Text Trail.    2004 - 2005.     ~mike gradziel.
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Joining thousands of other travelers, I made the trek across the continent to a crisp snowy place for Thanksgiving weekend. Thursday several inches of snow fell, perfect weather for cooking in the kitchen while the windows fogged over and dusk crept in beyond the frosted glass. Friday morning dawned clear and cold - the sort of cold that makes powder snow crunch underfoot and preserves delicate crystals of ice even in sunshine. I was awake to see the first pink light on the hills, but later in the day the change in time zone caught up to me. I visited friends, worked on some projects, and the early Sunday morning hurried back to California to run afternoon errands as if I'd never been away.

Saturday morning we drove to Joshua Tree and set up camp at Indian Cove. I took the truck so there was ample room for firewood and food and the papasan chair from my living room, probably the single best thing I brought (so comfortable...). We spent several hours locating a particular boulder Joanna and I found a year ago; I wanted more pictures of it with my new camera. The lighting wasn't great, but I was satisfied nonetheless after we finally found it atop the fourth rock pile we climbed, four hundred feet above camp. After the moon rose the stars faded and we never saw many meteors - the Leonids were light this year. Sunday we drove through the park and scrambled on boulders and relaxed in camp; I headed home after dark.

Friday morning at work I decided to join Steve and Joanna for the weekend, backpacking in Sequoia NP. The drive is about the same length as to the Eastern Sierra (near Bishop, anyway) and it was nice to have a change of highway scenery. We started from the Wolverton trailhead at the end of CA198 and hiked in 7 miles to Pear Lake, a lovely pool of water especially with the fall colors. It was cold - but only based on ice and snow that never melted; with the sun out or with my warm clothing on, the temperatures really didn't seem too low. The hot water bottle in my sleeping bag also helped a lot.. We stayed up late (late after sundown, not by the clock) and watched meteors and noted how the sky turned round one particular fir tree, to which Polaris was positioned securely at the topmost branch. In what felt like a breakthrough to the subconscious, I realized the source of a vague sense of comfort I seem to encounter when the sun is low in the sky at noon. A chill in the air adds to the feeling. It's not just the cold; in the Canadian Arctic in July the sun was low in the sky and it felt summery and still comforting. It's nostalgia for a different place, one where time draws a deep mark on the day and seasons draw deep marks on the year, where people move at the pace of the forces of nature rather than the pace of traffic on the interstate. Coming in from work at dusk and building a fire in the woodstove to keep out the chill and making a hot drink and a good meal just don't seem so significant in this drab California desert.

Real apples come from New England. Apples have their botanical origin in the mountains of central Asia where a single species grows wild, but for all practical purposes the McIntosh Apple from Ontario is the only qualifying "apple." It arrives with fall colors splashed across the hillsides, frost on the ground, and crisp cool air that carries the the scent of wood smoke. Unfortunately, it does not grow in California. The weather's too warm. So, I went back to Massachusetts in search of real apples (and fall colors, and frost, and cool air and wood smoke). Actually, I went back because Grandpa turned 90 and we had a fine party, and I didn't get any frost because a storm from the tropics arrived and sent eight inches of rain rushing down the streams and rivers, but the apples were excellent. The colors in northeastern New York were at their peak and quite bright but elsewhere to the west and south they weren't so brilliant. It all depends on the summer weather. I visited Mitch and Emily in Rochester, saw the grandparents in Geneva, visited my sister in Ithaca, then trooped home for a few more nights at the old farm. Relatives from all over the country gathered; some I hadn't seen for ten years.

The mosquitoes are gone from the Sierras now; temperatures are below freezing at night and the aspens are starting to turn yellow and gold. The summer crowds are also gone so Joanna and I had no trouble getting a permit to backpack into the Palisade Glacier area on the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. The drive from Los Angeles is four hours, longer than I'd like but still within reach after work on a Friday. We slept at the trailhead that night and set out early in the morning, reaching the lakes by midday and continuing on up the mountain toward the glacier. It was farther than we'd thought to the ice and the climb took the rest of the afternoon, but eventually we crested the last ridge and looked down into the snow bowl with its small frozen lake and shrinking glacier. There were two other tents in the area, both climbing teams come to play on the alpine ice. We made our camp on a small ledge just large enough for my tent, cooked dinner, and finished eating just as the sun went down and the icy landscape took on a wintry feel. The night wasn't as cold as I'd expected; though the ground froze solid the water hole I'd found under some boulders had only half an inch of ice on it by morning. Temple Crag to the East blocked our morning sun until we were packed and ready to leave. The hike back seemed endless, as did the drive, but I've brought home some great memories and some really good photos.

I usually return from two kinds of trips: those that were lone forays into hard places from which I return with relief and some small measure of satisfaction, and those that were joint ventures with friends, unplanned and without a definite start or objective. Despite the lack of definition, the latter does seem to have an end marked by the desire to go back and pause at some point. Those are the best kind. Then I wonder: why does it have to be a trip? Why can't it be every day?

I've been working quite a lot recently, more than I should but it's so easy not to try to drive through summer traffic, not to get out of town, instead to drive the 4 miles in to work and stay a few hours and get ahead for the week. I went down to the Museum of Natural History to finish seeing the exhibits (I got through most of them a year ago) and this time I left with a vague feeling of mediocrity related to the thought that museums are trailing behind all our best technical and cultural advancement, gathering up the pieces and primping and fluffing them and laying them out behind eloquent nameplates where they sit nearly forgotten. All these things are laid out so carefully, each leaf of every tree hand painted to look alive, butterflies hung on strings and squirrels stuffed in mid-leap, but they can't be searched for. Closer looks are difficult to arrange. Maybe the museum could build a database with the text of every nameplate, photos of every artifact, and links to more information. The squirrel would be alive again and even the shells of extinct sea creatures would no longer be the end of a line.

