February 28, 2018

Photo Essay: Palm Springs Modernism Week, For a Day

After years of feeling intimidated by and priced out of Modernism Week in Pam Springs, I finally made it there on my own last year.

And it's true: It's both overwhelming and pricey to try to cram in all the tours of all the houses you'd like to see.

Not to mention the three-hour drive from LA.

So, when I had the chance this year to buy a ticket for a bus trip co-sponsored by the AIA—one that would provide both transportation and VIP access to the sites, I didn't hesitate.

Sometimes, I don't want to have to plan everything and navigate myself. Sometimes it's nice to leave the driving—and the logistics—to someone else.

The big draw for me to Modernism Week this year was a house colloquially known as the "Hidden Frey"—a lesser-known design of Albert Frey that's sunken down  below street level and hidden next to the former racquet club.

With a rolled roof, a cantilevered carport...

...and an elevated pool...

...the 1900-square-foot home on on a 15,682-square-foot gated lot on West San Marco Way is quintessential Frey...

...and classic Palm Springs Modernism circa 1966.

It can't quite compare to the Frey II house, but that's because Frey designed it for LA developer W.I. Hollingsworth and not for himself—hence, its official name, the Hollingsworth Tennis Estate.

The rest of the day's sites didn't quite have the marquee value of an architect like Albert Frey, unless you count the furnishing retailer West Elm...

...whose "pool house" is more or less a showroom for the chain's wares.

But, all product placement aside, the recently restored 1979 house in the El Mirador neighborhood of Palm Springs does have a really nice pool....

...beautiful tile...

...and original metalwork sculptures adorning the outdoor fire pits.

And who could complain about that mountain view?

Believe it or not, our day's discoveries just kept getting better and better—as with another new addition to Modernism Week, the so-called Wexler 2.

Based on an original design of architect Donald Wexler from decades ago—but built posthumously, as Wexler died in 2015—this modern-day post and beam in the Andreas Hills neighborhood follows in the tradition of the so-called "Wexler steel houses."

Wexler didn't get to build as many of them himself as he wanted to, as the prices of prefab steel skyrocketed before the "Man of Steel" could complete the entire planned development in Palm Springs.

Fortunately, the builders of the Wexler 2 were undeterred by the materials necessary to make the last steel home Wexler designed come to life and become a reality...

...and now, the "Steel and Glass" house has been completed and is for sale.

The interior feels futuristic in a way that most contemporary construction projects never achieve quite as successfully as perhaps intended...

...though I suppose it's a certain brand of retrofuturism at work here.

But since some of these Mid-Century Modern designs never exactly became the norm, they still feel like a future that is yet to be.

Our final stop for the day—on a day that felt like it had been crammed with a week's worth of architectural and design explorations—brought us to the "Casa Estrella" showcase home, also known as the "Moroccan Modern."

The 5500-square-foot, custom-built home in the Indian Canyons was designed in 1974 by Hal Lacy, known for his groovy homes that provide a welcome oasis in the desert.

Featuring a front door painted in "Pink Dahlia" and metal screens evoking Moroccan medallion designs...'s a little too exotic to be truly Mid-Century Modern... well as a little too adorned, and a little too, well, pink.

But hey, man, it was the '70s, and sometimes you've got to make some trade-offs in order to get a sweet outdoor kitchen and fire pit alongside your pool and outside your guest casita.

And now that February has come to an end and the busiest week of the year in Palm Springs has passed, I wonder what Modernism Week will have in store for me next year.

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February 26, 2018

Photo Essay: The Longest Mile, At Devil's Punchbowl

"Sunset is at 5:44," I said from the third row of the minivan Robert had rented for our day's adventure.

"OK that's good," Robert called bad from behind the wheel. "The hike should only take us about two hours, and we'll get there by 3."

We were on our way to Devil's Punchbowl, a badlands-type county park in the Antelope Valley about 30 miles northeast of Downtown Los Angeles (but depending on which way you drive, it could clock in at as many as 100 miles and 90 minutes). It had been on my hiking list for years, but I always found it just a little too far and a little too daunting to go there on my own.

When we arrived, I was relieved to see we were only planning on tackling the one-mile loop trail. But why would we need two hours to hike a mile?

After all, I walk a 20-minute mile. Even a tough mile that goes straight up with some scrambling might only take me an hour, not two.

But this is no typical trail at Devil's Punchbowl—and not just because it leads you on an "upside down" hike, forcing you to descend first and then climb back out of the "bowl" at the end.

First of all, there are lots of distractions along the way. While some of the sandstone boulder outcroppings are jagged and tilted, just as you'd expect to find so close to the San Andreas Fault, others bear the smooth, spherical edges of erosion.

And it's true—probably a lot of water has run through this gorge at one time or another, if only from the snowmelt of the San Gabriel Mountains.

That also makes the trail somewhat of a trial, as the erosion leaves you treading either loose, sandy patches or slippery, exposed rock.

If you stay on the trail, I suppose the hike is pretty straightforward—but it can be difficult to stay on the actual trail and so easy to stray onto one of the unofficial spur trails that people have created by shortcutting the switchbacks.

The loop trail is by no means the most difficult course you can take through Devil's Punchbowl, as evidenced by the intrepid rock climbers we saw perched on the various up-tilted peaks.

But both the elevation change and the scenery literally take your breath away—especially those "punchbowl" formations that date back more than two million years and maybe as many as 20 million.

And soon, everything starts looking like a possible trail. (Or, conversely, everything starts looking like it must not be a trail.)

A couple of years ago, this probably would've been an easy hike for me—but after years of being out of the hiking habit and keeping my walls to fairly level ground, I found it difficult to raise a leg high enough to scramble up a boulder.

That loop felt like the longest mile I'd ever hiked—although, in the end, it only took us about an hour and a half and not the full two hours.

But the one-mile loop trail isn't the only way to discover Devil's Punchbowl, though it's the easiest. There's also the 7.5-mile trek out to Devil's Chair.

I'll have to work my way up to that one.

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Photo Essay: In Search of Tule Elk

As many animal sanctuaries as I visit, I'd much rather see these fantastic beasts out in the wild, in their native environments.

And while it may seem like the majority of our wildlife viewing opportunities in Southern California (birdwatching notwithstanding) consist of a mountain lion roaming through the backyard, a black bear taking a dip in the pool, or a raccoon sitting on its haunches inside a storm drain, there are actually a few places you can embark on a safari.

There is, of course, the island where the buffalo roam—though it seems you're alternately just as likely to get gored in the wild interior of Catalina (as what happened recently) as you are to not see a single bison.

I've spent a lot of time looking for wild burros, bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, and so on, and I've spent a lot of time coming up empty.

But I hadn't yet been to the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve in Buttonwillow, just a few miles west of Bakersfield in Kern County.

At the viewing platform and visitors center by the parking lot, the most obvious form of wildlife visible was, of course, the birds—including a great horned owl nest with some white fluffy not-quite-fledglings inside and an adult standing guard a few branches below and to the right.

We were surrounded by the songs of house finches hiding in the trees out there as well—but we'd driven a couple of hours to see elk, not birds. Specifically, we had come to witness the tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes), the only species of elk endemic to California—distinct from other species of elk (like Rocky Mountain or Roosevelt elk) not only by its DNA but also by its smaller size.

Because the primary diet of the tule elk is, well, a plant called tule (which isn't the most nutrient-dense feed in the world), these elk are smaller than their cousins in Canada and Alaska—though, at 500 pounds, they're by no means small. (And they're still quite a bit bigger than their relatives, the mule deer, though still smaller than a moose.)

You can recognize the adult males (the bulls) by their antlers, which they shed every late winter and immediately begin to regrow—the nubs eventually evolving into full racks with as many as seven points and weighing as much as 10 or 12 pounds each. When the new rack grows in, it's covered in a "velvet" that can hurt and bleed if struck by a rival male's rack (particularly during "rutting," when the bulls compete to become the dominant and breed with the harem of females). But eventually, when that layer dies off and becomes irritating, the bulls spend a lot of time trying to slough it off by rubbing up against tree trunks and telephone poles.

When the calfs are born, their fur is spotted—much like a baby deer—which provides excellent camouflage in their habitat to protect them against predators. The thing is, though, without the grizzly bears around (our state bar long went extinct here), the tule elk's only real predator is a poacher with a shotgun. Yet they still exhibit genetic adaptations and behaviors (like the mother licking the scent off her newborns) that ensure the survival of the species.

On this late February day, we spotted the harem of females (a.k.a. cows, but not cattle) with their dominant bull, who hadn't yet shed his rack. He led them on a high-speed caravan across the grassland, where they're spooked by the bus on the "auto safari"—though they're a protected species and the biggest animal kingdom danger they face is probably getting poked in the eye by the point on a rack or inextricably locking horns (as the two taxidermied bulls in the visitors center did).

But, of course, as with many species of animals, the biggest threat to their survival is human activity...

...which includes development that encroaches on their territory (not only buildings but also roads)... well as the introduction of non-native grasses and other species that crowd out the plants they rely on for sustenance (like tule reeds) and of grazing livestock that leave little to no food supply (whether native or not).

And then there's the overconsumption of other natural resources, like water. What was once a marshy, fertile land has been sapped if its water supply through drought and diversion—and whatever water you can find in the canals that run through the tule elk reserve has been pumped in.

But despite all this, the herd is thriving (thanks, in part, to park rangers supplementing their diet with alfalfa)—so much so that it occasionally grows too big for these 953 acres, and some individuals need to be relocated to other areas that are currently undergoing repopulation.

Supposedly, you can also find tule elk in the Carrizo Plain National Monument and Wind Wolves Preserve, though I've never spotted them there myself.

But here, in the southern section of the Central Valley (a.k.a. the San Joachin Valley), they were pretty easy to find—and some would even stand still, just staring at us, allowing us to photograph them before they meandered off.

It's a calm time of year for the tule elk, as the new horns begin to grow in on the bulls—some of which will be ready to step up and challenge the dominant bull, and others who will be satisfied living their lives as bachelors and not bothering to try to mate.

Some will never mate; only a fraction of them ever will.

But mating isn't everything... is it?

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