Saturday, April 2, 2011

portable food: a comprehensive review

(reprinted from November 6, 2010)

As promised, here are my reviews of a whole slew of food products I purchased through my REI store credit in an effort to feed myself on a shoestring budget over the past two weeks.

All of these packets of freeze-dried food require one to pour in either boiling or cold water. Stir, let sit for a certain amount of time-- usually somewhere in the 9- to 13-minute range-- then pour out (more like scrape out) and eat. As you might imagine, given the sameness of the preparation process, all the food looks like mush. In other words, when you're evaluating these packets, throw out texture and presentation as judging criteria.

It should be noted, though, that some of the packets contain dry elements that are meant both to enhance flavor and to circumvent the texture problem; you pull these packets of dry ingredients out before you pour the hot water into the primary prep bag. While the presence of these extra packets is a thoughtful addition, what you usually end up with, once you pour the hot food into a bowl, is mush with powder on top. If you fail to eat the mush fast enough, you end up having mush with mush on top. Please keep that in mind as you read these reviews and ponder your purchases: in every case involving dried, pour-on-top ingredients, time is a factor, and slow eaters will be punished for their slowness.

Now... we begin.

Richmoor Natural High Three Berry Cobbler
REI Item# 6525850019

Natural High Three Berry Cobbler rated a "so-so" when I tried it. The berry mush was a rich, dark red, and wasn't too bad, gustatorily speaking, but the visual experience of scraping the mush out of the zip-top bag evoked something primal, like the evisceration-by-spoon of a squirrel. Unfortunately, the addition of the chocolate crumble pretty much ruined the berries/viscera for me. I don't know who manufactures the chocolate for Natural High, but I suspect they're hunched, eyeless cave-dwelling beings bereft of taste buds and olfactory nerves, whose language consists of little more than sibilants and farting noises. The crumble does add a bit of crunch to the experience, but the gritty, near-flavorless chocolate is a true turn-off. My advice: if you have to buy this particular preparation, just consume the chocolate separately by stirring it into a mug of hot cocoa.

Richmoor Natural High Chocolate Fudge Mousse
REI Item# 5160010012

The same angry cave dwellers that created the aforementioned chocolate crumble undoubtedly had a hand (or claw) in making this awful, mephitic goop. Have you ever watched Bear Grylls, on "Man versus Wild," squeezing a huge lump of elephant dung to get at the water inside it? Just as you'd never reach for dung unless you absolutely had to, you shouldn't reach for this chocolate mousse unless you're truly desperate. It comes with almond sprinkles, but the almonds are little more than cardboard. While not quite vomitous, I'd rate this packet "barely tolerable."

Richmoor Natural High Fudge Brownies
REI Item# 6888350011

If I'm not mistaken, I wrote about these brownies before. The batter reacted well to the microwave, transmogrifying into a recognizable brownie in a bit less than 90 seconds. However, since we're dealing with Natural High's unnatural chocolate, the flavor was rather disappointing. I have no idea how the brownie mix would behave if cooked in a camp skillet or pot, per the packet's instructions; one can only hope that the heat of the campfire might induce some caramelization and work some alchemical magic on the brownie's taste. What I found bothersome about the instructions, though, was the assumption that a camper might be toting oil around with him. Or maybe my mistake is that I'm conflating camping and hiking. Plenty of campers bring all manner of weird items into the bush with them. My own mother, bless her, liked bringing along a hair dryer.

Of course, it's possible to tote oil safely, even as a hiker: anyone who's eaten ramen knows that some noodle packages come with tiny packets of oil inside them. I imagine that such packets, or similar ones, are available in bulk at outdoor recreation stores.

Mountain House Neapolitan Ice Cream
REI Item# 6368970015

Ah, childhood memories. This stuff is freeze-dried ambrosia to me, but goddammit, it never lasts long enough. The Mountain House version tastes exactly like the astronaut ice cream I remember eating at the National Air and Space Museum. You could buy packets of ice cream at the museum's overpriced gift shop, and my folks often did.

