"Got that parmesan grated?"
John takes a sip of his cabernet, smacks his chapped lips: "This enough?"
Fresh onions, peppers, tomatoes and garlic sit smug in sautéed greatness. I check my glass of cab: full. In about two minutes, we'll be eating one of our signature meals in another epic locale.
But we're not in some cozy Italian kitchen after hours. No four-foot tall grandmothers wandering in and out. No bay window opening onto Manhattan. No, we're not even in one of our own humble homes in Texas or Minnesota. This time we're in Zion National Park, about eight miles into the West Rim Trail. We're sitting on cold rocks, doing what we've been doing for the past month, what we've slowly perfected over many a backcountry expedition -- what I like to call "Zen and the Art of Backcountry Gourmet."
The pasta is perfectly al dente. I strain it using the top of the pot, dump the soft veggies in and start to mix over a low flame. We're close now. John's upending his latest glass of wine as we spot a lone and ragged squirrel peering at us over the knarled feet of a nearby pine. He's staring in jealous disbelief. "Nuts everyday," he seems to say. "Plain nuts."
I love backcountry hiking. Skies are bigger, constellations more prophetic, and conversation with a good friend takes on mythic qualities by the fading sunset. Food tastes better after lugging it miles away from couches and televisions. Of course, after a 2,000-foot elevation gain in two miles, followed by another six to camp, even a granola bar and a luke-warm canteen of water can reach new Epicurean heights.
But why settle for pre-packaged meals and plain water? Listen up 'cause I've got a secret to tell: traditional camping food sucks. Trail mix, powdered meat and bad chocolate be gone. And water, although a necessity, is boring. Friends, you don't have to sacrifice good food and wine for the backcountry, for John and I have seen the light.
I divvy up the pasta between the two pots, taking advantage of all the browned remains of garlic, of onion: the depth and character of the sauce. After a month, I'm now able to split the pasta evenly at a glance.
Our bottle of cabernet is empty. John wrings it like a dishrag, trying in a mix of frenzied desperation and spastic exultation to extract the last drop.
"Are we sure we wanna save the other bottle for tomorrow night?" he questions. "We got another Rita in the pack, and we earned it today." I trace an almost Dionysian bent in his reasoning and nod in agreement.
"Let the revelry commence," he declares mockingly as he pulls the bottle of Santa Rita 120 cabernet from his slouched pack. We've yet to top the quality of this wine for the price. For six bucks, the Chileans have given us the most dependable cabernet in Utah. After this bottle, though, tomorrow morning -- I foresee -- we'll be a bit slower. But John's right: we do deserve it.
This backcountry renaissance didn't just happen, you know. We, too, floundered. We wallowed in the miserable mires of oatmeal, the bleakness of carrot slices, the horrors of dried fruit tough and discolored like calluses. John ripped tenuous beef jerky flesh with his grimy teeth soiled from chemical-heavy dried cherries. M & Ms bled into my shirt. Crystal Light powder, like belligerent pollen, attached to our nasal cavities. The whole world smelled of faux lemonade until we washed it all away with a nasty swig of iodine laden water.
What's more, we followed the false god of prepackaged camp food. "A complete backcountry meal," the package said. "Just add water," it boasted. We could have any number of classic dinners in return for a modest donation to the local outdoor sporting goods store. There lies the backcountry "pay to play" religion. Hallelujah. Big deal. Not only did these false beliefs cost us rungs on the evolutionary ladder but also lots of money. Beef stroganoff doesn't just pulverize itself and jump into an airtight pouch in neat, measurable amounts only to then be resurrected and devoured using silly hot water incantations. No, sir. We paid $6 to $9 for the right to worship at the feet of the pre-packaged camp food god. And the plot thickened like the squalid Beef Wellington gravy after we discovered that the stroganoff tasted curiously like the Thai chicken, which, in turn, tasted like the red beans and rice, and so on and so on, ad nauseum.
Thus, Siddhartha-like, we struck out on our own in search of a better backcountry meal. Lipton's noodle mixes, canned meats, even Spaghetti-Os were some of the many sordid trials along our exodus. And we rode the tempestuous waves of that seemingly godless sea of camp food all the way to Cedar City, Utah. Ready to resign ourselves to some more spiritually void backcountry gruel, we walked heavy-footed toward the city's shining Albertson's. In the parking lot, a tattered shopping cart hobbled sluggishly by, plastic six-pack holders hung from the crossbars like tiny nooses. Here, the cardboard exoskeleton of a Diet Coke 12 pack. Near the President's Choice soda dispenser, a scruffy mutt retriever -- coat matted and filled with burs -- lapped up the remains of a forgotten ice cream sandwich. The chilled air whipped around our sandled feet. Through the sliding doors we slouched. The refrain of "abandon all hope, ye who enter here" haunted each step we took over the sticky, now off-white linoleum.
We split up to finalize our doom quicker, something we had learned in our previous outings. I headed for the prepackaged food aisle. John tackled the nebulous area of "dry goods" -- jerky, dried fruits, trail mix and other uninspired means of survival. Suddenly the loudspeaker broke the purgatorial silence. A voice cried out in prophetic ecstasy conjuring all the power of good.
It said, and I quote: "Clean up in produce."
