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Mayonnaise in the Backcountry

I learned from an early age that the verb “camping” is all relative. And when I say relative, well, two things come to mind — first there’s the well-explored idea that one person’s camping-ideal might be housed in an aluminum-framed backpack and another’s in a minivan. Second, I think of my punny Uncle  — relatives, right — and not just for the pun, but because he and my Aunt were the first to teach me what it really means to live and breathe nature.

ahhhh mountains

For the last 20 years my Aunt and Uncle have worked as Rangers in Western Montana’s Glacier National Park. As you can imagine in their line of work they’ve collected a story or two.

My favorite is the New York businessman they met in the Glacier backcountry who’d squirreled away a jar of mayonnaise for his week-long backpacking trip. We’re talking at least 2lbs of gelatinous, easily spoilable glop. That’s heavier than most sleeping bags. Some people really like their condiments I guess.The guy refused my Aunt’s offer to leave the mayo at the Ranger Station, saying that he’d brought it this far, he might as well stick it out. They shrugged, chuckled, and the guy and his buddies continued on their way.

I have friends who proudly proclaim that they have never,
and will never, go anywhere that doesn’t have wifi and a toilet.

Through my Aunt and Uncle, I’ve learned that absolutely no use comes from being judgmental about other people’s camping quirks. As long as they’re being relatively safe and respecting the wilderness, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing: enjoying the outdoors. 

Also it seems that the most judgmental of us tend to be the ones who get laughed at the hardest, say, when trying to tie up a bear bag for the first time. I swore I could throw that rope higher, or at least avoid it hitting me in the face on the way back down. Guess not. And I got a nice little welt to show for it.

I wonder if Mayonnaise Guy knew what he was getting into when he and his friends set off for Glacier. When I think of the National Parks of the Western US I think of solitude and natural splendor, but as we’ve established there are all sorts of ways to camp. I have friends who proudly proclaim that they have never, and will never, go anywhere that doesn’t have wifi and a toilet.

boots

Maybe Mayonnaise Guy was like them, expecting a little chateau or a  wilderness escape where he and his friends could drink whiskey and listen to live music all night long. Or maybe he wanted a wild experience, didn’t know where to begin, and was more of a learn-by-your mistakes kind of guy.

His trek begs the question: why do so many of us feel this need to get outside? Why do we go through the effort of tromping over mountains, constructing cabins in the middle of nowhere, and delicately balancing our love of the outdoors with keeping pesky critters out of our beds. There’s no short answer — other than because it’s who we are. It’s worth it. And we’ll keep doing it in our own quirky way as long as there’s a Wilderness to enjoy.

 

 

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No Car, No Problem

Getting Around in the Sharing Economy

Originally published at Life.ca

In Boise, Idaho it all began with a fleet of yellow bikes in the 1990s. A mystery organization with big dreams refurbished a handful of used bicycles, painted them yellow, and left them scattered around downtown for anyone to use. It was the closest we ever got to two-wheeled socialism. Sadly, within a year the bikes were no more: stolen, stripped, or vandalized. People went back to driving their cars downtown.

pexels-photo-63890-large

That was the ‘90s though. The dot-com bubble still hadn’t burst. GMOs were the cool new thing. Aerosol hairspray was popular. People obviously didn’t understand just how amazing a bike-share project could be.They didn’t need to understand.

Today is different. The economy is different. We understand the need for environmental awareness, action, and lifestyle choices. Everyday we experience the value of supporting local business, buying local food, and participating in community-building events. We’ve found that by taking the time to invest in our communities, we walk away from what would otherwise be ‘a transaction’ with something much richer: a personal experience.  

Enter the sharing economy. The sharing economy is the trend started by online companies like Uber, Airbnb, Craigslist, and eBay. It’s the idea that there needn’t be a prominent middleman in every transaction. Skip the corporation and go straight for human-to-human interaction.

One of my favorite aspects of the sharing economy is that alternative transportation is back with a vengeance. For whatever reason, people are getting more and more comfortable with the idea of leaving their cars at home, or just not buying cars in the first place.

I’m proud to say that Boise has a new bike-share project that’s been running smoothly for over two years. The bikes are blue and green now, not yellow, and are housed in pay-to-ride bike rack stations throughout the city. This time, as extra incentive to abide by the rules of sharing, a charge of $1,200 will appear on your credit card if the bicycle is not returned.

The shift to a sharing economy affects more than just cyclists. It’s become commonplace to see a variety of car share programs in regular use in urban areas. For instance, I have friends in a housing co-op in Boston where 8-10 people chip in and share one car. They split insurance, payments, and gas. It takes their carbon footprint from really quite sizeable to a reasonable amount for their household.

Zipcars – cars rented by the hour – can also be found in most neighborhoods in big cities where car ownership is only practical when you have to make a big grocery run. They’re a convenient way to justify not owning a vehicle, because if you ever need one it’s just a few blocks away.

