Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Back to School

Don't worry mom and dad this does not mean it is time to shell out more tuition money or that I will be attending a fifth college.  When I turned in my Master's thesis at Louisiana State University, I drove off campus swearing that I would never set foot in a classroom again.  I was done!  That promise was broken a mere twelve years later when I decided to enroll in culinary school.  After that, another promise was made to never sit in a classroom again.  Well there is still lots of learning to do and when it relates to something of interest it seems promises get broken.

It didn't hurt that there were free warm pastries and hot coffee.
Before Betsy and I bought our RV we attended "RV College."  The real name for the course was "Life on Wheels" but we thought RV College had a better ring to it.  Our friends thought we were nuts to fly across the country, spend a weeks vacation in Bowling Green, KY and learn about RV's.  But we were jazzed!  The week-long course was designed to cover every aspect of RV'ing from buying it, living in it, to driving it and so on.  There were sessions on insurance, fire safety, maintenance, cooking, engines, and more.  We were immersed in everything RV and loved it.  Soon we learned there was a lot to learn.  But this course was a step forward and made us really eager to buy our big machine and start traveling.

So now while we are staying at Lazy Days we are taking full advantage of the free seminars that are offered.  Our first week here and we passed up the warm sparkling pool to do the unspeakable....sit in a classroom.  Seminar topics varied and we sat through sessions on RV site hookup, general questions and answers (where you could ask anything), maintenance, generators, and we even sat in on a two-hour seminar on RV chassis.   The sessions were taught by someone who has worked in the industry for 40 years and has a great understanding of RV's and RV'ing.  We learned so much but are not done yet.  This week we plan on going to the generator class and taking a driver confidence course.  Oh sure, we have been driving this rig for almost two years but based on the few scratches and dings, I'm certain we can learn something.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Black Friday"

All the hype on television about “Black Friday” made us swear we were not leaving the serenity of our campground (now dubbed “RV Club Med”).  There was no way we were getting in traffic, fighting crowds, standing in lines, or venturing out at midnight to save 10%.  What could we possibly need so badly that we would put ourselves through such misery and mayhem?
Our big purchase - a water softener.  We
are hoping for softer laundry and fluffier
hair. While we didn't need Rob for security,
he was nice enough to carry the softener
home for us.

But, wait a minute, Camping World was having a "Black Friday" sale and it is right here on grounds!  What RV’er could pass up a sale at Camping World?  There would be no need to sharpen our elbows (as my grandma used to say) or wake up at some ungodly hour to fight our way to sale items.  So with our pockets bulging with credit cards, our neighbor Rob accompanying us for security, and Spirit in tow, away we went to do the unspeakable.…. shop on Black Friday. 

Our lives have been slightly disrupted since the moho has been undergoing repairs.  We drop it off at 8 a.m. and then find something to do until we get the call in the evening saying we can pick it up.  Sometimes this means Spirit gets a whole day romping in PetSmart doggy day camp and we get to meander through the well-stocked isles of Total Wine.  Or some days, we sit on our empty lot and pretend we have a virtual RV.  The nice thing about a virtual RV is that I can’t look at the dirty windows or the bugs that are not baked into the front windshield and get up and start working.  Just sit in the shade of our tree and read.  I did manage to pack a cooler with a couple of beers, just in case we get thirsty.

Can you see our virtual RV?  The site looks pretty ratty without the moho.
Yea the macerator is fixed...no more messy sewer hoses for this girl.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Zoo in the Desert

What a crazy idea…who would put a zoo in the desert?  This was something I had to go see.  For sixty years the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has been attracting visitors to come and learn about the unique desert ecosystem and is a gem sparkling in the dry desolate western Tucson desert.  It is a delightful fusion of zoo, museum, botanical garden, art gallery, and soon to be completed aquarium. 

The drive to the museum guides you through the mountains and towering cactus of the Saguaro National Park.  The scenery is a stark contrast to our recent stop in Flagstaff where the mountains were green with coniferous trees instead of thorny cactus. 

Betsy has worked her entire career in the zoo field and visited the museum a decade or so ago so she was primed to go back.  Wow, we were pleasantly surprised!  The museum left us with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the rich flora and fauna that make up the desert biome.  If you think the desert is lacking in diversity and live critters, the museum will change your mind.  They have over 230 species of animals, 1,200 species of plants and proclaim that over 85% of what you experience is alive.  Two miles of walking paths lead you through the 21 acres where you will encounter animal exhibits, native gardens, and interpretive areas.  Eager docents are scattered about and readily point out where animals may be hiding in their exhibits and provide in-depth information for the wanting visitor. 

