My Tree of Life

A Navajo rug with a story behind it.

One of my few prized possessions — indeed, one of the very first things I packed when I returned to Arizona in September 2012, expecting the quick divorce my wasband claimed he wanted — is my Navajo rug. This is the real deal, woven by a woman named Rena Mountain who lives on the Navajo Reservation at Cedar Ridge, AZ. Ms. Mountain is known for her pictorial rugs and seems to be an expert on the Tree of Life design.

Re-Hanging My Rug

I unpacked the rug about a week ago to show Kirk. I’d been thinking about it for a while, wondering where I could hang it, and I didn’t want to pull it out until I was ready. But I also wanted to show off this prized possession to someone I thought might appreciate its beauty. (I’m not sure how impressed Kirk was.) I knew that finding a place to hang it would take some thought.

One of the great things about my new home is the windows that line most of the walls. But those windows leave very little room to hang art. They also let in a lot of sunlight — much of it direct at certain times of the day and year — that can fade colors and cause sun damage. Where could I hang it where I’d enjoy its beauty while protecting it from direct sunlight?

And if you’re wondering why I don’t just put it on the floor — after all, it is a rug — you’ve probably never owned something so beautiful and relatively valuable. Simply said, this isn’t something I could imagine walking on. Ever.

I finally decided to hang it in the hallway across from the bathroom door. There’s a little stretch of hallway there and the walls of the hall perfectly frame the rug’s 45 x 60 inch size.

Back in Arizona, I’d hung it in the living room near the fireplace with velcro on a piece of wood that fastened directly to the wall with screws. I’d sewn the soft side of the wide velcro strip to the back of the rug using big, fat, easy-to-remove stitches. I’d stapled the rough side of the velcro strip to the wood using a staple gun. Then my wasband had drilled holes in the wood and, using molly bolts for extra support in the drywall, screwed the wood strip onto the wall. When I’d taken down the rug, I’d taken down the wood strip, too. I’d even, by some miracle, kept the molly bolts and screws. So I had everything I needed to re-hang it in my new home.

Tree of Life by Rena Mountain
My Navajo rug, hung in its new home.

I did this yesterday afternoon, using my stud finder to confirm that a stud was not available and a level to make sure I mounted the wood strip properly on the wall. The whole job, including fastening the rug to the wood strip, took just 10 minutes.

And it looks great. I can even reposition the track lights in the hallway to shine directly on it if I’d like to.

I posted this photo on Facebook when I was done. Almost immediately, my friend Jeremy asked for the story behind the rug.

How did he know there was a story? There is and it’s a pretty good one. I promised a blog post — this one — to tell it.

The Story behind the Rug

It was in September of 2000 or 2001. Or possibly 2002. I’d been living in Arizona for a few years. My writing career was building momentum and I’d finished my Quicken book, which ruined ever summer, a few weeks before. I had free time and was eager to get away for a while after working too many 12-hour days at my desk to get the book done on time.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea — it might have been me — but I decided to take a road trip with two friends to the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock. This is an annual event, like a county fair, but its held on the reservation and has a definite Navajo flavor, with lots of Navajo arts and crafts, food, and dancing. Along the way, we’d go exploring on the Reservation, visit the Hopi Reservation (which is completely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation), and do whatever struck our fancy. In other words, we make things up as we went along. I love traveling like that.

My two companions for the trip were Shorty and Martin.

Shorty was about 10-15 years older than me, a real cowgirl who spoke with a Texas drawl and had been married four or five times. She was short (hence the name), lean, and kind of gnarly, with skin browned and somewhat wrinkled from too much time in the sun. She was currently between husbands, living in her pickup camper in a friend’s yard, with her horse staying in a pen there. Over the two or more years we were friends, she’d move from place to place — even spending a few weeks camped out in my yard and housesitting for me — work at a local dude ranch, and train my rather difficult paint horse. I’d also be the maid of honor at her Las Vegas wedding — and that’s one hell of a crazy story — spend an evening catching Colorado River toads at an off the grid adobe house she lived in for a while, and dog sit for her three dogs while she went to England with what she hoped would be her next husband — another long story.

Martin was a young — maybe 35 years old? — good-looking guy from Germany. Like so many Europeans, he’d fallen in love with the west and dreamed of being a cowboy with a Fresian horse. (Not exactly a practical choice with all that hair to keep neat and brushed.) He was in the U.S. on a visa and was friends with the man who owned the local German restaurant. He tagged along with us, smoking whenever we stopped for a break. Shorty insisted on pronouncing his name mar-TEEN, claiming that it was the German pronunciation. Since he never corrected her, I got into the habit of doing the same.

The three of us headed north in my Jeep from Wickenburg, AZ. Martin sat in the back with the luggage in the tiny space behind him.

We pretty much bee-lined it up to the Hopi Reservation. Shorty wanted to send a friend a postcard from Old Orabi, which was founded back in 1100, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements within the United States. We got there and I don’t recall there being much to see. That has a lot to do with the simple fact that the Hopi people do not generally welcome visitors and many of them prefer to continue their traditional lifestyles. We walked around among a lot of seemingly deserted pueblo style homes — the Hopi are a Pueblo tribe — and then moved on to a Post Office where Shorty could mail her card. I’m pretty sure that was Hotevilla-Bacavi, also on Third Mesa.

The post office had a bulletin board and there was a card on it advertising fresh ground cornmeal. We found a payphone — back in those days, we didn’t all have cell phones — and called the number. We then got directions to a Hopi woman’s house nearby. We drove over and were welcomed in. The house was simple but modern, sparsely furnished but clean and comfortable. I clearly remember there being a bunch of kittens playing together in one of the rooms. The cornmeal, we were told, was leftover from a wedding ceremony. (Corn is an important crop to the Hopi people and plays a big role in their traditions.) It was stored in a big galvanized trashcan, lined with a plastic bag. The woman used a tin can to scoop out the cornmeal — did I mention that it was blue? — and put it into a Bluebird Flour bag (which I still have). Shorty paid for the cornmeal — I can’t remember how much, but it wasn’t much. The woman, likely seeing the opportunity of spreading tourist dollars to friends, told us about another woman who made dance shawls. Before you could say Kykotsmovi Village, we were off to another home. Shorty wound up buying two or three of the shawls. They weren’t my style, so I declined.

I totally enjoyed this side trip — cornmeal and dance shawls — because it gave me an opportunity to see the modern culture of these very private people.

