beijing 3: the great wall of sticky rice

At 7 AM on Saturday, Justin and I are met by Wang Ping, our guide to a remote and wild section of the Great Wall known as Jiankou, about 200 kilometers and 3 hours from our hotel. Ping has brought a friend, an attractive young woman of an uncertain name. After asking her to pronounce her name twice and then spell it for me, I give up, blame the road noise, and write down “Angie???”

As we drive outward through the expansive Beijing suburbs, signs exhort us to “Don’t follow too clowsely.” Scattered chimneys from countless small factories attest to the ongoing lack of pollution controls, and belch thick clouds of off-white smoke that spreads out into a solid stripe lying low over the fields, a horizontal band of milky haze below the treetops.

The air has a smoky wood smell.

The major highways look just like the ones in California, though perhaps with fewer potholes. Similar signage, tollbooths, road construction. The main roads show evidence of a large labor pool: the medians are well groomed, manicured and planted with bright flowers.

Ping speaks English well, having learned from an American teacher, a 24 year old named Christine. He describes her thusly: “Christine is same as you are, with very big nose.”

“Oh,” I reply with a laugh. “You mean she was very beautiful!”

Getting to the Jiankou section of the Great Wall entails taking a series of ever smaller roads past rivers and countryside villages. Ping points out the resorts, which appear to be constantly under construction. Apparently this is a popular region to escape to on hot summer weekends.

As the roads narrow, we pass groups of people digging up the discolored but otherwise perfect bricks that line the road, replacing them with whiter versions of the same bricks. I suppose this is the Chinese equivalent of the Works Progress Administration back in the 1930’s in the U.S.: keep the people employed.

We wind through the mountains past corn-growing farming communities. Occasionally we are charged small tolls to pass through these villages, women and children moving makeshift barriers to let us through after being given the requisite small bills. Apart from corn, this forms a large part of the village income, and so is tolerated by the local authorities despite the signs we now see proclaiming “This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public.”

Apparently, the payment of the toll makes us private, not public. Ping explains that the signs were put there after the villages got sued by the family members of people who died. Hiking the wall. Where we’re going.

“Ah,” I say. “Perhaps you should have mentioned that earlier.”

“Don’t worry,” replies Ping. I wait for more words of reassurance, but he seems to have reached the end of that particular thought.

We reach a small village in the mountains at the literal end of the road, where Ping’s van is argued over by an insistent woman and a creaky old man, each of whom wants our business at their respective parking areas, e.g. flat bits of dirt not otherwise occupied by cut corn stalks. The woman is quicker and louder, and the old man loses out.

At 3600 feet, Jiankou is one of the most picturesque sections of the Great Wall, rising and falling hundreds of feet in successive sharp peaks. Just getting to the wall is a hellacious climb up a steep trail from our small village, and I’m thankful for the loan of a walking stick from Ping. It takes the four of us about 45 minutes to climb the switchback trail. When we reach the Wall from the northern side of what used to be Mongolia, we can see the village back down in the valley, a thousand feet below.

The Jiankou section of the Great Wall is not restored like other better known and well-supported tourist sections. This is the real wall, a majestic and crumbling 600 years of history, crawling its way up and down over sharp and close set peaks like a line of paint laid over crumpled tinfoil. Each peak along the long-vanished border has its guard tower, no matter how steep the approach.

The base of the wall remains solid, even where trees have taken route. Some portions of the wall are broad and heavily forested. Other spots are thin and bare, straddling knife-edge ridges in the mountains where you can stretch from side to side and take long looks down to the left and right.

In most places, the side walls preventing an accidental fall remain intact, the hard white joints between the stones still displaying the incredible staying power of the sticky rice used in the mortar. Rice does not grow in these mountains, and would have been carried from the south of China upriver by barge, then by cart, then by hand. Some of that rice ended up in the stomachs of the builders, and some ended up ground into powder and mixed with water, lime or egg white. The builders and their meals are long gone, but the once glutinous rice remains centuries later, fossilized and still incredibly strong.

In the frequent spots where the wall climbs sharply and clings to the sides of mountain peaks you can see gravity and time slowly winning out, turning stone steps into dense piles of rubble that we must climb. Some of the sections are nearly vertical, requiring us to heave ourselves upward from stone to stone or climb the outside edge of the wall and push ourselves up on the twisted roots of trees.

As my shoulder bag flops around in an attempt to send me spinning downward I am reminded that a “man purse” filled with water bottles is not the most stable thing to carry. Had I known in advance I’d be doing this climb, I would have brought a small backpack. And some hiking boots. Hey, at least I remembered a hat. Ping tells me I look like Indiana Jones.

He also suggests I take off my clothes and hike the Great Wall naked, saying the resulting movie would get a lot of attention.

“You mean the kind of attention where I get arrested, thrown into a Chinese prison and never get seen again?”

“Oh no, it would be no problem. You would be famous.”

“Hmm. I think you’re confused in your English. There’s a difference between famous and infamous. Angelina Jolie is famous. Me being arrested for hiking naked at the Great Wall—that would be infamous.”

I am, however, quite tempted to drop trou’ and hike a section in the all-together. I wonder how Ping, who has only met me a few hours ago, could possibly know me so well. I swear upon my future grave, which I’m thinking could be any moment now, that he brought this up entirely on his own.

In the end, discretion and my fear of the authorities wins out, and I tell Ping that if it weren’t for the presence of a coworker, particularly one with a fancy camera, I would have gone for it.

“You would be very famous on YouTube,” he insists.

“You’re confusing me with my brother,” I say. “A lot of people get us mixed up. He’s a YouTube star. I just get naked on mountaintops. But not, I think, today.” Luckily for all concerned, we drop the topic, I keep the trousers, and we all hike onward.

For the next six hours we play the part of Ming dynasty guards and march up and down the steep mountain passes to stop, panting, at each ruined guard tower. On the tallest of these peaks, the aptly named “The Eagle Flies Upward” (which it would need to do in order to avoid smashing into the vertical cliff face), I find cell phone reception from the distant village far below, and call my wife!

I tell M where I am so she can look it up on the Internet, totally forgetting until after I hang up that she will find, right before she tries to go to bed, that Jiankou is described as dangerous, hazardous, risky, wild, and crumbly. All true, which makes it a wonderful place to visit. But perhaps not the best place to surprise a loved one on the other side of the world.

“Okay, I’ll call you later if I survive the day. Sleep well, sweetheart, and pleasant dreams!”

Although there were plenty of other hikers, we didn’t see another Western face the entire day. Jiankou is a place for intrepid travelers only, and I was thankful that we had a good guide. Wang Ping can be contacted at his website,

where he confusingly refers to himself as Mr. Dereck, the name given to him by his expatriate English teacher Christine, she of the brown hair and the beautifully large nose that looks just like mine.

the memory of persistence, part two

Someday I’ll write My Lesion Of Honor. In the meantime, file this one under More Stories About Surgery.

As I recall, our firstborn was a few years old, and very curious. That is to say, he was filled with curiosity, in addition to being strange and unusual. The two of us were outdoors at a family Sukkot celebration, and the then-little guy was asking questions like, “Where is God?”

And I was answering in your standard “God is everywhere” form, because that’s what you do. Benny would point to various places and ask if that’s where God was, and I’d say, “You betcha. God’s there, too. Yes, God is behind those bushes. Yep, those bushes, too. And in that car. Sky? Sure thing. In the building? Sure.”

He pointed to his head. “Is God in here?”

“Uh, yeah. God’s in there as well.” Apparently my answers were incomplete, as he later concluded that if God was everywhere, God may as well be nowhere, and in that case why was I making him go to Sunday school? Anyway, about this time I started feeling pain in my abdomen, which intensified to the point at which I was smiling at friends through my gritted teeth and heading to the car. I rationalized it away as an allergy to questions about God. Either that, or God was also in my abdomen and really, really wanted out.

When we got home, I remember Marci opening the door for us. I remember the look on her face as she saw me get out of the car slowly, as bent over as a pipe cleaner in a hurricane. She was instantly concerned. “Are you okay?”

“No.” Notice the monosyllable there? It’s not particularly characteristic of me.

“Do you need to go to the hospital?”

Now, I should point out that this is not something that Marci normally says, and of course its not something that I would normally answer in the affirmative. So it’s quite revealing of my level of discomfort when I answered, “I might.”

While I moaned in bed she was able to reach the good Dr. B, who asked me several questions and made the quite correct diagnosis of acute appendicitis. Shortly thereafter I was in the operating room, having my appendix out laparoscopically, which means that the doctor stuck three oversized soda straws into my belly and sucked the inflamed organ out without having to slice me open. This is, of course, much preferable to the old method, which was to cut the patient in half laterally with a band saw, remove the swollen appendix with a Hoover vacuum and a pair of tin snips, stuff the wound with straw and then collect the deceased’s insurance.

