23 December 2014

The sun is out. And so am I.

The day started foggy, but with no rain in the forecast and a new pair of gloves sitting here and waiting for their first ride I really had to get out on my bike again. Hwy 84, one of my favorite routes in the area and perfect for a warm-up brought me to the beautiful pacific coast and indeed, the sun was out for most of the ride.

At Bean Hollow State Beach

At this time of the year the California State Beaches along Hwy 1 are pretty much deserted and parking is free of charge. Only a few people were out there, walking their dogs, sightseeing and taking pictures of the stunning scenery.

Along Hwy 1 heading south the fog became thick again for a few miles but had been eaten up by the sun shortly before Santa Cruz. We had ridden past the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz many times before and I had spotted a specific piece of art in the past but never stopped to take a closer look. Well, now was a good time to check it out further. There was construction going on for the arts center's new theater and in order to get closer to that cow and to take a picture I had to enter the hard hat area - risking my life, almost. ;-)

Back at my bike I found it got invaded by members of the Boisea trivittata species. The Boxelder bugs were sunbathing on black/warm spots of my bike. Well, most parts of my bike are actually black... They mainly sat on the seat, top case and tires. Alright, macro photography time: setting the camera to manual focus mode, selecting the closest focus point of the lens and using my body to move back and forth to get the subject into focus, getting down to the level of the bug and focusing on its eyes. And being aware that one needs to take many, many shots to maybe (!) get a decent one. Even at an aperture of f/11 not much of the bug's body was in focus, just the head and some parts of its legs. Will try an even smaller aperture next time to  increase the depth of field some more.

As mentioned earlier, testing my new BMW GS Dry Gloves was another reason for getting out today. Since we have not yet figured out what kind of hand guards to install on the R, my hands are fully exposed to the wind. For most of the year, the Held Evo Thrux 2221 work perfectly for me and heated grips do the rest when it gets a bit cooler. But for this time of the year I wanted something less permeable to wind.

The BMW GS Dry Gloves claim to be water- and windproof, come with SuperFabric (which combines goatskin leather and abrasion resistant fabric) and GORE-TEX X-TRAFIT, a breathable three-layer laminate. In today's condition with temperatures in the high 50th/low 60th (14-16 deg Celsius) and high humidity I usually have the heated grips on. Not so today which is a good sign. The only thing I am not sure yet is their breathability. I need to challenge them some more in lower temperatures but so far I like the gloves a lot.

20 December 2014

One hundred eighty seven kilos

No, this is not Guido's and my body weight combined. It is the amount of fruit that our citrus tree presented us with this season. The tree had been planted by the former owner of the house. Therefore, we don't know exactly what kind of mandarine variety it is - maybe tangerines or mandarine oranges? They are easy to peal, seedless and juicy with a well-balanced taste. For simplicity, let's call them mandarines.

We are very thankful for the tree's productivity and since we don't want to waste any of these yummy mandarines and do share only involuntarily with the squirrels, what do we do with 187 kilos?

Choice #1 and most obvious: eating as many as possible for the last few weeks. Choice #2: Sharing the delight with friends, family and co-workers. And another great option: marmalade!

The German cooking website www.chefkoch.de provided me with the original idea and since then I experimented with various additional ingredients.

Right from the tree, still wet from the rain and dirty

I had best gelling results with Dr. Oetker Gelfix Super 3:1 which I either import from Germany or order through Amazon. Two packages (50 gram) of the 3:1 product make a fruity and less sugary marmalade and require 2 kilo of fruit, plus 700 gram of sugar. An important ingredient of the marmalade is the mandarine peel. As our mandarines are grown organic, no need to worry about pesticides even on the peel. Half of the mandarines are washed, peeled and the peel cut in smaller pieces while the other half gets peeled and the peel goes to compost.

Cleaned, partially peeled and ready for further preparation

Mandarines fully cleaned and peel cut in small slices

Adding 100ml of orange liqueur is one nice variation of the recipe. Instead of orange liqueur, Campari is another option which slightly intensifies the typical bitter taste of the marmalade and adds to its beautiful orange color.

Ready for firing up the stove

Thanks to the gelling powder the pureed fruit and sliced peel requires a cooking time of only 3-4 minutes and can then be distributed into jars which were sterilized in the oven at 100 deg C.

Voila, the finished product!

I have experimented with adding other fruit such as pine apple, persimmon or pomegranate for a less tart and milder taste. Adding cinnamon makes a more Christmassy version. The most adventurous variety I made so far also had persimmons, cranberries and red wine. Come by and try some if you like! Next: I will give making some mandarine liqueur a try! :-)

13 December 2014

What a nice time of the year!

After living in North America for nearly eight years there are a few very typical German customs that we miss sometimes. One of them is the lovely tradition of German Christmas Markets. Most cities in Germany have such a market which traditionally opens end of Nov and closes right before December 24th. Very famous are the ones in Nuremberg and Dresden.

