Sunday, August 12, 2018

Mt. Rogers backpacking trip

I have fantasized for years about walking out the door and walking and walking without worrying about turning around and coming back. Walking fantasies have appeared in dreams about alternate careers (mail carrier), but have only been realized briefly in assorted day hikes in Germany plus a few long-ago overnight backpacking adventures in the U.S. At this point, the walking-and-walking fantasy isn't going to become reality unless I make a more serious commitment to it and get in backpacking shape.

My current idea is that I'll head out the door once E has settled comfortably into college, which puts a long-distance walk about 15-18 months on the horizon. That's enough time to hike more, carry more, camp more, and figure out more or less where I'm going.

So let the training commence. In mid-July, friend L and I did a quick overnight trip to southern Virginia, where we hiked a loop around Mt. Rogers, the highest peak in VA (which sounds vaguely impressive until you realize it's only 5,729 feet above sea level and we started at about 3,000 feet). We hiked a little more than 9 miles on the first day, mostly uphill, and about 8 miles on the second day, mostly downhill. We revised our planned route on the second day, cutting off a dip down to the Scales in favor of a stretch on the Pine Mountain Trail (part of the old AT), which turned out to be some of the most pleasant hiking of the trip.

Lessons learned: (1) my 3-liter Camelbak is more than large enough--I barely drank two liters in 24 hours--and (2) next time we should be more serious about carrying dehydrated food, because hydrated food sure weighs a lot. Day 2 was much easier than Day 1, not just because of gravity but also because we had consumed half our food and water.

Day 1:

Proof we were there.
Our first long-distance view.
These woods were emerald green, but my cell phone camera didn't know what to do with that and made the trail purple.
Either this is the highest point in VA, or the highest point is one boulder over. They look about the same.
Wild ponies, hanging out.
Greenery in the greenery

Squashed frog or tree root?
Climbing boulders to get another good view...
...Ta da!
Lichens. Worth zooming in to see.
Apple trees?
We overshot our intended campsite and ended up camping with cows...
...and more ponies.

Well after sunset, a ranger drove by in a jeep and stopped to ask if we had seen a 15-yr-old girl who had been reported missing from the Appalachian Trail for about six hours. After he left, we listened to helicopters searching for her in the dark for about 30 minutes. Then the ranger drove by again and said the helicopters had found her. Whew.

Day 2:

Sunrise to the west of us...
...sunrise to the east of us.
Snack time at Old Orchard Shelter.
My pack. I went for comfort over weight when choosing my pack and sleeping mat, so I ended up carrying about two pounds of pure comfort. I think it was worth it, but I might not think so on a longer hike.
There were rhododendrons all over the lower parts of the trail, but all but a few were well beyond blooming. We should come back in June.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Cardboard boats

Thanks to an article in Raleigh's News & Observer, we recently learned that the town of Smithfield, NC, would be inaugurating its new boat launch with a cardboard boat race. Boats and oars were to be made of nothing more than corrugated cardboard, duct tape, and glue, and each boat would be piloted down the Neuse River by a two-person team. What better project could there be to keep young engineering minds sharp over summer break? With barely one week to spare, E's thumbs sprang into action, texting a recruitment message to his high school robotics club and a few other friends. We solicited the neighborhood email list for cardboard, and received abundant donations. The team met for the first time the Saturday before the race, and hit the ground running.


They continued to meet nightly, their prototypes gradually emerging into an unconventional but plausible design, their industrious philosophy best encapsulated by the question, "Why draw on millennia of accumulated cultural knowledge when you can just wing it instead?"



By Friday afternoon, we still had so much cardboard on the front and back porches and in the living room that S and I wondered out loud whether we should build a boat ourselves. E's immediate response was "YES! DO IT! That would be so excellent!" So S and I skipped out early from a friend's party, drew on millennia of accumulated cultural knowledge, and built our own boat.


Early the next morning, we loaded the auspiciously named S.S. S.O.S. and Das Boot onto our trailer and headed to Smithfield.




