Appalachian Trail Preparations: Food

One of the most time-consuming things about planning our thru-hike is the food preparation. Because we want to eat healthy, wholesome, vegan food, we will probably not be able to resupply by shopping in the trail towns, like many thru-hikers do. Therefore, we need to cook, dehydrate, and package all of our meals before we leave. We need over 200 dinners alone!

An added complication is that hiking 15-20 miles a day over rough terrain for six months gives your metabolism a little bit of a kick, so we are planning for at least 3,500-4,500 calories a day. So those 200 meals have to have a lot of calories, and larger than normal portions!

My parents have agreed to help us with our mail drops, which means they will send boxes of food to trail towns where the post office will hold them until we get there to pick them up. We will stay out on the trail for 5-7 days at a time, then hike out of the woods into a nearby town to pick up our supplies.

M, the cooking guru that he is, plans and cooks most of the meals. M slaves over a hot stove all day, creating delicious, bean-based entrees, which we cool, then put in our dehydrator for 12-18 hours, until it is completely dried out. Then we vacuum seal it. We will serve these entrees over instant brown rice, whole wheat noodles or whole wheat couscous - which we have tested and seem to be relatively fast-cooking.

Here is a list of what we've made so far:
3 Bean Chili
Red Beans and Rice
Spaghetti and Tomato Sauce
Lentil Curry
Spinach and Chickpea Curry
Cincinatti Chili
Refried Beans

For lunch we have white bean, black bean and chickpea hummus. For variety, we will probably also get some peanut butter. We will probably eat this spread on a tortilla or pita bread.

Breakfast is still up in the air. We haven't found a powdered soy milk that is palatable yet. I prefer Clif bars, but they are rather expensive at around a dollar a bar. I am probably going to buy some bulk granola from Frankferd Farms or in the trail towns along the way.

For snacks throughout the day, we will eat nuts and dried fruit and vegetables. For desert and an added calorie boost, we are going to buy a couple of cases of Peanut Chews and those sesame snacks - those are about the only high-cal vegan candy bars we've found so far.

To cook on the trail, we will use our can stoves, which M is also working on. These burn denatured alcohol, which is relatively easy to find in stores along the way, a good thing - since you can't put it in the mail!

So far, I think we have a pretty good variety of food, and we are about halfway done with our food preparations.


Musings on Motivation

I spent the last two and half years enmeshed in the intensive atmosphere of Teach For America. If you are not familiar with the culture of this organization, I can sum it up by telling you that one of the Core Values of TFA is "Relentless pursuit of results." Emphasis on the relentless. In some ways, this is a good thing. TFA corps members take on challenging classrooms. While the bureaucrats and the academics are still bickering over the best way to teach reading, TFA teachers say, I don't care what it takes, my students WILL read. And so they do.

I worked all the time, and there were always other corps members working more than me. Through exhaustion and failure, we just kept going.

I am currently reading Walking Home: A WOman's Pilgrimage On the Appalachian Trail. This is a story, as much about personal growth, as it is about walking 2,000 miles. Just when despair is about to set in, and sometimes after it already has, something or someone intervenes, boosting Kelly Winters' mood and motivating her to continue her journey.

I have always believed that inner strength is what keeps me motivated - that my own passion for my work and stubborn refusal to accept failure motivates me to keep going in the face of hardship. How will that play out when we begin hiking?

J Peezy - at it again

If you have not heard Steeler linebacker Joey Porter's apology for comments made to the media, please listen to it right away. I don't want to give it away.

I love this guy because he unabashedly insults other players, shamelessly pays the fines the NFL levies on him, plays hard on Sundays, and consistently makes big defensive plays. Actions speak louder than words. I wouldn't have him babysit my kids, but as a linebacker, he's great.

Joey Porter also has his own television show, which I caught for the first time last season.

We're already tagged...now the animals?

If I am any kind of activist, I am a food activist, with a rather selfish approach, as I mainly care about the quality of the products that I put into my body three to five times a day. This was one of the driving forces behind choosing a strict vegetarian diet (no dairy, no eggs, no fish - almost vegan were it not for my affinity for leather hiking boots).

Could tagging farm animals protect consumers? Small farm advocates say no, for two reasons. One, while registration into the system is free, the tags that go onto the animals will cost $2-3 a piece. Two, small farmers don't need a system to track sick animals back to their farm, because they pay attention to the animals while they are ON the farm, and keep them healthy.

Large chain grocery and discount stores buy questionable meat because they are generally not in the position to look their consumer in the eye. When your customer is a VISA credit card number and not a name and a face, you don't really care if you are selling them meat laced with feces. If your customer is your neighbor, you tend to be more careful, because there are a greater repercussions for selling them bad product.

We don't need tags, we need to know the people who grow our food.


Appalachian Trail Introduction

March 1, 2007 is our target start date for the Appalachian Trail. Here are a few pieces of introductory information for those of you not familiar with our endeavor.

The Appalachian Trail is approximately 2,165 miles long and runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

We are attempting a thru-hike, which means we intend to walk the entire length of the trail in one season. It will take us between 6 and 7 months.

Several thousand people usually start thru-hiking every spring, but only a few hundred make it. (One website estimates a 12% success rate.) In addition to the thru-hikers, many other people visit the trail each year for day hikes and section hikes.

We will each carry backpacks that contain everything we need to eat, sleep, stay clean (relatively), and stay dry and warm (again...relatively), in the outdoors. We will carry about 5-7 days of food at a time, and restock by hiking off the trail, into nearby towns. I want to keep my pack weight around 25 pounds and M may just slightly more.

At the beginning of our hike, we plan to walk about 10 miles a day. After a few weeks, we will walk between 15 and 20 miles a day.

I am doing a fair amount of reading, both about the logistics of a thru-hike, as well as the folklore, flora and fauna of the regions we will be passing through. My next post will include some recommended reading.


We Have Drums

Having been set to the task of straightening the basement and laying down some carpet, M and I, additionally, found most of the pieces of the drum kit and it is now all set up. Periodically, one of us will disappear downstairs, but there is no mystery about where we have gone!

The first rule of playing drums is don't do it when the parents are home. Nothing will get us kicked out faster. The second rule is...well, there are no other rules. We are having a little difficulty getting anything done today, because every time try to do something, one of us has to go have a turn at the drums first.

I am now a living tribute to this song.


Knitting Madness

I finally did it! I finally finished a project that I am reasonably pleased with. I made this hat twice, and this is the second version. The pattern calls for a pom-pom on the top, but I felt that was a little too 1950s for me. It looks like a jockey hat. Very indie-craftster.

I got all of my knitting needles and patterns from my Grandma, but I have to admit that I have been doing a lot of knitting for the sake of knitting, and not for actually creating something. I feel that this hat will change all that for me. After casting on, knitting, purling, decreasing, and finally figuring out what "knit, slip, pass" means, I feel that I am ready for a new project. Any suggestions?


Boston, MA

One of the highlights of our New England trip was a stop in Boston, MA to visit Leah and Kristijo, who used to be our neighbors in Phoenix. They were good neighbors and friends, and we shared many dinners and carpools and appliances during our time in the desert. They gave us an excellent tour of Boston...we loved the numerous parks and plazas, including Harvard Square, shown here. The weather was fabulous, save for some scattered showers, so we were able to do a lot of walking.

Numerous sites of historical importance are within driving distance of Boston, and one we visited was Walden Pond. It was extremely muddy and not very crowded at all....apparently though it is a popular fishing and swimming hole in the summer.

Another interesting thing we did while in Boston was visit the Boston Museum of Science to see the Body Worlds exhibit. This should not be confused with the other bodies exhibit, which, rumor has it, uses the bodies of Chinese prisoners and consent is questionable. Anyway, we found the exhibit to be highly informative.


New England

Boston, MA has treated us well and we are about to move on to New York City. New England has had warm, if a bit wet, weather. When we get home, we will put up some pictures of the capitols we saw, as well as some other unique and tourist-y sites.


Greedy Little Deer

This is my favorite news item of the day.


Happy Election Day!

As a child, I always looked forward to Election Day, since we didn't have to go to school. Now, I get excited because it means an end to the constant barage of pre-election campaign calls and television ads which take up a remarkable amount of time communicating remarkably little. Basically, the commercials have told me that all candidates hate the elderly, soldiers (especially disabled ones), and little children. They all take bribes from defense contractors, and vote themselves pay raises. I really haven't heard any ads that explain the platforms of any of the candidates.

Naturally, I also get excited to exercise my right to vote. However, I happened upon this HBO documentary last week and it raises some pretty profound, and basically depressing, ideas about our voting, especially with some of the technology used to count votes. I urge you to check it out.

Have fun voting!


Rachel Carson Trail

Hiking is one of my favorite things to do. Beside the fact that I enjoy wandering around in the woods, it provides good exercise, fresh air, better sleep, and has restored my figure to that of my pre-college days. However, it can be somewhat inconvenient to always drive to the wilderness in order to find hiking trails. Luckily, for those in the suburbs north and east of Pittsburgh, we have a trail, quite literally, in our back yards. The Rachel Carson Trail is a 35 mile long day hiking trail. We did an out-and-back hike from North Park to Hampton Park and back. This was also a nostalgic hike, since M and I met 10 years ago at the very spot where we ate lunch.

We started our adventure in North Park, at the corner of Babcock and Pierce Mill Road (near the spill way). We crossed the street, heading east, and the path followed the creek, then went through the back yards of the houses in the subdivision North Park Mansions, before coming out behind the 7-11, where we crossed the street again and headed up the hill and back in to the woods. This first half mile introduction to the trail is pretty representative of what you will find, at least for the part that goes through Hampton Township. We had to cross the creek at least a half a dozen times, and as it was about 35 degrees, we did everything in our power to keep our feet dry.

Recent rains made the trail a bit muddy and there are several pretty steep hills to climb, making it pretty slick in places. There were also a few places where trees had fallen across the path. However the yellow blazes look fresh and are really easy to follow.

One complaint we had was the utterly terrifying dash across Route 8 - the trail brings you directly, and unexpectedly to the edge of this busy, four lane road, and it would be just as dangerous to try to make your way down to the traffic light as it was to look both ways and run with all our might to the other side. Aunt Elaine used to live right at this spot. The funniest thing we saw was a fax machine in a tree. I guess this should be a hint for us to get involved in the trail conservency and do some clean up work.


Happy 100k

Some of you may remember our celebration of mileage milestones from a previous post... well now it's time for another. Yesterday, en route from my sister's apartment to Gene's Bar, Sandy (our 2000 Saturn) saw her 100,000th mile.

For a while there, we weren't sure she would make it. Not long ago, I noticed an oddly powerful vibration when starting the car. This was accompanied by an odd rattle at low speeds, but seemed to vanish once the car got going. No biggie, old car, we'll see if it progresses. And indeed it did, to the point where we took it in. The culprit? A broken engine mounting bracket. Apparrently they made these things out of sub-par aluminum, and every now and then they just crack in half (see photo). Silly GM, why not skimp on the part that holds the engine in the car? After a rental, arguments with GM customer service, and a mysteriously disappearing part (we asked the service people to save the old one, and were told, 'oh, uh, we took it out yesterday, and were just waiting for the new one to come in. must've got thrown out'. mmm-hmm. i bet.) a new moutning bracket was procured and installed and the engine is safely under the hood (not on the road somewhere). Note to other potential GM buyers: we were explicitly told by GM's customer service that "All man-made things break, and your car is going to break. not all parts are in the maintainance schedule. you should just expect things to break sometimes". So the non-moving parts of the car that hold it together can be expected to fall apart shy of 100,000 miles. keep that in mind when your frame disintegrates or you wake up one morning to find your engine on the driveway. Once that warranty is up, GM's not liable for anything, so don't expect any love.

Enough ranting, this is a celebratory post. After hauling us around the country three times and back and forth to work countless others, Sandy's hit the big milestone. All told, those four cylinders of raw American family-sedan power have been very good to us (even if the customer service reps have not). To commemmorate the event, we decided to apply stickers of the flags of all the states she's been driven in... and we should be adding a few more on our upcoming jaunt to New England. Now how to drive a car to Hawaii? Hmmm...


Girl from the North Country

No, this isn't a post about Bob Dylan. It is a post about our brief, muddy jaunt on the North Country Trail in Moriane State Park yesterday.

After days and days of rain, we were greeted with a sunny and unseasonably warm (60 degrees!) late October day. Most of the leaves were down, but still bright yellow and dull orange-red, and the reduced cover allowed the sunlight in to illuminate the forest floor. The sun hadn't been out long enough to dry up the copious mud, however. And it seemed to be hunting season for just about everything except deer, as we were informed by the armed gentleman we encountered who was lucklessly tracking turkey. Next time we'll put on a little blaze orange.

We started from the NCT parking area on PA 528, and followed the blue-blazed Glacier Ridge trail to the Davis Hollow marina. From there we took the pink-black blazed trail for a ways, but it was poorly marked and difficult to follow. We ended up on an old forest road (which the pink/black trail incidentally joined about a mile up) and took this back to the NCT. To finish, we made the loop on the yellow-blazed lakeside trail for some outstanding views and some steep climbing.

We didn't see too much wildlife, unless you count chipmunks. Definitely didn't come across any turkeys. However, just as we neared the parking area, we did find a baby snake, and watched and listened as his scaly underside rubbed over the fallen leaves.

The North Country Trail (which follows the Glacier Ridge trail within Moraine) goes from North Dakota to upstate New York, and a sizeable portion goes right through western PA. We look forward to field-testing some of our cold weather AT gear on portions of this trail, perhaps in Cook Forest or the Allegheny National Forest. We'll be sure to check the hunting regulations first...

