Category Archives: outings

An afternoon at the asylum

Inevitably, when people go home for the holidays, they make jokes about how insane their families are, or how they’ll go mad if they have to spend too much time hanging out in their hometown. This year, my family took all the crazy talk seriously and literally went to the asylum–the Athens Lunatic Asylum, or, as it’s now known, The Ridges.

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The main building, which now houses Ohio University’s Kennedy Museum of Art

 

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Another view of the main building, which was built according to the recommendations of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who felt that mental health facilities should give patients an opportunity to live calm, fulfilling lives.

The Ridges is one of my favorite places in town. It’s got beautiful old buildings, peaceful grounds, and lots of interesting history–which I recently read about in The Asylum on the Hill. Prior to that, I’d also had the privilege of getting a guided tour of the main building (now home to the Kennedy Museum) shortly after the facility was taken over by Ohio University. Of course, I’ve also heard many stories over the years from people who were probably more interested in drama than in accuracy–especially in relation to the story of “The Stain”, which was caused by decomposition of the body of an escaped patient who hid away, and died in, the asylum’s attic.

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To counteract bad and inaccurate press, and also to give visitors a chance to hear about the asylum from an experienced insider, the Athens Historical Society now runs tours led by George Eberts–a mental health expert who was based at the facility for nearly 20 years before being relocated to the new Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare building across the river.

Outside the old asylum
Our tour guide, George Eberts, can be seen in the black jacket and khaki trousers in the front right of the photo.

Ebert told us about the construction of the facilities, which were built from blueprints crafted by the architect Levi Scofield shortly after he left the army. The asylum was the first building designed by Scofield, who went on to create numerous other structures around Ohio.

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In addition to hearing about the architecture at the Ridges, we also found out about mental health treatment over the years. When the Athens Lunatic Asylum first opened, patients who were able led very “normal” lives there–they tilled fields, harvested crops, took care of livestock, went on walks, held picnics, and generally enjoyed as peaceful an existence as the caretakers could create for them.

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Black vultures seemed to be very attracted to the Kennedy Museum’s roof…
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…especially on the sunny side of the building.
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The vultures also enjoyed the roof of the energy station.

Eberts said that the system worked well for a couple of decades, but then began to experience difficulties as patient numbers exceeded the capacity of the building. Later on, there were also some issues associated with more unsavory treatment practices, such as electro-shock therapy and lobotomies. Interestingly, Eberts reported that both of these techniques were sometimes successful (and, in fact, the former is still used today), but are now viewed negatively at least partly because they were employed somewhat indiscriminately–and not always with sufficient permission from the patients.

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I like windows.
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A lot. 
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(Though they aren’t quite as attractive when boarded up.)

We also got to hear about some of the things that George experienced first-hand, including finding secret spots where patients relaxed and partied out of the view of their caretakers. He also told us about a time when some orderlies accidentally locked themselves in a room with one patient, leaving the rest of the residents on their floor to run wild; he also had a story about a caretaker who outwitted the authorities who came to bust him for taking a woman back to his room.

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The old grand ballroom is at the bottom left of the photo. We could see the relatively new brickwork joining the upper and lower windows of the two-story hall; when the ballroom was first in use, the windows used to stretch the entirety of the two storeys.
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The only thing better than windows is windows and vultures.
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…or you could just have windows. 

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Or doors. I just like portals, generally.

While working at the asylum, Eberts often came face-to-face with its history. He got the opportunity to explore many of its nooks and crannies, including the creepy basement. (However, asbestos prevented him from checking out the women’s wing, which he described as the atmospheric part of the building that everyone would visit if only they could.) He told us how he was once called out to help move a heavy stone staircase (shown below). Historical photos later revealed that it had been used by visitors who needed help gracefully descending from their carriages. On another occasion, he was sent into town to retrieve the decorative fountain that used to sit out front and had been sent off for repairs. The metal angel couldn’t be salvaged, but the stone base was returned and is now located in the asylum’s back “yard”–where it is overrun by weeds and is no longer home to the two alligators that used to lounge in its waters during the warmer months.

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Graffiti left by former asylum residents. It’s hard to read here, but it says something about how cheap locks can’t keep him in. This is some of the only “window graffiti” that can still be seen by visitors; most of the other examples are in areas that are now off limits.
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The old weighing house, in front of which trucks used to drive, first empty and then full, so that harvested crops could be weighed.

