More bread

Selfie with yucca crownBefore I say anything about bread I want to say something about the image posted here.  This is my version of a selfie.  I take photos of my shadows and mess with them.

This one particularly pleases me.  It’s called Self-portrait with yucca crown.  It would make a great album cover if I ever recorded an album (don’t hold your breath on that one — the world is not ready for my ukulele playing).  I have put it on the back cover of my limited edition chapbooks, though, and it looks pretty cool there I think.

So about that bread

I like making bread.  It’s not hard using the recipe I’ve shared with you and I like not buying bread from the store.  But I also like that making bread is such a great metaphor for the writing process.

Making bread and writing?  Well, yes — my writing process at least.

Bread dough is amazing stuff.  There are only three ingredients needed:  flour, yeast, and water.  And writing is an amazing process, too, if you’re crazy enough to be serious about it.  There are only three “ingredients” to writing:  writer, ideas, and writing implements.

Oh wait, there’s a fourth and fifth ingredient for each:  time and peace.

Bread dough ingredients get mixed together and then the yeast needs to be left alone.  No poking at it.  No jiggling it around.  No interruptions and no hurrying it along.  I’m convinced bread rises better and ends up tasting better when the rising is done in an emotionally peaceful environment, too, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

So yeah, it does seem to me that making bread is just like writing.  A writer needs the time to write and the peace to write — at least this writer does.  I can’t happily write if I feel the psychological equivalent of poking, jiggling, interruption, or hurrying.  I am in awe of those writers who can create novels by stealing a few minutes here and there from their busy lives, but I need time and peace.  Blocks of time and the peace of no interactions with the outside world.

That’s why I’ve designated the month of April as a writing month (I already take November for participating in NaNoWriMo). This is my time and peace month, when I’ve myself permission to just say no to everybody. No I can’t go anywhere, no I can’t take the time to __(whatever)__.  For a hermit like me it’s a relief to be antisocial anyway, but to be creative I have to get aggressive about guarding my time and peace.

It truly is more than just luxury to be able to settle into the world I’m writing about and just hang out there. Time and peace allow the yeast of my imagination to give form, breadth (oooh, see what I did there), and depth to my ideas.  Immersion in the world I’m building protects the dough of creativity that’s rising in me from the poking finger of collapse.

Well, enough of metaphor.  I better get to work.  But first — I think a slice of last night’s baked bread is in order.

Back cover of self-published chapbook

Bread

This.  THIS.  This is the bread I’ve been looking for.

You might recall that I’ve been trying to make the perfect loaf of bread for some time.  I started out decades ago wanting to duplicate the San Francisco sourdough I had gorged on for so many years.  It was a quest doomed for failure.  I didn’t have a clue about bread making, much less sourdough, and – as is usual for me – had no desire to read instructions first.  (If you are like me, then just jump to the recipe!)

I’m like that.  I like to learn by doing.  Jump right in.  This approach to life only works because I’m okay with failure.  It’s a reasonable price, in my opinion, to pay for not having to slog through reading (or worse, watching videos of) how to do things the way somebody else thinks is the way I should do whatever it is.  I get right into the doing.

Especially with bread.  I mean, come on. Humans have been making the stuff for thirty thousand years, give or take a few centuries.  Bakers on the go, running from lions and tigers and bears, oh my, didn’t have the luxury of messing around with measuring cups and gram scales.  Bakers in medieval kitchens had to churn out dozens and dozens of loaves a day to keep up with the needs of court for trenchers to eat off of.  They didn’t have the time to be kneading gallons and gallons of bread dough all day long.  Pioneers and prospectors wanted bread to take care of itself while they dealt with the realities of their dreams.

So I concluded that most of today’s bread recipes are modern inventions full of unnecessary and complicated steps that just get in the way of making a simple, ancient food.

Plus kneading bread is boring.  I never have figured out how much is too much or too little.  My dough has never ever felt or looked like what the fancy recipes describe.

Phase One: Sourdough

After moving to New Mexico  and a few years of bread failure, I searched online for a sourdough starter.  I had no basis whatsoever for my sole criterion, which was that it was old.  Why?  I can’t tell you because I don’t really know.  It just seemed like a good idea.  The starter I settled on supposedly came from the Klondike a hundred or more years ago and ended up on eBay, and what a long distance that was.  I read the ecstatic reports from various bakers and of course I had to order it.

It came, a small cellophane package of tan granules that looked suspiciously like commercial yeast.  But the package also came with charming instructions, which I glanced through and tossed aside so I could get on with the project

Two problems with sourdough.

First:  keeping the starter alive.  I reconstituted my eBay find.  That involved adding flour to the starter and throwing out some of it.  Or maybe the other way around – I forget.  But it doesn’t matter which because it was just plain wrong.  Innocent yeast was being sent out to the wilderness of my compost pile to die.  What a waste.  I did not like that at all, but I gritted my teeth and tried my best to make the survivors happy, ignoring the fact that baking was going to kill yeast anyway.

I told myself that regular bread-making would reduce the waste once the starter was up to strength.  Regular.  That word.  It’s the knell of death for anything I am interested in.  Keeping sourdough starter alive involves regular attention, which for me is like keeping a prisoner in Guantanamo.  It’s ugly.  I forgot the regular feeding all the time.  I had jars of icky grey liquid floating over water-boarded starter.  I became a yeast abuser and that was even worse than throwing starter out.

