Saturday, October 30, 2010

All my Exes Live in Texas

Forgive the brevity of this entry, but I'm about to dive into New Orleans and I have doubts that I'll ever get around to making a proper post for Austin if I don't just do it know - even if brevity wouldn't do my experience justice.  So, just to get it out there, here is my week in Texas.

I spent most of my time crashing with my high school Comedy Sportz Captain Laura's house in the South Austin neighborhood, a Texas-defying home to vegetarians, vintage shoppers, bicyclists, and a fine place to live if you ask me.  

By mere chance (as both our schedules were locked in before we ever discussed the possibility of meeting up), my dad was in town for nearly the exact same dates I was.  This afforded me the opportunity to spend some more time with him, and to make up for a debt I owed him, as I had broken his camera when I was in Colorado.

Some highlights from Austin and surrounding cities:

Broke my food budget with alcohol alone (not complaining)
Tasted the best hummus I've ever had in my twenty-three years of life 
(which was being eaten with a fork after the chips were gone)

Remembered the Alamo

Swung from ropes and slack-lined over a river full of fish, dogs, and turtles
Suffered (hold on let me count) - I don't know - dozens of bloody scratches for trying to love a cat

Attended the Austin premier of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan over a month before it reaches wide release
Caulked and painted several rooms
Survived an Are You Afraid of the Dark? Halloween marathon 
(and ate way too much Swedish Fish and pumpkin bread in the process)

Took my shoes off and wandered the hand-carved marbled halls of a Hindu temple in Houston
Felt bad for Washington's monument by the size of the Texas monument

Woke up at 5am for two days in succession to drop people off at the airport

That last one reminds me... I've seen more sunrises in the last couple of weeks than the whole rest of my life combined.  There's something rather more dramatic about being led out of darkness than into it - especially when it never seems to take place in the same place twice.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Navajo Country

I spent two nights in Thoreau, New Mexico with my friend Erin and her fiancĂ©e Patrick.  Seeing as we both had the same kindergarten teacher, sweet old Mrs. Thurlow, I guess it would be fair to call Erin my oldest friend.  They live in a teacherage, a tiny community for the teachers that serve the area's public schools.  Thoreau (pronounced almost like "through," and not named after the poet) is a town of nearly 2000 on the southeast border of Navajo territory.  What few white people which reside there are usually either educators or missionaries from the approximately dozen churches established to convert those natives which remain savages (incredibly enough, some zealous bloggers still use the term).

I was invited to sit in during a lesson on Paul Revere's midnight ride, and was introduced as an expert on Paul Revere to explain my presence.  After the lesson and before the bell's ringing, Erin encouraged the students to teach me some Navajo.  I turned out to be a miserable student.  Most of the expressions I tried to mimic involved peculiar compound vowel sounds I had never heard or tried to make myself.  At least the kids found my efforts entertaining.

Erin and Patrick had adopted one of the countless stray dogs which hover around the streets of Thoreau looking for scraps, a handsome and energetic puppy they named Razz.  We took him for a hike in neighboring canyon, where he teased a rabbit out of a bush and left it nearly dead and panting wide-eyed.  I scurried to find a rock and put it out of its misery.

Navajo lore speaks of a sort of a boogie man they call a skin-walker: a shape-shifter usually taking form between a man and a coyote, cursed for past atrocities and with a disposition for causing random mischief during the moonlit hours.  This legend actually receives some fulfillment.  Evidently, certain drunks will spend days in the wilderness at a time, even wearing coyotes pelts and causing the exact kind of devilry normally attributed to skin-walkers.

The sale of liquor is illegal on reservations, but that doesn't keep a shady prohibition style underground economy from flourishing - nor empty bottles and cans off the sides of the roads.  Though the practice of using every part of a slaughtered sheep is still upheld, the same reverence for the environment sadly fails to show elsewhere, as garbage builds up just about anywhere people are.

Upon departing, I made time to explore a pretty extensive network of Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon: massive and numerous thousand year old settlements of sandstone, once an important trading hub for surrounding tribal communities.  Macaw skeletons and other goods from tropical Mexico have been excavated from the sites, helping describe the vastness of the trade network.

