Wednesday, May 03, 2023

The trail to the tree

When I was a kid, growing up in California and Utah, I quickly learned to hate going on hikes.

And today I took a hike -- and loved it.

Frankly, if you'd told 2015 me that I would eventually choose to hike, of my own volition, without a gun to my back, I would have laughed and told you to up your dosage. But I'm starting to come around for a number of reasons.

Last week I had the pleasure of dogsitting a very good and well-behaved boy named Eddie. When family is away, sticking to a pet's everyday schedule helps foster a feeling of calm and reassurance, so I made sure to take Eddie on his usual twice-daily walks. While there were a few times when it felt like he was dragging me up and down hills at the end of a leash, most of the time I didn't have trouble keeping up with him. And when I took him to off-leash parks, I didn't even have to do that -- he could snuff around in the underbrush looking for squirrels to harass, and I could walk along the trail nearby, keeping an eye on him without having to run to catch up. It didn't feel difficult because I had plenty of chances to stop and rest, and it was genuinely pleasant walking in the woods and along the beaches of Puget Sound. So at the end of the first day, I was shocked to discover that I'd hit my 10,000 daily step goal for the first time since the thoroughly exhausting day we packed up and moved out of our Redmond house. Because of those daily walks, I continued to meet or exceed that goal pretty much effortlessly every day I took care of Eddie. I wasn't even waking up sore the next morning.

Once I returned home, I did a little thinking and realized I didn't have to take Eddie with me to achieve that step goal (or at least get close to it), as long as I was willing to find a local park, beach, or trail and do the walking on my own.

So why is this a big deal?

Well, today I realized that I still do hate hikes, but -- and this is the big breakthrough -- only specific KINDS of hikes. I hated the double-digit-miles, strenuous group hikes that were part of my childhood in both the Camp Fire Girls and the church-sponsored camping trips for young women. Such hikes were usually conducted during the hottest part of the day, so we'd have to carry metal canteens with us, which were heavy, unwieldy, clanked against our hip bones and often leaked all over our clothes. The fastest hikers in the group were usually allowed to set the pace, which meant that the slowest of us (it meeee) never got a breather. The folks in front were told to stop every now and then to rest and let the slower hikers catch up, but as soon as the last person caught up with the group, everyone would immediately start off again. (And the unspoken idea among the adult leaders, I think, was that the slower hikers could stand to lose some weight anyway, so why should they get a break?) The parts of California and Utah where I grew up were arid, with little shade along the average hike, meaning that it was a deeply uncomfortable experience for anyone who was slow, fat, and sweated heavily. These hikes sucked all the fun out of the experience for me, and the minute I could avoid them, I stopped going.

This was a shame, because there were many things about nature hikes that I loved. I loved coming across small creatures in their own habitats. I loved seeing all the different plants growing and the spicy smell of the red earth and the graceful shape and movement of the trees. And, frankly, I often made no effort to catch up with the group because I liked taking things at my own pace and enjoyed feeling like I was alone in nature.

Today it occurred to me that if I hiked by myself, I wouldn't have to worry about keeping up with the group because there wouldn't be one.

I wouldn't have to worry about getting sweaty and muggy because this is the Pacific Northwest and even in the heat of the day, there's plentiful shade from large trees on most hiking trails. I wouldn't even have to carry water with me on the short trails; I could tackle them without getting dehydrated. And although I'm still obese, I weigh about 100 pounds less than I did a decade ago, so moving my body isn't as difficult or painful as it was back then.

Further, because every trail and park and beach and green space on this peninsula is new to me, it feels like an adventure to be exploring each one for the first time.

It feels like I could be going anywhere. And that's the thing I enjoyed most about hiking when I was a child: that sense of adventure, of stepping into unknown territory, what I would later call liminal space, where anything could happen.

I had the trail all to myself today. Literally, I didn't see another human being on the entire hike.

In fact, the trail was infrequently traversed enough that I kept having to hold my hand up in front of me so I didn't accidentally walk face-first into a spiderweb crisscrossing the space.

At one point a little garter snake crossed my path. He slipped away as quickly as he could, so I didn't take his picture, but he was a beautiful deep brown with lengthwise yellow bands.

Seeing a lot of these plants put me in mind of Stephan Seable. When I was growing up in California, he taught us kids about which local plants were safe and good to eat. I recognized a few of these, things like fiddleheads and so forth, but for the most part everything was new to me.

Oh hey, wild bleeding hearts!

As I continued down the trail I began to hear the sound of running water, which always makes my heart happy.

But the original trail bridge over the creek (as seen here) was permanently closed.

So instead I took this one! Built like (and possibly by) a truck!

I made like a Billy Goat Gruff and trip-trapped over this thing in no time.

Made it to the big tree after which the trail is named (in this case, it's a Douglas fir), and it is indeed big.

While I have seen larger trees in Big Trees State Park and in Sequoia National Park in California, the difference is that this tree is notably larger than all the other trees around it.

It is singular.

Sat for a while on the flip-top bench near the big tree and just listened to the creek running by. There were a few birds piping in the trees, the sound of what was probably a diurnal owl, squirrels chittering at each other, and probably if I waited there long enough another snake (or the same snake) would show up.

A single white butterfly floated around the ferns and bracken. It occurred to me that it's been a long time since I've seen a butterfly in the wild. 50-odd years ago when I was little, you could find monarch caterpillars and butterflies everywhere there was open space and milkweed growing. But now a lot of those open spaces have been plowed over and turned into houses and condominiums, and no one grows milkweed. So a lot of the places where the monarchs used to grow up are gone. These days if you choose to plant milkweed in your yard there's a good chance you will become part of the monarchs' migration path every year, because there is so little wild space left for them to exist in.

This forest was exactly the kind I would have adored when I was a child. Frankly, I still do. It felt like the kind of spot a fairy tale would take place in.

You could easily imagine a slightly anthropomorphic wolf stepping from behind a tree to convince a little girl to pick trilliums by the side of the path.

Or a hollow tree where six princes in exile are living, until such time as it is safe for them to return to their kingdom.

Or maybe some kind of forest wizard.

Perhaps a nixy might rise up out of the water and offer a challenge or request a favor.

Or, you know, you could even find Piglet's house.

That's what liminal spaces are -- places where the unlikely or the unusual are much more willing to happen. A liminal space is a place that humans have not yet pegged down, squared off, and gentrified in some way.

Or it's a place that refuses to be tamed. It's where the human notions of cause and effect, of what they expect to happen, do not apply.

I realize that going on a hike by oneself is potentially dangerous. (At the time I write this, actor Julian Sands is missing and presumed dead after having gone on a hike alone in midwinter.) But the advantage to hiking solo in a relatively safe place is that you can walk at the best pace for you.

If you're heading up along a steep switchback and you feel tired, you can stop and rest until you're ready to continue, and no one will be tapping a foot or looking meaningfully at a watch.

If you want to take a closer look at a tree, a flower, a bush, a spiderweb, a squirrel, a snake, or even a cougar from a safe distance, you can stop and take all the time you need. (It's probably worth noting that even though this is cougar territory, I'm not particularly afraid of meeting one out here. Cougars are not highly aggressive toward humans; they tend to be far more scared of us than we are of them.)

At the top of the trailhead there were several human-made artworks, most attempting to bring some whimsy or magical quality to the area.

But honestly, they didn't hold a candle to the real thing.

I'll be looking for more trails around here very soon.

Friday, March 10, 2023

The push

Today I'd like to tell you a story about war, and about the things we do to save other people. I know most of us are sick to death of hearing about war right now, but today -- March 10 -- is an important holiday in our family, in part because of a different war that happened a long time ago.

You see, 56 years ago today, four very young men got into two very fast planes to complete a dangerous wartime mission: a bombing run of an enemy steel mill in North Vietnam. But someone tipped off the North Vietnamese that they were coming, and as a result both their planes were heavily shot up with anti-aircraft fire. Both were leaking a lot of fuel. One of the pilots, Earl Aman, soon realized that he wouldn't have enough fuel to get back to base, and that he and his weapons system officer (aka the GIB, or "guy in back") would have to eject over enemy territory.

This state of affairs didn't sit well with the pilot of the other plane, a guy named Bob Pardo. Bob's plane was leaking fuel too, but not as much as Earl's. And Bob refused to leave anyone behind. He thought fast and came up with a crazy idea.

"Don't eject just yet," he told Earl. "I'm going to try to push you."

The F-4 Phantoms they were flying were originally Navy jets, so they had tailhooks to help them land on aircraft carriers. And after trying unsuccessfully to push Earl's Phantom using the drag chute in back, Bob had Earl lower the plane's tailhook. He flew up carefully behind the plane and just kissed his windscreen against the heavy tailhook, and somehow, even with turbulence and slipping and a windscreen that kept cracking every time they came in contact, managed to push the other plane far enough that they made it to Laotian airspace -- closer to safety. With barely two minutes of flying time left, all four men ejected from their planes.

One of those men had his back damaged by the ejection seat, and his parachute got caught in the trees as he came down, so he was in a lot of pain. But there was no time to rest, because once he got free and was on the ground, he heard the shouts of some local villagers looking for him. They shot at him a few times, which suggested to him that they weren't friendly, so he started running (as well as he could with a damaged back). He ran for a long time, but eventually his strength gave out. He leaned up against a tree, gasping for breath, and wondered how bad it would be if they caught him and put him in a POW camp.

And then a thought came vividly to his mind. He thought of his new son, who had just been born three months earlier. He thought, If I'm killed or captured, I'll never get to see my little boy. He'll have to grow up without a father. And so, leaning against a tree in the middle of the Laotian wilderness, he prayed. He prayed for help and strength and the ability to evade the unfriendly people who were looking for him. He prayed to be able to see his son. And somehow, he found the strength to keep running. Not long after that, he and the other pilots were picked up by rescue helicopters and brought safely back to base.

Now, why do I tell you this story? Two reasons. First, our family celebrates what we call "Pardo's Pushday" because if Bob Pardo hadn't decided to give that other plane a push, there's a good likelihood we wouldn't be a family. See, Earl Aman's "guy in back," the man who leaned against a tree and prayed for strength, who had never seen his new son, was my father-in-law. The little boy whom he'd never seen was my husband, the intrepid Captain Midnight. And if Dad hadn't been rescued, he certainly would have been either imprisoned or killed. My husband would have grown up without a father. He would never have had a younger brother. Had the circumstances of our lives changed only a little, CM and I might never have met and married.

Here's the other, more important reason. Most of us aren't going to use our incredible flying skills to push a damaged plane out of enemy airspace. But the things we do -- the little pushes of encouragement we give people -- ripple outward in space and time and touch others in ways we couldn't possibly imagine. Because Bob Pardo saved those three men, they and their families would go on to influence so many other lives in so many countries. Likewise, because one of us puts a jar of peanut butter or a few cans of tuna into a Little Free Pantry, someone else might be able to make ends meet until payday comes and won't be kicked out for non-payment of rent. Because one of us donates money to a charitable organization dedicated to helping refugees, a family fleeing Ukraine or Somalia will have a hot meal and a place to sleep tonight. Most of us will never really understand the full impact of the small things we do to help push people to safety -- but it's important to do those things, to send love and help out into the dark, with the faith that they will make a difference for good in the world.

So, happy Pardo's Pushday. It’s traditional to have a donut (whatever flavor you like best) and toast Bob Pardo with it.

(Thanks for the push, Bob.)

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Notes from the Oak Table Cafe

HERE'S a place in Silverdale at the top of a hill, overlooking the valley and Dyes Inlet, called the Oak Table Cafe. It serves only breakfast and lunch, and it usually has a long wait time because the food is fantastic. Anyway, since my brother was in town and since we were all hungry, we went to Oak Table for some delicious brunch (if you're interested, I had the eggs Casey; Captain Midnight and Tim-my-brother opted for corned beef hash).

It had been a very long time since I entered the dining area of a restaurant; I've been very careful during the pandemic to stay masked in public and not to linger too close to strangers for very long. Looking around the room, I noticed literally no one in the very busy dining area was wearing masks or social distancing, which gave me the willies.

When CM and I first moved to Seattle, I learned some history about the city. In 1889, there was a huge fire that destroyed practically all of the central business district. After the ashes and rubble were cleared away, the city fathers urged business leaders to build back higher than the shoreline so there would be less trouble with flooding and sewage issues (the tides had a tendency to back up all the city's toilets), but as soon as they could, people began rebuilding right back on the flat again. Nothing would convince them to work in the best interest of all Seattleites; they wanted to get back to making money immediately.

At the time I couldn't understand why so many people would act in such a short-sighted fashion. But now I get it. All these places across the United States are reopening without Corsi-Rosenthal boxes or any other kind of viral mitigation measures, as the Covid pandemic continues and as we prepare for a potential H5N1 pandemic. No one will take even basic measures to guard against more people falling ill. Because it's been a few very lean years and damn it, they want their money.

It makes me wonder whether cities that want serious viral mitigation should do what the city of Seattle did to fix their problem. Since they couldn't force shop owners to rebuild higher than their original storefronts, they chose to rebuild the infrastructure--namely, the streets--twelve feet above the front doors of the new shops, requiring pedestrians to use ladders to cross the streets. This situation was so awkward that it soon became evident to shop owners that they had better do what the city government had asked for in the first place. Maybe, if you couldn't reopen your business without several Corsi-Rosenthal boxes in place and running, you would do what you needed to do to get back to serving customers. Because clearly, most people aren't going to do what's right unless it's making them money, they're being legally dragged to it, or they're shamed into doing it.

Friday, February 03, 2023

Blam This Piece of Crap Day: Let's blam some Spam! (Plus bonus blamming)

Well, it's the day you've all been waiting for!

I'll admit, I didn't think up a good idea to celebrate BTPoC Day until it was upon us. But then I realized I had not one, but two different examples of BLAMming ready to go.

Let's cover the tastiest one first: Spam fried rice. This recipe was slightly modified from one made by Seonkyoung Longest and it is YUM.

A random can of "luncheon meat"
Yeah, yeah, Spam is a registered trademark, yadda yadda, bite me, Hormel. Anyway, this can be made with any kind of "canned luncheon meat" you have on hand, as long as the flavor isn't too exotic. I recommend using lower-sodium generic spam if you can find it, because the sauce we're gonna make for this has a fair amount of sodium already.

I have long held a pink-meat prejudice that dates from my teenhood, when my working mom would occasionally make jazzed-up ramen for dinner. If I came in late for dinner, which I occasionally did, I'd get ramen noodles so soft they were falling apart, garnished with shriveled peas and cold chunks of spam. Bluergh. So for a long time I wouldn't eat spam. This recipe brought me around to liking it again. Maybe you'll feel the same way.

Anyhoo, get that spam out of the can and cut it into 1/4" thick slices, then into dice.

Bowl of spam with Charlie and Millie

And if you have cats, better put them somewhere else. Charlie and Millie became very interested in our kitchen-related doings the minute they heard that can open. But spam of any kind has too much fat and salt and mystery amendments to be good for them. (Sorry, kittens)

Four eggs, cracked into a bowl

Four eggs. There go our next four mortgage payments. Scramble 'em up.

One medium yellow/brown/white onion, chopped

A medium-sized white/yellow/brown onion, chopped or diced. This is optional, but Captain Midnight likes it.

A few cloves garlic, chopped fine
A few cloves of garlic, finely chopped, minced or pressed. You can add as much or as little as you like, but at least three good-sized cloves, I think. 

Mmm, rice

A whole lotta rice ("6 cups," says Captain Midnight). It doesn't have to be fresh from the rice cooker, like this. In fact, fried rice benefits from using rice that's a day old and starting to dry out. (Yes, another piece of crap to BLAM!)

Green onions, chopped
Also a whole lotta green onions. Use these even if you don't use the white onion; they taste different and a little bit set aside makes a very pretty garnish for the finished bowl.

Teriyaki sauce

Homemade teriyaki sauce. Refer to the Seonkyoung Longest recipe for full details because I'm lazy.

Oh, okaaaaay. Briefly: 2 parts soy sauce, 2 parts sake, 2 parts mirin, 1 part sugar. For this batch of fried rice, we did "tablespoons" for parts. You can scale it up or down depending on your tastes and how large a batch you're making.

An old and well-seasoned wok

And, of course, a wok. No, it doesn't have to be 35 years old like this one. You don't even need a wok, but you do need a pan that can handle high heat and a lot of fast sauteing, and has enough volume to hold a lot of rice.

Not shown, but used: vegetable oil, a little sesame oil, some cut-up slivers of nori if you like it, and some sesame seeds. And maybe some sriracha.

Now, what happened next went fast enough that I didn't take pictures, but:

Captain Midnight prepped all the ingredients beforehand. He got the wok screaming hot (yay gas stove!) and put in a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil. When it was hot, he threw in the egg. It immediately puffed around the edges. He tossed the egg around until it was about three-quarters cooked, then fished it all out into a bowl. Then he added a tiny bit of oil and the chunks of spam. These he cooked, gently moving them constantly, until they started to get crispy (the first rule of improving spam: improve the texture). Once they were nice and crisped up, he fished them out so he could cook the yellow onion. (If you're not using this, don't take out the spam; just move right on to the garlic.)

Onion in. He cooked it just until it softened and started to brown. Then in went the garlic, and he tossed it around just until it started to smell good. Back in with the spam; added the rice. He stirred it about until things were well incorporated, then drizzled the teriyaki sauce around the edges of the wok. That was thoroughly mixed in. As the rice absorbed the sauce and started to get dry again, he threw the egg back in and chopped it up a bit (you want fairly large chunks of egg in this -- I mean, if you're going to pay for eggs, you might as well be able to taste them!). Off the heat, he added just a touch of sesame oil for flavor, three-quarters of the green onions, some sesame seeds, gave it all a good toss and it was ready.

This was promptly plated up and sprinkled with additional green onions.

Spam fried rice, no nori

I prefer my fried rice without nori on top.

Rice with lots of nori

Captain Midnight prefers his with LOTS of nori on top. And some sriracha for good measure.

Millie wants some fried rice

Remember what I said about the cats? Yup.

No, Millie, you cannot have some.

Charlie the feline blur eats nori strips. Nom.

Both the cats did get some strips of nori, aka Tasty Green Fish Paper. And great was the omming and nomming thereof. So a good time was had by all.

And now for the Bonus Blam: a thrift store special!

About two weeks ago I ventured into the local Goodwill looking for sundries. What I found was a very large ball of red yarn with three sets of knitting needles shanked into the middle of it. Whoever had owned it before had started knitting a scarf with it, but had gotten bored with the project and ended up donating it to Goodwill.

Well, I ripped it back to the beginning, and after two or three tries with different patterns, I finally settled on this one.

A red scarf from thrift store yarn
This is variously called a basketweave or checkerboard pattern, it's fully reversible and it works up fast enough that even though I'm a slow knitter, it's nearly done. I will either give it to the Red Scarf Project or pass it on to someone else in the community who needs or wants it.

So that was our Blam This Piece of Crap Day. How was yours?