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.

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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February 20, 2018

Adapt and Overcome

"Pretend impossibilities are possible. They are."

I wrote that "inspiring quote" a few years ago for one of Smith Magazine's Six Word Memoirs projects.

I'd already won a couple of 6WM contests, so I wasn't altogether surprised to find out that I was being included in their 2012 book, Six Words About Work.

After all, I'd been inspired to write those six words by my experiences in the workplace, when I learned that you just have to move forward as though you're going to hit a deadline, even if it seems like there's no way that could actually happen.

In 12 words, that would be: Act like it's going to happen, even if you think it can't. 

In three words, it's: Anything is possible.

And that's why I think Smith Magazine chose to include that quote in their more widely distributed and less thematically specific book published by St. Martin's Press in 2015, The Best Advice in Six Words. It resonates broadly with people.

So broadly, in fact, that I recently found out that the folks at had turned this very same quote into a meme and shared it.

I'm delighted, to say the least. But what I've said isn;t anything new.

The military has been teaching its cadets that very same principle for decades.

At the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, we were fortunate enough to witness a couple Marines complete an obstacle course—quite literally, a physical manifestation of the trials and tribulations that any of us might face (not just in combat, but in everyday life).

On this course, the enlisted men and women of the Marines learn the confidence to attempt something it seems like they can't possibly do. And sure, they fail. But they couldn't succeed without those failures—because there's more than one way to overcome an obstacle, whether it's a log, a wall, a rope, or a bar that's been set a little too high. It takes a while to figure out which one will work the best.

And in the case of hand-to-hand combat, it's tempting to assume you're just done-for—especially if all you've got is your bare hands. But that's when you've got to improvise and find a weapon of opportunity (even if it's something as seemingly benign as a milk jug). And keep trying until you find something that works—because something will work.

It's no different with the working dogs of the Marines, either. They've got their own hurdles to surmount.

The use of these military dogs serves as a good reminder that it's rarely necessary to resort to lethal force right away. The best fight is one that never happens in the first place. If needed, bark first, then bite. And biting doesn't mean tearing someone limb from limb—at least, not right away.

I really admire a goal that's to more often deescalate a conflict rather than overcome with brute force.

Life isn't just about those things that seem impossible to do but also those that may seem impossible not to do. And sometimes a fight seems inevitable, impossible to avoid.

But if the only thing that's certain in life is uncertainty, why not use that to your advantage? Beat the odds. Defy science and logic and the space-time continuum.

Impossibilities are only impossible in theory. In practice, it's up to you to prove yourself wrong.

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February 19, 2018

Sleeping Under the Stars

Photo: John Remus III (Public Domain, via Flickr)

Last night, for the first time in my life, I slept under the stars.

Now, I've been camping before—but the tent provided too much of a barrier between me and the sky.

Same goes for the teepees I've stayed in.

I tried to sleep under the stars at an Airbnb in Joshua Tree two years ago, but I failed miserably when I had to spend pretty much the entire night hiding my head under the covers to escape the rain that would otherwise be falling on my face.

And I didn't do a whole lot of sleeping that night, either.

This all goes back to that first month I spent in Joshua Tree back in 2009, when I'd been so tempted to camp out in the hammock outside so I could gaze up at the night sky while I fell asleep—but back then, I was too scared of scorpions and coyotes to actually do it.

When I returned for an extended stay in 2012, I hadn't gotten over my fears yet. I thought about it. I walked outside in my bare feet and stood under the moon, pondering what might crawl upon me while I slept out there.

But I just couldn't do it.

Last night in Borrego Springs, though, my hosts invited me to stay on the cot on their patio and assured me that all coyotes, scorpions, and other desert creatures of the night would stay away from me as long as I stayed close to the house.

The only obstacle to my al fresco sleepover?

The wind.

Boy, was it windy in the desert yesterday.

I'm used to the gusts in, say, Palm Springs, but this was unusual for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

"Maybe it's too windy to sleep outdoors tonight..." my friend Susan and her husband said.

"Yeah, maybe you're right."

But as the day wore on, I was becoming more and more determined to have a go at it—and not just if the wind died down (which, I hear, it sometimes does after sunset).

I was going to try to sleep in the wind—under the stars—and not be blown away.

So I had my cot and my super-cozy sleeping bag, the pillow from my trunk crammed into a borrowed pillowcase, my phone and my glasses, and I hunkered down to see how long I could last.

It was true, the scorpions left me alone. If they were out there, I didn't see them (or feel them).

I heard the coyotes—I think, though they didn't sound like Joshua Tree coyotes. In my sleepy state, they sounded more like hyenas.

But the one thing I ultimately couldn't get over was the wind. It was blowing so hard that it was rattling my cot—and I'm a whole lot of woman, enough to hold a cot down in any normal wind.

I wasn't cold per se—the sleeping bag was plenty warm—but my hair was blowing into my slightly open mouth, stifling the snores that were trying to escape (and kept waking me up in the process).

Every time I opened my eyes, though, I saw those stars hanging so low in the black sky. When my eyes were closed, I dreamed that they were swirling above me—or maybe they actually were swirling, in a spectacular display of the Milky Way that one can only witness while camped out directly underneath.

Every time I woke up facing the exterior wall of the house, I'd turn over to face the desert. I slept on my back and on my stomach—which I never do—just so I could keep the constellations in view.

And as the night sky began to lighten—not quite morning, but fading from the saturation of the blackest of night—I packed up my bedding and headed inside to the couch.

The stars weren't so visible anymore, so I figured I wouldn't be missing out on that much.

But the plan had been to stay out there till morning, till the sunrise woke me up and the roadrunners came to check on me.

Still, I feel a sense of victory after finally sleeping under the stars. It doesn't matter that I didn't make it all night. I made it most of the night.

And to be honest, I would've felt victorious even if I'd only made it an hour or two out there—as long as I'd slept, and as long as I'd done it under the stars.

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February 17, 2018

Photo Essay: Glimpses of Yuma Territory

I first became interested in the Arizona town of Yuma because of its prison history, particularly with the bandits and gunmen of the Old West.

It seemed like the natural next chapter after my jaunt to Tombstone last year.

February 16, 2018

On Wondering When 'The Big One' Will Hit

By Shustov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

"Are you afraid of earthquakes?"

I was having lunch with a friend from New York City who I hadn't seen in probably 15 or more years. Now that he's moved to LA, too, we have lots to talk about.

And questions like these inevitably come up.

"I'm not afraid of 'The Big One' per se," I told him, "but I'm afraid of how people will react in the aftermath."

The stuff of my nightmares is the run on gas, the traffic jams, looting, and generalized mass hysteria. The actions of others feel so beyond my control.

I did, however, have one clarification to make: "I'm afraid of an earthquake happening and me not being home with my cat. I'm really afraid of my cat being home alone during a big earthquake."

Unfortunately, unless I become a shut-in, there's nothing I can do about that.

I approach our seismic precariousness with a fair amount of scientific interest and healthy skepticism. I've explored the San Andreas Fault in more than one section. I've seen firsthand how past earthquakes can ravage buildings, landscapes, and roadways.

I have, in some way or another, walked in the historical path of destruction of Long Beach, Sylmar, Landers, Whittier, and more.

So, the threat of a geological, geophysical, seismological event on a massive scale is pretty real to me. My lack of fear doesn't come out of ignorance.

Or does it?

We know very well that we're overdue for an earthquake whose magnitude is at the upper end of the Richter Scale.

The last one of that category to hit Southern California was on January 17, 1994 at 4:30 a.m.

Although the epicenter of that one was located in the San Fernando Valley community of Reseda (technically Los Angeles), it was dubbed the Northridge Earthquake.

It occurred along a previously unknown fault, also later dubbed the Northridge blind thrust fault.

Most of the twisted wreckage from nearly a quarter-century ago has been cleared—except in one place, where it's been turned into sculptural art as a memorial for the victims of the earthquake.

That's on the campus of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where the Lauretta Wasserstein Earthquake Sculpture Garden pays tribute to the destruction and devastation that hit a little too close to home (about a mile from the epicenter).

All the buildings on the campus had been damaged by the Northridge earthquake.

Those that weren't brought down by the initial jolt and aftershocks erupted into a fiery (and sometimes toxic) blaze.

And yet artist Marjorie Berkson Sievers (a CSUN alum) and landscape architect Paul Lewis managed to see beauty in the rubble...

...converting disembodied columns, pillars, stairs, and walls (mostly from a collapsed parking structure) into a kind of artificial reef for nature to twist itself around...

...vines to crawl through...

...and plants to inhabit.

Of course, the damage brought on by the Northridge earthquake wasn't isolated to the West Valley—it stretched for 85 miles. But to really grasp what happened in the middle of the night in January 1994, you've got to go back to Northridge and look at some of that rubble.

That is, until something similar happens again.

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