Last but not least, most cities in the US and Canada are familiar with Uber. It started its life as a ride-share company, but it’s quite clearly developed into a taxi service. Since Uber is essentially a taxi company staffed by everyday drivers – which carries along with it a whole slew of legal complications – even small town lawyers have had to become well-versed in the uberfication of the world. Just another way the sharing economy changes our local communities. One of the real benefits of car sharing programs like these is that they make use of the cars already out there instead of manufacturing more. Fewer cars on the road and fewer newly manufactured vehicles cuts emissions and industrial pollution.

lil car

The next logical step from car sharing is ride-sharing. Ride-sharing, aka carpooling, hasn’t really caught on in North America, but Europe is seeing a huge rise in the practice. According to Fortune Magazine, a simple app does all the work by “connecting drivers headed from, say, Munich to Berlin, with riders who chip in for gas.” It’s an elegant solution to the financial and environmental issues posed by long-distance road trips.

Why haven’t North Americans embraced the trend?

Perhaps it’s the geographical distance, safety concerns, or a combination of the two. Either way, sharing a ride from Vancouver to Miami would be a whole lot better for the planet than jumping into a jet. We don’t have to rely on an app to make the change here in North America; next time you’re planning a road trip, put out your feelers in the community and see if there’s anyone else heading your same direction.

How has all of this sharing changed us, fundamentally? I like to think it has awoken our collective sense of adventure. Somewhere along the line, in the decades following WWII, North American culture developed this over-reliance on security. We insulated ourselves from all risk. It’s a natural step politically, sure, but the cultural implications have played out in such an unusual way. In many ways, we have become a culture of shut-ins, terrified of encountering one another on the street, and reliant on technology to cope with everyday social stresses. Instead of initiating small-talk at a market and asking someone to coffee, we let an online dating app tell us who’s a safe bet. It’s funny then that technology is proving to be the mechanism that extricates us from the bubble of our computers, homes, and cars. The best applications for technology serve to connect people.

The environmental benefits of the sharing economy are vast. Fewer drivers on the road, less pollution, less waste … the list goes on. But the nature of the beast makes it difficult to quantify just how good it is for the planet. Finding statistics that aren’t swayed in one direction or the other is no easy task, and even when those statistics exist, there’s always another set to dispute it. One thing is for sure though: reducing waste and pollution in your local environment benefits the planet as a whole. Doing what we can to 1) reduce our own carbon emissions and 2) influencing big business to do the same are the first steps to keeping the planet healthy. Who knows, the way things are going, you might even make a new ally or two doing it.  

7.1 Million Acres Burned

My betta fish is dying. He floats at the water line, a slight curl to his middle. My boyfriend says it can’t be all that bad, Look, see, the plant growing in his bowl is still thriving. He’s generous. I watch the fish’s gills flare and release. It’s not good, I respond. Those poor little lungs.

potatoknobfire-crop
Potato Knob Fire. Photo via forestry.ky.gov

We’ve been hearing a mantra around town all season: The West is burning, the West is burning. The phrase is lodged into my head, its rhythm behind every breath. For weeks now the foothills around our Idaho valley have been muddled with smoke from fires with names like Bobcat, Soda, and Big Lost. My lungs ache when I laugh too hard, bicycle too hard, sigh too hard.

The forests are burning and we are learning how to suffocate. 

Canadian Wildfire. Photo via chicagotribune.com
Canadian Wildfire. Photo via chicagotribune.com

I brush my hand against the fishbowl’s cold glass, rub a waxy leaf between my fingers, and wonder about this betta and me. I realize that over the years I’ve blinded him, unwittingly, by shining a bulb at his bowl day and night. The light in his eyes reflects back to me like red spectrolite, a Finnish rock lauded to relieve hopelessness.

There’s nothing to be done about the blindness now. If I were feeling optimistic, I’d say I’ll do better with the next one. But something in this heavy air tells me there will be no second chances in the embers of this demise.

Under the Causeway

We built an igloo under the causeway. There was only enough room for my daughter, me, and the snowman we shaped out of slush. She’d write him notes on scraps of cardboard. Dear Slushman: Get a job. Dear Slushman: Take a freaking shower. Dear Slushman: You suck. Her wool hat smelled like exhaust; her gloves, puberty. She’d look at me with eyes like her mother’s, steel cold, and sap me of every assurance I’d ever known.

The commuters above took photos of our igloo as they spattered past. Charming, they thought. Our cook fire glowed through the packed snow. Yankee Candle idiots.

 

Note: this piece of flash fiction won 2nd Place in the 13th annual Boise Weekly Fiction 101 Contest. It also appears at boiseweekly.com 

Your Palate, in Technicolor

Beige makes me uncomfortable. White too. When I find myself in someone’s pristine beigey-white kitchen, I can’t unfold my arms for fear of … I don’t even know what. It’s irrational. But it’s a real thing.

I’ve always had this fantasy that people with spotless white kitchens must only cook with white foods. Cauliflower. Sourdough bread. Cottage cheese. (I blame this on the white-bread-only eating protagonist in Why I’m Afraid of Bees, by the way.) When I’m in a kitchen full of vibrant veggies and tie-dye dish towels flung over cupboards, my arms can swing freely and I cook with colorful abandon.

The best foods taste their color, but not all do. Even though a yam is orange, for example, it doesn’t taste particularly orange to me. It tastes brown, like earth and molasses.

