Of all the possible places to visit, I think I’ve been the least enthusiastic about le France.  On Pam’s insistence however, I found myself behind the wheel of a fully loaded car barreling down le highways of France at 80 mph with scenes of NL’s European Vacation looping in my head:


On the 5-hour car ride to Tours, we desperately tried to teach the kids (and ourselves) basic French to not come across as typical American pigs. Words like “hello” (bonjour), “goodbye” (au revoir), “please” (si’l vous plaît), “thank you” (merci), and “I would like…” (je souhaite).  Pam and I went on, above and beyond, to learn essentials like “red wine” and “beer.”

To ensure it all stuck, we quizzed each other…

Me: Marissa, how do you say thank you?
Marissa: um, I dunno.
Me: Yes you do… Brenden, can you help her out?
Brenden: Marissa, remember it starts with an M and ends in an eeeee?
Marissa: hmmmmm…
Brenden: and it sounds like the play room when we play in it and Dad yells at us? It is…?!?!
Marissa: ummm… ummmm…
Me, baffled and unable to logically follow: Brenden, I don’t even know where you’re going with this… go ahead and tell Marissa the answer.
Brenden: It’s?!?!… MESSY!!!!
Marissa: oh yeah, ‘merci’!

Truth be told, I don’t have expectations that people from other tongues should auto-know English… it’s their country; I understand that.  But damn it!  I’m decently armed in Latin (to the point that I can get around… 4 years of schooling in Spanish, 3 years immersed in Italian), and French is impossible!  In Spanish or Italian, I could at least read the word, then say it phonetically in a Latin-sounding manner, and people would understand what I’m getting at.  Not so with the language of lovers.

In French, sounding out the word will shoot you in the foot and forever brand you a foreigner!  What the hell is the use of writing a word if that same spoken word has nothing in common with its written form?! Some examples:

Hors d’oeuvres
sounded out, as spelled: whores-doovres
spoken: or-derves
Quatre (the number 4)
sounded out, as spelled: kwa-treh 
spoken: cot (like what you sleep on… what the hell happened to the ‘tre’!)
Si’l vous plaît
sounded out, as spelled: sill-voos-plate
spoken: see-voo-play
Escargot
sounded out, as spelled: es-car-got
spoken: es-car-go (where’d the ‘t’ go?)

After three days, I think I’m catching on: take the last consonant (especially if it’s an ‘s’) of every word and just drop it.  Anyway, enough on the language. Bottom line: I didn’t experience the nightmare in National Lampoon’s European Vacation (at least, like them, I didn’t think I experienced it…).  The indigenous were rather polite and made an effort to communicate with me even if they didn’t know that much English.  Like the Griswold’s, Google Translate and a 3G connection on my phone were my hero.

As for the rest, the country is just stunning.  The roads and highway system rival the best I’ve ever driven on.  There’s no pot-holes, there’s ample shoulders… and unlike New Mexico and Italy, there’s absolutely no litter or graffiti lining the fences, overpasses, and fields.  Obviously, the $80 in tolls that we paid on the 300 miles went toward a little upkeep and national pride.  I don’t mind that at all.

French FoodThe food (the food that we found at random by walking around, ie: not looking it up on tripadvisor for scores) was excellent.  It was simple, flavorful, and filling (provided you spent the European 2-hours enjoying it).  I have to say, the stereotype that the French know how to cook and produce some of the best chefs is, in my opinion, true.  Our “average” French meal rivaled some of the best British meals we’ve had living a year or so in Britain, and some of the meals even brought me back to the simplicity of Italy.

To the right is an example of the standard French faire that I’m talking about.  Had this been British, the calamari would’ve been breaded and fried (or microwaved) and the sauce would’ve covered the entire meal in abundance, overpowering everything (à la Olive Garden).

I never saw frog legs on the menus, but we did order a dozen or so of the escargot.  Of this, admittedly, I felt rather guilty.  You see, the kids (Marissa, in particular) love snails.  They find them out in the yard and build houses for them out of rocks.  Marissa keeps them as pets and lets them slime all over her hands.  And then I ordered them as an appetizer and told the kids we were eating snails.  The initial reaction was that of forcing them to commit cannibalism.  After a pep talk about the poor snails, how they’re already dead (so we might as well eat them), and how the garlic makes them delectable, the kids expanded their horizons and were actually anxious to try them.

Brenden trying snailsMarissa trying snails

Both Tours and Ambois had a medieval portion of the ‘old’ city that was pedestrian-only.  We stuck to the restaurants with a view…

Old Town France

And speaking of the view, take a look at the architecture that we dined in front of in Tours (above)!  Just look at these old, overhanging timber buildings.  This was built in the 1400′s and 15oo’s, and they’re still standing and in use today!  Note the square, stacked tower and how it leans one way on one floor, and then leans the other way on the next.  I was truly impressed; this is the coolest old architecture I’ve seen in all my European travels.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice too that a lot of the timber framing has been intricately carved.

French Architecture

I’m used to this when I go into some old cathedral and there’s stone goblins and other artforms carved into the stone columns.  But stone is forever… wood, unfortunately, rots.  So I was amazed that 1) the French artisans actually took the time to carve the structural wooden beams that are exposed to weather, and 2) that they’ve lasted as many centuries as they’ve had!  Being a woodworker and having carved, I’m duly impressed!

The castles are always my favorite part.  I love medieval castles.  There’s just something cool and manly about the simplicity and utility of the medieval castle.  They’re basic, they did their job of protection, they were functional, they were utilitarian.  And then the Renaissance came about and screwed it all up.  Instead of being a symbol of might, the castle became a piece of distractingly busy artwork that just happened to house rich people.  All the castles we visited in France (all two of them!) were built in the Rennaisance.  Were they impressive?  Yes.  But after a room or two of cluttered paintwork and penisses, I quickly lost interest.  I don’t care about the ultra-details, tchotchkes, and clutter of Renaissance art in castle design.  I like the military history and sieges they’ve withstood.  In that respect, I admire the English castles that I’ve been visited more.

Chateau Chenonceau

Above is the second-most visited castle (the Palace of Versailles is #1) in France: Chenonceau. Again, impressive, but too busy and artsy-fartsy for me.  The most action this particular castle has seen is a Mexican stand-off between acknowledged  mistresses and knowing wives living in bedrooms attached to the master-suite, and a conversion into a hospital ward during the stalemated trench warfare of WWI.  Of general interest, this river was actually the line of demarcation between occupied France and French France during WWII.  So impressive? Yes.  Medieval? No.

Eiffel Tower PicnicKids in ParisAnd of course, what trip to France is complete without a visit to Gay Parí.  Truthfully, we almost skipped this (I could care less about big cities – countryside is where the true culture awaits to be explored). But because we talked it up so much, Brenden was hell-bent on seeing the Eiffel Tower.  So Pam made it fun by packing a picnic to eat in front of the Tower.  We were toying about going to the top of the Tower until we saw the amusement-park lines of tourists with that exact same thought on their minds.  A few pictures and five hours of loiter in Paris, and it was time to go.  Pam had a tinge of regret on not stopping by the Notre Dame Cathedral, but hey, after seeing one giant stone cathedral (like York Minster), they all start looking the same to me.  Also, I didn’t feel like putting the kids on a 4-mile trek (one way) to see it.

With that, we spent the night in Amiens, a city demolished during both World Wars and rebuilt twice from the aftermath, and made our way to the tunnel and back into England.

Overall, France ranks up there in my top 5 vacation spots.  That’s saying a lot, considering my low expectations going into this and how little I cared about going in the first place.  I’m amending my attitude: Paris? Meh, it’s another big city with unique attractions (ok, so I have the same attitude on Paris).  But the rest of France? A definite Snakeye fist-pump to visit.

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 BBQSnakeye 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!