Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cousin Ruth and the Stone Bones

Years ago, Ruth discovered fossil camel and rhinoceros bones exposed in a mound in western Nebraska. This was no idle claim: the bones were properly identified, catalogued and displayed at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with full credit given to the finder. Yesterday, we returned to the site of her discovery.

A Brule clay mound rose about 100 feet above the surrounding terrain. Ruth said the fossils she found were "just lying on the ground." I was incredulous. "A tooth was exposed, and then we dug out the jaw." The mound was located about two miles north of the North Platte about 200 feet higher than the current highwater mark but still well within the wide valley the river has cut over eons. The ground was littered with smooth, flat granite and basalt stones which had been carried from the mountains several hundred miles to the west and then deposited here when the channel shifted south.

William, Ruth's son, made the first new discovery. It was a rib fragment which "chinged" when he tapped it against another rock. He thought it was metal and was prepared to discard it. Soon his brother Edward found some fossil bone fragments. They were indeed just lying on the ground. They were near the top of the mound and somewhat protected by thick slabs of limestone which originally capped the oligocene clay mound and inhibited erosion. The age of clay suggests the bones we found protruding from it were 25-30 million years old.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Matt from Galesburg

Matt climbed into the Hertz Subaru Outback outside Hot Springs, South Dakota. He was on his way to New Mexico via the Four Corners and Grand Canyon. Originally from Galesburg, Illinois, he has worked as a day laborer and made his home in Texas, Florida or on the road. When I met him, he was seeing "a bit of the country."

If he still had his scooter, I would not have met him. It was impounded in Florida. Matt was passionate about scooters. He could get over 100 miles per gallon. He had traveled from Texas to Illinois on about six gallons of gas. He could carry his pack on the running board. He had nothing good to say about the police, especially the police in Louisiana. They harassed him and confiscated his scooters; his driver's license too. He was on his way to New Mexico because he had heard it was easy to get a new license there.

Matt's backpack was stretched drum tight. He claimed it weighed 100 pounds. Having seen the effort required to heft it, I had no reason to doubt that figure. He carried his life in that pack. He had foot long spikes to secure his tent and a hatchet to cut firewood.

He was dressed in shorts, heavy boots and wore a camouflage baseball cap. On the road, he was called Willy for obvious reasons; he even had the ponytail. He was lean and tanned like a Gulf Coast fisherman. He had professional tattoos on his arms and chest and amateur ink on his fingers. He complained that he could no longer hike 20 miles with his pack due to a bad back.

We crossed the North Platte in Bridgeport, Nebraska and stopped at Runza for a late lunch. He remembered having something like a Runza in LA about 20 years ago. It was a calzone. I had wolfed down half my Runza before I noticed how slowly and deliberately he ate. We returned to the bridge over the Platte and I dropped him off; 140 miles closer to the Grand Canyon than he had been a couple hours earlier. He would make camp under the bridge.

Matt turned 49 last week; he was born on June 18, 1959.

Breakfast at Bully's

Presidents are a big deal in Rapid City. Bronze statues of greet pedestrians in the historic district. At Mount Rushmore, Teddy Roosevelt may literally be in the shadow of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, but he is remembered with exceeding warmth in town. Bully Blends Coffee & Tea Shop is a case in point.

For breakfast I had an excellent Bullrito. Offering a half portion was a fine idea because it allowed me to rationalize the purchase of a dangerous Bullrownie. (You can't be too careful when venturing out across the high plains.) Everything is made in house and the staff is gracious to a fault.

Granite Faces in the Black Hills

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Glass of Your Own

Barely Blond might describe the woman behind the bar or the draft she drew from the keg. Tonight the Firehouse Brewery had five of their own craft brews on tap. The jolly couple to my right proposed the Blond and Megan, the bartender, seconded the motion. Barely Blond was a voluptuous ale: great body with Eastern European hop sass. If I were a local, I would have enjoyed it in my own numbered glass.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sullivan's Brontosaurus

Jurassic Park reinvented dinosaurs. Before Steven Speilberg brought them back to life, however, they were dusty skeletons in natural history museums or Emmit Sullivan sculptures in South Dakota's Dinosaur Park.


Sullivan rendered tail dragging, reptilian behemoths life size in concrete over steel mesh and then painted them bright green. Today they look cartoonish, but I suspect that has more to do with what has happened to dinosaurs over the seven decades which have passed since Sullivan and his WPA crew were at work.

The fate of two iconic dinosaurs, brontosaurus and trachodon, tells part of the story. They were demoted. Brontosaurus has been reclassified as Apatosaurus; Trachodon is now Hadrosaurid. Both were the creations of early bone hunters. Later research has shown they were cobbled together from two or more creatures. But they captured the imagination and became real for generations of enthusiasts.

Trachodon and Brontosaurus

Paleontologists have a much deeper understanding of dinosaurs now than they did in Sullivan's time. The closest living relatives of dinosaurs, we are told, are birds, not reptiles. Most probably were not green; they probably did not drag their tails. Contrary to conventional wisdom, they were survivors and ruled the planet for over 100 million years. Only recently did we learn their tenure was abruptly terminated when the Earth collided with a very large rock (estimated to be about the size of Mount Everest) 63 million years ago. Otherwise, they might still be in charge.


