Finding diversity in Hawaii…

The trip was doomed before it even began.  My wife and I (mostly my wife) had been planning our first anniversary trip to Hawaii with focus on spending time in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  We poured over places to stay and tried to compile a list of things to do inside the National Park as well as outside the park.  We settled on a promising little cottage just outside the park in the village of Volcano where we would be close enough to the park entrance that we could easily get in early and have no trouble staying late (so I could get my sunrise and sunset opportunities).  But things began to unravel early…

Two weeks before our departure from the mainland my knee decided to fail me.  I had been training again trying to get in shape from my foot being broken nearly all Summer.  Miserable as that was, I was excited to be out again and getting in shape in time for some Winter fun and our anniversary trip.  My knee thought otherwise and I was reduced (once again) to painfully hobbling around the house with limited mobility.  Awesome…Hawaii here we come!

Also looming on the horizon was the giant black cloud of the government shutdown.  In my mind, it would be a game of chicken until the 11th hour and then someone would give in and the crisis would be averted.  Never did I expect it to actually happen and, even if it did, I didn’t expect the National Parks to shut down.  I guess that’s the naturalist in me that considers the National Parks and Monuments part of the “essential” services that would be untouchable during a shutdown.  I also, naively, thought of the National Parks as truly public spaces that would still be accessible even if the Park’s services were closed.  But clearly I was mistaken…

Honolulu and the North Shore

North Shore of Oahu

Honolulu, Oahu Hawaii

We arrived in Honolulu for the first leg of our trip.  We would be staying one evening here before moving on to the Big Island so that I would get to see the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.  My wife has been, but since this was my first trip to the islands we made time to make sure I would be able to see the Memorial.

The long flight had been hard on my miserable knee so we reluctantly chose to push Pearl Harbor off to the next morning and explore the North Shore a little bit and maybe catch the sunset.  We fought our way through afternoon traffic to get outside Honolulu and head toward the beaches.  Still pretty sore and stiff from the long flight, I had a hard time getting around but luckily the road pretty much follows the shoreline and there wasn’t much hiking to get to the beaches along the North Shore.

Turtle Beach on OahuWe stopped at a few places, got to see some turtles, had a little snack and waited out the sun as it slowly settled to the horizon.  We stopped at Sunset Beach and while my wife got out the beach towel to lay in the sand and soak up the last hour or so of sunlight, I hauled out the camera gear and set up to catch the fading light.  The weather was nice, there was a slight breeze and a nice set of clouds in the west for the sun to play with as it set.  The sunset wasn’t spectacular but it was pretty nice and it allowed me to get the equipment dialed in.

After sunset we headed back to Honolulu for a nice sushi dinner and some much needed rest.  My knee kept me from getting much rest, but we were excited to get out to the National Memorial before our flight to Hawaii.  My wife turned on the news as we were getting ready and that’s when we found out about the closure of the National Parks.  Blindsided and somewhat devastated that we were going to be denied access to the only reason we stayed in Honolulu AND potentially miss out on the main reason we were visiting Hawaii we scrambled for some answers.  I called the number listed for the Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center and spoke with a woman who assured me that the memorial, or at least most of it, was still open.

She was partially right, the collection of memorials and monuments at Pearl Harbor are managed by the NPS but some of them, like the Pacific Aviation Museum are actually on the military base property and were therefore still open.  DOD funding was intact, so the USS Missouri and the museum were still open but access was now cut off so they were shuttling visitors onto the military base to access these memorials.  It was a mess and no one really knew what was going on.  We spoke with some very helpful NPS Rangers stationed in front of the visitor’s center, but their news was grim.  This would not be a quick resolution, the parks would likely be closed for a while.

We reluctantly gave in and headed to the airport.  After a pretty rough flight (my knee was really having a fit with all this travel) we landed in Hilo, grabbed our car and headed to Volcano to check in to our cottage.  We rented a private cottage from Hale Ohai cottages in Volcano.  Our place was awesome and set back in the thick jungle vegetation making for a beautiful setting.  Unfortunately, we wouldn’t get a chance to spend much time there.

As most everyone knows now, the National Parks stayed closed for over two weeks which meant that our 5 day adventure in Volcanoes NP was spent outside of Volcanoes NP.  Every morning we woke up hoping that the shutdown was over the park would be reopened.  It was sort of our obsession throughout the trip.  The upside of being locked out of the National Park was that we got to see much more of the rest of the island than we had originally planned.