And then, when I figured the surviving starter was strong enough to make bread, the second problem arose: kneading.  Just because this was supposed to be sourdough didn’t mean I miraculously enjoyed kneading, no matter how many other people think it’s wonderful.  So what if the yeast was old and supposedly visited San Francisco at some point — that didn’t mean my wrists were happy with slapping dough around.  Okay, I know there’s no slapping involved.  It wasn’t Guantanamo, after all, but you get the picture.

I kneaded anyway.  I baked the first loaf of sourdough and got… yucky, boring bread that had no memory of San Francisco in it.  Not a bit of New Mexico or any other sour, either.

Back to Google.  Not to carefully read instructions, mind you, but to pick up a few tips that I could experiment with. [Note: the info I used when I started this project was not always the same as what baking experts say today.  I’m not the only one who learns more as time goes by]

I’m not going to go through all my attempts at duplicating the tang I remembered.  I’ll just say that it was never meant to be.  Yeast is not merely a leavening agent.  It’s not a chemical like baking soda or baking powder.  It is a living organism with its own needs and goals independent of mine.  Each of the one-celled life-forms, along with a whole bunch of like-minded friends, eats the sugars in flour and releases carbon dioxide.  Um.  Farts it out, so to speak.  The solid stuff of the flour – gluten – confines the gas, stretching as more gas is produced, and that’s how bread rises.

Don’t ask me how it works with gluten-free bread, I haven’t got a clue.

That said, it’s not the yeast that gives the sourdough its sour, it is the ambient bacteria, or rather the lactic and acetic acids produced by the bacteria that lives in the environment that the dough is made in.

Oh sure, I occasionally made a loaf that approximated the sourdough, but there came the day when I had to face the music.  Imagine my shock and dismay to finally realize that I was never going to make San Francisco sourdough unless I made it in San Francisco!  Plus it seems that the New Mexico bacteria that live in my house are not into sour.

Phase Two: no-knead

Seven years or so ago my friend Laura sent me an email telling me about an alternative that might appeal to me:  no-knead bread.  I glanced at the recipe and stored it for later.  I was at that time focused on baking bread on top of my wood stove.  As if somehow that would improve the sourdough flavor.  Mostly I just made hockey pucks for the next two years.  Even my dogs wouldn’t eat the stuff, though I tried to convince myself that I liked it.  Kinda sorta.

I gave up bread making for a while.  I didn’t kill off my yeast, but I did dehydrate it, figuring someday I’d want to use it again.

But the call of bread-making was too much, so a few years after Laura sent that first recipe I Googled no-knead bread.  It seemed easy enough, especially since the recipe was illustrated by photos of an eight year old kid making it.  And yet… what I produced was boring.

I kept making the bread, tweaking the recipes I used, adding rye, whole wheat, more salt, less salt, more yeast, less yeast.

In my poking around the web, trying to figure out how to make the absolute best, yummiest, sourest no-knead bread possible, I discovered a book by the guru of no-knead bread making, Jim Lahey.  My library got it for me and I studied it and tweaked my methods even more.

I finessed my technique till I could make the stuff in my sleep.  And I made loaf after loaf of beautiful bread.

But oh, so boring.

Then… THIS LOAF!  This lovely, crusty, slightly tangy perfect loaf of no-knead bread!

Fast forward to a couple days ago, when out of desperation I Googled “my no-knead bread is boring”.  I love Google.  You can find out just about anything you can imagine.  I was not disappointed in this search, either.

It turns out I was not truly understanding how yeast works.  I though more was better, but this is not true for no-knead bread.

Kneading strengthens gluten in flour like doing push-ups strengthens muscles in a human body (not in my body, mind you).  But no-knead bread means flabby gluten.  You can’t fix it by adding more yeast because that means means more carbon dioxide gets produced all at once.  Flabby gluten isn’t up to it.  The carbon dioxide leaks out.  The dough becomes a flat tire.

The solution is strengthening the gluten slowly – not by kneading, heaven forbid, but by folding.  Folding the dough after it has risen a few hours gently stretches and thus strengthens the gluten.  Folding 2-3 times during the raising phase instead of kneading is like doing lots of reps with light weights in the gym instead of power lifting 500 lbs.

Yeast also needs to breathe, not just to eat.  Just like us, oxygen goes in, carbon dioxide goes out.  During long fermentation (long rising time) the oxygen supply gets short and the poor yeast starts suffocating.  Yeast abuse!  Folding the no-knead dough several times during the rising releases some carbon dioxide and introduces oxygen into the mix and makes for happy yeast.

So folding the dough benefits the yeast and makes for better bread.  The gluten strengthens; the yeasts are happy campers because they get to eat and breathe more and longer, and so a loaf develops a nice rise and a beautiful texture, not to mention a perfect, chewy crust.

But wait!  There’s more!  Let’s not forget flavor!

Remember, my most recent Google search was about boring no-knead bread.  The answer wasn’t about yeast and gluten, but enzymes, which break down starches into sugar (yeast food).  You’d think it would be the yeast bringing enzymes to the table since they’re the critters eating the sugar, but no.  Enzymes come from the flour.  Wheat uses enzymes to break down the starch in kernels for energy to germinate.  Thrifty world that we have — yeast benefits from that same enzymatic action after the kernels have been ground to flour.

So finally we come down to the heart of the matter:  Flavor, lack of.  Why, after all this time, after all the experiments, the Googling, and the hockey pucks, was my bread so boring?

Sure, I had proven to myself I could make bread that rises nicely, that has nice texture, and that is oh, so pretty — but what’s the point if the bread doesn’t fulfill that yearning for something to replace San Francisco sourdough?

So here is my final and huge discovery: Less is more.  Boring bread happens when the greedy yeast eats more of the sugar than the enzymes can produce.

I did not believe it.  I had to try it.  So two afternoons ago I started another batch of no-knead bread, but this time I used a laughably tiny amount of yeast.  1/8 tsp.  My measuring spoons don’t even come in 1/8 tsp.  I had to eyeball it.

A tiny amount of yeast takes a while to get up to speed.  It took till the next day for the dough to get half again larger, and then I folded it.  It took hours for a second fold and more hours for the third.  But by the time the oven was hot and the dough went in to bake, I knew I had discovered something good.  It was clear by the texture and the yeasty smell that this was going to be a different bread.

The baking was done at midnight.  No-knead bread tastes best cool – talk about frustration, but there it is.  I had to wait till morning to try it.

This morning..

The first morning of the rest of my bread making years to come.  A perfect loaf of tangy, tasty bread.  Not sourdough, but way-outback-New-Mexico bread.  My bread.

I can’t believe it.  I think I had better have another slice to be sure.  Hey, it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.


No-knead bread Recipe

2 3/4 c unbleached flour
1/4 c whole rye flour
1/8 tsp instant yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/3 c water, room temp

  1. Mix dry ingredients, then add water and mix.
  2. Ferment the dough at room temp 12-16 hours covered with plastic (amount of time depends on how your bread is rising).  Fold three times during the fermenting (to fold use a wet spatula, scrape from sides, lift & stretch dough to center, rotating around bowl for 8 scrapes each session)
  3. After 12-16 hours,scrape onto floured work surface, fold 8-10 times, rest 15 minutes.
  4. Shape dough into a round, place on parchment paper, proof for 2 1/2 hours more.
  5. PREHEAT oven 450° 30 minutes before baking, including Dutch oven
  6. Lift dough with the parchment paper, CAREFULLY put it in the VERY HOT Dutch oven and put the lid on.
  7. Bake 30 minutes covered, bake 20-30 minutes uncovered.  Tap the bread — when it sounds hollow it’s done.
  8. Cool before slicing.

Notes:

  • I measured the dry ingredients by dipping the measuring cup and then leveling with a knife.
  • I could find no info on when to do the folds — I just did them when it seemed the dough had risen as much as it was planning to rise.
  • This bread is meant to be baked in a Dutch oven inside your kitchen oven.  The Dutch oven and its lid need to be preheated along with the stove oven.
  • When you take the bread out of the Dutch oven to cool on a rack, put your ear close enough to listen to it crackle and pop.  I don’t know why it does it, but it does make those noises.

 

Past blog posts on my quest for the perfect bread

 

 

So Happy I Could Cry

♪ I’m So Glad (Skip James, ca 1931) YouTube

What is it about joy that has such power to make me teary-eyed? How can I be grinning like a maniac as I’m hauling wood from the woodpile in a wind so cold it freezes my snot?

I want to ask how I ever got to this place, this happy place I am in this moment, but I don’t need to ask – I know the answer: Even though it seems like a miracle bursting into my life it’s actually the result of decades of work of purposefully changing who I am.

Purposefully creating a life as opposed to being tumbled through the stream of time willy-nilly. Making my own choices even though they often pit me against the flow. Risking drowning in order to save my life.

No – to create it.

We each have our own life story and we each are the sole author of that story. The question is how the story will be written: by chance or on purpose?

I’ve known my answer since I was a kid — but knowing isn’t implementing.

The problem is I keep forgetting to choose in spite of the fact that it feels so good when I do. It’s not my fault. It’s simply the nature of living as a human being. We have epiphanies but we are bound to lose them. We spend more time seeking than basking in enlightenment. It’s not our fault! We’re human!

Thank the gods for art, what we humans do to memorialize our connections with enlightenment and to remind us to remember them again. Doesn’t matter what kind of art: writing, music, dance, painting, sculpture – and yes, the art of being ourselves, too, if we allow it. Art stretches our inner selves, makes us high. What’s not to love about that?

But enlightenment is an impermanent state of being. We don’t live in the Zone, we aspire to it. While we bask in instances of great art our souls are hauled up to a higher level – but we don’t get to stay there.

We have to choose it over and over again. On purpose.

Enlightenment for human beings is not a state of being but moments of bliss. The trick, it turns out, is not to try to grab those moments and hold on to them, for they are ephemeral in nature and will slip away. The trick is rather to choose have lots of those moments, one right after the other, until miraculously it feels like they are all the moments there are.

Chop wood, carry water. That’s said to be the way of the path. Most people take it as a metaphor. Much to my surprise, in doing the wood and water thing in real life I discovered that those tasks have kept redirecting my feet back onto the path. The path is not to enlightenment but of enlightenment.

So, hey, make your choices. Choose to have a blissful moment or a million! Here, have a tissue.

♪ I’m So Glad (Cream, 1966) YouTube

This post was originally published on my Patreon site.  You can be my patron for a buck a month!

Isabelle the Traveler

Dede and Isabelle NM January 2019

Dede and Isabelle on a hilltop in New Mexico

Update on Isabelle.  She doesn’t live with me anymore.  Aha — bet that comes as a surprise.  But there’s a story to it (of course there is) and when you know it I think you’ll agree that not only is Izzy a traveler but that it’s right that she’s now called Bella.  I believe she’s going to be very happy in New York instead of New Mexico.

If you read about my anxieties prior to going to Grand Canyon, you’ll remember that one of them was about Izzy, who by that point I’d only had for three weeks.  I was concerned she’d feel abandoned by me.  In the Grand Canyon post, though,  I did acknowledge that my sister and brother-in-law love dogs and were looking forward to spending time with Izzy.  That she would be loved on. That she’d get to go in the truck with them, go on walks with them, and would sleep near them at night.

Hah!  Little did I know how right on I was!  Rather than feel abandoned, Izzy decided Dede and Jeff were the best thing since cats’ kibble.

My sister and brother-in-law own property south of Pie Town and they love to visit it and hike all over it whenever they are in New Mexico.  While they were here they kept Izzy with them all the time.  They took her back to my place to feed horses and cats, she went with them into town, and her bed was set up next to their bed.  Not only that, but they took her on long hikes on their property.

Izzy knew a good deal when she met one.  In this case, two good deals:  two people who loved on her and fussed over her and who made her forget all about wondering where I might be.

I was keeping in touch with Dede & Jeff from Grand Canyon and didn’t pay that much attention when Jeff mentioned having fallen in love with Izzy.  I thought, well of course, she’s a lovable dog.  But then Jeff casually mentioned he was thinking about not flying back home to NY with Dede, but instead driving back with Izzy.

Ha ha.  I thought he was joking.  But he was not.

Isabelle, navigator in Jeff's truck

Isabelle in the navigator’s seat, with Jeff on their way to New York

Laura and I got home on Friday afternoon.  Saturday morning Jeff took off with Isabelle.  He said he needed to get back to work on Monday but I think he really wanted to leave right away in case I changed my mind.

I don’t think they believed I’d let her go, not when I loved her so much.  Fact is, I love her so much that I would let two people I love have her because they love her, too.  And because Isabelle said she wanted to go with them.

So having traveled from Oklahoma to me in New Mexico, Jeff and Isabelle took of from New Mexico headed for New York.  She started out in the back seat, but you can see from the photo how long that lasted.

So now the traveler dog has a new home, a new life, and a new nickname, Bella.  Izzy is a kind of sharp sounding name, but Isabelle is such a lovely and sweet dog that a lovely and sweet name seems to fit her better.  So Bella is what everyone is calling her now.

I am happy for Dede and Jeff and, their family, including their older dog, Yuna.  I don’t feel that Bella has been lost to me, but that she gained more of me.  She gained family that I love.

And of course, Bella’s biggest gift to me is still with me.  She got me over the hump of thinking I could never open my heart to another dog again.

True Adventure

Evening over Grand Canyon  2019 Lif Strand

For me a true adventure must be an extraordinary experience that shakes my world off its axis. There has to be an element of risk that come from the potential for real danger associated with venturing into the unknown and even unknowable. There has to be challenge, both physical and mental, that forces me to draw upon depths I hoped were there but could not know without starting forth on the adventure.

It’s not enough for an experience to be only risky, or only a challenge, though. A true adventure is one that allows me to become a new person for the duration.  Hopefully some of that will stick with me afterwards.  Hopefully I will find myself changed forever, a little or a lot, for good or for bad.

I’ve done Grand Canyon twice before and it did that for me then.  Grand Canyon 2019 was still true adventure for me.

Now, just a week from having last seen it, the impact of that incredible view has faded. That’s not too surprising, because unless I’m actually looking at it my mind shies away from its immensity. Photos simply cannot convey the hugeness of it, whereas being there and standing literally on the edge of the rim and looking out to the enormity of size and age is mind blowing.

My human mind is just not capable of holding onto the enormity of the Grand Canyon any more than it can hold onto an instant of pure bliss. These are transient states of extreme intensity, and to dwell in them unprepared would  fry my poor brain.

Part of what delivers the intensity of Grand Canyon is the extreme contrast. The south rim is nearly a mile higher than Phantom Ranch. In January it’s deep winter at the top but already on the cusp of spring at the bottom. Restaurants and room service and crowds and traffic at the top, hours when you might see no other human being on the trail and then only a couple dozen fellow trekkers at the bottom. All the amenities of civilization at the top, primitive, even survivalist, conditions at the bottom.

And more.

Morning sunshine on a distant bluff at Grand Canyon  2019 Lif Strand photoThe Grand Canyon is rich with nuances of earth tones but the deep shadows confuse the eye. One moment the sun glares off the snow and it’s time to put on sunglasses and remove gloves and hat and scarf. The next, after stepping down and around an outcropping, it’s too dark to see and it’s winter again.

I go down and down and down and the river is never getting any closer and I know I’m going to be out on the trail forever, but suddenly it’s there, a brown, roiling mass of water that feeds me the energy to shout over its roar.

A couple days later I’m slogging up the trail, each step a stab of pain, my lungs burning as I try to suck in enough oxygen to keep going, and I look up to see crayon-colored hot-air balloons sailing through the clear blue sky above.  I pass a velvet-antlered buck that placidly chews spears of green grass , unperturbed as I walk by him just a few feet away.

Young deer ignoring me on the trail  2019 Lif Strand photo

I stare at the colors, the distances, the age, the amazing extraordinary beauty, and try so very hard to hold it in — but like a deep breath I soon must let it go.

