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.”

 

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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”:

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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.

 

On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial, January 1, 2017

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I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just a few feet from the engraved words that marked the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. stood to give his “I Have a Dream” speech. At the time of the speech, August 28, 1963, I was three and a half months shy of three years old. To the best of my memory, I was unaware of race; however, for a child raised in Mississippi, the seeds were planted and the awareness would soon bloom.

That night on the national mall the temperature was in the low 40s and it felt like rain was coming. The Mall was busy and the Memorial crowded, but it was large enough to accommodate a few hundred people at any given time and allow each group to celebrate the memorial in a personal way. Some people wandered the steps and the interior of the memorial in reflective silence, while others posed for selfies and group shots with Lincoln or the Washington Monument. Tour guides, both professional and amateur, pointed out features and answered questions. Overall, most of the tourists shared a light mood appropriate for a national holiday and the first day of the new year, traditionally a day of hope and the dream of a fresh start. Traffic moved briskly on Constitution Avenue and pedestrians disappeared into the darkness, heading toward the one of the war memorials: Vietnam on the left, Korea on the right, and WWII straight ahead, at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, in line with the base of the Washington Monument.

I was traveling with a group of sixty university students and eight faculty, an eclectic mix of communication, business, and English majors. Each group had come to D.C. to focus on specific aspects of our disciplines; for the English students, the focus was on exploring the forms of narrative as expressed through semiotics, historic documents, monuments, memorials, buildings, and political bodies.

I had  been asked to speak to the students about Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, an intimidating task in the best of situations, but standing a few feet away from where he stood to deliver it, for me, bordered on the surreal. It didn’t help that I only had seven minutes for each of the three groups. I’d pulled the speech up on my phone earlier in the day and read it again. I’d made a few notes about the persuasive strategies, the use of rhythm and repetition, and the historical context–the things I usually talked about in composition classes where I focused on King’s rhetoric.

For almost two months following the 2016 presidential election I had been mired in a state of despondency bordering on desolation, an emotion flavored with grief and mourning and a whole lot of anger, often misdirected. It was, and still is, hard to capture exactly what I feel about the outcome. However, my fears about the coming administration took on a physical texture standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King had spoken to a quarter of a million supporters about the atrocities of segregation. Suddenly, the hope that I had felt under the outgoing president, often battered but always surviving, dissipated and now the nation’s capacity for social injustice felt primed and ready to flow.

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When it was my turn to begin, I climbed a couple of steps above the landing where King had stood, and I told my students about my “personal connection” to Dr. King. My father-in-law, Rady Carl Crocker, had been a manager for Lowensteins’s department store in Downtown Memphis, and he had been working the day that King was assassinated. He told me about the aftermath, locking the doors of the store during the riot that ensued, and standing between the inner and outer glass doors while the riot flowed down main street. The glass doors on the sidewalk were cracked, but not broken in, and he made it safely home late that evening. He’d repeated the story to me without judgement, like he was recalling a trip to the store.

I went on to tell the students about how once, while working with Rady in his garage, I’d found three metal plaques that he’d removed from the doors of Lowensteins following the law that outlawed segregation: “Colored Men,” Colored Women,” “White Ladies Lounge.” Made out of a heavy bronze metal, four inches wide and a couple of feet long, the signs were substantial, tangible symbols of the promise that had been made to African Americans by the Emancipation Proclamation and, as King noted in his speech, a hundred years later had yet to be fulfilled. I talked to my students about what it felt like to hold one of these signs in my hands, and I pointed out that it is probably difficult for them to really understand the degree of discrimination that King was speaking about: black only motels, blacks in Mississippi unable to vote and blacks in New York with no reason to vote, and children “stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘for whites only.’” When I talk about King’s speech in my classes, I place those signs in the hands of my students to let them hold a tangible symbol of hatred and fear.

Even though I grew up in Mississippi during the 1960s and 70s, I have no memory of separate water fountains and restrooms, but through the fifth grade I went to a school with four black children in my grade, and in sixth the city of Tupelo consolidated the entire grade–black and white–into a single building near the edge of the dividing line between the black and white sides of town. We were together from then on out, black and white, going to 7th and 8th on the white side of town, ninth at the former black high school named after George Washington Carver, and back to the white side for high school. During all those years there was little racial trouble that I remember. We went to classes together, played sports together, worked at Burger King and shared a prom upon graduation. Several of those guys I considered friends, though the friendships were strictly daytime-school friendships.

