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Take Care, Jim

Well, the past few weeks have been eventful in the RBT family. Some things have been happy and some very sad, and some big decisions have been made in both the personal and athletic arenas. I promise to share it all here, and boy, there’s plenty to share. But I’m going to begin with a personal subject.

Last week my father-in-law, Jim Hoxie, passed away at the age of 88.

Jim and Sally Hoxie with their family on their 50th anniversary cruise.

We knew it was coming but it happened sooner than we expected, so we were knocked for a bit of a loop for a few days. Now that we’re settling back into routine, it’s time for me to pay a well-deserved tribute to this wonderful man and what he taught me.

I met Jim back in the Dark Ages (1980) when I was a University of Michigan student and dating his daughter. He was a bit intimidating at first, standing six-foot-seven with large hands and a very strong handshake. This was not a guy you wanted to fool around with, and indeed he didn’t suffer fools gladly. But we got along right away, and during the next 37 years I don’t recall a single unpleasant incident.

Jim spent his entire career as an engineer with Chrysler Corporation, where my wife and her sister now work as well. He expressed what have been called Midwestern values: hard work, dedication to family, and treating people straight up and fairly. He passed those values to his children and grandchildren. My daughter wrote on Facebook about how he taught her to be “tough” by, for example, giving no mercy in card games, forcing her to improve until she was good enough to beat him (and everyone else by then, too. I still bear the scars).

But Jim and his wife Sally were (and are) also kind and generous. When we went out to eat, he would always offer to cover the bill, even if it was his own birthday dinner. I had to learn to “beat him to the draw” which once led me to actually throw my credit card at the waiter approaching with the check. He and Sally also loaned us a lot of money so we could buy our house when we were still establishing our financial independence. I like to believe I’ve become more generous as a result of their example.

He was generous with his time as well, particularly enjoying taking the grandchildren to Greenfield Village and playing bridge with us. And if someone needed help moving, as we did when we bought our house, you could count on him being there from start to finish. His dependability resonated with me, as I also try hard to be responsible and dependable, especially when I’m volunteering or providing a service to someone.

This is not to say we agreed on everything. Jim’s outlook was strongly conservative, and I have socially liberal leanings. This resulted in some animated discussions, in which, perhaps, our voices were raised a little. My wife and mother-in-law sometimes worried we’d actually start fighting, but our arguments were never personal. Without fail, at the end of a visit we’d shake hands and he’d say, “Take care.”

When we visited Jim and Sally over the holidays, it was clear he was getting weaker and had at most a few months. But he wasted no time with self-pity, instead staying interested in what his family was doing. He asked me if I was still running and what races I had coming up. And we had one final political discussion regarding the Trump tax cuts and public education.

“I’ve been maybe a little too conservative,” he said with a smile.

“We’ve had our differences of opinion,” I replied, “but it’s never affected our respect and affection for each other.” (Why can’t all political discussions be like this.)

He nodded. “You’ve been a good son-in-law,” he said. It was among the last words he said to me.

May I be as selfless and gracious when it’s my turn.

Goodbye, Jim. And wherever you are, take care.

Happy Holidays!

MERRY CHRISTMAS to all my readers and friends from me and my family. A morning of gifts, a great brunch, and a run – that’s a great day in my book!

Best wishes to everyone for a safe and happy holiday.

Western Hiking Trek: Fantastic Falls and Fossils, Alien Plants, and Painted Ladies

Guest poster Keith Shaw wraps up his stay in the Badlands, discovering and exploring some hidden gems of nature among the tourist traps. It seems likely that few people these days are enjoying these particular trails. Too bad!

Bolded text in his reports are emphasis mine, highlighting what I find to be particularly interesting. I have also edited for length and to fix typos.

Day Four – Supposedly Taking it Easy

My legs had not forgiven me for the trauma suffered on the Notch trail, so I decided to drive to several cities. Lead, Deadwood, and Spearfish were all boom towns during the gold rush days. The greed for gold made them a haven for gunslingers, gambling, and loose women.

The continuing greed for gold in the modern era have turned these towns into performing memorials. Wild Bill Hickok was killed in a Deadwood gambling saloon, and it is re-enacted several times a day for the tourists, much like a bizarre Disneyland ride. In between buildings dedicated to the lore of the Old West are modern-day casinos.

