Showing posts with label desert. Show all posts
Showing posts with label desert. Show all posts

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Belvedere Over Windy Badlands

I won't apologize for my long-standing fascination with desert arroyos, especially when they develop into small canyons. Of course, readers should be warned that you should begin by hiking 'upstream', with the main branch resembling a forearm, which then subdivides into fingers, which further split into sub-fingers. At some point, you turn around and return to your starting point. It is mathematically (topologically) impossible to get lost.

Ahh, but what if you are camped on a mesa that lords over eroded badlands? Then you start walking downstream. A mistake.

Normally I feel an urge to dismantle rock cairns. What gives people the right to rob a route of its mystique and aura? But in this case, I was happy to see two cairns, at the first important junction on my first downstream walk. After all, I was out of practice.

The technique that works for me is to renounce the mindset of a tourist. Stop calling things 'beautiful' just because they are freakishly large and vertical. Instead, focus on topography and geology as active processes that occur on the time scale of a human being. Try to visualize how a certain feature was carved out. Sometimes my favorite features aren't even as tall as a person.

A vertical arroyo-bank made of agglomerate.
Once you go in with an attitude like that, Mother Nature takes a perverse pleasure in dazzling you on the upside. 

How COULD it be so vertical?
It was cool and breezy on the mesa. Down in this hellhole, there was no wind, and I started getting warm as I always do. 

On the way back, I walked right by the two rock cairns that were trying to be helpful. By now I was suspicious of this canyon system. And yet, nature is more interesting as a dark-haired femme fatale -- named Natasha -- than as a dumb blonde pin-up girl, named Betty. Claustrophobia and heat, and now getting lost, were giving the canyon-maze a vague aura of malevolence.

In fact that is one way to relate to a canyon-maze: think of it as a type of film-noir. In Wikipedia's article on film noir, they say:
The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning—a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting).[c] The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in noir and had already become a cliché well before the neo-noir era. Characters' faces may be partially or wholly obscured by darkness—a relative rarity in conventional Hollywood filmmaking. While black-and-white cinematography is considered by many to be one of the essential attributes of classic noir,
Well, there certainly is a lot of that in the canyon-maze at sunrise and sunset.

But let's let the imagination run. (Otherwise, why do this? Why not just go to the gym and work out on the Stair-master?) There is something about a canyon-maze that is lewd and feminine. Nature, here in this canyon-maze, wasn't just a femme fatale in a film-noir; she was a succubus, a woman who has had sexual intercourse with the Devil.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Lure of Incomplete Information

If only I had a nickel for every time somebody said, "Buying a DVD doesn't make much sense, because once I've seen the movie, it isn't interesting anymore." They are correct of course if they are thinking purely in terms of how the story turns out.

But I prefer to ignore that issue and focus on identifying classic lines from classic movies. These become philosophical building blocks, comparable to Aesop's Fables, famous quotes and speeches from Shakespeare and the Bible, and the proverbs of folk wisdom.

The same thing can be said of classic jokes. For example, consider one of Jack Benny's, from the days of Radio: menacing footprints are heard approaching, as he is walking down the sidewalk at night. It  turns out to be a mugger. The mugger tells Benny, "Your money or your life." There is a long pause after that. Benny finally blurts out, "I'm thinking about it!"

There was a joke similar in spirit in Sydney Pollack's mid-1990s remake of Billy Wilder's "Sabrina." Harrison Ford played the money-making ogre. After his playboy-younger-brother is taken to the emergency room after sitting down on glass champagne flutes, the Harrison Ford character tells a business associate and doctor about it, on the telephone:

Doctor on the other end of the phone, unheard by the audience: " ... "
Harrison Ford: "Uhhm we have no idea. Mother thinks the glass flutes were left on the chair by some guest."
Unheard response on the other end of the phone: " ... "
Harrison Ford: "He's not going to sue his own mother."
Another unheard response.
Harrison Ford: "Well he's not me."

No matter how many times I rewatch this movie I always laugh at this joke. This seems odd, because I hardly ever laugh at the lame jokes of movies and television. 

What both jokes have in common is incomplete communication -- the audience must fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Without that trick, the joke wouldn't be all that funny.

But now that you mention it, isn't that the trick that increases our enjoyment of many things? I recently had someone, not terribly experienced at RV boondocking, email me for a list of camping sites in southwestern Colorado. I tried to convince him that being spoon-fed a list of such places would detract from his pleasure, since it depends of the effort of finding the campsites. Once again, it is incomplete information that creates mystique, fear and doubts, drama, and ultimately, triumph. Sure, I could have given him fairly complete information, but that would have reduced him to a passive consumer -- his opportunity to be an honest adventurer would have been destroyed.

