Monday, August 3, 2015

A Wedge of Cheese, an Ounce of Courage (Rockhill Creamery Visit)

Remember Pete the Cheese Guy?

Richards Hollow Trail Pete Schropp of Rockhill Creamery (1)

As you probably know, behind every good cheese, lies… a productive ungulate.

Rockhill Creamery Visit 048

Last week, I got to meet the little herd that supplies Cache Valley (and more than one chef in Jackson, WY) with its very own artisanal raw milk aged cheeses.

Being a cheese enthusiast (and who isn’t?), as well as having just made a batch of (amateur) cheese myself the week before, I was quite excited to mount the Ducati and head up to Richmond.  This visit was long overdue!

Rockhill Creamery Visit Ducati Arrival
Arrival! A flower and vegetable garden greets visitors.

Pete was incredibly generous with his time, showing me all around his wonderful operation. Everything was spotless and well tended, with a cheerful air about it.  Jennifer smiled at me from the window of the cheese making room and pointed out Pete’s tiling handiwork: golden wedges of cheese tumbling across the walls. Their work in restoring the 1893 James & Amy Burnham Farmstead to a working micro-dairy not only provides us great gastronomic reward,  but won them a  National Preservation Award in 2011.

There’s something contemplative, even meditative about making cheese: warming the milk to the correct temperature, one degree at a time, stirring gently, gently; patiently waiting during the culturing and renneting of the milk; carefully cooking, draining, and pressing the curds; flipping and washing the rounds; and the long, long wait, as the cheese ages.   Good cheese whisperers don’t make magic happen, as much as lovingly create the conditions that allow it to happen*. It’s an art best left to the gentle spirited and patient, and Pete and Jennifer fit the bill.

The creamery hosts an apprentice**, who gets to live above the cheese cave. Oh, midnight snack!  Also residing in the cave is the work of just six Brown Swiss ladies. Each one produces some 50-80 pounds of milk a day, allowing Pete and Jennifer to make 200 pounds of cheese a week.  Some of the wheels will rest here for well over a year, becoming ever more delicious by the day.

Rockhill Creamery Cheese Cave
To be fair, my photo barely shows half of the cheese wheels in the aging room.  Higher math indicates we can only hold three cows accountable.

But the girls won’t work for free. In addition to enjoying open pastures, they eat hay. Lots of it.

Rockhill Creamery Visit Hay Barn
From sunlight comes cheese, via grass, cows, milk, and microflora.  Think upon this next time you savor a golden, creamy wedge.

I confessed a little phobia of mine to Pete.  I’m not at all fond of bovine encounters on the hiking trail.  Just this week, I had to run the gauntlet no fewer than three times. The amount of courage I need to summon in such situations is not insubstantial.  Unlike most wildlife, whose intentions of flight or predation are well communicated, cows just stare at you. For a long time. Menacing? Dumb? For the inexperienced, it can be hard to tell.  But look at me today!

Rockhill Creamery Cow Friend
Cows are anvil heads.  Pete was good enough to remind me more than once to keep my own blockhead out of Ella's way, lest she shake at a fly, and put me out of work for a week. Thunk!  I don't need another head injury just yet.

My victory ride down Blacksmith Canyon was met with a terrible sign: “Loose Gravel, Next 12 Miles.”  The Ducati and I stayed disappointingly and cautiously vertical. But my hunk of Zwitser Gouda didn’t seem to mind.

Rockhill Creamery Zwitser Gouda
Aged at least 12 months. So delicious!

The Rockhill Creamery Farmstand is open to the public on Saturday mornings during the warmer months, and hosts the Richmond Harvest Market.  Do pay them a visit!

**For a truly beautiful and touching description of cheese making and pastoral life, read “Goat Song,” by Brad Kessler.
*Hm.  A germ of an idea forms.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Lost River Range – Found!

My packing is going  exactly as it went one year ago to the day. The GoPro mount is fiddly-fussy, and seems intent on keeping me from actually steering the Ducati, no matter what configuration of awkward connector pieces I choose. The day is getting on, and I’m this close to tossing the irritating contraption in the top box to deal with later.    A shift in my schedule has blessed me with an unexpected three day weekend, and I intend to use it. I recall my regret from last year, swear softly, and persevere.  The sun is high in the sky by the time the jumble of pieces takes a usable, if not ideal form, but this year, the Lost River* Range will not go unphotographed.

