Category: nature

Walden East & West

We recently toured New England to peep at the autumn colors. But while there I had to take a side-trip. A pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to visit Walden Pond. My wife had no interest in this body of water, but we compromised. She very much wanted to visit the witch city of Salem, Massachusetts, so we agreed to a few hours at Walden, and then the rest of the day at Salem.

She came to regret that compromise, for Salem was nothing but a tourist trap, crowded and bustling with hucksters. As we departed that wicked village, she pined for the peacefulness of Walden, and wished aloud we had sojourned the entire day there. It was Walden, not a witch, that ensorcelled her.

Walden Pond is the very spot where Henry David Thoreau resided in a cabin, built from his own hands, on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. His life and experiences in this sylvan paradise inspired his book, Walden, which was recognized as an American literary classic after his death.

You can visit this replica of Thoreau’s cabin in the parking area of Walden Pond State Reservation. Stolen Quote: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Henry David Thoreau (HDT), Walden

Walden is an autobiographical tale by Thoreau, journaling how he lived self-reliant and in harmony with nature, in a 10 by 15 foot cabin near the shores of the pond. But it is much more than autobiography. Thoreau essays on many themes, including nature, economy, and companionship. His sentences soar sublime, and his insights penetrate the heart. He touches an earthly, wild humanity that ruminates deep within the spirit of all of us.

He began living his back-to-nature lifestyle on Independence Day, July 4th, 1845, near his 28th birthday, and departed Walden on September 6th, 1847. Which was strangely close to the Labor Day holiday our country began celebrating in 1894. Was Thoreau prescient?

The actual site where Thoreau built his cabin, on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property. Stolen Quote: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” HDT, Walden

I devoured Walden when I was 22 years old, and my appetite transformed. I began hungering and thirsting for nature and wilderness, and lost all desire for modern civilization. Thoreau became my idol, and I wanted to be just like him. And I yearned to try my hand at a Walden experiment myself.

There were a few failed attempts but finally, at age 29, I managed a degree of success. I purchased three acres of remote Mojave desert land. I garnered the help of my brother-in-law and his Kubota tractor, and built an 8 by 16 foot, underground log cabin. A dugout actually, lined with peeler logs.

I posted about my life in this underground cabin, nearly three years ago.

My one and only photo of my underground log cabin in the Mojave Desert. Stolen Quote: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” HDT, Walden

But I was not as successful as Thoreau at living off the land. He had the benefit of water, fish, and abundant wildlife and plant life. I, on the other hand, struggled in a desert desiccated by severe drought.

Thank goodness my hunting skills led me to a supermarket just a half-hour’s drive away.

I did manage to kill a rattlesnake once, which I boiled and dined upon for several days. I also shot a rabbit with my 22 rifle. It kicked in the dirt, screaming. Have you ever heard a rabbit scream? I quickly finished it off with a second shot, but have never forgotten those hideous leporine cries.

I stopped hunting after that. Nonetheless, the pathetic little cottontail was boiled and eaten, supplying me with meat to supplement my dry goods over the next week.

Due to the drought there was plenty of deadwood to scavenge, so I never lacked for fuel to warm my earth-insulated cabin.

This part of Walden Pond is known as Thoreau’s Cove. Thoreau built his cabin just a few hundred feet above the reeds you see in the distance. Stolen Quote: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau was a transcendentalist and avid meditator. I was not. So my insights did not soar to the lofty heights his own heart and mind achieved. My back-to-nature experience did not equip my soul sufficiently to be like Thoreau, and write an American literary classic. I guess you’re just gonna have to get his book.

A closer view of the reeds at Thoreau’s Cove. Stolen Quote: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” HDT, Walden

What I learned from my life in the wilderness was how to be a cheapskate. I learned the feeling of security from knowing I didn’t have to spend a lot of money to meet the basic necessities of life, and live in basic comfort. I already knew this to some degree, so this was just a lesson reinforced.

I also learned the precious value of spare time, and how relaxing it can feel to loaf around all day. Yet another lesson reinforced. But this reinforcement motivated me later, to work hard for an early retirement. I understood more than ever that one must work, in order to loaf. Or at least to loaf feeling safe and without worries.

So after leaving my cabin, I worked hard and saved most of what I earned. And I studied books on how to invest, in order to preserve my hard work and make it continue to work for my future benefit. It strikes me odd how little forethought most people put into investing. I guess they don’t value loafing around as much as me.

My biggest lesson from my personal Walden is that life is easy to enjoy when kept simple. A freedom is born from this that feels exhilarating. A box of Cheezits and a nap for me, and I’m often content for the day. And when bored I chase unicorns. Which is easy because it doesn’t have to cost a penny. There are plenty of unicorns out there just begging to be caught.

Walden Pond from the surrounding forest. Stolen Quote: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau did not live nearly as long as me. At age 18 he contracted tuberculosis, and this eventually killed him at the young age of 44. But though his age was young, his soul was old. He was wise well beyond his years.

He remains an idol to me. An early guide to my life. A lodestar, pointing me toward the things that truly matter, and away from the artificiality of the quietly desperate.

A snipe at Walden Pond. When I was a Boy Scout I was sent on a snipe hunt. I was unsuccessful but never gave up, and continued the hunt in secret. Now, after all these years, I finally found one at Walden Pond. At last, my desperate search is over. Stolen Quote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” HDT, Walden

Thoreau lasted two years, two months, and two days at his Walden Pond cabin. Or Walden East, as I like to think of it. I wasn’t quite so enduring, lasting not a day beyond two years in my Mojave desert hermitage. Or Walden West, if you will. I finally ran out of money and had to rejoin the civilized world, due to my desire to keep eating groceries.

There are all kinds of Waldens. Walden is not just a pond in Concord, Massachusetts. You can find your Walden anywhere. I found mine in the Mojave desert. Others have found theirs in such environs as Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, or by living on a sailboat in the sea.

It’s also a state of mind. If you love wilderness and visit it often, you possess a Walden spirit. If you respect the wilds and take care to cause as little disturbance as possible when venturing forth into unpeopled lands, you follow the code of Walden. And if your life is carved from self-reliance and simplicity, you’re as Walden as Thoreau.

This lone loon monopolized the very middle of Walden Pond, seeming to treat it as a place of refuge from hikers on the shoreline. Stolen Quote: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” HDT, Walden

I circumambulated Walden Pond, paid homage to the original cabin site, and gazed searchingly through the pellucid waters that Thoreau fished, all the while mindful that my wife awaited the witches of Salem. After about an hour-and-a-half I found her sitting spellbound. But not from black magic. She had been calmed by the stillness of the shore. But even so, she looked forward to our next New England adventure.

The amazingly clear waters of Walden Pond. Stolen Quote: “We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” HDT, Walden

Soon after, we motored away, with Walden in my rear view mirror. But that’s not really true. Walden has never been in my rear view mirror. Since departing my cabin in the Mojave, Walden has always been in front of me, beside me, and within me.

I can never leave Walden.

A mushroom near the shores of Walden Pond. Stolen Quote: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” HDT, Walden. And that’s the morel of this story.

Crazy Colors

Mooselookmeguntic Lake, northwestern Maine.

I’m an infonaut. I explore the vast universe of the internet to discover information and get my facts straight and solid. I like to get everything right. Including when the fall foliage is going to peak in New England.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

Problem is, the universe is crazy.

My internet research indicated that the fall colors in northern New England would peak in late-September. Therefore, that’s when I planned a leaf-peeping trip for my wife and me. And I used the internet to make all the reservations, three months in advance.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

But after traveling 2,611 miles by air, and a few hundred more by rental car from Boston to the rimlands of the Canadian border, we were surprised. We discovered that in spite of all my internet research three months before, the autumn colors were peaking late this year.

Crazy.

A changing tree in Jay, Vermont.

Why don’t autumn colors peak at the exact same time every year? In fact, why is it that nothing in life seems reliable? We can do tons of research, file our facts, and institute order. But then it all falls apart, because life is so crazy and unpredictable.

Changing foliage in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we were ripped off by mother nature. She was still beautiful. Her reds and purples were in near-full glory, and her yellows and oranges were just starting to show. We didn’t get much of the hills-on-fire effect from bright orange shining leaves, but at least we got a hint of it.

Mooselookmeguntic Lake, northwestern Maine, showing just a hint of the hills-on-fire effect.

This may sound crazy, but I like craziness. A completely predictable world would be completely boring. If I knew exactly what was going to happen to me, day in and day out, 24/7, 365.25 days per year, I’d have to shoot myself. I want strange, stupid, and undesirable things to happen to me. I don’t always want to get what I want. I think life must be challenging, unpredictable, and at least occasionally, a terrifying trip through hell.

So let the fall colors peak late. Or let them peak early, as they did last year. And just to surprise us tourists, let them peak on time once in awhile.

Rangeley Lake, northwestern Maine.

I think a little crazy is healthy. But a lot of crazy, maybe not. For example, research shows that abscission of leaves is necessary to prevent snapping of branches from the weight of a zillion snowflakes. If trees take too much time to change color and lose their leaves, an early blizzard could devastate them. So trees must be reasonable in their craziness.

Tupper Lake, in the New York Adirondacks.

But then again, maybe I’m crazy for thinking a lot of crazy is unhealthy. After all, if you want some real hardcore craziness, just consider that we humans, with all our intelligence, can’t predict the day of our death. You or I could die one second from now, or we could live for many more years. Who knows when our colors will change and our leaves will drop? Nobody.

But just think how boring our lives would be, if it was otherwise.

A changing tree at the end of an alley, in Salem, Massachusetts.

Untimely death, random rip-offs, miscommunication, and of course, mental illness, are all some of the craziness that can interfere with the course of our lives. From the car that won’t start, to the deal that falls through, to the underwear we accidentally put on backwards, we are enriched every day with craziness.

And so, as our rental car cruised down the country lanes of New England, I reflected on all the greenery powering through the reds, purples, yellows, and oranges. And I muttered, “Screw you, mother nature!”

But thank you, also.

Thanks for your magnificent craziness.

Green and orange foliage in the New York Adirondacks.

