September 24

What I Learned From Hiking the Grand Canyon

Last month, my husband, my father, my sister and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim.Starting from the North Rim, we took the North Kaibab Trail down and across the canyon floor, 14 miles to Phantom Ranch. We camped at the ranch, then took Bright Angel up the South Rim.

Over the past 15 years, my husband and I have hiked all over North America. We’ve hiked in Lake Louise, Canada; Yosemite, California; Yellowstone, Wyoming; Zion, Utah; Badlands, South Dakota; Smoky Mountains, Tennessee; and Nueva Vallarta, Mexico. We’ve hiked a lot, but we knew the Grand Canyon hike was going to be a big deal. I’m not sure we realized, however, how much we would learn from the experience.

Here are some of the lessons I took away from the trails:

Weather – We were all concerned about the weather. Hiking in August can be deadly with temperatures at the bottom sometimes reaching 115 degrees. We lucked out. On the way down, we had good cloud cover. The hottest we saw was 98, and that was brief. On the way up, we ran into Arizona’s monsoon season. It rained about 2/3 of our trip up Bright Angel, and the temperatures stayed in the 70’s. The weather saved us because I’m pretty sure my sister would not have made it out of the canyon if it had been in the 90’s. Which brings me to the next lesson I learned…

Training is everything – I started training in January. Minimum of 20 minutes daily on our elliptical machine. By July, I doing 30-35 minutes on an incline. I was frustrated because I didn’t lose much weight, but when we started coming out of that canyon, I realized what a difference that training had made. I had little problem coming up Bright Angel. My knees got wobbly toward the end, and I was very sore for about 24 hours, but everyone is. My poor sister somehow underestimated the Grand Canyon, however, and she did not train adequately. My husband, my dad and I spent the hike up berating, cajoling, comforting and bribing her up the trail. Thank God for the cool weather or we would have left her down there.

Trail conditions – My husband and I have been on dozens of trails. Some have been rough, some steep, some long, some treacherous. The Grand Canyon trails are all of the above and then some. We had never seen trails that were alternately wet mud, slippery rock, deep sand, high drop-offs, awkward steps the whole way. Twenty-two miles of every conceivable trail condition. Oh, and did I mention the mule poop?

Mules are the poopiest creatures in the animal kingdom – We saw them a couple of times. I was actually surprised at first sight because they look like horses, not burros or donkeys like you see on TV or in movie depictions of the Grand Canyon. They’re lovely to look at, but they poop all over the trails. And it was raining. Need I say more?

Shoes – I will never hike again in anything but Salomon hiking shoes. One of the tutors in the University Writing Center has hiked the Appalachian Trail, and when she learned I was hiking the canyon, she brought in her Salomons for me to try. I worked out in them for a few days and liked them. After hiking the canyon with them, I love them. Light, strong and waterproof, the shoes ensured my feet never gave me a problem. My poor husband wore trail-runners, and the soles were not thick enough to protect the bottoms of his feet from the rocky parts of the trail. My dad wore hiking boots; the wide ankle openings caught rain and sand the whole way up. My sister wore Reeboks which did not give her enough cushion for her knees. Salomons, forever!

Shorts – I may have gotten the shoes right, but I screwed up royally with the shorts. I wore my silky Reebox athletic shorts that I always work out in. I didn’t consider that I would be sweating, rained-on, and walking for hours and hours. My poor thighs were raw by the time we got out. Next time – long cargo shorts like my husband wore!

Wilderness still exists – There are still a few places on this planet where you can’t get a cell phone signal or an internet service provider; the Grand Canyon is one of them. In fact, snail mail is delivered by mule. We sent our kids a postcard from Phantom Ranch. Pretty cool.

Pacing is crucial – Forgetting to eat when you’re hiking in 90-degree heat is a very bad thing. We ate lunch and then didn’t eat until we reached Phantom Ranch. We kept thinking it was right around the corner, and we had dinner reservations, so it seemed stupid to eat. But by the time we got there, my blood sugar had bottomed out. I felt drunk. Not the happy drunk, but the room-is-spinning-I’m-gonna-throw-up drunk. Snacks are good.

