Friday, September 23, 2016

Five Reasons to Wear Trail Runners Instead of Hiking Boots

Some of Zach's PCT shoes

Who’s ready for a post from early 2015? I discovered this while digging through unfinished blog material, and decided that the topic was still quite relevant. Seriously, the last time I was in REI, it took all my self-control to keep from running into the shoe section and yelling at the people trying on boots (like a soothsayer in a Shakespearean play), “NO! Touch not the dreaded boots of lead! I promise you, you shall regret this!”

So, here’s why.


Zach and I had stopped to gather water at a backcountry camp in Yosemite National Park. While I attempted to dip water from the shallow bank of a stream without trampling the fragile aquatic ecosystem, and Zach beat off hordes of mosquitoes with his hat, we were approached by an older couple who had hiked into the camp for a weekend with their grandchildren. They chatted with us for a while, asking about the trail and congratulating us for making it this far. Then, glancing at our footwear, they asked the question that we were asked countless times on trail:

“Are those really the shoes you’re wearing?”

People in towns, at trailheads, and even people on longer-distance trails (100 to 200 miles) almost always wore and advocated hiking boots. In town, we were often given advice on how to properly lace our boots, or how often to change our socks to keep the awful heavy leather footwear from rubbing us raw. We’d listen politely, trying not to draw attention to our well-worn trail runners— which are, in essence, glorified sneakers. 

Please note: jeans, unlike tennis shoes, are not good for hiking!
But back to the couple in Yosemite. They were shocked to learn that we were, in fact, wearing the beat-up sneakers on our feet (can I call them tennis shoes? I grew up calling them tennis shoes). “That’s incredible,” the man said. “I couldn’t do that— my feet just need more support than that.” 

I nodded, but all I could think was, Support for what? Although I’m sure there are situations in which hiking boots would be useful (although I can’t offhand think of any), I would prefer lightweight shoes any day.

Here are the two main objections people have to trail runners:

There’s not enough support! Actually, human feet are designed very, very well— they have all the support they need. If you have a normal foot, your arch and ankles will be just fine supporting themselves. Shoes are mainly there to protect your soles from rocks, hot sand, and cactus spines.

Trail runners don’t offer enough protection! I can see this one… a little bit. I was annoyed that dust often leaked into my trail runners, which boots will prevent. And sometimes, when I was post-holing through snow, I wished that I had higher-top shoes that wouldn’t allow snow in so easily. But honestly, in each of these situations, the tradeoff of flexibility and weight was well worth it. Other than snow and dust, I don’t know what “protection” people are talking about in such grave tones. A boot will not keep you from breaking your ankle, or tripping on a rock (actually, you’re more likely to trip with a boot), or getting bit by a rattlesnake. 

I still say the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, with the advantages being:

1. Weight. In backpacking, you count every ounce, so why should shoes be an exception? The one day on trail that I hiked with boots, every step was a struggle. Once I put my trail runners back on, I felt like I was flying. Unless you’re really into resistance training, do yourself a favor and ditch those leaden boots.

2. Price. Trail runners are, in general, cheaper than boots. If you can find them on sale, you can buy an excellent pair for a very reasonable price. 

3. Breathability. Blisters are often caused by sweat, and if your foot is in a boot, you will be sweating a lot! Also, if your boot is leather, you sometimes can’t take it off in the middle of a hike because your swollen feet won’t fit back inside. In contrast, trail runners allow your foot to breathe, and they’re easy to slip on and off to give your feet a chance to air out. 

4. Multipurpose uses. I wear my trail runners in everyday life— they look like normal sneakers and are great for walks around town, working in the garden, short hikes, walking around horse stables, and, of course, if I was into it, trail running!

5. Flexibility. The point of a hiking boot is to put a stiff, heavy sole between you and the ground, which translates into your foot always being flat. With a lighter shoe (which still has a pretty thick sole), you can feel the ground and keep your balance better, as well as let your foot curve and move more naturally as you walk over rocks. It’s not good for a foot to walk flat all the time. In Oregon, where the trail is flat and smooth most of the time, my feet were starting to kill me. After a day of walking over lava rocks, they were perfectly fine! Trail runners allow your feet to stretch, bend, and move— which is what feet are supposed to do in the first place.

So, if you’re considering buying yourself a pair of hiking boots, do yourself a favor and buy some trail runners instead. Your feet and your body will thank you!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Quote of the Day

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happy Autumnal Equinox, everyone!

North Cascades National Park, WA

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Perfectionism and the Organic Garden

My interest in organic gardening got started in 2010, when I spent a month volunteering on this and another farm. 

Yesterday when we were out to lunch, my brother Eric mentioned that wild blackberries had grown in his yard this summer, but when he picked the berries and washed them, he found them to be infested with tiny maggots. I told him that was a bummer, and he said, “Yeah, I figure next year I’ll just spray them with pesticides,” and gave me a sly, teasing smile.

Putting on a self-righteous tone, I replied, “Well, that is your choice,” and we both chuckled.

Everyone in my family is well aware of my new gardening obsession, as well as my passion for growing food without pesticides. And although Eric was just teasing me about it, his comment got me thinking about perfectionism in the home garden, and why I think holding ourselves to an “organic ideal” is harmful.

I don’t spray pesticides or chemical fertilizers on my garden, but you definitely couldn’t certify my garden as organic— the soil that came with the house as well as the soil I buy is often chemical-laden, and a lot of the scraps I use for compost have pesticides on them. However, if I didn’t start my garden with these cheap or free materials (for instance, the spoiled produce I get to compost every week in the summer is all conventionally-grown), I wouldn’t be as far along on the garden as I am now. The ideal would’ve gotten in the way of actually bringing about good.

Here’s the way I think of it: if I buy a commercially-produced organic tomato raised in California, it was most likely still part of a monocrop farm, sprayed with “organic” chemicals, picked before it was ripe, and shipped a thousand miles to get to the grocery store. If I buy a tomato from a local farm at the farmer’s market, it may have been sprayed with chemicals, but it was picked at its peak freshness and nutrition, and my purchase helps support small agriculture. If I grow a tomato in my garden, even if I add chemical-laden compost to it, it’s still part of a rich mini-ecosystem that encourages bugs and bees to flourish; it’s ripe and nutritious, and it eliminates the need for a tomato grown on a huge farm.

In short, everyone has to decide what’s most important to them, but I believe that spraying your vegetables with chemicals, while not ideal, is worth it if it means you’ll grow your own food instead of buying it at the store. A homegrown garden, regardless of whether or not it has the “organic” label, is an important step in self-sufficiency, good nutrition, food security, and being connected to the land. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of this worthy goal.


Monday, September 19, 2016

What I've Been Reading: "The Edible Front Yard" by Ivette Soler

When I was reviewing Groundbreaking Food Gardens on Amazon, I saw this book pop up on “Suggested titles.” I decided to check it out, and I’m so glad I did! The Edible Front Yard: the Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden is a book that took my dream of turning my lawn into a garden and showed me how to make it reality.

The book begins with a general introduction about the whys and hows of edible landscaping, followed by a chapter of edible plant listings, detailing the benefits and aesthetic of each plant. Every front-yard crop must be beautiful, multipurpose, and long-lasting, and Soler provides dozens of suggestions, both common (apples, basil, lettuce, corn, strawberries) and unusual (borage, amaranth, sorrel, bachelor’s buttons). Each listing has notes about the plant’s aesthetic, color, form, flowering/fruiting habits, growing needs, and uses, as well as stand-out cultivars and suggestions for how the plant could be integrated into the landscape. 

The following chapter is an even longer list of “the supporting cast:” non-veggie plants that add structure, beauty, and other benefits (medicinal leaves, pest control, pollinator attraction) to the edibles. Again, each listing is thorough and helpful, everything from elderberry and catmint to yarrow and St. John’s wort. 

The final chapters of the book discuss design theory, practical considerations, harvesting, and maintaining a front-yard garden that will keep the neighbors happy. Soler insists that organic gardening is the best choice, and provides some great practical organic solutions for for issues that might arise.