We Miss You, Johnny Chu

Despite being pleasantly suprised by the cosmopolitan haven that is the city of Pittsburgh (seriously, there is more culture and diversity here than I had ever given it credit for before, and a lot has changed in two years - new businesses, etc.), we've been sorely lacking a decent asian food experience. It's not that there aren't good Thai or Chinese places here, it's just that Phoenix spoiled us pretty good. Especially Fate - inexpensive, great atmosphere, late-night hours, and most importantly AMAZING FOOD. After a disappointing lunch at LuLu's in Oakland (not even in the same league), we decided to make an attempt at channelling Johnny's talent from 3000 miles away.

Here's a decent sauce I whipped up for stir frys. It's not really restaurant caliber, but it's a good deal better than cheap takeout:

1/2 c. Tamari/Soy Sauce
1/4 c. Toasted Sesame Oil
1" garlic, minced
5-6 Garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. hot red pepper flakes
1/4 - 1/2 tsp. Five-Spice Powder
1 Tbsp. turbinado or other Sugar
1 tsp. cornstarch
Add it at the end of the fry, and mix just enough for the sauce to thicken, then remove from heat. Add some toasted sesame seeds for extra flava.

We made a stirfry including the following:
2 medium onions, sliced
2 carrots, halved and sliced thinly on the bias
1 head broccoli, trimmed into little tree-bits
stems from the bok-choy or chard, sliced like the carrots

Sautee these first, as they take longer than the other ingredients to cook. Once the onions go translucent, add the following (don't overcook!):
1 small bunch bok-choy leaves*
1 - 2 c. paddy straw mushrooms. or wood ears. mushrooms are good.
1/2 - 1 c. slivered bamboo**

*Chard works if you can't find decent bok choy (like us). Take out the stems and cook them with the carrots & such. Also, the baby bok-choys are the best, but make sure they're fresh and firm. don't take the leaves off, just cut 'em in half or throw in whole.
**add earlier if fresh. The ones from a can taste kinda funky, so drain & rinse first.
Serve with yummy brown rice. Think about how tasty it is. Then think of that tastiness doubled. Contemplate cashing in that frequent flyer ticket you have on southwest to go to phoneix for some food. Enjoy!


Country Living

Have M and K lost interest in sharing the details of their adventures? Or have the adventures ceased? Admittedly, country living is not quite so exciting as driving around the country. Nonetheless, we are doing some things that we actually enjoy.

Of course this is apple season, and although we have not had a Pennsylvania apple that rivals the Washington apples we had this summer, M's mother bought a half-bushel of delicious locally grown apples. We enthusiastically started to work our way through the apples by eating one with every meal, and sometimes in between. This hardly made a dent though, so we turned to baking, and I got out this contraption that peels and cores and slices the apples as you turn a crank. It was actually quite fun. M rolled out some vegan dough and we were rewarded by two tasy pies and an apple dumpling.

Other country living activities include yard work. As I still have the blood of a Phoenician, adjusting to the cool autumn temperatures has been unpleasant, and I was not that excited about working outside. As a child of the suburbs, I grew up with an ample backyard, or so I thought, and am no stranger to a rake, pitchfork or hedgeclippers. But friends, this is a whole new ball game. Country living includes an endless gravel driveway, lined by overgrown pine trees and brush that needs trimming. The trimming part is pretty easy thanks to a pole saw and other fun toys that M's dad has. But what to do with all the stuff you chop down? We decided to drag it to the edge of the woods to get it out of the way, and then put it in the chipper, so we can add it to the flower beds and compost pile. This was no easy task. I'm not sure if dragging eight foot long pine branches a half mile up a hill is good training for hiking the AT, but I definitely got a workout. This job will have to be completed another day, since we were not able to get the chipper running. After trimming, it was time to haul logs from another pile down to be split and dried.

Country living would not be complete without games in front of the fire. One of the best things about this house is the fireplace in the living room, that keeps us toasty warm in the evenings. Scrabble is a game that can become quite contentious when M and I play, and he usually wins, although I think I came up with better words.


Paperwork and Other Incidentals

After having a stellar time at a range of events this weekend, including a kayak trip, bonfire, two birthday parties and the Drive By Truckers show, M and K are engaged in a variety of administrative and household tasks. M is hauling and splitting wood, while I am haggling with student loan companies.

Student Loan Company A put my loan in default and reported me to the credit bureau, all while we were fully engaged in the vagabond lifestyle, and thus not regularly reading our mail. They have now corrected that issue. They are sorry. I am typing up several professionally written, yet vaguely threatening, letters to correct the situation further, because I want them to be a little more sorry. Even if vagabonds don't really need a good credit score, I still want one. Just in case.

I just got off the phone with Student Loan Company B, who regrets to inform me that, because my first loan was disbursed prior to October 1, 1998, I am not eligible for the Federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program. The most joyful part is that my loan was disbursed on September 21, 1998. So close...and yet so far.


Happy Birthday, Jack!

Friday the 13th was lucky for us, since it was our friend Jack's birthday, and we went with him to his parents' house on the Juniata River in central PA. One of the highlights of going to the "River House" is going on a "float."

I was skeptical of the amount of fun I could anticipate, given that the temperatures were to be in the low 50s (that's the high, folks...we aren't in Phoenix anymore, much to my dismay). However, the sun was shining, I wore plenty of clothes on, and the river was high enough that we did not have to get out and push our kayaks at all, thus avoiding getting wet. There is no better way to observe autumn.


Rosie the Cat

In response to your queries....Rosie the Cat is just fine, and is enjoying her new home, although she remains terrified of Frosty the Dog and mainly ignores Mittens the Cat, the other animals in residence. I, however, am allergic to one of the above animals - I am not entirely sure which. Or I am allergic to Pennsylvania in the fall. Whatever it is, I never had it before, and wish it would go away.

Stuffed Shells

For some reason I have really wanted to eat some kind of stuffed pasta dish. Tonight, I made a delicious vegan version. It turns out that stuffed shells are a little bit of a pain in the butt to make, and quite messy. It was worth it though, because they tasted good enough to feed vegans and non-vegans alike. I couldn't find a recipe that I liked (or that I had all the ingredients for), but this is how I made them:

First, make tofu from scratch. This is not as complicated a procedure as it sounds, but I will have to write another post about this. You could easily use firm or extra firm tofu from the store.

Boil the stuffed shells until al dente. Run them under cold water and pour a little olive oil over them. Let sit in a safe place until later.

Crush up a handful of pine nuts with a rolling pin and toast them until golden brown.

Cook 1 cup dried canolini beans until very soft. Or, if you use canned beans, you don't have to cook them. Put soft beans in food processor and blend with oil and/or water until very smooth. Blend in some basil, oregano, a little thyme, and salt.

Defrost frozen spinach, squeeze out extra moisture and saute briefly in some oil and garlic.

In a bowl mix up the pine nuts, bean mixture, and spinach. Crumble up the tofu into little pieces and mix that in.

