Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Bavarian Inn, Eureka Springs

First I want to say how sick and wrong it is to drive clear down to Arkansas and then find excellent Czech-German food. Come on, y’all! This is the place to get yer fill of fried catfish, barbecued-anything, pulled pork, ribs, greens and grits and fried okra, beans an’ cornbread . . . and chicken. Northern Arkansas is the land of Tyson!

But then you come upon a place like the Bavarian Inn, and you think: “Maybe I should make an exception.” You think: “We can have catfish at lunch tomorrow. And we can have ’cue for dinner after that.” And those would be good ideas.

First, as usual, I have to disclose my bias: I’m a German American gal, and my grandmas are dead, so if I want the food of my people, either I’ve got to make it myself, or I have to find it at a restaurant. And for some reason—ridiculous, considering how many German Americans there are—German cuisine is crazy hard to find.

Well, unless you count America’s first choices in fast foods: Hamburgers and Frankfurters! Thank the Germans when you enjoy these foods!

Okay, I’m digressing. But it’s my blog, so there.

The Inn

As I mentioned previously, we were glad we didn’t stay at the famous Basin Park Hotel in downtown Eureka Springs, because there was a biker rally that weekend, and we do sleep better when Harleys aren’t roaring and rattling the windows.

I should mention that selecting lodging is often a harrowing experience for me, because I am rather picky. I like the idea of choosing locally owned, independent motels, but I have had bad experiences in the past; the so-called nonsmoking room that reeks; the soiled carpets; the doors with broken locks. . . . But trust me: The Bavarian Inn is a keeper. Put it in your address book; “favorite” it.

The Bavarian Inn (and its restaurant) are just about a mile from downtown Eureka Springs, west of town on Highway 62. It looks like a Swiss chalet on a little hill; you can’t miss it. The owners are immigrants from Czechoslovakia and have run it since the 1970s. I got the idea that the employees and owners are a tight-knit group.

Every experience at the hotel was pleasant. The lobby staff were friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, and enthusiastic about the town, the inn, and the restaurant. “Were you thinking of dining here tonight? If you were wanting the duck, let me know about when you’ll be arriving, and I’ll make sure they have it cooking for you, since it takes extra time.”

And the morning we left, we were encouraged to take extra (fresh made) blueberry coffee cake with us from the complimentary breakfast: “We weren’t full last night, so take all you want; we have more than enough.”

For what we got, the room rates were very reasonable: An enormous, clean room, comfortable king bed, nonsmoking, a gas fireplace, sofa, coffee table, jacuzzi, a nice private balcony overlooking peaceful pine trees and the rest of the forest, oak furniture, and truly soundproofed walls and doors—for just about a hundred dollars. It was great to wake up early, slide the door open onto the patio, and let clean air and the voices of fish crows, towhees, cardinals, and mockingbirds drift in.

The folks at the Bavarian Inn advertise their packages and ability to do special requests—champagne in the room, welcome baskets, in-room massages, horseback riding and canoeing packages, etc.—but we didn’t partake of any of these. I suspect they do take good care of their guests in these respects, too.

The Restaurant

Again, it seems strange to have German-Czech cuisine in the heart of hillbilly country, but don’t let that bother you. You can see the complete menu online at the lodge and restaurant’s Web site, here.

The rye bread served with every meal was lightly flavored and pleasantly crusty, definitely homemade. All the food was excellent. The soup of the day had sauerkraut in an orange, creamy base, with paprika, I think, and it was great. Actually, that and the rye bread would have satisfied me as a light meal right there.

I also want to mention that they had nonalcoholic beer available, and I am grateful for that.

But the entrées were worth waiting for. I had the duck, which was cooked perfectly, and yes, Dr. Johnson, I couldn’t resist eating some of the skin—it was really good. The “sweet and sour cabbage” was what I’d call “cooked red cabbage”; mild, not too sweet or too sour—who wouldn’t like this? (Why doesn’t it appear on more restaurant menus?) The Bohemian dumplings were the big, thick kind, sliced so that they looked like pieces of bread. It was all really yummy.

Sue got the “Chicken Anna Marie”—I think because my name is Julianna Marie, and Sue thought it was funny—the owners of the Bavarian Inn named it after two of their grandmothers, or their mothers (I can’t remember). The chicken breast was topped with a creamy sauce with mushroom, smoky bacon, and onion and was accompanied with red cabbage and those pretty potato dumplings—which were wonderful dipped in the sauce.

By the way, our waiter was right-on. She was a little late getting to us at first, but the host who seated us warned us that she’d be a little delayed beginning our service—about five minutes. Since we had been advised of this when we were seated, we didn’t mind the wait at all. And once she began serving us, she was attentive and helpful.

I overheard a couple at a table next to us, clearly on vacation and visiting Eureka Springs and this restaurant for a second time, tell our waiter they were so glad to have had her again this visit, too. You know, that’s something when you remember your waiter after perhaps months or even years.

The ambiance and decor: Darkish but with an open feel, chalet-style; quiet, decorated with a lot of German stuff. Lots of wood. Comfortable and rather informal, but still a place for you and your children to sit upright and display good manners. Comfortable like being at grandma’s house, but still a wine-list-and-cloth-napkins kind of place.

My mom got the “Bavarian plate,” which was a sampler with bratwurst, sliced smoked pork, potato pancakes, and a side of sauerkraut. She let me try samples, and it was all good. The sauerkraut was mild and tasty; it had definitely been cooked with broth or onions or white wine or something. In other words, they took the time to doctor it up so it tasted terrific.

My dad got the sauerbraten—which the menu says is actually a Czech version of the dish, called Svickova. He must have enjoyed it okay, because he made it disappear and I didn’t get any! He did comment that it lacked the intensity of flavor that my sauerbraten has: “Maybe they didn’t marinate it long enough.” Well, or maybe they don’t like it as strong as I do! Anyway, he might have been saying that to flatter me and encourage me to make sauerbraten more often.

We had apple strudel for dessert, served warm, and it was perfect—the layers of pastry were crisp and thin as paper on the outside, and inside were substantial enough against the filling to maintain the shape. The filling was just sweet enough, and the apple flavor shined through. Powdered sugar garnished the top; and you can get it with a scoop of ice cream. Yes.

In summary, the thumbs are all up in our party of four; we’d love to return again: The Bavarian Inn Hotel—check. The Bavarian Inn Restaurant—check.

(. . . Or should I say, “Czech.” Ha ha ha.)

Yeah . . . you can go get barbecue some other night.

Bavarian Inn on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Friday Was Eureka Springs

First off, it was a “biker” weekend, and I don’t mean bicyclists. It was a good thing we didn’t stay at the historic Basin Park Hotel, right in the center of downtown, because we never would have slept.

The Town

Eureka Springs is one of those unforgettable towns, a place that makes an impression on you. If you don’t understand the Ozarks or what its hills and hollers are capable of, Eureka Springs is a great place to start. I dare you not to fall in love with the place.

The landscape is incredibly hilly; the roads curve and switchback. Many are quite steep. They are narrow. You can see why bikers would love the place. The architecture is antique, colorful, charming, stately. There are many, many Victorian homes with gorgeous paint jobs. Larger institutional buildings, hotels, businesses, and the like are made with stone. Many of the oldest sidewalks are of well-worn stone, and not concrete.

Because of the topography, you can enter a building, go down three or even four flights of stairs, and emerge again on ground level. There are stairways that compete well with those in Montmartre.

To assist in the tourist congestion, the town has a trolley system, enabling you to park at your motel and ride all around the town—what a wonderful and progressive idea.

You get the idea that there are plenty of progressive and creative types in the town. There is a lot of whimsy in architectural ornamentation and yard sculptures. The gardens, flowers, and landscaping are profuse, informal, and cheerful. It reminds me of places like Santa Fe, Jerome, Arizona, or San Francisco: Artist colony, hippies, free-thinkers, creative writers, cooks who enjoy ethnic influences, people who color outside the lines. Walking around the town, you see cool things that people have done with old stuff, junk, and other simple things, and it inspires you with crafty ideas.

The Springs

I don’t know what the official count is, but there must be dozens of natural springs in the area. Several of these are well-known historic spots and have been preserved by the town, made into nicely landscaped little town parks, with interpretive signs nearby.

It is a little hard today to imagine what it was like in the late 1800s when people were such believers in the health benefits of water. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I encourage you to read the first hundred or so pages of Loring Bullard’s Healing Waters: Missouri’s Historic Mineral Springs and Spas, which provides a great explanation of the thinking before modern allopathic medicine and microbiology became the leading pathways for understanding and fighting disease.

The “taking of waters” goes back at least to biblical days and to Classical times, and hot springs, mineral springs, sulfur springs, artesian wells, sweet springs, and so forth were conceived of as part of God’s gift to mankind, like food and medicinal herbs, things put here to help us live.

By the late 1800s, doctors who specialized in mineral water treatments were codifying water-based treatments for specific complaints and diseases that involved drinking, bathing in, and soaking in various types of mineral waters. Anecdotal evidence fueled faith in the efficacy of these treatments.

I mean, people really took this seriously, and state governments hired geologists to conduct surveys of the state’s spring locations, their rate of output, and the various types of waters that flowed forth. Think of it this way: If Paxil, Vicodin, and Prednisone seeped naturally out of the ground, today’s governments would want to have an inventory of those resource riches, too.

But now it’s mostly a quaint old memory, though the waters still flow forth out of the ground and, in Eureka Springs, in stone grottos and basins built a hundred years ago. There are drinking fountains at many of the park springs, and yes, the waters taste sweet and cold and clean. If you go, bring some empty jugs with you.

Also, bring a nice book, your paints, or your writing pad. You’ll want to spend some quiet time in Eureka Springs, sitting on a park bench somewhere, or on a little patio or porch at the hotel or B&B where you’re staying. There are lots of sweet little cottages where you can stay, or, like us, you can opt for a hotel. Next, we’re gonna talk up the Bavarian Inn. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Arkansas Weekend: Overview

Well, that was pretty fun! We just got back from spending three nights in northern Arkansas. Friday night was Eureka Springs. Saturday night was Hot Springs. Sunday night was in Mountain View. I’ll write about the more fun aspects later, but first, and to get it “out of the way,” here’s the overview. Sorry it’s such dry reading.

Friday morning, from Jefferson City, we took Route 54 south through Lake Ozark and Camdenton, then Routes 7 then 5 to Lebanon, where we picked up I-44 to Springfield. After a picnic lunch (windy!) at a local park north of Lake Springfield, we continued southward on I-65, through the outskirts of Branson. Before reaching the state line, we turned west on Highway 86 and crossed over a southern arm of Table Rock Lake. We skirted the state line for quite a while, then went south on Missouri Highway P, which became Arkansas 23 when we crossed over the boundary. And Arkansas 23 leads right into Eureka Springs, where we spent the first evening.

We drove around the town’s historic loop, stopping often to look at the various springs, take photos, and partake of the healing waters when fountains were available. The hotel where we stayed was the Bavarian Inn, on the west side of town, which, considering it was a “biker weekend” in all of northern Arkansas, was incredibly quiet and clean and lovely. Easily the best lodging of the trip.

Dinner that night, if you can believe it in Arkansas, was German food, there at the hotel’s restaurant. Very good. After dark, Sue and I drove back to town and walked in some of the neighborhoods, ending up at the St. Elizabeth Catholic church, next to the historic Crescent Hotel.

Saturday, we took Highway 62 east through Berryville and Green Forest to Harrison, where we picked up Arkansas Scenic Byway 7 and drove south clear to Hot Springs, having a pit stop at Jasper and a lunch at the Cliff House restaurant, which famously overlooks the so-called Arkansas Grand Canyon. We picked at a couple of rock and crystal outlets outside of Russellville. You know I couldn’t resist it.

At Hot Springs, we had reservations at the historic Arlington Hotel, which is part of the National Park. Dinner at the Arlington’s Venetian Dining Room. Afterward, we took a walk down Central Avenue to look at tourist-trap shops (on the west side of the street) and to view the historic bathhouses (on the east side). The bathhouses are owned by the park service and are being renovated and then leased out. One, for instance, is a local art gallery.

Sunday morning, we looked at the visitor center and bathhouse/spa museum at the historic Fordyce Bathhouse on Bathhouse Row. After that, we drove to the top of Hot Springs Mountain (still part of the National Park) and went up in the viewing tower there.

Back on the road, we took Grand Avenue to Highway 70 to Interstate 30, heading to Little Rock. We stopped at Benton for lunch; the restaurant, called Catfish Barn, was worth driving in circles for. If you’re driving through there, skip “Crack Yer Barrel” and go to the Catfish Barn.

In Little Rock, we took 430 north, then 630 east to the city center, where the state capitol is located. Dad wanted to see the Arkansas state capitol, and so did we. We also saw the statutes of the Little Rock Nine, and later, as we were driving out of Little Rock, we saw the William J. Clinton Presidential Center (i.e., the presidential library) from the highway. Not enough time to stop there.

Heading north from Little Rock, we took Highway 40 to Conway, then took a route identified variously as 287, 65, and 25 through such burgs as Springhill, Greenbrier, Damascus, Bee Branch, and Choctow. Then 9/95/330 north to Clinton, and then 16 or 9 through Shirley and Rushing to Mountain View. We stayed at the Best Western Fiddler’s Inn.

Dinner was at a place called Wing Shack and Cheeseburger Grill, which I have nice things to say about. After dark, Sue and I went downtown to the square, where we enjoyed live bluegrass music outdoors in two places right across the street from each other: the “Pickin’ Porch” at Aunt Minnie’s Yellow House, and Mountain View Music.

Monday morning: a cold front was moving through, and it was windy and rainy. We had breakfast in our rooms from the Best Western’s lobby offerings. The Ozark Folk Center, an Arkansas State Park, apparently is closed on Mondays, so that was a bust. We did have fun walking the square and poking around in shops, especially a general mercantile, which happened to have a fun selection of used books at low prices, and the Mountain View Music Shop: music stores are always fun.

North on Highway 5 through Optimus to Calico Rock, which is a cool little historic town on the White River. We had lunch at a café there. Then it was all crazy backroads (5, 177, Norfork, Salesville, 5, Briarcliff) to Mountain Home; then 101 to Gamaliel, and then across the state line back into Missouri. At Caulfield, we got on 160 and took it to West Plains. A pit stop there, and then we got onto Highway 63, which leads directly to Jeff City . . . via the Vienna Drive-In for sundaes, of course.

So that’s the overview. I did most of the driving today (hence my fuzziness about today’s route, which I did not pick out myself—I just drove where my dad, the geographer and lover of blue highways, told me to). It rained or sprinkled most of today, and the roads were fairly challenging, so I’m going to leave you here with this rather dry post.

More colorful specifics, with pictures, to come. But now it’s time for me to start focusing again on work and work and work. More soon.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More about Morels

See, I got so excited about eating the morels that I forgot to tell you about the experience of finding them, which is half the fun.

For those of you who don’t know—like I didn’t know until about 2000, when Sue and I had “Year of the Mushroom” (more on that some other day)—morel hunting is like an addiction or obsession. Yes, part of it is the joyful surprise of finding them and the pleasure of eating them, but that is preceded by genuine effort, yearning, and sometimes outright frustration. There is desire, work, and then a reward.

Morels only appear in the springtime, and then only for a limited window of time. I’ve heard people describe the timing of their appearance in various ways. “When oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears.” “When the lilacs bloom.” “About the time you’re cutting grass for the first time.” “When the redbuds are blooming.” You know?

And then there are special places to look. Under elms. Under apple trees and other woody members of the rose family. You hear all kinds of stuff. And sometimes a patch that was spectacular one year offers nothing in subsequent years.

Morels have (so far) resisted cultivation—they are a truly wild mushroom, and this is one reason they’re so pricey.

They are perfectly camouflaged on the forest floor, not only because of their coloration, but also in their patterning. When I look for morels, there are all kinds of other things that catch my eye, particularly the many sharply reticulated shadows cast in the leaf litter by small ferns and bedstraw. If there are pinecones about, it gets even harder.

If morels pop up out of your green grassy lawn, then lucky you, ’cause you can see them so easily. But if you are in the woods, you can be standing in a whole patch of them and not see a one.

One of my favorite stories about morels—and I wish I could remember where I read or heard this—is that the tradition of “Easter egg hunting” might have evolved from springtime morel-hunting forays. The parallels do make you think: First, morels emerge only in the spring. Kind of like Jesus and the Resurrection. Second, among people and cultures where mushrooms are valued, morel hunting was a family activity; grandmother carrying the basket, and the little ones, naturally being full of energy as well as closer to the ground and with better eyesight, doing most of the hunting and finding. Third, morels are ornately patterned and, indeed, rather egg-shaped. Fourth, they are hard as the dickens to locate. They really do blend in.

So isn’t that a cool idea? Maybe the first “Easter egg hunt” took place during an exceptionally dry year when the mushrooming was bad. The kids are flopping around, depressed, because there are no morels to be had. The solution? “Here, let’s hard-boil some eggs, decorate them, and have the kids do a little hunt.”

So here is my hunting story from Sunday, April 19.

It was raining, and Sue had her bonsai meeting, so she dropped me off at Gans Creek Wild Area. Again, I’m not going to tell you precisely where I found these, because nobody does that.

I was amazed to see other cars in the parking area. People were hiking in the rain? No: They were mushrooming. One lady was right by her truck, getting ready to leave. She showed me her prizes, cupped in both hands: The gray kind, which she’d found right near the parking area. We chatted a while about mushrooms, you know, like you do . . . And she explained that she’s been trying to teach her dogs (waiting for her in her truck) to sniff out morels. Wouldn’t that be a great trick! Just like those truffle-hunting sows in Europe!

My main goal was hiking and enjoying myself, but after seeing her bounty, morel-lust caught hold of me and I found myself creeping off the trail often to inspect patches of ground that looked promising . . .

Here’s the first non-morel thing I encountered in this way; I got within a few feet of it before I noticed the coppery patterns. Ohmygosh.

The copperhead was just resting there, didn’t move a muscle; that is what they do. They have cryptic coloration. I think this one was having a quiet day, enjoying the rain. Of course (after taking my pictures) I left it alone. You have to admit copperheads are very lovely; they almost look airbrushed.

Then there are all kinds of flowers. At this point the trilliums and wild ginger are blooming brown; the Dutchman’s britches, spring beauties, toothwort, and anemones are still hanging on; pussy’s toes are blooming; jack-in-the-pulpits are just starting; shooting star and bellwort are recognizable but not blooming yet; violets and bird’s-foot violets and rose verbena are in bloom, and several trees are blooming—service berry, wild plum, that sort of stuff. Of course I got sidetracked. This here is blue-eyed Mary:

The mayapples are mostly fully deployed and are thinking about blooming. Remember I told you a few posts ago about how a patch of them looks like Munchkinland? Here’s what I was trying to express:

At Gans, I also get sidetracked by the relics of the old farmstead that remain, particularly the bulb flowers that someone planted decades, perhaps a century ago. Daffodils, jonquils, irises, and so on. There’s a lilac in the parking area that you know someone had planted ages ago. And when I first started hiking at Gans in the eighties, there was a venerable old pear tree that still produced fruit, though it’s gone now. There’s something very cool about how these plants endure long after their planters have moved on, passed on . . .

And yes, it was absolutely raining. It was not particularly cold, at least, but I got all wet and muddy. I did walk rather softly, trying not to mess up the trail too much. So it was on one of my little off-trail forays into what seemed a “likely” spot that I nearly tripped over the first pair:

And this is the addictive part, the “Whoop-whoop and woohoo!” aspect. I’d been out there in the woods messing around for about an hour, and then, Bam! Hooray! I knelt down to say “hello” to them and to get my pocket knife and plastic bag ready, and then, Ta-dahh! I spied another morel about two feet away. Then, looking up, I noticed another small cluster. I scored all forty in one small patch a quarter of the size of our backyard.

Yes, it does feel like an Easter egg hunt. And like I recently explained to a close friend, it reminds me of the kid in me.

After my little extravaganza, I figured I had enough for the two of us, and I didn’t want to be greedy . . . and I do worry sometimes that unbridled harvesting must impact the fungus’s ability to reproduce itself and to disperse . . . so the rest of the hike, for me, was just a hike, no more “hunting” required. Just a smile on my face.

Sue was incredibly pleased with me when I got in the car and showed her my bag of fungal treasures.

And boy, the creek was up. By the way, that’s another morel hunter in the background, across the creek.

. . . But a discussion of the curious interactions among morel hunters will have to be for another post, since I know this one is already “too long” for our ADD culture. So I’ll sign off for now.

(Happy hunting!)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Whoop-Whoop and Woohoo!

Sue provided the title for this post—it’s how she characterizes my Aunt Carole’s exclamations upon finding morel mushrooms. And yes, Sue got to use her Whoop-Whoop hoot yesterday afternoon when she picked me up after my hike at Gans Creek Wild Area. (Why am I telling you where I found these? I must be nuts. Well, it’s a big area, and I just won’t be more specific than that.)

I will write soon about the journey—the hike, the rain, the mud, the flowers, the copperhead, and all the other fun stuff I stumbled upon—but let’s just say I found a nice patch of yellow morels, filled my little bag, and had plenty for our dinner. My total “haul” was 41 mushrooms—all yellow, except for one black or gray one. All the yellow ones from a single, glorious patch. I could have looked for more, but really . . . one nice dinner at a time is enough to suit me. Maybe I’ll find more in the next week or so. Or maybe not.

But tonight I just want to share with you some cooking tips for morels. First, of course, make sure you have actual morels. Once you know what they look like, you won’t mistake them for anything else. To harvest them, use a pocket knife to cut them right at the base of the little trunk.

Step 1 is to trim and debug them. Cut away any bad bits, cut them in half lengthwise (which assists in making sure you’ve properly identified them), rinse and inspect, and put them into a big bowl or bucket of salted water. The saltwater encourages any remaining bugs ’n’ slugs to exit the many nooks and hollows. Rinse with fresh water, drain, and they’re ready to cook.

Idea #1 is the time-honored Missouri way: Fried. Dip them in egg and then in corn meal, and deep-fry them. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and serve immediately. You can’t go wrong with this method; this is the way most people cook them. An alternative would be to use cracker crumbs. My only objection to fried morels is that the breading and frying can obscure the flavor of the mushrooms themselves. But you can’t argue with tradition.

Idea #2 builds on an ancient, awesome equation invented by the earliest human civilizations: Mushrooms + garlic + butter = delicioso magnifico. I cut chicken breasts into bite-sized chunks and sauté in butter supplemented with olive oil until they’re starting to get done. Add minced or crushed garlic and the mushrooms and continue to sauté. (If you want even more of the morel flavor to come through, consider using shallots instead of garlic.) As they cook, the morels will give off a lot of moisture, and you might want to supplement with a bit of white wine; let that cook down and reduce.

The chicken, morels, and their juice go well with roasted potatoes. Also, may I recommend a side of fresh steamed asparagus with, say, a light lemon sauce? It goes well with this meal, being so seasonal, as does a green salad decorated with redbud blossoms and violets from the backyard.

Mmmm. . . . Getting hungry yet? Here’s another one.

Idea #3 is an appetizer. It’s good if you only managed to find a few morels, and you want to do something special to celebrate them. After you’ve halved and cleaned them, carefully steam them until they’re cooked. Then, stuff them with one of the following: A small clove of roasted garlic; a small piece of bacon; a little wad of prosciutto . . . Hmmm. All kinds of lovely things would fit in that little cavity. Greek olives, capers, feta, goat cheese . . . My. Then, reunite the halves and secure with a chive leaf tied in a little knot, or sushi-style with a little ribbon of nori.

Serve drizzled with more melted butter, or concoct a mayonnaise-based dip, or make up a cream sauce of some kind. Oh, joy! In the big city, a small platter of these fresh little babies, properly garnished, would put you back thirty dollars, I’ll bet.

Happy hunting, morel lovers.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What Can Happen in the Woods

I haven’t said too much about myself here in this blog, because I’m not sure how “safe” it is to do so. Or sensible. I mean, if I write about my broken foot, will fetishists read my words for reasons I don’t intend? . . . But then I can’t live my life in a box, and neither can I avoid writing about myself. And anyway, why hide it? It’s no huge secret that I recently lost my job through downsizing, after having held the position since 1995. The experience shook me up.

Before the trauma of job loss, I had a long recovery from a broken right foot. (Google “Jones fracture” if you want an idea of what I went through.) There was no driving or walking for about five months. That experience did a lot more than shake me up; it got me off balance, figuratively and literally.

When you feel like the floor has dropped out from beneath you, when your footing is unsure both metaphorically and literally, you desperately look for things that make you feel grounded again.

And one of the things that has helped me recuperate from the last few years of struggling has been “getting out in nature.” I was reminded of the connection this month when I read Jeanette Winterson’s column, in which she writes,

I think that the really bad time of my depression was when I could not find that happiness in simple things. I devised a ritual to help myself through it, and to re-make the connection with the natural physical world that gets lost in depression.

What I did was to sit outside, quietly, raining or not, and concentrate completely on a leaf or a flower or a stone, feeling it, looking at it, putting it to my face, sometimes in my mouth, until I recognised it again, as both separate from and part of me. At my worst I just lay in the rain, or sometimes even the snow, until I could feel something not in my own head.

I am not sure this would work for everyone, but I know that finding the way out of the dark labyrinth has to happen in connection, in relation, and can’t happen in the head alone—where the monsters are.

Reading this, I was reminded of how I felt the first time I hobbled into the woods after being on crutches so long. It was April 2, 2008, and I had just experienced a peak of frustration in my healing process: Six months after my fracture, I was still wearing an Aircast for most of my so-called walking, the doctor was gradually moving me into a stiff-soled shoe, I was finally driving again, but the X-rays still showed abysmally slow healing of the bone.

Emotionally I had hit the wall; I had lost faith in my body’s ability to recover and the doctors’ ability to heal. I had been helpless and cooped up all winter. It was spring, yet the docs hadn’t been able to see any improvement for months. And if anything, my foot was hurting more and more, the more I used it. I hope you never have to know what this feels like, physically or emotionally.

Anyway, on April 2 a year ago, in the midst of all this, I went AWOL at lunch and drove myself to Gans Creek Wild Area, where I encourage you not to go, because the place is overused and trampled and that breaks my heart. Because it is my favorite place to go hiking myself. And by myself.

Something in me was throwing a tantrum that day. So I decided I would take my “inner brat” for a walk. I worried about my foot: “Is this really okay?” But an inner rebel answered: “Who’s telling me no? Who’s giving me any direction in this process at all? It hurts almost as much to walk in the Aircast as it does to walk in this shoe.”

I struck a deal with my internal voices: “I will go slowly and steadily and carefully. As soon as I get any sign of being tired I’ll turn back. I have plenty of time. No one cares where I am right now. It’s all right. Let’s go walking.”

It was an incredibly sunny day, and I felt like a prisoner on his first day back in freedom. I immediately started feeling better, on that well-loved path, hearing the birds singing, the chorus frogs clicking at a nearby farm pond . . . the smell of the cedars, which all seemed intensely alive and green. Tiny, brave, tender blades of grass poking up like bristles in the middle of the trail, where I was trampling them with my lumbering limp.

I decided I was getting tired of limping, so I stopped for a minute, lined up both my feet, carefully distributing my weight evenly on them both, and then resumed walking, slowly, focusing on trying to move smoothly and without limping. “Naturally,” the way I vaguely remembered being able to do.

It was very hard, but not for the reason I had thought: It was hard because limping had become a habit, born of favoring my hurt foot out of fear.

I only got as far as what is called “Shooting Star Bluff” on the maps (sadly, the shooting stars are almost all eroded from the little glade area by now); and I reclined on a big rock, stared up at the intensely bright blue sky, watched a turkey vulture or two glide around up there, closed my eyes, and began to weep tears of homecoming and relief.

On that day I became my own health advisor. That hour in the woods brought me all kinds of revelations; about the toxicity of being around computers too much; my need to be alone on a regular basis, preferably in the woods; the quality of nature that enables me to hear my internal voices (the wise ones) clearly.

I have realized that—contrary to my constant experiences in home, work, and yard, contrary to my internal struggles, my emotions, doubts, and endless confusions—in nature, there is nothing that needs my attention; everything is exactly where it should be (not counting trash or graffiti or stuff like that). Nothing needs “doing” out there. There is no “to-do list” on the trail.

If sticks and fallen leaves clutter the ground in vast disarray, it’s all perfect just as it is. If the detritus of rotting heartwood spills messily from an opening of a thick, senescent tree, that’s okay; in fact, it’s part of natural perfection. I don’t need to do a damn thing. If pretty ferns grow from the base of this rock but not from that similar rock over there, it’s not inconsistent, it’s just a sweet surprise. The woods remove me from my stressed-out, anxious, overwhelmed, day-to-day reality, and I need it.

. . . I’m really looking forward to hiking tomorrow.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Family Archives

One of the hiking places I’ve recently “discovered” is actually a rediscovery. Considering I grew up the daughter of two native Missourians, one of whom is an acknowledged authority on the history and geography of the state, it’s no surprise that many of our family outings were spent exploring nooks and crannies of the Ozarks, the glaciated plains, the prairies. So I have indeed been to Clifty Creek before, and my parents recently showed me the evidence, in the form of slides.

