Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part Two: Who’s Dumb Idea Was This?

 

The following is part of a three part series on Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Part One: Eat All the Things
Part Three: Up is Mandatory

Worried Face

After practicing our McKayla Maroney impressions at Hoover Dam and grabbing an interesting meal at the Road Kill Cafe (“Do you wanna sit at the bar or the bullshit bar?” asks the 14-year-old boy who is old enough to take your drink order but not old enough to fill it), we made it to Grand Canyon National Park. We got to the mule barn just in time to give them our duffel bag, and went to the backcountry office to ask the rangers a few last minutes questions. Nikki saw a sign that showed 71% of fatalities in the canyon are men and remarked with complete sincerity, “That makes me feel better. We’ll be fine.” Of course those statistics are undoubtably based on the fact that far more men hike than women, but I didn’t want to be the Debbie Downer. We wanted to check out the rim before heading to our hotel, so we drove over and pulled in at the first overlook point we could find.

The Grand Canyon is exactly as massive as you think it is, and probably looked bigger to us because of how much time we’d spent in anxious anticipation. We took pictures and nervously joked about how it wasn’t too late to turn back, when I told my sister, “Hey, this was your dumb idea.”

“No it wasn’t,” Nikki replied.

“Yes it was,” I said. “You’re the one who asked about coming along, and you said we should hike the Grand Canyon.”

“Yeah, but you’re the one who told me about Phantom Ranch and needing lodging at the base.”

“Wait, so this wasn’t your idea?”

“No, I thought it was yours.”

Fantastic.

Katrina Watching the SunriseWe woke up the next morning at 3AM in order to park the car near the ranger station and catch the 4AM shuttle to the trailhead. On the recommendation of the website, we would be taking the South Kaibab Trail down, and the Bright Angel Trail back up. At least twenty other people were on the bus with us, and with the exception of one couple that hiked down just far enough to catch a good view of the sunrise, all appeared to be headed to the bottom. The South Kaibab Trail is beautiful and constantly winding around. We never knew where we were headed next, and often had trouble figuring out where we’d been. The Kaibab is also incredibly steep and rocky. Downhill climbing can be very difficult, and occasionally I could feel it in my knees. We never saw anyone climbing back up the Kaibab, and we couldn’t imagine trying. There’s absolutely no water, you’re in the sun almost the whole time, and there’s only one bathroom.

I had gotten it in my head that it should take four hours to hike down. When talking with Nikki on the trail she told me everything she read said six hours, and I realized I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten the four-hour estimate from. We made it down to the bottom in six, just in time to jump fully clothed into a stream as the heat of the day approached.

The Colorado River from aboveMany people have asked me about the Colorado River, which is the only reason I’ll bother mentioning it at all. It is a big river at the base of the canyon. It is large and green, and they recommend against swimming because of the current. It was fun to look for it on the way down as a way to gage how far we had left. At the base, we crossed a large pedestrian bridge of the Colorado to get to Phantom Ranch. When we left the next morning, we crossed another bridge to get back to the south side of the canyon. Other than that, we never really saw it or hung out near it. The clear, cold, waters of the creek running just below our campsite were plenty for us.

After eating lunch, settling in, and sitting in the creek for awhile, Nikki and I opted to take a nap for most of the afternoon. We set out a tarp in the shade near the creek and caught up on the sleep we missed by getting up at 3AM. When my half of the tarp creeped out of the shade I got up and wandered around for a bit, eventually attending a ranger talk on the California Condor. The Grand Canyon hosts one of the few existing flocks of California Condors, and in addition to learning a lot of other sweet things about the nearly extinct scavengers, I learned how to properly distinguish them from other Grand Canyon birds. Perhaps we’d catch a glimpse of one on the way back up.

130 DegreesI went back to the campsite, where Nikki was talking with the enforcement ranger (the ranger who makes sure you have your permit in order). We asked her a few questions, and talked about our plans for the next day. We’d been told many times not to hike between 10AM and 4PM, but we had gotten some conflicting information about how far up we should plan to be when we stop for the afternoon. After sizing us up, the enforcement ranger said to aim for the Indian Gardens rest spot, but that we could probably keep hiking “if we were feeling good.” This was a surprise to us, since we’d been told time and time again not to hike in the heat of the day. The next day Nikki and I would come to the conclusion that they give everyone the safe advice, but after seeing that we were both young, fit, and not at all suffering after the hike down, the ranger figured we’d be okay. It probably helped that when the ranger stopped by, Nikki was in the middle of a Bikram Yoga session, which she opted to do in the sunshine. The sunshine temperature was 130 degrees, which is 25 degrees hotter than hot yoga is meant to be. Of course, Bikram also requires 40% humidity, and we had 1%.

We had a great meal at the lodge and got to talk with some of the other hikers. It’s a lot of fun being down at Phantom Ranch. You are a member of a very exclusive club. It’s possible to ride a mule train to the base rather than hike, but the mule ride isn’t a walk in the park either. Everyone at Phantom Ranch had to work to be there, both in planning and in physical exertion. We were warned by another hiker that as you get near the top, you start to hate everyone you see. They’re all tourists who have no idea how hard a Grand Canyon hike is, and have no respect for the place they’re visiting. He turned out to be right, but more on that in the next post. After dinner we went to another ranger talk, this one about a pair of brothers and their adventuresome and photographic history with the Grand Canyon. The interpretive ranger leading the talk offered to grab her black-light and take people on a quick scorpion hunt after the talk, which I was happy to participate in. Nikki and I opted to leave the rainfly off the tent, and slept on top of our sleeping bags since it was still 90 degrees outside. We set our alarms to get up for the 5AM breakfast, and fell asleep looking up and the night sky and wishing we knew more about astronomy.

Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part One: Eat All the Things

The following is part of a three part series on Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Part Two: Whose Dumb Idea Was This?
Part Three: Up is Mandatory

Food As Packaged

On the assumption that trail mix sold at the top of the Grand Canyon would be $50 a bag, my sister and I opted to do all our food shopping in Las Vegas. Buying snacks for our hike was one of the strangest grocery experiences I’ve had. We read on the canyon website that we should bring a lot of food, enough to eat 300-500 calories per hour. It also said to bring salty snacks to make up for the salt your body loses in sweat, and junk food items like candy and chips because they will be calorie dense and (emotionally) satisfying. Nikki had been training for a half-marathon and on a fairly strict diet, and I’d been doing my best to keep my junk food in check knowing the lure of the road side convenience store. But there we were, standing in the Fremont Street Walgreens, looking at labels to find the most fattening, high calorie, salty junk foods possible.

There was beef jerky, Oreos, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, Swedish Fish, Chewy bars, Gatorade, and so much more. We also tried to factor in what I already had in my car (raisins, dried fruit, etc.) We had pre-ordered a dinner, breakfast, and to-go lunch from the kitchen at Phantom Ranch (the lodge at the base of the Grand Canyon), but without knowing what would be in the lunch we planned as though we wouldn’t have it. I got out a calculator and Nikki and I got to practice our mental math skills trying to add up the total calorie counts for what we had in our basket. It was plenty. More than plenty.

Food for two DaysBack in our hotel room we grabbed a box of plastic sandwich bags and got to work separating out the food. The goal was to make individual bags that would hold about 400 calories worth of a particular snack. That way it would be easy to compare how many bags you’d finished with how many hours you’d hiked to ensure you were staying within the 300-500 calorie recommendation. Once it was all bagged up, we compared the number of bags with our predictions for how long the hike would take. We had way too much food.

Next came the packing. We opted to get duffle service, which allows you to pack a bag of stuff that you don’t need on the hike itself and have it sent down on one of the daily mule trains. We compared lists we’d made, adding to them as we thought of things. We figured out what could go in the duffle (sleeping bags, tent, Gatorade for the second day, etc), and started to divvy up the rest. We had shared items like a pair of binoculars or a tube of Neosporin. Other things we doubled up on for obvious reasons, like rain jackets and flashlights. For those who enjoy this sort of thing (like me), here’s the lists I made to help us pack:

In the Duffle:

  • tent
  • sleeping bags
  • Day Two food
  • change of underwear/shirt
  • flip-flops
  • books

Nikki’s Pack:

  • water bottles
  • gatorade
  • rain jacket
  • flashlight
  • extra socks
  • ankle wraps
  • stingeaze
  • sunscreen
  • snacks
  • toilet paper
  • water purification tablets
  • Neosporin
  • hand sanitizer
  • signal mirror
  • ibuprofen
  • camping permit
  • map
  • writing pad
  • phone
  • ID/credit car/cash
  • toiletries (extra contacts, glasses, toothbrush, etc)

