Archive for the ‘Life Elsewhere’ Category

A Fine Line

Flagstaff, Arizona, began as a railroad town, founded in 1876 as a distribution center for the timber industry. The railroad still has a pervasive influence on the city today.

How pervasive? Well, mammoth freight trains rumble through town about 100 times a day. That pervasive.

U.S. Route 66 is one of the main highways through the city, bisecting Flagstaff from east to west. Roughly paralleling it are the tracks of the BNSF Railway. The city has a few overpasses and one underpass, but most of the railroad crossings are the old-fashioned kind with crossing gates.


In short, much of Flagstaff is at the mercy of the trains. And the problem is at its worst in the downtown district, which has significant vehicular and foot traffic from visitors, residents, and students from Northern Arizona University, which is close to downtown.

The city’s relationship with BNSF has been prickly for years. Not only are the trains a constant disruption, but deaths occur regularly from accidents (inattention, drugs, alcohol) and suicides.

A few years ago, the city went to court and forced BNSF to slow the trains down, improve the crossings, and stop blowing their horns for the hell of it. The locals were furious at being startled awake multiple times overnight, plus having to endure the horns all day.

Part of me finds the situation amusing. But, noise and inconvenience aside, a moving train is a truly sobering thing. There is a fine line between continuing your day and being dead.

That lesson was driven home when I was in Flagstaff on vacation in September. Specifically, along with several dozen other people, I had an alarming close call with a passing freight train. The memory of it still gives me the willies.

To get you oriented, here is a map of the downtown area that I lifted from the city website.


The main business district is north of the railroad and Route 66. The area south of the tracks is a mixture of retail and residential.

I should add that, inside the city limits, the BNSF tracks are double. Eastbound trains use the south tracks, westbound trains use the north tracks. Like a two-lane highway.

The close call happened at the Beaver Street railroad crossing. Beaver Street is one-way going south. This is the crossing looking north.


The day it happened, I had just returned from shopping downtown. When I reached the tracks, a westbound freight was in the process of passing. The crossing arms were down, holding back the vehicles. Waiting with me at the northwest corner were six or eight pedestrians. A dozen more were across the street on the northeast corner.

Later that day, I took this photo, looking west from the same spot. The westbound freight had been on the right set of tracks, blocking the view of the eastbound tracks on the left.


After the westbound train passed, the crossing arms went up, and the cars and pedestrians started south across the tracks. At the same time, pedestrians on the south side of the tracks proceeded toward us.

Suddenly, the warning bells went off again. The crossing arms came down.

I looked to my right and saw another train, this one eastbound, almost upon us. The first train had hidden it until the last second.

Train #2 was going faster than the westbound freight. The engineer leaned on his horn. Most of the pedestrians, me included, were caught by surprise and were a bit disoriented.

Later, I took this photo of another eastbound train. This is what I saw bearing down on us.


In the next five seconds, a lot happened. The first few vehicles proceeded across the tracks, maybe unaware of the oncoming train. The cars behind them were stopped by the crossing arms.

But among the pedestrians, pandemonium ensued. People screamed, shouted, and scattered in panic.

I was halfway across the tracks when I spotted the oncoming train. I ran forward toward the people coming in my direction, waving my arms and yelling for them to get back.

Most stopped, but one young couple looked at me funny and continued forward. “No! No!” I yelled. “Train coming! Another one!” They retreated.

With a blast of wind and noise, the train shot past. People milled around, breathless, rattled.

Like all the freight trains, it was a long one. After it was gone, I looked around the crossing. No casualties.

The excitement was over, and everyone disbursed. I walked across the street to Altitudes Bar & Grill to have lunch and a well-earned beer.

The waitress was friendly and chatty, and I told her what had happened. She was a native. The subject was close to her heart.

She sat down opposite me in the booth and gave me a detailed report on the city’s battles with BNSF. She also told me about some of the more memorable deaths — a gruesome litany of horrific accidents and suicides.

“Honey,” she said, “there ain’t no sugar-coating it. Death by train is always messy.”



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I just got back from a satisfying road trip to the Southwest in my RV. I was on the road for 17 days, had good weather, no problems to speak of.

I went to Roswell, Hatch, and Gallup, New Mexico. Also Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Tuba City, Lees Ferry, and Page, Arizona.

I largely avoided the Interstates, which allowed me to pass through countless cites and towns that are their own little worlds.

As always, I came home with a nice batch of memories. To my surprise, one that stands out is not an experience, but an article I read in a promotional publication at Grand Canyon. It amounts to a fluff piece in a brochure for tourists, but it’s nicely done.

