Leland Culver '24 - Introduction V2.0

Me, myself, I in a car

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to my humble digital abode. My name is Leland Culver (he/they), and I am well into Amherst College: Sophomore Year Edition. Despite last year's pandemic...shall we say...difficulties, I found I quickly grew rather attached to this place — it feels like a second home to me. I’m originally from Gary, Indiana, and I’m a prospective Theater and Dance major (that's just one major, not two). Soon enough, I'll have to update this to remove the "prospective" from that phrase.

Like many Amherst students, my interests range far and wide beyond my majors. I'm very heavily involed with the Green Room, the student theater group (just finished my fifth show with them!); I’ve written for both the Indicator, a student literary magazine, and the Amherst Student, the student newspaper; I’m secretary of the Fencing Club and president of the Theatrical Choreography Club; and, when I can, I hang out with the Board Game Club. I'm also in a D&D group (there are lots of those on this campus, if you're interested).

Since this is mark II of this blog, I've been thinking I'll take the time to cover many different things; hopefully I can spare at least one entry to everything I've mentioned here. One thread you may notice is that through it all run my friends, a group of lovely people that I feel quite lucky to have. That's probably some kind of trite, but it's true.

If you have any questions, whether about campus life, academics, or any of the things I’ve talked about above, you can reach me at gculver24@amherst.edu. I look forward to hearing from you!

Chapter VII: Latin Musings

So, I got quoted in “official” Amherst news this week? It’s a strange feeling, but I really have no idea what the readership is for stories published on the Amherst website (for that matter, who knows what the readership of this blog is?), so I can only wonder how many people have read it.

It is fun to go over, though, and to talk a little bit about the bicentennial. Amherst College was founded in 1821, so 2021 was supposed to be our 200th anniversary. And bicentennial things have been happening, but the celebrations have been somewhat hampered by Covid restrictions (Biddy did get to ride on a horse through the main quad, though). Part of the celebrations is a big new Amherst merch release based on various pieces of Amherst cultural history (basically ancient Amherst memes). I had the chance to be on a focus group panel reviewing all the merch ideas (another example of things more or less just “happening” around here), and one of them was this shirt mixing a famous drawing of a mammoth skeleton by Orra White Hitchcock with our motto, “Tusks Up.”

Because the labels on the drawing were all in Latin, the designers thought “oh, let’s translate ‘Tusks Up’ into Latin!” which is much easier said than done. There’s a whole section on how they dealt with the word “tusks” in the article, but what I focused on when I saw the design was their translation of “up.”

The full phrase is meant to be pronounced /ˈden.teːs  ˈeː.le.u̯aːte:/ (DEN-tayce eh-leh-WAA-tay), but it’s spelt “dentes elevate,” which looks like “teeth elevate,” even though a literal translation back to English is more like “everyone raise your teeth/prongs/tusks.” There are other ways to express “Tusks Up” that look less silly than that. I personally advocated for “dentes tollite,” which means almost exactly the same thing as “dentes elevate” but doesn’t contain a word that looks like it’s from English in it, but the team eventually went with “dentes elevent,” which is pretty solid, especially since it mirrors the Amherst school motto, “terras irradient,” in its grammatical construction (“terras irradient” means “let them enlighten the lands” and “dentes elevent” means “let them raise their tusks (teeth)”).

So, that’s probably more Latin specificity than you probably wanted to get into in a blog post like this, but it does highlight one thing I do like about Amherst. I am not majoring in Classics, but I have just as much opportunity here to go deeply into Latin minutiae as I would have within a major, while also getting to major in something else. I hope you all enjoyed some part of that breakdown.

See you next week for the final post of the semester!

Chapter VI: Finally, a Break

This week was the lead-up to our Thanksgiving break, which lasts an entire week (technically giving us a nine-day weekend, or me a ten-day weekend since I don’t have class on Fridays). It is a quite welcome break, and I kicked it off by not doing anything for three days except play board games and eat dinner.

