Tuesday, September 26, 2006

My Favorite Benefit

Although it's only Tuesday evening, my work week is already halfway over. Last week I started a compressed schedule, which means I work nine hours Monday through Thursday and then eight hours on the first Friday of the pay period with the second Friday off. I'm very much looking forward to having long weekends every other week. And while there are some days when nine hours seems long, the extra hours never feel anywhere as long as a whole day. Once I'm at work, staying an extra hour isn't that big of a deal. But sleeping in an extra hour on Friday because I don't have to go to work is pretty sweet.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

An Essay for Thought

I found this editorial about religious tolerance and our relationship with the Muslim world to be well-written and to nicely express a view I've been trying to formulate into words. I suggest you read it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Rest of the Arizona Trip

We were still on Canyon time the day after the trip, so we were both awake at about 5:30am. Decided to go on out and catch the sunrise, which was nice. Most of the tourists were still asleep, so it was quiet. Once it was up, we had some hot chocolate before heading back to the room and deciding to go back to bed for a bit. The temperature difference between the bottom of the Canyon and the rim is astounding. It was always hot down below, but mornings and evenings at the rim were cold. Anyhow, in the early afternoon, our friends Megan and Bryan showed up at the Canyon. Clouds were moving in and about an hour after they arrived, it started to rain. It was kind of neat. We stayed at the Canyon till late afternoon catching out different vantage points and then started towards Flagstaff. In Flagstaff, we walked around a bit--cute, small town with tons of outdoors stores--and then went to dinner at Beaver Creek Brewery, which had excellent wood oven pizzas. We left as they were closing up shop and went to our hotel where we promptly hit the sack.

The next morning we met some friends of Megan's at La Bellavia--a small breakfast place popular with the locals. I had a standard eggs, potatoes, and toast, but Megan was adventurous and tried their speciality, a Swedish pancake, which was basically a pancake made out of oatmeal. It was ridiculously huge--two inches thick and the size of a dinner plate. And to think you can order a stack of three! After breakfast, we headed to the Lava River Cave on the outskirts of town. I was expecting it to be like the lava tubes we'd wandered through in Volcano but it wasn't nearly as smooth and was a bit longer at 3/4 mile. Luckily we had our headlamps and jackets as it was also pitchblack and cold (in the 30s). It was neat, but my favorite part of it all was the road that led back to it. It was a little gravel road bordered with Ponderosa pines and aspens under which a carpet of red, yellow, and purple wildflowers grew. It was gorgeous. And it smelled amazing.

By that afternoon, we were on the outskirts of Sedona at Slide Rock. Slide Rock is a natural waterpark, where you slide in rushes of water down natural rock slides. It was really fun. A stop at Dairy Queen and few more miles of driving later, and we were in Sedona, which was at once both strikingly beautiful and distressingly tacky. The red rocks were gorgeous and there were some great art galleries, but there were also terribly kitschy souvenir stores and such. The success of the town was spoiling it. But we headed up to the airport vortex (nom I didn't feel the supposed spiritual power of the place), where we were treated to a fabulous sunset. The sky was full of huge clouds which turned shades of orange and pink as the sun descended. Rain moved in as it got dark, and we set our sights on Phoenix. Around 9:00pm, we were pulling into Megan and Bryan's driveway.

We spent the next three days hanging out with Megan and Bryan as they showed us around their temporary hometown. We visited the gallery where Megan works along with a few of her other favorites. We met some of their friends at a cookout at their house. And we hiked South Mountain with Bryan so that I could see some big cacti.

On Monday, which was Jeff's 25th birthday, we went out to breakfast, where we were given a free dessert. (We just wanted a candle to stick in his breakfast, but we got a brownie too.) Then it was off to the airport and a flight back to DC. I don't think we could have had a better trip. We had quite the adventure in the Grand Canyon and then we got to spend a few fun days with friends. It was perfect.

And here are a few pictures from the post-Grand Canyon part of the trip. Enjoy!

Aug 31, 2006 - 49 Photos

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Grand Canyon Photos

Click on the image below to be taken to our online photo album. All of these photos are from the Grand Canyon. There are a lot of photos (but I actually cut about 100 from the album!) and some will certainly seem monotonous, but hopefully they'll be enjoyable.