I return to this part of Colorado (Gunnison) every year. There are no famous tourist traps right here, although they are close. The big peaks are visible, but off in the distance. There is a mildness to the sagebrush hills in the foreground that lends itself to dispersed camping and non-technical mountain biking.

It takes effort to bring my camera along on mountain bike rides, because this landscape -- that I love the crap out of -- isn't vertical enough for standard gee-whiz internet postcards, as if the world really needs any more of them, anyway. Sunrise and sunset are the only times when the camera does this land justice. But I don't really care, I'm not living for the camera.

A lonely Gibraltar of decomposing granite, set amongst a vast sagebrush sea... how's that for purple prose, befitting the travel blogosphere?
Once again I think it is the incompleteness, the subtlety, of this landscape that affects me so strongly. I like the big peaks off in the background, rather than having them slosh right into my eyeballs. It is like standing on an ocean shore, and watching the fog lift. Off in the distance an uninhabited island appears...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My First Flash "Flood," part II

Between the noise and the rain and the sticky goo, I was getting cabin fever. Not just a hackneyed expression, this is a real state of desperation. Oddly enough, whenever I have personally experienced this mood, I rebelled against it with the most determined optimism. This can seem odd or even a little magical to the person experiencing it, but, if we are to believe William James in The Will to Believe, it is common behavior:
It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void. Not the Jews of the captivity, but those of the days of Solomon's glory are those from whom the pessimistic utterances in our Bible come. Germany, when she lay trampled beneath the hoofs of Bonaparte's troopers, produced perhaps the most optimistic and idealistic literature that the world has seen; and not till the French 'milliards' were distributed after 1871 did pessimism overrun the country in the shape in which we see it there to-day. The history of our own race is one long commentary on the cheerfulness that comes with fighting ills.

So I put on a raincoat and took the dog for a walk down to the dry wash to see if it was still dry. The "red sandstone" under my trailer was hard. But the rain made it greasy and slippery in a way that I had never experienced. As with walking on icy sidewalks, I had to bend the knees and keep my weight forward. But I still fell once while walking slowly across it. It wasn't pure sandstone, apparently. Clearly, driving away from the kiddie motorcycle rodeo was impossible until the roads started to dry up in the afternoon.

I am still mystified. How could greasy wet Mancos shale be mixed with that red sandstone and yet still look like pure red sandstone?

As we approached the dry wash I remembered the warning from a local Moab expert about not crossing over if it was raining. An SUV, without that advantage, crossed the sandy dry wash just ahead of me, and then disappeared into the Great Beyond. It seemed ordinary and oddly ominous at the same time.
Something grabbed the corner of my vision. Water was streaming down. It was only 2 inches deep -- it was not like watching the Red Sea crossing in Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments. Still, it looked so odd and unnatural to see flowing water all at once. Was this a humble example of the fabled flash floods of the Southwest? How long I had yearned to see one!

Woops, wait a minute. We were standing right in the middle of the formerly dry creek bed, and just downstream the vertical bank was 15 feet high. Warned or not, I just couldn't leave the stream bed. Surely there would be noise or something, or time to skedaddle if flash floods really were "flashes."  (I had always suspected that the term was an exaggeration.) Apparently "flash flood" is an analog term, not a digital one. This one didn't show any signs of washing man and dog down to the Colorado River.

Unable to dare this mere "sudden onset of moving water" into lethal glamor, I settled for merely observing it. The front edge moved downstream at half walking speed, because it kept filling in the low spots on the sides of the stream. As I continued to watch, the advance of water seemed systematic, relentless, and even sentient. But it is the foul mood, written about in the last post, that deserves the credit for the magic of this experience: I started seeing this moving water as a Malevolence.

Rationally It should choose the path of least resistance, but instead Its lethal fingers probed the sides of the dry river bed for victims. The fingers would close around their latest victim until they choked it, swallowed and digested it, and then moved relentlessly downstream to continue the slaughter.

Think of old-time science-fiction B movies: The Blob that Ate Philadelphia. Or Star Trek TNG episodes: a black oil slick thing that killed Sasha. And remember the "Crystalline Entity?"  

My encounter with the Alluvial Entity must be a representation of something more general.  Recall the half men/half bulls of ancient mythology, the sphinxes of the Egyptians and endless examples of that type, and the demi-gods, and the confused nature of Jesus for the first couple centuries. In more recent times there was the intriguing dual nature of light: sometimes seeming like a wave, sometimes like a particle. 

It's hard to imagine superhuman Benevolence or Malevolence unless it is made of some material that is different or superior to the humble clay of our own bodies. (Oh geesh, why did I have to say 'clay!') That is where the Alluvial Entity grabbed me mentally, if not physically. Once we begin to feel harmful or helpful powers and intelligence in this alien material, we can't resist partially anthropomorphizing it -- which is far more convincing than completely turning it human.

And to all my readers: have a happy (early) Halloween!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wet Deserts and Creepie Crawlies

Yuma, AZ. I saw two of these creatures in a sandy desert on a rainy day. The body is 0.25--0.35 inches long. But the color really leaps out at you. Any guesses?

The photo above shows the color as too burnt red. In reality it was more scarlet red, such as this:

That's the head coming to get the cameraman. This thing, or rather, its color really amused me.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Part 4, Beyond Postcards: Drowning in Earth-Cracks

It was an odd and pleasant experience to walk into the "breaks" near Socorro, NM; and of course that means I have to try to explain it. After all, if I don't think about and write about odd and powerful experiences, what should I write about?

I don't know if most readers caught it, but during the discussion of my last post on this topic, history was quietly made: one of the outdoors-blogosphere's most notorious and incorrigible optical-sybarites (grin) admitted that a breathtakingly beautiful, 1200-foot-high, sheer vertical, redrock cliff is not necessarily 1.3333 times as breathtakingly beautiful as an identical cliff that is only 900 feet high.

It is time to be a good sport and move on. I will nobly resist the tendency to be greedy by also trying to get him to admit that:
  • We should stop calling things beautiful when they are just freakishly large, and therefore have been made into a national park.
  • The freakishly large is certainly entertaining, but only in a cheap and vulgar sort of way. National parks are "beautiful" in the same sense that a 16-year-old boy, looking at porn, thinks that a certain human body is "sexy" just because it has anatomical parts that are freakishly large. 
  • The true outdoorsman and nature-lover should play "Gulliver's Travels" on his outings.
In fact I have reread about half of Gulliver's Travels since realizing that was partly responsible for the fun I was having walking up those neck-high, slot canyon-like arroyos. 

But there was another effect that benefited from the topographic features being the same size as the human body. The effect would have been weakened if those slot canyons were drastically smaller or larger than the human body. In that sense, it was almost an anti-Gulliver-ian experience.

Walking into those slots, upwards towards the mountain range, was like "drowning." Ahaa, that's it! Perhaps, as a youngster, the reader has had the experience of walking out into deeper and deeper water in a lake or ocean. It wasn't such a big deal until the water was up to your mouth or nose. Then you became fearful of every small wave that assaulted your safety. Your feet were still touching the lake or ocean floor, but there was so little force on your feet that you really could not move along anymore.

Something similar happens when you are sea kayaking. Let's say you are in one of the Great Lakes on a windy day. The waves might be only 3 feet high from trough-to-crest, but your eyes are only that high above the water. So, in the trough, you look around you and see only a wall of water -- all sight of the shoreline has disappeared. You are so puny compared to the immensity of the energy in all those waves. It can be frightening for a landlubber.

This example illustrates how important it is to outgrow the nature-porn of national parks (and other tourist traps) and focus on your mood, your susceptibility, and the intensity of the subjective experience when you're adventuring outdoors.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Owl in a Cactus

I've only gotten close to an owl once before today, and that was when mountain biking in a ponderosa forest. They are larger and more powerful than I expected. They seem more exotic and menacing than other raptors. So I grinned from ear to ear when a friend walked us over to an owl nest on the southwest side of Tucson. (Gee, maybe I should provide GPS coordinates so readers will have the ultimate in convenience in finding the owl. Isn't that how "RV blogs" are supposed to work?)

An impudent Malevolence in the shadows...

Friday, February 17, 2012

Deadly Skies in the Sonoran Desert

The skies have been weird around here lately. Blame most of it on stormy skies, especially in the mornings.

Later in the day the Fly Boys strafe my trailer. They go over at 12 o'clock high, maybe 500 feet above my roof. (It's hard to judge heights like that.) Maybe I should complain that such low flights interfere with my Fox News TV reception. (satiric grin.) You'd think they would have an adequate playground over the Goldwater Bombing Range, which is bigger than some states in the northeast. But no, they need to fly over an American citizen legally camped on public land. Why don't they at least fly over and intimidate illegal immigrants in the desert?

I wonder how many (borrowed) dollar bills per hour squirt out the ass-end of these Air Force Warthogs. Wikipedia says the rotating 30 mm cannon (visible in my photo, taken looking up from my RV) fires 4000 rounds per minute -- what a fine addition this is to the Killing Machine that our country has become.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Capturing the Perfect Cactus Photo Cliche

Somewhere and somehow I got a photo cliche into my head: a Gila woodpecker or a cactus wren or a curved bill thrasher sticking its head out of a cactus lacuna. These rascals are always interrupting my bike rides by tempting me with the expectation of capturing this photo cliche. But as I approach, they skedaddle.

