Buying local. Ha!

I made a foolish resolution last year.  My goal would be to buy American products, and I would buy them at a locally-owned store  if possible.  My idea was this.  I wanted to help America get back on its feet again and help spur the lagging Phoenix economy. I wanted to do this  even if it cost a little more.

I knew that buying American was next to impossible.  Few of the products I like are made in this country.  Products like cameras,  computers and cellphones.  So early on, I trimmed off half the resolution.  I would concentrate on buying local.

Take my attempt to buy an ultra-light tripod for my camera at a Phoenix photography store on Camelback Road.

It is a small store, locally-owned I presumed, in a large and attractive strip mall in an upscale part of town.  It  claims to have been serving Phoenix since 1954.  It has another store in Scottsdale.

I no sooner walked into the shop than the salesman pointed me to what he described as a great deal.  A slightly defective tripod.  It was marked down from $144 to $88.  “I almost bought it myself,” he said.  Normally, his comment would have raised a red flag in my mind.  But I was determined to buy local, and the top-of-the-line tripods were beyond my reach at $225-300 at another locally-owned store.

The tripod’s defect was a missing screw, he said.  What the screw was used for he had no clue.  A customer, he said, had noticed it while shopping.  The salesman put the tripod through the test.  Everything seemed in working order.  So I bought it for almost $100, tax included.

On setting it up for the first time, I noticed the paint on the “quick release platform” was chipped away.  This was not a new tripod with a screw missing.  It was a used tripod.  The salesman had concocted the screw story to deceive.  It was still a useable tripod at a price I could afford.  Although rankled by the lie, I decided to keep the tripod.

And just for kicks I went online to see what I could have really purchased this same tripod for on Amazon.

Amazon listed the price for a new Slik Pro II 3 Way at $95.  No tax, no shipping cost.  In other words I could have had a new Slik tripod for $5 less than I paid for a used one.

But the thing that galled was the blatant dishonesty.  For making a few extra bucks, the camera store lost a customer.  I will not go back there again.  And it makes you wonder.  Why is it that short-term gain means so much?  Why is it honesty and building a long-term customer base means so little?

I think it largely comes down to this.  This camera shop, as small as it is, is too big.  The owner is too far removed and has lost control.  He has allowed a salesman or manager to run it, a hired gun probably working on a commission.  This salesman is now dictating store policy, a policy which likely goes against the grain of ownership.  It is the bane of small business.  Trying to grow and losing quality control at the same time.

And a postscript.  The tripod was made in Thailand.


Winter Solstice, 2011

Looking southeast toward downtown Phoenix precisely at 10:30 p.m.

The Winter Solstice arrived tonight at 10:30 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The temperature is 48 F.  The air is calm and the sky clear with the constellation Orion high in the southeast.  Sunset was at 5:23 p.m.  It is a dark night, the moon not rising until 4:08 tomorrow morning.

So winter is here, the shortest day of the year and the longest night behind us.  Daylight tomorrow will increase by roughly two minutes with sunrise at 7:28 and sunset at 5:24.  The sun begins what seems its voyage north.  In the Southern Hemisphere, in Brazil for example, summer began.

The first 21 days in December have been cooler than usual in Phoenix and fairly wet.  No freeze yet, the low reaching 33 F.  Rainfall of 1.35 inches fell at the house so far this month, the most coming on the 12th with 6/10 of an inch.  To everyone a Happy Solstice.  It’s an optimistic moment, it seems to me.  The Return of the Sun has inched off the starting line.

This marks the third straight year I’ve recorded Winter Solstice weather conditions.  For what purpose I have no idea, other than to keep a wintry mind from freezing over.  This year’s Solstice came 5 hours and 52 minutes later than the one in 2010.  And the 2010 was 5:51 later than the one in 2009.  Without looking up the 2012 Winter Solstice, I figure it will come in at 5:53 later, or at 4:23 a.m. See, isn’t this fun?  The skies have varied from clear (tonight), to partly cloudy (2009) and all-the-way cloudy (2010).  All the solstices have been mild, with daytime highs in the 60s.  I feel I’m on the way to becoming a Solstice-guy.

