Pizza Crust Perfected

Posted: under Baking bread, Cooking with children, Family favorites, Hiking, Italy, Large family.
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ohiotrip-1-7

 

 

I am not a pizza professional, but you could certainly say I am well-seasoned!  My family enjoys making and eating pizza, and even my children have high standards about the quality of the ingredients they want to eat.

A few years ago when my husband approached his fortieth birthday, he told me that he expected me to “go all out” for his birthday.   I knew exactly what I wanted to do–  build a wood-fired pizza oven.

 

 

The year before we had gone hiking in Crete.  We hiked through terrain that felt entirely remote and deserted, then would come around a rock and find a taverna, a family-owned restaurant.  More often than not, these tavernas would have a wood-fired oven, producing some of the most delicious food and flat bread I have even eaten.

Taverna in Crete- they could not speak English; we could not speak Greek.  They brought my husband into the  kitchen and had him point to what we'd like to eat.

Taverna in Crete- they could not speak English; we could not speak Greek. They brought my husband into the kitchen and had him point to what we desired to eat. See oven door on left?

 

Constructing a wood-fired pizza oven is certainly a Do-It-Yourself project, but I didn’t do it myself.  I had neither the time nor inclination to muck about with cinderblocks and mortar, so I hired someone to build it for me using plans that are available for free from a site called “Forno Bravo” :  http://www.fornobravo.com/pompeii_oven/pompeii_oven.html

Pompeii Oven under construction.

Pompeii Oven under construction.

 

The finished product was a resounding success!

Silk Road Catering used the oven when preparing the meal for my husband's birthday celebration.

Silk Road Catering used the oven when preparing the meal for my husband’s birthday celebration.

The following year we confirmed that the construction of our oven was authentic when we went hiking in Italy (notice a pattern here?) and visited the ruins of the city of Pompei.

Wood-fired oven in Pompei, buried under the ashed of Vesuvius.  When unearthed, there were actually loaves of bread entombed inside.

Wood-fired oven in Pompei, buried under the ashes of Vesuvius. When unearthed, there were actually loaves of bread entombed inside.

The inside construction of the oven was identical to mine, only much larger.

Domed bricks and thick walls enable oven to reach a high temperature for ideal pizza and bread making.

Domed bricks and thick walls enable oven to reach a high temperature for ideal pizza and bread making.

Here is a basic description of how a wood-fired pizza oven works:

1.  Build a very hot fire in the oven and wait until all the bricks on the ceiling are white.  That means the oven is between 750 – 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Push the remaining logs to the back of the oven, then brush the baking surface clean with a brass wire brush.

3.  Using a pizza peal (it looks like a giant spatula), gently transfer uncooked pizza into the oven.

4.  About 90 seconds later, rotate the pizza for even cooking.

5.  A couple minutes later, remove finished pizza.  That’s right – the whole process takes less than five minutes, and your pizza with be hot, bubbling, with a perfectly carmelized crust.

NOW THE REAL CHALLENGE was finding a pizza dough recipe that didn’t take all day and was able to withstand the high heat of the pizza oven.  The authentic recipe from Italy  not only requires Tipo 00 flour, which is great if you can find it, but also 4 – 5 hours of preparation.  Not ideal for spontaneous “honey, let’s make pizza tonight” occasions.  Which brings me to a story:

It was a Saturday and my husband worked in his office while I was cleaning the garage.  Around 4 PM he announced that he wanted to “fire up the pizza oven” and make pizza that night.  I did not have the time or energy to “throw together” pizza dough, so  he went off to the grocery store to purchase refrigerated pizza dough – you know- the kind that comes in a tube.  We had never bought it before.  As stated earlier, the pizza oven cooks at a very high temperature, which is what makes it so wonderful.  Well, we unrolled the pizza dough and added the toppings.  My husband shoveled it into the pizza oven and it went “BOOF!”  The pizza crust instantly incinerated!  There was nothing left but the now-charred mushrooms and cheese that my husband had to scrape out of the oven.  I am not saying that he burned the pizza crust.  There was no pizza crust – only ash.  What kind of volatile ingredients did they put in that dough?

At last, after much experimenting, I  discovered a “quick”  pizza dough recipe that yields thin-crusted pizza and is able to withstand the high heat of a wood-fired pizza oven.  I did not invent it; it comes from Alton Brown from the Food Network and is found here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/grilled-pizza-three-ways-recipe/index.html    So when my husband says, “Let’s fire up the pizza oven tonight!”, it takes me only two hours and fifteen minutes to go from “idea” to “ready for the oven”.  Most recently we  baked pizza after biking 30 miles with the children at St. Simons Island.  It was a great way to celebrate the end of a full day! (It also explains my husband’s outfit in the photos.)

The oven is heated unti the bricks on the inside turn white-hot.  Because it is so well insulated, the outside is cool to the touch!

The oven is heated until the bricks on the inside turn white-hot. Because it is so well insulated, the outside is cool to the touch!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pizza is ready for the oven.

The pizza is ready for the oven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only minutes later the crust is brown and bubbly.

Only minutes later the crust is brown and bubbly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My husband typically bakes the pizza while I assemble the next one.  I usually make 6 - 8.

My husband typically bakes the pizza while I assemble the next one. I usually make 6 – 8.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perfectly baked homemade pizza.  Perfect!

Perfectly baked homemade pizza. Perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not everyone has a pizza oven, but doesn’t everyone love homemade pizza?  I am sharing a recipe I have used for years that makes delicious “baked in the oven” pizza.   I call it “Presbyterian Pizza Dough” because it includes beer.    I am not a beer drinker, so I just buy whatever is cheapest.  However, I would only recommend King Arthur Flour brand of All Purpose Flour.

Presbyterian Pizza Dough

12 oz. can of beer

3 3/4 c. all-purpose flour

3 Tsp. sugar

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 Tsp. butter

1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast OR 2 tsp. rapid rise yeast

 

Mix these ingredients in a large bowl, then turn them onto lightly floured counter and knead about 8 minutes.

 To make 4 thin-crust pizzas:

Divide into four parts.

Shape each into 12 inch round.

Place on pizza pan and brush with olive oil and let rest about 15 minutes.

Put on your toppings.

Bake at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

 

To make 2 thick-crust pizzas:

Follow same instructions except shape into two pizzas instead of four.

Baptists may omit beer, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Comments (0) Feb 10 2013

Autumn = Fall

Posted: under biking, Hiking, Large family, Traveling with children.
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Pine Mountain, Georgia

Finally at the end of November a frost has descended on my home, turning the emerald zoysia into a golden carpet.  However my yard still appears quite green and lush.  The bougainvilleas hang with heavy clusters of lilac flowers on my trellis. The Mexican heather is covered with migrating butterflies. Even my tender banana tree is still green. A few trees have lost their leaves, but that was only noticed by the child who had to rake them.  Their nakedness is generally cloaked by Spanish moss and clusters of mistletoe.  The overall effect is that autumn in Savannah is not the fiery-hued explosion of foliage like in the rest of the country, but instead a gradual fading to olive green.  The live oaks, which canopy this city, will cling to their leaves until spring.

Isle of Hope in Savannah, photographed on November 23th. I was impressed by the incredible greeness of Bluff Drive.

This presented an interesting dilemma as I tried to teach my younger children about the seasons.  I explained that autumn is also called “fall” because, in most places, the leaves will turn bright colors and fall off of the trees.  My younger children seemed perplexed.  Their responses were generally along the line of “You’re kidding, right?”  Of course they have  seen colored leaves, but to them a colored leaf is equivalent to a dead leaf, and not something to define an entire season.  I knew it was time for a field trip.

Where could we take our children to experience fall foliage within about 4 hour drive?  We could not take them to New England, where the maples and oaks are unequalled in their brilliance.  We had to choose a location that was a little further north and a little higher in elevation.  We decided to take the children tent camping at FDR State Park in Pine Mountain, Georgia. It was the last weekend of October.

Callaway Gardens at Pine Mountain, Georgia

Visiting a state park has got to be one of the best vacation values there is.  Our experience has been that the facilities are always terrific, the setting is scenic, and park rangers are probably the nicest people on earth.  While there are a variety of activities available at different  parks, I have often found my children to be thoroughly entertained by exploring the rustic park and playing freely around the campsite.

Biking at Callaway Gardens

We only had three nights to squeeze in memories and fun.  We spent one full day biking through Callaway Gardens. We explored the extensive gardens where “Victory Gardens South” is filmed, and the butterfly pavilion, where exotic butterflies are housed indoors and native, wild butterflies are plentiful outside.  Callaway Gardens is noteworthy for the large variety of trees and native plants that grow there.  While there is golf and housing available at Callaway Gardens, it is very low key and does not intrude on the landscaping.

Seven of my nine.

 

On our second day, we traveled south to Providence Canyon, another state park that is absolutely, positively in the middle of nowhere.  What a surprise awaited us there!  Poor farming practices in the 1800’s led to severe erosion that carved a significant canyon in the land. The result is a “Mini Grand Canyon” of vivid, colored strata of soil.  There is a 7-mile, strenuous backpacking trail available and a 3-mile, strenuous hiking trail.  We took the three mile trail, but it wasn’t strenuous at all. The only challenge was a strong possibility of getting your feet quite muddy when crossing creek beds.  Even my two-year-old and four-year-old found the trail manageable, and were only carried when they became too distracted by the mud puddles.

Providence Canyon

Long-abandoned car, captured by the woods. More ecologically sound to leave it.

Our final night of camping provided an opportunity for the children to go on a hayride at FDR State Park.  The popularity of hayrides baffles me, but to my little guys it was one of their “favorite things ever”. It served to remind me that I must not underestimate the significance of even small experiences in the memories of my children.

One of the advantages to the four-hour limit on our drive was that it enabled us to attend morning worship at a church in Columbus (where we happened to run in to some dear friends- an added bonus!), and make it home in time to attend evening worship at our home church in Savannah. It is good to be with the Lord’s people on Sunday!

As I sat next to my children in church I could see remnants of twigs and leaves in their hair and smell the fragrance of campfire smoke.  I felt confident that the dirt would wash off, but also hopeful that our immersion into the leaves of autumn would serve as the fertile ground for my children’s sweet memories to flourish.

Time together and time outdoors.

Fall leaves… One of those things you’ve just got to see for yourself.

Comments (0) Nov 27 2012

My Scouting Haiku

Posted: under Hiking, Traveling with children.
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Webelos Weekend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Scouting Haiku

Sticks, fire, pocketknives

In the furnace of camping

Boy forged into man.

