Just Deserts (Part 2 of n)

30 03 2014

Monday

So – Monday in Williams, AZ. It was St. Patrick’s day, so there was an irritating amount of green being worn. Maybe if 23rd April was as well celebrated in the Americas I’d be less grumpy. (That’s St. George’s day, if you didn’t know… patron saint of Ā herpetologists šŸ˜‰ ).

Williams is tiny, but still has the standard US grid system… and a train line. And the train goes once a day… to the GRAND CANYON!

Fair dues… there’s not a lot going for the town of Williams, but what it has it makes the most of. It even has a one way road system, to force you to drive on as many of its tiny selection of roads as possible. IĀ suppose it evens out the wear on the tarmac or something.

We woke up bright and early and headed for the hotel to catch the train. We’d pre-booked and it was a good job. Not quite in the Indian railway’s league, but pretty full, all the same.

Image: The Indian Express (sic)

Once we’d collected our boarding tickets, we headed off to the bleachers for some slapstick cowboy fun before boarding the train. It was a bit forced, but the kids in the crowd seemed to enjoy it, and who am I to say how “entertainment” should be defined?

The train ride was over 2 hours each way, and passed through some amazing changes of scenery. The start took us through a patch of ground colonised by prairie dogs which were energetic in the morning sun, despite the cool temperatures. Each carriage had a couple of stewarding staff. Ours was an elderly guy called Joe – who I swear sounded like a retired Elvis impersonator – and a young lady with far too many teeth and a fanatical desire to smile continuously. At least we’d be fine if the lights went out…

Part of the deal was a musical interlude provided by a live musician. I’ve definitely heard worse, but it was a bit surreal.

It was hard to believe that over two hours had passed when we arrived at the Grand Canyon. A complicated triangle was negotiated to allow the train to basically do a three point turn ready for the trip back later in the afternoon. And we were off… three hours to “do” the GC. Nowhere nearly long enough obviously. This could only ever be a small taste of the real experience. The toothy stewardess was trying to suggest restaurants and shuttle bus rides, which I guess was the typical experience for most of her customers. What a waste! You only had 3 hours… why on Earth would you waste it in a restaurant or a bus?!

Nope, we were off over the tracks, up the steps and drooling over the view in mere moments! A quick packed lunch (which the local squirrels tried to steal), and we headed off down the hole, via the Bright Angel trail… Obviously we weren’t going to get anywhere near the bottom in the short time we had, but we had a very pleasant walk down the well maintained path, and got some spectacular views – particularly of the Battleship formation. My overarching impression is that it was so bloody vast that it just didn’t seem real! Weird… it was almost disappointing. It is so familiar from photos and films, that when you see it for real, it feels more like a theatre backdrop. I remember a similar feeling when I saw many famous impressionist art works in the Louvre andĀ MusĆ©e d’Orsay. It was hard to muster the appropriate emotion.

After our sweaty return from the canyon, we just had time to walk a little along the top where there’s an informative display of the various geological eras exposed in the canyon, then it was time to get back on board the train for our return trip back down to Williams. We were in the same seats, so got to see the other side of the tracks on the way back. We set off slowly until we left the National Park perimeter, then the train picked up speed and we were regaled with more music. This time from a native Navajo called Clarence Clearwater. He took the opportunity to put a plug in for the Navajo-run sky walk at the West of the canyon that hadn’t been forced to close due to the recent Federal funding crisis… unlike the South Rim. The trip back seemed a lot faster, but I became fascinated by the telegraph lines that had fallen into disrepair. Some stretches were still fully wired, but others had just air to pass the now non-existent telegraph messages through. Then suddenly we slowed a little and saw the fearsome gang from the morning by the side of the tracks. We were boarded, and ever so politely asked if we’d like to donate to their retirement funds… all in very good nature and much fun for the youngsters in the party. Or even the teenagers!

To be continued…

Advertisements




Just Deserts (Part 1 of n)

29 03 2014

I spent my formative years in a small town in Yorkshire. In the North of England. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable childhood. No lurid skeletons in my family closet or anything of that nature.

One of the things that typified an upbringing in these relatively quiet backwaters in the 70’s was an expectation that this was pretty much “it”. It’s not that my school friends were in-bred or anything, but 40 odd years later, let’s just say many of them still have the same post-code! My grand-parents lived a whole 45 miles away in a coal mining town called South Elmsall, where both my parents were raised and met. My father became a policeman and was posted a galaxy away to Silsden… 45 miles West.

As a growing child I remember that a visit to my grandparents was a weekend affair. It took an hour and 20 minutes to drive the 45 miles, and there was no way one could contemplate the return trip on the same day! As I’ve grown older I’ve never really understood that barrier. Plainly roads and cars were a lot less capable than today, but I think it was more a mentalĀ obstacle.

So, there I was growing up no more malcontent than any other male youth in human history, and fully expecting to die within spitting distance of where I grew up, when two separate things happened. Firstly, an elderly lady (she must have been at least my age now!) that my mother used to keep an eye on went to visit her daughter in “Beautiful British Columbia”. I vaguely recall the daughter lived in Victoria on the Island, but I might be wrong. Anyway, this dear old lady (Mrs Berry was her name) knew I was a bit of a nerd, and on her return presented me with a huge armful of travel brochures and mementos of her trip. There were train brochures from the coast-to-coast trip she’d taken, photos of Niagara, and endless photos of the greenest trees I had ever seen. I was sold. Before I died I was DEFINITELY going to visit Canada.

I’m sure it’s no surprise that I have been an avid book reader since I figured out how to stop my lips moving. Another aspect of my willingness to consider broader horizons was that I earnt a scholarship to the “local” grammar school. It was a whole 15 miles away in Bradford, and my erstwhile schoolmates couldn’t believe I was going to catch 4 buses a day and spend 3 hours getting to and from school when the local comprehensive was just down the road. But that was 3 very useful hours. Many a French (or Latin) vocab. test was passed because it had been studied in the last 30 minutes of a bus ride and was still fresh as I wrote the test. And many a book was consumed on the back seat of a West Yorkshire Traction double-decker.

One such book was “Running Blind” by Desmond Bagley. This was the usual action book in the Hammond Innes, Jack Higgins, Alastair McLean mould. But it had a profound effect on me. It was set in Iceland, and the descriptions blew me away. I decided there and then that Iceland too would need to feel the tread of my step before I finally popped my clogs.

So there you have it. Two different but influential experiences on a growing lad that made me think that perhaps there was something more life could offer than even the grandest county in the land. Fast forward a year or two. Or 40. And I have visited every continent except Antarctica. I now live in BC, and have met some amazing people and shared some amazing experiences. Some uncomfortable, wet and very cold, though no less wonderful for all that. And this year I will turn 50. What more perfect an occasion to finally visit Iceland?

OK – so things don’t always work out the way we hope, and we actually spent a week of Spring Break visiting the States. I had a list of deserts I’d like to photograph, and we set off to bag as many as we could.

Desert Trip Route

Desert Trip Route

Meh – Iceland, Arizona… we were all equal in the end (Pink Floyd – Two Suns in the Sunset, Final Cut… don’t listen to it if you’re a manic depressive, despite its awesomeness).

Saturday

We had decided to fly out of Bellingham on Allegiant. Cheap and not very cheerful. Mr & Mrs Elephant were accompanied by our youngest since we figured it was safer than leaving a 15 year old lad alone in the house for a week! The obliging parents of his girlfriend even offered to look after our devil-dog, so it all looked set for a relaxing week. Allegiant nickel and dime you for everything, so we opted to travel light and the three of us shared a single suitcase (they charge for carry-on too: $50!), and we pre-paid online to get a cheaper deal on the one case. Parking was easy, check-in smooth, and though we had had to allow plenty of time in case of issues driving across the border, we boarded the plane with no incident (except for an elderly gentleman’s cap being blown off as he climbed the exposed ramp to the plane).

The flight was short, uneventful (always a good thing where flying is concerned) and the air reasonably clear. I’m often fascinated by the sights I see from an aeroplane and struggle afterwards to identify where they were. The artificially irrigated farms with their circular fields are always amusing, and I’m not sure if the snow-covered mountain was Mt. Rainier in Washington.

As soon as we arrived in Las Vegas I felt like I needed a shower. I don’t know what it is about that place, but it instantly makes me feel grubby. We had the usual interminable wait for our hire car, and despite having pre-booked, they were completely out of compacts. We actually ended up with a Ford Focus, and though it had leather trim and lots of electronic goodies… it definitely lacked something in the “oomph” department. The afternoon was already well advanced and we’d booked a hotel just a little out of town in Henderson to ease us in to the whole road-trip phenomena. Once we’d booked in and sorted ourselves out, we toodled off for some tea at “The Cheesecake Factory”. This was on the recommendation of 2nd born who had visited their Palm Springs emporium. It was not an unpleasant experience, but a little over-sold I think. I don’t feel the need to revisit before I shuffle off this mortal coil. It was the first time I’d ever ordered a salad and not been able to finish it though. Because it was huge, not because it was bad. Au contraire… I was eager to have it boxed up for a second round the following day. A relatively early night and we were all set for the first full day “on the road”.

Sunday

The forecast had been for cold, showery weather the entire week, and we were delighted that we had a sunny day instead. I hit the gym (it won) and Mrs E actually ran all the way to the Cheesecake Factory and back, just to make sure it was still there. We are a leisurely breakfast and headed off to Hoover Dam. No particular reason – when you’ve seen one hydro dam, you’ve seen them all – but it was along the way. The weather steadily improved and temperatures rose to almost 30Ā°C. I know this because I’d fiddled with the car’s display and managed to get it to show the external temperature in Celsius since Fahrenheit meant nothing to me. (I did accidentally on purpose forget to set it back though, just to annoy the next renter who will almost certainly NOT be from Canada.) The waters behind the dam looked quite low and there was a telling white mark high up no the rocks showing where a more healthy level might be. The spillways were interesting and showed a mechanical barrier that could be lifted almost light an aeroplane’s wing flaps, to control flow over the spillway. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the dam crossed the state line and there were two clocks showing Nevada and Arizona time. Usually they’re an hour apart, one being Pacific, and the other Mountain time zones. But… Arizona has decided not to use Daylight Saving, so it didn’t advance its clocks for Summer, and they’re actually both at the same time for now. Except Navajo lands… they opted to use DST anyway, just for kicks. It was all too much for MrsE’s iPhone, but my BlackBerry seemed to figure it out just fine. My salad from the previous evening was a little tepid when we ate lunch, but still crisp and tasty. We were discussing Area 51 when we saw a custom painted van with an alien painted on the side. This van was nothing but a curiosity… until we noticed it in every town we stopped in all the way up to Moab!

After an amble around the gift shop and some photos of the Art Deco designs of the dam, we were off to Williams, South of the Grand Canyon. We chose to take the scenic route – literally – and took the old Route 66, for no other reason than it felt like a touristy thing to do!

There was a railway running parallel to the road for much of the way to Williams, and I was amused to see the same engines (BNSF) as sometimes run through White Rock, BC.

Williams is a sleepy little town, and after a nice barbecue dinner, we turned in for our first REALLY big desert day. Tomorrow we were off to see the Grand Canyon… on a train!

To be continued…





On regional cheese and milk-maids

2 03 2014

Hello faithful reader.
I know I’ve been less than engaged of late. I’ve written nary a line for weeks, yet here you still are… indulging my need to write rambling screeds of nonsense, then casting them like so much epistolic (I use the word loosely which I’m sure you’ll have no problem agreeing with) flotsam (or is it jetsam? – I always get them confused) onto the tides of the interwebs.

Photo: Flotsam & Jetsam, The Disney Wikia

Years ago I had a friend who worked at Mars – the US confectioner – in Maidenhead, UK (a place name that still makes me smirk with a pubescent love of uncommon words). They’ve branched out over their 100+ year history. First, the younger Mr Mars was estranged from his father and sent off to do what he could with the eponymous bar in the UK. “Not too shabbily”, it turned out. It was tweaked for the British palate, and the rest is confectionery history. Thank the gods Hershey wouldn’t do a deal with him and the UK Mars bar has superior chocolate. Can’t beat the special edition dark chocolate ones in my view. By the way, I heartily recommend Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury (yes THAT Cadbury) for a really interesting look at the rise of the chocolate industry in Europe, the US and obviously the UK. Lindt, Mars, Rowntree, Hershey, Fry’s, Cadbury’s… they’re all in there. Even van Houtte. Great read.

Amazon: Chocolate Wars

Anyway, I digress. They also branched out into vending machines.
And meat pies and sausages.
And dog food. (Just a coincidence, I’m sure.)
All this just to say that said aforementioned friend once explained to me the difference between “best before” and “eat/consume before” dates on foodstuffs. The former is a date by which the manufacturer has deemed their product will start to be perceived as less than optimum to the consumer. The latter is the date beyond which the subsequent medical well-being of the diner can no longer be guaranteed. Since the former is more a matter of cosmetics, and the current fashion for people to claim allergies to everything from peanuts to shellfish makes the latter a much less well-defined thing to prove, the former is much more widely seen on packaging. The two are also sometimes quietly merged into the much less specific and therefore more defensible “sell by” date.

I was once in a discussion around best before dates, food, and how the length of time on the shelf seemed to vary shop-to-shop. In the UK, people tended (perhaps someone resident on the fair isles could comment if it’s still the case) to treat “best before” as “consume by” in any case, and would get irate if a shop still had items on its shelf that were “past it”, as it were. Obviously large supermarkets would prefer as long a shelf life as possible to avoid having to discard food before it was sold. They’d be pretty well forced to reduce the price as it approached it’s “sell by date” – especially for things like meat or fish. If they were found to still have items on their shelves that were “past it”, reputations could be tattered in the cut-throat high-street supermarket market. Past it food was a phenomenon found only in shonky corner shops – not the large supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco or even good ol’ Morrison’s. So it was common to buy food with several days remaining between date of purchase and the sell by date. I won’t comment here on irradiated food or nitrogen in your bag of salad, just that one didn’t normally find the label date on purchased food to be any time soon.