Those unread vacation books

Shelved but unread.

To my mind, there are two kinds of vacation books.  They are the good and the bad.  The good ones are the ones you acquire before your trip.  The bad ones are acquired during the trip.  I’m an expert on the bad ones.

The Bad Vacation Book spawns in most cases from an over-heated mind.  You visit, say, the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and are excited by what you’ve seen.  You want to know more.  So the next time the chance appears, you wipe out the bookshop’s shelves on Mayan ruins.  Or, more realistically you buy one or two.

About 15 years ago, I took a jaunt to the Black Hills and saw the Mount Rushmore rock sculptures.  It was so inspiring, I rushed to the gift shop and purchased a book about the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.  I read about one-fourth of it, getting to his work on Stone Mountain, in Georgia, and quit.  I never reached the Mount Rushmore section.  I can’t even tell you where that book is now.

In 2003, Nebra and I traveled to France and Corsica, making a brief stop in Italy.  At Florence, I became so enamored of the monstrous dome on the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, I made haste to a bookshop and purchased an account of how the engineer, Filippo Brunelleschi, went about his work.   I read only part of it.  And, again, I do not know where I placed the book.  Maybe I traded it.

The most recent failure came a few years ago on a winter visit to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.  The hills were blanketed with the purest white snow you’ll ever see, and I walked down along a stream where Indians of centuries before had built adobe houses under a large ledge.  Again I got over-heated and could not resist buying an expensive copy of “The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde.”  Back home, I read only a few pages before shelving it.  To my credit, I do know where this one is located.

At last, shelved and read.

I have only one success story to relate.  It occurred a few nights ago when I finished, yes, finished reading Edwin R. Sweeney’s “Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief” just three weeks after visiting the land of Cochise in southeastern Arizona.  But, truth known, I did buy a second book, John C. Cremony’s “Life Among the Apaches.”  Whether I get to that one is another story.

My advice on Bad Vacation Books is this.  Do not buy books that excite you while on a trip.  Jot their titles down in a notebook, and wait until at least three weeks after you’ve been home.  Then if you’re still in a tizzy to own the book, and only then, do you make a purchase.  It will save you some money in the end.  And you won’t feel nearly as foolish.

The impulsive vacation book buyer is a sucker waiting to happen.  Say hello to one.

An unheralded anniversary

This marks the start of Year 3 for Long Row.  No church bells will ring.  No fireworks displays.  That suits me just fine.  I like low key at this point in my life.  I like the anonymity.  Only a few know who Long Row really is.

There is a certain power to hiding an identity.   It’s called independence.  You write what you want, when you want.  Everthing else be damned.  No friends, no peers to write for.  Just write.  Whatever happens, it happens.

Long Row’s initial post, “A raindrop fell today!” on December 7, 2009, was a belabored attempt to explain drought in the arid lands and my adaptation to it.  Since then 195 posts have followed.   That comes to one post every 3.7 days.  Paltry, other bloggers might say.  Too busy, in my opinion.  If nothing else, I have wide and diverse interests beyond blogging.

By far, the most popular post in the Long Row collection is “Macular-hole surgery:  A journal,” begun June 1 of this year.  Macular hole is a serious eye condition that if left unrepaired can lead to blindness in an eye.  I was surprised in the interest it generated, an interest which I assume will continue as long as humans have mac-holes.

Probably the most painful post I wrote was “A father writes to his son:  War stories or revelations?”  My son lives in Oklahoma.  Our contact is minimal.  I haven’t seen him for more than 10 years.  Brief emails pass between us once or twice a year.   Several years ago, I wrote a letter to him, “The day you were born,”  my memories of his birth.  Others letters followed.  I wrote “A father writes to his son,” describing how my well-intended revelations were perceived in a different way.

