Monday, December 17, 2012

Winter Wonderings

One of the most beautiful winter walks I’ve ever taken was in the mountains just east of Cuba, New Mexico.  This trip was not planned nor was I properly prepared for the experience that I had.  No, this walk was a result of impulsive and foolish behavior on the part of a young and excited 21 year old kid that wanted to explore these mountains that were so different from the Appalachians.

The story actually starts a few weeks prior to my woodland walk when I stopped at a diner in the little town of Cuba on my way back to Albuquerque from visiting some friends further north.  As I headed for a seat at the counter, I noticed an older gentleman sitting there and the words “Butler, PA” caught my eye on the back of his jacket.  I straddled the stool next to him, placed my order for a slice of pie and cup of coffee, and then asked the man about his connection to Pennsylvania while explaining to him that it was my home state.  He was a friendly gentleman and explained that he used to work at a radio station back there.  Then when the waitress brought my order, he introduced me to his wife and said he liked to come to the diner and spend a little time with her while she worked.
We continued to chat and exchange information about our lives and eventually, the conversation turned to my enthusiasm to explore these rugged mountains of the Continental Divide.  This is when my new friend gave me a list of advice about heading into those mountains.  He explained that these mountains were very different than what I was used to in PA and how that more than once he’s had to head into the hills to pull out some over-enthusiastic and uninformed east coast individual that has managed to get themselves stranded.  Rule one was never to go into the mountains without a CB radio – this was 1986 and the cell phones weren’t commonplace like now – and that way I could always call him for help if it was needed and he provided his CB call sign.  Rule two was that I shouldn’t go out there alone because there were dangers, especially from stalking mountain lions.  Rule three was to be aware that the roads in these mountains were often impassable during bad weather or winter conditions and to heed the warning signs posted at the beginning of such roads.  He also explained that many of the roads had springs that arose in wet conditions right on the roadway and they could wash out sections of the road or you could be driving along and sink right into one of the springs.  I finished my pie and coffee, thanked him for the company and conversation and then waved good-bye to him and his wife.

About 3 weeks later, on a long Thanksgiving weekend, I was again southbound from my friend’s house in Aztec and was approaching Cuba when I noticed a sign to a lake.  I was in no hurry to return to the city and the sun would soon be setting, so I thought I’d try to find this lake and maybe I’d be fortunate enough to see some elk or other wildlife coming to the water to drink.  As I followed the signs eastward to the lake, it didn’t take long to realize I was heading into the mountains and higher elevations.  I pulled off to check my map and noticed that there was a forest service road that should take me all the way through the mountains and I could catch Interstate 25 on the other side near Espanola and head back south to Albuquerque from there.  Why not?  I beautiful detour through the mountains, the potential to see wildlife and it would slow my re-entry into the city.  Yep, sounded like a plan!

As I turned onto the forest service road, I noticed one of those warning signs about the road possibly being impassable during winter conditions.  You know, the do not attempt without 4 wheel drive and please turn back kind of signs that you know if you ignore you’re headed for trouble.  For a brief moment I remembered my conversation in the diner and the gentleman’s warnings, but hey, I’ll be alright.  There isn’t that much snow on the ground and it’s getting dark and below freezing, so all the water will be solid anyway.  Besides, this looks like a pretty well maintained forest service road and it’s only a mile or so up to the lake, so if it starts looking bad there, then I’ll turn around.  It’s amazing how youthful inexperience can talk you into doing the stupidest of things.
Well, things were fine for a while.  I came across a parking area with a port-a-potty and got out of the car assuming that this was where the lake could be found.  I walked around and looked in every direction but could not see any lake.  Finally, I got back in the car thinking that maybe I hadn’t gone far enough.  The sun was setting and the road conditions weren’t bad; there was a light layer of compacted and frozen snow with those occasional frozen puddles that form in the tire tracks.  I could hear the cracking and crunching of the ice as my wheels passed over them, but believed that shortly the temperatures would freeze these little puddles solid and I wouldn’t even notice them.  Still, I knew enough to be cautious about sliding on the ice and turned my high beams on to watch for deer or elk crossing the roadway. 

