My husband Dan and I both turn 35 this year – he did in August, and my birthday rolls around with Thanksgiving. We’ve been a couple for almost 12 years and wanted to mark this shared milestone in a way that would be more effortless if we didn’t have a 3-year-old with us.

Fortunately, my parents would be in Belgrade Lakes over Columbus Day weekend, which coincided with Dan’s fall break from Bowdoin College, where he teaches economics. Gima and Poppa relish any alone time with their grandson: They took Theo on a Belgrade Harvest Festival hayride, where he petted a brown alpaca and ate salted caramel ice cream. Poppa, who himself turned 64 that weekend, let Theo “drive boat” on Great Pond one last time before the boat was put away for the winter.

We didn’t miss Theo much – yet begged for permission to make an emergency satellite phone call from our remote Stony Brook Mountain location to confirm he was OK.

On our retreat, I dreamed Theo and I might someday enjoy the easy adult friendship Robin Coatsworth modeled with her confidante, only son, sous-chef and musician Adam Coatsworth, 22. The pair drove up from Rhode Island together. They and Lara Mann, 26, a preschool teacher who bakes apple crisp with her “friends” at the new Montessori school in Boothbay Harbor, lovingly assembled our weekend’s abundant feasts in exchange for a reduced registration fee.

Where did we spend those two luxurious nights? It was the longest we’ve been away together alone since Theo’s birth – not to mention, when had we last spent 48 uninterrupted hours unplugged from all electronic devices? I’d convinced my basketball-playing husband, whose strained back has led him to practice yoga religiously twice a week, to join me on a retreat.

We’d tentatively booked a pilgrimage to Kripalu, a huge, well-established center in the Berkshires where many Maine yoga teachers trained. I hear their nutritional yeast-enlivened, largely vegetarian and alcohol-free cuisine is worth it. But Kripalu is pricey if you want a private room, let alone your own bathroom.

Then, just weeks ago, a Maine Huts & Trails (mainehuts.org) mailing announced an upcoming Nature and Yoga Retreat – at their secluded Grand Falls lodge along the Dead River. (The name proved accurate since we did more leaf-peeping and hiking than vigorous yoga.)

We knew nothing of the retreat’s sponsor, Rhode Island’s West Ferry Yoga, nor its innocuous-enough sounding Viniyoga method, but somehow I convinced Dan to book it instead for half the price of Kripalu.

Food was first among the amenities and activities retreat leader Janet Gargaro-Larson advertised. She took great pains to track everyone’s gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free restrictions. “What type of creamer do you and Dan take in your coffee?” she called to ask from Whole Foods, where she was shopping for the weekend’s provisions. Another participant had potentially deadly allergies. “Peanuts are the most dangerous, so please refrain from bringing snacks with peanuts to the weekend,” she e-mailed participants.

Dan feared he’d starve under an ascetic vegetarian and vegan regime. I’d attended only one other yoga weekend, at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon. There our yoga teacher-guru Sujita Sklenar (who first got Dan yoga-going) advised devotees to “eat as little as possible, almost nothing.” She wanted to keep us light – starving – for asanas and meditation.

What a tease! My mind raced with hungry thoughts. Breitenbush is famous for its crunchy fare. It’s where I learned to love massaged kale salads, quinoa and tempeh baked with vegan cheesy alternatives. Dan was glad he’d agreed to babysit Theo, then just 2 months old, back in the cabin, while I restored my postpartum body. With plenty of food and drink, thank you – I wasn’t going hypoglycemic while breastfeeding!

Our Grand Falls expedition was almost thwarted. Before we left Belgrade Lakes, Dan put his backpack on the ground while repacking our trunk. In his insufficiently caffeinated state, he then backed our Subaru over the pack, dragging it up my parents’ dirt driveway. The jagged, severed neck of a wine bottle inside tore through the pack, but auspiciously its contents poured out cleanly, etching a line up to the wooded road. None of the pack’s contents got wine-soaked. Disaster averted.

The car was fine too, but we were already an hour late to meet our group’s passenger van in The Forks. We drove north, chasing the Kennebec River up Route 201, well marked with flashing, orange, moose-crossing signs.

Wilco’s “Please Be Patient with Me” played with prescience on the iPhone. With broken reception, we’d called Gargaro-Larson, telling everyone to go ahead. Our Subaru could take the 18-mile craggy logging road to the trailhead, where we’d still have a 1-mile hike to Grand Falls. Chainsaws buzzed, and trucks sat parked and neatly stacked with felled timber.

