November 28, 2009

Learning to Live Without an Oven, and Other Lessons From the Road.

I'm lucky to have a sink--two, actually. A foot pump makes it possible for running water (!) to flow from the tiny plastic faucet, and when the dishes are done, the waste water drains into a bucket. I don't know if it's because of the scenery, or the novelty of having a sink outside, but doing dishes has never been more enjoyable.

Because we are sharing a sub-20' van, there is no room for the kitchen inside the living quarters. There is a top-entry refrigerator inside, thank goodness, but all other kitchen accoutrements slide into a cabinet, to be used outside. A fold-up rafting kitchen houses two sinks that can be covered up with two plastic cutting boards--genius!--a wire rack for storage, and little side table for the stove. There is also a place to hang utensils, towels, what have you, above the sink area. To be honest, it's not that much of a reduction in counter space from the cabin kitchen--to which I am grateful for all of the lessons in small space cooking.

A two-burner camp stove and a small propane grill is where it all happens. The grill and the lantern share a big propane tank, and we recently put the lantern on a post, making it much more efficient. We despised those evil little green bottles; expensive and wasteful, we were burning through those way too quickly.

I'm no stranger to camp stove cooking, which has made this adventure much easier, and tastier. I have lived out of a backpack in the wilderness for weeks on end, with a dreadful MSR one burner stove that regularly tested the upper limits of my mechanical and culinary skills. Rice and pancakes were a no-no; in those days, it was a lot of Annie's mac and cheese and just-add water dehydrated black beans.

Later, it was weeks of car camping, followed by months of living in a tent and cooking with the very same two-burner Coleman I'm using now. The menu that summer evolved to include a lot of stir-frys and Asian noodle dishes, vegetarian and -non.  I also got heavy into bean salads, and when I was cooking for one, quesadillas.

While more or less camping in an Ecuadorian apartment, I found myself using a tiny little gas stove, again with no oven. This was the Lentil Phase--for some reason, when in the jungle, I made a lot of Indian-spiced lentils and vegetables, always with rice and flatbreads. When the right produce was available, I would make salsa fresca, guacamole and tortillas from scratch for tacos, or for a real treat, a green salad with lemon vinaigrette. But what I really lived off of was mangoes, sweet and sticky, right from the tree.

I also spent time living in a fire lookout, which was a big step up from the outdoor kitchen, because I had an oven. What I didn't have, though, was a grocery store to keep the larder full. Everything had to be rationed and carefully portioned, lest I run out of cheese, coffee, or wine. Fresh veggies--besides carrots and other root vegetables were gone in the first two weeks, but I did have a serious huckleberry crop just down the mountain. What was also a half-mile down the mountain was the spring: all water on the lookout had to be hauled uphill, on my back, making doing dishes doubly hard.

I made a lot of cornbread, ate a lot of popcorn (why did it taste so good up there?), and drank loads of chai tea on Sheep Hill. Two very special recipes I still use on a regular basis came from that lookout, thanks to gifted chef Karla who lived there before me and happened to leave the recipe cards: red enchilada sauce and the balsamic vinaigrette I make almost daily.

When I look back on the years spent cooking on the Coleman, I realize that this is somewhat of a learned art, so I can understand why food tends to be simple when camping. With limited space, no oven, and no assortment of fancy appliances, utensils or spice rack, the camp cook tends to shy away from complicated recipes. Besides, camping is supposed to be a bit of a break from domestic chores and everyday routines, so mac and cheese and brats might be a real treat.

But that is where this differs--we aren't camping, we live here. Cooking on a camp stove, boiling water for dishes, and raking leaves off the kitchen floor are all part of this new everyday routine. There are moments when I long for hot water to come out of the tap, to preheat the oven to make a big pan of lasagna, or to put leftovers in the freezer. Despite not having some of the luxuries of the average home cook, it's still possible to craft very fine meals out here, and I try my hardest to keep good food on the table.

What's also different is the menu. Baked wintery dishes are no longer an option, and some of my favorites--roasted cauliflower, squash, enchiladas, and of course, cakes and treats of all kinds--are to be saved for those special occasions when I get to takeover someone's kitchen. But gone too are the days of standard camp fare--simple pastas, burritos, and burgers. While they all have their time and place, when you are a from-scratch kind of cook, there is bound to be plenty of experimentation happening on those tiny little burners.

This time of year, I'm making a lot of soup, and I just brought back the flatbreads last night to go with the yellow split pea Dal I made. I've adapted my garlic bread recipe to work just as well--if not better--on the grill. I'm itching to make grilled pizza, and after the garlic bread success, am very willing to experiment using the table-top grill as an oven. I also just learned how to make Dutch-oven brownies (those raft guides are talented!), so may need to invest in one of those as well.

While I may miss my oven, my food processor, and my stand mixer, and my stomach gets knotty when I think of all of that holiday baking I'm going to miss, in some ways, I'm getting just as much pleasure scheming up new ways to keep us well fed. And I'm so grateful that I at least have a kitchen sink!

November 9, 2009

Through the Belly of the Beast

Rolling through the southern Cascades, the horizon enshrouded by a thick gray fog, that lifted just in time to get a peek at snow-capped Mt. Shasta in the distance. We were getting close.

Curve after curve, weaving through saddle after saddle, we crossed the border under deep blue autumn skies and rays of sunlight that warmed body and spirit. Goodbye, Oregon. Goodbye damp old-growth and moss covered logs, gushing mountain streams and fern-lined banks, mushroom pockets and orchid patches.

Hello, California. The inspection station a few miles past the border, a different country indeed. No passports required, but maybe someday.

South of Redding, I-5 straightens out again, just as the Valley begins to widen. Flatland is bordered by mountain ranges on either side, but instead of fog, they are choked by a layer of dust and smog. However undesirable the air quality is, this is prime agricultural land, with all manner of produce and feed cultivated in the temperate, Meditterranean climate.

From olives to almonds, cows to goats, tomatoes to corn, California's Central Valley grows it all. Typically 50-60 miles wide, 450 miles long, this huge valley accounts for 62,000 square miles of California's land mass, and is home to more than five million residents.

Much of the valley is used for growing crops, irrigating crops, transporting crops or processing crops. Productive land requires productive hands: towns and cities, large and small, dot the landscape. The Central Valley supplies fully one-quarter of the food America eats, and is the most dynamic and diverse agricultural region in the world. No one crop dominates California's output, and more than 350 commodities are grown here. Products grown exclusively (99% or more) in California include almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwi, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, raisins and walnuts. The state accounts for 90% or more of all US grown apricots, grapes, and avocados, and grows more than half of the nations fruits, nuts and vegetables, including three-quarters of the lettuce crop—an agricultural cornucopia indeed.

Crop after crop blurs in the periphery as you speed down I-5 (later the 99); sometimes signs tell you what they are, other times, it's anyone's guess—especially with the fruit trees. Equally elated by orange grove sightings and the prospect of getting off the 99 and heading east to the Sierras, Bakersfield loomed in the distance, one of the bigger towns in the Valley. Bakersfield's economy is based on both agriculture and oil (rigs are scattered in fields west of the city), making for an interesting socio-cultural dynamic. Turning off the 99, we cruised through urban sprawl and citrus trees heavy with ripe fruit, and finally got a decent view of the western slopes of the Sierras. Arid, rocky and rugged were the first impressions—turns out we had no idea just how so.

Until we entered the Kern River Canyon. The straight-as-an-arrow highway suddenly hits a wall—right about where the sign alerting you of how many deaths have occurred in the Kern River since 1968 (246, by the way; this photo is dated!), the road funnels traffic into two impossibly narrow lanes, and winds itself between rocky cliffs and a class 5+ river. If there is such a thing as topography shock, this would be it.

Through the belly of the beast, we have entered some of California's most pristine river canyon country—steep hillsides rising above remote drainages, backdrops dotted with granite boulders, blanketed by manzanita and pine forests, giant sequoias and other untold treasures that are loudly calling my name.

November 6, 2009

Down By the River

New ventures call for celebrations! New ventures beg for recognition! New ventures deserve shameless self-promotion!

What, you might ask, after such an extended hiatus from this blog, warrants such loud horn-tooting?

Living in a van, down by the river, of course. To be fair, a river and a creek, with ducks, raccoons, skunks and other vermin. With deer and birds. Sometimes it's by a beach, sometimes it's in the mountains, and other times, it might be by a lake.

But before you question my sanity, imagine: a beachfront office, 85 degrees, ocean breeze. Early morning mountain bike rides, right from camp. Making dinner by moonlight, washing dishes by starlight. Rock climbs at dusk a short drive upriver, hiking down in the dark. Creekside yoga, leaves falling on the mat. Fresh air, new scenery and inspiring people and places every day.

There are challenges too, no doubt. Cold mornings, the sun low in the sky. Finding basic utilities when we need them, the same ones we take for granted when living in a house (water, electric, internet). Critter camp raids, food pilfered and eaten on the spot. Tight living quarters, limited storage space. Cabinets left unlocked, before a trip on the twistiest road around, contents strewn about. Only one car for two people means planning ahead and sacrifice on occasion. Sketchy laundromats, dryers that don't work so well. Try as we might, things sometimes never really feel clean.

The trade-off is worth it: a sense freedom I've never known. Sure, I've traveled extensively, lived in a tent, a fire lookout, all liberating experiences that probably helped prepare me for this mother-of-all nomadic adventure. The difference this time, it's indefinite--there is no timeframe, no dwindling bank account that will dictate when we must return home. This is no vacation, no job with a layoff date. This is life--this is living the dream, every day.

Sans white picket fence--or roof over my head for that matter--this isn't your typical American dream. My version doesn't include children playing in the yard, PTA meetings, or sleepovers. It doesn't include a house full of nice furniture, closets stuffed with clothes, or a TV in every room. No two-car garage, no satellite dish, and no daily commute. These are things I've never pictured having, nor that I can ever remember really wanting. Society's voice rang in my ears a time or two, telling me that my life's purpose should be to attain these things, but it seems I am not a very good listener.

And so here I sit, contemplating endless possibilities, lulled by the sound of the creek, and waiting for the sun. I have everything I need. I have time to write, time to ride, and time to dream. Clothes on my back, good food in my belly, and a healthy body to make it all possible. Dogs bathing in the rays of sunlight that finally just peeked through the trees. Simplicity is something that is too often overlooked, but once you strip away the clutter, it turns out we really don't need much to lead a fulfilled and happy life.

For now, this is enough. My purpose might be different from yours, and what I need to survive and thrive might not be enough for you. Or it may be too much. Either way, it feels good to slow down long enough to listen--really listen--and trust that if we follow our hearts, we'll eventually end up on the right path.