Once in Smithfield, we registered our vessels and received copies of the rules. My favorite rule--the one that best illustrated the organizers' confidence in the success of everyone's efforts--was, "Your boat must have at least 2 sides remaining at the finish line to still be considered a boat. In other words, you can't just be hanging onto a piece of cardboard."


Many more boats entered the competition than competitors or organizers were expecting--33 in all. The rules didn't say anything about paint, so it didn't occur to us to decorate our boats, but many teams went all out.


BLR Hotrods came in first and also won the Best Decorated Boat prize








The most elegant boat was designed by a group of friends who had majored in engineering and design at NCSU, so naturally we dragged the rising seniors of Team S.S S.O.S. into a conversation with them.

Expedited Shipping came in 2nd

The SS S.O.S. flew a banner of black Sharpie calculations emblazoned on a field of unbleached-cardboard brown.


All pilots were required to wear personal flotation devices. Can you spot them in the photo?


The new boat launch was quite nice...



The regatta was supported by multiple rescue crews from Smithfield and beyond. This meant that anyone from the age of 8 to 88 could pilot a boat, sink, and be quickly plucked from the delightfully temperate leisurely flowing river raging waters. Boats entered the water one by one, were accompanied downstream by a rescue boat, and met at the finish line under the bridge by volunteers standing waist-deep in the water. The next boat would launch as soon as the wake from the returning rescue boat dissipated.

The SS S.O.S. queued up relatively early in the race.



Alas, the front of the SS S.O.S. was more buoyant than anticipated, and the boat began to take on water in back. The valiant pilots attempted to regain control of the ship, but it flooded beyond recovery--although, perhaps to its credit, not dramatically enough to win the Titanic Award for Most Memorable Sinking. The pilots were pulled from the water and brought to shore in the rescue craft. Happily, this will give them material for their college-application essays. The team is already planning how to up the drama to win the Titanic Award next year. 

Das Boot fared somewhat better.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Tau Day, peaches, and paleo

Tau Day (6.28) was this past Thursday, which required baking pies. I went around in circles on how many to make, because I couldn't decide whether to represent tau with one or two pies--would two pies be four pi, or two tau, or what? I ended up making three pies/three tau/six pi, then called for help to eat them. One friend wanted to come a fashionable 6.283185307179586476925286766559 minutes late, but he was off by a factor of e.

I made chocolate cream pie, blueberry pie, and peach custard pie. N thumbs up.


The chocolate cream pie filling was adapted from here, using two 70% dark chocolate bars and reducing the sugar a bit. Yum.

The blueberry pie is my mom's recipe, made with freshly picked farm-share berries: 1/3 pie volume fresh blueberries, add a little water and sugar; bring to boil, add lemon juice to taste, then add some cornstarch in water to thicken; remove from heat, add 2/3 pie volume fresh blueberries, dump in prebaked crust. Yum.

The cream of the crop was the peach custard pie--a last-minute entry made from this recipe. I used Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, 4 egg yolks instead of 3, chopped candied ginger instead of cinnamon (not because I didn't have any cinnamon, but because ginger is the absolute most appropriate spice for peaches), and two layers of peaches instead of one, because four medium sliced peaches wouldn't fit in a single overlapping layer. I used one ripe peach and three crunchy peaches (thus my hesitation), because that's all that was available from OUR VERY OWN BACKYARD PEACH TREE (screw hesitation).


We bought the tree as a sapling three years ago at Costco. A friend asked what variety of peach we got, and all I could tell her was Kirkland.

This is the first year the tree has borne fruit that has survived into the summer. There were so many peaches on one branch that their weight snapped the branch.



Our neighbor J warned us to beware of local fauna getting to the peaches before we could. When I checked on the tree on Thursday, I saw this:


so I picked these:


I like that I can see wee tooth marks in the nibbled peach, and I like thinking about a squirrel (or raccoon?) sitting in the tree enjoying fruit, or having a peach party with its buddies. Peaches are so much tastier than acorns or compost; imagine the revelry! Nonetheless, a friend has offered to lend me her slingshot and arsenal of dried chickpeas.

