March 28, 2017

A Desert Reappearance

When I was getting ready to head to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for the "superbloom" a couple weekends ago, my friend Erin asked me, "So what's the plan for when you get down there? Or are you just going to wing it?"

In truth, the answer was a little bit of both. First off, I knew I wanted to see wildflowers.

I also knew that I wanted to at least try to avoid the traffic jams and gridlock I'd been hearing about in Borrego Springs...

...and that the best way for me to do that would be to get off the main roads and onto the dirt and sand.

So, since I have a tendency to get my car stuck in the desert, this time I left the driving to the professionals and made a reservation with California Overland.

And it was a good opportunity to reconnect with my pal Joe, who'd taken me on my first-ever (albeit bee-infested) camping trip in 2011, and who's remained one of my desert rat kindred spirits.

It didn't matter that it had been five years since I'd visited this area of eastern San Diego county.

It still felt like home there, with Joe, and with the desert dandelions...

...just as I'd seen them during the wildflower seasons of years past.

I don't know why I stayed away so long.

I hadn't forgotten about the spring cactus flowers...

...that bloom early when the heat of summer arrives in spring.

I hadn't yet seen everything there was to see...

...and especially not every flower...

...though the sprouting red ocotillo was as familiar to me here as it is in my other desert home of Joshua Tree.

Upon my long-awaited return, every outcropping of Bigelow's monkeyflower delighted me...

...until my eyes alighted on the desert lavender...

...and lo, there were the bees again.

"I swear, there weren't any bees... until you got here!" Joe laughed, not knowing my legitimately (yet irrational) phobia of the winged beasts.

I started to tell Joe about how I'd considered taking a beekeeping class as a form of exposure therapy, but before I could go on, he said, "Well, you pretty much already did face your fears on our trip!"

"Yeah," I said, "But I didn't conquer them."

Bees or no bees, I was meant to return to Anza-Borrego and Borrego Springs. It was kismet.

Of course, it had been on my mind since I last visited in 2012, but between job losses and car accidents and whiplash and head trauma and romance gone devastatingly wrong, I lost about two years of my life.

And then while I was in New York City in January, I met a woman during lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria who said she split her time between Orange County and a little desert town called "Borrego Springs."

"You're living the dream!" I told her.

"Well, I think so..." she said. "You know it?"

"Do I?!" And then I proceeded to tell her about my stay at the Palms at Indian Head in 2008 and my camping trip with Joe in 2011.

And then she proceeded to send a text message to Joe to tell him that we'd met.

And it turned out that not only were both she and I in New York City from California, but so was he.

As soon as I got back to LA, I emailed Joe with a million apologies for disappearing and a brief rundown of my sob story, and I waited for Susan to contact me.

She finally did in early March—with a report on the wildflowers—just days before I was scheduled to be in town.

And so the trip that reunited me with an old friend also reunited me with a new friend. We've all got New York in our blood, and we've all got California in our dreams.

Maybe one day I'll be able to live the dream, too, and retire to the desert.

As Joe once told me, it might be a good balm for all of these bumps in the road.

Related Posts:
A Beginner's Report on (Deathly Hot) Desert Camping: The Arrival
A Beginner's Report on (Decidedly Sweltering) Desert Camping: Darkness Falls
Photo Essay: The Wildflowers of Anza-Borrego
Photo Essay: Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego
Photo Essay: Wilson Peak Via Pinyon Ridge

March 27, 2017

Photo Essay: Birding Anza-Borrego During the Superbloom

I knew there would be wildflowers during this year's "superbloom" in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

I'd been there before this time of year. I'd seen flowers there before.

But each wildflower season is different at Anza-Borrego, so I knew whatever I saw this year wouldn't be the same as what I'd seen previous years.

As I came into town via the Montezuma Grade, I couldn't remember whether I'd ever seen it with such an explosion of color.

Then again, it had been a few years since I'd been to Borrego Springs. I couldn't even remember if the Montezuma Grade was the way I'd come down into the park before.

But one of the differences with the landscape in this area—which is California's largest state park—is how green everything is this year.

There's plenty of water in the pond at the Club Circle Golf Course—which means there are also plenty of birds (including a nice and plump Sora rail / Porzana carolina, which is normally quite secretive and elusive).

I stood under a palm tree for a long time, arms outstretched up over my head, trying to capture a male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) with my lens.

Although it's one of the most abundant and least endangered birds in pretty much all of North America, it's also one that you might not expect to see in the desert, since it prefers soggier areas.

But if there was any question whether or not we were in the desert on our bird walk (part of the annual Borrego Springs Desert Birding Festival, from the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association), it took just one glance down pretty much anywhere to be reminded by the abundance of desert lilies (Hesperocallis undulate).

We were also treated to the perching behavior of Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna), which are common in these parts but unique to the Pacific Coast in terms of U.S. distribution.

If you catch them just right in the sunlight, you can see the fancy, jewel-toned males with their iridescent green chests and bright, reddish-pink throats...

...though they were actually named by French ornithologist René Primevère Lesson after Anne d'Essling, courtier to the last empress of the French monarchy, Eugénie de Montijo.

Less spectacular were the greenish Lesser goldfinches (Spinus psaltria)...

...and some of the more common songbirds of the desert, like a male house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and a (non-breeding, I believe) male house sparrow (Passer domesticus).

But, for me, the real triumph of our birding excursion was to see a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) in its nest, high up in the crown of leaf scars, presumably with some owlets underneath and out of sight.

I hadn't planned on birding while I was in Borrego Springs for the wildflowers, but I was fortunate enough to have been invited to join a group of birders on their search—and nimble enough to squeeze it into my already too-short itinerary out in the desert.

I can't believe I hadn't birded Anza-Borrego before!

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego
Photo Essay: Wilson Peak Via Pinyon Ridge
Photo Essay: The Wildflowers of Anza-Borrego
Photo Essay: The Creatures That Conquered the Desert
Photo Essay: Bristlecone Pine Cabins at the Deserted Mexican Mine

March 26, 2017

Photo Essay: The New Wilshire Grand, In Progress

I'm usually rushing to see a building before it closes or gets demolished...

...but this this weekend, I had the rare treat of getting a sneak preview of a landmark-in-the-making before it's completed in May and opens in June.

This is the site of the "new" Wilshire Grand Center in Downtown LA's financial district.

Topped by stainless steel spire, the 1100-foot glass skyscraper is not only the tallest building in LA (beating out the U.S. Bank Tower, though just barely)...

...but also the tallest west of the Mississippi.

Rising up just 73 floors, it hasn't got the most floors of any of its peer towers—but each of its floors are pretty tall.

The $1.2 billion project is slated to become the home of the Intercontinental luxury hotel chain...

...and replaces the former Hotel Statler from 1950 (which later became the Statler Hilton, then the Omni Hotel, then the Wilshire Grand), which was deconstructed in 2012.

In addition to the nearly 900 hotel rooms, the skyscraper will also feature a number of public spaces from which you can take in the view...

...which includes the roofs of flat-topped buildings that were never meant to be seen from above (and are downright dwarfed by this new, pointy behemoth).

In addition to the hotel's "sky lobby" on the 70th floor, there will also be an indoor bar and steakhouse restaurant... well as a heated outdoor bar.

But even inside the skyscraper, you won't be able to avoid the outdoors or natural light—whether you're standing under the swooping skylight...

...or working out in the fitness center, with its 11-foot windows.

An LED curtain will be installed into these window frames to illuminate the tower at night.

The high-speed elevators up to the 70th floor aren't functional yet, but reportedly their ascent will take just 45 seconds.

Even the service elevators were pretty speedy, as they brought us to the hotel's soon-to-be meeting rooms, grand ballroom...

...and other areas that aren't quite ready for their close-up yet.

Appropriately, the architectural design firm behind the project is AC Martin—also responsible for LA's first "skyscraper," our current City Hall.

As I told the woman on our tour who'd asked me if I was an architect, "I'm a historian—and this is history in the making."

The new Wilshire Grand certainly stands out among its neighbors at Figueroa and 7th Streets, and not just because of its height.

Using a mixture of classic design elements like glazed terra-cotta tiles and marble...

...alongside modern and technologically-advanced uses of concrete and steel (including elevators that supposedly can be used during a fire evacuation), it's almost retro-futuristic.

The project is actually owned by Korean Air, which may explain why the shape of the high-rise evokes a very shiny wing of a commercial jet.

Of course, they might've made it too shiny, as they're already getting complaints about its blinding reflections. (Here we go again...)

It can be hard to see what something will become, if you see it just in its early stages of development. But fortunately, the Wilshire Grand is actually almost done—and so far, it's pretty true to its renderings.

I wonder, though, what this building will mean to us in the future. Will it become known as someone's folly—a great expression of hubris that no one could ever see reflected in all those mirrored surfaces?

Or will Downtown LA watch its wide open spaces slowly close in on themselves as the area becomes more and more claustrophobically crowded with monolithic clusters, coming to signify some imminently dystopian metropolis?

I guess only time will tell.

Related Posts:
Downtown LA's Upwards Build into the Open Air
Photo Essay: Transforming the View of LA
Photo Essay: City Hall at Sunset
Photo Essay: The Locked Chapels of Rose Hills
Photo Essay: Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall