Saturday, August 30, 2008

What's In a Name?

Check out this fascinating site, which I found through BBC News. The site, Public Profiler, tracks more than 10 million surnames throughout 26 countries (it has a Western European/American focus, though Japan, India, Argentina and a few others are included).

It just launched and is getting a lot of traffic, so it may be super-slow or even give you a runtime error, but it's pretty neat (and free!).

For example, I got a shock... while I've found historical evidence to suggest German, Scottish and/or Irish origins for my last name, it actually occurs by far most frequently in... Poland.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Devil's Towelette

Another day off, another item checked off my to-do list.

I did a seven-mile hike (round-trip, so nothing crazy) entirely above timberline to a geologic feature right on the Continental Divide. It's sort of a miniature version of Devil's Tower in Wyoming, and I meant to type The Devil's Towerette for the title of the post, but I found the typo so amusing I left it as is.

Wiley, by the way, was a little stiff this morning so after a brief walkies up to the rodeo grounds I left him snoozing on his bed.

The trailhead was at the former site of Corona, a hotel that once stood at the spot where the old railroad came over the Divide. The road that leads up to it now is based on the old railroad grade, and traveling it in my Ford Focus, dodging potholes the size of Wiley and even bigger rocks, cringeing every time I scraped bottom, I couldn't stop thinking about the men who built and maintained the thing (until they realized hey, maybe we should just bore a big-ass tunnel straight through the mountain).

I mean, winter brought snow up to 30 feet deep, and here, winter is October through June!

The Corona hotel and other buildings are long gone, but here's a shot of the approach to the trailhead, with the Divide I'd be walking along looming in the background:

From the trail itself, here's a shot looking west into the valley where I live and work. My apartment is roughly in the center of the photo, though no amount of "embiggening" would let you see any detail. On the near horizon, that big mountain on the left that's taller than all the others is Byers Peak, the 12,804-footer I climbed a couple weeks ago:

One nice thing about The Devil's Towelette hike was that it started at 11,664 feet and ended at 12,235 feet, so there wasn't much elevation gain, and most of it was right at the beginning, up a series of steep switchbacks. From there it was relatively level walking along the Divide itself, which tickled me silly.

Here's a shot of the trail heading north:

I knew from my guidebook and from people at work who've done the hike that there wouldn't be much of a payoff. Although The Devil's Towelette can be seen from nearly anywhere in the valley and looks rather imposing, from the Divide it blends into the cliffs behind it, as shown below:

In case you're going "Towelette? What Towelette? I don't see no stinkin' towelette!" here's the same photo with it outlined in red:

To be able to see it without the cliffs behind it, you have to go all the way down the saddle and get almost to its base. Quite frankly, I see it (from a distance) every morning from my bedroom window, and thunderclouds were moving in, so I decided to turn back without getting a better shot.

While I was on The Devil's Towelette Trail, the real fun of the hike for me was not the destination but being above timberline without having killed myself to get there (like the Byers climb) so I could actually appreciate its beauty without gasping for breath. Also very cool: seeing the pikas. Usually I just hear them squeaking to each other around the rocks, but today I saw a few of them with their mouths stuffed full of vegetation for winter (just around the corner!). They are adorable.

I also saw what I think were northern pocket gophers and a long-tailed weasel... I'm not too sure about the weasel, because I didn't think they hung out above treeline, but it was too skinny and fast to be a yellow belly marmot and too, well, weaselly lookin' to be anything else I know. Whatever it was, like the gophers and the pikas it was frantically gathering food. By this time next month, the trail likely will be impassable with snow.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Peak-Baggin', My Way

Wiley and I summited the 14,258-foot Mount Evans today. That's right, we bagged a 14er as the locals say. Without even breaking a sweat.

Because we drove all but the last quarter-mile.

Mount Evans is, as far as I know, the only 14er that has a summit you can get within shouting distance of in your car. The road that leads to the Summit Parking Lot is billed as the highest paved road in North America, not to be confused with Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, the highest continuously paved road in North America (though it tops out at less than 13,000 feet, you can drive Trail Ridge all the way through the park and over the Divide).

In any case, the Mount Evans road is a bleepin' high road, one of the most precarious I've been on because it's narrow with no rails and a lot of hairpins and blind curves and inattentive tourists.

It had been on my list of to-dos for a few months now, but only last night did I look at my guidebook and notice it closes for the year on Labor Day because of the snow. Yikes! That's next week!

So off we went early this morning in hopes of getting back in time for a physical with my new doctor (now that I have health insurance again... yay America for its universal health care! Oh, wait a minute... Let me put my reality boots back on so I'm firmly anchored to the ground.)

Here's the summit marker:

And if you think I'm developing an obsession with photos of the US Geological Survey markers yes, yes you are correct. By the way, I uploaded all superlarge files that you should be able to "embiggen" by clicking on the photo... please let me know if you can't, as it's been an issue in the past.

Here is a view from the summit looking north. Summit Lake, which interestingly enough is more than a thousand feet below the summit, is in the foreground. The mountains in the background are, I believe, the string of peaks on the Divide that loom over the valley where I live. If you are able to embiggen the photo and get really really close to your monitor and squint, you may be able to see the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park in the very distance, on the right.

Below is my favorite view from the summit, looking west towards what I believe is the Mosquito Range.

Yeah, the shot below is essentially of the western view again, but when Smalls crowded into my camera's view to stare intently at some ravens circling around the snowfield, I just really liked the way his ears lined up with all the peaks.

