Really, really long numbers

You know what I liked about the woods? There were no long and pointless numbers. The only numbers we had to deal with meant something real and concrete. Nineteen point seven miles to the next shelter. Two hundred calories in a bagel. Four days since my last shower. Six seconds between lightening and thunder. Two thousand one hundred and seventy-four miles between Springer Mountain and Katahdin.

I spent all day looking up numbers, searching through files for numbers, calling people to obtain new numbers, and typing numbers into an online database. Every file has at least twenty-seven numbers attached to it. They all mean something different, and everybody refers to them by an acronym, so that I, being new, have no idea what they're talking about. The number I need is called a Prime Contract Number by the reporting system, although it is not the same number as the number we call Prime Contract Number internally. When I called the agency that assigned the number, I learned that it might actually be called a PIID number. It might be a VIN number. They don't really know, even though they are the ones that invented it and assigned it. Also, they don't seem to write it on any of the forms they send to us, so that I spent all day getting paper cuts, while looking for elusive 20 (or possibly 21) digit numbers in fat, colored-coded files. Rather Orwellian, isn't it?

In happier number news, I paid off one of my student loans today. They had some issues with numbers that I was sick of dealing with. I feel slightly liberated.


Goings On

I just finished my first week at my latest temp assignment. There is a bizarre and complicated numbering system for the files that I have not yet truly grasped, but other than that, it seems to be going pretty well. S and I abandoned our plans to attend cake decorating class, but we made a very awesome cake last night and even put roses on it. The only thing different about vegan icing is that without the merringe powder, it doesn't get crusty. I don't like crusty cake anyway.

Last weekend M and I backpacked at Oil Creek State Park, which I highlly recommend, and we will try to put up a more detailed description of our hike, in case anybody else wants to do it. There is very little information in books or on the web about longer trails in western PA, so M and I were thinking we should create a little database of these hikes, as we complete them.

I feel so blissfully free of worry when I have been hiking for a few hours, especially when listening to that lovely sound of dry leaves crunching below your feet. After spending all week cringing under fluorescent lights, I am pretty excited to flee the city and get back in the woods, which we hope to do with my parents tomorrow.


Vegan Needs Help

S and I are taking a cake decorating class. We need a vegan version of the "stiff icing". The non-vegan version uses merringe, which is egg whites, which we will not eat. And what is the point of making a beautiful cake that you will not eat?

Anybody have any suggestions? I am going to experiment with agar.



I completely forgot some unforgettable people we saw at the Gathering, like Boo Boo, and of course, Wingheart, who sent us this photo. Wingheart has a true passion for the AT and just completed what he calls his "11 year anniversary thru-hike" (he did his first thru-hike in 1996). He summited a few days after us, but we saw him pretty frequently along the trail.

I want to point out that this is an unusually large crowd, which is a few miles north of Caledonia State Park in Pennsylvania. Most shelters were not this full, but I was often the only female hiker. These are all great guys, but I remember wondering if any women were ever going to show up. Anybody know the stats on completion rates of thru-hikes for women?

the Gathering

I've been mentioning this event for a long time and we finally traveled last weekened to the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association annual Gathering, held October 5-7 in Gettysburg, PA.

ALDHA is a self-described "laid-back" organization. It only costs $10 per family to join, it's run entirely through volunteer efforts, and their main function is holding this annual hiker reunion. However, I must say, that for a "laid-back" group, they put on a very professional conference.

The conference was held at Gettysburg College, a small, but modern facility. Camping was included as part of the $10 (per family) registration fee, and was located on a farmer's field, just outside of town. The campsites were drive-in, and they had port-a-potties as well as a tank of potable water.

The event began with opening ceremonies which included a few speeches, a few thank-yous, some singing and slides, and "roll call", where they announce each year and if you thru-hiked that year, you get to stand up. Everybody claps, and you also get a chance to see who else you might have hiked with in the past has shown up. Because we only ever knew the trail names of other hikers it would be difficult to track them down, although internet message boards are making this easier. However, for many years, this event would be the only way to get in touch with old friends. We saw Caveman of Ohio, April Showers, Early Bird, finally met Martini and Rossi in person (we chased them clear from Georgia), and of course the Umbrella Lady, Habitual Hiker and their faithful dog, Mac.

Saturday and Sunday were filled with over 50 different sessions, which ranged from presentations on how to pitch a tarp to screenings of films that hikers have made about their journeys. I attended sessions on the Pacific Crest Trail, biking from Washington State to Maine, and a screening of Lion King's movie "Walking with Freedom on the PCT". The sessions were informative and well-done by the presenters.

We ended up cutting out of the conference early on account of a phone call from Jamie, announcing his presence in Pittsburgh. We haven't seen Jamie and Trish in a long time, so we hurried back to watch the Steelers with them at Ryan's place.

We are definitely going to make the Gathering an annual tradition. Hikers in general are some of the most generous, friendly, chill people I have ever met, and being around that crowd helped to rekindle some of my serenity, which I've been losing a bit since coming back home.

This event is definitely geared towards hikers of all experience levels, including "dreamers" - so if you think you might want to hike the AT or another long-distance trail some day, definitely check out the ALDHA website. The event is held every year around Columbus Day weekend.


Fall Vegetable Casserole

Normally, M is the master of the kitchen. However, he is currently busy mastering the web at work, so I am stepping up. Since we are going out of town this weekend to the Gathering, I needed to come up with a recipe that would use up a few ingredients around the house, such as stale bread, crookneck squash, and a half of a container of silken tofu. I was inspired by a recipe that Kate found a few weeks ago, but the preparation was complicated slightly by the fact that I couldn't find the recipe and had to convert it to vegan. But it turned out so delicious, that I had to share it.

First make some stuffing. I did this by sauteing celery and onion in about a tablespoon of oil, the adding some dried thyme and sage, and salt and pepper to taste. I mixed this together with the stale bread (which I had ground into bread crumbs in the food processor) and set it aside. Ideally, I would have also added some broth to make it moist, but having none, I just used water, and it turned out ok.

Next I cut up some carrots and a crookneck squash, but any kind of firm squash or root vegetable would probably be good, except maybe beets. To facilitate the cooking time (as I had come up with this idea about 30 minutes before the workers were set to return home), I steamed the vegies for a couple of minutes until they were slightly softened.

To make the vegan bechemel sauce, I ground up some pine nuts (it called for cashews, but we didn't have any) into a fine powder, then blended it with the silken tofu, and added some water to thin it out. I sauted the other half of the onion, and once it was soft, I blended the tofu mixture in with it, added salt and pepper, cooked it for a couple of minutes, then poured it over the steamed vegies in a casserole dish. I topped it with the bread crumb stuffing mixture and stuck it in the oven for about 30 minutes. A hit with vegans and non-vegans alike.

I'm making a larger point by sharing this recipe. Yes, you can open a can of cream of chicken soup and pour it over some vegetables, then layer stove-top stuffing and bake. But that has a lot of fat and sodium. My version is cholesterol free, low in fat, and even has some protein (from the tofu and nuts).


What is YOUR spirit animal?

Not to be uncharacteristically New Age, but I've been thinking about this. See, right now we live near all these cow pastures, and I run or walk or drive by them at least once a day. I can sort of tell the cows apart now, at least some of them. Last fall, there was a calf, a really tiny one, that ran and jumped around the field like a dog. I had never seen a cow do that before, and it really fascinated me. I wanted to go over to that pasture all the time and watch him. M told me that the running calf was my spirit animal, but I hadn't before thought about what that means.

Now I'm in what you could call a Transitional Period. I'm not sure what I want to Do With My Life. In this day and age, what you "Do" usually refers to your job, or what you get paid for. From my perspective, it's a little more all-encompassing; it will be what I do for money, for volunteer work, and how I help my friends and family. And today, I suddenly realized why the running calf is my spirit animal.

That tiny calf grew up rather quickly, and as he grew, he stopped frolicking. I went back again and again to try to catch him running around, and he was always eating grass...just like all the other cows. He learned from those around him. Children can be the same way - they learn how to act based on the people in their environment. I think my vocation is to protect and foster their desire to frolic, play, sing, explore, learn, or whatever they are naturally doing to follow their instincts for as long as possible. I want to be the voice that reassures them that they don't have to eat grass, i.e. mimic grownups, just yet. They have time.

School is a place where we try to make little children act like grownups. The fluorescent lights, furniture, routines and schedules are uncannily similar between schools and large corporate offices. I am not saying that children shouldn't learn. On the contrary, I think they would learn much more about reading, writing, math, social studies, science, physical education, and music, if we didn't make them sit still for six hours a day. But do we really need to start preparing them for Initech when they're seven? Or twelve. Or sixteen, for that matter. From watching kids "play" I know they know how to learn. They just need some help from grownups to allow this to happen.

So that's the story of my spirit animal. What's yours?


Blue Skies

Whenever I am away from Pittsburgh, I remember it for its gray skies. When talking with Pittsburgh ex-pats out west, they invariably mention the weather, and how much better it is in San Diego, or Phoenix, or Sacramento or whatever. There are many great things about this city, but weather is generally not on that list.

However, we've been home about three weeks, and the weather has been absolutely gorgeous the entire time. Blue skies almost every day, and plenty of sunshine. I've been stretching my hiker legs by jogging on the neighborhood country roads that criss-cross cow pastures and dip into wooded ravines. The trees are just beginning to change, tipped with scarlet and gold. Even though it's October, and autumn is officially here, that deep-summer, buzzing of crickets fills the night, drifting in through our open windows. I'm enjoying the sounds of the country, because we just found an apartment in the city, and will be moving to Bloomfield in a couple of weeks.

"Settling in" has happened much more quickly than I expected. M is working already. Rosie the Cat has forgiven us for abandoning her, although she grew bold in our absence, and now freely prowls the entire house, instead of holing up in our room.

I miss the simultaneous passage of time and space, the way you can see your progress not just by another sunset, but by the view of a ridge line, stretching out behind you. The beat of the non-hiking world is terribly circular sometimes.