“It’s like a grand highway today, with trucks and hunters with their guns and orange,” Gargaro-Larson warned of this Lower Enchanted Road. “I forgot it was hunting season.”

To try to avoid getting shot by a stray bullet, I bought a $6 blaze-orange ski cap as Dan pumped gas, at the start of the Old Canada Road Scenic Byway. In broken Mandarin (I studied abroad in Hangzhou, China), I chatted up a non-English-speaking Chinese couple driving a white sedan with California plates from New York to Canada. Where the heck were we?

Couldn’t we just stay at the cushier Inn by the River whitewater rafting resort there in The Forks, Dan begged? But I swore the food at our yoga retreat, if not the bedding, would be plusher. It did not disappoint.

“We have high standards – and they’ve been exceeded!” Dan told Gargaro-Larson at the end of the weekend.

Saturday lunch began with huge roll-your-own veggie wraps: big spinach or red pepper flour tortillas slathered with lemony-garlicky hummus and cucumber tzatziki sauce Gargaro-Larson purchased – along with other prepared foods – from her local coop in Rhode Island. We overstuffed them with roasted red peppers, broccoli sprouts, cucumbers, shredded carrots and cheese. That should be our new Saturday post-farmers market lunch routine.

Then groaning hotel pans of eggplant Parmesan – Dan’s favorite – for dinner that night proved a good omen. We slurped silky winter squash soup sweetened with maple syrup tapped from Gargaro-Larson’s property in Kingfield and prepared by her husband, a “rewired” executive chef who leads the Jamestown Aquaculture Movement oyster farming nonprofit and roasts and blends excellent coffee for Custom House in nearby Middletown. So food figured centrally.

Other highlights: mostly gluten-free butternut squash lasagna, backyard chicken eggs scrambled for breakfast and whisked into a cheesy spinach quiche for lunch, the latter served alongside a vivid beet and sweet potato soup (recipe below). And a salad of roasted beets with arugula, goat cheese and a lemony vinaigrette.

We ate ourselves back to health, toasted with glasses of wine and Maine gin and tonics and, oh yeah, did a couple hours of yoga total each day, memorably around the fire pit star-gazing at dusk the final night. Well, I did – Dan stayed inside and read, which is how my sweet introvert recharges.

A retreat isn’t about one-on-one couple time. But Dan got the tranquility I fail to foster at home. And I, ever the interviewing extrovert, gabbed nonstop with the other mothers, whose kids were in college, quarter-life-crisis mode or older. I soaked up their advice.

I finally read developmental psychologist Becky Bailey’s “Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline” (hello, Theo?) – and committed to her less reactive, self-controlled and “conscious” approach to parenting.

The daily grind is a shock after a spacious reprieve. But upon our sweet reunion how I clung to my son, who would not let Mommy go, who seemed to have grown overnight and gained maturity, eye contact and vocabulary. And I’m hugging my squirmy preschooler tighter these days, drinking in his flushed cheeks and haircut-overdue sandy mop.

“I’m crying because I’m happy,” I tell Theo, tears streaking my cheeks. “Mommy loves you so much it hurts.”

GRAND FALLS ROASTED BEET AND SWEET POTATO SOUP

Retreat leader Janet Gargaro-Larson developed this recipe for our Maine Huts retreat, adapting it from recipes she found online and in magazines, and accepting suggestions from several others, including me, on how to flavor it.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 cups white sweet potatoes, peeled and diced

2 cups beets, peeled and diced

1 fennel bulb, diced

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

½ teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 stalk celery, diced

1 onion, diced

2 to 3-inch knob fresh ginger, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

4 cups vegetable broth

1 bay leaf

1½ cups orange juice or coconut milk, depending on your preference for tart or creamy soup

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, to taste

Zest of at least 1 orange, or more to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the potatoes, beets and fennel into baking dish, and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil; season with salt, black pepper, coriander and thyme. Roast in the preheated oven until tender, about an hour, then let cool.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Stir in the celery, onion, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Mix in the roasted vegetables, vegetable broth and bay leaf, bring to a boil, and reduce heat. Simmer until the celery is very tender, about 45 minutes.

Remove from heat and discard the bay leaf. For a chunkier stew, remove half the beets and potatoes before pureeing the remaining mixture in the pot with an immersion blender. Reincorporate the dice, stir in the orange juice or coconut milk, lemon juice and vinegar, and orange zest. Correct seasonings and serve. (For a smooth version, puree all the vegetables.)

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter @baltimoregon and read her blog at baltimoregon.com.


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