On Friday, Jan. 18, my essay, entitled, “Airstream Dreaming: A different take on finding the perfect home” was the lead story on GrokNation.com, a smart and fun online community for readers of all ages to dive deep into contemporary issues.
As a freelance writer, I’m more used to talking with other people about their stories, but telling our own story has been fun. When we say we don’t have a “bricks and sticks” home anymore and that we travel full-time, people are fascinated, often saying, “You are living the dream!”
The other day I was cruising through food videos on Youtube and came across a Chef John who made pita bread in a cast iron pan on the stove. Folksy and chatty, he made it look so easy to prepare the Middle Eastern staple. After the dough rose and was formed eight dessert-plate-sized circles, he cavalierly tossed them into a hot, lightly oiled pan. After a minute or maybe two, magic: the center of the dough started to puff up and in a few seconds, there was a balloon-shaped, perfectly grilled pita that collapsed on itself when taken off the heat. Houston, we have pocket bread!
Ah. A miracle of physics and just the answer to my need to work with flour, yeast and water. If you know me, you’ll understand. If you don’t, know that making bread — and eating good bread — is one of my favorite things.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a working oven right now. BUT, I have a four-burner stove and a fabulous new carbon steel pan that John gave me for my birthday. Stove-top bread? Why not!?
Out of the gate, the recipe and I were winners. In five out of eight cases, the pita puffed right up. Fresh, homemade bread was now on our menu!
The pitas that morning were delicious stuffed with scrambled eggs and a scattering of cheddar cheese. John kept his breakfast sandwich at that, but I added more to mine — sour cream and sautéed tomatoes, onions, and corn. It channeled both Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisine because…delicious. I treated the three pouchless pitas like flatbread in the subsequent days. Despite their age, they still were really, really good. I scooped up yogurt, homemade hummus, and guacamole one day — don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! — for breakfast. I also made fattoush salad with toasted and torn up pita, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, feta cheese, za’atar spice blend, and a lemon-olive oil-pomegranate molasses dressing. (I made the pomegranate molasses myself and you should too.)
When I ran out of pita, I knew I had to make more. After all, it was so easy the first time. What could go wrong?
Turns out that, unlike the sun, the pita doesn’t always rise.
I re-read the recipe, to make sure I had the process right. I followed all the instructions exactly. I set my timer for proofing the yeast. I let the dough rise for two hours until doubled. I formed eight proto-pita dough balls and let them rest, too. I rolled out the dough and let it rest for five minutes, as instructed. I heated the steel skillet and wiped olive oil across its surface.
I carefully laid the dough in the pan and then…
Don’t get me wrong. The pita browned very nicely on the first side. I flipped the dough and waited for the pita to fill up with hot air like Professor Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs‘s balloon before it accidentally floated up to leave Dorothy seemingly trapped in the Land of Oz.
Just a first try, I told myself. No harm done. It is a great, fragrant flatbread anyway.
The second try will definitely work. I’ll adjust. I’ll let the pan heat up a bit more.
Houston, I think we have a problem.
And now, my friend, you ask if third time was the charm?
Not on your life.
Maybe I was letting the pita rest TOO long? Maybe I was rolling it out too thin? Or too thick? Maybe the pan still wasn’t hot enough?
I cast a jaundiced eye on the fourth flat disc. It looked right. It hadn’t been sitting for too long. Maybe, maybe, this time…?
I held my breath and placed the dough in the pan and — VOILA! — we suddenly had puffage! Oh, happy day! I cracked the problem!
Well, not quite. If this was a blockbuster movie, I would have had perfect pockets for the rest of the cooking session.
The sad truth of that day’s pita production is that only one — yes, ONE — inflated correctly.
Don’t despair. The flat pitas won’t go to waste. I’ll find more ways to enjoy them.
I won’t give up trying to achieve maximum puffiness, though. It just may take a few more times. The first time may have been beginner’s luck but the next times will be informed by experience and using Dr. Google to diagnose the flaws in technique and get tips from more pros. Or, maybe I’ll just have to try making them again, and again, and again.
In the end, I’m eventually get the hang of this ancient food staple. I’m determined.
Last night, we hung out with our Lansdowne friends Marty and Elliot in the amazing countryside near Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keefe spent time painting and creating (including food!) at her home on Ghost Ranch.
The four of us sat under the bright stars and cloudy milky way and had a snacky supper. We tore the failed pita…um, I mean, the successful flatbread into pieces and scooped up various combinations of hummus, red pepper sauce, olives, feta cheese, and slices of turkey or ham cold cuts that Marty and Elliot provided. The pita bread was delicious and perfect even after being stored in a plastic bag (at room temp) for a few days.
Even though the three of them caught sight of shooting stars that night, I didn’t. Still, I kept looking to the stars and thanked my lucky ones that we were able to share a meal with friends under the amazing heavens while enjoying the earthly delights of food nurtured by the sun, water and the soil.
On Sept. 28, 2014, we became the proud owners of a 25-foot 1985 Airstream Sovereign travel trailer. It was the start of our dream of traveling the country, visiting family and friends, and living a mobile lifestyle that was light on the land and let us appreciate the little things.
Flash forward to today, four years later. We have been in New Mexico for a few weeks now, working our way south as the weather gets colder up north, and it’s been cozy and comfortable in our renovated Airstream. We are celebrating this anniversary (which we didn’t know about until Facebook told us!) by staying at the Cochiti Lake Recreation Area, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a 35-mile trip south from Santa Fe.
When we drove the Airstream home, it had all the original fittings, which included a plaid Herculon nylon sofa bed in the front, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a double bed in the back, and one major upgrade: two solar panels.
John worked hard that year and in the intervening time to make it into a home that fit us perfectly. A master electrician, carpenter, and problem solver, he removed the couch and cabinets to refit the entire front space with a desk with storage space for me and a long sofa with storage underneath and a clever pull-out shelf that lets it become nearly a queen bed.
He also designed a queen-sized bed for us that converts to a sofa with the push of a switch. Since then, he’s replaced the hot water heater, fixed a broken weight distribution yoke up by the hitch, installed four new solar panels on the roof, and found out how to fix other problems that have cropped up.
As for the decor, we got help from two sewing geniuses: Heather made all the curtains and Charlotte sewed the cushion covers for the new sofa.
As for me, I washed and painted the inside walls white, decided on the fabric for the drapes and sofa and pulled up all the tacks on the under-flooring so John could install the Pergo wood floor. My biggest job was to organize and pack the trailer’s cabinets and storage spaces with everyday necessities. I also used bins, drawer units, and other containers to corral the food, linens, toiletries, cleaning supplies, cooking equipment, and, of course, my jewelry-making and art supplies. Clothing is easiest: we have two closets and four overhead storage cabinets in our “bedroom” area. Off-season clothing gets put into a bin in our Yukon’s trunk, along with other stuff we don’t use on a daily basis. Frankly, if we didn’t have the large SUV, we would have stuff piled up to our ears in the trailer. Not a pretty sight.
A Day in the Life
When we tell people we travel full-time, most say, “You’re living the dream!” We agree, but it’s not as dramatic as that sounds.
We live a low-key life, despite the glorious scenery that changes with each new park or campground. The days run pretty much like any other for people who work from home. An early start and hot tea let me get cracking early with my writing projects since most of my clients are on East Coast time. John and I usually have two meals a day: a late breakfast and an early dinner. The rest of the time includes the usual — working, meals, cleaning up, and relaxing by reading or streaming shows on our computers. On the days when I’m in between projects, I’ll set up my art supplies at my desk or outside on the picnic table. Art keeps me sane.
While I’m working at my desk, John sits on the sofa behind me, editing his photographs on his laptop, which sits on a foldable table that doubles as a desk and our dinner table. He also works with a few website design clients so updates to those sites take up time.
When we come into a new area, we visit museums and historic/natural sites. We both love archaeology, anthropology and nature. And rocks… We frequently can be seen walking through the campground fields looking for a piece of quartz, mica schist, or jasper that strikes our fancy. Some make their way into my jewelry while others are stored with my craft supplies, waiting for a purpose.
On days when we don’t have work to do, there’s still work to do. Living in beautiful wilderness areas usually means we have to travel a bit to do shopping and errands. The fridge and freezer are small, so I buy groceries a couple of times a week. We refill the two propane tanks every month or so. We keep a careful watch on our waste tanks; they have to be emptied when they are full and that means hitching up, which takes time. The Yukon needs oil changes every few months since we travel so far every year pulling our 6,000-pound Airstream. We’ve also had to get repairs done on occasion. The most dramatic was when we broke down in Altus, OK, with a busted water pump right after a Thanksgiving Day 2015 ice storm.
That was our first — but not our last — experience with the kindness of strangers and the importance of passing it on.
All this is to say that a mobile lifestyle is NOT like being on a vacation. Yes, we still work. We have chores and projects. We have days when nothing exciting happens at all.
We also have ordinary days that turn into extraordinary experiences in just an instant.
A couple of days ago, it was cloudy all day long. Just before 7:00 p.m., we looked out our window and saw a slash of golden amber light from the west cut underneath the storm clouds to illuminate the mountains all around. We ran outside and joined our three next-door campground neighbors to watch the light show change minute by minute.
We saw western clouds with salmon pink underbellies. A stubby rainbow rose from slate-grey clouds over the rocky hills to the east. Feathery torrents of rain fell onto the mountains to the south.
Almost as soon as it started, it was over. But, we stood in the fast-fading light, learning each other’s stories. John and his wife Wally are retired and are full-time travelers. Her sister Linda, who has a home back in Connecticut, joins them for their trips as well. Wally and Linda are Austrian. They travel in a 45-foot Class A RV (aka a really big bus) with slide outs that give them more room inside, including enough space for grandkid sleepovers. They tow a small silver car to do local sightseeing. They enthusiastically tell us about the lunar eclipse they saw in this park in 2015.
Yes, sometimes we stay in a place where we never talk with anyone else. In others, we meet people who have become not just friends on Facebook but also friends in real life.
Most people hear about our travels on Facebook but that just mostly shows the spectacular views we’ve seen or celebrated the experiences we’ve had. This blog is taking a while to get up off the ground, mostly because we’re too busy living every day to update every day. As we go forward, we hope to share more posts more often with you, dear reader.
One thing we’ve learned, though: Life is an adventure, if you want it to be.
On Oct. 14, 2017, we arrived mid-afternoon to the Bisti (Bist-eye) Di Na Zin Wilderness just in time to greet two intrepid explorers returning from their own hike. The couple were very tired and covered with a film of dusty sand, but friendly and willing to chat a bit before collapsing into their truck camper. Despite my research and confirmed GPS coordinates, it’s always good to get the lay of the land from someone with details fresh in their minds.
Maura and I knew it was too late to start a long hike into the wilderness, but our new acquaintances had pointed across the gravel road. There’s a nice collection of hoodoos and other rock formations over there, they informed us, and you’ll be able to shoot them in the light of sunset and still get back before total darkness. We thanked them and gathered our gear for a short hike. The wind had come up strong with the sand and grit blowing. We tied some scarves over our faces.
We crossed the road and started down into a shallow wash, which extended as far as we could see through the dust. After covering a few hundred yards, the wind settled down and the sun glowed bright and yellow straight ahead of us at about thirty-five degrees above the horizon. As we advanced, a low plateau with irregular shaped rock formations appeared ahead and to our right. It rose about 10-feet-high fairly quickly.
It was fairly easy to climb to the top of the plateau using the gently rounded, step-like surfaces of the strange rock formations. Suddenly, we were in the midst of an alien world, the likes of which neither of us had ever seen. In the not-to-far distance stood many scattered flat-topped hills called buttes whose colors ranged from white, yellow and earth-toned to brilliant shades of rusty orange. But the sand castle, drippy shaped rocks that lay all about us were surreal, convoluted and prehistoric.
At first we roamed through this wonderful landscape together. Then each finding a visual treat to be photographed, we explored on our own. Our cameras clicked, a new masterpiece seemingly appearing at every turn. As sundown drew closer, the shadows lengthened, creating new apparitions of odd shapes upon the already indescribable formations.
With twilight almost upon us we found each other, clambered back down into the wash to return to our Airstream. We both talked about what we had seen, the wonderment of it all and how tomorrow was sure to be a much more difficult yet rewarding trek.
To be continued…
— By John G.
The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness was once a river delta that lay just to the west of the shore of an ancient sea, the Western Interior Seaway, which covered much of New Mexico 70 million years ago. A volcano deposited a large amount of ash, overlaying lush organic material. (For more details, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisti/De-Na-Zin_Wilderness.)
It was a long-time dream for me to photograph the landscapes and strange rock formations in the Bisti De Na Zin Wilderness, located in the four corners area of New Mexico. Long before we began traveling full time, I had discovered some amazing images of this far away place in a photo journal. It piqued my interest so I began researching the place, looking on topographic maps and finding other explorers GPS coordinates, because getting to the Bisti Badlands is not a walk in the park. But it is worth the journey!
Coming from Kansas City, after visiting the kids and grandkids, we usually enter New Mexico near the northeast corner, where Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico meet. We always stop in the town of Tucumcari, New Mexico, because it’s a flashback to the good old days, when Route 66 was in its heyday, epitomized by the Blue Swallow Motel.
We spend a few days there, dreaming of how things used to be, then head out on Route 40 West through Albuquerque, then a couple of nights in Gallup, NM, also on old Route 66. To get to the Bisti Wilderness and to try to keep your tow vehicle from bouncing apart, we go North to Farmington, first passing the famous Ship Rock formation then southwest about 35 miles to the gravel road that leads to the wilderness area.
There is one small sign on the highway, so you have to be alert if you don’t have GPS coordinates. If conditions are dry, the road will be passable if not rutted, potholed and very dusty. In about two miles, we spot a signpost and a small area where a few trucks and RVs are parked, but we drove further to a small, unoccupied pullover.
We backed the Airstream in as far as it would go, then stepped out into the dust and wind on the edge of the Bisti De Na Zin Wilderness.
Here’s the very loose recipe for this dish. Serves two and can be adjusted up or down as needed.
Poached Chicken with Ramen Noodles and Peanut Sauce
1) Cut cucumbers and carrots into short strips. I also grated part of the carrot to spread the sweetness better through the dish.
2) In a bowl, mix a few tablespoons of smooth peanut butter, a dash (or two) of toasted sesame oil, a dash of rice wine vinegar, a dash of hot sauce (I use sriracha), a couple of teaspoons of sugar, and a generous dash of soy sauce. Stir, adding a little bit of hot water or sesame oil if the peanut butter doesn’t easily get smooth. Taste and adjust according to what you like. (If the sauce is too thin or won’t get smooth, heat in a pan and stir until smooth.)
3) Boil water in a pot and add a boneless, skinless chicken breast and cook until just done. It should be moist when you cut into it but not pink. The time will depend on how thick the meat is. Slice chicken in strips.
4) Cook ramen noodles in the hot broth as per instructions. The brand I got, purchased from the H Mart in Upper Darby, said 4 minutes. (If any of the chicken seems a little underdone, throw it into the water to finish cooking it.) Drain.
5) Mix hot noodles with chicken and peanut sauce. Toss veggies on top. Squeeze a hefty slice of lime juice over it all. Add extra salt or soy to taste.
Sunday, March 4, 2018, Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico —
We lock the Airstream door before heading into the desert.
The park’s sandy landscape has a ring trail that takes you from our campsite at Desert Cove and circles around the edges of the park. When you are on higher ground facing west, you can see the roofs of cars passing on the main road. The large park entrance with its oh-so-modern digital signage is to the south and glimpses of the green-blue lake fed by the Rio Grande are to the east. To north, we can see a modern housing development atop the hills a few miles away. We are in a park, but civilization is right next door.
As we walk on the trail, our campground to the east is soon out of sight, nestled in a hollow between us and the lake, hidden from view by scrub bushes, cedars, junipers and assorted leafless shrubs and trees.
It’s 12:30, sunny and the winds are gusty, so we double tie the chin straps on our hats, just in case. We gulp some water, knowing that in the desert, it’s better to have the water in your stomach than in a bottle. The trail is a total of 3 miles, we estimate, but we don’t think we’ll travel that far.
The wide path is scattered with rocks. Water-smoothed pebbles, rough quartz pieces, and rocks in many different colors and textures marking the trial and its edges, some lying on top and others embedded in the sand. We come upon rock artwork to the right of the trail — fist-sized stones curl in a three-foot-side spiral inward and larger dark rocks echo their curve. Large rocks mark the back boundary. In the center, a large sandstone mass sits, looking like it has been carved and spiraled by wind and water and perhaps by human hands. The rocks, small and large, are unfazed by the strong winds that carry tiny bits of sand into the air and into our faces. We face away from the wind when we can.
The trail is flat and sturdy but John is lured by the washes to our left. We strike out, walking in the wide spaces between bushes with spiky branches and thorns. I’m not nervous, the way I am when blazing a new trail in a forested area. Here, I can see my feet and keep a watch out for scorpions and snakes. We see neither.
This desert is full of plants. Mesquite bushes with dark bark. Spiky Mormon’s tea bushes whose green, oh-so-thin branch-like leaves that dance with the wind. Tufts of yucca with tall grey stalks adorned by dried flowers. Cholla trees with pale green tips just ready to flower and needle-thin thorns and disarmingly hairy thorns designed to protect. Dead cholla branches and trunks lie beside the living ones, looking like netted wooden tubes. Red-edged green cactus paddles studded by long thorns seem to struggle to keep a foothold in the sand.
As we wend our way through the desert, we meet up with the western path and then strike southeast again to shorten our way. It’s been about half an hour or 45 minutes, the sun is beating down, and the wind is threatening to tear our hats off. But, the desert is beautiful and alluring. The washes are flat paths that John says will lead, eventually, to the lake, so we are never in danger of getting lost. Walking too far away from the camp, however, is a distinct possibility and we don’t know what challenging landscape lies in between the trails. We use our eyes and guesses to make our way.
We come to an area that is different from the rest. The bushes and shrubs are larger and there are three or four large cedar trees among them, showing bright green foliage. It smells like an eastern forest. John says that if we were ever stuck out there, we could crawl under the low branches and escape the sun until the day cooled and we could find our way home. The washes seem to support lusher plant-life than the areas nearest our camp. Who knew?
The lake is visible as we walk the gentle downhill slope. We question how far to the left or the right we are from the campground. Who knows?
About an hour into our journey, as we walk around a stand of bushes and face east, we see a silver arc glinting in the sun yards, not miles, away. Above it, a tall pole holds a white cellular antenna. It’s our Airstream, closer than we expected from our wanderings through the desert.
We unlock the door, throw open the windows, and take off our hats. We are home.
That’s the incredulous question I get frequently when I say we live in 170 square feet surrounded by curved walls.
The truth is, I can make anything here that I make in a kitchen, as long as I’m willing to clean up the pots and pans.
