Friday afternoon Awesome Wife dropped Twin A off at the office. He sat patiently while I finished up a call, and then we left the office, jumped in the car and headed South on I-15.
One of the things AW and I try to do is spend 1-on-1 time once in a while with each member of the Trifecta. It’s tough because we have 3 kids, close in age, and we’re always busy, and blah, blah… But we think it’s important because when the kids are solo, outside of the Trifecta, you can focus on them and relate to them a little differently, maybe even a little better, than you can with them as a group.
At Spanish Fork we left the Interstate and headed Southwest up Spanish Fork Canyon*. As we climbed I noticed how quickly the Maples are already changing.
*How about those awesome windmills at the mouth of SF canyon? Are those cool or what? Twin A loved them. His other fun thing up that canyon is that we inevitably pass one of the coal trains, whereupon he always counts the cars. 102, if you were wondering.
Before you have kids, when you think of them in the abstract, you tend to envision them as little idealized/improved robot-clones of yourselves. They’d look sort of like you, but better, and they’d be interested in the same things you are, but better at them. They’d also be better in school, have more friends, and vastly more rewarding childhoods than you did, in no small part due to the exceptionally high-quality parenting you will provide.
Of course, none of that is the case. Kids appear with their own little personalities and quickly develop their own interests, preferences, passions and fears, while you flounder about, trying to figure out how your own parents made it look so easy.
Spanish Fork Canyon tops out at Soldier Summit, then drops sharply into Price, after which the road passes through the hamlet/speed-trap of Wellington and out into the desert, skirting the Book Cliffs on its path Southeast. As you approach I-70, the view open up to the left and you can see the La Sal Mountains far off to the East/Southeast. Moment later, at the other end of the horizon, the Henry Mountains peek into view to the South. We jogged West for 10 miles on I-70, then continued South on U-24 along the San Rafael Swell.
All About Twin A
Each of our kids has their own distinct personality, their own strengths and weaknesses. I love them all, but when I’m honest I have to admit that Twin A is the one I find myself worrying about most often. Much of this is physical. Alone of the Trifecta, he suffers from asthma, and takes daily medication. He’s also- again alone of our children- allergic to eggs, nuts, shellfish and cantaloupe, adding an element of planning and caution to everything from road-trips to sleep-overs. Poke around long enough in the Watcher home or in the Watcher-vehicles, and you’ll inevitably stab yourself with an epi-pen.
But my concern extends beyond the purely physical. Twin A is the most passionate and excitable of our children; as AW puts it, his emotions run very close to the surface. On the positive side this means he’s often quickest to delight or indulge in humor or sheer zaniness. On the dark side it means he has a temper. Though he’s well-behaved in school, no road trip with Twin A is complete without at least one full-blown tantrum/melt-down/freak-out.
Sometimes I worry about what this will mean as adolescence arrives and morphs into young adulthood. Will a grown, angry Twin A one day erupt and walk out, cutting me from his life? These kinds of long-term/what-if worries are pointless of course. But thinking for the long-term encourages me to spend 1-on-1 time with him now.
Side Note: This would be a good time to mention Twin A's superpower: he completely charms any adult female within 5 minutes of meeting them.*
*No, he did not inherit this power from me.
From Hanksville we continued South another 10 miles, then left pavement and started climbing up into the Henrys.
All About The Henry Mountains
The Henry Mountains are one of three “island” ranges framing the desert of Southeast Utah*. Each stands alone, and island of cool green forest above the hot scrub and canyonlands below. It’s said that the Henrys were the last range in the lower 48 to be accurately mapped, though that may be urban (rural?) myth. In any case, they sure seem to be out in the middle of nowhere, which is ironic, because after you spend a couple of decades exploring Southern Utah, you gradually realize that the Henry Mountain are in the dead center of well, everything! Standing on Ellen Peak, starting due West and rotating clockwise you’ll see the Waterpocket Fold (pic above, right), Powell Point beyond (same pic) marking the Southern end of the Aquarius Plateau, and, if it’s very clear, the gentle rise of the Paunsaugunt in the distance. You’ll see Boulder Mountain and the San Rafael Swell (pic left) and the Tushars and the Book Cliffs and the La Sals and Island in the Sky and Junction Butte, with the crumpled canyonlands of the Dirty Devil in the foreground (pic above, left). You’ll see off to Needles and on a really clear day, maybe even to the San Juans in Colorado. You’ll see the Abajos (pic right), full of old, big Aspens and Black Bears, and Elk Ridge and the Lukachukais down on the Big Rez. You’ll see Navajo Mountain and then follow the Kaiporowits Plateau up above the Escalante and Hole In The Rock clear back to where you started.