(Yeah, yeah, I know it stinks, but you get the idea and the sentiment in genuine.)

Comments (0) Nov 11 2012

Worth the Effort

Posted: under Hiking, Photography, Pregnancy, Scuba diving, Snorkeling, Travel, Underwater photography.
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Green sea turtle

I was pregnant with my eighth child when I last visited Hawaii.  Actually, I was about six weeks shy of my due date. (I didn’t tell my midwife and she never asked about  my unseasonal tan.)

It is not like my husband and I planned to vacation in the third trimester of my pregnancy. He actually had to attend a medical conference (critical care, I think), and I was determined that he was not going to Hawaii without me.

Essential: snorkeling gear, water, and GPS

Pregnancy prevented me from scuba diving.  Never mind the fact that I could  not possibly fit into my wet suit! I was so buoyant, it would have taken several cannon balls to sink me! So the activities of choice were hiking and snorkeling.

The trail begins with lush vegetation.

On Maui  our best experience was off of Cape Kina’u, on the leeward side of the island.  In my experience, trail heads are rarely marked in any of the islands, so GPS and a thorough guide book are essential.  The entrance to our path was vague. We were to find a path 7/10 of a mile before the second to last telephone pole, not visible by car.We found it, and entered a trail flanked by lush foliage which quickly gave way to a vast lava field.  This type of lava is called a’a (pronounced ah ah), no doubt because that is what you would say if you attempted to traverse it barefoot.

I knew my feet were down there somewhere.

The hike was not terribly long, but I had two particular challenges: an altered center of gravity and the inability to see my feet.

This cove was our goal.

It was very rewarding to reach the cove and don my fins, mask, and diving gloves. Gloves are essential! The shoreline is densely guarded by pin-cushion-sharp sea urchins.

We enjoyed floating about, gazing down upon colorful sea stars, sergeant majors, and even a few humuhumunukunukuapua’as. Then who should come barreling through a gap in the rock? Not one, but two enormous green sea turtles. It was immediately obvious that they had no intention of going around us, and we had better get out of the way.

Up-close viewing of these elegant creatures of the sea made the effort entirely worthwhile.  You may remember from my first post, Poppies in Provence  , my conviction that the sweetest moments in life are rarely planned.

A’a as far as the eye can see!

The joyful experience of my encounter with the turtles made my return trip across the a’a a little less daunting.

Comments (2) Nov 08 2012

Nigardsbreen Glacier: A Blue Snowcone

Posted: under Hiking, Travel.
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Nigardsbreen Glacier, Norway

Hiking up Nigardsbreen Glacier was like hiking up a giant blue snowcone.  I was taken by surprise by the intensity of the blue ice.  In fact, I was entirely captivated by the unique beauty of the glacier.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Never in my life did I imagine that I would have an opportunity to hike on a glacier.  I was born and raised in the South. I had never even seen a glacier.  And my preferred vacation experiences usually take me hiking in the Mediterranean or scuba diving in the Tropics.  Please note: both are warm locations.

My husband, who usually flees cold weather, did something he had never done before.  He signed us up for a guided trip to Norway, organized by REI Adventures.  We spent nine days kayaking and hiking the fjords of Norway with 13 other adventurers whom I grew to adore.  The experience was amazing and the hike up Nigardsbreen Glacier was the climax.

The approach to the glacier is low key.  It merely looks like a blue bank of ice.  The distance minimizes the enormous scale of the glacier, and with an excellent camera lens, you realize that those smaller-than-ant dots are a party of hikers.

Approaching the glacier

Hikers, like ants, ascend the glacier on the right

Before climbing, each hiker is fitted with crampons and given an ice ax.

Crampons, a fashion necessity

On the ice, crampons are essential. But they are rather treacherous when standing on glacier-polished rock.

Waiting to be harnessed for the ascent

Mingma Tsiri Sherpa

Our group was guided by an honest-to-goodness sherpa from Nepal.  This man, Mingma Tsiri Sherpa, has summited Mount Everest 18 times, and he and six brothers hold the Guinness World Record for the most summits of Everest within a family.  For him, I am sure trekking across Nigardsbreen Glacier is effortless, but he was not at all arrogant or cavalier.  Instead he impressed me with his gentleness and humility.  On our descent he stopped another guided group to tighten a woman’s harness.   I think her risk of falling into a crevasse was slim-to-none, but I was impressed that he took steps to ensure her safety.

Crevasse

The sky was overcast, which was a mixed blessing. It prevented us from being blinded by the glare and obscured a blue sky that might have, otherwise, competed with the brilliant blue glacier ice. No, that isn’t a reflection of the sky.  That is ancient snow that has had the air squeezed out of it over much time and great pressure.

Peering back into time

The color was shocking, both in hue and intensity.

The last group photo of my dear hiking companions was taken just a few hours before we said goodbye, parted ways, and returned to normal lives.  I say “normal”, but you never return from an adventure unchanged.

 

Comments (0) Nov 02 2012

Italy: Advice to the Traveler

Posted: under Hiking, Italy, Photography, Travel.
Tags: , , , ,

Ligurian Marina

 

 

I have just returned from a trip to Italy and a friend will be traveling there soon.  This was my fourth trip to southern Europe in five years.  While I recognize there are many variations from region to region, I offer this advice to someone who is traveling to Italy for the first time.  These are things that I have observed, read, and learned.  While most of my time is Italy has been spent on hiking and photography, I hope this advice will help the casual traveler.