A half-cleaned-up game of Spirit Island

I’m serious. Part of that was that I still wasn’t feeling very well. I spent most of Saturday just resting and reading in bed, but there’s also a mode you can get into when you do too much in college (which is almost always me), where you kind of crash during a break. So, it was probably good that I spent these past few days just resting, doing nothing important.

Campus is strange when it starts to empty out. I will be leaving, but not until Tuesday, and a lot of people left on Saturday. Val was half-empty for dinner, emptier than it’s been since the summer. It’s getting cold and the fall has finally transitioned from pretty colors to skeletal trees, which, at the right time of day, does make the place feel like a ghost town.

So, on Saturday and Sunday, I took refuge in the warm but nevertheless strangely-empty Science Center, with three others, playing a bunch of board games - those including Splendour, Sheriff of Nottingham, and Spirit Island, all of which I would recommend. Spirit Island especially. It’s certainly a way to keep the cold out.

P.S. I also beat my first run in Hades - I do have time to play video games, believe it or not. Even not during breaks.

Hades telling me to get going

Chapter V: Major Decisions

This week I decided what I am most likely going to major in! I’m going to declare Theater and Dance, and LJST (Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought); the one this semester, the other next (oh hey that makes the title a pun wow how clever I am). I think it would be helpful to enumerate why I am choosing these departments, so here goes. My dad has always said that the best way to find out what you’re really interested in is to look at what your brain always turns to when you’re going to the bathroom. There’s definitely some wisdom in that, in that there is a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes of great wisdom coming from the throne, but I have a corollary test, since there’s a lot of things I think about on the toilet.

And that test was passed in a very evident way a couple of weeks ago. On Tuesday morning, I had two discussion classes, one in LJST and one in Theater and Dance, where I didn’t want the discussion to end when the class did, to the point where I continued it for 20 minutes afterward, talking with the professor and the few other students who stayed behind. I think that’s a pretty clear indicator of where my heart is.

You may have different tests from me, but it’s important once you have the chance, to allow yourself to explore and open yourself up to enough avenues that you can figure out where your heart is, or perhaps what you always think about while in the bathroom, or before going to sleep, or wherever. It’s not necessarily what you’re passionate about, as some might say, but more just what brings you joy, excitement, comfort, or what you feel called to do.

For me, it’s sort of both. I feel called to make some kind of positive change in the world, which draws me to LJST, a department that is very holistic in its examination of modern legal systems and legal, moral and political problems, but I also find a lot of simple joy in working in the theater or writing fiction. These two feelings can be in tension with each other, but I’m doing my best to unify them, and I’ve found people in both of these departments that understand that tension and have worked on both sides of it in their lives, so I feel fairly secure going forward. Which is a feeling worth treasuring.

Chapter IV: Dungeons and Dune

It has been a long, long week.

Well, in some sense, every week is long, and also short. I don’t know—time perception is definitely altered some way in college. Either way, I was very happy to reach the weekend, a weekend where I could make some attempt to repair my flagging sleep schedule and have at least some relaxation (the sleep schedule is at least partially my fault, unfortunately).

So, what did I do this weekend? (aside from work). I saw Dune, I played Dune, the Board Game, and I played Dungeons and Dragons (unfortunately not including a Dune reference). Friday night, I texted one of my best friends, who happens to live only two doors down from me, suggesting we watch something. When I got back and knocked on her door, she had just finished watching something else, but was still in enough of a procrastinating mood to watch the entire new Dune movie. It was very good.

A table strewn with Indian food and D&D supplies

On Saturday afternoon I joined the ever-chill-meeting Board Games Club for a round of Dune, a very complicated strategy game designed to replicate at least in part the political relationships and balances of the factions in the Dune universe. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I do find it a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

Then on Sunday I had the biggest event of the weekend, the meeting of the D&D group for which I am the Dungeon Master. We met on my floor this week, and with a somewhat reduced group, and we had a very good time, because I actually took enough time to properly prepare for the game this week. And then we ordered Indian food from the place three blocks away and chatted about Green Room business, because, of course, every person in my D&D group except for one is involved with the Green Room. All in all, a very relaxing weekend.