Something about the format of Long Row I don’t like.  While I like the clean, open look and general organization of the theme, called Greyzed, the red headline colors are garish and jarring.   I have sifted many times through the multitude of themes offered by WordPress but have found little to satisfy.   With Greyzed, I’ve taken the good with the bad, a compromise that irritates.  The answer I suppose is to design my own webpage.   Toward that goal I’m learning html and css on my own.

I don’t know where I go from here.  For now Long Row will continue.  Maybe make changes at the start of the new year.  Another blog, perhaps, more focused and with shorter posts.

We’re into the Holiday season, a period of melancholy I struggle through every year.  It’s never a good time to make decisions of any kind.  To all others outside by dreary tribe, I say, “Have a good one.”

Not really a colossal cave

The underworld of browns, grays and yellows.

I’d known about Colossal Cave for many years.  I read the signs along Interstate 10 but never stopped.  After visiting the land of Cochise last month, we have some time to kill on our way home to Phoenix.  So about 25 miles southeast of downtown Tucson, I veer off at Exit 279, and head north toward the Rincon Mountains.  And Colossal Cave.

It is still beautiful desert land out here once you survive the 7-mile drive to Colossal Mountain Park’s entrance.   That means whizzing by the town of Vail and the mammoth development, Rancho de Lago, where tract houses of browns and greys blanket once-verdant hills.  Getting through that drab mess makes Colossal seem a wonderland.

After following a weathered asphalt road to a hilltop, Nebra and I park and walk down to the gift shop and pay for a 45-minute tour with Group 12.  Tickets cost $13 for adults.  In 2005, I read, the price was $8.50.  Now, coupled with the $5 car fee for just entering the park, we cough up a hefty $31 for the two of us.

It is late afternoon.  The park closes at 5, and I count about 20 in the group.  We are among the last tours of the day.  I forget the name of the guide but he is tall and rail-thin and I measure his age at somewhere between 15 and 25.  He guides us down steps of rock and cement, stopping perhaps a dozen times to provide cave information and humor as dry as the cave.  Not a lick of water.

Tour guide offers info and humor.

Colossal is said to be one of the largest dry-caves in the U.S. and is in stark contrast to its more heralded cousin, wet Kartchner Caverns, 40 miles or so to the southeast.  Of all the caves in the world, I read, only about 3% are dry.

I get it.  Dry means dormant.  No growth for the abundant stalagmites and stalactites, those eerie formations that hang from a cave’s ceilings and sprout from its floor.  Mostly they are yellows and browns, or so it seems in the artificial torchlight.  Dry but not dead.  Just waiting for the climate change that may be millions of years away.  We are told not to touch the rock or else we will help kill it.  No bats down here either.  Trudging along, a picture soon emerges.  See one dry cave and you’ve seen them all.

To make Colossal seem more alluring, someone has attached exotic names to some of the cave’s most prominent features.  Grotto  of the Lost Treasure, Kingdom of the Elves and Crystal Forest to name a few.

As caves go, Colossal is nowhere near colossal.  In length, it ranks 396th of 1,043 U.S. caves ( and third in Arizona behind Falls Cave and Kartchner.  About 85% of all this nation’s caves are under 5 miles, and Colossal at 2.5 miles is in the middle of that lower percentile.  Nothing compared of course to the largest, the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky, at 390 miles.  Not to say Colossal is without a certain historical appeal.

Although the ancient  Hohokam civilization is said to have used the cave, it was nothing of course until the white man came along.  In the 1870s, the cave was “discovered” by a nearby rancher named Lick. He supposedly ran across the cave while chasing strays from his herd of cattle.  Another story says that in 1888, four train robbers roosted here with their loot.  A display case about halfway along the tour reveals items the robbers might have carried and worn in the cave.

At last the tour is over.  We ascend the numerous steps, glad to see daylight again.  For me, the experience was a lot like my few years in the military.  Glad that I did it, wouldn’t want to do it again.

A hiker’s journal: December 2011

A glob of Desert mistletoe hanging from a palo verde.

The 5th, a Monday:  North Mountain Park, Phoenix.  I have a plan today, an actual plan.  I’m not going to let stuff just happen as I usually do on a I hike.  I’ve decided to undertake on my broad shoulders the counting of palo verde trees inflicted with the parasitic Desert mistletoe.  Mistletoe seems to be everywhere.  I’ll even provide the scientific name, phoradendron californicus, to make it sound important if not a bit obscene.

Californicus is not to be confused with the leafy green “kissing” mistletoe with the white berries, although both are parasites that live off the moisture and nutrients of host trees.  No, californicus is as ugly as a tumor, clumpy and stringy and brittle.  You wouldn’t be caught dead under it with your sweet-thing.

It’s late afternoon when my mission begins.  I’m not so stupid as to think I can count every tree in the inner basin.   I’m just going to count the palo verde trees along the trail, and only those trees that extend out no more than 10 yards.  The mistletoe attacks mesquite also but is far less successful than with the green-barked palo verde.

Dying Palo Verde

The work of Desert Mistletoe isn't pretty.

One thing about me is that once I lock onto a mission like this, I’m easily deterred.  A jogger, a young woman with a leashed dog, shouts at me in passing as I photograph a palo verde ravaged by mistletoe.  “I just saw a coyote back there,” she says.  I quickly stow my camera and backtrack down the trail about 100 yards.  But no coyote.  All I see is a reddish bird atop a saguaro.  I think I’m looking at a red-shouldered hawk until I see it’s way too small and has a white breast with brown streaks near the wing.  Well, at least I have the mistletoe.

Most of the afflicted trees are fairly close together, near the junction of the Christiansen and Shaw Butte Trails.  At other points there are no trees, only creosote and compass barrel cholla.  I did see one mesquite with a clump of mistletoe.  Farther off the trail I see several palo verde with californicus but do not count them.  It would skew the results.

A pair of Desert Mistletoe sprigs.

Back at the Visitors Center, I total it up. I’ve counted 93 palo verdes with 16 showing varying amounts of Desert mistletoe.   That comes to 17.2 %, or approximately one of every six trees having some infestation.

One thing is strange.  In all my hikes here at North Mountain I’ve yet to lay eyes on a single phainopepla, the little black birds with crests and red eyes.  It is the phainopepla, I’ve read, who is a co-conspirator in the spread of Desert mistletoe.  It eats the berries and spews them out from one end or the other, onto branches.  And, voila.  Before you know it, the tree has a dangerous companion.

So this is my life any more.  Small stuff.  Mistletoe and phainopepla.  I used to think I was a big shot, or at least a bigger shot than I am now.   It could be argued that now I’m just shot.  Strangely, it has come to me of late that I like being a little deal much more than I ever liked being a big one.

This beats a cubicle with a computer screen, it seems to me.

The 8th, Thursday:  North Mountain Park.  Hiking the last leg of a loop on the Shaw Butte Trail, a rider on horseback approaches.  He is an older man, wrapped up in a blue jean jacket and wearing the faint smile of someone enjoying the ambling pace of his big chestnut mare.  “You look comfortable up there,” I say as he passes.  “I’m not working as hard as you are,” he replies, the smile broadening.  “I feel bad about that.”  The man has taken me wrong.  I should’ve said, “You look like you’ve ridden a horse before,”  noting his comfort in the saddle and the relaxed hand on the reins.  I do that a lot.  I mean to say one thing, but it comes out wrong.

For me, it has been a relaxed two-miler in the inner basin.  I’m starting to feel like a trail watchman, so often do I hike here.  The weather is fantastic except for an ever-so slight haze.  It’s sunny, in the upper 50s and a gentle breeze barely moves the branches of the creosote.  And it is so quiet I hear from 100 yards away a hiking stick crunching small rock on the trail.  I stopped at the Trupiano memorial bench to eat a deli sandwich, hoping for a coyote to slink by.  But nothing.  It’s a light day on the trails.  I count 23 hikers, 1 biker, five joggers and the vaquero, 30 in all.

