Cat Flag: Grand Canyon Edition

Me at the Canyon

That’s right! I just got back from a trip to the Grand Canyon! I had a wonderful time, and I thought I would share with everyone my thoughts and reactions to my awesome experiences there.

First and foremost, I had no idea just how remote the Grand Canyon really is.

Driving out there, it was like this, for mile after mile after mile...

Driving out there, it was like this, for mile after mile after mile…

From my California coastal home, it was about 15 hours to Kingman, Arizona, where I stopped for the night. Then, it was a further two and a half hours to the Grand Canyon itself. In three days, I spent more than 36 hours in the car! It gave a me a new appreciation for just how huge the United States is; in fact, it gave me a new appreciation for how big California is. Most of those hours and hours on the road were spent simply crossing my home state. I only crossed one state line, twice, in all of that time.

Sure, I crossed a few cities and towns: Bakersfield, Tehachapi, Barstow, Needles, Kingman, and Williams. Yet most of the “towns” I passed through along the way were nothing more than a Pilot or Love’s truck stop strategically located where road trip tourists like me would need a toilet. Between these, there were often many, many miles with no sign of human habitation.

...after mile after mile after mile...

…after mile after mile after mile…

What a relief it was, after so much time in the car, to finally reach my destination. Then I was surprised to learn that there was actually a fee to get in the National Park! It costs $30 to drive into the park. While that fee does buy you access to the park for a full week, the fact that they charged a fee at all surprised me, since National Parks are owned and operated by the federal government for the good of the nation. I thought my tax dollars paid to maintain the park and allow me and all the millions of others who visit the park to enjoy nature’s beauty. Then again, as Congress finds as many places as possible to cut spending, perhaps charging a fee is necessary to keep the park in operation.

In any case, after all of that, I was greeted by this awesome sight:

Grand Canyon sign

Okay, so that was more just a relief than anything else. This, though, was an awesome sight:

Canyon 1

Here’s another one:

Canyon 2

It just keeps going and going and going!

It is one thing to rationally understand the size of the thing, but quite another to see it for yourself! It is amazing to see just how massive the Grand Canyon is in person. So massive, you can barely see the river that carved it all.

That’s the mind-blowing thing. It was just water. Well, water and the sand and rocks carried downstream by the water. The Grand Canyon is incredibly young in geologic time, barely a few million years old. Yet in that time, rain, the river, and erosion created one of the most amazing natural wonders of the world.

Yet one of my favorite places I saw while visiting the canyon was something… a bit more artificial.

Tower Close-up

The Desert View Watchtower sticks up from the canyon wall at the eastern end of the park. Stepping inside is like stepping into America’s ancient past.

Tower Interior 1

You can see amazing art on the walls…

Tower Interior 2

…and even on the ceiling.

Tower Interior 3

It looks like an ancient, centuries-old ruin, the remnants of a lost Indian settlement from long before Columbus arrived. Yet the tower was actually built in the 1930s from concrete and steel, designed by architect Mary Colter, one of the first female American architects and the designer of several other ancient-looking but actually quite modern structures in the Grand Canyon area. Colter was inspired by Native American and colonial Spanish architecture of the Southwest, and mimicked these styles in her work, laying the foundation (pun intended) for the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture.

While I was fascinated by this fake ruin, I was surprised to learn that there is an actual ancient Indian ruin not far from the tower. The remains of the ancient settlement of Tusayan lies just a short drive from the canyon rim, and I was able to pay it a visit, seeing the remains of the ancient kiva:

Yep. Here it is. The 800-year-old ancient place of worship. This is it.

Yep. Here it is. The 800-year-old ancient place of worship. This is it.

Yeah, in comparison, the actual ancient site was nowhere near as impressive. This really got me pondering. I remember hearing somewhere that people who see the Mona Lisa in person at the Louvre in Paris come away feeling disappointed at how small the actual painting is, given its reputation in our popular culture. I feel I may have experienced something similar.

Our imaginations of the past, viewed through the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia, often lead us to paint a mental picture of history that simply isn’t accurate. Julius Caesar had to use the restroom, shave his beard, and eat his breakfast just like the rest of us do. People in the past just weren’t that different from people today. The Tusayan ruins are the remains of a practical people who had no need to build four-story monstrosities overlooking the canyon. Yet you can’t help but feel that the four-story monstrosity is far cooler.

What wasn’t cool? The idiots climbing all over the rocks.

Along the Grand Canyon’s edge, areas that are designated for the public to look out at the amazing sights have fences to keep people from falling.

Like this one.

Like this one.

Yet over and over again, I saw people – whole families even – climb over the fences onto dangerous cliff edges and rock overhangs. One of the people I was with said she saw parents out on these outcroppings with their three- or four-year-old children, a disaster waiting to happen. I even watched as one man climbed out onto a narrow rock face barely as wide as a person and take selfies. I remember thinking that he would fall to his death if the wind picked up even slightly.

