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October 19, 2023 Heather Cox Richardson

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This book tour has finally caught up with me and I’ve hit the wall. Must get a decent night’s sleep, so will leave it here and pick it up tomorrow. Lots of pieces moving on lots of chess boards, but I think—hope!— they can all wait a day.

Buddy’s got more time to play with his camera since I’m away, and he’s doing it to some purpose.

[Photo by Buddy Poland]

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The Pursuit of Sappiness Peter Gregg

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Peter Gregg in his sugarhouse, on the border between New York and Vermont. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Within every American is the impulse to make a run for it—out of town, into the woods. But if you think it’s easy to build a life for yourself out there, it’s worth reading the tale of Peter Gregg, who lives deep in the forests that span the border between New York and Vermont, where he runs a farm that produces something as mercurial as it is American: maple syrup.

Below is our exclusive excerpt of Peter’s memoir—The Sugar Rush, released earlier this month—which follows his madcap adventure into the world of what the pros call “sugaring.” What starts as a hobby quickly becomes an obsession, and Peter contends with treacherous conditions, ballooning costs, unfriendly wildlife, and other perils.

Along the way, he finds himself embedded in a new community of sugarmakers, who seem to succeed at a project as all-American as maple syrup itself: the pursuit of happiness. 

Blossom Road is a winding dirt road, the last left turn off New York Route 153 before you hit the Vermont state line. In the spring, when the frost gives way, the mud ruts get so deep you can barely get through in a pickup truck. Sometimes the highway crew will take pity on us and spread gravel over the worst sections, but either way Blossom Road is treacherous at this time of year—which is unfortunate, because this is sugaring season.

In a fifteen-mile radius of Blossom Road, there are probably 200,000 tapped maple trees, and two dozen sugarmakers. This includes a private equity millionaire who bought the maple-rich backside of Mount Equinox a few years ago and hired a crew to install 120,000 taps. The rest of us are farmers. And even though we’re technically competitors, we go out of our way to help each other out, which is what farmers do.

I require the most help because I’m a flatlander, which is what people here call you if you come from pretty much anywhere else. I’m from Minnesota, as flat as they come. After moving to Vermont for college, I started producing maple syrup as a hobby in the late ’90s. Meanwhile, my neighbors have been sugaring here all their lives, tending these forests, tapping these trees, and learning maple trade secrets passed down through the generations.

During the messy transition time between winter and spring, we gather sap from the besotted maple trees on the side of our mountain—from both the sugar maple and the red maple. Then we boil it, evaporating out much of the water, to produce the rich amber syrup you pour on your pancakes. It’s the same way indigenous peoples produced syrup two hundred years ago, but with modern technology.

Making maple syrup—we call it sugaring—is one of the most accessible ways to participate in agriculture, which is one of the reasons I got into it in the first place. Have a maple tree or two in your backyard? Drill a hole into it, pound in a spout, let the sap drip into a pail, then gather it up and steam it in a spaghetti pot on your kitchen stove. After twelve hours, you’ll have a tincture of delicious maple syrup.

“Making maple syrup—we call it sugaring—is one of the most accessible ways to participate in agriculture,” writes Peter Gregg. (Photo courtesy of the author)

It’s a good time to do it, in theory. In the past ten years, the U.S. maple industry has doubled in scale. It’s expected to double again, maybe even triple in the decade to come, just to keep up with the demand for an authentic product like ours—which has gone through the roof largely down to the hipster foodie movement and farm-to-table eating trends. But global warming is making it hard to meet that demand. The 2021 season was cut short because spring came so fast, which led to a very short crop in both the United States and Canada. There were even fears that the continent would literally run out of syrup. 

Still, sugaring’s not profitable. You might earn a little money selling your sweet nectar—either by peddling it to your friends and neighbors or by selling it to a wholesaler in a forty-gallon drum like we do. But if profit is your goal, you might be better off panning for gold or fishing for tuna. Better yet, just play the lottery. You’ll probably have better odds.

