October 29, 2017

Photo Essay: How Billions of Burgers Got Their Start in Southern California (Updated for 2023)

[Last updated 2/2/23 11:17 PM PT—Museum founder and owner Albert Okura sadly passed away on 1/27/23.]

The McDonald’s in Downey may be the oldest standing of the billion-burger-selling chain -- but to trace the founding of this fast food empire, you’ve got to head to San Bernardino.

circa February 2009

That’s where brothers Dick and Mac McDonald discovered the appeal of “speedy” hamburgers and fries...

...and, in 1948, gave Post-War America what they wanted in the form of a walk-up burger stand.

October 28, 2017

Photo Essay: The Museum That's Gone Bananas

I guess you'd expect to find a wacky collection of tropical fruit out in the desert.

But while the area surrounding the Salton Sea is generally dominated by palm date groves and offerings of date shakes, there's only one place where you can have your pick of a banana sundae, a banana shake, or a banana bread muffin: the International Banana Museum.

In the town of Mecca near the North Shore of the Salton Sea (just up Highway 111 from the failed balloon festival grounds), just look for the bright yellow robot banana, a creation of outsider artist Kenny Irwin of Robolights fame.

Past that and through the door, you're welcome to "go bananas" for a nominal fee of $3 (waived if you buy something, which you definitely should)...

...and surround yourself with the world's largest collection devoted to the banana (or, any one fruit, for that matter).

Of course, you'll be in good company with other banana lovers...

...and every kind of banana-fana-fo-fana you can imagine...

...from Chiquita and Dole... bananas in disguise...

...banana splits...

...and way beyond.

They're all ready to party with you.

Some might even sing to you.

But you have to be sure it's a real banana...

...and not just somebody dressed up as one...

...or some monkey dressed as one, for that matter.

Of course, there's plenty of opportunity to monkey around at the Banana Museum...

...but the "top banana" here, of course, is the fruit.

And that includes not only how it looks in various commercial and artistic renderings...

...but also how it tastes.

If it's not the most a-peeling destination in the world, it certainly is along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea—especially if you're looking for some refreshment beyond what Bombay Beach has to offer at the Ski Inn.

It's a new discovery for me at the Salton Sea, as its current iteration opened in 2012, during a nearly six-year period of me being absent from the area. And now, I'm glad to see that it fits perfectly here, in this land—and sea—of misfits, misunderstandings, and tropical heat.

After all, nobody needs a fruit shaped like a smile more than the denizens of the Salton Sea.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Bunny Museum Strikes Back
Photo Essay: Hoppy Holidays from The Bunny Museum
Sunrising the Salton Sea and Its Forever Folly

Surveilling the Santa Monica Mountains For Smoke

You might think that technology has supplanted the need for a human being to actually keep watch over the forest for wildfires—but sometimes, what we really need is a warning that something might be amiss.

With how quickly these conflagrations can spread, we need to catch them before things really go wrong.

And that’s where fire lookout towers come in pretty handy. But sadly, most of our forested fire detection facilities have been replaced by aerial surveillance.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations devoted to preserving the heritage of our historic fire lookouts—but not all of them have been preserved. Hundreds have burned down, succumbed to weather conditions, or been demolished or otherwise destroyed.

One of the last remaining “firelooks” in Southern California that you can visit—one of the last vestiges of a dying breed—is the Old Topanga Fire Lookout in Malibu, sandwiched between Stunt Ranch State Park and Topanga State Park and just off the Backbone Trail.

After finding the trailhead where Stunt Road meets Schueren Road and Saddle Peak Road, by the Lois Ewen Overlook, I walked along the Topanga Tower Motorway, which is a paved fire road until it splits off to the left and becomes a dirt trail.

I stuck to the main, wide, dirt trail, resisting some of the spur trail scrambles that go up the ridge to the right...

...and the paved portion to the right that becomes Radio Relay and leads to the privately owned radio tower.

I passed graffitied pieces of concrete that I though might have tumbled down from the firelook up ahead...

...until I spotted a concrete slab atop a peak straight ahead.

