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Katy Trail State Park, Rocheport
Katy Trail State Park, Rocheport

It's been a long while since I've posted anything here! I haven't stopped camping or cast iron cooking, but like many bloggers, my writing is in fits and spurts. I've spent the last several months working on my Master Knitter certification (a great cold weather pasttime) and preparing for my next adventure -- Missouri's Katy Trail. We won't be cooking on the trail, but it's definitely "backroads."

The Katy Trail is a recreational rail trail that runs 240 miles in the right-of-way of the former Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad. Running largely along the northern bank of the Missouri River, it is the country's longest "rail trail." The Katy is crushed limestone surface, open year-round for use by hikers, joggers, and cyclists year-round.

Bill and I have been riding our bikes regularly for a few years. We're very fortunate to be within a mile of the Turkey Creek Streamway Trail, a gorgeous six-mile paved trail that winds through woods within the city of Merriam, Kansas, ending up at Waterfall Park, near the city's farmers' market. streamwayWhenever the weather and our schedules allow, we ride, and it has become my favorite part of any day. We've also done a good portion of the Gary Haller Trail that runs from Kansas City, Kansas through Shawnee Mission Park and ends in Olathe.

Last year we started planning our Katy trip, challenged by not knowing exactly how far we could ride, or the conditions of the trail. Bill let me make the arrangements and I decided that we could safely plan on 25 miles a day, and probably 40. (We're still not sure how 40 is going to work for us!) The website bikekatytrail.com has provided a tremendous amount of information about lodging and food choices.

Bill has a great road bike, a Raleigh R400. He smokes me on our trail! I had been riding a late 90s Giant Rincon, which was fine for our little rides but doesn't fit me properly. I'm almost 6' tall, and the bike is a medium. I decided to invest in a "new" hybrid bike, and bought a 2012 Giant Sedona on craigslist, a men's XL.Sedona_black-gold It really feels like a Cadillac with its big, cushy seat and upright position. Bill still outpaces me on pavement, but I've been concerned that his 25 mm tires are going to be problematic on the Katy (and that the road seat is going to be very uncomfortable, especially since he refuses to ride in anything but blue jeans). He has the opportunity to borrow a very expensive mountain bike from a friend, but we're both concerned about being responsibility for it.

Over the weekend, we took a little road trip to Ottawa, KS, to test the bikes on the Prairie Spirit rail trail, and he's convinced that the road bike will work, although he may borrow the comfort seat off my old Rincon.

Just over a week (and six working days) until we leave! I'm so excited! My next post will be about our preparations.

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One of my fellow bloggers is having a contest and the prize is the cutest little Pie Pop maker. I've never seen these before but LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!!! Wonder if they'd work over a campfire? Head on over and check it out:  http://www.mysteryloverskitchen.com/2012/06/pies-and-prejudice-pimping-contest.html

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Mediterranean Chicken (left) and Bread Pudding.
Our Campsite, #22 in Campground #1

We just finished a weekend of camping at Wallace State Park near Cameron, Missouri, about 45 minutes northeast of Kansas City. Wallace holds a special place in my heart, as it is the place where we first started camping. I prefer it to the closer (and more popular) Watkins Mill. Wallace just feels more rustic. The basic campground #1 offers lovely shaded sites with roofed picnic tables, wood chip tent pads and a fair amount of privacy. Make reservations and try to get a site on the outside of the horseshoe – the inner circle carries noise from nearby campsites. For even more privacy, three walk-in sites are available just a few hundred yards off the main camp road. The camp host is happy to loan you a pull-cart to carry your gear. Wallace also offers some easy and very scenic hiking trails, and Caleb really loved the lake for swimming!

I highly recommend a day trip to the Amish colony at Jamesport, home to the largest Amish settlement in Missouri (about 150 very large families). The drive is less than an hour from Wallace.  As you approach the town, you’re sure to see any number of horses and carriages. Go into town and pick up a map at any of the specialty or antique stores there, as most of the real Amish businesses are on outside the city limits (but while you’re in town, I’d recommend stopping by Wholly Cow for some delicious fudge and frozen custard).

H&M General Store
Fabric Barn

Caveat on the map: the scale is deceptive. We kept driving around trying to put the map into perspective, expecting the businesses to be within a mile or two of city center. As it turns out, they’re five to ten minutes away. I picked up some amazing artisanal cheeses at the Homestead Creamery, and do not miss a trip to the H&M General Store and Countryside Bakery. It has Amish baked goods, cheeses, spice mixes and bulk foods of every kind at very reasonable prices. I sampled some okra chips; I’d never seen or tasted anything like it, but I’ll definitely eat it again. Caleb and Bill both delighted in the creme-filled eclairs from the bakery. If you’re into sewing or quilting, the fabric shop next door offers a broad and unique selection of textiles and handmade goods.