We loved the leisurely walk around the museum in the warm desert sun.  Many of the plants are labeled so we were trying to learn one chollo cactus from another.  All look pretty menacing, but must be spectacular when in bloom. 

Our favorite exhibit was cat canyon where we got an up-close look at a male mountain lion resting on a cool rock in the shade.  While the museum is proud of their reptile hall with over 20 types of rattlesnakes, I choose to move through there pretty quickly and, as always happens, failed to appreciate the beauty of rattlesnakes.  The hummingbird aviary was much more soothing.  We stopped for a while to watch a river otter (an odd animal to see in the desert but very entertaining nonetheless) and a coyote who was actively patrolling his enclosure.  The deer were munching on grass and the javelina resting in the shade.  One of the most interesting exhibits was the “Life Underground.”  You walk down a short ramp to see what animals live underground.  I can tell you the only “cute” thing down there was a sleeping kit fox resting comfortably in her den.  The other animals either had hundreds of legs on their hard-shelled body or 8 legs that were hairy and black.  Back to the hummingbirds!

You are greeted at the entrance by a mom and baby javelina
The overlook provides a great view of the park and surrounding mountains.
The two-mile trail winds you through the desert and provides a look back at some of the exhibits.
The saguaro cacti
The "teddy bear" chollo cacti - not the soft and fuzzy
teddy bear I had as a kid.
The art gallery features rotating exhibits and this beautifully painted horse.
A fish hook cactus

Thursday, November 15, 2012

It Pays to Eat Chicken

To pass the blog time I thought I would share a recipe and personal experience that involves chicken - the much less talked about other bird during this gobble-icous time of year.  O.k., so the real reason is that we have not been doing anything exciting since we got to Tucson (other than hanging out with friends and eating well) and I have nothing to write about.

A number of years ago, Betsy saw an advertisement for a cooking contest offering a grand prize of $50,000.  Yep, the National Chicken Council (there really is such an organization) was sponsoring a contest that awarded 50 grand just for making chicken delicious.  I have nothing against chicken, but when it comes to meat, a good ol’ steak wins out every time.  Nonetheless, Betsy’s encouragement propelled me to get in the kitchen and start cooking.  In fact, she insisted!  She had her eyes intently focused on the prize and declared herself my coach and official taste tester.  I came up with a recipe, jotted it down, and emailed this long shot to the National Chicken Council.  

Betsy called me one day at work and said that I received an envelope from the chicken people and wanted to know if she could open it.  “Sure” I said.  We had long forgotten about the contest and really couldn't remember what recipe I had submitted.  Remember, we like steak better than chicken.  Inside the envelope was a letter saying the council was pleased to inform me that I won $50 and would be entered into the next phase of the contest.  Great, now we like chicken better!

More time passed and the $50 was long gone.  But then I received another letter.  Would it be the final rejection saying thanks for my effort to make chicken great but there would be no 50 grand?  Nope, a check for $100 and a nice letter saying that I was the Louisiana state winner and would be entered into the regional competition.  Wow, does this mean I get a sash proclaiming “Nancy Walters Miss Chicken Louisiana?”  Should I get my hair and nails done?  We laughed at how serious this chicken contest was but cashed the check in a hurry.  So now we are really liking chicken.

One afternoon I get the call…“You have been selected as the regional finalist and we would like to fly you to San Antonio for the 48th National Chicken Cooking Contest.”  Now I had to really laugh - under my breath of course because I really wanted a free trip and the 50K has not slipped away yet.  I had only entered one other cooking contest before and was not a seasoned cooking contest expert.   (By the way, I was one of the top five finalists in that contest and got a bunch of really cool stuff from Gourmet Magazine and $25.)  Cooking contest veterans are serious about their contests and some have earned some big money and prizes along the way. 

