Low Country Boil on the High Plains

Of the many good moments I’ve had here in Wyoming, perhaps one of the best was this meal.  In honor of Father’s Day and Julie’s birthday, our excellent home stay family (and, coincidently, very good friends) created a full-on New England boil.  The last time I had a boil was circa 1989 when a bunch of relatives shipped live Maine lobsters for a family reunion to California.  In Wyoming a boil is less seafood-y for obvious reasons – quality seafood is not easily found smack dab in the middle of the country.  Confidentially this was better (sorry, Grammy).

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(recipe courtesy of Mandy Love)

  • 3 halved lemons
  • 1/2 tin Old Bay
  • 3 bottles of dark beer
  • Small potatoes
  • Kielbasa
  • pearl onions
  • Corn cobs, halved
  • Crab legs
  • Artichokes
  • Shrimp (deveined, uncooked)
  • Mussels

Instructions:

In a massive stock pot, fill about 1/2 or 2/3 with water and add lemons, Old Bay, and Beer to the pot.  Bring to a boil.

The aftermath...
The aftermath…

The quantities of each of the ingredients is somewhat up to you, and how much room you have in the pot.

Cooking times are as follows:

  • Potatoes, Kielbasa and onions: 10 minutes
  • Corn, Crab, Artichokes: 5 minutes
  • Shrimp and mussels: 4-5 minutes

Drain, dump, and dig in.  The only thing that makes this more delicious is a dipping bowl of melted butter

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Don’t Knock Wyoming ‘Til You’ve Tried It

If you had told me a year ago I’d be spending June in Gillette, Wyoming, I’d have called you a liar.  

But, here I am.  

And, that means that my current blog-worthy material is, again, Wyoming.

I haven’t had much occasion for days off while working for PAW (Performing Arts Workshop), but last Sunday I certainly made the best of it.

photo-5From Gillette, a drive up I-90 West takes you past the Big Horn Mountains (you know, like, THE Little Bighorn…) and straight into Montana. After a stop in charming Sheridan for lunch, we entered one of two open shops (Note: Sheridan on a Sunday is NOT, generally, open for business).  The cowboy/shopkeeper suggested a day trip through the mountains, and though I’m not often up for following a stranger’s directions without a plan, a map, or cell phone service, I was up for an adventure.  We drove further up I-90 to the Montana border (because we could), and then took a lengthy tour over the mountain range, down, and back again. Eight hours later, we were back in Gillette, having literally traversed the entire Northeast quadrant of the state on the advice of a few strangers.

What strikes me about this area of the country is how quickly the landscape changes.  The high plains shift to arid foothills, to red clay hills, tall, snowcapped mountains, and rolling green pastures.  Towns with populations smaller than the building I currently live in are scattered among cattle ranches, oil fields, and uninhabitable natural landscapes.

Here’s a peak at some of Wyoming’s NE corner:

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I-90 West toward the Bighorns
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The uninhabitable foothills
Into the mountains
Into the mountains
Shell Creek canyon and falls
Shell Creek canyon and falls
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Unattended gas station in Greybull

I won’t go on – I’ll just simply say that Wyoming is a pretty phenomenal place, and totally underrated.  I could have anticipated natural beauty and livestock, but what I didn’t expect to find here are kind, generous, tolerant people who take care of one another, and even take care of people they don’t know.

I guess when you live in a place where there aren’t that many people, you tend to value them more.

I’m Seriously Considering Moving to Wyoming…

Chicago is a beautiful city. I love living there and calling it my home.  

970820_10151702841291079_1784639298_nBut…

I’ve always said that I was meant to be a country girl, and my first week back in Gillette, Wyoming has pretty much sealed the deal.  Drive-through liquor stores, rodeo, and the Camelot Pet Castle.  What more could a girl want?!?  But seriously, this place is strange, and beautiful, and random.  It is simultaneously depressed and thriving, much like every other small American town.

Oh, you want to know what I’m doing here?

I would agree that Gillette, WY is not the ideal vacation destination, and I couldn’t be farther from on vacation.  I’ve returned to my roots and am spending three weeks as part of the amazing staff of PAW (Performing Arts Workshop).  I was extremely glad to leave children’s musical theatre when I did, and then almost immediately missed it.  This job is hard, and not always as rewarding as one might hope, but you don’t always see the impact that you make as a dance teacher at a small community theatre.

The rehearsal room is intense, but the lives that some of these kids lead is far more so.  Stories trickle down about kids who don’t have permanent residences, or kids who are resented and ignored by their parents.  Our job is to create a relentless, realistic, professional atmosphere, not to provide recreational song and dance or all-day babysitting.  Some of the kids are toughened by their home lives and thrive, and some fall apart in this program.  But we tendu on, and, somehow, pull off a fully-produced musical in three weeks. THAT is a reward in and of itself.

Each day of the program is hard and presents both the kids and staff with new challenges to face, and then you leave the theatre each day greeted by this:

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and this:

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and this:

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Yeah, if you saw that every day you’d want to move to Wyoming too…

The do’s and don’ts of group travel

I learned a lot about people on my trip to Sturgis.  Traveling with a big group can present its challenges, but it can also make for a safe and enriching experience that you wouldn’t have otherwise had.  Though not typically one for etiquette guides, these are the lessons I’ve picked up during my years of travel.

Disclaimer: Sturgis was a lovely trip.  Big thank you’s go out to the fearless leaders who organized the trip, the gracious followers, and a big cheers that we all have come out of it with friendships in tact.

The lookout point for Devil’s Tower, WY. These happy, smiley faces are having a winner vacation because we all followed the do’s and don’ts of group travel

Lauren’s guide to safe and happy travels in groups:

DO pick your battles.  Traveling in large groups is a lesson in diplomacy.  DON’T be that one chick who argues about everything. But, this is your vacation too.  So if you’re not happy with a group decision to the point that it affects your good times, speak up.  Otherwise, learn to let it go.

DO pick a leader, and

DON’T be a jerk if the leader is you.  Check with the group and, if it comes down to it, take a vote, draw straws, play rock-paper-scissors.  Again, group travel is a lesson in diplomacy.  And democracy.  Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean that it’s your job to make all the decisions.

DO have an itinerary, and

DO share it with the ENTIRE group, but

DO let people stray from it.  We’re all adults here.  Establish meeting places and times, put them on printed out itineraries, and then divide and conquer.  A group can get real hostile real fast if you spend too much time together, and many friendships have been broken up over a vacation.  That’s lame.

DON’T forget to pitch in.  Even if you’re not a leader or a naturally assertive person, don’t be afraid to put your hand in and help.  Vacation is work, especially in a big group, and no one appreciates you coasting while we’re busy taking out the trash and washing dishes.  If you can’t get anywhere verbally (e.g. “Can I help?  Anything I can do?” doesn’t always get a task assigned to you… the leader will say, “No I got it”) just dive in and do something.

DO embrace the group experience.  Be a joiner and recognize that your great lodging and awesome excursions might not have been possible without the support (financial, that is) of the group.  It’s also way safer, especially when you’re traveling in places that are out of cell phone range.

That said, DON’T forget to create your own experience.  This is your vacation too.  If there’s something you want to see or do, do it.

Freedom, empty space, and other patriotic thoughts from Wyoming

The ride down to Devil’s Tower from our chateau in the Black Hills demonstrates one of the most dramatic changes in landscape I’ve witnessed in two hours of highway.  One minute high in the trees and rocky hills, with the snap of a finger you find yourself on the barren plains of Cattle country almost immediately on crossing the South Dakota/Wyoming border.

But in the middle of the desolate and dry landscape of Eastern Wyoming, there’s an anomaly.

photo by Kelly Soprych

Unlike its fellow national monuments of bronze and stone depictions of dead presidents, Devil’s Tower is not contrived by men.  There was a placard somewhere along the 2+ mile hike around it that said something about molten lava and volcanoes, but I like the Lakota legend better:

Seven sisters were out playing when a bear started to chase them.  They climbed on a rock and the spirits rose the rock to the sky, where the sisters were turned into the constellation Pleiades.  The bear scratched and clawed at the rock, but was unable to reach the top.  

That’s way cooler than lava.

It’s hard to explain the gravity of a place like Devil’s Tower, but even more profound are the thoughts that come with a solid four days of moving Westward. People historically moved West for freedom, space, and opportunity.  They were motivated by gold, coal, oil and land, and maybe they still are.  Whether it’s gold or a job at Wal-Mart that pushes Americans Westward, I was starting to lose hope that there were still open spaces in this country, in spite of its size.  I live in a constant state of claustrophobia, seeking Starbucks after Starbucks, with people living literally on top of one another and paying the highest prices for the least amount of space.

But after a pit stop at the first and last gas station on the way from Devil’s Tower to Gillette, WY, there wasn’t a Starbucks in sight.  In fact, there wasn’t a single building – or even a vehicle for that matter – as far as the eye could see.  In that moment I’ve never felt more vulnerable, or more free.  I imagine it’s as close as you can get to witnessing what it was like for those first settlers moving West over the open prairie in search of, well, nothing… 

…and actually finding it.

Starbucks Around the World: Gillette, WY

There haven’t been too many opportunities for an overpriced, high quality cup of coffee on my journey cross-country to Sturgis, but an excursion to visit friends in Gillette, WY afforded an entirely different landscape, a scamper through the mud for charity, and not one but TWO Starbuckses.  Gillette boasts all the typical sites of a small American town – the Wal-Mart, the Applebees, and the Quizno’s, but there’s something different about it.  The people are genuine, the sunsets are out of this world, and there’s a refreshing underbelly of liberalism.  I don’t quite know why Gillette is the shining star of the high plains that it is, but in any case the iced coffee was a good one.