“So you like full body men?” Nasim’s English was good, but his accent sometimes threw me.
“Yes,” I answered. I though he meant a man in the Full Monty. Everything about a man.
“I don’t know. Why do you like women?”
He paused. “I ask if you like men with full body, you know, stout.”
“Oh,” there was no offense taken. “Yes, they catch my eye. But it’s not so important as a beard.” I had already done my usual disclaimer, how embarrassed I am to be so shallow, only attracted to men with beards.
We were driving east out of St. George, Utah. In the far distance, the towering peaks of Zion National Park made a majestic backdrop to the nearer mesas and hills. I had known Nasim most of my two years at the lab but we’d never spent any time together. On a long car trip, you get to talking. I was glad the topic of my being gay had caused no more ripples than sincere curiosity. I was pleased he felt comfortable to ask me rather personal questions about it.
This trip, a week at the end of May, was to meet up with the field crew doing vegetation surveys in Grand Staircase / Escalante National Monument. I’d be there to make sure their data flow was going OK. Nasim, whose specialty is statistical modeling, was going, among other things, to rendezvous with a possible future collaborator from NASA.
“What’s his interest? Remote sensing?” I had asked.
“He use supercomputer. Number crunching.” Nasim went on to explain the details of their parallel processing network. It made about as much sense to me as, I expect, my description of the vegetation data entry did to him.
Also on my agenda was tracking down a computer bug. The program I wrote, and fondly sent off with the crew, had reported mysterious crashes during preliminary run-throughs in Utah. I was puzzled. It had been reliable for field testing in Colorado.
When word got back to me, I tried in vain to make that version, version 5, crash. I did everything I could think of. I had suspicions of where the bug lay, in a seemingly innocent logic check I’d added right at the end. It was not a very important check, so I emailed Elle a retro version, version 4, with a line enabled to skip over the suspicious section.
Still, I couldn’t rest easy. To have a reliable program, you run it, and something happens. Then, you change something, and something different happens. Finally, you undo your change and see if the first thing happens again. Consistently. If it’s consistent, you figure you can trust it to behave.
This bug was of the worst kind. It didn’t happen quick. You’d be a ways into the plot, and then, unexpectedly, error message. So it took a lot of effort to run each test. And it was not consistent. It happened different places from one time to the next. Also, people reported, the computer would lose all your work. Crashes you can live with, but losing all the data is very bad news. I’d built in backups, but this bug seemed to lose those too. I wanted to make the crash occur in front of me, to see if this were true. But the bug would never happen when I was using it. Never.
I could understand why they were nervous about the program. Data on paper is tedious to input later, but at least it doesn’t vanish at a random keystroke. I was committed to swatting this bug!
“I hope you don’ mind me asking,” Nasim roused me from reverie. Towering red rock pinnacles were a majestic view to the north. The highway had dipped south into Arizona and the Vermilion Cliffs stood tall behind Colorado City. “With you and Joseph, who is the, ah, feminine?”
Again, there was no offense taken. I would probably ask equally novice questions about Islamic culture and his native Saudi Arabia.
“I suppose somewhere in the world,” I tactfully began, “There must be guys who play roles like that. But I’ve never known any. Me and Joe, we both like masculinity. That’s why we like each other.”
I registered that my boyfriend’s name had changed to the more formal “Joseph” here, and tried to guess the mental image. A prim and tailored hairdresser? Far cry from the real Joe, years working on Alaska fishing boats, and now a rough and ready network installer in Denver, lugging spools of cable and drilling holes through office ceilings.
“How you meet him?” Nasim had asked earlier.
“Over the Internet. He wrote me email last summer, out of the blue. Found my website somehow. Started off, blunt, ‘What’s it like to have sex with another man?’ I figured, just coming out and needs some help. I answered all his questions very frankly. Didn’t know if we’d ever meet. But we wrote the rest of the summer. In September when I was passing through Denver we rendezvoused for lunch. Then again for a hike.
I sketched out for Nasim my connection with this man I had ended up dating for about a year. I had been Joe’s first. We were good for each other, but it wasn’t a long-term match. In our time together, though, we treated each other very well.
Nasim and I drove on through the afternoon. That evening at our destination, Paria Canyon Guest Ranch, we met the field crew. I took one of the handhelds they’d had problems with and paced around trying to make the program crash. No luck.
Next morning, I went out to do plots with Nancy and Troy. We used the handheld program, and made simultaneous hardcopy just in case. Our sites were near Buckskin Canyon, an area I’d worked a year before.
We stood in the sagebrush, the broken wall of Vermilion Cliffs in the distance. We chose our starting point, laid out the equipment, and started working through the plot. The sun rose higher in the morning sky and the temperature climbed. Occasional gnats would whine in my ear. They were nearly invisible, but when I looked close I could tell there were clouds of them. Not as bad as June two years ago on Fiftymile Mountain, but I wiped on more DEET. A beard is protection from most biting bugs, but these were tiny enough to tunnel right in. And not be noticed until the maddening itch would begin, hours later.
To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, “Don’t buy Comfort at the cost of your Joy.” This living can be hard, but it suits me. Tiny flowers peeped from under the sage bushes. I showed Troy and Nancy how to tell them apart. There were all sorts of interesting things, in that secret world a few inches from the red desert floor.
The handheld program kept working. Everyone was impressed with its features. “This does all the gruntwork for you,” was the consensus, “You don’t even have to think!”
“You have plenty enough to think about on these surveys,” I said, “It does a few things computers are good at. Memory, and keeping lists.” If only it wouldn’t crash.
Or rather, if only it would! Seeing a lockup would be the first step towards fixing it.
But the program kept on working. We finished our morning plot and ate lunch. The heat was like a furnace. We made full use of water, juice, and Gatorade. In the afternoon, we chose a little bit different site straddling a small rise of white, calcareous soil. The hardened earth resisted cow trampling, and was thick with mosses and lichen. The plants reflected the change too. There were some flowers like yellow daisies on 8-inch stalks. The foliage smelled like incense. Or ginger, Nancy thought. There were tiny bicolor gilias, red and blue. There was a wild buckwheat with heart-shaped leaves, cotton white.
The program kept on functioning. Back at the ranch, I went over the data. Nasim, curious, peered over his glasses at my screen, “How your program working?” he asked
“Perfectly!” I admitted, in utter dejection.
That evening in camp, I was introduced to the tradition of the Town Trip. Of course, I have worked on field projects before. I’m sure the energy is the same the world over whether “town” is Ardenvoir, Washington or the last outpost on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Only the details differ, and the slow progression of fashion. A few centuries ago, it would have been to sell your gold dust at the assay office, then dance with the red-gowned hussies down’t the saloon. In the year 2001, it’s for frozen yogurt and to check your email.
Town was Page, Arizona. Two vehicles were headed in. Some of us wanted to stop by Lake Powell for a swim. The others, Sheila, Gail, and Willow, were going directly there.
The process seemed interminable. There were plant samples to press, logistics to meet over, snacks to nosh. “Town trips always seem so long,” remarked Nancy as we set out a little ahead of the others. “Even getting started.” I wondered if it would still be hot enough so swimming would feel good.
The red and white banded mesas rolled by as we made our way past Church Wells and Big Water. Blue-green fingers of the lake came into view, and we pulled off towards one of them. The cute bearded gnome in the entry booth joked, “Paid all your money to see the sights!” as Nancy flashed her seven-day permit.
It was all, not exactly a race against time, but sort of a relay. After 8:00 pm, you need a camping permit to enter the National Recreation Area. We were just under that. The library in Page closed at 8 also, but that was Arizona time, so we had an hour.
We pulled to a stop. The broad sand beach was a strange contrast to the rugged rock and crusted soil of the rest of this terrain. There were a few other rigs scattered around, deeply tanned retirees mostly. We slipped in the water to cross a small inlet. We swam past a little boy and a little girl bouncing on a trampoline.
Troy and Alfred were both young guys, slender as gazelles. Both had dreadlock and little goatees, Alfred blonde and Troy dark. Somehow it came up that I was going to be training botanists in State College, Pennsylvania, week after next.
“No way!” exclaimed Alfred, “I just graduated Penn State!”
“Cool,” I said, “Tell me all the plants there!” We laughed.
The lake water was a refreshing shock, then comfortable. When you first got out of it, the dry desert breeze licking your wet skin could feel downright chilly. That only lasted a few minutes, though.
We swam out to where some slim reeds were sticking up from the water. No, not reeds it turned out. They were thin sticks, the remnants of drowned willow thickets, and sparse. Everything else was gone from what must have once been masses of brush. So the water level goes up and down here, the story in miniature of this vast terrain.
All these mesas of flat rock were once sand and mud. Some are marked by long sweeping angled lines and a tapered thickness to the layers. That’s the signature of sandstone that was laid down as drifting dunes. But many, most, layers lie flat. They were beaches, deltas, the beds of lakes.
I try to picture the time when this bedrock came to be. A land of red mud. Like the Southeastern states, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, are today? And much water, to move all that sediment and lay it flat. Green and steamy, with dinosaurs and cycad forests?
There are places where red layers alternate white layers, each only a few feet thick. Or even inches. As always I am impressed how each of these layers was once a world. Think of your world; your yard, an open field, a familiar beach. What you see, geologically, is at most the surface. All your long life, digging in the garden, say, or walking familiar paths, you live with the color of that soil. The level of it. To all the plants and animals, for a clutch of centuries or more, it would be their world.
But here in the Utah redlands, as in the Colorado foothills, the bluffs of Puget Sound, and places innumerable around the globe, there’s evidence undeniable that such a world finally comes to an end. It is erased, and the canvas for a new picture is stretched over the frame. Indeed, this is a most common thing. The bands of red and white go up and up. For how long was each a playa, a beach, the broad bottom of a valley? Then, one day, a flood, a sandstorm, and soon it is forgotten that this world of red mud was once white sand, a few feet lower. Maybe centuries go by, a span longer than all we call “history”. Then the world changes again. We’ve had a few mere tastes of it in Mt. St. Helens, Pompeii, the Jamestown flood. On each of these thin red and white layers here, all the newsreels of the Discovery Channel could be staged. Hundreds, thousands of winter snows, spring rains, drifts of autumn leaves (or whatever they had in the Jurassic). Then the world changes.
Alfred is walking on the beach. “I think he’s anxious to check his email,” says Nancy. We make our way ashore, swim the inlet, dry off and brush off sand.
The highway winds through the rocks towards the buildings and green lawns of Page. We cross Glen Canyon Dam, damned by so many environmentalists. On the side away from the lake, space yawns like a cliff, dropping away to give a hint of the canyon that used to be.
We turn onto the road to the library. It curves through neighborhoods and past shopping centers. We stop at a red light. There is a white rig ahead, first in line.
“It’s the girls,” says Alfred, “Right in front of us.”
“They’ll hog all the terminals,” says Troy.
“Let’s beat ’em!” says Nancy.
As soon as the light changes, Troy floors it. We whiz past the white rig and speed towards the library. The girls have figured it out and are in hot pursuit.
As we pull into the loading circle, Alfred, Nancy and I brace to jump out. “Snag me a port!” calls Troy. We sprint past the landscaping of desert willow, spindly red aloe flowers, and tawny crushed rock. I’m neck and neck with Sheila from the other car, both of us laughing.
As we get near the door, a young security guard seated on the wall bench addresses us leisurely. “Internet?” he asks. “You folks don’t look like you’re here for books.” Then, as if reading our thoughts, “All the power’s off,” he comments.
Sure enough, inside is dim with filtered daylight, sneaking in from small windows behind the stacks. The librarians stand dutifully behind darkened counters. They direct me to the water fountain to refill my jug.
The next morning I headed out with Nancy, Alfred, and Elle to a site near Mollie’s Nipple. Yes, that’s the name of it, for all to see. This is a jagged cone of whitish sandstone that stands above the level mesas. Perhaps there was a mineral spring there ages ago that cemented the rock harder, so now it stands taller, like a temple, more resistant to erosion.
Everyone had caught the spirit of Mollie’s Body Parts jokes. Maybe this white boulder is Mollie’s Cranium. That level ledge with slouching tumbled figures could be Mollie’s Sports Bar. One of our plots looks out over Nipple Lake, which held water in the high rains of the 70’s, now dried up.
We hiked in over sandy flats sprouting with juniper and the yellow flower sprays of Bee Plant. The sandy terrain, as expected, reflected the changed conditions since yesterday’s sites, a whole new complement of plants.
When you don’t know a species, the protocol is to make up a code name for it. The computer program assists by capturing the information about it, inserting the name in the list of codes, and looking it up for you when you find the same plant again.
Elle had been struggling with a certain damn sagebrush. With silvery, threadlike leaves, it seemed it should be easy to identify; but it wasn’t. Nobody could find it in any of the books. I cautioned against assigning way-out code names. They should be categorical, and memorable. In this case, I advised a category, like “sage”, first with a memorable qualifier after. This one became “sage damn”.
To my chagrin, the handheld program continued to function faultlessly. It kept running happily along even after the human partners were wilting in the heat. I didn’t know what to do.
Driving in that evening through the gullies and tumbled red rocks, I talked with Elle about the programming situation. Basically, they’d like to stop doing double work, using the handheld plus a paper backup. We had never had a crash with version 4, the retro we’d been using the past two days. Things looked pretty good. But, since we couldn’t make it crash, we couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t crash.
“I could set it up to archive every screen,” I offered. “It wastes space, but there should be room on the storage card.” Basically, the program would never erase anything. It would just write and write. It would publish a book every time you turned a page, and store them all in a little internal library. “Then,” I said, trying to think through all the angles, “I don’t see how you could ever lose a plot.”
Back in camp, the NASA guy had come and gone. “He was a jolly guy,” they said, “Got right into the local spirit. We showed him an irrigation connection. He opened it and looked inside, where the water sprays up. ‘So this is Mollie’s bidet’, he asked.”
The next day I stayed in to work on the database. I had framed up the database almost as an afterthought, building it plain and utilitarian as a warehouse. All the frills and niceties should be in the handheld program, I figured. The database was only there to wheel the datasets into for safekeeping.
Now, I resigned myself, the database was going to have to do duty for input as well. Quite a few plots had already been taken on paper, and there might be more. It had to be user friendly. So I built courtyards and porticos, drive-through windows and teller booths, access ramps and handicap parking. To make things easy, I added a few fountains, lounges, and wired the whole thing for closed circuit TV. With a final flourish, I threw in a Koi pond and an IMAX theatre. Nobody was going to complain this database wasn’t user oriented!
While all this was happening in virtual space, the flies droned and the sun arced overhead at the Paria River Guest Ranch. When I’d first got word on where we’d be staying, I pictured a long rambling ranch house. Maybe most of the horses would be gone, but you could still picture them tied up around the broad, lazy porch near the screened breezeway. I imagined the view out our cabin window into the dappled shade of green mulberry trees and swaying oleander. Perhaps a fountain tinkled by that adobe wall or behind that grape arbor curtained with vines.
The reality was different.
Our group cabin turned out to be a nearly windowless box of corrugated metal, though it was well insulated against the midday heat. The dimness inside discouraged flying bugs. All the electricity came from one plug, clustered with adapters and extension cords. Outside, the refrigerator sat on a west-facing slab handy to a cluster of picnic tables. It labored to do its job in the afternoon wash of Utah sun. The tables were a friendly space in the evening, though you had to watch that sudden gusts didn’t carry away anything not weighted down. Indeed, there was a story of important papers blowing off, getting caught in a thermal, and spiraling up thousands of feet, barely visible before vanishing from view. Perhaps they fell the next day somewhere in Arizona.
The proprietor of the Guest Ranch was a young guy, Alton, curly blonde hair and a dust of freckles across his nose. He’d roamed far and wide before finding his spot here. Indeed, the Ranch had everything you’d need. A broad swatch of green grass for pitching tents in the center. It was big enough for Ultimate Frizbee, or to stretch several volleyball nets. The mist from the evening sprinklers whipped with the howling breeze all the way over to our patio, welcome coolness fifty feet away.
Alton had planted trees, though the windbreak of cottonwoods was the most visible so far. The cedars had a hard time. There was a dim social hall with a beer cooler. There was a climbing wall, complete with plywood dihedrals, probably three stories tall. The shower house was a metal building in the same style as our cabin, with fluorescent lights and concrete floor. There was a pen of miniature deer, and the promised braying mule, who you could wake up to, if you liked, instead of an alarm clock. There was a circular pool of water, a broad and shallow tank perhaps ferrocement in constuction. Steps leading down into the pool, and there were half submerged deck chairs. Clearly it was meant for cooling off. A conical sunshade in the middle was shaped like the kind of hat traditionally worn with lederhosen. Some of the guys had dubbed it “Mollie’s Training Bra”.
I spent all day hammering away at the keyboard, dressing up the database. In the evening, news from the troops.
“We crashed two handhelds,” Nancy announced as they marched in.
Oh, no! After two days of trying, with me watching, now it was back to its old tricks. Never does it while I’m there!
I took a deep breath and waded into the wreckage. Going through the program with tweezers, I noticed something odd. The skip line was not enabled! The bug was still in!
Maybe I’d been distracted the night before. I’d written the Archive routines, tested them, then shut the laptop for awhile to talk. When I reopened the computer, as sometimes happens, it wouldn’t wake up from sleep. I had to reboot, and found to my annoyance that I’d neglected to save my work. So I re-wrote the Archive routines, half an hour’s effort. But, evidently, I used as a starting point version 5. The version that tended to crash!
As I untangled this situation over an hour or so, what had seemed like very bad news started to look like good news. Inadvertently, I had run the test I wanted: The program crashes. Change something. Program does not crash. Change it back. Program crashes again. Consistently. Consistently for everyone but me!
With all those Archive files, I could trace exactly when the bug had occurred. As well as the team’s subsequent actions; their growing panic as they flipped through screen after screen afterwards, realizing their work was gone.
But it was not gone. It was all right there. If they’d known where, they could have picked it up, dusted it off, and taken up right where they left off. So, all we needed was to train people how to get their stuff out of the Archive, if the program ever crashed again.
Of course I could not get the program to crash for me. From the Archive, I could duplicate their plot entries almost keystroke for keystroke. And did. But, for me, the program, cuss it, continued to work faultlessly!