eddying out

I don’t see these friends often. Most of them I only visit with for about twenty-four hours each fall when we gather for an overnight paddle on the Wisconsin River between Baraboo and Madison, WI. All men, all paddling solo canoes, the 12-15 of us make quite a caravan on the river. We begin around 4:00 in the afternoon and most years we paddle through the sunset and continue for a while after dark until we come to a sandbar where we camp for the night. The next morning after breakfast, we continue down river for several hours before taking out and having a late lunch at a roadside restaurant or tavern.

Each year presents its challenges. Two years ago was the snowy trip with nighttime temps in the low teens and daytime highs that felt nearly the same. Due to some warm-weather paddlers on that trip, we cut it short. Last year, high, fast water forced camping into the woods and caused three folks to dump their boats and swim. This year the biggest hurdle was a ferocious upstream wind. Gusts were easily over thirty miles and hour and some estimated them to be forty. The river appeared to be flowing backwards! We ended up paddling upstream on the first day, then back down on the second. The jury is still out on which direction was more difficult.

For me, two of the highlights of the trip are the potluck meals we prepare evening and morning in camp. Some of the all-star entrees have included homemade tamales, beef and garden fresh veggies wrapped in foil with all the right seasonings and cooked over the fire, cocoa encrusted goat cheese on artisan crackers, stone-ground grits slow cooked in a cast iron Dutch oven, and homemade biscuits baked in a fireside reflector oven. My contribution this year was Italian sausage from Chattanooga’s own Link 41 which we grilled over the fire then diced and added to the grits.

Over breakfast, I thought about the food, the visits, and the stories and memories we share on these trips, and I realized what really makes them special. For this brief time, we form a community without phones or internet, without automobiles and fossil fuels, without television or radio, without calendars telling us where to be or clocks reminding us when. We take very few processed foods. We cook in camp, over a fire, and eat whenever it is ready. We do things slowly, deliberately, and intentionally; each contributes something and all receive a bounty. Most of the foods we eat can be traced back to personal gardens, local farmers markets, and CSA’s around the country.

Nothing about our time is fast—we travel by canoe, we cook over a fire, we tell stories, and when needed, we take care of each other. We reach our destination right on time because we are on no schedule; our food is delicious and nutritious because it is made from the best ingredients and prepared with love; our visits are priceless because they are without agenda; and nobody is disappointed because there are no expectations. We haul each other’s boats, set up each other’s tents, serve each other meals. We are a community because we choose to be.

When we came off the river and stopped at a little tavern for lunch this year, we were told that we would not be served. There were too many of us. “You will ruin our afternoon,” they said. We left confused by the notion that giving them business or that serving us could have such a ruinous affect. In the next town, the local tavern greeted us with a smile, treated us warmly, served us the way we had been serving each other all weekend. In the end, we were pleased to have been kicked out of the first place and took our time eating, sharing stories, visiting—extending our slowness as long as we could. When we handed our server a wad of cash—the biggest tip I have ever seen—as we left, I thought she might cry, and we felt great.

With the dawning of a new week, consider how you might slow down a bit. Set aside an evening to visit with a friend over preparation of a meal, then take your time eating. Take time to appreciate what you have and with whom you share it. It is amazing how, when we deliberately slow down, time seems to slow with us! We have a choice in the matter. We can get caught up in the current flowing around us and race on with the pack, or we can slow down, eddy out, pull up on a sand bar with friends, and watch the world go by for a while. Give the latter a try. You might be surprised what you find.

Eating on the Road

The sun is setting as I leave my hotel room for a bite to eat. After ten hours in the car today I was determined not to drive any more. I will walk to supper. It is pleasantly chilly—a perfect evening for hoofing it in Peoria, IL, but I’m hungry and tired. I don’t want to walk far. Up and down the street neon lights beckon passersby, hawking too-familiar bites—Panera, McDonald’s, Olive Garden… I needn’t go on. You know them all from every interstate exit, shopping mall, suburban strip, and sadly damn near every downtown in the United States. I am in Nowhere, America, and there is nowhere I care to dine within sight.

At home I eat veggies from the CSA and my own garden. I enjoy meat, eggs and milk from local farms, and honey from a local beekeeper. My sausage and cheese are made with local ingredients by local artisans, and my bread from a local baker. When I want fish, I catch it.

Now I stare down a neon lane wondering where I will find my food.

Behind the hotel is a Kroger. Without a kitchen my options there would be limited, but maybe in the deli, I think. The parking lot is packed with cars and I don’t look forward to the throngs of shoppers stocking up for the weekend. Inside, customers with carts piled high stand four and five deep at every register and down every aisle, more carts and drivers negotiate passage. I turn left and follow the perimeter of the store through the produce, past the bakery, to the deli.

This end of the Kroger is empty. From the deli counter I scan the bakery and fresh produce departments. Beyond the bread, a woman peruses wines. She is the only other customer in sight. While my hard salami and smoked gouda are being cut, weighed and wrapped by a young woman who is very confused by my lack of interest in having either sliced, I sort through a rack of fresh bread for a loaf of rosemary and olive oil loaf. Looking one part apologetic and one part confused, the deli worker hands my cuts across the counter and I head for the mustard aisle.

As soon as I round the corner away from all things fresh, a sea of cart jockeys engulfs me. I look back. The south end of the building is still empty. Moving deeper into the crowd, I am surrounded by carts overflowing with all manner of processed, canned and boxed foods.

I wind my way through the crowd until I find the mustard. Accustomed to mustard that is homemade by a dear friend, today I will settle for Jack Daniels brand. At least it is from Tennessee, I think.

As I reach the front of the store, I overhear an express checker turning back a fully loaded cart. I slip in as she turns away, obviously disappointed. The checker has me rung in a matter of seconds. “Please, no bag,” I say as he reaches behind him.

“You sure?”

“Save a plastic tree.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Have a good night.”

“Thanks. You too.”

A soft glow from a sun I guess must be over the Pacific warms the horizon as I walk back to the hotel. Sitting in the bed, I  turn on the television—a luxury I only allow on the road. I open my penknife and carve into supper. The sausage and cheese aren’t bad (the mustard makes them a little better)  and the bread is passable, but I miss home.