*Other 2 = La Sals, Abajos
Really, it’s a great view.
They’re also cool geologically. Like the Pine Valley Mountains and the La Sals, the Henrys are a laccolithic range. I explained laccoliths back in February when I blogged about the amazing Geology of the St. George area, and you can read that post if you want the details, but basically a laccolith is a pool of underground magma which is forced up between 2 layers of sedimentary rock. The pressure of the magma forces up and bends the overlying sedimentary layers. When the magma cools it forms a solid rock mass that is typically flat on the bottom and dome-shaped on top. Unlike the massive laccolith underlying the Pine Valley Mountains, the Henrys are thought to possibly be the result of multiple interconnected laccoliths, perhaps up to 30 underlying Ellen Peak alone.
On the rough road up Twin A fell asleep and we arrived at the campground at dusk. The campground is set in well-forested Sawmill Basin. The forests of the Henrys are similar to those of the Wasatch, with a few differences. The Henrys for example have Ponderosa Pine Pic left, Twin A for scale), which we don’t, and sometimes, in the better-watered drainages you can find huge old-growth specimens. Another interesting difference was the abundance of Blue Spruce, especially in Sawmill Basin. Here in the Wasatch Blue Spruce is almost always limited to alongside watercourses, but in Sawmill Basin it’s all over, and many of the trees are really blue*.
*The really blue Blue Spruces you see in people’s yards are cultivars, selected by growers for their bluish tint. Most Blue Spruces in the wild aren’t all that blue. The bluish tint BTW is caused by wax build-up on the stomates (pores) of the needles. (pic right = cones in campsite, my honkin’ big foot for scale)
Side Note: Decent informal campsites are sparse in the Henrys. The best is at Wickiup Pass, but it’s often occupied, as it was this past weekend.
In the morning we awoke, ate and packed our gear. The campground was vacant except for a friendly older fellow, a bowhunter who was expecting his family to join him that evening. He had a gray beard, a kindly face, rheumy eyes, and an older guy-mumbly way of speaking that somehow reminded me of the snowman-narrator from the old Rudolph-clay-mation TV Christmas special. Except that he a) wasn’t made out of snow and b) wore pants.
Tangent: As a child I was always bothered by non-human television/story characters- the snowman-narrator, Winnie-the-Pooh, Yogi-Bear- who wore partial clothing, but no pants. This always seemed very wrong to me. I felt like you can’t have it both ways. Either you’re a non-clothing-wearing animal, or you’re a clothing-wearing humanoid; you can’t mix and match. Or if you insist upon mixing/ matching/ species-bending the rules, at least start with pants, like Smoky Bear.
We drove up to Bull Creek Pass, at 10,500 feet, and parked. One of the really cool things about the Henrys is that the highest point- Ellen Peak- is such an easy hike. You start high, and gradually climb only 1,000 feet over a couple of miles to along an open ridge to the “summit”, which is actually just the highest roll along the ridge. The obvious conical “peak” to the North is actually about 40 feet or so lower. For lack of a real name, I call it “Forward Ellen Peak.”
From the pass, treeline is almost already broken. The trail passes through a few stands of Spruce and Limber Pine before breaking out into the open grass and rock for good around 11,000 feet. Interestingly, the last real shrub to hang on, extending clear up to the summit, is a common shrub in the Wasatch: Wax Currant, Ribes cereum (pic left). Ribes is a genus of some 150 species including the various currants and gooseberries. Wax Currant leaves (pic right) have a shape vaguely similar to that of Ninebark, but they’re not closely-related. Currants belong to Grossulariaceae, the Currant Family, and are more closely-related to things like saxifrages and hydrangeas. Probably the most closely-related thing to Currants we’ve looked at was the Woodland Star, back in June.
