Wallace State Park, Missouri

When I left Iowa, I knew where I was headed: an Army Corps of Engineers park two-thirds of the way across Missouri. I started thinking that was a stupid plan within about twenty minutes of starting to drive. It was raining. Like, skies opening up, buckets of water flooding down, raining. I kept thinking, “Why am I driving in this?” Eventually I stopped, ate lunch, and started looking up alternatives that didn’t have me on the road for another three hours. I settled on Wallace State Park, because it was about forty minutes away from where I was.

I knew nothing else about it. I was completely complacent about availability — I didn’t even bother to check. After all, it’s October. And it was pouring rain, with severe thunderstorms predicted for the evening. Who goes camping in the pouring rain in October? Answer: enough Missourians that the campground was almost completely full.

After I drove through and failed to find an open site, I parked at the restrooms and began the search for a new campground. I was debating whether I wanted to just find someplace for the night — in which case, why pay for camping, why not stay in a parking lot? — and whether it was important to me to stay on the eastward path I’d already mapped out or whether I was willing to swing farther south, when a pleasant woman in a campground t-shirt came over to my window and asked if I needed help. I explained that I was looking for another campground and she told me that there was one site left, #46. Yay for friendly campground volunteers.

As might be obvious from the fact that the park was almost full — in October, in the rain! — this is a really nice state park. There’s an easy one mile trail through the forest that starts literally right next to my site, plus some other longer trails. The sites are sheltered by trees, so even though there are a lot of people here, it feels pretty private. And, joy of joys, the shower has normal hot and cold water faucets.

I’m not sure how long I’m going to stay, whether I’m leaving tomorrow or going to try to stay another few days. I got all tangled up in Grace again, realizing that maybe it would be better if I did something different at the beginning, and then making changes that ricocheted around it like those bullets that leave trails of destruction in their wake. Hollow points, that’s what they’re called. Yes, I shot my manuscript with a hollow-point bullet. Maybe I’ve killed it. Fortunately, it’s a zombie book and will rise from the dead, every time. Also fortunately, I can always revert to a previous non-dead version. I’m just stumped at the moment, while I try to sort through the wreckage and ponder how the pieces fit together.

Anyway, part of me thinks that I should sit still for a couple days and concentrate on Grace. Another part of me thinks that I’m going to be out of coconut milk for my coffee tomorrow and out of dog food on Wednesday, plus I need to refill the water tank and dump the other tanks, so I might as well just start driving again.

Traveling really does take a lot of mental energy, though. Somehow, it requires so much attention. It’s like I need to/want to be living in my imagination in order to write well and instead, I’m… well, living in Missouri. Which is very cool, I like Missouri. It reminds me of Arkansas, which was one of my favorite places from last winter. They are adjacent states, so maybe that’s not so surprising, but it might just be the quantity of small kids running around, too. Either way, though, I feel like I’m paying too much attention to Missouri and not enough attention to the worlds I’m trying to create.

Walking is a great example, too. As a writer, my best walks are the ones where I come back and I was totally in my head, the exercise was just shaking the story loose and drawing out the words. But as a constant traveler, my walks are unfamiliar so I’m always paying attention to them instead. The trails here are gorgeous — wooded, paths heavy with fallen leaves, squirrels and birds and interesting sounds — but I took three walks yesterday, trying to resolve my Grace puzzle and none of them got me anywhere closer to an answer. Sigh. But it’s a great place to wander, that’s for sure!

my dog on a bridge

Zelda checking out the lake

Lake of Three Fires

On Wednesday, when I was trying to decide where to head next, my priority was, sadly, a shower. Yep, some people look for famous landmarks, beautiful drives, incredible natural wonders, even good restaurants, but me, I just wanted to feel clean again.

Serenity actually does have a perfectly reasonable shower. Reasonable, of course, being defined as tiny, hand-held, with limited water and drainage, but tolerable. But my mirror broke back in August and I haven’t replaced it and the door of the medicine cabinet is just bare wood. I’m reluctant to let it get wet. Bad enough that I need to replace the mirror; I don’t want to wind up needing to replace the entire cabinet. So ever since August, I’ve only showered when visiting people or in campground showers.

And campground showers are kind of a mixed bag. Some are fine, perfectly reasonable. Some are great. I still remember the one in Texas with the incredible water pressure and unlimited hot water — it was amazing, despite a few dead bugs in the corners, but that’s common to all of them, I think.

The ones I’ve visited lately, though, including the one here at Lake of Three Fires, don’t let you control the temperature or the water flow. You push the — what should it be called, a spigot? A handle? It’s a little more than a button, a lot less than a faucet. But you push the metal thing and water comes out of the shower head at whatever temperature the park feels like letting you have water, for some undetermined period of time.

It’s not a fun shower. It’s not a fun shower when it’s 75 degrees and being wet is perfectly comfortable; it is a decidedly un-fun shower when temperatures are in the 50s. Campground shower houses don’t tend to be heated, after all, which is perfectly sensible — people who are camping in cold weather should dress appropriately. But it’s hard to shower wearing cold weather gear.

Anyway, I set off from Nebraska hoping to find a good shower. I did not succeed. But oh, in every other way, I really love this campground. It’s peaceful and quiet and inexpensive and beautiful, with good walks and reliable electricity and mediocre internet. I’m going to post pictures, because words don’t do it justice.

My campsite. Sort of ridiculously huge for Serenity, but since there were only two other campers here, I didn’t feel bad about taking a bus-size site.

The lake, within very easy walking distance. I sat out on the dock, appreciating the sunshine. Such a beautiful day.

Not an English countryside. A foggy Iowa morning and the beginnings of an equestrian trail around the lake. I think we’re allowed to walk on it because there haven’t been any horses here, but Zelda, for some unknown reason, refuses to go more than a few hundred steps down it. Then she plants herself, exerting her passive resistance to get me to turn around. I always do, because I feel like maybe she knows something I don’t. Bears? Tigers? Coyotes? Somehow I doubt all of the above, but she doesn’t like that trail nearly as much as I do.

If it weren’t for the showers, I could easily see staying here for the entire two weeks that one is allowed to stay. Well, if it weren’t for the showers and for the inevitability of the fast approaching seasonal change. Yep, winter is coming and not just in Game of Thrones. And while so far I’m finding autumn very pleasant, I’m not sure I’d be saying the same two weeks from now. So tomorrow I’m moving on. But I would come back to Lake of Three Fires, and to Iowa, too. I expected flat open fields, but it is green and serene and beautiful here.

The Anova Sous Vide Cooker

I promise I am not turning my blog into a sales blog! But I started a conversation in Facebook comments that required a little more space, so I’m moving it here so that I can rave about my love of the Anova Sous Vide Precision Cooker. (And yes, that’s an affiliate link, but feel free to use Amazon Smile or some other affiliate site instead — or, you know, if you feel strongly that Amazon should get all the profits of its sales, use Amazon directly. Or buy somewhere else entirely. :))

Ahem, onward.

I bought my Anova Sous Vide Precision Cooker during Amazon Prime Day this summer because I thought it would be a convenient way to cook fish in the van without making the van smell like fish. I used to eat a lot of fish, but when I moved into Serenity, I stopped, because when your kitchen and bedroom are basically the same place, you wake up to leftover food smells and fish… eh. Not the nicest leftover food smell. Granola is much more pleasant.

cod and green beans

My very first sous-vide meal: cod, that totally fell apart. It tasted great, but was obviously going to need some practice.

A sous vide cooker works by heating up water to a precise temperature. The one I use, the Anova, is a wand-style immersion circulator. You attach it to the side of a container — I’ve been using the Instant Pot insert, but would like to get a plastic container eventually as they’re supposed to be more efficient. But it circulates the water and heats it up to whatever temperature you’ve set. You vacuum seal your food in plastic, either using the water displacement method or with a vacuum sealer, then put the food in the water, and let it cook slowly for a long period of time. It’s incredibly forgiving. Seriously, the cooking ranges offered on recipes are often things like “1-4 hours.”

The combination of the slow cooking and the vacuum sealing makes your food both tender and infused with flavor. One of the Serious Eats recipes describes itself as the most carrot-y carrots ever. Yep. Cook corn-on-the-cob with a little butter and it will be the most corn-on-the-cobby corn ever — every bite juicy and sweet and buttery.

And vacuum packing is a terrific way to make food last. I buy root vegetables (sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots), chop them up, individually vacuum pack them in appropriately-sized serving amounts. Then I pre-cook them using the Anova at 183 for an hour or longer. When I want to eat them, I open the bag, dump the contents into a frying pan (or the sauté setting on the Instant Pot or a baking dish in the oven), and cook them for a few minutes longer. Since they’re pre-cooked, it only takes 5-10 minutes more to have hot, delicious, fully-cooked, soft root vegetables. And if I put herbs or spices into the bag before sealing, they’re also richly flavored with whatever I’ve used.

Meat is the most well-known use for a sous vide cooker. Most of the raves about sous video cooking are about how well they cook steak and they’re true. But chicken breast also comes out delicious every time — moist and juicy and so intensely chicken-flavored. I’ve never been a huge fan of cooking chicken breast, because it’s just too easy to get wrong. By the time the middle is cooked, the outside can be dry and tough. Not with sous vide. When you cook sous vide, every bite is exactly the same amount of cooked. I assume you could overcook chicken and make every bite dry, but so far, not in my experience. I think you’d probably have to cook it for hours and hours.

One day recently, I ate white sweet potatoes sous-vide cooked with a spicy herb mix then finished in a frying pan; corn-on-the-cob sous-vide cooked with butter; and steak sous-vide cooked. When I finished, I looked at my empty plate and thought, “That wasn’t just one of the best meals I’ve ever cooked, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.” For some perspective on that, in a previous life, I worked at a magazine in San Francisco and ate meals in San Francisco restaurants on a business expense account. I’ve eaten at some incredible restaurants in my life. And the food I cooked in my van was absolutely competitive with the food that I paid serious money for which was cooked by professional chefs.

I actually felt sort of annoyed. Yes, it was delicious, but I’ve spent years teaching myself to cook and the best meal I’ve ever made for myself had nothing to do with my skills. It wasn’t even complicated! It was just a product of having purchased the right device and spent the time learning to use it. But there are some foods — steak, chicken breast — that I can’t imagine ever cooking another way again. I might have to, of course, if I’m camping in a place where I don’t have electricity, but I’m more likely to pre-cook my food while I have electricity and then finish it off on the grill or propane stove when I’m disconnected.

And there’s an interesting effect that I’ve noticed, too — I think that I eat less with sous vide cooked food. Doesn’t that sound weird? But every bite is perfect, so 1/3 of a steak feels like sufficient food. It’s as if with normal steak, I keep eating, wanting to have the perfect bite, and with sous vide steak, I have a perfect bite again and again and again and then… I’m willing to save the rest for later.

It does take some time and practice to figure out how to use it, though. Getting the food properly vacuum-sealed makes a big difference and I struggled with the water displacement method before buying a vacuum sealer that I’ve also struggled with. There’s a definite learning curve! It’s also important to get the food fully immersed in water and that’s sometimes been hard to figure out, too. Sometimes the bags float and setting a cup of water on top of the bag does not always work. Serious Eats suggests using a binder clip and a spoon, which I need to try once I have a binder clip available.

And, as always, the ingredients that you start with matter. Sirloin tips needed another hour or two, I think; the eye of round roast I made needed several more hours. Tougher cuts of meat are slower to get tender. Fresh fish is always going to be better than fish that’s been sitting in the freezer for a few weeks. And the corn has been delicious but I really can’t wait to try fresh new corn, the first of the season, because I think it’s likely to be mind-blowing. Plus, figuring out the right proportions of herbs and salt and oil to cook with the food is definitely a process — flavors are stronger than with standard cooking, so it’s easy to go overboard.

All that said, if I had to choose between my Instant Pot and my Anova, it wouldn’t even be hard. I’d keep the Anova. And if I had to choose between my immersion blender and my Anova… yeah, I’d go with the Anova. Ha, and if I had to choose between my micro-grater or my garlic press or both and the Anova, again, no contest. The only kitchen items I would keep over my Anova are my knives, because it’s impossible to cook without good knives.

So, yes, Instant Pot, lovely and useful and I’m glad I own it for things like making quick soup and stew. But the Sous Vide cooker is for food that makes you think, “Wow, I can’t believe I cooked this.”

Acorn Squash Soup

acorn squash soup

Acorn Squash Soup

I have wandered around the country hand-selling Instant Pots to people by cooking for them, but I never remember to tell them to use my affiliate link, drat it. I’m so bad at trying to make money from my blog. I did make $12 in August somehow, though. I think it was from people clicking the link to 36 Questionsand then buying other things. I say that because the affiliate link fee for a .99 ebook is .04, and I didn’t sell anywhere near 300 copies of 36 Questions, from links or otherwise.

Let’s see… yeah, total copies sold, 92. So that’s not how I earned my $12. Hmm, I’m not sure I should have looked that up, because it makes me a little sad. Zero copies sold this month. I’m guess I’m not surprised, really. I wouldn’t buy it now, either — a bunch of reviews that say it’s too short doesn’t exactly constitute the kind of social proof that sells. But hey, $12 is $12, so I should not complain. And this is not a soup recipe, so let me get back to what I meant to write…

I’ve owned two Instant Pots. I’m using affiliate links so if you use them to buy, I’ll get 4% of the purchase price. Feel free to not use them, of course, but if you do decide to buy an Instant Pot from Amazon, please consider at least using AmazonSmile so that a tiny percentage of your purchase price — .5% — will go to a charity of your choice. And yes, a blog gets $4 out of a basic $100 purchase, a charity gets .50. Not exactly fair. Hmm, this blog post keeps getting off-track. Back to the point!

Anyway, the first one IP I owned was the 6Qt and I was perfectly happy with it, except that it was impossible to store in the van. It didn’t fit anywhere. In August, I traded it to my friend P for a Instant Pot Mini 3Qtwhich is less usable for some purposes, but fits in one of the overhead storage cupboards. If I lived in a real house and I cooked for other people, I would definitely want the bigger one, but the small one works fine for my purposes.

And yesterday’s purpose was squash soup! I debated buying pre-chopped squash at the store and if you’re not on a budget, you can save time by doing so. But it averaged out to be about twice as much, so I saved my $3 and bought a whole squash. I cut it in half, and pre-cooked it in the IP on high pressure for 12-15 minutes with a cup of water. (Because I have the small IP, I had to cook the two halves separately — I did the first one on 15 minutes and it was falling apart, so I did the second one on 12. I bet I could have gotten away with 10 for both of them — basically, this is just pre-cooking it enough to make it easy to scoop the meat out of the skin.)

I poured the water from the IP into a cup to save it for the soup, then turned the IP onto sauté, added a little olive oil and half a white onion, chopped. When the onion was lightly browned, I added about a tsp each of turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger, plus half a tsp of paprika, to the onions and swirled it around briskly. This is called blooming the spices and it goes terribly wrong if they burn, so you might need to add some more oil first or a little of the reserved water. I didn’t add oil, but did add some water when they looked dry. I gave them a minute, then scraped the squash out of its skin into the IP, added a chopped apple (not peeled), and the reserved water, plus a cup of chicken broth, then closed the pot. I think I set it to 12 minutes on high pressure.

I then had a lovely conversation with my son, so when the IP dinged, I ignored it and let it go to its Keep Warm function. One of the great things about the IP is that you really don’t have to pay attention to it. None of the water is escaping, so your food is not going to burn or dry out. You can let it stand for hours and when you finally look at it, it’ll be warm and still tasty. But eventually, I got off the phone and opened the IP. I would usually add coconut milk, but I bought some sour cream a while ago and have been trying to use it up, so instead I added about a cup of sour cream. I squeezed in some honey, probably equivalent to a couple of tablespoons, and then sprinkled the top with salt. And then I used the immersion blender until it was a level of creaminess that I liked. If it had been too thick, I would have added more sour cream or maybe some more chicken broth. If it had been too thin, I would have been sad and probably added some stuff to it, i.e. leftover rice or quinoa.

I then sprinkled some parsley on the top so it would look pretty when I took a picture, but honestly, the parsley was my least favorite part. It was too bitter to go well with the sweet creaminess of the soup. Cilantro might have worked and mint or rosemary might have been nice, but a little swirl of greek yogurt and a sprinkle of cinnamon would have been terrific. Short version, don’t do the parsley, it’s not a net good.

So, could I make this soup without the IP? Sure. I could roast the squash in the oven, cook the soup on the stove. It would take forever — the oven roasting would probably be an hour at least, and I’d have to wait for the squash to cool before I could scrape it into the soup pot. I’d have to pay careful attention to the soup while it was on the stove so that it stayed at a low simmer and never boiled. And the van would get crazily hot from the heat of the oven and the stove. It would be a project. With the IP, soup’s not a project — it’s the kind of thing you can cook after a long day of driving, when you’re feeling lazy and tired.

Brrr…

Zelda and I had the shortest morning walk we’ve had on this trip (except maybe for times when I’ve been sick), because it was seriously cold. The degrees didn’t look bad — 46, I think — but the wind had a chill to it that cut straight through my coat and my scarf. And it was a moving day, so I had to disconnect the water. The hose was stiff and unyielding, and the metal of the connector was so cold that it felt like it was burning my hand when I was unscrewing it. It was nowhere close to freezing, but felt like a definite warning/reminder that my van life is not compatible with a northern winter.

I’ve sort of been figuring that out anyway. It’s been a while since I whined about dirt here, but it’s still my least favorite part of van life. And the combination of cold weather, limited water, and abysmal campground showers means that I’ve spent a lot of time recently feeling Not Clean. I used to fantasize about baths, but now the combination of a hot shower and clean sheets has almost as much appeal. I’m again thinking seriously about joining Planet Fitness and planning my travels around their locations, at least once a week or so. Real showers, plenty of hot water, and (at least sometimes) the ability to overnight park in their lot is probably worth $22/month. Plus exercise! That would be nice, too.

Meanwhile, though, I’m in Nebraska, at Blue Valley Camping Area. It’s basically a parking lot with electric hookups. When I drove in, along a curving dirt road, I thought I might be the only person here, but actually there are three other campers in a fifteen or sixteen site lot. The campground is truly a parking lot — one site lined up next to the next, minimal space between them — but there appears to be a pretty nice park around it. I’ve been sitting in the van, watching the leaves fall from the trees, and considering exploring, but… well, brr… I know it’s cold out there and I’m finding the cold very un-motivating.

Plus, it was one of those long days, in the way that travel days can be. I didn’t make it very far, but I wanted to find a Target, because Target reliably has gluten-free shampoo and I a) left my shampoo behind somewhere, probably Albuquerque and b) had to buy non gluten-free shampoo the last time I bought shampoo, which is generally not the best option for me. So! Target. As best I could tell, the closet Target to my Kansas location was about two hours away, in Kearney, Nebraska. Nebraska hadn’t been on my travel plans, but why not, right?

Then I needed gas. Then the dogs needed to be walked. Then I needed some minimal groceries — fresh salad greens and fruit, basically. Then I needed to find a place to camp. And suddenly, the day is essentially over and I’ve really only traveled a couple hundred miles away from my starting place. It doesn’t feel like an impressive set of achievements.

On the other hand, I’ve got an acorn squash in the instant pot, which I’m planning to turn into soup before the end of the day. I ate scrambled eggs with sautéed mushrooms, green onions, sweet potato and avocado for breakfast. I’ve washed all the dishes, the van is mostly clean, I tweaked a few lines from a previous chapter of Grace this morning, I wrote morning words, and here I am, writing a blog post.

camper van under a tree

My campsite

And while I dread the moment the dogs need to go out again — it’s cold and dark out there! — my campsite is really quite pretty. It’ll be a nice place to try to write tomorrow.

PS Made the soup, ate the soup, shared the soup with the dogs. And somehow it pleased me greatly that Zelda chose to first lick up all the squash soup before eating the bites of chicken I’d dropped in her bowl. It’s always nice when the audience is appreciative! I liked it, too — for future reference for myself, I used turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and paprika, plus onion, acorn squash, and an apple; chicken broth and the water from pre-cooking the squash; finishing it off with sour cream, honey, and a sprinkle of salt.

Lamb stew

Lamb stew

I saw lamb, pre-chopped, in the grocery store on my way out of Albuquerque and thought, hmm, I wonder what I could do with that? Ans: stew. Ridiculously delicious stew that I want to remember how I made.

So:

Chop up an onion and sauté it in the Instant Pot. After a couple minutes, when the onion is pretty translucent, add a couple pinches of some dried herbs: rosemary, oregano, basil. Let them sauté with the onions. Slice up two cloves of garlic and toss them in. After a couple more minutes, when the onions are getting a little bit brown but not too brown, add the lamb. Let it cook for a couple minutes, then stir it around and let it cook for a couple minutes more. Mix about a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar with a cup of water and add it to the pot, scraping up any bits that are stuck to the bottom and changing the setting from sauté to Stew. Add two chopped up red potatoes* and a large handful of baby carrots. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Close up the pot, let it cook. When the timer goes off, let the pressure release naturally for about twenty minutes.

It was seriously perfect stew. I think it was the insta-pot, not anything in particular I did, but the carrots still tasted like carrot, just flavored and soft, and the potato still tasted like potato and the broth was amazing. I used less than a pound of lamb, but figured I’d have enough for two days, but no, I ate it for lunch and had seconds, and then did the same thing again for dinner, perfectly happy to eat the same food two meals in a row. And if I had more, I probably would have eaten more. So yum.

Yesterday was pretty close to a perfect day. I cooked, I wrote, I walked the dogs. The food was delicious, the words were mostly satisfying, and it rained, so the dogs and I got wet, but it was warm, so we weren’t cold. Serenity was a cozy little happy house. And I am very much liking Kansas.

*Potatoes are a nightshade and I don’t usually eat them, but the store didn’t have white sweet potatoes and orange sweet potatoes just weren’t what I had in mind. I bet they would have been fine, though.

Prairie Dog State Park, Norton, Kansas

I have not yet seen a prairie dog.

I did see some wild turkeys this morning, plus a cute bunny, and a great many birds. I guess turkeys count as birds, too, but yesterday I drove by an enormous flock of blackbirds, at least some of them red wing blackbirds, and that experience was very different from spotting some wandering turkeys. Very, very cool, however. I wish I could have taken pictures or, better yet, videos. Seeing hundreds of blackbirds all lift off the ground in unison, some of them flashing their red wing tips, then come back to land is pretty spectacular.

Yesterday was not my favorite day ever, though. I left Trinidad Lake and drove to Colorado Springs, where I did laundry, and then I just drove and drove and drove. Ever since the Grand Canyon, I’ve felt super wary about exercising too much at altitude. I had a lovely one mile hike at Trinidad Lake — seriously beautiful and it felt great to be outside and doing — but then my stomach started getting unsure of itself again. Grr… Since I’m headed east anyway, I decided that rather than spending a few more days at altitude, I would just find myself some lower ground. But I really did not enjoy my long driving day with an uneasy stomach.

Fortunately, I like Prairie Dog State Park quite a lot. It’s close to empty and beautifully peaceful. The day is gray and rainy, but reasonably warm, in the 60s, so I am making lamb stew in my instant pot, watching the lake, and considering cups of tea. It’s that kind of day, that kind of place. Cozy and peaceful. Pretty, with trees and plains and fields, but not in a dramatic way at all. Even the trees are very gently changing color — the leaves are yellowing, but not dramatically.

view from the van window with Zelda curled up underneath

Lake view on a gray day, with a dog quite happy to curl up and nap.

My big ambition for the day, now that I have written a blog post and made stew, is to get through my current chapter of Grace.

Favorite line of the day (so far): Grace set the pen down and gave him a Look. Her brothers and sister would have winced and apologized immediately, but her father didn’t even have the decency to look abashed.

Votes on keeping the capital L in Look? Editor-me hates it, but writer-me thinks it is essential as is.

Trinidad Lake State Park, Colorado

lake view

The view from Serenity’s window and the reason why this small site was the best site available. Unfortunately, it’s reserved as of tomorrow, so I can’t stay, even if I wanted to pay $31/night.

After I left Cochita Lake, instead of driving north, I went south, and spent a single night in Albuquerque. I can’t believe I didn’t take any pictures, because it was my first internet-friend driveway, and I mostly braved the uncertainty to see her baby. Her adorable, adorable baby. He’s two months old, just thinking about smiling and only occasionally finding his thumb to chew on. His hands were still clenched into fists a lot of the time. So cute!

When I emailed her about coming to stay in her driveway, I wrote a whole paragraph about food and then edited it down to something like, “May I cook you dinner?” She said yes, so we ate spicy chicken breast, corn-on-the-cob, and salad of mixed greens, avocado, pea pods, goat cheese, beets, and toasted hazelnuts, with a balsamic vinaigrette made from my “trying to save the frozen herbs” chimichurri sauce.

Two thoughts on that: one, I’m never going to want to cook corn-on-the-cob any other way than sous vide. It’s delicious, even when the corn is questionable. Two, chopping up herbs and covering them with olive oil is an excellent way to keep fresh herbs useful long past the time when you would have thrown the leftovers away. I used my (modified) chimichurri sauce for basically everything for ten days — salad dressing, flavoring quinoa, topping on fish & steak, marinade… The herbs wouldn’t have lasted that long, even if they hadn’t been accidentally frozen, but they still tasted like fresh herbs down to the very last bit used on yesterday’s salmon. And it was so efficient to just whisk a teaspoon of them into some olive oil and vinegar, or add a tablespoon to some meat. I would obviously not call myself a lazy cook — I’m willing to do some work in the kitchen. But the simplicity of an multi-herbed vinaigrette in a minute definitely appeals.

When I left Albuquerque, I headed north. I was torn about whether or not I wanted to make my drive scenic and whether I wanted to spend more time in New Mexico. I loved New Mexico, it was beautiful, the sky is stunning… but I also really just want to find a place to sit and write for a while. Moving all the time takes a lot of energy and my head is in Grace, not in the real world right now. Which is nice, except that I keep being pulled back to the real world by things like needing to find a place to spend the night, needing to find electricity to run my computer, needing to do laundry, needing to buy dog food.

Not to mention how much real reality is just horrifying. I’m trying to avoid the news, because I cannot do anything about all the pain that is out there in the universe right now, but I did donate $50 to Worldbuilders for Puerto Rico yesterday when I was making sure that the dogs were getting clean water and feeling so sad for the parents in Puerto Rico struggling to do the same thing for their kids. I trust Patrick Rothfuss (the founder of Worldbuilders) to have put thought into the appropriate charity and so it felt like a right thing to do, even though it also feels like nothing. In the grand scheme of things, does my $50 do any more than make me feel better? But if everyone who could donate $50 did, things might be a lot better, so it felt worth doing.

At any rate, I did not take the most scenic route north, but stuck to a fairly direct route, which was still pretty scenic. I was surprised to get to this park and find it reasonably crowded, though. And reasonably expensive, too, at $31/night. Why are people camping in Colorado in October? But I found a spot, one small enough that I actually had a terrible time backing in. I was laughing at myself after my third or fourth try when fortunately my nice neighbors came over and helped me out. In my defense, B was whimpering because he wanted to go out and I was backing straight into the sun so the rear view camera was useless, and also the site is pretty small… but mostly it was just klutzy. Somehow once I screw it up once, though (in this case, by getting too close to a tree and scraping the branches), it gets harder and harder to get it right. Hmm, that feels like a metaphor for Grace, but I’m not going to let it be.

I wasn’t sure I’d stay longer than one night — it’s the kind of campground where I am literally listening to my neighbors’ conversations at the moment and this blog post has taken me about two hours to write, rather than the kind where I settle in and get lots of work done. But I really didn’t feel like driving this morning, so I’ll be here for another night. And then tomorrow… I don’t know. More time in Colorado? Moving on to Kansas? I am seriously tempted to go for a fast drive across the country and get back to PA, so I can sit still and write for a while. On the other hand, the month that I spent in PA this summer where I was determined to finish Grace actually ended with me starting over yet again, so I don’t think PA gets credit for being a good writing destination.

But it’s noon already and I have yet to even make the bed, so I think I’ll at least stop writing this and see if I can accomplish anything today. At the very least, I need to take my electricity opportunity to try to bake some more granola.

Best of September 2017

September only has 30 days. I bet you knew that already. Yep, I forgot or I would have written this post yesterday. Oops.

So September for me included one Oregon rest stop, one stay in a friend’s driveway, five California parks (including Fossil Falls, my first Bureau of Land Management park), a drive through Nevada, a Utah state park, the Grand Canyon, an Arizona state park, and two New Mexico parks. Twelve different places, six different states.

You’d think picking the best of the month would be difficult. It’s not.

Oh, if I had to pick the best night sky it might be a challenge. I think I’d pick the one I saw two mornings ago, but that’s partially because of the soundtrack. Z wanted to go out at about 5, so I bundled up, put her on her leash, and took her out for a walk. It was still totally dark and the sky, for once, almost clear, so I could see thousands of stars against a pure black. But then, in the distance, I heard a crowd. Like at a football game or something, booing the ref. I listened, listened harder, and eventually my sleepy brain translated the noise: not an audience yelling, but coyotes, howling. Lots of them. Talk about a surreal sound. It was very nice to snuggle back down in my bed in the cozy van after that, but it was an experience I’d like to remember.

And if I had to pick the best meal, I’d have a really hard time. I should write a post about cooking, because I’ve been having thoughts about it, specifically about what it means to be a good cook. The short version is that I think my cooking skill has leveled up again and it has nothing to do with my ability, just with the tools I’m using. I bought the Anova Sous Vide Precision Cooker this summer and it is amazing. Not right for everything — I tried eye of round in it twice, and I preferred my former recipe. And the pork chop I tried was good, but not as good as my grilled pork chops usually are. But for steak, chicken breast, root vegetables, and OMG, corn-on-the-cob, it’s amazing. The corn was absolutely the best corn I have ever tasted — I can’t imagine how good it would be with early-in-the-season white corn. Well, yes, I can, and my mouth is watering at the thought. But yeah, best meal would be difficult to choose, because I have eaten and cooked some delicious food this month.

Still, best place, best moment — well, the hard part would be to pick which day, which beach. But the very easy winner is Arcata, spending time with friends and our pack of dogs.

four dogs, all sleeping

The post-beach pack. Top right, almost hidden in the dog bed, Riley. Top left, Bartleby. Center, Buddy. And on the couch, completely unwilling to accept that dogs stay on the floor in this house, Zelda.

Cochita Campground, New Mexico

When I got to this campground, the ranger station was closed but a sign on the door said to find an empty campsite and return to the station at 4PM to check in. I drove around, picked out the best site, and returned at 4. I had to wait behind another pair of campers who hadn’t found a site, but finally the ranger turned to me.

Somewhat apologetically, because the people in front of me were still waiting to get a site, I said, “I took 25, if that’s okay.”

The ranger frowned. “Twenty-five is the worst site in the entire campground.”

“Oh? Why is that?” I asked, wondering what I’d missed. There’d been probably a dozen sites available, but 25 had been easily my favorite.

“It’s short. It’s narrow. It’s steep.” The ranger was looking at me like maybe I’d told her the wrong number.

“Ah, yes,” I said. “It is all of those things. I imagine people don’t like the steps down to the picnic table much, either. None of that matters to me. Twenty-five’s good, thanks.”

The people ahead of me, still waiting, said, “What does it have?”

“A view,” I replied.

Site 25 at Cochita Campground

a sunrise view

The view from site 25. (Standing in the doorway of Serenity, specifically.)

And what a view it is. New Mexico has fantastic clouds.

New Mexico also smells really good. I noticed it first at Bluewater Lake, but it’s even stronger here. I think it’s juniper, but it smells like Christmas and winter and wilderness, all at once.

I’m staying here for another couple of days, mostly because the writing has been going well, if somewhat annoyingly. I keep thinking I can get back on track with a previous revision and re-use some of the 450 pages that I’ve already written and then discovering that no, it doesn’t quite work. I am not quite rewriting this version from scratch, but it’s getting close. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the kayak scene, which I love, is going to be completely different by the time I finish, but I’m still determined to keep the bear scene. I might get to it today — well, no, probably not, but I could get to it tomorrow or Monday — so someday soon, I’m either going to be really frustrated and throwing things at my walls or bubbling with satisfaction. Fingers crossed for the latter.