Monthly Archives: February 2011

Now that they’ve made podcasting easier than not podcasting,

… I have one here. Really, I mean I’ve been threatening to do podcasts up around here for like five years but putting it off because editing and reformatting and cleaning up was too much work, and here they go and make something where I just talk into my phone and hit “save?” This first ‘cast is entitled The Extinction of Trivial Experiences. Hope you like it. You can keep up by checking the right-hand sidebar widget box on this here site, or clicking one of the very many RSS icons to be found attached to either the widget or the individual podcasts.

Future installments will likely include sessions recorded mid-hike, sound effects, interviews and readings of things I wrote a long time ago if I don’t hate them now.

This one’s a rumination on once-common, perhaps too-common experiences that have become far more rare as a result of technological advancement.

Apologies, by the way, if you’ve gotten multiple announcements of this, especially on Facebook or Twitter. Still ironing out the configurations for how those get updated.

Video: This morning’s hike

A little bit of blurry video, anyway.

Not shown: a frillion lizards, two species of hummingbirds conducting territorial and mating displays, a red-tailed hawk keering loudly behind my head but remaining unseen, and my lack of sandwich in my pack. Not counting the extra mile of walking and bushwhacking from stupidly asking a local how to get to the hard-to-find north trailhead (though the resulting walk up Chino Canyon was pretty), this was about four miles and 1500 feet of climb, more or less.

Calypte costae

Near; Far

At about 4:30 this afternoon the hair started standing up on the back of my neck and I went outside. I’d been working all day on a website — work for a friend, but paid work, much appreciated these days — and though I’d promised myself a break in mid-afternoon the day got away from me. The sun started sliding past the other side of the mountain, the clouds started building up on the ridge, and I suddenly thought of my summer in Nipton: the desert all around me, and I spent most of the summer inside with the blinds drawn, moping.

I drove down to the south end of the South Lykken Trail, tightened my bootlaces and headed up the hill.

It was a gorgeous and inconsequential hike. Chuparosa was in full bloom in the flats, and Costa’s hummingbirds in them as thick as bees, flashing their mind-boggling purple heads. The incienso has come further into bloom, with a few scattered daisies here and there and a frillion buds across the hillsides a week away from opening. By Tuesday the mountain will be yellow.

The trail switchbacks up the mountain rather steeply after you get about a quarter mile from the trailhead. I am starting to realize that I should save time and just note when a trail around here doesn’t start out in steep switchbacks.  I am more out of shape than I had thought, I told myself during breathing break number three. Pacing has always been a problem for me. All those climbs of Diablo came with naps on the way up, but I often fail to remember this. It gets harder to recover my losses with each passing year, each increment of age. I am a rubber band just past its sell-by date: less eager to spring back, more likely to tear. Or so I felt. A two-mile hike would have been nothing for me five years ago. Or so I felt. The sciatica is intimidating, but it doesn’t actually harm me if I ignore it and walk anyway. I can breathe hard for a very long time if I have to. I remembered the switchbacks at the head of Mitchell Canyon on Mount Diablo, which climbed 122 feet in a mile and a half, and when I got to the top I still had another five miles and 1700 feet to climb, and then I had to turn around and walk back.

The thing that saved me on those hikes was that I’d stop, and rest, and watch and listen, and I’d always see something that would justify the stop. I thought about that for a while as my pulse went back into double digits.

That was when I finally heard the coyote song drifting up to me from the floor of the canyon. After a while the canyon wrens joined them. A cold breeze off the ridge soaked the back of my shirt.

Five years ago the prospect of a two-mile hike in the desert mountains less than five miles from my house on a late afternoon whim would actually have seemed unbelievably fortunate. Just two miles and just six hundred feet climbed. Not much. A Costa’s hummingbird the size of my thumb could cover that in less than a minute. Of course it’d be one-fiftieth my age, or something.


[Something I wrote in comments on the old blog a few years back. Found it, decided it deserved its own post. Here it is.]

I am only an old man, sitting here in sunlight
bright morning, springtime in these mountain heights.
The children followed me. “Nanpo Tszekhi, sing us a poem!”
I spread my arms wide, opened my eyes wide,
sang to them as the pea hen calls its mate.
They ran off laughing. I walked alone into the mountains.

