Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mormons and Arches

SNIP, the unlikely acronym for the Society for NeuroImmune Pharmacology, held this years annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. My initial response was that I could not think of a more unfun, unlikely place to hold a conference. All the negatives of high altitude with dry lips, headaches, etc ... plus the unique problems of no nightlife and a maximum alcohol content of 3.2% in beer. The only pluses I could see would be tremendous eye candy, as the numbers of hot, young mormon girls performing their missions in Salt Lake City is very high and the fact that I very much liked the movie SLC Punk (which by the way co-stars my friend Ryans cousin) and this is where the movie takes place.

To prepare for this excursion to the heart of Mormon country, I read Under the Banner of Heaven, an excellent yet frightening book charting the history of the Mormon religion as it explores two brutal murders committed in the name of God under the teachings of Mormon fundamentalism. Krakauer is the same guy who wrote Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, accounts of brutal, deadly interactions between man and nature. That he consider Mormon fundamentalism as extreme and frightening as the Everest expedition and walking off alone into the Alaskan wilderness certainly says something about the religion and the graphic violence of the murders and virtual insanity of the belief system that lead to them back up Krakauers opinion.

The start of the trip matched and then outstripped my expectations and Aimee, Clarisa and myself woke up far too early and got to LaGuardia at 730 am so that we could sit on the runway until 10 am, leaving just in time to completely miss out connection in O'Hare. Landing in O'Hare at noonish, we discoverd that Chicago was covered in snow, the largest freak April snowstorm in years ... everything was grounded or delayed and there was not another flight to Salt Lake City until 630 that evening. Spent the day watching Dr. Who on my computer (the new Dr. Who from the Sci-Fi channel is awesome) and running around the airport, finally finagling us onto a flight leaving Chicago at 755, which was good as our flight was postponed until 955pm. Completely missed our poster session and only got to the hotel at a reasonable time because my old boss Howard, who is simply fabulous, actually came to the airport to pick us up.

As to Salt Lake City, I was way wrong. It is a really excellent conference venue, with a walkable, compact downtown, with excellent restaurants and friendly folks, private clubs that serve normal beer and of course the Mormon Temple for an afternoons entertainment. The place is so quiet and peaceful that they actually have street crossing flags to allow you move across major thoroughfares in the downtown Just pick one up and walk and traffic actually stops for you. You then put it on the other side of the street when you are across. In New York this would not work as a) you would get run over as people laughed at your silly flags and b) the flags would be stolen rapidly.

The conference was good, parts of it great, especially the interaction I had with a number of the more senior folks in the society, definitely made me feel good about going. I also got a number of excellent reactions to my poster and my current work, which is always something you want. The whole thing was too short and there was not enough meet and greet time (I feel so old thinking that), but on the whole a great meeting. Plus Aimee, Clarisa and I got to Spencers, one of the best steakhouses in the country, for dinner ... that was truly an epicurean delight, probably the best rib eye I have ever had. We also took in a Jazz-Suns game, which was great ... and would have been better is the Jazz were not getting 20 pieced by half-time. I gotta say, Nash is really incredible and Stodamire is a freak of nature, as no one that big can move that fast. Otherwise the only notable experiences were watching Dee Brown score a career high 11 points while Clarisa fell in love with him and watching creepy Mormon guy to Aimees left proposition her to become one of his wives. Oh, and the random, violent R2D2 mail box in the center of town was great. Following the conference, Aimee and Clarisa went off to Las Vegas for two days of sin, debauchery and eating while I took my rental car and drove south to Arches and Canyonlands for two days of hiking in the high desert. Driving across Utah was a treat in itself, it is beautiful there, with all the mountains I have been missing on te East Coast. I got to Arches, which is about 3.5 hours SE of Salt Lake City, bought a poster and slapped on some sunscreen and took off on the longest loop I could find, the primtive trail up in the Devils Garden. The park is named Arches and this trail delivered, showing me a number of arches including but certainly not limited to Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, and the most spectacular, Double O Arch Arches aside, this was a pretty spectacular trail. Dusty and often badly marked, it would around, up and down huge boulders and rock canyons, between massive fins and under arches, along a dry streambed and into what felt like serious backcountry. During the primitive section of the trail I didn't see a soul for about three hours as I scrambled around huge rocks following small rock cairns and slick, faint paths. This section was my favorite, despite the lack of Arches, because of the difficulty of the terrain and the spectacular scenery. Getting back to my car around six, I had just enough time to drive back through the park and catch sunset at Delicate Arch, easily the most spectacular thing I saw on this trip. I was told to skip the direct hike and just use the view point, but my friend Neal, normally infallible in outdoor matters, is an idiot here. The arch was amazing, enormous and frail, floating like a huge granite titan over a massive rock bowl on one side and a 1000 foot cliff on the other. Getting up there was tough, 1.5 miles straight up hill, and I saw all kinds of people who would probably take the elevator instead of a single flight of stairs walking up. Pretty much sums up the spectacularness (word?), when people who don't walk take a rough hike to see something. But you can judge for yourself, I however, am sure it was worth it. Getting down from Delicate Arch I drove over to the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands, conveniently located just up the highway across from the crazy indian themed gas station/RV park. Camped for the night, wolfing down some fried chicken for dinner and crashed out around 10. Woke up at midnight to wind so strong it was lift my tent off the ground, so I grabbed some big rocks and put them inside the tent and slept like a baby until the morning, when I got up and drove over to upheaval dome.