Two years later almost to the day, I was again standing at the Elkhart Park trailhead in Wyoming's Wind River Range. This time it was 10pm, absolutly silent without even a breeze whispering in the forest, and rather dark on account of partly cloudy skies and a crescent moon. Sean and Doug had left me off and gone on towards the Tetons, taking with them the bag containing my toothbrush and leaving me with a very similar looking bag carrying my phone battery charger and other useless items (my mistake). I crept off into the trees and found a place to sleep that felt relatively safe, atop a small rise away from the trail and the parking lot, and then promptly canceled out all safety precautions by hanging my bag of food on a short cord a few meters from my sleeping bag (not the best thing to do in a place frequented by thousand pound bears, but it was too dark to do anything else). The night passed with only a few mosquitoes visiting and shortly after sunrise I was on my way east. After a short while I met Don, a retired petroleum geologist, coming along in the opposite direction with a rock hammer and two bottles of water. We chatted for a while and he decided to walk with me for a short way and gave me his photocopied trail maps. They were nice to have because I had none. As we paused in the mottled early sunlight to look at the maps, I glanced up and noticed a large cow moose and her calf ambling along beside us about 60 feet away. They crossed ahead of us, a quarter mile farther on Don turned back, and I proceeded to walk about seven miles in to a picturesque lake. The afternoon was far too long; I didn't want to continue on because I'd need to get out the next day by early afternoon and besides, the mountains did look rather similar to one another. Finally the sun set and I slept for half the night and conveniently woke at an optimal time to step outside and watch the Perseid meteors streak down, one every few seconds at times. The night was cold enough that the mosquitoes were gone so I watched for a long time, admiring billions of stars and the jagged silhouettes of nearby peaks. In the morning I walked out and hitched a ride with two fellows from Ohio. They let me off on a dusty, barren stretch of road near Half Moon Lake where I and friends from Pasadena had a cabin reserved. Not thirty seconds after I'd walked to the edge of the road, pulled out a paper with the cabin information, and shouldered my pack, the Pasadena crew sped up in a white van that had come straight through the night from California. That seemed a bit odd, but it's actually not out of character for me to appear randomly. We spent that day and the next sleeping, piloting a paddleboat with an unruly engine around Half Moon Lake, and partaking in the merriment of Matt and Jenny's wedding there on Fremont Lake with the evening sun lighting the flower arrangements and glasses with rich colors and fantastic sculptures of cloud scudding southeast over the Wind River Range.

It's in the same state with the same cold blue ocean and the same golden grassy hills with scattered oak trees but San Francisco is distinctly different from its southern metropolitan cousin. The city is molded to the land, draped over hills with bridges spanning the bay and streets angled against each other in a complicated web of one-way lanes. The buildings and stores and restaurants seem more colorful than my dusty city of warehouses and stucco and there is an undercurrent of loosely ordered lifestyles wedged securely amid the contemporary business and professional types. Particularly in Berkeley one sees a place of persistent unaccountability. There is no effort to hide the collective attitude that one need not do anything more than bask in the moment. There in the comfort of a friendly city with the world's most perfect harbor lies a nest of loosely grasped ideals that might be wrested away by a slight tug, but despite the apparent soft shell I wonder whether perhaps it is a fair way to live. At least it's nice to walk among the sidewalk vendors and the musicians and ride a trolley car across the city and lean into the brisk wind under the Golden Gate bridge and watch light play off the downtown architecture as the evening fog rolls in, even if the moment must end and work must begin again. Maybe it's better that way: we keep a beautiful free city among the rolling hills guarded by a golden bridge and blanketed softly by fog every evening, and from time to time the combine drivers and engine plant workers and military men and women and families from the rusty car,'50s Levitt home, microwave dinner part of America can visit or live there for a while. I'll be a visitor, because when the fog rolls in and hides distant concerns I find it necessary to climb away from it and keep watch.

Saturday night I went down to Huntington Beach again for a campfire on the beach. It was the same thing as always: the standard issue sunset, bratwurst on the grill and glowing coals in the concrete fire ring, and thousands of people huddled around dozens of mirrored copies of our own gathering. I've always felt that sitting by a campfire gazing at the coals or watching the sky bridges a space between things that are real and natural and constant and things that are stirred into disarray by our urgent attempts to make progress. The task of gathering wood, making fire, cooking food, and keeping a warm bright place apart from the night darkness has a simplicity that soothes anxiety; we are reminded of a basic capability we still have no matter how complicated life becomes. Pensive thoughts wend back and forth through the drifting smoke and troubles burn away in the embers. But these assembly-line campfires on beaches patrolled by uniformed men on ATVs are lacking something. It's a stand-in for the real thing.
Sunday we went kayaking in Newport Harbor. At 10am it was beautifully calm and fresh and sunny and we paddled all around among the luxury homes and sailboats and yachts. As the afternoon progressed we wandered farther and farther from the rental shop and yachts headed out to sea and sailboats zigzagged in all directions like swarming bees and it became rather stressful, especially after we went into the wrong part of the harbor and added an extra mile and a half to our already long paddle. It's easy to cover distance in a boat - not as easy as on a bicycle, but one can carry lots of food and drinks and travel miles without even realizing it. We saw a sea lion and lots of birds but for the most part, southern California has lost its wilderness.
I must sound disillusioned with southern California! Well, I'm drawing a comparison to other places I used to know but I still need to stay around here a little longer to understand the place.

