Golf Course Camino

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I live near a golf course (not on one, I feel compelled to add).  Neighborhood residents are allowed to walk on the course all day Monday, when it’s closed.  So this past Monday I decided to train by walking the whole course twice, a total of nine miles.  

Let me count the ways that walking a golf course in Arizona differs from walking the Camino — at least, the Camino I know about so far from books, web sites and movies.

There are the obvious topographical and geographical differences, for one.  I walked on paved golf cart paths.  Though portions of the Camino are paved, there are also large sections on trails and grassy paths.  In northern Spain we will have left behind the saguaros, which are just now beginning to sprout their odd, white flowers that sit atop the branching columns like so many ladies’ hats from the Fifties.  We won’t see Gamble’s quails, hear Gila woodpeckers or glimpse the red streak of a vermilion flycatcher.

The western Pyrenees will be a dense, dark green, not our rock-strewn Santa Catalinas, Santa Ritas and Rincons, sand-colored beneath a pale green veil of saguaro and creosote.

There will actually be rain, steady at times, and days that are likely to seem cold to Arizonans acclimated to the intensifying sun of late spring.

On Monday I trained in a city that barely existed at the end of the nineteenth century. On the Camino we will walk through centuries-old towns and cities.

But what struck me most on Monday was that I was training for the Camino in a preserve of the privileged:  the golf course I walk on belongs to a country club.  True, it is also the preserve of cottontails, quails, hummingbirds, roadrunners, coyotes and the occasional bobcat and mountain lion, snakes and lizards, great blue herons, cormorants and all sorts of other migrating waterfowl.  For them the golf course means water and protective habitat.

But where humans are concerned, my practice camino is not welcoming, as the citizens along the Camino are reputed to be.  With all my new technical gear (and I’m walking only a small portion of the Camino!) I am a true denizen of the small community of the comfortable, some few hundred feet above Tucson and its real-world problems.  And however uncomfortable my realization of these contrasts may be, my very discomfort is itself an unearned privilege.

Still, in these parts I may have made for an anomalous figure, walking briskly up the path with my small backpack and hiking hat and carrying the still unknown Camino inside me.

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An Introduction: The Short Life of ‘The Occasional Pilgrim’

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I am reactivating an old blog under a new title, for a different purpose.  This blog is destined to be short-lived because I intend it for posts from an upcoming trip.  During the first two weeks of May I will be walking portions of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela with a group of fellow pilgrims from the church I attend in Tucson.  I thought this blog would be a useful venue to report on my “pilgrim’s progress.”

The photo in the header is misleading:  since I am not yet in Spain, I’ve posted a photo from a hike taken with friends several years ago in the Santa Catalinas north of Tucson.  But I thought the image of walkers stepping down a path and into a great vista was fitting.

I have some doubts about posting from the Camino.  Blog posts, Facebook posts — they’re all communications from what David Brooks, in his new book The Road to Charactercalls the “Big Me.”  They seem directly counter to one of the purposes of a pilgrimage, which is to unburden ourselves — not only of our sins or worries or fears, but of our very selves.

So I can only proceed by writing about my short pilgrimage in as outwardly focused a way as possible.  Or, if I am inwardly focused (which is also a task of the pilgrim), by performing the delicate and somewhat paradoxical feat of writing “I” with humility — however many times it appears.

Grand Canyon Road Trip 6 – Bryce Canyon

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Hidden at 8,000 feet among Ponderosa pines and manzanita bushes, with rose-and-tan hoodoos rising up like giant Giacometti figures out of the canyon just a few hundred yards away, low-slung Bryce Canyon Lodge is southern Utah’s Shangri-La, the magic destination at the end of the journey through a surreally harsh and empty landscape.

A forest of natural obelisks


I felt we were privileged just to get past the front door of the venerable 1923 lodge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. We were there only because of a cancellation; otherwise we would have had to stay just outside the Park entrance. Unlike the lobby at the North Rim, Bryce’s lobby is small and low-ceilinged, more like the living room of a private hunting lodge. The reception desk is antique, the atmosphere all dark beams and Indian weave, the staff extra-aware of their status as citizens of this tiny, rarefied kingdom.

Historic Bryce Canyon Lodge

Alas, the dining room, for all its atmosphere, is one of the more disappointing among the national park lodges we’ve visited (Glacier being another). The bread was stale and the Irish beef stew gristly. And the drinks menu was limited to a few mediocre wine selections, since Bryce, unlike Zion, doesn’t have a separate bar and therefore can’t serve cocktails, this being Shangri-La, Utah. Contributing to the feeling of dashed expectations was an unusual number — even for the parks — of elderly, rather frail guests. The one good surprise was the only African-American staff person I’ve seen at any national park, a woman from Chicago who waited on our table and kidded us about the Packers and how she just might give us a hard time (which, of course, she didn’t). On the other hand, the fact that our wait person was a surprise was itself cause for uncomfortable reflection. The next morning we saw a middle-aged African-American couple at breakfast, but that, too, was a surprise. Shelton Johnson, the eloquent Yosemite Park ranger in Ken Burns’ documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and himself African-American, has said he’d like to see African-American celebrities like Snoop Dogg or Oprah camping in Yosemite, where less than 1% of the visitors are African-American. As the entrance to Yellowstone at Gardiner, Montana says, the national parks are for the enjoyment of all the nation’s citizens, but it still often feels as if we’re traveling in an elite pack that moves from one park to the next, season after season.

So it was with small clumps of white Russians, Germans and mostly grizzled, Caucasian Americans that we hiked into the Canyon for a short afternoon hike after we arrived. We took the short but steeply descending Navajo Loop Trail, a bizarre tour in and out of the dark ochre shadows cast by giant hoodoos balancing boulders on their pointy heads. I couldn’t tell whether it was warm or cold. I started out wearing a down puffer jacket and wool cap but ended up tying the jacket around my waist. Partly it was the effort of hiking, but partly it was the high desert sun, strong even with snow on the ground and cool air temperatures. We fell into the rhythm of trail hiking, yo-yoing towards and away from various other groups of hikers. For some reason the Russians, a trio of two men and a woman in their thirties, grated on my nerves, possibly because they always seemed to be talking — loudly. I couldn’t believe that they were actually looking at anything, and I was always relieved to forge on ahead of them (or to fall behind).

The next morning Jim left early with his camera for Sunrise Point, a lookout famous for obvious reasons and only a few hundred yards from the two-story building where we were staying (there are no rooms in the Bryce Lodge itself). I, as usual, was a bit more slug-a-bed, but finally headed out. Or tried to, as a network of narrow paths all seemed to lead in the direction of the Canyon, and I couldn’t figure out the best one to take to Sunrise Point. After zig-zagging past the Park stables and mule deer camouflaged among the pines, I joined an already considerable crowd standing at the lookout, shoulders hunched and hands in pockets in the sub-twenty-degree early morning air, including British tourists in wheelchairs. No loud Russians at sunrise, just a justifiably awed and partly frozen bunch of gawkers facing the defiantly non-human spectacle: an ancient race of brilliantly colored rocks that will likely still be standing long after we have all turned to new earth.

On the Navajo Loop Trail

Bryce Lodge's "front yard" October 2011

Grand Canyon Road Trip 5

The North Rim left me literally and figuratively breathless. The Lodge is at almost 8,000 feet – 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim. On a quarter-mile hike to Bright Angel Point we climbed an additional 148, breathing in short, rapid sucks of cold air.

Actually, our entire road trip had us traveling at high altitudes — Zion Canyon, at 4,000-odd feet, was about the lowest elevation we encountered, and we usually hovered anywhere between 5,000 and over 10,000 feet.

I’m not given to vertigo, but Bright Angel Point might easily induce it if I were. The short Bright Angel Trail passes beyond scrub trees to bare rocks and ends at a narrow spit jutting out into the void, with the Grand Canyon on the left and a tributary canyon, the Roaring Springs Canyon, on the left. We reached the Point with a few other bundled-up tourists. A German paterfamilias loaded down with fancy cameras was braving his fear of heights (as he confided in English to some other tourists) to gaze on the sublime and, more to the point, get his shot.

The conditions weren’t ideal: massed slate-colored clouds overhead and a gray-blue haze in the Canyon. If anything, the haze made the Canyon seem even vaster and more imponderable, especially to a geological illiterate like myself. If you know, for example, that the oldest layers at the bottom of the Canyon are called “basement rocks” and date back some 1.8 billion years to the Pre-Cambrian Era, you have at least something to hold onto, something definite around which thoughts can crystallize. But in the absence of any such knowledge you are left with the stupefying spectacle. One reaction, which I heard from an older Australian tourist at the South Rim, is strictly self-defensive: “Why the fuss over a big hole in the ground?”

But knowledge can produce its own vertigo and elicit self-defensive maneuvers in its turn. Later in the afternoon, given the inhospitable weather, we decided to attend a ranger’s talk on the geology of the Canyon. We claimed our seats in a side hall of the Lodge early. A middle-aged man was already engaged in rather intense conversation with the woman ranger. I came in at her polite response, repeated several times, that she was “only going to be dealing with the science,” but that many peoples and religions had their own stories about the Canyon. The ranger then told one such story, about a tight-fisted lady in nearby Fredonia who lost a nickel and spent so much time and effort digging for it that she dug out the Canyon. The man wasn’t terribly amused. Another guest, a middle-aged blonde, said to no one in particular but loudly enough to be heard, “Do you think it was created by the Flood?” In fact, that appeared to be what the man did think.

We’d have another occasion to witness this particular form of self-protection from the dizzying fact that is the Grand Canyon. On the South Rim we found ourselves hiking behind a wholesome-looking family on the “Trail of Time,” a relatively new feature installed by the Park Service that allows you to trace in yards the billion-year life of the Canyon. At intervals there are stone markers with explanatory plaques and an example of the kind of rock from the particular geologic era you’ve “reached” (“Touch the rock!” the markers urge). The father said to his wife, “I just can’t believe all that was done by a river.” I wasn’t sure whether or not he was joking. But his wife replied that she thought God might work in mysterious ways, that maybe the creation wasn’t less divine for having taken a little longer than six days. At least that’s how I’ve remembered her reply, though it might be a little more my own.

The Park Service likely installed “Trail of Time” at least in part to counter just such stubborn resistance to scientific knowledge. But it’s difficult for lay people, including me, to think in terms of hundreds of millions of years. A Park Service brochure on Bright Angel Point asks rhetorically whether there will be yet other rock layers in the Canyon and then provides the appropriately humble answer. “They will certainly come, but on a time scale that verifies our tenuous place in geologic time.” As an infinitely tiny speck on what seems an infinitely long trail, the urge to cover one’s eyes is as understandable as it is pathetic.

After dark, with temperatures in the 30’s, there wasn’t much to do if we didn’t want to huddle over books and brochures on the double bed in our tiny, but fortunately very warm, cabin, so we headed to the Roughrider Saloon, the Lodge’s small bar, where they serve bourbon on the rocks in plastic cups and play Golden Oldies — more or less appropriate to the average age of the customers. There was a group of middle-aged guys intent on hiking down into the Canyon the following day, a group of middle-aged women a little less enthusiastic about hiking, a table of elegant Filipino ladies comparing souvenirs and suburban geezers like ourselves, dutifully tricked out in fleece and hiking boots.

Bellying up to the bar at the Roughrider

The Roughrider was as much atmosphere as we got that evening, since the dining room, where we’d neglected to make a reservation prior to arriving, was booked until nine. We opted for ready-made pizza at the convenience store/deli and tucked in early. All night long a strong wind rained acorns and branches over our heads, and in the morning we woke up to a few inches of icy snow. The Canyon itself was gone — lost in fog, although Jim managed to catch a momentary window of sun and blue sky. The Lodge’s dramatic window, situated right at the Canyon rim, looked out onto a soft void. We ate breakfast in the high-ceilinged dining room, packed up and headed carefully out of the Park: Park roads on the North Rim aren’t plowed. The aspens’ fall colors looked still brighter against the thin white blanket. Eventually the sun came out, the pavement dried, and we were on our way to Bryce Canyon.

Early snow at the North Rim

Grand Canyon Road Trip 4

The North Rim

Ninety percent of visitors to the Grand Canyon go to its South Rim. We were headed to the remote North Rim near the end of the season, and snow was already in the forecast for that night and the following day. Hwy 89A was mostly empty as we crossed the Utah/Arizona border, drove past the shabby yards and storefronts of Fredonia and the turn-off onto Rte 389. That’s the road to Colorado City, the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints outpost where Warren Jeffs used to call the shots before he was locked up for life. The next day, on the way back from the North Rim, we stopped at a scenic overlook on 89A. Among the few tourists tromping over the wet red soil to the lookout point was a young family, the mother and young girls dressed in Little House on the Prairie dresses and bonnets with braids down their backs, and the father in a flannel shirt and jeans. I looked at them sideways with embarrassed fascination — the same kind that, say, an Amish family might elicit. These women and girls looked like they’d donned costumes for some kind of community pageant; it just happens that the pageant involves real-life polygamy. FLDS members’ houses can be seen far off the road up to Panguitch, UT. From a distance they look like gussied-up office park buildings, too large to be residences and strangely out of place in the general desolation.

After several miles of road bordered by the ashy-black skeleton remains of a forest fire, the road to the North Rim levels out atop the Kaibab Plateau. In October the meadows on either side of the highway were ringed by stands of blue spruce, ponderosa pine and yellow and copper-colored aspens.

Aspen on the Kaibab Plateau

Beyond Jacob Lake the approach to the Canyon, still 40-odd miles south, grows more mysterious, and on this cloudy and increasingly raw afternoon, even a little forbidding. The pines of the Kaibab National Forest close in. And when you finally arrive at the North Rim, you’re at the Canyon’s wild, ragged edge, so far from normal life that even one’s sense of being a tourist fades. You can’t drive up to the Lodge or close to the spartan little cabins scattered to either side, so the approach feels more like entering a large outpost from another era. And unlike what you often see at the South Rim, the visitors here are a dedicated crowd hunched in down parkas, hiking boots and caps.

In the parking lot we get another glimpse of the North Rim’s remoteness: some people are crouching to take photos of a Kaibab squirrel. Kaibab squirrels live only here at the North Rim and around Jacob Lake; they’re a subspecies of the more widespread Abert’s squirrel, but their isolation has guaranteed their distinct, elegant appearance: gray-black fur, white bushy tails and large tufted ears. In 2009 the National Park Service dedicated 200,000 acres of the Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab National Forest – the Kaibab squirrel’s habitat – as a National Natural Landmark, and January 21 as Squirrel Appreciation Day.

But I was so cold and numbed by several hours in the car that I didn’t have the presence of mind to pull out my iPhone and snap a picture. The photograph is pulled from the Internet.

Grand Canyon Road Trip 3

Upset Expectations in Kanab, UT

Check-out time at the Zion Lodge is eleven, and our daily goal is to hit the road before then, even though today’s destination – the North Rim of the Grand Canyon – is a mere 107-mile drive. So when we return from Weeping Rock, we load up the car and take the winding, dramatic Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, past the “Checkerboard Mesa,” scored horizontally and vertically as if the whole rocky mass had been mashed long ago against a sieve.

