Saturday, September 24, 2011

Laura, me, a canyon, and Mary

When you are an Arizona resident, one of the greatest things to do is show someone Grand Canyon for their first time. It's ours. We're proud of it. Despite it being called at times "Arizona's little erosion problem," it always either tops the list, or is in at least the top two, of Earth's natural wonders. And it's here, and we like showing it off.

Over the years, I have encouraged friends and family to visit our state and see Grand Canyon. Some have obliged. Others will follow I'm sure. A month or so ago, I received an e-mail from Laura, my college roommate over 25 years ago. She is an integral part of my close, loving, and dear college friends with whom I have remained in touch after lo these many years. She had some work stuff to do in Las Vegas, had a free weekend in between job obligations, and wondered if she could visit me in Arizona and see Grand Canyon. A dream come true for us Arizonans.

Right around that same time, Bruce and I received this promotional free outdoor travel-related magazine called "Unboundaries" or some such thing, a USA Today publication. What do you know, there was an article about Mary Colter and her architectural designs, focusing on what she accomplished in Grand Canyon. Now, I had been to the canyon several times by now, and had seen some of her designs, but I hadn't really focused on her as a person and as an architect. Mary was truly a fascinating person.

Born in the mid-1800's, she became a professional architect by the late 1880's or so, itself an amazing feat for women in the late 19th century. Studying along with Frank Lloyd Wright, or at least peripherally involved in Frank's "aura," She was hired by the Fred Harvey Company, the company Fred Harvey started that did whatever was needed to attract and lure easterners to our western National Parks via our railroads. Mary is THE conceptual brain behind what's now called "National Park Rustic." Really outstanding for their time and place, Mary's designs were intended to use local materials and fit into the natural landscape, being as unobtrusive as possible, yet still maintaining a unique character all their own. Her designs at Grand Canyon and elsewhere continue to fascinate. Today, we intuitively see the aesthetic value in buildings that are integrated into their surrounding landscape, but this was a new concept for most, and Mary was one of the visionaries.

So Laura and I, and my dog Carly, met up in Williams Friday night. Encamped in our room at the Best Western, I lamented the fact I forgot to bring along that article about Mary Colter. No problem, Laura pulls out her Ipad and proceeds to study up on Mary. We both decide she would have been a great addition to our college girlfriend network, as she seemed strong, competent, creative, and all-around brilliant, just like us. We also decided that we wanted to see as much of Mary's designs as possible the next day.

September in northern Arizona is incredible, and we woke to a sparkling, cool day that promised to maybe hit a high of 78 degrees. Perfect. After dropping Carly off at a "pet resort" (much to Carly's absolute and utter despair), we made it to the Canyon by 8:00 a.m. The first thing we had to do is simply find the edge of the Canyon to view it, which in itself is something that surprises most first-time visitors. Really, there's no big, imposing thing you see as you get close. It's just high desert, then some pine trees, a National Park entrance gate (still no Canyon), parking lots, buildings, walkways (still no Canyon), and then finally, there it is, dropping below your feet, its immensity mind-boggling. Once you get over the initial awe, you start thinking things like "What was Evil Knevil thinking?" or "I can almost see how people can fall off..." The camera comes out, and the first-time vistor's initial reaction after taking a bunch of shots is: "there's no way I can capture this." Yes. We know. There's no way. And yet we continue to try.

After our initial view, we made our day's plans. First, go east to the Desert Watchtower, a Mary Colter fan favorite. Seen in lots of photographs, this tower looks much older than it really is. Yes, it's old, but it's made to look more like pre-historic ruins, and indeed, Mary even constructed the thing with deliberate cracks and crevices to make it look old. It is a totally amazing piece of work. 
We spend quite a bit of time there. The tower itself has this inner circular staircase that winds up the inside of the tower, with three levels you can get off the staircase and move around. The walkways on these levels are also circular, only about 8-10 feet wide, so you can peek over the side and look down. There is something to look at on every square foot of this building. The walls are decorated in Hopi and Anasazi petroglyph-type designs. The ceiling is painted with such designs as well. Mary hired Hopi and other Native Americans to create this artwork. The windows are lined in wood and come in several shapes, placed strategically to provide views of the surrounding landscape. It was a great introduction to the way Mary worked.
Laura and part of the ceiling
The floors of the Watchtower

Rawhide-coated bannisters;
how old is this rawhide?

