Moleskine

 

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Moleskine

Creative Nonfiction by Terry Engel

Published in Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019 — Essays

 

August 12, 2019

Move in day at the dormitory is the hottest day of the year, 107 degrees with a constant Oklahoma breeze that feels like standing in front of a convection oven. My daughter’s room is filled with boxes and bins, three roommates, and three sets of parents, all trying to unpack and organize and decorate. Once the heavy work is done, the fathers are commissioned to run to the hardware store and pick up lunch, assemble shelves and unpack refrigerators and microwaves, and lug empty boxes and trash downstairs.

My daughter, Julia Rose, lives on the seventh floor of a coed dorm with guys and girls on separate wings. The “coed” part hasn’t fully registered with me until I notice boys unpacking boxes. Surely I was told that this was a coed dorm, but in all the preparation this summer, from buying a new laptop to the roommate meeting to decide who brings the broom and who brings the shower caddy, I never heard “coed.” I look at the gangly teenage boys who will share a floor with my daughter and remember myself as a gangly teen, acned and introverted, a first generation college student with a mass of insecurities. As a college professor, I interact with teenagers every day, but now I realize that I know very little about their world outside the classroom.

At the parent orientation session, the dean who handles sex offenses, dating violence, and stalking makes parents promise to talk to our freshmen about what “consent” means before we leave. I think about this new terrain for Julia Rose that, unlike climbing the 14,000 foot Colorado peak when she was 15, she will have to traverse without me.

Along with coed dorms, I worry about the intensity of the competitive dance program that selected Julia Rose. She really wanted a ballet program, and I drove her to auditions at highly ranked programs in Indiana, Oklahoma, and Utah. Her mother, Lisa, drove or flew with her to a half dozen more auditions from New York to San Antonio. The auditions were scary. Two hundred girls and thirty high-school guys competing for a handful of freshman spots. Make-up, buns, leotards and tights, pointe shoes; the stretching, the temper tantrums, the tears. The Black Swan intensity of competition—not just the boys and girls trying out, but the dance parents. I imagine a dance mom arranging an I, Tonya pipe to the knee for any dancer who might take a scholarship away from her daughter or son.

After her first audition at the University of Oklahoma, my daughter cried. I waited, until she finally said, “Just so you know, I’m probably going to cry after every one of these.”

The college application and dance audition process followed fifteen years of dance lessons, most of them in Little Rock, a two-hour round trip from our home. For several years my wife and I took turns driving six to seven days a week. There were summer intensives with Ballet Arkansas in Little Rock and two summers dancing at the University of Utah in Salt Lake, a preview of dorm life and collegiate dance. Mercyhurst University rejected her, writing that “our dance faculty believe you would struggle in our [ballet] program.” After every audition came a two week wait and then the email. She was accepted into Marymount Manhattan, but in dance pedagogy rather than dance performance, and she was waitlisted by the University of Utah’s ballet program. Mostly rejections. Depending on how much she liked the school (Mercyhurst), or if one of her teachers had danced there (Butler University), Julia Rose would cry for a bit. But then she’d wipe her eyes and pull out her textbooks, or else pack her dance bag for the drive to Little Rock.

The night before we leave her at college, she’s feeling the sadness of our departure, questioning her decision to move so far from home, wondering if she has what it takes to make it in the program. Oklahoma City University is heavier on tap and jazz, her weaker genres, and the program was low on her list. It’s also one of the top dance theatre departments in the country. I tell her, “Oklahoma City chose you. That means something. Dance hard, and you’ll be alright.”

 

 

 

Rhythms

Late in the summer, Lisa and I take Julia Rose to her last dance class in Little Rock, where we have spent hundreds of hours at the studio waiting, reading, and grading papers while she danced. Most evenings we didn’t get home until 9:30 or 10:00, fourteen hours after leaving the house for work. Saying goodbye to her teachers is like moving out of the old house where you watched your children grow up; it’s handing over the keys to the new owners, knowing the house will continue to be filled and studio life will go on without us. The yearly rhythms that have dominated our calendars—Nutcracker in the fall, Young Adult Grand Prix ballet competition in the winter, recital in the spring—will belong to other dancers and parents. Lauren and Allison, who have helped Julia Rose navigate the college dance audition ordeal, tear up as we are leaving. Lauren and Allison both studied at Butler University; Lauren danced professionally for Ballet Arkansas, while Allison was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. They’re excited for Julia Rose. Lauren goes to her car for a gift and a letter. I imagine it brims with love and pride, as well as advice about how to survive a college dance major. It’s the kind of advice that I can’t give. Julia Rose already knows hard work stubbornness, my two greatest gifts to her.

This summer, when she wasn’t working, Julia Rose spent many evenings sitting with her mother and me, talking, watching reruns of the Office or Parks and Rec or the Sopranos, teasing the cats with a laser pointer, and giving us a hug when she left for a shift at the yogurt shop or heading upstairs to bed. There’s a lingering between the life she’s known and the life ahead. A liminal space where she’s holding on to the doorjambs with her feet still in high school and home, but her head and torso leaning forward to college and independence. Bittersweet is a cliché, but no other term feels so apt for her mother and me. Pride, certainly, excitement for this new adventure, surely, and deep sadness, overwhelmingly. Julia Rose is excited, but she’s also frantic about leaving her cat, Pearl, who sleeps with her at night and wanders the house with mournful yowls whenever she isn’t home. Her departure date approaches as inevitably as a receding glacier before the forces of climate change: nothing I can do will slow it or make me feel better about it.

One of the joys of becoming a college student or a new parent lies in the planning. Julia Rose sold frozen yogurt all summer, saving most of her pay but using the rest to buy supplies and decorations for her dorm room. One corner of her bedroom holds plastic bins of clothes and shoes, cleaning supplies, ironing board and iron, a Keurig and a few dishes, notebooks and pens, a refrigerator/freezer, and pictures and favorite books and personal items that will connect her to her childhood and family and friends. The move will require most of her compact car and all of my SUV. I moved to college with a sixteen foot canoe and a ten speed bicycle tied to a Chevy Chevette. Inside, I had a footlocker, school supplies, a hot pot, a couple of Frisbees, and a combination record/cassette player with two backpack-sized speakers and a stack of vinyl. I packed too much. When we brought Julia Rose home from the hospital, we filled a bedroom with brand new equipment: crib, mobile, boxes of diapers and a changing table and a diaper genie, chest of drawers, and books and books and books. The rest of our space filled with a car seat, stroller, and play pen; a wind up swinging chair, bouncy seat, and a baby bath; stuffed animals, toys, and sleep deprivation. I remember thinking that first night with her home from the hospital, that I had no idea how to be a parent.

 

 

August 11, 2019 – Sunday morning

Saturday night we loaded two cars for the drive to Oklahoma City. Tonight Lisa and Julia Rose and I are in a Sleep Inn. Tomorrow we move her into her dorm at 9:30. On her second day at college she will dance for six hours, where her professors will determine her skill levels for tap, jazz, and ballet. Wednesday is the faculty convocation and freshman matriculation, where professors parade in academic regalia and students transition from high school seniors to collegians. After the convocation, Lisa and I will say goodbye and return home to shepherd a second daughter, Stella, through senior year of high school and teach our own college classes. This morning, just before we left to take Julia Rose to Oklahoma, I found her sprawled on the den floor, crying and petting her cat, Pearl, who has no idea about the momentous shift in her routine, no idea that she won’t be seeing her favorite human for a couple of months. Julia Rose says goodbye to our Australian shepherd, Zoe, who had a malignant tumor removed a year ago. Zoe loves to go on walks, ride with her head out the window, and herd the cats and chickens, but ten months ago when we did the surgery, we bargained for a year. I don’t mention this to Julia Rose, since her homesickness is already setting in.

 

 
August 11, 2019 – Sunday evening

After supper Julia Rose and I make a run for Half Price Books. Julia Rose drives her car and I sit in the passenger seat, which still feels unnatural even though she’s been driving for three years. The suburbs of Oklahoma City sprawl in the golden light of sunset, laid out in a neat grid with major streets running north and south, sectioning smaller streets and neighborhoods and shopping centers and parks. There are fewer trees than in Arkansas, a constant wind, and because we are on the Southern Great Plains, we can see the tall buildings of downtown from miles away, rising like volcanic islands out of the ocean.

Half Price Books is as large as a Barnes and Noble and well stocked with used books in like-new condition and new books at, as advertised, prices half of what we would pay in the B & N. The bookstore is a chain and Julia Rose and I had visited its sister store in Indianapolis at the Butler University audition. We have thirty minutes before close, so I head for fiction. After a few minutes Julia Rose turns up in my aisle holding the entire Harry Potter series in half-price paperback.

“I’ve been wanting my own set,” she says.

Our copies at home are worn and belong to the whole family. My daughters were raised on Harry Potter, and we’ve filled cross-country car trips with my wife reading the books aloud, or reading a chapter a night before bedtime. The summer my wife and I taught at an international program in Florence, Italy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had just come out, and every night at the 16th century villa where we lived, Lisa read a chapter to our daughters, seven and nine at the time, and to a half dozen or more college students crammed into our apartment. My children know that if they turn up in a bookstore aisle with five or six books in their hands, I am a soft touch, and Julia Rose has caught me on the eve of her transition into college dorm life. I like that she wants to surround herself with books and memories from home. She adds up the cost of the series and the out of pocket expenses she anticipates for the coming year against the thousand dollars she’s saved from her summer job. But it’s a good price for books in excellent condition, and I tell her I’ll go in half. She gives me a twenty dollar bill and I pocket it, knowing that I’ll surprise her with it later in the year, tucked inside a care package or a letter.

 

 

 

Moleskine

My journals—almost thirty years’ worth, handwritten and then revised and typed—record travels, weather, book and movie lists, events, eavesdropped conversations, and notes on places and people. They are written in scene, dialogue, characterization, and sensory detail, and since I became a father, my imagined audience has always been my children. When Julia Rose graduated I shared the electronic document with her, nineteen years of her life, a prompt for dim memories and events lost to childhood. In Italy, my college students—for a grade—kept notes on the cultural sites we toured in pocket Moleskine journals. Imitating the college students, Julia Rose and Stella kept their own journals, drawing pictures and recording in their elementary school print whatever seemed important to nine and seven-year-olds touring the Uffizi, the Duomo, and the Galleria dell’Accademia, not realizing that they were guarding against the potential to forget experiences as the new crowds out the old.

 

 

 

August 15, 2019

It’s a quiet late afternoon after a mind-deadening day of English department meetings. Already the school semester feels hectic, and classes don’t start for four days. I’ve cleaned the kitchen, emptied the dishwasher and started a new load, put in a load of laundry, and started jambalaya for supper. My wife is still at her office and Stella, my high school senior, has gone upstairs to start homework following after-school meetings for chorus and theatre. This is a familiar time of day, but the rhythm feels off. For years, the hours after school meant driving Julia Rose to Little Rock for four hours of dance and waiting in the studio answering emails, grading papers, reading, napping, or writing. Or, on the Fridays Julia Rose drove herself, worrying about rush hour traffic and making sure that supper will be ready when she arrives home, famished from a full day of school and driving and dancing. I wonder what she’s doing in Oklahoma City and think about texting, but then I worry about making her homesick, or interfering with her new job of settling into college life, making friends, and sorting out her own problems. I put away the phone.

Pearl is out of rhythm too. As a kitten, Pearl imprinted on Julia Rose, and now she wanders the house yowling, looking for her human whose lap she nests on, whose knick-knacks she knocks off the dresser at night, precipitating eviction from the bedroom in front of a slamming door at 1 a.m. Right now Pearl is perched on the back of the couch in front of the bay window, watching birds and insects and squirrels and passing cars—and I imagine—waiting for the sound of Julia Rose’s car in the driveway and the slamming car door and the rattle of the breezeway door. The cat senses that it’s time for the girl to come home, and it’s depressing to think that that won’t happen tonight, or tomorrow night, or any night for weeks to come.

 

 

 

August 20, 2019

I take Zoe to the vet with a sense of dread because it’s been ten months since her splenectomy. Last year we didn’t know how extensive the cancer was, and because Zoe was already an old dog, I was hoping for a good year. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, then, and I weighed the surgery against a few more good months, which we received.

Just as Julia Rose is Pearl’s human, I am Zoe’s human, and while she jumps up on the couch and stares out the bay window at the sound of Lisa’s car pulling into the driveway, when I come home she explodes into full-body wiggles, barking and prancing and leaping on furniture and following me around the house until I drop my bookbag and get down on the floor to play with her and tell her about my day. Zoe and I have made the most of the time we bought with last year’s surgery. When I take down her leash she dances, barks, twirls, pounces on my feet, crashes into furniture, and slides into the door, focused on the leash in my hand. Her herd instincts kick in, and she guides me to the car, nipping at my legs like I’m a wayward sheep. In the car we drive with the windows down and Zoe’s head and shoulders outside, ears flying back in the breeze. On the trail she runs ahead of me, sniffing the brush, chasing the occasional rabbit or squirrel, joyous. She runs ahead forty yards, dips off the trail, then comes back to me, seeking reassurance that we’re still moving forward, then she dashes up the trail again.

Zoe’s excitement flags when she recognizes the vet’s office. While we wait she sits, her weight against my leg for protection, watching the staff move behind the desk, ignoring their attempts to make her feel at ease with proffered treats. We go into the examination room and the vet takes her into the back to take a blood and stool sample, but it isn’t long before the tech brings her back and Dr. Nelson comes in, wearing faded jeans and scuffed brown cowboy boots and a polo shirt. She’s a straight shooter, and she tells me what I expected to hear. Zoe’s cancer has gone into the lymph nodes, and in these cases, Dr. Nelson warns, death usually comes between two and six months. A vet in Memphis can do chemotherapy, but it would involve weekly drives to Memphis and cost thousands of dollars, a brutal treatment in exchange for a few extra months of life where the treatment would take away the energy for walks and drives with her head out the window. I decide on steroids and antibiotics, knowing that Zoe isn’t in pain yet, and there will be walks and biscuits and herding of the chickens in the backyard for a time, but also knowing she will inevitably decline, and we will know when she begins to suffer. I thank Doctor Nelson and pick up Zoe’s meds and take her home and pamper her with dog biscuits. I know that I will have to tell Julia Rose and Stella, and I think about how to do that.

 

 

 

September 1, 2019

By the third week of the semester, new rhythms are in place. Stella’s high school routine revolves around classes, theatre technical crew, and choir rehearsal. She is voted French Club sweetheart for Homecoming, where I will escort her onto the football field. My school is in full session, and I’m teaching three classes, directing the Senior Project, chairing the English Department, caring for a dog and three cats and six chickens, plus taking care of the routine maintenance of life and trying to have relationships. The dog is the hard part, right now. Zoe is not responding to treatment, and the vet tells me that she could last a couple of weeks or a couple of months. It’s difficult to know anything other than that we will know when she begins to suffer. So I use the good days, spending my lunch hour with Zoe, taking her for walks in the evening. I try not to think about what’s coming.

But it is hard not to think about how fast life is changing. My mother is eighty-three years old and lives alone and refuses to think about moving closer to my town in Arkansas or my brother’s town in Georgia. She fell a few weeks ago and gashed her scalp and broke three ribs and drove herself to a walk-in clinic. She didn’t bother to call me. A tough little woman, shrinking with age. This summer I hired a financial planner to manage my retirement accounts, and we spent hours discussing my investment attitude, determining how aggressive I want to be with my mutual funds. It’s odd to think that after a lifetime of work, I will retire in nine years, assuming I quit at sixty-seven. The retirement countdown dropping to single digits sobered me, the abstract suddenly feeling much more tangible. Nine years. What will that look like? My daughters should be out of college and working, my house will be paid for, and my retirement income decent though not extravagant.  I will have new, arthritis-free knees, and who knows, maybe grandchildren. More time to write. Time to travel. Time to putter. Maybe build that wooden canoe I bought the plans for in 1984. Assuming I’m healthy, maybe walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a spiritual pilgrimage. I think about the years ahead. I think about next year, when Stella leaves the house, and Lisa and I will be alone together for the first time in twenty years. What did we even do with all that time, twenty years ago, before our world was consumed by diapers and sleep deprivation, laundry and school lunches, drop-offs and pickups, parent-teacher meetings and homework, and all that driving to gymnastics and dance lessons?

It’s easy to think too hard, to get caught up in the moment, to worry about the future or try to hold on to the past. Julia Rose calls or texts nearly every day, and often we’ll listen to the latest news from college on speaker phone. She’s making friends, learning a new city. The dance faculty are pushing her harder than she could have imagined, treating her like a professional company dancer, and all of her doubts about whether she chose the best program are erased by the first month of college. Stella is doing the college tours and applying to theatre tech programs, starting to weigh her own collegiate decisions.

On the day we left Julia Rose at Oklahoma City University, Lisa and I went to the convocation and matriculation ceremony for new students and parents. The parents lined the sidewalk outside a one-hundred year old building with massive white columns and a tower, and the freshman class walked through the line of parents and into the auditorium, followed by the faculty in full academic regalia. Parents filled the auditorium and balcony behind the students and faculty. We were welcomed by various administrators, and the choir sang Carole King’s “Beautiful.” There were scripture and prayer and hymns—both Christian and in Sioux, this being Oklahoma—and then the faculty senate leader offered this invitation: “This University is an institution set aside by tradition for the preservation of knowledge, research into the unknown, the full development of human resources, the enjoyment of the life of the mind. It is this special tradition of learning and growth that we seek to extend and celebrate in this academy.” The students responded to the challenge and were accepted into the community of learning.

We went to a brunch provided by the university, and then Julia Rose walked Lisa and me to our car. We said our goodbyes and I gave Julia Rose a final hug and kiss on the forehead. She has never liked shows of affection and rarely endures more than a side hug before quickly breaking it off. Anticipating this, I gave her a brief hug and released, only to have her not let go. So I held her for as long as she would let me, and then we separated, and she did the same with her mother. I gave her my last gift, a journal to keep a record of this new journey, and then we got in the car and I watched her walk back toward her dorm and freshman orientation, clutching her Moleskine. She didn’t turn and look back.

 

 

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 5, Part II

 

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July 18, 2016

We put on the river that morning at Upper Tanner and enjoyed some nice rapids, though they were smaller. Julia Rose took the first turn at fish-eying, since Greg wanted my weight on the front of the boat for the bigger rapids that were coming up later. Before heading into a rapid, we made sure to stow our sunglasses in a secured dry bag and stuff our wide-brimmed hats into the front of our life preservers, so as not to have anything washed away by the waves. The morning was relatively cool, riding in the early morning shade of the canyon walls, and Julia Rose had a wet run filled with pure joy.

We had a quick run through Tanner rapid, a straight-forward class 2-4 with a 20 foot drop, then we stopped at a major archaeology site at Unkar Delta. According to the Grand Canyon River Guide, Ancestral Native Americans in the canyon date back over several millenia, with animal effigy figurines dating to 3000 BC. These early ancestors practices a hunting and gathering lifestyle that shifted to agriculture and a more settled life, with evidence dating to around 700 AD. Puebloan people moved into the canyon around 800 AD, at first living on or near the rim and farming close to the river. As the climate improved (increased and regular rainfall), they began to move into the canyon and develop small pit house dwellings with rock walls and roofs made out of  brush supported by cottonwood poles. By around 1100 AD they had developed well-designed, multi-room, above ground pueblos, as well as underground ceremonial kivas.

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The Unkar Delta, a wide flat terrace above the river, holds the ruins of over a thousand of these excavated dwellings, which can be seen along a trail maintained by the National Park Service. The Puebloan ancestors farmed corn, beans, and squash, laid out agricultural fields, built cliff granaries and rock lined roasting pits, and documented their lives with petroglyph and pictograph art. The trail is well marked with rock boundaries so visitors can’t disturb the sites. Greg reminded us of the importance of these artifacts to the contemporary American Indians, who see this site as sacred and holy. Numerous artifacts, mainly pottery shards, have been left along the rocks lining the trail for visitors to look at and photograph, but not touch or pocket. It’s an incredible view into lives lived over a thousand years ago.

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We got back on the boats and ran Unkar Rapid, class 4-7 with a  drop of 25 feet, with Julia Rose back in the fish-eye position. And then we stopped at Escalante Canyon and took a long hike, two miles round-trip, up Escalante canyon. The canyon opens onto the river in a wide graveled creek bed, and winds up through narrowing walls to a box canyon, where we practiced some rock climbing to get up to the next level of canyon. After a bit of exploring we sat in whatever shade we could find to listen to Greg tell us the story of his grandfather and how he got started on the Colorado, and sadly, how he died in a small plane crash (he was a pilot as well as a river-runner). It was a moving experience to hear Nevills’ story, told by a grandson who exhibited the love and pride of his generations, and a real connection to the history and physical dimensions of the land he walked on and the water he floated. Listening to Greg’s story in the canyon and later, pondering it while sitting in the boat his grandfather built and Greg tediously reconditioned, I felt a connection to the canyon and the river that I don’t think I would have gained from any other experience. It makes me happy that in this age of bottom line economic and business models, that Greg is able to tell his family’s history and share his grandfather’s boat and I admire his continuation and fulfillment of the tradition. Hearing Greg yell his grandfather’s name in the rapid named after him provided me with a true sense of historical connection. It made me feel like I had been invited into a sacred space.

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Julia Rose got to fish-eye Nevills, a class 4-7 with a 16 foot drop (accented by Greg’s yelling out his grandfather’s name in memorial), but then we stopped to scout Hance, one of the bigger rapids of the trip so far, a much more technical class 7-8 with a nasty hole at the top and some big waves and a drop of 30 feet. It was my turn to fish-eye, my turn to throw my body around “like a linebacker” to keep the boat upright in the wettest ride of my white-water experience. It’s a limited view–your neck can only crane back so far when you’re kissing the deck, as the boat climbs roller coaster waves to the top, where you get a split second view of the rapid and the wave-train ahead, before plunging back down into the next trough. There’s no chance to anticipate the run, only to throw your body from side to side, sometimes extending head and shoulders beyond the perimeter of the deck and out over and into the water.

After Hance there are a couple of short ripples, and then “Sockdolager,” a well named class 5-7 with a 19 foot drop. Sockdolager is a word that can be dated back to use in the 1830s, which means “something unusually large or heavy,” or “a forceful, finishing blow,” as in finishing a fight. Below Sockdolager I switched back to the rear of the boat and let Julia Rose finish the day fish-eyeing. The last section of the day featured a good mix of rapids in a section of the canyon with close walls and some wild-looking fins protruding from the rock walls. Julia Rose ran Grapevine (class 6-7 and a 17 foot drop) in the fish-eye, and in the smaller rapids that followed, I was able to shoot video with my compact fuji camera. Greg, knowing I was filming, took us into the wave train of one of the rapids without warning Julia Rose (he tended to cheat the bigger holes in his small boat) and Julia Rose got a great ride on film. We finished out the day with some good fun rapids, including 83 Mile rapid, Zoraster, and Clear Creek, along with some good ripples.

Greg Reiff

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We finished the afternoon camping at Upper Cremation campsite. Julia Rose and I pitched a tent in a small sandy patch between boulders, up on a hill overlooking the landing site. The guides grilled steaks and made garlic mashed potatoes, and Terry and Amy told us about how they met years ago (the next day was their anniversary and they would be on the Sandra). They met back in the late 70s, when Terry spotted Amy driving on the highway and fell in love and followed her to a rest stop, where they chatted away the afternoon and made plans to meet on a later trip–she was returning to college dorm after a weekend trip). The guides made a deal out of saying goodbye to those of us who were hiking out the next morning (Julia Rose and I, and Ed Zifkin and his wife Sue, and their children Elena and Ben, who had both just graduated from college that spring); 5 new boaters were hiking into the canyon to continue the rest of the trip. It was sad to be be leaving the group without being able to see the rest of the canyon and share it with these people who we had become friends with very shortly. The guides pointed out (truthfully, I belive) how much they had enjoyed rafting with us all. It was a good group with good grace and small egos–everyone was friendly and unselfish and no one thought they were more special than anyone else on the trip. The monsoon season was coming on and it sprinkled and showered off and on all night. It was really too hot to be in the tent, but too wet not to be in the tent. A private group camped at Lower Cremation campsite, about 50 yards downstream from us, and they spread tents all over the hillside above their beach, yelled at one another, and played loud music for much of the evening before finally settling down for the night, proving that even in the Grand Canyon you can’t completely get away from assholes.  

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 5, Part I

 

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July 18, 2017

On day five Julia Rose and I awake eager to begin our day on the Sandra. We have an easy job of packing up for the morning, since we don’t have a tent to break down, and after breakfast and helping load the rafts, we go wait for Greg to give us our special instructions for passengering on the Sandra.

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Lee’s Ferry, AZ, August 2016–The story of the Sandra goes back over a year before this day. A few years ago my wife and I made the decision that for their 16th birthdays, our daughters could choose a trip anywhere in the continental United States. Last summer, just after Julia Rose turned 15, our family was heading home following a vacation to Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. We stopped off at Lee’s Ferry so I could finally see the legendary put-in I’d read about for so many years. There were several groups getting ready to go down the river. A couple of private boaters had oar rafts rigged and ready to float, and there were some commercial trips getting ready. I watched a woman swamper rolling out a massive raft and inflate the air chambers, and I talked to one of the guides getting ready to take a group of scientists and elected officials, along with members of an American Indian tribe with cultural connections to the canyon gear up. Since it was late in the day the guides were rigging out the boats in preparation for a morning launch.

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Rigging a large motorized passenger raft at Lee’s Ferry, 2015

As I was Geeking out over the rafts, talking to guides and crew outfitting their boats, and explaining to Julia Rose what I knew about the river and the trips that went down it, she made the decision that she wanted to raft the Grand Canyon for her sixteenth birthday. The decision made me happy, since it meant that I would get to accompany her and finally get to live one of  my dreams.

