Here we are in site 6 at Parkview Riverside RV Park (read camground review here), on a top of a bluff overlooking the beautiful Rio Frio River. As I write this at 3:30 CDT, the sun is making its first appearance in 3 days, the most amazingly humid days we have experienced in our travels.
How humid? So humid that the roads were wet even though it wasn't raining; so humid I haven't had to use chapstick or lotion since we arrived; so humid we switched from our usual flannel sheets to cotton percale; so humid the towels don't dry between uses. HUMID!
But not cold. Yesterday we took a long walk in Garner State Park, Texas' most-visited state park, across the river from us. Even in the low clouds and occasional heavy mist/light rain, we were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Quite a change from our recent days in Arizona!
Low clouds and mist didn't stop Texans from enjoying the weekend on the river - we stopped for awhile to watch these kids tubing the Rio Frio. The state park was full of families picnicing, swimming, splashing on the riverbank - a friendly, summer-like scene in spite of the gray skies.
Today we took a driving tour Texas Hill Country Trail, roads marked as scenic in our atlas. They were! We circled through Utopia, Tarpley, Bandera, Medina, Vanderpool and Leakey, each town an evocative mix of old ranches, small cafes and seemingly indestructable limestone courthouses and churches shaded by giant live oaks and elms. Closer to San Antonio, ranch driveways (so long that you can't see any ranch buildings) are marked by imposing limestone pillars or walls and ornate metal gates; farther back to the west, the fences and gates are far less ostentatious.
Our lunch in Medina marks the beginning of our BBQ trail, through Texas into Arkansas and on to Memphis. Since we left Arizona, except for the "enchiladas with the works" in Las Cruces, we have eaten at home every day, lots of vegetables, low-fat, high-fiber. But sampling outstanding regional foods is part of the fun of travel - and if you are an omnivore, you've gotta' go for the BBQ here - ribs, brisket and sausage (and heaven help the vegetarian). I NEVER get a smile like this out of Odel when I set down a steaming plate of whole grains and vegetables!
Monday, March 31, 2008
Here we are in site 6 at Parkview Riverside RV Park (read camground review here), on a top of a bluff overlooking the beautiful Rio Frio River. As I write this at 3:30 CDT, the sun is making its first appearance in 3 days, the most amazingly humid days we have experienced in our travels.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
When my sister, Sydney, read my recent blog post about Marfa, she sent me this photo of "Prada Marfa". I had completely forgotten this surreal art installation along the road south from Van Horn to Marfa.
Odel and I zoomed past it so fast that I didn't get a close look, let alone a photo - and there is simply no turning a 60' long diesel pusher/Jeep combo on a narrow, two lane, Texas backroad.
The photo prompted me to Google "Prada Marfa", and I wasn't suprised to find interesting webpages: Prada Marfa and Prada Marfa Update. Check 'em out for a fun look at the art scene in West Texas. Both pages are on an interesting website called TexasEscapes.com which I want to explore in depth as we are traveling in Texas.
Sydney and her husband, Frank, are artists who visited Marfa last year. You can see Sydney's paintings here and Frank's photographs here. Thanks for the photo, and the memory!
at 9:14 AM
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Though we have no cell phone or aircard service here in Concan, Texas, the RV park has a speedy internet connection that we will use for the next three days. Updates on our recent travels to follow a bit later...
Update, 7 pm CDT: I just added a blog post about our days at Davis Mountain State Park. It is in chronological order, dated 3/27/2008.
Update, 8:30 CDT: South Llano River State Park is covered in my post dated 3/28/2008.
at 1:15 PM
Friday, March 28, 2008
Check this guy out! We spied him on our evening walk at South Llano River State Park as he waddled through the grass grubbing for dinner. An armadillo is no doubt a common sight for a Texan, but magical to us west coasters.
This is our third visit to South Llano River State Park (read our campground review here), about ten miles off I-10 south of Junction, Texas - 299 miles from our last campground. Ugh, that is way too long a drive, but there are so few places worth stopping in West Texas - the state parks being among the few.
Somewhere in that long, long ride, we crossed an invisible climate boundary, going from the clear, sunny, warm days (around 80) and cold nights (near freezing) of Davis Mountain State Park to a humid cloud cover that descended long before we reached South Llano River State Park. Here, the rivers have water! Here, we can pet Luna without sparks of static electricity flying!
South Llano River State Park is a birder’s paradise. On the long drive into the park from the main road, Vermillion Flycatchers and Cardinals flitted back and forth across the road.
The park office is in an old building, typical ranch style with a wide veranda that runs the length of the front of the building. Three hummingbird feeders drew so many hummers it seemed we were dodging darts as we ran up the stairs and through the front door.
The park is huge, bordered on one side by the lovely, clear, South Llano River. The river floods periodically, creating a wide, fertile “river bottom” filled with native pecan trees and oaks, cactus, yucca, and native grasses. All the hiking trails in the river bottom area are closed during turkey nesting season (sometime between October and April) - the trees here have provided a wild turkey rookery for over 100 years for up to 800 Rio Grande turkeys each year.
