New York State of Mind

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In my bid to tell as many inn-keeping stories as possible in the run-up to my parents’ retirement as innkeepers of the Combes Family Inn, I’ve selected several anecdotes about winter guests from New York City. More specifically, they all hail from Manhattan.

Please don’t get the wrong idea. The Combes Family Inn loves (nearly) all of its guests, including those from New York. After all, New York, by far, is home to the largest chunk of inn guests through the years, right down to this very day. It’s also worth noting that my father is originally from Long Island. Sometimes, however, when people travel away from their urban lives and end up this far out in the country, strange things can happen. This is particularly true during winter storms.

119winter CFI

 

(Above: The Combes Family Inn is within sight of Okemo Mountain Resort and is typically surrounded by bountiful snow all winter long.)

Back in the old days, my mother always stayed up for the last guests to arrive. During the ski seasons of the late 70s and early 80s, she spent many Friday nights (that stretched into Saturday mornings, if necessary) reading alone in the sitting room, waiting for guests to check-in for the weekend. One particularly snowy night, just before he retired for the evening, my father snow-blowed an extra wide path from the end of the inn’s long, curving driveway and down the 30-foot walk-way to the front door.

Several hours later, my mother was interrupted from her reading by the sound of an approaching car. Then, she was startled to see headlights pass right by the sitting room windows, where there is no driveway, just a sidewalk for guests to get to the front door by foot. By the time my mom got to the front door, the car was gone. But there stood two people with their luggage!  As it turned out, it was a couple from Manhattan who had booked a reservation for the weekend.

photo 3

(Above: The posts in the foreground of this photo now prevent cars from driving through the driveway and parking lot up to the front door. You wouldn’t think they’d be necessary. Evidently, they are!)

After exchanging pleasantries with the couple, my mother glanced into the parking lot, thinking about the headlights she had seen just moments earlier. “What happened to your car?” she asked.

The woman replied, “Oh. We were just a mile or so from here, when we came upon a guy by the side of the road whose car was stuck in a snow bank. We stopped to help him out, but it was too dark and too difficult to do anything. He explained that he really needed to get to his condo five miles up the road. We told him to jump in, and then we let him borrow our car after he dropped us off here.”

“Did you know him?” my mother asked, a bit incredulously. “No. But we’re sure he’ll bring our car back,” the man replied. My mother was shocked that they were so trusting of a stranger and feared that they would never see their car again.

Very early the next morning, when my father got up to prep for breakfast, he walked out to the parking lot and saw a gorgeous new BMW parked right out front.  After the couple came down for breakfast and went out to check on the car, they told my parents that the stranger had not only returned their vehicle as he’d promised, but he also left a nice note and a 50-dollar bill in the cup holder!

Another time, when my mom was up late waiting for guests, she watched a huge black limo glide into the inn’s driveway. Curious, she went outside to meet the vehicle. The driver stepped out and explained that he had a couple from Manhattan in the back who wanted a room for the evening. Evidently they had hired the limo after clubbing in New York, and one of them had gotten the brilliant idea to visit a friend with a ski chalet at one of the southern Vermont ski areas. Mind you, this was before the era of everyone owning a cell phone. As the limo got deeper into Vermont, the passengers realized that they had no idea where their friend’s condo was. The limo driver saw the inn’s sign on Route 100 and was probably thinking he would drop the couple off there, presumably to just get them off his hands.

My mom took one look at the “post-party” couple sleeping it off in the back of the car and said, “Well, you can’t drop them off here.”

“What am I supposed to do?” asked the driver. People who know my mother will not be surprised that she replied: “You’re going to have to drive them back to New York City.” And, that’s exactly what he did.

After several years of successful inn-keeping, my mother stopped staying up after midnight, waiting for guests, opting instead to leave little notes with pleasantries and room assignments on the front door, which is inside a covered entryway.