So the appendix was retrieved just before it burst open like a microwaved hot dog. We had the useless and swollen sac bronzed, and now I use it as a bludgeon against opponents twice my age and half my size. Or: we buried it in the back yard and it grew into a tree that blooms clusters of Addendums every spring. Actually, I donated it to the Masai, who turned it into a coin purse and sold it to the Smithsonian as a cultural artifact.

The surgery was on Monday morning. I spent a few days unable to straighten from the fetal position, rigid and semi-colonic (in the punctuation sense. Not sure what other sense semi-colonic could be, other than nonsense). Then I took off Friday with Marci, Sharon and Ben to go camping in the Ouachita Mountains between Oklahoma and Arkansas.

“Wha??” you say. And well you migh. Makes no sense, but there you have it. Surgery on Monday, tent camping on Friday. To be fair, my companions had to do the heavy lifting and set up the gear, but by Sunday we were hiking through the wooded hills of western Arkansas. I was no longer comma-shaped, and, if not upright as an inverted Mexican exclamation point, at least I stood straighter than a parenthesis.

the memory of persistence, part one

In a few weeks I’ll head into a surgery that the invisible web gods describe as like having an enraged trio of feral polecats clawing through your nethers. Who wouldn’t look forward to that? Not to worry anybody—it’s not super serious, just apparently painful. A week and two days later, I’m supposed to take Geran for his first overnight camping trip with the Cub Scouts–a trip I took his older brother on several times. The camp is about two hours from San Francisco, up in the mountains. The last 30 minutes of the drive is a winding track of swiss-cheese dirt that’s more pothole than road, a bumpier ride than this year’s stock market.

It’ll be potentially interesting to see if I can make the trip. Interesting for other people, that is. For me, it’ll be more like the old proverb about the chicken and the pig. The chicken gives its eggs, so the chicken is interested in breakfast. But the pig—now, the pig is committed.

So I’m thinking about Persistence. At some point as you get older, you just Get Up And Do. As my pal Yoda says, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Once, before the advent of children, Ben and Sharon had planned a camping trip to Caprock Canyons with Marci and me. It was to be the Nth trip there for the good doctor and me, but the first for the womenfolk. And the first time for Sharon to get hammertoe–as I recall, she ended up losing most of her toenails that trip to badly fitted shoes, so that’s Persistence on her part for sure. You can’t have a comfortable hike and end up with black and blue toenails, but she sacrificed her toenails for the greater good.

Sadly, Marci came down with a bad cold two days before the trip, and Ben and Sharon decided to go it alone. As you know from other stories, Caprock is a good five hour drive from Dallas, where we all lived at the time. Ben and Sharon called us to say goodbye on a Friday morning as they left Dallas and headed off to the wilderness.

Late that night, well after our friends would have arrived, hiked in and set up camp, Marci and I were readying for bed. She blew her nose and said, “I fink I’b feelig a bid bedder.” 

“Really? How much bedder?” 

“I duddo. Sub. Mebbe bedder enough to go hikig by toborrow.”

Well, then! I ignored that little voice that said she was crazy (because if I listened to invisible little voices, then I would be crazy) and let her go on to bed early while I hurriedly shoved our gear together—packs, water bottles, stove, food, tent. Back then we were more ready for camping than we are these days, and the gear was easily accessible from the closet under the stairs. At 4 AM, we were up, and sure enough, Marci felt well enough to go. I was really surprised, but she was committed. So I put our backpacks and hiking boots into the car, and we started down the pitch-black highway.

At that dark hour, there was no one on the road, and back then, once you left Dallas you were really gone, baby, gone. Miles of flat, boring nothingness that all look the same, day or night. Nowadays, all of that prairie has been replaced with miles of flat, boring strip malls that all look the same, day or night. But then, it was the open road, 90 miles an hour, nobody around. The five hour drive took us three and a half, and we reached the ranger station as the sun was just beginning to warm the surrounding dirt farms.

A hitch. Ben and Sharon weren’t expecting us, of course, and hadn’t left a note as to where they’d be. The ranger wasn’t sure where they were camping, and there are multiple places throughout the park. But as Ben and I had been there many times before, I was pretty certain where he’d take Sharon. There’s one spot in the park where you can hike in an easy mile to a primitive (no facilities) campsite, which has the advantage of being away from everything without being a huge schlep. Also, that was the only place in the park that gave you equal access to both the Upper Canyon and Lower Canyon trail. So that’s where Marci and I headed first.

Sure enough, we found Ben’s car at the trailhead, and parked beside it. Hiking boots, sunscreen and hats later, we were headed up the trail. It was still early morning, about 9 AM. “We need to move pretty quickly,” I said. “Once they leave the campsite, they’ll be hard to catch.”

“Do you think they’ll get going early?”

“Nah, I doubt it. We’ll probably find them having breakfast.” The weather was beautiful. Blue skies, and the sun just heading over the hills as we headed into the middle canyon. That first mile winds through dead, sun-blasted escarpments that look more like the lower canyon than the upper, but still possessing a rocky, desert beauty. And sure enough, a mile into the hike we spotted a lone tent that we figured must be Ben and Sharon’s. We hurried on up and called out to them.

They weren’t inside. We’d missed them. Damn early risers! “I was afraid of that,” I told Marci. We looked around, but there was no sign to tell us when they’d left. It could have been only moments. But the tent was clearly Ben’s—I recognized his stuff—so we opened the flap and ditched our backpacks inside, keeping only a day pack with our lunches, snacks, water filter and bottles of water.

We started up the trail, now lighter and moving quickly. After about 10 minutes we came upon two men hiking the opposite way. I asked them if they’d passed a man and woman. “Yep, must have been about twenty minutes ago or so.”

“Uh oh,” I told Marci, frowning as we left the men behind. “Ben and Sharon will be getting near the split soon.”

“What split?”

“Well, the trail will end at a T. If you go left, it’s the Upper Canyon. If you go right, it’s the Lower Canyon. If we don’t catch them before then, we won’t know which way they’re heading.” Marci was doing okay with the hike, but she couldn’t go any faster. I gave her the day pack, kissed her and took off running. The plan was for her to come along as quickly as she could, and I’d try to sprint forward to the T and catch Ben and Sharon before it was too late.

I was winded pretty quickly, but kept running for quite a while. I must have been nearing the end of the trail, when suddenly I rounded a corner and saw two people up ahead in the distance. I ignored the stitch in my side, redoubled my speed and staggered forward until I was within hailing distance, then called out to them as loudly as my breathless voice could manage.

Two more surprised people, you’ve never seen. I had caught up with Ben and Sharon only a few hundred yards from where the trails diverge. They couldn’t believe we came after them, or that we’d found them! Soon, Marci came around the bend and joined us, and the four of us hiked the Upper Canyon loop–a beautiful 10-mile trail climbing winding canyon walls, past a fern grotto where we could filter and refill our water bottles, and then down an 800 foot precipice back to the canyon floor before returning to our camp site.

“Now that’s friendship,” Sharon said that night, as the stars came out all around.

That’s persistence.


To be continued.

the flea-bitten flatlands of hell

I rose to check the weather for our trip in the dim hours between dawn and Captain Kangaroo. It was Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, 1994, and Ben K was on his way over to pick me up for two calm and restorative days of backwoods hiking in Arkansas. A quick glance at the Whether Channel (to determine whether or not we’d be heading out) stopped my last-minute packing. Excited reporters showed video of intense and angry storms that were sweeping southeast through Oklahoma, straight toward our intended stomping grounds in Ouachita State Park. I had visions of being swept through the mountains by a tidal wave of Arkansas flotsam, beer cans and spent shotgun shells as I fell back into—lawd, forgive me—my uneasy chair.

Upon doctor Ben’s arrival we made a snap (i.e. hasty) decision to drop the plans for driving northeast and instead head west for parts unknown. So I kissed Marci goodbye, and both Ben and I repeated after her in the traditional Oath of Stupidity: “I promise not to do anything stupid like I did last time. We tossed the gear in Ben’s 4Runner, grabbed a Texas Parks map, put pedal to the plastic and headed for the highway. We knew only this: we were headed away from the storms, and we’d figure out the specifics en route.

“Fort Stinkin’ Desert, here we come!” As Ben drove us west by northwest, I surveyed the possible state parks that lay near our route. We settled on Caprock Canyons, a good six-hour drive, and the only park on our map that mentioned primitive camping.

Ben was hopeful. “Should be dry as a bone by mid-day,” he declared, defying the weather gods as we fled the splattering rain and gathering storm clouds of Dallas. Sure enough, as morning gave up the ghost, the beautiful grasses and wildflowers of our tiny highway yielded to scrub trees and the cracked, burnt orange desert soil of west Texas. The sun and the mercury soared in the cloudless sky, and dust devils churned the black plowed fields to our left and right. This part of Texas is apparently big business for dust cultivation and dirt farming.

At one point we pulled the car to the edge of a field to pick some cotton, just to see what it was like. I don’t recommend it. The reason cotton balls are so soft and white is that they remove the thorns, comb through the dirt, and bleach out all of my blood! 

For a long time during the drive there wasn’t much to look at. Highways in north-central Texas are a poor place for sightseeing unless you’ve been suffering from a lack of horizons. After hours of endless Nothing, we were on the lookout for Anything. In Turkey, Texas, a bustling one mile metropolis (if you round up), we settled for…Something.

Bob Wills, the late “King of Western Swing” and leader of the Texas Playboys, is memorialized in Turkey by a statue that from a distance resembles a thin grain silo, or spare parts from pre-NASA attempts at putting spiders in orbit, or one of those Rocket popsicles from our childhood for which we had risked our lives chasing the Ice Cream Man. At the side of the main street in Turkey, the statue’s tall octagonal granite base is surmounted, possibly in an afterthought, by a thin shaft of tin capped with a stunted viola that was probably intended to be a violin. Etched in the polished stone of the base are the immortal accomplishments of Bob Wills, and as they are immortal, I shan’t repeat them here. I will now create a sense of suspense, and leave you to travel to Turkey, Texas and see for yourself.

And while you’re at it, visit the Bob Wills Museum in room 103 of the old high school. If the museum is closed, you can while away an hour looking at class pictures going back to the early 1900’s. Let’s just say that Turkey in the early 20th century was not a net exporter of Hollywood-style paragons of beauty. But if you’re looking for big ears and buck teeth, look no further than the old black and whites on the walls of Turkey High.

Ben and I arrived at the Caprock park station in the early afternoon. The ranger, a dried up coughing hag we subsequently named Beulah, suggested we hike the old train track trail into the canyons. The trail wasn’t in the park, but was on a narrow strip of park land, part of a “rails to trails” conversion. Since hiking the rail trail was the same advice I’d been given over the phone by another park ranger we later named El Diablo, we turned the truck around. We headed away from the ranger station toward the trailhead several miles outside the park, down a dusty dirt road that scraped its way through flat and scrubby ranch land.

We slathered ourselves with sunscreen, filled five canteens from the water jug in the truck, donned hats, boots and bandannas, and hauled our packs onto our backs. Stepping onto the trail, a now tie-less railroad from the 1800’s, we looked down the mounded black strip of crushed volcanic rock. It stretched absolutely straight through the flat desert to a perfect vanishing point on the far horizon, like an illustration from an art primer on How To Draw Perspective.

Smarter hikers would have reconsidered at that point. But Ben and I began walking, crunching across the pumice plain like stomping through piles of Cheerios and bone shards. The map showed that we would have to walk four and a half miles before reaching a long train tunnel, gateway to the promised canyon lands beyond. Within minutes we were soaked in sweat, the surprisingly humid heat murderously intensified by the black rock of the trail. Generous portions of liver-killing insecticide helped keep the hordes of blackflies at bay. Nevertheless, we can both attest the blackflies were indeed of a biting variety, and apparently drawn irresistibly to sweaty young men in much the same way that young women are not.

Hours, miles and canteens later, Ben stopped, looked at me and in a dry croak I’d not heard before, rasped, “Doug, I believe we are in Hell.” By this time, our locale had long been renamed “Craprock Canyons.” But as the sweat-soaked map had promised, we eventually came to a series of heat-blasted low hills that sat like buttocks in the sand, and a bend in the dusty trail that led us toward a cliff face, and the gaping maw of a black tunnel stretching far into darkness. With no sight of Cerberus, three-headed canine guardian of the underworld, we staggered into the tunnel and into deepening shadows. The temperature dropped to subterranean levels and we could smell the pungent guano that indicated we were not alone.

As the rock-walled train tunnel grew darker, the ground became soft beneath our feet and we could hear squeaks and the whisper of tiny wings in the roof high above. Brave fools or lazy adventurers, we had neglected to dig out our flashlights in the delirious glee of being temporarily free of the heat. As the sound of the bats grew louder, the tunnel grew darker. Our lights were buried in our packs, our feet buried in guano, and all buried in a tunnel deep beneath the mountain. The weight of the rock felt as heavy as our packs, and we were keenly aware of being in a deep, old tunnel that was no longer used, and probably ill maintained.

The light behind us faded to nothingness, as if blotting out the past several hours. But just before the tunnel fell into complete darkness and forced us to grope blindly for our flashlights, we rounded a slight curve and could see the glimmerings of daylight ahead. We went toward the light, making the obligatory near-death jokes as we went. Disturbed by our voices, pigeons nesting in the rafters took flight. The beat of their wings ruffled our hair as they made strafing bomber runs past us toward the exit.

Like the travelers in Lost Horizon, Ben and I emerged into a transformed land. The trail led around ledges in the hills, and to the left the ground dropped away into rolling valleys of trees, grasses and grazing land. In the distance below us, a tiny silver ribbon of flowing water wound its way across the valley floor. We rested in the afternoon shade and refilled our canteens from a water tank provided by the park department. Hiking onward, we found the first suitable spot for our tent about a mile down the trail, on an area of flat ground at the edge of a steep valley wall. We set up the tent under a “No Trespassing” sign riddled with buckshot holes. The view down into the canyon was tremendous. With no sign of human habitation in sight, we cooked dinner over a small camp stove.

In the evening twilight, Ben and I ambled down the trail, looking at flowering cacti and watching the buzzards circle lazily overhead. We perched on the edge of a precipice, watched the sunset and harmonized twangy cowboy melodies. In the absence of romantic female accompaniment, we greeted the loveliness of the first evening stars with a belching contest, and pissed off the cliff.

When it was time to return, we got an early morning start. So did the sun and the heat. A fiery furnace blast greeted us as we exited the tunnel to continue the long march back to the truck. After walking an hour or so, the distant profiles of horsemen appeared in the shimmering heat mirage, where the ceaseless black trail vanished into the unending brown horizon. As the travelers approached, we counted four men astride four horses. Not a good sign.

The midday light blazed so bright on their hats that their faces were hard to see as they halted before us. I got right to the point and panted, “You fellas don’t happen to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?”

“Depends on what you’ve been smoking, I guess,” replied the one we assume was Pestilence.

Death looked down at us from his pale horse and asked where we were from. He cracked a weathered grin when we answered, “Dallas.”

“Y’all didn’t come out all this way just for this,” Death said. “You must of but had other business in these parts.” 

Yeah, that’s right. We had to come visit Quitaque to see the Sidewalk Museum that stretches across crackled and broken pavement down the full 100-foot length of Main Street. We had come for the half-pound charburger and sodden “potatoe” fries at the Restaurant With No Name that we had “surely read about in the Dallas paper.” We had passed through Turkey to see the tall tin and granite erection raised in honor of the town’s favorite son, Bob Wills, who had not been born there, did not die there, and was not buried there.

The four horsemen continued onward and Ben and I finally reached the truck, soaked our heads in the remains of our water, and motored back to the state park to let Beulah and El Diablo know what we thought of their rail trail. Sadly, neither was in attendance at the ranger station, having been replaced by a kindly Angel of Mercy. We settled for writing in the park’s log book, “A fine trail for bikes and horses. Never never never never NEVER BACKPACK this trail in the summer!!!”

Before the long trip back home, and after an exhausted debate as to whether it would be worth the gasoline, Ben and I drove deeper into the park, which we had previously skipped at the advice of the rangers. Oh, supreme twist of the triple-sided knife of fate! Oh ironic gods, bellowing a final dusty laugh at our expense! The park was beautiful beyond compare! The ground cracked open and dramatically dropped away. Majestic walls plunged deep into the earth, yielding a miniature Grand Canyon with all the colors of the desert rainbow.

We were too tired to hike the well-maintained trails to the overlooks, too weary to look over the scalloped edges of the beautiful cliffs. We left Caprock Canyons with salt-crusted skin and black and blue feet. As Ben asked in the air-conditioned Toyota as we u-turned and headed back across the flatlands towards Dallas, “Why do we always have to end up with a good story? Why not just an excellent vacation?” Of course, if I have ever enjoyed a flawless trip, it’s been forgotten long ago, drowned out by better tales of mistakes and misadventures.

And you know, Ben and I went back to Caprock early the next spring, and we ignored the rangers’ repeated advice to see the rail trail, and we hiked all around the park. And the weather was cool and perfect, and the park with its hiking paths through twisting riverbeds, majestic rocky vistas and steep canyon descents was amazing, and it was an incredible camping trip. And there’s not a damn word I can think to write about it.

my dance of pants

Early June, 1990. Marci and I were on our honeymoon in Italy, thanks to a gift of miles from my folks. We hadn’t been there long, and had just arrived in sunny and lovely Florence, our second stop. We were walking with our backpacks down the old cobblestone streets toward the part of town where we hoped to find lodging, and it was time to replenish our diminishing cash reserves. So when we saw a bank that had been built into a row of old shops, we decided to go in and cash some travelers checks.

The bank was a small storefront, about the size of a fast food restaurant. Facing the street sidewalk was a dark and thick smoked glass window, through which it was dimly possible to see the interior. To the left of the window was a granite wall of several feet separating the window from the bank entrance, a deeply recessed doorway of the same thick smoked glass.

Marci and I stepped up to the doorway and pulled, then pushed at the shiny chrome handle. The door did not budge. We checked the hours displayed on the door of the bank. Through the dark glass of the door, we could see customers and bank tellers, so we knew that the bank was in fact open. The door that wouldn’t move was a mystery.

We examined the entrance closely. There was a sign affixed to the door with a paragraph in Italian, which I attempted to translate. It appeared to be saying something about magnetism. Indeed, upon closer inspection, there was electrical apparatus both in the door and in the door frame.

We realized that the bank must be using a metal detector system similar to those in the airports: metal items in our backpacks must have been preventing the doors from opening. It was quite an ingenious system for increasing bank security. So Marci and I walked a few steps back around the door entry to the glass window, and dropped our packs. I left Marci with the packs and went back to try the door again.

Unfortunately, it still failed to open. I remembered that the metal I was carrying had triggered the metal detector at the airport as well, so I went back to Marci and gave her my keys and my pocket change. Still, the door would not open.

I returned to Marci and gave her my watch. Reluctantly, I took off my still-new wedding ring and handed it to her. Back to the door. Dammit, the thing still would not budge! I stood before the door rather frustrated. Then I recalled that I was wearing my typical travel pants, using my old belt with its metal belt buckle that never failed to set off airport alarms.

So, feeling rather foolish, I once again walked back over to Marci and sheepishly handed her my belt. My pants instantly started dropping, so holding them up by sticking my hands in my pockets, I walked back over to the bank door as nonchalantly as I could.

Holding my pants up with one hand, I grasped the handle with the other and gave a mighty tug.

And a mightier push.

And a tug and a push and a tug. Nothing happened.

As I stood there, keyless and watchless and coinless and beltless, holding my pants up with one hand and feeling about as stupid as stupid can get, an attractive Italian woman came up behind me to enter the bank.

“Hello,” I said to her in English, partly to clue her in that I was clue-less, and partly because in my nonplused state I’d forgotten even basic manners and all my Italian stock phrases. I put one hand nonchalantly on my hip and surreptitiously hooked my thumb through an empty belt loop. She smiled and said hello back in liltingly accented English.

“The door won’t open…” I offered, about to tell her of my apparent magnetism. Me and Magneto.

“Oh,” she said, “there are too many people inside. As soon as someone leaves, they’ll open the door.”

Red-faced, I hoisted my pants, retrieved my belt, my pack and Marci, and left without seeing anyone leave the bank. To this day, we don’t know how well the patrons and employees on the other side of the door could see my dance-of-pants, through that dark and smoky Doug-proof glass.

he had a face like chipped beef, like a tray of bacon

Back before the now-time began, and well before the world ended, Marci and I were lovers. Now we’re married, so even though we’re still lovers it doesn’t count. We’d been working “starter jobs” the year after college, and when those came to an end (or rather, when we decided to end ’em) we went on a six-week driving trip through the Great American Southwest, starting in the ‘burbs north of Dallas, Texas, where we both grew up.

Among the images I remember clearly from the day we left:

One: Marci turning around in the front seat as we drove away from her parents’ house to look back at her mom and dad. Her father was holding up three fingers: three weeks. Marci shook her head and responded with extra fingers: six weeks. I had to marry her after that. Not in the shotgun sense, of course. I just had to! Couldn’t get enough of her company. That was twenty years ago. I still can’t get enough of her. Crazy, huh?

Two: we stopped by my folks’ house. Said goodbye. Told my dad, “Westward, Ho!” and then had to turn back to him as M and I walked to the car. “Uh, which way is west?” Dad laughed and pointed. We made it to California.

Anyway, skip forward nearly a month into the trip. Marci and I had left off from camping in Yosemite on the return route from San Francisco and had driven up over the cold Tioga Pass, where the snow at the end of May was up to our waists. And that’s no exaggeration: we hopped out of the car and jumped around in waist-deep snow. We’d spent weeks in the desert prior to that, so deep snow was quite novel. We were headed from the forests and high mountains back down to the desert on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Within the course of that morning we had traveled from the forests of Yosemite Valley up and over the high and frozen Tioga pass, and eventually down the jagged range toward the hot desert flats. We were headed south, roughly in the direction of Las Vegas, with no real destination in mind for the night, and no sign of humanity on our two-lane highway. Over the course of about an hour, our crackling car radio noise resolved itself into music and voices and a message called to us, transmitted from some distant oasis and beckoning over the invisible airwaves.

The message was this: All You Can Eat Pizza Buffet!

Our car glided toward the source as if traveling on a giant Ouija board, up a steep mountain ascent to the small mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. We had never heard of Mammoth Lakes, but it’s a popular winter ski destination for Nevada and California folk. Marci and I drove around the town, high up in the mountains, and set up our tent in the campgrounds at the edge of town. Over lunch, we met some locals who gave us directions to a natural hot springs.

We found the hot springs at the end of an unmarked road in the desert several miles out of town. Jumping into our bathing suits, we climbed down the steep steps to the spring. Ropes were placed to keep people away from the most dangerous areas; good thing, since otherwise I would have dived right into the rapidly boiling water pools ringed with sulfurous steam-farting mud fumeroles.

The swimmable areas were deep and hot, and the water was high in minerals and made our skin tingle. Where our feet could touch the bottom we could feel a rumbling beneath the ground, as if thundering herds of pachyderms were heading straight for us. It was unnerving, like standing above an underground nuclear test site not knowing when the next bomb blast would blow.

There were a few others at the hot springs, and we all talked about the experience of hitting so many wildly different climates within a single day: cool forests to snowy mountain passes to desert hot springs.

Back in Mammoth Lakes we drove around the deserted town looking at the pricy winter chalets until heading to the promised pizza land for the dinner buffet. When night fell in Mammoth Lakes it fell hard; the temperature dropped and shattered on the ground like broken icicles. We weren’t ready to nod off or face a few hours in the cold tent, so we drove through the town in search of night life. We couldn’t find any. There wasn’t a movie theater, and there didn’t seem to be any bars or restaurants open at night. The streets were deserted by 8 PM.

M and I wandered around the local grocery store, the only place that seemed to be open apart from one self-serve laundromat. We made small talk with the two employees, who asked us if we were in town to go skiing. Mammoth Lakes is so high up that even though ski season was over and only the locals were left in town, the upper reaches of the mountain remained open. So Marci and I decided that we’d tarry a day and go skiing.

That night we gained valuable camping experience and learned some interesting lessons. For instance, we learned that a cheap tent and sleeping bags and thin foam pads don’t keep you very warm when the temperature drops into the low 20’s. And I learned that when the temperature gets that low, and you have to get up to pee at 3 am, you’re going to be really sorry that you left all of your clothing outside the sleeping bag. Apparently, blue jeans freeze at about the same temperature as water.

The next day, clad in jeans, caps and work gloves, we headed up the mountain to rent skis for the day, The rental area was at the base of the lift, and the man working there… Hmm, I’m not sure how to describe him. There are tales told around the campfire, stories to scare children that generally end with someone being grabbed. He could have been featured in one of those stories.

He had some sort of skin condition. He looked like he’d been burned all over his body. The sun couldn’t do it alone; he must have been through a kiln. His skin was in tatters, peeling off of every exposed surface. He looked like chipped beef, like one of those trays full of bacon that you see in brunch buffet lines. He was extra crispy. As he fit Marci for boots, she suddenly turned to me and exclaimed, wide-eyed, “Oh! I forgot the sun screen!”

That’s about the end of this part of the story. Except for the poignant scenes where Marci and I skied together. Twice, as my father used to day: the first time and the last time. When she said she could ski, I thought that meant she could ski. A miscommunication: Marci thought those little bunny hills constituted skiing, and I thought that skiing was skiing. So when we got to the top of the mountain, where that late in May only the upper blue and black slopes remained open, and Marci found out that she could not actually do the type of skiing that involved actual skiing… well, it wasn’t pretty.

She tried her best, and I really felt for her. Actually, she did okay on the left turns, skiing ever so slowly across the steep and icy slopes. And then she fell on each and every right turn, dropping on the same spot on her hip as the snow soaked through her jeans. Eventually she got so tired and frustrated and black and blue and sore and wet that she started crying and I was getting impatient waiting for her to Get Up! since it was obvious to me that the only way down was down. Since then we’ve been able to laugh about it with a standing joke about such situations: Stop Crying! Roll!

We gave up that night, and stayed at a motel. The next morning, we cooked breakfast over our camp stove-on the pavement by the motel parking lot. Ah, roughing it. Since then, Marci’s gotten “back on the horse” so to speak: we’ve gone skiing together several times. She takes lessons while I attempt to break my legs skiing well above my limits. Well, you know what they say: if it doesn’t kill you, try try again.