Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wild Life

You don't see a lot of wildlife in the desert. Actually, you do, but it's not the cool lions-taking- down-herds-of-wildabeast kinda wildlife. If you read the guides the NPS ranger hands you when you drive through the kiosk to Death Valley or Arches or any of the Southwest National Parks and Monuments, you will be advised to "sit still, and look closely" at the rocks, the flat, empty desert, and wait for the tiny movements to register on your darting retinas.

It's true, the desert has more life than I realized. I am a 'stay on the trail' nazi, and I had the good fortune to learn, in Arches, about the biological crust. To you and me, it's just dirt. Dirt that looks like it's been pattered by rain then dried out. It looks a bit like a confection, frothy and light. It is where algae and little stuff like that thrive, and apparently, like moon soil, will hold a footprint (assuming 1000 more following do not stamp it out) for hundreds of years. In exchange, though, the soil's given up it's life. This gave me license to further nag my hiking companion to stay on the trail, and to turn up my nose at the family who, father, mother, son and son, each wore a few hundred dollars worth of technical hiking gear but did not have the eco-etiquette not to wander off the trail to eat their lunch, amidst the echoing death wails of the invisible algae they imprinted with their Vasques.

Growing up in Los Angeles, wildlife is conveniently sequested in the LA Zoo in Griffith Park. In fact, GP also has what's known as the Old Zoo, a loop of black barred cages, smaller than a cubicle, draconian, short and dank, with tiny holes at the back where lithe animals could shimmy out to their 'backyards' for feeding or a respite from the public eye. Thankfully empty and incredibly eerie, they are artfully decorated by local gang members, and were used by more sophisticated artists in the late 90s for an installation series. The cages allow us to pity our unenlightened forebears, and congratulate ourselves for our humane treatment of animals in modern times.

Driving to Griffith Park for a walk under the eucalyptus, I saw a uniformed man standing streetside. Just standing there. On the sidewalk! As we all know, no one walks in LA, and no one, certainly, has the free time or the shamelessness to just stand there on the street doing nothing(Sidewalks are for homeless people, for god's sake, and even an actor auditioning for the part wouldn't do it on Los Feliz Blvd). A white Ford truck was parked oddly by the large yellow apartment building, and there was a small cage at his feet. Animal Regulation. I tracked the line of his gaze, and saw a really agitated skunk huddling in a corner against the yellow enclosing wall of the apartment building. That is what wildlife becomes in the city. A nuisance, a pest. He didn't stand a chance.

Beyond the park, Griffith or National, the smaller highways overflow with animals. I had actually seen a few deer in my previous 30 years: on my regular Friday hike to Five Points in GP, years ago, before the most recent spate of fires that took out all the flora and probably a share of the fauna, I spooked three deer in the ravine where the fire road banks around to the northeast. A friend of mine lived up in the hills above Burbank in a posh place with a tennis court in a development that butts directly into the dry mustard covered hillside. Driving home late one night, a stately buck caught in the glare of my headlamps turned tail and bashed itself into a chain link fence between two properties. He was darting for the wild hillsides, naturally, and was caught out, trapped into civilization.

If you stop and look closely, you will notice the wild life wherever you are. The great songbirds of the east, I hear, no longer grace the eastern forests. But in the quiet of morning in my poolside Hollywood apartment, a graceful cooing bounces from the cypress trees. I sit still, letting the birdsong and the whir of the pool filter motor have their collision symphony, in those few still moments before the city's life drowns it all out.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


She is sitting back, old as time, a shotgun across her lap, her eyes as narrow as the barrel transversing her legs. She is shady on the porch. She is at rest. She leans back, some old Appalachian soul, regarding your approach. From her perch, on the incline of the hill, she can see you from a long way off.

Beyond this guard dog, a mountain pass, rising. God she is so suspicious of you. You feel every untoward impulse exposed and you are scrawny and shamed, driving in that mountain pass. Beyond a white spire, a canyon's cut in the red red rocks, a wonder curving through a mountain, mountains that look like a cup, holding you in, well below the rim. From her porch, you'd think it impenetrable.

The moon rose nine times tonight, over the variable horizon of red rock cliffs. We came into Utah, and I thanked God that for religious fundamentalism. It's helped keep the wreckage of us out of the state.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Death Valley

Barstow. The name, the place, lackluster as it is, has a gleam in my imagination. Growing up in Los Angeles, most any trip took us under freeway signs where Barstow was one of the directional destinations. It meant we were going, it was probably summer, it was the month, or near the month, where it is catatonically hot, the blessed, blissful stupor of the desert summer heat.

There were caravans of weekenders. A string of Honda two-seaters, like gnats, or maybe lap dogs, piloted by erstwhile Asian car gang members. A sprinkling of Harleys. And a pair of vintage RVs: square windows in a gently curved body, diminutive round headlights, coppery metallic paint jobs and crisp chrome arcs. They were beautiful. An overgrown race in general, these I had to admire, pristine proud and reasonably sized.

Sedans stretching in the late morning sun. Polished chrome and ultra buffed quarter panels, you could feel how soft that wax was over the lustrous paint. All dressed up, these cars. It took me a while to remember it was Friday (unemployment does that to ya'), and then it dawned on me. Of course - putting on their finest, these folks, and going to Las Vegas. Shiny cars attract shiny coins, or so the logic seemed to go.

Death Valley, I'd read not a month before in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, got it's name in the gold rush days. One in a group of the pioneers bound for California died in the valley after the group had been stuck there, unable to find the pass. One of the women, as they were finally leaving, bid the place adieu and christened it so.

The colors on the hillsides as we got into the valley seemed explosive after the tight-fisted tones of the desert flats. The plain rises like fabric before the mountains, where a skim of green is diluted by the haze of distance. Scrubby cover, this shade is shown off by the rising angle of the land, where it disappears in the flats, in the huge sandy gaps between plants. Magic carpet, an inept descriptor.

We went to the Borax works in the late late late afternoon sunshine. The sun shone on the Funeral Mountains until it reluctantly ducked behind the Panamints.

The moon is full, just about. We met a crow near the campsite. A woman, middle aged, camped quietly by herself in the site next to us, her tent crouched in the shade the mesquite shrubs would offer. I just love the peace and quiet.

Common knowledge has it, from many I spoke to before the trip, that women who camp by themselves are being recklessly unsafe. I deduce from the fact that this woman is speaking to me, and that she's implied this is a repeat trip to the valley, that she has escaped harm's way. (What would the Madonna of the Trail think of our timidity?)

After a period of sinus pressure where I thought my face would explode (perhaps it was just a good old fashioned dose of dehydration) I feel blessedly tired and content. It's warm enough to sleep comfortably in the tent in shirtsleeves. Warm enough that I do not dread getting out of the tent in the middle of the night, shuffling over the mudcracked earth and, under a bright bright moon, watering the mesquite.

Our camp is quiet, coyotes howling at dinnertime, at some distance, a roar of generators, is all.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Westen Stats

There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than viewing the world through the lens of a camera, when I have the option to view it with my unaided eye. Okay, I wear corrective lenses, so the world would be a fuzzy mess without some aid. But I hate the constant stop-start that turns a 5 mile hike in an amazing landscape into a 5 hour hike with a 4" screen glued to my face.

What occasions this thought? I've uploaded all my pictures from the 4 week trip, and am still filing the 865 shots.

This seems plenty, but then, what's in a number? Why don't I have a shot of the moon rising over the road into Bryce Canyon? Why don't I have a shot of the cohorts who joined me for stretches of the trip, one of whom managed to snap 700 picture in just 4 days? Why don't I have a picture of the incredible ranch-branded carpet in the motel in Billings, MT? Or of anything in California, more or less?

Apparently I prefer to look at the world through the tube of a ballpoint pen, logging incident and letting things show their shape at the end of the page. In my mind, the image is more accurate, more fully realized. But for you, dear reader, and for me when the memory of this trip is submerged by a mountain of quotidian tasks, by the cloud cover of some paying job somewhere, it might be better to have pictures. Next time, I'll take more pictures.

Meanwhile, my last gainful employment taught me to keep lots of records. Here is the story that the numbers tell of the Great American West Road Trip:

highest elevation: 9,105; Bryce Canyon, CA (not the canyon, Rainbow Pt)
lowest elevation: -282; Death Valley, CA
northenmost latitude: 48.5N West Glacier, MT
southernmost latitude: 33.125N Calipatria, CA

states covered: 10 CA, AZ, NV (only incidentally), UT, CO, WY, MT, ID, WA, OR
miles driven: 6,178 (add another 505 for the Salton Sea debacle)
total gallons of petrol: 116.23 (bless my lil Prius)
highest gas price: 4.06 Laytonville, CA
lowest gas price: 3.28 Casper, WY (Why indeed?)

photos taken: 865
good photos taken: that is TBD, my friend.

smallest town population: 68 Wamsutta, WY
average number of road signs on a one mile stretch of highway in WY, ID, OR, MT, AZ or UT: 2
average number of road signs on a similarly sized stretch in CA: 7 (Caltrans is much, much too busy.)