For some reason I'd never been to Laguna Beach until last weekend. It is a long drive from Pasadena, but what a nice beach! Southern California beaches have always seemed to me like empty, hazy, identical stretches of sand with nothing particularly inviting about them. At Laguna there is a large waterfront area of shops and restaurants and clifftop gardens overlooking the town. Buildings climb up hillsides - it's the hills, I think, that make the place so pretty. There can be tier after tier of restaurants with ocean views.. you can't have that in Santa Monica. We went to the Pageant of the Masters - an art fair, with evening performances - for a look around. There were some paintings and some photographs that I particularly liked but I can't even think of buying art for many hundreds or thousands of dollars if I can put my own photograph or painting up on the wall and be content with that. Some of the woodworking priced at five or ten thousand dollars was surprisingly simple.. in that market, one needs to put a high price tag on art to attract the targeted customers. To the rest of us, those things so often look silly.

I would describe now and the last few months as a chaotic time of transition. I say that because it's the only decent explanation I can come up with for why it's already July but I can't remember a sort-of-normal-feeling week since, ..March. There were rainstorms and everything got green and pretty and the wildflowers bloomed and then all of a sudden there were people to see and things to do and work to finish and it got gray and hot and dry and every week's been an attempt to float through simultaneously doing three or four things all of which I want to devote my full attention to. Hopefully the frenzy will pass in a couple more months. ...so I don't have any particularly notable weekend stories to share, just afternoons at work, mornings running errands, nights trying to sleep (success not so good), with adventures mainly limited to the workspaces of my kitchen (where engineering and chemistry and art collide with barbaric use of sharp knives and fire and once-living creatures are sliced and diced and dressed up for all the senses..) As you can see now, in hectic times life is compressed a little to the basics: eat, work, sleep.

It was the week of the longest day of the year, but since so much snow fell last winter spring was just arriving in the high sierras. Wildflowers were blooming and snow squalls rolled through and not a mosquito was heard up at the lakes below Italy Pass. We camped at an overlook above Pine Lake, right at 10,000 feet so we could have a campfire (none are permited higher than 10k). The stars were amazing. Everything else, as you can see from the photos, was equally so.

Backyard cookouts are a deep-rooted tradition kept by the hard-working people of this country through the hot summer months when family and friends escape the hot kitchen and arrange chairs around a fire to partake in the cooking and eating of fire-grilled food. These events are not meek gatherings. There are no tea sets or linen cloths or martini glasses; these men and women carry the pride of a powerful nation in their hearts and when they turn their energy toward friends, food, and drink, the simple beauty of sharing food and fire is revealed. In celebration of our success as individuals and as a collective group we have brought the art of grilling to a new level. We have created the Giant Burger.

29.75 pounds of bacon-topped bliss... you must see the photos.

The lights were warm, the spray from the surf felt cool, and dusk had settled over the beach and paused the passage of time. There were orchids on the tables, pink and delicate among the glasses and china and white table cloths. Rough plank walls backed our cozy corner opposite windowpanes filtering blurred motions from the street. The wine was deep and colorful in eggshell glasses. Buttered garlic steamed clams and mussels arrived in a battered aluminum cookpot, the soups were so good they could have been dinner alone, and then grilled plates of fish and rice and vegetables became increasingly smaller as conversation chased the thought of perfection. The tables were empty and but the street was still lined with parked cars and young people gathered outside bars where the mingled sounds of midnight Saturday on Main Street spilled onto the sidewalk. The sand was quiet except for the rhythmic pounding waves and dark except for the twinkling lights from the port and the ships and the oil rigs; bright bands of reflection came to us across the water from the pier. There were flowers on the trees along the waterfront and the trees reached overhead in a canopy and the mist crept inland over the tail lights and the concrete and turned to soft white light that was Monday after a time.

This time I arrived in Albany with a mission. Under gray clouds swollen with rain, I hurried to my rented car and set out on a week-long journey that became, as it progressed, an inexhaustable quest for the the essence of three New England states: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Though I lived 22 years in the area, somehow I never departed from familiar places and most of the region remained unknown to me; it seemed that I knew California far better than home. That brings me to the other motivation for my travels: to attempt to decide whether or not any place really could be called home any more. Driving miles of winding country roads, seeking out small town diners and cafes, and taking in every detail I passed, I eventually turned back west with more unsettled items than I'd arrived with.

The grass is turning brown, the weather's turning hot, and I can't convince myself there's anything else to see around here within an hour's drive. Work's been tough, weekends are for keeping house and work and projects and exploring restaurants and bars and movies. There's got to be something less ordinary to do and I'm looking for it.

Early Saturday morning it was drizzling and gray. Undeterred, Sean and I and the jeep set out on a day-long adventure, plans and people slimmed down by the weather. In the hills above Castaic Lake the lupines were flowering in abundance among evergreen trees and lush grasses and other wildflowers. It was wet, and we found a fine plot of about two acres of fresh sloppy mud to romp around in and get the tires dirty. All the 4WD trails between there and the desert were closed probably due to the high water and washouts but back in the canyons there really wasn't much to see anyway. The real treat for the eyes was farther on in the green hills at the edge of the Antelope Valley. Wildflowers have exploded across the grassy slopes more thickly and earlier than ever this year. Carpets of orange poppies and yellow buttercups and lupines and other blossoms in pinks and reds and purples and blues and whites spilled down hillsides and across flat meadows. Above Lake Elizabeth, a quiet pond with no powerboats and an undeveloped shoreline most of the way around, we climbed a steep slope and watched rain squalls blow past between breaks of sunshine and blue sky. Farther down the road towards Lancaster we came out of the misty hills into rangeland where patches of flowers looked like spilled paint on the grass. The light and clouds were perfect, no one else was around, and sunshine warmed the breeze that carried countless mingled floral aromas.

