Travel

Beer, BBQ and Boots!

The hour was late and we hadn't planned our day very well. We had left Banff in the morning with the sole intention of reaching somewhere in central Washington state by the evening. After several longer stops than we anticipated we found ourselves at a campsite just off the highway in Ellensburg, a college town with a decent amount of charm. We didn't have a lot of food left in our 'big green food box' and we didn't feel like cooking at the campsite anyway so a trip to the town for a meal was on the cards. Being on a strict budget we didn't want to spend much but we still wanted to eat real food. We drove through the town looking at the various selections of restaurants available. Nothing looked particularly fun or inexpensive and then we saw 'Rodeo City BBQ.' Now, I didn't think Washington was known for its barbecue but this place looked authentic!

Walking through the front door into the restaurant was like walking back in time thirty or forty years. The pale walls were decorated with pictures from Ellensburg's rodeo past and low saucer style lights hung low from the ceiling emitting a dim glow that gave the place a 'lounge feel.' The room was filled with comfy-looking booths with upholstery that had rodeo themed material woven into them. It was cute. We were greeted by an older lady (who turned out to be one of four generations all working in the same place!) and she took us to our very own booth with menus that boasted the written statement 'the west at its best.'

The menu was packed top to bottom with barbecue food but I went straight to the beer selection to see what was being offered for the parched and the thirsty. They had three draught beers - a lager I can't remember because I didn't have it, a stout by the name of 'Irish Death' which seemed too heavy for BBQ and a seasonal which was called 'Iron Horse IPA'. The IPA was from Ellensburg and it sounded interesting so I ordered one and then the waitress stumped me when she said 'do you want a glass or a boot?' Thinking I hadn't heard her right I repeated 'a boot?!' 'Yes, we serve beer in cowboy boots made of glass if you want?' came her reply. Realizing I hadn't misunderstood her, I laughed and assured her that I definitely wanted my beer served in a cowboy boot. What could be better than drinking beer from a boot at a rodeo BBQ?! Hell, I would even drinking Keystone Light if I got it served to me in a boot...well, maybe not, but still...a boot!

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Cutting a long rodeo story short we feasted on cornbread, tri-tip barbecue meat, beans and pulled pork all washed down with the tangy liquid from an iron horse. Comfort food at its best ready for an uncomfortable night sleeping on gravel!

Beer-o-meter rating: 9/10

Boot-o-meter rating: 10/10

Banff - Cliffs, Colorful Lakes and Cheeky Wolves!

The lady in the AAA shop back in Boston told us that we should definitely go to Banff. She said that it was one of the best places she had ever visited and that we simply had to go. She was no stranger to travel herself having meandered through nearly all the states in the USA and the more she spoke to us the more we felt as though we needed to make a detour to visit this haven! Her enthusiasm was infectious: she told us of incredible mountain vistas, ample opportunities to hike the hundreds of miles of trails within the region and of the abundant wildlife that called the National Park home. By the end of our fifteen minute conversation we had already decided that Banff sounded like a place we had to visit. And so we added it to our route.

To put things into perspective, Banff is a the name of a town within Banff National Park which is itself part of a huge network of five National Parks. When looking at an ariel view of the map it appears as a huge splodge of green straddling British Columbia and Alberta. The area features glaciers found amongst the rugged crevices of the northern Rocky Mountains and when they melt they provide streams and waterfalls which turn into amazingly azure glacial lakes. Wildlife in Banff is diverse and truly wild. Grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes, marmots and eagles can all be found here as well as numerous other small animals.

Having set off from Glacier National Park at 7am we were within the park boundary by 12pm. We set up our backpacking tent which takes a whole five minutes to assemble and headed to the town of Banff to explore. Put plainly, the town of Banff is brilliant. First and foremost it is a year round tourist town as it caters for a huge influx of summer visitors/hikers as well as the winter skiers. Everything in the town has been planned to perfection. The buildings are immaculate and built from local wood and it's incredibly clean. The main street has a bustling vibrancy to it that is amplified by the huge variety of accents and languages you can hear. People fly from all over the world to visit this place and it was not difficult to see why. Not only can you wander around this pretty place adorned with hanging baskets and pubs but you can look to the sky and see massive bare rock mountains towering over the town that light up in the sun like a shining shiny thing!