There’s not a lot to say about the pictures, except to explain a few things. First, it was 1972, sometime in the summer (the next slides in the series show my brother’s birthday in early September), so I was six, almost seven, and Paul (with me in the pictures) was nearly nine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fun with Falsies

On Saturday, Sue and I drove up to Boonville to visit our pals Jane and Tim at their beautiful home overlooking the Missouri. It was sunny—oh, it was a wonderful day to be outdoors.

It was also going to be an opportunity for photography, particularly for Tim, Jane, and Sue, who are much more serious and talented and skilled when it comes to taking pictures. Me, I’m just a monkey with an autofocus, lucky for every picture that doesn’t look like a big blur. Unfortunately, because Tim had a cold, he declined to travel with us for our photo outing and picnic.

I’ll share some pictures and info about the Lisbon Bottoms area of the Missouri River for an upcoming post, but this afternoon, my love of biology, on the level of the organism, overcomes the glories of landscape.

The following pictures were taken in Tim and Jane’s yard. All have something false in them.

First, a false morel, Gyromitra esculenta, one of about three or four that Jane had found growing on an old maple stump in front of her house. Once you know what a real morel looks like, you won’t ever mistake the false for the delectable edible kind.

And by the way, it should be morel season now. I sure hope to be photographing some morels soon. And then picking them, cooking them, and eating them!

A few more notes on the false morel: Some people consider them edible if you cook them well enough, but all the authorities say no: gyromitrin, the toxin, creates a byproduct called MMH, which is apparently the same thing as rocket fuel. Eating it in small amounts might not kill you or make you ill, but over time it could cause tumors. Um, so just don’t eat it.

Next, some kind of spurge that’s growing in Jane’s yard. I guess it’s in the genus Euphorbia, but hell if I know. She says it’s hardy to the point of weediness, but its attractiveness makes up for it.
Here’s why I count it as “false”: Take a close look at the flowers. Do they look like any kind of flower you’re familiar with? If you said “poinsettia,” or “snow on the mountain,” then you guessed right. And if you know that, then you also know that this is a tricky flower. In these flowers, the parts that look like “petals” are actually modified leaves, or bracts. And the parts that look like stamens are—well, they’re stamens, all right, but each stamen is a separate male flower consisting of only a stamen. Got it? And then, in the center of the flower, the thing that looks kind of like a pistil is actually a separate female flower, consisting of only a pistil. The whole shebang (that is, the entire flower head or inflorescence) is called a cyathium. Members of the spurge family, or Euphorbiaceae, are the only plants that have cyathia as the inflorescence type. (I think. Close relatives of the family might have cyathia, too. Call a botanist if you need to know.)

Finally, my last picture is of another example of natural falsification. This critter that looks like a bee is actually a fly, a dipteran. It’s in the same group as mosquitoes, houseflies, and gnats; bees are grouped in with ants and wasps as hymenopterans.
But this critter looks like a bee, doesn’t it. Still, the flylike eyes, the paired (not quadrupled) wings, the antennae, all give it away. In fact, this fly, and others in the fly family Syrphidae, are widely acknowledged to be remarkably “nice”—they don’t bite, sting, transmit malaria or West Nile virus, or otherwise harass us.

This kind of mimicry—where a species evolves coloration or another recognizable characteristic that looks like something “nasty” in order to avoid being eaten—is called Batesian mimicry (after a nineteenth-century English lepidopterist named Henry Bates). A textbook example of this kind of mimicry is the monarch butterfly and the viceroy butterfly, where the monarch is poisonous to most predators, and the viceroy isn’t poisonous but just looks a lot like the monarch. Birds that throw up within a half hour of ingesting a monarch quickly learn to avoid eating fluttery insects that look anything like a cardiac-glycoside-laden monarch.

Thus, when a harmless and delicious fly looks like a stinging bee or wasp, you have a case where, as John Alcock puts it in Sonoran Desert Summer, “Birds relish flies but are less fond of stinging Hymenoptera, and with good reason; a flycatcher stung in its mouth by a bumblebee or paper wasp receives a huge dose of toxin relative to its weight and can be expected to suffer proportionally. Humans quickly learn to avoid bees and wasps by their color patterns. Insect-eating birds are equally adept at this form of learning.”

Here’s the part I don’t get: This little fly, commonly called a flower fly or a hover fly, in the family Syrphidae, is apparently in the genus Epistrophe.

Epistrophe?—Now the English major in me is curious. An epistrophe is a literary device where the same word or words are repeated at the end of a succession of phrases or sentences. A famous example is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” Another famous example is from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”). Get it?

So how did this genus of flies get named Epistrophe? I want to know.

Until then, I’ll just relax and enjoy my pictures of a fungus of deception, flower of deception, and fly of deception.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Egg Cake

Here is a family recipe. Well, it’s not really a “recipe” at this point, since we use an angel food cake mix, so it’s more of a technique. Or an idea. This is something my Grandma Renner used to make for an Easter dessert, and my mom makes it, too. So of course, I’m next in line. I guess that makes sense.

Easter Egg Cake

You will need: angel food cake mix, white icing, food coloring, several small bowls (like cereal bowls), angel food cake pan (with removable bottom) and a bottle to stand it upside down on, if the cake pan doesn’t have those little lifter-things. Decorations can include shredded coconut that you’ve colored green with a few drops of food coloring, jelly beans, edible flowers such as pansies, and so on.

Of course, when making angel food cake, you can’t let any kind of grease get into the batter, so all bowls, spoons, mixer beaters, etc. should be clean and not oily.

Preheat the oven and mix up your angel food cake batter per the package directions. Have several bowls at hand. Reserving some of the plain cake batter in the original mixing bowl and working quickly, spoon out the rest of the batter into approximately six smaller bowls—well, one for each intended color. Read on.

Squeeze drops of food coloring into the bowls of batter and stir gently to mix. Red/pink, green, yellow, blue, orange, purple. Whatever; get creative. The uncolored batter of course will be white. Oh, and the colors of the finished cake will be darker than they seem in the batter.

