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).

 

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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?”

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).

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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.

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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.

Holes on the Menu

As we planned our menu for an upcoming backpacking trip, Souzz reminded me that she “basically grew up on doughnuts”—which was a shocking revelation coming from somebody so fit. Apparently her hometown of Buffalo has a long (or round?) doughnut heritage–with Freddie’s, Paula’s, Tim Horton’s, and Zen’s (her family favorite as a kid).  Doughnuts were (and are) such a part of the Buffalo scene that hometown hockey hero Jim Schoenfeld once famously screamed at one of the lesser fit NHL referees to “have another doughnut!”

The weekend’s destination was a quick overnight to Kepler Overlook, in the Blue Ridge near Van Buren Furnace. Our good friend KB joined us for the first day.

The hike started out along Cedar Creek before finishing on a long ridge, covering about five miles and 1000 feet of elevation. There were several great campsites up high, as well as a nice “improved” site on Cedar Creek with benches and a huge fire pit. We headed to one of the sites on the ridge, bringing a gallon and a half of water along with a bunch of good food (winter camping, even on a warmer weekend, should always be about food).

It was too bad KB couldn’t stick around for the evening, because dinner at our camp overlooking the Shenandoah Valley was fabulous. We started with an appetizer of local ham, smoked trout, and cheese, and then followed with beef tenderloin, gnocchi with tomatoes and garlic, red wine, and frybake chocolate chip cookies. We don’t lose weight on these trips.

The day’s mild temps eventually dipped into the high 30s, and then morning dawned warm and sunny….perfect doughnut weather, right? We learned soon enough that backcountry doughnuts really are pretty easy. We’d made the dough ahead of time using a Betty Crocker recipe, and we didn’t really need a lot of extra stuff on the trail–just an instant-read thermometer, a pair of tongs, vegetable oil, and cake doughnut toppings (chocolate, cinnamon, and powdered sugar).

While the oil was coming to temperature on our cook stove, we rolled out the dough and cut it into shape using the top of a Nalgene bottle and a cap from a Diet Coke. Then we dropped the dough into 375-degree oil for about two minutes a side. From there it was a quick dunk into the topping of choice and it was time for our Zens-like moment(s).

With several miles of walking ahead of us after breakfast, it was pretty easy to justify a doughnut. There was less of a case for the next four.

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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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Is Gander In Canada?

We just headed off to Gander, Newfoundland for a quick trip. So where is Gander, you might ask? We knew this place was a bit off the beaten path when we checked into our flights on Air Canada, and Jessie, the Air Canada agent, asked “is Gander in Canada?”

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Gander is a town of 10,000 that has an airport with a big runway and a lot of aviation history. A walk through town reveals streets named after Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Richenbacker, and Chuck Yeager. Gander was a stopover for almost all trans-Atlantic flights back in the day—until fuel capacities got bigger in the 1970s. And Gander continues to be a safe haven for flights over the North Atlantic that have mechanical problems (thankfully, that wasn’t us).

Gander also had a big role in helping the world on September 11, 2001, when US-bound planes were diverted here and 6500 passengers spent five days in town waiting for US airspace to re-open. The town’s population nearly doubled in just a few hours, and the people of Gander answered the call. They opened their homes to total strangers, the hockey rink was converted to a giant refrigerator to store food for the “plane people,” and citizens made weary travelers feel as comfortable as they could (imagine hearing this: “Hi, welcome to Walmart. Would you like to come to our house and take a shower?”).

Gander’s post-9/11 role was largely overlooked at the time, but it is an amazing story—even inspiring a musical that is playing now at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC called “Come from Away.” One of the many passengers stranded in Gander back in 2001 was so touched that she started a highly successful scholarship program for the high school in nearby Lewisporte. The stories from that time offered a ray of hope in the midst of a very dark time.

As for us, we took in a few local sites, including the Silent Witness Memorial, and then stopped by the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. The museum offered up some fascinating artifacts from Newfoundland’s rich aviation history, as well as a few more reminders of 9-11 (including a piece of steel from one of the Twin Towers).

From Gander, we headed on to Twillingate, about an hour and a half north, where we’ve rented a cottage overlooking the harbor. We are going to take in as much local culture as we can, hike a bunch, cook up some local treats, and perhaps learn a little more about a corner of the world that we don’t know that much about.

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!

Happy Campers

This past weekend I had the chance to go on an adventure with a friend that I’ve known since the 1960s. Tim and I share a hometown and a lot of interests–including a passion for the outdoors–and we’ve been tied together for a long time (sometimes literally, on technical climbing trips). Tim also happens to be my brother.

This was to be the first-ever backpacking trip for Tim’s sons Sebastian and Tristan, so it seemed important to pick a good place! We chose one of our favorites, the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, about three hours to the west by car.

The Sods are one of our favorite places for a bunch of reasons. There’s a great trail system, nice cool weather (even in summer), and the high elevation (4000′) translates to flora and fauna that are more typical of Quebec. It is the southern-most range of a lot of interesting plants, and the winds up high are so constant that many of the spruce trees are three-sided.

The human history of the Sods is interesting, too, as the region was named after a German immigrant (Johann Dahle) that used the area for grazing cattle in the mid-1800s. At some point, the spelling of the region was changed to the now familiar Dolly, and in 1975 the area was designated as Wilderness.

Some years back, we had the chance to meet one of the original Dolly descendants, known to the locals simply as “Mister Dolly.” We wanted to cross his property with our kayaks to access the river, so we walked up Dollytown Road (really) and knocked on his door to ask permission. He answered right away and talked with a thick accent and a rapid fire cadence that made him hard to follow (but made it easy for my friend KB to imitate him afterwards).

As we chatted, we noticed that Mister Dolly was calling city folk like us “smarties,” and we wondered where the conversation was headed. But in the end he charged us a dollar a boat and tucked the bills into his shirt pocket in a way that made it seem like he’d done that before. It was a pretty good deal considering that we got river access and a story, all for $4. We enjoyed meeting him…and he seemed to enjoy meeting us.

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That’s me and Souzz to the left with a few smartie friends. Guess which one is Mister Dolly?

Smarties or not, the Dolly Sods are a pretty smart destination. We started out from Red Creek Campground under cloudy skies but generally great weather. Sebastian and Tristan did more than their part, carrying packs that included their gear as well as a Nerf football. Tim and I shouldered the rest—including a generous kitchen and a rain tarp (in case the skies ended up “watering the family tree,” so to speak).

The trail was wet and muddy, but that didn’t dampen anybody’s spirits–and might even have lifted a few, as the boys enjoyed the challenge of keeping dry feet. The hike was fairly straightforward and the terrain and scenery were interesting, including blooming mountain laurel. We also saw a deer and jumped a wild turkey, so we had a pretty good sampling of the flora and fauna.

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At some point, the boys decided to “gamify” the hike and rock-hopped most of the way. I have no idea who won–but when we got to camp, they immediately started throwing the Nerf ball, played baseball using hiking poles as bats, and swimming in the creek. There was no shortage of energy in this crowd (or at least half of it).

The trip really wasn’t about the food…but what backpacking trip isn’t at least a little about food? With this being a short hike, just four miles or so, we’d brought along homemade beef jerky, antipasto, homemade Buffalo wings, and the makings for two fry-bake pizzas.

The boys jumped right into prep, which was a great help! For the pizzas, we used store-bought fresh dough and sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, and a bit of fresh basil. For the baking itself, we used 6 charcoals on the bottom, 12 on top, and the baking took about 50 minutes (which gave us time to devour the wings, which we heated in a frybake).

After dinner, we started a fire and then we turned attention to dessert. The center of attention was a treat that dates to the 1920s that was originally called a graham cracker sandwich. Now it is commonly called a s’more—two graham crackers, chocolate, and a roasted marshmallow. No matter how old I get, s’mores are still a ride right back to childhood, when my campfire limit was about a dozen. As an adult, just one bite had me searching for a glucometer (a new vocabulary word inspired by the trip).

What I’d forgotten about s’mores is just how social an experience that they are. For starters, there’s the need to search for and then carve the perfect roasting stick, with plenty of consultations along the way. That’s followed by a lot of discussion about the best area of coals for roasting, and then a lot of riffing on anyone that drops a marshmallow into the fire. The whole process is a Sociology Masters Thesis waiting to be written (providing one has access to a good ultralight glucometer and doesn’t mind that nobody reads their thesis).

After enjoying a handful of s’mores, my nephews told us that the only thing that they loved more than s’mores was ice cream. Of course, we knew that going into the trip, so there was another surprise in store. Through the wonders of dry ice, two pints of (very frozen) ice cream made their appearance, along with grishgroom (homemade chocolate sauce). At that point, the night became one long sugar coma. And isn’t that what a backpacking trip should be with your dad and your uncle?

 

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Tristan, Tim, and Sebastian, ready to head homeward

Where a Cuban Sandwich is Just a Sandwich

We are having a great visit to Havana, Cuba, where Souzz had a work trip and I tagged along. While Cuba has been off limits to Americans for a long time, U.S. tourism on the island has been ramping up since late 2014 when the U.S. and Cuba announced that they were moving towards “normalized” relations. That’s a relative term, of course, as there doesn’t seem to be much that is normal yet between these two countries. Visitors from the U.S. currently must meet certain criteria; Souzz’s trip was a part of an educational exchange, where American and Cuban professionals share information about their respective disciplines (certainly a good thing for all involved).

As is true with any adventure, Souzz and I weren’t quite sure what to expect here. After all, it has been a 50-year stretch of two countries giving each other the cold (war) shoulder—including an embargo on U.S. imports since 1962. But once again, it turns out that people are just people, no matter where you go.

From a tourist’s perspective, Havana has quickly turned itself into an inviting destination (or perhaps it was all along, but we just didn’t know). The Cuban government is starting to open things up, and there is now a burgeoning restaurant scene. Tourism-related services are also starting to emerge in Havana.

Havana is a city of 2 million, and it is the oldest and largest city in the Caribbean—dating back to the 1500s. It has amazing architecture, 500 year old forts, and a lively arts and music scene. Walking the streets here, it is easy to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday back in the 1940s.

As for the food, that was just one element of this trip, and I’m still digesting a lot of other lessons and observations. There’s enough going on here to fill up several blog entries, and I’ll share some more thoughts in the coming days. But I’ll start with what’s on the table.

Coming in, we expected a somewhat simple cuisine–especially considering that there’s

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photo by Jorge Royan

been a rationing system in Cuba since the 1990s (imagine being permitted to buy just five eggs per month, as well as limited quantities of stipends like sugar, rice, and oil). Stories of shortages of certain foods, as well as basic medicines and vitamins, are real and ongoing. That said, people here seem to take it in stride, at least as far as we could tell. The restaurant scene largely insulates tourists from these shortages, which is both good and bad.

As for our experience, the dishes we’ve sampled on the island are carefully prepared and delicious. Whether lunch or dinner, the meal generally includes a meat/seafood dish with rice and beans, as well as locally  grown vegetables like yucca, squash, sweet potato, avocado, or eggplant.

As one might expect, portions are smaller than the U.S. (read: normal and not super-sized), service is generally slower, and meals tend to feel like more of a communal experience than a drive-through. Add in the fact that you are often sitting in a 300-year old building full of amazing art and listening to live Cuban music, and you have a recipe for a very memorable dining experience.

It’s worth noting that bottled water is also common for visitors, as the city’s water system is still a work in progress (water is often supplied by trucks in the areas of the city that are dense with restaurants).

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A water truck in Old Havana

In addition to the food, most every meal at a restaurant seems to start with a Mojito or perhaps a Cuba Libre (rum and coke…well, rum and Ciego Montero tuKola, as Coca-Cola is off limits due to the embargo). As for wine, most of the wine consumed here is sold by the glass and comes from Chile. Cuba does produce its own wine, but one local told us (only half-jokingly) that it is only suitable for salad dressing.

Seafood is on most menus, but it is not as common as we expected. Later we learned that the relative dearth of seafood may be due to the tight restrictions on fishing licenses…restrictions that could be borne out of concerns by the government that boats in the harbor could head north to the U.S. Ummm, wow.

Throughout our visit, we encountered Cubans that were friendly and curious, albeit somewhat cautious–as nobody knows what happens next, and there are more questions than answers. Will normalized relations lead to a lift of the embargo? Can the country make economic progress and still preserve its culture? Or will there be a shiny casino and a t-shirt shop where a 300-year old building used to be?

Aaah, yes, many questions. But whatever happens next, the country showed itself as a beautiful place with a charming culture—despite our two nations’ complicated history.

This is a work trip for Souzz, of course, but it is mostly tourism for me. During the course of our visit, we’ve made every effort to be respectful–even as a tourist experience here is the essence of contradiction. Each day we are mindful of what is on our table, as opposed to what is likely on the tables of the wait staff and the chef and the taxi driver. What I suspect we all share is hope for a better day.