Monday, February 19, 2018

Sleeping Under the Stars

Photo: John Remus III (Public Domain, via Flickr)

Last night, for the first time in my life, I slept under the stars.

Now, I've been camping before—but the tent provided too much of a barrier between me and the sky.

Same goes for the teepees I've stayed in.

I tried to sleep under the stars at an Airbnb in Joshua Tree two years ago, but I failed miserably when I had to spend pretty much the entire night hiding my head under the covers to escape the rain that would otherwise be falling on my face.

And I didn't do a whole lot of sleeping that night, either.

This all goes back to that first month I spent in Joshua Tree back in 2009, when I'd been so tempted to camp out in the hammock outside so I could gaze up at the night sky while I fell asleep—but back then, I was too scared of scorpions and coyotes to actually do it.

When I returned for an extended stay in 2012, I hadn't gotten over my fears yet. I thought about it. I walked outside in my bare feet and stood under the moon, pondering what might crawl upon me while I slept out there.

But I just couldn't do it.

Last night in Borrego Springs, though, my hosts invited me to stay on the cot on their patio and assured me that all coyotes, scorpions, and other desert creatures of the night would stay away from me as long as I stayed close to the house.

The only obstacle to my al fresco sleepover?

The wind.

Boy, was it windy in the desert yesterday.

I'm used to the gusts in, say, Palm Springs, but this was unusual for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

"Maybe it's too windy to sleep outdoors tonight..." my friend Susan and her husband said.

"Yeah, maybe you're right."

But as the day wore on, I was becoming more and more determined to have a go at it—and not just if the wind died down (which, I hear, it sometimes does after sunset).

I was going to try to sleep in the wind—under the stars—and not be blown away.

So I had my cot and my super-cozy sleeping bag, the pillow from my trunk crammed into a borrowed pillowcase, my phone and my glasses, and I hunkered down to see how long I could last.

It was true, the scorpions left me alone. If they were out there, I didn't see them (or feel them).

I heard the coyotes—I think, though they didn't sound like Joshua Tree coyotes. In my sleepy state, they sounded more like hyenas.

But the one thing I ultimately couldn't get over was the wind. It was blowing so hard that it was rattling my cot—and I'm a whole lot of woman, enough to hold a cot down in any normal wind.

I wasn't cold per se—the sleeping bag was plenty warm—but my hair was blowing into my slightly open mouth, stifling the snores that were trying to escape (and kept waking me up in the process).

Every time I opened my eyes, though, I saw those stars hanging so low in the black sky. When my eyes were closed, I dreamed that they were swirling above me—or maybe they actually were swirling, in a spectacular display of the Milky Way that one can only witness while camped out directly underneath.

Every time I woke up facing the exterior wall of the house, I'd turn over to face the desert. I slept on my back and on my stomach—which I never do—just so I could keep the constellations in view.

And as the night sky began to lighten—not quite morning, but fading from the saturation of the blackest of night—I packed up my bedding and headed inside to the couch.

The stars weren't so visible anymore, so I figured I wouldn't be missing out on that much.

But the plan had been to stay out there till morning, till the sunrise woke me up and the roadrunners came to check on me.

Still, I feel a sense of victory after finally sleeping under the stars. It doesn't matter that I didn't make it all night. I made it most of the night.

And to be honest, I would've felt victorious even if I'd only made it an hour or two out there—as long as I'd slept, and as long as I'd done it under the stars.

Related Posts:
A Little Fall of Rain
Chasing the Moon

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Photo Essay: Glimpses of Yuma Territory

I first became interested in the Arizona town of Yuma because of its prison history, particularly with the bandits and gunmen of the Old West.

It seemed like the natural next chapter after my jaunt to Tombstone last year.

And, like in Tombstone, lots of people died in Yuma.

Most prisoners died while incarcerated—from illness, snakebite, escape attempts, self-inflicted wounds, or at the hands of another. That was just a fact of life (and death). And they were buried at the prison.

