The Strangest Thing About Stranger Things is That My Son Looks Like the Girl in Stranger Things

My family just binge-watched Stranger Things, a deft and super-compelling derivative mash-up that perfectly channels so many great shows and films:  E.T. and The Goonies and Freaks and Geeks and Poltergeist and eXistenZ and The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stand by Me and Super 8 . . . and while this is a good thing, to see our family-favorites blended together in one eight episode mini-series, it also makes me think that we've come to the end of some of sort of artistic road-- and I'm having these kinds of deep thoughts about things I shouldn't think so deeply about because I just finished Chuck Klosterman's new book, But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present as if It Were the Past, which proposes exactly what the subtitle suggests: that we look at the present as if it were the past, and so from a future perspective, only a few movies and TV shows will be remembered,and--sadly-- Stranger Things probably won't be one of them (in my opinion) because it's so derivative, and the original works will take precedence . . . but I could be wrong, perhaps Stranger Things will be the perfect vehicle to remember all the tropes of the realistic/spooky/horror/teen/noir/government conspiracy/alternate universe/sci-fi/kids-band-together-and-take-on-the-supernatural-and-corrupt-world-of-adults genre . . . but I also found it interesting that I received multiple texts, from friends and colleagues and my brother, all advising me to watch this show with my kids . . . and most of these texts were from people who did not have children of their own . . . which is spooky in itself, but this also probably stems from nostalgia for the days when we had shared TV experiences, Seinfeld or Dallas or whatever . . . and people were saying that this show would be a perfect one to enjoy that shared experience, not only with the general public but also with your family, and they were right (if you can endure your kids having a few nightmares) but nostalgia for that "normal" time might not be so normal either . . . that was just a small window when people were on the same page, watching three networks, in the pre-internet, pre-DVR, pre-streaming, pre-Youtube, pre-plethora of shows age, but before that, way before that, everybody was doing their own thing-- just like now-- in pre-literate society, when everyone was around their own fire, telling their own version of the Ur-story about saber-tooth tigers and cave bears . . . I suppose there were a few classics, Homer and Beowulf and Gilgamesh, but most of the programming must have been very unstructured and primitive and unique, stick puppets, Dunt and Thok doing their schtick, song parodies very specific to a particular clan of people . . . anyway, that's how it feels now-- everyone is watching their own private pantheon of entertainment, and it rarely coincides with anyone else, but I should get off my high-horse and just recommend this show, because it will remind older folks of a by-gone era of TV and film, and it will scare the shit out of younger viewers, while also immersing them in a world before the internet, of microfiche and rotary phones, a world where there might be vast conspiracies and things beyond our understanding, unlike the world we have now, where if you've got a hunch about something like that, you just Google it, and voila, you were right: there is a vast conspiracy and there are things far beyond our understanding and aliens have come to earth and they live among us and of course our government planned 9/11 and dinosaurs live right beside us and they're chickens . . . Stranger Things delivers what it promises, that even in the suburbs, if you're brave and adventurous and loyal and have an imagination and a bike, then there is adventure right out your door . . . the series begins with D&D, and it ends with the mention of an Atari . . . perhaps Atari is the harbinger of the end of an era, the end of kids out in the world, depending on themselves, alone, unstructured, off the grid, fighting epic forces; anyway, my wife and I loved it and my kids claim it's the "best show ever" and there's one more creepy thing, just for folks who know us: Eleven is the female version of my son Ian, they look nearly identical and also make the same expressions and have the same eyes, it took someone else to point this out, and once she did, it made me look at my son in a totally different light (as in, I think he might be able to move things with his mind and squish bad people's brains).

A Book Makes Dave Feel Emotions

I thought once we left the Southwest, I would quit reading The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest but none of my other books came up on my library queue, so I decided to finish, and it was well worth it; I learned that the Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo, if you want to be politically correct) didn't disappear because of an apocalyptic drought-- there was a drought, but they started leaving before that, and usually with environmental catastrophe, everyone doesn't leave-- there are always a few stragglers that remain and eke out a living, so this was a political or religious migration that cleared out these cliff dwellings and granaries and high mesa redoubts, because by 1300, the area was completely empty of human habitation and life, and that just doesn't happen . . . and so there are plenty of theories of what political/religious movement drove the migration, but none are rock-solid . . . this information may be lost in time, because it's abstract . . . I also learned about the Comanche transformation, which is a real Cinderella-story, an underdog achievement worthy of the scrubs in Hoosiers: at the start of the colonial era, the Comanches were "horseless hunter-gatherers living in small camps scattered around northern Colorado and Wyoming . . . by the end of the seventeenth century they had become the most skillful equestrians warriors and long-distance traders in North America," with a domain that stretched from Canada to northern Mexico . . . so though they've been portrayed as merciless barbarian raiders, that wasn't the case until they met several defeats at the hands of the U.S. Army forces in 1875 . . . but enough of this, what the book made me feel, unfortunately, was jealousy and regret; when I was young, I dreamed of becoming a paleontologist and trekking through the Gobi Desert in search of dinosaur bones, but then I learned that paleontology is not all fun and bones, but David Roberts figured out how to live a life that combined the best elements of adventure, writing, climbing, history, archaeology, and epic journeys-- and while he's stayed out of the academic world, he interviews the people in it, and compiles their theories for the layman and, by the end of the book, after reading about all his hikes, his overnight camping trips and raft voyages, his access to secret sites and petroglyphs in our country, all this made me profoundly jealous, which I'm not proud of, because I have a fantastic life-- full of family, sport, and adventure-- but I know that I'll never get to travel all the trails and paths through the American Southwest that he did, and-- in fact-- that I may not get out there for another decade, instead I'll be hacking my way through humidity and poison-ivy, and instead of petroglyphs, I'll be looking at spray painted tags, which someday, in some far apocalyptic future, might prove to be just as evocative and obscure as the ancient rock etchings scattered through the Four Corners region, but I'll be long dead by then (which makes me want to start doing some graffiti art!)