Now, a week later, Grand Canyon is a fading memory. I learned some things: I was more prepared to do this hike than the first two times, but I was not prepared enough. I didn’t need to hurt so much. I didn’t need to forget so quickly.

And yet now I’ve healed and find myself stronger than I was before.  I’ve been nudged off center — not far, but enough that I’m forced to find new balance in my life.

It’s a good thing.

So yeah, Grand Canyon was a true adventure for me.  I can’t wait till I get to do it again!

 

 

Trip through time

Photo of the approach to Indian Garden, Grand Canyon 2019 Lif Strand Photo

Approaching Indian Garden (halfway point) 2019 Lif Strand photo

And so the day came and the adventure finally began

Laura and I stayed at El Tovar, the huge 100+ year old resort hotel built by Fred Harvey on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Originally built with 103 guest rooms and 21 bathrooms, now there are 70 some odd guest rooms, each with its own bathroom — a big improvement. Although I had made reservations months ago for the two nights before and the two nights after the hike, they couldn’t give us the same room for both stays, which was actually okay.  It wasn’t as if we would be leaving our stuff in the room for the two nights we were hiking — not without paying for the room. Rather expensive way to go, especially since the bellman stored our luggage for free for us anyway.

The first two nights’ room was on the “Terrace” level, which at any other place would be called the basement. Except there is one level lower (at least) that really is the basement. Our room had two full sized windows that looked out to the main entry of the hotel, and yes, it had a bathroom of its own, complete with small black & white floor tiles and pedestal sink and not enough places to place or hang things.

We dined early, both of those first two nights in the Harvey House Cafe in the Bright Angel Lodge, about a quarter mile to the west of El Tovar. The Rim Trail, which overlooks the Canyon, was full of tourists speaking in many languages. This being January, it wasn’t packed as it would be in warmer months, but we still had to keep our eyes open to not bump into folks. People tend to just stop where they are when captured by the view. They have to try to comprehend the immensity– truly an impossibility — and to capture something of the grandeur in a photo. I was certainly guilty of stopping in my tracks, too.

I’m also already guilty of forgetting what we had for dinner. I remember the table we sat at, but darn. Food is not that high priority for me that I’ll necessarily remember what I ate. Mostly I want to enjoy the taste and that’s good enough for me.  [later note: spaghetti & meatballs… so good I got it again the last night, second dinner was a chicken dish that was only okay because the chicken was dry].

I’ve already mentioned accidentally soaking my backpack that first day we were there, so I’ll move on to the night before our descent to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.

As per usual I couldn’t sleep, not the eve of a major life event, and not in a place I’m not used to, with all its strange noises, lights, and occasional people walking by just on the other side of the door. So that’s likely why I was awake to hear one not-so-strange and most unwelcome sound, which was that of a mouse chewing on something. I flashed a light that way but of course saw nothing (note to self: you never will see anything as small as a mouse on a mouse-colored carpet, across the room, by dim flashlight in the middle of the night, if you aren’t wearing glasses).  Okay, maybe my imagination.

Of course that meant I now really couldn’t sleep. The second time I heard that noise I decided it wasn’t my imagination and even if it was I had better just move my pack from the floor to the tub in the bathroom. I figured if there actually was a mouse it wouldn’t bother making the big leap over the side of the tub.

When my head hit the pillow I was finally able to sleep. If there was a mouse, it would go to Laura’s pack and not mine, and she’s a deep enough sleeper that it wouldn’t wake her.

Hey, I was tired.

Monday morning, time to get on the trail

The next morning I discovered my pack had a hole chewed in the mesh that held dark chocolate Kisses in a plastic bag. The hole was about an inch in diameter. The plastic bag had not yet been breached. Laura’s pack had not been touched.

We packed the stuff that was staying and headed downstairs to El Tovar’s dining room for some grub, watching the trees bending with gale force winds under scudding clouds that soon began dumping sideways-falling snow. I ran outside at one point and snatched a photo of a brief break in the clouds that allowed the rising sun to bathe the canyon walls in orange glow. I ran back inside even faster, shivering. [Photos will be posted on Facebook after I get home and can use my office computer]

We had decided on Bright Angel Trail for both ways for a number of reasons, including that South Kaibab — the trail I’d taken down into the Canyon two times before — follows a ridge much of the way. Exposed, the wind would be brutal. We were told that South Kaibab was extremely muddy, too, but I don’t know why I paid any attention to that since it was extremely muddy before and we got down it just fine.

Wind or no, I don’t think if I do this hike again I’ll take Bright Angel either direction. It’s beautiful, but even in winter it’s got more people on it than I like. South Kaibab does have more steps built into the trail but I don’t know if that’s as bad a thing as I once thought. Seems to me there aren’t such prolonged distances of super steep on South Kaibab. The top 3 miles of Bright Angel is killer steep!

Later Monday morning — NOW we’re hitting the trail

We were weenies. We didn’t even get to the trail-head till 10 a.m.  Even then it was bitter cold with gusts that came darn near to blowing me right off the icy path.  Visions of sailing out and then down, oh, maybe a thousand feet or so flashed through my mind. Did I mention that there are no safety rails just about anywhere in the Grand Canyon? It’s part of the charm. Anyway, we wore crampons for secure footing (wonderful things, those) and we had our poles. I’m a believer in layers so I wore many layers (if I’d have gone off the trail maybe I’d have bounced my way down, unharmed) so I was actually comfortable temperature-wise. Even if I did look like a bag lady in winter. No disrespect meant towards bag ladies.

