Apples and Holidays

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My father was determined when I was a kid to grow apple trees. I do mean determined. I think he planted around sixteen to twenty apple trees of all different types. All of them were from Stark Bros., a proven supplier of fruit trees of all kinds. On a lark, he also ordered a few peach, cherry, plum, pear and crab apple trees. Try as he might, the apple trees never grew. We watered them, picked bugs off them, and in the end, sprayed them with pesticides. Nothing worked. Every single one of them fell victim to one single species of worm that ate through the trunk of apple saplings.

We had visions of candied apples, apple butter, applesauce, apple jam and all things related to apples as fall approached, but it never happened from our trees. We dutifully went back to our Grandfather’s little farm and canned his wild apples. They were probably better anyway.

A few years ago, my wife and I gave jams, jellies and apple butter to our loved ones for Christmas. She also started giving out small jars of wild raspberry, blackberry and peach jam. I experimented with tomato jam, and we were off and running. In a world that simply cannot be satisfied with “bought” gifts, we discovered an alternative to socks and underwear.

There is simply something magical about the smell of apple butter cooking over a stove. It brings back memories of childhood, of places real and imagined. If you are lucky enough to do it outside, the real way, then the wood smoke will wake up something primal and buried and happy. You’ll stay up 24 hours, grinning and sipping hot ciders, tasting apple butter and sauce; and if you are smart, sipping on an occasional brandy or good whiskey.

I’m going to be honest here. Canning is neither easy nor for the faint of heart. Throw in a toddler, a phone ringing and people knocking at the door and it can be damn overwhelming. But it’s fun. Nobody does it anymore. You’ll have the satisfaction of doing it yourself, and get some damn good results, too. There’s nothing better than giving something you’ve made yourself to your loved ones, knowing that they will enjoy it.

Steve and Linda Blades, along with their daughter Olivia, were the first people I met at the farmers market in Easton. They were friendly, helpful, and full of advice on where to go to get what, where to eat and invited me to their orchard, Blades Orchard. So, the next day, under a raw and blustery sky, I set sail into the great unknown: The real Maryland.

Olivia taught me how to use my smart phone and the proper way to eat an apple. All of it.

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I have to say, I’ve never stretched a bushel of apples so far. Applesauce, hot jalapeño and apple jam, spiced apple jelly, apple preserves, red onion and apple jam, apple sauce, and apple pectin were all stretched out of those apples, with a lot more to go. Let’s not forget how many we’ve eaten. :)

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Quick and Wonderful Spiced Apple Butter (Modified From “Canning For A New Generation by Liana Krissoff.) All the apples were from Blades Orchard!

This makes about three pints: Easily modified to make more.

Ingredients:

Six pounds of apples, I used a blend of Black Twig and Pink Lady, two of my favorites. Cored, but not peeled.
Two cups of apple cider, preferably from the same orchard.
About one and one-half cups of sugar.
One teaspoon of ground cloves. (I use a coffee grinder.)
One tablespoon of cinnamon. (Ditto on the grinder.)
One-half teaspoon of allspice.
Two star anise.
One cup of blackstrap molasses. (Available in the deep south everywhere, or from online food purveyors. Try Amazon.)
Two tablespoons of fresh, finely ground coffee beans. I use Black Lightning from Strange Coffee Company.

Add everything in an 8-Quart pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, until the peels have separated from the pulp. Grab an immersion or wand blender and blend until it’s smooth. Taste it. Add some lemon juice if needed.

Transfer the mixture to a crock pot or slow cooker, set it on low with the lid askew a bit, and let it cook for about twelve hours, until it’s thick and dark.

Prepare your jars for canning. Wash them in warm soapy water or the dishwasher and place them in a large stockpot. Preferably the one you started the apple butter in. Bring them to a boil (do NOT try to add them after the water is boiling). Remove them carefully and place on paper towels to avoid making a mess. Place the lids in a small saucepan and ladle boiling water from the pot over them to heat. Ladle the applesauce into the jars, leaving about a 1/2 inch of headspace. Seal with the lids and bands, finger tightening each one. Don’t tighten too much, the air needs to be able to escape during processing. Bring the water back to a boil, and place the jars in the water gently! Process for about ten minutes, remove from the water and don’t disturb them for about twelve hours. Enjoy! Make your neighbors happy and give some away. Or not.

Sobriety and the Holidays

Sober Holiday, Numero Uno.

Sober Holiday, Numero Uno.

I’m now approaching my second year of Holiday Rejoicing as a sober individual. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything alcoholic at all, and by some evil twist of fate, my HE (Hepatic Encephalopathy) prevents me from consuming more than two liters of fluid per day. Do you know how hard that is? I’ve always drank as much water as I could during the day, especially when working in coal mining, which is a miserably dehydrating environment or when working construction outside in the dead of summer, with the sun beating down mercilessly on any exposed skin. So, it’s rather strange for me now to carry around a half-liter bottle so I can make sure I don’t consume to much liquid!

The Holidays are stressful on everyone. Sober or not. They are a time of great joy, merrymaking, traditional dinners and gatherings of family members, and more often than not, they are a wonderful environment to make a fool of yourself on the third (or twelfth) glass of wine. It’s anonymity in an acceptable environment!

Last year, I was mostly shielded, rather intentionally, from the stress of making other people uncomfortable while drinking around me. I worked all through the holidays, most of the time belied by my colleagues as I motored my way through another shift. Two wonderful friends of mine who more or less adopted me as kitchen moms, kept an eye on my rapidly failing health with great alarm. It was a welcome relief from the inevitable question that hosts had to ask themselves if I was invited: “Should we serve alcohol? Should we hide it? WE can still drink, right?”

It was uncomfortable and exhausting. In a professional kitchen, nobody asks personal questions. Unless you open yourself up to them. You don’t have to explain to anyone that you don’t drink. Just don’t. The world marches on. Nobody modifies their behavior, or more importantly, feels the need to, in your presence. I like that. You are free to be whomever you want to be. Much like coal mining, working with real watermen, cooks only judge in terms of liability. Can you or can you not do your job. If you can perform while drinking a handle of tequila a day, then so be it.

My greatest achievement as a cook happened on Thanksgiving morning of last year. Sober only about five months or so, I was still suffering through the remnants of damage done and learning to accept the harm I had caused to my body. That morning, I was in charge of breakfast. I prepped for dinner the night before, and in true professional cooking reality, prepped for breakfast too. It was a late night and an early morning. I fell into bed beside my sleeping wife after kissing my son, still very much a baby then and didn’t stir until my alarm went off quietly in my ear. I was still in the darkness, planning the day. My short-term memory was getting worse and my Ascites was becoming obvious. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.

Delores saved me that morning. Every single time I started to lose control, she swooped in and righted the ship. Together, we threw 112 plates on the pass in 90 minutes flat. All from scratch. No easy eggs, each plate to order. Pancakes, waffles, chicken and waffles until I ran out 20 minutes in. Sausage, bacon and corned hash were cooking on the grill alongside eggs, each order somehow perfectly clear in my mind. I became a machine. Time literally stood still. I could do no wrong. As orders piled up, plates started to the pass faster and faster and faster, until even the wait staff began to take notice. Runners began to tread cautiously, worried they would break the streak.

I was finally pushed off the line by Chef. Loaded down with Thanksgiving Day orders ready to go, many of which I had prepped the day before, they impatiently stormed my work area as I cooked around them until the last breakfast order was filled.

As I stumbled away from the line, people started to clap. Delores started it, I think. The wait staff joined in. The kitchen manager, Marcus, followed suit. He had stared open mouthed at the number of orders coming off the line for nearly a half hour.

Then, just like that, we moved on. I crashed for a moment on the loading dock, breathing carefully and trying not to faint. We quietly sipped our coffee, watched the snow fall through the fog and I shared a cigar from chef with the few outside with me. Conversation went back to the usual: Who is going to get drunk at the employee party and who may or may not sleep with whom, always a lively topic. My sobriety went unnoticed, uncelebrated.

Which is what I wanted.

This year, I will be invited to lots of gatherings, hopefully. I also hope that the topic of my recent battle with alcohol is forgotten. Someone will be uncomfortable, no doubt, and feel the need to explain to me that THEY are NOT AN ALCOHOLIC. They don’t drink this much, hardly ever, and they feel bad for drinking around me, and so on.

During that moment, I will slip quietly away to last year, when nobody knew and nobody cared.

