Bye bye Boston MA, hello Utica, NY

8 05 2015
Not sure when that will be...

Not sure when that will be…

What’s in Utica, NY? Meh… nothing, really. It just seemed like a useful place to stop and spend the night as we high-tail it west. On a map it looks like it’s at dead center of the state.

We’re due in Topeka, Kansas on Sunday afternoon for a barbecue, so between now and then the mission is to make ourselves scarce in these here eastern parts. Crossed over the Hudson River on I-90 yesterday afternoon and are now truly in the wild west. Stay tuned – this is where the adventure starts.

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The Hudson separates Yankee civilization (on the right) from… everything else out there (on the left).

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ES fails the baking test.

15 11 2011

So I thought I would regale you with my latest kitchen/baking fail.

“Baking,” you ask? “Evelynn Starr in the… kitchen? You have got to be kidding me. I had no idea she was so… so… domesticated.”

Well, dear fans, not to burst your bubble, but I do, occasionally, venture into our tiny little kitchen. It is usually R.’s kingdom, and we have a demarcation line which under normal circumstances I am loathe (and sometimes forbidden) to cross. Because every time I do, something bad happens.

However, we had a few guests coming over last Saturday evening, so I had this great idea that I would also try my hand at creating something edible. Dessert. Couldn’t be too hard.

But often, like last Saturday night, it fails.

I tried an old reliable… something I have successfully produced in the past, (once, a while ago) and didn’t taste half bad then, either. Something safe. Something that you can’t really screw up. I decided that lemon-poppy-seed muffins were as safe as I could get.

Everything went well, considering. The batter was absolutely heavenly, I could have (and probably should have) eaten it all right then and there, unbaked, with a spoon. And I didn’t even make a mess about it. The little guys (for they were, indeed, little, especially when you compare them to, say, Starbucks muffins) baked well, and looked like they were nice and fluffy and lemony-poppy-seedy inside. They were golden brown and not burnt.  (Wow!)

Careful, don't bite into your computer screen, now.

I had to try one right away, while it was still warm – because the fragrance of freshly-baked muffins right out of the oven is utterly irresistible.

And then, the shock. I discovered that when I tried to peel the paper cupcake cup off, it wouldn’t. The dough was so stuck to the paper that in order to eat my muffin, I pretty much would have to eat the paper too because the paper just refused to unstick itself from my muffin.

I was crushed. My masterpieces. My babies. Stuck to the cupcake cup. WHY? It’s the third time this has happened and I have no idea what I am doing wrong.

My mouth watered as I proceeded to pick microscopic-sized bits of paper from my fabulous little home-made muffin. It wash sheer torture.

“Oooohhhhh Evelynn,” you say. “Dear, dear Evelynn, leave the kitchen stuff to your husband. He can do it so much better than you.”

Yes he can.

So instead of proudly serving up my home-made lemon-poppy-seed muffins to our dinner guests that evening, I hid them in a sideboard.  We raced out to the supermarket before it closed at 5pm to get a vat of the old reliable (vanilla ice cream) to go with the chocolate sauce we have had in our cupboard since, like, forever. For emergencies just like this one.

Fortunately, when we opened the can we discovered it was still fit for human consumption, even though it was way past its “sell by” date.

So this is a blatant, unabashed call for help. If anyone can tell me the secret to perfect lemon-poppy-seed muffins, I would really appreciate it. Because my husband and I are pretty sick and tired of eating lemon-poppy-seed-flavored cupcake cup paper.





For the love of landings

2 09 2011

Let’s talk about landings.

We learn early that whatever goes up must come down. That gravity is a law and not an option.

So logic goes that all aircraft that leave the earth must also return to it, somehow.

What it's supposed to look like. (Passenger's perspective.)

The landing is the most difficult phase of flight. Returning the aircraft and its human cargo to the planet safely was probably the toughest thing I ever had to learn. And it took me a long, long, long time. Way longer than I thought it would – other pilots make it look so easy. And when my flight instructor sent me off on my first solo flight (that would end up including three landings) on a crisp November morning 11 years ago, I’m sure he was silently evoking the power of every higher authority that ever existed.

I lived to tell the tale.

So what’s it take? What’s so hard about a landing?

