Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Drinking The Rio

Embarking on a Sunday’s adventure rafting on the Rio Grande gave us more thrills and chills than we anticipated. We underestimated the forthcoming rapids based on previous trips down the river. The Rio Grande is running at speeds and depths unheard of in many years. The end of our long drought cycle has resulted in record snow-melt, feeding the Rio with staggering amounts of water. The river banks are higher, areas that formally were beaches are under water, and the rapidity of the flow is amazing. On the drive through the Taos Gorge we saw many cars parked along the highway, the spectators standing on the cliff watching rafters below, a day’s entertainment for the local folks.

The trip began with paddling lessons, cinching us tightly into life vests, cautions from our two guides about how we would approach upcoming series of rapids, and assurances of an exciting trip. We had, they warned, a one-in-three chance of flipping or falling out on the final rapid, but they would instruct us further before we approached that one. We hit the first series of rapids whooping and hollering; we were fired up. We anticipated the next series of whitewater gleefully. The six of us were in sync, paddling efficiently, working as a team. The guides complimented us. We beamed and laughed and made merry.

Halfway through our trip we came upon a wooden bridge suspended over the river. Normally the clearance below the bridge is roomy enough to sail under; today because the water levels were so lofty, to pass under we had to paddle to the far left, a guide outside the raft pulling us through, as we leaned down and ducked below. With that obstacle past and our confidence bolstered in our teamwork, we proceeded down the river toward the last two sets of rapids, enjoying the vistas, the bright blue sky, and the sweet aroma of the Russian Olive trees.

We coursed through the rough so-called Sleeping Beauty rapids wet but elated. Our guide gave us more last-minute instructions on the upcoming and major final rapid, Souse Hole. A hole it was…a hell hole. As we approached around a bend our guide told us to cast our eyes forward and watch the raft ahead of us as it disappeared down what we river amateurs oh-so-mistakenly thought was a waterfall leading into a long set of rapids. We followed the instructions as they were screamed out to us: “Right back paddle, forward paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle!” We dropped into the mother of all rapids, into a gaping hole in the river. We were swallowed by the Rio Grande. And we all swallowed a lot of the Rio in turn.

In a moment scenes unfolded: the left side of the raft lifted off the surface. Diane tipped backwards off the raft. Cara flew across the raft head-first into the surging swells. Brian, Diane’s husband, plopped out. Water was overhead and crashing down upon us. My thoughts scattered and awareness of events unfolding registered all at once, like rapid-fire photographs in succession: oh my God, we’re going to flip over; crap, Diane fell out; holy cow, Cara sailed past me; an awareness of fear; water is pounding over top of me; who else is missing; I am the only one left on my side of the raft so I need to paddle for all I’m worth; the guide is climbing over me; I am hearing screaming; where is Diane…she’s over there and there is terror on her face; thank God, Bryan is still next to me. All these thoughts occurred in an instant. The raft was still rocking, surging, flowing quickly. There was, it seemed in that instant, carnage all around me, and the water kept swelling.

The final awareness settled on me and calmed me: we were all safe. Diane was pulled into another raft, the woman guide soothing her and yanking her up by her life vest, telling her that she was okay. Cara and Brian were on the rocks, gulping and gasping for air after the exertion and the huge quantities of water they had swallowed. Bryan, Eric and I, along with the second guide paddled and heaved up along the rocky shoreline to reach them. The first guide had jumped over me, jumped to the rocks and pulled us along. It was at once harrowing and exhilarating, frightening and thrilling.

It all unfolded in a matter of seconds, and then minutes. We were alright; we were all back on the raft. Diane was shaking and crying and hugging her husband and son. Cara was still sputtering mouthfuls of the Rio Grande. The guides encouraged and comforted us and then, when we were ready for it, laughed about the adventure. We hadn’t flipped over and that was an accomplishment.

We all swallowed more of the river than we desired. Diane, the moment she re-entered our raft said, “I need a drink!” Indeed! Margaritas would be sought out once we were dry. But first we drove to the overlook where we’d seen the spectators. Now that we knew what they were gawking at, we wanted to see the wrecking scene, to view from above what exactly we had gone through. The gaping hole and the force of the rapids astounded us. We watched rafts come through, the first overturned head to tail, all the occupants spilled and scattered in the water. We gasped, and then we were thankful that we had not flipped over completely.