Our goal is to hit the town of Kanab for lunch. Jim is a little reluctant to spend tourist money in Kanab. He thinks he remembers an anti-gay ordinance passed there a few years ago. The hard truth, however, is that the lunch options between Zion and the North Rim are extremely limited.

The law Jim remembers was a resolution drafted by the Sutherland Institute of Utah and sent to all Utah muncipalities. Kanab was the only city that actually adopted it, in 2006. It reads in part as follows:

“We envision a local culture that upholds the marriage of a man to a woman, and a woman to a man, as ordained of God … We see our homes as open to a full quiver of children, the source of family continuity and social growth. We envision young women growing into wives, homemakers, and mothers; and we see young men growing into husbands, home-builders, and fathers.”

Whether or not the resolution – which in any case was symbolic and without legal force –is still on the books, the 2009 Master Plan for Kanab echoesthe resolution in its vision statement:

“Kanab was settled and resettled by Mormon pioneers first in 1864, and finally
in 1870, when a colony of settlers arrived mostly from Cottonwood and Salt
Lake City. It is from this rich pioneer heritage that core values were formed in
Kanab and are evidenced today by conservative Judeo-Christian values which
include traditional family values within a friendly environment.”

The rest of the Master Plan focuses on preserving Kanab’s historic buildings, while creating “mixed use” and green spaces downtown. In fact, Main Street does have a distinct, old-timey feel, especially the intriguingly old-but-eclectic-looking Rocking V Café on the corner of Main and West Center Streets. During a feverish search on my AAA smart-phone app, I manage to direct us there in the hope of eating a real, locally made lunch. Alas, the Rocking V is open only for dinner and closes for the season in November. We have to make do with Subway, my fast-food haven when we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. (The following day, on the way back from the North Rim, we stop again at the Subway, where we mingle with an haute-bourgeoise-looking French family, Hispanic workers and the teenage Subway employees, one of whom is sporting an off-the-shoulder top — not what you expect in a “traditional family values” kind of town.)

The owners of the Rocking V, Victor and Vicky Cooper, are transplants and were backers of the “Everyone Welcome Here” campaign organized to counter the “natural family” resolution. Apparently the Kanab City Council is less than transparent in its deliberations (see the current controversy over a permit for a coal gasification plant in town). So many business people who make money from tourism were unhappy about the resolution, especially when groups began boycotting the town. Local businesses put “Everyone Welcome Here” decals in their windows, although the decals produced their own controversy. The original ones showed a row of rainbow-colored little people linking hands, causing residents to debate whether the little people were gay. Victor Cooper is currently running for city council on an open government platform.

The Coopers are proof that this landscape attracts all sorts of people from all sorts of places (Victor, born in New York and raised in Texas, was a cameraman for CBS for many years) and that some of them fall so hard for the rocks and colors and space, they end up staying and creating their own local culture. If you ever want to spend a truly amusing quarter of an hour or so on the Internet, visit the Rocking V Café’s web site. It’s not only a restaurant – whose organic greens come, rather improbably, from nearby Fredonia — , it’s also an art gallery, and its sidewalk café is a haven for diners and their dogs. Anyway, on the strength of the Rocking V if nothing else, Kanab deserves a visit, and I want to pass through again for dinner.

The Grand Canyon Road Trip, Part 2

Zion National Park

Zion Lodge sits on the green floor of Zion Canyon, several miles in from the park entrance. Just across the road from the Lodge the modest North Fork Virgin River curls its way beneath an uneven wall of oxidized Navajo sandstone. The narrowness of the Canyon makes you feel as if you’ve tumbled into a lost world from which you might not be able to exit anytime soon. Meanwhile, though, amidst the beauty rustic comfort beckons.