Designs on the Watchtower walls
After the Watchtower, we made a few scenic-view stops, including one where we ate our lunch overlooking the Canyon, and eventually ended up in South Village, the place with more of Mary's designs--and LOTS and LOTS of people. Peeps, as I call them. One of the peeps took our picture at our lunch stop:

One of our first stops in South Village was Mary's "Hopi House," a squat, square building constructed to mimic homes found on the Hopi reservation to the north. The Hopi House was designed to be a gift store, which it remains today. At the time of its construction, however, Hopi artisans actually lived in the building and created their wares for tourists right there. Jewelry, rugs, pottery--all are still for sale at the Hopi House, and the goods are truly native-made. Even Albert Einstein visited the Hopi House, and I can prove it.
The Hopi House
Einstein at the Hopi House in a headdress

Rugs and pottery for sale at Hopi House; each rug
has a photo of its weaver as well as the price ($1,950.00
for this one)
The ceiling at Hopi House; logs with matted
sticks and brush. These pieces are the originals; circa 1900
After the Hopi House, it was time to visit El Tovar, one of the guest lodges at the Canyon. This building was not designed by Mary; rather by an architect that decided to borrow styles from Swiss chalets and Norwegian villas. So, alas, it is lovely, but stands out as much as Mary's designs do not. But it had cocktail lounge, and we felt it was time for a prickly-pear margarita on its covered deck. We relaxed, feet up, enjoying the scenery. Did a bit of people-watching, mostly noticing people's shoes. Who would come to the Canyon in 6" spiky heels? Someone did. Flip-flops (on the trail???). Check. Native American dancing? Check.
Laura on the right

A little wobbly after our margs, we visited Bright Angel Lodge, checking off another Mary design on our list. This lodge was designed to provide moderately-priced accommodations for visitors. One of the standout structures in the entire park is here in the History Room of Bright Angel Lodge. It is, simply, a fireplace. But Mary went all out. Designed to mimic the geology of Grand Canyon, the fireplace is layered from bottom to top with rocks found at the Canyon's different strata. Rocks were brought up from all levels by the fireplace's builders, and Mary was extremely focused on not only getting the proportions correct, she selected one side canyon to copy, including that canyon's fault lines; the fireplace's rocks, then, are tilted at the same angle as these fault lines. It's nuts. As the guy who was manning that room said, "I'd hate to be the schmucks who worked for her," meaning that her "attention to detail" most likely would drive anyone crazy. That room also gave visitors a history of Fred Harvey and the Fred Harvey Company. It appears that Fred and Mary never met; he died in 1901, Mary was hired by the Company in 1902. However, I think they would've agreed on many things: excellence in your work, everything to perfection.
Fireplace with geologic copy of the Canyon

Fault lines represented

One of the lodge's decorations;
history described below:
We also visited Lookout Studio, a Mary design, and marveled at how this stone house (Kaibab Formation limestone) seemingly teeters on the edge of the Canyon and has multi-level porches showing off the view. One can sometimes find the endangered California condor soaring around here (we did see a condor at some point in this area, but the margarita affected my memory as to where and when).

By 3:00, there were two of Mary's designs we had not yet seen. One was Phantom Canyon Ranch, at the bottom of the Canyon. We'd have to come back for that. The other is called "Hermit's Rest," again, a stone building that was intended to look like a place a hermit would build; a cozy, simple design. However, there was no "hermit," it was a ruse. It was always meant to be a guest-stop, with gifts and a snack/drink area. The fireplace at Hermit's Rest, too, was amazing; the fireplace itself was big, but what makes it spectacular is the stone continues all around it, making it almost like an enormous stone cave. To add even more awe to this design, Mary added the black "soot" on purpose.

Late afternoon views of the Canyon graced us as we walked around Hermit's Rest and rode back on the tram to South Village. What a day.
We drove back to Williams, munching on my canned dilly beans. Carly was beside herself to see us again; apparently she didn't eat anything all day at the "pet resort," no treats, no kibble, nothing; she was the vision of doom and gloom. Poor babe; her first kennel experience.
What a marvelous day. I am still reliving it. As many times as I visit, I learn something new every time. And to spend the day with Mary, but especially with Laura, well, that made it a day to remember for all time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Can you can? I can!!

First, I just have to announce that after living on a dirt road for the past 13 years, we finally got it paved two days ago. We can keep our windows open! It's quieter! We don't have clods of mud in our wheel wells that fall in chunks onto our driveway! I can wash my car without having it get covered in dust (or mud) five minutes later on the drive home! Champagne was served at our house Friday night, celebrating with our neighbors. This road-paving adventure started out nearly five years ago, our improvement district was no doubt the most complex, headache-filled nightmare that our county has ever experienced (that was quoted to me by several county employees as well our county supervisor multiple times). I firmly believe that even a decade from now, I could whisper "Hilltop Improvement District" to any county employee and watch their head explode.

Back to topic at hand: I can can. I really can! A month or two ago, when we realized we'd be swimming in squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and green beans by late summer, it was time to call in the big guns: my mother-in-law Ann. While I had enjoyed others' homemade canned goods, I had never ventured into the canning world. I thought canning would: 1) be a multi-day affair slaving in a hot kitchen; 2) use some sort of huge pot with a thermometer that you had to boil jars in for hours, constantly buggered by "sterilize this" and "sterilize that"; and 3) be just your basic pain in the you-know-what.

I am thrilled to say my assumptions were way off base. Yes, it takes a little while, but really, it's not an all-day affair nor are you slaving in a hot kitchen all day long dunking jars into pressure-cooker canners and timing them, blah blah blah. You don't even need the water-bath canning unit (unless you can tomatoes, which is a different story). It's actually fun, not too hard, and you can make just about anything with any vegetable.

Labor Day weekend (appropriately enough) was selected for my first canning experience. We picked up Ann and brought her to our home for the weekend. Beforehand, she and I discussed what I would need to get to be prepared. She had some equipment, some spices, and other things she would bring, I had to furnish the jars and lids, the vinegar, a few fresh herbs, sugar (which I had in abundance due to my hummingbird obligations), and, of course, massive quantities of vegetables. Easy.

We decided on three different recipes: bread-and-butter pickles (a clove-kissed, semi-sweet, semi-dilly pickle that is to die for); zucchini relish; and "dilly beans." We started with the pickles.

You do know that pickles are made from cucumbers, right? Well, we picked what was available in our garden, 15 pretty large cucumbers. Yes, you can make pickles from large cucumbers; we didn't want to pick them weeks early when they were "pickle" sized because we didn't want them to go bad in the fridge, so we had to use our large ones.

Cucumbers are great because you don't need to peel them. Just slice away. After, we placed the slices in a large bowl, layering them with chopped onions and adding salt. Salt helps draw out the moisture from the vegetable, and you want to let them sit in salt for a few hours. Ann additionally recommended packing crushed ice on top, contending that this helps keep the pickle slices crunchy.

Sliced cukes layered with salt and chopped onions

Cukes, onions, and salt with crushed ice
The bowl goes into the fridge and we let it sit there for a few hours. In the meantime, we cleaned our pint jars and lids thoroughly, and sat on the deck with a glass of wine. When the three hours of waiting time was almost up, we prepared the pickle brine. The brine is basically McCormick's pickling spice, cider vinegar (Ann swears that cider vinegar gives a deeper, more complex flavor than regular white distilled and I believe her; the proof is in the pickles), sugar, mustard seed, some dill weed, and maybe a few other things. We also started a big pot of water to boil. The brine went on the stovetop too.

We removed the cucumbers from the fridge, then drained and rinsed them thoroughly. The boiling water was ready, the brine was almost boiling. We used the boiling water to sterilize each jar and lid/ring in batches. When the brine boiled, we poured in the cucumbers, let it boil again, and cooked the cucumbers for maybe five minutes; not too long. We then fairly quickly poured the now-pickled cucumbers into our pint jars. Here's the process:

Cukes boiling away
Boiling the lids

And the result:

15 large cucumbers made 11 pints of pickles. The time it took us from start to finish once the cucumbers were removed from the fridge was about an hour, maybe a little more. We hadn't planned on doing more canning that day, so we sat on our deck and looked at our masterpieces, finishing up our wine.