And finally, here's a view looking south. In the foreground is what's billed as the world's highest observatory (I thought the ones in Hawaii and Chile were higher up, but I don't go around with a tape measure). Just in front of it, you may be able to make out a structure that blends in well with the landscape. It's the remnants of what was once "the world's highest snack bar" but exploded in 1979 due to either a faulty propane tank or one hell of a bad burrito reaction... They preserved as much of the rubble as they could and turned it into an observation platform.

And again, if you embiggen the photo and squint, that mountain on the far right, far horizon is Pike's Peak. This was the last shot I got before the skies darkened and it started to hail. Wiley and I made it down the 130-foot elevation gain to the parking lot, which I'm sure is billed as "the world's highest paved parking lot," and made it back to our side of the Divide just in time for my physical.

Re: the physical, it was the first I've ever had by a doctor dressed in denim shorts, sandals and a t-shirt (it's a different world out here). It was also the first physical that included checking my blood oxygen saturation level to make sure I'm not hypoxic or anything because of living in this altitude.


On another altitude-related note, yes, I know it was only a quarter-mile each way, with a mere 130-foot elevation gain, but both Wiley and I virtually jogged up the trail from the parking lot to the summit, passing tourists left and right as they bent over gasping for air. I thought it was cool to see how living at 8550 feet above sea level has granted us some semblance of superpowers when heading upward from the world's highest paved parking lot.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rocky Mountain Randoms: The Mamma Mia! Edition

I'll get to why I need therapy in a minute, but first:

- I wasn't able to get a good picture of Elk Mountain from a distance when Wiley and I hiked it last week because I approached it from the northeast. Today I happened to be driving toward it from the south and was able to snap the photo below, which gives you a better idea of its size and shape... it's the big lump in the middle of the background:

- As many of you know, not only am I not a fan of eating chocolate, but it's also not my favorite thing to work with. While I eventually got confident about tempering it in Vegas and at school, my tempering tries here have been hit-or-miss, largely because the kitchen is comparatively small and gets so hot that to get it tempered I have to go in and out of the walk-in.

That said, on Friday I got out my chocolate mold and tried tempering in the morning, when only one oven is on and the line cooks aren't around yet. I also tried putting the bowl on top of ice for a few seconds at a time to get it cool enough. And behold!! While the strawberries I dipped in the same exact chocolate at the right temp bloomed within minutes (dang it!) the dark chocolate caramels I made with the mold came out beautifully and didn't bloom or lose their sexy sheen or leak or anything:

(Tempering chocolate, for those of you who complain I use too many fancy-pants pastry terms without defining them, is simply the process of controlling the size and shape of the fat crystals in the chocolate so that it has a lush sheen, sets quickly and can set thinly and then break with a clean snap. Chocolate that doesn't set, gets dull and/or looks moldy isn't tempered... the mold is just "bloom," when the fat separates from the rest of the matter. It's fine to eat.)

I'm most proud of getting a good temper because none of the chocolate we have in the restaurant is good for seeding... due to the heat of the kitchen, it's all bloomed.

- Here's another dessert I'm working on to add to the menu instead of my strawberry-basil creation (the season is really over for strawberries). It's Grand Marnier frozen souffle with local raspberries, chocolate tuile and hot fudge sauce that the customer can pour on top of the souffle.
While I like the plating, I recognize that the tuile is too fragile and cumbersome for the pantry cook to deal with in the middle of service, and two of the line cooks who saw me tinkering with it said they thought the plate was too white (empty). So I'm thinking of changing the tuile shape and adding a sauce to the plate, though I still like the idea of the hot fudge in a cruet (as long as I don't have to eat it!)

- Now, to the meat of the matter... I drove an hour and a half to go to the movies today, because I've been really wanting to see, yes, Mamma Mia! for the sole reason that it stars both Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard.

Well, uhm...

I should have known it was not the movie for me when I arrived in the theater and sat down in the first row of stadium seating and the chubby middle-aged woman with hair down to her butt, sitting at the opposite end of the row, shrieked "I'm saving this row! Those seats are saved!"

Nevermind that she and I were two of about a dozen people in the entire theater. I sat down on the end and told her my legs are too long to be comfortable elsewhere (which is actually true). She gave me the lazer stare of death. Whatev, sistah.

She was joined by several other chubby, long-haired, rather intense women (who, by the way, didn't fill up the row. So there.), all of whom had clearly seen the movie many, many times.

I got a little anxious because hey, I'm chubby and long-haired (tho' not that long-haired) and I really hope I don't look like that much of a stereotypical spinster. But these women, well, they reminded me of the rabid Barry Manilow and Josh Groban fans I used to have to deal with when I was a music journalist. Scary.

The string of trailers deepened my unease. They were all for movies I had no intention of ever seeing, even if trapped on a plane with a chatty seatmate.

The movie starts. Yes, I knew there'd be singing. I mean, it is a musical. But it soon became apparent: I was watching a foreign film. You know how sometimes you watch a foreign film that's been dubbed, so it's in English but you don't understand the culture the produced it, the pace is different than you're used to in American movies and you start to feel dumb for not "getting it"? Yeah, well, that's what I mean.

Don't get me wrong... Colin Firth did his usual charmingly uptight Englishman thing, and the scene where he plays guitar was the sweetest bit of puppy-dog-eyed-hottie-strumming since I saw Mike Huckabee rocking out on bass during the primaries.

