Saturday, June 4, 2016

Lions, tigers, bears and gorillas

"Miles from nowhere, not a soul in sight
Oh yeah, but it's all right."

Overnight, hundreds of thousands of people became experts on silverback gorillas when 17-year-old male western-lowland gorilla, Harambe, was killed by the Cincinnati Zoo dangerous animal response team, after a 3 year old boy slipped into his enclosure.

I have to admit, initially I had the same knee-jerk response as so many others. Why did the gorilla have to die? Why couldn't he be tranquilized? Was he really behaving aggressively toward the boy, or was he protecting him from the screaming, chaotic onlookers?

I don't think we'll ever know definitely just what the gorilla would have done if he hadn't been put down. I've watched the videos on YouTube, and I've concluded, instant expert that I am, that Harambe was protecting the boy, but only in the sense that he was protecting a prize. The boy was his, and he wasn't going to be distracted, leave the exhibit, or give him up without a fight.

Darting the animal was ruled out because it's not instantaneous. We think so, thanks to edited films we've watched on PBS, where the animal appears to go down quickly. But in reality, the anaesthetic can take as much as 10 minutes to take effect, and the impact of the dart could aggravate the animal in the interim. Not to mention that when he did go down, more than 400 lbs. of gorilla easily could flatten a child.

If the child had gotten into an enclosure with a lion or tiger or bear, I don't think the decision to euthenize the animal would have been so second-guessed. But because the gorilla has human-like characteristics, it's much easier to anthropomorphize. Yes, the gorilla and the child look at each other. Yes, at one point the gorilla appears to take the child's hand, and at another point he stands him up by the waistband of his pants. But he also pulls him roughly through the moat by his leg.

There is no film of the shooting or the final moments before the fatal shot, but there are reports that Harambe was acting aggressively and preventing the child from moving away. And regardless of intentions that we can never know anyway, Harambe had the power to crush a coconut with his bare hands. Even if he meant the boy no ill, in one accidental move he could obliterate the child's life.

Everything else is background noise. Sure, the mother should have been watching the child more closely. Yes, despite 38 years without a breach, the enclosure was not sufficiently child-proof. Whether or not the decision to shoot the gorilla was right, and I've come to believe it was the lesser evil, the gorilla is dead and no could-haves or should-haves or would-haves can change that.

Tarring the mother and feathering the euthanization decision-makers won't bring Harambe back.

Harambe. Swahili for "pull together". (Photo: Jeff McCurry/AP)

In other news, we did go to Chaco Canyon, aka Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a World Heritage Site. It wasn't on our original itinerary, but if you drew a line on a map from Santa Fe, NM, to Canyon de Chelly in Chinle, AZ, you'd intersect Chaco.

Unfortunately, there are no roads that come even close to running in straight lines between Santa Fe and Chinle, so we had to take a circuitous route with an unfortunate detour. Still it was a crime of opportunity and although - on paper - it added 60 more miles to our 290 mile drive, we decided to go for it.

But first we spent a couple of days soaking in Santa Fe. On the day we landed, our first stop was Canyon Road, a half mile strip of galleries and eateries in the historic district. It was a little more upscale than I pictured, less of an artisan marketplace and more of a high-end art space, but it's on every top-ten things to do in Santa Fe list. We did have a lovely snack at The Teahouse, a mega mocha (half and half Italian hot chocoate and espresso and a scone with clotted cream & lemon curd for Neil, a fiery mocha latte for me, made with cayenne pepper.

Refreshed, we did a lot of walking, to the Plaza and the Palace of the Governors, with more shops and a fair number of Native American street vendors. After that we checked in to our hotel, read some of Dragons in the Water (which we finished on the trip) and went out for a lovely "African-Caribbean fusion" dinner at Jambo Café, chosen for it's reviews and the fact that it was close to our hotel.

The following day, we headed to Bandelier National Monument, a protected area of canyon and mesa with evidence of human habition dating back 11,000 years. History was made there again that very day when I purchased my National Parks lifetime senior pass for $10. You heard me right. Ten dollars for admission any or all of the 400-some National Park Service parks, monuments, preserves, historical sites, recreation areas, seashores, lakeshores, reserves, parkways and trails, for me and Neil, or me and any three guests, for the rest of my life.