Afterwards, we stopped by the Hopi Cultural Center, where I bought a “Grandmother” cradle Kachina, thus starting my limited Kachina collection. Our last stop in the Hopi land was Tsakurshovi, a native crafts shop in Shongopovi. That’s where I was introduced to Hopi Tea. I’d later come back to this wonderful shop several times to add to my Kachina collection.

We continued on our way, leaving the Hopi Reservation and continuing through the Navajo Reservation. We stopped at the Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, which is a National Historic Site and still a trading post. I wandered into the Rug Room and that’s when I saw it: the most beautiful rug I’d ever laid eyes on. Rena Mountain’s Tree of Life.

I fully admit that when I looked at the price tag I had a serious case of sticker shock. I’d never spent that kind of money on anything that couldn’t be driven or slept in.

I left the room and continued wandering around the Trading Post. But I kept thinking about it.

I wanted the rug. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as utterly impractical as that rug as badly as I wanted that rug.

I grabbed Shorty and brought her into the room to see it. I was hoping she’d talk me out of buying it. But how could she? It was beautiful. And we both knew that I could afford it.

Yes, I could afford it. As I said earlier, my writing career was booming and I was bringing in more in royalties every year. I’d been investing in real estate and, in October 2000, bought my first helicopter. But my mind was stuck in budget mode and the idea of spending that kind of money on a rug I couldn’t even walk on was outrageous.

But I could afford it. And Shorty wasn’t going to talk me out of it.

So I got a sales person and brought her over to the rug. I timidly asked if they could do anything for me on the price. She cut it by $500. The next thing I knew, I was at the cash register with my American Express card out.

The cashier had to call American Express. They wanted to talk to me. I’d never spent this much on my card before and they wanted to make sure it was me.

The clerk folded up the rug and they put it in a plastic bag that looked remarkably like a garbage bag. I put it in the Jeep, way under the seat. For the next few days, I’d take it into the motel room at night and worry about someone stealing it out of the Jeep during the day.

We continued the trip. The Navajo Nation Fair was an amazing event. We saw more rugs on display — if I hadn’t already bought one, I would have bought one at the fair — ate mutton, saw traditional dancing and costumes, and watched the country’s only all-Indian rodeo, which was announced in both English and Navajo.

After two days of that — staying in a Gallup Hotel because Window Rock’s were booked — we headed out to Canyon de Chelly near Chinle, AZ. This is a National Monument with limited access. Because we had a 4WD vehicle, we hired a Navajo guide who rode with us in the Jeep and told us about what we were seeing. I loved the sound of his voice and the way he phrased things and repeated certain things in almost a sing-songy way. It was there that I learned about the brutality of Custer and his soldiers and got an idea of how mistreated Native Americans were in the 1800s. When I saw a point of interest — some rock formation — and asked him about it, he was strangely quiet. I asked him if there was some significance to the place that they didn’t share with visitors and he nodded. I asked him if there were many places in the canyon like that and he nodded again. I didn’t ask any more. I respect the culture and privacy of these people. Not everything needs to be a tourist attraction or photo opportunity.

I don’t remember getting into Monument Valley on that trip. I suspect we went home right after Canyon de Chelly. I do recall exploring a road back near Tuba City with views down from a mesa top and seeing petroglyphs that weren’t on any map. Real exploring — not following tourist guidebooks — that’s how I like to travel.

Certificate of Authenticity
The Certificate of Authenticity, with a photo of the weaver, hung beside the rug for years.

I got home with the rug and, with my wasband’s assistance, hung it on the wall as described above. I took the tag, which featured a photo of Ms. Mountain holding up the rug, and asked my friend Janet’s partner to mat and frame it for me. It hung on the wall beside the rug. (I just spent about 30 minutes looking for a photo of how they hung together but can’t find one — all the photos I have of my house’s interior are either of damage/neglect by my wasband while I was in Washington or after I’d begun packing. As I mentioned earlier, the rug was one of the first things to be packed.)

Postscript

Time marched on. Although that was one of the most memorable trips of my life, it was not to be repeated. Shorty married Martin to keep him from getting booted out of the country. I was maid of honor/witness at the crazy Las Vegas wedding. Later, Shorty met her “soulmate,” a retiree from Britain who stayed at the dude ranch where she worked. Their courtship lasted a few months, during which time I assume she and Martin were divorced. But the wedding plans fell through and it wasn’t long before both she and Martin fell out of my life.

I went back to the Navajo Nation Fair the following year. It was a non-event. The Navajo young people were wearing the same falling-down pants as the rest of the brain-dead youth in our country and much of the charm I’d experienced the year before was gone. You know what they say: you can never go back. This is a perfect example.

But the rug remains and now it hangs in my new home to be part of my new life.

I’m glad to have it and the memories that go with it.

Creating Defensible Space

Fire season is serious business in the west.

Every fire season seems to get a little worse in the west — particularly in the Pacific Northwest where I now live. For the past four summers, we’ve had widespread wildfires, most of which were started by lightning strikes. Fires have been particularly threatening, if not downright damaging, near my new home:

  • In September 2012, lightning strikes started over 100 wildfires from Blewett Pass to Lake Chelan. Visibility dropped down to less than 1/2 mile in smoke and mandatory evacuations affected the Wenatchee Heights area that was my temporary home not long after I left for Arizona.
  • August Fire
    I was at a party at the airport on the evening of August 10 while Jumpoff Ridge was burning.

    In August 2013, lightning strikes started a handful of fires on Jumpoff Ridge, the cliffs that tower behind my current home. Although I’d just purchased the land and didn’t have anything on it, I was as alarmed as my neighbors when my road was put on mandatory evacuation, mostly because firefighters feared that burning debris would tumble down the cliffs and start new fires on our level. (Fortunately, that didn’t happen.)

  • In July 2014, more than 300 homes were destroyed when a fire hit the community of Pateros, about 45 miles upriver from Wenatchee. Other fires up the Methow River near there destroyed forests, orchards, and a few more homes.
  • Sleepy Hollow Fire at Night
    I shot this photo of the Sleepy Hollow Fire on the night of June 28, 2015 from my deck using a 300 mm lens. It isn’t cropped. Although the fire was more than 8 miles from my home, I found it terrifying and could not sleep that night. A pair of heavy rainstorms the next day put the fire out — and started the Wolverine Fire up near Lake Chelan that’s still burning today.

    In June 2015, the Sleepy Hollow fire destroyed more than 20 homes in a Wenatchee subdivision overlooking the town. Burning embers from the fire traveled on the wind and touched off fires a half mile away, destroying 3 warehouses and fruit packing and storage facilities.

