food

Q&A: How to Be the Best Trail Angel Ever

Merry Christmas, friends! Whether or not this is a holiday you and your family celebrate, I wish you all the joy and peace and love associated with the idealized Christmas.

As December is generally a month during which I hike very little (and run quite a lot), the closest I can get to a themed post is to write about trail angels. DSCF1120

If you’re not familiar with the term, trail angels are the people out on the trail who make long-distance backpacking possible. Most commonly, all that they overtly provide is some food, but, in doing so, they give us so much more than that. They take away the pain of a difficult day and provide companionship to the lonely. They support and encourage us when we most need support and encouragement. They impress upon us the virtues of generosity and community, virtues that remain with many former thru-hikers for years to come. Interactions with trail angels are some of the most memorable parts of many thru-hikes, and I’ve heard several hikers describe trail angels as part of the reason they have a spiritual connection with the trail.

DSCF0924During my time on the Appalachian Trail (not just during my thru-hike), I have been touched by the kindness and “sacred hospitality” (as Unitarian Universalists would say) of the trail angels I’ve met. After my thru-hike, I’ve gotten a few opportunities to act as a trail angel myself, providing “trail magic” to thru-hikers in New England, and I definitely look forward to more opportunities to serve in such a role in the future.

If you’re looking to create some trail magic for hikers, know that anything you do will be appreciated. After I’ve told a story of an interaction with a trail angel, I’ve heard some non-hikers say that they’d like to meet and assist thru-hikers but don’t know where to begin. What follows are some ideas for aspiring trail angels.

1) Bring foods that are uncommon on the trail.

While bags of trail mix and granola bars are appreciated by financially-challenged thru-hikers, foods whose praise doesn’t cease include fruits, veggies, and almost anything that is cooked. I remember stumbling upon a hiker feed on my way to Damascus before trail days and being absolutely thrilled to eat a veggie dog in the middle of the woods. On another occasion, I found a bag of fresh tomatoes hanging on a trail signpost near a road crossing with a note inviting thru-hikers to partake; I learned of my undying love for tomatoes that day.DSCF0949

2) Consider bringing along extra supplies.

If you’d like to go the extra mile, bring some personal necessities with you to the trail. I’ve seen Band-Aids, alcohol swabs, toilet paper, razors, shampoo, toothpaste, ibuprofen, batteries, pens, and plastic bags serve as happy surprises from trail angels to hikers.

DSCF11213) Showers are priceless.

While we’re on the subject of necessities, I met someone whose trail magic included a solar shower. Though I passed up the offer, given that I’d just showered two days earlier and needed to put in a long day, I thought the shower was an awesome idea; there were a great many hikers who agreed with me and got in line.

4) Transportation is always a winner.

If you have a bit of extra time and don’t mind driving, consider offering hikers rides to a nearby town/outfitter/grocery store/hostel. One of the strangest things about being on the trail is how we feel completely independent in the woods but need to ask for help to do most anything when we come in contact with civilization. Case in point: To get anywhere, we need to depend on the kindness of strangers and hitchhike. Arguably, the most magical trail magic I received included a ride to the grocery store and a place to get dry on a rainy day.

5) Remember that conversation can be a gift in itself.

Finally, know that at least half of the fun of trail magic for thru-hikersDSCF1021 is our getting to meet the trail angels. Many of us spend a lot of time alone, and the simple pleasure of talking with someone else is so appreciated. Even better, at least in my mind, is conversation that is deep and thoughtful and about big ideas. There’s an old man in New Hampshire who lives just off the trail and offers hikers ice cream, popsicles, and wonderful conversation. Under the Tibetan prayer flags on his porch, I found him wearing an Obama T-shirt, and we spent the next couple of hours talking about everything from his children to hiking to LGBTQ issues. It was beautiful.

There are so many touching and inspiring stories with trail angels that I could recount (such as this one or even this one), but I’ll save them for another day. In the meantime, have a wonderful holiday season!  And, if you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about the trail magic you all have received and/or provided.

