Wily Miles 

Sunday, July 18, 2004

My recent pilgrimmage to Krazy Kat Kountry had an unexpected byproduct: awareness of weird American language quirks.

We've adopted their pounds, feet and inches, replacing our kilograms and metres. Pound has one syllable; kilogram has a hefty three syllables. It gets tiring by the end of the gram. All those extra calories, foolishly expended on uttering a few more syllables, can be retained with a pound; instead of "I weigh 90.7185 kilograms," a simple but effective "I weigh 200 pounds" does the trick and keeps one healthy and hale. Likewise for feet and inches. "I am 165 centimetres" translates to an environmentally-unsound twelve syllables. "I am five-foot-four" solves the trick in five syllables, reducing the energy needs for another seven syllables. The allure of the pound and the foot is self-evident.

However, there is a dark side to all this pro-Americanism: the mile.

Sometimes we might say "I was going XX miles an hour" or "We drove for miles before we reached a gas station."

Does a Canadian truly realize the implications of the mile?

Like most Canadians, I, too, succumbed to the pound and the foot early in age. I remember my grade three teacher explaining a metre as that thing which is almost precisely the length of my outstretched arms. I abandoned the metre as a way of measuring human height at the height of Corey Haim popularity. Those teenybopper magazines were adamant that he was to be calculated in feet, not metres.

The kilometre, however, had practical implications here in Canada, and, in my other countries, Taiwan and Japan. Years of driving have built an understanding between me and the kilometre. Even driving with my eyes closed, I can now estimate a kilometre. Its length is succinct and neat. I like kilometres.

When Arizona Cheryl informed me that I would be hiking eleven miles to the Havasu Falls, I thought "Pshaw, I've walked twenty kilometres in a day."

Miles are wily. A mile, you see, is 1.609344 kilometres. Eleven miles, therefore, add up to 17.702784 kilometres.

In the end, unlike Arizona Cheryl's mild descriptions, we hiked fourteen miles that first day for a total of 22.530816 kilometres. Through places where there was shade only for the tip of your nose if you could squeeze it under a cactus. Your water curdles in the heat. At one point, you realize that chewing dried mangoes, slowly, might help you salivate more. Red dust burns one's nostril so much, that one begins to wish for the ability not to breathe or at least to stick a few cotton balls in one's nose to filter out the dust. The most comfortable, time-tested shoes eat into your feet to erupt into blisters.

Through all this, I kept thinking, we have another mile behind us. One less mile to hike.

The mile is not so easily overcome.

I thought I calculated a kilometre plus another 0.6 kilometre. The mile snickered and elongated itself. It stretched far beyond its alotted 1.6 kilometres.

Instead of hiking the Arizona Cheryl-estimated 17.702784 kilometres, or even the eventual 22.530816 kilometres, we hiked something like 76 miles. That totals 122.310144 kilometres in one day!

122.310144 kilometres means that you are rather stiff for the return journey. The mile again played a trick on us.

"Hey, this isn't taking as long as it did yesterday," we said.

Of course. The mile squeezed itself into about the space of 0.3 kilometres for most of the canyon. Just after we uttered our famous last words, that mile stretched itself taut above us, to the rim of the Grand Canyon, into a staggering 200 miles, or 321.8688 kilometres. Just as Arizona Cheryl drank the last of her gallon (3.7854118 litres) of water.

Red stone around us. A few prickly pears and the danger of the jumping cholla, an attacking form of the cactus, always worrying us.

I suggested we wear our towels like chadors for shade.

Arizona Cheryl, by far the most athletic of us, the extreme sports aficionado, opened her pack to reveal there were a few ice cubes left in her water pouch. "Put one under your cap," I said. She didn't.

My sister warned me that she would collapse and I should stay with her. I ran (or a reasonable fascimile thereof) towards Arizona Cheryl.

Far off in the distance, I could see her amidst a herd of pack mules, talking to a Havasupai cowboy. It took too much effort to hold my head up; I also didn't want to trip into anymore cacti. When I next looked up there was no sign of Arizona Cheryl. I began looking into the tinder-dry gulches leading down to the right from the main path. I expected to see her bright blue towel in some ravine and then I would have to dump my backpack, go down, and heroically carry her out.

"Hey, I'm over here!"

I turned to my left and there she was, Arizona Cheryl under a huge red boulder. The cowboy gave her a bottle of Gatorade, enough, potentially, to last her the 321.8688 kilometres up to the canyon rim. After an hour's rest, we set off, with me ahead scouting prime shady spots up the rock face. (I found two femurs in one spot. Human, I hope.)

The mile fooled us, yet we got the better of it. At the top of the Grand Canyon, two large ladies awaited us with ice cold lemonade. We guzzled down our lemonades, sneering at the treacherous mile, waving our fists in defiance. A growl of "hurrah for kilometres!"

The mile is still there, motionless, awaiting its next victim.

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