Grand Canyon
Aug 25, 2006 - 217 Photos

Check back later for details on the rest of our trip and pictures from Flagstaff, Sedona, and Phoenix.

Grand Canyon Trip - Part Three

Day 5
It's our last day on the river, and it's full of big rapids. The walls are high now, and it will be late in the day until the sun makes it way onto us. I put on my rain gear in the hopes of staying at least a little dry and not too muddy. Right away we hit Tanner, which is only ranked a 4 on a scale of 10, but which does involve a drop of twenty feet. The rapids today are not only big, but also long. After making it through Tanner, we make a brief stop to check out some Anasazi ruins, which this time include pottery shards, some even painted. We also get a sneak peak at Unkar Rapid, which is just around the bend and is one of many rapids we'll face today with a rank of 7 or higher. The river runs quickly thanks to all the rapids and we move through the miles quickly. Right before Hance Rapid, an 8 that is considered technically very difficult because of the huge rocks scattered across it just far enough apart from each other for a well-guided boat to squeeze through, we pull up for the boatmen to get a look at it and make a plan. The roar of it is deafening, and my imagination goes wild. We haven't ever stopped to look at a rapid before. But there's no way to go but through it, so we're soon in the boat heading toward the madly churning water. We head in backwards and then twist and turn to avoid slamming into a rock. The water washes over us and fills the boat up to mid-shin. As soon as the water is calm enough, we begin to bail. I can't even count how many full buckets we tossed back into the river.

We have lunch shortly after we make it through Hance - everyone exhilarated by exhausted. Back in the boat, we get some of my favorite views of the entire trip. The canyon is very dramatic. It's fairly narrow with the rocks slamming straight into the river. No beaches or brush. And a black schist rock has now appeared, marbled with pink and white granite. It's gorgeous. In the afternoon, we encounter three more large rapids--Sockdolager, Grapevine, and 83 Mile--before we stop at Clear Creek for a hike. We first scramble off hot, sharp black rocks before scurrying down into the creek. We follow the bed, which takes tiny little drops and bubbles over smooth rocks, before reaching the goal of our trip: a horizontal waterfall. There's actually also a vertical waterfall, but the horizontal is more fun. Both flow out with the force of a firehose, and we take turns being blasted by the warm, clean water. It's a cleansing of sorts, and it feels good. Unfortunately back on the river, there's one more big rapid--Zoroaster--awaiting us, so we all end up dirty again. Oh well.

We set up camp at Cremation. It's named aptly as it's burning hot. We're only about a mile from Phantom Ranch, where many day hikers take refuge for the night, but we're far enough away that the solitude remains intact. For dinner, we stock up on carbs: spaghetti with a delicious meat and vegetable sauce, ravioli, salad, garlic bread, and strawberry shortcake. We watch the sun set over the river for the last time and then we lay in awe under the stars. It's been a perfect trip.

Day 6
We're up early. We take our tent down and squeeze all of our gear into our backpacks. They seem fuller and heavier than they did before. I'm sure it's just the reality of knowing we'll be carrying them out that makes it seem that way. They have breakfast--blueberry pancakes, bacon, and fruit--ready for those of us who are hiking out. We say our goodbyes to those staying on to raft the lower half of the river, and then Jeff and I load ourselves into the dory. The others are in another boat, as they are all using the mule duffel service instead of carrying their bags and must stop at Phantom Ranch. Jeff and I are taken past Phantom Ranch to the point where the Bright Angel Trail sweeps down to the river and then begins it long ascent to the rim. This cuts two miles off the hike, but we still face 8 miles of uphill climb. Right at 7:00 a.m. We take our first steps. Almost immediately, we go around a curve and lose sight of the river. The pack feels heavy at first, but I adjust quickly. I lead the way so that I can set the pace. The trail has no mile markers so we have no idea how far we've gone, but we stop after an hour for a short ten minute break for water and a snack. About 45 minutes after we restart, we hit Indian Gardens, which is 3.2 miles from the river, yet still 4.6 miles from the rim. There's a bathroom and water, so we stop for a bit longer here. As we exit the Gardens, we come across a huge snake draped across the trail. It was striped yellow and black and must have been 8 feet long. I was just glad it wasn't a rattlesnake. As we walk, we move through layer after layer of rock. The incline on the trail never seems to be too much, but there's no doubt that we're always moving up. Before Indian Gardens, we didn't see any mule trains, but we now begin to have them pass us as they make their way down to the bottom, laden down with tourists, most swaying back and forth like rag dolls. The mules kick up all kinds of dust and leave huge puddles of pee in the path along with a lot of crap. I come to hate them quickly.