"Produce." The mere sound of the word was enticing, strangely alluring. Immediately I envisioned juicy tomatoes, potent garlic an onions. The green freedom of a bell pepper blanketed my thoughts -- thoughts that suddenly had concentrated on the fresh and unpackaged; thoughts that had been released from their air-tight, resealable pouches. "Produce," I whispered to myself. "Produce" -- so alien, so inconceivable in our previous food runs -- was suddenly glimmering as the savior.
Summoned by forces greater than ourselves, we were drawn. We met near the potatoes, dazed. John still had two packages of jerky in his hands. Torn away at the decisive moment, he hadn't yet chosen between Slim Jims and the Albertson's brand. We were assaulted by the overpowering odor of fresh onions. The flimsy levy had broken spilling the tiny spheres everywhere from the key limes to the bok choy. John stooped to pick up one of the smaller brethren off the floor. Suddenly, we understood. That was our onion. We were meant to save it from its plight; to take it to the mountain top; to buy other vegetables, pasta and olive oil and construct this "produce" on said mountain top as the perfect backcountry meal.
Things fell away. Beef jerky everywhere perished in our minds. Mr. Lipton suddenly felt the sharp sting of persecution. Across the street, in the state-run liquor store, wine bottles conspired their coup in the dank recesses of the stock room. The backcountry, for us, then -- between the specialty bakery and fish market section of a Utah Albertson's -- had changed forever.
"You know, I've been thinking. What about a pasta dish with feta and spinach?" John ruminates between gargantuan bites from his plate. "Yeah, I can see it. Get some fresh spinach, blanch it, dry it out on a shirt, toss it with the pasta and some olive oil." Now his eyes burn with a Bacchanalian fire. "Add the feta at the end like we do the parmesan. Tell me that wouldn't work."
"Why not?" I quip, eager to finish the pasta for which my body waited all day. "We'll check it out when we get into Yosemite. Sounds like a California meal to me."
"Yeah, man, with a crisp chardonnay. We could even hunt down a bottle of Retsina and get all Greek!"
The uncorking of the Santa Rita frightens a group of birds into flight above our heads. "Plain nuts," the squirrel echoes as he pulls away from our camp in complete dejection.
John and I went immediately to that state-run liquor store after our revelation and grocery shopping. We learned quickly that the catalyst for any exceptional backcountry jaunt is a good bottle of wine. It makes tent floors softer, sleeping bags warmer. What's more, with a good bottle of cab at the helm, we develop a different backcountry outlook. A strong, almost French fanaticism overcomes us regarding the raison d'être of our expedition. We could be tackling a four-day bushwhacking Zion odyssey or merely walking a hundred yards off a trailhead in Wyoming. No matter. Wine remains our entertainment director, our guide, our sinsei.
We never go for the obscure French blockbuster or the California reserve. All that jostling in packs, the climate and air pressure changes, the tin cups -- it's not worth it. For that reason, John and I try to pair less expensive wines with environs as much as food, attitudes and sensations brought about by the hike and scenery more than by age-old traditions. Southern Utah in October, for example, begs for young Chilean cabernet. The crispness of a night in Zion, in Capitol Reef; the damp ground and blazing colors of Navajo sandstone bring out the feistiness of those South American youngsters. In a like manner, the Indian Peaks of Colorado in September pair nicely with a meaty California zinfandel. Soft flakes of snow stand no chance against this wine. We even waited out a small blizzard with a bottle of Ravenswood in the tent. Conversely, Yosemite in late summer screams for a dry riesling or chardonnay. Jacob's Creek chard battled the daily heat nicely for us.
Bringing wine into the backcountry requires a little forethought, however. When packing, we find that slipping a bottle into leggings or a sweater sleeve and keeping it upright and close to the back works well. Also, most national parks and other outdoor places may frown upon or flat out ban the packing of glass bottles into the backcountry. And while I don't think decanting inexpensive wine into canteens would make a huge difference, there is something to be said about corking that bottle of cab 10 miles from paved roads; or fish lining your bottle of chard into a cool stream to chill. Just check out the local rules, use caution and, most of all, respect the environment for future connoisseurs to investigate.
The day is done. And whether we've summited a blazing summer peak and returned to camp or spent the day frolicking in the autumn mist, we always deserve a good meal to complement our wine. This is where the "art" of our backcountry gourmet comes into play. For like most art in general, the goal is to say the most with the least amount of props. Grills, pepper mills and sauté pans are just some of the many cooking items that don't fit too well into backpacks. By the same token, cheeses, bread, olive oil and vegetables -- such as onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes -- function very well, pack fine and make a meal in the backcountry into something much more dignified and enjoyable than mere animal necessity.
So what about the "Zen" part of all this? Eating and drinking quality products in the backcountry may take a little more thought and effort than a trip to the local outdoor store for food that hangs in bags. Wine is cumbersome and heavy in packs already loaded down. Grating parmesan cheese with the pygmy saw of a Swiss Army knife is, arguably, not the most effective means. Pasta gets a little sticky in the close quarters of a small camping pot. Things take longer, yes. But rituals are born. Systems are created. In the shifting light of a Utah sun at six pm, we become meditational in meal preparation; we become craftier and less susceptible to the whims of corporate backcountry.
We become self-actualized, at least through dinner.