And Stellan was of course great, and seemed wildly amused to be singing and dancing, as if he was just tickled silly to have hoodwinked fans of his Serious Work in to see a movie based on Sweden's other great export.

Don't get me wrong on that, either... I like ABBA's dancy songs (not the ballads), and rank them up near Stellan, IKEA and Prinsesstarta in the reasons to be glad Sweden so thoroughly resisted falling under Nazi occupation*.

(*Sorry, kind of an in-joke with myself... when I went to the Norwegian Nazi Resistance Museum in Oslo, the guy staffing the desk joked that next time I was in Stockholm I should check out the Swedish Nazi Resistance Museum... there isn't one. The Norwegians are pretty proud of their anti-Nazi efforts, and rightly so... if you're ever in Oslo, you have to visit the museum. It's one of the best-designed and most intelligent I've ever been to. Stockholm, to its credit, does have an awesome sewer exhibit in one of its natural history museums, or at least it did when I was there a few times in the mid-90s.)

Anyway... despite the calming, charming and reassuring presence of Firth and Skarsgard, the rest of the movie frightened me. Way too much perkiness, and vamping, and kissing, and improbably good-looking pan-ethnic people on a remote Greek island despite clearly not being Greek. Why was the mom on that island 20 years ago to begin with? Why was the mom in her 60s and the kid just 20? If she had sex with three men over a month-span, surely she could have figured out which one was the father, no? I mean, was she that stupid? If it was set in present-day, why were all the flashbacks of 20 years ago to the mid-70s?

Aside from being confused by the plot, scared of the manaically aggressive cheeriness of the film (do we really need to see Meryl Streep, or anyone, for that matter, jumping up and down on her bed in soft-focus, slow motion? Why? Why??) and disconcerted by the Spinster Brigade beside me singing along and laughing way, way too loud over the lame slapstick humor, I just really felt out of place.
I desperately wanted someone to get beheaded (onscreen or in the row beside me would be fine), or to be sent off on a doomed mission, preferably on horseback, or for something, anything to explode in a massive fireball. That would have put me at ease.

Instead it was two hours of candy-colored fluff and farce (the brainless kind) that I just didn't connect with. Apparently I was the only one in the theater who felt that way, as much merriment was had by all the rest. Part of me wanted to stand up and shout "hey! I like romantic stuff! The Princess Bride is my all-time favorite movie! I love Pride and Prejudice! The book and all the screen adaptations, dammit!" But the rest of me just slid lower in my stadium seating chair.

If you do go to see Mamma Mia! (the movie) and find yourself having the same reaction, please take my advice and leave before the end credits. Because at the end, (spoiler) all the leads come out in full spandex, spangles and platform boots that Liberace would have found vulgar to dance and sing one more time.

I could have gone to my grave remembering Colin Firth as the utterly perfect Mr. Darcy and Stellan Skarsgard as the deliciously low-key bad guy Cerdic or somberly sexy Father Merrin or even the doomed sub captain Tupolev... instead the image of them cavorting clumsily in red sequins and spandex is burned indelibly into my mind.


On the drive home I listened to Alice in Chains. I felt a little better.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Must-See Feel-Good Movie of the Year!

Mad props to my pal Laura for e-mailing me "How To Sing Puppies To Sleep." Make sure your sound is on!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Day Slightly More Exciting Than Necessary

Yesterday (Tuesday) Wiley and I headed up to the Troublesome Valley area, adjacent to the Never Summer Wilderness, which gives me the opportunity to use two awesome placenames in one sentence.

We drove there because I was determined to check another summit off my to-do list: Elk Mountain, 11,332 feet above sea level.

I followed the driving directions in my guide to hiking in the area, which hasn't let me down. Until Tuesday.

After turning off the paved county road onto a recreational road the book described as "a good dirt road," I had to check how recently the book was published (2006). It took me more than an hour to go ten miles over rock, mud, puddles of unknown depth, more rock, and some stretches of rock between the rock. I had to get out several times to move rocks (and one fallen tree) that were simply beyond the abilities of my already-straining Focus.

Oh, and did I mention the road was a steady, steep rise with several hairpin turns?

I kept arguing with myself to turn around, no no, it will get better around the next turn, turn back, etc. I reached a point where it was simply too narrow, with a dropoff to one side, to turn around safely, so I forged ahead.

It was then that the engine light lit up the dashboard.

I was hoping it was just my car's recurring problem of "running too lean." The engine light has come on a few times in the last two years, and three different mechanics in three different states ran diagnostics and reported the engine was running too lean, which essentially meant I was getting better gas mileage than I should, or at least that's how they explained it. I did go almost 200 miles on five gallons of gas the day before.

Anyway, I was also aware that, at nearly nine years old with 105,000 miles on it, my car is reaching that age where Bad Things Happen.

I decided to press on, since cell phone reception, should I need a tow, would be better higher up instead of on the side of a mountain.

14.7 miles later, I got to the turn-off for a logging road described by my guide as, you guessed it, "a good dirt road." Perhaps it had been, in about 1984, but I doubted any vehicle had been on it since the Reagan administration. It was overgrown and deeply rutted, so I decided to park my car and continue the 1.5 miles to the trailhead on foot.

On the walk uphill along the alleged "good dirt road," it was still morning so we were in shade. But not for long. And once out of the trees and up through a steep meadow to timberline, there was nowhere for us to hide from an unexpectedly strong sun in a cloudless sky.

