Thursday, June 28, 2012

Travel: Foothills Trail

A few weeks ago J. and I hit up the Foothills Trail for our first backpacking adventure.  This past Christmas, we were gifted with backpacks that we had planned to use for our upcoming Alaska trip. Unfortunately, it took us six months to actually use said backpacks, but happily we were finally able to!

Not knowing what to hike, J. did a lot of research and kept coming up with the Foothills Trail. For those that don't know (we didn't) or haven't heard of it, it is a 77-mile trail that travels east to west, from Table Rock State Park to Oconee State Park in South Carolina.  It traverses the upstate of SC, up and down mountains, along streams, rivers, waterfalls and the small portion we did was quite beautiful.  I remember when our feet hit the trail, the first thing I said to J. was, "It's been a while since we've had a real adventure!"

The Foothills Trail Conference, made up of nature-loving volunteers, keeps the trail maintained for hikers like us.  They also have a plethora of information, including folks that are willing to shuttle hikers to sections of the trail so they don't have to take two cars.  We were lucky and met up with H., who, as we found out later, is a very important part of the trail's future.  We met him and his wife at Table Rock SP, left our car at the nature center, and they dropped us about 13mi (driving) west, near the Laurel Valley/Eastatoe trailhead.

The hike was really beautiful.  White rhododendrons lined our path, sometimes four feet wide, and other times only eight inches.  Tons of green, cool weather... We were very blessed.  We were the only two on our section of the trail the entire time (kind of crazy) and when we first encountered people on Sassafrass it felt weird, and then we encountered a ton more in Table Rock we were ready for silence/serenity again. Hiking up Sassafrass was challenging, to say the least.  We both later agreed that the mountain wouldn't have been so hard if we didn't have our packs on, but 2300+ feet of elevation change over a few miles is quite exhausting.  It was extremely satisfying getting to the top, enjoying the view with lunch, and then taking a nap on a small wooden platform.

Only one point of the trip seemed a little questionable with regards to water (I started freaking out with my rationed water amounts, let's be honest), and after filling our tanks with water that had visible chunks of dirt, treating it, and then 30-minutes later coming to a rushing stream, we yelped Hallelujah and stopped right there to set up camp.

Photographic evidence that this trip did exist:

home, the first night

late night hike toward Eastatoe Gorge

where we started; where we're at; our target for lunchtime

The View from Sassafrass Mountain, tallest mountain in South Carolina:

Sweaty A. & J. atop Sassafrass:
*promptly took nap after this snapped photo

Nap didn't last long, we kept chugging along...

"natural" Adironack chairs
  our slightly hilly home, second night
  leaving our site, looking down at our personal footbridge and our terrific water source for the night (:

seeing the terrain change
  hard to tell, but there is a waterfall in the distance behind me... little did we know that five minutes after this photo was taken, the trail would lead us to said waterfall -- to cross it!

one of the balds -- lunch time!
  handsome husband

deranged wife

can you see him?

what about now? (:

this reminded me of TX

encountered this little guy

made a side trip for this waterfall -- one of the more interesting trails we've been on, haha Lookee, it's Table Rock!

 I neglected to take photos while in the heart of Table Rock, mostly because we stopped every ten minutes to lap water onto our bandanas. By the end, we were soaking wet (and later had an awkward encounter in the changing rooms) and loving it. Lovely trip, though I must say it was awesome to come home to cold water that didn't need to be treated.

We decided we hiked somewhere around 18-20 miles (we don't have an official map and different internet sources cite different mileage) in total between Saturday and Sunday. Not as much as we'd (I'd) hoped, but perhaps my original goal (13-15mi/day) was too lofty. It will be interested to see how much different elevation gains/losses will be different in Alaska as compared to this trip. Also realized when we arrived home that our shuttle driver/volunteer, H., is much bigger than we originally knew with regards to the trail. It sparked a slew of research from my end, and I just recently checked out Becoming Odyssa for more adventure-inspiring tales.

