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We ran in another race last Saturday – the 5K Race with the Balloons as part of the Great Midwest Balloon Fest in Kansas City, Kansas. The race was held at the Legends Outlets and Kansas Speedway, and benefited several area charities.

We got up at 5:00am so we could make it to the packet pick-up area before 6:45am. It was a really beautiful morning – sunny, but a little hazy and humid. Because of the threat of rain (it rained a tiny bit while we were running), the promised balloons did not ascend while we were running the course. Instead, about four of them took off long after the race ended and we were heading into Bob Evans for breakfast (cinnamon pancakes!).

The race itself was a fairly easy, mostly flat course, with a little bit of gravel mixed into the road race part. Once again, this course was longer than 3.1 miles – from start to finish, my Garmin watch clocked it at 3.2 miles.

Mr. Awesome had another strong race, but his age group was the most competitive and he finished 5th in his group, but 20th overall out of 337 participants. His official time was 24:19. With the extra 10th of a mile, this gave him is best 5K time ever.

I also had a strong race – I finished in 36:05, but my Garmin told me I set a record for 5K distance.

After the race we ate pancakes and decided to walk to the speedway grounds from the shopping area to check out the balloon fest, since our race packets included free tickets. What a fiasco that was. There are no sidewalks between the Outlets and the speedway, so we had to walk in the grass. Then, all of the entrances to the speedway were blocked off and marked with NO TRESPASSING signs, and all indicators pointed balloon fest attendees to one entrance on the southwest side of the speedway. So, after walking about 2 miles, we realized we still had another 2 to go before we reached the entrance, and the balloons weren’t around anyway. We headed back to the Outlets, disappointed. If we could have cut across the speedway grounds without threat of security intervention, it would have been so much better. Hopefully, if the race is held next year, they will have a pedestrian entrance. Probably not, though.

So we went shopping at Legends instead. Mr. Awesome got some pants, I got some shirts. It was a good day.

The rest of the weekend was pretty low-key. Lots of walking, going to the gym, and eating stuff. You know, the usual.

This weekend I’m running in the Rivalry Run in downtown Kansas City. It should be fun. Mr. Awesome is sitting this one out with an injury, but hopes to be back in form by next weekend’s run.

Oh, and I stopped reading Bill Bryson’s One Summer. I got bored with it, and really didn’t look forward to reading any more of it. So now I’m reading Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and I’m much, much happier.

On Saturday, we ran in the i-ROK Foundation 5K. The foundation was created in honor of Kori Quinn (i-ROK is Kori spelled backwards), who was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma in 2009. The foundation was formed to ” to bring awareness to Ewing’s Sarcoma, to save lives, empower people, to find cures, and to help people and organizations in a variety of ways as they battle cancer.” Kori passed away in February of this year at age 18, but the foundation lives on.

We didn’t get a chance to walk the course in advance like we did for Smithville, but we did look at it on Map My Run:

It looked easy enough, but once on the course we realized that those elevation changes weren’t anything to scoff at. Those hills were TOUGH! Also, while the race was identified as a 5K, the actual distance was 3.26 miles, rather than 3.1 miles. This would affect our overall times.

Mr Awesome started strong and finished with an official time of 25:03. A couple of young guys started strong ahead of him, then had to stop and puke during the race. They ending up coming in after him. If not for the extra 0.16 miles, this would have been his PR.

I had to stop to tie my shoe about a half a mile in, and succumbed to weakness a couple of times and walked some hills (I vow to not do that again!). I finished with a time of 37:47. Again, the extra 0.16 did my time in.

Mr. Awesome has a point: some races come in short, and some come in long. We can’t celebrate the short ones and curse the long ones. We can only try to improve overall.

We stayed for the awards, which was fun, even though we didn’t win anything, other than bonus calories to use at breakfast!

After the race we went to Ginger Sue’s in Liberty and to the Liberty Farmer’s Market for tomatoes, peaches, and blackberries. Then we went to the gym and worked out our legs. As if running wasn’t enough. Then we went to Happy Rock Park and walked four miles on the Shoal Creek Trail. Because we’re gluttons for quad soreness and sweating.

Then we went home and took a three hour nap.