I planned to hike the Syncline Loop trail, an 8.3 mile hike around the dome .. I later found out that this was considered the toughest mapped hike in this section of the park. Sunscreen, hat, powerbars, water and we're off. Day is beautiful and just the right temperature and the hike is great. The trail is marked by cairns every 50 to 100 feet, but sometimes these have fallen down or been damaged, so it is easy to get lost. I kind of like that, it makes the hike more active for your mind and its a lot like the trail markers I am beginning to enjoy seeing all over the East Coast. Beautiful desert flowers spot the trail and until about mile 4.5 things are perfect.

At this point I lose the trail and cannot seem to find my way, ending up about 600 feet off the valley floor on a slick ledge. I start talking to two older guys at about the same height across the valley and between us and the group of hikers coming the other way we manager to find the trail, which to might delight takes us up and down a large boulder field. Its great. I stick with the older guys for the rest of the hike, chatting about their hiking experiences around the Southwest (they are froun Colorado) and my own experiences in different National Parks around the US. As we are walking the sky keeps getting darker and I am reminded of my hike through the Zion Narrows, and how I learned all about flash floods, in particular how they are very dangerous in slot canyons like the one we are walking in, as part of my preparation.

By the time we reach the climb out of the canyon, the sky was getting pretty dark and I could hear thunder in the distance. I talked to my new friends and they told me I didn't need to wait for them, but I said that if the weather turned I would rather be with people, plus I wanted to make sure they got out okay. We shouldn't have said anything, because about a quarter mile after cresting the first rise it started to rain, then hail and within 10 minutes the weather was as bleak as i have ever seen it.

We quickly found shelter under a rock as hailstones the size of golf balls rained out of the sky, bruising us up pretty good. We were pretty sure we were only a mile or so from the parking lot, so the experience was more novel and fun than scary, but witnessing the power of nature like that first hand was pretty impressive. After about half an hour, when we were all pretty damn cold and cramping, the hail let up a bit and we got up and trudged another mile or so uphill (making the last 1.5 miles of the hike a 1300 foot climb) through the snow, sleet and numerous small waterfalls that were newly created. I am sure there was a flash flood where we had been half an hour before. Still, from where we were I thought it was a hell of an adventure, and one of the most exciting hikes I have ever done. Got back to the cars, said my goodbyes and took off for SLC, thinking that after freezing and baking and hiking 20 miles in 2 days I just wanted a shower and a bed, as crappy as it might be (and it turned out to be pretty awful). On massive rainstorm later (seems I followed the thunderstorm across Utah) I was ensconced in a dingy, unpleasant motel in Provo for about 40$. Crashed out, got up and got to the airport in time to avoid the extra day of car rental, then hung out and waited for Aimee and Clarisa to show up. Vegas didn't eat them and despite flying through O'Hare we all got back safe and sound. Now, Aimee and Clarisa had to wait 2 hours after landing to get their luggage, but thats another tale for another time.

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