autumn in the Engadin.

I love shoulder season in the mountains.

Autumn is incredibly beautiful, but for a lot of alpine resorts, it is the slow time of year. Business owners take a break before the winter tourism rush begins. Kids are back in school, so the summer vacationers are long gone. Maybe it rains a lot. In many senses it’s an in-between.

And yet: the mountains are still there. The days where it doesn’t rain can bring the most glorious blue skies. The plants start turning pretty colors, mostly reds and yellows. The highest peaks start accumulating snow. The weather is cooler, and as a person who suffers greatly in even moderate heat, that sure brings a smile to my face. It allows me to play outside for longer.

Fall is a great time for the budget traveler, because it’s not high season (except if you’re headed to leaf-peeping land….) and rates are reduced. Last year I had a great getaway to the Austrian Alps and stayed in a hotel I would never be able to afford in the winter season. I had the elaborate sauna suite all to myself one rainy afternoon.

This year, we headed to the Engadin valley in southeastern Switzerland.

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Upper Engadin. Cross-country skiers are probably most familiar with it as the location for the Engadin Skimarathon, which I’ve done just once despite being in Switzerland for several winters. We also had a nice ski weekend in Zuoz at the end of this winter. The Lower Engadin is one of my very favorite places, full of small villages with Romantsch writing on them, surrounded by big mountains: so quiet and peaceful. But I really had only been to the Upper Engadin once in summer, and it was a day of frustration while I was mentally processing some work-related problems.

It being shoulder season, we found a great AirBnB in St. Moritz, which again, is more posh that I would usually choose; nearby Samedan, Celerina, or Pontresina are more affordable.

The day before we left, I ran into my colleague Chris, a group leader in my research institute, on the train on the way to work. He had just returned from Val Roseg, a valley in the Engadin where he and another colleague, Amael, study biodiversity and ecosystem function. (You can find out about their research on this valley – with a big glacier at the top! – here, and watch a video they made about it here.) Chris was raving not just about a cool scientific result they had uncovered, but how beautiful it was.

“We’re going there this weekend!” I said excitedly.

We discussed a little, and when I said we were staying in St. Moritz, Chris looked at me like I had lost my mind. But, shoulder season!

Anyway, I arrived on Friday evening and picked up some locally-made mushroom pasta, wild mushrooms, bacon, and alp cheese, and whipped up a dinner as the alpenglow faded. I had big plans for the weekend: part of the reason we had come was that as part of my marathon training, I had two big runs on the schedule. 30 km on Saturday, and 20 km on Sunday, each with some elevation. It seemed a bit intimidating, and I doubted I would get out the door for Sunday’s effort if I was just doing it in my backyard. Hence, I picked some spectacular scenery to get motivated.

But where to go? There are so many trails, valleys, mountains, ridges, bowls… too much to explore in a single weekend. I pored over the Alps Insight trail running site looking at routes, and then pored some more over online topo maps looking at more routes.

On Saturday, we woke up, made breakfast, and then ran over to Pontresina, a rolling six-kilometer stretch along the lake and through pine forests. The trail was cushy under my feet and I marveled, “wouldn’t it be great to be able to run on trails like this every day?”

After going through Pontresina, we hit the big hills, climbing about 700 meters in five kilometers. I didn’t even try to run – I knew what we still had ahead, and just kept to a steady hiking grind.

But then we were above treeline near Alp Languard, and everything was spectacular. We were looking more or less straight across the valley into Val Roseg, where my colleagues had been doing fieldwork just a few days prior. The glacier hung, shimmering white, on the mountains in the back. Looking to the other side, we were surrounded by the alpine meadow playground we would inhabit for the next few hours.

Finally above treeline!

We climbed along a small ridge called Paradis – fitting. It was more gradual and a bit of a rest after all the steep climbing. We passed a small hut before descending some hard-won meters into a gorgeous bowl just below Lej (Lake) Languard. For much of the climb we hadn’t seen other hikers, but here people converged on this small alpine lake perched on the side of the mountains. I couldn’t capture its turquoise blue color, but believe me, it was special.

We descended the trail you can see snaking along the left to reach a wide bowl, before climbing back up to Lej Languard. This part of the trail is a runner’s dream.

The route was like a series of step: up to the lake, pause. Up a headwall to another plateau with tiny lakes, pause. We finally hit a traversing trail that cut below some big cliffs near the tops of the mountains. I ran off an extra kilometer or so to a pass, Fuorcla Pischa, just to see what was on the other side. It was a huge, rocky, open bowl with several more lakes, and in this direction, not a ski lift to be seen. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but it was the wrong direction.

Instead, we traversed back to the northwest, finally on gradual terrain through the scree, and spectacular view ahead of us. After a while we hit the spur up to the top of Piz Languard, which we ignored – the route had 1500 meters of climbing already, and I didn’t feel the need to add a few hundred more. We dropped down a bit before joining the “Steinbock-weg”, and a hard truth. I had looked forward to this section of the run because it was gradual, high-altitude traversing – the hard work of climbing was done, I was tired, and I expected to be able to cruise. But the Steinbock-weg was basically navigating boulderfields. I had to take care and go slower than expected. The last thing I wanted was to reinsure my ankle. That was okay, but not what I had pictured in my mind’s eye.

The last major point on our route was Chamanna Segantini, a hut where we could have stopped for something to eat and drink. But instead we descended a fun trail and than ran on beautiful, easy dirt paths around the side of the mountain a few kilometers, before taking another steep drop down all the way back to Pontresina.

30 k and more than 4 1/2 hours, and I had one workout done for the weekend. I spent the afternoon lying on the couch. It was great.

For day two, I knew I couldn’t handle so much climbing again, so I reluctantly left the Alps Insight website behind and picked an easier route. On Sunday morning I took the bus west and up the valley past a series of lakes toward Maloja. It was such an incredibly beautiful morning, it almost broke my heart to think that soon I will have to leave this country and find a job somewhere else.

I started by run by going along the south shore of the Sils lake; the path over big rocks and under the trees reminded me of running on a lake shore in New England.

But after a few kilometers I turned uphill, the only big-is climb of the day taking me over a headwall and into the Val Fedoz valley. Luckily, the climb was along a dirt road, so I didn’t have to think too much about where to put my feet – I was mentally tired from the previous day. I just tried to keep my heart rate from going too high, and savored the view out over the lake of Sils.

The view was stunning, and the valley nearly empty. The singletrack was faint and in places I lost its thread, and would have to pause to find it again. The stream meandered through the valley bottom until I got to one steep drop, where it had carved its way through with a waterfall. There, as I was climbing up through the boulders on one side, I met two hunters packing out their kill. After finally identifying that French was our only language of common currency, we discussed how beautiful it was, and that winter would come soon.

At the top of the waterfall, I climbed on top of a huge rock, stopped my watch, and ate a snack. The glacier at the end of the valley – there’s one in every valley here, it seems – beckoned, but I didn’t have the time, or extra kilometers, to explore further on the ever-fainter trail. Instead, I turned around and headed back down the valley on the other side of the stream.

Eventually I dropped down into Sils, where I caught a bus back.

Back to the St. Moritz train station, then back to Zurich, then back to home, and then, the next day, back to work.

My dissertation is due in a month now, and I have been working like crazy to get it done. Every day I feel completely mentally exhausted. Maybe hiking and running 50 k in two days doesn’t sound relaxing, but it was: relative to mental work, physical work is not so taxing.

Taking in the color and the sun, the mountain air and the mountains, was the best way I could possibly have spent a weekend, and I was thrilled to finally get to the Upper Engadin and explore with shoes instead of skis.

There were seemingly infinite valleys and mountains to explore, and I’d love to get back one day. Two friends are there right now, and they have been ensconced for a week or so, having a different incredible adventure every day. I’m jealous, but it’s not my time for that. Hopefully, in the future I’ll have more chances, because the mountains are there waiting.

finagling favorites.

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I’m home. Home! It’s been since last Christmas, and I couldn’t be happier to be, finally, at home. I imagined this as a working vacation, where I would hole up in my parents’ house and write my papers. But it’s far too luxurious to be home – there are a million things that I’d rather be doing, so I have done them. And not worked so much. Unfortunately I arrived home still sick, so I haven’t been able to do some of the hikes I had imagined, either – no Moosilauke, no Presidentials. But there have been beautiful quiet moments on the hill behind my house, at the Skiway and Pinnacle, and out at Trout Pond (above), where I took my friend Rosalie for the first time. My aged Australian shepherd, Bravo, found his short little legs again and was running joyfully back and forth ahead of us. Rosalie laughed at his bobbed tail bouncing up and down as he bounded along. I love, so much, being home.

I was worried that I would arrive after the best of fall had already said goodbye, but apparently it has been an unusually temperate autumn here in New England. So there are still some beautiful leaves, and some warm sunny days that retreat into freezing clear nights. The full moon loomed over the hills during that first week. I picked pumpkins at a pumpkin patch and marveled at beautiful apples. I wished my friend Sean luck as he headed out to his tree stand in his very first season of bow-hunting; I commiserated with my friend Tim when he ended up chest-deep in the muck of Little Hosmer Pond while retrieving a duck. When Bravo and I go for a walk, he wears a bright orange vest that he comically despises. The horses are getting shaggy and unkempt as they begin to grow their winter coats.

It is fall.

One night I wanted to make dessert for my parents, even though we’re all eating less these days and often eschew the treat. I settled on an apple and pecan tart recipe from Florence Fabricant. In a more rotund world, I’d make an apple pie one night and a pecan pie another night, but we don’t need that at this point. Instead, the recipe combines the two, along with a lot of maple syrup. God, I have missed maple syrup. The tart turned out to be incredibly tasty and an extremely classy way to combine two favorites. As always, Flofab is right. We ate half the darn thing the first night.

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Apple Pecan Tart

adapted from Florence Fabricant / New York Times

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

1 large egg yolk + 2 large eggs

4 tablespoons ice water

2 medium tart apples, peeled, cored and sliced

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

2/3 cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make the crust: preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease a 10-inch fluted tart pan. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl and mix until blended. Add 8 tablespoons of the butter, cut into cubes, and mix with your fingers until the pieces of butter and dough are the size of peas. Add the egg yolk to the ice water and then pour the liquid into the butter mixture, stirring slightly. The dough does not need to form a ball, just come together in a shaggy falling-apart mass. Turn it out onto a floured surface and roll. Place the crust in the tart pan and weigh it down with pie weights or dried beans. Bake ten minutes, then remove weights and prick the crust with a fork a few times. Put back in the oven for 20 more minutes.

While baking, make the filling: place the apples in a saucepan with the remaining two tablespoons of butter, and cook just a bit until they begin to soften up. Add the brown sugar and pecans and cook two more minutes. This should make a syrupy, sticky, delicious coating for everything. In a separate bowl, combine the 2 eggs, maple syrup, and vanilla.

Assemble the pie: When the crust is getting golden, pull it out of the over. Spread the apple and pecan mixture in the tart shell, then pour the egg and maple syrup filling on top. Put everything in the oven for 15 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 350 degrees and bake 25 more minutes. Be careful that the pecans on top do not burn.

Especially delicious with vanilla ice cream on top!

a crazy family.

On Sunday night my housemate Heather and the women who lives in our backyard, Elizabeth, wanted to carve pumkins.

So we did.

First, a little bit about our housing arrangement, which is unusual. Our house is on the edge of the city, definitely still in the neighborhoods but not downtown; as a result our lot has more of a yard than I’d expect. It’s full of berries and fruit trees, and also a pair of yurts where Erik and Elizabeth live. Erik is our landlord’s son and Elizabeth is his girlfriend. They are younger than me but older in a lot of ways too; they work in gardens and on wood and with their hands, don’t have many amenities, and survive almost entirely on cash. This summer they got a truck and were so excited. They don’t pay rent.

The situation is mostly wonderful because Erik and Elizabeth are really nice. Sometimes, it’s strange to have people living in your backyard regardless of how nice they are, though. This weekend Elizabeth was talking about how she wants to get ducks because duck eggs are so good, and I just thought of how I didn’t really want ducks wandering around our yard. I didn’t want to be stepping in duck poo all the time, and I just didn’t want to deal with them. Then I felt bad. That’s the thing about Erik and Elizabeth: whenever they ask you about something, you feel like you have to say yes even if you don’t want to because the idea is so charming and sustainable. You feel like a grouch saying no.

That didn’t come up in our pumpkin-carving evening, though. Because who doesn’t want to carve pumpkins? Elizabeth had dragged Erik to the pumpkin patch and they had each picked out a nice carving pumpkin. Heather, on the other hand, grabbed two smallish pie pumpkins from the supermarket.We figured we could use the pumpkins for pie after we looked at them for a few days. I’m not sure that’s how it works, but we’re going to try.

My other housemate, Laura, wanted to cook up the pumpkin seeds, so Heather and I each took a pumpkin and a few of Erik’s carving tools and the four of us set to work on the floor. It was immediately clear that everyone else was way, way more artistic for me. I briefly thought about doing a jack-o-lantern that wasn’t a face – maybe a tree, or a cat, or a snowflake – but then I thought, who am I kidding? I can’t draw that stuff. Much less carve it. So that was that, I was making a face.

Considering the amount of time I spent on my pumpkin, which was roughly the same amount of time everyone else took, the result was kind of lame. I mean, look at Elizabeth’s pumpkin:

Elizabeth thought that her pumpkin ended up looking like a monkey wearing a fez. And Erik’s pumpkin – the one on the right in the top photo – was absolutely incredible. He didn’t carve through at any point, but literally whittled a face out of the pumpkin flesh. Entertainingly, it ended up looking like a monkey too, and we wondered why they liked monkeys so much.

Despite being completely outclasses in the artsy-fartsy department, it was a lot of fun to sit around the floor joking and eating Laura’s delicious pumpkin seeds. We may have been more focused on our designs than we were when we were kids, but we had no less fun. I hadn’t carved a pumpkin in years, but I think I am going to have to make a habit of it again. Especially with friends, it’s a nice way to do something fall-like!

Although hopefully my jack-o-lanterns will get more ornate if I keep practicing…. although this fellow does have a bit of his own charm.

Fall comes.

Did I mention that autumn has arrived in northern New England?

It has. It has arrived, in all its rainy, cold sogginess. Fortunately, for every day that features cold rain, there’s one – or at least half of one – which is clear and completely beautiful. Today was one of those days. The leaves are changing and almost passed, coating some hillsides in yellow and others in orangey red. A cold breeze tempers the warm air. These are perfect days to be outside.

Which was lucky for me, because I was supposed to do a long workout. I decided to run up Smarts – which I have written about before, but, well, I’ve run Smarts many times and every time is different. Last time it was summer. This time it was fall. Before, I’ve been alone, or with Dartmouth, or with my dog. This time I was with someone else’s dog.

Yes, that’s right, I took someone else’s dog for a workout. I’m housesitting and one of the two black labs is very rambunctious. I decided maybe a workout would be good for him, mellow him out a little.

And it was funny to watch: for the first 45 minutes, he was dragging me around on the leash, so excited to be going on an adventure. Gradually he ran out of steam and ended up just trotting behind me, but he still had enough energy in reserve to shoot off down the trail to bark at other hikers if I didn’t keep him on a leash.

It turns out that running on the Appalachian Trail with a dog in front of you isn’t really ideal. It’s important to, like, see where your feet are landing, and stuff. Also, even when you aren’t putting any pressure on the leash, holding it changes your running form by a surprising amount. I was not prepared for all this. The run took me longer than I thought it would.

But I didn’t really mind. It was nice to have a buddy; I love dogs and am sad I don’t have one in Craftsbury. Plus, of course, it was a gorgeous day, and I was outside. The view from the firetower was colored differently than the last time I’d been on the mountain.

I only have three weeks of fall left before I leave for Finland (still can’t believe it!), so it’s important that I can get outside and enjoy the season. I don’t want to miss this fall, and the best way to see it is undoubtedly on a trail, in the mountains. Rollerskiing is okay, but it’s not the same. On a trail, in the middle of nowhere, you can really be surrounded by fall.

Parting thought: when I’m older (like 27, maybe) and have retired from ski racing, I’m going to have a great dog and we’re going to go on adventures every weekend. That’s what I decided. Until then… housesitting will have to do.

Wood.

The good ol’ MacBook is back in working order, which means good things for my blogging capacity. I also have a million e-mails to catch up on, an article to write for the Valley News, a press release for the Outdoor Center, and am basically swamped with computer-centric tasks that I had been able to avoid for a week.

And what a blissful week it was. After our rollerski intervals on Saturday morning, I hopped in the car and headed home to Lyme. My dad was at work and my mom was out brush-hogging, so I started by making some pesto. And by some pesto, I mean that it will take my parents at least a year to eat all the pesto that I stuck in their freezer. By the end of the exercise I had run completely out of pine nuts, almonds, and parmesan cheese, but the kitchen smelled amazing.

I spent the rest of the weekend, and all of Monday, working outside. My parents are busy people and although they spend every weekend working on their land, when you have 100 acres it’s hard to keep up with everything you need to do. On Sunday, we all worked together, clearing logs out of the blueberry field so that Mom could do more brush-hogging, and then cutting up and moving sections of a large tree that had blown over onto another tree in one of the upper fields. Along the way I got in several fights with raspberry bushes, climbed a tree to help attach a tow-rope to pull it down with, and got diverted picking crabapples and fox-grapes for jelly.

On Monday I was left on my own to fill the woodshed for winter. While this sounds simple, it actually wasn’t, and took me all day. First, the leftover wood from last season had to be taken out of the woodshed so that if could be stacked in the front. Then, I had to move the new wood from the summer “drying” woodshed in the garden to the winter woodshed by the house. This meant stacking it in a small trailer, pulling it across the lawn and the driveway with the lawn tractor, tossing it over the split-rail fence, and then stacking it in the woodshed. One I had filled the back row with new wood, I stacked the older, drier wood in one half of the front row.

It was a lot of wood to stack. That was the only thing I did all day, stack and move wood.

Most people would consider this very boring. A number of my friends told me that didn’t sound fun at all. And sometimes, I would probably agree with them. But it was a beautiful weekend to be outside, no matter what you were doing. Fall is coming to New England, slowly but surely, and the days were blustery and blue. I wasn’t distracted by e-mail, work, or training; I was just outside, tossing wood around. I found a rhythm and was happy to stay in it. There is a zen to manual labor, especially if you don’t do it all the time.

As I said, sometimes I would hate this sort of an existence. But it was what I needed at this moment in time, to disconnect from everything that had been worrying me or stressing me out, even subconsciously.

Now it’s back to the daily grind of rollerskiing, working in the office, and having to be on a schedule. I miss home and wish I was still stacking wood.