Wednesday, April 30, 2008

To The South Rim

The sky was blue. The morning sun was still hidden. The Basin was still shrouded in shadow. There was a cool morning breeze coming down the mountainside. There were vistas to see. There were dry creeks tumbling down the slopes. There were animal trails winding into the underbrush. There were rocks and trees and stabby things.

I sometimes found myself standing still — gazing out over the tops of the Pines and Junipers or bending over some little blooming thing on the ground. With each step there was something else to study or contemplate. Before long, I was falling behind, but my intrepid companions would stop periodically and wait.

With each step, I was weighing the soreness in my legs. I had been dreading this day. If a little hike like the Window Trail could break my spirit, what would a 12-miler one do? So I was waiting for pain as we climbed higher and was preparing myself for the spot where we decided that I could turn back early if things didn't go well.

But things went well. So when we came to the junction, we just kept going.

We came to Laguna Meadows with its tall tufts of grass in broad open places. In another life not too far perturbed from this one, we might have over-nighted at the primitive camping sites here. But in this life, our style of camping is hardly primitive, and anyway our only gear was water and food enough for the day. And so we kept going.

The South Rim towers above the desert facing towards the Rio Grande far in the hazy distance. On this day, it was a harsh, wind-swept place, with great gusts bursting over the edge of the cliffs and threatening to blow my hat away. We briefly sat at the edge of the precipice, dangling our legs over the edge and staring out at the mountains and desert below, but the gusts and my hat and the camera looped over my shoulder and the two bottles of water in my fanny pack made for too many unpredictable variables, and like a nervous Nellie, I announced that I didn't want to sit so close. We took a few photographs and then found a low spot behind an old, gnarled Juniper tree and rested our weary bones (or was it just my bones that were weary?) and ate our peanut butter sandwiches.

Hiking from the Basin to the South Rim
Big Bend National Park

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 Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tomorrow We'll Run

He knows when late afternoon has come. When it gets to be 4:30 or so, he comes into the study to remind me that it's almost time.

Let's go, he says, it's time. Even though it isn't quite.

He might bark or he might politely jump beside my chair. No, I'll tell him, not yet. And he'll look up briefly and then leave the room.

But when I stand up from my chair, he comes dashing back. And when I put on my shorts and tie my shoes, he's up on the bed beside me, nose in my face, hoping beyond hope that he'll get to go. Because it's that time of day, and he knows what the man does at 5:00 and it usually involves shorts, a pair of running shoes and a leash.

But today is a rowing day. How do I tell him that? Not today, I say, and he gives me a kiss on the nose.

I grab my wallet and keys, all part of the ritual he knows so well. I turn off the light in the bedroom and walk toward the front door. He dashes ahead of me, sliding on the slippery floor as he turns the corner in the living room.

When I get to the door, he is there waiting. Now comes the leash, he must be thinking. Instead, I gather my things and walk out the door alone.

He doesn't let his disappointment show. He just peers out the window beside the closed front door, his wide, dark eyes and black nose barely poking up above the low sill.

Certainly there must be some mistake. Surely he'll be coming back.

But today is a rowing day, little doggie. Tomorrow we'll run. I promise.

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The Call of the Chisos

Amid the desolation of the Chihuahuan desert, the Chisos Mountains rear their igneous faces and reach for the sky. Their dark slopes beckon, visible from almost everywhere in the park.

Come, they say. Come to where the air grows cool. Come to where trees and birds of ages past survive in ecological niches that have long since retreated from the flatter lands. The Alligator Juniper. The Mexican Weeping Juniper. The Texas Madrone. The Mexican Jays. The Canyon Wren. Come see them, come hear them, the mountains say.

From our vantage point in the desert, the mountains seem impenetrable, a wall of hard rock soaring above roughly rolling hills. Somewhere up there, the Window looks out to the west, and there are people standing up there on the slick, smooth stone looking down on the desert, down on us.

Trudy and Ben are waiting for me.