As I write this, there are dozens of fires all over Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. These fires are growing at alarming rates. The Okanogan Complex Fire, for example, started on Saturday, August 15 — that’s just 8 days ago — and has already grown to 227,206 acres. That’s 355 square miles — larger than the entire city of New York (all five boroughs).

Can you imagine all of New York City burning in a week?

And that’s just one of the monster fires. Chelan Complex has burned 87,412 acres in the Chelan area, North Star has burned 132,000 acres on the Colville Indian Reservation, and Grizzly Bear Complex has burned 59,150 acres in the Umatilla National Forest. The Interagency Inciweb website is currently tracking 26 fires in Washington State alone. The President has declared Washington a disaster area. This is some serious shit.

Although the closest fire is at least 20 miles from here, a wind shift has brought smoke into the valley. Visibility is less than 3 miles — I can’t even see the airport from my home. The smell of smoke is in the air. I spent much of yesterday outdoors doing light work and wound up with a sore throat from breathing smoke.

Visibility.jpg
On Friday, the air was very clear, although I could see the smoke cloud coming our way. This morning, the air is thick with smoke. I can barely see the buildings at the airport just 3 miles away.

The scariest part of fire season for those of us who live on the outskirts of town, surrounded by natural vegetation, is the fact that it doesn’t take much to start one of these crazy fires. Lightning is the most common cause, but fires have also been started by cigarette ash, sparks from chainsaws or mowers or ATVs, and even cars with hot engines parking on tall, dry grass. If Mother Nature doesn’t start a fire, some careless idiot might.

As you might imagine, the idea of “defensible space” is on many people’s minds. In theory, it means keeping enough clear area around your home so that firefighters can defend it from wildfire. That usually means cutting down trees and bushes and trimming long grass, surrounding your home with heavily irrigated vegetation such as green lawns or orchard trees, and removing any firewood or scrap wood piles near your home. If your home does not have defensible space, not only is it more likely to burn in a wildfire, but firefighters may not even try to defend it because of the danger it could put them in.

I did much of this over a month ago when I used my string mower to cut back the tall, dry grass on the side and back of my home. I debated cutting a few of the small sagebrush in the area — they burn hot and fast when ignited — but left them. The other two sides of my house have concrete and gravel and a small lawn.

Of course, some of us take it the next step by installing sprinkler systems that can be turned on, when needed, to soak the area. I did that the other day. I drove two 6-foot T-posts into the ground, one at each corner on the road side of my home. Then I fixed 50-foot sprinkler heads to the top of each one. I ran hose from my shed — which has extremely high water pressure — to the first sprinkler and another hose from that one to the second one. When I turned them on, they provided coverage along the entire road-side of the building, as well as about 50 feet down the front and back.

Sprinklers
Here’s my sprinkler setup on the road side of my home. I do need to move some of the scrap wood there, or cover it with some of the metal panels I have.

I want to add a third sprinkler to the roof of my shed, which would protect the shed and chicken coop. A fourth sprinkler head can be mounted on my deck in the other back corner of the building to provide some protection there.

My friends have been asking me whether I have a generator for the water pump. They assume I have a well. I don’t. I have city water which should keep flowing as long as the water company keeps it coming. I guess I should hope that they have generators.

Yes, I know it isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

The good thing is, my building is made of metal. So flying embers landing on the roof or against a wall should not be able to start a fire. There are some exposed wood beams, however, and I’m not fooling myself into thinking the building is fireproof. As too many folks around here have learned over the past few years, even metal buildings can burn if they’re subjected to enough heat. My goal is to prevent that heat from getting close enough.

I’m not the only one thinking about fire. Kirk has moved his vehicles into his orchard, which is far less likely to catch fire if fires come through the canyon where he lives.

Anyone who lives in an area prone to wildfire damage who doesn’t create defensible space around their home is an idiot, plain and simple. As we’ve seen this year, even homes in subdivisions that are normally safe from wildfire danger can be completely and utterly destroyed. Why would anyone fail to take steps to protect their home before such protection was absolutely necessary?

When the fires come, you often don’t have time to act before evacuation. I feel a bit of comfort knowing that I can get my sprinklers going in a matter of minutes now because they’re already in place. This might mean the difference between keeping my home standing and losing everything I own.

You’re the Pilot

A reminder — or bit of inspiration — for a Monday morning.

I am the queen of clutter and a big portion of my life is spent sorting and discarding things I don’t need to in an effort keep that clutter under control. The clutter naturally extends to my computer’s virtual desktop, with so many stray icons scattered about that I can barely see the photo beneath them. So, once again, this morning I found myself reviewing and discarding the items I didn’t need.

And that’s when I stumbled upon one of those Facebook or Twitter memes that goes around. You know what I’m talking about. Someone takes a photo and superimposes text over it to share a message. Because social network users respond better to images than plain old text, the image is viewed and the message is read. If it’s meaningful to the viewer and the viewer is a sharer, it gets shared. Eventually it ends up in your Facebook timeline or Twitter stream.

Or mine.

I see a ton of these every day — so many that I fully admit to unfollowing the people who share only these canned messages. The way I see it is that if you can’t come up with something original, there’s really no reason to follow you because whatever you share will likely come from someone else anyway. And who likes seeing the same old crap over and over?

And they are crap, for the most part. Quotes or idioms or just statements that are meant to be deep or meaningful or funny. Most of them completely miss the mark. The ones I hate the most are the ones where the image has absolutely nothing to do with the text superimposed on it. I’m not big on Bible quotes, either, especially when there are so many cafeteria-style Christians who haven’t bothered to read the whole Bible and simply share the quotes they think say it all. (Newsflash: they don’t.)

But every once in a while, one will come across my social media network and really mean something to me. Those are the ones I share. And if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll know just how rare it is that I share one of these.

And that’s what I found on my Desktop this morning. One that I’d seen and probably shared on February 19, 2015.

How do I know the exact date if I’m not even sure that I shared it? Easy. I copied the file to my Desktop and it was appropriately time- and date-stamped.

I don’t remember who shared it with me, but I suspect it came through on Twitter. If so, I likely retweeted it before saving it and likely sharing it on Facebook, too. If I wasn’t so lazy — or, in reality, eager to finish this up and get on with my day — I’d take a while to track it down. Ironically, this message sort of explains why I won’t bother.

I'm the Pilot

This particular meme is extremely meaningful to me on so many levels.

First, back in 2008, when my pilot friend Erik got sick with cancer, I found myself with a new sense of urgency in my life. I was 47 back then, not much younger than 54-year-old Erik. I saw myself stuck living in a place I didn’t want to be, mired in a life of [admittedly unusual] routine. While I worked hard, long hours when I had work to do — mostly writing books back then — I had lots of free time. That free time was being pissed away doing very little of interest. Time was flying and I knew time was the one thing I could never get back.

