Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Life in Isla Mujeres

Eloy at the beach on Isla Mujeres, with Scout in the background chewing on a coconut
As a contrast to my post from a couple of weeks ago, Life in Grand Junction, here are my observations on life in Isla Mujeres, based on the month we lived there with our dog, Scout, in September and October of 2009:

The flash of red behind my eyelids wakes me up an instant before the thunder crashes and brings me fully awake. It is early dawn and another thunderstorm is moving through. I hear the heavy raindrops drumming on the awning that covers our rooftop patio. I hear the hum of the air conditioner above the bed and the soft clank-clank of the ceiling fan in the next room. Scout shifts and resettles on his mat next to the bed. I reach out to put my arm around Nan but she is already up.

I smell coffee brewing and think about getting up to get a cup. I hear the startup tone of the laptop and lift my head to see Nan's face illuminated by its glow. Her email account is her connection to home. Careful not to step on Scout, I get up, put on a bathrobe and go out to the kitchen. Nan greets me from her perch on a bar stool in front of the laptop and we comment on the weather. It looks as though the storm will pass soon. The windows are fogged with condensation on the inside and streaked with rain on the outside.

I get a cup of coffee and sit in a wicker chair in the living area with my book, Ken Follett's World Without End. After a few paragraphs, I am engrossed in the story. I reach for my cup several minutes later but the coffee is cold. I look up to see that Nan is dressed for a walk. I look outside and see that it has stopped raining. Steam is rising from the asphalt and from the beach across the street. I put the book down and go into the bedroom to get dressed. I put on lightweight nylon shorts, a beach shirt, a baseball cap and boat shoes. Sensing an imminent walk, Scout rouses, stretches and goes to the kitchen for a drink from his water bowl. I clip him to his leash and we leave our cool, dry penthouse apartment at Color de Verano.

The heat and humidity in the hallway are intense, like entering a steam room. I start to sweat. We hurry down the stairs and out into the street. A light breeze rustles the palm trees along Avenida Rueda Medina. We jump puddles crossing the street and kick off our shoes on the beach. The sand is pockmarked like the moon from the rain. Its thin crust is wet and cool, but the sand beneath is dry and warm. We walk to the water and cool our feet. Four miles across the water, I can barely see the buildings of Cancun through the haze and humidity. Scout wades out far enough to get his tummy wet in the small lapping waves, then leaps back out and shakes water all over us.

We turn north and walk along the water's edge. It is only 7:00 but young men are already out cleaning the beach and positioning beach chairs and umbrellas for the tourists. We wish them buenos dias and they smile. Some gesture to their chairs, though the sun is still low and barely poking through the clouds. Luego, we say. We reach the furthest northwest corner of the island. The water is choppy from the meeting of the currents. Giant black cloth tubes full of sand have been placed here as breakwaters to prevent all the sand from washing over to Cancun. We climb over them and turn east. The water is calmer on this side and Scout wades out far enough to swim a bit and cool down.

Up the beach, in the distance, we see a pack of feral dogs. We do not want Scout to interact with them for fear of a fight or what he might catch. The dogs spot us and start to approach. Nan walks ahead to shoo them away. Off to the right, where a street deadends at the beach, we hear a voice call to the dogs. We see a one-armed man standing next to an old bicycle, smoking a cigarette. The dogs run to him and he rides away with them in pursuit, the cigarette dangling from his mouth.

We reach the island's northeast corner, where the Hotel Na Balam is located. We used to stay there but we don't anymore. The first time we came to the island, in 1998, the beach there extended out more than a hundred yards from the hotel's beach bar. Now the water is lapping at the roots of the palm trees right outside the bar's stone walls. Hurricanes have scoured away the entire beach. We step lightly along the wall, looking into the open-air restaurant to see if any of our old friends is still working there. We see familiar faces but can't place the names.