I'm on my stomach shooting pictures of a little yellow flower I spied growing beside a pinkish-red rock with the hazy face of Sierra Ponce on the distant horizon.

Trudy and Ben are waiting.

It has been a long day. They hear the Chisos calling. It's time to return to our little hotel room in the mountains.

Big Bend National Park

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 Monday, April 28, 2008

Tuff Canyon

The grey cliffs of the Sierra Ponce are just visible, marking the southern side of the valley of the Rio Grande. A notch in those distant cliffs marks where the Rio Grande flows out and makes its turn east.

Invisible from the pavement where we parked just several feet away, the white walls of Tuff Canyon plunge down to to a creek bed floor. This is the stuff of pyroclastic flows, eruptions of fluidized gas and rock. Scorching gases. Flowing ash. Sharp fragments of rock. You wouldn't want to be around to see it happen.

We follow a path into the canyon and walk up the dry rocky floor of Blue Creek. The creek starts in the Chisos Mountains and tumbles down igneous peaks into the desert, carving its way thru sediment and this ashy tuff. Most of the time it's dry, but look up at the white tuff walls. Look at what the creek has once in a while wrought. You wouldn't want to be around to see it happen.

So here we are.

Trudy is poking at the canyon walls with her fingers. I am staring, jaw agape, at great grey boulders embedded in the white tuff — boulders bigger than I could lift, boulders picked up and thrown by hot flowing gases, boulders now waiting for one more flood of water to wash away the tuff and liberate them. Just one more gully washer should do it for that one over there that seems to be so close to falling out of its hole that you wouldn't want to stand under it, lest its time (and yours) come early.

The canyon comes to an end. The white tuff walls give way to igneous rhyolite just around the corner. Ben is somewhere over there. We find him scrambling up great rhyolite boulders that hold small pools of murky water.

We could hike for a long time up this canyon, following the creek bed up to its source. That would be some hike. But if we did that, our car would be here and we would be there and it would be many hours hence and we would be hungry and tired and ... well we wouldn't do that, would we?

It's an interesting thought I find myself thinking out here: where you might go if you had the time, what you might do if you had the gumption. But we have no more of either, so we scramble up the last few remaining feet of the canyon walls, having climbed well out of the canyon that we started our hike in. We scramble over the edge and back into the desert and back to our car.

Dinner awaits us back in our humble hotel room.

Tuff Canyon
Big Bend National Park

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No Alarm Bell Sounded

To get to the canyon, we first crossed Terlingua Creek — a shallow trickle of water spread across the sand and pebbles. We barely got our shoes wet.

Here, the limestone face of the Sierra Ponce stands at the water's edge. Eastward as you follow the cliffs with your eyes, the water is swift and wide and deep. Westward as you follow them the other way, the water is just this trickle. And straight ahead, the Rio Grande issues forth from Santa Elena Canyon, joins the creek and makes an abrupt right turn.

We scrambled up a sand bank and followed a path thru tall grasses and riverbank vegetation. We climbed some steep switchbacks that started my heart pounding again and came to a promontory that looked north into the desert from which we had just come and looked back at the last stretch of the river's course winding thru the canyon which is what we had come to see.

From there the path began to descend, winding between large boulders that had fallen from the cliffs some time long ago. Ben had gone ahead, leaving us to inspect the tiny flowers growing in crevices and the seashells embedded in the cliff walls here hundreds of feet above the desert floor and hundreds of miles from the sea.

As the path began to take us back to the water's edge, we saw canoes coming around the bend. The water was shallow, and they had to periodically get out of their boats and push. Tomorrow, people said, the Mexicans were planning to release water from the dam on the Rio Concho and the water level would rise. But today it was shallow.

In fact, as I sat on the American side in the shade of American limestone, Trudy took off her shoes and socks and rolled up her pants and waded out into the flowing stream. Some Japanese people had gone before her, and she caught up to them, pointing out bird prints in a sandbar. They asked her if she was a scientist. Little did they know.