Katrina’s Pack:

  • ankle wraps
  • water bottles
  • gatorade
  • rain jacket
  • flashlight/batteries
  • extra socks
  • lipbalm
  • phone
  • camera
  • car key
  • ID/credit car/cash
  • journal
  • snacks
  • spray bottle
  • mole skin
  • bandaids
  • gauze
  • binoculars
  • swiss army knife
  • trowel
  • hand sanitizer
  • toiletries (extra contacts, glasses, toothbrush, etc)

Attire:

  • sunglasses
  • hat
  • underwear
  • sports-bra
  • hiking shoes
  • socks
  • long-sleeve button-up
  • tanktop
  • pants
  • bandana
  • trekking poles

Looking back now, our packing was generally good. With the possible exception of buying and bringing too much food, we hit the sweet spot between having enough without carrying too much. Anything we didn’t use was the kind of thing you bring hoping you won’t need it (first aid, signal mirror). A few things stand out as being really handy:

Non-FoodFlip-flops – We had these in the duffle so that when we got to the base we could give our feet a break from the hiking shoes. It was Nikki’s idea, and I’m very glad she thought of it.

Bandana and Long-Sleeve Shirt – Both of these were recommended by the park website. It’s the desert, so even through it’s hot you’re better off covering up your skin to avoid sun exposure (think about how people dress in middle eastern deserts). The added bonus of these two items is that you can easily remove them and soak them with water in a stream or at the water pump. Known officially as evaporative cooling, you’re essentially doing what your body does when it sweats: getting moisture on your skin so the evaporation process can cool you off. It’s so dry in the desert most sweat evaporates instantly, so your body needs a little help.

Trekking Poles – Nikki was worried that trekking poles would be more of a nuisance than an asset, and I was worried about how many we should get if we got them (one each? two? three to alternate between us?) We asked a ranger at the backcountry office who told us without hesitation to rent two poles each. I noticed the benefit within the first two hours down the trail, and Nikki soon agreed. The poles take pressure off your knees and leg muscles, as well as allowing you to stay balanced while using less energy. Easily the best $12 I spent.

So we were ready. We were scared, but we were ready.

Hopefully.

Ann Friedman Understands Me

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blogging for this article from Ann Friedman, Traveling Solo: A Manifesto for the Modern Woman. My guess is I’ll touch on many (if not all) of these points myself as I go, but for now, read this. It covers a lot of the things I’ve had to face on my trip so far. Yes, I am alone. Yes, I am being careful. No, this isn’t for school. Yes, I have a boyfriend. Yes, I have a job.

Yes, I am alone.

Vegas is for Sisters

When I was 11 and my sister was 14, our family went to Las Vegas. We went again when I was 16, and again when I turned 21, but by then Nikki had graduated high school and was living in New York. So between the two of us, I am the expert on Vegas.

When Nikki and I first began making plans for the leg of the trip she would join me on, I told her that if she was willing, she could plan everything. I knew I would have four full months of having to plan every stop and every sleeping arrangement, and I was happy to let someone else take the reigns. I suggested that for a Vegas hotel she look into downtown rather than The Strip, but that’s about all I said. When people would ask where we were staying, Nikki would say, “We’re staying downtown.” To me this indicated she did not fully realize that when you’ve booked a room at one of the most historic hotels in Las Vegas, you can just say, “The Golden Nugget.”

Asian Tour Taking PicturesAfter checking into the hotel we wanted to see a show, but neither of us particularly cared what we saw. I like magic shows, and we grabbed a couple tickets to see Comedian/Magician Mike Hammer at the Four Queens next door. Afterwards we opted to wander around Fremont Street, the covered pedestrian street at the heart of downtown. A lot has been added since I was in Las Vegas last, and being with Nikki helped me to see it all with new eyes. Often on this trip I will feel like I’m in a scene from a movie. This time, I was the young kid from the sticks on her first night in the big city. As I walked down the street filled with electric lights, I’m passed by 2-4 Elvis impersonators. I look up to see a live band performing the song “Moves Like Jagger” while a woman in a bikini dances on top of a 21-flavor outdoor margarita bar, when my attention is caught and I whip my head around to see four tourists whizz past the air above me on the zipline. Things sure are crazy in the big city.

