August 31, 2005


In the summer, I try to cut myself off from the world of politics, from newspapers and television, from events happening outside my home. It's a well-needed break for someone like me who tends to react with emotion to all the tragedy in the world. Summer, I've always thought, is a necessary time for rest and relaxation and rejuvenation. Time to connect with the landscape, time for reflection.

Fourteen days in the canyon gave me a chance to forget about all that was happening in the world: the war in Iraq, the Bush administration's continued assault on the environment, and the endless ways in which sexism, racism, and homophobia continue to dominate the culture we live in. Well, maybe I didn't completely forget about these things, but it was wonderful to spend days just hiking, rafting, and absorbing all the beauty around me. Isolated as we were, we had no way of knowing what was going on in the country or the world, no way of seeing beyond the breath-takingly beautiful landscape we were travelling through. For two weeks, I lived in a community of fifteen like-minded people, many of us wanting a break from the politics that make us angry.

It is difficult now to read about the devastation in New Orleans, to surf blogs and read about what is going on in the country. One of my favorite students from last semester, who was commissioned the day after graduation, has been training all summer and gets shipped to Iraq this week. Tonight I watched television again, the local news, to see the story about a local boy, a young man who went to high school with my niece, who was killed yesterday in Iraq. He was 23 years old. I am trying desperately to keep the peace of the canyon inside me as I listen.

Morning shower

Before each hike in the hot dry Arizona air, I would lie down in the silty brown river to get my hair and clothes sopping wet. The icy cold water always felt great. Even so, after just a few minutes of hiking, I'd be hot and dry again. "This is just like hiking through a pizza oven," one of the other hikers commented.

Sometimes the canyons were dry and curving, with little stones that crunched under our feet. Non-fiction Writer sometimes brought his flute and would sit on a rock playing, the music echoing throughout the canyon. But often in a side canyon, we were following a creek and the sound of rushing water. I've lost track of how many beautiful waterfalls we saw. I don't have photos of many of them because I found it was hard to bring a camera on hikes that required me to swim through pools and scramble up rocks that looked like water slides.

I love the language of a waterfall, all that churning and tumbling, but on this trip I especially grew to appreciate what it feels like to plunge my hot tired body into all that tumbling clear water.

Note: I'm in this photo. Can anyone guess which one I am?

August 30, 2005

Sleeping in the canyon

Day after day, we travelled on a river that flowed between steep canyon walls, the rafts rushing past rock over a billion years old. Near bends in the river, the churning water deposits huge piles of silt, forming beaches that make great camping spots.

Late afternoon, we'd pull into a beach, often looking to tamarisk or mesquite or the canyon walls for shade. The boatmen would begin unstrapping the dry bags, and we'd get in a line to pass the black rubber bags from person to person, piling them up on the shore.

After the first few nights, I realized that a tent was superfluous in a climate where it rarely rained, on beaches where mosquitoes did not seem to exist. Setting up camp meant tossing my white sleeping pad onto the sand and dumping my bags next to it. One of the black bags in this photo holds my sleeping bag, and the other holds everything else: clothes, journal, hiking boots. The orange life jacket became the most important part of my gear, its value more apparent with each rapid we went through. I was careful to clip it to the raft whenever I got off, and I used it as a pillow at night.

We did have a few thunderstorms. One night I woke to the sound of rattling tent poles as people around me rushed around to put up their tents. I pulled the small tarp out of my dry bag, spread it over me, and listened to the amazing sound of thunder echoing in the canyon. The day time thunder storms were spectacular: the clouds moving fast over the canyon walls, the misty look of rain moving toward us as we rafted, and the waterfalls that would sometimes appear on the cliffs.

I loved sleeping outside, waking to look at the stars, or the moon, or streaks of lightning above black cliffs. Just a few nights ago, I woke to the feel of fur brushing past my face. A ringtail cat, I thought eagerly. I sat up quickly, straining my near-sighted eyes to see the creature. Moonlight was shining from the right, and I could see dark ledges to my left. But the cat came back to rub against me, and suddenly the scene came into focus. The ledges were bookshelves, high on my bedroom wall, and the moon shone in my bedroom window. How strange to wake up and realize that I was no longer in the canyon but home in my own bed.

August 29, 2005

Drinking prickly pear juice

 Of all the plants we saw during our hikes, the prickly pear cactus was one of my favorites. Often, the cacti were covered with bright-coloured fruit, which Storyteller Boatman picked and made into prickly pear margaritas. The juice was a beautiful bright colour, although a bit bland in taste.

The colorful margaritas added a touch of class to our nightly gatherings. Every evening, our small group would gather on the beach, to tell stories or read poetry. Sitting on the sand, we would examine our legs and feet for new bruises, new blisters, and the dreaded trench foot fungus. Non-fiction Writer would read dramatic excerpts from one of his books. We listened eagerly.

Sometimes Storyteller Boatman would tell funny boatman stories or play his guitar. A natural storyteller, he has done this trip almost 200 times over the last 20 years, so he had no end of great stories to tell. Before each of the big rapids, he would tell stories about famous people who had died in the rapid, heightening the anticipation of all that churning water. The poems he recited tended to be kind of macho – women and horses seemed to be a common theme -- so I responded one night with a feminist poem, just to give the gathering some balance. As it grew dark, we would all gradually stretch out on the sand, and Storyteller Boatman would point out constellations in the night sky.

August 28, 2005

Hiking the side canyons

Several times each day, we would stop to hike up a side canyon. What is amazing is that each side canyon was different. Some were huge, big enough to hold whole fields of prickly pear cacti. Others were so narrow that we had to scramble up the rocks in single file. All were intimidating in terms of depth, making us humans feel very small and humble.

Often we were following streams of clear, rushing water. And we would be rewarded by waterfalls that we could climb up or big pools of water to swim in. The hot dry air of Arizona made me willing to plunge into water at any opportunity I could. One side canyon had a waterfall that flowed down over curving red rocks. You could climb into a cave, make your way up some boulders back behind the rushing water, come out onto a ledge halfway up the waterfall, and then leap into the pool below.

Floating along

We went through hundreds of rapids, with all of our belongings tightly wrapped in rubber bags and strapped to the boat, but we also spent many hours moving leisurely along on calmer water, listening for the canyon wren, admiring the spectacular scenery. The colour and shape and type of rock was always changing.

From the raft, we admired side canyons and caves and waterfalls, cacti of all sorts, bighorn sheep, and great blue heron. I was surprised at first at how small the great blue herons were.

"How come the great blue herons are so small here?" I asked the boatman.

He laughed at me. "The birds aren't small. The canyon is big."

Going down the Colorado River

We travelled by day in seventeen-foot rafts, with all of our gear wrapped in black rubber bags and lashed them to the rafts. Each raft had a boatman who sat in the middle and steered with a set of oars. The passengers, two in the front and two in the back, bailed the raft after each rapid.

We had four rafts in our group altogether, and we kept in sight of each other, always waiting after a rapid to see if the other rafts made it through, watching to see if we need to pick up any passengers who had been tossed into the churning water.

August 27, 2005

Off the river

I just returned from a really wonderful two weeks on the Colorado River. We hiked side canyons, gazed at ancient cave paintings, plunged into waterfalls, and slept under the stars on beaches of silt. By 7 am each morning, we were on the river, letting the current pull us along. We travelled through the entire Grand Canyon, running hundreds of rapids and stopping a couple times a day to explore the amazing landscape.

It's easy to see how people fall in love with the Colorado River. During stretches of flat weather, we drifted along lazily in the hot sun, listening to the rhythmic sound of the oars and the occasional pleading call of the canyon wren. During the rapids, I hung onto the raft, one hand in the boat and the other out, clinging tightly as we rode up and down waves higher than my head, with icy cold water sloshing over me until I was soaked and knee deep in muddy water.

The canyon does seem to go on forever. For fourteen days, and over 200 miles, we followed the river, always moving downstream, with cliffs of rock towering over us on either side. Every side canyon is different: some wide enough to hold acres and acres of land, filled with prickly pear cacti, mesguite and tamarisk, while others were so narrow I could touch the wall on either side as we scrambled up waterfalls and swam through pools to make our way upward.

By the end of the trip, it seemed natural stare up at the stars as I fell asleep and to wake to the sight of those tall cliffs of rock. It will seem strange tonight to sleep in a bed, inside a house, with the whole sky on the other side of glass.

August 10, 2005

River trip

Four years ago, I went to Arizona for an academic conference, a trip that included a day-long raft trip on the Colorado River just below Glen Canyon Dam. I felt overwhelmed by the landscape, the stark beauty of the cliffs. The raft trip ended at Lee's Ferry, and it was hard to get out of the raft, board the bus, and go back to my hotel. I wanted to keep going, raft all the way down through the Grand Canyon.

All kinds of complex things were going on in my emotional life at that time, and that raft trip was a catalyst for growth and change. The next four years brought challenges and rewards: My sister-in-law died of breast cancer. My brother started talking to me after eight years of silence. My first collection of poetry was published. I worked through some major issues in my marriage. I learned reiki. I began to be more assertive about making time for the important friendships in my life, including a friendship with ArtistFriend, whom I met on that trip to Arizona. I became vegan. I took up skiing to help ward off the February blues. I bought a CD for myself for the first time ever. My daughter graduated from high school and went to college. I began being more assertive in my marriage. I got tenure. I sorted through some childhood issues. I learned to take time for myself, away from my husband and kids. I began belly dancing.

Tomorrow I am returning to that landscape, to Lee's Ferry, the place where our trip ended four years ago. I'm going to continue the journey. For the next two weeks, I will be on a raft moving down the Colorado River, running the 280 miles from Lee's Ferry to Lake Mead, rafting through the Grand Canyon.

For sixteen days, I will be out of contact with my spouse, my kids, my extra kids, my extended family, my friends. I will have my journal, and the river, and the walls of the canyon rising around me.

August 08, 2005

Return to Wrigley

I had been to a Cubs' game before. My husband, you will recall, is such a fan that he once almost stopped speaking to my little sister after she did a freelance assignment for a FamousGuideBook and described Wrigley Field as the place where "the Cubs were always losing." Trips to Chicago have entered into marital negotiations on many occasions. My most vivid memory of Wrigley Field includes sitting in the blazing sun on scorching hot bleachers while nursing a squirming baby, trying to corral an active toddler, entertaining a couple of bored little kids, and wishing I had the strength to slap a husband who kept saying, plaintively, "How come you aren't watching the game?" The bleacher seats at Wrigley are indeed bleachers, which means no armrests for a nursing mother. And every time anyone hit a ball towards us, I would fear for my life in the crazy melee of drunken men scrambling for the ball. Yes, I admired their determination to grab any ball hit by the opposing team and toss it scornfully back, but I did worry that one of my small children might get crushed in the fray.

This visit to Wrigley Field was much easier. My kids are old enough to either watch the game or read books during slow innings. And thanks to a friend at the Tribune, we had seats just behind third base. Well, actually, that is where I thought our seats were. That is what I told the nice man in the red jacket who was trying to help me find my seat again after I went to the restroom during the fifth inning and got lost. Did you know that the way the restrooms at Wrigley Field are designed you go in one entrance and come out somewhere totally different? And it is important, if you leave your seat during a game to carry your ticket stub with you or at least remember where you were sitting, which in my case turned out to be right near first base. Because saying to one of those nice people in red jackets, "I am sitting near my husband. He's the one in the Cubs' t-shirt" does not get you very far.

It had been twenty years since my very first visit to Wrigley Field, and I did notice all kinds of changes. Maybe it's just because we were in the Tribune seats instead of on the bleachers, but the fans seemed quieter, better dressed. Less rowdy. A big disappointment. Some of them were drinking bottled spring water instead of beer. What is up with that? Fans do still watch from the rooftops of buildings, but it looks like many landlords have installed stadium seating and I suspect that they are charging money for the seats. So the famous free seats are no longer free. And some of the fans were talking on cell phones. During the game! Do they have no respect for the game? Fans still sing during the seventh inning stretch, but Harry Carey is dead. The ivy is still on the brick walls of the outfield, but there are lights now. Lights in Wrigley Field! No respect for tradition at all.

But the most shocking change of all came in the ninth inning when the Chicago Cubs, the underdogs, the perennial losers, actually won the game. Now that was just wrong.

August 07, 2005

Sticking to the trail

Back at the beginning of March, I wrote a post about a former student who had just sent me an email from Atlanta, where she was beginning her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Five months later, and Smiling Student is still hiking. She's gone 1634 miles, hiking up and down and though the mountains of the east coast. She's in New England now, on schedule to finish the trail in September.

Her emails have been terrific. She's described some of the gorgeous woods she's hiked through as well as the bleakness of a barren stretch of mountain that is a Super Fund site, a place stripped bare for mining. Her observations about other hikers are often funny. ("We met up with this group of guys and -- Holy Testosterone!") She's described the wonderful community of hikers she's met, with many cases of strangers taking care of each other. She's earned a trail name that is so similar to the Pseudonym I gave her that it made me laugh.

When I think of all that has gone on in my own life since the beginning of March, I marvel that she has spend every single day hiking, taking one step at a time, focused on that goal of hiking that trail. Reading her emails, following her journey, has provided a narrative that is in keeping with the blogs I read.

So many of my blogging friends are also on journeys, focused on particular goals. Some are working to finish dissertations or book projects. Some are searching for jobs. Others are consciously taking spiritual journeys that include both painful introspection and a commitment to reach out to others. Many are working through relationship issues and resurfacing old childhood issues, doing the hard work of going to therapy or twelve-step programs. Many are working to change the culture we live in, fighting sexism or homophobia. Some are busy trying to raise children to be kind, compassionate adults.

I think it's one of the things I like most about blogging. I like reading the daily struggles of people who are working to meet their own goals. I admire the strength and resiliency that I see on blogs every single day. It's comforting to know that we all have to face these big tasks - whether it's raising a child, writing a dissertation, or changing the world - in the same way. One step at a time, one day at a time. Just sticking to the trail. And keeping at it until we are done.

August 06, 2005

Talk of beetles

It happens every August.

I was sitting peacefully at our campsite, in complete vacation mode, not thinking about school at all. I love summer, the way I can take a break from my teaching. And I usually take a break from politics as well. I try not to read the newspaper on vacation. I need the break.

Then a young woman, wearing a t-shirt that identified her as an intern, approached our site with pamphlets about the emerald ash borer, a non-native, wood-boring beetle that kills ash trees. Campers can spread the beetle accidentally by bringing firewood from home.

She described the beetle in detail, answered all my questions, talked dramatically about the problems of non-native infestations. I told her about my experiences with gypsy moth caterpillars and purple loosestrife. We chatted for a while about all kinds of stuff, and then finally she moved to the next site.

"Wow, you talked to her forever," observed my daughter.

And then I realized that the moment had come. That late summer moment when it hits me: I miss my students. I have not seen them since May. I miss the way that my wildlife biologists turn everything into a little science lesson. I miss the way my landscape architects analyze the design of everything from shopping malls to campgrounds. I miss the Environmental Studies students -- the constant tips about saving the planet, the continual analysis of the horrors of the Bush administration, their careful and specific plans to save the world.

Sure it's been great to be in summer mode, just reading my own stuff, writing what I want to write, but I miss the enthusiasm of my students and all that they teach me. Classes start again in three weeks - and I am looking forward to being back on campus again.

August 05, 2005

Hiking with my oldest son

The trail guide classified the trail as rugged which meant that it went up and down sand dunes. The first time I hiked that particular trail was thirteen years ago. It was a misty day in June and I was hiking with my son Boy in Black, who had just turned four. Dressed in a black t-shirt and shorts, his little legs churned up sand as he scrambled up the trail. I was worried that Boy in Black might get tired or bored so I made sure to rest often, offering him juice and snacks out of my backpack. He loved the hike: like me, he enjoyed the contrast of the woods with the sweep of the sand dunes, and the view of Lake Michigan from the tops of the dunes. He especially loved running down the sand dunes.

Just last week, I hiked the same trail, again with Boy in Black. He is almost a foot taller than me now, with the muscular body and relentless energy of a seventeen-year-old. It was a hot day, in the 90s and humid, but the dunes were still exciting, with spectacular views of the lake. Boy in Black, unaffected by the heat or the hills, strode ahead but stopped every once in a while to make sure that I could keep up. When he thought I looked tired, he took off his backpack, handed me a water bottle, and offered me a snack.

Way too much rolling

Earlier this summer, I wrote a blog post about motion sickness, and so many bloggers emailed me with helpful suggestions and alternatives to dramamine (which works but makes me a zombie), that I thought I would try out some of the alternatives on this last vacation. Chicago is famous for traffic jams, and all that stop-and-go traffic usually does make me sick. Taking ginger (chewable tablets, 67.5 mg, every four hours) worked wonderfully.

Perhaps the success with the ginger made me overconfident, though. We spent the last day of our vacation at a place famous for its sixteen roller coasters. Yes, that day was the kind of thing that happens when teenagers comprise half the voting power in family decisions. With-a-Why, who has the swing vote, almost always votes with the teenagers instead of the two parents, and so we ended up, on a sunny day that reached 100 degrees, riding what my kids claim are world-famous roller coasters. It did occur to me, as we watched medics carry away a person who had fainted in line, that standing in long lines in the midst of a record-setting heat wave was probably far more dangerous than any of the rides in the park.

I hadn't been on a roller coaster since puberty. (My motion sickness kicked in at about the same time my breasts appeared.) I have fond memories of the roller coasters of my childhood though: big wooden roller coasters, usually with a couple big hills and a few curves. You'd climb into a metal car with a bunch of your friends, and just a simple black bar would hold you in. The car would creak and shudder up that first big hill, with everyone in the car urging it on, and then you'd get a glimpse of the whole amusement park - or the ocean if you were at the boardwalk - before the car would take a plunge. That was a wonderful moment, a sudden rush of adrenaline, as the car plummeted downhill, fast and then faster, with everyone screaming and waving their hands in the air.

So with this happy memory and with supreme confidence in the motion sickness medicine I had gotten at the health food store, I let my kids talk me into trying a roller coaster called the Raptor . I should have figured out I was in trouble when I saw how complicated the mechanism was that strapped me in. No simple black bar but a full body lock, the kind of thing I would expect if I were going on a space shuttle. My claustrophobia kicked in before the ride even started: thick shields pinned me in so tight that I could not move anything but my feet.

Let me just say that this roller coaster had almost nothing in common with the roller coasters of my childhood. Instead, it was a throwback to the instruments of torture that were so popular during the middle ages. There was no gradual ascent, no thrilling ride down a hill. Instead my skull rattled inside my head as I was twisted, turned, spun upside down.

Suffice it to say that the motion sickness medicine I was testing out that day was not quite strong enough.

August 04, 2005

Home again

We returned home this evening to find that in our absence, the black-eyed susans had bloomed. They flower in big clumps, all along our side yard.

The less pleasant discovery was a gift from one of our cats. She had managed to drag a whole big bird in through the cat door and hide it in the laundry room where the teenage cat-sitter would not find it. I am used to coming home to dead frogs and birds, but this corpse was especially spectacular. When I picked it up to move it out into the yard, I discovered a squirming pile of maggots, hundreds of them.

Spouse has already started the laundry, and I am heading to the grocery store, but as usual, I am looking forward to the amenities of home: a hot shower to wash off all the travelling dirt and a real bed to sleep in. I have less than a week to enjoy these comforts before I am off on my next trip.