Monthly Archives: May 2005

Summing vectors

I started college at 14. Dropped out at 16. Tried to reÔøΩnroll four years later, talked my way into being accepted into the political science department at Buffalo State College, but found I was ineligible for the financial aid I was counting on. Under the terms of my parents’ divorce, Dad was supposed to pay child support on each of us kids until we reached 18. The fact that I hadn’t been 18 for a couple years, and the fact that we kids never had dime one of that money spent on us, are matters for another time. The important thing is that I was listed as a dependent on Dad’s tax forms, and was thus out of luck as far as receiving grants or loans went. No Political Science department for me; hello, fifteen years of manual labor at subsistence wages.

It’s been a while since I spent any time regretting that missed opportunity: my intellectual life is varied and rewarding.

In fact this morning, reading this post and subsequent comments over at Crooked Timber, I found myself feeling a profound gratitude to my parents for inadvertently helping to spike my renascent academic career.

It’s an interesting post. Complex systems are endlessly fascinating, and social networks are an accessible, familiar, and fractally intricate example of said complexity. A less-hidebound person might take note of the fact that some physicists find the work of some social scientists valuable enough to devote some attention to its (in this case near-literal) ramifications, and ask what this says about current thought in the complexity biz. Or one might point out that this kind of stuff is old hat, that Murray Gell-Mann helped found the complex systems program at the Santa Fe Institute for a reason, and that nonetheless the work at issue is kinda interesting.

I’m solidly in the second camp. The dot-line drawings at issue here are being claimed by some in the thread as an innovation of social scientists whose work has been tragically and offensively ignored by those damn physicists. There is, however, no mention in the thread of the long-term use of very similar heuristics in the fields of population biology, chemical and theoretical ecology, or systems analysis. I spent about a week ten years ago sitting in a room with Fritjof Capra and Sym VanDerRyn, the three of us drawing very similar graphs of ecological relationships in fields varying from wildlife biology to literary criticism to mathematical modeling — that last was amusingly recursive. So where’s our goddamned cite?

You’d think someone who’d devoted their life to intellectual inquiry would find gratification in having his or her ideas taken seriously. The “how dare they think about my idea” notion always leaves me breathless. The fact that people could discuss a study of who cites whom and get pissed off that someone wasn’t cited in the work studying who cites whom and not see the humor in their anger is frightening indeed. This is the only time I’ll likely type the next four words: Henry Kissinger was right. To think I might have wasted even a small part of my only life on this pointless turf warfare. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for setting me on a better course.

Sophie and Liam

My niece is becoming one of my favorite photographic subjects, for what are probably rather obvious reasons.

It’s just too bad she hates having her picture taken.

Her brother Liam celebrated his third birthday yesterday. He and I have been having better and better conversations these days, as his vocabulary grows (and mine too.) Executive summary of yesterday’s discussion: his favorite noise is “moo.”

Here’s something I wrote after meeting Liam for the first time. Odd: it seems far longer ago than a mere three years.


In late spring, my wife Becky and I went to Palo Alto to visit our nephew Liam, in residence at the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, where he had been born a few days previous. His parents were tired and inordinately happy. We took turns in the nursery, dancing around the two-visitor maximum, Becky’s sister Lisa practicing at feeding her son, husband Michael chatting outside with the overflow relatives.

Liam is big and fit, with black hair. His hobbies include eating, sleeping, and attempting to swallow his right hand. I introduced myself as the uncle that buys the good beer; he squinted at the light and sleepily stuck his face in the crook of my elbow.

When he’d finished eating, we took the new parents out for dinner. Heading for the car I noticed for the first time that the lot was fringed with western redbuds, planted every ten feet or so in big concrete containers. Each tree bore a full crop of seeds, which hung from the branches in dry, crackly pods. I grabbed a handful and put them in my shirt pocket.

The western redbud, Cercis occidentalis, is an admirable little deciduous tree — a maximum of 25 feet tall — that ranges from the coast as far east as Utah and Texas. Adapted to the semiarid foothills and low ranges of the west, it’s a deceptively lush tree that can withstand lengthy drought. Like the other species in genus Cercis, it blooms blinding red on bare wood a month or more before the first leaves emerge. Around here, redbuds bloom as early as February — feeding hungry winter-resident hummingbirds — and hold that bloom until April or so. Eventually, cool blue leaves the shape of hearts emerge in a loose canopy. Plainly visible under the leaves, leguminous seedpods start out magenta and dry an appealing brown, food for ranging goldfinches.

Despite the redbud’s perfectly fine appearance post-bloom it’s the flowers that named the tree. Brilliant reds at the end of winter are few and far between in the wild, even in this temperate clime. Redbuds have gained ardent admirers. The species has become a seasonal totem for many in California’s dry, rugged hills. There’s a Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society in Placer County, and Lake County’s Audubon chapter named itself after the tree as well.

Other Cercis species in other places are admired just as much. Take Oklahoma, for instance, which has adopted the eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis, as its official state tree. The Eastern species is substantially similar to the western: a bit taller, its flowers more pink than magenta. My grandparents in rural New York had an eastern redbud in their garden, a day’s drive north of the tree’s native range: each year it blazed deep pink before the apple trees had quite roused from their winter slumber.

One morning a number of years ago my grandfather woke up, put on pants and a white button-down work shirt, cinched his thin tie up around his Adam’s apple, walked down the stairs to the living room, and died. It took some time to collect his eight kids, spread across the country, and grandkids spread even further. The house was full after the funeral, and eventually I went outside. I don’t know whether the redbud had picked that day to bloom, or whether I was just noticing it now with the ceremonies out of the way. Every branch, every airy twig was cloaked in deep rose.

I see blooming redbuds nowadays, and my grandfather arrives with a jolt. Their blossoms smell of his Prince Albert tobacco, and of the burning solder in his workshop.

They say gourd seeds germinate best if the planter curses them loudly. Basil is the same way: the French phrase semer le basilic, “sowing basil seed,” is a quaint idiom for using hostile language. Western redbud seeds are made of sterner stuff. Curse at them all you like, and yet they remain inert. As is true of many other chaparral plants, redbud’s seeds are hermetically sealed in a tough coat, proof against the fickle false springs and summer rains that cause more eager seeds to sprout too early or too late. It takes a season or two of harsh weather to cajole the redbud’s seeds to open, and maybe more than that.

Or fire. Redbud is one of those native plants that revegetates burned-over areas: a seed an inch or so below the burning duff finds in the inferno the stimulus it needs to start a new life as a tree. One method of sprouting redbud seeds for the home garden involves a paper bag. Place the seeds in the bag, set it on fire, let it burn all the way down, and sow the roasted seed. If that seems extreme one can bring a pitcher of water to a rolling boil, remove from heat, let cool for five minutes and then add the redbud seeds. Once the water has cooled the rest of the way to room temperature, plant the seeds in pots, and keep them moist. In a year or two, perhaps three, some of them will germinate.

The process is called “scarification,” the same word used to describe the making of permanent marks on human skin. I suppose it’s only fair for me to scarify the seeds I collected from those parking lot redbuds, as the tree has certainly left its mark on me. And if the remembered scent of pipe tobacco is now mixed with that of disinfectant and my newborn nephew’s scalp, well, my grandfather will just have to get used to having a little company up in that tree.

In memoriam

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!  An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918


The mountains are still there, and the valley. Clouds still gather around the peaks, loose snow and rain onto the high polished granite. Spring still comes to melt the ice, to send it trickling down the near-vertical creeks that drain into the Owens River. Sky pilot and tamarack still push out new leaves cell by tiny cell.

Dust still swirls around the floor of the old lake. Winds still raise devils to waltz across the river’s saline sump.

The rocks are still where Kuichiro Nishi placed them. They may have shifted an inch to the left, tilted five degrees to the east. It doesn’t matter. It was planned for.

There is a phrase in Japanese — “wabi-sabi” — that resists translation into English. Wabi, roughly, means the kind of beauty conveyed by imperfections. Sabi means the kind of beauty conferred by age. Together, they stand for an aesthetic prizing a natural geometry, rough edges and apparent random simplicity. Never mind that Nishi spent months planning the rocks’ placement, all of them carted from the nearby mountains. Their edges, their faces look as if a blade of mother rock has just barely pierced the desert soil, there to crumble.

All things are impermanent.
All things are imperfect.
All things are incomplete.
This is the essence of wabi-sabi.

One hundred and seventeen thousand people were removed from their homes, shipped like cargo to the camps. The litany of place names is a geography of heartbreak: Tule Lake, Topaz, Heart Mountain.


All they had worked for was stripped away, sold to neighbors for pennies on the dollar. Some held out hope that should this trouble ever end, their white friends would return the property they’d been lent. That day was far off.

They built furniture from scrap pallets, planted vegetables in the firebreaks.  Kuichiro Nishi planted roses, dug a dry streambed, arranged stones around it. Young people posed for wedding photos.

The barracks, the hospital and canteen were torn down a half century ago, their weathered timbers salvaged for barns. A new building holds historical displays, a searing and thorough apology made architecture. It sits on the land, but recognizably does not belong to it. Tourists read the essays, watch the newsreels.  Some weep. Others scowl. Back into the tour bus and on to Death Valley they go.

Nishi’s roses are long dead. All things are impermanent. The stones grow a crop of rabbitbrush and aster now. All things are imperfect. Red brome grass fills the streambed. All things are incomplete. This is a most beautiful place. I cannot bear to walk among these stones.

Out in the backyard

Hard to believe I planted this tree only two years ago. Perhaps it was two years and six months. It’s taller than I am now, and we’ve eaten a few dozen cherries from it already. I’m stunned the squirrels haven’t found them yet.

The ants have, and they’re farming aphids on the newer leaves. I’ll have to do a little pruning and buy some tanglefoot. The infested leaves are curled and crinkled, and thus the tree’s growth is stunted ever so slightly. This isn’t a problem. It’s a small yard, and there’s an Asian pear tree less than five feet away — itself laden with fruit that will be ready to eat in a month and a half. A little stunting works in our favor. Still, there is gardener’s valor to be considered. My charges must be protected, within reason.

The cherry is a self-fertile Bing. The fruit are delicious. We stood in the yard Saturday and ate each ripe one we found, sun warmed, some of them splitting from the rain last week. Ah, the riches of photosynthesis. Ah, the benefits of plant coevolution with seed dispersers. Ah, cherry juice on the back of the throat.

Creationism by increment

The New York Times is carrying this story:

The southwestern regional director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has instructed members of his staff to limit their use of the latest scientific studies on the genetics of endangered plants and animals when deciding how best to preserve and recover them.


Dale Hall, the director of the southwestern region, in a memorandum dated Jan. 27, said that all decisions about how to return a species to robust viability must use only the genetic science in place at the time it was put on the endangered species list — in some cases the 1970s or earlier — even if there have been scientific advances in understanding the genetic makeup of a species and its subgroups in the ensuing years.

This is part of a couple decades of moves — which gained steam in the Reagan years and have only been accelerating since then, even under Clinton — to hamstring protection for endangered species.

You could argue that the Endangered Species Act is a blunt instrument, and imposes severe restrictions on landowners for no good reason. You’d be wrong, and I’d argue with you until the sun froze. But you’d at least have a consistent, logical position. And in the service of that position, it would make sense for you to argue that development permits and the like should not routinely be held up while exhaustive genetic studies are performed to see if the feral petunias in your yard were actually an endangered sub-sub-variety.

Again, you’d be wrong. But it’s a legitimate argument.

But this? This is not banning further work to identify where populations fit in a species in order to streamline permits. This is an order to ignore work that has already been done. This is an order to set policy while deliberately ignoring known facts, another slap at reality from the non-reality-based Bush administration.

Oddly, at least some of those facts determined since the 1970s would be beneficial to the developers rather than a hindrance. It’s not at all uncommon for researchers, using genetic evidence, to decide that visibly different organisms previously assigned to differing species are actually members of the same species. The northern flicker provides an example, comprising what had been considered two separate species: the “red-shafted” and “yellow-shafted” flickers.

This isn’t so much an attack on endangered species, though they will certainly suffer — especially the putative target of the ruling, the Apache trout. What this actually is is an attack on government scientists, who have been a thorn in the Bush administration’s side from his first inauguration.

Here’s the thing. What does the Endangered Species Act do? To a first approximation, it protects biodiversity. Biodiversity results from evolution. The more evolution, the more biodiversity, as species evolve new daughter species. The research at issue is intended to map out the fractal geometry of those evolutionary relationships. People like PZ talk about the importance of fighting those who would roll back the scientific clocks to the days before Darwin… I wonder if they won’t just do so by administrative fiat, thirty years at a time.

(Hat tip to Stephan Zielinski for letting me know about this one. I really should add Stephan to the blogroll: you really should all buy his book.)

Addendum: want to do something about this? The Union of Concerned Scientists is asking scientists to sign on to a letter of protest to be delivered to the southwest regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Information is below the fold. Please repost it anywhere you think it will do some good.

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Guest Blogger: Wallace Stegner

[Hank Fox, in comments to the Canyon Hike post, mentioned that it was in the wild that he felt the most human. Which made me think it was time to share this classic with y’all.]

Los Altos, Calif.
December 3, 1960

David E. Pesonen
Wildland Research Center
Agricultural Experiment Station
243 Mulford Hall
University of California
Berkeley 4, Calif.

Dear Mr. Pesonen:

I believe that you are working on the wilderness portion of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission’s report. If I may, I should like to urge some arguments for wilderness preservation that involve recreation, as it is ordinarily conceived, hardly at all. Hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain-climbing, camping, photography, and the enjoyment of natural scenery will all, surely, figure in your report. So will the wilderness as a genetic reserve, a scientific yardstick by which we may measure the world in its natural balance against the world in its man-made imbalance. What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded—but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.

I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people. It has no more to do with recreation than churches have to do with recreation, or than the strenuousness and optimism and expansiveness of what the historians call the “American Dream” have to do with recreation. Nevertheless, since it is only in this recreation survey that the values of wilderness are being compiled, I hope you will permit me to insert this idea between the leaves, as it were, of the recreation report.

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there — important, that is, simply as an idea.

We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to domesticating ourselves. Not many people are likely, any more, to look upon what we call “progress” as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us. One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals. Americans still have that chance, more than many peoples; for while we were demonstrating ourselves the most efficient and ruthless environment-busters in history, and slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent, the wilderness was working on us. It remains in us as surely as Indian names remain on the land. If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered.

The Connecticut Yankee, sending likely candidates from King Arthur’s unjust kingdom to his Man Factory for rehabilitation, was over-optimistic, as he later admitted. These things cannot be forced, they have to grow. To make such a man, such a democrat, such a believer in human individual dignity, as Mark Twain himself, the frontier was necessary, Hannibal and the Mississippi and Virginia City, and reaching out from those the wilderness; the wilderness as opportunity and idea, the thing that has helped to make an American different from and, until we forget it in the roar of our industrial cities, more fortunate than other men. For an American, insofar as he is new and different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild. The American experience has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise — a sort of wilderness bank.

As a novelist, I may perhaps be forgiven for taking literature as a reflection, indirect but profoundly true, of our national consciousness. And our literature, as perhaps you are aware, is sick, embittered, losing its mind, losing its faith. Our novelists are the declared enemies of their society. There has hardly been a serious or important novel in this century that did not repudiate in part or in whole American technological culture for its commercialism, its vulgarity, and the way in which it has dirtied a clean continent and a clean dream. I do not expect that the preservation of our remaining wilderness is going to cure this condition. But the mere example that we can as a nation apply some other criteria than commercial and exploitative considerations would be heartening to many Americans, novelists or otherwise. We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural world, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. And one of the best places for us to get that is in the wilderness where the fun houses, the bulldozers, and the pavement of our civilization are shut out.

Sherwood Anderson, in a letter to Waldo Frank in the 1920s, said it better than I can. “Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost…. Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies…. I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain…. I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet….”

We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild that still remains to us.

It seems to me significant that the distinct downturn in our literature from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier officially came to an end, in 1890, and when the American way of life had begun to turn strongly urban and industrial. The more urban it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our literature, and I believe our people, have become. For myself, I grew up on the empty plains of Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah, and I put a very high valuation on what those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically to renew myself in the mountains and deserts of western America I would be very nearly bughouse. Even when I can’t get to the back country, the thought of the colored deserts of southern Utah, or the reassurance that there are still stretches of prairies where the world can be instantaneously perceived as disk and bowl, and where the little but intensely important human being is exposed to the five directions of the thirty-six winds, is a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me. But as the wilderness areas are progressively exploited or “improve”, as the jeeps and bulldozers of uranium prospectors scar up the deserts and the roads are cut into the alpine timberlands, and as the remnants of the unspoiled and natural world are progressively eroded, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.

I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be “harvested”. For mining I cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren’t absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a man’s feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.

Let me say something on the subject of the kinds of wilderness worth preserving. Most of those areas contemplated are in the national forests and in high mountain country. For all the usual recreational purposes, the alpine and the forest wildernesses are obviously the most important, both as genetic banks and as beauty spots. But for the spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, other kinds will serve every bit as well. Perhaps, because they are less friendly to life, more abstractly nonhuman, they will serve even better. On our Saskatchewan prairie, the nearest neighbor was four miles away, and at night we saw only two lights on all the dark rounding earth. The earth was full of animals — field mice, ground squirrels, weasels, ferrets, badgers, coyotes, burrowing owls, snakes. I knew them as my little brothers, as fellow creatures, and I have never been able to look upon animals in any other way since. The sky in that country came clear down to the ground on every side, and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks. I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forest.

So are great reaches of our western deserts, scarred somewhat by prospectors but otherwise open, beautiful, waiting, close to whatever God you want to see in them. Just as a sample, let me suggest the Robbers’ Roost country in Wayne County, Utah, near the Capitol Reef National Monument. In that desert climate the dozer and jeep tracks will not soon melt back into the earth, but the country has a way of making the scars insignificant. It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such as wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and the Robbers’ Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know. And if they can’t even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there.

These are some of the things wilderness can do for us. That is the reason we need to put into effect, for its preservation, some other principle that the principles of exploitation or “usefulness” or even recreation. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

Very sincerely yours,
Wallace Stegner

The Canyon hike

Oh, and that’s 154 total hiking miles this year.

I should start by saying something about Cindy. I didn’t know her when the hike was planned: she’s a friend of Joan’s, a hairdresser from Southern Arizona. Immaculate blond hair, eye makeup, painted toenails, 59 years old and betraying a bit of a Dallas-Fort Worth sensibility. Were I to indulge in stereotypes, I would have guessed her unequal to the Canyon when we met the day before we started hiking. I did not so indulge, if for no other reason than I wasn’t sure I was equal to the Canyon.

But boy, would I have been wrong if I’d made that judgement: Cindy hiked uphill and down as if her pack had a jet engine in it. She complained a little, good-naturedly, about the state of her leg muscles after the first day, but we were all doing that stiff-legged walk we called the Kaibab Shuffle. Six and a half miles with 5000 feet of down on a day that maxed out at a conservative 100 degrees in the sun will make anyone’s thighs a little sore.

Bill and Joan I had no worries about. Bill has been a desert rat and mountaineer for longer than I’ve been alive, and Joan’s a biologist-cum-law enforcement type for Arizona Game and Fish. They’ve both done a number of Canyon hikes, the most recent one a rim-to-rim in the aftermath of Joan’s hip replacement. I figured they would do better than I would, and I was mostly right.

The night before we set out, I started packing my new internal-frame pack in my hotel room. Trouble ensued. Not enough room. How long had it been since I’d done this? How had I forgotten? Forget the four bags of trail mix, the halvah, the spare polypro shirt, the second pot in the nested set and the journal. I managed to squeeze the following into the pack:

Sleeping bag
three pairs underwear and socks, each
“pajamas:” pile shirt and pants for cool evenings
cotton tank top
poly t-shirt with long sleeves
swim trunks
pot, with stove squeezed inside
fuel bottle for stove
eight tortillas, 1/2 lb each dried black beans and rice
two packages each beef and salmon jerky
two pounds trail mix
the drugstore: toothbrush, paste, ibuprofen, Zantac, imodium, Claritin, bar hand soap, wipes for glasses
Leatherman tool
Camera bag with Digital Rebel EOS and extra lens
100 ounces water in Camelback reservoir

That’s the inside. Strapped to the outside of the pack:

Over-indulgent self-inflating mattress
two 70-oz Nalgene water bottles
plastic coffee cup from Stovepipe Wells store

Or so it seemed when I picked the thing up.

South Kaibab Trail

That morning I woke at 6, met the gang at the restaurant for breakfast at 6:30, and we were on the shuttle and then at the trailhead by 7:30. Walking the first few steps under the (conservatively estimated) 50-pound pack, I was pretty certain I’d never make it downhill except the fast way.

The South Kaibab trail follows a ridgeline down to the Tonto Plateau, and is the crowded trail to choose if you want broad views of the Canyon. I was mainly too busy keeping my pack off the ground to want to stop and take pictures along the way: the thumbnail above is a shot from a few days later of the ridge that constituted the first quarter of the day’s hike. (Think upper-right to lower-left.) These folks documented the trail well, and it hasn’t changed much since. I did take a shot or eight of some of the wildflowers along the trail, notably in a field of weak-stemmed mariposa lilies. No matter how tired I may be, if I see a calochortus I have to stop and take a picture.

Cindy disappeared from view in the first two miles of hiking: we didn’t see her until we reached the Colorado River, where she’d sat most of the day in cottonwood shade. I hiked along and then every so often waited for Joan and Bill to show up. At the first stop, at a wide spot in the trail called Cedar Ridge, a devastatingly cute ranger asked me solicitously about my water, snacks, etc. “I think you’re carrying too much water. You may risk hyponatremia if you drink all that with no salty snacks.”

As it turns out, I was able to foist some of that excess water on the two excessively macho hikers I mentioned a couple posts down.

An hour or so later, I rested at a sunny, hot spot called The Tip-Off, where Bill and Joan caught up with me. “The next section of trail is one of the best in the West, I think”  said Bill. It wound down into the Inner Gorge from the Tonto Plateau, through a bunch of interesting sedimentary rocks past the Great Uncomformity into the quite frankly rather sinister-looking Vishnu Schist.  I set off again, down a bunch of switchbacks that promised increasing proximity to the Colorado but which were awfully shy about delivering.

A quarter mile from the river, with about five switchbacks to go, my knees started to feel like they were going to buckle. (This would have happened much sooner had I not brought along my trusty companion of the last ten years of hiking.) I found a shady spot beneath an overhang and sat for a while. Realized I could easily stay there until dark: I had enough water, enough food. Ah, hell with it. Time to go. I got to the black bridge across the Colorado, crossed, then headed toward camp on a south-facing river trail backed up by a rock wall: it was an oven. Perhaps 105 degrees with no breeze. That last half mile into Phantom Ranch was one of the longest forced marches I’ve done in a loooong time.

Bright Angel Canyon

We stayed at the bottom that night and the next, Joan and Cindy in bunkbed dorms and Bill and I in a nice campsite in Bright Angel Campground. It was too hot to use the tent. We slept on the ground. My mattress proved worth its weight. We ate a huge steak dinner that first night in the Phantom canteen, slept under the moon, ate a big breakfast in the same venue, walked up Bright Angel Creek for three miles or so with sack lunches provided by the canteen, then napped in the campsite for an hour or so. I’d been wearing a long-sleeved cotton shirt over a tanktop for maximum air circulation and minimum sun exposure. When we walked down to the river at three or so to dabble our toes in the cold Colorado, I realized this was not the best strategy in the Inner Gorge’s breezeless oven. I found shade under a tamarisk and took the overshirt off. Still got a sunburn, still felt queasy when it was time to head back for our second huge steak dinner. Ate the whole thing anyway. Felt fine afterwards.

Bright Angel Creek is usually a placid little thing. The two days we were there it was in flood, brown and roiling, alive with rolling boulders. Bill and I listened to stones hitting large stones both nights in our campground. At one point the first night, an especially loud collision roused me, and I looked out at the mouth of our sidecanyon. The moon was setting, and our canyon was in shadow. But the wall of the Inner Gorge was still illuminated, faint pale rays limning the jagged, treacherous rock. I smiled and went back to sleep.

Bright Angel Trail

I’m not completely finished with my acrophobia, it seems. My first day at the Canyon I went to Mather Point, walked to the rail, and recoiled. I couldn’t help but imagine deliberately throwing myself over the rail. A few minutes and the feeling passed. I had height-related nervous moments throughout the hike, but they weren’t much more than twinges — except along the first mile of the Bright Angel Trail where it followed the river. The trail climbed up and down tiny side canyons, losing every foot it gained, then swung out toward the river to bend after vertiginous bend a hundred feet above the water. Funny thing that the 80-foot falls would spook me more than the 400-foot ones. Has to do with human scale, I suppose. Eventually the trail met the mouth of Pipes Creek and turned away from the river for good. Cindy and I followed it up and out of the Inner Gorge, past a beautiful series of small pools and one or two dramatic slides, along a series of switchbacks called the Devil’s Corkscrew.

Out of the Gorge and into the Garden Creek watershed, we found a huge flat rock in the shade and laid down for a while, our feet elevated. The rangers at Phantom had suggested this practice to recover from steep sections of trail. I’m going to remember it. At about eleven-thirty we got to Indian Garden campground, about halfway to the rim in trail distance though only a third of the way in elevation. We set up camp, by which I mean we took out our mattresses, let them inflate, then lay down for a nap.