It was beautiful even in the dark with the ice crystals glittering in my headlights and towering pines lining my path.  I was now totally absorbed in scanning the edge of the roadway for any sign of life and was enjoying myself immensely.  I barely noticed the crackling ice anymore and paid no attention whatsoever to how many miles I had driven.  There were no road signs and I didn’t have a care in the world.  Until… (you knew it was coming.)
There was a crack followed by a thud as my car suddenly descended into a hole in the road.  I sat there spinning my wheels and attempting to get myself free alternating between reverse and drive to no avail.  So, I placed the car in park and got out to take a better look at my situation.  I swung my leg out the door and planted it on what looked like solid ground, but as I leaned forward and brought the other leg out of the car, the ice gave way and I found myself standing nearly knee deep in freezing water.   I climbed out of the water and using the light from my headlamps and taillights assessed the situation while trying to watch out for anymore unexpected pools of water. 
At one point, I thought maybe if I could place some fallen branches under the tires, I might get enough traction for the car to climb out of the hole.  So I grabbed my first branch and poked it under the right rear wheel, only to discover that it just sank deeper and deeper into mud.  It was obvious rather quickly that I had no way to get the car out of the hole.  It was cold, dark and I wasn’t even sure how far into the mountains I had traveled.  I had no way to communicate with anyone for help, so I knew I was going to spend the night in my car. 
The next step, of course, was to assess what I did have that would be helpful for my night’s stay.   In the bed of my hatchback were a synthetic sleeping bag and a faux fur coat.   I had about ¼ tank of gas, so I would have to conserve fuel to stay warm and turn off the lights to conserve the battery power.  My feet were freezing and I knew I needed to get warm and dry to avoid hyperthermia, so I got back in the car and took of my sneakers and socks and started trying to dry them using the car’s heater.  I gave up on the shoes early and focused more on my socks and getting the lower part of my jeans drier.  After about an hour of drying, I shut the heater off because it was getting way too warm inside the car for my comfort, but I didn’t want to let too much heat out the window as I knew it would cool down quickly with the temperature outside dipping lower.
So, I took one last look through my steam up front windshield at the world outside, turned off the headlights and crawled into the sleeping bag in the back seat.  I used the faux fur as a pillow and lay there mesmerized by the stillness and quiet of this winter wonderland.  I thought about how I was going to get myself out of this situation and knew that the only logical thing to do was to work my way back into Cuba, hopefully find the gentleman who I had met earlier and humbly ask for his help.  All I had was his and his wife’s first names, but I knew where she worked and I knew small towns…everybody knows everybody, so it shouldn’t be too hard to locate them. 
In the meantime, there was nothing I could do, but wait until morning.  I wasn’t scared and looking out into the darkness, I noticed that the stars were shining so very brightly above the trees that it almost seemed you could reach out and touch them.  I actually felt very peaceful and thankful to be able to spend time in such a beautiful place.  I said a prayer of thanks and asked for favor and guidance for the next day’s journey and went to sleep comfortable, warm and satisfied.
Come morning, the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was half inch long icicles hanging on the interior of the roof.  I thought to myself, “Wow, it must have really gotten cold last night.”  Then I crawled up to the front seat to start the car and get the heater running to warm up.  My sneakers were lying on their side on the passenger’s floor and when I rolled them right side up, the laces remained standing straight up as they were frozen solid.  I grabbed the shoes and began trying to thaw them out so I could put them on.
The windows were also totally frosted over, so I couldn’t see anything outside the car but there was enough light seeping through to know it was daylight outside.  That’s when that funny little feeling of slight paranoia and fear grabbed me.  Not knowing what might be outside, your eyes widen, your breath deepens, your heart starts quickening and your imagination starts playing games with your rational mind.   I wanted to open the window or door to get some fresh air, but didn’t know what might be waiting right outside.  I shifted the heater vents to start defrosting the front window and hoped that the noise of the car might scare any lurking creatures away.  Finally, that small round hole of melted ice appears; you switch on the wipers to aid in widening the visible area.  “Ah, good,” and a you let out a sigh of relief when you are finally able to peer out and see there is nothing looking back at you.
After the shoes were warmed enough to be flexible, although not dry, I forced my feet into them and rolled the driver’s side window down slowly.  Oh, that fresh air felt so good.  Another look around to be sure nothing is waiting to startle me and I opened the door.  This time, I’m much more tentative about my feet placement, but realized that my original theory of the ice freezing solid over night was correct.  I even stomped on it to be sure I wasn’t going to take another dive into those icy waters. 
I get out of the car and it is absolutely gorgeous outside.  The sun is shining brightly and promising to warm the day.  The sky is blue, the air is crisp and clean, and I am standing in the most crystalline pure environment that I have ever seen.  I stood there in wonderment and took several deep breaths as if I could draw this pureness into myself.  Then I walked around the car only to find that it was now incased in a block of ice nearly up to its axles.  Yep, there is no way I was getting it out on my own, so I had better get moving to find some help.  Which way?  Do I go back toward Cuba or have I come so far that it would be closer to continue forward to help?  Without keeping track of the mileage, I wasn’t sure where I was on the map, so I prayed for guidance and decided to head forward.
A turkey gobbled in the distance in response to the closing car door.  The sound seemed foreign and like an invasion on the peace that was over the woods.  I locked the doors and headed down the road basking in the beauty that surrounded me and thinking about how much time I had to fix the my situation.  I had to be at work in the city the next morning and that was still about a 2 hour drive away.   The stillness was so serene that it was easy to think there; no distractions from televisions, phones or appliances.  Not a sound could be heard but the crunching of my feet on the frozen ground and an occasional song bird announcing the new day.
Guessing mileage based on my average walking speed, I would say I had covered about 2 miles when something big went crashing off through the forest to my right.  I only saw the underbrush moving as this large creature took flight from my presence, but my best guess was that it was either an elk or a bear.  I briefly thought about climbing down that side of the road to go look for tracks to satisfy my curiosity, but wisely decided against it, telling myself to stay focused on the task at hand.
Another couple of miles and I started to hear a faint mechanical sound drifting on the breeze.  No doubt about it, there was someone ahead operating some kind of machinery.  The sun was much higher in the sky now and despite the dampness of my shoes, I was keeping fairly warm despite having no hat or gloves and wearing only my high school jacket, semi-damp jeans and a sweatshirt.  The roadway was fairly level with no major changes in elevation and the snow and ice were starting to melt again under the sun’s warmth.  I was very happy and content and enjoying every moment of my walk in the woods.
About 11:30 am, I finally discovered the source of the machine noise as I came across a small logging camp with about a half dozen men in it.  They had a fire going and allowed me to warm up there as I explained my situation.  Though they spoke Spanish to each other, at least two of the men spoke English well enough to let me know that they would try to pull my car out once they went on their lunch break.  So, about 30 minutes later, three of us hopped into a four wheel drive truck and started making our way back to where I started that morning.
It was a lot easier walking than it was riding in that truck.  As the sun warmed the road, it became a slushy, slippery mess and twice we got the truck stuck.  The first time, the guys had to get out and cut some limbs to place under the wheels for traction before we could continue.  The second time, we slid part way off the road and had to winch the truck back up onto the roadway.  The owner of the truck decided at that point to give up.  He wasn’t willing to risk continuing on with the conditions and I couldn’t blame him.  So, at the next area wide enough to get turned around, we headed back to the camp.
The other logger who was in the truck said that he would be going home for lunch and would drop me off in the town of Coyote at the gas station where I could possibly get help or a ride into Cuba which was about 5 miles away.  This was agreeable to me as it got me closer to my goal and I would not have any problem walking the 5 miles before sunset.  So, once he dropped me at the gas station, I walked in and bought myself a snack cake and a drink for my brunch with the couple dollars I had on me and started walking toward Cuba.
I had barely moved a 100 yards down the road, when a lady with a couple kids pulled over and asked if I needed a ride.  I quickly explained my situation and that I needed to get to Cuba.  She said that if I didn’t mind waiting about a half hour or so, she would give me a ride.  Well, of course, I accepted her offer as I certainly wasn’t going to walk to Cuba that quickly, so I went with her to her house which had an added surprise waiting for me.  As it turns out, this was the wife and home of the logger who had given me the ride into the gas station.  He was as shocked as I was when I entered the house.
The entire household spoke Spanish except when speaking directly to me.  They took my wet sneakers and started drying them by the fire of the stove.  The oldest daughter ransacked her room looking for some other shoes for me to wear in the meantime and finally came up with a pair of pink, jelly shoes as the only thing that would stretch big enough to fit me.  They served me a meal of beans, tortillas and coffee which was absolutely delicious and I was amazed not only by their generosity and kindness, but that I was getting a glimpse into a culture that, at that stage of my life, was fairly foreign to me.  All I could think was “Wow, this day just keeps getting better and better.”
With lunch behind us, the logger waved good-bye and headed back to work.  His wife finished up some more household tasks and then she and I headed toward Cuba.  On the way, she asked me if I knew anyone there who could help me and I explained to her who I was attempting to locate.  As soon as I mentioned that man and woman’s names to her, she said, “Oh, I know them and I’ll take you right to their place.”  Gosh, I love small town communities!
We pulled into the driveway of a mobile home on the south side of town and the woman waited as I went to the door to be sure they were home.  Once the front door opened, the women waved to each other and the gentleman’s wife invited me in.  I humbly told her what I had done and that her husband offered to help me if I ever needed it.  She explained that he was in the shower and that I would have to wait a few minutes.  This, of course, made me feel terrible, as I knew that getting the car out of the mud, snow and ice would not be a clean process and who wants to get dirty, wet and cold after just taking a nice warm shower?
After a few minutes, the gentleman emerged with his still wet, but combed hair with a bit of disgust on his face.  He asked how far up into the mountains had I gone and I told him that I wasn’t sure, but that I had headed up to see the lake and when I couldn’t find it, had continued on.  He said, “You can’t see the lake from the road; you have to hike about a mile or so from the parking area to get to it.”  He donned a hat and coat and all three of us got in his truck to begin the journey back into the mountains.  The sun was beginning to set and there was almost a sensation of deja vue as it had been a full 24 hours from the time I first decided to make the turn to the lake.
During the ride, the gentleman proceeded to give me the didn’t-I-tell-you lecture which I had anticipated receiving from him.  I sat there quietly and occasionally answered “Yes, sir” while feeling like I was twelve and being lectured by my grandfather.  I had absolutely no leg to stand on though, so I took the tongue-lashing with no rebuttal in my defense.  He wasn’t excessively harsh about it and eventually, we joked about giving me the CB handle of Pennsylvania Mud Puppy. 
Finally, we arrived at the car and he was able to wrap a chain around the rear axle and pull me out.  Turns out the car did not have a single wheel touching a solid surface but was balanced on the undercarriage.  The kind couple took the lead and I followed feeling good about the problem being solved.  A short while down the road, they stopped.  The gentleman got out of his truck, came back to my car and said, “I suppose you haven’t had much to eat today, have you?”  I told him about my brunch at the gas station and lunch at the logger’s house.  He said, “Follow me back to our house before you head back to the city.”  So, I did and when we arrived, they invited me in and served up some cheese, summer sausage and crackers to eat while we socialized a while longer.  About 8:30, I finally said my good-byes, thanked them again and drove back to Albuquerque.
Now, here I am, 26 years later, a little older and a hopefully a little wiser.  Winter in the mountains can be a deadly situation and I certainly have no intention of taking the same foolish risks as I did back then.  Still, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the experience of that day & night in those mountains.   I had a lot of peace within and was not riddled with worry.  Maybe it’s because I’m more optimistic than most.  Some would say I’m just darn lucky and totally naïve to the possibilities that could befall me. 
But me, I wonder.  I wonder if fear of the possibilities keeps the many from living and having some of the most wonderful experiences in life.  I wonder at the people who give so generously of themselves to help a stranger.  I wonder at the beauty that God has created.
I wonder as I wander.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Sometimes walking along the edge of a lake, you’ll find yourself on a shelf of earth, gravel, or even rocks that would normally be underwater if the lake were at its full capacity.  This shelf can be very narrow or several feet wide depending on the particular topography of that body of water.  The actual bank of the lake can be anywhere from a few inches to several feet above the level on which you are standing.

