Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saying Hello to Uncle Daniel

In light of HBO's The Pacific, which began airing a few weeks ago, I thought I would mention a small tradition that I undertake whenever I'm back in San Francisco. I've already devoted considerable space on this blog to my treasured SF runs (click on the running tag for a sampling), and I've also discussed how much I enjoy spending time on the Coastal Trail, which traces the northwestern boundary of the City. One of the (so far) unstated reasons that I particularly like the Coastal Trail, however, is that in the course of any run or hike along its sandy path I get a chance to say hello to my Great Uncle Daniel.
The entrance to the Bay, as seen from Land's End
To clarify, Uncle Dan does not live along or perpetually stand on the Coastal Trail, although that would certainly make for rich blog fodder. His memorial, however, does; it stands right at Land's End, at the point where San Francisco drops into the Pacific, and thus at the half-way point for all of these runs and hikes. As a result, before I turn around and head east to home, I spend a few silent moments with the memory of him and his men, which is made all the more poignant by the memorial's vantage point over the interminable Pacific.
U.S.S. San Francisco Memorial
Uncle Dan, along with other male members of my family, was a U.S. Admiral who served in the Pacific Theatre during WWII; he was also FDR's naval attache and the commander of FDR's presidential yacht prior to the war's commencement. While in the Pacific, Uncle Dan commanded the U.S.S. San Francisco, and the bridge of this ship--its sides now pock-marked with shell-holes--is what stands on the Land's End precipice today. Why the ship bridge now rests here, of course, is somewhat self-evident. During the first naval Battle of Guadalcanal, which took place in the middle of the night on November 13th, 1942, Uncle Dan discovered that his ship was surrounded by Japanese Admiral Hiroaki Abe's destroyers; he ordered an aggressive attack, and was soon killed along with most of the ship's senior "bridge" staff. Survivors continuously stumbled over his long 6'6" frame, which was lying across the bridge, for the remainder of the dark battle.
6000 miles to Guadalcanal
My great-grandfather, who was commanding the U.S.S. Missouri in a different part of the Pacific, knew his brother's fate soon after; my grandfather, who would soon leave for the Naval Academy himself, learned of it from a newspaper while riding the streetcar home from high school. It's difficult for me to conceptualize what any of these experiences might have felt like--the battle, the news, or the war itself. A few years ago my siblings and I were on a memorial cruise of the U.S.S. Potomac on San Francisco Bay; one of the men on board was one of the U.S.S. San Francisco's survivors, and he spoke reverentially to us of our great-uncle's leadership during the battle as well as during the days prior. I don't know that I've ever felt more alien from someone with whom I've spoken; it's as though he were describing an experience that he'd had on Mars. And I'm very grateful that--fingers crossed--such experiences have remained so unfamiliar.

I think about these things, sometimes, when I'm out at Land's End; other times I just watch the water, which stretches thousands of miles beyond my sight line. Then I kiss my fingertips, place them on Uncle Dan's name, and run home.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Interview with Dan Poston

Dan is his homeboy
I've eaten funnel cake in Bryant Park with exactly one person: Dan Poston. In the spirit of that singluar experience I would add that Dan knows more about giraffes, psychoanalysis, and staging classical dramas in space than anyone else I know. He also makes a very good root soup.
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CGC: If you could be any animal, which would you be and why?

DP: Hard to answer since being an animal of another kind would change my motivational system. I think it would be nice to be a large bird who was more intelligent than large snakes and carnivorous mammals, who felt safe flying through a network of its species' earth-traversing tunnels and enjoyed sunny landscapes and wormholes to planets like Saturn.

CGC: When is the perfect time to visit Iguazu Falls?

DP: When you need to be overwhelmed. There is at least one spot and time of a particular day when that can happen for you there quite unexpectedly or overwhelmingly, but you have to find it yourself and you might miss it, in which case Iguazu will just weep vacantly in close almost cold amistad.

CGC: Are the books of Dr. Seuss more or less accessible than the works of Sophocles?

DP: The books of Dr. Seuss are just pleasant rhyming books written by a very kind, warm man who knew a lot. Sophocles' plays are already accessed. They are about gods. I think we already think like Sophocles' plays, so reading them can be like having an empty resonant headache, or it can just be distracting how weird and idiosyncratic the words or rituals used to be. Seamus Heaney's Burial at Thebes is a great adaptation of Antigone.

CGC: Riverside Park is the best place in New York City for a walk: discuss.

DP: I would like to erase the question and yet not claim falsely.

CGC: Complete the following sentence: I am the ____________ painter you will ____________ .

DP: I am the lover of a painter you will meet in a dream of nighttime desert mountain rain storms and nice far back eyes.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

March on Mt. Washington

Mt. Washington, as seen from Jennings Peak
Mt. Washington possesses an imaginative hold over me, and to be honest, I'm not really sure why. It's not a particularly interesting looking mountain, nor is it particularly high. Its fauna resembles little of that of the California coastal range or the Sierra Nevada, the two mountain playgrounds with which I grew up, and its weather can be brutally miserable--far more miserable than a mountain of its size should dictate. And yet, I find myself often daydreaming about Mt. Washington when I imagine new trips and hikes to undertake. Maybe the legend of Tyler Hamilton's multiple victories in the Mt. Washington Hill Climb has something to do with this, or the fact that the mountain stands in one of my favorite states. Either way, when NCT and I began casting about for a quick early spring trip, a winter summit of Mt. Washington immediately came to mind.

As I've previously noted, after driving north from New York City through the Connecticut River Valley and cutting east on NH RT-25, we woke up bright and early in Plymouth, NH, on Saturday morning and headed to the Sandwich Range. This chain of smaller peaks lies just south of Waterville Valley, and from its summits one can see both Western Maine as well as Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Washington. One purpose of this trip was to familiarize ourselves with crampons and ice axes--neither of which I've used in the past--and so NCT and I strapped on our winter climbing boots and walked across a tiny snow bridge before hiking up Jennings and Noon Peaks. As a first-time crampon wearer, I approached the icy trail gingerly (regular hiking habits die hard), and it wasn't until I started stomping each foot into the packed snow that I began to appreciate the sheer awesomeness that is the crampon. NCT articulated the experience best--"I feel like a spider", he commented at one point, while hanging from a vertical section of trail--and while we duck-walked up the mountain, I started humming "Spider Pig" under my breath. This resulted in the same outcome that my singing of The Sound of Music repertoire did in the Alps, and after NCT thus made it clear that he would no longer tolerate "Spider Pig", I switched to "Walk like a Duck" (sung to the tune of The Four Seasons's "Walk like a Man"). As a result, we then each did our own thing for a little while, and rendezvoused just before the summit of Jennings Peak.
Western Maine
The winds on Jennings Peak, which is about half the height of Mt. Washington, were very strong, and I began to worry about our summit attempt on the latter the next day. As luck would have it, a winter storm was scheduled to hit the Eastern Seaboard within the next twelve hours, and a successful summit began to look unlikely. Still, we rose at 4:45 the next morning and decided to hike as high as we could. As we drove north along the Pemigawasset River, the mountains alongside I-93 began to shape; when the sun rose, Cannon Mountain immediately loomed into view. Rain had been falling for about an hour by the time we reached the Ammonnoosuc Ravine trail head, and the winds in just the parking lot felt as strong as they had the day before on the top of Jennings. We didn't say much as we strapped on snowshoes and placed our crampons inside our packs.

An avalanche two weeks before had stripped one side of the ravine completely bare, and given the deep snow pack, we hiked up the opposite side of the gully from the traditional trail. Once we began climbing above Gem Pond (about two miles from the trail head), the rain turned into ice pellets, and given the strength of the wind, the pellets felt like shards of glass when they struck our faces. Still, the beauty of the trail and the snow-covered birch trees was undeniable, and I couldn't help but marvel at how wonderfully different snowshoeing up the mountain felt from summer hiking. When we reached the treeline just below the ridge and the Lake of the Clouds hut, we stopped to strap on our ski goggles, face masks, and extra layers. I took a deep breath, and we emerged above the trees and into the full force of 60mph sustained winds. The world became entirely white; the wind-whipped snow pack beneath my feet, the swirling ice and snow blowing around us, and the occasional, jarring appearance of a krummholz were all that I could see. I felt as though I were walking on the moon, and given how little I could hear, smell, feel, or actually see (given the goggles, wind, head layers, mittens, etc.), I don't think I've ever experienced such sensory dissociation. It was incredible.

The makeshift Ammonoosuc trail, just below Gem Pond
The wind impeded any real progress, and two gusts of 80mph almost knocked me over and nearly resulted in the loss of my poles. Given the wind's strength, we decided to turn around before we reached the ridge and gusts of even greater force; descending into those winds, however, proved even more difficult. We would start to glissade on our snowshoes when the wind would literally push us into stumbling or slipping; at one point I wondered if it would be faster to crawl down. That said, once we reached the treeline we were able to commence full-on glissading, and we essentially "skied" our way back to Gem Pond. At certain points the trail even resembled an icy luge track, and an inadvertent fall (which I still wish I could have seen given how hard NCT was laughing) turned me into a human bullet. I think I might have descended those forty feet 100 times faster than I ascended them.

By the time we returned to the trail head, at which point the snow/ice had transformed back into rain, NCT and I looked like two human icees. Everything was soaked and coated with a slushy frost; I pulled a wet ball of Cliff bar out of my pocket and contemplated using it for a prank, but ultimately decided that it was too disgusting even for that. We unsuccessfully tried to dry ourselves with the car heater before driving to the Crawford Notch Lodge for bowls of steaming chili and mugs of hot chocolate. We sat in front of a huge fireplace and stared catatonically at the fire while we devoured our food. After several minutes of silence, I looked at NCT, and he stared back at me. "I'm really, really cold", I said. "And I think my feet are wet".

Birches on Mt. Washington
Fortunately, our motel room possessed a powerful heater, and by the following morning everything was dry, including my feet. On our drive to Hanover for breakfast, during the course of which our exhausted bodies demanded Dunkin' Donut holes and maple candy, we discussed our first winter mountaineering attempt. Well, we tried to. I found that my tired body and apparently addled brain were unable to string coherent sentences together, and NCT kept stopping mid-sentence to stare out the window. As a result, the jury's still out. A summit attempt on Rainier? I'm on the fence, but I think I remember NCT saying he'd be up for it. Attempting membership in the Winter Forty-Sixters? Very tempting. And a return to Mt. Washington? Absolutely.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Quotes of the Week

Let's call a spade a spade and acknowledge that these blog entries should be called "Quotes of the Month" and not "Quotes of the Week". Still, for the purposes of uniformity I'm leaving the titles as they are. Enjoy!
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LP: "He's not bald, but he has no hair".
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CGC: "If I were Canada I would have chosen a grizzly bear instead of a beaver as my national animal".
LP: "Beaver? Beaver! You can't even say 'beaver' in this country. Even I know that!"
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On Avatar.
SM: "I've played video games with better plots, including Dune 3.0"
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LP: "You know what I learned today?"
CGC: "What?"
LP: "You have a giant forehead".
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While recently examining the expiration date stamp on a cup of yogurt.
DP: "Do you think these stamps are reliable? It says January 11th".
RAK: "I would not eat that".
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While in the dark, enormous mud parking lot of the Italian Farmhouse outside of Plymouth, NH.
CGC: "This parking lot is huge. Why is it so big?"
NCT: "Maybe it's overflow parking for something else".
CGC looks around at the dense, dark, surrounding woods.
CGC: "Are you serious?"

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mt. Cube Farm Sugar House

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one makes an early spring trip to New England, one must visit a sugar shack. As a result, when NCT and I decided to climb Mt. Washington last weekend (more on this to come), I insisted that we stop at my favorite sugar house on our way back to New York. Now, it might seem odd that a young woman who has never lived in New Hampshire for more than three months might possess a favorite sugar shack, but I should point out that that three month residency belies the many weeks I've spent visiting NH over the years, and it most certainly belies the deep and abiding love I possess for the state. At the risk of turning this blog entry into a long digression on why I love New Hampshire, I'll simply say that, well, I love New Hampshire. I love its mountains and its river valleys, I love its lakes and great expanses of northern hardwood forest, I love its blueberry patches and its well-maintained interstates. I love the Granite State in snow and in sun, in its autumnal glory and in the heart of mud season. I love New Hampshire so much that I should probably, as NCT muttered during one of my long I-love-NH speeches during our six hour car ride, just marry it.
Since the government has yet to recognize person-state marital unions, however, I'll have to be content with visiting New Hampshire when I can. Unfortunately, since I moved to NYC I haven't been able to hang out in NH as often as I would like; the drive is a little too long, and the flights a little too inconvenient, for me to undertake quick weekend trips, and when I have longer stretches of vacation time I usually head home to the West Coast or off on more far-flung adventures. Still, the fact that I haven't been back to New Hampshire in almost two years was partly why we (I) decided to head to Mt. Washington, and as soon as the Upper Connecticut River Valley unfolded before us on I-91 last Friday, I began to bounce with excitement in my seat.

We passed the Mt. Cube Sugar House on our drive into Plymouth, NH, (our base camp for the weekend), which provided a wonderful opportunity for me to point out to NCT where he would be forced to stop in three days on our return trip. The Sugar House sits on NH RT-25, which bisects the state from east to west and loosely separates the White Mountains from the lakes region to the south. My first encounter with RT-25 occurred on my bike almost four years ago; I was living in Hanover for the summer with MAR, and occasionally we would ride a 40 mile loop up to Orford/Fairlee on RT-10. On the Fourth of July, after we'd watched the Orford parade, we turned west on RT-25 and headed out towards Wentworth. The primary motivation for this trip was to test part of the Prouty's route, but an unexpected bonus was my first visit to my soon to be favorite sugar shack. Even the bone-shattering frost heaves on RT-25 couldn't dampen my enthusiasm. Maple cream! Maple candy! Maple syrup! The Mt. Cube Sugar House sold them all, and at Carlisle Trophy-winning quality.
My last visit to the sugar shack occurred two years ago on my last visit to New Hampshire, which I'd taken with JFL to her parents' house in Waterville Valley. That weekend marked the first time I really started to explore the White Mountains region, and a beautiful run to the top of Mt. Tecumseh on a clear day stands as one of the best runs I've had on the East Coast (yes, I do mentally catalogue runs in that way). As we drove back to NYC, we unanimously decided to stop at Mt. Cube, and I clairvoyantly stocked up on a few containers of maple cream. Still, I ran out long before NCT and I headed north, and so when he and I entered the shack on Monday and I saw the little jars of said cream on the back shelves, I whooped for joy. Lest one think I'm exaggerating the wonderfulness that is maple cream, let me just say that I would choose maple cream over Nutella as a toast-topper any day, and that I really, really like Nutella.

I managed to convince NCT to purchase a jar as well on this visit, and we also each chose some leaves of maple candy for the drive. The sugar house stood exactly as I remembered it--well-stocked, cheery (despite the cold temps), and with its honor box for payment just inside the door. I looked around and reflected on the many things that had changed in my life since I first visited, as well as the good and important friends who've accompanied me each time I've pulled off of RT-25 for my maple fix. NCT asked me if I wanted to buy anything else, but I shook my head. We walked through the springtime NH mud, hopped in the car, and drove to Hanover for breakfast at Lou's with MAR2. NCT even ordered real New Hampshire maple syrup for his pancakes.
And so, my beloved Mt. Cube Farm Sugar House, it may be some time before my car or bike dances with the frost heaves and I return to your rustic environs. Do not doubt, however, that I will visit should I find myself near Mt. Moosilauke highway, and that I will purchase your maple products and copies of Edible White Mountains as long as I have money in my wallet. Until then, I will comfort myself with the words of that San Francisco native and New Hampshire resident Robert Frost, who wrote as follows: "'O fireman, give the fire another stoke, / And send more sparks up the chimney with the smoke.' / I thought a few might tangle, as they did, / Among bare maple boughs, and in the rare / Hill atmosphere not cease to glow, / And so be added to the moon up there. / The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show / On every tree a bucket with a lid, / And on black ground a bear-skin rug of snow. / The sparks made no attempt to be the moon. / They were content to figure in the trees / As Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades. / And that was what the boughs were full of soon".

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Trumpet-Major

Every few months or so I read a 19th century English novel, during the course of which I usually experience one of the following two phenomena: either a sense of tedious yet dogged perseverance, or a sense of excited wonder. To the former I chalk up Charles Dickens's Hard Times, which far and away trumps all the other texts that fit that category (although, fortunately, this novel is only about a quarter the length of Dickens's others). To the latter, however, I would add George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, Dickens's Bleak House, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, the novels of Jane Austen, and most of the novels of Henry James (if we want to deem him "English"), among others. The jury's still out on Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, of which I've only creased about fifty pages, as well as Eliot's Silas Marner, the story of which I didn't particularly enjoy but the experience of which I did, largely because I heard it as an audiotape while driving through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada with AFD one summer.

Into this indeterminate third category I would place Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I read as a college freshman for a survey course. I remember finding the plot interesting, but the text never grabbed me in the way that a truly pleasurable reading experience mandates. As a result, in the years since I've never sought out Hardy's novels, although somewhere in storage I know I possess an old Penguin edition of Jude the Obscure, and in spite of the fact that "Drummer Hodge" is a favorite poem of mine, not least because of the word play with which Robert Hass engages it in his poem, "English: An Ode". And so instead of seeking out Hardy, every now and then I'd stand in the back aisles of Green Apple or some other used bookstore and stare both glumly and uninspired at the Victorian covers gracing The Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Until now. Two weeks ago I stood yet again in the back section of Green Apple's used fiction annex, to which I'd wandered in a fit of pique. I had an early morning flight back to New York the next day, and, as always, I needed something to read. Something consuming, yet detailed; something that would require me to notice and sink into the writing as well as the narrative. Something like a 19th century English novel. And then my eyes alit upon a petite orange spine, which was tucked between two copies of Tess. In straightforward black letters, the title read simply, The Trumpet-Major.

Dear Reader, if I could press this book to your chest with my warmest wishes, I would. That's how good it is. I say this as a reformed Hardyite (if only my grad school Victorianist roommate were here to tell me if that's an accurate term), and as one who now plans to read The Woodlanders and The Return of the Native as soon as possible. The premise of The Trumpet-Major may sound lighthearted--indeed, such is the reason many contemporaneous critics embraced this novel--but the characters are so finely and deeply sketched, and the events so uniquely depicted, and the voice of the text so true that one soon sees how much richness this premise actually allows. And the wittiness! Not only from the droll voice-of-the-narrator Hardy, but also from characters like Simon Burden and Corporal Tullidge, who pop up like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and from hot-headed Festus Derriman, who is outsmarted by everyone in sight, including his myopic uncle.

Anne Garland is now a favorite heroine of mine, she who "beneath all that was charming and simple in this young woman there lurked a real firmness, unperceived at first, as the speck of colour lurks unperceived in the heart of the palest parsley flower", and as she moves like a spectre among the hills, fields, and coastline of fictitious Wessex, I only wish that Hardy had given her another novel as well. Since he did not, however, the petite orange spine with its 320 well-thumbed pages rests on my bed stand, among which lie Overcombe and its residents, who picnic, and mourn, and love, and sail, and stroll, and sleep under no "strange-eyed constellation". To think, they do all that under the threat of Napoleon! And while no power-hungry Corsican threatens your reading time, I urge you--do not delay. Savor, enjoy, and read this novel, for as another English poet once wrote, "Old Time is still a-flying".

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Wherefore Art Thou, Pelican?

I like many birds--red-shouldered hawks, eastern bluebirds, california quails, chestnut-backed chickadees, blue-crowned amazon parrots--but I've always had a soft spot for pelicans. Growing up in San Francisco, I would often see them soar above the beaches and the Bay, much like the raptors circling the headlands across the water. And not unlike those hawks, the pelicans could instantaneously transform from floating observers into swift predators; they'd tuck into themselves and dive bomb without a splash into the water, surfacing a moment later with beaks full of fish. Their dodo-esque stature when they stand on the sand is also endearing, and belies the speed with which they can swoop out of the sky.
In happier times...
I recognize the pelican's historical Christological significance--one of my colleges in England bore the image of a pelican pecking at its bloody breast on its shield--and I appreciate how this symbolism enriched much of the literature I used to study. But my love for the pelican is due to the visceral joy I feel when I see them fly, and surf, and float, and soar. Whenever I return to San Francisco and head out on my first run on the cliffs above Baker Beach, I keep my eyes peeled for flocks of pelicans. Once I see them, I know that I'm truly back home.

As a result, one can imagine my anxiety when I learned two months ago that pelicans along the West Coast were dying and disappearing in great numbers, and for no obvious reason. Now scientists believe that El Nino, among other winter storms, disrupted the accessibility of the fish upon which the pelicans normally prey, but in mid-January a giant question mark remained the dominant theory. Furthermore, when I returned to San Francisco in late February for a business trip, I saw no pelicans at all on any of my runs or walks, and only three total one afternoon as I drove into the City over the Golden Gate Bridge. How empty the coast seemed without them!

I'm hopeful that they'll have returned, in some number, the next time that I do, too. Until then, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that both plankton and anchovies can resist the Pacific-churning forces of El Nino, and thus let my pelicans fly home.

Monday, March 1, 2010

XXI Olympic Winter Games, I salute you.

Because you proved the maxim that the only thing one can expect is the unexpected. Because you showed us the grit, determination, focus, and character of athletes from around the world. Because you gave us the world's fastest alpine skiers on icy mountainsides, speed skaters with quads like pistons, hockey players who cut their teeth on the legend of Lake Placid, snowboarders with the swagger of cowboy surfers, nordic skiers who are all fast twitch muscle, an aerial skier who lit the night with a hurricane, and a figure skater with a rose on her back who blew a kiss to the sky. Because you overrode the cynics, the bloated budget, and even the warm weather, and demonstrated, once again, that an indefatigable spirit lives on in the human heart. XXI Olympic Winter Games, I salute you!