I slept on my stomach for a while. Heard a scrabbly noise near my head; opened my eyes. On a cottonwood trunk a few inches from my face, a desert spiny lizard regarded me suspiciously. He did pushups at me, seeking to show his dominance. I was already on my stomach, and I thought “what the hell?” So I gave him a few pushups right back. He looked astonished, if a lizard can look astonished. He went through a few submissive head bows and scuttled away. I was now officially Boss Of The Campsite.

Joan and Bill showed up. We ate some more. We napped some more. I made a cup of coffee. We napped again. I re-lit the stove, made the rice and beans, brought out the fresh tortillas to general amazement. We ate burritos. We then decided to take a break in our hectic routine by hiking three miles out to Plateau Point and back. I took a few more photos. The one in the thumbnail is a composite of the top half of the Devil’s Corkscrew.

The next day was almost anticlimactic. We got up without an alarm clock, dawdled and ate and drank tea and coffee and slowly got our packs put together over the course of an hour or more. When we at long last set out onto the trail, Joan announced that it was 6:40 am. Cindy and I wound up in the lead, and climbed with a measured pace — a few switchbacks, a few minutes’ rest — until we got to Three-Mile House, the first of the resthouses along the trail, three trail miles beneath the rim. Feet up and relaxing for a bit, we ate and drank until we were comfortable, then set out again just as Bill and Joan caught up. Before we knew it, we were at Mile and a Half House, chatting with the ranger as she triied to stop the clueless from hiking into the oven with a soda and a beach blanket. And out again, in perfect cool weather to hike out of the Canyon.

I’d forgotten what happens when you emerge from a multi-day backpack into a crowded area, like Yosemite Valley. Even though you may feel your trip was an easy one, it’s light-years beyond the experience of most park visitors. Of the four million or so visitors the Grand Canyon gets in a year — all of whom were trying to find parking when I arrived — about five percent do so much as step onto a trail for a ten-minute walk. Of those, about two percent reach the river. Phantom Ranch is by no means lonely: around 40,000 people visit in a year, which averages out to more than a hundred a day — though there’s certainly seasonal variation in that.

But that still means that a person with a multi-day backpack walking toward the rim is a bit of an oddity, a one-in-a-thousand tourist, and coming out of a forbidding wasteland like the Canyon cements that impression in many minds. “You guys camping?” was the favorite question, though “What are you carrying in that pack?” — directed at me — came in a close second. I improvised my answers:  bowling balls, gold ingots, country ham.

“Five days in the Canyon?” one older guy exclaimed near Mile and a Half House. “You guys are like pioneers!”

“Well sir,” I said, thinking of eating myself to satiety on Phantom Ranch steak dinners, with baked potatoes and salads and cornbread and iced tea and cooked carrots and chocolate cake, “I’ll tell you one thing. It’s not for everyone.”

But there’s another thing about leaving the Canyon. On the trail in the inner canyon, especially away from Phantom, each person you meet is a welcome spark of humanity in a huge inhuman landscape. You stop, you ask if the person is comfortable and they ask you, you trade life stories and plans for the next hours of hiking, you feel a bond of sincere appreciation. Over a few days, I met a dozen folks I thought of as friends. I never learned their names.

Walk toward the rim and that diminshes. The closer you get to the ice cream trucks and gas stations, the less important it seems to cultivate those ties. Your every need is granted, assuming you have the cash. The closer you get to the rim, the more distant the strangers’ eyes become, the more your wave of greeting is seen as a startling intrusion. Mommy, what does that dirty, hairy man with the backpack want? It took me a few hours, after Cindy and I stepped triumphantly and with some wistfulness onto the Rim, to stop striking up conversations with total strangers.

A couple things

1) I’ve fixed the commenting bug that was forcing all comments to go into moderation. Now I’m going to experiment with the new MovableType commenting settings. Your first comment after this post should go to moderation, then hopefully afterwards you’ll sail through. Unless I disapprove your comment, that is, which I’m likely to do if anyone else complains about the innocent little snake on the front page. A word to the wise.

If you’d like to get the whole registration process out of the way, feel free to leave a comment to this post in the form of a summer haiku (or, if you don’t du haiku, a badly scanning limerick will work) and I’ll approve it.

Unless it’s complaining about the snake. Really.

2) Friend of Creek Running North Michael Bérubé just had an emergency appendectomy, and if you like his writing you may want to drop a note of well-wishing at his blog. Heck, do it even if you don’t like his writing. But who wouldn’t?  Sounds like he’s gonna be fine, but, um, ouch.

3) Never mind that commenting thing. Still isn’t working.