Monthly Archives: January 2006

In the Joshua tree forest

Clark Mountain alpenglow There are sage sparrows at Sunrise Rock, and Bewick’s wrens. I had not seen either of them before, as skittish and unbinoculared as all my previous visits have been. Cactus wrens sat atop every rock and tree, it seemed. I waited, huddled around coffee, for the sun to top Kessler Peak and the cactus wrens’ raucous burr, call and response, filled the cold air. Coyotes sang me to sleep last night, and woke me up this morning before the light.

I am in Kingman tonight, and plan to drive up Pearce Ferry Road tomorrow through Joshua trees to the mouth of the Grand Canyon. A waxing moon, its arc the thinnest paring of light, set over the Colorado River tonight.

I walked somewhere between nine and eleven miles today, I guess and subject to revision, and gained a couple-five hundred feet on the Levitan Scale. My morning hike was in a direction I have not gone except by truck, and then only partway. An old two-rut headed through a wash past the north shoulder of Kessler Peak, and junipers with bright blue berries lined the banks. It ended when it could go no further. There was not a cliff, precisely, at least not that I could see, but the way was steep and full of granite spires.

Unambitious, I sat at road’s end to enjoy the view. There will be a day when I walk down into that spired canyon to find the inevitable unscalable cliff from which I will be unable to proceed either down or back the way I came and no one will ever find me, or worse, a Starbucks. But not today. Water and a sharp rock to lean against were adventure enough.

A vague shape slid against the blue a mile off downcanyon, and I raised my binocs. Eagle! No, wait. Vulture. But… Raven. No. The downside of having very good binoculars for the first time in my life is that I actually feel obligated to ID specks a mile away. There were white patches on the undersides of its wings. That ruled out raven. Another bird of similar affect joined it, and for a time they spiraled up together on the thermal off the Ivanpah Valley as if joined by a cord. Finally one of them obliged with a closer, full frontal view. A dark band along the back margin of the wings clinched it: a juvenile golden eagle. Make that two: two eagles at once in the same binocular view. This identification was confirmed when an astonishingly small by comparison red-tailed hawk harassed one of the eagles: its body seemed the size of the larger bird’s head. An awkward mid-air jostle and the eagle flew away, passing directly overhead. Its white patches were faded almost into black. Remarkable that these new glasses helped me pick them out from a mile off.

There was a moment, walking back to the campsite with plans to eat and break camp and go for another hike, that I found myself stopped. I don’t know how long I was there, but it was long enough for my shadow to have moved perceptibly eastward. I wasn’t tired, and nothing in particular had caught my attention. I was looking at one Joshua tree out of tens of thousands, listening to the cactus wrens and sage sparrows, their songs dwindling toward noon. I was… I was just there. The forest had Joshua trees in it, and red-spined barrel cacti, junipers and Hilaria grass and eagles, prairie falcons and Audubon’s cottontails bursting from the Ephedra, and it had me in it as well, as fitted as the antelope ground squirrel poking out from its burrow, a wild sentience leaning against its walking stick, the desert perceiving itself.

Ivanpah

Oh, those clear desert skies — there’s nothing like them in the world.

So says Rana in comments to the post immediately previous, and she is, as usual, correct. On Cima Dome, if I don’t spend too much time looking at the sky to the north — a bit of haze in that direction will glow with the lights of Las Vegas — the dry, thin sky is a near perfect black, and millions of stars show through.

And the silence is there too. Every once in a while a plane far above headed for Los Angeles will send a thin roar to echo faintly from the rocks, every once in a while a loud clatter of jake brakes from an 18-wheeler on I-15 a dozen miles north will make it almost all the way to my Sunrise Rock campsite before petering out. Otherwise just wind, the skittering of black-throated sparrows and the alarm-clock whir of cactus wrens, and the occasional schoolbus trundling along Cima Road punctuate the soundscape. All else is silence.

For the next few years.

In October, the environmental engineering firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin was enlisted to compile the Environmental Impact Review for the proposed construction of a major commercial airport in the Ivanpah Valley. The airport, the only new commercial airport planned in the United States, is just across the Nevada line from the Mojave Preserve and a scant 12 miles from my campsite at Cima Dome. Opening of the airport is slated for 2017. Major construction, and its attendant light and noise, will start some years beforehand.

The EIR will, one presumes, address the noise impacts to the preserve, recommend a range of mitigative flight paths, and suggest remedies for destruction and disturbance of desert tortoise habitat. It might even suggest compensation for the owners of the small hotel in Nipton, which will almost certainly lose solitude-seeking clients if commercial jets start launching and landing four miles away.

But there are no alternatives that will douse the nighttime lights of the new city just across the Ivanpah Mountains.