Thinking about making it a goal to complete the FHT (in sections, most likely) -- we can even get a Peregrine Award (named after H., of course)! We will see though. In the mean time, Alaska planning -- all to be revealed in an upcoming post!

Do you have any outdoor goals?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Budget: Being Energy Efficient

After getting our newest energy bill in the mail and being completely satisfied with the reduction of cost, I thought it was high time to share some of the ways that we try to save energy (and therefore money) in our home.

We haven't yet been in our house for a full year so it's hard to really compare last years' bills to this, but it is interesting to compare month-to-month. Our energy company does a great job using regional average temperatures, bar graphs, and plain-and-simple kWh usage to help me, the consumer, understand what might be effecting my bill.  From May's bill to June's current bill, we have happily cut our energy usage in half despite regional average temperatures being 6-degrees Fahrenheit higher than the previous month. Impressive, right?!  Being diligent about energy consumption has made the biggest difference.

For full disclosure reasons, I should say that when I say "we," I mean "me," -- I'm not called for the A/C Nazi* for nothing!

Ten Steps to Becoming Energy Efficient in Your Home

1. Use cold water only -- When you wash your laundry, switch the button to "cold/cold" so your water heater doesn't have to produce more heat than necessary! Your clothes will still be clean and everything will smell fresh in the end. Believe me, we have been doing this for two years.  If you have members in your household that have the nasty habit of "accidentally" using the cold/hot or warm/hot option, just do what I do -- turn the hot water spigot off behind the washing machine! Problem solved.

2. Turn off monitors/place computer in sleep mode -- It is unbelievable how hot our living room can get if we've had the television on for long periods of time. We generally prefer to watch movies at night when the house is cooler anyway, but if you must watch television during the day, try to limit your time on the tube.  On that same note, it helps if electronics (especially computers) are turned off or placed in sleep mode when not in use.  I have noticed how warm the room can feel if I have been on my laptop too long or what the office feels like when J.'s monitor has been on. If all of that heat is being generated, imagine how much energy is being used!

3. Turn off the A/C -- What is your thermostat set at? Ours is almost always off, but if turned on, we keep it at 79-80F. It's simple. Walk to your thermostat/air conditioning control unit right now and just turn it off! This will make a huge difference in your energy bill, and if you follow the next few pointers, you will realize how dependent you have become on A/C when you don't need to be at all!

4. Open windows -- Oh my gosh. This can make a huge difference when trying to naturally control your inside environment.  Even on days where it's 82F out, simply opening windows gets the air moving so it doesn't feel so stuffy inside.  Personally, it really helps my mood if blinds and windows are open, letting in natural light and air. I feel happier outdoors (and I know there are body chemical balance reasons behind that) so bring the outdoors in with you! More than likely, it will motivate you to get off your rump and do something that day! My husband has the awesome habit of opening the blinds in our bedroom before he leaves for work on my days off so it will be easier for me to wake up (sans alarm, even!) and it is motivating to hear the birds singing me a tune.

5. Turn on fans -- This goes with the point above. Fans help circulate the air, and while there is no way for the fan to physically cool the air (as J. often tells me), it really does help give you that extra breeze you need to get the cross-wind action going from the outdoors to the indoors.  I know it's not just me that finds it incredibly peaceful to fall asleep to a whirring fan. Sigh.