Chapter III: Birthday Soup and Halloween

Hallo, Hallo, Halloweekend. 

Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year. I think it was destined to be, because my birthday is October 25th, so it has always been a double holiday for me. And besides, the dark, the horrific, the scary, has long held an allure for me. A good scare is a forbidden fruit.

This is kind of why I dislike Halloween parties.

The Greenway kitchen mid-cooking, strewn with soup ingredients.

Amherst has no shortage of Halloween parties, and Halloween festivities, and suchlike, but they are paltry fare compared to what the holiday means to me. No offense if you like them, but I would much rather watch or read something really scary in the company of friends. Luckily, there’s enough theaters on campus, and Amherst cinema in town, to satisfy that. I would recommend The Green Knight. I did go to one party though: the Green Room’s costume party (and I dressed up as Sam Gamgee in honor of the Lord of the Rings Parody). That was mostly a good time because of the people present (you’ll notice a persistent theme in these posts is the people at Amherst).

Shifting gears, a persistent Halloween theme in my birthday is my cake. My birthday cake is always a devil’s food cake (classically a rich chocolate cake leavened with beaten egg whites rather than butter and sugar) with mint frosting, a combination I will never grow tired of. I wasn’t able to have it last year, but, with the help of the Henion Bakery in town, I had a cake yesterday. I feel like I had my real birthday back.

Four of my friends and I met up in the kitchen between Greenway C and D to make soup for my birthday. That may sound a little strange, but I love to cook in general, so it was actually a real treat to get to cook with my friends to celebrate my birthday. All of us working together, we made Grace’s Oyakodon, a chicken and egg dish served over rice, and the soups Parmentier (potato and leek) and Velouté aux Champignon (cream of mushroom) from Julia Child, both favorites of mine.

Potato-Leek soup (Parmentier), just finished but unblended

And everyone’s food was really good. It made me really happy, seeing everyone enjoy my cooking, and I got some leftovers I can have this week in the bargain. Afterwards, we went back to my room and had some birthday cake—also incredible. The bakery made some of the frosting lemony as well as mint, which was a brilliant twist. And then it was time to go to bed.

Best birthday ever.

Chapter II: The Week After

So, this week has been what I might call “recovery week.” Those of you who have worked on big productions before may know it well. Tech week (the week leading up to a show’s opening night) eats up all the time in its path, so the week after the show is the recovery period.

For me, this also means it’s the catch-up period. I have half a dozen assignments that, shall we say, “went missing” during tech week, and they must be found, finished, and turned in. While the semester goes on, the grind never stops. I find that’s both a positive and a negative for me. Since I’m exclusively taking classes I enjoy (courtesy of the open curriculum and my advisor’s knowledge and help), I don’t dislike the work, and it keeps me focused on and motivated towards a goal. At the same time, there are some weeks, like the week after tech, that I don’t want to do much of anything in. Those are harder.

Luckily, this week I did find something that makes getting my work done easier. Val recently opened up to its full seating capacity, and that means that Lewis is open. Most of Val is what you would expect from a college cafeteria—there’s this particular red-orange color swatch that, matched with one blue and one green, I swear is the color palette for at least half of all college dining halls—but Lewis is the wing that gives off quiet, New England B&B vibes. It’s the quiet room, with big round tables and straight-backed polished wood chairs with green cushioned seats, simple white- and grey-painted walls, and big bay windows. It’s also my new favorite place to study.

I discovered over the summer that I find it pretty easy to get work done, especially writing work, in a space that has just the right amount of noise—that right amount being Val during a non-busy time. It was never very busy over the summer, but now that everyone’s back, most of the dining rooms of Val are a little too loud, most of the time. Lewis is a different story, though. I can sit down with a cup of tea (mint, Jasmine, or Chai, with a lemon wedge added), a little food, my laptop, and just start writing things.