Moving, Holidays and Cooking

A common thread that we find and are trying to address is one simple fact: Holidays are stressful. There are the ever-rising expectations of children to possess the latest and greatest electronic talking iPhone or whatever is being forcibly crammed into the optical nerves of the young as the Thing They Must Have Because Everyone Else Has It. Throw in a few families, some divorced couples, adults maxing out their credit cards in the presence of a plethora of alcohol, and the holidays can be disastrous. I’m telling you it doesn’t have to be. I must believe that.

Since my illness I have lived by one simple premise: Live each day to the fullest and appreciate every moment of it. Instead of throwing myself in the all-to-easy escape of blame and vision confined to rear view mirrors. I refused to wallow in guilt and self pity. It’s mostly worked.

Lately though, I’ve been a bit of a fish out of water, so to speak. The more appropriate analogy would be a bobcat in the water. I moved from my beloved mountains of Appalachia to a whole new world. The Eastern Shore of Maryland. The home of rockfish, oysters, duck hunting, sailing, fine shotguns and hardy people. People shaped and forged by the sea and land, just as people are all over the world. We are all products of our environment.

Moving to a new area during the Holidays while you are suffering a major setback in a potentially terminal illness and having a legal battle with the moving company, who didn’t move us left me drained and weak. I arrived sick, lonely, a bit delirious, and almost antagonistic. After a few weeks, my natural curiosity returned. Cooks everywhere, all over the world, have this inquisitiveness. We simply have to see what our environment is like so we will know what to cook! Surfers, climbers, farmers and everyone living close to the land have the same affliction.

I went fishing. We didn’t catch anything and I didn’t care. I was on the water, surrounded by the astonishing sight of blue. Blue everywhere: The water, the sky, the fish we didn’t catch but saw breaking water, the horizon; which was broken with sunlight hues of different shades of blue, it seemed.

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My exploration bug was unleashed. When cooks move to a new area, it is a panicky experience. You’ve left all your contacts, relationships with food suppliers, farmers, ranchers, small dairy farms and your own carefully tended gardens behind. I wondered, “What will I eat?”

Thankfully, due to the connections that all cooks, farmers, and all the other people at the still-beating heart of food and their innate kindness to strangers of all kinds, it didn’t take long to find out. We found meat suppliers…

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A guy that makes unbelievable soups. My favorite is the stone soup, by far. A story later on this…

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An unbelievable breakfast.

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I had a few strange lunches, but this one took the prize. I ordered a hot dog and I received this rather unexpectedly. It’s an all beef hotdog, wrapped in cheese and pretzel dough and then deep fried. Served alongside pickled eggs. Why not?

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Finally, I found what I was looking for that particular day. An apple grower. I met them at the farmer’s market and they cheerfully invited me to their orchard, exhibiting the hospitality that I have encountered all over the eastern shore in the few weeks that I have been there. I’ve found that people who live close to the earth, no matter where they abide, have one thing in common: Food. They sent me on my way with one bushel of assorted Black Twig and a variety of tart reds. Christmas presents await beneath their shiny, natural, waxless, local, unpolished, amazing surfaces. Of course I ate 3 or 16 before I got home and they were as I expected. Marvelous. They also hooked me up with a rare treat: Apple Doughnuts. In Nolan’s words, “Yeah, yeah, wow!!”

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He’s a happy boy.

Chicken Stock

Ronandproduce

It was another deep Fall day. I don’t know how else to describe those days of late autumn, when the trees have sadly dropped their colorful accessories to the ground like millions of tiny faux diamonds abandoned as the beautiful debutant moves away to a new party and a new season. One with wood smoke; cold, long nights; and the winter Holidays.

Deep Fall is a melancholy time, but it is also one of my favorites. It’s a time of hunting, harvesting, gathering and storing for the winter to come. We usually aren’t completely prepared, those of us who enjoy thinking we live off the land around us, and it comes as some surprise when the first snows are upon us.

Firewood is stacked in the shed. A pig is happily fattening himself in the lot, enjoying his days of pampering and care before he makes the ultimate sacrifice so that we may nourish ourselves through the cold season until spring. The chickens are grumpily pecking around the yard, irritated by the sudden change in weather. There is a turkey or three scavenging in the back lots, with their wild brethren close by, awaiting harvest time.