Las Vegas needs the airport, I have read. McCarran is too small and crowded. The growing metastasopolis, its fangs sunk into the Colorado River like a tick in a dog’s belly, needs to land its surplus tourists in the Ivanpah Valley so that they can then drive the forty miles to the Strip.

And we’re supposed to look the other way, according to the Democrats, because the Ivanpah Airport is the pet project of one Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader, who works in Washington representing the Nevada Gaming Commission.

Reid wrote a book, a history of Searchlight, the small town in which he was born. Searchlight is ten minutes east of Nipton on the other side of Crescent Peak and the McCullough Range, past a thick grove of Joshua trees in a preserve called Wee Thump. I was reading Reid’s book in the Nugget Casino and Restaurant in Searchlight last year, and the older waitress eyed the cover as she refilled my coffee.

“That thing any good?” she asked.

“Not the worst thing I’ve read, but he repeats himself a hell of a lot,” I replied.

“I don’t think anyone in this town has read that book,” she said. “Son of a bitch doesn’t show his face around here any more.”

Reid was in the news this morning for agreeing mildly that a filibuster might be a nice symbolic gesture of Democratic resistance as Alito gets installed on the Supreme Court. Were lovers of desert dark and silence to block the construction of the Ivanpah Airport,  it would be read as a defeat for an important Democrat. The National Parks Conservation Association is on record in opposition to the airport, and precious few others have said a word. One cannot hand the Minority Leader a defeat in his own district. He cannot afford to look weak. The last organized show of opposition to the airport took place prior to the 2000 election. This may be a coincidence, and when the EIR is released in 2008 there may be more protest.

Or not. The silence that surrounds acts of environmental destruction committed by Democratic politicians is often as profound as that we are about to lose on Cima Dome. These are the people for whose electoral success we are exhorted to drop our “side issues” such as living wages, health care, breathable air, basic human rights.

And the night sky over Cima Dome is collateral damage in the Democrats’ weak-willed fight to slow the country’s rightward slide by the tiniest of increments.

I leave tomorrow morning.

Dark

The moon will be new on January 29. I will be outside, in the desert.

In 1997, when I spent a month out there, I got used to the slow, swinging rhythm of the night sky. The sun dropped down past Barstow and the planets began to gleam through the twilight. Over the shoulder of Kessler Peak they marched: the sheep, the bull, the sisters. Then the hunter Orion bearing a club, a priceless jewel hanging from his belt, strode in pursuit. It would be a mistake to confuse Taurus the Bull with the placid ruminating dullards that now roam the desert. Taurus was an aurochs, the wild progenitor of cattle, which survived in Europe until the Iron Age and was immortalized in constellation form. In the caves at Lascaux, an aurochs painted sixteen thousand years ago stands near a sprinkling of dots that just might represent the Pleiades. Taurus is fierce and dangerous, well able to kill a careless hunter, and Orion brave for his pursuit.

And then following on Orion’s heels, his hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor. (Keeping close to Canis Major on the southern horizon, a constellation that provides my favorite astronomical pun: Puppis.)  Canis Minor is one of those constellations that makes you say “yeah, right”: two medium-bright stars. The brightest, named Procyon, gives this naturalist’s brain a cramp: Procyon is the genus to which raccoons belong. Clearly, Orion needs to find a more reputable breeder of hunting dogs.

Canis Major, on the other hand, now there is a dog to be reckoned with, with actual feet and a tail. His nose is the second-brightest star in the sky, the brightest being the big one that burns your shoulders as you hike in the desert. A quarter century ago I lay out at night, on a fire road in the hills behind Berkeley, and watched Sirius blaze its shimmering, changing color. I tried to read sense into the changes, lying there with my naked eyes. Twenty-five years later I’m still trying.

The Moon sets three quarters of an hour later each night. The Moon will be new on January 29, and I will be outside, in the desert. I will stay, shivering in a sleeping bag, above five thousand feet. I will bring these. Maybe I’ll make some sense of Sirius this time.

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Scientific studies suggest I’m gorgeous

According to one theory, proposed by psychologist Geoffrey Miller* at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, women prefer funny men because their wit reveals an active and healthy brain — and a fine set of underlying genes. “It’s a very powerful and reliable way to show creativity and intelligence,” Miller says.

If this theory holds true, a woman choosing a funny man as a partner is more likely to have genetically healthy children who will survive and reproduce themselves. This so-called sexual selection could, in some circumstances, favour women who like humorous men, and men who like women with an appreciation for humour.

More at Nature.com.

* In an ironic twist, “Geoff Miller” is also the name of the least funny person on the Internet.

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Framing the Democrats

There’s a website called OurTenWords that’s soliciting ten-word soundbites to sum up the Democratic Party’s core values:

The idea for OurTenWords.com came from a post by Michael Faris on the community blog at HeartlandPac.org.