If you are totally bored now just skip to the bottom for the recipe.
To beef up for my final shot at being Miss Chicken USA, Betsy told me I better get in the kitchen and perfect my presentation and technique.  The contest required a dish be made twice within two hours and they could not be made simultaneously.  One plate was for the judges and the other was for pictures and for people to drool over.  All the top executives from major poultry producers were there and hung out with us as we were treated to meals and tours of the city.  It was quite entertaining to sit around a table drinking margaritas with men whose professional lives revolve around poultry.  The other contestants were great fun and gave me many tips on cooking contests.  One woman had been to the chicken cook-off finals three times.  The contest was held at the Culinary Institute of America’s newly opened San Antonio campus.  The afternoon before the contest, we inspected our ingredients and the facilities so we would be prepared for the next morning’s big event.  It was so formal and again I wanted to laugh at the formality.   The contest took place in the morning and we had about 15 minutes to put our aprons on, get settled at our stations, and start cooking before the event was opened to media, sponsors, and anyone else who was interested.  So now that you have been held in suspense for a few minutes, it is time to tell you that we had a great weekend but did not win.

The "Poultry Executives" accompanied us to the CIA for our tour.
Time to inspect our ingredients, cooking utensils, and make sure everything is just right before the morning competition.  No laughing Nancy, this is serious.
Time to start cooking in the new state of the art kitchen and get into a cooking groove before the media rushes in.
My work station.  
All the dishes laid out for viewing.
The winner!
Oh, and I never got the glittery sash (just a white apron) but we sure do have a new appreciation for chicken.  Enjoy the recipe.  

Panko-Crusted Chicken Salad with Grilled Stonefruit and Pomegranate-balsamic Dressing

¾         cup pomegranate juice
¼         cup balsamic vinegar
2          Tbsp. honey
3          Tbsp. orange juice
½         cup olive oil
2          plums, firm or frozen
2          peaches, firm or frozen
1          Tbsp. olive oil
4          boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1          cup flour
4          eggs
2          Tbsp. water
5          cups panko
3          Tbsp. butter
2          Tbsp. olive oil
3          oz. feta cheese, crumbled
4          cups arugula, washed and dried
Salt and pepper

Put pomegranate juice and balsamic vinegar in a small sauce pan and reduce over medium heat until syrupy, approximately 20-25 minutes. Stir every few minutes.  Add honey and orange juice and simmer for 5 minutes to combine. Whisk in ½ cup olive oil.

Cut both plums and peaches in half to remove seeds.  Cut seeded fruit into 6 wedges.  Add 1 Tbsp. olive oil to sauté pan and heat over medium-high heat.  Place fruit wedges in sauté pan and cook for 4 minutes on each side, just until fruit starts to turn brown and sugars caramelize.  Remove fruit and reserve.

Place individual chicken breasts between 2 sheets of plastic wrap.  Pound until ½ inch thick.  Salt and pepper the pounded breasts.  Preheat a sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 3 Tbsp. butter and 2 Tbsp. olive oil.  Place flour in a large plate.  Crack eggs in a deep dish and whisk in water.  Place panko in another deep dish.  Dredge chicken breast flour, then place in egg wash, let excess drip off, and then place in panko, turning chicken over to coat both sides. Repeat with other chicken breasts.  Put chicken breasts in the hot sauté pan (do not overcrowd) and cook for 3-4 minutes per side or until chicken is golden brown and cooked through.

Remove chicken from pan and cut into slices.  Place onto of arugula, add fruit and crumbled feta cheese.  Drizzle pomegranate dressing on top.  Serves 4.


This recipe can be adjusted to your taste.  Use goat or blue cheese if you prefer.  If you don't like arugula, use spring mix, butter lettuce, or what ever else you like.  Try veal or pork chops for something different.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

It's Time to Settle Down

Don’t let the title fool you…our idea of settling down is to be in one place for a month.  That’s a pretty long stretch for us wandering vagabonds who normally spend four or five days in one place.  
We landed in Tucson and put our jacks down, took the kayaks off the car, and removed the bikes from their comfortable position on the back of the coach.  So why Tucson?  Well a couple of reasons, Betsy’s college friends Melinda and Dick (who Betsy reconnected with in Colorado) have their winter home here so we could spend more time with them; it’s time for the coach to see the RV doctor for an annual checkup; and it’s time for us to go to the dentist and Spirit to go to the vet for her annual vaccines.  Oh, and Tucson is warm!  

