Cooking in the Wild
Usually when I go backpacking I'm with my brother and we do a quick trip to the organic market the night before to load up on dried lentil soup and cans of chili. We stuff it all in our packs, bickering over who has to carry what (one year, during the somewhat ill-fated Yosemite trip, we foolishly decided to bring a load of apples and oranges in lieu of warm clothing: why??), and attach our various sleeping mats and bags. In the early morning, we eat a big breakfast of veggie burgers with sauteed mushrooms and cheese before heading out to the coast. Veggie burgers for the first meal of the day may sound a bit odd, but they are fairly delicious nonetheless and really fill you up.
The last time I went out to Wildcat Beach, in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, it was summer 2001 -- the last summer, as it stays in my memory, of true innocence. Somehow in the past few years I hadn't had time to go all the way out there, though a few summers ago we managed to squeeze in a grueling (but wonderful) 4-day trek in Yosemite's backcountry. So over Memorial Day weekend, way back in May when I was newly moved to California, I took a chance and grabbed the last August Saturday spot at the campground, hoping for good weather.
For the first time, I decided to eschew my habitual Annie's macaroni and cheese dinner for something a little more complicated. This is not to say I don't love the purple box, because I do -- and I made it for our hike-out lunch -- but I thought it was time to try something different. And so, I did.
I had to find something to make that was satisfying, protein-rich, and that wouldn't use up all the fuel for the tiny propane stove. I decided on risotto (from a box, but it was 'all natural'), sauteed portabello mushrooms, and pre-marinated and baked tofu. I took a chance on the tofu, which probably should have been refrigerated but wasn't for the 6.3-mile hike in, and brought a small container of olive oil with which to cook the goodies. For a starter, I cut up an apple and served it with whole grain bread, olive oil, and cheddar cheese. For dessert we had tea and Newman's Own cookies.
While it might be easier to bring along foodstuffs that are already cooked (or almost there), it was surprisingly not too difficult to prepare this meal. I was kept company by the young skunk who industriously searched around the campground, probably for stray bits of food, and by the elk delicately picking their way through the tall grass. The fog was socked in for the whole weekend but it wasn't too chilly, thankfully.
The first time I ever backpacked was out at Wildcat, and I will never forget it. My brother and I went in with our family friend (older brother, really), since we were staying with his parents in Inverness for the week. It was sunny, but cool, in June. When we arrived we threw down our packs and walked the few yards to the beach where we napped until the tide came in. After all that walking we were starving, and hungrily unpacked our meal of hotdogs (in those pre-vegetarian days) and beans, only to discover that we'd not brought the stove. Thus began a frantic search for driftwood with which to build a weak fire; I remember eating half-cooked hotdogs with distate. But the cup of tea that followed, oversweetened and littered with flecks of ash from the fire, was the best I have ever tasted, still.
One late August weekend it was so hot we were able to swim in the Pacific, which is a rare occurrence in Northern California. My brother and his girlfriend brought mangos and forgot to close up the animal locker and the next morning they were gone, along with the chocolate [my terrible girlfriends and I were not very sympathetic to their loss, alas]. In the early days we'd make quinoa soup on our rickety old stove, situated carefully on the silvery wood tables, or Annie's, or top ramen. Despite their simplicity, these meals always tasted so much better for being eaten outdoors.
Or perhaps it is being in the place that I perpetually long for and miss when I am not there; to camp along a deserted beach with the hum and crash of the surf in your ears while you sleep is a strange and beautiful thing. During the long hike down from the ridge to the sea you can see where the horizon line bends with the curve of the earth, and the air is thick and sweet with the smell of bay leaves and damp grass. The appetite is sharpened by fresh air and pine trees.
I think the next trip I might again try to be more ambitious, cooking-wise -- perhaps I'll emulate our camping neighbors' grilled vegetable burrito endeavor that looked delicious. I hope my brother will be around to help carry some of the fruit I'd like to bring, too. And I should not let five years go by without going out there again.