Most people don’t do it for the money. What happens to a lot of dudes, and certainly what happened to me, is they become addicted to making maple syrup. We call it The Bug. Instead of the two trees in your backyard, you’ll find yourself knocking on your neighbor’s door and asking to tap their maple trees. Next, you’re driving all over town looking to buy land with a bunch of maples on it.

Maybe you’ll start off old school when it comes to equipment, using antique sap buckets you bought off eBay to collect from the tree. Quaint, but hefting pails of sap through the woods in a foot or two of snow is a lot of frigging work. So you upgrade to a pipeline to move the sap to a point convenient to the road. For a year or two you might rely on gravity to push the sap through all the pipeline, until your patience wears thin and you find yourself at the bank, hoping to finance a vacuum system that sucks sap out of the trees with enough force to dislodge a brick. This is what happens when you’ve got The Bug.

“Farming is a combination of humility and tenacity,” a sage old dairy farmer told me once. On a farm, equipment is always breaking, or not working. Pieces and parts never fit. At a maple farm, or at my maple farm at least, everything is always leaking, or about to boil over, or is boiling over, or worse yet, scorching.

In my sugarhouse, I installed an evaporator—a stove with a firebox underneath called an arch, and long, deep-sided cooking pans sitting on top, which we flood with sap. We’ve accidentally ignited a few grassfires with the embers spitting out of it, including one along the hedgerow on a March afternoon. By chance, a rare passerby spotted the fire and hollered at us to stomp it out. It could’ve easily spread to the sugarhouse and conflagrated it—which will probably happen at some point anyway, since we’re burning tinder-dry firewood at 1,200 goddamned degrees.

A few summers ago, a neighbor of mine, Ken Potter, who’s 79 and sugars up the road in Poultney, Vermont, watched the sugarhouse he built with his own hands fifty years ago burn to the ground. It was zapped by a lightning strike. All he could salvage from the blaze were six barrels of syrup from the previous season.

The thing about sugarmakers is, we are optimistic. I stopped by Ken’s a couple weeks later and, lo and behold, there he was, full of smiles, already busy constructing a new sugarhouse he vowed to make bigger and better. 

“As long as I’m healthy, I’m gonna keep sugaring,” he said, as he and his grandson edged some planks of lumber with a chainsaw. “I still got lots of syrup to make yet.”

Maple is a lifelong pursuit. Perhaps more than any other type of farming, sugaring is something one can improve upon with practice. It’s a little like golf, but maybe not as pointless. Sure, we sugarmakers kvetch about the varying conditions of the maple market or the frustrations inherent to coaxing sap out of a tree in the dead of winter, but for the most part we keep happily tapping away with abandon. 

At the start of last sugaring season, I hiked up Blossom Hill in the brisk February sunshine, my maple trees ready to burst like water balloons. The melting snow made the terrain slick, and when I got to the top, I thought: Maybe I should’ve taken up pickle farming.

But then I approached the first maple on my line, drilled a hole in it, and started knocking in a spout. On each swing, oozing liquid from the punctured tree spattered back at me. A splash landed on my lips, and I swabbed it with my tongue. That’s some sweet sap, all right.

That’s why we do it. I know many sugarmakers who are still tapping trees well into their eighties. They just never quit. 

Peter Gregg is the longtime publisher of The Maple News, the largest trade magazine for the maple syrup industry in the United States and Canada. In it, he writes the popular column “Amateur Sugarmaker.”

This is an edited excerpt from his memoir, The Sugar Rush: A Memoir of Wild Dreams, Budding Bromance, and Making Maple Syrup, published by Pegasus Books, July 2, 2024.

To read more about Peter’s race against the clock to join the big syrup leagues in Vermont (without losing any limbs), pick up a copy of The Sugar Rush wherever books are sold.

The Free Press earns a commission from any purchases made through all book links in this article.

 

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On the Appalachian Trail, I Fell in Love With America Elias Wachtel

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Elias Wachtel on the Appalachian Trail, passing through the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. (All photos courtesy of the author)

When I was 18 years old, I decided to hike all 2,193 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. 