Shelter Pizza Triple Crown

A thru-hike involves several months of backpacking through beautiful places and meeting interesting people. It may seem counterintuitive that, when asked what they thought about in a given day, most thru-hikers mention daydreams or extended thoughts about food. One ubiquitous food craving among backpackers is that for pizza.

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Sunrise at the Fontana Hilton

Most of the time, pizza can only be obtained when hikers get off the trail and head into town; unlike a surprising number of dishes, it’s difficult to replicate pizza on a backpacking stove. However, there are a few shelters along the Appalachian Trail where hikers can get pizza delivered. Some of these shelters are familiar destinations for local pizzerias, but others are more unusual. Inspired by a supper of pizza at a shelter in Pennsylvania in 2011, I created the notion of the “Shelter Pizza Triple Crown” during my thru-hike. Always up for challenges and games, thru-hikers shared the idea and embraced the challenge. And, of course, I worked to earn the title of Shelter Pizza Triple Crowner myself.

The first pizza delivery was perhaps the most difficult to arrange. I’d read that some pizzeria delivered to the last shelter south of the Smokies, the Fontana Hilton, which I’ll describe in another post. As a result, I planned to spend the night at the shelter and looked forward to a cheese-less pizza topped with pizza sauce, broccoli, and spinach for days before arriving there. I was, therefore, more persistent than I might have been when I got to the shelter, called the pizzeria whose number was written on the shelter floor, and learned that they did not deliver to the shelter. I called a local trail angel who shuttled hikers around and asked him if he’d be able to pick up pizzas for the shelter. He seemed to think it would be a fun mission and, after some difficulties getting the orders right, pizza was finally, blissfully enjoyed around 8:00.

Because of the difficulties involved in arranging a delivery to the Fontana Hilton, I considered it a bonus shelter in the Triple Crown.

The first official shelter of the Shelter Pizza Triple Crown was Partnership Shelter in Virginia. Quiver and I arrived at Partnership amidst pouring rain in the middle of the day to find at least a dozen hikers inside. Uncharacteristically, they were unwelcoming (other hikers reported receiving the same feeling from that group of people), so we pressed on to the visitor center where pizzas would be delivered anyway. I shivered and tried to dry off inside the ranger’s station, where I looked at the books and taxidermy collection while I waited for the pizzas to arrive. When they did, the rain stopped, and Quiver and I lunched outside. While I’d only had a small pizza at the Fontana Hilton, I finished the greater portion of a large pizza near Partnership Shelter and packed the rest of it out with me for dinner.

Next up in the Triple Crown was the 501 Shelter of Pennsylvania, which is a sizable bunkhouse next to a home. The bunkhouse was once a pottery studio, and it has a lovely glass dome in the center of the ceiling, through which sun and moonlight stream. Several restaurants deliver to the shelter, and, both times I’ve stopped by, I’ve sincerely enjoyed the conversations and hospitality from the shelter’s neighbors. (Conversational blue blaze: When I arrived at the shelter in 2011, it was after some fast, big-mile days, and I was utterly exhausted. I collapsed on a bunk in the mid-afternoon and woke up to find a semi-circle of empty folding chairs assembled around me: Booksmarts, a thru-hiker who’d been hiking near me, had arranged them while I was sleeping as a practical joke. I have very fond memories of that shelter.) From the 501 Shelter, it’s only a few days and a few million rocks before hikers arrive at another pizza-friendly shelter in Pennsylvania.

The final jewel in the Shelter Pizza Triple Crown was Eckville Shelter, a shed-turned-bunkhouse on private property — private property that, I recently learned, once belonged to the author of Journey on the Crest (a book about the PCT). Getting pizza delivered to this shelter is as easy as getting it delivered to the 501 Shelter. And, so many hikers order pizza at Eckville that it’s easy to find people to share pizzas and delivery costs with. The picnic table and bathhouse feel like the perfect complements to any Shelter Pizza Triple Crown finale.

All that said, when I thru-hiked, I came across another shelter or two where I heard that roundabout pizza deliveries could be procured. Hikers, have you come across other shelters that I should add to my list?

Meal Idea: Chili

WILD_movie_posterFirst things first:  This aspiring PCT thru-hiker got to see Wild last night!  Before I write about what I thought of the movie, I feel I should explain my thoughts on the Wild phenomenon.  I like to think I read Cheryl Strayed’s book “before it was cool,” and I definitely was planning my thru-hike (and had already hiked the AT) before the book came out.  Nonetheless, I have no complaints about the attention the book and, now, the movie are bringing to the trail.  (In fact, it bothers me how elitist and sexist some of the criticism of the book from within the hiker community has been.)  If, in years to come, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir brings more passionate, idealistic hikers to the trail hoping to use their time in the wilderness to overcome past wounds and become the people they want to be, I think that would be a beautiful thing.

Anyway, I sincerely enjoyed the movie.  I didn’t love it as much as I loved the book, but that’s kind of typical for me.  In my opinion, curling up with a book is just a more moving, intimate experience than watching a movie ever is.  I was amazed at how well Reese Witherspoon embodied my imagined Cheryl Strayed.  There were lots of little details that I loved — from the retro Clif Bar wrapper to Strayed’s ragged breathing in her spoken thoughts.  The movie wasn’t an account of Strayed’s hike, but neither was the book; both depicted her journey, in the larger sense.  I thought that it was a beautiful movie.  (If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!)

So, anyway, chili.

I grew up terrified of beans.  My best guess as to why that is, is my mother’s rigid avoidance of them.  It wasn’t until I’d been a vegetarian for more than a decade that I finally ate them — and found that, not only could I tolerate them, I really liked them.  As a whole new world opened up to me, it was only a matter of time before I’d discover the wonders of chili and appreciate it as the perfect cold-weather meal.

Eating rehydrated chili on the trail begins with making normal chili at home.  If you’re more familiar with the dish than 20-year-old Rainbow Dash had been, you probably have a favorite chili recipe.  (If you don’t, you could go to the Trail’s End Festival in Millinocket, ME, and taste-test your way around the chili cook-off.)

When I’m making chili for the trail, I begin with just a few ingredients:

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes (cans of diced and pureed tomatoes provide easy shortcuts)
  • Beans (cans of kidney, black, and even garbanzo beans)
  • TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein, either of a generic brand or the flavored “crumbles” that Morningstar makes)
  • Chili powder and any other complimentary spices I’m fond of at the moment

Cooking chili is a simple as sautéing the onions, garlic, and peppers, stirring in the remaining ingredients, and then adding salt and pepper and other flavors until it tastes the way you like it.  Because dehydrating food sometimes seems to diminish the food’s flavor, it’s generally a good idea to over-spice and over-season foods for a backpacking trip.  And, unless you are proficient in dehydrating corn, I recommend leaving it out of your chili; that’s one of those foods that tends to give novice dehydrators some issues.

After you’ve got a nice pot of chili, just spoon it thinly onto lined dehydrator trays and put it in your dehydrator for 8 hours or so at a medium setting.  When the food is dry inside and out, divide it among Ziploc freezer bags and stick it in your pack or resupply box.  All you’ll need to do when you get to camp is add boiling water to the bag and let the food rehydrate for 5-10 minutes.

When I’m backpacking, I like to add rice to my chili (which I add cook, dehydrate, and add to the bags before I pack them) or serve it burrito-style in tortillas — or both.  However I serve it, it’s a great way to warm up on a chilly evening or after a rainy day hiking in Maine.

Meal Idea: Backpacking Dinner Staples

Because my backpacking trips are often multi-month endeavors, I tend to know about them quite awhile in advance.  As a result, I usually get a chance to plan out my dehydrated meals carefully and cook big batches of each dish, which I then divvy up among the weeks of the trek.  However, most hikers and backpackers take shorter trips and might decide to head into the woods on a whim, when vacation days pile up and inspiration strikes.  This meal idea is for those hikers.

