Monday, February 29, 2016

R is for Route 66

On the same trip we stopped at the Petrified Forest, we took a journey (literally) down the road of Americana on America's Highway:  Route 66.  Back before the days of interstates criss-crossing the nation, our highways still went through every city, town, and settlement.  Out west, where there were miles and miles between towns, entrepreneurs set up lavish wayside stands -- souvenir stands, diners, and motels -- to attract people to stop.  In turn, with many people heading west, they were fascinated with the land and were only too happy to take in the sites and purchase souvenirs along the way.  This highway from middle America to southern California thus became the legendary Route 66.

With Interstate 40 as the primary east-west artery through the middle of the country, much of the physical roadway that once was Route 66 has been torn up.  Such is the case for the preserved Route 66 roadbed within Petrified Forest National Park.
Historic Route 66 Roadbed at Petrified Forest National Park.  The telephone poles are original.
In some cases, part of the road may still exist, but just like Radiator Springs of Cars fame, the towns have either dried up or become mere shadows of their former glory days.  Sanders, AZ and the Twin Arrows gas station and gift shop are great examples

The Sanders Diner, once a popular stop along Route 66.  The actual Route 66 road no longer exists here.
The Claymine Road Bridge in Sanders, a part of old Route 66.  The bridge still stands, but there is no road on either side.
Twin Arrows, AZ.  The flashy arrows, gas pumps, and the trading post structure still stand, but it has long been abandoned.
In a few places (generally right off the interstate), the trading posts are still there, struggling to cling to an era that has passed them by.  It doesn't take much imagination, though, to conjure up an image of what this bustling roadside stand must have been like in its heyday.

Route 66 trading post at Lupton, AZ
In still other communities, such as Winslow, Holbrook, Williams, and Kingman, the legend lives on.  These communities, while not bustling metropolises, still attract large crowds of tourists each year with the small-town feel, their diners, neon lights, and architectural oddities, hearkening back to the days of fancy-free trips on the open road through the romance of the wild west.

Standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona...

The Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ, the inspiration for the Cozy Cone Motel in Cars.  We spent the night here!

Route 66 Diner in Kingman, AZ
And in still other areas, the same roadside America oddity that captured attention back in the day can still be seen along the highway today.

Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX
My kids still don't completely understand why I drag them on some of my crazy adventures.  But I think it's important not only to appreciate the landscape in the beauty of creation but to also appreciate our historical and cultural heritage -- what it is about us that made us America.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Q is for Quick Backpacking/Picnic Meals

It's almost backpacking season, so it's time to start doing some planning, to include meal prep.  Gone are my days of settling for Slim Jims, crackers and Pop Tarts for breakfast and lunch.  We do still opt for quick meals for breakfast and lunch, but we now significantly boost the quality.  I've provided some of our favorites below.  Note that these can also be used for picnicking as well if you don't like stopping at restaurants while traveling or if you just like to mix it up a bit.  Unfortunately, I don't have very many pictures for this post, so you'll need to use your imagination a bit.


Oatmeal:  Pick up some some instant oatmeal packets.  I recommend two packets per person for backpacking since you burn calories much more quickly on the trail.  If you want to bulk it up with extra protein or even more calories, you can also add some dry milk powder (amount varies based on preference but no more than the dry equivalent of what you would normally put in at home).  Prep it ahead of time by adding all of the above to a quart-size ziplock bag.  Then, on the trail, add boiling water to desired consistency (more soupy vs more congealed) and let it sit for a couple of minutes.

Bacon-Cheese Grits:  Instant grits packets, Butter Buds, dry cheese powder (the equivalent of 1/3 cup of real shredded cheese), and Real Bacon Bits (not the fake bacon-flavored bits) to taste.  Combine all ingredients in a quart-size ziplock bag ahead of time, then add boiling water on the trail to desired consistency.  Credit to The Scout's Backpacking Cookbook for the inspiration. 

