Suppose you could go for an afternoon drive and picnic at the location of your choice where would you go? In the past I’ve always loaded a hamper into the trunk on my beloved Volkswagen and headed for Glacier National Park. A smoky wood fire adds to the ambiance at a picnic table loaded with burgers or hot dogs, baked beans and perhaps a cole slaw or bucket of carrot and celery sticks.
Here at Camp M, our hosts seem to have pretty good ideas about where to picnic. Our first outing took place at a spring near a village where our host’s wife was born. Taking the Land Rover Defender off road we bumped through pastureland, passed sheep, shepherd boys and stopped atop a grassy knoll a few miles from the village. A vibrant spring bubbled and gushed into a stone pool. We sat down beside the flowing water and spread our food out on the ground. The picnic consisted of watermelon, goat cheese, peaches and round pieces of flatbread, big as a large pizza. I spread the soft butter-like cheese on a piece of bread, took a juicy peach and wandered about taking in the views.
After eating, we visited an ancient Armenian graveyard in the next village. Tombstones, many of which had fallen over littered a rough field. Stylized crosses, reminiscent of the cross on the Orange County Choppers logo, decorated many of the headstones. A local informed us that a giant Armenian church had been the focal point of the village until a recent earthquake had razed much of the small enclave, indeed, most of the village’s buildings looked surprisingly new and the number of fallen in structures did seem conspicuous.
The most interesting tombstone stood two heads taller than a man. Of course, like the other headstones, a collection of Armenian crosses of varying sizes decorated the marker. A small round hole, just big enough to put one’s fist through, graced the top of this stone. Excited or intrigued by the large group of tourists who had arrived in their remote and no doubt seldom visited settlement, a cadre of villagers came to meet us and fill us in on the history behind the graveyard and large tombstone with the hole in it. A mighty language barrier persisted and we learned very little, except that when looking through the hole, one could see the summit of a prominent mountain nearby.
This first picnic outing ended with a chilly wind and a cloudburst. Being the junior member of the outing, I found myself seated on a pretend seat in the back of the Land Rover. This meant a long and somewhat painful ride back to Camp M.
Only a few days after visiting the spring and the graveyard, our crew once again piled aboard the rugged Land Rover Defender. This time, we’d be going to Fish Lake. People swam there, we were told, so it would be wise to bring bathing suits; jackets were recommended in case we were out late, apparently this would be a very long drive.
My experience with motor vehicle transportation in other countries has been interesting, to say the least. While I still had my learner’s permit I spent a couple weeks in Bolivia. Apparently, speeding, driving in the wrong lane, and passing on blind corners influenced me, because as soon as we got back home, I daringly passed a slow vehicle, much to the concern of those riding with me and the truck driver whose lane I occupied. Fortunately, the bad influence wore off quickly; I once again conformed to American safe driving practices. On this outing I found myself getting a refresher course on crazy driving. Part of the course included passing moving roadblocks, such as herds of sheep, haystacks with a truck somewhere underneath, or self appointed watchdogs whose territory included a section of road. Next up, as the road changed from paved highway to pothole-riddled once-paved secondary road, I observed high speed pothole evasion techniques. A few short meters before hitting an uneven road surface, the driver would slam the clutch against the floor and give the steering wheel a hearty jerk. Naturally, this driving method had a limited success rate. Seeing Fish Lake ahead, I breathed a sigh of relief. The crazy driving primer would end momentarily.
Stepping from the Defender at Fish Lake, I took a deep breath. Chilly air jumped out and nipped at my surprised face. All along I’d been imagining a smallish lake with sandy beaches. It had been a hot day at Camp M, and a swim would have felt nice. But the huge cold body of water before me changed my mind about swimming. Blue-green water with large ripply waves stretched for miles in every direction. Rocks dotted the grass-covered rolling hills, like brown warts on golden toads. Rough volcanic boulders formed the small peninsula where we parked.
Hungry volunteers clambered atop the Land Rover to hand down picnic supplies. We dug into a large bag of newspaper-wrapped bread, cheese and tomato sandwiches. As always, a couple watermelons were on hand to supplement the meal.