Two guys with a muddy jeep can only bound about fields of flowers in the sunshine for short while before feeling a need to move on. We bought some shakes and I ate a chili dog at the Fosters Freeze in Rosamond - where yellow and green carpets adorned the usually drab hills - bought some gas, and sped off to Jawbone Station to inquire about trail conditions and get a trail map. The lady there advised us against driving up Last Chance Canyon unless we really knew what we were doing but we headed in anyway after deciding the alternate routes could only be boring dirt roads. The canyon was more or less unchanged from a year and a half ago; some gravel was rearranged and rocks were more exposed than before but we had no trouble getting in to the Red Bluffs. There we got off course and ended up atop a high hilltop overlooking the entire valley, surrounded by wildflowers. A nearby mineshaft had been dug through white quartz riddled with brilliant green inclusions. We watched showers blow across the valleys below and pulled our sweatshirts close against the surprisingly cold wind. Black Mountain to the north had a cloud hugging its top and looked very sinister and untouched.

We consulted the map, which had vanished for a time under a seat, and continued on to the Burro Schmidt Tunnel. Built in the 30s, 40s, and 50s by an ostensible dim-minded desert recluse, the six foot tall tunnel hand cut about three hundred meters through solid rock to enable easier ore transport across the mountain was comically ineffective at its intended purpose. Starting near the top of a hill, it opened on the other side thousands of feet above the valley floor on a steep slope. The walk back over the top, an alternative to going back through the tunnel, was leisurely and gently sloping.

A few dilapidated shacks in the area seem to be inhabited intermittently, by whom I can only speculate. We didn't poke around to find out. Across the valley we went to a talc mine where powdery white rock was once extracted from sloping shafts cut into a chalky bluff. Every piece of scrapped metal and many of the rock walls were riddled with bullet holes; it's public land and open for almost any activity. The afternoon was waning and the sun had sunk low to the west so we headed towards Mesquite Canyon but got off course again, finding ourselves high on a windswept ridge again among wildflowers with spctacular views of the El Paso mountains and the surrounding desert. It took a while to find the canyon but the road out was easy. It's 2WD accessible.

The little mining town of Randsburg was our next stop. At 5pm there were cars parked here and there but everything was closed for the day. We gave a jump to an immense white pickup with every accessory but a working battery. There were a handful of dirt bikes and armored riders standing around and I noticed that serving off-road sports was the towns only real commercial opportunity. Every building was dilapidated. One house, a trailer modular but nicer than most, was surrounded by a chain link fence with security system signs. Another trashy yard sported signs that read "Danger. Explosives. Keep Out." The thing is, it was probably true. The mine was right behind town and gold ore extraction was under way. The saloon was closed; a sign out front said "No spitting on the sidewalk." The hotel had vacancy and a sign said "open" but the door was locked and no one was around. The Miners Union, a store/cafe, had just closed. One of the staff came out, on his way home, and told us that the Silver Dollar in Red Mountain was the only place around where we could get dinner. I'd like to go back on a weekeday and spend a little more time poking around the place.

Our next mission was to cross what I think is the most empty feeling part of the California desert for the singular purpose of finding out why California City exists. On maps it is unimaginably sprawling and disconnected and road signs for it on Hwy 14 and 395 point off into empty space. We chose Twenty Mule Team Parkway as the most direct route and paused for a moment at the turnoff: the road was dirt and full of potholes, and the sign said 19 miles to California City. After taking some sunset photos we rolled westward through giant holes and washboard. After a while pavement appeared but there were still giant holes six inches deep or more and big enough to accept a kitchen table. This part of California has few hills but is high - not a basin - so one can't see any landmark mountain ranges. It's just desert and sky. I half expected to stumble upon a meth lab. We passed some clusters of RVs and the road improved once we passed the turnoff that led to the Silver Saddle resort. From the looks of the area it can't be much more than ordinary.

Next we came upon an agglomeration of RVs, trucks, sand racers, and quads huddled in a gravel lot with lights on but no people outside. A sign out front read "Desert Incident Response Team. Four Wheel Drive Souvenirs and T-shirts." It was a comic combination of duties and an odd thing to see out in the middle of the desert. I wonder what sort of desert incidents require a permanently staffed encampment. Farther on there was a prison, its sodium lamps glowing ominously, and then the road inexplicably turned into a four lane divided highway. We rolled through town, a sprawling sleepy place with a stray dog trotting across a windblown street, aging two story prefab houses, a golf course complete with a highway overpass for golf carts, a video store and hair salon and auto parts retailer and a collection of other service businesses and stores. It turns out that the city went up in the early 1950s as a carefully planned "model desert city," the work of one ambitious developer. Back then the surrounding cities were quite small and many hadn't yet been incorporated, the interstate highways were not yet complete, and air travel was still a fledgeling industry. Now by a twist of fate California City has been stranded, far from main highways and farther from jobs or major airports. Its wide highway is all but deserted and there seems to be no reason for anyone to ever go there though new billboards on Hwy 14 advertise "New 3-5 bedroom homes coming to California City, starting from the low $200s." You couldn't get me to move out there, not even for an affordable house.

The iconic Hollywood sign sits near the top of a line of hills northwest of Downtown. It's merely corrugated steel sheet painted white and hung on galvanized steel frames, and the neighborhoods below it are mostly the same sort of property you'd find in another upper-middle-class residential area of North America except for the land rovers and street humvees parked on the curb. Swept up on the tails of Hollywood glamour, unstable bits of arid scrubland and aging houses perched precariously on steep slopes are worth millions to glassy-eyed pilgrims who came for the riches they saw on the silver screen. The place seems so hollow, without value or capability. The much hyped bronson Caves, the set for parts of many films, were no more than an empty gravel pit. The Hollywood Reservoir was closed due to storm damage but even when it's open, it's an obvious artifical puddle though prettier than most around here. The place starts to fall to pieces with only a healthy rainstorm - there were mudslides stripping away the lovely landscaping in many yards. Around here you have to look to the people themselves, not the place they live or the way it works, to appreciate what all the excitement is about.

