Friday, July 31, 2009

One Year Later

One year ago, Michelle and I were in Morocco. I wish I was there now.

I'd taken the trip as a kind of last resort. It was either that, or quit my job. I was hanging on by a thread, and needed an escape from work, an escape from New York, an escape from my life.

I really haven't stopped running since.

At the time, at ten days it was the longest trip I'd ever taken besides my semester abroad, but it's now been surpassed by my recent desert excursion. At the time, at ten days it wasn't long enough.

When I came back from Morocco, my job and life were still the same. My bosses had slowly begun to phase me out of meetings and decision-making before I left, which is probably why they didn't know about the trip until right before my departure. When I returned, they were still sore over me leaving at what they considered a critical time period, even though they are annual absentee execs every summer. If even possible, my vacation made things worse between us. Morocco was the beginning of the end for me at my last job, though it took five months for me to actually quit.

Morocco may have been a catalyst for my resignation, for my application to the Peace Corps, and for my openness to travel, but it set me on a course whose path I still do not understand, whose destination still has not been reached.

I can't wait to see where I end up.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Every Day Is An Accomplishment in New York City

While I was in California, I really struggled with the idea that I was supposed to be doing something. I was still freelancing a bit, but aside from that I thought I should be spending my time writing. But if I was to write, I had to do something to write about. But I spent so much time doing things that I didn't have that much time to write.

I just couldn't shake the nagging sense that I should be accomplishing something.

Back in NYC, the time flies. Hours go by and I still haven't left my apartment. I spent all day today going to the movies and getting lunch. And then it occurred to me: living in New York City is accomplishment enough. Just being here on a daily basis provides enough stimulation, conflict, obstacle, drama, and peril to fill your day, without anything particularly special happening.

At 11:45 a.m. today, I leave my house, umbrella in tow.

I turn down Second Avenue to see the bus pulling away from my stop on 25th Street. I run down to 23rd Street hoping to catch it.

I slow down ever-so-slightly as I approach the doors, and they close. I have to rap on them with my umbrella to get the driver to open them. I am forever running for buses that don't stop for me.

I climb the stairs to the bus that did not kneel for me, and a man looking for change is blocking my way in. I offer him three quarters, two dimes and a nickel for his dollar as the bus pulls away, sending me staggering into the other passengers and a wheelchair. Someone pushes past me to vacate their seat, one that I try to sit in but is too small for my frame. As I trade coins for dollar, I hear him say, "Thank you ma'am, thank you," but I'm too concerned with falling over to look at him, so I simply nod and stumble.

I am running late for my 12:05 p.m. movie.

The Sunshine is setting up for a premiere tonight so barricades block the ticket window and direct me inside to purchase. I agonize over the popcorn smell I'm normally able to avoid by going straight to the stairs.

I burst into the darkened theater, already showing previews, and try to adjust my eyes to find a seat. I don't love the dark. I use my hands to guide me along the row of seats, stopping in between previews when the screen goes black and I can see nothing.

After the movie, it starts to sprinkle, but having gone without popcorn and soda, I'm starving and in the unusual position of being on the Lower East Side during the day. I walk to Essex Street Market under threatening skies and assume a position on a barstool at Shopsin's. I'm anxious over how much time I spend examining the menu. I know they don't like that but it's been a while since I've been there, and they've re-expanded it to include much of their original menu from the Carmine Street location.

I choose the "Zen" and then sheepishly cringe when Kenny Shopsin's son Zack shouts from the kitchen, "How do I stuff French toast?"

Kenny, in his usual post against the wall, shouts back, "What the fuck is in it?" and they launch into a debate about what the dish is and how it should be prepared. I'm ready to get kicked out at any moment. Kenny, looking a bit thinner than the last time I saw him, hoists himself out of his chair and takes on the task himself.

I notice another debate happening, this one about two girls in the corner who are still holding their menus and whispering to each other. I quickly figure out that they asked for something special - whole wheat French toast? egg whites? - and pissed off Kenny, who's now refusing to serve them anything. And they're refusing to leave.

They try the whole "you can't not serve us because we're women" thing, as though they're some kind of civil rights activists ready to handcuff themselves to the lunch counter. Apparently Kenny had called them "dirty whores," something he calls people he doesn't like regardless of their gender. I catch their eye and say, "I'm getting served. It's not because you're women."

But they persist and get more and more indignant, as Zack threatens to call security on them. I walk over to their table and advise them in a low voice, "If you read any article about this place, you will see that this is just what happens. You should just go. You will not win this."

I walk away as they call after me, "We're not trying to win anything!", and I start to hate them as much as Kenny did. When somebody is cooking for you, you have to play by their rules. With only seats for about 10 people in his place, Kenny has plenty of regulars that he likes to take care of. He doesn't need anybody new fucking up his system.

The girls confer a bit more, weighing their options, and get up, knocking down their water glasses and saying, "Thanks. It was great" in the same voice that they order their pinot grigios and chardonnays in.

"Bitches," I say.

Zack and Kenny thank me for being cool and tell me that the next time I come in, I can get away with a lot. I happily lap up the last bits of my French toast stuffed with chicken sausage, red pepper and fresh mozzarella, exchange names and shake hands with them, and leave to face the deluge outside.

I walk a half a block to Sugar Sweet Sunshine for a cupcake and a cappu. A girl is digging in her wallet for change while the man behind the counter waits to make my drink, tsking and sighing. Who knows how long she'd been there, but as I examine her, I notice her fistful of change and worried look.

"Do you need money?" I ask.

"Uh, yeah..." she says, a little embarrassed but not as much as I would have been, having ordered a $2.50 iced coffee in the rain with no money to pay for it.

"How much?"

Thankfully it was only $0.50, which I give her gladly, if only just to speed up my own order. She dumps her wad of change into an awaiting palm and grabbed her iced coffee, sinking meekly into the chair I had my eye on.

As I get my cupcake and coffee I sit awkwardly across from her, sharing the same coffee table to steady my drink on as I read magazines and wait for the rain to let up. How will she get home with no money?

I finish my magazine just in time for a group of French high school students to come barrelling in from the rain, rearranging chairs so they can sit together in the tiny space in front of the cupcake case where I have parked myself. My cue to leave.

As I stand up, I realize how much I have to go to the bathroom, but there wasn't one at Shopsin's and there isn't one at Sugar Sweet Sunshine. Having been through this plenty of times on the LES at night, I am confident I can find one on the way to the bus, but when I step into Ray's on Houston (my former go-to public bathroom), I slip on the rain-slick floor and dump half my remaining coffee on myself and the floor. I grab some napkins and bolt for the bathroom, which now requires a key.

Aborting the mission, I leave Ray's and become disgusted with my depleted coffee and my elevated bladder level, ditch the cup and use the bathroom at One and One, another old haunt. Although it has stopped raining, it starts up again at the bus stop as I glance curiously at a guy who keeps looking at me. We ride the bus across the aisle from each other, but no words are spoken. He gets off at 14th Street and the sky opens up again, letting out another wrath-filled flood onto First Avenue. I get off at 26th Street, and within the one block walk to my apartment, am soaked, lace cuffs of my yoga pants dragging down below their normally cropped level, umbrella too small to protect the entire circumference of my body all at one time.

I get home and wipe my feet with a towel that is still wet from my shower this morning, the humidity not helped by the air conditioner I left on while gone.

And then I sit in the dark - too dark for the afternoon - and listen to the rain and thunder. When it lets up, I consider getting my nails done, going to a party, doing anything but sitting in this apartment, but then another crack and I know I am in for the night.

And still somehow I am exhausted from this day and don't really want anything else to happen. New York City already happened.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Take Me to the River

People in New York City - mostly tourists - spend a lot of time looking at stuff. They walk down the streets lazily peering up at the billboards and buildings. They get on double decker buses and boats to get another good look, whizzing by in a dazzling survey of glass, concrete, steel, brick and bedrock.