Phainopeplas are not rare around here. What I liked about this next guy is the geometry of the ocotillo stalks that he chose to frame his portrait with:


And then there is the bird with the sexiest curves of all, the curved bill thrasher:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Quartzsite Refuse-nik

Near Quartzsite AZ a couple winters ago. A cynic might say that the big RV gathering in Quartzsite every January is a testament to herd-like behavior in human beings more than anything else. Still, it probably makes sense for any RVer to go there once, at least for a reason that might sound snide or facetious at first: the experience of Quartzsite will enhance your appreciation of camping somewhere -- anywhere -- else, in January.

After all aren't you always making a comparison of some kind when you appreciate the goodness or badness of any place? The comparison might be silent or implicit, but it's still there and it colors the whole situation. Your appreciation of anywhere-but-Quartzsite can be quite intense after experiencing that dreadful mess once.

The dogs and I had an especially good example of that a couple years ago. We boondocked a few dozen miles east of Quartzsite, with world-class hiking and scenery, a good wireless internet signal, and complete privacy. We were tucked in pretty close to a small "sky island", one of those small mountain ranges that rises abruptly from the flat desert plain. There is something personal and intimate about having your own little mountain range. It was small enough to mountain bike around in one day. 

Compared to the noise and congestion over at Quartzsite a few miles to the west, this place makes you feel like a don of the Spanish West or a gringo cattle baron of the late 1800s.

A large, stand-alone Rock, about 500 feet tall, stands in our front yard. It had a noble look.

Naturally our first long hike was clockwise 'round the rock. Every few minutes the rock's shape morphed into something unrecognizable. You begin to doubt if you will ever be able to get completely around some "thing" if the thing keeps changing. 

Coming around the back I kept choosing the main dry wash as we climbed to a saddle. Then we could drop into the watershed of yesterday's hike and walk a dry wash right back to the trailer. Although the watershed of each dry wash was only a few acres, they were deep, with dry waterfalls and eroded banks. The dry waterfalls were worn as smooth as children's playground equipment.

Saddles are great fun to reach. In just a few steps you realize you've come to a new watershed, a new viewscape, and in a humble way a new chapter in your life. But that didn't happen here. The dry washes of the two, oppositely-draining watersheds mingled in an interdigitated fashion. At times it all seemed topologically impossible. I probably walked for a minute on the far side of the saddle before realizing it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Cliff-Hanging Tail

The sky islands of southern Arizona are great places to camp, hike, and mountain bike; thus we've returned to them, after three years off the road. We had a strange experience here, four winters ago. In fact I am looking out the window at the exact spot on the mountain, as I type. 

It was just a couple months after the little poodle had been rescued above Book Cliffs near Grand Junction, CO. I've edited this oldie-but-goodie. Tonopah AZ...

Walking right from the RV's front door of our solitary boondocking site, we headed for the nearest mountain. These small mountain ranges can be quite photogenic; even better, they are finite: you can look at them from a variety of angles on one day. It was topped off with a cliff and caprock that almost made it look like a mesa. A large hole in that cliff had attracted my eye for days.

It got steeper as we approached the cliff, so much so that I had to scramble on all fours. At the foot of the cliff the little poodle froze in place, perhaps because he thought it was too steep or because his hiking boots were curtailing him a bit. Since I didn't want to baby him, Coffee Girl (the younger and larger dog) and I kept going to the hole in the cliff to see what it actually was. The walk was cold and dark in the shadow of the cliff. 

But where was the little poodle? He was only a hundred yards away, so I wasn't too worried. But maybe I should find an easier way down for him. As we descended there was still no sign of him, despite my calling. Then I started blowing the whistle, which also failed.

By now I was getting worried. I shifted horizontally, back to his last location at the foot of cliff. Anxiety boiled into anger and panic by now. He was so close -- why didn't he just bark to help out! (And everybody thinks that a quiet dog is the ideal dog!) At least he could only go in one direction, since the cliff was vertical. 

Something caught my peripheral view. It was on a small saddle of a rocky ridge: oh no, ghastly teddy bear chollas!

Then I saw a half dozen...what? Coffee Girl saw them at the same time. Off she ran, downhill at full speed, right through those horrible teddy bear cholla. She reached a saddle about 100 feet lower where five desert bighorn sheep huddled in a dense pack, apparently paralyzed as to what to do.

You seldom get a chance to see Ovis Canadensis nelsoni this close, so I fumbled with the camera while she did her puppyish best to harry them. They were not frightened by my voice since they were focused entirely on her. Apparently they were practiced in the art of defense against coyotes. Then they walked towards me with a close-packed, military precision. I couldn't believe they didn't see me!  

Coffee Girl was so interested in the sheep that she forgot about the teddy bear cholla. Finally her luck ran out. Then she dutifully limped up the ridge to me, like a brave warrior, wounded in action. She had segments on all legs, which were easy to flick off with a comb. Her mouth was in pretty good shape, showing once again what a few minutes of dog saliva can do to cholla spines.