Saturday night, we headed to Alamo Drafthouse to see Guardians of the Galaxy. I LOVED it! It was so funny and smart, and the music was perfect. I am already excited for the second one, and it’s three years away! We spent some of our hard-earned calories on chicken fingers, fries, cookies (of course), and drinks. Good times were had by all.

Then we headed home and started watching the old TV show Cheers on Netflix. I watched some of it when I was a kid and it originally aired, but we’d recently heard it was great and held up well, so we thought we’d give it a go. Yep – it holds up great and is smart, funny, a little sappy, and entertaining. There’s 11 seasons worth of it, so I don’t expect we’ll run out of episodes any time soon.

I found a sub-plot in the second episode to be especially surprising – a bar patron (played by Donnelly Rhodes of Danger Bay fame!) comes in for advice on how to deal with his son’s fiance – a black man. Coach, in a round-about way, ends up convincing him that if he loves his son, he’ll accept him just the way he is, and would welcome his son’s fiance into their family. This, in 1982. I remembered back to something I read on Reddit recently:

“Over time, AIDS wiped out an entire generation of gay men. This has had an effect on the more recent generations since people that would normally have been mentors, big brother figures, teachers, etc. were gone, so the younger generation lost out on the wisdom and experience of the previous one.”

I never really stopped to think about that: an entire generation of men – most of them smart, creative, caring people – were decimated by a disease, the future robbed of their wisdom, contributions, leadership, etc. This segment in a 1982 episode of Cheers aired mere weeks after the disease was given a name. It’s startling to imagine what the world would be like had AIDS not destroyed as it did. In 1982, mainstream TV-watching America was being told it’s right and proper to accept an interracial gay couple into one’s family. Had that trajectory of acceptance continued, gay rights would be just everyday average rights. Instead, AIDS and the fear it generated pushed the gay rights fight back into shadows, and countless contributions to human advancement were lost or stifled.

Anyway, Cheers is good.

On Sunday, we made some terrific vegetarian chili. It’s so good, you won’t miss the meat at all. Really. I promise!

Three Bean Pumpkin Chili
Servings: 4
Calories per serving: 320

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 (15 oz) can pureed pumpkin (like Libby’s)
1 (15 oz) can garbanzo beans, drained
1 (15 oz) can black beans, drained
1 (15 oz) can great northern white beans, drained
1 (15 oz) can vegetable stock
2 1/2 Tbsp. Williams Chili Seasoning
1 1/2 Tbsp. ground cumin
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 Tbsp. light sour cream

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the pumpkin, beans, and vegetable stock, and stir to combine. Add the chili seasoning and cumin and stir, then taste and season with salt and pepper as necessary. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer for 20 minutes.

Serve in 2 1/2 cup portions, topped with 1 Tbsp. of sour cream.

We prepared this Sunday night, and let it sit in the fridge all day Monday before reheating it for Monday’s dinner. And Tuesday’s dinner. It was so, so, SO GOOD! And crazy-filling, for something so low-calorie.

This weekend, we’re getting up bright and early on Saturday morning to run in the 5K Race with the Balloons as part of the Great Midwest Balloon Festival at the Kansas Speedway. I will NOT walk in this one, not even a little bit!

Last week I had what some call a “staycation.” I’m not a fan of that word; its silly suburban-ness feels forced even as I type it. I struggle to come up with another term, however. I stayed in town and had a vacation. Thus, staycation. Ugh.

I really don’t like that word.

Regardless of what it’s called, Mr. Awesome and I had a marvelous time not working last week.

On our first Friday evening, to kick off our staycation stay-at-home vacation, we ate a typically delicious dinner at our favorite restaurant, Justus Drugstore. That evening, we watched Muppets Most Wanted and it was hilarious. I’m a sucker for Muppets, but even Mr. Awesome thought it was great. Wocka wocka!

Saturday morning we arose bright and early to run in our first 5K since January’s Groundhog Run: Julia’s Warrior’s Run for Hope 5K in Smithville, Missouri. The Julia Bargman Hope Foundation is named after a Smithville middle school counselor, coach, and mentor who lost a 16-year battle with breast cancel in 2010. The foundation raises scholarship money for Smithville high school students and the Smithville Booster Club, as well as raising awareness to the fight against breast cancer.

