What's the Point?

Okay, so we know how I’ll benefit from this endeavor. I’ll gain experience in the great outdoors that will help me write a better book set in the Adirondacks. But you, my dear reader, may well be asking, “What’s in all this for me?” Hopefully you’ll gain a little knowledge, have a few laughs, and vicariously enjoy a sense of adventure. Think of it as a modern-day Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where you get to sit comfortably at your computer screen – much like Marlin Perkins watching from a safe distance behind some bushes. I, on the other hand, will go out into the wild, ala Jim Fowler, and do all the heavy lifting in an effort to entertain you.

            Well, on second thought…

Entries in Lake Placid (3)


The Inside Scoop on Howard Johnson's

(This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union on May 18, 2012)

Back when phone booths outnumbered tanning booths and Mad Men’s Don Draper was still faithful to his wife, thousands of Howard Johnson’s Restaurants dotted U.S. roadways. But nothing, except the presidential campaign season, lasts forever. The HoJo’s at Northway Exit 19 in Queensbury was leveled earlier this year and the HoJo’s at Exit 21 in Lake George, one of three remaining in the country, has a for sale sign in its window. With the demise of that piece of Americana goes a bit of my own personal history.

I got my first job at the Exit 19 Howard Johnson’s as a fountain girl. That probably sounds like I was a glamorous starlet in an elaborate Busby Berkeley musical. But fountain girl is really just code for “willing to spend eight hours a day up to my armpits in hot fudge for less than minimum wage.”

As fountain girl, I was required to wear clunky white shoes that looked like they belonged to a nurse at a clown hospital. I also wore a uniform made of military-grade polyester originally designed by NASA as part of a trampoline to deflect space junk. It was burnt orange. You know, the same color as many 1970s refrigerators, and about as figure flattering.


There were plenty of good things about that job, though.  I learned a lot, like bon jour is French for “I’m not going to tip you.” I tried to help others learn things, too. For instance, fellow fountain girl Rachel Ray would probably still be toiling in relative anonymity if I hadn’t taught her everything I know about being relentlessly perky. And my husband and I had our first date at the Musket Room, the Lake George HoJo’s bar.  It was an event that became the inspiration for the often overlooked Captain & Tennille hit song “Musket Love,” a paean to both young romance and the Second Amendment.

 So I was sad to think that something that had been so influential in my life was quickly disappearing from the American landscape. That is until I discovered that the now-defunct Howard Johnson’s in Plattsburgh had been recreated in a recent episode of Mad Men. Never having seen the series, I watched the clip online, excited about the possibility that the notoriety could launch a HoJo’s revival.

I also wanted to do a little fact checking, knowing that the show has a reputation for its painstaking attention to detail and historical accuracy.

Conical shaped scoops of ice cream – check.

Conical shaped bras on the waitresses – check.

Orange roof – check.

Orange sherbet ordered by Don Draper  – hold the phone.

I don’t remember any orange sherbet.  Convinced I’d found an error, I called my sister, Lynne, who’d followed in my enormous white footsteps as a fountain girl, to verify.



We both had regularly augmented our meager paychecks by sampling lots of “free” ice cream. We couldn’t help it; it’s in our DNA.  In fact, the Bitner Family coat of arms contains the image of a freezer chest. Lynne assured me that HoJo’s did indeed have orange sherbet, as well as lemon, raspberry and lime. I’d blocked that entirely from my memory, probably because the fruity names sounded vaguely healthy.




While watching the actors eat their sherbet, however, I did notice one glaring mistake. People who looked like that never ate at Howard Johnson’s. People like that never even drove past Howard Johnson’s. Because I can assure you that if I’d ever waited on customers who looked like Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, I would have pledged all my tips for a thousand years to buy enough HoJo’s stock to keep the place open. 

It’s too early to say whether the Mad Men spotlight will be enough to turn things around for Howard Johnson’s. So you should head to one of the remaining restaurants in Lake George or in Lake Placid while you still can. Because it looks as though HoJo’s is going the way of three-martini lunches. And I, for one, will miss them both. 