Things like this post. <3

A cup of tea, the remains of breakfast, and a laptop mid-homework

Book II: Chapter I: The Lord of the Rings Retrospective: Extended Edition (Abridged)

Let’s talk about Amherst theater, shall we?

Gandalf chastises Denethor while he loudly eats cherry tomatoes

So, there are basically two ways to get involved with theater productions at Amherst. You can go through the Theater and Dance department, which puts on student thesis productions and certain productions through classes (such as Performance Studio), or you can join the Green Room. The Green Room is the organization I will spend this entire post evangelizing for. It’s a student-run theater group that puts on four shows a semester, pitched, voted on, and produced entirely by students. I joined Green Room last fall by acting in the production “Twisted Tales of Poe,” a radio play that we ran over Zoom. But this fall, well, this fall we returned to in-person productions, and that meant doing a parody show.

It is Green Room tradition, however long that may last, to produce a parody play of some popular media property in the fall semester. The parody is written and edited by a team of students over the summer and then produced like any other Green Room show, although it tends to be one of the most ambitious ones.

Frodo looks into the Mirror of Galadriel

And this year was no exception. We decided to write a Lord of the Rings parody last June, and it ended up involving around twenty-five people. Compare that to the small show rehearsing concurrently, a production of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap (opening this week!), which involves around ten. I was on the writing team for Lord of the Rings, and I also stage managed and ran lights for the show, which just wrapped up last weekend.

Elrond gives his serious speech in his dark cloak


It was a huge amount of work, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Part of that is probably my love of Lord of the Rings, the books and movies, but we also had such an amazing group of people working on this show. A record number of talented actors auditioned for our cast of nineteen, and after that difficult decision was finished, we moved right into rehearsals, which wouldn’t stop (for me at least, except Fall Break) for six weeks. We started outside in the tents set up around campus, or, when we were rained out, the second floor common room of my dorm, Moore, which has a very nice rain aesthetic. Then we secured our performance space in Ford Hall and effectively moved in there for the last three weeks of rehearsal. The event space where we performed is tiny by black box theater standards, but it fit us well enough, and had, crown jewel for my purposes, a fairly robust stage lighting system. We got some fantastic and ridiculous props, including a fake gun for Legolas and a replica foam Kirito sword for Aragorn (just to give you a hint of how we re-characterized them).

Aragorn is very cringe to Eowyn. "I'm emotionally unstable and engaged to an elven princess"

I wish I had ten thousand words just for all the little silly details, like Pippin’s perfectly hilarious squeal upon receiving a bag of weed from his and Merry’s orc captors, or the fact that we renamed Galadriel to Cate Blanchett (the name of the actress who plays her in the movies), and our actress put on this intentionally awful Australian accent, or everything to do with the ring pops. We made the One Ring a ring pop. We actually made all the rings of power be ring pops (different colors, of course). The possibilities are truly endless in the parody show.

The orcs take off Saruman's robe, revealing her pantsuit

There was also this great “yes-and” atmosphere in our rehearsals. Sometimes an actor would make a mistake or ad-lib a line and we’d all go “YES! Do that every time!” We were all sort of running on this manic energy that, in a way, is very Amherst—like, I think it takes our particular breed of strange to, in order to cover up a long costume change between scenes, we draw out the stage hands cleaning up a knocked-over Jenga tower (representing Isengard, of course) to a minute and a half, and then actually play Jeopardy music over it. AND then on the last night, Merry and Pippin decide on a whim to come out during that sequence and dance to the Jeopardy music.

I feel like I made at least a half-dozen new friends on this production. It was such a wholesome and fun experience, while also being this insane beast that consumed several weeks of my life. I guess that’s what a lot of theater boils down to. Still, I would encourage anyone to try it out here. You can audition for small roles or low-key shows, and just have a really good time.

Cast and crew take a bow!
Lightning McQueen surprises the Fellowship

Chapter VII: Campus Scenes

I’m living in Moore dormitory this summer. I’m also living there in the fall. Moore is really nicely located—it’s just east of Val—and that makes the walk up to Val the same short one every time. I mention this because it’s also a very nice walk. There’s a large bed of flowers just outside Val that I pass by every day, dominated by purple cone flowers that are always being pollinated by bumblebees. It’s adorable. Idyllic. Bumblebees might actually be the cutest insects.