When Erik died the following year, it was easy to see how it could have been me. No one knows when The Big C will strike and how much damage it can do. What if it had been me? There were so many things I wanted to do with my life — things to learn, things to see, things to experience. I wanted to travel far and wide, to experience life in new ways. The dissatisfaction I’d begun to feel with my [admittedly cushy] life became more and more difficult to ignore.

Time was flying away from me and I was letting it.

At this point, I could go into yet another long dissertation about why I was stuck in Wickenburg and why I couldn’t change my life. As regular readers know, I was married at the time and my wasband was an anchor — and not in the positive sense of that metaphor. But in reality, it all comes down to me. I should have realized that my wasband was holding me back and that our relationship was going nowhere. But love and trust and the blind belief in lies and empty promises can play tricks on even the most analytical of people. I was a sucker and I paid for it.

And that’s where the second part of the quote comes in. You see, we all do have control over our lives. We can make excuses why we don’t, but we do.

Throughout our lives, we make decisions that put us into the circumstances in which we find ourselves. School, jobs, relationships, habits, spending. How many decisions do we make each day? How do those decisions affect how we live and what we do? What if we’d made different decisions — how would they have changed our circumstances today?

Think about where you are now and what decisions you made to get there. Happy or unhappy, it’s up to you.

Time flies, but you’re the pilot. You have control over your life.

Of course, this whole meme is made even more meaningful to me because I am a pilot. Literally. I fly helicopters and have been doing so for the past 15 years. I now make my living primarily as a pilot — although I do still write — and I’ve never felt happier or better about my life and my future.

Why? Because I finally took control of my life and made it what I wanted it to be.

Time flies and I’m the pilot.

Camping in the North Cascades

My first real camping trip in at least 15 years is an exhausting ton of fun.

Last week, Kirk and I went off-the-grid on a 5-day/4-night camping trip in Washington’s North Cascades National Park.

To many people, the North Cascades is a “drive-thru” park. That’s because one of the nation’s most scenic roads, the North Cascades Highway (SR 20) winds right through it. It’s also part of the Cascade Loop, a 400-mile driving tour through the Cascade Mountains. The loop runs right through Wenatchee, up Route 97 through Chelan, up the Methow Valley on Route 153, past Twisp and Winthrop on Route 20, and then through the North Cascades Mountains past Washington Pass and the Skagit River dams and their lakes: Ross, Diablo, and Gorge. It eventually dumps down into the Seattle area where it goes south, eventually hooking up with Route 2 for the eastbound leg up Highway 2 through Stevens Pass, Leavenworth, and Cashmere, back to Wenatchee.

Although I’ve spent eight summers in Washington and have been living full-time in the area for the past two years, I’d never driven any part of the North Cascades Highway. I was supposed to do a camping trip up there in September 2012, but more pressing matters brought me home to Arizona early that year. But this year, I planned two trips that way: a drive-thru trip on motorcycles with my friend Bob to Friday Harbor later this month and a camping trip with Kirk at the beginning of the month.

The Gear

I had all my camping gear from when I brought it to Washington in 2012. Back then, I had the silly notion that my wasband, who claimed to want to spend the summer with me, would go boat camping out on the Columbia River. So when I packed up my RV for my annual migration north, I packed up all the gear we’d need: the good tent, sleeping bags, cotton sleeping sacks, mess kit, lantern, etc. My wasband apparently had other ideas, so we never used the equipment together again. But it sure came in handy when I packed for this trip.

Although Kirk has an all-wheel-drive vehicle, I really wanted to take the Jeep. I thought there might be some back road opportunities. I’d already removed the back seat from the Jeep so there was plenty of open space back there. The trick was to stow the gear in boxes that would be organized and easy to pack.

Fortunately, I had a number of wheeled storage bins, including a very large, heavy duty Husky toolbox I’d bought to store tools before I had a building on my future homesite. That became the camping gear box and it held everything we’d need to set up camp: tent, sleeping bags, sleeping sacks, tarp, rope, bungee balls, queen sized air mattress, and three air pumps (two battery and one manual).

I used another smaller box for kitchen items: butane camp stove (which I’d bought in 2012 but had never used), two covered frying pans, a coffee pot, a small bin full of dinnerware and cups, and the vitally important equipment to make coffee. That box also took the items that didn’t need to be kept cold: coffee, scones I’d made the day before, bread, cookies, oil for cooking, etc.

I also have a wheeled cooler I bought for my boat. I filled that with frozen meats (burgers, chicken, and sausage) and a wide range of vegetables from our gardens (beans, peppers, and tomatoes from Kirk’s; eggplant, onions, garlic, and cherry tomatoes from mine). I added milk for my coffee, eggs from my chickens, cheese, and two pounds of cold cuts (turkey and ham) for lunch, Two solid ice half-gallon milk bottles would help keep everything cool for the five days we expected to be out.

I packed a bag with clothes and toiletries, Kirk packed two smaller bags with the same. He also brought along his two inflatable kayaks — mostly because I didn’t have a roof rack for mine — life jackets, and paddles. I brought my portable propane grill, which I bought years ago for travel with the RV — it folds up into its own little carry bag.

Packed Jeep
The Jeep was jam-packed for our camping trip.

Packing all this stuff into the Jeep was a bit of a challenge. When we were finished, the back of the Jeep was completely crammed with stuff. So crammed, in fact, that Penny had to ride on Kirk’s lap for the drive.

The Drive Up

We started out at about 10 AM on Monday, heading north on Route 2 to avoid having to drive through Chelan. We filled the Jeep with gas before we got too far, then settled in for the long drive to Twisp, our first stop, which was on Highway 20 not far from where the North Cascades Highway begins.

Twisp is a great place to stop at mealtime. There are two good places to eat there. Most folks like Cinnamon Twisp, which is where we stopped. It’s a great bakery that’s also open for breakfast and lunch. We sat outside with Penny, eating fresh-made sandwiches on whole grain bread. Of course, I bought an oat bar for dessert.

(In case you’re wondering, other place I like to eat in Twisp is the natural foods store next door, the Glover Street Market. Their Curry Stew and Forbidden Rice Bowl are great warmups for cold winter days. I usually pass through Twisp on my cross-country ski trip to Winthrop every Christmas.)

Kirk with Cider
Kirk posed with a taste of cider at the Methow Valley Ciderhouse.