From the saddle, looking north.

The 10th, Saturday:  Quartz Ridge Trail, Phoenix Mountains.  I slow for speed bumps as I drive north on Squaw Peak Drive, passing the busy summit trail to Piestewa Peak.  It used to be called Squaw Peak until a former governor, Janet Napolitano stuck her political nose into it, wanting, I guess, to make a name for herself as an Indian-sensitive humanitarian.  She steamrolled the state’s naming board into changing the name in 2003 in favor of Lori Piestewa, the first known American Indian woman to die while serving in the U.S. military.  This although Piestewa, a Navajo, had nothing historically or otherwise to do with the peak.  Plus her home was faraway, in northern Arizona.  Nothing against Ms. Piestewa, but . . . .

Large outcrop of quartz.

A half-mile past Piestewa, I park, don my hiking boots and head up the steep Nature Trail to the saddle, where a new world opens up to the north under a bright sky.  Nothing but desert for two or three miles in front.  I soon veer off on Trail #8, the Quartz Ridge.  The trail is not so-named for nothing.  White quartz dots the landscape both as boulders and outcroppings.  A modest ravine runs on the left.  It is filled with palo verde, many of the trees laden with the parasitic Desert mistletoe, much more so than at North Mountain Park several miles to the northwest.  It should not surprise to see a phainopepla here for the little black bird feeds largely on the mistletoe.   It should not surprise but it did.  It was resting high up on a branch of ocotillo, and I quickly brought my camera into position.  But as patient as the bird was for this photo op, the shoot ended in frustration.  My hand was too shaky to capture a clear, zoomed-in image, and I cursed myself for not acquiring a tripod and remote clicker.

Otherwise it was a nice afternoon.

The unique Papago Buttes.

The 11th, Sunday:  Once you visit Papago Park you never forget it.  Knobs of pock-marked red sandstone known as Papago Buttes sprinkle the drab desert with color.  The buttes are like “desert snowballs,” having collected boulders, small rocks and other debris like a snowball would rolling down a hill.  This debris is stuck into the sedimentary rock like candles in a cake.

A first for me at least, a Black-throated Sparrow

Except for the buttes, Papago is a relatively flat tract that is knifed north and south by busy McDowell Road and east and west by Galvin Parkway.  It is more urban than the other parks.  Amid the creosote, palo verde and brittle bush, there is a zoo, a golf course, the Desert Botanical Garden and, on a hill above it all, the pyramid structure where Arizona’s first governor, George W. P. Hunt, is buried.

I’ve trekked out here many times, so the highlights can be quite small.  Like adding a bird to my life list.  Walking along the trail I stop for five minutes trying to get that just-perfect photo of what I later learn is a Black-throated Sparrow.  I’d had seen plenty of its cousins, the black breasted House Sparrow and the red-headed House Finch, in my backyard.

Papago is best known for something beside birds.  I speak of the marooned hikers who, thinking they are Sherpas, try to scale the buttes and find at a certain point it is impossible to come back down.  So out come the helicopters.  One to rescue and a few others to film for the visually-starved local TV stations.  Phoenix, the dull town that it is, never seems to tire of these “scary” moments.

The Trupiano bench pointing to North Mountain.

The 16th, FridayNorth Mountain Park.  Did the inner-basin loop again, about two miles.  Saw for the first time in this park a black-tailed jackrabbit.  It scurried across the Shaw Butte Trail in front of me and quickly out of sight.  Much more shy than the Audubon’s cottontail.   The normally drab desertland’s winter coat was blessed by a patina of green, courtesy of big rains early in the week.  While the blades of grass are small, maybe a quarter of an inch, their cumulative effect is huge.  The temperature reached the mid-60s on a clear day but an easterly breeze chilled the air.  Counted only 22 on the trail. Twelve hikers, six joggers and four bikers together, all middle-aged men moving fast.