After completing our laundry (not particularly enthralling but not too many opportunities when camping!) and making a trip to the liquor store to check for local beverages (found a great one from Grizzly Paw Brewing!) we headed back to the campsite to cook and to finally get a shower after days of primitive camping!

The next day was one of the best days on our trip so far. We had planned a 9 mile hike from Lake Louise which is one of the most famous glacial lakes in the region. We arrived early before the crowds, packed the bear spray and approached the lake. The color of the lake left us pondering whether it could be such a natural phenomenon. It's bright blue, cloudy but electrifying. The only way I can describe it is as toothpaste blue, whatever that means. Whilst still gazing at the lake we began our climb to Lake Agnes, yet another glacial lake via Mirror Lake. The fresh air of the pine trees that encompass the whole area filled our lungs and the more we climbed the more we wanted to stop and take photos of the incredibleness!

Passing the two lakes (Mirror Lake being exactly like a mirror, so reflective that it could be the very one Narcissus became obsessed with!) we headed for the two peaks of Little Beehive and Big Beehive. One relatively strenuous climb later which involved stopping to watch a marmot going about his daily routine we reached the top. We dropped our packs and took in the panorama that opened up before us. At 7,400ft we were high enough to see everything we wanted to see! We peered over the edge of the cliff, Big Beehive was not named lightly - the drop was sheer on every side with the rock mottled and uneven like the sides of a beehive.

As we made our way back down to Lake Louise, clapping loudly every so often so as not to have a surprise interaction with a bear we marveled at the vast array of wildflowers on either side of the trail. With the sun beaming down on us we were ready for a cheeky beverage and we hastily made our way back to the campsite to see out the remainder of the day.

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But the fun didn't end there. Later on at dusk as we were sitting in our easy chairs Haley saw something creeping towards us. I turned my head to look and saw a wolf sneaking up on us from about 20 meters away! We both stood up quickly and the wolf made its exit (albeit after hesitating!) through the woods! A little scary but fantastic!

The lady in AAA shop was not wrong, Banff sure is a great place!

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Note - We only took pictures of our hike with the camera as I didn't take the IPad so we don't have them available to add to the post yet! And we only have one flip phone between us so that ain't gonna take no photos! 

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The Badlands - Not bad at all!

We arrived at Badlands National Park about 7am. We had intentionally timed our arrival so that we could have the park to ourselves for a few hours until the masses arrived. That gave us time to awe at the incredible mounds of fossilized soil and clay that stand at obtuse angles like huge termite towers, seemingly so brittle that they almost could crumble at the touch.

We meandered our way down the empty roads, stopping every so often to marvel at the eerie silence surrounding this alien landscape. We were on our way to Sage Creek Campground- it's right at the edge of The Badlands Wilderness on the west side of the park. It's a free campground with approximately 15 campsites down a dirt track, where Bison are said to roam, Bighorn Sheep like to graze and Prairie Dogs like to live! The dirt track passes some of the most incredible scenery in the park that all the folks who stay on the main road don't get to see. The road continues through Robert's Prairie Dog Town which is literally a huge field full of Prairie Dog burrows. The Prairie Dogs are hilarious to watch, shaking their tails and darting in and out of their underground homes when they sense danger! 

Arriving at the campsite we were not disappointed. We are privy to primitive camping. Primitive camping usually means that resources at sites are limited with the only buildings being composting toilets and if you are lucky, possibly a trash bin. There are no showers, no shops and no huge RV's and we consider this to be a blessing, especially when visiting a National Park. As a bonus, the sites are normally free!