It feels like a tiny community is there, humming along just outside my dorm. You can also catch squirrels running through Val quad, up and around the trees, all the time. It’s quite funny to note how every time students return for the next term, the squirrels get spooked and stay far away from everyone, but then they get progressively bolder as the term goes on, strolling along like they own the place and walking right up to us.

The chipmunks act similarly, but the birds stay just as jumpy all the time. I recently saw these beautiful, tiny yellow birds in the Purple Cone flower bed, and I went to great trouble to catch this blurry picture of one as it continually flew away from me.

Nice, right? Amherst actually has a bird sanctuary—it’s one of the things that doesn’t get talked about that often (although the other interns’ blogs might make me eat those words), but we have about 500 acres of preserved nature, with trails running through it all. The bird sanctuary is quite special to me, although I’ve only been there twice, because I actually found it by happenstance my second day here.

If you go out to the Book & Plow Farm (see below for info on that place) and then come back through the woods trails, as opposed to the gravel path that trucks use to reach the farm, you will come to a crossroads with a bench and a mailbox full of poetry—and, when I first found it, also the home of a spider. Feel free to take or leave a poem when there’s no spider in there. But the left path off of the crossroads will bring you down to the bird sanctuary. Finding it was a real movie moment for me. I emerged from the trees into the golden midmorning sun, looking out across a rolling field with small birdhouses and feeders posted all around.

Amherst is full of these little places, these little secrets.

Until next time.

Chapter VI: Last Year

Not gonna lie, this last week has been a difficult one. I came down with a cold last weekend (not Covid, thankfully), but it put me seriously out of commission for a while. So, no adventures this week, but I think in lieu of that, I’ll share some memories.

I’ve mentioned Green Room and my friends from there several times on this blog, but I’ve yet to address them directly. The transition into college social life can be really difficult, and Amherst has a lot of what are essentially “nets” set up to catch people and give them as many opportunities to find a group of friends as possible. For me, Green Room was the one that worked. There are others—by no means do you have to join a club to find friends, but I knew coming in that I wanted theater to be a big part of my life, and well, it’s hard not to engage in that kind of commitment and not make friends.

My favorite show that we did this year was probably 12 Angry Jurors, a light adaptation of the famous play (made into an even more famous movie) 12 Angry Men, about a jury that is set to deliberate on what seems to be an open-and-shut case of first-degree murder, but ultimately finds the defendent innocent through the perseverance of one of the jurors. We updated the play to have it take place on Zoom in the 21st century, and to have jurors that weren’t just men.

And it was great! The rehearsal process was long, and not exactly easy (everything is harder over Zoom), but with a large ensemble show I really had a chance to get to know a lot of the other people in Green Room. We had a party night early on, we had a “fun run-through” where we turned our characters into cartoonish versions of themselves, and, of course, we filled our show groupchat with vaguely-Jurors-related memes.

It’s a little surprising how quickly I was able to get deeply involved with this group. After acting in three shows, I acted and stage-directed for the ten minute play festival we held in May, and then this summer I had the chance to help write our fall parody show—a parody of Lord of the Rings. And now I’m going to stage direct it as well. One of my best friends in my year co-led the writing team, and another is directing one of the shows this fall (a production of Deathtrap by Ira Levin).

The point I’m coming to is essentially my favorite thing about Amherst, and that is that it is an effusively welcoming community. Every subcommunity is that way, too. It’s easy to get quickly deeply involved with a club or activity here, and make friends through that involvement. Well, at least, it’s as easy as it could be.

Until next time.

Chapter V: Water Balloons

I haven’t mentioned it much until now, but did you know we have a farm?

