Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sometimes six hours of full-contact bushwhacking nets 10 good turns, and sometimes not.

Looking at mountains and looking at maps and wondering if things could work out: most of the decent places to ski are pretty well known, but there’s a lot of terrain and not a lot of skiers and so it’s possible to find good places that seem like new worlds. Such exploratory skiing rarely worked in Utah, which does have good snow but also has skiing which is really concentrated into a relative handful of high bowls, all of which are well known and most of which receive traffic nearly around the clock.

What I call “Sheep Mountain” is visible from most of town and was the subject of a tree-thinning project (I think) some years back, which makes for interesting-looking terrain on the front; maps and satellite suggest more interesting-looking terrain on the back and side, which is the west end of the massive sprawl of a mountain that begins on Wisherd Ridge above the Blackfoot and ends in the Rattlesnake.

Here’s the mountain in question snapped this morning on my commute. (Yeah, the low elevation snow is looking pretty scrappy.) (If you look closely to the right of the summit there is a smaller, whiter rounded peak -- this is near the summit of Wisherd Ridge (I think) mentioned a few paragraphs down.)

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Deciding when to go on these outings is a bit of a juggle. Because there’s a good chance you’ll be wasting your time you don’t want to go on the best day of the season, but also because you want to give the mountain a fair shot at offering decent conditions you don’t want to go on the worst day, either. I rallied early on Saturday, alone because I did not want to subject anyone else to such folly, and found not only very good ski conditions but also a skin track nearly to the summit – so apparently it’s not such a secret after all. I guess if 60,000 other people spend all winter looking at the same thing someone is bound to get up there at some point.

From the top, out to the Sapphire:

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Headed down, a quick snap of Missoula, Jumbo, Hellgate, and East Missoula:

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Also not a secret: Lubrecht. Nice night in a “boxcar” cabin and cross-country skiing.

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Eric and I went up Wisherd proper on Sunday, making the summit in less than four hours despite feeling awful and a bit of trailbreaking. Definitely not a secret, but oddly vacant on a day of great snow.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Weekend update.

Decent conditions on Grassy Mountain once you were out of the wind:

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Fair conditions in the synchilla aisle at the Patagonia outlet, but at least the floor was clean.

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Cooper and Autumn made a discovery: a hitherto unknown state park, Clark's Lookout (that's his old compass they're crawling on).

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Maverick, not known for its great snow, delivered what for Maverick was great snow.

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Little footsteps kept the lodge deck clear.

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And the Big Hole delivered the usual: snowdrifted roads, long-range views, and a mildly tense watch of the falling gas needle and wide open expanse beyond.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Here it is, the least accurate, most ambiguous molé recipe of all time.

Molé is to Mexico sort of like barbeque is to America: most states have their own recipe and each recipe has fierce fans. Molé is Mexican food, to be sure, but its roots are pre-Columbian, and so lacks nacho cheese and sour cream. As it has national food status, it also has proponents who insist on meticulous methods of preparation. Those methods are interesting and would probably be fun to follow if you had a spare day: yeah, it’s pretty labor intensive. I’ve cooked mole several times and keep cutting steps out of the process; the taste to me is the same and the result is hours saved. Like most things in life, for 5 percent of the effort you get 95 percent of the results; it’s that last little bit on the road to prefect that takes so freaking long.

Molé is a sauce, and molé de Oaxaqueño, from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is probably the most famous in America because it includes chocolate. No, you won’t taste the chocolate, but it’s fun to tell people it’s in there. We sort of had a chocolate-themed lunch at work last week, and I made the Oaxaqueño mole, and did the cooking in about two hours this time. Here’s the recipe:


10 dried, halved, de-seeded and de-stemmed red chilies (the proper recipe calls for a mix of pasilla, ancho, and others, but I’d recommend whatever you have or whatever is cheapest – believe me, you won’t taste any difference by the time we are done)
1 onion, diced
1 head of garlic, peeled
A handful of almonds, a handful of pecans, and a half-handful of sunflower seeds
5 tomatillos, peeled, washed and quartered
1 piece of white bread or a flour tortilla
a few ounces of dark (eating or baking) chocolate, or dark cocoa powder
a few peppercorns
a teaspoon or so of cumin and cinnamon
a handful of raisins
3-4 cups of chicken broth

Making it:

1. If you have a four-burner stove, put a thick pot or pan on each burner and turn the burners to medium. If you have a six-stove, do the same with all six. Perform the following roasting, sauteeings, and whatnots in the pots and pans, rotating as different ingredients finish.

2. Sauté the onion in a bit of oil along with the bread or tortilla cut into pieces. Remove that stuff and then sauté the raisins until they puff up -- just a few minutes.

3. Dry roast the chilies until they darken (open the window – that smoke can get thick). Then, boil them in water for a few minutes.

4. Roast the nuts until they darken. Roast the garlic until it darkens. Roast the peppercorns. Roast the tomatillos. Roast anything else I forgot to mention. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES put a banana in this sauce. Some recipes call for a banana, and I did it once, and it was awful. Peanut butter, on the other hand, could be OK.

5. Put each of the ingredients in a big food processor, probably starting with the onions and bread, then moving on to the nuts, and then whatever is left over. Puree all the stuff and add chicken broth to keep things going. The color should be close to black and the consistency should be, well, saucy.

6. I think traditionally this mole is served with turkey (and over rice), but I prefer chicken. Whatever you do, sauté the meat and then add the sauce and let it stew for a while -- maybe 20-30 minutes.

Molé looks like diarrhea when you take a picture of it, so here’s a photo of a baby at a ski lodge instead:

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OK, and while I'm at it, here's a photo of a baby at the Patagonia store in Dillon:

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

The sheltering sky.

So I hit things hard every weekend, but I try and always go someplace different. Even so, there's only six or so roads out of Missoula, so I'm surprised when I realize how long it's been since I've been to a particular place. Last week, pulling into the parking lot at Discovery, I realized it had been almost two years since I'd been there. Looking at a map later, I realized it's been more than two years since I even drove through Fernie.

'...but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life ... But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.'

Ironically, I first heard that Paul Bowles quote when Larry Levis read it. Not three years later Levis had a heart attack and died while sitting at his desk.

February 9, 2013: outside Mt. Fernie Provincial Park, west of the ski area and east of Island Lake Lodge.



From the Lizard Range, looking down at the town of Fernie and northeast toward the Continental Divide.


February 10, 2013: Tunnel Creek, south of Fernie toward Elko.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Yonum L. K. C. Mhango.

In 1997 I quit my job, moved out of Utah, and bought a one-way ticket from Houston to Addis Ababa, via Paris and Sana’a. I haven’t been back to eastern and southern Africa since, but I’d be surprised if traveling now is nearly as hard as it was then. This was, for the most part, before email and Internet, so to get news from home I either had to arrange to collect mail from an American Express office or take my chances at a call center. Personal security was a major deal, and you also had to be able to glean from the local papers, bartenders, and taxi drivers what the political stability was like. A lot of commodities were hard to come by, and finding food in some places could be tough. Hotels were bare bones, bus rides were epic, etc., etc.

Malawi, a sliver of a country south of Tanzania and north of Mozambique, was sort of a refuge from a lot of the bothers of Africa (though finding food was often an issue – often all there was to eat was bony fish soup and nsima*). Quiet, temperate, scenic, and mostly safe, Malawi was even more of a haven because you had to pass through fairly treacherous terrain just to get there. I spent a month in the tiny country and even extended my visa. About my third week in I was in Livingstonia, a tiny settlement atop a misty forested plateau, staying in a colonial home used by missionaries. One day while wandering around I was trying to get some shopping done, and wandered up to the store run by Yonum L. K. C. Mhango.

Mhango’s shop was the size of an airplane toilet, and sold the exact same thing as the other dozen stores in Livingstonia: toilet paper, mosquito coils, matches, and soap. (The endless rows of stores in places like Malawi selling identical commodities is one of the maddening sights that confronted travelers.) I don’t remember which of the four products I was shopping for, but I ended up chatting with Mhango and, like you do a dozen times a day in Africa, we exchanged addresses. The next day I was on the road again.

About six months after returning to the United States I got my first letter from Mhango. I have it but don’t need to read it as it reads practically word-for-word the same as all his subsequent letters have: “Hello Jeff. How are things in the United States? I am fine. I am hoping that some day you can come again to visit me in Livingstonia.” Mhango talks about the local crops, an upcoming holiday, the endless cycle of rain and sun that marks time in Malawi, and ends with messages of good tidings to my family. (He was then and as far as I can tell still is a single guy – pretty unusual. His right hand is slightly deformed, and I don’t know if that hurts his dating chances.)


The letters continued at a pace of about once a year, arriving in dusty airmail envelopes and on written on crinkly grade-school lined paper. One year he sent a large crudely-carved fish, with nails for eyes and a small stand which for several years sat on my desk at work and is now perched on a bookshelf at home where Cooper can eye it warily. I did the math later, converting kwacha to dollars, and was stunned to see he spent $16 to mail the package – as that’s a month’s salary I suspect he either bribed the postmaster or bought used or black market stamps. I returned a few letters but gradually lost interest as he never answered any questions or even really wrote anything different – each letter was nearly the same as the last. I also got frustrated as he never seemed to understand the concept of using a new address – since I first gave him my address I’ve probably lived in a dozen places, and his letters are always chasing my around the US despite how often I tell him I’ve moved. Nevertheless, I did reciprocate his gifts a few times with boxes of clothes, shoes, and more which I bought at first from Salvation Army and Deseret Industries and, later, from K-mart. Occasionally Mhango would ask for money for a business venture or sponsorship to come to the United States, but I brushed those requests aside and he never brought them up again.