One stormy winter night, a couple was driving to the inn from Manhattan, with their baby in tow.  My father had gone to great lengths to set up a crib for them before he went to bed, at around 10 o’clock. My mom waited up another hour or so and then resorted to leaving a note on the front door. Later, in her slumber, Mom heard people come in at around two a.m. The next morning, mom saw the couple sitting at breakfast, but with no baby in sight.

“Wow. What a storm last night! It must have been frightful driving through that with the baby,” Mom said to them. They just nodded and smiled. My mother continued, “The baby must be sleeping really soundly.” Again, they just smiled. A few minutes later, they finished breakfast and asked for their bill; they had to be on their way.

About a minute later, the phone rang. It was the couple with the baby from Manhattan! They explained that the driving had been so bad during the storm the previous night that they had to stop halfway and spend the night en route. They would be arriving at my parents’ inn in just a few hours!

Mom didn’t tell the other couple what she had learned. Instead, she processed their payment and dashed to the room to clean it and make it ready for the family that had actually reserved it.  She figured out that the first couple must have been desperate when they happened upon the inn during the storm. Seeing the note, they likely assumed that the people with the reservation wouldn’t make it, in such bad weather.

photo 1 photo 2

(Above: The inn’s long drive way curves around the side of the inn and around the motel units. The entrance is on the opposite side of the building, at the end of the long driveway and walkway. Also pictured, the “back side” of the inn, with a view of the back door and fire stairs; you pass by this side of the inn as you travel through the driveway and into the parking lot.)

During another snowstorm, a woman from Manhattan got confused about how to enter the inn. Instead of following the driveway all the way around the inn to the actual entrance, she stopped her car on the side by the back door. She then proceeded to hike through the snow and ice and found the back door either stuck or locked. So, she hiked through more snow and ice and climbed up the fire stairs, which lead to a door on the second floor. A moment later, my parents were startled to hear a knock on their upstairs bedroom door. When my mother opened it, the woman said, “Gee. Your inn is really hard to get into.”

Mom looked her up and down and noticed she was in high heels and that her nylons were completely shredded on both legs. Without missing a beat, Mom said, “I guess so.”

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How CNN Changed My Life

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CNN Press Pass

Some of you asked to know more about the “Throwback Thursday” photo of my CNN press pass (pictured above). Although my two-week stint with CNN seemed a mere blip on the screen, it completely changed my life.

After graduate school, I moved to Singapore as a newly-wed in January 1994. The following spring my husband’s job transferred to Beijing. I joined him there after a brief vacation to visit my family in the U.S. I arrived in China that April inexplicably obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial, having read an old People Magazine on the return flight. How had I not heard about the sensational trial and all of the hoopla surrounding it?

Rather than settling in smoothly as I had always done before, I felt isolated and wrestled with my sense of self. Very quickly, I became depressed. My journals from this time show how CNN became a symptom of my depression and, incredibly, the cure of it, just three months later.

China Journals

(Above: One of my journals open an entry about my work with CNN in Beijing in 1995.)

A journal entry from June 8, 1995 is below:

It’s so lame that I have all of this free time right now, yet I can’t seem to get myself to do anything with it. For someone with so many dreams and ‘goals,’ it’s bizarre that I am completely incapable of following through with even just one of them. I sent that fax to CNN, but I’m sure in my mind that they won’t call. I know I need to get fluent in Chinese, yet I stay at home all day and don’t even try to read the local papers or listen to the local newscasts. It’s pathetic. I mean, look at all these seemingly pathetic characters who appear as guests on Donahue, Oprah, etc. Half of them got their shit together long enough to write a book. I’ll be turning 27 and I don’t have a real focus…I’m into this TV journalism thing, yet I doubt anyone would hire me.

Perhaps, lame to say, watching Larry King Live’s 10th Anniversary Special was beneficial, because I learned that many famous and talented people also lack confidence and are still fearful to face the camera and audiences that idolize them. On Larry King, I’m embarrassed to admit how wonderful it really is to watch his live interviews….I also seem to have developed something of a crush on Barry Scheck, O. J. Simpson’s attorney for DNA issues.