I wish the book contained a few more maps to show how people have used these elements to create front-yard paradises (again, the reason I love Jabbour’s book!), although the ample amount of photos helped me visualize what a finished garden might look like. I now have a huge list of plants I’m considering for my front yard, and using some of the exercises in the book to start conceptualizing the layout. Design does not come naturally to me, but this book gave me a lot of helpful tools to improve my skills.

In short, if you’re thinking of putting an edible garden in your front yard (even if you don’t tear up the whole lawn), you should read this book! It’s inspiring, beautiful, and chock-full of practical information.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

This Week (Edible Design and a Landscaping Tour)

Actually a picture from the Portland Rose Garden, because I forgot to take pictures at Blanchette. Don't tell anyone.

It’s been a packed week! I returned to my online teaching job, flexing my editing muscles as I get back into the swing of the semester. In between trying to sound approachable yet competent through my written words to students all over the US, I’ve found time to work on my memoir— so far I’ve drafted the story up to right before we hiked into the fire. The writing is incredibly rough, and still far too long, but I’m trying to block in the most important parts so I’ll have a smaller selection of stories to edit when I go through the narrative a second time. Slow and steady.

I’ve also been reading a lot lately. I just finished a book called The Edible Front Yard, which I’m reviewing here on Monday (spoiler: I love it), and my head has been full of plans for tearing up that pesky front lawn and putting in a gorgeous, productive landscape. 

Along those lines, I saw on Monday that the St. Charles Parks Department was offering a free landscaping tour of Blanchette Park with a horticulturalist the next day, so I jumped at the opportunity. Todd, who led the tour, revealed that he (and sometimes one other person) design and take care of every park in St. Charles— hundreds upon hundreds of acres! He runs on a shoestring budget (much less than many other municipalities), so he focuses on plants and designs that grow well and need almost no maintenance. At the end of the year, he takes a mulching push mower to all the beds, mowing them down to the ground and enriching the soil at the same time. 

The tour was supposed to be an hour, but it lasted much longer than that, as Todd was willing to answer a bunch of questions. I trailed behind the group of middle-aged and older women, trying to soak in everything our guide said as he pointed out the different plants in the garden and discussed how they fare in our climate.

I took particular note of catmint (purple-flowered and silver-leafed herbs, really beautiful) as a fail-proof perennial, hostas as a put-anywhere shade plant, and two ornamentals that stood out: blue-flowered plumbago (it’s a tropical perennial, hence an annual here) and melampodium, a yellow-flowered annual. Also, St. Charles is apparently a great place to grow hardy banana trees! You won’t get any fruit, and need to cut them to the ground every year, but the trees in Blanchette Park grew fifteen feet in a single season, producing tropical leaves as large as my torso. Talk about eye-catching!

On the tour, Todd also mentioned some interesting (and sometimes worrying) notes about the plant world. First, he said that a lot of weeds are becoming resistant, either partially or totally, to Roundup, which means that heavier and heavier applications are needed in the home garden. That’s why he encourages people to choose plants that will naturally flourish and block out the weeds.

He also talked about modern cultivars of plants— it’s become common to patent the hybrids, which means that the patent owner gets a royalty from every plant sold. The idea of patenting a living thing brings up worrisome issues: for instance, if you divide the root of a perennial and share it with a neighbor, does that make you a plant pirate? This idea seems to violate something about the gardening spirit, and also may lead to some interesting legal cases in the future. Learning about this made me more determined to choose heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, plants that exist to promote biological diversity and encourage gardeners to share and save seeds.

On that note, as we walked through the Rose Garden, Todd explained the roses are finicky— and becoming even more so, the more they’d been inbred. Modern rose cultivars are much more disease-prone than older varieties, leading to many parks and botanical gardens treating them like annuals rather than perennials. As we smelled a heirloom rose compared to a modern cultivar, the difference in perfume was profound; yet another motivation to try to encourage biodiversity in what we plant.

All in all, it was a wonderful tour, giving me both practical information and a lot of food for thought. Definitely one of the highlights of my week.