I promised Nikki I would show her how to play roulette, the only casino game I fully understand, and we went about finding the cheapest minimums on Fremont Street. After deciding we wouldn’t be able to find anything better than 25-cent chips, we sat down at an empty table. For those who don’t know roulette, you’re basically trying to guess where a little ball will randomly fall on a big wheel of numbers. You can guess a specific number, or you can guess a group of numbers, such as all the odd numbers, or the numbers 7-12. The more specific your guess, the more chips you get back if you get it right. You will generally place several bets each spin, guaranteeing that you always lose something, but hopefully not more than you gained overall. You can also win more than once on the same round, e.g. if the number ended up being a 2 and you had a chip on even numbers as well as a chip on the numbers 1-6.

The ChandelierWe made a deal that Nikki would buy everything up front, and I would pay her back half once she totaled up her receipts. However when we got to the table, she didn’t have enough cash in her wallet, and I offered to loan her $10 to play. If she won anything she could pay me back right away, and if she lost she could pay me back later. I showed her what I knew of the game and the dealer helped fill in the rest. A few people joined our table, which always adds to the fun of playing roulette. Everyone has their strategies. I always bet on 25 because it’s my birthday, Nikki on 19 because it’s her favorite number. One guy would place a few chips, and then randomly ask someone at the table where to put the last one. I once met a man who refused to bed on a red number. It’s silly, but it’s fun.

After a while I was down to about half my chips, and Nikki had just $2 left. Two dollars was the minimum you had to put on the board each time, and she managed to keep losing and re-winning that $2 over and over again. Eventually the odds got the better of her, and when I saw she was out of chips, I told her I would cash out the rest of mine and we could keep walking. She told me to go for one more round, and I decided to splurge. Rather than place my usual single chip on 25, I put four chips on it. The man across from me asked where he should put his final chip, and I told him 25. And that’s how I walked away with $40 in chips. I told Nikki she didn’t have to pay me back, since I considered her input vital to my eventual win. After all, she was the one that suggested I go for one more bet.

Piano TrioThe next morning we took the bus to The Strip and walked through the casinos. I warned Nikki over and over again that Vegas is huge, and that the hotels seem closer than they really are, and that it would be really exhausting. I still surprised myself with how little ground we managed to cover before we both had to collapse on a couch in The Cosmopolitan. We watched the fountains at The Bellagio and wandered through the tiny indoor cities of Paris and New York, New York. When we got to The Venetian we started walking along an indoor canal. I kept telling Nikki that we weren’t at the “good part” yet, because I remembered it being way bigger. We saw statue performers and a piano trip playing “Music of the Night,” but we still weren’t there yet. We followed the canal to an exit, and I insisted we go back because we still hadn’t seen the best part. After much wandering, the room opened up just like I remembered it, and we got to walk along the bridges of indoor-fake-Las Vegas-Venice. It was beautiful.

On the bus ride home, a few of the passengers started calling out their destinations to get cheers from people going in the same general direction.

“Who’s going to downtown?”

“Woo-hoo!”

“Who’s going home?”

“Woo-hoo!”

The drunk man across from us quietly added his own sage wisdom:

“We’re all going somewhere.”

Prelude to a Canyon

A few months ago, not long after I told my family about my trip, I got an email from my big sister, Nikki. She asked when I expected to be at the Grand Canyon, and if I was totally committed to it being a 100% solo road trip. We lucked into a camping permit for the base, and started making plans for the big hike together.

We have family outside L.A., so it made sense for her to meet me there and drive through Las Vegas to the Canyon. Nikki stayed a night at an AirBnB just south of Griffith Park, and suggested we hike up through the park in the morning before heading down to our aunt and uncle’s house in Huntington Beach. We parked at the famous Griffith Observatory (see: Rebel Without a Cause), and began our walk up. We talked about the various warnings we’d seen on the Grand Canyon website, and discussed our respective packing lists. We were both nervous about the big climb, and talking about scorpions and tourniquets and water purification tablets didn’t help. I keep reminding both of us of what the website said: every year people of all ages and abilities hike to the bottom of the canyon and back up. There’s no reason we can’t do it.

Us and the Hollywood SignThe smog over L.A. was thick, and we could just barely make out the Hollywood sign. We snap some photos and get on the road to our aunt and uncle’s house just south of the city. Nikki is in the middle of doing 100 Bikram Yoga classes in 100 days, and she’s invited our aunt to join her for a class in Huntington Beach. Aunt Karen is very nervous, and we keep trying to tell her she’ll be fine. I opt out of going, as I’ve done plenty of hot yoga in my life as it is, and the two take off for the nearby studio. I stay at the house doing some much needed laundry, and my Uncle John comes home. He went shopping after his golf game, and has seven or eight cigars to put away, After much Tetrising to try to make them fit in an already full cigar box, we conclude that he’ll just have to smoke one right now. When the ladies get back Nikki insists that Aunt Karen did great, while Karen is thinks she was terrible. Either way, it seems like she’ll give it another shot tomorrow after we’ve left.

We have a nice dinner at their house, joined by a neighbor as well as one of our cousins who swung by after hearing we’re in town. It’s nice to be among family, if only for a little while. We spend a good part of the day trying to reach my grandmother on the phone. My grandparents recently moved into assisted living, and they haven’t set up the new voicemail yet. For some reason, it seem like they never answer their phone. This is baffling to most of us, who know that they’re at home most of the time. Eventually we get through and make arrangements to go out to breakfast the next day, inviting some good family friends to join us.

The next morning Nikki and I head over to the retirement home, where Nonnie and Papa are sitting outside waiting for us. In the last three years, Papa has been suffering from dementia. He’s good at playing along and still greets people with a smile, but it’s clear he doesn’t know who you are. They came up for Easter and I spent some time sitting next to him, whispering people’s names when they would come over to greet him like a scene out of The Devil Wears Prada. My mom says that he still knows that her and Karen are his daughters, but he can never remember which is which. The only person he’s never forgotten is Nonnie, and in recent months he’s been stuck to her like glue, asking where she’s gone if she so much as leaves for the ladies’ room.

I get out of the car and hug Nonnie. I go over to hug Papa, but introduce myself first, “I’m Katrina, I’m your granddaughter.” While I wish he didn’t have to go through this, it doesn’t bother me that he doesn’t know who I am, at least not as much as it seems to bother everyone else. I know it’s not about me, and I know he can’t help it.

We go to breakfast, joined by my “Aunt” Betty (a lifelong friend of my grandparents), as well as her beau and her daughter Cindy. I’ll be staying with Cindy when I get to Kansas City, so it’s nice to see her while she happens to be in California. Nonnie orders for Papa, and we all chitchat through breakfast. Afterwards we go back to see their new place, which is much bigger and nicer than retirement living that I’d seen before. Nikki and I go through the room, looking at old photos of the family, some of which we’d never seen before. We talk more, take pictures, and nag Nonnie about calling the phone company to get her voicemail set up. Papa sits in his chair, clearly unaware of who all these people are. Nonnie says sometimes he asks her when they’re going home, because he doesn’t remember that they’ve moved. He doesn’t seem to let it bother him so much, which is good.

Whenever I’m around Papa these days, I remember a conversation from three years ago. I was in Ohio with him for his 69th high school reunion. At the time he was losing his sight, and Nonnie had recently broken her pelvis and wasn’t able to accompany him on the trip. My Aunt Jean took Papa and I to meet some old high school friends of theirs, Mary and Betty. I was blogging about the trip at the time, and I recently looked up what I wrote about that day:

