Sunday, August 31, 2008


When I was 15, I tore a ligament in my right knee. The ER doc barked, "You would have been better off if you'd broken your leg" and the medical treatment went downhill from there. As I recall, everyone paid more attention to my mother, who was green around the gills and in danger of fainting. (Medical stuff always made her woozy.) And the science of dealing with torn knee ligaments was apparently nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now, at least where 15-year-old girls were concerned.

After the initial injury, my knee more or less returned to normal. It occasionally locked up and made me limp for a day or two, but not very often and it never hurt. People who played tennis with me quickly learned that I wasn't much of one for running to the right, but otherwise the knee was a non-issue. Then, when I was 35, it locked up at a shallow angle and refused to bend further or straighten all the way. If I was insistent about moving it within its limited range, it made nauseating popping sounds that could sometimes be heard even by other people. Clearly, something had to be done.

That something was knee surgery to remove a chunk of cartilage that was jaggedly and irreparably torn, probably as a result of the original ligament tear, the healed scar of which was visible - and quite interesting - on the TV on which I watched the surgery. The recovery from knee surgery featured the worst pain I've ever endured, and I've endured a tonsillectomy, two C-sections, two herniated vertebral discs, migraine headaches, and the removal of my left inner ear. (This is an astonishing list, isn't it, for someone who's essentially been healthy all her life.)

Anyway, the 1989 knee surgery was a success. Once the initial 10 days of agonizing pain were over, I was again back to normal. Until last Tuesday, that is, when I stood up from my desk chair and realized my right knee hurt. There was no wrench, twist or other calamitous triggering event. The soreness continued, neither better nor worse, all week. No problems with strength or mobility, but the sucker really hurts. When I asked my husband what he thought was up, he very calmly, cheerfully even, told me the ligament was probably just degenerating - surgically repaired soft tissue degenerates more quickly than intact stuff, he explained - and maybe even torn again along the scar.

What the hell? Just degenerating? I don't like the sound (or feel) of that at all. I've never had a problem with my age, mostly because I like having already had the happiness and success of kids and career and having arrived at a stage where I can contentedly sit back and enjoy the fruits of both. But at least a little of why I like being 54 is that I look and feel younger. Or I did until I was callously informed that not only might my knee be degenerating, but that's not even big news for "someone my age."

Of course, my husband got more sympathetic the minute he saw the shocked look on my face, and the anti-inflammatory medicine he recommended is already improving things. If the pain goes away and I have no further problems, we plan to go back to ignoring my poor old right knee, whatever may have happened in there. But I have to admit I suddenly feel if not 54, then certainly older than I did before I had to accept that, where my own body is concerned, I no longer get to be alarmed or outraged by a phrase like "soft tissue degeneration."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Extinction, Outlaw Country, Home

Probably because of our urban roots, we tend to assume that interstate highways will be if not ugly, then certainly less than scenic. This assumption could not be more wrong where I70 is concerned. It's gorgeous in Colorado and gorgeous in Utah. We take it today from Moab to its terminus at I15. Along the first leg of the journey, I70 climbs to the top of the San Rafael Reef, gaining 1,000 feet of elevation and losing 50 million years of geologic time in about eight minutes. Because of erosion and the shape of the land on this anticline, the rocks at Black Dragon Valley are 50 million years older than the ones on the banks of the Green River. Black Dragon Valley's rocks are the oldest we see on the trip. They date from 250 million years ago, just before the greatest mass extinction event in the history of the planet. For unknown reasons, 95% of all species on earth were wiped out. Land and sea were virtually devoid of life; the Paleozoic era had ended and the Mesozoic had begun.

This makes us wonder just how many times this whole life experiment has occurred. Does it take approximately the same number of years each time to evolve from single-celled organisms to space travel? Or are some iterations faster or slower? Does every iteration exhaust some non-renewable resource along the way? Does it cause its own extinction or do external events - plate tectonics, geothermal events, ocean venting of hydrogen sulfide gas, meteors, supernovas, marauding aliens, what have you - typically bring down the curtain? How will the next iteration fuel its transportation if it arises sooner than the 700 million years it took Mom Nature (as our geology professor liked to call natural forces) to create the petroleum we've all but used up in the last couple centuries?

Fueled ourselves by these lofty questions, we drive on - and up. The elevation climbs to over 7200 feet and we reach Ghost Rock, the so-called Outlaw Country where Butch Cassidy and others hid out from the law. It's Navajo sandstone here: buff-colored, stark, spectacular and reminiscent of the zillions of Westerns filmed in this area.

I70 ends at I15, the road from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. We've driven this road before and thought it dull, but either the dull part is north of the junction with I70 or our geology-educated eyes are better able to appreciate its beauty. It has some extravagantly spectacular segments north of St. George in Utah, in the part of Arizona that sticks its neck up into what you expect will be the Utah-Nevada border, and south of Mesquite on the way to Las Vegas. In a spectacular example of engineering short-sightededness, I15 parallels the Las Vegas Strip and creates serious gapers' delays even on the rare occasions when there is no accident. (How did the road engineers miss the obstructive impact on their high speed highway of several blocks of the most eye-popping manmade scenery in the world?) We're so happy to see the Strip - the signal that we're 20 minutes from home after over 7,000 miles - that we don't object to having to crawl along for this stretch.

And then, suddenly, we're home, with our own sandstone and shale mountains out the windows to the west, our own glittering pool of blue water, our own furniture and art, our wonderful, wonderful shower. This has been an amazing trip, full of delights, the last and not least of which is the comfortable delight of being at home.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Utah, the Beautiful

Once upon a time, some 300 million years ago, southeastern Utah was covered by a sea. When the sea retreated 250 million years ago, it left behind thick salt beds. The wind picked up sand grains and carried them to the region, depositing them on top of the salt. By 200 million years ago, the area looked like the Sahara. Then the sand dunes hardened into rock. The weight of the rock liquified the underlying salt beds, which started moving along the ground (not unlike the way glaciers move) and the movement cracked the rock above. Water seeped into and further scored the fractured rock. The effect of water and ice freezing and thawing year after year widened the cracks, increasing the porosity and permeability of the sandstone, which permitted the entry of yet more water and, eventually, created the buttes, spikes, hoodoos, arches and other fantastical formations we see today. It also exposed some of the sand beds, sinuous fissures in the enormous landscape.

As the minerals in the Entrada (red) and Navajo (buff) sandstone met the atmosphere and oxidized, the iron turned red, the manganese turned black, and the clay minerals turned purple and green. The glorious results are on vivid display in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Visiting them is like visiting the moon and Mars, too. The grandeur and depth are hard to capture photographically, but I did what I could. (See below.)

You get a strong sense of the vastness of geologic time when you consider that water was and is the main sculpting agent in all this (as it is everywhere on earth), even though this region gets only 10 inches of rain annually. As the professor in our geology course reiterated, we don't have to worry about time in geology - we have all the time in the world.

After spending most of our day in Arches and Canyonlands, we decide to drive the La Sal Mountain Loop Road at sunset. This turns out to be a 50-mile paved loop that climbs up to 8,000 feet or so (with minimal terrifying switchbacks) from the Mars-like red sandstone of Moab up to verdant plains and tree-covered mountain peaks, then back down into the red and buff backside of Arches NP along the Colorado River. It's a drive of surpassing beauty, the calm green of the forested mountain slopes and the cascading water (murky with eroded red rock though it is) providing a restful optical counterpoint to the stark magnificence of the sandstone spectacle.

Utah is a state of extraordinary beauty. It looks, depending on where you are, like the Alps, the Sahara, the plains, the moon, another planet altogether. Although we fell in love with Montana, we recognize that Utah is the money state for scenic travel: five eye-popping National Parks, countless dense forests, craggy escarpments, lush high-altitude plains for grazing cattle, and damn good French fries just about everywhere you go.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, to Moab, Utah

Estes Park has a little of that Malibu, Carmel, Aspen sort of pretentiousness - lots of touristy stores and restaurants trying way too hard to be ultra-cool, rather seedy tourists ditto, and aggressively indifferent customer service everywhere except Rocky Mountain National Park, where the rangers and others are as nice and helpful as they can be. But what a beautiful place the National Park is! It's quite a spectacle, from its wide, flat glacier basin, littered with boulders and smaller flotsam and jetsam left behind by the retreating glacier eons ago, to its subapline slopes streaked with meandering rivers gleaming in the sunshine and dense with evergreens (some of them sadly, but beautifully, showing the brownish-red foliage that marks their impending death courtesy of the western pine beetle), to its giddy alpine heights, where it's too cold and windswept for any but the smallest plants and hardiest animals to survive. The plants are tiny and even closer to the ground than the high desert scrub we're used to; here, they're all but underground. It's 70 degrees or so and sunny at the Park's entrance, 50 and grayly threatening up at 12,000-plus feet.