Another weekend, another National Park: In Joshua Tree this time, I got a chance to climb routes that are too risky to do without a belay. It was nice to be there with climbers for a change. I'm good on my feet, scrambling fast and always climbing as if there is no rope - just the thing one needs to do the remote, minimal equipment type of climbing I like to do. I'm not so good at learning a particular move on a particular rock. I climb intuitively, not deliberately, and I don't want to think about where my holds are, so hanging around a crag watching a climb isn't ever going to be an activity in itself for me. It's just a way to practice for the time when I'll need to cross a slab en route to someplace cool. Like every other skill I've acquired, climbing makes me independent and self reliant. I can go where others can't and do so quickly, and so I can go to many such places, and with the things I learn I can better understand how to go further. That's the goal of all this traveling.

Two months later it was the same thing again, exactly. We drove up to Yosemite Saturday morning and settled into a beautiful cabin in Foresta, drove up to Badger Pass on Sunday for a hike to Dewey Point using snowshoes but not really needing them because the trail was packed, and returning home Monday. The weather was nearly the same, but with more sun while we were at the overlook and no falling snow. There were eight feet of new snow since last time. I built a snow dragon at the point and prepared to race into battle with my ice axe, but the poor creature remained frozen in place. Back at the cabin, we built up the fire and ate great quantities of food. On the drive home through Coarsegold we again stopped for the exquisite smoothies created at the village, admiring the impressive clouds that towered over the valley. Along the interstate all the way down to the Grapevine there were rainbows among the brilliant green hills where rain spilled over the mountain range. When we crossed over into Los Angeles we drove into the rain, which has been falling steadily and causing mudslides and flooding. There was hardly a hillside along the Grapevine that didn't have brown streaks where dirt and grass had slumped down to the bottom; this is a young landscape where erosion happens almost as fast as the crumpling of crust that builds these steep rugged hills. It's actually quite impressive that so many millions of people can live in a place that gets two feet of rain in two months with as little trouble as we've had.

It's February all of a sudden and the snow is going to melt soon so we're heading up to Yosemite again next weekend one more time. I'm spending all my time learning about lawn sprinklers (seriously, save your self the trouble and plant a cactus garden. fight those city codes...) and now on top of that I need to figure out how to make sure we can attach an oversized surfboard to the left flank of a Twin Otter and set up three metal reflectors on the fast ice at Station Nord. All that must be ready in five weeks and there's much to be done.

The night creatures visited at 3am Saturday and tried to steal something from my truck. Increasingly I find it necessary to surround myself with a wall of advanced technology to keep out the riff raff; my alarm scared the lawn prowler away empty handed but it woke me and for a time I looked out upon the orange sodium lamp landscape and listened to the whirring of souped-up cars and distant horns and whooping alarms. I thought of the walls I saw in Nairobi topped with glass shards and electric fences and wondered how far I would really go to separate myself from the place I live. Protecting a family is one thing, but holding an island of a different culture in a snatch-and-grab type of place may just be the wrong thing to do. I'm not particularly upset with thieves.. I just know they live by a different style that simply won't mesh with mine so I guess I'll do whatever it takes to kep our paths separate. If I ever need electric fences though, I'm getting out of town.

Thursday, dinner at the Minibar Lounge on Cahuenga. It's an odd tapas-style place where the exotic sounding food ranges from European to Asian to Mexican, the waitstaff manner of dress varies as much as the menu, the atmosphere is dark but modern, and the price is near $60/meal. Fortunately I had a large group of light eaters to share with. Friday, cooked a real meal and watched a movie. Saturday, made the rounds to the farmers market and hardware store and friends houses where I worked on various projects, then came home and went to the Largo on Fairfax & Melrose. Spooky Ghost opened and we were all introduced to a new performing art. Equipped with a guitar and a drummer and about a dozen pedals and knobs and switches to modulate the reverberations from dreamy feedback, Spooky Ghost plucked ripples on still water rather than taut metal strings. It was ..odd, numbing. On the other hand, all Glen Phillips needed was his acoustic guitar and a mic. That's more my type of show. Sunday Joanna and I biked down the San Gabriel River trail to Seal Beach. You have no idea how much fun it is to ride up and down those 45 degree concrete flood channel slopes on a mountain bike! Lunch at Walt's Wharf (good grilled snapper), a game of checkers at a coffee shop in the afternoon sun (I suffered a crushing defeat), a sunset ride home, a little yard work and some dinner and now I'm back on the job again trying to figure out how to land our spacecraft on Mars. All weekends should be like this.

Seven hundred fifty million miles away, so far that light and radio signals take more than an hour to come home and getting there would take 170 years at jet aircraft speed, a compact robotic vehicle has safely landed on a different world where the giant ringed planet Saturn rises and sets like our moon - or it would, if the atmosphere wasn't so thick with haze and clouds. Because of those clouds, nobody had any idea what the European probe Huygens would see when it descended to the surface. It found a new world, almost half the size of Earth, with valleys and channels and plains and hills all very recent and active unlike our familiar planet Mars. It's so cold there that the rain can only be something like common cooking gas turned to liquid by the low temperature. JPL built the mothership Cassini, an immense project that had its beginnings when I was less than a meter tall and launched when I was in high school. Like 15th and 16th century European kings who sent ships across unmapped oceans to discover what lay beyond, present day governments have financed this latest exploration to find out what we can about our planetary back yard. Watching the multi-national team of scientists and engineers talk to the media I felt like I was seeing a glimpse of the future when all the nations of the world might pool their expertise to eliminate a threat to humanity. I wonder, though, if that could ever happen: people are to diverse and too many are interested only in advancing themselves, so such an effort would inevitably result in high-tech haves and wronged have-nots and disarray would return.