I mean, what possesses people to do such things? Is it bravado? Are these people practically daring each other on to see who can prove themselves the bravest (or craziest)? Or was it a simple case of people acting like lemmings, with one person defiantly climbing over the fence, others seeing him or her, and deciding to follow? I don’t know, but I am not the sort of person who is willing to risk my life for something like that.

In any case, I really enjoyed this vacation, and I look forward to the next time I’m able to take an awesome road trip.


Strange and Unusual Languages (of the United States)

Languages image by Tumisu

A few days ago, I saw this headline from BBC News about a pre-school in the Swedish town of Alvdalen that was going to teach only in Elfdalian, an endangered language that is only spoken in that town and nowhere else. The residents of the town hope that by teaching their language to their children, they can preserve it. Reading this story reminded me about the global movement to preserve many rare and endangered languages around the world; languages with only a handful of speakers left as social, cultural, economic, and sometimes even political pressures encourage the use of more widely-spoken languages.

We’re so used to thinking about the United States as an English-speaking country that we sometimes forget that there are plenty of rare, strange and unusual languages with only a handful of speakers right here at home. Today, we’re going to look at a few of the more bizarre and interesting examples.

Texas German

Texas German Society logo from Communicating Across Cultures

In the Texas Hill Country around New Braunfels, you will find a small but proud community of about 1,000 or so people who speak a dialect of German that exists nowhere else on Earth. Texas German traces its roots to a group of German settlers fleeing persecution after the failed Revolution of 1848 (hence their nickname, the “Forty-Eighters”).

This was before German unification and the introduction of a standardized German dialect, so Texas German ended up being a blend of the various 19th-century dialects brought to Texas by the settlers, with a smattering of English words mixed in as well. The language flourished in central Texas for decades, but then World War I and World War II happened. Across the nation, German-Americans were suspected of possibly supporting the enemy, and the only way to escape these fears was to rapidly assimilate to the ways of their English-speaking neighbors. Texas German speakers stopped passing the dialect on to their children, and instead taught them to speak English in public.

Today, almost all Texas German speakers are over 60 years old. However, there are groups that are trying to preserve the dialect by building an archive of recordings for future linguists to study.

A sample Texas German sentence: Die Kuh is über die fence gejumpt. (The cow jumped over the fence.)


Tsimishian drummer image by Okologix

There are hundreds of Native American languages indigenous to the United States, and many of them are endangered. Many more have already gone extinct; Hazel Sampson, the last living speaker of Klallam, died in 2014.

So why did I choose to cover Sm’álgyax, the language of the Coast Tsimshian tribe with only about 70 speakers in Alaska? What makes it so much more interesting than the others?

Technically, it isn’t native to the United States. It’s an immigrant language.

Allow me to explain. The Coast Tsimshian originally come from the area along the Skeena River in British Columbia, Canada. Then, in the 1850s, an Anglican missionary named William Duncan moved in to preach to the tribe. Duncan’s missionary work tore the Indians’ community in two, as those who insisted on maintaining their old ways came into conflict with Duncan’s converts. At one point, the chief even held a gun on Duncan and threatened to kill him for ringing churchbells during an important ceremony.

Eventually, Duncan’s followers left with him to found a new community, Metlakatla, on Annette Island in Alaska. Duncan convinced the U.S. government to grant the island to his followers as an Indian reservation. Even though 14.8% of Alaskans identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the Tsimshian reservation on Annette Island remains the only Indian reservation in Alaska.

A sample Sm’álgyax sentence: Yagwat niisda ts’uu’tsa laalt. (The bird sees the worm.)

Hoi Toider

Tangier Island image by Elaine Meil

On Tangier Island, an unassuming little marshy patch of land off the coast of Virginia, lies a small town with 727 residents. The town is home to three bed-and-breakfasts, one ATM, and a small history museum that has the island’s only public restroom. Not only does the island have no traffic lights, but it has no bridge connecting it with the mainland; the only connection with the outside world (apart from cable TV) is a ferry service.

That isolation has had a very unusual side-effect: Tangier island and a few islands around it along the Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina coasts are the only places left on Earth where you can hear people speaking in much the same way William Shakespeare did! Over the centuries, these small, isolated island communities have preserved the English dialect spoken by the early English colonists in the New World. Their dialect is called “High Tider” or “Hoi Toider”, the latter being a phonetic spelling of the name the way you would pronounce those words with this accent. Naturally, these islands have become magnets for linguists seeking to study the history and roots of the English language.

Frankly, I’m glad those linguists are there studying this dialect rather than me, as I can’t understand a word of it:

Still, I’m told the dialect retains many characteristics and words of Elizabethan speech, including words that have long since gone extinct in modern English, such as “yethy” (for something that smells bad) and “nicket” (for a small amount of something used in cooking, like a pinch).

