Recipe for a Good Hike
Walking near Bill Evans Lake with chef Rob Connoley
I love to cook, I love to eat and I love to hike, so when I recently had the opportunity to forage with local chef and owner of The Curious Kumquat, Rob Connoley, I jumped at the chance. He says that hiking keeps him thin, but for him it’s really all about his dog, Lexi (short for Miss Lexington Elizabeth Connoley). I got a good workout keeping up with his pace, and since he’s 6’3″, it’s quicker than most hikers.
As we walked along, he regularly stopped mid-sentence to point out a variety of plants: “Oh, good, the hackberries are out” and “I don’t know if I’ll get any oyster mushrooms this year” and “I got the mother lode of green walnuts over that way last week.” At one point he pulled off a few mesquite pods and handed one to me: “Chew it, but don’t swallow it.” All I tasted was the woody outer pod. But then, as it softened, I tasted a pleasant, citrus flavor. He said, “I make syrups, breads and cakes with it,” and moved on.
Connoley walks daily and forages, which he calls “grocery shopping,” for home and restaurant. The plants, berries and seeds he gathers include mushrooms (he carries a mushroom field guide with him on all walks), mesquite, amaranth, poppy seeds, watercress, cattails and much more. When he opened the restaurant, he was interested in using local products as much as possible, which led him to learn about what was grown here in the past and what is currently available in the wild. He’s been experimenting and pleasing palates ever since.
I spoke with the Gila National Forest office and they informed me that the only items you need a permit to forage are prickly pears and piñon nuts.
I also did some research and found out how Bill Evans Lake, where we went hiking, got its name. Evans was an attorney at Phelps Dodge in the 1960s who was instrumental in acquiring land/water rights for the company, which built the reservoir, diverted water from the Gila, and pumped the water more than 12 miles uphill to the Tyrone Mine operations site.
Name: Bill Evans Lake — Forest Road 4233E
Distance: Three-plus miles
Directions: Starting at the intersection of Hwy. 180 and Little Walnut Road in Silver City, drive west on Hwy. 180 for 26 miles. You will see a brown sign for Bill Evans Lake, just past mile marker 88. Turn left onto Bill Evans Lake Road. Drive 3.6 miles and bear right onto Newby Road. Drive 2.2 miles and after a turn around a bend/cliff, on the right you will see a small dirt road drop-off. A brown maker for Forest Road 4081Y is partly hidden in the brush on the right. Drive 0.4 miles to 4233E, staying left. Park at the end of the road, where you will see a green gate. There is a brown “walk-through” gate for easy access. Walk along this road/trail. You can’t get lost if you keep the cliff on your left and the drop-off and river on your right on the way in.
Hike description: This is an easy, shaded walk along the Gila River with many photo opportunities. Expect to climb over a few downed trees. I suggest that you have the tall skinny guy lead so he can clear out any cobwebs. We saw a beautiful crane, a black hawk, bear scat and elk tracks along the way. At the 0.9-mile mark, go right (not up the hill to the left). It may appear to be blocked by a huge, downed tree, but look carefully and go through the hidden passage. After going through a few gates, you will come up out of the trees and walk along a dirt road. Stay right and you will soon come to a National Forest sign that says: “Gila River Bird Habitat Management Unit.” Walk down the short path and enjoy a cove of trees and access to the river. You may turn back or continue on at this point.
Tell us about a particularly memorable hiking experience: “I’m the kind of person that likes to push my limits and one day I decided to take a long hike up past Moon Ranch. I was accustomed to mountain climbing at high altitudes, so my confidence was high that I could handle this sort of hike. We had walked off trail quite far, and I turned around to go back. After looking for the trail in a zigzag pattern for hours, the sun set and Lexi and I were forced to bed down for the night. I had a Bivy Sack with me just for this purpose. Lexi and I had a rough night of it listening to nearby wildlife and thinking about our predicament.
“In the morning, we continued our search for the trail. After seven hours of looking, I saw a water tower, which is located near the trail, in the distance. We bushwhacked towards it and in order to get to it, had to maneuver down a cliff and through some nasty growth. Relieved, we got back to the car and then back home. When I walked into the house, my partner looked at me stunned: ‘What happened?!’
“I was confused at his response until he pulled me in front of a mirror and I saw that I was covered head to toe in blood. I had thousands of tiny cuts all over me which took weeks to heal.”
Do you hike any differently because of that experience?
“Yes, two things changed after that. I use a GPS on long hikes and provide clearer communication as to where I am and when I’ll be back.”
Good advice, chef.
What’s new at the restaurant?
Rob told me about his first cookbook, due out in late 2015. He’s busy with design, photography, recipes and publishing houses. The cookbook will feature the restaurant’s top recipes using modern preparations of foraged ingredients. Oh, Rob, please tell me that the recipe for the Oaxacan sandwich will be in there!
See a collection of Linda Ferrara’s previous 100 Hikes columns