Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Day Nine: The Long Walk

Sunrise

Friday, April 14, 2000 - The sky was completely socked in when I woke up this morning. I wasn't in any particular hurry to get up by my farm boy biological clock wouldn't stop even at the bottom of the Grand Canyon so I joined the cooks for the early morning preparations. Today is going to be another layover day so everyone else slept in allowing me to get caught up on my journal writing and gawking. I was in awe as wave after wave of clouds disappeared over the rim line, turning a flaming red from the rising sun. I might have just gone hungry had it been going on by the time breakfast was served but it finally ended in a cloudless sky so that I could enjoy my fresh melon, pancakes and sausage.

The longest hike option for today was a long ways and because I had excellent map reading skills, trip captain Bronco let me set off early with the promise to wait by the head of a particular canyon that some crewmembers and myself wanted to see. So as soon as I had my lunch packed, I did just that heading up a hill and crossing over a pass down into Shinumo Wash. We had been told that today would be a "foot dry" hike so I had left my river shoes back at camp but when I got to Shinumo Creek, it was swollen and muddy though not still not very deep or broad. From my maps, I could see my first destination for the day was on the same side of the creek that I was on so rather than crossing it twice, I bushwhacked to the remains of W.W. Bass's camp.

W.W. Bass is a well-known name in Grand Canyon history. Although a native of Indiana, he settled in Arizona in 1880 and eventually in the depth of the Grand Canyons searching for the mythical mother lode of gold that supposed to be there. When that dream didn't pan out (pun intended), he became a guide and through a series of old Indian trails, created one of the first cross canyon routes. The old cable setup remains that we had looked at the day before were his creation and linked the trails on both sides of the river. Now, the only remains of his camp besides the cable car setup were a bunch of pots, pans and tools.
Sign At W. W. Bass Camp


W. W. Bass Camp

I set off again along the trail now once again on my side of swollen Shinumo Creek but was soon rim rocked. With a long hike ahead, I opted to take off my hiking boots and with difficulty, slipped and slid across to the other side. After thoroughly drying my feet and getting reshod, I started off again only to get rim rocked once again. I repeated my process for three more times before deciding that my only real choice was to wade through boots and all, which I did. My hiking time improved and soon I found myself at the head of Bass Creek where the hiking was much easier. I also met up with one of the baggage raft rowers, Lee Hall who had also made the decision to just wade through after a few crossings, just as I had promised Bronco.

After about two miles up White Canyon, we were up in the Tapeats stone layer and the canyon narrowed in so much that you could reach out and touch both sides at once in areas. The stream disappeared and we were dramatically stopped by what would have been a spectacular waterfall in wetter weather. Lee and I ate lunch on a ledge at the base of the dry falls while waiting for anyone else who decided to come up here to reach us. Only two other people, both crewmembers showed up.
White Canyon


Lichen Covered Rock

In the cool shade of the slot canyon, I could have stayed forever especially knowing how hot it was out in the "rest" of the world but my water supplies were dangerously low due to the especially hard hike up here and it was a long, long ways back. I kept a steady pace and though tried not too, still rationed my water out to sips as I made my way back. In my dehydrated haze, I did notice that Shinumo stream was an emerald green on the way back and not a muddy brown but that only made the thirst worse. Parched, sore, my bad knee swollen like a grapefruit and utterly exhausted, I staggered back into camp after twelve rugged miles and over a dozen strenuous stream crossings. I was a happy camper as I downed almost a gallon of fluids and regaled the other older clients about my adventure. Everyone was still jubilant and very much ABC (Alive Below Crystal).

When the crew made it back, we celebrated with some scotch and cigars. I didn't smoke so I celebrated with some scotch on the upwind side. Dinner was a hearty pasta with shrimp, a green salad and French bread and never tasted so good. Afterwards we sat around the campfire a bit, the non-hiking clients being well-rested and able to stay up past eight. Growing bored of their retirement stories, I hobbled down to the beach where I found Bronco, Lee and Nick telling stories mostly of their past. Realizing the delicate balance in their lives between being themselves and being hosts for a group of paying clients, I sat on the very edge of the group and just listened. Nick has told me that the crew feels comfortable around me and I'm welcome to join them anytime but I still try not to push it. The star gazing tonight was put on hold as the clouds of this morning returned and socked us completely in. In the narrows of the canyons with a low blanket of clouds hovering right above, our camp feels eerily like a coffin.
Lee Hall In White Canyon

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Best Gift of Christmas


Although I love Christmas and the religious celebration, I dislike the commercialization and that one dreaded question I get every year, "What do you want for Christmas?" It is a question that I have a very hard time answering.

I have reached a point in my life where I am financially stable. I also have grown particular in what I buy preferring to avoid the cheap Chinese crap that only quickly breaks and ends up in a landfill. So if I want something, I do some research, avoid the cheap products found in box stores and buy it, usually over the internet delivered right to my door. So when it comes time for Christmas, I usually have what I want and really don't trust others to buy things that I would like for fear that they wouldn't care so much about where it comes from or the quality of it.

But this year I received the best gift I've gotten in many years. It was the sight of my daughter's face as she opened up one of the robot-like talking Elmo dolls that tells stories, blows kisses, stands, sits and animatedly waves his arms. It was pure joy. Though the wrapping paper was only partway off of my brother's gift to my daughter, I reached in and pressed the toe where the sticker said to press and Elmo effectionately blew a kiss to my daughter now once but twice. All other presents, opened and still wrapped were immediately forgotten about as she tore the rest of the paper off and insisted that I immediately get Elmo out of the box.

As I worked to get at the wire twist ties, Little Abbey with much encouragement from all of us began to open up her other presents all the while keeping an eye on my progress and saying, "Open it daddy!" Finally I had it free of its constraints, the guard that allowed it to go through the entire repertoire instead of only blowing kisses was removed, and Little Abbey gave up on opening the rest of her presents completely. Elmo ruled her life for the rest of the day.

Despite all the gifts that I received, being where to witness my child getting the gift of her dreams was priceless. Seeing Mrs. Abbey's face when she opened up her iPod Touch which she was positive was some handheld kitchen device was a very close second. It was a very merry Christmas for me indeed!

Friday, December 26, 2008

George Washington: A Life

Looking for a new list of books to give to those friends and family looking for gift ideas for me, I hit upon the idea of reading a biography on all the presidents of the United States. It seemed like a great idea for learning more about the history of our country and thus far, the men we have chosen to lead it. Logically I decided to start in the beginning and thus the first out of the shoot was George Washington: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall.

Prior to reading this hefty 512-page biography I knew three things about George Washington. One, he chopped down a cherry tree and then couldn't tell a lie about it, he had wooden teeth and he was our greatest military general. I was only right on the wooden teeth.

In the beginning, George used his status as a wealthy plantation owner inherited from his father and his relationship with the Virginia governor to garner a position in the military of training soldiers in peacetime. The rest of his military career was knowing who to leech onto to pull him father up the military ladder until he eventually happened to be in the right place at the right time to become General of the newly declared Independent States of America. His first military duty was to deliver a message to the French in the Ohio Valley region that they were no longer wanted. On his way to deliver the message he happened upon a French scouting party and ambushed them killing most of the soldiers and the officer in charge. Only later after it was all over was it discovered that the scouting party had actually been French diplomats sent to discuss the occupancy of the Ohio Valley. The French, as can be expected, were not too happy over the killings and thus, George Washington singly handedly began the seven-year French and Indian War.

George continued on his way to an indefensible marshy swamp where he built Fort Necessity where he was quickly overwhelmed by a small contingent of French and Indians and surrendered. He signed a confession that he assassinated the leader of the French scouting party, gave over two of his surviving officers as prisoners of war and marched home with the remaining survivors. But as luck would have it, the American public was looking for a hero and anyone taking it to the French as George has done were considered heroes and thus he came out of the whole affair as one.

However, George had lost the favor of Virginia Governor Dinwiddie so he next leeched onto General Edward Braddock to further his ambitions of a military career. At 23, George became a volunteer aide-de-camp to Braddock. Per his suggestion, George convinced Braddock to separate 1400 soldiers from the main contingent in a final push to the fort but they were ambushed a few miles from their goal and slaughtered by a group of 300 Indians. Braddock and all officers with the sole exception of George would be killed along with three fourths of the soldiers in the Battle of the Monongahela. George buried Braddock in the middle of the road and marched the few surviving soldiers over it on the way back home to disguise the grave from the Indians. But with Braddock dead, George's bad advice was lost from public view and he came out of the battle once again as a hero in the public's eye and was promoted to colonel and named commander of all Virginia forces.

Since his mentor Braddock was now dead, George needed someone else to leech onto and selected General Forbes as his next selection. Forbes made George a Brigadier General and set off again to subdue the French in the Ohio Valley. On the way, Brigadier General Washington got caught up in a case of friendly fire on his own troops, which resulted in a number of casualties. Finally he and Forbes made it to Fort Duquesne, which had been abandoned by the French when their hired help, the Indians, left them. The seven-year war was over. George resigned from his military career and instead decided to turn his attention to politics.

George had inherited his brother's Mount Vernon estate after his brother died of tuberculosis. After the war, he married a recently widowed wealthy lady named Martha Custis after it was clear his true desire and wife of his neighbor wasn't going to drop her husband for George. His marriage to a wealthy widow greatly increased his property holdings and thus his social standing, which along with free booze at the local pub got him elected to the House of Burgesses.

Washington soon took a leading role in the growing colonial resistance to British authority and wound up being selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. When fighting broke out in April of 1775, George dusted off his military uniform and appeared at the Second Continental Congress where he told the assembled crowd he was prepared for war. He had the military experience and prestige, came from heavily populated Virginia and had no serious organized competition and was appointed Major General and made Commander-in-chief.

Washington quickly took control of the forces and was soon being routed by the British War machine and losing battle after battle as he retreated out of New York and New Jersey. General Washington finally scored his first major victory with the famed Christmas crossing of the Delaware to seize Trenton and then Princeton. The British soon were back to pounding on the Americans and once again George Washington's army was being defeated and force into retreat, even giving up the capital of the newly formed government in Philadelphia. With all the desertions and deaths due to disease and exposure, it looks all over for Washington but with the aide of the French, he trapped a sizable British Army at Yorktown in 1781 and ended the war.

After the Treaty of Paris was inked, Washington said goodbye again to his military life and much to everyone's surprise, retired to Mount Vernon. It was short lived and six years later he was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention where he participated little but was elected the first President of the United States with 100% of the electoral votes, the only president to do so. George finally came into his own and became the leader that he never was cut out for when in the military. For eight years he was the person between the squabbling secretaries in his cabinet Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson time and time again working out compromises. After eight years, despite people begging for him to stay on another term, Washington didn't run for a third term and successfully retired for the third time to Mount Vernon except for a brief appointment by President John Adams to be Commander-in-chief of the army again in a prospective war with France that never materialized.

George would devote his time running his farm, breeding horses, and entertaining a never ending flow of guests who came from near and far to see the famous couple. On December 12, 1799, George set off to do his daily farm inspections via horseback in a freezing rain. The next morning he woke with a bad cold, and a throat infection. Treatment of the time called for bloodletting and after four such treatments, probably sending George into shock due to blood loss, he died two days later.

Willard Sterne Randall captured all this and more in his biography of George Washington and I not only learned multitudes of new things about George Washington and our country that I hadn't known before, he awoke in me a desire to learn more. Already I am seeking out a biography on John Adams and other presidents to soon read. If my goal of 43 soon to be 44 presidential biographies weren't enough, I have also found a desire to learn more about such people like Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold who tie in closely with the life of Washington. If I'm not careful, I'll end up with a list 100 books long just like my list of the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time which I am still working on.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Day Eight: Alive Below Crystal

Ote & Bob In Crystal Rapids

Crystal Rapid is a fairly new one as far as the Grand Canyon goes. In Powell's days, it wasn't even noteworthy among Inner Gorge rapids. Then in 1969, a flood of Crystal Creek dislodged boulders out of the side canyon into the main channel and creating a demon of a rapid. Another flood in 1983 swept some huge boulders from the top of the rapid down which created a severe challenge to boats especially in lower water conditions that we found upon reaching Crystal in our dories. No one in their right mind would now purposely go through the top center of THE HOLE in the right middle of the rapid and you couldn't go left of THE HOLE if you wanted to avoid the massive rock garden below that would be guaranteed to smash you and your boat to pieces. The only option was to avoid THE HOLE on the right, which was easy in high water but extremely difficult in low water due to a rock shelf upstream of the hole that projected halfway out into the river. The only run that was doable was to just miss the rock shelf in the middle of the river at the top of the rapids and pull for all you were worth towards the shore on river right avoiding THE MANEATING HOLE and not slam into shore.

We got out and scouted the rapid but this time instead of searching for the most likely spot were my body would wash up if ever, I found myself looking down the gullet of THE MONSTER HOLE. As far as holes go, it wasn't as particularly deadly as it looked. It would definitely flip over most boats with easy but it would flush you out fairly quickly. What was deadly and where most people have been killed in this rapid was the rock garden down below where the river wanted to sweep you. The guides were pointing fingers and scowling again but this time I saw a look of worry on their faces. The called a group meeting and confirmed my suspicions. The water was too low to safely allow all the clients to ride the boats through. They needed at least half of the clients to walk around the rapids to decrease the weight and give them a fighting chance to get around the rock shelf to the right of THE HOLE. They asked for volunteers. Nobody raised his or her hands. They said that all rules were off on this rapid and if our boat were to turn over, it was every person for themselves and that we had to swim for the right shore for all we were worth. Nobody raised hands. If they didn't get any volunteers, we all would have to walk around. Nobody raised his or her hands.

About this time, I noticed that most of the clients were now looking at me. Surprised at the attention, I looked at our trip captain Bronco and immediately knew what had to be done. Bronco knew it and I could see it in his eyes. I raised my hand and said that I would volunteer because I wanted to get some action water shots anyway. Immediately about three quarters of the rest of the clients volunteered to walk around too. It was only later in camp that Bronco would pull me privately aside and thank me for volunteering. What he realized and what I realized when everyone was looking at me was that my youth compared to the other clients gave other clients courage. When I volunteered to walk around, they suddenly remembered their mortality and decided that if I was afraid to go through Crystal than perhaps they should be terrified.
Dogweed & Black Schist

My suspicions were proven correct when many people asked me later why I had elected to walk. I carried out my bravado with the picture story but in truth, I had been terrified. But I was also young and naïve and would have ran it anyway had enough people volunteered before me. In the end, I sat on a rock directly across from THE HOLE and took pictures as the crew and a few clients successfully ran the rapid without any mishaps. Our group mantra became ABC or Alive Below Crystal.

After lunch, we oared through a series of rapids called the Gems of the Canyon. After all the adrenalin of the morning, it felt good to drift to Bass Camp at mile 108.5. It is a gorgeous camp nestled among the black schist and pink granite with thousands of brittlebush blooming throughout. After setting up camp, we did a short hike upstream to check out the ruins of an old cable car crossing. Jorge and I per usual, hiked on further and found some old Anasazi ruins. Back at camp when I told our expert crew person Lee Hall about the ruins, he hadn't known about them so I took him back up to where they were. We poked around a bit and found a park service identification tag and lots of pottery shards. It was a beautiful place to build a home with all the brittlebush, prickly pear and hedgehog cactus blooming around the hill.

Supper was ready when Lee and I got back and consisted of spikers, hamburgers, baked beans, mashed potatoes and all the fixings. Spikers are a foot long and similar to spicy Polish sausages but much tastier. After supper we sat around the campfire and listened to stories from the crew about previous Crystal encounters. I'm glad they told us these after we were alive and below the rapid. The assistant cook Mary and myself talked everyone off to sleep with a conversation on books and my journal until we too headed our separate ways. Clouds started moving in and the sand was blowing through the air but I slept outside under the stars anyway and was quickly oblivious to it all thanks to the adrenaline high I had been on most of the day.
Looking Back Towards Camp

Friday, December 19, 2008

Day Eight: Big Water

Lee Hall In Hermit Rapids

Thursday, April 13, 2000 - It was dawning up to a beautiful day but my stomach was full of butterflies when I awoke with the realization that today we would hit our first seriously big rapids. I kept Heidi company while she cooked breakfast alternating between conversation and reading Edward Abbey's "The Hidden Canyon" that is about his trip down the Colorado in a wooden dory boat. Now that I was rereading it after having visited some of the very same places and camped on the same spot, it made it all the more special.

Breakfast was melon slices, eggs, bacon and English muffins. We packed up camp and shoved off into the unknown for Powell and for me many years later. Salt Creek Rapid had big waves and we all got wet and all too soon we were there at the head of Granite Rapid. We got out and scouted it but all I could see was a frothy white roar over a hundred yards that looked like it would just as soon split up our dory for toothpicks rather than allow us through. The crew pointed here and there, occasionally shaking their heads in disagreement and perhaps saying words like "surefire watery grave" etc. It seemed like forever before they agreed on a route and way too soon at the same time. Reluctantly because I still had not made a will, I stepped into the boat and we drifted down the tongue at the head of the rapid and right into the roaring mouth full of watery teeth.
Agave

I believe the brain is an incredibly complex piece of living tissue and capable of doing amazing things. I think one of these amazing things is to turn off the video and go into occasional snapshot mode to protect the mind of the individual from getting overloaded. I know this because now that I am writing this, I only remember snapshots of our run through Granite Rapid.

Snapshot One: A huge wall of water is coming in from our left. I sitting on the right immediately highsided (lurch towards the wave to shift our center of gravity) so far over the edge that I am actually looking over Jurgon's head and into the green water on the left side of the boat.

Snapshot Two: I am completely underwater and I am fully aware that we have capsized. I have the distinct feeling that this is what it would feel like in a washing machine in the heavy wash cycle.

Snapshot Three: Sweet Jesus, I am breathing air! I'm alive! Elaina says, "Nice". A bigger wall of water than the first obscures the light and almost makes me loose control of my bowels.

Snapshot Four: Lots of bubbles as the currents pound my submerged body this way and that.

Snapshot Five: More air! A third wall of water!

Snapshot Six: More bubbles. I counted until I was sure we were capsized and never coming back up. Not sure which way was up or even what to do so I hang onto the gunnels and await for death to take my memories away.

My brain's video mode suddenly comes back online. We lurch out into air gunnel full of water and screaming like raving lunatics. I'm not sure I was screaming for any reason other than as an outlet for all the adrenaline but if felt nice to be alive enough to scream and so we all did. The boat tipped sickenly one way and then another as we frantically began to bail while going over tiny ten foot waves in a train at the bottom of the rapid. Eventually we stabilize, our voices grow hoarse of screaming and grow quite and we eddy out to watch the other boats. We hadn't beaten the river because no one beats the river. The river just let us loose to live for one more day and another rapid. That rapid soon arrived in the form of Hermit Rapid.
Agave Bloom

Hermit Rapid was always a nerve-wracking run according to the crew but thanks to a flash flood in 1997, it was a genuine terror now. It is a series of five waves each bigger than the previous one with the fifth being a monster easily 20 feet high and capable of flipping the largest raft. Prior to 1997 there had been a "cheat route" on the left side of the waves but not anymore. Now the full force of the Colorado water load gets narrowed down and funneled through this rapid. These forces that form the rapid also cause stomachs to churn and spines to shrivel, especially at the sight of the fifth wave that is taller than most houses. It is not a smooth, glistening wave, although sometimes it rises cleanly only to unpredictably collapse at the top of its surge, falling back upstream with enough force to stop even a large raft. The crew say it is like driving up a hill and having the highway collapse beneath your car. So far according to word of mouth from the private groups ahead of us, Hermit had been flipping three of every four boats that had ran it so far this season.

We again got out and scouted for what seemed like forever and yet not long enough before the first half of our party was sent through. We hit the first three waves squarely but somehow on the fourth got spun around completely sideways to the fifth and granddaddy of all the waves. I felt as if I were swimming in glue as I reacted so slowly to get into my highsiding position. In my attempt to highside, I actually stood on my gunnel to lean over Jurgen's gunnel (why we always hit the waves with his side of the boat I'll never know) in an attempt to get as much weight towards the wave. The monster wave played nicely and didn't collapse upon us as we submerged into its upstream face and came back up miraculously still upright on its downstream side. All the crew, including Elaina our oarsperson, expressed surprise that we hadn't flipped. I think the river was just toying with us like a cat does with an injured mouse.

We came upon Boucher Rapid and made it through without any problems and then before I wanted, we were at the grand mother of all rapids, the most dangerous rapid, the one rapid where the crew told us all rules previously pounded into our heads were now to be disregarded. We were staring down the face of Crystal Rapid.
Hedgehog Cactus In Bloom

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Impending Doom

The one things I liked best about my six year stint of living up north in the land of the frozen tundra also known as Minnesota was the fact that winter precipitation fell mostly in the form of snow. Here in my home area of southeast Iowa, winter precipitation during the early throws of winter sometimes comes in the form of massive ice storms and one such storm is heading towards us right now with an arrival time in about four hours.

They are forecasting up to an inch of accumulated ice for my area which is almost the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. One inch of ice will knock down miles of electrical poles rendering huge swaths of towns and rural areas without power. One such big storm on a similar scale knocked out the power to my parent's farm some fifteen years ago for over three weeks before it was restored. Last year we had a storm leave just a quarter of an inch of ice and we were without electricity for a day and others for three or four days. This storm is forecasted to be four times worse.

I had half a day of vacation left to burn before the end of the work year which for me ends next Tuesday so I decided to use it this afternoon. I stopped at the local farm goods store to pick up something to prevent my worst fear of such storms from happening, freezing up the pipes of my house. I have a fireplace that can keep us warm but it is in a far corner of the house and can't possibly keep it from freezing up if we are without power for a prolonged period of time. Besides, I burn wood in it recreationally which means that if I switch to burning for heat, my winter supply of wood becomes a week supply of wood.

I thought I would price out a small generator of sorts if they had any in stock but the store said that they only had two and they sold out first thing. I wasn't really surprised so I turned my attention to kerosene heaters which they had a couple in inventory. I ended up buying one along with three gallons of kerosene which is all that they had. I figure if worst comes to worse, that might be enough to keep the pipes from freezing for a week. I'm going to keep them boxed up just in case the best happens and I don't need them so that I can return them for a generator which I would rather have.

My next stop was to fill up the propane tank that runs my smoker and grill so that I can have some warm vittles to eat without the power that runs my electrical stove. Makes me wish again that I had a gas version, but the electrical version came with the house when I bought it and I just can't get rid of a perfectly good stove because I desire a gas one. I also have a camping stove that runs on white gas if I really need some BTU's for cooking.

Finally, though I detested the thought, I stopped by the grocery store for a few supplies. It was of course a zoo, even at one o'clock on a Thursday. Everyone was cleaning off shelves like there was never going to be food again. My wife had a special order roast that I had to pick up along with some hot cocoa which is always good for cold powerless days and some milk for my morning bowl of cereal. Other than that, my cart was pretty barren.

So I am as prepared as I can get at this point. I wouldn't mind a few days of sitting by the fire and roughing it but I'm certainly not wanting to have to do that for a week. If it comes down to that, I'm going to have to cut my incoming water supply which the builders thoughtfully never installed a drain valve on to prevent freezing, and head down to the farm where my parents have a tractor driven generator and several thousand gallons of diesel fuel for the tractor. That is of course assuming that the roads are anywhere near passable.

If you don't hear from me via comments on your blog for awhile, I'm guessing the ice storm will be to blame. Thanks to blogger advances, my blog should continue posting with a new series of post concerning my trip down the Grand Canyon eight years ago. If those run out and still no comments, stop by and bury our frozen corpses in the snow out back so come spring, someone can give us a proper burial.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Visiting My 4th Great Grandparents

View From Old Homestead

My wife was tied up with business all day Friday so I was left to do my own thing. I was only about 40 miles way from the home of one line of my ancestors so the decision was pretty easy. It was a cold and windy day when I set off and thanks to my Garmin GPS unit, arrived without problems at the Fort Palmer Cemetery where my ggggrandfather John Luther and ggggrandmother Elizabeth Bennett are buried. It was a small cemetery with one section that was much older than the rest so finding them took only about fifteen minutes of walking around stopping now and then to peer closely at tombstones that were hard or impossible to read.

Finding the grave of a relative directly responsible for you coming into being is a special feeling. Here were two people out of 64, any of which could have made an infinite number of choices that would lead to me never being born and I am now as close to them as I will ever be able to get in this lifetime. If I have the time, I will usually clean off the tombstone a little bit and leave some flowers so that other people who happen by will know that someone still cares. However in this case, the cold wouldn't allow me to linger so I paused to think through all the stuff I know about the occupants of the graves, say a prayer of thanks, and left.

The fact is, I don't know a lot about the occupants. I don't know John's father though I have several suspects. Several books of the period on Westmoreland County family histories list his father as David and several more as James, both from Ireland. The ones that list David as his father list David's father as James from Ireland. Many online sources list David's father as another David. So whom it is I don't know yet but I'll keep on digging. I do know where they owned land in Westmoreland County and that was my second destination for the day.
John Luther's Gravestone

This time, I didn't have specific instructions though I had the knowledge that there was a monument of sorts on their land and I had earlier input my best guess into my Garmin GPS. It was close and though I asked fruitlessly for help at a nearby boyscout camp, I did stumble upon it as I made my way back to paved roads. There in the front lawn of what is now a private residence set back in some trees was a partially buried wheel from an old gristmill that was run by a brother of my ancestor John Luther on their family land. Being the son of a farmer, I have always felt graveyards were borrowed ground and temporary but the land where you lived, grew and died are where the family ties are always the strongest and I felt them now as I gazed off over the Allegheny mountains. What a beautiful place to raise a family.

Right before I left, I had discovered another 4th great grandfather named Daniel Igo (and perhaps his wife) buried nearby on the other side of the mountain I was on. His daughter Mary would marry John Luther's son Jesse and later move to about 10 miles from where I grew up in Iowa. All I knew was the name of the cemetery but despite my searches online, I couldn't discover the location other than the name of the town. So I headed over the mountain towards the town. As I gained elevation, the snow became a blizzard and the roads became slick. Only when I lost elevation on the other side of the mountain did they turn back to just being wet but I decided not to dally in case things got worse up on top. I drove through the tiny town of a few houses and gas stations but didn't see any place that had someone old enough who might know (or care) where a cemetery was. The two I drove by weren't the name I was looking for and so I made the decision to spend my time doing research in the Ligonier Valley Library on the other side of the mountain. It was again a slippery drive over the mountain but I made it safely.
Elizabeth Bennett Luther's Gravestone

With only two hours before I needed to leave again for Pittsburgh, I had to work fast and the lady in charge of the genealogy department was very helpful. I researched the family history files for my Luther ancestors that they had but found only the same mix of guesses as to who John Luther's parents were. So I turned my attention to Daniel Igo and discovered that he had a will filed away at the county seat 15 miles away. I put that into my Garmin GPS and was on my way. I was hassled by the police officer guarding the courthouse over my camera that I had in my pocket and was admonished not to go anywhere near a courtroom with it. So when I asked him to repeat the directions to the room where the wills were stored to make sure I didn't accidentally end up near a courtroom, he chewed me out for not paying attention the first time. I bit my tongue, apologized and followed his thumb that jerked towards the directions I needed to go. I found the will room, not sure if I was near any courtrooms, and soon had Daniel's will before me. Although he died before his wife and she inherited much of his estate, her name was not specifically mentioned though I already suspect her name was Mary Huston. There were also no clues as to his origins but with his last name being Igo, most likely of Irish origins, it lends credence to my Luther’s also being from the same country as back then, they typically settled in clusters. So in the end, my ggggrandfather Daniel Igo's will was of little research value but of high sentimental value. I made a copy and made my way back to Pittsburgh.

We would end up driving west until too tired to drive and then finish driving home the next day through a raging blizzard. I wish I could have spent another day out in Westmoreland County researching my heritage or even an entire week. Perhaps someday in the future I will.
Luther Gristmill Monument

Monday, December 15, 2008

Inclines, History and a Mattress Factory... In That Order

View of the Golden Triangle

On our first half-day in Pittsburgh, before the business dinner at Monterey Bay, we killed time by visiting the Duquesne (pronounce "do-cane") Incline and the Mattress Factory. The incline was how miners hauled easily accessed coal down by the river up to the top of Mt. Washington. Later after the coal played out, it was a shortcut for inhabitants on Mt. Washington to commute back and forth to work in downtown Pittsburgh. Now, the two surviving inclines haul tourists up and down the tracks with the Duquesne Incline taking you to an observation platform where almost every postcard picture of Pittsburgh is taken. From there you can see what is referred to as the Golden Triangle.

Because I am currently reading a biography on George Washington, I have recently gathered a lot of knowledge on the geographical spot. A young George Washington sent to deliver a message to French troops in the area to vacate the premises ended up shooting a few of them in an early morning ambush. It didn't work and the French beat the English by building Fort Duquesne in what is called the Golden Triangle where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers join to form the Ohio River. In the context of the mid 1700's, there was no better place to build a fort than in the Golden Triangle. George would lead a group of soldiers to build nearby Fort Necessity and try to destroy the French fort only to have his fort and army slaughtered, with George being one of the few who survived. He surrendered, gave away two of his officers as prisoners of war and sulked home. He tried again as a Colonel under British General Braddock only to have his army slaughtered and this time, he was the sole officer to survive along with a handful of soldiers. On his third attempt under British General Forbes, Washington was involved in another debacle, this time a case of friendly fire that cost him some more soldiers. Gamely he pressed on only to find that the French had decided their jig was up, burnt the fort and left. A British Fort named Fort Pitt after William Pitt, the Secretary of State at the time, was built and would eventually become Pittsburgh.
View from the Incline Bottom

A young George Washington, though technically an utter failure as a military leader so far, came out of all this as a hero and that is how I suppose Mt. Washington where I now stood overlooking the site below became so named. I was glad to have known all this before visiting the site otherwise it would have just been a site with a view.

The rest of the day we decided to spend at what I would term an alternative art museum called the Mattress Factory. It is a former mattress factory had been turned into an art museum with each floor consisting of several rooms devoted to one artists room sized art projects. To get to it, you had to drive down a narrow one-way alley with nowhere to park except squeezed to one side so someone could still squeeze by you with their vehicle. A second building a few blocks away could only be accessed by pressing the buzzer and having some unseen person let you in. In both places, you were allowed to wander as you pleased among the art with nary a roped off barrier to be found. I would honestly try and describe some of the exhibits if I knew how but I honestly don't know how to describe them. Instead click on the link and see for yourself. I must say it was probably the best art museum I have been to in awhile and a definite change from the painting and statue scene found at most art museums.
View from the Incline Top

Friday, December 12, 2008

When In Rome, Eat As the Romans


Although I don't completely subscribe to the saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans," I do subscribe to the idea of eating like the Romans when in Rome. So before we left for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a couple weeks ago, I asked several people who had been there what constitutes truly Pittsburgh or western Pennsylvania food. I got no ideas. So on our arrival, we asked around and still didn't get any suggestions save one, which was to try out a place called Primanti Brothers that made good sandwiches.

The first Primanti Brothers restaurant my Garmin GPS pulled up was near the college part of town and after driving around for twenty minutes in heavy traffic of both the rubber wheeled and the rubber soled persuasions without finding a single place to park, we found another one in the part of the town referred to as the south bank area. There we easily found parking and headed inside for a very late breakfast slash slightly early lunch.

Evidently when the Primanti Brothers began their restaurant, their plates and silverware didn't arrive in time for the opening and so they put the entire meal between two slices of sourdough bread and served it on pieces of waxed paper. It was unique, caught on and the rest has been history. Not knowing this before I ordered, I ordered a Pittsburgh Cheese Steak sandwich thinking it may be a close cousin of the famous Philadelphia Cheese Steak sandwiches that are on my list of things to eat someday when in the area. What I got was not what I expected.


Between my two slices of sourdough bread besides the steak and the cheese was also my order of fries and the side of coleslaw. As you can see from the picture above, it ended up being a pretty hefty sandwich and was good though not what I would call exceptional. It was definitely unique and probably only found in Pittsburgh so for now, it met my needs until I know differently.

The second meal of note while in Pittsburgh was when my wife was taken out on a business dinner at supposedly the best place to eat in town. As a tag-along spouse, I was invited. We arrived in the swanky section of the Mt. Washington area of Pittsburgh built on a mountain overlooking downtown with a fantastic view. There the valet confiscated our vehicle and we had to ride an elevator some 10 plus stories up into the air to the Monterey Bay restaurant where a 360-degree view greeted us.

I won't bore you with the details but the food, three of the four courses, was what you could find in your average mom and pop seafood place in Anywhere, USA. The fourth course, dessert, was truly spectacular but the first three were bland, elf like in portion size but came with huge price tags. It cost me less in gas to drive clear from Iowa to Monterey Bay in Pittsburgh than the tab of my wife and I combined and this is no exaggeration! Fortunately I didn't have to pick up the bill and that made the bland food a lot more palatable. While my wife and others talked business, I mainly just looked around, tried not to act bored, and to figure out which of the four forks I was supposed to use on the dish before me. I used them all in the end but I'm still not sure if I did so correctly.

At least it wasn't this place below which brings a whole other level to the meaning "Drive-Thru".

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Bittersweet Visit With My Great Uncle

On our way out to Pennsylvania, I opted to take the southern route through Indianapolis as opposed to the northern route through Chicago. In the winter I'm always worried about the "lake effect" blizzards along the northern route and since both ways are identical in mileage and time from where I live, I opted for the southern route. There was also another reason for selecting that route. My great uncle lives in Indianapolis and I have fond memories of him as a kid. He used to play one board or card game after another whenever he visited us and for a kid who usually only played them with his brother, it was great to have "new blood".