Although we spent the majority of the time focused on the main building, we also wandered around other portions of the grounds. We passed several of the “cottages” where later patients could live together in small groups, and we took in the one remaining greenhouse and root cellar. We also headed up the hill to visit one of the asylum’s three cemeteries; we saw the two graves where former Civil War soldiers–one white man from the Confederate side, and one black man from the Union side–are buried in close proximity.

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In the near future, OU is going to build an observatory on the hill behind these trees. George and his colleague Tom O’Grady–who teach astronomy together at the university–are lobbying for it to include a planetarium as well as a telescope.

At the end of the tour, George gave us permission (though I’m not exactly sure he was empowered to do so!) to head up the fire escape and peek through the windows into the abandoned women’s wing. You couldn’t see much except for some photogenically peely paint on the walls of empty rooms.

 

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The creepiest thing wasn’t the haunted house atmosphere so much as the vertigo caused by looking between the slats of the three-storey fire escape.
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A look inside the abandoned wing of the building.

Perhaps the best part of George’s presentation was the calm and humanizing way that he spoke about mental health issues, which left me with a greater sense of empathy and gave me a real appreciation for the work that he and his colleagues have done over the years at both the old and new incarnations of the asylum.

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Evening falls over The Ridges

I’m sure most people would raise an eyebrow if invited to visit an old mental asylum for the holidays, but, in our case at least, it was well worth the trip. We got to spend time outdoors on a beautiful sunny afternoon and hear about some fascinating local history. Hats off to George and the Athens Historical Society for hosting such an educational and generally pleasant event–their last one of the year, and a novel way to celebrate the winter solstice and my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, which happened to fall on the same day. [Feel free to mentally insert your own joke about marriage and mental institutions.]  Thanks to the addition of an atmospheric flock of vultures and a prowling Cooper’s hawk, there was really nothing else I could ask for. Now we just have to figure out what kind of outing we can do next year in order to top this one!

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Updates: My dad did a newspaper story about George’s tours earlier this year. You can read it here. He also took some photos during our tour:

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My mom checks out the facade of the Kennedy Museum
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Sasha and I listen to George’s fascinating history of the asylum.

 

 

 

The Ancestor’s Trail 2014

Long-time readers of the blog may remember that, in 2012, Sasha and I participated in a secular pilgrimage called The Ancestor’s Trail. It is an annual event inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tail. We had to take a hiatus last year because Sasha was out of town and I had transportation issues (one day, I really must get a British driving license). This year, however, we were both able to participate–which was particularly good considering that I had been invited back as a speaker.

Previous iterations of the AT took place in Somerset’s beautiful Quantock Hills. This year’s version was in a new, and very different, location: Epping Forest, which straddles the border between London and Essex. Sasha and I hit some terrible traffic during our drive to the southeast and ended up being trapped in the car for about 8 hours instead of the 5 that we were expecting. After spending all that time sitting down, we were more than ready to stretch our legs on the 12.5-mile Human Trail–the longest of the many walks that cumulatively make up the AT.  This portion of the trail started at the Chingford Station just before 10 AM on the 30th of August.

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The field in which we began our walk. Each footstep along the trail took us away (metaphorically speaking, that is) from the point at which humans became a separate species, and towards the earliest form of life on Earth.
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Because the trail is arranged such that you are metaphorically walking backwards in time towards the first living organism on Earth, the view ahead may show you your own future, but it simultaneously shows you your evolutionary past.

Although we met at the train station, the real starting point of the hike was a field just behind it. There, and at subsequent stops along the route, we paused to think about the evolutionary history that had inspired our journey: the appearance of Homo nearly 6 million years ago, the development of mammals 220 million years ago, the emergence of vertebrates some 500 million years ago, and the origins of life approximately 3.8 billion years ago (to name but a few important evolutionary benchmarks).

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This was one of our first stops of the day; I believe we were still on the primate branch of the family tree at this point.

Although this year’s trail was in much closer proximity to human-disturbed habitats, it still had some stunning scenery. My favorite portion of the trail was the one that took us under the canopy of some beautiful beech trees:

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If you think those trees look a bit manicured, you’re right; Epping Forest is known for its long history of coppicing, pollarding, and other forms of arboreal manipulation.