Wax Currant is common across Utah and the Great Basin. Early in the season it blooms with tubular pink flowers that are pollinated by bees and hummingbirds. Now the fertilized flowers have morphed into red berries (pic left), which are edible, but not particularly tasty. Indians used to mix Currant berries (and Gooseberries) with dried meat into a mixture called Pemmican. Wax Currant also spreads clonally, via stem-layering, with branches dropping adventitious roots, and I suspect that under these harsh alpine conditions that’s how it usually reproduces.
On up we climbed, spectacular views all around, the world almost laid out before us, over a first false summit, and then a second, and then up to the 3rd, highest point on the ridge. There on the summit was a rock pile holding down a little mailbox. I turned to Twin A: “I need to check my mail,” I said. Twin A looked confused for a second and then laughed. At age 8, a child’s BS filter is still developing. I bent down to open the box.
The route to Forward Ellen Peak is an out & back, meaning that a hiker passes over the high summit twice. So I’ll hold off on the mailbox-opening, and pick up this part of the story again on our return.
North from the summit, the ridge drops 500 feet into a prominent saddle. Starting down the grassy slope we looked ahead to the saddle, and stopped.
Probably the only rule AW has for my solo trips with the kids is to bring the kid in question back alive and in good health. This means not wrecking the car or getting killed by exposure or struck by lightning, or, oh, I don’t know… maybe getting trampled by a herd of Buffalo. And this last possibility entered my mind as we gazed down a ¼ mile ahead and 500 feet below at the herd of maybe 2 dozen Buffalo gathered in the saddle.
Correction 9/17/09: The Antelope Island herd also is open for hunting* 12/7-09 -12/9/09. Thanks Co-Worker Sid for the correction.
*And a Utah resident bison hunting permit can be yours for only $1,105- ouch!
All About Buffalo
Buffalo, Bison bison, is the largest native land animal in North America, though- like Grizzlies, Moose and Wolves- it’s a relative newcomer to the continent. Back in Eurasia the ancestors of Buffalo diverged from the ancestors of domestic cattle somewhere between 2 and 5 million years ago. More recently, around 700,000 years ago, Buffalo entered North America via Beringia and expanded and speciated throughout the continent.* Until recently there were as many as 7 species of Buffalo, but today there are just 2: the European Buffalo, or Wisent, Bison bonanus, and the American Buffalo, B. bison. The American Buffalo is further divided into 2 subspecies, the Plains Buffalo, B. bison bison, and the Wood Buffalo, B. bison athabascae.
*Actually the story may be more complicated than this. It looks as though there were at least 2 distinct migrations of prehistoric bison to North America. The first led to species such as the Giant Buffalo, which are all now extinct. Today’s modern Buffalo appear to be descended from the second, later migration.
Side Note: Buffalo are still closely-related enough to domestic cattle to interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Both have 60 chromosomes. Most buffalo alive today have some “cattle blood” running in their veins.
By the time Europeans arrived, an estimated 60 million Buffalo roamed the continent. Pretty much everyone knows the story of how the Buffalo was nearly hunted to extinction, down to only a few hundred individuals by the 1880s. Through careful management and breeding they recovered to the ~350,000 animals living today.
In 1941 and 1942, a couple dozen Buffalo from Yellowstone were introduced to the desert East of Robber’s Roost. These soon migrated to the grasslands at the North end of the Henrys, and in the early 1960s, migrated up into the mountains themselves. Today the herd is ~200 strong, kept in check by regulated hunting.
There’s a natural tendency to think of Buffalo as cattle-like: slow-moving and dull-witted. They’re not. Buffalo can sprint (up to 30 MPH), jump and are unpredictable. They’re supposedly responsible for more human deaths in national parks than grizzlies.
Oo- know what? This is a good time for a tangent- my best Buffalo story ever.
Tangent: There’s also, as most Salt Lakers know, a sizeable managed Buffalo herd up on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. Back in the late 90’s in, on full-moon winter nights, some friends and I used to sneak out across the causeway (gate is unlocked, we drove it with headlights off) to go night mountain-biking on the island*. This was back in the days before any of us had decent bike-lights, so we rode by moonlight. We did this probably ½ a dozen times between 1996 and 1998 until we gradually started having wives and kids and other things that kept us home between midnight and 4AM.
*This was and is way, totally illegal. I am in no way suggesting that you try this for yourself, or implying that it was in any way remotely enjoyable.
