Potato salad got group through a trying trip to Yosemite

For a day that was supposed to be filled with fun and photo-ops, it was getting off to a bad start.

Bad in the sense that I was standing in the middle of a Carl's Junior parking lot in Merced, Calif., and only just discovering that my wallet was probably sitting on top of a gas pump in Hayward. Hayward was two and a half hours behind us.

As sinking feelings go, I certainly felt we were sunk. The "we" in this situation were my then-15-year-old niece, Meredith, her twin brother, Greg and me, the adult responsible for such niggling details as bringing along enough cash and plastic to get us through a quick 24-hour jaunt to Yosemite.

Instead, it appeared that I couldn't get us past Merced.

However, rather than giving up on a good time begging to happen, we took inventory. I had a spare 25 dollars tucked in a side pocket of my purse, Meredith came up with another 20 in souvenir money and Gregory, bless his little banker's heart, had brought along 85 bucks.

More than enough for an overnighter.

Besides, the cabin was pre-paid, and the twins' mother had sent along a cooler filled with soft drinks and one very large bowl of her special potato salad. After dishing out a few servings to tide us over until we reached the park, we decided to push on.

When entering Yosemite Valley, visitors are treated to one remarkable view after another. On this year, the sights were more spectacular than usual since the river was high and various waterfalls draped around the 3,000-foot granite cliffs were abundantly full. Tourists were in a photo-taking frenzy. In fact, just about the time the day's tension had begun to ebb from my neck muscles, we were sideswiped by a car driven by someone a little too focused on his f-stops.

The sickening sound of crunching steel and squealing tires was the proverbial icing on this day-old cake. Amazingly, nobody was injured, and no serious damage was inflicted on either vehicle. We pressed on again.

The first stop was our favorite, grand old haunt, The Ahwahnee Hotel. Tucked into the far end of the valley, amid the shimmering dogwoods and emerald pines, The Ahwahnee exudes the kind of splendor, charm and ambling elegance our road-weary souls needed to get back on track. After a brief powwow to revisit our financial situation, we opted to blow $10.50 for frozen strawberry drinks all around.

Having refreshed ourselves, we soon settled into a comfortable spot along the gliding Merced River. The rest of the afternoon was spent immersed in thought, conversation, books and rock-skipping technique.

Since we were doing all right financially, I suggested that we have a decent dinner at Yosemite Lodge. But Meredith and Greg took one look at the menu and just snorted, "No way! These prices are ridiculous."

Remember, these teenagers were holding all the chips, and they weren't ready to cash them in, particularly since I had assured them if there was money left over the following afternoon, they could indulge in a bit of souvenir shopping.

"I'm not even that hungry," said Meredith.

"Me neither," echoed her brother.

So we opted for cafeteria fare. Once settled at our table, we checked out the trays of those around us heaped with fried chicken, roast beef, mashed potatoes and pie. In contrast, there we sat with our puny plates of tossed green salad, sourdough rolls and glasses of water. Contemplating our Spartan repast, we began to giggle. Meredith feigned a weakened condition. Another round of giggles. The two women harassed Gregory for indulging in a carton of yogurt ("You think this is Club Med?").

And of course, this is when it really struck us. We were on an adventure. A bona fide, boy-won't-we-have-something-to-tell-the-folks-back-home adventure.

The rest of the daylight hours were spent enjoying Yosemite's nonstop beauty. Around 10 p.m., we headed back to the cabin for a rousing game of hearts with a nightcap of soft drinks and, you guessed it, potato salad.

Each time we dipped into the Gregory Savings and Loan, we recalculated our balance. The kids were shocked at how quickly such a huge cache of funds could melt away without much to show for it. Indeed, it all added up: bug spray, tortilla chips and salsa, muffins and cocoa for breakfast, French bread and salami to supplement our picnic of potato salad.

During our final hour by the river we reflected on that. What good had come from our experience? Certainly, the kids observed, a respect for the cost of living. But more importantly, there was the sense that we had adapted to a stressful situation and had still managed to have a great time. Needs had been prioritized, placing the greater emphasis on fellowship and enjoyment of our surroundings. We hadn't learned about living on the cheap so much as we had taken a lesson on finding a way to enjoy the situation we were in — whatever that may be.

It can be challenging, but as long as you have a good attitude and a large bowl of potato salad, life's less-complicated setbacks can be overcome.

Any potato salad that still tastes good after eating several times in a row must be pretty good. So I asked my sister-in-law for her recipe. It's a bit free-wheeling, but here's how she does it.

Cook desired number of white potatoes until tender then peel and cube into desired-size chunks (Sue's are about 1/2-inch in size). Hard-cook half a dozen eggs, peel and dice.

While the potatoes and eggs are cooking, prepare your dressing by combining mayonnaise and mustard. ("The mixture will be a good 'lemony' color, which means quite a bit of mustard.") Stir in cider vinegar and equal amounts of dill and sweet pickle juice, then add onion powder, celery salt and dill weed ("lots of dill weed") to taste. ("The object is to get the dressing really salty and really tangy — almost TOO salty and tangy because, otherwise, when you combine it with the potatoes, it will be too bland.")

Immediately after potatoes have been cooked, peeled and cubed, add about half of the dressing. ("It's important to add this much while the potatoes are hot so they will absorb the dressing.") Stir in the chopped pickles and eggs then refrigerate. Once the salad has cooled, add additional dressing to reach desired consistency.

For a cholesterol-free version, use cholesterol-free mayonnaise and leave out egg yolks.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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