Well, all of us have experienced them many times, while sitting in the back of the bus, right? On your way to a vacation hotspot or from a business trip. There are four categories:

1) A rotten landing rattles your fillings, herniates your discs and has you later inspecting the runway for stray screws or other aircraft bits.

2) A good landing is one you can walk away from and use the airplane again.

3) A great landing is one you (and the airplane) didn’t even feel.

4) And for a phenomenal landing – the mother of all landings – read this.

Setting your aircraft on back on terra firma (or as in the above-mentioned example – taking it for a swim) requires copious amounts of instinct and skill to get it just right. “It’s a controlled crash with the earth,” someone once said. And you always hope your wheels point downwards for that crash, at least. During the final approach, speed, altitude and distance are in constant flux, and the play between the three is integral to a safe touchdown and happy passengers (as well as aircraft maintenance technicians, rental companies, their insurance agents and aviation authorities).

This past week I went flying with friends who had never experienced flight in a small airplane before. Their eyes grew wide as they assessed the instruments in the cockpit, and their endless curiosity was refreshing.

Lucky for them, I seriously greased every single landing. I even received a round of applause for one.

But it wasn’t always like this. In these past 11 years of flying I’ve had a few miserable episodes that shook my confidence to the core. During one phase after a particularly terrifying experience, I grounded myself for nine long months, afraid I had lost my fragile grip on the skill. It was a rough road back, paved with tears, frustration and agony. This was one thing I just didn’t want to fail at.

Older and wiser now, and with almost 200 hours and 350 solo landings to my name, I know that every single one of them poses a brand new challenge, in brand new conditions. And that no pilot (not even the ones who get paid to do this) can ever take anything about a landing for granted. I crave the thrill of it every time.





On the Rocks at Gigathlon 2011

4 07 2011

We did it.

Our team of five crossed the finish line of Gigathlon 2011 in 705th place and after 26 hours and 1 minute of racing – safe, without injury, exhausted and overjoyed. Which is more than a lot of other participants can say.

For those of you unfamiliar with Gigathlon, go ahead and read my previous two blog entries, here and here so that the rest of this story makes sense to you.

The "race of death" begins.

I anticipated Saturday’s skate to be challenging, but not impossible. The night on the campground had been sleepless, frigid and uncomfortable, but 33 kilometers (21 miles) of mostly flat and slight downhill grades wasn’t rocket science. If nothing else, it would be a great morning training run.

We hit the road at 8am, and I wanted to try to get my day’s work done in less than 90 minutes. Long, straight speed passages took the pace up to about 60 km/h, much too high for some skaters. The result: mass roadkill. I sped by at least 7 bodies lying in various states of injury and disrepair left and right along the route. Later I heard that there was a huge pileup somewhere behind me and one participant even broke a leg. Ouch.

For me, the 33 kilometers flew by without incident (I will spare you the details of my close calls – tree roots peeking out of asphalt like mini-speed-bumps, train tracks popping up unannounced, hidden potholes, hairpin turns) in a solid 1 hour and 25 minutes. I thought that was pretty darn fast till I looked at the standings. But whatever. We weren’t here to set a world record, we just wanted to cross the finish line in one piece.

Bruised and bloodied (and taped and bandaged) but not broken, skaters braved a 4am wake-up call the next morning to really find out what they were made of. We were off again before sunrise, to attack a 6-kilometer flat stretch followed by a 14-kilometer climb up the side of a mountain. The vertical difference between start and finish was 750 meters – that’s about half the depth of Grand Canyon.

On skates. Poles optional.

Since I had never done anything this crazy before, I had no idea how long it would take me. I told my teammates to expect me in two to three hours. But I was in the business of just making it to the finish line before the sweeper bus, and trying not to worry about the competition or the clock.

My mantra crawling up that hill? “This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing….”

And it worked. I arrived in 2 hours and 26 minutes. As far as I am concerned that’s closer to two hours than to three. Mission accomplished.

This is what sheer exhaustion looks like. And that gingerbread man in the background is mocking me.

36 hours later, endorphins are still playing tricks on my sanity. Despite the pain, I am enthralled. The event has a certain irresistible, fatal allure.

So when the last muscle stops aching, when the sleeping bag is washed and folded away, and when registration for Gigathlon 2012 begins, I’m not sure I will be able to take full responsibility for my actions.

In the meantime, I certainly will have one “on the rocks”. I think I earned it.

