The Great Halloween Candy S’mores Taste Test

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The idea germinated during a combined family camping trip in the local mountains over the summer. After all, what do you do on a campout? Roast marshmallows over a campfire, slap the softened, browned or charred result on a graham cracker, add half a Hershey bar, let the chocolate melt a bit, enjoy. Repeat.

There are thirty published variations on this theme, and perhaps hundreds unpublished.

My first foray into the variations involved Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in place of the Hershey’s. That baby still makes my top 3 list, with or without the banana slice.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea first, but whether I did or whether it was my neighbor Dennis, we hit upon the plan of a marathon S’mores taste test involving dozens if not hundreds of combinations. This would be done over at least two nights, perhaps even stretch into a couple of weekends.

And the perfect time for such a test? Halloween of course. What other time of year would there be so much candy in our houses and of such variety?

So on a summer night all those months ago, the plans were laid. The five of us, Andrea and I and our neighbors Dennis, Tracey and eight-year-old Justin headed to our respective tents in adjacent campsites, the campfire still flickering, the taste of Hershey’s still on our tongues, the goo of melted marshmallow barely wiped from our fingers.

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Our October taste test carries some risk of course: Tooth decay, indigestion, diabetes, sugar high followed by the crash, sugar addiction. And so I offer the following as a public service so that you won’t have to repeat this at home.

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Understated Kiwis

andrea-bridge-360After she reached the Travers River Bridge, Andrea took one horrified look up at the featureless rocky bowl that towered above–no real trail, just orange poles every few hundred yards to mark the way–and asked our Kiwi guide, Gary, “Just what are my options at this point?”

“Well, you could walk back down to the van, but it’s about five hours away, and there’s nobody there. I could give you the keys, but you’d be on your own for the best part of two days. So I think you’d better marshal on. It’s not that far to the Angelus Hut. It’s just over that ridge.” He pointed to a lip of rock that looked like it was a few thousand feet above.

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“I really was exhausted at this point. Couldn’t turn around. Couldn’t look down. Where the heck is the trail? I was afraid for my life. Now I am pleased with the accomplishment and wonder how I did it.”
~ Andrea Halligan

 

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Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.
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Photo courtesy Gary Roberts.

So, given her options she indeed marshaled on. There were a few tears, a few words you wouldn’t hear in church, but she did make it to the hut in time for dinner and we staked out a place on the thin mattresses in one of the sleeping halls.

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Angelus Hut. Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.

Like many mountain huts from the Italian Alps to here on the South Island, the Angelus is a plain and rustic hut with 14 of your new closest friends sleeping shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip in one large room. I slept better than I’d hoped.

The next day was to take us back down to Lake Rotoiti. I say “down” reservedly. Gary gathered our little Canadian and American group outside the hut in the morning and pointed up into the mist above us. “You’re heading down today, but first you’ll climb that ridge up there. Actually a couple of ridges. Oh well, maybe three or four. And there are a few little rocky bits along the way. But then mostly easy down to the lake maybe seven miles away.”

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And the Southern Cross

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January 2016, at a sheep station on New Zealand’s South Island.

I pitched our tent yesterday on a grassy hilltop just yards from the shoreline of Lake Pukaki; we had a marvelous view of snow covered Mt. Cook a few miles north. Rain was forecast last night, but though the cloud cover was heavy and the weather cold, there was no rain. We slept warm in the peace of our very private space.

Andrea and I, along with a New Zealand based tour group, took a drive to the base of Mt. Cook this morning and we walked to a glacier-fed lake where icebergs floated. Then a cold rain started and we put on our coats. We were out most of the day. Back at the lodge a few hours later we toured the Mt. Cook museum and warmed ourselves with flat whites in the café before heading around Pukaki to the campsite. The dirt and gravel road beside the lake was slick with mud, but when we got to our tent site we found that the rain had stopped.

We had dinner and some fine New Zealand red wine at the sheep ranch then headed up the hill. We walked through tall wet grass and went to sleep in the best accommodation for miles around, our own tent with air mattresses and warm down bags.

Sometime after midnight I awoke and went outside, barefoot and shirtless. The weather had turned mild; a gentle breeze blew off the lake and the sky was clearing. Without ambient light the sky was very dark and the stars came out. And I saw the Southern Cross for the first time.

Andrea was asleep in the tent and I considered waking her, but decided to let her go on sleeping.

The Southern Cross is not a large or even particularly bright constellation. Mark Twain when first seeing it was clearly not impressed. And yet standing in the tall grass on that little hilltop in the perfect quiet beneath the Southern Cross, I was touched as if there were some magic there in four stars describing a lopsided cross pointing the way to the South Pole.

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Life and Teaching: Searching for the Mystic in the High Sierras

Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.
Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.

I pulled our dirty gray Subaru into the Mosquito Flat parking lot at about 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d driven up from San Diego, and the plan was a quick backpack trip of just three or four days. Our packs were stashed in the back of the Subaru; mine held the tent and rain-fly, down quilt, Thermarest sleeping pad, stove, fuel, and a bear canister jammed tight with enough food for both of us for a few days.

There was also the book. Many people of my generation had read it years ago as it was part of the new age-y compendium back then. It snuggled cozily on 1960s and ’70s bookshelves alongside Thus Spake Zarathustra, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. Somehow I’d missed it, but I owned the boxed collection of all five volumes and they had been gathering dust untouched for some time. For this trip I brought the first two volumes along: Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. The thin paperbacks tucked neatly into a side pouch of my pack.

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Wild!

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Is this the face that launched a thousand hiker’s boots?

Spoiler alert: I might spoil the ending of the book and movie Wild here. If you don’t want to know about the endings, I suggest you skip this. Last year I bought the Kindle version of Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild. Much as I admired her rather fine writing, it didn’t take me long to decide that she was doltish and inane, her hike ill-considered, her past–though perhaps titillating to some–injudicious at best. In short, I didn’t find her someone I wanted to hang out with through all the pages of the book. I put it down. My wife though, stuck it out, through blisters and blackened toe-nails and days of rain. In the end she was disappointed. “It just didn’t come to enough,” she told me. Eventually I picked it up again and slogged my way through. In the end, Ms. Strayed seems to know that 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail may have taught her something–she can feel some inkling of it inside, but she can’t articulate it. There is a lesson, but it is like, she says, a fish glimpsed briefly in the water of a sunlit pool, but when trying to reach into the pond to grasp it, it slips away.

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Lines written a few miles above Walter’s Wiggles

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Zion Canyon. The West Rim is on the right; Angel’s Landing is lower right.

There’s no accounting for the passage of time. Clocks and calendars while seeming to measure the flow of moments or years or lifetimes, aren’t really up to the task. How can 600 pages torn from faded calendars explain why some fifty year-old memories seem as fresh to me as last week’s? How can a canyon take 250 million years to form? How can re-visiting a favorite old backcountry climb here in Utah cause such a burst of emotion, though it’s been many years since I’ve been here? The very passage of time seems less than real.

I’m on a hike with my wife, Andrea, to the west rim of Zion Canyon and while here, I seem to step into Wordsworth’s famous poem about his walking tour above Tintern Abbey. Even though he wrote of a time and place 216 years in the past and thousands of miles from here, the lines of the poem ring true for me.

The hills above the Abbey held special meaning for Wordsworth, but he had not climbed in that country for five years. He wrote that the place had not been unseen in all that time however; often when the crush of the city strife became too much for him, he would revisit these vistas in his mind and find that it calmed him.

He remembered that when five years younger he could bound over the mountainsides like a deer—not quite the case when he sat writing the most

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The Pacific Crest Trail in a Dry Year

Stellar's Jay in Idyllwild.
Stellar’s Jay in Idyllwild, California. Photo courtesy SD Dirk under a Creative Commons license.

A boy of about twenty, with a substantial pack and good hiking boots, long pants and dusty T-shirt stood at the Cienega Junction on the PCT. He was studying a small map with far too few details; his face looked drawn and was as gray and dusty as his clothes.

Andrea and I had been over much of this country in two days, from the town of Idyllwild up the Devil’s Slide trail and PCT past Wellman’s Divide to Round Valley where we had to melt snow for cooking and drinking because the spring-fed spigot in camp was dry. And there was very little snow left for melting. We’d been to the top of San Jacinto Peak and now we were headed back to town. The boy was standing in the middle of the trail.

“Where are you going?”

“North,” the boy said.

I understood. That’s the answer they all give when they’re attempting the whole of the PCT, from the Mexican border close to Lake Morena all the way to Canada some 2700 miles. North.

He held his map high in front of his face in the afternoon sun. “Is this where I turn?”

“Yes.”

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Sherpa Stew and Yak Butter Apple Pie

Horse with the setting sun in Kyanjin Village, Nepal.
Horse with the setting sun in Kyanjin Village, Nepal.

The mountain came into view at dawn, a beautiful alpenglow pink against a still dark but clearing sky. Lang Tang, 23,711 feet tall, is not even in the top ten of Himalayan peaks, but its magnificent shape captured me. We were at the first of several tea houses on our way up the Lang Tang Valley to Kyanjin—and all the way the mountain would tower above us.

I suppose I knew what to expect—you can Google anything these days. Our first tea house, the glass windows of the dining room a collage of stickers advertising everything from helicopter service “anywhere in Nepal, including Everest Base Camp,” to various trekking and climbing guides, was about a day’s walk below the small village of Lang Tang and the Lang Tang Monastery. The stickers on the window were in a world of languages from English, German, and French to Japanese.

This first lodging place had its own mini hydro-electric generator and there was power to charge cameras and iPads, but only for a few hours each evening. The toilet facility was an outhouse a dozen yards down a small slope. When you flushed, by pouring water from a big blue plastic bucket, the effluence was carried by a pipe straight into the Lang Tang River. The river runs so clear and clean-looking, a seemingly pristine Himalayan stream. But you don’t want to drink from it.

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Chop Wood, Carry Water…and answer your cell phone

Old meets new in the Middle Himalayas

Mt. Everest with its familiar plume of blowing snow.
Mt. Everest with its familiar plume of blowing snow.

I’m in the back seat of the bus from Kathmandu to Pharping, literally the end of the road. It’s a jouncing and twisting hour-long ride and although I never suffer from car-sickness I’m fighting nausea with every turn on this mountain road; at Pharping I’m happy to make my way to the front of the bus so I can get off. But when I do, the heavy choking smell of wood smoke nearly overwhelms me. This is certainly no better. I fear I may be suffering the fate of almost every traveler who comes to Nepal–an Asian version of Montezuma’s revenge. I think about the chicken curry lunch I had the previous day at an historic stupa in Kathmandu. As it turns out, it’s going to be more than a few hours before my stomach is back to even semi-normal. There will be some very un-pretty scenes along the trail to Kafleni.

I’m traveling with a small group from REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) and from Pharping we’ll hike several miles and climb two or three thousand feet into the middle Himalayas and camp for a few days and nights with the snowcapped mountains I’ve read about and dreamed of crowning the horizon to the north and west. From my campsite, and then from the hills above it, I can see Langtang, Manasulu and, in the distance, Annapurna.

I came to Nepal to do some trekking in the higher Himalayas, but the trip will take us first to these lower elevations in the middle Himalayas and also to Chitwan National Park. I’m sure that one reason for the sojourn in this lower range is to showcase some of the work done by the charitable foundation, Nepal SEEDS. And it turns out, that work is worth seeing.

Hari Pudasaini in the Himalayas.
Hari Pudasaini in the Himalayas.

Our camp is set up just above the village of Kafleni, one of several small villages that dot the dramatic hillsides here. With us are K.P. Kafle, a renowned Himalayan guide, Hari Pudasiani, a tall and sturdy looking man and also a well-known mountain guide and Jorlal Thing. Jorlal was born in the high Himalayas and is disarmingly quick with a smile or a charming joke. But after a short time with him, you know he’s a good man to have with you on a tough climb.

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Chipotle Women on Mt. Whitney

William and Andrea Halligan on Mt. Whitney.
William and Andrea Halligan on Mt. Whitney.
William and Andrea Halligan on Mt. Whitney. Photo courtesy Lisa Crooke.

One night after we’d returned home, I woke up from a dream with some words echoing in my head and I scribbled them down. In the morning I didn’t remember writing them and in fact—since they were written in the dark—could hardly make them out: “If you see a distinction between the genders, it does not make you sexist.” I don’t know who said it; I’m certain I didn’t just grab it from the ether, but there you have it.

That was after.

My wife and I signed up for the REI Labor Day hike on the Western Trail to Mt. Whitney months ahead of time. As you probably know, Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states, at 14, 505 feet—give or take, and depending on who’s measuring. And on the Sunday before the holiday we were to meet our group close to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. So we were there. We were on time and in the right place and looking for them.

We did see a group of women all gathered together with gear neatly stacked on an old grey canvas tarp at the pack station and there were horses and mules and a couple of cowboys hoisting duffel bags and heavy aluminum boxes. “Can’t be our group,” I said to Andrea. “Looks like some kind of women’s outing.”

A tall, young guy, lean and built like a rock climber—powerful forearms and sinewy legs—walked up to us. I noticed that his shoes were untied. “Do you guys need some help?”

“Sure. We’re looking for the REI group.”

“You found it. They’re all getting their stuff ready down by that big tarp.”

Was it too late to cancel? “Oh man; it’s a chick trip.”

Andrea stood silently for a moment and then her grey-green eyes went the color of a forest when a misty fog descends on it. She turned away.

I took her arm and faced her. “What is it?”

She nodded toward the group just below us. “No guys for you to hang with? I’m afraid you’re just going to hate this.”

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