There is so much to see on the Big Island.  Even being limited by my meager mobility we still got to see a ton of diversity in Hawaii as we ventured out from our home base in Volcano.  Exploring the gardens and waterfalls around Hilo, the rough and rugged coastlines around the southern tip of the island, the high grasslands between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and various beaches.  Ultimately we had a great time driving around the island exploring State Parks, beaches and old lava flows.  We had some great meals in Kona and Waimea and found some amazing little roadside mom-and-pop restaurants.  Parks closed or not, we still had a great time exploring the diversity in Hawaii and spending time with each other on our anniversary.

Cape Kumukahi

Cape Kumukahi near Hilo

Cape Kumukahi is just outside Hilo near Puna and was a rough and tortured coastline of old lava flows broken and twisted by the relentless action of the waves.  Throughout our trip, this area was usually cloudy and raining but we happened to catch it one morning when the sun was out and the clouds were still gathering in the distance.  It’s beauty is in it’s hostility, the sharp black lava rock with very little vegetation and the hard crash of the waves on this side of the island.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls near Hilo

Just minutes outside of Hilo is Ranbow Falls, one of the most visited falls on the island from what I’ve read.  It’s really easy to access and there are paved walks to view points to see the falls.  Many tour buses drop off loads of cruise ship tourists to come in and snap some pictures and gawk at the dramatic falls and lush vegetation.  It is no doubt a beautiful spot, and the falls is much larger and more dramatic during other seasons but I would have liked to visit more remote falls had I been more ambulatory.

Lava Tree Gardens State Park

Lava Tree Gardens outside Hilo

Lava Tree State Park is also near Puna and hosts a unique feature on the island.  Vertical lava tubes dot the park.  These unique features were created when molten lava washed through the area in the 1790s and cooled faster around the large trees as it washed over the land.  The trees burnt out leaving hollow vertical tubes that still stand today.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Black lava shores of Punalu'u beach

Past the south end of the National Park is Punalu’u Black Sand Beach County Park.  It’s a small protected black sand beach area with some cool lava formations and a small section of black sand beach where we saw another turtle on the shoreline.  We actually visited this spot a couple of times during our trip because it was close enough to Volcano to be an easy drive.

Southern Tip of Hawaii

Southernmost tip of the US

The southernmost tip of the Big Island is also the southernmost tip of the United States and is a pretty harsh area.  The seas are calmer here but the currents are still strong.  If you can brave the undertow, there is supposed to be some excellent snorkeling at the base of the shear cliffs.  There was a lot of long-line fishing going on here when we stopped by.  The rugged, windswept cliffs and the expanse of endless ocean beyond really do make this spot feel like the “edge of the world”.

Grasslands outside Waimea

Grassy hills outside Waimea - diversity in Hawaii

Totally unexpected to me were the rolling hills and open grasslands dotted with cattle.  I never expected to see expansive wild grasslands in Hawaii and I found myself staring out at it every time we drove through these areas.  It was different than anything I expected to find on a Pacific Island I was slightly in awe of it.  We stopped one evening on our way from Kona to Waimea as the sun was setting to grab some pictures at the edge of the highway and these ended up being some of my favorite pictures from the trip.

As disappointed as we were to NOT make our trip about the National Park in Hawaii, we still made the best of it and had a great time checking out all that Hawaii had to offer.  As I said to my wife several times throughout the trip, there’s no way to see it all in a week.  We could spend years out here and never get to see it all.

We are already talking about getting back to Hawaii soon to handle some unfinished business.  Keep those parks open, Hawaii, and we’ll be back soon!

Photograph of the Week: Graduated Filtering…

My wife and I recently visited California to see some friends and family.  We spent Saturday afternoon driving down the coast from Monterey through Big Sur on the scenic Highway 1.  We stopped several times along the way to hike, take pictures and get riddled with Poison Oak (not so much fun).  As the afternoon wore on the fog got thick and it looked like the sunset would be a bust.  I had been hoping to get a nice coastal sunset in this scenic area but nothing is guaranteed in nature.

A little over an hour before true sunset, the sun started to break through the clouds and offer a little pre-sunset drama.  We quickly pulled off the highway at a scenic overlook and I hopped out with the tripod to grab a few shots of the light display.  This was going to be a narrow window and a slightly challenging shot.

