Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stumbling Halfway to Heaven

There are a lot of tourist attractions in and around the Coachella Valley. Its unique location sandwiched between two mountain chains and close to the high desert make Palm Springs a treasure trove for exploration and discovery. The San Jacinto Mountains to the southwest and the San Bernardino mountains to the northeast provide breathtaking views any time of year.

In 1936, a local civil engineer looked up at those mountain peaks and decided that it would be wonderful to be able to get up there quickly and escape the summer heat. Two wars and many dollars later, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was finally opened and became an immediate success.

The Aerial Tramway climbs up 10,834 feet to the top of the San Jacinto Mountain chain and its national forest. The tramway consists of the world’s largest rotating aerial tram; Swiss-made cable cars that slowly rotate as they carry up to 80 passengers and offer spectacular views all around.

Located in an area called the Chino Cone, the aerial tramway provides spectacular views. But it’s the road leading up to the tramway station that challenged and fascinated me.

The only way to reach the tramway station, which is located at the base of Chino Canyon, is the tram road. Starting out at 800 feet above sea level, this black ribbon of asphalt twists and turns its way for three and a half miles to an elevation of over 2,634 feet. There are no level spots in that entire three and a half miles…it’s all pure elevation. Even for the heftiest of automobiles, it can be a major effort just to get to the base of the tram station. Buses and trucks always struggle to get to the base drop off point or parking lot. 
For the uninitiated and foolish of heart, the tram road provides an appealing challenge for runners and bikers alike. There’s even an officially sanctioned road race called the Tram Road Challenge. In October of each year, more than 1,700 participants begin the run at the crack of dawn. Last year, the winning time was just under thirty minutes to run the three and a half miles.

It’s a road-racing challenge not to be taken lightly. Hidden among the huge boulders that lay strewn all over the Chino Cone, the tram road is a wandering blacktop that has reduced all but the most experienced road runners and bikers alike into stumbling zombies. The asphalt ribbon of torture is a vertical climb of ball-busting, gut-wrenching torture that renders ones legs to jelly and back numb with pain.

Over the years, I’ve attempted running the length of the tram road several times. I’ve never succeeded. In truth, my attempts to run the tram road were more hard-core training exercises just see how far I could go than anything else. In my novel ‘Debris’ Robert the protagonist attempts to run the tram road. If he can try it, I thought I should be able to give it a shot too. More about that later...

The area round the tram road is picturesque and beautiful in a very rugged sort of way. Encompassing a large area called the Chino Cone, the neighborhoods of Little Tuscany and
Vista Las Palmas sit amid a blanket of large boulders that lay strewn everywhere.

The ten minute ride up to the top of the San Jacinto Mountain float the cable cars over rugged, razor-sharp granite spheres that jut up from below like gnarly bent fingers in pain. The ride up is spectacular while the quiet on top of the mountain is almost deafening. The first thing you notice as you exit the tramway station for the surrounding forest is the overwhelming sweet nectar of pine. It’s almost like stumbling into a hippie hangout with incense burning and weed smoldering in another corner.

Hiking trails cut through the surrounding forests while giant Sequoia and evergreen look down on the novice and experienced hikers alike as they disappear into the green.

Along the edge of the mountain, huge boulders lay about; almost welcoming travelers to climb onboard and lay out in the warm sun and take in the vast expanse of desert below. From the windmills along the Banning Pass to the north and all the way down to the Salton Sea far to the south, the valley floor is laid out like some ancient mosaic painting.

It’s like an elevated tabernacle that lends credence to the wonders of that celestial architect.  Sitting on a sun-warmed boulder and marveling at the beauty all around gives one pause…and a true appreciation for his handiwork.

Oh, yeah, I ran the tram road last week…and lived to write about it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

If Rocks Could Talk

My old desert haunts encompass the southwest corner of Arizona, southern New Mexico and deep forays across the Mexican border. I’ve traveled through dusty adobe towns and wiggled through narrow slot canyons that could rain down death at any moment. I’ve hidden in pueblo ruins and scanned the ridgeline for the telling silhouettes of my trackers.

So venturing into Northern Arizona wasn’t as much a trip back in time as it was a new journey of discovery. It was a mind trip as well as a real one.

Before leaving for Sedona, we traveled back in time to a mining camp east of Phoenix that lay nestled under the shadows of the Superstition Mountains. Ever since an ancient sea receded from the area, these mysterious silent sentinels of granite have been looking down from the ‘Supersticiones’ on the passage of time unfolding all around them. Long before my Camry rolled under the shadows of the Salt River Mountains, known to the Pima Indians as Sierra de Supersticiones, the ancients had left their mark and disappeared. After them came the Pima Indians and the Apaches before the miners and settlers shoved them out.

By the late 1800s, the Goldfield mining camp had become famous for the sheer quantity of gold and ore extracted from its mines. Now only the buildings were more weathered than the miners who once worked there. By the 1890’s the town boasted three saloons, a blacksmith shop, a general store and one brothel. But once the vein faulted and the grade of ore dropped, the town began its slow gradual slide into decline. The town that once claimed it would soon best Mesa and Phoenix all but disappeared.

The treacherous conditions of the mines were only offset by the hardship of travel under the constant of raiding Apache war parties. Long after the last Apache had succumbed to white pressure, I could still feel the Apaches still looking down on me even after all of these years.

It’s like filling my head with inspiration with every glance up at those rugged peaks. Leaning on the hood of my car, I was back among the Apaches once again. At least in spirit.


 I think I got a C minus in my one and only college Geology class. That’s too bad because even a cursory knowledge of rocks would have been helpful as I gazed up at some of God’s truly wondrous creations, Red Rock Country in and around Sedona, Arizona.

Located just two hours north of Phoenix, Sedona boasts some of God’s most colorful creations.  Long before the first human stepped foot in the Verde Valley, ancient winds began to blow rose-colored sand grains into magnificent crimson-colored mesas. Around 8,000 B.C., the Paleo-Indians came to the Sedona area via a natural land bridge that connected North America to Ancient Asia. After them came the Hohokam, the Sinaguan and finally the Anasazi known as the ‘Ancient Ones.’ The quest for gold and silver brought the first white explorers around 1583.

Among the many monikers that Sedona likes to boast about are the breath-taking mountains and the vortexes below. Sedona has painted itself as a magical place where artists of every type are inspired to create their masterpieces or struggle to find their muse. I must admit being struck by the sheer size and beauty of the mountains and buttes all around us. Much like the San Jacinto Mountains in my own backyard, the sun seems to paint these mountains with a different personality by the minute.

I can now understand the publicity shots Sedona loves to share with the world. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of individuals sitting on some mountain butte contemplating their navel as the sun is setting. The entire region does have a different feel about it. It’s a setting perfect for contemplation and creative thoughts.

It was only after the first roads were built into the Sedona area in the mid-twenties that growth and prosperity soon began to follow. Now there’s a new twist in attracting tourists and the curious.
Vortex hunting has become big business.
Some locals claim that Sedona has long been known as a spiritual power center because of vortexes of subtle energy located in the area. “The subtle energy that exists at these locations interacts with who a person is inside. It resonates with and strengthens the inner being of each person that comes within a quarter to a half mile of it” or so the literature says. There are male and female vortexes but that would require too much of a definition and certainly a suspension of belief for a non-believer such as myself.
After perusing books on old time Sedona, I came to the conclusion that the spiritual aspect of this place would have been seen as a strange and even silly phenomena thirty years ago. But today it sells hotel rooms and some folks seem to have bought into it yoga mat and sunsets combined. I suspect for most visitors it’s more a trip inside their head than anyplace else.

The whole New Age, spiritual, metaphysical, mind-tripping moniker got started around the mid-seventies after a journalist came out here and wrote about her spiritual experience on top of some butte. New Age hippies followed and soon there were conferences here just focusing on spiritual healing and vortexes and healing crystals. Now Sedona and most of Red Rock Country seems to have captured a large part of that mysterious market. We were told that artists, writers and seekers from all around the world flock to this Red Rock Country for the spiritual uplifting experiences there.

Not to be left out of finding my muse, I went searching for my own personal vortex… but more about that later…

There are several ruins scattered about the Sedona area. One of the most fascinating is Tuzigoot (Apache for ‘crooked water’). The Tuzigoot pueblo was built in stages on top of a long ridge rising 120 feet above the Verde Valley. It was occupied between 1100 and 1425 A.D and was once one of the largest communities in the Verde Valley. Its occupants were a people called the Sinagua. These ancient farmers quickly learned about the plants, animals, soils and climate of the Verde Valley.  This resulted in active trade and exchange of ideas that enriched all of the cultures of prehistoric Arizona.

 During my trip to Machu Picchu I was able to escape the swarming crowds that were clogging the ruins and find a quiet spot for contemplation. I found a ledge where I could dangle thousands of feet above certain death and ponder my life just as their ancients had done centuries before.

Unfortunately at Tizigoot, the hideaways were either locked up or taken over by a curio shop. Like most of the Indian trading posts during our trip, these too had genuine Indian artifacts that, I suspect, may have come all the way from China. It wasn’t quite the same as in Peru. And yet simply being among the ruins released my imagination to fly in a hundred different directions.

North of Tuzigoot and just as mysterious is the Grand Canyon. God had a field day on this one.

Unfortunately, it was raining and foggy most of the way up to the canyon. Once there, we were lucky to get in just a couple of shots before the clouds dropped down into the canyons and coated everything with a blanket of soft gray. Unlike the pristine, colorful pictures of this magnificent chapel, we got some rare and mystical photos of a Grand Canyon rarely seen by visitors. In the end it was a nice preview for a return trip we definitely must take.

I never did find my own vortex; male or female. Other than a little dust coating my hair and sand stinging my eyes, I just felt the wind swirling around my welcoming body and mind. All the talk of spiritual places and personal vortexes reminded me of some carnival atmosphere but instead of hucksters, I had to listen to hotel desk clerks and tour hawkers. A closer examination of the criteria for finding a personal vortex can be better explained by one sentence in the local literature…”If someone is at all a sensitive person, it is easy to feel the energy at these vortexes.” I rest my case.

Despite not finding my personal vortex, the trip was a great success. There was still a lot I hadn’t seen. I missed Fort Defiance, Canyon de Chelly and the Painted Desert. But not really. I wasn’t there in body but I was in mind and spirit. I could feel the hot sun blistering my neck and the ripples of heat waves dancing across the cactus-studded desert all around me. I can taste the dust and the dirt and the rank odor of soldiers in the field. I could feel the tension as my eyes scanned the horizon for tell-tales signs of danger and perused the deep shadows of the rocks all around me. The Apache are all gone by now but my imagination wasn’t about to let them get away so easy. I was trying to process the ever present fear and anxiety so I could capture it on my keyboard.

Northern Arizona provided a wonderful journey back in time and mind. Although the metaphysical spirit never grabbed me, I did feel a certain connection with the land and its past inhabitants. I didn’t have to go looking for my muse since I’ve been chasing that dream for years now. The journey was more a mind-trip than a physical one. But it was a journey that filled me with a deeper appreciation for the artistry of nature and the my own imagination running rampant over my keyboard back home.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tall Tales from My Honeymoon

My wife gasped when I told her I was going to do a blog about our honeymoon. She hasn’t been too crazy about some of my tell-all blogs in the first place so it was hardly surprising that she really wasn’t enamored with the idea of our three weeks in paradise, the islands of course, being revealed to the world. 

Folks seldom talk in detail about their honeymoon. They usually play it safe and share where they traveled to and what tourist sites they visited. They seldom talk about what they did when they were there. Of course, nowadays so many young people have already hooked up or are living together that the honeymoon has pretty much lost its mysterious allure that it once had for virginal couples.

Our honeymoon covered three Caribbean Islands; St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. Johns. I like to reminisce that we migrated from a fancy resort to a nice hotel to a tent in just three short weeks. But a lot more ground was covered than just the miles traveled and the islands hopped.

The Virgin Islands are the western island group of the Leeward Islands, which are the northern part of the Lesser Antilles, and form the border between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. Virgin Islands is one of the five inhabited insular areas of the United States, along with American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico.

I don’t think we knew that much about the islands at the time. We just wanted someplace we hadn’t been to before, someplace on the ocean and someplace warm.

Each of the islands was unique and different, just like our experiences there.

St. Croix is the largest of the islands in the territory. It measures twenty-eight miles long by seven mile wide at its widest point. St. Croix was once an agricultural powerhouse in the Caribbean but ten years before we arrived the island began a rapid change over to a variety of new industries. Tourism was one of the new directions the island was heading in when we arrived. There weren’t a lot of resorts or fancy hotels on the island but we managed to bag one of few on the island.

The resort was big and ostentatious and expensive but we were young and dumb and didn’t know any better. The island could have been a mecca for shopping but that didn’t interest either one of us. So we spent our time counting starfish on the beach, hiking the challenging hills surrounding downtown and pretending to be somebody in our fancy resort restaurant overlooking the bay each evening. I even inquired into a seaplane ride between the islands but it was too expensive. Rumor had it that the husband of movie star, Maureen O’Hara owned the flying boat company.

After a week of residing in luxury, we flew to the next island and a step down in our accommodations. It was a nice hotel on St. Thomas. It was by the beach but it didn’t have an expensive restaurant or our own stretch of private beach.

St. Thomas has a land mass of 31 square miles and is the territorial capitol of the Virgin Islands at the town of Charlotte Amalie.  Almost half the population of the Virgin Islands lives on St. Thomas. Population meant people so we chose to spend as much time on the beach as we could away from the crowds.

We snorkeled for the first time in our lives and stopped counting rainbow fish after the first dozen or so. We tested tough skin by walking over rock and coral – very carefully and lived most of the day either on or under the water.

We hooked up with another couple and rented a VW for an afternoon spin around part of the island. I did most of the driving since he couldn’t handle a stick too well or adjust to driving on the left side of the road. Driving on the left when the steering column was on the left side just like back in the states drove me crazy. Adding to the challenge was navigating the cows and chickens and occasional animal wranglers we encountered along twisting and turning back dirt roads.

There was supposed to be a nudist’s beach nearby but that idea was quickly squashed. There were many coral outcroppings that provided interesting but potentially dangerous outings in our canvas shoes. But what I remember most about that island were the beaches and Sharon’s total emersion in, over and under the waves. We spent most evenings exploring the downtown and the restaurants there. It was a step down from the resort but still provided a pleasant diversion from the real world. Our next step took us even further from the real world.

Located just four nautical miles from St. Thomas, St. Johns Island is actually part of the U.S. national park system. It was first established as the Virgin Island National Park from the Rockefeller trust in 1956. Almost sixty percent of the island is protected as a national park. It’s rough and primitive and the few people who live on the island like it that way. The only way to get to the island is by ferry.

For some brilliant reason we decided it would be fun, fun being a relative term, to camp out for a week on St. Johns Island. And much like the couple in the book ‘Castaway’ we were left on our own for that week. The ferry dropped us off at the park and wouldn’t return for seven days. We were left to our own survival skills which were sorely lacking on both our parts.

Not only did tent-living remove any traces of privacy in our newly established lives, it also diminished any chances of intimacy for that week. My wife HATES bugs and they lived right alongside us in and out of that tent.

My biggest mistake was to bring along several cases of pop instead of water. By day three, I realized my mistake but with the exception of some water for cooking, I was left with coke and little else to quench my thirst.

We survived our week in the tent with only minor bug bites, a much deeper appreciation for real sleeping accommodations and no desire to return to tent-living ever again. And we haven’t.

Back from the honeymoon, our new home was the top half of a duplex. Our landlady was some crazy lady who used to hit her ceiling with a broom if she thought we were making too much noise. I could add a line about thin walls here but I won’t.

Our honeymoon brought us closer together and whetted both our appetites for more travel. Together we managed to build a life and a family and piled up a lifetime of memories. It’s been one heck of a trip for two kids from modest means and less than pedigree backgrounds.