Fighting MS Again!

Hey, all! After a year’s break, I’ve again decided to sign up for the MS 150 this year. And, this time, I’m going to participate in the Great Lakes West Michigan Breakaway Ride–a ride that I’ve considered doing in the past for a change of pace. I’m so excited to be participating for the 10th time in an MS ride (8x on Bike To The Bay, 1x on Colorado’s Great West MS 150). As you know, this cause is very important to me because my grandpa H had MS. If you feel so inclined, please feel free to donate to my effort–I’d really appreciate it.

So I’ve also persuaded Crow to join me. And my friend Sue from the ABC will also be participating. I’m so excited to do an MS 150 in the company of good friends. I’ve never cycled in Michigan so that will be a new experience. The ride sounds beautiful, following the Lake Michigan at points, and it’s listed as not being particularly hard. I think Crow is going to keep me tapped down to the normal 75-mile/day route. He’s already proving to be great temperance to my aggressive “do-it-all” mileage Nazism.

Although, my hand is currently hovering over the registration button for Calvin’s Challenge. There’s a big ABC contingent going there this year… And while I was going to wait until the weekend before to determine my participation based on the weather and my level of training at that point, I’m now seriously considering preregistering. Peer pressure works.

I know I have to be careful now that I know about the arthritis. So if I signed up for Calvin’s, I’d have to make a serious commitment to pre-season training, no matter what the weather is like. I hate rain. And we’ve had so much rain this season.

I’m taking glucosamine now. I’ve heard it helps with some of the joint problems associated with arthritis. I know that it’s not the cure to my problems, but it should help some. I still have to be careful when training. And I’ll need to resume my stretches. Hopefully, I’ve learned something from last year and I don’t overdo it. I still want to be able to challenge myself, though. 180 miles on Calvin’s would be my goal. You gotta start off small, after all.

Well, at least for the MS 150, I’ll just be taking my own sweet time. Crow is wonderful to ride with in that we are both of the same tourist mindset–it’s about the journey, not the destination. So I imagine we’ll be stopping to take pictures when the scenery inspires us to do so. I love signing up for new rides… unexpected adventures await…  And I love it when I have no idea what to expect. The best adventures are those you can’t even possibly anticipate.

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Lemons To Lemonade

First off, I have to say that I don’t particularly like the phrase, “If life throws you lemons, make lemonade.” It’s a little overly sappy sweet for my disposition. However, in the case of New Year’s weekend 2011-12, I have to admit that it applies. I’m also reminded of the phrase, “The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.”

As my avid readers know, I spent New Year’s weekend at Holiday Valley ski resort the last several years. This year, I decided to do something different since Crow is not the downhill skier that I am and I wanted to be sure we went somewhere where there were activities both of us could do. So we booked a room with my fellow bike club members at the Wilderness Lodge in Wattsburg, Pennsylvania where there are many cross-country skiing trails. I’ve never cross-country skied before, but I’m fairly confident that I wouldn’t have much trouble learning this activity and since the Wilderness Lodge offered rental cross-country skis, I was ready and willing to try it.

This winter, however, has been slow at starting. We had no snow (except an occasional dusting) all December. No white Christmas. Nothing.

I’ve been depressed because last year I started skiing at Boston Mills the first weekend in December. Each day that Boston Mills is not open is money wasted on my season pass. I was forced to get a gym membership so that I could regularly work out somewhere since not only was it not snowing, it was raining almost daily which does not exactly invite me to partake in outdoor activity of any kind.

So, of course, when we arrived at the Wilderness Lodge on Friday (in the rain), we were a bit glum because it didn’t seem it was going to be possible to ski at all. Or do other snow activity. It was simply not cold enough for snow to occur, but we kept checking the weather in hopes that a big blizzard was on its way. Of course, we woke to more gray skis and dreariness on Saturday (New Year’s Eve).

Crow and I decided to act like tourists instead. We knew we had wanted to visit our favorite brewery–Southern Tier–since we were in the area. We originally planned it hit it on Sunday (New Year’s Day), which would mean just sitting in the little pub attached to the factory to have a few drinks. Tours of the brewery are only offered on Saturday, however, so we didn’t think we’d be able to get to do the tour this trip. However, since the weather wasn’t cooperating, we decided to hit the 3:00 tour on Saturday. To kill time, we decided to check out the Chautauqua Institute.

A wintery Lake Chautauqua.

I thought that the Chautauqua Institute was just a building where a lot of lectures took place. I did not realize that the “Institute” was the whole town itself. And the town was inside gates with a few entry points. It was a bit weird. Crow said it reminded him of Stepford from the movie The Stepford Wives. I think he had a point.

The mansion at Chautauqua. (Sorry that I can't remember who owns it!)

Fortunately, in the off-season, entry into Chautauqua is free. So we drove in, parked, and walked around admiring the architecture of the buildings and houses. We walked to the lakefront and through a park. The whole town was empty, which seemed a bit creepy, but given the dreary weather even the people who stayed over the winter probably preferred to stay indoors. It actually kind of reminded me of a college town between semesters–a perfect, clean little community absent of the usual hustle and bustle of people that define it.

A winding road in Chautauqua.

We were heading back to the main square when saw two horse-drawn carriages and some people loading onto them. Crow asked the guys who looked like they were in charge if the rides were for a special event, but it turns out that anyone could go! Crow asked if I wanted to, and I most certainly did, so we bought tickets and climbed aboard! What grand luck!

A sleigh ride at Chautauqua!

The ride took us on a tour of the northern part of town. The driver pointed out various buildings and mansions owned by famous people in Chautauqua that I guess I should have known had I known much about the Chautauqua Institution. Aside from the mansions and beautiful lakefront homes, Chautauqua really did remind me of a college town with its dorms, theatres, and various subject-focused buildings (music, art, etc). To be honest, I just enjoyed being on a vehicle pulled by horses. Even if it wasn’t through snow.

Mars Girl on sleigh ride at Chautauqua.

Crow on sleigh ride at Chautauqua.

After the tour, we decided to head out to Southern Tier as the website advised arriving early for the tour because there were only 25 spots available and it fills up fast. It’s a good thing we happened to arrive about ten minutes before the brewery opened at 2:00 because when we got there, people were already lining up to get in. We were about six and seven in line; by the time the Southern Tier employees opened the doors, there were at least 20 people behind us with more filing out of cars. We were able to secure our places on the tour and, about five minutes later, the tour–still an hour from start–was full!

The many Southern Tier brews on tap in The Empty Pint.

The Empty Pint–which is the small pub attached to the brewery–was packed with people. We were really impressed by the popularity of the place. We settled down with a pulled pork sandwich and a glass of the chocolate stout–a brew we discovered only recently on tap at a pub in Perrysburg just this past November. Southern Tier’s chocolate stout is undeniably the Best. Beer. Ever. I thought I loved their Pumking (the pumpkin ale available from August through October), but this chocolate (Choklat) blows every beer I’ve ever tasted out of the water. It’s that good.

The Empty Pint at Southern Tier--a nice place to enjoy a pulled pork sandwich and a good beer.

At 11% alcohol content, it was a rather heavy beer to start with knowing that we would likely be sampling beer on the tour, but I just couldn’t resist. It’s impossible to find Choklat in bottles in Ohio, let alone having the rare access to a tap. We joyfully noted, too, that there were bottles of Choklat in the gift area of the pub. Oh, we were so grabbing a few bottles on the way out! Among other things. And some swag.

The tour was exactly what we expected: lots of sampling followed by some explanation of the brewing process. We were taken immediately to a small stand that contained taps for Southern Tier’s IPA, 2x IPA (a favorite of mine!), the new 2x Stout, the experimental barrel aged Pumking, and–of course–the chocolate stout. The tour guide started us in order of the alcohol content. He filled a pitcher with 2X IPA, and then handed to one side of the group to pour and pass around. Of course, I had a glass, but was probably one of the few to obey the rule of the fill line on my glass. I knew I loved the 2x IPA. I skipped the regular IPA when it went around–how could anything compete with the 2x IPA? It would just be less hoppy, less flavorful. And, to be honest, I didn’t want to get too toasted. Plus, there were some beers in the pub I still wanted to try that weren’t on the tour.

Our taps on the tour of Southern Tier. Mmm. Beer.

The oak aged Pumking was good, but not as creamy and sugary as the regular Pumking. I prefer my oak aged beers to be heavy like a porter or a stout. The 2x Stout (a milk stout) was outstanding. Not as good as the chocolate stout, mind you, but that’s like comparing apples to grapefruit, really.

We gawked longingly at some kegs in the storage room. We giggled at a person on the tour who asked if Southern Tier put any of their beers in cans. (Cans? Really? Hello! This is not Yuengling or Budweiser you’re touring here! Bleck!) It was a pretty good time!

Afterwards, despite being a little toasty, Crow and I headed to the bar to try the new Eurotrash Pilsner and the Inequity Imperial Black Ale. I liked the Pilsner a lot–it tasted like summer with hints of citris. The Inequity was interesting–somewhat like an IPA yet deceptively dark. I’m not sure it’s something I would active seek out in the future, but it was worth trying. I kind of felt this way about Southern Tier’s winter brew–Old Man Winter. It was “eh” and kind of disappointing. Hey, you can’t win them all with me!

Drinks at Southern Tier

Drinks at Southern Tier!

At home I have bottles of Southern Tier’s Oatmeal Stout and their Mokah Stout (which is a combination of chocolate and coffee flavors) that I yet to try. They also have a Jav*ah (coffee) Stout that I see everywhere but have not yet bought. I’m pretty confident I will like those. Their Creme Brulee Stout is out of this world good, but has to be shared with others when the 22oz bottle is opened or else you will pass out before finishing the bottle due to sugar and alcohol overload. Anyway, given all the beers I have tried by Southern Tier, I’d say they have a pretty good track record with me. Which is why, I think, Crow and I love Southern Tier so much.

So, yeah, we bought the swag–a blue hoodie for each of us. I got a girlie Pumpkin t-shirt to wear when I’ve lost my winter weight. We absconded six bottles of Choklat, nearly emptying the shelf of that flavor. At $6.59/per bottle (22oz), you can’t really complain; 22oz bottles of any high quality beer such as this is typically 8.99 or more back home. We also built our own six pack of 12oz bottles, getting two each of 2x IPA, 2x Stout; one each of the Porterand the 422 Pale Wheat Ale (both of which we’d previously had and liked). It was an expensive trip out but well worth it.

Mars Girl poses in front of the exulted Southern Tier sign. Four hours after entering the brewery. In daylight.

Crow poses in front of the Southern Tier sign. A dream fulfilled!

Our adventure at Southern Tier (where we figured out that we had spent 4 hours!) left us really in such a state of inebriation that we pretty much were done drinking for the rest of the evening except to take the champagne toast at midnight with our friends outside of the Wilderness Lodge.

It was a pretty relaxed way to bring in the New Year as compared to my past several years watching fireworks and screaming the countdown with fellow skiers at the main lodge at Holiday Valley. But it was probably one of the best New Year’s celebrations in a long time because I brought in the new year with a new(ish) relationship. At midnight, Crow placed my first kiss of the year on lips. 2012 is already looking quite bright!

Sunday morning we had a glimmer of hope as we awoke to see sunlight streaming out of the bedroom window. However, by the time we were dressed and sitting at the lodge’s main room ordering breakfast, the clouds had returned with a heavy downpour. Our friends started packing up and leaving to return home. We were still waffling over whether or not we should attempt to go skiing at Peek N Peak and continue with our original plan to stay a night in Jamestown (which I originally set up so that we could visit Southern Tier at the end of a weekend of skiing). We ultimately decided that there wasn’t a lot to do in Jamestown (there really isn’t unless you really like Dezi Arnez and Lucille Ball) so we canceled the hotel room I had booked and headed out.

We went to Peek N Peak, since it was so close to the Wilderness Lodge, just to check out the conditions. As suspected, it was pretty horrible–sloshy mud and green grass at the bottom of every run, patches of brown spotting most of the slopes. I could tell that the snow was very wet by listening to the noise made by the few intrepid skiers who were making their way down. We decided wisely to not ski and then stopped to have lunch at the Italian place I like in one of the lodges.

It was on our way out, however, that we spotted an ad on the wall for Splash Lagoon (which seems to be owned by the same company that owns Peek N Peak). Crow and I had been wanting to visit an indoor water park this winter. We had nothing else to do. Why not?!

Splash Lagoon is in Erie, PA, about a half hour’s drive from where we were. We decided we’d just go up to one of the three hotels attached to the indoor water park and see if they had an vacancies. We were in luck; they all did! So we booked a room at the Residence Inn and excitedly planned that we would spend Monday at the resort.

Fortunately, I always bring my swimsuit whenever I go somewhere on the off-chance that where ever I’m staying will have a hot tub or pool. Crow, who is usually prepared for everything, actually did not bring swim trunks! But there was a Target up the road and he was able to get pair. We spent some time availing ourselves of the hotel’s pool and hot tub on Sunday night.

