Article of Faith in a Season of Storm

The last hanging plant I bought was a sensuous, carnelian-colored Bougainvillea. Long tendrils draped and scattered tender petals all summer long. It hung on a wooden contraption lovingly made by my late step-son that, I swear, looked like a huge crucifix built from 4×4 treated wood. Darryl had drilled into the hard wood and installed strong hooks for plants and bird feeders. A tough Christmas cactus hung there, too, along with various bird feeders.

That was 2004, the year Hurricane Ivan made landfall at our near neighbor,  Gulf Shores, Alabama. From our gate, up in the mid-to-north section of Escambia County, it is 43 miles to Gulf Shores. From downtown Pensacola, the distance is only 33 miles; about the same from vulnerable Santa Rosa Island.  That skinny little necklace of land is the gorgeous piece of real estate known as Pensacola Beach.  Any time I drive over the bridge from Gulf Breeze to the beach, a bolus of fear forms in my belly at the sight. That thin barrier island so crowded with high-rise hotels, restaurants, jet-ski rentals, bikini shops, bars, condos, private homes, a school, churches and people everywhere is sandwiched between the placid sound and the unstoppable Gulf of Mexico.

When Ivan hit, Buck and I were in Scotland on the tiny Isle of Arran. My spotty blog archives from September and October of 2004 describe that time. I’ve unearthed an Internet Archive copy of the Pensacola News Journal’s special Hurricane Ivan report here. I never did find the lovely Bougainvillea. The crucifix-looking wood pieces were twisted and partly smashed. Weeks later I found the Christmas cactus container, but no plant. We did find a small, but potentially lethal coral snake in the garage. Lots of things were misplaced, displaced, or replaced.

The middle of hurricane season is upon us. The rest of the country has seen terrible wildfires, floods, and odd land storms that have taken out power for millions of people for days.  So far, our little patch of ground has remained calm. We’re grateful for the almost daily brief thunderstorms that bring just the right amount of rain and ease the high summer temperatures.

A few days ago, I bought another hanging plant. Its true name is  Zebrina Tradescantia, but that ubiquitous purple-striped plant that will grow for even the most black of thumb is commonly known as Wandering Jew. I always liked them. I respect their hardiness and inclination to grab hold with a rootling and call a place home.

For a person who has eschewed gardening for the past 9 years,  I went a little crazy at Publix the other day. I came home with an instant herb garden: Italian parsley, thyme, basil, dill and oregano. There is a space under open wood steps that connects the second floor deck to a ground-floor concrete patio. Grass sends runners into the soil there. Weeds flourish, but the lawn mower can’t quite reach in to mow. It is only a small space, maybe two feet by four feet, maybe a little bigger. It wasn’t much of a commitment to stick those little herb plants in there. But they looked optimistic, and inexplicably made me so happy, that I went to Home Depot the next day, and bought two “Sunpatiens” — a sun tolerant variety of New Guinea Impatiens. They are loaded with pretty white blooms. I also bought two tiny pots of Asian Jasmine, and a great big hanging Wandering Jew.

Yesterday, I went outside in the hottest part of the afternoon, got out the post hole diggers and made a space to move the black iron bird feeder/plant hanger from its place too far away for me to see well from inside the house to a new home inside the fence close to a back window. The ground was harder than I anticipated. Isn’t that always the way? An hour later, sweat dripping off my nose in a steady stream, my hair a frizzy dark cloud, the feeders were cleaned, filled and moved and the Wandering Jew became a housewarming gift for the birds.

When I eventually staggered back inside and got a look at myself in the foyer mirror, I had to laugh. My mother’s voice was clear as a bell in my head: “Mary Beth, you’re as dirty as a pot!” I dove into the pool, my body temp instantly reverted to its mean. I was cleansed and revivified.

The space under the stairs looks nice now. I went out this morning and said a few words to the herbs and flowers. The five-lined skink Buck recently rescued from the house is living there. He spent so much time evading us indoors, I really think he knows me and my habits better than most people. He knows that I may be half a bubble off, but am not mean or dangerous.