I drove the Crest Hwy to where the pavement vanished into a snowbank Saturday, hoping to find snow instead of rain. It was wet all the way to six thousand feet though and the water was pulling down boulders and trees; it felt good to have a truck instead of the little Saturn. We tried to hike down to Switzer's Falls but the trail crosses the river a couple times and there's no practical way to traverse the oak thickets to get to a viewpoint without crossing. It's pretty out there in the woods when rain is falling and mist is pouring through the gullies. Sunday it was still raining so again I put on my gear and walked up the Arroyo behind JPL to see the flooded river. Rocks were falling from the sides of the gully, boulders rumbled along the creek bed, and tree trunks streaked past in the brown torrent. It's an impressive thing to see. Down below the Lab the reservoir is flooded and overflowing in a powerful cascade. Once the rain stops I think I'll rent a kayak and go for a paddle down my former biking trails.

Having attended both the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl game I have to say that neither was much of an attraction to me. The crowded sidewalks reduced parade-watching fun and the game - well, I just don't have any interest in football. I hadn't been in a stadium in a long time so I was intrigued by the nuances of a crowd numbering 93,000. So many people gathered together for a common purpose but behaving independently reveal something about human nature by their actions. Camera flashes, for example, were fascinating: there were tens of bursts per second at exciting plays, generally located closer to the action. Cheers and waves quickly multiply from one to tens of thousands in unison. A single event is processed by 93,000 similar minds and instantaneously a similar result is achieved. That sure puts a damper on individuality doesn't it? One is not different at all from a billion other people, or maybe more. People study the mathematical modeling and behavior prediction of large crowds; it is basically the same as modeling any complex system like traffic, the economy, or weather, but the full stadium is a very immediate example so it is, well.. just cool. There was a little bird too that dipped into the stadium and flitted about among the lights above what must have seemed the oddest terrain it had ever seen: Such a chaotic moving colorful mass would probably look like a strange ocean of crashing waves, cyclic yet unpredictable, powerful but contained, and emitting a constant roar. As you now understand, I wasn't watching the game much. It did finish well with a field goal in the final two seconds putting Texas up by one point.

Furthering my education, I trooped downtown Saturday to the Science Center and cruised through the human body exhibit. They had on display exactly three items of value to me: a plastic casting of the human circulatory system, man woman and child down to the finest wooly capillaries preserved perfectly in their original three dimensional form, the same sort of casting of a duck, and an isolation of the human nervous system supported on its skeleton and essential connective tissue. The rest of the exhibit was mostly sculpture with dead people that was artfully presented but not quite striking true on the mark of scientific betterment, though I have no objections to it. I'm familiar with anatomy and so wasn't nearly as impressed with the dissections as I was by the cut-away jet engine in the aerospace gallery next door. The Bugs IMAX film was also very cool. Watching the sixty foot tall mantis hunt, catch, and devour a thirty foot tall fly, complete with the smacking and crunching audio recordings, is something you should experience before you nonchalantly obliterate a housefly. Instead you should ponder for a split second the remarkable mechanics of something that tiny, and then obliterate it. The film follows the two main characters, Herodula the macho hunter mantis and Papillo the submissive lady caterpillar/butterfly through the treacherous jungles of Borneo until Herodula kills and eats Papillo. You won't actually get to see her get torn apart like the housefly - children are watching! - but you do see her wings fall into a sparkling stream and wash out of the forest over a sandy beach into the sunset. Such a cliche ending dissolved any compliments I might have had for the writers but the photography and arrangement is superb and the story makes it quite humorous.

Doug and I got four of very few free tickets given out to Caltech and JPL for a sneak peek showing of James Cameron's stunning new 3D IMAX film "Aliens of the Deep." Governor Arnold was there, being a strong supporter of science and exploration and a close friend of James Cameron (who was of course present), and astronaut Buzz Aldrin and JPL's director Charles Elachi and some of the engineering team were also in attendance. JPL scientists responded to Cameron's Announcement of Opportunity and sent several experiments down on his Disney-sponsored missions to deep sea hydrothermal vents. Thousands of feet under, where no light penetrates, there are entire ecosystems that thrive on incredably hot jets of pressurized mineral rich water heated by magma below. Chemosynthesis, not photosynthesis, is the energy source that feeds them. It really is a different world, one that is hardly affected by things on the surface.. there's much fascinating science that you can read about elsewhere. What I'm going to tell you is how fantastic the film is and how inspiring its messages are, even if they're a bit too saturated with glamour.
Harbor branch Oceanographic builds a fine little submersible vehicle that looks like a glass cockpit helicopter with big pontoons and no rotor. Inside the seamless six foot diameter crystal ball, two people sit at surface pressure in front of an array of flat screens and joystick controls that look as much out of the future as any film director could possibly imagine. That, I presume, is precisely what happened because those two vehicles used in the filming are not the clunky research beasts used since the 1970s but rather agile, sleek crafts outfitted sparingly with instruments and heavily with lights and cameras. They look like spaceships and the journey told by the 45 minute film is very much an oddyssey to a distant world. If you've been diving on a reef, you know how intimately close the ocean feels: It's cold, or sharp and spiny, or tangled in kelp or sweeping you away with powerful currents. Inside a computer stabilized acrylic sphere, one would probably get a feeling more closely resembling the detached presence I felt watching the crisp three dimensional display. I hadn't seen 3D displays before and personally, I think all films should be presented that way. At the theater you will be a visitor, one that cannot survive in the strange place you view through a transparent barrier just like the pilots and scientists you watch. It ignites a desire to explore, reminds us how little we know about our own home, and reassures me that the bureaucratic muddling of progress that plagues the place I work is worth tolerating. Sending robots to Mars requires a lot of paperwork and many fine scientists and engineers. Venus works the same way (I'm staffing a Venus lander task now. wow, that's a harsh planet but it's rather easy to land on. Surviving once you arrive is the difficult part). It can be frustratingly complex just making plans to do something but when our robots and our people go discover places new to science, it's worth the trouble.