We continued on our way, stopping briefly at Winthrop in search of a good map. We found several in the local visitor’s center. That’s also where we decided to make a quick stop at the Methow Valley Ciderhouse, just outside of town. This is a funky cool place that looks like it would be fun to visit with a bunch of friends. But that Monday morning, it was just us and the owner. We tasted a flight of ciders and I have to admit that I wasn’t terribly impressed. We left empty-handed and continued on our way.

Our next stop was quite a few miles up the road, at Washington Pass. There’s a big fancy overlook there with lots of parking and a short trail to a lookout point. We parked and made the climb. The view was spectacular, but smoke in the area from the Wolverine Fire on Lake Chelan had drifted into the area, muddying the sky. We’d been driving in the haze since leaving my home that morning and to see it this far up in the mountains was very disheartening. Fortunately, the smoke cleared out as we headed down from the pass, deeper into the Cascades.

Washington Pass Panorama
A panoramic view from the overlook at Washington Pass.

Somewhere along the ride, cell phone service completely dropped out. It would be like that for most of our stay in the area.

The First Camp and Hike

We continued on our way, stopping at just one more overlook. But that time, it was after 3 PM and I was starting to get worried about finding a decent campsite. We’d already decided to camp at Colonial Creek Campground on Diablo (pronounced “Die-ah-blow”) Lake. The campground map showed some tent sites right on the lake and I was hoping to get one of those. By the time we arrived, however, it didn’t seem like any of those sites were open. We wound up instead on a nice, private wooded site. We paid the fee for one night and set up camp.

I was very pleased to see that the tent and its poles were still in perfect condition. I’d bought the tent back in 1992 for motorcycle camping. We needed a good 3-man tent with poles that folded up short enough to be packed on a motorcycle. This was a great tent that had made several motorcycle trips with me and my wasband, including our epic Skyline Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway/Outerbank Islands adventure in 1992 or 1993. Its main drawback was that it wasn’t tall enough to stand up in. That wasn’t such a big deal when I was in my 30s, but 20 years later, it matters, especially when I try to dress. (I wound up changing my clothes outside the tent; our site had enough privacy to make modesty a non-issue.)

The air mattress was another story. Although we’d tested it at Kirk’s place and it had lost some air there, Kirk was convinced that the valves hadn’t been properly closed during our test. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the valves. The mattress, which was admittedly old, apparently had other leaks. It wouldn’t hold air. With no camp store in the area, we couldn’t replace it that first night. So Kirk spread out all our sleeping bags and blankets and towels as padding under where we would sleep.

The campground featured flush toilets in several well-kept buildings on the camp roads, water spigots, and a mix of RV and tent sites. There was a fishing pier and a boat launch. (Boats are limited to 14 feet in the lake, which is why I didn’t bring mine.) Each site had a large picnic table, a designated tent area that was level and smooth, a fire pit (which was useless with a fire ban in effect), and a bear box. A bear box is a secure place you can store anything that smells like it could be food; every night we had to pack up our kitchen box and cooler and stow them inside it.

Kirk and the Big Trees
Here’s Kirk along the Thunder Creek Nature Trail. There are some seriously big trees throughout the park.

We had burgers and green beans for dinner, then headed out on a trail that led from the campground up Thunder Creek. There was a nature trail off the main trail, a 0.9 mile loop that climbed steeply up the side of the mountain, past rock slides, fallen trees, moss, ferns, and old growth cedars and pines. Numbered sign posts corresponded with a guide we didn’t have so we amused ourselves by making up interpretive comments about what we saw at each sign post. Kirk was very good at this — way better than me.

Later that night, we crawled into the tent and settled down on the relatively hard ground. I thought I’d have trouble sleeping, but I must have been exhausted because I slept surprisingly well. Penny slept like a log, mostly because I’d brought along her bed and she was perfectly comfortable.

Day 2: Hiking, Shopping, Moving, Napping, and Hiking

I heated up the scones with butter in a frying pan the next morning for breakfast. The coffee was good and hot. Because the campground was down in a valley, it took a while for the sun to reach us. I think it may have been a bit overcast, too, and that burned off as we headed out on our morning hike.

Colonial Creek
Colonial Creek is full of the “glacial flour” that gives it and Diablo Lake their milky blue-green color.

The hike was on the Thunder Knob Trail. This was a 3.6 round-trip hike that climbed about 425 feet to the top of a heavily wooded hill on the lake. From our campsite, the trailhead was about 1/2 mile away, so we walked to it. The trail starts by crossing Colonial Creek, where glacial runoff flows down the mountain and into Diablo Lake. It then winds through the woods, climbing up on switchbacks. I was still fresh and full of coffee so I didn’t need more than a few short rests. Only one hiker passed us on the way up. At the top were two viewpoints looking down at Diablo Lake and across at the peaks it’s nestled in. It was mind-boggingly beautiful.

Diablo Lake from Thunder Knob
Diablo Lake from one of Thunder Knob’s lookout points.

On the way back, we took a walk along the lakeside campsites. Some of the previous day’s campers had departed. We found an excellent site right on the lake and wasted no time staking it out for ourselves. Then we spent about an hour packing up our original camp, moving everything over to the new one, and setting up the camp again. The old air mattress wound up in a dumpster.

Campsite Campsite
Two views of our campsite: from the lake looking in (left) and from the campsite looking out toward the lake (right). We were right on the lake.

After a good lunch of thick sandwiches and chips, we hopped into the Jeep and headed out to the nearest town, Newhalem, in search of a new air mattress. This was a nine or so mile drive farther down Route 20. Along the way, we passed the Diablo Dam and powerhouse, Gorge Lake, Gorge Falls, and the Gorge Dam.

Just as we got into town, my cell phone, which had been charging in a cradle, came to life with a handful of text messages — including a thank you note from the Realtor who had finally sold my old Arizona house. Let’s just say that I wasn’t the only one celebrating that sale with champagne.

Newhalem is a “company town” that was built by Seattle City Light, the publicly owned power company that owns and operates the three hydro-electric power plants on the Skagit River. It features a general store, a restaurant with odd hours, and a bunch of buildings for company use. Employees who work in the area live in town or in the small community of Diablo, just downstream from the Diablo Dam.

We beelined it to the General Store in search of a new air mattress. The store had a tiny bit of camping gear but no air mattresses. The clerk suggested Marblemount, 14 miles farther up the road.

We stopped for a few minutes at the Visitor Center, which had the usual collection of displays about the river, dams, lakes, salmon, and original native settlers. Kirk spotted a sign with information about a “Dam Good Chicken Dinner” and nighttime tour of Ladder Creek Falls that coming Thursday night. He signed us up. I bought a good trail map.

Then it was on to Marblemount, which isn’t much bigger than Newhalem. The store there had a bit more camping gear, much of it stowed away in a back room. There were some roll-up pads that would have helped us in a pinch. But we were ready to try our luck at Concrete, even farther up the road, when I spotted some twin sized Coleman air mattresses on a bottom shelf. We bought two, feeling very lucky to have found them.

Park Sign
Penny and I posed atop the fake snow at the park entrance sign.

We gassed up the Jeep at the only gas station I’d seen since leaving Winthrop the day before and headed back to the campsite, stopping for some super touristy photos at the park entrance sign, a visit to Gorge Falls, and a very short hike to what was supposed to be an overlook of the Gorge Dam but was blocked by trees.

Back at the campsite, we inflated the two air mattresses and stuffed them into the tent. They literally filled the tent’s floor. Then Kirk inflated his kayaks while Penny went on chipmunk patrol around our site. Sometime around mid afternoon, we found our way into the tent for a nap. The air mattresses were perfect! We woke up near dinner time. I cooked up a concoction of eggplant, garlic, olive oil, and polenta that came out pretty good. We had that with grilled sausages.

Kirk in a Tree
Another shot of Kirk, this time in a tree.

After cleaning up, it was time for our evening hike. We headed back up the Thunder Creek Trail which followed the lake shore up Thunder Creek. It was yet another heavily wooded trail, surrounded by tall, old growth trees but offering few views of either the lake or the creek. Although the trail went on for miles, the idea was to hike until 7:30 and turn back. 7:29 found us at a grove of old growth trees with a big hollow one that was obviously a spot for taking photos. So we took one.

I slept amazingly well that night.

Day 3: Ross Lake, Rain, and the Folks from Maryland

Eggs with tomatoes, onions, pepper, and cheese for breakfast. And coffee, of course.

After cleaning up, we headed out on a hike to Ross Lake Resort. This is one of only two lodging facilities inside the park and it isn’t easy to get to because there’s no road to it. There seems to be just a few ways of getting there. The easiest is to take a ferry from Diablo Dam up to the portage area near Ross Dam, get on the portage truck, and then take a water taxi across Ross Lake. If you’re on a kayak, you can launch it at the Colonial Creek campground, paddle 5 miles up Diablo Lake, catch the portage truck to Ross Lake, and then paddle across. Or you can do what we did: park at the Ross Dam Trail trailhead, hike down to the dam, cross the dam, and hike up the lake to Ross Lake Resort. Although I didn’t have my GPS app tracking us, I estimate the total mileage to be about 2 to 3 miles each way.

Ross Dam
Ross Dam was built with future expansion in mind.

It was a pleasant hike on narrow, well-worn trails. We crossed a creek on a nice wooden bridge early on, near the parking area — more glacial runoff. Then a descent down almost to lake level. Crossing the dam was interesting; I later found out that the reason the Dam has the stepped sides is so that it can be built up to enlarge it at a future date. (Apparently, the Canadians aren’t too happy with that plan.) On the other side, I was surprised to see the trail climb up the side of the hill — I hadn’t planned on two climbs on the return trip — but it eventually leveled out as it headed up lake. We met two hikers waiting for friends at a trail intersection and turned right, down the hill to Ross Lake Resort.

Ross Lake Resort consists of 12 cabins on floating platforms: house barges, in effect. They’re all moored against the shore. There’s an office, a boat rental facility, and not much else. No restaurant, no store beyond snacks. Anyone who stays there not only has to get there, but he has to bring in all his provisions. The cabins are various sizes and include everything you need to live comfortably for the length of your stay. Most folks likely spend most of their stay boating and fishing; most cabins had a boat tied up out front. And of course, the place was entirely off the communication grid. Talk about a comfortable remote getaway! Sign me up!

Ross Lake Resort
Ross Lake Resort consists of a string of floating cabins.

I let Penny off her leash to play with the other dogs, including a boxer named Maple. Kirk and I rested, snacked on nuts and energy bars we’d brought along, and prepared mentally for the walk back. By that time, it was starting to cloud up. We’d heard in Newhalem the day before that there was a 20% chance of rain on Wednesday and it seemed to be coming. The first small drops started falling on us as we crossed the dam. The drizzle continued, on and off, but we arrived back at the Jeep dry enough.

We drove back toward the campground and beyond. Kirk wanted to check out the town of Diablo. I directed him on a turn that took us over the Diablo Dam instead. That put us at the Seattle City Lights Ferry terminal instead. We saw a few young deer and followed a sign for the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. I was hoping they had a restaurant where I could get something hot to eat, like soup or chili. I ran in to investigate and discovered the only other lodging place in the park: a learning center with weekend programs on a wide variety of topics. I took some literature to check it out later on.

We continued along Highway 20 and soon found ourselves back in Newhalem. (My phone alerted me when we were getting close by displaying a list of new text messages and missed calls.) I bought a can of chili in the General Store and we headed back.

Tarp over Table
We rigged up this great old ripstop nylon tarp over our table. (They don’t seem to make tarps like this anymore.)

By this time, it was raining lightly but steadily. It let up a bit when we reached camp and we had enough time to heat and eat the chili and some sandwiches before it started up again. I mentioned the tarp I’d brought along and we pulled it out, along with the rope and bungee balls I had. It took two tries, but soon we had it hanging nicely from four trees. We moved the table under it just before the rain started coming down in earnest.

We read and napped the afternoon away. The tent stayed remarkably dry, despite the fact that we hadn’t properly tied out the fly. The tarp completely covered the table. I propped a walking stick under its middle on top of the table to raise it and help the water find a way off.

Later, we ran to the bathroom, took care of business, and waited in the shelter of the building overhang for the run back. That’s when we met a family from Maryland who were camped near us and had just returned from a very long hike. They were disappointed that they didn’t have any shelter from the rain and would likely be eating cold food inside their tent. So we invited them to bring their food over and prepare it under our tarp with us. The tables were big enough for all six of us to eat outdoors and keep dry. I don’t think they thought we were serious, but a while later, when we were preparing to make our own dinner, Kirk ran over to their site and reminded them they had the option of joining us. I had just begun heating up the frying pan for a stir fry of green beans (of course), onions, tomatoes, and chicken when they arrived with two big ham steaks, the biggest yam I’d ever seen, two stoves, and two frying pans. Soon we were all cooking and chatting and then eating in the bright light of my old camping lantern, which had to be at least 25 years old.

It was dark when they left. We cleaned up, packed up the bear box for the night, and turned in. It was still raining. But by morning, the only rain sound was the dripping of water through the trees.

Day 4: Long Hike, Where I Sh*t in the Woods, Bear Sighting, Dam Good Chicken

Kirk in a Kayak
Kirk headed out for a pre-breakfast paddle on Thursday morning.

It was still cloudy when we woke up, but with low clouds that clung to the mountainsides offering glimpses of blue sky beyond. After coffee, Kirk took one of the kayaks out on the lake, which was as smooth as glass. I stayed behind and prepped to make breakfast. When he returned, we had the last of the eggs and onions. And the scones. The cooler was getting empty enough to start storing other food in it. The ice was nearly gone, but it was cool enough.

Soon I couldn’t resist the call of the smooth lake surface beyond our campsite. I changed into shorts and climbed into the kayak for a quick paddle up the lake toward Thunder Creek. There were geese feeding on grassy areas and a low ground fog hanging over the water surface here and there. I snapped a few photos with my camera before turning back. The wind was just beginning to pick up when I pulled into shore.

Diablow Lake
A view up the Thunder Creek arm of Diablo Lake from a kayak, early in the morning.

We debated two hikes from the same trailhead that morning: East Bank and Happy Panther. Both ran alongside the Ruby Arm of Ross Lake. Although it seemed to me that Happy Panther Trail might run closer to lakeside, Kirk opted for the East Bank Trail. So we headed that way, descending down to lake level where Panther Creek and Ruby Creek met. There was an interpretative sign there with information about mining operations that had been in the area, as well as a hermit who lived in a home across the creek. We crossed the bridge and started up the trail on the other side, which led downstream toward the lake as it climbed gradually up the hillside. Yet another densely forested trail, soon there was no sign of the creek, although we could hear it and the cars on the road we’d come in on. Soon even that faded away as we walked through the forest on what used to be a road, crossing small creeks along the way.

Open Air Privacy
With no one around, this beats a stinky outhouse any day.

My GPS app, which I’d preloaded with topo maps of the area, showed a barn and horse meadow and we tried unsuccessfully to find that. I think we may have found where it had been, though. We certainly found meadow areas, long overgrown. A little beyond that was the Ruby Pasture campsite, where someone had hung his covered hammock between two trees before heading out on a hike. There was a sign for a toilet and I followed it through the woods. It ended at a pit toilet out in the open with its seat facing the forest and lake. It was probably the nicest pit toilet I’ve ever used.

After a short rest, we headed back. Thats when my leg muscles started aching. I think the rest was the mistake — it seemed to flip a pain switch inside me. I joked that I’d reached my weekly hiking distance limit of 10 miles and now my body was shutting down. I kept a slow pace on the way back, despite the mostly level terrain for the first part. That was probably a good thing. Because I’d hung back, Kirk’s approach down the trail was quieter. So quiet, in fact, that the bear about 100 feet off the trail didn’t hear us until I joined him for a look. It was a young bear — maybe a year old — and it seemed to be alone. After taking a good look at us, it headed up the hillside away from us. I like to think that Penny’s tentative bark drove him off. I took two pictures, but I won’t waste your time or mine sharing them; the bear is nothing more than a black lump in the trees.

I’ll admit that it was great to get back to the Jeep. I was exhausted. We’d only hiked about six miles, but I’d done so much hiking during the week that I really was beginning to tire out.

We went back to the campsite for a quick bite to eat. It was late — about 3 PM — and we didn’t want to ruin our appetite for the dinner later that evening. Then we were back on the road, this time zeroing in on the tiny community of Diablo along the way. This is a collection of company housing for the folks who work at the dams. A bunch of houses that all look the same and a road that terminated at Diablo Dam.

Number 6
I felt a little like a kid climbing up on this nicely preserved steam engine.

From there, it was on to Newhalem. We bought a frozen burrito for the next day’s breakfast — we’d run out of breakfast food — climbed the old steam engine parked nearby, walked the 1/3 mile long Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk, and then checked out the Ladder Creek Falls trail, where we’d be walking later that evening. I was too pooped to make that climb before dinner, so I hung back and waited for Kirk, answering a few text messages and posting a photo or two on Facebook and Twitter while I had cell service.

We got to the Gorge Inn dining room just in time for dinner. It was cafeteria style dining with family style seating. I got to sit beside the ranger who would be leading the walk after dinner. Across from us were a pair of brothers who had grown up in the area and were revisiting it as adults. Dinner was fried chicken, using the same recipe that had been used when the dining hall first opened, with mashed potatoes, and gravy. And green beans, if you can believe that. Dessert was homemade apple pie and ice cream. We left feeling stuffed. I got a doggie bag of chicken skins and meat for Penny and left it for her in the Jeep before we started the walk.

Ladder Creek Falls
One of the ways that Seattle City Light got early support for their dam project was to offer nightly tours of these falls lit up much as they are now. Electricity was new back then so this was a real treat for visitors.

There was a group of about 40 of us for the evening walk. The ranger took his time getting from the Inn to the falls trail — he needed to wait for the lights to come on. Along the way, he talked about the natural and social history of the area, including the history of the dams along the Skagit River. Finally, we reached the start of the falls walk. The lights up the trail were turned on and the colored lights on the rushing creek and falls were doing their thing. We walked along the trail with our companions, stopping to look at the lights along the way. It was funky weird and thoroughly enjoyable.

It was nearly 10 PM by the time we got back to our campsite. We fell into the tent and got right to sleep.

Day 5: Views, a Hike, and a Walk around Winthrop

We heated up that burrito in a frying pan for breakfast. It was remarkably good. But then again, everything tastes good when you’re camping.

We packed up camp at a leisurely pace. Everything was dry. I didn’t bother washing the dishes since the next time they’d be out was home, with my dishwasher handy. We got everything back into the Jeep and even had room to put Penny’s bed up on top of one of the camp boxes, behind the driver’s seat.

We headed out, making just one stop in the park before leaving: Diablo Lake Overlook. We’d stopped there before, but the light and sky was much prettier that morning and I wanted a good photo.

Diablo Lake
I shot this using the pano feature of my iPhone; panoramas don’t have to be wide.

Rainy Lake
Rainy Lake. Can you see the waterfall just left of center in this shot? It was so quiet, we could hear it from the trail’s end.

Then it was back down the road toward Winthrop and home. But not before one more hike. We stopped at the trailhead for Rainy Lake. This was a “handicap accessible” trail, meaning that it was paved the entire way. It wound through forest, under a canopy of fresh-smelling foliage, with signs that pointed out the different vegetation along the way. At the end of the trail was the lake, nestled into a glacier-dug cavity. The entire lake is surrounded by mountains and a waterfall at the south end feeds it with a healthy flow from melting glaciers out of sight above it. Amazingly, there was no one there when we arrived. We climbed down to the water’s edge and watched fish swimming in the clear water. We also found some kind of water bugs in the shallow water that were strangely fascinating to watch.