6. Think "cool"  -- I sincerely believe that internal temperature control begins with the mind.  I think I first heard this mantra when I was about 8-years old and in the dead of August in Florida our A/C broke. My cousin and I were walking around with our bathing suits on, sucking on ice cubes, and my aunt kept saying "think 'cool'".  It sounded ridiculous then (do any of you remember how long and thick my hair was at the age of 8??), but as an adult I can appreciate the sentiment.  If I start feeling overheated, I like to go to several other rooms in the house to compare. If one room is feeling warmer than the others, I try to figure out why (is an electronic gadget turned on? are windows closed? is the fan off? is the sun beating in through a completely open window?) and fix the problem. In the meantime, I'll stick it out in the cooler room, relax, and think "cool."  It works - you should try it!
7. Stay hydrated -- Oh my gosh, the wonders of iced water.  A few weeks ago I picked up a BOGO reusable water cup/tumbler from World Market and that bad boy and I haven't parted since.  I carry it where ever I go and it helps keep my internal body temperature in check (not proven by science, but not one part of this post is research-based, let's be honest here).  Nothing tastes better than cold water when you are hot. Delicious! But really, I think when one is better hydrated, it's more difficult for the outside environmental changes to make an extreme impact on your experience. Fill up your cup and drink!

8. Wear less clothing -- I am not saying you have to walk around your house naked (but, by all means, if you feel motivated to do so, more power to ya! -- just doesn't mesh well with my "keep windows open" rule), but take off your shoes, change into lighter and more comfortable clothing so you can relax in the beautiful environment you have created in your home. If you have long hair, put it up! There's really no excuse to turn the A/C on just because you don't want to mess up the "awesome 'do" you spent so much time on (really, your hair isn't that awesome and there are much more important things in the world).  I really enjoy wearing a house dress when I'm relaxing around the house -- less clothing, the skirt doesn't stick to your skin, and you can feel the air (presumably from the fans) on your legs. Nice! Note: I would wear muumuus, but J. put a stop to that long before we even started dating. Double sigh.
9. Spend time outdoors -- Why are you sitting in your house anyway? Is what you are doing vital to being inside? Okay, so you might have to clean up.. Well, put some athletic shorts and a tank on, clean the house up, and then take some time outdoors. Find a tree to sit under and read a book. Do some work in the yard. Ride your bike. Tend to your hydrangeas.  Whatever you do, you can probably do outside. The best part of the summer? The breezes. The birds chirping. Watching the sun get lower in the sky. Seeing the lightning bugs come out. You don't notice these things if you are cooped up inside. Seize the day!

10. Visit the library -- When you think you can't take it anymore and you have completed steps 1-9, the next best thing is to go to your local library!  A/C, a plethora of entertainment, and best of all -- it's free! You can interchange visitng the library with running errands, going to a coffee shop, or just driving around the block in your car with the A/C on (hey, this post is about energy savings in your home not your vehicle) to cool down.

The point is, it helps to be prudent about energy (and water) consumption. The resources we have been blessed with are truly gifts from God and He calls us to be good stewards of them.

Tonight, after getting home from our Bible study group meeting, our house was still 84F despite fans on and windows open. What did we do? Turn the A/C on for a brief period of time until the house cools down (it's 76F outdoors), and then we will simply turn it off and let nature do it's job!

In what ways have you found energy savings in your home?

*This is not to make light, or in anyway diminish, the horrible acts of human cruelty that occurred during WWII

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Food: Grilled Tuna, Double-Baked Mashed Potatoes & Grilled Asparagus with Fresh Fruit

Recipe: Double Baked Mashed Potatoes (sans bacon)

The Grocery Report: 5 & 12 June 2012

5 June 2012  
12 June 2012 not pictured

BOGO Items 
Quorn Chicken Cutlets $3.00
(2) Quorn Chicken Patties $5.99
(4) Freschetta Pizza $13.10
(2) Thomas' Whole Wheat Engish Muffins $3.99
(4) Monterey Raviolis (a variety) $7.98
Sargento Fancy Sharp Cheddar Cheese $2.00

ON SALE Items 
(6) Publix Yogurts (a variety) $3.00
Cabot Low Fat Greek Yogurt Vanilla Bean $3.00
Publix Caesar Dressing $2.00 
(3) Bags Romaine Hearts $8.67 

