Pork at a Walking Pace

The other day, Rod said, “I love that you had already bookmarked every taco place in town, and have been aggressively prosecuting your taco agenda since the moment we got here,” and, honestly, I’ve never felt more seen. Othello is a town comprised of a small handful of farm and ranch owners and a whole lot of agricultural workers of Mexican descent. In consequence, nearly every eating establishment in town serves exclusively Mexican food. When we travel, I generally research restaurants, pour over reviews and photos, and create an Eat Map. On past walking adventures, I have been known to detour for food or just plot our route to include all the places I want to eat.  I have a strong preference for diners, taco trucks, drive ins, mom and pops, and cheap eats, but I will eat anywhere the food looks unpretentious. Long before we’d arrived in Othello, I had indeed catalogued every restaurant in town, noticed its vast array of Mexican choices (and delightful dearth of anything else), and drafted a plan to try them all.

I am a taco devotee. I love authentic Mexican tacos best, with their fresh, chewy, grilled tortillas and simple ingredients– just meat, onions, herb, and hot sauce–, but I will try any taco, from eggy breakfast tacos to crunchy tex-mex taco boats. In planning my Othello taco fest, I ignored the bigger restaurants with broader menus on this logic: if you serve me chips before my meal, you are taking up valuable taco space, and perhaps even trying to distract from lackluster tacos, and I cannot abide either. Instead, I focused on the humble taquerias and taco trucks. In the first 72 hours, I sampled seven different places’ tacos, always focusing on what I consider the pinacle of taco mountain: pork. At each place, I sampled carnitas and adobada. Usually, I’d try chorizo and conchinita pibil as well, but they were conspicuously absent from menus here, perhaps owing to the Michoacan leanings of the food on offer.

By hour 72, I had identified a clear winner: Tu Taqueria. Their adobada is tasty, but their carnitas are the stuff taco dreams are made of. Fresh tortillas grilled lightly with oil until they have little brown bubbles. Perfectly crisp, slightly greasy pork confited until no errant rills of fat remain. Tangy, fresh onions, and a creamy, homemade salsa verde I chose to mingle with sizzling arbol sauce. All served from a repurposed old-style drive in complete with picnic tables in the shade. Perfection.

Once I’d established the winner of the Othello Taco Race, I could pursue my real agenda: eat absolutely as many perfect tacos as I could cram in my face before we had to move our home base to the next town. Luckily, my abused ankle joints decided to swell to twice their usual size at just the right time, affording me two additional rest days to eat tacos. All totaled, we stayed 7 days in Othello, and I managed to eat no fewer than 30 perfect tacos.

Now, I know you’re wondering how I managed to eat so many tacos. You’re thinking: “good god! Are tacos ALL you ate for a week?” And “arent you supposed to be walking?” And the answers are “no” and “yes” respectively. No, I did not JUST eat tacos; once I had enchiladas for dinner, and for in between meal snacks I chowed down on elote, chicharones, frutalettas, paletas, chamoyada, tejuino, and every agua fresca I could get my hands on. See? Not just tacos. As for the walking part, yes I’m supposed to be walking, and I did walk…some of the time.

After crossing the Columbia, I turned south to rejoin the east-west John Wayne Pioneer Trail aka the Palouse to Cascades Trail. The 60 mile bit of trail that stretches from the Columbia to Othello is one of the most daunting; it passes through barren desert with no services, no shade, and unreliable water resources. Slackpacking means I have no water worries, but the Struggle Bus can’t fix shade or service issues. I walked two days through sun and sand dunes as temperatures soared. Then I grudgingly took three days off the trail: one day for moving from a campsite to a hotel, and two more days for my health.

After crossing the Columbia, we camped at Potholes Reservoir State Park. On arrival, we were informed the lake was unswimmable due to toxic algae. As tempuratures climbed into the triple digits, our rather sunny campsite grew dangerously hot. After each day’s walk, I’d soak my feet in ice water drained from our cooler, and move my camp chair around following the scattered spots of shade. On top of 12-15 miles of desert walking per day, it made it hard to stay hydrated. On day three at Potholes, having walked as far as Lower Crab Creek, I called a halt, took a day off, and we moved to an air conditioned hotel room in Othello. That night (after visiting a taco truck and a taqueria), I finally acknowledged the pain and swelling in my overworked ankles and took an anti-inflammatory. My stomach, predictably, responded poorly. My damaged ankles and my aggravated belly collectively insisted I rest a couple days, allowing me time for no fewer than seven additional tacos. Finally, after three days off, I returned to the trail.

Each morning I rose at four and walked as far as I could. Rod drove me miles and miles down remote gravel roads to drop me off in the dark. I walked in the cold predawn, watched the sunrise, and sawed away at the miles until temperatures reached the mid nineties, then he’d come back and pick me up.

The way was harsh but beautiful. Red buttes rose to the south. Upcroppings of columnar basalt punctuated the broad saged plain to the north, hemmed in by mesa. I walked the length of the hollow in between. Each morning, coyotes howled the sun over the horizon. Startled pronghorn antelope and endangered Columbian whitetailed deer leapt from my path in the watery light of dawn. Prairie falcons and redtailed hawks wheeled in clear blue skies, screeching warning to whatever small mammal dared scuttle across sunburnt sands.

It took three beautiful, scorching days to finish the 35 miles from Lower Crab Creek to Othello. Then I kept right on walking north through town along the canal, adding another two miles to my day before the heat forced a stop and Rod came to retrieve me. That day, I passed the 400 miles walked mark too. I celebrated with tacos.

Having reached Othello and walked beyond, we will soon move our home base further along the trail. Next up is Ritzville, where I will pursue a different agenda: pie.

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