Friday, December 2, 2011

The Chili Fight


BF and I

January will make 6 years with the BF. Which is officially longer than any other relationship either of us have had. I suppose we were due.

The BF is a hunter. As in rifles, mossy oak camouflage, blaze orange, and deer tags type hunter. My understanding is that he's been hunting since he was legal to do so, and he comes from a family that hunts. It's just part of his heritage.

Which works out fine for me. Despite my weird peace-mongering hippy-like nature, I am no vegetarian. I firmly stand with the people who say, "There's room for all God's creatures-- right next to the mashed potatoes." Especially if those mashed potatoes came from my own garden and were cooked in a Dutch oven over real wood coals from firewood that I gathered myself.

Nevertheless, in all his years, the BF has yet to actually shoot a deer. Maybe, somewhere in the back of his head he thinks they're really cute. Maybe he secretly just doesn't want to have to drag something with antlers back to the car. Maybe he lives (and therefore does most of his hunting) in California-- which is not a terribly hunter-friendly state and truly does its best to make catching your own meat as big a pain in the ass as possible... or maybe deer just run really fast. But thus far, in those 6 years that we've been together, our freezer stays stocked with wild blackberries and homegrown butternut squash far more so than venison.

Which works out fine for me, despite my weird peace-mongering hippy-like nature.

And it turns out that, considering that I am not from a hunting family, I am pretty fond of wild game. It probably goes well with my Pioneer Woman thing-- whatwith the sourdough bread and the cooking with fire and such.

But it isn't uncommon for us to find ourselves in the occasional possession of venison from those who have had successful deer seasons. So for the last year we've been hoarding two packages of venison stew meat.

The BF shows very little interest in doing anything with it. He showed little interest in doing anything with the last venison stew meat gift we received from a friend a few years back. I finally made chili with that and it was delicious.

But one rarely finds oneself dreaming of a hot, hearty bowl of chili in these parts, where we only enjoy about 3 months of reasonably cold weather.

But last week, the temperature finally dropped, the fog rolled in, we started burning our firewood and a big, steaming pot of chili sounded really good.

So while we were planning our weekly menu, I suggested we make a pot of venison chili.

So the BF told me I should go (right then) and take one of the packs of stew meat out of the freezer and let it thaw.

And then it was Thanksgiving. And our Thanksgiving is a two day extravaganza that prevented us from bothering with more mundane dinner preparation until Saturday. Saturday came and, although we now had thawed venison, we did not have a big pot of beans to add it to.

Ok-- I admit. Cooking dry beans has not yet made it to my personal list of "talents." I've tried a number of different methods and I've never experienced results that ended in total, inedible, disaster, but the beans always end up splitting.

Big deal, right? It's not  like the BF's "57 Bean Soup Plan" where he insisted on purchasing a bag of EVERY SINGLE TYPE OF DRY BEAN (and general legume such as split peas and lentils) that the store had in stock last year, then carefully measured them out and mixed them together with total disregard of differences in cooking times.

And that should give you enough information to understand that we are currently in possession of approximately 16 different types of dry beans and general legumes left over from his Bean Soup Plan... not to mention a gallon pitcher of mixed dry beans that I have no idea what we will do with because the Bean Soup Plan did--indeed-- prove to end in aforementioned disastrous results.

So, it was Saturday evening when we realized we had not planned appropriately for the chili project by getting a pot of dry beans soaking throughout the day... so I went to the pantry and fetched a collection of reasonably like-minded beans (black, red, and kidney) and started soaking them with intentions of then draining them in the morning and then starting them in the crock pot on Sunday morning.

However... come Sunday morning, the BF had had enough of the long weekend at home and insisted on getting outside and doing something.


Me: Doing Something
 I'm not opposed to "doing something." In fact, before the BF, I used to "do somethings" on a much more frequent basis. But I like to sleep till 11 a.m. (I also like to stay up till 2 a.m.)-- the BF is a morning person. He voluntarily gets out of bed at the crack of dawn... and sings. He thinks 9 a.m. is the absolute last possible time that you can start "doing something" and still get it done. Because, apparently, he's afraid of the dark. That's the only reasonable explanation I can think of for people who feel compelled to be safely back inside before the sun sets.

I have a whole theory about peoples' hunter/gatherer/caveman ancestry: My people definitely were the ones on night watch... the BF's did not like being left outside in the dark when the things they'd been hunting all day suddenly started hunting them. That's my theory.

So, Sunday morning came and the BF and I were on our way up to the foothills for a hike about 2 hours before my brain could even warm up to operating temperature. So the beans were left soaking.

Monday was the day of the local Christmas Parade, and my business neighbors and I open up our offices on the fourth floor of the building where we work for a big Parade-viewing party, so I left the house in a flurry of crockpots and apple cider on Monday morning, giving nary a thought to the beans. And so it was Tuesday morning before I remembered to rinse the beans and get them in the crock pot.

The BF gets home from work an average of 3 to 4 hours ahead of me. The plan was for him to sear the venison, chop some onions and peppers and throw it all into the pot.

The BF does not have a cell phone. But he had been IM'ing me upon his arrival at home in order to keep me apprised of his chili-related plans. He mentioned that there were a lot of beans. So I told him to just put what he didn't need into a bowl and I would repackage them for freezing when I got home.

And then I got home.

I got home around 9 p.m. to find my dear BF standing in front of a 6 quart stock pot on the stove top, still wearing his work uniform (he's a mechanic, he gets filthy everyday, so he takes a shower when he gets home,) and looking lost.

He looked up at me and said, "I don't really know what I'm doing."

And that would have made a great story. It was cute. I would have fixed the chili and come to work and told the story of how it was so cute that he didn't know what he was doing, even though he was the one who kept telling me how the chili plan was going to unfold, and life would have gone on.

But noooooooo.....

I walked over the pot to find a very full stock pot of chili. He said that there was a lot of chili and he thought we needed to add liquid.

Oh, This? I've always had this.
 I asked what he'd done with the extra beans. He looked at me like he'd never noticed the ear in the center of my forehead before and said, "what extra beans?"

I reminded him that we'd just had this conversation about putting half the beans away for another use. He said, "oh yeah, I forgot to do that."
This befuddled me slightly-- we'd just discussed it about an hour ago.

I also see that the venison is in rather large chunks, and I asked why he hadn't chopped it up into smaller pieces before he seared it.

He informed me that "I guess I kinda thought the venison was going to be for the dogs." And, "it turns out maybe I don't really like venison that much."