At any other time this would have been an interesting experience, but I wasn't in the mood. Where is that damned little fool of a poodle!? The worst thing about losing a dog is not knowing how to proceed. I decided to try to return to the exact spot where I last saw him. And there he was, at the foot of the cliff. He was motionless, except for the shivering. Had he even moved for the last thirty minutes? Once he got going he actually enjoyed glissading down the volcanic talus with me and Coffee Girl, who was enjoying the romp of her young life today.

I was furious with him for not barking to help me locate him long ago; but then we would have missed the desert bighorn sheep.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Condensed View of a Rainy Desert

As the modern Brownie camera keeps getting better, will the electronic camera industry be a victim of its own success? Customers could become jaded enough to expect a technological marvel for $99, and then just shrug at it, almost with indifference. In fact that day is already upon us: the camera I use for this blog is the Canon SX110, purchased three years ago. Its successor, the SX130 was on sale at Walmart and Target for $99, as a loss leader presumably.

Camera technology is good enough; it's only the photographer that needs improvement. (Oh sure, there are utilitarians and mindless rat-racers who can't get enough megapixels, but they are just kidding themselves.)

It's sad enough to see the marvelous results of the camera industry taken for granted, but what about the nuanced skills of photographers, themselves? Will their viewers learn to shrug with indifference at superb photographs since everybody has an excellent camera these days, and if that isn't good enough, then photoshop it to death with software. Can't anybody do that? How much fun would the sternly virtuous art of girl-watching be if every woman went in to the cosmetologist, plastic surgeon, and high-end clothing store and spend unconscionable amounts of time and money on her appearance? Yawn.

Perhaps that's why I was admiring the Nikon 1 camera the other day. Although digital bits and bytes have an inexorable tendency to become uninteresting commodities, other things such as polished metal, glass, and interchangeable lenses maintain a certain mystique.

The solution to this commoditization and devaluing of photography is to develop a different sensitivity to beauty; a wider appreciation of the little things that are out there everywhere, under foot. Basically I'm preaching the Granny J Principle. I miss her.

I walked to downtown Wickenburg the other day after a couple days of rains in the Sonoran desert. I'd underestimated how interesting little things can be after a rain; for instance, rain drops hang on palo verde twigs like water balloons clinging to a barbed wire fence. And I forgot my camera!

The next day Coffee Girl and I were out walking early in the morning. I saw bright, tiny glints of reflected sunlight hanging from a finely textured plant. It was delightful; they were like low-density Christmas tree lights despite a bright Arizona sky! But how could it be photographed?

And then another night of rain in the desert, followed by another morning walk. The smell of a rainy desert is so distinctive. The twigs are oddly black from the rain. Astonishingly, a carpet of high density grass is popping up from the decomposed granite "soil".

What a violent contrast there is between pendulous drops of rain and the gnarly spiked twigs that they hang from and yet shouldn't.  Looking through the drop lets the hiker do what Lewis Carroll did with his Looking Glass. What would the Sonoran Desert look like if we could crawl into one of those drops, and pop out on the other side. What marvels might be found: centipedes and snakes, gila monsters and killer spiders. With enough imagination we could write it all up, and make it into a classic of children's books, except that nobody would believe it.

Potentially there was a whole new Sonoran Desert to imagine and then photograph. What kind of background would be best? Should the background be in focus or deliberately fuzzy; or should I just pretend that an out-of-focus background was my intention? (Would they buy that?) By now I was running around shaking with the camera.  Let's see now, how do I adjust the aperture stop? Oh crap, maybe I should just put it in Auto mode and hope for the best!

O Woe, wouldn't Lewis Carroll have put an iconic saguaro cactus in the rain drop! Maybe next time.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Next Life of Certain RV Bloggers

It is very satisfying to rise to the challenge of walking in generic (non-national-park) deserts and finding things that interest you. You have to use every angle that you can think of. You can't just be passive and expect the sheer optical pop-titude [*] of the place to wow you into a state of entertainment. (This is one of the False Doctrines of the Desert that some blogs preach. grin.) In the Wickenburg AZ area Coffee Girl and I went to work on the generic Sonoran desert landscape.

Imagining the topography as time lapse, accelerated photography is one of the great advantages of arid land, since geologic layers are exposed. Except for crumples in the earth and lava expulsions, much of the topography is formed subtractively -- that is, erosively -- from layers upon layers that have different erosion rates.

This caprock is only four inches thick; it overhangs about one foot. The mesa is only 20 feet over the lower lands adjacent to it. And yet this numerically humble caprock illustrates the process of topographic development as well as a bigger or prettier mesa would. "Process of development", rather than the supposed static perfection and holiness of the "cathedral of nature", is what nature is all about.