Hikers have clawed their way to the top at the end of the trail, but I followed a single-track trail to the right for a much more civilized climb up some old, graffitied steps.

On a clear day, it was hard to imagine that the smog had ever gotten so bad that it rendered the lookout tower more or less obsolete.

By 1972, the fire department had been relying nearly exclusively on helicopter surveillance and reports from nearby civilians.

And all that's left now is the slab, covered in messages mundane and profane, painted by teenagers who go up there to smoke and boast and Lord knows what else.

If nothing else, I got a spectacular view from up there—and that, of course, was by design.

For my complete roundup of fire lookouts for KCET, click here.

Related Posts:
Looking for a Sign
Photo Essay: Henninger Flats Hike
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Photo Essay: A Graffitied Cave Hidden in the Valley Hills
Photo Essay: Taking a Toxic Spin Around Three Kids Mine

October 27, 2017

Exorcising the Infinite Demons

I went back to The Broad this week, despite the fact that I'd previously written that it was a one-trick pony inside a cool facade.

I stand behind that statement—I just love the outside of this museum, especially with the colorful crosswalk intervention "Couleur Additive" by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez that's been recently installed as part of the Pacific Standard Time collective of exhibitions.

And the "one trick" that I previously referenced—Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrored Room: The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away" (2013)—is a damn good one, even the second time around.

But there's something more behind these seemingly novel installations by the 88-year-old Japanese contemporary artist, like the hot pink and black polka dotted "Dots Obsession—Love Transformed Into Dots" (2007).

Kusama—who has lived in a mental hospital in Japan since 1977, some say by choice—could be exorcising her demons through art. Exactly what those demons are—or what their origin—we don't exactly know. Wearing bright red and pink wigs and lipstick, Kusama has become a cosplay version of herself—a mysterious one that's reached almost mythic proportions.

She does talk about the fact that early in life, she suffered a number of hallucinations—some of which included the incessant polka dots. At some point, she saw herself transform into a dot. And then she realized that the planet we live on is just one dot in a universe that's so vast, it's infinite.

You could say that with pieces like her "Love Forever" Infinity Mirrored Room, she's coming to terms with her own mortality—but it seems to be more about reconciling the past rather than looking to the future.

At some point, she took control of the hallucination, appropriated it, and defused it. If the dots were, at first, scary, she took the power out of them by surrounding herself with them. But, given the results, it's no surprise that among her demons, she counts anxiety and OCD.

And in the final room of the "Infinity Mirrors" special exhibition at The Broad, called "The Obliteration Room," you're allowed to express your own obsessive-compulsive tendencies and exorcise your own demons by plastering a room that's been painted stark white with a number of multicolored, adhesive dots.

Ultimately, every surface will be covered by the dots—but this room isn't about the end result. It's about the process of harnessing what we generally consider a "defect" and turning it into something that's crazily beautiful.

I went on the fourth day that the exhibit was open, so there was still a lot of white negative space to choose from—but already, the different sized dots create the illusion of outer space, or even traveling through space, perhaps infinitely.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Broad Museum & Its One Big Draw
Standing in the Rain Without Getting Wet
A Tale of One Dress
Fix Me

October 26, 2017

Swimming With Otters

Photo by hamikus via Pixabay (Public Domain, CC0 1.0)

I'm not much for jumping on bandwagons. I'd rather be the first to do something that becomes popular later or be the only one to go somewhere few would choose to go.

I just don't like following trends. And when something gets too popular, too publicized, too pedestrian, I usually recoil.

But there are exceptions to everything, aren't there?

Case in point: goat yoga.

But that fits perfectly in the narrative of the Life of Sandi. I find animals therapeutic. I seek out goats as well as parrots and llamas and alpacas and foxes and cows and sheep and pretty much all manner of fauna.

I'm pretty much always looking to make a meaningful connection with some member of the Animal Kingdom. Sometimes—perhaps by chance—some beast or critter grants me my wish.

So, it wasn't the fact that Nurtured By Nature's "Swimming With Otters" program had become an instant internet hit that brought me on a last minute excursion to North San Diego County this week.

