Usually, backpackers show up at the trailhead, packs on their backs, with maybe a pound of food stowed among their weekend necessities.
On this morning, 14 backpackers showed up with no packs at all. All each had was a little bag with enough clothes and whatnot for an overnight trip. In their defense, they hadn’t been told to bring a pack; they were simply told where to meet.
This was not our typical weekend walk in the woods.
My co-leader on this trip was Jacob Boehm, executive chef and owner of Snap Pea Underground and Catering. About once a month for the past three years, Jacob has hosted a nine-course meal at locations you wouldn’t associate with dining. Like the roof of a building in downtown Raleigh. Or the retired bridge spanning the Haw River in Bynum. He plans each meal just a few days in advance, based on what’s fresh and available. Diners don’t find out until 36 hours in advance what they’ll be eating, or where they’ll be eating it. When Jacob announces a dinner on his website, all 150 or so spots sell out within minutes.
Jacob’s hunger for unique and memorable settings led him to me. He wanted to do a dinner in the backcountry, one that would require a hike in of about five miles, that would have a mountaintop view, that would be no more than an hour-and-a-half drive from the Triangle. And we’d need a nearby water source. I had just the spot in mind: Little Long Mountain in the Uwharrie Mountains southwest of Asheboro, where the bald-ish summit affords the only mountain-top view of the Uwharries, to the east (sunrise), the south (the bulk of the Uwharrie range), and to the west (sunset).
So, there at the trailhead, we had 14 backpacks prepacked with a combined total of 120 pounds of food and a cooling system devised from Platypus water pouches filled with frozen wine and Manhattans. Strapped to one pack was a grill grate. We fitted the hikers with backpacks while noshing on apple cider doughnuts. We set out under cloud cover and after a few miles, we stopped for cold fried chicken and roasted heirloom potato salad with lemon buttermilk dressing. As we reached the summit about four hours after we started, the skies parted, giving way to the mountain-top view of the Uwharries. Working in teams, we started a fire in the pit and mixed up dough for flatbread that later would be grilled on the fire. A water team headed down to the spring to fill up a bin. A gang plucked parsley for the chimichurri to go with the dry-aged ribeye steak. Butternut squash roasted on the fire was scraped and pureed by hand and combined with other deliciousness. As we worked around the fire pit, the sky itself reflected the flames in a spectacular orange that lasted long beyond the average sunset time. Or so it seemed.
“You know how any food tastes good when you’re camping?” Jacob explained (over the rhubarb and hibiscus gin gimlet, as I recall), “I wanted to see what really good food tastes like.” It tasted just fine.
After some chatting under the crystalline night sky that revealed the Milky Way, we retreated to our tents. Morning brought bowls of steaming congee that had soaked overnight, and mugs of restorative coffee. We reluctantly bundled up tents and packs, much lighter now after a day of reducing the fine food stores. On our way out, we had a lunch of country ham, sopressata and aged chorizo sandwiches and cornmeal thumbprint cookies with scuppernong jam.
The food was, indeed, delightful. But it wasn’t just the food that made the weekend memorable. To a person, the group couldn’t have had a better attitude and appreciation for the weekend from the get-go. Not 10 minutes down the trail, my new friend Scott told me, “I can’t believe how much more relaxed I already feel.”
On Saturday night, as the sky faded into a deep crimson and the temperature headed to an overnight low in the 50s, we sat around the crackling fire, enjoying smores made of hand-crafted bourbon marshmallows, crackers made from North Carolina graham flour, and dark Videri chocolate. How on Earth could I possibly replicate this experience? I wondered.
Hiking out the next day with Melissa and Tonya, I learned that an amended version would be just fine.
“This has been such a great hike,” Melissa said. “The campsite was unbelievable.”
“I’d love to offer trips like this,” I said. “But I think I’d fall short on the foraged sumac, grilled flatbread and charred Piracicaba broccolini.”
“You know what would be perfect?” asked Melissa. “A couple hot dogs wrapped in crescent roll dough. People could roast them on a stick over the fire.” Store-bought marshmallows, Hershey chocolate and Great Value grahams would be fine, too. They continued on with menu items well within my reach.
In the days since, I’ve been thinking about my weekend with Jacob and how it might influence our GetBackpacking! trips in the year ahead. Food a step up from lasagna revived from dust-in-a-bag is a good start. We’re working on non-food-related ways as well.
And by “we,” I mean the entire GetBackpacking! community: if you have a thought about where we should go in 2018 and how we should do it, let me know. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We may not be serving roasted heirloom potato salad with lemon buttermilk dressing on next year’s trips. But we will explore cuisine beyond beef jerky dipped in Nutella. And discover, once again, that food does taste better when you’re outdoors.
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To learn more about our GetBackpacking! trips and programs, go here.
To learn more about Snap Pea Underground, go here.