Broken Ribs and a
Tale of Adventure in Arizona
is experienced in many ways: the available adjectives are dull,
throbbing, achy, numbing, sharp, but today I'm gonna use excruciating.
This is Valentines' Day, 1998, and it's the first time that I've
ever been on a snowboard. It won't be the last, either, but this
is one that I'll always remember.
Afternoon First of all: Why am I motoring into the wilderness
of Arizona this late Friday instead of anticipating spending Valentines'
Day with my beloved? Well, first off, no beloved. Secondly, this
is the first time that the lab has given its employees the Presidents'
Day holiday so this is a very rare 3-day weekend. And I need the
break. This is also Friday the thirteenth. That in itself lends
a special aura to the whole affair.
belatedly left LA, held back from my nominal early afternoon departure
by problems with some spacecraft hardware at work. I was supposed
to and had been looking forward to meeting an e-friend in Phoenix
for dinner, but due to the late departure that sadly ended up
being a wash. By the time I arrived at the I17/I10 interchange
just west of downtown Phoenix, it was 11:30pm and I was still
nearly two hours from my final destination, Flagstaff.
is one of the crown jewels of Arizona, and the nicest town in
North America. Centrally located to all of my haunts (Grand Canyon,
Skull Valley, Cedar Mesa, Poison Spring Canyon, No Mans Mesa,
Lake Powell, Tarantula Mesa, Paria River, Skeleton Mesa, Marble
Canyon, Verde River valley, Bloody Basin, Coconino Plateau, Dark
Canyon Plateau, Little Death Hollow, Roof Butte, the Chuskas and
the Lukachukais, the Mogollon Rim, Painted Desert and Lithodendron
Wash, Secret Mountain, Crazy Basin, Defiance Plateau, the high
peaks of the Kachina Wilderness, etc., to name a few), I always
end up gravitating to Flag every vacation. So what better a place
to learn snowboarding than my favorite place, thus affording me
extra karma just in case. And, apparently, I would need that!
staying at the Monte Vista Hotel, an old dive in the even older
downtown. Built somewhere around 1925, it was home to many famous
travelers who rode the Santa Fe Super Chief across the southwest
either on their way to Los Angeles or Chicago. The Monte Vista
is quite a place. I am staying in the Governor's Suite, Room 209,
which fronts on San Francisco Street immediately north of the
intersection of Aspen, and with a fine view out the window of
Babbett Brothers emporium across the street. The paint and plaster
in the room is bubbled, cracking and peeling, and I help it along
a little occasionally by pulling off a particularly huge piece
of cracked plaster/paint laminate. The bed is ok, the sheets are
washer-worn but clean and clean-smelling, the bedspread is unraveling,
but in a twisted way it's a cool place to stay. The second-hand
smoke from the room next door though is a bit annoying the whole
carpet is stained and worn, the edges curling up here and there,
the TV is working good enough to get the weather forecast and
relentless hours of Hard Copy and Entertainment Tonight or something
like that. The phone is attached to the wall, and requires a little
surgery before I am able to make use of the phone line to collect
my e-mail via the computer. The bathroom is clean, a little small,
but with plenty of hot water and the linen is changed every day,
so I can survive that. There's a electric baseboard heater that
I tend to leave on the whole time, as it doesn't put out too much
heat, and it takes a long time to get the room to be a reasonable
temperature. All in all, I probably won't stay here again, but
the experience is one that must be had.
thing that has always drawn me to it is the big neon sign up on
the roof, the one that can be seen from across town. Flag has
a few of these, but this is the largest. According to a friend
of mine, the hotel has several haunted rooms and she has included
it on her company's southwestern tours along with other spots
like Area 51 in Nevada. Pretty august company if you ask me. If
I had known about the haunted rooms beforehand, I would have made
sure to ask for one!
that long drive and late arrival, morning comes early, especially
when there's a 10am snowboard class that I've gotta make. So,
getting out of my hotel around 9, I whipped on over to the awesome
Macy's, a great little bakery/coffee house/soup spot over on Beaver
St. Getting a triple Cappucino del San Francisco, a blackberry
danish and a blueberry scone (both quite large) to go, I
jacked into the highway up to the Arizona Snowbowl, the local
ski park. The morning is splendid, the sky clear and deep blue
with only a hint of clouds to the west. It's about 10-12 miles
from downtown Flag on US180, driving northwest toward the Grand
Canyon, to the turnoff to the snowbowl. From there, the road climbs
steeply up the side of the now-extinct volcano, from the 7500'
elevation in the valley floor to the 9,000'+ elevation at the
Hart Prairie Lodge parking area, where I would purchase my ticket
and join the neophyte snowboarders.
