Showing posts with label topography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label topography. Show all posts

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Building Character in a Canyon

I had a rematch with a complex canyon system recently. Would it still be interesting -- even after hitting it pretty hard the last few years? Proceeding through the canyon, the experience became more subjective and internalized. What could I do differently from the past? Or should I forget about myself and "externalize?"

Indeed, something was quite new this year: instead of walking the canyon, I was mountain biking it on my new bike, with 3 inch wide tires. These "plus" tires do quite well on the rubble and sand. I highly recommend that anybody in the market for a new bicycle go with 3 inch tires.

The experience also seemed new because biking is faster and cooler than walking. Walking is so slow that it almost numbs the mind. And it is warm.

The canyon has a badlands type appearance because much of it is rather soft and easily eroded.

The trick is to focus on it qualitatively rather than quantitatively. Think about the variety of interesting shapes, and how they got that way, rather than on how BIIIIIG things aren't. 

One single thought made a big difference to me, subjectively: I imagined sculptors coming into the canyon and carving gargoyles into these canyon walls.

Soon I was seeing gargoyles every hundred yards -- but something more than gargoyles: sculptural autochtons that grew out of the bizarre shapes of the canyon walls, and merely intensified and stylized the ideas already in the canyon walls.

So much fuss is made over petroglyphs made by the early tribes of the Southwest. Why use a two-dimensional art to merely scratch the rocks, instead of three-dimensional sculptures? Then again, maybe sculptures were made somewhere, and they just haven't been found. Eroded by time and weather, they collapsed into a cloud of dust at the bottom of an unknown canyon.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Bringing a Cliché to Life

Why do certain phrases annoy, in a vague sort of way? For instance, 'scudding clouds.'  'Scudding' is an interesting word.

Currently I disport on a mountain bike in the sage hills near Gunnison, CO. The monsoons have survived until now. Sometimes this area is hit with showers and wind on these open, sagebrush-covered hills. Once again I thought of 'scudding clouds.'

I wanted to be inspired by the phrase, but it still seemed flat. What was I missing? Perhaps I needed to stop worrying about beauty, and think about ugliness, instead. Some of that was readily available: power lines bisected this area.

But are these power lines really ugly? One could think of the power lines and towers as noble pieces of triangular architecture, like the ropes and masts on a ship at sea. This area, with its lonely rock skerries in the midst of a 'sagebrush sea,' (another cliché!) brings to mind the place where 'scudding clouds' is typically used. The mountain bike becomes a sea kayak that nervously paddles and pedals from skerry to skerry, looking for shelter. A dip of only a few feet destroys the horizon, and the bike is swallowed by angry waves in the 'sagebrush covered sea.'

This is how natural beauty actually affects me. It only happens after the mind cuts itself on sharp contrasts, and then soothes itself by wandering off to analogies far away in time or place.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Outdoor Perfection

I actually got a picture of both of them disporting on the ridge, but it isn't worth showing. After all, that is the whole point.

Chilly, dry air. A mostly blue sky, with a few puffy clouds. And just enough cool breeze to stimulate without annoying. But I wasn't the only creature to respond to the breeze. A turkey buzzard was using ridge-lift to fly along, almost effortlessly.

A mountain bike, a dog, and a turkey buzzard. I thought my dog was tired until she saw that turkey buzzard. Then she blasted across the ridge, using the trail as her route -- quite surprising. The turkey buzzard was curious about her, but didn't taunt her as much as a dastardly raven would.

It doesn't get any better than this. But you're not telling us anything new, the long-suffering reader is thinking. But I don't care. I'm not trying to invent something, I'm merely trying to wallow in something good.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Navigating by Feeling the Topography

Do you suppose there are people in this racket (RVing) who aren't map/geography nerds? Anything is possible I suppose. At any rate, such a person would not like this post.

I had to drive from Quartzsite to Havasu to find a veterinarian to remove some infected cactus spines from my dog. The job was successful, so I was in a good mood driving home. Perhaps that had something to do with my sudden appreciation for the road design in that town.

Yes I know: it's not something that you think too much about, or would deem worthy to write about. But I tend to write about things that seem unusual; and enjoying the 'town planning' of any place is unusual, especially after disliking the road layout of Havasu in the past.

The road system was a grid of approximately orthogonal lines: one set of streets went roughly uphill, along the steepest gradient, away from the Colorado River. The orthogonal set of streets ran along isoclines, more or less, which eventually fell back down to the main highway.

Believe it or not, it was fun to drive through town, completely unaided by maps or GPS help, and 'feel' my way back to the main highway by looking at the topography. (It goes without saying that using GPS gadgets is only for the unmanly traveler.)

Now I understand why I had disliked Havasu in the past. A sailor or a midwestern landlubber thinks in terms of latitude and longitude, and any other type of grid seems barbaric and random to him. But Havasu's grid isn't random: it was laid out relative a noticeable ramp away from the Colorado River and towards the mountains in the east.

Many 'old towns' were laid out parallel/perpendicular to the river which created the town in the first place. In such a place, you would only confuse each other giving directions in terms of north, south...  

Rather, you say "away" from the river or towards it; upstream or downstream.

When I was a young navigator there was a small town nearby whose streets were cock-eyed. I didn't see how anybody could live in such a place. But once again, the street design was set up with respect to the 45 degree railroad track that founded the town back in the 1800's.

Even the longitude/latitude thinking of the sailor/midwesterner is 'topographically' based. It's just that there is no topography there except the shape of the globe and its spinning.

Long-term camping near Quartzsite.

This line of thinking hits paydirt -- literally -- when getting perplexed by the plexus of ATV trails that lead from my trailer door, into the surrounding lunar-scape of Quartzsite. The layout seems random at first, and I haven't been able to repeat a circumnavigation around Dome Rock without getting 'lost.' But I love getting lost on my mountain bike, with trails and trails...

...steering by insinuating my body into the canyons and saddles between the lunar mountains; and looking for a gap, a passage. I wouldn't take a map along if you paid me.

A philosopher would say, 'All topography is in one of two categories: convex or concave.'  Then he would yawn or sigh something like, 'All is vanity...'

But a human animal, who wants to survive, looks at the individualities of terrain. He cares for distinguishable differences, not commonalities or broad categories. Thus the land stays interesting to him for a long time.

If you'd like, you can crawl on top of this sturdy mine-shaft-guard, look down the vertical shaft with a flashlight, and drop a pebble in. Not me!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Mark of the Beast

You would expect something bizarre when you are traveling in the greatest volcanic explosion in Earth's history. Something unearthly. And sure enough, we found it. 

Do you think she likes mountain biking? Hard to tell with the stoical expression that dogs always have on their faces.

In case you didn't catch it the first time:

Monday, May 16, 2016

Back to Marvelous Dirt Road Mountain Biking

Going back to mountain biking on dirt roads -- rather than single-track trails -- is a straightforward opportunity to think independently of the System, and to reap rewards. Surely, this is easy to preach and hard to practice.

If you limit yourself to areas with networks of single-track trails, you will tend to pin yourself down in more touristy areas. The more uncrowded areas, with the best dispersed camping, have no single track trails, but they have many regular ol' dirt forest roads. 

New Mexico is under-rated as a place to mountain bike on dirt forest roads. The best feature is the balance between scenery and rideable topography. Look at this photo:

The cliff is pretty high and steep, and therefore fun to look at. But imagine there were a road along the top of the cliff. It would be challenging enough, but at the same time, not too steep. Those are the magic words for enjoying mountain biking, "not too steep."

The land was cooperating with me. Have you spent a little too much time alone if you start to anthropomorphize topography? At any rate Coffee Girl and I headed up a dirt road to a mountain peak because I was trusting the land. The climbing started immediately from the van. Uh-oh.

But the dirt road wasn't too rocky. There was enough dirt for some interesting footprints to show. I never realized how human the footprints of a bear are! I stopped and studied them, but it was impossible to photograph them. Should I snap little missy onto her leash? Remember her chasing the black bear on the Uncompahgre Plateau last autumn?

There are plenty of black bears in New Mexico, but I decided to leave her off-leash, and hoped that the tinkling bells on my bike scared off the bears. Soon we saw the big square butts of elk, and she chased them -- for about 4 seconds. Doesn't gravity mean anything to animals like that?

As usual I forgot to bring my GPS gadget. There is an advantage: instead of an uninteresting number, progress up the mountain is marked off in stages that seem subjectively interesting: unzipping the vest halfway, and then all the way; unclipping the left shoe as the road got steeper, and then the right shoe, as well; and suddenly the ponderosa pines giving way to the yukky subalpine spruce and fir that I don't even care to learn the names of. (But these things look so uninteresting on the page.)

There is a strange contrast between the mountain biker's keen awareness of the world around him and his self-absorption with the straining of his body. These two behaviors seem like the opposite of each other, and yet they don't cancel each other out.

What's this? A perfect campsite near the top, at least for a primitive camper. But was I near the top? I was going to turn around there, but then saw the forest fire watch tower on the top, not so many minutes away. It really is fun to whip out the first decent monocular of my life and check things out.

We finally humped it, and were rewarded with a view of the Plains of San Agustin, to the east. Surely it is one of the most unique areas in the Southwest.

To the west was the mighty little metropolis of Reserve, NM.

The descent was pure dessert, as it usually is, when mountain biking. One can get addicted to throwing everything you have into a monotonic climb, and then getting your payoff on the descent. It is a pleasure you don't get when you get sucked into single-track riding. (Nor do you get it on hikes.)

But the brakes didn't turn cherry red, nor did I feel like I was going to break my neck. Not too steep.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Resurrecting a Tired Old Figure of Speech

A multi-fingered canyon system is just as interesting to explore at the top as at the bottom.

You can walk out on the peninsulas to the point where two canyon fingers join. But you can get a bit nervous with these mudstone (?) walls:

Don't walk too close to the cliffs when they are made of mudstone or whatever this crap is!

Incipient "colapso" on a canyon wall.

I keep a safe distance between myself and the cliff. But how can I know what that distance is?

One day I looked across the canyon and saw a crumbling isthmus on the adjacent peninsula. (The peninsula widened out again as you passed over the isthmus.) I became obsessed with knowing whether the isthmus was continuous and walkable. But I am always developing these little obsessions.

Coffee Girl checks out the tenuous isthmus in mesa caprock. I have to be doing something right to become obsessed about things like this.

It turned out to be not quite continuous, but still walkable. You are on a narrow finger of mesa cap-rock that separates two separate fingers of the canyon system. So you must step carefully.

Talk about the 'slippery slope' metaphor/cliche made real and fresh! When I walk along places like this I wonder how far off the high spot you could step before you slide on crumbling mudstone. And once that happens, you stumble onto a lower spot where it collapses easier than the first mis-step. And so on. It would only take a couple mistakes like this before you slide continuously, and then finally go over the side of a vertical or overhanging  cliff.

The cliff is only 20 to 80 feet high. But that would be enough to put you in the hospital or the morgue. Thinking about real situations like this makes the old figure of speech so forceful and powerful again. I wonder who first used it?

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.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Can Land Be Too Steep?

Although Mother Nature might not be friendly to me in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, there is a way to partially win. It isn't my favorite place for camping or recreation. The land is just too steep for dispersed camping and mountain biking. There are too many ATVs and Jeep Wranglers on the dirt roads. The tourist-boutique towns are over-priced and gimmicky. It is the best tourist scenery in Colorado, but you know how long that lasts.

Hiking works better on harshly steep land. The ascent is always a fun aerobic blowout; the descents are simply drudgery and trudgery that must be tolerated. But I am addicted to looking forward to descents on a mountain bike.

I have found a trick of the trade that helps me, and it might be useful to some of the readers. Rather than focus on achieving some goal on an outing -- and thereby talking yourself out of going, altogether -- focus instead on being defiantly lazy on an upcoming outing. Think about your dog, camera, clouds, or wildlife. To hell with grinding your way up the hill. Why shouldn't you please yourself? Why do things on other people's terms? There is no paycheck waiting for you at the end. 

With that mindset in place, I will go. Once the joy juice kicks in to the bloodstream, it is easier to surrender to an aerobic orgy, and enjoy it! But the key thing is not to head out on a trip with that in mind.

But does he practice what he preaches, you wonder? This morning was rainy and I was starting to get demotivated, enough to call off the day's outing. But wait: maybe it would rain halfway up the mountain, and I would be forced to jump on the bike and quickly return to the van. 

What was so bad about that? I didn't want to go to the top of that silly ol' mountain, anyway! 

So I started in on the mountain, and soon was pushing the bike more than riding it. This is the same mountain that caused me to post, "Summiting: Ideals and Suffering," in the tab at the top of the screen.

The dirt road actually had fresh bulldozer tracks on it, so I could ride up some of the mountain, unlike last time. The descent would be sweet indeed.

And then it happened: the lucky break with the recent bulldozing and the usual 'mood modification' chemicals in my bloodstream caused me to summit once again. 

Arguably, the 14-teener with the most interesting shape is the "Unc", Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, CO

But the thing that was cute about it was that I preached against summiting, all the way up. Let the external conditions work their magic on me, if they will. I am just the passive victim here of forces outside myself.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Some Big Wings Soar

Sometimes I think a person who has escaped the cubicle and the rat race can undermine their own cause by puffing up with expectations that are too grand and romantic. No matter how you envision the perfect lifestyle, daily life still has to be built one humble brick at a time: perhaps a better diet, working on your rig, taking the dog for numerous walks, watching thunderstorms build up, reading and writing, investing, or keeping a keen eye for wildlife and birds. 

Lately I have drifted away from photographing birds. The great advantage of being a bird watcher is that it can be done anywhere and almost any day. But that is looking at life the way a Baron d'Holbach or utilitarian philosopher would. There are advantages to their approach, as I was writing about last post.

Or there is that other utilitarian, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote a classic line in his autobiography: "Human Felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day."

But their approach doesn't inspire a strong interest or passion in something. So I switched back to the rival philosophical camp, the Romantic one, to revive my interest in birds. This approach might work for many people.

You could take off on a walk up the ridges and mesas of open BLM country. But mountain biking will work even better because it puts the mind in the mood of graceful flow. Up you go, getting warm even on a cool morning. You notice a cooling breeze that brings relief, but also sucks you into a way of thinking, a way of being affected by what you see. The endorphins and dopamines do their job as usual, as do a gain in altitude and an escape from the lowly clutter of towns. (Extra credit to any reader who can insert the canonical quote from William Blake at this spot.) Also, I managed to make a through-route out of a previous dead-end route.

Therefore the Romantic in me was prepared to see any thought that popped into my head as a higher form of Wisdom. An unusual view popped up, at just the right moment. 

The white tail and wing patches grabbed my eye. At first I thought I was seeing my first bald eagle, but they have white heads. Another bird of the same size and shape glided circles nearby, but since it was dark and drab, it was probably his mate. 

A poor internet signal at the moment keeps me from doing thorough homework on the What Bird website. So far I have checked out various hawks, eagles, and vultures; but this bird doesn't match any of them. The bird-identification websites always show pictures of a bird from underneath, the usual position of the observer!

My camera was zoomed out to take this moving photo. Isn't it great that their auto-focus capabilities have gotten so good that it could focus on a moving bird?

Once again, one of my happiest moments occurs at high altitude on open land, with birds playing gloriously with thermals or ridge-lift. Am I really too old to take up hang-gliding?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Tree Island in a Sagebrush Sea

It doesn't seem like such a great idea to camp on a bare ridge of sagebrush during the monsoon season. Lightning can be pretty scary. It seems better to have some trees nearby. But I don't want to go into a thick and gloomy forest.

That is the value of a tree island near the higher end of the sagebrush, and just below the lower tree-line. It is pleasantly surprising how attached you can become to a tree island. By luck there was a two-track road ascending the ridge-line behind my dispersed camp in this photo. It looks like such easy pedaling in the photo, but I had to push the mountain bike in a couple places:

There is an entrapment pond on the far side of the tree island. But it is so close that it provides an entertainment show for me. I saw my first weasel. Disgusting little creature: a snake on wheels. 

Something strange happened when camped near this tree island. The wildlife became individuals, with quirks that identified them as the same individuals, day after day. A raptor developed noisy arguments everyday with my dog; and in doing so, it ceased being anonymous; nor was it merely some abstract being that expressed the quality of "raptor-ness." It became something more solid and real. Contrast this with the usual eyelash-fluttering over wildlife  as a symbol of something, perhaps of pseudo-religious holiness or perfection.

The middle of the tree island is quite dense, but here and there you can see through it. I could actually cut a nice clean walking path through the tree island, using nothing more than hand tools. It is a little bit astonishing that a forest could be so finite that little ol' me could affect it.

This experience was the very opposite of the romantic approach to Nature. Here I wasn't swooning over Vastness, freakishness, Infinity, the Perfect, the Pristine, Solitude, Mystery, or any other abstraction loaded with religious imagery and causing palpitations of the heart. 

How sane and solid this makes the human mind. Perhaps I am under the influence of the evil Baron d'Holbach, one of the leading atheists of the Enlightenment, a couple decades before the French Revolution. In quote after quote, he castigated the meaningless word-play of theologians and metaphysicians.  He thought a finite creature like a human being, should concern himself with finite issues, described by meaningful language. Only then would he be able to improve real life.
"In a word, whoever uses common sense upon religious opinions, and will bestow on this inquiry the attention that is commonly given to most subjects, will easily perceive that Religion is a mere castle in the air. Theology is ignorance of natural causes; a tissue of fallacies and contradictions. In every country, it presents romances void of probability, the hero of which is composed of impossible qualities... 
But men, prepossessed with the opinion that this phantom [God] is a reality of the greatest interest, instead of concluding wisely from its incomprehensibility, that they are not bound to regard it, infer on the contrary, that they must contemplate it, without ceasing, and never lose sight of it."
A distant laccolith through the end of my little tree island.
Yes, I know. The term, atheist, sounds unsociable and disrespectful of other people's feelings. But I am not really interested in a religious debate or in offending people on their religion.

Rather, I see it as beneficial to apply the atheistic mindset to how I visualize nature, in order to avoid excessive romanticizing. Let me balance my perspective by looking at nature clear-eyed and realistically, as the Baron was trying to do with other things. 

And isn't that why we read books: to assimilate and to apply the general principles in the book to our own situations?

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Giant Waves on "Ugly" Sagebrush Hills

It has been a couple years since I rode a unique trail near Gunnison, CO. I probably praised it back then. It might amuse readers to hear a 'small-government' man actually say something good about a federal land-use agency, the BLM.

Seriously, this is a great trail. How many people were key in making it a reality? What were their job titles? Was it really so superhuman that it couldn't happen more often? I'll probably never know any of the answers. All I can do is ride it and praise it.

It starts off the way a -- literally -- civilized trail should start: at the edge of town. It should lure people out from their mundane townie existence to the underutilized public land around them. The trail should be non-technical at the beginning, so that it welcomes a broad cross-section of townies, not just 20-year-old male super-jocks and racers. The number of people should be so large, and they should use the trail so frequently, that it becomes an integral part of their lifestyle, culture, and identity.

And it does. The trail heads through some austerely plain sagebrush hills. It must have been laid out by a surveyor's telescope. There is only a few feet of elevation change the first few miles. But because these are hills, the trail's isocline must trace huge sweeping sinuous curves, with a wavelength of a half mile or more.

A few miles away from where this post took place, the BLM hills are quite attractive. Try to imagine the S shaped curve through this land if somebody laid out a trail on a clean isocline.

I didn't photograph the trail or the land. It was not visually impressive, but it was quite impressive in other ways. Somewhere or other, Samuel Johnson dis-recommended metaphors unless it compared a thing to something grander, infinite, or eternal. That thought made me imagine the appearance of this trail from a hot-air balloon. 

Or compare it to sea kayaking on a body of water that produces waves large enough to make you feel swallowed up in the trough. Only then does the vastness of the lake or ocean really impress you. Here, in the ugly sagebrush hills, the grand and graceful S-curves really bring it home to you.

My dog, bike, and I were visible from a not-so-lonely US highway 50. The tourists would stop in at the usual places to load up on the usual things, and then rush off to more spectacular, stereotypical sights in the area. How many of them even looked up at the uninteresting sagebrush hills where we were so happy?

What could be a better use of your time than to create beauty by imagining it in something where it is difficult to see? It's as if all land contains a latent image of great beauty that we must somehow fix/develop into a visible image. But more than just a vision, it takes effort and pain. Here the BLM and a wide variety of trail-users should feel pleased with both themselves and with "civilization." I don't get "warm and fuzzy" feelings very often about my society, but I got 'em here.

I've lost track of the number I am up to, now, in developing Counter-Intuitive Habit # N+1. But it was warming up quickly on the east-facing slopes. BLM country is rattlesnake country, and I worried about my dog.

It feels so natural to let the dog charge ahead of the bike. But, as usual, "natural" just means "it is what I am accustomed to." I got into that habit when my first dog, a miniature poodle, evinced an alpha-male personality. And I egged him on. I loved the compliments from people, "Gee that little poodle acts less like a poodle than I have ever seen before!"

But in fact, it is more prudent to make the dog follow the bike when the rattlesnake risk is higher. This turns out to be easy and natural -- that word again! The risk is concentrated on the return trip when the temperature is higher. Fortunately the dog is hot and thirsty by then, so she doesn't mind following the bike.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Thirsting for a Special Type of "Beauty" in the Badlands

Reserve, NM. I was up to my old tricks on a hike when I became aware of an unusual thirst and satisfaction. By 'old tricks' I mean choosing hiking over mountain biking on unusually cold days, leaving early, walking up canyons with my dog, and avoiding marked trails. Obviously I never take my GPS gadget or study Google Earth before going on an outing: no cheating is allowed!

What was unusual was the badlands topography: one arroyo and ridge, leading to the next. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. I had never noticed before how extreme randomness in a landscape creates a desperate thirst for some kind of order or pattern. 

Looking at badlands has somewhat the same effect as looking at "Medusans" in an episode in the third season of Star Trek: the Medusans were reputed to have the most sublime thoughts in the galaxy, but their bodies had evolved into a formlessness so ugly that the mere sight of them would drive human beings insane.

For awhile the only "order" was gravity. Even when a dry creek bed has only 1 or 2% slope, it is surprisingly easy to tell upstream from downstream. And of course there was the Southwestern death-star to navigate by. I had decided to take a clockwise loop and try to hit the road I was dispersed-camping on.

I was laughing at myself for this new-found lust for order and patterns out there. But I couldn't think of anything else. Signs of ranching, an abandoned telephone line, litter, anything! At long last a straight barbed-wire fence appeared. Doesn't that sound exciting? But it was, and "beautiful" too. I walked along it, feeling a ridiculous amount of satisfaction. Surprisingly we came out on the road I was camped on, and walked it home, feeling quite smug.

Not far from the badlands, it turned very nice.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Balanced Scenery

'Balance' is a subtle form of beauty in a landscape, but it is a real one. It is also a rare one in the West. When people show postcards of western scenery and describe it as 'breathtakingly beautiful', they are being narrow and philistine. What they mean is that something in landscape -- hopefully reddish -- is freakishly large and vertical.

The truth is that much more balanced scenery exists in the East and the South, and a little bit in the Great Lakes region. Imagine a place that actually has pretty forests full of a variety of trees that have leaves (!),  a creek, a barn, and some productive fields. In most of the West (other than the Willamette Valley in Oregon) forests are nothing but dreary monocultures of some species of needle-tree.

The lack of balance and variety in the West just means that I have learned to appreciate those rare places where it can be found. One of those places is southeastern Arizona. That is the theme of today's postcard.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Different Kind of "Open Range"

After sermonizing about grasslands in the last post, I started wondering whether this could be just one example of a general urge that some people have...

It all started when my Patagonia AZ host tried to make an "honest man" out of me.  No more driveway mooch-docking and eating delicious leftovers from her catering business: now I had to earn my keep with a "small" repair project in her house.

How lucky this turned out to be! It made me furious. All it required was a bit of electrical wiring, and then mounting something to the ceiling with four screws. Sounds tough, eh?  But it was enough to remind me how frustrating it is to find something solid to sink the screw into! That is true of stick-and-brick houses as well as standard RVs. 

I have been infuriated with this all my life, until I converted a cargo trailer into my new trailer. In a way I don't want to lose the ability to become enraged when the Half-Insane is widely accepted as normal. 

The desirability of plywood walls in the converted cargo trailer can be seen here, although most people wouldn't appreciate it:

Your screw hole was off by a quarter inch? No biggie. Just move it over.

Those plywood walls are a type of vast open range for the necessities of life. To tweak in your improvements, you need only get out your drill and zzzip, another pilot hole into the plywood. In seconds the project is done, inexpensively; and it is strong.

Del Norte, CO: a grass and sage range at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.
Perhaps there is a common denominator in aversions to:
  • unscrewable walls, 
  • zippers that jam up,
  • campground spaces in RV parks, 
  • sharp corners or trees at the mouth of a driveway,
  • over-sized pickups in parking lots or narrow forest roads, 
  • dense forests, 
  • overly steep mountains, 
and an overpopulated and over-regulated world, in general. Some people feel a type of "kinetic" claustrophobia about any restriction on their movement.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ghouls Silently Dancing Along the Ridges

Many people in the USA live along the latitude of 40 degrees north. So did I for much of my life. Typically there was a nasty weather collapse near Halloween. Now living in the Southwest, I should be free of all that.

But not this Halloween. Actually I put it to good use. Blue skies can make scenic areas look too predictably pretty. And insipid. I rather like the moodiness of mesa and canyon country during storms.

Canyons also give you a little protection from blustery winds. Of course if it were raining hard, you would be wise to stay out of the canyon. So I took my dog, Coffee Girl, up some canyons that are parked right outside my camper's door.

I wonder who loves this more, she or I? But this time the experience was enhanced by the stormy weather and the possibility of rain on the walk. It sounds ridiculous to think that a little rain has become some great Malevolence to me, but I guess living in the Southwest will do that to a person.

Good luck put a little more mood into this Halloween. You see, I 'heard voices all night.' I am camped on the route of a 25-hour mountain bike race near Virgin UT. Despite the cold and the light rain, the race went on. They talked with their fellow ghouls sometimes as they rode by my trailer.