Put a little tomato sauce in the bottom of the pan. Put the mixture inside the shells and line them up in the pan. Put some more sauce on top. Bake covered for about 30 minutes, then uncovered for 15 minutes.


Sweet Suzuki

M has had "learn to ride a motorcycle" on his LOTTDBD* for a while now, and now he has a bike of his own.

Don't get too excited...it doesn't run yet. We nearly threw our backs out trying to push it up the ramps into the truck. My Grandma was actually about to get behind the bike with us and start pushing. However, it's safely up here at the Saxonburg homestead now, where there is ample garage space. During the long and bleak winter, we can patch 'er up and get 'er running again.

This bike belonged to my Aunt DC, who always was an awesome aunt, but has now trumped all other relatives for being cool. Sorry we spilled gasoline all over your garage.

Incidentally, I left our remaining cell phone in my aunt's yard. My mom was nice enough to run over and look for it, but it will be a day or two before we can pick it up. Therefore, you should communicate with us through telepathy, or perhaps by leaving a comment on this website.


A Few of My Favorite Things (And People)

My advice? If you plan to eat the Sunday Brunch at Zenith Cafe on Pittsburgh's South Side, don't eat on Saturday. You'll need the room. Ten bucks gets you unlimited trips to the buffet that, on this Sunday, was filled with at least 10 different side dishes, as well as an entree, lots of cake, and beverages.

We met up with some of our favorite people, including the Butlers, back from Sacramento for a wedding. They were hoping for rain, but Pittsburgh was simply gorgeous all weekend. Even I loved the weather here this weekend.

Matt and Sloan, who trekked out to Harrisburg for the M.Ward/Juana Molina with us, were surprisingly awake and "fresh" as my mother would say (M and I didn't even get home until 3:30 am and were feeling a bit fatigued).

Todd got plenty of cake and Erin made me feel better about Rosie the (Fat) Cat.

There really are few things in life more enjoyable than sharing a meal with good friends.


Delicious, Delicious Soy Milk

Now that we are back to living in a house, we have the pleasure of access to a kitchen. An indoor kitchen, that does not have flies or mice! Water, even HOT water, that comes out of the tap. Refrigeration and a stove that does not need to be lit with a match. We have been cooking nonstop. Mainly super large batches of our favorite dishes that we will be dehydrating and taking with us on the Appalachian Trail in the spring. So far, red beans are almost done and vegetarian chili is in progress.

We are also exploring the wonderful world of soybeans, having purchased 25 pounds from Frankferd Farms.

Right now, I am eating the most delicious bowl of Raisin Bran I have ever had. Raisin Bran is a pretty good cereal, and I am a big fan of cereal for breakfast, but we have not purchased any soy or rice milk since coming home. But this morning I brewed up a batch of soy milk and it is ever so tasty.

Here's how you do it....

I used 4 oz of dry soy beans and soaked them over night in some water. I removed the skins. I also changed the water several times to rinse the beans.

Next, I drained the beans and put them in the blender with two cups of water and blended them thoroughly. I poured the pureed beans into a pot with an additional four cups of water.

I brought the mixture to a boil, then let it boil for 10 minutes. It gets VERY foamy and you have to stir it a lot. After about ten minutes the foam starts to diminish and this is how you know it is done. It could take longer than ten minutes.

After all the foam has gone away, it is time to strain it. I used a clean, old cotton t-shirt over a colander. It is important that you don't clean your old cotton t-shirts in perfumed or scented detergents - use something unscented or baking soda to clean it. Also, wet the t-shirt with hot water before using it to strain, so that it will be more porous.

The pulp that is left after you strain it can be added to bread or muffins, or it makes good compost.

I added a teaspoon of sugar and a dash of vanilla to my finished milk before drinking it.



Bolled P-Nuts

M likes to tinker. He experiences the world through wondering how and why things work. Wondering is not enough, though…no, he must DO.

Last week, we were driving home on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a lovely drive from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN. If you like history, or just prefer driving on well-maintained, two lane country highways, this is the drive for you. This is one of the more scenic drives through the south, and since you are in the south, you will surely pass a stand selling boiled peanuts. Done right, they are delicious…done wrong, they taste like slimy peanut butter, at best. Which brings me back to the point of M and his tinkering.

Last week, after eating a bag of messy and delectable Cajun boiled peanuts along the side of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the idea was planted in his head. I promptly forgot about boiled peanuts, being distracted by an unhealthy obsession of my unemployed status. But M was thinking about them all the way back, and hatching a plan to bring them to our Yankee state.

When we arrived home several days later, I was unpacking and reorganizing, a type of busy-ness that more often then not results in very little actually getting cleaned up. M, however, was researching recipes, creating a special seasoning blend, and brewing up a batch of his own boiled peanuts in our crockpot. They smelled good, but M had forgotten something critical.

The recipe said to NOT use roasted peanuts.

We only had roasted peanuts.

And this is why I love my husband so much. Despite the visible sadness on his face when he realized his mistake (he REALLY wanted some boiled peanuts), M was a perfect example of a happy-go-lucky, live-and-learn attitude. He ate a few, dumped the rest and went on to build a wooden mold so that he can make his own tofu from scratch. Thanks, Uncle Joe, for inspiring that project.


Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-Jig

Phoenix-Pittsburgh-Detroit-Chicago-Madison-Sioux Falls-Badlands-Wind Cave-Grand Tetons-Yellowstone-Somewhere in Idaho-Mt. Rainier-Olympic National Forest-Portland-Olympia-Redwoods-Sacramento-Yosemite-San Francisco-Santa Cruz-Santa Ana-San Diego-Phoenix-Tucson-Carlsbad Caverns-Fredericksburg, TX-Austin-College Station, TX-Houston-Buras, LA-Natchez, MS-Jackson, MS-Nashville-Morehead, KY-Charleston, WV-Rices Landing, PA-Saxonburg, PA....


Leaving Buras, LA

We said goodbye to Emergency Communities today, to begin the journey back north. We finally have some pictures of our time there. Here is a picture of the (former) YMCA where we were staying and working.

This is the dining area. Open-air style. A few days ago I met a woman who used to work on this property, and it was the first time since the storm that she'd had the courage to come inside. We walked around the building, which no longer has any interior walls, and she pointed out where things used to be.

Many of the volunteers, including M and I, camped out in the building that used to be a school, behind the YMCA. The tents are set up on a stage, to the left is a basketball court, that some of the volunteers cleared and began using.

On the way out of town, we passed what used to be the school. There are not enough children back in the area to warrent reopening all the schools, so most of the kids are bused to the town of Port Sulpher. This is one of the few buildings that is actually standing and seems to have most of its walls and roof, but there is still a significant amount of damage. For now, the school board warns everyone to "keep out."

We met some truly amazing people while we were there; people who have been volunteering there for months upon months, residents from the area who come in and work at the community center; people from the area who stop in to offer whatever they have, even as they themselves are rebuilding.


