Off-Roading is Good for the Soul

By Regena Kowitz

(Note: Originally written July 21, 2019)

There’s something to be said for driving down a dirt road, surrounded by trees and blue skies, while belting out your favorite songs at the top of your lungs. Even if you can’t carry a tune like me, it’s therapeutic. Energizing. Liberating.

It’s just you and the road and the music. It’s a way to revel in the moment. And it’s just fun, pure and simple. I highly recommend it.

This past weekend, I finally decided to go off-roading and camp overnight with my husband. In the past, I have left most of these excursions to Brad and the boys—I thought of this as their time together, father and son time. Not that they ever so much as hinted they didn’t want me along, but I wanted them to have this time together, the boys-only, mom-free moments they didn’t often get growing up.

During his 26 years serving in the Navy, Brad deployed a lot. From back-to-back sea duty to his long-anticipated shore duty turning into an individual augmentee billet to Iraq, there was a period of about 10 years during which he missed so many opportunities to be with our boys. So I was more than happy to step aside and let them go off-roading and overlanding without me, to bond and just be guys together. But now, the boys are off in so many different directions, they don’t always have time for dear old dad.

It had been a long time since I’ve gone camping, gotten off-grid, and slept beneath the stars. It's been even longer since I’d completely unplugged from work, my kids (don’t worry, they’re pretty much adults and I was confident they could keep themselves alive…at least for 24 hours), and all the responsibilities that tug at me each and every day. You know…laundry, meal plans, meetings, deliverables, doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping, mandatory annual training, teleconferences…the list goes on and on!

This was probably one of the best things I’ve done for myself in a while. My husband was driving his new Jeep Gladiator and I drove my little yellow Jeep (which doesn’t have any name at all yet) so I had some quality me-time, alone with nothing but an audiobook and my favorite playlists.

We go together like ketchup and mustard????

A Playlist for Off-Roading (And Life!)

I quickly abandoned the book for the songs because the music allowed my mind more freedom, more time to wander and just let the thoughts come and go as they pleased. And some of the songs conjured up some fantastic memories. From a time when Life (yes, “Life” with a capital “L”) was an unknown adventure, filled with possibility and dreams.

Speaking of dreams, Fleetwood Mac is definitely on my “Road Trip” playlist. And, just in case anyone was wondering, singing “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes while bouncing down a road in the mountains is the BEST! Of course, how can you drive up a mountainside without doing a duet with the incomparable Stevie Nicks to “Landslide”? Toss in a little “Shakin’” with Eddie Money, some “Lights” by Journey, add in “Thunder” from Imagine Dragons, “We Will Rock You” with Queen, “Into the Mystic” by Van the Man (that’s Van Morrison for the uninitiated), and the always catchy “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” by the Beastie Boys and I was blissful as I took my tires off the beaten path and headed for the hills near Big Bear.

A campsite with a view of the trees and our home away from home (for the night).

Overcoming Challenges Off the Grid

After a day of driving and singing and just letting a piece of my soul go loose, we finally made it to our campsite and we were starving!

I’m a pretty good home cook, if I do say so myself, and I have all the accoutrements to prove it. Stainless steel pots and pans. Stoneware for baking. A powerhouse of a stand mixer. A pineapple corer-slicer. You name it and I probably have it. But camp cooking is a whole other matter. It’s about multi-purpose tools, space-saving equipment, and two-burner camp stoves (at least, it is in my husband’s current kitchen setup). Definitely not the kind of cooking environment that I’m used to operating in. 

This is the kind of kitchen setup I'm used to, with all the modern conveniences at my fingertips.

And so…a little advanced planning had been in order. Before we set out, I found a few recipes that were relatively simple but still tasty and could be made using the gear my husband would be bringing in his Jeep. Naturally, I had turned to Pinterest and created a board for camp cooking. The meal plan included chicken Caesar salad wraps for lunch, a kielbasa hash for dinner, banana pudding for dessert, and blueberry banana pancakes for breakfast. 

I found my recipes, bought the ingredients, and packed everything I’d need for the trip. We would be eating well!

Our first meal, lunch, was delayed due to some challenges on the trail so Brad and I were starving by the time we were able to stop for lunch…around 3:30 p.m. Using his little camp pot, I was easily able to toss together the chicken Caesar salad part of the wraps…minus the parmesan cheese that I somehow forgot despite all my careful advanced planning and the fact that I had three containers of it in my refrigerator at home (oops!).

Using precut romaine lettuce, garlic croutons that I brought in a baggie, precooked chicken from Trader Joe’s, and a bottle of Caesar salad dressing, the first part of the recipe was prepared in about five minutes. Using whole wheat tortillas and little more dressing to top off a few spoonfuls of salad, the entire meal was ready in under 10 minutes with minimal mess—my kind of meal!

This recipe is a long-time family favorite from back in the day when I first learned how to cook using Pampered Chef recipes.