Bobsledding For Dummies

Bobsledding is a winter sport with a long and illustrious history that I’m too lazy to go and look up right now.  I’m pretty sure, though, that it all started with a guy named Bob who had some serious thrill issues and needed to find a way to get to the bottom of a hill really fast. Unfortunately, either Bob didn’t understand that the quickest way from point A to point B is a straight line or else he had a lousy sense of direction because your typical bobsled run has more twists and hairpins than an overbooked hairstylist on prom night.

The result is that good old Bob invented an activity that has become the most dangerous winter sport. Sure, folks can get hurt playing ice hockey, but that’s called fighting and people pay good money to see that. The sledding sports (bobsled, luge and skeleton) are the only ones that actually list fatalities among their statistics. (Unofficially, there may be some fatalities associated with curling, but I think those people just died of boredom).

Keep in mind that each of these fatalities involved elite athletes who had trained in their sport for years. Why should they bear all the risk, you ask? Turns out, they don’t have to. There are six Winter Olympic sports complexes in the world that offer bobsled rides to average people who possess that dangerous combination of cash and the willingness to sign any waiver that’s put in front of them. One of those Olympic venues is Mt. Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, NY, site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. Since Lake Placid is practically in my backyard (I have a big backyard) and it’s been some time since my last near-death experience, I was eager to give bobsledding a try.

Wanting to model recklessness and rash decision making for my children, I talked my family into going with me. Once we’d signed up we were placed in a van, driven to the top of the run, and left there. The only way back down the mountain was via the chute of death – I mean bobsled track. There was a small cabin where we were fitted for our helmets, which we were told should be snug. And I must say, I don’t believe my head has been squeezed that tightly since I came through the birth canal.

Then it was time to get in the sled. A driver (i.e., someone who actually knows what he’s doing. At least I think he did. I didn’t ask to see his bobsled license) sat in front. We then were loaded into the sled from tallest (my husband) in the front to shortest (my 7 year old son) in the back. I don’t know if you know this, but the back of a bobsled is totally open. So not only would I be unable to see my children on our way down the mountain, I had to hope the pusher guy (an official bobsledding term) would be able to hop in the sled in time after getting us started so that my son wouldn’t fly out the back. Yeah, I’m putting all this on my application for Mother of the Year.

I’ve heard that in space no one can hear you scream. But on a bobsled you don’t want to scream for fear that any sudden exhalation of breath may upset the delicate balance of the hurtling vessel of doom and wind up capsizing the whole thing. They may call it a “track,” but there’s no guarantee you’re going to stay on it. This is no ride at Disney World, people. Check out this YouTube clip if you want to see what it was like. I hate to brag (okay, I actually do like to brag) but our run time was 10 seconds faster than the one in the video. 


One of the last things they told us before sending us down was to sit up straight. That’s because your instinct is to hunch down to avoid what you’re certain is going to be immediate decapitation. But if you are hunched over I can tell you from personal experience that your head is going to get slammed into the side of the sled. Which, even with the fits-like-a-second-skull helmet, doesn’t feel too good. When I got to the bottom I asked my husband to check out my head, but he said I should have had it examined before the ride.

The whole ride was somewhat of a blur mostly due to the wind-induced tears in my eyes. Not to mention that being in a chute made it hard to know where I was on the course at any given moment. So I was surprised when I found out afterwards that the course does a 180 at the bottom of the mountain and sends you back up to the finish line.



We stopped at the finish line by sledding into a pile of snow. Getting out of the bobsled was not a graceful moment, I can assure you, given the rubbery nature of my legs. But I managed a smile as we posed for a picture, despite the worst case of helmet-hair since the invention of helmets, because I was just so happy to be alive.




