A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, January 26, 2013

At Large

“Hey, please don’t shine your headlamps over here!” 
Jay’s voice was disembodied in the blackness.  He’d obviously turned off his own light, allowing the moonless canyon to swallow him whole.  For a moment I wondered what nefarious activity could possibly require such absolute privacy.  Then he added, “I’m taking photos of the stars.”
Photos.  Of the stars.  
The red sprawling glow of monstrous, dying Betelguese was clearly distinguishable from white-hot triple-stellate Rigel in the tilted outline of Orion – unsullied by distant glow of diffused neon and insistent headlights.  Our tent, insignificant and alone, was staked in sand imprinted by the heavy paw of a mountain lion. It rippled in the dust-dry breeze of New Year’s Eve in the Grand Canyon
This was not what I’d expected.
Nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year.  That, for the math-challenged, is… kinda a lot of people.  As in, about seven times the population of all of Alaska. I’m no misanthrope, and I don’t yet share Jay’s opinion that all regions south of the 50th parallel are deeply suspect and over-subscribed by humanity.  Still, when I’d booked our “backcountry” itinerary -- months in advance, per Park Service advice, in order to wrangle with thousands of presumed competitors for our tent spots -- I’d had my misgivings.  I fervently hoped that most of the five million would never leave the Canyon rim (“Gosh, how lovely, now we can buy knick-knacks and cross this off our bucket list!”)  There was also the question of mules.  How wild could this place be, if the trails are daily traipsed by four-legged big-eared cross-bred copiously-pooping equines?  Based on websites and hearsay, I imagined the sort of camping that involves Ranger Tess (who wears a comical hat and provides Informative Lectures About Wildlife); or Rhonda and Al from Cleveland (who have grandkids just about the twins’ age, would you like to see photos?); or Unprepared Bill (who wonders if maybe you have some spare fuel, and manages a snore so impressive that it can be heard from the next Designated Tent Site).  
Don’t get me wrong, I like Ranger Tess, Rhonda, Al, and Bill.  I’m moderately gregarious (albeit socially maladroit), and meeting other campers offers me the chance to turn them into fictional characters at some future date.  Besides -- gratifyingly, if mysteriously – they always seem to dote on my kids.  When I booked the Family Vacation, I was hoping (with the blind optimism of all such bookings) to have fun, create great memories, and dodge disaster.  Two adults, two six-year-olds, five Alaska Airlines flights, a rental car in a vast and unfamiliar city, promises of accommodation from friends who  tolerated me two decades ago, and a six-day camping permit for a place I’d never set eyes on – what could possibly go wrong?  Ok, so I was hoping for a lot.  But whatever I was expecting from the Grand Canyon, it wasn’t a True Wilderness Experience.
As a long-time official (and unofficial) environmentalist, I’ve been privy to a few too many conversations about the Meaning of Wilderness.  Particularly in Alaska, wilderness is an issue of politics, and ethics, and economics.  Does wilderness preclude all sight or sound of humans?  Is it sustainable?  Is setting aside “untouchable” land culturally inappropriate, with respect to indigenous peoples?  Is our adulation of wilderness a blind glorification of a less-than-glorious and perhaps mythical past?  Is it essentially nihilistic?  And can it possibly occur in a popular National Park, a mere few hundred feet from an established trail?
It seemed improbable.  But here, tweaked by latitude, were our own winking Alaskan stars, as seen from remote and uncompromising outposts such as Windy Gap or Tolovana.  For once, I was experiencing early-evening darkness without skis, or snowdrifts, or temperatures cold enough to make my nostrils crackle. After playing Uno and building rock-forts for teddy bears amidst the prickly pear, I could point out to my kids the fine-scale detail of the scabbard at the Hunter’s hip (and then I could define “scabbard”).  What could be more pleasing to a backcountry nerd?
And yet, this joy-of-isolation was not in contrast to the mood of the more social and civilized portions of our six-day jaunt; it was in counterpoint.  Thus far, everything had gone swimmingly.  Our flights were on time.  Our baggage showed up.  The rental car was not an Edsel, and Google Maps calmly talked us out of Phoenix.  (“The robot never gets mad when you miss the turn,” noted Molly.  I can’t imagine to whom she might be comparing said robot.)  Our brief stay in Flagstaff with my college friend David and his family could not have been more perfect.  Hospitality and good company are a boon in and of themselves, but did we really deserve perfect sunshine, a tour of the city, a hot tub, and kids precisely aged to match ours? 
Even when we arrived at our destination to discover that our entire camping itinerary had been derailed by a snow closure on Hermit Road… it was all ok.   I shuffled into the Backcountry Information Office mentally cursing Arizona for spiraling into panic over a mere dusting of the white stuff, but within five minutes, a charmingly cavalier young ranger arranged for new campsites.  It seemed things were not as all-booked-up-three-months-in-advance as direly predicted.  He also granted us a couple of nights of “at large” camping. 
I liked that phrase, “at large,” because it had a vaguely dangerous, on-the-lam feel too it.  Watch out, world!  Frescos and Cables at large!  I didn’t dream, however, that we would be as “at large” as this.  I knew we didn’t have the whole canyon to ourselves.  We certainly didn’t hold title to the whole wheeling cosmos.  Still, even if wilderness is a human construct born of smoke-and-mirrors idealism, I relished the illusion.
But I also, as it turned out, relished our evenings at Bright Angel and Indian Garden. I happily helped the kids pluck grass to feed to over-eager big-lipped mules in their dirt-trodden pen.  I enjoyed watching the twins eagerly yet laboriously print missives on oversize postcards while sipping lemonade at Phantom Ranch.  I liked the blunt and gregarious ranger who told us that, “Kids are never the problem; it’s the fat guys who ‘did this no problem twenty years ago’ who have heart attacks down here.”  I laughed at the fact that the campground and the nadir of the Grand Canyon offered heated bathrooms with flush toilets, putting our own frigid outhouse to shame.
I even, perversely, enjoyed all the people who stared at the kids and then asked us questions that barely veiled their horror. Like my parents, who had visited the place a decade and a half ago, they seemed a mite worried about … cliffs.  Also edges, drop-offs, vast precipices, and the conjunction thereof with Very Precious Children. Throughout the trip, we encountered people who clearly thought we were irresponsible nut-jobs, but were too polite to couch it in exactly those terms.   I’m not particularly afraid of heights myself, and I have a fair bit on confidence in the self-preservation instincts of my offspring, but I can’t help being endeared to anyone who thinks my children are worthy of protection.  A few years ago, I might have worn the Bad Parent badge with greater unease, but many other adventures – including Five-Month-Old Twins Go Winter Camping! and Four-Year-Olds Love the Chilkoot! -- broke me in nicely. 
I was also amused by the now-familiar refrain of, “You’re making your kids walk how far? Over what?  And sleep where?”  I hereby maintain that little kids will gladly walk all day long, if 1) they don’t realize that they can’t; 2) you really, really like playing Eye Spy; and 3) you provide enough lollipops.  Having lots of mule poop to examine is a total bonus.  If we only saw one other smallish child in six days (we borrowed her for Uno), it was not because of “can’t” but because of “don’t.”  But it just meant more smotherings of adult attention for our two.  They enjoyed it, and so did I.
And, interspersed with all this camaraderie, I also enjoyed – deeply, achingly – that moment when the stars deigned to have their pictures taken. 
Jay showed me his photo attempts.  The distant suns showed up with startling clarity, even on the dim little screen.  “That’s just thirty seconds.  When I tried a really long exposure I got blurring,” he said.  “All the stars looked like little lines.”  
I smiled into the darkness.  “Because the earth is turning,” I said.  
The earth was turning in the star-speckled darkness, with us on it.  I couldn’t entirely explain why that fact made me so happy.  And I couldn’t define whether we had found true wilderness.  But ultimately, I decided, did definitions really matter?  Maybe wilderness – or plain old “wildness” if you prefer – is at least partially subjective.  Perhaps it is something to be savored in small doses, like the “naughty” foods on the USDA nutrition charts, lest we become dulled to its charms.  I knew I would not have enjoyed this moment as much without the other moments, the Junior-Ranger-Badge-earning moments, the loaning-someone-our-cooking-pot moments.  Maybe wildness is as multi-layered as the canyon itself, and can be enjoyed best when you dip down, then up, then down again across its crazy landscape.
On the very edge of a new year, there we were: the four of us, plus sundry stuffed animals… at large.  Sunset had long since lingered, reddened, and winked out from the red-green-brown layers of the jagged, looming walls.   The voltage of thirteen batteries was all that lay between us and the blackness.  We’d walked scarcely two miles off the mule-beaten track, past the chest-high cairns that marked the official edge of wildness.  And yet we had the night, the canyon, the whole universe, it seemed, to ourselves.  And Orion was winking at us.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You Stink

“Mmmmm….”  Molly burrowed into my lap, long legs tucked against my stomach and face somewhere in the vicinity of my armpit.  She sighed happily.  “I love how my mama smells like mama,” she said.

I stared down at her. She smiled back up at me beatifically.  I quickly calculated when I’d last showered.

Having determined that it had been within the last 24 hours, I felt at least marginally exonerated.  Ok, so by the standards of Middle America – and most other people who think that running water is not optional – I wasn’t 100% clean, but I didn’t actually smell, did I? 

Except that, of course, I did.  My daughter had just told me so.  Moreover, I was fairly sure I did not smell like soap, or shampoo, or deodorant, or flowers, or chocolate chip cookies.  I smelled like mama. 

Probably, I thought, I should change my shirt.  But I had a kid on my lap, and when not inhaling my armpit aroma, she was reading aloud Mr. Putter and Tabby Clear the Decks.  I didn’t want to miss a moment of the action; who knew what Mrs. Teaberry’s good dog Zeke might do next? 

I considered telling my daughter that, her complimentary tone notwithstanding, people aren’t supposed to smell, and that both the smelliness itself and the act of commenting on the matter are generally considered gauche.   At almost the instant the thought crossed my mind, I recalled learning the same lesson myself, at roughly the same age that my twins are now. 

It was Christmas.  For weeks, a brown-paper-wrapped parcel emblazoned with lots of little Queen-of-England stamps, fascinating U.S. Customs stickers, and indecipherable postmarks had been squatting in my mother’s closet.  Granny always sent her gifts early – Thanksgiveing-early – perhaps based on the assumption that postal technology was still somewhere in the speed range of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  However, in my mind, this was exactly the way parcels should be mailed, because Granny could do no wrong. 

When I visited Granny at 3 The Crescent, Tunbridge Wells, Kent I entered a magical world in which milk came in bottles with the cream floating on top, homemade baked goods and fizzy lemonade were considered an important afternoon meal, and everyone’s voice sounded a bit like my Mummy’s.  Granny was willing to play infinite games of Eye Spy and Parcheesi.  She had a vast, ancient, important-looking metal biscuit-tin full of Cadbury’s chocolates -- in sumptuous varieties unknown on our own side of the ocean.  She let me trail her around her lush garden with a tiny watering can, and she allowed me to shell peas more delicious than any pea that had ever before graced my plate.  At Granny’s house, the bathtub had feet and the towels were pre-warmed. At Granny’s house, I was allowed to operate the Lettuce Spinner, and the spinach was magically delicious.  Thus, the opening of the Granny Parcel was imbued with weeks of pent-up anticipation and long-distance adoration.

From amidst the glittering scattering of sweeties in the box, I pulled out a soft Christmas-wrapped item with my name on it.  My name!  Carefully, I unSellotaped it.  The paper fell away to reveal a hand-knit sweater.  Now, normally, clothing was no more thrilling to me than it is to any red-blooded six-year-old.  But this was a special sweater, a sweater made by the marvelous age-spotted hands of Mummy’s own Mummy.  I pressed it to my face.  I inhaled deeply.  “It smells like Granny,” I sighed.

My family’s less-than-positive reaction to this statement took me by surprise.  “Granny doesn’t smell,” snorted my big sister.  My mother, more gently, tried to explain the finer points of scent-related etiquette: namely, that according to the official rules of polite society, no one smells.  Ever.

Except that we all do.  We smell.  Telling me it wasn’t so didn’t make it not so.  Telling Molly the same thing now, as she snugged herself down in a book-and-mama lap-sandwich would only be hand-me-down disingenuousness. 

Officially, sight and sound are the channels by which we humans communicate, educate, and interact with the world.  Sniffing things is deemed animalistic -- and heaven forbid that anyone notice that humans are, in fact, animals.  We try to sidestep our distaste by claiming to have no ability in the realm of aroma-detection.  Granted, we’re not bloodhounds.  But plenty of studies show that humans are far more nose-gifted than we care to admit.  Via t-shirt-sniffing alone, a typical human can easily differentiate her own scent, or her lover’s, or her child’s.

Of course, most people don’t take up shirt-sniffing as a hobby.  Nor are they willing to crawl around with their faces half an inch from the sidewalk or press their noses to their friends in order to prove a point.  Richard Feynman, however, had no such qualms.

As well as being one of the most brilliant physicists of the twentieth century, Feynman enjoyed a plethora of quirky and iconoclastic pastimes.  One of them was smelling.  At parties, he liked to figure out which beer in a six-pack had been touched by whom, using his nose alone.  (I’m never even half that interesting at parties, regardless of what percentage of the six-pack I’ve personally touched).  But he wasn’t really trying to demonstrate that his ability was superlative.  He was trying to show than anyone can do this, if they have the right warp on life, and cheerful disregard for anything approaching “company manners.”

I didn’t start reading Feynman’s popular works – the aptly named “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” until junior high, when he leapt to the spotlight because of his astonishing and damning demonstration, in the wake of the Challenger disaster, with an O-ring and a glass of ice water.  Long before then, in the wake of realizing that ones grandmother is not supposed to have an aroma, I’d tried to take anti-nasal injunctions to heart. 

Like the good little social-rule-learning child that I (mostly) was, I internalized the tenets governing which smells were considered terrible and unmentionable (anything poop-related, for starters).  Oddly, it was ok to mention non-biological odors that were, to me, much yuckier than poop or sweat: gasoline, Windex, oven cleaner, and most perfumes.  At the same time, I didn’t entirely let go of my faith in my sense of smell.  The school milk, back in those days before magically Ultra High Temperature pasteurized dairy products, was sour about 10% of the time.  I got in the habit of sniffing before sipping, and became something of a lunchroom expert in the subtleties between fresh, on the edge, and seriously nasty beverages. 

I also learned that although smell seemed like a big part of the world around me -- filling me with emotions ranging from doctor’s-office-antispetic-trepidation to dry-leaves-soft-hummus-joy-- there was a limited vocabulary to express this richness, and an even more limited context in which to use it.  The Crayola box might offer fifteen words describing different shades of blue, but I had no adjectives to properly describe the mingling pre-dinner scents of slightly burned garlic, bubbling minestrone, and brownies in the oven.  There were no words for the smell of the dampness that precedes springtime, the reek of overheated tar in a July parking lot, or the licked-clean scent of a cat’s fur as she purrs on the bed.

I liked sniffing fruit too.  I still do.  How else can one reliably judge a fine, ripe melon?  A good pear has an aroma to be reckoned with.  Apparently most Americans rely on sight to choose their tomatoes, apples, and oranges, which means that we are offered fruit that are round, shiny, brightly colored, and taste like Styrofoam.

I was secretly thrilled when, in junior high, one of my more radical hippie teachers instructed us to examine soil samples based on not only texture and color but also odor and flavor.  He wants us to eat the dirt!  Everyone expressed overblown horror at the thought, and decided that of course it must be a joke.  A few boys tried it out, with exaggerated bravado.  I tried it out with excited curiosity.  The earth tasted the way it smelled, loamy and complex.  Not good, precisely, but fascinating.

At about this same junior-high age, all my compatriots started to have much more interesting odors, shifting from the warm-skin uncomplicated-sweat milk-and-peanut-butter scents of childhood to the tangy whiff of pheromones and angst.  This was definitely in the do-not-mention category.  My mother bought me deodorant.  I’m sure she didn’t tell me that this was shameful… but I was pretty sure it was shameful.

It was at around this time that I discovered Feynman.  I was fascinated by his writing because I was fascinated by physics, but I found that his take on other aspects of life was equally riveting.  He cracked safes, played the bongo drums, and won a Nobel prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics.  He was, above all, someone who refused to believe something was so simply because that was what everyone else believed.  And, of course, he liked smelling stuff.

I will not, alas, ever make any fabulous discoveries in the field of particle physics, but I can still aspire to be an oddball scientist.  In this spirit, who am I to undermine my kid’s appreciation of one of her fine and subtle senses?   If I loved the smell of Granny when I was a first-grader, who am I to say that mama-scent is icky? 

We have only so much time to soak in all the nuances of our information-laden world, and a scent can be worth a thousand words.  In addition to the mundane usefulness of telling us whether the cantaloupes are as juicy-delicious as we hope they are or warning us away from the bench that is newly painted, odors are deeply emotional and achingly evocative.  They can send our minds whirling back to the mud-puddles of childhood.  They can imbue a sweater with memories of a grandmother a year unseen and an Atlantic Ocean away. They can conjure joy.  And they can whisper to us with poignancy, fondness, tenderness, or frank allure: you are my beloved.  Beauty resides not only in the eye of the beholder, but in her nose as well.

In my lap, my child turned a page of her book.  I pressed my face to the top of her tousled head, and kissed her. I considered good manners and propriety.  Then I unconsidered them.  “I’m glad my Molly smells like Molly,” I told her.