Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas was the one holiday that loomed large in our family whether it was spent at home in a plethora of package ripping or at the big Greek feast at Nany’s house in San Francisco. Either way, the holiday memories are indelibly imprinted in my mind…for good or ill.

The first Christmas I can remember was when I was six years old, living in San Francisco, and our family was privileged to get an in-person visit from a swarthy Santa Claus who looked suspiciously like my Uncle John. I bought into it though and got one of the few childhood gifts that I still have, a black bakelite Viewmaster. Another memorable yuletide occurred three years later. The family had moved down to the Peninsula by then, to the sunny climes of the South Bay. I awoke Christmas morn to find a miniature Fort Apache set under the tree, complete with plastic log walls, bunkhouse, and figures of Rusty and Rin Tin Tin.

Later Christmases were less consistent in delivering the emotional highs. In 1969 I was a student at San Francisco State, living with three other guys in a small house on 38th Avenue. Dissension had split our ranks by the time December had rolled around and the negativity was palpable. Nevertheless, Stan and I furtively drove up to Skyline Boulevard one cold, dark night and cut a scraggly redwood sapling to cheer the house up a bit. To little avail, as it turned out. The following month we all split up and moved out.

In the winter of 1975 I was living in a trailer in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. That year I was allowed to cut down a local pinyon pine for my tree. On Christmas Day, because of my low seniority, I was the only ranger on duty. All the rest were in Moab with their families. I got up in the morning, donned my NPS shirt, raised the flag at the contact station, patrolled an empty campground, and felt like I was the last man on earth.

Seven Christmases later I was cradling my nine-day old daughter Alison in a garret above the Olema Store in the rainy, rolling hills of the Point Reyes peninsula. Five years after that I was alone and lonely in Phoenix, Arizona.

Amy and I spent Christmas of 1996 carrying our ten-week old daughter Lindsay amid the luminarias and the aromas of posole and hot chocolate in the Old Town section of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Three years later, the three of us huddled around a small tree in the one furnished room of our newly acquired home in Las Vegas, Nevada, still adjusting to the new surroundings.

The last ten yuletide seasons have been spent in Colorado, sometimes with snow, sometimes without. All of them have been filled with warmth, love and a sense of fond ritual. But I always remember the other Christmases in other places in other times of my life. The highest highs and, sometimes, the lowest lows. If I could get just one of them back, it would be that morning I discovered the Fort Apache set on our living room floor and felt the innocence and wonder that only an untested child can know.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Red Sky at Morning

Most mornings I drive my daughter to school. On cold ones, like today’s, I go outside a few minutes early to warm up the car and let a dose of frigid air clear out my nostrils. It’s a bracing way to start one’s morning, for sure, but today was a bit more special than most. From a visual standpoint, the short drive to the high school encompasses two distinct layers. First there is the ground-level tier, the one with the houses, signals and streets. The one filled with noise, traffic, exhaust steam, and a few icy spots here and there on the asphalt. Sometimes I have the radio on and catch a few minutes of NPR. Sometimes I pass small groups of male teens sneaking one last smoke before class. All around me is the electric energy of a city waking up.

Then there is the second tier…the one that is “above the fray”. Beyond the horizon of roof tops and telephone poles, there is the natural landscape of the Grand Valley. I’m sure that it often goes unnoticed to most folks who are hurrying off to their day jobs. But it was hard not to notice it this morning. To the west, a nearly full moon still hung high above the city. To the east, a fiery dawn was erupting under a nascent cloud cover and over the shadowy flanks of the Grand Mesa. And to the south, the snow-streaked cliffs of the Uncompahgre Plateau were catching the first rays of sunlight on the brick red sandstone.

In a few minutes I was caught up in the hub bub of the high school campus, kids coming and going, cars weaving through parking lots, bass notes booming through the air, and my daughter grabbing her lunch box, purse and pack and hurrying off over concrete and brick before I myself am navigating through it all and back out to the main road.

I headed north toward the grey, intransigent Bookcliffs. I was thinking about cold weather, coffee and Thanksgiving. I was looking ahead at the cusp of autumn and winter. The horizon was taking on an even deeper glow. And the city was rushing forward into this new day, as two different worlds were merging at the horizon line.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lullaby of the Leaves

It’s the last day of October, my favorite month of the year. I spent most of the morning outside raking leaves, an annual routine that I seldom get tired of. Sometimes I use the electric leaf blower but most of the time I enjoy just swinging the hand rake back and forth, and piling the leaves manually on a big tarp before dragging them to the curb. Yes, here in Grand Junction we have curbside leaf cleanup. We all pile our leaves in cornrows on the street near the gutter and every Thursday a city truck with a huge suction device comes along and sucks up the debris leaving a clean street for at least a day or two.

Our two large cottonwoods, lone apricot and big red bud trees have only just begun to lose their leafy load so the best (or worst depending on how you look at it) is still to come. Nevertheless, I enjoy the process; the excuse to be outside in the fresh air smelling the October earth and feeling the lean toward winter. There is bitter sweetness in all of this because, as friends who know me will attest, I am not a winter person. After the leaves have all fallen, and daylight savings kicks in, and the major holidays have passed I grit my teeth, hunker down, and settle into a kind of hibernation.

But I glory in October when the city streets are afire in a kind of suspended animation and crackling calm before the storms; when the nearby canyons cloak themselves in shady coolness; when the neighbors are out cleaning roof gutters and pulling up the shriveled remnants of tomato and zucchini plants. In October I usually squeeze in a desert trip or two. I gorge myself on photography and sunlight that settles like glass over the valley. I buy pumpkins with my daughter and put scarecrow sentinels on the front porch.

October, for me, carries with it so many connections, mysteries, and heartfelt emotions. It is a golden thread that passes all too quickly into memory. That odd ephemeral month that puts the hot summer well behind us while winter beckons just over the ridges to the north.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The FBI and I

Scarcely one month after being hired as a seasonal park ranger for the National Park Service, Department of Interior, I received my first induction notice. It was from Selective Service Board #62 out of San Jose, California, one of the toughest draft boards in the nation. I knew that from experience after spending several years negotiating student deferments and trying to achieve conscientious objector status, to no avail. If you were a living, breathing chunk of man flesh, you were pretty much qualified to be cannon fodder in Southeast Asia. This was early 1971 and the Vietnam War was still very much in progress.

Several months earlier I had gone through the humiliating ritual of enduring the military physical exam when a busload of us anxious males were driven to the gothic old induction center in Oakland to be poked, prodded and paraded around. I was still coasting on a student deferment at the time so I wasn’t immediately sent off to basic training. I went back to eating mescaline and being unemployed in sleepy Santa Cruz.

But now I was actually wearing a uniform and working for the federal government as a genuine, bona fide park ranger so I figured that I was already serving my country and maybe didn’t need to be inducted after all. I wrote to my senator and congressman with this novel suggestion but no one seemed to be buying it at the time. Apparently conscription in the military was the only acceptable form of government service, and protecting America’s natural resources was not.

On induction day I stayed in my cabin at Pinnacles National Monument. Shortly thereafter I bought maps of British Columbia and The Draft Dodgers Guide to Canada and began making plans to flee the country. I also began having severe stomach pains, debilitating attacks that would leave me on my back on the floor. Someone suggested that my medical problem might be due to an ulcer and recommended I get it checked out. Which I did in no short order.

Sure enough. Turned out that I had developed a peptic ulcer….from worrying about the draft, no doubt. But an ulcer was a verifiable cause for a 4F so I proudly accepted my doctor’s prognosis, and got my paperwork in order. Meanwhile the Federal Bureau of Investigation had already contacted my parents, looking for their first born son. When I phoned home, my mom gave me a telephone number to call.

Once I made contact with the FBI, I was told to meet with one of their representatives at a location in San Jose. The address was for a building that looked like an abandoned apartment complex with no identifying signs on any of the doors. Nevertheless, I found the building and soon thereafter a fellow with a black suit and black shiny shoes found me.

I was taken into a sparely furnished office where another man in black shiny shoes joined us. At which time I told them how I had been sick on induction day and just couldn’t drag myself out of bed that day. I was the contrite detainee and they were the mystery men in black who would give me one more chance at induction. I agreed to the deal, we shook hands, and I was back on the road to the Pinnacles.

Soon after, I received yet another induction notice. This time I did show up, with my medical papers in hand. I still had to go through the humiliating physical exam ritual however as no one would look at the papers until the very end of the process….at which time I was pronounced 4F. Unfit for service. So I had no choice but to return to my park ranger job which I managed to hang on to for another 32 years. Hopefully during all that time, I provided at least a little bit of public service to this great country of ours.

By the way, within a few years that ulcer of mine just disappeared.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Aspens and Anniversaries


Nineteen years ago today a wild mountain lion ran across the road in front of me as I drove into the mountains near Mineral, California. At the time, I considered it a good omen as I was in the process of getting my eight year old daughter Alison so that she could be with me on my wedding day. Ali lived with her mom near the town of Portola, high up the Feather River country. The drive from Redding took three hours and took me near the slopes of Lassen Peak, around the shore of Lake Almanor, and along the banks of Indian Creek. I’d gotten a crack-o-dawn start so that we could have plenty of time to make ready for the ceremony.

That afternoon Amy and I got married under the trees in Viola, a tiny community in the foothills of the Cascades. We were surrounded by friends and family and good feelings. And the day after the nuptials were completed, we flew down to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a two-week honeymoon through the Four Corners area. That mountain lion sighting was a harbinger of a sublime experience that has lasted nearly twenty years.

So today the two of us drove into the mountains once again but this time it was in Colorado instead of California. We decided to catch the fall color on Grand Mesa, only about an hour’s drive from Grand Junction. We left the interstate at Plateau Creek and slowly wound along its rugged banks which are currently decked out in yellow rabbitbrush and late summer grasses. We encountered the first aspens just beyond the town of Mesa near the Powderhorn ski area.

Farther up the road at Old Powderhorn the color was even better. And eventually we spent a good chunk of time wandering amid white bark and golden shadows, photographing the autumn splendor. It was a warm and quiet affirmation of a marriage well spent, of two-week fall vacations through the canyon country, and of other autumn days spent admiring the intermountain West. We have aged, certainly, but those things we love about this land and each other have not.

Late September was a great time to get married and a great time to have an anniversary.....when the western mountains are full of sunshine and color, in a final burst of arboreal glory before the chilly days of winter set in.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Of Big Bellies and Ball Caps


It was a relatively sweet 600 miles from Carson City, Nevada to the Maple Grove Campground in south central Utah. Once again I steeled myself for the long haul across Highway 50 with plenty of podcasts and pain killers. At Great Basin National Park, I turned left.

Rather than suffer the interminable drive along the Sevier Dry Lake, gateway to beautiful Delta, Utah, I left Highway 50 behind in Baker and took a southwesterly tack through the tiny towns of Garrison and Milford, Utah....bucolic to the max and free from the saline sumps that pass themselves off as lakes on the more northerly route. I immediately gained an hour when I crossed the time zone at Garrison but was undaunted in my goal of reaching the campground at Maple Grove, just west of Salina.

I pulled into the campground around 5pm Mountain Daylight Time, having skirted thunder showers and dust devils along the way. I picked an isolated, shady site tucked away in the trees. The ground was damp from very recent rains and I had trouble finding any dry kindling. But above all, the forest was quiet and calm and the high cliffs of the Fishlake National Forest told me I was back on the Colorado Plateau once again and only two hundred miles from home.

I got started at dawn the following day, appropriately listening to Vince Guaraldi’s version of Softly As In a Morning Sunrise as I headed into Salina. I stopped just outside the forest boundary to photograph a group of wild turkeys and the first rays of daylight on roadside sunflowers. My immediate goal was Mom’s Cafe in downtown Salina.

I’d lunched at Mom’s many times on many journeys over the years but this was the first time I’d ever had breakfast there. And the cafe did not disappoint. Friday morning at 7am the place was bustling with activity, especially the back room where the locals obviously congregated. I was seated by myself in the front part of the building but had no trouble at all hearing the boisterous cacophony coming from the rear. And the din grew louder as more big-bellied men in ball caps entered the restaurant, joining in the rough-hewn gossip.

The cafe walls were lined with news clips touting the quality of the food and hospitality, along with autographed photos of celebrities like Ashley Judd and Willie Nelson who had apparently stopped by at one time or another while passing through Salina. The original “Mom” wasn’t around this particular morning.. But my waitress was an attractive lass who, I’m guessing, was pushing 40 and probably Mormon with three or four kids at home. She confided in me. “I went to school with most of these guys so when they give me a bad time, I just tell ’em to shut up and eat!” Then she disappeared into the backroom to join the fray.

She really knew how to play the crowd and I thought to myself, on a personal level, how I probably would not agree politically, religiously, or philosophically with any of the congregated codgers in the back room, yet I was inexorably caught up in their laughter and good feelings, and that peculiar energy and delight in getting yet another glimpse of fading, small town America.

I knew that ahead of me lay one of the most spectacularly empty stretches of Interstate in the country, the rugged mesas and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and, beyond that, home. And this fine morning at Mom’s Cafe was a great way to bring to a close a journey of heart and soul into the West of mind and memory.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Cabin in the Crags

I felt a pang of post-Reunion sadness when I left the Crown Plaza at the crack of dawn on Sunday, August 15. It was a bittersweet farewell to the area where I was raised and nurtured. But at the same time, I had a keen sense of excitement knowing that I was heading south to make just one more visit to Pinnacles National Monument, my first Park Service home, . My friend Eric, who was now superintendent of the park, had just accepted a transfer to the Badlands of South Dakota so this would be my last chance to visit with him and his family for awhile, and my last chance to spend a night in Bear Gulch.