Maybe it clicked with me because I’ve been to Grand Canyon so often (this was my 27th trip), and I’m so familiar with the place, physically and operationally. When the writer describes a coyote at Lipan Point or the shuttle bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead, I have mental pictures.

The article is presented as the “untold story” of anonymous park employees and volunteers, but, inevitably, it also includes the experiences of visitors.

For the record, I forgive them for liberally taking artistic license — basically, making up hokey stuff to advance the story — because it gets the job done.

Here’s the article.


A Day in the Life of Grand Canyon National Park

(From “100 Years, One Million Lives, One Grand Canyon,” published by Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon Conservancy)

Much has been written about the beauty, geology, and history of Grand Canyon. But the canyon does have an untold story — the tales of the people who live and work there.

For a national park as immense and remote at Grand Canyon to operate smoothly, it requires an army of dedicated employees and volunteers.

They are on hand daily doing their jobs, and that simple act allows millions of visitors each year to experience one of the best of America’s natural crown jewels.

12:01 AM — A shooting star streaks across the sky, catching the eye of a coyote near Lipan Point. No one knows whether she made a wish.


1:22 AM — A river guide assisting with a science trip wakes up and pushes the rafts farther out into the Colorado River because the water drops after the daily release from Glen Canyon Dam.

2:06 AM — Search and Rescue Dispatch takes a call from a distressed hiker on the South Kaibab Trail. Staff immediately respond to aid the struggling hiker.

2:18 AM — A Delaware North (note: a park concessionaire) plumber is roused from sleep when he is called out to respond to a broken toilet in a Yavapai Lodge guest room.

3:06 AM — Xanterra (note: also a concessionaire) mule packers arrive at work to begin grooming mules and packing supplies for Phantom Ranch.

4:00 AM — The Hiker’s Express shuttle leaves Bright Angel Lodge on its way to South Kaibab Trailhead.

5:34 AM — An excited Boy Scout troop starts a backpacking hike down Bright Angel Trail.

5:58 AM — Staff at Canyon Village Deli begin assembling breakfast burritos and bagel sandwiches.

6:03 AM — Shades of soft purple melt away, and the canyon’s terraced formations seem to glow as the first rays of light caress ancient stone. Dawn’s color wheel turns, saturating the sky with pink, gold, and bronze hues so astounding they do not yet have a name. The sun has risen at Grand Canyon.

6:08 AM — Bright Angel Bicycles & Café serves up the first cappuccinos and cinnamon rolls to visitors who were up early to witness the sunrise.

6:47 AM — Custodial staff finishes cleaning the restrooms at Yavapai Geology Museum.

7:38 AM — An Italian father wakes his sleepy son and carries him to the window of their North Rim cabin so the boy can see deer grazing just outside.

8:00 AM — Grand Canyon Visitor Center opens for the day.

9:00 AM — Morning briefing begins for the park’s emergency services personnel.

9:03 AM — Trail crew pushes wheelbarrows of dirt down South Kaibab Trail for maintenance work.

9:17 AM — At Desert View Watchtower, a Hopi painter and a Navajo silversmith work on their art and answer questions as part of the Desert View cultural demonstrator series.


9:21 AM — An Oregon family pedals along Hermit Road after being carefully outfitted with bikes and helmets from Bright Angel Bicycles.

9:30 AM — Volunteer campground hosts begin rounds to ensure visitors are checked out and campfires are extinguished.

9:31 AM — An El Tovar Hotel bartender starts the three-hour preparations for a busy day and evening ahead, full of thirsty Grand Canyon guests.

10:04 AM — A visitor from Minnesota takes photos of her family as they ride mules to Phantom Ranch. She cannot remember the last time she’s seen her moody teenager wearing such a broad smile.

10:37 AM — Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute staff lead a group of new backpackers down Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden.

11:01 AM — Law enforcement rangers respond to people feeding squirrels near Bright Angel Lodge. They provide first aid for a bitten hand and instruct the visitor to get rabies shots as a precaution.



11:16 AM — In Desert View Watchtower, a young woman from Canada chats with Grand Canyon Conservancy staff. Amazed to discover the building and many other park structures were designed by Mary Colter, she purchases a book to learn more about the pioneering architect.

12:01 PM — A philanthropy manager from Grand Canyon Conservancy meets with prospective donors over lunch to discuss endowing the park’s trail maintenance program.

12:22 PM — While strolling along the Rim Trail, a Swedish couple stops to enjoy the playful cawing of a raven seemingly saying, “Come fly with me.”