Raft flipping
Originally uploaded by via Margutta.

Today we are sore, our varying degrees of battle wounds. We are recounting the details, over and over, comparing our mental notes and impressions, looking at the photos, reliving the scenes, continuously amazed by our experience, glad we had such a thrilling ride, glad we were okay. We drank from the Rio Grande and it tasted bitter-sweet. But it was intoxicating.

View Photos of the trip.

Article about Souse Hole

Definition/Description of a river souse hole

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Air Up Here

This week has been a flurry of activity. My parents were in town for several days to assist my sister with her kitchen remodeling project (detailed in Madame Foreperson), and Bryan and I spent a lot of time lending hands and sweat as well. And I do mean sweat. It has been warmer than normal for this time of year, already in the mid 90s. My parents departed Monday and I've been preparing for the next round of company. My sister-in-law Diane is arriving tomorrow with her husband and son. We're very much looking forward to their visit. I've been busily cleaning the house in preparation, all the chores I'd put off to work on Cara's kitchen have been pushed to the front burner. I've been dusting the sand that the winds have blown in, and cleaning the guest tub of the cat hair Winston has deposited there. In the heat he likes to lay on the cool tub surface. Unfortunately, his dark fur leaves tell-tale evidence of his respites there.

We're ready for their arrival, with lots of activities planned for their short visit. My main concern is their ability to handle the heat and the altitude. As I mentioned, it has already been warmer than normal. I don't mind
myself as the heat really doesn't bother me until we hit about 98. Then I feel it and get a bit cranky. But they may not adapt so easily, coming from the barely-thawed Upper Midwest. And I am also concerned about Altitude Sickness, since sea-level dwellers coming rapidly to a mile-high elevation often experience problems. Also referred to as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), the symptoms usually include shortness of breath and light-headedness. One medical website says, "Most people experience the symptoms of AMS in the first three days after arrival. The symptoms usually go away by the fourth day." Great, they'll be here for five days, so they will be acclimitized just in time to board the plane for home!

We had an in-your-face reminder of the ills of Altitude Sickness at Christmas when my brother turned wretchedly sick after a day of skiing, the combination of exertion, dehydration and high altitude proving miserable; he vomited, experienced muscle aches and weakness, and had chills. It was a potent reminder to us that the air we so take for granted really is thinner, and while we're used to it, I have been reminded that we, too have sometimes had to suck wind when hiking in the higher mountain ranges. So how much more the low-landers who will be arriving?

We'll have to take it easy on them for the first day, but after that they will need to acclimate; there are too many fun things to do and so little time. So Diane, if you're reading this, here is the medical advice for avoiding altitude sickness: rest up, start drinking lots of water now to stay hydrated, avoid alcohol and eat lots of carbs. Oh, and practice deep breathing. Remember, the air is thinner up here.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

A Waste of a Perfectly Good Saturday

I don't know why, but for some inexplicable reason, when a neighbor mentioned to me that she was organizing a neighborhood-wide garage sale, I heard myself saying, "Great! We'll participate in that."

We are not "garage sale people". I haven't trudged out to one myself in nigh 15 years. We went to a few back when we were poor, starving students but almost always came away empty-handed and weary, so it was quickly abandoned for more productive pastimes, like hiking in the mountains. I never found anything I was looking for. "You can't go looking for something specific," one avowed garage saler told me. "You'll never find that one item. You have to go with your options open, that's when you find the deals." No, that was when I found things I couldn't figure out what I'd do with or why I'd have a need for them.

Not that I shouldn't be better at garage saling. My grandmother, bless her heart, organized and worked at countless rummage sales for her church, to benefit her local library, or who knows what other charities she was involved with, and spent days on end sorting and tagging items. She loved the notion of recycling goods and saving money, too. I can agree with the notion, it's just the practice of it that I have problems with. My mother, too, was adept at sales and furnished our home in beautiful antiques and china procured from estate sales, auctions and occasional garage sales. Timeless words of wisdom passed down to us kids, which we never forgot though we didn't necessarily heed: "Always shop the sales in the rich neighborhoods!"