The Tau Day pies left me with a bunch of leftover egg whites. Usually I'd make an angel food cake or meringues, but it was too humid for the latter, and I wanted to try something new. Googling yielded dozens of websites that recommended turning them into two-ingredient "Paleo" banana egg-white pancakes. "You'll never believe how good these are!," recipe blog authors joyfully claim--recipe blog writers who care about fitness and body image and, I am convinced, have tastebuds numbed by years of eating protein powder just like our prehistoric ancestors never did. So as a public service announcement, I offer the following observations:

1. These pancakes are not anything any sane paleohuman would have ever cooked, because no one who had prehistoric bananas and chicken eggs around in the same place at the same time would have sacrificed either for these.

2. Banana egg-white pancakes are gross. Do not eat them.

3. Re. optional toppings: what kind of trade routes and prehistoric succulent refineries do Paleo fans think would have ever put bananas, agave syrup, and peanut butter in the same vicinity? Oy.

4. See #2.

Next time, angel food cake.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Great Fish Tank Crisis of 2018

Readers who have been following this blog for a while might remember The Great Ice Storm of '02 and The Great 2010 Fish Tank Catastrophe. What these events have in common--along with most other snow storms and home calamities--is that S is out of town for them.

Today, S is here:





Scenic Les Diablerets, Switzerland! What a lovely place for an academic conference, with free time scheduled in for hiking and biking. When the conference ends, S will spend several days biking from Les Diablerets to Bavaria, where he'll spend a week visiting his mom. Fifteen days from now, he'll fly home.

The timing could thus not be any better for The Great Fish Tank Crisis of 2018 to commence.

Yesterday, E and I noticed that the fish tank filter spray bar was making a lot of noise. This happens when enough water evaporates that the spray bar is no longer under water, creating a fountain as the filtered water returns to the tank; and it was odd, given that S had recently replenished the tank.

This morning, as E and I were rushing out the door, we noticed the noise was even louder. How odd that another inch of water could have evaporated so quickly out of the 45-gallon tank. Then we noticed the water seeping out of the bottom of the tank, meandering down--a drip here, a rivulet there--into the expanding puddle on the floor below. I looked at the fish; the fish looked at me. And then, with fingers crossed that the tank would not burst in the next 20 minutes, E drove us to his job (he's still 8 practice hours and 2.5 months away from getting his driver's license) while I texted S in a panic.

The fish tank and its accompanying geekery are S's deal. I know about as much about maintaining the tank as he knows about making pottery--which is to say, usually enough, but not much when the clock is ticking. For example, I know how to feed the fish, and how to add tea-tree oil if someone takes a bite out of someone else's tail, and how to pull out and rinse off the filter, just as S knows how to appreciate a form and fill a handmade bowl with salad, and how to blow into a chickarina butt to make music. He doesn't know how to throw a pot or load a kiln under time pressure, just as I don't know how to stop a tank from emptying out onto the floor or how to set up a hospital tank and relocate 25 living fish into it. (Yes, S guided me through the Great 2010 Fish Tank Catastrophe over the telephone--at 3 a.m., Germany time--but in that case there were, alas, but two survivors to relocate, and the tank wasn't threatening to burst.)

Thankfully, our neighbor R was available and came to the rescue, with S checking in periodically by phone from his scenic bike ride near Les Diablerets. (The above photos were taken at each phone-call stop.) All fish have been transferred to the hospital tank in the kitchen, including the powerful giant plecostomus that resisted netting and that R consequently carried by its tail through the dining room; all plants have been transferred to a second spare tank and bucket; and enough tank water was salvaged to keep everyone healthy and happy through a water change or two. So that E and I don't have to enjoy the scent of decaying fish poop for two weeks, R and I scooped all the gravel out of the tank, carried it outside, rinsed it off, and spread it on cardboard on the porch to dry, and then we carried the tank outside and R rinsed that too. Then we pulled the fish tank stand away from the living room wall, so the floorboards will have a chance to dry out and hopefully unbuckle.

And then peace descended upon the house once more. When S returns, he can repair and reassemble the tank, and it will be ready for a brand new crisis the next time he goes out of town.




From less troubled times: