A nice little death march

Maricopa Peak from along the Alta Trail's ridgeline.

I had long dreaded this hike as the weather warmed.  For one, this combination of the Alta and Bajada Trails was long, a loop of 8.3 miles in steep, up and down terrain, most of it in the lightly-traveled Ma Ha Tuak range of South Mountain Park.  And all of it under a slow broil of 90-degree heat with little chance of shade.

Then there was this stonewall thing, an emotional one as big as the Wall of China I’d banged into not long ago trying to do Liu’s “Sixty Hikes” around Phoenix in a year.  I had done 22 of Liu’s excursions by then.  Trouble was I’d all but run out of hikes close to home.  Ahead were longer hikes, farther out, time-consuming.  I had other stuff to do.  I wanted my life back.  In short, I balked.

It was only with a spur in the flank from Nebra that on April 7 I set out on the Alta-Bajada trails.  To make sure I didn’t put it in reverse at the trailhead, Nebra came with me.  I can always count on her to make me face pain.

I elected to start with the Alta, doing it counter-clockwise to avoid having to slam up the steep west side.  I thought, well, get the tough part out of the way first, rush down that wicked western hell, then cruise back to the parking lot over the level Bajada.  I suppose, looking back on it, I should’ve taken more seriously Liu’s warning that the Alta is “the most challenging trail” in South Mountain Park.  Funny how things work out.

At the parking lot, a 30ish Hispanic guy trudged by on his way to his car.  He was pooped.  Said he’d been hiking all week, and now it was warm and he was tired and he got no farther than the ridgeline when he turned back.  An omen for me if there ever was one, that and the fact some of my drinking water had leaked out on the drive.

On our way up to that same ridgeline, three hikers, fairly young, passed us like we had the brakes on.  They turned around at the ridgeline and passed us again, all smiley and happy, like it was a lark.  Nebra was up on top about five minutes before me.  I had a feeling then that this might not be my day.

At the ridgeline, the trail bent left.  It was here several weeks ago that I took a right and traversed a faint trail across the tippy-tops of every promontory on the Ma Ha Tuak’s east side.  Now, going the other direction, west, the Alta presented a clean trail, wide and clear of rock as it did a slight dip around the north slope of the range’s high ground, Maricopa Peak, at 2,522 feet.  We stopped for lunch with a magnificent view of Phoenix.

Looking back where we'd been on Alta Trail's steep west end..

I was starting to feel good vibes about the rest of the hike when we soon rounded Maricopa’s northwest corner and I saw the trail rise to a high point.  I assumed it would go downhill from there.  And I was right except for one thing.  To get there, the trail drops down into a deep valley and then makes you gain all that elevation back up.  Somewhere along that stretch, I was spent.  Nebra was now walking about 200 yards in front of me.

To my credit I struggled to that encouraging high point I’d seen maybe 10,000 years ago, or so it seemed.  In the distance behind, I could see the shapes of two young women coming our way, the only other hikers we’d see the last six miles.  The young ladies passed us too.  One was wearing a sun bonnet and carrying a purse like she was on her way to Macy’s.  The other woman wore some cheap sandals and carried water in a plastic bottle.  Sandals!  Soon we were eating their dust as they vanished out of sight.

That steep trail I’d hoped to avoid on the west end was steeper than I thought, and so tough coming down to the conclusion of the Alta Trail at San Juan Lookout that even that winded me.  I sucked air like a marathon runner crossing the tape.

San Juan Lookout is nothing more than a stone hut at the side of a parking lot, and today it was baking in the sun and letting in huge shafts of sunlight as the day entered its hottest phase.  We found some shade opposite each other and finished off our sandwiches.  My water was now seriously low.  Nebra asked me about it, and I told her I was fine.  I’m not sure she believe me.

Three men on horse back just came off the Bajada Trail as we were finishing up the Alta.  All in good moods of course, even if their steeds weren’t.

Ah, I thought, well, we’re on the easy part now.  Easy anyway is how Liu describes the Bajada.  Only another four miles.  By then the women decked out in sunbonnet, purse and sandals were long gone, on their way to the same parking lot we were.  That made me feel all the worse, me with my top of the line hiking boots and backpack with “a water delivery system” inside.

Of course, the Bajada was pure hell.  Only fitting, I thought, plugging along in the heat.  A wildfire had wiped out almost everything.  Only a few small trees remained among the sere chaparral.   No shade.  That was for sure.  A trio of bicyclers swept by on San Juan Road that parallels the trail for a mile or so.  They looked cool and rested.

Little shade, no water at San Juan Lookout.

Now, I even lost sight of Nebra, she was so far in front of me.  Where the trail crosses the road, she stopped to wait, telling me, lying to me she thought the trail was pretty rugged.  I lay my head down on the asphalt, praying a car tire would come along and put me out of the misery that had built up for more than hour.   I had to suck like a demon now to draw even the smallest amount of water from my gasping delivery system.