It’s true. There’s a farm on the Amherst College campus, and it’s run mostly by the students. The Book & Plow Farm, accessible through the woods trails that run off the south edge of campus, was created in 2013 by a group of then-students, staff, faculty and alumni. It does a couple of important things, like supply fresh produce to Val (Valentine Dining Hall), engage students in farm work and sustainability practices, and run research on sustainable farming methods. There are summer interns working on the farm right now, and if you get a chance to look at the fields in summer, you absolutely should take it.

What I really wanted to talk about, though, was a field day that the farm hosted on Thursday, July 15. However long it took them to organize, we got an email notification about it just two days beforehand, and yet at least half the people on campus this summer attended. The interns and permanent staff (Maida Ives, Kaylee Brow, and Julia Herion-Cruz — all lovely people) put together several activities, including flower picking, cornhole, and tug-of-war. They also got ahold of boba and ice cream sandwiches, both of which were very welcome on that hot day.

Also welcome on that hot day? An impromptu water balloon fight.

To explain, the farm workers had set up a giant water balloon slingshot, with some targets at a distance of nearly 50 meters, but did they really expect things to stay so organized when they’d provided a giant tub filled with water balloons?

Things started to break down a little bit when a couple people presented themselves as targets for the slingshot (I’m aiming at them in this photo), but I’ll admit it was my fault the actual fight got started. Not that I’m remotely sorry about it.

I was playing catch with water balloons with my Green Room friend, Nick Govus, and I thought to myself hmm, I wonder what would happen if I just squeezed one as hard as I can? Turns out, what happens is the tie comes off and it turns into a mini water gun. A mini water gun I accidentally had aimed at Nick.

All bets were off, after that.

Throwing, crushing on heads, squeezing, slapping on backs, any tactic to get someone soaked, we employed. Something like ten people got involved (most of them also from Green Room), and it was honestly one of the best times I’ve had at this college. Yeah, we all got soaked, of course, but we all stowed anything that couldn’t get wet, and there’s really something to be said for simple fun like a water balloon fight. Another friend of mine, Bianca, made the comment that it’s impossible to be mad when you get hit with a water balloon, because the shock of cold water forces you to smile, and I think there’s a really important truth in that. A kind of carefree approach that we so rarely get to hold to in this world. It makes me smile now, remembering it.

So, yeah. Find some friends, find some water (a pool, a lake, a tub of water balloons, whatever), and have some simple joys. To quote the song of that name, “simple joys have a simple voice that says time is living’s prize.”

Until next time. :)

Chapter IV: A Shortcut to Blueberries

Good morning, dear readers.

Indeed, it is a morning to be good on, and a fine morning, and all that, because I have secured one of the greatest treasures known to man: fresh-picked blueberries!

One of my favorite family day trips at home (recall, I hail from Gary, Indiana) is the weekly trip we take in the summer up to Lehman’s Orchard in Michigan. There we pick whatever fruit is ready for harvest, and then have lunch. It’s only about an hour drive, and Michigan fruit is some of, if not the, best in the country (I will defend this to the death). I was a little sad to be missing out on those trips this summer, until I started looking around on Google Maps.

Turns out, there’s just as much good U-pick here as in Michigan, although on a bike it can be a bit of a distance to reach the best places. I chose Pie in the Sky Berry Farm, in Northampton, and asked my friends if anyone wanted to go to me.

It ended up that only two people—fellow Green Roomers Nick Govus and Petra Brulisoff—joined me on Saturday morning, but luckily Nick had a car, and therefore it was only about a fifteen minute drive to the farm. It was pretty, even muddy from the previous day’s rainfall and underneath an overcast sky. The blueberries, which were what was ripe that day, were also, conveniently, planted closest to the entrance.

We each picked up an empty quart carton and set to work. The dreary-looking weather actually made things a lot more comfortable, since it kept the day cool. We chatted about our summer projects, and Green Room business (we’re writing a parody of Lord of the Rings—it’s really cool you should check it out), and how the spring went. Nick put on sea shanties. An hour later, we were all done, and ready to head back to Amherst.