After moving to Montana I did not hear anything from Mhango for a few years, until recently, when I started getting letters again – and emails. Yonum L. K. C. Mhango now has a gmail account and can use the village cell phone to send texts. He has also sent a few pictures, always of him alone and looking solemn and usually standing in front of Livingstonia’s grand brick church, looking neat in poor-fitting clothes, but otherwise somber and lonely.


Who knows. Maybe someday I will go back to Malawi and see the old guy.

(*Funny story about nsima: one night in a small town I was walking the restaurant row, where very simple places served plates of food to groups of mostly men who sat on plastic tables on the sidewalk. Place after place said all they had was fish soup and nsima, a staple of East Africa and similar to a bland watery heap of grits. What you did was gather a ball of nsima in your hand and dip it in the soup. I was not about to have fish soup and was pretty sick of tasteless nsima. Finally when the tenth place said all they had was soup and nsima, I exclaimed “But I hate nsima." And a random guy sitting at plastic table looked up and said, “Yes. Nsima. It’s so bad, but it’s so good.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Roll your own.

A couple times a week we have just beans and rice for dinner, and to spruce things up usually also have tortillas, and most all of the time I make the tortillas myself. I got into making my own tortillas years ago while backpacking in Guatemala. I guess I thought tortillas simply came from machines somewhere, but there along the streetsides of every town were women patting out corn tortillas and cooking them on car fenders and hoods positioned over charcoal fires. I experimented for a while with corn tortillas from a mix but never liked the results, then moved on to flour tortillas, also from a mix, and was more satisfied. After moving to Missoula I forewent mixes and did all my tortilla making from scratch.

Tortillas from scratch can be done with regular around-the-house ingredients, and I estimate I can make a batch of a dozen for less than 25 cents and in about half an hour. Better, there's really no way to mess them up, and I only measure the flour and water and just eyeball the rest. (One thing that does help is that our well has very minerally water, which I think makes them fluffier. San Antonio, which I saw somewhere was the Tortilla Capital of the World, also has famously minerally water.)

Here's my recipe:

3 cups regular flour; 1 cup very hot water; a handful of shortening; about a teaspoon of salt; about a teaspoon of baking powder

1. Mix the flour, shortening, salt, and baking powder. Then, add the hot water and knead into a ball. Add flour or water if it's too wet/too dry. It should look about like this:


2. Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let it sit somewhere warm for a few minutes; I put it atop the radiator. While the dough is rising, heat up your griddle. We use, courtesy of my parents, a good-sized plug-in griddle, though before I got that I used the largest, thickest frying pan I could find. Or, you could use a car hood -- whatever happens to work. Whatever it is, it needs to be good and hot.

3. Take a scoop of dough and sort of roll it out so the creases disappear. Nothing perfect, but perhaps like this:


4. On a floured surface, roll the dough out into something that looks like the sort of tortilla you want to eat. Mine are about 8 inches across and not totally round circles. I like mine thick, but Laura likes them thin. Does not matter. Here's what passes as acceptable at our house:


5. Put the tortilla on the griddle and cook about 90 seconds per side.

6. Here is the finished result:


Meanwhile, in the Bitterroot:


Funny moment below Lappi Lake on Saturday: I skinned 5.25 miles up Bass Creek Canyon and hooked a left to climb toward Lappi Lake, but misjudged things and had about an hour of full body contact thrashing in a heinous forest before popping up at the lake and making it most of the way to the summit. Along the way most of the time I could look back and see the hulking behemoth of St. Joe across the canyon -- one of the Bitterroot's biggest peaks. Anyway, I had a nice descent and on the way out tried to traverse north to miss the worst of the forest and coming around a knob saw a party of two in the bowl across from me who had come up the way I though was better. Even though they were 50 yards away the acoustics meant we could have a perfectly normal conversation. After talking snow for a moment I said, "Don't follow my tracks into the forest -- it's a morass." One of the guys thanked me, paused for a moment, and added "And don't follow our tracks either -- the forest we came through is awful."

A bit more of a chat revealed that they had left the trailhead an hour ahead of me and already summitted St. Joe, and were just having a fun tour to Lappi to take in the scenery. BURLY!

Parting shot: baby's first time skiing.