Columnist Sara Weinberger: The glory of an unpredicted staycation

  • Irwin Weinberger of Whately on a nature walk with Sara Weinberger. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • An abandoned quarry at the Mineral Hills Conservation Area in Northampton. Irwin Weinberger

Published: 10/18/2021 8:09:54 AM

“This was not the plan,” I said to myself as my Subaru Outback headed toward Bradley International Airport in a late afternoon driving rain.

The car was packed with bags of groceries, suitcases, and bicycles, all for an eagerly anticipated vacation in northern Vermont. It was a getaway that was not to be. A bout of belly pain that began four days earlier landed my husband in the emergency room, where the decision was made to remove his badly infected gallbladder, nixing fall foliage tours, cycling the causeway on Lake Champlain, and destroying hopes for fall foliage. It also meant canceling my brother’s plan to fly from Cleveland to Burlington to join us.

Amazingly, the airlines changed his flight without a penalty. On Monday afternoon, with my husband discharged from the hospital, I got in my still packed car, and picked my brother up at Bradley to begin a week’s staycation in Easthampton. My batteries needed recharging. The pundits’ incessant predictions for the mid-term elections and the downfall of our democracy were exhausting, as was my penchant for taking on too many volunteer activities. The geographical cure, my hope for respite, had failed, leaving me to be a local tour guide.

Irwin, my only sibling “baby” brother, and I spent the week feasting on local food, forests, and the fantastic array of arts all within an hour of home. Experiencing this corner of the world through another’s eyes made the mundane extraordinary. We started on a drizzly Tuesday, heading for The Smith College Museum of Art, reopened to the public after its COVID-induced hiatus. Nabbing a socially-distanced spot to view a painting at recent visits to New York City museums was often unnerving.

With few people and security guards eager to answer our questions and show us their favorite paintings, we relished our leisurely visit to this often-overlooked local gem. When my artist brother voiced his disappointment at the absence of a Fairfield Porter painting he had admired in previous visits, the employee he spoke with invited him to call ahead next time and request a private viewing!

Undaunted by the constant drizzle, we visited Capen Garden, hidden on the Smith College campus and my favorite spot to enjoy an overstuffed sandwich from nearby State Street Deli. When drizzle increased to a steady rain, we swapped a walk for scoops of apple crisp ice cream at Hadley’s Flayvors of Cook Farm.

Waking up the next morning to longed-for sunshine, we took an afternoon stroll through Park Hill Orchard, to view the large scale sculptures at the bi-annual Art in the Orchard. The natural pastoral beauty of apple trees and pumpkins, with Mt. Tom in the distance rivaled the artistry of the sculptures. Pausing for my favorite fall snack of Park Hill’s warm and crispy cider donuts and Honeycrisp apples, my brother marveled at how such an amazing spot was only two miles from my home!

I’m a biker. Irwin’s a hiker. Ceding to his wishes, we chose from an abundance of trails stretching along rivers, climbing to spectacular views, or providing forested stillness. Friends provided recommendations that included the Ada and Archibald MacLeish station in Whately. Owned by Smith College, its 250 acres provide students with opportunities to immerse themselves in this forested lab of learning, and hikers like us with an easily navigable system of color-coded trails. Absent of anyone else, we watched leaves gracefully dance to the ground and marveled at the vast array of mushrooms born from record rainfalls.

On occasion, my brother, a practitioner of mindfulness meditation, would direct me to stop, listen, and discover the sounds masked by our voicesa woodpecker, a distant stream, the creaking of an old tree.

Near the end of the week, fall foliage had begun to make its appearance on the rock ledges dotted with yellow and orange trees overlooking an abandoned quarry at the Mineral Hill Conservation Area in Florence. We ventured inside the quarry, walking through a landscape strewn with rocks of all shapes and sizes amidst wetlands, overgrown with tall grasses and cattails. Our last walk on Mt. Tom took us on a climb to an expansive overlook, revealing a patchwork of tiny towns and so much greenspace, after which we explored the Eyrie ruins of a 19 century hotel destroyed in a fire.

We filled the calories burned on our walks feasting on local food. My brother’s favorite was the Bread Board from Montague’s Lady Killigrew Tavern apples, cheddar cheese, kielbasa with mustard and lots of breada bargain at $10.51!

Perhaps the best part of the week was the time spent getting to our destinations, where we not only admired the scenery, but reflected on our childhood with perspectives informed by age. We’ve mostly switched from sibling rivalry to mutual admiration. I was grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time together in this healing and wondrous location I live in, an antidote for gut-wrenching times.

Rather than bemoaning the challenges of COVID trave, consider exploring the wonders in your own backyard. It’s good for the environment, for local business, and definitely good for the soul!

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at

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