Dave is NOT in the Zone

It looks like I'm going to have to do this whole thing all over again, in the correct order-- which is highly appropriate for the content, as . . . like most of us (except for the stalkers, of course) I made my trip into the Zone unprepared, with little or no information, and came about it the wrong way, from the wrong direction, as a blithe intellectual, moving too quickly, with too much alacrity-- and I thank myself lucky that I was not ground into pulp, or that my legs weren't turned to gelatinous rubber, but what I should have done, instead of trying to read a book about a movie I had never seen, what I should have done-- because I'm no cinephile-- what I should have done was read the original book first, I should have read Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's novel Roadside Picnic long before I watched Stalker and I should have read Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room  long after consuming both the original novel and the movie inspired by the novel, and while Tarkovsky's film is regarded as one of the best of the 20th century, it's also rather interminable, especially when you don't understand what's going on, and Roadside Picnic explains all that and more, in fact, if you're not a cinephile, then you can skip the movie and the Geoff Dyer book and just read the novel, and if you're not into Russian sci-fi, then you can skip the book entirely, and head to the Afterword, and simply read the notes the Strugatsky Brothers took on their very first discussion about the story, long before they sat down to write it . . . as these notes are so elegant and poetic, so ominous and enigmatic, and so pointed and precise, that they almost replace the novel itself: "a monkey and a tin can . . . thirty years after the alien visit, the remains of the junk they left behind are at the center of quests and adventures, investigations and misfortunes . . . the growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications) . . . prospectors revered as wizards . . . a decline in the status of science . . . abandoned ecosystems (an almost dead battery), reanimated corpses from a variety of time periods."

The Avalanches Reveal the Fault in Dave's Brain

 I was very excited a few weeks ago when I got to listen to The Avalanches new album Wildflower . . . I clearly remember the day I heard "Frontier Psychiatrist" on WRSU while driving home from work in my 1993 Jeep Cherokee Sport . . . Since I Left You became a staple on my iPod, and I really like the new album as well, but I was surprised to learn that it's been sixteen years since the band released Since I Left You . . . in my mind their last album was from a few years ago, and it is categorized in my brain under "Hip New Music of which Dave is Aware" and maybe this is because of the liberal and bizarre use of samples . . . I suppose I consider Girl Talk to be new music-- but not Paul's Boutique-- or maybe it's that most new music doesn't dent my consciousness, but anyway, it was a bit frightening when I learned that Since I Left You came out in the year 2000, a fact that bears plain witness to just how faulty my memory and cognition is (though I think we all have these experiences all the time: I can't remember who was in the Super Bowl three years ago, but I vividly remember Super Bowl XXIII, the 49ers/Bengals game when Pete Johnson couldn't gain a yard on fourth down) and I guess the lesson here is that you shouldn't trust anything anyone says about things that happened in their past, because people tend to compress the past, or conflate it, we exaggerate memories from our youth, forget the rest, and generally just remember things however we want.

Back to Back Crap

When I get motivated to do crappy chores, I usually do two in a row, and the chores I juxtaposed on Monday morning were especially gross-- so if you've got a weak stomach, turn back now: first, I took a white garbage bag and put it inside a cardboard box and then opened fifteen jars of rancid home-pickled vegetables and poured them into the bag-- our extra fridge in the basement died months ago, but we never took the stuff out of it . . . so the white plastic bag was filled with old beets and pickles and peppers and onions and loads of vinegar (of which plenty spilled onto my chest and shirt) and the sound of old pickled vegetables plopping into a plastic bag full of vinegar is not particularly pleasing; so after a half hour of this, I sealed up the bag and-- keeping it inside the cardboard box for support-- carried it to the CRV, the vegetables sloshing around inches from my face, put it in the back, drove it to the park, and chucked it into an empty dumpster, where it hit the metal floor and exploded, and then I got home, took off my shirt-- which reeked of vinegar-- went into the backyard, and in the shade of our yew tree, shaved my chest hair to a reasonable length.

The Test 55: Of Robots and Noodles

I'm back and so is The Test . . . this episode mainly focuses on robots-- both televised and cinematic-- but there is also some discussion of noodles and intelligent apes; check it out, keep score, and determine how intelligent of an ape you are.

How Many Popsicle Sticks Do You Need for an Apocalyptic Project?

The people that comprise ISIS want money and sex slaves (who are forced to use birth control so they don't get pregnant) and beheadings and ransoms and territory and power and Twix and Axe body spray and expense reports and lonely American converts and employees and-- most importantly-- glory . . . glory in participating in what Rukmini Callimachi, the New York Times reporter that covers the Islamic State, calls their "apocalyptic project" . . . if you want some interesting perspective on ISIS, and why-- though ISIS will fold rather easily when confronted with organized military force-- the war with them will be prolonged (they may fold easily when confronted, but once you've defeated them on the ground, then you've got to stay on the ground for a long, long time . . . in Iraq and Syria and Mali and Nigeria . . . etcetera . . . it ain't happening) then listen to Planet Money 667: Auditing ISIS and Rukmini Callimachi Talks to David Remnick About ISIS.

Hoskinini, the Navajo Houdini

In a feature that should recur more often than it will probably will, here's a dude that should be on the high school history curriculum but is not: Hoskinini, the man who eluded Kit Carson and the Navajo Roundup of 1864 (and the ensuing Long Walk of death and misery) and then survived with a band of seventeen men, women, and children and twenty sheep in remote areas near Navajo Mountain (on the border of Utah and Arizona) until the Navajo were allowed to return from Bosque Redondo back to their homeland . . . and, in 1868, when the refugees arrived, they were met by Hoskinini, who gave "those wretched Dine corn, sheep, wool, and skins from the vast store he had accumulated during the years of hiding" and Hoskinini never revealed where he hid for all those years, but David Roberts thinks he might know . . . I'm still making my way through his book The Lost World of the Old Ones, which is full of adventure, discovery, academic debate over archaeology (observed firsthand by the author) and compelling American history and would be a fantastic book for high school kids to read (as opposed to the controversial new Mexican American Heritage textbook which was approved to be used in Texas, which-- according to this Washington Post article-- was written by people with no  who have no expertise in Mexican-American studies and calls Mexicans lazy).

Victory! And He Did It Without the Sauce

After five hours of best of three play, my son Ian and I won the first annual Sea Isle City Cornhole Classic . . . we only dropped one game (in the finals) and Ian was a good sport all the way through, and he had to be extremely patient, as there were many rounds of play and we only had one board (and three bags each, which certainly slowed play even more) and I'm quite proud of him, he carried me when I was missing the hole, stayed late on the beach with the adults even though all the kids had gone back to the house to watch TV and eat junk food, ate a slice of pizza between games to stay fueled, and played cornhole sober (I think) despite the fact that it's a mindlessly absurd game that should only be played for any length of time if you are drinking beer (which, of course, I was).

Family Vacation + Organized Competition = Recipe for Disaster

My eleven year old son Ian and I are riding an obnoxious two day undefeated cornhole streak, and last night-- after much sangria-- my father and the cousins wrote up a cornhole tourney bracket on a styrofoam plate, there are twelve teams and Ian and I are the top seed, despite the fact that he is the youngest player by a decade; Ian is very, very competitive and I think this level of organization and competition will only lead to bad and ugly things later this afternoon . . . I will keep you posted on all the sordid details as they unfold (or maybe not) and I think the problem is that he's too young to drink beer, which helps you to put things like competitive cornhole in perspective, and allows you to relax and enjoy the sounds of the ocean, instead of enjoying seeing your enemies driven before you (with beanbags).

Weird Things You Might Want to Grapple With

A couple of weird things I've been thinking about, so you can ponder them too:

1) we now live in an age of negative interest in the global bond market . . . so instead of keeping your millions and millions of dollars and/or francs in an insured vault, with a guard, and all that overhead, you invest them in a bond that you buy for a hundred dollars, and this bond promises to pay you back $99 . . . which is weird enough, but some of these bonds have gotten so popular, that you can sell your $100 bond to someone else for $101 dollars . . . the new episode of Planet Money: I Want My Money Back explains this phenomenon better than I can . . . but it still doesn't fully explain it;

2) weird thing number two is that the anti-union, free-market champion billionaire industrialist Koch Brothers dislike Donald Trump . . . and I dislike the Koch Brothers of course, as they're against public education funding and teacher's unions and me getting a pension and sucking off the government teat until I die . . . but I'm certainly not for Donald Trump, but it seems I should be happy about what he's doing to the Republican Party . . . win or lose-- and he will most certainly lose, Trump may prove to be a boon to the working man, even if he is a douche, because it's probably better to be a douche than an ultra-rich, ultra-tactical free market fundamentalist in an economic environment where you happily put ten dollars in a bond in order to get back nine.

Summer Reading: Giant Insects vs. Child Cannibals!

I'm now in summer beach mode-- which means reading whatever the fuck I want-- and I've just polished off back-to-back novels that differ so vastly in content and style that they may not have been written by the same species of animal . . . I highly recommend both books, read in juxtaposition:

1) Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Finnish sci-fi writer Leena Krohn is a hypnotic series of thirty letters written by a nameless woman that has traveled across the sea in a white ship to reside in a city populated by giant, anthropomorphic insects; the book is precisely observed, philosophical, and slim, and tackles the cycles of life and death, and the dynamic metamorphosis of character and being, with memorable moments that aptly describe the smallest moments of consciousness, which are brought into sharp contrast by the existence of the giant insects, which are slightly empathetic but mainly alien . . . it's a weird, weird trip with an oddly satisfying ending to a mainly plotless ramble and it's up there with Karel Capek's War with the Newts;

2) Off Season: The Unexpurgated Edition by Jack Ketchum is the story of six tourists who visit the Maine woods in the off-season and are beset by a family of feral cannibals, mainly comprised of a horde of flesh-eating children . . . the book is so obscenely graphic, so realistic, so vivid, and so tightly plotted that you will read the entire thing without taking a breath, occasionally contemplating your own heinous aesthetic taste, occasionally laughing at the gruesomely pragmatic descriptions of cannibalism (the book is a bit of a how-to) and occasionally wondering if the local police department would really handle a case this abhorrently repugnant, or if they would immediately call in for the National Guard . . . but it doesn't matter, Ketchum doesn't give you much time to think logically, nor should you, because if a horde of flesh-hungry children are chasing you through the woods, your book-learnin' will get you nowhere . . . this was Ketchum's first novel, and there is an essay at the end of the book about his battles with the editor that led to the tamer first edition of the novel and how pleased Ketchum is with the unexpurgated edition that is now available . . . read this in the dark, late at night on your Kindle (because it's only $3.99!) but heed the warning on Amazon:

This novel contains graphic content and is recommended for regular readers of horror novels.

Dave's Family Trip to the Four Corners Region: The Takeaway

After three weeks in the Southwest, and a fair bit of pertinent reading (four Tony Hillerman novels: The Wailing Wind, Listening Woman, Thief of Time, and Hunting Badger . . . these are ostensibly crime thrillers, but I also learned a bit about the Navajo nation, Navajo religion and practices, and high plains topography . . . I can't wait until "seep spring" or "box canyon" or "ceremonial Navajo sandpainting" comes up in conversation, because I know just enough about these things to be annoying . . . I also read about half of David Roberts' The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest . . . this is the sequel to In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest, a tome which is famous . . . or even infamous . . . with professional archaeologists and amateur pothunters alike because his tales of mountaineering, climbing, and intrepidness inspired others to hunt down the many off-the-grid ruins he described, and now many of these sites are heavily trafficked by hikers, and some have been vandalized, desecrated, and/or plundered . . . Roberts is a bit of a grouch, but his writing is vivid and fun, and his synopsis of the various academic debates on the origins and disappearance of the Anasazi-- now known as the Ancestral Pueblo-- is excellent) this is what I can tell you, and it certainly helped that our last stop was in Santa Fe, where we stayed in a historic adobe house right near the plaza . . . the owner, an older Spanish lady named Virginia, is related to Father Martinez-- the priest of the Taos parish that Willa Cather characterizes in her masterpiece Death Comes to the Archbishop . . . in the novel, Martinez challenges the Catholic faith's rule of celibacy, and he supposedly fathered many children in Taos . . . Virginia, whose family has lived in Santa Fe and Taos since 1598, described Martinez as the "villain" of the novel and was skeptical of Cather's speculation about him . . . this was news to me, rube that I am-- I never would have ascribed "villain" status to anyone in the book, which was more of a sequence of vignettes leading to the construction of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi-- a romanesque marvel of golden sandstone-- which Father Lamy (Latour in the novel) spent his life yearning for, so that the church could have a proper house of worship in the untamed West (and, ironically-- and you can see a scene of this on the giant iron door-- it was the Pueblo revolt and the burning of the original church that cleared the ground for the new cathedral) . . . anyway, I've lost my way here, and that's appropriate for my final moral, but whether it's the exit that boasts both The World's Largest Golf Tee and The World's Largest Wind Chime, or the perfectly preserved ruins in Mesa Verde, or the many ruins in Canyon de Chelly, which the Navajo live amongst, or the various old adobe churches and buildings on the Santa Fe trail, or the ancient petroglyphs that are literally everywhere-- in the canyons, in the Petrified Forest, along the rivers, on the cliffs-- the Southwest offers greater opportunities than the Northeast to see how many people through the ages have said-- with art, architecture, buildings, weapons, war, pottery, and giant wind chimes: we were here . . . and the Southwest reminds you, with the vastness of the land and the evocative ruins, that you will not last, you will turn to dust as well . . . in the Northeast, sometimes we pave over history, sometimes we build over it, sometimes we grow beautiful green plants over our history, and sometimes the rains just wash our history into the rivers and oceans, but in the dry and arid Southwest, history is preserved, and it feels like a different country . . . because it is, because everywhere in our country is a different country, it's just that you can see it out there . . . and if you can get out there and see and feel this land, the ruins and the mountains, the desert and the high snows, if you can taste the fresh green and red chiles and navigate the weird winding streets of Santa Fe and Taos, which are reminiscent of Toledo, and walk through the plaza in the dry heat, you'll see what I mean, and never think about the United States the same way again.

Unexplained Shaving Phenomenon

It's trite and cliche, but after a month in the Southwest, followed by an immediate family vacation at the Jersey Shore, I am certain that it IS the humidity . . . and perhaps that explains why, after a month of not shaving, it was so easy to remove my beard . . . I'm not sure if it's easier to shave when you haven't done it in a long time-- if the hair comes off easier-- or if it was just the return to a humid environment . . . and the internet has no explanation . . . but if I didn't look so grizzled with full-on facial hair, than this would be my new shaving pattern: four weeks of growth, then a super-smooth/clean shave.

Dave Endorses Hillary Clinton!

I normally waste my presidential vote on The Green Party-- because biodiversity is our planet's only interesting asset . . . and I think the Green Party might be in favor of biodiversity-- but this November, due to the special threat of Donald Trump, I'm actually going to make my ballot count and vote for Hillary Clinton-- I was skeptical about her at first, but I listened to Ezra Klein's interview with her, and she was smart, logical, funny, empathetic to the plight of the American worker-- especially in light of globalization, job loss to immigrants, and foreign competition-- and she had nuanced and reasonable ideas about childhood poverty, immigration reform, healthcare, and the media . . . plus, she actually talked about books, including one I read, which is always a good move when you want my endorsement (and obviously she did, or she wouldn't have mentioned a book that really moved me) and so my advice is this-- you think you have Hillary Clinton pegged, but you don't, so listen to this interview, read Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and maybe you'll decide to vote for Hillary Clinton as well . . . the problem is that I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, I strongly doubt that any Trump supporters read my blog . . . but if you do, then tell me why I should change my mind (but you should probably listen to the interview and you should also read the George Saunders piece in The New Yorker about when he attended a Trump rally).

One is the Zoneliest Number

Our cross-country trip spanned 6440 miles-- kudos to the minivan-- and we spent over three weeks together, often in the car (22 days, to be exact) and my wife and I only got into one fight, which I think is fairly commendable . . . it was in Taos, on the plaza-- I got some iced coffee and my wife went to the bathroom, and both kids were with me, and across the hall from the coffee place was a high-end rock shop (they had a fossilized mammoth femur . . . six grand) and so we went across to browse, but we kept checking for my wife, so we could catch her as she walked by, but we somehow missed her and she didn't see us in the coffee shop and so she walked across the plaza and then all the way back to the car and then back to the plaza, and-- after checking near the bathroom and asking about her at the hotel desk-- we poked our heads outside and found her, in an irate mood, looking for us again in the plaza . . . and we argued about who was right: I said that you should never move from the original spot, and that's where we kept checking and we were very close to the original spot and we were totally concerned about her and I took umbrage at the fact that she was accusing us of just wandering away and forgetting about her because we were totally trying to find her (but we were also trying to look at high end rocks and fossils . . . and I didn't tell her this, but I was chatting with the shopgirl about the quality fish fossils we brought back from Byblos in Lebanon for a bit and that's when she probably walked past us) and her point, which was a good one, was that we should not have moved from the original spot and she thought we abandoned her and then she insulted my phone provider (Ting) because her texts and calls didn't go through, and I took offense at that as well, because my phone works just fine and I received a call from her earlier, from across the plaza, and after we said our fill, we didn't talk for twenty minutes . . . and we didn't even play the radio-- and the kids kept quiet too, probably because we hadn't fought all trip, and after we cooled off, we both agreed that it was a silly fight and Catherine said that I was totally right and she should have waited at the coffee shop and that my phone provider is boss and she's grateful for how much money I save the family and that she understood how alluring a high-end fossil shop can be . . . or maybe she didn't say those exact things, and I was smart enough to let the argument drop without trying to get her to say those things-- which is my usual mistake-- and then we were back in the congenial zone that comprised most of the trip, and the moral here is that I have a great wife who I get along with even in the most claustrophobic situations and that though we provide excellent role models for our children, it doesn't rub off on them in the least and they bickered at least once every twenty-five minutes for twenty-two days straight.