What amazing headlights these ghouls were wearing! They were visible a couple miles away, as they rose over a ridge for a few seconds, sparkling like distant and solitary jack-o-lanterns. Then, just as quickly, they vanished into the next dip. They floated along the just-barely-visible landscape, silently and eerily, like angry, wandering Souls of the Dead.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Mesa Minders

OK I admit to feeling a naughty grin when I looked down on the mesa where some Lazy Dazers are camped. My dog and I were on a mountain bike ride on a higher mesa popular with my breed, near St. George UT.

They are down there somewhere. I thought I saw them.

Zooming in, I can see somebody's rigs, left-center and slightly to the right of center.

An allegory popped into the mind: do you remember that episode in the third season of the original Star Trek, called "The Cloud Minders:"  a community of exalted intellectuals, musicians, and poets live in a city called Stratos that is levitated in the sky. They do nothing but pursue intellectual and aesthetic pursuits all day. Meanwhile, down on the planet's surface, live the miners who do all the grunt work that allows the elitism and luxury of Stratos to exist. 

As I looked down on the Lazy Dazers and grinned naughtily -- and haughtily -- the allegory grabbed control over my mind. Why was it so powerful? It was not caused by the visual stimulation alone, impressive as it was. Maybe it was a (musical) leitmotif that kept playing in my head.

And yet, what was so special about that leitmotif? In fact I didn't even know if it was used in the "Cloud Minders" episode. (I had heard the leitmotif in another Star Trek episode with a classical Greek theme.) Maybe that is why all this came together and affected me so strongly. 

I was being given the opportunity of combining outdoor scenery and exercise with an allegory from somebody else's story, and then combined that with some music from another context. My imagination was being teased and provoked into working. "Imagination" basically means combining things, making comparisons, or forming connections. Perhaps you could take this experience as a template for getting the most from an outdoor experience. Even better, it just seemed to happen by itself; these outside factors just seemed to impose themselves on me. 

Finally we made it to the edge of "Stratos." Here Coffee Girl looks down onto the squalor of the Lazy Dazers lowly earthbound camp.

The Lazy Dazers use a certain approach to nature that is well-intentioned, but mistaken. Every day, they visit the scenic freakishness of nearby Zion national park. Is that the way to give Nature a chance to make its maximum impact on you?

I never go with them, probably because I look "down" on their approach. I can't see the difference between what they are doing and a 7-year-old who wants food to be exciting. For him that means going to a Dairy Queen and pigging out on one of their lacto-globular sugar-bombs.

Or compare their approach to nature to an adolescent boy who masturbates twice a day while looking at genetic freaks in Playboy magazine. Meanwhile, a couple desks away from him in the classroom, there is a nice, average-looking, young woman that he won't even give the time of day to.
(Must I add the disclaimer that this post was written in the spirit of raillery, at the expense of people who are doing so many things right that they can afford to be good sports about getting zinged a couple times? They are having a wonderful time together, and I am envious.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Walking off Trail

I love the geology and topography of this spot, on the eastern edge of the San Juan's, near Little Mexico, CO. It's a land of decomposed laccoliths, with just the perfect balance of the Horizontal and the Vertical; of partly cloudy September skies; and of cliffs and ridgelines in the foreground, and big mountains in the distance. Even the vegetation is balanced between grass, small cactus, and junipers. 

My dog was picking up stickers the first day or two, but then she learned how to avoid them. How is that even possible? Dogs are gifted animals when it comes to any kind of motion.

As is often the case, I imitated my dog. There are no hiking trails as such around here, and the mountain bike was in the shop getting new brakes, so I decided to go bushwhacking across the grass/cactus fields. It was cool enough on these September mornings that I wasn't too worried about rattlesnakes. Over 80 F they are a consideration around here.

Dogs know they don't need no stinkin' trails, so why should their humans?

There is something liberating about walking off trail, walking free over the landscape. Walking a trail seems so arbitrary, unnatural, and confining. Of course, to bushwhack like this you need to be on a grassland or desert, rather than in one of the National Thickets, managed by the US Forest Disservice. (But sometimes you can bushwhack in ponderosa forests.)

Let's see now, you step out the door of your little house on this prickly prairie and wonder where to go. Well, that's easy enough. If this were the lower desert you would choose a walkable arroyo, but it is too high altitude for that, so something else is needed.

The exposed volcanic layer is in the upper right of the photo.

Here the best choice was to see if it is possible to climb over the exposed volcanic cliff edge that was visible for miles. It was horizontally grand, but vertically humble. It only took a couple minutes to be at the exposed cliff face. It was only 20-30 feet tall, but too vertical to climb. So I walked along it, probing for weak spots in its defenses. 

Notice how I was not walking along, mushing and gushing about how pretty something was. The whole thing was more of a problem to be solved. Military metaphors popped up. I had turned into a type of predator.

I finally found a spot for the final assault. My dog had to be lifted over a couple spots. She hates that. Geezer though I be, I was feeling like a boy playing "king of the mountain", or fantasizing about some medieval romance where the knight takes the castle. At the top of the cliff it seemed wise to build a rock cairn so that I could retreat gracefully, if that were needed. 

I walked along the top of the laccolith. It was glorious. There is always a breeze near a cliff-line, always birds playing with ridge-lift. But how was I going to get off this thing? I finally found a spot. 

Halfway through the descent I noticed that my dog was missing. I called to her and blew my whistle. And there she was, at the top of the volcanic cliff, backlit by the morning sun, looking down at her Pops. Dogs seem to dislike excessive verticality. I had to climb back to the top to coax her down. On the descent I offered to lift her down at places, but dogs prefer to jump free, even if that means risking a sprain.

Off the top of my head I don't remember if the poet Wordsworth or the Yankee blockhead, Thoreau, went on their daily walks on trails or "overland," or even if they made the distinction. Maybe one of the readers knows.

At any rate I am almost glad that I have partially overlooked the pleasure and importance of bushwhacking because it gives me a "new" sport to play with in my senescence. Recently I wrote about different techniques for making hiking more interesting. It's embarrassing to have neglected bushwhacking.

Hiking off trail is to hiking trails what dispersed camping is to campgrounds. It is real life: an intelligent and competent predator, exercising all of its senses and shrewdness to solve problems, spot opportunities, and avoid risks. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Sun Winds Down

It was better than a colorful sunset. Surprisingly I had never done this before: drive out of my way to a spot where the mountains didn't block the last hour of the sun. Then I made a cup of tea and sat on the front step of the RV and watched the sun set. What did I think? That if I sipped the tea slowly the sun would slow in its descent, and I could suck out another five minutes of daylight?

But the leisurely sipping seemed to honor the sun and season. It is that time of year again, when I always getting a funny feeling in the stomach and a lump in the throat. It is time to retreat from the highest altitudes. No matter how many times I have done this, it still seems significant and dramatic.

But why does this funny feeling only come at the beginning of autumn? It never feels this way in the spring. Shouldn't it be symmetric?

My best guess is that we gringo/palefaces have a tribal memory of winter: winter is dangerous, winter is suffering. To escape winter by heading downhill and southward is a very dramatic thing.

This ritual had been so pleasant and satisfying, I couldn't help but think about how informal and inconsistent rituals of any kind have become. In 19th century novels, rituals are mentioned so often. Were they really considered that important by folks back then, or was the novelist just filling the page with ink in an easy way?

The decline of ritual might be a part of the decline of Formality, in general. There is no distinction between people any more. The Young do not honor the Old by calling them 'Uncle' or 'Mister.' Men do not honor women with little gallantries of daily behavior. Everybody is on a first-name basis with everybody else. A gentleman and a peasant wear the same slob-clothing. Everybody listens to the same ghetto music.

Formality is undemocratic, I guess. We keep extending the French Revolution to more and more categories. When do we get bored with this endless leveling?

This slouching in the standards of civilization has been going on all during my life. But civilization can't just slouch into informality forever, or it would have ceased to exist millennia ago. When does civilization take a spike upward? Are those rare and rapid events in human history, followed by many generations of slouching?

Yes, I know. Grouchy old men have always had that point of view. I was rereading the beginning of Boswell's "Life of Johnson" the other day. Even back in the late 1700s Boswell, a genuine Scottish laird after all, was complaining how meaningless the term 'gentleman' had become in degenerate modern times.
[Samuel Johnson's] father is there stiled Gentleman, a circumstance of which an ignorant panegyrist has praised him for not being proud; when the truth is, that the appellation of Gentleman, though now lost in the indiscriminate assumption of Esquire, was commonly taken by those who could not boast of gentility.
This topic is too long and difficult for this morning, and I am too lazy. The only thing that is certain is that there is no better place to think of these issues than a land delineated by orogeny and erosion, a land of mountain and canyon, of lifting up and wearing away.

Extra credit to any reader who can identify this peak in the Tucson area where I play out the spring equinox ritual. In a couple weeks it will be time for the Autumn Equinox ritual of camping with the sun setting or rising on some fine topographic feature.