It’s a wonderful time, a scary time, a time to rejoice in what you have accomplished and look forward to a New Year as the ball drops to mark another trip around the sun.

Then there are the Holidays. Oh, dear, God. The Holidays! The word brings both joy and a shudder in most people. Professional cooks are stealing themselves for long, hot driven shifts that will leave them exhausted, staggering, footsore and happy all at once. Suburban Moms are wondering just how they are to manage the schedules they set for themselves months ago, when this time of year seemed so far away. Chasing children, carpooling, working, cooking, buying: It is a time of great stress.

Then there is chicken stock. Take a day off. You can still work. You can still answer the phone, check email and have a productive day. The day you are stressed, overworked and overwhelmed by the stress of the season – make stock.

Chicken stock is a staple of our diet. At least it should be. It makes risotto better, gravies richer, soups more delicious, and everything better. Chicken and dumplings are suddenly unbelievable. Chicken noodle soup becomes divine.

Don’t use the shit they sell in the store. Organic or not, it’s mostly salt. It is flash steamed with mechanically separated chicken, condensed into a liquid, end loaded with tons of sodium. It’s not any good. I’ve never looked at a box of chicken broth and thought, “I’m going to drink that!”

Homemade chicken stock has depth, flavor, and character and makes you feel safe and warm and fuzzy and sleepy and happy all at the same time. It’s like a favorite blanket by a fire. It’s also crazy easy to make.

You’ll need a couple of chicken carcasses, or, better yet, four chicken backs and a pound or so of liver, gizzards and hearts. Carrots, celery, garlic and herbs round out the basic recipe. The wonderful thing is, you can easily modify it to your taste! Here is my basic recipe:

  • Four chicken backs (I buy mine at the market).
  • One pound of assorted chicken liver, hearts and gizzards.
  • Eight carrots, tops removed, one-inch chop.
  • One half-pound of celery, one-inch chop.
  • Assorted root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips and radishes.
  • Rosemary.
  • Thyme.
  • Sage.
  • Garlic, four heads, peeled and split in half.
  • Then, my secret ingredients: Ginger, (About two ounces by weight or a small root, peeled and chopped), Cinnamon sticks (four), Dried hot peppers (I use four, if you want it hotter, go for it), Eight Bay Leaves, two lemons (cut into slices) and two apples, cut into slices). Two leeks, cut in a one-inch dice with the tops discarded.
  • Peppercorns, salt, garlic salt, cucumber salt, oregano, paprika and other spices to taste.

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Place the chicken in a five gallon heavy stock pot. Using about two tablespoons of olive oil, stir and cook until lightly brown, but NOT burnt. This will turn your stock an unsightly dark brown and leave a bitter aftertaste.

Throw in the onions, garlic, celery, root vegetables and simmer for about ten minutes. Dump everything else in. Fill the pot with water and bring it to a low boil. Reduce to a simmer. Walk away. Stir every hour or so to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. Enjoy a house full of wonderful smells. Go for a walk. Taste the stock. Season to taste.

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Reduce by half, about two gallons. Strain the solids carefully without pressing them. This will add cloudiness to your stock.

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Pour into containers of your choice and either freeze of refrigerate it. Pour yourself a cup. Or two. Sit on the couch with a book and a remote control. Pretend you are snowed in and you just made it all on a wood stove, as my mother did. Here are some tips for storage:

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There are endless ways to store stock. You can freeze it in one-pint wide mouth jars (this is important, some jars will break when freezing), freezer bags, ice cube trays, and refrigerate it for about three weeks. It’s great for everything but cereal. Maybe even cereal.

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Enjoy your holidays!!

Do We Really Want to Eat the Rainbow?

About ten years ago, my new boss and older friend charged into my office with a look of confrontation. He slammed a small report on my desk. “Sign this!” It was an order, not a suggestion. I shrugged, nodded my head and began reading the document. “Don’t READ it! Just sign it!” I was a bit flummoxed. “Why not proof it?” His face was a little red and he was somewhat perturbed. A master poker player, it took years of study to gather a tell on his emotions, but I could. I pressed a bit. “Is there something wrong with it?” I turned it upside down and pretended to study it. I’d already seen a few typos and corrections that needed to be made. He looked at me in consternation. “I’m asking you to sign it, not read it. I’ve worked on that THING (He spat the word out like it made him sick) for days and I want it gone.”

