Friday, September 30, 2005

The Canteen, The Spray Jacket, and My First Look at the Trail

I'd never been to the Grand Canyon before.  Other than having flown over it once while going cross-country on a 747, I hadn't really seen it either.  So, once we checked in and got our stuff to our room, it seemed a good idea to check out the large gaping work of nature waiting just a few feet behind our hotel.

It's big.

Really, really big.

I mean, it's turn-your-head-and-look-both-ways-and-there's-still-canyon-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see big.

Over the next few days, I would hear various descriptions of its size (in acres and miles) but the one that really did it for me was when I learned about the shuttle bus running from the South Rim (where we were) to the North Rim (other side) and that the trip took five hours.  I mean, five hours was longer than it took us to drive to the canyon from Phoenix.  This sucker was, if not actually state-sized, certainly half-state-sized.  What I'm trying to say here is that I was in no way prepared for the scope of the canyon.

Once we ooh'd and ahh'd over the sheer majesty of the thing, we walked over to the corral (where we would meet our mules the next morning) and took a look at the start of the Bright Angel trail, which we'd be riding the mules down.

I have to say (and I, in fact, did say it a couple entries ago) that I had been somewhat nervous about the prospect of riding a mule into this thing.  Especially with all the talk of "sheer cliff walls" and mules who "like to walk on the outside edge of the trail."  I stopped being afraid as soon as I saw the trail.  (Well, not the WHOLE trail, obviously -- but the first set of switchbacks.)  It was wide enough for a couple hikers to walk abreast.  It wasn't a ramp downward -- it was like a bunch of stairs, only the steps were marked by logs or railroad ties.  It was really well maintained with a little curb of rocks running along the outside edge of the trail.  Whew.  To someone imagining a mule balancing precariously on a thin dirt path running along the side of a cliff, this was a wonderfully calming sight.  Who cares if the mule prefers the outside edge of the trail when there's still that nice stone curb between you and the drop?  All of a sudden, the mule ride seemed totally do-able -- so now I just had to get all my gear in order.

When we checked in, they had given us each brand new canteens (which would be ours to keep).  The canteens came with a little packet (like those packets of ketchup you get at fast food places) of lemon juice.  We were directed to fill the canteens with hot water, drop in the lemon juice, and let them steep overnight.  This would loosen the canteen, we were told.  While Kathy started unpacking, I started preparing the canteens.  I screwed up in opening the first packet of lemon juice and dumped about half of it on the bathroom floor.  Kathy saw all the fun I was having trying to fill this thing in the bathroom sink, and she tried to fill her own canteen.  She, too, messed up with the lemon juice, although her pile of misfired juice ended up on the toilet seat.  Between the two of us, it looked like someone really had to use the toilet and had badly missed.

We'd also been given spray jackets.  These were not brand new items that would be ours to keep afterward.  They were big.  They were yellow.  They were a men's size LARGE.  They were dirty.  They were torn up.  They were disgusting.

(They also had the words "MULE RIDER" written unnecessarily in big black letters on the back.  "Unnecessarily" because if you were sitting on a mule while wearing one, you would be, quite obviously, a mule rider.  And I couldn't imagine any circumstance in which you'd want to wear this thing if you were not, in fact, sitting upon a mule.)

Each time I picked mine up to put it down someplace else (generally someplace further away from my bed), I'd run into the bathroom and wash my hands.  I asked Kathy, rhetorically, why was it that every time I touched this thing I wanted to wash up.  Kathy replied, "Because it's been on a mule."

She had a point.  Of course, in about 12 hours time, *I'd* be on a mule too, and I hoped we'd survive the ordeal rather better than the jackets.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Adventure Begins

I'm back.  Well, not yet back home -- but back from the Grand Canyon.  (I'm visiting my folks in Arizona for a few days.)  Since I'm not yet home, I can't go through the 100 or so digital pics I took to illustrate my journey -- I have great hopes that maybe ten or so came out.  (Everyone says you can't really memorialize the canyon with photos.  They're probably right.  And I bet that's especially true when you don't even have a panoramic camera -- that would've at least given me a fighting chance.)

ANYWAY -- Kathy had booked the mule trip for Sunday.  We were flying into Phoenix on Saturday, then driving up to the canyon.  Now, the genius who Kathy had spoken to when booking this trip told her that you had to check in at the Bright Angel Transportation Desk the day before the mule trip -- otherwise you'd have to be at the desk by 6:30 the morning of your trip.  (We weren't real fond of this plan, preferring to sleep in as late as possible that morning.)  They had also told Kathy that the desk closes at 4:00 p.m.  In other words, we had to get from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon (and get parked and all that) and over to the Transportation Desk by 4:00 on Saturday.  The only flight we could take that would get us there in time (allowing time for traffic and/or getting lost) left the Los Angeles area at 6:50 a.m.  (I wasn't fond of this either, but at least we'd be all set for our mules, and not have to deal with all that stuff the following morning.)

It always takes me longer to pack than I think it will.  ALWAYS.  So, by the time I was setting my alarm clock (for 4:45 a.m.) and getting into bed, it was after 1:00.

Woke up after a good solid three and half hours of sleep and dragged myself into the shower.  Turned it on and waited for the water to get hot.

And waited.

And waited.

This is odd.  I got out of the shower and checked the bathroom faucet.  And the other bathroom faucet.  And the kitchen sink.  All the same:  no hot water.

I could not bring myself to take an icy cold shower at 5:00 in the morning, and just resolved to shower as soon as we checked into our hotel at the canyon.

Got to airport.  Got on plane.  Landed in Arizona.  Got rental car.  (I had originally planned to be the only driver, but Kathy thought it would be good if we paid the extra $50 so she could drive it too.  Ultimately, this would turn out to be an excellent idea.)  I drive as far as Flagstaff.  We stop for lunch, then Kathy takes us into Grand Canyon National Park.

When we pull up to the gate, we pull out our $20 fee for a permit.  The National Park guy tells us that one day out of the year, the permits are free -- and, apparently, this is the day.  This seems odd to us (odd enough that I do a quick check and make sure both of our shirts are suitably buttoned) but we take our free pass and head into Grand Canyon National Park.

We can't find a place to leave the car that is anywhere near the Bright Angel Lodge -- where we'll be staying (and checking in for the mule ride).  OK, not exactly true -- we find a spot that IS near the Bright Angel Lodge -- we just have to walk across the railroad tracks and up a two-storey staircase to get there.  Which I expect will be a problem when it comes to lugging our luggage to the hotel.

But that's not our first order of business.  It's 2:00 p.m., so we're going to check in at the Transportation Desk for our mule ride (as we've got two whole hours to spare).  We prove that we meet all necessary mule riding requirements -- over four-foot-seven; under 200 pounds; not visibly pregnant; and able to speak and understand English.  And we sign the waivers of liability.  The nice lady at the desk gives us plastic bags -- in which we are to pack a small amount of belongings to take with us to Phantom Ranch, canteens (more about these later), and yellow spray jackets (more about these later, too).  We're all checked in.  Yay.  She tells us to show up at the corral at 6:45 the next morning.

... and I think, "6:45?  We made such a point of getting here before 4:00 today so we could save ourselves a lousy half hour?!"

... and THEN I see the sign that says the Transportation Desk is actually open until 8:00 p.m. tonight.  And we point out that we rushed over here by 4:00 because that's what the idiot on the phone told us, and she was all, "Oh no; we're open till 8:00."

Much eye-rolling -- but, what can you do?  Cry over lost sleep?  It's already a done deal.  We go over to the desk to check in at the lodge for our room.  They assign us a cute little room a coupla cabins over.  At the last second I ask, pretty much as a joke, "You don't happen to have any secret special parking spaces nobody knows about, do you?"  As a matter of fact, they do.  Guy behind the desk directed us to secret special parking spaces -- from which we were ultimately able to haul our stuff to our room without having to navigate train tracks or a staircase.  (Hooray!)

We got in our clean, comfortable room and tried to figure out what to do for the rest of the day.  I looked in the bathroom and noticed something missing ... a shower.  Apparently, when you book a room at Bright Angel with "two beds and a bath," they take this literally and give you a bathtub -- not a bathtub/shower unit.  So, I took a hot bath, washing my hair under the tub faucet (a feat which Kathy correctly described as "kinda like doing ab exercises") and idly wondered when (if ever) I'd get a hot shower again.

Friday, September 23, 2005

I Go Away; I Come Back

Happy to be back among the connected, thanks to a new cable modem.  (I was a little concerned that I wouldn't get one.  I had appointments with cable guys to fix my TV as well as the modem, because my reception didn't look so hot on a few stations, and the TV Guy came before the Modem Guy.  The TV Guy discovered a problem with the cable which traced to somewhere outside my condo complex, so scheduled a maintenance call with the Outside Cable Guy.  He said this problem was likely also causing my modem trouble, so he said he would call off Modem Guy.  Conveniently, Modem Guy came anyway and simply swapped out my modem for a new one.  Instant success.)

Now that I'm back, I'll be going away again.  I have to catch a plane real early tomorrow morning.  For Phoenix.  Where I'll be renting a car, and driving up to the Grand Canyon for a vacation with a friend of mine, Kathy.

Kathy just had a big birthday, and wanted to go someplace fun and outdoorsy and a little adventurey to celebrate.  She decided on the whole riding-mules-into-the-Grand-Canyon-(and-back-out-again) thing.  Complete with overnighting at Phantom Ranch inside the canyon.  We've been planning this for months.  We have to get on the early flight tomorrow because we need to make it to the Transportation Desk before it closes tomorrow night, so we can check-in for our mule ride taking place the next day.

I've never been to the Grand Canyon.  The closest I've been was that once, when I was about 12, I was on a jet flying cross-country and the pilot pointed it out when we flew over.  Big big canyon.  I took pictures, from however many thousand feet we were flying.

Whenever I watch The Amazing Race, I always figure that if I was on the show, I'd be the fearless one.  I mean, I'd need my partner to be the strong one (and the one who can eat gross things), but I'd be up for all the bungee jumping, zip-line riding, and jumping out of airplanes.

The more I read about this mule thing, though, the more scary it sounds.  Not having seen the Canyon in person (or, come to think of it, a mule), I had a fairly innocent mental picture of riding down a trail (with lots of switchbacks) on a gentle incline, on some low riding critter with my feet hanging just a foot or so off the ground.

Heh.  Idiot.  Now I'm reading things about riding a big, huge animal ("don't confuse mules with donkeys," says their information, "mules are often bigger than horses") which sometimes likes to "back off the trail" (says one website -- the italics are theirs) along "steep cliffs" and some sort of "suspension bridge" for roughly five hours each way.


Oh, and is predicting scattered thunderstorms that day.

For some reason, I've signed my Advance Health Care Directive this week.

Seems that I find it real easy to consider myself all fearless when you're talking about a momentary decision.  I mean, when you're talking about bungee jumping or parachuting, it doesn't take much to force yourself to take that one step and then let gravity do its thing.  It takes, if you will, momentary balls.  This mule thing, however, looks to take about ten hours of sustained Not Being Freaked Out.


I'll be back in civilization on Wednesday, to report on how it went.

Monday, September 19, 2005

.Please Stand By

I usually don't go nearly a week without an entry, but I'm experiencing technical difficulties.

To wit:  my cable modem is down.  Has been -- on and off -- since Thursday.  Actually, at a particularly frustrating time, it conked down about halfway through something I was posting.  (Conveniently, I was writing it in MSWord, so I didn't lose it.  Let this lesson be a gentle reminder -- if there's any doubt with your connection, compose in a word processor.)

ANYWAY, the cable modem people gave me the first available appointment -- which is THURSDAY.  Sigh.  Indeed, the only reason why I'm able to post right now is because I have a wireless card and some of my neighbors don't have secured networks.  Thank you, kind neighbor, whoever you are. 

Still, while I don't feel real real guilty about riding off a neighbor's connection for ten minutes after midnight just to tell everyone that I'm alive, I do feel like I shouldn't take advantage of the guy and use the connection for all the updating I need to do.  I'm just nice that way.

So, I've got a big stack of topics I intend to write about ... like how I just purchased a scale and how that has messed up my life; or how (when I was a kid) I told my parents I wanted to be a truck driver when I grew up; or even a big ol' toldyaso that "House" won the Emmy for Best Writing (for the episode called "Three Stories"); or to do that "seven things" thing that Wil called me out on; or the vacation I'm about to take this Saturday.  So if I get my connection back before I leave, I'll try to update.  If not, just know that I'm ok, even though my modem isn't.

Monday, September 12, 2005

OK, Who Wants the 13-Year Old Granola Bar?

Irony:  Downtown Los Angeles experienced its power failure at exactly the moment our office was circulating an email about how we could all pick up individual emergency preparedness kits.

No lie.

Recent events -- both the hurricane and our little blackout this afternoon -- have prompted me to take a look at my own Emergency Preparedness Kit.  I bought it back in 1992, when I first moved back to California and got a place of my own.  Because, y'know, this is Earthquake Country and all.  Better be prepared.

Although I've experienced earthquakes and power failures, it has never dawned on me to break into the kit, which is living under my bed.

Here it is.  Observe the happy family of four surviving on the contents of this box for three whole days!

OK, the good news is there's a load of water in here.  Tons of packets which would keep me and the cat alive for several days.

The bad news is that itty bitty print on the bottom that says they were packaged in August of 92, and the warning that these things have a five-year shelf life.  So I'm looking at water a good eight years past its expiration date.  Anyone know a good chemist?  I'd love to find out exactly what's growing in these packets. 

Next up is the food.  I've spread it all out, so you can see what our hypothetical family of four is going to live on for three days.  (Jasmine seemed quite interested in it.)

That's six packets of oatmeal, six packets of cup o' soup, three granola bars, one bag of powdered milk, and a bag of hard candies.  And how I am supposed to cook this?  Well, they got that covered...

That's right.  A pie tin balanced on some wire mesh over a can of sterno.  (And yes, I know not to try to light that thing on carpeting.)  Can you imagine what a bag of 13-year-old oatmeal mixed with 13-year-old water cooked in a pie tin over a thirteen year old can of "Choice Heat" is going to result in?  A science experiment, that's what.

Oh.  And because the people who made my "Great Shakes" kit have a sense of humor, they added this warning:

No risk of THAT, trust me.

Now, if you look really closely at the top of the box, you'll see they've supplied our family of four (for three days) with a roll of toilet paper.  (Highly optimistic given all that whole grain they'll be eating.)  In any event, the box that I received did not even contain a single roll -- instead, I got these two little packets -- which I've photographed next to the flashlight, for scale.

Oh, and the world-famous "31-piece first aid kit" -- which is, like, a gauze pad, some medical tape, and 29 band-aids.

And finally, for warmth (photographed next to the candles for scale) the special tin-foil blankets, which allegedly reflect 90% of your heat back at you.  So you can wear one of these and warm your hands over the tea-lights while you're snarfing down your cup-o'-soup.

So, what have I learned from this little exercise?  Well, first I've learned that maybe I don't want to be sleeping on top of a thirteen-year-old can of something that says "flammable" on it, not to mention the water supply which would require a phone call to the CDC if anyone happened to drink it.

But in all honesty, and rather more seriousness, I learned that I'm glad I opened this thing now, rather than in an actual emergency, when I would be seriously disappointed by how cheap, worthless, and out of date most of this stuff is.  I learned that I don't want to trust a pre-packaged kit to have everything I'd need in the event of an emergency, and that I'm much better off putting my own kit together.  And rotating out the food and water regularly.  Cause even if the granola bar is still good after 13 years, it's gotta be nasty

Sunday, September 11, 2005

My Neighbors

Surfing the web today, I found a website (one of several) where people were offering to open their homes for hurricane victims.

Sorta warmed my heart.  Just for kicks, I did a search for my area (Southern California) and found hundreds of my neighbors offering a room or two.  Some offered jobs, or help with job searches.  Some, living near universities, offered a room for transferring students.  A few even offered to pay transportation to Southern California.  But they all offered a place to stay, for a number of months (or "until you get back on your feet") for free.

Most of the listings were pretty wide open.  They were willing to help a single person, or a couple, or a parent with a kid.  They might have been specific as to whether pets would be welcome, but most were pretty general.  Some -- generally those where a bathroom would have to be shared -- were particular as to gender.  One even said "gay friendly."

Some of the offers were kind of cautious.  "Must start looking for work within a week," they say -- clearly afraid to be taken advantage of by freeloaders.  Or "absolutely NO DRUGS."  Y'know.  Just in case.

And then I saw it.  The person willing to offer her spare room to a "White woman."

Charity, I guess, has its limits.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

This week's homework: Southern Comfort

For this week's homework, Scalzi asks:

Tell us something you love about or from the American South. From sweet tea to Lynyrd Skynyrd, William Faulkner to the French Quarter, whatever makes you heart long for southern skies belongs right here.

Y'know, it's unfortunate.  All too often, when you say "the South," what instantly leaps to mind are things like entrenched racism and some dolt who still wants the Confederate flag to fly over the statehouse.

And because that's the sort of thing I immediately think of when you're talking about the South -- even though I know that the South has its own vibrant culture that has nothing to do with a history of hate -- the things that I most love that come out of the South are the things that counter that image.

Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

I call Foul!

On Labor Day, I went to the mall with a friend--

--I went to the mall because my favorite tea shop was going out of business.  I am still crushed by this.  Perfectly good little tea room inside a shopping mall.  Great place to stop in the middle of a shop-fest and just relax with a nice cup of tea.  And scones.  They had these white chocolate raspberry scones that were to die for.  Oh man.  I ate four of them on Monday.  Just because it was my last shot at 'em.  Stupid raised rents at the stupid mall stupid driving my tea shop out of stupid business.  Grrrr--

So, anyway, we went to the mall to bid farewell to the tea shop and do a little shopping.  Y'know, since we were there and all.  (D'you see that, stupid mall management?  See how the tea shop attracted people to the mall who would then spend money at other stores?  Stupidheads.)  And I happened upon a really nice autumn suede skirt.  (I've been looking for one ever since I settled for that faux-suede one from the ... unusual company back in January.)  So I bought this really pretty tan colored suede skirt.  Yay.

And when I got home, I realized that what it really needed were some nice brown boots to go with it.  So I went online at Zappos -- the great online shoe store with free shipping and free returns -- and found the perfect pair of boots.  Leather.  Low heel.  Knee height.  Not outrageously overpriced.

The boots arrived the other day.  I eagerly took 'em out of the box, removed the tissue paper and those odd little plastic inserts they stick in your shoes, and slipped my feet in.  It felt all nice and comfy in there -- ah, a perfect fit.  Nice to know, I thought, that however much my clothing size fluctuates, my shoe size remains the same.

And then I zipped them up... about three inches shy of the top.  The zipper refused to proceed any higher.

Yes, I have apparently discovered yet another place where I store theextra weight -- in my calves.

Not fair!  Not fair!  Not fair! 

(And now I can't even have another scone to console myself.)

Monday, September 5, 2005

Rotten Tomatoes Pan of the Week

Just a few entries ago, I discussed my habit of reading Rotten Tomatoes for their compilations of particularly entertaing movie slams.  I just had to share this one, which I've been laughing over for a few days now....

The film:  Underclassman -- a picture which ranked a paltry 8% positive ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.

The source:  From M.E. Russell at Oregonian

The pan:  "Once in a great while -- usually late August -- a movie comes along that's so lame, it doesn't deserve a bad review. It deserves a war-crimes tribunal."