Wiley started breathing really heavily and licking his lips, so I gave him water. Then I gave him some more. I decided, as the creature that was physiologically younger and did not have a kidney problem, I could handle being dehydrated but I didn't want to risk him dying on me on the trail. So I wound up giving him all the water I'd brought, two quarts parsed out over what would be a six mile hike, most of it in the sun.

On the way up, we discovered, I guess, why it's called Elk Mountain:

The hike from the trailhead to the summit has just about a 800 foot elevation gain (not counting probably another 600 feet along the logging road we walked) but it's all in a short, steep climb at the beginning.

We were just shy of timberline in the meadow (trees on either side of it but nowhere near us for shade) when I really thought I should turn back. Of course, you know me, I pressed on, Wiley doggedly following behind and stopping to lay down now and then.

The summit at last!! Here's the official marker:

And here is one of my all-time favorite photos of AdventureDog, looking quite adventurous. I always tell him I buy him IAMS Active Maturity dog food for "his mature yet active lifestyle" and I think this photo is proof that the ground-up baby seals or whatever they put in that purple bag works.

Not bad for a dog who will be 14 in February, eh? Behind him in the distance are the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Here's another shot from the summit, looking north toward the Never Summer Range:

According to my guidebook, which was losing credibility with me by the minute, from the summit we were to follow the ridgeline down into forest, past a plaque dedicated to a 19th century rancher/hunter captured (and released) by the local Utes.

Uhm, ok. Down along the ridgeline we went, into the forest. No plaque. No trail. The guide had warned "the trail appears and disappears" but there was nothing. I don't fancy myself some awesome tracker, but I have followed trails all over the world, and let me tell you, there was nothing to follow.

As an aside, I think the terrible road conditions and the disappeared trail are largely because Elk Mountain is not one of the popular peaks, and it's probably gotten neglected by a budget-strapped National Parks Service, what with RoMo (Rocky Mountain National Park) and other star attractions so close and vying for the same limited funds.

Of course, its very obscurity was one of the things that attracted me to Elk Mountain.

Finally, just as I was considering going back up to the summit and retracing my steps back down through the meadow (to be honest, I was thinking of just rolling down the hill...), I saw an overgrown trail on the far side of a tangle of fallen trees. A little further on, I saw two bright blue slashes of paint on trees framing the trail.

Eventually, the trail opened up to this... look! another tertiary igneous dike! It's kinda hard to see in the photo, but it's there, trust me (the rocks lining the draw have fallen down from it). The trail took us along its top for a while before we arrived at a second meadow.

Here, my guidebook instructed me to walk 50 paces along the ridge, then turn right and go across the meadow, back into the trees where I'd see the trail, follow it for some ways and eventually pick up an old logging road back to the trailhead.

I walked the 50 paces, turned and headed for the trees. I saw blue slashes and the overgrown trail ahead of me, but I stopped.

And this is where it gets weird. I just had a really bad feeling about the trail. Like it was not right, and I shouldn't follow the blue slashes or my guidebook. I can't explain it, but I was suddenly very creeped out (medical diagnosis: dehydration was making me all nutty in the head again).

I've had similar experiences when hiking and I always listen to my gut, so I decided instead to make a sharp turn into another clearing almost in the opposite direction of where the blue slashes were leading me. I'm actually really good at landnav on an instinctual level that I can't explain, other than being able to "smell" the right direction. It's weird, I know, and interestingly, it doesn't work in the Southern Hemisphere, where I am hopelessly dependent on my compass. But here and now, I followed my nose.

After about a hundred paces through the brush, I found ruts in the ground and realized I was on another logging road. I followed it for a little over a mile, watching to see if it intersected with any other roads or trails. It didn't. Then, ahead of me, I saw the trailhead gate where I'd started.

That's what I don't understand. I ended up where I was supposed to be, but only by walking in the opposite direction advised by both my guidebook and the mysterious blue slashes that I thought marked the trail. Part of me figures the marks were randomly left behind by loggers and the trail was so overgrown in general that I just didn't see my way and the guidebook's way were one and the same.

But another part of me wonders where the hell I would have wound up if I'd followed those blue slash marks...

In any case, Wiley and I made it back safely to the car and I opted for the "alternate" driving directions in my guidebook, heading west instead of returning over the rocky road. The other road took me about 30 miles out of my way, but it was used by ranchers and was, by every measure, "a good dirt road."

After drinking copious amounts of water, we're both fine. The engine light is still on, but my car has not exploded. And I have checked off another summit on my to-do list.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Yesterday, with snow hanging around the higher elevations and the trails/backroads on the muddy side, Wiley and I went on a road trip.

We drove up to North Park (but not all the way to Wyoming this time) and then turned east, onto the Cache la Poudre Scenic Byway... Cache la Poudre is the name of a river that has its headwaters near those of the Colorado River, only it heads east instead of west.

I believe "Cache la Poudre" is French for "Hide the Pudding!" but perhaps I am mistaken.

In any case, the views were spectacular, including of the Never Summer Mountains, the only volcanic range in the Rockies and recipients of the best mountain range name ever. Here's a shot of a few of them, the spiky ones on the left being my faves:

Once on the east side of the range, the scenery changed dramatically to dry and rocky and reminiscent of the Capitol Reef area in Utah. Eventually, the road led to Fort Collins, a dry, dusty, somewhat downtrodden college town that really didn't impress me, although its over-gentrified cutesy downtown strip of trendy eateries and boutiquey spots was ridiculously crowded. In the early afternoon on a Monday? Really?

