REVIEWS

[The Night Shifters is] a fascinating ride. The voice feels a lot like Neil Gaiman. This is a huge compliment in my mind, and one not to be taken lightly.” - Melinda VanLone Reviews

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Geology Lessons From A Miner


Enlightenment is a humbling experience.


And so it was that when I began my trip to Southern Arizona with Ernie and my mother, I felt both excited and intimidated. I had never been south of Tucson. I had a feeling this would be the first of many trips. but I also had a feeling that Southern Arizona would challenge my ability to identify rocks.


Yeah, I know -- it’s not the biggest problem you can have in your life. But I want to be a geologist, not just a hobbyist, not a rockhound (no insult to rockhounds intended). Liking rocks and pondering what they are and how they got there is just the beginning of the process. Sooner or later you’ve got to commit, and then it gets hairy. You find yourself eyeball to eyeball with a roadcut that defies easy classification, and you feel like a total dope.


Highway 90 winds through Tombstone Canyon, past the Queen Mine in Bisbee, down through layers of grey limestone, red hematite, yellow limonite. If you go into one of the antique shops at street level and it features a bargain basement, you can see rooms carved out of natural cement. Now that I’ve been there, and I’ve taken the tour, and I’ve read the wall plaques in the mining museum, I have a good idea what the various minerals and rock forms were in Bisbee.


But as we drove in for the first time, I felt flummoxed. I had only seen light-colored limestone, and I didn’t have any acid with me (I shall remedy that, next time). I also had geology exams to study for, so my textbooks were the first things I unpacked. I had to keep reminding myself -- this is a VACATION. Have FUN !


Fortunately, curiosity rescued my mood. That and the well-stocked coffee station downstairs at the B & B where we stayed (aptly named THE SCHOOLHOUSE). If you’re planning a trip to Bisbee, I highly recommend this place. And a restaurant called SANTIAGO’S. And another eatery (for lunch) called CAFE CORNUCOPIA. And the Queen Mine tour, which (at the very least) will give you some idea what a miner’s job is like.



I found out (by cheating and reading info on the walls of the mining museum) that the geology of Bisbee was shaped by repeated marine transgressions that laid down layers of limestone, followed by volcanic activity that sent lava and superheated gasses into cracks and faults in the sedimentary layers. It was in these faults that the useful ores collected. As we progressed (mostly vertically) into the mine, I gazed at the walls of the tunnel and wondered if I was looking at rhyolite or limestone (probably I saw both).


My epiphany came when somebody asked the miner who was guiding the tour an innocent (yet foolish) question. This fellow worked in the mine for 21 years, and had become an expert in setting explosive charges. He had taken us into a large chamber that had been thoroughly mined of its useful ores. A fellow asked him, “Did you have a geologist to show you what ores to look for?”


The miner didn’t laugh. He said, “No sir. See that red material up there? That’s hematite. That’s the iron ore. That green material? that’s malachite, copper ore. That grey stuff halfway up that wall? That’s lead ore. And that vein over there is silver ore. I didn’t need a geologist to tell me that, it was my job.”


He never worried whether he could identify the rocks. He learned to recognize what he was looking for. And so will I.


Doh!


It was raining when we came out of the mine. The rain rapidly turned to snow. I was oblivious to the discomfort, I felt way educated. That miner didn’t like his job, he did it because he needed to make a living. All he had to prove was that he could do his work well. I can do mine, too (especially if I have acid).


The next day we left Bisbee, land of winding, narrow, windy streets (I got rocks blown up my nose at one point), and drove to the Whetstone Mountains, home of the glorious Kartchner Caverns (where I saw a sample of limestone that was mostly black -- I’m SO confused). Ernie’s blog about that stop is way better than mine, so I linked it. I’m back home now, took those tests, and I’m getting ready to take two more. Gotta do the school thing before I can get out into the field with my bottle of weak acid. But I’ll get there. And I think I'll like my job just fine.



Mysteries beckon, and my curiosity is stronger than ever.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Death By Cookie


In my previous blog I mentioned a certain fondness for desserts, so I think it’s only fair if I give out some of my favorite recipes. This first one was passed along to me by my mother-in-law, Teddie Hogan, the best cook I know.


Teddie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 ¾ cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

½ cup ( 1 stick) softened butter

½ cup shortening

(you can use 1 cup butter or 1 cup shortening if you prefer – I like to mix them in order to get the best flavor/texture ratio)

¾ cup light brown sugar

¾ cup sugar

2 eggs (they work best at room temperature)

1 tsp vanilla

(I also add 1 tsp orange flavor)

½ tsp water (I live in a dry climate – I use up to 2 tsp water)

1 bag semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

(I often add ½ cup walnuts and ½ cup dried cherries)

(NOTE: This recipe can be doubled)


I use a KitchenAid power mixer, because I am a lazy bum. I think my mother-in-law uses her Cuisinart up until the point when she adds the chocolate chips. (She also makes her pie-crust dough using her Cuisinart, which I think is totally cool.) If you use a hand-held mixer, you’ll have to stir in most of the flour by hand. Likewise the chocolate chips and nuts. The directions below apply to the power mixer.


I like to make my cookies big, so this recipe usually makes 2 dozen biggies. If you like your cookies smaller, bake them at 375° instead of 400°. If you like them crunchier instead of chewier, bake them a little longer. Otherwise, you can follow the instructions below pretty closely.


Pre-heat the oven to 400°. Line two large baking sheets with foil, parchment paper, or wax paper.


Whisk dry ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside. Blend butter, shortening, and sugars together with the power mixer. Add eggs and flavorings until just blended. Add flour a little at a time, keeping the mixer running. Add water and keep blending until you have a smooth dough. I also use my power mixer to add the chocolate chips, the nuts, and the dried cherries, but you can mix them in by hand if you prefer.


I use an ice cream scoop to spoon the dough onto the sheets – about ¼ cup for each cookie. If you have leftover dough after scooping 2 dozen cookies, you’re not making them quite big enough (I just glom the remaining dough into the blobs on the sheet).



Bake the cookies for 12 to 14 minutes (unless you like them crunchier, like my brother does). I have a wonky old oven, so I usually check mine at 13 minutes. If I bake them for 15 minutes without checking at 13, they get a little burned. Sometimes they’re ready to come out at 13 minutes, sometimes I let them go a couple of extra minutes (opening the oven cools it down a little, so they don’t get fried).


Two of these cookies at breakfast will take you all the way to lunch (or beyond). I store mine in a ziplock bag. If you store them in a cookie jar, they’ll probably dry out a bit, but if you like to dunk them in your coffee, that works out pretty well. They’re great if you’re going to be hiking all day, and to take on long car trips if you need snacks.


This second recipe is for lovers of strong peanut-butter flavor – it uses old-fashioned peanut butter instead of the homogenous blends. Some people hate the old-fashioned stuff because you have to stir it to blend the peanut oil back into the peanut butter, but it has a much better flavor than the peanut butter that has shortening already blended into it. Stir the peanut butter thoroughly just before you make this recipe.


Em’s Big, Evil Peanut Butter Cookies

(WARNING: if you eat these more than a few times a year, you may drop dead with clogged arteries. On the other hand, maybe the peanut oil is good for you . . .)


1 ½ cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

¼ tsp salt

1 ½ sticks softened butter

¾ of an 18 oz jar of old-fashioned peanut butter

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup brown sugar

1 large egg, room temperature

1 ½ tsp vanilla

1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

this recipe can be doubled


Once again, the directions below apply to the power mixer. And I like to make my peanut butter cookies as big as my chocolate chippers, so this recipe makes about 2 dozen biggies.


Pre-heat the oven to 400°. Line two large baking sheets with foil, parchment paper, or wax paper.


Whisk dry ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside. Blend butter, peanut butter, and sugars together with the power mixer. Add egg and vanilla until just blended. Add flour a little at a time, keeping the mixer running, until you have a smooth dough. Add chopped walnuts if you want them – their mild flavor contrasts nicely with the peanut butter.


I use the ice cream scoop to spoon the dough onto the baking sheets, and then I use a fork to make the cross-hatch patterns everyone likes on peanut-butter cookies. But you can also make smaller balls with the dough, moosh them slightly, bake them, and then stick Hershey’s kisses into them when they’re cooling. I like to use the kisses with the almonds in them.