While fishing from one of these narrow shelves, my father placed his fishing basket on the three foot embankment behind him.  The basket contained his first catch of the day and caught the attention of a nearby, but undetected, raccoon.

It wasn’t long before the adorable little bandit made his move.  Fortunately, the burglar made enough noise during his heist to arouse my father’s attention and who then began yelling and scrambling up over the embankment to stop the would-be thief.  The basket proved to be too much for the coon to carry while trying to escape and my father was able to keep his catch.

Raccoons are adorable and can be cuddly, friendly little creatures that have adapted to suburban life quite well.  Cute as they are though, more often than not, they are not welcome visitors as their propensity to raid trash cans under the cover of darkness results in a trash strewn lawn revealed in the light of day.  The angry homeowner then goes about the task of cleaning up the mess with animosity toward the no longer cute or lovable raccoon.  The homeowner decides something must be done to rid the raccoon from the area.

Now, from the raccoon’s perspective, he did nothing wrong.  He simply was following the basic instincts for survival with which he was born.  All animals will reside near and repeatedly frequent areas that provide a ready supply of food.  The raccoon is indifferent about scattering trash over the homeowner’s property.  He does not care if or when the homeowner cleans up the mess.  The raccoon simply is uncaring about the distress his behavior causes the home-owner and he is oblivious to the visual eyesore he creates.  He does not care about homeowner association rules or in general any rules regarding trash containment; the rules simply do not apply to him.  He is a true scavenging scofflaw.

There’s been a lot of discussion this past week among my fellow hikers concerning the amounts of trash found along the trails they have hiked including the Appalachian Trail.  Inevitably the principles of Leave No Trace arise during these discussions as well as the numerous examples of witnessed violations of those same principles.  The principles of Leave No Trace technically began in the 1960s but the national education program wasn’t developed until the 1990s.  As with all behavior modification programs, it takes time for those new ideas and habits to be adopted and put into practice. 

However, I guess that there are very few persons today who have not at least heard of the Leave No Trace principles and certainly with the pro-environmental education being taught in the public school system, even without the details of LNT, I doubt there is anyone under the age of 40 who hasn’t been exposed to at least the basic concepts of minimalizing human impact on the environment. 

While I understand the objections to some of the specifics in the LNT principles and I will admit that I have not always adhered to all the LNT rules myself, I am a firm believer in and have always practiced a policy of not trashing out the great outdoors.  How long would it remain great otherwise?
The Appalachian Trail is maintained through a cooperative effort of over 6,800 volunteers through over 31 trail-maintaining organizations, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy with members from all 50 states and over 15 other countries.  The A.T. transverses 6 national parks and 14 states with volunteers clocking more than 220,000 hours each year to maintain, clean and repair the trail and its facilities.  I certainly am appreciative of all their labors and will reap the benefit of their efforts next year along with 2-3 million others who will set foot on some portion of the A.T.  Along with the efforts these volunteers give, we each have a responsibility to do our part to keep the trail in great shape. 
I believe there are many who take their environmental concerns to an extreme level and end up worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.  I respectfully may disagree with their views, but whether one believes in evolution, or Mother Earth, or Buddhism, one thing we all agree on is that we have a responsibility to care for our environment.  I personally see the beauty of this earth as one of God’s greatest gifts to his children and it should be cherished and cared for as any gift of love would be.

One of the things that sets us apart and above the animals on this planet is our ability to try to understand the purpose of life and to ponder life beyond daily survival.  We have the capability to plan, reason and realize that what we do today can have an impact on the generations that follow.  This is one the reasons that the National Park Service was created –

             “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife
            therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and
            by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future
            generations.”                                                   (From The Organic Act of 1916)

 I’ve done my share of picking up trash after raiding raccoons have visited.  While this task may be annoying and messy to perform, it pales in comparison to the frustration of cleaning up after supposedly intelligent two-legged animals who just blatantly refuse to obey the rules, who have no regard for others and no appreciation for the wonderful world around them.

We, as citizens of this great United States, are the care-takers, the homeowners, if you will, of some of the greatest landscapes in the world.  Just as the homeowner develops an animosity toward his midnight marauder and begins to plan for his removal, if those who clean up after these trail-trashing animals, as our homeowner representatives, decide they have had enough and the trail’s survival is in jeopardy, then the time may come when removal will be required for the protection of this nation’s asset.  If this should ever happen, then we all lose. 

So please, whether you are a day visitor, a section or thru-hiker, consider your place in the hierarchy of this world and consider your responsibilities to the environment, your fellow citizens and future generations.  Although a thru-hike involves many aspects of primitive living, and you may smell like an animal for lack of bathing, you don’t have to prove you are one with a nonchalant and irresponsible attitude toward the trail and your fellow hikers.


 **Photo courtesy of

Monday, November 26, 2012

Golden Rainbows

About an hour north of Atlanta, Georgia is a little town of about 5,200 people named Dahlonega.  Historically important as the location of the first United States gold rush in 1828, it is also 20 miles east of Springer Mountain where the majority of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers begin their northward trek.

Ten years after the mining began there, the government established a small mint that produced $1, $2.50, $3 and $5 gold coins until 1861 when the Confederacy laid claim to the mint upon secession from the Union.  It was on the steps of the Dahlonega mint that those famous, although probably misquoted, words “There be gold in them thar hills!” were uttered by Dr. M. F. Stephenson in 1849 while motioning to the mountains around Dahlonega.  He was trying to convince prospectors to stay in the Georgia mines instead of chasing after the gold recently discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California.

In the fall of 1954 another type of gold was discovered in Petersburg, West Virginia by Vincent Evans.  One female rainbow trout in the fish hatchery in Petersburg displayed a genetic mutation that made her a golden color.  She subsequently spawned hundreds of offspring which carried the golden gene and through selective breeding produced the West Virginia Centennial Golden Trout in 1963.

Fertilized eggs from these West Virginia trout were then transported to other states including Pennsylvania which began breeding the golden rainbows with regular trout producing a lighter hybrid known as a palomino trout.  Pennsylvania began stocking these gems in their streams and lakes in 1967.  Eleven years later, on my 13th birthday, I was fortunate enough to stake my claim to a bit of this gold as I pulled my first, and only, descendant of that golden West Virginia trout from the Kettle Creek in northern Pennsylvania.
**Photo courtesy of

Every year in late April or early May, my family would go camping for a few days at Kettle Creek State Park in Renovo, PA.  It was a wonderful place where we would spend our days fishing, hunting mushrooms, learning about the flora and fauna from park rangers, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over the campfire and playing cards if it rained.  There was an upper campground above the Alvin Bush dam that overlooked the lake and a lower campground, where we stayed, that was along the stream that flowed from the base of the dam.  Is it any wonder that as I prepare for this extended camping trip that my mind again turns to the delightful provisions of the mountain streams?

Those cold, refreshing, crystal clear streams of the Appalachians provide stunningly beautiful waterfalls and meditative melodies to sooth the soul.  These streams also provide life to the plants, birds and animals of the forest and are a critical part of the support system that sustains hikers on their journey.  A hiker satisfies his thirst, fills his bottle to carry to the next stop or carries water to camp to cook his evening meal after cooling swollen feet in the icy mountain medicine.  In the hottest of months and if the pool is large enough, the hiker may strip down to his shorts and enjoy a swim; a little recreation and relaxation from the daily dirt pounding.

When a hiker of the A.T. takes a day off it is known as a Zero day for zero mileage or is a Nero day (for near zero) when only a few miles are hiked before stopping for the day.  On these off trail days, hiker’s do laundry, repair or shop for replacement gear and supplies, take showers, take naps, catch up on communication with family and friends, rest, seek medical help, if needed, and did I mention, sleep? 

For this hiker, I’m hoping to pan a little more gold from the hills on my Zero/Nero days.  It will be an added expense to acquire fishing licenses for the state I happen to be in at the time, but I would much rather spend those off days resting by a babbling brook or being lulled to sleep by the lapping of lake waves against the shore than being in a motel room.  And should I be a fortunate fisherman, there will be fresh fish to fry for dinner.
While it would be nice to once again harvest some gold from the waters of the Appalachian range, these nuggets are a rarity and I will be thankful for whatever jewel or gem --- be it trout, catfish, sunfish, bass or walleye --- that I am hopefully able to hook.  What a rich reward to receive!  And who knows, maybe there’s still some gold left in them thar hills!


Monday, November 19, 2012

The Backpacking Boiler

In my last article, Black Beary Milkshakes, I briefly mentioned The Galloping Gourmet.  Later, it occurred to me that many of you might be unfamiliar with Chef Graham Kerr, who was the namesake and star of the live studio television show that ran from 1969-1971.  His signature entrance onto the stage involved running in and leaping over a dining room chair.  Chef Kerr’s nickname was acquired after taking a 35 day trek around the world with a wine expert named Len Evans.  The two men visited some of the finest restaurants in existence at the time and wrote a book at the end of their travels titled, The Galloping Gourmets.

My mother-in-law once said, “Gourmet just means the food is served with a rich sauce on it.”  Apparently, she wasn’t far from the truth when considering the early recipes of Chef Kerr routinely used large amounts of butter, cream and wines to flavor and coat his meals.  Of course, this was before our society was so aware that such fat-laden meals, while pleasing to the palate, weren’t the best choices for our hearts and health.

However, even with our current knowledge, we often chose foods, not for their nutritional value, but for how they will tantalize our taste buds or satisfy us emotionally.  We even have the term “comfort food”, which first entered our vocabulary in 1977, to describe food that is easily prepared, associated with home, contentment, or has a nostalgic or sentimental appeal.  Comfort foods are typically high in sugars or carbohydrates and are often used to alter our moods when we are sad, worried or homesick.  Besides, being chosen for taste or emotional needs, we also chose foods based on activity—we associate certain foods with certain activities.  Can you imagine a baseball game without hot dogs and peanuts or a campfire without marshmallows or s’mores?

The thru-hiker on the A.T. is not like The Galloping Gourmet, making meals from scratch in an elaborately equipped kitchen.  No, the thru-hiker is The Backpacking Boiler usually equipped with a small, titanium, 2 cup capacity pot with a lid that doubles as a fry pan, a spork, a mug, a cozy and a single burner alcohol stove made from a soda can or the more elaborate canister fuel stove with an adjustable flame.  The extravagant thru-hiker will carry such luxuries as a plate, micro-cooking utensils or larger pot.  Anything beyond these items is considered unnecessary and outlandish.  With these items, the Backpacking Boiler must make all the associated camping and comfort foods they can for their psychological well-being on the trail.

If you’ve never cooked using a 6” titanium fry pan, let me assure you that it requires a little bit of finesse to manage the heat dispensation.  I had read that it was different than using aluminum pans and that practice was advised before hitting the trail.  Since I am conducting a fuel test to estimate how long a fuel canister will last with my particular cooking habits, this is an ideal time to try out some basic trail recipes, practice with my cookware and micro-utensils. (Yes, I’m carrying these luxury items.)  The micro-utensils consist of a spatula with a roughly 2” x 2” head on a 4” handle and a matching spork, both made of a lightweight, high temperature nylon polymer.

I set up my stove and decided to try making some basic pan drop trail biscuits.  I’m thinking that if this experiment goes well, these biscuits would not only be good for breakfast with jam, honey or gravy, but could provide me with bread for lunch time mini sandwiches.  I mix the batter in a plastic Ziploc type bag to simulate trail conditions and plop the first dollop of batter into my skillet.  It’s immediately obvious that my pan is too hot even though the flame is low.  I turn the flame down even farther while lifting the pan up and away from the heat.  I continue to try to control the amount of heat the pan is transmitting to the batter and eventually attempt to flip the biscuit which is sticking to the pan.  When I manage to get the biscuit turned, a lovely dark charcoal circle is revealed.  Once the other side of the biscuit has had adequate time to brown, I remove this culinary masterpiece to my inverted small pot to cool a moment and shut off the stove.  Now for the taste test, mmmm…a bold burnt flavor covering a delightfully doughy middle; the dog loved it.

Okay, now I understand why practice is recommended and I’ve definitely learned from my first attempt, so let’s try again.  This time I decide to go for a thinner batter and try pancakes lightly greasing the pan first with some olive oil.  I’m so focused on trying to control the heat that I make the pancake too big to be successfully turned with my micro-spatula.  As I cut the pancake into smaller pieces that the spatula can handle, the remaining pieces begin to stick and are starting to burn.  I’m beginning to feel like the Jolly Green Giant trying to cook with Barbie’s Easy Bake Oven.  As the small wisps of smoke rise from the pan, I’m thankful the smoke detector is not too close to where I’m working. 

After finishing off the other side of my pancake puzzle pieces, I pour a little syrup on it and choke it down.  Not too bad; only one side was slightly burned and the syrup definitely helped.  I’m thinking, “Okay, use a little more oil, keep the pan moving over the flame for heat control and make small pancakes the spatula can handle and you’ve got it!  Good, because I don’t want to eat nothing but boil-a-bag meals for 6 months.”

The Backpacking Boiler’s specialty is, after all, boiling water.  We boil water to make instant coffee, tea or hot cocoa.  We boil water to make pasta, rice, oatmeal or grits.  And most importantly, we boil water to re-hydrate any number of pre-packaged meals, either commercially or homemade, that come in a plastic re-sealable bag.  This is where the cozy becomes a vital part of the hiker’s kitchen.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘cozy’, (I was until my education of backpacking began), it is simply an insulated pouch in which to hold your meal bag, keeping it warm while the contents absorb a sufficient amount of liquid to become edible.  Most often, backpackers will make their own cozies out of those shiny, windshield sunscreens and duct tape or the really talented ones sew their cozy seams.

The other important part of this cooking method, sometimes called freezer bag cooking, is the bag holding the actual food.  If you are using one of the commercially prepared meals, you have no worries as their bags are more than adequately designed to handle the 212*F water.  However, if you are making your own dehydrated meals, you had better be sure your re-sealable bag can handle the heat; otherwise, dinner could end up in the dirt.

So, I boiled a couple cups of water and poured it into a one quart off-brand food storage bag that was not rated as a freezer bag which is much thicker.  I decided to let it sit for 15 minutes which is usually the longest amount of time any meal takes to rehydrate.  As a precaution against the bag failing the test, I placed it upright in a large measuring pitcher.  The bag became soft, but it held.

I figured while the bag was full, I should slip it into my homemade cozy and test the fit.  The bag fit wonderfully, but what I didn’t realize was that the bag was not totally sealed, so when I laid the cozy down and was securing the fold-over flap to close it, the slightly less than boiling water gushed out of the bag and splattered onto my sock covered foot sending me hopping across the kitchen for a hand-towel to dry my now burning toes.  Another lesson learned; ensure you bag is fully sealed or keep the cozy upright.
Burned biscuits, puzzle-piece pancakes and a hopping hot foot…yep, a successful day in the kitchen for this Backpacking Boiler.  Okay, so I don’t have the culinary competence of The Galloping Gourmet and I’ll be spending more time leaping over rocks and boulders than dining room chairs, but there is one thing I have in common with Chef Graham Kerr; my menu options will change over time.  Chef Kerr eventually altered his dishes to a fresher and healthier variety and after 6 months of trail food, I too, will make the move to a fresher menu and will once again enjoy the comfort foods of home.

*Photos courtesy of

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Black Beary Milkshakes

Don’t feed the bears!  We’ve been hearing that warning for as long as I can remember and honestly, I don’t know of anyone nor have ever heard of anyone who intentionally feeds bears.  We have been reminded, educated and down-right hounded about not feeding bears for so long because of the negative impact, on both bears and humans, that such behavior brings. 

Bears are one the great topics of discussion when considering a hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Personally, I’m looking forward to a bear encounter, as many hikers do.  We all want to take that great camera shot or watch from a safe, but close-ish distance, the wild bear in its natural habitat just being a bear.  There’s definitely an adrenaline rush when you encounter a large mammal in the wilderness without the zoo fence or glass barriers protecting you from a possible predator. 
To date, I have only had two bear encounters outside of the zoo.  The first was when I was about 16 years old and a gentleman at an auction house had a 2-3 month old black bear cub on a leash that he let me play with for about an hour (a great experience) and the other was a black bear my daughter and I scared up while driving around the Gila Mountains of western New Mexico on a fall turkey hunt.  The New Mexico bear is the only bear I’ve ever seen in the wild.  My grandfather used to tell me stories of how there were more bears around in his younger days in south-central Pennsylvania and from the stories I hear today, it sounds like the bears are back, but I have only heard the stories and seen the pictures.

And let’s not forget, it will be early springtime when we start our march northward.  The bears and their babies will be emerging from their winter dens looking for food to replenish their bellies after a dismal winter diet.  We all know Yogi loves to swipe a good pic-a-nic basket.  Wouldn’t a hiker’s backpack fit the bill nicely?  Or maybe, skip the backpack; what about the hiker?  There’s a big hunk of meat to be had, right?  And those cubs; gosh darn it, aren’t they just the cutest!  But, of course, there’s Mama Bear and you had best be watching out for her, because we all know you don’t mess with Mama’s kids!
Yep, the chances that you are going to encounter a bear somewhere on the Appalachian Trail, and especially in places like northeastern PA, northwestern NJ and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the population of black bears is estimated to be 1,500 or an average of 2 bears for every square mile, is relatively high.  Although you may encounter a bear, the odds that you will have a negative encounter are actually quite low.  For example, in 2009, a reported 288 bear incidents were reported in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; only one involved injury, most were property damage reports; damage that occurred in search of food.

Food; we all need it and the long distance backpacker needs more than the average human on a daily basis.  The average daily caloric intake for adults is between 1,600-2,800 calories with women running on the lower end of the scale and men to the higher end.  Activity levels are probably the number one variant in the amount of calories that a person should consume each day.  Now imagine for a moment that you are hiking up and down mountains for 8-12 hours per day with 25-40 lbs. on your back.  Those daily averages increase to 3500-5000 calories per day.  For those of us who are gourmands, this is great news!  Basically, you can eat all you wish and not have to worry about gaining weight because you’ll be hiking off those calories faster than you can swallow them.

But this also poses a problem.  How does one carry enough calories without dramatically increasing the your load?  Hikers have developed a couple different methods to accomplish these calorie requirements.  One is to eat foods that are high in caloric value per weight, with the goal being 100 calories/ounce.  Namely, this means junk food, so candy bars, summer sausage and other high fat foods are a staple in backpacks for caloric intake.  Another is to gorge on food when making resupply stops to make up for leaner days on the trail, therefore, All-You-Can-Eat establishments are a favorite place for hikers to chow down, as are pizza joints.  It’s not uncommon for a single hiker to eat an entire medium, or even large, pizza by themselves.  

