The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Thirteen

Me Eat That? Diet, So To Speak

There was only one time that I couldn't finish a meal--one breakfast on the beach. I dislike oatmeal; detest oatmeal, in any form, but we made up a packet because we had the morning hungries. I swallowed some, grimaced. I tried to think of something I like. Ah, yes. I like chocolate; love chocolate, in any form, so I brought out some cocoa powder and stirred it into the oatmeal. One bad, one good ... result neutral, right? Wrong. It very shortly joined our trowelings. Shamefaced, I munched on trail mix with the rest of the cocoa, daydreaming of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, air conditioning and Muzak.

This does not have to happen to you. Your first step is to find a copy of The Hungry Hiker's Book of Good Cooking, by Gretchen McHugh, the best ten dollars you'll ever spend on a cookbook; add to that (if you can find it at a yard sale or used-book store) Ann Seranne's long out-of-print hardcover, The Complete Book of Home Preserving. With these volumes and a sense of what you would serve for healthy meals every day at home, your trail meals will be a pleasure.

Almost everything you carry will be dehydrated, for up to 95% of food weight is water; ironic, isn't it, that you have to find water in the desert to hydrate your food? You can buy or make dry food, depending on time and budget; we've never made our own, but are looking forward to the day when life will be simple and slow enough to allow it. In the meantime, we haunt the supermarkets, co-ops and health food stores in the weeks before our hike, finding bargains on dried vegetables, fruits and soups. To these we add quick-cooking grains, beans and pastas--plus mushrooms, seaweed and various soy products. If you're a Kraft mac&cheez person, don't despair; you can make a quick-cooking version of it that will please the most demanding Velveeta fan. (Buy the cheap stuff--you know, 39¢ a box without coupon--and replace the regular 10-minute elbows with quick-cooking ones. Voilą! Now, where's the Spam?)

Canyon Lunch David's Canyon lunch

Let's start, then, with breakfast. For morning drinks, bring instant coffee, tea (purist hikers remove those weighty tags, or take loose tea), powdered milk (whole, if you can find Klim), cocoa powder (Ovaltine, Swiss Miss, and even a neat product called Steamer, which is white chocolate) or an occasional powdered fruit juice; pack some sugar, because honey with coffee tastes peculiar. Save the unappetizing, electrolyte-replenishing Gookinade for the actual hike.

For the main course, bring cream cheese in a camping tube--not attractive after a few days, but serviceable--plus hard cheeses such as Romano or cheddar, dense black bread or crackers, and a chunk of hard salami; smoked sausage links will last only a day or two in the heat, so prepared dried meat might be a better choice. Dense cereals like Grape Nuts are good if you can stand them with warmish, reconstituted milk, and instant oatmeal is okay (am I really writing this?) with that warm milk and a squirt of honey from a camping tube, then sprinkled with raisins or rehydrated fruit pieces.

We can't seem to find powdered eggs anymore, but if you're desperate for the very occasional egg meal, some expensive dehydrated omelets are sold in camping stores. (In fact, all these prepared meals are expensive at up to $5, and only tasty because you're on the trail and famished. To prove it, buy one and serve it to the family at home after a day at work. Mmmmmm--not!) I usually finish breakfast with a chocolate kick for the hike--a nice Cadbury's with nuts and raisins is a favorite; Stevie will eat bits of Nestlé's Crunch, or prepare a bowl of miso (too grim for me).

On the trail itself, the usual trail mix or gorp provides an energy burst (raisins, dried fruit pieces, M&Ms, peanuts, sunflower seeds, almonds or other nuts, and so on--a bit more expansive than the purist's original gorp (an icky acronym for "good old raisins and peanuts"). Individual bags of nuts and fruits (my favorite, candied pineapple; Stevie's, plain peanuts) provide a clean change of taste from the mix. Candy bars get stowed 'way inside the pack to protect them from melting, and only come out in the shade. In the sun, everything is washed down with Gooked water.

Lunch is almost always on the trail and in the desiccating heat, so we stop for slices of cheese, salami, bread and clear water ... basically the same set of menus we use for breakfast. We've never carried peanut butter, but some hikers claim they could live on p.b. and water alone for a week. Our few treasured perishables get consumed the first day or, if things are cooler than expected, saved for one extra meal. Two or three pieces of fresh fruit (a Granny Smith apple and an orange for us) are water-laden and heavy, but worth the treasured moment when they are shared.

We had arrived at the end of a ten-day hike, dispiritedly rising out of the Canyon via the miserable, foot-twisting cobbles on the Grandview Trail; the thin air (nearly 7000' elevation) and lactic acid buildup in our muscles were causing us to breathe hard and stop often. A few hundred feet from the rim, we met a woman from the city who seemed amused at our labored behavior, and tried to engage us in conversation--to which we could only respond, teeth grit and gasping, with the occasional monosyllable. By the time we reached the rim, we were jubilant but completely drained, leaning on the stone lookout fence in wonder and exhaustion, and asked to tell our tales to the gathered tourists. Incredibly, from somewhere we were offered an apple. One apple, which (we were later amazed and amused to recall) we kept tearing from each other's hands to devour. Fresh fruit! After five days of nuts and chocolate and dried beans, it was a Biblical manna experience. Refreshed but stinky, we hitched a ride in a van full of tolerant tourists back to our own car, 23 miles away; the woman and her friend, in a red convertible, appeared there and snapped humorous photos. (That night we ate steak and potatoes, with good ol' Rattlesnake Beer--and salad.)