          Eventually the conversation turns to Jim Kesler, as it has so many times this week. Jim was a schoolmate of Papa’s, and I’m beginning to think a very good friend. They graduated the same year and Papa says he calls Jim about once a week. But last year Jim had to be moved into a place called Seneca House because he could no longer take care of himself. While I was bored in the flower shop last Tuesday, Uncle Bob and Papa went to visit him. He was sitting alone at a table, staring into nothing. They asked him where his room was a he said he didn’t have a room, he lived there at the table. He said he never moves and they just bring him his food and he doesn’t even need to work for it. He didn’t know who Uncle Bob was at all, and though he remembered a friend named Warren Rainey, he kept talking about how Warren was out in California. He couldn’t see it was Papa standing in front of him. Bob and Papa didn’t stay long.
          Betty says she is hoping to get out to see him soon, she hasn’t been able to in some time. Papa tells her she really should. “He’s just sitting there, happy as a clam,” Papa says. They started to talk about Jim and others they’d known with near jealousy. After all, it’s not the man with dementia who suffers, it’s all the people who have to take care of him. I know none of them are seriously envious of Jim, but I’m starting to understand how they could be. Papa knows full well that he’s losing his sight. He knows he can’t walk as good as he used to, he knows his wife is at home in a hospital bed once again. He knows his body won’t let him travel around for too much longer. Papa, Jean, Mary, and Betty all know full well all the things they can’t do anymore, and will never do again. But Jim is sitting happily in Seneca House, in seventh heaven and pleased to have all his meals for free. He doesn’t remember the things he’s forgotten, and he has no idea what he’s lost.
          “That’s the way to go if you’re gonna go,” Papa says.

That trip was the last time I got to spend with Papa before he started to deteriorate. I read what I wrote and it’s like foreshadowing out of a movie. But it’s that same conversation that I credit with making me want to go on this trip. Mary was the woman who told me that you have to “go while you can.” So here I am, going. I may be fooling myself to think that forgetting your life gives a kind of freedom before death, like Papa suggested. But at this point, it’s better than the alternative.

The Handful of Things I Managed to Do in L.A.

While I know Los Angeles isn’t known for it’s public transportation, I thought I’d give the train a try. My first stop was the science center to see the Space Shuttle Endeavor, which has been on display there since October.

Slant ViewI love space. I have always loved space. I am unable to understand how other people cannot love space. The exhibit on the shuttle program is really interesting, and does a good job highlighting just how difficult and dangerous space travel can be, and how unstoppable the drive to explore remains in spite of those challenges. A few years ago I started writing a play about the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and seeing the Endeavor in person made me want to rush back to my computer and start writing again. I overheard one of the employees giving a demo on the effects of pressure to a group of school kids.

Upon revealing what extreme pressure can do to a marshmallow, one of the kids yelled out, “That’s magic!”

“It’s not magic,” she replied, “It’s science!” Indeed it is.

Fashion AlleyAfter the science center I took the train to downtown, where I wandered through the jewelry district, the historic district, and eventually the fashion district. Within the fashion district are long pedestrian streets full of stalls. There are shoes and hats and sunglasses and absolutely everyone is speaking spanish. Mannequins form lines with their butts sticking outward to show off the designer jeans. The butts are all the same: perfect, round, bubbles. After a while their uniformity began to make be uncomfortable. I don’t have a bubble butt. No one does. Not like these anyway. But they were everywhere. It was like I was being watched. Stop looking at me, mannequin-halves. You can’t make me into one of you. I won’t join your bubble army.

I was getting tired, but felt my L.A. trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Hollywood. I looked up the location of the famous Chinese Theater (the one with the handprints in the sidewalk), and hopped on the train again. I got off in tourist-central, where everything you’re told about Hollywood happens for your amusement in the span of four city blocks. A guy dressed as Ironman offers to take a picture with you for five dollars, and a group of what appear to be mennonites sing in a choir on the corner while passing out fliers asking you to turn to the Lord.

TCL Chinese TheatreAfter some good people-watching, I get to the theater. Formally Grauman’s Chinese Theater and later Mann’s Chinese Theater, the building is now TCL Chinese Theater and is currently under construction. In addition to the disappointing change in brand, the Theater is temporarily closed and the entire front of the building surrounded in construction fences that fully obscure any view of the famous footprints. Better luck next time I suppose.

At this point I still hadn’t seen the big Hollywood sign, and I spot some hills in the distance that look promising. My feet hurt, but I am willing to go at least two blocks in search of a good view. I am able to get a partial viewing, but determine that a better look will be an un-walkable distance away. I head back to the train station, satisfied enough with my accomplishment.

On the way a pair of Germans in a convertible pull over and ask me if I know where the Hollywood sign is, and I relate the information I gathered some 90 seconds previous. I am a regular magnet for lost tourists when I’m traveling. I think it’s because as a tourist myself, I am likely to be frequenting the same general areas, and maintain a fairly relaxed disposition. As a pickpocketing deterrent, I try very hard to maintain the appearance of knowing what I’m doing and where I’m going. Put together, it makes me a convenient and approachable person who seems like she knows the answer to your question. And I usually do know the answer, like with the Germans in L.A., of the Brits on the San Francisco cable car.

I called it quits after that, knowing that I was going to be hiking in Griffith Park the next morning with my recently arrived sister (more on that in the next post). I actually had a lot to do on my L.A. list, and I didn’t get around to most of it. Something about the smog, the traffic, and the fact that everyone I talked to who lives there hates it made me less enthusiastic about exploring the city. I’ve lost a lot of friends to Los Angeles. I majored in drama in college and so many of my fellow actors moved down to make their dreams come true. Many are doing just that, and I’m happy for them, but I don’t want to be one of them. I suppose I didn’t want to see much of L.A. because I didn’t want to get tricked into liking it. Or rather, I didn’t want to get tricked into moving there and tolerating it like so many seem to do. I added Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” to my road trip playlist, but I just can’t seem to get into it. I’ll keep it on there though, in hopes that it will become more appealing as I move east. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and hopefully that includes L.A.

Sharks and Science on Catalina Island

Boat and IslandAbout a year ago my friends Markie and Sarah moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. When I told them about my trip, they immediately offered their place for lodging when I was in the area. But when I finally had my dates figured out, we realized that I would be in L.A. the same week Markie would be up visiting Seattle. What’s more, the day after I was set to arrive Sarah had to go to Catalina Island for a week because of school (Sarah is a graduate student at USC studying Marine Biology). Being the friends they are, they still let me stay at their apartment, even though I would be mostly alone.

The night I arrived in L.A. Sarah told me that she talked to the woman in charge of the boat manifest. If I wanted to, I could go with her to Catalina Island in the morning and come back that same afternoon. Sarah wasn’t sure how much free time she would have, but I figured at least we’d be able to hang out on the boat ride, and I could spend the day writing if she got tied up with work.

We leave the house at 6:30AM in order to catch the boat, which is used by USC to ferry students and faculty to and from their Catalina campus. Sarah and I sit up top, chatting about this and that and looking for whales. She gives me some ideas for what to do while I am in Los Angeles, and 90 minutes later we are pulling into the dock. The campus is fairly isolated, and far from the more popular and frequented side of the island. We unload Sarah’s things (including a week’s worth of food), and head up to her dorm. As we are walking, Sarah explains to me that they once used Catalina Island to film a western, and brought in a herd of buffalo to add a touch of realism. When the film was over, the buffalo stayed, and have managed to thrive on the island, forming their own little herd. When the male buffalo get older and weaker, the younger males muscle them out of the group. That’s when they come to the USC campus. Sarah’s roommate said it was like buffalo hospice. They come to the campus to die.

Campus and the Bay

Because of their respective schedules and talents, when they are both at home Markie does more of the cooking than Sarah. As such, Markie went to the store to buy Sarah a bunch of frozen food for her to take to Catalina, thinking she wouldn’t be able to make it cooking on her own for a whole week. Sarah is a smart and capable person, so I figured she would be fine, even after forgetting all the frozen goods at home. After the long boat ride, we are hungry for a snack, and Sarah offers to make some grilled cheese. She showed me a pack of sliced Jarlsberg and asked if I was okay with it. I’d never had Jarlsberg before, but figured this must be her go-to grilled cheese, so I nodded. In eating it later, Sarah and I agree that while filling, Jarlsberg really doesn’t have enough flavor to be on a grilled cheese sandwich. She admits that at the store she just grabbed a pack of cheese and hadn’t really thought about it. Perhaps Markie is right.

The water was very clear on the way in, and Sarah offers to take me snorkeling. We go down to the dock to pick up some snorkeling gear. Sarah grabs me an appropriate wetsuit and flippers, and we start to suit up. It’s nice to be able to simply walk over to a row of wet suits and pick one out. We didn’t have to pay any money or check with anyone first. We just grabbed what fit and got ready. I suppose when the only people you are dealing with are grad students and faculty (undergrads only come over on supervised field trips), there’s a higher level of trust.

Ocean with Pirate Ship

While we are getting ready, an emergency vehicle pulls up to the helicopter landing pad directly in front of the dock. The USC campus has one of the few hypobaric chambers in the area, so occasionally divers who are suffering from the bends will get flown in to use it. Sarah and I stand in our bathing suits just outside the safety line, with our wetsuits hanging down at our hips and the rest of the gear at our sides. A class of curious undergrads watched from the top of the hill as the helicopter descended, and I’m not sure why, but I felt like a total badass. It must have been a combination of wearing professional gear without asking permission, standing in front of a bunch of people who were younger and less mature, and watching a helicopter land over the water. The patient turned out to be a non-critical accident victim rather than someone being rushed to the hypobaric chamber, which made me feel better about thinking the whole thing was pretty cool.

With the emergency over, Sarah and I hop into the water. It’s been a long time since I actually swam in the ocean, so I forgot it would be salty. It is also cold. Very cold. I float for a minute, calming my breathing after the quick intake that comes when the temperature drops. It takes a moment to convince the body it isn’t really in danger.

I stabilize my breathing, put on my mask, and stick my face in the water. Now my face is cold, and I start breathing heavy again. Breathing heavily through your mouth into a small tube looks and feels suspiciously like having a panic attack, and Sarah keeps asking if I’m okay as I bring my face in and out of the water, each time believing that I’ve finally adjusted while consistently being wrong.

Blooming CactusEventually my body calms down, and Sarah leads me around the bay, pointing at the different features. She was hoping I’d get to see a leopard shark, and several times got my attention just a bit too late. We keep swimming, looking at the kelp forests and occasionally coming up for breaks. Eventually, Sarah manages to pull me over in time to see a shark. Leopard sharks are quite lovely, and just the right size of shark to seem impressive without being threatening. As I look I notice a second shark next to it, then a third. I am pretty pleased, since Sarah had been talking about leopard sharks since we got on the boat. Then I see another one. And another. Soon, they are filling up the ocean floor. I try to count them, but I can only ever get to around 14 before I lost track. There are dozens of them. Then there are the bat rays, sitting motionlessly on the ocean floor, barely visible. It is amazing.

The cold finally gets the better of us, and Sarah and I head back to the dock to return our gear. We walk back over to the dorm and realize we are starving again. Sarah says she has some pasta fixings, and begins to put together our lunch. We sit in the living room with her roommates, talking about our snorkeling, the helicopter, and a great deal of grad school gossip concerning their fellow classmates. After a while I realize Sarah hasn’t gone to stir the pasta at all, and I get up to help supervise the lunch-making process. We finish cooking the pasta, and Sarah agrees that Markie is right about her cooking abilities.

Sarah needs to answer some emails, so I take a short hike up the hill to get a better looking at the coastline. I’m warned about rattlesnakes, which is becoming a recurring theme. I get a little excited about the prospect of seeing one, but have no such luck. However the cliff face was nice and I manage to see another geriatric buffalo, so in the end it was a nice walk.

It’s almost time for me to get on the boat ride home, and but not before I get to see Sarah’s lab. As we walk over to the building, she tries to explain the work she is doing, which is focused on protists. For those of you who don’t remember junior high science, the simplest way to explain protists is that they are the tiny bugs in the ocean at the bottom of the food chain. Very tiny. Thousands per cup of water tiny. While it’s obviously more complicated than this, and some of what she is doing is over my head anyway, one simplified version of what she is researching is how protists respond to the abundance and/or deprivation of their preferred food source. She goes on boat trips to gather deep ocean protist samples, as well as occasionally grabbing some from the bay outside the lab. Working on Catalina seems pretty awesome, and her lab is very cool.

Buffalo with the TrashGoing with Sarah to Catalina was the first instance in what would become a growing theme for my trip: it’s always better to follow people, rather than things. When I follow things, such as places or attractions, I’m usually limited to my own ideas. I can try to meet strangers, but that doesn’t always happen. I can be interested or impressed with what I find, but my interpretation will be mine and mine alone. With solo travel you don’t have to justify any of your ideas or decisions, which is a good and bad thing. It’s nice to be so free, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own mind.

But when I follow people, anything can happen. I followed people to the Rogue River and ended up meeting a couple of modern day river guardians. I followed people to Catalina Island and swam with the sharks. It’s hard to explain to a host, who is likely to ask, “What do you like to do?” in the interest of being accommodating. But I have spent my entire life doing what I like to do. I’m here for a limited time. I want to do what you like to do.