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Spring Break: Zion National Park

There's been a lot out there recently about the crowds at Zion so let me say first:

Yes, it's extremely crowded. For Californians, Zion is pretty much the same as Yosemite. It's very busy for much of the year, many of the trails in the Valley/Canyon are easy and accessible, and you have to work around the crowds. Going on the Mist Trail/Emerald Pools Trail in the middle of the day will get you in a traffic jam.

But just as in Yosemite it is possible to work around this. Early starts, taking a break in the middle of the day, then a late stroll will help. So will coming in the off season, to whatever extent possible. So will getting farther out on the trails -- Kolob Canyons (the analogue to Tuolumne) is much less crowded.

The shuttle system is very efficient, and not having visitors driving their own cars in the canyon is a big help. And it's absolutely, divinely gorgeous. Not very birdy this time of year, but we did see two American Dippers along the Riverwalk trail and a California Condor perched on a power pole outside the park's east entrance.

The cabins are very nice and well insulated for noise. The food at the lodge is edible but kind of meh -- we had a great dinner at the Spotted Dog and good breakfasts at MeMe's Café, and there's a good coffee shop, which I forget what it's called but it is in Springdale like the other two places and is painted blue.

So the trails. Emerald Pools is a madhouse. The paved Riverwalk and Pa'rus trails are nice, actually, with lots to see, and the latter actually wasn't particularly crowded. The Watchman Trail is worth doing. At the Weeping Rock trailhead, we only just went up to the seep (which is cool) but there are longer trails waiting for the future. I'd also recommend not exploring the park when you have a kidney infection -- my backcountry exploration will largely have to wait for next time.

But the hike up Taylor Creek, in Kolob Canyons, is world-class, astonishing, A+++, one of the best hikes I've ever taken, a mystical experience. I'm not going to tell why. Go do it -- early in the morning, since it does get popular, and at a season when the creek is not running high.

I ended Spring Break with a beautiful life Common Black Hawk perched just over the entrance road in Red Rock State Park in Sedona, sitting calmly for a long time while we inched the car closer and admired.


The southern sky glows with winter sunset.

On the shallow lakes that stretch out around the wooden viewing platform, shorebirds, ducks, and ibis gather. As the sun sets they stream across the shining sky in thousands: black ibis in skeins, ducks in calling hordes. Wings rush.

The cranes come in, honking in their medieval voices, gliding wide-winged down to rest.

The thousands of birds settle, and slowly begin to quiet down. The moon tries to rise through cloud. Rails squabble in the reeds. Starting to get cold and tired, we wonder how much longer we should wait. The celebration, the evening show, has been spectacular, but maybe it's over now. A goose or two flies in, calling, to land on the water.

A star comes out. Maybe it's not going to happen tonight.

A cloud forms in the sky to the north. A vague sound, like surf, begins to rise. Through binoculars the cloud reveals itself: snow geese, thousands of geese, darkening the sky. They stream across the moon. Their calls rise to a paean. The sound of their wings is like the sound of the waves on the shores of Elvenhome. Four thousand white and blue and silvery snow geese arrive through the dusk and land with nightfall on the lakes.

This is why.

The Breeders' Cup

Somehow I never posted picks for the Breeders' Cup. Won some, lost some.

Hey, there's a coyote sauntering through the vacant lot outside my office window right now.

Anyway, my fantasy stable horse Liam's Map, a beautiful, powerfully built, dapple gray, ran in the Dirt Mile. He was the huge favorite. But things didn't go quite as expected.

Bright sunny day at Keeneland. Liam's Map, the dapple gray favorite, turns his head in the starting gate to look at Mr. Z, the longshot next to him. Maybe Mr. Z is telling a story about how he bit off American Pharoah's tail a couple of years ago.

It's dark evening at Churchill. The lights have come on. The big black-bay mare prances, sidles, then consents to go into the gate.

Liam, a speed horse who has never failed to make the early lead in any race, breaks flat-footed and is immediately trapped along the rail.

The dark mare breaks slowly, the way she always does. She settles. This is no big deal for her.

The gray stallion is angry. His rider won't let him shoulder the leaders, Bradester and that distracting Mr. Z, aside. He tosses his head, fighting the bit, down the backstretch.

Time to move up, to start circling the field, but as the mare catches up with her rivals, one of them swings out in front of her and she steadies, losing her momentum.

Liam's rider tries to move up between horses. The hole closes. The gray steadies, trapped again.

Into the stretch in the floodlit dusk. The mare swings out to make her final move: the blazing move, the perfectly timed last run that has never failed her once. Another horse, ahead of her, is also coming out to make a run. She steadies again and swerves around him.

In mid-stretch the leaders tire and Liam gets clear, but Lea, a horse who has never lost at a mile on dirt, has gotten an unimpeded outside trip and spurted clear by four lengths. The rest of the closers are coming. The big gray looks done.

The dark mare storms down the stretch. It's not enough. She crosses the wire half a head too late.

Liam flattens his ears and surges forward with powerful strides. Lea isn't slowing down. The wire gets closer. In deep stretch, Liam's Map flies past Lea, and the sun glitters on his silver coat as he crosses the wire two lengths in front.

I don't know why Liam's Map's win in the Dirt Mile made me think of, and seemed like personal redemption for, Zenyatta's second in the Classic. It wasn't the only great performance of the event -- Tepin's Filly and Mare Turf, Songbird's Juvenile Fillies and Runhappy's Sprint stood out, as of course did American Pharoah's contemptuous dismissal of the Classic field. Victor Espinoza finally let him run. He ran the fastest mile and a quarter ever run on any surface at Keeneland, a track that has been in operation since the 1930's, without being touched by the whip. But Liam was the one I picked for my fantasy stable when he was a pretty yearling selling for 800K, and Liam's victory was the one that felt like mine.

Two hikes around Rock Creek

I stayed in the East Fork campground, which is really nice, especially now with the aspens all in their fall color. There are some RV sites and some large sites near the creek that are going to have tramp-throughs, but a lot of the sites are beautiful, private tent sites. The area is definitely birdy, although I never could get on any Golden-crowned Kinglets.

So two contrasting hikes. The first, to "Third Lake" (one of the Hilton Lakes), is a slogathon, through forest on a sandy trail, then down a steep descent, then up again some short but heinous switchbacks with big horse-steps. When you get to the lake it's a nice alpine lake, but such can be had without a 10.2 mile round trip in sand and blazing heat (the heat, admittedly, affected my attitude).

On the second day we went somewhere I've been wanting to see for a long time, Morgan Pass. That's more like it! The trail leads through a gently ascending basin full of whitebark pines (and about the greatest number of Clark's Nutcrackers I've ever seen) and shining lakes. Particularly beautiful dark rocks line Long Lake. The pass is pretty easy at just over 11K, although in my current sort of crippled state I still found it hard. On the other side is what I really want from the Sierras: little tarns in the talus with hardly any trees to be seen. I watched people fish and I was surprised to learn that those tarns can have rainbow trout in them! It's nice to get to a remote, alpine spot only about 4 miles from the trailhead (one way).

Rock Creek attracts a lot of unprepared hikers -- people heading out with just a pint bottle of supermarket water, or with nothing -- and even in late season it's very popular, but it's worth it.

A huge medial moraine above the campground blocked most of the eclipse, and when the smudgy, reddish, spooky-looking moon came up it was partly obscured by high clouds, but it was still pretty neat to see.


Hungry Packer Lake hike

I once hiked from Lake Sabrina to Hungry Packer and back as a day hike. It was my most heroic moment. Unfortunately, I can't remember when it was (2007?) and I didn't blog it or take any pictures, apparently.

Now, post- being diagnosed with back arthritis and in much worse shape, I went back up with my dad as an overnight trip.

First day, to Blue Lake. Bit of a slog. We set up camp, then day hiked to Donkey Lake. Very pretty, fish, poorly marked trail that is easy to lose.

Second day, to Hungry Packer. How did I ever do this in one day?? Ow! Beautiful lake, beautiful sparkling weather. A couple of places where the trail is iffy to follow; watch for ducks and lines of rocks. Collapsed, then hiked around the lake. Lots of hungry mosquitoes. Family of Dusky Flycatchers. Baby marmots. Baby Belding's ground squirrel.

Stayed at Hungry Packer while day hiking up to Echo Lake. This is cross country. Contour around on the slabs, find some kind of way above or through the first talus, cross to the left of Moonlight (?) Lake to avoid some of the second talus, then stay near the outflow while climbing the giant talus. Echo Lake is beautiful, and there were Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches eating moths at the lakeside right by us, totally unconcerned. This was a tiring day, though, and knee pain kept me up that night.

Also cold wind and having to perform a biological operation at somewhere around 3 AM in said wind. However, falling stars.

So my back was basically fine, but my knee is screwed. Figures. We had meant to stay at Midnight Lake and day hike to Blue Heaven, but I looked at the route and thought it wasn't worth the possibility that my knee would give out completely, so we had lunch at Midnight and headed out. Midnight is nice but not necessarily worth its own trip. The hike out is godawful. Really, I did this in one day? Big steps, loose crap, pounded knees, rammed toes, rolled ankles. Woefully total lack of trail maintenance (our public lands are sadly underfunded. I found myself wondering what a similar trail would look like in, say, Switzerland). The last part along the lake takes forever! and it was hot. But there's a gorgeous selection of wildflowers.

Nice to get out and have a good time (despite my knee issues), no crises, perfect weather.


In 1996, I started watching horse racing on TV. I'd loved horses all my life, but never had consistent TV access.

In 1997, Silver Charm was run down by Touch Gold in deep stretch, losing the Triple Crown by a couple of lengths.

I've been waiting ever since.

I didn't imagine it would look like this: a horse with his ears pricked, playful and happy, bouncing over the ground, nonchalantly brushing off pace pressure, running each part of the race faster than the one before (done before: by Secretariat), never tested, never anywhere near fully extended. Frosted, gamely trying in second, was making zero impact. They could have gone around again and never caught American Pharoah.

The final time of 2:26.65 was faster than Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and all of the Belmont winners for the last 12 years since Point Given, and he won in hand.

American Pharoah will hopefully run a few more times this year, and then a stud deal has been made. It's no surprise that a Triple Crown winner would rapidly go to stud. It's OK. Zenyatta needs a boy-toy.

50 ways to lose the Belmont

He could fall on his face out of the gate like War Emblem. He could, gods forbid, get hurt, like Charismatic or I'll Have Another. He could run well but find another horse just a bit better on the day, like Silver Charm or Real Quiet. He could expend too much energy during the race, like Funny Cide or SmartyJones. He could have some kind of mysterious foulup, like Big Brown. He could have a combination of issues, like California Chrome. He could get a wide trip. He could find that he takes less after his Belmont winner grandsire and more after the one who was a mediocre sprinter. He could just prove to be a tired horse.

If none of those things happen, it's possible that America Pharoah can win the Triple Crown.

It will not shock me if he loses, as nice as it would be to see somebody win.

I'll be betting him with Madefromlucky, Frosted, and Materiality in various combinations.

First draft of The Rekindled Sun is done

The last book of the Sun Saga has taken me just under a year to write (I was finishing Book 2 a year ago). It has a more ambitious structure than anything else I've tried, and I decided that it had to have a female POV character and a happy ending.

It does have one female POV, and the ending at least leaves the door open for the surviving characters to live happily ever after.

It was hard to write the last chapter. I found myself not wanting to finish -- to be done with the journey. I thought about all the different things that could have happened in the story, and now never will. I wondered what I'll do without my favorite character's misadventures to chronicle. At times I've been so obsessed with this story that I literally couldn't think about anything else. Now I keep simultaneously feeling freed and wanting to cry.

The story continues, but I don't want to be one of those authors who finds a comfort zone and writes 20 books in it, so although I can't promise no Book 4, I don't expect one.

My beta readers have the draft, and once they've commented and corrections have been made, I'll publish the book. I expect that will be some time in July or August.


The Preakness is even harder to handicap

With a short field, the Preakness seems even harder to handicap than the Derby. I don't have a strong rooting interest, so I'm just hoping that everyone runs a good race and pulls up sound.

American Pharaoh is the most likely winner.

But all three top finishers in the Derby look live. On the other hand, they all had a hard race, and it wouldn't surprise me if at least one regresses. Which one? Dortmund used to be able to come from off the pace, but lately he's been showing a common Achilles' heel of Baffert trainees, a need-the-lead tendency. On the other hand, he reportedly had a mild case of colic the week before the Derby, so that may have sapped his energy just a bit, meaning he could improve...

Danzig Moon outran his odds in the Derby, but I'm not seeing why he would move forward Saturday. Except that there's a lot of pace, on paper. What if the race falls apart?

Divining Rod was visually impressive in his last win and looks like the only "new shooter" with a shot at winning.

However... Tale of Verve is going to be a huge price, since he just broke his maiden. But it was at 1 3/16ths, a distance none of the others has tried. He's also a bit interesting since he has a modest pedigree, but sold for a lot of money. It would be surprising if he won, but I think he can finish third.

Either Bodhisattva or Mr. Z would be somewhat surprising to finish better than fourth.

Assuming there's a double available with the Black-Eyed Susan, I'll probably bet Danessa Deluxe, Include Betty, and Luminance there, and either single AP or use him and one other horse in the Preakness.

In the Preakness, I might try to put just a dollar or two on a weird trifecta that has a chance of paying well:
Divining Rod/AP, Dortmund, Firing Line/Tale of Verve.

The day after

Cognitive stuff is just weird.

I had in my mind that Firing Line would not get 1 1/4th and was not a true GI horse, basically because of his pedigree, all his performances to the contrary. I was wrong, and thus I did not hit the exacta, despite having the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th place finishers. When I actually looked up Firing Line's pedigree, it isn't all that bad. My system picked him as a potential exacta candidate, but my mind just locked down and I couldn't see him as a contender, therefore I lost money.

American Pharaoh can rate, and can get in a fight and win. Speaking of pedigree, his dam's side is not too encouraging for the Belmont, but we'll see. Frosted ran well as the only closer to make up significant ground. Dortmund is taking some heat for not holding on to the lead after "slow" fractions, but 23 and change, 47 and change are only slow in the context of the usual crazy Derby pace. This Derby was run much more like a normal stakes race. A young 3YO going that fast on the lead with 1 1/4th to go is going fairly fast. Having said that I may also have been wrong about Dortmund's physicality trumping his middle-distance pedigree.

As always, some seeming contenders ran poorly. I didn't see the excuse for Carpe Diem; Upstart may have been shut off going into the first turn. We'll see how they come out of the race.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what Frosted and perhaps Texas Red do in the Belmont.

My yearling sale pick, Shook Up, was a good second in the Oaks after a weird trip where she steadied a bit, was on the rail, then out a path, then in, then out, and once again was staring at the stands in the stretch (why not blinkers?). Very proud of her.