Street Tango

She stands in the shadows of the alcove, her back to its inner wall, her black hair in a bun, her red lips pursed longingly as she gazes intently upon me as I saunter down the cobbled road in the noon day sun casually dressed in my pin stripped suit, ascot, and top hat. The intensity of her gaze stops me dead in my tracks in the middle of the street, a Vespa swerving and honking and shouting as it curls around me. I return her gaze just as intently. She steps out from the shadows in front of the doorway and squares off with me as I turn to her. I face her, she faces me. She is stunningly beautiful and athletic.

The improbability of it, the impossibility of it, could two strangers throw off the shackles of their different cultures, different languages in the middle of this humble road and dance to perfection. She sways ever so regally and the ends of her lip curl up in the subtlest of smiles. My moment of hesitation and doubt pass. “Now” I say, taking her hand, “shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance? Music!” I command.

The accordions and violins and cellos begin to play. We ready ourselves. “Not yet.” Our minds and hearts synchronize to the music. Our weight shifts to the front of our feet. “Now!” I put my hand on her slender waist. And we move as one, as if we are locked together in an eternal entangled embrace, that defies the laws of attraction and repulsion and gravity and effortlessness and all common sense. Spinning, pausing, swaying, rocking, dipping, lifting. Floating effortlessly above the cobblestone dance floor, above the street, moving in mid-air, her graceful legs parting her dress seductively, rising on the music, the joy, the love, kissing, lost forever in the moment.
The music stops. She curtsies to me. I bow to her. The street musicians go back to their business. The crowd disbands. She steps back into her doorway. I continue on my way down the street. The moment gone, the moment forever.

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Things That Go Bump In The Night

The campfire has died down, the moon has yet to rise, a breeze whistles gently through the tamarisk trees, the night air has cooled a bit since the sun has sky-dived over the horizon. The stars shine brilliantly in the moonless clear sky of the desert. I show her how to find Polaris, the North Star and the Little Dipper from the edge of the Big Dipper, all the stars of the Little Dipper clearly visible, something you just cannot see in the haze of the city. We track the pinpoint reflection of a satellite as it passes overhead working its way through the stars.
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As we lay on our inflated inflatable mattress itself on a tarp, under the cover of our spread out sleeping bag, we hear a twig crack near the tree behind us. “What was that?”, Angie says quite alarmed. Even in the dark, I can see the wide-eyed look of fear as she slides herself closer to me. “I think it might be a bear”, I tease. “Really?”, she says quite alarmed. No bears live in the Anza-Borrego desert, a fact I fail to mention. I tell her the old joke that I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun her. Her back to me, both of us laying on our sides in the spooning position, she elbows me in the ribs.

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Some leaves rustle in the distance. “Its a mountain lion”, I tell her. Mountain lions do exist in the desert and for that matter in San Diego proper. I have never seen one in the wild. “Are you serious?”, her voice cracks with genuine concern.  “No, of course not”, I quickly say, regretting my inability to resist teasing her. She backs into me even more. I have my arms around her and kiss the back of her neck, my face getting lost in her long hair. Ok, maybe I don’t regret it that much. I see a little kangaroo rat hop over the corner of the tarp. I don’t tell her. Something tells me that a rat would freak her out even more than the mountain lion.

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A bat flies overhead. I can see its shadowy outline as it passes in front of the bright stars. Bats are pretty common. “Ok, now I know you are just kidding”, she says. I can feel the tenseness leave her body. Angie relaxes a bit on her first night under the stars. I pull her tight and give her a hug, she turns her head back and gives me a light kiss on the cheek. I’m not sure why bats flying over our heads is not believable, but I let it go, glad that it has diffused her anxiety at least a little bit. A shooting star flashes overhead winking at us. I drift off to sleep, my arm around her waist, our legs curled together, leaving her to find her own sleep fighting through the vivid terrors of her imagination fueled by the unfamiliar noises and sensations of our outdoor adventure.

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Note: All pictures borrowed from Google, not originals.

Out of Africa

  • Image Borrowed from Wikipedia, My photos long since faded

Here are my scattered memories of Africa – Summer of 1981.

We drive down a dirt road in one of the Kenyan National Parks. Our guide, Henry(our tour group takes up two buses and we have two guides, I can see our other guide’s face but I can’t think of his name. He is actually the driver, but I will go with Henry for the sake of the story) stops and points out some elephants in the distance. Standing up in the bus, the roof of the bus opening up into a canopy so that we can stand and take pictures unobstructed by windows but safely within the confines of our vehicle, I cannot see the elephants. I look and I and I look and I look, Henry pointing off in their general direction. Finally, I detect some movement. No wonder, from this distance, their grey bodies actually blend in with large rocks in the landscape. I hope we will get closer than this but I’m impressed that our driver can spot these far off literally, mammoth-sized animals. Towards the end of the trip, I am much better at spotting creatures. It takes time to train the eyes and mind to pick creatures out of the landscape. Fortunately, more often than not, the beasts are right up in our faces.

We turn the corner in our VW bus, an elephant blocks the road and squares off. This one I spot right off without any help from Henry. The elephant is larger than our bus. And she is pissed that we have entered her personal elephant bubble. Our driver stops and slips the gear into reverse, backing off slowly. The elephant trumpets and charges. Our driver slips the gear into neutral and revs the engine. The loud noise neutralizes the charge.

A snake slithers in the grass as we walk from our hut to the dining room. The snake is a black mamba, a highly venomous and aggressive snake; the bite will kill a human in half a day. A soldier lifts his semi-automatic rifle, bashes it onto and crushes the head of the snake. Monkeys watch the bloody scene from their perch up on a thatched roof, waiting for an easy meal from cooperative or sloppy diners.

An entourage walks past us. The room is alive with whispering and gossip. I am told that it is William Holden, a famous actor that owns the hotel that we are in, the Mount Kenya Safari Club. I do not know or recognize him. I have seen the film Stalag 17, the movie that inspired the comedy Hogan’s Heroes, and the Wild Bunch, though I can’t remember if I saw the films before or after I saw William Holden. He died later that year. Our tour group meets an old matronly woman in a long dress and lots of heavy jewelry, like a character from an Ernest Hemingway novel, sitting in the hotel lobby. We sit in a large circle with her at the focal point. I don’t remember what we all talk about, but I remember that after talking for quite a while, she remembers everyone’s name and story without exception, and I have already forgotten hers.

The Kenya Safari Club was a staging area for another amazing place called TreeTops. On this in between day, of all the things I could of done, I go golfing. No one else is on the course, one of the craziest courses I ever try to play. The tees hit off of cliffs over corn fields and into valleys and back up again. My caddy is a local, a guy I guess to be about my age. After the first hole, I figure out that he intends to play. I give up a couple of balls for him to hit and we play on. But I am way over matched by the course, (I am over matched by most courses), and I lose all my balls to corn fields and ponds and whatever hazards presented, well before I complete the eighteen holes.

Treetops is a hotel in the trees. I remember an armed guard escort, as we walk from the end of the road, to the hotel. My mom and I squeeze into a very small room, more like a compartment on a train than a full hotel as I remember it. The hotel overlooks a watering hole with a natural salt lick that attracts the animals. At an altitude of some 7000 feet, I remember the night turned very cold as warthogs and rhinos visit the oasis in the sky, their breaths visible in the waterhole illumination.

We stop at a tribal village of dirt huts. We pay for the privilege of meeting the villagers. The moment we step off the bus, I and everyone else who ventures out, are accosted by colorfully dressed women, with expanded earlobes and heavy neck rings, selling jewelry. Ten women shove jewelry in my face and give me no room to move. I am very uncomfortable with this extreme violation of my personal space. Eventually, we are freed. A couple of us are invited into a hut, a cylindrical mud structure with thatched roofs. Inside, I have to squat down and I am leaning up against the wall. At this point, I am informed that the walls are re-enforce with dung. I quickly surrender my purchase from the wall.

Our tour group, what I remember of it, consists of two octogenarian couples, who wear bandannas over their faces to keep the dust out, and suffer mightily from the bouncy rides on the dirt roads. Most of their conversation centers on their meds, I vow that I will be more diverse in my conversational skills if I ever make it to that age. One day, parked out in a huge heard of wildebeest, also called gnus, George gives me this joke, which I’ve used about a hundred times since, given the opportunities at zoos and the safari park: “No gnus, is good gnus”. The other group comes from New York City and are gay. They are well-spoken and intelligent people. One of the men does voice overs on commercials that I have heard. The other does paintings for hotels and offices but feels compromised and stifled lacking artistic control over his subject matter. He and his partner act worse than most married couples that I can think off, constantly bickering at each other throughout the trip. One of the gay men is single and aggressive, going out to bars and picking up men. The early 1980s is the time that Aids made the leap from Africa to America. In hindsight, it makes me wonder. I remember another English guy with a couple of tweenage kids that have the worldliness of well-traveled adults. I can’t remember if they were in our tour group or if we just ran into them a couple of times.

At some point we cross over the equator into the Southern hemisphere, my first time. Henry points out Mt. Kilamanjaro. I can’t see it. We are near the border of Tanzania, at that time, in much greater political turmoil than tourist savvy Kenya. I remember the story of tourists robbed and abandoned on the Serengeti by soldiers. I strain my eyes to look for the mountain beneath the large band of clouds. Henry tilts my head up. The snow-covered flattened peak rises above the cloud line. Whoa! I am stunned at the size. On our later prop-plane flight from Nairobi to Mombasa, we fly at eye-level with the top of the peak.

We travel from park to park, Tsavo, Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Mt. Kenya and a couple of others that I don’t remember, even looking at the map. The wildlife is always stunning – elephants, lions, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, water buffalo, gazelles, giraffes, zebras, gnus, ostriches, warthogs. The warthogs left quite an impression on me, strutting about the water holes with a regal ugliness, impressive ivory tusks jutting out from their flattened faces, stiffened tails pointed to the sky. I take hundreds of pictures using my grandfather’s 200 millimeter zoom lens shooting rolls and rolls of film. One doesn’t truly appreciate the power of the digital camera until you’re stuck changing rolls of film while the wildlife runs off or how cautious one is in judging whether or not to take a shot for fear of wasting film. Film is finite! Still, I think at least half my portfolio is birds and lizards. I remember being quite impressed by Maribu storks, scavengers with featherless heads, long conical bills, and penetrating eyes waiting for the opportunity to move in for a meal. I wonder if these pictures still exist in a shoe box in the dark corner of a closet?

After the photo safari, my mom and I fly to Mombasa on the Indian ocean, a town I mostly remember for the mosques. And then on to Malindi. I snorkeled in the Indian ocean, the Indian ocean home to dangerous rock fish and poison tipped urchins. The tide was crazy, receding something like a half mile out. I walked out to greet the ocean but ended up swimming back, the towel I left on the sand at low tide, quickly consumed by and lost to the incoming tides. On the way back in, I must have swam over a jellyfish. I swam quickly towards shore not sure what was going on, a stinging sensation on my arm and stomach, the stinging sensation turning into a burning sensation. I never saw it. When I got to shore, I had small welts diagonally across my left arm, stomach, and right leg. A man pointed out the condition on a sign just off the beach of all the maladies one might encounter. Sure enough, it looked just like the picture of a jellyfish sting.

