HikeRunTelescopeOn my last day in California, I decided to take advantage of another nearby mountain: Telescope Peak. It’s the highest point, at roughly 11,000 feet up, that overlooks Death Valley.  To ensure I didn’t suffer the same fate as mountain camping (where we turned back because of excess snow), I did some preliminary scouting by flying over the peak.  The snow cover was minimal and just mostly on the cap.  So Benjo and I were off on another adventure to check it out.

Truthfully, I just wanted more high-altitude exposure to work the body and lungs with some rewarding views.  This time, I was delighted to find that the way up wasn’t as taxing as the previous weekend.  Then again, I didn’t have a rucksack while fighting through snow, but I think perhaps I’m starting to get used to the altitude?  I wish I could say the same for the mountain slope.  I never really thought myself afraid of heights (I used to skydive for crying out loud!), but there’s just something that brings on a panic-driven sobriety when you stand on the middle of a steep mountain looking down… a very, very long way down.  I don’t even think pictures do it justice to reproduce the feelings.  I guess it’s just a matter of repetitive exposure to gain confidence on mountainsides.

Death-Valley

Telescope PeakThat being said, I did notice that my panic factor was a little less than last time… until I neared the top.  Apparently snow from an aerial view doesn’t look nearly as bad as it is when you’re boots-on-ground in-person.  So the blue path (above) is where we hiked at a fast walking pace.  We never quite made it to the very top.  The last thousand feet or so were on a knife-edge with a ton of snow and ice.  And like I said, I’m still trying to get comfortable looking down at a 50° angle and seeing air instead of ground.  Benjo continued on a little bit, but even he said he was a little nervous and getting out of his element… and he’s experienced at this sort of shit!

In order to continue to get a workout on this whole hike, Benjo challenged me to run the way back.  So run I did.  The red path (above) is the run back.

Now, I know a few people that champion trail running.  I can see why to a certain extent.  You get a view with a workout.  But I found that about the only thing “running” and “trail running” have in common is that you need feet to do it.  Otherwise, it’s an entirely different experience.  It’s like comparing driving a Porsche to driving a semi with a load.  In running, you just go… you can have potentially sloppy technique/form with only a minor hit on speed (like driving the Porsche).  In trail running, you almost have to run on the balls of your feet to prevent any ankle rolls, you constantly have to apply the brakes downhill, and use 100% of your concentration on foot placement.  All of this combined probably cuts any running speed I may have to half (which is like driving a semi downhill or in wind – you can’t rock around at 100 mph and it takes concentration!).

Running Trail to Telescope PeakSo here’s a sample of the path I ran (outlined in red at right).  My concentration was maxed out ensuring I didn’t trip on a rock, lose my balance, or roll an ankle!  One point, I did almost misstep… I hit a rock wrong and lost balance.  My heart instantly jumped up into my throat as my inbound foot struck ground right on the rim of the trail, barely catching my momentum going overboard.  In the end, I was pretty proud of myself: I ran about 10k in an hour and twenty.  Not the fastest, but I would’ve literally been at the bottom of the mountain (without using the trail) if I had pushed it up any more.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with trail running: I came to get a workout with a view.  My view throughout the entire run consisted of the ground 3 feet in front of my planted foot looking for a secure FLZ (foot landing zone) for the inbound foot.  Hell, I could’ve run right by a black bear and not have known the difference!  But a workout I did get.  My feet were tired and my legs were pretty sore afterward.  Oh well, back to trails on the rolling hills of Britain.  Perhaps without the threat of an 8,000 foot drop, I can actually timeshare in the landscape with my feet a little more!

I’ve decided to trade-in a weekend of booze and grabass for pure, unadulterated nature while on this TDY (read: business trip)… and I intend on continuing this on any future TDYs as well.  Not only is it food for the body and soul, but I’m sure it offers Pam some peace of mind while she’s stuck at home with the kids.

Honeymoon Lake planAfter a bit of research, I figured the first destination would be the backyard of Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the lower 48 States) in the Inyo National Forest.  Backpacker magazine had a little showcase on Honeymoon Lake: a trailed 3,000 ft ascent that ends 6 miles later at a lake.  That sounds like a perfect way to cut your teeth and ease youself into mountaineering!  Realizing it’s still early April, I started researching the temperatures for where I wanted to go: highs in the 50′s and lows in the 20′s.  My thoughts?  Well, 50°F over the span of a week should practically negate any chance of running into massive snowed-in trails.  By this time, another one of the dudes (my Kiwi buddy Benjo; he’s an outdoors nut, as well) was interested in going too.  We were a “Go!”

You see this picture?

Mount Caradhras

It’s from the Lord of the Rings, where they were crossing the tops of those snow-covered mountains on their way to Rohan… I now have a very deep respect for Gandalf and the boys based off of what they went through (of course, I know it’s only a movie).

Benjo hiking up the MountainYou see, it all started out easy enough.  Grab the gear, hop on the trail and go.  I won’t lie though: I was winded after the first ½ mile going uphill.  I’m just not used to 7,000 foot air (or lack of).  By 1 mile in, I honestly think it took me more effort (in both leg muscles and heart-rate/breathing-rate) to get to where I was than it does to run 6 miles on the flat sea-levelled land!  I was sweating my ass off in a short-sleaved shirt… and it was only in the high 40′s!

And then that’s about the time we started seeing snow covering the trail.  At first, it was only 6 or so inches deep.  Just when I got into my rhythm hauling it uphill, I’d now take a step, sink in 5 inches, slide around a bit, stabilize, take a step with the other foot, slide, break through the crust and sink 5 inches, stabilize, another step… you get the idea.  This was pretty tiresome… and wearing breathable running shoes probably wasn’t the big one at this point:

Running Shoes + Snow = Horrible Idea

Aside from my feet starting to get cold, the snow seemed manageable.  Soon thereafter though, my feet would sink about a foot instead of 5 inches or so. It was getting deeper.

I think it was about this time that we came to a span of about 6 feet long where the trail was washed out by snow… I’m talking about a trail that ceases to exist (probably because it’s halfway down the mountain) and a section of snowy mountain that was on a 50°+ slope downward.  Benjo knew what he was doing and started to cross.  I played it cool on the outside, but on the inside I was kinda freaking out after I saw little mini-avalanches escape their way down the mountain just from the disturbance my “step, slip, sink, stabilize, step…” sneakers caused in the snow.  In my mind, those little balls of snow loosing themselves had the potential to be me!  With great care and a mind-over-matter suppression of “fight or flight,” I made it to the other side and continued following Benjo.  The snow was still getting deeper, but that I could deal with after the “trail-out landslide crossing” adjusted my continuously-computed tolerance… damned if I was gonna do that again (except for on the way back home, obviously)!

By now, there were patches of snow bank where I would sink through to my knees.  At the 2-mile mark, we rounded the corner and the trail was gone (buried in feet upon feet of snow obviously).  There was nothing but snow-covered 50°+ pure mountain slope.  My heart sank as Benjo trudged on.  With my brain using 90% of its power to suppress panic, the remaining 10% was used to place my feet The slope... in running shoesin the foot-holes that Benjo had already made, I dropped my gaze and purely concentrated on my next step… one foot in front of the other. At one point, I couldn’t believe it and, with my inside hand in the snow to ensure stability (oh yeah, with the running shoes also came the absence of gloves), I used my outside hand to pull my iPhone from my pocket and try to capture the slope.  Bad idea: panic almost froze me in place.  I sat down in the snow… well, it wasn’t much of a sit, more of a stand and lean my butt into a foot or three of powder… while I mentally regrouped.

I continued on in the same fashion: following Benjo’s tracks, very near-sighted, with one foot in front of the other.  In some parts, the slope wasn’t as bad… but it was ever-present past the 2-mile point where we rounded the mountain earlier.

We continued making our way up-slope with no “trail” in sight.  As we kept pushing onward and upward, I kept sinking more deepward and downward into the snow… to the point where I was waist-deep in some places. With the snow getting deeper and the sun getting lower, Benjo blazed ahead some 500 ft in elevation to see if the terrain got any better; it didn’t.

We turned around and followed our footsteps back across the slopes of the mountain.  To be honest, I was content on hiking back down to the bottom and setting up camp there (where there wasn’t any snow), but Benjo suggested a cliff-spot on the mountainside (8,800 ft up) we passed on the way down.  I had a sleeping bag rated to 15°F (the Big Agnes Lost Ranger, with accompanying – but sold separately – blow up insulated mattress), and weather said 20°F would be the absolute minimum, so why not?  As the sun was setting over the mountain, we pitched camp on the flattest spot we could find along the face.

With all the snow, we had an inexhaustible supply of water.  Using Benjo’s alpine stove, we replenished our stock of drinking water and heated some water to rehydrate our dried out meals.

After that, my snow-saturated running shoes were off and my feet (and the rest of me) were in the sleeping bag trying to get warm.  By 9pm, I was making a solid attempt to sleep… but keeping my eyes off the stars took my last bit of energy:

Campsite

It definitely dropped to 20°F that night.  I know because I put on my Patagonia Nano-Puff sweater and wrapped my feet in fleece to stay warm in my sleeping bag.  Even with that, I probably got about 5 total hours of sleep for the 10-hour period I was in my sleeping bag. Some of it was because I was slightly cold, but some of it was also because I was on a 15% gradient and falling into the bottom of my tent every time I moved.  I think next time I’ll invest in a sleeping bag liner to up the statistics on cold-temperature comfort.

I woke up as the sun rose (like I always do)… my running shoes were two blocks of ice.  I was dreading putting my feet back in them… but I did, and my dread wasn’t for naught. It shocked me awake.

Morning at Pine Creek

On the plus side, I saw why Benjo wanted to stay up on the mountain (as opposed to me wanting to go in the valley): look at the view! We definitely wouldn’t have got that down in the valley.

Pine-Creek-Pano
On the way back, I figured out why a good portion of the trail was snowed in: because the sun shines in this area (due to the mountain tops) about 4 hours a day. It never really gets a chance to melt until the summer.  As I looked around (now with a more discerning eye), I noticed that snow was absent from most of the mountain that was exposed to sun throughout most of the day.  Boy, did we pick the wrong path!

This is the second time I’ve planned a big trip and haven’t reached the destination due to circumstances (the first one here).  Despite that, I deem this one a success:

  1. I learned and gained confidence hopping around like a billy goat up snowy mountainsides.  I know there’s much more impressive/intimidating stuff out there, but I’ve never done this before and you need to start somewhere right?
  2. Unlike Gandalf and the boys, my feet don’t have the barefoot cold-resistance like that of a Hobbit.  Need… more… gear…
  3. This is a first that I’ve done sub-freezing camping.  It’s really not that bad as long as your sleeping bag can cope with it. Though getting up at night to pee instilled the fact that I need to invest in a drinking bladder that I can use as a piss-bag.

A piggy back to the last post.

Apparently the guys I’m out here with were hellbent on seeing San Diego, and I got caught up in the undertow and dragged out city-side with them.  We toured the USS Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier in the waters of San Diego.  From there, I found out that the bar with the piano/jukebox scenes in Top Gun was just around the corner:

Kansas City BBQ

Kansas City BBQ.  Back in 1985, one of the producers was scouting San Diego for filming locations for Top Gun and stopped in for a drink.  I guess he liked the bar and worked a deal with the owner to shoot part of the movie there.  You would think with all the fame now that someone (especially a graphic-artist type of person) would be able to QC the imagery to make sure it’s in-line with Top Gun. Not so: see anything wrong with the sign out front?  (hint: look at the airplane) They’ve just butchered the military aircraft to the point that “if it’s got wings and goes fast, it must be some derivation of the F-14!”  In fact, on the inside there was a “Request to Buzz the Tower” caption and picture with an F-16.

Anyway, the food there was good enough… but the themed atmosphere reminded me of a good fighter pilot bar (which it is).  To round out the motif, I attempted to give my best fighter pilot impersonation:

Goose at Kansas City BBQ

Snakeye at Kansas City BBQ

With the lack of a Hawaiian T-shirt, the kid on the piano, and Pam sitting on my lap, I thought I did a pretty shithot job…

So, to quench my boredom in Ridgecrest (California), I took a drive out to Oceanside to visit my Aunt and Uncle (it’s been years!).  I’ll save the “why I think family is important” post for another time, though to go off on that tangent now is very tantalizing.

We were driving back from the beach (taking the coastal scenic route) after engorging ourselves with crab… well, I did at least, I dunno about them… when we happened upon this house:

Oceanside Top Gun House

Anyone recognize this (the above picture was taken circa 1986 – yet another hint…)?!?!  It’s obvious if you were born anytime prior to about 1990!  Click here for a hint if you still don’t get it.  Anyway, I guess things have changed a lot from 1986:

Top Gun House today

It seems that one too many fighter pilots have duped ol’ Charlotte Blackwood (callsign ‘Charlie’ – how original… the RAF must’ve named her…) throughout the years; there’s a pilot-proof fence that now surrounds her property.  Perhaps better luck’s to be had in Key West for the pursuit of Charlie, but somehow I doubt it…

I’m not Cajun.  I didn’t grow up in the Deep South, and I’m not related to Gordon Ramsay or Emeril Lagasse.  But I have lived in the Deep South for about 4 years during my 20′s and have been to plenty of restaurants that serve top-notch gumbo, so I do know what I like.  I was also roommates with a hard-core Louisianian during my college days, and watched him make gumbo a few times on weekend ski trips to the Rockies.  Using the residual flavors etched in my memory as a guide, I’ve followed my nose (and taste buds) to tease out, what in my mind is, the perfect gumbo.

Gumbo (and Jambalaya, for that matter) was traditionally just a mixture of whatever ingredients you had on hand while holding true to a few simple techniques, and I take advantage of that mantra mainly in the meat department.  Also, I tend to add spices to taste, meaning: I don’t really follow recipes, nor do I write down exact amounts that I used.  I add, taste how it is, and then decide whether or not it needs more (or if I have to add something else to balance out the flavor because I put too much in).  So below is my gumbo recipe for the by-the-seat-of-your-pants chef.

Seafood Gumbo

  • ½ cup vegetable oil (or some other type of fat)
  • ½ cup flour
  • ½ -> 1 chopped onion
  • 2-3 chopped celery sticks
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • Bag of okra
  • 2 cans chicken broth
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • Spices
    • 2 bay leaves
    • Thyme
    • Basil
    • Oregano
    • Sage
    • Salt
    • Pepper
    • Cayenne pepper
    • Paprika
  • Worcestershire sauce

Meats:

  • ½ Andoule sausage
  • Package of crawfish
  • Shrimp
  • Chicken
  • Use whatever you want to (crab, oysters, alligator, etc)

And of course, Rice.

Prep:
Chop up onion, celery and garlic and set aside (there won’t be time to do this later)

Directions:

  1. In a frying pan set to medium, mix in the oil and flour. Constantly stir for about 20 minutes until it darkens. This is called “roux.” It should look like a dark brown porridge.  Take care not to burn it: do not ignore the stirring.
  2. Once darkened, add all the chopped veggies and garlic into the roux. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring. I added a little bit of thyme and paprika at this stage.
  3. Throw all this into a pot/dutch oven. Add to the pot the diced tomatoes, chicken broth, a dash of Worcestershire sauce (I used about a teaspoons-worth), and all the spices (to your liking). I used a few Bay leaves, about 2 tspn salt, 3 tspn black pepper, 1 Tblspn each of oregano and basil, a Tblspn or 2 of thyme (this is probably my favorite spice to go overboard on; I just like the flavor it brings), and dash of paprika and sage.  At any point, to add a little more kick, don’t be afraid to use cayenne pepper to augment the paprika.
  4. Cook the meat all together on high in the same pan that you initially did the veggies. Again, add spices to your liking. This is where I added a little more thyme, paprika, cayenne pepper, basil and oregano to coat the meats with a dry rub of spicing. Once the pan starts to get dry and the meats become seared or ‘blackened’, dump all the meats into the pot/dutch oven.  Quite often, I will be psuedo-liberal with the cayenne pepper to dry rub and sear the meats because the perceived spiciness of the cayenne will burn off in the cooking, whereas when you add it to the broth, it won’t so much.
  5. About 20 minutes before taking it off the heat, dump the bag of okra in and start the rice.

To serve, put a ‘volcano’ of rice into a soup bowl (or a bread bowl if you’re out to impress), and pour the Gumbo on top of the rice. The consistency of the gumbo should be a “thick soup” or a “thin stew”.

It’s starting to warm up with sunlight that lasts past 5pm… time to bring on the Snakeye camping season.  I have to admit though, Pam’s declared that it’s too cold for an overnighter… so if I press forward too hard, everyone quickly becomes miserable.  Just like last year, a gradual break-in is what the doctor (Dr. Pam, that is) is ordering.  We decided to take advantage of the non-rainy weekend and hike the countryside.

I researched a roundabout route nearby our town that would take us through some interesting sights to keep everybody appeased.

The plan: hike 3-6 miles with a planned picnic stop halfway through, motivating everyone to make it to the picnic spot as well as giving everyone a chance to recharge their batteries before finishing the back-half of the hike.

The execution through…

My eyes: this is to set my expectations.  It’ll be the initial ‘foundation’ measurement to determine how robust I can make the end-of-summer tour de force outdoor adventure.  With young kids, you can only push so hard until it isn’t fun and then they’re scarred for life; they don’t have that self-competitive sense of drive yet that compel their adult counterparts to want to do things faster, harder and more challenging.  Ultimately, I’d like to trek at least 5 miles per day for a three day end-of-summer trip; this hike will see where we stand and what needs to be done.  Even though I won’t fit the kids up with hiking backpacks for the ‘big one’, I would like to get them used to carrying something on hikes to give a gradual multi-year break-in hiking with a backpack.

HIking to the picnic spot

“Dr.” Pam’s eyes: I prescribed some fresh air and quality time for our family this fine early-March Saturday.  The day started great with all going full-throttle.  We enjoyed all the early spring flowers (daffodils already!), appreciated the Edwardian architecture of passing-by farmhouses (well, I did at least) and “baah” at some sheep ( faaa-irly typical).  The highlight for me and the kids, who’s minds are still fairly food-centric, was pic-i-nicking at Bolingbroke Castle.  Although a ruined shell from it’s prior glory (and the birthplace of King Henry IV),  it was nice to imagine a thousand years of feasts in the same spot we were dining… although I doubt their diet consisted of buffalo chicken sandwiches and trail mix.  Post lunch called for a quick pit stop at the village pub for a pint of Lincolnshire’s finest bitters to re-energize Trav and I for the rest of the hike. Brenden has been learning about carbohydrates and energy in school and, in turn, I utilized an excellent teaching opportunity: beer=carbohydrates=energy to hike! Why not?!  Problem was, we were only 1.5 miles into the hike and the kids were already complaining about their dogs barking.  The rest of the time was spent with positive distractions (i.e. Ooh look at that stick, it’s SO much cooler than the one you are holding!), positive association (isn’t hiking FUN?!), encouragement (you guys are doing great, so proud!) and a little bit of bribery (hot chocolate when we get home and yes… one hour of Super Mario).   Overall, I am looking forward to the summer and exploring the Highlands with all luck not practicing our disaster management skills again.

Picnic in the shell of a castle

The kids’ eyes: this is a great adventure… it’s fun to take our time (in fact, a lot of dilly-dally time!) to look at nature, find mushrooms, and pick up every stick we come across… until after about 2 miles.  Then the promise of a picnic kept us going and held the 1-minute-interval “are we there yet?” monsters at bay (we only released the 5-minute-interval “are we there yet?” monster).  Carrying a backpack was fun because I got to bring my favorite stuffed animal along for the adventure – it was the only thing in my bag.  The picnic was awesome: we ate, ran around, and climbed over everything in the castle ruins.  After the picnic, we packed up and walked some more.  Our feet got tired after 30 minutes and we were ready to bequeath our backpacks to Mom and Dad.  The occasional snack, and a promise that we could play Mario 3D World when we were finished, kept us moving forward with packs.  We arrived to the car at the 5-mile point running on fumes.  We climbed into the car, the engine started and….    (out like a light.)

Hiking Lincolnshire

A few more day hikes through the countryside and I think we’ll be ready for an epic excursion.  Call it the 2nd Annual Gaza Memorial Backpacking Trip… the big one will be in Scotland for sure, but where?  Right now, I’m looking at Galloway in the southern uplands (a closer drive and not too many tourists out exploring) or a trek around Loch Ness in the highlands (a little more touristy, yes… but with bragging potential that the monster brings).

For all who know me, I am by no means a see-the-world-through-rose-colored-glasses type of guy.  So me saying that almost everything has some sort of silver lining on it may surprise you (notice I said almost…).

My Stateside visit (the first one in 4 years!) really became a 3-week rockstar tour covering 4000+ miles just to see immediate family!  To bolster my resolve, my Old Man gave me the keys to his airplane for the duration.  Three hours of supervised flying practice was what the doctor ordered to build confidence through numbing my lightning-quick reflexes to cope with the world of 150-mph civilian flying…  after all, the entire Snakeye lineage is on the line for this one.

False Start

The adventure began shortly after Christmas.  A 6am wake-up ensured the maiden voyage would take place during the shortened winter daylight.  We pulled the plane from its hangared slumber into the chilled Texas air, Ready to flyloaded up all the luggage, and got everyone strapped in and situated.  Pam took a “selfie” to commemorate the moment while I hit the start button.  The propeller chugged and chugged, but nothing came to life.  This went on for about 10 minutes with my Dad’s coaching.  Then fuel started spilling out of the engine bay.  I thought I had only flooded it, but my Dad seemed a little more worried that it could be a sign of more serious issues (including the potential for an engine fire).  By myself, I probably would’ve pressed, but the Snakeye Lineage needed caution. Begrudgingly, I pulled everyone out, we put her back into the hangar, and got a rental car to traverse the 1200 miles to Cleveland.  About 4 hours into the drive, I couldn’t help but think that we’d be half way there had everything worked out; as it was, we still had about 16 hours to go.  To rub salt into the wound, the weather was perfectly clear throughout the entire 20-hour drive up.  Oh well.

We did New Years up there in the Lisa-and-John tradition (boy, has it been a while!).  In fact, our entire time in Ohio probably prescribed a liver replacement.

Lisa and John's New YearsLisa and John's New Years

On that Eve, a polar vortex parked itself over Cleveland and didn’t move.  When it came time to go back to Texas, we were faced with 12 inches (and continuing) of snow and ¼ mile visibility due to a white-out:

Snowed inSnowed in

Yep… I was extremely disappointed when my hands were tied to drive up to Ohio. But now that we were leaving and in dire need of a dog sled team, the silver lining of the aborted flight shone through. Hell, I’m in England now, and I can honestly say that my Dad’s airplane would still probably be in Ohio buried under a bunch of snow (I guess we were destined to drive a car back regardless of whether we flew up or not!).

1st Down

After 20 hours on the road, we pulled back into the home hub of Texas to attempt another swap-out for the airplane.  This time, after 9 rounds in the ring to start it, she fired up and we were airborne… further distancing ourselves from the polar vortex of Ohio and off to the desert oasis of Phoenix, Arizona.  I know I really don’t have to brag about the silver linings of flying yourself to a destination of your choice, but because it’s my blog, I’ll take the next minute and do it anyway:

  1. You don’t have to go through security.  Not that I’m smuggling drugs or that I truly care about a pat-down… I just hate taking the extra hour to take off my 7 pieces of flare so they can go through an XRay machine, only to put all my flare back on… just to board an airplane.
  2. It takes 1/3 of the amount of time a car does (using civilian plane speeds…).  They say time is money, so cutting a 20-hour car drive into a 7-hour airplane ride saves time and money well, I guess you more or less break a little below “even” considering the gas and operating costs of an airplane.
  3. You can go anywhere your heart desires… well, anywhere there’s an airport to land.

By choice, we decided to make Roswell, New Mexico (home of the US Air Force’s first contact with aliens) our half-way stop to gas up.  While there, they gave us a car to go get some fresh (New) Mexican food.  The freshness was up to interpretation though: I’m pretty sure I heard the sound of a microwave door open and close a few times.  After the pseudo-authentic meal, we figured it was a good opportunity for a nice family photo before taking off again.

Pit stop at Roswell, NM

Though since leaving New Mexico, I’ve just never really felt quite right… just some residual sensations of being poked and prodded or something… maybe it’s just flashbacks from visiting the optometrist.

My little flight-plannerWe landed in Phoenix a little after sunset and spent the next few days with my sister and her family; some of whom I was meeting for the very first time.  It was enjoyable and relaxing.  I even got to check-up on a few Nickel friends I made while in Italy.  The icing on the cake was that I even had help (at right) planning my flight back.  My initial plan was to change it up and take a right at stop at Albuquerque for fuel, but the little one (helping me flight plan) suggested otherwise… instead recommending a destination that I swore would take an act of God for me to ever step foot in again.

A kid's goodbye before boarding the plane

With goodbyes in order (that picture, by the way, was abducted from my sister), we were off back to Texas to close out our Stateside Tour.  Flying high above Arizona however, an act of God I did indeed witness… Winslow Meteor Crateras we flew over the mile-wide meteor crater near Winslow.  They say the rock impacted 50,000 years ago and was the size of a large yacht.  It was impressive even from the air.

Well, that (and the favorable winds) settled it.  Albuquerque was scratched and we pressed on (as the little one wanted) to Clovis, New Mexico to gas up.  Once we landed, I realized the reason I had swore my oath to never return…  My Mom once told me that if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all… so here’s what I got: the people are friendly.  That’s it.

Leal's in Blovis, NMOk, and they have the world’s best Mexican restaurant: Leal’s.  So as the plane got fueled, we paid a visit to Clovis’ only Saving Grace to get a bite to eat (at right).  This indulgence was only short lived though, as we had to beat feet back to the airplane before being swallowed by tumbleweed.

From there, it was a 2-hour flight back to Texas, only to get immediately whisked off back to England which concluded the Snakeye family rockstar tour.

It was busy, but I learned that no matter what, there is some silver lining in (almost) every situation.  It may not be apparent right away; it could take a week to see (as in being potentially snowed-in) or it could take years or decades to slowly materialize, but it’s there… and I also learned that I really, really want an airplane when I return to live back in the States…

If the Brits could only see us now… my first time back home in America in 4 years (!!) and we are probably reinforcing almost every stereotype that Brits and Europeans hold against Americans:

Every American a Cowboy…

Yep, my folks live on a ranch in Texas, which in and of itself probably lives up to about 85% of the European stereotypes circling around about America.  From what I understand, Europeans expect to go to America (to any city really) and catch a bunch of dudes in cowboy hats and shit-kickers on horseback rounding up herds of buffalo (you know, to process into America’s favorite food after McDonalds: buffalo wings!).  America’s really not like that, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from our example while visiting my parents on their Dude Ranch:

Bren feeding the HorsesRiss feeding the ass

Don’t worry, there’s free-range cattle and chickens to herd too…

Feedin' the ChickensHave a Cow

Trucks: the American Way…

The ultimate symbol of American superiority?  A big, honkin’ 10-mile-per-gallon pick-up truck with whale-skin hubcaps.

Big Honkin' Truck

And upon closer inspection: behind every big honkin’ truck lies a faithful big honkin’ tractor!  It’s never too early to start learning how to negotiate our 1-lane roads (that are 3-lanes wide) either… You have to teach them young so they’re fully prepared for the task when they turn 16, right?

Learning To Drive

And then someday they can fit into American society without embarrassment and pull into the local liquor store (such as the one pictured below) loud and proud with their American pick-up truck.  This is just one of many parking lots sans sedans that we came across.

Texas Parking Lot

The Right to Bear Arms… a lot of Arms…

Europeans continue to be in awe that you can walk into a store and, within 30 minutes (with a background check), walk out with a gun.  Of course, I think this is viewed with a slight negative spin outside the US… but when you hear of these horrible shootings and massacres, the last time I checked it was by people who illegally obtained the weapon.  Ban them?  I’m sure people that want to use them illegally will find a way to obtain them regardless.  Personally, I am glad that we have the freedom to bear arms.  Provided it’s responsibly taught and handled, I think it breeds a respect and reverence for not only the firearms, but for life.  Whereas if you’re never exposed to it, you have an unfounded fear of coming near them and a lack of safety from ignorance… ultimately, that’s when accidents happen.

Teaching Shooting

So in all honesty, measured exposure to guns is a good thing.  And what a perfect place to begin to teach that respect and safety at the Dude Ranch.

All You Can Eat…

Yep, we have that too… but America isn’t the only country with overweight people out there.  I’ve seen plenty of overweight people in Britain.  Though I must admit, I think America’s overweight, on average, is twenty or so pounds heavier than the other countries’ overweights that I’ve seen.  Fortunately, that issue doesn’t plague our family right now… or does it?

Fat Snakeye

Have a Texas-sized Merry Christmas!

The other night we had some pretty high winds… I’m talking Clovis-style winds.  Apparently it got up to 160 mph in Scotland (but we’re not in Scotland).  Regardless, it knocked the power out for about 8 hours.  When I got home from work, the four of us (Pam, the kids, and me) stood around staring blankly at one another for about an hour:  what can we do without TV, computers, and internet?  The lack of electricity paralyzed us into uselessness.

And then we started awakening from our technological trance.

Dinner still needed to be made, so I grabbed our camping headlamps (so I could see outside) and fired up the grill.  The wind definitely made it a challenge to get the charcoal to catch.  I came back inside as Pam was starting to light all the candles she had gathered.  The kids saw my headlamp and pleaded with me to wear one too – these things will entertain them for hours.  With the warm glow of the candles (and the aid of some headlamps), Pam got the kids involved in the closely-supervised cutting of the salad veggies.

Salad

With a Dutch Oven (of the cast-iron variety… not an event in the bedroom), you can almost prepare anything on the grill: from soup to pasta, in addition to the standard meat goodies.  Dinner was by candlelight. I’ve never really noticed how much light output a few candles can produce until you have no electricity for a while.  After we were done eating, the trance again tried to gain a foothold on us as we started to look at each other with a “what do we do now?” look.

Cat by the FireUltimately, we lit a fire in the fireplace, tried to teach Brenden how to play chess while Marissa tried on various outfits to give us a 4-year-old fashion show.  Truthfully?  Once we figured out how to pass the time, it was enjoyable to just be focused 100% on each other’s company rather than the “standard” sabotaged focus of 50% that modern innovations entail.  It was almost like camping, but with a shelter that is impervious to the weather… almost.  My worry was that the power would be absent throughout the night as well… it can be cold here in England!..  though it’s not that snow-Alaska cold, it’s more of a just-above-freezing/wet cold.  The cat got the idea… had the power not come back on around 9pm, we would’ve been joining the cat with our camping sleeping bags in front of the fireplace.

Something I realized as we tried to overcome our “inconvenience”:  it was really enjoyable hanging out with everybody with no iPads to look things up on the internet and no TV shows to enrapture our attention.  I think we’ll make it a monthly tradition to cut the power for one night  and get reacquainted with ourselves again.

Whenever I’m home for Thanksgiving, I’ve made it a tradition to smoke the Thanksgiving turkey.  And every year, the smoked Gobbler has wowed.

I started doing this about 10 years ago when I bought a cheap offset smoker (though at the time, I thought it was the bee’s knees compared to the Weber I was sporting).  I would start the whole process around midnight and set an alarm for on-the-hour (every hour) to check the smoker temperatures.  Early morning smoking a turkeyYeah, it’s a pain in the ass to wake up hourly to bathe yourself in a dense fog of hickory… but there’s just something there that triggers a primal pleasure overriding any annoyance: the fire, the smoke, the roasting meat… all that’s missing is a cave wall with my kids’ drawings etched into it.

I look back to my early days of smoking and I can’t believe what a crappy smoker I had.  A screen door retains more heat than that thing did.  Some hours I would wake up and the thing was at 350°F, while other hours I would wake up with the cooking heat at 50ºF.  It’s a wonder the turkey made it through the “40º-140º in 4 hours” danger-zone for bacterial infection. Since then, I’ve upgraded to a ceramic combo smoker/grill that actually holds its temperature for hours with no meddling.

I took off work from Wednesday-on to smoke not one, but two turkeys.  In Britain, anything smoked is about as rare as shit from a rocking horse, so I figured the more smoked turkey the better.  Though, the Brits were still eyeballing me weird looks when I told them I was taking leave to smoke a turkey.

I think this is the first time where Snakeye’s Law of Proportions (if some is good, more is better) has broken down on me.  Applying this law, I bought two of the largest turkeys I could find to smoke up.  Only, after refreshing myself with the time/temperature charts, it appears that 22 lbs of Tom is about 7 lbs too much to smoke without risk of contamination.  Time to amend the gameplan…

Smoking vs BBQing

Apparently, the purists will say that smoking is officially keeping the temperatures at 250°F and below.  Anything above is consider BBQ (albeit on a wood-burning oven/grill).  In order to get my monsters out of the bacteria danger-zone within 4 hours, I’ll have to up the temperature to the 300s.  Whatever you call it, my Texas-sized turkeys will come out with a wood-smoked flavor regardless.  What smoking at the low temperatures buys you is tender, juicy meat if done properly.  The problem with raising the temperature is you tend to dry out the meat.  My solution?  Shove a can full of cheap red wine up its arse.  I doubt the wine will impart any noticeable flavor, but it will evaporate and turn the chest cavity into an over-temp’d swamp o’ tenderness.

The Process

Smoking is a very forgiving process.  It falls into one of those categories of “it’s easy to do, but hard to do well.”  Even if you screw it up, most foods will still keep a good flavor to them.  When it comes to smoking, my personal taste is for the strong woods, making mesquite and hickory my two go-to combustibles.  They say fruit woods are great for poultry, but I have yet to try them out for Thanksgiving.  The first few hours on the smoker are what imparts the majority of the smoke flavor.  For me, a successful smoke-session usually means holding a constant temperature and resisting the urge of opening the smoker to admire your meat (so to speak, I guess), but it’s truly the reactions during the feast that determine if it was a success or not.

To compensate for the size of the turkey, we brined it for 24 hours prior which, when combined with the red-wine suppository, will hopefully keep the meat tender.

For the 24-hr brine, we used:

  • 2 gallons of water
  • 3 cups salt
  • 2 bottles of honey (microwaved to a liquid consistency prior to adding)
  • a fist-full of rosemary, sage and thyme
  • 2-3 bulbs of garlic, top sliced off
  • a liberal handful of peppercorns
  • halved apples and oranges
  • 1 gallon of hard cider (call it a 6-pack)

Once pulled from the brine, I bash together a dry rub.  I typically don’t measure it out… I just know what spicing I typically like and start adding it all to a bowl.  My typical ingredients are a lot of salt (about 50% of the entire concoction), some ground pepper, a generous pinch of spicy paprika (I suppose cayenne pepper will also work), half a spice jar of thyme and oregano, and a considerable amount of garlic powder (did I mention I love garlic?).  The point is this: the dry rub is just the shot of flavor that you get when you consume the turkey.  It doesn’t coat every exposed surface after the turkey’s been sliced up, so make it as strong as you want (with salt, etc).  The meat of the turkey nicely balances out anything that you put on the outside.  Using my hand, I just separate the skin from the meat underneath, creating pockets, and start loading those pockets up with the dry rub concentrating on the breasts and legs (again… so to speak).

I get the smoker up to temperature using a small bed of charcoal.  Once it’s up to temperature, I add the hickory branches and chunks, which the charcoal will eventually handoff to as the soul means of combustion.  From here on out, I only feed the smoker wood.  Once the wood catches, I sit ol’ Tom down atop his aluminum throne o’ red wine, set the air grates to hold the temperature, and don’t open it again for at least 4 hours… then it’s a progress check to add wood:

smoked turkey, 4 hours in

When I first started smoking turkeys, I was worried that the skin was getting too dark and burnt.  Don’t fret; this usually seals the outside to hold the liquids in on the inside… and we usually don’t eat the skin.  Like I said, it’s tough to screw up smoking.

Overall, they say to allow 20-25 minutes per pound at 300°F.  This leaves about 5 more hours on the smoker, or potentially 2 more progress-checks for this big guy.  I surrendered my second turkey to Pam so she can oven-roast it to offer some variety; it also gives me an excuse to buy a third turkey of less poundage to properly smoke at 225°F, allowing about 35-40 minutes per pound.  For this smaller turkey, I plan to add a honey-bourbon baste (50/50 mix) with an hour to go and apply it every 15 minutes.

For today though, the large turkey is done after 8 hours in the 300°F smoker (the meat registered around 200°F internally), cooked a day early for a premature dinner sampling and endless sandwich meat.  As far as the tenderness goes, the meat literally fell off the bones (it almost reminded me of properly smoked ribs).  I have one last hurdle on Friday: a “properly” smoked 14-pounder.  Then I can kick back and watch my choice college football games: Ohio State v Michigan, Air Force v Colorado State, and Auburn v ‘Bama… I almost feel like I’m back in the States! (except the games start at 5pm here…).  That being said, I’m thankful for a family that constantly puts up with me and my crazy aspirations of adventure (like spending the next three Thanksgivings in England), as well as all the company and support we’ve had while living all over God’s creation.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.