After another hour, we're at the 3 mile rest stop and decide to have our lunch although it's only a little after 10am. We're making about 1.5 miles per hour, which seems pretty good to both us. Afterall, we're moving up hill, it's pretty darn hot, and I'm carrying the equivalent of 25% of my body weight on my back. Unfortunately just as we're about to leave the 3 mile rest stop a mule train on its way up passes us. We're stuck behind it--which as you can imagine isn't too pleasant--and the mules break frequently, messing with our pace. After about a mile, we're given the go-ahead to pass, but have to hightail it for a while to put some distance between us and the mules. We reach the 1.5 mile rest stop a little ahead of schedule, but then fall behind there. The mule train has passed once again, and instead of trailing it for the rest of the trip, we just extend our break to let it get far enough ahead that it's not an issue. At this point, we begin to see more casual hikers, most of whom I find irritating. A number of them are wearing flip-flops and carrying nothing but a camera. They clearly had no idea what they were doing, and I wondered if any of them had considered that once they got down, they then had to get back up. At least carry water for goodness sakes!

Overall the hike had gone well. We were both still smiling and laughing. We hadn't hurt anything. And the views were nice. The last 1.5 miles was hard, however. We were getting tired and we could see the end but we couldn't quite reach it. Long switchbacks kept sending us in the seemingly wrong direction. I just wanted a staircase to take me straight up. But we kept our sense of humor and kept putting one foot in front of the other. Fortunately that worked out, and at 12:30, 5.5 hours after we had begun, we reached the trailhead. We had made it.

Unfortunately, our speed meant that the room we had reserved at Bright Angel Lodge wasn't yet available for us. So we had some ice cream, checked out the views, and even walked about 2 more miles along the rim, checking out the different hotels, gift shops, artist studios, and viewpoints. At 4:00pm on the nose, we checked into our room and promptly hopped in the shower. Hot water. Soap. Shampoo. A flush toilet. It was heavenly. Clean (but in semi-dirty clothes), we went to dinner and then watched the sun set over the canyon. Still on canyon time, we were snoozing soundly by 9:00pm. The river, which couldn't even be seen from the South Rim, was nothing but a memory...and a dream as both Jeff and I woke up in the middle of the night thinking the sound of the fan was the sound of a rapid. It stays with you. And calls you back. I know that one day we'll be back, finishing up the trip with a run through the lower canyon.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Grand Canyon Trip - Part Two

Day 3
Wake up to pancakes, bacon, and fruit. It had been a cool night with camp set up close to the water, and we'd slept well. Good thing, as Jeff had plans to get me moving quickly. When we'd booked our trip, Jeff had seen on the Moki Mac Web site a picture of a duckie, or an inflatable kayak, that was sometimes brought on rafting trips. The night before we left, he'd made a special request that the boat come on our trip and they'd obliged. This morning, we found it inflated and ready to go. Jeff volunteered us for the first turn, and I gamely agreed. Clearly I wasn't yet thinking straight. First of all, the kayak is self-bilging, which is just a fancy way of saying it has holes in the bottom to let the water out (and thus in). So I started my day by sitting in a few inches of fifty-four degree water. About the time my butt lost feeling, my brain started coming to life, and I realized that we wouldn't see the sun for hours down where we were because of the steep walls. Nothing to dry me or warm me. But they said it was a smooth ride today, so really I shouldn't get too wet...oh except for that very first rapid we had to go through before we got to the smooth part. But there was no changing my mind. I was already wet, the other boats were loaded and pulling out, and I didn't want to look like a weenie. So off we went. The paddles were short and awkward, and we were just getting the hang of it when we were swept into the rapid. The guides had told us to hit the waves straight on or risk being flipped. So I paddled madly all the while yelling to Jeff, the steerer, "Straight. Straight. Straaiiight." We didn't exactly go straight through it all, but we must have gone straight enough because we didn't flip. We did, however, have a huge wave wash right over us. Luckily we were paddling too hard to be cold.