Unfortunately, our exploration of the Park had to be cut short. At 10,600 feet, I suddenly developed the headache and dizziness of altitude sickness. This never happened to me on past high-altitude trips, so I presume it's another regrettable side effect of having lost half the normal complement of vestibular nerves. Luckily, the cure for altitude sickness is simply to get lower, which we did as quickly as possible. But I can't offer pictures of the higher altitudes because I was too dizzy to take any.

Colorado's landscape is unbelievably peaceful, what with its huge plains that seem to stretch forever, its gentle green and tan slopes rising to steeper, still forested, darker slopes, and then further up to the craggy, snowcapped peaks that scrape the blue cloud-dotted sky. Every so often, there's an exposed granite slope or a ridge of sandstone buttes or those crazy mounds that look like broken mountains loosely reassembled into conical piles, these ranging from boulder-y hunks of whitish limestone or gray-black granite, to smaller chunks of orange sandstone rubble to splintered sheets of flinty shale, some black, some brown, some red. The land here seems as big as the sky did in Montana, and the sky is pretty sizable, too.

I70 is another gorgeous interstate highway with breathtaking canyons, slopes, trees and vistas basically every mile of the way. There were a few tense moments as we crossed Vail Pass. It's a little higher than 10,660 feet and I was driving. Sure enough, as we topped the crest, my head felt rather as if it had suddenly detached from my body. Gripping the wheel and breathing deeply did the trick, though, and I got us safely back under what is apparently my altitude limit for the time being. We have only two complaints about this part of the trip. There are none of the scenic overlooks and pullouts we've come to expect in gorgeous locales. Admittedly, they'd have to post them about every two seconds in this part of the country, but still, it would have been nice to have places (other than the shoulders of high-speed roads) to stop off, ooh and ahh, and take pictures. And Colorado drivers are apparently somewhat immune to the extraordinary beauty everywhere; if you slow even a little below the speed limit on any road to gape at nature, someone with Colorado plates zooms up and tails you impatiently.

After Glenwood Canyon, which is spectacular in a less-forested, more-sheer rock sort of way, we run into the Colorado River. At first calm and narrow-ish, the river picks up width and speed and becomes host to a virtual traffic jam of rafters. We follow the river down the western slope into Grand Junction, CO, and then into Utah. Not too long after we cross the border, Utah starts showing off its high-desert splendor: rounded mounds of gray, porous rock so striped and leathery-looking that it might as well be elephant hide; light tan rock shaped by erosion and wind into folds as soft as suede; high slopes of granite and shale, topped with vertically rippled sandstone buttes that in another few tens of millions of years will be hoodoos, separated along the lines that are already visible. And in the background, seemingly hovering just under the sky or possibly painted onto a gauzy backdrop, cloud-topped bands of hazy gray peaks.

Just before Moab, the buttes stack up into serious ridges and slopes and turn the extravagant red of ferrite-rich rocks. The scenery becomes surreal - bright red, with layers of green the color of silver patina, tan, khaki, sable and black. We're in the country of slickrock, fantastical arches, river gorges, mesas, and enormous mountain ranges. And, of course, the piercing blue sky, clear air, and arid heat of the desert. We breathe easier, literally, and feel clean, pure and, for the first time in a little over three weeks, gloriously dry.