 

 

 

 

EUROS (€)

  • How many Euros will you need?  Try to calculate, before you leave, whether or not you would need to spend a large sum of cash.  My husband and I prefer to stay in Bed and Breakfast Inns, and many require us to pay in cash.  If you know that you need several hundred Euros in cash, order it before you leave.  We found the best rate from Wells Fargo.  You order it online; they deliver it to your door.  If you just need a few hundred Euros for incidentals, try getting them from your bank.  They may not have it on hand, but they can order it for you.  AVOID exchanging money at the airport!  On my most recent trip, we rented a car and knew we needed small change for the toll road.  My husband exchanged some money at the airport.  The rate was terrible!  They pile on so many fees.  On that day, the exchange rate for €1 was $1.32.  Once all the service fees were added, it cost us closer to $1.76.
  • In Europe, the use of decimal points and commas in numbers is different.  $1.76 would be written $1,76.
  • When using a credit card, select a card that does not charge foreign transaction fees.  Those fees can add 2 – 3 % to the cost of each transaction, which adds up quickly!  I have an American Express that charges no foreign transaction fees, but it is not as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard.
  • It is always worth asking the waiter if they accept your credit card when you arrive.  In Greece, time and time again restaurants had “credit cards accepted” signs in their windows, but then would claim that “the machine is broken”.  It happened SOOO OFTEN, that we concluded that they were lying.  They wanted cash.

 

The road a car must take to exit Montepulciano

CARS AND DRIVING

  • When renting a car, we always purchase the extra insurance.  I can not imagine a faster way to ruin a vacation than to get into a car accident and have to navigate a foreign insurance claim.   When we returned our rental car, I overheard two other couples saying that they were returning their cars fairly dinged up. They were shrugging their shoulders and hoping everything would be okay.
  • Speaking of cars, mind that speed limit!  If you are caught speeding, Italian police can fine you on the spot!
  • Driving in Italy is not for the faint-hearted.  In Naples, it is “everyman for himself”.  There were lots of traffic lights, but none of them appeared to be working.  My husband finds driving in Italy to be exhilarating!
  • You are not going to believe how tiny some of those roads are!  What we might believe to be a mere pedestrian pathway may actually be a two-lane road.  Well, maybe not “two-lane”, but “two-way”, and you pray and pray that you don’t meet a truck.

LANGUAGE

  • I took a year of Italian in college, which enables me to decipher most signs.  Many menus will also be written in English, but mind you, it will be British English.  I marvel how many Americans don’t know the British equivalents!  Here a few that are often encountered:  melanzane – aubergine – eggplant, zucchine – courgettes – zucchini, zucca – marrow – squash, patatine – crisps – potato chips
  • I recommend taking an Italian phrase book.
  • If you get lost, ask a German.  They usually speak flawless English, and always seem to know where they are going.

 

A perfect lunch

DINING

  • When seated at a restaurant, the water will ask you about what kind of water you want every time. The first thing he may say to you upon seating you is, “With gas?” and you may be startled by this inquiry.  He wants to know whether or not you want your water carbonated.  If  you don’t want it carbonated, say “no gas”, or “sensa gas”,  “still”, or “flat”.  Amusing, but you get used to sitting down and immediately saying, “No gas!”
  • Most restaurants will charge you a cover charge (coperto).  I have seen these range from € 1,50 to as much as  € 6, and that is charged per person!  A service charge (from 10 – 18%) may also be charged and included in the bill.  If there is a service charge, you don’t need to tip.  Otherwise, tipping 10% is customary.
  • In many towns, restaurant hours are short.  In Montepulciano, restaurants did not open until 7 or 7:30 PM and only seated until 9:30.  Ask your innkeeper about local hours, because if you are starving, you may want to grab a panini before the snack shops close.
  • A “bar” is not the same thing as it is in America.  A bar is more like a “snack bar”, where you may purchase all sorts of coffee drinks, sandwiches, and train tickets.  They will also serve alcohol, but if you are looking for an aperitif before dinner, look for an enoteca, which is a wine bar.
  • Bibite are soft drinks, and Italians never, ever, ever drink them directly from the can.  They will offer you a glass or a straw.
  • The menu will start with antipasto, which is an appetizer. Primo, the first course, is pasta, soup, or risotto. Secondo, the main course, is meat or fish.  Salad follows the main course and is served before dessert.  However, waiters will recognize that you are American, and will ask if you want your salad “before”.  That is fine.  They do not seem to be the least bothered by serving the salad “before” the main course.  You do not have to order all of the courses!  Any combination is fine!
  • The waiters do not care if you plan to share a dish.  Some will bring two plates and split it for you.  Others may bring one plate and two forks!
  • If you like wine, educate yourself on the local offerings  of the region you are visiting before you arrive.  If you try to sample every wine that the sommelier recommends to you, they will have to cart you home in a wheelbarrow.  One night we had the undivided attention of a waiter for 45 minutes.  He explained everything you ever wanted to know about the wine grapes of Tuscany, and summed it up with the explanation that in Tuscany, wine is the first religion, beef is the second, and Catholicism is third.
  • You will have to ask the waiter to bring you the bill.  He will never bring it to you unless you ask for it, and he will not do anything at all to hurry you on your way.
  • Italian bread is unsalted, so it tastes stale immediately after it is cut.  Skip the bread and save the calories for gelato!
  • Salad is always served with olive oil and vinegar (usually balsamic).  On the airplane I watched a movie which mocked an American couple (from Texas, supposedly) in Provence ordering “fat-free Ranch” for their salad Niçoise.  No one would really do that, would they? (Don’t remember name of movie.  It was forgettable.)
  • Liguria, where Cinque Terre is, is known for its focaccia.  Best focaccia I have ever tasted!
  • Tuscany is the land of wine, beef, and truffles.
  • Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, offers great pizza, seafood, and limoncello.
  • If you drink a lot of coffee in America, you will not find anything like drip coffee, but Italian coffee drinks are worth sampling.  Caffe Americano is a delicious coffee drink.  It is a serving of espresso which you thin with hot water.  It is so smooth, I find that it does not require milk at all.  A serving of coffee in Europe is 4 ounces, not 8 – 12 ounces.

Portovenere

WHAT TO PACK

  • Always pack a jacket or sweater! Hot days may still have cool evenings.
  • If you intend to do site-seeing in cities, do not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts if you intend to visit any churches.  I have seen women turned away from church doors for bare arms.
  • Weigh your suitcases and pack carefully! Air Dolomiti seems to delight is requiring passengers to repack their luggage right there at the check in line. I think every single person in line was asked to step aside and lighten their carryon.  They wanted to charge me €60 because my carryon bag was overweight.  So all I had to do was unpack my camera so that my bag was the right weight, put my camera in my handbag to carry it through security, then put it back in my carryon before I boarded the plane. Go figure. Made for a nightmarish line at 5 a.m.

Tuscany

Italy really is all those wonderful things you have ever heard.  The climate is terrific, the landscapes are breathtaking, the towns are charming, the food is delicious, and the people are warm-hearted. Lord willing, I will be back!

 

 

Comments (1) May 24 2012

Vancouver – City of Glass and Water

Posted: under Hiking, Photography, Travel, Traveling with children.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Vancouver

My husband might persuade you that there is no place worth visiting that is not a tropical paradise or a sun-drenched Mediterranean village.  I think that is because my lean, fit husband lacks personal insulation, and will don a parka when the temperature dips below 68.  So last year when I heard that my husband had a conference to attend in Vancouver, British Columbia, I was quick to declare that I and our as-yet-unborn ninth child were going with him!  Who would know when I would have another opportunity to visit that part of the world?  It certainly was not on a short list of places my husband wanted to visit, and it wasn’t exactly on the way to anywhere I am likely to go.

Vancouver is an amazing city.  The downtown area around the convention center is clean and modern, characterized by tall glass buildings that seemed to enhance the sunlight and reflect the water and sky. The climate in Vancouver is a temperate rainforest.  We visited in early November, yet it was not cold, and the vividly-colored trees still held their leaves.  While my husband attended meetings, my baby girl and I strolled for miles exploring Stanley Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.  The waterfront area had paths dedicated to walking or biking.  Even though the downtown area is densely developed, green spaces abounded.  The spaces between buildings contained beautiful gardens, ponds, and water fountains, many reflecting the Asian influences of the city’s residents.

During breaks between meetings, we loaded up in the rental car and set off to explore the mountains that border the city.  A hike up Mt. Seymour was exhilarating, offering clears views and an encounter with snow.

 

Mt. Seymour

I came prepared.  Our baby girl wore a snowsuit and was carried in a frame backpack.  We then hustled back down the mountain for a visit to a “must see” tourist destination – the Capilano Suspension Bridge.

Husband and baby crossing Capilano Suspension Bridge

The bridge crosses 450 feet above the Capilano River and leads to other beautiful rainforest sites, such as Tree Adventures, a raised walk-way high in the tree canopy.

Tree Adventures

Further upstream we visited a salmon farm and walked more trails through fern-covered Pacific evergreens.  I had never before visited this part of the world, and it was a treat for the senses.  Even now I can recall the sweet, earthy smell of the moss and foliage.

On another day’s break, we visited a Chinese garden right in the middle of town. There one could find a tranquility in the midst of a hustling-bustling city.

Dr. Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden

After a few days of stretching our legs about the city, we were eager to try the famous Grouse Grind.  Wow.  The Grouse Grind is a steep climb up Grouse Mountain. In 1.8 miles the hike climbs 2,800 feet.  In some places the grade is 31%!  It was like climbing a steep, irregular staircase.  In fact, the climb is so steep that you are not to descend by the same path; you have to take a gondola back to the start. So I was able to push on, knowing that there was no going back.  I carried the camera, but my husband carried our six-month-old.  I exerted muscles I didn’t know I had.

Grouse Grind

The average time to climb the Grouse Grind is between 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  It took me 86 minutes.  Yeah, yeah, I know that stinks, but I live in entirely flat Savannah, Georgia.  The only hills around here are interstate ramps.  Worse, though, when I got to the top there was a chart for “Best Times” in different age and sex categories.  The record holder in my age group did it in about 35 minutes.  As I compared my time, I was discouraged to see that it ranked up there among men in their 80’s. Sigh.

View from Grouse Mountain

There were lots of things to do, besides evaporate sweat, once atop Grouse Mountain.  I love great views, and even saw a distant volcano, Mount Garibaldi.  From downtown Vancouver, I could also see Mount Baker, serving to remind me that beautiful Vancouver lies along the “Pacific Rim of Fire”.  As the sun approached the horizon, we rode the gondola to the base.  We were achy, but exhilarated.  If I had stayed a bit longer, I would liked to have done that hike again.

Descent from Grouse Mountain

Any large, modern city offers wonderful opportunities to sample the world’s cuisines. We ate at an Afghan restaurant, the best Chinese restaurant ever, and a Mongolian barbecue.  Actually, the Mongolian barbecue was so delicious, we ate there three times.  For one price you are given a bowl to fill with a variety of meats and vegetables, topped off with your favorite sauces.  You hand the bowl to a man who stir-fries it over an enormous griddle right in front of you, then hands it back to you, hot and steaming.  Amazing that something so simple could be so delicious.

A trip to Granville Island was a multicultural immersion.  Formerly an industrial site, its warehouses are now fill with arts and crafts studios and an enormous market.  I loved hearing all the accents, enjoying the colors and smells, and the challenges of identifying exotic fruits and vegetables.  Any trip to a foreign city is incomplete without a visit to where the locals shop.

Colorful city market

The highlight of my trip was taking a sea plane to visit Victoria, on Vancouver Island.  Victoria is the provincial capitol of British Columbia, but is only accessible by plane or ferry.  Our tiny plane was filled with government-bureaucrat types, for whom the plane ride was a typical morning commute.  I actually pity the men who were more absorbed in the morning paper than the spectacular views below.  I hope my senses are never dulled to such beauty.

Sea plane transportation to Victoria

Pilot's view of Victoria, BC

Victoria is packed with charm.  It is the location of the famous “Empress Hotel”, an exquisite Edwardian hotel that appears to exemplify British Imperial decorating.

The Empress Hotel

Inside the Empress Hotel

We did not take time to stop for tea!  There was too much I wanted to see!  Victoria was settled by prospectors during the Gold Rush, and still contains many historical buildings and  a vibrant China Town.

Fan Tan Alley, China Town, Victoria, BC

Community of houseboats

When we had covered as much ground as we could by foot, we purchased tour bus tickets for a quick visit to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Totem pole

Bald eagle on top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the bus, I actually saw a few bald eagles.  Here is one sitting atop a very tall totem pole.

Friendly seals

Gobbling fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Showing off for the camera

Looking for lunch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friendly seals populated the waterways where locals fed them daily.

Seaplane view of Vancouver

Finally after a visit to the Royal British Columbia Museum for a good dose of Inuit education, we boarded another sea plane for our return to Vancouver.  Wouldn’t that be a great daily commute?

 

Sea plane view of our hotel

Our last full day was characterized by heavy rain.  We drove through the gardens of the campus of University of British Columbia, then headed north toward Whistler.  We did not have a goal in mind, but let our curiosity lead us.  The route north along the coast is called the Sea to Sky Highway.  It was startling to see how rapidly the population diminishes north of Vancouver.  One could reside in a modern city and so quickly access rugged, awe-inspiring landscapes.

There were many things to do and see along the way.  Most notably we visited the Britannia Mining Museum, which made such an enormous impression on me that I shall save it for another post.

Finally we stopped in an old mill town called Squamish, a peculiar little town where we bought sandwiches and coffee.  We were intrigued by all these signs and billboards we saw for a grand ocean front development.  Squamish was anything but grand.  We followed the signs past lumber mills and heaps of scrap metal, and at last found the location of some visionary’s grand dream.

"Ocean Front Village" development in Squamish

I laugh to recall this sight!  It looked more like a Superfund Clean-up Site than a luxury ocean front resort.  If you are going to dream, dream big, right?

The return drive to Vancouver provided a time of pleasant reflection.  Armed with an infant, rain gear, and great walking shoes, a guide map, and a sense of adventure, we  took in Vancouver and its surroundings, its city life, culture, and climate.  Even business trips can be an opportunity for amazing adventures.

After rain comes rainbows

How much will she remember?  Not a thing, I am sure.  But I hope her curiosity will lead her to an active life of discovery.

 

 

 

 


Comments (4) Sep 08 2011

Grand Canyon

Posted: under Hiking, Photography, Travel, Traveling with children.
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South Rim of the Grand Canyon

A fervent desire to visit the Grand Canyon and to share the experience with all of my children was the impetus for undertaking our family adventure out west.  I wanted to stand beside them and gaze into the mighty gorge, and so seal that into our collective family memories.  My expectations were high, and with good reason.    I know a woman who took her children to all fifty states and to them the Grand Canyon was the favorite destination.  A few years ago a former governor of Maine loaded his family into an RV and they traveled around North America for a year.  He chronicled his experience on NPR, and I still remember him saying the Grand Canyon was the greatest;  nothing else was a close second.  Like I said, my expectations were high.

When our family arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, after a long drive from Moab, Utah, we rushed to the first available observation point to experience the sensation.  We arrived shortly before sunset, an ideal time to capture the moment.  And as we gazed out across the Grand Canyon it was… anticlimactic.

Sunset

Now don’t get me wrong!  The Grand Canyon is sensational!  But it is sort of like pursuing a big name celebrity and overlooking the genuine talent of parks like Bryce, Zion, and Canyonlands.  The Grand Canyon was not the star of the show.  Instead it was just one of the components that made our trip out west a completely satisfying experience.

Dusk

Last glimmer of sun

Traveling with many young children had its limitations.  It would have been impractical for us to hike rim to rim, to ride mules to the canyon floor, or to raft down the Colorado River.  Lord willing, I hope one day to return with those little ones for some big kid fun.   However traveling with a babysitter opened up hiking opportunities we otherwise could not have enjoyed.  Our formula for each day was similar to the other parks.  The older kids, my husband, and I would rise early and hike a strenuous trail.  The little ones would sleep in, watch cartoons, then join us for easy hikes in the afternoon.

Three oldest sons on South Rim

Water break at Skeleton Point

 

Our first morning we hiked the South Kaibob Trail.  We started at Yaki Point, descended three miles, ending at Skeleton Point.  The downhill jolting of our joints was unpleasant.

Unending switchbacks

My oldest son developed blisters and my husband was suspecting stress fractures. The uphill climb, while strenuous, felt like a relief!  That afternoon we took our children on a five mile stroll along the rim.  We were able to push the stroller, which gave the youngest ones a rest.

3-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter

Everyone enjoys the Rim Trail

The next morning was our last and biggest hike of all.  We hiked Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point.  The trail was 12.2 miles, and an elevation change of 3000 feet.  Even though we were at the trailhead at 6:00 in the morning, we had a sense of urgency as we hiked.  We needed to reconnect with the babysitter and leave the park around noon.  So this trail that usually takes 8 hours or more was hiked by us an average of 6 hours.  And it was tough!  It felt like I was climbing up irregular stairs for 4.5 miles.

Looking DOWN to Plateau Point

View from Plateau Point

Plateau Point - rest for the weary

The shadeless plateau

Everywhere you look around the Grand Canyon, there are warnings about the potential for death.  Countless signs warn about the possibility of death if you attempt to hike to the river and back in one day.  There are even photographs of people who have died  attempting that, include a fit, athletic female marathoner.  Of course we didn’t even try that, but I could see how quickly a hiker could be overtaken by the heat and exertion.  As we descended, the temperature increased steadily.  By the time we reached the last 1.5 miles to Plateau Point, it was quite warm and our trail was entirely shadeless.  Furthermore, the dry air made me require more water than I typically consume while hiking.  Bright Angel Trail has rest areas about every 1.5 miles where water supplies can usually be replenished. (Apparently the availability is seasonal, but we had no difficulty getting water.)  I drank 4 liters of water on my ascent to the top.  I can see how quickly someone could be overwhelmed by heat exhaustion if not sufficiently hydrated.

My macabre fifteen-year-old son

My fifteen-year-old son has a fascination with macabre facts.  Throughout our trip out west, he regaled us with statistics about death and injury in national parks.   It is true – wild America can be dangerous.  It would be easy to forget that as you are mesmerized by the dreamy landscapes.  Hence the constant reminders.  In fact the newspaper headlines at the Grand Canyon noted that a body found earlier that month  in one of the canyons had been identified.  When browsing through books in a gift store, we discovered the perfect pleasure read for him-  Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon.  It was a hefty tome.  No one wanted to haul it back in their luggage.  So with a few clicks through Amazon.com, the book was ordered.  It arrived at our home before we did!

Not exactly great literature...

Leaving the Grand Canyon felt bittersweet.  The trip of a lifetime had been realized.   In 9 days we visited 7 parks with our 9 children, drove 1650 miles,  hiked over 70 miles, and took 1700 photographs.  The trip had unfolded without complication. What could we possibly do next?  It was intensely satisfying when my seven-year-old son chimed up from the backseat, “Can we do this again next year?”

Seven-year-old eager traveler

 

 

 

Comments (0) Jun 28 2011

Monument Valley

Posted: under Hiking, Photography, Traveling with children.
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Monument Valley

It was high noon when my family arrived at Monument Valley.  That was the perfect time to enjoy this parched, sun-drenched desert land in all its blazing glory.

Mesas, buttes, and spires

Monument Valley is not part of the national park system.  It is a Navajo Tribal Park, located near Four Corners.  Originally we intended to pass by Monument Valley as we made a long driving trek from Moab, Utah, to the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  But the children wanted to stop and visit, and I am glad we did.  It was unlike the other parks we saw, and a great opportunity to get out and stretch our legs.

View from visitor's center

 

The price of admission allowed us to drive a 17-mile dirt road of erosion-sculpted mesas, buttes, and spires.  As we headed to the entrance of the scenic drive, a man offered to take us on a two and a half hour tour of the park in his open-air, four-wheel-drive vehicle for just $75 per person.  You don’t have to be a math whiz to know that that is a huge chunk of money for our party of twelve.  When my  husband declined,  the man dropped his price to $25 per person.  I could see that my husband was actually considering it, so I spoke up and firmly asserted, “No, thank you.”  The idea of holding a toddler and three-year-old for 2 1/2 hours through clouds of billowing red dust as we are jostled mercilessly along a primitive road in a shadeless tour vehicle sounded like a recipe for agony.

Yei Bi Chei and Totem Pole

 

The landscape was bare.  The sun beamed down like a laser, illuminating in stark contrast the deep blue sky and intensely red earth. It was stunning.

East Mitten

The scenic drive passes by the noteworthy buttes and mesas, which bore a variety of unlikely names, such as Elephant Butte, Camel Butte, or Totem Pole (a characteristic of Northwestern tribes and not the Navajo).  The East Mitten and West Mitten are self-explanatory.

West Mitten

The Three Sisters Spires are said to represent a Catholic nun and her novices.

Three Sisters

 

We parked the car and hiked the Wildcat Trail, which encircles the West Mitten Butte.  While fairly level and only 3.2 miles, the trail proved to be very tiring to my younger children.  The parched soil was very soft and made it difficult for them to travel without dragging their feet.  The sunshine was unrelenting.  It was warm, not hot, and I was thankful that I wore long sleeves to shield my arms.  The air was intensely dry, filling our eyes with grit and coating our smiles with pink dirt.

Hiking buddies

It was a wonderful opportunity, though, to experience a desert habitat up close, to walk amid the sparse vegetation and to see lizards scampering about.  That any tribe of people chose to make the place their home is impressive.  Perhaps they were gripped by the riveting beauty and captivating solitude.

Wildcat Trail

 

Two  hours proved to be plenty of time for us to enjoy Monument Valley.  If the photographs look familiar, it is probably because this land served as a backdrop to many westerns.  I must tell you that the entire time I was there, and even  now as I look at the photographs, the voice of Johnny Cash singing “Ghost Rider in the Sky” plays a continuous loop in my head.  Can’t you just hear it?

“Yippie yi ohhhh, Yippie yi yaaay, Ghost Riders in the Sky…”

Oldest son contemplates nomenclature

 

Comments (2) Jun 21 2011

Canyonlands

Posted: under Hiking, Photography, Traveling with children.
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Canyonlands

Canyonlands seemed  otherworldly.  I hiked up onto a sandstone dome  called Whale Rock and I turned around and around, gazing as far as my eyes could see.  Except for the small section of parking lot visible right below, I could see no other signs of human activity.  If the national park system was founded to preserve “wild America”, this was what it was all about.

The park is enormous and is separated into three distinct land districts by the juncture of the Green River and the Colorado River.  If you imagine the shape of a lower case letter “y”, the Green River flows southeast to join the Colorado River.  Each district has its own personality and you can not cross directly from one section of the park into the other.  Our family visited the section called “Island in the Sky”.  What a perfect name!  It is an enormous mesa accessible by a narrow neck of land.  The sides of the mesa are sheer, dropping about 1000 feet to a lower plateau, which then drops about 1000 feet to the river basin.

1000 feet drop separates plateaus

 

 

At one time cattle and sheep were raised upon the mesa.  Containing the livestock would certainly be easy, but feeding them would be a different matter altogether.  A ranger at the visitor’s center gave us a brief overview of edible plants of Canyonlands.  Believe me, it was very brief.  A meal might be made of pine nuts, prickly pear cactus, and juniper berries, then washed down with Mormon tea, which is a stimulant and powerful diuretic. Um, no thanks.

The Canyonlands diet

 

There are two other land districts in the park.  The Needles, which lies to the southeast, has paved roads, a visitor’s center, and established hiking trails.  Its skyline is characterized by jagged sandstone pillars, hence the name.

Monument Basin with the Needles in distant left

The other district, the Maze, is not for the faint-hearted or ill-prepared.  It is accessible only by rugged roads for four-wheel-drive, high clearance vehicles.  There are no facilities whatsoever, and the trails are primitive.  The park literature stresses that the Maze is only for those experienced and self-reliant.  “Be prepared to self rescue.”  Self rescue?! While that notion opens up a huge theological can of worms, I think the rangers have in mind a willingness to hack off your own  boulder-trapped arm with a pocket knife, so that you can rappel to the canyon floor and hike to rescue.  Hey, it’s been done.

The Maze lies beyond the Green River

 

We chose to visit Island in the Sky because it was the most accessible by car, offering many viewing areas to enjoy and short hikes for all the children.  My children were awestruck by Upheaval Dome, an unusual rock formation that may actually be a meteorite impact crater.

View from Upheaval Rock

Awesome view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Upheaval Dome

 

The family favorite, though, was the Mesa Arch Trail.  This trail can be enjoyed on so many levels.  The easy path has abundant desert wildflowers and interesting rock formations.

Mesa Arch viewed from afar

The Mesa Arch is, itself, lovely.

Mesa Arch

If you look through the arch, you see the Washer Woman Arch.  See how there appears to be a woman leaning over her wash bucket?

Washer Woman Arch

And beyond there is a breath-taking view of the snow-capped La Sal Mountains.

La Sal Mountains through Mesa Arch

Hiking companions

What climbs up must climb down...

What is noteworthy about this last picture is what is not in view.  To the left there was a tall, slender woman.  She was barefoot and dressed in yoga clothes.  She and her photographer spent an enormous amount of time composing her picture.  They would adjust the camera, test the settings, adjust the camera.  Finally she stepped in front of the camera and bent over into a back bend.  What took me by surprise was how she groaned, and moaned, and grunted!  She would check the photos, then unsatisfied with the result, she would strike the pose again, complete with grunts and groans.  I think she was trying to replicate the gentle curve  of the arch.  She looked anything but graceful.  In fact, her face was turning purple from the effort.  I dare say she is the only one who wasn’t enjoying the view.

I am ENJOYING the view!

Comments (0) Jun 16 2011