Even some people who live here sit on stoops and in parks, smoking cigarettes and watching the world go by. They watch their dogs frolic at the dog run, hand on hip waiting for the beasts to be done. They sit at the end of the bar with a good view and watch people get drunk, make out, pass out, all the while maybe just getting a little bit drunk themselves but not really doing anything but watching.

We New Yorkers, we go to rock concerts performed by the guy who lives in our building while we watch. We watch baseball games at stadiums that other people only see on TV. We watch World Cup games and Broadway shows and ice skaters at Rockefeller Center. Children play on the beach and the street below while we recline getting a suntan on roofs and sand.

I'm tired of watching. It's time to play.

When I was hiking the Palisades last week, I was so glad that the Shore Trail was flooded because it meant I could get in the water (which I think is prohibited but whatever). Enough of following the shore and looking at the George Washington Bridge from afar, at the Bronx on the other side of the Hudson. Grit my toes, stab my arches, wash brown across my bronzed feet that can't look any dirtier than they already do. Let me feel the earth around and beneath me, grabbing branches and rocks to steady myself while something slippery down below tries to suck me entirely into the downstream.

This weekend I had to go to the Philly area for Julian's wedding reception. Happy to have yet another excuse to get out of the city, I rented a car and mentioned my trip to John, whose house I was practically going to pass on the way back. John excitedly and reservedly said that the guys from his boat club were all ready to meet me, and that we could take a ride on his friend's pontoon on the Delaware River if I could make the trip.

It didn't take much thought for me to say yes.

On the way to the river, we rumbled in John's new Jeep, barreling over curbs and feeling every turn, just the way I like to drive. John's fellow boat club member and friend Warren, our captain for the day, was waiting for us as we carried a cooler of sandwiches and beers for our day on the river.

view from the pontoon

First we drove up-river, under the New Hope-Lambertville Bridge, under the 202 bridge, until the rocks make the Delaware too perilous to navigate in a boat. Shutting off the motor, we let the boat drift for a while, getting jostled by the occasional overzealous motorboat or jet-skier that rocked waves into us and woke the dog up.



I envied the kids that were drifting on the river too, but in tubes submerged in the water. I'm forever dying to get in the river rather than sail on top of it. And, wearing my swimsuit under my sundress, it seems a shame not to.

But instead of jumping overboard I resisted and stayed mostly dry, save for the sweat dripping down my burned back as the sun beat down on my side of the boat. A couple hours passed by and I barely noticed. We were neither watching nor doing. We were just...being.

It was a peaceful day, one that required no crashes or floods or weather to be satisfying. All I needed was a couple cold Stellas and a dog named Stella too, licking my face and cuddling my lap and trying to steal SunChips out of the bag.

Stella

On my way back to the city, my day became more dramatic as I followed a storm that was tearing through New Jersey and New York, leaving me hydroplaning on the dirt-slick highway. By the time I reached Newark, where I was to return my car, the city was flooded at the precise spot I needed to exit. Trucks and Jeeps like John's were getting through, but of course I was driving a Corolla. Enough small cars like mine made an unspoken pact, executing successive three-point-turns to navigate the wrong way down the on-ramp. A couple naive drivers were trying to get on the highway in that exact same spot, but we trudged on.

Faced with the prospect of getting lost in Newark, I wished I was still on that boat, on that river with those beers and that dog. But storms were predicted along the Delaware River, too, and knowing my luck, they would have hit us if we'd stayed longer there.

Having avoided the flood and feeling initially relieved, on the train back to NYC I started regret not trying to drive through it. That was my chance to get in the water on Sunday, and I avoided the regret of doing it and having it go badly, rather than the regret of not having tried it in the first place.

These are my struggles.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

The Long Path to Sleep



I always seem to be posting at night, but usually that's because I've had a full day. There's something really satisfying about that feeling right before bed, when you've exerted your body and challenged your mind.

Between the driving and the hiking, my synapses were firing on all cylinders in the desert, and my reflexes were sharp and quick. Yet, at the end of the day, out of pure exhaustion, my body was able to relax. I've missed that feeling since returning to New York, where liquor induces sleep and the body only gives out when absolutely necessary. Even after walking miles in Prospect Park and to and from Randall's Island, I haven't been able to work my body into submission. That is, until today.

I hiked the wonderful and wondrous Palisades Interstate Park today, travelling an hour and a half on a bus-train-bus there and back. And not only did I hike the rocky shore, the steep ridges and the dizzying cliffs, but I hiked seven miles of them. My eyes can barely stay open as I write, and my legs can hardly bear the weight of the laptop upon them. And it feels good.

When Michelle heard what I'd done today, she stammered, "And I suppose that means you...had...lots...of...fun?" I gasped and sputtered, "If that's what you call...fun..."

Not all of the seven miles were fun per se, but the entire experience - finding my way there, navigating the trails, spotting butterflies and two blue jays - was fulfilling. Even though I was alone (save for lots of gnats, a fluorescent green bald caterpillar, and one small snake), I felt whole, purposeful, and competent. Using the brain on a hike is so different than using it to solve simple math problems or remember a bit of history or employ correct grammar. Conjuring some kind of survivalist savvy, especially for a city girl like me, is real intellectual work, and far more gratifying than figuring out how-do-I-get-this-person-to-stop-talking-behind-my-back or how-do-I-talk-behind-this-person's-back-to-turn-others-against-them. After all this, I can't quite imagine placing my brain back in an office, where the biggest challenges are interpersonal and political.

After all, an explorer must explore.


To be honest, although the land itself presented quite a challenge - not only in distance but also in terrain - the hike itself was easy to follow, very well marked, and relatively well-maintained. Since it was my first time in the park (which follows the Jersey side of the Hudson River, just east of the Palisades Parkway), I followed the path precisely as The New York Times had recommended: starting in Englewood Cliffs, NJ on Palisades Avenue, descending down to the Shore Trail, and then cutting up and over to the Long Path (though I didn't make it as far as the Women's Federation Monument).

Along the way, I saw a few people: a couple walking their dog, two bicyclists taking a break on the beach, and a Chinese woman crammed into the bushes about as far as her pants were crammed into her tube socks. As she heard me approaching she straightened up, hoisting her bag of picked berries. I greeted her and she responded in a thick accent, "Water. Over."

I'd already had to take one high tide detour off the Shore Trail so I immediately acknowledged, "Oh, it's flooded?"

"Yeah yeah."

"Hmmmm, ok," I said as I peered behind her. I decided to keep walking and check it out for myself.

A couple yards of the trail were flooded, with a gentle tide coming in from the Hudson, but it didn't look too bad. I surveyed the flood, looking for rocks big enough to hop along in my sneakers, but they were too few and far apart. Between them lie smaller, smooth rocks - almost gravel - and a red silt, covering any trace of sand. It didn't look too daunting, so I put my bottle, camera and map into my backpack, kicked off my sneakers, peeled off my socks, and started tip-toeing my way through the flood.

It wasn't that far, but it took forever, placing each step carefully on a flat rock when I could, trying not to slip. Occasionally, I'd step flat down on the river bed between the bigger rocks, and immediately feel the pangs of irregularly-shaped stones in my foot's arch. I tried to walk on the balls of my feet as much as possible, but it was unsteady with the waves coming in and nothing to hold onto. All the while I just kept wishing, "Please let this be the only flooded part." I did not want to have to turn back.

I made it to the other side of the flood, brushed the silt off the bottoms of my feet, and slipped them back into socks and shoes, not noticing if they were wet inside. As the trail wove in and out along the shore, alternating between rock and grass, damp dirt and impacted sand, across streams and brooks and past an old beach resort, I felt really good and energetic - until about the halfway point. Hunger pangs and a diminishing water supply started to concern me, not knowing how far I'd gone or how much farther I needed to go, and facing an impossible scramble up a cliff to get to the Henry Hudson Parkway (though I could hear cars and bikes whizzing by).