The 19th, Monday:  North Mountain Park, inner loop.  Three boys on bicycles roll past me.  The youngest who is maybe 12 at the most is wearing a sweater with lettering at the bottom that says, “I Am Parental Guidance.”  A sign of the times.  Later I come up behind an obese young woman with a girl.  The woman is walking two pit bulls on a leash.  As an experiment in human nature, I wait to see if she acknowledges me as we approach the Visitors Center.  It would be courteous of her to pull to the side with her dogs and let me pass.  But she does not.

The elusive Black-Tailed Jackrabbit.

The 20th, Tuesday:  Papago Park.   Unexpectedly, my walk around the western buttes turns into a wildlife tour.  I see a black tailed jackrabbit out in the open and attempt a photograph.  But at the last moment, it scurries into some brush and I catch only a fleeting image.  On the back side of the buttes near a ravine, something large darts across the path and disappears.  Was it a coyote?  Or maybe just another jackrabbit?  I recognize a few birds.  The red-chested House Finch and olive-headed Verdin.  I’m unsure what the hawk was.  It lit on a fence by the golf course only long enough to see that it was small, 10-12 inches, with a dark-streaked gray breast.  A Sharp-Shinned perhaps or immature Cooper’s?

A bird, the Channel 3 balloon, near the park.

The 21st, a Wednesday and the last day of autumn.  North Mountain Park.  Stopped for a 4 o’clock lunch at the Trupiano bench.  Who was that guy anyway?  The cold-cut combo goes down quickly.  To the east about 40 yards is a snag, or what’s left of a dying palo verde.  Atop it are three birds.  One I believe is a Gila woodpecker, another quite likely a Meadowlark.  The third is sparrow sized, brownish with streaks on its breast.  Soon after they fly away, in comes what appears to be a small hawk.  Looks much like the one seen  yesterday at Papago.  As I complete the last leg of the inner loop another bird appears, the Channel 3 hot air balloon to the north.  It is a Cameron Z90, standing 60 feet tall when inflated.  I raise my hand and make a fist, measuring how far the balloon appears above the horizon.  Ten degrees.  If the number increases, if I have to use my other fist, the balloon is drifting closer.  But no.  It eases back to the north and east, slipping behind a hill out of sight.


The Moon one day into the New Phase.

Christmas, a Sunday:  North Mountain Park.  It’s late afternoon, 4:45, when Nebra and I hit the trail.  The city below is dead.  We passed only a few gas stations and an ethnic restaurant that were open.  To my surprise, it’s much busier out here in the park.  Parking lot is fuller than usual, and I count 23 hikers, 7 bikers and 6 joggers along the inner basin loops of two miles.   We stop at the bench and share a deli sandwich.  A family of six comes by.  The man asks directions.  He is headed the wrong way to get back to the Visitors Center.  It is very quiet.  Not even sounds of chattering quail.  “Maybe,” says Nebra, “they’ve gone to visit relatives.”  On our last leg, Nebra stops to admire the sunset at the far end of the basin.  Amid the pinks and purples, I find a sliver of yellow.  A waxing crescent Moon, only a day after the New Moon.  I stop to shoot a shaky photo.  Santa failed to bring a tripod and remote clicker.  I’ll have to drum up those items on my own.

December 29, Thursday:  North Mountain Park.  I may abandon this park on beautiful days like today.  The temperature was near 70, blue sky and only a trace of haze.  What other reason than the weather could the “crowd”  of people on the trail be attributed?  Since I began hiking in North Mountain last spring, if you see 50 on the trail that is a lot.   But today I counted 69 over the two-mile inner loop.  Fifty-three hikers, 8 bikers and 8 joggers.  It was like walking a downtown street.  I did not hear again the sounds of Gambel’s quail in the brush.  Are they still on holiday?  Or is it the crowds?  I did catch a pair of Curve-Billed Thrashers foraging 20 yards off the trail.  I purchased one of those ultra-light tripods two days ago, a used one, but I didn’t want to take the time to set up with the busyness on the trail.