Michael asked, “What ten words should Democrats use to define their message?”

Tom Vilsack responded with his own ten words, and challenged others to submit their own ten words.

You can register and submit your own. I spent a little time browsing the site, and was struck by a commonality among the entries: they were all lists of buzzwords — buzzwords I like, but buzzwords nonetheless — strung together without any attempt at a unifying theme.

I came up with ten words that I think express the Democratic Party’s overriding theme admirably well, but for some reason my registration for the site didn’t go through, and I couldn’t post them there. So I’m doing it here. My ten words:

“We want everything the Greens want, but less of it.”

David Neiwert has a related post today.

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Relax. Put your feet up.

[Editor’s note: I’m busy getting ready for my trip. I don’t have enough time to write a proper blog post today. Fortunately, there’s this PR agency that’s been sending me some B-Roll copy for potential use as blog posts, and while I’ve never been the kind of guy whose journalistic ethics would permit running promotional fluff as news, I’m kind of stretched to the limit today. So here goes.]

Placentia, California (Special to Creek Running North) — The nation’s women may be on the edges of their seats watching the Alito confirmation process, but one group of California business owners is poised to seize the opportunity for financial growth as access to reproductive health care dwindles nationwide.

“From all across the country, they’ll be flocking to California,” says Mark Monat, president of the California Hospitality Association, “and we’ll be ready to help them turn their frowns upside down!”

Monat, speaking at a press conference to announce the launch of the California Abortion Tourism Campaign, predicts that the near-inevitable overturn of Roe. v. Wade after Samuel Alito’s confirmation as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court will be good news for California’s hospitality industry, still reeling from the effects of 9/11. “Life is handing the women of America a lemon,” Monat says, “and what better place than our beautiful Golden State to enjoy a nice glass of lemonade?”

At the center of the campaign is a fledgling network of vacation destinations which will embark next month on an advertising program to encourage the growing 18-40 pregnant female demographic to turn their trip to an abortion-friendly state into a week to remember. This network of “abort resorts” offers a variety of gestation-ending getaways, from lounging on the beaches of San Diego to low-impact post-procedural hikes in the stunning northern California redwood forests.

The flagship of the network of resorts, the renowned La Trimesta in Palm Springs, exemplifies the luxury of the California Abortion Tourism experience. La Trimesta’s brochure proclaims “You have the right to choose… the style of your luxuriant accomodations!” The reality is even better than the brochure. Guests at the stunning Spanish Mission-style complex can choose from the a range of visit packages starting with the “Basic,” which includes a complimentary white “Randall-Terry-cloth” robe embroidered with the resort’s slogan: “D&Cs are delightful and captivating at La Trimesta!” The Basic package also includes continental breakfasts, optional daily shiatsu massage, and free cable television. At the other end of the scale is the “Paris Hilton Package,” which combines the procedure with a deep-pore cleansing facial in a five-room private suite, and follows it up with four days of private instruction in recuperative low-impact yoga-robics with a personal trainer, and unlimited fish oil and wheat grass juice.

La Trimesta’s general manager Hank Curette downplays the effect of political controversy on his business. “We’ve already had lots of inquiries from affluent women across the political spectrum — Democrats, Republicans, fundamentalists, what have you. Even a few bookings. I think what attracts such a diverse range of women is our approach. We put the ‘you’ back into ‘uterine expulsion of unwanted fetal tissue.’”

Monat points out that each abort resort employs board-certified surgeons and OB-GYNs, and that each participating destination has pledged to hold guest records in the strictest confidence. “What happened in Kansas,” says Monat, “stays in California.”

And what if the burgeoning conservative movement in California prompts the legislature to ban abortion in the Golden State? Monat’s group is ready for that contingency with the Pregnant Princess cruise ship line. Swank and elegant vessels — dubbed “The After Love Boats” — will sail out beyond the territorial waters of the US, where ships’ doctors will then serve guests in state-of-the-art surgeries. Optional shopping stop-offs in destinations such as Puerto Vallarta will be available, and on-board entertainers already booked include the popular rock group Boston and pundit Christopher Hitchens. Accomodations range from the palatial “Captain’s Deck” to cozy below-decks cabins.

Is this range of services limited to the affluent? Monat says that a selection of economical options is being developed as more motels join the Campaign, and adds that women can elect to share a Pregnant Princess cabin through the Campaign’s “partial berth” program. And for those women who truly cannot afford a vacation, Monat has another option: member destinations, he says, are always hiring domestic help.

But will the sea change in women’s rights nationwide really float the California tourism industry’s boats? Most observers say it’s too soon to tell.

Reporting from Placentia, this is Karen Ryan for Creek Running North.