We also spent a fair amount of time out in more open habitats–especially towards the end of the day. We passed by and through pastures and agricultural fields, all of which were surprisingly calm and quiet given our proximity to the city.

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One of many unused fields we passed during our long walk

One of the big differences between the 2012 and 2014 Ancestor’s Trails was that this one involved the theatrical skills of Ioan Hefin, from Theatr naÓg. Ioan specializes in impersonating/portraying Alfred Russell Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who independently came up with a theory of natural selection very like Darwin’s. Oddly enough, this was the second time that Sasha had seen Ioan perform, having also enjoyed one of his Wallace soliloquies while being inducted to the Linnean Society of London last year.

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He walked the whole 12.5 miles in costume, but not always in character.

My next favorite portion of the trail was the area where we stopped to have lunch. We had just left the Epping Forest behind and transitioned into the open countryside that lay between the forest and the woodlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park where the trail ended. It was obviously a relatively posh area, with quiet country retreats and bridleways for horseback riding. We even passed a very upscale-looking fenced estate.

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We weren’t the only ones out and about on the trails; we also passed equestrians, joggers, bikers, hikers, and dog-walkers.
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I'm sure is its raison d'être
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I’m sure is its raison d’être.
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This is my favorite photograph of the day. I love the pale golden color of the grasses, and their wispy texture makes the hills look soft and velvety. (They weren’t; they were actually a bit scratchy.)

If you look at the back right-hand portion of the photograph above, you’ll notice a man in red. That is Jon Bagge, a professional photographer who also attended the trail last year. He returned this year to collect images for Urs Willmann, a journalist who was writing a profile of the trail for the German newspaper Zeit. Jon very kindly shared his photos with those of us who were present on the day, which means that, for once, I can show you the view from the other side of my camera lens.

Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
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Sasha and I discuss…something, while journalist Urs Willmann (behind me in the black t-shirt) interviews a trail participant.
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After a long day of walking, I rest my feet with some of my fellow pilgrims. This image gives you a particularly good view of my Darwin-riding-an-archaeopteryx t-shirt (by Stated Clearly), which I thought was an especially relevant fashion statement given the theme of the day.
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I find something amusing. Or maybe I’m just thinking about how awesome my t-shirt is.

I would be lying if I said that 12.5 miles wasn’t a bit of a trek–even for someone who loves walking and nature as much as I do. I was worried that my back would start to hurt, but actually it was my feet that ultimately betrayed me. Maybe I need new hiking shoes, or maybe I just shouldn’t ambush my body by taking a walk that is three times as far as I would normally go in a single day. I don’t think I’m the only one who began to feel battered; whereas people had been quite talkative and jokey early on in the day, conversations dwindled and became quieter after lunch. More and more hikers simply put their heads down and powered on, grimly determined to make it to the end.

That is not to say, however, that there were no moments of lightheartedness. There was some antelope mimicry, complete with faux antlers and pronking behavior. There was applause and murmurs of appreciation at the clever and amusing speeches that had been written to recognize each of the important branches in the evolutionary tree. There was good-natured chuckling at the obstacles that Nature had thrown in our path (namely mud and pools of standing water, in which I nearly lost my lens cap). We also took the time to appreciate some unexpected artwork that we found along the way:

Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.
Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.

We picked up our last pilgrims fairly close to our final destination–the Cheshunt YHA. They represented our friends the bacteria, about whom one of the hikers had written a clever little ode that recognized the fact that even though some bacteria make us sick, many more keep us healthy and are responsible for a huge proportion of the genes that can be found within our bodies. His witty observations helped revive us and give us the energy we needed to walk the last mile or so to the refreshments and rest that were waiting for us at the hostel. Also aiding our progress was a small brass band making some very cheerful music to accompany our final steps.

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We were coming from the right-hand side of this picture and heading towards the left. Just before crossing over this bridge, I had the good luck of spotting a great crested grebe–my first-ever sighting of the species!

Everyone was obviously feeling a bit peckish by the time we arrived at the hostel. As soon as we entered the building, we flooded into the cafeteria in search of snacks and hot beverages. I only had eyes for the freshly baked donuts, which were amazing. I suspect that my enjoyment was partially aided by the fact that I was in an extreme sugar deficit, but I am also confident that those were superior treats that would have been delicious under any circumstances. And that is why I was forced to eat two.