A few days before the race, Mr. Awesome and I walked the course and found it to be very, very hilly. Here’s a course map:

And here are the elevation changes for the course:

We were both glad to know going in that this would be a challenging course. By knowing what we were in for in advance, we were able to plan on trying to go hard downhill, then hold back on the flat to have some energy left for that bitch of a hill at the end.

Mr. Awesome had a good run, but was 9 seconds over his best 5K time.

He finished strong in 24:09.

I had a good run, too. My Garmin watch helped keep me on pace.

Despite the hill, I managed to set my own PR with a finish time of 35:48!

After our run, we headed to breakfast at Ginger Sue’s in Liberty, then to the Liberty Farmer’s Market where we picked up some heirloom tomatoes and watermelon. Later, we headed back to Smithville for some pizza and deck time with our friends, the Andersons.

On Sunday morning I woke up before Mr. Awesome and finished a book: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro. This was my first time reading Munro’s short stories, and it won’t be the last. Her voice is really unique – strong and delicate at the same time. Her characters feel real and grounded, and the stories are like looking through windows into the lives of other people. I especially liked the story “Floating Bridge” which puts us with a woman on the day she’s told her cancer is in remission. It’s beautifully told and intimate, revealing not so much joy as uncertainty. So it is with all of the stories – intimate views of the lives of ordinary people, turned into something special.

We then headed to Bristol in the Power and Light district for their incredible Sunday Brunch. I can’t say enough good things about it. Everything we ate was fresh, flavorful, and creative.

On Monday we went for a walk at Watkins Mill State Park (they have a great 4-mile paved trail through the woods around a lake), went swimming, had Banh Mi sandwiches from Pigwich (oh man, so good), and went running and weightlifting at the gym.

Speaking of gyms (which we’re at almost every day): we started going to Planet Fitness last month when they opened near our house and oh my gosh do we love it! Lots of treadmills, elipticals, bikes, and every type of weight machine you can imagine. Plus a full bench setup (smith style), free weights, a Crossfit-style space (if you’re into that sort of thing), and a stretching area. It’s open 24 hours Monday through Thursday, closes at 9pm on Friday, and is open 7am to 7pm on Saturday and Sunday. All of this for $10 a month! If I sound like I’m trying to sell memberships, I am – it’s cheap, it’s good, and fitness is important if you want to live the best life possible. Okay, I’m done with my sales pitch.

On Tuesday, we visited the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and had lunch at the museum’s Cafe Sebastienne. The museum is small, but has some terrific pieces. It’s free – check it out if you’re looking for something different to do over lunch.

Tuesday night we found a really old dog in the street outside our house. He was overheating and dehydrated, with no tags or collar. We brought him into our air conditioned garage, put him in a big kennel, and gave him lots of water and food.

As much as we both wanted to keep him, he needed some vet attention (he was limping and was really, really old) and Finnie isn’t keen on other dogs. So we took him to the Gladstone Animal Shelter where hopefully his owners will turn up to claim him. Send good thoughts into the universe for homeless and needy pets, people.

Wednesday found us celebrating Mr. Awesome’s dad’s birthday at Bo Lings. Thursday and Friday we went swimming some more, and Friday night we had dinner at Cascone’s in KC north. Shell pasta bowl… mmmm.

Saturday we headed to Legends Outlets and did some shopping. Saturday night found us at Alamo Drafthouse for the movie Lucy (entertaining, visually striking, but also ridiculous) and some of the best chocolate chip cookies in town. Seriously – if you see a movie there, you have to order the cookies.

On Sunday we went back to the pool and I finished a second book, The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O’Nan. A concise story with few characters and a basic plot, but unique enough to hold interest. The writing is easy, but sometimes the sentence structure got in my way. O’Nan’s use of place as a character was effective and I felt like I could almost feel the water from Niagara, could almost smell the mildew in the tourist traps, could almost taste the liquor from the minibar. A quick pool read that didn’t leave me feeling cheap. What more can you ask for?

Sunday evening we went for a walk at Happy Rock Park on our favorite trail. We went for a walk on this trail most days, actually. It’s so great.

This week, it’s back to work – rejuvenated after having a week off.

In the next four weeks we’re running in four 5K races, and I’ll post recaps after they happen.

