Backcountry Grub – Clean & Lightweight


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At home we hardly ever eat processed food, so planning for backpacking cuisine proved to be quite the research and trial-and-error project. Our bodies are used to clean food that we cook at home and are able to refrigerate, so we did not want to feel sick the entire time from shocking our system with a ton of preservatives. The list below contains a nice balance of what I believe to be lightweight backcountry crub with sufficient calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates for hiking endurance with a few treats thrown in for enjoyment as we are definitely foodie freaks! There are way more preservatives and sugar in this food list than what we are used to, but we tried to make healthy choices given backcountry limitations, and we are slowly integrating more carb-rich foods into our diet as we prepare to depart.

It is possible to eat a diet in the backcountry that provides you with all of the nutrients and energy your body craves.

Here is the food we are packing for 2 people, 5 days, and 4 nights out:



– Instant Oatmeal

– 1 Mountain House Eggs & Bacon freeze-dried meal for a lazy morning and a special treat as we hardly every enjoy bacon!

– Nature Valley granola bars and dried fruit for a quick morning

– Assorted dried cereal and granola



We don’t like to stop and cook for lunch, so we are eating mostly wraps and have 1 freeze-dried meal if we are beat one day and want to rest a while during lunch.

– Peanut butter and banana chips on whole wheat tortillas

– Hard salami and cheeses on whole wheat tortillas (gruyere does not need to be refrigerated)

– Oil-packed, pouch tuna and mayo on whole wheat tortillas (we need to pick up a few more packs before we leave)



Yep, we were lazy and went Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried meals the whole way. In the evenings we like something hot full of flavor, and $8-10 for 2 people plus the convenience really isn’t that bad. Their ratios of protein-carbs-fat were actually perfect for hiking, and though I hate the fact there are so many preservatives, we figured we would go this route for our first big trip out and then invest in a dehydrator in the future so we can make our own clean variations. I threw in some freeze-dried green beans because they were only a couple of bucks and ounces, and I figure after several days of no vegetables I will be craving them pretty bad.



This is just an assortment of snacks we like to eat on a normal basis. We factored in 1-2 snacks per person per day.

– Granola bars (You can make your own clean granola bars that are pretty cheap and easy, but I quite frankly just did not have the time this weekend, so Nature Valley and Cliff it is!)

– Chocolate for the evenings while winding down and enjoying the scenery

– Nuts for protein and dense calories

– Honey stingers for energy (out of all of the energy gels, chews, and the sort, these are the ‘cleanest’ you can get, plus the taste amazing)

– An assortment of leftover snacks from home



– A light-weight long spoon for our freeze-dried meals and oatmeal

– Electrolytes for the high-altitude, hydration, and flavoring the iodine water

– 50′ of rope for hanging the bear bag

– Assorted drink mixtures: Starbucks Via, hot chocolate, instant apple-cider, green tea, chamomille tea (I get stomach aches when I eat too much processed food, and chamomille tea really helps calm it down), honey, sugar (raw sugar and Stevia)

There you have it! I hope this helps you with your planning, and feel free to leave any suggestions for future trips.

Backpacking Planning Failure – Quick Trip to Estes Park Instead


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So remember how we were supposed to take a big hiking trip on the 4 Pass Loop near Aspen, CO in late May? Well, I called the park ranger a week before our trip – the road to the trailhead was blocked from landslides due to Colorado’s extreme recent winter with several late freeze/thaw cycles. Even if the road were passable, the snow on the mountains would make any backpacking trip impossible.

This Texas girl and backpacking newbie thought that average temps of high 60s/low 70s meant it was sunny during the day and thus no snow. That’s apparently not how the mountains operate, and it takes a while for the snow to completely melt at that altitude (peaks are around 12,500′). I seriously never thought of that and felt so silly when we had to re-schedule our trip. Lesson learned! Never book a trip before Memorial Day – and better yet, aim for late June at the earliest!

Thanks to Southwest not charging a change fee, we were able to still go to Colorado to celebrate my brother-in-laws graduation in Denver, and our big hiking trip to the 4 Pass Loop has been rescheduled to the 4th of July week.

While in Colorado for the graduation, we figured we should spend our one free morning seeing the most beautiful mountains within a reasonable driving distance. We zipped up to Estes Park and drove the part of Trail Ridge Road that was open.

The other backpacking newbie mistake I made was departing for Trail Ridge Road immediately after landing in Denver. We were at sea level just a few hours before, and needless to say, I suffered from altitude sickness the entire remainder of the trip from this little side trip, even after returning to Denver.

I must stress, that the horrible altitude sickness (nausea, headaches, lack of appetite, fatigue, insomnia – yep, I got all of it) was so worth it for these views! We could only stay a couple of hours because we had to get back for family events in Denver, but this is truly one of those Heaven-on-Earth places that just takes your breath away and leaves you feeling fulfilled and peaceful. We will definitely be back when we can spend more time exploring this area. Here are some photos from our taste of the Rockies:

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The NSF GRFP Fellowship – Unexpected & Grateful


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For years my passion and drive has been focused on using engineering, specifically that related to flooding, to tangibly reach affected people in impoverished communities. Last October I happened to come across an article describing the NSF GRFP Program and how one may receive a generous Fellowship to conduct research on pressing needs such as this.

I’m not sure why, but I felt the tug to apply to this. I knew with my husband’s undergraduate student loan debt (which we have been ferociously cutting down) that now was not the time for me to go back to school. The timing was not ideal, but I applied anyway. It just seemed like the only choice. I had heard obtaining the Fellowship on one’s first application is rare, and most people receive Honorable Mention the first year and then the actual Fellowship the second year. What did I have to lose? I would apply and see what happened – I figured if I got it I could always defer until our circumstances were in a more flexible place.

Most people spend months writing their essays, and I had three short weeks to come up with a Proposed Research Essay, Previous Research Essay, and Personal Statement Essay. I researched everything I could find online about what to include in these 3 oh so important essays. Just six pages separated me and 13,000 others from a dream opportunity to conduct research on what we find most important in this world (as opposed to what a professor has funding for). This Fellowship would grant me the flexibility to really help Haitians. I would be literally paid to chase after my dream.

For years God had prepared me for essays such as these, because it seemed like everything the prompts were looking for, I had encountered through various experiences along the way. I already knew what my Proposed Research would be – flooding and subsequent landsliding in Haiti. Something deep inside of me knew I needed to apply and just keep taking steps as I was able, even though I couldn’t see the final outcome.

I met with several professors at the University of Texas and found out that one of them is actually conducting very similar research in Asia over geomorphology. She helped me understand what a hot topic this is right now in academia and gave me the motivation to go through with the application. I submitted it within hours of the deadline after revising and editing until there was no return.

Then came the waiting. For months. The uncertainty. I convinced myself I didn’t really want it because we needed to focus on finishing paying off my husband’s student loan debts as well as a host of other much less significant excuses I had come up with in my mind. Deep down though, I really wanted this opportunity, and I knew that this passion had not been placed on my heart by accident. I knew my life had the potential to touch many others through science.

On Good Friday a few weeks ago, I received the news: I had been granted this amazing opportunity. I re-read it. Yep, there it was, in black and white. Still thinking this may be a mistake, I triple-checked everything. I called my husband, ecstatic, and told him the good news. He congratulated me profusely, and then we both kind of thought “oh man, what are we going to do now.”

For weeks I wouldn’t tell anyone else about it. I prayed, fasted, and journaled until my hand hurt. I sought wisdom like a monk, but the answer remained clear and obvious. This was my dream, and it was good. God would, and has been, taking care of all of the logistics in ways so peculiar that they couldn’t be coincidental. God just kept giving when I was wrapped in fear. The loans will be taken care of, financials and ties with my company will be taken care of, fellowship with girls in my program is already under-way, networking in Haiti is blossoming, housing is working itself out. The only missing piece to the puzzle is my husband having a job where we can be together every day instead of just on the weekends, but I am certain it is coming in due time because all of these other things I have been worrying about the last few weeks are falling into place in ways that are completely out of my control.

This award was completely unexpected, and I honestly can’t give any glory to anyone but God. I believe He had His hand in this, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to serve in this manner. I pray that I will be able to utilize this opportunity in a way that is glorifying and genuine.

For those of you who have visited my blog in search of tips for the NSF application, I would say this: be true to yourself in your essays. Follow your heart, and be diligent about making sure that comes across to your readers in a way that is easy for them to understand while shining light on your cause. Don’t beg or become overly personal, but do show them that you have determination to see this through. Give them a reason to be wowed at your life experiences and future goals. Everyone else applying will have excellent GPA’s and a list of awards and service achievements. Write about those things of course, but be unique because that is a beautiful thing. Sorry that isn’t a cookie-cutter answer, and it’ll make you have to really think, but I honestly believe that is part of the reason I was chosen. Show the reviewers why you want to study your intended topic and how you have been prepared for such rigor through a diverse display of experiences. If you don’t have any real reason for pursing your research and just want to get your graduate school funded, perhaps this isn’t the fellowship for you. The NSF is looking for motivated students who have the capability and determination to better society through the sciences. Give them that in your essays. Give them a reason to want to see you succeed.

My essays are below. Enjoy, and I hope these help:


Cynthia Castro 2013
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, duplicated, distributed, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author.

How to Antique Furniture


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I’ve always loved the way hand-made ‘antique’ furniture looks, but I couldn’t justify the Etsy or Anthropologie price-tag.

Someone we knew made us this absolutely awful TV stand while he was teaching himself carpentry, and I’ve hated it ever since it made its way into our living room. We accepted it because it was a kind gesture, but then the guy kind of went his own way so I figure enough time has passed that I can re-create it into something I’ve always envisioned in my living room.

This was the before:


I found some online tutorials and kind of improvised in my own way. I’ll detail the process here for you to do at home. This took probably about a half a day and cost $20-$30 total for: spray paint (ivory – 3 cans), spray paint primer (3 cans), all-purpose sanding sponges (3), drawer knobs.

First of all, clean the piece of furniture thoroughly to get rid of any dust. Next, sand the entire item until you can see the wood grain through the current paint.

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This took some elbow grease, and next time I will probably invest the $25 into a hand-sander.

Next, start priming the entire piece. I found that I needed to lightly sand each section again before priming so the paint would stick better and not bubble up. You’ll get the hang of how far away to hold the can and how to move your arm movements for optimum coverage, but I basically held my can away about 10 inches (most say 6-8, but that caused bubbles for me) and swept side to side while overlapping each swipe.

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I thought one coat of primer would be fine since my top-coat was also a whiteish color, but boy was I wrong. I ended up having to go back to the store twice because I kept running out of primer. When you find this stuff on sale, just stock up and get 5 or so cans to be on the safe side. I used Rustoleuem.

This is after 2-3 coats of primer:


(PS – nail polish remover and a wire brush took the paint right out of the sidewalk with a breeze. After this I brightened up and used an old white sheet underneath)

Now it is time to spray your color. I picked a very antique-looking ivory and loved the outcome. I’m not sure if this is normal, but I had to keep lightly sanding prior to each coat or the paint wouldn’t stick and started to bubble.

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Again, I kept running out of this paint too and had to go to the store several times. I also made the mistake of thinking I could use the same sanding sponge that was used on black paint for the ivory paint. You can tell I am really new at this and it still turned out great!

Here is an example of some of the bubbling that occurred  I would have to sand these down really good after they dried and re-do that section. The distance you hold the can away from the furniture and whether or not you sand before spraying really helps prevent this.

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Next I began sanding the corners in places that would naturally wear away over time. I tried very coarse sand-paper but it ripped off more paint than I wanted. I picked up a “smoothing” sand-paper block when I got the drawer knobs and it worked perfectly.

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Next I had my husband drill some holes to add some lovely knobs I found at Lowe’s.

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And ta-da! That wasn’t so bad after all. I’m really glad I did it! My living room looks so shabby-sheek now for a fraction of the cost of buying something like this.


I also added some beautiful curtains I got at Home Goods, moved a few pieces of furniture I already had around, and finally painted an old wicker stool I was given when I saw spray paint on sale for $1 to bring the entire living room together. Here are some before-after pictures of the entire project:



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We met a wonderful family while on our Living Water trip to Nicaragua, and both of us instantly liked them. This is one of those rare family’s that exist as an example of how to love others well. After spending a short amount of time with them you can just tell that their characters are different – they are shaped by Christ.

One of the father’s passions in life is sailing, and he fixed up an old sail boat to enjoy this hobby on a regular basis. The beautiful thing about this family is that they don’t sail just to have a great time, though that definitely happens! They sail to invite others to experience God through purposeful fellowship. We were invited one weekend to experience God out on the water while hanging out with some awesome folks, and we had an absolute blast!

The drive out there consisted of a stop at a little hole in the wall cafe to get some of the best $5 subs you have ever tasted and made-from-scratch hot clam chowder. We brought these onto the boat with us as we learned how to get the beauty ready to sail. Adrian and I were allowed to test our skills at the wheel, and it actually wasn’t too bad. When the wind would pick up, the pros would take over. We had this one gust of wind that sent us soaring on our side really far – it felt just like a roller coaster! We left before we got too tired from the sun and cleaned out the boat. It made for a perfect Saturday afternoon.

Thank y’all so much for this blessing. We will never forget our time spent on this super exciting sail!

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