As I sat consuming my sugar, I discovered why my rain coat, which I’d been wearing tied around my waist, had become so heavy throughout the day:

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A little souvenir from the Trail

Once we’d had a chance to recharge, Sasha and I said our farewells for the evening and made our way back to our B&B. En route, we stumbled across one of the mailboxes that had been repainted  in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics:

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mailbox plaque

I’m not really sure how they chose which mailboxes to paint in honor of each athlete; Laura Trott isn’t from Cheshunt, but from Harlow, which is 11 miles away. But perhaps I’m being nitpicky. (At least it makes more sense than if they’d put her plaque on a mailbox in, say, York.) I felt pretty ridiculous photographing a mailbox, especially since I’d secretly rolled my eyes at a couple of mailbox spotters who were geeking out about some rare pre-Queen-Elizabeth mailbox that we passed during the 2012 Ancestor’s Trail. Ah, irony.

Upon reaching our B&B, I noted that I felt very much the same as I have previously when returning to my campsite after climbing Mount Kenya during the University of Exeter Kenya field course: weary, sore, very much looking forward to a shower, but also quite proud. While recuperating in the comfort of my fluffy bed, I used TripAdvisor to figure out where Sasha and I should go to dinner. We opted for the Coach and Horses, a gastropub with Spanish influences. They started us off with some fresh garlic bread bites, and I immediately knew that we’d chosen wisely.

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Garlic + butter + bread = happiness on a plate

Neither of our main courses photographed particularly well (I admit that they both kind of look like pet food), but they were both very tasty. I had the albondigas con espinacas, or spiced meatballs with spinach. Sasha opted for the steak stroganoff.

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My meatballs…
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…and Sasha’s stroganoff

Given the number of calories we’d burned during the day, it’s probably no surprise that we were both still hungry once our main courses were gone. The only solution to that problem was to order dessert–which came in the form of fruity ice-cream cheesecake. I’d never had a frozen cheesecake before, but I can confirm that it is delectable.

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Our hard-earned (one might even say…just?) desserts

Once we’d licked our plates clean, we headed home for an early night. I, especially, needed my sleep, since I was due to give a lecture to the AT crowd the following morning. I was impressed by the number of folks who showed up despite the travails of the previous day and the fact that many of them had a long commute home. You know you’ve got an eager audience when they agree to show up at 9:30 AM on a weekend.

The first lecture of the morning was delivered by Ryan Walker, a herpetologist who talked about salamanders in recognition of the fact that this was designated the AT’s “Year of the Amphibian”. I was up next, discussing “The Sounds of Love“–aka birdsong. Judith Mank, of University College London, wrapped up the festivities with her discussion of sex determination. All three of us fielded some excellent questions, and the crowd was not only very attentive, but also quite tolerant when I had some technical difficulties. It was exactly the kind of audience that every speaker dreams of.

Of course, that wasn’t really surprising. During my first experience with the Ancestor’s Trail crowd, I had found my fellow pilgrims to be friendly, thoughtful, inquisitive, and insightful; the same was true this year. They are an interesting group of people to spend time with, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to join them in both Quantock Hills and the Epping Forest. Even if Sasha and I don’t find ourselves signed up to give AT lectures in the near future, I hope we still have the chance to participate in the hike–though perhaps with more supportive shoes next time.

Watery Birthday, Part II

There are many summer birthdays in my family, and the the one that we celebrated most recently was my father’s–though the actual holiday is July 15th. I put him on hold this year because I was tired of sending him gifts via Amazon, and instead wanted to treat him to an outing rather than yet another object to stick in a drawer or on a shelf. The trip I had in mind was actually one that we’d taken before–back in the summer of 2007 when I was but a lowly PhD student taking a break from my field season:

Looking contemplative

I’m not sure how or why, but my parents went through a period during which they frequently visited Ohio’s Burr Oak State Park and rented pontoon boats so they could explore the reservoir. After their initial foray, they returned with my dad’s parents, my mom’s parents, and, finally, me, each time packing a picnic lunch to eat while out on the water. They discovered an inlet, which they dubbed Kight Cove, where it was particularly pleasant to drop anchor and float while dining.  Despite the fact that they very much enjoyed their visits to Burr Oak–so much so that they even investigated how much it would cost to purchase their own pontoon boat–they got distracted by other outings and stopped going. I figured it was time to revive the tradition.

