Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Good Health through Good Walks


 “If we could turn the benefits of exercise into a pill, it would be demanded by patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist and subsidized by government. It would be seen as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.”

Dr Prue Cormie –  author of the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia’s statement on Cancer and Exercise Guidelines


The day I was diagnosed with cancer of the lung, I went on a 10 mile run. The next day, I ran further than that and the next day even farther. I wanted to run as far as I could from the grim statistics associated with my disease. Well, it has been three years since that day and so maybe all that running paid off.

But this is not an “alternative therapy” or “miraculous remission” story. I was very fortunate, if you can say that about a lung cancer diagnosis.  The tumor was large, malignant and in a difficult position but had not metastasized so could be treated surgically. I received expert treatment at a leading specialist heart and lung hospital – the Royal Brompton– and had a top-notch surgeon, Mr Simon Jordan. And yet, I am convinced that exercise deserves some of the credit for my making it this far. 

Since cancer was such a big and frightening opponent, I needed a big and challenging goal to take it on. So one year after surgery to remove the tumor, I ran the Los Angeles Marathon with my youngest son. That was pretty kick-ass and made me feel better about my chances. Two years after treatment, I walked 569 miles through Britain along the Bryson Line to raise funds for the Royal Brompton Hospital. That was even more therapeutic than the marathon and not just because it took a month instead of a day. There is powerful healing that goes on when walking with others in nature. Walk, eat, sleep, repeat. Don’t think too much and remember, that there are others whose problems are even larger than your own. 

This past Saturday, I participated in the first anniversary walk along the Bryson Line, this time 16 miles from Hanborough, in West Oxfordshire, through the grounds of resplendent Blenheim Palace to the dreaming spires of Oxford.  A special group of Bryson Line supporters and walkers, including Bill Bryson and his wife Cynthia were there. For some, the 16 miles was a massive challenge but I loved watching the pride everyone took in going the distance. 

And we raised over £2,000 that will be used to create a website making available the 30 walks, each representing a day on the Bryson Line. Think of it as an online trail guide. We also want to work with local authorities, hospitals and other charities to promote walking the Bryson Line as a means to improve health and aid recovery after illness. 

If you would like to participate in this effort, please contact us on FacebookTwitter or just email me at katehedges1@hotmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. And if you would like to donate to the project, we’d love to put your money to good use – because good health and good walks go together. I’m living proof of that.




Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Navigating Mexico City

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Off-the-beaten-track aficionados, Gary and Lorraine have a blast while beating the crowds in the largest city in the Americas. 

No crowds in the world's second biggest collection of people? 

Yes, we are fully aware of the irony of such a claim.  In a city whose traffic jams are second only to Cairo, whose mass transit system is overloaded, and whose status as national capital means all manner of unwilling pilgrims must come here to get business done (as in Paris, London and Rome, but less efficiently than in the first two), avoiding crowds seems impossible.  But wait, there are ways...

1.  If you need to go someplace, Uber over.  We all have our opinions about the "disruptive" influence of Uber and Lyft (and yes, the IPO tanked), but they have changed life for tourists here.  Our longest ride (over an hour) set us back 6 US dollars, with a generous tip included.  Cars were seldom more than 3 minutes away when ordered, and were clean, with friendly drivers who (of course) knew exactly where you wanted to go.  No trying to hail a taxi, no negotiating fares, no cash required, no confusion about destinations.  And no crowds.

Side note:  yes, the rental bikes and scooters are also here.  Don't take them - riding in a car in this traffic is scary enough!

2. Visit with Frida.  Frida Kahlo's house (El Museo Frida Kahlo) amply demonstrates why she is a true modern day Mexican hero, persevering through every imaginable adversity.  The house not only shows how she and Diego Rivera lived, but showcases a wide range of her art, and a few interesting pieces from his cubist period.    Before you go, make sure you watch (or watch again) the film "Frida" with Selma Hayek - it is close to life and will give you important context.  Given its status as a virtual national shrine, Frida and Diego's house is incredibly popular.  You can buy tickets online, but don't think that will help you avoid the line that runs down the street.  We got our timed tickets for 11:00, but I wish we had chosen a half hour after opening instead - we waited about a half an hour before getting in.  The only people who managed to jump the queue were a tour group with an umbrella-carrying leader, so that might be worth looking into.

After your visit, Tostadas Coyoacán in the indoor street market a couple of blocks away would be an excellent stop, and a show on par with Pike Place Market in Seattle.  Find them on Yelp or Tripadvisor, but for heaven's sake, ask someone directions when you get into the market, or you'll never find them.  Ingredients for the tostadas are piled high like miniature volcanic mountains in front of you, expertly assembled by young chefs who alternate their responsibilities with cajoling passers by into stopping for a bite.  My favorite was the ceviche (and I suffered no ill effects afterwards!).  Yes, it's a bit crowded, but it's fun, and they can always find you a seat.

3. Take the boat.   The canal boats (trajineros) of Xochimilco, in all their faded glory, are a rich example of Mexico City heritage.  Recalling the ancient pre-conquistador history of the city, they represent the commerce in fresh farm goods that was carried by boats through a massive system of canals into the increasingly populous main city of the Mexica people.  Take one of the brightly colored (and slightly down at the heel) boats on a weekday in May, as we did, and you may be the only people on the water, as your gondolier quietly poles his punt through the remaining canals.  Various snacks and drinks are available from other boats you pass along the way, but you are also welcome to bring a picnic, and, if you like, your own music.  On the other hand, you might find yourself coming around a bend and encountering a small mariachi band tuning up on another boat in preparation for your passing.  For the right propina (tip), they'll cruise alongside your boat and play you some fine music.

Keep in mind:  the embarcaderos where you hire the boats are about an hour outside of town by car, and they accept only cash (500 pesos/$30 per hour). More cash is useful if you want to buy food or hire musicians along the way.  The boats can easily accommodate 8-10 people, and bringing along a picnic would be a great idea - a picnic table runs down the middle with benches on either side).  While we had a very quiet and restful "no crowds" experience during the week, we are told that it's party time on Sundays, when Mexican families head out to the canals for family picnics and parties.

4.  Watch politics and art collide.  Diego Rivera's murals in the Palacio Nationale are outstanding examples of his work and a clear view into his politics.  The main work, which graces a grand staircase,  chronicles Mexican history from prehistoric times, through the brutal invasion of the conquistadors, up until the communist worker uprisings that so inspired Rivera, Trotsky, and all of his other friends in the Party.  Other murals capture key aspects of Mexican life and history, such as the pyramids and canals of Moctezuma's day and the tribal wars that cemented the rule of the Mexicas before Cortez.

On the weekend, the Palacio is empty of bureaucrats, and gets very few visitors, so you have the place almost to yourself. A helpful local told us where the unmarked entry door was (at the left of the building as you face it from the main plaza).  On a Saturday when the nearby streets of the Zócalo were packed with people, we waited for a couple of minutes in a line of 5 people, surrendered an ID for the period of our visit (entry is free), and walked in.  Bilingual tour guides ply the queue, but we found the complete English and Spanish descriptions of all the murals to be quite adequate.

5.  Refresh and dine.  The downtown area (Zócalo) has any number of dining options (including a Michelin star or two), but we'll recommend two with reasonably good food, reasonable prices, but to-die-for views. For lunch, try El Mayor, a roof garden with a spectacular view  of the pyramid ruins in the center (Templo Mayor). There is a formal restaurant, which often has a wait list, but also a bar with tapas and light food that has a huge capacity, so you seldom need to wait.  If you're lucky, you'll arrive just as someone leaves a table at the edge, which you can quickly snag and get a truly uninterrupted view of the surroundings.