A quick, yet important, word about charity


OK, besides that.  I gave money to help the victims of Katrina, and may well give more before this is all over.  That's not my point.

My point is not to forget the other charitable organizations to which you regularly donate.  I remember a lot of charities felt the pinch after 9-11, because so many people redirected their charity dollars to help those victims.

So while I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from donating money to help the victims of this hurricane -- I sorta want to put in a good word for the other charities we all support (whatever they may be).  Diseases still need curing; homeless still need feeding; religious, political, and artistic organizations still need funding -- wherever your charitable bucks usually go, they still need your help, just as much as they always did.

It's always difficult to figure out which of the many worthwhile causes out there should receive our support.  It's also easy to be moved by the pictures we're seeing from New Orleans, and just redirect our usual contributions to disaster relief.  But, if it's at all possible, we shouldn't compound the losses caused by the hurricane by including among them the under-funding of every other charity we generally support.

Sunday, September 4, 2005

At least he didn't yell "Freebird!"

Was at the Hollywood Bowl tonight.  John Williams was conducting his (and some other composers') movie scores. 

I've been seeing Williams at the Bowl on and off for ... sheesh, must be going on 20 years now.  His concerts are always a little ... odd.

I mean, on the one hand, he's a real live legitimate conductor and composer.  He dresses up all formal-like, and observes the standard traditions of conducting.  (As opposed to, say, Bobby McFerrin, who conducted barefoot, and suggested the rest of the orchestra "get comfortable" too.)  John Williams is all white jacket and bow tie.

But, on the other hand, he frequently plays to an audience of folks not really accustomed to attending concerts by the LA Philharmonic.  They don't know you're not supposed to applaud between orchestral movements, for instance.  And there's always more than a few people there who, er, wave lightsabers.

I am generally pretty amused by the way Williams represents the intersection between hifalutin orchestral music and pop culture.  Like the fact that he plays three or four encores -- going off stage between each one and basking in the audience applause as he re-enters, even shaking his hands over his head in triumph.  And I don't even know why I found it funny when he introduced one of his encores as "From Empire Strikes Back -- Yoda's Theme.  Yoda" -- I guess you just don't expect the word "Yoda" to come out of the mouth of some 73-year-old bald dude in formal attire.

The man, however, must have the patience of a saint.  Picture if you will... he's just finished a pretty kick-ass rendition of "Cry Your Tears, Afrika" from Amistad.  Applause, applause, applause (bask, bask, bask), then silence.  In preparation for the next song, the First Violin stands up, and steps a little more center stage.  Williams raises his baton as he prepares to conduct the next song...

At this point, any idiot who has either (a) ponied up a buck for a program, (b) checked the program listing online before going, or (c) can put 2 and 2 together and figure out which John Williams movie theme has a violin solo, knows he's about to start the theme from Schindler's List.

... and as he lowers the baton to softly start the orchestra, some beer-soaked dude in the cheap seats yells, at the top of his lungs, "STAR WARS!!"

Saturday, September 3, 2005


I had a hard time doing this week's homework.  Scalzi asked:

Weekend Assignment #75: Write a note to those who are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Take a picture of yourself and the note. Post it online where everyone can see. Write on a whiteboard, a piece of paper, a notepad, whatever.

Which seems amazingly straightforward and easy, and yet when I got around to doing it, I couldn't think of anything to actually say.  Me.  My wordy self.  Actually struck dumb when called upon to say something.  I looked at all the other messages people had written in response to the assignment (hoping for inspiration) and nothing managed to capture my own personal emotions.

And then, after midnight tonight, I finally stumbled upon this and all of a sudden, I knew what I needed to say.

And it's a little too wordy to fit on a tidy little sign.  And my 2:00-in-the-morning-hold-my-arm-out-in-front-of-myself-and-aim-for-a-picture-with-me-and-the-sign-in-it skills weren't up to the task, as fourteen shots of the top of my head and half the sign testify.  Nor, apparently, could I take the shot without glare on the message board -- at least, not without losing resolution, which is worse.  But, for now, this is what I've got.