Road to Estes Park Pix

As promised yesterday:

Monday, August 11, 2008

Plain to Glamorous

Nebraska is, continentally speaking, like a giant see-saw with a kid sitting on one end. If it weren't for friction, you could put your car in neutral on the western border and coast downhill all the way to the eastern border (which would be a nice way to go, given how dull it is to drive across). As we went east to west, our GPS informed us that the elevation was steadily increasing, a 4000-foot development completely imperceptible to the naked eye. We noticed we were at about 1200 feet in Omaha (double the altitude we left in Door County on Saturday). The elevation had risen to nearly 3000 feet by North Platte and 5160 feet when we crossed the border from Nebraska into Wyoming. Just west of Sidney, NE (about 4800 feet), dusty tan-colored buttes started dotting the flat pastures and the land started to undulate, marking the beginning of the geologic folds characteristic of the build-up to mountains as serious as the Rockies.

We also learned that the Mountain time zone starts a few miles west of North Platte and were pleased to recoup one of the hours we lost on the trip east. I'm always impressed by people who live on time zone borders; it must be both confusing and cool - in terms of the simultaneity of different points in time, one of my favorite concepts - to live in one time zone and work in another. There doesn't seem to be a very large population in the relevant part of Nebraska, but I bet there are still a few people whose lives occur simultaneously in the Central and Mountain zones.

We weren't sure how far we would travel yesterday, but on Nebraska's flat, fast, straight roads we made it easily to North Platte, where we stopped at a La Quinta Inn that turned out to be delightful - not a word I tend to use for hostelry of this stripe. This Inn was a marvel, so much so that it deserves mention here. It was quiet and clean; the staff was friendly and solicitous; there was a generously sized swimming pool kept at the perfect temperature and chlorine level (nothing like swimming laps at the end of a long day of driving to work out the kinks, mental as well as physical); the room got totally dark and deliciously cool and non-humid; and, miracle of miracles, the shower pressure was superb. Just excellent work on the part of the La Quinta people.

Right off I80 in North Platte, there's a shiny silver diner, one of those adorable structures that look like Airstream campers and are always getting hitched to vehicles and hauled to new places in the movies. This diner is called Penny's and inside we found a tall, skinny short-order cook who thought we could do better than our first breakfast choices and told us what to have instead. Can't fault his judgment; breakfast was terrific. Penny's is open 24 hours a day, so if you find yourself on I80 and hungry near North Platte, check it out. If you see the tall, skinny cook, tell him the people from Las Vegas said hi.

We stuck with I80 until Cheyenne, where we joined I25 heading south into Colorado. It must be confessed that the first part of Colorado is like more of Nebraska - except, significantly, for the gorgeous tan, then mink, then blue-gray complexity of successive mountain ridges that suddenly appear in the distance off to the west. Some of the peaks are snow-capped, despite the 88-degree temps in the valley.

We turn west into Loveland, which looks like Chicago's newer suburbs - brand-new stucco strip malls chock-a-block with Barnes & Noble stores, Chipotle restaurants, and every other chain you've ever heard of. But not too far west of this Everytown, USA suburbia, there's a ridge topped with a line of hoodoos and buttes, the road turns sinuous, and bam! We're driving through steep, splintered shale slopes, dense with evergreens standing tall and punctuated by occasional reddish sandstone and exposed dark-grey granite boulders glittering with minerals. We open the windows: 73 degrees here at 7420 feet, no humidity to speak of, and postcard-perfect vistas everywhere. The mountains are so glamorous, so quietly and unconsciously showy, after the plains.

Our destination for today is Estes Park and, in a nice first for this trip, it's only mid-afternoon when we arrive, which gives us plenty of time to explore Rocky Mountain National Park before dark.

(I have pictures, but new technical difficulties have arisen. Swanky new digital camera, no problem uploading to my computer, but when I try to upload the pix here...nothing. I'll figure it out (I hope) and post the pix ASAP.)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Climate Reassignment and Corn

Well, it was fine spending the last three weeks back in the Midwest. Very relaxing, lots of old memories and a few new ones. But it turns out we really have been climate-reassigned. In addition to the humidity, which we never did get re-used to, there was a problem with clouds. We're accustomed to the desert sun (and to considering it unusual for even one cloud to mar the deep blue perfection of the sky), and we were slightly depressed by 21 days of seeing clouds.

It was dark and/or raining as often as it was light. Even on nice Midwestern days, the clouds can't seem to stop themselves from congregating, piling up and occasionally darkening the sky. As I sat in the sunroom and wrote, I was initially distracted and then somewhat mesmerized by the way the waxing and waning ambient light kept causing the backlighting on my computer keyboard to come on, turn off, come on, turn off. And I remember why I never bothered with sunglasses when I lived in Chicago. My Vegas shades had the unpleasant effect of making the Midwestern sky look gray and threatening no matter what the actual weather.

By Midwestern summer standards, though, the actual weather was great. About half the time, we were able to open the house and live in the fresh air. That was a nice change, both from the hot humid Chicago summers we remember and from the four months of nonstop air-conditioning required during Las Vegas summers. (In the desert, we end up feeling hermetically sealed, all but shrink-wrapped, by the time we finally get to open our windows in late August or early September.)

We left this morning, heading west. Destination: Las Vegas. But not before another few days of travel, including some more National Park hopping. Today, we crossed Wisconsin and made our way into Iowa. The western part of Wisconsin is very beautiful and rather European-looking, with its rolling hills, carpets of green, green, green farmland portioned into neat individual farms, grazing cows, pale blue skies and puffy white clouds. A few dozen miles before the Mississippi River, the hills roll more precipitously and the highway starts to feature sheer roadcuts, first of sandstone, then of sandstone and limestone. The geological layers are as clear and evocative as ever. The mighty Mississippi, which helped carve all this picturesque landscape, isn't so mighty this far north. If you've seen it in New Orleans or Memphis or even Rock Island, it seems surprisingly contained in Dubuque
, although it's still a perfectly respectable river.

We cross it into Iowa (state of my birth) and the landscape is as gorgeous as farmland gets. Seriously rolling hills, more of the green carpets, but also acres and acres and acres of the cornfields Iowa is famous for. And what a glorious plant corn is. It evidently rained here earlier today and the gold and green corn stalks, with their distinctive tall layered leaves, are practically iridescent. The vistas are long and wide, and the red and white and silver farmhouses and outbuildings seem to have been placed for maximum charm. There's also some low-to-the-ground leafy crop (soybeans, perhaps?) blanketing many of the hills and fields in neat, packed-together rows. These form a lovely counterpoint to the high, waving cornfields. When we crest ridges, we can see that the corn is in rows, too, and that both crops have intricate row patterns, some neat and parallel, some at right angles to each other, some semicircular.

I feel obliged, as a public service, to include both a paean to, and the proper recipe for, fresh sweet corn. I don't think you have to be from Iowa to think the taste of fresh corn in August is one of the best tastes there is.

On the other hand, you might have to be Iowish (as my kids refer to me) - or a member of my family - to consider the following meal the essence of summer perfection, but try it and see what you think. Make the corn the main event. Have 3-4 ears per person and serve them, buttered and salted of course, with two sides: fresh tomatoes, and tuna salad (just tuna, celery, salt, pepper and a little mayonnaise - nothing fancy). Yum.

In any event, here's the proper way to prepare fresh corn on the cob. Depart from it at your peril.

--Buy firm ears of corn still in their protective green husks. If possible, open a top or two to check that you have fresh very pale yellow ears with even rows of smallish kernels. If you do, pop one of those kernels under your fingernail and listen for the little crack - if the kernel doesn't pop like a balloon-skin tight with water, pick a different ear or maybe even a whole different market or roadside stand. Note: your corn should be from Iowa, Wisconsin or Illinois if at all possible. I've had corn grown elsewhere and I don't recommend it. That said, though, freshness is the key. Your corn should have been growing in a field a couple days ago. If you're close enough to IA, WI or IL, great; if not, go with fresh.

--Enlist everyone you're feeding to shuck the corn and smooth off the cornsilk.

--Drop the shucked ears into a big pot of boiling salted water (the kind you cook pasta in) and leave them there for 2 minutes. Not 3 minutes, not 5 minutes and certainly not the outrageous 10 minutes people sometimes speak of. Overcooking fresh corn is a crime and the squishy result should be neither tolerated nor perpetrated. (I'm not even going to attempt to express my contempt for the use of microwaves in the cooking of fresh corn.)

--After the 2 minutes, remove the ears from the water with tongs, give one to everyone, and let them do their own buttering and salting. Eating with fingers is recommended, and plenty of napkins and dental floss will be required.