I inquired at the Deadwood visitor center if they could recommend any nature trails in the area. After a moment of stunned silence followed by some furious behind-the-hand conversations, they thought there were a couple in Spearfish Canyon that led to waterfalls. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway seemed a good place to start, and within 20 minutes I saw a sign leading to the trailheads.

The three mile (round trip) trail to Roughlock Falls was mostly level, with impressive views of the canyon walls and peaceful glades. However, the path to the top of the falls was very steep, making my already sore legs even worse.

I returned to the car [and] instead of taking the hint, I walked the short distance to the other trailhead. Gee, it is only 3/4 mile round trip to the base of Spearfish Falls. How hard could that be? That was answered by a series of steeply descending switchbacks, followed by a walk through tall pine trees to the base of the falls. It was definitely worth it as the falls were surrounded by a riot of color from fall foliage, making a near perfect picture suitable for a postcard. I hope the image shows this.

I spent about an hour sitting on a bench, mesmerized by not only the beauty of the scene, but also the peaceful symphony of sound. I noticed many Monarch butterflies flitting about. It was only when one landed next to me that I realized that it was a moth sporting the same color pattern.

Predator birds steer clear of Monarchs because of their terrible taste, so in true Darwinian tradition, other species have adopted similar color patterning. Querying the Oracle (internet), it turns out that they are Painted Ladies. Seemed somehow appropriate considering the proximity to the local gold rush towns.

Day Five – Travel and Training

Today was travel from Rapid City to Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska. I decided on a way less traveled down Route 29, featuring endless open expanses of prairie and pasturing cattle. Not a tree in sight.

Along this road is the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, one of the largest fossil finds in the US from about 20 million years ago. Thousands of bones were found from early ancestors of wolves, rhinos, micro-camels (2′ tall!), prairie dogs and boars. This photo is a representation of one of the first pits to be uncovered. Talk about a challenging jigsaw puzzle!

Continuing south, the boring flat plain is interrupted by a 500-foot tall sentinel known as Scott’s Bluff. It was a famous landmark along the Oregon Trail for emigrants who chose the Conestoga Wagon for their conveyance. It may be explored fairly easily as there is a drive to the summit. The road is narrow, twisty and has several tunnels, but is well maintained by the Park Service.

Several trails adorn the top of the bluffs, leading to overlooks of the scenery below. The thing that interested me most was the abundance of strange plants I’ve never seen anywhere else. Here are two of the more bizarre ones.

I was going to just walk two trails and head for dinner when I noticed a side branch going down the side of one of the bluff faces suddenly disappeared. Some distance farther down it reappeared by coming through a TUNNEL. I was hooked. I’ve never seen a trail like that. So it was back to the car for hiking boots, water bottle and energy bar, and hiking hat.

If you look dead center on this photo, you can just make out the opening and the trail that continues all the way down to the valley floor at the ranger station. I “just” wanted to go down to the tunnel.

This photo shows the opening from a better point of the South Rim Trail. There are about four long steep switchbacks down this side of the bluff, then it goes out between the teeth at the right end. It then continues down four more long switchbacks on the other side before getting near the tunnel.

Here is the final length of trail and you can just see where the tunnel opening is.

This one is in the tunnel looking out at the world, and the final photo is the exit from trail level.

Surprisingly my legs didn’t hurt as much as I expected, so maybe the training is paying off. However, my feet were barking loudly from all the ankle exercise on the steep grades. After taking a shower and getting cleaned up, I went out to a recommended BBQ place for dinner. By the time I returned to the motel my legs and feet felt fine.

Which brings up an observation and irritation. Country and Western music is EVERYWHERE, motel lobbies, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and even on the sidewalks in town. C&W is without a doubt my least favorite musical genre. Fortunately I loaded my iPad with Zappa, The Who, Pretenders, Stooges, Pixies and many Punk Rock groups that I like, so I have a musical antidote on hand when the C&W level gets too toxic.

Time to do laundry…


Badlands Trek: Giant Heads, Magical Caves, and the Ladder From Hell

Guest poster Keith Shaw continues his hiking trip through the Badlands area, encountering spectacular natural and man-made wonders. Did he survive Notch Trail and the ladder? Find out below!

Note: Bolded text is emphasis mine, noting what I find to be particularly noteworthy. I’ve also edited for length and to fix typos.