Our senior year was marked by an invasion of the Ku Klux Klan into our city. It lasted several weeks and was marked by weekend rallies, complete with cross-burnings, marches, and opposing marches by black protesters that overlapped and resulted in tense word wars but no real violence that I was aware of. One Saturday night, out of curiosity, a guy I worked with at Burger King closed the store and cleaned the broiler, and then drove out to the site of a rally at about 2 a.m. As we drove through the motel parking lot–ironically the same motel that would host the high school graduation dance in a few weeks–the sight of men standing in the shadows holding shotguns was enough to make us clear out of there fast. Another Saturday, I leaned out of the drive-thru window of Burger King and watched a Klan motorcade of about thirty pickups flying Confederate flags and wooden crosses, the occupants wearing full hood and robe regalia, force motorists off the main street as they sped through the main street of Tupelo from north to south ignoring redlights and oncoming traffic. That senior year ended benignly enough, with the Klan leaving Tupelo and our class president, Steve Ray, delivering a commencement address about bridging the gaps of race. It is a speech I wish I could hear again, because I’m sure most of it was lost on me in the moment. The night ended with blacks and whites on the floor together at the graduation dance.

I didn’t talk about all of those things on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but I thought about them. Rather I talked about the context of the speech–what had brought King and the marchers to Washington D.C., about the figurative language and rhythm and repetition that King was famous for, and about the conflict within the audience about whether to engage in “this marvelous new militancy that has engulfed the black community,” or, because so many of them had “come here out of great trials and tribulations. . . . fresh from narrow jail cells. . . . battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. . . . the veterans of creative suffering,” to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”

As I read King’s words, I thought about my first job out of college, in 1984, where I worked as a production supervisor in a particleboard mill in Georgia. Sometimes on the midnight shift, when the plant was running smoothly and peace seemed possible, I would sit in the dim light of the press control booth with Alphonso smith, the black press operator a few years older than me, and watch the lights on the control panel flash and glow green and red and orange and listen to the hum of the assembly line and the hiss of the steam press  as it scissored closed and began to transform mats of wood particles and glue into particleboard. Alphonso and I shared a similar history of growing up in the South, only he had probably gotten the worst of it, growing up black in a small Georgia town and graduating to a job driving a forklift in a particleboard mill and working up the ranks to press operator, while I had gone from high school to college to a supervisory position in the same mill in a little over five years. I thought about what Alphonso said more than once on those long nights, about how one day he thought that black kids and white kids would play together and it wouldn’t be any big deal.

I thought about Alphonso and his hopes and predictions as I read King’s closing words:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

When I finished talking to my students on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it was hard to gauge what they were thinking. College students play their cards close to the vest, especially when reacting to a professor speaking with passion and high emotion. I get the sense it makes them uncomfortable. Most of them wandered off to the next station, where a professor was planted to discuss some other aspect of the Lincoln Memorial. I stood there feeling the moment, feeling the surge of adrenalin that comes from speaking in public, wondering–as I always do–how my words had come off and editing my speech in my head, adding and clarifying, second guessing.

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It was then that I noticed one of my students, a black English major named Delilah, a girl with a sharp mind and a keen sense of humor and the capacity to understand and appreciate irony, sarcasm, and jokes. She was kneeling over the words of Martin Luther King Jr., taking a selfie of her hand tracing the letters that spelled out “I Have A Dream.” I have no reason to believe that my words changed anything for Delilah, but it did give me a bit of hope as I thought about the next four years. I asked permission to take her picture with my  camera and she let me. Then we walked off into the dark of the mall toward the Korean War Memorial to catch up with the rest of our group.

 

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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.

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 3, Part 2

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July 16, 2016

The stretch between Sandpile campsite and Saddle Canyon is relatively flat, with few rapids and none of any real consequence. What keeps our attention at lunch and during the afternoon is the growing cloud of smoke coming off of the North rim Fuller Fire, which started from lightning a few days before our trip began and which closed some areas at the North Rim park where Lisa and Stella are staying. (They will tell us later that there was a heavy firefighter presence in the park, with choppers coming and going, and some road blockages.) The fire was initially located 3 miles west southwest of Point Imperial, and July 7 was only 1 acre. The NPS elected to let it burn in order to clear out accumulated fuel and prevent a larger scale fire in the future. As of July 29 the fire had affected 14.5 thousand acres, with the NPS letting it burn because there had not been a “natural ignition” in over 200 years.

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Smoke from the Fuller Fire begins to dominate the sky above the rim at the lunch stop.

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Under the canyon rim at lunch.

