Our wanderings

Our wandering path

Revisited: Mexican Hat Soup in the Redwoods

  • Corbin in his amazing lightweight camper.

Editor’s note: Corbin Shouse, our son Nate’s college roommate and now a dear friend of ours, is the guest blogger today, discussing the amazing soup he made us when he visited. He also roasted coffee and made me a cup every morning (heaven). And he invented the famous campfire-toasted peeps, which shall live in infamy. Enjoy!

By Corbin Shouse

Back in April, I had the great pleasure of dropping in to the redwood forest to see Tom and Judy, a.k.a. the New American Nomads, for a 10-day stay. I brought my little Runaway camper and set up in the “front yard” of their spacious campsite to weather the mists and rain with a couple of my favorite people in one of the most amazing places on Earth.

As Judy has already written about on this site, we had some fantastic dinners by the campfire, reminisced about life over excellent beer, and generally had a grand time in the Epic Van and around the North Coast.

Tom, ever the mobile gourmet, prepared a number of astoundingly delicious and complex meals in the small kitchen of the Roadtrek, much to my amazement. We also had bratwurst and grilled veggies from the campfire, along with the now famous Roasted Peeps with Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs.

As the amount of hospitality shown to me by the Nichols grew and grew, I wanted to offer a small token of appreciation in return, and it came to me instantly: my great grandmother’s Mexican Hat Soup.

Family lore has it that the recipe was conceived in the Depression as a means of utilizing the foodstuffs on hand, and the soup combines a variety of disparate canned ingredients into a medley of vegetables, legumes, spicy Mexican-influenced flavor, and Little Smokies sausages.

Also called Wastebasket Soup as a nod to its origins, the dish has a deeply intimate place in my childhood, occupying a recurrent space at the dinner table from my earliest memories. And it can be prepared with little effort and fanfare, making it perfect for the minimalist kitchen of the Epic Van.

We drove to the market in Arcata, and I picked up the requisite ingredients, mostly in cans, returning with them to our quiet sanctuary among the tallest trees on this planet.

Combining the ingredients in a large soup pot, we waited patiently by the fire as the soup simmered for the required one hour period. Finally, we topped it with Monterey Jack cheese and a sprinkling of tortilla chips and sat down to eat.

I must admit, it filled me with profound joy and gratitude to be eating such a cherished dish in a locale so far from my birthplace in Central Texas with people that I couldn’t imagine my life without.

Tom and Judy seemed to enjoy the soup immensely, and I felt I had done a reasonably good job in replicating the dish that my mother and grandmother made so skillfully on so many occasions. Our bellies full, we continued our wide-ranging discourse on the state of the world, and life was good in the Epic Van.

Recipe for Mexican Hat Soup

1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 can Rotel tomatoes with Green Chilies
1 can chopped green chilies
1 small can Spicy V-8
2 cans pinto beans
1 can whole kernel corn
1 can small lima beans
1 small can sliced black olives
2 lbs. Oscar Meyer Little Smokies (cut in bite size pieces) – can substitute any similar sausage
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
½ teaspoon of onion powder
Salt to taste

Monterrey Jack cheese
Tortilla chips

1. Sauté onion and celery.
2. Combine all ingredients except cheese and chips and simmer for one hour. 
3. Serve with chips and cheese.

Yellow Pine: Now you know about it, forget it

  • The beautiful view on the road into Yellow Pine, Idaho.

I’m going to tell you about a place I love, and then I’m going to tell you to forget about it. Well, maybe not altogether, but mostly. Because, like Boo Radley, exposing it to too many people might kill it.

Yellow Pine, Idaho, population about 40, sits on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, at the end of a 32-mile, one-lane, paved road, then about 15 miles of unpaved road.

Its main drag is a block-long, dirt road, with one coffee shop, one café, two taverns, and one tiny, shuttered grocery store that’s for sale. Scattered around on the hillsides are cabins, some rustic, some pretty swanky, often used only on weekends during the summer. In the brutal winters, most people here head down the mountains to warmer climates.

But in the summer, Yellow Pine reminds me of my grandmother’s town, Hanover, Kansas, where I used to visit as a kid. Everybody knows everybody.

I had never heard of Yellow Pine, before we hit the road in The Epic Van.

During the first month we were out, while camping in Cochise Stronghold in Arizona, we met Jeff and Ann, two of Yellow Pine’s tiny population.

They had a Sprinter van, like ours, but they had outfitted it themselves, and we compared notes about our rides. And we had some drinks. And we played dominoes. And we had a few more drinks. And some chocolate. And we shared notes on life.

They told me about Yellow Pine, where they had settled after a cross-country motorcycle journey. They had sold their stake in an ambulance company and were looking for a new place to live. Ann is a nurse and Jeff a paramedic, trained in firefighting and back-country rescue. And they both race motorcycles.

They happened on Yellow Pine during its harmonica festival when, the first weekend in August, it opens its arms to the outside world. They were asked if they would serve as the medical volunteers required for an event permit. They said yes, and soon decided they had found their new home.

We visited during the harmonica festival two years ago and went back this year, parking The Epic Van in Ann and Jeff’s yard. Across the dirt lane from their house, the woods were filled with other campers, temporarily swelling the town’s population to about 2,000. Kent, Jeff’s longtime paramedic buddy, comes every year to help with medical calls. And, this year, Jeff’s daughter, Kalie, who’s just finished her master’s in nursing, is helping, too, along with several other members of the town’s volunteer fire department. Their other daughter, Cassie, who we met the first time we visited, is starting a pathology degree.

For three days at the festival, you can listen to masters of harmonica, acoustic guitar and other instruments on the stage across main street, or in the tavern or café, or buy a tie-dyed T-shirt with the shape of Idaho across the front, or a brightly painted metal flower made by the lovely couple who lives up the hill, or get a soft-serve cone from the ice-cream truck parked at the other end of the block.

Along the way, Ann will introduce you to all the regulars, like Brooke, who’s “consistently nice.” “Well,” Brooke will say, “there’s an hour in the morning that I don’t show to anyone.” Or the head of the forest district, who’ll be by for dinner on the porch later to discuss the new plan for gold mining up the hill, or Tom, who lived here when Yellow Pine still had its one-room school, and would ride his Flexible Flyer down the sheer ice of a mining road going 50 miles per hour.

A young man with a swollen eye stops for Jeff to look at it, the woman selling burgers and fries from the food truck asks Ann about a remedy for carsickness for her niece, who was miserable on the winding drive up the mountain, and then the radio squawks and they are off on a call for a foot injury, a dislocated toe, which Jeff re-locates while Ann distracts the patient. This year, things are pretty quiet. Last year, they had to airlift several patients, including two who had heart attacks.

The music goes until midnight on the outdoor stage and until 2 a.m. in the tavern. The first night headliner this year was a band called Guess When?, a Celtic folk-rock band from Boise. They were four manly men sporting kilts, long beards and wicked humor. None of them played the harmonica but Jake, the lead singer, did bring out a bagpipe for a few numbers. They played an eclectic mix of music from Scottish-inspired to rock, anything but Freebird.

“This is like Freebird, but different,” Jake would say before almost every song.

The second night, in the tavern, we snagged a precious pair of barstools and listen to Roby Kap, one of the regular favorites. Another regular is fwopping on the washtub base. I see Brooke dancing across the way, and wave. The tavern is packed and, when the main stage closes down, the very tipsy dancers all file in and fill the space in front of the band, now playing Ring of Fire.

But as Jeff said, you can’t really judge Yellow Pine by the festival. You need to be there afterward, after the crowds leave, when things get back to normal.

He’s right. The quiet that descends when the visitors leave is magical. The mother deer and her twin fawns are seen again. There’s morning coffee with the regulars again. There’s time to ride the ATV over to celebrate a friend’s birthday with cocktails and hand-picked-huckleberry cake on their deck by the river, and for pizza in another friend’s handmade brick and earth oven.

And when you go back into the tavern, there are plenty of barstools available, and Sam, the cook at The Corner, who’s sitting at the end of the bar, will tell you how he’s happiest without crowds, out in the wilderness, alone.

“Some of my best holidays have been when I’m by myself,” he’ll say.

And as you sit on the deck and the only sound is the breeze rustling the pines, you get Sam’s love of solitude.

So, now I’ve told you about beautiful Yellow Pine. Forget all about it.

Today’s hike: Taggart Lake-Beaver Creek loop

  • Taggart Lake is a pristine glacial lake in Grand Teton National Park.

Today, we hiked to Taggart Lake, one of the pristine glacial lakes in Grand Teton National Park.

The lake, at 6,902 feet, was formed by a glacier that flowed out of Avalanche Canyon, scooping out the basin and forming lateral moraines, or piles of rock and soil, along its sides. When the glacier retreated, water was trapped within the moraines.

From the trailhead, the path climbs next to a creek, through sagebrush flats and a recently burned area, for about two miles to reach the lake.

We sat on a rock soaking in the views of the Tetons, formed along a fault that continues to push the mountains skyward and drop the valley, Jackson Hole, down. It makes the mountains rise dramatically directly from the park’s floor, with no foothills. We watched tiny fish swim in the clear waters of the lake, its surface rippling with the breeze.

We continued south along the lake’s edge, up and over the moraine and through forests of Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, Engleman spruce and subalpine fir. Profuse wildflowers bloomed along the trail and across the alpine meadows.

We returned along Beaver Creek Trail, accompanied by the sound of gurgling water.