In the meantime, things have been quiet in my garden. The kale keeps growing, the pea sprouts are chugging along, a few carrots have sprouted, and the spinach is trying to decide whether or not it’s too hot to show its leaves to the sun. I’m getting to the point where I can see how much I’ve learned about gardening— both as a pastime and as a way to make the world a better place. I’m excited to start expanding my beds and putting what I’ve learned into practice.

Hope you guys have a good week! Fall is coming!


Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Day in the Life

When I wake up, I look through the window to see our yard glowing silver with dew. Cool, damp air washes into the room. House sparrows nibble seeds from the weeds growing along our chain-link fence.

The neighbor down the street, a skeletal woman in her fifties, bangs on my door at eight in the morning, asking for money to buy blood pressure meds for her grandma. I’ve helped her in the past, which is why she often treks to my doorstep in search of cash, or, occasionally, carrots. I have no cash today, I say, I’m sorry, and I really am. She breathes a prayer through her blackened teeth and runs off to call urgent care.

Later I see her grandma sitting on her front porch, her back a hunch, her stringy gray hair hanging loose. Her dark eyes, almost hidden in the wrinkles of her face, watch the breeze stir the oak leaves.

Our neighbor to the south sits on her back porch with her teenaged son, both smoking cigarettes, the rank scent carried on the wind. We smile and wave.

A kid from the trailer park down the block rides his bike along the road, listlessly. 

Two doors down, an elderly man with large wrap-around sunglasses hobbles from his house, moving with slow deliberation to the edge of his victory garden, where he inspects the tomatoes. Styrofoam plates, tied loosely to stakes in the garden, flutter in the breeze to deter birds.

The sun clears the roof of our garage, sucking up the dew with its brutal rays, the last gasp of summer. A flock of sparrows burst from our yard and head toward the river.

Our neighbor to the north yells at her Great Dane mutt, who is tearing across the neighbors’ front lawns.

Across the street, dump trucks lumber through the industrial yard fenced with chain link. The edges of the lot are alive with dandelions. Someday, I think, that yard will turn into a bunch of condos.

The gentleman across the street, who’s lived there with his wife for 53 years, limps to his black truck, taking his daily drive to to walk laps around the mall. We wave at each other.

The neighbor catty-cornered to us, a young man with hipster glasses, rushes out of his house with a baby carrier in tow.

A man from the next block saunters down the alley, eyeing the neighbor’s apple tree hungrily.

The pit bull mutt two doors down is having a barking contest with the Airedale terrier across the street. After a few minutes they become bored and give up.

A neighbor from down the block drives a vintage car, its old-fashioned race car body yellow with a black roof. He parks it at another neighbor’s garage and they chat. Later they’ll meet up again to drink beer, crank out loud music, and talk football.

An old man with a long grizzled beard clomps down the sidewalk, his skinny legs pumping methodically. He wears a fake sunflower tucked into his hat.

A person in an SUV pulls up to the intersection by our house, and starts to turn right, before freaking out and realizing she has to turn left because of the one-way street.

I hear a clattering in the alley and see a man with a stocking cap and small glasses. He is here every week before trash day, opening each recycling bin. He picks out the aluminum cans, smashes them, and tosses them into his black garbage bag to sell for pennies. Then he carefully rolls the bins back in place.

The sun has dipped behind the hill to the west, and nighthawks, with their slender barred wings, wheel overhead in the sky. The sunset glow backlights the sycamore across the street, and I crouch by my garden, absently picking spikes of creeping fescue from the soil. The carrots have sprouted. The ground is still warm to the touch. 

The sky fades from flax to denim. Zach will be home soon.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Weird Ways I Try to Impress People

The internet, particularly the minimalist blogs I follow, moan to high heaven about the ways that people try to impress each other. The huge houses! The high-paying jobs! The luxury vehicles! The ever-brand-new iPhones and laptops! As someone who doesn’t care the least bit about those things, I usually start to glaze over while reading an article about the pull to impress people.