Still in Buras, LA

We are still down here in Buras, LA...living in the open-air remains of the YMCA, cooking and cleaning at this community center. Emergency Communities is a group formed to address the longer-term needs of a community hit by a natural disaster. If you've ever been through one, I'm sure you know that the Red Cross is long gone, in fact, I'm not even sure if they ever made it down this far at all.

What they have set up here is a distribution center; a soup kitchen that serves three hot, home-cooked meals a day; free laundry; and free internet access, among other things, but the main idea is that this is a community center that belongs to the community of Buras and the surounding towns. The doors are never locked. Well, actually, there are no doors. Or walls. Anyone can hang out here at any time. Music is always on, or people are playing instruments. There are also a lot of long-term volunteers here - people that stay months and months.

Yesterday a woman I met at a community fair on Saturday came in to drop off some supplies. When she found out that I would be leaving this week, we started talking about the unmet needs of the community and what I could send down here, after I got home. As she was leaving, she called over her shoulder, "Tell everyone...we still have two to five years to go."


Buras, LA

Here's where we are:
Buras, LA


Houston, TX

We are currently in Houston, TX, visiting my Uncle Joe, Aunt Donna and Cousin Heather. Joe cooked a tofu feast for us last night and we watched a tv show called House. We also took a walk with them and their three dogs. I love visiting them because they have a very predictable routine (I think every time I've been here in the past five years, we've done the same thing - sans tofu), but it is not boring in the least. In fact, I would be a little disappointed if I came to visit and it was all different. Next time, however, we are going to check out their favorite Thai restaurant.

Heather is in her final year of law school and M was happy to have a chance to talk to her about her experiences. We wish we had more time to spend here, but we are off to Louisiana to do some volunteer work, the details of which are a bit vague right now. We are not entirely sure if we will have internet access or cell phone reception, so don't panic if you don't hear from us. Our first destination is Buras, LA, and then we might be heading north to St. Bernard Parish. My guess is the work will be messy, but we have our tetanus shots updated, so for the moms out there, don't worry. We still plan to be back in Pittsburgh by early October.


College Station, TX

Here We Go...

We got a call from my cousin Eric, who goes to school at Texas A & M, has HDTV, and stadium seating in his living room. We decided to stop by for the Steelers Monday night football. Sadly, we were defeated in a hard-hitting game, but we still had a blast with Eric.


Austin, TX

Well, we are still here in Austin, TX. The temperatures are quite warm, but luckily, Barton Springs is right across the street from the entrance of the music festival. Unluckily, I got so hot yesterday that I ran straight into the Spring with my clothes on. And my cell phone in my pocket.

We planned to turn our phones off in a couple of weeks anyway, so I'm not going to have it fixed. Call me on M's phone if you need to.


Direct from the Fest

Yes, technology is possible. We have entered the gates and are about to watch Ted Leo. Not before stopping by the air-conditioned tent of a Fortune 500 company to use their free internet.


Austin, TX

We've arrived a couple of days early to prepare for ACL. Mike and Kurt and Rocco are here...guaranteed good time.


Fredericksburg, TX

We stayed at the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park campground, which was remarkably calm, considering it was next to an airstrip. Well, it was a very small airstrip. I flew my Reddy Sleddy pocket kite for a little while before we broke down our camp.


Carlsbad Caverns National Park

I don't like caves. I don't like being underground, the dark, the smell of bat guano, or the sound of dripping water. I would much rather be on top of rocks than underneath them.

M loves caves. He loves stalagmites and stalactites and other formations. He likes the dark, learning about geology, and little critters that live underground.

I think one of the reasons our marriage works is that I will go into a cave because I know he wants to see it, and M will hold my hand so that I will be less scared.

That being said, Carlsbad Caverns was pretty cool. The cave tour is self-guided. We walked down through the natural entrance (which is where all the bats come flying out of at dusk), and continued down a steep and slippery path - the equivalent of 80 stories, past all kinds of formations. It's not a very far walk, but it takes a long time and is not for those with weak knees.

Carlsbad Caverns was one of the earlier established national parks and, consequently, was developed during a time when people had a different understanding of conservation of resources. There is an elevator to the "Big Room" - which is basically the bottom of that 80 story trail, as well as restrooms and a cafeteria. That type of development would not occur today, quite the opposite in fact. Instead of a focus on public access, the approach is security and access for researchers only. When we asked a ranger about the nearby, recently discovered Lechuguilla cave system, she said, "I could tell you where it is, but then I'd have to kill you." Actually, it's not that secret...the cave location has been known for a long time, but nobody knew how big it was until a few years ago.


Five Years Later

Everybody remembers where they were five years ago. These days, m and I are not always sure what day it is, especially when we are camping, but we remembered right away when we saw the flags at half mast.

It was rather jarring to realize that the country has basically been at war for half a decade...longer than we have been married...most of my adult life. The "elevated terror risk" has become the default. Questioning the government has become unpatriotic. I am guilty, as many Americans are, of spending remarkably little time thinking about the financial and human cost, and how my action or inaction may be impacting the situation.


Tucson Relatives

When M and I were living in Phoenix, we got to know the relatives that are the descendants of my grandfather's brother, who live in Tucson. We made a stop here on Saturday for a cookout and to catch up with them before we head back east. Their hospitality is always amazing and we are so thankful for it. Ed made fantastic grilled portabella mushrooms and we showed some of our trip pictures. We also got to see some photos of Ed and Mitch at a time when Ed's hair was as long as M's is now. Clyde and Bonnie shared some stories about their own cross country adventure that they did as newlyweds. Since Ed and Mitch had a full house with their grandchildren staying with them, we went over to Christel's place to sleep.


Review: Omnivore's dilemma by Michael Pollan

On a recommendation from Jack, m and I just finished reading the Omnivore's dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Michael Pollan has an easy and entertaining style of prose that makes it a pleasure to get through some rather difficult material. This book traces the origins of the ingredients in four meals, from field to consumption. All too often, books on food can be judgmental, with an all-or-none attitude. Pollan's goal, however, seems simply to want to convince his readers to think about what we eat. Reconnect with the food chain.

M and I have made an attempt to be more thoughtful about our diet, shifting to a vegan approach this year. However, I am beginning to think that our quest for fresh veggies and honey-free bread may be misguided. In every grocery store around the country (and we have visited 15 states to date), most domestically-grown produce came from California. This should be disconcerting in places that are thousands of miles from California. As vegans, we have also become label-readers...checking to make sure products don't contain hidden animal ingredients, like whey or gelatin. One thing we have noticed is that virtually every processed food in the grocery store contains HFCS - or high fructose corn syrup. Yes, it's vegan...but does that make it healthy? Ecologically responsible? Pollan examines this issue, and raises some interesting points along the way.

This is not a PETA book, although it does bring up animal cruelty. Pollan does not preach about a diet that will save Americans from our chronic battle with obesity, although it does point out some contributors to the problem.

I think the most compelling message in the book comes from the chapter entitled, "The Market: Greetings from the Non-Barcode People." Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, puts it well when he asks, "Don't you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?"