That was a thrill.

We hiked the main loop trail and a side trail to Alcove House, a cave with a reconstructed kiva located 4 ladders and a bunch of stairs about the canyon floor. Neil climbed up, I didn't. Did I mention that I carried beads for Beads of Courage again? I did.

Like everywhere we went on this trip, I would have liked to spend more time there, but we decided to press on to Los Alamos. I've wanted to visit Los Alamos since my online ColgateX class, The Advent of the Atomic Bomb. Not much is left or recognizable from the days when thousands of Manhattan Project scientists convened there to design and build the atom bombs that essentially put an end to World War II.

We visited the Bradbury Science Museum and watched a couple of short films about "the town that never was" which is when I realized that it was really the site of the Trinity bomb test that I wanted to see. Since that site, 35 miles southeast of Socorro, NM, is about 200 miles from Los Alamos, that would have to be another trip. And I realize that the site pretty much consists of a historical marker in the desert, with residual radiation ten times higher than normal background radiation in the area. Still, if I ever have the chance, I'd like to stand there. Someday, maybe.

After driving past the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the largest - and most highly secured - science and technology institutions in the world today, we headed back into Santa Fe, and got a pizza fix at Upper Crust, just off Canyon Road. Yes, even the pizza places have upscale names although there was nothing uppity about the ambience and the pizza was hot and tasty.

And the next morning we were off on our funky adventure to Chaco Canyon. We got off to a false start for which we were blameless. Thirty miles out of Rio Rancho on US 550, Neil wondered aloud why there suddenly was so much traffic coming in the opposite direction. Shortly after that traffic going our way backed up and we saw cars turning around. Then we got alerts on our phones that 550 was closed at San Ysidro. (We later learned that there'd been a triple fatality accident.)

So we backtracked and headed west on I 40, resigned to omit Chaco from our itinerary. 100 miles later we started seeing road signs for Chaco, so we regrouped again and exited at Thoreau. From there it's about 64 miles to the park, the last 20 on dirt roads. From north or south the park can only be accessed by dirt roads.

After miles of driving through literally nothing (photos courtesy of the NPS), we reached the Visitor Center, an honest-to-goodness building with a bookstore, museum, movie, gift shop and flush toilets. Camping is the only lodging and the campground sign said "Full." There were a surprising number of people at the park, given that we'd seen no one on the road. The weather was perfect. We spent about 3 hours hiking at pullouts along the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive, amongst the remnants of Chacoan architecture from the mid-to-late 800s - great houses with second and third stories, kivas and elevated kivas, an elevated plaza.

With 170 miles still to go to our original destination, Canyon de Chelly National Monument. This has been on our bucket list forever, and it was as amazing as anticipated, albeit miles from nowhere. Navajo families have called the Canyon and surrounding area home for almost 5,000 years. The park is jointly managed by the NPS and the Navajo Nation, and currently about 40 families reside within the park boundaries. We stayed at the Navajo owned and operated Thunderbird Lodge in the park, which was a lovely experience.

There is only one public hiking trail in the park, although private hikes with authorized guides can be arranged. There are 10 scenic overlooks along the north and south rim drives, with shorter walking distances. Neil and I started with the 2 mile round trip hike, starting at the White House Overlook on the South Rim. From there we climbed 600 feet down on switchback trails to the White House Ruin. And back. Up is easier than down. Down is harder on the legs, up is harder on the lungs.

Afterwards we visited the scenic outlooks, including the spectacular Spider Rock 800 foot tall sandstone monolith. It was beautiful. I'll let the pictures tell the story.

Miles from nowhere
I guess I'll take my time
Oh yeah, to reach there

Look up at the mountain
I have to climb
Oh yeah, to reach there

I creep through the valleys
And I grope through the woods
'cause I know when I find it my honey
It's gonna make me feel good

I love everything
So don't it make you feel sad
'cause I'll drink to you, my baby
I'll think to that, I'll think to that

Miles from nowhere
Not a soul in sight
Oh yeah, but it's all right

I have my freedom
I can make my own rules
Oh yeah, the ones that I choose

Lord my body has been a good friend
But I won't need it when I reach the end

Miles from nowhere
I guess I'll take my time
Oh yeah, to reach there.

(Cat Stevens nks Yusuf Islam)

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