Rensselaer has changed quite a lot since I studied there. A sleek new biotechnology building has drifted in and lodged in what was formerly a parking lot on a grassy rise surrounded by trees. A parking garage has risen from subterranean depths on the south side of campus and halted with a few floors protruding above the ground. A tall exhaust stack sits at a corner of the North lot as if it fell unexpectedly from space, and on the leaf-blown western slope where we went sledding and studied between classes and watched the seasons change over the vacant town great battlements have been erected to hold back the creeping clay while a new performing arts center is anchored in a giant hole. The day was dismal and gray and it seemed odd not to spend such an afternoon studying. Randy and I went out to play pool but I couldn't stay long; aircraft awaited to float me into the troposphere and glide three thousand miles across the continent to my office by morning. I sat in airports and read Cervantes and watched dozens of people stroll past whom I would have liked to meet, but I had no way of contriving an introduction. Traveling is, for the most part, an exercise in seeing things which interest you but which you cannot have nor be a part of. Nonetheless, those things become a part of you and without delay the frequent wanderer will find himself affected by many places and belonging to none of them.

I tried out Google's newly acquired Keyhole.com mapping service and, in spite of my familiarity with the data sets and map resources available to us, I'm very impressed by the tool. At home I have a twelve inch cardboard globe, done in antique style with 2001 political boundaries and topography embossed at exaggerated scale. It's fascinating to take it off its stand and study the land and routes and relationships among various points but the diameter of each pinhead I press into the planet to mark cognizance of a place obliterates an area some thirty or forty miles wide. What if I could look more closely? With Keyhole I can scream in from thousands of miles out and settle on a ridgetop in Arctic Canada, carefully navigating to a place where the view matches a photo I took myself while standing on a mountaintop above Pangnirtung Fjord. With one keystroke I can scan across to Pasadena and circle the familiar mountains tracing good trails and learning the land. Many times, on exceptionally clear days on the freeway going home, I am distracted by the depth perception and understanding of terrain I can get by watching the hills shift as I drive past at 60mph. Now the roads will be safer: I can do it all from my office chair. The terrain data comes from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, one of the finest missions ever built by JPL, and though the elevation database isn't accurate to meters it's very effective. I scouted my routes on Kilimanjaro and Citlaltepetl and the overland route through the salt flats of southwest Bolivia. Laying roads over the terrain, I studied options for getting through the Peruvian Andes. In California, I've noted a few attractive valleys I'd like to visit deep in the heart of the Sierras. Back East, the Massachusetts Geological Survey has made available 1-meter color aerial imagery so I can very nearly go home and climb a mountain by mouseclick. There are more resources; users can layer on stores and restaurants and schools and statistics. I imagine that Google will be building an Internet crawler that matches place names on websites with spatial tags, eventually allowing us to zoom in on a field in Thailand and pull up a list of people's vacation photos, tour guides, local hotels, national history, and business resources at that location. That accessibility bothered me at first; what of the romance of distant places would remain when one could see them in such clarity from anywhere? I've mulled over the matter for a few days and concluded that the sole reason I venture to a place is to feel the interaction of energy there. Only art can convey that energy and no medium can truly capture it. Personalities, languages, atmosphere, sunlight, wind, the sound of passing trains or crashing surf, the smell of pine woods or burning rubbish, the pace of traffic and of business, the taste of food and the expressions on faces...the summation of these things will not ever be communicated in a way that could replace the experience. I think it should be a daily goal of all people to observe that energy and how it corresponds with the tangible geography, history, government, ethnicity, and other such things that can be put into a database. Thus the availability of data will merely make it easier for people to understand each other and find explanations and balance. Back in reality, hardly anyone aspires to do or know much beyond his or her daily routine so progress is stymied once again.

Minutes after crossing the international border, my car began dropping subtle hints that it did not want to leave the well-provisioned, insured, and protected homeland. The oil warning light came on as we crept past eroding shacks that are home to the most disillusioned people in the world. On a hillside facing North, they can see the towers of San Diego beyond a heavily guarded and barricated strip of dirt and though they will probably never get there, they spend their lives pouting among the wealthy cars pouring past while their homes suffocate under heaps of rubbish and crumble into the mud. With the oil low my engine temperature shot up accordingly, the thermal lag letting it climb ever higher even after we topped the hill and the oil warning went off. Eighty kilometers farther on a long down stretch I started to downshift and the transmission was blocked. Every gear was useless but we sped along in neutral mile after mile in the darkness. I got it set back in fifth and we cruised quietly on to the next toll booth where the tranny blocked again momentarily. For the rest of the evening I suffered paranoia and visions of my car lumbering to a stop at the end of the next dirt alley on the wrong street in Ensenada, not quite at the campsite and never getting there. Saturday we exercised the standard Mexico agenda of beach walking, tacos, wine tasting, curio shops, campfire, and beer. Mid-morning we went to see La Bufadora, where small swells are funneled into a notch in the rock and blow thirty feet high. It was a textbook example of how efficiently Mexicans can produce artistic well-made junk with no practical purpose but sale to affluent tourists. I wonder what would happen if the artisans turned their energy toward bringing Mexican architecture beyond stucco, paint, and galvanized steel. I guess there's no fast profit in that; you have to start thinking what California coast real estate prices in north Baja would do for the local economy. There are Californians living there, retired folks like the woman at the beach who was out walking with three scruffy dogs (who loved chasing flocks of gulls) and her green parrot. The parrot apparently had gotten out of its cage and flapped around sheepishly until her angy reprimands brought it shuffling down a fencepole to her shoulder. The car got home fine. I took off the shifter covers and poked around inside and read through the factory manual and decided I either had some debris in the shifter cables (small problem) or worn synchros or shifter forks (very big problem). The conclusion: ain't broke, don't fix it. It took less time to cross into the States than it did to leave them, just the opposite of usual. We still had ample time to ponder the meaning of life for ten-year-old girls sent out to the border lines on Sunday afternoon to juggle plastic balls and maybe bring some money home. They fill the balls part-way with gravel so the balls won't roll away in traffic. It's a mature and well developed enterprise that takes people nowhere but into depression. Go back to your homes, people, and find a way to live well with what you have there.