San Francisco Mountains, upon which this skiing facility sits,
are the highest remnants of a regional zone of volcanic activity
that is currently more or less dormant. The San Franciscos here
are the remains of a single massive volcano that must have blown
its top a long time ago and left the more or less circular rim
of peaks that surround the Kachina Wilderness. There is Humphreys,
the highest peak in all Arizona at approximately 12,633', and
Agazziz at 12,356'. The most recent volcanic activity in the area
is more than 800 years ago, with the creation of Sunset Crater
over to the east about 15 miles. Sunset is an impressive pile
of cinder, and dead-beautiful on a lae summer day with thunderclouds
all around and the smell of rain and lightning.
last time I'd been to the Bowl, it was June '95, and from there
I hiked to the top of Humphreys. It was a beautiful day, the air
fairly clear but too many clouds and too much sky-borne moisture
to see Utah, and while on the way back down the mountain I was
treated to a daytime fireworks show courtesy of the US Army at
the Navajo Army Depot, a munitions arsenal west of Flag about
10 miles. I had been feeling and hearing occasional dull thuds
during my climb, and on the way back down I had a clear view to
the south and got to actually see them lighting off some sort
of bomb. This they'd do every 15 minutes or so, and the fireball
and resulting concussion a minute or so later were very impressive.
here I am, at the ticket booth at the Ski Bowl, purchasing a snowboard
lesson and a lift ticket package. It's a gorgeous day, temperature
in the low 40s, and not a bit of wind. There are clouds to the
west, a large storm is predicted for later this evening, and there
are plenty of people up here sharing the splendid weather and
slopes. I find that I'm about 20 minutes late for the lesson,
so I grab my ticket and hightail over to the slope between the
main lifts to find the rest of the enfant snowboarders. I find
Ken first, who directs me to Dave, who appears to be the central
focus for the lesson.
is a group of about 15 people, about 50/50 boy/girl, and the ages
appear to run from late teen to middle age (me). The talents appear
to be fairly broad-ranged also, with boarders who seem to be real
adept at this new sport to others who continue to try and try
just to stand up. I find myself a spot in the midst of them and
learn the fundamentals of clipping in to the board, making sure
that I always wear my leash (surfers used to call them "kook
cords"), when the board is off and not leashed to make sure
it's turned over so the bindings keep it from sliding down the
hill and skewering someone.
it's time to learn the basic moves: first the toe slide, then
the heel slide. Remember, you're standing pretty much sideways
on a snowboard. Therefore your toes occupy one edge of the board,
your heels rests near the other edge. The way you choose to orient
them (toes pointed slightly forward and on left edge or on the
right edge is your call. In my first attempt at this, I can't
honestly say that I find any difference, because I was so bad
in the first place. So for me, the right front toe was pointed
slightly forward, the left foot was the trailing foot and toed
nearly athwartship. If this was supposed to be comfortable, it
didn't feel it. I think I have more work to do on establishing
the proper foot positioning. So anyway, snowboarding seems to
be oriented toward the concepts of direction defined by heel and
toe. A heel slide is where the boarder is looking upslope, and
the board is slipping sideways in the direction of the heel, or
downhill. A toe slide is just the opposite.
the first thing taught was how to stand up from a sitting position.
That wasn't so difficult, and soon I was toe- and heel-sliding
with the rest, and discovering that there was a lot of similarity
to skateboarding and surfing, both sports at which I've never
been more than a rank beginner.
next thing to learn was the traverse, which as you might imagine
is moving sideways across the slope rather than straight down
it. This is a natural consequence of being on a board, and in
fact one that can rapidly turn a gentle drift on the board into
a major downhill flameout. But soon, we were all (well, mostly
all) able to slide downhill, traverse to and fro, and execute
the "falling leaf" motion prized by our handlers. Another
thing that I quickly learned was that the board goes wherever
you look. So, if you wanna go down, look that way. If you wanna
stop, look upslope to reduce speed and then level out to stop.
