Monday, June 27, 2016

A Sporting Summer

This has been a great summer for sports.

The Copa America finished last night with a rousing final, the kind of game that has everything – brilliant play, incomprehensible refereeing, stupid fouls, elegant tactics, and just when you thought you were going to get a satisfying end to the game you were granted a ringside seat for the absolute farce of deciding a championship on penalty kicks.  Seriously – it’s like flipping a coin to decide the Republican nomination for president, which, admittedly would have worked better than the tragic opera that they got this year so perhaps that wasn’t the best analogy to make my point after all.

I enjoyed watching the various games as much as I could in and around the demands on my world.  The US didn’t do too badly, coming in fourth – only the second time in a hundred years that they’ve managed to get to the semi-finals.  Hey – we can run with the Medium Dogs now.  The US did a good job against the second-tier teams, but then ran into Argentina and pretty much what you expected to happen when the #31 team in the world faced the #1 team in the world is what actually happened.

The Copa games were generally more entertaining than the UEFA Cup games.

The European games have been slow tactical matches with not much in the way of scoring or even bright play, while the Copa games were fast, physical, and at one point I watched Chile beat Mexico by a touchdown.  That doesn’t happen often at this level of soccer.

But I’ve enjoyed the UEFA games also. 

England has gone out of Europe in the more usual way now, defeated by Iceland today – a nation roughly the size of Leicester.  Germany is beginning to look like the team that won the World Cup last time around.  Wales is still hanging around – it amazes me that the UK gets to field four different teams, though this may become significantly less amazing in the very near future, sadly enough.  Hungary did a nice job there for a while, and even Albania got a win in the group stage.  You have to appreciate that.

So it’s been a good sports summer as far as I am concerned.  And there’s still more UEFA Cup to go.  Plus, if everyone doesn’t pull out because of fears of Zika virus or get banned for persistent flagrant doping like the entire Russian track and field program, and if there is some kind of construction-based miracle that allows the facilities to be completed sometime before 2028 despite rampant corruption, extreme cost-overruns, and general unsavoryness above and beyond the usual sleazeball aspects of anything connected with the IOC, there will be an Olympics this summer as well.  I like the Olympics.  It’s a festival of weird sports, and that has to count for something in this buttoned up world.

Also, I understand that Cleveland won a championship in something not long ago.  Is that allowed?  Did anyone else hear of this?  I may have hallucinated it.

Way back in the prehistoric days of the internet, circa 1998, ESPN ran a 20-part series on “The Most Sports-Cursed Cities in America.”  Being from Philadelphia, I figured we had that one in the bag but we came in second.  Second!  Who, I wondered, was doing worse then us?

Well, Cleveland, of course.

Okay, I said.  I’ll give you that one.

So it’s nice that they won something.  I hope it was in a sport that people in Cleveland like.

I will stick with my soccer for now.  It seems to have become my sport these days.  Baseball I can only watch when I’m actually in the stands.  American football has become too much like cockfighting for me to enjoy the way I used to, though I still watch it.  Curling I can never find on television.  Hockey still gives soccer a run for my attention, but in the grand American scheme of things I’m not sure that’s any help.  I am what I am.

The first time I ever went to a professional soccer game I must have been about ten or so.  This was during one of several attempts to bring league soccer to the United States, back in the mid-1970s – an attempt that was met with colossal indifference by most Americans and eventual failure on the part of the league or leagues involved.

I suppose I should have seen that coming even at the time.

The Philadelphia Atoms played from 1974 to 1977, after which a new team called the Fury played from 1978 to 1980 (thank you, internet sources).  I can’t even recall which team we saw, though I am pretty sure it was the Atoms since I think the draw that night was the Brazilian player Pele, who played for the New York team and retired in 1977, an old man cashing in on Americans in the twilight of his career, and good for him. 

I do remember that we would get in free if we gave them an empty can of Doctor Pepper.  So on the way down to Veterans Stadium – my dad, a West Philadelphia native, would never take the highways down to the stadium but would instead wiggle his way along the side streets of West Philly past many a little grocery happy to sell us a sixpack of whatever we wanted – we bought some and sat there in the parking lot drinking warm Doctor Pepper to empty the cans.

Why it didn’t occur to any of us to just dump the stuff in the sewer I don’t know.

But we made it to the stadium, presented our cans, received a hands-width-sized imitation soccer ball as a door prize, and trotted down to our seats.

There must have been two hundred people in that stadium.  We could have had an entire section of seats to ourselves if we had wanted.  Yeah, it wasn’t a surprise when they folded.