It was a strange year to come of age, 2020. Covid had canceled my high school graduation and delayed my freshman year of college; it was hard to see how to go out into the world and grow up. But from my bedroom in the suburbs of Chicago, there was an image I couldn’t get out of my head, a memory from a childhood trip in Vermont: little carved signs pointing out a path through the woods. Turn one way, and you could walk to Georgia. Turn around, and you could walk to Maine. 

The Appalachian Trail’s length is about 9 percent of the Earth’s circumference and, in terms of elevation, equivalent to hiking up and down Mount Everest sixteen times. It was stitched together in the ’20s and ’30s for local recreation, not for long-distance backpacking: To hike its entirety, to be a “thru-hiker,” was originally thought impossible. 

But in 1948, a WWII veteran named Earl Shaffer saw the newly-completed trail as a chance to “walk off the war.” After four long months, he stood atop Mount Katahdin in Maine, and an American tradition was born. Every year, thousands of hikers arrive at the trail’s southern terminus, on Springer Mountain in Georgia, hoping to follow in his footsteps. Only about 20 percent make it to the end; the rest get injured, sick, or give up. 

I wanted to prove to myself I could do something most people couldn’t, and could do it all on my own. I’d never camped for more than a few days at a time, and never alone, but in February of 2021, I arrived at the foot of Springer, my eyes set on Maine. The journey would take five or six months. My pack—which held everything I would need to live on trail—felt heavier than it had in my living room.

During a freak snow storm in the Grayson Highlands in Virginia.

I started slowly, my mileage light and the late-winter days still short. In my first week, freezing rain poured down; I had not yet mastered the art of setting up a tent in howling wind quickly enough to keep my sleeping bag dry, my numb fingers fumbling with stakes. One night, it dropped below freezing, and I woke up knowing I was at risk of hypothermia.

It was my first moment of real fear on trail; there was no one around to take care of me, no one else to correct my mistakes. I started doing sit-ups in my sleeping bag to generate body heat. 

I learned to love the self-sufficiency of trail life. I made my own rules. I decided when to hike and when to rest. In every town, I’d look at a map and decide how much food to buy for the journey’s next leg. When I was cold at night, I’d light a fire; when I was bored, I’d sing James Taylor. As spring exploded around me, I harvested wild garlic mustard and bathed in deep streams. It was like living in a folktale.

I could feel myself getting stronger. Thru-hikers call it “getting trail legs.” Nine-mile days gave way to twelve, and twelve to sixteen; as the nights got warmer, I slowly made my way up the country—Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee. 

And I wasn’t always on my own. On another miserable, stormy day, I came across an unobtrusive paper bag tucked between the roots of a tree. Inside, I found homemade apple turnovers, delicately wrapped in parchment paper, which had kept out the worst of the rain. This was my first encounter with what thru-hikers call “trail magic,” little offerings left by locals to lift our spirits. We called them “trail angels.” 

Trail magic came in all shapes and sizes: coolers full of drinks, rides into town when I needed to resupply. People I’d never met before welcomed me into their homes for a night’s sleep and a much-needed shower.

Friends back home were, of course, horrified by this: “What about serial killers?!” And I was wary at first, too. After all, my generation was raised on a steady diet of stranger-danger assemblies. But when you thru-hike the AT, you are constantly bombarded by the kindness of strangers, and it becomes easier and easier to accept. 

Taken the day Elias turned 19, in northern Tennessee.

The spring storms seemed endless. When the rainwater flowed downhill, the trail was like a shallow river. I’d hike ankle deep against the current; I’d climb over the downed trunks of storm-toppled trees. Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland. 

One day in April, a hiker came bounding up to me in Shenandoah National Park, salt-and-pepper mane blowing in the breeze. Before I had even finished introducing myself, he was offering me the dingy little earbuds he hiked with: “They’re my favorite Brazilian punk band!”

Long-distance backpacking attracts an eclectic community, hippie-dippie potheads and gruff ex-Marines alike. I met Bowdoin graduates and welders’ sons; some hikers had the Pride flag stitched onto their packs, others sported the thin blue line. We all knew each other by our trail names, a break from who we’d been in the “real world”: There was Shivers and Shiner, Skeeter and Pixie, Goldie and Dolittle. My new friend was called Midnight. 

It turned out he had grown up not far from me, but he left town before I was born, so we’d never have met in Illinois. As a young man, he’d renounced his family fortune and had been traveling the country ever since, a kind of itinerant music teacher; I never asked how old he was.

Midnight was unflaggingly positive, and always claimed to feel no pain. Of course, part of his strategy was a near-constant supply of weed—he hiked without trekking poles, so his hands were always free to pack a bowl.

In the “real world,” I never would have befriended Sundance, either. We first met at a hostel in North Carolina, but I kept running into him—at a lookout point here, at a campsite two weeks later. A 67-year-old former Green Beret’s wiry strength and grit put us all to shame: He was often up before dawn, not willing to let his age decrease his mileage. We made a funny pair sitting around the fire, telling stories—he was one of the oldest hikers on trail, I was one of the youngest. 

Sundance didn’t much care for Midnight’s habits—“he smokes too much hash,” he’d say—but it was never an issue. When you’re hiking together, the outward trappings of difference don’t matter all that much. Everyone is interested in the same things: Where’s the nearest water source? How bad will that next climb be? Does it look like rain? 

Near the border between Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The storms of May gave way to 100-degree days in June, and with early summer came black bears, ticks, and rattlesnakes. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York.

One day in Pennsylvania, I sat on a mountain overlook under clear blue skies. Looking out on the land, I realized I was learning to love America by walking it. I thought back on childhood trips to Italy and France, where people prized the local and the familiar: the cathedral across the street, the twelfth-century tavern beside it. America is different, I thought—the land of the frontier, the land of the explorer. To love America is to love something wild and ever-changing; our greatness is measured in space rather than time. 

Two-thirds of the way through my trek, I was hiking twenty, twenty five, even thirty-mile days, eating five thousand calories and struggling to maintain my weight. My body was starting to break down. On the descent from New York’s Bear Mountain, all I remember is the pain. It was a June weekend, so a steady stream of Manhattanites and young families were passing me on the trail. I noticed their concerned looks before I even realized I had tears streaming down my face. 

The next day, an orthopedic surgeon in New York told me my leg could break if I continued hiking—I had shin splints that were developing into a stress fracture with every step. At that point, though, I was too far in to falter. Either my leg would break, or I’d make it to Maine. After a week of rest and against doctor’s orders, I was back on the trail.

I moved slowly through Connecticut and Massachusetts, living off of Tylenol and ibuprofen. The northernmost states are beautiful, but this was often lost on me. I thought about the refrain of The Little Engine That Could, huffing and puffing up the hill: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. . . 

Just up and over the next mountain. And the next. And the next. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine. 

For days before you reach it, you can see Mount Katahdin’s imposing shadow laid out across the horizon. I knew my family had traveled to Maine, and would be waiting for me, after the final climb. 

There’s a reason our folk heroes are rugged mountain men who survive by their own strength and wit: It’s true that no one can get you up the mountain but yourself. But as I reached Katahdin’s summit, I thought about my family, and my friends on trail. I thought about the trail angels who had helped us. I thought about Earl Shaffer, and the generations of Americans who cut the trails we walk. 

I started college only a few weeks after standing on that summit, and found many of my classmates were afraid of independence—of living alone and taking care of themselves. Without having been on trail, I might have been the same. In high school, after all, there had always been a drumbeat to march to, whether from parents, teachers, or coaches. But on trail, I’d had no one to follow but myself.

Like my friends, I often worry about what I can achieve, whether I’ll succeed on my own. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I can still hear that most-American of refrains, the one I thought of over and over again on the trail: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. . .