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Norm Nevills at Bright Angel Beach, 1947 (courtesy Wikipedia)

As we headed toward home across Arizona, my wife scrolled through her phone, reading descriptions of the trip options for the following summer. As a boater, and as someone who knew that this might be my one chance to see the canyon from river level, I rejected trip after trip. Most of the trips were motorized, giant passenger rafts. I didn’t want the silence of the canyon to be marred by the sound of motors, and I didn’t want to sit on a giant raft like a passenger on a tour bus.  I wanted Julia Rose to experience the river on a smaller boat, where she could feel the size of the waves and get wet, where she could come to appreciate the artistry of a guide angling the boat into the waves and holes, where she could bail and pump water after a rapid, where she could experience the potential danger of a flipped raft and a cold swim, and where she could take in the wonders of the canyon, quietly reflecting on the flat sections, and talk to a guide one-on-one, and listen to his jokes and stories and take a turn on the oars in the slow water. I reasoned, correctly, that we were much more likely to encounter a higher quality of fellow clients on an oar trip–people like us who appreciate quiet wanted to engage with the river on a more personal level. As we drove, we focused in on the oar trips (much fewer than I anticipated), weighing options.

Lisa finally read a description of the upper canyon section of the river slated for mid-July, a trip that featured oar-rafts and no motorized support for the gear. The detail that sealed the deal, the one sentence that led me to choose Canyoneers, and our particular trip, was the fact that it featured a historic cataract boat built by Norm Nevills.

I didn’t remember all the details about Nevills, about his running the first commercial trips through the canyon and taking the first women end to end, but I knew the name from having read a book, over 30 years earlier, titled River Runners of the Grand Canyon. Off and on through the years I had studied the history of river running through the canyon, beginning with Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian and the explorations of John Wesley Powell,  and tracing its history all the way to the young adult fiction of Will Hobbs and his book Downriver. Over the years I have marvelled at the courage, audacity, willpower, grit, foolishness, cleverness, and pride of those first men who built wooden boats and pushed them into the river. The opportunity to touch a bit of history, to experience the rapids in a handbuilt boat, to feel the movement of the river in the same way that some of  the earliest runners had felt it, was the only way that I could imagine my (for all I know) once in a lifetime Grand Canyon run.

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We booked the trip while driving across Arizona, and I began to plan and dream. I even gave Julia Rose Riverrunners so she could read up on the history and have an appreciation for just what a trip through the canyon promised.

Throughout our early days in the canyon, Julia Rose and felt a real sense of anticipation as we watched others ride the Sandra ahead of us and waited our turn. I don’t think we could have picked a better day to ride the Sandra. It’s a small boat, probably 14 feet, made out of marine plywood and painted white with green trim. It has a regular prow and a square stern, but it’s designed to float square stern down river. Otherwise, the current would push the square stern making the boat difficult to maneuver. Like all river runners, Greg has outfitted his boat to suite his personality, so the Sandra sports a variety of animal figures–from a plastic Gila monster to a Teddy bear (to remember his son while he’s away on the river)–lashed to the deck and cockpits. Inside a waterproof hatch, there’s a picture of his grandfather and grandmother in a cataract boat, laminated and glued to the inside hatch cover.

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Cockpit for the pilot and the second passenger

In operation, the guide sits in the middle of the boat in a little cockpit, and one passenger rides in a second cockpit  immediately behind the pilot. This passenger operates a bilge pump and bail bucket and gets a bird’s eye view of the rapids over the guide’s shoulders. The second passenger rides on a mat strapped to the deck in front of the guide, and in the rapid has to lay prone on the deck of the boat, legs spread out in a V, holding on to two grab loops at the front (stern) of the boat. The front passenger’s face is just above the water level, since the boat only has a foot or two of freeboard above the water line. In the big rapids the front passenger gets an eye-level view of the waves, and a very wet ride. As Greg explained, the front passenger has to pay attention to the holes and troughs in the river and throw his or her weight on the downriver side to help prevent the boat from flipping. Nevills called this “fish-eying.”

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Fish-eyeing

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The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 4

July 17, 2016

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Packing up for the day

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Sunrise at Lower Saddle Campsite

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Daylight at Lower Saddle

Julia Rose and I had originally scheduled with Greg Reiff to passenger on the Sandra, today, the short, wooden cataract boat built by Greg’s grandfather, Norman Nevills, one of the first commercial boaters in the canyon. It only takes two passengers, and Greg likes to get as many people on the boat as possible on a trip so that they can have a real historical perspective on boating in wooden boats. However, the day before, Ethan had warned us that Day 4 was much like Day 3 in terms of lack of big water and excitement. One of the reasons to ride on the Sandra is the excitement afforded by lying face down on the front deck, face just above the water level, holding on with two hand straps, and crashing through the rapids–Nevilles and Greg call it “fish-eyeing.” So the night before, I asked Greg if it would be okay to delay our time on the Sandra a day, since Day 5 promised lots of big rapids. Greg accommodated and let a more timid couple ride that day, and we teamed up with Terry and Amy and Don on Ethan’s raft.

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River guides’ solution to the wear and tear of the desert on sandaled feet

Terry and Amy are Arizona natives making their third trip down the canyon, and they will be celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary on the river (by design, actually riding the Sandra). Terry is a retired engineer for the state and Amy a second or third grade school teacher. They’ve left Arizona and moved to Oregon, near Bend, and they’re a very cool couple. Terry likes to hike and we chatted a good bit on various hikes. Amy is gregarious and funny, easy to tease and teases back. It was a relaxing day on the boat because there was time to talk and observe the canyon while Ethan rowed. They will celebrate their anniversary on Day 6, the day we climb out of the canyon, and that is the day they’ve reserved for the Sandra. Terry and I had hiked together for a while going up Saddle canyon the day before.

We’re surprised to learn that Ethan is younger than he looks, though he looks fairly young. I would have put him in his late 20s, but turns out he’s still in his early 20s and has been working the river since he was 17. The guides on the equipment boats are apprentice boaters, working for tips and experience. Ethan worked his way up pretty quickly, due to his skill with the boat, which is obvious, and his easy-going personality. He’s a good leader. He tells us that when gets off a long river trip he always takes in an afternoon movie to soak up the air conditioning and the dark of the theatre.

The morning broke clearer than day 3, with little trace of smoke. We weren’t sure if the fire had burned itself out or if the wind had shifted or if we had just paddled out of the downwind stream. It turned out to be the latter of the two, since the fire was still burning weeks after the trip ended. Not long after we got on the river we passed Nankoweap Canyon and one of the bigger rapids of the day, Nankoweap Rapid which drops 25 feet through a long, sweeping left hand curve–lots of splash and quite long, but not very technical. High above the river under an overhang of the cliff the ancients built pueblo style granaries that dates back to 1100. The overhang had been walled off with tightly fitted adobe bricks, which formed rooms that held grain and seeds and protected them from rodents and decay. From the river four rectangular windows are clearly visible.