Publix Frozen Fruit (Strawberry) $9.99
Publix Hamburger Buns $1.09
(6) Bananas $1.90
Prego Three Cheese Red Sauce $2.39
Publix Whipped Cream Light $1.99 
(2) Publix Feta Crumbles $4.78 
Parsley $0.99 Publix Spinach $2.49 
Multigrain Baguette $2.09 
Grape Tomatoes 2.99 
(2) Lemons $1.33 
(3) Squash Zucchini $2.19 
Publix Pecan Halves $4.59
Publix Clover Golden Honey $3.65
EZ Foil Pasta Pan $2.99 
Crown Roaster Foil Pan $1.79
(8) Publix Regular Spaghetti $7.12 
(3) Publix Red Sauce $5.07
Publix Grated Parmesan/Romano Cheese $2.89

Total Savings $38.47
Totals (before tax): $26.10
Totals (before tax):  $30.53
Total Spent (after tax): $118.84 
*totals reflect the cumulative 5 & 12 June's bills

These last two shopping trips were interesting in that the food purchased wasn't necessarily just for our consumption and I thought it would be interesting to make it part of the price breakdown this week. You may notice the different colors above. The orange reflects items purchased for a meal cooked for 9 people (Tuesday Night Group // ~$3.00/person) and the purple reflects items for a partially purchased meal cooked for 20 people (Ronald McDonald House // ~$1.53/person -- this is not a true reflection because K. contributed items not calculated in the totals).  We still have quite a bit of leftover food items from last grocery report, and there were even leftover products from these larger meals we cooked (i.e. the honey, spinach, grated cheese, and leftover TNG meal).  I was initially horrified after checking out yesterday, but it's good for me to analyze our purchases like I am -- with this report in mind, we actually spent +/- $63 on food for two weeks for just our household. Amazing!  I have noticed that I have become more aware of my spending in both planning and on-site shopping. My brother is coming home tonight, so it will be interesting how our grocery reports will fluctuate with his large appetite. I'm considering making homemade freezer foods for him so he can easily heat the items up later on. He knows how to cook but is very lazy about doing so, and I don't really want to buy a bunch of freezer food due to the cost and nutritional reasons (splurged this week on the pizza per J.'s request).  Any ideas?

Below are a few pictures of the food being put to good use!

cut up veggies for PW's recipe

The spaghetti dinner K. & I created for the Ronald McDonald House last night! (spaghetti, garlic/Parmesan bread, Caesar salad; brownies for dessert -- thanks K. for your help!!)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Weekly Yums | 11-17 June 2012

Moe's Monday

Tuesday Night Group, hosted by E.

Boca Burgers (topped with avocado), Roasted Potatoes, Fresh Fruit

Pasta with Spinach and Red Sauce

TBD - backpacking weekend

TBD - backpacking weekend

TBD - backpacking weekend

Weekly Yums | 4-10 June 2012

Moe's Monday
A: Art Vandelay
J: Homewrecker with Steak 

Tuesday Night Group, hosted by us!
pasta salad with tomatoes, zucchini and feta, caramelized onion & goat cheese bread, strawberry-walnut spinach salad in raspberry vinaigrette; pineapple-strawberry-mango almond milk smoothies with whip cream for dessert
Leftover White Bean and Avocado Enchiladas from the previous week

Freschetta Oven Cheese Pizza

Dinner with R. & S. at Pasta Fresca  
A: Southwest Chicken J: Pasta Fresca Raviloli
J.'s Work Party at Lake Wateree
grilled chicken, hot dogs, mac & cheese, baked beans, pasta salad, etc.
shared a chicken dinner plate

Strange week, mostly due to my non-planning. Looking at the week, we spent about $60 on food total (so $30/person). Not too bad considering my lack of forethought. Zaxby's on Sunday probably shouldn't have happened, but after work, I didn't feel like coming up with something to cook and then cooking, and J. had spent most of the day in the yard so he was tired as well. Also weird that I had a form of chicken for 3 out of 7 of the nights.