The notable exception was the venerable Marks & Sparks, who as we all know has been operated since biblical times by St. Michael. Actually, Messrs. Marks and Spencer were a couple of Leeds lads (Loiners) who established a Penny Bazaar in the 1880’s and never looked back. Marks was a Jewish immigrant from Belarus and Spencer was a cashier and shrewd money man. The apparently saintly Michael was actually Simon Marks’ dad. Anyway, back to the yarn: M&S would always have food on the shelf with ridiculously close sell by dates – a few days at most. But this was actually astute marketing…

You see, M&S charge a little more for their food. And, by and large, it’s also a little better. So – they don’t want you hanging on to food past its “best before” date, simply because it has yet to cultivate botulism and is therefore technically still edible. It’s important for their image that you are consuming their foodstuffs whilst they are still in their prime… not merely still technically edible.

So anyway, when we came to live in Canada two big things hit us when food shopping. Firstly there were few items with ANY nutritional information on the packaging (GM soya beans were a big issue in the UK and Europe back in 2001, and scrutinising food labels was a habit)… let alone “best before” dates. Worse though… much worse: you can’t buy alcohol in the supermarkets! But that’s off topic (and BC at least is now actually considering the sale of alcohol in places other than government liquor stores that only open when people can’t use them).

Photograph by: Stuart Davis, via Vancouver Sun

Where was I? Oh yes… labelling. I am pleased to report that it is now pretty common to have food in BC accompanied by at least some vague information about its content. My daughter only yesterday was bemoaning food labelling. She’s studying life sciences (biology and the like) at Waterloo University. She said that she had firmly believed that one shouldn’t eat food if its ingredients list contained items you couldn’t pronounce. I tend to agree. She may even have picked up that idea from something I said when she was younger and “impressionabl-er”. Unfortunately, since her area of study now included lots of long words, this was no longer a sufficient litmus test.

Point? Yes – there is a point. I’m getting there. It may not be particularly sharp, and I don’t guarantee you won’t resent your eventual arrival, but yes, there is a point.

Regulars may recall that since early January, Chez Pachyderm has been in upheaval with the renovation of the kitchen. This basically involved lots of rewiring, re-plumbing of the upstairs bathroom (don’t ask), asbestos, you name it… Several lost souls were returned to the netherworld and I’m unreliably told that House and Home will be featuring us in an upcoming edition of “most frustrating projects”. But it’s all but finished now. A couple of missing shelves and a wobbly wall socket, but otherwise done. Usable at last. So… we went food shopping to stock the wonderful new fridge/freezer. Mrs Elephant unwisely left me with the shopping trolley whilst she went to look for some milk. In her absence, I managed to locate several much more interesting items. Things like prosciutto, Camembert cheese and the like. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find some Limburger cheese. This is a bit of an in joke because the company I work for has its old (pre-Canon acquisition) headquarters in Venlo, in the Netherlands. This is very close to the German border, and the area is called… you guessed it… Limburg. It is actually a bit stinky (the cheese I mean), and not dissimilar to Port Salut in scent and taste, if you’re familiar with that. Ironically, the cheese itself was from “over the line” in Germany.

Wikipedia: Limburger cheese

The connection is that the first wheel of Camembert I picked up was a day past “the best before”. Old instincts kicked in and I scoffed. Ew… “old” food on the shelf of a major supermarket! (Of course – I was conditioned to treat any date as “eat by” or “will contain deadly bacteria by”, rather than the much more benign reality of “might be slightly less than show-winning status by”). Naturally, I replaced the cheese for some less discerning shopper to catch listeria from and picked up the one beneath it with a much more satisfactory date a few weeks hence. Later in my rounds, I had to rummage through no less than 6 pots of Greek yoghurt to find one dated in the future. This problem was obviously endemic at Save-on Foods! I felt a little like Kevin Smith‘s mum, in her character as “The milk-maid” in ClerksĀ – sifting through every jug of milk looking for the one with the date furthest away!

Wikipedia: Clerks

The joke though, as no doubt you will have long ago predicted, was on me. The third kind of cheese I bought was a new one for me: Adarga de Oro. Spanish apparently. Alabaster white… quite a silky smooth look to it. It’s a blend of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. I tried it today. Lovely. Only as I rewrapped it did I notice the best before date was 25th February… 4 days before I bought it, and 5 before I ate it. As I said – it’s pretty tasty. I wonder how much better it was before it was past its best…

Photo: CompraJamon – Adarga de oro