The law-abiding pioneers were buried in the local graveyard, but they don't seem to have gotten too many visitors as of late... for a lone dove—appropriately, a mourning dove—perched upon a granite cross as it cooed.

I'd see lots more mourning doves during my two-day visit to Yuma—so many, in fact, that the Arizona Game and Fish Department allows the hunting of them, and the visitors' bureau encourages it.

I'd also see lots of retro-cool commercial signs, whether for the drive-thru liquor store, the Yuma Cabaña motel (whose overnight experience did not live up to the glory of its signage), or the glittering neon Hacienda across the street.

At breakfast, I was greeted by one of those "cigar store Indians" no longer used to advertise tobacconists and generally relegated to Old West theme parks and tchotchke-filled theme restaurants.

Such was the case with my breakfast spot, the Yuma Landing—situated on the site where the first plane to ever land in Arizona made its touch down (on October 25, 1911). Appropriately, much of the restaurant is devoted to the history of flight in Yuma, a history that's perhaps been eclipsed by the tales of transporting outlaws by train to the territorial prison.

Driving around Yuma, then, you'd expect to see some train trestles and other relics of railroading—but what we found instead was an abandoned suspension bridge, an automotive roadway that once spanned the Gila River.

Nobody ever really had faith in this bridge, built in 1929—especially when cars became heavier and more abundant. In 1968, traffic was diverted to a smaller bridge over safety concerns, and the river was dammed upstream, leaving a dry river valley below it.

Funny enough, a 1993 flood washed the "new" bridge out—the one that was supposedly less flimsy—and left the old bridge intact. But all 800 feet of it are still considered unstable, even for pedestrians, giving the McPhaul Bridge a more commonly-known identity as the "Bridge to Nowhere."

But sometimes, nowhere is exactly where I want to be—to take pause and get a little rest.

And that's exactly what I found along the U.S. 95, that highway that starts at the Mexico border in Arizona and crosses through California (intersecting with the 40 in Needles) and Nevada on its way to Oregon and Idaho.

Plopped down in the middle of the agricultural breadbasket of Southwestern Arizona—tucked between fields of lettuces and cabbages— is Loren Pratt's Little Chapel, sometimes better known as the "Pause, Rest, Worship Chapel."

Loren had been a respected farmer in the area, one of the pioneers of the so-called Dome Valley—and, as a devoutly religious man, he built this chapel in 1995 and dedicated it to the memory of his deceased wife, Lois, who'd struggled for years with a rare form of dementia.

This diminutive house of worship (which seats about a dozen worshippers) is actually the second version to stand here—the first having been swept away in a freak storm in 2011. Led by Loren's son Cecil Pratt, supporters rallied to rebuild the chapel in the exact same spot and finished just in time for Easter morning service in 2012.

And just when we thought we'd seen all the oddities that the Yuma environs had to offer, we happened upon a stark white airship, tethered but slowly bobbing in the breeze, swaying to and fro—a little farther north along the 95 (on our way to the Castle Dome Mine Museum—stay tuned), just beyond some flimsy fencing within the boundary of the local Army base, the Yuma Proving Ground.

I didn't get the chance to access the YPG on this trip, but I did tour a different military base in Yuma. Stay tuned for dispatches from the MCAS Yuma.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Arizona
Photo Essay: The Death Toll of Tombstone
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Baltimore
Glimpses of Havana in the Final Days of Fidel

Friday, February 16, 2018

On Wondering When 'The Big One' Will Hit

By Shustov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

"Are you afraid of earthquakes?"

I was having lunch with a friend from New York City who I hadn't seen in probably 15 or more years. Now that he's moved to LA, too, we have lots to talk about.

And questions like these inevitably come up.

"I'm not afraid of 'The Big One' per se," I told him, "but I'm afraid of how people will react in the aftermath."

The stuff of my nightmares is the run on gas, the traffic jams, looting, and generalized mass hysteria. The actions of others feel so beyond my control.