One time, in February 1997, Coryalis and I were riding Antelope alone, probably around 1AM. We were riding the main loop counter-clockwise, and descending the long, fast double-track back to the trailhead. Zipping down in the moonlight at probably 20-25 MPH, the trail passed through a stand of low Junipers, several dozen of them.
12 years later, Twin A and I regarded the herd ahead on the saddle. I decided we’d continue down and try to dip down below the saddle on the left, avoiding them.
I needn’t have worried. Still far off, the herd picked up our scent and ran off (the wind was behind us.) I caught a bit of footage of them running across the slope.
We summitted, had lunch and Twin A napped. Rough roads, 11,000-foot peaks- the kid can sleep anywhere. We lingered until I saw afternoon clouds forming over scattered ranges and then started back. We descended the saddle without incident and started retracing our path along the ridge, climbing the long grassy, slope hand-in-hand*, and soon we returned where I left off the story 2 hours earlier- at the mailbox.
*Twin A- alone of the Trifecta- still likes to hold my hand when we hike.
One of the things I’ve gradually realized in recent years is that I rarely return to summits. When I’m on a high summit, I always think, “This place is great, I’ll definitely come back here…” but when I think of the dozens of desert peaks I’ve climbed, I’ve returned to only a handful. And so when I planned the trip with Twin A, part of the appeal was that this would be a return, because I had in fact climbed Ellen Peak previously.
On Labor Day weekend, 1995, Arizona Steve and I summitted Ellen Peak. That was way, way back, only weeks after I’d moved to Utah, when Life 1.0 wasn’t quite over, but Life 2.0 hadn’t yet begun. It was the In-Between, a strange period in my life, terrible yet wonderful at the same time. Arizona Steve and I signed the register that day, and I had it in my mind that I’d check out our old sign-in. 14 years, 1 marriage, 3 kids, 3 houses and 3 jobs later, I opened the mailbox. As I opened the box and sorted through the tattered assortment of logs I had several thoughts, but foremost among them was this: was it really me who signed that register?
The Two Big Mysteries of Life
I really believe, deep down, that there are only 2 Really Big Mysteries in the universe. By “Big Mystery” I don’t mean “things that people don’t know.” There are tons of things people don’t know, and maybe never will know- the origin of life, the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s grave, why some people ride singlespeeds, whatever. But there are only 2 things that I really can’t even conceive of people understanding. The first is why anything exists. Whatever your beliefs or views or hopes, any way you cut it, wouldn’t everything just be a whole lot simpler, and make a lot more sense if the whole universe never existed? No space, no time, no stuff. The fact that anything exists just doesn’t make intuitive sense. Oh I know physicists are dinking around with particles in colliders and what-not that are supposedly going to explain it all, and I’ve heard plenty of logical-word-game-St. Anselm-type ontological-ish arguments for why god or the universe or everything exists, but still, will the human mind ever be able to conceive why anything exists?
Tangent: I suspect that it won’t, and that although there may well be a logical explanation for why stuff exists, getting a human to understand it would be like getting a dog to understand how a diesel engine works. And when you think about it, this makes sense. The human brain didn’t evolve to understand things as they really are any more than dog brains evolved to understand diesel engines*; it evolved because it helped hominids pass on more of their genes to the next generation, whether by helping those hominids survive better, or rear young better, or out-compete other hominids for mating opportunities or whatever. In so doing it developed an abstract simulation capability that enabled people to create diesel engines and iPhones and space shuttles and symphonies and the Mona Lisa, but that doesn’t mean it can understand reality any better than your dog can repair your truck.
*To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the human mind evolved to understand how diesel engines work. The diesel engine is simply an expression of conceptual thinking made possible by a human brain evolved through natural/sexual selection. But I like the example, mainly because I get a kick out of imagining a dog sitting there with a wrench trying to figure out how to fix a busted engine.
The second mystery, and the one that really eats at me, is the mystery of self. Why am I me? And why am I me every single day? Why didn’t I wake up today as you, or Madonna, or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad*? Isn’t that the single weirdest thing ever?
*I plan to return to him soon in an upcoming tangent, and it will be a good one. The guy is rich, rich material.