Of course, if I’m being honest with myself, I do (or have done) all sorts of things to feel impressive. And they’re all pretty weird. For instance, I feel the impulse to impress people with:

Accurate self-portrait #1
The secondhand status of my clothes. Whenever someone compliments me on a piece of clothing, it is a difficult battle for me not to blurt out, “It came from Salvation Army!” Or even better, “It was a present.” Or even better, “I dug it out of a trash can from behind a vintage clothing boutique! See how non-materialistic I am in conserving the earth’s precious resources?!” (Okay, maybe not the last one.) 

The obscureness of bands I listen to. My music tastes are mainstream (and don’t even get me started about movies), but, especially in the past, I’ve felt very insecure about it. Whenever someone brings up my musical taste, I’ll feverishly shuffle through all the obscure artists that I like. All two of them. “Oh YEAH, well have you ever heard of Peter Mulvey?! Yeah, I didn’t think so! And… and… uh… Jonathan Coulton! He’s obscure enough to be cool, right?!” And then I feel really defensive for a while, then go drown my sorrows by listening to my favorites bands you’ve probably never heard of, The Who and Queen.

The healthiness of my food choices. Among a certain subculture of my generation, the temptation to one-up each other with healthy food is severe. “Oh yes, I’ve started eating lacto-fermented radishes for breakfast along with my daily glass of kombucha, although I did splurge yesterday morning by adding a sprinkle of nutritional yeast to my adzuki-chard pastured-egg omelette, after which I drank my organic raspberry-nettle tea.” But it’s impossible for me to spout that rhetoric and not be a hypocrite when I make quesadillas (white flour tortillas, cheddar cheese, and chili powder) for Zach and me. For the seventh meal in a row.

Accurate self-portrait #2
How beat up my athletic shoes are. When I see someone with shiny-looking athletic shoes, my first thought is, “Wow, they must not walk much.” Because I have this judgmental impulse toward other people, I automatically apply it to myself. Whenever I buy new trail runners, I feel incredibly self-conscious. I feel much more impressive when I have a well-worn pair on my feet, shoes that say, “Oh yeah, this person has walked a lot.” Because EVERYONE CARES ABOUT THAT, I’M SURE.

Of course, when I actually stop and think about these things, I chide myself for being so judgmental, both of myself and other people. A little self-reflection can help me break free from these arbitrary standards and dig deeper. Behind these pompous feelings, I have genuine interest in these subjects. I am deeply concerned about the disturbing amount of waste in the clothing industry. I care a lot about eating food that is healthy for my body and for the planet. I want to listen to obscure bands because... okay, never mind, that’s just a desperate grab at pretending to be something I’m not. And the shoe thing is just weird, although I am proud of my walking and hiking accomplishments.

In the end, like someone obsessed with cars, jobs, and houses as status symbols, I need to put away my pride and my desire to project an image that people will like, and try to live honestly and sincerely. I want to enjoy things because I enjoy them, not because I want to impress anyone— and admitting I have a problem is the first step.


Monday, September 12, 2016

What I've Been Reading: "Groundbreaking Food Gardens" by Niki Jabbour

The more I’ve read about home food growing, the more I’ve wanted to see how other people organize their gardens. What planting styles do they choose—grids, free-flowing patterns, berms? How do you keep track of which crops to rotate? What kinds of crops do other people interplant? How do you attract beneficial insects? How do you integrate structures like a compost pile or a chicken coop? What if you're gardening in shade, or in your front yard? Most gardening books have a yard plan or two to show an example of what to grow, but I wanted more— I wanted variety.

That’s why I was ecstatic when I pulled this brightly-colored book off the shelf at the library. Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Garden, compiled by four-season gardener Niki Jabbour, was everything I wanted, and more. Illustrations showing the aesthetic of each garden? Check. Detailed maps showing the layout and the specific crop varieties? Check. A wide variety of gardens, ranging in size from hanging gutters and potted patio plants to a traditional Victory Garden and a half-acre spread, and in region from Alaska to Florida? Check and check! This book not only gives practical advice for making each kind of garden work, but also is designed to inspire the readers to reconsider what an edible garden looks like.

