A long, dusty road

JFK recuperated here at Castle Hot Springs.
JFK recuperated here at Castle Hot Springs.

It is amazing.  In less than 50 miles northwest of metropolitan Phoenix you can arrive in a mountainous world so desolate and yet so beautiful as to severely jar the city-dweller’s brain.

Out there along a 36-mile dirt and gravel path called North Castle Hot Springs Road you can find the Hell’s Canyon Wilderness, the one-time hospital where President-to-be John F. Kennedy stayed for three months in 1945 to rehab his WWII injuries, a few ranches, some mines, cattle, wild burros and many other wonders should you leave the car and venture in.  The mountains shoot up a thousand feet or more belying their low elevations because the road itself is so low.   But most of all, it was the stark Sonoran Desert landscape that proved the star.

A 17-year-old girl buried along the road.
A 17-year-old girl buried along the road.

I did the drive yesterday in my low-slung Honda Civic.  It took forever, it seemed.   I probably didn’t average much over 15 mph, the road being so rocky, steep and winding in places and in others flat on the sandiness of  huge Castle Creek wash.  Top speed was 25 but then I felt I was missing stuff and slowed down.  And I stopped often to shoot, according to my software, 39 photos of various big things and small that caught the eye.

It began as a search for access to Hell’s Canyon Wilderness.  When I couldn’t find one I just kept driving.  For most of this sunny and windy afternoon, I was the only vehicle on the road.  For miles and miles.   The drivers of the few moving vehicles I saw were friendly and we exchanged waves, as if we were the few survivors on some distant planet and we needed each other.  A breakdown out here is serious business.

Here and there, a smattering of cars was parked in turn-outs along the road, their drivers out of sight, hiking, hunting or whatever.  Zillions of dirt roads, some no more than over-grown dirt paths, led off to god know’s where.   Some to mines, some to ranch houses, I imagine. Some, like Champie Road and Buckhorn Road, even have modern sign posts.

I had some mildly cool water with me, but nothing to eat.  No 7/11s out this way.  I also carried a “survival” pack with GPS, compass, camera and the most valuable thing I own, a time-wrinkled notebook with jottings about the many hikes, recons and drives I’ve made.  It’s irreplaceable.

Governor's Peak overlooks Castle Hot Springs Resort.
Governor’s Peak overlooks Castle Hot Springs Resort.

The highlight of this trip, as usual, was the Castle Hot Springs Resort.  It is the place JFK came to rest his wounds but is now in disrepair.  It rests along the north side of the road with a dramatic southern view of Governor’s Peak.   A small forest of palm trees covers the once-bustling yards around the place, and those trees form the startling first sight you see driving in from the east.

The old resort is going up for auction again, I’ve heard.  It is completely fenced off from visitors with a guard at the gate.  The guard, a well-fed blonde, sat on an ATV reading a book.  She ignored me as much as possible.  To irritate her, I moved around nearby shooting photos of the property.  Finally, she turned her back to me and appeared to continue reading.

Just up the road west, I stirred up a half-dozen wild burros along the wash.  Two stop in the sand to stare up at me from 100 yards away.  Then all six decide in burro-talk to mosey into some trees where I could no long see them.

Wild burros head for cover along a wash.
Wild burros head for cover along a wash.

The wind picks up as I drive south and west.  It is the harbinger of a storm expected to arrive this weekend.  It should bring our first rain of the year.  The land has been in a drought for many years now.  Dry, yes, but coming around a bend in the road I see running water.  The road is almost soaked through at one point.  I did not stop to seek its origin as sunset was looming.

I arrived back home in darkness, tired and hungry.  But it was a trip I will not forget soon.  And the terrain inside the arc that is Castle Hot Springs Road leaves hope for exciting hikes and adventures into this no-man’s land so very close to the millions of urbanites to the southeast.

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The beginning of a surprising death list

Sid Caesar, the comedian, died yesterday, and I added him to my year’s death list.  Everytime a “famous” person dies, I open up my database and write in the name, age, date, place and cause of death.

It is a subjective list.  Chances are a notable businessman or influential scientist will fly right by my window.  The list tells as much about the listmaker as it does anything.   The list reflects my interest over the years.  It is clear my primary interests have been books, music, films and sports with politics not far behind.  Probably no different from anyone else’s.

With the death of Caesar at age 91, there are 12 names on the 2014 list.  This is about the same pace as last year when I entered 76 deaths.

What is different in 2014 is the average age at death.  That number is 82.7 years.  Last year it was 81.5.  Subtract the accidental  drug over-dose that killed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, and that average this year jumps to a whopping 86 years.  Four have lived into their 90s.  That’s a third of the total.  The oldest, the folk singer Pete Seeger, died at 94.

And, yes, it is early in the year.  Things could change.  But it will be interesting to follow.

Sometimes risk

Maricopa Peak atop the Ma Ha Tauk range.
Maricopa Peak atop the Ma Ha Tauk range.

I am not big on taking chances when I hike.  But I took a few last weekend in getting up to isolated Maricopa Peak.