Perhaps Mountain House offers a range of flavors, but all I saw was Neapolitan. I have nothing negative to say about this ice cream; each packet is 110 calories of pure, evanescent goodness. It's a great way to ponder impermanence; and with enough imagination, I'm sure you could incorporate this ice cream into some creative lovemaking. The way it reacts to moist body surfaces suggests a host of possibilities.

Backpacker's Pantry Cheesecake
REI Item# 6113800012

Although it initially looks like a bowlful of elephant semen, the BP Cheesecake congeals within minutes (xanthan gum? agar agar? I need to look at the thickening agent) to an almost recognizably cheesecake-y consistency. A separate packet of graham cracker crumble is there for you to pour onto the dessert. I didn't mind the taste at first, but toward the end, the cheesecake began to taste cloyingly sweet. Like angels' brains.

Richmoor Natural High Honey Mustard Chicken
REI Item# 5100300010

While not exactly awful, the Natural High Honey Mustard Chicken didn't have an obvious honey-mustard taste. The chicken was doubtless offended to be associated with this packet, which was edible, but uninspiring.

A word about dried meat reconstituted with boiling water: the simple fact is that, once the meat has been freeze-dried to the brink of mummification, there's no bringing it back. So don't expect your meat to have quite the same hearty, rib-sticking mouth feel that it used to have back when the muscle cells still contained water. Those cells have been raped and pillaged by the freeze-drying process; the addition of boiling water can, at best, produce a parody of the meat's original meatiness. I suspect that the makers of camp food are banking on the camper's being tired, hungry, and ready for a novel experience, since camp food isn't something you're supposed to eat every day (which is what I did, for almost two weeks, thanks to my REI store credits). For the rest of us, though, freeze-dried meat will always be a disappointment. Keep your expectations low, or stick with something more traditional, like beef jerky. We'll talk more about beef jerky later.

Mountain House Beef Stew - 4 Serving
REI Item# 7686880019

Having just complained about the lameness of freeze-dried meat, I now turn around and praise Mountain House's Beef Stew. The packet says it serves four (i.e., two Kevins); it did indeed contain a lot of food, once the boiling water was added. I ate this packet over two or three days, and can confirm that the stew reheats well. What's more, the stew tastes like a stew, although in my opinion it lacked some oomph. I supplied some extra heat by ejaculating sriracha all over it.

Mountain House Raspberry Crumble
REI Item# 6101860010

The Mountain House Raspberry Crumble-- essentially, Mountain House's version of the Natural High Three Berry Cobbler-- turned out to be excellent. As with the Natural High packet, there was a separate packet of Oreo crumble, but get this: it actually tasted like Oreos! Originally cringing at the thought of eating this dessert after the Natural High debacle, I was shocked to discover that this dessert was not merely edible-- it was tasty. Although dessert prep evoked the same squirrel-evisceration imagery as before, the smell and taste of the raspberry crumble more than made up for any aesthetic shortcomings. Highly recommended; very much worth your while.

Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce For Two
REI Item# 5101440013

Despite its place on this list, the packet of Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce was the very last main meal I ate before I ran out of camp food. The freeze-dried beef was what you might expect, but in this case, the texture worked well with the rest of the sauce. The noodles were laughably stubby-- imagine spaghetti with an Irish curse-- but by the time the packet was ready to eat, I didn't care. My overall impression was that this was great camp spaghetti. The sauce was properly tomato-y; the meat's crumbly texture successfully simulated bits of ground beef; and the noodles themselves were decent by the standards of camp pasta. In all, an excellent meal. Highly recommended.

Richmoor Natural High Strawberry Granola with Milk
REI Item# 5101120011

Did you ever see a B-grade Dolph Lundgren action movie called "I Come in Peace"? The movie was about Earth's encounter with a humanoid race of aliens; one alien was a cop, and the other was a murderer hooked on human brain chemicals. This dude spent a good part of the film grunting "I come in peace," then shooting flexible tubes into Earthlings' heads and sucking out their cerebrospinal fluid. Or something. My memory is fuzzy. Anyway, when the alien cop is shot in the gut by the bad guy, we see that his insides are composed of something milky-white and chunky, but of indeterminate texture. We never get a close look at those guts; it seems that these aliens vaporize when they die.

Natural High's Strawberry Granola with Milk reminded me of that alien's guts. The look of the food was white, chunky, and somehow wrong, and although the dried strawberries tasted fine when reconstituted, the granola itself tasted synthetic, as if it too had come from an alien world. In all, I found the meal just tolerable: edible, but not much more than that. I wouldn't eat it again if better options were available.

Richmoor Natural High Three Cheese Chicken Pasta
REI Item# 7952670011

As you can see, I've taken a rather dim view of anything that comes from the Richmoor Natural High brand, especially when it comes to chocolate. Their Three Cheese Chicken Pasta, however, wasn't that bad. It wasn't great, either, but with the addition of some salt the meal was perfectly passable. I'd eat it again with no complaints. Recommended.

Mountain House Beef Stroganoff - 4 Serving
REI Item# 7686890018

This was my only real disappointment from the Mountain House brand, but the reason for my disappointment was that, when I opened the package, I saw that it contained nothing but pasta: the stroganoff was completely missing. I'll charitably assume that this was some sort of assembly-line error, and not a deeper problem with the way Mountain House runs its operations.

I suppose I'll have to get back to you once I get hold of a proper package.

Backpacker's Pantry Pad See You with Chicken
REI Item# 7872520015

I was curious to see whether this dish would taste anything close to Thai... and it didn't. If anything, the overall effect was rather off-putting. One problem with dried vegetables is that they all start to look the same. The itty-bitty chunks of broccoli were recognizable, but they forced me to question the food's Thai pedigree. The sauce that was supposed to bind everything together merely added to my gustatory confusion, and I ended up feeling a bit like Geena Davis in "The Fly," eating that first revolting bite of teleported steak, and not quite understanding what made it so cellularly perverse. Say "see you" to Backpacker's Pantry's Pad See You. It was a weird, salty mess.

Backpacker's Pantry Shepherd's Pie with Beef
REI Item# 8012290014

Earlier, I said that we'd be talking a bit more about beef jerky. Well, this was the meal where the jerky came into play. Shepherd's pie is normally a layered dish-- kind of a bland version of moussaka. The camp version was-- as I noted at the very beginning of this blog post regarding all such food-- essentially mush. In this case, however, it was mush with chunks of beef jerky in it. Normally, I'd call the use of beef jerky a good thing, but the inclusion of jerky in the Backpacker's Pantry version of shepherd's pie made a salty preparation even saltier. I might even go as far as to question how safe such a dish would be to eat after a day of sweating and salt-depletion. The sudden spike in salt levels might kill a tired camper, for all I know.

The potatoes in the mix felt like standard, military-issue powdered potatoes. The vegetables-- whatever they were-- were forgettable at best. All in all, I wouldn't recommend this meal unless you're that salt-sucking vampire from "Star Trek."

Backpacker's Pantry Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken
REI Item# 8012270016

This meal didn't cause any love-sparks or powerful erections; it was pretty much unmemorable. By that, I mean it wasn't memorably bad or memorably good. It was mediocre-- the Salieri of camp food. Recommended only as filler or routine-breaker.

Mountain House Beef Teriyaki and Rice For Two
REI Item# 5101300019

Mountain House did it again: this meal wowed me. While I can't say that it tasted much like a typical teriyaki preparation, it was quite delicious on its own terms. I took notes after every meal I ate, and for this one I simply wrote, "FANTASTIC!" It's true: it was one of the best examples of camp food I'd eaten, and I'd gladly eat it again.

Mountain House Chicken a la King Noodles For Two
REI Item# 5101350014

Although this wasn't the last camp meal I ate, I'm glad it's last on the list, because it gets the highest praise. I don't know what chemicals they laced this food with, but the effect was positively addictive, and I'd gladly gorge myself on this meal until I exploded, Mr. Creosote-style. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me, the Chicken à la King was a more-than-pleasant surprise. Egg noodles were used for the pasta, and that turned out to be a wise move, because they cooked quickly when boiling water was poured into the sealable pouch. The cream sauce's flavor was superb, and worked well with the texture of the reconstituted chicken. The vegetables made their presence known-- subtly, so as not to make you feel too self-conscious about eating something nutritious.

As you can tell from the above reviews, I now lean strongly toward the Mountain House brand, whether we're talking main meals or desserts. Both Natural High and Backpacker's Pantry were disappointments overall; given the choice, I'd avoid them in favor of buying nothing but Mountain House.

REI sells a wide range of food products from all three brands, so these reviews aren't the final word. It could be that I just happened to pick a bunch of duds from NH and BP; then again, since I was picking blind, without knowing anything about any of the brands, one could argue that my sampling was pretty random. So take these reviews for what they're worth, but since Mountain House's price ranges are exactly the same as the other two brands, I'd recommend MH as having the best value in terms of taste and unit cost.


lessons learned #3: the forgotten topic

Earlier, I'd listed some of the topics I wanted to talk about, but I forgot to include a rather crucial one: power. So while it's on my mind, let's talk about it.

By "power," I mean electricity for various high- and low-tech devices on the route. Flashlights need power, for example, and so do smart phones. In fact, smart phones require a lot of power: battery technology hasn't had a chance to catch up with the amount of electricity a typical smart phone consumes. Even when I use my own Droid X in a very limited manner, I still need to charge it by the end of any given 24-hour period. It's greedier than my old BlackBerry was, and that's going to be a problem when I'm in the middle of a 25-mile schlep, out in the boonies.

During the 2008 walk, I brought along with me a solar-powered cell phone charger that I had purchased from REI. It proved to be worthless. There were days, especially in the high desert, where I had plenty of sun and plenty of time on the road to absorb crazy amounts of solar energy, but the device failed to perform. At best-- and this was after an entire day of charging-- the device produced only about a minute or two of power for the BlackBerry. I'm not blaming REI for this; REI sells a wide range of products from all sorts of manufacturers; most will be good, but some will inevitably be duds. This solar charger just happened to be one of the worst of the products I had bought. I don't know whether the charger itself was defective or whether solar chargers in general are simply not worth the purchase cost, but my intuition, based on my experience, is that such chargers are inherently problematic.

The first warning sign, I now know, is that the literature and commentary on solar chargers is wildly varied in its assessment of their performance. Some people love solar chargers; others hate them. I finally understand what that means: for your own safety, stay far away from any product about which no clearly positive opinion has emerged. Compare the user/expert comments about solar chargers to, say, comments about Nalgene water bottles, which are almost universally loved. (Later on, however, I'll talk about one of the problems with those bottles.)

Anyone who's listened even partially to the debates over solar power knows that solar energy has distinct disadvantages. One of them, perhaps the biggest disadvantage of them all, is the inconsistent availability of sunlight. All it takes is a few clouds to reduce the performance of a solar cell. Coupled with that problem is the second-biggest disadvantage: the solar cell itself is a delicate, finicky piece of technology. Tiny scratches and even a small amount of dust can cut down on a cell's ability to absorb sunlight. Add this to the first problem, and you've already got a product of dubious worth, especially out on the road.

But there's more. As I was walking, I also learned of a third disadvantage: angle of exposure. In the best of all possible worlds, a solar cell should absorb sunlight that's striking its surface at a clean 90-degree angle. This angle can't be guaranteed, however, when the cell is sitting atop your backpack, bouncing along while you walk. The sun itself prevents one from keeping an ideal angle of exposure, because its position in the sky is constantly changing. The likelihood of enjoying optimal angle of exposure while walking is practically zero.

Finally, there's the problem of energy storage: even as the solar energy's being absorbed, it's draining steadily out of the cell. By the time you flop down at the end of seven hours' walking and try to charge your cell phone, you aren't enjoying the benefit of every single possible watt: much of the electricity has disappeared while you were walking.

My view of solar cells for hiking, then, is quite negative. Unless you're willing to spend money on a ridiculously huge welcome mat of solar cells, I don't see how any modest-sized device can possibly power something like a Droid X, day after day, on the road.

So what are the alternatives if we assume that (1) I'll be needing and using a cell phone on a regular basis, and (2) I'll be walking long stretches without the benefit of an electric socket or a car charger?

My first thought is to go with a hand-cranked charger this time around. These types of chargers generally work for flashlights, but many (or even most) of the newer ones also work for cell phones. The problem, of course, is that they're very labor-intensive and provide only a few minutes' power after all that effort (see here, for example). In other words, hand-cranked chargers are really meant for emergencies, not as a day-by-day resource for a Droid X's electricity needs.

A better alternative, at least for a cell phone, might be a kinetic charger, i.e., a device that takes advantage of the body's natural motions to generate small but steady amounts of electricity over time. The concept has been incarnated various ways; one company, nPower, makes a peg-like device that's supposed to sit upright in the pocket of one's backpack; the walker's up-and-down motion is what generates power. The nPower PEG device ("PEG" stands for "personal energy generator") supposedly produces "about a minute of iPhone 3G talk time from 10 minutes of walking, or one minute of MP3 playback from one minute of walking." To me, that's plenty, especially after walking all day long.

My two concerns about kinetic chargers (see more charger ideas here) are their cost and their durability. Because so much of this tech is new and hasn't been embraced by the public at large, I can't imagine that it would be cheap. Sure enough, it turns out that the nPower PEG is a whopping $150. I also need to know how well such a device can endure variations in temperature and humidity, how well it can withstand being stored inside the confines of a backpack, or how well it might survive an accidental drop of 3 or 4 feet onto asphalt. Could I walk past a waterfall, get soaked, and still rely on the device? Could I use it in the rain, several days in a row? How well would it survive extreme cold, or 110 degrees in the high desert? These are all important questions. In principle, at least, kinetic chargers strike me as the way to go if I'm planning to take my smart phone with me (and why wouldn't I, given how useful it is?), but I have a ton of questions about them, practically speaking.

I'm not as concerned about the power needs of a flashlight. It was, in my experience last time around, very rare for me to be stumbling about at night with a flashlight. These days, there are so many tiny, economical alternatives to the traditional camper's flashlight that I have no worries about my possible nocturnal lighting needs. Still, when my thoughts turn back to that hand-cranked charger, I can't help thinking that a 2-in-one device would be a smarter purchase than a single-purpose device.

Meanwhile, the smart phone is a huge concern. The Droid X is a power sink, and I'm not sure a hand-cranked device, even if used three or four times a day during a 20- or 25-mile walk, would provide enough power for me to do much more than send brief tweets as opposed to blogging at any length. The nPower PEG, on the other hand, keeps your cell phone's battery "topped off" all day long, or so the claim goes. I'd love to road-test one of these devices before buying it. Maybe I should do some research into whether that's possible. If it is, you might be in for some very interesting blogging.


Thursday, March 31, 2011

topics I'll be covering soon

Along with the question of establishing a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, I'll be writing about the following lessons learned:

1. the importance of water (what works and doesn't work for filtration/sterilization, etc.)
2. hotels/motels only as a last resort
3. clothing (and the whole notion of traveling light)
4. tents versus bivy sacks (and how not to lose your damn tent)
5. traffic, narrow road shoulders, and me
6. weight, conditioning, and knees
7. shoes, blisters, and weather
8. food, drink, peeing, and pooping while on the road
9. protection from the sun, wind, rain, and cold
10. whether REI is just for elites/snobs with money


Monday, March 28, 2011

thank you, Charles!

My buddy Charles gets his own special thank-you post because he and his wife braved the Byzantine Korean financial system in order to wire me my own cash. I had to send my banking materials to him via international post-- not the safest thing to do-- so that Charles could use my ATM card (useless to me here in the States) to extract my cash and wire the sum to me. He got a good exchange rate, and nearly $1500 will be plopping into my account later this week, minus my bank's stupid "receiving fee." That shouldn't amount to more than $10 or $15, though. As long as I have at least $1400 in there, I'll be a happy camper. That's $1400 more than I thought I had.