We entered Splash Lagoon around 11am on Monday and we did not leave until 6pm. It was the most fun I’ve had in the water in a long time! There were tons of water activities–hot tubs, a wave pool, fountains–but the water slides were the most fun. To be honest, I’ve never actually been on any water slides minus maybe a few simple ones occasionally in the rare instances as a child that I went to a public pool. We had a pool in our backyard, so we never really had to go anywhere else except on vacation which was usually a campground. So this was an entirely new experience for me. And I went for it fearlessly. Pretty much!

The first slides we tried were the ones for which you had to use an innertube. In a way, those were the most fun because Crow and I could use one of the “two-seaters” and ride together. Bravery in numbers! One by one, we picked off slides called Big Kahuna, Cyclone (most fun!), and Python Plunge (second best). The Cyclone was unique in that after swooshing quickly down a twisting tube, you landed unceremoniously into what basically amounted to a big bowl (I kept thinking of it as a “toilet bowl”) where you swirled around the sides, then the middle, until you were sucked down a hole into the last shoot that thrust you to the finish in a shallow pool. Several times, we ended up in the last shoot backwards–an extra thrill!

We tried the body slides next. These were extra scary because you went by yourself and you had nothing to hang onto except your own body. Which helped not one bit. Because I had no idea what any of these slides entailed, I was basically dropping myself into a tube and hoping for the best. The best–and scariest–of the body slides was Hurricane Hole. Signs at the top of the slide warn that riders will be dropped into 6.5 feet of water and must know how to swim. “No problem!” I thought. I couldn’t possibly have imagined what was in store for me.

Like Cyclone, Hurricane Hole starts with a series of twisted tubes that shoots you into a big bowl. I will note, though, that the beginning of Hurricane Hole is a longer, faster drop into that bowl. And, secondly, it’s in the dark. Having no idea where you’re going, you become completely disoriented before you are thrown into the bowl. I can’t tell you how many times I actually had my eyes closed during the first part of the slide, only to open them and realize I was in the bowl headed for…

…a great big HOLE at the bottom. No last slide. No casually spinning around like the swishing water of a vortex slowly around the hole. Nope. You slide maybe once or twice around the side of the bowl. And then, suddenly, your whole body is headed straight for a big hole at the bottom. There’s no stopping yourself because before you know what’s happening to you, you are dumped out and into a small six foot pool. You end up submerged, of course, and when you peek your head up, you have no clue which direction is OUT of the pool until the nice little lifeguard blows his whistle.

What a freaking blast!! I must have rode Hurricane Hole at least ten times and it still scared the piss out of me every time. And no matter how I feel into the hole (back first, head first, stomach), it never hurt to hit the water. The distance between the hole you fall through and water beneath is really short so I think that softens the blow.

Black Hole was another great body slide. It was much shorter than the other slides, but it was also completely dark inside so that you had no idea where you were going and it had a many twists and turns that thrust you a long at a pretty fast speed. I was a little annoyed by Shark Attack because for some reason, I slowed down significantly in the final part of it and I would always end up stopping just short of the end of the tube so that I had to crawl out to the pool. I don’t understand why that kept happening; when Crow came through it, he was thrust out easily. (And before you even mention it, I weigh more than Crow does so it has nothing to do with weight!)

We really had an awesome time. It was hard to get ourselves to leave the park. Our last several runs down the slide were prefaced by the promise that we were only going to ride one more. Ha! Crow is just like me in this regard; on the ski slope, I’m always claiming I’m on my last run for at least five runs. I never want to stop. Only two things were prompting us to leave: 1) We had a two hour drive home in snow (it was finally snowing out!), and 2) The chlorine was seriously starting to bother both our lungs (mine especially being that I have asthma).

Crow and I both agreed we need to do another water park in the future. It’s a great winter escape from the cold and usual activities. I like that we so readily adopted new plans when our original ones failed. We still had a great weekend. And that’s all that matters.

(PS, I apologize for the severe lack of photographic evidence of our trip to Splash Lagoon. Had I realized my camera–borrowed from Crow–was waterproof, I’d have taken it into the water park. We really were there. We have the detailed schematics of each slide etched into our brains to prove it. And the chronic smell of chlorine still in our nostrils.)