Saturday, February 29, 2020
Thursday, February 13, 2020
Coming out of Kanab Creek Canyon, back from the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, even more spectacular than hiking down: light patches of rain when we thought we'd left behind all the lovely springs and running water behind, so that when we come on the beginning of a stream trickle, my hiking partner Rick and I look at each other a little wide-eyed. Flash flood?! We scurry up onto a sandy bank in the narrow rock walls and wait, but the trickle only ever becomes a small stream—there just isn't that much rain. Still, for a while, we scamper from high spot to high spot until reaching Indian Hollow (the side-side-canyons to the Grand Canyon are called 'hollows') one of the main tributaries into Kanab Creek, where all the water is streaming from. Beyond this, Kanab Creek lies dry again, showing (though we can't see them) just how isolated the rain patches up above are.
We take the next hollow, Kwagunt, as a maybe-short cut back up to the main trail instead of Sowats Hollow farther up-canyon where the official trail had taken us across the Mars-like Esplanade. Though it looks like a straight shot up, it itself is not a trail, but a 'route' (Canyon parlance for a way to get through) but it has been used by others, so we know it's possible, with maybe some boulder-hopping and scrambling, but that has been our whole trip, really. There is no 'path' down Kanab Creek—it too is a route—you simply follow the creek down to the Colorado, climbing over and under boulders, wading in the water, along the way.
What we hadn't counted on, or anticipated, or even dreamed of, is that the walls of Kwagunt Hollow would be streaming water from the rains. There is a stream in the bottom, too, yes, but also a multitude of little waterfalls on either side, pouring and spilling off and out of the smooth red rock walls, filling the whole side canyon with water music—a rare blessing from the Grand Canyon that most hikers will never see, or hear. Not even Rick, who has been exploring the canyon for decades, has ever experienced something like this.
Kwagunt does indeed prove to be a shortcut—we make it back up on the Esplanade, and to the main trail, much earlier than expected. Rick had planned to arrive, and camp, here in the evening. Instead, only early afternoon, the temptation to just keep going is too great, looking up at Sowats Point, where we'd car-camped the first night, just above us. We could be back to my truck at the trailhead by late afternoon, and driving out early next morning instead of afternoon.
I say temptation, but there's also a sense of...not fear, not quite dread, but...urgency, because of the rain, and because of the road out: On the seven miles of two-track in, we hit some sketchy mud holes that, though I did get through, or by, left us wondering what the road might be like if it rained. We'd checked the ten-day forecast—ours had been a seven-day hike, down and back—which said only that the week might be overcast. And, it had been, creating actually ideal hiking conditions: cloudy 70s most days, instead of what might have been the normal hot sunny May 90s. But what may just be overcast at the bottom, or even at the South Rim (at 5,000') can put the North rim (7,000+) right in the clouds. Thus, now, here, rain.
We had talked about this, and which of our vehicles to take—Rick's old not-so-reliable 4-wheel-drive SUV, or my newer, relatively recently-purchased 2-wheel-drive Tacoma pickup. Rick had called a couple of the backcountry rangers at Grand Canyon National Park and asked about the road and drivability, and weather, and the rangers too had thought the weather would be clear, and that the road would be ok. One (who shall remain nameless) even claimed to have the same exact truck as I, and said that he 'would have no compunction about driving it out there.' All that in mind, and also because Rick had driven our last two Grand Canyon trips, and also because I just like to drive, and wanted to have an adventure with my new truck, and despite a little bit of rain falling at the North Rim just before our arrival, I took on the driving chores. I'm familiar with Forest Service roads (this part of the Canyon is under jurisdiction of the Kaibab National Forest) having driven them for decades, for work and play. Still, I've always had 4-wheel drive trucks before—this new truck was bought in a hurry before leaving for a fire lookout job the previous summer after a blissful vehicle-free two years in Portland. I enjoy the better mileage of a 2-wheel-drive, and it has a camper shell in which to carry my worldly belongings, and sleep in the rain, which I will do later that night. Most importantly, I did invest in a set of BF Goodrich All Terrain tires, which have always served me well. I wanted something to give me a little off-road accessibility.
We just don't know how much rain had actually fallen on top of the Rim and along the road, but when we get back out to Sowats Point for the night, where Rick can get cell coverage, the weather forecast, now, is for even more, and heavier, rain in the next two days. That means, really, that we have to get out tomorrow morning (it's dark by the time we really hash this out) otherwise those seven miles will be impassible—we'd have to wait not just two days, but longer for the road to dry out.
The risk, of course, is that the road is already bad, worse than when we'd come in, and I could very well end up stuck somewhere on it, in which case we'd have to either hike back out to the Point (to access cell service) and call for a tow truck (from Kanab probably, 70 miles away), and/or hike in and hope to catch a ride (in the rain) along the 25 miles of more maintained FS roads and then get a tow truck. But who knows if even a tow truck itself would, or could, make it out on that road and be able to pull out mine? Though waiting out the rain would be rough. We have maybe a day's worth of water, and not a lot of food left. Plus, life. Plans. Neither of us was planning on an extra two to four days! I'm not even sure my bank account could cover that many days of hotels and restaurant meals. It's kind of a now-or-never situation.
One thing we hope is that the air will cool overnight and harden the ground—ideally freeze it—so we plan to leave at first light. But laying there that night, listening to the (occasional)(and light)(but still) rain on my camper shell, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach—visions of being buried up to the axles in mud. And in the morning, the air is cold, but not that cold. Certainly not freezing.We quickly rehash the plusses and minuses. I'd like to think that there is no sense of machismo on my part at this point—I am not looking forward to the drive.
The first mile or so is ok—the road wet, though with gravel giving us traction—but as we gain a little elevation, the rock type changes and we lose the loose chunky gravel, the road becoming dirt. That is, mud. The road basically follows a spur ridge out from the real rim, dipping into plateau areas, where the water has no place to drain, so gathers in puddles. Big puddles. At the first one, down from the bottom of a little rise, I tell Rick, 'Hold on,' and gun it. This, to me, is the key: driving through fast so I don't have time to sink down. To get momentum. And instead of going right through the middle, I aim for the right edge of the road, as far as I can without hitting the shrubs that line it, so as to at least have half the truck up on drier dirt, some kind of non-mud tractionable area allowing one tire powered by the engine up in anything non-muddy.
We sploosh through‚ Rick bracing himself on the dash and door, dirtwater spraying up on the windshield. But success! We made it! We both give a little cheer. Suddenly, escape seems possible: There had only been three, maybe four, mud holes on the way in. If they are no worse than this, then my 'gun it' formula will probably work.
Instead, what has happened—and there has to have been even more rain up at the higher elevations—is that the mud holes have multiplied. No, not just multiplied: the whole six miles left have essentially become on big mud bog.
I gun through the next hole, and the next, keeping at least one half of the truck up on either the left or right shoulder, whichever seem drier and/or higher—which sometimes doesn't seem much with all the shrubbery. I fear driving right into them blind because of hidden big rocks or tree stumps, something that might really wreck the truck. Like permanently. And expensively.
We reach a mud hole about three truck-lengths long, so that I need not just momentum, but to be able to maintain. My rpms revved to 5,000 and beyond, I keep her in first gear and we plow through, starting on the left, but the mud seems to be getting deeper, so I frantically swerve to the right, all four tires in the mud, the truck swerving sideways. Fortunately my years of driving in snow in Michigan have prepared me: I turn tires against the swerve‚ swinging us back left, fishtailing completely in the other direction. Again, turn against it, knowing if we swerve beyond 90 degrees we lose forward momentum completely. We don't. I manage to fishtail us back and forth, one foot pressing the gas pedal to the floor, the other riding the brake, gradually straightening out and getting us up over on the right shoulder with the right tires into the bushes, allowing us to scuddle up onto a more relatively dry high spot in the road.
I stop, and we stare at the next mud hole, just as long as the last. We can't go back, and can't just stop here. That would put back in the same dilemma as before: 2-4 days of waiting, including walking in the cold rain with no cell service.
My hands grip the wheel. “We have to keep going.”
“I know,” says Rick.
But, well, if that is as bad as things get....
They get worse. The same thing happens: we fishtail, mud splorshing up, completely covering the windshield. Rick reaches over and for a crazy quarter-second I think he thinks I've gone too far and is trying to grab control of the wheel—which I do not blame him for—but he's only turning on the wipers so I can keep both hands steering and be able to actually see where we're going. This whole time he has kept up a continuous calm encouragement. 'That's it. You got it. You're doing good,' when anyone else might have been saying, 'Stop! Stop!'
As for myself, never have I been more in the moment, more focused, hands clenched to the wheel, leaning forward, amped on adrenaline. Though 'amped' implies fun. This is not fun. It isn't quite fear—we aren't going to die—I'm just aware—or self-delusioned into thinking I'm aware—that at any moment we could hit something, anything, a rock, a tree, that would stop us, and if we stop, we're done. No restart. Game over man.
And the mud just does not end—miles of it. We arrive at a hole that looks impossibly deep—it could swallow us—a fricking pond. A small two-track loops around to the left, developed obviously from other vehicles avoiding that same spot. I take it, only to realize that the half-loop looks almost as bad. In a quarter-second, looking at the relatively clear field between the two ponds, I decide I have nothing to lose and aim for the green: totally off-road, into bushes and grass. I can't see under them, though nothing big is sticking out, but is the foliage even enough to keep us above water?
We crash through, leaves and branches whipping the windows. The truck bumps and pops and hops and then we're back on the road.
That turns out to be the worst part. There are more mud holes, which, yes, we could have just as easily bog down in, but they're only as bad as the ones we started with, so nothing. We've gained enough elevation that any water seems now to be draining away. Finally, our muddy two-track spills into a bigger, graded road.
I stop, pull the emergency brake, and pop her out of gear, leaving the engine running, in case she's so broke that turning her off would mean turning her off forever. We both just stare out the muddy window at the now ponderosa forest. I take a deep breath, heart still jackhammering, body so tense that if I weren't mushed into the seat and gripping the wheel, I might tense up into a ball. I turn to Rick. We smile, weakly. He still looks as scared as I felt. I try to smile. “Well, we made it.”
And Rick, who had read and written about the Grand Canyon all his life, who had even edited an anthology of Grand Canyon essays, says, “John, this story is going to go into the lore. I don't think I could have driven that road in my four wheel drive.”
I get out to inspect, fully expecting a flat tire, or two, a cracked fuel tank, a bent axle—anything—everything—that would put us out of action and still in need of a tow. But nada. Given, she's covered in mud, so I can't see the expected 'Arizona pin-stripes' galore. But, no gouges in the doors, no trees impaled in the camper shell. Ok, one headlight doesn't work. And, yeah, the running lights are, like, gone. But I'll take it. But when I get back in and put her in gear, she squeaks at low speed, but she moves.
After that, the graded road, though it too muddy and previously would have been labeled sketchy, is cake. I gradually relax, a little, just enough to sort-of enjoy (again, another rare blessing) the now snow-covered forest. And the time is only 7:30 in the morning.
I turn to Rick and shrug. “Want to get breakfast at Kaibab Lodge?”
He smiles. “That's exactly what I was thinking.”
Sunday, February 2, 2020
My essay " Pacific Blues" appeared in ENTROPY in January 2020. Part of their "The Waters" series. It went on to make the Notable Essays and Creative Nonfiction of 2020 in the Best American Essays 2021!!!!! ENTROPY is no longer with us. Please enjoy here:
Escaping end of December city madness on the day that is about anything but christ sitting in a bargain off-season deal of a hotel room with a view viewing waves on the beach in the rain and the slow low continuous rumble of the Earth breathing and watching how raindrops absorb like nothing back into the sea as we will be and as we are like waves rising out of nothing and thinking and feeling we're separate from nothing until we fall back into that brief moment—a lifetime—of life which isn't to say the ocean doesn't change doesn't get changed by us and die a little—water acidity up from CO2 emissions and fish life levels down from overfishing (especially Japanese and Taiwanese dragnets) and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch now visible from orbit which is why we need Aquaman even though DC just cut him, not to fight sea monsters from the depths with big teeth but to fight us fight us fight us but yes beautiful grey waves.
Thelonius Monk jamming out of the Cloud onto my computer and out its speakers into my chilly room because I left the balcony door open all night to listen to the waves and rain and wind and a person could go dumb out here listening to the ROARSH—just sit down to listen and watch and never get back up—why would you want to? Why do anything? Else? Except you'd get thirsty eventually I guess though the locals don't seem to feel that way they just complain about holding down two jobs to live out here with all the rich people buying up property and putting up trophy homes but yet last night I hung out at a bar on taco night and open mic jam with guys shooting pool and others gambling the slots and some of us made music and some danced and some smoked weed outside and we all drank and we all had a fuck-yeah great time way more fun than the rich people watching tv and I walked back to my hotel room in the rain in the Earth's breathing and was happy, happier than I've been in a long while and yes Monk's Blues starting—chromatic happiness that is still the blues as all happiness contains and needs the blues to be.
Holed up in my hotel room this rainy grey day I'm not sure I really want to go anywhere else with these waves outside my balcony door because really—once you get out to the Oregon coast anywhere is beautiful—drive south a 100 miles it's still waves on the rocks or cold sand beach to walk barefoot on bundled from the knees up looking for whales or seals or otters or a great white tiburón though I may drive down the 101 a bit and explore Wilderness areas I saw on the map or stay in bed and read Richard Ford or Tony Hoagland or F. Scott Fitzgerald and listen to Thelonius Monk mixed blue with the grey rain and surf, seagulls swooping by and maybe get on the internet and check job openings at community colleges I've seen on my drive down thinking about what living here would be like away from Powell's bookstore and women in black tights when I could run on the beach every day if not hypnotized by the SOOSH-breathing sea and the drum solo of this extended version just finished and the horns come back in with the melody and applause because this is live and if you listened—it was quiet—there was a bass solo lower than the ocean's blues.
I came out here to vanish and absorb the ocean blues and greys and Neruda's white espuma-froth which you could say I could've stayed in Portland and holed myself up (or down) in my basement burrow in this rain there too but I have this view and this sound—the roar—this rush and this haze in the distance (which I probably always have but can see here where the ocean and sky blur—the fog which entered my room last night and the salt smell blue and a flock of seagulls which makes me think of the band which makes me think of Samuel L. Jackson: “This is a tasty burger” so I'm a long ways from the coast in my mind but now I'm back with another quiet bass solo and a determination to at least think about leaving my hotel room and I was going to say something about my white privilege in being able to drive out here and stay in a hotel with a view but it's off-season and I'm in debt on my truck and unemployed and have about 3,000 in my credit union in which case you'd think I was an idiot wasting my money and I am an idiot though maybe not for that reason maybe just for thinking life is anything but blue and grey and the music has stopped.
Reading Tony Hoagland with hail outside. The ocean stays the same—waves and foam and hail to heavy rain when there was clear sky before—enough to make me think of leaving my cave for the afternoon but now a hot bath and a nap seem more in order here at the edge of disorder on the coast—though which side is the disorder blues? Or is there no edge—no either/or—but and/both? Hammering of hail on windows a wake up reminder—a zen bell without all the bullshit oryoki and overly niceness and no whales this time of year I guess not even any ships though I saw lights last night and fog in the room is cold and colder but I have jazz and blues and poetry and earplugs in case of noisy neighbors and maybe I won't drive down the coast this afternoon, everything is just so grey and blue with rain threads way out at the horizon which I can now see is a horizon and Thelonius Monk with Art Blakey on “In Walked Bud”—trumpet and sax singing together and cheese and crackers for lunch along with OJ and some more warm moroccan mint tea from the front desk—I'll get my money's worth in just free hotel tea though wish I had a woman in sexy panties for maybe an hour then she could go back to her room and read and take a warm bath too and maybe if we really liked each other we could walk downtown and have dinner like real people do together.
Head south out of Newport a half hour and forest comes right out to sea with Dr. Suess-ish pines and ferns leaning away from wind and foam flying up in wind-crashing waves and explore paths and hemlock and giant spruce in a wind storm with trees falling in the forest and be there to hear them and streams and rivers pouring out of mountains of Cape Perpetua and go down to water to baptize your feet at that edge where fresh flows into salt and ducks and gulls float nearby waiting for fish—sun will come out for moments and rain will pour moments and hail will return and sun and more rain driving back north late afternoon an almost sunset with angel rays on the horizon and they're gone and you're back in Newport driving by fishing boats in harbor because people still do that, still fish though maybe not exactly now end o' december and still no whales neither greys nor blues but sea lions hanging out waiting for scraps and maybe because they like us and think we're funny because we don't kill them anymore and it's christmas eve what're we gonna do for dinner? (as if I had a we—a hot bébé to snuggle with) Quick call pizza delivery before seven! Have a hot shower for nothing for the pleasure. Yes and I'll take a bath tonight too!
Coltrane's saxophone in the rain and surf sipping moroccan mint and stuffed on pizza—more people checking into from California and Nevada—young childless couples who can afford to escape x-mas and the poor woman working the front desk tonight just like any other night even though that's what we want, for this to be any other night in America and the world in the wind and rain and saxophone squeaks and yeah man reading books on paper listening to digital cloud music I don't miss anybody and wish my life could be this—travel and anonymous hotels and writing and reading and kickass open mics in small towns and doing readings and attending conferences and comicons and just on the move, talking with other writers/artists/musicians with a car that never breaks down and four wheel drive for the (oh yeah, that too) camping and backpacking and swinging by cities where friends live to visit and to have lots of friends would be nice in this fantasy and to know what to write and what about and for people to care and saxophone always in the background with drums to drown out anything I don't want to hear but not too loud because those waves are forever foaming my brain—wind whistling through room cracks and yet I live in a city thinking that'll give me a social life when all it really offers is yoga classes and a zen temple to sit two days a week which I have no desire or need to do tonight with these waves and that wind and that rain and My Favorite Things, which are women's underwear and hosiery on or off them or me and green tea and books of critical (though readable) essays on poetry and a pen and a notebook and grey hoodies and moccasins and bare feet in the sand and wind and rain and waves and the sounds of those things and wool socks on a cold camping night and pizza with crushed red pepper packets and tough Carhardt coats and saxophones and trumpets harmonizing and bass solos and heavy metal drums and feedback and the moon and ten thousand stars and good poems you return to all your life and friends that want to talk about literature and philosophy but also sex and movies and the Grand Canyon and the Oregon Coast and Lake Superior and all the women with nice asses I've ever stared at and the high desert sage and road trips and four-wheel-drive trucks and bicycles and not having a car until I need one to go on a road trip and old-fashioned movie theatres where you stare up at the screen like a religious experience because it is.
Or drive south down the 101 on xmas day and hike up to the Giant Spruce tree 40 feet around and 550 years old and looks it—small sign saying how Indians used to camp a half mile west but that CCC crews built a path out here back in the 30s and while it's good to know some white men back then valued a tree enough to build a trail to it they were only really building on an old Indian trail and the sign says nothing about why—say—Indians don't camp here anymore which is because white men killed them off but let us—like good christians everywhere—not think about that and instead climb up to Cape Perpetua for the view though everyone else—all the other tourists—just drove their cars but fuck it we're better than them ain't we? And hike back down to shore rocks and Devil's Churn which sounds better than it is though still nice with huge waves smacking rocks and foam spraying in our faces and the sun comes out and everybody's ok and the rain comes and everything is still ok and I'm cold and sweaty and can see for miles to the horizon just like back at Aztec Tower a little with rain patches way out and what else besides Charles Mingus in the Cloud getting crazy and no seals or sea lions or otters or sharks or whales, just humans—you can't escape them really though everyone today has been nice and just said good morning. None of us mentions christmas which is nice like a regular day.
And anyways Pacific Blues was a bluejeans company or should have been so maybe these are the Pacific Greys but after a really actually awful chinese dinner at the only place in town open and una tradición mía from long back when I got along with my mother I take a rainy night barefoot walk on the beach, the only person out here which happens a lot to me and which I like—moon sliver showing through clouds, two light ships way out on the water which I understand and if I had money enough to own a boat I'd be there too but that's never gonna happen I don't even own a house—the truck via credit union loan because I keep thinking something will happen, somebody'll notice me and my raging talent and say hey would you like to write for Aquaman? And I'll say hell yes can I make him an environmental activist? Like a radical one that sinks whaling ships? And there will be a silent crackling over the phone and they'll say thanks anyway we'll call you and the hotel where I'm staying is called The Whaler and I'd just end up like Charles Olson living here—crazy guy walking on the beach every day and writing stuff nobody reads except you this now.
Rocky beach in fog cloud, hazy sun dark pebbles and thick sand. White weather-worn logs washed up at tree line. Bare soles on stones and sand. Eagle turns white head and regards me from a tree, his mate in nest tearing strips of flesh off dead critter to feed her baby. Black birds floating out in waves getting dunked but not seeming to mind—pieces of floating wet dark driftwood. One long black shape swimming disappearing. Coyote appears trotting north, stops and looks back. Rattling stones. Boulders rising out of water. Waves smack spumes. Trees fallen from shore, roots pulled right out of ground, leaning over water, old buoys hanging from branches. Rope lengths knotted in sand. One lone gull and two crows digging worms. Tiny spring dribbling out of cliff, small pool, enough to put my face to and lap from like a cat.
Rolling fog losing sun. Cooling breeze keeping mosquitoes at bay. Staring out at the water. Listening.