If you’re making the big cookies, bake them 13 to 15 minutes. If you’re making the smaller balls that you want to stick the kisses in (stick those kisses in AFTER the cookies come out of the oven), start checking them at 10 minutes or so.


The big (un-Kissed) cookies are also good for breakfast or to take in your hiking pack.


AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST:


Em’s Excessive Chocolate Frosting


1 stick butter

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup (slightly heaping) Dutch Process cocoa

about 16 oz powdered sugar (more or less may be necessary, depending on what consistency you want – you can cool the frosting to firm it up a bit, if you want to use less sugar.)

1 tsp vanilla

(you can also use a little orange, coffee, or rum flavorings)

Place the butter, heavy cream, and cocoa in a saucepan over medium heat (stirring occasionally) until the butter is melted and the mixture is just starting to boil. Don’t worry if the cocoa isn’t perfectly blended, but take the mixture off the heat as soon as it starts to bubble. If you overheat it a little, don’t worry, this recipe is actually fairly forgiving if you goof.


Pour the mixture into the mixing bowl of your power mixer or hand mixer and blend in 1 or 2 cups of powdered sugar. You can cool the mixture a little at this point if you want to use less sugar, then blend in some more powdered sugar. Blend in the powdered sugar until you have the consistency you want.


This frosting seems to work best on cupcakes and sheet cakes. If you’re going to use it on cakes or cupcakes you made with a packaged mix, you might want to make it less firm – the cocoa adds density to the mixture, and it might tear tender cakes to pieces if you try to spread it.


If you decide to spread it on either of the cookie recipes listed above, I truly fear for your sanity. Though I do sort of understand where you’re coming from.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Confessions Of A Cake-aholic


I love dessert, let’s establish that right off the bat.

I love cookies, pie, tarts, donuts, chocolate, assorted soft candy, ice cream, sorbet, sherbert, pudding, and custard. And most of all, I love cake. My love for desserts has often caused me to be too plump, though I’ve somehow managed never to be more than 50 pounds overweight. 50 pounds sound like a lot, but considering how much I love dessert, I ought to be at least 300 pounds overweight.

Right now I’m fairly skinny, but I love dessert more than ever. I’ve learned to alternate high-calorie days with low-calorie days. And I’ve cultivated a love for non-desserts, just to balance the equation. Balance is an important concept when trying to control your weight. Ironically, balance is also an important element of a good dessert.

For instance, plenty of desserts look beautiful but end up tasting bland. The appearance of dessert is important – after all, it needs to be pretty enough to tempt me. But I’m no longer fooled by good looks. If I’m going to consume those calories, they’d damn well better be good. Good taste is a matter of balance between the elements of the recipe, the ratio of sugar to butter and cream, the flavorings, the type of chocolate you’re using, etc. Too much sugar will drown out all the other flavors, but not enough may make the dessert bland or bitter.

Yet somehow, balance of taste still isn’t enough for me. No, I’m a true junkie, I care about texture, too. I love crunchy, creamy, moist, crisp, smooth, and chewy. A tasty treat must also have good texture.

Great taste and interesting texture – we’re cooking with gas here. There’s just one more thing I need for a perfect dessert experience, and that’s contrast. Chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream is a perfect example. Hot apple pie with the ice cream is even better, because then you can contrast flavors and temperature. A banana split with nuts and hot fudge, a root beer float, brownies with walnuts.

Yes, I must invoke the b-word again: balance. When I was a kid, I struggled with anorexia for a few years. I would starve for days, then eat like a psycho. When you stuff yourself, you don’t get to have fun, you’re too busy being compulsive. Once I got over that, I went through a phase of thinking some foods were bad. I thought I had to learn to stop liking them. Maybe if I avoided them long enough, I’d get over wanting them.

Didn’t work. So I’ve made peace with myself. After all, I’ve got some healthy hobbies, like hiking. I deserve regular treats. A little sin is good for the soul.