The next day's menu was zucchini relish and dilly beans. By far the easiest is dilly beans, so we saved that for last. Zucchini relish is the most time-consuming of the three, since multiple vegetables must be peeled, de-seeded, and then shredded or diced (and also layered with salt and put in the fridge for a few hours to drain their moisture).
Soon-to-be relish
Bruce took Ann to the local casino while I stayed home to prepare the vegetables. I started with a concoction of carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, a couple more cucumbers (we have ALOT of cucumbers!), red and yellow peppers, and onions.

Thank heavens for technology. I dusted off my food processor, and went to work. I tried pulsing/dicing some veggies, and shredding others, just to get different textures. Ended up not liking the results of the shredding, but that's a lesson for the next batch. I let the veggies sit on paper towels while I finished processing, and thought the relish looked very colorful and pretty:

Then, I layered the veggies with salt in a large bowl, stuck it in the fridge for awhile, and took a peek at the moisture that was brought out during this process.

It's really amazing how much water drains out
from vegetables
Cooking the relish
Ann and Bruce came back (Bruce's winnings: $50; Ann's winnings: $350, and this happens all the time except the part about Bruce's winnings). The veggies were ready, so we made the brine using pretty much the same bread-and-butter recipe as we used with the pickles, sterilized the jars/lids, and started cooking the veggies in the brine. This time, we cooked the relish a bit more than we did the pickles, about 15 minutes. While it continued to boil, I filled the half-pint containers while Ann put the lids on. We admired our work out on the back deck yet again:

12 half-pint jars of zucchini relish!
Now it was time for the dilly beans. That morning, while Ann was raking in the bucks at the casino and the relish veggies were doing their thing in the fridge, I had taken our hand-picked green beans, cleaned them, and prepared them for canning, by snipping off the ends and cutting them in half. I also took some fresh dill (from the garden, of course), delegating a good-sized sprig for each jar, and minced lots (and lots!) of fresh garlic.

Dilly beans are super easy. You don't even cook the beans. Place beans in your sterilized jars, add a spoonful or two of minced garlic, a sprig of dill, and some dried dill weed.

Prepare the brine: A big pot of half water, half cider vinegar (we were running out so I added some white distilled), throw in maybe some mustard seed, and then add salt to the brine. Bring to a roiling boil, make sure the salt is totally dissolved, and fill the jars. Easy peasy. Seal, and let sit for a few weeks before eating; let the beans "cook" in the warm brine and they'll eventually absorb the garlic-dill flavors.

We were done by mid-afternoon. The result: 11 pints pickles; 12 half-pints zucchini relish; and 12 pints dilly beans. I already have ideas for the next canning event: more pickles (cucumbers are really coming in now), and probably some green-tomato relish (mostly using the same sort of vegetables as my zucchini relish) or maybe instead make some sort of green-tomato chile verde salsa (or both, I have no doubt we'll have enough tomatoes!). Really, the possibilities are endless. I don't know why I harbored the notion that canning was this awful, miserable experience. Any food-making venture that uses produce you grow yourself, that allows you some time to take a break and sit on the back deck with a glass of wine, makes you hustle just a little bit, and ends up with food you'll be dipping into all winter (re-living your summer garden memories), is plainly my kind of cooking.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things

Before I get to my main story, I have to show you our first "real" harvest in our garden:
Cukes! Tomatoes! More squash! Green beans! Yum!!!
We had to clean out our garden of ready, or near-ready, veggies because we were leaving for five days to explore part of southeastern Arizona on a mini-vacation.

Southeastern Arizona...if you don't know how wonderful that area is, by the end of this story, you will. Remember the movie musical "Oklahoma!" (yes, Shirley Jones...that one)? It was actually filmed in this area, oh yes it was. One of my favorite places to explore, it is a land of big sky and rolling grasslands with "islands" of mountains that harbor some of the most biologically-rich habitats in the United States. It is heaven for birdwatchers; matter of fact, it is one of the top five birding areas in North America. Towns such as Sierra Vista and Sonoita, as well as even the local military base, Fort Huachuca, have recently taken notice of the economic boon of birders "flocking" here, and have capitalized on this phenomenon with bird festivals and other marketing ploys. These grasslands, too, are found to have a type of soil that is conducive to growing grapes, and there is a burgeoning wine region around the small town of Elgin; approximately 15 wineries have tasting rooms, and it makes a great day trip from Tucson.

