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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Enoshima: Dragons and Goddesses

img_9005This is the “island” of Enoshima, southwest of Yokohama and Tokyo. I say “island” because there is a wide road and bridge that cover the narrow strip of sea between the island and the coast. It feels very connected to the mainland.

I’m writing this as a quick aside, since I have a lot to write and I don’t want to forget about my first real “touristy” jaunt out from Yokohama.

Before I elaborate on the island itself, let me encourage any tourist going to Enoshima to buy the Enopass, or island pass. It’s 1000 yen (about $10), and it lets you on all the island’s “special” attractions, including the sea candle and gardens. It also lets you take the escalators, but more on that in a moment. You can buy it from the tourist office before you go under the overpass and cross the bridge. Facing the island, it is on the right hand side of the road.

Enoshima houses shrines to the sea goddess, Benten (or Benzaiten), and the five-headed dragon that she tamed and/or married, depending on the story. Benten is the goddess of music, wealth, knowledge, and good fortune (small wonder she is still very popular), and to the best of my knowledge she is one of a small handful of deities that is depicted naked – at least one of her forms is (Benzaiten Myoon).

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Ancient history holds that Enoshima itself was formed upon Benten’s arrival to earth, marked by an impressively long earthquake. She came to earth because a monstrous five-headed dragon was terrorizing the Japanese people. Benten is no Artemis, however. She did not destroy the dragon.  Upon her arrival the dragon was so taken with her that he wanted to marry her. Benten refused because the dragon was being a total prick to the Japanese people, and so the dragon ceased terrorizing, and changed his ways. And Benten maybe married him after all. As a story, I like the easiness of it. I preferred this version to the second version I heard, which made it sound like Benten sacrificed herself and married the dragon to save the people.

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And I liked Enoshima. It reminded me of all the ancient shrines I climbed in China, in many ways. Packed streets, vendors lining the walkways, steep stairs – this is an “easy” island to navigate, but in order to see everything, you have to climb up, then down, then up again. There are temples and shrines, though they’re on the modest size. You can watch tourists wash their money before offering it to Benten. The line to pray at her shrine was long, but her sanctum, which houses her sacred statue, was deserted. The Enopass gets you a discount on entering that latter shrine. It smelled of sandalwood, and there were oranges set in front of her statue (photography is strictly prohibited). Though small, it carried a great deal of spiritual weight – perhaps more so than the giant money bag shrine with the line, because it was a more intimate space.

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To get to the different levels of the island, you have to climb. This is where the escalators come in handy. They’re only one way – up – but they get you all the way to the top of the island. From here, you can go through the gardens and climb the Sea Candle (it’s a lighthouse). The line to get to the top of the Sea Candle was modestly long, but the Japanese are very efficient about getting into and out of elevators, and we only waited around twenty minutes to get up. The view is pleasant – not spectacular, but then you need pleasant views or you wouldn’t know the spectacular when you saw it, right? On a good day you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance. It was cloudy on our visit, and there was a powerful, terrific wind blowing. I felt a small rush, standing up in the wind overlooking the Pacific coast. It’s such a vast expanse of inhospitable salt water, but it’s beautiful because it’s remote, despite our best efforts.

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After some climbing down, and down again, we found the two primary caves that house the ancient holy statues. In the back of one of the dimly lit caves is a statue of the formidable dragon who had a change of heart. There is a sign there that says when you toss money and bow, if you see a specific number of “flashes” your wish will or will not come true. I offered my money, made my wish, and bowed, and no matter who disputes it, I definitely saw two flashes – one from a camera, one from a light bulb. It counts, and my wish will hopefully come true now. Rules are rules, otherwise I’d post my wish here.

Food wise, I say skip the “pickles” offered along the way – they’re not real pickles, and they’re not cucumbers. They’re some strange halfway thing that was neither briny nor crisp enough. If you’re into seafood, there are plenty of shops offering fish crackers, in addition to the many squid-on-a-stick vendors. And even in the wind and bluster, I enjoyed some soft-serve ice cream. I heartily endorse buying weird soft-serve. Here, I’ve seen some odd flavor choices (mustard seed comes to mind). I had black vanilla, and it was delicious.

I don’t know how many more shrine trips I’ll be taking. Not only is my workweek shaping up to be busy, but I’m hitting a saturation point on shrines. I know I’ve written about this before, but I think the temples and shrines become a little bit like churches back home. This is not to say that they are not beautiful, or that they all look the same. But when there is a shrine or temple in every town, it takes something a bit more to really make a trip worthwhile. Something like dragons and goddesses, maybe…

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Here is a useful page about getting to and from Enoshima, if you’re so inclined.

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Isla Mujeres: Whale of a Tale

Wham!

That is the sound our boat makes when it crests a wave but doesn’t clear the valley to the next one, dropping hard into the valley. A gentle floating sensation is the only warning before an abrupt, hard landing. It’s been like this for the past forty-five minutes, and I’m worried. There was rain before I arrived, pushing the plankton down. The whale sharks followed, and there was some concern that they would not be resurfacing for a couple of days. In fact, sightings had been down compared to last year overall, to the point that a couple of sightseeing groups had removed their guarantees.

All this ran through my head as we sped out at 7am from the Bay of Cancun north along the island, then east out into the Caribbean Sea. We stopped to see turtles mating – awkward but also cool – but mostly it was fast travel over gentle swells. Flying fish dart out around us, gliding over waves for long stretches before disappearing into the blue. They are far more graceful than we are.

Enrique and Jesus stop every so often to listen to their radios. That’s the level of sophistication. There’s a general area where the sharks go, and then the fishermen report what they see when they go out, and the tour boats follow suit.

I’m nervous, but only generally so. I’ve planned this trip pretty well. I put the whale shark tour first thing, in case we don’t see any. That way I can plan a second outing. When attempting to complete a bucket list item, it’s probably best to have a contingency plan or two.

WHAM! My lower back snaps at me for incorrect timing as the boat makes a sudden turn eastward and the rolling gets stronger.

Our whole party grew silent about forty minutes into the trip. The young diver and I shared our favorite dive sites and stories. We politely listened to the husband describe the YouTube videos he found particularly funny, as his wife tried to gently silence him. We joked about Enrique riding the prow like a cowboy, holding the line for balance as he scanned the horizon. Now we are all slightly nervous. Isla Mujeres is no longer visible, and neither is the mainland. It occurs to me that I will get sunburn. I’m only halfway in my wetsuit, and we aren’t allowed to wear sunscreen – it disrupts the plankton.

So it is with a mind full of minor worries that Jesus gives a call and points to a growing speck – two boats growing fast. Enrique motions to don our wetsuits. I pull mine on, and my excitement fizzles around me. I feel lighter, buoyant. I haven’t felt giddy in a good long time. When the others see the sharks before me (something about which I am still dubious), I all but walk out onto the water to look. I can see why joy is dangerous. I have to mentally force myself to be mindful of the space, lest I tumble over my or one of the other swimmers bags.

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The whale sharks are skimming the surface of the sea in slow motion. Giant dorsal fins swish back and forth, ineffectual in the air. Unlike whales or dolphins, their heads don’t break the water to breathe (they’re fish, not mammals). I am bouncing up and down inside – and probably outside too. I dash from one part of the boat to another. My travelling companions laugh at my childishness.

As we drift closer, Enrique announces for the first group to get ready. I start strapping on my fins. At the same moment, my “buddy” falls backwards into the water and starts off. Now, normally this is not what you do. If you have a buddy – diving, snorkeling, etc. – you both go in together, or at least in quick succession. He wanted “unobstructed” photos of the sharks. This meant he did not need my fat, bright whiteness messing up his frames. Enrique clicks his teeth in disapproval. It’s not good etiquette, and it means I must rush to catch up.

Trying to handle extreme excitement while getting rushed and trying to be mindful is confusing. I swing my legs over, mask on. I can’t quite make out where I’m expected to go, but Enrique starts shouting, “Now! Now! GO!”

And I go, and nearly land on top of a whale shark swimming towards the boat.