Preparing a delicious, rehydrateable meal — or a week’s worth of the same — after work on Thursday night before heading out for a trip on the weekend is simple.  You just need to spend a bit of time in the supermarket and utilize some very-American microwaveable packaging.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A packet (or two or three or five) of Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice — Feel free to experiment with flavors and spices.  My favorite used to be Thai-style rice, but I haven’t found that packet for a year or so.  I think I prefer Spanish-style and teriyaki these days.
  • A packet (or two or three or five) of microwaveable vegetable mixes — Again, it’s fun to experiment with combinations and flavors.  I have a soft spot for the Asian Medley by Bird’s Eye, but I can’t really think of one that I don’t like.  It’s hard to go wrong with vegetables.  (Except water chestnuts.)
  • A can (or two or three or five) of beans — I tend to go for black beans, dark red kidney beans, or garbanzos, and I select the variety by considering what might pair well with the rice and veggies I’ve selected.  As a vegan, I also love using strip-style meat substitutes (or vegetarian steak tips) for this category.
  • Tortillas

Shopping for ingredients is actually the most difficult part of the process.  Once you’ve gathered all your supplies, simply microwave the rice and veggies (and meat substitutes, if that’s the route you chose to go).  Then, chop any large vegetables into small pieces to ensure that they will dehydrate quickly and completely; drain and rinse the beans; spread the rice, veggies, and protein onto dehydrating trays; and let them dry for 5-8 hours.

Once your food has dehydrated, assemble quart-size Ziploc freezer bags with a serving or two each of rice, vegetables, and protein and toss them, along with several tortillas, into your pack.  Then, you’re ready to hit the trail!  After each day of hiking, just rehydrate the mixture in a bag, wrap it in a tortilla, and enjoy a warm dinner burrito.

Meal Idea: Lentils, Veggies, and Couscous

One of my favorite meals of this past backpacking season is also wonderfully simple.  If you’re looking for a meal that’s easy to prepare, quick to dehydrate, faster to rehydrate, and satisfyingly filling, this might be a good choice for you.

What you’ll need:

  • Your favorite lentils — I’m partial to green or brown lentils in this dish because I appreciate their texture.
  • Couscous — The last time I made this recipe, I was being cautious around salt because of an upcoming kidney surgery, so I just used plain couscous.  However, if you, like me, enjoy and need extra salt while you’re on the trail, you might consider either liberally adding salt and spices to plain couscous or using pre-seasoned couscous.
  • Vegetables — Choose your favorites.  I definitely recommend the addition of broccoli, and cauliflower, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, and onions are also good choices.
  • Spices: curry powder, cumin, garam masala, cayenne pepper

1)  Cook lentils according to package directions.  Again, I’m of the opinion that it’s always a good choice to err on the side of over-flavoring trail food, so use salt, pepper, and spices freely.

2)  Cut vegetables into smallish pieces and steam them or saute them in a bit of oil long enough to soften them slightly.  I know, I know:  “Smallish” isn’t very precise.  What you’re looking for is pieces that will cook quickly.  Before you stick the veggies in the dehydrator, you can slice any veggies that are large enough that they’ll slow down the dehydrating process.  And, obviously, firmer veggies should be thrown in the pan before softer veggies, onions should be allowed to brown slightly, etc.; standard cooking practices apply to backpacking food, too.

3)  Add spices to the veggies.  This is the fun part!  You’ll probably want quite a bit of curry powder on the veggies, a fair bit of cumin and garam masala, and a pinch of cayenne.  Toss the veggies thoroughly to coat them, let them cook in the seasonings, taste them, and then adjust the flavors as necessary.

4)  Dehydrate the lentils and the veggies for 6+ hours or until they are completely hard and dry, both to the eye and to the touch.  Taste test some of the larger pieces to ensure that they’re dehydrated all the way through.

5)  Get out couscous and divide it among as many quart-size Ziploc freezer bags as you’ll be using for the veggies and the lentils.  I generally use two “normal-person” servings of every ingredient in any backpacking dinner I’m making.  Divide the lentils and couscous among the bags, as well.

When you get to camp, just boil water and add enough to the freezer bag to cover the dehydrated food.  Let the bag sit for a few minutes, stirring/squishing occasionally and adding more water if necessary.  Then, get out your spork and enjoy!