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TODAY news for Thursday, June 9, 2008

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The official delegation from Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital in Hangzhou, China,

Zola, Undrakh, Mary, Anthony, Grace, and Aaron brave the elements at Lipan Point on a trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas last February.
Zola, Undrakh, Mary, Anthony, Grace, and Aaron brave the elements at Lipan Point on a trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas last February. Highlights of the trip included spotting an elusive herd of elk at Grand Canyon, exploring the prehistoric ruins of Wupatki, and not falling into the Grand Canyon or out of the thrill rides atop the Stratosphere in Las Vegas.
Let’s start with the herd of elk. It’s about 6:30 on an extremely cold February morning. We’ve just entered the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park when these majestic animals bring us to a halt. We roll down the window, but the herd leaps into the woods like an icy apparition before anyone can snap the shutter.

We—a group of intrepid explorers from China, Mongolia, and Loma Linda—seem to enjoy the encounter far more than the animals. To see those gorgeous creatures standing knee deep in snow, breath vaporizing into fog, is a mystical experience for us, but only a scary moment for them.

Allow me to introduce us all. Mary, Grace, and Anthony are doctors from the People’s Republic of China. Undrahk is a physician from Mongolia, and Zola is a chemical engineer—also from Mongolia—currently living in San Francisco. Aaron and I are Loma Linda boys. We’re also drivers for the trip, which is intended as a goodwill gesture to introduce visiting health-care leaders from Asia to the medicine and culture, land, and people of the United States.

The Chinese doctors work at Zhejiang University School of Medicine where Mary is known as Wang Huiying; she’s an attending physician in respiratory medicine. Grace’s given name is Wang Huiping and she teaches physiology. Anthony is a cardiologist known as Pan Xiaohong.

Undrakh-Erdene Erdenebold just goes by Undrakh; he’s a radiologist at State Central Clinical Hospital in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Munkhzul Byambaa studies English in San Francisco and plans to get her MBA soon. She tells us to call her Zola. She and Undrakh have been pals since childhood.

As for Aaron Marson and myself, he works at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital Foundation as a development associate, and I’m an editor and writer in the Medical Center public and media relations office. We’re excited to escort our new friends to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.

Until this morning’s elk sighting, the highlight of the trip had been a run out to Wupatki National Monument. Wupatki is amazing! Its 54 square miles contain 2,700 prehistoric Native American cultural sites including the ruins of several large pueblos. We arrived too late yesterday to see the visitor’s center and opted to explore the 800-year-old Wukoki Pueblo with its towering great house of red sandstone instead.

Ancient ruins are more common in the Orient than in America. Our visitors from the Far East—who trace their personal ancestry back several thousand years—enjoyed Wupatki, but weren’t quite so impressed as Aaron and I. This was his first visit and my 11th or 12th. I love this place and recommend it with gusto. If you haven’t seen it, you really should go. We hiked around the ruins, climbing through ancient stone doorways and taking pictures until the sun went down behind the frozen San Francisco Peaks.

Speaking of frozen, we’re just pulling into the parking lot at Desert View and it’s an icebox. The cold doesn’t bother a flock of black ravens foraging in the snow, but we’re glad we’ve got mittens, coats, and hats. With ice on the ground two inches deep and very hard-packed, upward stability is a challenge. As Jerry Lee Lewis might say, “There’s a whole lotta slidin’ goin’ on!”

As we arrive at the overlook, everyone begins “oohing and awing” in three languages. An angry storm howls across the vast expanses at surprising speed. A hundred miles to the north, the Vermillion Cliffs and Painted Desert assert their colorful presence through a break in the clouds, and far beneath our feet, a serpentine maze of twisted stone gleams in dark and frigid glory.

We grab our cameras. Some of the photos depict the magnificent landscapes stretching off to the edges of infinity. Still others reveal Asian health-care professionals and two Loma Linda employees throwing snowballs.

An hour later, we’re stopping at Lipan Point. To our amazement, the scenery looks even more remarkable here than it did at Desert View! Is it because the sun is higher in the sky and the rocks are basking in its glow, or because the landscape is even more three-dimensional here than there? Who can say?

The Grand Canyon always makes humans feel heroically insignificant. See that silvery squiggle over there? That’s the Colorado River slithering through the gorge a mile away. See that limestone rim over there on the other side?

It’s five miles away. And that cloud front? It stretches across Arizona to Hawaii and beyond. Still feeling big and powerful, grasshopper? By the time everyone finishes taking pictures of colleagues pretending to fall off the edge, it’s time for breakfast. We pile into the van and head to Grand Canyon Village to grab some grub. Zola torments Aaron with tales of eating fresh horsemeat in Mongolia. She stops short of saying it tastes like chicken, but Aaron looks a little green around the gills, nonetheless.

Horseflesh isn’t on the menu when we finally arrive at the café and Aaron, quite frankly, seems relieved. He does, however, eat enough to feed a horse! We enjoy the view of giant pines under a three-foot blanket of snow out the restaurant window. After breakfast, there are gift shops to explore. My granddaughter—who, I must humbly inform you, is the cutest 2-year-old on the planet—will positively adore the plush raccoon doll I buy for her.

After a couple more hours exploring the South Rim, it’s time to hit the road. Aaron suggests we take in the IMAX Theater’s presentation on the hidden Grand Canyon before we go. Sounds good to all of us, so we buy tickets, climb to the 10th row, and find our seats. We’re not sure what to expect.

Turns out, the show is pretty intense. It parks us right smack in the cockpit of a helicopter darting through the Canyon and playing chicken with rock forms the size of Redlands at breakneck speed. The scenery is breathtaking, the music loud and dramatic, and the film’s dramatic re-telling of prehistoric life is raw and in-your-face!

An hour later, we stumble back into the rude light of the postmodern era, board the van, and bid the Grand Canyon goodbye. Hold your hat—Aaron’s driving. Good thing the van won’t do more than 140 miles an hour! Aaron seems in a hurry to get to Las Vegas.

As we race along, Aaron discloses that it isn’t Sin City, but Chloride, Arizona, he’s so eager to see. Turns out his grandfather, Norman Severance, lives in Chloride, and Aaron wonders if we’d mind making a brief stop to see him. He explains that Mr. Severance recently lost his wife. Aaron just wants to make sure he’s OK. After we give the idea thumbs up, Aaron phones ahead and learns that Norman would love to have us stop by the house for a while.

When we arrive at Norman’s home, he greets us like old friends and introduces us to Aaron’s Aunt Jean. They regale us with tales of life in the desert, including Norman’s encounters with local foxes and rattlesnakes.

By James Ponder

TODAY news for Thursday, June 9, 2008