You do not have to go up lofty K-2 in the Himalayas to find danger on the trail.  Maricopa Peak rises only about 2,500 feet just southwest of downtown Phoenix.  But the summit is flat, rocky and small with steep cliffs on three sides.  A misstep and away you go.  Your parachute had better open quickly.  And getting up to the summit is no pie à la mode either.

To make matters worse I was hiking solo in the most lonesome part of South Mountain Park.  At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, as I stopped on the eastern ridgeline, still a long way from my goal, a young couple with a dog came up to take in the great views, and moments later a shirtless man in tattoos passed me going in the opposite direction.  Those three people would be the last I saw for the next five hours.

It is already wildflower season here, and I made the mistake of dawdling along, shooting photos of the yellow bladder-pods gathered in large fields.  And, up higher, I found an abundance of yellow poppies growing on the north slopes of the Alta Trail.  I knew I was flirting with trouble, coming back along this high trail in darkness.  Maybe I have, if not a death wish, then some sort of wish to punish myself.

Summit trail looking east.
Summit trail looking east.

At 4:07, I halted at a sunny spot on the Alta.  Maricopa Peak now loomed above me on the east.  Sitting down I made a few notes and reconnoitered.  I checked the GPS.  Sunset was at 6:05.  I fished out my binoculars from my backpack that weighs in at about 10 pounds.  I trained the binos on a high ridge, searching for Post #8 where the Maricopa Peak summit trail began.  Amidst the outline of  brush and cactus, I thought I saw a straight object, the metal post I was looking for.  I gauged it to be another half mile ahead of up and down, twisting trail along steep drop-offs on the right.  As I debated whether to push on, howls and yips came rising up from a nearby valley.  Coyotes.  I had seen a lot of their dark, dog-like scat on the trail.

Thinking I was so close to the peak’s summit and that it might be a long time before I got back here, I moseyed on up the Alta.  In 23 minutes I stood before Post #8, and soon set off to the east on a faint spur trail that would lead up to Maricopa Peak.

The high north peak.  Climbers have written on the cliff face.
The high north peak. Climbers have written on the cliff face.
Summit view to the north with downtown Phoenix far below.
Summit view to the north with downtown Phoenix far below.

The trail was pretty much as advertised.  Short, only a quarter-mile in distance.  And not too steep, only about 150 feet in elevation gain.  But . . . .

The trail was hard to follow, as ascending trails often are.  At every alternative route I chose to go up over small rises rather than around them.  I was wearing long pants for once and glad of it.  The path was over-grown with brush and the unforgiving spines of buckhorn and cholla cactus.  Not to mention sharp outcroppings of rock.

As I approached the rocky pinnacle from the west, I could see that Maricopa Peak was really two peaks separated by a very small saddle.   Also the spine I was traversing was getting narrower with deep drops on both sides.  On a cliff face nearby, I saw the weathered writings of climbers.  They had roped down the precipice to scratch in barely legible letters.  I clearly made out “Jeff” and “2500 ft,” and thought I read the date, “1-19-74.”  If so that was 40 years ago.

It was at the saddle I almost gave up for a second time.  There were three short routes to the summit.  None seemed safe.  The route on the west was composed of dirt and loose rock.  It reminded me of a playground slippery slide.   One misstep, and downward you go, dumped out into space and a long fall.  The east side was better but still chancy.  I chose to try the 8-foot slab of near-vertical rock in front of me.  If I fell off of that I would only be injured.

Finding some good hand-holds in crevices, I pulled myself up, first testing each hold before putting my weight on it.  In no time, it seemed, I had eased up to the top of Maricopa Peak on all fours and then walked out to the highest point of this 25-yards long flattish rise, the rock cold.  And no doubt millions of years old.

The sun was getting low and I could not see well to the hazy south.  Yet, to the north, a fantastic, unobstructed view emerged.  The Salt River Valley stretched out to the Bradshaw Mountains and downtown Phoenix’s highrises appeared a long way off.  Directly below, thousands of feet, was the suburb of Laveen, but no longer could I hear the occasional shouts come from residences there.  I was alone up there in a soundless world so close and yet so very far removed from the millions of Arizonans who lived beneath my feet.  The feeling was over-whelming, and invaded my soul for those few precious moments with a sense of victory over my fear of high, precarious places.

I made quick work of coming down the summit trail to Post #8, so buoyant that I hardly noticed the blister that had been growing on the fourth toe of my right foot.  At one point I happened to look down at my hand to see blood running from a small gouge wound.  I had no idea how or where it happened.

It was well after sunset when I came down out of the mountains of the Ma Ha Tauk range.  I still had four miles to walk along the paved San Juan Road, all in darkness.  There would be no traffic to worry about since the road’s gate was closed at the other end, as it is for all but one weekend a month.  It was almost 8 o’clock when I got back to the Civic coupe and finally began munching on a sandwich I had packed but refused to eat.  It dawned on me, I had  hiked this 10 miles in six hours on a stomach filled only with a long-ago breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries.

Was it worth it? Would I do it again? I don’t know. But it was a thrill to be up there alone on a small piece of high rock, no sounds, nothing.  Not even a bird.  Every person is different.  Gaining the summit of Maricopa Peak may sound like small stuff.  But for me, I’ll never forget this hike.  That’s for sure.

