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Camping with Travel Mavens – Death Valley National Park, California

Mona and I wanted to spend more time outdoors, especially camping, but kept coming up against the same basic problem. We didn’t have all the skills we needed for a solo camping trip. We’d camp, but someone else took responsibility for things like building the fire or organizing cooking. When planning solo trips, we became aware of things we both needed to learn to be able to have a good experience by ourselves.

I first heard about Trail Mavens on the She Explores  podcast. It appealed to me for a lot of reasons. The first was that it created an opportunity for us to learn outdoors skills in a non-judgmental environment with other women. It also appealed to me for the cost. Since they are shorter trips, they are less expensive than some of the bigger excursions that are offered by other outfitters. So when I saw there was a trip that would take us camping and hiking in Death Valley with a qualified guide, we were booked.

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We arrived at the Furnace Creek campground and met our fellow campers. I was happy about the range of ages and experiences. I had been really worried that I would be too out of shape to do the hikes or that my lack of knowledge would be some glaring flaw for others to judge. That absolutely wasn’t the case. Trail Mavens provided us with some equipment, including tents. Our guides showed us how to choose our site and set up our tents. Mona was particularly skilled at the tent skills. A couple of the tent posts were bent but my clever wife grabbed a mallet and a rock and pounded them back into shape.

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One of the things I also enjoyed about the trip was the shared responsibilities. We all signed up for different shifts to take turns cooking and cleaning for the group. It was a great opportunity to learn how to make different recipes and also learn the three tub method for washing dishes. For my night, we made hobo packs. I was thrilled. Something I knew how to do! We made vegetarian hobo packs and cooked them on a grate over the campfire. I was excited to share my own recipes and was really enthused the other women were receptive. I don’t think of myself as particularly skilled in the outdoors, so having a skill recognized by other women was really gratifying.

That same support carried itself onto the hikes. There were definitely some strenuous and technical parts of the hikes, including rock scrambling. As we discussed how to navigate the obstacles, there was always someone nearby to hold a trekking pole, point out a foothold, or offer a hand as we hoisted ourselves over a ledge.

In the evening, we gathered around the campfire with a bit of wine and some snacks before dinner and talked. After sharing our experiences on the trail, it was easy to share our experiences in life. We joked about who would be our celebrity best friend but also shared our deeper fears and anxieties about careers and families. In a couple of days, I felt I knew these women and they knew me better than most people back home.

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The guides were an incredible resource. Sarah was our guide and Jen our co-guide. They taught us skills that were advertised and some that were not. I learned how to build a fire, something that I had been really eager to learn. When I’ve been camping in the past, someone else has always been responsible for building the fire while I’ve sat back and enjoyed the warmth. As Mona and I have been planning more excursions alone, this has been an essential skill to earn.

But the guides were also willing to share their experience about anything, not just what was on the program. When I asked about water filtration systems, I got a detailed explanation of Sarah’s personal systems, other systems, and the pros and cons of each. I had been thinking about getting a bike to ride to work occasionally and she told me about different frames that could suit what I was looking for. She never made me feel silly for not knowing the answers already. And she explained things without using technical jargon so that it was easy for me to understand and without trying to force an opinion on me. She gave me information so I could decide what would be best for me. I came away from the weekend with a lot of new skills but also feeling more comfortable asking questions in way I hadn’t been before.

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On our last morning, I was sad. We packed everything up and lingered over our goodbyes. Before we left, a flock of ravens came to search our site for any trace of food left behind. I know some people associate ravens with bad luck, but personally they have always appeared for me when something significant is happening in my life. I’ve seen them on travels to Alaska and Canada when I was rediscovering my love for the outdoors. It seemed fitting that I would see them again and in such abundance at the end of our Trail Mavens adventure.

We did not receive any compensation for this post. We just had an amazing time with Trail Mavens and are eager to share the experience with others.

Fresh Jerky – Beatty, Nevada

We left the Area 51 Alien Center and continued along the two-lane desert highway towards Beatty, Nevada. The storm clouds continued to hover overhead and I kept my hands tightly on the wheel to keep our car on the straight and narrow as gusts of wind continually barraged us. We entertained ourselves by listening to the Let’s Not Panic podcast archive until a new distraction appeared.

A white sign stating in bold black letters that fresh jerky was ahead. No other information. Just fresh jerky somewhere in the distance.

Clearly, someone had anticipated Mona and I traveling down this road. Mona once asked me if, forced to choose, I would give up bacon or jerky for the rest of my life. There was no contest. Jerky is our favorite snack for the road or the trail. I would give up a lot of things before I would ever give up jerky. For example, breathing. I’m pretty sure that in the absence of jerky I could hold my breath until jerky appeared.

After a few miles, the sign appeared again. Fresh jerky ahead. And again, no other information. Where was this jerky? How fresh was it exactly? They were taking great pains to emphasize its freshness without providing any other relevant information such as where it could be found. Apparently, this was the freshest of the fresh jerky. That’s why the adjective took precedence over the location.

I was so preoccupied by the mysterious jerky that I barely enjoyed swerving around the tumbleweed that passed in front of our car as I yelled, “We can’t stop here! This is bat country!” And that was something I had been enthusiastically planning to do ever since we decided to visit the desert. What a waste of a Hunter S. Thompson reference.

Ever nearer now, we continued to see the signs. There was jerky. And we were getting closer.

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As we pulled into Beatty, the signs came in rapid succession. Now in red print there it was. Fresh! Jerky! Ahead! I hit the brakes and swerved into the gravel parking lot in front of a trailer that promised we had finally found our destination. Our manna in the desert. Our jerky.

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Some may question why we would go into a random trailer and buy food. The answer is simple. The people by the side of the road sell the best food. When I travel throughout Kansas, anytime I see a guy with a smoker in a parking lot near an empty highway then I know he is going to have the best barbeque. Just like how the best sweet corn is bought from the back of a pickup truck. Those are the rules.

Inside the trailer, there was a variety of jerky on display as well as locally sourced honey available by the jar. We perused the walls where the varieties of jerky in vacuum sealed plastic wrappers. Behind the counter, there was a woman chopping up a variety of meats into small samplings. She invited us to taste samples of the jerky. I was grateful for the opportunity because I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the choices. There was beef, elk, venison, and buffalo. We veered more towards the gamier meats. While living in an area where red meat and especially beef is very popular, I’ve always had a particular affinity towards buffalo. When we sampled the buffalo jerky, I was sold. It was deep and gamey with a rich, smoky flavor. We bought a pack for eight dollars and considered it a bargain.

Later on our hiking and camping trip with Trail Mavens , we found out that most of the women we were with had never had buffalo meat, let alone buffalo jerky. I chopped up our purchase into small pieces so everyone could have a sample and stored the remaining half in my pack.

Unfortunately, Mona and I would not get to enjoy the remaining delicious jerky. I left my pack on the floor at home and our dog, Chelsea, was clever enough to pull it out of the pocket and devour it. So there’s someone else in our house that would defy all constraints of time and space to get to jerky other than me. Our dog.

We did not receive any compensation from the delicious meat merchants or Trail Mavens for this post.