Just out of Tucson, entering the grasslands
Grasslands around Elgin, wine country

Pronghorn antelope grazing around Elgin

Future wine

So when my husband suggested we get away for a long weekend, I happily accommodated him. Why not? Three of my favorite things are in southeastern Arizona: birds, wine, and Bed & Breakfasts (the other two favorites being yarn and beads; that about rounds out my Top 5 Favorite Things). It's actually a long drive from the White Mountains, and we had to make it even longer by going through Payson to drop off our dog with my mother- and sister-in-law to care for. After that, Sunday morning found us on a road trip to heaven.

After rolling through the "Oklahoma!" grasslands, where enormous oaks (Emory oak? AZ White Oak? I have no clue) break up the waving fields of grass, we reached our first stop, Sonoita. Sonoita is just a tiny crossroads, really. Two "highways" (two-lane roads) converge at a stop sign, where there's a general store/gas mart, and by chance, where some Arizona wine is sold inside. After seeing the jacked-up prices, which we knew were cheaper at the winery itself, we decided to forego the wine, but not before I took a couple pictures:

Bruce at the Mercantile

Arizona wine for sale inside
The Sonoita Vineyard dog enjoying the shade
We were making good time, so we decided to hit Elgin and our favorite area winery, Sonoita Vineyards, to stock up. It's always a dangerous stop, as we generally can't get out of there without buying at least a case of wine. Sonoita Vineyards is, I believe, the first vineyard in the Sonoita/Elgin area, and it was developed by Dr. Gordon Dutt, a soil scientist from the University of Arizona. I actually took a soil science class from Dr. Dutt when in grad school, and I think he got it right by retiring from teaching and making a go of this winery. He's a great guy, occasionally spotted talking to folks in the tasting room. He really started an industry down here that brings tourists and dollars to this relatively rural area.

Bruce anticipating that money will be spent
Lots of peeps in the tasting room; it's a popular place
I had to buy a tasting glass just to make sure
the wine was still the same
Stuff for sale, including ceramic shoes as wine racks

Or, if you'd rather, some party napkins:
"Pick Me Squeeze Me, Make Me Wine" and
"I'm not getting older, I'm getting more complex"

Alas, as Bruce anticipated, he ended up
hauling two cases out. As he said to me,
"it's not the weight of the wine, it's the depletion
of our checking account that's killing me!!!"
The courtyard at Casa de San Pedro
 Mind you, this is just Day 1. We traveled on, landing finally at our lodging for three nights, the Casa de San Pedro, a lovely B&B right along the San Pedro River. For those of you not familiar with the San Pedro River, it is a nationally-recognized river system that harbors over 300 bird species, dozens of mammals, plants, and herpetofauna. Remember when I talked about how great the birdwatching is in this part of the state? One of the reasons is the presence of the San Pedro. Recognized by The Nature Conservancy as one of our "Last Great Places," it is a northern-flowing (it has its start in Mexico and flows north) perennial river that has on its edges some incredible riparian (streamside) habitat of huge cottonwoods, willows, and other native vegetation that you just don't see too much anymore in Arizona, as a number of our great rivers have simply dried up from overuse. The fear is that the same fate awaits the San Pedro; the city of Sierra Vista, over 50,000 residents and growing, are pumping more water from the water table than is being replenished, and it has been affecting the river's flow. When you have a river in a desert, you can bet that that river is important to not only humans, but also the myriad of wildlife that depend upon it. Unusual species such as the jaguar, ocelot, green kingfisher, and some tropical birds from Mexico have shown up in this river corridor.

Along the San Pedro, cottonwoods and green
vegetation make it cooler, wetter, shadier,
and all-around more attractive for wildlife
Breakfast of champions: a popover base with fruit,
compote, and a dollop of fresh sour cream
along with a sausage link. So much for the diet.
After cooling off at the B&B and meeting owners Patrick and Karl, we were given the tour and basically shown how we could make ourselves at home. It truly is a magnificent B&B; the dining area always had tea, coffee, and baked goods available. Breakfasts were impeccable. Benches and bird feeders placed strategically for those just wanting to sit and watch birds, from the daily visits by wild turkeys to swarms of hummingbirds. A trail led to the San Pedro River, about 100 yards away, where one can thrash through vegetation and find toads, lizards, birds, and the occasional mammal tracks.