12:41 PM — Fee collection staff at South Rim Entrance Station competes to see who can move vehicles through their lane the fastest.

1:13 PM — A Canyon Trail Rides mule packer leads visitors on a ride through the North Rim’s lush forests to Uncle Jim Point.

1:26 PM — Representatives from the park’s Traditionally Associated Tribes meet with park staff to give input on a new vision for the Desert View area that will include more tribal participation.

1:30 PM — A volunteer on summer break from college begins a guided tour of Tusayan Ruin.

1:43 PM — Custodial staff restocks Grand Canyon Visitor Center bathrooms with a pallet (48 cases) of toilet paper, which will last one week.

2:11 PM — Diners finishing a delicious meal on the patio of Grand Canyon Lodge strike up a conversation with the busboy, only to discover they once lived in the same small Idaho town.

2:38 PM — Wildlife staff work to move elk away from human drinking-water sources at South Kaibab Trailhead.

3:07 PM — Park rangers and emergency medical technicians administer CPR to revive a visitor who collapsed in the Market Plaza parking lot.

3:25 PM — A shaft of sunlight pierces the cloud cover, bathing Brahma Temple in a satiny glow while the surrounding formations are dappled by shadows. An Indiana man watches and wonders whether it is the single most beautiful sight he has ever seen.

3:36 PM — A couple from Missouri celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary sitting on the rim, eating ice cream cones from Bright Angel Fountain.

3:42 PM — A park ranger and her equestrian partner, Rio, stop to talk to a family about the desert bighorn sheep they can see from the rim. The kids pose for photos with Rio and give him lots of love.

3:51 PM — During a program on California condors, two of the impressive birds fly past. The park ranger conducting the program wisely takes credit for the visual aids.


4:00 PM — A Phantom Ranch park ranger begins a program in the amphitheater about water conservation.

4:12 PM — A sudden monsoon drives visitors into Grand Canyon Visitor Center. The movie theater fills, and the line to the information desk backs up the length of the building.

4:23 PM — A park ranger roving the campground at Desert View tells visitors about the sunset talk happening that evening. At one stop he hears a Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake shaking its tail.

5:48 PM — As quickly as it began, the rain ends. The buildings in the Village nearly empty as everyone hurries to the rim to watch the shifting pattern of sun and clouds, light and shadows reinventing the canyon right before their eyes.

6:07 PM — A bartender at Yavapai Tavern pours another local Arizona beer for a guest.

6:30 PM — Employees from different departments of the park gather for a weekly volleyball game.

6:41 PM — Over plates of salmon tostadas at El Tovar Hotel, two old college friends compare aches and pains acquired from their backpacking trip to Horseshoe Mesa.

6:47 PM — A river guide serves a cake baked in a Dutch oven to visitors rafting the Colorado river.

7:11 PM — Although the sky is mostly clear, a few low-lying clouds linger. They seem to go up in flames as the sun slips below the horizon. Bands of red and orange streak the sky, dancing across the formations below. Spontaneous applause is heard from several viewpoints. The sun has set at Grand Canyon.

7:13 PM — With lavish sky and a color-streaked canyon as a backdrop, a young man from Wisconsin proposes to his girlfriend. She tearfully accepts, thus ensuring the couple an impressively romantic engagement story.

8:00 PM — A park ranger on the North Rim welcomes visitors to the evening program in the Grand Canyon Lodge auditorium.

8:26 PM — Wildlife staff net bats to determine if white-nose syndrome is in the park.

9:11 PM — Unable to sleep after an amazing Grand Canyon day, an aspiring 12-year-old poet scribbles in her notebook at Maswik Lodge.

9:39 PM — A family from Phoenix stands at Mather Point gazing skyward and for the very first time sees the Milky Way.

10:06 PM — The musician at Bright Angel Lounge launches into an obscure Bob Dylan tune, and without a word two friends at the front table smile and clink their glasses.

11:59 PM — A coyote lopes across bare stone, pausing near the rim to sniff the breeze wafting out of the canyon. She glances at a slice of moon, yips twice, and trots off.

No one knows what she said.


Not bad for a fluff piece.


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One of the many intriguing places at Grand Canyon is the remote area at the west end of the North Rim known as Toroweap or Tuweep. This quiet, lonely place averages eight visitors per day. That’s 3,000 people per year out of Grand Canyon’s total of five million annual visitors.

Most people use the terms Toroweap and Tuweep (Tu-veep) interchangeably, but there’s a technical difference.