The Lodge, especially under the partially overcast skies that prevail at our arrival, seems to huddle permanently in the shadows. The original Lodge burned down in the 60’s and the Park Service hastily erected a charmless, utilitarian replacement, along with similarly bland motel-like structures to house visitors. But we have the good luck to draw one of the cabins, which date from the 1920’s and are on the National Registry of Historic Places. Restored in 2010 based on Union Pacific Railroad photo archives, the cabins are furnished with blankets, pillows and curtains woven by Pendleton Mills and wicker-and-oak furniture made by the Old Hickory Company of Indiana, which has been manufacturing furniture for the national parks since 1904. Carpets were torn out and fir flooring installed. In the corner near the door is a diminutive stone gas fireplace.

Our cozy cabin in Zion National Park

These days all the national parks are going “green.” Zion, which is run by Xanterra, the current incarnation of the venerable Fred Harvey Company , appears to be in some sort of green vanguard. On the vintage-reproduction oak desk I find a thick, glossy corporate report by Xanterra detailing efforts to reduce its carbon footprint while still making a profit. I learn from the report that bottled water is no longer sold in Zion. Instead there are water stations where you can – and should — fill up your own bottle. (A similar initiative in Grand Canyon National Park has just been put on hold by the director of the Park Service, apparently to avoid offending the Coca Cola Company.) There are recycling bins in the rooms, of course. And rather than providing the usual travel-sized toiletries, the park has installed wall-mounted shower gel and shampoo containers, which make an inelegant first impression. But to begin with, you don’t come to the national parks expecting elegance —though when the old railroad lodges like El Tovar and Many Glacier were first built, they were supposed to deliver just that. And these days sustainability is becoming the last word in luxury, at least for eco-tourist wannabes like me.

Jim and I have just enough time for a short hike before dinner. This will be the rhythm of our road trip: pulling up, checking in, heading out – if we’re lucky – for a brief hike, eating, and, inexplicably tired long before 10 p.m., toppling into bed. So our hikes tend to belong to the “easy” and “most popular” categories, including this afternoon’s to the Emerald Pools. We wind our way up the first part of the trail, carved out of rock and covered in red dust, with a Babel of foreign tourists: Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Australian, along with gaggles of American children (what are they doing here at this time of year?) and their parents. Above the Lower Emerald Pool (there are three) the knots of hikers begin to thin out. Making it to Upper Pool involves an extra mile or so round-trip and some rock-strewn switchbacks. But when we clamber around the last corner and look down on the Pool, we see a small crowd of the Emerald Pool Trail elite milling around and taking pictures. A long-legged young Asian-American woman in abbreviated hiking shorts bounds up a large boulder at the Pool’s edge and exhorts a young, unattached male hiker to join her, which he’s pathetically eager to do. “If we get more people up here,” she announces, “we could do ‘YMCA.’”

No one wants to audition for the Upper Emerald Pools amateur hour. Maybe because they don’t understand English, or have never heard of the Village People or are attached to someone and don’t need to chat up babe hikers. Or maybe because they cling to a nineteenth-century notion of Nature as Cathedral. For such folks, of whom I’m one, this severe , sandstone sanctuary shouldn’t echo too loudly with human voices.

Jim at the Upper Emerald Pool

The next morning we have a little piece of Zion Canyon to ourselves. We take the shuttle to Weeping Rock and walk up the quarter-mile trail to a natural hanging garden formed by the hollowed-out underside of a cliff. Small springs seep out between the layers of porous Navajo sandstone and non-porous kayenta shale, creating a natural watering system. The Park has installed signs along the Weeping Rock trail to identify trees, flowers and ferns: box elder, shrub live oak, velvet ash, Oregon grape, scouringrush (a spiky, bamboo-like plant that was actually used by early settlers to scour pots), maidenfern, and golden columbine, which may be the yellow flower clinging to the wall in the photo below.

Weeping Rock

Without the signs the short hike to Weeping Rock would likely pass in a blur of green and, under today’s overcast sky, brick red. And even with the signs I can only manage to keep a couple of trees and plants in my head, undoubtedly the result of increasing age but also of long-abandoned practices: most of us aren’t in the habit of taking time to learn the names of trees and plants around us. In grade school I had to collect leaves and press them between sheets of notebook paper: locust, black walnut, pin oak. These days I couldn’t name all the trees out our livingroom window.

Grand Canyon Road Trip Oct. 9 – 20, 2011

On the Road from Vegas to Zion

Red rocks and Mormon churches wherever you turn. The churches rise up out of every tiny, dusty, dying town between Springdale and Four Corners, eerily pristine structures in the midst of junked cars and shuttered motels. But dwarfing the towns and even the Latter Day Saints is the country they colonized, or at least tried to. Its own fantastical, ochre and white steeples scrape up against the vast , empty sky.

We’re on a road trip around the Grand Canyon, a blitz through eight national parks and monuments in just over eight days. It would be an embarrassment , this superficial itinerary, if the entire route weren’t so scenic and therefore a redemption of sorts. All of southern Utah is an immersion in the peculiarities of its landscape; you don’t have to rely on the National Parks to get acquainted with them.

Vaguely stupefied by the previous day’s plane travel and a night in Las Vegas – during which we ventured out only to dine, not to gamble or marvel at Cirque du Soleil — , we head towards the desolate, rocky purity of Zion. But you can’t earn it immediately. Las Vegas spreads a costume-jeweled pinky as far as Mesquite, where we stop at a place we jokingly regard as an old haunt, the Casablanca Resort and Casino. Actually, we’re looking for a restaurant in the Casablanca, the Purple Fez. It’s where we ate our first lunch together – our first meal of any kind as a couple — on a blind date four years ago.

Perhaps as the result of some hilariously bad reviews on Trip Advisor, or perhaps simply as a reflection of the current branding trend towards punchy names, The Purple Fez is now just The Fez. But the dreary atmosphere and food faintly reminiscent of hospital cafeterias haven’t changed. And today there’s no sun to glance off the empty pool into the weakly lit dining room, which is sparsely populated, mostly by old folks. Or rather, older folks — at least we’re not using walkers yet. Our time may come, but maybe not before we grow into wisdom and pass up the chance to eat more BLTs and undercooked fried eggs here.

The exotic Fez restaurant at the Casablanca Casino and Resort in Mesquite, NV

Things get better after I lose $2 in the slot machines and manage to jam the machine (or so I like to think) by unintentionally sticking a quarter in the wrong slot. Once out of Mesquite and its graveyard of Vegas casino clones we head for the Virgin River Gorge. When it was completed in the 1970’s, Interstate 15 through the Gorge was apparently the most expensive stretch of rural highway ever built. It cuts through low stone mountains that look, to judge from their stratification, as if they had toppled sideways before reaching a tentative stasis.

Provisional Identifications

My definitive identification of a gray partridge two weeks ago was wrong. The friendly bird that followed us down part of the Taggart Lake Trail was likely a Sage Grouse hen. Last week, on the same trail, we saw two more, equally unconcerned by human presence. One hen was preening her feathers as five or six humans looked on from a distance of perhaps two feet. Jim says the hens are trying to distract our attention away from their nests, a more plausible explanation than lack of avian inhibition. But my bird book says Sage Grouses court in the spring — some of them on a runway at the Jackson Hole Airport — so it’s too late for nests.

Or the hens could have been Blue Grouses. The same bird book made me feel a little better about my inability to distinguish one grouse from another, noting that “[g]rouse, considering how tame they are, can be surprisingly difficult to identify. Even the experienced birder will want to take care to note all the field marks” — which, of course, I didn’t. (B. Raynes, “Birds of Grand Teton National Park”)

We’ve started our fourth and final week here. It’s getting late to learn much more about local flora and fauna, although on a hike yesterday we saw a Three-toed Woodpecker. Maybe, anyway. (It could also have been a Black-Backed Woodpecker.) And we absolutely, positively saw a Pika, our first sighting ever of these tiny, mouse-like rodents with extra-big ears.

Despite the fact that I remain largely ignorant of my environment, the rest of the world has faded away. It seems that we’ve always been in this yellow-green-gray-silver valley, the Tetons to our left as we look north, the Gros Ventre Range, shorn of the Tetons’ granite peaks, to our right, the greener streambed grasses of the Elk Refuge and Flat Creek below us, across the road. Days are punctuated by the Tetons slowly emerging at dawn and coyotes yipping and yodeling in the middle of the night. In between we’ve been living in our small, shifting commune of family and friends, fanning out on hikes, raft trips, or, in my case, solitary bike rides to Kelly on the Gros Ventre Road.

But suddenly the days are running out. Some bird is chirping as I write this, on yet another cloudless afternoon. I can’t tell what it is; maybe one of our young Western Wood Peewees (assuming that’s in fact what they are). It’s time to remember that I don’t really live here and treat the coming week as a vacation in which I want to take in as much as I can, as if — though we’ve rented this house for next September — I might never see the Tetons again.

Charismatic Mini-Fauna

We’d been hoping (sort of) to see grizzlies, black bears or a bull moose, but nature sent smaller ambassadors our way on yesterday’s hike. Friends visiting during the second week of our stay decided on the popular hike to Taggart Lake. Actually, we were going to undertake the slightly more ambitious loop to Bradley Lake, one lake beyond Taggart, but got confused and thought we’d taken the wrong trail. So we started to retrace our steps downhill through rocky open country. On the way down we noticed a bird with mottled brown feathers taking a dust bath under some sage brush. It didn’t fly away when we approached, and as each of us passed it the bird made muffled clucking sounds. We concluded it was an injured youngster until, looking back, we saw that it had turned around to face the trail and was beginning to follow us. We stopped to tell it, idiotically, to return to its dust bath, but it continued down the trail after us for awhile until it concluded either that we were not promising partridge parent substitutes or else simply lost interest.

Along the shore of Taggart Lake we met a woman who’d stopped
on a little bridge and was staring intently at something in a mess of fallen tree trunks extending from the shore. “Beaver,” we pronounced when the large, rust-brown rodent appeared. “No,” the woman said. “It doesn’t have a beaver’s tail.” And she seemed to be right: the tail
looked too furry and not flat enough. We concluded that the
animal was a muskrat, although muskrats have ratty tails, not furry ones. The mysterious rodent hammed it up for several minutes before diving from the bridge into a narrow neck of Taggart Lake, precluding further deliberation. At home we concluded that the muskrat was actually a marmot. But marmots frequent trails and live in rocky burrows. So the best we can say is that on our hike we saw a tubby, light-brown rodent with large teeth who was not particularly afraid of humans and had an affinity for aquatic sports.

Since we’d failed to get to Bradley Lake, we took the longer trail back to the trailhead. It took us along a ridge and then into woodlands punctuated by small, marshy openings, just above a streambed. “Prime bear country,” I thought. We’d forgotten to bring along bear spray. I tried to set an example for my less (though not by much) experienced friends and clapped ahead of every blind curve in the trail, yelling “Hey, bear!” and looking right and left. Suddenly I was aware of something moving just ahead of my feet and looked down in time to see an approximately two-foot snake loop off the trail and into the vegetation. It was dull brown with two ivory stripes running length-wise on either side of its slender body. Our precise identification was “snake,” but I’ve since concluded that we saw a valley garter, one of the reptile inhabitants of Grand Teton National Park and not nearly as common as the wandering garter snake.

We got back to the parking lot without encountering any bears. The only mega-fauna we saw for the duration of our hike were not-so charismatic hikers like ourselves. But we did get some homework assignments in avian, mammal and reptile identification. Bears and moose — they’re the easy stuff.