Completely unmotivated to do anything else, I watched endless coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial on CNN International in our apartment, while my husband traveled for work. Who knows how far downhill I would have gone had CNN not responded to my fax? Luckily, CNN called me, and it became the catalyst for a remarkable change in my life.

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing for two weeks in September 1995. CNN devoted significant coverage to it, because then First Lady Hillary Clinton was attending, despite very loud calls for a boycott due to Chinese human rights violations. At the conference, Clinton took the government to task for its treatment of young girls and made the iconic statement “that human rights are women’s rights — and women’s rights are human rights.” (The full text of her speech is here and a video here.)

CNN temporarily augmented the local bureau with network heavyweights Judy Woodruff, Larry Register, and Richard Roth, and a handful of locals, including me. My job was to watch, read, and summarize Chinese media coverage of the conference, so that the CNN team could keep its pulse on the extent of Beijing’s censorship. At first, it simply got me out of the apartment. It didn’t take long, however, for that walk down the hallway to become a walk out of my depressive state.  As I wrote on September 18th, 1995:

Last Friday was my last day at CNN, but it was incredible!! Most notably, Judy Woodruff and Larry Register gave me quite a lot of responsibility by allowing me to single-handedly select three short clips of young people giving their impressions of the Conference…

I will never forget the interview with an eleven-year-old Nigerian girl…Her speech was slow, and deliberate – she chose words carefully and spoke with intelligence about the government having to listen to the voices of the people. She said that the platform (the Beijing Women’s Conference) could help bring the voice to the government – but that people must be heard for it to make a difference.

Larry thought it was too harsh…But Judy Woodruff liked it – so it was in. I had no idea that they would close the series with 28 seconds of clips chosen single-handedly by me!!

My work at CNN was quickly followed by a few job offers, including the one I accepted as the China Marketing Manager for an American automotive company. That I had never heard of the field of “marketing” didn’t prevent me from acing my interviews and getting the offer that led to a long and successful marketing career. I remember a question the HR director asked at the end of my first interview: “The women’s conference is coming to Beijing very soon. Have you thought about taking part in some way?”

 “Oh, yes.  I cannot start with your company until after it’s over. I’ll be working for CNN during the conference,” I replied. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

Best Laid Plans

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I am the captain of a team that runs a 100-mile relay race along Vermont’s scenic Route 100, the appropriately named 100 on 100 Heart of Vermont Relay. The race is an exercise in teamwork. The route is divided into 18 segments of varying length and difficulty. Each team usually has six runners, each of whom runs three legs of the race, passing a wristband as a baton to the next runner at pre-determined transition points along the course. Our team loads up the vehicle at about 3:30 in the morning and gets on the road by 4, to make our 6 o’clock team check-in time and 6:30 start in Stowe.

As team captain, I do the planning and race management. I’m pretty detail-oriented and the team generally appreciates that I take care of everything. When I say “everything,” I mean a host of tasks, from registering the team to forecasting our running times for each segment to managing our fans along the course. One year, I predicted the nearly 15-hour running time within two minutes! In essence, I am a “planner,” and my team was following a well-thought-out plan on race day. This year, our plan was to run most of the race with four runners (instead of six) and be joined by another team member mid-race, who would run a 12-mile stretch to help us out.

En route to Stowe early race day morning, the tire pressure warning light came on. I told the team not to worry, because it was just a slow leak in one of the back tires. We had plenty of time to get air, after we got off the highway in Waterbury.  And we did.

Starting Line

(Our 4 core team members at the starting line. Left to right: Bill, Erica, Bridget, and me.)

After team check-in, we took some team photos at the starting line, watched my cousin Bridget start the race, and then went back to the car. That tire looked pretty soft again—so much so that a runner from another team even pointed it out. My brother suggested I go cheer Bridget on while he and our fourth team member, Erica, changed the tire.  After Bridget ran through the first transition point and proceeded into the second leg of the race, I walked back to the car and found all of our duffle bags, other gear, and cases of water and Gatorade on the grass. When he saw me, Bill shook his head and said with a slight hint of frustration, “There’s no spare.”

Bridget on 2nd Leg

(Bridget completed the first leg and started the second completely unaware of the situation with our team vehicle.)

We loaded back up and headed out to look for a service station, truly believing that the low tire might have been an optical illusion caused by the car tilting downhill on grass. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I stopped a guy directing traffic and asked him how the tire looked. “Pretty flat,” he said. Instead of heading down the mountain, we turned into another parking lot and jumped out to check the tire on level ground. “Pretty flat? Is he nuts?” I yelled. We were looking at metal on asphalt. The tire was completely flat and our race vehicle was not drivable.

We quickly reviewed several possible solutions and decided to have my father bring the spare tire up from Ludlow—where it was sitting in our garage—and  for me to hitch a ride with another team in time to get the baton from Bridget at the next transition point, in about 45 minutes. Since I was also going to be running two legs in a row, we hoped there was enough time to get the spare up to Stowe and on the car, and the four of us to meet at the start of the fifth race segment.

Range Rover

(Unfortunately, this was Bill and Erica’s view for over four hours!)

As it turned out, we were not reunited until after 11 o’clock. While Bill and Erica waited at the starting line in the car for my father to overcome several obstacles of his own on the drive up with the spare, Bridget and I kept running and passing the baton to one another for four-and-a-half hours and bummed rides from other teams to each subsequent transition point. I was truly ecstatic when I heard the familiar sound of a ringing cow bell and looked up to see my brother hanging out the window of our team vehicle and then, moments later, when I passed the baton to Erica for her to complete the remainder of the uphill climb of segment six, outside Waitsfield.

In addition to the grace with which my team dealt with both planned and unexpected challenges, it was extremely heartening how every team we approached for help gave it without question. At the starting line, the “American Bandits” welcomed me, a stranger, and gave me a lift down the mountain. Later, when I explained my predicament to my friend Stacie, her “Sole Sixters” team was enthusiastic about adopting Bridget, while I ran more than 12 miles. After Bridget completed her first run and passed the baton to me, utterly exhausted, Stacie’s calm and smiling face made the difference, as I briefly explained the situation of our team’s catastrophe before turning around to start my run. Then, when Bridget took the baton back over from me for segment five, an acquaintance named Stephanie and her team brought me along to Waitsfield and fed me cookies and water before I was handed the baton back again and started the uphill climb of segment six.

Team Swim Blueberry Lake

(Erica, Bridget, and Bill in Blueberry Lake during a welcomed break mid-race, while Lee was cranking out 12 miles for the team.)

We finished the race at 8:48pm, by far the fastest performance for my team in the six years we’ve run the race.  And, more importantly, we all had a blast, made a lot of new friends, and gained many new stories to tell than can possibly be told here. It’s a great reminder that the best plan of all is to have a great team to start with, and to have fun, no matter what.

Dinner Is Served

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Six weeks ago, I added a new thread to my blog to give voice to the rich lore resulting from my parents’ 36 years as Vermont innkeepers. There’s only 62 weeks until their expected retirement, so it’s time to get cracking on documenting these stories.

First, I want to explain my process. I rely on a combination of my own memories growing up in the inn and recollections of my mother’s re-telling of events to come up with the subject for each post. Then, I interview my parents, usually over dinner, to fact check my memory, gain more context, and add dimension to each story. At last Sunday’s dinner, a few questions about serving dinner at the inn yielded so much material that this post only includes stories from the first year.

CFI Menu Cards and Ads

(Above: Saved menu notes and weekly newspaper ads from the inn’s first year of serving dinner to the general public.)

In a previous post, I explained that my parents started renovating the property that became the Combes Family Inn in March 1978 and we hosted our first inn guests that August. After working out some kinks in the rooms business and making additional renovations, the three innkeepers were finally ready to serve dinner to guests by October. In the inn-keeping world, it is much more prestigious to serve dinner, in addition to offering bed and breakfast (“B&B”). As my mom explained: “Before moving to Vermont to become an innkeeper with us, your Aunt Nancy had taken a commercial cooking class on Long Island, so we thought we were hot shit.”