***********

Personal Note: Many, many thanks to the other four members of Gigathlon 2011 team “Isches nah wiiiiit?” –  Thierry (Team Captain and intrepid cyclist), Roman (our mountain-goat-like runner), Miriam (knock-‘em-dead swimmer) and Lauri (master of disaster mountain biker) – for taking me up into your ranks at such short notice. You are all unbelievable athletes and you accomplished the impossible last weekend. I’m so proud of you.





Counting down to the “Race of Death”

1 07 2011

The other day a friend emailed me and asked, “So when is this race of death you were blogging about?”

Ah yes, the race of death. Thank you, David, for that charming, succinct and perceptive description of my upcoming 4th of July weekend. Hoping you have something fun planned, too.

The weekend's five-star accommodations.

The gigathlon is less than 24 hours away, and I must admit, I can’t wait. Either I am committed or I am crazy, but there is no going back now. I still have not met three of my four teammates, and I have no idea what level of fitness I am at compared to the other 900 or so skaters that I’ll be competing against.

And of course, how I will feel when I hit The Wall on Sunday.

The Wall. A 20-kilometer crawl up a sheer cliff face, climbing 750 meters in altitude. On rollerblades. Ever tried that? Me neither.

Fortunately, the organizers have decided to allow skaters to use cross-country ski-poles for the Sunday skate. It will be a kind of Nordic skiing on asphalt as opposed to snow. So in addition to the natural hazards of skate-racing (which could include, for example, shaving a layer of skin off an elbow, shredding your shorts and breaking a few bones – been there, done all that!) there is the added thrill of having an eye taken out as well. What fun!

Poles: The end you want to hang on to...

... and the end you don't want to mess with.….and the end you don’t want to mess with.

In its rules and regulations, the organization committee recommends wearing glasses of some sort for safety reasons. (Whew, glad they thought of that, too!)

But of course the vast majority of participants will have never held such poles in their hands before Sunday, let alone used them to pull themselves up a mountain. So I am expecting everyone else to get in my way, and hoping, at the end of the day, that I won’t need stitches.

As for my own preparations – I skated with sticks for the first time in my life this past Monday, and thanks to instruction via YouTube I am now a pro. AND I even went out on Tuesday afternoon to practice, too! So we’re all set! Nothing stands between me and victory!





Zen and the art of Alpine racing

22 06 2011

Gigathlon.

The word kind of sounds like the Wrath of God, doesn’t it?

First let’s take the back part of it: “thlon”. “Duathlon” and “triathlon” are the other two common words with this suffix. Any other contexts you can think of? Nope, me neither.

Right, then let’s look at the beginning of the word: “giga” – reminds you of storage space on computers, SD-cards and USB-sticks, right?

OK. So whatever it is, it seems to have something to do with activity, and lots of it. And since this is Switzerland, that means it probably takes place in the mountains, and probably has a few thousand participants with an irrepressible urge to torture themselves. (Taking the software-storage analogy one step further: “Kilothlon” and “Megathlon” just sounded too wimpy, I guess.)

I first heard the word “Gigathlon” when I arrived in Switzerland a few years ago. The Swiss – Masters and Mistresses Of The Universe when it comes to physical activity – invented the Gigathlon as just one more fun thing to do outdoors during an action-packed summer. It is an ultra-endurance race that spans not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE disciplines and is usually held on some (hopefully warm and dry) July weekend in the Alps.

Yep, count 'em. Five.

Altogether the distance to be covered in the 2011 edition of the race – on bicycle, mountain bike, inline skates, by foot and in the water – is 340 kilometers (213 miles), and the difference in altitude from start to finish is 11,111 meters (37,000 feet).

No, that is no typo.

There are three categories: Relay teams of five (each person responsible for one discipline), two (a man and a woman dividing the labor unequally) and one (contested by athletes whose sanity I must question).

A friend and I wanted to put together our own team of five – we had been discussing it since about this time last year. Despite weeks of querying, prompting, nagging and cajoling, we could not find three equally-motivated individuals to join us. She too lost interest and energy, and her last deed before heading off to the beach was to hook me up with a team needing a female skater.

And so lo and behold, in my seventh year here, I find myself as a registered Gigathlon participant. Our team name is: “Isches nah wiiiiit?!” Loosely translated from Swiss German that means: “How much fuuurrrrther?!