I did, however, have one clarification to make: "I'm afraid of an earthquake happening and me not being home with my cat. I'm really afraid of my cat being home alone during a big earthquake."

Unfortunately, unless I become a shut-in, there's nothing I can do about that.

I approach our seismic precariousness with a fair amount of scientific interest and healthy skepticism. I've explored the San Andreas Fault in more than one section. I've seen firsthand how past earthquakes can ravage buildings, landscapes, and roadways.

I have, in some way or another, walked in the historical path of destruction of Long Beach, Sylmar, Landers, Whittier, and more.

So, the threat of a geological, geophysical, seismological event on a massive scale is pretty real to me. My lack of fear doesn't come out of ignorance.

Or does it?

We know very well that we're overdue for an earthquake whose magnitude is at the upper end of the Richter Scale.

The last one of that category to hit Southern California was on January 17, 1994 at 4:30 a.m.

Although the epicenter of that one was located in the San Fernando Valley community of Reseda (technically Los Angeles), it was dubbed the Northridge Earthquake.

It occurred along a previously unknown fault, also later dubbed the Northridge blind thrust fault.

Most of the twisted wreckage from nearly a quarter-century ago has been cleared—except in one place, where it's been turned into sculptural art as a memorial for the victims of the earthquake.

That's on the campus of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where the Lauretta Wasserstein Earthquake Sculpture Garden pays tribute to the destruction and devastation that hit a little too close to home (about a mile from the epicenter).

All the buildings on the campus had been damaged by the Northridge earthquake.

Those that weren't brought down by the initial jolt and aftershocks erupted into a fiery (and sometimes toxic) blaze.

And yet artist Marjorie Berkson Sievers (a CSUN alum) and landscape architect Paul Lewis managed to see beauty in the rubble...

...converting disembodied columns, pillars, stairs, and walls (mostly from a collapsed parking structure) into a kind of artificial reef for nature to twist itself around...

...vines to crawl through...

...and plants to inhabit.

Of course, the damage brought on by the Northridge earthquake wasn't isolated to the West Valley—it stretched for 85 miles. But to really grasp what happened in the middle of the night in January 1994, you've got to go back to Northridge and look at some of that rubble.

That is, until something similar happens again.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Facing Our Faults
These Tremors of the Night
In Search of the Epicenter
One of Many Firsts: Earthquake

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Silence Is Deafening

I'm the kind of person that needs a lot of sonic distraction.

I can't sleep out in the middle of the country unless there are wolves howling, trains chugging, or the wind whipping. Absolute silence keeps me awake at night.

In college, I didn't just listen to music while I wrote a paper or studied for a test. I listened to music while on the London Tube or sitting in the middle of a Burger King in Leicester Square.

Some might consider listening to the radio while driving a distraction. As for me, it's a good way to focus on the task at hand.

So, imagine my discomfort today when I attended a puppet show that had practically no soundtrack at all.

I might as well have been watching a show of mimes. Only the mimes were wearing costumes that looked like giant hands and carrying umbrellas to look like jellyfish.

The problem, however, wasn't that the auditorium was silent. It's that the lack of sound coming from the stage meant that all the other sounds in the house were amplified.

All the coughing children and their fluish parents.

The stuffy-nosed child behind me lying on her father's lap.

The tike who insisted on narrating the show with his observations, like "He's counting how many!" and "Pink!" and "There's two of them!"

Thanks, buddy. We know. We're watching the same show as you.

The woman sitting next to me was wrestling with a plastic bag and eating trail mix out of it. The smell of chewed peanuts intermingled with some personal care product she'd used that reminded me of industrial-strength public restroom air freshener.

The silence was making me nauseous. I was dying for some music or dialogue.

Mummenschanz had been haunting me for the greater part of 30 years—or even more—after watching the TV commercial for it on repeat as a child. I never knew exactly what it was.