Liu gauged the entire loop, Alta and Bajada, taking only four hours.  But at the fourth hour I was a long way from the finish line.  The Bajada suddenly turned in to an up-and-down hell, passing through ravine after ravine, some 15-20 feet deep, all loose rock and tiring.  Somewhere along there, I no longer can remember when, two 20-year-olds, a young guy and then an even younger woman came jogging, jogging my god, past me.  I was now stopping every 100 steps or less to catch my breath, I was that tired and beat.  But one thing worked in my favor.  The sun was beginning to set and I could literally feel the desert heat slinking off into thin air.

Nebra caught me on video coming to the parking lot.  I took a look at it later, and decided, despite the fact I’d survived a hiker’s death march of a high order, I strode in looking like a champion.  I’ll live for another day and maybe another hike.



Will the ’12 election turnout beat Reagan-Carter?

Arizona voters have never turned out in mass more than they did 32 years ago, in 1980, drawn by the presidential choices of the incumbent Jimmy Carter and the California governor Ronald Reagan.   In that election, won by Reagan, 80 percent of the state’s legal voters showed up at the polls.

I’m expecting the 2012 election to challenge that turnout in what to my mind is the most important election of my lifetime.  There are many issues at stake of course but the big one is this.  Do Americans want to turn back the clock, to reject all the individual freedoms won during the Sixties in the name of “progress,” or do we want to move ahead?  I’m guessing America’s turmoil over the direction of a black President, Barrack Obama, and the promise of a wealthy, elitist challenger, Mitt Romney, will come close to bettering the Reagan-Carter turnout in this arid land.

Here is a list of Arizona’s turnouts by percentage since 1980, according to an election canvass done by the Secretary of State:  1) 1980, Reagan-Carter, 80 %, 2) 1976, Jimmy Carter v. President Gerald Ford, 78 %,  3) 2008, Obama v. John McCain, the Arizona senator, 77.7%, 4) 1992, Bill Clinton v. President George H. W. Bush, 77.2%, 5) 2004, President Bush v. John Kerry, 72.1%,  6)  1984, President Reagan v. Walter Mondale; 7) 2000, George W. Bush v. Al Gore, 8) George H. W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis, 67%; 9) President Bill Clinton v. Bob Dole, 63.8%.

Ted Nugent, Muhammad Ali and racism in America

You couldn’t pick a more striking pair to illustrate racism in America than the white songman Ted Nugent and the great boxer Muhammad Ali, a black man.

Ali has been scorned, berated and hated as a draft-dodger supreme for using his religious beliefs to escape serving in Vietnam.

Nugent is adored by a certain caste of Americans, who want at any cost to remove President Obama, a black man, from office in the next election.  It is my belief that every one of the Nugent lovers would agree Ali was a draft-dodger, and that Nugent was not.  Nothing wrong with that, at least on the surface.

Nothing wrong until you consider Nugent’s own status during the Vietnam War.  In a 1977 interview with High Times, Nugent described the intricate and disgusting steps he took to avoid the war.  Nugent later denied the story, and said he had a student deferment

Nugent at various times, according to his bio in Wikipedia, was deemed 1-Y and 2-S by the draft board.  The 1-Y is a physical disability deferment and 2-S is a student deferment.  Both deferments, particularly the student one, were legal means for young men to dodge the draft.

It is impossible to know what was in Nugent’s mind when he enrolled at Oakland Community College.  Maybe he was a serious academic at the time, that college meant a lot to him.  But if he was serious, the mood apparently didn’t last long.  He never received a degree from any college I’m aware of.

At the same time, no one can see inside Ali’s religious beliefs.  But unlike Nugent, Ali has remained faithful to his religion all these years.  And yet he is called “draft-dodger” by a segment of American society.  Why single out one and not the other?  Is this not unjust?  Does it not smack of clear and present racism?

Not only, in my opinion, is Ted Nugent a non-repentant draft-dodger, he is a blatant racist and a phony.  Speaking of Democrats and especially Obama’s re-election, Nugent was quoted as saying at a recent National Rifle Association rally:  “We need to ride into the battlefield and chop their heads off in November.”

This chest-thumping allusion to courage and aggressiveness on the fields of battle rings hollow.

The killer stalk that kills itself

The sinister agave stalk.

Some days you walk out into your garden and, bang, there’s something there that knocks your eyes sideways, something you never saw before, something you never even anticipated.  I’m talking Jack and The Beanstalk kinda stuff here.  Well, my latest surprise went down like this.

Near a spot where the driveway runs into the street, we have a large palo brea tree, and beneath the palo are about a half dozen agave plants with dark tips so sharp it’d make a picador wince.  Simple.  Agave, palo brea.    Hardly ever pay attention to them.  They just set out there and grow or whatever it is they do.