Washington Pass View
Another view from Washington Pass.

Back in the Jeep, we continued toward home. We stopped again at Washington Pass. Although we’d started to notice smoke again, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been on Monday. I wondered if the Wolverine Fire had gotten some of the rain we did on Wednesday.

From there, it was downhill and eventually back in civilization. We passed the turn off for Mazama without stopping and headed into Winthrop, which was surprisingly busy for a Friday midday. We had lunch at a Mexican place — I felt like having a hot, hearty meal — and then walked around town. I bought a birthday present for my friend Bob who turns 65 later this week. After a few hours in town, we got into the Jeep and pointed it toward home again. We stopped for fuel in Twisp but skillfully avoided the bakery, which I longed to visit.

The final stop along the way was at the Orondo Cider Works, which I thought was a cidery. Instead, it’s more of a farmstand that also sells cider. I bought an 8-ounce bottle to drink immediately — I was parched — and Kirk bought a gallon to split with me at home.

It was nearly 5 PM when we pulled into my driveway. We unloaded the Jeep and unpacked the perishables. I checked the chickens — they’d laid nearly 2 dozen eggs! — and irrigation. Everything was fine. Nice to know that I can leave for 5 days without having to worry about anything at home.

Final Thoughts

The trip had been great — everything I wanted and more. Kirk is a good traveling companion who prevents me from being lazy when I might be. We stayed active most of the time and I really got a workout that I needed.

But what surprised me the most was how well we’d packed for this trip. We had everything we needed with some minor exceptions:

  • A second rope would have made hanging the tarp easier.
  • Duct tape would have made it possible to repair the storage box for my camp stove when it cracked.
  • Fresh batteries for the pumps would have made them work a bit faster.
  • Throw rug would have been nice to have outside the tent to keep the entranceway clean.
  • Some canned chili or soup would have been nice when the weather turned rainy.
  • More breakfast food. I honestly hadn’t expected us to stay four nights.

The camp boxes made bringing equipment down to the lakeside campsite — which was not near the car — very easy. And they also made it easy to keep things secure and dry when the wind kicked up or it rained.

There were only three casualties on the trip:

  • Kirk’s air mattress. Admittedly, it was past its prime.
  • One of my folding chairs. I carry two in the Jeep but broke one when we sat out by the lake one evening.
  • Ground cloth. This old piece of plastic, which had to be at least 20 years old, was stuffed in the tent bag. It had become brittle and although it worked for this trip, it would not be good for the next.

Would I do it again? Hell yes! But I think we’ll take Kirk’s big tent next time. I’m getting too old to crawl in and out of that old tent’s doorway.

Making Ice Cream

Sinfully good.

Years and years ago, I had an Oster Kitchen Center. This was basically an electric mixer base that I could put a mixer, blender, food processor, and other attachments on. I really liked this thing, but decided to get all new appliances — Kitchenmaid, in fact — when I moved to Arizona in 1997. To say that Kitchenaid has disappointed me is an understatement. I really wish Oster would produce an updated version of that old Kitchen Center; I’d buy one.

One of the attachments I had for the Oster was an ice cream maker. It was the usual device: inner bowl fits into outer container that you fill with ice and salt. The whole thing sat on the base with a paddle inside and a cover on top. You turn on the motor and it turns the paddle while the ice chills down the ice cream mix you’ve put in the inner bowl.

Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker
The Cuisinart Pure Indulgence Ice Cream Maker.

When I switched to Kitchenaid, I never replaced the ice cream maker. Until about a week ago. That’s when I bought a Cuisinart ICE-30BC Pure Indulgence 2-Quart Automatic Frozen Yogurt, Sorbet, and Ice Cream Maker. It’s a small countertop device that I store on a shelf in my garage. Instead of having a double bowl and having to deal with ice and salt, it has a single bowl that I keep in my chest freezer until ready to use. The liquid inside supercools and chills down the ice cream when I set the whole thing up and get it running. It claims to make ice cream in 25-45 minutes and I can confirm that it does.

Of course, it’s not the ice cream maker equipment that makes amazing ice cream. It the recipe for the ice cream that goes inside it. I found that recipe in July, when someone linked to an article titled “The Master Ice Cream Recipe” on the New York Times website. That recipe uses ingredients I can stand behind: real milk and cream, sugar, and egg yolks. A table below the base recipe offers flavoring options with additional instructions.

Kirk and I took the ice cream maker on its inaugural run last week. I made a simple vanilla ice cream, cheating a bit by using vanilla extract for the favor. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep vanilla beans around my home.) Along the way, I showed Kirk how to separate eggs without an egg separator. And because the eggs were from my chickens, the resulting ice cream was almost golden in color.

The flavor and texture were great, even though I probably should have kept it in the ice cream maker another 10 minutes or so. (Note to self: use timer.) Kirk liked it with the strawberry rhubarb jam he cooks up on demand with rhubarb from his garden, but although I love that mixture on pancakes, I preferred this ice cream plain.

Home made ice cream
Home made vanilla ice cream topped with home made strawberry rhubarb jam.

Cherry Ice Cream
Home made cherry ice cream, made with eggs from my chickens and cherries I picked. (Have I mentioned lately how much I love living in orchard country?)

Yesterday, I whipped up a batch of cherry ice cream using the last few pounds of cherries I’d gleaned from client orchards. I followed the instructions in the Times recipe, but I skipped the step that blends the cooked cherries into a puree. I thought whole cherries would be more interesting. This morning, when I put the chilled ice cream mix into the ice cream maker, those cherries got a bit hung up on the mixing paddle. I froze it longer than the vanilla ice cream, scooped it into my dedicated ice cream freezing container, and put it in the freezer.

But not before tasting a big spoonful. Delicious!

Although the Times recipe requires some cooking, the ice cream maker came with recipes that don’t. I will eventually try some of them. I suspect they’ll turn ice cream making into a 1-hour activity instead of one that requires at least 4 hours for the mix to cool down after cooking and another 45 minutes to churn. That means it’s something you could easily do with your kids on a rainy day. Or dinner guests, while you’re munching appetizers before the meal.

The best thing about all this? I control exactly what goes into every batch I make. And although it isn’t that much cheaper to make than the premium ice cream I prefer, there’s a certain amount of self-satisfaction when you get to enjoy something you made from scratch.