Countryside Bakery

Step back in time and explore the countryside.  You will likely see farmers working the fields with horse-drawn implements. We spied a group of women in bonnets circled around a beehive, collecting honey. You will notice that the degree of “modernity” varies among the families but one thing was true of all: the Amish people are just lovely, full of graciousness and exuding happiness. They are poster children for a simpler life.

Spicy Chicken and Mushy Rice!

Back at Wallace, Caleb and Bill headed to the lake for a swim while I started prepping dinner in the Dutch oven. I have a few recipes in mind for the cook-off and this weekend was intended to set a baseline, a place to start and then tweak as necessary. For the main course, I took my French Country Chicken recipe and gave it a Mediterranean spin, kind of a cross between my Mom’s Spanish rice and a paella (minus the seafood).

The chicken was delectable but the rice mushy. It’s a conundrum – I prefer bone-in chicken because it creates its own stock and the meat is much more tender, but it takes time longer to cook than rice does. Also, I typically brown and soften vegetables over the gas stove before placing in the Dutch oven but, for purposes of the contest, the dish needs to be truly “one pot.” I had to cook the bacon, brown the chicken and soften the vegetables over a lot of coals to reach a high enough temperature. By the time I put the lid on the DO, the ingredients had reached a rolling boil and stayed there for some time. That worked for the chicken – it was falling-off-the-bone tender and juicy – but the rice was overdone. Next time I will try adding the rice later on in the cooking process. The flavors were otherwise perfect, a peppery-sweet-garlicky bit of heaven.

Scrumptious Bread Pudding (picture courtesy of Bill Royce)

My bread pudding, on the other hand, couldn’t have been much better. As Bill said, the universe has probably presented me with the best bread pudding I’ll ever make, an aspiration rather than a baseline, and a recipe on which I'll fail miserably come contest time. The only thing I'll do differently next time is use a little sturdier a bread. I bought Italian loaf and it became a spongy custard, rather than maintaining its chunky cubes. Other than that, my baseline made the final cut so it's time to start thinking about my entry in the Side Dishes portion of the Dutch Oven Cook-off.

Campsite by Raccoon
Relaxing at Camp
Lazy Sunday Morning

I was sleeping hard when Bill woke me around 1 AM to tell me he heard a sound. I couldn’t find the lantern but somehow managed to carry the food from outside into the tent. I forgot about the trash and we awoke to a nice mess courtesy of some friendly raccoons. I hope their meal was as good as ours!

Final note: my Dutch ovens are toast after this weekend. I'll post pictures later, as I clean them. I used my new (pre-seasoned) Cabela's DO for the chicken and some of the rice stuck to the bottom, while the acidity in the tomatoes probably ate at the seasoning as well. I tried to burn it out but ended up with a bigger mess. My older oven didn't fare much better. I'd lost some of the seasoning last year when my Mom attacked it with a metal utensil. I cheated on the bread pudding and used a liner, which is totally a no-no for competition. Hopefully I'll find some time in the next few weeks to attack them with some steel wool and re-season.

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Something quite spectacular happened yesterday.

I  spent Memorial Day this year writing an essay for the Coleman Camping Heritage Essay Contest.  I had discovered the contest on the Internet and became inspired to write about my love of camping, and of Coleman gear, and how that had encouraged me to get my son back to nature.

I didn't grow up with a camping family. My dad is a no-nonsense farmer and we already lived in the country. He spent long days in the fields during the summer. I suspect that what he most cherished when he got home after dark was a soft bed and a good night's sleep. I can still hear him my head "If you want to get closer to nature, we can just move your bed out to the cornfield.".

That's not to say my dad isn't an outdoorsman. He's an avid hunter and in his retirement, has probably spent as many nights  in the wild and hiked as many miles as I have.  When you walk into my parents' living room, you are greeted with a gigantic elk head, a trophy from one of his more challenging hunts. So while I probably inherited a sense of adventure and a love of nature from him, it was not something that we shared together.