I knew I would be looking to shoot a sunset along the coast and had been trying to get myself a nice Neutral Density Graduated Filter for the job.  This would allow me to shoot a little slower to expose the darker ocean and maybe even get some motion blur without over exposing the sky.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the filter I wanted before the trip.  So I would have to get the shot and figure it out later.

Photograph of the Week: The RAW shot…

Photograph of the Week - Big Sur cliffs RAW

The challenge is balancing the exposure.  You don’t want to overexpose the sky so that the clouds and light still holds detail.  But at the same time you don’t want to underexpose the landscape (ocean) and risk losing detail there either.  Since the clouds only broke in a small part of the sky the entire shot would be very dark except for the light shining through the clouds.  I managed to get a couple of images that struck the balance between exposures allowing me to process them as if I were working with a real filter.

Photograph of the Week: Processing in Lightroom…

Photograph of the Week - Big Sur Lightroom

The first thing I did was adjust the exposure so the darker areas were exposed properly.  This blew out the light in the sky and the glow of the clouds but I’d fix that later.  Once the exposure was corrected I did my usual work of pulling shadows and creating deeper blacks to add depth.  I then pushed on the Clarity and Vibrance to create sharper contrast and pull more vivid color.  Color would be important but I didn’t want to oversaturate the image, so I only made a slight adjustment to the Saturation.

This got me away from a very gray and underexposed image, but the sky was now over exposed.  I applied a Gradient Filter to the top of the image allowing me to adjust the sky without effecting the ocean and landscape.  With the filter in place I was able to bring the exposure of the sky back down a couple of steps where it was more natural and the detail returned.  I still had a very gray sky so I pushed the Temp setting slightly toward the cooler side.  The result gave me a better setting for the warm light that was pouring through the clouds.

I finished my adjustments by pushing the Sharpness as far as I dared, then smoothing the noise by increasing the Luminance.  This is something I’ve been doing on almost every image because it allows me to get crisp detail and sharp edges with almost no noise at all.

Photograph of the Week: Magic from Color Efex Pro…

Photograph of the Week - Big Sur Sunset Final

I tried to keep it simple in Color Efex Pro.  I just wanted a little warmth to the light and maybe a little sharper detail.  I started by applying the basic Brilliance/Warmth filter which gives a nice warm glow to the light in the image, but won’t overly warm the cooler colors.  Then I wanted to punch the light in the sky up a little, so I applied the Skylight filter and the Sunlight filter.  Both of those seem only to enhance existing light in an image without doing too much to mid tones and shadows.  These filters also seemed to bring some luminosity and warms to the reflected light on the ocean surface.

I finished off my adjustments by adding another Graduated Neutral Density Filter to the image creating more contrast in the cloudy sky.  Graduated filters in both Lightroom and Color Efex Pro allowed me to balance out the exposure on a very unbalanced scene.  I can’t wait to get a real physical Neutral Density Filter so I can try some other tricks.

Once the adjusted TIFF file was back in Lightroom I increased the Sharpness and Luminosity again, kinda just to see what would happen. It gave the image a very painterly quality, but on such a small scale it’s hard to see without blowing it up.  But enlarged, the image has no noise and very clean edges, the textures also came in super clean.  I might start doing this final step regularly.

Specifications:

  • This image was shot on a Nikon D300 with a Nikon Nikkor 10-24mm lens.
  • Exp: 1/20 sec, F/22, ISO-200, 10mm.
  • Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom and finished in NIK Color Efex Pro 4.

This image and images from this set are available at my Virtual Gallery for download or to order prints.  Please visit.

Beach Camping in Galveston: A Happy Disaster…

 

“…But, it’s so small.”

I had barely pulled it out.  We hadn’t even had a chance to get it up yet.

“Is it supposed to be this small?  It doesn’t look like it’s going to be big enough.”

Talk about a bad way to start what is supposed to be a fun, romantic Valentine’s Weekend trip.  Merelyn had to work on Valentine’s Day so we had planned to go camping on the beach near Galveston the weekend before Valentine’s Day.  I had grabbed a few things from home and brought them to Texas for the trip.  She’s moved around so much the last few years that she didn’t really know where any of her camping gear actually was.

Preparing for the trip back in Phoenix, I had gone through my shelves of gear and looked for stuff I could take to Texas and, potentially, leave there for future use.  I knew we needed a stove, so I grabbed my spare JetBoil and packed it.  I also grabbed a small, unused tent from the bottom shelf and tossed it in the box with some other assorted items (including her new backpack and hydration system).