Returning back to the main area of the park, the main stretches and viewpoints were beginning to get busy so we decided to take a walk and wander into the start of the backcountry. We prepared ourselves for rain and set off down the Castle Trail. Within minutes we were soaking wet and sliding around on the clay. The rain runs down the huge mounds of mud and creates a stream on the trail that looks like chocolate milkshake. We persevered and walked four miles, keeping our eyes opened for rattlesnakes and laughing every time one of us fell. By the time we got back to the car I could see people staring at us from the comfort of their cars. The thing is, they didn't have as much fun as we had.

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The Road to Ohio

There are long drives and then there are LONG drives. In England, my friends raise their eyebrows and make small exclamations of disbelief if I say I am driving anything greater than forty miles. Today we drove 670 miles.

Covering that sort of distance in a day requires some serious interstate driving and although I'm inclined to often try to avoid highways it was impossible to reach the border of Ohio without doing so. However, we were still determined to veer off the blandness and the repetitiveness of the speedy roads (not always bland, but still) and take smaller, less traveled routes. That is where you find variety. That is where you are able to get away from the rest stop monotony. That is where you find real America, right?!

Setting off from Boston at 4am with a 'go west' mentality we didn't branch off the interstate until we reached western Pennsylvania. Apart from looking at the scenery our main goal was to obtain fruit; Pretzels and Clif Bars can only give you so much satisfaction!

We drove through a few towns before my wife noticed the 'Red and White Store' (it was indeed red and white) with a big sign that said 'FRESH FRUIT.' We pulled up outside and opened the door with positive anticipation. I was immediately hit with the smell of stale cigarette smoke that had been lingering in the shop since 1962. Venturing inside I noticed the fresh fruit....It consisted of a box of sprouting onions and a few dried up tomatoes. Stepping down the aisle, the shelves were stocked with a selection of tin cans that donned faded labels with things like 'deviled ham' written on them. It was perfect. Terrible, but perfect.

The shopkeeper (which was probably where the years of stale smoke came from) tentatively asked us if we were looking for anything in particular. Having already passed the array of fresh produce I knew that my question was redundant but I asked it anyway. 'Any apples or bananas?' I said. The gentleman disclosed he had bananas! 'Bananas! Brilliant! Where?!' I exclaimed. He pointed to a high shelf with something perched on it that at one time probably resembled a bunch of bananas but had since been turned into a house by a family of fruit flies. Not having the heart to tell him I didn't want one my wife reached up and pulled a housed banana off the bunch hence creating a flurry of activity that has not been seen in the establishment for thirty years!

We paid the elderly gentleman 25 cents (half of the earnings of the shop for a week) and left the little Red and White Shop for greener pastures to a place called Winward Farm which also had a barely legible sign saying 'Fresh Fruit!' With renewed optimism we parked the car and approached the door...

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The positives of volunteering through WWOOF.

Stepping off the train at a remote station, knowing you are going to be spending at least two weeks in the company of someone you have never met, leaves you with a natural feeling of anticipation. It matters not whether you are an experienced, well-travelled, green party orientated eco-nut or a first time volunteering, city dwelling, gardening novice looking for a change of scenery; you're going to be living with a stranger.

 Picking Basil, talking, watching the world go by.

Picking Basil, talking, watching the world go by.

Fortunately, if you are volunteering through WWOOF you can at least hope to share some common ground in the sense that the majority of hosts and hostee's usually have a passion for sustainability, a desire to learn/teach and a general interest in the natural world. Many people seem to treat the idea of volunteering with suspicion and two of the main arguments against it seem to be: firstly, the fact that you are working in return for no money and secondly, you have to pay to sign up to these volunteer programmes in order for them to cater for your every need. In the case of the latter I am inclined to agree with the skeptics as it is well known that many large volunteer organisations are indeed guilty of charging the earth for a 'once in a lifetime', two week trip to stroke a lion or sit on a dolphin, while you are often herded round like sheep and have no time to immerse yourself in the culture. There are obviously exceptions but this is a 'luxury' that few of us can afford to do anyway. 