In fact, I'd first heard about it maybe in late 2015—when spots were still available, but I couldn't afford the price.

In early 2016, I'd started working again and had a little money and a little availability, so I tried to book—but at the time, spots were filling up months in advance.

The next time I tried later that year, the rest of the year was completely booked up—as was the entire year of 2017.

No dates for 2018 had been announced yet.

I'd missed my window of opportunity. But despite the fervor that had grown around this otter encounter, I still wanted to go.

I thought it might ease my PTSD. I thought I'd benefit from the oxytocin. And I thought I'd have a lot of fun.

And now that I've managed to swim with the otters, I realize that I'd been right—on all three counts.

So, if all of 2017 had been completely sold out since last year, how did I get in? It's simple: persistence and patience.

For months, I checked Nurtured By Nature's website, email newsletter, and Facebook page diligently, waiting to pounce on any cancellation or any added time slot. At the very least, I thought I'd try to get a leg up on ticket sales for next year's dates, whenever they were announced. (As of right now, they're still not.)

And then by some miracle, the announcement was posted: Three spots had opened up. The only problem? I didn't see the post until hours later.

By the time I got to it, there was one spot that still remained open. I didn't have time to doubt myself. I didn't dare check the balance on my bank account. I just clicked "BOOK," and next thing I knew I was embarking on a three hour drive just before 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

Needless to say, the otters—not river ones like in Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas, and not sea otters like in Morro Bay, but Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea)—were worth it.

Earlier in our visit, we'd played with a bunch of babies that squeaked like little chicks or ducklings as they wrestled with each other and ran around us in a pack, climbing up our bodies to investigate our hair and look down our shirts and gnawing on shoelaces and sandals and toes.

In the afternoon, we stripped down to our suits and plunged into a warm, backyard pool that overlooks the stunning Pauma Valley, with a small group of adult Asian small-clawed otters to follow.

Nothing is sacred with these little cutie pies. They go down shirts, out armholes, between legs, and up shorts. They have a ball with the simplest of pool toys—and especially the multi-colored aquarium stones that are like gold to those otters. Put one down your shirt, and they'll dig it out. Let them grab one out of a plastic cup or bottle, and they'll deposit down your top or your bottom.

They are feisty and playful, perfectly happy to chomp down on a rope and have you twirl them in circles forever (or until you fall down in a fit of dizziness, whichever comes first).

We were probably ready to get out of the water before they were—but only because our cameras were wet, our fingers were pruney, and our bodies were exhausted from play.

I woke up the next morning feeling hungover from all the giggling I did. And you know what they say about laughter being the best medicine—something that appears to be true, no matter what ails ya.

It's no wonder this is a favorite for terminally-ill kids sponsored by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. It's too bad it can't be made more widely available for more of us with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

Imagine if a doctor could prescribe an otter swim to you as he would an emotional support animal, therapy dog, or—more likely—antidepressant or pain pill.

Will "otter swimming" start popping up all over the country—or even the world—soon? It's probably better if it doesn't.

Unlike goats, which are an abundant species of domesticated animals that actually make very good pets, the small-clawed otter is listed as having a "vulnerable" conservation status—which means it's threatened and one step away from becoming endangered—and they're so social and active that they don't make very good pets. (At least with goats, you could stop at having just a pair; but with otters, you'd need an entire lodge of them.)

Thanks to breeding programs at zoos and aquariums, there's a healthy population of small-clawed otters in captivity; but, in the wild, their Southeast Asian habitat is slowly being destroyed by development and they're still subject to hunting and poaching for both their pelts and their meat.

After all, there's a fine line between driving awareness about certain wild animals and creating a fad that ultimately sabotages the survival of the species.

So, I hope that we use this otter gift for good and not for evil.

Let's just enjoy their company and let them enjoy ours—as they seemed to do in the pool with me and a handful of others earlier this week.

Related Posts:
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Photo Essay: Hiking with Baby Goats
Photo Essay: Yoga With Baby Goats
Photo Essay: Playing With Wolves