Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 7

S is for Street Food
A love a good open air market. The small town of Minturn, not too far from Vail, has a nice market every Saturday morning during the summer. We enjoyed wandering through the aisles of vendors, which offered wares ranging from jewelry, specialty pasta, clothes, accessories, kitchen goods, dog paraphernalia, and even "Dope on a Rope" (soap made from hemp). There were also a good number of food stalls, and picking just one was difficult. Travis and I settled on the crepe tent and shared a savory creation brimming with good things. I don't remember exactly what was in there, but I think turkey, tomatoes, spinach, and cheese were involved.

T is for Treacherous Trail
Descending the exposed ridge after reaching the summit of Mt. Sherman. Yikes.
U is for Unexpected Beauty
Scattered amidst the Rockies' harsh terrain are little patches of color and beauty for those who will notice.

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 6

P is for Pizza
If you ever find yourself near Leadville, Colorado, stop in for a pizza (and some crazy good garlic bread) at High Mountain Pies. Trust me (and Travis, and all the 5-star Yelp reviews) on this one. 
 Travis and I shared "El Hidalgo," which featured a garlic oil base topped with thinly sliced beef sirloin, dried cherries, caramelized onions, blue cheese, and arugula--a delicious combination.
 My parents chose their own toppings: a basil pesto base, topped with roasted chicken, roma tomatoes, and mozzarella--modeled loosely on my homemade version, of which my mom especially is a big fan.

Q is for Quandary 
 quandary (noun): a situation from which extrication is difficult, especially an unpleasant or trying one; a state of uncertainty or perplexity
Yes, Mt. Quandary is aptly named.

R is for Reflection

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 5

M is for Maroon Bells
At Dave's suggestion, we took a day trip to the Maroon Bells, which are near Aspen. The Maroon Bells are touted to be the most photographed location in Colorado, and a visit there makes it easy to see why. It's absolutely gorgeous. Because we visited in the late afternoon, the sun position unfortunately wasn't the best for photos of the bells themselves. That didn't stop me from snapping away while we were there, and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area a bit before the encroaching nightfall compelled us to continue on our way.    
This water rushing down the mountain was so cold it looked icy blue.
The iconic Bells
N is for Nature 
  "I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in."
~George Washington Carver

O is for Organic
At the Boulder Farmers Market, people take their organic produce seriously. I just took pictures of it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 4

J is for Journey Companion
A long road trip can be a good test of just how well two people get along. Our drive to Colorado and back was the longest road trip Travis and I have taken together, and I just have to say, there's nothing quite as sweet as having the perfect companion for the journey. Not that either of us are perfect (far from it!), but our vacation this summer was just one more compelling illustration of how we are perfect for each other. Love you, hubs.

K is for Kaleidoscope
That's what this sculpture reminded me of as I gazed up at it, squinting against the strong Colorado sun.

L is for Landmark (and the obligatory photos we take with them)

The alphabet continues on the other side of the weekend!  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 3

G is for Grass
On our descent of Mt. Quandary, Travis celebrated when we reached tree line, because it signaled the end of the seemingly endless rocks. On the way down Mt. Sherman, my knees were protesting against the pressure of descending rock after rock after rock. (My feet weren't too happy about it, either.) Therefore, when we reached the grassy Iowa Gulch, I had to do a little celebrating of my own. That grass was beautiful, and it deserved a kiss.

H is for Hiking Gear 
When setting out on a substantial trek, it's important to have the right gear. When we hiked the 23 miles around Lake Geneva on Memorial Day, I learned the hard way that my boots were really too small, and it cost me a toenail. Travis learned that no matter how much cushion his socks might provide, his boots were always going to give him blisters. And so we decided that before our trip this summer we had to invest in some really good hiking boots. After trying on several styles at REI, we both decided on Keens. My new boots carried me up and down two fourteeners, and around the Maroon Bells, without a single blister. Those are some good boots.

When setting out on a day hike, it's also important to have a good pack. If I wasn't convinced before, these two mountains confirmed for me how much better it is for a woman to wear a pack designed and sized for a woman. I have the Sirrus 24 pack by Osprey; the hip belt sits at just the right place, the chest strap is appropriately positioned to not squish the girls, the size perfectly fits my torso, and all of the adjusting straps allow me to hold the load close to my body and get the weight distributed just right. I highly recommend this pack.

I is for Incredible Views
The Rocky Mountains are full of them, of course. Here are a couple of my favorites from this trip.
Mt. of the Holy Cross...can you find the cross of snow?

Amazingly turquoise blue lake down in the valley, as seen from the ridge on Mt. Sherman
The alphabet continues tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 2

D is for Dessert
I rarely need an excuse to order dessert, but "Hey, I'm on vacation!" is a great one if I find myself hesitating. Here's the Triple Berry Chocolate Mousse Torte that Travis and I shared at Dixie Quick's (see E below).  We were half-way through it before I thought to take a picture. Yeah, it was that good.

E is for Eat Like a Local
The hubs and I watch our fair share of Food Network. Inevitably, that affects the way we think about food-- how we prepare it, how we think and talk about it, and where we eat it. There are a number of shows on FN that feature and promote local establishments, especially Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Seeing how many great restaurants and delectable dishes are out there, Travis and I have developed the practice of seeking out local, independent joints when we travel, rather than routinely settling for the safe and familiar chain restaurants by the highway exit. With FN's recommendations as our guide (and also a few shout-outs from friends), on this trip we set out to eat where the locals eat, and were not disappointed.

A few highlights: In Omaha, NE on the way out we stopped for dinner at Dixie Quicks. This is the kind of place an out of towner would probably never drive by in the first place (since it's on an out of the way street in a not-so-pretty part of town), and even if they did, probably wouldn't notice. If not for the GPS announcing our arrival, we might have missed it the first time too, even though we were looking for it. The restaurant has an unassuming facade on a rather industrial street. Inside, however, the decor is surprisingly colorful, elegant, and eclectic. The menu changes daily, and is printed in chalk on a board at one end of the dining room. The chef's creations are influenced by time spent in various regions of the country, especially the south. I ordered the blackened salmon, which came with mashed potatoes and this delicious tomato butter sauce, and Travis ordered the pan-fried catfish with collard greens. (Please note: In case you're thinking about checking this place out, I noticed on Dixie Quicks' website that they'll be moving to Council Bluffs, IA on the other side of the river Fall 2011.) 
In Denver we had lunch with friends (see F below) at The Cherry Cricket, which we'd seen featured on The Best Thing I Ever Ate for having the best burger in Denver (in the opinion of Aaron Sanchez, at least). We weren't terribly impressed with the service here, but the burgers were superb, and the fries as well. 
On our return trip across the Midwest we stopped for dinner at WheatFields in Omaha, which came highly recommended by Chris & Janelle (again, see F below). This is one of those places where you walk in and find yourself mesmerized by the bounty and variety of baked goods on display, and the once seated, completely overwhelmed (in a good way) by the sheer abundance of menu items. The highlight of our meal here: the cinnamon roll that came with Travis's quiche trio as a sort of "first course," the same way a salad might come before lasagna. Giant frosting-covered cinnamon roll as first course? Indulgent. Delicious. Genius.
F is for Friends
The lure of Colorado has called several of my friends out west. While I miss having them nearby, the upside is that trips to Colorado are usually peppered with reconnecting with people I love dearly. This trip was no exception. We got to have lunch with my college roommate Cheryl and her husband Joe, stay with Rachel & Eric (who played an integral role in bringing the hubs and I together), and spend a delightful afternoon dining and visiting with TU friends Chris & Janelle and their daughter, Sophie. Here we are with them at the mall:

Stay tuned for Part 3 tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Vacation Alphabet - Part 1

A couple posts back, I wrote about how preparing for a vacation gets me all stressed out, and how even once I'm actually ON vacation, I have a hard time relaxing. And so because I felt myself an abecedarian when it comes to knowing how to kick back and get away from it all, I charged myself with the task of creating a Vacation Alphabet. The intent was simply to challenge myself to take notice, to reflect along the way. Which is good, because if the intent had really been to learn how to relax (and then practice so doing) I would have failed miserably. A relaxing vacation does not involve getting up at 3:00 on multiple days (or ever). A relaxing vacation does not require a person to be on their feet for 7-12 hours at a time, besieged by sun, wind, rain, and hail. A relaxing vacation generally does not involve riding in a car until stir crazy. And so, I can't exactly say that I had a relaxing vacation. I did, however, have a WONDERFUL time. Made some INCREDIBLE memories with my family. Spent precious face time with friends I love DEARLY. And drank in the tremendous BEAUTY of God's creation. Here are a few of the highlights, ABC-style.

A is for Accomplishment 
EARLY Sunday morning, Travis, my dad, and I abandoned the comfort of our beds and stumbled bleary-eyed out to the car. (As if waking in order to leave the timeshare by 4:00 wasn't bad enough, the fire alarm had gone off in our building at 2:30am, mandating our pajama-clad evacuation, after which we huddled together in the cool of the night for about half an hour before allowed to return to our unit.) We arrived at the trail head for Mt. Quandary as the sun was coming up, and began the 5.9 mile round trip hike to the summit and back. This was my second 14er, Travis' 21st, and my dad's first. As we began hiking through the trees, we had no idea of the EPIC JOURNEY the day would hold for us. It was a LONG day. It was an arduous hike that took its toll on all of us, especially my 69 year-old dad. We encountered sun, wind, hail, and rain during the 11 hours we spent on the mountain that day. We felt our hearts pounding in our chests, our lungs gasping the thin air, our knees protesting the pounding of coming down all those rocks. But WE MADE IT to the summit and back down to the car. And we did it TOGETHER. And that is an ACCOMPLISHMENT, achieved with the two men I love most, that I will remember always.   
at the summit of Mt. Quandary

B is for Baby & Boulder & Bus
After we parted ways with my parents in Vail, we got to spend a few days of quality time near Denver with friends Rachel & Eric and their baby, Ty. On the day Travis & Eric climbed Mt. Princeton, Rachel and I took a trip to Boulder to visit the their farmer's market. Ty gets fussy during long car rides, but singing calms him down. Enter: a long, strange rendition of "The Wheels on the Bus." Rachel and I sang a reprise on the way home from church the next day, causing Eric to exclaim, "What kind of bus is this?!" The kind that provides an outlet for my litany of animal noises. Among other things, the bus had doggies, kitties, cows, chickens, and monkeys. Lots of monkeys. :)
cuteness himself
C is for Cairn
In July 2009 I hiked my first fourteener, Mt. Evans, with Travis by my side. I added a word to my vocabulary that day: cairn. Do you know what a cairn is? A cairn is "a mound of stones piled up as a memorial or to mark a boundary or path." I learned that cairns are essential to finding your way on the mountain, to following the trail you are meant to take. Because the Rocky Mountains are indeed very rocky, a pile of stones off in the distance doesn't necessarily stand out when you scan the horizon. Sometimes you have to really look for them. Likewise, the trail ahead isn't always clear. Hiking Evans, I turned finding cairns into a bit of a game. It was a simple game that consisted of: hike along, and when you find the next cairn, yell "CAIRN!" Really. That's it. But there's something about it that I find amusing and engaging; I become like a kid, excited at finding each successive item in one of those "hidden picture" activities in magazines for kids. (Anybody else out there grow up with Highlights?) So when we hiked Quandary & Sherman on this trip, I played my game. I searched for the cairns, and loudly announced my discoveries. When you've left the trail head behind, but you're still a long way from the summit, focusing on the peak is discouraging (at least to me); focusing instead on reaching the next cairn, and then the next, and then the next, is much less daunting. Each cairn is an indication of where to go, and as you look back, proof that you've made progress, even if it doesn't seem like it. There are a lot of parallels between hiking a trail to the summit, and life. Cairns are important to the journey.
Travis and I with a cairn and the view--OH, the VIEW!--at the summit of Mt. Sherman
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!

Monday, August 01, 2011

If you can't stand the heat...

...bake in your crock pot. Really! Whether you are skeptical or intrigued, read on...

Here's the scenario that confronted me today: Two brown speckled bananas hanging on the banana tree. Ninety-one degrees outside. Eighty-four degrees inside, even after running the (ancient) living room AC unit and 3 fans all morning.

Those bananas were just asking to be mashed and folded into some banana bread (and my stomach thought that sounded like a great idea), but there was no way I was going to turn on the oven today. To the rescue: CrockPot Lady Stephanie O'Dea and my own trusty crock pot. It's so crazy simple you'll be amazed:

1. Follow your favorite banana bread recipe (see link to mine below) and pour the batter into a greased loaf pan. (I used an 8"x4" metal nonstick loaf pan, which fits perfectly into my 6 qt oval crock pot. Stephanie advises that if all you have is a round crock pot, you can use a round baking dish that fits snugly into the stoneware. Be sure to test out the fit before you fill a pan or dish with batter. Learned that one the hard way.)

2. Prop the lid open just a tad to let out some of the steam. (I used a clean ballpoint pen. You could also use a chopstick or anything with similar circumference.)

3. "Bake" on high for 4 hours or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Carefully remove the hot pan from the stoneware. Let cool 5 minutes in pan, and then remove loaf to wire rack and let cool completely.

Full Disclosure: Your bread may not get that nice peaked crown it would get in the oven. But come on, you just baked bread in your crock pot! Cut it some slack. And then cut yourself a slice, 'cause it's gonna be tasty.

That's all there is to it! No sweat. (Yep, pun intended). And as an added bonus, you get to enjoy the scrumptious smell of bread baking for 4 hours instead of just one!

This Mix & Match Quick Bread guide from Food Network Magazine has become my go-to recipe for banana bread (and many other quick bread varieties). Today's loaf was banana chocolate chip.