The Kindness of Jerseyans

Yesterday we drove the final leg of our thirty hour trip home, Columbus, Ohio to New Jersey, and we were all pretty close to losing our minds; I put some Bruce Springsteen on and this inspired me to drive like I was in New Jersey-- instead of patiently tailgating or flashing the brights at folks who wouldn't get out of the left lane (who are these people?) I started beeping at them, and this technique was very effective-- although I'm sure they had some choice words/thoughts when they saw the Jersey plates-- and then when we got home, it started to pour-- and I hadn't seen rain in a month-- so I put on a baseball hat took a walk down to the park, and I was wearing khaki shorts and a button down shirt, so I didn't look like a runner and I was absolutely soaked, and a young dude stopped his car, rolled down his window, and said, "Hey is your car up there in the lot?" and I said "no" and he said: "Do you need a ride?" and I realized he was being kind to me, even though I was back in Jersey, so I told him, "No, I'm okay, I just got back from New Mexico and I haven't seen rain in a long time."

My Political Platform:Most Rafting Accidents Happen on Land

I think all the political podcasts and talk radio we've been listening to on the ride is starting to weigh on me-- yesterday we heard Rush Limbaugh, NPR, The Weeds, Slate Money, and some other local stuff-- and I had a dream last night that I was elected president (ha!) and it was awful . . . tons of responsibility and everyone had a different opinion on how to do everything and I didn't want to make any speeches and there was a lot of reading, and the only thing I wanted to get across to the nation was what our young long-haired river-guide told us during the safety lecture before our trip down the Rio Grande: "Most rafting accidents happen on land . . . like in the parking lot? or stepping on a slippery rock getting out of the boat? okay?" and while I'm not sure why this information is a grand metaphor for political policy in our fractured nation (I'm still a bit groggy) I'm sure that this is crucial information and will eventually heal the ugly rift between the parties, so remember it and try to hear it in a presidential tone: most rafting accidents happen on land.

Hauling It Home

I will try to eventually write a wrap-up of our cross country trip, but we were so busy that I got behind, so I'll have to squeeze Mesa Verde, the Petrified Forest, Santa Fe, rafting down the Rio Grande, and Taos into one run-on sentence . . . I'm too tired to do that now, but I'm happy to report that despite some minor illness and an injury, we made it from New Mexico to Missouri-- 13 hours of driving-- and I did more than half of the driving, despite a sore shoulder . . . I should warn you that when you cross South Guadalupe St. in Santa Fe, at the Garfield Street intersection, you need to pay close attention, which I wasn't-- I was talking to my son about my used book purchase at Big Star Books and Music and I walked right into a low hanging traffic sign, the thin edge of metal caught me right in the shoulder and it's still kind of sore-- but aside from a few scrapes, that was the only injury on the trip, so no complaints; on the way to Springfield, Missouri, we had a great meal of brisket, fried bologna, hot links, and world famous banana cake at Leo's Barbecue in Oklahoma City . . . this place is very authentic, and on a weird rural road with seventeen churches on it, despite being near downtown; unfortunately, Ian didn't get to keep his meal, he got carsick several hours later-- the minor illness, again no complaints-- and he filled a plastic bag with vomit but didn't spill a drop in the car (well done, Ian!) . . . he ate some mozzarella cheese near the end of the ride, and puked this up into one of the planters in front of the Day's Inn . . . yuck . . . we're going to get him some Dramamine tomorrow morning . . . and, in case you were wondering, I'm out of clean shirts.

Two Thoughts Inspired by Our Journey Through the Southwest

I should probably keep these excellent epiphanies to myself, but for the good of all mankind, I am releasing them to the internet:

1) whenever we had to park the van in a hot and sunny spot on our trip, we used a pair of silver windshield shades to block the sun, and they really helped keep the car (especially the steering wheel) cool . . . so why not make shirts, hats, jackets and umbrellas out of this material, so that you can walk around in the hot southwestern sun and not burn up . . . hopefully, some famous fashion-designer will read this and get to work on something that doesn't look too sci-fi/garish;

2) there needs to be a horror movie about a spider-snake . . . some people are scared of spiders and some people are scared of snakes, but everyone is afraid of a spider-snake.

Ben and Dan: Guides of the Southwest

The differences between the Jeep tour we took in Sedona and the "open air vehicle" tour we took in the Canyon de Chelly were perfectly appropriate for each place; Sedona is a well-run tourist machine and Chinle is an off the map little town in the Navajo Nation, and our tour guides embodied these characteristics in an archetypal manner;

1) though they both have three letters in their name, Ben and Dan couldn't be more different as guides-- Dan was born in Connecticut but lived in Maine and also did some time overseas, as an itinerant musician and guide, and he kept up a steady stream of conversation, anecdotes, trivia, corny jokes, and interaction-- if you mention you're from New Jersey, he knows somebody in West Caldwell, if you mention you coach soccer, he played on his high school and coaches his kids team-- while Ben grew up and still lived in Canyon de Chelly and is a recognized Navajo guide, storyteller, and keeper of Navajo cultural history, but his style is just the facts (aside from occasional griping about the National Park Service and how they don't maintain the road and some of the sites as well as he'd like . . . he thinks there's some money somewhere, and he's been repeatedly asking them to trim the cottonwood trees that are blocking the beautiful colored antelope petroglyphs near the Antelope House Ruins);

2) Dan's Jeep is a dependable, well-oiled machine that conquered slickrock peaks, but Ben's "open air vehicle," which my wife wisely requested (because who wants to be cooped up in an SUV) is an old Dodge Ram Power 350 with a modified bed of bench seats, and while it's the greatest way to see the canyon, Ben had some trouble navigating the sandy riverbed and the truck stalled out several times, and the engine overheated twice-- luckily, we were in an incredibly scenic area, so it was no trouble to wait while he fixed the engine, but we really wondered if we would make it out of the canyon before sunset . . . and though his daughter had a brand new Polaris four-seater dune buggy, there was no way she was letting us use it-- she was headed out on the town (Denny's?) with some friends;