Our time at Fish Lake was surprisingly short, as our host seemed anxious to get back on the road. But rather than turning back to Camp M, the driver followed the road further up into the mountains. All came to a screeching halt when clouds of steam suddenly poured from under the hood. A misaligned engine, resulting from a recent transmission rebuild, had caused the fan blades to jam against a shroud. Without the fan spinning, the engine could not cool itself. This hadn’t been problematic until we tried to haul nine people and a rack full of food up a steep mountain road. A knot of people, like excited ants swarming a dead beetle, gathered around the vehicle and worked together to jury rig a fix that would allow us to continue our journey.
Back on the road, I looked out the Defender’s rear window and imagined myself on the Oregon Trail. A slope stretched down behind us. Out the side windows one could see a dusty set of ruts winding amongst the rocks and scrubby vegetation, indicating that other vehicles had come this way. Even in compound low, the Land Rover struggled up the hill, puffing clouds of blue smoke from the tailpipe. I sincerely hoped a spare quart of oil was stashed somewhere in the vehicle.
Out of nowhere, giant dogs with razor sharp spiked collars descended on us. The driver instructed us to roll up the windows and stay in the vehicle until the dogs’ owners had them under control. Moments later, we broke into a wide valley dotted with nomad tents. Smoke drizzled from a handful of chimneys scattered around the camp. Two elderly men with a wide-eyed toddler in tow strolled over to our vehicle.
A shepherd boy walked briskly over the hill, driving four sheep. With extreme efficiency, a small group of nomads transformed the sheep into two giant woks of sheep nuggets. These butchers departed radically from traditional butchering practices, treating meat, gristle, and bone as equally edible. Using big butcher knives, they hacked both animals into even sized pieces. By this time, darkness had fallen and two cold groups of visitors huddled around the two fires where our sheep dinner cooked. Once proclaimed edible, dinner was eaten by the light of the Land Rover’s headlights. A yogurt sauce graced the first bowl of sheep parts. Using an expansive piece of flatbread as a plate and napkin, I picked piece after piece from the wok, hoping in vain to find meat. Even drizzled with the delicious yogurt sauce, gristle and bone didn’t taste very good. I had better luck with the second bowl of sheep, which turned out to be mostly kiwi-sized hunks of pure meat. Dogs, wandered around us, eying the meat and flicking their long, feline tails. Because of their tawny fur and catlike eyes, the animals looked almost like mountain lions.
Once sated, we broke out marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate. Introducing the nomads to s’mores was a treat in of itself. By their reaction, I doubt any of them had ever seen a marshmallow. And of course, watching us try to roast marshmallows on plastic forks kept them well entertained.
The evening’s final event was chai tea in a nomad tent. The nomads set off, intending for us to follow, but four of our party fell behind. Walking alone through a pitch dark nomad camp didn’t seem so bad until three or four of the huge dogs realized that there were strangers lurking in the dark. Barks and growls from the Newfoundland-sized animals raised heart rates and caused us to stiffen, walking as quickly as we could without running. Thankfully, all reached the tea tent without incident.
We all removed our shoes and sat on mats around the perimeter of the circular tent. Our hosts appeared with two giant tea kettles, one filled with tea, the other containing hot water. small glasses of chai were passed around. Sugar cubes abounded, ready to improve the taste of the slightly bitter beverage. Thanks to a translator, we communicated with out hosts, learning about their history, ancestors and annual movements in and out of the mountainous regions. After my fourth cup of chai, I feared I might burst if we did not leave soon. Moments later, we all thanked our host, shaking hands with and kissing the cheeks of the eldest man present. A number of us paid a visit to a secluded hedge before piling back in the Land Rover for the two hour ride home to Camp M.
Between bumps, alternately banging my head on the ceiling and crashing down onto the pretend seat, I reflected on the picnic with the nomads. Picnicking in Glacier Park still seemed appealing, but this had been the most interesting and unique meal of my life.