Gently dollop the various colors of batter into the angel food cake pan, alternating colors as you go.
Once you’ve blobbed all the colors of batter into the pan, carefully run a knife through the batter a few times to eliminate air bubbles (and to create a groovy swirly pattern).

Bake the cake per package directions and turn it upside down like you’re supposed to.

Before you do anything else, let it cool completely.

Then carefully remove it from the pan and set it on your serving platter. Brush the crumbs off the top and sides. Carefully ice it with the white-colored icing of your choice. Icing an angel food cake is tricky. It helps to dip the spatula in warm water every once in a while.

We usually stick some colorful jelly beans on top as decoration. Dyed-green coconut can hide the places on top where cake crumbs got into the icing, because you concentrated on getting the sides iced just right and kind of ran out.

One year my mom made a little “vase” for some daffodils using soggy paper towels wrapped with aluminum foil and stuck them in the hole in the middle. It was so pretty when we brought it to Jeff City to share with Grandma Renner on Easter Sunday.

Serving: Well, you could put ice cream with it, I suppose, but I’m partial to sliced strawberries this time of year.

Of course, the colors inside the cake are a big surprise. Everybody is supposed to inspect his or her slice and count the colors they got. Whoever has the most colors wins the contest.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Favorite Spring Salad

It’s bright and light and it features seasonal ingredients—morel mushrooms, asparagus, redbud blossoms—in a salad of bowtie pasta, sautéed chicken, with a lemony vinaigrette with extra virgin olive oil and rosemary. It’s good at just about any temperature, so it’s perfect for a spring picnic. Like we had today.

Yes. It goes well with good friends, a beautiful view, and a bottle of Hermannhof Spring Blush wine.

By the way, this is a play-it-by-ear thing. You should adjust the quantities of everything to your own tastes.

Julie’s Own Blessings-of-April Pasta Salad

1 bunch of asparagus broken into two- or three-inch pieces (steamed briefly; shock in ice water to stop cooking if necessary; it’s better to slightly undercook; don’t overcook)

Morel mushrooms (halved, soaked briefly in salty water to debug, rinsed, and steamed) (if fresh morels are not available, try shiitakes, cut into slices, and steamed) Quantity? Well, as many as you can find or afford! (Play it by ear.)

12 oz. bowtie pasta, cooked to al dente (rotini works well, too) (don’t overcook) (rinse with cold water to prevent sticking)

3 boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces. Sauté with extra virgin olive oil, a minced shallot, and about four sprigs of fresh rosemary. (Discard the rosemary once the chicken is cooked.) The chicken and cooked shallots can go into the salad.

For the dressing—combine the following in a Mason or jelly jar and shake vigorously to emulsify:

--zest from one small lemon (microplane graters work great for this)

--juice from the lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to equal 1/3 cup

--2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

--1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary

--1 minced shallot (about 1 Tbsp.)

--salt and pepper to taste

Pour the dressing over the salad ingredients and toss gently to combine. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Can serve chilled or at room temperature.

Serve on a bed of fresh baby spinach or lettuce greens; garnish with redbud blossoms just prior to serving.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Another One of My Little Friends

Okay, I really don't want to turn this into a "photo blog," but I can't resist sharing these pictures with you. Plus a little background.

See, when I was a little girl, I liked bugs (though spiders did give me the creeps). The lady across the street knew that I liked to let June bugs clamber around on my hands and stuff, so it got to the point where whenever she found a garter snake or a big bug or something while she was out gardening, she would call me over: "Hey, come over here, Julie, I've found another one of your little friends." And I would trot right over to see what she had: Ooooooohhh!

So I thought of Mrs. Crawford last night when I discovered this cute little jumping spider exploring the ceiling inside our front dormer window. I suspect this spider came in on a plant we had brought in for the winter. Or maybe she crept into the house through one of our drafty windows. I dunno.

I'll tell you more about how I came to appreciate spiders, in particular, despite my ingrained fear of them, some other time.

But for now, realize that I have a special appreciation for jumping spiders. I decided they're just cute: They're fuzzy like little teddy bears. They wear goggles--or are they headlights? They're chunky and armored, little all-terrain vehicles, like the toy model tanks my brother had growing up. When they're scared, they have a habit of covering their mouths (chelicerae) with their hands (pedipalps).

When they walk, I think "tic-tic-tic-tic-tic . . ." When they rear their heads up to look around, I imagine them making a sound like "hmmm--????" They are curious creatures, and they inspire curiosity in me as well.

Of course I wasn't going to squash her. I felt sorry for her: She was probably getting worried about being in a place so devoid of potential food items. I bet she hadn't eaten all day. So I grabbed the plastic cover from my spindle of CDs and a small stack of manuscript pages, trapped her gently, and escorted her outside. Oh, and I brought my camera along, too.

My camera, by the way, is the whole reason any of these photos might be decent--it's a Nikon Coolpix E4500. Autofocus; 28mm. To get these, I put it on the "flower setting" and zoomed in or out. I simply take a whole lot of pictures, hoping a few will "come out." And that's the extent of my photography skills, pretty much.

So: I think this is a female Platycryptus undatus. According to Wikipedia, the genus name needs to be changed, since it's already been used for a wasp genus (and genus names can't be reused for different genera--it's the law). My handy (and simplified) Golden Nature Guide Spiders and Their Kin (1968) lists it as Metacyrba undata, which, I presume, is an outdated synonym.

Apparently these little hunters like to live around and under the bark of trees, which makes a lot of sense, given their coloration and patterns.

Here's a view of her driver's side:

And here's a picture of her kind of reared up. She was surprisingly bright orange on her undercarriage. When she struck this pose (and she did it often, once I'd dumped her out on our front walkway), it was like she was sniffing the breeze, or periscoping with her eight eyes, "prairie-dogging," trying to get her bearings as an extraordinarily short-statured being in an immense and unknown, unpredictable world.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Deploying Mayapples

Good ol’ Podophyllum peltatum, a sure sign of spring and of no other time. Come summer, they go dormant and disappear. So just as snowflakes are confined to wintertime, this is the time for mayapples.