I don’t have time to get my camera out for an epic close up. I don’t have time to process what is happening. I have time to twist and kick. My only thought is to not bother the shark. This did not come from a place of fear, but of conservation. Whale sharks are gentle, and the idea of colliding with one violated all my naturalist principles. I guess I should have been more worried about the shark hitting me.

Liz recognizes this before I do. “Honey, look out for that tail! It’s right by you!” I get the impression of a giant tail swinging towards me – four feet of unconcerned fish tail. I give a second kick, and my ocean fins (which I’ve had for a very long time), do their job and give me distance. The shark had simply adjusted its trajectory so it was nowhere near the boat, which was already gentle moving away.

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I will not lie. This is not how I pictured my transcendental moment. I had an idea in my head of a gentle entry into the water, and this giant creature swimming near me. I would have my camera ready, just in case, but I would be in so much awe that the world would stop for a moment of pure peace. I’d float in the sea and be transported.

The panic, the rush, the confusion, the lack of camera, the shouting – not exactly transcendence.

In times like these it is best to take a deep breath and refocus. I do so, blowing out saltwater through my snorkel. I’m a swimmer. I’m a diver. This is my bucket list. I am not going to let this be anything other than what I want it to be.

I put my face in the water and swim with the whale sharks.

Let me tell you, it was beautiful. Imagine a creature thirty feet long ambling by, mouth open for tiny sea creatures. They are beautiful school busses, dappled in white spots. They move with the ease of all fish, something we will never achieve no matter how much we practice. But they’re so big, the ease is almost disconcerting. Forty feet moving quickly next to you. They are faster than I thought. I have to concede in the first go around that trying to catch a whale shark is futile. They’re not only faster, but they can dive down into the blue depths and disappear.

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In the second and third entries, Enrique offers to pull me along. He’s a very strong swimmer, and he wants us to get our money’s worth. I refuse at first – I’m a decent swimmer and don’t need to get right up on the sharks. But then I think it might be considered rude not to accept, so I finally accept. He is a stronger swimmer than I am, after all. And he does pull me up right along the head of a giant shark so I can take photos.

The transcendence, if I want to be precise, comes in small bouts. A brief moment where I’m not being directed to go somewhere or look at something I’m not seeing – a minute where, in the deep blue water, I can see the outline of a great whale shark swimming lazily just inside my field of vision. That’s what it looks like – they look like visions when they’re at a distance. I don’t have to be two feet from one to appreciate it. I’m happy in the silence of my own breathing and the presence of so large a creature.

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And there’s the pleasant unnerving feeling that comes from not being able to see the bottom of the Sea. The world becomes so impossibly big when you can’t see the boundaries around you. Anything might be in those depths, the space in front of you which you can’t see. It’s what makes the dark basement scary – the idea of more space than we can see. Here there is nothing to hear but the faint hum of the boats and the calls of the other swimmers.

I like being made to feel small in the world. It’s comforting, in its way, to feel unimportant. It releases tension. It takes some of the pressure off to be in charge and in control.

The morning winds down, as it must. I could have stayed all day, but there are other tours and the waters are getting crowded. We head back to the island, stopping on North Beach for fruit and beer. Then back to the dive shop for a lunch of red snapper, ceviche, and guacamole. It’s been an incredible day.

I’ve been writing a lot already – I’ll pick up more tomorrow. In the meantime, the hammock is calling.

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A Plum Bum

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“Oh…the way you eat!” Kate says to me. With her accent it’s difficult to tell what she means. We haven’t been walking through Jiezi Ancient town that long, and my hosts keep stopping at every food stall asking if I’m hungry. I’ve said yes once or twice, and now I’m holding two glutinous dumplings and a brown sugar cake thing. Kate’s exclamation came after I took a healthy bite out of the dumpling.

“Should I take smaller bites?” I pick my words carefully. I mean, what could that mean? Do I look gluttonous, or perhaps I missed a social clue somewhere? Me, the meaty-pawed American, devouring gentle Chinese food?

“No, no – you eat so easy, with much passion! I like it!” She says brokenly. I look at the glutinous dumpling in my hand, filling starting to ooze out of the middle. I can’t begrudge her that. I do eat with passion. I reserve dainty eating for high teas and formal wear outings. I know all my forks and spoons – none of which are required for street vendor dumplings.