I don’t remember the game much.  If the article I found on the Atoms and Fury is correct they probably lost – the Atoms stopped being talented in 1975 and the Fury never started. 

We never went back.

I didn’t really become a soccer fan until a few years ago.  I enjoyed the US Women’s Team in the 90s, and I have fond memories of being in a bar in Iowa City during the Men’s World Cup in 1994 when Brazil beat Italy despite my friend’s constant shouting of “I-TAL-IA!  I-TAL-IA!” to a room full of Brazilians.  But somewhere around 2010 I started watching it regularly, and now it’s my go to sporting event.  I even bought a Philadelphia Union t-shirt when I was back there last month.  I hope they last longer and have more success than the Atoms or Fury. 

There’s been a lot of good soccer this summer.

It’s been a good summer that way.

Friday, June 24, 2016

News and Updates

1. So apparently 52% of the voters of Britain have decided to slit their own throats in the name of nationalistic fervor.  I confess I did not particularly see that one coming, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been as surprised by it as I was, given that this has been a popular choice in this country for years now even if it does manifest rather differently here.  People are people, and Stupid is both easy and satisfying in a world where so little else is.  From what I hear a good proportion of the Leave voters either now regret what they did, had no idea what they were doing (Google reports a massive upsurge in searches for “what is the EU?” in the wake of the vote), or both, and a petition is already up and running to have a revote.  The fun part is that the vote was nonbinding, which means Parliament now has a choice.  It can follow the express wishes of the electorate and do something blisteringly dunderheaded that will cripple the British economy and destroy what small hopes the younger generation of Britons had for economic advancement even as it leads to the rapid dissolution of the United Kingdom into three, possibly four different pieces (if you think Scotland is going to stay, for example, think again), or they can do the politically and economically smart thing and ignore the referendum, which means flying directly in the face of an engaged and angry electorate, something that requires courage, foresight, and a willingness to sacrifice one’s personal interests for the good of the whole.  Maybe British politicians are better at that than Americans, but I doubt it.  Gonna be an interesting summer.

2. Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic the presidential election has descended from comedy to farce as The Donald consistently finds new ways to announce to the world that he is not fit to have conversations with grown-ups and that anyone who supports him must be a blithering idiot.  Seriously – Hillary Clinton must be thanking whatever deity she believes in that the Republican Party has lost all shred of decency, common sense, and self-preservation to provide her with an opponent tailor-made for destruction even by someone a third of the American population hates with the pure fire of a thousand petulant and juvenile suns.  Of course, this is the United States and the problem with democracy, as my high school friend Larry often said, is that most people are idiots.  So the Sturmtrumper still has a chance.  Gonna be a really interesting summer.

3. Closer to home, our summer is going to be mostly about keeping our heads above the incoming tide of all the things we need to do.  It’s nice to go on vacation, but once you get past fourth grade they don’t forgive you all the things you miss and you still have to get them done, just in half the time.

4. My summer class seems to be going well, at least for the students who turn in work.  There are fewer and fewer of them in recent years, strangely enough.  I don’t know why.  It’s bad enough in my regular classes, but online classes work differently from face to face classes and keeping up with the workload is essential as there are few opportunities to make it up if you miss a deadline.  This is especially true in a summer class, where fifteen weeks’ worth of material gets crammed into eight weeks of overlapping deadlines.  Really, really interesting summer.

5. It is, in fact, officially summer now – a few days past the summer solstice, even – and I have had enough of this weather.  It can’t be autumn soon enough.

6. Lauren now has half of her braces, which for those of you in Britain who were drawn here by my incisive commentary on Brexit (see how he writes that with a straight face?  who says blogging is easy?) does not mean that only half of her trousers are at the right height and yes I know enough when addressing Britons to say trousers rather than pants as otherwise they will just start giggling uncontrollably and the point is lost.  No, on this side of the pond braces mean those metal attachments that orthodontists put on your teeth to straighten them out over the course of a couple of years and a few mortgage payments.  She went in on Thursday to get the top teeth done, and the bottom teeth will follow in September.  Right now she is doing well though eating a steady diet of Soft Things because that much invasion of one’s mouth does rather hurt.  A lot.  Seriously – interesting summer.

7.  Did you know that braces are now considered fashion statements?  Seriously – you can get your rubber bands and plastic inserts in all sorts of colors and even change them whenever you have an appointment.  The orthodontist specifically mentioned girls who match their prom dress to their braces or guys who insist on getting Green Bay Packers colors, although in Wisconsin it would be perfectly acceptable and indeed unremarkable for girls to have Packers colors as well.  Not sure about guys with prom dresses, though.  That's still a bit beyond most people's pale here, though maybe it's just me being old and uninformed.  Well, if you’re going to have braces, flaunt them, I say.  There is no point to going through all that pain and hassle just to hide them.

