On the Road to Recovery

14 07 2014

July is here. For seasonal park employees these are challenging times. We’ve been in our new surroundings for almost two months and the novelty of living in a national park is wearing off and reality starts to set in.

And so do the crowds.

Fourth of July weekend ushers in the masses — screaming infants, spoiled brat teenagers and impatient parents. The height of summer is indeed “family time” for better or worse.

The good news is Going-To-The-Sun Road is open — two weeks late – but open nevertheless. The frustration, disappointment and anger I absorbed from tourists in the days leading up to the road’s opening more than justified my salary. A late season snow storm delayed the road’s projected opening, leaving our tour bus operations in a mad scramble to find alternative routing, while appeasing those who were expecting a magnificent ride over the pass. The snow storm came just when David — God bless him — had completed his nearly 3,000-mile trek to deliver me my Jeep.

David’s devotion continues to amaze me. This latest act clearly demonstrates his commitment to our partnership. During his visit we hiked to Avalanche Lake, one of the more popular trails on the west side of Glacier National Park. The trail was very muddy that day, it pretty much rains the entire month of June here and the park’s Lake McDonald Valley is considered a Pacific Northwest rain forest. But we persevered, sloshing through the trees while marveling at the size and beauty of the cedars, black cottonwoods and western hemlocks.

We discussed many subjects on the hike. That’s one of the great things about hiking with a friend. You really get to know each other better as you both march toward an end goal. I told David how surprised I was at my ability to manage the stress of this new job, particularly with the amount of patience I was exhibiting.

Things or situations in the past that were frustrating or caused anger did not seem to have the same affect on me now. Could it be, I wondered aloud, that life’s experiences coupled with the hardships and trauma of the last six years had instilled a coping mechanism that is enabling me to deal with all of the daily troubles and problems.

A lost purse, a blown tire, a missed reservation — all in a day’s work behind the concierge desk. A train running late, an allergic reaction to a bug bite, directions to the nearest location with cell phone service ??? … No problem, I have the answers.

One of our drivers has said I have “nerves of steel” while another declared I have the biblical “patience of Job.” Flattering comments I will more than accept after the harsh reactions to our no refund policy when the road was closed.

Avalanche Lake

Avalanche Lake

Meanwhile, the hike to Avalanche Lake was certainly the bright spot of David’s visit. He’s back in South Florida now and I, for the first time in my National Park tenure, have my own transportation. I usually load up the Jeep after work most days and escape into the park, looking for that quiet spot to rest my mind and write.

Glacier is indeed beautiful, snow capped peaks atop rugged Matterhorn-like mountain ranges surround you with the Going-To-The-Sun Road cutting a path through the heart of the park. The scenary along the road is breathtaking and I understand now why the demand to open it was so great. It is an engineering achievement of the highest order. Man’s crowning conquest atop God’s spectacular creation.

As I look to build upon my experience here I must acknowledge the last two months have been incredibly hard and the next hard choice I make is whether I should stick it out with no promises that it will get any easier. Perhaps this is where my road to recovery ends. Knowing when to make the right decision.

 

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Hitchhiking with Ann

22 08 2013

We hitchhiked around Yellowstone with a little angst, a lot of luck and ultimately much joy. It was Ann’s idea and I protested all the way. She had done this before with her girlfriends, but I had yet to try my hand at thumbing a ride. I’m cautious. It comes with age.

Ann hitching a ride.

Ann hitching a ride.

Ann, her 21-year-old spirit beaming, was intent on getting to Old Faithful for the first time. Maybe that was another reason why I was dragging my feet on this little outing. Having spent nearly two months at the location, you could say I was quite geysered out. Ann, however, had never seen Old Faithful erupt and thus her Yellowstone experience was incomplete. I proposed taking one of our bus tours to Old Faithful, but Ann rebuked the notion by stating those tours — those precious tours I sold — were for “families and old people.” She said we could get there faster by hitchhiking. And she was right.

No longer than five minutes after standing roadside holding a makeshift cardboard sign with the words, “Old Faithful Employee” scribbled across it, Ann got her ride. As the truck pulled over she raced ahead to greet it, yelling back at me: “In your face!”

People love to prove me wrong.

The driver, as it turned out, worked security at Canyon and he and a buddy were on their way to Chico Hot Springs, Montana. They carried us to Norris, where we got off and started hitchhiking again. This time a young British couple came to our aid, picking us up quickly. Again, Ann rejoiced in my skepticism defeated. We would reach Old Faithful in just over an hour’s time. Surprised, I was.

Being back at Old Faithful wasn’t the most pleasant feeling. The crowds are still huge, by far the largest in the park. There must have been a couple thousand people huddled around the geyser, not a bleacher seat left. The boardwalks, likewise, were crowded and the kids were annoying. And yet Ann wanted the whole tour. We stopped at geysers, hot springs, steam vents and thermal pools. I also took Ann into the Old Faithful Inn so she could see where I once worked. It was near noon and the place was a madhouse as usual. Buses unloading, people scurrying in and out of the gift shop, artists selling paintings and photographs in the lobby while flashes from cameras flickered across the historic wooden structure. Ann was impressed, letting out a few “wows” as we walked around.

After lunch we hitched a ride to Lake Yellowstone, again getting picked up quickly, this time from some fellow Canyon employees. Two middle aged women, one from Minnesota, the other from Mississippi. The one from Mississippi gave us a good scolding about the dangers of hitchhiking. I can’t say that I disagreed with her, but in Yellowstone with so many international workers and those, like me, without wheels, hitchhiking is an accepted practice. And we were exceeding at it.

Now this wasn’t the first time I had hitchhiked, but it had been a while. I was about eight when I decided to ditch the summer camp I was attending in Central Florida and hitchhike home. Thankfully, a nice man and his teenage daughter picked me up and called my parents, who, understandably were shocked. They were angry at me, but also at the summer camp staff for allowing me out of their sights. All because I didn’t want to take swimming lessons. To this day, my mother loves to tell that story as an example of what a weird kid I was growing up.

Back in Yellowstone, the women dropped us off at Lake Hotel just as rain drops fell from the sky. We went inside and visited with Terry (aka Mr. Fantastic) at the concierge desk. Terry and I basked in the fact we were “survivors” of our original training group and, the good Lord willing, we were going to make it to the finish line. Ann wanted to relax in the lobby of the hotel so we found a comfy couch and enjoyed the beautiful view of Lake Yellowstone, the largest alpine lake in North America, its deep cobalt blue water mesmerizing to gaze upon. Lake Hotel altogether feels like something out of the Great Gatsby era, elegantly outfitted employees, fine fixtures and the soothing sounds of a string quartet in the evening hours.

Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be hanging around to hear the performance. Nightfall was just hours away and we did not want to get caught in Hayden Valley hitchhiking after dark. So we strapped on our backpacks and made our way through the sage brush along the trail to Fishing Bridge. The rain had subsided, but a new smell suddenly  filled the air the closer we got to Hayden Valley. It was the unmistakable odor of burning pine trees. Those clouds in the distance were not rainclouds at all, but rather large, puffy clouds of smoke.

Yellowstone was on fire. 





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.





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.

2653





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.

 





The Hike Back

24 10 2012

High noon and the sun is directly overhead. There is little shade along the river and for the first time on the hike I’m starting to feel the heat.

We cross another narrow suspension bridge and pick up the Bright Angel Trail on the other side, where after a few minutes, we encounter another mule train. This one had people on it, being carried to Phantom Ranch from the rim. We let them pass, squeezing against the trail’s rock wall. On the other side, a steep drop to the river.

The mules appeared miserable, their skulls sunken in from the intense heat and yet they carried on. When I first arrived in the Canyon, I was fascinated by the mules and would visit them quite regularly at their stable next to Victor Hall. This only added to the dorm’s unique smell. Riding one of these beasts of burden from rim to river was never something I desired to pursue. I was more than healthy enough to make the trek on my own and as the wranglers can attest, a mule ride is not the most comfortable way to travel.

As the mules passed, Desmond used the break from hiking to look for small rocks. They were everywhere. We both took one each, as a memento of sorts. Mine was a mix of red and black with shiny quartz sprinkled in. Taking rocks out of the Grand Canyon, of course, is against park regulations, but since the Grand Canyon was damn near taking all of the life out of us, what’s a couple little rocks going to matter.

As we left the river side and began a steeper climb up the Bright Angel Trail, I found it harder and harder to keep up with Desmond. He was much younger and had recently competed in a marathon. This was by far the most physical activity I had taken on since roaming the streets of New York City a few summers back.

Desmond was steady and he began to distance himself from me. We were no longer talking. We were hiking up a mountain. A Grand mountain.

The switchbacks were damn near murder. Every time you rounded another corner there was a steep stretch of trail awaiting and a steeper one after that. The vegetation was disappearing and so too was the water. There was hardly a soul coming from the other direction. It was early afternoon and most were taking shelter from the unrelenting sun.

Finally, after an hour or so of steep switchbacks and heavy breathing, the trail began to level out and I recognized the rock formations from my previous hike to Plateau Point. This is when I felt totally consumed by the Canyon. One small piece to the puzzle.

Yucca and blooming century plants appeared more frequently as we pressed on, up the Bright Angel Trail toward Indian Gardens. Tiny lizards began to scurry across the path and sounds of birds chirping from the brush filled the air. It was during this stretch of the hike where I felt like stopping, making a camp and just hanging out for a while. That would be so nice, but we both had to work the next day. The summer season was upon us and soon the park would be overrun by tourists.

“It will look like a giant ant hill’s been stirred with a stick,” was how one bus driver referred to the peak summer  season.

Deep inside the Canyon, however, was another story entirely. Only a tiny percent of visitors to the park actually enter the Canyon and even a smaller percentage make the hike to the river and back. We were a good three-fourths of the way to completing this super challenging endeavor when the swaying Cottonwoods of Indian Gardens came into sight.

And little did I know, pain was waiting.





Reaching the River

24 09 2012

We dipped our feet in the river and the cold water was a welcome relief. Having hiked downhill nearly seven miles to the bottom of the Grand Canyon this was the payoff… the reward and hypothermia be damned.

When you first set eyes on the Colorado River, it gives you pause. Desmond and I made it to the river just before high noon and we immediately started to snap pictures. This was an accomplishment to take note of. Before reaching the river, there is a small tunnel drilled out of a huge boulder just before you cross a narrow suspension bridge. The tunnel was dark, but the midday sun kept it from being too scary. I also felt safe with Desmond.

We walked through the tunnel, across the bridge and down to the river bank, which was guarded by a maze of prickly pear and Beavertail cactus. And it was hot. Mid May at the bottom of the Canyon brought near 100 degree temperature with not much of a breeze. But we weren’t the only ones at the river bank, gazing up at the Kaibab Bridge and the mountains all around. There were about a half a dozen college aged kids soaking their feet in the river and just as we joined them, a large rafting group floated up to the beach-esque bank and unloaded for lunch.

Phantom Ranch was nearby and that’s where we would have lunch and, more importantly, shelter. Sitting on the river bank, we didn’t say much to each other, instead basking in the fact that we had reached the halfway point. The water was extremely cold. You could put your feet in for a couple minutes but then they started to get hard and hurt. And no one dared go more than ankle deep, except for one of the rafting hands who had to jump in and tie up the raft.

From the river we wet our shirts for the first time, a tip Desmond picked up from reading some travel guide, and headed towards Phantom Ranch. It’s a short hike up the North Kaibab Trail and one that is teeming with life, from deer resting by the stream, ravens flying overhead and campers singing songs and playing music. As we approached the ranger station, a large American flag welcomed us to Phantom Ranch, prompting Desmond to remark how much we as a nation loved to wave the stars and stripes.

“There is not a lot of this in my country,” he said.

Americans, Desmond had quickly learned, are very patriotic in addition to their love affair with fried foods and beer.

We went inside the canteen, unloaded our packs and chowed down. My sub sandwich was pretty disgusting. It had damn near deteriorated on the hike down, but I ate it anyway. The canteen was about half full. It’s a simple setup with long cafeteria type tables and a cash register near the door. They had some souvenir T-shirts and hats for sale, but we just bought postcards. I told the clerk I worked at Maswik Lodge up on the rim and he immediately tried to recruit me to come down and work on the ranch.

“We work hard and we play hard,” he said. I had kind of gotten that vibe earlier when I was eating my sandwich and one of the employees came out of the kitchen to reload the napkin dispenser. He was a young, hipster type with a full beard and tight jeans. He looked me straight in the eyes and smiled.

“It’s a great place to work if you like to hike,” the clerk continued, making his best sales pitch. “We make good tips here too.”

This I did not dispute, but the reality of living in a place that was a hard 8-hour hike from civilization, and a partial one at that, was too daunting to consider. Being nice, I told him I would think about it.

We refilled our water bottles and soon were on our way again, this time hiking up. As we departed the canteen, the clerk reminded us to wet our shirts before crossing the river. We had not yet experienced the day’s full heat.