Sweet Memories

A few weeks ago, I asked my 94-year-old dad if he had a favorite drink–thinking he might say something like a Manhattan or a Whiskey Sour. He looked skyward for what seemed like a long time, and then he finally announced, “probably cane juice.”

Huh? Cane juice? I guess I’m still learning things about my dad—and learning things from my dad, too. This lesson was about a great memory from his childhood in Savannah, Georgia, which was apparently overflowing with a sugary natural drink that I’d never even heard of.

Cane juice is made by crushing sugarcane stalks, and it is quite popular across the South, as well as throughout Latin America and in Southeast Asia. People have been enjoying this stuff for generations wherever sugarcane is grown (who knew?). Oh, and cane juice can also be aged to make rum (patience is an even greater virtue than I thought).

Whenever my dad had money in his pocket as a kid, he would stop for cane juice at roadside stands around Savannah. He also shared that there were a lot of stands in nearby Guyton, where his Aunt Beth lived on what we’d nowadays probably call a farm (she kept chickens and pigs out back).

Fresh cane juice had to either be consumed or refrigerated right away, which wasn’t a hard choice for a thirsty kid (and there wasn’t much refrigeration in those days, anyway).

With my dad’s re-kindled interest in cane juice, my sister found a place close to where he lives in Florida that serves it in much the same way as the stands across Savannah in the 1930s. The community of Bokeelia, on Pine Island, is only about 40 minutes from my folks’ home in Fort Myers, but it feels lost in time. Pine Island still has general stores, motels that advertise in-room color TV, endless fruit groves–and a place called Fruitscapes that sells amazing fruit as well as fresh-pressed cane juice.

We stopped into Fruitscapes for a visit this week, and were delighted to find fresh juice—along with pomelos, bananas, persimmons, dried mangos, and a super friendly staff. During our visit, our new friend Cecelia gave us a little education along with a glass of the prized juice. Just as in the old days, she threaded several stalks of sugarcane through a press, and then folded the partially flattened canes in half and did it again. The whole press contraption looked like it was made in 1930, so maybe that’s why the juice tasted so familiar to my dad.

So, for four dollars, we got a demonstration, a drink, and a chance to hear stories about Savannah in the 1930s. I’m not sure I’d say that I like cane juice better than a Manhattan. But you probably have to drink six Manhattans to take a trip through time, and it only takes one cup of cane juice.

Awesome Sauce

So what’s a camping trip without a mole? And by mole, I mean the pepper-based sauce from Mexico and not the burrowing beady-eyed critter. Mole (pronounced mo-lay) tastes amazing over fish, chicken, or basically any kind of meat (except over mole meat, which is disgusting).

Mole is an ancient Spanish word that loosely translates to “mix.” The recipe has its roots in the Mexican town of Oaxaca, about 200 miles southeast of Mexico City. Popular legend has it that nuns were rushing to prepare for a visit from the archbishop and they just made up a sauce out of what they had on hand.

Souzz visited Oaxaca last month on a business trip, and she managed to squeeze in a mole-making class during her visit (I guess the margarita-chugging class was fully booked).

Souzz raved about her class (and her trip) when she got home. So when we started planning a menu for a backpacking trip with our good friends Lou and Kay, mole-making became an obvious choice (with margarita chugging as a backup). Our destination was Racer Camp Hollow, a favorite of ours in the Blue Ridge mountains near Wardensville, West Virginia.

We made a mole verde that used tomatillos, which are smallish green Mexican tomatoes. Our mole recipe also used pumpkin seeds, jalapenos, onions, garlic, cilantro, parsley, and a little bit of chicken stock.

The whole trick to backcountry mole–besides a penchant for cooking the absurd–is to carry a hand-crank food processor. Our new little toy worked out great, and it weighed less than a pound.

It turns out there are actually several makes and models of hand-crank food processors, which had me wondering how many lunatic foodie backpackers there could possibly be? Or maybe people want to cook fancy during power outages? But mostly I wondered if this thing could be used to make margaritas.

The absurdity of our meal planning came into sharper focus when we decided to include fresh doughnuts for breakfast. We always use a paper bag to shake and coat the doughnuts, which naturally prompted a text exchange ahead of the trip about cow pies.

In any case, dinner was delightful, and we served the mole over rice and some fresh grouper that we had hand-carried from Florida a few weeks back. We followed the main course with Kay’s apple tart for dessert, which made for a pretty elegant backcountry meal.

Camping with Lou and Kay is a lot of fun under any circumstance, but in particular when you team up for a five star meal at a five star campsite. It’s great to be with folks that know both the outdoors and food…and it’s a total bonus when they also know Heather Locklear trivia (don’t ask).

 

DSCN4332-2

A Grape Idea

I was driving north last week towards Canandaigua, in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, when a purple awning caught my eye. The awning belonged to the storefront of Monica’s Pies, a shop where just about everything is purple—awnings, signs, milk jugs, jars, t-shirts, carpets, flower pots…even the port-a-potty out back. Monica’s Pies is in Naples, a town of 2,500 that claims to be the grape pie capital of the world.

I always thought that I knew a lot about purple—including preserves, juice, wine, Bubble Yum, Pez, and even the Williams College Purple Cow (thanks to my in-laws). But I’d never had a purple-flavored pie before (and if orange can be a color, then purple can certainly be a flavor).

Monica’s Pies dates back to 1983, and it is one of four shops in Naples that feature grape pies. Back in the day, owner Monica Schenk was looking for a way to use a surplus of Concord grapes—a style of grape that had fallen out of favor with local vintners–and she started making grape pies. She sold the pies only in the Fall season, and most of her sales were by the honor system (an unattended box of pies sat out front, along with a money slot).

Then and now, her grape pies are very sweet, thick like jello, and come topped with a crumb crust that adds a lot of texture. Souzz said each bite was “like eating really good grape jelly, back when you were a kid.” Huh?

Nowadays, Monica’s Pies is open year round and offers a variety of pies, jams, baked goods, and other treats. The shop has been featured in the New York Times and on the Food Network, and her grape pie sales alone top more than 10,000 a year. There’s no reason to wine with sales like that.

When I got back home, I shared the story of my new discovery with my Williams-educated purple cow-loving brother-in-law Steve, who is quite the foodie. “I love those grape pies,” he said. “Concord grapes suck for wine, but grape pies rule.” Those Williams kids sure have a way with words.

A Swell Time

Our recent trip to great state of Utah featured a lot of variety: a four day backpack on the historic Boulder Mail Trail, a day of canyoneering in Capitol Reef, downhill skiing at Brighton, and mountain biking in the central part of the state. We also caught up with our cousin Brian and our nephew Pat, so we got in some good family time, too.

Over the course of the week, we traveled by plane, bus, car, foot, rope, ski, and bike—not bad for a couple of flatlanders from the east. And we capped off the week with bear watching (ok, so the bear was the mascot at a Utah Grizzlies hockey game).

Part of our trip was spent around the town of Price, a coal-mining community of about 8,000 that at first glance doesn’t look like much of an outdoor playground. But there are some great mountain bike trails on the plateau just outside of town, and friendly locals told us about a nearby must-see area called the Little Grand Canyon in “The Swell.” After getting some vague directions, we poured over our maps and found what they were talking about—a BLM recreation area in the heart the San Rafael Swell.

To get to the Little Grand Canyon required about 20 miles of driving on a dirt road…but “it’s a good dirt road where you can go 60 miles an hour,” to quote one of our new friends in Price. We were a little slower than that, but the road was in great shape. There was a BLM visitor center kiosk along the way that provided some information as well as a few good area maps.

The locals were right that it’s a spectacular place, with cliffs and canyons as far as we could see. The Little Grand Canyon itself is not as grand as its larger namesake, but there are stunning vistas, petroglyphs, an old (1937) bridge, primitive campgrounds, and an abundance of hiking and biking trails. And what is plenty grand about this place is what’s missing: people, concessionaires, streams of vehicles, and the suffocating infrastructure that can be somewhat common in larger parks. This place is definitely a hidden gem.

As we were leaving Price earlier in the day to head towards the Swell, the guy at the local convenience mart asked where we were going. “Aaaah, yes, the Swell, you’ll love it,” he said. “It’s exactly like the Grand Canyon, only way better. And who wants to drive all the way to Arizona anyway?”

Stepping In Old Footprints

My last post was about the Adirondacks, a place that I’ve visited over and over through the last several decades. There are only a few destinations like that for me, with Alaska leading the pack—but Alaska is such a huge geography that it doesn’t really count (are you really going to the same place when your trips are hundreds of miles apart?).

Another regular stop for me is the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a whitewater paddling school in Western North Carolina. NOC was founded in 1972, which happened to be the same year that the movie Deliverance hit the theaters–with its dueling banjos, twisted locals, and scenic paddling on the nearby Chatooga River. NOC’s timing was perfect, as the movie sparked a huge increase in whitewater recreation. And it did so in spite of its dark plot, like a bump in cruise traffic after seeing Titanic.

My first visit to NOC was way back in 1988 for a kayaking class, and I returned the next year for a four-day clinic in whitewater open canoe. I’ve been back maybe ten times since, mostly to brush up on various hardboating skills (learning to roll, river rescue, tandem paddling, playboating, etc.), and have introduced a few friends to the place along the way.

I was at NOC this past weekend for some more paddling instruction, this time in an ultralight Alpacka packraft. Alpackas weigh in at six pounds and stow easily, which makes them perfect for fly-in or carry-in trips. We were roadside for this trip, but there are trips further afield down the road.

My instructor for my clinic was Will Norris, and I shared with Will that I wanted to get more comfortable in this boat so that I can do more remote trips. On a more general level, I shared that my goals were to have fun and push myself. I didn’t mention to him that those two pursuits are often the same thing for me (although I think he figured it out).

NOC has changed a lot in 30 years, maybe even more than I have. This used to be a sleepy little place, and now there’s a big gear store, a full service restaurant, a tourist train stop, and permanent slalom racing gates across a lower section of the river. And the facilities are much improved, with the old hostel lodging mostly replaced with fancy cabins.

Most noticeable is that there are a lot more people around, and especially more rafters. The raft crowd doesn’t always get a lot of respect from hardboaters, but rafters create the market that makes for good gear and dam-release whitewater. I’m glad they’re here.

Over the course of the weekend, we paddled three different rivers, the Nantahala (an easy warm-up), the Chatooga (a nice class III), and the French Broad (some bigger water). I refined some strokes, tried some new moves in harder water, and had a chance to revisit some of my motivations for paddling.

Will asked me how I got into paddling, and I shared that I’ve always been drawn to things that I was told I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do. I’m also drawn to places that are “off limits” because of skills barriers (harder whitewater, glacier travel,  requiring avalanche knowledge, etc.). I’ve been fortunate to do some of those things (and fall short at others), and to see at least a few off-limits places. I hope there are more to come.

As I look back on another trip to NOC, I find myself wondering why someone with an explorer’s mentality has “go-to” destinations in the first place. Psychologists talk about “place attachment,” but adventure travel seems like just the opposite. My favorite place is often the new destination that I’m planning to visit, and once it’s discovered I usually don’t have much interest in going back.

And yet there are a few places–like NOC–that keep me coming back. Maybe I come back because I get to experience myself more than experiencing a place. Maybe it’s harder to reflect if my mind is busy taking in a new view. Maybe the unknown of a familiar place is me?

Highs and Lowes

Souzz and I generally prefer to be guide-less on our outdoor adventures. And by that I mean that we like to try to do things on our own, at the mercy of our own skills and decision-making (and sometimes at the mercy of our own mistakes). That approach has worked very well in whitewater, pretty well in the backcountry, and mostly well on technical rock climbs. It hasn’t worked as well around the breakfast table, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

As for our guide-less adventure limits, putting our skill on ice has long been a mismatch. So we rope up with a professional guide when we climb ice. And for the past 25+ years, our outfitter of choice has been Adirondack Rock and River in Keene, New York. They opened for business in 1988, and climbing with those guys has always felt like visiting old friends (assuming, of course, that your old friends can safely lead you up frozen waterfalls).

The guides at Rock and River—experts like Ed, Matt, Don, Chad, Bill, and Mark–are highly skilled in their craft. And they are also interesting people, as quick with a story or a quip as they are with a taut rope. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen one of them shivering on a stance chirping out encouragement while waiting for an out-of-shape client to finish a pitch. Sometimes I’ve seen that dynamic up close, like real close.

Our most recent trip north featured a lot of what the Adirondacks are known for—varied climbing, easy approaches (ten minutes walk gets you to the base of a lot of area classics), cold weather (17 below one morning), the skill and charm of Rock and River guides, lots of fat ice, and at least one fat climber.

We spent our time around Chapel Pond, an area with classic routes like Chouinard’s Gully, Power Play, and Big Brother (the latter route’s first ascent was on New Year’s Day 1984). Area guidebooks, including one written by Don Mellor, list more than 1500 routes in the Adirondacks, so there’s a lot to choose from.

Back in the day, the ‘dacks was a somewhat overlooked climbing destination. But then some high profile visitors and a 1995 Climbing Magazine feature kind of blew the cover off of the place. That article, combined with a winter festival called Mountainfest, established the area as a regular stop for both weekenders and visiting stars. Generational talents like Jeff Lowe, Alex Lowe, Will Gadd, and Mark Synnott all have spent time around Keene, and you never know whom you might see on the cliffs.

The visiting stars have put up some visionary routes, but the R&R crew has put up its share of routes, too. An Underwood Canyon Matt Horner classic called “CFD” comes to mind. There’s also an aptly named (but otherwise unremarkable) Don Mellor route at Chapel Pond called “Full Court Press.”

One morning back in the mid-1990s, I sat at the Rock and River breakfast table next to a 40-something guy and confidently waded into a debate about avalanche safety. While I was making what I thought was a key point, I noticed that my new friend’s knuckles were red and swollen–a telltale sign of a serious climber (back before tools with curved shafts). At some point I realized that I was sharing coffee with Jeff Lowe, arguably the best alpinist of his generation.

If I’d climbed a new route that day, I’d have wanted to call it “Unguided Breakfast.”

Seven Fish, and a Cheese Log

We spent part of our holiday this year in Southwest Florida before heading north to enjoy the snow in Buffalo. While in Florida, we made a new (to us) dish called Cioppino for Christmas Eve. Cioppino is a soup/stew that features seven different kinds of seafood. It originated with Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco in the late 1800s, who were apparently inspired by an older tradition from their homeland. That’s a whole lot of tradition behind what might be a new tradition for us.

The story behind Cioppino is that unlucky Bay Area fishermen would walk around the docks and collect fish from the more successful boats, and then would add tomatoes and white wine to a large pot and make a stew from their random catch. They would expect to return the favor when they had better luck. Sharing a bit of one’s catch sounds like a “holiday season thing to do” no matter the time of year—and shouldn’t every season be the season of giving, anyway?

It was easy for us to get into a seafood theme in Florida, since you are never more than 60 miles from a beach anywhere in the state. A beach theme also seemed to go with the mellower pace of things here–although the calypso vibe isn’t as obvious when you see two people at the local mall fighting over the last cheese log. There are, I suppose, practical limits to the season of giving.

pvmurphyagain
My brother-in-law in mid-carve on a past holiday

My brother-in-law, who is a history professor, shared with us that the original Cioppino took some inspiration from an Italian dish called the Feast of the Seven Fishes that is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. In Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is called La Vigilia, or “The Vigil.” My brother in law is a fountain of Italian history; he really should do that for a living.

Our favorite seafood place in Southwest Florida is Skip One in Fort Myers, a locally owned market on Highway 41 that features fresh caught everything. Skip One is primarily a shrimping outfit, but they trade part of their shrimp catch with other types of boats to bring in a full bounty—sort of the commercial fishing version of Cioppino (ok, so that analogy is a bit of a stretch).

For our dish, we used a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis, and for our seafood we chose grouper, snapper, sea bass, clams, shrimp, mussels, and scallops. In addition to the seven types of seafood, Giada’s recipe includes white wine, diced tomatoes, garlic, shallots, onions, and fennel. We added the seafood to the broth just ten minutes before serving in order to avoid over-cooking it.

We’re told that Italian restaurants in San Francisco serve a lot of variations of this dish, and some even provide a bib to their patrons (if you’ve seen me eat, that’s another hint for why we chose Cioppino). In the tradition of the city, we served our Cioppino with a beautiful loaf of San Francisco-style Sourdough bread.

All in all, Cioppino was a fun new recipe, pretty easy to prepare, and delicious. Tradition or not, it’s one thing we did this year that is worth repeating next year (but we’ll order our cheese log ahead of time).

DSC_0296

Fancy Beef Sandwiches

A few years back, I wrote about the amazing food scene in Buffalo, New York, a scene that is partly the result of the melting pot of immigrants from back in the day (and by “melting pot,” I don’t mean the forgettable fondue chain, where $100 buys you an appetizer and the need for a cholesterol check). Many of Buffalo’s best-known dishes are ethnic creations like kielbasa and pierogi, dishes which are now competing for attention with more recent additions like Buffalo wings and sponge candy.

I’d of course heard of Buffalo wings long before I met Souzz, but marrying into a Buffalo family means you get to learn about a lot of other new treats. One example is the signature sandwich of Western New York, a beef on weck. The beef on weck is a Buffalo classic: a coarse-salted roll with caraway, thin-sliced roast beef, fresh horseradish, and au jus.

“It’s just a fancy beef sandwich,” I once blurted out from under my newly purchased Buffalo Bills hoodie. Endearing yourself to your in-laws is difficult stuff, I soon learned, and no food in Buffalo is “just” anything. Dinner choices often have storied histories and serve to unite generations–regardless of whom your daughter might have just married.

Weck is short for kimmelweck, a style of roll that you don’t see unless you are in Buffalo–or are in a restaurant with chefs that wish they were. The sandwich’s origin is hotly debated (well, maybe not hotly debated, but people do occasionally talk about it). Some say the kimmelweck was adapted from a roll that was served at funerals in Germany, and others say that an enterprising bartender decided to salt rolls to get people to drink more (Seriously? Has lack of consumption ever really been a problem in Buffalo?).

Regardless of how and where the sandwich originated, it is a Western New York staple. And the locals agree that the classic area restaurant for beef on weck is Schwabls, in West Seneca. Schwabls is on a non-descript corner that isn’t really on the way to anywhere, and yet it has been serving Western New Yorkers in one form or another since 1837. Its small dining room is perpetually filled with hungry locals that come to enjoy a sandwich or some other German-style dish.

I felt very authentic walking into Schwabls over the holiday wearing my still-new-looking Bills hoodie. As usual, the place was packed, with a lot of folks enjoying beef on weck as well as their signature holiday drink, the Tom and Jerry (similar to egg nog, maybe like drinking a sugar cookie).

Our server asked us just exactly how we wanted our roast beef, and she meant every word. Beef on weck at Schwabls is hand-cut, in order to avoid cooking the roast beef more with the heat of a spinning blade. The care that Schwabls takes in preparing each and every sandwich is in itself worth the visit. Oh, and Tom and Jerry were nice to see, too.

It seems that every time I visit Buffalo, I learn a little more about the food scene, and maybe a little more about other things, too.  My meal was great, my brother-in-law shared a lot of history, and there was some good local color, too. I may have some more work to do to blend in up here, but at least I didn’t order a “fancy beef sandwich.”

Meeting Up With Irma

As we awaited the arrival of one of the bigger hurricanes on record, my 92-year-old mom had a question for me. While typing away into her iPad (she’s pretty high-tech), she asked “how do you spell the word hussy?”

To backtrack a bit, I came down to Fort Myers, Florida to visit my parents a few weeks back and decided to stick around to help out during Hurricane Irma. As expected, we were ordered to evacuate, so we headed across town to a friend’s house that was outside of the evacuation zone. Their fortress of a home (high ground, solid construction, hurricane shutters, generator…and incredibly gracious hosts) was a very welcomed refuge.

Our hosts generously took in several others in similar circumstances–so all in all, there were 17 of us (12 adults, five children) in a three-bedroom house, along with a dog and two gerbils (hey, what’s a hurricane without a few gerbils?).

The storm itself was pretty exciting for a Virginia boy, tons of rain and wind that left a lot of standing water and downed trees (it was worse elsewhere in the state).

Unlike areas to the south–and unlike Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands during Hurricane Maria–we were fortunate to get through without much damage. We did a lot of prep beforehand, moving anything that could blow away, but we also got lucky with the storm track.

There was some flooding and damage in the surrounding neighborhoods, but for us the challenge was mostly about the long (several days) power outage, the seasonal heat, a shortage of gasoline, and a few health issues that thankfully resolved.

Through it all, I learned a lot from the locals, who know a thing or two about hurricanes. Here are a few random tips:

  • Back into the door: Garage doors are one of the weaker parts of a house, and bad things happen when the wind gets in under your roof. A trick is to back your car next to the door (from the inside), set the brake, and wedge in some wood (or whatever) between the door and the bumper to give the garage door more strength.
  • Strings attached: Our friends had a hanging light above their front porch that couldn’t be removed ahead of the storm. So they tethered it with parachute cord, tying it off to the front pillars on the porch. It made it through, which was nice–but we also know that some folks lost everything, so we tried to keep it all in perspective.
  • Keep water out, but keep it in, too: It’s old news that a filled bathtub means you can flush the toilets if you lose water, but tub stoppers often leak. Our friends put a little Saran wrap around the plug to help the seal. We never lost water, but we had plenty on hand just in case.
  • Give your freezer a quarter: Food safety is a big deal after a power outage, so one trick is to freeze a glass of water and put a quarter on top. If the quarter is still on top after power returns, the food in the freezer didn’t thaw and refreeze–and the meatloaf is ok to eat (although I still hate meatloaf).

In the coming days, the Fort Myers News-Press was still delivering and was one of our main links to the community and the state!

Lastly, there are some things that I knew before the storm but that were good to see in action again:

  • You can’t have too much power (unless you are a dictator): Having a few UPS’s (uninterruptible power supplies) on hand is a good thing. The UPS’s work well for charging anything and the batteries last much longer than pocket-sized phone chargers.
  • Siphons suck: Spend a million dollars on a good one, as the gas in your car is a great resource to feed a generator (if you are fortunate enough to own one). Inexpensive siphons don’t seem to work well with newer cars, and sitting on 15 gallons of gas with no way to get it into a generator is a bad feeling (ask me how I know).
  • It’s dark, even when it isn’t: With spotty cell coverage, no internet or tv, and radio coverage that was hard to follow, it was amazing how little we knew about the storm. This was true both before, during, and after–even though we were right in the middle of it. At first we had cell reception and Souzz texted us images of the storm track. But the cell towers eventually went down and it wasn’t until days later that we heard details about the damage in the Keys and elsewhere across the state. Looking back, the lack of communications was equal parts unsettling and unburdening.
  • Reaching in: People from outside of the area wanted to help…and they did, simply by connecting on the phone (once our phones worked). Friends, family, the NMFA crowd, the 34th crowd, and Red Cross peeps, you know who you are. Connecting with friends by phone or text was a huge boost.
  • It takes a community: A neighbor that we had never met until the eve of the storm gave us five gallons of gas when we couldn’t get a drop anywhere. Shara and Kevin gave us gas and food and support, Dave fixed our generator the day before the storm (!), Janet from Publix grocery store offered hugs, Jonathan (the pool guy) gave us a big lift, and a total stranger stopped his car to help my mom, pretty cool.

For days, anywhere you saw people in town, Irma was all that they could talk about, and sharing stories was definitely a part of the process. I can’t even count the number of conversations that started with “how did you do in the storm?”

As we put things back together, we went out of our way to thank the employees at Home Depot or Publix or CVS–places that are filling critical needs in the community. Each of those folks had their own story, but they were out there helping us (maybe later they’ll write a blog that is more interesting than mine).

I also recognize that storms hurt even more for those with fewer resources, so we feel incredibly fortunate to have had so much help to bounce back. And our hearts go out to those that lost so much to Irma–and now to devastating Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean–and we are contributing to relief efforts. Our little adventure was pretty manageable when you view it in the context of the areas that were hardest hit.

**

As for my mom’s question before the storm, she was posting an update on Facebook, and her post ended with “Irma, you hussy, be gone!”

 

 

Swiss Time

I’ve wanted to hike hut-to-hut in Switzerland for years, but planning such a trip always seemed like a daunting task. For starters, there are more than 150 huts in the Swiss Alpine Club system, which seemed totally overwhelming. And the language barrier for someone that doesn’t speak Swiss German is big, as almost all of the websites and information are in Swiss German (go figure).

IMG_5160
Looking down at the Terrehutte and the clouds

Enter our good friends Reto and Annika, who live near Zurich and know a thing or two about these huts. They helped us plan a three day trip of about 30 kilometers on the Greina Plateau in the south central part of Switzerland–and by “helped us plan,” I mean that they planned it. Best of all, Reto came along (perhaps he thought we could use a chaperone?).

 

Getting from Zurich to the trailhead near Vrin was ambitious enough, requiring four hours, three train rides, three cups of coffee, two bus rides, and a kilometer of walking up a village road.

 

From the trailhead, it was about 9 kilometers and 800 vertical meters to get to the Terrihutte, which is a beautiful stone structure on a point at the head of a valley.

 

The Terrihutte was built in 1925, although it has been renovated and expanded multiple times since. It has space for 110 in shared bunk rooms, as well as a full kitchen and a bar with cold beer and wine (as with most huts, restocking is done by helicopter). It also has electric power generated from the creek below, quite the luxury.

Food at the hut was simple but hearty. Potatoes, meats, soup, breads, butter, and salads are typical, all served family style in a dining room that offers ridiculous views.

 

The huts are also highly social places, even if you don’t speak the language. We were generally sitting across the table from someone who hiked the same hard kilometers that we did, which means we had a few things in common–including sore feet and tired legs. And, despite our ugly American language skills, many of our fellow hikers were gracious enough to reach out in English (which was a good thing, as hearing Reto and his family laugh as I tried to say the word for “three” in Swiss German wasn’t very encouraging).

 

The next day we headed up and over our high point at Greina Pass (2703 meters) to the Medelserhutte. It was a 15 kilometer hike, including some scrambling and a descent of a long snowfield. There were also some really fun glissades (the easy part) before a short ascent to the hut.

 

The Medelserhutte is in a saddle with a commanding view to the west. It is a smaller hut than the Terrehutte, with 55 bunks, but still plenty roomy. Despite an early-ish start to our hike, we didn’t get there until nearly 6pm–but that was still enough time to catch sun on the back patio and watch Capricorns (a type of bighorn sheep) run the hillside.

 

Looking back, Reto and Annika made it easy for us to do something that would have been very hard for us to do on our own (impossible?!), and for that we are very grateful. Visiting Switzerland with their help was priceless, spending time with them and their children before and after our hike was a treasure, and we are still glowing about our trip.

As for our time in the huts, I caught myself wondering how the Swiss built these places. But mostly I wondered why my legs were so sore. And then I wondered what another beer would taste like.

DSC_0471