The trail was so steep at that point that it only required working our way down a few switchbacks before the cliff itself blocked the wind. All right! We were on our way! A year’s worth of planning and more and here we go!

Almost immediately we started meeting people who were coming up from Phantom Ranch. Ten miles and they were already at the Rim.  The animals.  We had traveled a whopping half a mile by then.

photo of trail leading to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon 2019 Lif Strand photo

Last few miles before the Colorado River. Pipe Creek (maybe) at the bottom of this photo. 2019 Lif Strand photo

Going down was great until the last few miles before we reached the Colorado, when my right IT band made itself known, particularly at the point where it attaches outside at the knee. I thought I had worked that out through adjustments in posture and the way I moved my body, but no. Each time I stepped down and my weight transferred to my right leg, the ligaments or whatever at the outside of my knee felt like someone had taken a blowtorch to them. I kept telling myself it wasn’t an issue because the pain would go away quickly.  Until it didn’t.

Fortunately we hit that long, long two mile stretch along the river that’s not super steep anywhere (though an amazing amount of ups and downs anyway for a river trail) and I was able to ignore the pain. We reached Phantom Ranch, supposedly just under 10 miles in trail descriptions but 13 miles by both Laura’s and my Fitbits, in 6 1/2 hours.

Let me tell you, it was hard waiting for the second seating dinner (stew) that night. We both crashed right after. In spite of sharing a dorm with Laura and eight other women (a group of friends, young, and very giggly), I fell asleep quickly and slept like a log.

The next day I was impressed at how my calves weren’t cramping as they had the first two times.  Was it because South Kaibab trail has got so many steps vs Bright Angel, or was I was simply in better shape for it this time? Nah, more likely it was the tremendous amount of ibuprofen I ingested after the descent.  Whichever, I pretended I didn’t feel my IT. I kept working the ibuprofen. I pretended it wasn’t way too soon to be smug about lack of pain.

So Tuesday was our break day at Phantom Ranch. After a yummy second-seating breakfast, Laura and I decided to take a short, easy hike to loosen up. We ended up going up a steep, not well maintained trail that goes to a lookout over the Ranch. Bad idea. The sets of tendons/ligaments on the outsides of both knees were stabbing me at every step, so we turned around and I managed to hobble back to the dorm. After a hot hot hot shower, I spent most of the rest of the day either laying on my bunk reading or sitting in the canteen/dining room reading. And counting the hours till the next dose of ibuprofen. By dinner I felt good as new.

Truth. I did feel good.  The outhouse toilets are two-story solar powered composters and I was fine running up and down the stairs. Whoever invented ibuprofen is my hero.

Ladies and gentlemen: the second act

Next morning breakfast was at 5:30, first-seating. None of this lazy 7:00 second-seating stuff. Laura and I gobbled down our food like a pair of starving beasts, but before we could get our butts back to the dorm to get our stuff and hit the trail, we were treated to a talk by our server, whose name I unfortunately never caught.

Phantom Ranch, if my (admittedly faulty/selective) memory serves, has fourteen (or maybe it is seventeen) full-time, year-round employees who live and work down there at the bottom of the Canyon. Everything that can be packed in by mule – food, supplies, replacement parts — is packed down the Canyon by pack string. All the garbage and anything else that can be packed out by mule goes out the way it came in.  The repairs and maintenance, plus cooking, cleaning, etc., is done by the staff that lives there. As far as I could tell, most everybody does a lot of everything.

Each meal is served by one person (maybe two sometimes but I only ever saw one). The first night we were there thirty-seven people (including me and Laura) enjoyed an excellent beef stew dinner, family style. Please pass the bowl, may I have the cornbread, who wants salad, is there any butter left?

The routine is the same whether breakfast or dinner (lunches aren’t served): Meal times are strict. You’ve paid in advance for the food and for the time you’ll eat it. When it’s your meal, you gather with the other hikers and river rafters at the (locked) canteen door, chatting, moaning about sore muscles, talking about the trail with friends and strangers. Something about being there erases social barriers. No conversations are private. If the words can be overheard then anyone can add their two cents. There’s no rule, it’s just what happens when you’re living in such close quarters.

Suddenly the dinner bell rings. The light over the door goes on and the door is opened. Out steps that meal’s server, who gives The Lecture Part 1 which pretty much goes like this: You’ll come in and give your reservation name and the number in your party. You’ll be told where to sit. At the end of the meal pass your plates, glasses, and utensils down to the end to be picked up by your wait person. You have about 45 minutes to eat. Wine and beer available on the honor system, pay your server before you leave that meal.

At the end, when most of the dishes have been sent down to the end, your server will speak again. Not so much Lecture Part 2 as a little chat. I’m not sure the servers have anything specific they’re supposed to say because it seemed this was time to share their thoughts on whatever a topic they chose, long as it was related to the Canyon and maybe Phantom Ranch.

No matter how full the room, the moment he or she opened her mouth all talk stopped. We listened intently. Sometimes it was a bit about the history of the place. One woman told us what I’ve told you above — how many people worked there, how long the longest had been there, that when they had days off and wanted to get to the rim, they hiked it.

A shortish, older, dark-skinned man with graying hair was our server for breakfast on the morning we left. Laura and I had rushed in a little late, so we missed hearing him introduce himself so I can’t share his name, more’s the pity. When he spoke I could barely understand his thick accent, so I really had to focus to get what he was saying. I know I missed some of it and probably misinterpreted much of it, but that’s not important. What was important was the whole concept of the spirituality of hiking the Canyon.