It was really a great way to spend a morning, and the berries we got were tart and delicious besides. And if it weren’t for both the semi-rural nature of the Pioneer Valley, and my friends’ willingness to just throw together a little trip, nothing would have happened.

Now, to find something to make with these blueberries...

Chapter III: Musings Around Town

Good Afternoon, Dear Readers.

We had a pretty sedate week, this week; chief among my exploits was that I discovered an excellent (if expensive) method of feeding my coffee addiction.

Ah! The coffee addiction—greatest of vices among college students, bearer of necessary energy and unwelcome jitters. I’m a particular fan of cappuccino (I know, I know, it sounds pretentious, but it’s really good—I promise), and there is a place called Amherst Coffee that sits at the very top of the Amherst hill, and they do excellent cappuccino there. It’s no fuss, nothing extra, just really good coffee with foamed milk.

The town of Amherst (and most of Amherst College) is centered on and around this large hill; it’s a regular feature of a day in the life of an Amherst student to climb up and down this hill two or three times. But, the actual top of the hill is in the downtown strip, and Amherst Coffee (along with a few other businesses) sits more or less on the top of it. As it should.

I first discovered the place when my advisor, Wendy Woodson, insisted that I meet her there for coffee in June. We had a very nice time, talking about how our semesters went—because of the past year’s Covid restrictions, that was actually the first time I had met her in person. I then went back there at the end of this past week.

It’s difficult to convey how impeccable the vibes are, looking out at the overcast weather, the picturesque New England architecture, nursing a cappuccino and reading the news on my phone.

One thing’s for certain, runs my train of thought. I’ll definitely be coming back here to study when the semester starts up. I’m always on the hunt for good places to settle down to read or write—the perennial activity of every college student, even Theater and Dance majors, and Amherst Coffee is for sure a good spot for me.

Over this week, I’ve also visited a few other places around town that are good go-to spots. There’s Antonio’s Pizza, tucked into the rows of restaurants that line Pleasant Street as it descends the side of the hill opposite Amherst College. It’s an excellent place to get slices, especially since they have a great variety of strange and fun toppings available. They’re also open quite late.

I have also now tried two of the three Bubble Tea shops in Amherst—Mogë Tee and LimeRed. Both are good, and have a wide array of selections. Similarly to Amherst Coffee, they make good end-of-day treats.

Finally, and I’ve been saving this one since our tour guide cohort went the week before last, there is a place, called “Flayvors of Cook Farm,” that is an ice cream shop on a working farm about a mile and a half out from downtown Amherst. They make their ice cream from their own cows, and it’s some of the best I’ve had. Flayvors was also an end-of-week excursion.

Until next time.

Chapter II: The Road to Northampton

Good evening, dear readers.

Probably the best decision I made when I came back to campus for the summer was to bring my bike with me. Since Covid restrictions on going into town have been lifted, I find myself riding around Amherst almost every day—whether just to get something from CVS or to explore the mazelike roads and sidewalks up by UMass. I’ll be sure to share records of that exploration in a future post, but today I want to talk about a trip I took down to Northampton after work one day.

There is a bike trail, called the Norwottuck Rail Trail, that runs from the south edge of Amherst College, in one direction south to the Mount Holyoke range (not the college - the range largely separates the town of Amherst from the town of South Hadley, where Mount Holyoke College is located), and in the other west all the way to Northampton, the town where Smith College resides.

It’s about seven miles to the center of Northampton from Amherst, mostly downhill as it heads toward the Connecticut River, which makes the trip out fast and easy. It feels like I’m flying along most of the way there, although I know in the back of my mind that I’ll have to make up every foot of downhill I traverse on the journey back.

Before coming on this journey, I’d never actually been into the town of Northampton, and I have to say, it’s very beautiful. Quaint little shops selling knick-knacks, books, and clothing line Bridge Street at the town’s center. Pride flags are everywhere: hanging inside shop windows, out on the street, printed on the clothes—there’s even the pride crosswalk, a permanent fixture in the most trafficked part of town.

If you ever come out to Amherst, or enroll at Amherst College, I would definitely recommend checking out Northampton. Whatever you might be looking for but not finding in Amherst town, you’ll probably find there. I myself pick up a book, a puzzle and a card in a small bookstore, gifts for father’s day and my parents’ anniversary, respectively, and start making my way back to Moore dormitory at Amherst College.

As expected, the ride back isn’t nearly as easy, but the slower pace I have to take going uphill gives me a chance once more to appreciate the beauty of the country in the Pioneer Valley. I’m at kind of a perfect time, this evening, as the sun is just beginning to set, and golden beams are filtering through the trees the whole ride back, casting patches of ground in a softly radiant glow. It’s hard to understate how pretty the effect is, especially with the birds chirping in the background and the occasional squirrel I see scurry past.

I am, however, grateful to finally arrive back on campus. Fourteen miles is a fair bit of biking, and I’m not nearly as used to long distance as I used to be. Time to head back to Moore and then to clean up and lie down.

Until next time, friends.

Book I: Chapter I: The Summit at Bare Mountain

Hello again, dear readers (or, perhaps, hello for the first time?).

I’d like to start our journey together with a little adventure I took last weekend: out into the woods, and up a mountain. Its name is Bare Mountain, and it’s a little peak, along with its neighbor, Mount Hitchcock, but the climb up was still quite a workout.

Coming down the mountain

So, Saturday morning, I joined four of my friends at the PVTA bus stop on the Amherst Town Common, and we got on the R29 southbound at 9:05, which took us south past Amherst College, past Hampshire College, and finally dropped us at the Mount Holyoke Range State Park, at the entrance to the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail. We’d be walking a small portion of it (just a mile and a half) to reach these peaks, but the entire trail stretches 110 miles and up into New Hampshire, for those aspiring long-distance hikers.

The trail immediately rises quite steeply from the road, forcing us to often climb up and over sections of rock that look like stairs for a giant. One of my friends, Rilla McKeagan, who just graduated Amherst with a major in Geology, tells us about how the entire mountain is mostly made of Basalt, a volcanic rock, and shaped by the glaciers that would have covered the Pioneer Valley in the last Ice Age. Rilla also picks up a few rocks as we go past and lines their pockets with them.

Despite the difficulty of the climb, the landscape here is beautiful. Trees shade over everything, dappling the sunlight across the piled and occasionally mossy rocks. Undergrowth, including some occasionally striking flowers, blankets the space not cut through by the trail. It’s quiet, but for the persistent birdsong and our own chatter, and every so often we pass by another hiker or small party, enjoying the morning, making their way up or back down the mountain.

Chilling on the summit

Once we reach the peak, there’s a long few minutes of rest, and we all look out at the view. It’s spectacular. Being from the Midwest, and not having traveled much that I can remember well, it’s the first time I can remember looking out from a mountain view. The whole countryside is laid out before us in a green patchwork, dotted here and there by signs of civilization — small housing developments or roads — which Ella Rose explains can actually break up the ranges of various plants and animals and cause ecological problems.

I can’t capture it on camera well, but with eyes I can see all the way back to Amherst College, which I suppose means that the peak I’m standing on now is one of the ones visible from Memorial Hill. It’s hard to capture the simultaneous feeling of smallness and largeness that view inspires in me.

The next leg of the journey, over to Mount Hitchcock, is rather less eventful. More of the same scenery, but far from unwelcome. The downhill and gentler climb here actually allows me to appreciate it more. The view from there isn’t quite as good — the summit is more overgrown on Hitchcock — but still great, and as the five of us make our way back, we talk about our summers, and the year we’ve had through Covid, and Rilla half-convinces me to sign up for Geology 111 right then and there. The climb down the mountain is surprisingly difficult, as it’s a matter of keeping balance against the pull of gravity, and in some cases, sliding down on your butt, but we make it down with no accidents, and another friend graciously comes to pick us up, as during summer weekends, the bus schedule is pretty light.

What an adventure!

The other mountain climbers