For dinner, the rooftop of the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico is the perfect place, looking out over the plaza, the cathedral, and the Palacio Nationale, all gloriously lit for the night.  We had the extra drama of dining during a crashing thunderstorm, making the scene all the more compelling, but, thanks to the awnings overhead, we never felt a drop.  Reservations are taken, but apparently are seldom needed on a weekday.  And you have the bonus of enjoying the hotel itself on your way up, a stunning example of art nouveau design that might look more at home in turn of the century Paris.    You might well be inspired to pull the waiter aside at the end of a romantic meal and ask, "avez vous un chambre?" (Or, more appropriately, "tienen un habitacion?"). Well, Mr Bond certainly enjoyed the place, however briefly, in "Spectre". 

6. Finally, pick a good neighborhood. While upscale hotels with their knowledgeable concierges can get you every experience you're after, we prefer to get more intimately connected to the city.   Our Airbnb was in beautiful La Condesa, which borders the equally wonderful Roma (now famous thanks to the eponymous film). It was convenient to many destinations, especially the anthropology and art museums, and had a wonderful neighborhood feel, while still being relatively quiet at night.  Parisian-style cafes lined the tree-lined streets, and the rosé wine and craft cerveza flowed freely in a wide range of bars and bistros.  And because the streets were usually filled with people, you felt quite safe - we certainly never had a problem.  We'll be back, that's for sure.


Thursday, May 16, 2019

Pascal and the alebrijes

Intrepid travellers, Gary and Lorraine, are back on the road in search of inspiring and uncrowded travel experiences. This time we find them in the colonial-era city of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico's central highlands. 

 Ok, San Miguel de Allende has been discovered.  Three hours' drive from Mexico City, it's home to about 10,000 North American expats, and a popular destination (and sought-after wedding venue) for upscale Mexicans.  Today the city is experiencing global trendification that can best be summarized by noting that it now has its own Bulgari outlet.

Nevertheless, quirkiness and charm still exist, and it's still possible to have an experience that's neither crowded nor kitsch.  I am speaking, of course, of Pascal's Incredible Musical Walking Tour of Undiscovered San Miguel (my title, not his). Pascal (or Pasquale, for the locals) is not a native, but he's one of those people that just becomes a local wherever he pitches up.  Swiss by birth, he's quadralingual (at least), and has lived all over the world, including,for the last three years, San Miguel.

For five fascinating hours, Pascal leads his guests through the narrow cobblestone streets of the town, stopping at art galleries (where curators greet him like Mr Rogers' neighbors), a secret hotel adorned with hundreds of ceramic suns, a famous brothel now converted to a staid B&B, and institutes of art and culture.  As guests, we were refreshed with coffee and local pastries, a tasting of local mezcals, and a light lunch, all included in the tour.  But here's the wrinkle:  at every stop (and even sometimes on a wide part of the sidewalk), Pascal takes out his guitar and plays us a song or two.  He's an accomplished musician, having made his living at that for many years, and his repertoire ranges from Mexican traditional to blues and beyond.  He even managed to get us to accompany him on a few traditional instruments he brought along.  Woven around the songs are the myths and legends of Mexico and San Miguel in particular, which our storyteller guides us through.  And of course that would have to include the Oaxacan story of the alebrijes, those fantastic animals that appeared to a Mexican artist in a fevered dream in the 20's and have morphed and gotten more psychedelic ever since.  You can check out their starring role in the Disney/Pixar classic "Coco" to get the modern take.

We were sad when the tour finally ended after lunch, but somehow the blow was softened when Pascal presented each of us with our own personal alebrije.  Probably the mezcal didn't hurt either.

We found Pascal through Airbnb "experiences", but have included his direct contact info below.


Jean Pascal Monzies
Pascalsong.com
Sanmiguelmusictours@gmail.com
+52 415 115 2555
Sent from my iPad

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Ryokan in Santa Fe or Zen and the Art of Road Trip Maintenance

Leave it to dynamic duo and No Crowds reporters, Gary and Lorraine, to find a Japanese-inspired, hot springs mountain hideaway, ten minutes from downtown Santa Fe. I so want to go.