Deaths of two actors

One of the first things that popped to mind when I learned of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death yesterday was this.  Heath Ledger.  He died in 2008 and was also an actor.

The first connection I made was drugs.  The second was age.  And the third was proximity of where they died.  These connections occurred almost simultaneously, bang, bang, bang.

Hoffman was found dead yesterday in New York City’s Greenwich Village area, just 1 1/2 miles north of Ledger’s death site in Soho.  That is about a 45-minute walk for most of us.  Though Hoffman at age 47 was 13 years older than Ledger, both died prematurely, at a time when longevity in the U.S. approaches 80 years.  Ledger, according to reports, OD’d on prescription drugs.  As I write, the autopsy on Hoffman’s death has not been made public, though a syringe was found stuck in his left arm and heroin in bags nearby.

Ironically, I just read, it was Hoffman who  counseled Ledger to give up heroin.

The message I draw from the death of two actors is simple.  Fame, money, friends, adoration, a promising future, children, you name it, has little effect on our inner demons.  I just feel sad, for them, their family and friends, and, ultimately, everyone in this enigma we call life.

Macular-hole surgery revisited

There has been no post on Long Row drawing more response than “Macular hole surgery:  A journal.”  The post covered my eye surgery and recovery from June 1, 2011, through September 21 of the same year.  Comments and questions regularly arrive to this day.

Most of the many responses  focused on the operation itself and the short-period of “face-down” positioning during recovery. There was worry over pain, discomfort and results.  Now, looking back almost three years, an update on the status of my repaired right eye is in order.

To refresh, a macular hole is a torn area in the central part of the retina called the macula.  It is caused by age or injury and affects long-distance vision, reading or color.  Maybe all three.  In short, the hole causes a distortion in vision.  While surgery closes the tear, it does not cure the problem.  The distortion remains forever.  Surgery merely aims to prevent the loss of all vision in that eye.  And that is very important should you have the misfortune of losing the other.

In my case, the distortion came as a small bend (a “wave” I call it) or blurry spot in the middle of everything I saw out of that one eye.  But I never noticed the distortion until I had an eye examination leading up to cataract surgery.  The reason is simple.  I had a healthy left eye that took over my vision and “hid” the other eye’s misbehavior.  With a macular hole, your vision is as good as the other eye allows.  And who that reads easily thinks of checking one eye or the other individually?  I didn’t.

Time has not improved my damaged eye.  It has remained the same over the years.  Not better, not worse, just the same as it was on September 21 of 2011.   The slight blur is still there.  Reading with that eye alone is slow and irksome.

So far I do not worry about losing the other eye.  It is rare, I’ve read, to have macular holes in both eyes.  And even if I were to lose vision in the “healthy” left one and its near 20/20 vision, all is not lost.

I have tried averted vision, looking out of the corners of my bad eye, say, at a line of type.  I’ve tried flicking my eye back and forth very quickly, from looking dead-on to a word and then at it out of the corners.  At best, the improvement is minimal.

The real solution, I believe, is magnification.

I can read a line of 8-point type with the damaged right eye but it is slow-going.  I can go faster at 12-point and faster yet at 18-point, which is lettering a quarter of an inch in height.  (One point equals .013836 of an inch).  Newspaper print is usually 9-10 points.  If you read boxscores of a basketball game, the size is usually in agate, or 6 points.

Using a normal magnifying glass, I can read 12-point type with ease and agate almost as easily.

If you are writing, it may even be beneficial to do it in bold face and/or in the color of your choice.  Every case of macular hole is slightly different.

I am an optimistic person.  I believe that I can and will adapt to any changes in my vision.  At my age, I try to live for the moment as much as I can, enjoy what I have today to the fullest.  And I’m grateful that I have some vision in my right eye, even though the “scar” is present.

My take on the Broncos

No NFL team can look as bad as the Denver Broncos did yesterday in the Super Bowl, a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.  This is what I think happened.

As a team, the Broncos came into the game with a certain mind-set, that their quarterback, Peyton Manning was not only invincible but a Super Bowl 48 championship was his destiny.

With that mind-set, most of the Broncos prepared for what they thought was the inevitable, that they would win the Big One.  They believed too much in Manning, and they did not prepare properly and were not ready to play mentally.  That first play of the game, the unexpected and errant snap by Broncos center Manny Ramirez, the one that sailed into the end zone for a safety, was so indicative of the Denver mind-set.

Peyton Manning will go down in football history as possibly the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.  But no one player can do it all in football.

Football is one of the most demanding of team sports.  All eleven players, particularly on offense, have a role on every play.  That is unlike basketball where one player, like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan or LeBron James can almost single-handedly control the game.  Nor is it like baseball, that most individual of team sports.  Think batter v. pitcher.  Think outfielder maker a catch.  The rest of the team has nothing to do with that at-bat or that catch.

True, Seattle has a great defense and came ready to play at a high level.  But no way are the Seahawks 35 points better than Denver if the mental outlook of both teams are the same.

The Broncos believed in destiny, that Peyton Manning would carry them no matter waht.  And it failed them miserably.