Friday, November 30, 2007

A Run Through Time, Part II

Continued from Part I......

I spent the first few miles of the descent attending to wardrobe malfunctions, removing excess clothing, etc. Chris and Dave continued on while I paused at various points to absorb the views of the outer reaches of the canyon. I was also not as adept at navigating the downhills as my counterparts, and took the opportunity to set a more comfortable pace. The cliffs were blanketed by a full moon, and I instinctively doused my headlamp when conditions allowed. I’ve run many trails in complete darkness, trusting that each footprint would be laid upon stable ground. However, a single misstep on this choppy route would have sent me tumbling into the canyon, and I chose my darkness wisely. An hour and a half later we reached the footbridge crossing the Colorado River. I stopped to take photos, but none would capture the quiet fury of the Colorado, nor the temporary ownership we had gained of this (imaginary) space. My heart raced not to the pace of the run, but to the sheer elation of reaching this point, exposed to some of the oldest rocks on the planet. Dave unloaded a portion of food for the return trip near the water stop on the north side of the river. I had planned to do the same, but once there I felt I could carry the full load up the other side and back. I made a concerted effort to drink as often as possible, after suffering through several heat stroke episodes over the past few years. Fortunately, my saving grace was traveling with a group who were like-minded and equally concerned about staying hydrated.

Our uphill leg kicked off in earnest, with Chris taking the reins, and me bringing up the rear. After many hikes or runs with my wife and friends, I’ve always been more comfortable moving at someone else’s speed, rather than dictating it. I rarely lead unless asked, and this removes the pressure of guessing on a suitable pace. At the time, Chris’ tempo was perfect for the conditions at hand, and we proceeded toward Phantom Ranch in agreeable silence. Once at the ranch, the trail began to braid through the underbrush. Several times we dead-ended at Bright Angel Creek, or the route simply disappeared. I’ve been in a few trail races where I’m with a small group, and we suddenly realize we’re off track. I can imagine a spectator watching a bunch of goobs jogging around in circles like mice trapped in a maze, desperately searching an exit as precious seconds tick off the timer. Somehow, it feels unnatural at this point to simply stop and assess one’s predicament. Our private goat rodeo was further exacerbated by the delightful fragrances emanating from the mule guides’ kitchen, and we groaned in unison when comparing the notion of a sit-down cowboy breakfast to the lifeless, inorganic task of ingesting another gel. Reluctantly fleeing this siren’s odor, we quickly pointed our nostrils in the general direction of the North Rim, and I substituted an appetite for those greasy victuals with that of some uphill running. The first several miles comprised the gentlest grade of the stretch, and I spent the remainder of the North Kaibab leg on my own, hoping to achieve my goal of running at least the first R2. I was wearing a wrist GPS, but the satellites couldn’t keep me on track, so I used the unit to monitor my heart rate instead. The initial five or six miles were fairly effortless, and the quiet was so deep that I swear I could hear the moonlight. The din was briefly interrupted by critters moving about, probably confused by this biped ambling through their backyards. I squelched the headlamp on several more occasions when the trail peeked out into the reflected light from under the sheer cliffs. The purity of this moment was almost too overwhelming to grasp, and I found myself at times in peaceful synchronicity with my surroundings. The synch would not last, however, as I plunged that first step into a small marshy area about five miles into the ascent. My unplanned arrival sparked the dispersal of a couple resident mammals attending to a small spring-fed pond. One scurried off into the cattails and the other made what I can only describe as a ‘submerging sound’. The time was around 4 AM, and I’m sure they weren’t expecting a human to interrupt their nocturnal forays. Once reaching dry ground, I took account of my shoes in the soulless glow of my headlamp. Not only were they soaked to the core with swamp water, but I had also accumulated some sort of residue on my skin from mid-calf south. I wisely chose not to remove it with bare hands and went on my way in mild disgust. Soon the trail began to rise in the direction of up, starting with an abrupt climb to Ribbon Falls on what is called Heartbreak Hill. It was here I made the first of several judgment errors that would cut short my intended route. I assumed that if I maintained a steady, comfortable pace, I could manage running the entire first 21+ miles of the R3. Up to this point I was feeling exceptionally strong. The temps were such that my liquid intake may well have been adequate, for a change. Why not just hammer through this section? The answer to this na├»ve supposition was to be revealed about 2.5 miles from the North Rim, to be illustrated later.

Reaching the crest of this unforgiving mound I turned to survey the canyon below. Immediately, I recognized Chris’ headlamp signaling me from a distance. I flashed in return and continued on my way, enjoying a brief decent in this relentless climb. Recalling this moment, I wonder if the unassuming left fork at the base of Heartbreak Hill would have skirted this feature altogether. Regardless, the die had been cast, and my determination to reach the rim at a conversational pace became all-consuming. Beyond Ribbon Falls, the trail returned to a more manageable grade. I stopped briefly at Wall Creek to drink deeply from its waters and refill my handheld. Despite warnings by all, I’ve drunk from many streams and puddles much more questionable than this, with no ill effects. Today was no exception. Ambling on, I arrived at Cottonwood Camp, still optimistic. As expected, the water tap at this location had been turned off for the season. I wasn’t greatly concerned as I had just tanked up at Wall Creek. A few campers had already begun their preparations for the day, and I greeted them warmly after talking to myself for the better part of two hours. Beyond the camp, the grade increased, as did my heart rate and general anxiety. Still, I pushed on to the Ranger House, which accommodated a tap reportedly disconnected but operational upon my arrival. The water quickly filled my handheld, and I casually splashed the remaining trickles onto my face. By now, the subtle hints of daybreak began to emerge from within the greater canyon. I was six miles from the rim, ready to greet the sun like a long-lost friend.

Coming up: The Supai Deathmarch. Work is Work. Rangers, Then Cops!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Disturbing the Groove

Every once in a while a song graces my Jetta that I’ve heard a thousand times, but inexplicably resonates with me on that 1,001st play. Recently, it was Don’t Disturb This Groove by The System. I remember when this song dominated the airwaves and had long dismissed the track until a few days ago, when it arrived unannounced on a random iPod mix. (I’m a huge ‘old school’ R&B fan and have one of those ‘ancient’ 20-giggers packed to the gills with various styles of music, so the chances of a previously unplayed track popping up in a mix are quite good.) I proceeded to set the iPod to ‘Repeat’ and systematically dissect the workings of the song during my long commute from work. Once home, I did a 'net search on The System, a band I knew nothing about. According to and, The System was singer Mic Murphy and keyboardist David Frank. A proficient pianist, Frank’s creative seeds were sewn at an early age and cultivated through gigs as a touring musician, eventually dovetailing into progressively substantial endeavors that not only forged his immense talents but financed his penchant for the most cutting-edge synths. Frank’s career began to take flight when Atlantic Records soul/funk band Kleeer enlisted him as their tour keyboardist. The band's road manager, Mic Murphy, asked Frank to sit in on some informal recording sessions, and at the time, Frank was unaware that Murphy could sing. The sessions afforded Frank the opportunity to record some of his own material, including a track called It's Passion. The song was presented to a pre-stardom Madonna who eventually passed on vocal duties due to creative differences. Recalling Murphy, Frank invited him to his loft to work on the track, where Murphy reworked the lyrics and melody. The two then entered the studio, recorded the song in one day, and spent the night mixing the recording. After their overnight session, Murphy delivered the master tape to an engineer friend who transferred the tape onto a 12" acetate record and suggested he present it to Mirage Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic. The next day, Murphy called to inform Frank that the duo had a record deal. Two days later, Murphy created the name The System, and within three weeks, It's Passion was receiving massive radio airplay in New York. (If only it were still that easy).

The follow-up single, You Are in My System (November 1982), took the same magic path, spreading to key markets around the country, and early 1983 saw the release of their debut album Sweat. They went on to release X-Periment in 1984 and The Pleasure Seekers in 1986, to increasing acclaim, leading to soundtrack appearances on Miami Vice, Coming To America, and Beverly Hills Cop. But it wasn’t until 1987, upon the release of the title track for the album Don’t Disturb This Groove, did The System’s profile begin to skyrocket. The track went to #1 on the Billboard R&B charts and #3 on the Hot 100. The duo followed the hit with several more singles and two albums, including 1989’s Rhythm and Romance and the 1990 reunion album ESP, although none of the ensuing releases would achieve the blistering success of Don't Disturb This Groove. However, their fresh approach put The System in high demand as producers/songwriters and musicians. The deft imprint of The System can be heard on Chaka Khan's I Feel For You, Mtume's Juicy Fruit (both certified Gold), and Phil Collins' Sussudio, where Frank’s trademark sporadic synth bassline permeates this substantial hit by the Genesis frontman. Frank’s production sensibilities eventually led him to much greater heights, producing Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle and other releases by a bevy of A-line acts.