I drove south and picked up Route 34 to head back over the mountains via Rocky Mountain National Park:

I figured that, by the time I got to the park, it would be nearing dusk and a good time to spot an animal or two.

And hey! Whaddya know! Here's an elk:

Yes, that's the road he's standing right next to (photo taken without zoom). I saw a couple dozen of them, usually one bull and three or four... uh... ewes? does? bitches? whatever... elkettes in a unit grazing right by the road. Not as big as moose, but pretty dang huge, and beautiful.

Needless to say, the tourists were acting like paparazzi who've just spotted Brangelina having a food fight. I snapped the photo of the bull above while I was stopped in my car while the ranger ahead of me argued with a guy in an SUV with Texas plates about why he needed to get himself and his kid back in the car and stop trying to pet the elk.

I mean, really.

Up above timberline, on Trail Ridge Road (full disclosure: the last couple times I've mentioned TRR, I've screwed up the name, calling it Timber Line or Timber Ridge or Trail Line. But it's definitely Trail Ridge Road. I know because I bought a cool t-shirt on clearance at the gift shop and that's what it says...), things were looking a little dramatic with the setting sun and low clouds:

I like it.

I'm not sure which particular mountain the above is a shot of, but I took it from near the highest point of the road before descending back to my neck of the roads and letting Wiley, who spent the entire day with his head out the window, take a much-needed snooze on his bed.

Sightseeing is exhausting!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Recent Fussings-About

In the past few weeks I've tried a few new (and I think exciting) flavors of frozen stuff, including iris sorbet and a Breckenridge Vanilla Porter ice cream (using, well duh, a locally brewed vanilla porter), but since scoops of ice cream aren't exactly photogenic, you'll just have to believe me.

I also came up with a new plated dessert, peach panna cotta with blueberry sauce and coriander sable (sah-BLAY... a very delicate, crumbly cookie; adding coriander was my idea but I think it works). I was looking for a simple plating that the pantry cook could manage without too much stress:

I also got a wicked new silicon mold and used it for my interpretation of strawberry shortcake: pound cake base, strawberry mousse exterior and a basil custard insert that, I gotta say, was delish.

I'm still working on the plating (shown above with a balsamic syrup) but for now I'm very happy (for once!) with the balance of flavors.

Here's a cross-section of the little guy showing the custard insert:

It's still a work in progress, but for now I'm just tickled pink, no pun intended, over my new molds. Hey, it's a tax-deductible work expense!


Ooh, somebody bought herself some cheap tiny flower-shaped cookie cutters!

I've done three cakes in the past two days, which is a record for me, though nothing compared with the output of an actual cake decorator... keep in mind how many other things I have to do on a daily basis, though.

Anyway, even though my piping skills continue to be my weakest area, I've been working on them. Really. Here are a couple photos of what I've been up to:

The above cake says "Good Luck Trish" and looked much better in person. The chocolate-on-chocolate piping doesn't show up so well on camera, which is a shame because I'd say that's the best piping I've ever done on a cake.


What's special about the cake, though, is that I made it for a staffer leaving to go to college... she's vegan, and so is the cake. I did my vegan devil's food cake with some adjustments for high-altitude and, because I couldn't find vegan margarine anywhere around here, made up a recipe for vegan frosting (for the filling and seal coat) and then did a vegan quasi-opera glaze. All the decor is marzipan.

Trish seemed really thrilled with it and everyone who tried it raved about it... somehow, it's always more satisfying to make a vegan happy. I mean, those people live without cheese.

Here's a cake I did for a customer request... it's chocolate buttermilk cake with chocolate chip buttercream frosting and shortbread cookies. Considering how bad I am at piping, I thought this came out pretty cute and at least as good visually as a supermarket cake. The taste was superior though (not bragging, jus' sayin'), so much so that the party told their server (who told me) it was one of the best cakes they'd ever tasted.

Okay, so I'm not bragging about how the cake below looks, but it is an important cake for me for a couple reasons... it's my first stab at an original recipe entremet (on-truh-MAY). Entremet is, basically, at least as I've been taught, some kind of fancy mousse cake with various inserts. I did a couple at school but haven't been anywhere near an entremet mold since.

Last week, I went online and ordered a couple silicon molds I've been really yearning for. I noticed they had entremet molds for only $15, so I bought one just to tinker about.

Yesterday, after slamming through all my to-dos, I made mousse faster than I've ever done it before and banged out an entremet. I call it "strawberry-covered chocolate" because the strawberry mousse exterior hides gooey rich chocolate ganache.

Well, I had no intention of serving it and was planning, after unmolding it today, to give it to my highly appreciative buddies working the line. Just as I was about to cut into it to see how the layers came out, however, the events coordinator got an email about guests who wanted some kind of "chocolate and fruit" cake for four people for dinner that night.

Well, I had the entremet ready to go, so... it went.

I'm bummed I didn't get to cut into it and see how it came out, but there will be other entremet in my life, I'm sure, and I thought it was pretty dang fortuitous to have a cake ready to go.

So here it is, garnished on the fly with macerated strawberries that are weeping a little. Not the most beautiful cake ever by a long shot, but hey, it got the job done.