After we arrived last night and again before we left this morning, we walked the trails through the pecan trees down to the river. Deer bounded through the underbrush in every direction. Turkeys gobbled nearby, and we saw a Tom strutting his stuff to the hens who passed him by. In a couple months, the hens will be nesting - this "strut" display is their chance to identify the superior Tom.
Our drive today was blessedly short, under 100 miles, to the southeast. We are parked in a site overlooking the Rio Frio, near Concan, Texas, settled in for 3 nights. As I write, it is 8:30 pm, dark, humid, and around 75 degrees. Quite a change from yesterday's sweatshirt weather!
at 7:30 PM
Thursday, March 27, 2008
West Texas rolls on, and on, and on. Dry, prickly, glaring and monotonous after the first 100 miles. Just as I decide I hate the place, we come upon something wonderful.
This is the courthouse of the small town of Marfa, Texas, (population 2,200) “famous” for three things: the gracious Hotel Paisano, where James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper stayed during the filming of Giant in 1955; the Chinati Foundation, an arts center occupying the buildings of Fort D.A. Russell, built during the Mexican Revolution to protect Marfa, now a magnet for artists from both coasts; and for the mysterious “Marfa lights“, reported by Native Americans, early settlers, and current residents, an unexplained phenomenon twinkling in the distance.
Rolling though miles and miles and miles of empty, dry country on the way to Marfa, thinking about the Marfa lights… it’s the kind of landscape that makes you turn to your spouse and say “What would you do if you saw a UFO?” They could land a dozen of ‘em around here and no one would notice.
We spent most of a day in Marfa, checking out the unexpectedly interesting sights and hunting for a couple of screws and a new bit for our drill. That gave us an excuse to visit three small “sort of” hardware stores in the little town.
At one, Doug, the owner of a bed and breakfast, gave us his business card and told us to give him a call if we couldn’t find the screws we needed - he thought he might have some extras around. That reminded us of why we enjoy Texas: Texans are so friendly!
We visited the Hotel Paisano, beautifully restored with a gorgeous tiled lobby, a covered swimming pool, and a shrine of “Giant” memorabilia. Around the corner from the Hotel was Doug’s B&B. Odel went to thank him while I browsed the hotel’s gift shop; he met Doug’s parents, in town for a visit.
At our next stop, an unexpectedly upscale café and juice bar named Squeeze Marfa - where Odel was given Stevia sweetener for his green iced tea, “better for you than artificial sweeteners“ - we ran into Doug and his entire family having lunch. That’s what they mean by “small town”!
After they left, the adjacent table was occupied by a dancer from Houston, in Marfa for an improvisational dance theatre performance on Saturday. After her "Hey, how y'all doin'?" greeting, she filled us in on the thriving arts scene in Marfa, and made us (read: Laurie) wish we were staying a bit longer.
“Home” for our three day visit to the area was Davis Mountain State Park (read our campground review here), north of Marfa near the town of Ft. Davis. Ft. Davis DOES have an historic fort, now a designated National Historic Site. The town is smaller than Marfa, but in a prettier location on the edge of the Davis Mountains, with a beautiful stone hotel of it’s own, the Limpia Hotel.
On our first day at the park, we saw a coyote, a fox, several deer, birds galore, and a javalina - thanks to Luna, who was hyper-vigilant in the presence of so many wild animals. When her ears pricked up and her eyes got as round as saucers, we peered out into the twilight in the direction she indicated - there was the javalina, rooting around our campsite.
We didn’t have much of interest for him, unlike our bozo neighbors who left their garbage bag outside that night - and awoke to trash EVERYWHERE. (These same neighbors fed doughnuts to the deer, in spite of posters on all the bulletin boards, restroom doors, and in the visitors’ center imploring campers NOT to feed the wildlife. What’s with these people???)
Davis Mountain State Park is nestled in a steep-sided valley in the Davis Mountains, emphasizing birding with ranger-led walks and bird feeding stations. The hiking is great, with hikes of varying lengths through canyons and up to the ridgetops. At night, it is DARK, DARK, DARK! No light pollution, just zillions of stars. Another great Texas State Park experience.
at 5:23 PM
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Above: What can you say? They speak for themselves.
Rosanna is a bread baker. I can see the oven is going to get a frequent workout.
at 7:22 AM
Monday, March 24, 2008
Las Cruces, NM, sounds wonderful on the Chamber of Commerce website. Money magazine lists it as one of the “best college towns to retire”, AARP as one of their “dream towns” to retire. Interesting history, interesting blend of cultures... so why don't I like it better?
We pass through here every year and spend a couple of days stocking up for the long, long drive across west Texas. We've visited the charming plaza in Mesilla, the original settlement in the area; taken walks along the Rio Grande; and hiked in the Organ Mountains. Still, I've never felt a real connection with the town.
We arrived yesterday afternoon and checked into our favorite of the Las Cruces RV parks, Sunny Acres (read our campground review here). They give Escapees a 50% discount off their daily rates, so we pay just $15/night with 50 amp FHU including cable TV. Sunny Acres used to be a 55+ mobile home park, so the sites are spacious, with grass and trees... very pleasant for an in-town RV park, a good base for us.
We spent today attending to chores: a lab visit for Odel, and trips to Target, to the natural foods coop, and to Albertson's. We gassed up the Jeep before prices climbed any higher.
When we first came to Las Cruces, in 2003, we encountered frozen custard, an incredibly delicous, creamy, rich, frozen dessert. At a stand named Mr. Scoopy, we had frozen custard sundaes made with hot fudge sauce and salted pecans, a local crop. Mr. Scoopy is now called Caliche's, but the frozen custard has not changed. We treated ourselves to hot fudge sundaes as our lunch. Yummmmmmmmm!
Then, after a day of running around, we ate dinner out, too. This photo is of Odel's dinner: Green enchiladas, New Mexico style (stacked, rather than rolled), with "The Works": chicken, beans, rice and an egg on top. He ate every last bite. The green salsa was the best I have ever had anywhere, made with the local green chilis. Delish!
Tomorrow we head east again, across the long expanse of west Texas. We plan to stop at Davis Mountain State Park, near the tiny town of Ft. Davis. We haven't been there since April of 2003, when I took this photo. Odel wasn't a hiker way back then, so I had gone off on a hike alone and took this shot looking down on our campsite.
This year, we plan to stay three days to explore the trails and the historic fort. The state park is way out in the boondocks and, as you can see, down in a valley - so I will be surprised if we have phone and aircard service... but ya' never know. If the blog gets a bit behind or emails go unanswered, you'll know why.
at 6:45 PM
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The last train to travel what began as the El Paso & Southwestern railroad stopped in Columbus, New Mexico, on December 20, 1961. The track, built to move ore from the mines in southern Arizona to El Paso, Texas, was removed not long afterwards. Between its beginning as an ore hauler and it's decline and removal, it played an important role in an historic event.
As we drove from Douglas, Arizona, to Columbus, New Mexico, yesterday, we followed the bed of the abandoned railway through mile upon mile of mostly unpopulated borderlands. Ranches, tiny towns, and a few temporary border patrol camps were the only signs of settlement.
So, why did we come to tiny Columbus, New Mexico? It has a wonderful state park (read our campground review here), and an interesting history - and this year we decided to take the time to explore it.
The town, 2.8 square miles, has a current population of under 2,000, and is designated a National Historic Site. Why? Because it is the site of the last attack on the continental US by foreign troops, by Pancho Villa in March of 1916. Ten of the citizens of Columbus were killed, along with eight U.S. soldiers and over 100 "Villistas", Pancho Villa's soldiers.
Following the raid, President Wilson ordered General John "Black Jack" Pershing to retaliate, to either capture or kill Pancho Villa. Small Ft. Furlong was used as a staging area - and is now the site of Pancho Villa State Park.
What makes the "Punitive Expedition" into Mexico so interesting is that it was the first time in American history that motorized vehicles and aircraft were used in warfare. A fleet of trucks, a few cars, and eight obsolete biplanes were hastily shipped to Columbus, and on March 15, Pershing led his troops (around 10,000 strong) into Mexico.
The First Aero Squadron flew from the nation's first operational airbase right here in Columbus, New Mexico! The onsite museum here in the park has a replica of the biplanes, along with all the standard paraphernalia - soldiers uniforms, mess kits, tents, saddles - and a car with bullet holes in it from the attack.
Scattered throughout the park are several interesting artifacts - the adobe fort headquarters (now protected from the elements by a shed roof) and even "the first grease rack to service U.S. Army automotive equipment engaged in field operations" (made out of concrete and not adjustable!).
Using vehicles to chase the revolutionaries into Mexico didn't work too well. Roads were virtually non-existant, and there were no fueling stations. Fuel and parts often had to be carried by mules to the vehicles.
The expedition fared poorly, didn't find or capture Pancho Villa, and returned to the U.S. 11 months later, exhausted. Not long afterwards, General Pershing left for Europe and World War I.
No specific reason is known for Pancho Villa's raid into the U.S., but local lore suggests it was an act of retaliation - and it involved the railroad. In 1915, the "neutral" U.S. allowed Venustiano Carranza, the new President of Mexico (not acknowledged by Villa) to transport Mexican troops through Texas and New Mexico on the El Paso-Southwestern Railroad from El Paso to Douglas. These troops defeated Villa and his army in Agua Prieta, across from Douglas, Arizona on November 1, 1915 - and may have given Villa a reason to attack Columbus a few months later.
It's all history now, but it comes alive here in Columbus. We loved our huge site here in the state park (only $14/night with 30 amp and water)... we wouldn't mind exploring for a few more days, but reservations and plans keep us moving. Adios, Columbus!
at 5:45 PM
Friday, March 21, 2008
Ten years ago (or more), Rosanna traded fresh milk from her goat herd for bucket upon airtight bucket of spelt, a type of wheat - now stored in the barn. Two days ago, Carol ground some of the spelt into flour.
That same day, Rosanna "fed" her sourdough starter and put the freshly ground spelt flour, along with water from the well, into a bowl with the starter. Sourdough bread was underway.
Yesterday we burned a 3-hour fire with wood from Rosanna's neighbor, Marvin, and at 5:30 pm the oven, built of the soil on which it sits, was ready for the Grand Experiment - the baking of the bread. It was an unqualified, spectacular success!
We thought the oven might be too hot, so put in one loaf at 5:30, along with two russet potatoes wrapped in foil, two "naked" russets, and a foil wrapped sweet potato. Fifteen minutes later, seeing that our first loaf was doing well, the "backup" loaf went in.
The bread took 30 minutes to bake, with a perfect, crispy-brown crust. The potatoes were done in under an hour. When the potatoes and bread came out of the oven, we roasted a couple of peppers (cut up, oiled and salted, in a pan) and a pan of sliced, marinated tofu. Thirty minutes later, they were on the dining table.
I don't know why, but EVERYTHING done in the clay oven was noticeably superior to the same foods baked in an indoor oven. We expected the bread to be superior, but the potatoes were more fluffy, the roasted peppers more creamy and carmelized. The edges of the tofu slices were perfectly crusted with browned marinade, while the insides were creamy. We spent a lot of time trying to figure it out - then just gave up and enjoyed it. :-) So we count the clay oven as a complete and total success.
And just in time! This morning we resume our travels, heading east. We'll spend the next several night in New Mexico, then meander through Texas and Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee. I know there will be spots along our route that are too remote to pick up a Verizon signal for our aircard, so we will be out of touch from time to time - but not for long. Stay tuned.
at 8:09 AM
Thursday, March 20, 2008
While eating the pizza we cooked in the indoor oven on Tuesday night, we went over our notes and formulated a plan for Wednesday. Top of the list: Keep a fire burning in the oven long enough to be certain we have driven the dampness and cold from the oven' clay walls and heavy foundation.
Since Rosanna can't focus ALL her attention on the oven (she and Carol had an appointment in Benson), Odel and I were the fire bosses. We started the fire at 12:30 and burned until 5:00. By then, we could feel heat on ALL parts of the exteror of the oven, including the super-thick lower walls. For the first time, the oven was heated all the way through.
We pulled the coals out, put the door in place, started the 30 minute countdown timer for the "heat soak", and went inside to make our pizzas.
Look at the results and let your mouths water!
We each made two small pizzas, and cooked four at a time. This is our first batch, cooked for five or six minutes, I think. When we cut them and started eating, we decided to cook the second batch for 10 minutes, and they came out dripping bubbling cheese off the hot, crispy, sourdough crusts. Heavenly!
At 6:45 this morning, when the air temperature was 35 degrees, Rosanna applied the infrared thermometer to the oven. Here are our "six point" stats:
Apex of the oven (measured on the outside): 46 degrees
At the floor in the doorway: 116 degrees
Midway up the back wall: 125 degrees
Lower left wall: 117 degrees (compared with 74 degrees yesterday morning).
Lower right wall: 114 degrees (compared with 74 degrees yesterday morning).
Middle of the floor, center of the oven: 140 degrees! (compared with 82 yesterday morning). Even with nighttime temperatures close to freezing, we had residual heat in the walls and floor. Looks like we finally heated the oven completely!
As much fun as we have getting to know the oven, preparing the pizzas is almost more fun. The 30 minute "heat soak", which allows the hot and cold spots in the oven to equalize, is pizza-making (and wine drinking) time. We must have had twenty different toppings; lots of comparing, peeking, peering and discussion of techniques and combinations. We even experimented (briefly) with hand-tossed dough.
Today's experiment needs less heat - Rosanna is baking bread (no pizza making), along with 4 big russet potatoes for our dinner (which will include grilled salmon, gingered cucumber salad and greens). Bread baking will be the primary use of the oven; we are anticipating something irrestible.
at 7:16 AM
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
The big day finally arrived: the oven was ready for use! Odel and I have moved to Rosanna's, just steps from the oven, and we have three days to experiment before we head off.
Day One got off to a great start. Rosanna has a huge stash of very dry wood, the remnants of her neighbor Marvin's woodworking projects. We gathered a couple of boxes of wood, newspaper and a firestarter and got ready to fire 'er up.
I brought the infrared thermometer gun (which we use for checking our tires at rest stops when we are on the road), a notepad and a pen so we could periodicially check temperatures and make notes. My little chart has six points for measuring temperature: the apex of the oven on the outside, the floor near the front, the floor in the center, and three points on the inside walls - straight back, right, and left.
It has been cold here, and our hearth bricks around the walls of the oven were still damp! I doubt that our foundation has ever been warm, as nighttime temperature have frequently dropped below freezing. The temperature in the center of the floor was 51 degrees; the floor on the south side, where the sun warms the wall daily, was 7 degrees warmer; the floor on the north side, infrequently warmed by the sun, was 11 degrees cooler.
Because our oven is not huge (though perhaps we should have made it a little smaller!), because we weren't going to be baking loaf after loaf of bread, and because we were too darned impatient, we burned our fire for just two hours - making notes constantly. We took temperature readings again (at least on the spots not covered in coals or flames) every 30 minutes, and timed the frequency at which the fire required more wood.
After two hours of firing, the top of the oven on the outside had gone from 75 degrees to 112 degrees - we could lay our hands on it, but not keep them there long. Without the cob insulation, it was not possible to keep your hands on the clay when a fire was burning, so we concluded that our insulation paid off. The floor near the front of the oven had gone from 47 chilly degrees to 430 degrees, and the temperature of the back wall was a blistering 650 degrees (from 52 cold).
And, we were HUNGRY. We scrapped the coals out of the oven into a metal bucket, then wiped the oven floor with a wet t-shirt on the end of a stick - yes, this is the "approved" technique, recommended in the book! We wrapped the wooden door (which had been soaking in water) in a wet towel, fitted it in place, and trooped inside to create our individual pizzas while the oven "soaked" in heat - the 30 minute rest period that allows the heat to equalize throughout the oven.
It's lucky Rosanna has a big kitchen - we had pizza crusts, toppings, and people working everywhere, full of excitement and hunger. Rosanna had made a big batch of sourdough bread/pizza dough, with a backup ball of Trader Joe's yeast pizza dough. We had raided our refrigerator to contribute pesto, marinara sauce, goat cheese, marinated feta, mozzarella, jalapenos, chicken sausage, fresh tomatoes and fresh basil.
We learned immediately that Rosanna's sourdough bread dough was far superior to TJ's yeast dough, but we each made a pizza with both. Our pizzas were ready by the time the "soaking" had finished, and we trooped back out with pizzas, the new pizza "peel", and cornmeal to lubricate the peel so the pizza wouldn't stick.
Before we put a pizza in the oven, we took another series of temperature readings, and were disappointed. The back wall was 370 degrees, the middle of the floor was 395 degrees. The inside of the southern wall, which was warmed by the sun every day and presumably dry (or drier) was 335 degrees; the north wall, thicker, wetter and colder when we began, was only 300 degrees. These temperatures were suitable for bread, but we wanted a far higher starting point for our pizzas.
In the name of science, we plunged ahead, placing two pizzas in the oven. After 10 minutes, they were edible - if you were as hungry as we were! Luckily, we are fast learners and quickly grasped that a pizza stone in the indoor oven would yield superior results... which you can see in this picture!
So... our first cooking experiment in the clay oven was a qualified success. Next up: a loaf of sourdough bread. While Carol zipped inside to get the backup oven heating, we slide Rosanna's little sourdough loaf into the cooling clay oven.
An hour and a half later, we were completely full of delicious, homemade pizza and Zinfandel - and the bread was DONE! Our too-cool oven hadn't resulted in a lovely, crispy brown loaf, but it was cooked and delicious. I had room for one bite!
What did we learn? Our oven has thermal MASS, and both it and it's foundation are COLD and a bit damp. Until they are both completely dry, a two-hour fire won't do the trick. Today we are going to start the fire early and burn it long, hoping to completely dry the walls and floor. We'd like to have the temperature of the floor and walls above 600 degrees when we start our pizzas tonight.
A couple last notes on the temperature: The low temperature here last night was 27 degrees. We had left the door of then oven closed. At 7 am, Odel measured the temperature of the oven floor in the center: 82 degrees! We are making progress.
at 7:40 AM
Monday, March 17, 2008
Saturday, March 15, 2008
This woman is a doctor. She is on vacation. She is breaking dry horse manure - the hard, round "apples" - into loose manure fluff. And, she is loving it!
Meet Joy, Rosanna's daughter, once again donning gloves and adding her hands to the oven building effort. We were glad to have her!
Our oven has been drying for the past week. The one remaining task was to cover it with an insulating layer of cob, thin clay mixed throughly with dried, smashed horse manure. Since Joy was available to help and the weather seemed reasonably cooperative, I drove up to Rosanna's today so we could get started.
The cob was much easier - and more fun - to work with than the heavy oven clay. We had buckets of "slip", a very thin clay mixture, all ready to go, and had a trailer load of manure standing by. Using the wheelbarrow again (I can see that no ranch can function without one or more), we stirred the slip into a homogenous liquid the texture (and color) of a lovely, thick, chocolate sauce, then dumped in the manure and stirred - by hand.
Playtex Living Gloves... if you are close to my age, I am sure that is the brand you think of when someone says "rubber gloves". Hummmppppfff! Were we expecting too much? I see that their website doesn't mention anything about mixing gravelly clay mud with horse poop, but these didn't even make it through one oven build!
After the fingertips started disintegrating, both Rosanna and I switched to direct hand contact, tactilely rewarding but amazingly messy. I'm not certain my cuticles will ever recover. Get this woman a manicure!
Two wheelbarrow loads of cob provided several hours of mud play and fun. Our oven is now protected with a two-inch thick layer of cob, a highly sculptural medium. With what little remained after we were finished, we added a few southwestern embellishments, then stood back and admired our oven again and again.
It would be a stretch to call it "beautiful", yet it elicits interest and favorable exclamations from everyone who sees it. We are drawn to it over and over, to pat it, lay our hands on it, peer inside it. It is so incredibly organic, so "grounded", so functional - and so obviously a part of it's surroundings. What can I say? It has been a VERY rewarding project - and we haven't even cooked in it yet!
at 10:02 PM
Friday, March 14, 2008
After five years of travel, we have learned to pay attention to the weather... well, we actually learned that lesson after our first tornado warning. More accurately, I should say that we now not only pay attention to the weather, but modify our plans from time to time based on the forecast.
We had planned to move this morning from Bisbee to Rosanna's, but the forecast has a storm moving into Cochise County on Sunday, bringing high winds today and tomorrow, along with blowing dust, leading up to a chance of snowflakes on Sunday night/Monday morning! We decided to stay put here until the weather calms (Tuesday) figuring we would rather be on gravel than dirt in a dust or rain storm.
THIS is the weather we have been experiencing the past several days!
Yesterday, we took a hike in Ramsey Canyon with Sydney and Frank. Frank works with volunteer Elderhostel groups in Ramsey Canyon from time to time, and suggested we head over to check out the new trails. He lead us on a beautiful canyon hike along the stream, full of water. I took many photos, not one of which captured anything close to approximating the beauty of our hike.
On the way home, we stopped at Casa de San Pedro, a gorgeous B & B along the San Pedro River. We met the owner and wandered the grounds. Fabulous pool!
Today we shifted gears and began planning our springtime travels. Our next time commitment is June 7th, when we plan to be in the Black Hills of South Dakota, hiking to the fingertips of the Crazy Horse monument on the 23rd annual Crazy Horse Volksmarch. Between now and then, we plan to spend three weeks in Texas, a week or so in Little Rock, Arkansas, a week in Memphis, and a couple weeks around Denver, Colorado. We had travel and campground books, maps and files spread everywhere today as we studied the possibilities.
We are frequently asked how fuel prices have affected our travels. So far, we haven't altered plans based on fuel prices but, today, the high cost of diesel fuel did help us to finalize a decision.
We had considered visiting Big Bend National Park when we head east, but hadn't made a firm plan as the temperatures will likely be outside our comfort zone by the time we would arrive. But beyond that, Big Bend isn't "on the way" to anywhere we plan to visit, so it is easy to calculate the specific cost of the trip: right around $140. If the wildflowers were abloom and the high temperatures were in the low 70's, $140 would not deter us from visiting for a week or so... but since we were not strongly committed to visiting, the high cost of fuel made the decision easy. Feels like the start of a trend!
at 9:40 PM
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
In February of 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, several priests, over 300 Spanish soldiers, several hundred Mexican-Indian allies, and 1,500 stock animals set off on an expedition to discover the "Seven Cities of Cibola", seven "large cities, with streets lined with goldsmith shops, houses of many stories, and doorways studded with emeralds and turquoise."
His unsuccessful search went from present day Mexico, through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kanses, ended in disgrace two years later, and he died in obscurity. Yesterday, on a perfect Arizona winter day, we went to explore the national monument dedicated to Coronado and his exploration.
Joe's Canyon Trail starts near the visitor's center, and we stopped in to check trail conditions. My favorite part of the intrepretive center are the helmets and chain mail that can be handled and tried on. Nice hat, huh? The matching chain mail is so heavy I can't lift it - I can't imagine traveling through the desert (or anywhere) thusly garbed.
Joe's Canyon is just the kind of hike I like. At 6 miles round trip, it is long enough for good exercise, but not exhausting. The climb (1,300 feet) starts gradually - a nice warm-up - climbs reasonably steeply for a sweaty, aerobically-challenging distance (1,000 ft in the first mile), then mellows to a nice ridge-top ramble with great views all around.
Coronado National Monument is smack up against the AZ/Mexico border, overlooking the San Pedro river, supposed to be the route traveled by Coronado's expedition. Half a mile from the top end of the trail, Joe's Canyon runs into the Yaqui Ridge trail.
Yaqui Ridge trail is the southern end of the 750 mile Arizona Trail, which runs from the AZ/Mexico border to the AZ/UT border. From the junction, Yaqui Ridge drops 700 feet in 1 mile to a border marker - perhaps another day for that one!
It was t-shirt weather, the temperature cool enough that the sunshine felt great on our backs and arms. A few bees were bumbling around, big and noisy (where do they spend the COLD winter?), and flocks of quail exploded underfoot a couple of times, making my heart pound. We saw only two other hikers on the trail.
I took this photo from our lunch spot. The Yaqui Ridge trail ends in this valley, and we ate lunch gazing deep into Mexico and contemplating Coronado's search. WOW!
at 11:15 AM
Saturday, March 8, 2008
It works! I doubt that you can imagine our excitement watching the first flames burn in our oven. Isn't this a pretty sight?
After several days of drying, today was the day we removed the sand dome from the interior of the oven. The clay was completely dry on the outside, but the sand and interior clay are still damp (and COLD).
I was amazed to see how much sand came out of the oven - I don't know why, since we had dug, hauled and shaped it - but when I took this picture, Odel had removed about half of the sand and had filled almost half of the wheelbarrow.
The sand had not dried much at all, except for the moisture that had been drawn out of the sand into the hearth bricks. After Odel got all the sand out, we put a lantern inside and took turns poking our heads into the opening and examining the interior walls. We had a few cracks, but we were delighted to find the inside walls mostly smooth (the point of whacking and compacting the wet clay from the outside).
Once the void was opened up, we built a fire, partly to help dry the oven (which will take several more days) and partly as an experiment. Because fire needs air, and because this oven has no chimney (like a fireplace does) to draw air from the door through the oven, I wondered how well a fire would burn. As our earth oven handbook instructed, we had positioned the door opening away from the prevailing wind - and it burned perfectly.
What else did we learn? That a three hour fire will take more wood than we imagined... well, we really hadn't imagined that part at all, we were so caught up in the building! One of Rosanna's priority tasks is to gather wood.
The most rewarding part of the fire experiment was to feel the oven warm up. The hearth bricks are too damp and cold to heat with our small fire, but the exterior of the dome did warm up. It was a cool day, and we spent an inordinate amount of time grinning like maniacs, resting our hands on top of the oven, comparing the heat on the top to the heat on this side, and that side and - oh, feel it here! Very pleasurable.
After a bite of lunch, we filled our twelve buckets with "slip", a thin clay-and-water mixture, then collected a small trailer load of dry horse manure. The final task for completion of the oven is to apply a protective layer of "cob", the mixture of slip and manure, to act both as insulation and as protection from the monsoon rains that will arrive in July. That's our job for next weekend, when we move our home back to Rosanna's.
at 6:25 PM
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Here you go, Donna: Basque Lamb Shanks. The recipe is from the Gourmet Slow Cooker: Volume II, a cookbook of recipes slightly more complex than the usual "toss the ingredients into the crock and cook on low for 8-9 hours." I added a few comments of my own at the end of the recipe (I always have an opinion on a recipe!).
While we were at Rosanna's, I found three novels by Willa Cather on the bookshelves in the barn: My Antonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and O Pioneers. My Antonia was required reading when I was in school - I don't remember which grade and I certainly don't remember the book. I blew the dust off all three, brought 'em in, and was completely enchanted!
Death Comes to the Archbishop (written in 1927 and set in the 1850's) is centered in the Four Corners area, where we visited in May of 2006. Cather's evocative description of Acoma Pueblo and Enchanted Mesa sent me to our photographs. I took this one when we visited Acoma Pueblo, looking towards Enchanted Mesa. Here is her perfect description:
"From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between. This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left...
"This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape."
Makes for good reading!
Today we moved from Rosanna's to Queen Mine RV Park in Bisbee, a favorite. We'll be here for the next week.
at 4:30 PM
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Although we had planned a hike today on one of my favorite trails, I decided to stay home, rest my back a bit, and be domestic. I waved goodbye to Odel, Rosanna and Joy with a mental list of "catch-up" chores I was eager to attack.
First, though - the daily morning adulation of the oven! There is something about this heavy earthen dome that we all find irrestible. We peek out at it first thing in the morning, and visit as soon as we step out the door. I frequently see Rosanna or Odel examining the surface or admiring the form, as I do each time I go outside.
We gather there to discuss the drying process and the cracks that are appearing as it dries, to admire the shape, to wonder when it will be dry enough to remove the sand... it is quite mysterious and interesting.
You can see that we have added a sand and gravel walkway; our project is complete for now. We plan to remove the sand on Saturday, which will allow the interior of the oven to dry. The final step in finishing the oven will be to add an insulating and protective layer of "cob" - that is about a week away.
So, what did I do today? Lost myself in the kitchen.
I had promised a dish for dinner tonight, so Basque Lamb Shanks went into the crockpot first thing this morning: lamb shanks slow cooked with white beans, butternut squash and tomatoes. Just before serving, kalamata olives are added; I plan to serve it on a big platter of soft polenta. Note to foodies who read this blog because you are preparing to go fulltime: take your crockpot! It is an invaluable fulltimer's cooking appliance.
Searching out the kalamata olives for dinner reminded me of Carole's delicious roasted kalamata olive appetizer. It is Rosanna's turn to take snacks to a meeting she attends regularly, so she and I have been experimenting with appetizers.
(Here is one we perfected, made with ingredients we had on hand: Rosanna's homemade rye bread, sliced thinly and toasted, quartered into appetizer size, then spread with "garlic cream" I picked up at the Temecula Farmer's Market. We topped that with Trader Joe's pre-cooked Baby Beluga Lentils - they look just like beluga caviar- which I mixed with a bit of olive oil to give them a true beluga caviar sheen. A little twist of freshly ground sea salt - oh, man! Delicious!)
Back to olives... since I had plenty on hand, I roasted a batch of 'em for Rosanna to try, as they are very simple to prepare. The condition of my recipe files has bugged me for awhile so, while the olives were roasting, I started bringing order to the chaos... and came upon a newly acquired recipe for marinated, baked, tofu. I have never been a tofu fan - but would like to be. I dug a box of tofu out of the "pantry" (under the bed), whipped the marinade together (sweet and sour), and started the tofu baking when the olives came out of the oven.
That give me time to finish up with the recipes, which lead to cleaning out the refrigerator. I threw the not-quite-limp half-bag of mixed greens, the slightly withered red pepper and carrot, the limp celery and the puckered cherry tomatoes into a pot of soup, with a chopped onion and the tail end of a package of lentils and a bit of wild rice...
I was a cook possessed! As I write, the lamb shanks are just about falling off the bone, and the table holds roasted olives and baked tofu (which turned out to be very yummy) appetizers. The soup, finished off with a couple heavy splashes of balsamic vinegar, is cooling on the stove and the refrigerator is ready to be freshly stocked.
Sometimes there is nothing more fun than a day spent (alone) in the kitchen.
at 3:10 PM
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
The oven is (mostly) built! Yesterday was the big day, and I intended to post this last night, but fatigue intervened. Now, on Tuesday morning, I can see our creation from where I sit - and it a fine, fine thing!
Monday morning's low temperature was 24 degrees, and a north wind was blowing. COLD! By 10 am the wind had died somewhat - just gusting, not a steady blow - so, although it would have been smart to wait for a warmer, calmer day, we didn't.
The first step is to build the sand dome to create the oven void. We wanted our dome to be 16 inches high, angled slightly towards the back. Here (above) is our first layer of sand. Rosanna is holding the angle we made (two boards nailed together) to measure the height of our dome. She is relaxed and cheerful, though bundled up (unlike the t-shirts we wore on previous days).
Above: Rosanna and Odel compacted and smoothed the sand dome, using boards to press and firm the sand. The sand was a great texture; the dome was easy and fun to build. We did the final "smoothing" with our hands, and the curves of the dome were delightful.
Above: I took this photo around 11:30 am. Our shapely dome is complete, and the door is in place, sitting on the hearth tongue bricks. We were in high spirits, entranced with our work and our dome. We took a break, had a quick lunch, Rosanna fed her horses. Ready for round two: the clay!
At this point, we should have covered the sand dome with wet newspaper, making it easier to remove the sand when the oven is sufficiently dry, but the wind made that impossible. Once the newspaper flew away, we moved on to the clay.
Above: After the ease of working with the sand, the clay was a shock! Very heavy and awkward to work, and the texture of the clay changed rapidly in the bright Arizona sunshine. Too wet a clay slumps; too dry clumps. "Just right" is a short-lived interval between wet and dry.
For the first time, we were operating on the oven's schedule, not ours: we had to complete a layer of clay before "quitting time". Rosanna's daughter Joy had arrived for a visit, and added her hands and energy to the effort - THANK YOU, Joy. It was a big help to have another pair of hands.
Back and forth to the clay pile we went, doing our best to improve our technique as we learned on the job, watching our clay pile shrink (and dry), constantly eyeballing the volume of clay on the tarp against the still-uncovered dome, wondering whether we had sufficient clay to complete the job.
Above: Yes, we had enough clay to cover the dome - but this was a sobering sight. I am reasonably sure we all had the same vision of our oven - smooth, curveous, alluring - all things this oven was not. The spikes sticking out of the top are skewers marked to show how thick the mud should be (4 inches); our mud was woefully thin. This was the low point of our project: a big mud lump, no more useable clay, and four fatigued builders.
Tea to the rescue! We added water to our drying clay, re-wrapped it tightly in it's tarp, and trooped into the house for tea. Our friends Judy and Gary had come over from Sierra Vista to observe, and all seven of us gathered around the Teavana bags and tins (Rosanna and Carol have caught the Teavana bug, too, so we had unlimited choices). Everyone had their own customized tea bag, and we flopped down in chairs to sip, chat, and rest. Thirty minutes later, invigorated, we went out to confront our monster.
Auntie Carol donated (temporarily) a dough cutter from her kitchen, which I used to cut slabs of our rehydrated clay to hand off to Joy, Rosanna and Odel. They whomped, smushed, kneaded and generally exerted their will on the stuff, building up the low spots, smoothing out the rough spots. It worked! In the picture above, we are in the final stages of completing the first layer - whacking the mud firmly with boards to compact it and remove the any pockets.
Joy took this photo of three HAPPY builders (Rosanna, Laurie, Odel). We love it. It turned out rewardingly close to our imagined oven, and we finished before dark!
There still is plenty to be done, but the all important 4 inch layer of clay covers the sand dome, we remembered to leave a space for the door, and we have clay "conditioning" in it's tarp wrap for touch up work. Yes, it's a fine, fine thing.
As I have written this, Odel and I have been peeking out at the oven, discussing what still needs to be done. Enthusiam blossoms anew, and I suspect we may be playing in the mud again by mid-day.
at 9:00 AM