ain’t nothing but a canyon mile

You never know what you’re capable of until you take yourself to the edge.  You don’t really know who you are until you break a little (or a lot).

After months of inactivity, thanks to the need to recover from a chronic running injury, naturally we decided to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon for our Christmas holiday in 2016.  No big deal.  Piece of cake.  Easy as pie, and all the other cliched platitudes about the relative lack of effort such an undertaking might entail if one doesn’t think too hard about the actual task at hand.

Neither of us had been to this National Park, which is supposed to be (and is) one of America’s treasures, a place of wonder and beauty and mystery.  Luckily we got a permit for our first preference itinerary, and the planning ensued.  Meal planning, getting there planning, clothing planning, gear management and acquisition (such as crampons and gaiters, thanks to winter conditions).

Along with regular purchases of gear came constant monitoring of weather patterns. When I say constant, I mean looking at the forecast each morning, reviewing historical performance and searching for other myriad predictions. Snow was the main problem. Lots of snow.  And chain restrictions and icy trails. Over the few weeks leading up to the trip, we thought we were going to get snowed out, or stranded.  Two days before we were supposed to head out the weather was still changing, still unpredictable.

When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon for our first night of camping in the cold, under the stars, a shroud of fog had veiled the landscape.  The adventure on which we were about to embark remained hidden from us. There was no canyon, no plunge of land going down for one vertical mile.  There were no layers of geologic time, no cliff faces.  There were only the dense particles drifting before us as we walked along the path at the edge of the South Rim.  They stuck to our clothes, our eyelashes, my glasses. The air coated us in its heavy breath.  It was only after we ducked into one of the lodges for a beer, only after we reemerged that the fog had retreated a little to give us our first hint of the scale of the canyon, and its vibrant banding color.

Veiled Canyon

Veiled Canyon

Giddy.  Smiling and not even minding the other people who were rushing to the railing’s edge to take their photos with selfie sticks.  We looked at each other, and grinned at what we were about to descend into.

That night, snow flurries flirted at the South Rim as clouds raced across the sky. We caught glimpses of the stars through the wounds in the clouds, and tried to light a fire with wood that refused to burn, even though it was dry and the kindling was good.  As we drank port wine amid the pine trees, fresh snow dusted the ground and cold infused the air with biting teeth.  We fretted about putting up the tent, not wanting to start off with wet gear.  We fretted about the cold.

Our second day at the Grand Canyon was the real beginning of our adventure.  We parked at the backcountry office, checked our gear one last time and took the shuttle, with heavy packs on laps, to the Bright Angel trailhead.

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Gear management

Though it was early, a regrettable number of people in designer boots or simple sneakers already populated the trail.  And what they were there for was not what we were there for.  Photo ops.  Daring pictures. Claiming the space and polishing their brand through two-dimensional captures. Being there for some people was less about the experience itself and more about documenting you were having the experience, all with an eye toward curation of who you want people to believe you are rather than who you are.

But these travel companions were temporary, as elevation is the ultimate filter.  Past the Three Mile Resthouse, we encountered few people.  They tended to be thoughtful and quiet, and had impeccable trail etiquette.

After lunch near Indian Garden, the weather shifted once again.  A drizzle began, which would plague us for the rest of the day.  It was at this point when I realized the Canyon had invaded my muscles and my bones. Already.  On day one before we were even halfway to the Bright Angel Campground.

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Jessica’s last happy moment for the day

The Canyon’s extreme nature also emerged.  The elevation, the terrain of varied rockscapes, the water, which was everywhere.  I was hot one second, and freezing in the time it took to take off my beanie and gloves.  Rain, rain, and rain.  My mood steadily declined until I plodded on in silent rancor.  I was acutely aware of the muscles in my legs by the time we reached the vista for what’s called (we would later discover) the Devil’s Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a long rambling switchback descending further into the Canyon floor.  Before even reaching it, I wondered how in the hell I was going to get back up to the rim.