I signed it. Nothing happened. The world didn’t end, we didn’t get sued, nobody bombed us again and all went back to normal. But that thing bugged the hell out of me.

I have a serious weakness. Despite all my worry over what to feed my family and what to eat myself in order to promote good health and a positive lifestyle as free from the system of doctors, pills, processed food, supplements, subsidies and everything else that compromises us on a daily basis, I like Skittles.

Especially the sour ones.

I like the rainbow. I can taste it. Sometimes, to my wife’s astonishment, I crave them. I consume them in secret. I hide them. Then I fret that they are there and wonder when I should eat them. A walking textbook example of an addiction. To a hard shell candy. I admit it.

Until today. My son and I were running errands, playing around in the yard and basically just enjoying this surprisingly beautiful November day. As was my custom, I picked up a box of Skittles.

IMG_0535[1] I readied myself for the explosion of sourness on my taste buds. I may have been salivating a bit. I’m not sure. I did make sure that Nolan was asleep in his car seat and so would not witness his Dad succumbing to temptation like Samson with a stripper. I didn’t want to wake up bald, powerless, blind and chained to a post.

On a whim, I flipped the box over. I read the ingredients.

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What the snowball? Each package says that there are 160 calories per serving. It is marked on the front of the box. That’s not bad, right?  Not bad. I suppose, if you are ok with eating nine different food dyes, corn syrup, hydrogenated palm kernel oil (what the hell is that?), corn starch, tapioca dextrin, sodium citrates, wax and citric acid.

Let’s dig deeper. What is a serving? The back says that each serving is one-quarter of a cup and there are 2.5 servings per box. Some quick math gives me 400 calories per box Holy shit. That’s more than a hamburger. For fun, I measured the contents of the box. By volume, which is what the serving size implies in units, it’s volumetric. So, I poured them into the handy OBO measuring cup from http://www.doughmesstic.com. Susan is a great source for kitchen tools and samples to work with. She gave me this after a visit to my station in the kitchen where she discovered that I didn’t have a measuring cup.

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This is where things started to get even weirder. Much like my old boss with his report, I was starting to wish I hadn’t read the damn ingredient list. Now I just wanted to throw it away. Yes, the picture is fuzzy, like those “Mysterious Mythical Creature” photographs. Why is Bessie always out of focus?  By my measurement, and like Tony Stark, my math is always right, there was less than a half a cup in the whole box. There should have been 3/4 of a cup. Was there still 400 calories in the box?

Now, the challenge: What to do with it Some ideas bounced around in my head. Throwing it outside and measuring in years how long it would take to break down in a natural environment was one of them. But I was still hungry. So I melted them. I was expecting a sticky syrup, and my challenge was to make a sweet and sour chicken dish.

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Melting didn’t take long at all. I added enough water to cover in the measuring cup, then placed it over low heat. In about 15 minutes, the strange chemical combination was actually boiling! That was disturbing, espcpecially given that it was over low heat. I pressed on in the name of science. I poured it back into the nifty measuring cup by OBO, which allows you to read measurements sideways (How cool is that!) and let it stand for two hours. It was still a liquid. I feel like Alice.

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So, I placed the goo in the fridge and waited on it to cool. After an hour, it was still a liquid. I tasted it. it didn’t even coat the spoon and it did NOT taste like sour skittles. In any way. I tasted like cereal milk that didn’t have any milk. I most certainly did not want to feed this concoction to my family, and I no longer wanted to eat it myself. My strange addiction, gone.

I poured the thing down the drain for someone else to deal with. Much like my report that I signed so long ago. Sometimes, it’s best not to know. But, knowledge is power, right? Would the knowing affect the eater? Probably not.

I know this: I’ll never eating that shit again.

Next up Who knows? I promised a chicken stock post on Friday, and I shall deliver. Let’s see how my strange new world effects my story telling tomorrow.

 

Holiday Cooks Hat

Here I’ve been for the last few weeks, getting over some surgical procedures, becoming accustomed to a new town (Easton, MD) and generally puttering about until I get my health back. Or some semblance of it. I’ve been steadily feeling better, and with careful maintenance of food and liquids, I’ll be back to what I now call normal.