There are about three feet of powder snow ten thousand feet high in the mountains here. The trees were covered in wind-shaped ice and snow and drifts and cornices were fluted with exquisite patterns. Wispy layers of snow swam across the mountaintop in the steady wind, making the surface look fuzzy and out of focus. I walked up the broken trail to the bowl, left the trail, and marched straight up the west side, passing a score of people in doing so. Some were toting snowboards to make single thirty-second runs of the steep snow slope and others were just out for a hike. Most of them stopped there, at the end of the broken trail, but I was intent on summiting. The sun had softened the re-freeze crust enough that I broke through knee deep with every step. Slogging onward, I veered left towards the west summit without paying attention to where I was going. By the time I realized it, I decided to make a traverse of both summits. The view from the west side is better. Three hikers followed me and broke off for the east summit. Four others had climbed the east side of the bowl and reached the summit before us. But other than that, the whole upper mountain was a desolate frozen trackless place. I reached the east summit at about the same time as the other three and we chatted for a minute in the howling wind, then headed down. San Gorgonio and San Jacinto to the east were covered in snow, and in the San Gabriels the snow line went down to about 6500 feet. There were pools of water in the desert. The slog down was great fun: two thousand feet of 45-degree snow slope often quite exposed. The snow was deep and soft though, and there wasn't much risk of avalanche or a tumbling fall. The trail got very slushy towardsthe bottom and at the base there was the usual crowd of snow hunters zooming around honking horns and sitting on their bumpers looking at the snow. It's reassuring to know you can go in past the traffic, past the walkers, past the big groups, higher and higher through unbroken snow to a frozen wild place. Back home, thirty miles away, it's 75 degrees and sunny.

A century ago, before the Crest Highway punched an easy route through the San Gabriel Mountains, the higher slopes were home to posh mountain resorts frequented by affluent Angelinos and Hollywood stars. The air was cleaner then too so one might actually have seen the beaches and Catalina and a vista of orange groves and rangeland and country lanes instead of a grid of hazy sprawl and freeways. Not that I myself am not part of the sprawl.. The mountains held mystique then; they were inaccessible and rugged and offered fine views four thousand feet above the basin. There was even a narrow-gauge railway pulled by a cantankerous mule named Herbert that would shuttle guests to the Mount Lowe Tavern. There's not much left but a historical exhibit at Inspiration Point and some good biking trails along the rail bed. There's even a short tunnel on the trail! I was hoping for clear air after the rains but the weather pattern had changed back to its old self. The top thousand feet of Mt. Baldy was covered in snow: mosquitoes are gone and at last the backpacking season can begin!

It rained! It has been at least six months since rain fell and, if I remember correctly, more than a year since the weather was rainy for several days like this. Plants are green, the sidewalks and road gravel look white in places, the grass smells fresh, and with mist drifting among the hills and the air clear, topography has risen from the haze. This place really is more than a flat plain of indeterminate size! Sunday midday was partly sunny and dry, enough so that we biked to downtown and browsed the Grand Avenue Festival. The main attraction was free shows. The MOCA was free too so we wandered through and were puzzled by the artifacts of wayward intelligence. Why would someone polish an eight foot tall, fourteen inch wide, one inch thick piece of black stone and lean it against a wall and name it? Furthermore, why would someone buy it at the price of art and not building material? The thing belonged on a countertop. It would have made a nice bar. It even functioned as a dark mirror. We took the train home, stopping on a crowded sidewalk on our way to the station for some Peruvian food. The food was not particularly good and it was pricey - a fund-raiser in celebration of the saint of Lima, we heard - but one must take some dull results to get to the ones that really shine. Rain returned just as we were arriving back at the house. It was perfect: I enjoyed a rare quiet evening in a warm house with rain pattering on the windows, reading in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee and the radio softly tuned to classical.

In southern California, the palm tree is as much an icon of the region as is the Hollywood sign. Why then would one walk eight miles through parched desert under a hot cloudless sky just to see a cluster of palm trees? If you ask Joanna, she will say it's because Mike was fixated on the idea of finding the Lost Palms Oasis regardless of how far we would have to walk, how hot and sunny it was, and how soon we wanted to be home. The hike was quite nice, actually, despite being long - endless, really - and following the same route out as in. We could see the Salton Sea and the San Bernardino mountains in the distance as we climbed over ridges and followed dry stream channels up and down and up and then down into a gully that drained to the East. Eighty minutes in, we came to a boulder-strewn gulch with tall rustling fan palms looking just as an oasis should. There was no water but the channel obviously saw floods at some times of the year. I can only imagine what the night sky would look like gazing up through the palm fronds at the spectacular Joshua Tree stars. The previous night, before the moon rose, after our fire died down, we could see the hazy splash of the galaxy across the sky and thousands more stars across the hemisphere. The boulder piles of Indian Cove cropped the sky a little and also sheltered our campsite so the only sound was occasional owls and murmurs from other campers. Steaks and a bottle of wine and some pretty decent rice with vegetables topped off our appetites which, after lunch at the Spunky Monkey in the Morongo Valley (I'd set out on a quest to find a sketchy hole-in-the-wall cafe for lunch), had been restored by a three-hour scramble towards a ridgetop tree that we lost sight of when we got close. The rocks at Indian Cove are superior for scrambling and getting into situations where life and knee ligaments are both threatened. But we survived, and I found my oasis. I still haven't decided if it is truly a beautiful place or if it's just the anticipation built by the long walk in or the thoughts of starry nights under rustling palms that make it seem so.


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