Tuesday, August 23, 2011

To the West!

My father and I set out exactly one week ago for our drive cross country. We started out on a drizzley morning in northeast PA and over the course of 2 days, made our way west across the state to Ohio, into Indiana, Illinois and eventually Missouri, staying the night in the little town of Hannibal- home of Mark Twain. I learned a lot about Mr. Twain, discovering his tales of tramping through the countryside meeting colorful characters, seeking both the beauty and humor in life. This little town not only had a Mark Twain Museum and his family home, but also the Mark Twain Winery, Mark Twain Fun Park, Mark Twain ABC Store, and Mark Twain Cave. Who ever knew Mark Twain liked miniature golf? But I digress from the subject matter of this blog...my father and I stayed at a lovely litttle place called The Mark Twain Campground (figure that!) and had the chance to meet a Burr Oak dating back to the early 1700's. Check out the girth of this tree!

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa): This tree is known for its incredibly large acorns (3/4 - 2" long and wide), the largest of all our native oaks. The cup of the acorn is very deep with hairy scales that make it appear fringed, hence its common name. According to National Audobon Society's Field Guide to North American Trees, the diameter of its trunk usually maxes out at 4', this appears to be just at it's limit- healthy as it was, perhaps it will grow even fatter.  
Leaving Missouri, we drove into Kansas, where the fields - sadly no longer prairie- stretched on as far as the eye could see. However, I was pleased to see cattle grazing on expansive plots of land dotted with modest trees and coulees (a sort of ravine) running with fresh water, and marveled at the yellow faced sunflowers lined up in seemingly infinite rows...

Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) fields in Kansas
We stopped in the little town of Abilene at an RV campground and stayed a couple of nights here taking in some history. This is the hometown of Eisenhower as well as the famous patent medicine maker, A.B.Seeley. How satisfying it was to examine some of the old brown glass medicine bottles distributed in the early 1900's by Seeley and see on their labels such ingredients as: licorice root, elecampagne root, birch bark, cherry bark, peppermint, and the like. This was clearly a different time in medicine, a time when plants were respected and commonly used for their medicinal value.

We tented among a grove of Osage Orange trees beside a duck pond. The trees provided wonderful shade but between the large sticky fruits and the randomly plopped duck eggs, we had to watch our step. Just at the edge of this grove was a large patch of Goosefoot plants, an wild edible that I have enjoyed in great quantity, cooking it up like spinach.

Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera): a medium sized tree with very shreddy bark and spreading branches, smaller branches with stout short spines. This hard "brainy" looking fruit is NOT edible by humans, though animals enjoy it. These trees were once planted as living fences before the invention of barbed wire. 

Goosefoot or Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium album): This is a young plant, only some inches tall, however as these plants mature, they can reach 4' in height. The green flowers arranged in spikes coming from axils, have 5 sepals and no petals but are so tightly balled their features are rather indistinguishable. The leaves are alternate and shaped like... goose feet! The above ground parts (leaves, stems, and flowers) can be eaten at any stage, although the leaves and stems will become tougher with age and are best in early summer. This plant is high in oxalic acid and so should be either consumed with calcium rich foods (so that the oxalic acid will bind with this calcium and not that in your body), boiled with the water poured off, or simply eaten in moderation (especially if your are susceptible to kidney stones). Be careful as well, where you harvest it as it can concentrate minerals like selenium. 
 And just as my eyes had finally adapted to the wide open flat spaces around me, we hit the road, and the faint blue outline of mountains appeared on the horizon. These were my first glimpse of the Rockies...

To tell you the truth, at first they didn't look all that different from our mountains in western NC, but as we gradually drove closer, driving over the smaller foothills and into the belly of the mountains around Loveland Pass Colorado, chills ran down my spine, my whole body filled with exhileration, at the sight of these massive rocks...

A view from Buffalo Mountain at around 12,500ft, see I-70 in the valley below to the left where we drove into the town of Silverthorne
 My feet are eager to hit the trails here in Colorado... Stay tuned for plant pics and hiking adventure from 10,000 ft and up!

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