This was news to me. In a similar way that it would have been news to me if he'd looked up at me and said-- after 6 years together-- that it turned out that he wasn't that into girls.

I had no response to this new revelation of his. Other than to wonder why he pays for deer tags every year if he doesn't actually want one.

Then he mentioned that he was not exactly impressed with the beans.

To which I also had no response.

Then he concluded that perhaps he was also "not that fond of beans."

At this point I begin to conclude that my BF has suffered some sort of head injury.

Then he did it. He went from adorable "It turns out I'm not that sure how to make chili after all" to "and it's all your fault."

This did not go over so well with me.

As near as I can tell, his argument came down along the lines of accusing me of having not just procrastinated on the project, but downright just not finishing something that I'd started. He claimed that he had never claimed to know anything about making chili, but he had gotten tired of waiting for it to get done so he felt it was time to force the issue.

This is very unusual for him. Usually everything is "we" and "us" and here he was, basically handing me the blame for him not knowing what to do with the chili-- and I don't even know how it's my fault that he'd just realized he didn't even like venison and beans "all that much."

Apparently, I took the venison out of the freezer too soon and I soaked the beans too long.

Except-- where had he been? How had he managed to miss the whole last week? The part where we decided to make chili. The part where he told me to take the meat out of the freezer to thaw. The part where he told me that we needed to use the dry beans (I could easily have opened a couple of cans of beans and we'd have had chili that same night.) The part where he confidently announced that he was going to sear the meat, that he was going to add the meat and the veggies and the tomato sauce? You know, the part where he had the plan on how to make this into chili?

It's not that I can't make chili. But had I been aware that the entire project was resting on my shoulders, I may have opted for a different plan.

For one thing, I wouldn't have started thawing the meat the day before Thanksgiving. I also wouldn't have opted to have Thanksgiving dinner (the traditional one that we did on Friday) at noon. I don't believe in Thanksgiving lunch. I have never understood why so many people insist on having Thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the afternoon already, but 3:30 is about my limit of tolerance for an early "dinner." I swear I never got the memo about noon... which meant that we were out of the house for two meals that day, because, as all who do a traditional TG with family know, once you arrive at a relative's home, you cannot leave. Sometimes your grandparents simply hold you hostage, sometimes you find yourself sucked into some sort of hypnotic, fun-with-family-around-the-fire, Christmas movie-induced stupor... either way, if the whole day hadn't ended up coming as such a surprise to me, I could most likely have predicted that we would not be home for dinner-- real dinner, at real dinner time.

So it should not have come as any sort of shock that there was no way we were going to start the chili project until at least Saturday anyway.

But I wasn't the only one who totally forgot about soaking beans on Saturday morning! And I wasn't the only one who totally forgot about putting them in the crock pot on Sunday.

And then he looks at me with total sincerity and tells me that he's "worried" about me because I keep insisting that nobody cc'd me on that whole "Thanksgiving at noon" thing. He says that "it was discussed several times" that Thanksgiving would be "at lunchtime."

And I am utterly convinced that he is doing that thing that men do where they assume that their significant other just magically knows everything they know--or are supposed to know. I think they do this because we are the ones who know when their niece's birthday is or why we're feeding their parents' dogs one weekend. So it stands to reason that if he was in on a conversation, he would assume that I was also listening.

So this is how the scene unfolds from my point of view:
  • First of all, he realizes he doesn't know how to make the chili.
  • Then, he decides that he doesn't like beans or venison anyway.
  • Then, somehow the chili didn't work out the way he had planned because I didn't start making chili on Thanksgiving Day when we were busy doing other stuff and mostly not being at  home anyway.
  • Then, somehow the chili didn't work out the way he had planned because I let the beans soak too long before cooking them because of all the other things we had to get done that weekend.
  • Then, I've apparently developed dementia because I can't remember a conversation that I wasn't part of and somehow this is why the chili isn't right.
I was, shall we say, less than impressed with the way this conversation was turning out.

Ultimately the BF decided that fighting over chili was a stupid idea, we now have 6 quarts of perfectly edible venison chili, and I get a story to tell to other women who nod and laugh and assure me that they totally understand my pain.


And the BF admits that the chili turned out "pretty good" afterall.





Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jerusalum Artichoke

The BF has this book called "Back to Basics."
This is not where it all started, I think it all started with growing up on stories of when my parents moved to Canada-- before I was born. Where they rented a small house that I imagine as being off the beaten path at the end of a long, unpaved road-- sort of prime real estate for a horror movie. They had to go to town to buy propane for the generator, which was housed in the generator shed, down a small path away from the house. And Mom had to heat the house and cook with a wood-burning stove.

Since propane was expensive and far away, Mom only started the generator for a few hours each night, so Dad could watch tv when he got home from working on a ranch. So she spent most of her day living Pioneer-style with out electricity, cooking with the wood stove, and washing clothes in the bath tub with water that she heated on the stove.

I've never seen photos of this house and, as I mentioned, this was before I was born, so I only have the images in my head from years of listening to Mom's stories about the brief time they lived there... but for some reason, these stories really appeal to me.

And then PBS came along with their twist on reality tv and I was absolutely HOOKED on Frontierhouse (and if anyone knows where I can get it on DVD please tell me!)

It's true: Someday, if I ever retired from doing nails, I hope to go live in a one-room cabin with out electricity, on a piece of land at least 5 miles from the nearest neighbor. My cell phone is going in the ocean-- or the bottom of a very deep lake-- I'm even trying to imagine a life without the internet! That'll be the real challenge. And, with luck, I'll get snowed-in every year by October with no human interaction (except probably the BF) until the following April. Awwwwwwww. Now that is what I'm talkin' about!

So the BF comes along with this "Back to Basics" book which is essentially all about living "off the grid" and being self-sufficient. Which I am all about.

So, when last spring, while we were planting our annual vegetable garden, I came across a little Hmong lady at the farmer's market who was selling "Jerusalem Artichoke," I bought a bag of the things.

What, exactly, is "Jerusalem Artichoke," you ask? Well-- it's mentioned in the Back to Basics book as being an excellent option for growing in one's garden. But it's not something I've ever seen in a grocery store. So I bought it from the little Hmong lady and decided to take it home and try it out.

Except, I had no clue what to do with it.

It's a rhizome, kinda looks like ginger root. Supposedly you can just crunch on it raw, or cook it up like pretty much any veggie. It kinda tastes like a very mild carrot, but is very crunchy with a texture like water chestnuts or jicama.