None of that serious scholarship detracts from the charm of the Dinosaur Park. Sullivan's sculptures will continue to inspire. Kids at least. Riding Triceratops beats peering at presidents on Mount Rushmore any day.

T. Rex and Triceratops

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fin Special

Escolar is surfacing everywhere. Nick Macioge is making it into his special white tuna roll at Fin in Lenox, Massachusetts. But the best thing about this roll is not the fish, it is the jalapeño salsa. Minced peppers, onions, lemon, lime and olive oil. According to Nick, the key to controlling the burn is to use peppers with uncracked skins. Next time I will try it on tuna tuna.

Fructose and Gout

Audrae Erickson and the Corn Refiners Association are going on the offensive. Corn has been vying with oil as the leading news item among the commodities due to anticipated crop losses resulting from flooding across the Midwest. But the CRA's new PR campaign is attempting to deal with a more difficult problem: consumer perception of high fructose corn syrup. The industry is concerned about the negative impact of books like Dr. Richard J. Johnson's The Sugar Fix. Erickson has an uphill slog.

We all know that too much sugar is bad for us, and we all know that contemporary diets contain too much sugar. What I found newsworthy in Johnson's book was the assertion fructose plays an important role in the production of uric acid which in turn causes gout. I already knew about the usual gout suspects: foods high in purines (shell fish, red meat, beans, asparagus, mushrooms, and beer). I did not know I had to be careful about dessert too. (Balch & Balch's Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 1990, made no mention of fructose when discussing gout).

Johnson did not suggest a healthy diet should be devoid of fructose, but he did strongly recommend that it be low in fructose. Makes sense to me. Since reading the book, I have replaced my roadtrip Starbucks Frappuccinos with espressos or iced teas and cut way back refined sugars. (Shellfish and beer are generally off the menu too.) I am feeling much better.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Berkshire Ferns

Trips to The Belfry were always happy occasions. Fresh air, vigorous activity, cold nights; fishing, canoeing, camping; shopping (hardware, groceries, tackle), building (new porch, new steps to the lake), wood fired cooking (both in the kitchen and outside). We loved those trips. We spent time with our grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. And, without quite knowing it, we learned a lot. Grandfather knew the names and habits of every animal and most plants; he wanted us to know how to identify the things around us also.

Some of the education stuck, but not enough. I was perhaps a C student. Today, I might pass a test to identify animals but I would fail dismally to identify most plants. I don't know how Grandfather remembered everything. We have Google. With that resource in mind, I decided to learn which ferns inhabit my woods.

After an hour or so in tick land and several more on the computer, I can now identify, with a degree of confidence, seven of the eight ferns I found (I gave up on the fern at the top of this post). Given the similarity among many of the ferns, I suspect I will find more on my next field trip. The Connecticut Botanical Society was excellent. The USDA site was helpful but cumbersome.

Bracken Fern

Christmas Fern

Cinnamon Fern

Maidenhair Fern

Mountain Woodfern

New York Fern

Sensitive Fern

And finally, the mountain laurel I thought was ready to blossom a month ago, has opened up.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fire Roasted Hamburgers

"Don't knead the meat!" As a kid, I thought the key to making hamburgers was in the formation. I was on the right track but headed in the wrong direction. I was working the patties into pucks. Great burgers, I learned, start with lightly formed patties using exactly as much pressure as needed for the ground beef to stick together, and not an ounce more. Grind some pepper and sprinkle some flakey salt over them and you are ready for the grill. Extra effort loses points.

The fire is every bit as important as the beef. Wood, not charcoal, is best. I have used maple, oak, beech, hickory, cherry, even buckthorn; stick to one species, the harder, the better. Build a fire to one side of the grill (I like the classic Weber kettle) and let it burn down to a short but active flame. Make sure the grid surface is clean and very hot before you start cooking. Arrange the burgers on the opposite side of the grill, away from the flame. Replace the cover with the vents open (I usually leave the lid slightly off center to increase the draft). Flip the burgers when the grid leaves a clear sear mark. (In her book, Cookwise, Shirley Corriher explains how protein sticks to the surface until it is cooked and then it releases--keep this in mind: if the burgers are sticking, they probably need more time.) Add cheese (recently I have been using triangles of Vintage Gouda and Emmental instead of a single square slice) and replace the cover. Once the cheese has melted, the burgers are just about ready. Rather than a slice of onion, try blanketing the burgers with chives.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Wicked Haddock in Bellingham

Judging from the number of foot long hot dogs I saw cross the counter at the Rosewood Restaurant in Bellingham, Massachusetts, I have no doubt they made good on a promise. But the haddock was a knock out (and well worth the wait as it was made to order). A massive fillet resting on a mountain of sweet home made onion rings. A little salt and pepper and liberal amounts of malt vinegar and I was all set. Too bad the place didn't offer a decent house brewed iced tea instead of Nestea or the sugary bottled stuff.