Then a few mornings ago, I sensed something strange going on out there.  Couldn’t put my eye on it at first.  I don’t like messing with agaves, so I avoid eye contact as much as possible.  If you put an eye on one, it could mean trouble, like the time a few years back when the mother of all these agave monsters got too big and I tried to remove it.  I ended up having to chain it to my pickup and trying to pull it out.  Even then I didn’t come close to getting all the root.

But those few mornings ago, I finally worked up nerve enough to take a peek at the agave patch, the patch I wish I’d never cultivated.  Staring me in the face was this beanstalk or whatever, I didn’t know then, looking much like asparagus on a high protein diet, seven-feet high and every bit three inches thick, and it was shooting up from the very core of the biggest agave.  My first thought was that it was a spear from one of those killer agaves I sometimes dreamt about.  No one told me then that the agave’s alias is The Century Plant and puts out a stalk like this once in its lifetime, when ready to commit suicide.

The killer stalk had camouflaged itself in the palo brea.  That’s why I guess I didn’t see it right off.

It’s like anything else in life.  The more you know about something the less you fear it.  I no longer fear the agave.  I actually think it’s sad, that all its life it’s saving up energy to produce this one big thrust with some flowers and then die.

Sad, yes, and a little bit heroic.

An adventure in juicing

My juicer ready to go.

I recently purchased a juicer and for about a week now have juiced fruits and vegetables almost daily.  This little adventure, as I call it, has a specific purpose.

I’m hoping to reduce blood pressure that is slightly above where it should be, at least at the doctor’s office.   At home the BP is fine, so low in fact my new doctor has taken me off the diuretic.   He thinks I’m over-medicated.

My ultimate goal is to also say good-bye to the Lisinopril and thereby be on no medications whatsoever.

So the juicer is part of my plan.  It’s a compact Breville Juice Fountain, standing only 10 inches high (16 inches if you keep the food pusher in) and came with a modest price tag of $99.  That’s the actual price.  I bought it online from Zappos.  No tax, no shipping cost.

In a few seconds it will juice an apple, 2 celery talks, a Roma tomato and 2 carrots, my usual blend, separating the hard stuff in a pulp catcher.  The frothy drink is slightly sweet and goes down easily.  Ideally you should drink the juice within minutes or, I have read, it will begin to lose nutrients.

I’m not going on a juice fast however.  I’m going to stay with regular food as well, cut back on the salt even more.  Man, I’m told, can not live by juice alone.  You need fiber in a healthy diet, and that’s in the pulp you’re tossing away.

The worst thing is cleaning up.  But, really, that’s not bad at all and only takes a few minutes.  The juicer disassembles easily.  I rinse it out, remove the pulp to a compost container and wash later in hot, soapy water and air-dry.  The manual says it will stand up to a dishwasher but I’ve not gone that route yet.

The hardest thing is scrubbing the micro mesh of the filter basket with the provided nylon bristle brush.  But even that can be done in a minute or two.

I’ve found preparation of the food is the biggest consumer of time.  Rinds of oranges, lemons and other citrus must be removed by hand.  Limes in particular prove hardest for me.  Also pits, like in peaches and avocados, must be removed.  I actually enjoy the prep work and like to imagine this may lead to bigger things like becoming a gourmet chef.

Expense of the fruit and vegetables is small compared to eating out, which I tend to do a lot.  I figured a recent batch of two servings cost $1.62.  Apples and tomatoes are the most expensive items.  Celery, which is supposedly great for reducing blood pressure, is one of the cheapest.

It’s too early to tell what if any health benefits will come from the adventure.  I’m hopeful anyway.  And right now, it’s fun.

`We want Steve:’ Yes, but not next season

A tube's eye view of Nash leaving a Suns game possibly for the last time.

As the end to another lacklustre Suns basketball season wound down tonight in Phoenix, a chant began to rise among the hometown fans at U.S. Airways Center.  “We want Steve, we want Steve . . . .”  It started softly and grew to thunder until it seemed the whole building shook.

At the time the “Steve” in question was stretched out on the sidelines watching his team absorb another loss to one of the best teams in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs.  It was the regular season finale, and a 110-106 defeat was in the making.  The Suns had missed the playoffs again by losing the previous night in Utah.  But tonight was not just any game.  With their “we want Steve” the fans wanted a chance to say “so-long” to who most agree is the most popular player to ever don a Suns uniform.

A sign from adoring fans.

Steve Nash, the team’s guiding force the last eight seasons, the player often called “MVP” for having twice won the league’s Most Valuable Player award, a magician at setting up teammates for easy shots, was not playing just his last game of the season.  He likely was playing his last game as a Phoenix Sun, and the knowledgeable home crowd knew it and rose to the occasion with a rare show of deep affection.