And when I saw the troupe of dancers-slash-contortionists-slash-puppeteer-mimes were performing locally, I figured it was time I found out.

But in the end, I couldn't watch it.

At least, I couldn't just watch it.

I'm sure this falls under the category of "It's not you; it's me." I take the blame. Others seemed to be enjoying the show.

But I couldn't even concentrate on the show with all that hacking and sniffling and rattling and chatting and vibrating of a cell phone two seats down from me.

I got a brief reprieve when one of the skits was about a frog trying to catch a fly. Thank god for the buzzing of that fly.

But once it ended, I knew I had to leave. I couldn't take it anymore.

At least now I know.

Related Posts:
Dark Matters
The Sounds of Silence
Dulling the Senses

A Specter of Light and Glory in Days of Darkness

"Bottle houses" were a thing back in the Old West, during the Gold Rush and in the heyday of mine camps. The men there drank enough booze to make enough raw material available, and they mortared those green, cobalt blue, and clear bottles together into structurally sound shacks that, thanks to the translucence of the glass, let in plenty of natural light.

But nobody in California needs to use bottles for building anymore. Our glass recyclables are collected regularly, and our building materials are cheap and mass marketed far and wide. We have electricity and solar panels. And when all else fails, we repurpose shipping containers.

So, those glass bottles that remain—the ones that haven't been replaced by plastic—may have lost their architectural utility, but that just means they've been reclassified.

Now, they're art.

circa 2014

Bottle art is usually more associated with folk artists like Grandma Prisbrey of Bottle Village or Elmer of Bottle Tree Ranch...

circa 2014

...but those are examples of traditionally untrained commoners (hence, the "folk" in "folk art").

circa 2014

And although they—as well as others, like Simon Rodia of Watts Towers—serve as a major inspiration for Randlett Lawrence...

circa 2014

...the "Randy" of "Randyland" in LA's Echo Park (near Dodger Stadium) was already an incredibly talented builder when he began erecting the glorious and monumental bottle art sculpture in front of his house.

But when he's not building sets for Hollywood productions, he's been paying tribute to the Virgin of Guadalupe—in colored glass bottles, rebar, and wire (including her wings, which are cobalt blue).

And, like much of his folk art predecessors and contemporaries, Randy is constantly changing it.

The basic approach is simple and consistent throughout the sculpture's iterations: Take a teardrop-shaped bottle, fill it with water, harness it in a wire cage (akin to, say, the wire cage that protects the cork on a bottle of champagne) and string it up with a bunch of others.

You can see the so-called "Phantasma Gloria" sculpture from the street, of course (that's part of the point)—and at certain angles at certain times of day, the sunlight shining through it is certainly brilliant. But it's a really rare and special experience to climb up the stairs and find yourself behind it.

And that's when you get to meet Randy.

Randy calls the bottles "lenses" and, years after making his discovery in a "blue blaze of light," still marvels at the inverted images inside created by their convex shape.

That's why this bottle mosaic is more than a "suncatcher" or a "lightcatcher."

In fact, Randy calls it a "Sky Catcher"—because each "lens" becomes something of a crystal ball reflecting the world back at us.

And, if not our actual world, then some parallel, upside-down universe.

And he never gets sick of finding new ways to look at it—or look at the world around him through it.

Depending on the time of year and the angle of the sun, there are certain peak times to view it to get "maximum refraction"...

...but honestly, it's the kind of thing you could sit and watch all day, as the colored light beams shift position and different aspects of the mosaic get illuminated at different times.

It changes dramatically, even just over the course of an hour.

And as you watch it, you get the sense that it is watching you, too.

And everything looks better through the lens of beauty and art and color and light.

But for some of us, the natural inclination is to dim and darken, to enable our myopia rather than embrace the colossal.

Thank goodness for people like Randy who are here to set us straight on what's important.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bottle Tree Ranch
Photo Essay: Bottle Village (Updated for 2016)
Capturing Particles of Light in Three Dimensions
Meditations on Chroma