Trudy held up her feet for me to see the black mud that she was wading thru. I zoomed in on the scene thru the lens of the camera. I preferred her smile to her feet. As I watched, she walked over to the far shore and looked first one way and then the other. And then she did something reckless.

There on the far side of the Rio Grande river and the far southern reach of the 48 continental United States, Trudy reached out her hand and touched the Mexican side. Fortunately no alarm bell sounded.

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 Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Wish Me Luck

I don't know what time of day it was. You don't really remember those kinds of things once a little time has passed. I do remember her voice — in person quiet and gentle, on the phone tenuous and uncertain. We were on the phone.

Mr. Hasan, she said, your PSA results are in. She paused. 0.26 — do you know what that means?

I suppose I did, or at least I should have, but when you're on the receiving end of health care you sometimes drop the details in order to grok the rest. I was quiet for a moment and then said, No, I don't think I do.

So she explained how after a prostatectomy the test should be undetectable, as it had been the previous two visits. She explained that 0.26 is not undetectable and that I needed to make an appointment with my oncologist and come back in six weeks.

Your cancer has returned. Come back in six weeks.

That was eight weeks ago. They immediately took me off testosterone, which means I'm having hot flashes again. And then we went to Big Bend, where the weather was cool enough and the hikes strenuous enough that I barely noticed the hot flashes and we all got a welcome distraction.

At six weeks, my PSA was once again undetectable due to the testosterone cutoff. That's good news. On the other hand, they reread the post-op pathology slides and came up with a different result: evidence of local involvement. That's bad news.

Two weeks has elapsed since then: back and forth with the doctors, uncertainty over treatment and much stress for those around me. Cancer is very hard on people you love. Ironically, I feel better than I have for years, except I got a cramp in my leg while running and am hobbling around looking more pathetic than I ought.

So what do we do? Radiation soon. Probably chemotherapy later.

Here we go again. Wish me luck.

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 Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Two Sides of the River

In Castolan Village we get something to drink and stand between the stabby things at the edge of the plateau and gaze out over the flood plain of the Rio Grande. Although views from other angles vary, the contrast here between the two sides of the river is stark.

On the northern side, chalky slag heaps and white hills of detritus litter the desert as if spewed from the pits of hell. The sun beats down mercilessly even in spring. This is not the a place you'd even want to visit unless you had somewhere else to go.

On the southern side, cliffs of rock climb skyward. Great balconies of limestone look out over the river. You can almost feel the forces that thrust them up. And you can't help but wonder what it would be like to stand at the top and view the land.

Big Bend National Park

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Not Made For This

My constitution has become too soft. Working from home. A 30 second morning commute. Phone calls from the garden. Breezes and blue skies just a few steps away. Still, sometimes I venture out.

But yesterday, the traffic. It took 45 minutes to go three blocks, and of course I had much farther than that to go. People rush up from behind and cut in front and generally consider their particular purpose deserving of deference. And you sit at the light as it goes from red to green to red to green, and still you can't go thru the intersection.

And today, the traffic. An accident somewhere on an overpass had highways and streets in this quarter at a standstill. An ambulance crawled along the left shoulder, its siren and lights not doing much good — you can't pull over when there's nothing to pull onto. I thought I started home early but ended up getting home late, ground to a pulp by the stop and go, bumper to bumper.

I'm just not made for this.

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 Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Burro Mesa Pour-off

On the maps, Burro Mesa trail has a line drawn thru it at one point with an arrow and a note telling you that although the trail appears from the map to be continuous, in fact on one side of the line it is a hundred feet above the other with a sheer drop in between -- what mathematicians call a discontinuity.

We took the low road, approaching that discontinuity from the desert plain. It wasn't a long hike, although the scrunchy gravel of the creek bed made walking a bit of a chore.

Along the way there were a few diversions: the sculpted cliffs of chalky-orange remnants of a long-ago pyroclastic flow, a scrubby tree in the middle of the dry creek abloom in magenta and abuzz with bees, another one to the side with spring-green leaves and little white blossom-balls, two couples who listened with interest to the fair and industrious Trudy as she shared with them the geology lesson she had prepared for us.