Toroweap refers to various named landforms — Toroweap Valley, Toroweap Point, Toroweap Lake, and Toroweap Overlook (the latter being a spot at the rim where the Colorado River is 3,000 feet below you, straight down). In Paiute, Toroweap means “dry valley” or “barren valley.”

Tuweep is the general spot on the map — a scattered settlement, if you can call it that, consisting of a small ranger station, the ranger’s residence, a few outbuildings, a Park Service airstrip, a primitive campground, and half a dozen trails of various lengths and degrees of difficulty. Tuweep is a Paiute word for “the earth.”

I’ve been to Toroweap twice. My first trip, in April 2000, was a four-day camping and hiking trip with the Grand Canyon Field Institute. Experienced guides made all the arrangements, provided transportation, and watched out for us. The trip was deceptively easy.

My second visit was an ill-fated solo hike in September 2001, cut short in dramatic fashion when I got food poisoning. The experience was sobering and scary.

I think of Toroweap/Tuweep as having four defining features.

The first is its remote location, at the end of a treacherous washboard road, 60 miles from the nearest pavement, 75 miles from the nearest town. The odds are high that your vehicle will have a flat tire, maybe two, somewhere along the way.


Inching along the road to Tuweep.

The second feature is the lack of services. There is no water, food, gas, lodging, phone service, or internet connection. You bring everything you need, and you solve your own problems. Yes, the ranger station is connected to park headquarters by radio, but the ranger station is six miles from the campground and the overlook.

Feature three is the scenery. The views of Toroweap Valley, the inner canyon, the river, and the ancient lava flows are truly spectacular. They will give you goosebumps.


Looking east/upstream from Toroweap Overlook.


The downstream view from Toroweap Overlook showing Lava Falls, the baddest rapid on the river. Covering the right bank: its namesake lava flow.

The fourth defining feature is historical: the story of John Hauert Riffey, who served as the sole park ranger at Tuweep from 1942 until 1980. A career of 38 years at one of the loneliest, most isolated places on the map.

Tuweep is stark desert country. The area is both bleak and beautiful, a mix of sagebrush, yucca, cacti, piñon pine, and rock. The weather, summer and winter, often is extreme.

Toroweap Lake is normally dry. Water collects there, and in scattered pockets among the rocks, only briefly after a storm.


The Tuweep campground.


The Tuweep Ranger Station.

John H. Riffey from Durango, Colorado, held degrees in forestry and range management when, in 1942, he accepted a ranger position at Grand Canyon National Monument. When he and his wife Laura arrived at Tuweep, they used firewood to heat the ranger’s residence, cooked on a gas stove, and collected rainwater and snowmelt in cisterns. They had no electricity and no refrigerator. Their nearest neighbor was a rancher who lived 20 miles north.

Under circumstances that might drive others mad, John and Laura were comfortable and content at Tuweep.

Riffey’s job was to take care of anything that needed attention. He repaired whatever broke, maintained the campground, greeted visitors, pulled vehicles from the mud, put out wildfires, and collected trash.

His equipment included a road grader to repair the local roads after storms. He kept records about the local flora and fauna. He submitted the reports demanded by the park bureaucracy.

Laura took an interest in the area’s birds, native and migratory. She had no training in such things, but for years, she kept detailed records of her observations. Her notes are considered scientifically important and are preserved in the park’s archives.

In 1943, John was drafted into the Army, and he served for 17 months as a medical technician on a hospital ship. After the war ended, John and Laura returned at Tuweep.

The years passed, and John did his job well. He received regular commendations and awards, while simultaneously turning down promotions that would require him to relocate.

By the late 1950s, John had become known around the Park Service for his dedication, hard work, and unusually long service at the same location. Normally, rangers take new assignments every few years.

At one point, the park superintendent ordered Riffey to accept a transfer, on the grounds that rotating to new assignments was what park rangers did. Riffey refused.

The superintendent gave Riffey a choice: leave Tuweep or face dismissal. When Riffey chose dismissal, the superintendent backed down. Riffey was quietly cheered by rangers throughout the Park Service. His status as a living legend was strengthened.


Ranger John H. Riffey.

Laura, who had several health issues, died in 1962. John stayed on the job. He said he had no problem living alone, although he enjoyed greeting visitors. “You like people if you are not overrun with them,” he explained.

He told a reporter, “My only contribution to society is trying to keep this place just like it is.”

Riffey may have been content with his solitude, but he didn’t remain a bachelor for long. In the spring of 1964, a graduate student from the University of Utah, Meribeth Mitchell, came to Tuweep to study the vegetation. She was 40, John was 53.

