my 7-layer dip. And no campout is complete without the obligatory s’mores.

The event of the weekend, well besides eating, is the Cornhole Tournament. Participants draw names for a partner and game on!

This year’s Cornhole Tournament winners.

One of the great things about the campout is that all the generations can hang out and play games together. Well, except the “boomers” who keep the camp chairs warm. And you can bet we get a lot of ribbing for that. Or maybe it is just for being “boomers.”

The Knothead Award

It started back in 1982, when my parents, siblings and their spouses took a trip over to the Oregon Coast together. I don’t know if you have ever been to the Oregon Coast in the fall, but it can be a little rainy and chilly. You pack, knowing this is a high possibility. The guys chartered a fishing trip out on the ocean while we were there. One of my older brothers, who shall not be named, failed to pack anything warm. He went fishing in the wind-swept rain wearing sandals and no coat. Needless to say, he took a lot of teasing for that. Mr. U and my younger brother decided he needed an “award” for being such a knothead. So, they nailed a few pieces of wood together, one of which had a big ole knot it in it, and my brother became the very first recipient of the un-coveted Knothead Award.

The Knothead Award

We had so many fun stories and laughs over the Knothead Award that we have carried the tradition on. Every year, at the family campout, we award points throughout the weekend to anyone who does something stupid. We look for any good excuse to award someone points, such as forgetting an important item (like warm clothes, food or camp equipment) getting lost or walking into the wrong tent. The final morning of the campout, we gather at the common area and make nominations for the award. There are tons of stories and laughs as we find out all of the crazy things people did over the weekend. And believe me, with that big of a family, there are quite a few. Then we vote on the recipient for the award. The “lucky” recipient must proudly display the award in their home for the entire year.

When we return from the camping trip the kids all head back to school. Our busy tourist town will quiet down, and we will be able to get into restaurants without making a reservation two months in advance. The days will grow shorter and cooler. We will fire up the oven again and make soups and homemade rolls. I will read more and turn to indoor hobbies again. We switch from light and carefree to sheltered and cozy. The traditional campout is the perfect way to transition to fall.

Farewell summer and hello fall!

Foraging

I was listening to a local radio station the other morning.  The DJs for the morning show posed the question, what are some of your favorite things that are free.  They came up with answers like free food samples at the grocery store, a campfire, and listening to their radio station (of course).    I imagine young people might add a free round of drinks at the bar.  When I asked Mr. U, he said playing with the grandkids.  Good one.  Since I could not steal his idea, I came up with watching the sunset, hugs, and foraging for food. 

Foraging: “To wander in search of food.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Last week we loaded up the camper and headed to the mountains to forage for huckleberries.  Picking Pacific Northwest Gold is a yearly tradition for us. This year we stayed two nights at a very small campground up near the Fernan Saddle.  That is all I can tell you because people never reveal their favorite picking spots!  We were totally disconnected and off the grid for three days.  The only sounds were the rushing river next to our campsite and the occasional bird and squirrel.   No ringing phone or dings alerting me to a new text message. No Instagram or FB.

It is a little unnerving to not be able to reach out for help with a quick phone call.   When we got there, I considered every possible bad case scenario that could happen up in the woods without help being just a phone call away:

  • One of us has a heart attack (we are not young anymore).
  • One of us trips and gets a broken leg trying to maneuver around the bushes and logs (we are definitely not as agile as we used to be).
  • We get attacked by a bear (a black bear eats up to 30,000 berries in a single day).
  • I step on a hornet’s nest and get swarmed by bees.  (This really happened last year, and it was scary…and painful.  Grateful that I am not allergic.)

Finally, after considering every possible scenario, I settled into the isolation and quiet.   Being disconnected forces us to sit with our thoughts and not be distracted by picking up our phones constantly.    And that is healing. 

Foraging for huckleberries is slow and tedious.  The most efficient way is to tie a bucket to your belt or hang it down from your neck so that you have both hands free to pick.  This was an abundant year of large berries, and the picking was relatively easy.  Within a few hours we were able to head back to camp with full buckets and stained hands.  That is the best part, going back to camp to relax after a successful day of foraging.  A cold drink and dinner never tasted so good.  I would have to agree with the DJ; a campfire is one of the best things in life that is free.

There is something about foraging through the woods that takes us back to our ancestors.  It is primal and real.  It is satisfying in a way that running to the grocery store is not.  And it is much cheaper than a trip to the grocery store.  I would like to learn to forage for other edibles in the woods, such as mushrooms.  Morels are a popular mushroom that grows in the wild in our neck of the woods.  However, you have to know what you are looking for.  When my brother was in college, his botany professor took their small lab class on a field trip up in the woods to identify and pick some of the mushrooms they were learning about.  After a day of picking, this well-educated group sat around the campfire and cooked up some of their mushrooms to have with dinner.  I will not include all the gory details but suffice it to say that they all ended up in the ER that night.  So much for the power of education.

And then when you get home…

Picking the huckleberries is only half of the battle.  Once you get them home, they have to be cleaned and frozen.  The best way to freeze any type of berry is to clean them and then lay them out on a tray in the freezer.  Once they are frozen you can pour them into freezer bags and then put the bags in the freezer for future use.  This way they are easy to measure out.  They pour out of the bag like small marbles instead of being frozen into one large clump that you have to chip away at. 

Huckleberries are a bit tart, so a little sugar helps to balance that out and something creamy is a sublime combination with them.  Don’t worry about the extra sugar and cream you put with them because huckleberries are considered a superfood. They are chock full of nutrients and are considered one of the most powerful antioxidant foods.

Some of my favorite ways to eat huckleberries, or any berry:

  • Sprinkle berries on vanilla & honey Greek yogurt for breakfast.
  • Make a huckleberry sauce to spread over a cheesecake.
  • Sprinkle over good vanilla ice cream.
  • We make dessert pizza in the pizza oven by spreading the rolled-out dough with a butter, brown sugar and cinnamon base.  Then add the huckleberry sauce and pop it in the pizza oven.  After it comes out of the oven and cools a little, add whip cream on top.  This is a crowd favorite when we have pizza parties.
  • Make a huckleberry sauce to put in crepes or on top of waffles.
  • Make berry cobbler when you need a quick dessert.
  • Add them to muffins or pancakes. Huckleberry pancakes are a must for us when we are up camping.
  • Whip up a batch of huckleberry daquiris.
  • Make huckleberry jam.
  • Create a huckleberry cream pie (recipe below).

I got this huckleberry cream pie recipe from my friend Kim, over 30 years ago.  It is much easier to make than traditional pie and is a cool, satisfying summer dessert.  If you do not have access to huckleberries, I have made it with raspberries.  Either way, it is a refreshing slice of heaven.

Kim’s Berry Cream Pie

Crust:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup melted butter

Mix together, pat into a 9 x 11 inch glass cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. You want to use a clear glass pan so that you can see the lovely layers when it is finished.

Berry layer:

Mix together:

  • 5 tablespoons corn starch
  • 1 cup sugar

Gradually add:

  • 3/4 cup cold water
  • 2-3 cups berries

Boil the above for 3 minutes.  Spread over the crust.

Topping:

  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup sour cream
  • large cream cheese (softened)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Cool Whip for consistency

Mix topping ingredients together and spread over cooled berry layer.  Refrigerate and enjoy!

The lavender out in our yard was ready to be picked last week so I gathered a basket full, tied them in bundles and hung them upside down to dry.  I am not a fan of lavender in my food, but I love the smell and they make a great filling for sachet bags to give as little gifts. We have also been picking green beans, zucchini, cucumbers and raspberries from the garden. Hum… I am wondering if it counts as foraging if you get it out of your yard or garden???

Foraging hits my retirement Trifecta because it is fun, healthy and inexpensive.  What are your favorite things that are free?