The Canyon skews people’s sense of distance – When you’re going up at a 20-degree grade, and the trail is rough and doing long switchbacks, it is very hard to get a sense of distance. Throw in the fact that there are very few mile markers in the Grand Canyon, especially on North Kaibab, and it becomes problematic. Pacing yourself is difficult when you’re not sure if you have 2 miles or 4 miles to go. My sister and my dad ran out of water on the way down because of this. My husband and I neglected to eat. My sister became half-delirious on the way up. Some mile markers would be nice down there. I know the National Park Service has had their budget slashed, but how much would a couple signs cost?

Remarkable individuals – Speaking of the National Park Service, at the Pumping Station on North Kaibab, we met a young ranger named Silas Aiken. He was a remarkable person for several reasons. First, he was raised at the Pumping Station house. His father was an artist and had a contract with NPS. Silas grew up in the canyon; his parents would carry him up and down until he was three years old. Then he had to hike it himself. Second, he had actually met my father 13 years ago, the second time Dad hiked the canyon. My dad remembered his father, who is a well-known painter; Dad also remembered Silas because he had been handing out Gatorade to hikers back then. Now a ranger, Silas has a Facebook page even though he doesn’t have internet access most of the time.

Light pollution sucks – We see so few stars in the city. We camped at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. The night was clear, so we didn’t put our rain fly up. We fell asleep looking up at the entire Milky Way.

Phantom Ranch has great food – Of course, any food tastes fantastic when you’ve just finished hiking 14 miles in a desert canyon, but the salad was fresh and had every vegetable you can imagine. The beef stew was hearty and perfectly seasoned, and the chocolate cake was sinful. And for the first time since I was a little girl, I did not feel guilty about eating every bite of that dessert!

It’s a small world after all – At Phantom Ranch, we met a man from the east side of Indianapolis. His daughter still lives in Fishers, a suburb to the north of Indy. We also met a very nice couple from Chicago, and we talked with them about the Bears/Colts rivalry. We also told them about the White Sox/Yankees game we would be attending later that month. They were happy to hear we were Yankees fans rather than Sox fans. (They loved the Cubbies.)

Colorado River – The little green line you see at the bottom of the canyon when you’re standing on the rim? Yeah, that’s one big, bad river. It is wide, and it is wild.

My dad is my hero – My father is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. This was my father’s fourth time hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. You would never know it unless you asked him or one of his very proud daughters or wife told you. He has done some remarkable things. Quietly. He’ll be happy to tell you about it if you ask, but you could say, “Hey, we’re going to the Grand Canyon next week,” and my father would not take the opportunity to bring up his accomplishment. This was very likely his last time to do it, and he got even quieter than usual on the way up. I asked up if he was okay, and he admitted to being a little sad. “Probably the last time I’ll get to see this,” he said. He turned 70 about a week after he got home from Arizona, and he’d promised my mother he wouldn’t try it again because she worries too much. But the canyon is in his heart, and I couldn’t be prouder to be his daughter.

    Still, I don’t know if I will hike the canyon rim-to-rim again. Doing it once is something I’ll never forget, but it was hard. And yet, it seems a shame to waste all these good lessons… 

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June 19

Summer Reading Recommendations 2010


My husband chastised me the other day because my blog’s been idle for a while. I admit, I’ve been lax, but I do have some really good excuses if you’re interested! First, I’ve been in summer school hell. Like an idiot, I accepted a double assignment which means I’m teaching two classes covering 15 weeks’ material in 6 weeks. I’m a lesson planning-student-email-responding-paper-grading automaton! Second, the novel that has been gestating in my brain for the past 8 years has decided it’s time to be born. So in between my manic teaching work, I’ve been spending most of my writing time writing that. And finally, well, most of my blog stuff’s been focused on current events, and the oil spill in the Gulf has been dominating that spectrum for a while. The whole fiasco simply paralyzes me with disappointment and anxiety. I am so angry with BP, disappointed in our government’s response, devastated about the environmental impact, and grief-stricken for the people of that region, I don’t want to write more than these few lines about it. Soooooooo…

My guilt-ridden conscience thus temporarily cleared, I can move on to something kinda fun.

As an English teacher with a couple of degrees in literature, I am often asked for summer reading recommendations. Now if you were talking to me in person, I’d ask you several questions about your personal tastes before I would presume to recommend anything because the possibilities are really endless. Plus, I have some rather particular tastes in reading materials, especially the stuff I read in my free time.

Since you’re just reading this blog, though, I’ll list my personal favorites. Please bear in mind that I read some rather heavy stuff for my professional work, so in the summer, I tend to read fun, low-impact books. I love Dante, Shakespeare and Henry James, but I’m not going to recommend them for light reading on the beach. Please don’t hold the fluff in this list against me!

In no particular order:

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher: A memoir of Princess Leia’s life, growing up in a celebrity family. Painfully funny, it is particularly fascinating if you are remotely interested in Hollywood history. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it wasn’t three times as long.

Fool by Christopher Moore: A retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the fool’s perspective. I’ve been a Christopher Moore fan for years, but I was leery of his taking on my beloved bard, especially Lear, which is my favorite Shakespearean tragedy. Moore is irreverent, hilarious and dirty, so I had my doubts. I needn’t have worried; it is hilarious, and his love for this magnificent play is obvious just behind all the four-letter words and naughty bits.

Angels and Demons/ Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: Imaginative novels about Catholic conspiracies. If you’re one of the few Americans left who haven’t read these, pick ‘em up at your local library or used book store. They’re fun, fast-paced, and intriguing, especially Angels and Demons, which moves at a near-breakneck pace that keeps your nose in the book right until the rather farfetched end. I can’t recommend the third one because I haven’t read it yet. I refuse to shell out $30 for a hardback, so I’ll wait until it’s available at the library.

Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich: Series of mysteries about an unlikely bounty hunter in New Jersey. These are pure fluff, but I was hooked when my sister lent me the 9th book in the series, and I read the line: “Punky Balog had an ass like Winnie the Pooh…big and fat and furry.” That was the first page, and it just got funnier from there. They’re all filled with wild characters and improbable fumbles – the kind of stories I have to stop and read pieces aloud to my husband now and then.

Sex with Kings/Sex with the Queen by Eleanor Herman: A whirlwind tour of European history via royal bedrooms. I’m a sucker for European history, so I love Herman’s books. They’re not your high school history textbooks, for sure. All the juicy particulars of romance, passion, sex, and political intrigue are woven into real history to make it come alive in lurid detail – everything from tsarist Russia to Prince Charles and Princess Di.

Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie: Murder mystery with a twist before twists were cool. My mom has read every Christie novel. I’ve read about a dozen or so, and the Hercule Poirot stories are my favorites. This one is a classic. Think M. Night Shyamalan before his father was even a twinkle in his grandfather’s eye.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: The monster classic. I taught this to freshmen a few years back, and I was worried. The course was designed for non-majors, and I feared the 18th-century language and sensibilities might turn them off. I warned them to forget about watching any of the film adaptations and faking their way through discussions; this is nothing like what you think you know about Frankenstein. They loved it. It’s actually an easy read despite its age, and it is still fascinating and disturbing and thought-provoking.

Dracula by Bram Stoker: The other monster classic. Again, forget what you think you know. Even more so than Frankenstein, Dracula has been done some terrible disservice by Hollywood. Stoker’s novel is far richer in characters, plot and paranoia than any of the film adaptations. This novel is what I started to write my Master’s thesis on, so it’s a personal favorite. I’ve read it about 20 times. A couple scenes still give me chills!

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne: An adventure tale about an OCD British gentleman who makes an outrageous wager. If you ever watched “Frasier” with Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde-Pierce, you’ll recognize Phileas Fogg’s type – fastidious, exacting, particular, and over-educated. But you can’t help but fall in love with him as he battles his way around the 19th-century globe. I read this to my 8-year-old son, and we had a blast following Fogg’s travels.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold : Historical fiction about a magician in 1920’s San Francisco. I love historical fiction done well. This novel is full of surprises and keeps you guessing until the end. Supposedly, it was just picked up by Warner Brothers for a film adaptation. That’s been a rumor for a while, though, so don’t wait for the movie.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr: Historical fiction about a profiler in turn-of-the-century New York City. Sherlock Holmes does Jack the Ripper in the United States. Sort of. This book is dark and twisty with cameos by great historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt.

Alice In Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Classic children’s fantasies. Most people (including myself, obviously) label these as children’s books, but they are so deep and full of tricks and word plays children would never catch, I think it’s a shame to dismiss them or relegate them to a genre where adults who never read them as kids will feel foolish picking them up. They are amazing, and I find myself quoting them all the time: “If you do such a thing again, I’ll have you buttered!”

So there you go. I wish I hadn’t read any of these so I could read them all this summer for the first time. They are such fun to discover. If you’re fortunate enough not to have read some of them, I envy you.

Meanwhile, I shall trudge off into the unknown bookshelves, mining for gems. Happy reading!

July 22

So What’s YOUR Idea?

Alright, all you folks out there screaming “NO! NO! NO!” to the Obama administration’s healthcare plan, you’re entitled to your opinion. You don’t like his plan? Fine. Let’s hear yours.

Seriously. I’m listening.

Leave it as it is? That’s working for you, is it? How nice for you! Evidently, you’re just super-lucky and have never been very sick. Congratulations. Or maybe you and your family have amazing health insurance from some little company I’ve never heard of because I’ve worked for or had insurance with the four largest health insurance companies in the country, and let me tell ya, they didn’t work for me. I get to pay a lot of money for health insurance, and then when we get sick, they pay a little bit of the bill.

So those people who are very sick, those people who don’t have health insurance or those people who have crummy health insurance just have to suffer? Very nice. How Christian. How family-values. How Republican.

I’ll be very honest with you – Obama’s plan is not my ideal. It worries me, as does all change. Change is scary, but in this case, SOMETHING has to change. The status quo is not working, and when I hear people say, “Leave it alone. It’s fine,” I think, “Don’t be such a chicken. Let’s make a change. If it doesn’t work, we’ll change it again, but you’re a fool if you think America can’t improve.”

People say, “It’s going to cost too much.” Do you know how much the uninsured already cost us? Homeless people who walk into ER’s every other day? Uninsured people or underinsured people who never make payments?  Or consider the case of a friend of mine. As a hemophiliac, he contracted HIV/AIDS from a blood transfusion when that great Republican hero, Ronald Reagan, refused to act to protect the blood supply from the “gay disease.” (In his wisdom, Reagan chose the stick-my-fingers-in-my-ears-and-hum-loudly approach instead.) My friend was a teenager. His mother, like most mothers I know, could not bear to watch her son die, but his meds were astronomically expensive. Even if she’d been wealthy, she would’ve run out of money on them. So to keep her son alive, she took minimum-wage jobs and lived in poverty on purpose so she could qualify for Medicare. All you folks who think her son should’ve just been allowed to die, would you have done any differently? (Say “yes” and you’ll either be lying or admitting to being the worst parent ever, but feel free.) So we taxpayers paid for most of my friend’s medical bills, and you know what? As a Christian, not to mention his friend, that is okay with me.

Anyway, do you know how many BILLIONS of dollars the health insurance companies make every year? Why do we have to give these paper-pushing middlemen that money? Why couldn’t we just eliminate them and give the money directly to doctors, nurses, lab technicians, researchers and other people who actually DO something? The CEO of United Health Group made $1.6 billion dollars in 2006. That’s one CEO at one insurance company, and that’s disgusting.

The other big point the opposition brings up is somehow the Canadians’ fault. Evidently, Canadians have to wait in long lines for doctors and beg for treatment from their legislators. Of course, I have friends from Canada who have told me that is not true, but what do they know? So all the Republicans point to Canada and say, “Look how awful they have it up there!” Guess what? Canada’s not the only country in the world with universal healthcare. There are other models, better models. Sweden has government-funded health care, and it appears to be working very well. (Have you ever seen a Swedish person? They’re beautiful AND healthy!) Their system is universal, but very decentralized compared to Canada’s. Surely, if the Swedes can put together a universal healthcare system that works, we bright and industrious Americans can too!

The current American system is essentially Social Darwinism. I find it ironic that so many conservatives support it. They hate Darwin’s evolutionary theory; they hate it in school, but in healthcare, they’re all about “survival of the fittest.” If you don’t have the money, die. If you don’t have insurance, watch your kids die. Republicans will, however, fight to let you buy a semi-automatic to off yourself with if you don’t want to suffer a prolonged death. If you don’t have insurance and get pregnant, though, they still want you to have the baby. Good luck with that.

So we’re back where we started. Our healthcare system doesn’t work. It may have worked fifty years ago when people worked for one company all their lives, insurance was simpler, and medicine was more primitive. Nowadays, people change jobs all the time, insurance companies have come up with ingenious ways to make billions of dollars without really covering anything, and we have miraculous cures most patients can’t afford. President Obama wants to do SOMETHING.

You don’t like his plan? Fine. What’s YOUR idea?

Please. We’re all listening.

Category: Current Events, Family and Kids, Purely Political | Comments Off
March 29

Stuff that Keeps Me Sane

March has been rough for my family and circle of friends. Aside from the general malaise caused by the recession, we’ve been dealing with a lot of health problems. My diabetic godmother has been in the hospital for weeks, battling an infection in her foot. She had to have her big toe amputated, and they’re fighting to save the rest of her foot. My kids have been taking turns getting sick; my 3-year-old was actually hospitalized for dehydration after a couple days of nonstop vomiting. Lovely. One of my sister’s lifelong friends has a 3-month-old who had to have emergency open heart surgery. The baby’s doing alright now, but last week, her mother lost her job. Argh.

Needless to say, we’ll all be happy to see April arrive. In the meantime, though, I’ve been trying hard to look on the bright side, remembering things I love, and looking for new things to enjoy. Here is some of the stuff that has been keeping me sane through these bleak gray weeks. Maybe some of it will help you too!

  1. NCAA basketball – Thank God for March madness. Otherwise, we’d all go mad in March. We’ve gone from 70-degree weather to snow today. At least we can snuggle up and watch some great college ball!
  2. Chuck – I love this TV show! It has taken an intriguing turn in the last couple weeks, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow night’s episode.
  3. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – Stewart’s feud with that frenetic, financial freak Jim Cramer made for a nice distraction for a while.
  4. Japanese Hibachi Grill – I have been craving sushi and hibachi for a while. Last night, my hubby and I had our first night out in weeks, and he treated me to Japanese at a new place in Plainfield. It was expensive, but a very tasty treat.
  5. Guacamole – I gave up alcohol for Lent, so I haven’t been able to “taste the summer” with tropical drinks like margaritas and mojitos. Avocados are in season, though, so I’ve been able to get them cheap and make guacamole. Reminds me of sun, sand and surf in Puerto Vallarta!
  6. New flip-flops – cheap and colorful. I bought a whole bag of them from my Avon-lady aunt. The joy of new shoes and the promise of warm weather without the guilt-inducing expense.
  7. Hair color – I went red. It’s still too early to go blonde. Maybe in June.
  8. Old comedies – A lot of classic comedies have been popping up on various cable channels. I’ve enjoyed “Blazing Saddles,” “Trading Places,” “Paint Your Wagon,” “Some Like It Hot,” and “It Happened One Night.” Great flicks.
  9. Spring dresses – I’ve been collecting gift cards from Dress Barn since Christmas, and I ended up with over $200 after my birthday. They were having a nice sale last week, and I ended up with two. I still have $60 in gift cards!
  10. Alternative music – Between NBC’s Chuck soundtrack and my Facebook friends, I’ve discovered several great new songs from bands I’d never heard before: The Fratellis, The Eels, Asteroids Galaxy Tour, and Switches.
  11. Seedlings – In the rare moments when both kids were healthy, we started some tomato, pepper, and basil plants in little plastic cups in the kitchen window. They’re sprouting now. Something about the process is very wholesome and uplifting.

Here’s to April! I hope it’s better for all of us!

Category: Current Events, Family and Kids, Popular Culture | Comments Off
March 12

In the Waiting Room – Reading and Thinking Random Thoughts

I haven’t written anything for a while. Mostly, I’ve been reading and waiting. I read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.I really should have picked it years ago. I love Austen, and Northanger Abbey is a biting satire of Gothic literature which is my academic specialty. Every time I read Austen, though, I close the book in despair, knowing I will never be able to do what she does. She is amazing.  She creates characters you care about, and she does it with this nearly inexplicable combination of subtlety and obviousness. Her genius is enough to make any other writer hopeless.

The Austen book’s pretty short, and I finished it over last weekend, then switched gears completely. I picked up James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia at the Writing Center book exchange. It’s historical fiction which is a favorite genre of mine, and it’s set in post-WW II Hollywood. It’s horribly violent and bleak and crass, though. Kind of like Trainspotting set 40 years earlier. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was compelling.

Speaking of compelling discussions,  I watched Meghan McCain on Rachel Maddow last night. She seems like a lovely young lady who is smart enough to keep her mouth shut when she’s not educated on a subject. A rare and admirable quality in a Republican. Evidently, she’s writing for The Daily Beast now, and she’s gotten some rather nasty criticism from neocons who don’t like what she’s saying. She’s been condemning Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, so she obviously has good taste. Listening to her gives me hope that the next generation of Republicans will reject the politics of hate, paranoia and intolerance that has dominated their party in the last 15 years.

I’ve also recently discovered a new hero of sorts – a man named Frank Schaeffer.  He is the son of Francis Schaeffer, one of the architects of the Christian Right movement and one of the founders of Focus on the Family. But Frank’s faith led him down a very similar path to the one I’ve been following. He has now rejected most of the Republican platform. He writes for The Huffington Post, and is both pro-choice and pro-life. (No, they are not opposites!!! Yes, it is possible to be both!!!) I first heard him on NPR a few months ago, and I was really impressed and relieved to hear I am not alone. There are other liberal Christians out there who are finally feeling free to make themselves heard.

Speaking of faith and Christianity and all that, it’s Lent. Like an idiot, I gave up alcohol. I started regretting it less than 24 hours after Mardi Gras. Only 31 days left now. Argh.

And the days are interminably long now that stupid, stinking Daylight Savings Time is upon us again. This whole week has been awful, and DST is mostly to blame. It has my whole family’s sleep schedule off completely. It makes me anxious to see the sun still up at 8pm in MARCH! Heavens! By June 21st, the sun won’t go down until midnight. Do you know how hard it is to get kids to bed at a decent hour when it’s still light outside?!? I guess that doesn’t matter to the politicians and corporate bigwigs who pushed it through the State Legislature so they could get more golf time.

Speaking of kids, I’m worried about my son. He seems to be getting lost in the shuffle at school. He’s very bright, and he’s getting terrific grades. He never gets in trouble. But he complains about school all the time. He hates it. I don’t know what to do about it. My daughter loves school. I loved school. My husband, however, dropped out at age 16. Is it a boy thing? And if it is, what’s the problem? Are boys just bad at school? Or is school bad at boys? I have a feeling it might be the latter…

I’m also worried about my godmother. She’s in the hospital with an ulcerated foot, and she could lose it completely. She’s a morbidly obese diabetic who doesn’t take care of herself at all. I seem to see a lot of people lately who put themselves into painful, difficult situations because they consistently make terrible decisions. I try to be sympathetic, but I get so angry with them for being irresponsible and blind to the consequences of their own actions.

I am looking forward to our annual St. Pat’s party, though. It’s always great to see friends. I’ll be sober this year, so I can enjoy watching everyone else get un-sober!

And I’m looking forward to March Madness, even though my poor IU Hoosiers will not be playing in the post-season. I’ve still got my Butler Bulldogs! And I can always enjoy rooting against Duke and North Carolina. College basketball really is the best sport in the world.

So we’re waiting. Waiting for news about my son and my godmother. Waiting for St. Pat’s and the end of Lent. Waiting for the NCAA tourney to start. Waiting for summer and the end of Daylight Savings Time. I hate waiting when it’s stopping me from getting things done. If I had information, I could make plans. As it is, I feel like I’m in the waiting room of life’s doctor’s office. Very annoying.