Ruins along the Shore Trail

Despite my fatigue, and the fact that I don't think I've ever walked that far before in my life, I insisted that I proceed and persist, knowing that the Long Trail promised some empty shells of old estates that are being devoured by the forest as we speak. I discovered three of them by following mysterious stone paths and staircases that seemed to lead nowhere, until a hulking structure would appear seemingly out of nowhere from the forest floor. There once were a total of 15 homes along "Millionaire's Row," perhaps still more remaining than the three stone foundations I saw, but I gave up on the trail and took the first exit west to Route 9W that I could for the bus back home.


Cliff Dale mansion, built 1911 (The Long Path)

It's no surprise that this stretch of the Palisades would attract me: it's yet another failed resort area, this one foiled by the construction of the George Washington Bridge which put ferry service across the river (and onto the beaches) out of commission. And, in another familiar twist, industrial runoff raised concerns about the safety and cleanliness of the Hudson River water, until swimming was altogether banned (and still is). The towns that thrived on summer recreation were wiped out. Mansions built in the 1910s were bought twenty years later and razed to open up views of the Palisades. Their stone foundations - much like the stone stairwell that I climbed down to enter the park - are all that remain. As the years pass, the forest green is gobbling up these old structures, covering them in vines and fallen trees and grass and dead leaves.

So my hike today was a bit of a treasure hunt as well as an endurance test. And the best part is, I know that there are more treasures to be seen, giving me plenty of reason to go back.

But for today, I can sleep, satisfied.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another Day At Sea


I hurt all over today. The humidity on the East Coast has not been kind to my body, weakening my ankles and swelling my legs to the point where my calves hurt just walking down the block. My first few days back, I was able to walk a few miles each, but now I can barely get out of bed.

Still, my body wants to move. I want to be active. I don't want to lose what I achieved while in the desert.

Edith played hooky yesterday so we could go to Jones Beach, on the south fork of Long Island not quite as far as Fire Island. At only an hour's drive from Manhattan, it's a good option for metro New Yorkers seeking the sea.

The water was way too rough for swimming, but we set up camp on the beach for a picnic lunch amongst the seagulls. On our way to the West Bathhouse for some non-ocean swimming, we had to take one break to examine Edith's toe which had caught a shard of something in the sand, and another to rest my legs. The distance is far for anyone in deep sand, not to mention for my distended ankles and calves. I nearly gave up when we walked all the way back and I realized I'd dropped a flip flop somewhere between the shore and the sidewalk. When we got to the stairs, I said, "I lost a shoe."

Edith was silent. I told her to wait there, dumping my stuff at her feet and slogging back, sputtering f-bombs along the way.

I've always gotten lost at the beach, even as a kid. Trudging back to find my shoe, I wasn't sure if I was taking the same path as before, and I kept mistaking bits of trash - napkins, bottles, plastic bags - for my sandal. At about the halfway point, on the slightly damp, matted part where Edith had checked herself for bleeding, I saw a glimmer of a strap, sparkling in the sun. Thank God I didn't have to go back all the way.


The lost shoe was only a minor blemish on the day. Lucky for us, when we got to the pool, it wasn't too full of young Latino couples embracing in the water, or chubby inner city camp kids cannonballing into the deep end. Before it got too crowded, Edith tried the diving board for the first time ever, and I dove for the first time since probably eighth grade (having gotten a doctor's note out of swimming in high school and saving the college swim test for Senior Week).

Jumping straight off the board on my first try, letting my feet sink to the bottom and then push me back up to the surface, I felt my brain leak into my sinuses, giving the back of my throat a blood-tinged bath of poolwater and skullwater. The second time, I tried a proper dive off the ledge. I cut right to the chase, aiming my prayer-position hands above my head and straight at the surface, using my toes to push off the ledge of the board into the water, like a knife cutting butter.

It was a little bit more like a belly-flop.

I felt like a fifth-grader again, escaping my mother during long summer days by walking down to the Huntington Pool, where I'd learned how to swim just months before. My chest heaved; my nose ran. My heart pounded and as I gasped for air, you could barely make out the words, "I'm gonna go again."

I couldn't get lost in the water. I would not be overtaken by crashing waves, filling my shorts with sand and debris. The pool was clean and blue; the deep end was small and the diving course was clear. My third dive felt perfect to my hands, the first of my body to pierce the water, sliding through it instead of smacking into it. I waited for my fingers to touch the bottom, but instead I felt myself rise as I swam forward, as far as I could until the pool spit me out by the metal ladder where Edith awaited me. My eyes, open underwater, now squinted in a smile and did not burn.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of me, but when I got home, my once-white watch line was a new shade of pink, and a stroke of red was splashed across my lower back, where the two pieces of my swimsuit had parted. I'd missed my left ankle in applying sunblock, and a few other patches on my legs and right knee, still scarred by the Amboy Crater. I stripped everything off and was able to sleep, covered only by a satin nightie that I figured would be softer than my sheets.

This morning and all of today, despite Gold Bond with aloe and Lanacane and ice and water and rain and air conditioning and pulling my waistband down as far as it would go, I still hurt. My abs hurt from all the times I pushed my feet off the bottom of the pool into a float. My arms hurt from the few laps I did down the extensive length of the pool. But I bear the marks of a good day, a day that I can still feel in my body today as I trudged once again, only this time in the rain.

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Take a Picture

If you've read this blog before, you've already seen lots of photos that I've taken along my travels, whether in NYC itself or in the many places I've visited.

I also maintain a photo blog as a complement to Avoiding Regret, and have finally catalogued the entries into searchable tags to sort out the recurring subjects and styles of my photos. Let me make this clear: I would consider myself only a creative amateur, and usually use non-professional gear (though I have a nice Canon EOS film SLR camera). I like the challenge.

Now you can view my photos by the following labels:
Clouds
Color
Detail
Landscape
Light
Music
Night
People
Skyline
Sunset
Urban Exploration

Or visit pandisoo.blogspot.com to see them all.

Here's a sample of what you'll see:





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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Since I've Been Gone

I guess I wasn't really going to know how I'd changed during my Joshua Tree trip until I got back. I feel like I'm still reentering society, a week since my return, so I'm trying to cut myself a break. But I'm having a hard time.

I miss my car. Not my car specifically, the Nissan Versa whose "Check Engine" light was ever-lit, and whose hard plastic hubcaps took suicide leaps off my wheels. I just miss having a contraption that's mine, a little bubble that's private enough for quiet phone calls (something I cannot achieve in New York City, not even in my apartment) and for some highway scratching of places only truck drivers can see from their birdseye view. I miss walking a few feet, turning a key, feeling a machine start and knowing that I was going somewhere, and if I didn't get there, it was my fault.

I'm so dependent on other people here.

I'm also so proximate to other people. There's always someone around, unless I'm in my apartment - the one place I'd probably like somebody. Solitude in New York is dangerous, because you're never really alone. If you find yourself in the middle of Prospect Park and no one's in sight, you can be sure that there's some kid in the bushes on his bike, watching you. Somebody is making out. Somebody is selling drugs. Somebody is trying to figure out if you're carrying any money. At the very least, someone is checking out your ass.

The rain here is a far bigger impediment than I ever remember it. After I left New York, my friends told me, "It has rained every day here since you left," and I revelled in the harsh sunlight that weathered my skin and rendered me a golden color I've never seen on myself before. There were thunderstorm warnings for Joshua Tree and Palm Springs for a week straight. But it only rained one day, during a portion of a movie, so little that it was nearly all evaporated by the time I returned to my car, bearing tiny droplets that disappeared the minute it pulled out of the parking lot. I hiked under the treat of more rain, dark, ominous clouds hanging low over my trail, but releasing nothing. I wished for more rain, not only for the sake of the plants and the thirsty animals, but for mine, too. I sought water like a true desert dweller. I also hoped to get out of watering the plants for a day.