Of course if you believe in a distinct, metaphysical soul, you can explain it away as “you” are just where your soul parked for 80 years or so when you were conceived. But if you’re a materialist* who doesn’t believe in things like souls or ghosts or multi-level-marketed nutritional supplements, then what you are is the physical stuff that comprises you. Or more specifically, your brain.
*By materialist, I mean someone who doesn’t believe in supernatural/metaphysical stuff, but only in stuff that can actually be detected, measured, or reasonably inferred. I don’t mean people who buy BMWs and Wiis and speedboats or whatever.
But the stuff in your brain changes. Though your brain is made overwhelmingly out of the same actual stuff that it was yesterday or last week, it’s probably made out of largely different stuff than it was, say 20 years ago. You’re eating and drinking and breathing and what-not. There’s a common “factoid” floating around that every atom in your body is replaced every 7 or 8 years. But the reality is more complicated. Some parts of your body, like the atoms in the cells comprising the lining of your intestines, are probably replaced much more often. But the atoms in your molars and the lenses of your eyes are probably the same with which those parts were originally grown. For brains the timing doesn’t seem to be entirely clear, but given that it’s a fleshy organ with a very high metabolism, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the stuff comprising my brain is overwhelmingly different stuff than that which composed it 14 years ago.
Tangent: This is why I squirm a bit when theists paraphrase my views as “you die and there’s nothing after this life except your body rotting in the ground…” Though that’s certainly what happens to a specific body, it implies what I suspect is a simplistic and terribly parochial view of “self”. I’ve gone far enough afield in this post, but the idea of an ever-changing dynamic self opens up all sorts of possibilities for the nature of our past, present and future relationships with, and connections to, well, everything.
I don’t know who or when decides to clean out old summit registers. When I climbed Pilot peak in 2002, there were entries dating clear back to 1963. On Ellen Peak, the oldest register dates back to 1999. Whatever happened to the register Arizona Steve and I signed, it isn’t up there now.
Twin A and I continued down the long ridge to the trailhead, clouds building in the distance, and then drove back to the campground. Snowman-Bowhunter’s family had arrived, and Twin A played with his 8 year-old granddaughter while I made dinner. We built a small fire, made s’mores, and when it got dark crawled in the tent, reading aloud* by headlamp before falling asleep.
*Watership Down. Thanks Fatty for the suggestion.
At about midnight I awoke, feeling stuffy. I popped my head out and saw that the sky had cleared, and the stars were fantastic. I pulled the fly off the tent and watched the stars for a bit, checking out the moons of Jupiter through binoculars.
Tangent: The 4 Galilean moons of Jupiter- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto- are easy to spot with decent binoculars. Right now as Jupiter rises all 4 are visible on the planet’s lunar/ equatorial/ orbital* plane, 1 to the left and 3 to the right.
*So which is it- the equatorial, lunar or (solar) orbital plane? Actually in this case, all 3. Most moons orbit their planet on a plane parallel with that planet’s equator. A notable exception is our moon, which orbits on a plane roughly parallel with the solar orbital plane (which I mentioned in this post, and is why our moon is higher in the night sky in winter than it is in summer.) This-along with its insanely large size relative to the planet it orbits- makes our moon very unusual** in the solar system. But Jupiter has an axial tilt of only 3 degrees, meaning that its equator is almost parallel to the solar orbital plane.
**I almost said “unique”, but held off due to the whole Pluto-Charon deal…
I went back to bed, and was awakened again, a couple hours later, by a raindrop on my face. The sky had clouded back up, and I jumped up again, replaced the fly, and went to sleep a 3rd time. This time I dreamed.
I was in my office at work, talking on the phone. The door was closed, but my office has a floor-to-ceiling window next to the door, and through this window I saw Wife 1.0 and her mother* approaching. I told the person on the phone I’d call back. Wife 1.0 walked in and I wondered for a moment what to say. I started to say, “You look just the same…”, but then I realize she did look just the same, because it was the same mental image I had of her from when I last saw her, 14 years ago, and I realized I was dreaming, and I woke up.
*The dream wasn’t exactly frightening, but with the appearance of my erstwhile mother-in-law, I suppose technically it qualified as a “nightmare.”
In the dawn half-light I turned and saw Twin A sleeping beside me, and felt strangely relieved that now was still now, and I was still me.