A sample High Tider sentence: I’m not even gonna attempt this one.

Bizarre Origins of Everyday Brands

Department store image by Editor999999

How often do we think about the brand names painted, sown, glued, or welded onto the objects we use every day? Probably not often, I imagine; it’s useful for telling one product from another, but what reason would we have to think about brands beyond “This one always makes good stuff, while this other one always has the lowest price”?

Yet looking at the history behind some of the companies whose ads surround us will reveal a surprising history that one would never have expected. Here are just a few of the strangest origin stories of everyday brands I have ever run across.

Yamaha, maker of motorcycles and… pianos?

Yamaha logo from Yamaha

Yamaha traces its origins to Nippon Gakki, a Japanese family business that made musical instruments. In the early 1950s, the company’s fourth-generation president, Genichi Kawakami, was looking at all the unused and idle manufacturing equipment he had in his factory and wondered what else could be made with it. After doing extensive research he settled on… motorcycles. Seriously, motorcycles.

Apparently, by sheer coincidence, this same idle equipment Genichi’s company had on hand would be able to make motorcycles just as well as instruments with just a few inexpensive modifications. So, in 1953, Genichi spun off the Yamaha Motor Company, a company that makes popular motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles, and other motorized vehicles to this very day. Meanwhile, Nippon Gakki changed its own name to Yamaha and now makes Yamaha-branded musical instruments. If you’ve ever wondered why you can buy both Yamaha pianos and Yamaha jet skis, that’s why.

The cymbals your favorite rock star uses are older than the United States

Zildjian hi hat by Bran van der Meer

In 1618, an Armenian alchemist named Avedis discovered a material made of a mix of metals that could make an incredibly loud sound when struck while also withstanding repeated heavy use without breaking. Naturally, Avedis made cymbals with this new material, and the Ottoman sultan loved the cymbals so much, he gave Avedis the honorary surname Zildjian (Turkish for cymbal-maker).

The Zildjian cymbal-making process remained a closely-guarded family secret for centuries. Then, in 1928, several members of the Zildjian family who had immigrated to the United States started their own cymbal-making company, and managed to get some popular jazz drummers to use their cymbals. This caused a major rift with the Zildjian family back home in the Old World, and for decades the two companies duked it out until the American-based company bought its rival, reuniting the family business in 1968.

Over the decades, a very long list of popular rock drummers and other musicians have sworn by Zildjian’s cymbals, and the family business (now based in Norwell, Massachusetts) continues to use that same, still-secret cymbal-making process 14 generations later!

Adidas and Puma were born of a sibling rivalry

Puma vs Adidas image by Paradise Developments

In 1924, German brothers Rudolf and Adi Dassler started a company called “Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory”. Their business really took off after Jesse Owens wore their shoes during the 1936 Olympics. However, the brothers really didn’t get along very well. World War II certainly didn’t help matters; when Rudolf was mistaken for an SS member by American troops, he thought Adi had reported him to them.

At last, in 1948, the brothers had enough of each other and split the company. Rudolf’s half became Puma, while Adi’s half became Adidas. The two companies were both based in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria, and their headquarters were located right across the river from each other. The townsfolk of Herzogenaurach got deeply invested in this sibling rivalry, dividing themselves into Adidas-wearers and Puma-wearers. It got to the point where one group of contractors hired to work on Rudolf’s house all wore Adidas shoes just to get a rise out of him; Rudolf made them change into Pumas before he’d let them get to work

Today, both companies are global brands widely sported by sports stars around the world as well as millions of ordinary folks. Yet the rivalry between the brothers is still visible at the Herzogenaurach cemetery, where the brothers are buried as far away from each other as possible.

Fanta soft drinks exist because of World War II

Fanta logo from Wikipedia

In the 1930s, as today, many American businesses were global and had divisions making and selling products in many countries, including in Germany. Coca-Cola had its own German division at the time as well, making Coke for millions of Germans to enjoy while, well, shall we say, other stuff was going on in the country.

Boy, I bet the Coca-Cola company would like to forget that these collectibles exist.

Boy, I bet the Coca-Cola company would like to forget that these collectibles exist.

Then in 1940, a U.S. trade embargo against Nazi Germany blocked Coke’s German subsidiary from being able to obtain the syrups needed to make the beverage from its American parent. Not only that, but the very next year Germany declared war on the United States, and Coke of Germany was completely cut off from all communications with Atlanta.

The head of Coca-Cola Germany, Max Keith, was determined to keep the plants running and his workers employed, so he and his managers came up with a new fruit-flavored soda made from whatever was on hand. They called it “Fanta”, and it became fairly successful. After the war was over, American companies resumed control of their German subsidiaries, and Max Keith handed the rights to the drink to Coca-Cola, who continues to produce it today.