 The course at the Bobsled Experience is just a fraction of the course the athletes use in competition. And although I thought we were going fast, they go much faster. So to all the men and women of the U.S. Olympic Bobsledding Team, my helmet is off to you. Thank God.


This is me standing with my back to the official New York State "Hey Wing Nut, Don't Say We Didn't Warn You" sign. I'm clearly hoping that my extra-swoopy bangs will create enough drag to slow the bobsled down.


46 Sandwiches

A 46er, as defined by the Adirondack Mountain Club, is someone who has climbed all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks (mountain peaks at 4,000 feet or higher). A 46er, as defined by me, is someone who has hiked 45 mountains too many. Really, after the first one you’re just showing off.

            Then there are folks who can’t leave well enough alone and hike all 46 High Peaks in the winter (cleverly known as winter 46ers). For all I know, there are probably people who hike them in alphabetical order (ABC 46ers), or only when the moon is full (mooners).

            It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am a None-er (rhymes with funner, not boner). Meaning I haven’t climbed a single High Peak. Not in the summer, not in the winter, not in a box, not with a fox.  And I’m fine with that because I prefer living my life closer to sea level.

But on a recent trip to Lake Placid I discovered Big Mountain Deli and Crêperie on Main Street. Their menu includes the 46er Sandwiches; 46 sandwiches named after each of the 46 High Peaks in order of height. The menu ranges from #1 Marcy (Roast turkey, cranberry horseradish sauce, cheddar, apple and cracked pepper mayo), the tallest mountain in New York State, to #46 Couchsachraga (basically a design-your-own sandwich), the shortest of the High Peaks.

I decided on a #13 (Corned beef, Swiss, apple onion relish 
and horseradish mayo). You order by number instead of the mountain name, which is good because I really didn’t want to say Nippletop out loud. It was not only a delicious sandwich, but it gave me a delicious idea. Forget climbing the 46 High Peaks, I was going to eat all 46 of them.

As soon as I announced my plan to my family, I realized I should have done a little more research. Sure, all that hiking can be tough, but eating #28 Esther (Liverwurst, provolone, red onion and cracked pepper mayo) or worse, #29 Upper Wolf Jaw (Creamy egg salad with sprouts) would be every bit as challenging for me. I briefly considered asking one of my family members who like liverwurst or egg salad to eat them for me, but I realized that would be akin to driving up Whiteface (#5) or paying someone to carry me up Algonquin (#2). It was clear I had my work cut out for me.

But I caught a break in my quest to become a gustatory 46er when I discovered that Simply Gourmet, the sister store of Big Mountain Deli, offered the same menu of sandwiches. Even better, it was practically next door to the Whiteface Lodge, where I was staying. So every day at noon I donned my hiking boots (still looking as new as the day I bought them two years ago) and hiked the tenth of a mile to the shop to order my lunch.

I decided to start out with the higher peaks, saving the smaller peaks for days when I might not be as hungry. I sampled #5 Whiteface (Cracked pepper turkey, provolone, avocado, sprouts and mayo), #7 Gray (Roast turkey, sopressata, provolone, roasted red peppers & pesto mayo), #9 Basin (Roast beef, smoked cheddar, red onion, bbq sauce and cracked pepper mayo), and #8 Iroquois Peak (Chicken salad of the day with sprouts and cracked pepper mayo). As I headed out of town on the last day of my vacation, I grabbed another High Peak sandwich to take with me so I could enjoy it at home - #34 Seymour (Roasted vegetables, fresh mozzarella and pesto mayo). How many of you hikers can do that with one of the actual mountains?

I hate to brag, but I was able to eat every one of those High Peaks sandwiches without once using my feet. Has anyone hiked the High Peaks without using their feet? Yeah, I didn’t think so. And after conquering six High Peaks in six consecutive days, I’m happy to report that I wasn’t the least bit sore. Although my waistband did feel a bit more snug.

Six High Peaks down, only 40 more to go. Piece of cake. Mmmmm. Did someone mention dessert?