When Jerry the line cook saw it, he asked if I could make him one for his birthday. Awwww...

Thundersnow Aftermath

About 12 hours after my post about dismal morning weather, I took these shots on the way home from work...

Recognize the mountain below? Yeah, it's Byers Peak, the same behemoth I climbed on Tuesday, now buried in a foot of snow!

Here's a shot of clouds clinging to the newly snow-dusted mountains along the Divide. While it's beautiful, really achingly beautiful, I'm still dismayed that I won't be able to hike on my days off (Monday and Tuesday) because of lingering snow and mud. Grr.

And finally, here's a shot from the employee parking lot of the Place I Work, looking at another view of the Divide with all the stable horsies enjoying an evening snack.

When I got home tonight, by the way, even though I had filled it before leaving for work, the hummingbird feeder was empty. Jeez.

The Weather Outside is Frightful

...or at least Wiley thinks so. The poor, old, arthritic little guy crawled under my bed yesterday evening and stayed there, coaxed out only by the promise of a poached egg this morning. Then he went right back into his lair.

Why is Wiley so riled?


Yes, on the 16th of August, we've got thundersnow (I still say one of the best potential band names ever... powerful and ominous, yet fluffy.) The clouds rumbled and growled and bellowed all night right over our heads (at least it feels that way when you're nearly 10,000 feet closer to them than at sea level), followed by hail at dawn.

When I woke there was a light dusting of snow and hail everywhere (it started to rain in the last hour, so it's gone now).

There was also a melee on my porch.

My hummingbird feeder was low last night but I thought there was enough to get them through till morning. I was wrong. It was bone-dry and there were eight hummingbirds zipping around it, fighting each other even though they all seemed to know it was empty.

I really wish I'd had my camera, but I left it at work as I'm doing some experiments that hopefully will come to fruition today or tomorrow.

Anyway... I refilled the feeder, feeling bad the poor things were hungry, and all hell broke loose. It was like the Crips and the Bloods in a street war, with the bigger red birds and the smaller blue-green ones harassing each other, divebombing, etc. Jeez. Who knew a little organic sugar in water could turn my porch into Hummingbird South Central??

And I'm as ornery as the birds. It poured rain all yesterday and looks to do the same today. The locals say they've never seen such a wet fall (yes, we're in autumn up here... I've felt the chil in the air and people have been piling firewood up in their yards for the past two weeks) and think we're going to have an early winter with a lot of snow.

They're delighted (the area makes most of its money from skiiing/snowboarding). I'm inconsolable. Even though there won't be snow yet at the lower elevations, the trails are going to be hella muddy, and as for the higher elevations, well... Byers Peak, which I hiked last week, was forecast to get a foot of snow today.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Fish Skins, Fish Skins, Eat Them Up, Yum

There was an abundance of leftover trout after a banquet tonight at work so I got to take a couple pieces home. They were the kind of fillets with skin on one side, which Wiley enjoyed mightily (he got his own whole portion and devoured it in a nanosecond) but I peeled off.

For more than half my life, I would get freaked out by the sight of a piece of fish with, you know, skin on it. Eeew! Then I started to travel a lot in Scandinavia and quickly learned that it's eat fish with skin on it or go hungry.

I still don't eat the skin (I tried it a couple times but just don't like the taste or texture) even though fish is my main source of protein (along with Quorn and unseemly amounts of cheese). But now I find whenever I'm peeling it off, or watching the cooks fabricate the whole wild fish that we get in at work into neat portions, I'm sort of transfixed by the skin. I start to think about the water the fish swam in... was it cold? warm? murky? clear? and whether it was on its own or in one of those enormous schools, how shiny and sleek it looked in the water.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not having some ethical quandry about eating fish, especially the wild, sustainably caught varieties I seek out (or the sustainable farm-raised sorts like tilapia... jeez, remember when the only thing you had to think about going grocery shopping was what you were out of??). Heck, they're the only animal I don't feel guilty about eating. (Except for octopus... I don't like the taste or texture, and ever since reading this I feel obliged to pass on it entirely. Not that octopi are fish, taxonically speaking, but they live in the water. You get the idea.)

I guess there's just something tantalizing and otherworldly about the sleek, shiny, almost metallic skin, the way it's still attached to the flesh, something that doesn't happen with beef or lamb (and, let's face it, chicken and pigskin aren't exactly eye-catching at any point), that invites my imagination to take wing.

Or fin, as the case may be.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"My Syrup Brings All the Birds to the Yard...

...Damn right, it's better than yours/Damn right, it's better than yours/I could teach you, but I'd have to charge..."

Sorry, but I sing my special version of Kelis' "Milkshake" every morning because...

Well, let me back up a bit. When I moved to my current apartment, exactly two months ago today, I put up a hummingbird feeder with homemade syrup (75% water, 25% organic sugar). For a while, I got no takers. Then one or two birds would zip up to it, have a taste and zip away.

Eventually I developed a steady customer base (I suppose, in a way, this is my first "business"). The feeder holds 12 oz. of syrup, and I had to refill it on a weekly basis.

Then, a couple weeks ago, suddenly I was refilling it twice a week.

For the past three days, I've had to refill it every damn morning.

I've checked for leaks (none). And the shape of it is designed expressly for hummingbirds, so all the crows and magpies around couldn't get at it if they tried.