Today, we were delighted to find out that the San Francisco Goethe Institut had organized a Christmas Market in Mountain View, just a few minutes from us. Except for snow and freezing temperatures it had everything that such a market needs: handcrafted nutcrackers and smokers from Seiffen, candles, Christmas decoration and arts and German food such as bratwurst with sauerkraut, wiener with potato salad and of course mulled wine (Gl├╝hwein). They even had a stage with life music and a petting zoo for the little ones.

To get to enjoy the mulled wine, there was a two-step procedure: first, one would need to proof being over 21 to purchase a ticket at one specific booth and then would go to the mulled wine booth to finally get the deliciously spiced and warm wine. Many might have felt like us and had missed the Christmas Market custom. The market was packed and lines, especially those for food and drinks, were long.

Happy Holidays! Frohe Advents- und Weihnachtszeit!

06 December 2014

Happy St. Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas Day is an old popular tradition in Germany and other parts of Europe which I loved as a child. It is celebrated each year on December 6th.

It goes back to Nicholas of Myra who was a Greek Christian bishop and who died on that day in 346. He had developed a reputation of secret gift-giving by putting coins on or in people's shoes. The tradition still lives on with children who would place one of their boots in front of the bedroom in the night of December 5th to find it filled with treats the next morning. Important: it must be only one boot. Both boots would make the kid appear greedy. And the boot has to be a polished to show how well-behaved the child is! Otherwise, St. Nicholas would only leave a piece of wood or birch.

Happy St. Nicholas Day Guido! Your motorcycle boot looks a bit greedy and wasn't polished but St. Nicholas filled it nevertheless. ;-)

02 December 2014

Across the U.S. trip - Conclusions

Now that two weeks have gone by since I came back from my across-the-U.S. journey, the whole experience had time to sink in a little and I gave it some concluding thoughts. In a nut-shell, six weeks sound like a long time, but thinking back it felt like the journey flew by in the blink of an eye.

What went well and what could have gone better:
Actually, everything went very well. The weather could not have been any better, I met lots of interesting people and never ran out of gas (nor did my car)! ;-)
I did not get sick, did not have any accidents and no real issues with the car, except for those four listed below.

What did I bring and would bring again next time:
The following items in alphabetic order served me well and I would bring them again:

AAA maps & travel books: provided to AAA members for free, they cover all states and large cities I visited. Although I heavily used the GPS app on my phone I always want to have a map as well for alternative route planning, more independence from the GPS and better overview of the area. The travel books provide lots of information about a state's/city's history, good facts to know and locations to visit. I did not utilize their hotel/restaurant listing as those selected are rather on the pricy side. Non-AAA members can pick up these books and maps for $14.95/book and $5.95/map. Traveling on four wheels allowed me to carry such paper material. I would have optimized and packaged the data differently if I had been on my motorcycle instead.

Camping dishes: a mug, bowl and cutleries came in very handy when preparing breakfast or supper in my room or on the road. I even used them in the motels' breakfast rooms to avoid the use of yet another styrofoam/plastic cup, dish or plastic cutleries.

Cooler bag (30x15x15cm) & ice packs: cheese, milk/cocoa, yoghurt and such remained fresh between motel stops. The majority of rooms I stayed in had a refrigerator, some even with a small freezer section to prepare the ice packs for the next day on the road.

Ear plugs: to eliminate possible annoyance by noisy room neighbors/TVs on the other side of a paper-thin wall or busy highway, airport, rail road close by. We had good experience with the Howard Leight Max ear plugs and always use them when motorcycling. I had several sets with me. They are meant for single-use but can easily be used more than once.

Flip flops: indispensable to remain athlete's foot-free while on motel room carpets and in bathrooms.

Oatmeal, pre-mixed: very similar to our usual breakfast at home I had mixed rolled oats with nuts, raisins, dried cranberries, shredded coconut, chia/hemp/flax seed and some milk powder. Half a cup of water, some fresh fruit and low-fat yoghurt if available added to this provided a tasty, healthy and nourishing meal and a perfect alternative in case a motel does not offer breakfast or what they declare as breakfast is nothing more than a wrapped donut and some artificial juice. I brought nine portions and used all but one. I was surprised that compared to ten years ago many more places in the U.S. now provide breakfast (and of course free WiFi) included with the room.

Pepper spray: I usually don't feel the need to carry such self-defense device with me but for such a long solo getaway it just felt safer. I went for the triple action spray from Mace, which combines 10% Oleoresin Capsicum pepper, CN tear gas and invisible UV marking dye to help the police find the attacker who got spayed. I had to consider though that some monuments and locations such as the St. Louis Gateway Arch and governmental buildings don't allow entry with pepper spray (or any other kind of weapon). No idea how well the spray works. Luckily, there was no need to get it in action.

Sleeping bag: I selected the Travel Down bag from REI. It packs comparatively small (30x15cm), is light enough for indoor use and provides carefree sleeping no matter how flimsy a motel's blanket might be.