So in nine days I will travel to a valley in the southwestern corner of Switzerland with four strangers, sleep in a tent, and skate a total of 55 kilometers over the course of two days. Saturday’s skater route is a relatively civilized and flat 35 kilometers, Sunday calls for 20 kilometers up a sheer mountain face. The relay races on both days start at the crack of dawn (with skaters heading out first) and, if successful, I will have completed my share of the work by 8:30 a.m.

Gigathlon 2010: Skaters trailed by an ambulance.

And now that there is just over a week between me and this year’s race (subtitled: “On the Rocks”), that oh-so-obvious and sneakily familiar question pops into my consciousness like a blinking red traffic light: “What on earth was I thinking?”

Along with its bastard cousin: “Who the hell am I kidding?”





Taking South Beach at night, on eight wheels

3 04 2011

OK, folks, “cool” does not begin to describe Friday’s night skate on South Beach. I don’t think there is an adjective in the English language that can adequately portray this athletic carousing on the streets of one of the hippest towns in North America. I am still reeling.

Friday night, Lincoln Road in South Beach, Miami. I knew I was in the right place for the “official” SoBe night skate as wheeled, helmeted, spandex-clad aliens emerged from the gutters to congregate at a street corner downtown. They really stuck out among Miami’s beautiful people, all dressed up, walking their doggie-carriages and preparing for a night out in Party-Central, USA.

A SoBe mama and her canine baby.

The police who would be accompanying us on our tour announced their presence with a blip of sirens, piercing blue and red lights flashing (cops also just want to have fun after all).

As we pushed off at 7pm sharp, I looked around and counted 34 skaters and five cyclists. Escorted by no less than ten police cars.

I asked a fellow skater more familiar with the ride why the cops take two hours out of their (surely very busy) Friday nights fighting crime to escort three dozen weirdos on skates through town – closing streets, blocking traffic and otherwise making themselves generally unpopular, especially among motorists. He said they use the monthly skate events as practice for when someone really significant comes to town, like the President. (Who, incidentally, showed up last month, forcing the cancellation of the SoBe night skate because the cops had to get back to their day jobs.)

And the escort service was quite professional, if I might say so. Skaters were more likely to get hit by a speeding police cruiser, racing up from behind to block off the next intersection, than any other vehicle.

Stay right or perish.

The nice policemen and -women also transported bottles of water for the participants and were kind enough to dispose of the empties afterwards, too.

The 12-mile (20-km) route led through some of the most expensive and attractive neighborhoods in the country. One community of mansions even opened its massive iron gates for us to cruise through. Don’t bother asking the price of a property here, you definitely can’t afford it. (Even if you win this week’s PowerBall jackpot, currently standing at 218 million green ones.)

What the SoBe skate lacks in masses it more than makes up in exclusivity.

Following the sanctioned event, a small group of about 15 skaters gathered for the second, unofficial skate, which, in hindsight, can only be accurately described as a mildly insane, suicidal free-for-all. But of course I didn’t know this before I enthusiastically declared my participation… I was skating here for the first time.

Strength in numbers gave us the confidence and the adrenaline rush we needed to take back the streets on our own (who needs cops?): Careening down tourist-trap Ocean Drive at speed; using parked and moving vehicles for slalom practice; whistling, howling and whooping it up at puzzled passers-by and baffled restaurant patrons. As we passed Gianni Versace’s villa, one skater launched into her rendition of “Strangers in the Night” while three others discussed the harmful health effects of carbon monoxide. Oh, did we just run a red light? Oops.

By the end of the hour-long late skate the group was crooning Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” while evading traffic on Washington Avenue, downtown’s main north-south four-lane thoroughfare.

It appears that this is all normal weekend behavior in South Beach, and it did not elicit a single noise violation, rowdiness citation or traffic ticket. My kind of town.

Lock these people up, they are a danger to my health.

By the end of the evening, I had close to 20 miles (32 kilometers) in my legs. Not quite a marathon, but then again, I never did a marathon in tropical heat and humidity while dodging SUV’s and chatting with a Swiss geophysics professor skating next to me. My ankles were screaming for mercy and the next morning the rest of my body expressed similar sentiments.

So…. when do we get to do this again? Ooooo I can’t wait!