The long trip to the airport included a last ice cream with Ram and a drive to the airport with Khun Pa Piak. Soon enough my flight came and took off. I landed in Hong Kong late at night and decided to stick out the 19 hour layover in the airport. Part of me didn’t want to find a place to sleep at one in the morning and another part of me just wanted to stay on the path home. I was on my way and straying from the homeward path at that point seemed wrong somehow.
Either way my time spent in the airport was not a waste. I grabbed some sleep in a poorly lit side corridor (the only one in the immaculate and air hanger like HK airport) through the night. The following day was a long one, but a good book and free Scotch tasting at the duty free stores helped pass the time. Despite looking and smelling the part of international vagabond, the 25 year old spirits were offered with descriptions and prices that I didn’t understand and couldn’t afford if my life depending on it.
My flight home was a blurry mix of movies on a small screen and walks down a dimly lit isle to the bathroom. When the plane finally landed, I grabbed my bag that had been upgraded to first class and zipped to the runway. I made it easily through customs and conveniently chose the exit door opposite my mom and dad. This allowed for a causal walk behind and a snarky comment on them having the wrong door. The hugs were fierce and less emotional and dramatic than expected for me. I was just home, that’s all. Maybe I always knew the reunion would happy or maybe life had been changing every day for so long that this big change even didn’t faze me.
When I finally made it all the way back to Eau Claire and the house, it was a strange acclimation. For a few days home just felt like another hotel. In a way it was, because after just two days I started hopping from grad school visit to a Chicago for St. Patrick’s to another grad school visit. I couldn’t (and still can’t) keep my feet still. I had to shift scenes before I felt stuck or stagnant. Every place felt temporary. Not in a bad or good way, just in a way that meant a new place was always on the edge of my mind.
I suppose part of the restlessness is also a dramatic shift in level of independence. I’ve returned from the most free and self-driven three months of my life. Now I rely on family and friends for everything from a good conversation to a roof over my head. Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful that I have so many people to rely on during this transition period. But it’s getting harder to remember myself as the guy riding a motorcycle into a tiny Laotian town with no idea of where he will lay his head. That man is me and so is the man who sits down to mom’s princess chicken and asks to borrow the car in the morning at age 23. Finding the balance between the two has been the toughest part of my transition. When the two sides do click though, I see how both experiences help and continue to help me grow.
From Sap to Syrup: A Changing Tradition
This year the family syrup "business" enjoyed its second year out of the neighborhood and down at a neighbor's land south of town. The bouncing teal plastic wagon has been replaced with a heavy duty four wheeler as bucket transportation. The trees sit in a broad forest rather than on the front lawns of the Third Ward. And most importantly for me this year, there is much less wind cover in a leafless forest than in a tightly packed neighborhood.
My dad and I crunched through a shallow snow cover from tree to tree following a trail of orange spray can dots. At each tree we drilled one to three holes depending on the size of the trunk. Then we dropped off a can with a plastic hose stuck in it. We didn't attach the spigots that day, so our work load was thankfully a little lighter. As we pierced the trunks, a sharp wind whipped around the bare trunks and through my unfamiliar winter coat. Soon enough, (and to my not so hidden joy), the batteries in the drill felt the chill and whined to a halt. We rode back to the car and its seat heaters with a low chilled winter sun at our backs.
I rejoined the production a couple of weeks later on the second cook weekend. My dad and our neighbor were the real champs of the process, staying up through multiple nights to keep the cook going. I did my small part by tagging along for two days at the Sugar Shack #1, a old barn turned equipment shed now turned sap distillery.
Inside the rickety sliding wooden doors the damp spring air was kept at bay. A rusted cylinder sat atop some expertly placed bricks. Inside a furnace churned and radiated heat. On top of the barrel of warmth sat a four part pan designed to boil the sap down in sections of an alternating steaming river. Periodically the water became covered in a sweet froth that we skimmed off the top. Slowly and steadily the sap dripped its way to a thicker liquid at the end of the trough.
Still not syrup, the congealing sap was boiled in pots over high power burners. These pots were carefully monitored to avoid a boil over and to see hit the sweet spot when sap became syrup. If we went too far past the mark, the syrup became too thick. This year for whatever reason the finished product was a dark molasses color, hard to see through unless a shard of sunshine pierced the jars. Liquid sweetness boiled down over time.
As we passed the time