Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Last Days in Flagstaff

The last few days of Flagstaff were spent literally hobbling around. Going down steps was painful. Getting in and out of bed was painful. My legs had never been beaten up so badly. Rachel's room was in the basement and the morning after getting back from our canyon trip she had to crawl up the steps to get to the kitchen. My aunt and cousins laughed mercilessly at us. 

On my last day I went with Merri Sue to work at the naval observatory and we went mushroom hunting. The weeks before we had arrived had seen a practical monsoon in Flagstaff and for weeks the mushroom pickings had been bountiful. Now with almost a week without rain the hidden gems were few and far between but we did happen to find a few chanterelles still plump enough to sauté and eat. 

On Rachel's last morning in town we got up early and headed to Macy's (which I have written a Where to Eat Vegan post for many years ago) where we consumed mass quantities of sugar and coffee and tea before saying our goodbyes.

weird thumb twins
By the end of the trip we had already made plans to return and hike again the next year. 
I even made so bold of a claim as to predict I might even move to Flagstaff.
And guess what…I think I just will. 

What to do in Flagstaff: The Arboretum

The Arboretum in Flagstaff is a pleasant drive just out of downtown. I've made it a practice now to visit arboretums, conservatories and other natural museums and spaces on my trips.
We drove through stands of Ponderosa and parked in a gravel lot next to a long, squat wooden building with floor to ceiling windows. The light dripped through the needles above and shaded us from the strongest of Arizona rays. 
We had arrived just in time for a wildflower and trees tour by an arboretum volunteer so we eagerly gathered round the already budding group of tourists. Surprisingly many of the tourists, like my uncle, were in fact locals. A Michigan couple, a Florida couple and I were the only out of staters.
We started the tour with the Arizona staple - the Ponderosa. 
The Abert's squirrel lives in and off of ponderosas exclusively so we looked for signs of these long eared plateau natives. We also learned two ways to identify a ponderosa. Each bundle of needles contains three long needles. Another way, smell the bark.
Each of us pressed our faces to the bark and inhaled deeply. 

Next we moved to the Quaking Aspen. 
Fun facts about quaking aspens:
They usually propagate not through seeds but through their roots. Whole groves of aspen can actually be the same tree as they shoot out roots and produce clone trees. 
Their name comes from the flattened petioles of the leaf stem. This allows them to flexibly move from side to side - making them look as if they are trembling or shaking.
The Native Americans used the bark as a painkiller and for its anti-inflammatory properties.

We walked through the herb garden, smelling and tasting and talking about their individual histories and then into the wildflower garden to see the gorgeously blooming yarrow plants. 
The arboretum hosts an impressive amount of native wildflowers.
In fact they have a whole greenhouse and laboratory dedicated to preserving and restoring the plants that are native to the Colorado Plateau. 

Luck just seemed to be with us that day. Shortly after the walking tour ended the raptors tour started. We sat with a group of young school children and enjoyed the show and then patiently waited at the end to take pictures up close. The birds here have been brought to the arboretum for rehabilitation and preservation. Some are released after healing and some stay in captivity if their wounds are such that a long life in the wild is unlikely. 
The show focused heavily on the role birds play in ecosystems and how their habitat is being effected by human involvement in natural places.

What I valued about this show is how the birds are trained. They are never forced to do stunts they don't want to perform and therefor their training is long and slow. One little performer, a tiny zebra finch, wasn't feeling up to tricks and instead hopped off the trainers finger and onto the ground where it hopped around a bit. She let it wander, occasionally whistling to it and offering her hand and eventually it came back to her and then hopped back into it's cage. 

Peregrine Falcon in flight. 

This Eurasian Eagle Owl was keeping a very close eye on me as I took his picture. 

4001 S. Woody Mountain Rd. 
Open 9am - 4pm Every Day except Tuesday
Closed for the winter between November 1st and April 30th
Adults - $8.50
Seniors - $6
Youth - $3

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What to do in Flagstaff: Lowell Observatory


Knowing people with keys pays off. 

In the basement of Lowell Observatory a bank of storage rooms hold a few hardworking engineers, tucked away in the dark. A thin window at the top of the wall let a sliver of golden sunshine in and a lamp on each desk illuminate blueprints and computers. 

Frank Cornelius glanced up from his desk and smiled when he saw Jim. After a little catch up and introduction session Jim got down to business.

"So you think you could get us in to look at the telescope?"

Regularly scheduled tours of the observatory and telescope exist, but who doesn't enjoy a private tour and the chance to poke around a little bit.

We entered the Lowell room with it's unique chandelier and its plethora of multi-colored books and artifacts and spent some time oohing and ahhing over old equipment and photographs.

Percival Lowell built this observatory in 1894 and used it to study the "canals" on Mars that convinced him that intelligent life form could be found there.

It's always interesting to look back at past discoveries, ideologies and theories. I find the ones that have since been disproved, like Lowell's theory of Martians, to be the most interesting. I can't help but wonder, how many people also believed him? How many things do we believe to be true today, in so many realms of our life, that we will one day look back on and laugh at?

Exceptionally open skies brought Lowell to Flagstaff and actually brought my family here too. Both my aunt and uncle work for the observatories here. Frank admitted that while the job at the observatory is great, the mountains brought him to Arizona. He and his wife started VooDoo and they model their climbing gym holds after the challenging rocks they find in Flagstaff. 

But the real treat to see is the Clark Telescope. 

Old Clark Telescope has been peeping at the stars for 117 years. It's through this telescope that Pluto was discovered in 1930. And while this telescope holds more of a place in history than discovery these days, it's still a pretty impressive thing to behold. 

The Clark Telescope is being refurbished currently but if you take a tour of the observatory you can still look through the McAllister during one of the night tours and spy on stars and planets.

Lowell in his chair studying Mars

Where to Eat Vegan: Morning Glory Cafe - Flagstaff, AZ

Flagstaff has several vegan friendly restaurant but Morning Glory was by far my favorite.
This longtime neighborhood mainstay on South San Francisco Street somehow got overlooked on my first trip to Flagstaff. Sunlight streams into Morning Glory Cafe and a cheery "Hey Darlins, I'm Julia" floats from behind the counter when you enter.

Julia stopped chopping vegetables to come to the counter and greet us. "What can I get for you guys?"
We admitted it was our first time dining at Morning Glory and she directed our attention to the chalkboard menu on the wall while she made suggestions and fired questions at us. 
"Just got out of the canyon huh? What a perfect time of year for it. Where are you headed next month?"
We chatted about my monthly travels, the blog, food and Flagstaff and then upon her recommendation ordered lunch.

"Ok well glasses and water are there, and just grab yourself some chips and salsa and I'll bring out your food when it's ready." She smiled warmly and then turned to make our meals.

We fixed ourselves a little plate and a glass of water and then poked around a little. Hand carved spoons hung on a hanging branch mobile for sale. Nearby recycled blue jean wallets were stacked neatly next to knitted hats. 

Julia hummed to herself in the kitchen as she cooked.

In the beginning Morning Glory Cafe was owned by the late Maria Ruiz and Julia was an employee and close friend of hers. The spirit of the food and decor are Maria's but it is obvious that they are deeply rooted in Julia's philosophy as well. In addition to the list of do-goods that many restaurants strive to boast of these days, that being buying from local farmers and offering organic ingredients, Morning Glory also holds to a zero food waste policy and employs practices like composting and donation of unused foods.
The Cafe didn't start out fully vegetarian but Maria was always intent on making her food nurturing and preparing it with health in mind. Maria believed in food as medicine and created her recipes with this in mind, a tradition Julia has inherited. 

Eventually we settled in to a booth and started chatting and Julia brought out our lunches.  She beamed with obvious pleasure as she set them down in front of us and I reached for my camera. Everything about the cafe was bright and colorful and fresh and the food was no exception.
The hemp burger was so flavorful and decadent while still tasting earthy and green that I came back for another as my last meal in Flagstaff. 
These are the types of meals that inspire you and stick with you well after your meal is over. 

The Hemp Burger and The Veggie Fajitas 

115 S. San Francisco St. 

Wednesday - Saturday 11am - 9pm


Monday, February 24, 2014

The Hike to the Top

The next morning came too soon. We had grand plans of getting up at dawn and shoving off early but instead we stretched and yawned and rolled over in our sleeping bags until the sun was good and out for the morning.
I woke up completely on empty. Thirteen miles of hiking the day before and an afterthought of a bagel for dinner had left me with nothing to refuel on so I welcomed a lengthy breakfast to start the day.

After tea and coffee and our piecemeal snacks we packed up and hit the trail. 

The first few hours on the trail were uneventful but thankfully shaded. Our muscles ached and even Uncle Jim insisted on far fewer pictures than the day before, opting to press on at a slow but measured pace. We surveyed the damage as we walked. Extra toes had sprouted overnight, hips had collapsed and were crushing our spines, the silly little poles we had joked about during our rim hike were now our inseparable crutches.

Photo Credit: Lissette

At 3 Mile Resthouse we stopped to drink and eat more snacks and use the fancy composting toilets. A little hut at the top of a steep staircase looked out over the trail below and offered shelter to weary bones so I sat in the shelter and drank and ate while Rachel and Jim opted to sit down at the bottom of the staircase and wait. 
As I hobbled back down the stairs I noticed her headscarf first. The bright yellow bandana and glasses were the same I had bumped into going into the bathroom at Phantom Ranch. Lissette was chatting with Rachel about tattoos and oh, did you see the rattlesnake in camp this morning?

Turns out Lissette was hiking from rim to rim alone. She had had a campsite down at Phantom Ranch the night before but gave it up and continued hiking to Indian Gardens. 

"No offense but Chicago isn't really know for being mountainous. Where did you train to get in shape for this?" I asked.
"Well actually I live in Madison Wisconsin now."
"Also not mountainous."
"Yeah you're right. Uh, stair master."

This girl is badass, no doubts about it. As we packed up to start hiking again she swung her bag on to and fell in step with us. 

Photo Credit: Lissette 

The going was tough, for all of us. Lissette had packed lighter and smarter than all three of us but she admitted that she would trade anything in her pack for some walking sticks like ours. Although even with them I felt like I was losing the battle to get out of the canyon and it was starting to show on our faces.
At the Mile and a Half Resthouse we stopped again. As we lay panting on rocks a young volunteer hiked up and introduced himself. He was handsome and fit and we were greasy and soaked in our own sweat but somehow you forget that when a guy strikes us a conversation with you.
"So do you work here?"
"Well actually I'm a volunteer. I hike the trail every other week and make sure it's maintained and make sure people aren't doing dangerous stuff or getting hurt."
"So is this like an internship you do for school or something?"
"Uh no it's just something I like to do. I'm actually in my thirties. I know I look young."

Uncle Jim sat watching us from a rock nearby, shaking his head at our shameless flirting once again. This one got the nickname The Fetus.

Photo Credit: Lissette

The last mile felt like forever. I pulled the last of my strength together and just kept hiking. Our little group spaced out with Jim bringing up the rear and Lissette bouncing between us all to check in and keep us company. 

The first time I smelled it it blew me away. A woman passed and I almost stopped walking to turn around and stare at her. Such a sweet smell. The sweetest.
The next person passed and smelled even sweeter. 
The smell of soap and freshly showered people, going down into the canyon for a day hike, was like breaking to the top of the ocean when you've been down in a moldy submarine for weeks. 
Only then did I realize how terrible I must smell, if someone just walking by me smelled so good.

Eventually all four of us made it out and we celebrated with whoops and shouts and then hobbled to Lissettes van, after buying celebratory t-shirts, for some well earned burritos.
Lissette went on to hike the Hermitage Trail, like a badass, while the three of us went home to go straight to bed. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Indian Gardens

Leaving Phantom Ranch, where it was so green and calm and sleepy, was difficult. Our backs were aching, blisters had formed on toes and pelvises screamed under the weight of our packs. We had five more miles to go, but this time climbing uphill on Bright Angel. 

Back to the muddy Colorado we trudged, crossing Silver Bridge. At every landmark Uncle Jim was insistent that we take pictures. It's something I steer away from, fearing the posed tourist picture, the flash and the prompted "cheeeese." But now writing this months after our hike, I'm glad to have so many pictures of this trip.  

The lush green of Phantom Ranch fades away on Bright Angel, ceding to rich, clay reds and oranges.

As the trail wound along the rock walls we encountered all kinds of beautiful flora. Maidenhair fern and the bright red flowers of skyrocket clung to walls in some spots, a giant fremont cottonwood poking out of the bottom of the canyon.

At this point muscle fatigue was really setting in. The oreos were gone, our bags of nuts and bread seemed to be failing us, and it was all we could do to stay hydrated. We pushed on a bit slower and quieter than on our hike down.

The last few miles dragged horribly. As we neared Indian Gardens the air shifted. Humidity returned, sweet hydrating drops of air. You don't realize how dry or wet your environment is until you are forced into extremes. 

The Havasupai Indians were the first to frequent what we now call Indian Gardens. As we finally started seeing signs of civilization, picnic tables, shelters and fountains, it wasn't too hard to imagine this as a seasonal destination for the Havasupai tribe. With the creation of the Park Service in the early 1900's the Havasupai were forced to leave under order of President Roosevelt. 
It's distressing that so many of the places we hold sacred in the United States, the places we identify as definitively American, are places that we have refused to share with those who valued it first. 
All that's left are cheap nods to the original cultures in the form of half-hearted names. 

For this night, Indian Garden would be our home away from home. Arriving late in the afternoon, the only shelter still available to us was a small, slanted site with a picnic table bolted under the protective roof.
We had opted to forgo bringing bulky tents into the canyon with us and as the table occupied prime sleeping spots - we were kinda in a bind. Rachel chose to sleep under the picnic table, Uncle Jim at the head of the table on the ground, and I slept on top of the table. 
We had lugged down a silly amount of food and even a gas stove for heating up things like freeze dried vegan pad thai and beans, but we were so exhausted it was all I could do to eat a fruit bar, force down half a bagel and then roll out my sleeping bag. 
The night air was cool and soothing and I slept about as well as could be expected. I woke twice that I remember. Once to a rustling in the bushes. Worry mind told me it was a mountain lion. Sleepy mind said to shut up. The second time I woke up to my head smacking the table as my tiny camping pillow slipped out from under me and landed on Uncle Jim who threw it back at me whispering, "Hey, stop throwing stuff at me."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Story of Adonis - Per Uncle Jim's Request

Perhaps we said "what happens in the canyon stays in the canyon."
Perhaps we said "what they don't know won't hurt them."
Perhaps Uncle Jim said, "You girls are bad, just evil."

I first noticed him at Phantom Ranch. Rachel was bent over the fountain collecting the cool stream in her shirt and bandana to wrap around her tired shoulders and back. His excess rippled as he walked towards her. Piles upon piles of excess. Each ab tightly packed. Biceps dripping down his arms. Calves as hard and sculpted as the peaks of the canyon. Two rolling hills sat on his shoulders and arched into mountains when he lifted an arm to turn on the faucet.
 Let us be clear about that which we are discussing - this man was ripped. 
Rachel had noticed him too. She straightened and smiled and after a few fluttering moments of conversation floated back over to our picnic table. 
We perched like vultures.
We plotted his takedown. 

It was getting close to shove off time and while I had no desire to (lies), I too had to approach Adonis if I wanted to fill up on water for the trip up. 
He was still strutting around in place in his tiny shorts and even tinier backpack. 
"Are you done with this, mind if I jump in?" I asked nonchalantly.
"Yeah go for it. Are you camping down here tonight?" he flashed his brilliant smile.
"No actually we're headed to Indian Garden soon."
"Is that your group over there? Is that your dad?"
"No actually it's my friend and my uncle."
"Oh nice. I'm here with my parents. We're on vacation here from Canada. They're at the top of course. I just took the shuttle to the other rim this morning and I'll meet them back at the lodge tonight."
"Wait, you're hiking from rim to rim in one day? And all you brought is that tiny bladder?"
"I have some energy bars in here too of course. I train a lot so it's not a big deal. I saw this one guy coming down the trail though who was in bad shape. Probably shouldn't even be hiking actually. He was sitting on the side of the trail and I asked if he was alright and he said he was feeling dizzy, so I carried his pack for him down to the next stop and left it for him."
I too was starting to feel dizzy. Perhaps the beer was going to my head or his pointed smile was making me addled. Would he carry my pack to the next stop too? Or perhaps just carry me and I could leave the pack.
"Wow that's really nice of you. Well it looks like my group is starting to put on their packs. I should probably get ready too." I was antsy to get away before I said something stupid.
"What did you say your name was again?"
I hadn't. Sneaky.
"Nice to meet you Lacey, I'm (some boring name). I'm going to head out here too. Maybe I'll see you at Indian Gardens." Adonis said. He tied his bandana back around his forehead and adjusted his shorts on his ridged waist and with one last smile headed back down the trail.
If my cheeks were flushed at this point it was definitely just the heat. 

I tottered back to the picnic table.

"Well are you going to invite him to camp with us or what, sheesh," Uncle Jim teased. "We could probably use him around for when I twist an ankle and have to be carried up. Though I don't think I'm who he'd like to carry up. I thought you both already had boyfriends, never know it the way you were ogling that poor guy."
"He was no poor guy and yes we do have perfectly wonderful men of our own at home,"I replied.

Being in the canyon is like being shipped away to war, right? It's desolate and foreign and scary and lonely and well if a walking, talking, rippling Adonis walks into your life you will at least stop to stare. 
Having a partner doesn't blind your eyes to beauty!
We were just looking and smiling and perhaps giggling flirtatiously!
He started it, okay?!

Uncle Jim was deaf to our protests. So we stopped protesting and switched to praising his lovely physique and his kind heart and his impeccable social skills. We plotted ways to snare him.

But like I said what happens in the canyon (nothing happened Phil), stays in the canyon. And while we kept an ever watchful eye out for a scantily clad greek statue on the trail the rest of the day, we never saw him again.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Grand Canyon Adventure: The Hike Down

Rachel's phone alarm went off at 4:30 am and we fumbled around in the dark for our flashlights. 
 A voice penetrated through our thin tent, "You girls awake?"
We folded up our tents and retrieved our sagging bear bag from the tree and then headed back down the dirt road towards the Grand Canyon. We loaded up on juice and coconut water in the car and discussed strategy.
"Alright now before we even think about stepping foot in that canyon I need you girls to make a promise. If one of us gets hurt, we turn around. No questions asked. No blame. We all go in together and we all come out together."
"Got it."
"Now you may have to drag me out. You ready for that? Do you girls know CPR?"
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," we thought.

The buses start running from the Visitor Center an hour before sunrise and we were determined to make it into the canyon for the first glimpse of light. As we parked, others emerged from the dark, laden down with packs and walking sticks. When the bus pulled up in front of the visitor center we all boarded, some in pairs, some alone, some packed in for an overnight, and some just coming for a morning pilgrimage to the coveted sun worshiping stop at Ohh Ahh Point. 
Standing at the top of the canyon you're acutely aware of the gathering chill that winter will bring. We layered up with light jackets and daydreamed about the 100 degree weather at the bottom. The sky was already starting to pinken as we started down the South Kiabab trail. 
The pilgrims took off from the start at a rapid pace, 6:12 am was the time to beat, and the clump of long distancers followed behind. The pack thinned out quickly as everyone set their rhythm and started down the steep earthen steps. My knee cried out immediately, a night of sleeping in a tent had cramped my body and it was not prepared to support the weight of a downhill pack full of canned peas and full bladders. 

 Ohh Ahh Point is a forward-pitched .9 miles down from the rim of the canyon. I trailed behind Jim and Rachel, babying my knee for the coming 12+ miles still to traverse before bed.
A shard of light hit the rim of the canyon to our left. How had 6:12am come so fast?
Before we could even get in position for our sunrise picture the light was already pouring over the lip and down into the canyon like hot, desert gravy, coating the rocks in orange sunshine.

Not far around the bend we came to Ooh Aah Point and stood with the other worshippers hooting at the sun and taking in the endless peaks stretched out before us. 

Another half mile down into the canyon you hit Cedar Ridge. The day hikers who got a little extra hyped by the sunrise turned back here, leaving the rest of us eating our breakfast on red rocks. After using the last bathroom on the trail down we swung our packs, already slick with sweat, back on our backs and headed down further.

Eventually the path flattens out a little and you hike through a yucca stand, their one and only bloom slicing into the sky like mini desert sky scrapers. 
Much of the hike down you spend looking at your feet, maneuvering your walking poles and just praying your knees don't give out. Finally almost half way down we could just walk and enjoy the spectacular views. 
Scoutmaster Jim kept us on a pretty tight schedule though. With 10 miles still ahead of us until our final resting place at Indian Gardens there wasn't much time to tarry. 

But there is always time for goofy snapshots.

How do I describe my uncle Jim? Delightful, as Rachel said? Incorrigible, as my aunt would jokingly say? Or just darn goofy?

As we got into the car back in Flagstaff, headed towards the canyon Jim grumbled in the back seat.
"I paid fifty dollars for these things and look at them. The lenses fall out. You think you're getting the good stuff when you go to Sam's Club and it's just as bad as the cheap ones."
"Worse dude, my lenses don't fall out," Rachel corrected.
He fumbled the lens back into place.
As we pulled into the gas station to fill up Rachel glanced in the rearview mirror and caught sight of Jim sitting stoically in the back.
"You look like a pirate," she laughed.
"Yeah ok," he laughed back. "You girls need anything inside? I'm going to get some coffee."
"Nope we'll wait here."

Jim walked into the gas station, one eye shaded black, one naked for the world to ogle at. 

"Do you think he knows?" Rachel asked.
"How could he not?" I replied.

Jim came back with his coffee and slid into the back seat.
"Alright, we all ready?" he asked.
"Just about. Where is your other lens Pirate Jim?" I teased.

"What!" he leaned forward to look into the rear view mirror. 
"Well no wonder the lady in there looked at my like I was an alien! Why didn't you say something before I went in looking all goofy? That wasn't very nice. Not nice at all."

Rachel and I threw looks at each other of "wait, is he joking?"
"How can you not tell the difference? One eye is black and one should be getting blinded by sun."

"I told you these things are no good," was all he said as he dug around the back seat for the missing lens and then pushed it back into place. 

On our way down we crossed the cowboys on the pony (well mule) express bringing up mail from Phantom Ranch and bringing own food and other supplies.

After dropping over 2,000 feet into the canyon we finally started to feel like we were making progress and the sight of the Colorado river had us celebrating and hooting for our well earned canyon beer and lunch soon to come. 

Our first look at the Colorado River - a muddy affair. Just before coming to Arizona there had been a marked period of rain that ushered all this mud into the usually more pristine riverbed. 

In the home stretch to Phantom Ranch all that's left is to cross Black Bridge, stick your feet in the Colorado and then drag your tired bones to the shaded respite of the bottom of the canyon.
Frequently we took breaks to guzzle a little water and try to force down some nuts and dried food. While had worried all the day before about not brining enough food, we found it almost impossible to eat enough of the vast stores we had brought. The frigid 50's at the top were quickly climbing to the 90's and 100's at the bottom of the canyon. Sweat, hiking and a full stomach just don't mix. It was all we could do to force down water really. 

We finally made it to the bottom and relief was palpable. We unslung our packs that had bloated with sweat on the hike down, and ran out across the thick mud to feel the cool of the river. 

But what lay another half mile around the bend was the best part. Tired, hungry, getting grumpy, we strapped out packs back on and headed for Phantom Ranch.
Originally, the plan had been to sleep at Phantom Ranch and then hike out the next morning, splitting our hike neatly in half. Instead we had to use the Ranch as a resting and refueling zone. 
The last half mile to the Ranch felt the hardest. Getting to the bottom had felt like victory and to hear there was more until we rested felt like torture.

As we rounded the bend from the muddy Colorado and the striped red mountains of the canyon wall we were greeted with green. SO MUCH GREEN.

Once inside we treated ourselves to Grand Canyon beer and oreos, wrote some postcards for the mules to take back up the next day, and then promptly fell asleep on benches and picnic tables. 

As we got ready to go I headed to the bathroom one last time. The door was locked so I sat on a rock and waited. When I head the lock slide back I jumped up and a girl with glasses and a bright yellow bandana tied around her head popped out. 
"Hey do you know where the water is down here?" she asked.
I pointed her in the right direction and she thanked me and disappeared. 
I didn't think anything of the meeting until deep into the hike the next day.