Category Archives: The Great Outdoors

Must Eat More Carrots

My roving and reporting recently took me to a board meeting from which I would need to drive 30 miles home after the sun had set. Nothing that worried me – I’ve often driven long distances of an evening back in England, why would something so universal as the night time be any different?

I never learn, do I? The small detail I failed to register is that America is a very, very big country with lots and lots and lots of road. Where England only has about a mile and a half of motorway and could afford to light every last inch of it with Olympic torches made of actual gold if it felt like it, the same process would require prohibitive tax dollars and an unthinkable amount of manpower over here.

A country this large also suffers much less from ambient light; this makes stargazing a joy, but doesn’t enhance the experience of night driving. As I hurtled home, desperately seeking the switch that turns the brights on in the vain hope of being able to see more than a foot ahead of the car and wondering how far I’d get before a curve in the road took me by surprise, I appreciated once again just how dark it gets over here.

Well lit motorway in the UK

A UK motorway, shining brightly in the dark

The only towns within a 60-mile radius were the one I was coming from and the one I was travelling to. Neither are city-sized and you’d be forgiven for not noticing they were there, particularly at night. By contrast, you’re never far from a well lit city as you drive the UK’s roads and the ambient light seldom leaves you behind. Even when the moon is in hiding, you’d be hard pressed to find full darkness anywhere on the island.

Not to mention the sheer number of fellow drivers whose headlights shine along with yours. No matter the time of day, there are far more people on the roads than you see over here, as evidenced by the 15-mile tailbacks that can spring up out of nowhere. This occurs for no more complicated reason than that England is small, and English citizens are many.

We’ve also adorned our roads with these:

Cat’s Eyes, a clever-bugger invention from the UK

They don’t look very impressive during the day, but they’re terribly handy on a country lane at night. Cat’s eyes – so called because they emulate the reflective properties of a cat’s eye when you shine a light into it (but not the bit where the cat bites you on the nose for your insolence) – were invented just before World War II. They’re durable little buggers designed to sink into the road if you drive over them and they vary in colour to show you what bit of road you’re currently travelling.

The US equivalent, called Bott’s Dots, are apparently less durable, don’t sink into the road and aren’t a lot of use in areas where snow removal is a daily task. Wyoming would thus not be a candidate for dotting even if it wouldn’t require a billion or so of them to cover the mileage.

Ambient light, reflective eyeballs, street lights as far as the eye can see. All these things conspire to create a situation where driving on an English night is not much different to driving during an English day: you can still see where you’re aiming for and how many twists and turns you’ll be encountering to get there. If you’re an Englishwoman on the highways of Wyoming, on the other hand, you’d better hope you’ve been eating your carrots.




Extraordinary Generosity

I have never questioned the assertion that small-town Americans are among the most generous and community spirited people in the world. I’ve seen their kindness in everything from the unanimous warm welcome I received two years ago to the sheer number of hours people pour into making things comfortable for one another. Whether helping a family member at the weekend or serving on every board of trustees there is, the residents of this county are there for one another before the hat has chance to drop.

I wrote an article this morning that pushed my idea of Wyoming generosity to its limits, which was quite an achievement in itself. It has to do with the recent Oil Creek Fire that, unless you are a resident of the Midwest, you have almost certainly heard nothing about. The Oil Creek Fire consumed 62,000 acres, a swathe of land only slightly smaller than the entirety of inner London.

Inner London: estimated population, 3 million (from WikiTravel)

The fire is still burning, albeit under control, only a dozen or so miles away from where I sit and was fought by all manner of fire crews, many of them voluntary.

Incidentally, those firefighters must work in 100-degree weather, wearing heavy protective suits while warming their cockles further on the giant flames ahead of them. They are meanwhile performing the sort of heavy lifting I probably couldn’t manage for more than five minutes were I stood in an ice bath wearing a bikini. (Apologies for that dreadful mental image.)

One of our local firefighters at work; image courtesy of the rather wonderful Katie Allen of Crook County Fire & Emergency

My father-in-law has been one of those firefighters for as long as anyone can remember and to this day jumps to adrenaline-pumped attention each time the call goes out – a little more sneakily these days, because he’s supposed to have retired from the heatstroke.

It was a miracle of human ingenuity that a fire I would be tempted to label “impossibly huge” was brought under control so quickly. It was also testament to the sheer faith locals have in their firefighters that nobody in town seemed to have noticed it was burning. To newcomer me, it was an incredible and terrifying fluke of nature; to the community at large, it was the way of things.

As an example, the residents of a small town the fire threatened to completely consume were evacuated to a nearby city. They promptly wandered home again, serene in the conviction it would never be allowed to reach their doors. They were right.

The firefighters of New York City received the well-deserved status of heroes after the events of 9/11. What I hadn’t before considered is that the same level of heroism can be witnessed on a daily basis, all across America. These men and women don’t fight fires for a living; indeed, I’ve been told that sometimes a sandwich and a cup of coffee is the only reward they get. They do this to serve their communities, often by putting themselves in harm’s way.