Yosemite Yogurt Drops:  Simply dehydrate small splotches of your favorite flavor yogurt (quarter-size drops are perfect size) until completely dry and leathery, then package into a small, snack-size ziplock bag.  I also refer to these as yogurt jerky because by the time you get around to eating them, many of the drops will have stuck together, leaving you to eat it more like jerky.  Credit to The Scout's Backpacking Cookbook. (see picture at bottom)

Niagara Falls Bars:  Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats, whole wheat flour, sesame seeds, brown sugar, ground cinnamon, salt, dry non-fat milk powder, vegetable oil, honey, and vanilla extract.  These require about an hour's worth of prep/cooking time at home, but there is no prep required when eating these on the trail.  They have the consistency of granola bars, but they have a lot more calories.  They also taste great!  These have gotten rave reviews from my entire family and nearly everyone that has had them.  Credit to The Scout's Backpacking Cookbook


Peanut Butter and Honey Rollups:  Peanut butter (or Sunbutter if someone has a peanut allergy), honey, and a tortilla.  Combine the peanut butter and honey into a small ziplock bag but carry the tortilla separately.  Be sure the ziplock bag is completely secured, then put the tortilla into a quart-size freezer bag along with the peanut butter-honey ziplock for traveling.  Credit to The Scout's Backpacking Cookbook

Pizza Rollups:  Two tortillas per person, a pizza sauce packet per 2-3 people, 1-2 string cheese sticks per person, and a personal-sized portion of your favorite pizza toppings (pepperoni, precooked sausage, real bacon bits, etc.).  Recommend combining the toppings into their own ziplock bag, along with the string cheese packet(s).  On the trail, add all ingredients to your tortilla and roll it up into a pizza wrap.  Credit to The Scout's Backpacking Cookbook for the inspiration. 

Sausage, Cheese, and Crackers:  Okay, so I said I don't do Slim Jims and crackers anymore, but occasionally, we do still have this similar yet tastier option.  Take a mini sleeve of Ritz crackers (see picture below), a small, sealed log of summer sausage to share among 2-3 people, and cheese squares to share among 2-3 people.  Combine or eat individually as you prefer out on the trail.

These recipes are all very tasty and very quick to prepare out on the trail.  If you're ready to move past junk food-type lunches or just want to add some more options, or if you're looking for some good picnic lunches, give these suggestions a try.  I think you and your crew will be quite pleased.

Crackers for Sausage, Cheese, & Crackers in the middle (my partner was provding the sausage and cheese squares), Oatmeal beside it, and Yogurt Drops on the far left.

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Monday, February 15, 2016

P is also for Prince William Forest Park

We camped a lot when we lived in DC.  One time, we camped at Prince William Forest Park, a site managed by the National Park Service, and the largest green space in the DC area.  Its 15,000 acres are heavily forested with streams and waterfalls and contain many ways to see the park, including hiking trails, biking paths, and a scenic drive.

Yes, that's a Harry Potter Book we're reading together!

There are a lot of things I remember about that campout.  First, it wouldn't have been a Schwamb family campout without a hike.  This particular trip, we chose a pretty short one just to get out and experience the park a little.

Additionally, the kids took their bikes on this campout, and the park was secluded enough that at ages 9 and 6 we felt comfortable letting the kids ride around on some of the trails and up to the ranger station without us having to be with them.

This was also the big kids' first campout setting their tent up by themselves.

What I remember most about this campout, though, was Lauren.  This was our first campout with her.  She was very mobile but was just starting to think about walking.  We put her down initially to start getting the camp set up, and before we knew it, she was crawling all over.  In the dirt.  She was a hot mess as she crawled all over the site.  Initially, we were concerned about that until we realized we would be fighting a losing battle if we thought we could keep her clean all weekend.  By the end of the weekend, she looked like a refugee, but she had clearly had a great time.


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P is for Petrified Forest National Park

Several months ago my family seized a target of opportunity to see Petrified Forest National Park (also home to the Painted Desert) while traveling through the area.  This is a great little park and one that you can spend a couple of hours or a couple of days.  Imagine large concentrations of petrified tree trunks, badlands painted with every color of the rainbow as far as the eye can see, and a historic Route 66 road bed that still has "historic litter" like '60s-vintage soda cans.  We sampled each of those diverse areas while we were there.

We started at the Painted Desert Visitor Center right off I-40 and began our trip down the 28-mile park road, stopping at several of the overlooks.  The mixture of colors truly brings to mind a blending of impressionism on canvas!  It's no wonder they call it the Painted Desert!  This is a solid example of why I believe every area of the world has its own unique beauty to it (although Kansas may be the exception!)!

Next, just before crossing under I-40, we stopped at the historic Route 66 roadbed.  The pavement has long since been ripped out, but the short telephone poles alongside it remain.  I will say that it's not immediately obvious where the roadbed is until you realize it's the depression in the landscape.  We walked the area in both directions for a little ways looking for retro trash, which the Park Service purposefully left in place as another indicator of life on the open road 50 years ago.  While we did find a couple of pieces of rusted metal, we never found that quintessential Mello Yellow bottle.  Sadly, I think many of the neat pieces you might have once found have been claimed as souvenirs -- at least within the short distance around the parking area.

Our last stop in the Painted Desert area was Blue Mesa.  We took the hiking trail down into the valley and were amazed as the scenery just kept getting better!  A sign directed us to stay on the path, and I marveled at how fragile the landscape was in these badlands.  Even if you wanted to climb on these formations, besides damaging them, it would be very difficult as the dirt is very loose.  It was also here that we saw several petrified logs deposited during runoff from a (or the) flood.

Our last stop, near the end of the park road, was the Giant Logs trail -- a short loop trail with several large and colorful petrified logs and tree trunks on display, including a full-size petrified tree trunk that is over 10 feet tall at its base!

Petrified Forest National Park is a beautiful park with much to see on the park road or just a short walk off of it.  For those that want to get off the beaten path, there are also several hikes into the more remote areas of the park ranging from 2 - 8.5 miles, where you can get a more solitary appreciation for this desert artistry.  If you're headed through eastern Arizona, to or from Flagstaff, plan to make at least a short stop.

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Monday, February 8, 2016

O is for Overnight Hike on the AT

As my love for outdoor adventure grew after several camping and canoeing trips, I became interested to try backpacking.  I had zero experience and zero gear, but that didn't deter me.  Back in 2008, we lived within an hour's drive of several Appalachian Trail (AT) trailheads.  I had been on the AT before, at Max Patch, along the Tennessee-Carolina border.  Max Patch is a tall bald (no trees) and standing on top of it among the grass, we felt like we were reliving the opening scene to The Sound of Music.  In that section, the AT was beautifully forested with occasional meadows and wide open vistas of the surounding countryside.

I fell in love with the trail, so I thought this would be the perfect place to try out backpacking.  When I mentioned the idea of a trip to my father-in-law, he asked if he could go with me.  So the adventure began.

I began researching the trail in the area and found several websites with valuable information -- things like trailheads and parking, shelter locations, mileages between features, and locations of water sources.  I decided on a single-overnight trip, covering a total of about 32 miles.  We dubbed it the Three-State Plan because we would start in Virginia, travel through Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and finish up in Maryland.

Neither of us had any backpacking gear, so we cobbled together what we could.  We rented external frame backpacks.  We each took one of my fleece sleeping bags.  It was mid-September, so we didn't expect cold weather.  We didn't have backpackable air mattresses, so we used pool rafts.  We intended to stay at one of the larger shelters along the trail, but knew we couldn't guarantee space and/or might decide to stop somewhere else, so we also took the kids' 3-man tent.  It wasn't heavy, but by backpacking standards, it was a ginormous anvil.  We didn't have bladders, so we used a couple of Gatorade bottles, and we had no trekking poles.  For clothing, I was in pretty good shape.  I was an avid runner, so I wore a moisture-wicking polyester running shirt -- the same kind I still wear frequently on my backpacking adventures.  I also had come across some convertible quick-drying hiking pants for a good price, and I had a very comfortable pair of Keen hiking boots.  For a hat, I wore my military boonie hat with a clip-on headlamp that must had a power of about 10 lumens.  It's a good thing we didn't need to do any real night hiking!  Chuck wasn't quite as well outfitted.  He wore a cotton t-shirt, blue jeans, a baseball cap, and tennis shoes.  We looked quite the pair!

We didn't have a stove either, but that was okay.  We packed MREs (military Meals Ready to Eat) for dinner because we thought, "They're vacuum-sealed and generally dehydrated, so they'll be small and light."  Boy, was that wrong!  For lunch, we packed crackers, string cheese, and Slim Jims, and breakfast was Pop Tarts.  Boy, were we living high on the hog!

We started early at Mount Weather in the middle of what has been dubbed the Roller Coaster -- a 15-mile stretch of long and continuous ups and downs over successive mountains.  We got about 7 miles of it, and that was plenty!  The long, arduous climbs yielded many great views that were worth it each time, but as we got to the end of that part, neither of us were sure we could go on.  Along the way, at a road crossing, we saw a sign indicating a convenience store a mile or so down the road.  We opted to head down there for more snacks and Gatorade.  Later that day, we passed water but opted not to tank up.  That was a mistake.  Before we got to the next water source, we were both out of water.  When we finally did reach the place, the problem was exacerbated by the water being off the trail a little ways, and we couldn't find it.  Moreover, we had to wait 30 minutes after we did find it for our purification tablets to take effect.  That is a lesson I have never forgotten!

We pulled into the Blackburn Trail Center, one of the largest shelters along the AT, in late afternoon, and we were dead tired.  In the picture below, the look on Chuck's face says it all.

We were in for a treat, though.  The Trail Center was manned, and the couple staying there was fixing dinner for any hiker that stopped in.  There were several of us there that night, including a couple of thru-hikers that started in Maine and were happy to share their tales.  We all enjoyed massive plates of spaghetti.  It seemed we just couldn't get enough, and that was much better than the MREs we had planned!

If that weren't enough, we were given the option of either sleeping on the screened-in porch or in one of the out-buildings that had bunks like a rustic cabin.  Chuck and I chose the cabin, and we had an amazing night's sleep.

We were stiff in the morning, but we ate our Pop Tarts, shouldered our packs and headed back to the trail.  This day would be exciting!  We would be crossing the bridge into Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and then on into Maryland.  We had a much easier hike through the mountains in the cool of the forest canopy.  We reached Harpers Ferry after lunch and enjoyed strolling down the historic street of old buildings toward the headquarters for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, where we signed the hiker register.  We also seized the opportunity for a cold drink and took in the amazing view at the river confluence before heading back out on the trail.

The last part of the hike was the hardest.  We were both tired.  Chuck had given up on his blue jeans and decided to convert them into shorts.  Still, he couldn't stay cool enough, and they were soaked through by this time.  I was having my own problems due to sweat as well.  As a result, we didn't enjoy the last part as much as we would have otherwise.  This part followed the C&O Canal towpath for about three miles before jumping off.  We jumped off at that same point, ecstatic to see our car waiting for us in the trailhead parking lot.

Despite being worn out, I was hooked.  I had found a new love that I haven't abandoned to this day, some seven years later.  I learned a few lessons, though, the same ones nearly every backpacker has learned early in their journeys:

1)  Gear isn't everything.  We were able to complete a successful and extremely enjoyable overnight hike with just what we were able to cobble together with near-zero investment.  I've seen Boy Scouts do the same thing successfully.
2)  That said, having the right gear helps.  It wasn't long after that I bought my first backpack and sleeping bag, both of which I'm still using today.  Looking back, I laugh at how unprepared we were in terms of our gear.  Having better gear means a smaller, lighter pack, a better night's sleep, better food, and better comfort.
3)  Planning is everything.  If we hadn't done so much route planning in terms of where we intended to stay, where water sources were, etc., the trip would not have been nearly as enjoyable.
4)  Never pass up the opportunity to fill up on water.  The consequences could be disastrous.  If we hadn't finally found that water source, we would have been in a world of hurt.

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Bent's Old Fort NHS

Bent's Old Fort preserves the history of trade and frontier life at an extremely isolated yet important outpost along the Santa Fe Trail.  It is an extremely well-done historic site with plenty of interest to adults and families alike.

Originally from Missouri but drawn to the frontier fur trade, William and Charles Bent established the fort in 1833 as a trading post in present-day southeast Colorado, along with Ceran St Vrain, a prominent Taos citizen.  It sat along the Santa Fe Trail and beside the Arkansas River, which at that time was the border between the US and Mexico.  The Bent, St Vrain, & Co. forged close ties and good trade relations with many of the plains tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho.  Thus, at the fort, they created a booming trade business of beaver, buffalo, and other furs going east (which the people used to keep warm in the winter) and, in exchange, provided many East Coast and European wares, such as beads, blankets, pots, and knives for the Indians.

It wasn't just a trading post, though.  This was THE stop along the Santa Fe Trail.  There was nothing else between Fort Leavenworth, in present-day eastern Kansas, and Santa Fe in Mexican territory.  As people made their way to the allure of a new life in the ranch land of the southwest or along the California coast, this oasis was a welcome respite of near luxury to those that had spent the last 529 miles seeing no sign of civilization save for perhaps some Indians they preferred to avoid.

Although constructed in the style of a castle or fort, in reality, Bent never intended it to be a protective outpost manned by the Army.  His goal was free and peaceful trade between all peoples in the area.

The Council Room inside the fort was where Americans (and some Canadians) met to conduct large-scale trade with trusted Indian tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho.  This room also hosted peace councils between warring tribes, seen as a neutral ground because of Bent's reputation as a fair and peaceful man throughout the various tribes.

Council Room
 For those tribes that had not earned trusted status, they could still trade but via a window outside the inner gate to the fort.

The Trade Room for less trusted tribes.  Notice the exchange window below the chandelier in the upper left of the photo.
The Trade Room for Americans, French Canadians, and those Indians allowed inside the fort.
The Store Room for Furs Going East
The Dining Room served hot meals each night, and those invited by the Bents or St Vrain were treated to white tablecloths and a free dessert of pie.  Even without the white tablecloths, however, this would have seemed quite luxurious compared to trail life.

Dining Room
The fort also housed blacksmith and carpentry shops.  These stayed busy continually, fixing wagons, replacing horseshoes, and the like.  Think of it as the first interstate garage!  Behind the fort, a corral held the horses, oxen, or other stock belonging to the visitors.

Blacksmith Shop
Carpentry Shop
While the cook, blacksmith, and carpenter all lived in small rooms beside their work areas, the upstairs contained dormitory-style housing for the payroll trappers or those visitors passing through.

Living Quarters
 Also upstairs was the billiard room, where the men met to play pool or cards while imbibing on some of Europe's finest alcohol.

Billiard Room
 In 1846, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny rolled in from Fort Leavenworth with approximately 1500 personnel to consolidate his forces, rest for a few days, and decide on his next move on his march to California.  His mission was to take New Mexico and California from Mexico and set up civil governments in his wake, all while not disrupting existing trade in the area or inciting the Indians. (Piece of cake, right?)  Kearny commandeered two of the storage rooms to store his arms, ammunition, and supplies.

Army Supply Storage
It was late in the year, so Kearny ultimately decided on the southern route to Santa Fe to avoid the chance of bad weather even though that meant losing the wagons to bad terrain.  Kearny's mission was eventually fully successful, avoiding opposition in New Mexico and taking Los Angeles with the help of the Navy after losing in an arrogant assault at San Pasqual outside of San Diego.

By 1849, the growing tide of settlers and gold-seekers had disrupted the carefully nurtured trade industry with the Indians through over-grazing, significantly increased buffalo hunting, a cholera epidemic, and tension between the Indians and the newcomers.  As a result, the Cheyenne moved away, and Bent and St Vrain moved on, but they left a lasting lesson in melding diplomacy and economics with the Indian tribes at a time when most of America viewed them as hostile savages.  In a prolonged era to which we look back today through our lens of modernity and decry many national-level sins, this fort surely stands as a light in a dark time for all that we find noble about our country.