Birdwatching at the base of a
huge AZ Sycamore tree

The following day, we visited Ramsey Canyon Preserve, one of The Nature Conservancy's most well-known preserves. Remember the "Monument Fire" a few months previous, one of Arizona's wildfires of the year? Well, after burning the southern third of the Huachuca Mountains, with Preserve folks thinking "here it comes, we're next," the wind shifted, and the fire basically stopped at the head of Ramsey Canyon. We saw the aftermath of the fire in other places, but here, it was untouched. We spent the morning exploring the creek, and had a great time.
Wandering up the creek to "The Box,"
a tight, narrow canyon about 100'
high; don't want to be there
when it rains...

We saw six species of hummingbirds at the feeders maintained at the Preserve: Magnificent, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Costa's, Anna's, and Violet-crowned. A few other southeastern-Arizona specialties, like Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, were also spotted.

Violet-crowned hummingbird, photo by Bob Gress, obtained from Google Images (not my photo!!!)
The following day was spent wandering in the San Pedro River, using the privately-funded but open to the public San Pedro House as our base. The house is an old ranch house that is part of the Bureau of Land Management's San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA, or "Sprinka" as it's called). Trails, interpretive signs, and a gift shop provide the visitor with a full experience. The house sits at the base of this enormous cottonwood tree, supposedly the 3rd largest cottonwood in the state (but I've never seen a bigger one). Truly amazing tree.

We wandered around, and I took off for a hike to the River (looking for Green Kingfisher, but not finding it, but I did find my 3rd and 4th Gray Hawk of the trip), while Bruce stuck around the House area. What happened with him while I was gone is the stuff of legends. Of course I missed it. He was walking along a bit of interpretive trail, and was simply watching one of the many lizards that tend to zing along in front of you; this one was particularly large, and as he was watching it and thinking "gosh, kinda big..," and BOOM, a large coachwhip snake shot out from the vegetation on the side of the trail, launching after the lizard. Coachwhips are FAST, lizards are FAST; apparently this lizard was a bit faster than the snake and eventually got away, but not until after a long chase down the trail. Bruce got a front-row seat to a very cool interaction between predator and prey. It happened too fast to get a picture, so this one is from Google Images (again), but Bruce saw something he'll remember for a long time. 

So that was our second full day; when it got too hot, we came back to the Casa, and swam in their pool, relaxed, and I read my Kindle while Bruce napped. What a great day.

One evening, we took a drive to the Coronado National Monument, run by the National Park Service. It was originally designed to be a companion park to a similar memorial that Mexico promised to develop right next to this one (remember, we are, literally, at the border of Mexico here), but never did. The Coronado Monument was where the Monument fire was ignited, and black trees were everywhere. The amazing thing is how quickly the grass grew back after our summer rains started, so there was this curious juxtaposition of near-flourescent green grass with blackened trees all around. One of the rehabilitation efforts is to actually re-plant agaves, as the lesser brown bat, a federally-threatened species, depends on the nectar of the agave, and this species was pretty hard-hit in the fire. Anyway, there is a curvy dirt road you drive through the Monument to get to a saddle overlooking the San Rafael Valley, where Coronado and his troops came through in 1540, one of the first Europeans to visit the area. We reached the saddle right around sunset, and took about a million pictures.

The windy road up the canyon; Sierra Vista is in the distance

The San Rafael Valley, looking into Mexico. A monsoon
shower is on the left, the sun is setting on the right.

Sunset on the San Rafael

We came back to the B&B, enjoyed a glass of wine at poolside, and slept like logs. The next day, we ventured back home, via Tucson (pick up some pottery we had made for us), where it was about 100 degrees, then Phoenix to pick up our newly-repaired camper trailer, where it was about 109 degrees (ack!), then, finally, back up the mountain to grab the dog and mother-in-law in Payson, then home sweet home. A great trip, especially so when My Favorite Things are a part of it!!!