Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Christmas

I got a fancy new camera for Christmas. Incidentally, the three Muslims with whom I live went to prayers today. I tried getting a picture of Sana for the occasion, as she was dressed in a elaborate salwar kameez. It took an expensive camera, a carefully decorated  tree and some exotically beautiful clothing to prove that absolutely nothing can make my nose-picking daughter look classy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Joshua Tree and the Horrors of the Hamster Tube

As part of our ongoing efforts to resist the easy path of using our weekends to recover from the chaos of the rest of our week, yesterday we got up at 5:30 AM in order to go to Joshua Tree National Park, with our friend Anna.

Joshua Tree is located on the cusp of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, and contains features from both (crazy rocks, cacti, wild-eyed desert hermits that’ll use your bones for patio furniture).  It’s only three hours drive from Los Angeles, so I’m somewhat embarrassed we’d never managed to make it out there prior to this weekend, but it was worth the wait.
Amynah strapped Inara to her front in a baby carrier, and I strapped Sana to my back in another, and we hiked through the relative crowds of “Hidden” Valley and to the if-you-squint-it-looks-kind-of-like-a Skull Rock.
As night fell, I realized I had failed to take a picture of any of Joshua's Trees.

This, and my trip to Death Valley earlier this year made me realize how conditioned we are by the nature we grew up in – the first time Sana was in a Canadian/Eastern North American forest on a trip back to Canada, she was clearly freaked out by the density of trees closing in on her with oppressive verdancy. On the other hand, she was delighted to stomp her way through the desert sands of Joshua Tree, and examine the thorns and brambles of the various types of cacti. For my part, I couldn’t help but be unnerved by the wide-open spaces and the knowledge that there were poisonous snakes of uncertain temperament lurking about the rocks. Not for the first time, I realize that Sana is going to grow up in a different world than did I.

This being the first trip of this sort that I’d attempted with the babies, I was also left to reflect on how much less I learn from trips like these than I used to: I’m a compulsive reader of plaques, but I had to pass by all of the helpful explanations the National Parks people had posted at strategic points identifying the local fauna and flora, as well as historical tidbits (I managed to read on one that Hidden Valley had something to do with cattle rustlers, but got no further than that before having to stop Sana from leaping off a boulder five times her height).

 Skull Rock (official name)

Bum Rock (not official name)

Post Script: Scarier than my paranoia of rattlesnakes and Sana's non-comprehension of gravity was our dinner:  we went to a McDonald's with a play room for children, the centerpiece of which was a three-dimensional pipe maze, complete with netting, ladders and slides. Sana saw the bigger kids playing on it and wanted to go. Because I am both a sucker and a terrible parent, I let her. Of course, I went in with her. Never have I made a bigger mistake: the inside was cramped and redolent of children's hamburger breath and Dr Pepper-scented urine. Kids were appearing and disappearing around the corners like the creature from Alien that was terrorizing Sigourney Weaver in the air ducts. They were shouting at each other constantly, but the sound bounced around such that it seemed we were surrounded by a million of them. Sana freaked out and clung to me the whole way while I tried to navigate the maze on two aching knees and one arm to find the twisty slide of salvation. I had nightmares about it all last night).

Friday, November 11, 2011

You Win or You Cry.

Normally on Remembrance Day, I would try to dig up some bit of Canadian military history to use for the purposes of making some sanctimonious point about the horrors of war and/or the callowness of the politicians who pursue it.* Maybe later. At the moment, I'm on day one of three on my own with Sana, while Amynah is out of town with Inara. Neither Sana nor I are feeling well at the moment, so I will be sacking out early. However, I couldn't resist sharing further photoshop foolishness.

* I'm thinking either the behind-the-scenes diplomatic machinations that set the only Nazi war criminal in Canadian custody free, or the 19th century crusade against an Islamic insurgent in the Sudan that saw Canadian civilian volunteers dying for less than nothing in Egypt. Votes?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

This is what I Ment

I appear to have developed a habit of inventing holidays. Those who know me on Facebook are probably already aware of "Mark Reynolds Awareness Month," in which I make up facts about myself and post one every day for the month of September (a sample: Mark Reynolds has the power to marry people with his mind.")

My latest is "Ment." I have lunch with various colleagues and floor-neighbours of Amynah's - unsurprisingly, there are a lot of Type-A personalities. A few days ago, I was eating with a crew of women that had two PhDs completed, two PhDs in progress and three marathons completed between them (although, that's really two marathons and two half-marathons).

Everyone needs a running coach

For some reason the subject of Lent came up - one of the girls had, despite not being Christian, given up sugar for the last Lent. This led to a discussion of other diets, fasts and personal sacrifices we had made.

Being the type who takes great pleasure in undermining the decisions of others when they make me feel bad about MY decisions or lack-thereof, I pointed out that giving up something you like is much easier than forcing yourself to do something you hate. At that point, I had one of those flashes of personal insight I have learned to dread.

"Of course, it's not like I've ever really given up anything I like. I don't even know what I would give up," I said.

"Peanut butter!" said Amynah, sending a chill to my soul.

Now, I am not hooked on peanut butter, by any stretch.* But it is my go-to thing to make my breakfast carbohydrates palatable, and I will often rely on it when I don't feel like cooking. To put that in context, I feel like cooking maybe twice a year.

All right, challenge accepted. Only, I am contrary, and so I cannot have Ment (Mark-Lent) be the same length as Lent. Having it be shorter wasn't unacceptable either. And so, I will be abstaining from all peanut products until the New Year.

It gets worse: having somehow talked myself into a peanut diet that I did not want, I then pointed out I still needed the "thing I hated" to make it a fast/self-compelled personal growth that would be acceptable to the standards that I was quite happy to hypocritically apply to other people.

There were ridiculous and strict rules attached to this. The "thing I hate" has to be something from which I do not derive a benefit that I care about, and is far outside my comfort zone (i.e. reading classic novels instead of spy novels does not count, writing more does not count). Anything that would benefit me professionally or financially was also out. Whatever this was, it had to be as pointless as it was unpleasant.

Yeah. So now I'm getting up at 6 AM, three times a week, and running. Dear Lord, I hate running. If God/evolution had intended us to run, God/Evolution would not have given us the ability to throw spears at the things we were running from.

The problem with this is that the human mind rationalizes: as such, I am already turning what was supposed to be character-building suffering for its own sake (like self-flagellation or a hair-shirt) into a health crusade, and my peanut-butter fast into a semi-diet in which I've cut out most snacking and desserts.

I worry, if this trend continues, that I'll be one of those spandex clad health nuts measuring out their days according to their mileage and caloric inputs, or that I'll have to find something even more pointless and painful to make up the second part of Ment. Where does one buy a hair-shirt anyway?

 * Anyone who knows about the several hundred dollars that were spent shipping peanut butter to Strasbourg is encouraged to not talk about that right now.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Older and smarter, but not quite as mature, as a two year old

Guess who finally sprung for Photoshop? Guess who isn't very good at it?

I don't work on Fridays, and last week Amynah was invited to give a lecture out of town. Thus, I was left with Sana and Inara entirely on my own. Of course, Friday happened to be one of the three days a year it rained in Los Angeles, so we were trapped inside.

I was fully expecting to be overwhelmed, but I went remarkably smoothly.* Sana was respectful of Inara's allotted crying times, and vice versa, so I never had to cope with a simultaneous melt-down, which is of course the closest thing we on Earth have to a self-perpetuating energy source, albeit one too hazardous to human health and hearing to harness for good.

We played games. We ate lunch. I read stories to Sana. Sana "read" stories to Inara. Inara and I caught up on some bonding time while Sana had her nap. It was all very peaceful. The only moment of drama came when I was putting Inara in her swing, and Sana somehow managed to fall headfirst into a toy chest and get stuck. At the sound of her shrieking, I turned to see a black box with legs flailing wildly in the air.

That story has an unhappy ending - my reflexes kicked in before my brain did, and I pulled her out within two seconds instead of grabbing my camera and taking a picture of the hilarious sight with which to embarrass her once she reaches her adolescence, as a responsible parent would have. Fingers crossed for next time!

(In case anyone is curious, the background in the photo above is the view turned 180 degrees from the chapel pictured in this post while Sana took flight in early July, at Inara's "Welcome to Earth" Barbecue).

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Don't touch that dial!

I'm probably not the first to observe this, but something I've noticed about parenting is that when it comes to your child's development, you are in a perpetual state of being nostalgic for the easier past ("the past" being anything from 1 week to 1 month ago - one's memory doesn't stretch back further than that) while simultaneously looking forward to an easier future. You can't wait for your baby to learn how to crawl, and once she does, you immediately yearn for the days when you didn't have to inspect the carpet at a micro-level to make sure there's nothing nays and swallowable down there. You eagerly await their first steps, and then freak out because all of the furniture has to be wrapped in cotton lest they bump their heads. And finally, you yearn for them to talk, because then you get a peak into the soul that has been co-habitating with you for the last year or so.

 Sana has been learning to talk these last few months, and for the most part, it's great. She's funny, not too demanding, and as reasonable as a two year old can be - she seems to accept our explanations of why she can't have OBJECT X right now, but she can have it later. Which is great, especially as often, when later comes, she's forgotten she wanted it. The drawback is that while we have been enjoying making ourselves understood, we can no longer pretend that we don't understand what she wants.

 For a long time, the only way Sana was able to express that she wanted to listen to music was to yell "Yay! Yay!!! YAY!!!!!" at increasing volume until we gave her something to Yay about (the cheer became synonymous with music from the weekly live bands at our local farmer's market, where Sana learned that one applauds at the end of a song. She makes no distinction between pre-recorded and live music when according this courtesy). When in the car, "Yay!" means Raffi (a Canadian children's singer). I am deeply, violently, sick of Raffi. So, after a certain point I started interpreting "Yay!" as a request for music in general, not her music in particular. In this way, I was able to avoid having to listen to "The Numbers Rumba" or any songs in which duck sounds were a key element for weeks at a time, bringing them out only when Sana was in a particularly foul mood.

 Unfortunately, Sana somehow learned Raffi's name. God knows, I've never said it, but somehow she must have got on the Internet while I was sleeping and figured it out. So, the other day, she started yelling "Yay!" and I put on some commercial rock station, and she said: "No Dada! No radio! Raffi! No radio! Bad girl Dada!" That was a message as clear as day, sadly, however confusing it was for my gender identity. Feigning ignorance of her wishes cannot save me now.

While I'm desperately trying to turn her into a hipster (Arcade Fire - that's happy music, right? Adele?) I fear that my own car is going to become a roving sanctuary for Justin Bieber, just as I remember my Dad grimacing through my older sister's affection for Michael Jackson and Boy George. The only way to save her is to encourage her to become as near as possible to the pop-culture illiterate I was.

 I'm not much of a car guy, but perhaps someone can tell me - is there any currently manufactured model in which there is no radio or CD player at all?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Mark-tricks: Resolutions

When I first started this blog, it had a clear purpose: to keep the friends and family I'd left behind in Canada up-to-date on my new life in France. And, incidentally, to make people jealous about all the adventures I was having in France.

In the last few months of my time in Strasbourg, it turned into something else - an attempt, to capture everything I loved about my life there: the history, the architecture, the lifestyle and, of course, our new friends, French or otherwise. If I could write it all down, I thought, at some point in the future I could look at those posts and capture an incredible time in my life.

The flurry of writing I did on this blog reached a fever pitch in the spring and summer of 2006, and then... pretty much stopped. Without Strasbourg and my imminent departure therefrom* to inspire me, all I had to write about was pollution, traffic, and urban sprawl.

What about Sana? I hear you ask: well, of course I had Sana. I also had another site that was paying me to write about her. Not wanting to scoop or repeat myself, I didn't write about my family here. And besides, the world does not need another "Daddy Blogger" (I cringe, even as I type the words) inviting people to fawn over his sensitivity and/or adorable children? Not in my view. The world also It also doesn't need another politics blogger, or entertainment blogger. It does need another Canadian history blogger, but I'm not exactly well placed to write about that from here, am I?

My professional blogging obligations ended with that site. And so I ask myself, why do I care what the world needs? I have been allowing cobwebs to gather on my writing. Why not become a Daddy blogger? There's no better way to record my daughter's lives. Why not write about politics? Everyone likes a good debate, right?

Writing more here might help me keep up on some other goals as well. In the last few weeks I have undertaken to: start exercising three times a week during the only hour available to me (i.e. 6-7 AM). I have undertaken to abstain from the greatest source of joy and spiritual sustenance in my life - yes, I'm quitting peanut butter, in all its forms, until January. I'm going to put in more effort into my freelance writing. AND, I've been harassed into writing a novel. Which is, uh, being thought about very hard.

I might write about those things. I might write about other things. But I need to keep writing about something, lest what skills I have atrophy entirely.

Please bear with me while I get my mojo back.

NEXT UP: Anything! Anything at all! Idunno... Hallowe'en, maybe?

* I was totally expecting spellcheck to tell me I'd made that word up. Apparently I did not.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hallowe'en post: Yarmouth's first murder

I have erratically tried to post something Hallowe'en themed for each year of this blog (poo-pirates and Canadian cannibals being some of my previous efforts). This year, it didn't occur to me until the waning hours of the in the last continental time zone, so chances are no one will see it until All Saints Day. That said, a good murder tale always warms the heart, right?

In any case, the following is one of my earliest professional writing efforts, for the local paper in my former hometown. There is much in there I would not have written had I done it today, but the story itself was pretty interesting.

Yarmouth murder transfixed province
Mark Reynolds
"Murder, most foul! Murder in its cruellest and most hideous form," screamed the lead sentence of the February 28 1921 dispatch in the Halifax Morning Herald. It was to be the opening line of what would be one of Nova Scotia's most sensational murder trials, a case that would grip the attention of the province for the next six months.
"Yarmouth Captain Murdered as he enters home" was the headline. For a long time - though rumours, speculation and malicious gossip were to spread rapidly throughout the town - that one fact is practically all that was really known.
Captain George Henry Perry, 66, was a retired sea captain who had settled in Yarmouth to make a quieter living as a farming equipment agent. He was apparently well known and respected throughout Yarmouth, and lived with his wife Clara, and Eleanor, one of his four daughters.
The facts of this murder were clear enough. After eating a quiet dinner with his wife, daughter, and her friend Mansfield Ross on Saturday February 26, Captain Perry went out, without saying where he was going. Ross and Eleanor departed shortly thereafter to attend a movie, while Mrs Perry went to her room.
Ross and Eleanor returned at around 11 pm, only to discover Captain Perry was still not home. As it was his habit to smoke his pipe out in his barn, Mrs Perry asked Ross to go out back and check for him there. He discovered Captain Perry just outside the back porch, bleeding from three blows to the head, breathing his last. Ross immediately called a doctor, and summoned two neighbours for help. It was too late however. The doctor arrived at the Argyle street home an hour later, only to see the Captain die, too badly wounded to name his assailant.
It was very clear that this was a murder - the question was who? Robbery was initially suggested, but Captain Perry was not known to carry large amounts of money on him, nor did he have many valuables on his person.
As there was no sign of forced entry, it was determined that the murderer had lain in wait for the Captain in the back porch, which was usually locked.
The Yarmouth police force was not equipped to handle a case like this, and so Detective Horace Kennedy - who was something of a star sleuth with the Halifax police - was immediately sent to Yarmouth to lend his expertise. The Halifax Herald sent F.B. Edwards, one of their senior reporters, whose knowledgeable dispatches were as detailed and well informed as they were colourfully composed.
Upon his arrival four days after the murder, Edwards wrote in the Herald that Yarmouth was awash in rumour, and that, while he cautions that such rumour had no weight as evidence, "it is, nevertheless, interesting as displaying a vivid white light the intimate acquaintance with one's neighbors' affairs."
One's neighbours, in this case, were the Perrys. The inquest into the Captain's death revealed quite a lot of interesting detail that was to come out in trial. Most sensational was the revelation that Captain Perry had claimed that someone was trying to kill him months before his death. He told one friend that someone had left a poisoned cake out for him and that on another occasion, he had discovered that the steps leading to his basement had been loosened in such a way that would cause the unwary to fall to their death.
Much of the gossip centered on the conduct of Eleanor, Clara, and Mansfield Ross upon discovering the Captain. Clara apparently, refused to go out to see her husband, and remained upstairs in her room. Shockingly, Eleanor remained inside doing the dishes while the neighbours tried to help her father.
Most damning of all, Ross told the neighbours that the doctor, when called, had ordered them to leave Captain Perry in the icy yard until he arrived. The doctor later said that he gave no such order.
Another key piece of evidence was the supposed murder weapon - an iron bar which Captain Perry kept in the back porch for the purpose of fixing his shoes. An initial search of the house by Yarmouth police Chief Babin upon his arrival yielded no weapon - yet the next morning it was in a washtub near the back door. It had been apparently put through a fire, as if to cleanse it of all traced of blood or hair.
It came out that the Perry's had been separated some years before, and Mrs Perry returned to the Captain because he had not given her enough of an allowance to survive upon. The Captain's will left everything to his widow, a fact she admitted she knew.
Pressure in Yarmouth was rapidly building on the police to make an arrest quickly. Everyone knew who the guilty party was - or so they thought. When the time came for Captain Perry's funeral, the church was surrounded by onlookers, waiting for the arrival of the widow and her daughter. The two women had to be escorted into the church through a back entrance.
Weeks went by, and there were no developments. Mrs Perry's clothes were sent to Halifax for examination, which yielded no results. Captain Perry's body was exhumed, and examined by a Halifax coroner, but he came to no new conclusions.
Chief Babin tendered his resignation about a month after the murder, and a new man was brought in from Bridgewater. The implication was that new eyes may be able to solve this heinous crime.
Finally, more than six weeks after the murder, on the very day that Babin's resignation was to take effect, he and detective Kennedy arrested Mrs Clara Perry for the murder of her husband. Arrested with her was Mansfield Ross, her daughter's new fiancee, who was charged with being an accessory after the fact. Mrs Perry's trial was to start June 29, 1921.
Because the Yarmouth courthouse had recently been damaged by fire, and because of the intense public interest in the case, a court was set up in a curling rink. The Herald estimated over a thousand people were in attendance.
None of the facts presented at the case were new - only the testimony of William Messente of Montreal, a representative of the company of which Captain Perry was an agent in Yarmouth. He testified that Mrs. Perry had asked him what policy would be due her were "the Captain to pass away suddenly." For its part, the defense made much of a mysterious man who had been seen outside the Perry home at around 8 o'clock the night of the murder
Despite public opinion, Judge Mellish delivered a verdict of not guilty, which elicited "a long drawn out "Ah" over the huge enclosure of the curling rink," as the Herald described it. The judge said that the evidence, though reflecting poorly on Mrs Perry and Ross, was in the final analysis, only circumstantial.
Four days after the trial, a brief item in the Herald announced that Mansfield Ross and Eleanor Perry were married in a small ceremony attended only by family.
Mrs Perry meanwhile, in an oath that would be echoed some seventy five years later by a certain football player, vowed that "She would make it her life endeavor to discover the true slayer of her husband."

It's been too long

Ten signs I've been away from my blog for too long

10) I type in "str" into my browser, and the autocomplete supplies "strollers" rather than "Strasmark."

9) My chops are so rusty, I can't think of anything better than a tacky top ten list to write.

8) Worse, I can't fill it out with another 7.

I have much on my plate these days. But the cobwebs gather, and clever Facebook status updates aren't shaking them off. Watch this space. But not too closely.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I've been so bad at a keeping up on this blog that I managed to produce an entirely new human being without mentioning it here. Though, I guess Amynah's condition was apparently in my last post.

In any case, here is Inara Fatima, born July 20, weighing in at 5 lbs 13 oz, whatever those are. One day I'll do the calculation to determine what she weighs in Canada.

All are well.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Horsehoes and Ham grenades.

That is a pig in front of that man. It was delicious, and I apologize for nothing. (Photos by Michelle Cabassut)

This weekend was our second July 4th weekend in the U.S., but the first for which we were actually invited to anything. Amynah’s co-worker and friend Monique was kind enough to invite us to her extended family’s annual horseshoe tournament and cookout. Monique and her relatives being exceedingly generous people, the invitation was flexible enough to include us, and three friends from France (via San Francisco and Duarte, CA, respectively).

The tournament was in what the French might call “La Californie profonde”, and is known locally as “Inland Empire.” This is not the California of San Francisco or Los Angeles. This is farm country. The tournament was a local tradition, for which a good portion of the town turned out, to bolster the friends and family that returned from all over the country for the occasion.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect out in the white spaces of the map in which Murietta is found, but when we arrived in mid-afternoon, the heat was scorching, the beer was flowing, and the horseshoes were darkening the sky.

I immediately noticed certain things about the locals. While it was not, evidently a law that the womenfolk be blond, if they did choose to be blond, it seemed to be a requirement that the shade of blond they be should blind onlookers if seen in direct sunlight. As for the men, the total acreage of torso covered by shirts was roughly equal to that covered by tattoos. (When I later pointed this out to Amynah she said “Yeah, there was a lot of eye-candy,” as if that is what I had meant).

I had not played horseshoes since I was about seven (a game in which I seem to recall I was allowed to stand 10 feet from the stake instead of the regulation 40), while Michelle, Manu and Qi had never encountered the game at all in their respective home countries of France and China.

Qi in competitive form, managing to be undistracted by the man-meat in the background

Monique kindly let us internationals represent her team, and gave us a quick tutorial. We just as quickly disqualified ourselves with two losses in a row. I managed to score 3 points to my teammate Anna’s 8. I used the same girly-wrists excuse I attempted when shooting guns in Vegas – she used the excuse of being distracted by the shirtless tattooed guy playing next to her. My friend Qi meanwhile, scored 4 points even though she had never heard of the game before, while her teammate Manu – who also had never played before - managed 10.

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when she comes for you?

While this was going on, Sana was having a grand old time. She inspected the friendly horses and pronounced them dirty, and then freaked out when one breathed on her. She then commandeered a toy push police car which she used as a prop with which to act out her own action movie: leaping into it, riding maniacally for ten feet, dramatically kicking the door open and leaping out as if in pursuit of a bank robber. This was causing great amusement in Monique’s friends and various other people who I’d never seen before that seemed to be taking care of my daughter while Amynah held court in the shade and I watched the games.

We left soon after eating the food, the centerpiece of which was a pig that had been slow-roasted underground and delivered to the picnic area via a backhoe. All in all, it was a highly enjoyable time and we were treated like very welcome, if completely athletically inept guests. I can't help but wonder if we were welcome in part because we were inept: horseshoes is a very serious business out there, and I don't know how we would have been received if we'd been any threat to the locals' dominance. As it is, I was happy to have left with the souvenir t-shirt, though I hope one day to win the first prize belt buckle.

That is, if I’m invited back next year. If it helps my case, I know just the tattoo I want to get in place of my shirt.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's like, the ultimate, man

I am to athletics what antelopes are to coal mines.

And yet, through some means of mind-control against which I am apparently powerless to resist, Amynah’s lab colleagues have convinced me to join them on a weekly basis as part of a pick-up Ultimate Frisbee league.

It was actually another Canadian who is the driving force behind the games, but that did not stop me from deriding the whole exercise as be-dreadlocked SoCal hippie nonsense. Which, initially, it was.

I’d never played before, so my first few times out I played largely how I approached soccer when I was 8 years old: that is, I took the term “position” very literally. Generally I’d amble over to a promising spot on the field and plant myself there, waiting for someone to throw me the disk, waving at my more ambulatory teammates as they zoomed by hither and thither. Occasionally, one would notice me and loft the disk in my direction, and – if I caught it – I’d throw it to someone else. Sometimes, it even landed somewhere near my target.

It was all very low energy and low passion: the first few games, I didn’t even notice if my team won or lost.

But, eventually, I started getting more confident. I moved a little more, threw a little more, scored a little more…. cared a little more. I even earned myself a nick-name of which I am moderately proud (Marktopus – I’m apparently really irritating on defense. It's much better than "Ladypants," which is the nickname of the guy who gave it to me).

I realized that I had gone from humouring the “hippies” to being “an Ultimate player” when I actually bought a new pair of sneakers in which to play, as my old ones were destroying my knees. I started coming home and boring Amynah with tales of my heroic exploits (a flying behind the head catch which I made while colliding with another player in mid-air, despite which I stuck the landing while he crashed around my heels. It was awesome). Our games are now competitive enough that we scared off one of our newer players, who thought we were too rough (if you don't want your glasses knocked off kid, don't put your face between Monique's elbow and the ground).

All of this is going to come to an end – or at least, a long hiatus – once the new baby comes along (have I mentioned that on this blog yet?) but in the interim, I’m getting good exercise, discovering a competitive streak I never knew I had, and apparently becoming just a little bit Californian.

I think I’d look ok in tie-dye, don’t you?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Death Valley IV: Surprise!

When planning our trip, Jon and I had intended that our crowning achievement of our sojourn in Death Valley would be at two nights backcountry camping, preferably two. Our delay to pump hot lead into (or rather, in the general vicinity of) paper targets at a gun range in Vegas rather threw off our schedule, so we were left with only one night.

We followed Jay Stone, Death Valley Park Ranger’s advice and decided to do our greenhorn best to make it in and out of Surprise Canyon, the opening to which was actually outside the park on Bureau of Lands Management territory. We would drive up an old mining access road, park the car, and hike six miles into the Panamint Mountains, and hopefully make camp in the ruins of Panamint City, a gold mining ghost town.

Sounds simple, right? Surprise! It was not.

First, getting to the trailhead required driving up 3 miles of what was marked as a road on the map, but was a seemingly unending series of three-foot craters guarded by menacing rings of razor-sharp stones. I’m fairly certain some of those craters were miniature ecosystems hosting Rock Monsters, as every once in a while one would scrape their prettified claws along the chassis of my poor Civic, or terrify us all by suddenly punching the muffler in their rage at having been disturbed.

After whiteknuckling our way though what seemed like an eternity of shrieking, banging metal, we found ourselves at the trailhead, marked by an abandoned and fire-destroyed mill. Since we were only out for one night, we agreed to lighten our pack of absolutely everything that we could, leaving it in the car. Sadly, this included my camera, which had died the day before on the sand dunes.

There were a few things that we had read about Surprise Canyon that did not, apparently, register with us. It was located in the Panamint Mountains, for instance. It apparently boasted several springs. It lead to the Surprise Pass.

All of that sounds pretty innocuous, unless the logic part of your brain is working. If a canyon is in a mountain range, and leads to a pass, that means there will be hills – large ones, much like mountains - and they will trend in the up direction, requiring you to climb.

The presence of springs meant water, of course, but for some reason Jon and I both had the frankly bizarre idea, probably imprinted on our youthful brains by Road Runner cartoons, that these springs would behave something like city fountains: the water would be squirting merrily into the air, landing in a pool or something, in which it would stay. That is not how springs work: while you are working your way up the mountain, the water will be making its way down, burbling and chortling at you, the idiot in wet boots and carrying 8-kilos of bottled water on his back.

Natural Bridge Canyon, not Surprise Canyon

Within 20 minutes or so of starting our hike, we were confronted by our first obstacle: a small waterfall, about six feet high. Not impossible to climb, but slippery and not offering much of a handhold. The real challenge had been carved by some condescending wag across the rock face: “There is no limit to human stupidity.” Jon and I looked at each other. “Oh yeah? We’ll show you the limits of human stupidity, buddy.” We then proceeded to do so by scrambling up a waterfall rather than investigating for the 10 seconds it would have taken us to find the perfectly servicable footpath going around it.

Onward we hiked. Because the canyon had hosted many a mining operation over the years, and those mining operations were, from time to time, wiped out in cataclysmic flashfloods, there was some interesting debris along the way. We passed a couple of heavy trucks modified to serve some inscrutable ends of heavy industry, and lunched by a rusted out, bullet ridden pick-up dating from the late 60s, I think. Near that were the gnawed over remains of one of the canyon’s wild burros. What had gnawed it, I do not know, and we did not linger to find out.

Another unsurprising surprise of Surprise Canyon was how lush it was: it was positively choked with vegetation in the early going, thanks to the aforementioned springs. It was full of what I assume were Pinyon trees, sagebrush and cacti. None of them were tall enough to provide any shade, but they did provide plenty of resistance as we made our way higher.

Did I say higher? Because I didn’t realize it at the time. The thing about climbing a canyon is you lose your perspective: you’re walking up a giant hallway, keeping your eyes on the step in front of you. We only realized that we’d been climbing when we cleared the vegetation level and looked back, only to realize we were halfway up a mountain range (again, what did we think hiking in the mountains would lead to if not massive elevation gains?)

In any case, due to a late start caused a failed attempt to buy batteries in a ghost town in the Valley (they had some, but they were all dead. Ha! Ghost town… dead batteries… hey! Come back!) it was now approaching sunset and preliminary scouting further up the canyon revealed no Panamint City within a ten minute walk. And we were tired. And it was hot. So, we set up our tent next to what we later figured must have been a trash dump for a later mining camp (it boasted a large pile of rusty cans and a smashed television).

This photo is near Golden Canyon, not Surprise Canyon

Now, here is the real wonder of this trip. Men the world over are gearheads – we’re just gearheads about different things. Some of us love cameras, some cars, some tools. My friends Jon is a gearhead for camping stuff. When we were younger, his gear fixation served him well; he always had spacious, superlight tents, sleeping bags that could be compressed to fit into a woman’s change purse, a backpack of such unfathomable capaciousness that I am convinced that Jimmy Hoffa may yet be found in it.

Now Jonathan has a family. A lovely, hardy, adventuresome family, but a family nonetheless, and thus containing members with interests and ideas of their own, and whose interests and ideas are not as unquestioningly fond of outdoor life as is Jon. Given that Jon wants to share his passion with his family, he tries to make camping as comfortable as possible for them. He has therefore upgraded from a set of battered tin pots like what I use, into a fully equipped camp kitchen: boasting a full set of cutlery, several pots and pans, A PORTABLE KITCHEN SINK, and a cutting board.

Back at the car, while I was jettisoning the unneeded weight of my spare under-roos, Jon was bus rifling through his pack. I thought he was ridding himself of his superfluous crockery, but no – he quite literally, brought everything but the kitchen sink. Meaning that as we were preparing the only dinner we’d brought: canned beans, Jon looked sadly at his kitchen kit and observed “I guess I didn’t have to bring the cutting board, did I?” Given as how we had absolutely nothing to cut, no. Of course, this snarky observation is coming from a guy who insisted on wearing his fancy hunting knife on his belt for the entire time, even though the only time it ever came out of its sheath was when it snagged on a cactus (it's a nice knife, and I didn't want to get it dirty).

We watched the sun set in the west, painting the canyon walls every hue between gold and red, until night marched up the ravine and overcame us. Exhausted, counted the stars, and waited for a moon that never appeared, probably because it was afraid of being crushed under the stars, of which there are approximately 2.5 billion more visible to the naked eye in Surprise Canyon than elsewhere. We heard animals of some sort – burros maybe, maybe coyotes, it didn’t matter. We’d done Death Valley. Surprise!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Death Valley III: In which I finally arrive in Death Valley

Roughly half an hour before arriving in the main visitor’s center for Death Valley, just outside the boundaries of the National Park, is a side road off the main highway leading to one of the region’s many ghost towns. Rhyolite was a gold mining town that flickered in and out of existence between 1905-1911, boasting a train station, banks, several newspapers, a hospital, fifty saloons and 3,500 presumably inebriated souls.

Today very little of that is in evidence – there’s a shell of a bank, a fenced off hotel and few other minor buildings, including a house made entirely of bottles (I was going to say inexplicably, but with fifty saloons about, both the building material and the decision making behind choosing it is all too explicable).

Speaking of inexplicability, the most visually arresting element of Rhyolite is not the evocative ruins, but rather the giant pink naked Lego lady Jon and I dubbed “The Cubist Nudist” but is apparently actually called “Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada.” The Cubist Nudist is the most prominent exhibit of the Goldwell Open Air Museum which is pretty much what the name implies: a bunch of art, outside.

As with the ruins of Rhyolite, and Rhhyolite itself, there was no signs, plaques or pamphlets on obvious offer by way of explanation for any of this (other than a “no shooting” sign – one wouldn’t wish to alarm the ghosts, after all), so Jon and snapped our pictures and moved on, not entirely sure that we hadn’t just experienced our first desert hallucination.

We made Death Valley about half an hour later. Our intention had been to camp out in Texas Spring, per the drawling recommendation of Jay Stone, Death Valley Park Ranger, but we were road weary and hungry on arrival, so we simply checked into the Stovepipe Wells Resort for the evening. After a lamb kebab (just like the cowboys would have eaten!) we retired to our private cabin, drank whiskey, and lost money to each other playing poker (and by “each other” I mean “I” lost money to “Jon.”

Our first full day in Death Valley, we intended to explore the park much as our forefathers would have: by car, with the air conditioning on (let’s face it: you have to go back three generations now to find a forefather that didn’t have access to a car).

The important thing to understand about Death Valley is that while today it is a desert of considerable aridity, it used to be an inland sea of considerable humidity. I’m not entirely clear on where the water went, but it did leave a calling card. At the Devil’s Golf Course, the retreating waters left an enormous field of giant lumps of crystallized salt. Walking across them is a risky proposition: the spiky lumps make the less-than-sure-footed pay dearly for missteps. Scrape yourself on one and you instantly learn why the phrase “salt in the wound” is never meant as a positive.

Next we headed to Badwater Springs, which is the lowest spot in North America (being a few hundred feet below sea level). It too is a vast, salt covered plain, but instead of brownish lumps, the eye is confronted with an expanse of brilliant white across the valley, apparently reaching to the Panamint Mountains on the other side.

Jon and I took a stroll out in it, and it was very disorienting. All of our Canadian-honed sensory cues were telling us that we were walking across snow - white flakes, crunching under our feet - except it was hot. Also, we could feel the moisture fleeing our bodies just standing out there.

As the sun continued to climb, we hit a couple of the shorter day-hike suggestions we’d gleaned from the visitor’s center – Natural Bridge Canyon and Golden Canyon. The weird dislocating sensation continued: the canyons looked exactly like a million others I’d seen in cowboy movies on afternoon t.v. It was much the same sensation as when I first visited Paris or New York: you see a place a million times on t.v. or in the movies, and it feels familiar to you, even when you’ve never been there before.

Of course, in those movies no cowboy enters a canyon without getting shot at by some rifle totin’ bandit hiding behind the ledge. That’s what canyons are for, in my mind, so it was rather unnerving strolling up one, given that the entirety of my subconscious could almost feel some black-hatted ne’er do well drawing a bead on my back.

Also, canyons are frickin’ HOT. The temperature that day wasn’t too high, by Death Valley standards, but in Golden Canyon, at around noon, there was no shade anywhere, and the sun was reflecting off the pale yellow rock of the cliffsides in all directions. It was like being in an EZ-Bake oven outfitted with a Krieg light. We decided, fairly early on in our Golden Canyon hike to not do the six mile loop and content ourselves with the less than 2 mile walk up to the Cathedral rock. Sadly, we arrived at those rocks to find that while they resembled a Cathedral in shape, they did not in terms of shelter or shade from the sun.