Jax Blue Plate in Boulder

Several days ago I was driving through an old Dallas neighborhood which had some of the same early twentieth century bungalows which give Boulder, Colorado a lot of its charm. In Dallas many of those old houses are being torn down and replaced by handsome new piles two or three times as large. In Boulder the small houses are beautifully preserved and carefully landscaped. Their owners clearly care as much about the space around their houses as the space inside them. Quality over quantity.

I love visiting Boulder. It is a cool town. A town, not a city. It is small enough to walk around comfortably. And it seems most residents do walk around. Many with dogs or kids or both. The place has a great vibe. Residents of Boulder may not feel it is important to upsize their houses but they have substantial expectations when it comes to food. Pearl Street is a fine place to stroll, especially if you are looking for a great meal. I have had several at Jax Fish House. Chef Rosenberg has a lot of fun fusing flavors from all over.

My most recent adventure started with one foot in Mexico and the other in Japan with the "Chimi," an ahi tuna sushi roll with a chimichanga crust. Since my companions were busy with oysters, I felt absolutely no shame in keeping it all to myself.

Chef Rosenberg must like working an Amerasian melange because the next dish featured Maine scallop ceviche on a bed of avocado cucumber salsa and topped with tobiko. It was mindnumbingly good. Then, with my feet firmly planted in on the eastern side of the Pacific rim, I devoured the so called Tuesday "blue plate" special (shown at the top of the page): New Zealand Blue Nose with a Thai curry sauce. My only complaint was the color of the plate. No blue.

The short walk to Jax had offered a quick trip around the Pacific. I had absolutely no plans for any other excursions that night, but it was not to be. France beckoned. One of my companions ventured forth and made an awesome discovery: a flourless chocolate brownie topped with crème brûlée. Mae was right: too much of a good thing is wonderful.

Apparently the powers at Jax have as tough a time with numbers as they do with colors: seven nights in a week but only four blue plate specials. No matter. They have all the important stuff right. I'll be back. It's on my route.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Merle's Door

Europeans understand dogs. Their dogs are typically well behaved. Dogs are welcomed in restaurants, and only American tourists seem to notice. In Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote described the center of Chamonix where the local dogs congregated to socialize during the day before returning to their respective homes in the evening. They were well groomed, collar wearing, and registered. And they were enjoying the liberty, equality and fraternity guaranteed all French citizens.

Most dogs aren’t so lucky, at least not in the developed world. Our dogs may be well fed and thoroughly inoculated but they are nervous and behave poorly; often they are not able to be simultaneously happy and relaxed. Cesar Millan spoke of his grandfather’s farm in Mexico where all the dogs figured out how to fit in both in their immediate pack but also the larger community of people and other animals. They had jobs to do and were well adjusted. The village dogs I saw in Asia also seemed to get along well without much human interference. These third world dogs were filthy but happy. (The farm and village dogs should not be confused with the frightened strays scavenging around cities in the developing world—these truly are wretched creatures.) In Kelly, Wyoming, where Kerasote lived, the local dogs were free to come and go as they wished. And Kerasote’s dog Merle had his own door. And this, he believed, was the key to Merle’s success in becoming an equal partner in their life together.

Interspersed between the stories of Merle’s ability to learn, mature, and enjoy himself, Kerasote referred to a variety of experts, including Temple Grandin, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Douglas Smith among many others to find scientific evidence to support assertions based on his own observations of dogs in general and especially Merle. The book offers a lot of practical advice on how to understand dogs and what NOT to do to allow them to mature. But mainly, Merle’s Door is the story of a rare friendship.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Monk's Pond and the Burbank Trail

Kids from Namche Bazaar in the Khumbu region of Nepal hike a couple miles to school in Khumjung. They start 11,200' and end up at 12,600'. Flat landers like me were astounded by the sight of children in uniforms with bookbags joshing around. The altitude had already rendered us breathless. (Perhaps sherpas are fascinated by American kids skateboarding to school.) I thought about those kids this afternoon as I walked up the BNRC's mile and half long Burbank trail from Olivia's Overlook to the hardscrabble home sites at the top of the hill.

After the land was cleared for firewood or charcoal, it was farmed for the better part of a century until Anson Phelps Stokes bought it as a part of his Shadowbrook property. The terrain was rocky and steep in most places. From a twenty first century vantage, I briefly imagined life at a remote hilltop settlement with little other than impressive views in its favor must have been oppressively difficult. Then I remembered the joy of the kids from Namche on the way to Khumjung.

There was a lot to see and smell at walking speed. The rain yesterday amplified the damp leafy fragrance of the woods. Hemlock, moss, wintergreen, punctuated by a little skunk.

Mike concentrated on aromas beyond my ken. Most of the items he investigated were invisible. But he did discover an enormous pile of scat. Since its contents were entirely herbaceous, I suspected a moose but found no tracks to confirm the theory. I saw at least a dozen newts. Mike ignored them.