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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Nikko: Uphill Preface

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This photo is from my second day in Nikko, when it was still light. I’m uploading from my first night as opposed to my first day, because this story overshadowed my afternoon. And because it was so dark, I have no photos to accompany it, save for this one I took later in my journey.

2km according to Airbnb. 3k according to the message I received from my host and a second Google map search.

What my host failed to mention in any of our correspondence is that however many kilometers it is from the Tobu Nikko train station to his rental, 95% of the journey was uphill. Nikko is a mountain town, but I passed my afternoon on a relatively gentle slope, and the town itself seemed more in the basin than on the inclines.

Not so my accommodation, I realized. I passed the rental one of my fellow teachers recommended (sold out), and kept climbing. I passed the rental that I had cancelled (too many negative reviews), and kept climbing. I ran out of sidewalk, and light. I passed inn after inn, pausing for a moment at each opportunity to stand in a light source and check my photo map. And I kept climbing. I had not stretched or prepped in any way for such exercise. My legs eventually stopped feeling the good kind of tired. I could feel it in my quads – 2 miles uphill was a lot to ask after a day of hiking. They are going to hurt tomorrow.

In the darkness, I could still see the occasional silhouettes of the tall trees around me. It made for a moody walk, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the poisonous spiders, leeches, and other dangerous things that I had recently read live in Japan. I tried not to get too close to the trees and bushes, while also not wandering into the road. And then there was the rain, which I had not minded until I was going solidly uphill in the dark with my poncho draped over my bags to keep them dry. By the by – my poncho is my hero, but also the dumbest inanimate thing. It kept sliding to one side, or getting caught under the front wheel without actually draping over the bag itself. Ugh.

Anger kept me going after the halfway point. I was pissed off that there had been no mention of climbing a mountain in the description of the property, nor in the reviews. A pleasant place, the reviews had said. Beautiful location, the reviews had said. I drafted my own Airbnb review, scathing and full of really beautiful but negative vocabulary. I started wishing horrible things upon the owner for his omissions. Eventually, I lost the anger, and I could feel real fatigue eating at my edges. The closer I got to where I thought I was going, the more I felt like I was going to turn into a blubbering mess from sheer exhaustion. Why had I been so stupid as to hike all day and then go to my lodgings? Why had I not planned better for this?

I passed the house altogether at first because the rain hid the faint Christmas lights. I mistook my rental house for another. Luckily, the second house had a loud, sturdy akita who let me know that I was mistaken. As I tried to leave the stairs, an old man came out to the balcony and asked me something in Japanese – my Japanese is still so weak that I mostly guessed at what he could be asking. I must have cut a pretty pathetic figure – my rain poncho was ineffectively tied around my bags, I was wet, my legs were a little trembly, and I spoke atrocious Japanese.

“Pension?” he asks.
“Airbnb,” I reply, but I recognize the word. For some reason it’s on almost all the hotels I’ve seen thus far. They really like using French here apparently. He disappears and his wife (I assume) comes out. She looks at my phone, and the pair start arguing about the address. In desperation, I turn on my phone’s cellular service. I will pay the (probable) $20 in extra fees for one minute of functioning google translate and a working map.

“Is that address near here?” I put into the phone.
“Ok,” the woman says after reading the translation, and takes off walking in the rain. She is still in her house slippers, and the old man follows. I try to stop them, but I don’t have the words, and when I show the man my google translate for “You don’t have to walk with me, sir. Just point.” He nods and keeps walking.

So there we are, one wet, confused American in a red knit hat, and an old Japanese couple dressed like my great uncle Tom and aunt Dorothy (bless them), each under an umbrella. They get me to the gate of my rental around the block, and I bow as low as I possibly can. I can’t tell, but I bet they were relieved I knew the place. We all reached near epic levels of confusion.

They’re going to be even more confused tomorrow when there’s a bouquet of flowers waiting for them. I passed a florist earlier today, and I’ve been wanting to get flowers for someone lately.

Soaking in the tub, drinking very hot ginger tea, I can feel all my swear words dissipate. I was about ready to quit the whole trip, suck up the financial loss and pay to stay at one of the faux “Euro-style” inns I passed somewhere on the unending incline. The sort that charges hundreds of dollars a night. And I know I’ll be peeved in the morning, as there are no combini around here, and I don’t have wifi so I can’t just go online and do some research. But right now, in my comfortable and warming up rental, I’m simply happy to not be climbing anymore. Tomorrow, I know I’ll get a taxi up here, and walking downhill is going to be so much easier.

Good thing too, as I’m planning to hike up the neighboring mountain…

MVPs of the day:

My red knit hat: I bought it 50% off at a 300 yen shop this morning because it was unexpectedly nippy. It kept my head nice and warm, and though I was only dry because of the umbrella, the hat made me feel quite comfortable.
My flashlight: An LED light from my True Dungeon volunteering, this little guy was a light for me when all other lights went out (yeah, it’s my Elendril light)
My legs. God bless my legs, and forgive me for not stretching them. May they not tense up too much overnight. They did such a good job getting 3k up an unplanned mountain.

Marco!…Hangzhou!…

Perhaps I was born in the wrong time and as the wrong gender. Not to be an apologist, but if I wanted to be one the great explorers back in the day I don’t think I could have done so as a woman. That is part of the reason why, when anyone asks me if I could go back in time, I really have to think about my answer. To go back in time is to strip away my freedom of movement, to say the least. There are places in the world I still cannot go without feeling heavy judgment.

But I will digress further if I don’t stop now. One of my favorite old adventurers is Marco Polo. He might have been in it for the money, but he left a legacy of actually going places and telling people about what he saw. I love that, and I romanticize what it must have been like to cross Asia by land. It was probably slow, and very dangerous, but what an adventure! It’s Marco Polo who deserves credit for my wanting to visit Hangzhou. My guidebook says when he saw Hangzhou, Marco Polo thought it the most beautiful city in the entire world, and quoted as much to the man taking dictation (Polo was in prison in Italy when he dictated much of his travelogue).

Well, Hangzhou was/is number 1 on my Chinese bucket list. I’m following Marco Polo. The photos of West Lake make it look really relaxing, and in any other context the names for places would be a hokey stereotype of Eastern nomenclature. Here are some of the names listed on my map:

  • Orioles Singing in the Willows
  • Three Pools Mirroring the Moon
  • The Temple of the Soul’s Retreat
  • The Peak that Flew from Afar
  • Dreaming of the Tiger Spring
  • Autumn Moon over a Calm Lake
  • Lotus in the Breeze

I like orioles. I like willows. I am ambivalent about peaks, but I like things that are afar! So off I go to Hangzhou, via Shanghai’s bullet train.

Alright, a second digression (there might be three): I don’t understand American reluctance to build up our rail system. For twenty bucks I got a first class seat on a train going somewhere around 200km/hour. I made it from Shanghai to Hangzhou in an hour! It was fast, efficient, quiet and comfortable. Even the “second class” tickets looked like seats on the South Shore rail in Illinois/Indiana. We need to stop dragging our heels and get this accomplished. The train sat hundreds and left every hour. I saw it in Europe, and I’m seeing it here – tell all your friends, neighbors, and local politicians that we need more passenger trains and high speed rail!
Thus ends second digression.

It was cloudy when I got to the Hangzhou South train station. And it was dirty – the train station and the immediate area was crawling with beggars and indifferent taxis. Just off the plaza where I emerged, confused from the tunnels below, a woman was wailing for money next to a man with a thin blanket over his whole body as though he were a corpse. I couldn’t think of a more dismal welcome, an icier bucket of realism. I finally found a taxi to drive me. There was congestion, and cars just started driving on the sidewalks. The buildings were grimy and crowded together. The sky was gray. I was convinced that the guide books had lied, that Marco Polo had seen an oasis, now long covered by concrete and cruel indifference.

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My hotel was in the new commercial district of Hangzhou. It had planned parks and futuristic architecture. I felt only mildly better, as I don’t have a lot of interest in banking centers. Still, everything was clean and too rich for my shopping habits, so at least I was on familiar ground. Then I met Greg (name changed) the concierge, who proved to be an amazing asset. Greg informed me that I took bus 96, which stopped just outside, and rode it to the end I would be at West Lake, the famous tourist attraction. Furthermore, if I switched to the K7 and rode that to the end, I’d be at the Peak that Flew from Afar, which I really wanted to see.

Greg also explained about the public bikes. Like Copenhagen, Hangzhou has a fleet of bicycles for local use, with parking spots all over the city. After explaining how to get a permit to use the bikes (which involved going to the ominous Community Center mentioned in my last post, putting down a 200rmb deposit and providing my passport), Greg excused himself and returned with a plastic card from one the receptionists. “Just one day, so it’s no problem,” he said, saving me at least an hour of bureaucracy.

As though Fate was displeased by my sudden turn in mood, she brought rain in the morning. Lots of steady, cool rain. She was courteous enough to also provide a tour bus which took every last umbrella from the concierge. I saw them all on the bus, each holding an orange Marriott umbrella, some looking at me with an innocent “Oh, where’s yours?” I was just about to hunker down and push out when Greg appeared again, holding several shrink-wrapped umbrellas. I thanked him – he was truly earning his gold keys! He was also correct on every front. The 96 did stop just at West Lake, the K7 did go straight to the Peak and the surrounding temples.

Marco Polo thought Hangzhou was the most beautiful place in the world. I had to use my imagination:

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I know that there is a bank on the other side of that lake, a couple of pagodas. I bet it’s really beautiful.

 

West Lake had all the promise of a lovely spot. Green trees arched gracefully over the roads and water. Flowers bloomed in beds of contrasting colors (The gardener in me wanted a little more cohesion), and boats rocked gently on the choppy waters of the lake. If it was any sort of bonus, the rain kept the crowds down. I took the K7 bus through lush forest, richer in color from the rain, to Lingyin Temple and the Peak the Flew from Afar. The Peak has roughly 300 Buddha’s and icons carved into the caves and face of the small stone face. It was slippery, but beautiful. It was at atmospheric place, more so in the lush foliage.

 

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I paid extra to visit Lingyin Temple, and admired the giant millipedes brought out in the wet weather. I lit some incense for my family, and threw a coin into the giant cauldron at the peak. As I reached the small summit, the sun made a heroic effort and sort of emerged. It was still cloudy, but the rain stopped. I was able to use my new card to get a bike from the electronic locking post, and rode it to the Chinese Tea Museum. The heavy, thankfully cool air was pungent with tea leaves and the smell of wet ground. The museum was interesting, and I learned some facts about tea, but what I remember now is the smell of the place. It was a soft, sweet smell, underlined by that musky smell of earth. I loved it, especially in the attempted efforts of the sun. It created a fragrant mist which filled the air.

 

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In the photo on the right, you can see one of several red bicycles I rented. There’s an additional fee after one hour, so I hopped from bike to bike as needed, since Greg didn’t know how to explain the payment process.

And then I rode back to West Lake, now crowding with people. The clouds returned, and turned everything into muted shades of gray and green. I walked over causeways and small jutting bits of land replete with snack stalls and toy shops. It was lovely, I knew that – it was just a lot of work to see it. By the evening, when I took a boat to see the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, I was tired. I felt myself trudging – never a good sign.

But there was one more place to go – Orioles singing in the Willows. It was not a short walk from where the boat let out, and I had to push myself. I had been going since breakfast, and apart from a couple of fried crabs on a stick I had not eaten. This is my stubbornness – I should have stopped, but I would not. And when I finally collapsed on a park bench, listening to a silver oriole singing in the long, graceful willow branches I was almost too done to appreciate it. To be clear: I was drinking water, and I did eat some snacks. I simply hadn’t stopped moving for roughly eight hours, when I should have. When I’m by myself, I don’t think about time to rest. There’s so much to see, and I don’t have weeks to explore.

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Still, I sat in the willow area above, contemplating the day.  Then I headed back to my hotel. The next day it rained even harder, and I admitted to myself I had no desire to go outside. Instead I spent the day in the executive lounge (thanks, Dad!) writing my stories and drinking excellent tea.

I took a train back to Shanghai – The Hongqiao Train Station is connected to the Hongqiao Airport, so if you’re planning to travel keep that in mind as it’s wonderfully convenient and saves on Taxi fare. I left from the North Hangzhou train station. I didn’t know that Hongzhou had two train stations – this second one was like landing on Mars. It was massive, white, and gleaming. There were topiaries – topiaries! – outside welcoming me to the city! It was streamlined inside, and full of people. If this had been my introduction to Hangzhou, my first impressions would have been far more flattering.

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And this was not even a holiday weekend – this just a normal Sunday afternoon.
A high speed train trip to the Hongqiao, a walk to the terminal, and I’m on a bumpy flight back to Chengdu.
I have a third digression, but I’m going to save it for my next post, since this one is longer than I anticipated.

 

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