The very first dinner guest of the Combes Family Inn was a gentleman in his 80’s who booked a week by himself during the October foliage season. The first night of his stay, Aunt Nancy decided to make a recipe from her cooking class, Beef Rouladen in Burgundy Sauce.  “It came out so rich,” my mom recalls, “we thought we had killed him.”

Beef Rolade

(Above: My Aunt Nancy’s Professional Chef Cook Book, open to the page with the recipe she and my mother served their first dinner guest.)

The following month, the inn-keepers were getting ready to start preparations for Thanksgiving dinner and discovered that they had run out of propane and couldn’t light the stove. My dad frantically tracked down the guy at the local gas company. Unfortunately, after listening to my dad’s sob story about needing to cook for a house full of people, he replied: “I have my own problems.”

Undeterred, Dad made a few more calls and came up with a plan. He jumped in his Blazer with the turkey and headed down to our friend Jerry’s restaurant, the Winchester. Jerry had cranked up his stove to 500 degrees and proceeded to cook our turkey for the hour that it took my father to drive to and from Chester, where he picked up a hand-held drum of propane, something he wasn’t even sure was legal.  

In spite of the drama, Mom swears it was the best tasting turkey they’ve ever served.

Bill’s Super Quick Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe

Unstuffed 20-pound turkey.
Salt and pepper rubbed inside.
Place in turkey roasting pan with an inch of water.
Cover.
Cook at 500 degrees for one hour.

The day after Thanksgiving, Dad made two phone calls. First, he called a different propane company to promptly switch-over the inn’s service. Second, he called the original company and left the following message: “This is Bill Combes from the Combes Family Inn. I’m disconnecting my service. Now, my problems are your problems.”

What happened that New Year’s Eve is a story I remember like it was yesterday. We had a large group of 5 or 6 Japanese families who stayed at our inn, while they were skiing at Okemo Mountain. My Mom, Dad, and Aunt Nancy put together this impressive menu: roast beef, twice baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, glazed carrots, home-baked bread, and chocolate mousse.

When Dad took the beef out of the oven to get drippings to make the Yorkshire pudding, there were no drippings and the beef looked like a huge leather shoe. That’s when he discovered that he had bought a pre-cooked roast beef (usually used to slice off luncheon meat) and not a raw beef slab. Lacking other alternatives, they reluctantly served the beef, carrots, bread and potatoes, without the Yorkshire pudding. The guests were so polite that nearly every one of them asked for seconds. I am the only member of my family who entertains the possibility that our Japanese guests actually liked the beef.

Bill’s Yorkshire Pudding Recipe

Eggs, whole 20.
Milk 2 qt.
Bread Flour 2 lb.
Salt 1 oz.
Butter, melted 24 oz.
Drippings from Roast Beef (fat only) 24 oz.

Break eggs in mixing bowl; beat well. Add milk; mix well. Add flour and salt; beat until smooth. Beat in melted butter.

Place 12 oz. drippings in each of 2 15- x 18-in baking pans. Place pans on range and when smoking hot, divide batter evenly between pans.

Place pans in 375 degree oven on shelf in bottom half. Do not open door for 25 minutes; total cooking time, 35-40 min. Remove from oven and drain excess fat by tipping pan. Cut in squares to serve, 25 portions per pan.

The following summer, my parents and Aunt Nancy decided to serve dinners to the general public, in order to generate cash flow to help keep the business going through the slower summer season.  I should explain that the Combes Family Inn has always had one seating each night for dinner (7pm Thursday through Saturday and 5pm Sunday) and serves the same three course meal to each guest, unless there is a prearranged special request. The menu changes nightly.

The innkeepers promoted their new dinner service throughout 1979 and 1980 with ads in the local weekly paper which included the dinner menu for the three course meal planned for that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, as well as a Sunday buffet. Each night, the meal was $5.95 complete with dessert and coffee. BYOB.

