New Jersey, A Beer Review, and that Back-to-School Feeling

I just got back from a summer road-trip to New Jersey. One of my brother’s best friends, Ranger B, has been working at Sandy Hook Gateway National Park all summer. I drove down with Brother and Brackett to camp at Sandy Hook and visit Ranger B for a few days. Brother, Brackett, and Ranger B have all been best friends since elementary school, and Brother and Brackett were college roommates. The three of them still get together often, and even exchange gifts at the holidays (it’s sort of adorable). I’m three years younger than the guys; for a sense of scale, they were the cool high school seniors when I was a freshman.  In the early years, as the tag-along baby sister, my goal in life was to bother them as much as possible. Later, I idolized them, and hung out with them at every opportunity (despite being all pre-teenishly self-conscious about whether they even wanted me around). Now that we’re all grown up, we’re all good friends. I’m fairly sure I’m legitimately part of the gang, and besides, we couldn’t have gone camping if I hadn’t brought the tents. 🙂

View from the Lighthouse on Sandy Hook. You can see one of the beaches, and the New York skyline across the water.

We had a real good time. Sandy Hook is beautiful place. The beaches were wide and sandy, the water was warm, and NYC looked perfect (and perfectly distant) across the water. The moon was so round and bright after dark that we didn’t need flashlights. We toured lighthouses, we swam, we drank beer on the beach, we played card games in the campsite, we chased phosphorescent jellyfish, and we had some local beer at the Chubby Pickle and didn’t even lose at trivia night.

Hang tight: I’m going to review some beer real quick. Check out Ales to Lagers for more beer reviews by my best friend (Lady Higg: call me sometime this week? I miss you!). While at the Chubby Pickle, we had the New Jersey Beer Co. Hudson Pale Ale. I found this beer pretty interesting, because at the first taste I didn’t much care for it. It was hoppy and bitter, and also markedly thin and sharp tasting. I feel comfortable using the word shearing. Some folks prefer bitter beers, but I’d much rather have something smooth. I thought this was going to be one of those beers that sticks in my mouth, getting more intolerable with every sip (and between Ranger B, Brackett, and I, we were faced with an entire pitcher!). Here’s the interesting thing: this is the most drinkable bitter beer I have ever had. Maybe it was that shearing quality that sent it straight to the back of the mouth, or maybe it was that light and airy aftertaste, but this beer went down nice, was very refreshing, and actually grew tastier with every sip. Good job, New Jersey.

It’s Labor Day weekend. Soon, everyone will be back at school. For the first time since kindergarten, I don’t have any school to go back to. What a weird feeling! Still, all that back-to-work energy is in the air, and there for the taking. I’m soaking it up, and using it to tackle my own projects. I actually came back from New Jersey feeling really energized, and the best thing about my back-to-school substitue projects is that no one is going to grade them. I’ll tell you more about what I’m up to later this week.

Readers: how about you? Are you going back to school? Do you still feel weird about not going back to school? Have you had all the adventures you wanted to have this summer? Is there anything you still have to do before the summer months are completely gone?

Hello from Massachusetts

So I’ve been having trouble getting my words together. I haven’t posted in over a week, going on two, and that’s exactly the precedent I don’t want to set for this blog. My only excuse is I was on vacation in Marquette, Michigan, (read about that here) and when I’m on vacation it’s so hard to work.

On Sunday, I actually wrote up a whole post. It sort of had a point, and sort of maybe came together by the end, but I never went through and edited it because there were trees to sit under (I have become a sitting-under-trees enthusiast) and beer to drink (Honey Lavender Wheat, mmmm) and friends to be with. That post never got finished, and a lot of it isn’t really topical anymore today. The lesson: always finish posts day-of.

Marquette was lovely, by the way. I swam in the lake and walked all around my town and went to my bar and spent time with my people. It was a really wonderful week, filled with about equal parts relaxing and shenanigans. I’m really glad I went back one last time, and I think maybe this time, I got it out of my system. I’m sure this wasn’t the last time I’ll see Marquette; I left my mug at Blackrocks, and it’s there for me, waiting. I’d like to think I’ll stop in every few years, grab my mug, and say, Hey, old town. I’m back. Let’s jive. But for now? I’m ready to start planning some bigger adventures, and traveling to some farther shores.

Right now I’m curled up in my brother’s apartment in Northampton, Massachusetts. I arrived here at 1 pm today (Thursday) after a Greyhound bus adventure that began at 2 am Wednesday morning. That’s about 36 hours on buses, people, with no layovers longer than 45 minutes. We’re driving up to Maine tomorrow, after Brother gets out of work. I’m glad to be done with the buses for today, but overall I will probably give you a more positive review of Greyhound travel than you’ll hear from most people. If you’ve got time, it’s not a bad way to get around. It certainly qualifies as an adventure (some other time, I will have to tell you about getting through customs at Saulte Ste Marie) and it means you really feel the distance rolling through the ground beneath you as you nod off to sleep and jerk awake when the lights come on at the next stop and slowly nod off again. It’s more intrepid than flying, a little grittier, and definitely more of an ordeal, but for me it was a positive experience overall. If the opportunity arises, I won’t shy away from taking another lengthy bus trip in the future.

One more thing: I have a confession to make. I am terrified to write the last two chapters of my book. I’m not calling it Writers’ Block because I don’t believe in Writers’ Block, per say. Writer’s Block is just another name for lazy. These last few chapters are gonna make or break the book, however, and I’m terrified that I won’t do them justice, that they won’t be good enough, that they’ll render all of my hard work up to this point irrelevant. This is a foolish fear, because the first draft is going to suck anyway. The first draft always sucks. What I need to do now is plow through the fear and get something, anything, written down, so that I’ll have something to work from when I figure out what I need to do to actually make it awesome. But I’ve been on vacation, and there have been so many excuses not to write. Now that I’m coming home, there won’t be any more excuses, and I will wrestle with this demon, and I will write those chapters. Next week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

-Grace out

“Bring Your Mug”

That’s the first thing my best friend, Lady Higg, said when I told her I was coming home. (That’s the Big Thing, by the way; I am currently in transit, via Greyhound bus, to Marquette Michigan, my college town and home of five years.) Lawrence said it too, when I told him I was thinking about making the trip. “Bring your mug. We’ll have a few beers. It’ll be worth it.” I wanted to write an epic blog post about Marquette, about why I love this town, and why I’m going back one last time. I wanted to tell you about my rocky beginnings with Marquette, how the city grew on me slowly, how it wasn’t until my first summer there that I really understood. I wanted to tell you how Lake Superior is the most beautiful thing in the world when the water is sparkling in the sun, and about that night we sat on the breakwall with the waves around us as the sun set and the city lights shone brilliant on the water and Marquette was so lovely that she almost outshone the moon rising orange and round behind us (Leftentant Weatherby: do you remember?). I wanted to tell you about all of my friends, the old and the new, the dorm friends, the bar friends, the trio of red-head writers. I wanted to tell you about last summer, the summer Marquette really became mine, when I was newly single and some friends had left and, in some ways, I didn’t know who I was—how that summer Marquette cradled me as I tried everything new and learned that sometimes, things keep hurting even as the time passes, and that letting go of a thing can mean hanging on to it, and learning to carry it differently. I wanted to tell you everything, but after five years of Marquette, there’s too much to tell. Instead, I’m just going to tell you about a bar, about Blackrocks Brewery, the reason I have carried a large, beautiful, handcrafted ceramic mug across Canada in my backpack. Because that one summer? That awful, wonderful, shining summer? It ended with Lady Higg and I at Blackrocks Brewery, living our lives—stress, shenanigans, and all—and talking it out over a pint of the best beer in the UP.

Blackrocks Brewery is a nano-brewery, and a very special place. It’s in a bright yellow house on Third Street, and the interior is warm and cozy and welcoming, with every available wall and ceiling space filled up with hanging mugs. The beer is brewed on the premises, and the brewmasters themselves are there every night, smiling and splashing beer into glasses and mugs, saying Welcome. We’re glad you’re here. We hope you stay. Every mug of beer is delicious. There are six or seven brews on tap every weekend, always something new. I think they’re at over 150 varieties. My favorite is the Willie O’Ree, named after the famous hockey player, a brew so dark, sweet, and smooth. They also make fun stuff, like the Atomic Fireball Wheat: a bright orange beer made from actual atomic fireball candies that give it a scrumptious cinnamon flavor. Blackrocks’ menu is posted on their facebook page, and it looks like there’s a Chai Ale on this weekend, which I’m excited to try if there’s any left when I get there. Oh, and the mugs? Each one is handcrafted by local artist Ryan Dalman, and can be purchased for $40. Each one is a work of art, and with a mug in your hands at Blackrocks you feel like you belong, like you’ve shown your loyalty, like you’re holding a piece of gold. Also, there’s an extreme practical benefit: Each mug is a little bigger than a pint glass, so when you have a mug, you get more beer, for the same incredible price of $3.50.

My last school year, it seems like we lived at Blackrocks. Lady Higg found it first, thanks to Doctor Longbottom, but I was a quick convert, and by the end of the year it was where Lorax and Lawrence came too, and sometimes Fights With Centaurs (Fights With Centaurs  is a dear, dear comrade, but she doesn’t come out quite as often (too many centaurs to wrangle) and so there’s an air of excitement every time she shows up. Fights With Centaurs is here? Tonight? With us?). It was where we dragged old friends when they came to visit, where we assumed everyone should want to hang out. Lady Higg was the first to get her mug, back in December. I got mine in March, only a few months away from leaving town, because what could be a better souvenir to bring home from Marquette?  Lorax got his soon after mine; it sort of matches his tattoo (Lorax, generous in all things—wine, vodka shots, fish sandwiches at 2 am—is letting me stay on his couch this week). Lawrence finally acquired his mug just a few weeks ago, since they had run out of them on his birthday back in June. These three, Lawrence, Lorax, and Lady Higg, are the ones who came to my apartment at 12 AM the morning I left, when the cleaning and packing was finally done, to just sit, drink a cup of tea, and say goodbye. These are the ones (in addition to all the ones, you know who you are) with whom it will be worth everything just to tap mug handles and talk. Because as much as it’s about the best beer in the world, Blackrocks is also about friends, a safe haven, and home.