8. We saw Finding Dory this past weekend, and it was a great deal of fun.  Pixar has a long and nearly unblemished (*coughCars2cough*) streak of really lovely films, and this was no exception.  Lauren in particular was very taken with the Baby Dory.  Me?  I spent the entire film thinking that it would take about 30 minutes of rewrite to turn it into Memento (even though I couldn’t think of the film’s name until I got home).  There’s just something about a protagonist who can’t remember more than 30 seconds into their own past that lends itself to existential horror, and the contrast between that and the bright colors and cheery narrative of the film was both amusing and rather unsettling.

9. The turkeys are now big enough that we can let them wander around the yard a bit while we get them situated for the night.  They bob and weave and do their little trilling noises while they explore (“Hey – there’s GRASS over here!  Is there grass over there? REALLY?  Hey – there’s grass over here TOO!”) and eventually we herd them back into their pen for the night where they are safe from raccoons and other predators behind a protective layer of chicken wire.  The chickens are also doing well, though they rarely get to go outside.  They have big pens, though, so they’re happy.  At least we think they’re happy.  Hard to tell with chickens.

10. I counted last week – I’ve been to 32 different US states.  I am not sure how that happened. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Our Trip Out West: Postscript

The laundry arrived today.

Normally when we travel it is my job to sweep the hotel room for forgotten items.  It’s one of those odd little skills I have, like running backward at speed – the sort of thing that is only useful in very specific circumstances but when those circumstances arise is a skill you want to have.  We’ve forgotten very few things over the years.

But there was a breakdown in this system when we left Tusayan.

We’d been putting our laundry in a red mesh bag that Kim had hung in the closet, out of sight.  I was going to put it in my suitcase when we left the room but somehow got distracted and since we had all been talking about this very thing not moments before I figured that Kim had put it in hers.

You know that old routine about why you must never assume anything?  Yeah, that.

We figured it out that evening, as we settled into the Riverside Ranch Motel and RV Park (a name that rolls trippingly off the page, does it not?).  So I called the hotel back in Tusayan and ended up speaking to Eric.

Eric is one of those pleasant old guys who just loves to talk to people and is well-suited to a job where people come and go with such speed that they can't grow tired of listening to him before they move on to their next stop, so they put him on the front desk.  He’s also new there, and didn’t quite know what the procedures were for this sort of thing.  But he kept up a nearly impenetrable stream of verbiage for the better part of half an hour while he worked his way through the process, filling out the forms and assuring me all the while that it would be taken care of properly and that I should call back the next day to see if they found our mesh bag of laundry.

The next day I called back and got Eric again, which was another half hour or so of much the same experience, though it has to be said that he was very pleasant about it and sincerely interested in being helpful.  Yes, they found our bag.  Yes, they would send it.  No, he couldn’t find the forms he had filled out the previous day and could we work through it again?  Yes, he would put it in the mail the very next day.  As, apparently, he did.

On the down side, all of this meant that we had fewer clothes to make it through the trip.

On the up side, it meant that we had a fair amount of leeway with the weight of our suitcases – leeway we filled up with souvenirs.  Also, it turns out that it is cheaper to mail a box full of laundry from Arizona to Wisconsin than it is to pay the airline fees for overweight baggage.

This is a lesson I shall keep in mind for the future.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Our Trip Out West, Part 6: Salt Lake City, reprise

We left Silver Reef in the early evening and headed north on the road back to Salt Lake City.

The days are long this time of the year so we had a lot of sunlight left with which to admire the scenery, but by this point we’d pretty much been sceneried out.  It’s lovely country, really, but it doesn’t change, at least not on the scale of a human lifetime.  So we drove on, listening to a four-part podcast about a murder in Illinois as told by a reporter who went back and interviewed all the main people involved (well, all but one) and never did come to any conclusions about the matter.  Neither did we.

Eventually we decided that Provo would be good enough for the night.  It seemed like a decent place.  And it had a Culvers.

For those of you who have not had the experience, Culvers is what fast-food burger joints want to be.  It’s a Wisconsin chain, with fresh grilled burgers, crispy chicken tenders, frozen custard, and deep fried cheese curds, and after a week in the Southwest it felt like home.  And we met Joe the Cashier there.

We walked in to place our order and Joe noticed Lauren’s curling club sweatshirt.  “Where are you from?” he asked politely.  “Wisconsin,” we said.  “We’re from Corporate, here to check on your authenticity.”  And Joe just rolled with it.  It turned out that not only did he have a good sense of humor, but he was also both a teacher in the local schools and a Doctor Who fan, and that was when we decided that we would have brought him back to Wisconsin if our state government weren’t so unremittingly hostile to education in all of its forms.  Joe agreed, and then he told us about two important things.

One was a decent hotel one exit up, where we stayed the night.  And the other was “fry sauce.”  This was something that the Culvers back in Wisconsin do not have.  Apparently in Utah they don’t put ketchup on French fries – they put this pale pink sauce on them.  It took us a while to place it, but it’s essentially Dorothy Lynch’s Dressing – a condiment beloved of Nebraskans (and introduced to me some years ago by my aunt, who is from there) which is basically ketchup, mayonnaise, sugar, and some mild spices.  It’s surprisingly good on fries, actually.

The next morning we headed off toward Salt Lake City. 

Our first stop was the Utah State Capitol, a grandiose stone pile in the approved “American State Capitol” style, much like Wisconsin’s equivalent structure though without the gubernatorial Praetorian guard that we have protecting our Fearless Leader from contact with reality in all its glory.  Like most of Salt Lake, the place was immaculate.  It was also much brighter and airier than Wisconsin’s capitol, and unlike the Dairy State, the Utah state government actually posts public notice of meetings and doesn’t spring them on people hoping to catch them unawares.  So props to Utah, I say. 

From there we drove on down the hill and found a parking spot underneath the giant mall in downtown Salt Lake, which gave us easy access to most of the downtown area.

We made our way over to the Mormon complex, carefully stopping at each crosswalk.  One does not jaywalk in Salt Lake.  It simply is not done.

Most of the big Mormon buildings in Salt Lake are contained within a walled compound just off the mall.  As non-Mormons we weren’t allowed in the Temple but we were allowed to walk by it, and the Visitor’s Center had all kinds of exhibits describing its construction, layout, and – if you buy the story – divine inspiration.  There is nothing remotely secular about the place, from its architecture to its site to its uses.  But the legions of enthusiastic multicultural Mormons surrounding the place were friendly enough and they didn’t try to proselytize too insistently, so that was nice. 

We also visited the Tabernacle (sadly just after a concert of some kind had just let out – it’s a big round room with pews, really) and the Assembly Hall, which is where our most eager young convert worked on us for a while.  Eventually we made our way back out to the mall, where we stopped at the Deseret Book Store – an entire store devoted to books from the Mormon perspective.  It’s interesting, in a liberal arts sort of way, the way three-headed frogs are, um, interesting.  But the people there were very polite.  One cannot stress that enough.

By this point we were hungry, so we found the food court for lunch.

The joy of food courts is that everyone can get what they want without arguing over where to go.  We each took some money and went off foraging and eventually came back to a table to eat. 

Having not had enough Mexican food in Tusayan, I went to the Red Iguana and ordered nachos.

Let me tell you, the Red Iguana does not screw around when it comes to nachos.  I got a tray that was a foot wide, eight inches front to back, and piled to about two inches depth.  It had chips, beans, cheese, jalapenos, olives, salsa, and any number of other things, enough food to feed three starving teenaged boys.  I was suitably impressed.  It was tasty.  And immense.  I would highly recommend the place the next time you have a high school boys track banquet you need to cater, as they will certainly do the job.

We then headed over to the Scottish Store.

It’s not actually called that, but we decided that it ought to be – that actually naming it would be bad luck in much the same way that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is never openly named inside of a theater and is simply referred to as The Scottish Play.  It was a lovely little store catering to all things Scottish and run by an actual Scotsman who was delighted to meet people descended, however many generations ago, from his native land and who spent the better part of an hour talking with us.  He was fascinating.  We found quite a few things that were worth purchasing there, and then headed off to see the Salt Palace where Kim had been grading AP exams before going back to the mall.  Because we are Americans, and there is no more American place in the world than the mall.  And we were on vacation, which means we get to do what we want and that was what we wanted.  It's nice when things work out.

At this point we just let the girls go for a while and we all went our separate ways.  It’s always a bit surprising to me that the girls are old enough to do that now, but there it is.  I walked over to the intersection just outside the mall and got a picture of the sculpture there, which I had rather liked - I had to stand in the middle of the intersection to get that picture, but I made sure to do so inside of the crosswalk while the Walk sign was still on, so I figured I was still within the "no jaywalking" ethos of the city - and then put our Scottish goods in the car, retrieved my book, and sat down to read by one of the many fountains for a while.  Eventually a group on a photo-scavenger hunt came by and asked me to take their picture.  Go Yellow Team!  I hope you did well.  Kim and the girls did their shopping, and we met back at our spot to decide what to do next. 

We decided that Kim would go get her hair cut – something she’d been trying to do for weeks by this point – while the girls and I would wander around some more.  We ended up at a store that sold nothing but soda, which my dad had always said would be the next big thing in retail.  He was ahead of his time that way.  Eventually Kim called us to go down where she was and we went to what must have been the largest used book store in a three-state area, which was both fun and kind of sad since we really couldn’t buy anything there.  That is the problem with having to carry everything home in airline luggage.  Oh well.

But we were not sad for long!  Because our next step was to go back to our friends Zac and Mindy’s house.

We had a lovely time visiting with them and their two children.  We enjoyed a very nice home-cooked meal with conversation and good times – the best kind of meal – and they let us stay the night.  It is nice to have friends in far away places so you can visit them, but the rest of the time they are just too far away.  It was good to catch up. 

The next morning we visited Zac at his new job - located in a building that had formerly been the high school where Mindy’s dad graduated and was now a college campus - before having a lovely breakfast at a restaurant across from a nearby park and then heading off to the airport and from there back home. 

And now we are back.  Our regular lives have picked up again.  We have to cook and clean and go to work and do all the things that one does, but we had a lovely time while we were gone.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Our Trip Out West, Part 5: Silver Reef

Way back in the Paleolithic, when I was an undergraduate, I had a work-study job as a researcher for an archeology professor. 

He was working on a ghost town in southern Utah – a former silver mining town called Silver Reef that had blown up rather suddenly when silver ore was discovered in some of the sandstone hills in that area (a geological oddity, apparently) and then deflated just as suddenly when the ore played out.  The whole town existed for maybe fifteen years, from the mid-1870s to the very early 1890s.  At its peak it had about 1500 residents as well as a couple of banks, some saloons, and a Chinese quarter, complete with all the racial tensions that 19th-century American life could offer.

Including the grad student there were five of us in that lab aside from the professor, and we all got along well.  It was a good place to work.  The others mostly worked with the mountain of artifacts that the professor had dredged up a few years earlier, but my job was to sift through the microfilm archives of all of the Utah newspapers of the period looking for any reference to Silver Reef or its residents.  There were a lot of references, actually – people were always moving about, visiting or simply passing through. 

The best thing I found wasn’t actually relevant to my job but since I had to read all of the newspapers from front to back I read a lot of things that weren’t relevant to my job.  It was an article published in the Salt Lake Daily Herald dated Sunday, October 26, 1884, entitled “A Golden Mouthful,” and yes I still have my notes from it.  Of course I do.  The set-up was that a local dentist had billed the president of Venezuela $7000 (an astonishingly large sum of money in 1884) for extracting a single molar from his wife’s jaw.  While the actual charge for removing the tooth was listed as $1.00, the itemized bill – presented in full in the article – also contained entries such as “To inquiring patient’s name, $5.00.  To trying to recollect same, $2.50.  … Screwing up chair, $2.50 a turn, $17.50.  … Use of cuspidor, $50.00.  … Stuffing mouth full of cotton at $50 a bale, $150.00. … Blasting and dredging, $450.00.  … Incidentals, $950.00.”  And so on.  It’s an old joke, but no less funny for that.

So it is no wonder that I remember Silver Reef fondly.

We really didn’t plan this vacation all that thoroughly.  We knew when our flights were and we knew when the hotel reservations for Grand Canyon were, but beyond that we left things pretty loose.  And when we discovered that Silver Reef was just a highway exit away from Zion National Park, we decided to go.  I’d never seen the place, and the girls thought it would be cool to visit an actual ghost town.

Query: Is it truly a ghost town if there is now a town there?

Answer: Maybe.  Or maybe it’s just a zombie town, risen from the dead to shamble about the world of the living.  But it’s still interesting.

Silver Reef is now some kind of bedroom community, though to what larger metropolis I could not tell you.  The modern homes encroach fairly close on the old ruins and the museum (which is inside the old Wells Fargo Bank and Mercantile building), but the ruins remain and we will just call it a ghost town nonetheless.

We pulled into town about an hour before the museum closed. 

The museum is staffed by a dedicated corps of volunteers, one of whom spent much of the next hour patiently showing us just about every artifact in the place and explaining its purpose and how it fit into the history of the town.  It was fascinating, really.  And there in one of the display cases was a photograph of my old professor, who still comes back to visit now and then.  Apparently we just missed him by a few months.  I think the volunteers were amused by the fact that I had that connection to the place.

The tour ended at the back of the museum, where our guide showed us the “reefs” that had given the town its name. 

And after that we raided the gift shop (museums like that live and die on their gift shop sales, so we supported them well) and were then let loose on the grounds to examine the site at our own pace.  They’ve got it set up pretty nicely, with some loose gravel paths to get you from one place to the other, and just about everywhere you look there are the kind of artifacts that archeologists love but which fetch no money on eBay so they’re pretty safe where they are.  They do have polite little signs asking you to leave them there, though, lest you be tempted. 

We walked up and down the old main street for a while, and then decided that we’d seen enough and headed back to the highway. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Our Trip Out West, Part 4: The Canyons of Utah

We left Grand Canyon National Park and headed east, because that’s what you have to do in order to get around the Grand Canyon.  It’s a very large hole in the ground.  You have to go around it.

Fortunately Arizona is fairly scenic in that part of the state, all red rocks and outcroppings that made me think of any number of novels where the good guys come up against castles on mountains that they either have to conquer or warn about something.  I’m not sure what I would have warned anybody in Arizona about – drought, maybe? – and conquering really isn’t my speed, but it kept my mind occupied while the empty miles rolled by and we retraced our path into Utah. 

Other than the mountains, the best part of this phase of the trip was stopping in a tiny little speck on the highway called Gap, Arizona, which as far as we could tell consisted of a convenience store and some signs indicating that a school was somewhere in the vicinity.  I never did see the school though Kim and the girls insist it was right there to be seen, but we and almost every other driver on the highway stopped at the convenience store for snackage and drinks.

Yes, we stopped at the Gap Store.  No, we didn’t think to take any pictures of it until long after we’d left.

We had two goals for the rest of this day, the first being to reach our hotel – what turned out to be a rather charming place called the Riverside Ranch Motel and RV Park just north of Hatch, Utah.  It sits on a large plot of open land by the highway, and you can see for miles from your room.  It’s run by a guy named Bill, who minds the place for his daughter now that he’s retired.  Bill’s pretty laid back.  He was out doing something in the RV part of the establishment when we got there, but our room (and that of two other guys who stopped at about the same time we did) was left unlocked for us.  He was happy to talk to us for a while – I’d imagine he doesn’t get too much company out there – and when he found out that Lauren raised turkeys for 4H he recommended a movie called “My Life as a Turkey,” which is apparently available on YouTube and which we still need to see. 

We didn’t stay too long to talk with Bill, though, because we had another goal before we landed for the night: Bryce Canyon.

You’d think we’d have been canyoned out by then, but you’d be wrong.  For one thing, the Grand Canyon is its own thing – there really isn’t anything like it in the world.  And for another, so is Bryce.  It’s much more human scale, and when you get right down to it, a good deal weirder.

We like weird.

So we hopped back in the car and headed off to Bryce.

We eventually found our way into the park – a long ride down a highway followed by a twisty sort of turning road that takes you through a couple of stone archways. 

And then, after a brief detour because of a missed sign, we made our way to Inspiration Point just as the light was beginning to fail.  We parked in the little lot and climbed up the slope to see what was on the other side.

It is astonishing what wind, rain, and erosion can do to rock.   

And then we hiked further up the slope for a slightly higher perspective on the whole thing. 

After a while the light began to fade in earnest and we had to head back to our hotel, but it was quite a sight, up there on Inspiration Point.

The next day we spent much of the morning foraging for breakfast.  The restaurant next to our hotel was closed for retirement and scheduled to reopen whenever they found someone who would take it over, which would likely be longer than we had time to wait, and restaurants – like other forms of human settlement – are not all that common in that part of the world.  So we drove south on 89 until we came to a nice little German bakery in the middle of nowhere.  You could get pastries – most of which were nut-safe, actually – and a meat and cheese plate, and it was a fine meal out there on the range.  I’m not sure what a German bakery – run by actual Germans, if the cashier’s accent was anything to go by – was doing out in the Utah scrublands, but it was good food and welcome.

Fueled and fed, we made our way to Zion National Park.

Zion is one of the most popular National Parks in America, and if you plan to go there you should expect a crowd.  But it’s popular for a reason, as it is singularly gorgeous and fairly easy for the casual tourist to get around in.  Once you park, at least.

We entered the park – our nifty Grand Canyon pass got us in for free, so it’s already paid for itself – and drove slowly along the road toward the Visitor Center.  It is a ride filled with astonishing views, so you don’t mind the fact that you’re creeping along at about 20mph the whole time, and there are pull-offs every so often if you want to stop and appreciate the scenery for a while.  We did both, riding and stopping, and enjoyed it immensely. 

When we got to the Visitor Center there was a plaintive little sign announcing that all parking was full until possibly Christmas and that we should find a parking spot in the little town just south of the park’s official border.  This turned out to be not all that hard.  There are problems that can be solved by throwing money at them, and a parking lot is a grand symbol of that.

Now all we had to do was get back to the park.

Fortunately Zion, like the Grand Canyon, has an effective network of shuttle buses.  In fact, it has two.  There’s one for the town, where you ride it up to the border of the park and then walk across a footbridge to get into the park itself, and another for the park that takes you from the Visitor Center up to the canyon and various points of interest along the way.  The line to get onto one of those park buses stretched for about a hundred yards or so, but with double buses arriving roughly every four minutes, it moved along nicely.

And the ride was suitably scenic. 

Our goal was to find the Weeping Rock, which has what they call a hanging garden.  Water seeps through the rock from above until it hits a layer that isn’t as permeable and then it goes horizontally until it comes out and drips down the side.  This makes two things happen.  First, the outside drips eventually carve an alcove into the rock where you can stand and enjoy the scenery.  It’s about ten degrees Fahrenheit cooler there than anywhere else in the park.  And second, plants take root in the rock overhead and form the garden. 

It wasn’t hard to find – about a ten minute walk from the shuttle stop.  We stood there in the spray and took it all in. 

And then we wandered back down to the shuttle and found a stop that served us lunch and allowed us to purchase souvenirs.  I mostly buy keychains and such, because we use them for Christmas ornaments.  Eventually we will be able to decorate our entire tree just with reminders of places we’ve been.

After lunch we found the shuttle again and made our way back to our car and on to the next adventure.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Our Trip Out West, Part 3: The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is one of those things that need to be seen in person, because the pictures really do not convey the immensity of the place.

It is a vast thing. 

It’s two hundred and seventy-seven miles long, a mile deep in most places, and about ten miles across on average.  The Colorado River is three miles from the south rim, and therefore seven miles from the north.  The National Park Service estimates that it should take you about three days to hike down to the river from the south rim, and warns against anybody trying to do that on their own.  There are signs here and there listing the rescues that they undertake for people who ignore those warnings, and if you truly miss the point the gift shops sell a fascinating inch-thick book that does nothing but describe all of the people known to who have died in the Grand Canyon since white people found it, helpfully arranged in chapters by cause and updated to 2015.  The south rim is roughly a thousand feet lower than the north rim, all those miles away, which means it has completely different weather.  When you add all that up, you will understand why you can watch an entire rainstorm cruise up the canyon without getting wet yourself. 

Honestly, even standing in front of it live and in person you often get the feeling that you’re looking at a painted backdrop because the sheer size of the place is just that difficult to wrap your head around. 

One of the things that stuck with me most about the Grand Canyon was a sign at one of the viewpoints that quoted an early Spanish explorer.  He reported that men who had been sent into the canyon came back reporting that boulders they had thought from the rim were the size of men were actually the size of houses, and that other rock formations they thought were the size of houses were taller than the Tower of Seville.  It’s deceptive, looking on from the rim.

We got there a bit after 8pm, though that’s misleading too since Arizona does not recognize Daylight Savings Time except when it does.  It’s an hour earlier than Utah  at the Grand Canyon unless you’re on the Navajo reservation, in which case they do recognize Daylight Savings Time and it’s the same time as Utah.  And if that makes no sense to you then you can take it up with Benjamin Franklin or Woodrow Wilson because I found that the best strategy was simply to ignore the clocks as much as possible.

We still had some daylight when we got there, no matter what time it was. 

In order to get to our hotel in Tusayan, where most of the hotels are if you’re visiting the south rim of the National Park, you actually have to go through the park.  So we paid our admission – got a nifty little pass that allows us to get into all of the national parks for a full year, actually, so perhaps we’ll be doing more traveling soon – and we headed into the park.

The first stop we came to was the Desert View Watchtower, which bears no small resemblance to Bohus Fastning, a medieval fortress that we visited in Sweden a few years ago.  Maybe that's just what watchtowers look like.  There's an old line among historians about how the fact that there are ancient pyramids in Egypt, Sudan, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica really does prove that a pyramid is a good shape to pile rocks in if you don't want them to fall down.  Sometimes it is just that simple.  The Desert View Watchtower is not that old, though - it's a purpose-built observation tower, and you can climb up inside to get a good view of the east end of the Grand Canyon.  Or you could if it were open.  But it had closed about an hour before we got there, so we milled around outside and were suitably impressed anyway.  

As the light faded we headed out through the park and found our hotel.

It was a lovely hotel, really, once you mastered the art of parking in its labyrinthine lots and skirted around the tour buses parked randomly in traffic while discharging vast quantities of Asian men in white robes.  We had a very nice room with comfortable beds and the whole thing was located at one end of a commercial strip that featured one of the best Mexican restaurants we’ve been to in a long time.  If you’re ever in Tusayan, Arizona, you should stop by the Plaza Bonita for some really good food.  We liked it so much that we ate dinner there both nights we were in Tusayan, though that also might have had something to do with the fact that it was a) within walking distance of the hotel and b) open late for dinner, since neither night did we get there before 9pm.  Still – good food.

We started early the next morning, driving up to the Visitor Center to get oriented.  Despite dire warnings about the lack of parking, including signs on both days we visited advising us that the parking lots were completely full and we should try to find parking somewhere in New Mexico, we never did have any trouble finding a spot.  Let that be a lesson, folks – the signs only tell you what they want you to believe, not what’s actually there.

We went in and dutifully watched the movie that they show every half hour – a cinematic tour de force that no doubt won some kind of award – and then went off to see it for ourselves.

It’s no more comprehensible in the morning sunlight, really. 

From the Visitor Center we walked over to Mather Point and then west along the rim until we finally got hungry enough to eat lunch, sometime in the middle of the afternoon.  This turned out to be quite an adventure, as our target restaurant was not the first place we went into (that was a rather fancier hotel) nor the second (a place called the Arizona Room) nor what we hoped it would be once we got to it (turned out to be a walk-up ice-cream-and-dog stand), so we ended up back at the Arizona Room where we enjoyed a lovely meal overlooking the canyon.

Somewhere in there we got to see the rainstorm go by.  It was gorgeous in its way, especially since you could see the lightning across the way.  It changed the lighting in the canyon quite a bit.  

By this point it was getting late in the afternoon, so we took the shuttle bus back to the Visitor Center – the park has a large and efficient shuttle bus system that should be a model for public transportation systems everywhere – raided the gift shop for souvenirs, and then drove out to the Tusayan ruins.

No, not the commercial strip where our hotel was.  That was fine.

The ruins are an 800-year-old Native American village on the very eastern edge of the park.  We’d passed it on the way in the previous night.  We got there about ten minutes before the museum closed but it’s small enough that you can get a good sense of what’s in it in that amount of time – some artifacts, including some twisted twig animal figures that I thought were fascinating, and a bit about the culture that produced it all. 

And then we got to explore the ruins, which are in pretty good shape and right out there on the trail.  There are polite little signs asking you not to walk on them, and we took that advice. 

From there we worked our way back down the road toward the Visitor Center again.

We stopped at the Desert Tower again, which was open this time.  You can walk in and up the four flights of stairs to the top, or you can stop halfway and go out onto an observation area and see from there.

Then we moved on to Moran Point.

Thomas Moran was one of the multitude of artists drawn to the Grand Canyon over the last couple of centuries because of the scenery and the way the light plays upon it.  He painted his most famous works from what is now Moran Point, and since Tabitha fell in love with one of them back at the Philadelphia Art Museum a couple of years ago we decided that this would be a good place to stop.

I can see why he liked the vantage from there. 

Of course, it’s not all scenic splendor at the Grand Canyon.   

The next day we decided to try the hotel buffet since it was pretty much the same price as the local McDonalds for breakfast.  All meals cost about the same in Tusayan, apparently.  I’m not sure how they coordinate that but nevertheless ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

We checked out of our hotel and headed back up to the Visitor Center, where we got on the various shuttle buses that took us up to Hermit Point and found ourselves surrounded by Wisconsinites.  They’re everywhere, fleeing the state for parts unknown.  I’m not sure what that implies, but there you have it.  Eventually we made it all the way out to Hermit’s Point, the furthest reach of the National Park shuttle lines. 

It’s just as lovely as the rest of the canyon. 

After a while, though, it’s kind of overwhelming and you just have to head elsewhere.  So we shuttled our way down to the Visitor Center, got in our car, and headed back toward Utah.