Friday, May 26, 2006

Please Stand By (Glass in Hand, Of Course)

Some dastardly imp has wiggled into my system and taken out my Mobile Technology, dammit. But don't despair. I may even be able to get an adapter and post tonight after a scheduled interview today. To keep your spirits (and interest) aloft, here's a list of Coming Soons:

  • There are four categories of scenic beauty: Pretty, Beautiful, Gorgeous, and I Just Crapped Myself. Find out where in the world one can find that last category.
  • Crazy for Americana Roadside? How 'bout paintings of Jesus, blowing holes in sandstone, or taxidermy? Southern Utah's own Hole N The Rock Rules.
...And much, much more.

Now go have a nice glass of Mer-lott and relax. I'll be back soon!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Waitsburg, It's Gonna Happen

So, you've been to all the wineries in Walla Walla, you've cruised Main Street for hot octogenarians, been to the coffee shops to listen to the teen gossip, and you've tripped on the balloon festival. Now what?

Drive half an hour's worth of east. Seriously. First of all, it's a jaw-dropper drive, especially now in the springtime when the big rolling hills are bright green with new wheat. You'll pass a few teeny picturesque villages with the requisite crumbling barns, then head into what looks like a freaking ghost town. Then you'll be pissed off at me, wondering wtf I made you drive out here for. But you gotta look a little closer.

Ah-hah. There's something. It looks like a cool dive bar. Sure 'nuff, you've found the Lyon's Den, a true specimen of the Renaissance Dive, having all the scruffy edges intact, but with a replenishment of spirit vis a vis a newly built, see-through cooler trimmed in polished wood. There's a good collection of local Washington vino, freshly made pizzas, pool tables for the brave who dare challenge the locals, and a growing list of live music. Really bitchin' tee shirts, too. Gotta have one of those.

So you now have your beer buzz on, and wanna know what else is up in this teeny town. Is it 3pm yet? Good--go on out the door, and jaunt your hungry ass over to the destination place all the Walla Wallans are rightfully screaming about.

The Whoopemup Hollow Cafe is--how do I say this properly?---The Shit. Not since Gramma have I had such tender corn fritters. Scratch that, they're better than hers. But what I really dug was that this place takes the essential ingredients of beloved Southern and Cajun cooking and reinvents them anew. I had a dish that simply blew me away: the sweet potato ravioli served in a tomato sauce with country ham and wilted greens. Familiar flavors rearranged into something completely unique. Excellent work, people.

So now I have to know what dessert's like. The Coca-Cola cake reminded me of all the crazy vintage Better Homes and Gardens magazines I so treasure, so I ordered that.

This is the kind of dessert that widens your eyes like when you were a tot, and the Baskin Robbins 7-scoop Matterhorn was laid before you. It makes you giggle. You dig in and find that the combination of chocolate, cola and super creamy meringue makes this baby way more than a cute presentation. Damn, that's good.

You're not going to find much more out of the ordinary in Waitsburg...yet. But there's a lot of buildings that have been bought up lately by key players like Charles Smith of K Vintners. You'll get the feeling, though, that this is a tiny town on the verge of becoming a bonafide destination. And you can say you were there in the old days, before the Starbucks moved in.

Better visit now.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Judd Cove Oysters

I couldn't have told you how oysters were farmed, either, until I went to Orcas Island. Yeah, water's obviously involved--the average oyster filters fifty gallons of it through its body a day--but beyond that, I had no idea.

As you head east out of the small village of Eastsound, you turn a bend that suddenly reveals a picturesque cove lined around with a wide band of flotsam, mostly water-bleached tree trunks and abandoned clamshells, with a gull or two pecking around for scraps. You might mistake the oyster beds for sticks peeking out above the water at high tide, but when the tide's out, it's obvious...sort of.

Neat rows of what look like sticks lined with rope kinda look like the rows of vines I've been photographing this whole trip. Several rows seem only to be a single oyster shell attached to the yellow rope, while the others are gnarly, amorphous clumps of shell and barnacle; the individual oyster is hard to pick out. I'm all questions at this point: how many oysters are in that mess? How long do they take to grow? Do I get in a lot of trouble if I eat one?

As if by edict of the Cove God, a big yellow truck rolled up and out stepped Bill Bawden and his assistant Elijah. I'd been advised to look for "the tall fair-haired guy with the huge hands" by my friends at the Inn at Ship Bay. Lo, there he was. I shook one of those big hands, which were every bit as rough as the oyster shells that had rendered them so. "You're gorgeous!" he exclaimed to me with a big boyish grin.

Aw, shucks.

Bill and Elijah rolled gray wheelbarrows out to a lot of rows. Harvesting is done by sawing the oyster-heavy ropes off the pvc that holds them, and is done to-order rather than all at once. Bill names off the amount each restaurant has requested, including the Inn at Ship Bay, which has ordered several dozen. It's an approximate business, since it's difficult to tell exactly how many of the little guys are hiding in one big chunk. After they're harvested, they go to a separate processing plant to be separated, de-barnacled and sorted for delivery.

"See this little guy here? He goes for about thirty dollars a dozen in New York," Bill says as he shucks one open for me. Wow. I had no idea I was in the presence of such oyster greatness. It's only right then that I realize the prestige of the farm I'm standing in: Jude Cove is one of the most beloved of the oyster beds on the Pacific Coast. Bill explains the price tag: these crustaceans are raised the old fashioned way, seeded on a 'mother shell' attached to the rope, rather than in mesh bags. The oysters that grow on the bottom of the clump have much thinner shells, and therefore spend more time growing their own bodies rather than worrying too much about protection. It takes around three years for the oysters to reach maturity, so seeding and harvesting are in constant cycle.

He hands the oyster to me. I knock it back. It tastes like seabreeze and butter. Fantastic.

I wondered why a famous restaurant on the opposite coast would be into buying from somplace so far away. Surely they've got an oyster or two over there. Water quality has a lot to do with the high regard for this farm. "I sent my water in to be tested, and they joked with me that I was cheating, it was so clean," Bill says.

I naturally had to have a dozen after my visit. I must testify: they're oysterlicious. And knowing where they're grown kinda makes me feel special. Like I'm in-the-know. I know the oyster farmer, so there.

I'm easily amused.


I am so very far away from Orcas Island now. On the opposite end of the state, as a matter of fact. Give ya a hint: glowing balloons.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Shh...Don't Tell Anyone: I'm on an Island

If you follow both this blog and The Cork and Demon wineblog, you're probably assuming I'm somewhere in Oregon still, photographing starfish and winemakers. I actually slipped off last week to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juans, between the coasts of Victoria, BC and Washington state. It's an hour's ferry ride from Anacortes. I've been posting the wine stories at my leisure, fitting them in between hiking, beachcombing and stuffing my face with some of the best food I've had on this trip. My friend Luke, who I've known since we were eighth-grade troublemakers in Catholic school, is the innkeeper here at the Inn at Ship Bay, which is so very cool that it warrants its very own post which will come up soon.

The first full day I was here I spent the morning exploring the odd and amusing landscape revealed by the extreme low tide in Ship Bay. The first several yards of beach is covered with the ubiquitous barnacle encrusted rocks, creating an unsettling crunch underfoot. Being the softie I am, I'm all worried about what--or whom-- I'm crushing as I walk. But the petrified barnacles and abandoned clamshells are so much sea-junk at this point; the real activity is going on ahead of me in a wide band of green seaweed.

I didn't notice it until my leg got a suprise squirt of salt water. I sat down on a big rock in the middle of the mucky sand and watched as scores of little jets erupted everywhere, sending water in arches as high as several feet in the air. These are horse clams, or geoducks maybe, turns out; expressing their displeasure with the proximity of nosy seagulls.

For a local, the beach and its inhabitants might have already blended into the mundane, but not for me. I'm feeling like a wee tot on her first visit to the ocean, and I stop to inspect anything that moves, has color, or glints in the sunlight. There are dead crabs to turn over, more giddily fascinating purple starfish, and great big oyster shells laying open like expensive glass ashtrays, all usually hidden under the tide.

As I'm inspecting the underside of an ancient piece of metal, a man and his son greet me. He tells me they're searching for 'Captain Vancouver's Cannon', an artifact alleged to be visible at very low tide. He describes it to me before continuing his search, and I tell him I'll keep an eye peeled.

Luke wants to make sure I get Moran State Park under my belt a couple of days later, so we leash the collie and head off to a trail that will take us up Mount Constitution for one of the most fantabulous 360 views in the Northwest.

Redwoods are beautiful, and I've hiked through a lot of them on this trip, but there's something about the Washington pines that I love even better. The color palate of this forest is cooler, and I dig the soft, bright green fuzz of skinny saplings. It seems quieter, more remote. Luke tells me there are very few beasties that live in this area; no predators or badgers or snakes, but a few deer and scads of tiny birds. But even these are elusive, and the thickest part of the forest is uncannily still.

At the summit there's a stone tower, built as part of the New Deal/WPA as an observation deck. Closed for intense remodeling recently, it was open for us. I did my usual lazy thing where I skip the obligatory informational displays about Mr Moran and his legacy and blah blah blah and ran right up to the top. You can see all the islands, the shorelines, the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. On a more clear day, you can see Vancouver and Seattle.


The shore is irresistible. I went again and found new creatures washed up into the sand: moon jellyfish. Hundreds of them. Hard to spot at first, they look like discs of ice. Later, on my way back from the oyster farm down the beach, I found live purple sand dollars and spotted a juvenile bald eagle perched on a rock. I could stay out there for hours.

And...what's this? I stumbled over an ancient rusted tube about three feet long, covered in the barnacles of the ages. Nearby was a piece that looked like the end of a small cannon. Was it the famed Captain Vancouver's Cannon? Maybe. Or an old pipe, whatever. In the absence of proof, I get to decide.

More to come about this place. It's really amazing.