This requirement for high calories and the in-town gorging of backpackers have combined to create some interesting food challenges and traditions along the trail.  The most famous is possibly the ½ gallon ice cream challenge at Pine Grove Furnace, PA which is very near the ½ way point on the trail.  In celebration of reaching the ½ way point, the campground store challenges hikers to eat a ½ gallon of ice cream in one sitting.   If you should choose Chocolate Moose Tracks, you could rack up 2,520 calories, based on the Hershey’s brand.  Years ago, if the hiker accomplished this feat, the ice cream was free, but that is no longer the case, as most hikers are quite able to accomplish this with their trail appetites in place. But, then again, maybe the challenge should be renamed as well since I don’t think anyone makes ½ gallons of ice cream anymore; it’s all 1.5 quarts now.

Pizza Hut claims 2,000 calories per 12” medium pepperoni pan pizza and you can get one delivered to the Partnership Shelter in Virginia.  In Waynesboro, VA is a place called Weasie’s that offers all-you-can-eat pancakes for $3.99 and is the home of the Pancake Challenge of man-hole cover sized pancakes.  I believe the current record is 22 set in 2010.  Supposedly in Damascus, VA there is a 6 lb. burger challenge at a place called Fattie’s Diner; the 4 lb. and subsequent 5 lb. burger challenges were beaten by earlier hikers.  And then, there is the tradition of stopping at Elk Wallow near Luray, VA for the best blackberry milkshake ever!  I don’t know if that’s true or just a hiker’s impression from the deprivation of normal home-cooked meals; guess I’ll find out in Virginia.

Further north, in Stratton, ME there is a Wolf Burger Challenge of 3 half pound burgers complete with cheese, onions and mushrooms with a side of fries.  But, in my opinion, the pinnacle of food challenges has to be the Summit Sundae Challenge in Millinocket, ME at the Appalachian Trail Café.  This is a 14 scoop (one for every state on the trail) ice cream sundae complete with a banana, M&Ms and a Snickers candy bar, chocolate syrup and maraschino cherries.  If you complete it, you receive a free T-shirt and possibly a stomachache or gall bladder attack.

Of course, calories are not the only consideration in a hiker’s food selection.  Extra protein is needed for muscle regeneration and complex carbohydrates are needed for energy.  So, a smart hiker will try to balance all these nutritional needs as well as the calories in their diet while trying to carry as little weight as possible.  The average hiker will carry between 1.5-2 lbs. of food per day, mostly of dehydrated foods that include a lot of pastas, rice, couscous, oatmeal and ramen.  Fruits will be in leathery rolls and vegetables will be dried.  Bagels and tortillas are the breads of choice and meats will most be jerky, Spam singles, foil-packaged tuna, salmon and chicken, as well as the aforementioned summer sausages.  And never forget, the hiking staple of all staples, trail mix or GORP (Good Ole Raisins and Peanuts).

Galloping Gourmets we might not be, but with home dehydrators being more common these days, many backpackers are able to expand their food choices and make recipes to their own liking.  You can now take your own home-made chili, pasta sauce, or soups and re-hydrate them on the trail with boiling water, a Ziploc bag and a cozy to keep it warm.  Yeah, no dishes to wash and no cans to pack out with the trash.  But you still have to protect this food from the bears (and mice), who are hungry, have a great sense of smell and love to get at an easy meal.

Yogi’s claims of being smarter than the av-er-age bear stands as a testament to the intelligence of this animal when it comes to acquiring food.  Most shelters have bear bag poles to hang your food out of reach at night.  Before heading out, every hiker should know how to hang a bear bag properly in the event no poles are available or are full.  One five mile section of the trail now requires a bear canister to be carried if you are overnight camping in that area; this is a first for the Appalachian Trail although this is common practice on the western trails of the United States.  Bear canisters are designed to keep the bear out of the food, although some bears in the Adirondacks have even figured out how to open some of these.  Some hang their food from the shelter roof, which keeps it from the bears, but requires adding another barrier to protect the food bag from mice, the other food predator of the trail.

So given all the planning, preparing, packaging and pigging out that backpackers do, it is highly unlikely that they willingly hand over any food to share with the bears along the way.  Yet every year, hikers do lose food to the bears, usually because of not properly securing one’s supplies.  Bears are opportunistic and will take whatever they can get, day or night.  One of my fellow hikers even told a story of how she chased down a bear that stole her backpack once to get it back.  Hikers take their food seriously and considering it’s all they have until the next resupply point, I think you can understand why.  I don’t plan on sharing my blackberry milkshake or any other food with the bears no matter how cute they are.

Of course, if you should miscalculate the amount of food you need on the trail, or are just darn hungry because you’re not getting enough in your daily meals; you can resort to another hiker’s tradition and become a Yogi yourself by begging food from day hikers, campers and anyone who might give you a hand-out and raiding hiker's boxes for discarded items.  Just watch out for Ranger Smith!


**Love this cartoon that’s been floating around the internet and hiking community!



Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricanes and Hills

Have you ever noticed how two people can share the same experience yet have totally different reactions to the event?  If you read my last post, you know that I was off cruising the Caribbean very recently while celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary.  My husband and I had the added pleasure of Hurricane Sandy’s company on our voyage.  Yes, I said pleasure and let me explain why.
The first five days of our cruise were blessed with the sun shining brightly and the tropical blue waters gently rolling and providing their usual soothing effect on all the passengers. 

It was the ideal Caribbean experience, but on the return leg of our trip with one remaining stop scheduled for the Bahamas, the situation began to change.  Suddenly, there was word of a hurricane in our path and she was headed for our exact destination; we would have to cancel our stop in the Bahamas and the captain wisely decided to detour around the storm to the west.  The plan was to allow the hurricane to continue on its northerly trail putting distance between the ship and the storm, then to turn north and follow the trailing winds into port arriving close to our scheduled time.  This would allow everyone to connect to their scheduled flights or continue their other travel plans without further interruption. Later that day, we learned the hurricane’s name was Sandy.

