Hauntings, History, Chocolates & Cheese: In Vermont’s Green Mountains

          I follow the aptly named Covered Bridge Road which winds and twists its way to Emily’s Bridge that spans Gold Brook in Stowe Hollow not far from Stowe, Vermont where I’ll be spending the week. It’s an old bridge, built in 1844 and I wonder, as I park my car and grab my camera, about Emily. As I go to shut my door, I suddenly hesitate, listening to an internal voice telling me not leave my keys in the ignition. That’s silly, I tell myself as I put the keys in my pocket, who would steal my car out in the middle of nowhere. Who is even around on this narrow road? Even Emily has been gone since 1844.

          That’s where I’m wrong. Emily, it seems, despite her sorrows, has a mischievous streak. She wouldn’t take my car for a joyride—after all back in her day it was horse and buggy not Rav-4s. But she might have locked my door with the keys inside. That, it seems, is one of the mischievous tricks that Emily likes to play, though others have reported more vindictive acts such as shaking cars with passengers in them and leaving scratch marks, first upon the carriages that once rode over these boards and now cars.

          Who was Emily and why has she spent almost 180 years doing these things? In Stowe I learn there are several tales, all with the same theme. Jilted or maybe mourning her dead lover– Emily either hanged herself from the single-lane, 50-foot-long bridge or threw herself into the creek below. Whatever happened, it ended badly for Emily and now, at night, people sometimes hear a woman’s voice calling from the other end of the bridge—no matter what side they’re on–and see ghostly shapes and sometimes, Emily obviously being a spirit who has 21st technological knowledge, maybe their keys will get locked in the car. As for the romantic name of Gold Brook, the answer is prosaic enough–gold once was found in the water.

          But those who live in Stowe, Vermont, a picturesque 18th century village tucked away in the Green Mountains, don’t let a ghost, no matter how fearsome she might be deter them from selling Emily’s Bridge products such as t-shirts, puzzles, paintings, and even tote bags. Etsy even has an Emily’s Bridge Products section. I wonder if that makes Emily even angrier.

There are no ghosts as far as I know at Topnotch Resort in Stowe where I’m staying. It’s all hills and history here and each morning, I sip on the patio, sipping the locally roasted coffee named after the nearby Green Mountains.

Located on 120-acres in the foothills of Mount Mansfield on what was once a dairy farm, the sleek resort still has traces of its past in the silvery toned whitewashed barn and vintage butter tubs found in the resort’s public rooms counterpoints to the sleekly designed furniture that manages to be both cozy and comfy at the same time.  

The local and locally sourced mantra is stamped on this part of Vermont like the differing shades of light and dark greens mark the mountains. Organic animal and vegetable farms and small cheeseries, chocolatiers and dairies dot the countryside.

But before heading into town, I have the resort’s experiences to explore.

Though I haven’t played tennis for many years, I take a private lesson at the Topnotch Tennis Center, ranked by Tennis Magazine as No. 1 in the Northwest and among its Ten Best U.S. Tennis Resorts.

As we work on general ground strokes, the pro, one of about 10, all of whom are USPTA/PTR certified, helps me correct an awkward backhand.

“It’s all about muscle memory,” he tells me noting that I need to reintroduce myself gradually back into the game, as my muscles relearn lessons from long ago.

Retraining muscles makes me sore, so my next activity — a gentle horseback ride on one of the experienced trail horses at the Topnotch Equestrian Center— seems perfect.

We an hour-long path that meanders across a wooden covered bridge—one that isn’t haunted–spanning the West Branch of the Lamoille River, climbs Luce Hill past patches of shamrocks and weaves through wavy grasses dotted with pink yarrow and painted daisies.

Then it’s on to my own self-created food tour. At Laughing Moon Chocolates in downtown Stowe, I watch as salted caramels are hand dipped into hot chocolate and ponder the difficult decision of what to buy. It’s a delightful place, in a century old building, with wooden display cases and such yummy and intriguing chocolate fillings such as blue cheese using an artisan blue cheese made by a local creamery.  Who could resist?

Following the winding Hill Road, I stop to chat with Molly Pindell, who co-owns, with her sister Kate, the 27-acre Sage Farm Goat Dairy. We walk amongst the Alpine goats that look up from the sweet grass and fall apples they are munching on to watch us. Goats, Molly tells me, are friendly and loyal. Think dogs with horns.

          After watching the goats frolic, we head to the creamery where Molly needs to pack up her latest cheese, Justice, a 100% raw goat’s milk, bisected by a layer of vegetable ash, and aged just over 60 days. It’s truly a family farm with Molly’s husband Dave and their two children and Katie’s partner Bob, the couples live I think how great would this life be? Cute goats, great cheese, and a chance to get back to the land.

          Though, on second thought, milking goats everyday early in the morning when it’s cold and snowing may lose its appeal pretty quickly. Better just to buy goat’s cheese at wonderful places like this.

          To relax after my endeavors, I head to Topnotch’s spa for their signature massage and then a swim in the slate lined outdoor pool. Slate being another Vermont product. I have just enough energy to end the night as I began my morning, sitting on the patio near the outdoor fire pit with its flicker of flames highlighting the garden art on the grassy hillside, while watching the Green Mountains fade into dark.

The following recipe is courtesy of Laughing Moon Chocolates.

  • ½ pint heavy cream
  • 1¼ pounds Yucatan chocolate chunks
  • 1½ ounces sweet (unsalted) butter
  • 1½ ounces vodka
  • ⅓ ounce or 500 milligrams Elmore Mountain Therapeutics CBD oil or other CBD oil

Pour the cream into a saucepan, stirring over medium heat until it begins to steam (190 degrees). Turn off heat and add the chocolate, butter, and liquor, stirring with a wire whisk until mixture is blended smooth and no pieces of chocolate remain. Add CBD oil and whisk well. Pour mixture into shallow baking dish and let cool overnight. When ready to prepare, scoop chocolate mixture with a spoon and roll in cocoa powder.

Additional flavor options are endless! Some favorites include:

Chamomile and Lavender: Steep ⅛ cup tea with the cream on low heat until it steams. Strain into a larger pot to remove herb or tea. At Laughing Moon, they use Vermont Liberty Tea Company’s Moonbeams and Lavender.

Maple: Add Vermont maple syrup to taste.

Substitute vodka with raspberry liqueur, peppermint schnapps or a liquor of your choosing for a subtle additional flavor.

White Stallion Ranch: A Taste of the Old West

The patio at White Stallion Ranch

I had thought that dude ranches, the kind of places out west where you’d go to spend time galloping across the plains or desert with a background of mountain ranches, were out of the past. Popular around the time of Theodore Roosevelt who loved to ride and hunt, dude ranches first became big shortly after the Battle of Little Big Horn (though why a massacre of U.S. troops would be beguiling I don’t know) back in the 1880s, they attracted people not only from America but also Europe.

Dining Room at White Stallion Ranch

But unlike,western movies which had their heyday between the 1930s and 1960s and now are hardly ever made anymore, dude ranches have survived. Now called guest ranches, their numbers have fallen because the land they occupy is sold to developers for higher prices than owners can make offering lodging and horseback riding.

Indian Oven at White Stallion Ranch

And so, when my husband saw a deal for a long weekend at the White Stallion Ranch outside of Tucson, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I like to horseback ride,and I loved the idea that on Saturday nights they served a ranch-style dinner that had been cooked all day inside an adobe oven fueled by wood. Would we have to kick tumbleweeds aside to get into an old rickety cabin that smelled like horses? Would we sing along around a roaring campfire as the stars shone across the desert sky.

Penning a calf

Yes,to the later and no to the first. The cottages are adobe baked to a rust color and though the décoris decidedly western, it’s not tacky (excuse the pun) at all. Indeed, White Stallion Ranch (the name was originally Black Stallion but then the owners realized that the initials BS wouldn’t quite work)has received numerous awards including The 12 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the United States for 2019 by SmartTraveler and Voted #1 Best Family Resort by USA Today 10 BEST Readers’ Choice Awards in 2018.

They’re running specials now because of Covid though as Russell True told me, social distancing is easy on a ranch. Russell is the son of the Allen and Cynthia True who bought the ranch in 1965, packing up their kids (Russell was five, his brother Michael was a baby) and moving from their very successful middle class life in Denver, Colorado. The whole place was rough and tumble to hear Russell describe it and much more isolated as the interstate some five miles away hadn’t been built yet and Tucson’s population was about 260,000—now it’s close to a million and rapidly growing.

White Stallion Trail Mix (recipe below)

When founded as a cattle ranch in the late 1800s, before Arizona became a state in 1912, about 5100 people lived in Tucson. Phoenix, about 100 miles north, had the same population back then but now they’re almost five times larger than Tucson.

The 3000 acres, located in the Sonoran Desert, backs up to the Tucson Mountains and is surrounded by the Saguaro National Forest and populated by ancient saguaros, those friendly looking cactus whose branches or limbs go up in the air like happy arms waiting to greet you. Movies are filmed here starting in in 1939 when William Holden and Jean Arthur starred in “Arizona.” In 1978, the James Garner film, “The New Maverick,” was filmed on the ranch and two years later Robert Conrad arrived for the making of “Wild, Wild West Once More.” Even better for George Clooney aficionados, the actor along with Sam Rockwell starred in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” in 2002.

White Stallion at Night

It’s all much comfier than 55 years ago when the Trues arrived. The main building wasn’t the gleaming glass, stone, and wood mid-century modern style it is today. When the Trues bought the 200-acre ranch there were 17 rooms and the same number of horses. Now operated by second and third generation Trues, the ranch encompasses 3000 acres. The horse population around 175 and there are 43 rooms and as well as 5-bedroom hacienda. Many of the True family members live on property including Russell’s son Steven and his wife.

But despite all these changes, the old west feeling is reflected not only in the cookery, trail rides, weekly rodeos, the cattle who range freely (have no fear, their prime practice is lolling under a shady mesquite watching people ride by) and the landscape but also in the chance to sign up for cattle drives, archery, rock climbing, hiking, heading to the shooting range and real-life lessons on how to pen cattle.

Over the years, there were many offers but Al True always turned them down.

“Do you know how much money you’re saying no to?” one developer asked him, emphasizing the amount added up to a gasp-inspiring millions of dollars.

Potato Chip Cookies

But land was more important than cash to the Trues and Al replied that riches were a poor substitute for their life on the ranch. But the lure of money is one of the reasons that of the 30 ranches once in business here north of Tucson when the Trues moved to the neighborhood have dwindled to three.
The food served is international but there’s definitely an overriding western/southwestern theme with taquitos, tacos, ribs, and steaks grilled outside. But the big paean to the past history is their signature Indian Oven Dinner on Saturdays. That’s a hard one to replicate at home, but just think of slowed braised pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Serve with flour or corn tortillas to add a little more western flair. They also offer food oriented guided trail rides including picnic luncheons, the Wine & Cheese ride, and a Beer & Cheetos ride.

The following recipes are courtesy of White Stallion Ranch and are among the favorite served there.

Prickly Pear Margaritas
Note: this makes a very large batch, if you’re not that thirsty or having a small get together, you may want to reduce the quantities.

1.75-liter bottle of Margarita Mix (your choice)
3/4 of a liter of Pepe Lopez Tequila
3 cans of 7-Up
1/4 bottle of Triple Sec
18 ounces of Prickly Pear Syrup

Peanut Butter Bars

¾ cup shortening
¾ cup peanut butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 c white sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ¼ cups flour
1 ¼ cup oatmeal
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven 350° degrees or 300° convection oven.
Cream the shortening, peanut butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla well. Mix together the flour, oatmeal, soda, and salt.
Beat the flour mixture into the creamed mixture. Spread the dough by hand over sprayed and floured 9”x13” baking pan. Bake 25 minutes until still chewy. Immediately sprinkle on the chocolate chips and spread over the bars when melted.

Peanut Butter Bars

Topping
1 cup powdered sugar
½ cup peanut butter
1 cup chocolate chips
2-4 tablespoons milk, as needed
Beat topping ingredients well, using enough milk to get a creamy consistency, then swirl over the chocolate. Cut and serve.

White Stallion Ranch Trail Mix
6 cups dry roasted peanuts
1 family sized box or 2 regular boxes of Wheat Thins
8 c small twisted pretzels
8 cups thin pretzel sticks
8 cups corn nuts

2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups melted butter
4 tablespoons chili powder
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
10 drops Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon Lawry’s seasoning salt (or make your own using the copycat recipe below)
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Mix peanuts, corn nuts and pretzels in large roasting pan. Mix oil and melted butter, chili powder, Worcestershire, Tabasco sauce, garlic salt, seasoned salt, and cumin; pour over pretzels, mixing well.
If using a convection oven, cook at 300° F. for 15 minutes. If using a conventional oven, cook at 300° F. for about 45 minutes. Stir frequently to distribute the seasoning.

Remove from oven and let cool before serving, still serving frequently.

Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons white sugar
¾ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cornstarch
Whisk salt, sugar, paprika, turmeric, onion powder, garlic powder, and cornstarch together in a bowl.

Lariat Twirling Demo

Potato Chip Cookies
Preheat oven to 375 degrees

1 cup Crisco
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 6-ounce package white chocolate chips
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups coarsely crushed potato chips

Cream Crisco and sugars. Add eggs, vanilla and beat well.
Add crushed potato chips and white chocolate chips. Sift flour and soda. Stir into creamed mixture. Drop on greased cookie sheet. Cook 10-12 minutes.

Sunset Ranch: On the Trail High in the Hollywood Hills

                  We took a wrong turn off of Hollywood Boulevard and suddenly found ourselves winding and twisting along the narrow streets of Beachwood Canyon. The homes, built in the early part of the last century were intriguing, but more so was that, for most of the drive, we could see the old Hollywood sign — 45-foot-high letters erected in 1923 as an advertisement for Beachwood Canyon and now a famous Los Angeles landmark. Keeping our sights on the sign and wanting to get closer, we drove further into Beachwood Canyon, sometimes losing sight of the letters and then, rounding a curve, finding them again.

Photo courtesy of Sunset Ranch Hollywood

                  One last turn took us to a dead end and the beginnings of the Hollywood Hills. And here we made another find, Sunset Ranch Hollywood the last dude ranch in the greater L.A. area.

Photo courtesy of Sunset Ranch Hollywood

                  The Ranch has been in operation since the 1920s, which is when the original red barn was built. It’s still used as the main facility at the ranch, which has the look of better days gone by. But we could tell from the signs that they offered trail rides and my kids and I, avid trail riders when we visit new places, were eager to try it. Deciding it must be karma, we pulled into the parking lot and walked up the steep incline to the stables. Soon we were saddled up and riding along a dusty trail (how Hollywood Western is that?) through the hills of Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in America.   It’s quiet up here—all sage,dirt and tumbleweeds  but I catch glimpses of the ocean in the distance and below me is the sprawling environs ofLos Angeles.

Photo courtesy of Sunset Ranch Hollywood

                  Along the way, there were numerous signs telling us that horseback riding is a very dangerous activity but that didn’t deter us. After all, we’d been driving in L.A. for days, even during rush hour, so how bad could going a max speed of five miles on a horse be?  

Photo courtesy of Sunset Ranch Hollywood

                  Sunset Ranch looks like a set from an old Western. Wood fences penned in masses of horses (some 65 live at the ranch), sagebrush and tumble weeds dotted the landscape, which was desert-like with spiked cacti and agave.

Photo courtesy of Sunset Ranch Hollywood

The trail we followed led us along a dusty path up into the hills and away from the urban landscape. Sunset Ranch advertises 52 miles of trail and views of downtown L.A., Hollywood, Santa Monica, Glendale and, on clear days (our guide was a little vague as to how many clear days there are in L.A.), Catalina Island.

Photo courtesy of Sunset Ranch Hollywood

Footnote: Though I thought I’d discovered a hidden Hollywood find,it seems like Kathie Lee and Hoda have been there as well, along with actor Dean Cain. Oh well.

Photo courtesy of Sunset Ranch Hollywood

The Sunset Ranch also offers a trail ride and barbecue package as well. Indulge your inner John Wayne and sign up.