Total distance: 3.9 miles, 500 feet climbing.

Capitol Reef National Park: Utah’s cascading barrier, oasis

  • The Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park was a formidable barrier to travelers.

I knew nothing of the Waterpocket Fold that extends nearly 100 miles across southern Utah. But once we arrived in Capitol Reef National Park, I was captivated.

Ferns: Green on green in the ancient forest

  • A fern fiddlehead unfolding.

In the ancient forest at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in northern California, you walk beneath some of the tallest trees on the planet, immersed in a green-on-green world dripping with ferns, their amazing fiddleheads unfurling in the spring. Ferns cover the forest floor, drape from the branches and trunks of the trees and line the 50-foot walls of the world-famous Fern Canyon.

Waist-high sword ferns surround our campsite, delicate deer fern and lacy lady fern line the sides of the trails. The deer fern has two types of fronds, sterile ones with broader leaflets, and reproductive fronds with much narrower leaflets that contain spores on their undersides.

Leather fern form mats in the redwood canopy, creating hanging gardens with up to six feet of soil and blooming blackberry bushes. Bracken ferns cover the prairie, nearly hiding the reclining elk munching there. And in Fern Canyon, a World Heritage site and an International Biosphere Reserve, five-finger ferns flutter from canyon walls.

Guests welcome: Marshmallows, Marbled Murrelets, Fern Canyon, scotch

  • Corbin sitting in his very cool trailer.

Who says nomads can’t have house guests, or Epic Van guests, or actually, campsite guests. Just because we don’t have a house, or extra beds, doesn’t mean we can’t have people “over.”

In the three months that we were volunteering at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we had three sets of guests. First, Corbin, one of our son, Nate’s, former college roommates, stopped by for almost two weeks in his months-long tour of the West, then my mother, step-brother and sister-in-law, came for four nights, then my former colleague and always friend, Jen, and her partner, Reg, came for four nights.

We loved all of them, and each visit was unique. They enriched our sometimes solitary lifestyle. And they brought a feeling of home to our traveling abode.

Top 10 cool facts we learned about redwoods

  • There are three kinds of redwoods - coast redwoods, which grow along California's northern shores, giant sequoias, which grow inland in California, and the Dawn redwood, which is native to Asia.

In the three months we volunteered at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we were mesmerized by the beautiful trees from which it takes its name. Sadly, most of the old-growth redwood forest was mercilessly logged. Less than 5 percent remains, most of it in parks established after wealthy patrons purchased tracts in the 1920s, mostly from logging companies. Prairie Creek has one of the largest pieces of original old-growth left and several of the world’s top 10 tallest trees. Here are some of the interesting things we learned about these majestic trees. And, although pictures cannot capture their grandeur, I have included some photos.

Update: It’s a harem

  • Two of the male elk on the prairie.

A quick update on our elk, the four (former) “bachelors.”

Bachelors no more. Over the past month or so, the guys attracted more guys and, hooray, two females, one of whom is very, very round and, I suspect, very, very pregnant. The elk herd is called a harem, and these lovelies are fetching enough to do a dance of seven veils.

Now, the gang of 11 wander the prairie, munching and, occasionally, people watching. The males’ new antlers are growing quickly, up to an inch a day, covered with luxurious gray velvet.

I often stop to watch as they lie in the tall grass, chewing at leisure, and I anticipate the babies to come.

Here are a few new photos.

The commute: Then and now

  • Our current commute is the half-mile Redwood Access Trail from the campground at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to the Visitors Center.

Then: Arizona 202 to The Arizona Republic in downtown Phoenix, where I was a reporter, 8 a.m. returning at 6 p.m. Tom took the same route off-peak, 2 p.m., for his evening shift at the paper, returning at 11 p.m.
Now: Volunteering at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in northern California, Tom and I walk from the campground to the Visitors Center on the Redwood Access Trail, a half-mile rise of nine feet through old-growth redwoods, ferns and blooming redwood sorrel, leaving at 8:45 a.m., returning at 12:45 p.m., three days a week.

The bachelors: Roosevelt Elk at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

  • We call them the bachelors, the young male Roosevelt Elk that hang out at the prairie by the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Visitors Center, where Tom and I are volunteers.

We call them the bachelors, the four young Roosevelt Elk that inhabit the open prairie by the Visitors Center at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The young males are old enough to be threatening to a bull elk with a harem, and so have been cast out to wander on their own.


  1. Reply
    electricscootershq.org March 1, 2017

    Nomads and the civilised look at each other with disapproval and misunderstanding. Why would anyone want to wander the wilderness and live in a tent? Why would anyone want to live in a box and obey unnecessary masters?

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols March 3, 2017

      Ali, Mostly we’ve found people think it’s really cool. Many tell us they dream of being able to wander the world. Are you a nomad?

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