My real camping adventures began in Girl Scouts. with Brenda Harriman and Peggy Burfeind as our fearless leaders. Every year, they and twenty or thirty girls set up camp in the woods behind the Burfeind farm and spent two weeks living in the "wild."  Despite being within a few hundred yards of electricity and indoor plumbing, we set up a full camp, built fires and dug latrines.  That's where I learned to make cowboy stew, and dump cake, probably my first Dutch Oven recipe and one I still love to make (and eat!).  Beyond that magical two weeks, we took numerous trips throughout the year. Maybe my memory has embellished a bit, but it seems like it always rained when we took our trips. I remember girls shrieking "Don't touch  the walls" of the tent, the sole nugget of wisdom that prevented us from becoming hopelessly soggy. According to legend, any spot where a hand found itself would open up to the downpour, (Truth be told, on the wetter nights, one prayed to be one of the lucky girls to first stake a spot in the back of the Harriman's old station wagon.)

We spent the non-camping season working on our merit badges, to be awarded during the final night of camp, Family Night. I will never forget my mother laughing from the crowd when I was given the Housekeeping Badge. She was right to be amused; I still don't merit one of those!

Without Peggy and Brenda, I would not be the camper I am today. They taught me to make a fire, to tie knots, to stake a tent and, of course, to cook outdoors.  My love of the outdoors grew from the love they shared with us. The precious time they devoted is priceless, a shining example of the community spirit that made my small town of Malta Bend, Missouri, such a wonderful place to grow up. For their dedication (and that of all the parents who devoted time to making sure we country kids were never bored), I will be eternally grateful. They are my inspiration.

So, back to the contest. Yesterday I was notified that I won, and will be rewarded with more gear than I may be able to fit into my car. (A little irony, I told someone just last week that camping was sure a lot easier when I just had a tent and sleeping bag to take with me. Of course I was joking; one can never have too much Coleman stuff!) As Caleb so perfectly stated when I read him the list of prizes: "Mom, we're rich with camping gear!" I see a beautiful future with Caleb and my old friend Coleman.

Sponsored by Coleman and hosted by the Outdoor Blogger Network, this is my submission for the Coleman Camping Heritage Essay Contest.

Our Coleman home, at Wallace State Park near Kearney, Missouri.

I found treasure in a rusty-hinged plywood box perched atop a circa-1960s Army tent.

I had recently become a single mom and was moving from our suburban family home into a small city apartment. Between a stressful job and trying to distract my toddling son from the devastating loss of his father, life seemed endlessly cloudy.

I paused to open the chest.

My eyes lit up with familiar red and green; propane lanterns, a beloved camp stove, well-worn mess kit, tightly-rolled sleeping bag. Each piece bore the trusted Coleman trademark and captivated me much as it had twenty-some years earlier.

My camping gear!

Childhood memories flashed before me, scouting trips, telling ghost stories and casting shadow puppets in the glow of a Coleman lantern.

I held my sleeping bag, still scented by ancient campfires, and remembered staking out a rectangle of floor space until some tiny slope of ground magically grew steeper through the night as we inched toward the lowest corner of the tent, waking as one pile of girl.

We hiked until our soles blistered; ravenous, cooked cowboy stew over the Coleman stove, served on the plate of the very mess kit now in front of me. It was the best meal I remember ever eating.

Exhausted little boy on the trails at Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado.

I will teach Caleb to camp!

The epiphany became a resolution of hope.

My vintage Coleman gear had aged gracefully but the old tent would have to go. Weighing just short of a ton and requiring an engineering degree to assemble, I would replace it with a Coleman dome, large enough for us and anyone who wanted to tag along, simple enough to put up myself. (That first year, a Coleman pup tent was home-away-from-home for my son’s potty training "throne.")

Learning to fish at Pamona Lake National Park in Kansas.

Fresh air cleared my mind as Caleb entered wide-eyed into a world of grand adventures, real and imagined, initial hesitancy becoming a gleeful embrace. One day on a mountain path searching for bighorn sheep, he told me he was the happiest kid in the world.

Rest stop during a canoe trip on the Buffalo River near Ponca, Arkansas.

We have taken many trips over the years, becoming ever braver in our choice of destinations. My mother and sister, neither of whom had ever slept in a tent, joined us for a week in the mountains at Estes Park, toasty at night in Coleman sleeping bags. We plan an annual camp-out with long-lost cousins and their children, my son’s nearest young relatives. Our extended family has grown to include many fellow campers we’ve met along the way. We stay in touch through Christmas cards and Facebook postings, waiting for spring to arrive so we can share a campsite again.

Campsite at Smithville Lake in Missouri.