He explained that the Canyon was sacred, had been since prehistoric times — long before there was a Grand Canyon National Park, or a Phantom Ranch, or tourists. He said the Canyon wasn’t just steep cuts in rocks that people negotiated to get to the Ranch, but ancient oceans they passed through, seven of them. That we who hiked the Canyon were part of the sacredness of the place as we chatted and laughed our way down and then huffed and puffed our way up again.

He told us up again was part of the sacredness. Up again was the only way out. The only way. No one could do it for us.  His last words, as he scrubbed his hands together and let us go, were: “Rejoice, rejoice, you have no choice.”

The little bit of laughter at that was uneasy.  What he said gave me shivers. I felt blessed. And then he kicked us out so the staff could clean up and get ready for the second-seating.

Wednesday, 6 dark 30

We were on the trail. Our red hikers’ flashlights helped us avoid stumbling over the rocks. The moon was bright overhead but where we were going was mostly in blackest shadow that not even the silver reflected from high up the canyon walls could relieve. The temperature was mild, in the low 40s, cold enough to be glad of the layers and the gloves.

I hadn’t gone very far when I realized that I was fooling myself about the pain. It wasn’t gone. It was there and it was just as bad as it had been two days before. Going down even the mildest of descents already made me whimper. I kept reminding myself that we were ascending the Grand Canyon now, and it would mostly be up.

You’d be surprised how much down there is in up.

We shed our jackets where Pipe Creek hits the Colorado River, two miles or so from Phantom Ranch. The sky was grey now, bright enough to negotiate without supplemental lighting, which was good because the clip on my light wasn’t nearly as reliable as it could have been and it had dropped off of me several times.

We had forded the smallish stream four times, with me only getting one toe wet, by the time we the first steep climb out of Pipe Creek [note: I might be wrong as to its name — you’d think there would be detailed maps here but there don’t seem to be]. Energy-wise I was feeling pretty good. I was concerned about the ITBs but long as I was going up the pain was no problem.  No problem I kept telling myself.

Uh huh.

When we got to Indian Garden I took more ibuprofen but didn’t eat anything because it had only been three hours since breakfast. Laura said she wasn’t hungry either.  Foolish me, breaking my own rules about making sure to eat on the trail. Foolish Laura, for taking my word for it being too soon to eat.  In my defense, I did swallow more ibuprofen. And electrolytes. And Vit B-12 energy supplement. I washed it all down with about 8 oz of water. That’s a meal, isn’t it?

As we started up again we met our first hiker coming down headed for Phantom Ranch. I don’t know when he left the Rim, but I liked it that we’d met each other at the mid-point of the trail instead of down at the bottom.  I was feeling kind of smug that at that point nobody from Phantom had caught up to us. Of course, it is not a race so who cares about those things.  Besides, the hardest part was ahead of us and that’s where we’d be passed by anyone who’d come up on the Bright Angel.

The first half mile out from Indian Garden was not bad. My ITBs were definitely unhappy, though. And then we hit the tough part, where the switchbacks are, where the stairs are, and where steep is given a new meaning.

By the time we reached Three Mile Resthouse (three trail miles from the top) I was in agony. Not only were my ITBs hurting but so were the backs of my knees. And up into my thighs. But worst, and most scary for someone who (I suddenly and inconveniently remembered) had had hip surgery on a second hip — the one that was now stabbing me with pain each time I put weight on it — less than two years before.

Imagination can be a wonderful thing except when you use it the wrong way.  I was finding it harder and harder to pretend I wasn’t hurting and easier to dream up the worst possible scenarios.  Had I caused a stress fracture of my pelvis? Was my hip dislocating because of overuse to the point of abuse? Was I going to do myself serious, perhaps permanent damage?  Would my legs just give out?

But there was always this to keep me going:  Did I have any choice but to take one more step, and then another?

No, I had no choice, not one that was acceptable to me. Over and over I told myself, rejoice, rejoice, I have no choice.

When I was endurance racing my horses on those 100 milers, when I would be riding in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, maybe in the fog and wandering around off the trail (that happened), or maybe facing a short fence that needed to be only stepped over but my horse absolutely refused to go forward and the clock was ticking and I wondered if I’d have to ride back the 60 miles or so I’d already come (that happened), or when I gave my coat to a junior rider and ended up with hypothermia (that happened), or when I was in such pain that I believed I could not go on (that happened and was happening right now), I did go on because I believed I had no choice but to keep going.

Oh, all right, of course someone could rescue me on the trail at Grand Canyon. I had been rescued on endurance rides, too — sometimes that’s just what happens.  But the belief I had to keep going had kept me going more often than not.  The belief that I had no choice but to keep on keeping on.

We were less than three miles from the top and day-hikers were skipping and laughing their way down to Indian Gardens — one guy was running down the trail — but so what. Hikers we’d had breakfast with that morning, and who started out an hour or more after we did cruised on by up to the Rim, but so what.  That was their hike and this was mine, and that was what mattered to me.  My hike was to go on, step by step. I would make it to the top on my own two crummy legs, thank you very much. Yeah, I moaned. Sure, I groaned. I felt light-headed with pain (or maybe hunger, hmmm?). I felt nauseous at times. I feared my legs would not hold me up anymore and I would plunge down the cliff.