My great uncle is just a year shy of turning 90 and made his last hurrah trip to Iowa several years ago. Even then he did it by bus and had us go pick him up at the station. Now he is too advanced in age to make such a trip again and I thought I would visit him instead, something I had never done. I had heard many stories of his house and so I decided that I would see for myself. As it turned out, they were all true but severely understated!

Before I tell you about his house, first let me fill you in about my great uncle. He and his brother, my grandfather, are as far apart from each other as can be. My grandfather is a very mechanical oriented, practical, good with his hands, full of common sense kind of person. My great uncle on the other hand, has no common sense what so ever and doesn't know many of the things in life that most of us take for granted. Some examples:

1. I have had to explain what the square with the wavy lines means in a car. (Defrost)
2. I have had to explain the difference between parking lights and headlights because he drove for years only using parking lights and wondering why people honked at him all the time at night.
3. Doesn't know his right from his left
4. Backed into a mailbox and tore off his passenger side mirror. Believed it when told and paid for a $1400 replacement from some unsavory body shop who saw sucker written on his forehead.
5. Once drove 250 miles the wrong way before realizing his error after pulling off the interstate to get gas.

I could go on and on with the examples but I won't. But to fill you in on the rest of his history, he is a mentally sharp man and I could always spend great periods of time talking to him about this and that, especially World War II that he fought in. He just lacked common sense and everyone just accepted it. So I don't know if what I am about to tell you falls into the mentally sharp description being just an illusion or that his lack of common sense included his house.

We walked through the screened in porch where my great uncle sleeps during the summer. There is an army surplus cot and a very dirty army sleeping bag on it. We ring the doorbell and my great uncle opened the door. My breath was taken out of my mouth and it was all I could do to greet him. Behind him was a room completely filled with heaps upon heaps of magazines, newspapers, books, records, tapes and mail. It was four to five feet deep and went wall to wall with a few exceptions. There was a semicircle area that the door opened into but only inches out of reach and two trails that went to two different rooms out of view. Each trail was only 12 to 18 inches wide (with sides 4 to 5 feet deep) and the floor could only be seen in a few places where mini avalanches of stuff hadn't covered it. It was all we could do for my wife and I to squeeze inside the door with my great uncle who could only stand with the aid of a cane. How he walked down the trails without killing himself by slipping on a magazine I'll never know since for me, it was like walking on ice.

With the door closed, my wife standing in beginning of one of the trails, myself in the other and my great uncle in the now spacious semicircle clearing that the door swung in, there was an uncomfortable pause as we all debated what to do or say next. Finally my great uncle asked my wife to move toward him so he could get by her into the trail she was standing in. She did so and he caned his was a few feet down the trail and sat on a folding metal chair tucked off to one side and the only clear vertical surface that I could see. My wife and I then spent the next hour standing there in the trails and visited with my great uncle as he sat in apparently the only chair in the house. According to family lore, there is one other chair in the living room that is clear and about 18 inches of a bed that he sleeps on during the winter. The rest of his house looks exactly like the room we were standing in which was possibly a dining room once upon a time but all signs of furniture was buried.

As best as I can figure, my great uncle is the king of all collectors. He has a record, 8-track, tape, CD collection that had Billboard's Top 5 albums of the week going back from this week to the late 30's before the war. He is apparently the client of several book of the month clubs judging from the unopened mountains of book boxes and subscribes to a dozen or so magazines and newspapers, none of which he has ever thrown out. It is like a library with no shelving, with the exception of the record collection that occupied shelving built on every wall in sight. I saw a calendar on the wall, out of reach behind a mountain of stuff showing the days of July 1963. There was also another mountain of nothing but mail that had been rubber banded together by the postman when delivered, sat on top of the pile by my great uncle and apparently never opened.

It is terribly sad to see my great uncle living in such conditions but it is his choice and always has been. Several people have offered over the years to "clean" his house or get him to move into an assisted living facility but to no avail. My great uncle has squandered any money he may have had on subscriptions to so many things and now only gets buy on a reverse mortgage of his stately brick home in a well tended neighborhood of Indianapolis. From the outside, you would never know what lurks on the inside. I'm sure he could somehow get out of a reverse mortgage but he doesn't think so and is very stubbornly against it when people volunteer to look into the matter.

My uncle is in declining health and has lost a lot of weight over the last few years. He now survives on leftover food from his church, which feeds the homeless on a daily basis. His once sharp memory and faculties were now in sharp decline from the last time I saw him only a few years ago. I fear he only has a few years left before he dies or his senses leave him unable to take care of himself well enough to survive. It is a terribly sad thing to see and I feel worse knowing that someday he will die and make some local news highlight reel for dieing in a house amongst a mountain of "trash". People will shake their heads and wonder how anyone could live like that or what about his family.

My great uncle cut our meeting short because he needed to drive to his church for a meeting and to pick up any leftovers. We gave him a hug, told him to take care and squeezed out of the trails and out the door. It was definitely a bittersweet moment for me as it will probably be the last time I will ever see him again. I couldn't help but hoping that he loses his senses first so that someone can force him from his home so that he doesn't have to die in there alone in a mountain of stuff. I don't want him to make the evening news.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Waiting for the Third Stroke of Luck


I woke up to an empty bed this morning, which isn't one of the strokes of luck I am referring to in the title of this blog post. I heard my wife chattering away in Tagalog on the downstairs phone and due to the hour, I knew she was talking to someone in the Philippines since they are 12 to 13 hours ahead of us time wise depending on the complexities of Daylight Savings time. I thought nothing of it and proceeded to get ready for work.

When I finally made it down to the kitchen, my wife turned towards me and told me Tita Daisy got a visa. My draw hit the floor. In this post 9/11 world, 10-year visas have been impossible to get. It took lots applications, lots of reasons to enter the United States and most importantly lots of reasons to leave the country after you arrived. Mrs. Abbey's mother took three attempts, all of which cost lots of money whether or not they are successful, and only after infusing a bank account in the Philippines and getting better with our excuses, she was given a 10-year multiple entry visa. Meanwhile, others getting interviewed on the same day who had been coming to the U.S. for twenty and thirty years, got denied while simply getting a renewal. So why, Mrs. Abbey's mother's sister, who has been single all her life and thus has no children, no job (she took care of Mrs. Abbey's grandmother up until a couple years ago when she passed on), and no money get a 10-year multiple entry visa? I haven't a clue. I'm still in shock. Now I have to start scrounging up airfare for her to fly here sometime next year.

The second stroke of luck arrived in a phone call about 20 minutes after my wife left for work. Since we are hovering on the freezing mark of the thermometer and it is pouring rain, I assumed the worst as I picked up the phone. My definition of worst when the first words out of her mouth were, "we just hit a deer." My wife carpools with a lady who lives on the outside of town to another town where they catch a vanpool with twelve others to ride to a larger town farther away. By the timing of the call, they hadn't yet reached their vanpool yet so I asked it she and her co-rider were okay. They were but the vehicle hit the deer directly. Whose car was it? It turned out it was her co-rider's turn to drive and so stroke of luck number two hit home.

I'm still waiting for the third stroke of luck.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Little Abbey Update

A sorely neglected topic on this blog has been what used to be a staple of it for a time, a Little Abbey update. In fact, some of my newer reader may never have read one of those so in case you fall into that category, Little Abbey is my daughter born two and a half years ago. As I normally do, I provide an update on her life in no particular order.

I remember in the early days of childhood when the doctors and such would give us a little fact sheet that would list milestones that your baby should reach during the upcoming month in their life. Little Abbey was pretty good at meeting most of those milestones so we never worried much. I remember reading one such milestone where it said that your baby should be able to stack at least three blocks on top of each other without them falling down. A couple weeks ago, Little Abbey set a new personal best by stacking 23 blocks on top of one another. It was so tall that she had to use the box they came in as a step stool to reach the top of the stack.

Do you remember the game Jinga? It was a tower of criss-crossed blocks that you built and then poked blocks out, stacking them on top until someone caused the tower to collapse. Well I've got a jinga master in training. Little Abbey and I often play with her blocks and I will stack them up in a pyramid with staggered joints between layers of blocks. Then Little Abbey will carefully tap blocks out from the bottom of the pile and stack them on top. Sometimes she can get an amazing amount poked out before the tower collapses.

I bought her a tricycle for her second birthday even though most children can't ride them until two and a half to three years of age mostly due to length of legs and reaching the pedals. Little Abbey being a long legged girl just like her daddy didn't have that problem and soon she was and still is riding that thing all over the house and driveway. Well a few months later, she also added riding it backwards to her resume.

That shouldn't surprise me at all since being a daredevil apparently comes naturally for her. She is forever flipping, jumping and once in a while falling off the couch. One of her more recent developments has been building platforms with her building blocks and then standing or sitting on them like furniture until they fall down. There isn't a counter in our house that is sacred anymore to her probing fingers and since she has learned to use other objects like broom handles to extend her reach, very few cabinets are sacred either. I think we are only left with the top of the refrigerator to hide stuff on out of her reach.

Vocabulary-wise, she was well behind most of her peers though she has now caught up. She knows so many words these days that I can't begin to count and I'm not surprised when she uses a new word. She is still slightly behind the curve language-wise in that her sentences are still only two or three words in length but that is improving fast, not because her sentences are that short because they aren't. I am just able to understand more and more words in her lengthy explanations.

Another milestone that I have no idea if she is behind is the potty training frontier. I know she is ready because she tells us when she did something in her diaper and what kind of remainder was left behind but despite our pleadings, doesn't seem to let us know ahead of time. She has successfully used the potty-chair once but I think now that was more a matter of it being in the right place at the right time rather than her actually setting forth to actually use it. She can take off her old diaper and darn near put a new diaper on herself so I am hoping that we can cross this training hurdle sometime soon. It will be a monumental day to be able to leave her diaper bag at home when going somewhere.

Going somewhere is getting easier and easier these days. She is able to entertain herself with colors, books and things for longer periods of time while in moving cars. This is fortunate as Little and Mrs. Abbey will be making a trip to the Philippines by themselves in a few months. The one thing that has really captivated her attention is Elmo. I remember reading about people getting into fights over Elmo several years ago and now I understand why. They all had two-year-old daughters at home. So I hope to pick up some Elmo DVD's and a portable DVD player for the trip because I have found that Little Abbey could watch Elmo every waking moment of the day if we would let her.

Probably the only other passion in her life besides Elmo is cooking. Both Mrs. Abbey and I love to cook and are often found in the kitchen with Little Abbey beside us on her little ladder. She loves to knead a small piece of dough alongside Mrs. Abbey, load ingredients into a mixer, stir bowls or pans and generally just imitate us in every way. I hadn't realized this was such a passion until one day the daycare lady Mrs. Z told us Little Abbey's favorite toy by far was a plastic kitchen set.

This time in her life is absolutely a fantastic one and I enjoy it tremendously. If I had to give it a name, I would call it the age of reason because it is only now that we can start to reason with her. I see her understanding more about action and reaction and cause and effect. If she refuses to pick up her blocks before bed, we simply tell her that a favorite item of hers, a bear blanket made by grandma, is now ours until she picks them up. She has never called my bluff yet. We can also tell her that if she wants more of item A on her plate she must eat the rest of item B. She understands this and does it. I love it and I am going to enjoy it for all it is worth until she enters into the age of resistance.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Finding a Piece of Iowaville's Past

On our way back from seeing our neighbors on Thanksgiving, we scooped the loop in town. In other words, we drove the full length of Iowaville Main Street, all two blocks, turned around and drove back the same way.

There isn't much left of Iowaville. Stately brick store fronts used to line both sides of main street for the full length. Sometime recently, the last one on the west side fell down into a pile of bricks. I think all but one, possibly two have fallen down on the east side. It is a sad thing to see all these stores that I used to frequent in my youth are now nothing more than empty grass lots.

Many years ago while digging around our basketball area on the end of the garage to smooth out some lumps, I discovered a brick that said Iowaville on the side of it. I later learned that Iowaville used to have a brick making factory back in the early 1900's and made lots of bricks. I have looked off an on over the years among the piles of bricks on main street as they have fallen searching for more to add to my collection of one, but have been unsuccessful.

So as we drove by the pile of bricks from the recently fallen building spilled onto main street, I asked my wife to look to see if any said Iowaville as we drove by slowly. I wasn't even planning on stopping. However, she said she saw one and we did stop and go back to look. Sure enough, we found 3/4th of a brick with the words, Iowaville, Iowa stamped into one side. It wasn't in as good as shape as the one I had but still readable. We searched around to find one in better shape but couldn't find a single one. All the others were labeled with a company from Illinois. I'm guessing our lone brick was used as a repair somewhere along the line and was either a loner or one of only a few that were in the immense pile of bricks. So I took the partial brick and took it home to add to my collection of now 1 and 3/4 bricks. They are my reminder of what once was in Iowaville.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Off East!

I have gone out east to accompany Mrs. Abbey while she does some business in western Pennsylvania. In fact, I should be somewhere in Illinois heading east at 65 mph as you read this. It's been nearly 20 years since I've been in that neck of the woods and I would like to see it again. Also, as it turns out, I will be just 50 or so miles from the birthplace of my 3rd great and two sets of 4th great grandparents. I've found their farm where they lived and the cemetery where one set of my 4th great grandparents are buried. I'm hoping to stop by and pay them a visit and see the farm where I'm told a monument of sorts exists while Mrs. Abbey does her thing. I'm sure I'll have quite a bit to write about when I get back to sprinkle in-between more posts on my Grand Canyon trip. I may have a few short posts automatically post themselves while I'm gone so don't worry if I don't stop by for a few days. I'll catch up when I get back.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving Recap

After the smoked Turkey, jalepeno grits, and ultimate pumpkin pie, chocolate, cheesecake layer pie was eaten, we decided to work off some of the excess by partaking of a family tradition, chopping down a red cedar tree to use as our Christmas tree. They grow wild all over the place so it didn't take a lot of searching before we found the perfect one in the ditch of one of our farms.

After we had the tree safely in the back of the truck, we decided to spread some cheer by visiting some former landlords in town. These former neighbors for many years and then former landlords before they sold out to my parents and moved to town, live in a retirement apartment complex where they are close to ammenities like home cooked meals at the townhall. I recently wrote about their son on Veteran's Day.

I hadn't visited with them in many years so it was nice to see them again. They are both getting long in the tooth and frail so it is perhaps the last time I will get to visit with them. During our visit, I noticed a picture of their son up on the wall dressed in his best sailor suit and looking so full of promise. It was a shame that he died near the beginning of the Vietnam war in the tragedy that occurred on the U.S.S. Forrestall. I always wondered what he would have said about John McCain who was also on that ship that day.

We spent Black Friday decorating our Christmas tree which had turned green again thanks to some green food coloring in the water. It was a pleasant way to spend a day with a nice fire, some Christmas music and family while others were being trampled to death for a piece of Chinese made plastic.

Saturday we hosted some others far from families over to our place for a nice dinner and a tour around town to all the Maharishi sites, including the Tower of Invincibility, World Capital of Peace, Twin Peace mansions, the Golden Domes where the Yogic Flying takes place, and the chained in prison like compound where the square root of one percent of the U.S. population is praying for our peace.

Yesterday, I spent the day watching it snow and playing with my daughter while the Mrs. decided to brave the crowds to do some shopping. I have no desire to share in that joy and have my shopping all done via the internet and delivered right to my door. Besides, I'm going to be gone most of next week on a trip out east and want to enjoy time at home. Hope you all had a good holiday.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Day Seven: The Beginning of Emotional Scarring

Dory On the Colorado

As I walked down the path to Phantom Ranch, which is actually set up a side canyon a little ways from the river, I was mulling over the things I wanted to do. I wanted to get a bottle of sunscreen to protect my feet which had already been burnt badly the previous day when I ran out of the little I had brought (I would carry white strips where my sandal straps crossed my feet for almost a year before they matched the rest of my skin.) and send off a few postcards which were taken out of the canyon by mule train. But the well-worn paths smelling of donkey piss were distracting my thoughts and not helping the foul mood that I would be experiencing later.

Phantom Ranch was originally a Native American trading site that was later used by prospectors of the river canyons. Theodore Roosevelt visited it while hunting and loved it so much that he worked to get it included in the national park system during his tenure in office. It has since been made into a resort of sorts that is mostly fully booked for two years in advance. There is a little cafeteria that serves only meals that has been scheduled in advance and a little shop that sells things to tourists. After seven days of being disconnected from society in almost every way, I entered the latter with high thoughts.

Almost instantly I was overwhelmed. The frigid air from an air conditioner smelled terrible stale and put my body into shock. Shivering, I bought a small tube of sunscreen for the princely sum of almost $15 because I didn't have a choice and a few postcards. I sat down at a table to write some words of humor to friends and family but couldn't shake the dry, canned, almost sterile feeling of the environment. Some piped in music over the speaker system seemed garishly loud and obnoxious as if boring through my head with a dull drill bit. Reality started slipping and everyone, everywhere were laughing and screaming like circus clowns in a horror movie with a bad plot. Suddenly I felt sick and claustrophobic, so much so that my head started reeling making me feel very dizzy and light-headed. I quickly wrote a few words, jammed the postcards into the mailbox and staggered out of the building, down the foul smelling trail now making me gag, and back to the boats along the river. There I sat in the shade of a tamarisk bush allowing the cold sweats to dissipate and my reeling senses to stabilize as I spent the rest of the morning hiding from civilization and drawing in my journal.

Globemallow

It has only been seven days on the river and it now felt like seven years. Suddenly I didn't want to go back from the world I had come from. It was a world full of artificial and unnatural things and this week, I had my eyes opened to what life was truly like and should be. As I sat there doodling a drawing of Bronco's boat, The Phantom Ranch, I realized just how appropriately it had been named. It wasn't a geographical feature now buried under miles of water like the names of the other boats but it had been destroyed just the same. For me, Phantom Ranch was something evil and foul and a place that I hope never to visit ever again. As I sat eating my lunch a little later, Bronco came by and sensed that I was not well. He asked if I was okay and I told him some of what I was feeling. I could see the understanding in his eyes and knew he felt it as well. He said it never gets any easier, got his lunch and wandered off down the beach to eat his lunch alone and away from Phantom Ranch.

Eventually the other passengers wandered down to the boats and the four new people who hiked down from the south rim this morning also showed up. They were given a brief lecture on the dos and don'ts of dories and promised a longer session in tonight’s camp. We said goodbye to the three who were to spend the night here and hike out the next morning and went on our way.

The three who had left were all people who had been on other segments of the dory trip and had come back to finish what they had started. I knew this and couldn't blame them. However I couldn't help but think vile thoughts towards them and the four newcomers. I felt the leaving three were breaking a bond that had grown to such strength in seven days one that only intense close proximity experiences that few share could create. They were leaving a huge void, one that necessarily had to be filled for financial reasons and some safety as a heavy dory deals with huge waves better than a light one. They felt almost like traitors in my mind for putting us in this position.

As we "met" the four new people, I could tell by the morose attitudes of clients and crew alike (though the latter handled it much more privately and professionally), I wasn't the only one thinking vile thoughts. These newcomers felt like intruding strangers into a world that we had created and grown close over the course of seven days. They were here for only the middle segment and then would be gone very much like a corporate raider after acquisition of some new company. They were rookies. They got into Bronco's boat and we set off downstream.

This trip has changed me in such a drastic way in only seven days and would do so to such an extent by the end of the trip that it would take a few years before I realized the full extent of my emotional turmoil. I've heard of survivors who were forced to survive great lengths of time alone have problems re-entering society and for the first time in my life, I knew exactly how they felt. Looking back, I know we were pretty hard on the newcomers those first few days after Phantom Ranch and undeservedly so. We somewhat ignored them treating them like the outsiders they were and they for the most part sensing our foul moods, rode together in a boat together so that we only had to be around them while in camp. Reading back through my journal entries of over eight years ago, I understand this now though at the time I blamed them in various ways throughout my journal entries for the remainder of the trip. Perhaps you will pick that up in some of my entries that I will post later. Gradually however, they earned their way into our group and by the time they left at the end of the second segment, I knew I would miss them. But an emotional knot in my stomach kept growing that peaked at the end of the trip and has never gone away.

Dogweed & Black Schist

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Day Seven: Big Water and a Small Camp

Looking Back At Group at the Saddle

Wednesday, April 12, 2000 - The sky was clear when I got down to the beach except for a few clouds off above the north rim. It was a chilly night last night even in my sleeping bag and no tent and I had to put on another layer during the night. The sun just started peeking over the rim and taking the chill out of the air when a breakfast of melon slices and good old-fashioned oatmeal was served. Today was a big day as we were stopping at the first spot of civilization since we began the trip seven days ago, Phantom Ranch. We were dropping off Mike, Betsy and John and picking up four more passengers so we packed sack lunches so that we could do our own thing there.

We pushed off and soon ran Unkar Creek Rapids that had a monster hole along the rock wall that we fortunately avoided. At Hance Rapids, we got out and scouted it first but had a clean run. The next rapid was Sockdolager Rapids and had huge waves. I decided to take a series of shots as we boated the rapids using my waterproof camera and succeeded in taking a few in the upper part. That all came to an end when a fifteen foot wave hit us and swept clear over the boat filling it to the brim with icy cold water. Between throwing myself to the high side to prevent capsizing and bailing, I didn't have time for any more photos. Grapevine Rapids also had huge waves but we ran them cleanly as well. Finally after a few more good rapids, we pulled into Phantom Ranch. That is a story in itself and I will post it in my next post of this trip.

We went through Horn Creek Rapids that had the biggest waves we've seen so far when the river dropped 30 feet in about 100 feet. As a kayaker and canoer, almost every rapid had what I considered runnable via cheat routes usually near the inside of bends where shallower smaller water existed. Even serious rapids like Crystal and Lava Falls could be run without portaging by a weekend whitewater paddler like myself. Horn Creek Rapids was a different story. It was pinched off on both sides of the river into a narrow slot opening. The waves were horrendously big and gnarly looking. If someday I do paddle the Colorado on my own, I will definitely portage this one on the boulder fields on either side. Duffy, the son of Ote, was paddling my boat today and he did a masterful job of running the rapids, so much so, we hardly even got wet.

Above Unkar Rapids

After Hance Rapids, the rocks changed to pink granite and black schist and narrowed the canyon down considerably. The walls were pretty much sheer right down to the water's edge with no place to land. Powell would have to be scared to death entering this part of the river sign unseen. After pushing off with the four new strangers, we went only about four miles before pulling in for the night at Mile 91-1/2. The adrenaline rush from Horn Creek Rapids was still in full swing when we landed at our fairly small camp, which made it seem even smaller as we unloaded the boats and marked off our turf in the cramped quarters.

There was no organized hike due to geology constraints so I took off up ninety-one mile creek behind camp and took the left fork. I climbed up about 1500 feet to the base of the Tapeats layer where I finally was rim-rocked. The hike was extremely steep and the top third was all loose rocks. I fell a couple of times and banged up my legs pretty good so that I was bleeding in a couple places. In hind site, it was probably very stupid and very unsafe but I had to get away from the cramped quarters of camp and this was my only option. I sat up there tending my wounds and saw my first American Condor flying plus two more around over camp way below me.

Back in camp I dabbed Neosporin into my wounds and ate a spaghetti dinner complete with garlic bread and a green salad. After dinner everyone turned in right away. I stayed up with Nick, Bronco and one of the new guys a retired dentist named Bob. Soon however it was just myself and Bronco and I learned that he actually did a recreation of Powell's journey for a PBS special (which I later saw after the trip) in costume and special made boats. We talked about that until late into the night.

For the first time, we have crickets in camp, which seem obnoxiously loud in the confines of camp and a couple of loudly croaking frogs. The stars are very bright as is the moon and they make for really neat shadows on the cliffs of black schist. That and the close confines lend a real air of spookiness to our camp. It is supposed to be a big water day tomorrow and I feel a sense of dread that the boat with the unseasoned passengers might get upset in a rapids. I hope I'm not in that boat.

Above 91 Mile Camp

Monday, November 24, 2008

Angry Wind: A Book Review


Since 9/11 and what I saw as the current occupant's gross misinterpretation of the Muslim world which manifests into hate mongering by the neo-conservative side of politics to this day, I have wanted to learn more about their culture. Jeffrey Taylor's book on boating down a river in Siberia brought his name to my eye and another book of his entitle Angry Wind soon was added to my bookshelf.

Angry Wind is a chronicle of a two month trip across the Sahel region of Africa through the countries of Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal. These countries encompass some of the most destitute countries in Africa and in the post 9/11 world of 2003, still before the United States invaded Iraq, attitudes towards the United States were poor at best. Jeff Taylor's expertise is studying cultures in his travels and he wanted to see for himself the conflict between Christians and Muslims and Muslim attitudes towards the United States which at the time appeared to be heading towards another war in Iraq. He accomplished both goals.

Taylor is fluent in Russian, French and Arabic along with English an thus has the tools to undergo such a trip yet he struggles along the way dealing with multitudes of corrupt officials and thieving citizens of both faiths. Yet always he seems to find good Samaritans along the way to help guide him through the country via local transportation consisting of trucks, boats, trains and camels and look out for his welfare

This is the second book of his I have read and it has convinced me that I need to read more. I have another one on my shelf but for now it will remain so. My next book is the beginning of a goal that I have had for many years. I am attempting to read a biography on each of our presidents beginning with George Washington and working my way to Obama. I figure by the time I get to him, I will have several biographies to choose from. For Washington, I chose a 500 plus page tomb written by Willard Sterne Randall. I will give a report on it when I finish sometime next year.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Another Customer Experience Story. But One of the Better Kind.

We've been getting two daily newspapers for several years now. One is the local rag that we use for around town news and events that we may be interested in such as local auctions, house showings, cultural events, etc. The second newspaper was the state rag that I used more for national and statewide news. However, since we are so far out in the boondocks of rural Iowa, the national news that reached us was a couple days old and in the age of modern updates via email and the web, it was getting to be irrelevant. So after talking about it and doing our part to cut back on expenses some just in case this economic crisis gets way more serious than they believe, we decided to axe our state rag subscription though not completely. The Sunday paper usually consists of the highlights from the past week and goes more in depth about the events than the daily print, short on space, ever could. Plus our local rag only delivers on the weekdays and the Sunday paper would fill that gap.

So I called up the state rag circulation department and after wading through ten minutes of voice actuated menus so everyone in the office thought I was talking to myself and possibly clinically insane, I got through to an extremely accented voice which with large amounts of interpretation sounded like he was asking me to hold. I said okay and there was a click. I covered the mouthpiece and leaned over so I could see my neighbor in the office across the way and said something like "Yes! I got someone who can't speak English!"

A few seconds later the heavily accented voice comes back on the line though suddenly the voice was a lot more intelligible as he said, "I assure you sure that I can speak English perfectly well, may I have your account number?"

I very nearly hung up right then thinking that now that I had insulted the guy, my chances of good service were now somewhere between "no way" and "hell freezing over." But I didn't. I gave him my account number and within 30 seconds, he said he would take care of my subscription, canceling the weekday and adding the balance to the Sunday paper only service effective at the end of the week. He bid me a good day.

The end of the week came and an entire other week went by and still the daily newspaper showed up somewhere on my lawn. On a side note, I always have to go through a several week battle when ever a new carrier starts our route to train him that somewhere on my lawn, roof, snow drift, street or flowerbed are not acceptable delivery spots and that I prefer it somewhere on my expansive front desk that even a paraplegic could hit from the street while wheel chairing by at 50 miles per hour. We evidently had a new carrier and for the last month, I couldn't get my paper in the dark before going to work simply because I couldn't find it and had to wait until I got home to see where he had tossed it this time. This also played a part in the timing of why we decided to finally cancel the daily paper. On another side note, we've never had a problem with the Sunday paper simply because it is too heavy to throw from the street.

So side notes aside, I called the newspaper circulation desk again just to make sure the accented guy from my previous call hadn't decided to just screw me over due to my rudeness even if it was the truth. He hadn't and the lady assured me that she would take care of the problems.

Another week goes by with a newspaper and another phone call.
Another week goes by with a newspaper and another phone call.
Another week goes by with a newspaper and another phone call.

No those weren't typos. Four and a half weeks after I called and cancelled my paper immediately, I kept finding papers here and there on my lawn, soggy with rain, buried under the leaves that hadn't already blown down the street and generally giving my house an unkept appearance. I was beginning to wonder what a guy had to do to stop the newspaper carrier from delivering a paper. Then this past Monday afternoon after I got home from work, there was no newspaper. I assumed I had missed it on the roof or the flowerbed but by yesterday, it was still absent. Now if I just continue to get the Sunday paper, I will be happy.

But my story, long as it is already, doesn't end there. For some unexplained reason, my local rag that gets delivered by a nice girl about 4:30 every afternoon while I am at home, kept getting delivered but the previous days edition would also be waiting for me when I got home. Who delivered this and why? I don't know. Concerned that someone was delivering the wrong route and because I just got through canceling the state rag which was already a day late in the news, I didn't need a local rag a day late in the news either especially when I had read it the night before. So I called up the office and explained the situation. They said they would look into it and figure it all out. I know they will be more prompt since I work with the husband of the circulation department and thus know the lady of the circulation department quite well. What a bizarre world.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Day Six: Another Day In Paradise

Confluence of the Rivers

The clouds of yesterday's late afternoon shower cleared out during the night and it dawned a beautiful day. However, it was a bit chilly when I woke up and for the first time since the start of the trip, I had to put on my jacket before packing up and walking down to the kitchen. Cooks Mary and Heidi were already heating up water so by the time I arrived, a steaming mug of hot cocoa was waiting for me. Life just doesn't get any better. Unless perhaps you have a few slices of perfectly ripened melons to munch on before a breakfast of French toast and sausage, which I did.

We struck camp and I rode in Elaina's boat for the day. We made good time even stopping once to scout out the massive Kwagunt Rapids before pulling in at the junction of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado River. The Colorado River is a beautiful emerald green in color and the Little Colorado laden with potassium carbonate is an extremely brilliant blue. Where they joined was a myriad of colors and breathtakingly beautiful. As we hiked up the Little Colorado to a little rapids about three fourths of a mile away, I had to scramble to keep up while stopping to take several rolls of pictures.

The day was warming up considerably so we put on our life jackets diaper like to protect our tailbones from rocks and floated through the rapids in train style where the person in front held onto your ankles and you held onto the ankles of the person behind you. It helped ensure that nobody got caught in a recirculating eddy at the bottom of the several small falls we went over. It was a lot of fun and we went over in various train combinations until we were all exhausted.
Confluence of the Rivers


Back at the confluence of both rivers, we ate a lunch of tuna salad sandwiches, potato chips and pecan cookies. During meals, I usually single out somebody to get to know them better and learn about them. Today I talked with assistant cook Mary who turns out is the same age as I am. She lives up in Haines, Alaska that sounds beautiful but not someplace I could ever live. Living with several months of twilight and conversely several months of no darkness just doesn't sound appealing, especially the former.

After lunch, we hit the river and a couple big rapids, namely Lava Canyon Rapids and Tanner Canyon Rapids. Rapids in the Grand Canyon are very easy to locate with any topo map. All you have to do is look for where a side canyon enters the canyon proper and there is bound to be rapids. This is because rocks washed down from the side canyon during torrential flooding accumulate in the main canyon constricting the river and thus forming a rapid. Sometimes two side canyons on opposite sides of the canyon proper meet at the same place and usually that signals even bigger rapids than normal.

We pulled in early at mile 71 near Cardenas Creek. It is a nice camp with tons of individual camping among the tamarisk but was very hot. Today we passed a big fault and the constricting confines of Marble Canyon are now behind us and the wider more open canyon that many people associate with the name Grand Canyon have begun. If the fault weren't indication enough of this, the sudden appearance of hikers along the shore is another indication. We saw quite a few during today's float, another animal I can add to my "spotted" list.

After camp was set up, we set out on a short hike up to some Anasazi ruins. These ruins are theorized to be part of a lookout system of towers set up as an early warning device for unexpected visitors. From these ruins, you can see up to both sides of the canyon and ruins located there including the famous Desert View ruins on the South Rim. I think the Tartan Trail from there to the river was the one that I hiked down so many years ago.

The rest of the group seemed content to just sit up by the ruins so Jorge and I hiked further up the nose about two or three miles to an incredibly exposed and beautiful lookout further up the canyon walls. I took quite a few pictures of flowers on the way back and we took several "imminent death" pictures of us sitting on an exposed overhanging ledge. When we got back to the saddle where the first ruins were situated, we ran into Bronco and Elaina who stayed behind when everyone else headed back to camp. We stayed and talked for a while before heading back to camp with them.

There waiting for us was some cheese and crackers that I enjoyed on the beach while watching the sun go down. I still can't get used to watching the sun go down so early due to the high horizon line of cliffs and having so much time to kill before it is even close to bedtime. For supper, we had grilled chicken quarters, mashed potatoes, coleslaw and cornbread. Because it was Don's birthday, we also had a carrot cake for dessert. After supper, everyone but Bronco, Nick and I went right to bed. The three of us sat up for a while talking about how they got started in the boating business and various hikes they had done in central Idaho. I likewise filled them in on the Wind River Mountains and Ozark Mountains, which I was familiar with. Their lifestyle is so appealing to me that I would love to give it a try sometime if only for a few months. Right now, my life back in Minnesota seems so distant and in the past.
Anasazi Lookout Ruins