Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Photo Essay: Golden Canyon / Gower Gulch Loop, Death Valley



There are very few officially-marked trails in Death Valley, but since I'm not quite ready for solo rogue hiking in the most unforgiving place in this hemisphere, I took one of the moderate, designated trails: Gower Gulch Loop.



You start the hike in Golden Canyon, through a gorge along an interpretive trail...



...which follows an old road that's long since been washed out by flash floods.



Along the wash, you can see geology at work amongst the tilted sandstone...



...in yet another area that was once underwater in one of Death Valley's many prehistoric lake beds.



The main path is relatively clear, but it's easy to get distracted by several misleading side trails that either lead you into a slot, or to a dead end...



...until you reach the end of the Golden Canyon loop, past the Red Cathedral...



...and proceed onto the Gower Gulch loop.



You traverse the badlands...



...up to Manly Beacon towards Zabriskie Point...



...until you reach the main drainage of Gower Gulch, marked by the dark gravel pathway.



There is no formal trail here, but, with feet crunching along the gravel, it's relatively easy to follow the wash through the ravine...



...which leads you out of the mouth of the gulch to scramble down two dryfalls (whose dropoffs no longer feature water cascading down them), the last of which encompasses a 25-foot drop. I scrambled halfway down it, got freaked out, and scrambled back up, choosing instead to take the winding narrow path to the right, which bypasses it.



The hike ends with a relatively tedious path through the valley which follows Badwater Road back to the parking area...



...under the hot sun with the rising heat of the low elevation.

With names like "Badwater" and "Badlands" and "Gulch," I know it's not for everybody. Understandably with its more romantic and cuddly name, Golden Canyon is one of the more popular spots in Death Valley, but not many people pass through the colorful canyon and keep going. That means you mostly get the trail to yourself.

And, though arguably inhospitable, it is surprisingly welcoming.

At least, to me.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Of the Brokenhearted

At my advanced age, my biggest turn-on has become being desired. If you're really into me and not afraid to show it, I'm likely yours. Beyond race, religion, hair color, age, height, and all of those other things that "matter" in the dating world, if the other person really wants me, really really wants me, I can be convinced.

Case in point: I recently met a guy at a Santa Monica bar late one Saturday night. After a few minutes of conversation, he blurted out, "Oh my God you're like my new favorite person." He then proceeded to tell me how cool and awesome I am. So even though this guy wasn't particularly my type (whatever that is), when he asked me if I wanted to go get something to eat at a diner, I said, "Sure."

We ate. We laughed. He loved me. I loved it. And so, standing outside of my car in the parking lot (which in my new LA life has become the most romantic place on earth, the equivalent of the front porch), we smooched. Extensively.

And then I went home.

He asked me to dinner two days later, and I agreed, thinking it would be a good idea to have a sober interaction at a reasonable hour. He then dropped a bomb on me: an 8 year-old son, living in Portland.

OK.

The next day, he txted me at work with another bomb: he'd been sleeping in his car for weeks.

"Oh boy," I wrote back.

He explained that he wouldn't have told me but he liked me and thought I should know. He then offered that he was going out of town for a week but if I wanted to see him before he left...

"Well thanks for coming clean. Safe drive," I typed, and then went back to work, as busy as ever. I didn't have the bandwidth to process, or formulate an appropriate response. So I let it hang in the air. Honestly, it wasn't totally a deal-breaker for me (though people stare at me aghast when I say that). It just made things even more...complicated. "Not so simple with you," I wrote.

He immediately interpreted my silence - or my curtness, or whatever - as rejection and began sending more text messages throughout the night, with increasing pain and trauma. He demanded to know why I ever talked to him in the first place, admitting how chaotic his life is. He admonished me for bringing him out of his solitude. He continually lashed out at me - mostly while I was sleeping - until 3:30 in the morning.

The text messages stopped, but the emails started.  He told me he removed me from his phone and that it wasn't likely I'd hear from him again.

I wish that were the case.

I wrote back - something I doubted my judgment in doing - telling him not to blame me for leading him on, and that he had ruined any chances with me by the way he handled the situation, not because of the situation itself. I told him it was unfortunate that things were ending this way because they didn't have to, but that his behavior was unacceptable and I wasn't interested in continuing any contact with him.

He persisted. However, his mea culpa was even more troublesome, admitting that he'd overreacted this way before and acting like this was somehow normal. He asked for forgiveness, a second chance.

I held my ground.

More emails arrived in my inbox, confused over what he thought had been "real," and apologetic over how "f-ed up" he and his life are.

"Please stop. You're only making things worse," I replied.

But to be honest, I get where he's coming from. I felt exactly that same way when I was 24 years old (he is 30) after going on one date with a guy I thought was the man of my dreams. I felt exactly the same way at 29 years old after one date with my eye doctor. Every rejection, every one night stand absolutely destroyed me, and I couldn't figure out why people would toy with my emotions so carelessly if they never meant it.

And now, at 36 years old, I am to him what those guys were to me. I don't see the point in trying to date someone three times in one week. I don't think a first date means absolutely anything, other than a first interview to see if you'd be able to work with the person. A kiss doesn't mean I love you, it means I want to kiss you. And I want to kiss you because I'm lonely, drunk, tired, in love with someone else who I can't kiss, etc.

I feel sorry for him, because I know intimately, deeply the pain he is feeling, as irrational as it may be given our limited contact with each other. But I do not feel sorry for anything I said or did.

I complain that no one falls in love with me, but that's not entirely true. On occasion, there is someone who becomes immediately infatuated with me, because I awakened something inside of them that they once thought had died. Or maybe I paid attention to them when they were used to going unnoticed.

The last time I remember this happening was in 1994, the summer after my freshman year in college, when I briefly dated a guy who was living at the Rescue Mission. He was cute, funny, and so terribly into me, I found it irresistible. But after a few coffees and a couple public makeout sessions, it was time to drop him back off at the Rescue Mission and go back to college. And I heartlessly left him behind, brokenhearted. I never explained myself. I just...faded away. As so many men have done to me since.

This week, the one for whom I linger asked me to stop lingering. Surprisingly, so far, I'm OK. Maybe it hasn't hit me yet.. Ten years ago, I would've been obliterated and probably jumped in front of a train or off a bridge. And maybe I'll drive my car off the side of the Angeles Crest Highway, but I don't think so. Because finally, after all this time, finally he identified himself as The Wrong Tree. As heartbreaking as it is, I've been hoping for that, waiting an entire year for it.

And now, maybe I can move on.

Because I don't want someone who doesn't want me.

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Photo Essay: Salt Creek, Death Valley



The first time I went to Death Valley in 2008, I wasn't really a hiker yet so I just sort of drove around the vast expanse of the largest national park in the continuous 48 states, stopping along the way to do a bit of sightseeing where I could.

When I returned this weekend, I was determined to see more, but I assumed that meant I would be hiking.

But actually Death Valley is so vast that they don't even have that many official trails. There are a few short, accessible, interpretive trails for sure, but mostly the park literature just encourages you to pick and place and start walking (unlike many parks which insist you STAY ON THE TRAIL).

I don't think I'm quite ready for that.

So this weekend I gladly drove around and did a bit more sightseeing, since there was plenty that I hadn't seen four years ago, including Salt Creek.



Yes, there is water in Death Valley.



Sometimes.





And it sure is salty.



In the winter you can find some shore birds around the creek, but in the spring (which is almost right around now), you find thriving spawns of pupfish, tiny little salt-resilient fish that playfully dart around the water and dig around in the bottom.

But I hear they are elusive. Locals say the stream and the fish can be thriving one week, and then just...disappear...the next...

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Photo Essay: Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley



Sometimes I find how much I've changed in the last few years absolutely staggering.