The fire is only been a few miles away from where we are boating, but up on the rim, and the constant change of direction caused by river bends keest us close to the downwind smoke. The smoke builds all day long so that at lunch the sun barely shines through the haze, turning it bright orange, and big pieces of soot fall on us as we floated. At times a thick pall of smoke hangs above the river, bringing up many allusions to the surreal scenes in Apocalypse Now where a thick smoke haze covers the river, making it almost impossible to steer. If it had been an actively fought fire, though, chances were high that we would have seen choppers coming to the river to scoop water to fight it.

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Although the smoke never gets so bad for us that finding our way down the river is an issue, we did have a good time conjecturing where the fire was and how big it was, and tossing out Apocalypse Now quotes: “Never get off the boat!” “Got to be some mangos around here somewhere”; “Do you want to raft or fight?” and, “Grand Canyon: Shit” (the last one I thought, rather than said, since my daughter was sitting next to me on the raft). As always, when Julia Rose finds me in the rare company of movie-literate people who get my quotes, she is always surprised, suddenly seeing me in a different light.

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In addition to the smoke, we begin to see a few clouds, where before there had been pristine blue sky. According to Ethan, it might be the signal of monsoon season coming on, a July/August phenomenon where moisture gets funneled up from the gulf of Mexico and brings rain.

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Ethan fights the wind a good bit of the day. At times he has to point the back of the raft downstream and just flat out row to make any progress at all. We camp for the evening around mile 48, at Saddle Canyon in a big eddy that separates the upper and lower campsites. A motorized raft group has the Upper Saddle Beach, and we take Lower Saddle.

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After setting up camp Omar leads the group on a long hike up Saddle Canyon. It’s 4.5 miles round trip, and we climb pretty steadily and gain a few hundred feet in elevation quickly. It is a good test for my knee.

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dscf1361dscf1364At first we walk beside the creek, then cross it several times, and in sections have to wade upstream. The temperature cools (if you want to call high 90s or low 100s cool) as we are in the shade of the canyon walls and the canyon itself sprouts lots of vegetation, including trees and shrubs like Western Redbuds, Coyote Willow, Mesquite, Cat’s Claw (the “wait-a-minute” bush, because the thorns snag clothing and force walkers to stop and disentangle themselves), and Netleaf Hackberry, adding to the deepness of the shade.

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The smoke dissipates as we climb higher, and we pass through desert scrub into a slot canyon that narrows as we climb higher.

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We end up in a beautiful slot roughly 6 to 8 feet wide and blocked off by a high cliff. We dip in the waist deep pool and relax on the rocks for a while, before beginning the long walk back, where we get to camp just before supper: Beef and chicken tamales, quesadillas, and rice.

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It’s a tiring day–the combination of sun and smoke and long slow floating with few rapids to break up the slow pace leave us tired. I’m too tired to journal and almost too tired to read. I can usually manage a few pages of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, appropriate for Canyon country, before getting sleepy, so I switch to Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang, a memoir of the Canadian forces invasion of  Sicily and Italy during WWII. It’s a change of pace from the canyon and I hope it will keep me interested enough to stay up a little later and wait for the heat to lift. I know Desert Solitaire by heart, so I don’t feel cheated. I’m not the only one with an Abbey book on the trip. Elana, the girl who’s just graduated college and has befriended Julia Rose, is reading The Monkey Wrench Gang, though she has just started and we never really get a chance to discuss Abbey. The raft guide Dave says it’s an unusual trip when no one brings Abbey to read.

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The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 3, Part 1

July 16, 2016

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Ethan, the trip leader, at rest.

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Guides at rest after a day of rowing; the kitchen area is unloaded, but not set up yet.

For Day 3 we follow the established wake up and breakfast routine, then pack and load the boats. Today we ride on Ethan’s boat. Ethan is the trip leader, and since we haven’t been on his boat yet, it’s been a bit hard to get a good read on him. He’s young, and later on the trip I’ll be surprised to find out he’s only 24. He’s been working on the river for the past 7 years, starting as a swamper and working his way up to trip leader. He is quiet in camp, though not on the boat, good natured, calm, and extremely competent on the oars. He tells some good stories about the various trips he’s been on, including a trip with Jane Fonda’s daughter, and another trip with an honest-to-god crazy woman in full-blown crazy. He’s got a good sense of humor.

Riding with us, we get Ken for a second day, keeping busy snapping photos and telling stories about the Everglades and other places he’s visited. In the back of the raft ride Cory and Laura, a heatlthy-middle-aged couple who have only been married for a year or so. They are an easy going couple, fairly athletic, and good camping companions. Laura straps on a  whitewater helmet with a Go-Pro camera strapped to the top for filming the rapids.

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Climbing up to the Puebloan dwelling site.

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The best part about riding in Ethan’s boat is that we are first on the river, and first at whatever stops we make. We push off a bit early while the swampers finish loading the Duke and the rest of the kitchen gear and float a short distance to an ancient American Indian site. We beach the rafts and climb steep trail up a short cliff to a bench of land a couple hundred feet above the river, where Ethan leads us to the outlines of a couple of small structures, rock wall foundations laid out in rectangles, along with some petroglyphs and small flakes of turquoise, which was apparently traded from Mexico and other faraway locations. The structures themselves are smaller than 10 x 10 feet, and there are no higher than a couple of levels of rock. Ethan tells me that there are some more dwellings in the cliffs above us, but it would be a good hike. He had worked here before, for several days, helping a group of archaeologists from the National Park Service catalogue the sites in the area. The NPS used to run their own boats and employee their own “boatmen” on the river, but they’ve taken to using commercial companies because of problems with the boatmen (more to come on that topic).

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On the bench, looking at the ruins.

Ethan fills us in on what the archaeologists know about the people who built these structures. The sites we’re looking at date to around 1100 AD, but the ancestral Puebloan people probably came to the area around 800 AD, according to the Grand Canyon River Guide. Good weather allowed for a fairly heavy population to farm the interior of the canyon, and the sites we are seeing are evidence of a shift from living in shallow pit houses. But these remains were probably above ground pueblos. According to the guide, “the pueblo people constructed hundreds of living sites containing single-to-many room dwellings, religious structures, rock-terraced agricultural fields, cliff graneries, rock-lined roasting pits, petroglyphs, and pictographs.” The sites we are seeing allowed the puebloan people to cultivate larger fields on the benchlands and avoid the spring floods of the river.

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Ethan shows us a rock the size of a compact car, where the surface is etched with petroglyphs. The rock itself is pretty exposed, so the pictures are weathered.

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One of the guides tells us about a spiny plant called Mormon tea, which contains the chemical ephedra. Apparently, you can get a bit of a boost chewing on it, which Ben (who will try about anything) tries. We are also shown the difference between the century plant, a spiny agave with a tall flower spike which blooms creamy white flowers once every 20 – 40 years and the Soaptree yucca. These plants occur in the desert scrub zone, but along the river bank in the riparian zone we are seeing the invasive species tamarisk, which looks similar to the mesquite, along with western redbud and various willow, and right on the beaches the cane-like horsetail, or scouring rush, which the Ancestral Puebloans used to blow pigment against rock faces to paint pictograhs.

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Mormon Tea

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Century Plant (on right)

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Soaptree Yucca

Back on the rafts, we float a bit further and pass Vasey’s Paradise, an Eden of plant life clinging to the wall of the canyon, fed by a spring emerging from a hole in the wall and fanning down the rock. John Wesley Powell named it in August, 1869, writing, “The river turns sharply to the east and seems inclosed by a wall set with a million brilliant gems. On coming nearer we find fountains bursting from the rock high overhead, and the spray in the sunshine forms the gems which bedeck the wall. The rocks are covered with mosses and ferns and many beautiful flowering plants. We name it Vasey’s Paradise, in honor of the botanist who traveled with us last year.”

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Vasey’s Paradise

A mile later we come to Redwall Cavern, a football field sized overhang cavern, deep, sandy, with a ceiling close to a hundred feet at the opening and sloping down to  six or eight feet at the back. There are a couple of motorized raft trips (massive rafts holding around 20 passengers and a couple of guides) already tied up, and a group of people playing Frisbee.  I throw Ethan’s frisbee with Cory and Laura, then we just hang out and watch the guides try to climb the horizontal ceiling of the cavern where it sloped down to the back wall. Gregg, the guide who rowed the Sandra, showed us some fossils in rock.

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Redwall Cavern

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Omar in action in Redwall Cavern

A bit further down the river, at mile 40, we see the remnants of plans to build another dam in Marble canyon in the form of drill marks to test the strength of the rock in a narrow part of the canyon. There was little mention that they planned to flood the Grand Canyon, preferring instead to call it the Marble Canyon dam to avoid rousing public sentiment, but luckily the dam was never approved.

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River: Day 2, part 2

 

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Desert Bighorn Sheep

Just above mile 21 we come to North Canyon (extending into the North rim of the Grand Canyon) and pull over at one of the campsites. The guides rig beach umbrellas to shade the ice coolers that they sit on, a regular practice whenever the boats are going to be exposed to the sun for any length of time.dscf1183

Since we are on a self-supported trip, we’re carrying everything the group will need for 13 days and the guides filter river water for drinking and cooking. Other trip options include a motorized raft for  gear and freshwater, but our gear rafts are being rowed by a couple of apprentices, Jason and Leo, who are training on oars before they can carry passengers, and working for tips rather than a salary. The coolers are actually packed over a period of time, in a freezer, so that that layers of ice are frozen between layers of food, and as the trip goes on, layers of food are exposed, sort of like peeling back the successive layers of rock that form the canyon walls themselves.

 

Ethan leads the group on a hike up North Canyon, which starts off about fifty yards wide, but steadily narrows and climbs up a series of short ledges. Often we go to the sides of the canyon to climb the walls to circumvent the higher ledges. It feels good to scramble on rock and make the short climbs necessary to get to the next level. (I’m reminded of the story Edward Abbey tells in Desert Solitaire, where he followed a canyon down from a rim, dropping off successively higher ledges polished smooth by flash flood, planning to hit the canyon floor and walk down to another trail that would lead him back to the rim. Eventually, he came to a drop off below a ledge that was too high to drop off, and the ledges above him were too high and too smooth to climb back out. He lived to write the story, so I won’t give away more here.)

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The hike up canyon is a good test for my recently operated upon knee, which I’ve been worried about since January, wondering if I would be able to make the climb out to the rim on Day 6; however, Julia Rose and I keep near the front of the group. As we get deeper into the canyon the walls rise higher and draw closer together, and the terrain slowly transforms from a rocky desert wash to smoothly polished walls, worn into graceful curves by the sudden torrents of water flushed down the narrow canyon in flash floods over thousands of years.

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We climb a last little cliff, about twenty feet high and find a pool of tepid water, about the size of a suburban backyard swimming pool, waste deep, shallow at the downstream end and deepening to a narrow rock slide that drops off a pour-over into the pool. We sit in the shade and drink our water and eat snacks provided by the guides, and then one by one about half the group begins to enter the pool. One of the younger customers, Ben, a recent college graduate, tries to rock climb the edge of the pool without getting wet, only to find the handhold cracks are the home of tiny canyon frogs, which depend on the pools of the side canyons and the river to breed and house their egg-masses and the hatching tadpoles. Julia Rose and a few other climb the slide at the end of the pool and go a bit deeper into the canyon, but progress is eventually walled off by a boulder strainer that completely shuts off further exploration.

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Elana and Julia Rose

Julia Rose and Elana, Ben’s sister, also a recent college grad, slide down the rock and drop off into the pool, which is waist deep and refreshingly cool on a 110 degree day.

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We hang out at the pool for the better part of an hour, until the sun finally clears the walls and drives us back to the boats for lunch–Dagwood style sandwiches (piled high with meat and vegetables). The guides teach Julia Rose and Ben and Elana a game called ”Pick three,” where someone creates a three ingredient gross out challenge. Julia Rose tries a combo of white onion, raspberry, and pickled carrot.

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Pick three

After lunch we enter the “Roaring 20s,” marked right away by North Canyon Rapid and 21 Mile Rapid, both rated 4-5 with drops of 12 feet. The rest of the afternoon is filled with fun rapids, mostly “mile rapids,” including 23 Mile Rapid, 23 ½ Mile Rapid, Georgia Rapid, 24 ½ Mile Rapid, 25 Mile Rapid, Cave Springs Rapid, 27 Mile Rapid, and finally 29 Mile Rapid. In between 27 and 29 we get a stiff upstream wind, a usual afternoon phenomenon as the canyon warms up and the hot air convects upstream. There’s a term for it, called an anabatic wind. Whatever you call it, it’s hell on the guides trying to oar a high-profile, heavily loaded raft against a very stiff wind, but they do it with grace and good humor.

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In the evening we camp out at Sandpile, a huge beach which allows us to spread out a bit more than we had at the narrow rock shelf at Sheer Wall the night before. There’s a large eddy and a good sized sand bar in the river, and a lot of people take advantage to wash clothes and body. For supper we have Grilled Salmon, rice pilaf, and blackberry cobbler. Near twilight, some of the guides, their duties done for the day, take a raft out to float around the eddy and goof off and I suppose drink more beer. Julia Rose and I settle down on our tarps and sleeping pads for the evening. We get a good early moon and I get some fuzzy pictures of the moon over the canyon walls. Another warm night, but eventually, it cools off and sleep comes.

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