Reflection: A Balanced Diet

Navigating winter term through Upper Valley diners

by Eliza Dunn | 3/8/23 2:15am

by Natalie Dameron / The Dartmouth

During one of the first weeks of the term, I took the story assignment of traveling to different diners around the Upper Valley. I originally planned on visiting as many as I could and providing a sort of listicle, a rating of the best breakfast sandwiches or pancake stacks around. I created a Google doc with an extensive list of diners — Four Aces, Creek House and Polly’s Pancake Parlor, to name a few — and their distance from campus, already planning out where I could slot each visit into my calendar. 

I had taken the assignment with the best of intentions, fueled by the high hopes and ambitious resolutions that mark the start of every term. This term in particular — before I head off to study abroad in the spring — I wanted to focus on my surroundings and broaden my horizons here in Hanover. Exploring each different diner in the small towns of the Upper Valley I thought would be a perfect way to deepen my sense of place here, before moving somewhere entirely new. 

But as Dartmouth terms tend to go, time got away from me. Schedules filled up, weeks sped by and my list of diners remained just as long as it started. By the middle of the term, I had only fit in one breakfast — and it was at The Nest in Hanover, which felt like cheating. I let the goal slip to the bottom of my to-do list and almost forgot about it entirely.

Meanwhile, the term was flying by faster than ever. I struggled to keep up with its breakneck pace, just barely staying on track with my classes and other commitments. After the newness of the fall had worn off, sophomore year started to feel like a no-mans-land — I was no longer a bright-eyed freshman, but I still felt far from a seasoned Dartmouth expert. As the weeks went on, I found myself just going through the motions of each day, with most of my start-of-term resolutions abandoned entirely. 

One day, I was on the phone with a friend from high school. She had taken a semester off from school and was just returning to campus. Her goal for the rest of the year, she said, was to be intentional about her happiness, to actively set aside time to do things — totally unrelated to school — that made her happy. By being “intentional,” she said, she meant more than just the buzzword. Scheduling time to do the things that made her happy was going to be just as much of a priority as anything else in her life.

It was then that I remembered my nearly-forgotten diner project, now lost in a sea of other Google docs. I figured that it was better late than never and decided to hit at least a few on my list.

A few ended up being merely three more, but it was three nonetheless. After one night out, a friend and I attempted the risky maneuver of Lou’s on a Saturday morning, and luckily we were  offered counter seats right as we walked in. We camped out at the counter for hours, laughing at each other’s stories and sharing grilled muffins.

A few weeks later, I hit Four Aces with someone I had been wanting to spend more time with. Sharing a breakfast burrito and a hash — as well as our very professional food criticism — we escaped the rush of Dartmouth life for a few hours, swapping stories of our lives outside the Hanover bubble.

And on the notoriously frigid weekend of week five, I bundled up enough to venture out into the cold and try Hartland Diner. As we pulled out of the parking lot on our way there, it was so cold that the car stalled, and we had to push it out onto frat row. When we made it back — full of the Hartland specialty french toast breakfast sandwich — we spent the rest of the day inside watching episode after episode of “Ted Lasso.” 

Now, at the strange and disorienting crossroads of week 10, those three breakfasts are what stick out. For me, they serve as important signposts and reminders of not only what I love best about this school, but also what fills me up enough to make it through the winter term. The diner visits forced me to slow down, to schedule breaks into busy weeks, to start my day with an adventure (and delicious food) and to spend quality time — instead of  rushed hellos in the stir fry line — with people who make me happy.

Despite my best week one intentions, this term was just as frenetic and busy as any other. It turned out that my long-ago list  of diners did not keep me on schedule in the way I’d hoped, and my original goals faded into the background. But just because the project didn’t go exactly as planned didn’t mean that it was a total loss. Instead of a roundup of the local diners, this story had morphed into a reflection to surviving winter term at Dartmouth, complete with my favorite breakfast sandwich at Lou’s and the hot coffee at Hartland on a -40-degree day. Looking back, I see now that those few slow mornings of diner coffee, comfort food and good conversation are the bright spots that helped me through this winter.

My list of diners may be buried beneath an avalanche of to-do lists, essays, problem sets and travel itineraries, but it is not forgotten. As each term comes to an end, I tell myself that I’m getting a little bit better at navigating them at a measured and manageable pace, with plenty of time for long breakfasts in small, snowy towns. 

Until then, the best I can offer is this roadmap for you to use (or not) as you like. Whether it’s a grilled muffin at Lou’s or even just an easy morning coffee at Collis, here’s hoping that you also find some bright spots to light your way to the finish line.