The BF eyed it suspiciously and wasn't very eager to have me experiment with using it in any of our usual dishes. So I wrapped it in a paper towel, put it in a plastic bag and set it on a shelf in the garage-- as per the "storage" directions that I'd come across online.

And forgot about it.

And then one day, we came across it again, only now it had two 6 inch green sprouts jutting out of it.

Being that it was early spring when we're all excited about the garden and growing whatever we can, the BF insisted on planting it. So I opted to bury it in a 10 gallon pot as everything I'd read about it said that it is very prolific and will take over any area where it is planted.

I will say-- if you are the type of person who has a "black thumb" and kills every plant you've ever had, try growing this stuff! You will feel awesome with your new-found gardening skills because it is impossible to not get this stuff to grow! And grow it did!

Jerusalem Artichoke is neither from Jerusalem nor is it related in any way to artichokes. It's a sunflower plant native to North America's eastern seaboard, growing from Georgia to Nova Scotia. It was originally cultivated by Native Americans and introduced to the settlers along with all those traditional Thanksgiving foods that kept us from starving.

From what I've gathered, the stuff was cultivated in European nations and here in the States and was fairly common in our diet until around World War 2. It was one of the few vegetables that didn't get rationed during the war (probably because it's so freakin easy to grow) so it appears that an entire generation pretty much got its fill during those years and, after the war rationing ended, refused to every eat it again. Which is how a few more generations managed to grow up without ever hearing of the stuff.

It seems to be undergoing a resurgence in popularity now.

Of course, I learned all this after the fact.

And so it grew in my garden. And grew...and grew.

The damn thing grew about 12 feet tall! And it looked exactly like all the wild sunflower plants that grow along the side of the road or the river around here. It was huge. Much too big for a plant that was growing out of 10 gallon pot!

The BF kept asking me what we were going to do with it and what it was supposed to do. I kept telling him "*!&@ if I know!" But the information I was able to find about it said that it would eventually flower and then die and then we could dig up the rhizomes and eat them. Which didn't seem like a very good idea seeing as how we hadn't been interested in eating the 5 or 6 pieces that I'd initially purchased at the Farmer's Market-- why were we interested in digging up a whole pot of them?

The plant flowered in September. It was kinda pretty in a very tall weed sorta way. But sure enough, as summer waned to fall, the foliage started to die back, the flowers wilted and dropped and last weekend we decided to cut the whole thing down and pull it up...

O... M...G! What are we going to do with this stuff?!

The pot was beyond root-bound. There wasn't even room left for dirt, the rhizomes had grown up against the sides of the pot so densely that they were just squished into little flat disks! We had to hand pick it out of the pot because it was so packed that it wouldn't come out.

We keep joking that we pulled 25 gallons of rhizome out of that 10 gallon pot!

If you decide to grow this stuff yourself, DEFINITELY put it in a pot! I can see how this stuff would entirely take over your garden..or yard. In fact, I'm now terrified of what will sprout next spring from the flowers dropping seeds into our yard.

I really wish we were that poor and hungry to be grateful for a bounty like this. But honestly, I'm looking at it wondering what I'll do with it.

It's not bad raw. I've managed to find several recipes for it. Rumor has it that it boils down and mashes very well-- great substitute for potatoes, and good in soups. Or stir fry.

What I wish I'd known before we dug it all up though, is that it doesn't store well once dug up. We should have left it in the ground and dug it up as we needed it. So I fear that 10 gallons of Jerusalem Artichoke is going to go to waste.

The BF is absolutely adamant that we will grow it again next spring.

But I don't know what we're going to do with it next year either.



Thursday, November 3, 2011

Uphill-both-ways Bread


My mother bought a bread maker. One of those fancy new-fangled contraptions that saves her the trouble  of actually having to knead her dough, shape her loaves, or preheat her oven.

In all fairness, my mother is not in the best of health these days, walks with a cane now, and can't stand for long periods of time to work in the kitchen-- so when she purchased her bread maker, I didn't give her too much flack for cheating.

A few weeks after her purchase, we were sitting here in the salon (the art of nailz) chit chatting with one of my clients about her new toy. My client hadn't heard of these amazing devices that will provide you with the joy of a freshly baked loaf of bread without all the hassle of actually baking bread, and so I was explaining how they work and that many models will actually mix the dough as well...

Which, of course, Mom's does.

So I had to look at her sideways and say, "Really? You can't even mix everything up yourself?"

Folks, let me tell ya: I make bread.

And when I say, "I make bread" I mean really make bread, the old fashioned way. I make sourdough bread, from a starter that lives (literally, "lives") in my refrigerator that I started myself from water and flour (it makes more than paste!)

I have to feed my starter periodically-- because it's a living colony of symbiotic organisms and they need to eat to stay alive.

When I make bread I get the starter out. I measure the ingredients and mix them into dough with my hands.

Then I knead the dough with my hands. Then I let it rise, then I punch it down, then I shape my loaves and let them rise again...

Then I bake them... in a Dutch oven...with coals from a fire that I made with wood that I personally went to the mountains and gathered, cut, and split with my hands.

This is about the time I started to realize I was sounding a lot like my grandfather telling me about growing up... and I never thought I'd have an opportunity to say it myself but,

 I WALKED UPHILL BOTH WAYS to make that bread!

It took awhile for Mom and my client to stop laughing... but I have a whole new appreciation for baking bread.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Day Late and a Matchstick Short



About our backpacking trip...

We were originally scheduled to leave our house on... well. Hmmmm. I think our first plan was to grab our packs and head up to the Big Meadows campground as soon as we were off work on Friday night.

Then we realized that our local county fair was in the way. We traditionally go to the fair on Friday night with the BF's family. We just couldn't bring ourselves to miss out on an opportunity to pay 8 bucks a piece for the additional opportunity to drink $5.00 beers and eat equally over-priced, deep-fried foods that are not only not healthy for us, but present an excellent chance of making us too sick to move for the next 24 hours... so we modified our hiking plans to allow us to attend the fair on Friday night and leave for the trail first thing on Saturday morning.

Which didn't happen either. Pretty much by the time we realized that we'd just returned home from the fair at the tender hour of 1:30 in the morning and had absolutely nothing packed for the hike... we decided to, once again, modify our plans.

Afterall, we'd taken 2 days off of work to allow us a leisurely 4 day/3 night backcountry vacation. We could take our time packing up on Saturday, play with the dogs (who didn't get to go,) and head up the mountain on Saturday night, spend the night at the trailhead and start hiking on Sunday morning.