Back to food on the hoof. Dinner is the main meal of the day on the trail, the time of twilight relaxation and culinary pleasure--indeed, this is not a wry, tongue-in-cheek comment (for a change), as the evening food was always hearty and delicious. There was always steaming soup to start: ramen for its carbohydrate load, plus pea soup, corn chowder, lentil soup, minestrone, spring vegetable soup, and many others, or clear bouillon for preparing custom mixes. Into these soups might fall thin, satisfying oriental noodles, dried mushrooms, seaweed, Chinese dried vegetables, or instant rice. In fact, we carried quite a bit of instant rice, which forms a lovely bed for any meal, and adds that essential carbo load.

After soup came the main course choices and combinations: instant refried beans or black beans; macaroni and cheese; instant mashed potatoes or spaetzle; or any number of delicious instant stews made from a soup base, rice, sun-dried tomatoes or other vegetables, mushrooms, sauce mix, and a surprisingly good soy product called Meatless Meats. Eaten dry like jerky, Meatless Meat is only for the trail-food connoisseur, and has successfully repelled everyone but me. But soaked and bubbled into a stew, its resiliently chewy consistency becomes tender and quite palatable. The sauce mixes, by the way, can be made from your own choice of spices and thickener, or purchased as packets of Alfredo, black bean, hollandaise, and so forth. We encountered one packet with an unhappy effect, something called Senegalese sauce. It was poured over felafel, which had been delectably fried in clarified butter (the only way butter won't go rancid on the trail). The felafel was delicious, but the Senegalese sauce was an incredibly salty yellow goo which, in Stevie's digestive system, had not changed its texture by morning.

Another menu failure was the misguided gift of a friend: dried tofu. These anonymous little squares were intended to be soaked in water and used as ordinary bean curd, which is already marginal, if you ask me. Unfortunately, these squares better served as scrubbing sponges, being tasteless (except a little rancid) and inedibly chewy. We carried them out to use at the car wash.

We'll pack in tortillas next year, and perhaps some dried beef or chicken. We also hope to improve on our trail pancake failures, as the pancakes David and I made were absolutely grim. It is rumored you can make good panbreads as well, but we have yet to learn the trick to it.

Dessert was often a corner of the now-cool chocolate bar or candied pineapple served with hot coffee or tea. A real dessert treat for me was instant pudding. This may not appeal to some, but I found the mix of instant pudding and powdered milk prepared in cool, purified river water to be quite tasty, and a refreshing though gooey change from ever more chunks-o-candy.

Performing the actual food preparation is an inventive process because fuel and water are limited. At Horn Creek one year, we dug a hole in the dry streambed where a slimy glup of algae suggested water might be living; it slowly filled the hole, from which we were able to purify enough for two meals and the next leg of the hike. It was, as they say, not a pretty sight.

Saving precious fuel is important on longer hikes, so we warm water in the sun, soak certain foods to soften them for faster cooking, prepare courses in sequence in the same pot, and cook as quickly and efficiently as possible, always hoarding each lick of flame. Don't forget that the camp stove (such as our Coleman Peak stove) should be tuned up and checked for efficiency and leaks before leaving the rim.

The Swiss Army knife does most of the cutting, but we dip into the medical kit for shears to cut the leathery dried tomatoes. Each year, as we gain culinary cleverness, we leave more heavy tools behind; gone are the plates, large cookpot, frying pan, and knives. Now two pots (one shallow and one deep with a cover) are the cooking vessels, along with a spoon, fork, bowl and cup for each of us.

Even though you are tired and sleepy, washing up shouldn't be left until morning when everything is crusty ... and it must be done well away from water sources. It was a dispiriting moment when we cooled our bodies in Boucher Creek, looking inquiringly at some gleaming white chips in the water and wondering what kind of Canyon rock they might be. I reached out to feel one--and discovered these were the remains of a bar of soap. We cleared out what we could, disgusted with the hiker who could have uncaringly caused this environmental harm.

So washing your dishes and yourself also demands that you be observant and respectful--and eat every scrap, leaving nothing for rodents and other curious critters, nor as a strain on the slow-moving environment. On the river beach we use a soap-free cleaning method, scrubbing our pots with wet and dry sand, which later becomes part of our latrine covering. By dark we have eaten heartily and cleaned our mess, so morning can be greeted first with fresh coffee.

Surprisingly, trail food is a special event. During our plans to meet David and Susan at Hermit Rapids in '92--their first day, our last--we hoped they would bring a bottle of white wine or champagne; we intended to pack out the empty bottle. They couldn't carry the extra weight, and perhaps it's good they didn't. Colin Fletcher had food airdropped along his route, including a bottle of claret, but in a footnote he says:

Although the delicacies were a pleasing change at every cache and drop, the claret never quite seemed to add the final touch I had hoped for. I have since realized that you don't really need alcohol in the wilderness.

And so it was probably good that the bottle never came with them, for we enjoyed an exhausted but friendly trail meal together before parting company in the morning. I decided to forego the oatmeal.

The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.