So far the campground is fairly empty....yea!  Our neighbor has two
energetic dogs that are Spirits' best friends in the dog park...double yea!
We settled into Lazy Days RV Campground and marveled at the gorgeous orange sunset and the distant Catalina Mountains.  Lazy Days is a large RV dealer with copious service bays and a sprawling campground.  Last year we spent a few days at their facility in Tampa, Florida and were horrified at the old and tightly spaced campground.  Needless to say, the Tucson facility is much, much nicer and we were pleasantly surprised.  In fact this “campground” is more like an RV resort than a campground – there are two heated pools with spas, fitness room, a full-service restaurant, extremely large dog park, free pastries and coffee in the morning, and you are offered a cold bottle of water every time you enter or exit the facility.  (It’s the small things that mean a lot!)  And, in our spare time, we will attend some of the many free seminars offered here.  So now it is time to explore our new town - which usually starts with finding the nearest grocery store.  There seems to be a lot to do in Tucson and the surrounding area so I’m sure our month will fly by.  Here are some more pictures of our new neighborhood.

Next to the lobby and check-in is a business center, restaurant, game room, and meeting space.
We have already spent hours looking in all the RV's for sale.  This weekend is a show with free food and giveaways.  With Spirit in tow we all ate free hot dogs. 
Here is another perk - there are citrus trees all over the park.  So when we are not looking at RV's, exploring Tucson, we will be baking lemon meringue pies and mixing lemon drop martinis.
O.k., we will be using this.
One of two pools with hot tubs adjacent.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Surprising Prescott

Peaceful!  And yes, there is an adult
beverage in that red solo cup.
Our short stop in Prescott was filled with pleasant surprises.  Namely, how much we liked the downtown and the campground.  There is an awesome National Forest campground just a few miles south of town.  We pulled in and marveled at how great the camp sites were and set in a beautiful pine forest.  The site we chose was a long pull thru with a large patio that sat up on a hill and overlooked the other section of the campground (that was closed for the season).  There were no hookups but our MiFi found 3G and our television antenna picked up a few major stations.  And all this for 5 bucks a night (one of us – I won’t mention who – has a Golden Age Passport).  Our intention was to spend four days in Prescott before heading to Tucson but the forecast for “freezing precipitation” sent us southern girls packing after two days. 
Prescott was a pleasant surprise and the downtown resembles more of a western Colorado town than something found in the southwest.  Although it was once the capital of the Arizona Territory, it is more proud of its “Whiskey Row” than its' former political grandeur.  No wonder I got a good feel about this town!  Whiskey Row got its name because of the many saloons that lined the town square.  Not even a widespread fire in 1900 could stop the saloons and debauchery that was happening in Prescott.  After all, behind Whiskey Row were the brothels.  Just a few days later the fire construction was in full swing to rebuild the saloons.  But this time they were using bricks and mortar instead of wood.  Meanwhile saloon owners erected tents, corrugated buildings or anything else they could to keep selling alcohol.  Whiskey Row is alive and well today with an assortment of bars, eateries, and boutiques and adds to the charm of the historic downtown.

The Chamber of Commerce is housed in the original firehouse
and jail.

Normally there is not too much excitement in campgrounds (except for the time our neighbor had a heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital) but yesterday the prescribed fire across the street made us take notice.  A plume of smoke erupted and slowly wafted toward us as we were pleasantly eating our breakfast at the picnic table.  Then the crackle of flames and snapping of trees really got our attention.  The fire was across the street but the tinder dry conditions in the campground were somewhat cause for alarm.  Last summer we spent a week at a Florida campground that was completely destroyed by fire when a controlled burn became uncontrolled.  Luckily no one was injured but the campground was annihilated.  So, despite our confidence in the young Forest Service firefighters, we decided to stay and watch the burn for an hour or so.  The thick smoke sent us inside the coach and we could barely see through the campground but thankfully the flames always stayed on the other side of the road.  One who always thinks the worst, I kept thinking about the replacement value clause we have in our RV insurance policy.  We decided that we had better take Spirit with us downtown - just in case.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

“Standing on a Corner in Flagstaff, Arizona”

Leaving the splendor of the Grand Canyon was hard but alas we must move on so we made a quick stop in Flagstaff to check out the town.  Betsy has always heard good things about this little town so we found a KOA and parked the rig.  I am lukewarm regarding KOA’s but this one had a great thing going for it – a National Forest right in back and our site faced the forest.  Our view was of Mt. Elden and the towering ponderosa pines and every day we had great walks in the forest with mule deer, jack rabbits, and squirrels for Spirit to chase and amusing rocks.

The city’s history dates back to 1876 when settlers passing through honored the nation’s centennial by raising the American flag up a pine tree.  This “flag staff” became a landmark and eventually the town’s namesake.   Like many other western towns, the westward expansion of the railroad attracted pioneering entrepreneurs.  Flagstaff became a thriving town with the railroad, ranching, and lumber businesses. 