I have several theories about why the feeder on my porch is suddenly the hottest joint in town:

- I'm just that good. (kidding)

- With winter approaching (it's already chilly at night and in the morning), the hummingbirds are, er, fattening themselves up. Which doesn't make that much sense to me in an animal evolved to be as light as possible and which uses a fast-acting form of energy. But I'm not up on birdology like I am on the study of sharks, bears or lemurs, so perhaps someone can enlighten me.

- A lot of people put up hummingbird feeders in late spring, but I'm wondering if they've been refilling them as regularly as I. Much as I forgot to water my herb garden and everything died, maybe they've let the feeders go empty and the birds have moved on. On a related note, the stores around here were selling ready-made syrup (with red food coloring... eww) but it seems to be a seasonal item and they're now stocking snow shovels, so maybe people too lazy to make their own (uh, guys, there's a reason it's called simple syrup) have just taken down their feeders.

In any case, despite buzzing around me fearlessly when I go out to refill the feeder, the birds get shy as soon as I bring out my camera. But this morning I finally got a couple shots (through my porch door, on the fast action setting with zoom) of one of the hungry, hungry hippobirds (on the right of the feeder):

This guy is one of the larger, red-breasted varieties. There are also smaller, prettier blue-green ones that are faster but always getting bullied by the big reds. Good luck to me trying to get a photo of the little ones, which speed past in turquoise blur.

They really are amazing little creatures, and I feel good that at least my customers are getting an organic, artificial color-free meal or two. Or three...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Byers Peak, Part Three: The Descent

For maximum entertainment, please begin at the beginning.

If you need more evidence the thin air was messing with my mind, witness the "I'm King of the World!" photo below, taken at the summit with the aid of my awesome Gorillapod.

Aside: if you tend to do interesting things alone, like hike mountains way out of your league, you should get a Gorillapod. The shots of myself I took on the summit were in a strong wind, but I just wrapped the Gorillapod's legs around a rock and nothing short of a direct lightning strike would move it.

Another aside: no, I am not pregnant and have not gained 40 pounds. I brought a sweatshirt to put on over my hiking shirt and above timber line found I really needed it. The wind is helping to emphasize the boxy, shapeless cut of my ensemble.

After resting for a while and eating a Cherry Bumblebar (Best. Energy. Snack. Ever... and no weird crap in it... gluten-free, too! Hey Bumblebar people, if you need a spokesperson, I am totally there for you. No charge, even. Just throw me a couple Chai and Cherry bars every month and we're good), I started back down.

After passing two or maybe five of the false summits, I thought the altitude was messing with my brain again because I looked up ahead from the trail and thought "why is that rock staring at me?"

Yeah, I had that instinctual "something is watching me" hairs up at the back of the neck thing.

Then the rock moved, and I realized it was not yet another white rock (many of the rocks about halfway up to the summit were white). It was a mountain goat mama, with her juvenile!! Look for them in the center foreground of the photo below... and in the background, that lump of mountain taller than the others is Long's Peak, a 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I so totally have no desire to climb it.

Mama Goat and Sproutlicious (is it wrong that I name the baby wildlife I happen across?) ambled on ahead of me on the trail, at my pace, and then stopped to nibble some apparently extra-tasty grass/lichen/wildflowers just off the trail.

They were aware of me but not spooked... I guess the mama saw how slow I was going and thought "fat hobbit is so totally not a threat." The photo below was taken without a zoom, by the way.

Can you stand how adorable Sproutlicious is? As for Mama Goat, she was having a bad hair day, molting or blowing her coat or whatever it's called with mountain goats. And, while I was feeling a little bad that the only three other hikers making the ascent today blew past me and were coming down while I was still going up, I do think that if I had been as fast, I never would have seen these two, a highlight of my hike.

Nearly back to timber line, here's a shot of some Krummholz, the stunted, crooked, wind-ravaged dwarf conifer that grows in lower alpine tundra zones. You can't tell from the photo, but it's only a couple feet high.

Not that that was a particularly exciting shot or anything, but I enjoy saying the word "Krummholz"* aloud so I included it.

(German for "crooked wood.")

And finally, instead of retracing my steps, once below the timber line I took an alternate route through a gorgeous, lush, Lothlorien-like forest to Bottle Pass, where I took the photo below, looking back on where I'd been. That's Bill's Peak on the right, and massive, enormo Byers Peak on the right, with all its false summits.

So, Byers.... is that all you got?

Byers Peak, Part Two: The (False?) Summit

To appreciate the story fully, begin at the beginning.


This is about where I lost the trail. It was perhaps the penultimate false summit and was extremely rocky. Eventually I just climbed up the rock, throwing my trekking poles ahead of me, until I found the trail again. But first I snapped the photo of this rather self-important boulder. What you can't see is that beyond it is about a 500 foot drop.

After the third or maybe the ninth or maybe the fifteenth false summit, I started thinking to myself you know, I could just take a picture here and tell people oh yeah, this is me summiting Byers and only someone who's done it (none, to my knowledge, of my regular readers) would know.

Of course, if you know me, you know that's not how I roll. So here instead is yet another photo of another dang false summit.

At last!! To prove I didn't wimp out at a false summit and turn 'round, here is a shot of the US Geologic Survey marker at the actual summit:

Oh, and to prove I didn't pay off another hiker to take a picture of the summit marker for me, here's a shot of me crouching over the rock the marker is on (I didn't realize till I got home that you can't see it from this angle, but trust me, it's there).

Actually, I really like this photo of me because I think I look completely insane, like I've been in the thin air for too long (well...). As Douglas Adams describes Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, my smile is just a little too big to be normal.

But I did it! I made the summit! No one is more surprised than me, believe me, especially when I started thinking, at false summit #10 or so, "you know, I could just stretch out on the rock for a nap and die of exposure... no fighting, no pain, no more damn steep grades..."

Here's a view from the summit of Bill's Peak on the right, an unnamed peak in the foreground and, in the distance, the Gore Range and Continental Divide.

But wait, there's more...

Peak-Baggin', Part One: The Ascent

"Bagging peaks" is a big thing in Colorado... the state has loads of "14ers" (as in mountains topping out at more than 14,000 feet) and bagging them, or reaching the summit, seems to be a major hobby for the ultrafit and smug.

Well, just as I do triathlons but have no interest in doing an Ironman (because those people are crazy), I like to hike but not get too high up there. That said, today I set out to conquer the scariest of the hikes on the to-do list I have stuck to my refrigerator door. Other hikes on my list are longer, but this one, Byers Peak, has the greatest elevation gain (and over the shortest distance, comparatively!) and just in general makes me anxious.

It doesn't help that I see Byers Peak every day on morning walkies with Wiley:

Yeah, that's it, the big brute in the middle, towering over other middling mountains and cows and pretty much everything around it (keep in mind that it's more than ten miles away in the photo). Unlike the mountains along the Continental Divide, which tend to form a wall of Big Rock but not stand out as individuals, Byers is on its own, not part of the Divide.

Also, you can drive nearly up to many of the mountains on the Divide, getting 12- or 13,000 feet up in your car and then doing the last thousand feet on foot. Not so with Byers.

I fell in love with Byers the first time I saw it because it stands out like that, and also because to me it's the Lord of the Ringsiest of the mountains around here. It just has presence.

Of course, once I decided to climb it I felt it was out there saying "You wanna piece o' me? Come and get it."

My response: "Is that all you got?"

(Of course, it's easy to say that now that I'm back at home with my feet up!)

Byers Peak is 12,804 feet at its summit. Not a 14er, not even a 13er, but, as far as I'm concerned, an official Big-Ass Mountain. The trailhead was at 9,809 feet, meaning an elevation gain of about 3,000 feet over about four miles. It would also be the first hike I did that started below timber line (around 11,400 feet) and ended above it.

Criminy! Why can't I learn to enjoy playing video games like everyone else??

Anyway, the first mile or so was along an old logging road before the trail got steeper, ascending through lodgepole pine forest. The smell was fantastic.

Here's a shot (below) as the trail emerged above timberline, with the first of many false summits ahead of me.


I should have taken a picture, but didn't think the lighting was good. In any case, up much of the increasingly steep trail, I asked myself "are we dubious and leery yet?"

Does the shot below convey how freakin' steep the damn trail was above timberline? Good.

Below, one of many, many false summits (I stopped counting after five). If memory serves, this was the false summit where, upon reaching it, I sat down on a rock and exclaimed aloud "if this is a false summit, then I'm false-climbing it."

It was just below here, at about 12,000 feet, where I had something odd happen to me. I don't think it was altitude sickness, but I was getting dizzy and disoriented and doing dumb things. Like when I noticed I was carrying both my trekking poles in one hand (instead of, er, actually using them on the steep grade), or when I became convinced I had lost my camera even though I felt it in my back pocket.

I noticed right at about 12,000 feet that I was having real problems breathing, too, and at first thought it was just trying to haul my jiggly ass up the damn mountain. I had those same problems descending, though, which makes me think it was the altitude. Once I got below 10,000 feet on the way back (sort of "my zone," since I live and work at 8500 feet above sea level), I was fine. Weird.

To be continued...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Two Down, A Zillion To Go...

Wiley and I managed two short hikes today in between an appointment with the vet (for him, to get his vaccinations up to date) and another with the doctor (for me, to get my Avulsed Thumb checked out...we both got the, er, thumbs up).

Not that I'm an overachiever or anything, but I can already feel the crisp chill of autumn in the air (really!) and co-workers who are fellow hikers have warned me that snow will make some trails impassable as early as mid-September. With a long list of places where I want to leave my bootprints around here, I figure I need to get crackin'.

First was to my obsession, The Wall. Last time I tried to hike it, the stream swollen with snowmelt proved too deep, but this time, however, the water was low enough to ford easily.

Here's a shot from the southwest of the base of the thing:

And another from the southeast:

Alas, actually climbing beside the thing was impossible due to all the rocks (make that tough for me, impossible for Sir Smalls, who gave it his best). We climbed for a while through the forest paralleling it, but the way was too steep and the view less than worth it, so after about 45 minutes I turned around.

It was then that, perhaps envious that I had two trekking poles and he had none, Wiley decided he wanted to play tug of war with a stick. He slipped and the stick went tumbling down the mountainside, but before that happened I got this shot:

After our appointments, we drove north to the Never Summer Wilderness Area and climbed Apiatan Mountain. Topping out at around 10,240 feet, it's not a big deal mountain around here by any means, but it was a nice three mile hike out-and-back that Wiley could manage.

Here's a shot of him looking rather the part of AdventureDog at the summit, with the Porphyry Peaks in the background:

Right as we got to the top, the sky darkened and rain started, but I did manage to get this shot of what I think are cool clouds over Rocky Mountain National Park, just to the east: