Coffee heat rising

Another Fine Day in Crime Central

Jayzus, what a day!

We’re awakened at dawn to the tune of the neighborhood watchdog, Will, urging us on Facebook to stay inside! lock the doors and windows! do NOT go outdoors! and don’t answer the doorbell either!

Turns out a murder has taken place just a few blocks to the north of the ‘Hood, in a historic slum neighborhood called Sunnyslope. Cops are swarming. And yes, it’s just another morning in Crime Central.

Shee-ut. This means Ruby and I can’t do today’s doggy-walk. And for that matter, we can’t loaf around the yard with the doors open, either.

WTF?  Well, it was just another day in lovely Sunnyslope. Yet another guy was on the run from the cops, having shot a fellow denizen in his pickup. Shot him dead….nice aim.

The perp fled down the canal….the very canal that runs up behind those cute little antique workers’ houses I was, in passing, coveting.

Couple days ago, a not-very-smart young woman was jogging on the same canal pathway. Nabbed, raped, and thrown in the drink.

Fortunately a passer-by found her and fished her out of the water before she was drawn into one of the weirs, which would’ve been the end of her.

Y’know….this ain’t politically correct, but…i will be dayumed if I can figure out why women figure that “liberated” means “free to wear skimpy outfits over their nubile and sexy bodies as they trot up and down public streets with their boobs and their bums bouncing.” PoliticallyCorrectly, sure: in theory we should be able to do anything the guys can do. But that ignores biological reality: to wit, that some males see any female as fair game and no amount of Liberation will change that fact. The reason you wear clothes that cover your body is to keep your body to yourself, as much as possible.

Dare to say that, though, and…

§ §

Yesterday on the (incredibly long) way home from the dermatologist’s office, I managed to dodge whatever was going on at Conduit of Blight and Main Drag South. Place was swarming with cop helicopters and patrol cars. Whipped into the ’Hood and made it into the garage without incident. Which is always nice.

Derm was pleased with the way the schnozz is healing, after the surgery to slice off an alleged carcinoma. She wanted me to buy some scar cream to help with that process — sold, of course, by their office. Fortunately I’m now on to their business plan: so, when presented with an opportunity, asked how much. FIFTY-EIGHT BUCKS. Thanks, said I. Bye!

Drove home, stopping at two drugstores and a supermarket. At least one didn’t have it. The other two didn’t have staff to help find stuff. Dodged the cops into the ’Hood, darted into the Funny Farm, fired up Amazon, and lo!! As suspected, there was the very stuff the doctor ordered: Forty bucks. 

Any question why I so often feel like I live in a Third-World country?

After driving driving driving, I arrive at home, greeted by a corgi. Dust settles. Dog goes out. I pour a glass of wine. Cop copters roar over the Farm.

Call the dog. Shut and lock the doors. Pour another glass of wine.

Another armed robbery….nothin’ to look at here, folks. This, also, in lovely Sunnyslope: right where I’ve been coveting those cute little old houses with the gigantic yards.

Soooo…there’s another real estate transaction that goes on the shelf. Waaayyyy in the back of the shelf….

§ §

Come noontime today, it’s over to the church for the volunteer gig: once a week I staff the reception desk in the church office.

Sitting at the front desk in the church office building, putting in my duly appointed volunteer time. Gasp!!!!!  It is sooooo excruciatingly b-o-o-o-o-r-i-n-g! Even more so because everyone but the ubiquitous Nanette is out, apparently all day. NOTHING is going on, not even the phone jangling.

Stupidly, I grabbed the wrong pair of glasses as I shot out the front door…the distance-only pair, not the bifocals. Soooo….I can barely see the computer I brought to amuse myself through the long, silent, tedious afternoon.

So the time goes by





From the church it’s down to AJ’s to pick up some more fruit and…maybe something for dinner, since I don’t feel much in the mood to fire up the grill.

The smog is so gawdawful the sunlight looks yellow, and the sky is colored a strange shade of yellowish gray. Just like lovely Southern California. This was one of the several reasons I loathed living in Long Beach. Driving here has gotten a lot like driving in SoCal, too.

Just an ugly place. Yech.

If my son decides to retire to Utah and I’m still living, I’m a’following him!

Seriously: he has a daydream of telecommuting from some sylvan spot in the boondocks. He’s especially interested in southeastern Utah or southwestern Colorado. And since, far’s I can tell, he no longer goes into an office at all, really there’s no reason he couldn’t do exactly that: move to the sticks and do his job online.

I personally would not choose to take up residence in Mormon Country. Doubt if he has a clue how hard it is to buy a bottle of wine in those precincts.

But seriously: Arizona has some very pleasant towns and wide-spots-in-the-road in the sticks, where the locals’ morals don’t interfere with your choice of dinner beverages and a decent regional medical center is within a 20-minute helicopter ride. Anyplace between Tucson and Nogales would fill that bill very nicely. Same is true of the Prescott area.

But as for Phoenix? It’s L.A. East.

And lemme tellya: there was a reason I hated living in Long Beach, all the time I was in high school. Now I feel much the same way about the crowded, hectic, smoggy, crime-ridden Valley of the We-Do-Mean Sun.

This old bat would give a lot to get outta here.

9/11: Twenty Years On…

This morning one of my walking buddies asked me where I was and what I was doing at the time of the 9/11 attack.

Well: I was on the phone to my son in Oakland, trying to convince him not to go to work in San Francisco via the Bay Bridge. He was having none o’that from his muther, but mercifully his employers called every worker and told them to stay home, stay out of downtown SF, stay put.

Having lived for ten long years in Saudi Arabia, I think I can share a little insight into those terroristic events. Like this:

The Saudis supply a large portion of the gas and oil this country requires to keep on operating as a “First-World” country. You may be sure we wouldn’t want to hurt their dainty feelings. Would we? Even though most of them deeply hate us, as infidels and as Westerners.

Seriously, I’m convinced that the sole reason for continued diplomatic and business relations with the Saudis is to facilitate pumping and export of their oil to Western countries.

Our friends and our enemies, in the world of RealPolitik, are those who are of some use to us at any given time.

Y’know, after all these years I remain puzzled over one question:

Why did the 9/11 plotters do such a damn half-assed job of it?

Think about that.

They swiped two airplanes and flew them toward targets that were, yes, significant. But despite the mayhem they caused, they inflicted nothing even faintly like crippling damage to this country. And they could’ve. It would have been easy.

Like this:

Yes, engage Plan A: hijack a couple of large planes full of jet fuel and ram them into key targets. But…at the same time:

Develop Plan B to include federal sites in at least two or three other major cities, such as Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas/Ft Worth…whatever. In these cities, use trucks or automobiles carrying explosives to bomb key sites. Attack them all at the same moment.

For example…

  • In San Francisco, blow up the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the San Mateo Bridge. This would bring the city to a dead stop; at the time it could have been accomplished easily.
  • Also in the Bay Area, take out Treasure Island, which hosts a key naval base.
  • In Seattle, blow up the metro train/bridge network, or set off a bomb just about anywhere in the airport.
  • In L.A. set off bombs at LAX, John Wayne Airport, and the Ontario Airport. These would not have to be taken into a terminal; any explosion in any location at one of these sites would bring the facility to a halt.
  • In Chicago, take out the Federal Complex — again, reasonably easy to do with a UPS truck bearing a load of dynamite.
  • In any major seaport, blow up the piers for freighter and tanker docking.

None of this would have been hard to accomplish, and all of those actions could have been timed to happen at once. When I say the plotters weren’t very bright, I ain’t kiddin’. Instead of wreaking serious havoc nationwide — doable at minimal expense and modest loss of Heroic Martyrs’ lives — they showboated with a spectacular event that, in view of what they could have done without much more expense and manpower, took out relatively few Americans (almost none of them military or part of the upper leadership) and did relatively little damage. A couple of NYC skyscrapers in comparison to skyscrapers in several cities plus the major thoroughfares into a key West Coast city plus anyone who happened to be at an airport in LA or Seattle at the wrong time plus chaos at a large West-Coast naval base plus destruction of government buildings in a major Midwestern regional city plus destruction of a major seaport (with concommittant loss of lives, freighters, and tankers) would really have done the job.

Our boys had relatives and friends in the higher echelons of the Saudi government. Given enough time, they could have raised all the cash they would have needed to launch a coordinated, multi-pronged attack. And they had a good shot at pulling it off.

They fu*ked it up, I’m afraid…

Luckily for us.

Houses, Houses, Houses….

Checked with another Realtor by way of trying to track down a place that might appeal enough to lure me out of the Funny Farm — and thereby take me and Ruby out of the way of any harm Tony and his tribe plan to inflict on our neighborhood.

As usual whenever I peruse the real estate offerings in Phoenix, I see a couple of places that might be OK and a whole lot of places that are off-the-charts not OK.

The problem is, my current house is so close to perfect for my needs and my tastes that rather little appeals. Uhm…make that “rather little” a “nothing.” Seriously: the house has ruined me for the real estate market!

Willo, a historic district in the central part of the city, is the home of the first house my husband and I lived in. We would still be there if we hadn’t had a kid (couldn’t put him in the public schools there) and the crime rate. And, after they installed a fire station a block away, the spectacular noise level.

Here’s a house in Willo that’s similar in style to ours, though significantly smaller. The place was not a tract in the sense of modern ticky-tacky — every house was different. This sorta Santa Barbara Spanish look was one of several very different styles of architecture that inhabited the place.

Hmmmm…$1,700,000 for an apartment on Central Avenue. Eight hundred seventy-five K for a modernized house that looks about as inviting as a prison block.

Here’s this pleasant-looking place, all decked out in the latest shade of penitentiary gray. It has only one serious drawback, to my taste: it’s right on Seventh Avenue, one of the busiest commuter thoroughfares in the city! That may explain the bargain price of a mere 530 grand.

Seriously. When you look at this stuff — and those brain-banging prices! — you come to suspect I’ve got the best of all possible worlds in this house. It has all the features of the best of the offerings on the market and none of the disadvantages. It’s paid for.

And you may be darned sure I didn’t pay five or six hundred thousand bucks for it! 😀


Hyperinflation and the House Shopper…

Welp, in the middle of the great flap over the Nose Cancer (the upshot of which was “they got it all,”  astonishing surgical skill demonstrated in the process), we learned that the dread Tony the Romanian Landlord is back up to his tricks. Turns out he bought the house across the street, recently put up for sale by a neighbor couple who retired to the high country. A-a-a-a-a-n-d…he’s got an army of workmen in there gutting it out (the house was up-to-date and in primo condition) so as to turn it into yet another halfway house or nursing home.

Tony is in the settlement home business. He grabbed a home on a pretty little street where one of my friends lived, let it stand vacant and weedy for a year or more while the recession trudged past, and then turned it into a nursing home, replete with the traffic and the damage to neighboring property values that entails.

Phoenix’s wise City Parents, in a fit of merciful generosity, made it legal to do so. They installed an exception to the city code that forbids running businesses out of homes in residential tracts — for nursing homes and halfway houses. The fact that these places are ill-regulated (if regulated at all) makes our wise leaders no nevermind.

One of said fine establishments here in the ‘Hood is leased out to a nursing home whose employee was regularly raping a vegetative woman. Got her pregnant, not that it mattered to her, because she was perpetually unconscious. Yes, permanently. But it did matter to her family, who quietly installed a camera in her room and filmed the guy diddling his “patient.” (Read “prisoner”…) So as you can imagine, Tony is less than fully appreciated here in the ‘Hood.

When I realized he was up to his tricks again — this time right across the street — I decided it was time to move. Enough, after all, being enough. The property values here in the ‘Hood are so inflated that I could buy something comparable anywhere in the central part of the city…or in Scottsdale, or in Paradise Valley, or in any number of local venues.

So I called my friend Nancy, who happens to be an ambitious Realtor, and asked if she would look for new digs. One possibility is a high-rise apartment on Central Avenue…but ultimately I discarded that idea because I like Ruby the Corgi, I’m not getting rid of her, the hassle involved in coping with a dog in an apartment is more than I can cope with. And besides, I like having a yard. And a pool, for that matter.

Nancy is hot to trot. She wants me to take out a loan right now so’s I can buy a place, and then after we sell this one, if I choose to do so I can then pay it off.

She says my house will sell within a few days — the market is extremely hot. And apparently that is true, despite astonishingly inflated prices. Very few places are for sale, and some of those are…uhm…heh…amazing. Yet none of them stays on the market for long.

Shoofing around…

Here’s this little shack directly to the south of here:  Four thousand square feet for $1.5 million. Right. Moving on.

Okay, so I thought this one looks pretty promising, also in a neighborhood to the south:  If it weren’t almost 800 grand…

Here’s a bargain at $586,000…  It hasn’t moved in almost two months, which says something’s majorly wrong with it. Like, say, 586 grand?

Here’s one in the price range, slightly smaller than the Funny Farm:  Not a bad little house, especially if you’re charmed by 1950s windows and can do without a garage for your car.  The area around it looks a little flakey…possibly rentals???

We have this “hidden gem”:  On my yellow pad I noted “too close to 19th Avenue; a little funky. No garage.”

$1.2 million for this:   Seriously??????

No? Well, OK, how about this stunner: Check out that one-car car-port, and the great turquoise floor! The historic tile! The prison bars on the exquisitely designed add-on’s windows, and the fantastic acres of dead grass…

Otherwise, amazingly few offerings. I found several small sub-neighborhoods that looked pretty desirable, but nothing for sale in them. Here’s a cute little place, supposedly in the price range at $483,169:  “Currently off market.”

But here we have new construction!  In my not-very-humble opinion: exceptionally handsome, exceptionally livable and hevvin help us, it even has a garage, albeit one lacking a door. But…well…it’s right on one of the mainest of the city’s main drags. Enjoy traffic racket? Love the parfum de automobile exhaust? This is the place for you!

Moving on, I stumbled across THE most astonishing enclave (as it were):  This is on a street of little shacks built for agricultural workers. They’ve been enormously gentrified, presumably because young people with a little money and a lot of energy can’t afford anything else. They almost back onto the Arizona Canal, which is…well… Let me put it this way: it’s a Bum’s Highway.

This little place is surprisingly cute, all fixed up the way it is. But…yeah. I peeked in a front window and saw a bedroom that wouldn’t hold a twin bed! 

Well, actually, it would: it has a little nook clearly made to hold a twin or maybe a bunk bed. It’s the tiniest little place: smaller than a modern apartment. But it does have a nice big yard. It’s in a district called Sunnyslope, long renowned as an antique slum, home to the Valley’s Hell’s Angels. You would be dodging bums by day and bullets by night. But otherwise it’s kinda kewl… 😮

Got home after a couple hours of driving around to find Nancy (realtor) on the phone, hot to trot. She gave me the name of a lender to call. I was too pooped to deal with that y’day afternoon, but guess out of courtesy I’ll have to call him today. But pretty clearly this is a lost cause.

She said houses are selling within a matter of days, the market is so hot. She thinks my house (which by comparison with this stuff is some sort of a miracle) will sell instantaneously.

Ohhhkayyy… But the problem with that is every other house that comes on the market is the target of a feeding frenzy. And do you seriously believe I would have a snowball’s chance to snab a place comparable to the beloved Funny Farm?

Really. This makes effin’ Sun City look good! Ahhhh yes, Sun City:

Actually, some of those places wouldn’t be bad, if only they weren’t in a ghetto for old people.

All of which makes the Funny Farm look extremely good. Evidently I would be stark raving cahRAZY to move at this time. I do love my house, but given the Tony situation would move if I could find anything even faintly feasible.

Uhm. Maybe.

By the time I got home from eyeballing the market, I needed one of those beers in the fridge. Or maybe the whole frikkin six-pack….

I guess I’m just going to have to deal with Mr. Boca. He does know which side his butter’s breaded on, and so he doesn’t represent a physical threat. Having a social service agency across the street may not be pleasant….but nothing lasts forever. Including Tony. If he predeceases me, there’s a good chance the new settlement house will be returned to residential status and life will return to normal. Especially if enough neighbors complain.


Another essay found in DropBox. This one was published in a short-lived but delightful Tucson monthly.

She looked like some vision from the nineteenth century, trudging alone up the Bright Angel Trail in her long, brilliant amethyst skirt and black velvet blouse. After the dose of hokeyness we had just taken from the fake cowboys with the Grand-Ole-Opry drawls back at the South Rim, we could easily have believed she was an actress tricked out as an Indian woman, like the giant costumed Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.

She had to stand aside so our fourteen-rider mule string could amble downhill past her. Up close we saw genuine gray hair showing beneath the heavy scarf covering her head. Her elegant, lined face was the color of Supai sandstone. Around her neck, arms, and fingers she wore several pounds of turquoise and silver—all notably unlike the stuff for sale in the El Tovar gift shop. Yes, we were kicking dust into the eyes of a real, live Navajo matriarch.

Nice touch. Walt would have liked it.

Photographer Peter Ensenberger and I were on the Grand Canyon mule train on assignment for a children’s magazine. We were supposed to cover the trip from the point of view of two twelve-year-olds, but when the boys announced they were too terrified to cling to the lumbering beasts down ten and a half miles of steep grades, we abandoned them at the top with one of their fathers. The youngsters’ defection left us in the company of a pair of retired snowbirds touring the West in their camper, two capable wranglerettes, and eight self-consciously hilarious gay caballeros who planned to meet two hiking buddies at Phantom Ranch.

We soon found ourselves on the edge of a sheer precipice, sharing a four-foot-wide path with scores of tourists on foot. The unimaginable view that looks flat as a postcard from the rim pops into three dimensions once you’re in the Canyon. Three deep dimensions. The still, lucent spires and buttes, the heartbreaking cliffs and folded layers of sandstone, shale, and limestone seem so vast you feel suspended in space. There’s an eerie sense of free-fall, as though you were floating above the swallows that dart to and from their rocky nests.

Mules are not as sure-footed as advertised. Jane, the lady snowbird, rode a steed given to tripping over pebbles and wheezing and groaning with exertion—and Jane was far from overweight. At one point her mule stumbled, its knees buckled, and it almost went down. An animal that came that close to falling on a wide, fairly level stretch was less than reassuring when we reached Jacob’s Ladder, a set of narrow, steep switchbacks that trace a fault line down the face of the 500-foot-high redwall limestone cliffs.

The biggest menace to mule navigation is not stones, plump tourists, three-foot-wide paths beside numbing heights, or pits of ankle-deep sand, but the hiker. Every time we approached one, wrangler Jill grew nervous. Most tourists are cooperative, if begrudging, about stepping aside and waiting for the mules to pass. The problem is that mules tend to spook around hikers—particularly the exotics attracted to the theme park that is the South Rim, folks with buzzing video cameras at their eyes and Walkman headsets in their ears.

Jill’s mule, Thelma (the animals all bear names wranglers think sound quaintly rural), had gone down into the Canyon only twice, but she already knew that she loathed hikers. She viewed backpacks with something akin to mule terror. Every time a human carrying a pack came near, Thelma considered bolting. By instinct, a mule knows that togetherness keeps one safe and solitude exposes one to wolves. So if Thelma, our leader, were to take off down the trail at a dead run or decided to jump over the ledge, thirteen others would follow.

“No mule has ever gone off the edge with a rider on it,” Ensenberger kept insisting. He’d been listening to our new friend, the Fred Harvey P.R. man. If that factoid is true, I figured, it just increases the odds that one soon will.

We came around one bend to find a man with a backpack and a hiking staff perched over the immense void on a tiny outcropping no more than three feet square. Across the trail from him, four people flattened themselves against the wall like lizards on a rock. My stirrup grazed a hiker’s belly—no way around it. A thick yellow cloud of dust, as suffocating as Mexico City smog, rose around us and hung in the air long after we were gone.

More than 100,000 people walk the Bright Angel Trail each year. They have to compete for space with a permanent 130-head remuda of mules. On any given day, sixty-six mules for guests and wranglers may be traveling the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails, plus another thirty in the pack string. That comes to something over 35,000 mule trips a year.

A normal 1,000- to 1,200-pound equine excretes about forty-four pounds of manure and six quarts of urine a day—so says William Schurg, director of the University of Arizona’s horse program in the Animal Sciences Department. The Grand Canyon mule averages about five hours a day on the trail, 365 days a year. Let’s do a little math. When all 96 passenger and pack mules are on duty, they emit roughly 307,000 pounds of mule patties a year. They also piss 10,512 gallons of urine on the trails. More than enough odoriferous gifts, certainly, to make sure that each hiker gets his or her own to slog through or skip around on every trip.

We arrived at the cottonwood groves of Indian Gardens, where we annoyed some more walkers by making them wait while our troupe was assisted in dismounting, seasoned rider or no, one by one. On this early spring day, the crowded campground was almost as busy as a National Park Service tent tenement in August. We took a short break for lunch, a pit stop, canteen refills. Then onward, pushing our sore bodies and sweaty mules the four more miles to the bottom.

The power was out when we rode into Phantom Ranch, a pastoral resort made of native rock and shaded beneath cultivated cottonwoods near the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River. Our hosts advised that if we wanted warm water for a shower, we should try to get to the bathhouse first. Ensenberger and I briefly considered that and then headed straight for the bar.

There we met a diverse group of hikers and campers. Topic of conversation? You guessed it: mules. A robust middle-aged woman from Scottsdale, an affluent suburb of Phoenix, was complaining about interminable waits endured while mules rested on the trail and wranglers held forth about scenery, history, and geology.

We grabbed our beers and fled outdoors.

At dinner—steak and potatoes, family style—we sat with members of an extended family who had converged at the Canyon from waypoints nationwide. A server set a flask of burgundy on the table, which wove its way from hand to hand.

“Want to do some wine?” a young swain asked his girlfriend.

He said it with a straight face. The guy actually talked that way.


After the feed, Ensenberger got his camera and we took off to catch sunset’s last light on the inner gorge.

The Colorado was running jade green, except where silt-laden Bright Angel Creek dumped mud into it. Fly-casting, a man hooked an eighteen-inch trout and released it.

While Ensenberger chased light and shadows, I watched the creek pour into the river.

The sheer quantity of water that flows across the earth’s surface, ton after roiling ton of it, enough to dig this “horrid abyss” through two billion years of rock, gives you pause, especially when you consider how it has been spoiled. You wonder whether that shimmering rainbow trout was safe to eat—what exotica had made its way up the food chain to the fat, shining fish? Not even mules can stomach what flows in the Grand Canyon. When we crossed Garden Creek, wrangler Jill warned us not to let them drink the water, because it would make them sick.

To prevent further contaminating the Colorado, river runners have to carry chemical toilets and tote out human waste. Yet for the sake of entertaining a few tourists, the Park Service permits mule ride operators to turn the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails into the world’s longest urinals.

Given all that sewage, “real” hikers avoid those two conveniently located trails, leaving them to hoi polloi who drift through in their campers and Winnebagos. “You can’t always have the ideal situation,” says Flagstaff writer and Sierra Club activist Dan Dagget, “because it is crowded, it is narrow, and a lot of times [wranglers] want to stop and talk where it’s not the best place.” Dagget chooses lesser-known trails and stays away from the ones around Grand Canyon Village. Robert Lippman, a Friend of the Colorado River, agrees that those who complain can “go away from the main trails.”

But that’s not an option for the visitor unfamiliar with the Canyon or less prepared for serious hiking. Any proposal to limit mule traffic is bound to be greeted by that dreaded charge, “elitism.”

Never mind that few underprivileged faces can be seen at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It will cost you $206 to ride down there and stay overnight. True, if you hike, a crib in a Phantom Ranch dorm will lighten your load by just $19—but the steak dinner is $23 and breakfast costs $8.50. This is a place where folks “do” wine.

The people discommoded (if one dare use that term) by the mules are exactly those proles who know no other place to hike in the Canyon. The ones who outnumber riders by more than three to one.

Some environmentalists favor keeping the mule traffic. If tourists are lured to specific districts, the theory goes, damage from crowds of gawkers and geeks will be contained while larger wild areas continue unmolested. Dagget echoes other outdoorsmen when he says the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails are “a sacrifice area to start with.”

Now there’s elitism for you. Who do these people think they are, to talk about sacrificing the Grand Canyon?

My friend Jean Cole, who at the age of sixty-six hiked up the South Kaibab Trail in three hours, says she can remember when mules were restricted to Bright Angel. Now trains go down Bright Angel and up the South Kaibab; meanwhile, over on the North Rim, a concessionaire sells mule rides on the North Kaibab.

Might not be a bad idea to cut back Thelma’s trips to just one trail. If that means fewer people in the saddle, tough—tourists with enough stamina to ride down thirty-degree inclines for five and a half hours can manage to walk instead. For a rider who is inexperienced, as concession operators say 98 percent of their customers are, the mule trip results in every bit as many blisters and aching muscles as would a ten-mile hike. As a trade-off, 100,000 hikers would have access to a centrally located trail free of filth and large, nervous, stinking roadblocks.

Evening’s bronze glow faded into putty-colored dusk, and with it this reverie.


Next morning before the heat was on the air, we headed up the South Kaibab Trail into the highlands of kitsch, phony Native Americana, and Tusayan, home of the most expensive McDonald’s in the western hemisphere.

The Kaibab is dust-dry and much steeper than Bright Angel. It covers the 4,400-foot climb in eight miles instead of ten and a half. After every two or three switchbacks, we had to pause to rest the mules, hauling them around each time so their heads faced out over the awesome drop.

We were passing through a set of tight switchbacks called the Chimney, a few hundred yards from the rim, when we saw her again.

Like a silent brooding spirit, she looked exactly as she had the day before: the black velvet blouse, the splendid jewelry, that ground-length skirt a lustrous orchid hue. Only ths time she wasn’t alone. She had with her two young adults and about a half-dozen ebony-haired children, all dressed in the serviceable styles offered by places like Wal-Mart. A small and beautiful woman, she radiated moral authority.

She and her clan stood aside while the mule train passed. We got a few feet beyond them and stopped one last time. There, our sturdy steeds elected to unload. Thelma voided a massive, mucous pile. My mule spread its legs and released a river of urine. Down the line behind us, I could hear a great splattering and plopping as the rest followed suit. A hot, musky, gut-wrenching stench wafted on the breeze, and the dust beneath us turned to muck.

We moved on. And that was the last I saw of her.



Here’s something that I found while cleaning out DropBox…written in 1997. I don’t think it was ever published, anywhere.


Classic Arizona Road in Rain

It takes a lot of doing to get into the Western outback. The water you have to haul weighs many pounds more than the other gear you need to survive, more than food and nylon shelter and clothing and tools. Before you start to hike, you have to drive hundreds of miles beyond humanity’s fungoid reach, and even then you’re not quit of its traces. You’ll always spot old mine tailings, rusted tin cans, buried rail lines, bits and pieces of plastic debris. But you keep going, and going, and going: seeking a place out of earshot of Man, the Noisiest Animal.

I doubt if that place exists. In southern Utah, at the end of a long dirt road that wanders through nowhere, is a patch of spectacular red sand dunes, weirdly terra cotta against a cerulean sky, itself so blue it seems unnatural. The sand piles up in soft, shifting hillocks reminiscent of the Rub al-Khali, Saudi Arabia’s vast empty quarter, only rather than bone-white and endless, the dunes are orange-red before a backdrop of violet mountains. It is a place that should be observed in holy silence.

Instead, the state of Utah has built a campground and thrown the place open to dune buggy and ORV enthusiasts. The chain-saw buzz of unmuffled gasoline engines rips the still air, and the brilliant dunes bear the scars of daily floggings. Signs listing the house rules are posted here and there: quiet hours between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. From six in the morning to ten at night, the human animal roars. There is no peace in this remote spot, a place unlike any other on earth.

Last night, after a 108-degree day, the evening was cool enough to invite me to stretch out on my backyard hammock and watch the sunset fade into the gathering dusk. A mockingbird trilled. A cicada sang, and I thought, I could fall asleep to this.

Not quite. As I settled into the swinging hammock and attuned my ear to the bird and insect chorus, a commercial jet thundered over on its way to Sky Harbor Airport. A cop helicopter grumbled above the war zone to the north. Cars surfed past on nearby main drags, and a distant roar like an angry ocean washed in from Interstate 17. An unmuffled car rumbled down a neighborhood street. My dog, Anna, ooked uneasily as she listened to someone else barking. I could make out three canine voices down the block, all yapping at once. On the radio, Marian McPartland jammed on with her jazz pianists; lazy with wine and distracted by the beauty of the evening sky, I had left the stereo playing and closed the door behind me when I came outside. Garbled music sifted through the Arcadia doors as unintelligible, distant racket. An air-conditioner kicked on, its growl as cranky as the copter’s. Wee-uu Wee-uu Wee-uu: a car alarm went off. Another jet whined past.

When I was a child, back in the dark ages of the 1950s, an airplane was such a rarity that whenever one appeared overhead, we all turned out of the house to gawk and thrill to the resonating thrum of the propeller engines. Jet planes filled us with awe, and airports had special viewing decks where people could go for a picnic, to watch planes land and take off. Who would think a time would come when the sky was never quiet? When the roar of jet engines was so commonplace we learned to ignore it, as we scarcely hear the white noise of a fan or a stream bubbling on rocks?

It was a quieter time: that is literal truth. You rarely heard a siren, airplanes were almost nonexistent, and no one was ever subjected to the noise vandalism of the rolling boom box. One of the charms of a city like San Francisco or New York was its noise: after dark, the traffic sounded like surf breaking in the distance. The groan of the stinking buses and the honk of gridlocked horns and the murmur of cars on their mission of commerce: these were the sounds of the city—

The sounds of the city
The sounds that you hear
In San Francisco
On KSFO…560!

Bet the radio station has taken that jingle off the air.

I’d kill to sit beside an ocean right now, one bereft of boom boxes and jet engines and yapping dogs and burglar alarms and motor vehicles and air-conditioners. Yet a beach has its own racket: the bark of sea lions, the squeal of gulls, and of course the roar of seawater pounding on rocks and sand. What is it about the surf and ork ork ork and kee-ew kee-ew that seems better than a jet engine and arf arf arf and Wee-uu Wee-uu Wee-uu?

One day when Anna was a pup, I took her with me to peruse real estate in Fountain Hills, a once-isolated suburb of Scottsdale, Arizona. Although rampant development is fast overtaking Fountain Hills, it retains some sense of remote quiet. With its view of the rugged McDowell Mountains and a bordering, largely empty Indian reservation, it feels in some ways like a small town and in some like a retirement community.

True to her German shepherd breeding, Anna was a high-strung puppy, at 50 pounds wired and difficult to manage. When I would walk her in my city neighborhood, she would drag and lunge and yank me around, despite weeks of obedience training.

At one point during the Fountain Hills excursion, I figured it was time to let her out of the car—the place is an hour’s drive from my home, and we had been cruising around visiting open houses for quite some time. I found an empty lot going to weeds, a convenient place for Anna to do her thing, if she chose. We climbed out of the car into a noticeable silence. This place was quiet. Jets flew over, but there, far from the airport, they were still fairly high. No boom boxes thumped, no sirens wailed, no engines mumbled.

Just as noticeable was Anna’s calm. She seemed relaxed, even mellow. We walked around for a while, and she showed no inclination to yank me along or lunge back and forth.

After a while, some players from a nearby golf course approached in electric carts. They headed for a road crossing a few yards from us, and I thought, Here it comes! Wait till she notices those things! All gadgets wheeled and moving drove this puppy berserk: cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, skateboards, bicycles, roller skates, baby strollers. I braced for a frenzy.

The carts entered the roadway, so silent we could hear the riders’ conversation. Anna watched. I got a death grip on the leash and planted my feet on the ground. Any second now, the sound, the fury. . . . Nothing. Ears up, hackles down, she regarded the carts with mild interest: not a single yap, much less the usual rabid outburst. We went on about our business in peace.

Amazed, I wondered what could have caused this attack of tranquillity. Maybe, I reflected, she was responding to the very quiet and stillness of the place—or more to the point, in real life she responded to the unsettling racket that permeates her home territory, known to humans as the back yard. Maybe the matrix of aggressive noise imposed on her normal surroundings made her aggressive. For much of the racket that impinges on our lives is aggressive: helicopters and jets are engines of war; barking dogs and car alarms, the sounds of fear; unmuffled Harleys and wall-rattling boom boxes, the thug’s menacing swagger.

No wonder our children suffer a plague of “hyperactivity”: like Anna, they exhibit symptoms of a kind of psychic asthma, a sickness of pollution. In effect, their out-of-control excitement is like wheezing, frantic gasping at a noxious irritant. A hyperactive child, like a wild puppy, tells us what happens to our minds and hearts when we are subjected to a nonstop barrage of hostile noise.

Screeching tires interrupted this reverie, and, enough being enough, the idyll in the backyard hammock came to an end. Besieged, I retreated indoors. Marian McPartland was still holding forth: a beautiful melody poured from the stereo. Here was the only defense in noise combat: I turned up the volume.

June 1997