Thursday, February 25, 2010

We could run the world on cheese pizza!

Where do children get the energy?  Brendan is a whirling, darting dervish of activity for most of his day...including the ubiquitous Brendan Happy Hour starting after dinner until whatever time we manage to settle him down from bouncing on the bed.  Whew!  It's exhausting just thinking about it.

But where does all this energy come from?  To say that Brendan is a picky eater would be an understatement.  Left to his own resources, his major food groups would be pizza, chocolate chip cookies, apple juice, and Life cereal.  Not usually in large amounts either.  And yet Brendan has managed to track 90th percentile for his height/weight since he was born.  This is the most efficient conversion of matter to energy I have ever observed.

If we could harness the energy of five year olds, just think what we could do!

So here's the idea:  Design childrens' clothing to develop a static charge as the kids move.  Homes and kindergartens across the world can be fitted with discharge mats that feed the static charges back into the electrical grid.  As long as there are children awake, we will have power!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wandering in the Western Stronghold

This is a story I first wrote 15 years ago in a travel-writing class taught by Larry Cheek, a writer and photographer for Arizona Highways.  The last re-write was about seven years ago.  It was featured on my old website but that disappeared a while ago, so I wanted to get it back into the electronic realm. (A pattern you'll see in future postings.)  While online, it generated two more contacts from Arizona Highways: the first a compliment from George Stocking, a noted photographer of the Dragoon Mountains; and Sam Negri, whose mistake from an earlier issue of the magazine I expose in this story.  He was quite humble about it and impressed both with the research and my description of the road directions.

It is the place of the big rocks. A place once home to a vanished people, now turned playground for rock climbers and modern-day campers. Where the great Chief Cochise once sat, a family from Tucson now dines on take-out from their local deli, or a couple in love sips wine in the moonlight. It’s not quite the place it used to be, or is it?

Today, on the western face of the Dragoon Mountains, park-like meadows vaguely resembling African savannas suddenly give way to craggy cliffs of pink granite. Splashes of green lichen highlight the cliffs in complementary shades. At the base of the cliffs, boulder fields and rocky ridges extend like immense buttresses. During one of our famous Arizona sunsets, the colors reflected on the pink granite can range from a brilliant orange to a fleshy pastel peach. Tucked among the rocks and meadows are groves of mesquite and oak, with sycamore and scattered cottonwoods lining the washes.

The Dragoon Mountains are named for a carbine-armed unit of the U.S. Cavalry, used in many campaigns against the Apache. The Spaniards gave these mountains a more appropriate name, Sierra PeƱascosa (Rocky Mountains), though they hardly resemble their great-divide counterparts.

To get to the big rocks, start in Tombstone, 70 miles southeast of Tucson via I-10 and State Route 80. About a mile before (north of) Tombstone, take the Middlemarch Road turnoff. Exactly ten miles from the highway, this well-maintained gravel road crosses one of many cattle guards...this one marks the boundary of the Coronado National Forest. Immediately after the cattle guard, take the left turn signed for the Western Stronghold, Forest Road 687. (The Middlemarch Road continues over the mountains through Middlemarch Pass and down into the Sulphur Springs Valley, meeting Route 191 at Pearce.)
FR 687 is a narrow, bumpy, twisting dirt road heading north, parallel to the western face of the mountains. Several side roads go off of it, some labeled with small signs shortly after the turnoff: 687C, 687D, 687E, etc., with the suffix letter getting larger as you go north. Most lead into picturesque campsites or simply in for a closer look at the boulder fields lining the base of the mountains. Take care as many of the side roads require high clearance. FR 687, with all its bumps and twists, is navigable by an adventurous if not careful driver of almost any vehicle, though a truck or SUV is recommended. Inclement weather requires 4-wheel drive.

Less than a mile off the Middlemarch Road, a well-used turnoff goes into several campsites often used by rock climbers. If you visit in the spring or fall, you might run into the Bean Fest, an informal gathering of local rock climbers. Looking at the mountains ahead, the attraction is obvious. Sheeps Head is the most prominent cliff face. Close by is an area dubbed “Isle of You” that is popular with sport climbers. Routes with names such as “Full Metal Hootgoat” and “Sheep Thrills” attest to the climbers’ brand of humor.
Along the side road to Sheep’s Head is Tennaco Well, a functioning windmill that pumps groundwater into a large metal tank. Emblazoned with spray paint on the side of the tank are the words “COWS OFF PUBLIC LAND.” Though the range land debate continues, it is the graffiti that seems out of place here rather than the well.

The next turnoff to check out is 687E, three miles from the Middlemarch Road. It loops around about a half-mile and rejoins 687 a quarter-mile ahead. Excellent campsites are to be found here. Some are among a grove of oaks and others among groves of 50-foot boulders.

A quarter-mile past 687E is, of course, 687F. For one of the best hikes in the Dragoons, start here. This is Slavin Gulch. The trail follows the route of an old mining road, going about four miles up to the side of a high ridge with fine westward views. Along the way are box canyons, hidden forests, and a stream with pools during wetter times. Most of the first mile is level, then the going gets steep and rough as the gulch cuts deeply through first one ridge and then another. A few easier sections and a few surprises make this the most interesting part of the trail. Beyond that, a level section gives a short break before making the haul up to the ridgeside.
The next stop is Council Rocks. The big rocks. Ten-year-olds, of all ages, love it here! The parking area is a short distance down side road 687K, six miles north of the Middlemarch Road. The trail begins to the right, beyond a wooden fence. Attached to the fence is an official notice in legalese that quickly interprets as an order of protection for the area. This is “pictures and footprints” territory.

Following the trail, one immediately clambers up a rocky chute. Eroded and oddly spaced footholds aren’t of much help. Within a few minutes the trail approaches a cluster of house-sized boulders, passing directly under and around two rock faces covered with pictographs, though many are so faint as to be indistinguishable from the colors of the rock itself. Among them are depictions of human stick figures, a spiral, a nearly invisible sunburst, and several zigzag lines. Pictographs, as opposed to petroglyphs, are figures that have been painted or drawn rather than carved. They are relatively rare in southern Arizona.

Continuing on, the trail leads past the pictographs about quarter-mile into an adjacent small rocky canyon that is considered to be a part of “Council Rocks.” A stone pillar rising from the cliffs on the south side evokes the image of a wise elder sitting in prayer. Near the head of the canyon, the trail gets lost in another maze of house-sized boulders. From here, the only way through is by rock hopping and bushwhacking.

An information sign at the site states that the Mogollon Indians drew the pictographs up to a thousand years ago, though the Apache may have added to them in more recent times. The Mogollon people lived mostly in the mountain areas straddling the borders of central and southern Arizona and New Mexico, including parts of northern Mexico. Over a period of 3,000 years, they evolved from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to a sedentary agricultural subsistence. Grinding holes can be found in the natural shelters formed by the boulders, evidence that people probably lived in this very spot. Almost 700 years ago, the Mogollon culture disappeared, perhaps replaced by the Salado culture moving in from the west. Some of the Mogollon people joined Anasazi pueblos in northern New Mexico.

The most recent non-European inhabitants were the Apache Indians, most notably the bands of Cochise and Geronimo. The Apache migrated to Arizona from the Athabasca region of northern Canada more than 400 years ago, not long before the first Spaniards arrived. They lived a primarily nomadic existence, occasionally raiding others for their needs.
As one explores the boulder fields and canyons, it is easy to imagine the Apache eluding the U.S. Cavalry here. Chief Cochise and his band of Chiricahua Apache were able to hide out in these and the surrounding mountains for more than a decade. Their raiding parties attacked many of those who dared to cross their territory.

It was during this time that Thomas J. Jeffords, formerly a steamboat captain on the Great Lakes, opened a mail route between Tucson and Fort Bowie. Ironically, after 22 of his riders had been killed, he befriended Cochise by riding directly into the great chief’s camp, alone, on a friendly errand of good faith. Cochise admired and respected the man’s bravery and they formed a lifetime bond.

On October 13, 1872, Jeffords arranged a meeting between Cochise and General O. O. Howard, to finally make peace. It may have been atop the boulder with the pictographs that Chief Cochise and General Howard, with “Captain” Jeffords acting as interpreter, sat and discussed the terms of the treaty—thus the site’s original name of Treaty Rocks. Jeffords called it, “The Big Prayer Meeting on the Big Rocks.” As a condition of the treaty, the Apache were allowed to remain in the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains.

Cochise died in June 1874 and was buried in an undisclosed location in the Dragoon Mountains. Two years later, his people were sent to the San Carlos Reservation.
A mile north of Council Rocks is another noteworthy site, Whitehouse Ruin, consisting of a few crumbling adobe walls. It is reached by a short unmarked side road. An article in the October 1992 issue of Arizona Highways claimed this to have been the hideaway of a New York City boss, William Marcy Tweed. Gangsters, indeed! If only it were true.

Riva Dean, a reference librarian for the Arizona Historical Society, wrote to the magazine’s editor, “being suspicious of a ‘spacious desert hideaway’ in the Dragoon Mountains in the 1870s…checking three biographies of Tweed, I found no mention of him ever visiting Arizona, let alone building a house here.” Ms. Dean did find a reference to a “Billy” Tweed though he was more likely a rancher, not the infamous gangster. A 1904 map shows the “Packard” and “Tweed” ranches in the area. Ms. Dean speculates that Whitehouse Ruin is what remains of the Tweed ranch house. Today, graffiti scratched on the remains has taken its disenchanting toll.

Beyond Whitehouse Ruin, FR 687 turns into West Stronghold Canyon, going deep into the mountains. Here are more campsites and more forest. Whale’s Dome, a block of rock resembling the head of sperm whale, dominates the head of the canyon. Rock climbers here may be headed for a popular route known as “Moby Dick.”
Some ten miles from the Middlemarch Road, FR 687 deadends at the Cochise Saddle trailhead. It’s a five-mile jaunt over the saddle and down into the East Stronghold Canyon (officially known as “Cochise Stronghold”). From either side it is a terrific hike, featuring views of interior mountain canyons and the awesome Rockfellow Dome. The trail is a moderate workout on the west side, climbing 1,000 feet in two miles to the saddle. Be sure to continue past the saddle for about a third of a mile to where a short branch on the left breaks out onto an exposed ledge. It is a fine spot to eat lunch or just to enjoy the view while letting your mind wander in time.
The people may come and go, but the rocks aren’t going anywhere.

The only variable between these photos of Mount Glenn is a few moments of time.  The rock in the Dragoon Mountains is called Cochise granite and is known for its pinkish hue.

The Dragoons were our favorite remote-observing site during the peak of the Leonid meteor shower several years ago.  We slept under the stars with the alarm set for 2:00 a.m.  All we had to do was open our eyes and enjoy the show all snuggled-warm in our double sleeping bag. (I had the camera on a short tripod next to my pillow.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

STS-125 Atlantis

May 11th last year I got to check another item off the bucket list, seeing the launch of the space shuttle in Florida; this one being STS-125 Atlantis: the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.  And without further ado, here are the only two pictures I have of the event...

Okay, they're not the only pictures I took that day...but I didn't take any during the launch.  Are those gasps I hear?  To be honest, I hadn't really planned to take photos of the launch because, well...I'm just not worthy.  Perhaps not my photographic skills, as it were, but certainly my equipment waned in the presence of so many others lined up along the rope which discouraged any of the 20,000 parched observers on the causeway from dipping their toes in the cool water of the estuary.  From six miles away, even they would have trouble of matching the incredible images taken by cameras closer to the action and posted online by NASA within hours.  (And in just a few weeks, Brendan and I will get to see this same launch on an IMAX screen.  Woohoo...won't be able to beat that view!  But I digress.)

So I wanted to be there for the experience; and I had used up one of my wild cards to get there.  Did you know you can ask your US representative for a free pass to a shuttle launch?  I saw the story online of another guy who'd done it--so I emailed Gabrielle Giffords' office and shamelessly drew the cancer-card to request a VIP pass.  Then, as the guy in the other story had done, I called Giffords' office to alert them to my email.  Apparently, this is a good tactic to get someone to personally attend to your email, no matter what your issue.  They were a bit confused at first but quite friendly and soon found somebody who knew just the person to send it to in the PR office.  As luck would have it, the father of one of Brendan's playmates knows the congresswoman and also put in a good word, though it appears my initial request had gotten the ball rolling.  Everything was efficiently and personably handled through email--so we planned our Orlando vacation!

Launch turns out to be the second full day of the vacation; it had been delayed one day but we knew about that way beforehand.  It's scheduled for around 2 p.m.--so we have to get up about 5:00 a.m.  And we're still on Tucson time.  Yuck.

As I was aware, a VIP pass isn't what it used to be.  Apparently, it used to get you to the press area with the big digital clock that you always see on TV, just three miles from the launch pad.  Now it just gets you to the causeway six miles away, where they dump you with 20,000 other spectators who have paid upwards of $100 each for the same adventure.

That adventure pretty much consists of waiting.  First it was next to Sears in the corner of a shopping mall parking lot in the town of Merritt Island...where we got in line with 200 other people checking in with VIP passes and loading into four buses.  Then it was over to the KSC Museum where they had security screening set up outside.  At least we got to wait in the air-conditioned bus this time.  Then it was an hour or so getting out to the causeway in a line of 400 other buses--where they drop us in the humid 95-degree sun of Florida with little shade and about two-and-a-half hours until launch.  I spent half that time in lines for t-shirts, a few dry hot dogs and some cold drinks; while having absent-mindedly taken with me the handful of toys we'd brought to keep Brendan occupied.

Lest I sound a bit down on the experience thus far, I should mention that our PR chaperones did a really good job.  They showed some videos on the bus which helped keep the kids occupied and were quite generous with the souveniers.  I keep finding space station pins at home, like beach sand after a vacation.

Kirsteen and Brendan gain a couple of sympathy-seats under one of the few canopies that have been set up.  The shade is nice but I find the huddled mass of humanity blocks too much of the breeze, so I settle for an open spot of sun to sweat it out.  Finally, it's time; a few folks are murmuring the countdown as they listen to it on the radio.  4...3...2...a cloud billows across the estuary and the shuttle rises into the air.

Then Brendan melted down.

He hadn't wanted me to hold him up higher and was having trouble seeing the first part of the launch.  When he did see it, a sensory reaction occurred that I hadn't anticipated.  We'd told him how loud it was going to be, but I'd never thought about how bright it was.  He thought it was the sun and was afraid to look at it!  He ran under the canopy and hid.

The sound did hit and it was as loud and gutteral as advertised.  It really is a different experience in person.  No camera can convey the three-dimensionality of the sky and the speed at which the shuttle leaps into air and arcs toward the northeastern horizon.  And then it's over...and I'm standing there with a crying child and facing another two hours to get back to the car.  I wasn't a very good father the rest of the day and that is the part I regret the most.  Was it all worth it?

Well, turns out Brendan LOVED Sea World!!
(And the fireworks at Disneyworld were pretty cool too.)

One of the best photos ever of me and Brendan,
courtesy an anonymous Disney employee.

Feeding the "string" rays (cow-face rays) at Sea World was a huge hit!

And I took a ride on Manta!  (I'm not in these pictures.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

DVD Reviews?

Heh, it gives me something to babble about, why not?  I don't get out to movie theaters much, but chemo-crashes give me time to watch shows at home.  Can't say my reviews will be timely or dealing with socially-conscious issues but it may give you insight into the mind of one member of the 35-49 American male demographic.

I just finished watching Idiocracy, a comedy by Mike Judge and coming on the heels of his success with Office Space.  The premise is one I have sometimes pondered regarding the fate of humanity.  Are we getting dumber as a species?  In this movie, a completely average Joe (as determined by Army Intelligence) is accidently put in suspended animation for 500 years, where he wakes up to a world inhabited by mindless idiots.  Now he's the smartest guy on Earth!

It's a thin plot with B-movie acting, but a short running time keeps the available laughs fresh.  Take it for what it is and I say it delivers.  Glad I didn't pay full price for it, but it was worth the $10 on sale.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Our Train Got Hit by a Rock!"

That's what Brendan will excitedly tell you if you ask him about his train ride in Colorado last June.

Kirsteen's friend, Jackie, from Scotland, is with us on the Georgetown Loop, a railroad in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver.  For enthusiasts, it's an historic bit of railroad engineering.  For tourists, it's a scenic if not somewhat short down-and-back run of about five miles.  The highlight of the trip is the view while crossing the trestle which begins the loop.

Well, most days anyway.

You can board at either end. We chose the top of the run at Silver Plume, sitting at the back of the train in a covered but open-sided coach; perfect for views and the light rain that is falling. It's a bit of a let down that it only takes 20 minutes to reach the bottom of the run. While passengers switch at Georgetown Station, the engine is moved to the other end of the train. This turns out to be very cool as Brendan gets a close up view of the action when the engine backs up and couples to our coach. Sid the Science Kid--eat your heart out!

Now we're heading back on the forested mountainside.  Suddenly there is a terrible banging sound as our coach lurches and shakes alarmingly, though I had no immediate impression we would be flung downhill.  "Have we derailed?"

The train stops quickly and 3/4's of a second later the engineer leaps from the cab to the uphill side of the train.  Within a few more seconds, murmurs are spreading that a rock has hit opposed to us hitting a rock.  Pretty good-sized one too; a couple of tons or more.  It slid ten or fifteen feet down the slope just as the train started to pass, first hitting the locomotive then bouncing along our coach.  It hasn't derailed the train but it came to rest pushing debris and smaller boulders onto the track between the wheel-bogies of the open coach behind us.

That part of the train isn't going anywhere.

As luck would have it, they decide to load everyone parked at Silver Plume into our coach, decouple it from the rest of the train and take us on up.  They'll have to come back and get the rest of the passengers and arrange for shuttle vans to take them down to their cars.  Glad we're not with them.  In all, we were delayed about 25 minutes...well worth the adventure!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Are you still in for the ride?

"Once you get a handle on the infinite cycle of the restless existence of all things, do you despair or do you willingly take your place in the circle? Does enlightenment lead to sorrowful disengagement or willing participation? Once you know where the roller coaster is going, are you still in for the ride?"
                                                                                               --Robert Fulghum

Keep up the fight!  The well-intended encouragement seems almost irrelevant.  Cancer just hasn't been a fight for me, it's been a ride.  The time we fought it the hardest was when I felt the worst, while most of last year seemed like a cheat with benign treatments and little news of change in my condition.  How can I be so sick and not feel like it?

I got to ignore it for a while.

But the cells are insideous and now they're in my femur of all places.  Same story as always; I can't feel it, except maybe for psychosomatics.  We're trying something new again.  In about three weeks we'll do another PET scan to see if the activity goes down.  No matter what, we still have options.  And that means hope.  Hope to survive another season, another year.  Someday it really is going to be a fight...and it scares the hell out of me.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Canoeing in the Canyonlands, Part 3

*click the title to go to the 400-photo gallery or continue with my ramblings and personal pic picks*

Our last full day on the river begins with pancakes and homemade raspberry syrup--scrumptious!  Embarking from our two-day camp, we are in no hurry today.  It's only seven miles to our final campsite at Spanish Bottom, where we will be picked up by jet-boat tomorrow morning.  Before that, we reach the confluence with the Colorado River.  It's an irony that the rivers have reversed their hues, the greener water of the Colorado is squeezed to the eastern bank as the surface is overwhelmed by the ruddier billows of the Green.  The final leg of three miles is a nearly straight-shot hailing the start of Cataract Canyon.  Halfway down, a sign warns of the rapids below Spanish Bottom.  It's an adventure to be sure, but one we are not equipped for.

Arriving at a spacious camp, we choose a lunch site in the nice warm sun...then all squeeze into a pocket of shade to eat as we decide it's a bit too warm.  I am willingly left behind as the others explore downriver on foot; resting on a boulder in the shade as a myriad of birds flitter about and beg me to shoot them.  Gotcha!

Spanish Bottom is an incredible setting; a nearly flat plain a mile by a half-mile in extent and largely covered with creosote except along the river.  Surrounding this on every side are talus slopes and cliffs 1200 feet high, almost to seem that one is inside a pit with no way out.  On the western rim, a parade of hoodoos and spires called The Dollhouse is the awe-inducing finale to this wonderous place of nature.

The chilly air returns over our final night while the high eastern rim uncaringly blocks the morning sun.  We wait for it, and the jet boat, on the river bank after packing our gear and washing out the canoes.  Both soon arrive as the adventure begins its journey into our memories.

But wait!  It's only over for Dan, who must be on the road shortly after we have un/reloaded at Tex's.  When in Moab, a visit to Arches National Park is almost obligatory, though the next day, a beautiful Saturday in October, isn't the best time to avoid crowds.  After our isolation, the international parade of visitors is almost comical...even maddening as we see families with children two miles from their car without a lick of water.  But the kids are having a great time, bringing back my own ten-year-old memories of scampering about this remarkable landscape.

We all spend time exploring the Devil's Garden Trail then split up, as Lynn and I don't feel up to hiking the Delicate Arch Trail.  As the guys do that, we take off on the Tower Arch 4x4 road, a modest if not incredibly long challenge for my driving skills.  Even John Hill might have had some fun on it.

One more dinner and breakfast together and it is time to go our ways, though I have padded my own schedule another two days.  For something completely different, I head for the La Sal Mountains which have beckoned me before.  With nothing to hold me back this time, I answer the call.  Up high, autumn has lost its withered grip on all but a few of the trees and shrubs while a dusting of snow lingers on the northern cliffs.
A rough spur road leads down to Blue Lake, a hidden little gem with a worthy campsite, but it will be too cold for my comfort up here and my real goal is more explorations of the Canyonlands.  As I wend my way around the mountains, I surprise a magnificent pair of bull elks in the road...what a treat!  They bolt into the forest below while I creep forward, spying with camera in hand.  There you you too!

I have an affinity for lonely backroads that end at dramatic overlooks, and two of them are nearby in what is now called the Canyon Rims Recreation Area; one of the pseudo-national-park acquisitions now managed by the BLM, just like the lands were managed before the name change--but I digress.  The first backroad would have me looping back to the Anticline Overlook, just a few miles southwest of Moab as the crow flies.  Coming up short on sunlight I stop at the Hatch Point campground and have it all to myself, as did the person the previous night who lamented in the register for anyone with correct change to pay the fee.

The overlooks are, of course, dramatic.  This is southern Utah, afterall.  After the Anticline I head for the Needles Overlook, a bit more developed and visited since this road is paved.  The rest of my day is a flash through the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  I manage two short hikes and a tour of all the main roads in just a few hours, my hand forced in part by a full campground.

As dusk looms I am driving over a shoulder of the Abajo Mountains taking a shortcut into Monticello.  One thing is apparent...hunting season has started!  In just ten miles I must encounter a hundred pick-ups, on the main road and every little side road, alone and in herds, flooding the forest with light and creeping along at five miles an hour.  I'm not against hunting but--geeze Louise!!!  By morning, I'm at a cheap motel in Blanding and have the last laugh on them as I wake to a steady bone-chilling rain.  It'll be off-and-on stormy most of the way home, but nothing to hinder my way.