Readying For Iowa

23 01 2016

One week before Iowa. I have worked a lifetime for this chapter. A U.S. Presidential election in full swing and the first votes to be cast.

“Do you really want to be disappointed?,” I remember Rich distinctly saying.

Rich was a red bus driver at Glacier National Park. He was a bizarre man in that he was almost child-like in his behaviors. He gave me the impression that he had never grown up. We shared the same room at Lake McDonald in one of the nicest dorms in all of the park — quite a long way from Grand Canyon’s shabby Victor (aka Victim) Hall. Yes sirre, at LMD, Rich and I were not roughing it.

Rich had worked some 30 years at Glacier, driving red buses and putting on an act for the tourists. There were times, though, when Rich would — how do I put this nicely — over act in dramatic scenes.

Despite his quirks, Rich was full of local knowledge and knew the hiking trails inside Glacier well. It was on one of our many hikes into the backcountry that Rich began to needle me about my politics. Rich, you see, was staunchly libertarian and believed very strongly that the government was watching his every move.

At night, in between episodes of The Simpsons and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Rich would usually find some sort of conspiracy video to play and then launch into a vocal position of how wars and crises are usually inside jobs. This was his line of attack as we hiked to Hidden Lake that day with fresh snow melt, mountain goats and marmots all around.

Hiking with Rich

Hiking with Rich

“You know Obama is former CIA, right,” he said. “He’s just like all the rest.”

I had mentioned to Rich I would like to cover the next presidential campaign which had triggered a sour response and Rich’s questioning me if I was prepared for what he viewed as certain disappointment. Rich’s first instinct was to always reject my first proposal. It was the essence of our labor/management dynamic that I was oddly enough placed into that summer. In hindsight, I should have moved out of that room early on, but the entire ordeal at Lake McDonald was about proving to the masses that no matter how tough it got, I wasn’t going anywhere. Not even a few steps into a different room down the hall with a less antagonistic roommate.

So fast forward a year and here I am getting ready to head to Iowa and thinking about Rich and as weird as this sounds that asshole might just be right.

I’ve followed all the candidates closely up to this point and scoured their backgrounds like a fine tooth comb. I’ve paid attention to the electorate and trends across this great nation and concluded both parties are full of shit. In Florida, particularly, the bullshit runs knee-deep.

Maybe it has already been decided. Perhaps, as Rich believes, big brother is controlling every move in a pre-destined way that leaves only Mother Nature to chance. Maybe that’s why Rich loves Glacier so much and keeps coming back year after year to drive those antique red buses. He’s clinging to a past and a special place that is quickly vanishing from this planet.

I’ll soon find out the mood of America’s political power on the ground in the heart of the midwest, a region I am none too familiar with. It will be another adventure into the great unknown — that is if we are to believe our nation’s election results are a true reflection of the will of the people.

Are you ready to hit the ground…running?

If you are interested in helping me in this independent effort, please make a small donation to my GoFundMe account here: https://www.gofundme.com/6sd4nbjg

 

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The Vegas Buddy System

17 05 2013

After six months of retail labor, I turned in my resignation at the Grand Canyon, giving the proper two weeks notice.

“Make sure you leave on good terms,” my friend Thomas advised. “You might want to come back.”

I had serious doubts I would ever want to return to the Grand Canyon, as a worker that is. The isolation was severe and the pay was poverty level, but for this stage of my life the experience proved priceless. I was leaving much healthier in spirit and physical well being than when I had arrived. Nature had truly worked wonders. I was ready to return home and rejoin an old fight with much stronger legs. First, I would fly from Phoenix to Charlotte, North Carolina to meet David, who was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

David had carried on the political battles back in Florida while I cleared my head and regained confidence in the Canyon. It would be good to see him again. He was always supportive of my endeavors and his honesty is impeccable. David is honest to a fault.

But before I would see David and many other familiar faces from my politico days, I would take advantage of my independence, freedom and surroundings one last time with a trip to Las Vegas. The recreation center put together the trip, renting a bus and a block of hotel rooms smack dab in the middle of the famed strip. It was open to any Canyon employee who could get the time off and afford the experience. In total, about 40 of us went, half of which were Turks.

We stayed at the Flamingo, a modest casino hotel in an excellent location. It was near the end of the summer season and yet the pool parties were still raging across Sin City. Just weeks prior to our arrival, Great Britain’s Prince Harry had made tabloid headlines after being caught partying it up with some less desirables. In the new age of social media, the catch phrase “What Happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” no longer applied. On our trip were a few international students I had befriended after the guys from Singapore left. One, in particular, was a Macedonian university student named Bard. We had gotten off to a somewhat frosty start. I had overheard him skyping with his mother at the rec center and when he finished, I asked what language he was speaking.

