Strawberries, space, and the science of taste

Plus: Thru-hiking the Northville-Placid Trail

Where to begin?

Last month I took two weeks off to thru-hike the 138+ mile Northville-Placid Trail in the Adirondacks with E. It was E’s longest backpacking trip ever, but also the longest I’ve ever hiked without a night off trail, without a shower, without a restaurant meal, and without crying! (Involuntary tears from smoky fires not included.)

While we were hiking, a big feature I wrote about indoor farming went up at The Counter. It began as a rather narrow inquiry into a claim by Kimbal Musk (Elon’s charismatic, cowboy-hat-wearing, trained-chef brother) that his indoor farming company Square Roots was growing basil in the exact same climate as Genoa, Italy, 1997.

(It really began as a profile of Square Roots and Musk for another publication that was killed for reasons out of my control, but still felt like, if I was just a bit better of a reporter or writer, I could have salvaged. It was hugely demoralizing, but I took what interested me most and shifted the focus of my research and wound up writing something better—I hope—than originally envisioned. Even so, I was plagued with doubts and second guesses the entire time because of that rocky start.)

As part of my reporting, I interviewed Musk in person, visited the Square Roots farm in Brooklyn (both before the pandemic), sampled $50 strawberries (well—$50/box, so $4.50/strawberry), and spoke with some very nice folks at NASA. I also exchanged emails with the “Tasty Tomato” man, Harry Klee, and interviewed a sensory scientist about the fine line between healthier and tastier leafy greens.

The resulting story goes beyond whether or not you can use light recipes to grow customizable produce. You can—but to what extent? And who decides what tastes good, better, best? Who even knows if companies will prioritize taste or healthfulness over other qualities? Can an indoor farm have terroir? What does it mean to replicate the climate of Genoa or of Japan to grow basil or strawberries? And, why is this line of marketing so appealing?

“If perfectly-controlled climate is the fantasy indoor farms are selling, maybe the reason it’s so compelling is because the actual climate—the one we live in—is anything but,” I wrote in an earlier draft. My editor pointed out that it’s not a “fantasy” if indoor farms can in fact perfectly control the climate inside the farms, and we changed it to “commodity.” But the fantasy I really meant is that of climate control in the “real” world.

“It’s not enough that in an apocalyptic future, humankind will have indoor farming to fall back on,” I conclude. “In the techno-utopian vision of indoor farming companies, their strawberries and basil will be as good as the best—almost no matter what befalls the earth. In this future, consumers don’t have to lose or sacrifice anything when climate change wreaks havoc on agriculture. If it’s too hot for strawberries to grow in Japan, that’s okay, because we can grow them inside in New Jersey, yours for just $50 a box. Even if you had to cancel your summer vacation to Italy because of a global pandemic—now increasingly likely due to climate change—you can still make pesto with basil grown in a “climate farm” inspired by Genoa.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Northville-Placid Trail Journal v. 1

For those of you who aren’t on Instagram, I’ve been posting a photo accompanied by an excerpt/adaptation from the daily journal I kept on trail for each day we were on the NPT. I’ll share a few now, and more later.

Day 1: We wanted to get on trail by 11 optimistically, 12 realistically, but we don't actually begin walking until 1:15, which leaves us less than 6 hours to hike 12.4 miles before sunset—a challenge, but not impossible.

We make great time on the 3.5 mile road walk, and decent time even when we get into the woods. Still, we are sorely tempted by the first campsite we pass, a small one next to picturesque Mud Lake. But the day is warm and there are still hours of daylight left, and I am holding out hope that we will get to camp at Woods Lake in time for a swim. Tomorrow will be colder, and I am determined to swim at least once before it gets too chilly.

So we keep on, and soon pass over a small rocky stream, which we assume is West Stony Creek, at 8.4 miles. Making good time!

Then, after more walking, we come to a broad, rocky stream, which is very clearly West Stony Creek. We realize we are not as far as we thought, and probably can't make Woods Lake before dark. We stop for water and a snack, and I regret not packing the second donut I wasn't hungry enough to eat on the drive to the trailhead.

Then, fates intervene! I see a sign for a lean-to, and remember seeing a notice at the trailhead about a new shelter at West Stony Creek. Sweet relief! Stopping here will only set us back 4 miles, which we are confident we can make up. But when we get to the lean-to, it's already full of gear. Reluctantly, we drag ourselves back to the trail (& meet the hiker, who is very nice and offers to share the shelter, but we decline).