As for books, I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s One Summer: 1927. So far, so good.

And… because I don’t think there are enough pictures in this post, here’s a picture of my tomato plants taken a couple of months ago:

They’re all much bigger now, and starting to produce some delicious heirloom tomatoes.

I’ve read four books in the last six weeks. Time for a recap!

First up, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

“He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.” 

I think, after considering it for a few moments, that the thing I like most about this book is the mood. Not that it’s a comfortable one – on the contrary. The mood is one of tenseness, of sharpness, but it’s soft around the edges, and occasionally warm and fuzzy. Lots of fuzzy. Maybe hazy. The world that Atwood creates is vividly real, making it easy to imagine the events playing out in our own future. But it also seems impossible in many ways – possible and impossible… and a tiny bit horrifying. 

I realize I didn’t describe the story here – I went in knowing nothing about it and liked the experience. I recommend you do the same.

Next was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Ugh. What a hard one to review. For me, this was a truly original book. The story was compelling, the twists and turns kept me engaged. My allegiances to various characters changed throughout the novel. Where the book goes a bit wrong for me, though, is the ending. After such an intense ride, the ending feels so incredibly rushed, tacked on. I’d have liked a bit more exploration of the whys and the what nexts, instead of such abruptness after a novel filled with details.

Then we had The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. I have to say, I love me some Kurt Vonnegut.

This was Kurt Vonnegut’s second published novel, and in it he lays the groundwork for the rest of his admirable career.

Sparse, tight paragraphs that say just the right thing? Check.

Complex scientific ideas rendered almost impossibly simple and understandable? Check.

Tralfamadorians? Check.

This is a novel that is deceptively simple, but is expertly crafted and beautifully written. If you love great writing, but are skeptical of the sci-fi genre, give Sirens of Titan a go anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

Finally, I read Sula by Toni Morrison. You want a guaranteed good read? Go for the Toni Morrison.

“…but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Toni Morrison is such a remarkable storyteller. There’s no other author guaranteed to get inside my creases like she does. Every word is so precise, every character knowable, every hurt is acute and every joy is rapturous. All of this is on display in Sula, a story of strong women and strong pride and strong feeling. There’s nothing like a Toni Morrison novel to remind me that brilliance can be displayed in the simplest, grittiest, plainest of ways.

Currently reading: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro.

So… when I last mentioned what I’d be reading, I said I’d have my head in a GRE study guide. My studying paid off – I got a good score on my GRE and submitted an application to graduate school in late April. In early May, I was notified that I have been accepted into the Masters of Education program with an emphasis in Educational Technology and a focus on technology in schools at the University of Missouri-Columbia! The EdTech program is completely online, and I if I want to get educational assistance through my work for each class, I will finish in 2 years.

Go me!

But before I submitted my application and was admitted, we made two trips to St. Louis on consecutive weekends. The first weekend, Mr. Awesome had to work on one day, so that left me to find something to occupy my day. Off to the Saint Louis Art Museum for hours of leisurely viewing and a fancy lunch at the museum restaurant, Panorama. I had such a great time wandering the halls and staring at beautiful things. I especially loved the Frans Hals Portrait of a Woman, painted around 1650:

I thought it looked sort of familiar, then I read that it was a companion piece to the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s Portrait of a Man that I’ve seen dozens of times:

Cool, huh?! I thought so, anyway. :)

That evening, we ate an incredible dinner at one of St. Louis’s best restaurants, Niche. Oh my, was that a great meal. We opted for the 10-course tasting menu, and every course was outstanding. It’s not often that I taste something I’ve not had before, but here it happened many times. From the tea service (tea and pork broth with smoked lemon!) to snacks of trout beignets and gin/celery popsicles, to an incredible parsnip soup with ice cream… everything was perfect. Our server was attentive, friendly and informed. Cocktails were creative and delicious. One of the best dining experiences we’ve ever had.

The next night, we had the pleasure of seeing a small house concert performance by one of our favorite musicians, Eef Barzelay. He’s so incredibly talented. Why this guy isn’t a superstar, I don’t know.

Check out a great video of him via NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series here.

The following weekend, we returned to St. Louis, this time to see Ben Folds perform with the St. Louis Symphony. We had front row seats right next to the piano. It was spectacular. We ate at Niche again before the show. It was spectacular, too.

After I found out I had been accepted to graduate school – and believe me, I was nervous (although Mr. Awesome said I didn’t need to be because he is, of course, awesome) – I got to pick up something other than a study guide or math problems for a change. While in St. Louis the second time, we stopped at Barnes and Noble for a few minutes to look around. It was there I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Lucky for me, it was available for digital checkout through my library – I love that!

North Korea is a fascinating place, made even more so by the mystery that surrounds it and its people. It’s easy from the vantage point of an American upbringing and existence to question why the people of North Korea would submit to the wills of the rulers, but a reading of The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson sheds a little light on the situation.

There’s something comforting about having your reality dictated to you, it implies. When you have no choices, you have no reason to think about anything, other than the task at hand, and Dear Leader, of course.

The storytelling in this book is masterful, switching between narrators, and immersing the reader in a world of unknowns. Nothing is predictable, nothing feels safe. There’s danger around every corner, but also the promise of hope, and a sense of deep love. You can’t ask for a better set of criteria for a good story.

I don’t start school again until the fall, so I’ll have a few months to read for fun. Next up, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

The New York times magazine recently published a piece by journalist and author Ron Suskind about his son Owen’s struggles with autism. Until the age of three, Owen was a typically chatty and curious boy, but something flipped inside him, causing him to develop something diagnosed as regressive autism.

While much of what Owen was up to that point appeared to vanish, a connection remained between the boy and the Disney movies he loved as a toddler. Through those movies, Owen learned to navigate the world and form connections with others and himself.

So we join him upstairs, all of us, on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in November 1994. Owen is already on the bed, oblivious to our arrival, murmuring gibberish…. “Juicervose, juicervose.” It is something we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks. Cornelia thinks maybe he wants more juice; but no, he refuses the sippy cup. “The Little Mermaid” is playing as we settle in, propping up pillows. We’ve all seen it at least a dozen times, but it’s at one of the best parts: where Ursula the sea witch, an acerbic diva, sings her song of villainy, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” to the selfish mermaid, Ariel, setting up the part in which Ursula will turn Ariel into a human, allowing her to seek out the handsome prince, in exchange for her voice.

When the song is over, Owen lifts the remote. Hits rewind.

“Come on, Owen, just let it play!” Walt moans. But Owen goes back just 20 seconds or so, to the song’s next-to-last stanza, with Ursula shouting:

Go ahead — make your choice!

I’m a very busy woman, and I haven’t got all day.

It won’t cost much, just your voice!

He does it again. Stop. Rewind. Play. And one more time. On the fourth pass, Cornelia whispers, “It’s not ‘juice.’ ” I barely hear her. “What?” “It’s not ‘juice.’ It’s ‘just’ … ‘just your voice’!”

I grab Owen by the shoulders. “Just your voice! Is that what you’re saying?!”

He looks right at me, our first real eye contact in a year. “Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!”

Walt starts to shout, “Owen’s talking again!” A mermaid lost her voice in a moment of transformation. So did this silent boy. “Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!” Owen keeps saying it, watching us shout and cheer. And then we’re up, all of us, bouncing on the bed. Owen, too, singing it over and over — “Juicervose!” — as Cornelia, tears beginning to fall, whispers softly, “Thank God, he’s in there.”

The result of this interaction is a lifelong commitment to helping Owen express himself and learn about the world through something his parents call “Disney therapy.”

This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. So inspiring, heartbreaking, and beautiful. The article is excerpted from a book by Suskind, Life, Animated, that’s due out on April 1st.

I finished The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. More on that in a bit.

On Saturday night, we watched the movie Captain Phillips. It was good, but mostly forgettable. But there was one scene, at the end of the movie, that really stuck with me. Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips has just been rescued, and is being looked over by a medic. He’s visibly stunned by the change in situation that’s occurred in a matter of moments – from the terror of impending death by Somali kidnappers in a hijacked lifeboat, to the brightly-lit rigidity of a military rescue ship.The emotion Hanks displays is so incredibly real and moving. He conveys fear, confusion, gratitude, joy and horror all in just a couple of moments, with very few words. He’s great, that guy.

I should rewatch The Money Pit again.

On Sunday, we got up bright and early and headed to the Hunt Midwest SubTropolis to participate in the 32nd annual Children’s TLC Groundhog Run 5K. Children’s TLC works with young children with disabilities, developmental delays, and fragile medical conditions to provide educational and therapeutic services in an environment that fosters their independence and celebrates their successes.

The race was incredibly well-organized. We parked at the casino across the street, and school buses shuttled us back and forth to the race site. Inside the caves, the temperature stays around 67 degrees year-round, and with no wind or weather to contend with, and a flat course, we both thought that this race would be a breeze. Turns out, not so much, and neither of us really knows why. All we know is that we both struggled cardio-wise with this one, and neither of us posted a personal record time.

That said, our times were very respectable for each of us, and now we know we need to push it just a little bit more if we want to improve at a faster rate.

Here we are before the race:

We had to line up in waves, based on how long we thought it would take each of us to finish the race. Mr. Awesome was in the Blue wave, meaning he expected to finish in 25 to 30 minutes. I was in the Orange wave, expecting to finish in 35 to 40 minutes. Both of our times fell into the expected windows.

The course was predictably flat, and there was a good mix of turns and long straightaways. We don’t know if it was the air in the cave, or the people, or that we haven’t been running much (we’ve been doing elliptical, mostly) in the last month, but both of us got pretty winded and struggled to maintain a good pace. I’m sure it was the lack of actual running, which is why we’re going to start adding a mile run around the gym track to our regular workout schedule.

Mr. Awesome’s stats:

Time: 25:05

Age group place: 28th out of 93

238 out of 1801

My stats:

Time: 37:08

Age group place: 97 out of 146

1223 out of 1801

Not bad, but we’ve both done better. Which is why the quote I chose from The Twelve Tribes of Hattie as a title of this post is fitting – races where the race fights back sure make running hard to love. But I guess that’s what makes the ones we do well at that much more rewarding.

As for the book…

Books that are filled with struggles, sadness, oppression and all that aren’t easy to love. But they aren’t easy to forget, either.

Mathis spends each chapter in the book telling about one or more of Hattie’s children, from the first twins she loses to pneumonia as a young mother of seventeen, to the granddaughter she inherits as an old woman of seventy-one. Each child’s story like a glimpse through a dusty window into a moment of their lives, be they infants, or teenagers, or adults – we get just enough of a view to have an impression, but we can’t really know the whole story. Hattie’s children love and hate her, just as she loves and hates her circumstances. Nothing is easy for any of them, and love is expressed in a multitude of ways, with varying degrees of success.

The storytelling is like looking through a book of photographs – here’s a little bit here, there’s something in the background there that colors the next photo a few pages later. By the end, we don’t really know Hattie or her children, but we get a sense of who they are and can imagine their legacies. There is a feeling, at the end of the book, of hopefulness and the possibility of new beginnings, which helps smooth over some of the rough parts.

I haven’t picked a next book yet… it will probably be a GRE study guide.

I finished A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson last weekend.

Two summers ago, when hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Forest, Mr. Awesome and I found ourselves on a rather secluded, wooded trail about 2 miles in any direction from another person. The scenery was incredibly beautiful: tall pines and aspens, a carpet of discarded pine needles blanketing the path, making the trail soft and noiseless.

Into the woods.

The air was so clean, the smell so pure… we were so far removed from everything but nature. For about an hour and half, we were alone in the wilderness. The experience was awe-inspiring and a little bit terrifying. I want to do it again, and I never want to do it again. Which is exactly how Bill Bryson described his experience on the Appalachian Trail:

“I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.”

I get it. Or, the gist, anyway.

I don’t like sleeping in tents. I did so once about 5 years ago, and it was awful. I woke up freezing and sweating at the same time, until I realized the “sweat” was uninvited dew, like I was a plant or tree trunk or rock. I like hiking, I like campfires, I like s’mores and all the trappings that go along with the camp experience except the actual business of living in nature. I need indoor plumbing and a comfortable mattress, thankyouverymuch.

Early in the book, before he sets out on his AT adventure, Bryson describes his experience hiking with his son in Luxembourg:

The footpaths we followed spent a lot of time in the woods but also emerged at obliging intervals to take us along sunny back roads and over stiles and through farm fields and hamlets. We were always able at some point each day to call in at a bakery or post office, to hear the tinkle of shop bells and eavesdrop on conversations we couldn’t understand. Each night we slept in an inn and ate in a restaurant with other people. We experienced the whole of Luxembourg, not just its trees. It was wonderful, and it was wonderful because the whole charmingly diminutive package was seamlessly and effortlessly integrated.

Now that’s my kind of hiking. It sounds positively delightful. Not at all like Bryson’s experience hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Bryson and his friend Katz set off on their adventure in 1996, well before the mass adoption of GPS devices, Google Maps, or consumer dehydrated astronaut food. It’s two guys with some rudimentary gear and each other for company, although they don’t do much talking – just lots, and lots, and LOTS of walking, mostly uphill, in snow.

As with other Bryson books, this one is filled with colorful descriptions of people and places, interesting anecdotes, humor, and just enough tension to keep the reader moving forward. I got a good picture of what hiking in a remote area of the United States must be like – enough to know that I would be interested in summertime day hikes and nothing more.

I’m glad, though, that I had the experience of being in a remote wilderness, if even for just a couple of hours. It made this book that much more enjoyable.

Next up: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis.

 

I just finished Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. It’s a hard book to describe, because it’s so many things – a romance, a mystery, a science-fiction story, a history… so many things in one, and all told with such care. Atwood is a master storyteller and expert at drawing a reader into a world that’s *not quite* real, but at the same time so close and familiar. If all my thoughts could be phrased in Atwood’s prose, life would be so much more beautiful.

I’ve deeply enjoyed the three Atwood novels I’ve read – this one, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Alias Grace. Each is so unique and shimmering. There’s a comfortable uncomfortableness about them… more experienced and breathed and stretched around in, than read.

The kind of books you’re sad to see end, but know the whole time that the end will be a great satisfaction.

A truly excellent way to start off my year of reading more.

Next up – Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.

The last year was full of great experiences:

  • Orlando
  • Colorado
  • Running
  • Eating
  • Laughing

 

My goals (or should I say intentions?) for 2014 are to have more of the same, with regards to exercise, food and laughter, with a little travel thrown in for spice. There’s no telling how the year will ultimately end up, but really, the journey is what’s important.

So far, we’ve been enjoying the journey with great music courtesy of our new Sonos music system. It’s a wireless speaker system that is controllable via an iOS app, and can play music from various sources. Our current favorite is Dave Brubeck radio via Pandora. This, coupled with a good book (at this moment mine is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and his is Stewart O’Nan’s The Odds) and comfortable living room furniture makes for an incredibly relaxing way to spend an evening.

We’re also enjoying some great food, like a new recipe we tried for dinner last night, a dish inspired by the crab trofie pasta from Bluestem:

IMG_2384

Bluestem-inspired Crab Pasta
Servings: 4
Weight Watchers Points+: 15 per serving

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large shallots, diced
1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed and diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 c. white wine
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
2 c. half and half
1/2 c. 1% milk
12 oz trofie pasta
6 oz fresh crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, fennel, and garlic and cook until the shallots begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and tarragon. Continue cooking until the liquid has been reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the half and half and milk and turn the head down to medium-low. Continue to cook until the cream sauce is reduced by half, 10-12 minutes. Strain the cream sauce through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the aromatics. Return the cream sauce to the stove in a small saucepan and bring it back to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the sauce to 1 1/2 cups, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large stockpot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until just tender. Drain the pasta well.

Add the pasta, crab, red pepper flakes, and Parmesan to the cream sauce, stirring until the cheese has melted evenly. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the pasta among four bowls. Top each portion with 1 tablespoon of panko crumbs and more grated Parmesan.

We cut some fat by replacing what was heavy cream with half and half, and whole milk with 1%. We also eliminated prosciutto from the dish, but seasoned with salt and pepper throughout cooking. The end result was decadent without being too heavy. We served it with roasted broccoli, which has become a favorite side dish in recent months.

This weekend we will be doing our best to stay warm, but will still get out and about for culinary adventures and exercise at the gym. We’re running our first 5K of the year at the end of this month (the Children’s TLC Groundhog Run) and we’re both hoping for good times, in more ways than one!