The System - Don't Disturb This Groove (1987)

The System followed a path shared by many electronic acts of the eighties, but their meteoric rise laid claim to unique attributes absent from the sounds pushed by other artists in the scene. The System's design was no fluke, rather it represented the ultimate interracial cooperative, advancing a divine essence derived from the blend of cultural backgrounds that cannot be matched by imitation alone. It must have been plainly evident to Murphy and Frank that this synergy would quickly dissolve if one of the components were to be removed. In 1987, the ingredients forging the chemistry between them could not have been more precisely measured, culminating in the choral refrains of Don’t Disturb This Groove. The structure of the song was meticulously manicured, joyfully bouncing between major to minor within a single phrase. Murphy’s vox were spot on pitch, with no ulterior weaknesses commonly disguised by current softcopy wizardry. Sure, the production in itself is a bit dated for today’s tastes. That slamming snare has been mercifully absent from recordings for years. But Frank was employing progressive technology at the time, including the Fairlight and what sounds like a Yamaha DX-7. These boards lent The System’s sound a somewhat freeze-dried flavor. But it was Frank’s use of synth fragments is what carried the track into such an ethereal bent, as the song is built upon dozens of solo parts, each having its turn in the spotlight, while sprinkled onto the body of the mix like a fragrant powder. On the surface, the bassline appears to run random, with no detectable purpose other than to fill the spaces within. But upon subsequent spins I recognized a very intricate pattern not unlike the typical bassline by another one of my favorite eighties bands, Scritti Politti. Only upon further research did I discover that the basslines from Scritti’s critically acclaimed Cupid and Psyche ’85 were Frank’s (he was hired as a session musician for the recording of the album). I also dialed in some uncanny arrangement similarities between Don’t Disturb This Groove and Scritti’s Perfect Way, or for that matter, any track on Cupid and Psyche. I wonder about the degree of Frank’s influence on this recording (or vice versa), since his involvement remains poorly documented on the web. What speaks for itself, however, is the enduring quality of this truly timeless tune. I just wish I had caught this groove the first time around.

Junk Mail Mayhem

One of the few pleasures in receiving new homeowner junk mail is the errant offer that includes an envelope marked ‘POSTAGE TO BE PAID BY ADDRESSEE’. As far as I’m concerned, this is an invitation to wreak havoc upon the companies who blindly ply their trade to recent home buyers like myself. In fact, I open every envelope disguised as a certified letter with tempered anticipation, hoping to reveal of one of these Golden Tickets. The ‘addressees’ are expecting from me a form complete with all of my personal information, naively confident that their product will help me through this volatile economic climate. Instead, they receive a First Class paperweight, stuffed with small, metallic items found around the house. The best are large flat washers, or any other flat piece of metal. Bolts, nuts, allen wrenches - only the heavy stuff will do. I ensure that the envelope weighs at least a pound or so before securing it with tape and gently placing it in the mailbox like a stick of old dynamite. I’m sure the item never makes it through the mail sorter at the local postal facility, but the prospect of it reaching its destination is satisfying nonetheless. I’d like to picture the recipient exclaiming ‘WTF??’ and lobbing it into the nearest garbage can, then tabulating the ensuing postal fees augmented by my ‘letter’ and all of the others returned in the same condition. Eventually, they’ll figure it out and stop sending junk mail altogether. Maybe not.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Into the Wild

This past weekend, Aspen and I saw the movie Into the Wild. It’s a true story about the travels of Chris McCandless, who eschews his affluent upbringing to experience the country as a vagabond. His final destination – Alaska. Without exposing too much of the plot, I was relieved to find that the movie closely followed the book. I remember reading author Jon Krakauer’s article about McCandless in Outside Magazine some years ago and was deeply impacted by the newfound morals that evolved from McCandless’ idealism. At the time, I was single, living apart from most of my family and had no real ties to my surroundings. The thought of disappearing, leaving all creature comforts behind, struck a chord with me, and I fantasized about where I would visit first. Of course, this was only a fleeting desire, since I also envisioned the devastation this would impose upon those who loved me. Still, the thought of Aspen, Nick and I ditching the rat race for a life of tramping has some lingering appeal, although I’m sure my alma mater’s alumni association would still find a way to track me down.