“I’m from Albania. Do you know of this country?,” he answered.

I didn’t know Albanian, but I sure recognized sarcasm.

“Yes, I know of Albania,” I replied. Perhaps he was protecting his privacy, I thought, and at the same time insulting my intelligence. Whatever the case after a few minutes of small talk, Bard was on his way. He worked in housekeeping so we didn’t see too much of each other, only in passing at the employee cafeteria or at the general store. Despite getting off to a rocky start, Bard and I became closer for reasons I cannot fully divulge, but by the time the bus was motoring its way through the desert we were fast friends.

This friendship cemented itself as we wandered the strip, headed back to the Flamingo after an awesome night at the dance clubs. It was around 3 a.m. and the street workers — or ladies of the night if you will — were out and aggressive. Seeing two clean cut young men in good spirits, they were quick to pounce. Bard brushed them aside without a thought. He was an imposing figure, after all. Easily over 6-foot with buzzed blond hair and fluent in several languages — Russian, Turkish and English just to name a few. For this situation, “No” was universally accepted.

That’s when the girls turned their attention and charm tactics to me. “Would you like some company tonight, honey.” one of them asked.

Bard didn’t let me answer.

“Leave him alone,” he shouted. “He’s with me.”

The girls seemed surprised. I know I was.

Of course, Bard and I were not together. We shared similar interests, but not the same bed. And yet I was grateful for being with Bard that moment. I had given into temptation in moments like that before. One incredibly stupid situation in London comes to mind that I may write about one day despite my best efforts to forget. Stupid decisions are easy to make in Las Vegas. That’s why it’s best to go with the buddy system.

спасибо, Bard!

Skyping with Mom in Albania.

Skyping with Mom in Albania.





Behind the scenes soccer

19 04 2013

The next morning, still a bit fuzzy from the Kush, we collected ourselves and made a day of it at Universal Studios Hollywood. I think Joel was slightly aggravated about the rest of us toking up. The lingering effects sure made the rides at Universal fun. Most of the rides were stationary, three dimensional experiences as opposed to high flying roller coasters and were themed around popular movie franchises — Transformers, The Simpsons, The Mummy, and so on and so on. For me, the highlight was the studio back lot tour where you board a tram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of famed Hollywood movie sets.

And ingenious works in progress. Amazing how well the lens can fool you.

Later that night, Jastine, Cheng Yew and I took in a Dodgers game. This was a sentimental stop for me, having grown up an Atlanta Braves fan and watching many a battle with Los Angeles’ boys in blue.

California fossil

California fossil

Dodger Stadium is one of the older ones in Major League Baseball, its tall swaying palm trees a familiar sight from years watching Ted Turner’s superstation. Just being in the stands on a clear and cool night in Chavez Ravine, munching on a Dodger dog was pretty damn awesome. The game not so much. A pitcher’s duel won by the visiting Philadelphia Phillies. I hate the Phillies.

On my final day in LA, we soaked up the syrup at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles before visiting the La Brea Tar Pits. Roscoe’s was a homage to Southern cuisine and would be the closest my Singaporean friends would get to a Dixie fried delicacy during their American tour. Best I could tell, they enjoyed it, despite still not budging on the tipping procedure. At the tar pits — another lasting image of Los Angeles seared into my memory by the entertainment industrial complex — we got a tour of the grounds given, surprisingly enough, by a recent Auburn University graduate. It was here, that I learned California’s state fossil is indeed the saber toothed cat.

After the tar pits, we returned to Hollywood for one last meal together and shopping before I had to catch the train back to Arizona. Large crowds were gathered outside the Chinese Theater for a premiere of the dance movie “Step Up Revolution.” No one in our group seemed interested. We ate at a sports themed restaurant. SEC football media days were on the TV sets. I explained to Joel this was the dominant college football conference. Winners played on those teams, I said.

“Your football makes no sense, John,” Joel observed. “All that stop and go. Stop and go. It’s boring.”

Joel loved soccer as did Jastine. And Desmond, my hiking buddy.

I watched the Singaporeans join with the Turks to beat the French, Bulgarians and Americans — beat them badly — at the Grand Canyon Recreation Center’s annual East vs. West match. The French group came out to the Canyon in mid summer and the women reinforced every negative stereotype I could imagine. The guys were actually very cool and I learned quite a bit about Parisian culture, particularly from this one Moroccan. More on him, later.

The Turks were aggressive on the field — the exact same field that would be transformed, later that night, into grazing grounds for a herd of elk. The elk were a constant reminder of our wild living conditions, far from the streets of Paris. One of the Bulgarians nearly broke his leg that day. The Turks were relentless and not even a stout American goalie could stop enough of their advances. The match would become the subject of much conversation at the employee cafeteria. Soccer was all the rage during the summer of 2012. It was not entirely foreign to me. I played the sport as a grade school kid in the Orlando suburbs. I recall being self conscious about my shin guards being bigger than my legs. Quite the challenge being the smallest one in your class or on the team.

Easy prey for bullies.

Grand Canyon Kicks

Grand Canyon Kicks

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Elk on the field





Joel’s Ring of Fire

26 02 2013

This would not be my first trip to California, but it had been some time since setting foot inside the Golden State. One of the fringe benefits of working at the Grand Canyon was an opportunity to explore the Southwest either through trips offered by the employee rec center or independently. The group from Singapore had planned an impressive tour of the US before returning home — Las Vegas, LA, San Francisco, Yosemite and New York. I requested to tag along for the LA part, provided I could get there. This was part of the challenge and, as most travel agents will tell you, part of the fun.

Since noticing the Amtrak station in Flagstaff, I had been intrigued by the train and what it was all about. Rail passenger service in the South is almost nonexistent. Hurricanes have decimated tracks along the Gulf Coast and the states there seem to have no interest in restoring routes. Most of the poor and those without a vehicle travel primarily by bus in the South. Having experienced Greyhound before, I was in no hurry to ride the dirty dog again.

So in figuring out the way to LA, I decided to take the Grand Canyon train to Williams, Arizona where I could connect to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and ride into Los Angeles just before dawn. It would be around a 15-hour trip and luckily I would not be making it alone. Joel, one of the Singapore entourage, would travel with me while the others went ahead to Las Vegas. Joel’s work contract called for him to stay a few more extra days in the Canyon and although he was not happy about it, he honored the deal and consequently missed out on the Vegas portion of the group’s American adventure. Of all the Singapore guys, Joel had the most uninspiring Grand Canyon job. He was a kitchen utility worker at Yavapai Lodge, where he cleaned cafeteria tables and loaded dishwashers.

“So much wasted food,” Joel would grumble when I asked about his duties. He cheerfully added, he would get me all the soda I could want when I was in the cafeteria. One of the few perks of his job.

I had gotten to know Joel better one afternoon when we hiked up the Hermit’s Nest Trail to watch a rare solar eclipse. A fierce soccer player, Joel described his matches as if they were all out war and revealed he was often at odds with his coach. He was also quite the romeo and not long after arriving in the Canyon, Joel began dating a cute Thai girl from housekeeping. As the solar eclipse got closer, it was Joel who found an awesome spot to view it. We climbed down from the rim — beyond the guard rail — and settled on a flat column of rock just past Hopi Point.

Hopi Point Solar Eclipse with Joel

Hopi Point Solar Eclipse with Joel

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and essentially creates a “Ring of Fire.” We had equipped ourselves with special viewing glasses and from our vantage point overlooking the Colorado River and the many chasms of Grand Canyon, the eclipse was indeed an awesome sight to behold. But staring too much into the sun is never a good thing. As we posed for pictures afterward, I remember Joel stumbling and damn near falling into the Canyon. I don’t think even he realized how close he had come to certain death.

Traveling by train to LA would be much less risky. As employees, the train ride to Williams was free, but it sure wasn’t fast. On average a 45-minute trip by car turned into a 2-hour slow descent through barren land. Joel had made the trip before, taking his girlfriend to Williams for an overnight excursion. He knew what to expect, right down to the super corny staged “holdup” by wild western outlaws. The entire train ride was geared toward children and families. We were merely taking advantage of our employee status and thus endured stale jokes for the free lift.

Once in Williams we had a few hours to kill before catching the Amtrak so Joel recommended grabbing a bite to eat at a nearby Thai restaurant. After months on a steady diet of National Park cafeteria food, I gladly agreed. The women working the restaurant remembered Joel from his previous visit and we were treated like kings. The food was flat out delicious. As we dined on Pad Thai and other recipes that I cannot begin to spell, Joel let loose frustrations of working with some of the Native Americans at the park. They were sentiments similarly expressed by the blunt Western author Edward Abbey in his great novel, “Desert Solitaire.”

I did not dispute any of Joel’s observations and served more less as his therapist when he told me how, on his last day, he had basically told this one older Indian woman to take a long walk off a short pier.

“She was always telling me what to do,” he said. “And she never did anything.”

After dinner, we returned to the train depot where a bus waited to take us to the Amtrak station, a few miles south of Williams. But as we would find out, there was no station and no train in sight.





Smoke them if you got’em

5 02 2013

After the hike to the river, the rest of my time in Grand Canyon seemed rather trivial. I promised to work for six months and intended to fully meet those obligations. I had been promoted to a leadership position and given keys to the shop, rising every morning at 6 a.m. to greet the tourists and fellow co-workers needing their cigarette fix.

The Bulgarians and Turks smoked like chimneys. I was amazed how they would go through a pack, sometimes two, a day and wondered if they were saving any of the money they were making, not to mention having any left over to spend on food. Cigarette prices, like everything else in the Canyon, were ridiculously high and halfway through the summer, they raised the prices even higher. And yet, the workers still bought them. They were, after all, trapped by their isolated surroundings and strong addiction. And I was their enabler.

“Mah-bah-row,” they would utter, one by one, striding into the shop to begin another day of work. The Native American women I worked with would always get a good chuckle at my ability to master the exact foreign pronunciation of Marlboro. The laughs were a welcome diversion from the everyday drudgery of dusting pottery and folding t-shirts.

Away from work, my friendship with the Singaporeans was strong and we began planning a trip to Los Angeles. My roommate, Brian, the sports fanatic, was still battling depression and a turbulent relationship, but managed to eek out a smile when I would report on the day’s proceedings at the gift shop.

“Did ya dust today, John?,” Brian would ask, adding just the right amount of comedic touch. “Because, I was in there today and I think you missed a spot.”

I was glad Brian was able to find joy in my situation. There is something comically humbling about underemployment, if you can bring yourself to overlook the negative. Here I was, a college educated, award-winning professional journalist who had just run for the Florida House of Representatives on my hands and knees dusting Grand Canyon coffee mugs made in China.

The fact that half of our merchandise was made in China really struck a nerve with some guests. Many times a guest would have their gift in hand ready to buy only to discover the tiny words “Made in China” inscribed somewhere and this would immediately change their mind. I was also impressed with how Cheng Yew, my Singaporean colleague, would handle this blatant contempt. To the average observer, he looked quite Chinese and with Cheng Yew displayed on his name tag, he was obviously not a Native American.

Cheng Yew working hard

But Cheng Yew’s salesmanship was anything but foreign. It was, rather, quite remarkable. Polite and helpful at all times, Cheng Yew never got mad. He never protested. And he never called in sick. Time and time again, he was able to send the rudest customer on their way with a smile. I was amazed at this ability and so too was upper management. In just 10 weeks of service, Cheng Yew racked up more accolades and special recognition than people who had worked there for years. When selling memories, attitude is everything and Cheng Yew certainly had the right one.

I was, undoubtedly, going to miss my Singaporean friends. Our trip to LA would be the culmination of cultures coming together and living in harmony. I had learned much from our short time together and I’m sure they had too. I managed to request just enough time off to make a quick dash to Southern California and back. I would travel the train, experiencing a new part of America via an old mode of transportation.

California here we come.





Grand Champions

26 12 2012

The final section of the trail was brutal, people were moving at all kinds of paces. Desmond was clear out of sight. My knee was killing me so I stopped and sat on a rock. It was dusty just like me. The wind was whipping now and earlier I had gotten an eye full.

Previously, we had stopped at the last rest area to escape the high afternoon sun and its covered benches were packed with people — many who were not budging. I found that a little odd. Could they not tell we were distressed?

‘They are coming from the other side, John,” Desmond said.

Some of them looked familiar from our time at Phantom Ranch, others had trekked down from the rim. We stood under the middle of the shelter, hoping for someone to give up their seat. Fat chance. After a while, I retreated outside and found shade under a nearby cottonwood tree. Desmond followed, but did not want to rest. He signaled for me to continue up the trail. I signaled back that I needed a break. He then began hiking without me.

At this point I started to think why was I here. What possessed me to do this and why oh why had I moved across country and placed myself into extreme isolation? Jokingly, I had referred to my time in Grand Canyon as a period of exile. But was it really a joke? Having made the leap from journalist to politician, my career was indeed at the crossroads. I saw the Canyon as an opportunity for a fresh start in an environment where I would have no trouble clearing my head.

Whenever I would feel depressed, all I had to do was take a short walk up to the rim and gaze into the grandness of nature. No pharmaceuticals could take me away like a look into the vast and magnificent Canyon. I was sure there was someone up there right now looking down at me … a tourist, park ranger perhaps or even the All Mighty. Slowly, I began to climb again, placing more weight on the good knee as I hiked into the evil Coconinos.

The stops became more frequent, just to catch my breathe and rest my knee. It was at this before mentioned rock where I would have my last chat with a fellow hiker. Here I was sitting on this rock, dusty and damn near beaten, when all of the sudden an energetic Canadian appeared. He was a little older than me; a family guy on vacation from somewhere north of Spokane. I told him I worked in the park and this was my first rim to river and back excursion and he, seemingly unimpressed, asked why I had come to work in a place like this.

“How can you move so far away from your home?,” he asked.

“Work,” I replied.

We then went into the inevitable political discussion to which I listened much more than I spoke. You know the lines. America is going to hell and all that crap and I’m from Canada so naturally I am superior to you. Finally, he hiked on. I waited for him to get a lengthy head start and then followed, dodging mule poop and chomping on the last of my power bar. Surprisingly, I found Desmond waiting at the final water stop a long with a hearty company of hikers, many I had seen throughout the climb. I mustered a smile and continued to hydrate. I was glad Desmond waited for me. It clearly demonstrated his patience.

We hiked the last part together. In stride and overjoyed. The closer we got to the trailhead, the more people would stare. We were exhausted and disheveled, but seeing the trailhead and its bustling tourist activity gave us that final incentive to sprint to the top. We did it. Almost 12 hours and 18 miles of intense mountain hiking that no park ranger would recommend. It was my greatest athletic achievement. I was never good enough to play football, basketball or baseball in school. My body was undeveloped in those years and my confidence hidden behind chess pieces.

The pain from my knee was almost forgotten as we declared victory at the trailhead. There was a group of French tourists posing for pictures nearby and I asked them if they would please take our picture — as evidence of this amazing journey. A nice woman happily agreed and I was sure to say, ‘merci.’ An incredible feeling of accomplishment came through me as she took our picture. The fear and uncertainty I felt as we barely caught the bus earlier that morning had been defeated by a successful hike to the river and back. It was then that I truly believed there were Bright Angels amongst us.

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Pain sets in

14 11 2012

As soon as we arrived at Indian Gardens, I headed straight for the outhouse. I had been holding in pee for a good while and just too prudish to stop along the trail. Traffic had begun to pick up as there were several groups of people resting underneath the massive Cottonwood trees. We were still three miles deep into the Canyon.

It was after my outhouse visit that a sharp sting shot out of my left leg. It was severe and it damn near knocked me off my feet. I was surprised by the pain and could only surmise that it was caused by my brief stop of motion. Whatever the case, it hurt. Bad.

I was afraid to let Desmond know just how much it hurt. He had joined a dozen or so other weary hikers around a small water fountain encased in stone. Everyone looked beat. It was still plenty hot and most were battling dehydration. Some took off their hiking boots and rubbed their feet relentlessly, while others laid near comatose alongside their life-sized backpacks.

Desmond was eating his last sandwich when I limped up to the fountain for a sip of water. Nobody said a word. Damn, my leg hurt. Finally, an older woman with a British accent spoke up.

“Are you alright?,” she asked.

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

She was British to a certain extent. She actually declared her independence from the Crown by stating she lived in some obscure island off the coast of France. She wore dark, large rounded sunglasses. Exhausted, I could not find her eyes.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to speak with a fellow hiker. She had hiked down from the Village, leaving her husband along the way. “He can’t make it down here anymore,” she said. “His knees gave out a long time ago.” But here was this woman, significantly my senior, huddled around the water fountain telling her story. Her knees were fine. One of mine was damn near killing me. After about 15 or so minutes, Desmond was ready to go again. He wanted to make it out by sunset and we were losing daylight.

The pain was tempered by the fact I was now hiking into familiar territory. I had hiked this part of the trail before, returning from Plateau Point where I communed with a condor. Surely, he was circling somewhere, I thought. Desmond, meanwhile, began to open up a sizable lead as we neared the dusty redwall limestone part of the hike. The sun still beating down, I lingered in shade every chance I got.

Most hikers will tell you that everyone has their own pace. And almost all will admit to having been part of some race. Desmond was viewing this as a competition. Initially that is. We would go on other hikes where time was not so much a concern, but for the rim to river excursion, Desmond was looking to break records. At this point in the hike, I was just trying to keep up.

I tried to keep him in eye range. It became more difficult as we climbed and with eager tourists appearing at every turn. You could tell the hikers from the tourists by the simple fact that NO ONE would try to hike the Grand Canyon in flip flops. And yet they appeared more frequently as we neared the rim. There were a few times where I stopped to catch my breathe and I would see Desmond on a cliff in the horizon waving his arms for me to catch up. The sun was beginning to disappear as the trail took to one corner of the massive canyon. The climb out was underway.