Tracking system: another "just in case" tool that provided Guido and me with additional ease of mind. We chose the SPOT Gen3. In addition to the on/off switch it has five buttons: two for pre-programmed "I'm ok" messages to check-in with family, one for tracking and to save waypoints of the route, a "Help" button to send a message in non-lifethreatening situations such as stranded due to an empty gas tank and last but not least the S.O.S. button. Pressing this button will contact the GEOS Emergency Center which will notify local 9-1-1 providers (or 1-1-2 when in Europe) and send the GPS coordinates to the response team to provide help in a life-threatening event. When setting up the device on the provider's website, it needs a nickname. I named mine "Brotkrume", (think of Hansel and Gretel). It served me well to track waypoints and to let Guido know when I arrived at my accommodation safely at the end of each day. The device requires four AAA Lithium batteries which last a long time. I had the spot placed on a small sandbag on the dashboard, but it also has a clip and can be carried attached to e.g., a backpack while hiking.

SPOT Gen3 on its sandbag

What would I leave at home next time:
Diesel fuel nozzle adaptor – I took the adaptor just in case I need to refuel and the gas station only serves diesel for large trucks which would have meant nozzles too large for my car. There was no need at all for the adaptor. Diesel for automobiles can be found pretty much everywhere.
Two to three pair of undies – Five pairs are fine, considering the fact that regular washing by hand or a motel's laundry facility is always an option.

What I was looking for and what did I find:
My goal was to learn more about peoples' culture and way of living in other parts of the country. I certainly experienced what I always hear people talk about: that there is a tremendous diversity between different states, landscapes and climate zones, (food) cultures, ethnicities and dialects. Overall however, we are not that different. Basically, we all have similar worries, are taking care of our family and are busy with the essentials of life to make a decent living.

As a dietitian and interested in nutritional research and obesity prevention, my particular focus was on food availability in different regions of the country. Low-income areas with limited or no access to grocery stores that carry healthy and affordable food have been described by the USDA as "food deserts". The issue of food deserts and a possible relationship between food deserts and elevated obesity rates of residents in such areas have been discussed controversially in literature over the last several years. My travels do not claim nor were meant to serve as detailed research of this topic. They served the purpose of personal education and reflect my own observations during this trip and within the limited time I spent in each region. I am aware that having a car available made it easy for me to reach any kind of food store or market and to get away from possible food deserts. On the other hand, none of the areas I visited were familiar to me beforehand and consequently I missed a lot that was not directly on my route. Local residents specifically in rural areas who depend on public transportation might experience more issues than me accessing fresh and healthy food choices. In most large cities I found a well-organized, wide spread system of farmers' markets, many with a long tradition in the area and supermarkets with a good selection of fresh, even organic produces. Whereas in those sparsely populated regions I traveled through, dollar stores and fast food restaurants dominated the area. The stores' isles were filled with candies, cookies and convenience food, sweetened beverages and high calory-low nutrients/costs snacks. However, would an augmented supply of healthy food in these stores help customers make a healthier food choice??

In terms of education on healthy food I came across various advertisements and posters for educational events and cooking classes. Also, the majority of people I talked to about nutrition, healthy lifestyle and food were aware of the issues and had good knowledge about what someone needs to do to stay fit and healthy. But none of the people I spoke to belong to the low-income underserved part of the population and thus, were not representative either ...

On my route across the country I stopped at many locations that were interesting to me from an agricultural point of view: a sustainable cattle farm and an organic grain manufacturing facility in Nebraska, cotton farms and peanut production in Georgia and Texas, a pecan orchard in Texas, a pistachio tree ranch in New Mexico and an olive farm and mill in Arizona. Also volunteering at a small community farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, during Food Day was lots of fun.

In general, I'm not a fan of dust-collecting, space-taking knicknackery. Thus, most of the souvenirs I collected are edible and represent some typical, local taste from the area I visited.

Mostly edible souvenirs, to relive the journey's taste 

Only the ear-rings from the aSHEville Women's Museum made by a local artist, the Nashville Starbucks mug which perfectly complements my mug collection, the 2015 wall calendar from Oracle, Arizona and those three Atlantic Ocean shells I collected on the beach near Charleston will serve as long-term souvenirs.

Over the next weeks/months, revival of the journey's memories will happen through our taste buds. I brought several jars of honey (from IL, MS, Southern CA), rhubarb jam from the Amish of Pawnee City (NE), berry jam and meat seasoning (Dallas, TX), apple cider, black bean dip and gumbo'n things peppered lemon spices from the Carolinas, olive oil, pickled bell pepper and pickles from Phoenix (AZ) and flavored pistachios varieties from Alamogordo (NM).

Pulled over by the police for speeding or other trouble-causing activities during those 8,366 miles (13,464 km): 0!
Problems with car: 4 relatively minor/stupid issues such as nails in two tires, one blown fuse and on the LAST day damage to the driver's door hinges and door due to a wind gust which ripped the door out of my hand and slammed it open (car should return from repair this week).
Critical/risky situations: 1 (wooden palette in the middle of my lane at 75 mph on the way to Tucson, AZ), a good portion of common sense, healthy self-assessment and luck prevented any other trouble.
Hours of fun time, great experiences made, life-time lessons learned: countless!!

Thank you Guido for everything that made this journey possible!