I cross the border into Idaho, and the landscape subtly shifts.  The valley is tilting this way and that in a dizzying fun-house sort of way.  Were it not for the lush grasses and smattering of farm houses, one would think the extinct volcanoes surrounding me had burst through the earth’s crust in a cataclysmic event some time around last Tuesday.  But all is quiet.

I’ve got a great tail wind, but I don’t realize it until I take a slow left hand turn into my first gas stop.  An invisible hand pushes the Ducati to a lean angle unsustainable at its slow speed. I catch it with my foot, but had I been on a taller bike, I probably would be spending the next few minutes unloading it, picking it up, and inspecting the damage.   I pull up to the lee side of a gas pump, but it doesn’t seem to help. When I dismount, I’m practically pinned to the bike by the wind. We’re holding each other up now, and I don’t know how to even begin the complicated maneuver of removing a glove, extracting a credit card, and filling the tank without at least one of us falling over.  I struggle to reposition the loaded bike at a better angle, and manage, but barely. I take a deep breath and dart 100 miles across the Snake River Plain in the crosswind.

It seems I am not the only one affected by the wind.  In a real life cinematic freeze frame moment, all time, sound, and motion abruptly stop. I’m face to face, eye to eye, with a hawk.  For a split second that feels like minutes, we contemplate each other from our surprisingly short range perspective. This huge bird can’t be more than two feet directly in front of me. Then, just as abruptly, the tape rolls again, now in double-time. I duck down, the hawk swoops upward, and the encounter is over before it began. I wonder how the hawk’s experience compared with mine.

It’s raining now, and the streets are flooded.  I motor slowly, carefully, through small running rivers at every turn.  Splashing arcs of water land directly in my boots and just as soon as I wipe my visor, it’s covered in raindrops again.

By the time I reach Joe T. Fallini Campgound at the Mackay Reservoir, the sun is shining through the clouds.

From one side of my tent, I see this:

Lost River Range, Idaho

And from the other, this:

Joe T Fallini Campground Mackay Reservoir

I reflect on my last blog post as I pour the water out of my boots. Heat, cold, rain, flooding, all in the first 100 miles. Yep, it’s good to be touring again!

I’ve been feeling hurried since February, and I’ve no intent on feeling that way this morning. My plan is to ride around, somewhere, for a while, and get back to camp before the afternoon thunderstorms pop.  Maybe I’ll loop around the Sawtooth Mountains, maybe I’ll finally take that dip in Sunbeam Springs, or perhaps I’ll investigate the valley to the east of the Lost River Range. It really doesn’t matter, because every direction is a win around here.

Remembering yesterday’s wind, I reinforce my tent with guy wires, and a few rocks for good measure.  I gear up, mount up, and the Ducati decides to point north.

It’s not soon before I realize my heart is simply not equipped to process beauty at this order of magnitude.  It hurts. I want to know this land intimately, in a way that would take a lifetime, or even generations. Every creek, and every flowering meadow, the song of every bird, the view from each towering peak, the texture of the boulders sprinkled in the river below me, the hiding places of its tender spring greens, earthy mushrooms, and sweet berries… I want to simultaneously savor it all slowly, and gobble it up, in the way I want to eat an entire pie, bursting each tangy sweet just picked cherry between my teeth, letting its juices tingle my tongue, and then finishing the rest of it, directly, no fork involved, as a blue ribbon winning pie eating contestant.

I need to distract myself, so my mind turns to the fresh asphalt before me.  I downshift, release the clutch just so, and seek the edge of my rear tire.  I’m a swallow racing the river around each sweeping bend.  But it offers little reprieve.  I’m simply trading one agonizing form of joy for another.  Later, I’ll vomit words into my notebook, but the relief will be temporary. Before I’ve ridden only a few miles again, the bile of useless ineffective words will rise up in my brain.
It’s only recently occurred to me to ask gas station attendants for dining recommendations, but it’s starting to seem like a good strategy. As I step into Bertram’s Brewery in Salmon, ID**, I notice there’s a “Juis Suis Charlie” sign in the window. I chat with the equestrians, motorcyclists, and pilots seated around me, and enjoy delicious, if not Baja-Certified-Authentic, fish tacos. I like this place!
The ghosts of Lewis and Clark beckon from the Montana border.  It’s just a short ride away, and I want to test my own skills on the same mountain passes that proved so formidable to them in 1805.  But the stormy clouds in the sky direct me back south, and I pass, for the second time today, the sign proudly declaring “45th Parallel. Halfway between the Equator and North Pole!”  It’s okay, August and I have big plans.

It may not look like it, but I'm pointed to the good weather in this photo.

I’ve got time to wander around the “Battleground Cemetery***” north of the reservoir when I get back, and chat with two huckleberry picking ATM riders, and their dachshund riding buddies.

Battleground Cemetary Mackay Reservoir Idaho

I get back to camp, confirm my tent is still standing, and prepare to ride into Mackay for some groceries.  My trip was hastily planned, and there’s not enough food left in the top box for both dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow.  The group next to me extends an dinner invite. “Why, yes, I think I would like to join you!” Dutch oven cooking is a formidable skill and these people have mastered it.  The meat is tender, the vegetables flavorful, and there’s just enough bacon added to make it sing savory songs in my mouth.

Dutch Oven Dinner

We look across the water into the hills directly west, and – Lo! – It’s the Ghost Horse of Mackay Reservoir!  He’s been living out there, wild, for over a decade. Another camp neighbor offers his binoculars. There’s no question now. A white horse has wandered down the hill for an evening graze upon the green grass alongside the reservoir. I squint a bit. Could it be… a unicorn?

Ghost Horse Mackay Reservoir Idaho
Yes, the white speck on the edge of a water is a horse.

My dining companions are fascinating company, and remind me a bit of musicians, doing all manner of odd things to make ends meet. This week,  they’re a paving crew, waiting out the daily rain to begin work. Other months of the year, they drive sugar beet trucks from field to Paul, ID, home of the biggest sugar beet processing plant in the US. (And you thought Idaho just grew potatoes.) Like bees to the hive, they scurry back and forth in a frenzy, feeding our country’s addiction to sugar.  Veritable mountains are moved on a daily basis.  One camper is a former ski instructor and published author. I share equine photos with a woman who has a side business as a farrier.  A third camper shows off clever little inventions put together in his spare time.  Another tells of how, inexplicably, he is paid twice as much to transport beets as he was paid to transport school children in a yellow bus.  On my way out the next morning, I’ll be delayed by a paving crew. I know they’re not my friends from the night before, but I think upon them warmly. From now on, paving delays will bring me fond memories of these good people.

The light is different tonight on the mountains.

Lost River Range, Idaho 2
When I return home, GoPro photos (most of which prominently feature my gloved index finger) and Lost River Range panoramas aside, I’ll have done nearly nothing to capture the reality of this ride.

Ducati at Fallini Campground Mackay Reservoir Idaho

My eyes are drooping, even before it’s dark. I stick my arm out my tent to capture tonight’s subtle sunset.

Sunsest from Tent

This trip home seems to be about picking up loose ends.  I stop at Pickle’s Place, home of not just the Atomic Burger****, but John’s Steak and Seasoning Spice as well. I’ve been curious about this little roadside stop in the past, and I need both breakfast and to charge my phone, which has decided not to work at ambient temperatures below 50F.

World Potato Museum? The Ducati and I come to an abrupt stop.

The place is packed!

Idaho Potato Museum Blackfoot, ID

There are informative panels on the history, farming, (potatoes are often grown in rotation with sugar beets, which explains a thing or two!),  and processing of the world’s favorite tuber; impressive collections of potato mashers, peelers, farming implements, and Mr. Potato Heads; and, of course, a wildly outdated constantly looping film. I find myself hoping I get a free potato upon exit. I do, sort of...

I take in a few other points of interest that I’ve never stopped at before.

Red Rock Pass

Red Rock Pass is a two-for-one deal. To see an overlook of the pass, you climb up the steep stairs of Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association Marker No. 119, dedicated to Mormon Battalion Caption Jefferson Hunt.

Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Marker 119

Here, the ancient Lake Bonneville burst forth, flooding the Snake River Plain.

Red Rock Pass

The Battle of Bear River has been aptly renamed to The Bear River Massacre.   An estimated 450 Shoshone were killed here in 1863.  There is a nice interpretive site on a small hill overlooking the area.  It’s hard to think about, even now.

Bear River Massacre Site
It's difficult to imagine violence in this peaceful, green valley.

I take a final detour victory lap to Bear Lake for lunch. After the informative video at the Potato Museum, my menu choice is obvious.

Bear Lake Fries

*Why is it lost? Both the Big and Little Lost Rivers dive underground at the Big and Little Lost Rivers sinks near Arco, ID.  They emerge again about 100 miles downstream at Thousand Springs, near Hagerman, ID.
**”Birthplace of Sacajawea!”
***Battleground Cemetery
**** From the menu: “Arco, Idaho, became the first city in the world to be lighted by atomic energy on July 17th, 1955.” Atomic City, ID is not far away, nor is the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 Atomic Museum.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Touring: Why We Do It

(Annual Migration 2015…. errr, Return Migration 2013)

The pain of this year’s Annual Migration can be summed up in one photo.

Delta Flight

Even worse, not one of my motorcycles is here in Utah with me. (Yet.)

So, I’ll sit and dream for a bit, I guess.

To date, I’ve been reluctant to pay tribute to heart-lifting exuberance, the melancholy sweetness, the humbling wonder that is motorcycle touring, because, frankly, I’m not equipped to do so. The lonely open road? The wind through your... helmet?  The majesty of the American West?  These phrases are both terribly trite and painfully insufficient.  Why do I ride for hundreds of miles a day, often in heat, cold, rain, and discomfort, anyway?  For my Annual Return Migration, 2013, Pilot Guy followed me home in my Fearsome Toyota.  Turns out he wasn’t just driving, but snapping photos of me, too.  Elusive words, you fail me! This! This! These photos say everything I can not.

Ducati El Capitan Agathla Peak Kayenta AZ
El Capitan/Agathla Peak, near Kayenta, AZ

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sonoran Reina de la Noche (Consolation Prize No. 2)

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

If you saw last post, you know I’ve decided to spend my usual spring motorcycle play time in a voluntary musical incarceration*.  My consolation prize?  Bacon.

This weekend, the Sonoran Desert brought me a second consolation prize. I’ve lived in Tucson for enough years to lose count, and I’ve never witnessed “Bloom Night.”  I’ve simply always skipped town by the then**.

Peniocereus greggii, a type of night blooming cereus, looks like a dead scrappy twig for 364.5 days of the year***.  But after sundown, on one sole, mysterious, synchronous, meta-bloom**** noche, she is the Sonoran Queen of the Night.    Somehow, all the plants in the area know…. tonight’s the night!  Her goal? To be pollinated by the Hawk Moth. Oh, sweet signal-scent, filling the night!  Oh, secretive and wondrous desert!

No one knows how she knows… and I have no idea how the staff at Tohono Chul, keeper of the largest collection of these special cacti, knows when to declare Bloom Night. But they do, and send a silent call through the air*****, a bit like the flowers themselves, just a few hours before the first petals begin to open. Hundreds of people cancel their plans and flock to the gardens to witness the event. And, finally, I was one of them.

Because of the crowds, getting good photographs of the event is nearly as tricky as photographing sun beams in Antelope Canyon (oops, haven’t published that one yet!).  I did manage a few though, so you wouldn't be stuck scratching your head over the silly painting shown above.  Here's a slideshow of the real thing.  Enjoy!

*It seemed like a good idea at the time?
** Not a bad plan. It’s supposed to be 109F here all week.
***I recently learned that underneath those gangly awkward twigs, lies a large turnip type root. My first question, “Can you eat it?,” remains unanswered.
****My neighbor's phrase.
****Email. Get on their list.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

When Time is on Your Side, Bacon (and other things) Happen

I’ve voluntarily given up my annual spring motorcycle camping trip in favor of solitary confinement to a practice room.   No winding my way northward with Li'l Burro on the Utah Backcountry Discovery route, nor overshooting my migration destination with the Ducati, perhaps finally exploring Bear Highway in Montana, no, no, not me.* But as small consolation, I’ve found much can happen in my kitchen, while I’m in the next room practicing the flute.

It all started this winter, when I scored almost two gallons of fresh, raw milk from our CSA.
Heat and culture the milk, then go examine at length the difficulties of keeping your 5ths and 3rds in tune in E-Flat major.  Milk magic happens on its own.

Add some rennet, then enjoy G Major as a reward.

Cut the curds, drain the whey, press the curds, and go work on the crazy technique you learned back in NYC.

After several days of drying, turning, and brining, you’ve got Bach’s Brandenburg 4 in your pocket, and a nice block of Eating On Two Wheels Greek Style Cheese. (That’s feta, to you and me.)

Fermenting vegetables is even easier. Sprinkle them liberally with salt or brine them, weight them so they stay below the surface of their liquid, step back, and allow the local population of microbes do the work for you.  By the time you’ve re-learned the Stravinsky part you haven’t looked at in a decade, which, admittedly, takes a few days,  you’ll have a spicy radish and root kimchi.  Or curtido, that lightly fermented El Salvadoran slaw one simply must have along side a pupusa.

Operation Curtido Test.  The fancy set up in the photo is wholly unnecessary, but I was only too happy to receive this little birthday gift.

Unlike canning, from which, if you don’t follow the directions exactly, you just might experience the neurotoxic paralysis of botulinum, albeit with a particularly youthful facial complexion, when fermenting, the good guys always win!

Then there’s the adorable little “ginger bug,” a siren song for wild yeasts everywhere.  She’ll be the starter for a half gallon of ginger beer in a day or two.

People, please. I know it’s a hack job, but you get my point. I’ve no time for Photoshop, only time for bacon.

I don’t (yet!) have a temperature and humidity controlled space for fermenting, oh, say, salame (yes!!), but… look what I can do!

Take the Community Supported Agriculture humanely raised pork belly out of your freezer.  Carefully** measure out some curing salts and seasonings, lovingly rub that belly with the mixture, and let it rest comfortably in the fridge.  Don’t come out until you can play the tricky bits from Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.  There are a lot of tricky bits.

Take the belly out, drop it in your good neighbor’s smoker, go practice for a couple more hours, and…

Ding! Practice break!  If you are anything like me, the rest of the story will proceed along these lines:

The delicious smell wafting towards me sparks a wild kitchen circle dance, carving knife held high in the air.  But it’s difficult to slice meat whilst leaping around, so gaining control of my hysteria is paramount. I cut a slice, then reverently lower my weapon.  “Sweet Baby Jesus,” I whisper to myself.  “Bacon happened.”

No good can come of this newly discovered culinary superpower.

But there is still one thing left to do...

Sizzle. <taps watch> Sizzle.

Blessed be the steady supply of Grandpa-Good tomatoes at the Santa Cruz River Farmers' Market

Although it may appear otherwise, I do still ride motorcycles. This picture is not from today’s ride, when, after flying by the Sheriff at twice the speed limit, I sat up quickly, hoping to look like an innocent mushroom hunter***, but from a Kitt Peak ride back in March. Thanks to the good "Olive and Emilie", who I met at the top, for the photo!

Milk - The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, Anne Mendelson: I checked this one out of the library years ago, and have wanted my own copy ever since. I finally plunked down real money for it, and, more importantly, allotted it space on my very small bookshelf this winter. Fascinating information, some recipes, and interesting little kitchen experiments, too.
Dry-Curing Pork, Hector Kent: A purely self-serving gift from Pilot Guy. Clear explanations regarding both “how” and “why.”  I expect to put this book to heavy use.  Features photos of cheerfully smiling people wielding butchering knives in a field.
The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation, both by Sandor Ellix Katz, aka “Sandorkraut”: The former is an absolute Bible, or “in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world,” the latter a small book focusing on actual recipes. I absolutely love this guy, and his philosophy on food, life, and community.  Visit him and a useful support forum online.

*Prepare for neglect, dear flute, because August, you are mine!
**This is no time for eyeballing it, because, if you goof, you’ll stand a chance of enjoying either nitrite toxicity or botulism.  Get yourself an accurate gram scale, if you don’t already have one from, uhhh, other pursuits.  I didn’t trust my aging kitchen scale, but Pilot Guy’s mad scientist laboratory includes, among other things, a three foot wide photo printer, a 3D printer, and a scale once owned by the former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner.  I’m pretty sure that means it’s good for these purposes, too, so long as all traces of plutonium have been removed.
***I came up empty on the mushroom hunt, although I only allowed myself a ten minute foray at one favorite spot. But – rain in June, twice?? – it’s unheard of. The season is off to an early start!  Regarding the sheriff, I guess he was texting. Useful Lemmon Tip: Once you know where he is, you know where he isn’t.  Yeeee-HA!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Harvest on… hooves?

You may remember last spring, when I returned home from my Flatistan Tour of Duty, Li’l Burro and I took a celebratory ride in the desert.

This year*, I once again find myself savoring the wonders of springtime from the saddle.  The blooming desert is almost too glorious to bear**. Oh, happy homecoming!

Easter Hike Hugh Norris-Sendero Esperanza-Dobe Wash-Hohokam Road 044

Eventually, the gaudy display does become unbearable. I may have stomped my foot angrily, and said a little too loudly, to no one in particular: "Would you just look at this ridiculousness?!"***

Easter Hike Hugh Norris-Sendero Esperanza-Dobe Wash-Hohokam Road 059

Cholla blooms outshine their younger siblings, but it’s worth taking notice of the plain green buds, because…

Cholla Harvesting (2)
Can you see the shimmery bead of sap at the base of each bud's thorn?

… you can eat ‘em!  It helps to travel properly equipped****.  Depending on the length of your tongs, harvesting the buds can feel downright dangerous.

Cholla Harvesting (4)

My ride is right at home amongst the wildflowers.

Junior and Wildflowers 002

Not what you expected, eh?*****

* I've been home about a month now.  For a probably never to be blogged Flatistan Eating/Kayaking/Unmotorized slide show, click here.
**Springtime in the Sonoran Desert is not without its dangers. Pilot Guy documented one of our encounters last month
***Seriously, it's ridiculous. For more photos, see here.
****Toss the ciolim, as they are called by the Tohono O'odham, vigorously in a mesh strainer to knock off their spines. Stand upwind!  Or singe or roast them off, if you prefer. You must boil the buds for at least 15 minutes to denature their oxalic acid, and, incidentally, release a wealth of calcium!  I think I'll use mine in a pico de gallo to go with some heavily spiced tepary bean hummus I made recently.
***** Introducing “Junior!”  Li'l Burro can't wait to meet him!  Truth be told, I've been riding Junior sporadically since September, but this week I have officially leased half of him for the next two months. I'll actually be home!  I'll save you the trouble of asking: I'm leasing the left half. Never fear, the iron horses are still being exercised...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Baja Reprise: Seeking Cetaceans on Three Wheels and Two Wings

A tale from The Back Burner (March 2013)

March is a time of year when I have to schedule in my showers, and decide which I have time for on any given day, brushing either my hair or teeth. Days off are few and far between (if any) for weeks at a time, so making a trip to a remote lagoon in Baja to pet whales is really not something that comes up.  Except sometimes.

A group of riders, including Phil, from my recent Baja Unadventure, are heading down to the San Ignacio lagoon at the end of the month, and – what? is it possible?- due to some freak alignment of the planets (and jobs), my days off from my four different positions actually coincide this month! Wumph! I sit down hard in my chair in disbelief.  It must be too good to be true.  Of course, it is. Too good to be true. I look at my calendar again, check the map... Arghhh! I don’t have quiiiite enough time to ride the miles, pet the whales (requiring at least one, possibly two, overnight stays), and get back to Tucson before the clock strikes midnight.  But I was so close!!

Sometimes, good things just need a little adjusting to make them true.  Pilot Guy, who has been courting me these past two months*, says coolly, slyly, “Yanno, we could fly down to pet the whales.”  I raise an eyebrow.  It might be a bit early to be hopping in his Bellanca Super Viking for an overnight, but I don’t care. I’m in!  I was so in, I even agreed to get up at 4am** to begin our adventure.

Our wheels are up before the sun,  and we watch it rise as our little aeroplane crosses over the international border.  Immigration and customs laws designate that we must first land in an international port of entry.  Guaymas is beautiful from the air!  Can you believe this? I’m flying in a private plane to Baja to pet whales. I really can’t wrap my brain around it.  I may be wearing sensible adventure appropriate footwear, but I check my feet for glass slippers, just in case.  Nope. I'm good.

Guaymas Aerial View

Negotiating customs and immigration in Guaymas is a bit of a trick. I speak (some) Spanish, but don’t speak Pilot. Pilot Guy, although obviously well versed in Pilot, is less capable in Spanish. We dance round and round, from window to window, each no more than ten paces from the other, seeking this stamp and that document before we can proceed. I’m not entirely sure, but it sounds like the official at one window is telling us we aren't allowed to fly from Guaymas to the San Ignacio Lagoon.  Huh?  It's something about flight plans, and towered vs. non-towered airports, but I can't discuss the topic intelligently in any language.  We're stumped.  Pilot Guy plays his ace - a call to a pilot friend, who flies to Mexico regularly.  Aha! The the wink and nudge system that, in the US, might have a curious military jet alongside us in no time, wasn't published in the airport directory. Wink and nudge we can, and soon, we’re on our way!

"What do you mean the landing gear won’t go up???"  I suppose this is better than the alternative, but mechanical failure in the air is not the sort of adventure I had in mind when I signed up for this trip.  Pilot Guy starts to circle, and checks in with the folks on the ground.  But before we’ve landed to investigate the problem….Oopsy!   Pilot Guy was right when he said you don’t so much get in a Bellanca as wear it.  During my clumsy entry when departing Guaymas, I’d inadvertently deployed the emergency landing gear switch.  It’s always good to test your equipment, I suppose.

Traveling by private aircraft is part glam rock star…

Bellanca Super Viking Sedona
Feeling glamorous in Sedona, AZ

… and part grubby safari.

Bellanca Baja Laguna San Ignacio

Today was definitely the latter.  This is an airport?  It’s simply a little dirt landing strip and a shack of sorts. But it works for us!

Final Approach Laguna San Ignacio Aeropuerto

Laguna San Igancio Aeropuerto

Our boat is also more safari than rock star.  Our captain pulls it to shore.

Pulling in the Majiben I

Majiben I

We set sail…

Laguna San Ignacio Shoreline

… and before long the whales show themselves. A flipper here…

Grey Whale Flipper Baja

… part of a tail fluke there.

Grey Whale Fluke Baja

Ahoy!  Friend or foe?  Dolphins, too, are leaping about, twice as high as I’ve ever seen them do at Sea World.  I’m spellbound and nearly mute with emotion.  Still, I have no idea what I’m about to experience.

Whale Breaching

They are so friendly and curious, that they mob our little boat. There are 3, 4, 5… all within reach, nearly too close to photograph. Who’s watching who?, I wonder.

Grey Whales Baja

Indeed, I am petting whales - whales far bigger than our little boat. They roll beneath my fingertips, we look each other curiously in the eye, and breathe the same air.  Mothers push their calves towards us, as if for our inspection.  “They feel just like olives!” observes Pilot Guy. He’s absolutely right!

Whale Adoration Experience

Whoosh! I catch a direct blast from a blowhole and sputter.

Whale Blowhole

They roll out of the water and look us. I try in vain to catch their eyes with the camera lens.

Grey Whale Eye Baja
Look carefully - you can see an eye near the center of this photo, if you use your imagination!

Our captain’s wife prepares lunch for us. Eight hours bottle to throttle, says the law.  We’re not flying again until tomorrow, so a beer is perfectly okay, too.

Lunch Laguna San Ignacio (6)
No whales were harmed in the preparation of our seafood lunch, I hope.  It's a bit salty, but we're simply too elated to care. Our meal disappears quickly.

A reconnaissance flyover before landing at the lagoon revealed that the airstrip closer to the town of San Ignacio was obscured with shrubbery. We would be okay to land there, but the Bellanca wouldn't!  Perhaps it's best we hire an SUV to take us across the strange landscape and into town.  There are things to see there, too…

Ride from Laguna to San Ignacio palm trees…

San Iganacio

… and banana blossoms.

Bananna Blossom

And the cathedral.

San Iganacio Church

San Ignacio Church Inside

We try to hunt down the riders at Ignacio Springs, but communication is too difficult here. We savor an amazing date shake near the oasis, instead.

The next morning, we're pretty sure we can spot whales from the air.  The watery loops below us are mesmerizing, like misty contrails melting into the sea.

Laguna San Ignacio Flyover (1)

Bye, bye, lagoon!

Laguna San Ignacio Flyover (2)

Hello moon!

Full Moon Returning to Tucson (2)
Wheels touch down back in Tucson

This is as good as it gets, I think to myself.  Without a motorcycle, anyway.
A fascinating article in the New York Times describes the behavior exhibited by these mysterious creatures, specifically when nursing their young in the San Ignacio Lagoon.   I encourage you to read it. When I came across this poignant story back in 2006, eyes nearly brimming over, I had no idea one day I would experience it all myself.

*Pilot Guy was quite the patient man when we met. Dating during the busy season? Hah! I literally said things like “I can meet you for coffee for 20 minutes a week from Wednesday, if that works for you.”  Not to mention the fact I was ready to ditch him for a motorcycle ride to Baja on my first days off since meeting him.  Lucky for me, he stuck with it.
**No small feat for the work weary sleep deprived musician who was working mornings and nights.