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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Mule Ride into the Grand Canyon

The day before our scheduled mule ride down Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National
Park, we weighed in. We both registered under the 200-pound limit, though Mark just barely.

The clerk gave us leather pouches for carrying water on our ride, ensured that we had hats and long-sleeved shirts to wear and informed us to meet in the corral the next morning.

We arose early to snag some breakfast, and at 6:45 a.m. we met Jack, a wrangler, in the park corral. After a 25-minute safety talk, Jack sized the nine of us up and partnered us each with a mule whose personality he felt meshed with what little of our own that Jack could decipher in our as-yet short time together.

I sidled up to my match, Buttermilk, a tall, blond mule with a nearly white mane. Mark, who had never been on horseback or muleback before, was partnered with Pistol, a thick-in-the-middle, cantankerous mule. Jack made the match reasoning that Mark looked big and strong, like he could handle a mule of his own mind. He gave Mark what he called a “motivator”: a thick rope with a knot in one end. Mark was to swing that hard into either side of Pistol to keep him moving.

Out of curiosity, I asked if the mules ever got a day off. Dryly, Jack responded that the mules had no union so were seven-day-a-week trekkers. More seriously, he explained that, with experience, he and the other wranglers can tell by sight which mules might need a day off, simply by watching them in the corral each morning.

Around about 8 a.m. we set off down Bright Angel Trail. Jack and his mule headed our caravan and another cowboy concluded it, just behind Mark and Pistol. I rode in the middle of the pack.

About a quarter mile into the steep, switchback, dusty trail, Jack stopped and asked if anybody had any concerns so far. I commented, “Already, Buttermilk has stumbled a couple times and even fallen to her front knees one time. Already,” I emphasized. “Are you sure she’s up for this trail today?” I was a little worried because most of the trail was straight, dead drop off to one side or the other.

Jack assured me that Buttermilk was ready for the task, and I respected Jack’s expert opinion.

Continuing down the trail, hikers stepped aside to let us pass as mule trains have right-of-way, and we stopped four miles in at Indian Gardens. There we could dismount and rest in the shade, fill up our water bottles and go to the bathroom.

Mark and I sat on the dusty ground in the shade, and he told me that he swung the motivator
hard on Pistol a couple times. “Now,” he said, “all I have to do is lift it up, then Pistol sees it,” and hurries right along.

Shortly after our stop at the Indian Garden oasis, we reached the ultimate, what made putting up with our stubborn, clumsy mules worth it; we were peering down at the sediment-filled, churning, Colorado River that ran a hundred feet below. I wanted to venture out onto a firm yet unsupported precipice jutting from the cliff to have Mark take my picture, yet he begged me not to do it. He reminded me that my balance is about as good as Buttermilk’s; one false move, and I’d be a goner. So we meandered back to our mounts, settled into the saddles and rode back to Indian Gardens for a box lunch in the shade.

Afterwards, with our mules aimed up the trail, the ride was steadier, and we could more fully enjoy the grandeur of the canyon.

By the time our mules trotted into the corral, the sundial read 3:30 p.m. We were happy the ride was over; our rumps being sore.

With plenty of water remaining in our flasks, we drank as we ambled to our car. I smiled
to myself watching Mark, a little bow-legged after spending so many hours on fat Pistol.

Thank goodness our motel, just outside the park, had a hot tub. We soaked good and long that

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Appeal of the Big Apple

I wrote this story 10 or more years ago. It’s about a trip I took in September 1993, five years before I even met Mark, my usual traveling partner. The final two paragraphs are recent additions.

“See those buildings? Those are the second and third tallest in the United States.” My brother Mike was giving me my first tour of New York City. He lived in Chester, NY an hour upstate.

We went to the top of one of the World Trade Towers and took in the hazy view of the city. Another tourist took our picture with my camera and the rest of New York in the background.

At the American Museum of Natural History we learned about Asian and African cultures before we broke for lunch at an Indian deli. Mike had a veggie burger in a pita while I had curry chicken with brown rice and yaal, an Indian vegetable.

Having only half-filled our daily knowledge quotient, we went back to the museum. Rodents, mammals and bears. Aquatic life and the evolution of humankind. The museum was the most complete of any I’d ever been in. We ended with a movie about the rain forest.

In horrific 4 p.m. traffic we drove to Little China where Mike bought two silk scarves for my sister-in-law and we ate dinner.

We have good Chinese food around here, but I figured Little China would have better. Mike had a seafood “nest” with shrimp, scallops, two types of squid and conch. I had sautéed, sliced conch with snow peas and carrots. The conch, which I’d never eaten before, tasted mild but was tough; it was like chewing rubber. Both types of squid were chewy too but tasted different, between fish and lobster. I didn’t like the squid.

We got rid of the bad taste by stopping at Hagen Daas for ice cream before the Broadway show at 8 p.m.—Miss Saigon.

Reservations we didn’t have, and finding parking proved difficult. So, at 7:55 p.m., a block away from the box office I bounded from the car and ran to get tickets. On that Friday night, minutes before show time, the two remaining seats were not near one another. One was $50 and the other $65.

Running, Mike rounded the corner at 8:03 p.m., and I gave him the news. We decided to forego the play, walk around Broadway and experience the Big Apple.

Mike passed a homeless woman who managed to pique my interest: she wasn’t asking for money but wanted to tell me a joke. I couldn’t pass that up. Though I don’t remember the joke, I know I laughed. She then asked for money, and I couldn’t refuse.

I caught up with Mike, and, after some New York cheesecake, we found the car.

The homeless woman notwithstanding, I saw fewer weirdos and crazy fashions than I expected. The most memorable thing was the traffic: impatient drivers who over-honk.

That was then.

Today the towers are an obvious nonpresence, but the appeal of the City is as strong as ever. The American Museum of Natural History is still the best. Little China is still thriving. (A friend from college who lives in Brooklyn says it’s about to overtake Little Italy.) Indian and Chinese restaurants still abound. And traffic is still bad.

If you are looking for a place to visit not too far from home, don’t’ let events from 9/11 scar your perception of “The City that Never Sleeps.” New York City has something to interest anyone.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Hawaiian Island of Oahu

Nearly every event in Hawaii has dancers and not just hula girls, but big, muscular men shakin’ their Polynesian booties. The best place to watch all this is at the Polynesian Culture Center on the north coast of Oahu. I think all the male dancers are from Brigham Young University-Hawaii football team. Dark and well-built, moving fast with fire; they’re as hot as the flames they throw. The young women are pretty too.
The Polynesian Culture Center is an amusement park without rides. Each of seven Polynesian Islands, Samoa, Old Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand and Marquesas, has its own area with a small museum and arena where Polynesians tell stories and share their histories.

Another attraction along the north shore is Waimea Valley and Adventure Park, like a big rainforest with animals and lush vegetation. Here we see a little gray and brown goose called a nene, we watch brave men dive off cliffs and we play croquet in the rain with a couple we meet from New Jersey.
In the center of Oahu is Dole Plantation where Mark and I stop on our return to Waikiki Beach on the southeastern coast. From the gift shop I buy a sun-catcher, Maui Potato Chips and a fresh-cut pineapple—like nothing Mark and I have ever experienced before.
A bite into a nearly glowing yellow piece of fruit—like sunshine—is like breaking a dam to a sweet, cool river of juice. It overflows my mouth and drips off my chin. After our first bites, Mark and I look at each other with grins and wide eyes. Unbelievable. We’re in the Garden of Eden. We’ve reached nirvana. This pineapple is it; we are experiencing the ultimate, the apex of our taste adventures.
Between us, we eat the whole pineapple in the front yard of the gift shop, surrounded by the peeling trees, each layer of bark revealing a different shade of orange, green, yellow, brown.

After eating our pineapple, we go out to see the mother-land, the pineapple plants that delivered the delicate treat we just delighted in. For $4.50 apiece we can enter the big hedge-maze, but mazes scare me, so instead we watch the carp in the pond. They are so plentiful it looks like there’s no water, just fish slipping along on other fish.

Though we don’t want to mar our remembrance of the pineapple, we are hungry by the time we get back to Honolulu so stop at Hard Rock Café for a bite before the show. We are staying at the Beachcomber, where the running performance is Magic of Polynesia with John Hirokawa. The show is wonderful with young male and female dancers besides the magic. All these dancers are as good looking as the first we saw.
The next day we visit Bishop Museum and Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu. Charles Reed Bishop founded Bishop Museum in 1889 to honor his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last of the royal Kamehameha family. The museum contains royal family heirlooms and Hawaiian and Polynesian artifacts.We learn poi is made from taro root; the nene, the goose we saw at Waimea Valley, is Hawaii’s state bird; the Polynesians discovered Hawaii by navigating the Pacific Ocean in canoes using the stars; strychnine is not a concoction of chemicals but is a tree native to Hawaii.
Another tree common to Hawaii is the lipstick tree. It grows in different colors. I bend a leaf from a tree and apply the stuff. It’s orange—not my shade, but rubbing it off completely proves impossible. I wish I’d chosen a pink hue.
Mark drives us east to Sandy Beach, just up the coast from Hanauma Bay. I heard that Hanauma Bay has the best snorkeling, but snorkeling in December—even in Hawaii—is too cold for a native Buckeye, and Mark doesn’t swim.
Big waves crash close to shore at Sandy Beach. We watch the local surfers and any other nut who dares a wade.Two men with bikini trunks and no surfboards, obvious foreigners, venture out into the ocean but keep getting knocked down by waves. One man gets up repeatedly, only to be knocked down again—in mid-calf-high water. While he is making his way in, a lifeguard runs out to help this man’s friend, who is having a hard time. The water is really powerful. When the lifeguard gets to him, two local surfers are already on either side. By the time they get him to shore, he looks exhausted. The sea is rough, yet the two surfers run back out to catch the next wave. Locals, obviously.
I guess surfing is its own form of dancing, probably started by the Polynesians. Surfers or fire twirlers, I’ll watch any of them dance in Hawaii.