Lets talk about the Holidays for a moment, shall we? If you aren’t a cook, I’m sorry for you. These early winter days are my favorite time of the year to crack open jars of preserves from the summer and years past, try new foods, can late season apples in the forms of applesauce, apple butter, apple jam and enjoy the company of family and friends.

This year, don’t let it all sneak up on you. If you haven’t already started preparing, do it now! It’s not too late, but it’s getting there. Don’t panic on me, ok? We have lots of time. A cook would have all day, every day to prepare for changing menus and wild crowds and even she is going to be stressed and gloriously victorious after each shift during this season of festivities. To make things easier, put on your cooking hat and apron and get cranking on this list:

  • Make chicken broth. Nothing could be easier and it will taste unbelievable better than the sodium-stuffed broth you buy in the store. I don’t care how many organic stickers and packaging they put on it.
  • Get to know your suppliers a little better. Chat with your butcher now, before he is slammed with orders. Chances are, you’ll get a deal for bulk orders. Order specialty items ahead of time, before the “I need it TOMORROW” crowds get there. Peking Duck, Mallards, Heritage Turkey, Venison, Boar, Trotters, Grains, vegetables, whatever else you may need, plan now. Order meat products now, and ask vegetable vendors what will be available. Pumpkins, squash, onions, garlic, late winter greens, apples, pears, potatoes – all that stuff is still available and most of it will keep. Grab some late season tomatoes while they are out there and you will be your own best friend.
  • Plan your menu. For days you will be hosting, plan your menu now. Would you like to master a new cooking trend or carving skill to impress people with? Do a test run as soon as you can. Don’t let the day of the event be the first time you’ve tried making poached eggs over scrapple on a bed of grilled leeks. Want to learn to carve a turkey? They are cheap right now in grocery stores. Buy a cheap one, cook it and practice. Your family will love you, you can make stock, soup and turkey salad with the leftovers.
  • Stock up on pots and pans that you need.Don’t buy gadget items! Visit a kitchen supply store if you can.
  • Plan your drink menu. Do you have non-alcoholic beverages that go with the meal? Talk to your beer and wine store. Chances are they will be happy to help you now. In a few weeks, they’ll be slammed for time.
  • Want to try some new cookies? Try them now. Specialty cooks can be a pain! Be careful what you promise! http://ramblinron.com/2013/12/18/christmas-cookies/
  • Get with your baker and pick her brain for bread and all things baked. Pre-order so you aren’t forgotten.

I could go on and on but let’s stop right there. Get these things done and you will be golden. Don’t worry: I’ll walk you through it in the next few weeks.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Ron

Montana Bound

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The room sat in stunned silence, with glowering faces and bristling tusks where the smooth, baby-like features of esteemed scholars had sat only moments before, unruffled in their carefully mussed clothes and hair, with a few suits scattered here and there as if for decoration, horribly placed. I felt like I had taken a shit in a display toilet with my back to the street, amongst the hallowed stones of Georgetown, DC. In Restoration Hardware. The City of Angels would hardly blink at such a display, so accustomed to the antics of rock stars and people climbing over one another like an army mindless ants, each clamoring for a moment of attention.

The memories of times of confrontation just like this, along with my rabid hatred for bullies, ricocheted around my mind a few times, like a spent bullet, badly aimed. Then they faded. The truth was, I really no longer cared. I had found what I came to seek from the enlightened ones, our modern planetary scientists, the esteemed ones, and I had found them lacking in the ability to find the front door, much less help solve my questions. Their only real care was funding: Who gave it, who had it, and most importantly, what could they do to get it. Real science has mostly dissolved into a quest for money, the greatest evil to any entity in pursuit of knowledge.

The blackboard, normally my salvation when a team of scholars scowled in scorn, seemed undecipherable to me. I suddenly wished for other days, when I was younger, a kid, with only a dog and a miles of forest, abandoned mines and old coal waste piles to explore. I had learned to downplay any attempt to gauge my intelligence by that point, content in not being bullied, called a nerd or getting beaten by the playground monsters, the hulks from grades forward who should no longer be there, left behind in a system that routinely left such grounded in a rapidly deteriorating childhood.