Of course, between the 1:30 a.m. bedtime and the fair food of questionable quality-- I didn't exactly wake up early. And "early" to me is 9 a.m. to begin with!

But we had a lovely Saturday at home and I put my heart into packing our packs.

Somehow we got distracted along the way and in my frustration at the discovery that all our gear wasn't where I thought it should be, we ended up doing some major rearranging of the garage.

Well, at some point, we realized we weren't going to leave the house on Saturday  night. So we called our dog sitters-- again-- to give them the updated plan.

It's hard for me to pack for both of us. Especially while taking into account that the BF is not the gram-weenie, ultra-lite, minimalist gear-goon that I am. So I had to remind myself to take the non-stick mess kit, not any of the ultra-light titanium cookware sets that I've collected (yes, I think I have 4 sets-- I love gear.) I packed the bulky, rectangular sleeping bags that zip together. I packed the extra-wide, full length, self-inflating Thermarest for him. And the 5 lb, free standing Coleman tent (which is not my 2 lb Tarptent, but holds it's own quite respectably in its class, nontheless.) I chose the Primus canister stove over my tiny UL version or any of the various alcohol or esbit stoves that I would choose for a solo trip, in order to be sure that we would have enough fuel for bigger, more complicated meals and a sturdier base for the larger, heavier pots of the mess kit.

I rarely have a campfire on my backpacking trips. Mostly because by the time I hike my weary butt up a mountain, get my camp set up, and eat something, I'm just done and ready for bed. So all I really need is a small, disposable lighter with my cookset to get the stove lit.

Once all was packed, checked and double-checked, we finally did manage to make our way to the trailhead at a not-exactly-early and only-marginally-morning start on Sunday and actually managed to be heading off on the actual hiking portion of the trip around 12:30 p.m.

Mind you, we are both out of practice. I can't even remember the last time I was above 4500 feet in elevation, and even when I'm in "good shape" I climb hills excrutiatingly slowly. I was pleasantly surprised by the BF's non-chalance at my hike 20 feet and rest/hike 20 feet and rest method. But we were not making good time.

So when we reached the fork in the trail where we needed to make the decision between another 1.5 miles to Weaver Lake or another 4 miles to Jennie Lake, we assessed our rate of progress thus far and considered how many hours of daylight we realistically had left... and opted for Weaver Lake.

We arrived at the lake around 5 p.m.-- an absolutely embarassing time for a mere 3.5 mile hike, but I already told you we are out of practice!-- to find it deserted and beautiful. We scouted out the best place to call home for the next two nights and set about gathering up some firewood for a campfire...

....because the BF considers camping without a fire to be a tortuous ordeal.

I set up the tent, inflated his Thermarest, zipped sleeping bags together and prepared quite a cozy nest to call home.

At which point the BF asked me, "Uhhhh... did either of us think to bring anything to start a fire with?"

Well, I don't know why he bothered to say "us" when the mere fact that he was asking clearly revealed that by "us" he meant me. And naturally, I said, "duh" as I handed him the small, green, plastic, disposable Bic lighter from the cookset. I'd even tested it at home before we left to make sure it worked properly.

As the lighter passed from my hand to his, it occurred to me that I should light the camp stove before he used the lighter to light the fire. A small voice reasoned that at least that way if the lighter suffered catrostrophic failure in the fire process, we'd have the stove lit and that would provide us with an open flame from which we could get the campfire going.

Nah. The BF is an expert fire-starter. A genuine master at the art of flame. And he's not exactly stupid-- he knows that lighter is delicate and won't handle being left "on" for long periods. He'll do fine.

And so it was that what seemed to be mere seconds later, the BF's voice wafted upward from the firepit to my ears on the increasingly chilly and darkening evening breeze, "well, that's about it for the lighter."

I turned to find him on his hands and knees, blowing gently into his little pile of tender, trying to coax the faint hint of a spark into a steady flame.
And then, there we stood, staring down at the cold, dark, emptyness that failed to be a roaring fire.

We spent an hour taking the lighter apart and attempting to get it back in working order. To no avail.

We ate peanut butter and jelly bagels for dinner and agreed that perhaps this would end up being a one night trip.

Naturally, I blame the BF. For one thing, I brought all the fire I needed. But at this point, one must also realize that the BF has a slightly compulsive need to collect Strike Anywhere matches. We literaly have 8 boxes of them in our garage. He cannot pass them by in a store without buying yet another box of them.

AND his parents are from the same town in Pennsylvania where Zippo lighters are manufactured! You KNOW the man has a Zippo! Not only does he have a Zippo lighter, he has the adorable little leather pouch that goes on his belt to hold his Zippo.

Now you tell me how it is that this man hiked into the Sierra Nevada wilderness with a hatchet, a handgun, and a Leatherman multi-tool all strapped to his belt but not the Zippo? He brought a 2 D-cell Mag lite for crying out loud! But not the Zippo! Not even one of his precious Strike Anywhere matches.

And that's the irony-- that this man should find himself nearly 9,000 feet above sea level in the back country of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with darkness falling on a night that promised to dip to near freezing temperatures, staring at a fire pit with a stash of carefully selected firewood beside it-- unable to manage even a spark.

So we enjoyed one very quiet night and had more peanut butter and jelly bagels for  breakfast-- a devastating departure from my eagerly awaited fried Spam and coffee breakfast that I'd been looking forward to; the BF considers not having to eat Spam as sweet mercy from the gods-- and then we packed it all back up and descended the 3.5 miles back to the car in record time... and stopped for lunch at Bear Mountain Pizza in Squaw Valley on the way home. (No. Not that Squaw Valley.)

We arrived home and called the dog sitters-- again-- to let them know that the plans had changed-- again.

We spent Tuesday unpacking, and I even made my fried Spam for lunch-- the dogs loved it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sharing Hobbies

Once upon a time, I was an avid ultra-light backpacking babe, averaging one weekend a month on the hiking trail and one weekend a month on the 4X4 trail... that's a lot of bag nights! (nights in a sleeping bag.)

Naturally, just when everything was going great and I was really getting the hang of this whole "Life" thing-- Love came along and smacked me upside the head and next thing I know I'm all shacked up with a couple of dogs and a man who completely changed my lifestyle.

Ok. Not "completely," but much much more than I'd anticipated.

Which really threw me for a loop, seeing as how the man I'm shacked up with had been a good friend for many many years before he decided that his life was empty and meaningless without me by his side (oh! It's such a long story.) and he's always been quite the outdoorsy type himself.

I didn't exactly expect him to switch out his Wranglers for Omni-weave convertible cargo pants, or leave his full-grain leather calf-high waterproof hunting boots at home in favor of some lightweight gortex trail runners, and I sure as heck never even asked him to hike without his full Batman-utility belt full of hatchets, firearms, zippo lighters and Leatherman multi-tools... he is who he is and while we might look like Mutt and Jeff with in the backcountry with our hippy and the hunter personas-- well... trust me, somehow it just works-- mostly.

Nevertheless, somewhere along the way, our personal routines of his hunting and my hiking on a regular basis came to a near screeching halt when we started dating.

A lot of variables contributed to that, but I like to blame him anyway.

The first  year we were a couple, we went on a little jaunt up to Lower Paradise Valley in Kings Canyon Nat'l Park along with my BFF and backpacking partner, Amz, and her hubby and 2 out of 3 of their kids.

I agreed to make some concessions for the new SO in an attempt to convince him that backpacking with me was something he would want to do on a regular basis; so I got him an external frame pack and begrudgingly closeted my most prize possession-- my Western Mountaineering Versalite down sleeping bag: rated to 10 degrees Faranheit, weighing in at just shy of 2 pounds, and oh-so-squishable that it takes up very little room in my 54 oz Mountainsmith Chimera pack-- and purchased new Campmor down rectangular sleeping bags that mate together for "snuggying" together.

The things we do for love.

That was May of 2006... and it was the last time the BF backpacked with me for the next 5 years despite claims that he enjoyed it and "looks forward" to more hikes together.

BFF Amz and I still manage to get outside for a few nights at least once a year, and last summer I was thrilled to break the 15 lb mark for my total pack weight-- that's really light, btw.

Of course, Matt and I got the canoe last year, and we certainly cannot be accused of having bought it just to look at it! But backpacking hasn't exaclty been our number one priority for far too long... but recently we decided we were going to do something about that.

So we both wrangled some time off and set about making plans for an early fall hike in the nearby Sequoia Nat'l Forest. Fully aware that we are out of practice and that this will be our only chance to get on the trail before it's covered in snow.

Now all I have to is learn to pack for 2.



Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Side-Channel of DOOOOM

You may recall, we bought a canoe last summer, right? Well, we managed to make it through our first year of canoeing coupledom not only without a particular boyfriend's body being washed up downstream after suffering any severe head injuries from "accidental" paddle attacks... but also without managing to capsize the little boat.

It should be noted that both the BF and myself have dreamt of owning a canoe for many years-- many years prior to beginning out relationship as a couple, in fact.

Just imagine-- two lost souls wistfully dreaming of one day owning their own canoe, casually drifting toward each other and Destiny. Each one coddling their own little canoe-dream close to their heart. Until, one day, they end up together to pursue their canoe fantasies as one.

It makes a lovely story line for a romance movie, doesn't it?

And so it seemed this was our story-- until we actually bought the canoe.

Even while we were pouring over canoe brochures for the 4 years prior to actually settling on our 17 foot Wenonah Spirit II, it was apparent that we might not have been entirely on the same page (sometimes literally) in our individual visions of our canoe future.

I-- for instance-- wanted a long, steady, touring canoe. Big enough to hold both the BF and myself, all our gear for at least a week's camping trip, and two medium/large dogs. I saw us strapping our canoe to the roof of the car and setting off for places seldom seen.

We would load up our family and gear and set off across calm, pristine mountain lakes in the early morning while a lite mist still hovered above the water as the sun rose above high alpine peaks.

We would glide peacefully across the water as the woods awoke around us. Little birds would sing from the trees, eagles would dip majestically on the air currents, dolphins would jump playfully as they followed us across the lake, bunnies and squirrels and baby deer would emerge from the forest along the shore to admire our sleek, quiet, journey as we glided across the water to the far side of the lake where we would put up our camp and live in perfect harmony with nature.

The dogs would lie by the fire, the BF would strum the guitar, and I would prepare delicious stews and fruit cobblers in the dutch oven.

(The BF doesn't play the guitar. The dogs would only lie by the fire after they'd eaten the bunnies. And Dolphins are rarely found in fresh-water mountain lakes... but bear with me, I'm setting a scene here.)

In my version of canoe-ownership, canoing would be quiet, peaceful, and require very little work. Like a scene from Snow White-- with little singing blue birds and adoring bunny rabbits-- I would make my way across the water with a gentle stroke, stroke, glide-- switch sides I'm paddling on and then-- stroke, stroke, glide....

You really miss out here by not getting the full, verbal rendition of the story. In person it comes complete with soundtrack-- so you'll have to add the lilting Snow White singing to my vision yourself.

However, it turned out that the BF's version of canoe-ownership was more like a MegaDeath song playing on amps turned up to the full "11" while we paddled frantically for our lives up-river in class 9 rapids.


It works out fairly well for us-- and our relationship-- that we live in an area that sports neither glassy mountain lakes nor MegaDeath-worthy rapids. What we do have, is the St. John's River.

The St. John's is not always much to speak of. They "turn the river off" during much of the winter, leaving a dry, sandy riverbed winding down from the foothills to the mostly non-existent Tule Lake bed. And many summers, the water in the part of the river that winds along the outskirts of our hometown isn't deep enough to skip rocks in.

But the year we bought our first canoe was the summer of a high-water year for California's central valley and a high-snow year for the high Sierra, whose snowmelt feeds our waterways throughout the summer.

The St. John's River was flowing high and fast and we cut our canoeing teeth on the 2 mile stretch between Lover's Lane and Cutler Park.

On our maiden voyage, we carried the canoe over the Levy and set it in the water. This is when I came to the conclusion that a 60 pound canoe is still a heavy sonuvabitch, which was only slightly after coming to the conclusion that the BF's idea of "an easy first trip" was to start out by paddling UP-stream for what would turn out to be close to 2 miles before we would be able to turn around and commence my "stroke, stroke, glide" plan on the downstream stretch.

As I recall, it was about 110 degrees in the middle of the afternoon and we were starting out only yards upstream of one of the concrete weirs that litter the riverbed. Which really freaked me out-- what if we couldn't paddle upstream fast enough to avoid being swept downstream and over that dam? I mean, sure, it's only about a 4 foot drop, but it'd still hurt! Not to mention, it was a brand new fiberglass canoe! The BF was all crazy about it touching the sand for crying out loud! If we went over a concrete dam, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to have a place to live anymore.

Well, that first trip went well. And by "well," I mean that we did not damage the canoe, lose a paddle, tip over, or get mauled by bears. (No. There aren't actually any bears where we live.)

I did seriously consider never getting in the canoe with the BF again. In fact, it crossed my mind to not be in the same room with the BF ever again.

I get to sit in the front of the canoe. For those of you-- like the BF-- who give a crap about proper nautical terms, this is apparently the "bow" of the boat. The BF sits in the "stern," what most people would refer to as "the back."

He thinks he's responsible for steering. And if he wants to set the record straight and explain how I'm wrong, then he should start his own blog so he can tell his stories his way.

He also thinks he cannot steer unless we are traveling at approximately Warp 2.

He is also a good 12 feet behind me. --Remember, I cannot reach him with my paddle to whack him upside the head, I've tried.

On that first trip, which seems so long ago now, we managed to maintain steady upstream progress despite his tendency to play drill sergeant and bark out orders that make no sense to me. Including his insistence that I was not allowed to switch sides with the paddle.

Nay. Indeed, I was expected to pick one side, dig in, and apparently end up looking like John Leguizamo from M. Nnight Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water." Which was not ok with me on a couple of levels, not the least of which was that my arm just plain hurt after awhile.

Also, I was not allowed to stop paddling. Absolutely no resting. Even if we had enough momentum that dropping a stroke now and then wouldn't impede our upstream progress.

Which is probably how I got talked into attempting the Side Channel of Doom on multiple occasions.


In the beginning, the BF was all excited because it was a high-water year for the St. John's AND we had a canoe. Just down river from Cutler Park (which is an actual county park, for you non-locals,) on the other side of the river from the park, there is a little channel where-- when it's high enough-- the water will divert from the main river and flow through the little side channel, making an island of a small hill on the river bank.

The BF thought it would be very exciting to see this side channel completely filled with water-- and even more exciting to take the canoe through it.

Who am I to squash his fantasies?

The side channel had nearly no current, it reached a maximum depth of about a foot. For being only a feet away from the main river, it was eerily quiet and overgrown with weeds. It made me feel like we'd taken a wrong turn and ended up in an Indiana Jones movie. I was pretty sure angry, poison-dart-bearing natives would emerge over the river bank any moment and we would be tasked with narrowly escaping an ancient curse.

Naturally, the side-channel expedition started out well enough. We moved stealthily off the main river and out of sight and sound of civilization. It was kinda cool. The water was too shallow to paddle the canoe through, so we used the paddles to pole ourselves along the narrow channel.

And, naturally, half way through the channel, we simply hit bottom.

We determined that we needed to get out of the canoe and walk it.

Once I convinced the BF that both of us had to get out of the canoe, he wandered off over the hill to take a look at our options for getting back to the main river while I coined the term "swamp tromping" as I led the canoe through the shallow water by the bow rope-- like I was taking it for a walk on a leash.



Splosh ,Splosh, Splosh, through the ankle deep water. Mucky, muddy, mossy, ankle deep water. Full of tree frogs and tadpoles and tiny minnow-like fishes. Splosh, Splosh, Splosh. Using my paddle like a machete to whack at weeds that hung over the banks across the creek-like side channel.

Naturally, the other end of the channel deepens-- last summer the upper end of the channel was up to my thighs. Which made it difficult to climb out of the water, up the slippery, muddy banks of the channel so that we could carry the canoe over the hill and put it back in the river...

Oh no. The upper end of the channel is not accessible. There's no way we can actually paddle the canoe all the way through the side-channel and rejoin the river without getting out of the canoe! Even if the water WAS deep enough to keep the loaded canoe afloat the whole way-- there's a tree that grows across the upper channel opening.


Is this what Johnny Horton meant by "where a rabbit wouldn't go?"


 All last summer, over and over again, even as we got stronger and more comfortable with the paddling-- and with paddling with each other-- every weekend we had to do the St. John's and try to negotiate the "Side Channel of Doom" again.

I'd come home from work and he'd be standing there with a creepy, obsessive gleam in his eyes as he explained to me that he'd crossed the river on a test drive that day and "it's higher than it was last week, we could probably do it this time!"

And each time I acquiesced to another expedition only to find myself swamp-tromping through the bug and tadpole infested muck again, I swore I was never going into that side channel again.

After the attempt one evening at sunset when the BF's Warp-2-steering-theory (why do we need to go fast OR steer in the side channel?!) nearly resulted in my face being eaten off by a giant spider hanging in the middle of its 8 foot diameter web directly in our path, I finally had enough.

I'd had enough of the side channel. I'd had enough of the doom. I'd have enough of the BF being completely oblivious to the horrible dangers I was subject to because anything in our path was going to hit ME first! 3 inch cross spiders, that made me think of the Hobbit, for instance!

NO...
MORE....
SIDE...
CHANNEL...
...of DOOOOOOOM!...

Even the BF admitted defeat. The side channel's cursed, other-worldly nature meant that no matter how high the water in the river got, the side channel would never be navigable from end to end.







Wednesday, May 25, 2011

That Time We Lost Taylor

So I noticed some comments on the post regarding Wilbur... mostly what you'll notice is that "Clay" wants me to talk about him. Well, "Clay," the reason I didn't mention you in the story about Wilbur, was primarily, that it was a story about Wilbur. And, seeing as how you don't seem to have caught on yet, I had NO FREAKIN CLUE what you were doing while I was busy trying to prevent your brother's head from exploding!

However... for the rest of you who love listening to my tales of Why I Am Nobody's Mother-- I happen to have one about "Clay" too. And btw, "Clay" is better known as "Taylor" in my tales:

Back when Taylor was 10 (2008)-- BF-Matt and I went on a 4 wheel drive trail scouting adventure with Taylor, his brother Wilbur, and Wilbur's dad Phil. The plan was to scout out a trail in the Dinkey Creek area above Shaver Lake for an upcoming 4WD outing that we had planned.

No big deal. The BF's rig is competently equipped and both the Xterra and the BF (and me, for that matter) are experienced at a good many of the off-road trails in the area. Phil's Jeep Wrangler is also perfectly suitable for the day we had planned. But it was early June and the trail we were checking on is one that is closed during the winter, we didn't know if it was open yet or what condition it was in. Which is the whole reason we decided to go check it out before we invited a bunch of out-of-towners to try it.

