Red Rock Canyon: Hiatus, then Hiking

I took an unexpected and rather abrupt hiatus from this blog, as you might have noticed.

Perhaps it was the election. Perhaps it was my sudden bout with sore throats and abdominal pain. Perhaps it was the conclusion of my Japanese contract. Perhaps it was all of this that crippled my desire to write.

If it makes you feel any better, dear reader, I didn’t write anywhere else either. I didn’t work on my book. I wrote no poetry. I kept no dream journal. I barely touched my actual personal journal. By all measurements, my ability to write simply dried up like a desert streambed in summer.

Speaking of…

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Before my recent re-relocation to Japan (having gone home briefly), I visited one of my favorite places in the United States: Red Rock Canyon just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. I don’t know if Red Rock Canyon is my favorite spot – I love the Sequoias in California, the Hudson River Valley, and the tumult of Chicago – but it certainly ranks. If I had to give it a number one rank, it would be “Favorite place to go in the winter.” The desert in winter is something alien and unexpected. There is snow in the mountains, and in the late winter the melt swells the streams.

I’ve been going to Red Rock Canyon since I was a child. We’d always go in the late summer or mid-spring, coinciding with spring breaks and the end of summer vacations. I remember finding the small spherical stones that had fallen off the sandstone like pimples (I learned later they were vaguely magnetic, attracting particles around them). It’s not a national park, but it is protected under the BLM’s National Conservation Areas, specifically for the tortoises. When I was young, there was nothing leading to the park – a sparse collection of old gas stations and parched houses. Now, Summerlin abuts the park almost to the inch of the protected space.

When I visited in February, it was with the intention of seeing the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was a rainy day in the desert, so there was no sunrise to watch. The sign at the gate warned against climbing on the sandstone (already a slick stone). Though I didn’t get the sunrise, I got a bounty of other sensations. Desert plants must act fast, and the aromas getting out of my car hit me like a wall of spices. Mesquite, yucca, agave sage – these are the plants that opened up to welcome the brief morning rain, and the scent was cleansing.

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Looking out over the vast living landscape, full of cacti that would dry out in a few months, pools of water that wouldn’t last, I felt free again. There is something so…fragile about the desert. I find it almost unbearable to be in Red Rock in the heat of the summer, when everything is bleached and dry and desperately holding on. But in the winter, the colors deepen and the whole place comes brilliantly alive (the desert is always alive, mind you, but its much more practical about it in the summer).

So I hiked around Calico Hills, the patchwork sandstone mounds near the entrance of the park. I kept a lookout for animals, but saw only hummingbirds and a hawk. I met a nice Naval man on the trails, who proved good company and thankful hiking buddy (I kept my distance from him for awhile at first, uneasy at being alone). From Calico Hills, I went back to my car and started the long scenic drive through the park.

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Note: Make sure you get gas before you arrive at the Park. There is no access point out of the park once you start the scenic drive – it’s a big loop.

I’ve hiked part of Pine Creek Canyon, about three-quarters of the way through the 13 mile scenic drive, but I’ve yet to hike the whole thing. I get too interested at the beginning, where they did a controlled fire. There are Ponderosa pines there, and I’ve seen the wild burros once as well. It’s a forest that doesn’t belong in the desert, which is why it’s so fascinating. Much like the geological face of the mountains, which feature old rock pushed on top of younger rock (due to the fault lines), it’s sort of out of place. I love it.

Sitting on a rock, I watched the stream/almost river flow across the road, and felt the tuggings of inspirations again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to feel the desire to write and describe. I had been feeling isolated and numb. Much like the riverbed, I felt the great need to open up again, and let the life in.

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Addendum: I worry, as I have been worrying for months now, about how Trump’s environmental lethargy is going to hurt places like Red Rock Canyon. I’ve watched Summerlin’s cookie cutter homes encroach more and more on the space, and I’m genuinely worried that in this new administration that does not care about protecting anything except their own wealth, spaces like these will fall victim.

So go buy this shirt from Cotton Bureau, or one similar to it. Maybe some good will come of a “gentle” visual reproach…

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…And into the Incinerator

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I got a letter from Japan Post, after failing to get that package.

I felt convinced it was going to tell me that I needed to go to Kawasaki to get this mysterious package. After asking and acting like a hopeless dope, I finally confirmed that the package was not my government ID card (my MyCard), which would have also required a signature. Turns out I got that weeks ago and filed it away so quickly I didn’t even realize I had gotten it.

Here is the essence of the letter:

“Someone is sending you bacon. You can’t import bacon into Japan. Do you want to return the bacon, or incinerate it?”

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…….

…….

…….

Yes, my father had sent me pre-cooked, microwaveable bacon. Japan found out, and Japan sent me all the friendly documents about what is ok and not ok to send to Japan. Shouldn’t they have sent this to my family? Also the meat wasn’t raw, or alive. It’s like sending someone jerky – I wonder if it’s illegal to import jerky into Japan…The brochure doesn’t say. It’s full of friendly looking officers and lists of “cloven hoofed” animals that can’t enter Japan, not to mention fish. Also “foul broods” of honeybees.

But here was the kicker – it was up to me to decide what to do with this illegal bacon.

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I do like bacon a lot. I’m not a bacon fanatic, though I do know a few. I felt a certain…internet pressure not to harm the bacon in any way (unless it was to eat it – that’s ok). However, as some of my friends here pointed out, if I sent it back my family would probably have to pay the cost of return.

The choice weighed heavy on me. It looks so final, doesn’t it? Return it, or INCINERATE IT. I pictured this gentle, unassuming package of pre-cooked bacon being thrown into an Orwellian furnace, wondering what it had done to deserve such treatment.

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I bet you can, you little snitch.

(I keep saying “pre-cooked” because it’s important that you understand that my family does not send me raw meat. I’m not a huge fan of  pre-cooked bacon myself, but in terms of practicality it’s one of the few bacon products that doesn’t require refrigeration, aside from bacon jerky and bacon bits, one of which I do like.)

I gave myself two whole days to decide what to do with the bacon. I asked co-workers their opinions, which varied once they stopped laughing at me. I considered what else was in the package that I would eventually get after I told them what to do with the meat.

Then, with heavy finality, I sent the bacon to the fires. What would you have done? Launch a daring raid on the Kawasaki Customs building in an effort to rescue the bacon? How many lives would you be willing to risk? HOW MANY – for BACON?!

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Out of the Frying Pan…

I got a failed delivery notice from the Post Office. I get these a lot – I’m at work during normal delivery hours. So I went through the arduous process of rescheduling. By “arduous,” I mean scanning a QR code and translating the different boxes so I know which information to put where. I selected a night delivery, since I knew I’d be home. In the process of doing so, I forgot to add my name. This reset parts of the form, which I did not realize. This detail will become important in the next bit of the story.

I got a second failed delivery notice from the Post Office. They had tried delivering while I was technically on my commute home. How had this happened? Well, when the form reset, it reset the delivery time. I harumphed up to my confirmation document, and sure enough, under time, it did not say “19-21.” It said something in Japanese, which I know is not a good sign. I put two and two together, and realized that when the form reset, it changed my time to “any.”

There is a rule I had learned – one of the many rules I had been trying to follow. It is this: never miss the second delivery.

I asked my coworker Harry what I should do. “Babe,” he said. “Never miss the second delivery.” (I like Harry. This was not helpful.)

I asked up the chain of command, to one of our PCs.
“Was this the first delivery?” She asked me.
“…No.” I had to grudgingly admit, sensing the answer.
“Ah,” was her response, followed by a solemn pause. “Well, you must call the number. They will have your package. And maybe they will resend it.”

So I called the number, which had been conveniently programed into my work cell phone (I must not be the only one to break the commandment). After a long message letting me know how much the phone call would cost down to the tenths of yen, I spoke to a nice gentleman who I am going to call “Charlie.”

“This is *Charlie*, how may I help you?”
“Yes I need to reschedule delivery of a package.”
“May I have the package number?”
“Yes” *reads package slip number*
“One moment…ah.”
“What?”
“This package cannot be delivered unless released by the sender. Who is the sender?”
“The slip says ‘Japan Post.'”
“No, Ma’am. At the top of the slip, under the line labeled ‘Addressee’ you will see a line labeled ‘Sender.’ Please read me the name on that line”
“It’s in Japanese, but I had it translated. The sender is ‘Japan Post.’ You are the sender.”
“We cannot release the package unless it is released by the sender.”
“You are the sender.”
*Frightening long pause*
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I cannot help you with this. Maybe you must go to Kawasaki and reclaim your package in person.”
“I don’t understand. If you’re the sender, then you should be able to release my package for delivery.”
“Yes ma’am. I don’t know why it’s labeled that way. That is a strange decision. But we cannot help you. Will there be anything else?”
“I suppose not. Thank you.”

I have seen glimpses of the bureaucratic web here in Japan, touched the outer edges with the help of a native speaker. Mostly I avoid it as much as possible. There’s too much paperwork, too many redundancies that must be crossed and recrossed. I think that’s why the rule is so simple. Don’t miss the second delivery.  And I did catch the popular speech pattern of “maybe/must.” The Japanese don’t like to speak in absolutes, though they certainly use them. In order not to offend, a “must” gets softened with a “maybe.” But the must is still there, iron under all that linguistic cushioning.

Japan Post sent me something from Japan Post, and Japan Post could not resend it until it gave itself permission to do so, which it could not do. This is the sort of kink that might send one to Kawasaki, to the customs and immigration mail depot.

No, I’m not going to Kawasaki. I’m convinced that something will happen to right this situation. I’m also wondering what the package might be. I think I have all my important Japanese documentation – what could Japan Post be trying to send me? Why is it standing in its own way?

I was going to find out what happened in about ten days. I will write the conclusion in my next post.

Current Events

I won’t write about the election. I know this is the space to do so, but I don’t think my voice is going to tip any scale out there.

There has been too much about it. Too much noise, too many opinions, too much grief, too much glee. And the instant backlash in too many directions – suck it up, love with love, be angry, don’t be angry, keep your head down, fight the power, love thy neighbor. It’s like America is a rubber band that snapped back in on itself after being pulled too tight.

I will say this: my students don’t know what to say, or what to ask. They can’t believe it. One of my older students is afraid. One of my economics students is worried about the TPP. Some laugh, because they believe he is a joke and don’t understand enough about politics to see what he means for my country. They ask me what I think, how I feel, and what it all means.

What would you say?

Here’s what I’ve been saying, “Well, I’m scared. I’m upset. I’m confused. But I have English to teach, and we have work to do.” And I leave it at that. Soapboxing here does nothing. I am honest, because it’s best. I am brief, because I won’t waste words that will go misunderstood. And I focus on my work, because otherwise I’d start ranting and raving, which doesn’t help my EFL students and doesn’t help me.

I feel as though anyone who goes abroad has an obligation to build good relationships and set a good example. Now? Now I’ll have to work harder, because now we have a president who is regarded as a dangerous buffoon by the global community. Now I’ll be pre-judged, and I’ll have to try and explain what is going on back home.

I know people on both sides. I pass judgments of my own, but judgment doesn’t solve problems. Communication is essential. Teaching is essential.

 

So that is what I do. I teach.

Nikko II: Ghosts, Gods, and Good Food

So I arrived at Takino’o Shrine, not as far as I expected from the main shrines of Toshogu and Futarasan. It’s a smaller shrine, more encased in moss than its counterparts. I loved it, and its relative solitude. In the half an hour I sat under the trees, I don’t think ten people walked by.

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I sat and thought about faith, and where we find solace. I think that there is something to Shintoism, though I am not a practitioner. There is a great American literary tradition of “taking to the woods” to find oneself, or to find peace. I think that, while the worshiping of certain stones and trees might fall outside my spiritual practices, I do find peace in the woods. It’s nice to feel small sometimes, to feel dwarfed. I felt something akin to what I felt when I climbed Emei Mountain, the sheer size of the world compared to myself. Going to the Grand Canyon does the same thing – it’s a comfort, in a way, to see how big everything else is. In Nikko, it’s not the size, but the age of the trees. Like staying with the nuns in Iowa, or being in the Sequoias in California. They’ve been around far longer that I have been or probably will be. And isn’t that nice? I don’t have to worry about them; they’ll be there. Assuming we don’t chop them down/burn them down/otherwise behave in a way that is unbecoming and yet distinctly human.

When I think about faith, especially “foreign” faiths,  I also think about that scene in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where Mr. Wednesday calls out the hippie for not actually worshipping Mother Earth, for essentially giving lip service to her religion. I am aware that it is one thing to be an actual worshipper, and another to feel a resonance or kinship with the idea of a faith. I don’t want to be that hippie, casually throwing around transcendence terminology without actually doing any of the work that faith asks of the faithful.  Then again, I also don’t want to blaspheme the Catholic faith with which I have had a tumultuous relationship. So, what is one to do, when one idea carries great resonance, and the other carries all the traditions, ceremonies, and obligations?

I rested my hand and forehead against one old tree that I thought had a great deal of character, halfway asking for advice. I felt a little cliché doing so, but because I need to stop self-censoring I decided to go with my instinct. Turns out the tree was less than impressed with the speed of my life. I felt distinctly like it was chuckling at me, this quick little thing that never seemed to hold still.

 

Turns out I’m not as weird as all that. When I started walking back I approached a gaggle of very giggly Japanese women walking up towards the shrine. They were still some distance off when four of them stopped, walked up to an old tree, and rested their foreheads and hands against it. They fell into a reverent silence, and stayed like that for a full minute. Then they all carried on walking and laughing. It’s nice to feel that you’re not alone in seeking wisdom from your elders.

I had mixed feelings as I walked back, partly because I didn’t want to, and also because it turns out that there was a flat path back, parallel to the service road. I had climbed the steep stairs unnecessarily. So, let it be known, tourists, that if you want a longer, but easier route to Takino’o Shrine, turn right from Toshogu and walk up from the parking lot. The path consists of large, uneven stones, so it has its own difficulties, but it’s not a climb up and down (for that, see my previous post and take the path along Futarasan).

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See how lovely and flat it is? DO YOU SEE?! Whatevs – climbing is good for the calves.

Before I left, something glittery caught my eye along the path. Upon inspection, I found the most beautiful beetle I have ever seen. While I like beetles in general, this one was different. It sparkled, iridescent thorax twinkling on the fence, and two blue-green antennae tested the air around it. It moved with great deliberation. I am convinced that this was a Kami – a Shinto spirit. This was the incarnation of the spirit of all beetles. It was a giddy moment for me – I haven’t had a moment of spiritual grace in years. I did not bother him as he walked, but I did try to get a picture.

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When I arrived in Nikko, it was raining and misty. I walked to the Narabi Jizo then, in the late afternoon rain, and saw the Kanman-ga-fuchi Abyss. In all the damp, my phone shorted out, though I did get a couple of good photos. The Abyss is not quite appropriate – the waterfall does not go down into nothingness. It is a steep drop, however, full of beautiful sound and aquatic fury. The Narabi Jizo line one side of the abyss like thoughtful sentries.

The Narabi Jizo are nicknamed the “Bake Jizo,” (pronounced Ba-keh) because if you count them front to back and back to front, you will wind up with a different number (“ghost Jizo”). I did not count. I trust that the number is not the same, and that there is a ghost guardian wandering the Kaman-ga-fuchi Abyss. It’s better to leave it unknown.

The Abyss and the river walk are down a ways from Toshogu, on the opposite side of the river, tucked back along the south mountain ridge. I highly recommend seeing them, both for the beauty and regal-ness of the statues, as well as the glorious sounds of the rapids.

As I did not want to trek back up the mountain to my cabin in the dark again, I started walking back. I stopped at the Zen café, a tiny eatery on the Nikko main road. It only has four tables, two menu options, and an industrial chic vibe that does not match the rest of the town. Their specialty is “Yuba rolls,” which upon researching I learned is bean curd sheets (and actually are Chinese in origin). I had their “set meal,” which was a series of small plates and one yuba roll. Though not a bacon cheeseburger, I did wind up satisfied. I recommend it!

And then (le sigh) I hiked home. I couldn’t tell which was more difficult, going it in the dark and the rain, or seeing the incline. Seeing it was definitely more irritating. Looking up every so often and seeing how far I needed to go made me wonder how I had done the climb with a suitcase. Perhaps it was for the best that the light faded quickly, and I had to turn on my solar light. I used music to get me up the last third of the climb.

Here I am again, cozy in my heated kitchen. Tomorrow I return to Tokyo, to work, and to the grind of teaching. I think, tired though I am, I am incredibly happy to have been in Nikko for this weekend. Do I regret not going out with my friends? Certainly. But I know that my soul needed trees and fresh air, which I found in abundance here. I’m a country girl at heart, and a little solitude is healthy.

Still, next time I will bring people with me. Maybe I won’t mention the climb…

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Nikko? Oh, it’s all flat valley land and sacred bridges. Certainly no unnecessary hiking…