The problem is I just don't have the stamina for it. These garage sale people are a different breed. They started circling in the cul de sac when I woke up at 7:00 a.m., looking for doors to open, waiting to pounce. Come on, I hadn't even had a cuppuccino yet! They arrived the moment the door was elevated, seeking specific items: "Do you have a TV?" No, at least not one that is for sale. "I'm looking for McDonald's Happy Meal toys". I haven't eaten in a McDonald's in at least six years and never ordered a Happy Meal when I did. "Don't you have children's toys or clothes?" Nope, no kids here, but can I interest you in a slightly used catnip chew toy Winston doesn't play with anymore? Then they were sprinting to their cars, off to ply the next neighbor with their questions. They would keep up this pace all day, or until they found those toys.

Some walked up the drive, took a quick look and then departed, not having turned off the pickup truck engine. Others came and talked my ear off, then departed. I didn't sell much. My poor sister sold even less, netting a whopping $2.50 from her haul. Maybe I should have consulted the many books and websites with advice on successful garage sales. Titles promise "maximum profits"; they offer "strategies" and "huge payoffs". One such site advised people to set up your garage like a store, mindful of traffic patterns and display. Yes I can see how that would be helpful: "You see, over here in this pile we have old junk. And over on that table is the older junk." Another site recommended playing soft background music to "set a mood conducive to shopping", and went on to offer specific selections of music that might put people into a buying mood. Other advice: offer bags for their purchases, greet each customer cheerfully when they enter, and provide free coffee. Hello, this is a garage sale not an upscale retail store! If I had retail saaviness, I'd be in business in a fixed location, not trying to hawk old, unwanted items out of my dusty car park.

There is, obviously, quite an interest in these kinds of sales. Why else would ebay be so popular or the Antique Road Show garner so many viewers? I can't figure out, though, if the interest is in collecting things and getting a deal, or in a lust for making a profit from things laying around your house. I'm sure there are psychology studies on this. As for me, I felt that the day was unproductive, that the paltry profit wasn't enough to induce me to spend another day of my life doing this again, and in the future, any accumulated belongings ready for recycling would be, as I have usually done in the past, donated to local charities and homeless shelters. My short-lived garage sale days are over.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


The evidence of Spring has arrived. Sunday dawned with sun and warmth, so after dutiful calls to our mothers, we set off to spend part of the day in the hills, and drove up toward the Jemez mountains. We thought we'd celebrate that, being childless, we do not have to feign delight in mediocre Mother's Day brunch buffets but instead could indulge in a full-out cholesterol fest at Los Ojos tavern, a biker bar/artists hang-out in the funky town of Jemez Springs.

After lunch, we strolled along the Jemez River and then it hit. The wind, that harbinger of spring. Not a gentle breeze, but a blast of sand-laden air pelting our faces. Alas, springtime in New Mexico does not conjure up the images that much of the country has of regeneration and lovely budding flowers, green-ness and beauty. Sure, we have lots of new things growing. This past winter brought us out of a five year drought cycle, and the rivers are flowing with the spring run-off. The Rio Grande actually has a lot of water of in it, unlike last summer when it actually ran dry in spots. At the Jemez River there was evidence that it had run to the top of its banks.

The moisture has caused many things to bloom, sprout up and turn green, quite vibrant-appearing among the myriad shades of brown and beige that define our world here. These newly watered plants make this high desert environment look much more lush than we are accustomed to seeing. And they disgorge their venom-like allergens as well. It is the silent pollenators that are the worst, those desert plants which do not flower but are potent nonetheless. The junipers, the still-green tumbleweeds, the sagebrush which surrounds our home, and the ash are all sneeze-inducing, eye-reddening terrors. And don't even get me started on the cottonwood trees-once they start spewing their cottony crud which fills the air like snowflakes in the sunshine, my misery will be complete. La Primavera is, in New Mexico, more like La Miseria.

The allergies would be easier to cope with, however, were it not for the wretched winds. They begin in April and last until the heat and dryness of summer become welcome relief. These daily winds are normally about 20 to 30 miles per hour but can get very gusty, up to 60 miles per hour. Just a few days ago, the Sandia Peak Tramway had to close down, stranding dozens of passengers, including a group of school kids, at the top of the mountain, due to high winds. This springtime airy ritual seems to blow across the expanses, picking up the top inch or so of sand from Arizona and depositing it squarely into our faces, hammering us so that we find sand particles in our eyes and ears and hair. The mid-90s temperatures of late-June don't seem so bad after the anguish of the vernal season.