Elias Wachtel is an intern at The Free Press. Read his piece “My Generation Needs to Do National Service.” To support our work, subscribe today:

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TGIF: Back with a Bang Nellie Bowles

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Hulk Hogan rips his shirt off to reveal a Trump-Vance campaign shirt during the last day of the 2024 Republican National Convention at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds via Getty Images)

We had a replacement lined up for this week, but he backed out, citing the need for sobriety and dignity during such a time as this. Me, I don’t care about those things. I look danger in the face. I see a sloped roof, and I climb right on with an eagle on my shoulders and a newborn slung to my chest. I shoot my own ear to show that I’m all in for America. TGIF

→ Trump, Hulk Hogan, Biden: Hulk Hogan set up the RNC’s big final act by tearing his shirt off to reveal another shirt that read—what else—TRUMP/VANCE as he screamed “let Trumpomania run wild, brother, let Trumpomania rule again” (Donald then blew him a kiss). And then boom, Hollywood lights came up like it was the musical Chicago! Out strode a new, toned-down, spiritual Trump. His convention speech started strong, normal, even moving. Even those who hate Trump had to admit that the retelling of his brush with death was kind of riveting. 

And then. Well, then it just never ended. He said every word there was to say. An excerpt: “Has anyone ever seen Silence of the Lambs? The late, great Hannibal Lecter is a wonderful man. He oftentimes would have a friend for dinner.” He continued, “They’re emptying out their mental institutions into the United States, our beautiful country.” When Trump said the speech was wrapping up, that was Trump just being a silly flirt. The thing finally clocked in at one hour, 32 minutes.

At the start of the speech, I thought Trump had this election pretty well cinched. But if a functional, fully alert Democrat was the nominee, honestly, it would be a toss-up! As the pollster Dave Wasserman put it: “Periodic reminder that someone is going to have to win the 2024 election despite their best efforts not to.” My main remaining question is regarding Usha Vance, J.D.’s very smart and lovely wife. See, I’m not seeing filler. I’m not seeing a wig. I’m not even seeing an earring! I’m seeing a look of shock and alarm. How long will she resist the Trumpification? 

Meanwhile, Democrats are going for the jugular with Joe. Apparently, he hadn’t taken the very strong hints—you know, of every swing state going for Trump—so staffers for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer spent the week leaking details about how they had meetings with Biden and told him to resign. Nancy Pelosi is a killer—she will put a horse’s head in Biden’s bed, and she’ll have sliced it off herself. Once Nancy turns on you, you’re done. The journalist Mark Halperin reported that he’s hearing Biden will withdraw his nomination by Sunday and that Jon Meacham is punching up the speech. Then Meacham said it was totally false. What’s true? What’s false? I haven’t slept in five days and don’t even know my own name. 

→ Someone really almost killed Trump: A 20-year-old man named Thomas Matthew Crooks pitched a large ladder and climbed the roof of a building during a Trump rally, posted up with a “semiautomatic AR-style rifle,” and fired at the former president. Trump was saved only by a last-second turn of the head—the bullet whizzed through his ear. As Secret Service swarmed him, as blood streamed down his face, as an American flag flew behind him, Trump threw up a fist and screamed “Fight, fight, fight.” He is now selling “Fight fight fight” sneakers. 

Those facts are just about all people can agree on. The immediate reaction from the left and a few very mainstream Democrats was that this was a false flag, a fake assassination attempt designed to make Trump look cool and strong, straight out of Putin’s playbook. I’m totally serious. Reid Hoffman—the co-founder of LinkedIn, one of the top donors for Democrats, the man who funded the E. Jean Carroll lawsuit—has Dmitri Mehlhorn to help dole out his political cash. Here’s what Melhorni wrote to a large group of allies and journalists after the shooting: “[One] possibility—which feels horrific and alien and absurd in America, but is quite common globally—is that this ‘shooting’ was encouraged and maybe even staged so Trump could get the photos and benefit from the backlash. . . . This is a classic Putin play and given the facts seems more plausible. Look at the actual shot. Look at the staging.” 

This is a conspiracy that could take root only on the left. Here’s why: to believe that a 20-year-old hobbyist sniper, from 390 feet away, could perfectly and reliably shoot at a rapidly moving head and hit just the ear. . . well, you have to have never aimed a gun in your entire life. Those Trump ears don’t even stick out much; they’re tight to the head, maybe a little small now that I stare at them. This conspiracy could work only among a cohort who weren’t allowed Nerf guns, let alone Call of Duty, let alone a real gun to shoot. But it’s going mainstream! This is a completely normal take to have among MSNBC Democrats right now. Don’t believe me? 


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