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Instagram’s Most Fascinating Subculture? Women Hunters.

It’s a dry January, which means two things on this girls’ trip to central Arizona: we’re all skipping the margaritas tonight, and the river will be low enough for our Tacoma to cross in the morning.

Crowded into a booth at a Mexican restaurant in a small town near the edge of Tonto National Forest, swapping names and where-are-you-froms, we are a motley crew: two millennials wearing camouflage and eyelash extensions, an overalls-clad photographer who lives in an Airstream, and me, a San Francisco food writer soon to be out of her comfort zone.

Our server, Penny, flower pen poised over her notepad, is confused. “I have to ask,” she says, inspecting us through rhinestone-studded spectacles. “What are you ladies doing here?” 

Rihana Cary, 33, and Amanda Caldwell, 32, friends who met on Instagram, look at each other. They’re used to this question.

“We’re going hunting,” Amanda explains.

“What? Four ladies hunting? All by ­yourselves? Well,” says Penny. “This is rather interesting.” She wishes us luck.

Apparently, we’re going to need it. What we have, I learn, is a late-season, last-minute, over-the-counter, nonresident, archery-only antlered-deer tag on public land. We’ll be hunting mule deer: an animal that’s flighty and fast, with 310-degree vision, a sense of smell a thousand times stronger than ours, and ears twice the size of Alfred E. Neuman’s. The $300 tag will be difficult to fill—odds of success are just ­10 percent. In other words, it will take serious luck to bag a buck in the next five days. But also serious skill, which these ladies definitely have. 

Ladies they don’t mind. Just don’t call them huntresses. “We hate that word,” says Rihana, who lives in Layton, Utah, and works as a marketing director for Mtn Ops, a company that sells nutritional supplements and clothing for hunters. “It’s too sexualized, like temptress or seductress. Why does everyone try to put us in our own category? We’re hunters”—like hikers are hikers and runners are runners. Amanda, a realtor from rural Montana, agrees.

The style of bowhunting we’ll be doing, called spot and stalk—spotting an animal from afar, then stalking it until we’re within shooting range—is popular on the vast public lands open to hunters in the West, and it’s much harder than, say, deer hunting from a tree stand, which is more common in the East. “There will be lots of highs and lows,” Rihana warns. “But if we do get a deer, it’s going to be epic.”

I want epic. I think. As a liberal, urban, coastal-living walking cliché, I care where my food comes from: I’ll pay for the precious $4 peach, the $8 carton of local eggs, and whatever my bougie butcher counter charges for its organic grass-fed beef. But I have never cared quite enough to take it to the next level and harvest my own. That’s why I’m here, to fulfill my moral obligation as a meat eater. To experience what it feels like to, if not kill the animal myself, at least watch it die. And then, you know, help dismember it before sitting down to dinner.

Modern-day omnivores have long outsourced the dirty work, of course. And in doing so, we’ve created something even dirtier: factory farms and slaughterhouses. Things most meat eaters like to ignore for the ease and inoffensiveness of picking up a pound of plastic-wrapped chicken breasts on the way home from work.

“Ohhh, he’s so killable!” whispers Amanda, her long blond locks free-flowing around her moon-shaped face.

In 2004, David Foster Wallace wrote in Gourmet about lobster, though the same holds true for steak: “As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about it.”

But today, food has come to dominate our collective conversation. “Who makes the best ramen?” is the new “It looks like rain,” and photos of Early Girl tomatoes get nearly as many likes on Instagram as photos of cute kids. At the same time, we’re increasingly concerned about the environment and climate change—according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock contributes 14.5 percent of the world’s human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. The result is our fervent desire to know the source of everything we eat, from our honey to our halibut. Consumer interest in sustainable food increased 23 percent from 2018 to 2019, according to a recent study by Tastewise, a data platform for the food industry. Harvesting your own meat is a way to opt out of the distasteful aspects of factory farming. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened our interest in self-sufficiency, from gardening to raising backyard chickens to hunting. While people panic about meat shortages, having the ability to secure your own supper is an attractive idea. 

Hunting in America has long been associated with gun culture, something for dudes who love to drive big rigs and drink beer and shoot things. But shouldn’t it also be associated with food culture, something for women like me­—or, really, anyone—who love to hike and drink wine and eat things?

Rihana Cary closing in on a buck

We leave our Airbnb and roll into the desert before first light. Everyone but me is dressed in top-of-the-line camo. Rihana wears Under Armour, which has sponsored her as an athlete since 2015. (The company started making women’s hunting apparel in 2011.) Amanda has on more than $700 worth of Sitka gear in Gore Optifade. I’m rocking a pair of baggy REI zip-offs circa 2006, which I pulled from the depths of my dresser because they were khaki, and a puffy jacket, which is lime green. (I know. It’s all I had.)

Clouds stutter across the sky as it glows gold. A thin frost coats the hard, reddish ground, crunching beneath our boots. Snow-dusted mountains rise in the distance. Rihana and Amanda, whose hair and makeup look better at dawn in the desert than mine would at a black-tie dinner, break out binoculars. They begin to glass a hillside across a broad, flat valley. Birds chirp. ­Coyotes take roll call. Otherwise it’s still and quiet, as it should be when you’re scanning for animals that have hyperacute hearing. Then I slam the truck door. Rule number one: “No slamming doors,” whispers Jen Judge, 48, the photographer for this story. Jen bowhunts, too. But without a tag, all she can do on this trip is glass. She’s goddamn good at it.about:blank

“I got deer,” says Jen, not long after sunrise, describing the animal’s location in the beige and sage landscape like she’s giving directions to a lost spa-goer in Scottsdale. “Left of the outcrop, left of the saguaro, in the drainage, in front of that tree.” Which tree? Rihana and Amanda sync up within seconds. Bouncing my binoculars around, I just make myself dizzy.

Doe. It’s the rut—mating season—which means odds are there’s a horny, aggro, testosterone-fueled male on the doe’s heels. Through the spotting scope, Rihana confirms: buck. Bedded under the bush, about 1,200 yards away, the four points on each of his antlers blending seamlessly into the branches. How the hell did they see him?

“Ohhh, he’s so killable!” whispers Amanda, her long blond locks free-flowing around her moon-shaped face. (No hair tie for this hunter.) He’s napping below the chapparal-shrouded ridge, 40 yards from the top, which means Rihana can hike the long way around and over and be within range when he wakes and stands. She’s never gotten a mule deer with her bow before. “I’m so excited for you!” says Amanda. She and Rihana clasp hands and squeal like tweenagers before a Beyoncé concert. 

Rihana plots the buck’s approximate coordinates using OnX Hunt, an app with topo and aerial data that allows stalking hunters to mark and share an animal’s location. She sprays what looks like a Visine bottle, testing the wind. If it’s blowing the wrong way, he’ll catch her scent. The breeze is good. The hunters clink slabs of homemade elk jerky. Rihana readies her bow, tosses her dark, auburn-streaked braid over her shoulder Katniss Everdeen style, and sets out. But not before putting her leopard-print-cased phone into selfie mode, turning the camera on herself, and pressing record for her 65,000 followers.

Rihana and Amanda are part of a growing scene of what I’ll call huntstagrammers, social-media influencers who are quite literally changing the face of hunting. Sure, men like Cameron Hanes and Sam Soholt have helped make hunting look hipper and more handsome on Instagram, too. But it’s their female counterparts who are shifting perceptions, with feeds that are also filled with rifles and camo, bloody fist bumps and butchered backstraps.

According to some industry groups, women are a fast-growing demographic of hunters in the U.S., during a time when overall participation has declined. Four percent of Americans hunt, the lowest share in three decades, says a Fish and Wildlife Service survey. But according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, female participation increased 59 percent from 2010 to 2019, while male participation dropped 4 percent. (Stats from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which uses a different data set, conflict with these numbers, and indicate a slight decline in female hunters.) Today the NSSF says women make up 22 percent of all hunters, compared with 12 percent in 2003. Artemis, a group of sportswomen-­conservationists founded in 2017, already has some 11,000 community members, the majority of whom are between the ages of 25 and 45. 

Women have always hunted, of course. Research suggests that Neanderthal women helped men hunt big game. In the early 20th century there was Nellie Neal Lawing, known as Alaska Nellie, who left Missouri (and her first marriage) in her forties to open a roadhouse along the Alaska Railroad and became a famed trophy hunter. In regions where it’s part of the culture, generations of women have long hunted, often with men, though all-women groups are not unheard of. (The Swamp Witches, a crew in Mississippi, have been duck hunting together for two decades.) Amanda’s mom hunted, too, and so did her grandmother. None of these women had social media, however, or the impulse it breeds to broadcast their skills, and kills. 

Today, women hunters are more visible than ever. “It’s exploded,” says Curt Wells, editor of Bowhunter magazine. He says social media has played a major role. Before it, he explains, when women did show up in traditional hunting media like TV shows, they were often portrayed as sidekicks or cohosts. (Wells cites examples like Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo, “America’s favorite hunting couple” on the Outdoor Channel, and Lee and Tiffany Lakosky of the show Gettin’ Close, on the same network.) Now a new school of young women are becoming stars in their own right, using the Hefe photo filter and hashtags like #girlshunttoo and #womenwhohunt to garner huge followings. Thirty-two-year-old Eva Shockey, for example, is arguably the queen of hunt­stagram, with more than two million followers across platforms and her own television series, My Outdoor Family. (Shockey also cohosts a hunting show with her father, celebrity hunter Jim Shockey.) 

“I had such a heavy heart. So much adrenaline. I was crying,” Rihana says. “Taking a life is always emotional. Once it’s not, you should probably stop hunting.”

Hunting brands are embracing the trend. Following Under Armour, Idaho-based apparel company First Lite launched technical women’s gear in 2015. And legacy brand Orvis, which makes upland (hunting for certain bird species) apparel for women, began expanding its options around the same time. Between 2016 and 2019, Orvis’s women’s upland-hunting business grew 210 percent. 

Prior to that, pickings for women were slim—and what existed was often too big, bulky, and unbreathable, or made with cheap materials. “We used to have to wear men’s stuff,” Amanda recalls. “Remember when they came out with pink camo?” She and Rihana scoff. 

“Kind of defeats the purpose,” Rihana says. 

In the mid-nineties, companies began making women’s compound bows. Like the men’s versions, these high-tech bows use a levering system of cables and pulleys, thus requiring less strength to draw and hold than the longbows you might recall from summer camp. Women’s compound bows are smaller and lighter, with typical draw weights of 40 to 50 pounds, compared with 60 to 70 for men’s versions. Women’s participation in bowhunting increased by 260 percent between 2003 and 2017, according to the NSSF.

“Companies are realizing women are a way to make money,” says Elizabeth Covelli Metcalf, an associate professor and social scientist at the University of Montana who studies hunting. “They’re designing gear and investing in influencers and social media, and it’s spreading awareness.” In 2018, Metcalf started coteaching a course called Hunting for Sustainability; the majority of students who signed up were women. 

Society is used to the image of the burly dude posing with his trophy kill. What challenges expectations more: millennial women like Rihana and Amanda, done up like Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, boasting draw weights of 60-plus pounds, elbows-deep in elk guts.

As Rihana treks toward the buck, Amanda assembles her Phone Skope in hopes of recording the kill. An adapter that allows her to use her smartphone to magnify the view through her spotting scope, it’s much better than my nausea-inducing binoculars. 

An hour later, I see Rihana peeking over the ridgeline, then creeping downhill, each step as intentional as a dancer’s. Hunkered behind a bush, she’s 88 yards from the deer. She needs to get within 60 to shoot. Popping almonds like popcorn, I feel like I’m watching a silent thriller. I thought hunting was supposed to be hard. We’re only three hours into day one and Rihana’s already poised to shoot a stately looking senior? Too easy.

Doe up! She senses something. Now the buck is standing. He’s chomping a bush. Amanda makes a bleating fawn sound to distract the animals, allowing Rihana to inch closer. Rihana is at one with the hillside, as much as the deer and the dead ocotillo shrubs are. It’s primordial. The hunter and the hunted, in one real-life frame. I’m breathless. And then, just as she’s about to draw, for some reason the buck busts. 

Smart guy. Inside, I cheer.

Rewatching the grainy clip later, we’ll realize that it wasn’t Rihana who spooked the deer. It was a bobcat, leaping off the top of a saguaro in the same frame. Holy fucking nature: bobcat saves buck’s life.

“That could be it,” says Amanda over Oscar Mayer honey smoked turkey wraps at lunch. “We could go the rest of the week without seeing another buck.”

But that afternoon, we—well, they—spy three more, including a big guy going nuts for a doe, who is not in the mood. “How are we gonna kill him?” schemes Amanda. It’s her turn to stalk. Two hours later, she texts. The wind was bad. Buck’s gone. So Rihana and I traipse up the ridge to try to find him. A needle in a haystack has got nothing on a deer in 2.9 million acres of national forest.

By the time we get back to the truck an hour or two later it’s dark and raining, and I’m pulling cactus needles from my calves. On the drive out, I wonder why anyone bothers hunting when there’s Uber Eats. Can’t we just get burgers?

Rihana hasn’t had a greasy beef patty in years. She lost her taste for fatty cow meat, she says. She eats wild game now, mostly elk. Her six-foot-long freezer at home is full of it—some 300 pounds of meat that she harvests annually, everywhere from Utah to North Carolina to New Zealand.

That’s quite a feat for a former vegan who grew up in Ashland, Oregon, where the only thing her family hunted was mushrooms. In college, Rihana worked at a Macy’s makeup counter and ate McDonald’s. After graduation she enrolled in nursing school, where she researched a paper on factory farming and was appalled at the animals’ squalid living conditions, how they were pumped with antibiotics. She couldn’t afford organic meat, so she gave it up altogether for a while. Then she met a guy. (It’s always a guy.) He brought her on hunts. She loved the sounds of the forest, the way her senses heightened, the reverence she felt for the animals, and the fact that from life to death to dinner, she controlled every aspect of the meat she ate.

The guy gave her a ring. But her 23rd birthday brought the better gift, the one she kept: a bow.

“I used to think hunting was horrible!” says Rihana, who now, nine years later, spends some 200 days a year in the field for her work with Mtn Ops or just hunting with girlfriends. (Her new boyfriend doesn’t bowhunt, and Amanda’s boyfriend doesn’t hunt at all. But they both plan to teach their men.) Before killing her first animal, a black-tailed deer, Rihana remembers looking at it and thinking, Can I really do this? She pointed her rifle and closed her eyes. “You don’t close your eyes!” she laughs, recalling the moment now. She missed. “On purpose, I think,” she says. Then she got a rare second chance—and dropped the deer. “I had such a heavy heart. So much adrenaline. I was crying,” she says. “Taking a life is always emotional. Once it’s not, you should probably stop hunting.” 

Rihana learned to shoot both a rifle and a bow in the same summer, but it would take several more months of archery practice before she felt strong and proficient enough to shoot an arrow in the field. Thirty-eight percent of gun owners cite hunting as one of their primary reasons for owning a gun. Contrary to what many may think, not all hunters are members of the NRA. Jen says that in her small circle of hunter friends, not one is. Amanda is an NRA member; Rihana’s membership lapsed. Both women still rifle-hunt and carry for protection. But they prefer bowhunting. To them, it’s the epitome of fair chase, an ethical approach to hunting that emphasizes honorable pursuit of an animal. 

The difference is ultimately a philosophical one: with a rifle the hunter arguably has the advantage; with a bow the prey does. An experienced rifle hunter need only get within several hundred yards of an animal, whereas on this hunt, Rihana and Amanda must slip within 60.

While learning to outsmart an animal, to stalk close enough to shoot, Rihana says she developed the patience and persistence and confidence she’d lacked in her aimless teens and early twenties, when partying was her priority. She felt like she’d unleashed a natural ability. “I’m 25 percent Native American,” she says. Her grandparents were Juaneño and Cahuilla, tribes that historically bowhunted. “I feel like it’s part of me.” Caldwell stalking among the prickly pears

Hunting is in Amanda’s blood, too. “I was born in a camo onesie,” she jokes. Hunting has always been her primary means to a meal. Finances were tight in her family, so once she was 12, old enough for a tag in Montana, her father took her out. “At dinner my mom would say, ‘This is your buck, Amanda.’” 

In the fall of 2018, after her mother passed away, Amanda spent three weeks alone in the Montana wilderness (she won’t say where—hunters never reveal their spots) before shooting her biggest elk yet: a mature Rocky Mountain six-point she stalked for six hours with her bow, coming within five yards of the bull. She harvested a year’s worth of meat. 

Processing and packing out an animal is not for the squeamish. Amanda uses the gutless method, which requires slicing open an animal head to tail down its backbone. She peels off the hide, pulls out the backstraps, then the front shoulders, then the hind quarters, and debones. She hangs whatever meat doesn’t fit in her pack or on her horse and returns for the rest, sometimes multiple times. She once carried 95 pounds on her back over six miles and crushed a vertebrae. It took her two months to recover.

“Telling a woman not to wear makeup in the field is like telling a guy not to fart in the field!” Rihana says. “Why would I change who I am when I go hunting?”

Amanda posted a photo of that six-point bull to her Instagram feed, and it remains her most liked post to date. “You were completely solo?!?” commented @mountain_momma_1102, with a mind blown emoji. But not all female huntstagrammers are willing to post photos of fresh carcasses. Some stick to selfies in cute orange hats or bowls of venison bulgogi. Rihana doesn’t shy away from gore. “I’m not afraid to show blood,” she says. “I’m not afraid to show the reality of it.”

No matter what #womenhunters post, they receive the same thing male hunters do: hate mail. But more of it, some say. “I’ll get stuff like ‘I hope your family dies,’” Rihana says. “I’ve probably blocked 1,000 people, including friends from high school who wrote that they don’t understand who I’ve become.” She and Amanda also get asked out at least once a day. “Can I take you hunting?” is a recurring DM. Both say their followers are 75 to 80 percent male. 

Ultimately, though, the “You’re an inspiration!” messages far outnumber the nasty comments. Rihana and Amanda are on social media to share their love of hunting, they say. To show women they can do it, too.

Day three, and we’ve rented a UTV. It’s a full moon, which supposedly keeps deer up all night and bedded down all day. Still, Jen spots a buck, hot on six does, within minutes of ­adjusting her binocs. Later, Rihana superheroically spies another from 1,200 yards away. 

After two long, ultimately failed stalks, we meet Rhonda, a sweet, gangly fifty-­something mom from Flagstaff wearing camouflage. She’s with her husband and son, and the three of them are also bowhunting for mule deer.

“I saw you two earlier!” she says to Rihana and Jen. She looks at me and Amanda. “And then I saw two more! I never see women hunting together,” she says with a mix of awe and envy. 

I want to tell her I don’t really count. But then I realize, hey—I’ve been out here 12 hours a day, and now I’m wearing borrowed camo and cooler khaki pants and even picking out puffy white butts hidden in the brush, so maybe I do? 

In the afternoon, we gorge on Sour Patch Kids and go after a bedded dude with two does who eventually busts. As the sun dips behind the mountain, Jen again has deer. A buck, two ridges over. It’s 30 minutes until dark. “We still have a shot!” Amanda cheers. As the sky bleeds purple, we speed off in the UTV, rumbling over rocks, through creeks. Four women chasing a nice-looking male we can no longer see.From left: Cary in camo; Caldwell’s handmade leather leash, adorned with ivories from elk she harvested

Women hunters might be all over Instagram, but as I’m learning, the idea of us hunting IRL without men is still a new one. “Where’s your husband?” is a question women told me they occasionally hear, in the woods or at Cabela’s. And though more women are trying hunting, retention is a struggle. In the West, on average, 36 percent of female hunters don’t renew their licenses each year, compared with 22 percent for men. In the Southeast, it’s 48 percent (32 percent for men).

“We’re working through it,” says Ben O’Brien, host of the Hunting Collective podcast. Last spring, it dawned on him that he’d put together 54 episodes and hadn’t had on a single woman hunter. For episode 61, he reached out to Jess Johnson, cofounder of the conservation group Artemis. “Is this a space that feels good to be a woman in?” she asked. “There are times it doesn’t feel welcoming.” 

Rihana would reluctantly agree. She gets occasional jealousy or condescension from men, she says, but both she and Amanda have sensed judginess from both sexes for looking the way they do—though they suspect that if they weren’t such successful hunters they’d feel it more. “No one says anything to our faces. It’s just a vibe we get,” says Rihana, inky liner curled above her eyelid. “Telling a woman not to wear makeup in the field is like telling a guy not to fart in the field!” she adds. “Why would I change who I am when I go hunting?” 

Amanda agrees. “Makeup makes me feel good,” she explains. “And if I feel good, I’ll have a better hunt.” 

There are gradations and nuances among the women of huntstagram, and among those who follow them. On one end of the spectrum are the “gun bunnies,” influencers whose feeds are all skimpy bikinis backed against big trucks and booty shorts stuffed with handguns. Some of these women have follower counts in the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing Rihana’s and Amanda’s combined, but they question the authenticity. “You can’t actually hunt dressed like that,” says Rihana. “Especially not with all this cactus!” 

Then you have more homespun, seemingly Maybelline-free huntstagrammers like Allie D’Andrea, whose tasteful feed focuses on her white lab and the beauty of public lands. (She’s a cofounder of Artemis.) Known as @outdoors_allie, she has 116,000 followers, Jen among them. “Wearing makeup in the outdoors just doesn’t compute in my brain,” Jen says. “I have a million things I’m thinking about when I’m hunting: the wind, my scent, my noise. The way I look is not one of them.” (Still, Jen declared Rihana and Amanda “the real deal” by day one.)

The huntstagram chatter is reminiscent of high school and its cliques. The unadorned (like Jen) evaluate the “Barbie dolls” (like Rihana and Amanda), who judge the gun bunnies. Jess Johnson of Artemis states the obvious yet often unspoken fact about all this scrutiny: “No one ever picks apart men. I’ve never been like, ‘That guy’s pants are too tight, he must not be a legit hunter.’ Women have to scramble harder for validity.”about:blank

Predawn on our penultimate day, we begin as we have every morning, with Hot­Hands in our pockets and binoculars in front of our eyes, scanning for the flicker of an ear, the shimmy of a cotton tail, beige racks between beige branches. Before long we spy a four-by-four—a buck with four points on each antler—with a limp, all by himself, 400 yards away. After a two-hour stalk, the deer bounds off.

Then Jen spots a funny-looking fella chilling under a tree. Debate ensues until the spotting scope confirms: a one-antlered buck. Bedded. We send OnX coordinates to Rihana and Amanda, who pivot from one stalk to the next. Then Jen and I sit in the desert sun, whisper-talking about old boyfriends and death and family and Trump and whether Rihana and Amanda will vote to reelect him (they will). We watch and wait and watch, riveted by one spike of one antler, tucked beneath a distant tree. I’ve never sat so still for so long, glued to something so unexciting and yet so exhilarating.

“I love this buck,” says Jen, peering through her binocs. “He’s a misfit like me.”

Hunting, I’m realizing, is an entirely different way of being outdoors. As hikers, campers, or photographers, we’re nonconsumptive land users, the type of nature lovers who frolic among the flora and fauna without firing, appreciative participants merely passing through. Hunters, though—the good ones—become part of the land and everything in it. They attune to behaviors and tracks as they crawl from cactus to cactus, bush to boulder, stepping as swiftly and softly as humanly possible, another animal in search of supper.

Hiking suddenly seems oddly aimless.Glassing from the UTV (Photo: Jen Judge)

Our last morning, our last chance. Before 7 A.M., Jen’s got deer. “A really. Big. Buck,” she says. Biggest one yet, another four-by-four, 800 yards away, eating breakfast. Now—yes!—lying down.

Rihana, wearing convertible fingerless camo gloves, plots his location on her phone. She tests the wind. Amanda applies a fresh coat of lip gloss and they’re off. Two scents, two sounds—it’s risky, but it might allow for more opportunity.

Jen and I set up on a knoll. I’ve grown rather expert at spotting by now. He’s to the right of the auburn bush, buried deep in a dead ocotillo. We keep our eyes on what we hope is an antler while he takes a nap of Rip van Winkle proportions. 

“I have to pee,” Jen says, three hours in. 

“You can’t,” I whisper.

Rihana and Amanda relay word via text that they’ve split up and are each closing in. Rihana is hidden in the drainage, about 130 yards away. She can’t get closer though, or he’ll see her. Amanda reaches the ridge, then creeps in her socks between prickly pears to within 25 yards. Rihana can see both Amanda and the bedded buck, and texts her a snapshot of his spot in the brush: “Just wait till he stands.” We wait. Amanda’s arrow is nocked. 

Holy shit. My binoculars are shaking. This sweet deer is about to die.

Except, as soon as we see him stand, Amanda doesn’t. There’s a slight drop in the terrain, hiding him from her view. He’s up! He’s up!, we attempt to mind-meld Amanda. Maybe he scents her. Maybe that airplane is flying too low. Whatever it is, before she ever sees him, he trots off—right toward Rihana.

They attune to behaviors and tracks as they crawl from cactus to cactus, bush to boulder, stepping as swiftly and softly as humanly possible, another animal in search of supper.

She’s ready, at full draw. Amanda makes a bleating call and the buck stops: ten yards from Rihana, and behind a sprawling bush. It’s too thick; she can’t see his body. His head is exposed, but to be confident that she’ll deliver a lethal hit, Rihana needs to target his lungs or heart. They lock eyes, and he bolts.

“It wasn’t a clean shot. I just didn’t have an ethical shot,” Rihana says, trudging back through the saguaros. She says it again and again throughout the day. The one that got away, as they say.

We have only three hours left to get a mule deer. And after more than 60 hours of trying, I realize that I, of all people, want a mule deer.

It’s true that I’ve never hunted before, but hunting with women feels different. 

In her research, Metcalf found that women hunters are motivated in different ways than men. They’re generally more family oriented, more about feeding people, she says. Men view hunting as an individual pursuit, with internal motivations like solitude, skill development, and outcome. 

That squares with Jen’s experience. “It’s like my way of feeling maternal,” she says. She usually hunts with her husband, a cyclist and rock climber. (She got him into it.) “He’s more success oriented than I am. Yet I’ve had more successes.” She smiles. “This hunt is a true team effort. I’m loving it.”

We persist. Glassing a gorgeous canyon we’ve nicknamed Heaven, Jen, holding her binocs, can barely believe it. “It’s a fawn. And, oh my God, a fucking buck. My heart can’t take this!” No one thought we’d have another stalk today. Now here we are, 700 yards from our farewell dinner.

Jen and I keep watch, as we do. And then another UTV rolls up. It’s the Flagstaff family—Rhonda and her two guys. Because we’re nearing last light, they set up their scopes to help us glass. We text Rihana and Amanda that they’re here, that we’ve got backup. Five pairs of eyes on a flighty forky (hunter slang for a two-point). The camaraderie of stalking an animal.

Rihana and Amanda creep, in socks. At 51 yards they stop, exposed. The buck is busy eating. And soon, standing broadside. Amanda pulls out her phone and Rihana pulls 61 pounds. With the buck looking straight at her, ears perked, she shoots.

And just as her arrow arrives, he dodges it.

And then he bolts in our direction. 

“Rhonda! Get ready!” Jen and I whisper. At the same time, Rihana sends a text: “Tell that gal to get her bow.”

We drive out after dark, in cool open air, feeling alive—but empty-handed. Rhonda disappeared for a good hour into a drainage, but the buck darted before she could get close. Well, at least I don’t have to slice open an animal’s anus. Still, isn’t that what I came for? The full experience? And then I realize that is what I got. It’s the thrill of the hunt, not the guarantee of the grocery store.

Weeks later something will be lost. I’ll find online photos of people beaming beside dead deer as creepy as I always did. But in the moment, back in the desert, it’s different. This wilderness has come to feel like my neighborhood. The red rocks and morning frost, Heaven and the howling coyotes, my trusty little auburn tree and that saguaro that looks like it’s giving us the finger. And Rhonda and her family, the misfit and the limpy buck, and a lucky two-point who gets to live.

Our last supper may not be mule deer, but it is elk, grilled over an open flame. Elk that Rihana stalked, retrieved, packed out on her back—300 pounds, which she (with her boyfriend’s help) hauled over six miles in two trips at 2 A.M., and butchered in her kitchen, then brought here, to share with strangers who’ve become friends. Before we feast, she shows us footage of the kill from last fall. 

We hear the bull elk bugle and watch Rihana, crouched in camo at full draw, as she waits for the hulking creature to round the bend. We see her arrow fly and sink into the animal’s skin behind its shoulder, a clean shot to the lungs, and the elk sprint off before it falls. We watch Rihana’s jaw drop and her big eyes grow bigger as she stands in the woods, filled with shock and awe and disbelief—even though she’s done this many times before.

And then we eat. Tenderloin brought from trees to table by Rihana’s two hands, not 200 others’. It’s rosy pink and pure, lean and tender and deeply flavorful. I feel a gratitude for this elk that I never have for even my favorite $21 burger. And for Rihana and Amanda and Jen—for sharing their animals and their stories, and for being women who cook and clean and kill their own dinner.

I got a taste. And I’m going back to San Francisco wanting more.

RACHEL LEVIN

Rachel Levin is a San Francisco–based journalist who has written for The New York TimesThe New YorkerThe Wall Street Journal, and Eater, where she was the first San Francisco restaurant critic. She is the author of LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (Ten Speed, 2018) and EAT SOMETHING (Chronicle Books, 2020).

The Usual: The Solace of Sol Food

Framed outside the front door of Puerto Rican restaurant Sol Food in San Rafael, is a complaint. Not a Yelp review, but a real-live letter, handwritten in cursive, from 2006: “Dear Mrs. Hernandez, The lime green color you selected for your new restaurant is garish and ugly. That color may be appropriate for Puerto Rico, but it isn’t for Marin County.”

It makes Christopher Adam Williams laugh, like a lot of things do. “People who don’t understand culture will complain about color,” says the Sol Food regular. “When I saw the green, I was, like, OK, this food has personality. You expect a colorful restaurant to be good!” He admits his theory isn’t foolproof. (“I’ve been hoodwinked before.”) Still, as someone who paints canvases that measure nearly 7 by 6 feet and celebrate Black joy in purples and pinks, “bright, bold color calls me in,” he says. “It’s a sign of hope.”

As was his first date with Nakeyshia Kendall, in 2018. “It wasn’t a date,” Nakeyshia says, rolling her eyes. “I was just hungry.”

An educator-entrepreneur, she was looking for an artist to lead a group of middle-schoolers in painting a mural. He was a recent graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. They met up at the annual Art Market in Fort Mason, where he proposed coffee at Starbucks. She suggested a drive across the bridge to Sol Food instead. The wait for a table was the same as it always was: long. So, they got takeout, drove up to the Marin Headlands, and talked art and music and relationship status (single), as they watched the sun dip into the bay. “We had slow jams going in the car,” Christopher adds. (Date.)

Nakeyshia learned about Sol Food the way most outdoorsy, food-loving locals do — googling for somewhere to eat after biking or hiking in Marin. In a county with a restaurant scene about as diverse as its population (affluent, 85 percent white), Sol Food stood out back when Marisol Hernandez opened the restaurant in 2004. It still does. She expanded to a larger location, then opened a second, in Mill Valley, in 2013. People come from all over the Bay Area — and everywhere from India to Italy — for her tender bistec encebollado and pescado frito Friday special, and garlicky, oregano-spiked pollo al horno (three pieces for Christopher, two for Nakeyshia). As Hector Lugo, a longtime Oakland regular, puts it: “Marisol’s menu is honest. She doesn’t try to do fancy things like all the Nuevo Latino cuisine bulls— I can’t stand,” he says. “Who are these chefs who think they can improve upon generations of delicious dishes?”

Even Nakeyshia’s Guyana-raised mother — who considers all “restaurant food junk food” — is a fan. “It reminds her of her own cooking,” says Nakeyshia. Though she grew up in Florida eating plantains and rice, it’s not so much Sol Food’s food that reminds Nakeyshia of home as its soul. The way it feels. The people she shares it with.

Christopher, who’d been living off mostly fast-food as a student, fell hard for Nakeyshia and her favorite restaurant. “It was real food,” he says recalling the Cubano. A month after that first meal together, Christopher and Nakeyshia took off on a cross-country road trip to Maine, to drop Christopher at graduate school. Their last stop before leaving town: Sol Food. “Everything was downhill from there,” he says.

It started with really bad barbecue in Idaho. (“All of a sudden he turned serious and went on this tirade against the baked beans!” recalls Nakeyshia. “I had no idea he was this barbecue connoisseur.”) The other thing about Idaho: There were very few Black people. “We tallied how many we saw in each state,” says Nakeyshia. Three in Idaho. Zero in South Dakota, where they were served “pasty mashed potatoes out of a can” and some dude asked Christopher if he was on the Oakland A’s. (For the hell of it, Christopher said he was and signed his autograph.) They ate passable macaroni and cheese in Wisconsin, and a “world-famous meatball” in upstate New York, but they missed Sol Food. And more.

In Maine, Christopher faced racist cops and hate-emails, as well as stares every time he walked into a restaurant. “I was literally the only Black guy around. I felt like I was on display,” he says. The lobster rolls were decent, but not the people serving them. He remembers once ordering two — “and the lady goes, ‘That’s going to cost $40, you know.’ I was, like: ‘Yeah, I know.’” It might’ve been summer in Maine, but the state felt cold. Within six months, he drove West. First stop in California: Sol Food. “I was back where I belonged,” Christopher says.

He was also back with Nakeyshia. Eleven months later, they got married at Fort Mason. (Wedding catered by Sol Food, naturally.) Before COVID-19, Bianca, a server in Mill Valley, would find them a table, and gift them flan. Salt ‘n Straw always gives them free ice cream, too. “We don’t know why!” Nakeyshia says with a laugh. “I think they just like our vibe. You don’t see a lot of Black couples in San Francisco.”

As a Black couple walking around San Francisco, they’re also often asked: “Are you lost?” And then there’s the time Christopher was accused of breaking into his own car. As a Black man, he encounters more racism when he’s not with Nakeyshia, he says. It’s been better during quarantine, she says, “Because we’re always together.”

As they are on this summer day, chatting in camping chairs with purple masks around their necks and to-go containers in their laps. It’s easy to see, from 6 feet away, why Christopher and Nakeyshia get free flan. The virus is surging, unemployment is rising, systemic racism remains, and yet: This couple’s contentment with lunch and life and each other is contagious, in a good way. Early in the lockdown, Christopher and Nakeyshia rarely left their Russian Hill neighborhood. They shopped locally, took 6 a.m. walks, watched Trevor Noah. Until one day in May, they decided to take a road trip of a different sort.

They donned their matching masks and cruised over a Golden Gate Bridge devoid of traffic. “It felt like such an adventure,” recalls Nakeyshia. The sun was beaming. The line wasn’t bad. Bianca waved. They collected their collective five pieces of baked chicken and pink beans and white rice and extra maduros and headed for the headlands. Damn COVID, it was closed. No matter. They ate their Sol Food somewhere else appropriate, shelter-in-place or not: home.

It’s Jewish! It’s Nostalgic: It’s Camp!

As if on cue, the first camper I meet is a guy named Josh: a nice, 27-year-old Jewish boy with kind eyes, a subtle smile and the same name as my husband, another nice Jewish boy, back home.

“Do you know where Malbec is?” asks this Josh, Josh Blake, rolling his eyes, and then his suitcase, over a wide dirt path flanked by rickety cabins that have been renamed for the weekend. (Malbec and Cabernet, for the men; Pinot Grigio and Rosé for the women; Raisins for all.) “I don’t want to walk all the way over there, if it’s back there …” he says, sounding not unlike Woody Allen.

I don’t blame him. The camp is desert-hot and dusty. And he’s ultimately here, he later admits over bagels, because his parents paid the all-inclusive $525 for him to be. They met on this very land, albeit half a mile away. “Talk about pressure!” he says, laughing.

Ilana Rosenberg, 31, sitting nearby, agrees. “My mother said, ‘Have fun! Go meet your Jewish husband!’ My sister was like, ‘Mom, she could find a Jewish wife, too, you know’.”

American Jewish University owns these 2,800 acres in Southern California’s Simi Valley, which is home to rolling hills and herds of cows, the university’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus and Camp Alonim. Over the next three nights and four days, this 66-year-old summer camp for Jewish kids has been commandeered by a new kind of summer camp — Trybal Gatherings, for Jewish adults.

Trybal Gatherings was founded by Carine Warsawski, 34, a buoyant, Boston-bred M.B.A., with the goal of fostering lasting community among Jews in their 20s and 30s, and, ahem, a few in their 40s.

She held her first Gathering at Camp Eisner in the Berkshires in 2017, roping in mostly friends of friends. Over Labor Day weekend, it sold out, with 125 campers and a wait-list dozens’ deep. Last year, she added Wisconsin; next summer Atlanta, and has plans to expand from Seattle to Austin to Toronto.

Whereas traditions like Birthright Israel offer free trips to the homeland, Ms. Warsawski’s aim is to offer an immersive, low-commitment experience closer to home — one rooted not in Zionism or religious doctrine, but in the shared nostalgia of a Jewish-American rite of passage, complete with archery and horseback riding, and a roster that reads like it’s from the Old Testament. (At one point, I’d forgotten my name-necklace. “That’s O.K.!” someone joked. “It’s probably either Sarah or Rachel.”)

Also, adult campers have careers, though no one talks about them. Web developers and screenwriters, wedding planners and wardrobe stylists. And yes, a few doctors and lawyers. The majority came solo; others hand-in-hand and interfaith or happily married in matching outfits, like Emily and Rachel Leavitt — my Secret Santa, er, Mystery Moses.

It’s a mix of die-hard camp people reliving their glory days, once-homesick campers redoing their awkward years, and first-timers wondering what all the fuss is about. “My parents were immigrants from Iran! They didn’t know about camp!” says Baha Aghajani, 30. Neither did Saraf Shmutz, 39, who moved from Tel Aviv to San Diego. “My summers were ‘go play soccer and bug off.’”

No Abe Weissman rompers were seen.
CreditBeth Coller for The New York Times

As a writer who hasn’t been back to her camp, Young Judaea, in New Hampshire, in 25 years, I signed up to learn what’s moving Jews to opt for uncomfortable bunk beds and kosher-style mess halls, in lieu of a real vacation.

Trybal isn’t the only over-21 camp cropping up these days. Nor is it the only Jewish one. Camp Nai Nai Naiwhich also operates on both coasts, and attracts a post-college, more conservative crowd. And “55+” Orthodox Jews have been davening at summer retreats for decades at places like Isabella Freedman where campers crochet kippahs and take day trips to Tanglewood, in the Berkshires.

Trybal is arguably the only camp, though, that starts the day with an “Abe Weissman Workout,” a calisthenics routine straight out of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (Tomato juice refreshers included, but no rompers.)

It’s also, explains Ms. Warsawski, “a place for people who are more -ish than Jew.” Like Molly Shapiro, 28, of Berkeley. ““This is my jam!” she says. “Synagogues today aren’t really designed for us. We want something less traditional, more affordable, more fun. I mean, playing cornhole isn’t Jewish, but we’re playing cornhole together!”

Togetherness is what Trybal is all about. The schedule is packed from early morning to midnight with get-to-know-you-games and group activities like partner massage and mah-jongg, pickling and pool time.

 “Will 20 loaves be enough for all 60 of us tonight,” some worried during challah baking class.
CreditBeth Coller for The New York Times

The next morning, I pass up dreamcatcher-making for challah baking. “Oh yeah, this is what I’m here for,” says Abel Horwitz, a young Robert Downey Jr., kneading dough we’ll later braid and adorn with toppings beyond the traditional sesame. Rainbow sprinkles. Peaches. Jalapeños. “Will 20 loaves be enough for all 60 of us tonight,” some Jews worry.

Next, it’s a tossup between the relationship workshop and the ropes course. I decide I like humans more than heights and head over to hear what the visiting Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, has to say. She reads a passage from the 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and tells us to partner up. A 26-year-old named Sam and I stare into each other’s faces for a full five minutes. “Sit with the discomfort,” the rabbi urges. Reluctantly, I do. I smile. He winks. I wiggle, examining his wrinkle-free forehead and bushy eyebrows bound to grow bushier in old age, until my awkwardness turns to calm. I’m overwhelmed by a deep feeling of curiosity and compassion for this man, for myself, for humanity.

“That was a good reminder,” Ms. Aghajani says afterward. “To give people more of a chance. To not swipe so fast.”

After a grilled cheese buffet, there’s solar art and yoga and Slip-n-Slide kickball. I head for the hammocks, where a guy with long red hair is lounging in a tie-dyed Helvetica T-shirt that reads “Falafel & Sabich & Hummus & Schwarma.” It’s his third Trybal. He is the camp guitarist, and a rocket scientist in real life.

“I come to be a kid again,” Jeremy Hollander, 34, says. He pauses. “And to, you know, be with my people.” In real life, he doesn’t bring up the fact he’s Jewish. “‘Hollander’ isn’t ‘Schwartzenbaum’. People see me and usually think I’m Scottish or something.” He feels safer that way. Especially today, he says, with rising anti-Semitism. “The flame is being fanned. You never know who has what opinions. Here, I can let my hair down.” (Although, technically, it’s in a ponytail.)

“The only one thing I have to worry about at camp,” he says, “is when am I going to squeeze in a shower?”

Still, before sundown, we all emerge from our bunks neat and clean and dressed in white. “Can you believe I got this for $2.99 at Saks Off Fifth!” exclaims Lauren Katz, a volunteer staffer wearing lace. (We can’t.)

Picture time. “Say Cheese!” the camp photographer instructs. “But we’re lactose intolerant!” someone cries from the crowd.

We gather in a stone-lined grove, to sing and sway and cheek-kiss “Shabbat Shalom,” before making our way to the dining hall for a sit-down dinner of roast chicken. And, of course, plenty of challah.

I agree with what he said earlier. There is something easy and assuring about spending a summer weekend like I used to (albeit for eight whole weeks): with my people. Or, at least with people who remind me of my people. New friends bonded by old memories.

 

Trybal is like a modern millennial shtetl, where gesundheits fly. And “Hava Nagila” plays at a Hawaiian luau. And campfire stories include, “How I Became a ‘Nice Jewish Guys’ Calendar Model.”

It’s an alternate, insular universe where I find myself running through a field, streaked in war paint, chanting: “We have spirit, because we’re Blues! We have spirit because we’re Jews!”

It’s a world where conversation flows from the Netflix show “Shtisel” to the lack of Jews in Santa Barbara to the universal disdain for online dating (despite the fact that Trybal is sponsored by JSwipe), to whether Ms. Rosenberg indeed met her future husband.

“We’ll see,” she says, smiling. She did make-out at Arts & Crafts with the Trybal barista: a boy she barely remembers being at her bat mitzvah.On the last night, I slip quietly out of the luau, where the D.J. is rocking “Lean On Me.” I leave the Leavitt ladies in their twin Hawaiian shirts and my Rosé bunkmates dancing the macarena. Mr. Shmutz and the Cabernets are making reunion plans. Mr. Blake is flirting with one of his crushes.

I have an early flight to catch. Back to my husband and kids and, in a way, the future. In the morning, I’ll miss the friendship bracelets and the compliment circle and, like a true last day of camp: tears. For a moment I have FOMO. And then I realize, it’s fine. Sometimes an Irish goodbye is just as good as a Jewish one.

The Usual: Table 93 at Jardiniere

Welcome to The Usual, a new, irregular column about regulars in their restaurants — and the roles such places play in the lives of the people they feed. 

Jardiniere may have been the city’s preeminent pre-theater spot these past 21-plus years, but Fred and Terely Harrell never went for the 5 o’clock prix fixe — they went for each other.

Their first supper, of some 250, was back when their youngest of four kids was still in diapers. They didn’t take their kids, of course. Jardiniere, with its white linen and lush lighting, wasn’t that kind of place — which, of course, is why they picked it. “It felt like a date,” says Fred, senior pastor of progressive City Church.

Initially, the Harrells bounced around Hayes Valley’s two-tiered castle of modern French-California cuisine. They’d sit knee-to-knee and split a burger, or across from each other at a tad-drafty two-top, sharing the short ribs and a warm bread salad. Until one night, they were led up the carpeted stairs to Table 93, to a quiet booth in the back — and basically never left.

Well, except when Table 93 was occupied by other beloved regulars, like, say, Vija Hovgard: an 80-something, Bentley-driving ballet-lover who’s been coming for her Chopin on the rocks, and Jardiniere’s flawless service, since the start.

Jardiniere has a lot of regulars. Like opera singer Sara Colburn, who met her now-husband there 15 years ago one late night after rehearsal. And neighborhood hair salon owner Gene Hayes, who used to bartend down the block at the Ivy before it was Absinthe, and would come once a week for the warm bread salad and his “Genie Martini.” And symphony season ticket holders and wine industry-types and a disproportionate number of aging socialites. (For years, Denise Hale, in her sparkling chokers, was as much a fixture at the black marble, horseshoe bar as the Tiffany-style lamps lining it.)

Like all well-tuned fine-dining restaurants, Jardiniere’s staff knows its best guests: their drinks, their dishes, the proper pronunciation of their names (“Te-rel-ee,” they practiced). They know their likes and dislikes, their birthdays, their children’s birthdays — which were the only times, really, the Harrells would invite their brood. “Are you kidding?” laughs Fred. “We couldn’t afford to take teenagers to Jardiniere! They’d outeat us three times over!”

On Terely’s birthday, they’d amend the menu to read “Terely’s Quail,” because they knew it was her favorite. And on nights they knew the Harrells were coming in, but Fred’s short rib wasn’t, they’d be sure to have one on hand, just in case he wanted it. Which he always did. Sans the pomme puree, please. “I told them: ‘It just doesn’t work,’” Fred explained. “The potatoes turn too soupy.” Chef Traci Des Jardins later took it off the menu and started serving the short ribs with another setup. (“I don’t know, maybe it was because of me,” Fred ponders.)

Another thing the staff did on nights they knew the Harrells were coming in: cheer. Actual hoots and hollers during the pre-service meeting. Their son, Lucas, told them so.

Now in his 20s, inspired by his infrequent special-occasion meals, he’s grown up to be a chef, working the line at restaurants like Petit Crenn and Coi, where he fell for a co-worker a few years his senior: a former pastry chef at Jardiniere. She definitely made desserts devoured by her future boyfriend. And it’s likely she made the two dozen mini-macarons that Terely, a Cuban-born flan maker, once begged the kitchen to make her as toppers for a last-minute order for her catering company called What the Flan! “Yes,” says Terely. “The answer at Jardiniere is always ‘Yes.’”

One night over post-work cocktails at a bar full of San Francisco cooks, Lucas met a guy from Jardiniere, and another connection was made. “Whaaat? Your parents are the Harrells!?” the guy exclaimed, like they were real celebrities, not just in-house ones. “We love the Harrells.”

It’s a true love, and a mutual one. A rarity in the often fleeting, superficial exchanges between those who serve and those who sit. At some point, for the Harrells, hellos became hugs and “see you next times!” became “lets meet for lunch” (and discuss your boyfriend troubles and decorate your house and swap hairdressers). And once in a while, an otherwise not-inexpensive bill became a big fat $0. Like the time after Fred led a memorial for the homeless, and manager Mario dropped by and said, “Thank you. This one’s on us.”

Only once did the pastor walk in to the restaurant with his clerical collar still on, following a Black Lives Matter march — looking the part he already played. “I’ve always felt like the chaplain of Jardiniere,” he says. Talking. Listening. Welcoming staffers who’ve long felt unaccepted by the church, into his. Some for the first time, and often on Easter for the annual Sunday service he holds at Davies Symphony Hall. “I’ll look out at the crowd and see our server — our favorite human on the planet — sitting with Terely …”

He trails off and Terely picks up: “We know how much courage it takes him to be there,” she says through tears.

It’s all such a far cry from the requisite “I’ll have the chicken.” It’s what happens when a restaurant morphs into an institution, like Des Jardins’ refined brick fortress that we thought would never fall. It’s what happens when the life of a restaurant intertwines with actual lives.

Fred finds commonality between City Church and what he considers his other church, between Jardiniere’s hospitality and his philosophy as a pastor. “Both are about community and congregation, about creating a space where people feel welcome and cared for.” As the Harrells, and so many, have.

Two decades later, Fred and Terely are empty nesters; their kids are gone, and now so is their restaurant. “Nothing will replace it,” he says. Although, of course, something will.

“Jardiniere has been our place to talk, to be together,” he says. “A place important to our marriage — our literal investment in it.”

Upon hearing about Jardiniere’s Saturday, April 27, closure, a lot of people made one more reservation. The Harrells made a rash of them. Their last suppers.

The other night, sipping their go-to twin martinis (Old Raj, served up, with a twist, and four olives on the side), they surveyed the menu. “Hmm. They brought back the pomme puree,” Fred notices — and orders his short ribs with it. Just because.

 

 

Rachel Levin is a Bay Area freelance writer. Twitter: @rachellevinsf Instagram: @offmenusf Email: food@sfchronicle.com

George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. Twitter/Instagram: @mccalmanco Email: food@sfchronicle.com

Running with the Rhinos

THE NIGHT before the race, I started to freak out. A few nerves are normal, I know, but this was different. In my past as a very amateur competitive runner, I’d climb into bed on the eve of a race and fret about whether I’d set the alarm for p.m., not a.m.; whether it would even go off; where I’d go for breakfast after the run. But here I was, lying on a cot in a canvas tent in northern Kenya, hours before the start of a half marathon, worrying about lions. As in: being eaten by one.

Last summer, my husband, four friends and I had traveled from San Francisco via Frankfurt, arriving late in Nairobi to spend the night before flying out the next morning in a little plane to land at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. In other words, we were not in tiptop marathon shape—even half-marathon shape. And this was not your average, or easiest, course. Rather, it’s said to be one of the world’s toughest. At 5,500-feet elevation, Lewa was hot, dry and dusty. It suddenly dawned on me: Maybe I should have trained for this.

Team Gazelle—as we’d optimistically christened ourselves—had come to take part in the Safaricom Marathon, a meticulously orchestrated event co-hosted by Lewa, in partnership with the nonprofit Tusk, to raise funds for wildlife conservation, education and community development across Kenya. A 55,000-acre preserve, Lewa is home to 137 rhinos, 182 giraffes, 1,160 zebras, some 500 migrating elephants, 26 lions and—I was promised before committing to this harebrained idea—140 armed guards standing watch in case there’s any trouble. (In the marathon’s almost two-decade existence, though, there hasn’t been.)

Still, as I lay in the dark listening to screeching baboons, the possibility felt palpable. A few hours earlier, we’d gone out on a game drive and seen scores of wildlife: Cape buffalo, hyenas, black rhinos, white rhinos, so many rhinos. We even chased a cheetah. In the Land Cruiser, mind you, not on foot. For 364 days a year, safari guests aren’t allowed to roam free, but race day is a different beast.

I awoke before sunrise to Kenyan pop music blaring over speakers, thumping through camp, a communal call to rise. Then came the whoosh of helicopters, revving up to ready the course. Manned by Mike Watson, longtime CEO of Lewa and a rugged bushman if ever there was one, and his colleagues, the helicopters crisscrossed the landscape, hovering overhead, gently flushing the wildlife away for the day—making way for Lewa’s rarest species: humans.

Fourteen hundred runners from 20 countries—the majority from Kenya—come together for one morning every June, in the name of conservation and inspiration. Most people opt for the half, but a hardy 200 or so, including top Kenyan runners like 2016 Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge go for the full, which double-backs along the same route. There’s a 5K kids race just before it, too. Local school kids train all year in hopes of winning vouchers to the supermarket, goody bags filled with socks, pens, paper and chocolate, and to the first-place finisher: a phone.

For 364 days a year, safari guests aren’t allowed to roam free. Race day is a different beast.

 

Fueled up on bananas and coffee and what felt like a reservoir’s worth of bottled water, we laced up our sneakers and drifted down a dirt road toward the starting line, where we met up with one more member of Team Gazelle: Jacob Kanake, a Lewa driver who had worked on the preserve for years, but had never run the race before. “I’m ready!” he said. We group-hugged. A muffled voice over the speaker beckoned everyone to the start line. The Kenyan flag waved and we were off. It was a human stampede, 1,400 runners of varying levels charging the line, a simple banner propped up by two branches, revealing a dirt path no wider than a fire-road. We squeezed onto the soft, stone-strewn path—flanked by uneven ground and prickly grasses, ensuring we didn’t stray too far—and took off en masse: a scrum of sinewy Kenyans, brawny Kenyans and some barefooted Kenyans, as well as fully outfitted super-fit foreigners in dry-wick tees emblazoned with company logos, and not-as-fit foreigners, no offense to my fellow Gazelles.

And then the adrenaline-fueled din subsided into a collective quiet, everyone instantly awed—or was it daunted?—by the vastness surrounding us, by the quest before us. Behind me was a mini-platoon of rangers running in full garb with their rifles. A helicopter hovered above keeping tabs on everyone’s whereabouts—like an overly concerned parent. Soon the throngs started to split. I found my rhythm, relaxed and realized: Nothing was going to maul me.

I ran. And ran. Past the odd acacia tree and lone ostrich and pair of giraffes in the distance, rising from the ground like elegant, blinking sculptures. Spectators were sparse—a handful at the homemade spritz station; a smattering outside Kirafu, one of five lodges on the preserve. Uniformed, apron-clad staff waving, cheering. It might be Lewa’s biggest day of the year, but the Boston Marathon this is not.

I picked up speed, crested a small hill, and continued through a canopy of acacias. Soon, I found myself in lockstep with a muscular Kenyan man. We sprinted toward the finish line. We crossed together, then high-fived. I finished with a respectable 1:56:28, by no stretch the fastest woman—that went to local Betty Karambu, at 1:14:28. Soon enough, in strode lanky superhero Philemon Baaru, completing the full 26.2 miles in 2:22:18—before my fellow Gazelles even finished the half.

For the rest of the trip, we were on a standard safari—tracking leopards; marveling at lions’ manes and elephant herds; aww-ing at rhino babies—bumping through the bush in the back of the Land Cruiser. And all along, I was itching to get out. safaricommarathon.com

Taking out the Trash? That’s Still a Man’s Job

On a recent Monday night in San Francisco, as I lounged in the living room watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” out of the corner of my eye I also watched my husband, Josh, march around our house as he does every Monday night, collecting pails and tying plastic bags.

Next, he dons his headlamp (which underscores: serious business), grabs his Leatherman and spends the next 15 minutes or so outside in the dark fending off raccoons and annihilating the latest crop of Amazon Primeboxes; cramming the week’s wine bottles and every last LaCroix can into the blue bin; dumping eggshells and avocado rinds and our kids’ abandoned crusts into the green compost bin; and bungee-ing the filled-to-the-brim black garbage bin. And then bu-bump-ing-bu-bump-ing the trio one by one, down the entryway to the curb. Eventually Josh returns, washes his hands, and joins me, cozy on the couch.

This is our weekly ritual. There’s no acknowledgment of the obvious inequity. No you-do-it-next-time admonishment. He accepts his role without a hint of bitterness. (In a way I do not when it comes to, say, driving car pool or coordinating play dates.) Every Monday around 9 p.m., I feel a tinge of guilt, except … not really.

Almost every woman I know who lives with a man shirks this chore. It’s as if all hard-won equality in the home is tossed on trash night. It may be the last bastion of accepted 1950s behavior. And in this case — and this case alone — women are fine with that.

As one friend pointed out: “Women deal with the rest of the garbage.”

For many, it’s the simple ick factor. “I don’t do trash juices,” said Gabriela Herman, 36, a photographer who lives with her husband and 17-month-old daughter in a brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Mr. Athimattathil, 40, grew up in Yonkers, where he said his father always took out the trash, until he passed the job down. “My sister and I would both be sitting on the couch watching TV,” he recalled. “And my dad would always say: ‘Noble, take out the garbage.’ Why not my sister? She had two arms and two legs!”

Nancy Casey, 41, a nurse practitioner in Portland, Ore., isn’t fazed by garbage. (“Eh, I’m up in vaginas all day.”) Still, it’s her husband’s job. “I do everything else,” Ms. Casey said.

Trash night in Portland is especially taxing, she said, because it occurs only once every other week. Moreover, the standard bin is half the size of the compost and recycling, which are picked up weekly. “It’s the liberal hippie thing. There must have been some kind of movement,” said Ms. Casey, who grew up in Chicago.

She added: “If we ever have extra space in our can it’s like Christmas! And we start running around the house looking for things to throw in.”

Rarely is “Who’s on Trash?” an actual discussion among couples. The division of labor just happens. But Deya Warren and her husband, Gus, likely talked about it, she said, if only because they were given a book before getting married called “The Hard Questions,” which offers discussion topics like: “Do we eat out a lot? Or a little?” “What kind of bed do we sleep on? A king size? A water bed?” (Water beds?)

“The whole idea was that you should talk about the little things because, over time, they inevitably become bigger things,” said Ms. Warren, a 39-year-old entrepreneur and mother of three in Bronxville, N.Y. “Trash beyond grosses me out. I know it’s a gender stereotype, but I don’t care. I’m the one with the drill! I’ve dismantled our broken dishwasher and put it back together! I’m confident enough in my defiance of traditional roles. Gus can take out the garbage.”

What about all the single ladies, that highly scrutinized cohort?

Sophie Galant, 24, a consultant, lives with female roommates in a San Francisco apartment and routinely passes the honor of trash duty to guy friends who come for dinner. “I always ask them to take it out on their way out,” she said. “It smells. And I don’t want it to drip on me.”

Laura Manzano, 26, who moved from her college dorm in Virginia to a three-unit building in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, has never dealt with the trash. “Anthony does it all,” she said matter-of-factly, referring to her superintendent. “We don’t even tip him. Maybe I should start?” (Yes.)

Elizabeth Hand, 41, a stay-at-home mother in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, long had a helpful neighbor. “This elderly Italian man named Augie who’d lived here forever,” she said. “He would just do it for us. I had no idea how much work it was, until he passed away. We miss him.”

Trash chutes in the hallways can make the task easier for apartment dwellers, though some still struggle. “Tom has a habit of taking the trash out from under the kitchen sink, tying the tall bag, then just leaving it on the floor, in the garbage can — but obviously unusable, now that it’s tied,” said Jenny Patt, a lawyer who lives in Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, referring to her partner. “As though that counts for something.”

When quarters are close, there are often heated battles over bins, on whose property they should reside, and who lugs them out each week.

In a recent thread on Nextdoor, the regional social network, a man in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn asked people to petition the city to change their collection time from morning rush hour to off-peak hours. This set off impassioned, paragraphs-long responses, including complaints over noise; comparisons to Europe; scorn at the offense of commuting by car; and the general sentiment that bags are more efficient than bins, and that the city’s metal trash cans of yore were barbaric.

(But are Manhattan’s Hefty mountains any better? Apparently people think so. Rats seem to like them as well.)

Recycling has added to the burden. “It’s insane how much cardboard we generate,” Ms. Herman said. “We get Amazon, like, daily. Fresh Direct, Blue Apron … We have a whole staging area! Sometimes, it’s stacked to the ceiling.” Some admit to such anxiety about box breakdown that they get packages sent to work.

Dawn Perry, 38, the food director at Real Simple magazine, is a self-proclaimed recycling Nazi. “I went to Boulder,” she said, referring to the eco-conscious college in Colorado. When Ms. Perry and her husband, Matt Duckor, moved to a garden apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, they started seeing some “crazy behavior in the trash bins,” she said. Like plastic where clearly only paper should be. (And don’t even get her started about the lack of curbside composting.)

“One day I semi-aggressively said to a neighbor: ‘Are you going to break that down?’” Ms. Perry said. Mr. Duckor furthermore printed (and laminated) diagramed recycling directions to post above the shared bins. He also mentioned a recent maggot issue. “All he had to say was ‘maggots,’” Ms. Perry said, “and people listened.”

Last year, Danielle Fennoy, 37, and her family moved from a 45-unit building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to a triplex in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It was the biggest wake-up call on the planet,” said Ms. Fennoy, the co-owner of Revamp Interior Design. “I thought: ‘Seriously? Now I’m the trash lady?’” An early riser, she would put out the bags before work, a method that avoided rodent, or human, invasion. “I’d be out there in my jammies, with my neighbors. That part was nice. The camaraderie. ‘Like, here we are … trash day, again.’”

Until one trash day, she had a revelation: “I woke up and said, ‘You know what? I’ve got enough on my plate.’” She told her husband to take over trash. “And he was, like, ‘O.K.’”

Lauren Gersick, 36, a college counselor in San Francisco who shares the chore with her wife, believes that garbage night’s gender divide isn’t so much about women eschewing heavy bins or leaky bags. It’s not about a fear of rats or raccoons, or some sort of contrarian feministic stance.

It’s about men’s desire to get out of the house, Ms. Gersick thinks; a sanctioned opportunity to step out, away from the children and the chaos, into the dark solitude of night.

“I know at least when I do it,” she said, “I’m like, ‘Bye! I’m going to do the trash.’”

The Great Schlep: Florida

WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER died in Delray Beach, a few weeks shy of age 97, I was sad, of course. And then, as we ushered the final shiva guests out the door and into the monogrammed golf carts they’d arrived in, I realized a silver lining: A Florida without Grandma Frances, as unfathomable as that was, was a Florida I no longer had to visit.

Schlepping to the Sunshine State to see your grandparents is as much a Jewish tradition as eating Chinese food on Christmas—one highlighted by Sarah Silverman during the 2008 presidential campaign in a YouTube video (aptly titled “The Great Schlep”), in which she urged us to go see our bubbes and zaydes, and convince them to vote for Obama.

East Coast Jews have been making the trip for close to a century now. So religiously upheld is the ritual that the flight routes between New York and Florida have garnered such nicknames as the Hebrew Highway, the Kosher Clipper and the Bagel Run.

Florida and Jews wasn’t always a thing. But after the “No Jews. No Blacks. No Dogs” signs came down in the 1940s and the A/C came on, the “chain migration” of snowbirds began. As seniors set south, they realized they liked palm trees and putting greens better than snow, and decided to stay. At least until spring.

Today, Southern Florida is home to the country’s third largest Jewish population (behind New York and L.A.), with hundreds of communities lining the multilane boulevards with the same lifestyle, if varying levels of luxury, behind every gate.

My Brooklyn-born grandparents, Frances and Samuel Rubin, found their slice of retiree heaven in 1972 at one of the first, the Fountains, in Lake Worth, a series of low-slung, stucco apartments set on three golf courses, with communal swimming pools, a clubhouse and cul-de-sacs boasting exotic-sounding names like D’Este, Trevi, Tivoli.

My sister and I grew up making an annual Bagel Run from Boston during winter break. As a kid, I loved everything about Florida: The sweltering days spent under chlorinated water, timing our handstands; the candy dishes; the clink of the mahjong tiles; all those wizened women and their perfectly painted toes.

Every night, as the sun dipped behind the 13th hole, we’d devour grandma’s “Swedish” meatballs. (“How many bawls do you want?” she’d call from the kitchen). We’d nurse our sunburns, watch “Wheel of Fortune,” then wake up excited to do it all again. If we ever left the Fountains, it was only for the Publix supermarket, where I’d bask in the Arctic chill and beg for Entenmann’s crumb cake.

In my 20s, when I started traveling to truly exotic places, I began to dread the obligatory Florida Trip. So much about the place suddenly made me cringe. The sterility. The homogeny. The canasta scene. And yet, lately, I admit: I’m beginning to get it. For many secular Jews, “Boca” is a bond. My Jewish generation may hate Florida, but we also love to hate Florida. Everyone loves to hate Florida! Political strategists. Larry David. Buzzfeed’s annual “32 Unbelievable Things that Happened in Florida” lists are always a viral hit.

But for us, it’s personal. Our roots run deep. When my Canadian officemate and I first met, in San Francisco, and realized we were both descendants of the Fountains’ D’Este court, we had an instant connection, an immediate understanding of where we came from, of who we were.

I like to think of Florida’s gated Jewish communities as the modern-day equivalent of our ancestors’ Eastern European villages. Maybe the gates themselves were erected not so much to keep others out, but to keep Jews in, as August Wilson might say. Together, in a world where we are otherwise spread thin.

My cousin Emily calls Florida “God’s Waiting Room.” At 44, she’s an aspiring resident. Not me. I prefer skiing to water aerobics, seasonally-driven restaurants to multistation buffets. Still, I admit: There’s a familiar rhythm to the gated community vacation I find comforting. In its Seinfeld-meets-Truman Show way, it’s a place where nothing really happens and nothing really changes. Until, of course, it does.

Last winter, my mother reminded me: I may no longer have to visit my grandmother—but my daughter still has to visit hers.

My parents swear they never saw it coming, but somehow they succumbed to Florida’s generational pull and became snowbirds, too. “This is it,” I informed my mother. “You’re the end of the line. My future grandchildren will never step foot in Florida,” I insisted, as we watched 7-year-old Hazel do her 27th handstand in the pool. My mom and I sat with our legs outstretched, our toes painted the same exact shade.

Rituals: Wylie Dufresne

The deli menu at the Gramercy Food Market, a 24-hour bodega at the corner of East 22nd Street and Second Avenue, offers half a dozen grilled chicken sandwiches named for men of a certain stature: There’s the Al Pacino (with spicy dressing), the Larry King (with Russian dressing) and the John Lennon (with chipotle sauce). Each comes with a free bag of Lay’s and a Pepsi. But Wylie Dufresne doesn’t do lunch here. Only breakfast. And only before 11 a.m. (to avoid the $1 late-breakfast fee). And so frequently that the guy behind the counter knows his order: one egg on a roll ($2). Except Dufresne takes two eggs (for an extra 50 cents). “It’s a classic New York egg-and-cheese — the best,” says the chef, who lives nearby. “There are so many bad ones. It’s so satisfying when it’s done right.”

Dufresne takes the foil-wrapped sandwich with him down 23rd Street, walking at a rapid clip. He’s dressed more like a hiker than a world-renowned chef revered for artfully plated, scientifically forward food, including delicacies like fried mayonnaise and savory everything-bagel ice cream. The iconic dishes he served at his now-shuttered restaurant WD-50 influenced an entire generation of molecular gastronomists. But on this day, he’s preparing for the opening of Du’s Donuts & Coffee, a much more casual joint situated at the William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg. (The space is now open.)

“My friend says I look like I’m ‘forever camping,’” he admits, referring to the waterproof backpack usually strapped across his chest, and his dry-wick North Face shorts crammed with mini flashlights and a pocketknife.

As for the hot breakfast sandwich in his hand, he says, “You can’t eat it yet. It’s not ready.” Not ready? “The cheese hasn’t melted yet. It’s still steaming.” Also, he needs coffee — which he didn’t order at the deli because, he says, “I won’t drink bad coffee.” And he is constantly on the hunt for good coffee.

Since the closing of his restaurant Alder two years ago, Dufresne has roamed Manhattan in search of two “meaningful coffee experiences” a day. He pulls a binder clip, fat with punch cards, out of one of his many pockets to prove it. He recounts stories of buying two coffees and only receiving one punch, being called “Willy” by baristas — and sometimes using his eldest daughter’s name, Sawyer, only to see it scrawled onto his cup as Soyer.“Guess they’ve never heard of Tom?” Dufresne laughs. He fans out his punch cards like a poker player proud of his hand: Everyman. Birch. Ground Support. Toby’s Estate. “Ah, they owe me a free one…” he says, pleased.

Turns out, so does Brooklyn Roasting Company, where he ends up this morning. Standing in line, corralled by velvet ropes, he whips out his phone and started the timer. “I always time it,” he says. (He refuses to wait for longer than eight minutes.)

He picks up his short latte (no sugar, no lid). It’s a warm spring day, but even in the dead of winter, Dufresne’s latte is iced — with the proper milk-to-espresso ratio only his most regular baristas get right. Purists might balk at putting milk in coffee, Dufresne says, “but for me, it’s all about coffee andmilk. They’re friends,” he explains. “Like bread and butter. Wine and cheese.”

Speaking of, 15 minutes after leaving the bodega, his cheese is ready. Dufresne unwraps the sandwich to reveal a lightly toasted Kaiser roll, eggs scrambled, a slice of American oozing in its orange-hued glory. Though Du’s is strictly doughnuts (10 highly technical flavors, including peanut butter yuzu as well as Creamsicle), eventually he plans to add an egg-and-cheese of his own — on an onion Kaiser. He really likes onion Kaisers. In fact, Dufresne has a lot of likes (and dislikes). Some more mass-market than you might expect from a James Beard Award-winning chef just back from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremonies in Melbourne.

He likes Popeye’s fried chicken so much he served it at his wedding. He likes the occasional McDonalds burger (no ketchup, no pickles, no sauce). He really likes the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, enough to DVR it. And despite the ostensible competition, he deems Dunkin’ Donuts’ chocolate glazed “perfect.”

Unlike most of America, though, he prefers to finish his coffee while seated rather than taking it to go. “I don’t like holding anything,” he explains. (Umbrellas, in Wylie’s world, are especially ridiculous.) “Scrubbies,” however, are essential. He makes a beeline for Home Depot, which he navigates with the speed and expertise of a star employee, and goes directly to the Scotch-Brite Extreme Scrubs. “So much better than Scrub Daddy,” he says. “Shark Tank’s biggest seller ever!”

Errands done, Dufresne has one last stop before it’s time to test the doughnuts at Du’s: Pret a Manger. He eats Pret for lunch pretty much every day. The chain has 50 locations in Manhattan, and “I’ve got four in my rotation,” Dufresne says. But only one order: the balsamic chicken and avocado sandwich, a cucumber seltzer and a brownie bite. “It’s fantastic.” As good as Maile’s, he says, referring to his wife, who is the editor in chief of Food Network magazine.

He first tried Pret when Sawyer was a toddler. It was easy. She liked chicken. On his day off, they’d sit on a rock in Union Square, near where he grew up, and share a sandwich. “I remembered thinking, ‘That’s tasty.’”Years later, without WD-50 to feed him, and in a moment of nostalgia, he rediscovered Pret’s chicken sandwich. “Next thing I knew,” he says, “I was eating it four times a week.” Soon, Dufresne started bringing his laptop, taking phone calls; Pret became his de facto office. “Setting up investor meetings, my business partner once asked, in all seriousness: ‘Which Pret do you want to meet at?’” he recalls, laughing. “This woman was giving us $75,000. I picked the Nomad instead.”

Only twice has his Pret order strayed — to the chicken soup, and only because he had a cold. He has the utmost praise for the prepackaged sandwich. “It’s smartly engineered,” he says, explaining that the grilled chicken, not the mesclun, is dressed in the balsamic vinaigrette and sits between the dry lettuce and the avocado, so the bread doesn’t “sog out.” He takes it outside to Sawyer’s rock and eats every bite except the brownie bite. He likes to save it for later, for his second coffee experience.

Meanwhile, Dufresne can’t help but laugh about his steadfast devotion to eating Pret’s chicken sandwich. “We’re all creatures of habit,” he offers. “At least it’s not a candy bar.”

The ‘Kidbutz’ of Topanga

In a four-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot house with three and a half baths and a two-car garage in this hilly Los Angeles County enclave, Aleksandra Evanguelidi, 41, sleeps in the master bedroom; in the room next door is her daughter, Juno, 6, who shares it with Claire, also 6. Across the hall is an under-the-sea-theme loft. Eli, age 4, sleeps there. His mother, Ashley Welch, 24, has the room across the hall, which doesn’t have a bathroom of its own but does have a private balcony. And in the room next door, is Justin Balthrop, 37, Claire’s father.

Abby Lewis, 63, comes to visit for a month each summer. Everyone calls her Grandma. She is Mr. Balthrop’s mother, and lives in Albuquerque. “She fits in well here,” Mr. Balthrop said one afternoon this past spring as he whipped up a banana-kale-peanut-butter smoothie. “She used to live on a real hippie commune.”

Meet the Topanga Family, as their neighbors call them. They are the vanguard of communal living and child rearing, contemporary-style, where a dusty, off-the-grid farm in the middle of nowhere gives way to a sprawling $2 million house with endless views and vaulted ceilings, a Viking kitchen and multiple terraces, 20 minutes from Santa Monica.

While “co-living” is on the rise in cities like San Francisco and New York — a result of astronomical rents and a craving for community — so-called “hacker houses” and new cohabiting businesses like Common and WeLive are geared toward the young and childless. This is a different situation. The Topanga Family was created to befit single parents. And, in turn, their kids. Everyone involved agrees that the greatest perk is the siblinglike relationships that have developed among the children.

“What we’re doing isn’t new,” said Ms. Evanguelidi, a midwife. “People have been doing this forever. We’re just pimping it out.” She is the one who initially found the listing for the house, which is why, she said, she has claim to the large master suite with its two-sink marble counters, deep soaking tub and enormous walk-in closet.

On this spring evening, Dallas Garcia, the children’s 19-year-old nanny, was barefoot in the kitchen making lentil soup and chopping carrots and celery against a backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains. Three blond children bolted through the front door, past a small wooden sign hanging in the foyer that read, “Remember, as Far as Anyone Knows We Are a Normal Family,” and into the kitchen. They scrambled to get to the countertop. “I want to sit next to my sister-roommates!” demanded Eli, clambering onto a stool between Claire and Juno.

Typically, everyone eats dinner together around 7 p.m., but tonight, Juno’s and Eli’s mothers were still driving home after spending a day off at the hot springs in the desert. So Ms. Garcia was in charge. She just finished her first year of community college; she works part time at a pizza place and part time for the Topanga Family. She found the job through her boyfriend, who is the son of Ms. Evanguelidi’s boyfriend, whose name is Troy Mitchell. “I tell my friends where I work, and they don’t get it,” Ms. Garcia said. “It’s totally opened my mind. It makes me feel like I don’t need to grow up and do things the traditional way.”

Before Mr. Balthrop came along, the Topanga Family used to be all female — except, of course, for Eli. It was known around town as the Hen House, and it originally started out of necessity. Ms. Evanguelidi is a single mother, and her career in helping to deliver babies means that she works odd hours, often at night. In 2012, she was scanning Craigslist, looking for a new place for her and Juno to live when she spotted her dream house: a Topanga single-family modern manse with a landlord asking for a rent of $5,500 per month. (The rent is now $7,500 per month.)

But then something very Los Angeles happened. She ran into a single mother of two she knew at the Whole Foods in Venice who was also looking for a new home and support. “It was fate,” Ms. Evanguelidi said.

By word of mouth, they soon added more single moms, and more children. At peak, there were four women and five kids under age 5. Once, a woman who was not a parent moved in, briefly. “She just didn’t get it,” Ms. Welch said. “She tried to label her food in the fridge, and we knew it wouldn’t work.” (This is not a kibbutz, it’s a “kidbutz.”)

The current configuration of residents took shape in 2013, when Ms. Welch arrived with Eli, who was then 1. During her pregnancy, she had been working as a sales manager at Bloomingdale’s and sleeping on a friend’s couch while taking nutrition courses through an online school. At a party, Ms. Welch met a friend of Ms. Evanguelidi’s who told her about the Topanga house. The women met, and it was an immediate fit.

In 2014, Mr. Balthrop, a programmer, was going through a divorce. His former wife had heard about this nearby house “with a bunch of parents,” as he said she described it to him, and urged him to check it out. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch invited him to dinner. The lease was awkwardly lying on the table, like the rose on the silver tray on “The Bachelorette.” At the end of the evening, he signed it — and he and Claire moved in soon thereafter.

Mr. Balthrop was the first man to live in the house with the Topanga Family. Eli and Juno, whose biological fathers live in other states, initially started calling him “Daddy.” Then the children’s fathers came to visit, and “Daddy” reverted “Justin.”

Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch were initially worried about adding a man to the family. “I didn’t want to ruin what we’d created,” Ms. Evanguelidi said. It was a rocky start. “Our first week, Juno busted in yelling, ‘This isn’t your room!’” Mr. Balthrop said. Then Ms. Evanguelidi threw out all his food that wasn’t organic. “I was like, uh, this might not work,” he said. But two years later, Claire and Juno are best friends, and Mr. Balthrop keeps a stash of Jif and YoCrunch with M&M’s in a minifridge in his room.

Last year, a second man moved in with his two daughters. “That totally changed the energy,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, especially because both she and Ms. Welch initially found him attractive. Within weeks, he and Ms. Welch hooked up. “We were just so connected musically,” she said.

Other rules of the house: In addition to no nonorganic food and no TV (Mr. Balthrop surreptitiously binge-watches “House of Cards” on his laptop), there is overnight guest etiquette. “Sometimes,” Ms. Welch said, “I’ll wake up to check on Eli and I’ll hear Aleks and Troy, and I’m like, ‘Aleks! You have to shut your door!’”

Everyone shares the rent, the car-pooling duties and the expensive Los Angeles County water bill. They also freely discipline one another’s children. “Every kid is fair game,” Ms. Welch said. For example, when her son, Eli, dumped all of Juno’s dresses off their hangers, Mr. Balthrop (the parent of neither child) took charge.

Household duties are split. Ms. Evanguelidi does the grocery shopping; Ms. Welch does the cooking (wild Alaskan salmon with quinoa one night, beef tacos with sautéed kale the next). “I eat way better than I did when I was married,” Mr. Balthrop said. He fixes the overworked washer-dryer and marches around with a fly swatter, stamping out the insects that hover around the compost bin and countertop bowls overflowing with yams, oranges and avocados.

On occasion, they try to take advantage of their unique living arrangement. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch recently registered as domestic partners on Eli’s kindergarten application to increase his chances at getting into Juno’s Waldorf-inspired school. “It’s not a lie!” Ms. Welch said. “We are domestic partners. We have been for the last four years.”

As in all serious relationships, though, there can be complications. There have been arguments over money, and issues of jealousy and secrecy. When Ms. Welch became involved with the man who had moved in for just a short time last year, she didn’t tell anyone for months. “One night, Aleks said to me, ‘I’m so happy neither of us would ever hook up with our housemates,’” Ms. Welch said. “And I was like, uh. …”

It was ultimately Grandma Abby who realized there was an entanglement. She mentioned this to Mr. Balthrop, who was unaware. Then the man revealed his and Ms. Welch’s indiscretion to Ms. Evanguelidi, and she and Ms. Welch talked it out. Everything went back to normal sometime after the man and his daughters, for a variety of reasons, moved out.

When the Topanga parents meet people, and share the details of their living arrangements, there are, inevitably, two questions, Ms. Evanguelidi said. One is whether there are any openings, and the second is whether the single adults date one another. The first answer is not currently. The second answer is not really. (Ms. Welch and Mr. Balthrop made out, but only once, they say. Now they are working together on a dating app they have created.)

The members of the Topanga Family aren’t looking for free love, but for friendship, support and freedom from parental convention. “The mundane pattern of work and dinner and putting the kids to bed,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, “it’s not my existence. The traditional family setup is just so passé.”

The Piano Man of Zuni Cafe

The six o’clock sun streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the long copper-topped bar and an oddity for a Thursday evening or any evening, really, at Zuni Café: a room full of empty tables.

Bob Carrau doesn’t seem to notice. He strolls in with his embroidered seat cushion under one arm and a tattered yellow Mexican market bag slung over the other, like he has twice a week, every week, for the last nine years. He nods hello to the hosts, whose names, he admits, he really should know by now, and heads downstairs, to Zuni’s underworld—where dishes are washed and ties are ironed and the staff shares big bowls of pasta—and grabs a small ceramic Mexican plate from his cubby: his tip plate.

Bob’s not hungry. He had a couple of carrots before he arrived, but otherwise, he never eats before he plays. He rarely sticks around to eat afterward either, unless friends come in. Doesn’t matter what plates pass by: the thick slices of levain with sea salt-sprinkled butter; the Caesar of all Caesars. Not even Zuni’s famed roasted chicken, nestled in warm bread salad, tempts. (As much as he likes it, he likes his partner Tony’s roast chicken more.)

Somehow, unlike everyone else in the restaurant, his mind isn’t on the food. It’s on his music.

For the next three hours, beneath “a flower arrangement Liberace could die for,” he’ll play a polished K. Kawai grand piano that’s stood there almost as long as the restaurant itself.

First, Bob opens his wallet. “Don’t tell anyone I’m doing this,” he says, and proceeds to do what everyone knows everyone with a tip jar—in Bob’s case, a tip plate—does: and feeds himself a five dollar bill.

Bob never wanted to play for tips! He wasn’t even sure he wanted to play for people. On an average night, he might pull in thirty bucks; fifty on a good night. Tonight—Game 1 of the NBA Finals for the Golden State Warriors—it’s so far looking slow.

“I’ve learned, how I play has no bearing on how much people tip,” he says laughing. “Depends on the night, their mood…” He could make a million mistakes, he says, and some big hitter might still slip him a twenty. Bob appreciates every penny, but he doesn’t play for the money. He can barely believe Zuni pays him at all.

“I guess that means I’m a professional?” He half-balks/half-marvels at the thought as he pulls what looks like forty pounds of spiral-bound jazz fake books out of his bag, some dating back decades.

From fifth grade through age fifty, playing piano was just a hobby for Bob. Something he did on his own, rarely if ever singing along, and always without fanfare. If there happened to be a piano at a friend’s house, he’d sneak off while everyone was making dinner. A performer, he was not, he promises. “I’d just see a piano and want to know what it would sound like.”

But the thing is: his friends thought it sounded pretty good.

And his friends owned restaurants. Like Alice Waters (whose speeches and books he sometimes cowrites, including her latest, Fanny in France, which comes out this fall.) And Gilbert Pilgram of Zuni, which had a piano in need of a player. So one rainy Monday afternoon in 2007, he invited Bob to come in and play a few tunes while he and Judy Rodgers worked on the books.

He doesn’t remember what he played, just how he felt playing. The acoustics were incredible. He gazes from the polished cement floors to the mile-high cathedral-like ceilings. “This room is just beautiful,” he says. “Especially when no one is in it.”

Tonight it’s just a few fellow regulars: a gray-haired woman in a trench coat sitting by herself. Another who gives him what he calls “the Princess Di wave” as she passes the piano. A bearded man in a blazer stops to give him a hearty hug, marveling at having his pick of tables. “Who knew the Zuni crowd were such Warriors fans?”

Bob agrees. The Zuni crowd used to be “gayer,” he says, chatting as his fingers flutter effortlessly over the keys to “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” a WWII tune he sneaks in every time. “The first night I ever played at Zuni, the U.S. had just sent more troops to Iraq, or somewhere, and I was just sitting at the piano, looking around the room, realizing how insulated we were from the world,” he says. “It’s my own silly little protest.”

Bob was a regular back when Zuni was a sliver of an American-Mexican place. Before Judy Rogers took over in 1987, installed the brick oven, expanded, and turned Zuni Café into the iconic restaurant it is today.

There was always a piano, he recalls. “This one old guy from the Fillmore would play the blues and I’d just stare at his fingers, at how fast they could move.” Like I now sit and stare at his.

“Zuni was the kind of place you’d come to cruise,” Bob reminisced. In his thirties, he’d drop by around 11 p.m., hoping to maybe meet someone. “I never did,” he says laughing. “But it felt like you could.”

Now a graying fifty-eight year old in a twenty-year relationship, Bob’s certainly not here to meet men. He’s here to play. And people watch. “I’m a voyeur,” he says. “This gig allows me to be out in public, without, you know, really going out.” Originally a gofer-turned-screenwriter for Lucasfilm (he actually wrote his first script with George), he can’t help but watch the well-coiffed gaggles slurping Fanny Bays and sipping fresh lime margaritas and wonder who they are, where they’ve been, why they’re here.

He barely chats to anyone save the bartender, who pours him a single snifter of mezcal halfway through his set, or the server who always snaps as he strolls past. “That’s how I can tell the music is getting through,” says Bob. “Sometimes I think I sound great. Sometimes I think I sound like a guy on a cruise ship.”

Hardly, says Gilbert, who appreciates the warmth and intimacy that live music adds to a restaurant, a rarity in this age of piped-in playlists. “What I love about Bob is he’s not your typical lounge player. You’ll never catch him playing “New York, New York.” He has standards.”

He’s Zuni’s “regular celebrity,” according to Gilbert. To Bob’s mind, he’s pure background. “People don’t pay attention to me,” he says. “It’s okay.”

Once, though, Michael Tilson Thomas cruised through and gave him a thumbs-up. That felt good. A few years ago, Hillary Clinton came in, with a friend of his who asked her if she had any requests. She suggested “Moon River,” then ordered a Manhattan. But her friend urged her to try Zuni’s margarita. “‘Oh, I’ll just have both,’ she said!” Bob recounts. “Wait, maybe don’t print that. She’s trying to get elected president of the United States!” (Oh c’mon, if Gerald Ford liked his lunchtime martinis and Teddy Roosevelt drank mint juleps and even President Obama puts back an occasional pint, there’s no harm in Hillary Clinton double-fisting a couple of cocktails is there?)

Bob flips the pages of his fake book. He has no premeditated lineup. “I let the room tell me what to play,” he says, and launches into a riff of “Have You Met Miss Jones?”

Time for his break.

He rises and wanders out the side door, onto Market Street. “This stretch used to be scarier, all addicts and homeless,” he says, strolling a few doors down to his “office,” an entrance to a mattress shop and a respite from San Francisco’s wintry summer wind. He points to a shiny tech bus and the sleek new sushi spot across the street. A woman jogs by, as does a man pushing a baby stroller, then two matching hoodies. “You never used to see any of these people here—or if you did, they were lost.”

An almost forty-year-old restaurant with a wall of windows exposes more than just the waning evening light. Somehow, though, because this is Zuni, the changing city remains beyond the glass.

The clock strikes nine and a few Warriors’ revelers start to trickle in. Bob packs up his music, closes the lid on his borrowed piano, and slips the sole fiver back into his wallet. Time to head home. Perhaps Tony’s roasted a chicken.

Pass the Pork Belly, and the Joint

SAN FRANCISCO — On a dark corner here in the Mission District on March 31, the doors opened at 7 p.m. for an under-the-radar pop-up dinner. Stationed at the entrance was a man who meticulously carded each of the 60 guests, even two with white hair.

Inside the bar, long tables were set with wineglasses, place cards and something you don’t see much of anymore: ashtrays.

Soon after the party began, smoke wafted through the chandelier-lit room. Servers passed kimchi mini-pancakes prepared by the evening’s chef, Robin Song, of the Mission’s popular ham-and-oyster bar, Hog & Rocks.

A university professor who arrived a little late slid into his seat, saying, “You know, you can smell this place from across the street.”

The dinner was the third iteration of the Luck Pot, a series of get-togethers intended for adult users of marijuana, sponsored in part by a rotating group of medical-cannabis companies based in Northern California. To get in, guests have to present a state-authorized medical-marijuana identification card, made possible by a program established in 1996 by theCalifornia Department of Public Health.

The Luck Pot was started by two 30-something friends who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the hazy legal status surrounding the cannabis industry. (This, despite the fact that the event itself appears to be legal in California: The city’s public health department treats a private party at a public place as if it were in a private home, so medical cannabis at such an event would be fine, according to Nancy Sarieh, a spokeswoman for the city’s public health department; Robert Raich, a lawyer who specializes in medical-cannibas law, concurred.)

That night, a woman in a polka-dot dress welcomed guests with what looked like bar snacks: glazed pecans, pretzels, chile-lime peanuts. Unlike the usual nibbles, each came with a suggested dose. “These are what we call our ‘everyday edibles,’ ” said Lauren Fraser, a 29-year-old former mutual-funds manager and now the president of the Oakland-based Auntie Dolores, a company that specializes in cannabis-laced foodstuffs.

Mandi Bateman, a 38-year-old pony-tailed Pilates teacher who had driven in from Sausalito, Calif., seemed uneasy. “I guess I still have that lingering fear you could get arrested for smoking pot,” she said. Getting high with a bunch of strangers was not her main motivation for attending this night. “I thought I might meet some hot men,” Ms. Bateman said. “But then I realized, wait, I don’t want to date a stoner.”

Her odds were decent. The male-to-female ratio was roughly two-to-one, and this was hardly a scruffy “Dazed and Confused” kind of crowd. Tickets were $120 each, and among those in attendance were software engineers, organic chemists, lawyers, authors, Stanford M.B.A.s and tech types from Google, Pandora and Salesforce.

Also in attendance were several “potrepreneurs,” who seemed poised for 2016, when marijuana is expected to become legal in California. Among them was a co-sponsor, Mike Ray, 35, a former Wall Street trader who is now the director at Bloom Farms. Asked about the differences between finance and the nascent pot industry, Mr. Ray said, “The people are much nicer” in the latter.

For Arianne Simone, 28, a Reiki master with a perfectly coifed Afro, the evening was a total surprise. “My boyfriend said, ‘We’re going to a dinner tonight with lots of weed,’ and I was, like: ‘Yea! Yea! Yea!’ ” Scott Samuelson, 42, a commercial television producer, said that he was there for the food. “I’d heard it was the Korean pop-up,” he said. “The pot was just a bonus.”

One of the Luck Pot’s co-hosts, clad in a blazer, welcomed people to their seats. “On your tables is the first of three joints,” he said, acting as a kind of pot sommelier. “Tonight we’re showcasing flower grown by a Sonoma collective of 10 farmers with a total of 150 years’ combined experience in artisanal indoor crops.”

A professionally rolled fatty lay in each ashtray. The first joint of the evening was a strain called Girl Scout Cookies. “It’s an indica-sativa mix, 59 days flowering,” he said. “You’ll taste sweet evergreen with light hints of pepper-spiciness.” He touched on an aspect that wine sommeliers do not discuss, the effect. “This should make you feel focused and relaxed,” he said. “A little heavy-headed. So spark up. Eat. Enjoy.”

As people wrapped pork belly in lettuce cups and blew puffs of smoke, they were asked to sum themselves up in four words. “Kyle,” the Reiki master’s boyfriend said. “I like Afros.” “Justin,” another man said. “I hate cancer.” “Husband home with kids,” said Celine Schafer, a 37-year-old mother of three.

The talk turned to how, exactly, they had procured their medical-marijuana cards. “I told the Skype doctor I had trouble sleeping,” Ms. Schafer said. “He told me to ‘hit the vape.’ ”

“Everyone says, ‘I have insomnia, I have anxiety,’ ” griped Andrew Bock, 34. “I’m like, ‘I have Crohn’s, I’m legit!’ ” The chitchat covered standard topics: bad UberPool experiences, soaring housing costs, the Bay Area versus New York. “I was miserable in Manhattan,” said the good-looking Mr. Bock, who was seated across from Ms. Bateman. Her glassy eyes widened when he said he lived in Sausalito, too. “I’m a block from the beach, I drive an electric carand I just bought a paddleboard,” he said, mocking himself as the California cliché.

“Please pass the joint,” the professor said, as if it were the pepper.

It was heartening to see that, even in these Purell-crazed times, people are willing to share joints.

The man named Justin didn’t want to give his last name, out of fear that he could get into trouble because, he said, he grows marijuana in the house he rents and sells it for recreational use, paying his unwitting 94-year-old landlord in cash. But in this smoky space, his career choice was not something he had to keep secret.

Michael Koch, 38, a father of two and the owner of an online advertising agency, spoke more openly. “I was an indica guy in college, when I’d just lie around,” he said. “But now that I have a job and kids and responsibilities, I smoke sativa. It works for me.” (Indica marijuana tends to have a calming, sedative effect on the user, while sativa is more uplifting and energetic.)

The servers began whisking away the plates. A panic set in. “Wait, is that it?” one guest asked. “There’s got to be more food,” the professor said. “It’s a pot dinner.”

People rejoiced when the second course arrived: a potato stew with pork neck and a joint made with a strain called Fire OG. “Twenty-one percent THC,” the co-host said. “It’s sweet and earthy, slightly woodsy. This’ll give you a mental uplift and a full body mellow.”

Perhaps too mellow. Suddenly, a chair toppled over. “Woman down!” someone yelled. Three guys helped the laughing lady to her feet. As dinner progressed, conversation regressed. “My grandmother used to use these for cashews,” said Mr. Bock, gesturing toward a glass-ridged ashtray.

“My grandma put al-monds in hers,” someone else said, pronouncing the first syllable so that it rhymed with “pal.” “It’s ahhl-mond,” Ms. Schafer chimed in. A number of guests began to chirp the word “almond” over and over again, and the table broke into hysterics.

Accompanying the third course was Holy Grail, the final pot of the night and the strongest. The co-host walked around with a Ziploc bag, distributing. “Does everyone have a joint that wants one?” he asked, like a preschool teacher passing out snacks. “Oh, my God, there’s actually too much pot,” Mr. Koch said, pointing to several half-smoked joints still in the ashtray. Ms. Schafer smiled and tucked one into her purse. “For my husband,” she said.

The Talk of the Town: Mom Friends

Two mothers from Montclair, New Jersey, piled into a black Volvo on a recent rainy evening and drove forty-five minutes to a lonely street in Gowanus. “It’s a good night for being inside making friends, right?” Hillary Frank (mother of Sasha, four and a half) said to her friend, Natalie Chitwood (Freddy, five; Wynn, two), as they unloaded goody bags containing sweet-potato-and-pumpkin baby food.

Frank, the host of the WNYC parenting podcast “The Longest
Shortest Time,”was worried that the weather might keep women
from leaving their plastic-toy-strewn homes for the Bell House, a club
where she was holding her first live event,“Speed Dating for Mom
Friends.” The twenty-five-dollar admission included a cocktail,
snacks, and plenty of promising new adult playdates. Sixty moms had
signed up.“We have someone driving in from Pittsburgh!” Frank said,
picking raisins out of her purse.

Billed as a “3 A.M. bedside companion for parents,” Frank’s biweekly
podcast covers such themes as “What Does Your Breast Pump Say to
You?” and “A Parents’ Guide to Eating Over the Sink.” “Over and
over,I hear, ‘It’s hard to make mom friends,’ ”she said.“It’s such a vulnerable time. You’re suddenly in charge of this person, and youdon’t want to screw it up. You need support.” She and Chitwood met four years ago, at mommy-and-me yoga. “It was love at first sight,” Frank said. Tonight, she was hoping to help her fellow-moms find the same thing.

At seven o’clock, the doors opened. Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love
You” blasted, and new mothers from such places as East Harlem and
Williamsburg wandered in and scribbled nametags.“I’d like to meet
someone from the senior set,” Allison B. (Oliver, thirteen months), a
personal stylist, said.“I’m forty-three, and there aren’t a lot of us.”

Standing solo by the bar was Jennifer M. (Henry, six months), a stayat-home
mom from Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “If I see someone
breast-feeding at the park,I think, Oh, good, she’s not a nanny,”she
said.“Sometimes I meet someone who seems O.K., but then she
starts badmouthing vaccines and I’m, like, Red flag!”

“How many times a day do you want to throw your kid out the
window?” Kathryn M. (Julian, three years) asked a young woman who
was sipping water. The woman looked petrified.“I’m only ten weeks
pregnant,”she replied. She looked around.“Am I the only one?”

Soon, everyone had settled around card tables. Beth Pappas, a
professional speed-dating host, who had on black stilettos and a
spaghetti-strap top, took the stage. “Ladies, listen carefully,”she said.
“Interior row stays seated, exterior row rotates.” She banged a butter
knife against a gong.“Go!”

The room erupted with the sound of women talking.

“I have four children, and I don’t work,” Chana M., an Orthodox Jew
with red lipstick, told her tablemate. “Wow, you must be busy,”
Allison B., the personal stylist, politely responded. Chana M.ontinued, “Most women in my community have three to six kids and
work.I feel like an underachiever.” Probably not a match.

Gong!

Susan F. (unnamed kids, ten and thirteen) slid in across from Lee I.
(Mavis, three), who was wearing a floppy red hat. Susan F. confessed
that she is the founder of Park Slope Parents, and that if moms
needed to speed-date maybe she wasn’t doing her job.“So what’s your
story?”she asked. Lee I., an environmental planner with the mayor’s
office, brought up her daughter’s love of singing. “No,I don’t want to
know about that,” Susan F. interrupted.“I want to know about you.
You’re so much more than your daughter.”

Gong!

Afterward, the mothers were invited to “grab your new best friend for
a picture in the couples photo booth!” Two women who’d bonded over
the Cry It Out philosophy jumped in front of the sequinned photo
backdrop. Others hit the bar for another round of Long Island Iced
Teas. Kristine A. (Eva, two months) was tired.“It was nice to meet
you,”she said to her tablemate. “I’ve got to go home and feed my
baby.” ♦

‘My West Coast Martha’s Vineyard’

That first time I walked through the grassy dunes of Point Reyes National Seashore, back in 1997, it felt familiar. On this stretch of California sand, I’d found the West Coast doppelgänger of Gay Head, on the southwestern point of Martha’s Vineyard, from where I’d recently moved. Though it was summer, I was wearing a fleece, and the sandstone cliffs of Limantour Beach were shrouded in fog. But the echoes of the Vineyard in Point Reyes were immediately clear: a rugged, relatively remote refuge with salty air, fresh fish and a strong sense of place.

The differences, though, soon became evident. At Point Reyes, there was no mugginess or mosquitoes. No ferry lines or frozen mudslides. No tennis whites or Nantucket reds. No crowds. It was my West Coast Martha’s Vineyard, I decided one recent weekend while sitting solo on a hay bale in the sun eating a grass-fed goat burger, only better.

On the Point Reyes peninsula, a winding hour-and-a-half drive north of San Francisco, friends and I have hiked for miles and kayaked with harbor seals; we’ve pitched tents on pocket beaches and shucked oysters at ramshackle farms. And come fall, when the weather warms and the (slightly less chilly) water beckons, we even swim.

Point Reyes also has more Holsteins, herons and herds of tule elk than humans; locals live in a handful of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-type of towns: Olema, the tiny gateway, at the well-trodden intersection of Highway 1 and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard; Inverness, on Tomales Bay, with its own bare-bones yacht club founded in 1912; Marshall, which draws oyster-slurping day-trippers, with six-packs and sauvignon blanc in tow; nearby Bolinas, notoriously unfriendly to outsiders.

With a bookstore, a bakery beloved by cyclists and a feed barn that doubles as a yoga studio, Point Reyes Station (population 848) is the metropolis of West Marin, what the locals call their rich agricultural region, home to organic dairy farms, sustainable grass-fed cattle ranches — and 70,000 protected acres of pine forests and coastal prairie.

The original plan, promoters said, was to turn it into “a Jones Beach on the Pacific,” before John F. Kennedy, urged by a group of local conservationists, declared it a national seashore in 1962: 80 miles of shoreline forever free of condos and golf courses, cabanas and cotton candy stands.

Still, at 51, the Point Reyes National Seashore remains every pastoral cliché: cow country, birder’s paradise, heaven for hikers. Now add to that list foodie destination, as local restaurants are finally on par with the local ingredients. “West Marin is one of the most vibrant local food sheds in the world,” said the writer Michael Pollan, a friend to its tight-knit group of farmers, ranchers and cheesemakers. Alice Waters recently told me it’s where she wishes Chez Panisse could be.

In February, Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong, two friends of Ms. Waters, opened a restaurant, Sir and Star at the Olema, which is as committed to using ingredients farmed/foraged/fished “within arm’s reach,” to use Ms. Grade’s phrase, as was their famed Manka’s Inverness Lodge, before it burned to the ground in 2006. Now, instead of committing to Manka’s seven-course prix fixe feasts, hiking-boot-clad diners pop by for homey dishes like Dave’s Beef, Cooked Around the Clock — or, on a Saturday night, wait so long for a table that the supply of homemade dinner rolls runs dry.

Dave Evans (of the aforementioned beef), a fourth-generation rancher and owner of Marin Sun Farms, is thrilled that the culinary scene here is thriving. “It was always ‘barbecue oysters with the same sauce,’ ” Mr. Evans said. “Now it’s, like, ‘artisanal oysters, in a brown butter shallot sauce’ — and three other ways.”

Not everyone, of course, is thrilled with change coming to an area meant to remain unchanged. “Point Reyes Station used to be a country town,” said Barbara McClellan, owner for the last 38 years of the novelty shop Lil Bit of a Lot o’ Things. “Not anymore,” she lamented, surrounded by gag gifts like phony hickeys, dusty Christmas decorations and “Everything Must Go!” signs. Her store will become a wine shop when Osteria Stellina, the farm-to-table trattoria next door, expands next month.

As Dan Morrissey, the third owner of the 100-year-old barbershop down the block, bluntly put it: “All the old people here are dying, and the yuppies are moving in.” Real estate prices have jumped roughly 20 percent in the last few years, according to brokers.

All of which is why my husband, Josh, and I like to rent a place and pretend we’re locals. In May, we stayed at our favorite little guest cottage, found on the rental site VRBO.com — up on a ridge, with views of forested Mount Vision and the occasional osprey.

Another plus for rentals: sometimes the owner becomes a guide. Ours led us on a walk through “the secret trails of Inverness,” as he called it — a woodsy labyrinth of easements blazed in the late 1800s.

Through unlocked gates of rustic homes passed down through generations, I was introduced to a frail former judge who is building a chicken coop in his backyard, which has sweeping bay views, and a 50-something environmentalist who supplies his friends with fresh-caught salmon.

The next day, we explored the area’s oyster farms. We joined a beekeeping couple from Kansas City who stopped on their drive up Highway 1, specifically for the Oyster Lover’s Tour with new West Marin Food & Farm Tours. Elizabeth Hill, whose grandparents and great-grandparents summered in Inverness, recently moved here full-time herself, to start a series of small-group culinary excursions. It’s the first of its kind in a place that typically eschews anything oriented toward tourists. “I overheard a woman complaining the other day about ‘some new tour company,’ ” Ms. Hill said. “ ‘Oh, it’s O.K.,’ ” she recounted the woman’s friend saying. “ ‘It’s Norma Wells’s granddaughter.’ ”

Stuffed on briny oysters and a picnic lunch of pastrami, bread, blue cheese and chutney (all locally made and obtained at various area shops), Josh and I mourned the fact that there was no time for our favorite 10-mile trek through the tule elk preserve at Tomales Point. Maybe a bioluminescence paddle on the bay tonight instead, we decided.

That evening, en route to the bay, though, we spied a trail winding through a lush meadow and pulled over. The air was warm and still, and we were joined only by munching cows. Then, suddenly, a great blue heron swooped down to grab a gopher. Getting hungry, too, we turned the car around.

Sunday at Sir and Star is much mellower, a locals’ affair. “You’re back,” our server said with a smile, as we slid into a table by a window.

Did we really just skip kayaking under the stars for dinner rolls? But then they arrived: six still-warm, pull-apart buns, with a mound of butter churned with local cream and whipped with West Marin honey. The butter was so good that when the bread is gone, I went for my spoon.

IF YOU GO

Where to Stay

For lodging, the home rental site VRBO.com is the way to go. Though rental rates are rising, what you’d pay for a summer week in Martha’s Vineyard could buy an entire month in Inverness. Accommodations can range from a one-bedroom renovated chicken coop to a waterfront cottage to a modern house with a living roof and lap pool.

Tucked in the trees across the bay, Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong run the scattering of cabins at Manka’s Inverness Lodge (30 Callendar Way, Inverness; 415-669-1034; mankas.com; from $215) with fireside dinners on Fridays and Sundays and homemade sticky buns and yogurt delivered daily.

The remote Point Reyes Hostel (1390 Limantour Spit Road, Point Reyes; 415-663-8811; norcalhostels.org/reyes; $24 to $120) has 56 beds, and a new wing with private rooms.

In Marshall, the cluster of well-appointed cottages at Nick’s Cove (23240 Highway 1, Marshall; 415-663-1033; nickscove.com; from $229, two-night minimum) are somewhat overpriced for being on such a busy stretch, but those on stilts — like the ones called Ruthie’s and Al’s ($399) — directly above the bay are worth it. Dogs are welcome, too.

Where to Eat

Sir and Star at the Olema (10000 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard; 415-663-1034; sirandstar.com) is worth the drive, but six guest rooms will open by the holidays ($200 a night).

The convivial Saltwater Oyster Depot (12781 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Inverness; 415-669-1244; saltwateroysterdepot.com) serves sustainable and local fare. Be ready for a wait. Other oyster spots include Tomales Bay Oyster Company (tomalesbayoysters.com; reservations recommended) and Hog Island Oyster Company (hogislandoysters.com).

Picnic provisions from Cowgirl Creamery at Tomales Bay Foods (80 Fourth Street, Point Reyes Station; 415-663-9335; cowgirlcreamery.com) can cost you $60 — but it’s delicious.

What to Do

West Marin Food & Farm Tours (foodandfarmtours.com; $152 per person) is a terrific way to get to a taste of the sprawling agricultural area.

Bring your own kayak or rent from Blue Waters Kayaking (415-669-2600; bwkayak.com) with locations in Inverness and Marshall. It also runs guided sunset, bioluminescence and full-moon paddles.

 

The Road Goes on Forever

IT’S THE WELCOME BASKET that overwhelms him. Not the idyllic grounds or gardens or the fact that—for the first time in two years—Charlie Engle has his own room, with his own bath. Long deprived of fresh fruit, he beelines toward the bamboo bowl brimming with organic apples and Asian pears, just plucked from the surrounding orchards. Then, gazing out the sunlit window (a window!), he polishes off every piece. “I didn’t even know what I was eating! I just grabbed these weird brown things!” he says, laughing. “In prison I never ate something I couldn’t identify.”

I meet Charlie on a chilly morning last September at a manicured farm in Mendocino County, just a few weeks into his newfound freedom from West Virginia’s Beckley Federal Correctional Institute. He has been flown out to Northern California for the Do Lectures (think TED with olive oil and wine tastings), where he’ll lead morning runs through the grapevines and give an inspirational talk to a barn full of people in Patagonia puffies. It’s a chance to tell his new story, to see if the audience will accept him. Plus, it’s his 50th birthday, and wine country isn’t a bad place to spend it.

At seven this morning, he led a dozen of us on a six-mile run, but it’s not until he later hops up on the small Do Lecture stage that we learn the full extent of Charlie’s ultra-running, Hollywood-worthy past. For once, he kept his life’s details close to his dry-wick tee. “I thought my talk would be more impactful that way,” he says.

He was right. Turns out, as he tells the 100-person crowd in a 25-minute presentation, it was running that helped Charlie overcome a decade-long addiction to alcohol and drugs in his twenties. He went from doing crackand doing marathons—often days, sometimes mere minutes, apart—to getting sober and winning elite ultrarunning endurance races around the world, including a 155-mile run across China’s Gobi Desert in 2003 and a 135-mile jaunt through the Amazon jungle in 2004. In 2007, he and two other ultrarunners covered 45 miles a day, for 111 consecutive days, to cross the Sahara.

Charlie, who had previously freelanced as a cameraman and producer for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, dreamed up the idea for the expedition with ultrarunner Ray Zahab and approached Academy Award–winning director James Moll about making a documentary called Running the Sahara. Moll brought on Matt Damon as narrator and executive producer, and Damon’s production company secured the film’s sponsors, including Magellan Navigation, Toyota, and Gatorade. The project raised $6 million for the charity Damon cofounded with Charlie and others, H2O Africa, which brings clean water to communities in Africa.

The film, both gritty and moving, earned Charlie a new level of recognition, and sponsorships poured in, from Newton Running, Balega socks, and AXA Equitable. He signed on with an agent at William Morris, who secured corporate speaking engagements with fees as high as fifteen grand. Suddenly, Charlie had turned his two legs into a full-time, income-generating career.

The second film he appeared in, Running America, about his attempt to set a new cross-country speed record with ultrarunner Marshall Ulrich, premiered in May 2010, in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, to a packed theater. “Best day of my life,” Charlie says. Less than 24 hours later, he was arrested for mortgage fraud.

In the spring of 2009, Greensboro IRS special agent Robert Nordlander became aware of Engle after reading about Running the Sahara in the local papers and wondered how he had time to make a living with all that training. He opened an investigation after noticing that Charlie hadn’t filed taxes for two years. When Nordlander found no wrongdoing on the returns he persisted, ultimately sending in an undercover female agent. While wearing a wire over lunch, she recorded Charlie saying: “I had a couple of good liar loans out there, you know, which my mortgage broker didn’t mind writing down, you know, that I was making $400,000 a year when he knew I wasn’t.”

The case went to trial in September 2010 in a federal court in Virginia, where Charlie owned a couple of properties. The jury eventually found him guilty of mortgage fraud (broadly defined as intentionally falsifying or omitting information on a mortgage application to obtain a loan). The prosecution pushed for four years’ imprisonment, but Judge Jerome Friedman considered Charlie’s clean record, his charity work, and the 120 letters of support he received and gave him 21 months instead.

The prosecutors maintain that the case was quite clear. “Mr. Engle was convicted by a jury of fraudulently obtaining more than $1 million in four mortgage loans on two properties, pulling out nearly $150,000 in equity, and then allowing the properties to go into foreclosure,” says Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Still, hundreds of thousands of borrowers and brokers used liar loans—otherwise known as stated-income loans, which did not require a lender to verify a borrower’s annual income—during the housing boom, and Charlie remains baffled as to why he was targeted. “Twenty-one months for allegedly over-stating your income on a loan application?” he says. “It’s frigging ridiculous! What sort of prison tattoo am I supposed to get? A fountain pen?”

Indeed, several prominent journalists took up the case while he was in prison, pointing out the lack of prosecutions aimed at big-fish bankers who were driving forces in the housing bubble and crash. “It’s not just that Mr. Engle is the smallest of small fry that is bothersome. It is also the way the government went about building its case,” wrote New York Times columnist Joe Nocera in one of two columns he devoted to Charlie. “The more I looked into it, the more I came to believe that the case against him was seriously weak. As for that ‘confession’ … It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.”

Charlie has always said that he didn’t fill out the loan document, and he maintains his innocence. Though motions for a new trial were denied in late January, he says he will persevere and intends to appeal until the felony is cleared from his record.

Meanwhile, whatever the merits of the case, Charlie served his time, and now he’s out. He’s back to dreaming big, planning another epic adventure: to run, bike, and kayak from the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, to the highest, the Himalayas, where he’ll climb to the top of Mount Everest.

He’s also jobless, facing five years of probation, and staring at a $262,500 court-ordered debt to the bank. “Which basically guarantees real poverty,” he says. “I just want my life back. The one they took from me. My biggest fear—my only fear— is that I won’t be able to live my life the way I want to.

BACK IN THE BARN, the Do crowd is riveted, including fellow speaker Cheryl Strayed, author ofWild, one of the 153 books Charlie read in prison. “You ran 4,400 miles across the Sahara?” she exclaims. “I only walked 1,100!” Charlie, who is writing a memoir, later says to me, only half-joking, “I was like, if she can write a bestseller about a hike…” The weekend was the jump-start he needed. Not every just-sprung ex-con gets a standing ovation.

But two months later, when Charlie returns to California from his home in Greensboro, post-prison reality has set in. We meet up in San Francisco. He looks older, paler, more human than superhero. He’s doing contract work for Hawkeye, a company that sets up urban obstacle-race courses and has 72 rainy hours of hard manual labor and sleepless nights ahead. Still, he’s grateful for the temporary gig. He’ll make about $2,000, plus get a shared room at the Radisson and free pizza.

At six feet tall and 175 pounds, Charlie is bigger than most distance runners. With blue eyes and a goofy grin, veiny temples, and graying, thinning hair, he looks a little like Don Knotts, but with more muscle tone. “From the neck down, he could be 18 years old,” says his friend Greg Clark, who has known him since he actually was. He says “aww” when he drives past road kill and taught his two sons (now 18 and 21) to greet people with hugs, not handshakes.

Sipping a triple-shot mocha, Charlie starts in on his life story. He got married in 1987, the day before his 25th birthday, to Pam Smith, a woman he’d spent a total of ten days with. They bounced around, from California to Georgia, where their first son, Brett, was born, in 1992, and settled in Greensboro, where their second son, Kevin, was born, in 1994. Pam and Charlie divorced in 2002 but remain close. They live minutes from each other in Greensboro, the sons with their mother.

On February 14, 2011, when Charlie entered Beckley, a fence-free minimum-security facility, guards ripped his sons from his arms, stripped the clothes off his back, and tossed him regulation greens and steel-toed leather boots. He got good advice early on, from an inmate named Block. “ ‘Do your time,’ he said, ‘don’t let your time do you,’ ” Charlie recalls.

He took it to heart. What he accomplished with a pair of Nike castoffs from the commissary and a quarter-mile gravel track is pretty impressive.

For starters: 135 miles. If he couldn’t make it to Badwater that year, he’d bring the famed Death Valley ultramarathon to him.

So at 6 a.m. on July 11, 2011, on his own, Charlie ran. Around and around the basketball courts on the quarter-mile path. There was no cheering on the sidelines. No support crew, save the guy he asked to toss him a Snickers.

He marked each mile with a stone: 81 the first day, 54 the next. He was back in his cell by the 4 p.m. count. A prisoner still—but 540 laps later, the length of the race done.

When he wasn’t running or cleaning the pool hall, his assigned prison job, he’d devour old copies ofVanity Fair or respond to the hundreds of letters he received—from recovering addicts, inspired runners, supporters he’d never met. Or he’d be in the library, poring over a world atlas, charting his route from the Dead Sea to Everest.

At first, no one was quite sure what to make of him, the guy running in the rec yard every day, doing downward dog, trading cafeteria meat for fruit, corralling signatures to get almonds onto the commissary list. “These guys call me crazy and maybe I really am,” he wrote in his journal. “It’s a label I can live with in here … my crazy label has drawn a lot of guys to me.”

One by one, inmates began approaching Charlie, tentatively jogging beside him and asking fitness advice (“If I jiggle my fat on purpose while I’m running, will that help me burn it off faster?”) and nutrition questions (“How many laps around the track equals a doughnut?”). Soon he amassed a ragtag workout group: Block, Butter Bean, Bootsy, Dave the pot dealer, Casey the meth manufacturer, Howell, in for a white-collar crime, and Adam, a six-foot-five 430-pounder who huffed and puffed his way to the cafeteria.

They met every afternoon. They’d run, do speed intervals, and lift rocks. Charlie’s coaching style was more lead-by-example than Jillian Michaels. “I’m not really a you-can-do-it type of guy,” he says. “I’m more like: if what I do inspires you, if you see something in that, then good for you.”

This unlikely crew saw something. “It was the darnedest thing,” recalls Casey by phone after his release, describing how he lost 20 pounds and worked his way up to five miles a day. “Charlie’d tell you entire stories while you ran. He’d just carry you around the track, know what I mean?”

Fifty-nine-year-old Howell got down to 7:30 miles and started running half-marathon lengths at Beckley. But it was Adam who had the most impressive turnaround. By December, he’d lost 180 pounds and went from a 46-inch waist to a 36. In a six-page letter to me from prison, Adam shares his first impression of Charlie. “I’d started walking and was complaining about blisters,” he writes, explaining how he thought he’d never be able to get size 14EEEE sneakers from the commissary. But “that afternoon, Charlie shows up in my cell. He went through the trouble of finding shoes for the morbidly obese guy he didn’t know.”

On August 8, 2012, Adam ran ten miles for the first time. “This is for Charlie,” he said of his friend, who’d left prison for the halfway house in June.

CHARLIE ACTUALLY started off on the right path in high school, in Southern Pines, North Carolina. He was at the top of his class, student-body president, a star at every sport he tried, including track—like his grand-father, who coached at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 40 years. But when Charlie got to UNC himself in 1980, he realized that he wasn’t exceptional at anything but alcohol. It was the early eighties, and cocaine was as common as kegs; by his junior year, he’d lost control of his addiction. His father, who divorced his mother in 1964, pulled him out of school and got him a job flipping burgers at a Wendy’s in Seattle, where he lived at the time.

Charlie spent the next decade moving around, going from cocaine to crack, and waffling between bingeing and achieving. One day he was the best salesman at Bally Fitness in Atlanta, Georgia; the next he was borrowing drug money from the Baskin-Robbins register he manned in Monterey, California. He became a top Toyota salesman, until he got fired for not showing up. He found a new niche in the auto industry, paintless dent repair, and started a company that chased hailstorms around the U.S. Suddenly, he was earning more money than he’d ever made. And spending it on more crack than he’d ever smoked.

His binges lasted anywhere from two days to two months and typically involved motel rooms, random women, and thousands of dollars of crack, which he’d smoke in three hours. Then repeat. His lowest moments came when he’d wake up strung out on some sidewalk—and see joggers’ legs going by.

So he did what he presumed no drug addict could possibly do: he laced up and started running marathons. His first was at age 26, in Big Sur, California, in 1989. The next year he ran Napa (March 10), then Boston (April 15), then Big Sur (April 21) again. He’d binge, then race, binge, then race. “I could say, ‘I just ran a 3:07. What’d you do this weekend?’ ” he recalls. He found sobriety in 1992, two months after the birth of his first son, Brett, when a weeklong crack spree in Wichita ended with a narrow escape and three bullet holes in his 4Runner. He went to three AA meetings that day, and the day after, and he attended a meeting at least once every single day for the following year. After ten years of addiction, what changed in Wichita? “All I can say is, I had a son, and I finally decided to choose life over death,” Charlie says.

Four years later, he’d done 30 marathons—and won his first ultra, a 100-miler in Australia. By the turn of the century he was on top of the world, competing all over it.

LAST DECEMBER, I visited Charlie in Greensboro. He’s living rent-free in a house in the suburbs with a friend who has an extra bedroom. Strewn with AA and Buddhist books, his old polyester greens and tattered Nikes, it looks like he’s barely unpacked from prison.

He’s wearing a gray shirt printed with the words BELIEVE+ACHIEVE in white. “I almost called to say don’t come,” he says. “I’m not in a good place. I’m too depressed. I hate it. It’s not me.”

We head outside to Greensboro’s network of wooded trails and he vents: “No one cares. No one gives a shit about me unless I’m doing something interesting.”

His cell phone rings midrun. It’s his 18-year-old son, Kevin. Doesn’t matter who it is—kids, potential job leads, probation officer, former girlfriends—he always picks up. They make dinner plans. “Bye, love you buddy,” he says.

“I’d love to do Badwater with my boys someday,” he says. Though Dead Sea to Everest is his top priority right now, Charlie has a zillion big ideas brewing. “Iceland would be really cool.” He also wants to take another shot at running across America. He wasn’t able to complete the first run due to a staph infection. (Marshall Ulrich pulled off the third-fastest crossing, completing it in 52 days.) “The women’s time is actually pretty soft,” he says. “I could find someone to do it with me. We’d go after both records.” And, of course, film it.

Eight miles later, his mood has mildly improved.

But he’s got a long way to go before recovering financially. He has no savings and is scraping together a living by working for a friend’s paintless dent repair business and with various freelance projects, like the contract work for Hawkeye. All of his sponsors dropped him after his conviction, as did H2O Africa (now known as Water.org), where he was a board member. Though he has given rousing free talks at his old UNC fraternity and the local Kiwanis club, he’s waiting to reenter the speaking circuit until he has something more positive to say. “People want a comeback story,” he says. “I haven’t come back from shit yet.”

Still, he’s constantly working all kinds of deals from his de facto office, the sofa. iPad propped on his knees and iPhone at the ready, he fields phone calls, e-mails, texts. Ding! A producer potentially interested in a reality-TV series he’s pitching called Time Served, about helping former inmates find their footing. Bark! A warden from a women’s prison in Tennessee inviting him to come speak. Ring!An AP reporter asking to film him at the Krispie Kreme Challenge, in Raleigh—which requires running 2.5 miles, eating a dozen doughnuts, then running back—for French television. Sure, agrees Charlie. He’s up for anything right now. As Kevin says over dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, “We wish he was a normal dad, but he’s not.”

To get fit, Charlie runs “as much as is humanly possible” and works out at his gym. He occasionally goes to Bikram yoga and sees his chiropractor (who never makes him pay). He admits that his body isn’t in shape for the Brazil 135, which his probation officer just green-lighted and is coming up in four weeks. “Prison, the stress, it all took a real toll,” he says. But his physical state seems to be the last thing he’s worried about. Ready or not, he’ll always run.

Ring! “Naaaaaate Smith… So nice to see your name,” says Charlie over a bowl of black bean soup at Panera Bread. The old friends, who met in the nineties when Nate was Charlie’s instructor at the San Francisco–based Presidio Adventure Racing Academy, catch up. Turns out Nate is now a manager at Oakley. I listen to Charlie’s end of the call:

“I have a new expedition planned. It goes from the Dead Sea to the top of Everest … I know … I just had to change my route again after I realized—what was I thinking?—I can’t cross Syria right now! So I’m gonna run through Jordan into Saudi Arabia, then Oman. I’ll paddle across the Arabian Sea and then bike across India to Everest. And climb it. Yeah, it’ll be another film.” He takes a sip of his soup.

It’s Christmastime, and at this point he has nothing more than a loose plan and a PDF of his pitch. Still, his tone is done-deal matter-of-fact. (Subtext: How about a sponsorship?)

Self-propelled, multi-country expeditions have been completed before. Last year, a 49-year-old Australian named Pat Farmer successfully ran from the North Pole to the South Pole in nine months. And Turkish-American adventurer Erden Eruc spent five years cycling, rowing, and climbing around the globe, finally completing his journey last summer. But very few have ever gone from the lowest point on earth to the highest. Which, of course, is why Charlie wants to.

He’ll kick off the expedition with a float in Jordan’s Dead Sea, then run 2,000 miles east—through Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman (approximately 40 miles a day)—to the Arabian Sea, which he’ll kayak 750 miles across to the coast of India. And then bike 2,350 more miles, for a total of 5,000 miles in six months—in order to reach Everest by May, climbing season. (He’s summited mountains of less stature before: McKinley, Whitney, Rainier, and, during the 1998 Raid Gauloises, Ecuador’s 19,347-foot Cotopaxi, following a five-day run.) His lean crew will consist of a physical therapist, a logistics expert, and a native in each country familiar with the area and local customs. Matt Battiston, a retired Army Ranger and former Eco-Challenge teammate of Charlie’s, has agreed to be his U.S.–based chief coordinator. Unlike Sahara and America, Charlie will run solo this time.

Being a gifted self-promoter is a necessity for anyone seeking to make a living in adventure sports, and Charlie is one of the best. Though some grow tired of his shtick. Ulrich, fellow star of Running America, no longer speaks to him. (Nor did he want to be interviewed for this story.) But in Running on Empty, his book about the 3,063-mile adventure, Ulrich writes: “The guy could work a room, for sure. Charlie’s braggadocio and craving for the limelight had begun to rub me the wrong way.” The index lists six separate instances under the heading “Engle, Charlie, conflicts with,” but Ulrich also credits Charlie for making the project possible. “It had all finally materialized with Charlie’s efforts,” he writes.

“He’s not egotistical,” says Jill Leibowitz, a producer who first met Charlie while researching a potential piece for HBO’s Real Sports about his run across America. “But he does have a very high level of confidence. You have to,” says Leibowitz, who’s now at Chicago-based Intersport, the production company working to secure sponsorships and funding for Dead Sea to Everest in exchange for a cut of what comes in. At least one former sponsor has expressed interest: Newton, the Boulder, Colorado, running company, which is also providing him with shoes. Before Inter-sport signed on, in January, a few colleagues asked Leibowitz if Charlie was credible. Her response: “Completely.”

BUT THE DEAD Sea to the top of Everest? That’s crazy talk. “I just keep talking,” Charlie says. “It’s what I did with Sahara. The thought of Sahara actually happening? I mean, really actually happening, never crossed my mind. Until one day, I bolted up in bed at 3 a.m. and said, ‘Oh, my God, I have to run across the Sahara Desert!’ ”

“I like to experience the world by the soles of my feet,” he says. “I want to suffer. I need the next adventure so I can know that feeling again.”

In late January, he gets a taste of it, after finishing the Brazil 135 in 45 hours. To further test himself, he tacked on 133 additional miles beforehand—“to find out where I stood,” he says—to run a total of 268 in four days. We talk the day he gets home. His body is broken, but he’s elated. “I set my own personal reset button,” he says. “Pain is what I need. Somehow, the easy path just doesn’t do it for me.”

Back in Greensboro, post-Brazil, things start to pick up for him. Hawkeye books him for more race-course work; he submits a memoir proposal to his literary agent, who is shopping it around; a DePaul University professor decides to make a documentary about his case; his paintless dent repair work is once again bringing in some money; and Running the Sahara and Running America are being rereleased by DigiNext Films in 18 theaters this spring. He also accepts a job as director of TransOmania, a 170-mile nonstop race across Oman in January 2014, where he’s planning on being at the time for Dead Sea to Everest. Coordinating the event will allow him to make some money midway into his expedition and give him a week to recover from his 2,000-mile run across Jordan before his 750-mile paddle across the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile he’s already jonesing for Badwater, in July. “Let’s say I’m not just looking to finish,” he proclaims.

Charlie plans to leave in December 2014 for Dead Sea to Everest. He will do it, he vows. Can he hold up for 5,000 miles and 29,035 feet? “Oh, absolutely,” says Ian Adamson, a friend and a director of research at Newton, as well as a world-record holder in distance kayaking, who has agreed to accompany Charlie across the Arabian Sea leg of the journey.

But the more pressing question looms: whether Charlie can rebuild his life and put together an expedition of this caliber. It’s almost as if he needs these insane goals to stay sane.

“Going from the lowest place on earth to the highest is perfectly in line with how I feel about my own existence right now,” he says. “Yes, I do need this. But there will always be a next adventure for me.”

He’s also realistic. “I never guarantee success. That’d be foolish,” he says. “Things never go as you expect.” He grins. “The interesting part is what goes wrong along the way. Shit happens. It’s all about what you do when it does.”

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