Looking out my kitchen window, distracted by the picture perfect snow covered pine trees beckoning just outside, it dawns on me that for the next five months or so I will eagerly embody every winter cliché imaginable. Hot chocolate, wonderfully spiked with espresso vodka and bourbon, is at my side. Heavy wool socks are pulled up high, at least two other garments are fleece. Abandoned in the middle of the floor, my boots are slowly loosing their coating of snow. Surrounded by this winter bliss it seems a mighty fine time to throw together a few notes and photos from warmer days.
September was with us just a couple a months ago, now it seems so distant. The month kicked off with a work outing. Co-workers and partners cruised from brewery to brewery on the Cycle Pub. It looks like a trolley but is powered like a bike. Pedal! Pedal! Pedal! Someone needs to tell the Olympics about this.
Next up it was time to get moving again but this time not far at all. We relocated from our apartment in Bend to a little A-frame house in Sunriver, a resort community south of town. Steve now has a five-minute bike commute to work. Mine is a bit longer but overall seems like a good trade. More space for us both and Steve gets tasked with dinner more often than not.
The highlight of September rolled in later in the month in the form of Momma Peg flying in from Kentucky. My momma if she chooses can be a touch tenacious. Still, I worried about her flying from Lexington, KY to Redmond, OR with connections in Atlanta and Salt Lake. She hadn’t flown in many years and we all know that flying these days can test the mettle of even the most seasoned traveler. She pulled it off without a hitch. Now I can remind her of this any time she gets turned around in the mall. If you can make it through ATL you can remember which door you came in at Macy’s.
Momma Peg’s adventures in central Oregon included bagging a butte, wading in a glacial fed lake, and hiking through lava fields. We also headed over to the coast for a few days. We took in many beautiful views, visited historic lighthouses and actually saw whales on our whale-watching trip.
Now on the surface I might seem like the most eccentric member of my family. There was that whole quit my job to travel around in a van thing. But no my mom wins the eccentricity award hands down. Nothing illustrates this more than the story of what turned out to be my mom’s most beloved souvenir of her trip to Oregon. One day the weather was on the stormy side, so we drove to different overlooks to just watch the ocean swirl and heave. At one of these spots there were a couple old buoys bouncing in and out with the waves. Tracing their path back and forth was a little hypnotic. With each inbound wave it looked as though they were going to wash in for good only to be tossed out to sea again seconds later. Mom did comment on how neat it would be to have a buoy to take home. Can’t say I wasn’t warned. Later that night she heads off for a walk on the beach well ahead of Steve and me. A bit later we track her down. What has fished out of the brush line between the road and the beach? Yes, she found herself a stinky, barnacle encrusted buoy for her very own. Somehow they flew home together. I feel sorry for the TSA agent that inspected that bag.
It is time to refill the hot chocolate but first a huge THANKS to my mom for making the trek out to Oregon. She is the first family or friend to visit us since we left Kentucky. Hint, hint to the rest of you!
You came into our life during a time of transition. You gave hope, energy and caffeine on those summer Saturday mornings when we were building our future home. Your stainless carafe was sturdy and unbreakable as we bounced down washboard roads from Vermont to Utah. Your speedy brewing got us moving out of those Wal-Mart parking lots in a timely fashion. Your sleek design and simple functionality were things of envy among the climbers in Mexico. Your five-cup capacity ensured a fresh second pot on those cold rainy mornings when we just couldn’t get out of the van. You waited patiently in the holler while we swapped hemispheres. Your timer functioned flawlessly as you sputtered to life at 5:30 AM, signaling another morning of work in the California wine cellar. And you continued to brew, right up to the end, in our new Oregon home.
Goodbye old friend, your efforts were not in vein.
On our way back east there was a night spent in New Orleans. In less than 24 hours we took in a classic dinner, po’ boys for lunch the next day with bread pudding and beignets squeezed in between not to mention a fair amount of bourbon. Enough with the wine we were in New Orleans after all bring on the cocktails. Dinner was the highlight of our tour of gluttony where I had Shrimp Tchefuncte from the Palace Cafe. I can’t even describe it because broken down into its individual ingredients it sounds rather average and it is not average. So a couple bites into this dish I’m panicking. Can I recreate this? I must have this in my life and often! With no plans to live in New Orleans (although that is one solution) I was filling a little desperate. A quick internet search came up with both the recipe and a little history about the dish. I’ve tackled Shrimp Tchefuncte twice now and while it doesn’t match the real thing…it is my current favorite for savory spicy comfort food. Try it for yourself.
“You going down to the canyon? asked the guy walking into the parking lot. He had come from the Boquillas Canyon Trail, the same one we were about to check out.
“Yeah” I responded with a nod.
“Be sure to look for Victor,” said the man, “he’ll sing you a song.”
Not the typical pre-hike conversation I was used to having with someone coming off a trail. “The trail is nice”, “The view is worth it”, “The climb out is tough” were more common pre-hike exchanges you have with fellow hiking strangers. But Victor? Singing? What were we getting into?
Christmas carols blared outside of lawn & garden as we drifted to sleep in a parking lot on the edge of Fort Stockton. It seems that Big Bend National Park is way down in West Texas. Way down. A bit out of our way and right on the way to Kentucky all at the same time. It was a park Jill had visited before and one I had not. One we opted not to visit on our road trip in ’09 because I wanted to get to a destination where we could climb. A park that made perfect sense to visit this time out. It was December and the daytime temps were warm, it also put off getting home. We’d awake the next morning and drive on down for a few nights of National Park fun on the border.
Through miles and miles of rolling hills and Texas scrub we came to the park entrance, only 46 more miles to Rio Grande Village. The rolling hills gave way to the Chisos Mountains, the scrub continued. We quickly settled on a campsite, this being off season we had our pick of the litter, and headed out for a little hike to the mouth of Boquillas Canyon. Easy. One point four miles round trip. Let the hustle begin.
“We’ll check that out!” I hesitantly responded to the guy in the trailhead parking lot.
We had read about the trinkets that the people of Boquillas made to sell to the tourists. It was illegal to buy directly from them, instead you could legally purchase them in the park’s visitor’s centers. For a marked up price of course. You see Boquillas was a small village on the south side of the Rio Grande River. The Mexican side of the river that separates the first world from the third world along Texas’ winding border with Mexico. Back in the day you could pay a fare and take a boat to Boquillas to buy a bite to eat, cervezas and trinkets. If the river was cooperating you could also wade. That is what Jill did back in 1994, lucky duck.
Then came the attacks of September 11th, the lock down of our Nation’s borders, the and the end of tourism as Boquillas knew it. With no official border crossing in the park, the nearest one 50 plus miles away, a visit to Big Bend National Park changed. Gone was the carefree day trips to Mexican border towns like Santa Elena or Boquillas and here to stay was the presence of the US Border Patrol.
We followed the trail out to the parking lot and quickly climbed to the top of a low hill with dramatic views of the twisting Rio Grande and sweeping canyon walls. And there it was by the trail, the hustle. A small pile of trinkets and walking sticks complete with a price list and payment can. Really? Right here? Huh? It wasn’t a sight I thought I’d see. All the park propaganda warned of purchasing crafts off of Mexican residents, not from a trail side flea market stall. OK it wasn’t that bad, more interesting than anything. Instead of direct sales it was more on the honor system. Slide over and leave your wares at the busy tourist spots in this popular border park and come back later to collect the profits. It only got more interesting.
Remember that guy we met in the parking lot? Something about Victor and a song? As soon as we reached the edge of the river and turned downstream toward the entrance to the canyon it started. The sound of the rippling river was interrupted by the distinct sounds of song. Mariachi? Tejano? Whatever it was it didn’t matter, somewhere out there in the Texas or Mexican river grass was a guy singing to us. We stumbled onto Victor’s collection cup soon there after.
Amigos! Amigos! I’ll sing you a song. Never mind he already had, Victor was channeling a carnival barker to drum up a donation for more singing. Sitting on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande with his amigo, he would wait for his audience. Binoculars insured he earned his wages and made sure they didn’t walk off. Its how he made his living, or so he said. We continued on down river to the end of the trail. Sand stacked up to make a large dune against US side of the canyon, sheer limestone walls rose up out of the river on the Mexican side. It was beautiful. But unlike other National Parks where the hustle was contained to the man made villages of commerce catering to the tourists, this place had it out on the trails too. We started back up the hill to the parking lot and were met by border patrol agent.
“Did Victor sing you a song?” asked the agent.
“Yeah” we chuckled, “it was something.”
“He used to ferry people back and forth to Boquills by boat.” the agent informed us, “Singing along the way.”
We chatted with the agent a bit longer and were on our way back over the low hill to our van. The setting was ideallic outdoors, but my mind was transfixed on Victor, Boquillas and life on the border.
We bottomed out in California. Soon after harvest Jill and I found ourselves at the lowest point we’ve ever been since starting our travels back in the fall of 2008, Death Valley. At 282 feet below sea level Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is the lowest point North America. For a couple who like to climb up high and look around it wasn’t exactly tops on our list of places to visit.
As it turns out, a place with death in the name is quite an attraction, well worth a look. From 11,000 foot peaks, sand dunes and canyons the park has plenty to see and do. While not as spectacular a desert setting as Southern Utah or Red Rocks Canyon in Nevada, the park is special in its own right. A place of extremes, from elevation to temperature, Death Valley National Park is another shining example of Mother Nature’s sense irony.
During our stay we soaked in the dramatic landscape, experienced the rare occurrence of rain (of course we did) and hit the lowest point in our travels. You see, every journey is filled with highs and lows. We just prefer to measure ours in the physical sense.