Storms come. One may come this season. It may break my sweet Wandering Jew into a hundred pieces and spread it all around the woods. If it does, I know that one day I will walk and find bits of purple pushing their way up from the forest floor. After Hurricane Ivan hit, and we cried over the loss of more than 300 old Longleaf pine trees here, we planted several thousand container-grown seedlings. They were randomly hand-planted to look natural, not like a commercial plantation. These days, those trees are twice my height; some three times.

That Wandering Jew hanging plant is an article of faith in a season of storm.  Despair can take root, but so can hope; so can resilience.

Bryce Canyon: Fins, Windows and Hoodoos

I am doing laundry, cleaning the refrigerator, mopping the floor and packing for Maggie Valley. And I am thinking of the gift I received from “The Figure 8” trail we hiked May 2nd at Bryce Canyon National Park. I was afraid to try it. When we hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I dread the ascent, then sing or whistle all the way down. To descend from the rim at Sunrise Point to the floor, with multiple ascents and descents within the valley, and then — at the end of the day at max fatigue — to make a ferocious (for me) steep climb back out to the rim and end at Sunset Point, was daunting. Buck’s cheerful attitude and spirit of adventure carried the day. When we finished the loops and were looking down in amazement at where we had been, my body was tired, but my heart was emboldened and my spirit restored to venture out into wildness again.

When I start trying to winnow down the photos from Bryce Canyon to post only a representative few, I get totally stuck. I want to show them all. I am evangelical when it comes to Bryce. I want to take you by the shoulders and say “Go. You have to experience this place.”

The National Park Service website for Bryce Canyon is a great place to start planning a trip and learning about the evolution of what geologists call the Claron Formation.

Buck and I spent three nights at the outstanding  Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel.  It’s the latest incarnation of the late Ruby and Minnie Syrett ‘s lodging empire at Bryce Canyon that began in 1919 when they pitched a tent at the rim of the canyon to accommodate visitors. The next year, they built “Tourist Rest,” a lodge near Sunset Point. According to literature from Ruby’s Inn, visitors carved their names in the lodge’s heavy wooden doors, which became a wild west sort of guest register. Ruby and Minnie added several tent cabins and an open-air pavilion for dancing, and never looked back.  Sounds to me like sturdy, fun-loving folk gathered there. I suspect there was whiskey drinking along with the dancing. It’s a bizarre image, and must have been exhilarating,  like a fairyland at the edge of the universe.

Today, in the hub on the outskirts of the park, there’s a dinner theater, rodeo, kitschy shops, gas stations, restaurants, a general store, several inns and an RV park. We were there just before the season got into full swing, so even the park shuttle buses weren’t running yet.

Bryce Canyon rim elevations range between 8,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level, and I’m here to tell you that you will feel effects from that elevation when you’re hiking. Our first afternoon was spent reconnoitering, walking up to Sunset Point, and making plans for a major hike the next day. I’m a coward. I look for the Easy to Moderate Hikes in the Day-Hiking Trail Guide. Not Buck. He skips over those and the Moderate Hikes, and goes straight to the Strenuous Hikes (steep grades with MULTIPLE elevation changes).  The hike listed at the very bottom of that section was called “The Figure 8.” The description for it said, “Combine Queens Garden, Navajo Loop and Peekaboo Loop into one ultimate hike!.”  I could see Buck’s finger, like the Ouija Board of doom, hover and then stop on that one.

My finger stopped on the “Hiking Reminders” part of the description. It included such bullet points as:

♦  CAUTION – Rocks occasionally fall on most hiking trails. If you see or hear active rockfall, leave the area.

♦  Carry 1 liter of water per 2-3 hours of hiking.

♦  Park elevations reach over 9100 feet. Even mild exertion may leave you feeling light-headed and nauseated.

♦  Remember, you are responsible for your own safety.

 The next morning we strapped on our backpacks, laced up our boots, and headed out to do “The Figure 8.”  I started out wearing my warm Cabela’s fleece jacket. It felt good for about 10 minutes. As we descended into the valley floor, the temperatures rose. I lamented the extra weight and bulk of the jacket stuffed in my backpack.

In most places, the path is wide and safe. The connected loops wouldn’t be particularly strenuous were it not for the somewhat extreme, multiple elevation changes.  An excellent slide show and description of this loop by K. A. Bogan on an IPhone app called Every Trail is here.

Windows develop in rock formations. Through erosion, freezing, thawing, and freezing again multiple times, the formations gradually collapse to form hoodoos.

These hoodoos as still connected to one another. Time will pass, and they will stand alone in odd groupings and shapes.

A hoodoo stands alone.

The climb back to the rim was not a series of fairly gentle switch-backs like our entry path. My heart pounded. Here is where I felt the altitude most acutely. I look at this photo today and smile. We did it!

Tomorrow morning we’ll point the car toward Maggie Valley and the rainforest Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I’ll breathe hard and mutter under my breath all the way to ridge tops, then whistle and sing all the way down, and stay up late rocking on the porch under bright stars.

Next: Salt Lake City — our last road trip destination before heading home.

Zion to Bryce: A Beautiful 72 Mile Drive

It has been almost a month since we returned to Pensacola from our Western road trip adventure. My desert tan has faded a little. Even the Florida sun can’t compete, especially since I’ve spent some time hiding out in the cool, dark cave of our house recovering from a non-trip-related back strain. All healed up now. In fact, we’re packing to head up to Maggie Valley, North Carolina’s cooler air for some serious porch sitting, valley gazing, hiking and visiting with friends.

We drove the 72 miles from Zion National Park to Bryce National Park on May Day. It has a dreamlike quality already, even from the distance of so short a time.

We left Zion from the east, drove through the long Zion to Mount Carmel tunnel built by the Conservation Corps and completed in 1930.

These are images in my mind now. They have become part of my dreamscape. Each of these rock formations have names and an incredible geological history. None of that matters to me in any visceral way. It is, instead, the way their essence has become emblazoned on my brain pan, the way they have absorbed me to become part of themselves, just as I have absorbed them to become an indelible part of me.

The road curves. We hurtle and spin in the surrealistic landscape of geological wonders.

Imagine. This is not a virtual tunnel. It was hacked, blown up, carved and taken out by the spoonful. It is real. It sustains the reality of the physical world. I traverse this tunnel and grow stronger, more real, for having experienced its essence.

Is it butterscotch? The other one chocolate mint?

Red rocks, hints of hoodoos. Bryce is my imagination’s imagination. The way to creativity begins here.

Tomorrow:  Hiking the valley floor at Bryce Canyon.

A Perfect Day Hike for Almost Anyone at Zion National Park

The shuttle busses in Zion and Grand Canyon surprised me. There are shuttles in Bryce, too, but we were there a few days before they starting running for the season. I had never seen a park shuttle before, and had the idea that they would be big, noisy, and crowded, with complicated schedules. Boy, was I wrong! The shuttles are wonderful: clean and quiet, with schedules and stops so simple even a navigationally challenged person such as myself could easily figure them out. The Zion shuttles stop right at the lodge, with routes that take them from the little town of Springdale just outside the park all the way to the Riverside Walk Trail that begins at the Temple of Sinawava (a Paiute word roughly meaning Coyote God).

The Temple of Sinawava, despite its evocative name, is not a temple, but rather the entire northern end of Zion Canyon. It is a natural amphitheater nearly 3000 feet deep. Hanging gardens sprout from the vertical walls. The Riverside Walk  is a wide, well-maintained, accessible path along the North Fork of the Virgin River.  The Walk ends at the one-mile point, where seasoned and properly equipped hikers can continue through the canyon narrows, as the “path” takes to the river itself.

What more could a person ask of a day hike? The sheer cliffs of Sinawava, the lovely cottonwood trees dressed in spring green, a cerulean sky, sun on my face and the love of my life as traveling companion.  Heady stuff.

The Riverside Walk was alive with smiling people on the day we were there.  It was an international, intergenerational bunch, all basking in the gifts of sun-kissed breezes, limpid pools, color-striped and speckled rocks, panhandling squirrels, grazing mule deer and a shared celebration of our improbable, joyous existence.

Several guys worked on a portion of the trail while we all paraded by. A boisterous group of 5th-graders from a local school overtook us. Two girls fell into line behind me, then gradually edged up so we were walking side by side. “Like your backpack,” one said. “And your sunglasses,” said the other. “Yeah, they’re cool,” said the first one. We walked, talked, and giggled  all the way to the end of the trail. Anyone who likes to bitch and moan about today’s young ‘uns should have been with us on our road trip. These smart, friendly, engaged girls were the rule, not the exception. We met a lot of kids who didn’t act like anyone over sixty has the plague!

 Signs warn: “Do not feed wildlife!” I saw a seventy-something, elegantly clad Japanese woman look at a squirrel, peek around as if to see if any rangers were observing, then pull a peanut from her pocket. The squirrel had seen this show before, and sat motionless, eye on the nut. She moved very slowly, bent and stretched out her nut-filled hand to the squirrel, who delicately accepted the gift. A happy smile transformed the woman’s face into that of a girl. She put a hand on either side of her face, beaming.

If asked, I would always opt for the solitude of a seldom-traveled trail. But I wouldn’t trade this day and the crowded path for diamonds, pearls or a Mark Twain first edition. What a gift.

Zion National Park: a Foretaste of Zion

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Soren Kierkegaard

I’ve been thinking about the four primary foci of our road trip adventure: living on the edge at the Grand Canyon, being nourished by the music of the Virgin River at Zion Canyon, testing our physical endurance by hiking from rim to floor and back again among the hoodoos, fins, and spires of the natural amphitheatres of Bryce, and soaring on a spiritual glide path in the transcendent music of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra with 4,000 other souls in Salt Lake City before turning southeasterly toward Longleaf Preserve, home, our own soft woodlands.

There is much yet to unpack from this journey, but I find it ripens in its own good time. The rest of tonight is for deep breathing in tune with the rolling thunder that brings to mind the Hall of the Mountain King.

Here, then, a few images from Zion, for dreaming.

We were lucky to stay in the lodge right in the heart of the canyon. Only shuttles and overnight guests are permitted in this sanctuary.
We hiked to the Emerald Pools. The interplay of rock and water wove a spell. I didn’t want to leave.

The river is a benevolent dictator: life-giver, sculptor, destroyer.
We relaxed on the porch of our lodge room each evening before walking up to the excellent Red Rock Grill for dinner.

Sweet dreams, all y’all.

How to (Unintentionally) Annoy a Young Wild Turkey

At least he looked exasperated to me. Don’t know if he was part of the group of animated pine cones with legs that we saw run out from a hen’s feather skirt a few weeks ago, but he’s probably about the right size to be one of that cohort.  When I saw this little fellow, he was sitting just off the gravel drive from our gate to the house. I stopped the car a good distance away and watched him for a few minutes. He looked at the car, then across the road, pulled his head further into his neck, and fluffed up his feathers almost over his head. I could almost imagine him saying, “Sheesh! I was already having a bad day, and now she comes along.” I didn’t have my regular camera, just the one in my cell phone, but finally decided to crank up the car again and ease slowly past the bird. I was concerned he might be injured, but when I got a closer look and snapped a picture through the open car window, he took an animated little hop over a low branch toward the deeper woods.

Sweet Surprise of an Ordinary Morning Glory

Temperatures will rise to the mid-90’s today, most likely culminating in evening thunder boomers to break the heat, same as last night. Eighty degrees already when I walk to the gate to fetch the morning excuse. The morning glories take my nonchalant breath, remind me to wake up to their gorgeous surprise.

A Feather in the High Wind of Hoover Dam

 May all who cross the canyon on this memorial bridge travel their life journeys with the strength and inspiration found in the high ideals and heroic deeds of these brave humble men.  Inscription at the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (Hoover Dam by-pass bridge)

Buck snapped this photo quickly. I didn’t want to stop and pose. I wanted to get off that bridge as fast as I could without actually flying from it as I feared might happen. You can tell by my strained grimace smile that my heart wasn’t into staying up there a moment longer.

You can see tiny people on the bridge if you squinch up your eyes and use your imagination. When we parked at the base and walked up steps and ramps to reach the pedestrian walkway, a smooth-headed man stopped us and warned Buck he had better have a chin strap for his cap. “I had hair before I walked up there,” he laughed. Once we reached the walkway and started across, I was more concerned about my entire body than just my hair. Buck grabbed for his behind-the-ear hearing aids and stowed them quickly in a deep pocket.

We got back in our car and drove deeper into Black Canyon to see the dam, the power plant and towers, and Lake Mead.

I’m not going to regurgitate facts and figures about the history of Hoover Dam. If you’re reading this, you’re already a High Order Googler. The best, most riveting account I have seen and heard about the history of this phenomenal project was recommended to me by my friend, Betty Hunter, and I highly recommend it. It’s a PBS series called The American Experience.  They have five segments on Hoover Dam. I watched two last night, and look forward to finishing the series this weekend.

I look at our photos from Hoover Dam, remember the breath of that mighty wind from the bridge and how it made me feel like a tiny feather in a great big world.

Two men bookmarked the first and last recorded deaths during the construction of Hoover Dam: J. G. Tierney, a surveyor, on December 20, 1922 and 13 years to the day later, his son, Patrick W. Tierney.  More than a hundred people died to harness the power of the magnificent wild Colorado River. The by-pass arch bridge, completed in 2010, is co-dedicated to the late Army Ranger Pat Tillman, killed in Afghanistan by so-called “friendly” fire. Since returning home, I have revisited the disturbing story of his death.

I don’t have any relatives serving in the armed forces. I don’t even know anyone who is currently serving. But I do know this: when our family gathers on Monday for a cookout and a swim, we’ll talk about Pat Tillman, the Tierneys, and the ongoing sacrifices made every day by our military and their families and others who work for the good of this country we hold so dear. And we’ll talk about what we can do, however small, to support those who are carrying the load for us all.

The Grand Canyon — Just Being There

It’s the planning before a trip that almost kills it. I’m not a happy-go-lucky trip planner. It’s my nature to over-engineer, to want to tie down every little detail, to fret about all the uncontrollable and unknowable elements that constitute an adventure. What if? What if? What if?  Then I worry about things that might happen while we’re gone, everything from an early hurricane to a water leak that floods the house. Once all those concerns are tamped down, the existential ones begin. What are we running from? What are we running to? Do we really want to go anywhere?  Did I ever tell you I’m a really fun gal?

Sometimes a trip is just a trip. I’m sorry now that I was still wrapped too tight to go down into the Grand Canyon. After our experience at Bryce, I understand now that (a) I had the physical ability to do it and (b) our experience at Grand Canyon would have been even fuller, more dimensional, and we would have in some ineffable way, become part of the canyon.

This insight, however, is like life in general, where the “if onlyies” can only be seen backwards, and each step along the path, even those tentative ones where we edge up to the rim, have to happen before we can enjoy the lush valleys of life, before we build the emotional strength to descend into arid canyons, play among the rocky amphitheatres and struggle, victorious, to the sky.

I don’t mean to leave the impression that we just walked to the rim and peered over. Over our three nights there, we hiked both paved and unpaved portions of the rim trail, from Mather Point all the way to Pima Point, near Hermit’s Rest, where we caught a shuttle back. We rousted ourselves out of bed about 4:30 one morning to go out to Yavapai and Mather Points to watch a sunrise. We walked the Trail of Time.

The Grand Canyon Village, at the South Rim, is a crossroads of pilgrims from all over the world. Roughly five million visit every year. The average visit length is two hours.

Two hours. I thought that was a typo when I read it in some park literature. That was before I saw the tour buses lined up like runners at a marathon line, the bass notes of diesel engines ever-present. Tour directors blew whistles at their charges and barked instructions like drill sergeants. “Okay, people. Look at your watches. It’s 10 o’clock. One hour! Got it? The rim is that way! Be back eleven o’clock! Not back? Long walk to Los Angeles!”

Most of the visitors we saw were Japanese, Chinese, German and French. This was true not only for the Grand Canyon, but Zion and Bryce as well. We heard many languages, and saw beautiful children. We mingled with folks at the geology museum, rim restaurants, and on the more highly traveled paved portions of the rim trail.

Mostly, though, we found spots out on the unpaved portions of the rim trail, areas where most visitors had neither time, inclination or perhaps ability to wander, and we stood or sat, and just took it all in.

Next: Hoover Dam, then Las Vegas