The Top Meanders of 2022

Mmmm, bison potroast from Owamni Restaurant.

Well, the tenth year of “Marie’s Meanderings” is wrapping up. I made up for a lack of meandering during the pandemic with many more travel posts than in the past few previous years. That made for fewer musings than usual and more practical information. So, it’s not surprising that this year’s most popular posts feature outings that Russ and I took. One was to the homestead of my father’s side of the family in central Minnesota, the other to a popular cross-county ski trail in northern Wisconsin, and the last to a new restaurant in Minneapolis.

Drumroll, please! Here are the top posts for 2022:

  1. A Family Tradition Returns – My father’s ancestors emigrated from Germany to Minnesota in the mid-1800s. Every two years, the descendants all gather in the town near the family farm for a picnic. This story is about the picnic and the family history. Several of my relatives helped with facts and photos, and they shared the post among the family, which I suspect accounts for its popularity.

  2. Superior Skiing – Chronicles our first cross-country ski outing in the Superior Municipal Forest. This city forest is one of the largest in the country and sports trails perfect for all levels of skiers. This post got shared among local skiers via social media, which accounts for its popularity.

  3. Owamni Restaurant: Celebrating Native American Cuisine – Russ and I were lucky enough to snag a chair (well, actually two chairs) for dinner at Owamni, a Minneapolis restaurant run by Chef Sean Sherman who wrote the “Sioux Chef” cookbook. This unique eatery specializes in precolonization food – natural foods that Natives ate before European colonization of the U.S.

Thank you for meandering with me for yet another year. I plan to keep writing whenever something of interest happens or meanders into my head. I’m working on getting a fiction book published, so my posts might be fewer than usual until I make headway with that, and then there’s this long fiction story I need to finish . . . but I will not abandon my blog!

Meander North with me

My and your favorite posts from the first nine years of this blog have been published in my book, “Meander North.” My 101-year-old aunt just read it and approves! She’s read a lot of books in her life, so her opinion counts. 🙂

You can purchase the book from Itasca Books. Just click on this link.

One of my writer friends wrote a thoughtful review of the book, in case my aunt isn’t enough to convince you.

St. Martin Island – the Finale

We are experiencing a blizzard right now in Minnesota. This seems like a good time to wrap up my posts about our wonderful, warm St. Martin Island trip. (To see previous ones about Loterie Farm, Fort Amsterdam, or Topper’s Rhum Distillery, please click on the embedded links.)

Cooling off in the ocean at the end of a trail ride at Seaside Nature Park in St. Martin.

Another memorable outing we did was a visit to the Seaside Nature Park for a horseback ride. Although this former plantation is a nature park, ironically, you have to pass through one of the islands power plants to get there — a rather disconcerting experience. Plus, Google Maps will misdirect you to a road that is not finished yet. We found our way by asking a guy along the road who happened to know. I would suggest calling the park for directions beforehand.

Once we arrived at the rustic reserve, we were introduced to our horses, who were all named after musicians. My horse was named Prince, then there was Electra, Madonna, and Freddie (Mercury). The park offers sunset champagne rides (2 hours) and just regular daytime trail rides (1 hour). After a butt-wrenching experience years ago in Puerto Rico riding a horse for two hours, I decided it was wiser for us to just do the one-hour ride for our inexperienced butts. It was just the right amount of time.

Our horses plodded along steep cliff faces with spectacular ocean views. Some of the horses were not too fond of each other, but we quickly learned which ones needed to avoid each other. A highlight was the end, where we rode our horses into the ocean to cool off after the ride. They enjoyed the saltwater dip so much, they groaned with each step! That was something to hear.

The water rose higher than we were expecting during this part of the ride. I thought maybe our calves would get wet, but we went deep enough that our butts (and saddles) got wet. I almost floated off my horse at one point, so a tip would be to bring towels along in the car so that you can use them to sit on for your car ride back to wherever you are staying.

Our guide took photos of us with my phone. I was glad my phone did not fall into the ocean! It was a memorable experience. We all walked sort of funny for a few steps after we got off our horses, but no lasting damage was done to our physiques.

I’ll share the last of my “good” images below and some other tips to help you navigate St. Martin that we learned along the way.

Pro Tips:

  • If you’re driving and someone blinks their headlights at you, that means “go ahead.” They are either letting you turn in front of them or some other friendly move.
  • If you happen to stay at the Divi Resort in Little Bay, a great place to snorkel is near the pelican nesting area. Currently, there’s a houseboat there and some buoys that mark a place where people (used to? Currently?) do those Sea Trek dive helmet excursions. The fish there are used to getting fed and will swarm around you near that site, even if you have nothing to feed them. We also saw a sea turtle and an octopus on our way from the resort to the buoys.
  • Iguanas will bite if they think your toe is food. Beware!

The infinity pool at Divi Little Bay Resort
Marie makes a rare appearance (twice) in her own blog. This is at Fort Amsterdam.
Sunset on Little Bay. Image by Garrett Maron.

Loterie Farm: Rustic Paradise

The view from Chewbaca Point on Loterie Farm, St. Martin.

Continuing my posts about the isle of St. Martin, I offer this one about Loterie Farm, a private nature reserve on the French side of the island. This was my second time at the farm, but a first for my traveling companions.

The Jungle Room

The other time I was there, I was initiated into ziplining. The farm has a course that takes you through the surrounding trees and hillsides. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the resident monkeys as you glide along. But since I’d already been there, done that, I and two others from our group decided to explore the farm’s hiking trails.

I admit to not doing much research on the trails beforehand. But I should have clued into the strenuousness of the hike from the switchbacks on the map, which we paid $10 for. (I advise just accessing the map on your phone from the farm’s website if you have coverage). The receptionist’s questions about whether we were wearing adequate footwear also should have been a big hint.

We each grabbed a cane stalk hiking stick from a box near the trailhead, which we were thankful for later. We took the short (60-minute) hike to a spring and then up to Chewbaca View Point.

The hike to the spring was easy, although the spring was not flowing when we were there in November. Then the trail headed up a mountain. There were parts where we Elders were scrambling over boulders, clinging to handholds as best we could. This is where we were very thankful for the hiking sticks.

But, the view from Chewbaca Point was worth it. We could see all the way to the ocean and many of the towns in between. We rested there and rehydrated. (Bring water!) The temps were about 85 degrees (F) and my tank top was totally soaked in sweat from the climb.

From the point, the trail descends back to the farm whence we came. Erosion caused gullies and tricky footing, but we went slow, and everyone made it back to the trailhead without mishap. Along the way, numerous green moths fluttered around us, making us feel like we were in a Disney movie or something.

The best mojito ever!

I should also mention that before our hike, we ate lunch at the farm’s Jungle Room Restaurant. It’s up among the treetops and features cozy couches for large groups and an area for sit-down dinners. The food was exquisite the first time I was there, and we certainly had a repeat performance. I had one of their poke bowls and Russ had the cajun Mahi Mahi salad (see image). Both were delectable, plus my mojito with fresh mint was the best I’ve ever had.

After our hike, we contemplated a plunge in the farm’s Jungle Pool, but we would have only had an hour to enjoy it, and the price tag didn’t seem worth it. So, we hung out at the bar while waiting for the rest of our crew to return from their activities. I ended up having one of their nonalcoholic mixed drinks – I think it had mango in it. So refreshing!

I find it ironic that I was able to complete our hike intact because when I returned home, I ended up breaking my ankle doing a simple side-shuffle exercise during a kickboxing workout. So, I sit here in my ankle boot, envious of my past flexibility and prowess on this adventure. Oh well. Go figure!

The cajun Mahi Mahi salad.

Fort Amsterdam Dreams

Russ and I took a long-awaited and several times cancelled trip to warmer climes earlier this month. We orginally planned to meander to Grand Cayman Island, but our timing was unfortunate. Twice our reservations coincided with times the island was closed due to COVID restrictions. We gave up on trying to go to a U.K. territory and opted for a Dutch/French one instead, the island of St. Martin.

This was my second time there (for photos from the first time, see St. Martin Island – Where Nothing is Better). Sitting here in the snow of Minnesota, I am dreaming of the 85-degree (F) temps and warm turquoise ocean. In my next few posts, I plan to share images from our trip. The image above is from a fort that was near our resort. Fort Amsterdam was built by the Dutch and later the Spanish to protect the salt trade on the island. Several buildings and bastions comprise the fort, which is located on a dramatic point. My favorite was the signal house. It was built in the late 19th century for signal tower communications and was later used to house a radio station.

Its roof is missing, from Hurricane Irma, I suspect. The inside tells the tale of many layers of paint. Several windows look to the ocean or to our resort. Here are some of my favorite images.

A gallery of images from the rest of the area around the fort. Pelicans nest nearby and I caught one resting on rocks below the fort.

Five Reasons not to Wear a Bow Tie During a TV Interview

Photo by Moose Photos on

I recently attended a Zoom meeting for work where the presenter was wearing a bow tie. His tie was full of bright colors in contrast to his dark shirt. The speaker was a professed bow tie-aficionado. His tie was fun to look at, but it was crooked. I kept mentally straightening it during his whole presentation. It was distracting.

This reminded me that every bow tie I have ever seen someone wear has been crooked, which reminded me of an idea I had in 2010 when I worked for Mayo Clinic Public Affairs (where many of the doctors are also bow tie-aficionados) for an addition to a tip sheet for television interviews. This was a one-pager that we had on hand to advise doctors who weren’t familiar with being interviewed. It contained tips like women not wearing long, dangly earrings because they are distracting. (Although I suppose this could also apply to men!)

If I had continued working at Mayo Clinic longer and gained more “street cred” in the organization, I would have advocated for adding to the tip sheet: “Don’t wear a bow tie.”

Before I list the reasons why, I want to say that I think bow ties are fine for everyday life. I realize they are a way for the wearer to express their individuality and quirkiness, and I’m all for that. They are also convenient in many professions, allowing for a fashion statement that doesn’t drag in your soup bowl like a long necktie would. Also, according to a story on the WHYY public television station, for doctors, bow ties are more hygienic, collecting less bacteria than neckties. But I just don’t think they work for television interviews.

Here’s my reasoning, as if speaking to the interviewee:

  1. No matter how hard you try, your bow tie will be crooked, which is distracting and dilutes the verbal message you’re trying to convey.
  2. Yes, bow ties make the wearer look smart, but they also alienate you from the viewing audience. Historically, bow ties have been a marker of privilege and conservatism. Think of who you are trying to reach with your television interview message. For most health information, I would wager you want the widest possible audience.
  3. During media interviews, you are representing your organization. This is not a time to get all individualist and fancy. You can put your bowtie back on afterward.
  4. Despite straightening beforehand, your bowtie WILL become crooked during the interview.
  5. Your bowtie will run askew. (I cannot stress this enough.) 😊

There, I’ve been carrying that inside for a long time. I feel better now! Feel free to comment with dissenting opinions or agreements below.

Rhum = Yum!

I sit with snow lightly falling outside and a cold wind blowing. I sip my rhum infused with a tang of tea and lemon, and my mind meanders back to the balmy beaches and warm salty breezes of the island of St. Martin in the Lesser Antilles.

You may wonder why I’m using the spelling of rum with an h. I admit to being a bit confused on this point. Our Toppers Distillery tour guide, Cristina, on St. Martin, said that “rhum” was how it used to be spelled back in the early days. An internet search tells me that rum is made from molasses, while rhum is made directly from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice. However, Cristina tells me that Topper’s rhum is made from molasses.

In any event, this rhum is exquisite – sinfully smooth and way too easy to drink. It needs no other ingredients to cushion the tongue.

Cristina introduces us to the many varieties of Topper’s rhum.

We toured the Toppers Distillery on St. Martin a few weeks ago. After plying us with a rhum punch, Cristina described the history of rum to us and how the distillery makes its beverages. She invited us to taste many samples of the handcrafted rhums that are mixed on-site. These include white chocolate-raspberry, mocha, banana-vanilla-cinnamon, coconut, a white rhum, and a spiced rhum. All were delicious, even to one member of our tour who had a past bad experience with a rum and coke drink.

The first rhum we tasted was my favorite, and it’s what I am drinking now. It has the unappetizing name of Nelson’s Blood. It also has an unappetizing story behind it, but it tastes so good! Cristina told us that it’s named after British Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was regarded as one of the greatest naval commanders in history. He was killed at age 47 by a French sharpshooter during the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. Too important to be buried at sea, his body was transported back to England for a state funeral.

To preserve Nelson’s body for the trip, it was put into one of the casks of rum (I’ve also heard that it could have been brandy) that the crew habitually drank as part of their daily rations. Cristina told us that once Nelson’s body reached England and the cask was opened, those doing the opening were surprised to find that the rum had disappeared. Apparently, the sailors had drunk the rum. Ewwwww!

Rest assured, Topper’s Nelson’s Blood rhum does not taste like a dead body. I assume the tea and lemon flavors were added to it as a nod to the Admiral’s British heritage. We only brought one bottle of rhum home with us, and this one was it. That’s how good it is.

As we listened to this fascinating tale, blue-eyed, dark-skinned “Topper” himself poked his head inside the room and Cristina introduced him. Meeting one of the owners was cool. He and his wife moved to St. Martin from Boston. They made mixed rum drinks for guests at their restaurant. Their guests liked the drinks so much that the couple decided to produce a supply for local restaurants and stores. In 2008, they commercialized the brand and won many awards. They moved to their current facility in 2012.

Mandarin chicken with a banana vanilla cinnamon rhum sauce.

Back on our tour, Cristina explained how the inside of the rum storage barrels are charred and treated in various ways to elicit different flavors. Then we moved onto the distillery’s small lab, where they create the tasty fruit and spice mixes that are added to the rhum. These natural flavors are hand-mixed in five-gallon buckets. It was also in this room where Russ got drafted into cooking us a mandarin chicken dish with a rhum sauce. With Cristina’s coaching, he created a delicious tropical dish that we all got to taste. By this time, we were all a bit tipsy, so it was good to have a few bites of solid food in our stomachs.

After that, we meandered over to the bottling room, which was surprisingly small for such a large operation. Russ’s daughter had the honor of pushing the “start” button on the assembly line. It can fill six bottles at a time. The colorful bottle sizes vary a bit, so Cristina showed us how they use syringes of rhum to equalize the liquid levels in the bottles.

Then it was my turn to participate in the tour. After the swing top closures are in place atop the bottles, a clear plastic safety seal is applied. This is done with a small heat-sensitive shrink-wrap piece of plastic using high-tech equipment like your hands and hair blow dryer. I volunteered to seal a bottle and it was a piece of cake. (Or, a bottle of rhum, if you prefer.)

Our tour over, we perused their gift shop and ate lunch in the attached restaurant and bar, which features a wonderful view of Simpson Bay. We topped it off with a dessert of gelato from the distillery’s gelateria.

If you’re ever in St. Martin, Topper’s Rhum Distillery tour is a must! It’s a way of bringing a bit of the island home with you.

Topper’s Rhum Distillery bottling assembly line.

Book Review: The Net Beneath Us

Debut novelist Carol Dunbar is living a dream. She’s been slogging along in the local writing trenches of the Duluth-Superior area for years. She gained some local notoriety and then hit it big, signing with an agent and getting a two-book deal with a national publisher.

But it almost didn’t happen. During a recent Wisconsin Writers Association (WWA) conference Dunbar said that ten years into her twelve-year journey writing her novel, a flood in her office made her want to quit. She printed out a draft of her manuscript and was about to begin querying agents. She had written notes in the margins and on the backs of pages – things she wanted to address before she sent out the document.

Carol Dunbar discusses her book at its launch in Duluth, Minnesota, earlier this year.

Dunbar’s writing office lies underneath two 250-gallon water tanks that serve her off-the-grid home in the woods. The tanks developed a leak. For twenty minutes, water poured into her 10 x 10-foot office and onto her manuscript.

“Water is death to all things writing,” Dunbar said. Her draft was illegible. The books lining her office were destroyed. She couldn’t see how to recover from this catastrophe, and she began to cry.

At some point in the devastation, the voice of one of her characters cut through to her. It was Ethan Arnasson, the father-in-law of Elsa, the novel’s main character. Dunbar said that Ethan told her, “Carol, just give it time.” She knew he was right and felt giddy that, “My fictional character was giving me personal life advice!”

Lucky for us, Dunbar persisted. “The Net Beneath Us,” is set in remote northern Wisconsin, where Elsa, a cossetted city girl turned country widow, must determine how to carry on with two her two children in the unfinished home her husband was building for them. To cope with the challenges she faces, Elsa forges a deeper relationship with the land, learning from the trees her husband loved.

As the book jacket says, the novel is a lyrical exploration of loss, marriage, parenthood, and self-reliance; a tale of how the natural world – without and within us – offers healing, if we can learn where to look. The story is written in a rotating third-person perspective and covers the course of a year.

As a writer with a nature bent, myself, I loved Dunbar’s descriptions of Elsa’s growing connection to the forest that surrounds her home. From a floating puffball that seems sentient, to the underground fungal connections that foster communication among trees, to a mysterious white stag, nature reigns supreme in the story.

However, be prepared. A slow grief lays heavy over it, also. Dunbar’s true account about her husband, which appeared this year in the New York Times Modern Love column, offers a huge hint about the source of her dark inspiration.

I gave the book five stars on Goodreads. The writing is so beautiful, I hesitate to nitpick. But it wouldn’t be a full review without some nits. I found that the middle section dragged just a bit. Through multiple examples, this part highlights all the various ways that Elsa feels out of place in her off-the-grid home. I felt like there were too many of these instances. I found myself thinking, “We get it, already!” The other nit occurs near the end where the symbolism of the unfinished second story of Elsa’s home is compared to an unfinished aspect of Else’s psyche. I felt like it would have been stronger and more “literary” not to spell this out for readers so clearly.

At the WWA conference, Dunbar said her book editor encouraged her to change the ending from one “where the dog dies,” (a no-no in literary fiction these days) to something else. After much thought and gnashing of teeth, Dunbar did this, opting instead for the drama of a lost child. This revision works, and it anchors the story even more strongly into the trees and to the white deer.

So, this local woman made good, and we are all the richer for it. I can’t wait to see what gifts her next book will hold for us.