Flagstaff sits on the historic and famed Route 66.  Route 66 is synonymous with the American road trip but don’t expect that it was immune to modern development.  Interspersed amongst the historic buildings and iconic hotels are lube shops and fast food joints.  One of the most famous stops is the Museum Club, a juke joint that has seen the likes of famous musical acts making their way across the country to Los Angeles.  The famous line from the Eagles song “Take it Easy” was written by Jackson Browne after he found himself standing on the corner in Flagstaff, Arizona when traveling Route 66 to L.A.  The lyrics were written as “standing on a corner in Flagstaff, Arizona” but Browne found it easier to sing “Winslow, Arizona” so the lyrics were changed.  (Winslow is the next town just to the east of Flagstaff.)  Unfortunately, that song has been stuck in my head for the last three days and hummed over and over.  Time to move on…

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Grandest Canyon of Them All

Grand Canyon is the most visited of the 7 natural wonders of the world.
Your first glance of the Grand Canyon will take your breath away.  The vast expanse of jaw-dropping scenery beckons you to come to the edge and look over.  A mere 18 miles separates the south and north rims but the vastness of the canyon with its 277-mile length and one mile depth provide one of the most recognized vistas in the world.  Grand Canyon National Park was definitely on our “must see” list.

From the canyon rim it is hard to see the Colorado River – the mighty force that continues to carve the canyon and provide life in a hostile environment.  What appears to be a semi-arid wasteland is astoundingly rich in biological diversity.  The park contains seven ecological zones that support a remarkable ensemble of flora and fauna including over 1,500 plants, 355 birds, 89 mammals, 56 reptiles and amphibian, and 17 fish species. 

Looking at the canyon appears to be a monotypic expanse of rocks but to geologists this environment is a remarkably fascinating story of time and one of the most studied geologic landscapes.  Nearly 40 identified rock layers form the Grand Canyon’s walls which have been studied since the 1850’s.

The Grand Canyon has been attracting visitors for over a hundred years and boasts over 5 million visitors last year.  While the summer is hot and crowded, this time of the year is perfect.  The weather is ideal with average highs during the day around the mid 60’s and nights in the low 30’s and the summer crowds are gone.  

We decided to camp at Trailer Village (don’t laugh that really is the name) in the park to maximize our visit time.  The park’s shuttle system and many paved walking and bike paths make getting around a cinch.  And finally, a western National Park that allows dogs on many of the trails.  While we admired the canyon floor and many layers from the rim, we did not feel compelled to hike down to the bottom.  There is only so much stress and strain I want to put my body through.  So for those of you like us that prefer a flat trail as opposed to enduring over 4,500-foot elevation gains, stick to the Rim Trail and enjoy the scenery.  We spent our days traversing nearly 18 miles of the trail and never got tired of gasping at the scenery that is now etched in our minds.  

While the natural wonders of Grand Canyon NP are phenomenal, so are the man-made ones that give this park personality and reflect a by-gone era.  Numerous Historic Structures dot the park - some of which are perched precariously on the canyons rim.  Many of the historic buildings were designed by architect and interior designer Mary Colter, a pioneer in her field that is celebrated for the ability to marry building with their natural surroundings and attractive details.  Her sense of style and ability to incorporate Native American motifs into her buildings have become known today as "National Park Service Rustic."  Colter's buildings still stand proudly today.

The Hopi House was designed as living quarters for Hopi Artisans and a place for them to sell their crafts.  Constructed in 1905, Colter patterned the building after part of the Hopi Village. 
The Bright Angel Lodge was designed by Colter in 1935.
The Lookout Studio (constructed in 1914) blends beautifully into the natural landscape and does not detract from the natural surroundings.
It seems the last month has been a wonderful tour of National Parks in Utah and Arizona.  Before we started our RV adventure we wanted to see our nations natural treasures, be it National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests or any of the many more spectacular and unique features that make up this country's landscape and give it soul.  Grand Canyon NP did not disappoint. 

Spirit meets the hard working mules
El Tovar Lodge.  While it was not designed by Colter, she was responsible for the interior decorations.  In 1914 this luxury hotel offered rooms with baths for $4 a night.  
Kolb Studio perched on the side of the canyon.  Established in 1904 as a photographic studio and was run by the Kolb  brothers until 1976.  Today it is operated as a bookstore.
Bright Angel Lodge.
Originally started as a curio shop, Verkamps still sell gifts and books.