Thanks again, man.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

lessons learned #2: planning

A plan doesn't have to be long and complicated, but there needs to be one if one's project is to appear comprehensible to oneself and to others. I heard, once, about a Western lady who was a Buddhist nun, who decided to do her own transcontinental walk. Her plan: just walk, and trust that the world would provide. While simple in the extreme, such a plan at least had the virtue of coherence.

For those of us with more complex objectives in mind, our planning has to incorporate the same level of clear-eyed coherence. The more detailed the objective, the more rigorous the planning.

I mentioned, in my previous post, how I had approached route planning at the beginning of my walk. This approach ended up falling largely by the wayside, especially after Portland, but even before I had hit Portland, I found myself either staying at cheap motels, or camping, or staying at people's residences. The whole notion of moving from religious establishment to religious establishment had gone out the window by Mile 200. I consider that evidence of bad planning.

A plan that entails interactions with other people needs to consider the intricacies of human psychology. This might not be as true in a military situation, which operates according to very clear chains of command and has little tolerance for individual tastes and scruples, but for the rest of us civvies, working together is often a process that involves a great deal of empathy, perceptivity, patience, and effort-- especially those latter two qualities. My idea of appearing at a church doorstep and saying, "Hi! I'd like to stay here for a day or so, talk over religion with you, then have you find another religious establishment to send me to!" was probably doomed to failure by its very nature: I hadn't really taken human psychology into account. People aren't always at their best when they face the unexpected, and my foisting myself on the unprepared was, I think, a case of very poor judgment on my part.

Better, then, to alert people to what you're doing well in advance, so that they have time to prepare for you. For me, and for this second attempt at a trans-American walk, this means setting up a definite route and making doubly sure that the people who will help me out can reliably help me. If I intrude on their vacation time, for example, things might get hairy. If I choose flaky helpers who promise much but deliver little, that can also be problematic. Many people have generous intentions; fewer people have the strength of character to follow through with those intentions. Finding that smaller, more selective crowd is one of my tasks for this walk.

There's large-scale planning and there's small-scale planning. Both are important. For my walk, large-scale planning will mean fleshing out the overall route as I connect the dots between cities. Small-scale planning will have to happen in tandem with this; the details of how I get from A to B are just as important as the larger mission of determining the locations of A and B.

This is where social networking comes in. I didn't make the best use of Facebook when I was on it, but I refuse to return to it given its security problems and its host of completely irrelevant doodads. Almost everything that can be done on Facebook can be done on a blog: the posting of pictures, the writing of short or long updates, etc. Just about anything else can be done through Twitter, which I've come to respect as a very stripped-down way to send word out in real time. Both blogging and tweeting can be done on any current smart phone, and I've got one of those, baby.

Acquiring loyal followers on Twitter, then, is a major priority. Without that instantaneous (and wonderfully decentralized) grapevine, much that should happen won't happen. Route planning will occur more quickly with followers who can chime in with immediate feedback, and I can also use Twitter much more easily than I can use a blog to update my location (and, possibly, my survival needs, should I find myself out in the heat with no water, as happened once in the high desert in 2008).

Along with the gross and fine aspects of route planning, there's the question of where to stay. My cash reserves during the 2008 walk, which included quite a bit of donated money from friends and interested parties, were depleted rather quickly because I chose not to opt for illegal rest stops, e.g., sleeping on someone's farmland or in a wooded area of uncertain ownership. This is, partly, what led me to stop at so many motels along the way, especially during the middle 350 miles in 2008: I hadn't arranged to be housed at anyone's residence, and I didn't want to knock on doors and impose. Planning to stay at specific places, this time around, will alleviate much of that financial burden. If I'm not at someone's house (or sleeping in someone's van or chase car!), I'll be camping-- preferably legally.

I'm not too worried about certain other aspects of the walk, such as weather. By choosing a southerly route, I hope to avoid serious snow in the winter and dangerous phenomena like tornadoes. I learned, last time around, that one can trudge quite a long distance in even the most miserable of conditions (rain and cold are the worst when combined), and that blisters, when they occur, can simply be "walked through" without major incident. Your feet can and will toughen up when exposed to such constant pounding.

What does worry me, however, is my knees. I injured myself in a fall early in the 2008 walk, somewhere around Mile 200. That means I walked nearly 400 miles with a steadily worsening knee, and that injury, though largely healed, hasn't healed completely. Some of this problem can be alleviated by losing weight before I start the walk; some of it can be alleviated by having a chase car (or several chase cars, each for a different stretch of the walk), so that I don't need to wear a heavy backpack.* Another alternative would be to jury-rig a set of wheels so that my pack could be pulled along like a cart (with a hands-free harness so I could swing my arms) during those times when I didn't feel like wearing it on my shoulders and hips.

Before I drift into a full digression, though, let me pull back and say that I've learned the value and necessity of good, detailed planning. Stepping out into the wilderness on a wing and a prayer is possible, maybe even coherent, but once your mission acquires more specific parameters, the need for thorough, detailed planning imposes itself. There's no way around it, and no way to succeed without it.

*I remember one person asking why my backpack was so heavy. It's because I had so much stuff to carry-- not just clothing and camping equipment, but also maps and various paraphernalia. Above all, there was the water I needed: in the high desert, I was consuming easily more than a gallon a day, just to stay hydrated. As someone who sweats a lot, I know how easy it is to fall into a thirsty state.


how my Twitter feed should look

The left edge of the black bar represents the left edge of my monitor:

Ideally, the above is what should greet you when you visit the Twitter feed for my walk blog. Every time I look up ways to design one's own Twitter background, I see over and over that "Twitter left-justifies background images." If that's the case, then there's no reason an image should be cut off on the left side by the left edge of one's monitor. Alas, I've had reports to the contrary from friends who've checked my Twitter feed, so I'm beginning to think that the Twitter gurus are either lying or deluded. It'd be nice if Twitter introduced scalable backgrounds; that would solve the problem right there.


lessons learned #1: focus

So I'm thinking about restarting my trans-American walk. The first time around, my purpose was to explore American religious diversity, and to do so by visiting various houses of worship and meditation to talk with the folks about their attitudes toward religious diversity (see my ten religious questions). Instead of planning my route in advance, I had thought it would be interesting to visit a place, and then have that community send me onward to the next place. To my mind, this would have been a way to build relationships among disparate religious communities: for example, a Sikh gurdwara could have sent me off to a Buddhist temple, which could have sent me over to a Catholic church twenty miles away, which could have sent me to a synagogue the next town over, etc. In reality, though, this didn't happen, and part of the reason was that these communities didn't seem all that interested in connecting with each other. Getting people to make those connections sometimes felt a bit like pulling teeth. This may not have been their fault, though; I may have been using the wrong approach.

So the walk took a slow, meandering path as a result. I had also chosen to break eastward after I'd reached Portland, which meant stepping away from most of the religious diversity of the west coast. Some of my friends and helpers began to question why I had chosen the route I had, and where, exactly, the focus of my walk lay. If it was truly to explore religious diversity, they said, then shouldn't I have been following the west coast down through California, precisely to be able to meet all those Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, adherents of native American religion, etc.? By cutting suddenly eastward at Portland, Oregon (I had started in White Rock, British Columbia), and setting off into the high desert, wasn't I refocusing the walk on just getting across the country? It seemed to many that I hadn't really defined my project well enough, and that I was, in a sense, walking at cross-purposes to myself.

I think, in retrospect, that the criticisms had merit. The walk needed more focus. Although the exploration of religious diversity through the prism of my short list of questions wasn't a bad approach, I had paired that approach up with a very poor notion of route planning.

This time around, then, I want to make clear from the outset that this walk is to raise awareness about glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), and to raise funds for GBM research. I want a percentage of those funds to go directly to the Parks family, whose acquaintance I made a short while ago, and in whose lives I have become somewhat involved. The walk has other goals as well, but those goals have a more private relevance-- things like self-improvement, the restoration of a sense of purpose and meaning to my life, the feeling of accomplishing One Big Thing before I die, etc. Those private goals depend on the public act of walking across the country.

In my next post, I want to talk about the lessons I learned regarding planning.