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Road Food

While most of my food was cooked over a fire or on my little camp stove, and PB & J provided almost daily sustenance, I would occasionally splurge on local items, or grab a bite with my hosts.  Those explorations resulted in this list of edible and potable stand-outs that are every bit as memorable as the scenery I encountered along the way.  While it didn’t make this list, though, I would like to give an honorable mention to Lipton Noodles and Sauce, the prolific varieties of which provided many a satisfying camp meal – everything tastes better outdoors!

Top 5 Food and Drink – Roadtrip 2010

5. Morel and cream pasta

This was the best of my own creations on the road.  I rehydrated the last of the morel mushrooms that I had harvested and dried in the spring, sautéed them in butter with salt and pepper, added some heavy cream that had probably spent a couple days too many without refrigeration, and stirred the resulting sauce into cooked bow-tie pasta.  Voila!  A delicious dinner to keep me warm as the night temperatures neared freezing.

4. Colombo Pizza

I went to Colombo’s Pizza and Pasta because I had to… but I was sure glad I did!  Fresh vegetables were piled high on the pizza with home-made sauce and crust and just the right amount of cheese.  The place was bustling with college students, families, and young adults alike, and the service was friendly and efficient.  You may not think of pizza when planning a trip to the Rockies, but after a long day of skiing, hiking, or paddling the area wilderness, you won’t be disappointed.

3. Stephanie’s cooking

Anyone who has met Stephanie has probably tasted something she’s cooked… and not been disappointed.  Not only did I get to taste just about every variety of soy food produced by Ota Tofu, but I got the gourmet preparation to boot!  Fresh salmon, delicious cheeses, and crisp veggies rounded out our meals, and her mom even introduced me to Puerh teas, which I have since made a part of my regular diet.  I don’t even remember everything we ate in the few days I visited, but I sure wish I had Stephanie here to make my dinner tonight!  Mmmmmm…

2. Texas Tacos

I’ve never seen quite the variety of tacos that I got in Austin, TX, and all of them were wonderful.  Fish tacos, fusion tacos, veggie tacos, traditional tacos… the list could go on and on, and I certainly didn’t get anywhere near sampling everything available.  Your next trip to Texas should probably include a “taco tour”!

1. Fresh-hop beer

If you’ve been reading this long, or talked to me in the last year and a half, this ranking won’t come as a surprise to you!  The awesome variety of high-quality beer amazed me – and that’s coming from a girl used to Wisconsin’s motley brews.  However, the fresh-hop beer was more than just tasty… it revolutionized my way of thinking.  See, I never liked IPA’s, or APA’s, or any PA’s for that matter, because they were just too bitter.  The beers brewed with fresh hops (only a few hours off the vine), Pale Ales or not, were light, crisp, and fragrant without the bite!  Once I learned how delicious hops could be, I was able to find the flavor underneath the surface acridity in the ales I’d encountered before.  Now I’m at least as likely, if not more likely, to pick up a Hopalicious, Hopdinger, or Hop Hearty than anything else.  Thanks to Oregon’s healthy, hearty, and delicious beer industry!

Do you have any good food experiences on the road?  Know the best thing Stephanie has ever cooked?  Have an IPA recommendation?  I can’t wait to hear about it!

Favorites

Shortly after returning from my big trip a year and a half ago, I took a new job and moved to the northeast corner of Wisconsin – a land of tall pine trees, clear waters, and primal predators.  Living in the land of wolves, Wild Rivers, and old-growth hemlock has its perks, but I alternated between exploring my new territory and missing the cows, prairies, and delectable local brews (and cheeses) of the southern portion of the state.  I’ve had a lot of questions about what I’ve been doing up here (and, from the skeptics, what there is to do up here), but new friends have also been asking me about the trip I took, and one of the first questions out of everyone’s mouth is, “So, what was your favorite part?”  In light of that, before I jump into my “new” adventures, I thought that I would present a post on my “Favorites” from the cross-country travels that inspired this blog.