I was also able to visit Pueblo de Taos which, despite also being 1000 years old, has been continually inhabited by natives since.  I couldn't help but feel an intruder wandering around with my fancy clothes and a camera, but it became increasingly clear to me the community depends on tourism, with most of the buildings facing the main square converted to shops selling jewelry, leatherware, and baked goods to outsiders.  80% of the community have been baptized as Christians, but all maintain the ceremonies and traditions passed down from the centuries.

As is becoming more and more usual, I left New Mexico wishing I had more time to explore, and yet eager for what came next.  I spent 20 hours driving in less than 48 hours, in the middle of which I spent an evening sleeping in the cramped back of my car in Lubbock, Texas.  My ass is terribly sore.  

Now I'm in Austin, kicking it with my friend Laura and loving the sunshine.  

Matthew out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Down in Denver (and Boulder and Fort Collins)

Kerouac's Denver was usually a place of reuniting with friends and getting kicks; a holy crossroads affording brief recovery between vagabond exploits.  I had finished On the Road only days before I was wandering red and dusty Denver myself, and I had an artificial sense of expectation that my Denver should somehow also be all those things.  But then, it wasn't always like that for Jack either.
"Down in Denver, down in Denver
All I did was die"
I felt goalless without wonder and alone without the usual sense of liberty that comes with solitude.  I floated around so many unhappy broken people walking on limps and on wheels.  I felt wretched.  Like a jerk with a stupid camera.  I was bored of taking pictures.  I was bored of capital buildings, and restaurants, and churches.  The darker motivations for my leaving California came to a boil in my stomach and left the rest of me empty.

Better or worse, moods are fickle things and my malaise wasn't to last.  Despite having already spent so many of my waking hours on the trail, I decided what I needed to lift myself was yet another hike, and I was right.  I drove to Boulder, grabbed a burrito next to the college campus - loving the campus community and damning my own university for being a commuter school - and crawled around the base of the Rockies just long enough to feel centered and eager for all the miles I have yet to cover.

My cousin Stephen and I spent a Sunday afternoon in Cheyenne, which was pretty dead given it was Sunday (though I have heard that's just how Cheyenne is).  There was enough frontier charm and history to make it worth the trip.  Remarkably, despite its intense conservatism, Cheyenne granted women suffrage about 50 years before it would come to pass for the rest of the country - a fact that made granting Wyoming its statehood controversial.

We were especially taken with the homes of the prosperous cattle ranchers, and we even got to step inside one converted into a bed and breakfast - which we both agreed would be lovely to live in if not for the fact that it was in Cheyenne.

I finished off my stay in Fort Collins with a tour of the New Belgium brewery and have since decided that I want work there for the rest of my life.  The facility generates its own electricity and processes its own water, even selling both back to the city.  Employees each receive a share of the company, a bicycle, free beer weekly, and paid holidays on Valentine's Day and Earth Day.  

And they make a damn tasty beer.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Now, if you're wondering how Arches National Park acquired it's name, I'll give you a hint:

...that's right.   It's so because the place was discovered by famed British explorer, Sir Alcott Montgomery Arches.

I chatted at length with a Frenchman who flew to Alaska with his wife five months ago and had been trekking southward on bicycle since.  They intend to keep pressing into Mexico and spend a few months there before finally heading home.  In awe, I said I wished I was doing something like that, which prompted the gentleman to remind me that I am indeed doing something like that.

I'm in Colorado now, kicking it at my cousin Stephen's house.  We celebrated being alive with drinks last night.  I was warned that I should pace myself, as the higher altitude of Fort Collins would increase any drink's potency.  I gave a manly laugh at the warning and then slowly spiraled down to my doom.

Up until today, I don't think a day has passed on my trip so far that I haven't hiked 3-14 miles.  I think I'm going going to sit this one out.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Salt Lake City

While no stranger to couch surfing in Europe, I finally surfed my first American couch in Salt Lake City, Utah.  My benefactors were a lovely young athletic couple.  They had chickens, pears, and cherries in the backyard and subsisted off a simulated Paleolithic diet - eating mostly only foods available before agriculture and animal husbandry.  They were playing the new Batman video game when I arrived.  They took their zealous neighbors with a grain of... oh that's bad... I won't do it.  All in all, they were my kind of people and only further validated my opinion that couch surfers are a finer breed of people.  They led me on a brisk and dusky hike to check out a Lite-Brite view of the city before we took a quick spin of the downtown area followed by the acquisition of some tasty craft beer - including a newly offered 12% alcohol variety courtesy of relaxing liquor laws.

While the Utah stateside is primarily Mormon, its capital is split about 50/50: Mormons and people not unlike my new friends.  The following morning, I took after Temple square on a comically small borrowed bicycle, with my knees bobbing up and down in between my elbows.  The quarter is one of cleanest I've ever scene and it simply teems with pairs of pretty young ladies who are excited to meet you and show you around and inform you as to why you should give yourself to Jesus 2.0.  More curious about the history and current state of affairs of Mormonism than my potential heavenly blessings, I tried to steer the conversations by asking lots of questions, and I accidentally stumped a poor Uruguayan missionary by asking her to explain the difference between the current Mormon Prophet and the Catholic Pope.  After chewing on some almost-words, she tried to spit out something to the effect of, "well Mormons are right and Catholics are wrong."

Slowly realizing I could probably find out more about Mormonism by referencing Wikipedia than by chatting with these nice young ladies, I concluded my religious romp and took a leisurely bike ride around town, stopping to investigate a sculpture garden and an aviary set inside SLC's Liberty Park.  

Founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, as a Sphinx, because why not?

With my touring complete for the day, my host Bryan and his buddy took me bouldering, something I've been eager to try on.  We sped off to Little Cottonwood Canyon to find, mount, and ascend the many sizable boulders of quartz monzonite littered down the cliffsides - broken leftovers from cliff-side quarrying done to acquire the many stones cut and dragged by ox cart to the downtown area to build the Salt Lake Temple.

To fill up and wind down, we dealt swift justice to a generous Ethiopian dinner on the opposite side of town and then went home to murder a quart of coconut based mocha almond fudge ice cream and some brandy.  I fell asleep on the futon with my face resting beside a beautiful old cat with failing kidneys.  After some morning goodbyes, I was told I should come again and try to get some skiing in.  I'd like that.

Moments ago, I drove by a billboard asking if I was going to heaven or if I was going to hell.  I checked my GPS which confirmed I was going to Price, Utah to gas up and use the wifi at McDonalds before doing some camping at Arches National Park.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Departure and the Grand Canyon

Unburdened with aspirations of a career or any particular achievement and motivated only by a mounting sense of restlessness, I quit my job and tossed all I had in my car, endeavoring to taste more of America in one go than I ever have before. I've begun my first road trip to the east: an excursion with no official point of termination or conclusion.

My first destination had to be the Grand Canyon. It called to me in a way that beautiful things sometimes but too infrequently do - as if any time my eyes caught a picture of the thing, deep from the base of the fissure I can could faintly hear, "Matthew," a whisper beckoning for me to come and conquer. I felt this way when I entered a contest years ago to win the car I'm driving now and I felt this way when I toppled the Untersberg Mountain in Salzburg, Austria. It almost killed me and it was one of the finest things I've ever done.

Rarely able to plan even a week ahead of time, I was dismayed - dismayed but undeterred - when I discovered the Grand Canyon's North Rim's campgrounds, both above and below the rim, were completely booked through the rest of the season. As of learning this, I had already rounded up a posse, friends of a friend I made in a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course, and I wasn't going to let them down. I discovered that if I were show up in person 48 hours prior to an intended overnight excursion to the Colorado River from the rim, I would likely be able to secure the necessary permit. Additionally, there is free dispersed camping available in the Kaibab Forest, half an hour's drive from the visitor center, affording me a place to stay while I waited for the rest of my backpacking crew to arrive.

Having to appear in person at the Backcountry Office at 8am to secure the permit, however, would involve some creative commuting. Reluctant to too dramatically throw my mind's clock for a spin, I decided to crash in my car at a truck stop in St. George, putting me within just a few hours of the north rim. I nestled my car into a space I thought wouldn't be in the way for the stop's proper sleepers and made a feeble attempt at securing privacy: a sun shade on the windshield and sweaters hung clumsily from the "oh shit" handles. I assumed the comfort of my own car could only exceed that of any of the miserable overnight trains I've settled in. Twisting and turning and being shook awake at every other passing light and horn blast, I found it wasn't much an improvement.

The USA Today at the north rim's laundry room had a three page focus on truck stop serial killers. Fairly disconcerting, seeing as I imagine I'm going to have to crash at least a few while I connect the dots between friends, campgrounds, and couch surfers. I left satisfied that my survival chances are fair just so long as I don't decide to become a lot lizard, a prostitute that specializes in servicing truckers.

I filled the two days until my crew would arrive with trip planning and lovely day hikes along the rim. The time was my own. It was beautiful everything that I needed. I filled the two days until my crew would arrive more miserable perhaps than the night before. My sleeping bag was supposed to be rated effective down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit - just about the temperature the north rim fell to at night. Even fully clothed and with the additional warming effort of a pair of blankets from my car, this California boy shivered and rolled from side to side until the sun came back with the new day.

So even after three nights without any apparent R.E.M. sleep, I was overflowing with life and an eagerness to take the canyon by the time my posse rolled into the park. We fiddled about with our bags for a bit and descended into the North Kaibab Trail - a path originally cut as an escape route to the southern rim by explorers who wouldn't have survived the coming winter.

A passing hiker had just come from the south rim and confirmed what I had learned from my research online and from speaking with friends - that the southern rim was overcrowded, touristy, and much less enchanting. "Like a city," she described it. More, the north rim is farther from the river than the south rim and 1000 feet higher, therefore a greater challenge and a more attractive choice.

We were to camp at a site by the name of Cottonwood, seven miles deep into the 14 miles to the Colorado river, hit the river the next day, and back to the rim on the third. A welcome change from conditions at the top of the rim, the nights were almost too hot to be comfortable. Almost. Though our crew of five was chiefly composed of tall and muscular champions, only I - the malnourished vegan - had enough energy and determination to make it to the river the next day. The rest would stay behind.

The trails teemed with lovely fit people of all ages, full of smiles and how are yous. I lost count of the number of senior citizens engaged in one-day rim to rim excursions - accomplishing as much ground as I in the span of one day instead of three. While their numbers humbled my aching feet, they helped take away some of the fear of one day waking up with grays. My efforts felt all the more diminished as I passed maybe a dozen hikers taking on the rim to rim, feeling around with walking sticks and all of them blind.

Coming back from the Colorado, I cruelly realized that two liters of water and three Clif Bars weren't quite enough for the 14 miles through the canyon desert. One must become zen-like in occasions like these and make the deliberate mental effort to compartmentalize the suffering and keep one foot always pushing ahead of the other. It was harsh, but lovely.

I got back to Cottonwood just in time to catch my gang on their way to an off-the-trail waterfall they accidentally discovered. They afforded me just enough time to skinny dip in the Bright Angel Creek and smack down a can of beans so that I could be rejuvenated enough to join them. I was reluctant to the point that I told them they should go on without me, but they wouldn't have any of it and I'm glad they wouldn't. The mini-excursion to the newly named Pancake Falls, a secluded ten foot waterfall with enough space to swim in and hide inside, was perhaps the most memorable part of the trip.

Wanting to be sure no one was left behind (and to be kinder to my poor heels, calves, and thighs) I took up the rear end of the line. When I did reach the top, the first to finish spent their extra time acquiring victory beers which we eagerly guzzled down in the parking lot. We exchanged SD Cards, hugs, and farewells, and went on our way. It was one of the best things I've ever done (though, I painfully discovered all of the photos I took after dipping below the rim were at 640x480 resolution - a fairly devastating realization, as a good many pictures I was hoping to make prints of are only fit for cellphone wallpaper).

I slept once more at the truck stop in St. George again, more experienced and more exhausted than when I was there first. And now I wrap up this first entry while waiting in an auto shop, replacing my radiator and biting my knuckles for the cost. Hopefully Lugia treats me well here on out. We still have a lot of ground to cover.