Good thing I can sin like a demon.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Layers Of Time


When it rains enough in Arizona to make the national news, newscasters from Eastern states make a common mistake. They say that Arizona isn't used to rain and flooding. But our state has been shaped by those two things for millions of years, we're the poster child for erosion features. The biggest erosion feature in the world is in our state: the Grand Canyon.



But let's look at a smaller erosion feature:
Oak Creek Canyon. I like the little canyons best. They seem to welcome you home. Canyons have long been the homes of native people in Arizona, places where they were able to use micro-climates at different levels to grow crops all year long. These folks were flood-savvy, unlike modern populations who build permanent dwellings in flood plains and fire zones -- they understood that when it rains in Arizona, water doesn't soak into the ground, it rushes along creeks, arroyos, washes, canyons, and any other features that will carry running water. Bone dry most of the year, washes can turn into raging rivers in a thunderstorm.

That running water, with the load of sand and rocks it carries, slowly cuts through rock and clay, exposing layers of time. The Grand Canyon is still the best example of that, but Walnut Canyon and Oak Creek Canyon can be seen close-up. The most popular example of this hands-on experience is Slide Rock State Park.



I hadn’t been to Slide Rock for almost 40 years. A lot has changed since then. You used to park along the highway, and the hike down to the swimming area was much more challenging. Ernie and I spotted the old trail -- it had been deliberately blocked by a pipe. I was rather sorry about that -- the old way down was challenging, but also a grand adventure. You could feel more of a transition between worlds. You had to do it single file, and in the summertime the line of pilgrims was long. By the time you got to the water, you felt like you’d earned it. The plunge into the cold water from the melted snow was less of a shock.



Now the trail is easy, much more civilized, a series of switchbacks that ease you down to the water. These days, the line of pilgrims is probably just as long in the summertime, possibly even longer than it used to be, since Slide Rock is Arizona’s version of the beach, a place where young people can ogle each other and parents can sit on the red rocks and watch their little ones wear the seats off their shorts sliding along the wet, red sandstone with the creek.

January is a better time to visit if you just want to hike and enjoy the scenery (if it hasn't been raining and the place isn't flooded). Since swimming isn’t anything anyone wants to do this time of year, there’s no crowd. Often you’re alone for long periods, while other explorers pick their way up or down the creek, each pursuing his or her own interests. We noticed that most of the other visitors were couples, like us.

My memories of the place are strong.



I knew if we headed roughly East, on the South side of the creek, we would have better footing. Sandstone terraces extend, in layers, down to the water, and you can walk pretty easily along them. In the summer, those terraces are full of beach towels and families. The water levels are higher.

In the winter, the flow of water is more sparse, so you can walk more easily. You can walk all the way up to the basalt boulders that stop most people from proceeding further.



They can give you the impression it’s not
possible to go farther, but if you’re careful you can pick your way over them and onto the layered feet of the cliffs that line this part of the canyon.



By this time, the folks who crossed to the North side are realizing they can’t go any further unless they want to get into the water. Mostly, they don’t. In the summer, it’s worth your trouble to take inner tubes and work your way from pool to pool, though the rapids have disappeared (another reason why most of the families stay farther down the creek). I remember one year when my mom and my brother John took us all the way up to a pool at the far East end. No one else had bothered to labor that far up the creek, so we had it to ourselves. It seemed to me that we had left Earth entirely, we were on another world.

Ernie and I weren’t able to venture that far this time -- we had no intention of entering the water with inner tubes. Maybe some time we’ll try it in May or September, in the middle of the week, while school is in session. I’ll have to get a waterproof bag for my camera . . .

I dream about Slide Rock. I have all my life. The dreams aren’t ordinary dreams, and in them, Slide Rock seems to stretch for miles, maybe all the way to Heaven.



It seems to be a place you earn, a place that can help you realize what’s really worth pursuing. This visit was a turning point in our lives: leaving an old job, starting college again, aiming at new careers, new ventures. Maybe we've earned this dream.


We finished our honeymoon trip on Friday with a visit to Red Rocks State Park. If you live in Arizona or will be passing through before June, visit this park while you can. It's one of the parks they intend to close this year.


If enough people visit, we could change their minds . . .