Yes, Gentle Reader, we know.  Santa Fe, in the southwestern high desert of the US, hardly qualifies as a “No Crowds” destination.  After all, it’s been mentioned prominently on “Grace and Frankie”, so clearly the secret’s out.  Not that it is without attractions:  a lively arts and culture scene, great restaurants, the wonderfully weird “Meow Wolf” installation, and the architecturally magnificent open-air opera house, to name a few.  The influence of that most recent famous resident, the American modernist Georgia O’Keeffe, is everywhere.
However, today’s story is about Ten Thousand Waves, an inn and spa built and run in the Japanese Ryokan tradition, high in the hills surrounding the city. In fact, it’s almost a doppelganger for my favorite ryokan in the world, high above the city of Kyoto. (Note:  sadly, Ten Thousand Waves does not have traditional rooms like the one in Kyoto where you sleep on tatami mats on the floor – an oversight that should be corrected).  We managed to snag an evening here thanks to a recent cancellation (everything usually books up weeks in advance.).  
Our evening began with an excellent meal at Izanami, the Japanese/southwestern fusion restaurant, which takes pride in never serving sushi.  The dishes were as creative as you might imagine, from mushrooms we had never heard of, to Wagyu filet mignon that we seared on a hot river rock delivered to our table, to a grilled avocado with a soy reduction sauce. The wine list included sixty odd types of sake, and amazingly, our waiter was knowledgeable enough to tell us about the differences in flavor, production and aging.
As good as the meal was, the high point of the evening came next, at the spa next door. We checked in and were issued our kimonos and ushered to the changing /shower rooms.  Once ablutions were complete, our host led us to the real No Crowds experience - the private Japanese garden I had booked for the two of us.  She introduced us to our huge spa pool, waterfall with cold plunge pool, and sauna, all for our exclusive use, and then left and locked the door behind her.  As the night cooled and the stars came out over our garden, we realized that the zen attitude here was having an impact, and that we really needed a break from the craziness of the news and the world in general.  Not only was every aspect of the operation designed to instill calm, but the management was prescient enough to make sure there was neither wifi nor cell service available in the spa.
If you plan on visiting Ten Thousand Waves, book ahead.  Their website details each of the themed private gardens (as well as public women’s and coed spas) and allows booking of them as well as hotel rooms, massages and treatments, and restaurant reservations.  As latecomers, we were not able to get an outdoor table, but I would highly recommend this, giving you a chance to dine on a deck suspended over the valley below.  As for me, I have acquired a nicely shaped river rock and some grass fed beef tenderloin, to keep us going till we’re able to return.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Beat the Crowds in Banff

The exploits of professional crowd-avoiders, Gary and Lorraine, continue. This time, they provide invaluable advice on how to avoid crowds in one of Canada's most popular tourist destinations. 

Banff, the first national park of Canada, holds a place in Canadians’ hearts akin to Americans’ love for Yellowstone or Yosemite – it’s iconic.  Developed by the Canadian Pacific Railroad as an excuse for people to take the train (which still stops at Banff Station), it's become a ski town…with a heart.  It also seems to have similar appeal to many across the British Commonwealth:  we heard South African and Geordie accents, and in at least one hotel, every single server was a Kiwi.  Perhaps it was the prospect of exchanging a Southern Hemisphere winter (or a grey Yorkshire summer) for the bright sun and crisp mountain air of Banff in July? 
Sadly, the region has also fallen prey to a few mega-tourist operators, who believe the best way to experience the solitude of the mountains is to herd folks onto tour buses so they can experience “packages” of selfie-ready photo opps at a discount.  Don’t do it. Instead, do the following.
1.     Come during the Calgary Stampede.  This is a wonderful event every summer that takes place just an hour down the mountain, and probably worth attending some time – the mother of all rodeos. However, it literally vacuums all of the tourists out of Banff at the height of summer, leaving those who remain the chance to experience the town and the surroundings with far more peace and space.
2.    Take your afternoon aperos at the Fairmont Banff Springs.  Stay wherever you want in Banff (rental homes, hotels, AirBNB’s all proliferate, but book early to get a good place, even if you are camping in the national park as we were).  But go to the Grand Dame of the town, wearing your finest layers for a crisp day, and sit outside on the deck surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountain scenery you will ever see.  For the (eye-watering) price of a glass of wine or an Aperol Spritz, you will own an exquisite piece of real estate for the afternoon.
3.    Take the waters.  Banff was chosen by the railroad as a destination due to its prolific hot springs. Today the springs look more like a community swimming pool, but the view for the bathers is to die for, and the killer price (less than C$10) can’t be beat.  If you want, you can also rent old-timey bathing suits for men and women to relive the days when Banff was young. Check the hours and – this is very important – show up about 45 minutes after opening.  In this way you will avoid the line that forms before the baths open, and get there before the late morning/afternoon crowd arrives and fills the parking lot and springs.
4.    Go to the top.  Take the Banff gondola to the top of the mountain, carefully avoiding “package deals” which pair this with, say, a boat tour of Lake Minnewanka (meh).  Go at lunchtime, so that before or after your hike you can enjoy the very excellent cafeteria (prime rib and fresh king salmon stations; excellent dry reds from BC’s Okanagon Valley, etc), or the more relaxed sit-down restaurant.  Both have wonderful views, it goes without saying.
5.    Fire up the two wheeler.  If you’re driving, bring your bike.  Otherwise, rent one.  There are miles of paved biking trails, and for the younger, fitter mountain bike crowd, you can take your bike up the lift and ride the ski trails down from either the Banff or Lake Louise gondolas.  One of the unadvertised gems for us was the “golf course loop”.  Doesn’t sound like much, but it is a seldom-used 10 mile road that runs past the golf course and then through deep forests and along the shores of the glacial melt-driven Bow River.  Stop ahead of time at the venerable Nester’s Market in town for the best in gourmet picnic supplies, and then choose any of the wonderful clearings and lookouts along the way for the perfect al fresco repast.  You will see few humans, even on a busy summer’s day, but you will probably encounter deer, otter and maybe even an elk or two.
6.    Drive the Icefields Highway.   This is one of the most astounding drives on the planet, with constant views of glaciers and majestic mountains.  At the north end, you will find the Columbia Icefield, which feeds glaciers that in turn feed the pacific, arctic and atlantic oceans.   It’s a sight to behold, as are the signs showing the glaciers’ retreat over the last 100 years.  Do not, repeat do not eat at Icefields Centre.  The food is Bad Ski Lodge Leftovers from Last Winter.  Instead, buy a cup of coffee and snag a seat by the window so you can admire the power of nature.  The Centre is nearest to Jasper, so if you want to avoid the crowds, stay in Jasper and drive there in the morning, continuing on to Lake Louise and Banff in the afternoon.  You can take an all-terrain Ice Bus that takes you out on the glacier’s surface, or chopper rides to get the aerial view.  There is also an airborne walkway similar to the ones in the Grand Canyon and Norwegian fjords, but from what we saw, it’s a bit of a ripoff – even the most intense acrophobic would have no qualms.  And of course, you have to take a bus to get there.
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That’s it for No Crowds Banff.  There is so much more to do and see, from the dozens of wildlife-heavy  hiking trails (stick together, and bring bear spray if you are going far) to a lively arts and music scene, to the world-class brunch (15 types of Benedict!) at Tooloulou’s, but alas, these have been discovered, so you may need to share them with the crowds.  On the other hand, we hope that the list above will supply you with a reasonable set of boltholes to disappear into when the crowds get too intense.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Skip the Crowds - Cruise the Alaska Marine Highway Instead



When No Crowds began, the idea was simple - focus on ways to escape the hamster wheel of global tourism. This article from No Crowds reporters, Gary Ransom and Lorraine Carulli does exactly that, outlining how to experience America's last frontier authentically, comfortably and without crowds.


Alaska is a money machine for the cruise business. Passenger numbers are up each year. Liners of all sizes, including the “panamax 2”(largest vessel that can use the new, widened Panama Canal) are being repositioned from various parts of the world to ply the Inside Passage. Thousands of passengers wake up in Juneau, or Ketchikan, or Valdez and to their delight, discover they can disembark to one of the massive cruise docks, rather than wait for their turn to take a tender to shore. The towns are set up to cater to the instant crowds, and shore time goes smoothly, even if your bags are checked on returning to the boat, in case you tried to sneak some landside booze into your stateroom. An entire industry has even sprung up to manage those absent minded cruisers who miss their sailing and must be put up overnight, then flown by charter aircraft to the next port of call. Back on the boat, sailing past hundreds of miles of wilderness, watching icebergs calve from glaciers, and maybe getting a distant sighting of some wildlife, passengers get a taste of “the last frontier”, as the Alaska license plate reads, without having to leave the safe confines of their city on the water.


Now compare this “all crowds, all the time” experience to the Alaska Marine Highway. It’s an official highway, because this ferry system is the only way to move your car between most towns in southeastern Alaska (including the state capitol). Our choice was to leave the car behind in Seattle, and take the ferry as passengers without a vehicle, which is a very good deal. We started our ferry ride in the little town of Gustavus, where we had arrived by air a few days earlier to stay at the charmingly retro Glacier Bay Lodge and tour the magnificent bay, nestling the shoreline in our small tour boat to see wildlife on the land (bears) and the water (orcas, sea lions, puffins), as well as getting scarily close to the calving ice wall at the foot of the Margerie glacier. Glacier Bay is big enough for many of the cruise ships – 90% of tourists who visit the bay never set foot on land – but those massive vessels are unable to get close to land or glacier to view the full magnitude of nature at work. For obvious reasons, only two of the big cruisers are allowed in the bay per day.


You buy a single ticket on the ferry system that covers your entire trip, then get off when you want and spend as much time in each town as you choose. The first ferry ride was a relaxed afternoon on a small boat – maybe 150 passengers and a few cars – landing us in Juneau in time for dinner. Juneau is a wonderful, and rather improbably state capitol, which handles the cruise passengers with ease, and then becomes a really interesting place in the evening, after the last cruise ship has sounded its “all aboard”. Shops, unbelievably fresh fish, and 150-year-old wild west saloons, complete with saloon girls and piano players, complement newer technologies like wine bars and microbrew pubs (try the Husky IPA from Alaska Brewing).


Our second and final ferry ride was, in a slightly larger boat, the overnight to Ketchikan, through the Inside Passage. We stumped the unbelievably cheap $150 (!) for a “stateroom”, which consisted of two bunks, a full bath and shower, and a closet. Bring as much food and drink as you want (ice and microwaves provided), or check out the cafeteria and bar. For those backpackers willing to go economy, the choices included stretching out across 5 seats in the lounges (sleeping bags allowed),capturing a chaise lounge in the open air, but heated, solarium, or pitching your tent on the open boat deck. That’s right, pitching your tent. Of course, free showers were available in all public bathrooms.


Watching from our stateroom, we enjoyed sunset and sunrise on the island-dotted passage, and shortly after we turned off the wider route taken by the cruisers, we were suddenly in the midst of a huge pod of humpback whales, cavorting, blowing and breeching all around us. The view from the stateroom window was unbelievable.


Being the only mode of transportation for locals, the ferry stops at towns along the way, rather than plying nonstop to its destination. That’s a feature, not a bug. At one of those towns, whose population was primarily Tlingit, we felt privileged to almost be one of the locals. Having steeped ourselves in Tlingit culture and traditions over the previous week, we knew that tribes and individuals greeted travelers (historically in canoes) with a chanting song, especially when the travelers were returning members of the tribe. At this ferry stop, a full retinue of locals had appeared, with drums, to serenade three ladies clearly returning home on the ferry from Juneau. The call-and-response from travelers and villagers continued through the docking process, followed by whoops and hollers as the families were finally reunited on land. Very cool – we were touched.


If you go, it is possible (although a bit confusing) to book your own ferry tickets, either as a passenger or with a vehicle. We chose to work though Viking Travel in Petersburg, who specialize in ferry-based vacations, and also handled scheduled air, hotel and floatplane reservations for us. The ferry system is very extensive, going as far north as Anchorage and covering parts of the Aleutian chain, and you can take it all the way to or from Bellingham, Washington if you choose. The ferry schedule for the summer is posted each year in January, so check it out. Remember, most routes are not covered every day, so timing your trip to catch the right ferry to the right place is a bit of an art. But you will love it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Winery Runs Through It

No Crowds is back - and so are No Crowds reporters Gary Ransom and Lorraine Carulli. These never-really-retired international consultants are now travelling the American landscape and this story, ostensibly about Kalispell, Montana, says a lot about the American spirit and makes me want to head for Montana.

Our Kalispell story begins a few years back and a few miles away, in Bozeman (AKA the Big City). Meredith and her twin sister were both in the pre-med program at the University of Montana. Their dad was a doctor, their grandfather was a surgeon, and, modern times being what they are, the girls were expected to follow in the family tradition. In particular, their science achievement had been exemplary, so they were obviously good material.

But fate intervened. The summer after aceing her MCATs, Meredith took a job at a Bozeman wine bar (I’m guessing it was THE Bozeman wine bar), and discovered a completely different application for her skill in chemistry – she fell in love with wine.

Fast forward to 2018 in Kalispell, an old west town situated, as the guidebooks say, squarely on the continental divide, with mountains to the east and west, still snowcapped in July. Host to the somewhat aspirationally named Glacier International Airport, Kalispell has a fine National Park 30 miles to its north and the crystal clear waters of Flathead Lake 15 miles south. It’s in the process, as the local paper writes, of being discovered.

Meredith is now the owner and proprietor of Tailing Loop Winery (tailingloopwinery.com) out on Highway 35 just at the edge of town. Her voice and bubbly energy seem out of scale for her compact frame – she could command the attention of an audience of 500 without a mic – so everyone in the winery gets entertained by it, whether that was their plan or not. Meredith is an energy machine behind the bar, spinning stories and finding out where people are from and what brought them here.

As we work through our flights of wines on offer, we strike up a conversation with the couple next to us at the bar – locals who are thrilled to have a winery in town. The wife, sitting closest to us, asks where we are from, and replies “oh, Florida”, as if describing a nasty intestinal flu she has just recovered from. But then she brightens and congratulates us on discovering northwestern Montana. I feel that she would absolutely not be surprised if I told her that, after a week here, I had called my realtor back home and told her to sell the place and everything in it, and send us the proceeds so we could buy our cabin in the woods. “We see that a lot”, her husband would say, tapping the bar for emphasis.

Tailing Loop has a décor that can only be described as a cross between Cowboy Shabby Chic and A River Runs Through It. There are sepia-toned drawings of cowboys and saloon girls (each one armed with fly fishing tackle, rather than weaponry) by a local artist on the wall, an event room dominated by a massive buffalo head, and a front porch that appears to be stolen from the set of “Longmire”. Everything is raw, unpainted wood, with varnish slathered on where appropriate or necessary.

“But wait”, you say, “you can’t grow decent grapes for wine in that climate!” And you’d be right. Which explains why, several times a year, Meredith and a friend set off on a 12 hour journey through the night to Washington State, and return with a truckload of grapes from three vineyards. The rest of the work to produce the unoaked chardonnay, excellent pinot noir, syrah-based rose, tempranillo and more is done locally. And of course, since Tailing Loop has movie nights on a regular basis where an ancient projector runs spaghetti westerns from the 60s, she would have to have a Montana sangiovese to accompany the Italian cowboys.

But Meredith is still following the science closely, and is watching several experiments with developing grape rootstock that is hardy through the high plateau winter. If they are successful, locally grown wines are only a graft away, and it’s clear that by then, Meredith will have herself a vineyard. She’s already started some vines. Meanwhile, she’s comfortable living over the store (she actually does, along with her guard cat) and building an unlikely business in a fascinating corner of the world. And her mom finally accepted Meredith’s unusual career choice, with one condition – that a wine be named after her, and that it would have the saloon girl on the label.