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Amazingly, the marina looked pretty much exactly as it did the last time I was there, despite the fact that seven years had elapsed. Because we visited on a weekday, it was nearly deserted, which only added to the peace and calm of the environment–a calm that we momentarily disturbed when we practically crashed the boat while pulling out of our parking space.

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When I say “we,” I actually mean “my dad,” because he was our driver for the day. I suppose it seems a bit wrong to make the Birthday Boy take the wheel, but he’s the one with the most experience and my mom and I only really felt comfortable driving when we were out in the middle of the lake where we were unlikely to bang into anything (obviously we needn’t have worried). It wasn’t until our near-miss at the docks that any of us appreciated the fact that pontoon handling skills might be diminished after seven years of non-use. We eventually made it out onto the water in the end, with the rental office staff assuring us that we couldn’t do anything they hadn’t already seen.

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The park is located about 30 minutes from my parents’ house, just on the edge of Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio. When people tell me that Ohio is flat, boring, and/or filled with nothing but cow pastures and cornfields, this is the portion of the state I tell them they need to see. Here, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, there are rolling hills covered with green trees filled with singing birds. As far as I’m concerned, there are few places that can compete with the seaside–particularly the Cornish seaside–in terms of beauty and restfulness; this area is number one on the list.

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As we drove along, I could hear the voices of many familiar North American birds–Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, American goldfinches, belted kingfishers, and dozens of great blue herons that took flight as they saw us coming. We also passed vast patches of blooming swamp rose-mallow, a beautiful plant in the same family as the hibiscus:

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At the time, I incorrectly (but understandably, I think) identified this as marsh mallow, which is a very similar invasive relative. Despite the inaccuracy of my first ID, it did have the benefit of initiating an interesting investigation into the relationship between the marsh mallow plant and the marshmallow sugary treat. It turns out that ancient Egyptians harvested the plant’s root to make medicines to soothe sore throats. The French created a sugary, meringue-based form of this treatment that gave rise to the modern marshmallow that we all know and love.

We also encountered many fragrant water-lilies–though sadly we didn’t get close enough to test the accuracy of the plant’s name:

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A few years ago, these grew in Burr Oak Reservoir in such abundance that boaters were complaining; the vegetation got caught in propellers and made it impossible to make any headway through the water. An extended period of flooding killed off many of the plants, leaving only small, picturesque patches floating above the shallowest parts of the lake.

In case anyone is interested in the culinary details of our outing, as well as the biological, I should probably mention the goodies we ate when we arrived at Kight Cove (or the spot that we judged to be Kight Cove; seven years’ absence makes it difficult to tell one inlet from another). The main course was Giada de Laurentiis’ penne with beef and arugula–a recipe that was designed specifically for picnics, but which I usually eat warm; I think this was actually the first time I used it for its intended purpose. I also made a modified version of Paula Deen’s fresh fruit salad with poppyseed dressing. The modified bit was the fruit, since the grocery store was fairly depleted when I visited the night before our departure. I followed the dressing instructions very specifically, since that is what makes the salad so special. (The version of the recipe I have includes avocados, raisins, and chopped walnuts–none of which feature in the recipe in the link above, but which are quite tasty additions!) Finally, we had a savory salad made from a recipe whose origins are completely mysterious to me. At some point I typed the ingredients and instructions into a compilation of recipes on my computer, but I have no record of where I got that information; the dish is pretty similar to this one, though the vinaigrette is made with lemon juice rather than vinegar.

As you can imagine, we were all quite full after lunch, and stuck to boating rather than indulging in a bit of swimming–though the water was inviting given how warm it was in the sun. We managed to explore nearly the entire perimeter of the reservoir, which is impressive given how large it is. Much of the shoreline looked quite similar (trees, herons, lilypads…trees, herons, lilypads…), but there is something about being on the water that makes it enjoyable no matter how repetitious the scenery becomes; the breeze on your face and the vibration of the motor put you into a bit of a Zen state.

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My mother calls this the “pharoah pose”

Hopefully that peace of mind–not to mention a full belly, a suntan, and some good memories–was a more valuable gift than a new book or shirt or whatever else I could have ordered for my dad online. Happy birthday to a great guy–may there be many more years, and boat trips, to come!