3) Dan's tour was definitely organized and built up to a great view, and he was well-practiced at his schtick, while Ben's tour ended at his house, where we got to play some two-on-two basketball with his grandkids . . . on the ride back, all the cotton-pods from the cottonwood trees were floating around in the canyon, and though it was 90 degrees, it looked like it was snowing; we really didn't know if we would make it through the sand-- but we did, and he dropped us at our hotel and then spent several hours fixing his vehicle in the hotel parking lot . . . while Dan dropped us off right on time, we took a picture with him and off he went . . . I think the kids will remember both tours, but I especially liked the trip through Canyon de Chelly, it reminded me of the time Cat and I spent in the Middle East, we were always a couple of clueless white folks being guided out to the ruins by the natives who still lived amongst remnants of ancient civilization, but were trying to maintain their own civilization on top of these relics . . . once again, for pictures, head to Captions of Cat.

Fried Dough is Good, Fried Dough with Chili is Better

If you're in the Southwest and you see a Navajo Taco or a Navajo Sandwich on the menu, order it-- I guarantee it will taste good . . . and this is because it's spicy meat, cheese, peppers, onions, and hot peppers on what is essentially a big flat funnel cake; these toppings are far superior, far more filling, and far more macho than powdered sugar.

The Navajo Curse of the Jammed Thumb in the Canyon del Muerto

The only way to access any of the ruins in Canyon de Chelly (besides White House Ruins) is to enlist a Navajo guide; we elected to go with Antelope House Tours because they have an "open air" vehicle (more on this in a future post) and a father/son guide team that actually lives in the canyon year round . . . our tour was unusual, to say the least (more on this in a future post as well) and the highlight was when we visited our guide Ben Teller's residence, which is all the way at the end of the North Canyon, otherwise known at Canyon del Muerto, where Kit Carson and Captain Pfeiffer skirmished with the Navajos in 1864 . . . my son Ian and I also skirmished with the Navajos in the Canyon del Muerto, but instead of shooting firearms, we shot hoops, on a dirt court a stone's throw from the Antelope House Ancestral Pueblo ruins; we played against Ben Teller's grandson-- who looked eighteen but was actually twenty-eight years old . . . canyon living has been treating him right-- and a girl who looked to be college aged (I didn't ask her age, that's creepy) and during the game the fallen Navajo spirits of the Canyon del Muerto finally got their chance to exact revenge on the pale-faces . . . while collecting a rebound, my son Ian jammed his thumb, and when Alex replaced him, he slipped several times on the same cursed muddy patch . . . while I did not suffer any ill effects from the Navajo spirits-- possibly because my wife is 1/64 Native American-- I may have been part of the cause of their anger towards my children, as I was wearing a William and Mary Tribe hat . . . that's certainly not as bad as a Washington Redskins hat and probably slightly better than a Cleveland Indians hat, but a NY Yankees hat would have been far more appropriate; anyway, now that we have escaped the Canyon del Muerto and the Navajo Curse, Ian's thumb is feeling better, and so am I, because as I write this I'm (legally) drinking a beer . . . head to Captions of Cat for more pictures of Chinle and the canyon ruins.

Three Warnings, a Pun, and an Scary Photo

If you're in the vicinity of Chinle, Arizona-- which is the gateway town to Canyon de Chelly (the place where Kit Carson defeated the Navajos and the site of many Anasazi ruins) there are a couple of things you should know:

1) the canyon and surrounding region is very dry, so you'll want to wear sunglasses or you might get dust in your eyes;

2) Chinle and Canyon de Chelly are in the Navajo Nation, and these regions are not only literally dry (because of Glen Canyon Dam) but they are also figuratively dry . . . as in no alcohol . . . and I think I might have read a sentence about this in one of the guidebooks and my consciousness blocked it out as an incongruous absurdity, but the reality slowly dawned on us: we were on vacation, with the children, in a hot and dry location, and we couldn't buy beer anywhere . . . luckily, we had a few pops in our cooler and the hotel had an ice machine, so-- like high school students after prom-- we were able to surreptitiously enjoy a few beers in our room before heading down to dinner (kids eat free!);

3) there is a black widow spider in the men's room of the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center . . . my son Ian-- who loves all creepy crawly critters-- was chasing a grasshopper into the bathroom (best not to ask) and he saw the grasshopper hop right into the black widow's web (the white stuff in the photo is grout) and he was so proud of his discovery that he dragged us all into the men's room (including Catherine) and took a close-up photo of the venomous creature . . . but despite our close proximity to this most sinister arachnid, we all made it out of the men's room unharmed (aside from the grasshopper) and Ian charged me one dollar for the rights to his picture, which I consider a bargain, because I'm scared shitless of big spiders and would never have gotten that close.

Red Rocks and High End Shops

Sedona is a weird place-- it's incredibly beautiful, a town set within red rock buttes, mesas, and spires, with a clear shady stream running down the Oak Creek Canyon and then right under Route 179 . . . it's essentially like placing a bunch of houses and restaurants and shops inside Arches National Park, but there's more vegetation and the weather isn't as severe . . . check out the pics at Captions of Cat if you need some visuals . . . so you've got a super-touristy and rather cheesy "uptown" and then high-end galleries and the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, which is essentially a giant outdoor sculpture in the form of a ritzy shopping mall-- I've never seen anything like it-- and there are houses in the hills owned by celebrities-- our guide mentioned Nicholas Cage (who was in a film called Red Rock West) and Walt Disney and Al Pacino and Lucille Ball . . . but then there are umpteen miles of hiking and biking trails, so you've got all the outdoors people wandering around, and then there are the vortex people and the hippies and the psychics and the folks living in a van in the hotel parking lot and the dude sleeping in the botanical garden . . . it is a wacky mix of high end resort, low-end tourist trap, retirement community, and outdoor wonderland . . . we did a few hikes, into Fay Canyon, which was shady and had some excellent rock climbing at the end, and around the Airport Mesa, which offers the best views, but we also rested our legs one morning and took a Jeep Tour to Soldiers Pass . . . our guides name was Dan and here are a few things we learned on the trip:

1) Dan wears a cowboy hat, carries a .41 caliber pistol, a rare size which he claims shoots flat and straight, hails from Connecticut, and-- like Andy Bernard-- went to Cornell . . . this totally amused me, but he's been out West since 1991 and has lost all traces of East Coast accent and mannerisms;

2) Dan is very proud of the fact that his Jeep Tour Company-- Red Rock Western Jeep Tours-- has the exclusive rights to the Soldiers Pass route, which features the Devil's Kitchen Sinkhole . . . and he pointed out that this sinkhole is seven times bigger than the Pink Jeep Tours sinkhole on the Broken Arrow tour . . . my sinkhole is bigger than your sinkhole kind of stuff;

3) my wife believes Dan is legally blind-- which is a bit scary, considering some of the steep slickrock trails he navigated-- but she might be right, his sunglasses we extraordinarily thick and he couldn't see the large Cooper's hawk perched on a tree in the middle of the trail until we pointed it out to him . . . despite this possible disability, he did a fantastic job not driving off any cliffs;

4) we saw the Seven Sacred Pools, high in the red rocks, and learned that in the desert, dirty water is clean and clean water is probably contaminated with arsenic and/or mercury . . . and these dirty little pools were full of tadpoles and frogs;

5) Dan knows a great deal about botany and zoology, and we all listened intently when he told us about the thirteen species of rattlesnakes and the deal with Mormon tea (it's stronger than coffee, a Mormon loophole!) and about the shaggy barked juniper that Walt Disney used as a model, and he also knows a great deal about geology, but we usually zoned out when he talked about sediment and erosion and tectonic plates . . . although I did like the fact that the Devil's Kitchen Sinkhole increased in size in 1989, a consequence of the Bay Area earthquake that cancelled the World Series and I now know the correct definition of a butte (it's not a rock formation shaped like a butt).

My Bad . . . Mules Are Awesome

I would like to take back all the awful things I said about mules and mule tours in yesterday's post: mules are integral part of the Grand Canyon experience and a wonderful way for families to bond on vacation, mule-riders are in now way lazy and/or mentally deficient, and mule defecation is vegetable-based, fragrant and biodegradable-- mules are wonderful and practical hybrid animals put here on God's green earth to serve mankind, they are honorable and loyal and their reputation for kicking people in the head and giving them brain-damage is a rural-legend . . . and this retraction was in no way influenced by my new friends at the North Rim Mule Train Concession Lobby Consortium . . . and there is also no connection between the NRMTCLC and my decision to change the name of this blog to Awesome Mule Train of Dave.

The North Rim: Many Pros and One Big Shitty Con

First of all, if you're going to visit the Grand Canyon, I would urge you to go to the North Rim-- or look at my wife's lovely pictures-- here are a few reasons why:

1) it's desolate . . . though it's a much farther drive than the South Rim, you travel through the immense wilderness of the Kaibab National Forest to get there, and there's really only two places to stay-- the lodge and campgrounds, which require a reservation up to a year in advance, or the Kaibab Lodge and adjacent campground, which are located five miles from the park entrance . . . we stayed there in a rustic little cabin (which still had electricity and fantastic water pressure in the shower) and the cabins are at the foot of the forest, overlooking enormous meadows . . . the kids had a blast exploring and building structures with fallen logs and you feel like you are really in the middle of nowhere (no wifi, but there is a general store that sells full-strength beer);

2) the North Rim is several thousand feet higher than the South Rim . . . so the temperatures are much cooler-- we went from 105 in Moab to lows in the 40s and highs in the 70s-- the weather is extraordinary for hiking, and-- even better-- when you get to the highest viewpoints on the North Rim-- which are near 9000 feet-- you can see across the Canyon and over the South Rim, for up to a hundred miles, there are vast plains and scrubland, layers of rock, moving cloud shadows, distant mountains . . . it's hard to take it all in . . . the South Rim is a bit of a tourist zoo but the views into the canyon are still profound, so if you've been to the South Rim, imagine that view times three, minus the crowds, and add a cool mountain breeze and the smell of the juniper and pinyon pines;

3) the North Rim lodge has loads of comfy deck chairs at the edge of the precipice, so you can read and look at the view, until your children get kicked out of the gift shop because they were making too much noise playing the expensive hand-made Native American flutes . . . Alex explained that they do have a bucket of plastic disposable mouthpieces so playing the flutes is obviously encouraged; I surmise from this that the boys must have been making a LOT of noise, because the shopkeeper came over and asked them if they had 200 hundred dollars, and told them that if they didn't, then they needed to leave;

4) the lodge also has rows of comfy leather couches inside, these are perfect for collapsing in after a long hike, and they look through a giant window across the canyon . . . the restaurant is also good and offers similar views-- I had the fry bread covered in elk chili and it was delicious-- this must be a National Park thing, because I had a similar meal in the Badlands;

5) the hiking and driving along the rim is fantastic, especially all the little hikes and Native American ruins on the way to Point Royal and Point Imperial;

6) lots of wildlife-- we saw wild turkeys, a coyote, a Kaibab squirrel, and mule deer-- but there are also bobcat and bison and beavers and lots of other creatures whose names do not commence with the letter B;

and here is the con:

7) there is only one trail on the North Rim that heads down into the Canyon, the North Kaibab Trail-- and it is a marvel of engineering and offers beautiful views BUT . . . and I wish we had been warned about this-- they allow mule tours for the first two miles of the trail and so the trail is covered in mule shit and there are puddles of mule urine . . . once you get through the Supai Tunnel, this ends, but at that point you are WAY down in the canyon and you need to think about turning back if you are doing a day hike . . . and EVERYONE we talked to loathes the mule tours, including one candid ranger-- and loads of other rangers were rebuilding the trail because of the mule tours, so I'm sure they hated this private concession as well, which doesn't even give much money to the park-- and if you paid ninety dollars for a mule tour, understand that everyone else on the trail hates and despises you, because on the way down, hikers have to pass the mule trains and on the way up the mule trains pass you, and while the mule-guide assured us we wouldn't get kicked, and told us to just "plow on through," I wasn't very confident about this-- mules have a reputation for kicking and when you're on a precipice trail a mile above the Colorado River, you don't want to be near a mule's ass . . . anyway, if you're one of the folks who took a mule tour down the trail, understand that you are ruining the trail for everyone else-- it absolutely reeks, the dirt is soft and torn up, and this mine-field of poop and urine should not be the final reward for the intrepid hikers that walked the twenty-some miles from the South Rim to the North Rim . . . it's astounding that the National Park Service allows this . . . the only explanation is tradition-- it has been done for a long time and I'm sure for some people it evokes the Wild West, but the thing you don't get in The Searchers is that it reeked to high heaven in the Wild West . . . I could understand if there were mules for those with disabilities because it is tough hiking, especially coming back up, but there's actually no reason to go down into the canyon-- you don't need to do this, on foot or on a mule, as the hikes and views on the rim are wonderful-- and there are enough trails up there, to designate one for mule-riding, but the North Kaibab trail is the only trail that goes into the canyon on the North Rim, so to cover it in a layer of mule defecation and flies seems bizarre . . . and for those of you who were wondering, a mule is a sterile cross between a donkey and a horse, and I hate those fucking things.

How Did We Survive?

Yesterday, we traveled from the evergreen forests and vast meadows of the Grand Canyon's North Rim all the way to the red rock desert of Sedona . . . it was 48 degrees in the morning at the North Rim, and 95 degrees at noon in Sedona . . . but the biggest difference was technological: we had no wifi at the North Rim-- and these are the things we wanted to look up during our stay up there:

1) the veracity of the word "spackler," we were playing lots of Bananagrams and I used that word . . . but it looks like it's not a word;

2) the exact genetic origins of a mule . . . more on this tomorrow in a profanity-laced description of the North Kaibab trail;

3) the actual time . . . apparently, Arizona does not subscribe to Daylight Savings Time (but the Navajo Nation does) and so every ride was a crapshoot, because the GPS took this into consideration . . . sometimes . . . and we were operating with four different times-- the car clock said one thing, Cat's phone another, my phone a third time, and the clock in our cabin had a fourth (correct) time, but we never bothered to set anything to the correct time;

4) birds . .  . we saw little blue birds (probably Pinyon Jays) and little birds with red heads and yellow bodies and all sorts of hummingbirds and we couldn't identify any of them;

5) the name for a group of ravens . . . everyone knows a group of crows is called a murder, but we kept seeing groups of ravens (usually consuming roadkill) and we didn't know that we could have referred to them as a "conspiracy" or an "unkindness" or a "constable";

6) what a decoy spider looks like;

7) if we could see Phil Torres getting attacked by a spitting cobra on a reality science show which never aired . . . we learned about this on a podcast called Talk Nerdy and the episode is great but you can't see the footage.


A few odds and ends:

1) if you want to see a plethora of dune buggies, Moab is the place-- they are apparently street legal in Utah-- and they are everywhere . . . riding on the BLM trails, parked in downtown Moab, in garages in our condo neighborhood, and being pulled on trailers; I don't know how people endure the dust and sand, but they certainly look like a lot of fun;

2) everytime I see a Pet Waste Station with plastic bags and signage urging dog owners to clean up after their pets, I really miss Sirius . . . and watching the Family Guy episode when Brian gets hit by a car didn't help;

3) the Moon travel guide on Arizona describes the North Kaibab Trail-- which we'll probably be hiking as you read this-- as "twisting down improbable routes hard against the cliffs, with nothing but your sanity keeping you away from the gorge."

Grand Canyon: The Sequel

We are probably off the grid right now, on the desolate North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and the views are probably breath-taking, and the magnificence of the canyon is most certainly awe-inspiring, overwhelming and profound, but don't worry-- because if Steve Martin's character in the Lawrence Kasdan film Grand Canyon is any indicator, then we'll be back to our normal grouchy, sarcastic selves by the time we get home to New Jersey.

One Last Epic Day in Utah

Our last full day in Moab we:

1) got up at the crack of dawn and drove into Arches one last time-- we hiked through the Windows region and saw a big-eared jackrabbit . . . for pictures, head to Captions of Cat;

2) drove through dirt, gravel, sand, and rock to Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail and Copper Ridge Dinosaur Trail . . . Mill Canyon is the place to see a lizard sitting on a rock that contains giant leg bones of his long extinct cousin-- if a lizard could understand irony, would this be irony?-- and Copper Ridge is the place to see giant Diplodocus footprints right next to perfectly preserved Allosaurus footprints, you can see the claw indentations of the Allosaur and you can see where the herbivore made a sharp right turn, possibly to check out the lurking predator . . . this happened 150 million years ago but the footprints, pressed deep into the shale, look like they could have been made minutes before . . . kudos to our Toyota Sienna minivan for making it out to these sites, as the roads are suggested for only high-framed four-wheel drive vehicles;

3) drove out to Canyonlands National Park and hiked to the Mesa Arch, which sits atop a five-hundred foot cliff, and then climbed on top of Whale Rock, which offers panoramic views of the entire region-- you feel like you are on top of the world . . . and, as a bonus, the rock really does look like a whale, blowhole and all;

4) ate at the Moab Diner, which has great green chile verde sauce . . . I am sampling the chile verde sauce everywhere we stop, and this stuff holds up, though my favorite batch so far was at Snooze in Boulder, with a close second at Jilbertitos #1 in Glenwood Springs;

5) endured another dust storm, apparently whenever the weather is pleasant in Utah, it's not actually pleasant, it's foreboding.
A New Sentence Every Day, Hand Crafted from the Finest Corinthian Leather.