Firefighter returning to the line

My favourite depiction of resilience: an unidentified local firefighter shown returning to the line.

Not everyone escaped unscathed from the Oil Creek Fire. This area is comprised largely of huge areas of privately owned ranch land, which meant that some local ranchers lost what must have been devastating portions of their livelihood.

Yesterday, a rancher sent $10,000 dollar cheques to both volunteer services that helped to fight the fire. He wanted to personally thank them for the hard work they did to preserve the wildlife and natural resources in the area and hoped his donation might help them in the future.

I see similarly heartwarming generosity regularly, but this donation stood out to me: the rancher in question lost hundreds of acres of land and a hundred heads of cattle; the firefighters were only able to save his house.

One can barely imagine what a loss it must have been to his family, and yet he felt compelled to make a gesture of thanks to the firefighters who worked tirelessly on his behalf. To me, that speaks of generosity on two levels: that of the man who felt appreciation when he so easily could have felt bitterness, and that of the men and women who stood in the path of a fire to protect their community. The kind of heroism and generosity you read about in the greatest of tales, in a tiny town in Wyoming.

The Garden of Ultimate Evil

At the beginning of the summer, my father-in-law came to the conclusion (from my lily-white skin and distinct lack of freckles) that I ought to be spending more time in the great outdoors. He came up with the cunning plan to woo me into the back yard with my very own garden: a place I could grow all the vegetables I could possibly eat with my own, still-fair-even-now-because-I-stick-obsessively-to-the-shade hands.

At first, it went swimmingly. We tilled the land in preparation, built a fence to keep the beady eyes of the deer at bay and planted carrots, beets and cabbages in neat rows. Once a day, I would potter out to inspect the budding plants and gently water them with a bucket, nurturing their tiny little leaves and dreaming of plates piled high with salad.

As they grew, this evolved into Playtime With Hoses, during which idyllic quarter of an hour of each afternoon, I would drench my bean rows until the whole thing resembled a paddy field. Which action I defend by pointing out that it was over 100 degrees outside and we had no rain for a month.

I rejoiced when I picked my first crops, dutifully snapping the ends from my beans before washing, blanching and freezing them, collecting an ever-increasing stash of vegetable goodness to see us through the winter.

I presented both the husband and the parentals-in-law with piles of lettuce at dinner time, overloading everyone’s plates with salad that looked an awful lot more edible than the pathetic excuse for a spring mix that Safeway has been selling over the summer.

I marvelled at how attractive the fruits of my labours were, as well as tasty. Until the first radish crop came in, that is…

The bunch above might look worthy of the front page of a gardening magazine, but I would in no way recommend taking a bite. Somehow, I achieved growing radishes that were both utterly tasteless and so fiery that my jaw almost literally dropped off.

When the above monstrosity of a radish unearthed itself (pictured in my husband’s man-hand for full appreciation), I began to wonder if my garden was preparing to fight back, and/or take over the world. Possibly by squashing everything else in it.

It got worse. Above is a two-foot green bean that somehow managed to evade my notice and begin creeping ominously towards the back door. I cannot speculate as to what it planned to do once it got there, only that Mutant Bean had nefarious intentions. By way of fair warning, this is probably how the apocalypse is going to begin: in my vegetable garden, through the medium of disgruntled shrubbery. My squash plants are almost certainly Triffids in disguise.

I am writing this post by way of an apology, before the inevitable happens and my harvest turns on us all. I’m sorry for inflicting the Mutant Vegetable Army on the world, and for whatever consequences my selfish action has. I couldn’t help it, I had no choice: my tomatoes are about to ripen and grilled summer squash tastes really, really good.

Pictured: Triffids

I’m Not Alone…

…our dog, too, is literally shit at snow.

Grill-iant Weekend

I am no longer able to deny my status as one half of an Old Married Couple. The highlight of my weekend was not watching Transformers in 3D, nor my crosspatch viewing of Legend of the Seeker (for which my sister-in-law is to blame, as she has coaxed me into an addiction to the books and the televisual equivalent is not really an equivalent at all).

Nope, the memory I shall carry forward from this particular summer’s Sunday is the maiden voyage of our brand new outdoor grill. It’s pint-sized and inexpensive, but already my favourite cooking implement – and not something one could call an everyday device in old Blighty.

My waistline has not adapted well to the change in diet, largely because it is slave to my brain, which seems convinced that devouring everything I come across is a good idea. It is not. The grill was bought as part of our attempt to curb the gluttony; after all, you can be as greedy as you like with salad and vegetables, yes?

And so we were; our first grill-fest featured steak and barbecue sauce with buttered mushrooms, corn, grilled potatoes and salad. Accompanied by a hot dog, just because we could.

Our second attempt was no less enthusiastic: chicken marinaded in a lemon pepper dressing on a bed of couscous, accompanied by large amounts of kebab-grilled pepper, onion, cherry tomato and mushroom and a salad. Also accompanied by corn, just because it needed using up.

Hubby tells me that such fare has seen him through most summers – an alien concept for someone who is not only used to living in a city (in an apartment with a broken patio door), but is from a nation that regards barbecue as a luxury (because announcing one’s intention to cook outside immediately causes the sky to cloud over).