The last place on our first day’s itinerary were the sand dunes near the northern end of the park. These were fascinating, in that they looked exactly like I’d picture the Sahara or Arabian deserts to look: endless undulating hills of sand. They were a disappointment though, in that there was an information plaque warning that scorpions and rattlesnakes used to the dunes as a place to burrow away from the relentless daytime heat. This wasn’t disappointing the sense that it prevented us from wandering around in the dunes – but it was in the sense that we did not, in fact, see any. This was probably better for our health in the long run, but our inner-ten-year olds were sorely disappointed.

NEXT: The Final Installment – Surprise!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Death Valley II: Is that a gun in your pocket or... oh, it is?

Finally, the day arrived for my departure. Leaving Amynah with Sana and her uncle’s baby-blue minivan, I swapped the baby seat for my backpack, booted Raffi out of the CD player and replaced him with some AC/DC and hit the highway for Las Vegas, where Jon and I were to rendez vous.

Our plans for our one night were pretty mild, given that we were far more anxious to enjoy Death Valley to its fullest than we were to


…and then I fell asleep, head spinning, clutching the twenty five cents I’d won like it was a teddy bear.

The next morning, after an excellent breakfast at a shady off-strip casino that apparently had a Western Buckaroo theme, yet had decorated its main dining room with paintings depicting the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie between British and American naval vessels. Those martial scenes got us in the mood for the last activity we had on our Vegas itinerary before heading to Death Valley.

That’s right, boys and girls, Jon and I shot some guns.

This was entirely Jon’s idea, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t happy to go along with it. Jon had spent some time in Canada’s military reserves in an artillery unit, and apparently had a hankering to revisit the glory days of pretending to blow things up. Vegas has a sin for every taste, and so we made our way to the imaginatively names “Gun Store.” After parking my Honda Civic between a jacked-up pickup truck and another jacked-up pickup truck, we made our way to the entrance, passing a couple of enormous gentlemen whose stetsons and sideburns were locked in mortal combat over which would earn the honor of being their hosts’ dominant head furniture. They in turn, were gawking at a Las Vegas city cab pulling up to the front of the store.

“That’s a cab” one observed. “What the hell?”

“Who the f*** takes a taxi to a gun store?” said the other, clearly affronted.

Always curious about the social mores of different cultures, I was going to turn and ask why one wouldn’t take a cab to a gun store, but was saved from a probably embarrassing faux pas by a female voice.

“You boys looking to shoot today?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Jon. I turned from my investigation of Gun Store transportation etiquette to behold a pair of pulchritudinous young women in extremely tight t-shirts manning the welcome booth outside the store. They beckoned us over, and leaned over their table to show us their guns.

Pointing to the helpful diagrams on the counter, they explained that the store had a large variety of weaponry one could rent, ranging from modern combat weapons to “The Dirty Harry.” You could also rent “packages” – the “Coalition Package” of three or four assault weapons from different NATO countries, or the “U.S. Military Package” of their army’s weapons (one of which looked like it should have been mounted atop a tank).

“There’s also the World War II Package, of historical weapons,” the blonde girl said, adding non-judgmentally “if you’re into the Nazi thing.”

Jon, being into the whole HOLY CRAP DEFINITELY NOT A NAZI thing, rented a vintage gun from the British Army (also used by Canadian troops in WWII and, for all I know, still is today).

I stepped up to the booth, looked the blonde straight in the eye (not easy) and said, “Look, I’ve never fired a gun in my life. I’m looking for something really simple. Also, you should know I have girly wrists,” flapping my hands by way of illustration.

“Uh…” said our hostess while Jon stifled a laugh. Behind me, I heard a sideburn bristle menacingly.

Recovering, blondie recommended a gun whose name I forget but contained a bunch of the more macho consonants (in case you’re wondering: X, T and K are macho. L, H, F are not. Y was for a while until it was outed as a closet vowel, which are totally not macho).

Our menu selections complete, we entered the store, at which point we were signed our release forms (In signing this document, I recognize that guns are dangerous, as are the fumes, the noise, the bullets emanating from them, as are other Gun Store customers, and so I hereby release the proprietors and staff from any liability. I further affirm that I did not take a taxi to this Gun Store). We were then invited to pick our targets, which ranged from generic bulls-eyes, to images of Osama Bin Laden, to zombies. There was also a pair of brown guys holding handguns that I guess were supposed to be terrorists, but were dressed like average North American dudes, and were even depicted with friendly smiles on their faces. They could have been customers of the Gun Store, if the Gun Store existed in a parallel universe in whcih it had non-white customers. Maybe they were supposed to be taxi drivers? Slightly creeped out by the options, Jon and I selected generic targets without faces, and were handed our clips and told to wait.

Eventually, it was our turn to be ushered onto the range. We donned our ear covers and eye protection, and took our places. Jeff, our range instructor, started with Jon – loading the gun for him, placing each of his hands on the weapon, and telling him how long to squeeze the trigger.

Of course, Jon had only paid for fifty rounds, and the Tommie gun is an automatic rifle. It is designed to shoot quickly. Jon paid $70 bucks for this experience, and did not want to shoot quickly. Yes, he rented an automatic rifle in order to shoot slowly. This is why he is my friend.

Jeff: You have to hold the trigger down, for at least four rounds.

Jon: Ok (Rat-tat!)

Jeff: Ok, good – but you have to hold the trigger longer.

Jon: Sure! (Rat-tat!)

Jeff: Ok, aim a little lower, and really, hold the trigger longer. Four rounds.

Jon: Right! (Rat-tat!)

Jeff: You’re going to jam the gun.

Jon: (Rat-tat-tat).

Jeff: Harumph.

After Jon’s Tommie reluctantly expectorated the last of his rounds, I was up. I will be honest – I was nervous as all get out, and had been trembling slightly ever since we set foot in the store. Just holding a gun was getting my adrenaline pumping, which was not helped by the fact that I kept getting hit by hot shells waiting for Jon to finish mangling his paper target.

In any case, I had two clips of ten rounds to work my way through. My first shot came closer to the target adjacent to mine that what I was aiming at. I think my second shot hit the floor before reaching the target. My third shot probably alarmed the target quite a bit as it whistled by into the sand pile on the rear wall. The next few shots hit more or less on the paper, but never within a foot of where I thought I was pointing the gun. This I will blame on the aforementioned girly wrists.

For the second clip, Jeff explained how I was supposed to line up the sight. “You see the white dot? That should line up right in the center.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. That was a lie. I didn’t see a white dot. My heart was pounding so much, my vision had gone blurry, even with my glasses on. Nonetheless, I fired off the next ten shots with much greater accuracy, but I have to say, I cannot imagine being able to operate one of those things effectively if I was actually trying to hit something that could move, let alone shoot back at me. Of course, I was slightly distracted by the pair of sideburns firing an anti-aircraft gun in the booth next to mine.

We took our targets as souvenirs, and exited the store, passing a giddy woman with a pink M-16 and an Osama target on our way out. Suitably pumped up, we climbed back into the Civic (which had stayed nice and cool in the Vegas heat, thanks to the shade cast by the neighbouring monster-trucks), and hit the road for Death Valley.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death Valley, Part I: I had to start this story in 1985? What?

Death Valley is the most deadly and dangerous spot in the United States. It is a pit of horrors - the haunt of all that is grim and ghoulish. Such animal and reptile life as infests this pest-hole is of ghastly shape, rancorous nature and diabolically ugly. It breeds only noxious and venomous things. Its dead do not decompose, but are baked, blistered and embalmed by the scorching heat through countless ages. It is surely the nearest to a little hell upon earth that the whole wicked world can produce. New York World, September 16, 1894

My trip to Death Valley began 25 years ago, in my fifth-grade classroom in Nova Scotia. My teacher had – foolishly – assigned me a seat within easy reach of the in-class stash of books, which I would read indiscriminately and heedless of whatever lesson was happening around me.

The books ran the gamut – I read “The Hobbit” that year, the entire Narnia chronicles (twice), a number of Enid Blyton “Famous Five” books, Farley Mowat’s “The Dog that Wouldn’t Be.”

Other than Joan Clark’s “The Hand of Robin Squires” (which led to adventures of an entirely different kind) no book that I read under my desk sticks in my mind as much as… well, I don’t remember the title. It was some compendium of “Amazing Tales” drawn from the U.S. designed to get boys to read, and was filled with AMAZING TALES indeed: Escape from Alcatraz! Evel Knievel jumps Snake Canyon! Rocket Cars! The Sabre Tooth Tiger of the Tar Pits! The Corvette! And, of course, Death Valley!

The name alone would have got me, as is has many thousands of others, but there was more: It was below sea level? But dry? My ten-year-old mind couldn’t even understand how that worked. It was the hottest place in North America? Wow! The driest! Sure! It had scorpions! It had rattlesnakes! It had gold mines, and cowboys, and con-men and ne’er do wells of all sorts! Sweet Rabbi Jesus, I wanted to go there.

When we found out, two years ago, that we were moving to California, my first thought – I am not exaggerating, literally my first thought – was that I would be getting my chance to go to Death Valley. It was the only place in all of California I really wanted to see – not L.A., not San Francisco, not the beaches or the celebrities.

I had not had a chance to actually visit the place, despite it being a tantalizing three-hour drive from my home. I was waiting my moment, and my moment arrived when my friend Jon called from Ottawa. He wanted to come visit and
per established practice, bond over the experience of shared hardship, canned food, and non-existent plumbing. And what better place to re-capture our camping mojo than in a place that features mountains (in which we’d never before camped), desert (in which we’d never before camped) and a variety of poisonous animals (with which we had no familiarity). I mean, surely Death Valley is only called that to attract tourists, right?

Once we’d decided on the locale, and the method by which we’d get there, we decided to do some research (this goes against every camping principle I hold dear, but hey, I’m a Dad now). And so, I called up the Death Valley Park Rangers in order to get some advice on how one might go about camping there.

Before this phone call, I was interested in Death Valley. After the phone call, I was excited about Death Valley. The reason for the shift was the man I reached, Jay Stone. Is that not the perfect Death Valley Park Ranger name? Go on, say it out loud in a Clint Eastwood voice. Even better, he had just about the most agreeable horse ridin' tobacco chawin' cattle-drivin' drawl I ever did hear.

He told me that camp site we’d want on the first night, when we were driving in, was Texas Springs. “It's generator-free,” he explained. “Is it tent-only?” I asked. “I don’t reckon,” he reckoned. “But you’re not like to have much in the way of company that time a' year.”

For water, we should have 4 liters per person per day ("That's what I count on when I go canyoneering") Temperatures, he informed me, “get up to 80 easy, even in March.” I forgot to ask about the nighttime lows, such were my palpitations at his manliness.

For backpacking, he described Surprise Canyon, for which we were to park outside the park and hike in: “That’s what I’d do,” he said, in a tone that made it clear that this being America, land of the free, he wasn’t about to impose his will on our dreams by offering an endorsement stronger than that. All in all, he seemed amused by my tenderfoot apprehensions, and gave me his direct office number so "I don't have to walk all the way over here from my desk if you call again," which gave me a mental image of his office being at the far end of a converted cow barn or something, with an ole’ style telephony machine at the far end at which he would occasionally shoot with his Colt Revolver.

He also promised to mail me "Everything we've got" in terms of pamphlets as he held scant hope the dude-ranch posers and layabouts he worked with got my message requesting same from the week before.

I think I fell in love with Jay Stone, Death Valley Park Ranger, just a little bit.

IN THE NEXT POST: Mommas, don't let your sons take a taxi to the Gun Store!