A few miles later we pulled over for a hike to see Devonian River Channels. I can't really explain the geology of it all, so don't ask me, but the rocks were pretty. When we returned to the boats, we gave up our spots in the duckie so that we could warm up while stretched out on a raft. All in all the river was smooth that day, but that wasn't enough to keep us dry. With no rapids to worry about, the guides pulled out huge water canyons and started a fight amongst boats. Soon the five-gallon bailing buckets were being filled and tossed. We all might as well have jumped in the river, although I'm not sure that would have been as fun.

We stopped early in the afternoon and set up camp on a beautiful open beach. The majority of us then went on a long hike (about 3 hours roundtrip). It was a great hike that involved wading through a creek, scaling up a small waterfall, and then playing under a 30 foot waterfall. Dinner was again delicious: pork chops, asparagus, yams, salad, applesauce, and spice cake. We were in camp early, so we had a lot of time to sit around and chat, and Jeff got into a few games of horse shoes. (Yes, I really think they carried everything on these boats.)

Day 4
Woke up this morning to a coyote's call--a few short barks followed by a long howl, all of which echoed back and forth across the canyon. We had French toast for breakfast, and they even had brown sugar to top it with, so I was happy. We decided to start this morning in the dory, a wooden boat reminiscent of the ones the early explorers took through the canyon. It rode higher in the water than the ferries, so was less susceptible to splashes, but it wasn't as stable, so was more prone to flipping over. Fortunately, there weren't any huge rapids in our immediate future. In the morning, we stopped at a site called Nankoweap, where graineries had been cut into the canyon walls for the storage of food by early Indians. The hike up to these graineries was pretty much straight up and absolutely shadeless. This was by far the hottest day of the trip with not a single cloud or wisp of cloud in the sky. We were told the temperature hovered near 107. Fortunately, the view from the top of the trail, supposedly the most photographed view within the canyon, was stunning. Looking down and out, we could see the Colorado winding back and forth like a snake in the sun. After the hike, we headed on down the river again for a few miles before stopping for lunch. At this point, I switched from the dory to the raft. I found the dory to be a bit stifling, as the higher sides limited the breeze and the ability to cool myself with a splash of water. Jeff switched to the duckie for a little more action than I was up for.

In the afternoon, we came to a rather large rapid at mile 60. We were making it through with the usual amount of bumping and splashing when a bunch of waves came together to make what seemed like a tsunami. The front of the boat hit it hard, getting soaked, while the back, where I was, was flung high into the air. I held on tightly and hoped to land back in the boat. I did, and oddly enough, I didn't even get wet. I have to admit I got a little nervous at this point about Jeff's odds of making it through the rapid still in the duckie, but they got lucky and didn't hit anything mean like we did. In fact, he said he didn't even get as wet as we had gotten in the early rapid yesterday. Strange how the river is so unpredictable. A few miles later, we arrived at the point where the Little Colorado joins with the Colorado. Sometimes this river is a perfectly clear blue ideally suited for floating down with your life jacket upside down like a diaper. Unfortunately, it wasn't that way when we arrived. In fact, recent rains had turned it into a torrent of mud as thick as chocolate pudding. Jeff got out to explore and almost lost his shoes as the mud tried to suck them off his feet.

A few miles later we stopped for the night and set up camp. It was still blazing, so we all pretty much settled into the shade and did a lot of nothing until the sun went behind the walls. The water, while not quite as muddy as it was back at the Little Colorado, was still thick. I was glad to have brought wet wipes because there certainly wasn't going to be any washing in the river. Dinner was catfish, portabello mushrooms, salad, and rice and beans with chocolate cake for dessert. After we got in our tent, I saw the most fantastic shooting star I've ever seen. It was magnificently bright with a trail that seemed to stretch all the way across the sky. I love the hour before we fall asleep. It's dark except for the shine of the stars. It's quiet except for the dull roar of upcoming rapids. I feel like a small speck in the world, but at the same time, I feel completely secure about where I am, who I am.

Tune in tomorrow for the last two days in the Grand Canyon. I also hope to have a link to pictures up.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Grand Canyon Trip - Part One

I first saw the Grand Canyon when I was twelve. It was a broad expanse of plateau and gorge painted in sunlight and shadow. It was breathtaking, beautiful, and beyond comprehension. And that was from the rim. Our stop at the Grand Canyon was part of a summer-long roadtrip around the country, and my youngest brother was only five, so we didn't venture down into the Canyon. But I knew then that I would one day be back.

Years later I saw a documentary that said there were three ways to get down into the Canyon: hike, ride a mule, or raft. The choice was obvious to me. I'd raft. It was clearly the best way to see the most and to have an adventure while doing it. So for years, rafting the Grand Canyon sat on my list of things I'd like to do. When my friends Megan and Bryan moved to Arizona last year, I started thinking about going to visit them at some point and then realized that this was my chance to get down into the Canyon. So after determining a general date range and type of trip, talking to the various outfitters that run trips, and scouring the Internet for reviews, I booked us on a 6-day oar powered rafting trip of the Upper Grand Canyon with Moki Mac. This was back in December, and the trip seemed to be a long way off. But as usual, time flew, and on Friday, August 25, Jeff and I found ourselves in an 18 foot raft floating down the mighty Colorado.

Day 1
Our group, fifteen people ranging in age from eighteen to mid-sixties with a skew toward the older side, met the night before we took off for an orientation session at Marble Canyon. We packed our gear into watertight bags, picked up last minute items, and spent out last night above the rim. We started day one at 8am with a trip down to Lee's Ferry, where the voyage was to begin. There were six boats total: four 18 foot rafts that could hold four passengers each, one baggage raft, and one dory (small wooden boat that could hold 3 passengers). By 9:30 we'd loaded all the rafts, filled up all our water bottles, used a flush toilet for the last time, gotten into our life jackets, picked a boat, and set off. For about a mile, the water was clear. Then a creek flowed in bringing the Colorado to its naturally muddy state. Jeff and I rode with Grant, the oldest of the boatman at mid-60. He'd run the whole length of the Colorado nearly sixty-five times, both on commercial and private trips, and he knew it like the back of his hand. We covered 19 miles that first day. Along the way we saw a couple of baby big horn sheep, rode through many small rapids, and went through one rapid big enough to elicit a wild "yahoo" from Grant. The water, in the mid-50s, was freezing. The sun, with temperatures near 100, was searing. It balanced out for a pleasant ride, although the cold of the water was always shocking. The amusing thing was that it seemed everyone's reaction to being completely washed over by freezing cold waves was to laugh. It was exhilirating.

By mid-afternoon, we'd stopped to set up camp. Night comes early down in the Canyon, so you don't want to be caught out on the water as the sun sneaks behind the canyon walls. Tents went up, sleeping bags were arranged, and we all gathered near the water as the crew prepared dinner. Hot soup and cheese and crackers first. Then a feast like nothing I expected: steak, corn on the cob, salad, potatoes, and brownies. By seven, it was dark enough that I couldn't see to write in my journal anymore. By eight, the sky was black velvet illuminated by billions of stars. Shooting stars came one after another. Satellites could easily be picked out. It was phenomenal. By nine, we were asleep, lulled by the gentle roar of the rapids that lay ahead.

Day 2
Like night, morning comes early. By five, first light was tickling our eyes. At six, the call for "hot coffee" echoed across the canyon. By seven, we were feasting on eggs, toast, and fruit. Eight o'clock, and we were on the river. Floated down just a few hundred yards before stopping in North Canyon, where we hiked to a beautiful rock formation with natural water slide and pool. The reflection of the striated walls in the perfectly flat water was mesmerizing. Back on the river, it was rapid after rapid as we moved through the "Roaring Twenties". Lunch break lasts about an hour, with sandwiches, fruit, and lots of salty snacks. We rode with Steiner today, a 43 year old who looks about 30. His boat is stocked with maps and books on geology and plant and animal life. There's not a question he can't answer. Made a couple of stops in the afternoon: once to see Anasazi ruins, once to gather cold, clear water from a spring, and once at Red Wall Cavern, which Powell claimed could seat 50,000 people although I think he must have been thinking of leprechauns as it was big but not stadium-sized. Night-time is the same. Set up camp, eat dinner (tonight stir fry, pot stickers, fortune cookies...), chat with fellow boaters and crew, marvel at the stars, sleep. Each day, new layers of rock have appeared and the walls push higher and higher. As the sun plays on them, they glow different shades of red, orange, and yellow. It's so quiet down in the canyon. So peaceful.

--I'll continue throughout the week, and I'll hopefully be able to get some pictures up soon, so check back for more.