Not that spring is completely without its amusements. Last year's tumbleweeds have grown dry, and once they break off from the stems they roll and bounce -thanks to the winds - along the streets and byways. We can always distinguish the new-comers and tourists; they will bring their cars to a complete stop behind a tumbleweed, apparently fearful of it hitting or damaging their vehicles. We then take aim and plow over them, decimating their brittle shapes and leaving their crushed carcasses as tumbleweed roadkill.

But this diabolical diversion is not enough to induce me to enjoy spring. I marvel at those who "celebrate spring" and love this season above all others. They mock me when I state my indignance at the season. Go ahead; enjoy it. I will sniffle and sneeze my way through it, biding my time. Once the sun-scorching summer arrives, I'll get my relief and revenge. Those spring-lovers will lament the sizzling days and I will smile placidly and reply, "Yes, but it's a dry heat."

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Techno-Idiot on the Loose!

I used to think of myself as fairly competent with my computer skills. I have, through the years, worked in various offices and positions which required heavy dependence on computers. I would start the job and, quite easily and confidently, learn a variety of software programs to a fairly high level of functionality. I worked myself through college as a medical transcriptionist and prided myself on my 75 words-per-minute typing speed and my proficiency in WordPerfect and Microsoft Word. That was then.

Is it just me or have computers in general and software programs in particular become more difficult? Or is it just that my brain cells have packed up and taken residence elsewhere, rendering me cereberally challenged? I seem to encounter more issues with breakdowns and meltdowns than I used to. (Computer-wise, and otherwise.) When I have computer issues, I can no longer find the answers I need. In days of old, I'd open up the handy-dandy manual and find the instructions I needed right at my fingertips. Now with these Advanced and Wonderful online manuals I can find squat, and never when I need it most.

I am fortunate to have my very own help-desk line, connected by telephone directly to my sister. She patiently answers my questions and comes to assist me in my distress. She frequently shakes her head at my ignorance ("Um, turn on the power strip and you'll be all set"). She is always happy to help in my crises, yet the gleam of superiority clearly radiates in her eyes. As well it should- she went to a geek college, majored in information systems, and has been employed for the past ten years for a software company. She bears the title Geek Girl with pride and confidence.

Unfortunately other technical equipment poses the same challenge for me. My cell phone, for instance, still isn't being used to its full potential because a) I don't know what its full potential is, and b) I wouldn't be able to figure out how to use that potential if I knew. I was happy to find that I am not the only one in this position. In Ohio recently, my sister-in-law, Diane, seemed to experience this. Our thirteen year old niece, who does not have a cell phone herself, took possession of Diane's and in the span of about two minutes and twenty-five seconds, had it reprogrammed with a new ringtone, had figured out how to take photos, placed one on the display as a screensaver - complete with a cutesy caption- and had taken a short movie of herself. Diane and I seemed to be thinking the same thing: remember when phones were just phones? And when the heck did kids become so techno-saavy, leaving us to feel like complete and utter idiots?

My digital camera is mostly a mystery to me. Sure, I can open the lens and snap photos. But I still don't know how to transfer those images to the computer. I could read the manual, of course, but haven't gotten around to it. It just hasn't seemed that pressing to me. Besides, why take the time when I can have Bryan download them (or upload them or whatever type of loading needs to be done). And after the aforementioned images are on the computer, I don't know how to resize, manipulate, or otherwise edit them. And, I wonder, what's the point of all that effort anyway? I feel like a techno-idiot. But the thing is, it just seems easier and quicker and more tangible to take the film to Target and have them process it into nice, glossy photos that I can hold in my hands.

Clearly I need to learn these things. The twenty-first century is already passing me by and leaving me in the technological dust. The world has become so advanced, so digitally-minded, so....complicated. I'll get over it and adapt. I will, I tell myself. But then I see these gadgets and gizmos and think, "WHY?" I don't seem to truly see the need. Bryan is more perceptive of the necessity to stay current. But then he also kept referring to a Blackberry as a "blueberry thingy," so I don't know if either of us will ever really "get with it".

I am trying, though. I have lots of old photos I want to utilize so I'm actually looking at scanners, and this increases my desire to learn photo editing software. And I have resolved to stop referring to those wretched online help programs as "crapware support". And, I am quite proud of the fact that I haven't had to utilize the sisterly help-desk in well over a month.

Yes, I'm coming along. Look out, twenty-first century, I'm on the loose! There just may be no stoppin' me now. I'm sure my sister isn't holding her breath, though.

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider