Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Taking Pescadero

By mid-November of 1963, the theme for the next big Los Altos High School dance had been established. The theme was going to have something to do with the sea; boats, underwater critters, fishing nets, etc. As lowly sophomores who probably wouldn’t get dates for the dance anyway, my friends and I took it upon ourselves to help provide decorations and some kind of coastal ambience. The plan was to drive over to the coast and steal a city limits sign from one of the quiet hamlets south of Half Moon Bay. The sign would end up in the high school gym as appropriate decor for the dance and we would be regaled for our resourcefulness.

On November 21, two days before the dance, we put our plan into motion. Four of us squeezed into Stan’s little Volkswagen bug and, late in the afternoon we headed over the winding, narrow road west of Crystal Springs Reservoir, up and over Skyline Boulevard, and down the curvy backside of the coast range past flower farms and nurseries to Half Moon Bay. From there it was a relatively straight shot south on Highway 1 to the town of Pescadero.

Pescadero had a special meaning for us because we liked to spend time poking around its rocky coastline and enjoying the maritime atmosphere. And, of course, the name was colorful and very coastal Californian. In any case, we reached the outskirts of Pescadero near sunset where we found the simple, green and white metal sign bearing the town’s name. Back in those days, it was fairly easy to make off with street signs like this one, attached to a pole as it were with only two bolts. With a handy wrench we made quick work of the hardware and, while one of us stood guard to make sure no traffic was in sight, the sign was removed and furtively thrown into the back seat of the bug.

You can probably guess the rest of this little story. The following day was November 22, 1963. I was at home that morning faking a head cold and watching television when the defining event of my generation occurred....the assassination of JFK. Needless to say, the big dance was cancelled. The Pescadero sign stood unused in my parents’ garage thereafter.

In subsequent years that sign moved with me and was often displayed in various parts of the American the canyon country of Utah, at Point Reyes National Seashore, in backyards in Phoenix, Redding and Albuquerque, and many other locations my transient existence took me. And I still have it.

Last summer when I chanced to drive through Pescadero once again, I found it was as sleepy and bucolic as it had been back in the 1960s. The new city limits sign was much smaller and much more securely fastened to its post. And I found myself thinking that some day I would like to return to Pescadero, approach the city fathers (if there are any) with my story, seek forgiveness, and return the sign. It has been a part of my life now for nearly 50 years, so maybe it is time to take it back home.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Silence: A Vanishing Resource

I didn’t grow up in a particularly quiet environment, but it wasn’t a particularly noisy one either. Just a normal, suburban street in Mountain View, California, not too far from the main drag of El Camino Real and safe enough to play ball in or roller skate on or ride along hands-free on my bicycle. I never gave much thought to decibel levels or ambient noise until I experienced the absence of it. That probably happened when I started camping out, but it really happened when I became a park ranger and took up residence in a national park.

That first deep winter night alone in my cabin at Pinnacles National Monument was eerily still. No cars. No airplanes. No television or radio. At first, the slightest rustle in the bushes was a startling event. A midnight squabble between two raccoons was frightening....until I got used to it. Used to the natural rhythms and soft sounds out there beyond my door. It was never complete silence but it was a natural one.

For the next fifteen years, with some minor exceptions, I was blessed with quietude. Especially when I moved to the canyon country in 1974. At Canyonlands National Park, there was silence during the day as well as the night. Sitting alone in Lost Canyon, I would be suddenly surprised by the wing beats of a raven overhead. I could hear a leaf gently falling from a cottonwood tree. Water dripping from a sandstone seep. And when I really concentrated, it seemed as if I could pick up on the constant drone of things growing. The sound of life itself. Sometimes it was a little intimidating to feel the weight of so much raw wilderness pressing against me. But I grew to love it. I got spoiled by the silence.

At Point Reyes National Seashore, the thick fog would roll in and cloak everything in its pillowy grip, muffling sounds from the sea and shoreline. Only the rutting cry of the tule elk in autumn could break through that blanket.

As my career became more urban and I moved in and out of places like Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas I quickly realized what I had lost. Barking dogs and boom boxes became the bane of my existence. Elevator music in super markets. Chain saws on a Saturday afternoon. White noise from the freeways. And, worst of all, blaring radios in campgrounds. I could not, at first, understand why someone would come out to a campground to ostensibly experience the great outdoors, and then turn their radio up full blast.

I finally realized that, for most people, silence is not golden. It is scary. The absence of noise to a person raised on television, traffic, and telephones can be seriously disorienting. We spend so much time with some kind of constant cacophony as a soundtrack to our lives that when it suddenly ceases, a little bit of that primordial fear can set in.

But I got used to that deep and abiding silence. And I miss it everyday. And like a mole, I keep the lights dim and pad around the house in the early morning and revel in a world not quite yet awake. And when I get back into those stony canyons, I can still appreciate those little pockets of silence that punctuate an otherwise hectic life. The silence is getting harder to find and in some places is in full retreat. But for those who seek it out, it can be a resource as good as gold.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Altamont:: Woodstock's Evil Twin

There was quite a brouhaha last summer over the 40th anniversary of Woodstock which occurred in August, 1969. But very little was mentioned about the event four months later which brought an abrupt end to the “Woodstock Nation.” I am speaking, of course, about the concert at Altamont on December 6, 1969. I missed out on the bliss and glory of Woodstock but I got to experience first hand the bad vibes and creepiness of Altamont.

The psychedelifiles in the audience will recall that after the unexpected serendipity of “three days of peace, love and music” in Bethel, New York, the idea of free concerts began to gain momentum across the country. The Rolling Stones jumped on the band wagon by proposing a free concert in the San Francisco area. Golden Gate Park was to be the original venue but the city fathers wisely voted thumbs down on that idea. So the Stones were forced to regroup and find another bay area location.

I’m still not sure why the month of December was chosen as this is a typically damp and gloomy period, even by California standards. And I’m not sure why the Altamont Speedway was chosen either. Altamont was no bucolic Bethel with nearby forests and lakes to frolic in. No, Altamont is located in the midst of some of the most burned up, overgrazed, barren country this side of Barstow. But the initial hype sounded pretty good with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Grateful Dead and, of course, the Stones expected to show up.

At that particular time I was living only a few blocks from Golden Gate Park, sharing a tiny little house on Geary Street with three other guys as we all attended classes at San Francisco State College. By late November, our living arrangements and our academic careers were coming apart at the seams. So I spent most of my time at a lady friend’s house across the bay in a really seedy section of Oakland. The idea of a free concert seemed like a little ray of positive energy in what was turning into a downbeat cycle of my life. Besides, I was a huge Grateful Dead fan so there was little thought of not going.

On the morning of the concert Elizabeth and I left Oakland in a cold darkness, and headed east to find this “Altamont”. On the way out, we smoked a little dope and ate a little mescaline as a preparatory measure. Less than forty minutes later, we could see the traffic funneling off of the freeway into uninhabited terrain. We followed suit. At this point, people were just parking wherever they could and then walking. Toward what I wasn’t sure. But we fell right in line.

And we walked. And walked. And walked.

For perhaps two miles or more, we walked....over dried grass, bleached cow bones, and dried manure. We followed the hordes over hill and dale until we peaked out on the bowl like rim of the Altamont Speedway where several thousand people had already gathered. We found a place up on the edge of the crowd and just hung out, getting high and waiting for the music to begin. I’m not sure what else we did to pass the time but I do remember a kind of sinister pall that seemed to hang over the event.

Eventually the music started. I remember when Santana came on stage. I could barely see them through the my camera’s 300mm telephoto lens, but I could hear them. The trouble really began during Jefferson Airplane’s set when there was obviously some kind of scuffling going on down near the stage. Singer Marty Balin got decked by a Hells Angel and the band quit early. The Grateful Dead refused to even play.

Those of us up in the nosebleed seats knew that something was going terribly wrong down below but we didn’t know exactly what. But if ever the term “bad vibes” meant anything, the mood of the concert embodied it. Elizabeth and I decided to leave just as darkness was settling in and the Stones were taking the stage. By that time it didn’t matter and we knew we had a long walk back to the car. It was probably a day or two later that I learned of the murder of one poor soul down near the stage. A profound disappointment all around and a sober death to the 1960s.

Fortunately for me, I was able to move forward taking more of the spirit of Woodstock with me than the disillusionment of Altamont.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A River Reminiscence

If there really is a heaven somewhere I hope it looks and feels like Ruby Canyon did that late October day back in 2003. There were three of us on a raft drifting in a dreamlike state through still water; through a corridor of gold and gray and red; sharing the stream with herons, ducks and eagles; and reveling in the heat of a record-breaking late October afternoon. This might have been my best day ever on the river, my moment of spiritual and emotional glory, and the summation of all the personal energy, time, romance and feeling that I have brought into this country and which this country has returned to me a hundred-fold.

We cast off from Loma launch around 9:30am, a bit late by river standards but early enough that much of Horsethief Canyon was still in shadows and as the sun crept into the cottonwood galleries, they would ignite with an almost holy luminescence like torches lighting the way through this watery corridor. Ahead of us, the upper cliffs and buttes were bright with morning light while the canyon mouths waited in cool darkness. A few miles downstream we stopped at the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon where we exited the raft, and followed the primitive trail up-canyon in search of slickrock. Every turn in the trail brought some new delight. A fresh view. A blazing red squawbush. An eroded alcove. Giant monolithic structures. We soon reached a stony corridor which was still in the shade, a beautifully sculpted section of creek where the gravel and soil had long since been removed, leaving a slickrock staircase through narrow walls. We hung out there for quite a while before returning to the raft.

By then it was nearly noon and we had barely begun the trip. So we pressed on downstream, skirting riffles and eddies, amazed and humbled by the steadily rising cliffs. I sat at the front of the raft, taking it all in, trying to somehow imprint the landscape on my brain, knowing that this could be the last trip I take on the river for quite some time. A float trip always has its own time schedule. The current dictates where you go and how fast you get there. No point in worrying about a time schedule. The scenery slides by at a slow pace massaging the senses as it does. Your eyes fix on a point downstream and that point approaches at an even, minimal pace allowing you to study it, anticipate it, dissect it if need be. The immediate banks of the river move by like the old multi-plane animations of Walt Disney. A cottonwood looms ahead. The view of it then replaced by rising tamarisk. Then a butte rises up from nowhere. And then, in a single instant butte, cottonwood, and tamarisk are all framed exquisitely to the human eye. This is the recurring cycle of floating downstream.

We took a late lunch on the Mee Canyon Bench which was rife with autumn-heavy trees offering shade while framing the surrounding cliffs with great, arching branches and sweeping canopies. We marveled at the absence of any other people. No other floaters. No trains coming through. No hikers. Not even any airplane noise. I fell into deep reminiscence as I sat beneath a mother cottonwood eating my lunch. I thought about Octobers past. I mentally walked myself though all the trails walked, and mesas climbed, and arroyos explored in my thirty-odd years out here. How much sand had accumulated in my shoes? How much red dust in my teeth? How many friends had I taken with me? I felt like I knew so much yet still knew so little about this place, but I felt a peace and comfort verging on nirvana. I felt my life coming full circle in canyon country.

It was after two by the time we got back on the river and now the sun had drifted substantially to the west, sending long shadows across the rocks. As we navigated the whirlpools and rough water of Black Rocks, the Precambrian, polished stone captured and reflected the afternoon light. The rocks loomed out of the water like thick, black icebergs as we moved through the narrow, foam-flecked channel. As we headed west into the sunlight itself, I basked in the heat and the deep blue sky above. In a few more miles, we would transition from the inner depths of Ruby Canyon to the more open shorelines near the Utah/Colorado border.

As soon as one reaches the state line, the river breaks free of the canyon's constraints and enters a broad, brilliant country of free standing buttes, open fields, and thickening cottonwood galleries. With the sun now behind them, the trees were afire with yellow and orange. Along the banks, the squawbush glowed red, while the thick tamarisk stands were haloed in a coppery glow. The overall feeling was one of leaving a great cathedral and ascending to the very portals of a heavenly landscape. Not a single mile was lost on my senses. I drank it in. I stored it. I reveled in it. And I silently congratulated myself for knowing when to take this trip. For having the experience and foresight to time it so perfectly. And I thanked the canyon gods for cooperating with great weather, great colors and great companionship. That day on the river was a distillation of all the Octobers ever spent on the Colorado Plateau, a concentrated dose of all the best this land can offer. I never tire of it. I never fail to be renewed by it. I have a canyon lands dependency.