It seemed simple enough. Not just simple enough...but downright mundane enough. We do this sort of thing regularly and are familiar with the area. So Phil and the boys met up with us and we made the hour and a half drive to the trailhead, where we found the gate still locked, and the trail still closed.

So we all took a moment to reconsider our plans.

Despite Taylor's insistence that we should simply continue driving forward on the road we were on and "circling around" to the closed trail from "the other side" -- he didn't quite understand at that point that that wasn't where the road went-- the rest of us came to the conclusion that we didn't drive an hour and half up the mountain to just turn around and go home. No. We came to wheel, we would at least do the trail we are most familiar with: Bald Mountain.

We are actually all very familiar with the Bald Mountain fire lookout trail. We've done it a million times, and I have a million pictures from a million trips. It's a fine trail that ends up on top of Bald Mountain, presumably, at an abandoned fire look out high above Shaver Lake. It's pretty cool.

So we hopped in our vehicles and prepared to head off for the trail. Only to discover the battery in BF-Matt's Xterra had died a sudden and unexpected death.

Now. The BF is a mechanic by both nature and trade. He admittedly relates better to machinery than people. And he is an anal-retentive mechanic. And, of course, I say that with love and respect. But seriously, the SNL skit about the "anal retentive carpenter?" Just switch up carpenter for mechanic.

So it should come as no surprise that when the BF's battery has us stopped cold on an isolated dirt road in the back country of the Sierra Nevada mountains, holding up the group-- the BF wigged out.

The BF will insist that he does not "wig out."  In fact, he claims that he does not understand the meaning of the term "frustrated." But anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in his presence will testify that I know what I speak of when I say he "wigged out."

I do not mean to imply that he burst into tears, kicked anything, ran around flailing as though he were on fire, or even yelled or cursed. He simply goes into what I've come to term as "mission mode." He gets very serious, very focused, and very short of patience for anyone who isn't on the same mission as he is, ie, "anal-retentive."

This is contrary to my laid-back, peacenik, Zen-ness. And it really harshes my mellow. And it frustrates me.

I know the meaning of the word "frustrated."

So we spent some extra time out there on the dirt road by the locked gate at the closed trailhead. I took the boys for a walk while the BF started tearing vehicles apart.

Naturally, the mechanic whose rig is always in impeccable shape, properly equipped with spare tire, tool kit, tow-strap, high-lift jack, shovel, saw, etc etc... does not carry jumper cables. So it was necessary to discombobulate one battery and connect it via the battery cables to.... well, I'm not sure. I am not a mechanic. I went for a walk to keep the boys from getting snapped at and left Phil to deal with the BF.

The BF has a very accurate description of Phil's personality: He says he's known Jell-O that was more uptight than Phil. If you were to point out to Phil that his hair was on fire, he would casually shrug and say, "oh yeah, it's nothing. It'll stop." He is not like the BF... this can frustrate the BF. Or, it would I suppose, if the BF got frustrated.

The battery got jumped, the Xterra got started, we drove into Shaver Lake and the BF opted to buy a new, gel-cell battery which, I believe, is still working up to expectations to this day. You'll have to ask the BF, he's the one who has expectations of his battery beyond "does the car start? yes? check!"

And once again, we were headed to the Bald Mtn trailhead... where we chose a different route up the mountain than usual. Which did not make riding shot-gun with the BF any more enjoyable as this route seemed determined to be just exactly put together wrong for the Xterra.

Now, I know there are Jeepers out there who are perpetuating the Off-road Elitist stereotype who would snicker at the thought that an Xterra should be truly offroad capable at all-- but the X is pretty darn capable. So it was a surprise that we were having so much trouble. And a source of great frustrat-- oh that's right, he doesn't get frustrated. Well, at any rate, the BF was not very happy about being the one holding up our progress. And that made him not much fun to hang out with.

Taylor and I were not amused. Every time the X got held up by a poorly spaced rock or tree stump that required careful spotting, Taylor and I were out of the vehicles and on foot, agreeing that this was not the best trip we'd ever been on.

Eventually, the trail mellowed out and the BF was just starting to breathe normally again, feeling better that we'd be making up for the hold up and standing on the mountain top looking down on Shaver Lake soon enough, when Taylor runs up alongside the Xterra and proudly announces that he is running as fast as we are driving.

The BF is tired and not entirely amused by this. He tells Taylor is his best grown-up voice that Taylor needs to get back in the Jeep with Phil because we are on the road again and won't be going so slow anymore.

We rather assumed that's what happened. Just a little farther up the trail, the BF stops the Xterra in the middle of the trail. I wonder why. I notice he is inspecting the rear view mirror with rapt intent. So I look behind us-- did he see a bear? No.

It wasn't what he was looking at, it was what he was looking for: Phil's Jeep is nowhere to be seen.

We waited a while. Still no Jeep. The BF put it in reverse and backed slowly down the trail we had just worked so hard to come up. Still no Jeep.

The BF turned it around and backtracked till we came to Phil's Jeep pulled to the side of the trail. Phil was out on foot looking rather irritated and impatient. Wilbur was lounging unaffected in his car seat in the back of the Jeep. (He was only 4 at that point-- and much more laid back back then.)

Matt gets Phil's attention. He wants to know what the *#@! Phil is doing? Phil says, "I can't find Taylor."

Matt responds with "What the *#@! do you mean, you can't find Taylor?!"

And so it unfolds that at nearly 5 o'clock in the evening at something like 8 thousand feet above sea level, we have lost a 10 year old boy. A 10-year-old boy who also happens to not actually be related by blood nor marriage to anyone except the 4 year old that is hanging out in the back of the Jeep, completely at ease with the notion that he might suddenly become an only child.

The adults spread out, we hollar, we call, we curse, we yell. There is no Taylor.

Phil is utterly convinced that Taylor is being a brat. Apparently, since Taylor kept jumping out of the Jeep (it's a Jeep, it's not like it has a roof or doors, you know,) and Phil was getting tired of it, Phil decided to play a little prank on Taylor.

[NOTE: Yes, in the numerous tellings of this story over the last few years, I understand that many people think Phil is a terrible monster who should never be left alone with children for doing this. On the other hand, I grew up with 4 uncles-- men tease kids.]

So Phil drove up ahead on the trail, leaving Taylor walking along the trail. He stopped just over a hill and out of sight. He waited. He figured Taylor would have a sudden epiphany that the grown ups were serious about getting underway and that the kid would run up the trail after the Jeep crying and begging for forgiveness.

This is not what happened. So when Phil relented and returned to the spot where he'd left Taylor only to find Taylor missing, Phil naturally assumed that Taylor felt that turn-about was fair play and was hiding behind a rock or a tree nearby, pouting and waiting for Phil to feel bad.

Turns out, this is not what happened either.

It took about 20 minutes of calling, searching, driving ahead on the trail, driving back down the trail, and generally worrying about Taylor's whereabouts, wellbeing, and the wrath of his mother once she found out before BF-Matt went back into "mission mode." See? This is where it's beneficial: He suddenly shifted gears, assumed authority, asserted that it would be dark soon and that we needed to find Taylor before it got dark. He told Phil that since he had the more capable vehicle for getting back the way we'd come up, that he needed to get down the hill and into the small town of Shaver Lake and alert authorities pronto.

No one believes us, but Phil was worried. Visibly shaken. Downright concerned. Matt's words echoed through the deserted landscape and clearly hit Phil like a cast iron skillet upside the head. It was real now. We'd lost a kid.

I stood beside the Jeep with Wilbur-- still unconcerned about his brother-- and watched the menfolk behave very  much the way we (women) think menfolk behave in these situations: slapstick. They made a plan for Phil getting to Shaver Lake while we stayed put at the last location where Taylor had been seen. That went well enough. But when they attempted to come up with a description of the boy I thought all was surely lost. They couldn't agree on how tall the kid was. They didn't know what he was wearing-- Phil was pretty sure he'd been wearing a red windbreaker. I picked it up from the backseat of the Jeep and asked him if he meant "this one?"

I calmly let them know that Taylor was wearing a gray t-shirt, brown shorts, and sport sandals. Yes, my friends, the boy was in the wilderness dressed like a rock.  I started sifting through the photos I'd taken throughout the day so Phil could simply show the rangers-- at which point Phil realized he also had a camera and had taken photos that day. He and Wilbur were off.

And Matt and I stayed put in the waning afternoon sun.

That is a very difficult thing to do in the face of certain doom. Just stay put and wait. No cell phone service. Very little range on the 2-way radios... well. Sort of anyway. After what seemed like 3 hours but was probably more like 2 minutes Matt started sifting through channels on the 2-way radios looking for anyone within range to let them know we were on the lookout for a 10 year old stray.

We ended up talking to some girls who reported they were in Squaw Valley. No. Not that Squaw Valley. Squaw Valley near Dunlap on road 180 on the way to Kings Canyon Nat'l Park. Later, when the BF mapped it out, I believe he said it was something like 20 miles as the crow flies. But they listened to our story and went to get an adult, who listened to our story and called the sheriff. We were only somewhat relieved when he let us know that by the time he'd gotten ahold of the sheriff, they'd already been alerted.

Good. Phil had made it to the ranger station. Now all we had to do was wait.

The wind was kicking up and I was wishing I had a jacket. I suspected Taylor was wishing he had a jacket too. I was hoping Taylor was wishing he had a jacket. I was hoping Taylor was wasn't wishing that we'd find his twisted, mangle body where it lay slowly bleeding out at the bottom of a ravine; or wishing that someone would hear him screaming for help as he slowly succumbed to rattlesnake venom, or that he was at least alive and conscious and wishing for anything! And I was wondering if we would get the chance to tell his mother before she heard it on the news.

At some point, it occurred to me to try to think like Taylor. Who is an unusual child in many respects and increasingly reminds me of myself at that age-- I believe the favorite word of my peers was "weird." So I mentioned to Matt that one of us should stay put exactly where we were as planned while the other one should take the Xterra to the top of the trail to the fire lookout.

My theory was that Taylor probably figured that Phil had lost his patience and had left him behind to meet up with us under his own power. Taylor knew we were headed to the lookout tower, and he knew the trail. He probably just took off walking.

Matt poo-poo'd my theory. He figured that if that had been the case, we would have passed Taylor on one of our search attempts when we drove up the trail.

Finally, we received a crackly hail on the radio from Phil. We were able to make out that Taylor had been found and the rangers were en route to meet up with Phil and hand the boy over. We learned Phil's whereabouts and started off to meet him.

We opted to continue up the trail to the top of the mountain and then take the more familiar trail back to the main road rather than risk being stuck on the trail that had given us such grief hours before. We made it to the fire lookout without incident. Sat for a moment as the sun sank below the distant horizon. Took a moment to toast our day's adventure with a short short of Jack Daniels. Took deep breaths, brought our pulse rates back down, and made our way to our rendezvous point.

Where, immediately upon stepping out of our vehicle, Taylor announced that he was never lost-- we were. He "stuck to the plan."

Sure enough. He figured we expected him to meet us at the fire lookout. So he sucked it up and took off uphill, cross-country.

He waited for us at the fire lookout for awhile until the sun started setting and the usual traffic at the top of the trail (it's a popular trail-- just not the way we decided to go up) started to thin. At which point, he walked up to a nice couple and explained to them that he might be lost. He told them his story about thinking he was supposed to meet up with us there, but now that we never came to pick him up, he figured maybe we were looking for him.

The couple offered to give him a ride to the ranger station and met the up-trail-bound rangers on their way down the trail. The rangers stopped them to tell them they had a missing child report and the people told the rangers that was a real coincidence seeing as how they'd found a child.

Wilbur was excited because he got to "drive" the firetruck-- and somewhere there's a photo of Wilbur standing on the driver's seat at the wheel of a Forest Service fire engine that I'd really like a copy of.

It was a long trip home and Matt and I decided to stop at Applebee's for dinner. It was 10 o'clock on a Saturday night. Phil offered to buy us dinner, he said he owed it to us-- we agreed.

We were tired, filthy, and dressed for the mountains as we sat in a booth listening to Taylor retell his adventure in detail while Wilbur colored in his childrens' menu pictures as Visalia's 20-something culture hovered at the bar drinking colorful beverages, dressed in their finest pre-clubbing attire...

...and just as Taylor triumphantly finished his tale and once again admonished us for not "sticking to the plan," Wilbur's head appeared from under the table (where he'd been foraging for dropped crayons)-- with his missing front tooth, his "I cut my own hair" hacked-at bangs, and the back-of-the-hand swipe of dirt across his face and asked BF-Matt and I with all the innocent sincerity of a 4 year-old cuter than any you've ever seen on tv, "How come you guys don't have any kids?"