We walked on, and I eat bean curds and more bean curds. The first set is fried on a skewer, the second is served like hot jell-o in a bowl with scallions and peppers. I was going on a cup of coffee and a cup of black sesame insta-porridge, but I tell myself that this is a great chance to live like the locals. If savory and spicy is what’s for breakfast, then bon appetit! People stare. Lily says that some in the crowd have me pegged as a Russian beauty. I love the quaint idea of me being a Russian beauty – it is so far from reality.

Jiezi Ancient town is meant to emulate old Chinese villages. Some genuinely old structures exist, like the paper burning tower and the Lucky bridge, but around it spring “traditional” tourist shops, statues, and carnival games. The sight of tourist shops makes me very happy. Souvenirs! I can get all my trinket shopping done now! Lily and Kate agree that it is better to wait until the walk back to buy things, so my arms don’t get tired. This doesn’t stop over-eager Lily from assuming I must want to purchase everything I stop to inspect. I stopped to examine a key chain, and suddenly she’s rifling through the basket, asking me if I want to buy every sample she holds up. She wants to be helpful. I go back to being more discreet in my interest.

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We walk and make small talk. Lily and Kate are eager to practice their English with me, and I need to remember how to make small talk.
“Jean, do you like mountains?” Kate asks at one point.
“Uh, sure.” I reply. Truthfully, as soon as that baited hook hit the water, my brain was yelling for me to abort, to lie. Claim an injury. You want to shop! This is going to be an easy day! Souvenirs and dumplings, damn it!
“There is a small mountain here. Would you like to climb it?” Lily asks.
“…Ok, if it’s a small mountain.” My brain throws its hands up in exasperation.
“Oh, yes. Not very tall. I’ve never climbed it – only been up in a car,” Kate says. Off we go. About two hours into the ascent, it occurs to me that there were any number of follow up questions I could have asked. Like how small is the mountain? How high does it go? Are you sure you want to climb in plastic shoes? But I like nature, and goodness knows I’ve climbed some small peaks here.

It’s pretty – there are bronze colored lizards and more of those red and black millipedes. Bamboo arches over us in a thin canopy, and black and yellow butterflies flit through the sunlight.

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All of these things I saw and appreciated during the first half of the climb. But after two hours of unexpected mountain climbing, my shirt is soaked through in sweat. It’s not very hot, but it is humid. My non-climbing appropriate bra is doing the best it can. I didn’t bring a hat, or sunglasses, or my walking stick. I haven’t stretched. I am not in a mental state for any sort of strenuous activity, but at least I’m wearing what I think are good shoes for climbing. They have to better than Kate’s jelly sandals, or Stone’s canvas boat shoes.

Then I slipped and fell on my ass. Hard. The steps were slick with moss, and I got preoccupied thinking about everyone else’s feet while going down one such flight. My first thought, strangely enough, when I hit the ground was Fuck. Now Lily is going to have a heart attack. Lily, the maternal teacher, does indeed grip my upper arm as though she thinks I’ve killed myself on her watch. Later, she would explain that she feels responsible for me, since she took me from the school on this trip. As though she could have stopped my foot from losing traction through sheer force of “not on my watch.”

At that particular moment, however, I wasted precious energy on making sure I didn’t yell at her as she tugged at me. In the few times in my life where I’ve been in sudden and great pain my response is to withdraw to do inventory, and to snap at people. It takes so much more effort to reassure everyone else that you’re ok! But I do, I reassure everyone, repeatedly. I tell them to let me sit for a moment, and then I ignore them. They chatter because they don’t know how else to express their worry, I tell myself. The same as most people.

I have this theory on pain. You have to face it straight on – nitpick it immediately. It will either stay strong or get worse, which suggests that you’ve really hurt yourself. Or it will hurt, but you’ll be able to see through it a little, which suggests that you might actually be as ok as you keep not-screaming at the clucking hens around you. I go through each joint, and each is undamaged. But my butt – Jesus Christ what have I done?! It’s not my tailbone, or my hip. But I have decidedly damaged a part of my backside. It’s a deep, stinging pain. I can almost feel the bruise forming already. But I can feel it dilute ever so slightly as the seconds tick by. Lily and Kate are debating whether to hold me the rest of the climb – no way. I put on my cheeriest “What me, worry?” face and push on. I will not be coddled.

As we reach the 902m marker – the summit? – I look at my watch and realize it’s been over three hours of hiking. Worse, they let the saplings grow all over the “scenic” area, so that you can’t see anything at all. We press on, and eventually reach the temple at the end of the way. It’s pretty and peaceful, removed from the town. We sit for a break in the shelter of tall, leafy trees and drink tea. Lily tells me she really does love me, and Kate wants to know if Tommy Hilfiger costs as much in the US as it does in China. Stone is happy to pour the hot water and shrug whenever I look at him.

 

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We took a bus down the mountain. Lily tells everyone on the bus that I am the greatest English teacher from America, that I could teach them all English. I’m just trying to sit correctly so that searing pain doesn’t make me wince and reveal I’m still in pain. A little girl sings a counting song for me – it’s cute, but also I feel like I’m on show again. Everyone watching me, watching this little girl who looks exactly how I feel. We both wish for a moment of peace.

Upon arrival we search for a clean toilet. Once we find one, I check my back in the mirror – a red and purple patch the size of my hand blossoms like a ripe plum. A plum bum.

By this time, most of the shops have closed – primarily all the souvenir shops. I don’t try to hide my disappointment. Four frickin’ mountains I have now climbed, but I still don’t have the tiny glaives for my friends back home. Resigned, I walk back to the parking lot.

Having said earlier that I like hot pot, Lily chooses a “chicken hot pot” restaurant. My excitement returns. I haven’t actually gotten to eat proper community style hot pot since my arrival because I usually dine alone. I give Kate and Lily free rein to order what they want.

The waitress brings our pot, filled with chili oil, broth, and chicken bits (including the feet). Accompanying this is a tray with our dishes. Here are some of the dishes added to the pot: lotus root, potatoes, rice noodles, duck intestine, baby octopus, cow’s stomach, chicken blood, chicken liver, mushrooms, another type of noodle, and what appeared to be bacon. Everything starts raw. I think of witch’s cauldrons.

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Here’s how it works: First, you build your own small bowl of “soup” using the contents of the hot pot, mixed with scallions, parsley, garlic, oyster sauce, vinegar – however spicy or bland you want it. Then, you either dunk a raw something into the big boiling pot individually, or pour the whole plate in (we did this with the lotus). Once cooked, you put it in your own concoction for added flavor, then eat it.

Before I do this, I have another accident – apparently I was in fine form. The manager comes by to talk to me. He’s saying something about Nixon, but it’s really noisy and I lean closer to hear him. Then my eye is on fire. Somehow, I got the chili broth in my eye – probably because I was leaning closer to the boiling pot. I practically jump out of my chair with a hasty “excuse me” and then I’m in the bathroom frantically trying to rinse burn out of my eyeball. Fan-tas-tic, let me tell ya. I return, and try not to feel like the klutz I have suddenly become.

We eat. I was exhausted by this point, and gleefully tried everything. I don’t get the inherent contradiction that is chicken’s blood. Lily said they serve the blood so you know the chicken is fresh, but when I asked how they get it to cook solid, she said they add salt and let it sit. So technically that means the chicken is only as fresh as the blood takes to congeal? Anyway it tasted fine. The digestive tracks of the cow and duck were also tasty.

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They bring out porridge, a welcome blandness to the spice of the meal. I am sated and full and praying that I don’t get sick. Or, if I must get sick, that I don’t throw up. That would be awful.

“Oh, Jean, you are a very good eater!” Says Lily. I look at my bowl. Again, I really have no idea how to interpret this. I get the sense that it is a complement, and thank her.

“Yes – it’s good you try all the foods,” Kate agrees. “Shows you are open-minded person!”

I send a silent thank you to my grandparents. All those lamb roasts at the Croatian center, sucking marrow from bones, and those livers and gizzards my other grandma cooked have made me hearty. There’s something to be said for having Depression era style food as part of your ancestral heritage. Makes eating pasta-like intestine not seem so other worldly.

On the trip back, Kate wants to know about movies. Lily drives slowly in the fog, asking me multiple times if I had a good day.

I broke my posterior. I got chili oil in my eyeball. The shops were closed and I somehow climbed yet another mountain. I discussed oolong tea and Sichuan opera. Some guy gave me a free piece of metal frame which I am going to try and use to keep my shower from flooding my bathroom.

It was a wonderful day.

 

PS: It is really hard to take a clinical picture of your own backside.

 

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Dujiangyan Day 2: Elementary Geography, my Dear…

The sun was out over the mountains this morning. I woke up to birds and tree frogs and the sun. It was magic. I had a cup of instant coffee (getting used to it – Nescafe does a good job) and stood on my rented patio and just appreciated how lucky I am. In the distance the green-capped peaks were still lightly shrouded in mist, and along the nicely manicured pathways in this living complex the trees are blooming in shades of pink and white. I hesitate to say it was perfect, but it was close.

Today I wanted to go to Qingcheng Mountain – home of several protected Taoist temples. Vega and did map searches on our phones (strange wifi for phones but not laptops), and determined the mountain was 13km away. No problem, I thought – what’s (grueling non-metric computations) around 7-8 miles by bicycle?

You can see where this is going.

It was fine, truthfully. The bulk of those 13km was flat, through agricultural areas and along well-paved highways. This region is where all the fancy “natural” tables come from – the ones that look like tree trunks, but polished. The last bit, however, the bit that actually went to the mountain, was the promise of what was to come – all incline. Have I mentioned I haven’t exercised since I got here? That I just sit around a lot? I have? That I realized it yesterday? That I told myself not to forget? Well, I forgot.

I also forgot basic geography. When I was in elementary school, Mom and I made a geography cake. It had plains (a sheet cake), a plateau (a second cake), some mountains (more cake stacked up), and rivers, each delineated with a different color frosting. Now that I reflect on it, it was the first time I remember my Mom telling me to chill out – the mountains kept falling apart and I was ready to scrap the whole thing, in tears, and she just stuck some toothpicks in the cake for stability and told me the mistakes didn’t matter. First, mountains aren’t perfect. Second, it was cake, and everyone would eat it.

Should have remembered the cake. Having spent all day yesterday climbing, I should have reevaluated. But no – I’m a stubborn soul, and I had two days of mountains on my itinerary. I do remember to stretch in the morning, and determine to set an easier pace. I will be mindful today. It is with this mindfulness that I push through the initial inclines to a safe parking place for our bikes, and walk up the slope to the mountain’s entrance.

With the sun out, the scenery is gorgeous. It’s like something on a postcard as I ascend – mountains frothing with green, trees blossoming, temples peeking out of bends and heights. It’s all harmonious, which is exactly what I would expect from Taoists. There are shrines to a God of Wealth, a God of Medicine, a God who was a man who did great things and then figured out the Dao of the…clouded dragon?…and then he rode to Heaven on said dragon to be a God. There are dragon turtles holding great slabs of important stone for eternity, and ancient gingko trees stretching up to great heights. There are dragons and yin-yangs on everything, and they mean something! I remember when I was in high school and yin-yangs were trendy things to have on t-shirts and purses. Here they actually represent balance, which I like.
Up and up we go. Signs helpfully point out the “negative oxygen ions” I’m breathing in, thanks to the trees. I don’t plan on climbing too high – I’ve topped one mountain, no need to be greedy. My legs are tired. But the stairs lead up, and so I go up. The scenery is so engaging. There are halves of mountains “held up” with dozens of sticks (like toothpicks holding up cake) – mankind doing its part to help the mountain keep doing its thing.

Don't worry, mountain, we're here to help!

Don’t worry, mountain, we’re here to help!

We are supposed to be going to a cave – Tianshi Celestial Cave, near Subjugating Demons Rock and Heart Washing Pool – somewhere near the top of a lower ridge I think – I’m just going up, and I applaud Vega having a climbing goal. We reach Tianshi Palace, a surprisingly large structure on the mountainside, with three or four terraced stories. On terrace two, which has a cool zodiac in stone set around the courtyard (Shrine of an illuminated artifact that protects the local people) we find out the Celestial Cave is closed – no one bothered to say anything the whole way up. I go to terrace three (Hall of the Yellow Emperor), looking up at the higher peaks around me. In the distance I see one of the great temples on the very top – Laojun Pavilion at 1260m. I couldn’t afford the cable car beneath it, which goes the hundreds of feet up. I spent all my money on the entrance fees to the two sites these two days – more than I’ve spent in a whole week.

Vega joins me, and he is done. I sympathize. I tell him to wait for me on terrace two, that there’s an awning on terrace four I want to photograph. Really, that’s a front. I feel an inexplicable pull from terrace four. Like if I go up just one more level, there will be something there different, something slightly more amazing. My body is sending warning signals – every step from now will cost me on the way back down. Yet that pull…I guess it’s why I love to travel. It’s not so far, just a few steps more, just another hundred feet up – I understand you now, Pocahontas. You never know what could be there, just a little bit further.

Turns out the top of the shrine on terrace four is open to the sheer face of the mountaintop, the peak of which is not that far. And the view – it was a vista worth climbing for. I can see the top of the palace below me, and beyond that the mountains. Let my legs ache. There are things worth a little discomfort. (Later, looking at my strangely framed and uncharacteristically blurry pictures, I realize how tired I actually was).

 

The almost summit - still beautiful

The almost summit – still beautiful

Now for my less romanticized comment: Try as I might, I couldn’t ignore the blatant commercialization of the site. It was like Taoist Disneyland in a way – every height I climbed to I thought there would be fewer people. Nope – every flat space was full of people, all the way up the mountain. There were quiet corners, and I am good at waiting crowds out for the still moments in between. And at every temple, most of the public space had been transformed into vendor stalls, selling cheap plastic toys, fake antiques, soapstone and horn carvings, and concessions. It was…a little depressing. I get that sort of thing at entrances, but three thousand feet up in the mountains I wanted some peace, not another hawker trying to get me to buy a slide whistle. It’s really hard to focus on finding inner tranquility in so much noise.
That’s why the hike, though tough, was easier for me today – less noise, surrounded by trees and wild irises, I could let my mind wander. It’s how I climbed an extra few hundred feet today – my guestimate is that we reached about 3000 feet – more than yesterday!

The walk down seems easy. A woman is being carried up in a sort of stretcher, and we make way. I ask Vega if she’s sick, and he says no, that she’s paid the two men to carry her up the mountain! What a horrible job, though the men must have adamantium calves by now. We find less used paths with fewer people, and so the descent is quick and smooth. I don’t take genuine notice of my fatigue till just before the base of the mountain – in the last steps I feel tremors in my calves. They’ve done such good work. I promise to take care of them, and my feet. I’m so proud of my legs today.

Then I remember the 12 km bike ride. My legs convey the following message to my brain “Wow, you’re proud of us? Really?! Ok, well, screw you! SCREW YOU WE’RE NOT PARTICIPATING IN YOUR STUPID BIKE RIDE!” And my brain responds “Well, are we just going to pout along the side of the road?” My legs don’t have a response, and I hop on the bike and start pedaling.
13km / 7-odd miles later, I make it back to the apartment, done. Four hours or so of hiking, 26km of biking, and not enough water have reduced me to jelly. Hefting the bike up the stairs is matter of sheer mental determination. I will not wuss out with the door in view. I am just as tough as I always was…

Vega graciously tells me I should take a shower first, since I’m sweating more (gotta teach the teenager about tact before he goes to the States…). I do so, and wash my clothes. I make tea, stretch, and read my trashy fantasy novel. Vega makes dumplings and starts to teach me how to write Chinese characters (top left to bottom right). And now I’m writing, rotating my ankles and testing my knotted shoulders.

Tomorrow’s plan? Vega asks hesitantly.
Ah, tomorrow…
Tomorrow I drink tea. All day.

…If I get the chance to come back, I’ll hike the back of the mountain. Apparently there’s a “Heaven Bridge” near the summit – that sounds like a bridge worth walking…

 

Panorama

Panorama