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 12256-008incredibly 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.

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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!”

 

 

The Agony of Defeat

Souzz and I are in the midst of a trip through Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. It’s been a great chance to experience new cultures, new cities, and new mountain ranges. We’ve also met up with great friends along the way in Henggart, Switzerland, and Lofer, Austria.

 

One of the things we’ve noticed during our travels is how much American culture is exported, and often it’s not our best. We’ve heard middling American rock music, seen ads for TV shows like Murder, She Wrote, walked past a Starbucks in a 16th century building, and spotted a lot of unremarkable American products. Interestingly enough, there are also a lot of foods specifically marketed as “American-style.” Don’t get me wrong, as I’m proud of a lot of what our country produces…but we didn’t find too much of that in our travels.

 

Perhaps a lesser known part of U.S. pop culture is the phrase that titles this blog, which American sports fans may recognize from the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it ran for nearly 40 years and featured sports that would rarely get air time in the pre-cable era—sports like pro surfing, track and field, whitewater kayaking, and ski jumping.

In the Wide World of Sports’ opening (click here to see a 30 second version from the late 1970s), a voice-over says “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition, this is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” As the words “agony of defeat” are spoken, an unnamed ski jumper falls and flies off into the crowd—and an American catchphrase for epic failure is born.

 

By now you might be wondering what all that has to do with traveling in Europe, which is where the small Bavarian village of Oberstdorf comes in. We had planned to visit Oberstdorf because it offers amazing hiking and is somewhat off of the beaten path–hoping for an authentic experience where locals wouldn’t respond to our terrible German in perfect English. So far it’s been just what we were expecting (and yes, our German is still terrible).

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As we were planning our day’s hikes via Google, we learned that the ski jump here in the village is where the “agony of defeat” crash happened during a World Cup competition in 1970. Thankfully, the Slovenian jumper that took that horrible fall, Vinko Bogataj, was not seriously injured. He returned to competition the next year, was later a professional ski instructor, and is now a very successful artist. It’s clear that he has not agonized much over that jump.

 

There are many reasons to come to Oberstdorf, including the incredibly friendly people, the charming town itself, the hiking from the summit of the Nebelhorn (2224 meters), and a lot of other natural attractions (including the Breitachklamm, a fantastic stream-carved gorge). Not surprisingly, none of the reasons to come here have anything to do with the history of the ski jump.

 

Some years ago, Vinko Bogataj was invited by ABC to join in an anniversary celebration for the Wide World of Sports, since his fall had helped open the show for decades. When he got the call, Vinko had no idea what ABC was talking about.

Thankfully, there are at least a few parts of our culture that we have kept at home.

Hollow Full of Memories

This weekend we joined good friends for a quick getaway to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains and a stay at the Rosser Lamb House. The house was built in 1915 as the home of Hiram and Lucy Lamb and their nine children, and it is now one of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s primitive (no power or water) rental cabins. It is located in Lamb’s Hollow (of course), adjacent to Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah National Park was created during the Great Depression, and the formation of the park resulted in more than five hundred families being forced by the U.S. government to leave their homes. Many of these families had been on land that they had occupied for generations, and entire communities were uprooted and moved to the east—including some to a subdivision in nearby Madison County called “Resettlement Road” (seriously).

The Lambs had been in Lamb’s Hollow since 1845. Nevertheless, they got the word that they were to be one of the relocated families. But in a twist of fate, the U.S. government ran out of funding for the park before the Lambs were forced to move. So the park border stops just short of the Lamb house, and they stayed there well into the 1960s–when the house was eventually sold to be used as a hunting lodge.

In 1995, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club acquired the house and its surrounding property and began what became a 17-year project to restore it. The house has been described by a park historian as “a tribute to a mountain family living out the American dream in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.” And a fine tribute it is.

We spent our weekend hiking on the nearby trails, enjoying the stream-side setting, cooking in the spacious and renovated kitchen, and imagining life here some 100 years ago.

Our visit was made even more memorable by some family history that was shared with us by Larry Lamb, a sixth generation member of the family and a volunteer with the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, and Kristie Kendall, who is a historian with the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Larry and Kristie were incredibly gracious in sharing the history of the house and the surrounding area, and both of their organizations are doing amazing work.

 

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A mill on the Lamb property. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb

Larry’s father, Thurman, was born in the house in 1925, and Larry visited the house often as a kid. He shared that his grandparents, Rosser and Rosetta Lamb, were “kind, humble people who loved the mountains and their home.” There were also stories of corn growing on the hillside, a smokehouse, a big garden, and family gatherings that featured banjo music and dancing the Virginia Reel.

As for food during our trip, we tried to use recipes that we thought might be common back in Rosser and Rosetta Lamb’s day. Cherry trees were popular in the Blue Ridge, so we made a cherry pie. The Lambs made sorghum molasses, so we baked molasses cookies and muffins. They grew corn, so we had corn on the cob. They likely ate wild ramps, so we had some ramps. The streams in the park had wild trout, so we made a trout dip. They had a smokehouse, so we smoked some fish.

Of course, it’s a lot easier when you get your food from the local supermarket and keep it on ice in a giant cooler—a little different than in Rosser and Rosetta Lamb’s day.

Later on the trip, we visited Far Pocosin Mission, which is about a two mile hike from the house. The Mission was founded in 1902, and historians describe it as the center of the community at the time. Now, 115 years later, the Mission is slowly fading into the forest–but there are old foundations, stairs, and chimneys that are still visible. Rosser Lamb attended church at the Mission, and his children went to school there.

I’ve enjoyed hiking and backpacking in and around Shenandoah National Park for more than 30 years now, and I confess that I haven’t always thought much about the human history. But we found the house and the mission to be powerful reminders of the people that were here before the park. The house is a fine tribute to the Lamb family, and to a lot of other families that lived in the neighboring hollows. I really can’t imagine what it must have been like for those that were forced to leave.

Lastly, it turns out that Pocosin Mission was founded by a very distant relative of mine, Frederick William Neve, a fact which was fascinating to me—but was either irrelevant or annoying to Souzz and our friends. After all, how many times can you listen to someone say “hey, I’m related to the guy that built this!” without wanting to scream?

Actually, I know that answer, and it’s four.

Picking A Cake

My dad just turned 93, a big number, and I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. Before he could answer, my mom chimed in and shared that “he loves hickory nut cake!” Now I’ve known this guy for a long time, seemingly a lifetime, so how could I not know this?

“His Aunt Lillian made him a hickory nut cake for his eighth birthday,” my mom went on, “and quite a few times after that. She even mailed the cakes to him when he was in the Army.” My dad’s eyes lit up as he remembered those cakes.

My dad had his own cake stories, of course. “Aunt Lillian would gather shagbark hickory nuts from the tree right out front of her house,” he told me, “and she would sit at the table and pick the nuts for hours on end. Even the squirrels avoided hickory nuts, because they’re hard as hell to pick. But she made me a cake most every year…until her eyes got bad.”

“She probably went blind from picking those damned nuts!” my mom interrupted.

“Lillian always lived with Inez and Sarah and Uncle Nicky,” my dad continued. “And she was very smart. She was the bookkeeper for Aunt Inez’s Milliner shop.”

“What?” I responded. “I thought Aunt Inez was a hatmaker?”

When my dad was growing up in Savannah, hickory nuts were easy to gather all over the green spaces of the city, and they probably still are. Hickory nut cakes were pretty popular in the 1930s, maybe because the Great Depression put a premium on recipes that required a trip to the park instead of a trip to the store.

Hickory nuts aren’t quite as easy to gather where I live in Virginia, but I was able to buy some on-line from a guy in North Carolina. I was psyched to find them, although it marked the first (and perhaps last) time I’ve done business with someone called “Carolina Nut Dude.”

My dad didn’t have any details on Lillian’s recipe, but I was able to find several recipes for “old fashioned hickory nut cake” on the net. The recipes were pretty similar, with most of them calling for flour, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and vanilla. I made mine in a loaf pan with brown sugar frosting, just as Aunt Lillian used to do.

We enjoyed our cake as my parents reminisced about Savannah in the 1930s. They shared fun memories of Lillian and of things that they did as kids, pretty amazing considering that it all happened 85 years ago.

As for shelling those nuts, that part hasn’t changed much. It is still a very tedious and time-consuming process. My mom jumped in to help me when I was making my cake, and then summarily stabbed herself in the wrist with a nut picker—reminding us why everybody needs a nutty aunt like Lillian.

Vicarious Dessert

Souzz and I are always looking for regional recipes–even by way of others’ travels–so we asked my sister and brother-in-law to scope out some fun dishes on their recent vacation to Alsace in the north of France. We figured they’d find a new recipe or two, and maybe we could bring a new creation to Buffalo over the holidays to share with Souzz’s mom (Alsace is where Souzz’s family is originally from).

Alsace is known for fine wines, great food, unique architecture, and picturesque villages– including the village of Riquewhir (population 1300), sometimes called a “wine village” because of its history as a trading hub for regional wines. Our “advance team” also discovered that Riquewihr is home to a number of small cafes and restaurants, including Restaurant au Dolder.

Restaurant au Dolder’s menu featured Tarte a L’Oignon (French Onion Pie), Choucroutie Garnie (a pickled cabbage that is an Alsacian staple), and a number of other local treats–including one of the region’s most famous desserts, kougelhopf. All of these dishes looked amazing to us as we thumbed through my sister’s photos afterwards. She assured us, of course, that all of her foodie pics were taken discretely (yeh, right, lots of locals casually wave their iPhones over their plates during dinner–but hey, they were doing us a favor!).

Not surprisingly, the recipes that we were able to find were written entirely in French, and with metric measures. Aaah, yes…the metric system, something that the US inexplicably abandoned in the mid-1970s. Apparently it was easier for Americans to remember English conversions–yet another one of 5,280 good reasons for Canada and the Continent to poke fun at us.

Kougelhopf–sometimes spelled kugelhopf, kouglof, or gugelhupf–dates to the late 1500s and takes many forms, with the one constant being the form itself. The name refers to the distinctive shape of a kougelhopf pan, a form that imprints an interesting fluting on whatever fills it (custard, dough, batter, maybe lime jello if you want to go low-brow). The kougelhopf featured at Restaurant al Dolder was a glacé (frozen dessert), but there is also a popular Austrian variation that is a raisin-filled cake made of yeast dough.

As for the recipes, metric conversions proved easy enough, but the French translations required a bit more effort. As I stumbled my way through Google Translate, I was reminded of Steve Martin, who once observed that “those French have a different word for everything!” Thankfully a friend was able to translate the tricky parts for us, which prevented at least 100 kilograms of kitchen mistakes.

The glacé version was pretty easy to make, just whipped cream, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, and grapes mixed together and frozen in a six-serving form. The key was to keep things cool. By that I mean cooling the form ahead of time, cooling the simple syrup before mixing it with the egg yolks, and cooling the syrup/egg mixture before folding it in with the whipped cream. We topped with a thin layer of chocolate ganache and then plated it with a little kirsch in the middle, some thinly sliced fruit, and a dusting of cocoa. We let them sit for 10 minutes or so at room temp before serving.

Just for fun, we tried the raisin cake version, too, and it was also really good. It is light and airy, and takes on the flavor of most anything around it. Just make sure that you warm the milk to the right temperature to properly activate the yeast (~115F), let your butter come to room temp, and expect to take your time (there are three separate risings of the dough). We topped with ganache and a few sliced almonds before serving with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and a thin slice of orange.

With the recipes pretty well figured out, we brought them north to Buffalo for the holidays to share with Souzz’s mom. It was nice to enjoy an Alsacian treat along with some of Souzz’s family traditions (I doubt there’s any place in Alsace that would pair kougelhopf with home made egg nog, but that seems like their loss to me).

As for my sister’s trip, we learned about two good new dishes and we didn’t even have to leave the house. Does it still count as a travelogue if it’s somebody else’s trip?

Leaving The Rock

We closed out our trip to Newfoundland with a hike in Little Cove, just south of the village of Twillingate. Our hike took us to Jones Cove and then up and over the ridge to Lower Little Harbour.

The Twillingate hiking website listed this particular hike as easy, but we found it to be a bit more—four or so miles with a lot of up and down. Perhaps this was due to weather in the low 50s (Fahrenheit) and high winds (25-30 mph gusts), or maybe we are just flatlander tourists. In any case, the hiking was interesting, with sections of heavy forest, sections of bare rock, a summit ridge, and even a short stretch of rocky beach.

Along the way, we passed a natural arch and the remains of a settlement from the 1930s, including what was left of a restaurant called Kelley’s Sunset Chat. Our hike was a nice mix of nature, history, and exercise–including some scrambling and some up-hill climbs.

Back in Twillingate at Oceanview Retreat, we closed out our stay with another interesting Newfoundland dish, seafood chowder. It’s pretty clear why I haven’t lost weight on this trip.

Some other local dishes this week included Newfoundland fish cakes, pickled herring, and fried dulse. Menu staples here are highly seasonal, revolve around the sea as well as roots and berries, and have a simple charm about them.

We are back in Virginia now, but we have some great memories of “The Rock,” as Newfoundland is often called. We didn’t know much about any of these places before planning this trip, and now we’ll never forget them. The culture is interesting, the people are amazingly friendly…and there is so much more to see.

On our way to the airport in Gander, Souzz uttered the telltale phrase that marks the end of a great vacation: “I wish we had one more day.”

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A Festival in Fogo

One of the nice things about travel is that you get to discover new things, starting obviously enough with new geographies…but extending to new activities, new foods, new drinks, new accents, sometimes new languages—and, as it turns out, new festivals. Maybe that’s why our current vacation spot is called Newfoundland.

We’ve had some fun adventures already, and set out looking for more. So we left our rented cottage in Twillingate on the north Atlantic, headed south, and hopped the Norcon Galatea ferry to Fogo Island.

Fogo Island is the largest of the off-shore islands up here, about 15 miles long by 8 miles wide, and boasts a population of nearly 3000. Fogo has had permanent settlements dating to the early 1600s, and the island saw visits by Beothuk natives for hundreds of years before that. It was mostly settled by the French and the Irish in pursuit of seal skins, cod, and lumber (presumably not all at the same time, as I don’t think seals and cod hung out in the forest).

A number of small villages dot Fogo Island, including the artist community of Joe Batt’s Arm. As the story goes, Joe Batt was a member of Captain Cook’s crew in the 1700s that either deserted, was thrown overboard, or fell overboard. In any case, all accounts agree that he eventually swam ashore. Also of note for us is that Joe Batt shared a last name with one side of Souzz’s family. Perhaps Joe Batt was a distant relation, we don’t know. But Souzz has been calling me Captain Cook all week–so you can imagine why my learning Joe Batt’s story was a little disconcerting.

Anyway, it turns out that we set off for Fogo Island during their annual Partridgeberry Festival. I’d never heard of partridgeberries until we drove past the sign for the festival at the local hockey arena. Wikipedia describes partridgeberry bushes as “creeping prostrate herbacious woody shrubs,” hardly befitting of a berry that can inspire it’s own festival.

I’ve since learned that partridgeberries have a huge range that extends south to Florida, but they are especially plentiful up here–including a bunch right around our cottage. We sampled a few and they are pretty tart, which is why they are commonly mixed with some sort of sugar to make a jam or a preserve.

As for the festival, Fogo Island’s Iceberg Arena had cars stacked in all directions, including ours, and the live music could be heard from a block away. Inside the arena, we found hundreds of people, a fiddle band, local artists and authors, crafts, lots of food, and a bunch of products from this ubiquitous berry. There were jams, spreads, preserves, and even partridgeberry mayonnaise, all for sale. We did our part for the local economy, reinforcing our love for creeping prostrate herbacious woody shrubs.

Shockingly, we felt like we were the only folks at the festival that came from Virginia. But like all of our Newfoundland experiences on this trip, we felt quite at home and were greeted with smiles all around. You could even say we were welcomed with open arms (not to be confused with Joe Batt’s, of course).

Twice Baked Alaska

A few months back, we blogged about making a dessert called Baked Alyeska. We were inspired by a feature in the Alaska Dispatch by Suzanna Caldwell. She wrote a great column with a detailed description of the dish as made by the extraordinary pastry chef at Alyeska Resort, Chef Scott Fausz.

Making Baked Alyeska at home was pretty involved, but we thought our version came out well. As a part of our victory lap, we sent the Dispatch our blog and thanked Suzanna for her article–figuring that our email would find its way into a newsroom spam filter.

Much to my surprise, a few weeks later I got a really nice email from Chef Scott Fausz, who had been forwarded our blog by Suzanna Caldwell. He offered up a few suggestions on making the meringue and then generously invited us to stop by his kitchen at Alyeska the next time we headed north.

Flash forward to this week, when we found ourselves passing by Alyeska Resort on our way to a wedding for close friends in Homer. Chef Fausz graciously hosted us and gave us a full tour of his kitchen, spending nearly an hour and giving advice on how to make a “northern lights” decoration as well as how and where to best enjoy the (actual) northern lights.

Alyeska makes more than 5,000 of these desserts a year, so he might just have this recipe down. He also shared with us that he had told the Dispatch that “there’s no way anybody is going to actually try to make this, as it’s way too complicated.”

It was great to have a chance to see behind the scenes and to get advice from a professional. We learned about new (to us) ingredients like luster dust, meringue powder, and isomalt, got a bunch of recipe ideas, and we swapped stories of various travels across the state.

We followed our visit with a stop into the Aurora Bar and Grill, one of three restaurants at the resort that feature Chef Fausz’s amazing desserts. One bite of the Baked Alyeska and it was clear that there’s a big difference between pastry chefs and Souzzchefs. The dish was light, full of textures, and just fabulous. It was plated with raspberry, chocolate shavings, and of course a northern lights decoration on top.

Souzz and I don’t usually spend a lot of time at resorts in our travels, but we’ll be back to Alyeska for sure. And as for our chance to meet Chef Fausz and tour the kitchen, I think we need Suzanna Caldwell to write articles about all of our favorite recipes from Alaska.

Mixing Work and Play

I’m on a work trip in Alaska at a camp for military kids that starts in a few days, but I came north a little early just for fun. Right now I’m in the riverside community of Cooper Landing, on the Kenai Peninsula, one of Alaska’s more popular outdoor playgrounds.

Cooper Landing is not far from the world famous (ok, regionally famous) Russian River, well known for its “combat fishing” during salmon runs. We’re right in the middle of a salmon run now, so it was interesting to see anglers shoulder to shoulder. Sure, go fishing to get away from it all…but do it within elbow reach of your neighbor. Clearly these folks were about filling freezers and not about solitude.

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Combat fishing on the Russian River (photo by Becca C.)

Souzz will join me later in the week and we’ll work our way down to Katchemak Bay. In the meantime, I’m at a lovely camp right next to the Kenai River and enjoying a simple dinner of pasta with tomatoes, mushrooms, basil, Romano cheese, and chopped steak.

The steak wasn’t really in the dinner plans, as I thought I could pick up some salmon here in “town”–until I realized that there isn’t really a town here.

So, with only a mini-mart for food supplies, I’m in the fishing capital of the world and I’m eating frozen steak…probably from a far away place like Virginia. At least the view is good.

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This is literally one foot from camp.

Paddles, Pies (almost), and Parades

With a kayaking trip planned to the mountains this weekend, we decided we’d stop through Petersburg, West Virginia, to catch their 4th of July parade on the ride back home. Petersburg is a town of about 2500 in the Potomac Highlands and we figured it was the kind of place that knows how to put on a good parade. Last year on the 4th of July, we had a lot of fun at a parade in Wessington Springs, South Dakota, so we thought we’d go for two years in a row.

But first, we were off to paddle. So on Saturday morning we met up with our good friends Scott and Denise, who were on a road trip through West Virginia. The four of us paddled one of my favorite runs, the Cheat Narrows, in the north central part of the state. Souzz and I were in our Alpacka packrafts–in part because these boats are lot of fun, and in part to get ready for an upcoming trip out west. Ultralight packrafts are capable of running very technical whitewater despite weighing just six pounds each (although my packraft likely weighs more when I am in it).

The Cheat Narrows is pretty easy, probably low class III, but it is splashy and fun and it runs through a beautiful valley below Cheat Mountain.

From there, Scott and Denise headed north while Souzz and I drove over the Allegheny Front to a cabin that we had rented for the weekend. Spruce Mountain Cabins are right on the road to Spruce Knob (the highest point in West Virginia), and these cabins are a great little place to stop over. Our cabin (#3) was simple, just a main room/kitchenette and a bedroom, but with a covered porch, a comfortable bed, and power and water.

Once at the cabin, we had planned on cooking some fancy meals and making an apple pie (hey, what’s 4th of July without apple pie?). But it turned out that the cabin had no oven, so the pie will have to wait (and it turns out that a 4th without pie is still just fine). We did manage to make a few fun meals, though, including slow-cooked ribs on Sunday. And we’d highly recommend these cabins!

In between meals, we mixed in a hike on Spruce Knob as well as some mountain biking, so it was a good full weekend of adventure.

On Monday the 4th, we woke up to steady rain, so we figured that the parade would be washed out–but we decided to pass through Petersburg anyway. Stopping for gas on the edge of town, we overheard someone say to the cashier “hey, a little rain can’t keep me from a parade for the good ole U.S. of A.”

Sure enough, we entered town and found the streets lined with people holding umbrellas and wearing red, white, and blue. A bunch of folks were on covered porches at houses that faced the parade route, while others chose to sit on their back bumpers under their car’s back hatch (very clever). We drove over to the east side of town, where the crowds weren’t quite as thick–but were still plenty enthusiastic.

Moments later, the color guard rounded the corner and led the Petersburg High School Band as it played The Stars and Stripes Forever. Following was a long procession of fire trucks, old cars, new cars, bands, golf carts, floats, motorcycles, and a few horses. Many in the parade carried signs thanking veterans, and there were several veterans riding along. A number of floats and cars were throwing out candy, most of which seemed to land in deep puddles of rainwater (which didn’t discourage the kids, of course!).

There was a lot for an outsider to take in, and it is easy for me to forget that scenes like this are repeated across the country every year (and I’m guessing the parade in Wessington Springs, South Dakota, looked much like the photo below from last year).

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As for Petersburg, it was great to see so many people come out–especially in the rain. It was also nice to see the strong theme around supporting veterans. Petersburg has lost a number of its citizens dating back to at least World War I, and there are several native sons and daughters serving now. I happened to stand next to the parent of one of them on the parade route, which offered great perspective about what (and why) we were celebrating.

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Souzz steals candy…ok, jumps in to help a youngster with a ripped candy bag

Closing out the parade were the Shriners, who came down the route wearing red fezzes and driving miniature cars in tight figure eights at what seemed like 40 miles per hour. Based on the looks on the drivers’ faces as they cranked along, nobody was having more fun. I learned later that most Shriners have a “Parade Unit” that does some variation of this display in parades across the country.

I have no idea how tiny replica cars powered by lawn mower engines have anything to do with veterans, the American Revolution, or our country’s independence. But then I imagine how disappointed those Shriners would be if the US had never separated from Britain, and I wonder when the next parade is going to start.

Happy Fourth of July!