However, there are many other organisations in Britain which are much more practical and cost-worthy and should be looked upon as more than simply 'working for no money.' Turn your radars to the wavelength of Wwoofing. As a fairly experienced wwoofer having worked in America, Wales and Scotland I feel like I can fairly confidently exclaim that this a good frequency to tune in to. Wwoofing is a worldwide organisation in which people request help to increase the productivity of their farm, small holding or community. For me it is so much more than 'working for free', it has allowed me to gain a whole acquisition of new skills including gardening, being self-sustainable, woodwork, tiling, using what is available, making cheese, making bread, animal husbandry, keeping bees, an insight into permaculture, biodynamics and companion planting. Not only could the list go on and on but there are also other fantastic benefits from volunteering with this organisation, predominantly the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. Every place you go to stay is as diverse as the last, the people are friendly and welcoming and the food is often excellent. There is so much to learn about the surrounding area of where you stay and there is often the opportunity to meander into the culture of where you are at leisure. 

If you have never volunteered in this way before and you would like a unique experience I would highly recommend having a gander at WWOOF simply by typing it into google. If you decide to do some wwoofing there is no doubt you will get off the plane or train filled with anticipation and excitement just as I did last year in America. But with any luck, when you leave you will have gained friends all over the world and have a whole set of new skills and confidence at your disposal, just as I do now.

The Cheese Iron

An iron for cheese? Surely not. It may be a quick and novel way to make a cheese toastie but using an iron on cheese is just ludicrous. Insane. Worrisome.

Of course, a Cheese Iron has nothing to do with the iron that straightens your clothes. A Cheese Iron is actually a fancy tool to check the maturation of the cheese! As you would expect, once you slice into a sexy fresh wheel of something tasty then the said cheese's life is effectively over. Using a cheese iron allows cheese maturers to measure the quality of a wheel without chopping into it. It's a legendary idea and it has been used for centuries! Forget the iPhone, the Cheese Iron is what you call a real invention!

For the purpose of this post, The Cheese Iron is actually a specialty shop in Scarborough, Maine. My parents had been visiting from the UK and when we passed this shop on the way home from Portland it was simply impossible not to stop there. It was literally impossible, I had no control, the car literally just turned itself into the car park off route one! It's a great shop with friendly staff who genuinely appear interested in the product and talking to other humans, which is refreshing. I spoke to a bright eyed, curly haired kid behind the counter who proudly disclosed that he was 'born and raised in Maine' and that the shop had been established ten years.

Make no mistake, this not a large shop and yet it is packed corner to corner with fancy schmancy items that make you salivate all over your t-shirt. I felt like a Bassett Hound, dribbling everywhere. There is beautifully displayed cheese, a large array of wines, beverages from near and far, a cheese maturation room, good quality meats, items to go, miniature desserts, the list goes on. To compliment the whole place, there is indoor and outdoor seating so that you never really have to leave!

After much deliberation and trying a whole load of cheeses I went for a Bresaola with Asiago, a bit of bread pudding and a piece of Timberdoodle to go! I then proceeded to demolish them at an outdoor table in the sun with my wife and parents who were equally enthusiastically tucking into their choices. If you are ever in Scarborough, Maine then you should definitely go.                            

 Pre-salivation, post chat with curly-haired kid behind the counter! (That's NOT a Donald Trump hat!)

Pre-salivation, post chat with curly-haired kid behind the counter! (That's NOT a Donald Trump hat!)

Leeks, Learning and Lost Mobile Phones: Wwoofing in South Wales

I opened my rugged, brown diary looking at our carefully made plans for a summer of WWOOFING and as I did so I couldn't help but feel simultaneously nervous and excited for what was to come. I had spent the last few weeks preceding our trip ringing up farms and community small-holdings and asking them if they would be interested in having an art student and a teacher arrive at their residence to help them achieve their horticultural and agricultural goals. Before we go further, let it be known that I did not just fly through the farming directory and simply ring anybody with a carrot. Instead I signed up with WWOOF UK and carefully selected places that were looking for volunteers. If you have never heard of WWOOF then apart from it being the only word in a dog's vocabulary it also stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms and is a global non-profit organisation which was established so that farms can advertise for voluntary help in return for room and board.