Because I was determined to challenge my culinary skills and cook at camp, after a short and refreshing nap, I started dinner prep about two hours later. The kielbasa hash was another simple recipe that had a little bit of everything—protein, carbs, and veggies. The recipe called for kielbasa (duh!), potatoes, onion, and red and green peppers. Not to break my trend of forgetting an ingredient, when I was pulling everything out of the cooler, I realized I’d left the onion at home. Oh well…there was still plenty of goodness and the lack of one ingredient wouldn’t ruin dinner.

I had all the ingredients chopped up in just a few minutes, using one of my super thin, flexible cutting boards that had somehow made its way into my husband’s collection of cooking gear (to meet his space-saving requirements—not recommended, by the way, for slicing and dicing on the tailgate of a truck with an uneven surface).

The potatoes were first into my husband’s little camp frying pan along with a little olive oil (my husband keeps a tiny little bottle with his cooking gear) because they’d take the longest to cook. I seasoned them with half the spice mix I’d brought from home in a baggie (seasoning salt, paprika, onion power, and Cajun seasoning).

Just when they started to get fork tender, in went the kielbasa and I cooked it long enough to get a nice little char on the pieces. Finally, I added the chopped peppers and the rest of the seasoning mix and let it all cook just long enough to leave a little crunch on the veggies.

Can you hear that sizzle? If only you could smell the tantalizing aroma of this quick and simple recipe!

It was a hearty and delicious meal but we really only needed (and I only had room in the tiny frying pan for) half of what I’d brought. What can I say? I’m used to cooking for three growing boys! So the rest of the kielbasa, potatoes, and veggies were saved in a baggie and cooked later that week for another quick and easy dinner…this time on my gas range in a large sauté pan. 

Camping Under the Stars

After dinner, with a can of wine (yes, that’s right. A can of wine…don’t knock it till you try it!) and a little Loreena McKennit to serenade us, Brad and I enjoyed the stars. All of them! All the stars my eyes could hold! It’s ridiculous how many stars you can see when you get far enough away from the light pollution of the city. The night sky literally sparkles. I was even lucky enough to see a shooting star! It was magical.

I was too busy enjoying the stars to take a picture...and I forgot a tripod, so there's that...but this image of a night sky from Adobe Stock will give you an idea of the spectacular sparkling sky that night.

I love the night sky and the constellations. Growing up, my family always spent a week during the summer in the Sierra Nevadas, on the outskirts of a little town called Downieville. One of my favorite things to do was lay outside with the scent of pine thick in the summer air, contemplate all the stars, and just wonder. 

(Pro tip: if you have a constellation app, make sure you download it before heading to mountains…you’re likely not going to have reception and, therefore, won’t be able get it out of the Cloud and open it to check out all the cool constellations. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.)

And perhaps, because stargazing was so peaceful and I was so relaxed (hello, canned wine!), that I didn’t mind too much that I’d forgotten a crucial ingredient for my next recipe, banana pudding. It was so crucial, in fact, that dessert was a no go. To be honest, I didn’t exactly forget the vital ingredient—bananas—I just didn’t bring enough for both dessert and breakfast, which was to be banana blueberry pancakes. Since we were still so full from our late lunch and early-ish dinner, we decided to just skip dessert. To paraphrase Robert Burns, even the best laid plans of mice and women go awry. 

Blueberry pancakes for breakfast

After a solid night sleeping in rooftop tent, I was ready to make breakfast—those banana and blueberry pancakes that I had just enough banana for. This time, I hadn’t forgotten a thing! I had all the ingredients, including the “pancake mix” that I’d premade at home, from scratch, thank you very much! 

I mixed the dry ingredients with the egg and milk before adding in the lemon zest (surprisingly, my husband actually had a pretty good little zester in his camp utensil set). Then, I had to go semper gumby to mash the bananas because that handy utensil set did not include a masher—so I peeled them, put them in a plastic baggie, then mashed them with my fingers before adding them to the batter. 

Is there anything better than freshly made pancakes, doused in syrup, with a steaming mug of black coffee for breakfast at camp?! (The answer is, "no!" in case you were wondering. ??)

Once the pan was hot enough, I added a dollop of ghee, then the batter, topped it off with blueberries, and waited for the magic to happen (those little bubbles at the edge of the pancakes that let you know when they’re ready to be flipped—it took me years to learn this very important bit of cookery). The only problem with breakfast was, thanks to the diminutive size of the frying pan, I could only make one pancake at a time. Thank goodness it was just the two of us!

Behind the Scenes with TrailRecon

Since Brad needed to get busy working on his video about Amelia, he ate first and then I got to sit back and watch him do his thing—film video talking about future upgrades for the big red Gladiator.

My view enjoying some behind the scenes action as I ate breakfast.

When he was done, we cleaned up breakfast dishes (apparently, I need to learn to conserve water), packed up, and headed home.

Life Lessons from a Dirt Road

The weekend was so much more than I’d expected. I learned new things, like how to cook without all of the conveniences of home, and remembered a few important life lessons, like how to lose yourself in the moment with a great song and how gazing at a star-filled sky can open you up to wonder and possibility.

Even though we hit every possible spot of traffic on the way home, turning a two-hour trip into four, it was an amazing weekend. Mind-clearing. Relaxing. Rejuvenating.

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