Zen Garden Mind

The largest gypsum dune field on Earth is located in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico. It’s been around for 7,000 to 10,000 years, and humans these days call it White Sands. These dunes are composed of gypsum crystals, from gypsum that washes down from the surrounding San Andreas and Sacramento mountains.


I recently visited White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico. Or as I like to call it, the world’s largest Zen garden.

Within Zen Buddhism there are two main traditions, Rinzai and Soto. They’re kind of rivals.

Most sand dunes are composed of quartz crystals, not gypsum. Gypsum dunes are very rare, because gypsum is highly water soluble, and rarely has a chance to crystallize. But this gypsum is carried by rains into lake beds that have no outlet to the sea. And so it remains in situ, desiccating and forming large selenite crystals up to three feet long. These crystals are broken down by weathering into fine white sand crystals.

Rinzai Zen is a little strange, due to its recondite nature. It advocates achieving enlightenment through meditating on koans, and supposedly solving them. Koans are mystical riddles such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“Who the hell cares?” is my mystical answer.

You’ll get third degree burns on the soles of your feet if you try to walk upon quartz-based sand dunes in the summertime. But gypsum sand is inefficient at absorbing solar heat, making it possible to stroll barefoot on the sand on the hottest summer day. These are my bare feet on the first day of summer, with the outdoor temperature at 100 degrees.

Soto Zen is odd due to its simplicity. Soto Zenners think they can get enlightened just by sitting cross-legged on a zafu, letting go of their thoughts, and following their breath. For them it’s a gradual journey to enlightenment. It takes a long time, and can’t be stumbled upon suddenly by solving some occult riddle.

I prefer Soto Zen and kind of practice it, though I threw out my zafu years ago. And I wouldn’t dare sit cross-legged ever again. It’s bad for the knees. And it’s very hard to nap meditate when your knees are throbbing.

I like Soto Zen for its simplicity, just as I like White Sands National Monument for its plain whiteness. The simplicity appeals to my laziness.

All kinds of critters live on these dunes. These are the tracks of the Pogo-Hopping Desert Gerbil, a small rodent that hops about on a stick to avoid being eaten by sand crabs hiding just below the surface.

But for me, meditating successfully is difficult. Because I cheat a lot at it. I lay supine. I snooze. I scratch my nose. I shift my restless legs. I close my eyes. I open my eyes. I don’t always follow my breath, but instead follow more interesting things. Sometimes I try to solve problems instead of letting them go. And on and on I go, breaking one rule after another.

This gigantic Zen garden in southern New Mexico reminds me of all the tricks my mind plays upon me while meditating Soto style, both when I follow the rules and when I cheat.

There was a time when I followed the rules rigorously. Back in my less lazy days I could create stretches of sterile wordless peace within my meditative mind, just like the dry lake beds that break up the dunes of White Sands. But those lake beds are what actually produce the dunes. And so my mind would rebound, producing a gigantic array of words, just like the billions of gypsum crystals within a sand dune.

Lake beds like these catch the gypsum runoff from the mountains, and convert it into sand crystals. These alkali lake beds were first visited by Europeans in the 1500s, when Spanish miners drove ox carts here to collect salt. They used the salt to process silver ore extracted from mines in central Mexico.

These days, when I cheat, thoughts, strong emotions, and belly-burning motivations steal upon my mind like the white dunes that swallow up cottonwood groves. I forget that I’m meditating, and become lost in various fantasies. And then I remember that I’m supposed to be meditating and let go again. And the thoughts recede like so much swirling sand.

In this area of White Sands, the dunes have swallowed a grove of Rio Grande cottonwoods, that weren’t able to run away fast enough.

Or maybe I’m bragging. In fact, my mind is often like one of those unfortunate cottonwood trees at White Sands, that’s completely buried in the dunes. My mind is so distracted by all the cares and delights of the world, that attempting to meditate is futile. Just the same, I attempt anyway. Why? I attempt in order to attempt. Besides, cheating makes attempting easy.

Sometimes the cottonwoods are completely buried, and stand no chance of survival.

Other times a little mindfulness keeps me barely aware of my swirling thoughts. This is when my mind is like those cottonwood treetops of White Sands that poke out just above the drifting sand.

These cottonwoods gasp for life, with just their treetops able to reach above the surface of the sand.

And believe it or not, there are times when my meditative metacognition is stronger. And then my mind is like one of those White Sands’ cottonwoods that are half above the sand and half below. At these times I well know that I’m daydreaming even while I continue to daydream. My meditation is both lucid and lapsing. Disciplined and wild. Aloof and befouled.

This cottonwood has managed to free itself from much of the dunes’ suffocating grip.

And there are those rare times when I fool the gods and get away entirely with cheating. My mind is completely free, with all wandering thoughts swept away by the wind of my breath. Just like a fully freed cottonwood in all its verdant glory, shimmering in the breeze, having conquered the dunes of White Sands. At least for a little while.

This Rio Grande cottonwood has completely escaped the dunefield. It stands tall and free, at least until the next dune comes along.

A day will come when I’m no longer hagridden by the cares and delights of this world. Perhaps I’ll stop cheating and slip into an honest meditation as I float away. And all that I let go of will never return.

Perhaps then my mind will be like the cottonwood that stands free and clear from dunes of sand, but has lost its last leaf.

Rio Grande cottonwoods are very hardy. But nothing lasts forever except change.

Its only remaining cotton being a few ethereal white clouds, caught in its branches, only to slip free to dissipate in the sky.

The Beauty of Climate Change

I think most folks really haven’t grasped the utter splendor and beauty of climate change. Especially the folks in our government. Recently, David Smith, the superintendent for Joshua Tree National Park, got chewed out by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, just for bringing up the subject.

On November 8th, Joshua Tree National Park posted some tweets that left officials in the Trump administration feeling alarmed and disturbed. Tweets such as the following:

An overwhelming consensus—over 97%–of climate scientists—agree that human activity is the driving force behind today’s rate of global temperature increase.

and

Current models predict the suitable habitat for Joshua trees may be reduced by 90% in the future with a 3°C (5.4°F) increase in average temperature over the next 100 years.

Secretary Zinke himself was so upset about these tweets that he had the reprobate Smith flown all the way to Washington, DC so he could vent to him in person. When Mr. Smith went to Washington, he made it clear to him, and all other national park superintendents, that the Trump administration doesn’t want national parks to put out official communications on climate change.

You can read more on this story by clicking this link: Trump’s Tantrum Over Terrible Tweets.

Anyway, I believe everyone is missing the point. Climate change is nothing we should feel ashamed of. Climate change is beautiful!

Drought and warmer temperatures are killing off pinyon pines in the Southwest. But you can’t help admire how majestic this pine skeleton appears, near the Pine City trail in Joshua Tree National Park, with its naked branches pointing upward, as if imploring something from the heavens.

I live near Joshua Tree National Park, and hike there frequently. I have snapped many photos of our park, and some of these pics graphically demonstrate the beautiful effects climate change has had on our environment.

Another expired pinyon, in the Pine City area of Joshua Tree National Park, lifts its lacy tendrils upward, as if it were shouting, “Why?! Why?!” How inspiring.

Please take a moment to drink in the awesome scenes. Reflect on the beauty of nature, and how we humans have improved the pulchritude of our parks with the artistic touch of carbon emissions.

This fallen pinyon, on the West Side Loop Trail, advertises the beauty of its bark, as it dehydrates, and strips of its integument selectively peel away. The brindle-striped pattern that remains is stunning.

This is the tallest pinyon pine in Joshua Tree National Park, and in fact, one of the tallest in the United States. Its towering form invites the question, “How did it achieve such lofty heights?” And, “What made it stop growing?” You can find this majestic spectacle on the eponymous Big Pine Trail–a trail established for nature lovers at a time when this tree was just another ugly example of living biology.

This view atop Ryan mountain shows off the mysterious beauty of carbon haze, as it enshrouds rocky inselbergs in the distance.

Barker Dam was built by cowboys in the early 1900s. Bill Keys, a historic pioneer of this park, extended its height after the cowboys left, so that Bighorn Sheep could use it year-round for water. But bah-h-h humbug to those sheep. Drink in the beauty of the sinuous lines and water-level marks left by the extended droughts of global warming. What a work of art!

Instead of trying to hide from climate change, and shirking our responsibility for causing it, let’s put it on display with all its magnificence and beauty, point to it, and proudly proclaim, “Here is what we humans have accomplished!”

Brush fires have devastated large swathes of Joshua Tree National Park, leaving denuded areas such as this. Twenty years ago a forest of Joshua trees thrived in this spot. But a massive blaze left the desert floor studded with silvery skeletons of Yucca Brevifolia, except this lone survivor. Magnifico, eh! To capture this artistic impression of loneliness I had to commence hiking on the Quail Springs trail before sunrise, to be there in time for the long shadows of short shrubs. But it was worth it, to see the long shadows cast by puny creatures. Thank you global warming, and all the wildfires you have so generously bestowed upon us!

Burro Loop

I like to hike alone. I enjoy traipsing through the wilderness far from the nearest human heartbeat, other than my own. I’m misanthropic, I guess. But nothing seems to crowd the wilderness more than another human bean. If a human stands in the woods and no one sees him, will the woods be crowded? No. They won’t be crowded until the moment I become aware of the human’s presence.

Hiking clears my head. It opens my environment from the confines of my zoo cage I call a home, to the wide-open space of nature. My adaptable mind expands to accommodate this newly-found space. I become more reflective. My attitude waxes magnanimous. And I can feel wisdom growing within, faster than farm crops respond to a load of manure. Yes I really become full of it.

A December morning, 6:21 am. I embark upon a challenging journey. Burro Loop Trail. It’s six miles of moderately strenuous hiking, covering rocky hills and pediplains cut by arroyos, beneath a blazing, shadeless sun.

Burro Loop Trail takes hikers close to the town of Joshua Tree. That's Copper Mountain in the distance.

Burro Loop Trail takes hikers close to the town of Joshua Tree. That’s Copper Mountain in the distance, and to the right.

But the sun is not out yet. It’s 44 degrees, and I’m bundled in layers. I have a bad leg and two bum shoulders, and I’m not sure if it’s smart to be doing this. Search and Rescue may find my bones in a couple of months, but I must get out of the damn house.

6:50 am. I’m thinking about the old burro. Back in the 90’s, a wild burro found its way to our desert. Sightings were like Big-Foot anecdotes. People had stories, but no definitive proof. Except the tracks. The burro left all kinds of tracks and trails in an area about 25 square miles, in Joshua Tree National Park.

The main trail that the burro traveled followed a loop. And this main trail was eventually converted into an official trail by the park service. But without the signs, you’d hardly know it was there. It’s barely a trace in spots, with many faint side-trails that can get you lost for hours, if you accept their invitations. It’s very deceptive. That crafty burro sure knew how to confuse people.

Which goes to show, you must always be careful when dealing with a jackass.

This is a million dollar house ensconced in the rocks of Joshua Tree. It's called the "Artist's House". Many artists have made their home in this town, and have constructed unusual architectural specimens. But I doubt few artists could afford a home like this.

This is a million dollar house ensconced in the rocks of Joshua Tree, near Burro Loop Trail. It’s called the “Artist’s House”. Many artists have made their home in this town, and have constructed unusual architectural specimens. But I doubt few artists could afford a house like this.

7:20 am. The sun’s been up for a half-hour and I’ve already shed three of my layers. I stuff the last layer into my backpack, then remove a water bottle and take a drink. It goes down the wrong pipe. I cough and choke and hack until I fear I’m going to black out. There’s nobody near to whack my back or do the Heimlich, because I love so much to hike alone. So leave it to me to drown myself while hiking in the desert.

7:45 am. My near-death experience with the water has led my mind down a philosophical path. Or maybe it’s the play of silence and Joshua trees and jumbled rocky hills all around that affect my mind. Or perhaps it’s the aches and pains that are growing in my legs and back and shoulders, inducing delirium in my brain.

For some reason I feel happy on this hike, in spite of nearly drowning. Deliriously happy. My philosophical mind ponders happiness. It occurs to me that hikes don’t always make me this happy. Nor does drowning. Sometimes I’d much rather be napping at home, than struggling for survival afoot in these rugged lands.

I call this "Snowman Rock". I really like this sculpture. Maybe that's because I prefer the art of Mother Nature over that which our residential artists produce.

I call this “Snowman Rock”. I really like this sculpture. Maybe that’s because I prefer the art of Mother Nature over that which our residential artists produce.

I try to come up with a formula that will guarantee this level of happiness all of the time. It must be the delirium making me do this. But then I give up and conclude that no such formula can exist. We are at the mercy of happiness. We’re always seeking it, but we can never guarantee what kind we’ll find. Finding this kind of happiness can be as elusive as spotting that old burro. You never know which turn in the trail will bring you face-to-face with the braying bastard.

8:10 am. I give up philosophizing. People can exhaust themselves trying to know all about life. Life is too big to understand completely. I decide to just try to absorb the sights, sounds, smell and feel of this old desert.

I call this the "Alien Skull". Another fine sculpture by Ma Nature.

I call this the “Alien Skull”. Another fine sculpture by Ma Nature.

8:22 am. Where is that turnoff? I know the trail turns up canyon somewhere around here. My last time on this journey was many moons ago. I think I remember that I have to go past an old desert plum tree, before the trail curves upslope.

Did you know that you can prune a plum tree, but you can’t plumb a prune tree?

8:51 am. Ah finally, the fork in the trail I’ve been looking for. Now I can eat my breakfast.

It looks like a duck, but it doesn't walk like a duck. So it's not a duck. But I still call this "Duck Rock". This sculpture is not for sale, as Mother Nature is a not-for-profit artist.

It looks like a duck, but it doesn’t walk like a duck. So it’s not a duck. But I still call this “Duck Rock”. This sculpture is not for sale, as Mother Nature is a not-for-profit artist.

9:17 am. Plop, plop, plop. I limp my tired feet across the dusty ground. This is my contribution to the world. My footprints. They contribute to the maintenance of the trail by making it easier for those who follow me, to find their way. I hope they appreciate all my hard efforts.

10:18 am. I spot my car way off in the distance. Sure wish I could teleport over there. But no, I must keep footslogging. I haven’t looked left or right for the past hour, nor thought about much of anything. This is dangerous. Wild Indians could have attacked me. But I’m too fucking tired to look anywhere except straight down at the trail. Except for occasional, wistful glances into the distance for my beloved automobile.

10:37 am. My god, why did it take so long to reach my car?! It seemed like it was only five minutes away, 15 minutes ago. But now I’m here. At last my journey is complete. Burro Loop has once again been conquered by this intrepid old man.

Where is that pesky burro?

Where is that pesky burro?

The Memory of Beauty

If you don’t visit beauty often, you forget it. It was time to get out of the ugly. I hadn’t been hill-stomping for weeks.

At 0:Dark:30 my car headed for the hills through a mizzling rain. I turned into the trailhead parking lot and my headlights caught a sign that read, “Day Use Only. Sunrise to Sunset.” It was 6:04. The sun wouldn’t rise until 6:34. Beautiful.

Fuck ’em, I thought, as I pulled in and parked anyway.

Must cogitate over my crime now. What would I tell a ranger if confronted on the trail? How about, “Gosh, hasn’t the sun already risen behind the clouds?” Yeah, that’s it. Acting ignorant would be a beautiful excuse.

A light rain pelted on the brow of my hat as I slipped on my jacket and donned my daypack. At 6:08 I pushed through the fading gloom and made my way up the trail to beautiful Hidden Valley.

Hidden Valley is one of the most popular hikes in Joshua Tree National Park. That’s why it’s best to visit it at 6:08 in the morning, on a weekday, in the rain. I was the only soul out there, and had the beauty of the whole valley to myself.

A short climb took me over the rocky rim and into this granite-strewn wonder. At this point a loop trail takes over. And at the start of the loop is a sign, directing hikers to walk clockwise through the loop. I went the opposite way. When the world travels clockwise, I prefer widdershins. I believe it beautifies the human spirit to be contrasuggestible and contumacious in the face of officious rules.

Such beauty I encountered, walking widdershins! I had forgotten just how majestic these towering rocks could be. Tragically, I left my camera at home. But I already had plenty of photos from prior visits. This would have to be a day for absorbing beauty through the natural senses, without the fuss from including a glass lens.

These are photos of Hidden Valley from a prior visit. This rock seems to have eroded below faster than above, producing a strange curl formation.

This photo of Hidden Valley, and the rest, are from a prior visit. The rock pictured here seems to have eroded below faster than above, producing a strange curl formation.

One of my natural senses–my cognitive sense–became especially active. A beautiful inspiration struck me, and I reached for a different kind of recording device. A device I had made absolutely sure to bring along. It was a device for recording those reflections from the cognitive sense, that are too easily erased by time.

I reached for my pen.

And that’s when I realized I had forgotten to bring paper. Beautiful move, moron! Goddamn me!

The palm of my hand would have to serve as stationery. So I recorded my sensory experience, ink to hand.

A wide view of Hidden Valley. Notice there are no people? Notice the long shadows? If you want to beat the crowds, you have to hike this valley while everyone else is still in bed.

A wide view of Hidden Valley. Notice there are no people? Notice the long shadows? If you want to beat the crowds, you have to hike this valley while everyone else is still in bed.

The rare desert rain steeped the sage, cheesebush, and wormwood, releasing their stored-up aromas. Here was beauty for my osmic senses, I noted just below my thumb.

I paused to listen to the silence. It was there. A cottony vault of beautiful nothingness, for my otic senses. Then, one-by-one, delicate sounds crept through the cotton. The sough of my breath passing softly through my nares. The distant caw of a crow rattling off the rocks. And the susurration of thrumming engines from an airliner high aloft, above the clouds.

Here's a hunk of granite that looks like one of my teeth after a lifetime of too many sweets.

Here’s a hunk of granite that looks like one of my teeth after a lifetime of too many sweets.

About halfway through the counter-clockwise circumambulation of this loop trail, my bladder sent me a tactile sensory message. There were no other hikers around, so I searched for a spot to perform an illegal act in private. Pissing outdoors may be against the law, but in the wilds it is primeval beauty for our nostalgic senses. It connects us with our ancient ancestors, who also pissed in the wilds. And in much the same way.

This escarpment is called "The Great Burrito" by rock-climbers. A few years ago a cragsman fell to his death at this very spot. Perhaps he should have opted to climb "The Little Taquito" instead.

This escarpment is called “The Great Burrito” by rock-climbers. A few years ago a cragsman fell to his death at this very spot. Perhaps he should have opted to climb “The Little Taquito” instead.

But then it occured to me that enough people have rained their uric acid upon the rocks of this popular trail. There was no urgent need for me to add more, so I decided to hold it in. For me, this was a beautiful beau geste. But I hope my ancestors weren’t disappointed.

If the Chinese had built their great wall out of something like this, perhaps the Mongols would have stayed to the north.

If the Chinese had built their great wall out of something like this, perhaps the Mongols would have stayed to the north.

No rangers stopped me before sunrise. The light rain felt refreshing on my face and skin. The boulder skyscrapers impressed again, with all their forgotten glory. And the trail remained untrammeled throughout the hike, because nobody else dared brave the wee hours and wetness of this morning.

That’s how beautiful this day was.

The hills have eyes.

The hills have eyes.

I drove home to the beautiful vibes of Duke Ellington on the radio. The light rain intensified to a downpour. Seemed the hour I chose to hike in this storm was beautiful timing. And now I had fresh in my mind that one thing all souls thirst for, as surely as the desert landscape thirsts for water from heaven.

I possessed the memory of beauty.

This rock is waiting for the right moment to topple over upon an unsuspecting hiker. Which is why people really should stay away from Hidden Valley.

This rock is waiting for the right moment to topple over upon an unsuspecting hiker. Which is why people really should stay away from Hidden Valley.

Eternal Flowers

I don't know the botanical name of this pale yellow specimen, so I'll dub it the Jaundice Flower.

I don’t know the botanical name of this pale yellow specimen, so I’ll dub it the “Jaundice Flower”.

We think of their lives as brief. But who knows? Maybe to these desert wildflowers, they are eternal.

I'll call this one, "Faded Bluejeans".

I’ll call this faded blue flower, “Year-Old Levis”.

What if they reincarnate as flowers, over and over, with each life flowing into the next as if it were one?

This is actually called the "Paperbag Bush" Really. No foolin'. It produces little bag-like pods with seeds in them, that rattle around. Then the wind blows the pods all over the desert like so much litter.

This is called the “Paperbag Bush”. Really. No foolin’. It produces little bag-like pods with seeds in them, that rattle around. Then the wind blows the pods all over the desert floor like so much litter.

I don’t see how there can be any life without change, and so neither we nor desert wildflowers can bloom forever.

I call this beauty, the "Purple People Eater". It must be well fed, because there were no purple people anywhere to be seen.

I call this beauty, the “Purple People Eater”. It must be well fed, because there were no purple people anywhere to be seen.

It seems to me that there has to be a repeated cycle of budding, blooming, and wilting.

I know the name of this one. It's a Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia. Chia was the native food plant of the autochthonous tribes that wandered these lands a little over 100 years ago.

I know the name of this one. It’s a Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia. Chia was the native food plant of the autochthonous tribes that wandered these lands a little over a hundred years ago.

Seasons must pass and the wind must blow. The moon must observe its phases. And our lives must wax and wane from one new experience to another.

Chia seeds. Tiny but tasty. And very high in calories.

Chia seeds. Tiny but tasty. And very high in calories.

I like to compare our lives to the desert flowers in the Springtime. We bloom with our own special colors, then wilt, rest, and reseed. Who knows what color our blooms will be next Spring?

I call these "Beauty Salon" flowers. They look sort of like the permanents my beautician wife gives her customers.

I call these “Beauty Salon” flowers. They look sort of like the permanents my beautician wife gives her customers.

I like the idea of being different with each new life. Because isn’t change the thing that makes life eternal?

Maybe these should be called "Beauty Salon" flowers also.

Maybe these should be called “Beauty Salon” flowers also.

Happy May Day!

Happy May Day!

Happy May Day!

Caterpillars in a Tent

What the hell are those webs?

What the hell are those webs?

I roll out of bed at 4:30. Sun’s gonna rise in less than two hours. Gotta get to it. But I’m not safe in a hurry. I knock my middle toe against the spade foot of our antique table. Goddamn! I splatter toothpaste into my eye. I bang my head on an open cupboard door. Curse, curse, curse.

There's something moving around, inside those webby tents.

There’s something moving around, inside those webby tents.

I hustle my backpack and camera into the car and slam my fingers in the door. Some rock-and-roll dancing, and swearing works the pain off. Gotta get to the national park before the hoards of hikers start swarming all over it, as they do this time of year. I prefer my trails unpeopled.

Western Tent Caterpillars

Tent caterpillars. There are 6 species of these in North America. This is the Western Tent Caterpillar.

Five minutes before sunup I hit the trail. It’s fucking cold! I’m tired and in pain. I stumble over rocks and damn near turn an ankle. Tromp, tromp, drompf. Whoa! I nearly lose my balance cutting down an embankment. I jut my arm out for ballast and my hand gets punctured by the rapier blade of a yucca. Shit that hurts!

Aren't they cute?

Aren’t they cute? Tent caterpillars are among the most social of all caterpillars. I caught them during their morning kaffeeklatch.

I drop my pack in a little rocky cove and set my camera up. I pinch my finger in the tripod. Fuck!

A few landscape shots and then, what the hell is that over there? Cobwebs in a bush? On close inspection I find a mass of caterpillars in the webs. What the hell are these anyways, some sort of desert silkworm? Yes, they are. They are Western Tent Caterpillars, and they are spinning a silky-web home.

Busy as spiders.

They hatch in late winter, and quickly build their tents, like good little scouts. They locate their tents where they’ll catch the morning sun.

I snap lots of pictures of these fuzzy fusiforms. My tired, clumsy hand brushes the twigs of the bush, sending vibrations into their tents. They freeze instantly. This reaction probably saves their lives whenever a bird, lizard or other predator comes near.

They poop a lot, too.

They need the sun to raise their body temperature, so they can digest food. Various compartments in their tent will trap heat, raising temperatures as much as 30 Celsius.

I’m hiking back to the car and spy a solitary hiker coming toward me in the distance. It’s official, the trail has now become too crowded.

The forenoon heat makes me wish to God I had changed into shorts before beginning my exodus. This motherfucking desert is brutal. I’ve hurt myself, frozen, and roasted just to do what I’ve done this morning. Was it worth it?

Of course. I saw caterpillars in a tent.

Bird food.

The tiny flecks in the web are caterpillar poop. Tent caterpillars are inefficient digesters, and poop a lot. After about 8 weeks of eating and pooping, they spin their cocoons. 2 weeks later they emerge as moths. The moths often mate and lay eggs the same day they emerge, with the female dying soon after laying her eggs. Female moths may live less than 24 hours, while male moths may live a week or more. It’s nice to know that somewhere in the animal kingdom, males live longer than females.

Hiking Lessons

Be as solitary and quiet as the moon, when you hike.

Be as solitary and quiet as the moon, when you hike.

I’m going to teach you how to hike. I’ve stomped many a hill, so I know what I’m talking about.

First and foremost, hike alone whenever possible. Hiking partners either slow you down or speed you up. You can’t enjoy nature at your own pace when you bring along an extra pair of legs.

Hiking partners also have a way of talking, and this destroys one of the best things about nature. Silence. You can’t hear any silence when someone else is talking. It also scares away the wildlife.

Being quiet allows you to stumble upon scenes like this.

Being quiet allows you to stumble upon scenes like this.

If you must hike with a partner, get that person to agree to wear a gag. And keep quiet, yourself. Or hike only with deaf-mutes.

Begin your hikes about a half-hour before sunrise. Everyone else is sleeping at this time, making the trail yours, and yours alone. If you truly want to get away from it all, this is the time of day you must begin.

This is the best time of day to begin a hike.

This is the best time of day to begin a hike.

Get off the damn trail. This is another clever way to get away from it all. You hardly ever come across another human being when you hike cross-country. You may get lost. You may die. But at least your end will occur in a beautiful natural setting.

Take off, cross-country.

Take off, cross-country.

Don’t worry about reaching your destination. I hardly ever reach mine. The outdoors is your destination, and that’s good enough. Stop frequently and enjoy your surroundings, wherever you amble. Lounge beneath a tree. Sit in the sun on a rock. Don’t worry too much about time. Just worry about getting back to your car before twilight. Unless you enjoy sleeping beneath the stars while freezing your ass off.

Lounge beneath a pine tree.

Lounge beneath a pine tree.

Hiking alone has its risks. One day you could end up as buzzard food, and no one would be the wiser. But being in the belly of a buzzard, soaring high into the atmosphere and then being pooped back to earth ain’t such a bad fate. Isn’t it all about being one with nature?

If the worst happens, at least you'll get a beautiful sky burial, with the help of mother nature's coroner.

If the worst happens, at least you’ll get a beautiful sky burial, with the help of mother nature’s coroner.

What Makes Them Bloom?

A Joshua tree forest. As you can see, Joshua trees are not fit for climbing, unless you're wearing a full-leather suit.

A Joshua tree forest. As you can see, Joshua trees are not fit for climbing, unless you’re wearing a full-leather suit.

Joshua trees are in mass bloom in the Mojave desert this year. What makes these crazy trees bloom? Your smartass answers are always welcome, and would be as good a guess as anyone’s. But conventional wisdom, and Wikipedia, claim that rainfall and a hard freeze is required.

Joshua trees bloom in late-Winter, with most blooms gone by the first day of Spring.

Joshua trees bloom in late-Winter, with most blooms gone by the first day of Spring.

It seems the wise, Wikipedia-types weren’t around eight years ago. That’s when a drought brought zero rain to our desert over the winter. And yet nearly all the Joshua trees bloomed. During normal years you’ll see a smattering of blooms–a tree here, a tree there, but with most barren of blooms. And some years, hardly no trees bloom at all.

Some blooms take on a dark pink hue.

Some blooms take on a dark pink hue.

However in 2008, botanists were baffled to see almost every Joshua tree in rare, full bloom. And this during one of our driest winters on record. So what caused the mass bloom? Scientists came out from all over to study the phenomenon, but never figured it out. They’re still scratching their heads.

An early bud.

An early bud.

A bud just beginning to open. Looks kind of like an artichoke.

A bud just beginning to open. Looks kind of like an artichoke.

Many blooms are creamy white, without the pink.

Many blooms are creamy white, without the pink.

The Joshua tree got its name from Mormon settlers who thought it resembled the biblical Joshua lifting his arms in the air in praise of God. I think they should be renamed the “Seuss Tree” since they look kind of like trees found in Dr. Seuss books. The botanical name is Yucca brevifolia. This means yucca with short foliage. Joshua trees have short, spiky leaves, as opposed to most yuccas with much longer spikes. Yep, those spikes are technically leaves.

I wonder if Dr. Seuss saw these trees before illustrating his famous books?

I wonder if Dr. Seuss saw these trees before illustrating his famous books?

Joshua trees can live up to a thousand years. They only grow in the Mojave desert of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Some say they also grow in Israel, but this is a myth. The only Joshua that grew in Israel was the biblical Joshua, who never saw a Joshua tree in his life.

This looks a bit like an ice cream cone.

This looks a bit like an ice cream cone.

Today you can find tens of thousands of these trees growing in Joshua Tree National Park, California. But global warming is causing it to depopulate its southern range. Botanists fear that by the end of this century it will no longer be found in its eponymous park.

Looks almost good enough to eat. But the taste is bitter and soapy.

Looks almost good enough to eat. But the taste is bitter and soapy.

The Joshua is a strange, grand, majestic tree to behold. I feel kind of sorry for those who’ll live here a century from now. This desert will look rather bland without them.

Close-up of the flower petals.

Close-up of the flower petals.