After her trip, they corresponded often. She returned to Tuweep in the fall, after which the correspondence continued. They were married in 1965.

Meribeth Riffey kept her job teaching biology at Western Washington University, north of Seattle, but she spent spring and summer at Tuweep. John scheduled his vacations in winter and spent them with Meribeth.

Sometime in the late 1960s, John took flying lessons and purchased a second-hand Piper Cub. He named the aircraft Pogo. A wooden enclosure to block the strong winds served as a hangar. Riffey nailed a sign to the enclosure that read


With Pogo, John was able to patrol thousands of acres around Tuweep and make quick hops to civilization for mail and groceries. He was known to fly through Grand Canyon below the rim. Meribeth was a regular passenger.


Ranger Riffey standing next to Pogo.

In July 1980, as John and a friend were hauling water to Tuweep from a nearby spring, John’s vision blurred, and he became weak. It was the beginning of a heart attack. The friend took the wheel and tried to reach the hospital in St. George, but John died on the way. He would have turned 69 in August.

With Meribeth’s permission, the park superintendent lobbied his superiors to suspend the rules and allow John to be buried at Tuweep. The request was granted. A spot with a sweeping view of the valley was chosen along the road between the ranger station and Toroweap Overlook.

This is inscribed on his monument:

John H. Riffey
‘The Last Old Time Ranger’

The man who could spend a lifetime on the rim and not waste a minute
National Park Ranger, Tuweep from 1942 to 1980
Good Samaritan, gentle friend, teller of tall tales

Meribeth died in 1993 and is buried beside him.


When I ventured out to Toroweap in 2000 and 2001, I knew nothing about John, Laura, and Meribeth Riffey. If the instructors at Grand Canyon Field Institute mentioned them, it didn’t register.

That’s a shame. I have vivid memories of Toroweap and wonderful images in my mind’s eye, but knowing this part of the human history adds to my appreciation of the place.

It also makes me regret that I missed a chance to visit the graves and pay my respects.




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Old Man Halate

This story requires a preface, so bear with me.

The home of the Zuni people is the Pueblo of Zuni in western New Mexico. The region around the pueblo has been the tribal home for 4,000 years.

One of the Zuni traditions is the carving of small figures called fetishes, which usually depict animals. The carvings are small, rarely exceeding a few inches long. They can be made of turquoise, shell, marble, pipestone, antler, or some other material.

Fetishes are symbolic in nature. To understand the concept, consider that in Zuni culture, the world is divided into six regions, each protected by a guardian animal.

The mountain lion guards the north, the bear guards the west, the badger the south, the wolf the east, the eagle the sky, and the mole the earth.

The guardians, and other animals, as well, are said to have certain innate strengths and qualities. The bear represents power from within, the badger represents perseverance, etc. A fetish, the Zuni believe, empowers its owner with the characteristics of the animal it depicts.

Over time, the carving of fetishes evolved from a ceremonial practice into an art form. Today, Zuni fetishes are very popular, like Hopi pottery and Navajo jewelry.

On my many trips to the Southwest over the years, I’ve brought home 13 fetishes. They range from simple to intricate, from so-so quality to impressive works of art.


A sampling of my Zuni fetishes.

I chose each one for its aesthetic appeal, not the symbolism. I liked them, and the price was right.

Which brings me to the point of all this: the story of my favorite fetish, a bear.

This bear:


When I spotted the carving in a shop in 1999, I did a double-take. What is going on here?

The thing looks like a grotesque hippo. The ears and facial features are askew. The craftsmanship is sloppy, almost laughable. Maybe, I thought, a child carved it.

Intrigued, I asked the owner of the shop. And, as you might expect, it was a fascinating story. This is what he told me:

The fetish is a bear. In most respects, it’s a traditional carving, down to the prayer bundle on its back and the use of coral and turquoise for the nose and eyes.

And, yes, the work is crude and a bit funky. That’s because it was done by an aging “master carver” who had lost his touch. His eyesight and dexterity, perhaps also his mental faculties, were failing.

Out of respect for the old fellow, friends and family said nothing. He continued carving, and everyone pretended his work was still fabulous.

The story was both plausible and appealing, and it made me see the fetish is a new light. I bought it for $26.00 and made a note of the name of the carver.

Years later, I Googled the name of the carver and learned that the shop owner’s story was partly correct, but not entirely.

The carver, now deceased, is a well known Zuni artist. He is a big deal these days among collectors.

Leonard Halate (pronounced Hal-ah-tee) was born in 1914, and he herded sheep most of his life. In the 1940s, his uncle taught him the art of carving. In the 1960s, Leonard finally got serious about it.