This side of the ocean, the luxury seems to be in filling the fridge with healthy leftovers that – unlike the limp, depressed salads I’ve always relied on – are actually more tempting than the candy. If I was still intent on my pizza-sheet tent idea, I’d consider using the kebab sticks as tent poles.



Boxing Houdinis

My morning meanderings were interrupted today by a request from Mum-in-law: with heaven only knows what trickery, the dogs had managed to escape their kennel. One had wandered up to Nan-in-law’s house, the other, as became clear from a glance out the window, was happily trotting in circles, sniffing the snow.

Left dog (Molly): Up at Nan's. Right dog (Carmen): Happy circles in the snow.

Before I moved here, my pet ownership experiences were sadly limited. My grandparents had a Yorkshire Toy Terrier (which is not really a dog) but living in London, in rented accomodation, put paid to the idea of my own dog or cat – and the critters I owned when I was little don’t count. My rabbit went mad, was given to a local animal park that had a warren and, when we went to visit, had killed off all its colleagues. My fish were neither furry nor huggable and my brother’s guinea pig just sat in the garden being big.

Joining a household with so many animal inhabitants was one of the many pleasures of my Wyoming exodus – largely because these ones are so full of personality and bounce. A little too much bounce, in today’s case; my task for the morning was to round them up and get them back indoors.

Previous escape attempt.

Carmen was easy to catch up with: offer her a cuddle and a bit of attention and she’s yours for the taking. Her closest animal relative is Eeyore; she likes to make out as if nary a soul has petted her in all these long years. Were she able to speak, her doe-eyed catchphrase would be: “Thanks for noticing me”.

Molly, on the other hand, is the most enthusiastic dog I have ever met. Literally everything excites her; she can generally be found sniffing, digging, plotting or thieving rags from Dad-in-law’s back pocket. Her victory list of bowled-over visitors encompasses children, adults and unwitting Englishwomen.

Our dog, Maggie: Princess, darling, general ball of adorable.

Apparently, part ownership in a pooch has honed my dog herding skills. I clocked Molly’s ears bouncing over the snow line, called her name in my most masterful tone, watched her screech to a halt and discovered she was still interested in the concept of bowling me over. She had a 100-foot run-up. I watched that jubilant boxer hurtle towards me and couldn’t work out whether to fling myself to the floor or leg it for the hills. There wasn’t time to decide but, thankfully, a small sidestep prevented the bum-on-snow she’d intended. All that remained was to bounce her towards the house.

That’s now two dogs and a Tasmanian-Devil-in-disguise that will mind me. Anyone know how to achieve the same effect on a slightly bitey kitten?

The Great Drought

This world is a place of survival of the fittest. Or, in my case, survival of the person with the most bottled water and large soup pans. Yesterday afternoon, a water pipe cracked down in town and all running water ceased. We’re not entirely sure when it happened, because we only noticed when I turned the shower on and bugger all happened. Thus began my first apocalyptic adventure outside of the confines of a city.

4pm – An hour before our friends arrived to take us out for dinner, I wandered into the bathroom to get ready. I had, unwisely, delayed my shower so as to be fresh as a daisy for the occasion. It was not to be; instead, I was forced to wash and condition my hair and scrub myself down with the contents of 6 small bottles of water.

10pm – We returned home to a barren wasteland. A toilet that couldn’t be flushed, a toothbrush that must be used dry, pets’ water bowls that were getting rather low. The news was bleak: they were expecting repairs to take a full 48 hours.

11am this morning – Fortunately, Hubby’s parents are dab hands at getting through such situations and most generous in sharing their expertise with a useless daughter-in-law. I’d spent most of the morning melting snow in a pan over the hob, trying to fill the toilet tank , when father-in-law appeared with a huge barrel of water for exactly that purpose, two big bottles of water for cooking, teeth cleanings and other such necessities and a large pack of bottles for the drinking of. It was a relief to stop having to melt jugs of snow, the last batch having defrosted to reveal a tiny, solid lump of dog poo.

2pm – Hourly check of the taps rewarded us with a slow, plaintive trickle. It took a while, but I did everything I could think of involving water, just in case it disappeared again. I filled water bowls, washed up the ever-increasing pile of plates, filled a pan of water for dinnertime cooking and went about  my business.

5pm – The trickle had once again become a proper flow, albeit a little less enthusiastic than usual. I was even able to have a quick shower, so I no longer smell like I’ve gone off. All is once again well.

I’ve been through a few hours of water outages many times, but it’s not quite the same in the city (it was only ever a particular area that went without, and one’s social circle tends to be spread out. If I couldn’t shower before I left the house, I could always pop in to a friend’s place, or wait till I got to work and use the shower there). I vaguely remember quite a serious one when I was little, but all I really recall is sipping on a juice carton while feeling smug that nobody could make me have a bath that night.

I think I did quite well today, under the circumstances. Not that I can take much credit for it, to be completely honest; my contribution was limited to half a tank of toilet water and a small piece of dog poo.