When I wasn’t whining, I was chanting. Rejoice. Rejoice. No choice. Rejoice.

Step. After. Step. After. Step.

Laura did not make fun of me. She says she was huffing and puffing and was dealing with fatigue and painful joints, and maybe so but I didn’t hear any complaints. I couldn’t hear anything over my own gasping for air.

Rejoice

It took forever, but we made it and Laura’s watch said 12:30.  Wait — 6 1/2 hours from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim? That painful climb?  It took us no less time to come up than to go down? How is that even possible?

There was no brass band. No welcome committee. No confetti. Laura thought she had a couple airplane shots of Bailey’s but she couldn’t find them in her pack, so we couldn’t even celebrate before we took off our crampons. So there we were at the top of the Grand Canyon again, just two unfashionably disheveled older women with packs and hiking poles. The tourists were still taking selfies, the babies who didn’t want to be there were still crying, the couples were still ignoring the view for each other, and the tour guides were still bellowing at their charges. It was lunch time. We couldn’t even check into the hotel.

While we leaned against a stone wall, stunned, trying to figure out what to do, three guys stopped to ask if we thought they could get a cabin down at the bottom.

At the bottom? Phantom Ranch? Did they have reservations?

No, but…

No? Well forget it. You don’t get to stay at Phantom Ranch by just showing up. You don’t do the Canyon just like that. You make reservations. You plan. You condition. You work for the Canyon. You suffer for the Canyon.

No, of course we didn’t say all that. We wished them a nice hike. Then we headed for El Tovar’s bar.

About ITB Syndrome (ITBS)

The Iliotibial band (ITB) is the connective tissue (ligament) that begins from above the hip joint and that extends to the shinbone on the outside of the leg. ITB syndrome is a common overuse injury when there is repeated squatting kind of action involved — such as descending stairs or a steep slope down into the Grand Canyon. The whole ITB can become painful, or just the hip or knee. It can come to feel like your whole leg is on fire or maybe the hip joint you had replaced has failed. And wouldn’t you know it, ITBS is more common in in women because our hips are often tilted in such a way that knees can turn in slightly.

You can get therapy for ITBS that won’t go away or you can get steroid shots in the knee or hip area or wherever the pain is that keeps on keeping on.  Or you can rest and take ibuprofen, and then stop being stupid and instead up your level of squatting type action gradually.

photo of morning light coming through a bathroom window at El Tovar 2019 Lif Strand photo

Morning light streaming through the bathroom window of El Tovar Hotel room         2019 Lif Strand photo

Rejoice, for I had no choice but to take a photo of the bathroom just because the light was beautiful this morning and because even though it hurts to walk, I’m already scheming on when and how to get back to Grand Canyon to do it again.

 

Eve of chaos

So this afternoon I accidentally soaked my pack and everything in it.  Later I had problems with my cell phone and finally gave up in frustration (WHY does Apple have to make everything so complicated?  Please stop asking for my !@#$%! ID every time I want to do anything!).  Then I spilled my dinner all over the table.

Full eclipse would be awesome to stay up for but it’s overcast and supposed to snow tonight.

Here I am in the room, just 12 hours before I want to be packed and on my way to chow down before heading out.  Yes, lots of things have gone wrong at the last minute but hey, that’s on schedule.  That’s how it was with endurance racing, when the night before I always despaired that I could even saddle up much less get on and ride 50 or 100 miles.  And yet morning would come, I’d tack up and get on my horse’s back and head out anyway.

So that’s the way it’ll be tomorrow, come rain, snow, sun, wind, damp gear, forgotten stuff, or not.  I’m not headed for Mars, after all, just the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Laura was singing happy birthday to my sister Dede. Honest.

The adventure begins… tomorrow!

Clothes/gear that's going to Grand Canyon laid out on a bedMy hiking clothes and gear choices have changed somewhat since the last time I posted but not by a lot.  I’m tired of thinking about what to bring, what to wear — I just want to DO IT!

The stuff is laid out in columns, as you can sort of see.  Column #1 (left) is stuff I’ll wear/use at the rim before and after.  The trekking poles separate that stuff from the stuff that’s going down.  Column #2 is what I’ll wear the day of the hike.  #3 is what’ll be in my pack.  #4 is what goes in half of the duffel bag that will go down by mule (Laura’s putting her stuff in the other half).

There are a few items missing from the photo, and some items will be used on the rim and on the hike as well, plus you can’t see all the chocolate that has been added since I took the photo — but what’s on the bed is pretty much what’s getting put in the car tomorrow.

Toilet paper roll with cardboard core removedPro tip (I’m not a hiking pro but I’m a girl — when I want toilet paper I want enough toilet paper).  Take the cardboard core out of your TP roll and squish it flat.  A not-huge roll squished flat will fit in a sandwich bag.  The sandwich bag is then placed in a quart sized ziplock bag for used paper.  DO NOT LITTER!

Everything that was on the bed in the photo above fits into four bags, only one of which is stuffed full (the rim bag).  As I mentioned, the duffel will also have Laura’s stuff in it.  The weight limit is 30#.  The bag with my items weighs 9#.  Laura says hers weighs about the same.  So we can add 10# of chocolate if we want.

I’ll be taking tons of photos, but I can tell you already that there is no photo that even begins to convey the absolute awesomeness (as in gobsmacked-inability-to-grasp-it-awesomeness) of the Grand Canyon.  See you on the other side!