Those days of systematic battle were over, but they left their mark on me. It was to be found in a suddenness of breath when I was verbally assaulted and a painful urge to resort to physical violence. There was nothing to prove in that recourse, with only a dimly lighted cell awaiting my return.

I took several deep breaths, all the way from my abdomen to the top of my skull, holding them until brief lights flashed and steadily gained my composure. Several arguments had broken out in my sudden and temporary absence, all of which appeared to be directed at me. My advisor sat stony-faced, his OCD firmly in charge of his every moment, with hearing aids that appeared as alien sentinels on the sides of his narrow head. He took pride in his disability and broadcasted his lack of hearing with the ostentation of Socrates, proclaiming things must be so, for he enunciated them.

My voice found its own, a gift from my father, the thunderous minister; capable of holding a crowd of restless hypocrites silent and still as though bound. My voice was stronger: Where such a projection of sound would render my Dad nearly mute for days, I had found that I could do the same with no physical ill effects. At least not during the duration. I had to be angry to do that, and anger always did and always will leave its mark on my physical and psychological persona.

I turned back to the calculations, carefully written the night before. Slightly to mostly inebriated, I had stolen into this room out of habit, to see where the exits were, decide who would be sitting where based on my interpretation of their personality and most importantly, find the physical space that I wanted my personal to rest during the trial leading to my academic crucifixion.

Beyond the blackboard, a teaching utensil doomed for extinction, I could see the mountains and wondered where I would go from here. I prepared to bury myself. To burn the bridges and light the prairies with flame, never to return to this shame of higher education.

I turned, underlined a few sentences I felt were key, and figuratively threw myself to the wolves.

“Pride Goes Forward Until A Fall.”

I could almost hear my Dad speaking those words. I departed as arrogantly as I had arrived, but with the sinking feeling that I would no longer be welcome in the halls of academia again. Not in my chosen field anyway, maybe not ever. Like all scientists, my academic world was small, with the same people populating it year after endless year, a parade of white men in wigs, contorting for various branches and government in vain attempts floundering for surplus funds awash in the forgotten bank accounts open in the name of science.

The doors swooshed shut behind me as I grabbed my pack, favorite pens and a few notebooks out of my work area. I puzzled around the room for a moment, wondering what had happened, how I had become so discontent so fast. The last vestiges of a hangover were clearing my brain and I decided to forego my nightly ritual of drinking myself silly and instead drag out some maps and see where I wanted to go.

Bob sat rather desolate on the curb as I finished packing, as it were. My chainsaw, tool boxes, gear and sleeping pad were in their places in the back of the Suburban, a truck that represented all that seemed right to me. My cast iron skillets and old chef’s knife were backed away in their place in the box between the front seats. Rocky leapt over the tailgate as he always did, tongue hung out, but happily puzzled. It hung over the three of us like a sticky cloud of methane, trapped and angry with its release.

I didn’t blame her. For better or for worse, she had spent the majority of her formative young adult years following me like a lost puppy. Her words, not mine. We were both bleary eyed from fighting and lack of sleep, but I was still unbelievably happy inside. I missed her already, but the future once again opened up for me like a lost horizon, something I dreamed of exploring from my perch in the old oak tree on the ridge above my childhood home.

Bob sat forlornly, so small in her sadness that it broke my heart. For better or worse, we had parted ways, for one of the last times. I drove east, arm out the window, Rocky panting happily and pacing madly about the back of the truck. He finally realized that it was to be a long trip and crossed the folded up seat back into the passenger seat, staring forward through the windshield.

Montana was somewhere in the distance, a cold and rather desolate place, from what I had heard. I place to lose yourself for a while, if needs be. I had pulled some strings with connections the night before and found a destination: A working ranch in the middle of nowhere.

We passed through Nevada like ghosts, following the headlights as they pointed the way forward. The diesel engine growled along, comforting in its stability and reliability. Forty gallons of fuel sloshed in the tank and forty more were loaded in old red jerry cans, strapped carefully to the rear of the truck to avoid asphyxiation in the main cab.

The stars were visible once more. Alcohol was, for now, a forgotten crutch. I did swing by a casino for an all you can eat breakfast buffet. It was forgettable. Unless you count the artificial rain forest all around people gorging themselves. I felt eerily cannibalistic.