Around a bend, the creek came to a sudden stop. It didn't narrow gradually or split into rivulets. It just came to a stop against the pale rock in a grotto of sorts where the cliff wall was hollowed out.

This is the pour-off. If you look up, you see where the water comes from — from that other part of the trail on the map somewhere a hundred feet overhead. The water comes running down the hills thru a narrow ravine and comes to approximately this spot on the map and then falls down a round pipe carved from the cliffrock.

And the water, when it comes, doesn't cast itself over the edge of a flat-faced cliff like most waterfalls. It doesn't cascade in intervals down the cliff. No, it drops vertically downward thru this pipe, widening it a bit each time, smoothing out the rock.

And when that water comes, I don't think you want to be standing here looking up.

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 Sunday, April 6, 2008

What Are The Chances?

We drove from the Basin in the Chisos mountains to a stop sign in the Chihuahuan desert marking the intersection with the main road running from the Visitor's Center around the far side of the mountains to Santa Elena canyon in the Southwest corner of the park.

Big Bend is vast. And there isn't much traffic to speak of. Still, there was a stop sign there, so I stopped -- or rather I slowed to a roll.

I looked left. I saw nothing. Then I leaned forward to look right. The main road comes in at an acute angle at that intersection, so I had to lean way forward. I saw nothing. So I looked once more to the left and then began to turn.

Wait! Trudy shouted, putting her hands on the dash.

As she said this, a small blue SUV drove in front of me, coming out of nowhere, slowed almost to a stop by the shock of my rolling into their path. The driver looked at me wide-eyed and pulled over.

Big Bend is vast. There isn't much traffic to speak of. So what are the chances that if you roll into an intersection in the middle of the desert that you might almost hit a vehicle that was hidden behind the head of your dear spouse, approaching at exactly the speed with which you were moving your head back? And what are the chances that the vehicle in question would be full of people you know? And what on Earth are the chances that those people you know would be your next door neighbors vacationing on their spring break just as you were on yours?


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 Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bear's Gate

After the Lost Mine hike, we drove to the Visitor's Center, but it was under construction, and there wasn't much to do or interesting souvenirs to buy, although Trudy found a few bookmarks she liked. So we didn't stay there long.

Driving back towards Panther Pass, Trudy was worried we were going to waste the better part of a day if we just went back to the room. She had a point. So we pulled off the road near a locked service gate and walked down the road on the other side to see what we could see.

There were peaks not so far away where Green Gulch fanned out into the desert. And there were slopes of scree that looked promising and hidden canyons here and there that would certainly make a good destination.

The service road came to an end in what appeared to be a gravel yard. On the far side, we saw a a trail leading off into the scrub. We followed it.

The trail was well worn and periodically marked with stone cairns, which gave us confidence. Still, we were in the mountains on a trail that isn't on the maps. So I picked up a big stick, figuring that if we ran into a predator, I might make myself more menacing than I otherwise am. Thus armed, we continued our hike.

The path wound around a bit but headed in the general direction of a dry creek valley that we could see in the distance. The creek issued from a narrow canyon that was hidden from the road, and the trail was evidently heading that way.

Cliffs loomed over us. Pine trees grew on the slopes. At our feet, Prickly Pear and Sotol and Ocotillo sometimes blocked out way, but the path kept going. We followed the it along the edge of the creek valley until we came to the feet of the mountains. A slope of pinkish-red scree lay across our way, and the path seemed to climb up. So we climbed, slipping on the clinking rocks and making a lot of noise.

On the other side of the scree, the trail disappeared into a woods where the creek bed issued from the canyon. The path clearly continued, but brown Oak leaves littered the ground, and it was clear no one had come this way for a long time.

To either side, the walls of Maple Canyon shot up into the blue sky. Somewhere behind the cliffs, the bright sun was shining, but here in the shade of the mountain beneath the canopy of the trees, the light was dim.

I looked down at my feet and saw some poop, which by itself would not have been significant since the trail we had followed was decorated by deer poop all along the way. But this wasn't deer poop. It was black. And it was big.

Trudy and Ben had not followed me into the trees. They were standing on the edge of the scree listening to me tell them what I saw. I told them about the poop and looked further down the trail. I told them of another big pile not two feet beyond the first one. And then I told them of another, just one foot further.

The piles of poop spoke as clearly as words. "Here begins my domain." There was no doubt in my mind: this was Bear's Gate.

I looked around for a few moments, holding firmly onto my stick and then walked to where Trudy and Ben were standing. In spite of the canyon that stood before us and the wonder that a hike in that place might bring, we decided it would be prudent not to continue.

We turned and hiked the mile or so back to the car.

Maple Canyon in the Chisos Mountains
Big Bend National Park

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 Thursday, April 3, 2008

Lost Mines Trail

It must be said that I found the final mile of the Window Trail grueling. The climb from the campsites to the lodge is all uphill with switchbacks that in a previous life wouldn't have fazed me but in this one did. I was so beat as we neared the lodge that I opted to walk the long way around the parking lot to avoid picking up my feet to step over the curbs in the middle.

So it was fortunate that the guide books warn you not to let the initial grade of Lost Mines Trail intimidate you.

The grade at the beginning is indeed steep, but being forewarned, we kept going, and the trail began to level out. I say "level out" but of course this was a mountain trail, so it rather kept climbing up, but gently and in a way that my huffing and puffing subsided.

Actually, huffing and puffing is fine. I was a runner long enough to know that you huff and puff and your heart pounds and everything will work out fine. It was the rock stairs that got me. They got me returning from the Window, and they got me here, too, putting an increasing distance between me and my intrepid companions.

Trudy and Ben periodically had to wait for me to catch up. Ben was particularly good at this, constantly looking back and waiting for his dear old dad for whom each stair step was a weight lifting exercise and whose feet seemed to weigh a ton. But wait they did, and I managed eventually to lengthen my stride (when the trail permitted it) and hike my fanny pack higher onto my fanny, giving my glutes a break.

But I suppose it was the self-guided tour booklet that saved me in the end. At the trail head, for a dollar you can take a pamphlet that has photos and descriptions of 24 marked items of interest along the trail. There were Alligator Junipers and Mexican Drooping Junipers and One-Seed Junipers. There were Pinyon Pines and Texas Madrones. There were Sotol and Ocotillo and Nolina. There were stone CCC culverts. And there was the igneous mass of Casa Grande across the canyon. At each of these spots, Trudy opened the booklet and read the narrative. And as she read, I got to stand still and sometimes even sit!

Given my experience the day before, my spirits might have broken on the way to the peak. But as it happened, there were these 24 chances for recovery, soothed by the narrations of the fair and industrious Trudy and the patience of Ben whose dad ran marathons not so long ago but was having trouble here.

And so, we had lunch on the pink rock at the summit in the shade of a Pinyon Pine, looking down into Juniper Canyon on the one hand and Pine Canyon on the other. And everything worked out fine.

Big Bend National Park

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 Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What Happened at the Window

Water was running in the creek. Blue sky was overhead. The cliffs were close on either hand. The rock under our feet was smooth from years of water running out of the Basin. A trickle fell over sculpted falls and gathered in small pools that glistened in the sun. You could tell this was not a place you'd want to be during a deluge.

There was a crowd at the window when we got there, including a multifamily group with boys who were screeching with joy for the glory of that place. Their parents were doing what they could to restrain them and keep the boys from bounding thru the Window and falling onto the rocks in the desert far below, but they were failing in the task.

Failing in that task? Yes, and not only were they failing to restrain them, but they were taking the boys down to the very brink that was polished so smooth that it was treacherous to walk on, and they were posing for pictures, one kid at a time with an adult, both with backs turned to the precipice just behind them.

As one kid was posing (and goofing around, as kids do for cameras), the others were bouncing off the canyon walls and running up and down the narrow creek, splashing in the water, turning that treacherous place into a nightmare waiting to happen. The parents could not settle them down.

At one point, a kid posing with his dad jumped away from the man's side as the last photo was snapped, jostling his dad and making him lose his balance. The man swung his arms and his eyes widened as he tried to keep himself from falling onto his back and sliding down the slick chute and plunging into the desert. He regained his balance, but his eyes were wide with horror and his mind was clearly petrified at the fate he had so narrowly escaped.

I was sitting against the canyon walls grimacing, almost curled into a fetal position. It was more than I could bear. I looked over at Trudy and said I had to leave. She nodded, and we walked away.

The view of the desert thru that narrow opening between the rocks was spectacular, by the way, but you'll have to take my word for it. We never took a picture of the place.

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Oak Spring Trail

When we got close to the Window, the cliffs on either side began to close in and we heard water running in the creek bed. Then we came to a sign: left to the Window, right up the side of the cliff to a promontory with a panoramic view of the desert. Although our eventual destination was the Window, we took the path to the promontory, figuring that we'd catch the Window on our way back.

It was a steep path of red and pink and maroon shards of stone that slipped as you walked and made clinking/crunching sounds as you climbed. With each step we rose higher above the narrow Basin floor.

We began breathing deeply. Our hearts began pounding. I began panting audibly and had sweat streaming down my face and wondered if I was the only one. Up, up and up, each step was a workout -- only for me, I guess, because when I mentioned feeling the burn in my glutes, Trudy remained diplomatically silent.

At the top, we rested. With the desert west of the Chisos arrayed out before us and distant mountain ranges marching to the horizon, we sat down and ate. We drank our water and snacked on apples and oranges and on the gorp that Trudy had packed, complete with morsels of chocolate that did wonders for our spirits.

Ben took off his boots and laid back on his rock and took a nap. Trudy and I gazed out over the desert and mountains.

The wind was blowing in gusts up the western face of the mountains, but we sat just an arms length away from the edge of the ledge where there was hardly a breeze unless you held out your hand. It was a wonderful place to sit. A wonderful place to look out on the world. A wonderful place to rest your glutes!

Actually the trail doesn't end there. Oak Springs trail winds around the face of the cliff from that spot and then plunges into the desert. Below us, we could see it drop in zigzagging switchbacks until it passed out of sight.

As we were putting our gear back on, we briefly considered taking it into the desert instead of the afternoon hike was had planned. Trudy looked at me. I looked at her. We came close to deciding to do it, but then I looked down at the switchbacks again and envisioned my glutes on the way back up. "Let's not," I said. So we turned and went back down the way we had come.

Later that evening, in our room with a good meal of spaghetti behind us, I said how it was lucky we didn't take the trail down to the desert. Ben looked up from behind his book and agreed. "We'd just be getting back now!" he said. If that, I thought to myself, rubbing my sore legs.

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Maybe Next Time

At every turn in the Basin, there was some place off in the distance, some place well off the beaten path, that called to us — well, called to me. And I was constantly chattering (incessantly so it probably seemed to my two intrepid companions) about going over there into a canyon or climbing up there. My inner child yearned to hike the hidden valleys between the sheer canyon walls on the northern side of the basin. And I really wanted to scramble up one of those slopes of scree.

At about the midway point of our hike down to the Window, we came close to the encircling mountains where the valley narrowed and the creek bed ran close to the cliffs. Although the sun was shining, the only sky to see was straight above us. A steeply angled pile of loose red and brown rock ran from just beyond the trees up to the rock face.

Here was a slope of scree I might scale that led to hidden canyons I might hike. I marked the spot for investigation on our return. But as it happened, by the time we passed this spot hours later on our hike back, I was substantially less inclined to go wandering off the beaten path and much more focused on the spaghetti that awaited us at trail's end.

Maybe next time.

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