We turn south and step carefully over strings of sulfur-smelling seaweed. A man that Nan nicknamed "Mucho Trabajo" during our first visit to the island is raking the seaweed into piles. We wave and say hola. He looks up, smiles and nods, then goes back to his raking. We step over the wooden bridge that leads out to the Avalon Reef Hotel and continue south. The beach ends at an outcropping of volcanic rock. We put our shoes back on and step carefully over the sharp rock. The sun has moved higher in the sky and there is no shade. I feel the back of my shirt stick to my skin. The rock ends and we cross a stretch of pebbly beach and shells, then climb up concrete steps to the embarcadero that runs along the island's west coast. We pass a series of abandoned buildings, cinder block shells of hurricane-ravaged luxury hotels.

We turn west on to the promenade that leads to the island's central plaza. Nan goes in to the mercado across from the plaza for some groceries. Scout and I wait outside in the shade of an ancient willow tree. I am sweating profusely. Scout is panting. Nan walks out with two plastic bags and hands me the heavier one. We continue west toward the ferry dock and then turn north to walk in the shade of the palm trees that line Avenida Rueda Medina and complete our loop of the island's north end.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hiking Serpents Trail

Standing at the top of Serpents Trail in the Colorado National Monument
The Colorado National Monument is practically right outside our back door, but we rarely visit because it is a National Park and dogs are not allowed. As conscientious dog owners, we naturally want to go where our dog is welcome. As a result, we have missed many excellent hiking opportunities.

When my friend John Sasso called me on Friday afternoon to ask if I would be interested in hiking Serpents Trail, which is located in the Monument, my first impulse was to say no. It wouldn't be fair to Scout. But I checked with Nan and she said that I should go, that she would take Scout for his afternoon walk in the neighborhood.

John Sasso standing on top of Otto's Nipple in the Colorado National Monument
John picked me up at around 2:30 and we were at the trailhead off Monument Road less than fifteen minutes later. As we started out, John explained that Serpents Trail was part of the original road that the Monument's earliest advocate, John Otto, had built in the early 1900s to enable transportation from the valley floor to the rim. It was first used as a pack trail for horses and mules but later widened for early automobiles. The "trail" was considerably wider and smoother than I would have guessed it to be, and I could imagine a Model T rumbling slowly up it.

When we reached one of the higher-up hairpin curves, from which the trail undoubtedly gets its name, John pointed out a sloping shelf of sandstone and said it was a shortcut that would reconnect with the trail higher up. I followed him as he walked the steep, narrow shelf, one foot in front of the other, consciously not looking to the left, where the shelf dropped into a deep, dark crack. As John said, "You wouldn't want to fall here."

We did indeed reconnect with the trail, and a little ways later, the trail reconnected with the paved road that has replaced it as the motorized way to the rim. The first photo was taken at that intersection and shows that there is a significant elevation gain in the forty or so minutes that it takes to hike up from the trailhead. That's Grand Mesa over my left shoulder, almost obscured by a "brown cloud" of air pollution on an otherwise crystal clear day.

Sitting on top of Otto's Nipple in the Colorado National Monument
We turned around and retraced our steps, including the dangerous sandstone shortcut. Back on the trail, around another endless curve, John pointed out the way to what he calls "Otto's Nipple," a breast-shaped cone of sandstone a few hundred yards off the trail. We picked our way carefully through the snow and up a short vertical sandstone pitch to get to it. In his photo, John almost looks like he could launch into freefall from the summit tip. I took the more cautious approach and sat for my photo, which shows a sweeping panorama of the Grand Valley, including the city of Grand Junction and the distant Book Cliffs. Click any of the photos for full-size views.

Now that I have had a little taste of what I have been missing by not hiking in the Monument, I will need to figure out a way to get up there more often. John is an avid rock climber, and he has offered to take me up Independence Monument, a difficult sandstone tower first climbed by--you guessed it--John Otto. I can't wait!

Happy Birthday, Nan!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mystery Meat

One afternoon last week, I was working in our upstairs home office, with Scout at my feet, when I was startled to hear a loud thump. Scout and I looked at each other, thinking, "What was that?!" We have mourning doves bounce off our windows occasionally with a similar sound, but this thump sounded like it had originated from the front door. It could have been a delivery person dropping a package on our front porch, but Scout normally barks when he hears one coming and he was being quiet. Thinking I should investigate, I went down the stairs far enough to look out the transom window above the door. I didn't see a FedEx or UPS truck idling out front, so I went back to work.