I am sitting on the boardwalk. A black man passes by on a donkey. He looks straight at me and says “Some tourists no good.” Maybe I looked at him funny and didn’t realize it. Maybe he just didn’t like tourists.

I still have memorabilia from that trip scattered about my house: wooden figures, stone hippos, a green malachite mask that my mom talked me into buying, a wooden giraffe letter opener. The only pictures I have are the memories imprinted on my brains. I vaguely remember wanting to come back with a Masai spear and shield. Times were different, I sure the stewardesses (yes, they were still called stewardesses back then, not flight attendants), would have been happy to help me store such a trophy in the overhead bin or under the seat compartment in front of me. But if I did, I’ve long since skewered or impaled my enemies, (or was it my brother), with said souvenir.

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  • Image Borrowed from Wikipedia (Muhammad Mahdi Karim), My photos long since faded

Before they go …

Early spring is the best time to hike in San Diego. The plants put on a floral show that would put any florist out of business if it lasted year round. It won’t last long. The winter rains give way to dry air and the dry air gives way to the summer heat that turns the natural world brown.

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But before they go, I want you meet a few of them that I happened to meet on a nowhere piece of land next to the I-5 in San Diego. It pleases me to introduce to you:

Star thistles (Centaurea solstitialis) grow in batches in disturbed soils, not unusual for an invasive species. Their nasty thorns still pliable but watch out, when they dry out, you don’t want to walk through a batch of those nasty plants. Deerweed (Acmispon glaber (previously Lotus scoparius)), a small easy to miss bush, displays its tiny yellow flowers many of them fringed red.

DSC_0012_IcePlant Ice plants (Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum) attract hoards of bees to their white flowers that glisten at their base with water storing cells that have an icy appearance to them. Storksbill (Erodium cicutarium), aptly named from the shape of its capsule, litters the landscape. The suncup (Chylismia brevipes), the very short version of a primrose, hide on the edge of the trail and under the edge of bushes.

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The violet snapdragons (Antirrhinum nuttallianum), flowers stacked like little faces on a totem pole, look out over the trail waiting for entertainment.

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Cobweb thistles (Cirsium occidentale) stretch above the weeds, its iridescent red flowers encased in a thorny trap hidden in its own spidery web. Blue elderberry trees (Sambucus nigra) ready their berries for a tasty snack. Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) offers its sugary lemon tasting seeds, like a lemon turned inside out. Red monkey flowers (Mimulus aurantiacus) brighten the bush providing nice balance with the yellows, whites, and greens of other plants. The poorly named “Blue dicks” (Dichelostemma capitatum) show a crown of blue flowers on a long wire-thin stem, the name presumably coming from a shortening of its latin name, and not referring to a phallic looks or bad attitude. The white flowered cryptantha (genus cryptantha) look like little rice grains stuck to green scorpion tail curled stems.

DSC_0049_CeanothusThe rhino-size warty stemmed ceanothus (Ceanothus verrucosus) hides its little misshapen green and red berries.

DSC_0052_IndianPinkIndian pinks (Silene laciniata) poke out their showy red flowers with their fringed edges between the pads of a prickly pear cactus.

DSC_0062_MallowThe bush mallow’s (Malacothamnus densiflorus) delicate pink flowers look like fragile china bowls with their own flower arrangement inside. A leafy daisy (Erigeron foliosus) competes for attention contrasting its light purple ray flowers with its bright yellow disc flowers. Rugged chamise’s  (Adenostoma fasciculatum) white flowers point to the sky like a person checking white gloves for dust.

DSC_0103_BuckwheatThe flat-topped buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) flowers only begin to bloom not quite open yet, the flowers will start white but then end up as rust like a weathered piece of iron.

DSC_0072_GoldfieldsA cluster of goldfields (Lasthenia coronaria) look like a bouquet fit for red wine and fine dining tables.

DSC_0114_CudsCudweed (Pseudognaphalium californicum) looks like a bouquet of cigarettes until the flowers expand looking like a tar-stained eye wearily watching. Dudleya (Dudleya lanceolata) bloom late, so for now, the nascent flowers hide inside their green garbanzo bean shaped capsules.

DSC_0081_CymePhacelia (phacelia distans) flowers mimic little green caterpillar heads adorned with a white flower bouquet and their tails tucked in humility.

DSC_0094_PricklyPearA prickly pear (Opuntia xvaseyi) seductively show beautiful arrangements of yellow and orange flowers enticing me to risk their prickly daggers. A mat of spiney fringe flowers (Chorizanthe fimbriata) blend with reddish dirt on the ground.

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Credits

 

Centaurea solstitialis – Star Thistle of Mediterranean Basin region

Acmispon glaber – Deerweed of Southern CA

Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum – Ice Plant of Southern Africa

Erodium cicutarium – Storkbill of Mediterranean Basin region

Chylismia brevipes – Suncup of Southwest American Desert

Antirrhinum nuttallianum – Snapdragon of Southern CA and Baja CA

Cirsium occidentale – Cobweb thistle of Western CA

Sambucus nigra – Blue Elderberry of most of Europe

Rhus integrifolia – Lemonade Berry of Southern CA and Baja CA

Mimulus aurantiacus – Red Monkey flowers of Southwestern North America

Dichelostemma capitatum – Blue dics of Southwestern North America

Cryptantha – white flowered cryptantha of Western North America

Ceanothus verrucosus – Warty stemmed Ceanothus of Southern CA and Baja CA

Silene laciniata – Indian Pinks of Southwestern North America

Malacothamnus densiflorus – Bush Mallow of Southern CA and Baja CA

Erigeron foliosus – leafy daisy of Western United States

Adenostoma fasciculatum – Chamise of Western North America

Eriogonum fasciculatum – Buckwheat of Southwestern North America

Lasthenia coronaria – Goldfields of CA and Baja CA

Pseudognaphalium californicum – Cudweed of CA

Dudleya lanceolata – Dudleya of Southern CA and Baja CA

Phacelia distans – Common Phacelia of western North America

Opuntia xvaseyi – Prickly Pear of CA

Chorizanthe fimbriata – spiney fringe flowers of CA
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Top Ten Hikes

Returning from my twelve mile hike to “Mirador Del Torres”, Eric asks “How was it?”. I respond,

“I think one of my top ten day hikes of my life”. Of course, I should be more careful to throw out such open ended statements because it invites the inevitable question “What are your top ten hikes?” which I wasn’t completely prepared to answer. I threw out a couple of the hikes I mention in my list, gave some details, and I left it that.

So now that I have time to think about it, here is my list:

10 Yosemite Falls, CA
9 Laguna Torres, Patagonia, Argentina
8 Mt San Jacinto, CA
7 Mirador Del Torres, Patagonia, Chile
6 Cinque Terre, Italy
5 The Narrows, Zion, Utah
4 Angel’s Landing, Zion, Utah
3 Half Dome, Yosemite, CA
2 Mt Tim, Utah
1 The Subway, Utah

I’ve left off two outstanding hikes, the “Lost Coast” hike in Northern CA coastline because I’ve already written about it extensively, and because it was a backpack adventure, not a day hike. I’ve also hiked the Grand Canyon twice. I would rate it much higher based on my second trip, but that also was a backpack adventure. Honorable mentions are almost too numerous to mention: there are many beautiful spots in San Diego county, all over the West, in Kauai, in Alaska, and so many shorter hikes that I can’t even begin to mention them all. Urban hikes can be equally amazing, but I don’t include them in this list as they are a different category unto themselves. So I have to choose. What makes a great hike? For me, the hike has distance, unique challenges, and great scenery.

10 Yosemite Falls

Brooke is a switchback ahead, now two. Max walks ahead of me, he hits the corner on the next switchback, stops, pouts. I catch up. “We are almost to the top”, not quite a lie, all things being relative, but I know the top is not just around the next bend either. “This is so stupid” he yells at me. “Why can’t we go back?” “Because the point is to make it to the top”, I explain. We walk on, he quickly gets ahead of his old man. Brooke waits patiently for us to catch up, takes off when we arrive, then quickly gets ahead. Both of them walk faster than I up the steep trail that rises 3000 feet in 3 miles, yet I am the only one who seems to appreciate the effort and the view of the Valley and Half Dome in the distance. Yosemite Falls barrels over the canyon wall falling nearly 2000 feet, still impressive even in the fall when the water flow is diminished deprived of spring melts and summer rains.

We progress to the top in this unrelenting climb in this awkward manner, Brooke walking fastest, Max walking fast but then stopping at the turn for the next switchback, asking the same question on every turn “Can we go back now?” with the same answer “No” every time. Of course, we finally do summit. I am proud of both of them for making this tough hike. We check out the views and look over the top of the falls, Max scaring the shit out of me by hanging over the edge of a rock, checking out the drop.

Footnote: I’ve actually done this hike twice. Once with Pat and Ron, back in the days before all my friends were married and before they all had kids. One by one they stopped hiking with me. Pat and Ron were two of the last. Pat (and Mia) moved to Texas. Ron fell ill after a hike up San Gorgonio (an honorable mention) and spent 45 days in the hospital with abdominal issues

Footnote: Best guess, trip around 2005, making Max 8 and Brooke 13. Taken enroute to Northern CA to see my brother by way of Yosemite

9 Laguna Torres

The wind whips across the green silted, iceberg studded lagoon. Snow blows in from the side. The jagged spires of Cerro del Torre play hide and seek in the clouds, their feet covered by the deep blue of glacial ice. As a photographer, I might be disappointed by the lack of clear views of the mountains and the stirred up waters of the lagoon. As a hiker, it is a thrill to be hiking through changing scenery and conditions.

The weather isn’t nearly as bad as we thought it would be. I say we, because this was a scheduled hike for a photo workshop. Our entourage woke up at four in the morning with the intent of hiking in the dark to the Laguna Torre to catch the peaks basking in the rosy-pink light of dawn. At four in the morning it was raining. Three of five reconvened at seven, not raining but totally cloud covered. And then it was just me, hiking alone on unknown trails in an unknown land, setting off by myself after breakfast.

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By the time I hit the road, the sun started breaking through the clouds. No rain. A little snow near the mountains with a cold wind blowing down from the snow covered mountains. I am rewarded with views of mountains freshly covered with snow, lenga beech forests of green, yellow, orange, and red, spanish moss covered trunks under the canopy of tall trees, views of Rio Fitz Roy river high in the plains, a ghostly grey forests, stream crossings, and of course, the mountains.

Footnote: Patagonia trip, April 2016

8 Mt San Jacinto

Downtown Palm Springs is lit up to the east. We are above it a couple hundred feet, supposedly on a trail that will take us to the trailhead that will lead us up the flank of Mt San Jacinto. “Man, this can’t be right.”, I say to Ron and Pat. The sun hasn’t risen yet but we are losing the advantage of our early start. The trail I am on has petered out. I’m bushwhacking through a clump of some shrubs, I can’t really tell what they are in the dark, but I know they wouldn’t be there if I was on the right trail. I back up.

This spot is very popular for people trying to get a glimpse or a photo overlooking Palm Springs. So everything is a trail. The trails reticulate all over the hillside. Somewhere along the line, we lost the real trail. We retreat back down the false trail until Ron finds a more promising route. Finally, we find the sign that points towards the summit.

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The sun is up now and heating up the desert floor quickly. We’ve wasted a lot of time and need to gain some elevation before the desert heats up to its expected 110 degrees for the day.

…. 8 hours later, 8 miles, and 8500 feet higher in altitude…

I’m sitting down at the Peaks Restaurant at the tram station working on my second beer. From our table, 8500 feet over the desert to the east, I can see all of Coachella valley, as far as a hundred miles to the east out over Palm Springs, Palm Desert, past the Salton Sea. I look to the north seeing the rugged mountains of Joshua Tree (not then a National Park) and to the southern tip of the Sierra’s beyond that. “Should we go for the summit?”, Pat asks. Strangely, I’m actually cold and shivering a little bit. I know I’m dehydrated from our 8500 foot stair climb and now I’m way too comfortable sipping on my beer.

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I’m more than satisfied with our effort conquering the “Cactus to Clouds” trail. I’ve read a lot of people die on this trail going up because it is so difficult and going down because it is easy to lose the trail and fall over an edge. I quote “The Cactus to Clouds Trail from Palm Springs to San Jacinto Peak has the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the United States.”  I’ve conquered the most difficult part of it, or perhaps I should say survived the most difficult part of it. I’ll save the hike to the summit for another time*. After a hearty meal and another beer, we hop the tram for free, taking the easy way back, down to the searing heat of Palm Springs.

* Footnote: I did finally summit San Jacinto on a camping trip with my neighbors the Schlesinger’s whose kids seem to actually enjoy hiking.

Footnote: Best guess. Maybe around 1995 taken on summer trip to Palm Springs with Pat and Mia, Scott and Michelle, Ron and Andrea, Dave and Maureen.

7 Mirador Del Torres*

Recently described in http://www.thetembo.com/clip/2016/04/27/sublime/

Footnote: Patagonia trip, April 2016

6 Cinque Terre, Italy

How would you design the perfect hike? Well, I would probably hike with a gorgeous woman, no wait a minute, let’s make that two. The perfect hike will be on the sides of a cliff above the rocky shores of the Mediterranean, and just for good measure, I will throw in an impossibly positioned pastel painted village every two to three miles where I can stop and grab a glass of wine and a slice of pizza. This hike is the Cinque Terra trail that starts in Riomaggiore, traverses Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare.

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On this day, the perfect hike has a flaw. A landslide from a recent rain blocks the trail from Manarola to Corniglia. We have to go up the mountain to a high trail, follow a ridge line, and then come down into Corniglia from above. Rachel, Laura, and I are up to the challenge. We find the stairs out of Manarola that lead to the high trail. Up, up, and up the stairs we go. By my guesses, maybe a thousand stairs.

Rachel looks like the picture of sunshine. Laura is looking a little peaked. I can tell she is struggling a bit by the number of times she stops for a gulp of water. I know Laura works out regularly. An outdoor workout seems so much more demanding than a gym workout. Maybe because gym workouts are under such controlled perfect environments, maybe because they are so compact.

We finally hit the upper trail. The upper trail follows the contour of the hills through terraced farmland, forests, and vineyards. We glimpse Corniglia in the distance, a town perched on a narrow hill, the pastel-painted buildings suicidally perched on the cliff edges, overlooking the rocky shores of the sea.

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As we hike by, I wonder how they can actually farm on these steep, terraced slopes, like farming the upper deck of a baseball stadium, but somehow they manage. The upper trail reaches the heights of Corniglia. We follow a spur trail down to the town to get back to the seaside trail proper. The walkways of the town are narrow lined with tiny shops and markets. We find the perfect outdoor restaurant to refuel on our diet of pizza and wine: the same stop in each town, one I have no trouble adapting to. It doesn’t get any better than this: incredible ocean views, quaint little picturesque towns, outdoor restaurants with wine, food, and two good hiking friends.

Footnote: First Italy trip taken in 2011

5 The Narrows

I easily cross the river wading through thigh high river water feeling out the unseen bowling ball sized rocks with my hiking pole, my rented rubber soled water shoes gripping the bottom as I head towards the opposite shore to pick up the trail paralleling the river in a wider part of the river. Phil asks, “How come that was so much easier on the way back?” “Training and confidence” I reply. We’ve had plenty of both on this ten mile hike up the Virgin river to Big Springs, our turnaround point. But I’ve paid a price: my knees are shot from wobbling back and forth and stumbling off the rocks hidden in the muddy waters.

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The river doesn’t run too high this late in the summer making for easier hiking. Still, in a couple of spots, we have to swim the trail. A waterproof dry sack stuffed in my backpack protects my gear, especially my camera. In many parts of the canyon, the river IS the trail. That is what makes this such a special hike.

The temperature outside the canyon is a blazing 100 degrees. Inside the canyon, the temperature is a balmy 80 degrees, the sunlight only occasionally reaching the canyon floor, the river constantly cooling our feet. It rained yesterday, ruining our plans to overnight in the canyon as the buses couldn’t make it up the washed out road to drop us at the start of the canyon. Instead, we’ve hiked in from bottom of the canyon starting from the “Temple of Sinawava”. The rain itself has passed. We’ve checked the weather reports and the danger of flash flood is low today. Flash floods in parts of the canyon with no high ground would be lethal.

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I half look where I am going. I half look up at the thousand foot walls on either side of me, the afternoon sun illuminating one side of the orange-red walls. We take a little side trip down Orderville canyon, a shady narrow canyon, scrambling over the rock and through a small waterfall before we get to an impassable climb. We head back to the main canyon. Again passing by “Wall Street” (a narrow section with high walls) hiking in the river and “Mystery Falls” a picturesque small waterfall dripping down the side of a sloped rock outcrop working our way downstream taking pictures and memories. I consider this one of the premier slot canyon hikes in the United States.

4 Angel’s Landing

How do you top an unbelievable ten mile hike in the Narrows? You climb Angel’s Landing the very next day. My knees bitch and moan and complain up the backside of the trail, two miles of unrelenting up. Phil and I at least had the foresight to get out early to beat the heat and to beat the crowds.

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And then we come to the jaw-dropping base of the landing.  It looks like the whole thing could just topple over like a giant domino. “What? Are you f**king serious? I’m supposed to walk out on that narrow spine up that ridge?”, saying these things to myself only in my head. I stand there for a while, needing to study the possibility. If ever there was a stairway to heaven, this is it. We’ve already heard the news that somebody fell to their death yesterday, although the skuttlebutt is that the guy had a heart attack on the trail. Bad timing, dude. He took his own stairway to heaven, perhaps one more literal than metaphorical.

I see some people working their way up the stairs, little dots high up on the trail. This is the proof that I need. I start off. Phil says he is hanging back to take pictures. I think he is hanging back to test my resolve. I am resolved. He catches up and we work our way up the narrow spine of this odd canyon-surrounded promontory into the sky.

At one point, the trail separates, going around a large rock outcrop in the middle of the trail. A waist high chain and a two-foot ledge are all that keep me from a 1500 foot drop into oblivion. I don’t have a fear of heights, but I am not fearless of heights either. It’s not so much that I fear falling as I fear dying. Concentrate and keep moving, this is no time to give into the beauty of the scenery or into my fears of an unplanned skydive terminating in an unholy splat. The trail recombines. It is still a crazy, chain-holding ascent but a simple slip isn’t likely to send me careening over the edge doing some crazy swan dive into immortality. At the top, the promontory widens and the stair trail turns into sloping rock eventually flattening.

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The view of the canyon is nothing less than stunning.  The reddened walls of the canyon converge to the north to form the slot canyon that the Virgin river flows through (the Narrows hike previously mentioned). To the south, the verdant Virgin river twists and bends its way, enclosed by  steep canyon walls and even higher mountain peaks. Phil and I take our time at the top admiring the view, taking pics. Physical challenge, mental challenge, and stunning beauty make this one of my top hikes of all time.

3 Half Dome

I arrive at the base of the Half Dome. I look up the mountain following the parallel cable’s paths as they merge in the distance on their rise to the top. “Holy Shit! You can’t be serious!”, I say out loud even though I stand by myself.

There is not one person on the entire stretch of cable that I can see. And for good reason I think, they have all fallen to their deaths on the slick, white and black, granite rock. I sit down in disbelief next to the first pole that anchors the cable handrails to the mountain.

I sit cross-legged facing the dome. I rest my chin on my index fingers, which make a little temple in front of my interlaced fingers. My eyes look up. I watch. I need convincing to overcome my disbelief. Seeing is believing and I don’t believe that any one is stupid enough to climb this, uh, trail. I hesitate to call it a trail. A trail is a path in the earth with signs of wear and tear. It is more like a track, a railroad track with two parallel cables and the occasional wooden railroad tie perpendicular to the cables held in place by adjacent posts. Am I the little engine that could? Or am I the little engine that couldn’t?

UnoriginalHalfDomeHandrails

The very top of the trail curves out of sight as it starts to level off at the top. I wait. Finally, distant hikers appear over this horizon making their way down the cables. This is for real. Ron and Pat catch up. We have a discussion. The mission is a go. I start up this difficult and dangerous hike walking up the middle of the track fixing a grip on the left cable, swinging my other hand to secure a grip on the right. Maybe it is the nearly nine miles of hiking, maybe it is the altitude, maybe the steepness, I am burning hot, sweating with exertion, and sucking oxygen to fuel my exhausted legs. I stop about every fifty feet to catch my breath and welcome the stop to let descending hikers pass by. I think I can! I think I can!

Ron summits. Pat summits. Finally, I summit! The reward is at hand. I am standing on the flat roof of Half Dome. I have a great view of Yosemite Valley, the Merced river,  El Capitan, the world. I might call it a breathless view, but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I am referring to my inability to breathe after my assault of the summit. Pat daringly lays down on his stomach and pokes his head over the edge to look straight down its ninety degree drop. I feel more comfortable keeping a couple foot buffer between me and the edge. You never know, someone might turn psychotic and try to push me over the edge. I can’t believe anyone actually climbs that vertical face. But they do!

It’s not starting out at 5 in the morning before daylight. It’s not the 18 mile hike. It’s not the 4,800ft elevation gain. At a tippy-toeing, oxygen sucking, forty five degree angle, fighting eight hundred feet of elevation on slick granite while holding onto a cable, it’s climbing the dome itself that is completely insane. But all these things, the difficulty, the danger, and the beautiful view from the top, make this one of the best hikes I have ever been completed.

2 Mt Tim **

Phil and I, both under dressed in gym shorts, t-shirts, and day packs, work our way up a snow field leaving behind a cacophony of wild flowers on the lower verdant flanks of the mountain. At 11,000 feet in altitude, the weather is just a little bit cooler than the balmy June temperatures down in Salt Lake City. A meadow separates the lower mountain from the upper. The upper mountain is an exposed, rocky edifice, that looks like nature’s own temple. The second half of the climb will have us climb up to its roof and then to the very top of its steeple.

MtTim

The snow pack ends and the trail follows a number of switchbacks to rise up the razor thin ridge line. It then follows the ridge line to the peak. This trail is more fit for mountain goats than hikers, the narrow trail edged with scree, and no hand rails or chains to hold on to. More often than not, I’m leaning into the mountains as the trail doubles back to traverse up the face of this mountain.

At the top of the face, the trail runs the ridge line, sometimes a little off center, but always with a deadly drop to the exposed side. When hiking directly on the ridge line, the valleys on either side seem to walk along with me trying to induce an ill-fated vertigo. Salt Lake and Salt Lake City are visible in the distance, the fog having long lifted in the midday sun.

At the summit, we step into a lookout hut, wondering how someone ever managed to get this structure up here. From the top, I think we can see all of Utah. Snow-capped peaks of the Rockies to the South and East; the urban landscape of Salt Lake City to the North and East. It is an airplane-like view, except we are out on its wing. I never hear anyone describe the view from a 7 mile high airplane as spectacular. Too high up making everything flat and uninteresting? The Grand Canyon is grand when you are at its side but hardly worth looking up from your book or movie when you fly over it. Too jaded, the view doesn’t impress us anymore?

While Phil and I are admiring the view trying to pick landmarks out in the distance, we overhear a conversation about “Bombing down the glacier”. The savvy locals carry up sheets of plastic and then sled down the glacier. It sounds crazy to me and will add over a mile to a hike that is already 14 miles long and 5000 feet in elevation gain. Phil is excited about this idea and I don’t think I can talk him out of it. So, instead of heading back the way we came, we follow the ridge line down the other way heading to the southeast. Along the way, we happen upon a discarded or lost black garbage bag. We rip it in half. We have our sleds. The trail comes to an precipice that is the beginning of the ice-pack.*

Phil and I survey the potential ride, the drop is steep enough for me to worry about losing control dislocating arms and legs and crashing into the occasional exposed boulder. There are a couple of exposed rocks but they can easily be avoided. Since, Phil is so excited about this idea, I let him go first. He bombs down the glacier yelling his woohoos of exhilaration.  I follow gliding on my makeshift black half garbage bag sled in my shorts and t-shirt. The very top is a steep drop and I quickly gain momentum sliding quickly down the slick surface. However, the bag proves a poor defense against the ice-pack and the mountain is quickly invading my shorts. I glide along for about a hundred yards, but the initial steepness of the drop fades and my shorts, full of ice shavings, act as a kind of brake, bringing my exhilarating ride, to a premature end. Yes, the ride was exhilarating in the sense of adrenaline excitement but also in the sense of losing your hot water while shampooing your hair in the middle of a shower. I jump to my feet shaking my hips and pulling the cloth of my shorts away from legs in a victory dance that also serves to release the accumulation of ice shavings back to its white carpet home. Phil and I give each other high fives. Phil brags about how much farther he made it. I think his longer ride can be explained by tighter fitting shorts and not by some latent talent for riding half a garbage bag down the side of snow-covered cliff. I mind my tongue and let him have his moment.

Up on the cliffs above our resting spot on the ice pack, I spot the proper denizens of this heavenly retreat, a couple of brilliant white Rocky mountain goats somehow magically clinging to the side of the mountain. I will never cut it as a mountain goat but I don’t have any plans soon to change species.

I don’t think we covered even a tenth of the distance of the ice-pack. I run down the rest of the ice pack using exaggerated strides to take advantage of the still steep downhill slope back to the meadow. Off the ice pack, the trail continues past a glacial lake heading back towards the lower part of the mountain. The trail parallels the edge of a drop off and then inexplicably drops six feet. No stairs, no handholds, no rocks. Nothing to grab. Just a straight drop. The drop ends on a five foot wide landing, a road compared to the ridge line trail, but the other side of the landing is a hundred foot drop with nothing to stop your momentum should you stumble or land funny. Really? People actually use this trail on a regular basis? We either have to retreat a mile to another route or make the jump. After checking for alternatives and checking my trail map to make sure that we aren’t in the wrong place, then planning and re-planning and checking our landing spot, we dangle our torsos and legs over the edge and then make the jump careful not to push away from the edge too hard.

Successful, we start down the trail when two blond-haired gorgeous women in tight khaki shorts with a small child and a small dog approach heading up to the spot we just came down. They will have to make the climb that wall with a kid and a dog. I can’t believe it. I just kind of stare at them. Phil and I offer to help. We boost one of them up, hand up the child, then the dog and finally help the other woman up. They gratefully invite us over to their place for a party that night, the kind of offer I would dream of as a single man, but I am married.

Just an incredible day of hiking, nature, wildlife, views, and adventure with a friend; so much more than I imagined when I planned this trip simply looking for a good way to spend $150 dollars in free airline tickets before the offer expired. The greatest adventures occur when you keep yourself open to and take advantage of the unexpected opportunities that present themselves along the way.

(*) Footnote: A little research shows me that the ice-pack is no longer a glacier since the ice-pack no longer moves even though it persists year round.

(**) Footnote: The actual hike is Mount Timpanogos. I read that the locals call it Mount Timp. But back in the day, I heard it as Mount Tim and it has always been Mount Tim in my mind.

Footnote: I don’t remember the exact date but next time I see Phil, I will ask. I have to think early 1990s.

1 The Subway

DSC_0057We’ve just traversed a rock face with no trail. I picked up the trail at the bottom and all of sudden it peters out into bush. “All right, this doesn’t look right” I say as I am standing thigh deep in a bunch of stiff branched bushes on a craggy slope. I have the map out and the notes out. My notes tell me that the trail might be difficult to find at some points. “No Shit!” I mutter to myself. I’m looking for where I might have lost it. Some eagle scouts that passed us earlier shout from across the canyon,”Go back! Go around!” They seem to be on the right trail.

We head back up the trail from whence we came and find what looks like the right trail. But it turns a corner and I am facing the top of pine tree growing out of the rocks some fifty or sixty feet lower from the side of the canyon wall. Max wants to go for it. But I can’t see past the base of the tree and the ascent looks wrongfully steep. I have that bad feeling in my gut that is saying this can’t be right. I am reading again. “Do not rappel down to Russell gulch. Your need 170 feet of rope to reach the bottom. You will die.” We retreat back up. Someone spots a cairn that marks a trail that disappears between a tree and a large boulder. We probably had missed it by no more than twenty five feet.

I’ve added at least an extra mile to our hike with the wrong turns but the rest of the trail is much more obvious for the rest of the hike. The descent from the top of the saddle down into the gulch is a 300 foot drop that has the steepness of a spiral staircase without the handrails, always uneven and slick with ball bearing size stones, sand and dirt. We hit rock bottom (couldn’t resist the pun) leaving our scenic topside views of the canyon, the cliffs, and the distant mountains for the narrow, tight walls and twisting passageways of the Lower Left Fork river.

We come to the first technical challenge of the hike: a rappel down the incline of a thirty foot high boulder. Finding the bolt and anchor riveted to the boulder, I thread one end of the static rope through the anchor and pull it through matching up both ends so the rope is even on both sides. I throw both ends of the rope down the boulder. I push through the rope through my breaking device which is clamped into my carabiner which is clamped into my break rope which is clamped into my climbing harness. I secure the rope by fastening the loop to the inside of the carabiner and then tightening the gate. I test the whole arrangement by turning my back to the drop and letting the rope take all my weight and leaning backwards. It holds. I disconnect my personal anchor from the carabiner I’ve attached to the permanent anchor. I start to walk backwards down the incline. At the bottom, I step off the rock on a little 3 or 4 foot drop. I send my climbing harness back up for Ian. Brooke follows. Then Max. Then Ian. This is Ian’s first rappel. I have given him the on-the-spot tutorial and he executes flawlessly. I pull one end of the rope letting the loose end climb back up the rock and through the bolt at the top tumbling back down ready for its next use. We have all survived the first technical challenge of the hike. But this is just the warmup.

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The gulch narrows to a couple of feet wide. The next challenge is a swim. There is no way around or over. Direct sunlight does not reach the bottom of the ravine at this point. This water is cold. The group looks on skeptically. I jump in and swim. I can’t feel the bottom. The cold water makes me “woohoo” in a way that only cold water can as my testicles retreat deep inside the insulation and safety of my body. I swim under a giant round rock wedged between the two walls and around detritus from previous floods. I’m dragging my backpack on the surface of the water as I swim. I come to a narrow passage that I have to turn sideways to swim through fighting my pack as it snags the sides.

The next technical challenge is a short rappel over the edge of a small waterfall and into a four foot pool of murky water. There is an anchor bolted to the side of the canyon about chest high. I probably don’t need to tie in on this one, just using the rope to secure myself to climb down, but I do anyway, I mean what the heck, we brought all of this equipment, might as well use it. I wade out of the pool at the bottom of the falls to dry off while the others take their turn to climb through  the waterfall.

The bottom starts to widen a bit. We pass through the subway, the tubelike part of the canyon that resembles a subway and for which the hike is named. A slot canyon aficionado would most appreciate the pools and features of this section of the hike like some subterranean world you might see on your journey to the center of the earth.

And finally, we arrive at the fourth challenge: a thirty foot rappel over the side a waterfall. No incline this time, just straight down into the three foot pool at the bottom. Looking for the anchor near the waterfall itself, another hiker tells me that someone died here a couple of days ago trying to rappel down the middle of the falls. His line tangled, he turned upside down and drowned in front of his watching girlfriend. I find the anchor off to the side and then set up the rope. We each take our turn pushing over the edge then back-walking and down-jumping our way to the bottom. Downstream from the falls a bit, a bunch of people are standing around a sitting hiker. He has broken his leg. I heard he tried to climb down without a rope and fell. A rescue unit is on its way. But I don’t think they will be here any time soon.

The rest of the hike is more ordinary as the canyon opens up and the trail follows the water’s edge. The trail ends with a six hundred foot climb up the side of the canyon in the hot and now sun-exposed trail, an unwelcome ascent after nearly ten miles of hiking and a full day of work. I walk well ahead of Max and Brooke and Ian. I know Max is at the end of his rope so to speak. He went to sleep at four in the morning and I made him get at five to catch our ride to the trailhead. I see his body language and posture deteriorating as the end of the hike seems to drag on. And I don’t want to have a bad ending to what for me is a perfect hike.

I love this hike for the scenery, the slot canyon and all the technical challenges. After years of watching Bear Grylls have all the fun, I finally get my chance and I get to share it with both Max and Brooke and get a chance to know Ian. For the technical challenges, the misadventures, the beautiful scenery, the amazing hike in the slot canyon, and the family time, I make this my number one hike!

Notes: A good map and picture of the hike can be found here. http://www.everytrail.com/guide/the-subway-top-down-zion-national-park