Kushed Out in Hollywood

30 03 2013

I do admit to leading a pretty charmed life. Sure, there have been highs and lows throughout, but the summer of 2012 has to be one of the best ever. I was high in every sense of the word that mid July night, sitting rooftop of our Hollywood apartment. We all were, having just gamed the California medical system by scoring some marijuana during our visit to Venice Beach. I was amazed at how easy it was and how openly corrupt the entire process appeared.

Marijuana doctors on duty in Venice Beach, California.

Marijuana doctors on duty in Venice Beach, California.

But as we shared a puff of premium grade OG Kush, one thing was for sure. Nobody was hurting.

The view from the roof was amazing at night. Smog circles drifting overhead, the lights of Griffith Observatory shining from the nearby hills and in the opposite direction stood the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.  Normen, Cheng Yew, Jastine and I went up to the top — with joints and beers — to indulge in our vices. Joel stayed in the apartment. Someone, after all, had to remain responsible. As twin brothers go, Normen and Jastine could not be more opposite. Jastine the steady, calculating planner, Normen the fashionable performing artist. I had gotten to know Jastine much better as we spent time discovering the Grand Canyon while he recuperated from a collapsed lung suffered upon arriving in America. I guess you could say we bonded over adversity. I, wounded ego, in self-imposed political exile and he a wounded stranger in a strange land.

Normen worked at a different location so we rarely hung out, but he had the same job only at a much higher volume store. His shop, at Bright Angel Lodge, was right on the rim and he would work eight hour shifts — sometimes never stepping away from the cash register. Meanwhile, further into the village at Maswik Lodge, Cheng Yew and I would go hours without recording a sale. Based on those negotiating skills and his hipster looks, Normen became our point man for securing the weed.

“That doctor was a joke,” he said, emerging from the Venice Beach “Green Doctors” office with prescription in hand.  There were more medical marijuana operations in Southern California than McDonald’s, or at least it seemed. Green crosses, denoting clinics and dispensaries, were everywhere you turned. For a hick from North Florida and exchange students from Singapore, this was indeed a whole new world.

Jastine pressed his brother for answers, “What did the doctor ask you?”

“What I needed marijuana for,” Normen replied.

Keep in mind, Normen is a picture of health. Young, firmly built and agile. He would never be mistaken for a cancer stricken patient or someone suffering from AIDS. The week before arriving in LA, he had hiked the Canyon, rim to rim during the height of the summer’s scorching heat.

“And what did you tell him?,” Jastine asked.

“That I had insomnia,” said Normen. “And then he wrote me a prescription.”

Just like that. We were all amazed. Of course, there was a catch. You paid forty bucks up front for the initial evaluation and after the doc cleared you, the next hurdle was finding the right pharmacy. As Normen quickly found, everyone had a hand out along the way. The dispensaries were protected like banks, only with meaner looking security. We all waited patiently as Normen went inside to select his “medicine.” He ended up with the OG Kush and Sativa and after dinner on our first night in LA, we passed the joint around and marveled at our surroundings.

Our headquarters in Hollywood, California across the street from Paramount Pictures.

Our headquarters in Hollywood, California across the street from Paramount Pictures.

The weed certainly helped my sunburn. I had gotten roasted pretty good at the beach, but the more I toked up the less pain I felt. This had been the first time in a long time, I had smoked marijuana. It was, without a doubt, available in the Canyon, but I never pursued it. I was intent on projecting leadership and didn’t want to fall in with the stoner crowd. But here, on a mini vaca in California, it was time to experiment.

With each puff, I found the kush to make me a tad over analytical. Were those helicopters in the distance coming for us? Were they even there?? The kush hit Cheng Yew like a ton of bricks, so much so that Normen had to help him down the narrow flight of stairs back to the apartment. Jastine and I followed and eventually we all passed out. Insomnia cured.

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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.





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.





The Tipoff

27 07 2012

We talked a lot on the way down the trail, mostly about international affairs, politics and why Americans are so fat.

I’m not sure if Americans realize that we have become the butt of the world’s fat jokes. In many countries, McDonald’s is comically referred to as the American embassy. I told Desmond that the American obesity rate was much higher in the Southern states because of an affinity for sugar and fried foods.

“Is not the South where your least educated and poorest population resides?” he asked.

It was an innocent enough question, but for a native son of the South, it stung like a sharp prick of a cactus.

“Yep,” I said.

“And they consistently vote Republican,” he continued.

“Yep.”

“Why?,” he asked, again with an innocent, inquisitive tone.

“Desmond, if I knew the answer to that, I would not be on this hike with you today,” I said.

He smiled and we continued to chat, not realizing how quickly we were descending the trail. The sun was still rising above the Eastern Rim as we reached Skeleton Point. The views here are breathtaking. Dark orange rock formations jutting out of the earth. We were certainly no longer in the pinyon pine tree forest of the South Rim.

Some of the folks from the bus were here resting and I spotted the woman who I had sat next to. I asked her if she would take a couple photos of Desmond and I and she gladly obliged. We put our arms around each other in a brotherly fashion. It had been quite a while since I had experienced this type of male bonding. It reminded me of college. It was refreshing.

After a short break, we pressed on and it was my turn to probe Desmond about his country’s politics. I was, admittedly, igonorant as to Singapore’s culture. I did know it was a former British colony, which put me ahead of most Americans. It had become quite comical when the American tourists would remark how good the Singaporean workers spoke English, always assuming they would be producing a Chinese accent.

Desmond was quite proud of his homeland. He boasted of Singapore’s high GDP level, zero homeless population and alluring tax policies. He is, after all, a business student.

Most of the Americans — or Ang Mohs — as they are referred to by locals, come to Singapore not for pleasure, but rather for business.

“We encourage free market capitalism,” Desmond said.

But if there is one aspect of his homeland that Desmond would like to see changed, it is the media. The press, he said, is run by the government and never questions authority.

In other words, it’s like MSNBC today and Fox News circa 2004.

Meanwhile, we continued to descend at a healthy pace, stopping for a quick rest at the junction to Tonto Trail just before what is called “The Tipoff.” It is at this point where hikers get their first glimpse of the Colorado River — looking down into the massive gorge that resembles a scene out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

At the Tonto Trail junction we encountered the mule train coming up from Phantom Ranch, carrying mail and supplies. I marveled at the stamina and strength of these beasts of burden. It was starting to get hot and they had one steep climb awaiting. Amazing that they do this everyday.

We took a few pictures as the wranglers tied them up to a man-made steel rail in the middle of nowhere.

“Don’t get too close,” one of the wranglers shouted at Desmond. “They kick.”

The Tonto Trail Junction is a flat area surrounded by nothing but knee-high scrubs and prickly pear cactus for miles. The trail runs horizontal between rim and river and at this junction, with the South Kaibab, there is a rail to tie up the mules and a small outhouse for human waste. Desmond used the facilities, while I used the shade that it provided. I wasn’t the only one who sought escape from the sun. Sitting next to the outhouse was a tall middle-aged man who had been hiking the Tonto Trail from the east.

“I’m headed to the Bright Angel,” he said. “What about you?”

“The river,” I replied.

“Well, you’re close,” he said.

I plopped down next to the man and started swiggin’ water and eating peanuts and raisins. Desmond, having finished his business in the outhouse, joined us and the three of us chatted while fending off hungry squirrels. The man was from New York and an experienced hiker.

“I come here once a year,” he said. “Never gets old.”

It was definitely a different picture than New York. As I looked around, I felt so small. Just a blip inside a vast desert canyon. Far, far away from civilization.

“Shall we?,” Desmond asked.

He was ready to continue, knowing the rewarding part of our adventure was close.

“Good luck,” said the New Yorker as we parted ways. This was one part of the hiking culture that I had come to appreciate. Nearly everyone acknowledges each other on the trails and checks to see how you are doing, especially at rest stops, and always offers tips, provisions and well wishes.

I would likely never see that man again, but for a few brief moments we shared in each other’s extreme outdoors experience. Conversely, Desmond and I were just getting to know each other as the most strenuous stretch of our adventure loomed.

The rising sun set to test our stamina.





The goal is

5 07 2012

It’s a dusty day in mid June and I haven’t seen a raindrop in months. Welcome to summer in the high desert of Arizona.

My new roommate, Brian, has been working in the Canyon for going on five years now and is exhibiting some of the tell-tale signs of burnout. He’s about five years younger than me and there are times when I feel as if I’m watching myself five years ago. He’s in a problematic relationship, running up big amounts of credit card debt and sleeping a lot.

When I ask him about transferring to another national park or changing careers, he casually shrugs off the suggestion — comfortable, so it seems, in his misery.

Brian and I struck up a friendship around sports, while working together at Maswik Lodge. Brian has a superior knowledge of athletics and is what I was once — a walking encyclopedia of sports. He knows all the coaches, players and records for baseball, basketball and football — both college and pro, watches SportsCenter religiously and has an extensive wardrobe of his beloved Boise State Broncos.

Plug in Florida State for Boise State and this guy IS me circa 2001.

When Brian’s roommate quit his job and moved home, I was asked to fill his spot in a cozy one room, one bath efficiency apartment. If Brian didn’t find a suitable new roommate, the company would have stuck him with the next random guy they hired or worse — three internationals. They really deal the internationals a rough hand here. Sometimes placing as many as seven of them in one room.

The move doubled the rent I was paying at Victor Hall, but my recent promotion covered it and having a more private bathroom, small kitchen and Direct TV was an added bonus. And Brian is clean guy who likes to keep things tidy. Another selling point.

With my living accomodations settled, I could concentrate on hiking more, specifically making it to the river. That was, after all, the goal of my time here. A physical challenge to myself and a spiritual journey only a tiny percentage of the population complete.

That’s when Desmond came into the picture.

Desmond was one of the new arrivals from Singapore, although for some reason he was not on friendly terms with the other Singapore guys. This surprised me, but I didn’t press the issue. He came into the gift shop one day searching for a long sleeve white shirt, which for some strange reason we did not carry. The request, however, prompted a conversation — Desmond wanted to go hiking. I told him I had already made the trek to Plateau Point and back.

“How long did it take?,” Desmond asked.

I hadn’t really timed it, so I estimated, “about seven hours,” I said.

“Wow, that’s good,” he responded.

I hadn’t given it much thought, but I guess it was a decent time. Later, I would find out that Desmond is quite the ambitious fellow, who has run a few marathons back home in his native Singapore.

“Do you want to hike to the river and back,” was his next question.

Of course I did, but I wondered privately if I was ready. And yet, here standing in front of me, was my chance. Finding a partner for the journey had been one of my biggest obstacles until Desmond walked into the store. Most of the Americans I had befriended could barely hike out of their dorm rooms and Brian, bless his heart, was unable to hike because he has multiple sclerosis.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

“It’s 17 miles,” Desmond said, cracking a smile.

“Yes, and your point is,” I replied.

We then exchanged phone numbers, became friends on Facebook and set the date and time for our hike. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I knew if I waited much longer, the heat would be unbearable. It was now or never.

To the River!

 

 

 





Saving grace from Singapore

19 06 2012

As I sit down to type another blog entry, it has occured to me that life is indeed grand.

I was down for so long and had been trying to climb out of a hole, that admittedly, I dug for myself. In the process of working diligently to rebuild bridges, repair relationships and regain status, I failed to realize that I might have climbed higher than ever before.

“Is it difficult to accept someone so young as your boss?” was the question posed to me recently by one of my newest Grand Canyon friends, Justin, a university student from Singapore.

This is where humility pays off. As difficult as the last four years of my life have been, my walk through humility has made me a stronger, wiser and all around better person. Of this, I am convinced.

So, yes, I can take orders from a 21-year-old glamour girl who hasn’t the slightest idea which countries are in the European Union or what austerity means.  When she asks me to fold t-shirts or mop the floor, I oblige because all work is honorable and as the old saying goes, “be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll see them again on the way down.”

This I know all too well.

Justin and his fellow Singaporeans have become my saving grace in the Canyon. They arrived at a time when I was considering heading back to Florida, unable to find anyone who I could connect with beyond the usual pleasantries of “Good morning” and “Nice weather today.” Much to my surprise, I found camaraderie with a group of college kids from Southeast Asia.

The Singaporeans, hailing from a former British colony, speak the Queen’s English, albiet with their own distinct dialect — Justin calls this “Singlish” — and even more impressive is their thirst for knowledge and success. We connected early through the social networks of Facebook and Twitter and soon I was hanging out with Justin and his friends every day — meeting for breakfast at the employee cafeteria, going on day hikes into the Canyon and riding the bus to the general store for groceries.

Justin was intrigued about my run for office, particularly challenging the establishment. Apparently this is rare in Singapore — as is any sort of objective media. Still, the country is prosperous and it was quite easy to tell upon their arrival that the Singaporeans were a cut above the rest of the international workers at the park.

Most of the internationals are placed in the kitchen, housekeeping or as cafeteria line servers, where their contact with the public is limited. But of the five Singaporean guys who dared cross the Pacific Ocean to reach American shores for the first time, two were rewarded with retail jobs in gift shops.

I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must be to cross the globe into a different culture, a different climate and then learn to count a different currency.

But Justin and his crew have done just that and in impressive fashion no less, reinforcing stereotypes of strong mathematical skills and loyal work ethic that are often associated with the Asian community.

They also figured out how to get out of Victor Hall much quicker than I did, convincing the Housing Dept. to placed four of them in a cabin. As one of company’s human resources managers noted, “They are very good negotiators.”

They are also very good friends and I am grateful to have met them. I only hope my future is half as bright as theirs.