A couple of hours later, I opened the front door to take Scout out for his walk and saw through the glass storm door that there was something unusual sitting on the porch. When I opened the storm door, Scout scooted out ahead of me to see what it was. I yelled at him to leave it and then bent close to see for myself. It was a piece of frozen meat. It was about the size of a pork chop but looked more like a flattened chicken thigh without the skin. I picked it up to keep it away from Scout and noted that it must have been frozen before it landed on the porch, or it would have left a wet mark. I looked up at the transom window and saw a fresh smudge on the glass next to the wreath we hang up there every Christmas. Someone had thrown a frozen piece of meat at our window!

Have you ever heard of such a thing? It's now almost a week later and I have told a number of people this story. No one has a plausible explanation.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Life in Grand Junction

It is a little before 7:00 when Scout jumps off the bed. I hear him plop down at the top of the stairs and let out a soft whine. I roll onto my back and try to gauge the day. It is still mostly dark. Scout whines again. He must have a pressing need. I get up, go to the bathroom and then open the bedroom shades. It is gloomy out, with overcast skies and a new dusting of snow on our next-door neighbor's roof. On the street that runs down the opposite hill to meet the neighborhood's main boulevard, I see the vehicles of early commuters, their headlights off, appearing as shapeless blobs moving slowly down the slippery hill in the pre-dawn darkness. I go into the office to turn on the computer and then give Scout a scratch as I maneuver past him and down the stairs to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I give him another scratch as I head back up the stairs and into the office to check my email. Nothing new.

As I get dressed, I hear Scout go down the stairs and thump down at the bottom in anticipation of his walk. I follow him down and check the outside thermometer. It reads 14 degrees. Better than the below-zero temperatures of recent days. Must be the cloudy skies, I think. I put on my coat, stocking cap, boots and gloves. I clip Scout to his leash and open the front door. Across the drive of our housing complex, I see our neighbor's Christmas tree lights shining through his patio door and wonder if they have been on all night. Last year, he had his tree up until February. Scout takes an immediate detour onto our snow-covered front lawn and squats to pee. He really did need to go. As I wait, I look at our next-door neighbor's abandoned townhouse. It was for sale; now it is in foreclosure. Two other units in our complex are also in foreclosure, for a total of 3 out of 31. That is nearly ten percent. We never met our neighbor, though we lived next to him for five years. For a few years, we did not even know his name and referred to him simply as Boo, after the character in To Kill a Mockingbird. Our dog takes his name from the same story.

Scout and I walk down the drive to the boulevard and wait for traffic to clear so we can cross. Most of the passing vehicles are pickup trucks, most of them are white, and most have their headlights off. The speed limit is 30, but all are going at least 40. None of the drivers turns to look at us as they pass. We cross the snow-covered grassy median and walk up the bike path on the opposite side. I see deer prints in the thin snow that covers the asphalt. I see prickly pear cactus on the adjacent hillside, half-buried in snow and looking chilled. It reminds me of the school kids I see at the neighborhood bus stop, shivering in their hoodies, nylon shorts and sneakers.

The bike path ends and we turn right onto a residential street. There is no sidewalk so we walk on the left facing traffic. I keep Scout close as vehicles pass. Their headlights are off. The drivers do not make eye contact. The street ends and we are in the desert, walking along a double-track. I unclip Scout from his leash so he can run free to find his pooping spot. He gallops up the track, rolls in the snow, gets up, shakes and takes off again. I see him go into the spinning, squatting hop that signals a poop and reach into my coat pocket for a plastic bag. I bag the poop and tie the ends. I turn and look back at the last house before the street ends. Sometimes I see the woman who lives there glaring at me through her kitchen window. Sometimes I see her Christmas tree lights shining through the shades. This year, they have been shining since before Thanksgiving.

I clip Scout to his leash and we continue along the desert track as it loops around to meet up again with the bike path. The sun begins to show through the clouds to the east. A light snow begins to fall.