They form these lovely colonies on the forest floor. When you’re hiking and come upon a patch of them, it can feel like you’ve suddenly arrived in Munchkinland.

Did you know that two-leaved Mayapples are the only ones that bloom and bear fruit? Yes. The inflorescence develops in the axil of the two leaves, where the stem splits. The single-leaved plants don’t have flowers or fruits—maybe next year, for them, when their rhizomes are more developed.

I’m not going to go on about the flowers or fruits at this point—I intend to post more pictures, soon, of those parts. For now, I’m just thrilled to share some photographs of deployment with you.

They poke out of the ground like smooth little mushrooms. The shiny green leaves are smooth against the stem and look like dragon wings. Then the leaf or leaves (as the case may be) unfurl and open up like umbrellas.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Prairie Home Conservation Area

Here’s another Central Missouri area that’s great for a hike. Sue and I went there on Saturday, April 4, and it was our first time to hike there. Because the area is so large, and we hiked only a part of the trails, what I’m going to describe to you is based on a first, limited impression. So bear with me, and keep your eye out for further posts. This will have to be a “developing story.”

First, the blah-blah background. Prairie Home CA is in eastern Cooper County and on the western, slanted edge of Moniteau County. If you find the town of Prairie Home on a map, the CA is about four miles south of it. There’s a gravel road—Cedron Road—going east-west through the area between Highways W and D. (By the way, it’s pronounced SEE-drun, for the small community that used to be in the area. The historic Cedron Church, founded in 1841, is still there.)

The 1,461 acres of public lands are shaped like a C, or an O that’s almost closed, and an eight-mile-long hiking trail loops around it. This trail, called the Buckhorn Hiking Trail, is remarkable because it is a favorite of Boy Scouts. In fact, it was built by scouts, and at least one portion of it is maintained by California, Missouri’s celebrated Troop 120, which has been hiking the area, planting trees, maintaining the trails, picking up litter, practicing outdoorsmanship, and in other ways generally demonstrating good stewardship of the area for decades.
The Missouri Conservation Department has a good brochure for the area, but if you can get a copy of the modified trail map put out by Troop 120, it is good to have, too, for it indicates several points of interest along the trail, including the “Halfway Fork,” “Missouri Rock” (shaped like the state’s outline), and a stately bur oak tree that was growing when the United States was born. There’s even an informative note about the powerlines that cut through the landscape: “These carry electrical power from Lake of the Ozarks to Columbia.”

The Buckhorn Trail connects several primitive camping spots, parking areas, fishing lakes, and miscellaneous points of interest. It’s easy to see why this would make a wonderful all-day hike. . . . Or a shuttle hike, which is what we did, leaving one car at Point B, driving in a second car to Point A, then hiking from Point A to B.

You could start and end the trail at any number of places. We opted to begin hiking at Parking Lot 6, on the east side of the park, following the Buckhorn Trail north, then west in a wide arc along the park’s northern perimeter, finally veering south, to end at Parking Lot 2, near the west entrance of the area.

There are several ponds and lakes in the Conservation Area, and as we drove through the park to set up our shuttle, we noticed a number of anglers hiking into the woods with their rods and tackle boxes. I understand that the parking areas were purposefully set a small hike away from the fishing areas, in order to gently discourage people from indulging in trashy beer busts at the water’s edge. (Great idea, methinks.)

By now you can tell I have some insider information, and yes, I do: My uncle is one of the leaders of Troop 120, and he has a long association with the area. In fact, he had his own good reason for encouraging us to go out there and try it out this weekend: Troop 120 and several other BSA troops recently enjoyed a camporee there, and my uncle wanted us to hike one section of the trail in particular in order to remove several tags he and my cousin had placed on trees to test the scouts’ forestry identification skills. So we were hiking with a mission!
Of course, as you can see, we got sidetracked by the pretty wildflowers. We both brought cameras, and, well, this just happens to be the beginning of the best time to look for wildflowers in the state, in my humble opinion.

Though I have to say: the ticks are already out. I plucked at least six from my jeans over the course of the afternoon. Young but not tiny ones; fast-moving. Dang them, anyhow. It’s already time to start grabbing the DEET.

Wildflowers in bloom. Whites: Dogtooth violet, toothwort, spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, rue anemone. Mayapples just coming up and unfurling the foliage. Pinks and purples: Dead nettle, redbud, violet wood sorrel, Johnny-jump-up, blue and purple violets. Yellows: Pale corydalis. Browns: well, the trillium is coming up, but it’s not blooming quite yet. (At least, not at Prairie Home. That we saw.) (I’ll spare you the Neo-Latin.)

Amazing how just a few weeks can pass, and suddenly all these pretty flowers are pushing out of the soil, threading their way through the fallen leaves, lifting their shining faces to the sun.

The trail was very enjoyable. Well-planned, varied, good relief. The creek crossings were at pretty locations and were doable by picking your way across on wobbly rocks. If you have a hiking stick, or a Leki trekking pole, it will come in handy, unless you don’t mind your feet possibly getting a little wet. Here is one of the dry crossings, however:

As for the trail condition, we noticed a few problems: Horseback riders. We studied the maps and had a hard time figuring out which trails were designated for horses and hikers (“Multi-Use”) and which were only for hikers. At times, I think the trails coincide for short distances, then diverge. And if I couldn’t quite tell where one kind of trail begins and another ends, I’ll bet horseback riders have the same problem and end up on the hiking trails by accident. So parts of the trail had been chopped and clopped up by hooves, especially when it was kind of muddy earlier this week. In a few places, we had to walk alongside the trail to keep out of the mud.

But that’s a relatively minor complaint, and I trust that the folks at the MDC are “on top of the situation.” Right?

Here’s the kicker: Even though the area offers all kinds of “outdoor uses”—for riders, hikers, hunters, fishers, and disabled and able-bodied alike—and even though we knew others were in the park because we saw their cars and horse trailers . . . we didn’t bump into anyone during our entire hike. Pretty nice, huh?

Especially on a lovely Saturday in early April in Missouri.