Life is like a hen house ladder. Shitty and short.
This quote is by Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a teacher of ancient history at the Barton Academy, a New England boarding school for boys. Nobody likes Hunham. His students hate him for his rigidity, his fellow faculty members find him pompous, and the headmaster despises him. And he smells.
It’s Christmas 1971. All the students go home for the break to be with their families, but there are always a few that can’t go home for various reasons. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a misfit 15-year-old, gets a call at the last minute from his mother who scheduled an impromptu honeymoon with her new husband and does not want him with her. Hunham is assigned by the headmaster to stay at the school to chaperone the holdovers. There is also Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook, who also has no place to go since her only son just died in the war in Vietnam and this is her first Christmas alone.
The unlikely trio has no choice but to come together and make this work for two weeks over the holidays. Whether they planned it or not, they get to know each other, and learn each other’s deepest secrets. In the process, they bond and learn life lessons and all realize that whatever happened in the past happened, and their future is in front of them.
The Holdovers is an emotional holiday movie, a little like The Breakfast Club from 1985 – could it really have been that long ago? – where a group of people of completely different backgrounds is thrown together and eventually create bonds.
A few weeks ago, my son and I were spending the night at the Hampton Inn in Barstow, California on the way to the Grand Canyon. We were going to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim, starting at the north rim. Here is the first post about that. Before going to sleep, I finished my last book, the Mapmaker’s Daughter, and I was looking for the next book to read.
Checking my reading list, I just happened to spot The Trail, a novel about hiking the John Muir Trail in the California Sierra. My son had hiked that trail twice already, and I had hiked in provisions to him once. It would be so fitting to be reading a book about hiking while doing an epic hike myself. I started reading The Trail in that hotel room, and then every night in that little tent in my sleeping bag. It got dark in the Grand Canyon at 7:00pm and remained dark until almost 7:00am the next morning. Since there was no way I could just sleep for twelve hours, there was not much to do but read.
The Trail was the perfect book for that.
The John Muir Trail is a 211-mile long trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, traversing some of this country’s greatest wilderness area.
The story is about Gil, whose father had recently died, and who had lost his job in a law firm. He accompanied this father’s friend Syd, who was dying of cancer, and wanted to do one more epic hike before he passed.
If you have read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, you will get a sense of this story. The author is definitely an experienced hiker. He tells the main story of the two characters ruminating about the meaning of life, while in a back story, we learn the history of the John Muir Trail, and the early exploration of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, including all the early explorers, their adventures, and how the various mountains, streams and valleys got their names.
There are many maps beautifully illustrated by Jeremy Ashcroft, and the book is broken down into chapters for every day on the trail.
If you are a hiker, and particularly if you are even thinking about long distance hiking, you should definitely read The Trail and you’ll learn a lot, not just about this particular trail, but about the backpacking experience in general. I loved reading this book while backpacking – it does not get any better than that.
There was just one minor thing that I found annoying about the author’s style. For reasons I cannot grasp he kept using colloquial contractions, like wanna, gonna, coulda, etc. It’s one thing to use these expressions in quoted dialog, where it makes the dialog seem real. But he didn’t do that. He used them in exposition.
I was a champion swimmer. I coulda saved him. After that day, I could never get near deep water again.
…but I didn’t wanna press the point.
I probably shoulda spent more time shopping.
It was my fault. I shoulda been with him.
Weird, isn’t it? Not a big deal, but this happens a hundred times in the book, and every time I found it distracting. It seems completely unnecessary to me, and not doing this would not have hurt the book in any way.
I enjoyed reading The Trail. If you like to hike, you’ll enjoy it too.
The City of London itself is actually to the left of this picture but was out of reach of my airplane window. On the right you can see the white dome of the O2 arena, where many world-class concerts and sports events are held.
The Mapmaker’s Daughter is a book of historical fiction that plays in England and partly in Holland in the 1580 time period.
Frieda Ortelius as a young girl in Holland when her parents are brutally killed by the Spanish as part of the Inquisition. The Catholics (the Spanish) were killing Protestants during that time, and one of the havens for Protestants was England, ruled then by Queen Elizabeth I.
Frieda escapes and makes a life for herself with her seafaring husband in London. She comes from a family of mapmakers, and she learns the trade and excels so much that she catches the attention of the Queen. During a time of war with the Spanish, Francis Drake was a privateer working for the English crown. Queen Elizabeth eventually commissions Frieda to create a detailed map of the south of England to help Drake in the fight against the Spanish.
This is all good historical fiction, and I learned a lot about the period and how the people suffered from the Inquisition and the tyranny of the Spanish.
However, interwoven between the chapters about Frieda’s life and story is another story in the present day: Robin Willoughby is a thirty-six-year-old woman who works in her father’s antique map store when they find a blood-stained map they cannot identify. Robin goes on a quest to find out. However, along with Robin comes Robin’s husband Nate, who vanished seven years before during a solo around the world sailing race. The Vendée Globe is the greatest sailing race round the world, solo, non-stop and without assistance, and it is also by far the most dangerous of all sailing adventures.
Throughout the entire book, Robin pines after Nate and the pain she goes through even after seven years fills the chapters in this book. At first I thought there must be some plot twist that would explain the presence of Nate as a significant protagonist in this story, but sadly, there wasn’t any. While I am sure his death was tragic, and while I am sure his wife suffered, none of that had anything to do with this story and it simply resulted in more words on the pages that didn’t move anything along.
As a matter of my opinion, the author could have left Robin out of the book altogether without loss of impact. Of course, the book would have only been half as long.
But as the Germans like to say: In der Kürze liegt die Würze.
All in all, an interesting historical novel with way, way, way too much fluff that did nothing but water it down and make it longer.
By the way, if you are interested in learning more about the Vendée Globe, there are several books that tell a riveting story:
I read Godforsaken Sea many years ago before I had started doing my book reviews, so I can’t show you that. But it’s an amazing read about the 1996-97 race. Another book about the same race is Alone: The True Story of the Man Who Fought the Sharks, Waves, and Weather of the South Atlantic – by Michael Calvin. I have not yet read Alone.
Next, we will hike from the North Rim to the South Rim, about three or four days in the Canyon, spanning more than 20 miles. The best time to do that is October. Time to put in for reservations now.
It has taken 12 years for us to finally make it. I tried for a number of years to get reservations. You can day-hike the canyon any time without advance reservations. A lot of people do this, but it’s a very stressful and challenging endeavor, not something many in their sixties attempt. I am more interested in hiking for pleasure and spend time. For that, you need reservations that are very difficult to get. There is a lottery involved, and I was never successful.
This year I tried, and got permission to hike from the North Rim down to Cottonwood camp ground for the on day 1, then to the Phantom Ranch at the Colorado river on day 2, then up to Havasupai Gardens (formerly named Indian Gardens) on day 3, and finally back out to the South Rim on day 4.
Here is a picture of us just at sunset arriving on October 10 at the South Rim.
We stayed the night at a lodge on the rim and took an early morning shuttle around the canyon to the North Rim, which is what you see on the horizon behind us in the picture above. The shuttle ride from the South Rim to the North Rim takes five hours, since it has to go way east and all around the canyon before heading back west to the trailhead and lodge at the North Rim.
We arrived at the trailhead at the North Rim at about 1:00pm on October 11 and knew we had just enough time to comfortably hike down to the Cottonwood Campground. Here is the map of our hike of approximately 7 miles. We arrived just before sunset with enough time to make camp.
We hiked for 7.07 miles and it took us 4 hours and 31 minutes. We went from 8,290 feet down to 4,049 feet.
Here we are, fresh from our five hour shuttle ride in a cramped van, at the trailhead.
This is the start of the trail. The North Rim is at about 8,300 feet of elevation, about 1,500 feet higher than the South Rim which is at approximately 6,800 feet elevation. The ecosystem is very different with dense old forest, sprinkled with many aspen groves. It also gets colder there. The rangers told us that it was below freezing the night we left and they had already had their first snow. They were closing the park at the North Rim after this week.
Here are some views of the trail from high up. You can see aspens in bright red, and of course the South Rim way in the distance on the horizon.
A little farther down you can see stretches of the trail where we will be going, with the canyon walls lit up by the afternoon sun.
More trail pictures. Make sure you click on the images to enlarge them to see the details.
We enjoyed very dramatic vistas in all directions. The Grand Canyon is a spectacular place.
There was a mule train that passed us. Guides take tourists down on mules to the Supai Tunnel, which takes about an hour, and then back up. Hikers must step to the side and wait when the mules pass.
It’s a very steep descent for the first hour via many switchbacks. Here is a picture of the Supai Tunnel with me under it. This where the mule trains from the North Rim usually turn around.
Here is Devin at a rest spot on the way down.
And here you can see me from the same place.
Here is Devin hiking along a steep wall:
Finally, after about four and a half hours of hiking mostly downhill (watch those knees and ankles) we arrived at Cottonwood Campground. There are only eleven camps and you pick the first available one. Ours was quite secluded. The campgrounds along the main corridor as they call it, have picnic tables, bars to hang backpacks and rodent-proof food boxes. Sure enough, while we were eating dinner at the table in dusk Devin spotted some mice attacking my food stash I had left on the rock at the right of this picture. I had to chase them away and quickly store my food in the boxes provided. The tent on the right is mine, and Devin’s bivvy bedroll is on the very left.
It gets dark at about 6:30pm and it’s pitch black by 7:00. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, we crawled into our tents, read for a while and were asleep soon after.
Here is a map of the hike for day 2. It’s basically a straight line down from Cottonwood to the Phantom Ranch at the Colorado River. The second half of the hike goes through what they call “the Box” which is a section of steep canyon walls.
We hiked for 7.88 miles and it took us 3 hours and 37 minutes. We went from 4,060 feet down to 2,501 feet.
But here is how the day started. I got up first and I started boiling water for the coffee and our cereal breakfasts. Devin was still in his bivvy reading. Behind him you see our food box, which were available at each camp in every campground to keep aggressive rodents away from our food.
After the morning chores and packing our packs, we were on our way. At the beginning the trail is fairly flat. In the center of the picture, in the very back, you can see first glimpses of the South Rim. That is where we are eventually headed.
A little farther down the trail, you see me, the happy hiker.
Eventually we get close to “the Box” with steep canyon walls on all sides. The Bright Angel Creek is to my right and the trail basically follows the creek all the way down to the river.
A little farther down in the box, here is Devin taking a look. Check out the rocks here. We are down at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. These rocks exposed here are over 1.7 billion years old. These layers were formed over one billion years before there were any living organisms on earth. Most the walls of the Grand Canyon are older than life itself. Only the very top layers contain fossilized shark teeth. Sharks were some of the very first complex animals to appear in the oceans.
Thinking of these geological time scales almost takes my breath away when I compare it to our short lives. We truly are dust in the wind, and that feeling is overwhelming here in the Grand Canyon.
We’re getting close to the ranch. There is a camp for trail mules just before we get there.
The vistas are dramatic. Tall cottonwood trees cover the ranch area. You can see the first buildings toward the right of the picture. and again, across the center of the photo you see the layer of rock that is almost two billion years old.
There is a canteen at the Phantom Ranch!
It’s just a little store, but you can get cold beer and many other luxuries. We hungry and thirsty hikers bought ourselves a Fat Tire brew and chatted with other hikers on the picnic benches outside. Of course, everything we consume down here was carried in by mule trains. You can guess what things cost here.
There is lodging in cabins available. They are rustic. Two twin beds, a toilet and a sink. And a bench outside. They also have group cabins. A cabin for two people costs about $220 per night. It’s now October 2023. The first available cabins are now being booked for December 2024, and you have to enter a lottery to get them. So there are no guarantees. Here you can see a few small cabins.
This is a view of the ranger station.
There is also an amphitheater. Rangers make presentations there about a variety of topics. We attended a stargazing session. Due to the complete darkness in the canyon the stars were amazing.
Here was the sign guiding us to the campground when we first arrived.
We set up camp in spot #12. It turns out that 12 years ago we stayed right next to this spot, right behind the bushes behind Devin. In the foreground you can see my tent and Devin’s behind it.
Right next to my tent, about 6 feet behind it, looking the other way, I saw a couple of deer enjoying themselves. These deer are obviously used to humans, as they didn’t mind our being there at all.
Here is another one in our camp on the next morning, munching on a tree, just as we were leaving.
From here on, the trail went only uphill. The hard part was now in front of us.
Day 3 is the hike from the Phantom Ranch, across the Colorado river, and up to Havasupai Gardens. It’s all uphill so we tried to get an early start.
We hiked for 5.62 miles and it took us 3 hours and 34 minutes. We went from 2,453 feet up to 3,861 feet.
After leaving the camp, we soon got to the river. Here is a view of the bridge over the Colorado where the South Kaibab Trail comes down. We did not cross that bridge.
Here is a view of the river looking the other direction, from the main bridge.
Here you can see Devin on the bridge and of course, again a great view of those two billion year old rocks behind him.
We switched phones and you have shot of me. We were very careful so we didn’t drop the phones. They would have slipped right between the steel slots and down into the raging river with no chance of recovery.
The trail meanders along the river heading west for a while.
And then it finally turns south for the steep ascent.
Here I am turning around and looking back where Devin is coming up. In the left lower corner you can see parts of the trail from where we just came.
Watch out, there are rattlesnakes in the Grand Canyon. This one was a bit fat in the middle and slow. It must have just had a meal of a mouse.
There is a section of the trail they call “the devil’s corkscrew” which is a series of steep switchbacks. Here we are above those, looking back down on a section of the corkscrew.
Finally we arrived at Havasupai Gardens. These camps even had canopy covers.
We arrived shortly after noon, and we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy camp life, including a dip in the ice-cold creek to wash off.
The final day is the most challenging one. We need to climb 3,000 feet in just 5 miles of trail.
We hiked for 4.99 miles and it took us 3 hours and 30 minutes. We went from 3,837 feet up to 6,843 feet, which makes it by far the most strenuous day of our trip.
Here is the trail just after leaving the Havasupai Gardens campground. You can see at the red arrow where we’re headed. That’s the spot on the South Rim where we will eventually exit after hiking five miles straight up.
Looking back into Havasupai Gardens where we just camped.
Along the trail there is a popular rest area with water and bathrooms and a place to hitch mules.
Here is a mule train passing us on the way down, bringing those Fat Tire beers and all the other provisions tourists consume down in the canteen. The arrow at the top points to our exit spot.
We had not planned for this at all:
However, the annular eclipse that occurred in Southern Utah the morning of October 14 just happened to be right during the time of our climb up. I had made the reservations for that day many, many months in advance and I had no idea that would be the day of the eclipse. But when we found out on the North Rim, we purchased a set of eclipse glasses. Looking up the wall, you can see the light of the sun hitting the right side of the canyon, but most of the trail is in the shade. It was just before 9:00am, the maximum coverage of the sun at this latitude. It would not be completely annular. We were hoping we’d find a good spot in the sun to see it.
It was very eerie. The sun hitting the walls of the Grand Canyon is usually very bright, but here we were in strange twilight.
Finally we got close to a light spot, but it was not on the trail. Devin scouted out a way to get across a side arm of the canyon and just reached that spot. Here he is wearing the eclipse glasses.
And here I am, looking at the sun. It was just a sliver. We had no way to take a picture of it with our phones. We were not far from Southern Utah from here, so this was as covered as the sun would get. The pictures don’t do it justice. It was at least 10 degrees cooler than it would normally have been in that spot, and the light was very strange in the Grand Canyon.
What an experience of a lifetime: Seeing an eclipse surrounded by this splendor of nature!
Once we were there, other hikers saw us and followed us over to that spot. If you zoom in you can see some of them just to the right of the tree. That’s where we had to scramble to in order to get out of the shade of the opposite wall that was blocking the sliver of the sun.
Here is a section of the map. The red arrow points to the spot we scrambled to in order to see the sun. The green arrow points to another spot later where the sun hit the trail. Everyone on the trail seemed to stop at that spot for a good view.
Still in the twilight, I am looking down from where we came. The campground we left a few hours before is at the red arrow.
Here is a picture of me with the Havasupai Gardens campground down below.
Finally we reached the last major layer of rock, the youngest rock, just some 200 to 300 million years old. We’re at the top of the white layer, and the red arrow points to that line on the North Rim in the far distance. We’re almost at the top.
Here we are within 5 minutes of arriving. At the red arrow you can see the Kolb Studio. It is located in the Historic District of Grand Canyon Village, just west of Bright Angel Lodge, and near Bright Angel Trailhead. This is a historic, sprawling, 5-story and 23-room building perched right on the rim of Grand Canyon. The photographers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb helped turn the Grand Canyon into a national icon. They built Kolb Studio, one of the earliest tourist destinations on the South Rim.
They began to take photographs of the mule riders from a small toll shack on the Bright Angel Trail. The toll shack would later become today’s five story home, theater and photo studio built right on the edge of the canyon. The studio was used to document the trips of visitors and create imagery of Grand Canyon for 75 years.
And here we are at the top. After four days of hiking, covering over 24 miles, and going down and up more than a mile in altitude. Mission accomplished.
I took one more photo looking down into the splendor of the Grand Canyon.
About a month ago my wife and I were on a cruise in Alaska. This is her with the pink backpack in a picture I took next to the Noordam, the ship we were sailing in. We were boarding after a shore excursion in Scagway, Alaska.
It was my first cruise – and I loved it.
Today we took some friends who were visiting from Colorado down to San Diego. We drove to Coronado Island and took a ferry across San Diego Bay to the Broadway Pier, a 10 minute ride. And what did I see?
The Noordam, moored to the pier in San Diego. My heart skipped a beat. After they dropped us off in Vancouver, the ship went back up to Alaska, then presumably back again, and then it finally made its way to San Diego. We had talked to the crew and they had told us that after the season in Alaska ended at the end of September, they’d make their way to Australia and New Zealand to tour there for the summer in the southern hemisphere. I am assuming the ship stopped here on its way there.
Here is a better shot from the bow. In San Diego, I could get closer to the ship for this kind of picture than I ever did during the cruise in Alaska.
All kinds of memories flooded back. Sitting up in the crow’s nest from the very top, looking out and seeing humpback whales in front of the boat. Standing on this very bow in Glacier Bay looking out on glaciers. Hanging out in our cabin, sitting on the balcony and looking at the waters speeding by below.
All great memories – and I wanted to get right back on the ship and sail along with her. But the best thing we could do is to have our friend take this picture of us in front of the ship in San Diego.
Piestewa Peak is the prominent peak in the middle of Phoenix, second only to Camelback Mountain. I know I hiked that mountain a long, long time ago, but that’s all I remember. I had no recollection of the hike itself or when I did it. It must have been in the late 1970s, more than 40 years ago. Back then the mountain was called Squaw Peak.
It was renamed in 2003 in honor of Lori Piestewa, a Hopi woman and a member of the U.S. Army who was killed in action during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The renaming was part of an effort to eliminate derogatory and offensive names from geographic features and recognize the contributions of Native Americans and other individuals. Lori Piestewa was the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military.
Renaming the peak in her honor was a way to pay tribute to her sacrifice and Native American heritage.
I set my alarm to 4:30am, so I would be at the trailhead by about 5:00am. I wanted to see the sunrise from the peak – and I wanted to beat the heat of the day.
It was dark in the parking lot, and I had not brought any headlight or flashlight. But there was a 3/4 moon high above and it lit up the trail just nicely. I had no trouble finding my way and watching my steps.
The hike is actually listed as strenuous. It’s about 1.2 miles up and then the same way back, with an elevation gain of 1,151 feet. That’s quite steep, and I felt it.
Here is a picture of nearby Camelback Mountain to the east, before the sunrise. The lights of the vast expanse of Phoenix in all directions at night were spectacular.
Here is a section of the trail with the peak close within reach.
I took this picture on the way down, so the sky is light, but I wanted to show you the steepness of the trail and how rough it was as I approached the summit.
And finally, here I am at the peak. The sun is not quite up yet.
Looking over to the main peak, there are about a dozen of us up there waiting for the sunrise.
At the top was a Japanese folk artist by the name of Ken Koshio. He has carried up several musical instruments, including bells, a flute, and as you can see a large drum, every day since March 28, 2020. He says he has celebrated the sunrise on the mountain every single day since then, more than 1280 times (he gave the exact number but I didn’t write it down). Here is his website.
Ken drummed up the sun for our small group huddling on she sharp rocks.
Once the sun was up it was time to make my way down. There are several prominent “windows” facing west looking down on Phoenix. This is one view with the bright sun behind me lighting up the rock to my right.
I was back down around 8:00am to start my day and my first meeting at 9:00.
A few weeks ago we were in Alaska, and during a short visit to Juneau, I took a walk up the hill to the government area.
Here is the front view of the Alaska State Capitol:
I walked to my left and just a hundred feet down the street is the State Office Building:
Many years ago I developed a student identification tracking system for the State of Alaska, and I remember many phone calls with folks in Alaska. I assume they work in this building. From where I was standing to take this photo, when I turned around, this was my view: Another angle of the State Capitol:
Then I walked up the street to my left, and just about five minutes up the hill is the Governor’s Mansion:
It’s a nice home right by a city street, just a very short walk from the Capitol and the State Office Building. It seemed very accessible. I could have walked up to the door and knocked, if I had wanted to.
In fact, it’s a very unassuming location. Here is a street picture from the other side of this building:
As you can see, there is just normal street parking of the neighbors. The white building on the right is the Governor’s Mansion.
Of course I didn’t even know the name of the current governor. I had to look it up: Mike Dunleavy. He was a teacher and educator before he entered politics. Here is his Wikipedia page.
Of course, as we all know, the governorship of Alaska became notorious in the 2007 election with Sarah Palin.
I enjoyed my short stroll to check out the government complex in Juneau.
Today during a morning stroll in Albany, New York, I was able to get a nice shot of the State Capitol.
By the time the building was finished in 1899, it was the most expensive building ever constructed in the United States. It took 32 years to complete, which supposedly is longer than it took to build the Great Pyramid of Giza.