Soon a female kestrel flew overhead but I didn't have time to photograph her. Later, Coffee Girl responded to some bovines; she is a cattle dog after all. It's not difficult to distinguish her beef-bark from her more-serious coyote alarm and growl. She also is learning to leave cattle alone, at my command. But I let her take to the hills when she saw a deer buck. 

What's this white-breasted bird, facing the warming morning sun?  It let me walk up almost to the foot of the saguaro cactus, one of the tallest in the area, perhaps 30 feet high! This reminds me of something.

Perhaps in this raptor's earlier life it was one of the prophets of the Syrian or Egyptian desert; one of those ostentatious self-flagellants who was eventually canonized, men such as St. Anthony or St. Simeon Stylite (as in 'stylus'.) They were said to stand in their towers for years without ever coming down.

(from this Wikipedia article.)

At this time of the year there are many such wandering prophets of the desert in places such as Quartzsite or the Slabs. The original saints sometimes put their respective towers within talking distance of each other so they could argue theology. The modern desert saints are more likely to thrash through the polemics of Simplicity, frugality, mobility, generators versus solar panels, glass mat batteries versus flooded, etc.

The original Stylite, St. Simeon, is said to have held his ground -- or rather, his air -- for 39 years. Perhaps the modern desert saints are lucky that the BLM imposes a 14 day limit, when they must then...

[*] from David Seltzer, screenwriter of Punchline, starring Tom Hanks and Sally Fields.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Camping with Somebody Else?

The other day a retired man approached me in a big box parking lot. Initially I tensed up. That's the instinctive response these days, since you expect to be panhandled. But he said that he had noticed bicycling on my tee-shirt. As it turned out, he was a newbie van camper who went on bicycle tours all over the world in previous years. I listened to his stories for an hour or two, as we stood in the lee of my trailer in the cold New Mexican wind. He cycled through third world countries. When he approached a village he was received like an alien from a UFO that had just landed. He never camped in normal campgrounds. (Sigh, I just don't like tent camping or cycling highways enough to do cycle touring like him.)

How strange. No encounter has ever happened like this to me before, as an RV traveler. Of course I gave up trying to socialize with RVers years ago, so it's my own fault in a way. RVers are nice middle-class folks who have worked hard all their lives. They are responsible, law-abiding, and sane about unimportant things. But if you don't overlap with the stereotype, there just isn't much that can be done about it.

I was sad to see that fellow leave the next day. Wouldn't it be nice to travel with somebody like him for awhile? How long has it been since I've done anything like that? But what were the chances that I could travel with a newbie, considering their 300-miles-per-day habits:"whoopie I'm on vacation".

Actually I've had better luck crossing paths with fellow bloggers than anything. This happened again recently, this time with Kurumi Ted. How nice it was to go on daily walks and talks in the desert with another RVer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Naked Hiking Follow-up

The geology and plant life of my current boondocking location makes for some uncomfortable walking, at least in places. The other day I howled because of something jabbing me in the foot; I had just stepped on a rock with a sharp, pyramidal point. But the pain occurred a couple more times over the next day, and always in the same spot of the same shoe.

Why was I being so stupid? Something was embedded in the sole of that shoe. I just wasn't used to getting punchadas (or pinchazos) all the way through a sole. It's a mesquite thorn, if I'm not mistaken. Lots of them are growing nearby. This is what you get for hiking in trail sneakers instead of real hiking boots with a nylon or steel plate in the sole.

And yet I have a friend who has lived in the Southwest for 15 years and hikes everywhere in sandals.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Naked Hiking Still Legal in American Southwest

It must have been a slow news day today. The BBC featured a story that really was more Yahoo style: the Swiss court has upheld a canton's law against naked hiking.

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says naked hiking is an increasingly popular pastime in Switzerland.
However, Appenzell is a deeply devout and conservative canton - it only granted women the right to vote in 1990 - and the influx of naked hikers has offended many local people, she adds.
The new ruling applies to the entire country.
Naked hikers may now have to look for another country which offers them a warmer welcome, our correspondent says.
Come to the American Southwest, I say, to all the oppressed perambulating naturalists. We offer you the freedom to live in harmony with nature as well as the opportunity to develop deep tans.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Reunion with Desert Arroyos

BLM land near Soccoro, NM. It's hard to believe that I was hiking at San Juan mountain altitudes less than a month ago, near Ouray CO.

How could an outing along the Rio Grande possibly stack up well compared to hiking several thousand feet above a boutique mountain town that is visited by people from all over the world? Fortunately outdoor pleasure is not influenced all that much by sheer size. Also, this blog is dedicated to promoting a tacto-centric hedonic ethos of the outdoors versus the opto-centric obsessions of the mass tourist.

Here it is chilly most of the time, but I liked it except for the first day, when the cold wind was a bit unpleasant. (But hey, it's winter in New Mexico.) Besides, the unpleasantness just made our reunion with the arroyos of the desert more delicious.

I really appreciated one reader's comments about the under-rated outdoor pleasure of experiencing warm sun and cold air against the skin, simultaneously. That was even more the case on our first arroyo walk; we were camped on a windy ridgeline (to have line-of-sight to a cell tower)...

...and were relieved to jump into the first arroyo (dry wash, dry gully). Immediately I noticed the wind dying down and my black pants and shirt heating up.

I was flash-flooded with pleasant reminiscences now that Coffee Girl and I were back in arroyo-mode. The ridgelines have a sharp and harsh texture, which you might not notice walking; but put your hand down on the ground, with some pressure on it. A poor dog has to run on that dreadful stuff. This used to cause problems for my little poodle in the old days. (He decided to rest today.)

But we were foot-loose on the alluvium now and, oh, how dogs love that stuff! They have pads, you know, not hooves. As always, having a dog along enhances the pleasure because it functions as an extension of your own central nervous system; it makes you more sensitive to everything.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Partially Seen Villain

It was time for an uneventful hike in an Arizona sky island, a couple winters ago. We went up a canyon or draw, up to a saddle that I recognized from an earlier hike. Although I favored backtracking, since that is the safest thing to do, the little poodle made the decision for me. He headed up to the saddle, which would suck us into making a loop. It was good to see him exonerate himself from his unmanly behavior on a recent hike.
I stopped in my tracks when I saw a dead teddy bear cholla. Since my photograph didn't do it justice, I deleted it. It was as startling as seeing Norman Bates' mother at the end of "Psycho". The dead cholla was more anima-morphic in three dimensions than in the photograph. You could see its two eyes and maw. It was standing up with curved forearms. Its face seemed frozen in a death-agony. 

Since villains are seldom that scary when you actually see them, Hollywood has learned to give the viewer indirect views of the villain, at least in the beginning of the movie.

Another of their tricks is to intensify the hatefulness of the villain by endowing him with some gratuitous quality, such as arrogance. There is nothing particularly scary about the visage of John Malkovich, but he oozes evil with his elitism and intelligence.

People who are new to the desert might have an exaggerated fear of snakes and such. I've only seen a couple rattlesnakes close up, in years of biking and hiking in snake country. I got to within six feet of a coiled rattler once. Since it was motionless and semi-dormant it was no real threat. It was the perfection of the coil that made it seem arrogant and more malevolent.

But for me, the best representation of a Malevolence was in the movie version of Stephen King's "Children of the Corn". He was never shown overtly but his terrible effects on the ground and sky were shown, leaving to the viewer the job of imagining the cause. The Evil One was never quite named. The children referred to him as He Who Walks Behind the Rows.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Sonoran Season to Be Jolly

A couple Christmases ago, the dogs and I explored volcanic Saddle Mountain, near Tonopah, AZ. It worked out well to approach from the north, the green side. The rains have produced a lot of green "grass." It's not really grass, but looks like it from a distance. The spiny, stalky ocotillos are leafed out with dense, small, green leaves. They'd be perfect Christmas trees if they had their red blooms. Actually I didn't expect to see any green today.

It takes effort to give up this notion that lichen belongs in alpine settings being licked by a mountain goat, rather than in the desert. It is surprising how lush and thick it can be here, on the desert floor at 1000 foot altitude. You really could do some rough orienteering on a cloudy day just by noticing the green (or yellow or orange) fuzz on the north side.

As easy as it is to enjoy the Sonoran Desert in the winter, I sometimes wonder what I'm missing by not experiencing it at other times of the year. Maybe I should reread The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch. He was a great author who doesn't get read as much as he should. His later years were lived in Tucson. The over-rated Edward Abbey gets read in his place. Certainly the desert in summer would be repulsive, and yet...

Recall that scene at the beginning of the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, when Lawrence lets the match burn down to his fingertips. Another soldier takes up the dare, yells out in pain, and asks, "What's the secret?" Lawrence says, "The secret is in not minding that it hurts." And then you switch to David Lean's magnificent cinematography of a desert sunrise.

Occasionally I would walk by trees, usually along arroyos, that were large enough to produce sacred shade, sombra. At least it would seem sacred if you were here in summer. You might die a horrible death on the desert floor if you couldn't reach this shade.

By only experiencing the Sonoran Desert in winter I miss the monsoons. For years I've fantasized what it would be like to experience them in August, especially a flash flood.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Arizona Arroyos

There are plenty of arroyos (dry washes) in the Little Pueblo, but bein' az we're at the foot of the mountains, they are usually soggy and full of plants. They just don't make for the peerless walking of the arroyos of lower Arizona. Forgive me for feeling a little nostalgia for them; during my traveling years I'd be in Arizona at this time of year. 

My dogs and I hardly ever walked real hiking trails in the uplands there, since the rocks were too sharp for dog paws. A woman in the campground here sewed up a boot out of cloth for her dog. She was amazed how short the boot's life was. But even leather doesn't stand a chance. I spent a couple years trying different brands and materials before finding Neo-Paws.

Contrast the prickliness of an Arizona razor-rock hike with the pleasure of an arroyo. Cactus and mesquite grow on the banks, but not in the middle of the "stream." As if that wasn't relief enough, the rocks and gravel are mercifully rounded. They look like they belong on a wave-lapped shoreline of a lake or ocean. How could an occasional flash flood have rounded them so? If the walker -- why do I resist the term, hiker?-- has no particular interest in geology or rocks, arroyos might inspire him to develop one, especially if he sees the wild pleasure of his dog running down an arroyo.

When Coffee Girl was new to the family she seemed like a huge beast to me; I was used to a 14 pound miniature poodle, and she weighed 40 pounds. We were in the upper end of the Verde River of central Arizona one fine morning in November and were walking in a dry tributary. She was definitely wearing her puppy face that day, so I unsnapped her and let her rip. I've always wanted to see a flash flood in the southwest, but never have. But in a way I did experience a flash flood while watching Coffee Girl tear down that arroyo. Why didn't she trip over the football-sized rocks?

There was a den for a large animal dug into the bottom of a vertical sidewall of this dry wash's bank. I was afraid to get up close for a good photo. There were some imposing claw marks outside the den. What kind of beast lived there?

Diluvial evidence was everywhere, but of course, not a drop to drink. The speed of erosion -- and thus the shortness of life -- are most evident in the plants, large rocks, or red dirt that are ever so close to falling into the "drink." 

A couple weeks later we were boondocking outside Wickenburg, one of the few Arizona towns that I like. It's proud of being the horse capitol of Arizona. All this horsey business makes for lots of informal hiking trails in the desert. There are many faint horse trails that cut across dry washes and over the spiny ridges that separate them. The ridges and dry washes fit together in a complementary, inter-digitated fashion. These trails, faint as they are, make for smooth walking. There is a special moment when you realize that you have almost lost the trail. And then it comes back briefly, only to dissipate for good a moment later, like thoughts and memories flitting in and out of a half-seniorish mind.

It's strange how I have a special place in my heart for the small, unpostcardish arroyos of Wickenburg AZ. Sometimes the coarse sand is unnaturally flat and hard packed, as if rolled by a machine. The dry wash can be as narrow as a sidewalk in town. Geologically I believe this is caused by water eroding the ground down to a flat, erosion-resistant layer. Walking these little arroyos we were in perfect comfort. But it was unnerving to be in such a dangerously narrow safety zone. Just outside these little arroyos were ghastly teddy bear cholla, which the little poodle remembers from his battle last year.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A New Plane/Plain of Existence

In the desert west of Phoenix, a couple years ago. It's been so long since a real cold front blasted through, like they do back east. Wonderful. We went out to explore the desert plain around our new boondocking site near Tonopah, AZ. The altitude was just over 1000 feet. Some of my plastic bottles were flattened by the air pressure.

I dreaded returning to the creosote bush-dominated desert of lower Arizona. Perhaps
it was monotony of a desert plain dominated by one plant; or maybe it flatters the ego to live at high altitudes. But someone who has been hiking in thorn and sticker country recently can see creosote bush as a blessing, since it has no stickers or thorns! That is no small miracle. Just a few feet from this monotony you could see the lush boscage of a dry wash. Maybe they were ironwood and elephant trees. Just imagine walking across this hellish plain in June, and finally finding this shade!

This desert plain is covered with desert pavement, like at Quartzsite. But instead of sharing it with 500,000 Onan and Coleman generators, I am the only camper here. Desert pavement is a wonderful surface to camp or walk on, and it was adorned with glittering quartz rocks.

The first day in our new boondocking location we headed for the nearest saddle at sunset. We espied what first looked like a mosque near mountains in Morocco. I started fantasizing about Gabriel Yared's soundtrack for the "English Patient." Recall the beginning of the movie: the WWI aeroplane flying above the rippled, shadowed dunes in North Africa. After getting closer I saw that it was the roof of a nuclear power plant!

During the first blast of that cold front, tumbleweeds blew across the road. How classic! Back in Colorado this past September I saw what looked like a model airplane flying about a hundred feet off the ground; its navigation seemed electrically guided. But it was going too slow to be a model airplane. Getting closer, I saw that it was a plant similar to tumbleweed, at least aerodynamically. Apparently an afternoon thermal had grabbed it and lifted it away from the pedestrian life of common plants on the hot, dry plain. It had been spirited off to a higher plane of existence. 

Do full time travelers delude themselves with the notion that they have gone through a similar transformation? Do they feel legitimately superior to the sedentary and common plane of house/job existence, or is this just self-flattery?