I watched Caleb transform from a morose toddler into a confident young outdoorsman. He can identify dozens of native critters and proudly displays his backpack with badges rewarding successive years of overnight stays in Missouri State Parks, peak patches for all the Colorado hiking trails we have conquered and river pins celebrating Arkansas canoe trips.

We made precious new memories.

Hiking at Estes Park.

Last week, while setting up a makeshift campsite in the backyard to check our gear for the coming season, I heard:

Mom, can we sleep outside tonight?

Just as everyone knows the difference between a mere house and a real home, so it is with our Coleman tent. It’s a living thing, a part of us. Five years ago, life was like my old tent, frayed at the seams, parts missing and broken, leaks abounding, heavy and overwhelming.

In the Great Outdoors, we healed, and then thrived. Today Caleb and I, like our cozy dome home, are intact. Carrying the dust of a thousand miles of journeys to the next park, vibrant with memories of those with whom we have lovingly shared our campfire, we look ahead to our next great adventure under a clear sky.  Together with the treasure trove of reliable Coleman gear that continues to service us, we survived the storm.

"Mommy, I'm the happiest kid in the world!"

I have passed along my Coleman heritage and hope someday my son will share it with a family of his own. Maybe he will even learn to enjoy cowboy stew.

Some weekends are just better than others. This was one of the good ones.

I headed to the Country Throwdown -- a music festival originated by Willie Nelson -- with the boyfriend, my sister and her boyfriend. With a little foresight, I would have brought the DOs and had a tailgate bash. But alas, despite many, many things on the to-do list to prepare for the first camping trip of the year in two weeks, I rested until it was time to go to the show, completely disappointed when we arrived and noticed all the cooking (and beer drinking) in the parking lot. Beer drinking, not a problem, we brought plenty of that!

Lesson #1: whenever an outdoor event presents itself, do not forget that cast iron and hot coals make every party even better.

Side note: Bill and I both fell in love with the music of Corey Smith, a singer-songwriter out of Georgia. His music will provide a great soundtrack for the next camping trip.

From its website:

09/01/2012 |ARROW ROCK STATE HISTORIC SITE | ARROW ROCK, MO

A new twist has been added to this popular event. Come and compete in the first Arrow Rock State Historic Site Dutch Oven Cook-Off competition. There will be three different categories - meat, side dishes and desserts. You can compete in one category or all three.  Call the site for a complete list of rules and to preregister.  All dishes are due to campsite 15 for judging at 5 p.m.  Prizes will be awarded for the top winner in each category.

Event times: 1 p.m. - 6 p.m.

39521 Visitor Center Drive, Arrow Rock, MO | Tele: 660-837-3330

http://mostateparks.com/event/59509/dutch-oven-cook

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Caleb, Mark Twain National Forest near Branson, MO

My first blog. Can you believe it? I've been involved with the internet for twenty years and even work in publishing, yet I've never put words out there for strangers and casual perusers of the web. I know many great writers  and feared that anything I wrote would pale (or absolutely suck) by comparison.

Why now?Because I've realized there's much more to blogging than the ability to write. It's about having a passion. I've been camping with my son for several years now,  teaching that city boy the beauty of falling asleep under a canopy of stars, waking to an avian symphony, eating fresh fish that didn't come from a produce department, playing in the dirt and exploring the joys and pitfalls of nature. I love that, I really do, love sharing it with him, but when it comes to outdoor ecstasy, my heart pounds most gleefully at the thought of cooking over an open fire. Our typical gear for a weekend usually consists of a small tent, a hundred pounds of cast iron, associated tools/gadgets/equipment, several grocery bags and an ample supply of adult beverages. I'm competent in my home kitchen; give me some hot coals, a dutch oven and a few simple ingredients and watch me awe the campers at the next site. It's a gift, it's an art form and in the end, it is very much a science. (Or maybe in the end I'm just too tired and tipsy to realize any differently!)

There are a lot of dutch oven websites on the internet and many campfire chefs with far more experience than I. Here's my hook -- I'm planning to spend the summer visiting some awesome state parks (and if you haven't been to Missouri, we have some of the BEST parks in the nation) while I prepare for my first ever dutch oven cook-off in September. I'll share with you our  "wilderness" adventures and recipes for  everything I cook along the way. Don't worry, the blogging won't be done once the competition is; after all, it's a learning experience. I see many cooking competitons in my future. Maybe someday you will take to the road too, forewarned and forearmed with what you learn here, prepared to call yourself a campfire gourmet.

Happy campfires!