 The garden

The garden

My girlfriend (now wife!) and I had already spent three months volunteering on a non-certified organic vegetable farm in Louisiana so we felt fairly confident in regards to what would be expected of us and what our sleeping and eating arrangements would entail. After spending a few days in busy London with a friend (who is no WWOOFING novice herself) we were both eager to get out into the countryside. I opened my diary and looked at our plan to see 'Next stop, South Wales, Pembrokeshire' written in thick, black ink. Two chuffer trains, one bus and one lost mobile phone later we arrived in Newport town with no way of contacting our hosts to tell them we were there, hence heightening our sense of anticipation. Fortunately for us, David and Anne (our hosts) had been good enough to look for their future Wwoofers and they found us floundering around at the side of the road, walking the wrong direction out of town. Immediately we knew that they were pleasant folk, full of interest and intrigue as to who we were and where we were from and as we took the short journey back to their house the sense of anticipation began to wane. 

 

Their house was at the end of a narrow, single track lane surrounded by trees which were themselves encompassed by the rolling, green hills of South Wales. On arrival we were shown our sleeping quarters which turned out to be delightfully quaint, residing in an old caravan with a wood stove, a fridge, a cooker, and a composting toilet. After immersing them in conversation we discovered that Anne was a potter and David was predominantly a cabinet maker, although looking around the house and the actual house itself it seemed there was nothing he could not produce out of wood. Their aim was not to be a working farm but to be as self-sustainable as possible through their garden, only buying staple  
foods in bulk where possible; we did not go short of food. A typical morning breakfast involved freshly made porridge with raisins, apricots, molasses, yoghurt, syrup and a choice of green or ginger tea. Lunch and dinner were even better, heightened by a home-made special brew which was pretty potent! Treated so well with food, we naturally wanted to do our best to help in the garden and our tasks included planting leeks and beetroots, weeding, digging a drainage tunnel, producing beds, and picking Fat Hen (a delicious edible weed      that can be added to soups). 

 One of Sally's left-handed drawings

One of Sally's left-handed drawings

Despite the fact that we knew we were only staying with David and Anne for a week it was hard not to feel at home with them and develop a routine. Waking up on only my third morning I distinctly remember writing in my diary 'just had my usual breakfast' as if I had been there months. On getting to know our hosts better, it transpired that Anne's father was no other than John Seymour who was a prolific and innovative author of books on sustainability in the 1960's. The sheer amount of knowledge Ann must have been able to acquire from him was evident and although he had passed away, his wife (Sally) still lived with them in the house. She was a wonderful artist who had unfortunately lost the use of her voice and her drawing arm in a stroke and so had valiantly began to pursue drawing pictures with her left-hand. The amount of rehabilitation and patience required to do this could only leave me with a feeling of admiration for her. 

David's knowledge of the local area was fantastic and when we were not working in the garden with Ann he would take us down to the ocean to discover edible beach plants such as Sea Beet and Samphire. We also had the opportunity to visit ancient burial sites, take walks around the old twisted oak forests and even go to a local dance-a-thon led by an African themed musical group called 'Baraka'! 


Time flew by, a day turned into a week and it was time for us to leave David and Anne for our trip to our next farm. WWOOFING is different every single place you go and experiences can be very varied ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous but in regards to this particular small-holding I can honestly say I can't remember another time where I have learnt so much in such a short space of time. Not only was I able to develop my skills in sustainability but also in communication, compassion and confidence. I would recommend it to anybody.

Super People and Strawberries: Two weeks in Scotland!

Super People and Strawberries: Two weeks in Scotland!

All we knew as we stepped off the train at Tain was that we were looking for 'Henry', a man who was going to escort us to our second Wwoofing experience in Scotland. Having had quite a bit of experience of looking for Wwoofing hosts at train stations I had a good idea of what I expected him to look like and I wasn't disappointed.