Now that I once again face the rain, I don't want any part of it. Today's drizzle was enough to send me back to the movies and to inhibit all nature-seeking efforts.

But that's not enough to make me a New Yorker again. The city is crashing down on me, its mountainous high-rises blocking the sun and making me sleep more than ever before. Every coffee shop is cramped and crowded. Every meal is communal and close. Every move is hurry, wait, shove, weave, bump, pull, grab, tsk, sigh.

During my Joshua Tree trip, I was least lonely when I was all alone. The worst was being around people and being ignored. When that became unbearable, I would go find some nature preserve or peak I hadn't climbed yet, or I would go back to The Desert Lily and hang out with the bunnies while the sun set. In New York, I don't have a choice. I can't run away here. I am forced to face other people, and worst of all, myself.

Why am I compelled to compare myself to other people - professionally, personally, physically - when I'm here, when I was so comfortable being me out there? Had I become so completely desocialized in the desert that those things just did not matter? That the only meaningful comparison was to my own self?

Is that a bad thing?

I could use a good session of deprogramming, and although a month in the desert isn't going to be enough to do it, it may provide a good start. I'm too young to become a hermit or a crazy ol' eccentric agoraphobe, holed up in my rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment tapping away at a book that's never to be published. New York has its own brand of wilderness, and while I'm here, I've got to find a way to explore it, live it, love it for what it is. And if I can't, then I've got to find someplace else.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Futile Search for the Bronx River Greenway

I don't know what's scarier: traversing a scorpion-laden lava field alone under a blazing hot sun, or wielding a map and a camera through the Bronx city streets amidst comments about the size of my posterior.

It's been a long time since I've been scared in New York City, but after a month away, I was not ready to try an urban hike through the Bronx.

I'd done one before, in a group along the Old Croton Aqueduct, which is in disrepair but is ultimately very walkable and quite nice, dotted with parks workers spearing garbage. Today I tried walking along the Bronx River Greenway, starting at River Park just outside of the Bronx Zoo entrance, where a short waterfall delights splashing children and sends fish downstream for a waiting line and hook. That was the last time I actually got to the river along the last four miles of the trail.

Every attempt to get to the river's banks was thwarted. Drew Gardens was closed. The alternate access one block south was closed. In fact the entire West Farms section of the Bronx River was fenced off for renovations.

After some city walking under the elevated train and over the 174th Street Bridge, behind a shopping center and past a lot of shops selling hubcabs and rims, I came to the main attraction of my walk today: Concrete Plant Park. It was closed.

Concrete Plant Park

The park looked completely renovated, including some of the old plant silos which had been retained and painted red for the new park, but once again, I faced a locked gate.

Westchester Station

The entry point at the intersection of Westchester Ave and Sheridan Expressway (Robert Moses' Road to Nowhere) also houses the old Westchester Station from the Bronx Railroad, which has been closed since the 1930s. The building is in good shape despite the appearance of graffiti on the support wall beneath it. The street level part of the station has been devoured by greenery, and since it's right by the Sheridan off-ramp, there's no easy access to or inside of it.


A nice discovery, but definitely not worth hauling my cookies an hour up into the Bronx for a concrete walk I could have done closer to home in Manhattan, and without the leering looks and not-so-hushed commentary. Is the Bronx River a hidden treasure of the city? Yes, perhaps too hidden. Are its more northerly stretches more visible and accessible? With a guide printed in 2006 and a website that hasn't really been updated in the last three years either, I don't know whether I'll even bother to find out.

Today's walk would have been OK if I'd actually gotten to see something, but instead it just felt like a big ol' waste. I suspect that trying to duplicate my daily hikes from my Joshua Tree trip in the city is setting myself up for certain disappointment. But if that's true, then what do I do? Go back to the way things were before I left?

In Joshua Tree, every day I would wonder, "What am I going to do tomorrow?" I would spend hours online, researching nature preserves and canyons and abandoned buildings and ghost towns, and would plot out a loose itinerary for the next day, usually trying to include some kind of walk. Even though I was figuring it out on a day-by-day basis, I felt like I had some kind of schedule, and plenty of things to see and do. There were plenty of times I faced failure in my adventures: the Edom Hill abandoned water park, Indian Cove road closures, unmarked North Park trailhead, the list goes on and on. But at the desert's pace, and when keeping farmer's hours, there was always enough time to drive to the next trail or ghost town or canyon. As centrally-located as I am in Manhattan, everything feels like such a hassle here, so far away. Sure, a good frozen margarita is mere steps away from my apartment. But how far do I have to go for some solitude, and a sense of awe and wonder?

And how many people do I have to sit next to on the subway to get there?

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Photo Essay: Down By the Sea

I was called to Neptune, NJ today for an audition. What would normally seem like a hassle was a great chance to get out of the city - already dying to do so - and explore the Jersey Shore and some of its disappearing crumble.
While many cash-strapped New Yorkers have given up their summer timeshares on the Jersey Shore or in the Hamptons to crowd around Manhattan, I decided to get out and answer the call of the sea.
There's a striking similarity between a faded seaside resort town in the East and those in the West like the Salton Sea or the abandoned areas of Palm Springs. As with Route 66, the Jersey Shore was once dotted with whimsical restaurants in the shape of a circus tent or a windmill to both attract people to the area and feed them while they were there.
During our drive around Neptune City and Asbury Park today, we experienced some of that whimsy first-hand, and captured some of the abandonment which is being rebuilt and revitalized before our eyes, as Asbury Park hosts a relatively thriving community of beach-goers of all ages. It was a lot busier than we expected, and a lot newer.
Is it bad that I found that disappointing?
This is just a selection of decrepit delights that remain in and around Asbury Park. But for how long?
See also: Nicole Atkins' Guide to Neptune City and Asbury Park

Casino







Carousel

Elks Lodge





Metropolitan Motel



Circus Drive-In

The WindMill, Ocean Ave
Watching the sun set for the third night in a row since my return made my time back in the New York area more gratifying. Eating a cheese dog with sauteed onions and the best onion rings ever with Edith on the top of a windmill during the sunset = priceless.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Photo Essay: The High Line at Night

The High Line opened just before I left for Joshua Tree so I didn't get a chance to see it until tonight, when I scurried up the steps at Gansvoort to catch the last moments of the sunset from the new park, which is housed on a former elevated railway.

These photos were taken sequentially from the beginning of the High Line (though it used to extend farther down into the Meatpacking/West Village area, but was demolished years ago) to the end of the first section of completed construction at W. 20th Street (though the last photo is from around 18th Street). Beyond that is more active construction until you get to the Hudson Railyards Spur, whose fate is still undetermined and is being squabbled over by Friends of the High Line and the city and the private rail company that still owns part of the property.













The High Line is free to access and there are some benches and other seats but mostly it feels like a walking park. Concrete was poured around the original rails to create a flat walking surface, though the flooring is intentionally a bit uneven around some of the "wild" landscaping.

It gets really crowded so I would recommend early mornings and weekdays. The view of the sunset is stellar if you can handle all the fellow spectators that you'll share it with...

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Help Me Get to Antarctica!

I've just entered a contest for a chance to win a trip to Antarctica with Quark Expeditions as a blogger.
You can help me win by voting for me. You have to register to vote but it's for a good cause!
You can also help me by telling your friends. Here are a few ways:
  1. Share this link on Facebook or in an email to your friends:
    http://www.blogyourwaytoantarctica.com/blogs/view/340
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    http://echothis.info/12B
  3. Or view my profile on Twitter @avoidingregret and RT my posting.
Here's a reprint of my essay entry, which you can also read on the voting page:

Seeking Grist for the Mill

A great storyteller said to me, "I'm a writer. I don't want to do; I want to observe." She explained that she wants to rewrite an ending she doesn't like - turning reality into fantasy. But I want to dive into reality, no matter how hard or unhappy it is, and convey that experience to people who are too scared, too responsible, too poor or too sheltered to do it themselves.

As a teenager, my biggest complaint was, "I have no life." My parents scoffed at it, and in retrospect I think it was because they had no lives too. My father worked two jobs; my mother did laundry. Neither had friends. They never traveled, and to this day my mother has never flown. My father still defines happiness as the absence of sadness. That's just existing.

After college, I moved to New York City, the most exciting place I could imagine at the time. I got a job in the music industry. I met celebrities and drank free liquor at parties. Still, I don't think I had much of a life.

After years of wondering what the point to everything was, I'm finally setting out to find out what LIFE is. I've just spent a month in the California desert and now I want to experience the extreme opposite: the bitter cold, wet environment that brings out a similar set of survival instincts among humans and animals alike. I want to tell people about it. And show them my photos.

I will not settle back into my old NYC lifestyle, away from nature, alone in a sea of humans barely living or needing to do anything to survive at all. In my attempts to live while avoiding regret, perhaps this could be the next adventure...
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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Elegy for the Flightless Bird

It’s no surprise that while tooling around national parks, I come across a lot of retirees. For some reason, people spend their youth sitting cooped up in an office or changing diapers rather than really living while their bodies will allow them to. Once their careers fade away and their children grow up and move out, people reflect on their lifeless lives and hate themselves for what they are or what they’re not, and spend the rest of their time here on earth making up for the time that’s been lost.

One might say “Avoiding Regret” is a last-ditch effort by the quickly aging, whose Bucket List helps them figure out what they must do before they die. The problem is assuming that one’s Bucket List is or could even be finite – that you can conjure 10 or 20 activities (skydiving, making love under a waterfall, getting a mudbath, whatever) that, once completed, will allow you to die happy. In reality, if you’re really living, experiencing one of those adventures will make you think of two more to add to the list. And at that rate, if you don’t start on your ever-growing list until you’re 50 or 60, you will die with an overwhelming sense of regret – more so than if you’d never made your list at all.

I am young. I am not in very good shape or in very good health, and it’s probably only going to get worse as I get older. I’ve got to get my kicks while I can.

The last month has actually been relatively leisurely for me compared to the pace at which I normally take vacations or even NYC life, but I sure have crammed a lot in. Since I don’t know when I’ll be able to take a trip like this again (although I am looking), I wanted to end it with a bang. Taking advantage of North San Diego’s tremendous cliffs over the ocean, I took a flying leap.

I went paragliding.

a solo flight

Of all the aeronautic sports, paragliding is probably one of the least intimidating. Unlike hang gliding, there is no hard equipment or apparatus. Your wings are the soft parachute above you. Your seat is strapped to you like a backpack. Your steering mechanism consists of wires and two soft handles. You’re not being towed by a boat or a truck that can crash or go too fast or too slow. There’s no blazing hot fire above you or fat tourists next to you weighing your basket down. It’s just you and the wind.

And, in my case, the pilot strapped to my back.

Before I ever even heard of the Torrey Pines Gliderport, I was inspired to go paragliding after skydiving for my 30th birthday. In retrospect, I don’t know what led me to skydiving in the first place. I don’t like small planes. I get airsick. I have a fear of falling. I pass out under stressful conditions. But I wanted to do something big and splashy and invite some folks to join me, and it just seemed to fit the bill.

The event of it was fun and memorable – our caravan of cars driving from New York City to the Poconos full of snacks. When it came to the dive itself, the freefall felt more like an endurance test rather than an exhilarant. I wouldn’t call it fun per se. But when the parachute opens, dizzyingly righting you from horizontal to vertical, you get a nice, leisurely sail as you drop in altitude, peering over the mountains much like in a balloon.

I thought, if I can get that nice parachute drop without the whole falling-out-of-a-plane ordeal, now that would be fun.

So that’s pretty much what you get with paragliding, save for the whole jumping-off-a-cliff ordeal.

It’s a trickier science, too, because, like ballooning, you depend on the wind which is as unpredictable and fickle as anything. I first went to Torrey Pines on Sunday, immediately following some courage-inducing winetasting in Temecula, and was turned away because of lack of winds. “Um, we’re not taking anyone up that’s over 120 pounds,” the bleach-streaked girl said, sizing me up. I asked if I should wait. She said no. I asked if I should come back tomorrow. She said, “You can try.”

I put my name and number down but didn’t wait for them to call me about the winds. Monday morning at 8:56 a.m., four minutes before they officially open, I started calling to ask about the winds. “Yeah, they’re pretty slow…” a young man said in a slightly Mexican drawl. “We’re waiting for them to pick up. Maybe in another 45 minutes?”

I walked four miles in Balboa Park and called two hours later.

The girl from yesterday answered. “Um, yeah, there’s, like, no wind right now. We’re hoping it’ll pick up around noon? So yeah, maybe try again at, like, 1?”

Kiki

I really had nothing else to do, no greater goal than paragliding on Monday so I showed up shortly after 12. I put my name down and got ready for a long wait. A diet orange soda, a bag of Sun Chips, a surprisingly delicious chicken Caesar salad and a 19 year-old dog named Kiki (that ruthless beggar) kept me company while I ate on the sky blue-painted picnic table and watched the weathered and bleached pilots sit around and wait for something to do.

“Are you a pilot?” I suddenly realized a golf shirt-clad gentleman in his 50s was sitting to my right and addressing me.

I laughed, “No, I wish!” and he introduced himself as Greg. He explained that he’s a hang gliding pilot visiting from Austin, how much he loves flying in formation with the birds but how it’s a strain on his marriage, when he travels so much for work and his little time at home he spends as a pilot and not as a husband. So while on a business trip to La Jolla, he was hoping to rent some gear and get a flight in. He would have to wait longer than me for the winds to pick up enough for the heavy load of a hanglider.

We were joined by Walt, another 50-something who became a certified scuba diver only five years ago. He regrets not starting it sooner, and worries that his understanding wife won’t let him take on “another expensive hobby.” But he was trying paragliding anyway, taking his first flight tandem just like me. He probably knew that he’s running out of time. Maybe his list is growing too.

trying to catch the wind

After about an hour and a half of waiting, I started to see some pilots – locals and the gliderport pros too – testing the winds. One pilot got a good running start, caught a little bit of wind, and then lost it and sank over the cliff (presumably landing on the beach below). A few of them got their chutes up in the air enough to get whipped around as they tried to stand up straight, eventually losing the draft and deflating in a crinkly, tangled mess of wires.

The wind must have picked up imperceptibly because I saw the first tandem flight of the day to take off. That meant my turn would come soon. I could still back out. I didn’t have to do this just because I came twice and waited for two hours. I hadn’t even paid yet.

And then I saw a tiny older woman, maybe 65 or 70, 115 lbs (she declared though she looked lighter), feebly tip-toe over the red “Pilots Only” curb towards the field. She struggled to get her backpack on. Her feet did a crazy, erratic dance when the glider went up and the parachute wings were overhead. She stumbled forward, lifted her feet while the ground was still under them, and took off in flight.

I was not going to wait until I was that old. I may never make it that long.

It was my turn next, so I paid, signed and initialed pages upon pages of idemnifications, certified that I may die or break my legs and would not sue, and so on. I got fitted with a bright green helmet anchored with a digital camera that would record my flight (since they would not let me photograph it myself!). I walked onto the field, a little head wobbly, and handed my purse off to the counter girl who would watch it for me since I had come alone. Steve, my 50-something pilot, was gruff and of few words. He rattled off instructions which I forgot immediately, and strapped me in. As the glider lifted above us I stumbled like the old woman before me, and before I knew it, was letting the pilot behind me push me forward with his own run, sending my feet into a running stumble towards the end of the earth. Lucky for me, Steve was probably a good eight inches taller than me so my feet lifted before his did, letting him be the one to really take the leap for both of us.

A moment of panic set in. If something was going to go wrong, it would probably happen now, right after takeoff. Would we sink behind the cliff like the pilot I’d seen earlier?

Instead, we sailed straight out over the beach and hung a gentle right turn, getting a little lift off the wind and riding the ridge of the cliff north towards the golf course. It was beautiful, a bit cold, and surprisingly comfortable. You’re not hanging from anything. You’re just sitting down, having a nice little ride.

“You ever crash one of these things?” I asked Steve. I think I was trying to gauge my safety level as well as looking for a good dramatic story.

“Ha, nope. You wouldn’t be riding tandem with me if I had. We don’t let pilots who crash do tandem.”

So that means some pilots do crash…

Steve was confident enough to actually let me steer the glider for a good few minutes, speaking clear instructions into my ear – “a little up on the right” “now lean left” “pull really hard down on both” – and occasionally placing his hands on my forearms or elbows to guide me. It is a rare gift to see the direct effects of your actions on your movements, your direction, your speed and your altitude, and that is exhilarating. I felt in control, like I knew what to do even before Steve told me. Those few minutes as pilot (though still basically sitting in Steve’s lap) made the entire experience worthwhile, and more than just memorable.

We were in the air for about 20 minutes, and lifted to about 150 feet above the cliffline, about 500 feet above the beach. With winds barely gusting at about 10 mph, we picked up speed to about 25 mph and did some basic turning maneuvers – right, left, right into a figure eight – before heading back to the open field where we originally took off. Steve didn’t prepare me for the landing until he’d already started bringing the glider down, and only told me, “We’re just going to try to get you to stand.” I asked if it was a running landing and he said, “Nope, should just be a step or two.”

Panic set in again. The air is soft. The ground is hard. Would Steve be strong enough to land this thing gently without breaking my legs?

True to his word, Steve set me down from the sky on my own two feet, more gently than if I had stepped off a platform myself. I thought we’d bonded a little bit up there in the sky, with all the questions I’d asked him about flying and his honest and witty answers. But once we’d landed, it was over. Steve’s focus was back on the gear. And although I thanked him profusely and said all the niceties of meeting someone for the first time and sharing an aeronautic experience, Steve only looked down as he said, “You’re welcome.”

Some people aren’t meant for this earth. They’re meant to fly.

Since paragliding wasn’t that harrowing and was actually really fun and scenic, I’ve added hang gliding and parasailing to my list as well. And I’m not going to wait until I’m diagnosed with an incurable disease to start working on them.

Video of my first tandem flight (edited down to 10+ minutes, about half its original length), to watch click here:



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Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Departure Begins

I didn't sleep well last night. Maybe it was the anxiety of packing, cleaning my room, and leaving the abode I'd called home for nearly a month. Maybe it was Vern's margaritas. Or maybe it was a gift from the universe, helping transition me out of the desert without feeling too attached.

I still got kind of choked up this morning.

If the universe was trying to make it easy for me to leave with a bad night's sleep, something else was trying to force me to stay. As I drove down 62W - through the "High Gusting Winds" warning signs - I had a particularly hard time driving through the wind. By the time I blinkered onto the 10W exit, I was gunning it, foot on pedal, pedal on floor, and still could only get to 60 mph. Rather than the natural shake and sway of the wind whipping from side to side, it felt like a wall that was pushing me from the front, if not pushing me backwards then doing a damn good job of slowing down my exit off the highway and out of the desert. Trucks passed me on the right. Compacts loomed in my rear view mirror. But I simply could not go any faster.

I eventually broke through the wind wall and began my journey down to San Diego, where I'm spending a couple nights before flying out on Tuesday. On the lesser-known De Portola wine trail in Temecula, the folks at the Frangiapani Estate Winery were having a slow Sunday morning and were so happy to see me. They didn't even keep track of my servings and just kept pouring more, asking me about my travels, inviting me to participate in their bocce tournament (for which no contestants showed up, despite their advance sign-ups). In a final gesture of hospitality, they set up a lunch for me using the food prepared for the bocce match-that-wasn't: herbed potatoes, chorizo burrito, blueberry muffin and a slice of orange. And, of course, more wine (and chocolate to accompany their delicious Late Harvest Zin).

Now how do I find a way to spend a month in Temecula? One could surely be inspired by its rolling hills, undulating white fences (some that hold no horses), and unique varietals. And one could sustain themselves on not only wine, but locally-grown and crafted cheese, berries, bread, and olive oil. I could think of a worse life.

The driving got easier throughout the day (perhaps thanks to the wine) but the rest of the day was not without sadness, wistfulness, or tears. Still, if I must leave, and I must return to New York, this is definitely the way to do it. And as I try to cram in some more experiences, hike some more trails, and meet some more people, I'll start dreaming about the next place in which to set up camp...

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

One Last Night

My last night in Joshua Tree. I'm afraid once I leave I'll never sleep well again. In the cricket room, heat nor bugs nor wind nor coyote howl disturb my sleep - only the coming sun, first orange then yellow then white, snapping my eyes open without alarm, one morning after another.

I yawn sometimes when I drive, but generally, I feel rested. I rise early, water, hike, eat breakfast twice, and spend a full day touring, learning, trespassing, photographing until I return for sunset, exhausted. I retire after 15-18 hour days, satisfied. And I sleep, dream, with heat hanging over me, ceiling fan rattling, crickets chirping.

Today, on my last day, I attempted one last hike, twice, but at best got a hot, sunny walk in before one last meal and one last duet at the Route 62 Diner, this time singing in unison with Vern rather than the harmonies. The patty melt he made me oozed of tender loving care, carmelized onions soaking into the smashed beef patty, juices from both absorbed by the greasy crisp rye encasement. The cheese strung out from my teeth and held on tight. Not one fry was soggy.

I went to see Vern again nine hours later, this time for salt-rimmed margaritas and more singing, though our duet was drowned out by the karaoke singers hogging the spotlight. I started to feel really sad about leaving, even tearful. I would miss the little routine we had established over just a couple of weeks.

I too will miss the moon, glaring from behind leopard spotted clouds, the only patch in the sky. The free-floating skidding of driving too-fast on sand-filled roads. The subtle sway of a hammock under a dimming sun. The askance stare of a cottontail startled by my advance, still and trembling. The natural rhythm of moving through life, rising at day, breathing clearly.

I think most of all I'll miss the openness I've allowed myself. To go bowling with a stranger, tell my story and my number to any who ask, lay my soul on the line - these are precious experiences I don't remember having when I first moved to New York City. I recall a time much farther back, when I was released into the wild by my parents, who left me in my single Stillman Hall dorm room alone, refusing to join me down the hill for orientation as all the other parents did. I was forced to be open then; I had no choice.

I don't know if I want to be open in New York City, to the homeless, to the Moroccan guys who try to speak French to me, to the girlfriends of my male friends who try to figure out if I'm a threat. But I have to think I can bring some good experience from the California desert back with me, if not as a scar then as a souvenir. My tan will fade. I will gain the weight back. But what happens to my insides upon my return?

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Friday, July 10, 2009

A Calculated Month

I'm leaving Joshua Tree in less than two days. I'm starting to feel guilty for everything.

Should I not bother making friends now, at the last minute? Is it fair to bond and then leave them behind, as I left my New York friends? At least they knew I'd return.

