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Week 9: James River Park System

Meet Matt, Michael, Will, Michael, and Josh. These are the guys (along with their fearless leader Nate Burrel who, unbeknownst to me, was on vacation) who take care of all of the awesome trails and landscapes along our beloved James River. It seems to a be a perfect time to thank them for another great summer. The kids are headed back to school and talk of the fall season is getting louder. Of course, there are still a couple of good months to be had on the James before it gets cold, but it seems appropriate to acknowledge them for all of their hard work following a super busy summer on the river.

The staff was nominated by Matt Foreman. In his nomination email, Matt wrote, “Nathan Burrel and his staff manage the James River Park System downtown. From constructing new hiking/biking trails to picking up the trash these guys spend their days making one of the best attractions in downtown Richmond the best it can be. They spend countless hours coordinating volunteers, maintaining all of the facilities, and helping to promote the park. The best part about these guys is that it truly is a labor of love as all of them actively recreate in the park. Most days they are somewhere in the park doing what they love…on or off the clock.”

First off Matt, well said. The job that these gentlemen do is absolutely a labor of love—something that was proven as I chatted with them this morning. In coordinating the delivery with Matt, he said that the staff typically convenes in the morning, but then disperses into the park for the rest of the day. So, it had to be a morning delivery. I told Matt that I could be there for the daily check-in between 7:30-8:00. I am rarely awake that early and pretty much never on time for anything, so the stress level was high for this one. He also threw in the wrench that one of them was gluten free. I had never made a gluten free cake before, but we’ll get to that later.

Shockingly, I hit the parking lot at 7:45 am. Un-showered, hair in a pony that I didn’t even bother to look in a mirror to do (which, turns out, was sticking up the whole time) and wearing yesterday’s clothes, I walked around the building until Josh pulled up in the lot and showed me where to go. Michael (on the right) was already there and, after some awkward confusion about who I was and why I was there, I explained Batter Up and we hung out around the conference table while we waited for more people to arrive. I learned a lot in the short (30 minutes or so) time that I was there. These guys are seasonal employees. When the park opened many many years ago it had a staff of about 30 people. But, as times have changed and cut-backs have been executed, they are down to a skeleton staff with just a couple of full-timers. They spend their days cutting grass, picking up trash, and clearing out river banks. They have a strong recycling initiative with around 100 recycling receptacles throughout the park system. They also hand sort the trash to pull out recycling. In about a year, they estimate that they earn between $3000–$4000 with their recycling monies. And of course, what trip to a park office would be complete without the preverbal snake bite story? I have an irrational (borderline clinical) fear of snakes and I can’t get the image of a guy bushwhacking under a tree and walking into a King Snake hanging down—who struck out and got him right in the forehead—out of my mind. Thanks for that.

This is a cool group of guys and I loved hearing their stories, despite the snake stories. (That wasn’t the only one, by the way. I’ll spare you the others—Mom.) Being there and listening to them, I felt a little guilty. I’ve lived in Richmond for almost four years and could count on one hand how many times I’ve been out on the James River. I grew up in the Northern Neck where the Rappahannock meets the Chesapeake Bay and my family still lives there. Usually when I have a water craving I make the drive out to spend the day on my brackish love, Dymer Creek—for which my 11-year-old labrador retriever is named. But, I’m vowing to explore the James a little more. It’s right in our backyard. It’s just silly not to take advantage of it.

And now for the cake. I made a gluten-free cake but, according to the guys, Nate is the gluten-free person and wasn’t even there. Ha! That Murphy is such a bitch sometimes. Anyway, I now understand why people say gluten-free cooking is so expensive. This week’s cake was a peanut butter banana cake from the Gluten Free Goddess blog (recipe found here) and then I topped it with a whipped cream cheese icing from the Not So Humble Pie blog (recipe found here)—to which I added a heaping half cup of peanut butter. I also chopped up some chocolate chips in the food processor and made a chocolate sprinkle dust to cover the top of the cake. (Look at me! I’m getting crafty!) Instead of flour it uses coconut flour and almond meal, and instead of sugar it called for mashed bananas and honey. (Can we call it a healthy cake?) The test cake was really good but, of course, I’m always left wondering about the one that goes to the recipient. I always convince myself that I did something that somehow rendered the final product catastrophically inedible.

Fingers crossed!