The day dims beneath the trees. We're hiking quickly, but slow when it becomes clear that we will barely make the road crossing before sunset, let alone camp. We finally limp into Woods Lake at twilight and find a tent site on a knoll sticking out into the water. There's an upturned boat where a mouse (or more) appears to live. It scampers fearlessly about our feet as we set up the tent, build a small fire, and prepare orzo and red sauce. As we're settling in for bed, we hear a raucous chorus of coyote cries—a brief, haunting frenzy that stops as suddenly as it began.

#northvilleplacidtrail #NPT #thruhike #traildiary #backpacking #adirondacks
September 29, 2020
Day 2: Yesterday, as we hiked faster than I prefer, I consoled myself with talk of the leisurely morning we could have in camp today.

We wake around 7 and the steam rising off the lake draws me outside to try to photograph the ethereal mists. While preparing breakfast, I eye the water, which doesn't look as murky as the night before. It's chillier and overcast today, but if we swim right before we start hiking, we will warm up while moving. And what if this is our only swim of the trip? We splash in, shrieking and laughing, and the water is almost warm.

We finally start hiking at 10:15—not early, but earlier than yesterday, to hike roughly the same distance. The air is heavy, and it starts drizzling. Rain can be pretty, but also pretty demoralizing to hike in. Once again, we overestimate how fast we're moving, by a lot, thinking we pass streams and lakes mentioned in the guidebook miles before we do.

We break for lunch by a bridge, sitting on the driest, flattest rock we can find. I have to cut big chunks of mold off of the green chile gouda we bought from Trader Joe's before we eat the rest with a sleeve of Ritz. (Reminder: Don't buy cheese with non-cheese stuff in them for backpacking—they don't do as well without refrigeration.)

There's a very nice campsite at this bridge, and we're once again tempted to call it early, but that would set us back 5 miles, and at our pace we will struggle to make that up. This is the only part of our trip where we absolutely have to keep to schedule; if we don't get to Piseco on Saturday by 1, we can't pick up our food resupply until Monday morning, which would really throw a wrench in our plans.

We keep moving, reluctantly. Consider breaking early again at Rock Lake, but another hiker has set up a one-man compound, and has a fire going. We chat and hear that there are two people ahead of us, probably already cozy in the shelter at Silver Lake, I imagine. We power through—indeed they are in the shelter—and set our tent up at the edge of the lake in twilight.

E gets a fire going with wet wood. A mouse runs over my socked foot while I make mac & cheese.

#northvilleplacidtrail #NPT #thruhike #hiking #traildiary #backpacking
September 29, 2020
Day 3: It's taking us a bit to adjust to trail time, and we still don't get out of camp until 10am. The first part of the day is rough going, mostly because the trail is overgrown and we have to shove ourselves through as branches and leaves, still wet from the rain yesterday, slap back at us.

But the sun is back out and it's warm and breezy when we get to Canary Pond. It's too breezy for E—and the boulders we need to climb to get in and out are too slick with pond scum—but I strip down and slide in. It's cold! There's a single lily pad floating in the deep, dark pond.

Have I mentioned that we have the place to ourselves, and haven't seen anyone else on the trail all morning?

We make decent time to Mud Lake lean-to, where we stop for probably the best lunch of the trip: manchego, dried fruit, sundried tomatoes, olives, edamame, and dried sweet potato. But the ibuprofen I took that morning wears off on the afternoon slog to Hamilton Stream lean-to, and I limp into camp. I've already developed an impressive number of aches and pains on the trail in just three days: my back aches, unaccustomed as it is to carrying an almost 3 pound bear canister; my feet hurt, and my pinky toes are developing their usual blisters. My knees are also trembly and sore, but nowhere near to how bad they get on trails with more elevation gain and loss. (When I hiked the Long Trail, they hurt so bad, especially my left one, the pain would wake me in the middle of the night, when the evening dose of ibuprofen and acetaminophen wore off.)

I had been hoping for a reprieve from setting up the tent, but another hiker has claimed the shelter when we arrive. (Again, offers to share, but we pass.) We do accept the invite to hang out near the fire he built. This is also the first time we get to camp in time to cook before sunset, a welcome change, although we still clean up in the dark.

It's probably for the best we sleep in the tent, because it's a cold night. I wear my puffy jacket to bed. I'm too tired and sore to journal, but I read a Jack London story before sleep overtakes me.

#northvilleplacidtrail #NPT #thruhike #hiking #traildiary #backpacking #adirondacks #adk #hikeadk #hikeny
September 30, 2020