Do you know who picked your lettuce? Slaughtered your beef? Gathered your eggs? Perhaps this is the disconnect in our diets. Any backyard gardener knows that all food is not created equal...soil and weather conditions can effect the taste, and likely the nutrition, of the tomatoes we grow for fun. Why should we think it's any different for the commercial farmer?

After reading the Omnivore's dilemma, I am left with lots of questions, but I strongly recommend this book to anyone in the U.S. who purchases the food they eat.

Hall of Flame

As mentioned before, we used to live down the street from the Hall of Flame Firefighting Museum. As much as we respect firefighters, the sign to the museum always made us giggle a little. We tried to convince nearly every out-of-town guest we had to visit the museum with us, but all declined. Well, we figured this was our last chance to go, and we didn't think it would take that long to get through.

Warning...this museum is much, much larger than you would think possible. It is more of a collector's warehouse, as they have literally hundreds of restored fire engines. After paying the $6 admission, we were handed a binder filled with descriptions for each of the exhibits. In addition to the fire trucks, the museum also has a collection of the insurance plates that people used to attach to the sides of their houses so that the fire company would know who had paid for the service. Basically, if you didn't pay, they would let your place burn down, unless another structure (belonging to a paying member) was threatened. The museum also has a collection of firefighter patches, and we found a bunch that were from Pennsylvania.

Of particular interest to Arizonans is an exhibit on fighting wildfires, and there is also a fire safety section for children. One of the coolest things they have is the old dispatcher equipment with a map of Phoenix that shows the location of firehouses. They have an actual scanner playing real-time calls which is kind of interesting to listen to.

If you are in the area, definitely check out this museum, located on East Van Buren Street near Papago Park.

Here We Go

Harold's is adding on a new covered porch around the side of the bar, so that even more of the Western PA diaspora may gather here during football season. The bathroom renovation is completely finished, and Dex the DJ was set up in a new area. Other than that...same menu, same staff, same people there. We were so excited to be able to see Dave and Terry again, who we shared a table with last year. Unfortunately, the first game of the season was the only game we will be able to watch from Harold's.


Return to Phoenix

We have officially completed something of a circle around the country. Having started out from Phoenix, AZ on July 19, we are now back where we started. Phoenix is still Phoenix. We are repacking our car to accommodate some things we left here in July, visiting with a few friends, eating at our favorite restaurants, and experiencing the strange feeling of, as m put it, "being tourists in a place you used to live." We plan to visit Taliesin West, the Hall of Flame, and the capital building. Our visit has coincided with the first Steelers game of the season, so naturally, we will be heading up to Cave Creek to watch the game at Harold's.

Last night we had the pleasure of dining with Steve, who plays the clarinet in the Phoenix Symphony. We went to Fate, recently remodeled and with a slightly revamped menu. There aren't a lot of restaurants that I would travel several thousand miles to eat in, but this is one of them. We were sad to see the Fate Plate is no longer on the appetizer menu, but I highly recommend the "market green" of the day, especially if it is gai lan. I ate the House Dynamite, which was hotter than I remembered, but still delicious. For once, I did not walk out of there with leftovers, so it must have been good. If you are afraid to try tofu, or don't like it because of its bland taste, I implore you to give it another chance at Fate. The tofu is fried, but comes out without the oily taste that I've experienced at a lot of other restaurants. Not that I'm in the market, but I think the ambiance of this restaurant would lend itself nicely to a first or second date...if you ran out of things to talk about, you could just watch Johnny work his magic over the flames as he cooks.

We were also lucky to connect with our friend Jared, a fellow Yinzer and Steelers fan. He has been gracious enough to let us stay with him and his roommate in the house they recently bought in South Phoenix. His house is awesome and has a really big yard, in which Jared is engaged in some interesting projects. Like many southwest yards, it first appears to be nothing but dirt, but instead of covering it over with grass that is not supposed to grow here, Jared is watering the dirt to make adobe bricks, with the intention of building a pizza oven.

Stay tuned for more Phoenician adventures.


San Diego, CA

When my sister told me she was moving to San Diego last winter, I was thrilled - after all it's right down the road from Phoenix, at least by Arizona standards, and it's one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Danna and I have spent a good portion of our lives living and/or working together, and it was a big adjustment for me to be out in Phoenix without her. It was funny to hear Mark and Adam trade stories about us, because we have a lot of personality traits in common that I never realized before.

We arrived on Saturday after spending a ridiculus three hours in traffic on the I5. Bumper to bumper Labor Day weekend traffic that we were not expecting, but should have. I think it's good for us to periodically get stuck in traffic, though, because then it reminds us how much we dislike commuting. So as beautiful as a place might be - we're not moving there if it means spending half your life on the freeway.

First order of business was visiting our favorite San Diego vegan restaurant, Kung Food, which is set up sort of cafeteria style - you pay by the pound. Most of the time we avoid 'imitation' foods - like vegan cheese or "meats" - but Kung Food seems to do it pretty well. I had a lasagna, cucumber salad, and pumpkin stew over quinoa. Adam got chicken pot pie. Danna ate "holy macaroni" - a fantastic hot pesto dish. Mark ate herbed mashed potatoes and gravy, three bean salad and greens. We all feasted on soy ice cream after dinner - they have soft serve here that is so creamy and rich it is hard to believe it is dairy-free. If you are curious about vegan food, this is a good place to come, because they will let you sample everything.

After dinner, we hit the Turf Club for some drinks. This is an interesting place because for $6.75 you can get a steak and cook it yourself. They have a communal grill in the middle of the restaurant where the patrons take up the raw meat that the servers bring out and cook it to their liking. Not vegan, but still very cool. The ambiance in the bar was great, and it was busy but not too crowded. Beer was reasonably priced.

On Monday, we went over to Balboa Park and wandered through the art galleries and gardens. We have discovered that a select number of museums are free to the public every Tuesday, so we are going back today to see the Science Center and Model Railroad museum. The best part of Balboa Park is that you can park and walk around there for free, and the roses always seem to be in bloom. Danna and Adam live in Golden Hill - which I think is a very romantic name for a neighborhood - and it is just minutes away from the park.

Now, if you know Danna and Adam, you know Sidney, their Bull Terrier, aka the "Bully". We went to the dog beach on Coronado Island on Sunday and that was smart, because this beach was not as crowded as the other ones and we found parking right away. Sidney played in the water, sniffed other dogs and got sniffed and dug a giant hole in the sand. Mark and I laid in the sun and dipped our toes into the cool Pacific waters. Later, we noticed that Sidney's tail wasn't wagging as furiously as it usually is - in fact, it looked downright limp. Apparently this "tail exhaustion" can happen to dogs sometime, so she will recover. Sidney is a bold dog and she likes all kind of food. This picture is NOT of her and Adam kissing, but in fact, Sidney grabbing a carrot out of his mouth!

Aunt Jan and Her Clan (Santa Ana, CA)

We were remiss in not taking a picture of Aunt Jan to post, but we would not miss sharing the adventures we had with her last week. First of all, she got a recommendation from her friend about the 100% vegan Native Foods so we went there for dinner on Thursday. The food was pretty good and it was in a yurt, which of course thrilled me. Aunt Jan is also awesome about accommodating our vegan diet and we spent several really pleasant mornings having coffee and toast and catching up.

We spent most of Thursday and Friday relaxing at her house, it was great to hang out in the pool and jacuzzi, although the sun drove us inside in the later afternoon (guess these Phoenicians spent a little too much time in the Pacific Northwest and lost our tolerance to the burning desert sun).

On Friday, cousins Steve and Chris, Louise, Caetie and Claire came over for dinner. Looks like Caetie might be interested in veganism - she ate a whole carrot without even cutting it up! We ordered Chinese takeout, and Claire got busy on an art project while we were waiting for our food. Claire even tried a piece of tofu!Since it will probably be a while before we get back out to the OC, we felt compelled to go out with Steve and Chris one last time and ended up at the Fling, a bar with...let's see...some character. And some characters. It was a great deal of fun, but by two, I was ready for bed, so we said goodbye.

One thing that was great about living in Phoenix was having this branch of the family within driving distance and we will miss seeing them at holidays. Thanks for having us, Aunt Jan!


The Trade Off

M and I have been exploring the concept of simple living for a while now, and by that I mean the idea of finding smaller, low-cost housing with sustainable energy and water sources; getting away from the daily grind of commuting and working for someone else; eating more simple foods; spending more time outdoors. In short, all the things we felt that our time in Phoenix prevented us from doing.

I have realized, as we move around the country, that there is a trade-off...we may give up the frequent access to restaurants and museums that comes from living in an urban area in order to live someplace more rural and affordable. If we decide to 'settle down' in a yurt or a converted school bus, instead of a 2,000 square foot house, I may not be able keep all the books around that I want. Mark may need to cut back his record collection. Some things are really easy to give up...like television and meat. Other things are more difficult to see living without, like a washing machine or full-size oven. The grass is always at least a little bit greener on the other side, and when I see people who have nice houses or things I do feel a pang of jealousy sometimes. There are places that I would love to settle down in, like San Diego, but knowing how expensive it is here keeps it from entering my mind as a realistic possibility.

What I know is that I want to live a life as free from debt as possible, mainly because I don't ever want to feel trapped at my job. I know from experience that even non-profit work can be morally compromising at times. If living in a small, paid-for space might buy me the opportunity to speak up without fear of losing my job, I would gladly do it. In all honesty, I doubt that I would lose my job - but fear is what keeps us from taking risks, and I am seeking freedom from that fear.


Updates on California

We spent a couple of days driving from Sacramento to Santa Ana, where we stayed with my Aunt Jan. Now we have moved further south to San Diego where we are visiting my sister and her boyfriend. Here are some highlights of the trip down here.

I didn't have high hopes for Berkley, and we probably would've skipped it, if not for my friend Michele currently going to graduate school there. Michele and I worked together as Literacy Specialists at the Teach For America Institute this past summer, and she was also a teacher in Phoenix. We were able to meet up for lunch, and Michele led us to this Japanese vegan restaurant, where we extravagently dined on a variety of noodle bowls and sushi rolls, finishing up with chocolate cake and fried bananas. It was outstanding. We didn't linger in Berkley, as we were eager to get out of the expensive and urban San Francisco area before nightfall so we could camp someplace cheap. I also didn't get a chance to see the Alice Waters inspired Edible Schoolyard, which was sort of my equivalent of Mark's driving through a tree dream. I wasn't too disappointed however, because now that Jamie and Trisha live out here, I'm sure we'll be back through the area.

We really didn't give this city the attention it deserves, but we did spend some time in the nature preserve that sits just north of the city on the coast, as well as stopping at vista that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. When we left Sacramento that morning, it had been about 90 degrees with no clouds in sight, but of course, as we drove out towards the coast and over the mountains we descended into some thick cloud cover. It was actually pretty sunny when we took this picture, but the wind was incredibly strong, and I learned, definitively, that my Denali fleece jacket is NOT windproof.

HIGHWAY 101 and 1
Despite warnings, we exited S.F. about 4:30 pm and hit absolutely no traffic on the way out...guess not too many people commute via the Pacific Coastal Highway. We spent the next two days traveling slowly down the coast, pausing frequently to get out of the car and take in the scenery. At night we camped in state parks near the beach, listening to the waves and feel the heavy coastal fog roll in. We spent one night just south of Santa Cruz and one night in Pismo. The last leg of the trip took us away from the coast and through downtown LA, which was the fastest, although if you know LA traffic, not all that fast, way to my Aunt Jan's house.


Santa Ana, CA

We have made it to So-Cal, and are visiting k's Aunt Jan, who is always a delight to visit. Tonight we will get to see some more of k's cousins (and yes, to those who have been wondering, k does have an extremely large and close extended family).

More posts to follow regarding where we have been over the past week and our upcoming plans.


Yosemite, or "That's one Big Rock"

When I asked K if she wanted to write the post about Yosemite, she declined, noting that all she could think of to say about it was "Man, that's one big rock". With this I am inclined to agree.

Mark and Katy overlooking Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley

The Yosemite Valley in California is one of those rare places in America so massive and beautiful that any attempt to describe it fails, and any pictures taken invariably look like some postcard-shot clicked in front of a blue screen at a $1 Photomat machine. Despite the theme-park atmosphere, hundreds of ill-disciplined children climbing around precariously on the scattered rocks, non-stop hybrid shuttlebusses, squirrels so fat on tourist handouts they have jowls, and neighboring campers that ignore everything listed about quiet hours and the dangers of frequent bear incidents (Yosemite has the highest frequecy of dangerous incidents, including tent-shreddings and car break-ins), there is something so incredible about the sheer size and beauty of the area that makes it worthwile. So rather than gush on about the massive granite faces, one ancient block pushed up from the Earth over a very long time and no doubt with considerable force, punctuated with numerous and violent waterfalls, I'll post a few pictures and suggest strongly that you make the effort to go there sometime. We'll be back, too, as seeing Half Dome gave me the urge to hike to the top of the cable-lined trail. As Promised:

Mark, Katy, Trisha, and Jamie at El Capitan


Sac-town and other updates...

I feel like I've been living in my car. Which is basically what we have been doing, but it is ceasing to feel like a vacation, and now feels like we have been doing this forever, and this is just how we will live.

We are currently in West Sacramento, CA visiting Jamie and Trisha. We just put up a bunch of posts about what we have been doing the past week, so scroll down. Also, please leave comments. We like hearing from you.

In response to comments, and also general questions that we get along the way about our veganism, this is what we eat...

For Breakfast...
coffee, and
a hot cereal made of hard red winter wheat, oats, whole barley and millet (tastes kind of like oatmeal but has more nutrition), sometimes with pieces of dried fruit, or
whole wheat bagel with peanut butter and jelly, or
pancakes with maple syrup and wild berries if there are any by where we are camping

Throughout the Day...
trail mix, chips and salsa, this crazy pufffed snack called Veggie Booty - which looks like cheeze puffs except it tastes like veggies, peanut butter and jelly, chickpea salad sandwiches, fruit and vegetables (usually carrots), and leftovers of whatever we cooked the night before

For Dinner...This is where the magic happens, always different, always delicious (except this one time in Grand Tetons)...Here are some things we have done...
Roasted potatoes, squash, peppers and onions in little foil packets over the fire,
Whole wheat pasta tossed with homemade pesto and cannellini beans, served with a spinach salad with homemade rosemary balsamic dressing and garlic bread,
Mish Mosh (see the post below),
Ethiopian Red Lentil Curry (Misirwot), and
Southwestern Pasta toss with black beans, fire-roasted red and green bell pepper and jalapeno peppers, chipotles, onions and tomatoes.

The key for effective vegan camp cooking is to be prepared with a pantry of organic, whole-grain ingredients, such as pasta, grains and beans, and a collection of spices and dried herbs. We shopped at Frankferd Farms in Saxonburg, PA - down the street from M's parents' house, and brought the essentials from our spice cupboard. Then, as you are traveling, shop for locally grown produce and cook what's available. The best plan is a loose plan.

We keep our meals to one pot, or possibly to one pot and a frying pan, and plan ahead to roast vegetables or garlic whenever we have a fire. The rule in our camp is that you must lick your plate clean after you eat (yes, we use soap and wash them after that, but it's a lot easier without any little food morsels on them).

More recipes will be posted later, or possibly in a book that we will publish.

Redwood-Sized Fun

K is working on a post about our actual ventures in the California Redwoods state parks, as her writing is more suited to the majesty of the trees and the excellent hiking experiences we had there. But no trip to this part of California is complete without at least some mention of the ridiculous array of roadside attractions found along or near the US-101 in Northern California. That's where I come in...

There are endless numbers of little motels and shops selling burl wood and redwood sculptures, and no shortage of 'Amazing One-Tree Houses' and drive-thru trees. Perhaps the greatest of these attractions is Trees of Mystery, host to a giant-sized sculpture of Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox. Its really really big, and you can't miss it driving out of the forest, you just come around a bend and there it is. We didn't go into the actual for-charge attraction, but we'd be remiss to not at least take a photo.

Also a necessity is a drive-thru tree. You really need to drive through a tree. To be honest it was a main goal of mine on this trip, and now I can sleep easy at night, having finally driven through a tree.

Also worth mention is the 'Famous Confusion Hill', site of some sort of mysterious vortex or something. Again, it was costly, and it looked basically like a carnival-house that was built on an incline, so that when you go in you get all disoriented. They also host the amazing Chipalope, a sort of Jackalope spin-off that's a king-sized chipmunk with antlers, as well as the Twin-Towers Memorial Trees, which (you guessed it) are two large redwoods growing next to one another. The sculpture at the entrance is pretty cool, a 40' totem carved upright from a single log. Most are carved while down and then put back up, or made in pieces and reassembled. So that was pretty cool.


K, fire-master

From the first night we've been allowed to due to wildfire dangers, K has wanted to make the campfire. Not just start it, but make it high-quality, hot, and organized (so that all of the available wood is consumed). Her first efforts were met with much frustration and sadness, as in many parks and campgrounds the wood that was available was not completely cured, kindling was wet or altogether unavailable, and her understanding of fire-construction was limited. Many times the fire would become extraordinarily smoky, or put itself out after a few minutes.

However, with dedication, perseverence, and a little bit of study from our trusty Outdoors Handbook (which we pikced up at the Lolo Pass vistitors center), K has learned the ways of a true fire-master. Her past few attempts have been bright, hot, and not-overly-smoky. Here she is enjoying a successful fire at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Congrats on your new skill!

Prairie Creek State Park, Northern California

We went on a splendid hike, probably the best of the entire trip, at the Prairie Creek State Park, which is part of the Redwoods national/state system. I have decided that 11-12 miles is the perfect length of a day hike for my present physical condition, so I was relieved to see that the itinerary matched this for once. (M tends to like to walk a bit further and faster than me.)

The hike started off on the James Irvine Trail, which can be reached by taking the interpretive loop out of the visitor's center. By the way, if you make it to this visitor's center, you MUST go inside and see the elk skull lodged in the tree trunk. I guess they like to jam their antlers into other elk, but if not available, will do it to a tree and this one got stuck and died, leaving the tree to grow around its skull. As the exhibit label puts it, "A rare find indeed!"

The James Irvine Trail passes through grove after grove of old-growth Redwoods, and now we really believe the books that called these trees the tallest in the world. As we walked, we commented that it seemed the trees were getting larger as we went...possible, I thought, but in this place it seemed just as likely that we were getting smaller. The trail meanders up to the upper ridge along a canyon through which shallow, cold waterfalls and streams flowed, the sides of the canyon lined with ferns and moss. After about four miles, the trail intersects the Fern Canyon loop trail, which descends into the canyon, so you can get a look at the ferns lining the canyon walls from below. As we left the canyon, we were back on the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean, and walked about a mile south along the beach to meet up with the Miner's Ridge Trail.

There were a ton of birds on the beach - many gulls, some kind of pelican-like bird that we haven't been able to identify, and little sandpipers. As the tide receded, pieces of crabs and shells and seaweed were revealed in the sand. It was surprisingly warm and sunny on the beach, so we stopped to eat some leftover Mish Mosh and delicious Washington apples from our Olympia relatives. As we were walking out on the beach we saw water spouting up into the air several hundred yards offshore, which we assume came from a whale of some type, as there are many known to inhabit and migrate through this area.

The Miner's Ridge Trail was much more overgrown at the beach end and we found some suspiciously bear-like scat as we started back into the woods, which of course, made me nervous. However, we ran into nothing more than a couple of banana slugs and some vibrantly blue berries which we did NOT taste. There was evidence of fire damage on this trail, although it may have occured long ago. The regenerative property of the Redwood is phenomenal, and we saw trees that had the entire inside burned out, but were still growing strong and tall. These burned out areas created dark and spooky 'caves' within the trunk of the tree and I only went in one, but the silence there was so complete that I nearly forgot that I was inside a thousand year old life.

Redwoods have tanine in their bark, and unlike many conifers do not have pitch, which makes them less susceptable to destruction by fire. Their bark can be up to a foot thick. There were once over 2 million acres of redwood forest in Northern California, but now less than 100,000 acres remains and only 40,000 of that is protected by state and national parks. As much as we have enjoyed the natural existence of these remarkable trees, we have noted that many must enjoy what can be made out of these trees...we passed endless truckloads of redwood logs and drove by countless sawmills and lumber yards.

If you hike this trail, be prepared for a variety of hiking surfaces, some elevation change, and to hear a lot of "that's a big tree" coming from your hiking companions along the way. Don't miss this state park if you are in the area.