Sandy.  Of all names that it could be, this one immediately made us laugh. Not because Sandy comes from Sandra which comes from Alexandra which is the feminine of Alexander; you know, the Great; the man who swiftly blew across the Middle East and into Asia conquering everything in his path.  No, we laughed because our youngest daughter is named Sandy, primarily after my mother.  Both of these women are known for their dynamic and often stormy personalities. 
Additionally, this brought back memories of when I was pregnant with Sandy and the first couple months of her infancy.  See, when I was with swollen belly and would lie next to my husband at night, Sandy would kick intensely forcing me to move away from him.  After she was born, even while being in her own crib in another room, if her father and I would snuggle up or even think about having an intimate moment, she would cry on cue the moment we touched each other.  How she knew, we didn’t know, but here we are on a romantic getaway and once again, Sandy is interrupting our intimacy.  All we could do was laugh and enjoy the memory and the moment. 

So on we sail as the waves begin to increase in size.  No longer are they a gentle rolling turquoise or cobalt blue; now the water has taken on a midnight blue with white caps curling on the peaks and white sprays reaching even higher in the air misting the deck and porthole windows.
The ship’s bow has begun to rise up while climbing waves, pitching, peaking and sliding down the other side of these watery hills.  The waves slap the bottom and sides of the vessel with a deep boom that reverberates through the hull like an out of tune Chinese gong.  Night is beginning to fall and the wind is whirling and whipping the waves into higher and higher mountains with valleys far below. Now what does any of this have to do with hiking or my original question?  Bear with me, I’m getting to that.
Any field of interest or hobby you undertake requires learning a set of new vocabulary with it.  In the hiking world, PUDs, or pointless ups and downs are one of the new terms to which I’ve been introduced.  Apparently, during routine maintenance, trails are often re-routed for various reasons.  Often these new routes will extend the previous trail length and climb up every conceivable peak.  This is why the Appalachian Trail length has grown from 2,044 miles in 1948 to its current 2,184 miles. 
Unfortunately, many of these added peaks do not result in the majestic views that most look forward to as a reward for climbing and conquering the mountain, thereby, leaving the hiker disappointed in their efforts.  Hence, these climbs have been dubbed pointless and some hikers will avoid them altogether by hiking the previous trail route which is marked by a blue blaze instead of the white blaze for the official trail.  (Blazes are a 2” x 6” vertical bar painted on trees or rocks to mark the trail.) 
Hikers who are adamant about following only the white blazes are known as Purists and they tend to look down on the Blue-Blazers who shorten the journey by taking the side trails which are often more scenic and less strenuous.  Purists will only take these blue-blazed side trails to reach the shelters at night or as a weather-advised detour due to obstructions or hazards that prevent them from continuing on the white-blazed trail, much like our captain’s decision to look for bluer waters to avoid the whitecap peaks of the storm.
And just like our vessel took an alternative route hoping for a smoother ride, this does not always prove to give the intended result.  There are occasions when the blue-blazed trail can be just as strenuous, or even more so, than the white-blazed trail.  Not that I can say our original route was even an option for our cruise ship, not without risking the lives of all the passengers and crew, but we still had a much rougher ride than our dear captain intended for us.
So, how did we fare the night you ask?  Well, this brings me back to my original question concerning shared experiences and differing reactions.  No, it wasn’t my husband and I who had the differences; we both took the storm in stride; albeit, I had a little more enthusiasm than he did throughout the night as he was trying to get some sleep and I was too busy enjoying the show outside the porthole window.  (I mean, gee whiz, when am I going to get another opportunity to ride up and down 30-50 foot waves?)  No, it was the next morning, and even into this week while reading the various reports about what happened that night, that I truly realized how different perspectives can be in a single event.
There have been multiple criticisms of our captain who I believe did a wonderful job keeping everyone safe and trying to maintain the travel schedules of his passengers.  We arrived just 2 hours behind our scheduled docking time and although most of us ended up having to reschedule flights, it appeared to be more due to the delays once in port than our delayed arrival.  And, please remember, we arrived safely!  There were alternatives to that result.
Many passengers and even many crew members that I spoke with the next morning stated that they spent the night scared out of their minds.  While I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s fears; it is the Halloween season, after all; personally, I enjoyed the added excitement and opportunity for a unique adventure.  It certainly was a very memorable anniversary. 
Also, I have to be fair in my assessment and add that my husband and I were in the most ideal location onboard for the conditions.  Our stateroom was on deck 2, mid-ship, so we were very near the center fulcrum, whereas, if you were more forward or backward and at a higher deck level, your swings in elevation were probably much more dramatic than ours.  And I certainly have a lot of sympathy for those individuals who suffer with motion or sea-sickness.  I can understand why, for them, this was not a pleasant experience.
But, the point that I want to drive home with this discussion is this; the ship climbed multiple white-capped waves with little view at the top throughout the night and slid back down into the dark, watery valleys below seemingly getting nowhere; yet each up and down took us forward toward our destination.  Maybe you consider the climbs up mountains with no views as pointless and you’d prefer the more tranquil path of blue; so be it.  Each step, on a white-blaze or on a blue-blazed trail, takes you one step closer to your destination.  So, it’s back to the trail mantra; whether you are the purist whitecap or bouncing blue wave, hike your own hike. 
As for this ship, well, I enjoy those whitecaps and the ride they provide, but I won’t rule out an occasional scenic blue sailing past a peak for a restful repose.  The trail is supposed to offer freedom from the rigid rules of the world and while I don’t believe in being reckless and aim to reach my goal safely, I am also planning on throwing open my sails and let’s just see where the winds blows me, eh?