Kinda cool, and not the way I remember skiing.
was the need to learn a real turn. This requires a little forward
momentum, then comes the hard part: begin the turn downhillby
looking that way, get the weight up on the front foot, as the
board begins to point straight downhill, come off the upslope
edge and continue to rotate, edgeless, until you aim where you
wanna go, then push hard to dig in the upslope edge again. Works
like a charm except that nearly all of us when pressed to do it
would either not rotate enough so we'd quickly divebomb our way
downhill or we'd rotate enough but instead of digging in the upslope
edge we'd dig in our toes or heels and fall over. I was firmly
established in both camps. I kept thinking of that line in the
movie "Better off Dead", where, atop the precipitous
mountain, the character Lane Meyer is instructed to "go that
way, very fast - if something gets in your way, turn." It's
the turning part that's got me stymied.
though, I am able to complete a turn about half the time. Unfortunately,
almost immediately after this triumph I am idly doing a heel slide
and accidently digging in the heel edge, fall over backwards,
landing smack on my butt. When I fall, my torso to leg angle is
90 degrees, and so when I hit the ground the shock goes right
up my spine into my skull. I am stunned, my lower back is in so
much pain that I cannot think clearly, I cannot speak except to
utter those famous words that all males must say, even when on
their deathbeds: "It's ok. I'm all right." It's several
minutes until I can stand up again, and breath more easily. Jeez,
that hurt. The pain is so intense that even after I regain my
legs, I am on the verge of shock. I do some stretches and deep-breathing
exercises, slowly regaining my balance and orientation, and can't
seem to find anything immediately wrong save the feeling that
I have been kick-boxed in both kidneys. Ken comes over and checks
up on me, worried because the fall I had was one that occurs to
snowboarders and can be quite dangerous. (I will appreciate this
a few more attempts (and some successful) at turns, Dave and Ken
declare us ready for the next episode of learning snowboarding:
the ski lift. The ski lift is a particularly tricky thing as the
snowboarder is hampered by having to drag a snowboarded foot behind
the unshod one. It's like walking with a mammoth clown shoe and
not nearly as much fun. However, I am able to get on the lift
without too much difficulty and I meet my liftmate Derrick, a
second-time snowboarder and computer science/engineering student
at NAU. We spend the next 7 minutes or so discussing our adventures
on the board, and I also find out that he's originally from Orange
County, Ca, then moved to Phoenix about 4 years ago, then to Flag
for school. He indicates that he had not taken a lesson the first
time he waso n the board, a couple weeks ago, and had fallen so
many times and gotten hammered so hard that it took him a week
or two to recover from his injuries. He is convinced this time
that he is ready for the rigors of the board, and will have a
great time on the mountain today.
we reach the top of the lift, I am more or less successful in
getting off the lift, and only fall once or twice in doing so.
I discover another problem for snowboarders and one that I'm sure
gives skiers another chance to blast away at the ranks: the problem
of moving on near-flat surfaces while on the board. No momentum,
no go. So, out comes one foot and again I slog, neanderthalish,
Igorish, dragging the right foot as I limp toward the minor slope
that will eventually lead to the real downhill. In so doing, I
fall another couple of times, landing on my hands now. Someone's
mother is here too, first time on the board, and she has an annoying
habit of caroming into me. So I spend about half my time avoiding
her and the other half avoiding premature death or dismemberment.
I'm now to the point where the slope begins, I can pick up speed,
the shock of the earlier fall is only a dull roar masking my senses,
and I begin my slow descent on the hard-pack face of the slope.
Note that this is a pretty minor slope, a little more exciting
than a bunny slope, no moguls, no particular dangers, the killer
trees safely to the sides of the trail. I eventually make it down
out of this chute to the top of a vast open area, at least 100
meters wide, and 500 meters long, where I begin with slow traverses
and the old falling leaf manuevers and soon get into real turns
(ok, really retarded ones, but successful) and bits where I get
the confidence to crouch down, surfer-style, and drag a finger
in the face of the slope above me while ripping across at a nice
clip. Way fun. Nice day. Hey - look at that babe over ----- BLAMMO!!
time I've managed a chest plant at 15 miles per. I musta caught
a downhill edge at the wrong moment (every moment's the wrong
moment) because I come to an almost instant halt and hinge myself
right into the hardpack snow. Again, I knock all the wind out
of me (what little there's left), am delerious with pain, disoriented,
and get up pretty quick, but not quick enough to avoid a few souls
who come by to ask if I'm ok. (Actually, this is one thing that
I've noticed: people here really do seem to care, just a bit,
about their fellow human.)
