Thursday, March 26, 2009

Environmental risktaking

I was talking to my friend Blair last night about people who make foolish mistakes and die in the Grand Canyon, and why they do. Her theory, which I like a lot, is that we are so mobile these days that we can go zipping around from environment to environment and have not a clue how to be in them. But we think we do, perhaps because we see them on TV or whatever.

A big theme of this blog is how I lived in New York City and felt totally comfortable and now I live in a small town on the edge of the country -- the bears have been spotted! they're coming out of hibernation! -- and often don't have a clue how to live here. So I've learned to drive the speed limit, say, and bring a map when I go hiking or snowshoeing, not matter how short or local a trip. And other things. I'm no longer surprised that everyone knows everyone else here.

But I don't have a clue how to be in the desert. "Drink lots of water" doesn't mean the same thing in New England as it does in Phoenix. Eighty or 90 or 100 degrees outside is different there because it's so dry and your sweat just evaporates. I could easily overexert myself because of that. Not only do I not know how to be at the Grand Canyon, I can't quite believe that I don't, maybe I don't want to believe it or accept it. So I can see how people might take stupid chances, like going around the railing to get a better picture. I don't, in part because I am such a rule-follower, and also because I can see enough of the place to realize it really is much bigger than I am. It does scare me. It takes my breath away.

[There's a great essay here (scroll down) that talks about how the first Europeans to get to the Grand Canyon couldn't see it because it was too far out of their realm of experience. It's a political essay by an illustrious socialist, but I don't want to get into that discussion here, although this essay is well-worth reading. But this opening is pertinent to what I'm talking about here:

The first European to look into the depths of the great gorge was the conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in 1540. He was horrified by the sight and quickly retreated from the South Rim. More than three centuries passed before Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers led the second major expedition to the rim. Like Garcia Lopez, he recorded an "awe that was almost painful to behold." Ives's expedition included a well-known German artist, but his sketch of the Canyon was wildly distorted, almost hysterical.

Neither the conquistadors nor the Army engineers, in other words, could make sense of what they saw; they were simply overwhelmed by unexpected revelation. In a fundamental sense, they were blind because they lacked the concepts necessary to organize a coherent vision of an utterly new landscape.

Accurate portrayal of the Canyon only arrived a generation later when the Colorado River became the obsession of the one-armed Civil War hero John Wesley Powell and his celebrated teams of geologists and artists. They were like Victorian astronauts reconnoitering another planet. It took years of brilliant fieldwork to construct a conceptual framework for taking in the canyon. With "deep time" added as the critical dimension, it was finally possible for raw perception to be transformed into consistent vision."

From "Can Obama See the Grand Canyon?" by Mike Davis]

Blair says she sees people swimming off Long Island in seas that are way too rough for her, and realizes that they just don't know what they're doing because, presumably, they haven't grown up around the ocean. And yet she fesses up to tubing down a river in the Adirondacks where one of their party got caught in a submerged log and almost drowned. Her cousin said later, "oh yeah, underwater logs are the big concern on rivers." Who knew? If you were at a beach and the sea suddenly receded a half mile would you know that a tsunami was coming? You might now, if you remembered that famous photo. (This isn't quite the one I was thinking of, but it's close.)

Similarly, we went hiking in the Columbia River Gorge last summer up to a stunning 100-foot waterfall -- it was on our New Year's card this year -- that emptied into a churning bowl that dropped down through a very narrow opening into rapids at the other end. We climbed down a steep hill to get to an outcropping -- Dave's cousin said later that she never goes down there, which utterly surprised me -- and I still have nightmare flashes about Lily standing on the outcropping taking our picture and taking a step back to get a better angle. Dave and I leaped up and traded places with her. But if she had been in a slightly different position, slightly further back on the rock, she would have gone over. And I would have gone after her and we both would have drowned.

I mean, we never would have let her get that close. But knowing what I know now, that someone very familiar with that environment would not have gone down there, or let her kid go down there, in the first place, gives me pause. I think I need to be more aware, more vigilant about my surroundings, especially when they are new or alien or foreign.

To that end, meditation helps a lot. Keeps me in the present. Accepting that I don't know everything, and that I don't have to, as does understanding that seeing a photograph or two is not the same as being there. Because I feel confident walking around Brooklyn does not mean I have expertise at the Grand Canyon, or a towering waterfall. And finally, I am not weak or inadequate or a wuss for following directions or obeying suggestions, rules, laws.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Vacation photos

Here's a link to some of our Phoenix photos, including the Grand Canyon. Until Dave puts captions on them, know that the kids are our friends we went to visit, and couple of the four adults and me in my blue shirt is my long-lost cousin Maureen and her two kids.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Grand Canyon sure is grand

It really does defy language. There's no way to describe it. There are no words.

Here's what we did: We drove there on yesterday by way of breakfast at Denny's at 6:30 am, and then Montezuma's Castle, poorly-named ancient ruins between Phoenix and Flagstaff built by Sinaqua Indians. Dave and DeeAnn were comparing them to Mesa Verde, since they'd been there when they were kids (and could climb the ladders and walk around inside). They liked these too but they are smaller, and you can't see past the outer walls. We talked to a very friendly volunteer named Sam who knew a lot about these things. When I asked if he'd ever been up there himself, he said, "that's payday!" Dave said, "How do you do it?" And he said, "With a big grin!"

This trip had another reason for being: My first cousin Maureen, whom for various reasons I have never met, was meeting us at the hotel and we were going to check out the Big Ditch together. And so it was that we drove into Tusayan, where our hotel was, about 12:30, and as I walked into the hotel I saw a woman going in too, along with a young man and woman. It was Maureen and her son and daughter. The 11 of us (counting DeeAnn's family) went to lunch across the street and then we headed into the park.

I remember when I first went, in June 1980, when I was driving across country with a friend. We got there early one morning, 8am maybe, and we just drove up to Mather Point, parked, got out of the car, and walked to the edge. And I, who had been so cynical about this country and figured the Grand Canyon was just hype, was blown away. I couldn't believe how incredibly beautiful it was, and awesome, and majestic, and vast--endless. It was a spiritual moment, a moment when I found it possible to believe in God.

It wasn't as big a shock this time, but I still felt in awe, and inspired, and small. We walked around and went down the famous Bright Angel Trail for a couple hundred yards -- and it drops straight down, right next to the trail -- and ate ice cream (not me) and shopped a bit and took lots and lots of pictures. It seems all you do is dodge cameras, wait your turn to stand at a vista, and take pictures for other people. It seems like no matter how many pictures you take, even knowing how inadequate they will appear in retrospect, you want to take more.

Maureen and I gabbed and gabbed and told stories and got to know each other. She bought all the kids presents, and later gave some to me and Dave too, and I kicked myself because I hadn't thought to bring anything for her. They left early the next morning but as Dave said, it's never to late to gain a relative. She feels like family; she feels familiar; she looks a lot like my aunt Judy and many of her gestures seemed like Judy's too. What a gift! It's wonderful to have a new cousin.

I got caught up in one gift shop reading a book about people who've died in the Grand Canyon called "Over the Edge." Chapter headings cover people who fell off the rim, who died in the river, who committed suicide, who were murdered. It's actually funny in a Darwin Awards kinda way. Aside from the drunks who decide to go for a hike, or walk along the railing, there were lots of testotersone stories, guys showing off. A guy teased his young daughter by jumping on the railing, windmilling his arms and pretending to lose his balance, and then jumping off into the abyss. The daughter said, oh Dad! and walked on. Later they realized that he was trying to jump down to a five-foot ledge and he slipped and fell 300 feet.

There's lots of stories about people going past the railing to get a little closer to the Canyon, often for a photo, and losing their balance, or the rock crumbling beneath them. One guy climbed beyond the railing, turned around to take a picture of the lodge, and, putting the camera up to his face, stepped backward to get a better shot. The hiking stories are mostly about heat stroke and dehydration. Survivors say, I didn't realize it could get so hot, or, I didn't realize it could get so cold. Park rangers speak firmly, telling hikers to turn back because of the weather, or the trail they're attempting is too difficult, or they aren't prepared well enough, or they don't have enough water, and they continue anyway and then one or all of their group dies.

It's very sad, and it makes you wonder how people could be so stupid. But more than that, I secretly fear, could I be so stupid? Could I ever think, oh, it's okay if I go beyond that railing just for a minute, to have my photo taken. I worry, am I vigilant enough? Am I alert and aware and present? Or should I lighten up? Can I be too careful?

And as we talked about it -- poor Steve; I read anecdotes aloud to him from the book on the drive home, three hours, but hey, he bought me the book -- I came to the conclusion that the Grand Canyon is so vast and majestic that it's overwhelming and unreal. The cliffs along the North Rim are so colorful and so far away that they look like a painted backdrop from a movie.

The rangers say, This isn't a theme park. Disney didn't make it. It's rough and unforgiving. And most of us just don't have any idea how to be in the wilderness, never mind a surreal environment like the Grand Canyon. I feel far safer walking a Brooklyn street than strolling the South Rim. As the book points out, many people are unfamiliar with walking on a smooth, even, surface. Bumps and cracks and ridges and hills surprise us.

This manifests itself when I walk in my woods. I don't know whether to prepare or not. Should I tell someone where I'm going and when I'll be back? Pack a daypack with water and a snack, a map and compass? Part of me feels silly, like I should lighten up, get a life, have fun, don't take this hike thing so seriously. But another part of me, and this book is pushing me further in this direction, says, what, it's going to kill you to get a pack and stock it? It's going to kill you to let someone know where you'll be for a couple of hours?

Just do the right thing and admit this nature thing is bigger than you. Get down off that railing and stay on the path. A couple more feet closer to the actual Canyon won't make that photo that much better. Carrying a pack in my backyard won't make me look like a wuss.

What a glorious thing the Grand Canyon is! I don't know if I've ever seen such vastness in such detail, all spread out before me. I see deep into time and I don't even know what I'm looking at. I sense my utter insignificance in the world, never mind the universe. I feel alone, but I feel together in the presence of my family--including my new (but not unknown) dear cousin--my friends, my community, and my god, whatever that is.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Phoenix update

We're here visiting friends Steve and DeeAnn, who moved from Brooklyn the year before we did. Their daughter Emerald is oldest and probably best friend. They met when they were 10 months old and in the Puffin class at the Montessori Day School. They lived around the corner from us -- we could spit into their backyard from ours -- and we saw them every day and the kids slept over at least once a week. They broke my heart when they moved and I think that's part of why I was so eager to leave, after they did.

So! Other than United losing my baggage, it's been an uneventful trip. And we got it back late the next day. We've been to the Heard Museum, a museum of Indian art, we've hiked in the Phoenix Mountains, gone to the Phoenix Desert Botanic Garden, and had good Mexican and seafood. We were hiking near Piestewa Peak, and the landscape is just extraordinary. I can't believe how otherwordly it is, like an alien landscape. The saguaro catci -- those are the big tall guys with the arms sticking out -- dot the red-brown hillsides. It's hot and the air is dry, dry, dry. Tons of other kinds of cacti are all around. I put my hand on one as I was climbing up a steep part, a red barrel thing, but I didn't lean too hard and it didn't get me too badly. Apparently there's a cactus that shoots spines at you if you get too close. I tried to test it with Lily's waterbottle but was warned not to.

We saw lizards, and chipmunks that look like giant gerbils, and a slew of quail running along the ground, and some of us saw a bobcat. We climbed about a mile, maybe more, to the top of a ridge, with a view of the surrounding area, and ate lunch at the top in the breeze. Not bad for two 10 year olds, a seven year old, and a two year old (he did great, although he did get carried most of the way down).

We've also seen some really interesting art, at the Heard, and then at the botanic garden, which had an installation of glass art mixed in among the plants. I'm too tired to write about them, but check out those links if you're interested. We're off to the Grand Canyon for the night tomorrow and I am going to meet a long-lost first cousin. Two extraordinary events in one day!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

This is what I'm doing now

I took a hot yoga class today. Not quite as hot as bikram, but still, 95 degress is quite hot. When Yogasana, an Iyengar place, opened on my corner in Brooklyn a few years ago (replacing Mario's Deli, R.I.P.), I ended up going twice a week for awhile. I took half-day workshops and classes and for a few months I was even doing yoga every day at home, which was very unlike me.

This yoga is different. I went to my first class about six weeks ago and did not like it one bit. In Brooklyn we'd spend a great deal of time going over and over and over poses very carefully; we'd often do a half dozen poses in the 90 minutes. We'd spend a lot of time focusing on an obscure body part, like where your spine meets the back of your skull. Everything we did for the session was about that, in some way. Once we spent a half hour rolling a tennis ball under our feet.

This studio is not like that. This feels like a comparable class level, but it moves very fast -- high push-up, low push-up, updog, downdog, boom, boom, boom. The heat is intense. My shirt was soaking wet almost immediately. I'd stop a lot to wipe my face with the towel I'd brought, and chug some water. I couldn't keep up the pace, and I gather the issue with hot yoga -- with any yoga, really -- is that you can get hurt if you get your ego in the way. If you look at the people around you and start getting competitive you can push yourself too hard, and in the heat that can be dangerous.

Apparently the heat is good for injuries, however, so I went back today because my body had felt amazing the last time; my shoulder, which I injured last summer, felt like new. My chiropractor said, turn your head off and listen to your body. You have to try at least once more.

So I went. And while I don't feel as amazing as I did in January, I signed up for a 10-class card because I realized something important: When you live some place a long time, as I did in Brooklyn, for nearly 2 decades, you develop resources and routines and people and ways of doing things. And part of moving, I can see now, was to shake all that up. Today I found myself saying, thinking, Iyengar was good in Brooklyn, really good. But this is what I'm doing now.

This is what I'm doing now. This is how I'm living now. I felt a new level of acceptance for my not-so-new way of life. This is the yoga I am doing now. I am not taking class with my beloved Erin down the street. But just because it's not Erin doesn't mean there aren't things to learn here, and I'll be darned if I shut myself off from them just because it's different from what I know and have come to rely on.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

PS on getting lost in our woods

I find it fascinating to realize that I can be totally lost in the woods even though I know exactly where I am. I mean, I really knew more or less where I was, much more "more" than "less." If I'd had a map I think I could have found my way out pretty easily, even if I weren't on a trail. But I don't really know how to bushwhack, and I'm not quite sure how to go in a straight line in empty woods. I mean, of course I could have just gone back the way I'd come, assuming I remembered which turn-offs I'd taken. But I didn't want to do that at all. It would have meant a much longer walk, like going all the way around Prospect Park because I couldn't figure how to cut through the middle, and I was already tired. And I didn't really have the time.

I kept picturing the entire conservation land spread out on a map. In my mind, I could see the Mountain Road entrance in Florence, and the lake, and the dam, and the meadow where we saw moose poop last April. I could see the house with five garages that's just yards away on the other side of the Marian Street Trail. I even imagined I could figure out how to get over there if I just walked in that general direction. But I also had a sense that I could get lost, very, very lost, if I strayed from the trail, and wander around in circles. I lacked confidence that I actually knew what I was doing in this darn woods.

I don't have that sense when I'm in the city, where I really feel utterly at home (or at least I did when I lived there. Less so now, truth be told). Maybe I never allowed myself to get so far afield, or maybe it's all familiar, grided out in a logical manner, with buses and subways at regular intervals; even Brooklyn's odd layout makes sense.

Or maybe it's that I knew it so well, after living there so long, that it took a lot more real exploration to risk getting lost. I need to cogitate this one. It's hard to start anew in some ways, but it sure keeps you on your toes.

Snowshoeing on the back 40

Last weekend's storm that hit a week ago left a foot of powdery light snow, perfect for me to try out my new snowshoes. Other than getting a bit lost I had a great time.

I've had a hard time keeping my snowshoes strapped on, for some reason. Last winter I was using a pair of Dave's and they kept getting loose in the back and falling off, so I had to stop every 10 feet and strap them on again. This fall I got a pair of my own, upgrading to cloth straps, which seem to fasten easier. I also tighten them really tight, hooking them on a little lip on the back of my new Sorels, which we got this fall when a shoe store near my mother-in-law was going out of business (our family got like 10 pairs of shoes, sneakers, and boots for under $200! and my little clothes horse had a great time just trying on all the size 6 shoes and boots).

Last Tuesday, a beautiful day, a bit cold but sunny, with all the great new snow, I trekked into the back 40, the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Land, behind our house. The place isn't huge, just 675+ acres, but it's the woods. And in case you forgot, I am a city girl.

When I first moved here a colleague told me of a local parent she knew who went for a little hike at Fitz Lake with her two little kids and ended up getting lost and spending the night out there. Ugh! They were rescued in the morning by a dogwalker. At the time I thought, how can that happen? But now I know. I really want to think otherwise, but days like Tuesday make me realize yet again that I am indeed a city girl and I don't really know my way around the country. And I gotta say, even my familiar woods look very different in the winter.

So I headed out my backdoor, taking the trail we made when we first moved in to get to the Laurel Park extension trail. When I hit that, the intersection of which we marked with a cairn so we don't overshoot it, I went up the hill past Fairy Rock and wound down and around to the bird blind. After that I wasn't ready to go home, so I kept on, heading toward the lake, but when I came to the Boggy Meadow Road turn-off I decided to take that toward the Moose Lodge entrance, but turn off before I got there to the parking area to take the loop trail back to the Marian Street trail. Boggy Meadow Road is mostly flat and broad enough for a car. Nice trail. But the loop didn't come and didn't come, and I figured I'd missed it and would have to walk the road back home from the Moose Lodge. But finally the turn-off came, and I took it.

Now this path is unofficial so there are no blazes on the trees, but skiiers like it and it was clearly well-used the day before. I was ready to be home, but had no idea how long this loop was. I figured it was a straight shot and what threw me were the cut-offs off the loop, each one a puzzle: Should I go left or right? I made educated guesses, each time thinking I had an idea which direction I was going, toward I-91 and my house, or back toward the lake. And I got more and more anxious.

Yes, the woods were lovely, dark and deep, but everything looked the same. It was all white and bare and no landmarks and nothing looked familier. No trail blazes. It was about 2:00 and the sun tended to stay behind me so I knew I was mostly going east, and I also knew I had several hours before dark. I kept thinking about that mother with her two little kids, and felt a lot more compassion this time. I was thirsty and kicked myself for not bringing the daypack, which also has a map of the place. I imagined being rescued. I imagined being home taking a shower and eating lunch, which I had neglected to do beforehand.

I did bring my cell, I take it everywhere, so eventually I called Dave and left him a message on his work voice mail just saying where I was and that I was a bit scared but going in the right direction, I thought. Finally, a skiier I'd passed on Boggy Meadow Road came breezing through, and he said I was almost at the Marian Street trail. And I was, although beginning snowshoe time is a bit slower than experienced skiier. There was another cut-off and I panicked a bit, but then just made a decision and went with it. I wasn't far from the trail and was home and showering within 15 minutes.

The lesson learned is, the woods are different from the city. What I am now learning is what it means to say that I am a city girl. All I need in the city is my metro pass and cell phone and I'm good. Maybe a little cash. I can eat anywhere in New York and I know it well enough to avoid the dicey areas, and for me, most areas aren't dicey. But here, I can't tell myself I'm just walking behind my house. I have to tell myself, I am going into the woods where I can get lost and there's no guarantee of passers-by to ask directions to the nearest subway--or rice and beans eatery.

So, note to self: Always bring the daypack when you are in the woods, in snow or not. Stock it with water, maps, a snack, a compass, and yes, the cell phone. Maybe extra socks. Eat lunch first, or else bring it. Keep in mind that when there's snow, there's no place to sit unless you don't mind getting wet, so you just have to keep moving. To that end, wear snowpants and gaiters. Thank goodness I had my long johns on. I was layered so I wasn't cold while I was moving, but when I got home my shirt was soaked through, and that's a no-no; if I had really been lost I would have gotten chilly the moment I stopped moving.

But it's a learning curve, right? I am learning to be more of an outdoors person, and I like it. The woods were lovely, quiet, serene, seemingly endless, even though I know they aren't. I was alone and while I didn't really appreciate my journey at the time, I have reached a new level where I think I can start to enjoy this more and more.

PS -- we're going to the lake with another family today, but it's been lovely and warm all week and the snow is melting, thank goodness! I am thrilled. I can't wait for spring!