The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff

In the thick of war, there are a few legitimate war stories that nonetheless have a People magazine-ish aspect to them. Mitchell Zuckoff’s well-told tale of survival after a WWII plane crash in the New Guinea rainforest is one of them, almost entirely because one of the few survivors was a beautiful young woman member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). To make it even more interesting, while the area was referred to as “Shangri-La,” it was, in fact, populated by a fractious, constantly warring population of previously uncontacted native peoples who sometimes engaged in cannibalism.

Although this is a fascinating story that almost tells itself, I have to give Zuckoff a lot of credit – he clearly did tons of research, and yet the book does not read like a research project. Well-written, with quotes from many different sources – including some of the native people who interacted with the survivors – Lost in Shangri-La is a fascinating account of an incredible adventure.

After a large valley was discovered in central New Guinea, U.S. Army personnel stationed in Hollandia (now Jayapura) New Guinea took short recreational flights to view the valley and glimpse the Dani tribal people who populated it. There were any number of hazards involved in these joyrides, however. The valley was at altitude, and it was surrounded by steep mountain ranges in such a way that the pilots had to know what they were doing and give their full attention to the journey. For some reason, that didn’t happen the day that the gorgeous Margaret Hastings, Sgt. Kenneth Decker, Lt. John McCollom, 19 other passengers, and 2 crew members cruised over the valley. Instead, the aircraft crashed. McCollom crawled out of the wreckage largely unscathed, although his identical twin Robert, sitting in another part of the plane, did not. Hastings and Decker made it out on their own despite injuries. Three others who survived the initial disaster perished soon thereafter.

John McCollom helped Decker, suffering from a head injury and burns, and Hastings, with painful burns on her legs, struggle to a clearing where they would be visible to searchers flying overhead. Just as they were spotted, they also encountered some of the warlike Dani tribesmen. How they managed this encounter is one of the more interesting parts of the book. Let’s just say they survived. But with gangrene setting in, Hastings feared losing her legs, and Decker’s life was endangered. An unhappily idle collection of Filippino-American paratroopers, led by a young and ambitious C. Earl Walter, Jr., who’d spent much of his childhood in the Philippines, was given the opportunity to participate in the rescue.

Walter sent down medics “Doc” Bulatao and “Rammy” Ramirez to help with the survivors’ immediate needs. Although McCollom and Walter are largely the heroes of this story, Bulatao and Ramirez really were the people who kept it from being even more of a tragedy. Without them, it was entirely possible that McCollom would have been the only long-term survivor. Their lack of recognition frustrated Walter, and Zuckoff did a good job of portraying their extremely important role in the rescue.

Still, there was no clear way to get them out due to the lack of roads, the difficulties with helicopters at altitude, and other issues. Under orders to “think of something” while others “thought of something,” Walter and another 8 Filipino-American paratroopers leapt into the jungle to help stabilize the situation with the survivors, ensure their safety, and prepare a just-in-case landing strip for an aircraft. Decker and Hastings were now mobile but nowhere near capable of the estimated 150-mile trek out of the valley. Interactions with the Dani became more difficult over time, and when a means of evacuation – by glider – was decided upon, the Hollandia headquarters crew decided to spend several days testing it. In the mean time, Alexander Cann, a journalist and professional character, decided to best his fellow reporters and parachuted down to join the small group.

Eventually, there was a rescue. How well it went is something for you to read about. I can’t imagine anyone not liking this book, so I’m going to give it my strongest recommendation.

There really weren’t any animal characters to speak of. Pigs played a special role in Dani society – they were valued as quasi-pets, as sources of wealth, and as meat – but that’s about it. So there’s nothing in particular to discuss in that regard.



September 18, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, historical fiction, nonfiction, travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2011: Phantom Ranch

Our stay at Phantom Ranch was the best part of the trip. Our overall approach to Phantom Ranch was unusual, at least compared to others we’ve met down there. What did we do? We turned it into a destination in and of itself, instead of a place to land during a multi-day hike. We were there for 4 nights and 3 full days. People who just use it as a rest stop ask us what on earth there is to do at Phantom Ranch. The answer is, plenty!

Although the hike down was hellish, the moment I walked into the women’s dorm at Phantom Ranch, things began to turn around, literally. The only bed left was an upper bunk, but someone saw me and said “oh, you need a lower bunk,” and gave me hers! (The lower bunks are usually more desirable.) This 10-bunk dorm was the best ever, populated by friendly women and girls who looked out for each other, shared anecdotes, and respected privacy.

They even had a sense of humor about the buckets. Due to plumbing things I don’t understand, and heavy run-off from winter snow melt, the powers that be at Phantom Ranch decided it was best to turn off the toilets. Instead of flushing, we dragged into the dorm big buckets of water that we filled with a hose outside, poured water from the buckets into the toilets, and … learned that if your toilet ever breaks, you can force stuff down it by pouring a big bucket of water into it. Who knew? Newcomers to the dorm were initially dismayed but eventually laughed about it, as that was the only sane reaction.

Aside from bucket wrangling, we hiked a bit, went to the twice-daily ranger talks, watched wildlife (bighorn sheep, ringtail cats, deer, etc.), chatted up our fellow Ranchers, wrote postcards, read, napped, and ate, all in one of the most beautiful spots in the country, made that much sweeter by the difficulty most people face in reaching it. Here are some pictures:


July 10, 2011 Posted by | Arizona, Grand Canyon, national parks, photography, travel, Uncategorized, wildlife | , , , , | Leave a comment

2011: Hike into the Grand Canyon – A Candidate for “Worst Day of My Life”

On our 13-day trip, there was only one bad day: April 26, the day we hiked down into the Grand Canyon. And it was bad, bad, bad.

We had hiked down Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch twice before. This was our third trip. We are not power hikers or Canyon junkies, but we were not rookies.

Let me be very clear: we had done this previously. We knew what was involved.

So … what went wrong? Two things, primarily. One was our doing and preventable, and the second was completely out of our control.

The mistake was that we decided to eat breakfast on the trail. Before, we started off after a fairly large breakfast, but the thought was that energy bars on the trail would allow us to get an earlier start and earlier arrival. It backfired, and this was my fault. We had a light breakfast, and at 1.5 Mile House, Dave ate energy bars. I changed out of my long underwear (it was cold!) in the restrooms, and decided I wasn’t hungry enough to eat more than a couple of bites of one energy bar. By time we were within sight of 3 Mile House, I had a horrible leg cramp and had to sit alongside the trail and eat something. An English muffin and a cup of coffee are not enough food for 3 miles of difficult hiking. I had been drinking enough, including electrolyte replacement. It was the lack of food that caused the problem. I was rattled and, since I always find the hike down to be difficult, I stayed rattled. But this was the lesser of the two problems.

The big problem, the one completely out of our control, was the wind.

At the time of this hike, the country was being savaged by tornadoes in various regions. The Grand Canyon was beset by high winds, too, though not of a destructive nature. Still, it ruined our hike down, which was difficult to begin with and compounded by my leg cramp. We’re estimating the winds in the Canyon to have been up to 40 miles per hour. Walking into the wind was like pushing against a wall; winds from the side and back affected balance. It was the desert, and the wind dried us out. When exercising, people often breathe through their mouths, and the dry wind just sucked the moisture out of us. As Dave said, it was like walking into a hair dryer. It was an awful, miserable experience, and we soon learned that we weren’t the only ones who felt that way.

And to top it all off, I have balance issues going down. It’s not always obvious where to place my feet. (Going up is fine.) Hiking down, especially on a steep trail, is hard on the joints as well. Dave’s knee was wonky to begin with, so this was also tough for him, in addition to the wind.

So I eventually started unravelling. Part of me, the core part, knew I would complete the hike and be fine. The external part of me was completely miserable and immersed in despair. I think if we had had an additional problem of any sort, we would have been in serious trouble.

And this is why I am never doing this hike again. It taxed us to the extreme the first two times we did it. This third time was just too hard. It wasn’t safe.

I did take pictures on the way down, though not as many as usual:

Next up: Phantom Ranch, where everything immediately became wonderful.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | Arizona, Grand Canyon, national parks, travel, weather | , , , | 2 Comments

2011: South Rim of the Grand Canyon

From Sedona, we headed to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Normally, we drive up to Flagstaff on Route 89, stop for lunch, and take 180 straight to the Canyon. It’s not the fastest route, but it’s by far the most scenic. This time, however, we got back on 89 and took route 64 along the eastern route, also known as the East Rim Drive. We hadn’t done this in many years, and we wanted to see as much of the Canyon as possible. Here’s a map for perspective.

And here are some photos:

We then checked into El Tovar, the historic “luxury” hotel on the South Rim. We’ve stayed there before, and it truly is gorgeous and well-appointed. But this time, we learned just how luxurious it could be. Yes, we were upgraded to a suite. It was huge, just gigantic. And beautiful. The photos in the link don’t do it justice, and leave out a lot of the beautiful interior. So I’m going to include a few of my own, though not enough to really give a sense of the space:

Unfortunately, it was too cold and way too windy to use the balcony. The wind turned out to be a real problem a couple of days later, but that’s for the next post.

June 20, 2011 Posted by | Arizona, Grand Canyon, hotels, photography, travel | , | Leave a comment

A 2011 Southwestern Vacation: Sedona and Jerome, Arizona

We have been to Sedona, Arizona quite a few times, especially for people who live on the East Coast. But each visit is a bit different. This time, the primary reason for visiting was to adjust to the desert environment a bit before going to the Grand Canyon, where we planned to hike down to the Colorado River and stay a few nights at Phantom Ranch — the purpose of our trip. So we didn’t hike much in the Sedona area, even though that could have been a vacation in and of itself. Instead, we relaxed, ate, and shopped.

We also stayed at a new hotel, Kings Ransom. We had been staying at a lovely inn with great breakfasts, but it was pricey, and we felt less at home their as our favorite staff turned over. It just wasn’t worth the extra $120+ per night. By contrast, Kings Ransom had lovely grounds, including a pool and hot tub, a great location within walking distance of the center of the commercial district, and a perfect balance of night-time lighting, so that you could see where you were going but also see the stars very well. Our room had a balcony, king-sized bed, and small refrigerator. Add to that free WiFi, and we were all set.

We ate well, which we always do — I’ll eventually be writing the restaurant reviews on my food blog, I Hate Tomatoes! But I will say that 15.Quince in Jerome, where we had an amazing lunch, was a real find, and that Dahl and DiLuca was our choice for the repeat restaurant when we returned for a 1-night stay in Sedona on our way to Phoenix.

Sedona has changed over the years. When Dave and I first visited in the mid-1990s, it was a funky little town with a bunch of hotels, a few restaurants, some shops, and a lot of breathtaking views. It’s no longer funky, many of the breathtaking views now have homes filling in what was once open space, and the restaurants have gone upscale. The town still rolls up the sidewalks by 9 p.m. — I’m not one for staying out late, but it really does seem to fold up early there. It’s still one of the most beautiful places in the Southwest, but it no longer has that air of being a little undiscovered gem. For a bit of that, you go to the town of Jerome

Granted, Jerome is not exactly undiscovered. But it’s certainly not as slick as Sedona. It’s a bit rougher around the edges, a bit less predictable, and a bit more fun. Set onto a steep hillside and nicknamed “America’s Most Vertical City,” it requires a lot of walking. But around every corner, there’s something different, whether it’s somebody’s deck, an old brothel that’s been turned into a museum, an art gallery, or a bakery. We’re not recreational shoppers, but we are explorers, and we enjoyed checking out Jerome’s various nooks and crannies. That took the better part of a day.

The other day in Sedona … I asked Dave what we did, because I couldn’t remember. And he couldn’t remember, either. I know we didn’t hike. Usually, we’re pretty active, but that day we weren’t. From what I can recall, we ate lunch at a new restaurant. We bought additional hiking gear at Canyon Outfitters, which does not have a website. We read. And we psyched ourselves up for the next phase of the trip: driving to the Grand Canyon.

June 15, 2011 Posted by | Arizona, hotels, Sedona, travel, Uncategorized, weather | , , , | Leave a comment

Grand Canyon 2011: A Glorious Trip Interrupted by the Worst Day of My Life

In April, Dave and I went to Arizona in order to make our third trip down Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We’re hikers but not athletes, and this hike tests our limits. This time, I think we found our limits, at least on the way down. But it was still a great trip. I have a few regrets, but they’re all centered on that one day. The rest of the trip was nothing short of glorious.

So I’m going to write a series of blog posts, covering our stays in Sedona and along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, our various lodgings, the people we met, Phantom Ranch itself, the hike out, some of the beautiful scenery (photos!), and the worst day of my life — April 26, 2011, the day we hiked down. On my food blog, I will also be discussing where and what we ate.


May 28, 2011 Posted by | national parks, travel | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, by Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers

I so love this book! In fact, I love it so much that I’ve read it three times now.

When I’ve mentioned Over the Edge to friends, they’ve asked if it isn’t gruesome reading about death. Like mysteries and thrillers aren’t? Actually, I find Over the Edge to be instructive, especially since a) the authors include a fair number of rescue stories in the text and b) I’m a Grand Canyon hiker and have seen some of the hazards they discuss.

But in addition to presenting case histories to illustrate some of the dangers lurking in the Canyon, Over the Edge is entertaining. The format of describing anecdotes about deaths and rescues could have resulted in a jerky, overly episodic book with no flow, but the authors skillfully weave the stories together so that they lead almost seamlessly from one to the other. And, like I said, it’s instructive. Here are some of the main things that can kill you in the Grand Canyon:

  • Being a young male (the young part fixes itself eventually; the male part is a bit more complicated)
  • Hiking in the summer when it’s beastly hot and there are flash floods
  • Trying to do too much with too little water
  • Hiking solo
  • Getting off the trail
  • Flying on the wrong airplane
  • Playing along the edge of the rim and not taking the guard rails seriously
  • Swimming or otherwise stupidly goofing around in the Colorado River

You notice I did not mention scorpion bites or rattlesnake bites. No one has died from a scorpion bite in the Canyon, nor a rattlesnake bite. People have been bitten, yes, and they’ve been in pain and had some problems. This is the one thing people worry about disproportionately to the reality, according to the authors. Note that the longest chapter has to do with people dying in the river. Rafting the Colorado is on my anti-bucket list: I don’t want to do it, ever. Much of this attitude comes from the fact that I am a lousy swimmer. Over the Edge has reinforced this desire.

My only problem with the book is that it hasn’t been updated since its original publishing date of 2001. I get that that would be a major pain, and expensive. But there have been a lot of accidents and incidents in the Canyon since then…  Still, I’m recommending this book, and I think it should be mandatory reading for anyone headed to Grand Canyon National Park for more than a quick look.

As for animals, there are no real animal characters as such, though there are some incidents involving animals. One woman got lost in the Canyon (never hike solo, never go off the trail, etc.) accompanied by her little dog, Cocoa Gin. Poor little Cocoa Gin wandered off, starving and disoriented, but she was rescued and served as a valuable clue to her owner’s disappearance. There were some pack mules and horses that fell off trails, a couple of “misplaced” rattlesnakes, and livestock not surviving a swim across the Colorado (don’t swim in the Colorado River!). But there is nothing in the book that would keep an animal lover awake at night, so I am declaring Over the Edge SAFE for animal lovers.


March 2, 2011 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, history, national parks, nonfiction, travel | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Handling Sin, by Michael Malone

I want Mingo Sheffield to be a character in every book I read from here on out. I seriously loved him by the end of this book, even though I started off finding him annoying. Handling Sin is 671 pages long, but just about every page contained a laugh or a moment of joy, so it is definitely worth putting in the time to read it.

Mingo was not the protagonist, by the way. Raleigh Hayes, one of Mingo’s few friends, is. And Raleigh’s elderly father, who is in poor health on top of it all, runs off from the hospital with a young woman, leaving Raleigh with a long list of tasks he must complete if he ever wants to see any of his inheritance. Motivated more by concern for his evidently crazy father, Raleigh sets off on this mission, reluctantly taking Mingo along, and thereby stars in one of the most delightful books I have ever read.

The journey is wild. Raleigh has to deal with criminals of many different sorts, pregnant women and babies, stubborn people, eager people, gullible and naive people, angry people, the KKK, and his own crazy family. This includes Gates, his half brother and an adept liar, as well as his well-traveled aunt, Victoria Anna. Here are a couple of representative quotes:

Victoria sighed. “I stepped on a plate of deviled eggs last time I was here.”

“Oh, gollee, what a happy morning!” Mingo threw his arm back around Raleigh. “Look at everybody’s new clothes! Look at those daffodils!”

This is a funny, intricately plotted, happy, ramble of a book, and as long as it was, I was sad to see it end. I give it a very strong recommendation.

As for animals, there are some references to a few unpleasantries, including some farm animal butcherings, and a few funny moments. So I will say the book is MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

January 18, 2011 Posted by | Book Reviews, death of a parent, families, humor, travel | | 1 Comment

New Mexico 2010: Pueblos and Plains, Mountains and Snow

We visited Bandelier National Monument during this trip.

We didn’t really have enough time to see the place in depth, but we did manage to do the walk through the pueblo ruins:

I am a big fan of the National Park Service, and I have to say that the trail through the ruins is laid out extremely well. We also visited Pecos National Historical Park, just outside Santa Fe, which had a rich history as the center of trade between the Plains Indians and the Pueblo Indians. The Park includes land that once belonged to the late actress Greer Garson, as part of a ranch owned by Garson and her third husband (the marriage that lasted), Buddy Fogelson. Here are a couple of pictures of the ruins, plus more fall color in the area:

While we spent a lot of time in the mountains outside Santa Fe and Taos:

we also visited the plains to the east of Taos, driving through some pretty awesome canyons:

Finally, back in Albuquerque, we drove up to the top of the Sandia Crest, which had just received its initial snowfall of the season, which rested on the tops of the trees:

And that was our vacation! Thanks to Dave for being the best traveling companion ever.

I’ll resume posting book reviews next week. As you can imagine, I’ve got quite a backlog.

November 23, 2010 Posted by | Albuquerque, history, national parks, New Mexico, Santa Fe, Taos, travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Mexico 2010: Astrophysics and Aspens

Sometimes, there’s so much material that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’m going to do this chronologically.

On the same day that we went to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge,

we also visited the Very Large Array. What the hell is that? you are possibly wondering. Well, it’s a collection of 27 enormous radio antennae in the middle of New Mexico. And it’s kind of cool. Here’s one of the antennae:

and here is a bunch of them:

For more info, visit our friends at Wikipedia.

Upon leaving the Very Large Array, we made a mistake and ended up on a really lousy road that Hertz should not have on its maps. It was sort of our own fault for having left several good maps back in the room, but in any case, you want to avoid Route 603 in New Mexico. It’s a washboarded, rutted mess of a road in the middle of nowhere. We did pick up a rather cool route while trying to correct that mistake and saw some of the truly off-the-beaten path badlands, but I didn’t take any pictures. However, I do want to thank the woman who was driving the SUV in front of us, aka “Pilot Car.” It was good to know there was another vehicle out there with us in the middle of nowhere.

A couple of days later, we found ourselves in the Santa Fe Ski Basin. No, we do not ski, and besides, it was too early. We went there in pursuit of aspens full of fall color. And that is exactly what we found in great abundance.

I never “got” what was so special about aspens before this trip. They’re beyond beautiful, and the rustling of their leaves is an almost sacred sound, so that you want to whisper.

Next, and last of this series on New Mexico: Pueblos and plains, mountains and snow

November 19, 2010 Posted by | Albuquerque, New Mexico, Santa Fe, travel | , , , | 1 Comment