I'm really hurting. The pain from this fall, concentrated in my
chest (and feeling like a couple of broken ribs), and the pain
in my lower back have conspired to make me decide to take a respite
from the slope. I board down to the Hart Prairie Lodge, disencumber
myself of the board, and go inside to warm up a little and walk
off the pain.
evening First I stopped by the Flagstaff Brewing Company and
tasted one of their Agazziz ales, then wandered around for a while
in the falling snow until I stepped into the Collins Irish Pub,
where I had a simple hamburger, a vodka martini and met Chet Green,
the publicity director for the local radio stations, and for the
pub. It's a small world because 15 years ago he lived a few miles
from where I live currently, and he became a success up here,
so I suppose there's hope for me!
After Collins, I found the Mogollon Brewery over on Agazziz St.,
met a great bunch of people, had a bar discussion about kilograms
and liters and the merits and origins of both the english and
the metric systems of measurement. It's not often you overhear
a conversation in a decidedly eclectic brew pub that looks like
the inside of a garage where the subject of discussion is the
difference between weight and mass. Mogollon brews a fine Wapati
pale, a good amber and a stout which I did not try. John, a pre-med
student at NAU, invited me to a party out south of town. Also,
he strongly recommended the Sun Sausage factory down the street
as, he said, he was from Wisconsin and knew his bratwurst. Strong
Leaving Mogollon for a while, the next venue was Charly's on Leroux.
Just up the street from my favorite Flagstaff pizza haunt, Alpine
Pizza, the Cadillac Angels were on stage tonight. No cover, crowded,
they were just getting into a serious set of Link Wray tunes when
I came through the door.
The Cabo Cantina was crowded and disco throbbed and wild women
from the crowd were dancing atop the bar.
ended up back at the Mogollon where I danced to some great funk
by a local band Short Bus.
dry up at 1am here, so after Short Bus closed up the Mogollon,
I went for a last stroll around the neighborhood before returning
to the hotel.
morning there's over 6 inches of snow on the ground, and the
wind blew hard enough during the night that some snow accumulated
on the inside sill of the window that was left cracked slightly
open for ventilation. I get up late, still in a bit of pain from
the bruised chest, but shower and watch a little article on a
family of bluegrass singers. What's so interesting about that?
They're all Japanese, and live in Japan. Very talented girls.
at the truck, it is buried with between 5-10 inches of snow on
every surface. After scraping off the glass, I drop it into 4wd
and prepare for my quest for breakfast. It takes me east on old
66 all the way to the east end of town, but I decide not to go
to the Crown Railroad restaurant and instead opt for the journey
about 9 miles south to Mountainaire and the Mountainaire Tavern.
40 and then 17 are very snow-paved. The snow, while scraped, still
remains as a thin, hard ice layer that has been sprinkled with
gravel but holds little traction. So we travel slow, making no
sudden movements. At the Mountainaire offramp, a woman in a small
Jimmy has apparently attempted an early departure from the freeway
by leaving the freeway about 100 yards before the official offramp.
She's been here for a while as there's now a tow truck with the
driver out scratching his head on the best way to extricate her.
finally find the tavern around 10am, I find a few vehicles outside
(worktrucks and jeeps, mostly). This is a good sign. Inside it
truly is a tavern, with a long, doglegged wooden bar at one side
and a fenced off seating area Dale Earnhardt is leading in the
Daytona 500, the menu is good, most of the people here are seated
at the bar, having breakfast of just coffee, don't see any alcohol
yet. They're all watching the 500, and cheering on their favorites.
I have an omelet with sausage, bacon and swiss cheese, a side
of a very large fresh buttermilk biscuit and real sausage gravy,
and coffee. The food is good, the home-style potatoes especially
tasty, the service friendly and attentive, and the bartendress
knows all the locals. Note: In addition to the plentiful chunks
of sausage, sausage gravy should have plenty of black pepper.
to pack up and get back on the road. Where to now? Don't know
if I want to do the snowboarding thing today - it is much colder
out, I still ache enough that moving my torso or breathing deeply
hurts. Let's get going and see what transpires. Soon I'm through
Flag and about 6 miles west of the I40/17 interchange. Out on
a freshly plowed dirt road, I find a wide spot to pull over and
park to enjoy the blowing, drifting snow. There are many small
black-hooded birds, sparrow-sized, out on the snow, foraging.
For what, I don't know. Soon, a woman on cross-country skis shusses
past, going south along the road. I enjoy the snowfall, watch
the BNSF trains rolling past a few hundred yards north, and end
up napping for a while.
falls heavily like the snow. The pain in my chest and lower back
makes it difficult to think much, so I go back into town to walk
around the streets, maybe take a few pictures and do a little