Nearly forty years ago I moved into a 12’ x 16‘, one room cabin in the Bear Gulch area of the Pinnacles, a sturdy little structure built toward the end of the 1920s as part of a series of one and two-room tourist cabins, made out of wood with a solid stone facade covering the lower half. It had a stove, sink, cabinets and water heater on one side, and a small bathroom cubicle in the back. I hung a cheap Cost Plus Indian print across the middle to define a bedroom space.

I lived in Cabin #8 as it was called for two years, and it was a wonderful place to hole up after a day’s work. I often had families of raccoons as visitors but seldom any humans. When friends did visit, they slept on what little floor space was available. The winter darkness could be deep and cold. One time I nearly got flooded out when the banks of Bear Creek overflowed. But mostly I loved the unique isolation of the place.

By the time Eric took over several years ago, all the cabins had been converted either to offices or storage space with the exception of Cabin #10, just up the hill from my old place (which is now the Condor Program Office). It seems that Cabin #10 had been tricked out as an overnight pad for visiting researchers or special guests. It is even smaller than Cabin #8....perhaps 10’ x 12’ at the most with the basic amenities and a bunk bed. And Eric gave me the opportunity to stay there one more time.

After dinner with the family at their ranch land home near San Benito, I made the dusky five-mile drive into the park proper. As I reached the wooded confines of Bear Gulch, I was flooded with memories of those early park service days...the steep learning curve, the federal bureaucracy, the anxieties of talking to park visitors. Later there was the quickie first marriage, the ignored induction papers, and plans to head for Canada (but that’s another story). Lots of emotional ups and downs bouncing around Bear Gulch.

But tonight it was quiet, empty and warmly welcoming. I moved into Cabin #10 with minimal gear, unpacked the sleeping bag on the lower bunk, and then spent several minutes just sitting on the stone porch watching the darkness settle into the canyon and looking down at Cabin #8, just a few yards away. What a fantastic twist of fate it was that allowed me to live and work here, and be privy to its magic. And here I was 39 years later, spending one last night.

The following morning I left it all behind and drove out to highway 25 before the sun was up. I headed north toward Hollister, stopping frequently to photograph the first light on valley oaks and golden grasses, to watch a flock of wild turkeys, and admire the migrant workers who were already at work in the fields near Paicines. At a small cafe in Tres Pinos called Flapjacks, I had breakfast and chatted with the owners Phil and Karen who proudly posed for me in front of their place. After that it was back to the road, toward the Sierra Nevada and the first leg of my long trip home.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Class Reunion, Part 4


I spent Friday night with my friends John and Nancy high on a hill in Boulder Creek amidst redwoods and douglas firs. A thick blanket of coastal fog was already beginning to dissipate as dawn arrived quietly over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Soon I was driving the winding curves of Highway 9 toward Skyline Boulevard., then over the summit and down into Saratoga. At some point along the way, the sun broke through misty madrones and tanbark oaks as dozens of Saturday cyclists pedaled past me in the opposite direction.

I ended up at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Palo Alto. If the Crown Plaza had a familiarity to it, it was because this was the former Cabana Hotel where the Beatles once spent the night after playing Candlestick Park in 1965. I could still remember standing outside its elegant walls 45 years earlier with hundreds of screaming kids, all of us hoping to catch a glimpse of the Fab Four but destined not to. They had stayed on the eighth floor back then. I was staying on the sixth.

That Saturday afternoon the “official” reunion gathering began in the backyard of another LAHS alum at a house not far from my old junior high school. The streets still lined with gnarled pepper trees. One of those perfect Los Altos summer afternoons - warm and clear with a touch of bluish haze over Black Mountain and the coastal range. More alumni keep drifting in, and once again Hawaiian shirts were the sartorial statement of the day.

The last time I consorted with so many members of my senior high school class was on Grad Night in June of 1965. Who among any of us back then could have imagined the long and rocky road that would bring us back together so many years later? I thought about my own experiences with fate and time. Set free with a diploma to embrace the social upheaval of the 1960s. Stabs at colleges here and there. Student strikes. Human Be-Ins. Hallucinogens. Hitchhiking. The crazy, unsettling, hedonistic impulses of youth. And, finally, that lucky break.....a seasonal park ranger job in my favorite spot on earth, Pinnacles National Monument.

But the rootlessness did not end there as my work took me all over the west. The canyon country of Utah. The fogbound peninsula of Point Reyes. The spiny heat of the Arizona desert. The rugged gold country between Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen. Throughout it all, the broken marriages. Failed romances. The joyful births of my daughters. Conflicts in the work place. A summer trip to Greece. A retirement in Western Colorado. And the one, long certain love affair with the American Southwest.

And this weird physical deterioration of my body. The arthritis. The failing eyes. The loss of stamina. But, oddly enough, amid all my fellow classmates who no doubt have gone through or are going through similar maladies, I don’t even think about any of that. I wander through the easy crowd, catching up with other peoples’ pasts, watching the interplay and, in the end, feeling a part of something that is bigger than me. From the hopes and dreams of Grad Night to a kind of serene satisfaction in having made it this far, and being able to hang out once again with old friends.

Before this trip is over, I will have one more opportunity to go back in time and space. But I will have to leave Los Altos to do it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Class Reunion, Part 3


My little girl started high school today. And I left mine for the last time 45 years ago.

I once told somebody that going to a high school reunion was a little like being stoned on acid. The faces look sort of familiar but the reality when compared to memory is somewhat skewed. One is taken aback by the gray hair (or lack of it), the wrinkles, the extra pounds. But underneath it all are the kids we went to school with. Some of them were friends. And some of them wouldn’t give you the time of day. Nevertheless, we shared a common experience and a common community. And what a fine little community it was.

I rolled into Los Altos midday on Friday after a speedy, scenic drive over the Sierras and a long slog through the smoggy Sacramento Valley. I was way too early for that afternoon’s informal gathering at the Alpine Inn so I spent my time driving old familiar streets, visiting the house I grew up in, trying to remember the names of all my neighbors back then. I walked around Los Altos trying to get my bearings back but, like the old acid trips, everything was skewed. The Los Altos Theatre with its art deco facade was gone. So was the big oak tree at the head of Main Street. Gordon’s Market was being demolished but some of the store fronts at the east end of Main still retained that early 60s look....like something out of Mad Men.

As the meeting time drew nearer I drove up into the foothills through forests of madrone and oak, past golden fields of dry grass and slopes of chaparral. Up Moody Road to Page Mill, past Joan Baez’s place. The summer heat was redolent of pine needles and eucalyptus. The poison oak was turning red. Eventually I turned on to Arastradero and followed it to the Alpine Inn, that rustic anachronism from the days when this part of the San Francisco peninsula was a bucolic eden, a mecca of apricot and walnut orchards, a hangout for Stanford professors, and a haven for the oddballs like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

I was one of the first to arrive but in time others drifted in, bought beers, settled into an easy talk. Hawaiian shirts were predominant. Faces lit up in recognition. The guys who were not part of my high school crowd gave friendly hellos and handshakes but pretty much left it at that. Then there were the old reliables I knew I could talk and laugh with. And the crowd grew along with the conversation. And then some of the women began to show up. And the old voices mingled with the hum of cicadas in the hills around us. The timeless hum of summer.

The women who were not part of my high school crowd were much friendlier. Gracious. Open. Even effusive. As if time had leveled the playing field......had left us all with broken marriages, long gone parents, kids going through college, grand kids in many cases, and our own common infirmities. Arthritis. Hip replacements. Back surgery. The onset of age in an ageless setting.

I had been to other class reunions but this one felt good and right and affirmative. Here we were forty five years after the fact, made common by age and time. And through it all there was an acknowledgment of having grown up in a very special spot. A small town where we could take long walks along the railroad tracks, explore creeks that were not yet swathed in cement, ride our bicycles down Quinn Hill in a rush of youthful exhilaration. And enjoy the affluence and isolation of a community on the brink of great change.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Class Reunion, Part 2

What would we early risers do without places like the Toiyabe Cafe in downtown Austin, Nevada? I had just spent a starry, silent night in the back of my car in the pinyon-forested Bob Scott Campground, brewed a cup of marginal coffee with my one-burner stove, then watched an apricot dawn spill down the slopes of the 7,000 foot mountains to the west. It was just after 6am and I was too lazy to break out any more cooking gear but energized enough to drive down the steep switchbacks of highway 50 to the empty streets of Austin.

There was one other customer inside the Toiyabe Cafe. The television near the corner ceiling was transmitting a snowy telecast of the morning news out of Reno. Near the restrooms were a few antiquated video games. On the wall was the stuffed head of a pronghorn and signs touting “the loneliest highway in America”. But I didn’t feel lonely at the moment. I was ordering a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs to get me through the remaining 170 miles to Reno, an easy run compared to the 560 miles I’d driven the day before.

I have passed through this town dozens of times over the past 35 years and this cafe has always been a welcome stop. Now they serve lattes and espressos in deference to aging yuppies and modern travelers. I savored my breakfast and the familiarity of this little, local place before hitting the road once again....on the second leg of my trip back in time to the place where I grew up.

After leaving Austin, I would take a scenic detour through the Reese River Valley, photograph some living pronghorns, navigate through the Desatoya Mountains, and lose a telephoto lens somewhere along the way. I’d stop at the infamous Shoe Tree as well where I spotted the pair of old tennies that my daughter threw up there last month.

Continuity. Anticipation. And beauty all around me.

I push onward toward the San Francisco peninsula.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Class Reunion, Part 1


On Thursday, I am sure that the “loneliest highway in America” will live up to its name as I pass the burned-out remains of the whorehouse just this side of East Gate. A few miles beyond there I will stop at the “shoe tree”, the big, ancient cottonwood tree from which dangle hundreds of pairs of old shoes, a strangely appropriate landmark in the middle of the Nevada desert. I will have spent Wednesday night at the nearly-deserted Bob Scott Campground just above the old mining town of Austin, watching the glow of sunset creep from pinion-juniper forest to a small aspen grove above 7,000’; sleeping in a fetal position in the back of the Subaru. Then brew up a little coffee in the morning and have a quick bowl of Corn Pops to get me going. Across the miles of sagebrush and cattle-beaten country of the Great Basin.

As always, I have second thoughts about traveling solo over so many miles again at my age. Second thoughts about returning to the bay area and the old hometown. Second thoughts about my ability to cope with new situations and old memories. But the spirit of adventure always seems to take hold. The chance for independence. Jack Kerouac freedom (which was illusional even for Mr. Kerouac). Traveling mile upon mile through the splayed out West. The reassuring rumble of the car engine. Some classic jazz music providing the soundtrack.

Ahead of me Thursday morning lie the stark white lake beds of Fallon, the Singing Sand Dune, the traffic of urban Reno, and the Great Wall of Hope beyond...the Sierra Nevada range. And beyond that the known and the unknown. The familiar streets and boulevards of the peninsula, and the weirdly familiar faces of the long ago and much touted Class of 1965. The one Medved and Wallechinsky wrote about in What Ever Happened to the Class of ‘65? That was us alright. If not the exact same school, certainly formed from the same historical momentum and circumstance.

Stay tuned for further details.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Colorado West

Colorado’s Western Slope isn’t actually a slope at all but a series of quirky canyons, mesas and mountain ranges with names like the Bookcliffs, the Raggeds, the Uncompahgre Plateau, the West Elks, Grand Mesa, the Roan Plateau, Battlement Mesa, the Piceance Basin (pronounced pee-onse) and many others. The landforms rupture and bend toward an ever more arid horizon. Pointed tree-limned peaks flatten into broad plateaus of sage, pinyon and juniper. Bordered on the east by the Rocky Mountain high country and on the west by the dissected edges of the Colorado Plateau, the area is dotted with oddly named little towns like Silt, Rifle, Fruita, Mack and Parachute .

The Western Slope’s metropolitan center is Grand Junction, Colorado where two great desert rivers, the Colorado and the Gunnison, conjoin in the center of town. At 4,500’ elevation, it is often referred to as the “banana belt” of Colorado where winters are generally mild and summers are hot. If you time it just right, you can start spring planting in April and harvest fruit and veggies right through October.

Obama made a campaign visit here in September of 2008 but McCain took 69% of the Mesa County vote just two months later. Should give you some idea of the general political climate. Yet people seem to be more civil about it around these parts. In spite of my ponytail, I get treated decently wherever I go. And it’s a good place to raise a child.

It’s also an especially good place to get out of doors with tantalizing red rock country only a few minutes away in the numerous sandstone canyons carved out of the Uncompahgre including Colorado National Monument and my old place of business, Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area. You won’t find that name on the map anymore as it was changed in June, 2004 to McInnis Canyons in an attempt to lend credibility to the Republican congressman whose efforts prevented the area from becoming part of a national park.

Even though Scott McInnis has recently been accused of plagiarism as he makes a run for the state governorship, his surname will forever embellish 123,000 acres of magnificent country he is not worthy of being honored for. So be it. Because that doesn’t change the natural landscape of the Western Slope, nor the eccentricity of its population. Nor the fact that I live here and will probably keep doing so for many more years to come.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Breakfast at Bella's


There isn't much happening at 5:30am in Wells, Nevada but for a hearty breakfast, check out Bella's Cafe. That's what the campground host at Angel Creek Campground told me. I had left Grand Junction the day before and driven 470 miles to this rather lonely outpost on the northernmost slopes of the Ruby Mountains. I had caught the first light of dawn on the Bookcliffs near Thompson, Utah; skirted the urban mess of Provo and Salt Lake; and finally reached true Great Basin terrain at this little Forest Service Campground.

I needed to get an early start to continue my trip westward and Bella's was the only game in town. I was their first customer that morning, greeted by a cheery dark waitress who looked like she might have native american/hispanic roots. Black hair. Black t-shirt. Pushing 40 maybe. Difficult to say how hard her life might be in Wells.

From the outside, Bella's looks like any other dive you might see by the side of an Interstate. Inside the same. Tacky gift shop. Free shoppers guide at the entrance. The usual suspects.

But Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was piping out from the radio when I got my hearty breakfast of over-easy eggs with some homemade green chile sauce on the side; sausage links; and real home fried potatoes. And lots of them. Plus home made apple butter, not the gelatinized, tasteless stuff that comes in those little square plastic containers. And, damn, if the coffee wasn't excellent! I felt I had discovered something special in an otherwise ordinary little burg.

One wonders how folks get by in these isolated little towns. The interstate traffic keeps them going somehow. People like me, weary from the road, and looking for a good solid meal. That one breakfast kept me going for another 600 miles, through Winnemucca and the volcanic tablelands of northern Nevada and southern Oregon; into the Cascade region and that first breathtaking glimpse of Mt. Shasta, into the hot heart of California's Central Valley at Redding. I'm not sure I could have done it without Bella's. The next time you're in Wells, Nevada, check it out!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The New Mexico of Memory

When we crossed into New Mexico from Colorado two weeks ago, I swear that the sky suddenly changed, taking on a clarity and depth not found anywhere else. We journeyed over rolling high hills dotted with pines, took in little towns like Tierra Amarilla and Los Ojos, photographed crumbling adobes, and stopped at roadside churches. And all the while there was that deep blue sky overhead. It stayed with us as we descended from Chama into the badlands around Ghost Ranch where we camped for the night in a nearly deserted campground, surrounded by pinyon and juniper and Georgia O’Keefe’s colorful cliffs.

We lived in Albuquerque in the late 90s while I rangered away at Petroglyph National Monument, one of those politically created parks that should have been given to the city to manage instead of the Department of Interior. By the time I got there in 1994, the burgeoning tract homes had already been built right up to the volcanic escarpment on which most of the petroglyphs had been carved. There were literally petroglyphs in peoples’ backyards. The City of Albuquerque hated the park because it was an impediment to further development. Later political machinations by Sen. Domenici allowed a corridor to be removed from the park boundary and made available for a four-lane highway in order to facilitate development on the west mesa.

As a result, these “sacred images” carved in stone now look down upon strip malls, neighborhoods, and gridlocked traffic. There are few places where one can experience the actual context in which these images were made. To add insult to injury, in 1997 a new superintendent took over the reins of the monument and immediately alienated the entire park staff. A woman with a chip on her shoulder and a hatred of white males. Despite our pleas to upper management over the next couple of years, little was done to curb the lying, deception and abuse. I saw the writing on the wall and got out at the end of 1998. Leaving New Mexico was one of the hardest things we ever did.

And that superintendent......She eventually got caught using her government credit card to pay off gambling debts and was removed and demoted (anyone else would have been fired). I went on to bigger and better things with the Bureau of Land Management at Red Rock Canyon in Nevada.

But being back in New Mexico again two weeks ago was still a bit of heaven. We gorged ourselves on cultural and tourist sites in Albuquerque, attended a festival in Santa Fe, and ate lots of green chili. We took the High Road to Taos through little towns like Nambe, Chimayo, Truchas and Las Trampas....towns that have changed little over the years and still reflect the rural Hispanic culture when you look between the art galleries and get off of the beaten path.

So maybe the sky really didn’t change at the Colorado/New Mexico border but my emotions certainly did. We were back in a place we had called home. The place where we honeymooned. The place where our daughter was born. A place that is truly the Land of Enchantment.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Got Thoughts?

I am beginning to realize that we live in a society that rewards and reveres ignorance as typified in the rise in popularity of shows like The Biggest Loser, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, America’s Got Talent and anything on FOX News. Something in the American psyche takes a morbid interest in seeing others being humiliated and disgraced on national media. Or seeing the smart guy get his come-uppance. It’s often been referred to as the “dumbing down of America” but I believe it is much more sinister than that. It is a calculated, organized attempt to create an ignorant and passive electorate, a society of rubes and reactionaries who will dutifully fall at the feet of right wing ideologues and super-patriots.

On the one hand we are fed the seemingly earnest platitudes from politicians about the importance of education to our youth and the ultimate goal of producing college graduates, yet as soon as those students obtain a degree they are labeled as “intellectuals” and summarily reviled by the conservative right. It’s better, after all, to find Jesus and embrace family values than to be “an educated fool”. So we elevate the status of the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks while at the same time diminishing the contribution of scientists, writers, educators and artists. We worship a fabric flag instead of concrete knowledge; blind aggression over quiet reason.

This is nothing new, of course. But I worry that it has become so pervasive in this country. There are the obvious parallels to the rise of Nazi Germany and other authoritarian regimes, but these seem to take a back seat to the continued pursuit of capitalism at any cost, rampant racism, and unbridled jingoism.

This may come as a shock to many but America may not be the greatest country on the planet. It might be New Zealand or maybe Sweden or maybe some small isolated island with a more balanced view of cultural diversity, environmental integrity, and intellectual stimulus. And that’s okay with me. I don’t care if we are not number one. I’d rather live in a country that seeks progressiveness, respect, and compassion for its population. How do we get back to that? Or were we ever there to begin with?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Passion for Books


I love books. I have surrounded myself with books all my life. I love the feel of them. I love the way they look on a bookshelf. I love all the information that they hold. And I love the quiet dignity they give to our otherwise ramshackle house. I have so many books that over the past few years, I have taken to selling off a few of them (http://www.alibris.com/stores/westslopebooks). I haunt used book stores; wait for Friends of the Library sell-offs; ferret out yard sales; all in the hopes of finding some special treasure or unique volume. For me, the thrill is in the hunt.

A couple of years ago I found a first edition of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden which I bought for 50 cents at a yard sale and sold for $200. Another time I picked up the original two-volume set of Ullyses S. Grant’s autobiography which is worth close to $400. I got it for a buck. Then there was the first edition copy of Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me which was published just weeks before his untimely death on a motorcycle. After paying 25 cents for it, I reluctantly sold it last year for $200.

Of course, for every success story like these there are dozens and dozens of mediocre finds; piles of Readers Digest condensations, romance novels, born-again Christian books, and old sets of encyclopedias. But for me, it is worth diving through the dreck if I can find just one worthwhile title. Whether I end up selling it or not is almost immaterial. I am determined to keep an eclectic and esoteric inventory that I can be proud of.

What brought this subject to mind is the increasing number of book hunters I am seeing now at yard sales who are relying on hand held computers that scan the books’ ISBN numbers and give an immediate value. I watch as these people pick up title after title, barely looking at it, and quickly scan the number on the back. They show no interest in what is inside the book; spend no time mulling over subject or author. Just a quick scan and it either goes in the bag or back on the table. It is a fast and soulless operation.

For these book hunters, the search is simply for the money. There is no passion involved. No curiosity beyond the book’s worth. Profit or not, I could never collect books in this manner. Fortunately, from my standpoint, there is very little competition involved. Most of the books I look for were published long before the advent of ISBN numbers. And I pride myself on having a degree of knowledge in my own mind as to what is of value and what is not. Often I may buy a book simply for its esthetics or content with no intention whatever of selling it.

I may spend a lot more time sifting through the piles of pages then these merciless scanners do, but I get so much more satisfaction out of it. Almost a calming reassurance that there is still value beyond money in the printed page, and it is something tangible and beautiful and for the ages. I will always treasure the tattered copy of Desert Solitaire that I bought 35 years ago when I was a ranger at Canyonlands. There are more stories for me in that one little book than on many a library shelf.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In the Time of Telstar

Whenever I listen to the classic instrumental Telstar, it immediately fills me with a sense of time and place that is truly unique. Released in August, 1962, just five weeks after the successful launch of the communications satellite for which it was named, it became the first single by a British band to reach number 1 on the US pop charts. Recorded by the London Tornadoes and produced by the troubled genius Joe Meek, Telstar blasted out of the radio like nothing we’d ever heard before.

And it was music made for its time. President Kennedy was in office and at the height of his popularity. The civil rights movement was gaining ground. The Free Speech Movement was catching fire on the west coast. And the United States space program was moving ahead rapidly. It seemed like a time of unbridled optimism. And you can hear it in the music.

Telstar’s unique sound is literally uplifting with its weird space sounds, rolling synthesizer, and that great male chorus backup on the final turn. Not only that. It was over three minutes long which was a real anomaly for Top 40 radio. Listened to today, the music is rather poignant considering all that happened in its immediate aftermath....the loss of a president, escalation in Vietnam, more assassinations and riots ahead. Even Telstar’s creator Joe Meek ended up killing himself in 1967. In all of that, the initial joy of Telstar was lost. But those of you who are old enough to remember can listen to it now and still feel that unmitigated hope and joy that we seemed to be on the brink of back in 1962.

I can’t think of another musical piece that captures an era’s fleeting moment as well.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR


Up to now I have largely steered clear of controversy on this blog, but at the risk of looking like a bad ass, I feel that I need to address the divisive issue of so-called “wild horses and burros”. If wild horses looked like cows or sheep, there never would have been a Wild Horse and Burro Act passed by Congress. They graze like cows and sheep. They tear up the landscape like cows and sheep. But unfortunately for the untamed lands of the west, horses and burros fall into the classification of “charismatic megafauna”....cute, furry animals that are just too adorable not to protect. For public land administrators, these hoofed critters present a real management challenge, while to animal rights advocates they have become icons of the historic frontier.

So let’s set a few things straight from the get go. Wild horses and burros are not native. They are descendants of animals that either escaped captivity or were set free by their original owners for one reason or another. When Lewis and Clark traversed the continent in 1803, there were no herds of majestic horses running fast and free. There were no fuzzy burros roaming the desert southwest either. But there were vast herds of bison, antelope and elk who inherited their environment legitimately through natural evolutionary processes. Yet the wild horse has somehow come to represent the pre-Colombian ideal of an undiscovered land.

As an ex-land manager myself, I can honestly attest to the folly of trying to maintain a non-native animal population in a place they never should have been in the first place. Much of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is also a Wild Horse and Burro Management Area as set aside by the Wild Horse and Burro Act. This act is a mandate, passed by Congress, to protect these creatures by any means possible. As a result, over the last thirty years, populations of horses and burros throughout the west have exploded.

At Red Rock Canyon, the scarce perennial springs were trampled and soiled by these interlopers, leaving the native big horns to fend for themselves elsewhere. For the horses, it was a marginal existence at best and I can well remember what it cost the BLM in one instance to haul water out in the middle of nowhere to sustain six scraggly mustangs. These nags had no business being where they were but because they were there, we had to provide for them. The burros were a slightly different story. Native to the Siberian steppes and well adapted to extreme habitats, they bred like rabbits and could forage and survive just about anywhere.

So what about the BLM’s adoption program, you might ask? I can only say this. Just about anyone who has ever wanted to adopt a horse or burro has done so already. There are more animals than there are willing adopters. Currently BLM has over 34,000 horses and burros in captivity which they must feed and maintain at an annual cost to taxpayers of over $29 million dollars a year! And this figure doesn’t take into account the cost of endless round-ups, water hauls, and "range improvements."

Now, I am not insensitive to horses and burros per se. I don’t have an axe to grind here. I am just calling for some sensible solutions to an undeniable problem. Mass sterilization might work though it could be rather costly and logistically difficult. Removal by shooting or trapping is another option. This is the one that raises the hackles of the animal rights folks. But think about it. These are feral animals.....like cows, sheep and pigs. They just happen to look prettier. The faster we restore some balance to public lands, the better for all of us, the better for the native animals, and the better for the horses and burros who can live a happier, healthier life.

Monday, April 5, 2010

INTO THE MILD - Conclusion


March 21 - I have never regretted being an early riser. There is something almost holy about going out into a world still mostly asleep and catching the first deep lavender makings of dawn on the eastern horizon. There is an optimism about starting a new day. And there is opportunity for us shutterbugs who need to catch that first, golden light.

And so it was with me. I was packed and out of the campground before sun up. As I proceeded south along the eastern edge of Death Valley, I watched that first light hit the top of the Panamint Range, highlighting the snowcapped Telescope Peak (at 11,000’+ the highest point in Death Valley). I had sixteen miles between me and Badwater so I took it slow and easy on the curvy two-lane road. Along the way, I saw my first Death Valley wildflowers, a large array of brown-eyed evening primrose. When I finally pulled into an empty Badwater parking area, I was the only human anywhere in sight. and the lighting was just about as perfect as I could wish for.

There were only two minor logistical problems. Due to resource damage from the hordes of people who now regularly descend upon the salt flats here, the National Park Service built a raised boardwalk several years ago which allows for a decent view of the lowest point in the United States but intrudes itself into the reflecting salt pools. Furthermore, there are several emphatic signs admonishing visitors to not get off of said boardwalk. This makes capturing the classic morning view of the pools well nigh impossible anymore. With a bit more thought, the boardwalk could have been more optimally placed but such is sadly not the case.

Well, I am an early riser. And there clearly was not another human being within several miles. So I gingerly stepped off the boardwalk and trod as lightly as I could to a point where I could capture that fabled reflection of the Panamints in the salt pool. By squatting at just the right spot, I was able to lose the boardwalk off the left hand frame and get a close approximation of the picture I had wanted so badly....not perfect by any means but still pretty impressive. I have to point out that I was not being cavalier about this because I am an ex-ranger and feel somehow privileged to break park rules. But sometimes regulations need to bent just a little bit if one knows that no real damage is being done.

I rattled off several frames before returning to my car and continuing the long, leisurely drive toward Jubilee Pass. Along the way I was treated to more patches of primrose, and great sweeping vistas of salt flats, standing water reflections, fat green creosote bushes, and broad alluvial fans swooping down from the Panamints. I gloried in the quintessence of Mojave desert as I climbed over Jubilee Pass toward Shoshone. I was so energized that I ended up driving all the way to Kanab, Utah that night and all the way home to Grand Junction, Colorado the following day.

Behind me I had put the haunting hoodoos of the Paria Plateau, the snowy stretches of Zion’s east rim, the mysteries of Wash #5 in the Valley of Fire, the almost incomprehensible wildflower displays of the Carrizo Plain, and the craggy crescendo of Death Valley itself. In between were the quirky cafes, cheap hotels, bucolic towns and abandoned homesteads that enhanced the journey. And most of all, I got to feel the warm sun I so desperately missed through the long Colorado winter. And as I write this, the skies are once again clouding up and threatening more rain and snow. God bless the Mojave and the Great American deserts! Long may they remain!



INTO THE MILD -Part Seven














March 20 - The older I get the harder it is for me to sleep on the ground, a sobering admission from an ex-park ranger who used to be able to sleep just about anywhere. But I’ve got the car camping thing down pretty well now. I’ve got a small foam pad, my sleeping bag, and a pillow. And with the back seats folded down, I can sleep comfortably in the back of the Subaru in a diagonal, moderately fetal position. I’ve got my reading light, my books, and a few extra odds and ends. And when I shut the car doors, I also have silence. In the full-to-the-max Texas Spring campground, where every manner of thoughtless camper was staying, this was a good thing. Once inside the car, I could not hear the barking dogs, the motorcycles, or the crying kids. I got out my portable dvd player and watched an old episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I was a happy camper.

Determined to get the jump on said campers and tourists, I lit out the following day at the first light of dawn for the trail head at Golden Canyon. The place really lived up to its name too as the amber light of the first official day of spring seeped down its cream-colored slopes. It was an easy walk up a rocky, shaded wash. The hills above literally glowed in the morning sun. And there were numerous little side canyons to divert my attention as well. When I emerged from the canyon about 90 minutes later, the parking lot was already full....and I had had my fill of Golden Canyon.

I wanted to see the hills of Golden Canyon from above so I took the east road past Furnace Creek Resort on up to the overlook at Zabriskie Point. From there I could see Manly Beacon and the crinkled badlands below. There I met Debra, another photography addict, who was raised in Pahrump, Nevada and we talked about digital technology for awhile and I had her take my photo at the overlook.
Later that day I took on Mosaic Canyon, a similar but less visited area near Stovepipe Wells whose marble walls have been polished by eons of flash flooding, and where varied bits and pieces of colorful stone conglomerate have formed the “mosaic” designs. Death Valley is nothing if not colorful. True, there is a decided lack of the color green but, otherwise, the ocher, maroon, lavender, vermilion, umber, saffron landscape is in constant flux as light and shadow play across its creases and folds.

For true green, one can spend some time at Furnace Creek which is where I stopped on my way back from Mosaic Canyon. The stores, resort, golf course, gas station and other developments attract hordes of tourists and today was no exception. For awhile, I found a spot beneath some huge date palms where I tried reading more of The Big Sleep but the noise of traffic and humanity was more than I could bear and I returned to my campsite.

I knew that I would be leaving Death Valley the following day and I was determined to get on the road before dawn. My goal was to be at Badwater just at sunrise to get the classic view of the sunlit Panamint Range reflected in the salty pools at the lowest spot in the continental United States. So I retired early into my little car cubicle and made ready for the final leg of my trip home.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

INTO THE MILD -Part Six


March 19 - I bid an early morning farewell to the Econo Lodge and eagerly left Mojave behind, driving north on Highway 14 toward Ridgecrest. This is not the consummate desert drive, by any means but a long, barren stretch of roadway flanked by the Tehachapi Mountains to the west and miles of creosote flatlands to the east. At the nearly deserted crossroads of Olancha, one turns east on highway 190 which follows the south shore of Owens Dry Lake. This is a lake that used to be a vital waterway before being diverted in the early part of the 20th century to support the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. Now it is just a dusty white sheet across the landscape.

As with Zion National Park, this week marked the 43rd anniversary of my first visit to Death Valley which was part of a geology field class out of Foothill College in the spring of 1967. My first ever glimpse of southwestern deserts and the beginning of a lifelong love affair. For some people, Death Valley may be the hardest of all American deserts to love. It is certainly the harshest and most intimidating. That includes the narrow, winding route from the west which climbs over the Argus Range, drops steeply into the Panamint Valley, climbs again over the Panamint Range, then drops even more steeply into Death Valley itself. The temperature at 5,000’ Towne Pass was 53 degrees. By the time I reached Stovepipe Wells, near sea level, it was a warm 75 degrees. Just before I reached Furnace Creek, a lone coyote loped across the road in front of me. It was almost as if he was the official greeter.

The one thing I had not anticipated was just how many other people might have the same idea as I did about getting away to some hot desert country. The campgrounds in the Valley were all pretty crowded, and Furnace Creek was alive with activity. By the time I got to Texas Spring, there were only about six pathetic sites left. So I took the least pathetic of the lot, a 200’ square foot chunk of gravel across from the campground host, the restroom, and a telephone booth. It was a real comedown from my bucolic space at the Carrizo Plain, but I vowed to make the best of it. After all, it was now nearly 85 degrees and I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt for the first time in months.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon driving south to Badwater which was bad for lighting and bad for solitude at the moment. Lots of folks scrambling around on the salt flats. Artists Drive was busy as well, and the trail head parking at Golden Canyon was nearly full. So I repaired to Furnace Creek for a few supplies, then returned to my campsite where I found shade in the shadow of the Subaru and started reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I figured I would pass the time until dusk when I could drive back out to Stovepipe Wells and catch the optimum light on the sand dunes.

It is a nearly 30 mile drive back to Stovepipe Wells from Texas Spring but I timed my arrival pretty well as the shadows were lengthening on the dunes. I avoided the official parking lot where tourists were climbing like ants all over the sand and marring the dune patterns. Instead I went down the road a bit farther, parked on a shoulder, and walked in from a less utilized location. I spent the next forty minutes or so wandering through the mounds and hummocks of sand, photographing ripples, mud cracks, and shadowed slopes. I was not disappointed.

By the fading light of dusk, I headed back to my campsite, mesmerized by the multicolored landscape. I vowed to get up early the next morning and beat the crowds to some of my favorite spots.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

INTO THE MILD - Part Five


March 18 - From my quiet campsite in the heart of the Carrizo Plain, I watched the morning sun rise big and red through the smog and haze of the Central Valley. Once I packed things up and began driving north again, I left much of the bad air behind me. The fields of flowers became more dominant, many of them sparkling with dew. I was constantly stopping the car and getting out for the photo ops. My primary destination for the morning was Soda Lake and the Walker Creek area where an interpretive trail runs right along the San Andreas Fault.

The dirt road to the Walker Creek trailhead was unrelenting in its show of unbroken blooms of fiddlenecks, filaree and daisies. The show just kept getting better and better. The short trail leads to a point on Walker Creek where fault displacement has occurred over time and one can see the stream bed suddenly making a 90 degree turn to the right and then, in another 100 yards or so, making another 90 degree turn to the left; dynamic visual evidence of major movement along the San Andreas.

After six days of heading in a more or less westerly direction, I was finally heading east again. My rather unambitious goal for the day was to reach the desert town of Mojave where I had a motel room reserved. I had plenty of time to take it slow and easy. When I got onto the pavement again on Hwy.58, I left the Carrizo Plain behind me as I began an easy climb up and over the Temblor Range. Here too the flower displays were spectacular, enhanced by bucolic old ranch buildings and occasional groups of cattle. As I got closer to the town of Taft, these eventually gave way to stark, eroded hillsides decked with oil derricks and machinery.

The Carrizo Plain is a sad reminder of what much of the western San Joaquin Valley may have been like several generations ago. In places like Taft, McKittrick, and big daddy Bakersfield the current status of the valley is all too visible. Over-farmed landscapes. Oil rigs. Air pollution. Constant heavy traffic on Hwy. 99 & Interstate 5. And franchise food joints at every interchange. Industrial farming at its worst. I was determined to stay off of the main roads and headed instead for hwy. 223 toward Arvin and the Tehachapi Mountains.

Because of the heavy haze, I couldn’t actually see the Tehachapis until I had passed through Arvin where they began to loom impressively in the near distance. As soon as the highway began its climb into the mountains, I was treated to the site of vast orange splotches of poppies on the flanks of the hills and deep purple lupine in the pastures, the two species intermingling throughout with deep green grasses to create a quintessential California palette of colors. I remembered journal entries I had read from some of the earliest Spanish explorers who described a landscape knee deep in native flowers and vegetation, in the days before invasive grasses and star thistle.



Once I connected again with Highway 58 near Caliente, it was a roller coaster ride up and down in fast lanes of traffic, over the Tehachapi Summit and down the eastern side where the oaks and chaparral gave way to Joshua trees and a man made forest of gigantic windmills. As I pulled into Mojave in the late afternoon, I was met with a furious wind storm and sought shelter at the nearby Econo Lodge where another east Indian fellow graciously showed me to my room. There I took the opportunity to plug in and recharge my cell phone, camera battery and portable dvd player, all the important components of a modern day journey.

The manager told me that the best place in town to eat was Mike’s Cafe. If you’ve been to Mojave, you know this isn’t saying too much. Located on the main drag, the place fairly rattles when heavy trucks drive by. And with hardcore country music blaring from within, I knew I’d found the proper ambience for dinner. Furthermore, on a large shelf that circumnavigated the entire establishment was an incredible collection of vintage pedal car toys, at least fifty of them, probably worth more than the business itself. And there were more of those Mormon humor books about “Alzhimers” and raising kids and being married. It was an abrupt wake up call that I was back in the Mojave Desert again and that Death Valley National Park was a relative hop, skip and a kangaroo rat jump away.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

INTO THE MILD - Part Four

March 17 - Barstow, California is not exactly the garden spot of the west but in the pre-dawn light almost anything looks better than normal. That being said, I decided to catch the sunrise at Casa del Deseirto, the old Fred Harvey establishment that has been restored and still stands alongside the railroad tracks on the seedier side of town. The impressive Mission Revival structure with its many arches and Spanish flourishes is an architectural gem nearly lost amidst the jumbled rail yards and sere hillsides around it. I got some photographs of the first light of day reflecting off the rails and into the fine old building.

After that it was back to the open road, following old Route 66 through places like Lenwood, Helendale and Oro Grande. Halfway to Lancaster I began to get the classic view of Joshua trees against the snow clad San Gabriels. I got lost several times on roads where minimal maintenance is the rule but I eventually reached Lancaster and from there continued east on Hwy.138 in search of the Antelope Hills Poppy Preserve, a chunk of California real estate set aside strictly for the preservation and enjoyment of spectacular blooming hillsides full of native wildflowers. Unfortunately, I arrived about two weeks too early for the peak blooms so had to content myself with a few patches of poppies and fiddlenecks. But at least I was finally seeing some flowers.

I was determined to reach the Carrizo Plain that afternoon so I continued west to Interstate 5 and drove over Wheeler Ridge into the broad (and smoggy) San Joaquin Valley. The pace of traffic seemed positively frenetic so it was a real relief to bail out at Hwy. 166, a straight-as-an-arrow, two-lane country road that seemed to go on endlessly. The smog and haze was so thick that I drove at least 30 miles before I began to discern the low range of mountains that held my destination. This is the aptly named Temblor Range which runs directly adjacent to and is a product of the San Andreas Fault.

The southern entrance into the Carrizo Plain is a lonely road indeed. Broad and treeless, flanked by two low mountain ranges, the aforementioned Temblor and the Caliente Mountains to the west. Here and there were abandoned farm equipment, crumbling sheds and small alkali ponds. I was beginning to doubt my initial urge to visit this place. But as the pavement ended and I continued north on a wide dirt road, the magic began to kick in. The hills became softer, swathed in green. The green soon turned to the yellow of unbroken flower fields. Masses of wooly daisies, goldfields and fiddlenecks. The smog began to dissipate and my senses could begin to grasp the immense emptiness and beauty of this place.

That afternoon I camped in a copse of eucalyptus trees in the BLM’s KCL Campground, a primitive little spot with eight campsites, tables, no water, no fees, and plenty of solitude. The campground is situated at the base of the Calientes with unobstructed views in nearly all directions. Only three other sites were taken. I spent the remainder of the day wandering the nearby fields photographing flowers and listening to the endless cacophony of bird sounds, mostly meadowlarks and redwing black birds. Later that evening I was serenaded by a great horned owl who had a nest nearby.

It is a rare event anymore to find a campground that is truly quiet, where your fellow campers seem to have a real appreciation of their surroundings. No barking dogs or blaring radios. Not even a campground host. Clearly the Carrizo is not a destination spot and hasn’t made the pages of OUTDOOR magazine yet....and probably never will. The place exists on its own terms for one to accept or reject. I was totally charmed by the place, and slept an untroubled sleep that night in the back of my car.