Thursday, November 8, 2012

Western Massachusetts Sugar Shack Review

Adam’s Sugar Shack Review

Here is my impartial sugar house review. I thought others would benefit from my years of Shackin' Up.  For many years now I have gone to a sugarhouse at least one weekend every week between Valentine’s day and the end of March. You can go to for addresses and directions.

Going to a sugarhouse has traditionally been the beginning of the spring riding season for me. There is something so wonderfully beautiful about the fact that water is beginning to rise up out of the ground into the leaves of trees. Usually it’s my first two up motorcycle ride, and my first ride of consequence.  It really is difficult for me to express the degree to which we anticipate shack season. From about Christmas we keep an informal countdown of days till the first shacks open.

God Bless the People’s Republic of Western Massachusetts.

The Red Bucket: Worthington, MA At the end of dirt Kinney Brook Road in in the first real hilltown going east. This is Priscilla and my favorite sugar house. There is an amazing view down the valley it's in with tap lines running this way and that. There is a huge assembled topographical map on one wall and a giant plexi window makes up the other. There is some preposterous effect in the boiling room where you wait whereby the steam seems to stratify in the air. I cannot explain this property, but it's amazing.  The coffee is lousy but everything else is good.

High Hopes: Worthington, MA Folksy and fun, it's a real Hilltown favorite, just up off RT112 it's easy to find. Some tables overlook the creek out back. If you're hungry it's an all you can eat bargain.  100% of the income at High Hopes goes into the owner’s kids college fund. It’s a nice place with plenty of decomposing snowmobiles for local color.

Strawbale Cafe AKA Hanging Mountian: Fun little place in Westhampton. It has a super nice boiling room with lots and lots of steam. It's in a very old building that's partly sunk in the ground. The restaurant itself is straw bale construction. If the weather is just right they have a fire pit and serve cider doughnuts outside.  Maybe the best coffee of any sugarhouse. It’s the place most likely to have gluten free pancakes.

Davenports: Shelburn, MA The 900 pound gorilla of sugar shacks. So authentic it pains the heart. My favorite thing, besides the old man that sometimes wears traditional Finnish costume, is the old barn window filled with maple syrups samples of years past. It makes a lovely stain glass window of amber hues you never knew existed. Beautiful views, appropriately hard to find.

Ikoa: Way out in Hancock MA. They have cows and stuff and a petting zoo. There is something nice about this place but I cannot recall what it is.

Goulds: The one everyone knows about. Gould's has a lot of history, the food is good and they make fritters. It's a bit too accessible to tour buses to be truly awesome.  This is the Official Sugar House of the Yankee Beemers.   This place has sugar and snow, which is worth a lot.

Maple Corner: Blandfield MA. It really is on a corner and they do have maple. it's really a cross country ski place that's also does maple. You can kill two birds with one stone and go skiing and have pancakes. As just a sugar shack it's not too shacky.

North Hadley Sugar Shack: Hadley, MA  Concert floors. Generic feeling, very unshacky. Plenty of parking. With petting zoo, it's where people with kids need to go and stay away from the Red Bucket so I can get a table.

Pomeroy’s: Westfield, MA  This sugar shack can be good bad or indifferent depending mainly on my mood. It’s a working dairy farm but the area around it has grown into a kind of appalling suburbia. It scores OK on shackieness by virtue of it’s unpaved and muddy parking and the general squalor that most working farms not owned by Robert Redford (or the equivalent) have. IIRC breakfast is served in a barn with a cement floor.

Windy Hill: Worthington, MA If this place is open again then you may proceed to the shackiest sugar shack of all times. Welcome back to the 1930s, the depression is back on, interior plumbing is limited. There isn't much parking; best to go early in the season before the outhouse hole fills up. You won't forget your trip to Windy Hill, but that's a good thing.  This is the polar opposite from the Olive Garden.

South Face Farm: Ashfield, MA  If you want to run into the who's who of Northampton proceed no further than South Face. In beautiful Ashfield, MA with lovely Routes 112 and 116 nearby it's a riding paradise. Frankly their corn fritters rock when compared to Gould's. Housed in a hundred plus year old barn it's really what Gould's could be were it more obscure and better.

Gray’s Sugarhouse: Ashfield, MA Gray’s has been closed about 10 years now, but it was the best. I tear up thinking about it. Frankly, I am angry that Gray’s shut down and want David Brooks to write an op ed piece in The Atlantic about the injustice of its closing down.

Steve's Sugar Shack:  Westhampton, MA Get ready to eat with the after church crowd. From what I can make if it they must be some sort of Protestant because they don't seem ethnic enough to be Catholics. At any rate a strange feature of this Westhampton shack is the boiling room inside the restaurant! Though most sugar shacks kind of remind me of a 4H project gone out of control and taken over by the adults I would have to say this one may have that effect even more.        

These are all the Sugar Shacks worth mentioning. If it’s not on this list, it’s crap.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Stephan Gregor was better known as “The Jew” in his youth. His father, Adin Gregor was a military defense attorney who’d joined up in the Vietnam era to defend conscientious objectors from within the system, in later years he specialized in cases where servicemen and women were accused of being homosexuals. As a military brat Stephan lived in many places but mostly at Subic Military Base in the Philippines.

Stephan’s mother had left the family soon after his birth and returned to New York unable to bear the sidelong glances of the mostly southern, overwhelmingly Christian and endlessly disapproving neighbors, since they had no friends. As an attorney Adin saw he kept Stephan.

Officer housing in the sprawling base looked enough like an American suburb but to Stephan, better known as the Jew or early on as Stephanie, it was never home. He took to the world outside the gates where he slipped into the universe of prostitutes and con men that ring all United States Military bases in poor lands. In the barrio, a wall away from ersatz Americana of baseball diamonds and hedges that Stephan escaped an identity beyond his control.

Stephan became ironically known as the Filipino. Stephan could buy women, or drugs or alcohol with the change off his father’s dresser and more than once he did. Stephan became an appreciable street fighter, which in the Philippines is no mean feat, and the boys on base called him Stephanie no more. He made way in both worlds as Jews amid Christians have always done, brokering what was at hand. Stephan made no friends, but made money.

One day he purchased a Honda CB160 from a Marine down on his luck with debts to the wrong people in the barrio. Almost from his first ride Stephan sensed he he finally found something that spoke to him essentially. Alone on the bike he was beyond the reach of either identity and simply showed up unannounced in far flung places where nobody knew any of his names. On beaches far from the base where fishermen hauled nets he small conversation with strangers who knew nothing of him.

Eventually, moving off base, Stephan made a place amid many, but with nobody. When his grandfather died in New York he sold his concrete bungalow shook fewer than a dozen hands and left the Philippines forever. He flew military transport as a last favor called in and landed in San Diego, took a taxi to motorcycle dealership and purchased a Kawasaki Conquers 14 with roughly half he cash he carried with him. In 72 hours, he arrived at his maternal grandfathers wake at 57-02 Northern Boulevard Woodside, Queens.

The ride was effortless, after a lifetime of 400cc motorcycles and primitive roads he was at last as anonymous as he ever wished to be and the Conquers flattened the highways. What he found when he arrived was stranger than any serviceman’s brothel request. Every building seemed a low warren, or borrow as indeed the cities withing the city of New York were called. Rooms filled with darkly clothed people, even in the heat of summer chanted obscure but strangely familiar words.

When accounts were finally settled three somber men presented Stephan with a check for slightly less than $24,000 purchasing his share of his grandfather’s sprawling empire of tailor shops. He walked down three flights of stairs to the Conquers and headed for Mexico.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Arcadian

I outpaced the storm from nearly the Louisiana border, clear across Mississippi and then into the Ozarks. At times, as I ran before it, I could see the pavement darken in the rear view mirrors and feel the cool sweep of wind towards the low pressure at its center.

Staying ahead of it was easier on the highway; the GSX-R’s deficiencies as a touring bike are more than made up for by what I thought of as character. When I Ieft the highway for back roads its handeling essential. Now I raced towards my Arcadian as much as I ran before the storm.

She was smart, rich and beautiful; I met her in the aftermath of Mardi Gras in 1986 and chanced on her not four months on in Fargo. She had an accent both southern and French, being of old Arcadian stock. To tell, her family had a hand in the negotiation of the Louisiana purchase and their fortune stemmed from that.

At one point I passed seven cars and a motorhome with the front wheel a good six inches off the road for the whole half mile it took. I entered the next corner blind and hard on the brakes. It went on like that for half an hour.

I turned into her drive as the storm was on top of me. As the GSX-R came to a halt before the stables, the sky blackened, a great wind came up, and hail rained down hard enough to obscure the great house only a hundred or so meters away. I stepped out of my Aerostich in a manner so graceful it startled even me and raced towards the broad steps, taking them three and four at a time. Not thinking of manners and carried along by the thrill of arrival I plunged though the doors and nearly knocked over a maid carrying a tea set -- on though the foyer, the great room, and a dining room, knocking a table that sent a glass spiraling on its edge in a huge concentric ring. Lightning crackled outside and wind pulled long drapes out of tall windows.

I raced out the French doors and onto the broad patio where I saw her running toward the house in the storm and when she saw me she ran harder still and we clasped in a wet and embrace in hail and thunder.

Laughing we chased each from room to room, in and out of the house, tracking water and mud everywhere. Her parents, whom I’d never met, were passed two or three times in this crazy procession, and began laughing too, seeing their wet daughter laugh so hard. I chased her from the house and caught her on a bridal path that led to what she called the hermitage, a small cottage shingled all over and bermed into a knoll. We ran inside and without a word took off our wet clothes and made hungry love on the bed as the storm raged outside.

When it was over I stood and walked to a desk at the window. On it were an old but very well made draftsman's compass and many pages covered with mathematical formulas written long ago in fine script with a quill pen. A volume of Byron stood open to Would I Were a Careless Child.

She produced a cigarette from a side table and the smoke coiled above her. She enjoyed a smoke after sex and at no other time. After I first kissed her in North Dakota we’d carried on an intense relationship, meeting where her work took her and where I could get to. I knew, then, what passion is, but to say I loved her would have been a distortion of a word I didn’t fully understand.

Her family, rich for generations, married either the most beautiful or smartest from the peasants around them. The result was a slender woman, with delicate hands and a charming wit working toward her PhD. Her grandmother had past away over the winter, and now she would wear her hat to the Kentucky Derby, and someday her daughter or granddaughter would too. This was neither a right nor a privilege but something as simple as a swale drawing water after a summer storm.

I asked her about the meaning of the objects in the room. She said that long ago, the family had hired a tutor to come from the North to educate the family children. It was said the tutor had fallen in love with an aunt in the mid 1800s, but that a fire had killed the aunt when the manor had partially burned down. For reasons never understood the family had let the tutor stay on here, in the hermitage. He died not long after, the family said of a broken heart. “So you see,” she said, playing up the French part of her accent, “it ended very badly,” and tossed her cigarette our the window.

I believe that I knew it was over for us then, right then. Not a moment before or after. I met her parents more properly and we went through the motions of a visit. The food was wonderful and we rode horses around the estate, me clumsily and she like she was born to, because she was. I don’t think I saw her world before that, with its special hats and walnut tables. When I left I held her a long time and when we said goodbye we both knew it was for good.

Two years ago I was checking into a hotel for a conference and she saw me walk across the lobby. A while later she knocked on my door. I was surprised to see her. “I saw you in your suit,” she said, meaning my Aerostich. “To think you’d still have the same one after all these years.”

“No,” I replied, “I crashed the one I had when I knew you, and wore out another too.” That was nearly 30 years ago. I looked into her brown eyes and she was beautiful. When I smelled her I fancied I could still feel her breath on my neck as I had so long ago.

She looked up to see that the hand I held the door open with had a wedding ring on it. “It’s been a long ride for me, I mean, today... on the motorcycle.” There was an awkward silence. “Look,” I went on, “are you here at the hotel?” “Yes” she said, “we can talk later.”

We chanced on each other in lobby and we sat on the large impersonal sofa there. She’d taken a PhD in linguistics and taught at UC Berkeley. Academics, she said, left little time for anything else. She’d never married, and kept a small house in the hills, nothing like the manor, she said, more like the hermitage.

When I left the next day I fancied I could see a thunderhead rising the the west but another part of me knew there was nothing of the sort. I stood in the parking lot for a time and began to weep, watching cars pass on the highway. I hoped nobody I knew from the conference would see me. I did not try and hide myself, but finally stood looking down at my gloves laid across the ignition as the drone of passing cars sang in my ears.

I did not weep for chances missed or days gone by. I climbed on my motorcycle, a man, and headed home.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Our world is filled with threats. For my purposes I will divide them into two categories:

Specific or immediate threats: a hornet nest has just fallen in front of you, your wife throws a flower pot at you.

Generic or abstract threats: the national debt, the Casey Anthony verdict.

The human animal evolved with the specific threats as a major factor and with general threats as a minor factor. In the six or so million years that humans first walked upright we’ve dealt, from a survival perspective, almost exclusively with highly specific threats such as Lion Attack!! Threats such as Lion Attack!! have a number of common factors: they are apparent, they are apparent to everyone, and they are actionable. That last part is important. You can do something about Lion Attack!! Your choices are basically run away or defend.

The first permanent settlements to include groups larger than a single family clan happened about 10,000 year ago. For most of the world, though, settlement would come much later. With settlement came the generalized threat. This would include fitting into society, loss of control over individual destiny, worry about what the gods wanted and the like. These threats are the inverse of specific: they are not apparent, they do not appear the same to everyone and they are not actionable directly.

Over the years we’ve seen the rise of general threats in tandem with the decline of specific threats. In the news media we see a world of mayhem and murder, filled with wars and verdicts even as we go about our lives very safely with air bags and the consumer product safety commission to protect us. Still, we feel the same stress hormones due to these general threats such as government programs we disagree with, terrorism, and violence in society, but we have no direct way of reliving this stress.

Some folks institute a “general defense.” I would argue that gun ownership is often just such a coping mechanism. There is no specific threat that gun owners are defending against, yet the idea that they would be able to cope should a specific threat arise is comforting. It is a dissociated defense for a dissociated threat.

I think most “food allergies” are also mostly a psychosomatic attempt to link an obtuse general threat to some specific causal agent. Some recent studies have shown that environmental allergies are, simply, panic disorder. It’s been shown that in double blind tests “allergic” people exhibit reaction at random to stimulus. That is, they are just as likely to freak out if the cookie contains wheat or not because the cookie is a proxy for everything from China to the decline of American oil.

I think there’s one more coping response. Motorcycling. Motorcycling presents us with real specific threats every time we ride. We face oncoming turns, sand in the road, ill-mannered road users and every other manner of mayhem. All the accumulated stress hormones from long exposure to general threats we face can be washed away because here, finally, is a threat we can do something about. Our brain stems and bodies don’t know we’re not fixing the national debt or resolving the debate about gay marriage, it just recognizes a real peak and valley in tension, the kind of peak and valley you get from overcoming a specific threat. That’s the signal to relax and let it go, until you watch the news again.

In the end I am brother to all those who ride not because of political affiliation or social clan, but because we are all animals. We are simple beasts living in a system too complex for ourselves and we’ve found a way to cope.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Because It's Beautiful Part 2

Once I looked out over the mouth of San Francisco Bay with the eyes of a surfer. As the tide fell millions of gallons of water drained into the sea at the narrows below the Golden Gate. Yet, against this tide huge ocean waves rolled in from the deep against the flow of water.

My wife spreads the white top sheet over our bed. Standing at the foot she grasps end and with a deft snap sends a wave of motion down the length of fabric. The uncooperative end of the sheet whips itself into alignment and together we spread the coverlet.

There are moments on a motorcycle when an engine seems to come alive. It acts with an uncanny precision and willingness, it seems to almost sing. There is, of course, a reason for this. We speak of tuning an engine and imagine that this speak is figurative, but it often isn't. It's often literal. It turns out that calaculators used to design pipe organs work very well for creating good working four stroke exhaust systems.

Connected to an engine there is an exhaust and an intake. These are not just tubes routing fuel and gasses to and from the engine, they can perform useful work.A four stroke engine turning 5000 RPM opens its exhaust valve 41 times per second. Every time this happens a "slug" of air moves out of the engine and into the exhaust header. Once the valve is closed the "slug" of exhaust gasses keeps moving but since it's in a sealed pipe, the exhaust header, it creates a partial vacuum behind it.

In addition to the physical movement of gas described above pressure waves move up and down the exhaust pipe much, much faster than the physical flow of gasses in the header. When we lit firecrackers as children we felt that pressure wave. It wasn't wind, like the flow of gasses. Never the less, it could do "work" like remove a finger.

In my original example of waves traveling into San Fransisco bay against the tide I attempted to demonstrate that waves of energy can flow against current in the media that carries them. In the case of San Francisco bay both forces are powerful and move in opposite directions largely irrespective of one another. In the case of Priscilla spreading out fresh linen I wanted to show that a wave can move though media and release it's energy (flipping the end of the sheet into the desired location) once it "crashes" on the shore.

Exhausts are tuned by changing the length and diameter of exhaust systems and how they join together. The powerful pressure wave that escapes the exhaust port when it opens races down the pipe and is reflected back as a negative wave everywhere the pipe expands.

If things are timed right the negative pressure wave arrives just as the port is opening and sucks the spent gasses right out of the combustion chamber. If it's at the magical moment when the intake valves are open it can also suck clean charge in from the air box as well. Conversely there must always be a positive wave as well. That means that at some other RPM or throttle position the opposite is happening. A positive wave is arriving that is forcing dirty exhaust into the combustion chamber.

There are people that think that when you add an aftermarket exhaust to an engine that you are "uncorking" it. That, in some sense, is true. When we add a "slip on" exhaust or debaffle a stock muffler we are simply increasing the amplitude of the wave, making it more powerful. In a sense we are making the effect of exhaust tuning "more good" or "more bad". When the positive wave arrives forcing dirty air into the combustion chamber a slip on muffler this happen in a way that makes things much worse instead of simply worse. When the negative waves arrives pulling exhaust helpfully out of the combustion chamber we are making things much better instead of just better.

A well designed exhaust system works with an engine to so that its positive tuning effects happen in often used parts of the rev range or at places where the engine is weak and could use the help. Conversely it "hides" the negative effects behind engine strengths or in seldom used location.

I can describe the characteristics of exhaust tuning with some accuracy but so what? It can all seem quite clinical or logical or exploitable; like we can own it in some way. I feel a divide between knowing and wonder that I want to break down. I want joy and wonder to be part of the equation and support my world view with equal shoulders, even in reason's inner sanctum. It may be weird to understand exhaust scavenging as a wonder, but it is.

When I started to find the answers in bedsheets and ocean waves I began understand this: Something isn't beautiful because it works, it works because it's beautiful.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Because it's beautiful.

The engine has moved into the realm where airbox volume and exhaust pipe length conspire to create a perfect storm and revs build magically. I am not sure what sounds angrier, the motor or the wind around my helmet. I’m a little startled to see how close the sun dappled pavement is, hanging slightly off the bike and looking at onrushing Wilton Road between the clutch lever and the rearview mirror.

We’re well into, “please step to the front of my vehicle and place your hands on the hood” speeds. Perhaps closing on triple the speed limit, but I am unsure of how it’s posted here. The bike comes upright. I concentrate on keeping my breathing even and steady, to stave off any panic that might come. My mind is, blissfully, given over to my body.

High on the ridge the road opens onto a straight boarded by meadow. I back off the throttle because there’s no sense in carrying any more speed between corners. In the high summer the light it is bright enough to bleach everything. The tans and greens of early August fuse into muted pallet joined at the hip with cicadas and the smell of bar-b-q.

For no good reason except the bike is fully upright, I drop two downshifts and let the motor pile against itself. The rear wheel hops and chatters until I squeeze the front brake. When wheel and engine speeds match and the rear hooks back up. Its sloppy technique, but I allow myself the pleasure of it.

The left turn is now at hand. The rider in front of me blinks off the long straight on onto Damant Road, which follows a brook of the same name into the valley. He rides like Hailwood, bolt upright on the bike, all long graceful arcs. I have no idea how it works for him, but it must.

I can’t see much into the corner, as the road there is deeply overhung with trees. The bright light of the open makes it look black to my eyes; but the front end is compressed and I am already off the side of the bike holding it upright by pushing the grip forward. I snap it into the turn.

Damant falls sharply away from the ridge, and the transition is abrupt. The whole bike goes light, with the suspension topped out. Everything is weightless midcorner at the exact moment I am shifting my body to the other side for the right hander fast approaching. My eyes come into focus, adjusting to the deep shade under the canopy, the bike touches down and we are away, like sparrows.

Later, that evening I am more than a little drunk and riders are gathered by a fire. I hear some conjecture about why the moon looks so big on the horizon and listen to their explanations. To my addled brain, none sounds right and offer this: “It’s because when you look at the moon on the horizon it’s distorted by the curve of the atmosphere, which acts as a lens.” I am drunk enough to listen to myself talk as if I someone else were speaking and I think, “sounds pretty good!” To my surprise I hear myself add, “but my mother, who is Italian-God bless her, would tell you “because it’s beautiful.”” And, just then, I know which answer is right.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Olga's Story Part 1

We’re at a sidewalk table in front of Sam’s CafĂ©, the three of us, as usual. It’s warm, almost still hot. Our three black chairs, and a fourth vacant, surround the small metal table a little too crowded against the weekenders here that come to our main street on afternoons like these.

Luke is in fine fettle, and I shoot Barry a quick sly smile. Luke pantomimes the position of the motorcycles with his hands; held like knives in the air, leaning this way and that. He’s showing how earlier we had come against the chain of Harley riders just before approaching the best section of the mountain pass.

He’s becoming more excited now, the pressure of the whole situation: the potential for oncoming traffic to ruin things, how it all must go just right, judging their lean and hoping they would run wide so we could cut inside them and continue our morning unabated run by their rolling roadblock.

Having only two hands but explaining the location of many things in space Luke is pointing into the air all around him, recreating our run up the mountain in a small invisible world hovering above the empty fourth chair between us and the tourists on the street.

Luke and Barry and I have become older men than we once were, but somehow wear the role of middle aged men costumes. Luke has recently taken to waxed cotton gear and looking, somehow, “weathered”.

I look beyond them, not really hearing the story anymore, now watching he broad pink light reflect off the stained glass of the cathedral. Still, Luke is good at this physical story telling. I can see the whole road this morning as he has painted it in the air. I can feel the tension in his body, setting up the long chain of bikers for the pass. His hands whirr becoming the knife edged leaning motorcycles, then his hands are on the throttle and clutch, then pointing out obstacles or drawing curves for these ephemeral bikes to motor though.

He rubs his fingers together to show us sand, or covers the back of his palm his other hand for leaves. We are mesmerized. Even though both Barry and I were there this morning here we are there again, heroes nostalgic for a recent past and reliving it now.

At last, Luke gets to the pass, he pantomimes the three bikers lining up and running impossibly wide in the right hand sweeping turn. Barry and I both smile as he show us by creating a broad blocking arc with his left arm, as if to hug a round friend, he traces a quick arc inside this with his right hand. Us, streaking by heroically!

He rises from his chair, lips sputtering lips in pantomime motorcycle sound and hands on the bar, his left showing the upshifts as we shoot past. Now we’re running hot into the next corners, things are falling apart. Luke continues to point it objects in the air his hands and us as motorcycles knifing though the imagined landscape.

He hooks of foot around the empty chair he has risen from and, either in a moment of brilliance or clumsiness hurls it into the stream of sidewalk tourists before him. It clatters creating space for him to continue his story unabated and now frantic.

We had been frustrated, trapped behind the bikers, and now rushed headlong into the pass. Luke reaches out with cupped hands into the arc of tourists the chair has created and says quietly to them “a rabbit, you see, a little bunny, in the road” the tourists are immediately taken in. He’s now got a fake British accent, “my mates and I were going too fast on our motorbikes this morning, when at rabbit should appear on the road” and explains the pile up. Barry running a great distance on his front wheel, me into the woods, him slewing wildly and the silence thereafter.

The Harley riders, dispatched with great pomp moments before now parade past us serenely. The police await, fruitlessly, around the next bend

Luke, satisfied with his story rights his chair and sits down. The tourist, so taken in moments ago are a bit slow to leave. Nobody says anything for a moment or two. Barry lights a cigarette, the gap created by Luke’s antic closes up and the tourist continue in their stream to where ever they go. We look at out bikes parked at the curb.

After a time I say, “let me tell you boys a story as unlikely as it is true, of an old woman, a great love and a motorcycle” I close my eyes and again find myself in Olga Sleutin’s world. For a moment I just sit eyes closed there on the street with my friends, but in her cold room this springtime, on the third floor, above the garden.