Should I let the barista with the icy blue eyes charge me $3.00 for a $3.15 mocha and stop me from tipping?

Should I have spent more time at The Desert Lily, home of my artist residency, to let its rolling hills and fearless wildlife inspire me more? Are sunrise and sunset every day enough?

Should I have spent more time in Joshua Tree itself - either the park or the town - rather than gallavanting off to Yucca Valley for coffee every day or to Palm Springs for slushy cocktails and pooltime and bacon flights and Indian canyons and abandoned buildings?

Should I have planned to stay longer?

I have to believe that I came at the right time and I'm leaving at the right time, and that in one month I've lived more here than most of its residents live in a year, or perhaps even a lifetime. For me, a month is both a very long time and a very short time. What can I really come out of a month with? A lot of ideas, a lot of experiences, and maybe a couple visible changes, but I don't think any of us will really know what this trip leads to until after it happens. The story is still writing itself.

Because I thrive on lists and I too am a little obsessive-compulsive (something I should direct towards my dirty forks now and then), here's a little inventory of what I have gotten out of my three and a half weeks in the desert:

12 1/2 days alone
2 days at the pool
24 sunrises (I slept through one)
25 sunsets
1 full moon
2 night terrors
1 hour of light rain
1 lightning storm in 1 cloud
1 drama that was not my own
0 job interviews (besides that Minneapolis phoner...)
0 published stories
0 auditions
0 dates
1/6 date shake
1 size smaller
4 shades darker
1 missing hubcap
1 skinned knee
1 ruined pair of yoga pants
1 melted deodorant
1 broken toenail
2 pedicures
2 manicures
1 root touch-up
3 bottles of wine
5 live bands
6 movies
1/2 each of 2 books
1 baseball game
1 celebrity sighting
4 visits to Pizza Hut
4 ghost towns (not counting those surrounding The Salton Sea)
2 dry lakes
2 national parks (and 1 national forest)
3 state parks
21 hikes/nature walks (I think, so far)
21 1/2 hours watering plants (I think, so far)
15 miles per hour over the speed limit driven, on average
3490 miles clocked in on the odometer
110 degrees in the shade

And countless bunnies, lizards, flies, crickets, chipmunks, ground squirrels, quails, roadrunners, and coyote howls as well as windmills, gas pumps, cups of coffee, drinks of water, and stars in the sky.

Most importantly, no matter what my goals were or what goals I should or should not have had.....0 regrets.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Into the Wild

After decades of development, it's tough for any national park in the U.S. to really be wild. All the rock formations and mountains and lowlands have cute names and parking lots nearby. Most of the roads have been paved. And campground facilities including firepits, bathrooms and sometimes even showers have been installed with nearby picnic areas accessible regardless of how many wheels drive your car.

I've spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree National Park over the last month, but some of my most gratifying experiences were those that were the most remote. While at first I was frustrated by the lack of trailhead signs, trail markers and trail maps in JTNP, I've managed to navigate my way around largely without them, and now don't feel as dependent on them as I once was. As I proceed, I look for bigger challenges. More esoteric sightseeing. From the National Park Service I have moved on to the Bureau of Land Management and, today, to the Wildlands Conservancy. The properties they oversee aren't complete wilderness - like some of the off-limits areas of Joshua Tree -but it took some digging to find out about the sites, much less any guidance as to what I'd find once I got there.

When I arrived at Mission Creek Preserve, late from putting air in my tires which took longer than it should have, I started packing my water, phone and camera and switching from flip flops to sneakers as a ranger arrived. He got out of his truck, unlocked the gate, and before getting back into the driver's seat, took a look at me from behind his sunglasses. "Everything OK?" he asked.

"Yep, just got here! Going to take a walk..." I told him.

He looked suspicious. "OK...."

He'd driven through and re-locked the gate by the time I set out, heading for the backcountry board which usually tells you where you're going. "Want a ride?" the ranger offered.

I knew the Stone House was 1.6 miles away and thought I could save some time by hitching a ride up there and then walking back, so I accepted and hopped into the front seat once he'd cleared it of commercial paper towels and toilet tissue. The bathrooms maintained by the Wildlands are a lot nicer than those by the NPS. They have flushing toilets.

On our rough drive uphill, I asked the ranger, who introduced himself as Robert, "Don't many people come out here?" I'd asked the same question at Oasis Date Gardens when its workers were shocked that I wanted a tour.

"Oh yeah, some. I usually see one car..." Robert then explained that their other property - Whitewater - was more popular and had more to do, knowledge he'd acquired not only by working there, but by actually living there as well.


Along the way to the Stone House at the top of the hill, Robert pointed out a row of smaller stone houses and a painted-blue concrete pool, where, he explained, "Legend has it that Elvis and Frank Sinatra and all those Hollywood folks used to come out here and party." I remembered that another "Hollywood celebrity" had booked the entire Panamint Springs Resort in Death Valley the week after I departed.

Robert paused at a tortoise burrow along the side of the road. "See the hole?" I pretended I did but all I saw was what looked like a dried-up bush, a common roadside sight in the desert.

When Robert dropped me off at the top of the hill, he looked like he didn't want to leave me there. I was ready for some solitude and started walking around and taking pictures, leaving him with his truck at the summit while I started my easy walk down. When he passed me going back down the winding dirt road - hardly a trail but extremely walkable - he paused, gave me a thumbs up that looked like a question, and I waved and gave him a thumbs up back. I half expected to see him waiting for me back at the gate where we first met, but when I returned to my car, I was alone, pleased with the wilderness, and ready for more hiking.

A more experienced, energetic hiker could have walked to Whitewater from Mission Creek, but I chose to drive back down 62 to 10W, past the Whitewater Rock & Supply Company, and up a surprisingly paved road five miles to the preserve. This is an interesting area because the Conservancy is trying to bring it back to wilderness, having already demolished several "neglected" homes. You can see some stone foundations behind private fencing along the right side of the road as you approach the "official" entrance, which consists of a couple nice buildings (including a former trout farm?) and a ranger station. It doesn't look much like wildlands in Whitewater, with power lines and poles stretching out as far as the eye can see. But it sure is nice.

Like Mission Creek, Whitewater largely consists of dried up waterways, but whereas Mission Creek is running barely a trickle, Whitewater has a dry river that's still running as a pretty active, decent stream. "Crossing the river" - something you have to do to follow the stone-lined trail - consists of rock-hopping and walking across a tiny wood-slat footbridge.



I intended to set out on an easy three-mile loop trail, but true to form, I couldn't figure out exactly where it started or how far it went. I followed the famous Pacific Crest Trail for a while, as well as the California Riding and Hiking Trail, but the 10 o'clock hour brought a hot, bright sun blazing above, and with a depleted water supply and fatigued legs from a sandy scramble up a ridge, I turned back. For once, I didn't flay myself for it. I've proven myself enough to myself on this trip to give myself a break.

When I returned to the trailhead - and a rock inscribed with the distance to Canada and Mexico from there - I was greeted by two families splashing around in a kind of concrete pond, fed waterfall-style by runoff from a tributary of the river-turned-stream.

"It's very clean, all very natural," assured one mother, running one hand along the water's surface while the other hand adjusted her blue umbrella for shade.

Four or five kids had jumped into the water with their bathing suits, t-shirts or denim shorts, whatever they were already wearing. Another mother kept calling her boys back to slather more white lotion on their backs, not keeping them long enough to actually rub it in.



The water was knee-deep for them, though they sat, splashed, swam and submerged themselves in it. I poked a finger in, then a hand, marvelling at how cold it was. The boy with the black basketball shorts said to me, "It's not cold once you get in!" - the same line I'd often used on Edith, Michelle, and a number of strangers in the oceans and pools that I've visited.

I kicked off my sneakers and peeled off my sandy socks which had been worn on too many hikes already, pushed my cropped yoga pants up to my thighs, and sat on a rock, dangling my burned ankles in. It was numbingly cold, a real novelty for the desert, especially when chlorinated poolwater is as warm as bathwater. I stood up and scraped a toe against the slippery concrete bottom. Calf-deep and not nearly submerged enough, I crouched to let the water's surface reach my knees.

The sunblock mom, Jo Jo, kept beckoning me to come join her at the other end, but I was afraid she might try to slather me up too so I politely declined. With a shiver, I tiptoed out and dried my feet on the grass - grass! - collecting my half-empty water bottle and sneakers. I tried returning to my car barefoot but gave in on the dry, woodchip mulch and reapplied my dirty socks before hopping back to the driver's side where my flip flops waited for me.

What makes a place wild? If it is to be untouched by man, then can man bring an inhabited place back into the wild? With a place like Whitewater, whose human influence is so wonderful to enjoy, why would you want to?

That Really Lets the Air Out of My Tires.

Today when an exclamation point illuminated on my dashboard, I had to look it up to see what it meant. Not surprisingly given the dirt roads of the Joshua Tree Highlands and the gravel-ridden slopes of Afton Canyon, it was the tire pressure indicator. I'd spent so much time on this trip pressuring myself to be productive and see everything I possibly can in four weeks that I'd stripped my own tires of the pressure necessary to move me from place to place.

As soon as I saw the symbol in the manual matching the one on my dashboard this morning, I remembered seeing it once before: in Death Valley. I had driven down many a gravelly road to get to slot canyons and ghost towns and various other wonders that abused my barely hardy Toyota Prius to the point that nearly every warning indicator lit. With only one gas station nearby and most of my rough driving completed, I just ignored them and kept driving, returning the car with all its twinkly lights blazing, hoping that no one would notice.

I've never owned a car. I love driving but it's a different car every time: rented, new, borrowed, blue. And I rarely hold on to a car for longer than a weekend or a week, returning it safely to its rental company who are none the wiser about what I've put the poor machine through, especially in the California desert. Usually nothing happens to the car to require any action on my part: no flat tires, oil changes, or other repairs necessary. When I drove to Mohegan Sun after a snowstorm for an Irish Tenors concert (for work) and the windshield wiper fluid was out, I bought a jug of it at a grocery store in Whitestone and proceeded to dump it on the windshield when I couldn't figure out how to pop the hood.

This time, I had too much more driving to do to ignore the warning or fix it haphazardly. Adding air to tires seemed easy enough. I owned a bicycle pump as a kid.

Still, I called Maria for advice. Next to my dad, I hold Maria up to the highest standard of driving - not only because she's often been my personal chauffeur (bringing me to my parents' house, to my first boyfriend's house, to school dances, and all over an hour's radius outside of Syracuse) but because she drives for work and for pleasure, seeking solace in the open road as I do, whether alone or accompanied by me pointing and chatting beside her.

Maria didn't answer the phone. I left a voicemail that attempted not to instill panic in her. "Uh...just wondering how to add air to my tires...? No need to call me back...."

Next I called Edith. Until recently, Edith owned a Jeep that she almost never drove herself. So although she's not the most experienced car mechanic, she's a calm, rational person who is good at figuring things out. If she didn't know, she'd look it up online and report her findings to me.

Edith was at work, so not surprisingly, she didn't answer either.

I started to feel silly, convinced that I should be able to figure this out myself. I'd seen coin-operated air machines at gas stations before. I assumed that I should find one of those. But I was already at a 7-Eleven gas station and there was no air pump to be seen.

I called Eric, the primary driver of Edith's Jeep. He's owned at least a couple of cars in his life. He would know.

When I reached Eric, his advice was put simply: "Find a gas station and have the guy help you." When I protested, "But all the stations here are self-service...", Eric responded with, "Just find a machine and put 50 cents in it. I gotta go."

So I drove down to the Chevron in Morongo Valley. Air machine! Out of order!

Across the street to Circle K. Air machine! Working! Empty spot next to it! Unscrew caps from four mushy-looking tires. Discover one missing hubcap and imagine it rusting somewhere in the Mojave Preserve. Choice of two skinny black hoses, one for air and one for water. Push handle on one and get water dribble. Select other.

One quarter, two quarters, three...Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr psssssssst....

Push silver pin cap into tire opening, and the pressure immediately pushes my hand away. Is this thing supposed to screw on? After a couple more attempts, I drop the hose to the ground, walk into the convenience store, and declare to the clerk, "I don't know how to properly operate the air."

He looked up at me with his hollow eyes, glaring bright white from a brown face, and said, "It should just turn on when you put the money in."

I said, "Yeah, I got that. It's the tire part I can't figure out."

One of the customers in the store - a black-haired woman wearing what looked like midnight blue scrubs - offered to come out and take a look. She started kicking my tires and rattling off PSIs and telling me not to fill them, they looked fine. "But the indicator light..." I pleaded.

She retorted with more numbers and said, "I used to do this for a living. You got a tire pressure gauge?"

"Uh...no?"

"Go on inside and ask the guy if he's got one."

I walk back in the convenience store, sheepish. "Do...you...have...a...tire...pressure...gauge?" as though I might use the wrong vocabulary.

I think he tried not cracking a smile. "Well I got one in my car. I can't fill your tires for ya but I can check the pressure!"

So the three of us marched back to the car, which was sitting silent and cooling in the shade of the Circle K. The air machine was quiet too, having used up its 75 cents worth of three minutes.

My companions began muttering to each other, arguing whether to fill or not to fill. I crawled on the ground to read the raised lettering on the back left tire that instructed its max fill: 44 PSI. All of the tires clocked in at about 30 PSI except the first one I'd been fiddling with, which was at 40. Apparently I did know how to get air in there. I just didn't know how much.

A quick zap to each tire and a double-check of the gauge and tragedy averted, mission accomplished, now break. We all went our separate ways as I called out "Thank you...!" like a naive city mouse visiting the desert for the first time.

Thank God for the kindness of strangers.

Maybe it was my imagination, but as I turned out of the Circle K back onto Twentynine Palms Highway, I felt a little lighter on the road. I'd been slowly sinking over the last three weeks and I was upright again, bounce anew, shock absorbent. And ready for another right turn onto the gravel-laden Mission Creek Road....

Post Script: Maria's advice, which arrived later via voicemail after I completed two hikes without cell service, was perfect, as predicted. For the sake of my knowledge and safety and her nerve, we have scheduled a lesson in vehicular maintenance for my next visit home...

On the NYC Waterfront: North Brother Island Revealed!

The City Concealed: North Brother Island Bird Sanctuary from Thirteen.org on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Signs from the Universe

When you could still smoke inside restaurants in New York State, Maria and I always joked as we were waiting for our food that the minute she lit up another cigarette, dinner would arrive.

And, like clockwork, it always did.



I've just booked my return trip home to New York, something that's released a wave of positive energy both on that coast and this one. I realized today, although I haven't gotten on a scale, that my clothes fit better and my body can move with ease and relatively without pain. I am very close to booking a new client starting the day after my return, picking up the slack where Ziggy Marley has left off. I booked an audition for two days after my return, which gives me an excuse to rent a car and drive to Neptune City (God only knows why it's in NJ) and explore the ruins of Asbury Park on the way back (with Edith in tow!). And today I (finally!) met someone with whom I could swap stories of ghost towns, abandoned houses, Mojave hiking trails and slot canyons. We talked for hours, swapping stories of crawling, climbing, digging, dirting our way through the desert.

Finally, I came back to The Desert Lily to witness the most amazing sunset of my trip thus far.

Things are good. I will make the most of the rest of my time here. But I am grateful to have an inkling of what I'm going to be doing with myself once I get back east.