This is where the problems started (entirely MY fault).  I don’t know where this tent came from.  It has been sitting on the bottom shelf of my gear storage for years.  I’m not even exactly sure how long it’s been there.  I figured this made it the perfect candidate for a take-and-leave tent for a simple beach camping trip.  Also, for some reason, I never opened up my JetBoil before packing it.  I’m not sure what I was thinking.

The plan was to bring some basics out to the beach, build a fire and cook a nice dinner.  We were looking forward to enjoying a beautiful quiet sunset together and an evening under a big Texas night sky.  We would spend our Valentine’s Trip comfortably curled up together near the fire enjoying a quiet night alone.

The plan began unraveling early when I realized the JetBoil I brought was just the container…no stove.  And, apparently, you can’t buy  “just the stove” part of a JetBoil from retailers.  So our pre-trip trip to REI ended with us buying the Pocket Stove and a Kettle so we could actually have hot water.  Further complicating things is that neither one of us had a sleeping bag.  I didn’t bring one because I had expected she would have one we could share as a blanket.  Instead, we had to pack a bunch of blankets in hopes that it wouldn’t get too cold.  We still pushed forward with our plan, we made some food, brought some basic supplies and packed the car for an overnight trip.  Even with these stumbling blocks, we were still excited.

Merelyn on the beach...We got a late start the morning we left.  REI took longer than expected which pushed us even later.  Then traffic was stalled on the freeway due to a semi-truck getting itself wedged into the overpass (seriously, he was pinned between the upper and lower decks of the interchange!).  By the time we got to Galveston we were starving.  It was the weekend before Mardi-Gras and Galveston was buzzing with festivities.  Finding lunch and getting through Galveston took longer than expected and by the time we got to a piece of beach we could camp on it was almost sunset.

Not only was darkness approaching fast but it was windy…..damn windy.  Stupid windy.  Let’s-go-home-because-this-is-going-to-suck windy.

Pushing headlong into disaster, we found a place to park (you can drive and park on the beaches in Texas….weird), unpacked our stuff and as Merelyn bundled up and set off to capture some last minute pictures of the sunset I set to work building a fire.  Then we set up the tent…

“Why is it so small?  Are we both supposed to fit in that?”

WTF is this??  What the hell kind of second-rate, miniature, child-sized tent did I bring?  This was supposed to be a 3-person tent!  But unless your names were Grumpy, Dopey and Doc there was no way you’re squeezing 3 people into that tiny bubble of a tent!

“Is the air mattress even going to fit in that?”

Nope.  There’s no way in HELL the queen sized, inflatable mattress we brought is going to fit in that.  But I guess that won’t matter much since we also never charged the pump to blow up the air mattress!  So even when we crammed it into the tent, it got about half-full before the pump gave out.

We did our best with it though.  As I worked on building a solid fire, dug into the sand with a high wind-break around it, Merelyn built us a nest in the tiny little Hobbit-tent.  We folded the air mattress over on itself so even half-full it still gave us some cushion.  We piled sheets, blankets and extra clothing on top to give us as much insulation as we could muster.  Then we unpacked our food and cooked dinner as we sat in front of the fire.

Even with all our challenges, we were still in pretty good spirits and taking it all in good humor.  We had a fantastic dinner of fire-roasted vegetables and grilled-cheese sandwiches (see the post about the cooking iron).  Even as the wind picked up we ate, drank, laughed and had a great time together.

That night turned out to be a record mid-February low for Galveston.  Winds gusted up to 50 MPH.  Even using the car as a wind-break we still felt our miniscule shelter being buffeted about by the howling winds.  We slept off-and-on finding it difficult to get any real sleep in the wind and the cold.

But all of it – the record cold, the lack of blankets, the under-filled mattress, the ridiculously inadequate square-footage of the tent – in the end, added up to this: I got to spend my Valentine’s Trip outdoors, with my Dream Girl curled up in my arms next to me.  That (and some fantastic grilled-cheese) made this an amazing trip I will always remember.

Sunset at Galveston Beach Texas...

South Lake Tahoe: Wedding Planning…

“We’re getting married here.”

These are the words my beautiful fiancé whispered in my ear as I held her in my arms on the grassy hill overlooking Regan Beach.  We have researched for months trying to find a location for our wedding ceremony.  Tahoe is a beautiful place, but finding just the right location for our wedding had proved difficult.  We had originally settled on a beach location just outside our reception venue, but once we physically visited the beach we were concerned about too many problems and the search continued.

Other decisions were easier and our trip last week was mainly to see if we had made the right decisions.  I think we did well.  We had found 968 Park Hotel online.  The hotel is a renovation of an older establishment.  The new owners had a vision of creating the first Eco-Hotel in South Lake Tahoe.  The new “Green” Hotel was created with the environment in mind.

“Since day one of the renovation every effort was made to reduce, re-use and recycle as much of the existing materials as possible.  Any materials and furnishings that could not be reused were either donated or recycled for other purposes and the new materials used in the renovation were specifically chosen for their sustainability.”

Lobby of the 968 Park Hotel

Lobby and Bar at 968 Park Hotel

We both fell in love with the concept of the hotel immediately.  But concept and practice are two different things.  We made reservations to stay at 968 Park Hotel on this trip to make sure the hotel would fit our needs to house our guests for the wedding.  There were a few minor issues, not much different than you’d find in any busy hotel (it was the weekend after the biggest snow of the year and they were packed).  We had rooms for us and our parents, and the general consensus was that the hotel would fit our needs nicely.  We had a great stay and we highly recommend them if you are in the area.  Even if you don’t stay there, stop in to the little bar for Happy Hour and just check the place out.

The other easy decision was the venue for the Rehearsal Dinner.  Almost every time we visited Lake Tahoe we would be in Tahoe City on the north side of the lake.  Our favorite spot on the north side is Rosie’s Cafe.  Rosie’s is fantastic and a perfect little local restaurant.  When we got engaged, they worked with me to set up a special dinner for Merelyn and they even brought us Champagne, on the house, and insisted on serving us cake for Merelyn’s birthday.  It’s a great little place with TONS of personality and we wanted to share it with our friends and family.  So we had breakfast at Rosie’s and met with the manager, Deanne, who cheerfully talked to us about how easy and fun it would be to have our rehearsal dinner there.  It’s the only part of our wedding that will not be in South Lake, but it’s well worth the drive.

We were also in town for the important business of settling on our reception venue.  More than anything else, this had us worried because these places book up FAST in Tahoe and we had chosen our venue without ever having visited them.  We were worried about the decor, the space, the food…

interior of Riva Room at Riva Grill

Interior at Riva Grill Event Room...

Riva Grill sits at Ski Run Marina right on the beach in South Lake Tahoe just behind the dock for the famous Tahoe Queen paddle boat.  We loved the beach front location and it’s only about a mile away from the hotel, an easy walk.  Sunday afternoon we stopped in with our parents in tow to have lunch and meet with the event coordinator there.  We all made sure to order something different off the menu so we could get a good picture of the quality of the food.  The food was amazing!  Their Conchiglie Pasta was fantastic and you can have it with grilled vegetables instead of chicken (for the vegetarians!)  They will also do a vegetarian Risotto (rich, creamy and delicious).  The food turned out to be incredibly good and once we got a look upstairs at the room reserved for our event, we were sold.  It’s a beautiful space, and there is tons of room.  The entire wall facing the lake is glass and the glass doors open to a narrow balcony overlooking the beach.  Their event coordinator, Amanda, was very friendly and helpful.

But we still needed a place for the ceremony.  Our contact at 968 Park Hotel, Cristina, listened to our dilemma one afternoon and recommended we look at Regan Beach.  We separated from our parents after lunch the next day and decided to swing by and take a look.  The beach looked ok, parking was sufficient, it wasn’t ideal…but better than the beach in front of Riva.  Then as we started to drive away we saw a small posting about a wedding.  The small hill above the beach, lined with trees and overlooking the lake, must be the spot.  We kicked below the icy snow and discovered grass and a small brick patio in the middle of the space.  With our imagination we shook off the cold of winter and could see the space as it would look in Ooctober…the trees full and green, maybe just starting to turn color…the grass and shrubs green and full and the beautiful blue lake in the background of it all.

view of Lake Tahoe from Regan Beach

We brought our parents back to show them and get their opinions. But as we stood there in the middle of the snow-covered knoll, we knew this was the place.  Merelyn reached out and grabbed my hands, and whispered, “We’re getting married here…” and I knew by the smile on her face that she was right.

We fell in love in Tahoe…we fell in love with Tahoe…and we can’t wait to start our lives together in Tahoe.

Gear Review: Pocket Stove and Ketalist…

On my most recent trip to Texas, my fiancé and I decided we’d like to go beach camping near Galveston.  I packed a few camping supplies I thought we’d need including an old tent I never use (another story) and one of my extra JetBoil cooking systems.  Once in Texas, we discovered that I only brought the cup portion of the JetBoil…not the stove.  Unfortunately, you can’t buy “just the stove” at retail stores and so we were stuck looking at alternatives for being able to cook.

So at the Houston REI, while I nervously debated buying a brand new JetBoil for the trip, Merelyn found the Original Pocket Stove from Esbit.  At only $10.50 (versus at least $100 for a new JetBoil) it sounded like a halfway decent idea.  For this trip, we really just needed a little something to boil water since we were going to cook our dinner over a campfire (see mini-review at the end of this post).  I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to try out a new piece of gear…especially inexpensive gear!  We bought the Pocket Stove for $10.50 and even though it comes with 6 fuel tabs, we bought an extra pack of solid fuel tabs for $6.25.  Total investment was well under $20 for a stove and 18 fuel tabs (supposedly enough to cook for 3 hours).

The Pocket Stove is basically a small, folding metal stand that will support a cooking receptacle about 1.5″ above the fuel tab.  There are two cooking positions depending on conditions and how focused you want the flame.  It weighs in at about 3.25 ounces without the fuel and, when closed, the stove stores up to 6 fuel tabs inside.  According to the box, the solid fuel works well at any elevation and boasts a boil time of 8 minutes in most conditions.  The REI website specs actually list average boil time at 14 minutes which is probably closer to the truth.

We also purchased the Halulite Ketalist nested kettle and cooking system for boiling our water over the Pocket Stove.  The Ketalist was $34.95 at the Houston REI and comes with a hard-anodized aluminum kettle, two small plastic bowls (one with an insulated sleeve and drinking lid) and a spork.  The total weight is about 11 ounces and is made for backpacking.  I would consider more of a car-camping product because of it’s size.

We set up camp on the beach outside of Galveston and, as it was incredibly windy, I dug out a firepit and built up a wall around it to try to block out some of the wind.  It worked well enough for me to be able to set up the Pocket Stove and light one of the fuel tabs.  I filled the kettle with about two cups of water and set it on the stove.  After 8 minutes, we still didn’t have boiling water.  After about 12 minutes the fuel tab had burned out and we still didn’t have boiling water.  I tested the water and it was plenty hot enough for cocoa, coffee or oatmeal but not boiling.  I wanted it to boil!  I lit another fuel tab and let it run it’s course.  We never did get the water to boil using the Pocket Stove.  I reasoned, after the fact, that if I were to burn two fuel tabs at once I could probably generate the heat I needed to get the water boiling but never had the chance to try it.

I was able to put the kettle on the campfire later that night and got the boiling water I wanted pretty quick.  The kettle worked well and was kind of nice to have.  The wind had really picked up and it had become pretty cold so I made some nice hot tea to take to bed with me.  All in all, I like the concept of the Pocket Stove…it’s a very simple design and it works, somewhat.  If I had limited space and time to wait for hot water, I’d use it again.  The Kettle will probably become a regular addition to our car camping trips, I just don’t see it going backpacking with me anytime soon.

BONUS REVIEW:

Camp Chef Cooking Iron

picture from REI website...

Car camping affords you many luxury items that would normally be too heavy, too big or too awkward to take backpacking.  Large comfortable tents (not something we had), blow up air mattress with powered pump, huge jugs of clean water, etc.  While we were at REI preparing for the trip we came across one such luxury item that we couldn’t pass up.  The Camp Chef Cooking Iron is a cast iron sandwich grilling contraption for making grilled cheese sandwiches (or any number of other things).  It folds open allowing you to put buttered bread on either side of the irons and then fill it with cheese, meat, veggies, etc.  Then carefully fold it back together, lock the arms in place and lay it over the campfire.  You will want to flip it a couple of times so it doesn’t burn one side of the sandwich, but the result is fantastic!!  We had some amazing grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner that night along with some vegetables we pre-marinated and wrapped in foil to toss into the fire.  The sandwiches were nice and crispy on the outside, but the bread was still soft inside and the cheese melted beautifully.  At $17, I would totally recommend grabbing a couple of these to toss into the car for your next outing….or just keep them for cooking in the back yard!