As we floated Terry and Amy told stories about their kids and each other. A motorized oar rig passed us and Amy knew someone on the other raft, someone she had taught with before, so it prompted a shouted exchange and kept Amy telling stories about her friend for a few miles.

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lunch stop

The highlight of the day was an afternoon stop at the confluence of the Little Colorado River. Because of the high alkaline content and other minerals the water is eye-hurting turquoise blue. We hiked up the upstream bank of the Little about a quarter mile where a nice fast chute of water poured through a narrows. We took turns floating the chute in our life jackets, and in between swimming we rested under the shade of an overhang. Some of the rafters hung out beside some big boulders and made handprint designs by dipping their hands in the mud and laying them on the rock.

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Confluence of Little Colorado River and the Colorado

 

20160717_121931We camp at Upper Tanner, which is a wide delta where the cliffs draw back from the river and we get the sense of wide desert, the feel of being hemmed in by the canyon forgotten for the evening. Julia Rose and I pick out a campsite below a short cliff  near the boat landing, but decide to move further away from the rocks  after watching a long thin snake cross our campsite and disappear into some brush on the other side. Clearly his territory, and while non-poisonous, unsettling enough to encourage us to move.

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Looking across the valley from Tanner

Greg Reiff leads a group on a half mile hike to get a close up look at “Newspaper Rock,” a cluster of rocks on a hill that have dozens of petroglyphs carved into them. The site suggests that the area was heavily visited, most likely farmed hundreds of years ago, and important for whatever ceremonial, spiritual, or communal reasons that can be inferred. A teacher by trade, Greg establishes rules about not touching anything, but then leads the group in thinking about the importance of respect for cultural artifacts, comparing the site to the churches, temples, and synagogues of the Western and near-Eastern worlds. Sitting on the rocks near “Newspaper Rock,” we have a nice view of the river and a wide valley within the canyon.

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Ed Zifkin, Greg Reiff (Sandra cataract boat), Erin Brugler (hike guide)

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Don Schumm, Ira Wagner, Amy Burks, Terry Burks

Don

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Terry Burks, Glenn Sherratt, Sue Feldman, Elena Zifkin

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Ed Zifkin, Chris Adakai, Erin Brugler

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The evening is windy, blowing sand, and after a supper of spaghetti and meatballs, Omar and Greg stop by our campsite for a little while. For some reason we end up talking about Racism and the deep South, which Omar can appreciate since he grew up in Virginia with a Nicaraguan mother. Greg was flabbergasted by the stories Julia Rose and I told about the pickup truck parades flying Confederate battle flags in reaction to the black church shooting in South Carolina and talks about taking the rebel flags off of Southern capitols and state flags. That such a thing is still an issue is a concept that Greg, a true Westerner, can’t seem to wrap his head around. Chris, a friend of Leo’s  sets up a dome tent, fearing rain, and while we talk, the canyon walls in the distance color and darken with the setting sun. Sure enough, during the night we get a heavy sprinkle and a few people break out the rafting company’s dome tents and set them up by headlamp. Julia Rose and I debate setting one up, but decide it’s too much trouble and the rain blows over before we could have gotten it set up anyway.

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Omar Martinez, Julia Rose, Greg Reiff

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Evening at Tanner

 

On the National Mall, Jan 1, 2017

 

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Lincoln Memorial

 

Delilah at Lincoln Memorial 2

On the step where Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream  Speech”

 

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Korean War Memorial 1

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Korean War Memorial 2

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Korean War Memorial 3

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Korean War Memorial 4

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Vietnam War Memorial

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Temple Green and Revenge, Part I

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Temple Green and Revenge, Creative Nonfiction

February 19, 2017

Today I saw Temple Green, a color that carried me back, not pleasantly, to 1984 and 85.

I have written before about the company that I worked for those two years: Temple Eastex, a forest products corporation that owned a half-million acres of timberland in East Texas, which it used to feed its manufacturing facilities that produced corrugated fiberboard, particleboard, oriented strand board, and gypsum wallboard, among other things. The company later merged into Temple-Inland, and recently was absorbed by International Paper. But at the time I worked in its particleboard division in its most far-flung outpost, in Thompson, Georgia, it had a definite Texas attitude. Imagine a management team of pint-sized cowboys who imagined themselves as John Wayne and sported metaphorical over-sized Stetsons and spurs.

Today, driving from Houston, Texas toward my home in Arkansas, I drove through Diboll, the hometown of Temple-Eastex, and I caught a glimpse of one of their buildings, distinctive from its color.

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In 1984 I got my first job out of college working as a quality control supervisor. The mill was housed in a building fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long, with metal siding painted a drab yellow-green color specially mixed for the company:  Temple green. The plant was laid out like a long assembly line, with tall silos and fifty foot piles of yellow pine shavings at one end, the warehouse and loading dock at the other. In between the shavings were ground to particle size, dried, treated with urea-formaldehyde resin, formed into mats eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long, pressed and sawed. High pressure blowlines four feet in diameter sprouted out of the roof of the building and moved the wood furnish from the silos to the dryers to the blenders. Fine particles of wood floated through the air and dusted the cars in the parking lot and formed windrows on the ground that looked like cream colored snow.

A week into the job I was called upstairs to the plant manager’s office, where he stood by the window looking down at the conveyor belt that shuttled the long mats into the press.  The man’s name was Larry, and I was struck by the way his Southern accent sounded affected, the Hollywood version of the way people in the South talk. His boss, John, the division manager, was a short man from Texas who wore Brooks Brothers shirts and spat tobacco juice into a styrofoam cup packed with tissue. They said I had two “problems” in my department–two technicians whose main crime proved to be that they were black, union troublemakers. The division manager told me that it was my job to run those two out of the company. I was twenty-three years old and I thought that I could do it.

I left the office with every intention of running those two off, even though I had no idea what sort of employees they were. In college I had learned something about making particleboard, but nothing about managing people. I didn’t think it would be so hard.  I planned to be fair and I assumed that everyone cared about the quality of their work.  I put pressure on Lloyd and Waldo. Both men were in their thirties, which seemed very old to me at the time, and they looked even older because the wood dust turned their black hair white. Every mistake they made I reacted with the company’s established disciplinary process:  verbal warning, written warning, three days off without pay, termination. But I learned that I was doing a bad thing when Lloyd responded to a written warning by filing a grievance against me.

Waldo represented Lloyd when the grievance was heard before the division manager. The man who ordered me to fire Lloyd, who had promised to back me up all the way to arbitration, spat tobacco juice into his cup and said: “Lloyd, Terry’s just a young guy trying to make an impression, a little too gung ho. I think we can convince him to back off on this warning and remove it from your record.” I backed off Waldo and Lloyd, and the pressure switched to me.

I met with the plant manager, Larry, once a week to discuss Lloyd and Waldo. One day he explained why the division manager hadn’t backed me up. The union contract was due to expire soon, and the company couldn’t afford to make the men martyrs by going to arbitration. I remembered the first or second day I worked for Temple, when he’d given me a copy of the union contract and said: “I hope we don’t have to work with this long, but you’d better know it pretty well.” When the contract expired, the employees would have a chance to vote on whether or not they wished to be represented by the union, and I realized that the move to fire Lloyd and Waldo was a move to weaken the union. Larry said that I should try to catch them in gross negligence, an offense not protected by the contract, and he offered fatherly suggestions on ways to trap the men. Other days he threatened to fire me if he didn’t see results before the union vote.  It was sort of like good cop/bad cop. I never knew what to expect when I went upstairs to his office.

When my parents asked about Temple, I told them how bad the situation was in much the same way I’d told them I would probably fail physics in college. I was afraid of disappointing them, and I didn’t want them to be surprised. I’d decided that there was something wrong with me, that I didn’t understand personnel management any better than I did physics. My father talked to me about DayBrite, about what it felt like to work at a thankless job, and how being fired was the best thing that ever happened to him.  “There’s plenty of work that you can do well,” he said, “without having to work for assholes.”

 

Hurricane, a Prose Poem

Job.  It was an appropriate book for the weather because, after all, Job’s troubles had started with tornadoes striking the house where his sons and daughters were feasting, killing them all.  Hubert listened to the wind shake his house and thought about the book of Psalms, where King David had written:

He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants.”

He wondered what the wind had to tell him tonight. Probably nothing. Maybe, that it was time to go out in the storm and let God have his way. That painter on the coast had done it. Anderson. Walter Anderson. Rowed a boat out into the Gulf of Mexico, clear out to Horn Island, tied himself to a tree and howled into the throat of a  hurricane. He was dying too. Cancer. The storm didn’t get him though. The cancer did.

Everything was in order, he guessed. The will was signed, cattle records filed, pass book and insurance policies locked in the safe-deposit box. His lawyer knew where everything was, and Caleb wouldn’t have any trouble sorting out his affairs.  He’d already made the arrangements at the funeral home—everything paid for.

There were worse ways to go out than in a storm. God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Jesus calmed the waters. He would be with his cattle, and that’s where anybody who knew him would expect to find him. Out in the field with his cattle. That’s where Caleb would know to look.

He rolled another cigarette and thought about it, picked up his matches and lit it and took a deep drag. He coughed it out, eyes watering, and waited until he could take another pull.

When he finished the cigarette he ground it out in the ashtray and dropped the butt in a mason jar about half full of butts, insurance against a day with no makings.

He set the Bible on the table beside his chair and stood up to go.

Walking Train Tracks on Superbowl Sunday

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February 4, 2017

It was a warm day for February, mid fifties with a mild wind and overcast skies but no rain. Mid-afternoon, I had an afternoon to kill, waiting for the Superbowl to come on tv, waiting on my daughter, who was dancing at the ballet studio all afternoon and into the evening, (halftime to be exact, before she finished and we could make the hour drive home; she wanted to watch Lady Gaga, so we sat in the lobby of the studio for another fifteen minutes and watched the spectacle).

A couple of miles from the studio Two Rivers Park sits at the junction of the Little Maumelle River and the Arkansas River. There’s a big parking area, a boat ramp, and a bicycle/pedestrian bridge that crosses the mouth of the Little Maumelle and connects the Two Rivers trail to the Arkansas River Trail, which runs all the way downtown on the south side of the river and splits to cross the Big Dam Bridge and run into North Little Rock on the north side of the Arkansas. It being Sunday afternoon the parking lot was full and the Two Rivers trail, paved for bicycles, was busy. Railroad tracks ran west, toward cone-shaped Pinnacle Mountain in the distance, the tracks squeezed between a steep bluff and the Little Maumelle River. Opting for time away from crowds, I followed the tracks and soon found myself alone, following the curve of the rails as it paralleled the curves of the river.

I’ve got a history with railroad tracks dating back to my early teenage years, when a friend and I used the tracks near his house to get out of the neighborhood he lived in and into what passed for near-country despite being in the middle of a mid-sized Mississippi town. We’d lay our ears on the rails and try to detect approaching trains, like American Indians or train robbers in the movies, but never really heard anything even when we could see the big diesel engines a quarter mile down the track. We’d lay coins on the rails and wait for the train to flatten them into silver and copper pancakes. We’d collect rusted railroad spikes and look for blue-glass insulators at the base of utility poles that often ran beside the tracks. The benefit of railroad tracks is that they usually go cross-country, where highways and streets seldom seem to go. Unlike cars, trains don’t need to stop, or turn off or lead to houses or businesses, so in just a few minutes of walking, it can feel like you’re miles from nowhere. Traffic noises dissipate, trees crowd up close to the right of way, and the gentle curves provide an incentive to find out what’s around the next bend. Walking the rails, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s young hero Nick Adams, walking the rails and riding the trains to get away from something, or to get somewhere new and promising.

In college I rented a room in a house that sat on the edge of town. Behind the house railroad tracks led off into the country, and beside the tracks for a long way was a nice creek with steep banks and wonderful hardwoods. Across the creek stretched the experimental farmland of Mississippi State University’s College of Agriculture, several hundred acres. Afternoons I would gather my books and head off down the tracks and walk as far as I wanted until I found a nice place to study in the woods that sheltered the creek.

Despite the peaceful setting, passing trains never failed to excite the little boy inside of me. The deep throb of the diesel engines, the wave of the engineer, the screeching metal-on-metal of the wheels, remind me of the excitement Walt Whitman felt in his poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter”:

. . . .
Fierce-throated beauty!	 
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,	  
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,	 
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)	 
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,	
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide,across the lakes,	 
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Although there were no trains running today, it was pleasant to be outdoors. The Little Maumelle, about 40 yards wide at the mouth, narrowing to twenty by the time I had hiked two miles, barely registered a flow as it was backed up behind Big Dam Bridge. But the tracks were covered in fallen leaves, oak and hickory, and fat acorns had dropped between the ties. I tossed a few tie spikes and some rusted bolts into the river to hear the deep splash. The bluff towered above me on the left, a couple of hundred feet in places, and at the end of my walk I came upon a small marina on the far bank, with a tiny houseboat built on a small barge, and I watched a fat dog waddle down the gangplank onto the boat. In the marina a pontoon boat sported a confederate flag. I turned back toward the park where my car was, and as I walked back a few squirrels scampered across the tracks and up on the ridge a deer walked through the trees, silhouetted against the sky behind him.

 

Thanksgiving Backpacking at Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area

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November 19-22, 2016

Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area

Ozark National Forest, Arkansas

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Hurricane Creek

Julia Rose and I undertook our second annual Thanksgiving Holiday Backpacking trip this year, again choosing the Ozark Highlands Trail. Our destination this year was a section that took us into the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area, about 45 miles northwest of Russellville, Arkansas. We parked beside the Big Piney River and hiked in five and a half miles to camp beside Hurricane Creek.

The Ozark Highlands Trail runs 218 miles across Northwest Arkansas, from near Fort Smith in the West to the Buffalo National River. Last year we had tried the Richland Creek Wilderness, a few miles to the north, but after reading several reviews of the section through Hurricane Creek WA, believed by more than a few sources to be one of the most scenic parts of the Ozarks, i wanted to see for myself.

We started out on a Sunday morning, driving about two and a half hours to get to the trailhead. A few miles into the drive I realized I’d left my hiking boots in the dining room where we’d packed our backpacks. The temperatures were expected to fall into the low 30s, but it wasn’t supposed to rain until sometime during the day of the hike out, so I stopped at a Target and bought a couple of extra pair of socks and decided I’d be okay in my Tevas for such a short trip.

The trail starts beside the Big Piney river, a river with promising whitewater when there’s enough rain. I’d paddled it a few times in the 80s, but we’ve had very little rain in the last couple of months, so the river was barely a trickle. The drought has kept the fall colors down as well, and put a few counties on burn bans, but we finally got some rain the week before and it snapped the  leaves to life, generating a last gasp of fall color, and wetted the woods enough that we had trouble keeping our fires going during our trip. Last year at Thanksgiving, the leaves were completely off the trees, which created wonderful vistas, but covered the trail like snow, making it difficult to pick a path among the ankle-rolling rocks that lined the trail. This year, the trail, though sparsely marked by blazes, was clear enough to follow and easier on the ankles.

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Beech leaves.

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The trailhead started with a mile and a half of switchbacks which led us mostly to the top of Wheeler Ridge, a climb of about 850 feet, before leveling off for three miles, and then dropping steeply the last mile into the Hurricane Creek watershed. The skies were clear blue and sunny, and the temps somewhere in the 50s, which made hiking comfortable. Our only problem was that the middle mile markers were missing, which gave us a little concern since we’d never been on that section of the trail before, and we’d frequently go several hundred yards without blazes to mark the trail. Most of the ridge was beech forest, a hardwood tree whose leaves tend to turn a lovely yellow color in the fall before, but rarely drop from the tree until late winter. Most of the winter they are a beautifully symmetrical brown in the shape of a paddle blade.

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The trail follows and old “pioneer” road for a distance.

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My arthritic knees held up during the climb and the level hike, but the descent into Hurricane Creek was painful. We hit the creek bottom with a couple of good hours of light left and made a nice camp beside the creek, which was about thirty feet wide and rocky, with canyon walls rising steeply on both sides. The camp had a well built fire pit and someone had stacked flat rocks with backrests beside the pit, so it was fairly comfortable. Julia Rose and I set up our tents, gathered firewood and settled in for a cold evening. We cooked tacos for supper pumped water for our bottles, and fought to keep a smoky fire burning for a couple of hours, but following a long semester and a long week, not to mention a good hard hike, we were both ready to move into our tents and our sleeping bags and read for a while before going to sleep. The temperature, around 30 degrees, was right at the limit for our sleeping bags, which are light weight backpacking models supplemented by fleece liners.

For breakfast we restarted the fire and cooked burritos with bacon, scrambled eggs, and cheese. We enjoyed the fire and read for a while, waiting for the day to warm a bit. I’ve always insisted on having a good book while backpacking, despite the weight. For Julia Rose, she spent the weekend in Jackson Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, reading The Help. For myself, 1923, wandering the streets of London looking to buy flowers with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. We spent the early afternoon exploring the opposite side of the creek, hiking up to get a look at Hurricane Creek Natural Bridge (complete with a pulpit rock) and then lunch on a nice reading and contemplating rock in the middle of the creek. We closed out the afternoon relaxing around camp, enjoying hot chocolate and a warming fire as the temperatures fell. The night was warmer, closer to 40 degrees than 30, and we awoke to  a light sprinkle of rain tapping at the tents.

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Hurricane Creek Natural Bridge–Difficult to spot from the trail.

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Closeup view of the Natural Bridge–I might be more inclined to call it an arch, since in the west “bridge” means a span across a waterway. Not the case here.

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A walking stick (perched on a walking stick) still numbed by the low temperatures of the night before.

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The morning was overcast and smelled of rain. We breakfasted, burritos again, then broke camp and packed, for the hike out. The climb to the top of Wheeler ridge was tough, but we made good time on the hike out through intermittent showers. Overall, this was my favorite part of the hike, walking through wet woods, since the damp makes walking on leaves quieter, but the moisture brings out the deep smells of earth and decaying leaves and the tannins and lignins and bacteria and microbes carried on the denser air. We got back to our car and drove home in damp clothes, enjoying the feel of the heater warming our toes and flowing around us. We stopped in Russellville at the legendary Whattaburger drive in, across from Arkansas Tech, for burgers, fries, onion rings, and a cold Diet Coke and a strawberry shake for the drive home.

Coyote

Coyote

 

The logging has been over a long time and

The forest is coming back.

Still, the logging road is well-used, especially by

locals looking for a place to dump an old refrigerator and

teenagers sneaking out to the woods to party.

 

Saplings brush the sides of the truck and

I pull in the side-view mirrors

So they won’t get knocked off.

Branches lash the open window.

Sunlight filters through the canopy overhead and

reflects off the windshield and the junk lining the road:

White enameled appliances riddled with bullet holes,

rusted steel drums and five gallon herbicide cans,

a sofa with foam leaking from a few dozen holes in the fabric,

tin cans and rotting plastic garbage bags,

soiled disposable diapers,

faded cardboard beer cartons,

empty bottles and cans,

cigarette butts,

empty packs of Zig-Zag rolling papers,

scorched fire rings—

all covered with a thin layer of leaf and pine needle mulch, garnished with poison ivy and pine cones and lacy ferns.

 

The road ends beside an eroded

red clay gulch fifty feet deep.  A couple of

wrecked cars have been pushed over the

edge and lay at the bottom beside a pool of

water surrounded by more junk.

 

I untied the rope from the bumper and

drag the coyote to the edge,

roll him over with the toe of my boot.

It slides down the bank and splashes into the pool,

floats for a moment,

and sinks.

 

The coyotes had been singing up and

down the valley for the last week, a wild chorus setting all the

neighborhood dogs on edge with lust and jealousy,

and I had listened to them myself,

enjoying the wilderness encroaching

into our safe subdivision.

But someone must have minded.

 

This was not how I had planned to spend my morning.