Do you suppose that it is perhaps past time I went in search of new running shoes? These guys are less than a year old, and I can already see my toes through those holes. I am disappointed - it is either that the high humidity here in south Florida is absolute hell on shoes, or that Nike just isn't making them like they used to, because I sure as heck am not running as hard or as often as I used to.
A special thanks to Fred Wightman for his thoughtful gift. Now I just have to learn how to tie it!
A cranium of Protoceratops andrewsi, collected by the infamous Roy Chapman Andrews during his Mongolian adventure. He went seeking human origins, and instead came back with some of the first evidence of dinosaur nesting behavior.
You might notice something familiar in his name, but look to something even more familiar in his hat. This notorious adventurer, explorer, scientist, soldier, spy, and some would say grave-robber and thief of rare antiquities was one of the inspirations for another adventurer in a beaten fedora hat. You can either read of his excellent adventures in his own hand above, or try Charles Gallenkamp and Mike Novacek's biography of the man, Dragon Hunter.
The Burgess shale occupies a unique location in paleontological history, and has played a significant role in both posing and answering questions for evolutionary biologists. It represents a small snapshot of life on the edge of a coastal shelf in Cambrian seas. Its discovery by Charles Walcott in the early 1900s was significant in that it was one of the first sites to yield up a large number of difficult-to-preserve soft-bodied organisms from a period when life was making the transition from simple to complex multicellular organisms. It has been referred to as a period of "biological experimentation", as evolution tossed up a number of innovative body plans, not all of which were adopted. Many of the critters uncovered are... weird... for lack of a better description. They are difficult to place within context of modern taxonomic groupings, as they are either "failed experiments" that went extinct, or their ancestors are so derived that it is almost impossible to detect the familial relationships.
Of course, many of the hypotheses set forth by the original site have now been supported or expanded by additional finds in the Chengjiang formation in China - and elsewhere around the world, but the wonder of remains are still being excavated from the original Global Heritage site that inspired so much thought.
These two creatures have wandered quite a distance from home to live in the muséum national d’Histoire naturelle:
This is Naraoia, an early soft trilobite. I sometimes wish that these had not gone extinct, as I would like to try eating them. On the other hand, few folks eat horseshoe crabs, so...
It is sad to note the extensive water damage on both of the cards labeling these important fossils. All of these valuable fossils were stored in simple and poorly lit plexiglass cases, and not all of them were labeled. There were no educational or supplemental materials to really place the organisms in their evolutionary or historical context. They were simply objects to be appreciated for their natural beauty, and it was sad to see such an amazing resource callously gathering dust in an empty display case. Even my own personal collection of odds and ends from the natural world is better organized and placed in a more meaningful context.
Maybe I'll open my own museum some day.
Of course, I ended up at the gallery of paleontology and anatomy. I suppose it says something about my person when I have but a day to explore all of Paris, and the two major sites that I visit are a library and a museum of natural history.
The museum itself is something of a wonder. It has over four hundred years of collections, brought together and studied by some of the best scientists that the world has to offer. These are amazing and historic samples in a sturdy building designed to last for the ages. They are also poorly labeled and displayed behind scratched plexiglass. The roof leaks, and samples and displays all suffer from water damage. This approach pales when compared to the educational presentation of even a modest American museum of natural history.
I suppose my father puts it best:
" As I often preach in my geology lectures, a rock is no more exciting than a page in a book. It's the story that matters, and the challenge for a museum is to tell the story (as well as warehouse data).
We've probably told you this before, but in 1976 we visited the Cairo Museum of Antiquities. It was like the government warehouse scene at the end of the original Indiana Jones -- an immensity of stuff, dimly lit, dust-covered, few labels (fewer in English). There was much of the King Tut material, what you could see of it, and endless mummies and caskets. Years later we saw a a traveling exhibit of Egyptian material including a fraction of the King Tut stuff from Cairo - but viv're la differance! It was a very well-displayed collection that really made an impression. So, there is probably a moral here somewhere, but I will settle for the thought that one good idea - well communicated - is worth more than any old box of rocks."
Emphasis and links are mine.
Lamark, I am here!
Poor Lamark always gets a raw deal when it comes to evolution. While he is frequently remembered for his infamous missteps in early evolutionary theory, his theory was the first real testable hypothesis attempting to explain the generational aspects of adaptive speciation. Moreover, he was an excellent taxonomist of invertebrates, and would become the inaugural Chair of Zoology at the muséum national d'histoire naturelle.
Because this is Europe, the museum is still where it was hundreds of years ago, and is in full possession of those centuries worth of collections. I come upon a signpost, which leads to a fork in the road. Perhaps I should find it revealing as to which path I took on the road ahead.
Perhaps I should always follow my heart in such a fashion.
I stop to grab a simple lunch in a deli beside a park, and cannot get over the strangely accented spanish that the counter-girl is speaking before I remember where I am. My baguette (which did in fact come with a bag) with ham and gruyere was succinctly tasty, but I cannot get over how much the French love to slather their sandwiches with salted butter as a condiment. I also cannot get over how expensive food is here. It isn't just the appalling dollar to euro conversion that I am fighting - food is just more expensive.
I am enjoying myself, and people-watch in the park. I will discover that the French are remarkably thin, especially given how well they eat. These are a healthy people, running with their dogs in the park over lunch.
I have several hours to kill in Paris before my friends get off of work and can join me in frivolity, and so of course while wandering down the Seine, I eventually wind up in a library. I am ever slave to the written word, even if it is not in my own tongue. I figure that even if I am on vacation, I can afford to spend some time looking through the entomological section of the library for a French perspective on les thysanoptères. This rapidly proves to be a moderately amusing exercise in futility: thrips are no more popular in French than they are in English. Out of thousands of pages dedicated to les insectes, I can find perhaps two pages on thrips. My spanish is good enough to make a rough translation of what I read, and it seems that the same problems plague researchers in France as elsewhere: thrips may be incredibly diverse and a significant crop pest, but they're just too damn small to work with.
The rest of the library is of course, more thrilling. This is a building that was constructed around a small forest, and which is flanked on its sides by apartment-building sized towers, all full of books. They have resources in many different languages, and I run through the science section, stopping here and there to flip through a volume on DNA or paleontology. More wonderful is their display of the truly impressive Coronelli globes. This pair of two-ton globes were originally constructed for Louis XIV, the "Sun King". At this, my inner musketeer is awakened, and my ongoing love-affair with globalization continues. They were objects of science as much as they were objects of art, and they expressed the Sun King's power in a very explicit and clear fashion.
I would have taken more photos, but flash photography was forbidden in order to protect the pigments on the star and earth globes. I respect the preservation of such art and science, but one of these days I am going to have to remember to bring a tripod for long exposures in low-light conditions.
And now I am lost in Paris proper.
Charles De Gaulle International Airport connects directly to the local metro rail. It was here that I first experienced a difficulty that I would advise all future travelers to Paris to be aware of: many of the metro rail stations accept only coins at the ticket-vending machines, and if you have only paper currency, your life may be made difficult and entertaining.
It was also here that I experienced a small bit of cognitive dissonance as I walked into the station. The first music to come on the radio was "Eye of the Tiger", and it was rapidly followed by Madonna's "Material Girl". I was uncertain whether perhaps when I had travelled in space, if I had not also perhaps travelled in time. Fortunately the train arrived in time to prevent a complete flashback to a prior era.
It was there on the train that Paris began to present its face as a major cosmopolitan city, and showed itself to be culturally diverse as well as relatively friendly. As I sat reviewing my maps, a nice old Algerian lady asked me if I was American (is it really that obvious?), and offered to help me find my way to my destination. I thanked her for her help, and immediately realized how terrible my French was. My obvious spanish ("you speak like an Italian!") accent and linguistic reference frame would throw me mentally off course and bedevil me throughout my journey. As we travelled from the airport into the city proper, the city woke up and the morning commuters on their way to work and school filled the train. I marveled as all the nations of the world began to board and babble in their native tongues. France was once an imperial power, with colonies scattered the world over - and it is still an important player in matters of world policy and finance. That broad international reach was well reflected as color and diversity filled the train and my soul.
In an odd way, I find being alone in a sea of foreigners vaguely comforting. Not only does it remind me of my youth, but I suspect that we are all islands wandering alone together. I like to believe that it is only through an appreciation for the polyglot that we will find successful answers in a globalizing world. Everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses, and all of them have a different approach and outlook on the way we process life.
I find such novel and different approaches refreshing and exciting, even when I disagree with them. If nothing else, it certainly provides many opportunities for feasting well at a number of different ethnic restaurants. I have also always believed in world peace through superior dining.
By the time you read this, I should be well underway in my voyage to Paris. At this point, I am probably winging my way over the Northeastern seaboard. In the meantime, I present: my gate at Miami International.
MIA has always seemed a strange and magical place. As Miami is the capital of South America, it was inevitable that all of the expatriates and transnational elites would end up passing through on their way to their final destination in the southern hemisphere. We would always run into someone from somewhen else in our extended expatriate experience, sometimes years after we had seen or spoken to them last. Such communications always ended with a chuckle and the suggestion that we "meet here again next summer".
Tomorrow morning I leave for France and a good friend's wedding at an excruciatingly early hour. I have been preparing for this voyage by immersing myself in the culture of France. Given my limited circumstances, my explorations have mostly been through the medium of film.
I began my journey with the historic Battle of Algiers, which showcases France's difficult imperialist past, and then followed it with Caché, suggesting that their present is still complicated by such matters. These somber tones were chased away by the far more surreal fantasy offered by the City of Lost Children. I'm not quite sure what this film says about French culture as a whole, except to note that Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a certifiable genius. I suppose that I will finish off with Brotherhood of the Wolf, which can only serve to convince me that the current French aristocracy is ruled by a secret cabal of werewolves.
Ringling Bros' $20,000.00 Animal Feature: Last of his kind, human eyes will never behold another. Last chance to see the last specimen - when he is gone, the giraffe will be extinct. [The] only giraffe known to exist in the entire world. Secured at the cost of a fortune, shown at each exhibition of the largest menagerie on Earth.
Aside from an interesting display of poor font-spacing and selection that will probably never be seen again in modern advertising, this poster made a preposterous assertion - even for the days of PT Barnum. Needless to say, it followed through another very American tradition, and ended up in litigation instigated by the Ringling Brothers' competitors. Rather unsurprisingly, it lost on the grounds of false advertising, and the judge ordered all copies of the poster destroyed. Miraculously, three copies managed to survive the purge, and this print remains on display - an exciting memento of the ridiculous excess of a bygone era.
After all - snake-oil like this would never sell today.
And if you believe that, I've got a rare investment opportunity in the Brooklyn Bridge that I'd like to sell you...
And sometime late last night as we pulled out of the parking lot, my car finally rolled past a hundred thousand miles. It took far less than the two to three weeks that I had expected. Congratulations: we're alive, but it was still quite an experience.
What does the future hold?
Time will tell.
Time always does.
Some time within the next two to three weeks, my car will turn one hundred thousand. So begins the end of the journey. My "new" 2002 racing stallion was purchased towards the end of 2001, which makes it almost seven years old. That is a little less than 15000 miles per year, which is a respectable bit of driving. We have come a long way together, and I would love to see it get another hundred thousand miles going forward. I have confidence in the engineers of Toyota, and some of my friends' old models lasted well over a hundred and fifty thousand miles before finally giving up their much beloved ghosts.
We shall see.
I have long believed that one of the major advantages of being a geek is that it is much easier to come into contact with your heroes. As an example, this Monday, I drove off to Mote Marine to listen to science writer Carl Zimmer speak on recent developments in cetacean evolution. The talk itself was a quick layperson's review of thirty or forty years of work on the evolution of whales. Much of it focused on the developments of the last ten years, and it was well-expressed for a non-technical audience.
Of course, that wasn't really the point.
The point was getting to meet an author whose works I've been reading for a great many years, and who is good at getting his own point across. In this, the talk was another expression of his writing: to take sometimes complex and arcane science, and to boil it down to its most interesting and exciting elements. It has been fun to follow his keystrokes as he moves from subject to subject in science, first exploring evolution at the water's edge, moving on to parasites, then exploring the social history behind the discovery of the brain, and most recently, our relationship with the ubiquitous E. coli. His blog and his science columns and commentary for the New York Times and Wired Magazine are even more diverse summaries describing the state of the art in a number of different fields.
Science needs more folks like this who are capable of expressing such discoveries in a manner that is at once both entertaining and informative. The entertainment is important, for while the thrill of discovery or the intuitive leap that results in new understanding is the real joy of science, much of the everyday work is like any job: dull, repetitive - full of endless monotony as you grind towards results and conclusions that you hope will be revolutionary and new... but will probably do nothing more than continue to support existing data. Science can also be intimidating, with the primary literature full of needlessly specific technical jargon, sometimes requiring much reading through diverse and obscure papers and journals to understand a single subject.
His writing keeps science fresh, cutting through all of the hard work to the conclusions at the end of a long day (or decade) that are what really inspire scientists to keep moving. This kind of writing may go on to inspire another generation of scientists, and to develop an appreciation for and an understanding of science outside of the technical community in the same way that folks appreciate the work of a farmer, or a mechanic, a dot-com tycoon, or even a lowly politician.
That, and as a lark, he now keeps track of all of the really cool science tattoos. How can you get any more awesome than that?
Being a Derksen means never having to say that you are lost - you're just on another adventure.
And like that, it was over. Three days of music, friends, and excellent food. Later this afternoon, I will get on a plane and fly back to Florida, leaving all of these good things behind.
I will remember, and someday:
I will return.
I mean that. Austin is and will probably always remain my town.
The Decemberists were the single band I had most hoped to see at ACL, and they did provide fun for all in attendance. In spite of misplacing the majority of my good friends, I did manage to arrive in time to negotiate my way to a place center-stage, but fifteen feet from all the action. The set felt a little short, and they were deluged by an excessively large number of chrysopids drawn to the red stage lights, but it was a fun and exuberant show. It was a good way to finish out the weekend, and I am glad I attended.
Ms. Spektor turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the concert series. She could be compared favorably to other female vocalists who perform a significant portion of their work on piano, such as Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, or even Norah Jones. However, just as they maintain a distinctive voice, so can Ms. Spektor be distinguished from her peers. Her music is haunted by traditional jewish folk-music, and influenced by jazz and the American independent sound... but she still gives it her own particular spin. I had heard her before briefly on NPR, and several of my friends were enthusiastic about her work, but I remained unsold.
Then I saw her live. While she sounds great prerecorded and on disc, her performance live is nothing less than amazing. Her most recent album feels overproduced, with unnecessary accompaniment - and on stage you have only her and her instrument and her voice. Her audience was exceptionally supportive, and stood transfixed in appreciation. This was not a concert to yell in excitement at, but one to absorb in admiration. One of my companions commented that she would have been better to see in a concert hall, for that was the ambience that we drew off the crowd.
She also fed off of the energy of that crowd. She was as delighted to be there as her audience was to listen. This was a woman who loved her job, and she poured that enthusiasm and appreciation right back into the audience who wanted to be there to hear her in a warm and fuzzy feedback loop of happiness.
It didn't hurt that she is the kind of cute that you just want to reach out and pet on the head like a puppy...
Yes, ACL is under way, and it is that smokin' hot!
For those who are concerned about my whereabouts, I will be in Austin for a long weekend of frivolity and relaxation. That, and reviewing my data for analysis (now that I have another two or three weeks of thrips captures), and maybe finishing the writeup on the ecology lab I have due halfway through next week.
That was quite the experience, shared with approximately ninety thousand of my close personal friends. It was good to see the game in the flesh, and such a thing could prove habit-forming if I had the time and the money to attend. I was constantly amazed at how much better the picture was in reality when compared with watching the game on television. Well, almost any television - and that problem and my scratched glasses should be repaired by Wednesday. It was still fairly disconcerting to be looking for and never see the handy lines that most networks overlay on the video, directing your eye to the ball or to the first down or even the most recent slow-motion replay. Whatever did people do before the creation of the Jumbotron?
The Florida Gators were rather loud and enthusiastic. And orange and blue, apparently. Not quite as crazy as some universities, but still... very enthusiastic. The Gators were also victorious - which was actually somewhat disappointing. I'd rather have seen an amazing game between two equally matched opponents, but while Western Kentucky provided a few amazing feints and a good short passing game, they never claimed the yardage they needed, and their defense might as well have been made of Kleenex for all the good it did them. The game was called with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter "due to rain", but it was a mercy-killing for the drowning Hilltoppers.
While the Gators walked through this game without much effort, it will be interesting to see how well they respond to a real challenge. On the bright side, Tebow continues his extremely promising career as quarterback. I am surprised that the University did not rely on him more last season, as he actually knows how to pass and run when the opportunity strikes him. I expect this year's successes will be harder earned, but also more worthwhile.
Time will tell.
For the curious, I will be available for entertaining in the town of Gainesville this long weekend. For my efforts as a volunteer at a Florida alumni barbecue held on the property the other weekend, my name was entered into a hat for two tickets to the first game of the season.
I have never won anything in a lottery before, so I sort of feel obligated to attend. As a friend of mine went to Western Kentucky for his undergrad, I feel obligated to drag him along and witness his conflicted loyalties. More importantly, this offers an excellent opportunity for a sociological study of crowds. Sometimes one has to experience this kind of group mentality and enthusiasm raw and in person to really feel it. Now that I think about it, and now that I have space for it, I could probably afford to pull a few things out of storage, too...
I've learned a few things this weekend.
The first of which is that I need to plan ahead for whirlwind tours of places where I have too many friends if I ever wish to see any of them for a good and reasonable amount of time. I was irresponsible and easily distracted, and as such I failed to make good a few promises and a few meetings. I sorrow for having missed faces that I've not seen in a year who were important to me, but console myself with the fact that some day, I will be back.
Family curses aside, I must inevitably return if only because it seems that in spite of it all, I might just be a Texan. Sort of like Kinky Friedman, but without the musical or writing talent - or Chuck Norris without the asskicking. Or maybe more like Ann Richards without the political savvy and the snark.
What can I say? While I didn't miss the traffic on the interstate, I really did miss the food and the people. I plan on heading back to Austin in September for ACL, and we'll see what happens when next I am in my favorite town I never lived in. I've got such a strange history in my love-affair with Austin that it practically deserves and entry unto itself. Maybe some day soon it will finally get one.
Friends are people with whom you fall back into familiar patterns even after ten years gone. They are good people, and they might as well be family... and you never realize just how much you missed them until they walk right back into your life - even if it is as if they never left.
Hello, family Ketcherside.
It was good seeing you too, even if you did call to wake me up at precisely 8:01 CST after entirely too little sleep. Thank heavens for pecan-flavored coffee, yes? It was also excellent to finally meet the young prince and heir to the Ketcherside throne I've heard so much about. I suppose that he is worthy, in that he definitely possesses the family affinity for novel technology, but he is really going to have to work on that whole "walking" thing before he conquers any worlds.
Much love to the three of you. You kept me sane, and brought me back from the mental Abyss I'd tossed myself down after too many years of going nowhere at Lexicon.
Returning to Houston after almost two weeks shy of a year gone is... unusual. It isn't quite home that I am returning to, but it all still feels terribly familiar. A bit like dÃ©jÃ vu: it is almost as if I have been here before.
The most unusual part of being back is the way I sort of know where I am going when I am driving around. I almost remember where I will have to turn if I want to get where I am trying to go to. It is an unusual sensation, as most of the time I lived in Houston - and certainly during this last year's upheaval and constant shifting - I had no idea where I was going most of the time, and had to rely upon a map to navigate my new environment. Perhaps this is because I have always been a visual sort of learner, and direct myself by landmarks as much as anything else. Little things, like knowing to turn right when you see the "handicapped persons ahead" road sign on Woodlands Parkway.
So now I run around like a madman, trying to overcome my limited planning and sleep, revisiting old haunts, and tracking down as many of my old friends as I can. Another thing that amazes me at being back is the sheer number of people who missed me, and how many I had left behind. I had a pretty reasonable social support network behind me when I was here... but I failed to properly appreciate or utilize them as I should have.
Too stubborn, too independent, and after a few years of disappointment at failing to live up to my own goals and standards... probably too frustrated and angry at myself.
It seems that on my way back from the grocery store, I blew out a tire. This is quite a blowout. I must have run over a piece of metal from the numerous construction projects out here. I am only thankful that it happened as I drove back into the complex, and not somewhere considerably farther up the road. I've had to empty the trunk of the carload of things I plan on taking back into storage just to get the spare tire and jack out. It'll be fixed soon enough, and then I'll go buy me a new tire.
Ironically enough, the University has these trailers as FEMA leftovers from the last time an Andrew visited town. They maintain them because Homestead is an hour south of Miami, and even renting property in the ghetto is prohibitively expensive for graduate students. Of course, "maintained" is a term subject to qualitative observations, and it has been more than fifteen years and a few more hurricanes since these trailers were new. That, and apparently many graduate students do not take very good care of their living space. My share of the trailer is a 7x7x7 cube that I can almost turn around in. Thank god it holds the fishtank in a corner on top of a dilapidated dresser - but I miss my old kitchen (and my dishwasher!) already.
Have I mentioned lately how much I hate moving?
For the last several days, my life has been compartmentalized into a series of boxes - some of which I will take with me, and some of which will go into storage. It is difficult to let go of things to which you have become attached, particularly when those things are comforable furniture, or the bookshelves that you would like to put your recreational reading material or DVD library upon. That said, there have been a few bright moments.
My friend Sheri had her brother in town on vacation, and he was kind enough to volunteer the back of his rented convertible Mitsubishi Eclipse to carry some of my shelves off to storage. It really does not look normal to see something that big crammed into something that small.
My fish are now living in a bucket. I made them a promise once: stay alive, and I'll take you with me wherever I go in life. Three of them have made a voyage of greater distance in this fashion before, and the prognosis for their survival is good. I hope they make it. While I may laugh and call them a primitive form of ultra-realistic and high-resolution HDTV, I have become quite attached to them. Like some of my furniture, they have always been there with me - reliable through turmoil and joy. I only hope that I can return the favor.
Last and not least, I remain amazed by the volume of stuff that one can comfortably cram into the 2002 Toyota Camry, and still be able to see out your rear-view windows. That said, I did manage to come uncomfortably close to obscuring all of my blind-spots. When planning out my packing strategy, I had forgotten to include the fishtank for the aforementioned fish, and found it occupying a surprising and irregular volume in the backseat of my car.
I had not realized just how much stuff I really do own. Given that I've tried to shake the load lighter on at least two occasions now, and that I will be moving into much smaller accomodations, I wonder if the next packing trip is going to be as bad?
Once again, as I prepare to leave Gainesville for Homestead, I find myself indebted to my friends. I'd never have been able to thrive and survive here without the lot of you, and I certainly would not have been able to move out of here without your aid and assistance throughout the process.
You were an unlooked-for bonus in this town, and you kept me sane and you kept me from dropping out. You emphasized that I could survive this program and this project so long as I found a way to make it mine, and that there was always time to prepare for a superior doctoral experience. You reminded me that there was more to research than reading, and that one's interactions with one's colleagues will inevitably prove more valuable in the real world beyond the Ivory Tower. You also knew how to throw a wild party, and I found happiness in your company.
We drove to the Atlantic coast to see the beach on Sunday, and had a really amazingly great day. We got up and moving in record time, the sun was warm, the water was cool, the dogs were well-behaved, and the waves were rough enough but still playful. Better still: nobody got sunburned, dinner was at the excellent "Chianti Room", and our evening was concluded by fireworks.
Of course, we still had to drive home from all of this excitement.
The blue line represents our path from Gainesville to St. Augustine.
The red line represents our return trip home.
I would like to stress that I was not driving for either portion of this adventure.
Don't you wish you could convince your cat to do this?:
The most amazing part is that when he pointed down, the cat actually came down off of his shoulder instead of say, climbing higher on his head.
"My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known."
- attributed to the wife of the Bishop of Worcester, in reaction to the infamous debate between TH Huxley and the Bishop Wilberforce
While I do not subscribe to the "great man" theory of history, there is no question that Charles Darwin happened to be the right scientist in the right place at the right time. Spurred on to publication by Alfred Russel Wallace, the "father of biogeography", his observations from years of collected research led him to conclusions that shook the foundations of biology and the society built atop that platform. His work brought forth a mechanism by which the whole of diversity might be explained within the context of geological history. When linked to the evidence of heredity first explored by Mendel, and then confirmed at the molecular level by Watson and Crick (and Franklin!), it provided the unifying synthesis of modern biology.
As I am dedicating my life to following the science that he helped to establish, it is with some interest that I note that my own life has from time to time, accidentally fallen into Darwin's footsteps. I have touched the same armoured glyptodontids that he helped to unearth in Southern Argentina at the Museo de la Plata. I have stood in the home he kept, and looked through the study to the desk at which he wrote much of his work. Lately, I have seen the villainous vinchuca that was to bring him low in his later years with Chagas disease in a new light, and finally, I have stood atop his grave at Westminster Abbey in London.
Everyone has their heroes.
Happy Darwin Day, everybody.
Florida is an incredibly long and densely populated state. The eight hours between my coursework in Gainesville and my research lab in Homestead is a long way to drive, and while I have stopped to visit my parents in Palmetto at the half-way point... I am still wiped out by this evening's adventure. The trip down was not nearly so exhausting as the trip to return - it rained something terrible this afternoon, and I was no longer as driven to arrive - or as caffeinated.
I am still trying to decide whether it is better to stop and visit my folks (and get some laundry done!) and trek through the Everglades each time, or whether it might be better to head straight through Orlando and then down along the Atlantic coast on that leg of the Sunpass turnpike. One path puts me in my parents' good graces and nets me a free meal and possibly some free laundry. The other road probably saves me the few hours I would otherwise spend visiting with family. I must master each route, as there will probably come a day when I will need to arrive in Homestead as early as possible in order to spend as much time and get as much work accomplished as is humanly possible while I am down there.
In the meantime, it is nice getting the opportunity to know my folks better. As much as I joke about what a chore it is to visit them more often than once or twice a year because I am now only three hours down the road, I am glad that they are there. It is kind of odd: I lived with them almost continuously for well over eighteen years, but I still don't think that we know each other very well. I believe that it is only recently that we have begun to take notice of one another, and to respect each other as adults. They are good and interesting people, and I remain more than just fond of them.
We will see what time brings us.
Today, I had a good day.
It began entirely too early - just slightly past six. I am not now a morning person, and I will never be. Still, I managed to pull myself onto the road an hour later after only a single cup of coffee. Sometimes there are reasons to get up in the morning, and sometimes I will find the proper motivating force to drive me forward through the hazy cloud of sleep. Today, I will meet my advisor in the flesh for the first time, and today will truly mark the beginning of my graduate career.
I drive East out of Palmetto, heading towards Interstate 75, which I will follow South to Naples. In Naples, I-75 will turn Eastwards again, and suddenly become "Alligator Alley", a turnpike cutting through the very heart of the Everglades. Endless miles of hungry swamp ensue, with only a thin chain-link fence holding back the horde of hungry alligators - as well as the occasional invasive burmese python. Of course, the truth is actually rather disappointing: the fence is there to protect the alligators and panthers (and pythons, oh my!) from us, and not vice-versa. The "untouched purity" of the wilderness that some would like to romanticize no longer exists. Our greatest natural heritage and our best national parks must be managed, lest their structured ecology slowly phase into the cultured environment of 'civilization'. It leaves them as artificial an environment as any zoo, if not more grandiose.
Sometimes it seems that it pays to be a little paranoid. You never have any idea when your day is going to turn from perfect - to perfectly frustrating. For example, your friends might tell you that you are crazy for wanting to leave for your four PM flight with more than two hours of spare time, but you know you need it - just in case of 'emergencies'. Little things. Like your car's battery suddenly, spontaneously, and mysteriously failing to start some two hours and twenty minutes before your flight. While you are in downtown Houston, instead of at home, and can therefore not afford to abandon your car all on its own for half a week. So you have to call your insurance to get the numbers for a towing service to have your car hauled home - all while you are trying to board a plane.
So you call on your friends.
Who thankfully have not left Houston yet, and who curtail their afternoon plans to try and help jump your car. You don't care if it starts again after you stop it next - right now you just need to get to the airport. Of course, the car proved unjumpable. The battery has either had its charge boiled off by the hot and humid Houston afternoon, or it is completely and spontaneously dead. Or maybe the starter is having issues. Or the alternator, or the distributor, or any of a dozen other things that could go wrong. The problem is that one of those things has gone wrong, and now you only have two hours to resolve it and drive half an hour down the road to the airport.
And now it is raining.
So your friends not only take your sorry backside to the airport - but some of them also sit around and try to deal with whatever minion the towing company sends their way. Having learned that it will be frighteningly expensive to have your car towed all the way back up to Conroe, they elect to hunt down a new battery in a city that is not their own, and replace yours and then drive your car home for you where it will be waiting for you in the parking lot.
Which is more than amazingly cool of them, and you are now eternally in their debt.
You ever need anything?
You have but to call.
A moment to think. A pause before battle. I've learned a few more things about myself on this trip. You can't be afraid to jump, and you can't be afraid to love, or to live. You aren't trapped in the position you are standing in so long as you have legs to carry you forward, and arms to pull you higher. And when the time comes that you can reach no higher, and your legs fail and you can't crawl that extra mile? Maybe you'll be lucky enough to have a friend willing to pull you along at their side.
I lean back and boot up the iPod one last time while I wait for my flight to board. It offers up "Learning to Fly" by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in response.
Maybe there is time for tomorrow.
This morning begins the same as every other, but I am finally encompassed by a growing sense of distance. The foreknowledge of departure has become our reality. We stop to eat breakfast at a restaurant. As I suspect I will not be eating for the rest of the afternoon, I gorge myself on french toast.
We arrive at the airport shortly thereafter, wending our way through the mysterious caverns of the rental return garage, eventually returning our car with a little less than fifteen minutes to spare on the rental agreement. I hand the young woman at the Thrifty kiosk my keys, and sign my receipt. Dana and I then turn towards the airport proper, anticipating to two or three hours of tedium.
Security is a breeze, but the man in front of me is much slower about redistributing his electronic gadgets and tying his shoes than even me. I find this odd because something about his demeanor tells me that he is a frequent business traveller, and I would expect a person such as this to be better organized and prepared to leap the hurdles that security tosses in our path. Perhaps, like us - he simply has nowhere better to be right now.
We arrive at Dana's gate with more than two hours to spare. Lacking better entertainment, we play Scrabble. I get stuck with some awful tiles, and Dana keeps blocking my big wordscores. This time, Dana trounces me.
And like that, she walks out of my life.
As we travel towards the ancient granary, it begins to rain. At first, it is a mild drizzle, but then the lightning storm begins. I have no problem with hiking in the rain - it reminds me of my youth and the warm wonder of a Singapore monsoon, but lightning on the open desert is not a pleasant thought. Other than a few twisted and blasted juniper pine, there aren't a lot of tall things out there to help exchange a charge other than your natural salt column. The NPS recommends that the safest action for an individual is for them to return to their vehicle immediately. Failing that, they recommend that one get low and stay low in a sheltered location... but hopefully not in an area low enough to be prone to flash floods.
Zapped if you do, drowned if you don't.
We make a hasty retreat back to the car.
Then it really begins to rain. For that part of Utah to be called 'the high desert', it has to get an average of nine inches of rain per year. In the month of September, it has historically received 0.83 inches of rain. I suspect it may have received four or five of those inches on that afternoon alone.
Thank goodness I brought my travel Scrabble(tm) set. We sat and played a close game for nearly an hour. For the record, I won by a narrow margin.
On our way into the park, we pass "Newspaper Rock". As these glyphs have been carved into the surface of the rock, it is difficult to impossible to identify how long they have been weathering in the open. Cultural context or meaning has been difficult to determine, as has the significance of any of these carvings because many persons from the time of the earliest settlers to the new-agers of today have contributed to the symbols on the wall. In many ways, this rock wall speaks more to our changing interpretations of indigenous art than it does to any real expression or extension of that art.
As always, we began our journey at the Visitor Center and Ranger station. They had another amazing three-dimensional map of the park. Grabbed a few brochures, another map to carry with us on our travels, and I caved and purchased a book on hiking the geology of the American Southwest.
The Canyonlands is a large enough national park that it actually has three distinct districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and the Maze. Highway 313 leads to the Island in the Sky District and is 10 miles north of Moab. Highway 211 leads to the Needles District and is 40 miles south of Moab. The Maze is remote and only accessible by foot - and only when accompanied by a professional guide already familiar with the flood-prone and twisting sandstone canyons of that region.
We have decided to tackle the Needles today.
Was given my tour of modern and classic country music. Turns out that I am more familiar with country music than I expected. Must have something to do with living (and driving!) in Texas all of these years.
We passed Hole "N The Rock gift shop and roadside curiosity. It is allegedly an historic attraction and natural treasure; but it is also unquestionably a roadside curiosity. It is a home (and gift shop, as they so frequently remind you) blasted out of solid rock over a period of twelve years by a man with a dream. There were probably a few other things wrong with him, too. Had they also possessed the world's shortest donkey, or Utah's Largest Ball of Twine, we might have stopped. As it was, they only had a petting zoo full of normal animals and no two-headed mutants, so we had to carry on to our primary destination.
The trail to the Delicate Arch is only a mile and a half, which is no distance at all to travel - but much of it runs up a steep slickrock slope with only the occasional stunted juniper tree for cover from the face of the sun.
The trailhead begins at Wolfe Ranch. Old man Wolfe came out here to raise a few cattle and to recover from a leg wound he earned during the Civil War. He wintered with his cattle and his demons beside a small creek for years until his children came to visit him, and found conditions "so hellish and primitive" that they forcibly removed John Wesley Wolfe to Pennsylvannia to live out his remaining days in relative rural comfort. Wolfe had other reasons for staying: a short detour away from the main trail and the tiny ranch lies a rock face with a well-preserved set of petroglyphs estimated to be at least four-hundred years old.
This is a relative estimation based on the appearance of horses (absent in North America until the Spaniards released an invasive population) in the image; glyphs are near-impossible to date accurately by non-correlative means. This is because they are carved into the surface of the rock, etching away the thin layer of desert varnish to reveal the more colorful sandstone below. They use no pigment with organic components whose isotopic content or predictable decay might be used as a sort of clock. Even the varnish itself proves an unpredictable clock, the rate of its glacial and irregular growth dependent upon microenvironmental variation.
The first stretch of the hike up to the arch is a half mile across lowlands, and in spite of the growing heat of the day proves merely invigorating. The occasional boulder or sprawling juniper provides a spot of shade every hundred yards . As the second third of our journey begins, our path starts to get vertical. The grade rises precipitously on bare slickrock, and there is no pity from the merciless sun. Depending on how healthy you are, this stretch can prove from fifteen to thirty minutes in hell, but you do get an excellent view of the surrounding plateau. Looking out over the crumbling fossil sand dunes to the East will provide a direct line of sight to the La Sal range of mountains. Should you ever become lost in the high desert of the arches, this is an important landmark - a line of sight to La Sal means that you may be able to get a signal out with your cell phone to call for help before your water runs out.
We follow a trail up the side of the dune where rain has gradually eroded a channel into the side of the stone. Throughout our ascent, we see patches where these cracks have been filled by lichen who continue to break down the rock, releasing minerals and providing small traps for sand and nutrients - and even a little water. These pockets allow for a sandy soil for a few hardy plants to thrust their roots into, and give the incredibly durable and tough desert juniper a chance to grow - casting a little shade, and trapping just a little more moisture. Soon, small bushes and a few grasses grow, providing more nutrients to small herbivores like rabbits and ground squirrels - who provide further nutrients to those plants in decay, and to higher predators such as coyotes and hawks... creating a complete successional ecology on the side of an otherwise barren stone slope.
I am glad that we are not climbing this hill in the rain - as stated yesterday, wet slickrock deserves its name, and this channel is long and deep and water presumably comes pouring down off this hill in a great rushing torrent. Once you approach the top, a path has been carved into the side of the last sand fin before the monument. This trail should remain shaded for most of the day, and the broad path prevents one from falling more than a hundred feet down the sheer edge of the fin to water the desert below.
As you walk around the edge of this final rock wall, you may turn to your right and see what makes this entire climb worthwhile:
An amazing piece of geology.
Take the time to carefully walk around the bowl of the auditorium, and stand at its base.
Revere the awesome elegance of transient nature, slow sculptor of man and stone.
Then leave the irreverent part of me that plays Halo on some weeknights to wonder: "if I ran to the top, would I still find the rocket launcher?"
At the end of the day, we find that we have lived for too long in the flatlands, and believe ourselves too tired out to tackle the 'arduous' trail to the Delicate Arch, and opt to get a taste of tomorrow's fun by previewing it from a distance. Instead of the mile and a half hike up barren rock, we climb to the top of a nearby overlook, and snap a few photos of the unique strand of rock that we will explore in more personal detail first thing tomorrow morning.
At this point, it is worth mentioning that while hiking all day, we have encountered a large number of German-speaking tourists, red-faced and huffing up the trails. I suspect that they are the advance guard of an invasion force, but they seem friendly... so instead we offer them water and a little advice on the dangers of heat stroke, and let them on their way.
We make it to the bottom, and almost to the far road nearly a mile and a half away before we finally turn back.
After jumping in the car (and turning on the air conditioning), we look at my blotchy red face and hereby swear to never leave the vehicle without at least one water bottle again.
The Arches is but a hop, a skip, and a jump outside of Moab proper.
Before I begin my discussion of the park, perhaps a short lesson in geology is appropriate. All of Utah was once part of a great sweeping desert in the early Jurassic, an series of steadily rolling dunes great enough to bury our own contemporary Sahel. These endless sandy dunes would form the mottled grey sandstone of the Navajo formation that underlies the park and much of the Colorado Plateau. A broad, shallow river would eventually wend its way between the dunes through the heart of this ancient desert, pushing slow rippled layers of yellowed silt into what would become the sandstone of the lower Entrada. It would be followed by the iron-tainted silica that gave the sandstone of the upper Entrada its warm red tint. Collectively, these strata are known as 'slickrock', and it is within these layers that we find the arches of the eponymous park.
I love slickrock. As it is built of fossilized sand-dunes, it has amazing traction, and I could run and jump carefree up and down their weird slopes all day long. That said, when wet, slickrock can truly earn its name - and it also occasionally peels off of the basal strata in small narrow sheets, like subscription cards falling from a magazine. If one is not careful, you might find yourself suddenly slipping down the hillside as your footing dances out from beneath you, and a spill upon slickrock is akin to dragging oneself along five or six feet of low-grade sandpaper. One learns to listen for a hollow drumming sound as you put your foot down, as this indicates a sheet eroding away from the main body... but frequent visitors bear the broad pink scars of their road rash as a masochistic badge of pride.
On our way into the park, we pass a small group of female and juvenile bighorn sheep grazing on the side of the the road. As the road into the park is surprisingly busy, and as I had expected them to be more prevalent within the park, we did not photograph them. I now regret that we did not stop to photograph the small herd, as they are far more uncommon than presumed. They are rare and secretive animals, usually avoiding the bustle of humanity, and this was to be our only encounter with the ungulates for the whole trip.
Moab was a dusty little uranium town that just happened to be located in the middle of some of the most spectacular geology on the whole Colorado Plateau. With the end of the cold war, the uranium boom went bust, and Moab continued in the direction it had already been heading. Like Sundance, just two hours to the north, they whole-heartedly embraced the tourist industry, focusing on the stark appeal of the surrounding wilderness and the opportunity for an endless diversity of extreme sports. There are plenty of opportunities for white-water rafting, rock-climbing, mountain-biking, sky-diving, and hiking - and this is just within the city limits.
We pulled into the Lazy Lizard Hostel on the southern edge of town, just off 191 at just past nine. While it initially reminded me of the run-down hippie communes of South Campus at college, it was very comfortable. We were provided with a air-conditioned and clean cabin large enough to sleep five. Not exactly roughing it, but what the hell, why not? They were also unbelievably affordable, and this allowed us to sample some of Moab's finer dining options with impunity.
Our first visit was to the emergency room that once cared for myself and three other travelers, seven long years ago. It was during the return leg of our March 1998 Spring Break road trip to the Western Coast that a careless jackrabbit leapt out into our headlights, and into destiny. It left the four of us suspended upside-down in a ditch: Roy Huggins blind in one eye and bleeding, Elizabeth Tweig concussed with a series of scratches on her head that mysteriously parallel my front teeth, myself concussed with shattered sinuses, and Sarah Olivieri... with a broken fingernail. The Castleview Hospital's emergency room is still right where it used to be, and still ready to take in all visitors at all hours, no matter how far away, or how serious the car wreck.
The second locale was of no less significance, but of greater personal interest. Price, Utah also happens to be home to one of the best dinosaur collections in the world. The College of Eastern Utah maintains a Prehistoric Museum sampling the paleontology and archaeology of the area. This tiny museum in this tiny town is home to some of the richest fossil beds in the world, and as a result, the local natural history museum is better stocked than the collections of many larger cities.
It is unusual returning to this place. The last time I was here, I was still somewhat concussed and using an old pair of glasses that my mother had thought to bring to replace the pair I had lost on the roadside. Between the persistent wooziness and a prescription nearly two years out of date, my memories of the time spent there are a little softer around the edges than usual.
The museum does not appear to have changed substantially in the seven years we have been apart, but many things which were once hidden are now visible. The Utahraptor, once trapped within the matrix of rock that held it, was now free to terrorize the coastal plains running along the Western Interior Sea of North America once more. When last I visited, the Utahraptor had just been revealed to the world in a rare example of science following art: until their discovery, the only members of the Dromeosauridae clan known to be that large hailed from the Steven Spielberg cinematic adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel, Jurassic Park.
In another odd twist of fate, and more proof that the world is a smaller place than one might initially suspect, it turns out that Reese Barrick, a paleontologist I had once hoped would be my advisor at NCSU, had also ended up at this spectacular museum as a curator. As we leave, it occurs to me that I too could settle here and be happy.
Timpanogos Cave is located but forty-five minutes south of Salt Lake City. One of its claims to fame is that it possesses one of the world's largest "underground lakes". While this might conjure up visions of Moria, the truth is somewhat less impressive. Apparently for one's cave-bound body of water to qualify as an "underground lake", your 'lake' must be at least one foot wide by one foot long by one foot deep. Theirs is some nine feet across, which is somewhat more impressive, but still nothing to compare to most impressively large but surface-bound inland bodies of water. This fact could not deter me from my course: I must still behold this wonder of the natural world.
Noticing the heavy traffic, we park a little ways up from the cave, and hike over a small creek and hill in order to reach the Visitor Center. It is Labour Day, and apparently the National Parks of Utah are a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. In order to protect the environmental stability of the Timpanogos Cave system, and for reasons of visitor safety, the Park must limit the rate at which persons enter the cave on a guided tour at any one time. We are fortunate, and nab the last pair of available tickets for the twelve-forty tour. After purchasing our tickets for the cave, we realize that it will take us at most an hour and a half to achieve the summit, which will still leave us some considerable time before our appointed tour - and both of us have become hungry.
We trek back over the hill and creek, jump in the car, and head to a grocery store. I know that we should have done this sooner - it is always good to have a little extra energy available on any hike. We look for appropriate foodstuffs, and I suggest something healthy, like donuts from the bakery. While Dana is not entirely opposed to this idea, we eventually decide upon the traditional staple of hikers the world over: granola bars.
Here begins controversy. I like the crunchy ones, and Dana likes the squishy ones.
What the hell... granola bars are less than a couple of bucks a package... and besides - I'm on vacation, so we go wild and get both chewy and crunchy varieties. Everyone is happy, and we return to reclaim our parking space the short mile before the trailhead.
We begin our climb to the summit in good spirits, and with plenty of water. The day is already warm and bright, but the breeze is cool and forgiving, and we are on the shady side of the mountain in the morning. In places where the trees or rocks provide thick or continual cover, it is even chilly. Then the slope begins to rise, and Dana and I find that we have spent far too much time in the flatlands, and almost certainly not enough time out-of-doors hiking. It occurs to me that it would be very healthy to make a daily jog to the cave entrance and back down again every morning, and with some delight, I realize that I would like to fence my way up this mountain. Finding our second wind, we continue upwards.
As one nears the halfway point, you can finally look out and appreciate the scale of the Wasatch Fault, running a clear and open line North and South through the Great Basin Region. The Earth's crust is expanding in an East-West direction in this area, gradually lifting the Wasatch Mountains ever higher - and leaving the valleys within which nearly two-thirds of Utah's population lives and works ever farther beneath them. There are five major segments to the faultline, and while geologists have no idea when or how many of the segments will shift at any one time, they do predict a major earthquake somewhere along that line within the next hundred years. When next the two plates suddenly slip, it will not be a gentle process - the earthquake is predicted to range from at least 7 to 7.5 on the Richter scale.
The earth does not shift for us today, and our footing remains steady as we scale ever higher. The tree-cover on the trail becomes thinner, and our path cuts through the talus pile of several rockfalls. We twist around a few more switchbacks, and finally achieve our destination, the Timpanogos Cave System, just a few hundred feet shy of the summit. The rocks here are littered with fossils from an ancient seafloor. Crinoids and other ancient bivalves peer out from a seabed lifted to summit.
We watch chipmunks scamper nimbly in the talus pile by the door as we wait for our tour to head into the cave system. One of the rangers gets ambitious and offers us the opportunity to join a tour nearly fifteen minutes earlier than our scheduled appointment with the underground, and we accept. We pass through the portal into the underworld, and the door slams shut with incredible finality. Dim light filters in from the original cave entrance carved by erosion nearly fifteen feet above the artificial entrance through which we passed. Our doorway had been built not only as a convenience for visitors, but also to preserve the moist environment of the cave system, and to protect the cave from looters and vandals who might destroy any of the wonders contained within. We pass through another door into a narrow realm of odd angles and lousy headroom. Our guide stops us for a minute, and turns out the lights that had been strung along our pathway, and we find that Timpanogos cave is a very dark place once one is inside. Rather, it would be a dark place but for the dim light shed by numerous cell-phones, digital cameras, and small personal electronics. She turns the lights back on, and we progress further into the depths.
I am disappointed to learn that the 'massive' underground lake is not part of the regular tour - one must come back with crash-helmet and complete their beginner's caving course to witness that particular wonder. I brighten up to learn that this cave does have other lakes, so I will not go away completely unsatisfied. One of the more 'impressive' specimens is pictured above. It is exceptionally cold in the caverns, well below fifty-five degrees F, a direct contrast to the heat on the surface world above. I am glad we came prepared with long-sleeves, but the chill moisture of this dripping place still makes me shiver. That same moisture is the lifesblood of any cave, as it simultaneously dissolves away the minerals of the cavern and redeposits them in the half-melted columns and flows of living stone.
As we travel further into the depths, we hear several charming stories about how people discovered these caves mostly by accident, and were delighted to later learn that all three major systems were in fact connected to one another. I take some pride in only hitting my head on the ceiling twice during our journey, and our path eventually leads to an exit on the surface world nearly two-hundred feet distant from where we began. It is by this gateway that we learn that the Park Ranger who ran our tour of this underground world had a sister living in Conroe and working in the Woodlands. I have filed this away as another piece of evidence proving what an incredibly small world it is we all live in.
The heat of the day is welcome as we head back down the mountain and cross the creek once last time on our way to our parking space, and to our next destination.
Gadgets firmly plugged in and luggage tossed casually in the back seat, we attempt to make contact with old friends from College now living in Salt Lake. A few quick phone calls later, we were reunited with Andrew and Marian Kensler - and meet recent arrival Daniel. Aside from sharing a name with the man, Andrew is a neat guy. While in college, I admired him, and would have listed him as one of my quieter personal heroes. At Grinnell, he majored in computer science, and a wry sense of humor. Now he is in graduate school designing a better real-time ray-tracer, and hopes to go on to work in special effects.
Of course, finding them was not without its difficulties. Salt Lake City is notable for more than the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats. It is also the heart of a major modern religion, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons. Their city takes much of its spirit from their character. It is remarkably clean, and well laid out on a precise grid whose extensively numbered organizational system is at first a total mystery - until one realizes that the point of origin from which all roads ascend in a Cartesian plane is the central temple of their faith. It is an astonishingly elegant building, and I wish we had taken the time to visit and photograph it.
We feast that night at "Pi Pizza", a comfortable eating establishment that is underground in more ways than one. It is here that we are joined by Dieter the Bold, another Grinnellian of our acquaintance. Another biology major in college, Dieter now works as tech-support for eBay, and they keep him real busy. We are fortunate to capture some of his free time on one of his rare days off. We order two massively thick pizzas heavily laden with toppings, one for the carnivores in our soul and our party, and the other pie is for the vegetarian inclined. As much as I hate to admit it, the vegetarian pizza, with its fresh tomatoes and artichoke hearts, is almost the better of the two.
Dana and I linger for a while, catching up on the simple joys of conversation with old friends and new ideas and find ourselves leaving the Kensler residence late in the evening, heading down the road towards our first true stop of this adventure: Timpanogos Cave - and a motel at which to crash the night. I decide to be clever, and try and find my way to the park in the blackness before searching out a motel. Perhaps I was merely reluctant to return to civilization with the obsidian sky lit up by the endless diamond night above us, but I did manage to get somewhat turned around on the way back to the interstate from the Park's front gate. Dana good-naturedly suggested that we might be lost, but I knew better. We were definitely somewhere - we just didn't know where yet.
The first leg of my flight takes itself through Phoenix, Arizona. I am always horrified by the sudden verdant appearance of green in the otherwise dry desert. It was good to see that the airport gardens were stocked with native plants. These hardier creatures would be more adapted to the local climate and require less maintenance, and more importantly, less water.
As we pass over the Grand Canyon, I am amazed to find myself the only one leaping to raise the shutters and peer out the window at one of North America's greatest geological treasures. Even from fifteen thousand feet up, one can not encompass the whole of it at once, and it is nothing short of amazing to see this vast gash in the landscape. It is as if the earth's skin had become too parched in the hot desert sun and cracked under the heat. That mile-deep chasm reveals the true culprit for its depth: the hard-rushing flow of the Colorado River, which has carved quite a path through the Colorado Plateau for the last ten million years on its way to the Gulf of California.
We sail onward, and leave this canyon behind for the Great Salt Lake, and the eponymous City on its shore. The pilot makes one of the better landings I have experienced in a lifetime full of plane flight. It is soft and even, and there is only a slight jar and screech as rubber meets asphalt and friction bleeds velocity from our craft. I disembark and walk all of two gates and twenty feet to begin my wait for my travel companion, Dana Watson.
It is a surprise, seeing her again after so long. While we have kept in touch via the occasional telephone call and semi-irregular bursts of e-mailed correspondence, I do not believe we had seen one another in the flesh since I watched her walk at her graduation in 2002. It was also a little frightening to recognize a certain electricity between us still.
I provide her with a small gift for the years away, and for the road ahead: a scintillating amethyst... water bottle.
Reunited, we make our way to the travel desks of Thrifty Car Rental. They provided us with an amazing daily rate that beat their nearest competition by more than two dollars per day - as well as an additional ten percent discount for my Sam's Club membership. Their service was excellent, providing maps of the area, a guesstimate on local gasoline costs, and reasonable directions for finding the interstate from the airport.
I only wish I could be as thrilled with the subcompact-chariot they provided us with, a green Ford Focus. Let it be said that I hope to never purchase or own one of these vehicles. While it did receive excellent gas-mileage and I could fit my tall and lanky frame into the driver's seat with some reasonable expectation of comfort, I found the dashboard design and layout inadequate, and the placement of the gear-shift on the steering column disconcerting. Turning on the windshield wipers occasionally resulted in also activating my turn signal. The cup-holders in the center column were not large enough to support our water bottles. It handled well, but I did not feel that it had as tight a turning radius as a small car should have, nor was the control as smooth as that of my own Toyota Camry. That said, it was adequate to our purposes, and served us well on the long road still ahead of us.
It was amusing to note that this rental came with an in-dash compact-disc player, and no sign of a tape-deck anywhere. The world has moved on since I was born - and I can only wonder how many years before a Firewire or USB 2.0 port appears in the dashboard to synch up the local MP3-player with the content of a renter's portable hard-drive. While I did not think to pack any CDs, it is fortunate that in some things, I am ahead of the curve. One end of the iPod was plugged into the cigarette lighter for power (is there actually anyone gauche enough left in the world to actually use these for their originally intended purpose?), and the other end was plugged into Griffin Technology's iTrip FM Transmitter. This is a wonderful addition to complement an already outstanding product. All we had to do was chose an empty section of broadcast spectrum, and we could then listen to most of my CD collection in full stereo sound. While I have noticed a few sound-quality issues with lower notes, and one occasionally encounters a scratchiness and hissing from other strong electrical signals interfering with the broadcast, listening to the iPod was no different than listening to any other station on the road - except that I had considerably more control over the content.
There comes a time in everyone's life when all they need is an escape from reality for a little while. As Karl Marx once pointed out, there is an almost inevitable alienation between a labourer and the products of his or her labours - a disassociation that results in a personal dissonance between the individual and their soul. This desire to break free and regain one's own identity has apparently been present within the human psyche for a long time. The native peoples of Australia even had a term for this quest: walkabout. One would wander into the bush alone, and amidst the solitude and hostility of open wilderness, hopefully find oneself.
While I would not be traveling exclusively through wilderness, and I would not be truly alone, the quest remained the same. Some time taken to find oneself in the winding and painted canyons of Utah.
Some have asked why I chose Utah, land of Mormon settlers and the scenic geological beauty of the high Colorado Plateau. I hope the pages following will help to answer those questions.