Let’s explore the whole color spectrum (and find some highly-saturated recipes!).

Red. When I think of Red foods, I think spicy. Hot sauce. Lots of hot sauce. And ghost peppers. Red is the color that will burn your lips and leave you wanting more.

ghost peppers
Photo props and ghost pepper pickled mango recipe at adoboloco.com

Orange tastes like the sunset. It encapsulates the summery tones of turmeric, bell peppers, and marigolds. You can even use marigold petals as a garnish or turn them into a yummy sauce. Yes please.

orange
Image cred and marigold tortilla recipe at spanglishbaby.com

When I think yellow, I think of my niece biting into her first lemon. (And I can’t help but giggle a little.) Yellow is so sour it makes you grimace. It’s a really good lemonade, meringue, or sour candy. Yellow has an edge so sharp you’re not sure if you love it or hate it.

yellow.png
Image props and lemon syrup recipe at seriouseats.com

Green is a tricky one. We have so many ideas about green — it’s healthy, it’s crunchy, it’s what our moms want us to eat. There are a lot of different greens out there that subvert the norm and still taste green. An Absinthe Frappe, for example.

green.png
Image and recipe from liquor.com

INGREDIENTS
1 oz Absinthe
.25 oz Anisette

HOW TO MAKE IT
In a cocktail shaker add the absinthe and anisette.
Fill with ice and shake well until chilled.
Strain into a julep cup filled with crushed ice.
Top with additional ice, garnish with the mint sprig.

Blue foods are sweet to the taste. They’re tongue-staining berries and snow cones in waxed cups. Almost anything can be blue if you try.

blue
Photo credit and a list of more tasty blues at foodbeast.com

Indigo. Unless it’s a rare eggplant or a fig, I personally would be wary of eating anything indigo. There’s an edible mushroom called Lactarius indigo with an indigo hue, but apparently the taste is “slightly acrid.” Meh.

indigo
Photo via morelmushroomhunting.com

Finally, we have Violet. On almost every neighborhood block in my town you’ll encounter a huge lavender bush overtaking a sidewalk or busting out from behind a fence. I have a habit of carrying pilfered lavender in all my pockets. It makes laundry interesting. Lavender is an amazing herb for cooking — if you haven’t tried lavender cookies, lavender french fries, or lavender chicken, you’re missing out.

violet
Image credit and more lavender recipes at pinterest.com

 

The Future is Fixed

My bicycle is my car, my horse, and my puddle jumper. It gets me to work. And to the DMV to renew my non-driver identification card. I love my bicycle. She’s pink, in that dirtied 1970s Schwinn 10-speed way, and over the years she has collected more than her fair share of goat stickers. And yet, even with all that affection, there’s something that keeps me from calling myself a “bike person.”

biker
This guy, now he’s  bike person. 

In an attempt to awaken my inner biker, I thought I’d rewatch the 2012 movie Premium Rush with Joseph Gordon-Levitt — it’s the story of a NYC uber-hipster-bike-messenger who races through the city evading a corrupt cop — but alas, the film just made me want to sit on a curb and drink PBR, not reclaim my bikedom. It left me with something though, a little glimmer of inspiration: Maybe I need to be cooler, maybe I need a fixie.

As you probably know, a fixie is a fixed-gear bicycle – ie, a bike in which the cog (toothy round thing) on the rear wheel hub is fixed to the wheel instead of allowed to spin independently. What this means essentially, is that the rider cannot coast. If the tires are moving, you’re pedaling. Fixies have developed a cultish reputation for coolness in the last ten years or so, but really what it comes down to is this: they’re lightweight, they’re maneuverable, and they require the least amount of energy from the rider. They are the most mechanically simple bicycles possible; try to remove much more and your bike will be in pieces along the side of the road. Fixies are so simple in fact, it’s the only bike that even a robot can ride. Look at that proud wave of his – sorry JGL, you just lost your spot at the top of the cool biker pyramid. The robot revolution is coming.

the seat, slimmer than ping-pong paddle, made my hips feel elephantine.

So I began my search for a fixie. I started at the nonprofit bicycle cooperative in my hometown; spun a few wheels, asked the knuckle-tattooed volunteer questions about commuting that made him grunt (either out of pity or contempt, I’m not quite sure which). I test rode a purple fixed gear and felt like a clown … not my style, it turned out. The narrowness of the handlebars pulled my shoulders in too far, and the seat, slimmer than ping-pong paddle, made my hips feel elephantine. I probably would have gotten used to it had I given it a little longer, but suddenly my desire to be cool and efficient and lightweight just vanished into a cloud of tinny circus songs.  

My pink goat bike, loyal and true, took me home that night no questions asked.

It’s amazing the things we’ll do in the name of coolness. It took two years of riding on the city streets to finally start wearing a helmet. And that was only because of a story of a friend’s friend who was struck by a car and didn’t die. He was paralyzed. The statistics speak for themselves.  

When it comes down to it, riding any sort of bike is cool, fixie or not. Bicycling is the act of harnessing our own energy, attaching a couple wheels, and pedaling our hearts out to propel us forward. That’s pretty cool.

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