Day Two: Fun and Frustration

This was a day of ups and downs. It was still cold and overcast this morning, so I decided to see Jewel Cave and points along the way. Hopefully the weather will clear tomorrow as the Main Event is to see and hike Badlands National Park.

I stopped at the Crazy Horse monument, an unbelievable undertaking of converting a large mountain peak into an image of the Indian chief Crazy Horse sitting astride a stallion. It is HUGE. The entirety of Mt Rushmore would be smaller than just the Chief’s headdress. They have the face done and are working on the outstretched arm. This morning the Chief’s head was literally, as well as figuratively, “in the clouds”.

The museum is quite impressive with an extensive collection of all things Indian: culture, attire, artifacts and many photos. Then it was off to Jewel Cave.

The good news is that this is by far the most impressive, fantastic, magical cave I have ever visited, and that includes Mammoth and Carlsbad. The metal scaffolding is new and the trail brings you within inches of the array of bizarre formations. It is a challenging stroll in that it has 792 stair steps spread out over about a mile length, but it was worth every bit of the leg trauma. If you ever find yourself in South Dakota, you simply HAVE to visit Jewel Cave.

The bad/ frustrating news is the cave has virtually 100% humidity, and my camera objected. I tried rebooting, installing fresh batteries, but to no avail. So no photos. 😦 However, I have included a few courtesy of the internet for your enjoyment.

Within 10 minutes after leaving the cave, the camera woke up and behaved itself perfectly. This was most fortunate, as I was having day-mares of having to go out and buy a replacement camera in Rapid City.

A bit of blue sky and sun greeted my return from the depths, so I made a quick decision to redo the Needles Highway drive in the reverse direction before going off to Mt Rushmore. I really enjoyed this experience.

To be truthful, there are spots where the highway is wide enough, and even a few curves with guardrails. BUT, whenever you meet an oncoming car, Murphy always intervenes and selects only the narrowest spot for this to happen. Oh, and I did find the “Eye of the Needle”. Of course it is in a spot where you really have to pay attention to the wheel. I found a pull-off and walked back to get the photo.

My enjoyment of the Needles experience consumed more time than I thought, so it was a rush (what else?) to get to Mt Rushmore. Sadly I arrived just as the light faded, but did get this unusual view of George on the way there.

Keep your fingers crossed for good weather tomorrow so that I can report on the Badlands.

Day Three: Exhilaration and exhaustion

Finally the storms have cleared this morning, bringing sun, blue skies and cool temps. Perfect conditions for experiencing Badlands NP, which is about 50 miles east of Rapid City via I-90.

I always check in at the visitor station to learn about the park, get hiking maps, and discuss the trails with the rangers on duty. I had read about the Notch Trail in several books, considered to be the best, but also one of the most challenging. With due warnings, I decided to try it. After visiting a few overlooks, I arrived at the Notch trailhead. The sign announced,

“Notch Trail  –  Rough Terrain – Wear Sturdy Boots – Not for the Faint-Hearted”

The trail begins with an easy wander along the base of a canyon, until you come to the Ladder From Hell. It is made from 4-inch diameter wood and strung together with heavy cable to form a flexible ladder. It begins at a modest 30 degree slope, but ends going nearly vertical.

Once at the top, a break was needed to get my breathing and heart rate under control. Then the trail gets really scary, very narrow in spots with steep climbs that require both hands and very careful foot placement, along with relying on strong ankles and good boot grip. But the payoff was when the end of the trail comes to the Notch, gloriously overlooking the White River Valley far below, enhanced by a refreshing cool breeze. I stood at the edge watching various hawks and eagles playing in the updrafts. Wonderful!

A safe return was accomplished, but not without very loud complaints from my poor abused legs. As this was going to be the only hike of the day, I exchanged the dusty hiking boots for more fashionable footwear. However at the next overlook, I found that I could barely walk, so I forced myself to walk around a bit to work out the post-trauma cramps. One should never put a horse away wet…

Every overlook brought widely varying vistas. The range of geological formations is truly remarkable. Overall, the Badlands ranks right up there with Death Valley for the most alien landscapes.

A trip to the Badlands seems to require a compulsory visit to Wall Drug Store just to the North of the park. It is a huge sprawling building filled with everything Western and all things Kitsch. What a conglomeration!  That experience was balanced by returning to the Badlands to enjoy sunset at Pinnacles Overlook.

Until tomorrow, my friends.