In 2006, I stood atop Mt. Baldy at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan City, Indiana, watching friends toss themselves down to the bottom, log-rolling and somersaulting with laughter and screams. I observed, bemused. But I did not participate.

In 2008, I drove my way through Death Valley, sightseeing from my car, occasionally jumping out to snap a photo off the side of the road. As the sun was setting, late the afternoon of my arrival, I passed the Mesquite Dunes and, instead of climbing them (as one is allowed, and as I had time to do), I merely documented them, and kept moving.

Later that year, during a camel ride in the Sahara Desert, I stood by and snapped photos while Michelle got dragged up and down the dunes by our camel guide, "Berber Ski"-style. I declined.



This time, back in Death Valley, passing the Mesquite Dunes, I got out of the car for more than just a moment.



This time, I followed in the footsteps of many other travelers before me.



This time, I kept climbing until I met a single track of footsteps.



This time, I sat atop a dune and slid my way down...





...and, with the waning light of day, was greeted by reminders that where I now stood was once underwater.



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Photo Essay: Trona Pinnacles



It seems like everywhere I go in the California desert, there is some kind of mine or mill, a historic railroad, and a dry lake bed or the site of a prehistoric sea.

Death Valley (and its environs) is the perfect confluence of all of those things.



Just west of Death Valley is the site of the Searles Dry Lake basin, most recognizably marked by the rising of several tufa towers - but, unlike the case of Mono Lake from which they rise out of the water and along the shore, these pinnacles stand out from a prehistoric-looking landscape that's long since been dry. The area was a part of the historic Searles wagon route and near the abandoned Trona Railway and Epsom Salts Monorail, thanks to the mineral-rich (formerly underwater) land.



The pinnacles distinguish this area as one of California's most geologically unusual...



...and can be viewed along a scenic drive...





...or, preferably, on foot.











The first time I visited Death Valley in 2008, I was coming from Las Vegas, entering the part from the east - so I didn't get to see much of anything on its western side (beyond staying at Panamint Springs Resort). But this weekend, I discovered there is so much more that lies outside the national park boundary...



Stay tuned for more.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Not What I Moved to California For

When it rains in LA, which is not that often and far less often this year than this time last year, I find myself saying things like, "This is not what I moved to California for."

My tone is akin to Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways when he says, "I am not drinking any f-ing Merlot."

But my refusal to accept the inevitable - that sometimes it will rain, even in the desert - begs the question, What did I move to California for?

The easy and most obvious answer is that I moved here for a job, one that ultimately didn't work out. And now I have a different job.

The deeper answer is that I really needed to leave New York City, and that it was driving me away so powerfully that I would have moved away to live anywhere but there.

But while I was trying to move, I really wanted to run towards something rather than away from the drama and damage I'd sustained during my last few years in New York.

So did I move to California for the weather then? Not really, but it is nice, most of the time.

Did I move to California to become a different person? Not really, but I think it's happening.

Did I move to California to forget my past? A little bit, and it's working.

I did move to California to have a better life. And, on the surface, between my apartment and my car, I do.

But I didn't move to California to be heartbroken, yet I am.

I didn't move to California to be alone, yet I am.

I didn't move to California to wake up hung over and dread getting up, yet I do. (Though, admittedly, far less than in New York.)

I didn't move to California to stay in bed all day, even while the sun shines, though I have, three times in the last nine days.

I didn't move to California to sit at a desk all day while the world passes me by and doesn't even notice that I have arrived.

When people ask me how I'm doing, how LA is treating me, how I'm enjoying myself, I usually say, "Great." And I mean it, I think.

But I'm not happy. I don't know what I'm doing here. At night, I don't have anyone to tell how my day went. In the morning, I don't have anyone to tell how my night went. I'm just fumbling around in the dark, exploring and learning on my own, with very few shared experiences to validate my existence.

Am I really even here?

It's not the best life, but it's certainly not the worst. It has been much worse for me in the past. But I think it could be better.

After all, at some point I've got to be able to say that withstanding the trauma of uprooting myself from the East Coast, which I called "home" my whole life, no matter how bad it was in the end, and separating myself from all of my close friends, was worth it.

I hope one day it will be.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

It's Not That Hard



Sometimes you procrastinate doing something - even though it's not hard - because you're just too busy tackling other things.

And sometimes, you put something off, because it just seems so hard.

At work, I've always taken an SAT approach to my workload: do the easy stuff first. Tackle everything you know first. At least that way, something gets done. Because if you spend all your time hung up on trying to figure out something difficult, no questions get answered. Nothing gets done.

But sometimes, what may seem hard isn't actually that hard.

Back in November, ten months after moving in, I bought what I think is my final piece of major furniture for my apartment: a stainless steel-topped kitchen cart on casters that would ideally replace the kitchen table I moved from New York with (which unfortunately just wasn't fitting right). When I asked the clerk about it in the store, he said, "Oh yeah, it's great. But just so you know, it's really hard to put together."

"Oh...really?" I asked, as my face twisted. I'd already put together a variety of tables, chairs, chests, and shelving units since moving in, and I'd mastered every dowel, screw, joint, and hinge that had been scattered across my kitchen floor. But was this going to be really hard?

I wasn't daunted enough not to buy it. And I wasn't daunted when the clerk struggled to hoist it into my trunk, my car sinking under its weight. I wasn't daunted when, at 115 pounds, it was so heavy, I barely got the parcel into my building, and could find no way to push, pull, or slide the thing up the carpeted stairs to the second floor. I was so not daunted that I refused the help offered by my neighbor, and instead sliced open the cardboard box and carried the unassembled pieces up to my apartment, batting away styrofoam debris that puffed up into the air from the depths of the box's contents.

And then, the cart sat, in pieces, splayed across my kitchen, for months.

I couldn't find a time when I had the mental bandwidth - or the time - to deal with it. As it is, I'm rarely home and awake, and if I am, it's late and I can't break the night's silence with my power screwdriver. I knew it would take longer than an hour, but would it take as long as a day? More than a day? I don't have a day to spare. If I'm not working, and the sun is shining, I must be outside.

So I've been hoping for a rainy day to keep me indoors, so I could attend to the poor mess which had been weighing on me, looming over me, for far too long.

On Wednesday, I finally got my rainy day.

It was the day after Valentine's Day, a day I've come to habitually and preemptively take off from work (when I'm working at all), in anticipation of either a love hangover or, more likely, an actual hangover. Given my propensity for depression, and my love life showing no improvement since last Valentine's Day, there was no reason to make an exception this year. And so after spending several requisite hours in bed on Wednesday, metaphorically licking my wounds as well as hydrating, I finally tackled the kitchen cart, piece by piece, screw by screw.

And it wasn't that hard.

What had I been waiting for?

Sure, it took a few hours' investment, meditatively screwing various bits and pieces together. And although it wasn't that hard, it also wasn't easy, and I didn't do it perfectly: among other things, I put the bottom on backwards and discovered it late into the process, necessitating an awkward undoing and redoing.

But you know what? Nothing screwed cannot be unscrewed. Nothing flipped cannot be flopped. And with no parts being sawed or cut in any way, nor anything being irreparably glued or adhered, there was no real risk in misunderstanding any of the instructions or, simply, finding my own way. The jigsaw puzzle that gradually stood before me could have been put together in any number of ways (as evidenced by the backwards bottom, which for a long time appeared correct). And although there was really only one correct end result, doing any of the given instructions out of order (or redoing them later) doesn't make the end result any less correct.

Sure, it took me a long time to get to it - three months after dragging the thing up to my apartment, and over a year after moving in - but in the end, I did get to it. The (115 pound) weight is now off my shoulders.

And it is fabulous.

Now, onto other things...

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Is It Hard?

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Up and Down Bunker Hill on Angels Flight



Ever since we rode the funicular in Buda while visiting Jesse and Max in Hungary in 2006, I've been a bit fascinated with incline railways. Even though I'm an avid walker and hiker, there's just something...amusing...about riding one, watching the ground beneath you drift away as you slowly climb and crank your way to the top of some mountain.

In the case of Angels Flight in Downtown Los Angeles, though, you're merely climbing a little hill - Bunker Hill - one block in length.

That's what makes Angels Flight "The Shortest Railway in the World."



It was built in 1901 to ferry prominent citizens up and down the hill, which at the time was a steep slope without the convenient staircase that now parallels the tracks. It was also a bigger hill back then, before the top was flattened for development in the mid-20th century. (The original location actually connected Hill Street with Olive Street, but the train now operates out of a second location a half block away, connecting Hill Street with California Plaza.)

Now, fully restored and operational after several fatalities and resulting closures and reopenings, you can take one of two cars - either Olivet or Sinai - up or down the hill, or for an extra 25 cents, both.

It's been on my Bucket List for LA since March 2010, when a friend told me about it during my first serious trip to LA to try to find a job here.

After taking a tour of Union Station, Sunday afternoon seemed the perfect time to do it.

Behold the adventure in the video below:


Angels Flight - Bunker Hill, Downtown LA

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Photo Essay: Union Station's Ticketing Area, Closed to the Public

When you walk into Union Station in Downtown LA, it feels as though you're stepping into another time, into an era when travelers dressed dapper, doffed their hats indoors, and swept glamorously down the concourse, illuminated by the sun streaming through huge bay windows and the art deco chandeliers glowing from above.

It feels like something out of a movie.

And, in fact, it is.

Several of the areas of Union Station that aren't open to the public are now accessed only via specially-arranged tours or as a movie set, including the Harvey House restaurant and the former ticketing area.

With its elaborately-tiled floors, dark wood counters, and high, ornate ceilings, the ticketing area could be the setting for something more like an exciting bank heist...



...but despite what good shape it's in, it feels eerily abandoned without its ticketing agents, commuters and tourists.



The floors still shine..



...but only some of the overhead lights are lit...



...and only some of the windows have had to be replaced.

Apparently the Los Angeles Conservancy new member's tour I took of Union Station only showed a portion of the entire complex: reportedly, the regular tour (open to both members and non-members) also takes you into the MTA Building.

I wonder, what other dark corners lie unexplored, unnoticed by all of the foot traffic passing through that great train station?

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Photo Essay: Union Station's Harvey House Restaurant, Closed to the Public

Back in the days of heavy train travel, before the advent of dining cars (of which I have become so fond, even in their modern Amtrak iterations), you used to have to actually get off the train if you wanted to get something to eat on a long train ride.

An entrepreneur, Fred Harvey, saw an opportunity, and opened a series of restaurants, bars, luncheonettes, etc. in the major train stations across the country, including several in California (San Diego, Barstow, Bakersfield, and even Kelso Depot in the Mojave National Preserve).

Union Station in Downtown LA houses the last of the Harvey Houses...



...replete with a huge bar/counter...



...a colorful tile floor that shows where the barstools used to be mounted...



...leather booths...



...and some natural wear and tear.



Overall, it's in great shape despite its age, and much to my relief, it has not been modernized, but rather simply...cleaned.



Though the space is available for rental for special events (dream wedding, here I come), unfortunately estimates to get it up to code to resume commercial use range in the millions, as evidenced by the dark, antiquated kitchen...









...which I'm sure is functional, but sure seems foreboding.





The space has its glitzier features, like the tiled and mirrored Powder Room...





...and the lushly boothed bar, which appeared modern enough to be a part of the TWA Flight Center at JFK in NYC.



Fred Harvey's restaurant is a jewel of Union Station, and it's too bad that most people never get to see more than what they can peer at from outside the gate.

But I guess that's why it's still in such good shape.



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