As I’m planning to tear up more front lawn next year, I’ve been perusing these pages, making notes and thinking of which design elements and crop varieties I want to include. Do I want to rig up a “comfrey tower” to make compost tea from this fast-growing weed? Should I line the front of the yard with highbush blueberries, due to their aesthetically pleasing foliage? How about potting a fig tree and hibernating it in the garage over the winter? Or growing hops on a trellis? Or building a potato garden out of cinderblocks? The book has sparked my imagination, helping me picture the possibilities.

If you’re interested in any kind of edible gardening, I highly recommend checking out this book— it’s a fun and beautiful collection of ideas to help gardeners think outside the vegetable patch.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

This Week (A New Niece and a Change in the Weather)

First of all, exciting news— I’m proud to announce that I have a new niece! Zach’s brother and sister-in-law are the parents of an adorable little girl named Margot. They live in Pennsylvania, but we’re hoping to go visit them before the year is out to meet the new arrival. ‘Tis the season for babies!

Classes just started up for me, and I’m trying to readjust my brain into “teaching mode” after a long break. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been doing this job, either as an intern or as a full-time writing coach, for 10 years now. 

Along with introducing the new school year, September in St. Louis is pulling its usual weather shenanigans. After a delicious few days of autumn-like temperatures, summer returned with a vengeance, slamming down a 100ยบ+ heat index over the whole area. In despair I retreated back to the air conditioning, staring at my garden through the pane of glass and wondering if I was going to observe yet another crop of carrots die of heat stroke.

Well, so far, so good. I’m not sure the spinach is going to sprout, but the carrots are bravely struggling upward. The peas, on the other hand, continue to flourish. Depending on how long it is before winter starts to nip the air, I may have to use some sort of protective cover for these crops to help them last through a couple frosts. But right now, even with the weather cooling off a bit again, the first frost feels a long way away.

Another random note: this week my brother Francis fixed my bike! It had languished in the garage for a long time, one of those projects I never quite got around to doing. Turns out, all it needed was a new tire. I can’t say that bike-riding is relaxing (my one-speed requires a lot of muscles that I never use for walking), but it’s good exercise and a fun challenge, and it gets me around town a lot quicker, which will be especially helpful with festival season coming up. Also, I can take a quick ride down the Katy Trail to a wide-open expanse of cornfields a couple miles north of our house— sunset over those fields always brings me peace and gratitude for where I live.

Have a great week— and to all my St. Louis friends, stay cool!


Friday, September 9, 2016

My Favorite Parks in St. Charles City

Parks are pretty much the best idea ever. I love that cities have set aside little green areas for the community to meet and mingle, and every time we have Zach’s seven- and eight-year-old brothers over to our house, I’m grateful for a free source of entertainment for them. St. Charles has several wonderful parks scattered throughout the city limits, but here are my top four.

For picnicking, festivals, concerts, and frisbee, there’s nowhere in St. Charles that beats this riverfront park. Zach and I walk there almost every night, wandering the paths and watching the river change from season to season. During the summer there are free concerts here every Thursday night, and a host of other festivals throughout the year make their home here. 

I grew up visiting this park often, and for good reason. It has baseball diamonds, football fields, tennis courts, gorgeous old trees, a sledding hill to die for (although you might die sledding down it), expansive picnic areas, ornamental gardens, a swim park, an exercise area, and a massive playground. It’s also one of the few playgrounds in the area with ample shade!

This is a relatively new park, and its playground is the #1 destination in St. Charles for kids. It’s a totally inclusive playground, featuring awesome slides, a “flying saucer” swing, a splash park, musical features, and a giant climbing structure/merry-go-round. When we took Calvin and Preston there, I’ll admit I was pretty envious of them!

This is a name that encompasses several small parks in my native Frenchtown, featuring wildflower gardens, wetlands areas, riverside forests of cottonwoods, hiking trails, a playground, basketball courts, and a dog park. I walked here every day through the winter, noticing the subtle changes of the seasons. During high summer, come walk the trails at night for a display of fireflies that will blow your mind.

What are your favorite parks in your area?