Most of his fetishes were, like my bear, crooked and crude. But the work of “Old Man Halate” had a folk-art quality that made it charming, popular, and soon, highly collectible.

One account said Leonard paid local children to bring him any dead bird they found. He used the claws as horns on his dinosaur fetishes, or as deer antlers or alligator teeth.

Leonard died in 2001. For a number of years afterward, some carvers took advantage of his popularity and mimicked his style. Halate knockoffs became common. I’m confident I have a genuine Halate, since I bought it well before he died.

Today, Leonard Halate fetishes can bring hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands. And someday, my heirs might put my lop-sided bear fetish on the market and make a $26 investment pay off nicely.

But, for now, I like having the little thing at home where I can enjoy it. That silly expression, with two nostrils and one eye lined up on the same plane, amuses me greatly.


Old Man Halate.


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Rocky Raccoon

At the moment, I’m on a road trip. I’m heading west to do some hiking at Grand Canyon, and I’ll drive back to Georgia along the Gulf Coast — maybe go swimming and get some seafood and what-not.

This trip is unique, and quite memorable, because I’m driving an RV. It’s a Dodge van, specially tricked out with all the amenities one needs on the road: refrigerator, microwave, sink, shower, toilet, stove, heat, A/C, TV, and DVD player.

So, at the end of the day’s drive, I’m obliged to find an RV park instead of a motel. So far, things have worked out fine. I haven’t been forced to settle for a Walmart parking lot.

A couple of days into the trip, I rolled into a state park in central New Mexico. The facility looked clean, the rates were low, the weather was nice. So far, so good.

Shortly after hooking up the power, I decided to check out the bath house. If it turned out to be dirty or otherwise inadequate, I would shower the next morning in the RV.

The bath house was about 50 yards or so from my campsite, on the far side of a playground. Next to it were three large dumpsters, the kind made of heavy steel with plastic lids. In this case, the plastic lids were missing.

Judging from the scratching sounds coming from one of the dumpsters, a critter of some kind was inside having a meal.

The dumpsters were about five feet tall, and I had no idea what sort of critter was inside. As quietly as possible, I approached the dumpster so I could find out.

But I wasn’t quiet enough. When I got to within 10 feet, the scratching stopped.

Holding my breath, I veeeeery slowly moved forward and peered over the edge.

Inside, a large raccoon was looking back at me.

As I hastily retreated, the banging inside the dumpster resumed. This time, it sounded less like a raccoon rummaging through bags of garbage and more like a raccoon trying unsuccessfully to climb out.

This, I thought, is the park’s problem, not mine. After checking out the bath house — which was in A-1 shape — I walked over to the park office to tell them about the marooned raccoon.

“Excuse me,” I said to one of the two ladies at the front desk, “Are you folks good at rescuing wildlife in distress?” I told them about the raccoon.

The ladies gave each other a knowing look. “That’s Rocky,” said one of them wearily. “We have to rescue him from one dumpster or another practically every day.”

“Rocky can get inside a dumpster in a heartbeat,” said the other lady. “Our maintenance people have to drop everything and go get him out.”

“Well, it’s their own fault he keeps doing it,” said the first lady. “Rocky knows they’ll come and get him out!”

“What they do,” explained the second lady, “Is put a 2×4 into the dumpster at an angle. Rocky scampers up the 2×4, and off he runs.”

“It’s a real problem,” said the first lady. “A never-ending problem.”

“Just once, they ought to leave him in there for a good long time,” said the second lady. “Like, two days, maybe three!”

“Now, Helen, Rocky don’t mean no harm,” said the first lady. “We can’t treat him mean like that.”

“I know. But that would sure teach him a lesson!”

Five minutes later, I watched as one of the maintenance guys placed an eight-foot 2×4 into the dumpster at an angle and stepped back. In a split second, Rocky raced nimbly up the 2×4, hopped to the ground, and sped off through the underbrush.

That happened at about 4PM. The next morning, I arose, ate some breakfast, grabbed a towel and my toiletry kit, and walked across the playground to the bath house.

As I neared the building, I could hear Rocky inside the dumpster, scratching through the garbage.

Rocky Raccoon-2

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“The Couve”

At the western end of the Columbia River Gorge, 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, in a wide valley at the foot of the Cascade Range, the cities of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, face each other across the Columbia River.

On the south bank is Portland, population 588,000. On the north bank is Vancouver, population 162,000.

According to the local joke, the city is Vancouver (not the one in British Columbia), Washington (not the District of Columbia), in Clark County (not the one in Las Vegas), across the river from Portland (not the one in Maine).

To the locals, Vancouver is “the Couve.”

When Europeans first arrived there in 1775, the area was inhabited by an estimated 80,000 Native Americans, mostly of the Chinook and Klickitat nations. By the time the Lewis & Clark expedition camped there in 1805, half the natives were dead from smallpox.

By 1850, smallpox, measles, malaria, and influenza had reduced the native population to a few dozen miserable refugees whose land had been taken by the white settlers who brought the diseases.

But, hey — we Americans prefer to look forward, not backward, right?

Meriwether Lewis wrote that the Vancouver area was “the only desired situation for settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.” High praise from a guy who had reason to know.

The location isn’t perfect. Rain is a frequent thing, and occasionally, an ice storm will shut the city down.

On the other hand, heavy snow is infrequent, and the Columbia River has been neutered and doesn’t flood anymore. And when the clouds go away, you can look up and see Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, and Mount Saint Helens, looming above in all their glory.

Today, Vancouver is a bona fide bedroom community of Portland, not only because of the relative sizes of the cities, but also for economic reasons.

In Oregon, the income tax is high, but the state levies no sales tax. In Washington, there is no income tax at all, but the sales tax is 6.5 percent.

Consequently, people shop in Portland to dodge the sales tax, and they live in Vancouver to avoid the income tax.

I got to know a bit about Vancouver in 2010, when I spent two weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest and used Vancouver as my base of operations.

Downtown Vancouver is attractive and pleasant. A long stretch of the riverfront is public space — incredibly, green and undeveloped — and accessible to the water‘s edge. I wandered along the bank for quite a distance in the company of joggers, picnickers, and several kids wading in the water as their moms looked on.


One day, I had possibly the best meal of my life at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in downtown Vancouver. It was a divinely flavorful seafood soup.

I have a weakness for Oriental seafood soup, and that soup was as the nectar of the gods. Every spoonful was sublime — an almost religious experience. Even now, the memory of it gives me pangs of delight.

But I digress.

The Couve is a very walkable city. The same day I had that marvelous soup, I wandered for over an hour around Esther Short Park, Vancouver’s main public park and town square, which is about five acres in size.

After the trip, I did some research and learned a few interesting things about the city and the park.

For one, I learned that over the last couple of decades, Vancouver has faced two chronic problems: slow economic decline (everyone shops in Portland) and the presence of homeless people, lots of ’em, in the downtown area.

For another, I learned that the public square in Esther Short Park is the oldest in the state. It is anchored by the Salmon Run Clock and Bell Tower, which features (in addition to the salmon running around the base) a glockenspiel that goes off three times a day and relates a Chinook tribal legend.

Clock tower

The park is named for Esther Short, the founding mother of Vancouver and a colorful and fascinating character. She, her husband Amos, and their children arrived there in 1845 and established a farm near the British Fort Vancouver.

The British army and its corporate ally, the Hudson’s Bay Company, were not pleased with their new neighbors. The British wanted to confine American settlements to the south bank of the river. They wanted Amos and Esther gone.

At one point, while Amos was away, British soldiers rounded up Esther and her children and set them adrift on the Columbia River in an oarless raft.

Esther managed to beach the raft, and no one was hurt. Amos undoubtedly went bonkers when he returned, and, yes, the situation went downhill from there.

According to one version of events, the Shorts were squatters on British land. When the legitimate owner of the property went to California on business, he left his caretaker, David Gardner, in charge.

There was a confrontation. Amos shot and killed Gardner, then promptly went to court and filed a claim on the land in his own name.

A second version is that ownership of the land was unclear. Gardner, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, tore down a fence Amos had built and ordered the Shorts off the land. Shots were exchanged, and Gardner was killed.

Amos, then, was either a murdering claim-jumper, or he acted to defend his home and family. He was, in fact, tried for murder and acquitted.

Not long after the trial, Amos drowned when his ship capsized at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Esther carried on and did quite well. Over time, she opened a restaurant and a couple of hotels. She also donated several strategic pieces of property to the new city of Vancouver.

One piece she donated in 1855 was the land for Esther Short Park. Another was the long strip of undeveloped waterfront.

Esther Short

The unsinkable Esther Short.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. By that time, Esther Short Park was old and shabby and largely populated by street people — the homeless, the mentally ill, hippies, panhandlers, bag ladies, eccentrics, and etcetera.

In 1996, a newspaper article named the park as “the nucleus of the majority of emergency 911 calls in the city.”

One day in 1997, while the mayor of Vancouver was attending an event designed to help make the park a more family-friendly place, he was rammed from behind by a street person pushing a shopping cart.

The angry assailant threatened the mayor and warned him to leave.

That did it. The man was arrested, and public support surged for efforts to take back and clean up the park.

My guess is, the police also began to crack heads and otherwise make the park less appealing to the “undesirables.”

Slowly, things turned around. By 2007, Vancouver and Esther Short Park were winning awards for excellence.

I should mention, however, that the park today is not transient-free.

During my afternoon stroll there in 2010, I noticed several unkempt or colorfully-dressed persons who were not tourists, business types, moms with strollers, or kids playing in the fountains.

In fact, for a solid half hour, one woman pushed her shopping cart slowly back and forth along the sidewalk while shouting at the top of her voice, addressing no one in particular. Profanities and incoherent babble rained down in all directions.

The moms and tourists and business types completely ignored the woman.

I suppose they can afford to be charitable. The park now belongs to them.




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As a red-blooded American sports fan, you no doubt are familiar with the “Curse of the Bambino.” In 1919, according to legend, the Boston Red Sox brought a curse upon the team by selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. The Red Sox did not win a World Series for the next 86 years.

You probably also know about the “Curse of the Billy Goat” visited upon the Chicago Cubs in 1945. It happened when a local bar owner and his pet goat were booted out of Wrigley Field during game four of the World Series.

“Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,“ the angry bar owner declared. The Cubs haven’t won so much as a National League pennant since.

Compared to those world-class curses, the “Curse of Billy Penn” in Philadelphia might seem rather bush-league. But it lasted for two decades, and as soon as an atonement of sorts was made, the curse ended.

William NMI Penn (1644-1718) was an English Quaker and real estate speculator who founded the American colony of Pennsylvania. Penn is widely lionized in the Keystone State. Indeed, no state is as closely associated with an individual as is Penn with Pennsylvania.

William Penn founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682, and appropriately, a massive bronze statue of Penn stands atop Philadelphia City Hall. The 37-foot-tall statue, created in 1894 by Alexander Calder, cuts a dashing figure above the city.


For almost a century, Penn’s statue was the tallest structure in Philadelphia. The city fathers kept it that way, turning down requests for new buildings taller than 548 feet, enabling Penn to preside proudly over the City of Brotherly Love.

In the mid-1980s, however, the city fathers caved. A rich bigshot was allowed to build One Liberty Place, which, at 945 feet, dwarfed the statue of Penn, big-time. William Penn no longer reigned over the city skyline. Worse, bigger and taller skyscrapers soon followed.

By allowing the statue to be thus diminished, so the tale is told, Philadelphia brought upon itself the “Curse of Billy Penn.”

Whether the curse was visited upon the city by the ghost of William Penn or by divine providence, it is said to have prevented the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia 76ers, and Philadelphia Flyers from winning a single championship for the next 21 years.

Some say the curse even affected horseracing. In 2006, a Philadelphia-based thoroughbred named Barbaro was favored to win the triple crown — until he fractured a leg during the Preakness, and his career was ended.

The curse came to an end, we are told, thanks to the communications behemoth Comcast.

Headquartered in Philadelphia since 1969, Comcast began construction of the opulent new Comcast Center in 2005. The new headquarters building would become the newest tallest skyscraper in the city.

In June 2007, during the topping-out ceremony, a steel beam was raised on the roof of the 974-foot building.

The dignitaries and construction workers signed the beam, and, in accordance with tradition, an American flag and a small tree were affixed.

Then, two workers stepped forward and attached to the beam a 25-inch-tall statue of William Penn. A whopping twenty-five inches tall.

They did so at the direction of Comcast EVP David Cohen, who had proposed the idea when construction began.

Cohen had intoned for the cameras, “Let’s once again restore Billy Penn to his rightful place and the highest location in Philadelphia.”

You’d think a company with a net worth of $73 billion could do better by William Penn than erecting a toy statue, but that’s what Billy got from Comcast.

Nevertheless, it apparently sufficed.

One year later, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.

Penn’s statue atop City Hall has suffered repeated indignities over the years…

The Philadelphia skyline, showing One Liberty Place (with the red dot), City Hall (center), and the Comcast Center looming at right.

The Philadelphia skyline, showing One Liberty Place (with the red dot), City Hall (center), and the Comcast Center looming at right.

The curse-ending mini-statue of William Penn affixed to the beam on top of the Comcast Center.

The curse-ending mini-statue of William Penn affixed to the beam on top of the Comcast Center.

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