Ongoing U.S. Congressional Failure Day New Year!
In 2012, The Eaten Path entered its fifth year of food and travel. It’s hard to believe, but easy to stomach. As Zach and I work to push stories onto bigger pages – his into the Creative Writing program at CSU Long Beach, mine into a literary magazine, a local reporting startup, New York’s best cheap eats guide and the digital reel – this blog has never felt more like home. It’s one we’ve had fewer chances to visit, even with all the renovations in place. But while the memories are fresh and there’s typeface in the pot, it’s ours for another year.
On January 31, 2011, Mele and I were on an airplane to Tokyo. Two weeks later, it was 2012, and we were back in California – unsure when the last year had ended and the new year had begun. Japan never stopped being transient, whether it was Josh driving us around in his Daihatsu or the trains between Osaka and Kyoto. Even the ensuing months, during which I wrote four stories on the trip for The Eaten Path, did little to solidify Japan in my timeline. Today they seem like recorded dreams, albeit delicious ones:
Upon our return, friends whose thoughts tend to be preoccupied with food had a habit of asking, “What was the best thing you ate in Japan?” I don’t think I ever answered the question the same way twice. Not enough time had passed. But over a year after that trip, the answer is less ambiguous.
On a snowy hilltop in the Shikoku mountains, Josh pulled his Daihatsu into a tiny village. Night had fallen and the snowflakes had thickened. The mood was set for my first onsen experience. Fortunately, the place was near empty. Thinking back on it now, hanging out nude with my friend Josh seems like it should have been weird, but at the time nakedness didn’t seem to matter. We lounged in hot springs under falling flurries and threw snow at Mele over the partition.
Afterwards, Josh, Mele and I went next door to a market and bought ice cream cones. We stood by the Daihatsu in the snow-framed parking lot and ate soft serve under stars and snowflakes. Nearly an hour in the hot springs had made us invincible to the cold inside and out. I can’t imagine ice cream ever being more satisfying than that.
On the way down the mountain we stopped at Jiyuken, a ramen joint tucked into the foothills, to re-up on warmth. In the middle of the restaurant a cauldron of hot dashi broth waited near an assortment of self-serve, seasonal ingredients. We came for the spicy ramen, but I remember the oden while waiting. The combination of hot broth, beef, daikon and hot mustard thawed me all over again. Maybe these are only the fond memories of a Californian writing in tee-shirt weather in January 2013, but those hot and cold hours between onsen and oden are some of the best of all my years.
As I trudged into the month of May, my nerves were as frayed as one could expect from a not-quite-workaholic in the New York leagues. A layoff that had been hanging over my head for half a year, becoming more and more welcome by the week, was sliding out of sight, leaving me to choose between another year of stable, professional frustration or employment parole without dole.
For six days, two of my friends, also deciding how hard to dig themselves out of the exact same hole, joined me for the best kind of reprieve from our white collar purgatory. On a Wednesday morning, after downing breakfast sandwiches, doughnuts and dark roast outside Peter Pan, we packed ourselves into an economy rental and hit the highway for French Canada:
With phones off, stomachs empty and spirits aching for anything different, we tore through three nights of citygoing and two days on the maple farm. The office did not exist. E-mail was not an option. The meals were pure. It was the kind of road trip where destinations don’t become apparent until you’re walking home from your new favoriite pub in the a.m., or standing over all of Montreal from a particularly high bend atop the Mont Royal, or playing “Eye of the Tiger” with a band of French Canadian folk musicians as a barely domesticated wolf sings along just a few feet away. It all felt much closer to home than money, time and adulthood should have allowed.
It was also the kind of road trip that included an unexpected stop at the Ben & Jerry’s factory, where every tour ends with a free scoop – which in turn is only a primer for a visit to the factory’s ice cream parlour. The menu offers factory exclusives and flavors-in-development, with names like “Bonnaroo Buzz” and “Cinnamon Cereal Swirl.” Just outside, tables for four are dotted with holes just wide enough to house a freshly scooped waffle cone.
We nursed our ice creams in the last chill of winter before climbing up a grassy knoll to pay our respects at the graveyard of discontinued flavors – a motley assortment of misses that includes “Sweet Potato Pie” and “Tuskeegee Chunk.” I followed the others back to the car, not quite understanding how far this escape had taken me, but convinced that these were the most important steps I’d taken all year.