What is this tree, its canopy so broad
the teams of a hundred chariots could shelter underneath?
When Heilongjiang’s winter storms descend,
each stallion would remain dry and warm beneath these branches.
Why have these mountains’ men not cut it down,
sawn stout limbs for temple timbers, planks for Huang Ho barges?
I looked: no branch ran so much as two chi straight.
There is enough wood here to fire ten thousand pots,
and then to boil water to fill all ten thousand pots,
and then to roast pork enough that each of the ten thousand pots
could steam a hundred bao! I sniffed the wood.
Its aroma, dung with ichor and ammonia, made my nostrils burn.
The smoke from such wood would empty out a town.
Still, I thought, the villagers could surely use the roots
to carve coffins for their dead,
or smallboxes to lacquer and keep rice.
No root was broader than my thumb. A basketwork of them
held the palatial tree fast to the mountain.
Cannot the leaves be used to season rice,
to wrap small fishes in for steaming?
The leaf I plucked made my tongue bleed with its rasps.

Massive enough to hold a town, this tree is worth little.
All men die, princes and monks and laborers.
The ten thousand things die. What was useful is consumed,
its ashes tossed on the dungheap, its beauty forgotten.
In uselessness this tree found immortality.

30 different ways to say “I’m a big honking jerk” on the Internet

(A non-exhaustive list.)

  1. “tl;dr”
  2. “Wow, someone certainly has a lot of time on their hands.”
  3. “When progressives form firing squads they stand in a circle.”
  4. “Whatever happened to personal accountability?”
  5. “I know it’s not politically correct to say this…”
  6. “Let me tell you in excruciating detail why the term ‘mansplaining’ is offensive.”
  7. “Here’s why the collapse of Building 7 seems suspicious to me.”
  8. “It’s really more about class than race.”
  9. “You really could be working on more important issues than this trivial identity politics anger thing.”
  10. “PZ Myers hates me!”
  11. “gender feminists”
  12. “I’ll pray for you.”
  13. “I’m just saying that [two contrasting subsets of the human species] are wired differently, that’s all.”
  14. “There’s no reason to get hysterical.”
  15. “Are you being paid by the pharmaceutical industry?”
  16. “You know what else is dangerous to the environment and human health? Dihydrogen monoxide!”
  17. “Here is a list of different ways to say ‘I’m a big honking jerk’ on the Internet.”
  18. “They criticize him now, but back in 2007 they called us racists for suggesting Obama was shiftless, lazy and no-account!”
  19. “That thing you’re doing is just SO [span of time] ago.”
  20. “I like to call those kinds of environmentalists ‘BANANAs’ – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.”
  21. “Don’t apologize for that slur. The people who claim to be upset are just jealous of your success as a blogger.”
  22. “I’m not the enemy, you [slur].”
  23. “Isn’t it ironic that you’re making this argument on a computer.”
  24. “What, solar is bad now? It’s so hard to keep up.”
  25. “This blog is so much more welcoming than the jerks over at [X] blog”
  26. “What, we’re not supposed to call them [Negroes/girls/trannies/Papagos/whatever] anymore? It’s so hard to keep up.”
  27. “So why is it perfectly okay for a Black person to call me ‘honky’?”
  28. “He was just a dog. Shouldn’t you be over him by now?”
  29. “As a popular blogger, you have an obligation to write about [X]”
  30. “By responding negatively to what I said you are violating my freedom of speech! Shut up, you freedom-of-speech-violating person!”

Rattling the can

I’ve finally sold my soul to the devil and set up a PayPal merchant account. There’s a discrete little “tip jar” button over there to the right which you can click to make a small payment (or a large one, if you want) into that account. Or you can click here.

I used to have a tip jar just like it back before Amazon discontinued their honor system program. Now I have one again. This isn’t an earth-shattering development. There are a million blogs and every single one has a tip jar. The only difference between mine and all the others is that this money would go to me.

It’s not of huge importance on the grand scale of things. There are far needier people. But the fact is that I’m looking at a new financial regime here, in which the upcoming renewal expenses on both the domain name and the web server space constitute a suddenly much larger percentage of my gross income. For a while back in 2007-2008 this site more than paid for itself, between a hundred bucks a month in text link ads and a couple dozen sales of the Zeke book each month. The ads stopped coming in about a year ago, and in the time since the book has sold very few copies. Sales of photographic prints, cards and calendars have amounted to significantly less than a hundred dollars a year since I started offering them in early 2008.

The once solid – if sporadic – source of income this site has had has been donations from readers, and I remain grateful for those. For a while, though, there’s been no easy way for people to toss some cash into the hat. Now there is one.

I like this site and it would be nice not to have to worry whether I can afford to keep it. A year ago I was weighing the cost and benefit of different add-ons, for instance the hundred dollar one that would let people sign in to comment with their Facebook Account and such. Now that seems prohibitive unless someone thinks it’s a good enough idea to fund it. I know there are alternatives to running my own site, from finding some sciencey network to pay me 40 bucks a month to blog for them instead to setting up a WordPress blog for free to not writing online at all. All those options have benefits to recommend them.

But I’m not ready to give this site up yet, and I’d prefer not to have to worry about the bills coming due in a couple months. If you like this site too, consider tossing some cash at PayPal in my name. You don’t need to have a PayPal account to do so: a plain old credit card will do.


After dinner

Yesterday evening the clouds piled up against the San Jacintos and Santa Rosas, edged slightly past the ridgelines heading eastward as the sun sunk behind them. Storm coming, they said.

It was a promise fulfilled, though only to the letter. The winds picked up today. The Palm Springs police closed Indian Canyon Drive where it crosses the Whitewater River Wash, as the sand was in the air and obscuring visibility. The air was full of palm fronds and our neighbor’s big terra cotta pot blew off her bench.

At about three I went out to check the mail. It was raining, technically. From our mailbox to the mountain the air was full of a fine sparse mist. East of the mailbox it was dry and sunny.

By the time we went out tonight the vague overcast had broken up. We could count stars despite the near-full moon dodging behind one cloud after another. Even from behind the clouds its light flooded the east slopes of the mountain, made it ruddish and bright against the blue-black sky.

Annette had not yet walked with me up Ramon Road to its end, so that’s where we went: past the banks and bus stops, past the stylish side street with the dreadnought restaurants and spas, out of the realm of the sodium vapor lamps and into the creosote. A few needlessly ornate houses on one side of the road, creosote on the other, we walked between them and breathed, holding hands. The stress of dislocation lifted audibly from us both as we breathed in the wet creosote air. Chorus frogs sang, then stopped, then sang again as we passed. we reached the end of the road and looked at the mountain.

Only a few clouds in the sky, and they were all in front of the moon, boiling furiously. The chorus frogs started singing once more as a breeze, a pale shadow of the day’s earlier winds, muffled the sounds of sirens and engines from Palm Canyon Road. An odd juxtaposition, standing a stone’s throw from downtown at a trailhead that would take us to nearly eleven thousand feet, if we wanted; Cassiopeia swinging over the ridge above the Museum and the Pleiades heading toward Idyllwild. “We’ll do this every night after dinner,” said Annette, almost as if she expected me to object, and then the coyotes started singing in Tahquitz Canyon as the moon came out from behind the clouds once more.

Feeding the bighorn

Something I knew even before moving here was that the local trails have ardent defenders. A recent land exchange, for example, between the BLM and the local Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians had trail user groups up in arms; the land at issue held portions of about half a dozen popular trails, including the famous “Cactus-to-Clouds” trail. While it’s hard to argue with the idea of local Native people controlling land that was taken from them, Agua Caliente trail management is geared toward the tourist trade rather than locals. Tourists can afford twelve bucks to see Tahquitz Falls the one time, but that same twelve bucks every time a local wants to hike the half mile from the north end of the South Lykken to the south end of the North Lykken gets a bit steep, and not in that good hikey way. So people were upset, and I don’t blame them.

In today’s Palm Springs Desert Sun, an article details plans to gate off a half mile of the very popular “Bump and Grind” Trail above Rancho Mirage. The reason: the busy trail crosses into the Magnesia Spring Ecological Reserve, which is managed for protection of the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, and wildlife managers suspect that hundreds of people a day hiking the trail, especially during lambing season (right now), will have deleterious effects on the sheep.

The article contains what I think is a really unfortunate quote by a local hiking activist and guidebook author.

Philip Ferranti, founder of the 19-year-old Coachella Valley Hiking Club, said the club supports greater access, period, and doesn’t think humans’ presence harms the bighorns.

“I actually walked with a bighorn sheep a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “I’ve had a number of positive experiences with bighorn sheep, they’ll come up to me and sometimes I’ll offer them a power bar or peanut butter brittle. They’re not nearly as frightened of people as they say.”

I’m a reflexive bighorn sheep supporter, so that’s which way my knee jerks, but I’m completely willing to hear arguments to the contrary. Ferranti’s argument doesn’t cut it. I myself have had similar interactions with bighorn sheep:

The Wily And Elusive Desert Bighorn Sheep

That’s a shot from 1992, taken on the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. The sheep was asking for handouts. I wasn’t giving any. I’d have loved to, but the fact is that giving bighorn sheep handouts of food is not a “positive experience” for the bighorn.

Here’s an explanation from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which concerns the genetically different but gastrointestinally identical Rocky Mountain bighorn:

Drive up the Mount Evans Road just about any summer weekend, and you’ll see bighorn sheep—lambs and all—ready to romp onto the road as cars approach. The bighorns head straight for the car windows, often crossing right in front of the grills of four-wheel drive vehicles. These wild animals show no fear of vehicles or the people inside. The bighorns have learned they can get cookies, chips and other goodies from behind those car windows.

We all know junk food is bad for people, but it’s even worse for wild animals. The complex digestive systems of wildlife have evolved over thousands of years. Deer, elk, and pronghorn are ruminants. That means they have a four-chambered stomach that serves as a ‘fermentation vat’. They can eat lots of vegetation and digest it very thoroughly. Unlike natural foods, treats from people often cannot be digested properly by big game. In fact, “human food” can, in many cases, stop a wild animal’s digestive system, causing it to get sick and die.

Big game depend entirely on native vegetation, such as grasses, forbs, and shrubs. Those plants provide all the nutritional requirements the animals need to survive in Colorado, even through winter. Eating non-natural kinds of foods can result in nutritional problems for wildlife—or even death.

It’s possible that Ferranti was misquoted or quoted out of context, so I’m reserving my judgment, and I’m looking forward to getting my copy of his book. I’ll probably still join the CV hiking club too, though the “access, period” position described in the article is troubling to me.

But it seems to me that the argument Ferranti is at least quoted as offering in favor of keeping that half mile of trail open is actually a damn good reason for closing it: well-intentioned people in the reserve can innocently cause harm to an endangered animal by attempting, in their own way, to be kind.


Palms to Pines

We lit out for the countryside this afternoon, figuring that watching the sun set over the Valley from some vantage point up on the mountain was a good way to mark Valentine’s Day. Smart of us. There’s a road that climbs up San Jacinto from Palm Desert called the Palms to Pines Highway. It offers a number of such vantage points and we chose one.

Valentines Day Sunset

Driving up Palms to Pines from Palm Desert I got the oddest feeling, raising itself on the back of my neck along with a few hairs, and then I realized what it was. I’d been there before. In 1966, loaded into the back of the turquoise Chevy Malibu wagon with the younger three siblings, our parents occasionally declaiming at us from the front seat, we drove the Palms to Pines and got out at a vantage point, marveled at the contorted road downhill. Like a barrel of worms with St. Vitus’ Dance, as Breece D’J Pancake said of the roads of his own West Virginia, but this was just one road and my mother shot a few slides of it, with which we subsequently regaled our flatland relatives: “The is Mount Rushmore, and this is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and this is a road we drove on in the California desert, and this is the Grand Canyon.” Amended over the decades with layers of iterative inaccuracies, my memory of the road I saw at age six was part of the California I carried in my head until I could move here, along with the fallen Sequoiadendrons in Yosemite and the fence lizards in the campground in Anaheim. Today it felt like home, and the agaves and yuccas at roadside didn’t hurt.

It struck me a couple days ago that it was ten years ago this week that I decided to move to the desert. My ex-and the dog and I were visiting Joshua Tree, and she noticed the shift in my mood even through the flu she brought with her, a light suffusing me when I entered the desert, and for a few years afterward I remembered her as suggesting we move here but what she actually said was “We have to find a way for you to live in the desert full-time.” And we did, apparently, though not in the way I’d imagined at the time.

But today I preferred to think of that even earlier visit, the six-year-old crammed into a station wagon in the Colorado Desert in July, one sibling still in diapers and one only a couple months out of them and a third old enough to be really annoying, in the days before auto air conditioning was attainable to the non-wealthy, my parents about half the age I am now, not realizing the Lorenzian imprinting to which they were subjecting their eldest duckling.

Well, I’m back. And I’m not alone. And it’s Valentine’s Day, and we watched our new home in the Valley below us turn deepening shades of rose and indigo, and then headed farther uphill onto the mountain and into the dark. I’ve been calling her The Raven here, out of desires for poetry and privacy both, and I probably will still do that here and there, but this month she left the city she loved to live with me in the desert, so she goddamn gets her real name used here. Her name is Annette. I love her.

Another hike

Well, that hike I took a week ago isn’t any easier in the other direction. I went up the Museum Trail this time. I clearly have some work to do in the cardio department. I stopped about eight times to when I got too anoxic and dizzy.

Still a fun hike, especially once I got to the top of the Museum Trail and headed home along the North Lykken, with black-chinned sparrows singing nicely and lots of lizards and a hummingbird that stayed in the sun so that I couldn’t identify it. The chuparosa is blooming in some places:


and it’s shaping up to be a good season for brittlebush, which I believe I will actually call by its Spanish common name incienso from now on just because of the ethnobotanicalness of it all.

I feel a certain amount of pride in having stuck to the climb despite not really being all there this morning. It may have been lack of fuel: I didn’t really have breakfast this morning. Fortunately that’s a self-correcting problem, in that the walk from our house to the Museum Trail leads past a House Of Pancakes.

South Lykken

San Jacinto Shadow
The shadow of Mount San Jacinto falls on Joshua Tree National Park. Photo taken from the north end of the South Lykken Trail.

It’s been an interesting week or so, perspective-wise. First came the obligatory and even trite introspection that comes along with moving to a new city, which I’m almost getting used to. Last night I mentioned to one of my new neighbors that I’d moved more than forty times in my life. A number of those moves were from one place to another in the city limits of Buffalo, and then another dozen within the Bay Area, and although after a few years in Zeke’s old neighborhood in Pinole it finally dawned on me that I no longer lived in Berkeley, the transition itself was rather subtle. So let’s not count those. Still, there are a lot of big moves on my Permanent Record. From rural New York to Buffalo, then to the Bay Area, DC, the Bay Area again, Nipton, Los Angeles and then here. That doesn’t quite bring me to Army Brat or Adjunct Professor levels of mobility, but it’s a fair bit.

Add to that the paring down of possessions. While moving to Palm Springs has been prompted by cheaper cost of living as much as anything else, the new place is smaller than the one in West Hollywood. Significantly. I’d thought I’d attained a certain Zen-like simplicity in the number of my possessions when I gave away everything I owned three years ago. Turns out there was more nonattaching to do. We’ve been giving things away, both by way of actually giving them away and by way of letting the Beautiful Stepdaughter sell them and keep the money. There is more to give away. All my books are in boxes again. I plan to digitize all my music and sell the hard copies, and then there’s the issue of the kayak, still unsold, and my beautiful broken espresso machine that needs only an eighty dollar repair to be a perfectly functional espresso machine that’s too big for the new kitchen, and my little wok which we moved and it doesn’t fit.  Who knew abundance could be as big a curse as scarcity? Stupid monkey’s paw.

And so the last couple of weeks have been spent not only moving to a place neither of us have lived in before but divesting ourselves of many of the trappings of our previous respective lives, which is pretty much a recipe for introspection if you swing that way, and then the day before yesterday I’m sitting in the new place and get a text from The Raven. She’s at the old place with Beautiful Stepdaughter arranging the disposition of various items, and our downstairs neighbor there William suddenly turns out to be dead of undetermined causes. The LAPD keep him on our front step, engurneyed and ensheeted, for about three hours while they do whatever it is they do. He was a bit older than me, I think, and disabled to the point of needing occasional help getting his groceries from the paratransit van to the porch, which I provided if I was around. A couple years back when Beautiful Stepdaughter was living with us he bit her head off about noise from her sewing machine. He then wrote her a four page letter of apology. He and I got to know each other very slightly when I went downstairs to warn him that I would be putting together a bookshelf and making noise. Now he’s dead, and some other neighbors have the bookshelf.

So that was even more perspective right there.

I’ve had two rather large realizations come out of all the perspective. One is that my life, so far, when viewed from the perspective of tourism on Planet Earth,  has been rather rewarding. Even without leaving my home continent, aside from that one weekend, I’ve seen remarkable things and lived in remarkable places, within short commutes of iconic scenescapes, most recently Hollywood Sign-bedecked, Star-Sidewalk Studded Central LA but also including the Bay Area (oh, the Golden Gate Bridge), DC with all its white marble, and that decaying city I once lived in that had the good fortune of being twenty miles south of Niagara Falls.  Pretty lucky. Some people never get out of the suburbs. Or the urbs.

The other epiphany was that over the last months my love for the desert has grown a sour edge. A combination of the non-stop stream of bad news and the incessant internecine politics, probably. Plain old burnout is a likely issue as well; working lots of hours and meeting lots of frustrations is standard operating procedure for activist work, but it’s been decades since I’ve had to worry about making rent every single month as a result of that work. The last time my annual gross income was as low as it was for 2010 was in 1986. I was 26 years old and working for a buck fifty above minimum wage. I sometimes wonder whether readers here get the impression, what with my moving from Hollywood to Palm Springs, that I am comfortably well off. And I am! In all aspects of my life other than the financial. I had about a decade in which I never had to worry about how much the groceries in my cart would cost. I wasn’t particularly happy during that decade. I’m happier now, even if my income last year did put me right at the median for annual income for the nation of Botswana. (The preceding sentence is not hyperbole.) So the combination of immense threat and unrewarded effort and the sense that the longer I work to try to save these places I love the more likely it will be that I end up cadging quarters in front of the Walmart has been, increasingly, a source of unpleasant resenty thoughts.And I don’t want those thoughts to color how I feel about the desert which, after all, I just moved back to.

And that feeling is getting in the way of my own writing. And that makes me upset.

So I’ve been walking out.

On Saturday it was out and up the street to the North Lykken trail, a sweet and mildly strenuous set of switchbacks up the bottom thousand feet of the east side of San Jacinto, leading from one trailhead about a half mile from my house to the Tram Road, with a bailout possibility about halfway along. I bailed out, ambled down the steep few hundred feet to the Palm Springs Museum’s parking lot, then made my way to the espresso place and home. The hike showed me that I have been kidding myself thinking of the likes of Runyon Canyon as any kind of “keeping in shape” “trail”: I’d forgotten that it’s not just the altitude gain in the distance traveled that makes a hard hike. Runyon is steep, but you could pretty much skateboard the whole way up. When you start having to lift your boots a couple of feet with each step, that’s a different kind of workout. The hike wasn’t exertion enough to faze a mildly fit local hiker, though, and despite my relative torpor over the last year I was mainly just footsore at the end. It was worth it. Tons of sideblotched lizards and whiptails, ravens and mockers and a shrike, barrel cacti and chuparosa and a half dozen shrubs I need to look up.

I let a few days elapse because my feet really were sore. Told myself that I’d head over to the running shoes store around the corner, get some crosstrainers that actually fit, and take it easy on the blisters for once, and then I did a little math and looked at what I’m likely to be able to invoice for January and realized that the blisters didn’t hurt all that much. As the sun went behind the mountain today I headed for the South Lykken. The South and North Lykken are separated by the mouth of Tahquitz Canyon. The South’s trailhead is only a little farther from our place than its Northern twin’s. Like the North, it starts in switchbacks – these up a huge flake of tilted rock that remind me of nothing so much as the Flatirons in Boulder. I didn’t go far: I’d run out of the house in a hurry to get some sweating done – mission accomplished – and reserved the full length of the trail for a day when I’d actually eaten something. But I got some elevation, and saw some (what I think is probably) Santa Rosa sage, and fell just a little bit further in love with this new place I’ve moved to.

This is why I do all that other stuff.