That proved to be a little more difficult than I thought.  There are a few places that stand out as #1 or #2 on my list, but when I try to expand that to a Top 5 or Top 10, I find myself asking, “Well, Favorite what?”  Places, people, and things might be highly memorable for only one reason, but not qualify for the overall “Favorite” distinction.  Since they say that people today like easily-digestible, prescriptive information, I thought that I would provide a few different summaries of such things as my favorite foods and beverages, wildlife and plant experiences, music and radio stations, and of course the overall cream of the crop.

I’ll start with a list of places that may or may not have made my overall favorite list, but that might have if I’d given them a better fighting chance.  I call it:

Top 5 Places I Want to Go Back to and Explore More

1. Salmon River/Idaho Rockies

Some of the other places on this list might think that it isn’t fair to include this, since I’ve been hoping to plan a trip out here ever since I first saw the area in 2001, moving between Alaska and California.  I made a conscious choice not to spend time in the Rockies on this last advenure, because I felt like a week-long backpacking trip needed more specific planning.  I wasn’t even planning to go to Idaho, until I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to follow Louis and Clark’s tracks over Lemhi Pass.  My one night on the Salmon River was not only a breath of cool air between the heat of central Montana and that of the coastal Central Valley, but the babble of the blue river was a relaxing break between two long and winding days of driving.  I’m hoping to get back to the general vicinity sometime in the next two years for a more in-depth experience.

2. Sonoran Desert/Tucson, AZ/Saguaro National Park

I also decided not to spend a significant amount of time in the desert Southwest, since I had spent over a week there in 2003, moving back from California.  I did, however, take a more southern route, and the plants of the desert astounded me more than the red rocks of northern AZ and NM had years before.  I dragged my feet a little bit through Arizona, trying to take it all in, but I never had a chance to spend much time in any one place.  Specifically, I would have liked to spend more than 18 hours in Tucson, visiting family and getting to see some of the artistic side of the town.  I would also get slightly out of town to get to see the more wild and undisturbed portion of Saguaro National Park, and to get a better understanding of desert ecology and plant life.  I hope to get back there sometime in the next five years, maybe for a springtime blooming of the desert.

3.  Gulf Coast

When planning my travels in Texas, I didn’t even think of the ocean and beaches, so the time I spent there was short, but enjoyable.  I wouldn’t mind spending a couple days lounging on a beach, eating oysters on the half-shell, and learning about the coastal ecology that is so valuable to the healthy function of our hemisphere.  A couple years back I went to New Orleans for a weekend, and I remember thinking that, if I had scheduled it better, I would have saved some time for the coastal bayous, as well.  I’ll probably get down to somewhere along the Gulf coast in the next few years for an informative, tasty, and relaxing few days!

4. Oregon

Unlike every other place on this list, Oregon was an integral part of the planning for this cross-country journey.  I had never been there, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  During my week there, I had the opportunity to look at most of the more exciting parts of the state, but each portion only briefly.  I could spend a lot more time in the mountains of the Cascades and the Coast Range, exploring the neighborhoods of Portland, and dipping my feet in the Pacific.  It would be fascinating to give myself a rigorous course in volcanic geology while driving around the state.  Most of all, however, I’d like to do a focused survey of the fresh-hop beers that are tapped late every summer.  I got a small sampling when I was there, but I was a little late for the peak season, and I hadn’t planned on touring brew houses.  Next time I go back, I’ll make sure to be better organized and have a clearer direction to my visit.  It might be a good idea to trek the mountains before I start the beer tour, though!

5.  Big Thicket

If you recall my recent post on the Big Thicket National Park, you’ll remember that I was very excited about this ecological melting pot, but didn’t even have time to enter the park proper.  I’d like to spend several days in this north Texas/north-western Louisiana area with a few good field guides and maybe even a local naturalist to lead the way.  Not sure when I’ll get back there, but there’ll be some good botanizing when I do!

To all my fellow adventurers out there – have you been to any of these places or done any of these things?  Do you have suggestions for off-the-beaten-path exploration when I finally get a chance to return?

Fusion

Glossy Magnolia leaves outshine the towering loblolly pines and 80 other tree species at Big Thicket National Preserve

Oct 30- 31, 2010

Miles 8369 – 8748

Stowell, TX to Little River, AR

After crossing the Bolivar Peninsula, I headed more or less straight north, and got to the Big Thicket Preserve in the late afternoon.  I immediately recognized both that it would be a very interesting place to explore and that it was getting too late to do it that day.  I opted instead to find a place to spend the night, and by the time I had done that I was on the north side of the preserve.  After two months on the road, I was itching to be back home, and never got to explore the area… but you will be sure to see it on my upcoming “top ten list of places I want to go back to!”

Loblolly Pines

What makes the Big Thicket Preserve so interesting to a plant geek like myself is that it is at the intersection of four major ecological zones of the country, and as such has an amazing variety of flora in a relatively small geographical area.   The headline of the preserve’s brochure reads, “Unusual Combinations of the Ordinary,” and if you haven’t gotten the hint from my past posts, this kind of fusion is what gets me the most excited.  I had driven north from the coast, away from the dry plains landscape of central Texas, through a hundred miles of lowland swamps and coastal bayous, and all of a sudden was seeing not only several

The Magnolia really made me feel like I was in "the south," as opposed to the southwest desert or coastal regions.

different species of pine trees but also magnolias, tupelo, sweetgum, cypress, and hickories, not to mention about ten different kinds of oaks – the Water Oak being one that I had never seen before.  That was only in a short walk that I did right in Martin Dies Jr. State Park!  An equal variety of herbaceous plants would have greeted me earlier in the year, and birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals of all sorts were hidden in the woods, swamps, and meadows around me.  Because of this diversity, the Big Thicket is a little bit different from other National Parks and Preserves in that it is not a large block of land, but rather several separate corridors totaling about 100,000 acres within about 1800 square miles!  Definitely plenty for everyoneto do… at least everyone who enjoys outdoor recreation.

Though reluctant to leave such a cool site, I trucked on into Arkansas, and spent a little while exploring Texarkana, where I had a good lunch at a café and got some great fudge at Shelly’s Bakery (oh, and an oil change, too… funny how you need a couple of those when you drive 10,000 miles).  I stayed at a fairly nondescript campground at Millwood State Park, next to a large impounded lake and some train tracks, a little ways northwest of Hope, where I headed on the next day…

As I rolled out of north-east Texas into Arkansas, the pine-lined highway was a precursor to the Ozarks ahead.

Last Glimpse of the Ocean

Oct 30, 2010

Miles 8273 – 8369

Brazos Bend State Park to High Island, Texas

After leaving Brazos Bend State Park, I decided to go east around Houston, for one last glimpse of the coast.  I stopped in Galveston for an ocean-side meal at Benno’s on the Beach.  Lucky for me that it was still too early for oysters, or I would have missed out on the perfectly-prepared softshell crab and hush puppies… mmmmm.  I took the car ferry across the bay to the Bolivar Peninsula, and had time to watch the hustle and bustle of the harbor along the way.   The pleasure boaters, waverunners, and sightseers seemed to take no notice of the ocean-going freighters and heavy industry, while the commercial fishermen went about their business as though none of the rest of us were there.

The Bolivar Peninsula was a flat, sandy strip of land that was, I am told, significantly more desolate than it was before Hurricane Ike passed through in 2008.  It was interesting to see all of the buildings up on stilts, to protect against high waves.  While most of them were nondescript cabins, some werejust regular houses!  I stopped for a while at the only public beach I could find, though I had to forge my way through a mound of wind-blown sand to get there.  I spent an hour or so looking for souvenir seashells along the shore of the Gulf, then I hopped back in the car, turned

Oil rigs on the beach!

inland, and left it behind.

Birding is Fun After All!

October 30-31, 2010

Brazos Bend State Park, TX

Miles 8080-8273

I rolled into Brazos Bend State Park just before Halloween.  I had struggled with the decision, wondering whether it was worth stopping in just to see a few more alligators, which the park is known for.  I decided to visit for a couple hours, take a short loop hike and check out the ‘gators, than head north.  Instead, I wound up staying all afternoon, overnight, and half of the next day… and discovered how cool waterfowl could be!

They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, so I’ll just limit the narrative here to captions:

Alligator Retreating

Trees overhanging the trail
Swamp cedar roots sprouting from the muck

The alligator really was this close… and this big! But it wasn’t moving too quickly…
White Ibis
Fulvous Tree Duck – these were not only funny-looking but funny-sounding too, as they called to their flock of chicks! 
Black-crowned Night Heron
Ibis, Egrets, and Louisiana Herons       

Cormorant
Common Moorhen (Gallinule)
The whitetails down in Texas are naturally much smaller than our big bucks up north!

Wildlife on the Texas Coast

October 27, 2010

Miles 7901-8080

Padre Island, TX to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, TX

After leaving Padre Island, I headed north up the coast, stopping for seafood in a small town.  Unfortunately, their bay wasn’t opening for oyster harvest until the coming weekend, but I got to sample some other local specialties, with a side of hush puppies.

Fresh water at Aransas

That afternoon, I got to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where I was hoping to spot some of the early Whooping Crane arrivals.  While one pair had indeed arrived that week, they were staying deep in the refuge, in an area inaccessible by the casual visitor (as I was).  I drove the loop road, though, and got out to walk at every opportunity.  With the continued strong winds, only larger birds were flying, and they were staying low.  From an observation tower, I got to watch ospreys fish in the ocean and herons on the adjacent flats.  And… I came across a few alligators!  It was a fun experience, but I’d like to go back sometime when the rest of the birds are aloft…

Green Heron

Great Blue Herons at Aransas NWR

Heron bathing in the Gulf

A variety of habitats

Swimming in the Gulf!

October 26-27

Goliad, TX to Padre Island, TX

7866-7908

After passing through the revolutionary towns of central eastern Texas, I made my way through Corpus Christi and out to Padre Island.  I could feel the humidity and salt in the air by the time I got to Corpus – but all I saw there was traffic and bright signs!  Padre Island seemed like more of the same, with a few fancy tourist resorts, until I got into the National Park.  There, the subdivisions and flashy billboards gave way to seemingly endless sand plains covered with dune grasses.  Padre Island National Park preserves 60 miles of undeveloped white sand frontage in a barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico for wildlife habitat.  This is Texas, thought, don’t forget, and in Texas beaches are considered public highways below the ordinary high water line.    Yep, you can drive the whole beach (and back – there’s no crossing at the south end), if you don’t get stuck… and remember to watch out for endangered sea turtles!  There is a section of beach at the park that is reserved for swimmers and wildlife watchers, though, and I went there to take a dip.

An offshore oil rig looms in the fog east of Padre Island

Pelicans at Padre Island NP

It was too windy to lie out on the sand, so I swam for a bit amid the jellyfish and crabs.  It was really more body-surfing than swimming, due to the waves and wind, but pretty nice to be swimming in the ocean at the end of October!  I walked on the beach, watching the ghost crabs on the short, and the pelicans swooping low to catch their dinner.  I decided to camp out on the beach rather than paying for a spot in the crowded (and paved) campground, so I headed down to the public roadway section.

Only the northern 4 miles or so are passable with a 2-WD vehicle… and with the low clearance on my over-packed Camry, I didn’t venture more than a few hundred yards.   It was so windy that I knew my tent would be a hassle all night, and the balmy temperature (and romantic notions of sleeping next to the ocean) convinced me that it would be a good idea to sleep on the beach.   This turned out to be a horrible idea!  The sand was stuck to me all over, and more kept blowing on me, and the tarp I had spread out also kept blowing around under me.  I was plenty warm in the light sleeping sheet-bag I was in, but my toes were very itchy.  At first I thought it was the sand and salt, then thought of sand fleas or some other such creature, but after an hour or so of torment I realized that it was mosquitoes.  I sprayed my feet thoroughly with DEET, but it only seemed to keep them off for about five minutes.  After another hour or so of this, I gave up and got into the car to try sleeping for the rest of the night!  The wind increased in force as the night went on, until the gusts were shaking my sturdy car.  As soon as it was light, I drove off the beach, afraid that the sand would blow across the tracks made by vehicles the day before and that I would be stranded.

From my "campsite"

Pelicans at sunset

Sunset over the dunes