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The Devil’s Corkscrew (photo was taken on the climb back up)

A. started talking about heading back, but in my mind the only way was forward. So we did the Devil’s Corkscrew, and we came to the next Resthouse, and we finally saw the Colorado River, angry with mud and swollen by the rain, and there was no sign (none, not a single evidence) of the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge.

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Bright Angel Suspension Bridge (photo taken heading back out on day 2 in the Canyon)

I wanted to cry.  By the time we reached the bridge (which took an excessively long time and what felt like another mile of traversing), I was in the gutter.  Legs: agony. Pack: a burden. Body: barely propelling itself forward. Emotional and psychological states: despondent.  Crossing that bridge with no indication of how far the campground was, I did start crying.  I had nothing left.  I hurt, I wasn’t having fun, and for the first time in my life, I had encountered my true edge.  I had reached the limit of my ability, and I wasn’t sure I could get myself out of the Canyon.

This was my threshold.  Every time we step through a door, we cross over a threshold. Most of the time it isn’t the physical crossings that impact us, but the mental ones. Afterall, thresholds mark a transition from one state to another.   We can feel when we encounter a boundary, just the same as we can feel when we’ve overcome that boundary. I wasn’t very grateful at the time, but now I cherish meeting that significant threshold.

Why is hitting my breaking point a gift?  I got to experience how I genuinely react in an extreme situation. Those reactions were not dressed up or contrived; they were 100% me. I got to see what my body could do, and understand better what I wanted it to be able to do.  It helped realign my expectations, and devise a plan to improve my overall conditioning.  And it revealed that my mind was powerful, because in the end determination was the only thing that got me back on my feet.

The next day, we awoke to clear skies, and the sun dancing on the edge of the mesa far above us. The aspens were chattering, and the world was quiet, and peaceful.

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It was at this point we made a conscious decision to enjoy the hike up to Indian Garden. We would take photos of the beauty surrounding us, take our time getting up to the next campground, take the time to solidify our memories of this amazing adventure. Indian Garden was a beautiful oasis to hobble around, and the next day we got up and ascended back to where we had come from, but not from where we started.  Later we would call how tricky it is to judge and cross distance in the Grand Canyon “a canyon mile”.

ii. you are here

We did not come to gaze upon farm animals in a disheveled landscape, beautiful and calming though it is. We came for the food.

Finally we drift into the into the building, and I don’t feel like I’m in Mexico anymore. The inside resembles (to me at least) a Swiss-style dining hall. It’s huge and open. One side is bifurcated from the other by a supporting wall. I have the sense that the room on the right, filled with an uninterrupted stream of highly-lacquered tables and chairs, is a newer addition, whereas the space on the left seems to be more quaint and cozy. You are far less likely to get swallowed up on the left side.

We gravitate towards the only unfinished table in the room. It sits beneath a window, just beyond the glass is the grey morning. Inside is a delicious promise. A large earthenware oven occupies part of our little corner, but of greater interest are the two ladies with bowls the size of car tires filled with one or the other of two types of dough. Corn or flour.

La Cocina de Dona Esthela

at the table

Like professional athletes, they warm up, and then they are lightening. They are a series of movements, like the gears of a watch flowing inevitably from the consequence of its perfect design. Grab, roll, pat and press. Slap, watch, tap and flip. Rescue. Serve.

Just as we’re about to succumb to the pools of saliva collecting in our mouths and rudely intrude on their assembly, magic happens. Chips and salsa and this delicate moist queso fresco appears before us. Cheese? For free? Really? We look up at our server, a young man-boy who was probably still in high school hands the menus to us.

Gracias.
Cafe, por favore.
Regular or mexicana?
Um… Regular? (wrong answer, by the way, unless you’re a diner-coffee purist. A. got the mexicana coffee our 2nd time there and was rewarded with spicy goodness.)

A. knows what he wants to order. He’s been pontificating on the machaca since we heard about the place. A thorough inspection of the menu confirms his desire. I have not thought about it. A cluster of choices worryball through my mind, but finally I choose. Huevos con nopales—which is eggs and cactus leaves and is as authentic as a vegetarian can get.

We graze through the chips, queso fresco and salsa the way the cows graze through their cud a few hundred feet away. The cheese is moist and so fresh it’s as though the cows gave up their milk for it mere days ago. Bite, after bite. Experiments with cheese and chip and salsa assembly. By the time our food arrives, we’ve excavated much of the elevation from our mound of cheese, and dug a hole into the chips.

After the first forkful of our actual breakfast, however, all doubt that we can pile in more food evaporates. It’s delicious, down to the weird, goopy, starchy refried beans. I alternate between the corn tortillas and the flour, both so hot out of the basket they sear my hands. Simplicity renders the tortillas delicious. They are the essence of themselves, pure without preservatives.

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Desayuno, note the goopy refried beans

Maybe it’s the setting, maybe it’s their seasonings or ingredients. Whatever it is results in sharp flavor on my tongue. The eggs and nopales are mixed with onion and peppers. I can’t tell what else they’ve put into the dish. Salt and pepper, likely. Homemade chili powder, maybe. Attention and intention, definitely. I eat it all.

I understand the reverence people have for this place. There is something special La Cocina de Doña Esthela. It’s a mecca for the palate, but in such a humble and unpretentious way. It is simple, focused on the ingredients, but I think more than that, it is focused on the community. Those two elements combine into a genuine affection, an open conviviality, which isn’t on the menu, but lives in every plate.

i. road to nowhere

Doña Esthela.  You utter the name of this place or mention it in a hushed conversation and people respond as if you had referenced some kind of religious guru. How to find her?  Like with any guru, you look for the signs.  Nondescript little emblems pointing out the way to you.

Here you tend to follow dirt roads into what feels like nowhere.  Sometimes there are signs.  Sometimes there is a long stretch of rough dirt gouged into the semblance of a road and acres of desert chaparral, interrupted now and then by a rancho or a lot under construction. These country roads are bereft of traffic lights and asphalt.  No fire hydrants stand vigilant on corners.  Dirt, scrub brush, and the occasional vineyard inhabit the land.  Maybe a horse, some dogs (more than occasional) and goats interrupt the feeling of isolation. It is in this void, when the doubt is setting in and you really start to feel the heat of the sun and the hunger churning your belly, just then another sign comes.

La Cocina de Doña Esthela, sprawled at the intersection of two unnamed roads, looks nothing like a restaurant.  Three house-like structures occupy the rutted land, and the hand-painted letters on the side of the west-most building gives the only indication a business may exist here.  It is early on a Friday morning and the fire in the outdoor oven it still hurling smoke out of its top vent as fire spirals out of its mouth.

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Priming the oven at La Cocina de Doña Esthela

Aside from the delivery trucks (pickup trucks mind you, and one modest little flatbed) and the workers, we are the first one’s here.  Instead of going into the restaurant (perhaps, one may postulate, as a normal person would do), we walk towards the fire like two bewitched people.  La Doña is rushing past us, urging us to do as we please as she disappears.  Then we are alone in this place of fire under a giant awning decorated with the skulls of sheep, among other things.

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Smoke and bone

We spend time listening to the insistent whispers of the fire, but soon the animals call louder to us.  Horses flick their tails. Pigs squeal, both angrily and happily.  A lone goose waddles around, its neck stretched long and it glares at everything.  Then there are the chickens and goats and sheep and inattentive cows absently chewing.  We watch them all from the fence, feeling our bellies and a sense of calm from the simplicity before us.

The horses come to the fence to inspect us. One stays watchful behind the other, whose nose finds its way to our hands.  We stroke the rough dusty hair, the strength of the creature vibrant under our touch. This as cow bells jangle and the rooster sings.  He belts out for no other reason than he is programmed to, the need built into his DNA, as relentless as the need to eat.

….which we’ll get to later.

reasons to travel: discomfort, fear and failure

Crossing the border at Tecate is like finding a magical door at the back of a wardrobe.  When you step through, you are suddenly and instantly in another world.  A strip of corrugated metal with an opening wide enough to accommodate a single car separates one country from the other.  You slip from rural desolation into a little city of densely packed homes and businesses crowded together with a giant expanding brewery, which stands at the edge of things like some red giant.

I clutched the steering wheel and commanded Adam to navigate, because I had no idea where I was or how to get where I was going, and this not knowing terrified me.  It was my second ever time driving in Mexico.  The first time is occluded behind the gauze of memory, which is itself speckled with holes,  incomplete and porous like a sponge.

That time was two friends in my mom’s truck, federales with machine guns on a flatbed laughing at our monolingual-ness, and finding a surf spot based on referential directions, which may have been something along the lines of “take the third right after the rock painted white”.  This time was google maps, a detour, and a long line of stop signs and stoplights stuttering us out of the city.  And then Interstate 3, winding through sable-coated hills toasted warm with the coming summer and singed with the desert slinking in from the distance. The emptiness of the long ribbon of pavement, going somewhere correlated with a position on the map, comforted my angst.

I think this might be one of my hidden reasons for traveling.  Yes, I will confess it is to see something new, to understand life outside of all of my norms, my expectations and biases.  It is to peer through the curtain, and like a little voyeur revel in the shapes and textures of another life. But that is only part of it.

Slipping into another place, especially a different country where you don’t speak the language, where everything feels disjointed and like shadow or imitation of what you know—familiar enough, but still so different with its hand-painted business signs, the awkward shape of its streets and the composition of the road beneath the tires, even the chemical smell of the cleaning products—a hundred subtle things say, “this is not your home.  You don’t know this place,” and my brain at the same time insists that it must know because, besides the murky similarities, knowing is the best way to survive.  This is the dissonance; the jolt that brings fear and shakes me out of my complacency.

I hate not knowing. I hate being wrong. I hate failing. But THIS is the stuff of growing.  We can never be more than what we are, or different than what we are if we are never challenged. Living in the safe center of our lives is like living in a wax museum.  Artificial.  Constructed.  Perfectly the same.  We have to touch the edges of our capabilities in order to expand beyond our limitations. These experiences, uncomfortable though they are at times, provide the space to be challenged, to cast aside preconceived notions and to see the world through a different filter.  It is a spark to ignite the evolution of being.

The Power of Now

An assembly of recent strangers and now acquaintances were sitting on a sunlit patio in Italy at the end of a consensus conference.  They agreed on next steps for a new educational program and were congratulating themselves on surviving the two-day journey of “storming” and “norming” (as they say in group formation speech).  It was then, in the last moments of this meeting of minds, that one of the participants, Janet, said “We have ten minutes. Let’s go ahead and pick our case studies.”

Everyone groaned and protested.  They felt they had worked so hard, and now deserved a rest from the doing of anything. But Janet persisted. In that ten minutes they selected two stories to turn into case studies, outlined the contents, and nominated the working groups.

Janet did this time and again throughout my association with this particular organization.  Some people rolled their eyes, and protested, but in the end her gentle insistence won out, and progress was made.  I came to call this “the power of now”, and it is one of the greatest lessons I learned from Janet.

Procrastination, one could argue, is a general human tendency.  If it isn’t urgent, life-threatening, or otherwise pressing, why do today what you can put off for tomorrow.  While living in Italy, I became familiar with a phrase embracing this concept: Doppo domani. As in, I’ll do it the day after tomorrow.

I used to procrastinate, somehow feeling like a hero for staying up until 3 A.M. to put together a shoddy paper less than 24 hours before it was due.  While I have been able to whittle this mindset out of my life, it does still exist in various incarnations.  Do I get gas now, or put if off for the morning? Do I do that less desirable project now, or prioritize something over it? Do I take these last five minutes in my working day to be productive, or do I slide through that time?  Do I write this post, or zone out on facebook?

Here’s the thing; procrastination takes so much energy and is much more painful than just doing the task on a normal timescale.  I have never once regretted doing something now, which could be put off for tomorrow.  More often than not, I’ve been grateful to have tackled something on my ever-expanding list of things I want to accomplish.

There is a more philosophical tack to take on “the power of now”.  None of us know how much time we have in this existence.  A friend of a friend suddenly and unexpectedly lost her soulmate.  In these moments we reevaluate things we consider important.  When we are on the threshold of leaving this existence, what parts of our lives will bring us joy, and at what parts will we despair as distractions from the heart of living?  We can all use the power of now to build a more fulfilled life.

Alarms, Beeps, and Other Auditory Tortures

We live in a world filled with noise, both the noise we generate internally from all of our mind chatter, and the externally created noise we are confronted with at the moment we awake. There is soundless noise, and there is loud, obtrusive, and incessant noise, which is not merely an alert, but a demand, or an instrument of torture. 

My boyfriend and I are of the same persuasion.  Certain noises, unfortunately present in everyday life, make us want to do bad things to total strangers, like throw a brick through the windshield of a car whose alarm is going off for no damned reason at all.

Take, for example, a lovely Sunday afternoon in Antigua, Guatemala exploring the ruined portion of a cathedral.  There is a working church on the site, and followers are praying and chanting and singing in the Sunday mass, and a breeze is picking up the ash dumped by Fuego days ago and shaping it into churlish clouds.  Fractured baroque architecture hangs above, incomplete and covered in soot and dust, and absolute lovely for everything it was and is no longer.

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Antigua, Guatemala, 2015 © JL Colomb

There are birds, and worshippers, and ruins and the moment is one to fold up and put into a tin of memories.  Until a freaking car alarm goes off.  And continues to go off.  Not for a little while, but for the next 20 minutes. 

The spell is broken.  We speed through the fetishes and votives, and flee from the jarring WAH WAH WAH of the car alarm, which we discover is attached to a new Black Mercedes parked in a handicapped spot though there are no plates or papers or placards denoting a need for handicapped accessibility of any kind.  What’s worse, is that the doors of the church have been open during the entire mass and the car is parked not 50 feet away directly in front of them. 

No one comes out.  No one has made a move to turn off their screeching car alarm even though, one could surmise, the owner of the car is sitting right there.

Another example lurks within the walls of our own home.  Suspect No. 1: the microwave.  Why does a microwave have to yell when it’s done?  We live in the age of advancing technology, of coding geniuses.  Why can’t we have chimes, or our favorite song, or how about a simple text message to say ‘hey, I made something for you and you might want to get it out of my belly and into your belly now’?  Why does it have to beep that jarring beep better suited for a real emergency, like fire or smoke?  And it’s not just one beep.  Four, or if you’re unlucky five, angry trill declarations will resound upon completion of the warming task.  The frequency of the beep is not the only thing that drives us crazy, it’s the pitch, too. [Aside: there was a New York Times article about what sound drives people crazy. A certain kind of baby cry, and a specific cat yowl had an equitable effect on helping people lose their rationale minds.]

Our coffee maker announces itself in this same attention seeking way.  It beeps when it’s finished brewing, and again three hours later when it decides the coffee in the thermal carafe is no longer drinkable.

I do understand these features, particularly on kitchen appliances, are desirable for some people.  I yield; however, a little extra engineering would give the rest of us an option to be free from beeping.

But now, one of my biggest nail-biting, head banging, ear gouging stimulus: lip-smacking, openmouthed chewing.  This, more than car alarms, microwaves and coffee makers, makes me want to navigate the world with my ears stuffed with wax. 

Other people don’t have the same sensitivity to this, and for the longest time I thought I was the crazy weirdo with super hearing.  As it turns out, I’m probably only misophonic.  Yep. Thanks to another New York Times article, I have diagnosed myself with this syndrome, which is so pervasive it is actually a syndrome with its own name.  Selective sound sensitivity syndrome (i.e. misophonia) is suspected when a person (like me) has an acute negative emotional response to specific stimuli.  The sounds of eating and fidgeting are popular triggers. The response? Annoyance, irritation and on the other end of the spectrum, actionable anger (the term sounded more pleasant than rage) and panic attacks.  I wonder if Hieronymus Bosch was afflicted by something like this.

We are impacted by the noises in our environment.  Car horns and alarms, speeding engines and squealing tires, arguments and anger.  And what do these sounds, or the sounds of gun shots, bombs, or the cries of someone in pain do to us? These frequencies ripple through our world.  They reshape us in the moment, and sometimes beyond.  We become to attuned to them; we bend to their peaks and troughs. From this perspective, consider the importance of silence.  Consider the critical nature of laughter, music, the sounds of the wind and birds and rain, and the joy the voice holds when we discover and wonder at something.

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Civica Jazz Band, Milano 2012 © JL Colomb

The Forest of the Ancients (a travelogue)

Nestled on the Eastern slopes of the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest, lives a clan of ancients. The oldest of the impressive sentinels had already been living for thousands of years before the birth of Christ, before the creation of the famed Rosetta Stone.  They had already witnessed three quarters of a million sunrises and sunsets when the blocks for Stonehenge were being chiseled.  The Great Pyramids at Giza would have to wait yet another 500,000 sunsets and sunrises from that point before would they be conceived .  These creatures, the oldest living non-clonal organisms on the planet, are emblems of adaptability and survival.

I’ve had the honor of walking among these wonders thrice in my lifetime, and each time I have been amazed and humbled by them.  The steep dolomite slopes on which the Bristlecone Pines reside are rough and textured like the silvery skins of the trees themselves.

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Dolomite slopes

The Bristlecones stand alone and apart on these extreme inclinations; they thrive in the alkaline soil not because it is perfect for them, but because they are obstinate and adaptable and opportunistic enough to exist in an environment, which would kill most other plant life.  If that is not enough to hint at their stubborn nature, consider the Mohave Desert Basin lurking to the east far below Schulman’s Grove.

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Extreme and harsh environs surround the Bristlecones

To walk among them is akin to walking through the canyons of Zion National Park.  I taste my insignificance in these places, my transience.  I also sense wonder, and a host of other feelings in this vein.  Gratitude to be part of this experience, to be able to witness these creatures and creations, to stand amidst the art and science of time and revel in the absolute miracle of our planet.

The Bristlecone Pines perform their dance over eons.  For some species they grow as little as one inch per century.  Some 40 year-old seedlings in the White Mountains, where we were October 2016, are less than six inches tall.  The harsh environment, the growth rate, and the peculiarities all contribute to a movement in wood (for it really does appear that these trees undulate and dance).

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A photographer wandering among the Bristlecones can get lost through the lens.  The bark ranges from a silvery, monochromatic austerity to a warm vibrant glow.  It curls and folds like fluid ribbons tumbling from a gift.

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Ribbons

Serpentine, the gnarled limbs twist, as if to conjure their will and imagination into the world with the spell of their dance. 

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The Spell

The other striking thing about these trees is that it looks as if they wear their heartwood on the outside. As if, when they grow they fold outward, baring themselves, showing off the growing living sensitive bits of them.  I’m sure this is not the case.  I’m sure this is my uninformed and overly romantic interpretation.  Whatever the case, they are fluid magic.  They are historians. And hypnotists and sages.

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