One night, they had 12 reservations for outside diners. The menu included stuffed pork chops with homemade apple sauce, corn chowder, scalloped potatoes, green beans, and apple crisp. At about ten minutes before 7pm, Mom was just about to go into the sitting room to chat with the guests before ringing the dinner bell, when she checked the progress of her pork chops and discovered that she had never turned the oven on. Instead of grabbing the dinner bell, she cranked the oven up to 450 and went into the sitting room and said “Good evening, I’m Ruth Combes, the innkeeper. Dinner’s going to be a few more minutes.”

Ruth’s Apple Sauce Recipe

5 lbs regular Macintosh apples.
1/4 c. water, apple cider, or apple juice.
1 T lemon juice.
1/2 c. brown sugar.
Cinnamon (to taste).

Slice apples. Do not peel or remove cores. Put apples, sugar, and liquid in large covered pot and cook over medium flame for about 1/2 hour or until apples are tender. Put apple mixture through food mill (this is a great kitchen gadget, especially for pureeing soups and vegetables). Add lemon juice and cinnamon.

It may not seem like it based on the stories I’ve told above. However, my parents are both excellent cooks. And, needless-to-say, dining at the Combes Family Inn is a truly one of a kind experience. 

The Middle Miles

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Last weekend came and went and I never found the time to write a blog post. It’s true that we were extremely busy with social obligations (more about that later). However, that was only part of it. The bigger issue was that I wasn’t inspired enough by a topic to start writing anything down. Since that has rarely happened since I started this blog, I did a little soul searching to figure out the problem. The problem is that my resolution has hit, to quote one of my old running partners, “the middle miles.”

Although I entered the weekend having successfully completed 7 months of my year-long New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol, I was feeling down and uninspired. Not only did I have lingering disappointment about my marathon run on July 25th, I was also having trouble with my weight maintenance.

When I say “having trouble” what I really mean is that I temporarily stopped watching what I eat and also haven’t been consistent with recording things in my MyFitnessPal food journal. Who can blame me for the latter? It would have been really demoralizing to record everything I ate at the barbecue at the lake on Saturday afternoon. I started out with chips and guacamole, moved on to chips and hummus, and then had some brie and crackers. A few hours later, I nearly filled my plate with an array of lunch offerings, including a hot dog. Before I left the party, I even went back up to the buffet to get two chocolate chip cookies. Unfortunately, the day didn’t end there. We went to a different party that evening and I proceeded to eat different things in a similar fashion, including two cupcakes for dessert. I didn’t need MyFitnessPal to tell me that my 8-mile run that morning couldn’t even put a dent in what I had eaten over the course of the day and evening.

Sunday morning, I forced myself to step on the scale to confirm that I had crossed back over my dreaded weight threshold of 140 pounds. Although it’s a bit of a bummer, like the proverbial middle miles of a long run that I referred to earlier, this set-back is completely normal and only temporary.

In long-distance running, it’s natural to have a break in concentration and to slow during the middle miles. That’s because the mental and physical freshness you had at the start are long gone, but there is still too much distance yet to cover for you to start tasting the finish line. Your mind and body can play tricks on you that negatively impact your overall performance. In running, you mitigate this through your training plan in the months and weeks before the race and through your pacing on race day.

The middle miles of my resolution are even easier to solve. I just have to go back to what made me successful and set a few new reasonable goals. The fact is that I have gone 7 months without a drink and, during that time, have attained my weight-loss goal and have achieved my marathon PR time. These accomplishments are still valid and it will not take very much additional focus to lose a few of those pounds that have crept back on.

Here’s my simple plan to get back on track:

  1. Re-commit to using MyFitnessPal to record what I eat and how much I exercise every day.
  2. Reduce my daily calorie target by about 250 calories a day, since I am (temporarily) no longer in maintenance mode.
  3. Target getting back down to 135 pounds by the end of August.

Notice that I didn’t say stop eating chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes! Hopefully I won’t eat too many of them. However, if I do, it just means that I have to lace up my running shoes and get in an extra workout.