Lately I’ve been trying to reduce water use by using just one pot. That’s when I found a great recipe for pulled chicken tacos and adapted it to work for pork as well. Turns out, cinnamon, cumin, smoked paprika, red wine, onions and tomatoes along with other key flavors make a mighty fine topping for flour tortillas or even rice or pasta. Sour cream was dolloped on top (sriracha for me but none for J).
This recipe is going into the meal rotation since it makes easy and abundant leftovers.
Spiced Pulled Chicken (or Pork) Tacos
Makes about 6-8 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 onion, chopped
3-4 mini sweet red/yellow/orange peppers, chopped (or one large pepper)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin (or 2, to taste)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup white or red wine
15 ounce can chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice or apple cider vinegar
2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts OR small pork loin roast, cut into 1-inch by 2 inch section sections
Flour or corn tortillas Optional toppings:
Salsa or sriracha/hot sauce
In a large heavy pot like a dutch oven, add olive oil, onions and peppers. Saute until onions are soft. Add chopped garlic and the spices — cinnamon, cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, kosher salt — and stir until mixed. Let cook for a couple of minutes to let the garlic soften and the spices bloom in flavor.
Add wine to pan, scrape up bits from the pan bottom, and cook until wine is almost evaporated. Add tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, and lime juice or vinegar.
FOR CHICKEN: When the pot contents are bubbling hot, add the chicken breasts and nestle them into sauce. Reduce heat to medium, cover pot, and let chicken poach in the sauce for about 30 minutes or until cook until the chicken no longer shows pink in the center. Remove from pot and shred chicken with two forks in a large bowl. Cook the sauce down so it is thicker and return chicken shreds to pot and heat through.
FOR PORK: When the pot contents are bubbling hot, nestle pork pieces into the sauce. Reduce heat to medium, cover pot, and let the pork cook for about an hour or more so that the meat is tender and shreds easily. Remove from pot and shred with two forks in a large bowl. If needed, cook the sauce down so it is thicker. Return pork shreds to pot and heat through.
TO SERVE: Heap small amount of chicken or pork, as appropriate, on the tortillas, squeeze lime wedges over, add salsa or hot sauce of your choice, and top with sour cream, if desired.
We started our full-time Airstreaming journey in early September 2017 and have been loving it.
Our z-shaped travels have taken us west from Philadelphia to Kansas City, MO, and Des Moines, IA, before we zipped south through Kansas to reach New Mexico. Next, we went westward to Southern California and then up to NorCal. After the holidays, we did the reverse journey.
Now we are in New Mexico, where we’ve spent a mostly chilly visit but one with lovely vistas of mountains and deserts and endless sky. Such a delight.
We arrived in Great Plains State Park, Oklahoma, on the evening of November 25, 2015. It was the night before Thanksgiving. We had barely got the Airstream level and stabilized, when I had to grab my tripod and take advantage of the moonrise, the clouds and the fantastic light reflecting off our aluminum home. I took many more photographs of this scene in the next hour as the light persisted while the temperature was in the mid fifties.
You have to understand that being a photographer means never letting opportunities like this pass you by. When the light is this good, find something to shoot, even a wooden sign if you’re nowhere exciting. A rock or a bush could become a masterpiece under this great lighting.
Well, Maura made some dinner, and afterwards I spent hours on my Mac editing the best photos of our trip, so far. When my tired eyes got the best of me and everything on the screen looked streaky and out of focus, I joined M in bed and eventually fell asleep.
Maura almost always rises before me. She shook me, and as I opened my eyes I noticed that what little light was sneaking in around the curtains was muted and gray. When we tried opening the door, it wouldn’t budge. Then we pulled back the curtains and saw nothing but a thick sheet of ice covering the glass, and the entire shell of the Airstream, freezing our front door closed! We were in for a five day extended stay at Great Plains S.P. waiting for the trailer to thaw and the roads to clear. The next evening Maura performed some culinary magic in our miniscule kitchen, sans a working oven, to prepare our first Thanksgiving on the road. — John G.