As the chant rose, an uneasy smile crossed Nash’s face as he sat there on the floor.  And even some of his teammates, like Shannon Brown with his arms upraised, joined in:  “We want Steve, we want Steve . . . .”  It was a touching moment, filled with mixed emotions, the fans happy to be on hand to say good-bye to a once-great player and at the same time sad that, at age 38, he will likely be moving on after eight seasons to play out his last few years for another team, maybe garnering the championship ring that has eluded him for all of his 16 seasons.

Waiting for the final ticks of the clock.

Nash is now a free agent, open to sign with any team he chooses.  He says the Suns will be a big factor in his decision, that he might return.  But surely everyone knows its time.  It’s time to do something else.

Charles Barkley, the former Suns star and now TV sports analyst, was right when he said after the game that time was past due for the Suns to start rebuilding with younger, talented players and that the Nash era should be put to bed.  It is unlikely the owner, Robert Sarver, will gather up enough scratch to re-sign Nash and bring in the high-caliber talent surrounding him he deserves.  How many times this season have you seen Nash throw a bad pass and wondered to yourself:  Was that his fault or had teammates failed to be in the right place at the right time?

When at last the Suns coach Alvin Gentry called No. 13 to re-enter the game at 4:15 of the fourth and final quarter, the fans gave Nash a rousing ovation, even though he played about 27 seconds and came out again.  At the bench, Nash and Gentry, the coach who did such a magnificent job this season getting the most out of the talent he had, embraced, both with big smiles.  Even though the team finished with 33 wins and as many losses, surely Gentry and Nash knew it was a special season considering.

Nash’s line was not impressive for a player of his magnitude.  Just eight points and seven assists in only 17 minutes and 27 seconds.  Hardly enough playing time to cause a sweat.  But why play him more?  Anything special Nash could’ve done this game would’ve been tempered by the fact San Antonio held out its three star players:  Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.  Only the most die-hard of fans would’ve expected more from Nash.

A meaningless game, and perhaps the most memorable night in the land of what appears to be the setting Suns.

Those vanishing acts at Chase Field

I call them the phantom opponents.  Win or lose, these opponents disappear after every game with the Arizona Diamondbacks.     At least that’s what you would suspect by reading the next day’s coverage in the Arizona Republic.  There is not a peep from the opponent’s locker room after the game.  It is as if opposing managers and players were immediately beamed up to their hotel rooms after leaving Chase Field.  All the Republic‘s attention goes to the local pro team, the Dbacks.

Take last night’s home game with the Philadelphia Phillies, a game won easily by the locals, 9-5, even after giving up five runs in the last inning.

The Dbacks beat writer, Nick Piecoro, wrote the game story without a single quote from the Phillies exasperated manager, Charlie Manuel, who has seen his vaunted team lose three in a row and six of the last 10.  The Phillies won more games last season than any team in Major League Baseball.  He may’ve dished out some choice words for the local media — if they’d been there.

Nor was there a quote from the hapless starting pitcher, Kyle Kendrick, who was blasted for four runs in the first inning and left after the 3rd with three more runs yielded.  Left the game, yes, but was Kendrick too beamed up to the Hyatt or wherever his team is staying?  In weird Arizona anything seems possible, but Star Trek moments seem a tad far out.

Nor was there a single quote from the injured Phillies stars, first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and ace pitcher Cliff Lee.  I definitely saw Utley on the Phillies bench.  Barring the bizarre, Utley should’ve been available to speak or at least grunt.

Then there was the sidebar written by the usually-able Scott Bordow.  If you read it, though, you quickly realize it was written BEFORE the game and the only person quoted was Dbacks manager Kirk Gibson.  Oh, Bordow did mention the Howard and Utley injuries at the end of his sidebar.  But of course it was Gibson, not Manuel, that commented on them.

Bordow did stick around to write “Rewind,” a series of post-game notes.  He devoted his attention totally to the Dbacks: winning pitcher, Wade Miley, the struggles of reliever Joe Paterson and the repeal of Aaron Hill’s “home run.”  But, alas, nothing on the Phillies.

This snub of the opponent happens at almost every game and in all of the other local pro sports:  Coyotes, Cardinals and Suns.  It has to be policy, a bad dream of an idea generated by in-office editors with too much time on their hands.  It is a standard practice among sports writers to trade quotes with the opposing team’s writers.   Those meddling editors ought to at least encourage the game story writers to do that much.  Juicy stories often come from the opponent’s after-game comments.

It seems strange that an organization like, Gannett, which owns the Republic and I suppose adheres to the industry norm of “fair and balanced” reporting, would allow this lapse of judgment to continue.   But that may be what happens when corporations like Gannett get too big for their pants.  Like Wal-Mart, the people at the top have no idea what the tail is doing.