I am a John Steinbeck man. I was introduced to him by reading, "The Red Pony" at the age of 12 and I've been reading him ever since. I was lucky, in my senior year of high school, to play George in "Of Mice and Men" for which I won a small scholarship to the Drama Department of a small local state university. Make no mistake, I consider him one of the greatest writers of all time. The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are two of the most beautiful, meaningful and powerful reading experiences of my lifetime. As a Nobel winner in 1962 it's clear that others have agreed. John's work, of all authors, resonates in me deeply.
John Steinbeck was the first of the great writers with whom I fell in love. There would be dozens and dozens of others over the years but he's the one I've stuck with - through all the the other "reading eras" of my life. If you know Steinbeck's work then you that no other writer, perhaps ever, captured settings better than him. The majority of his novels take place in what is commonly called "Steinbeck Country" in California. The oak savannah of central California has always held a particular allure for me and I thought, last September, that I would plan a spring trip there.
I was hoping we'd have a decent rain year which can turn the rolling hills into a spectacular, verdant green. Well we finally had a downright wet year.
We had so much rain, in fact, that it threatened my trip and closed the campground at my first stop. Morro Bay State Park. The campground there on the coast had suffered significant storm damage and photos showed dozens of trees knocked down onto the campsites and blocking roads. I looked for an alternative and found pretty Cerro Alto campground off Highway 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero.
(Quick digression - do you know what atascadero means in Spanish? It means "sticky mess" and ranks high on the list of dumb Spanish names for towns along with Los Banos).
The road to Cerro Alto, off Highway 41, is one lane and if you stay right at the Y leads you over a stream, and into a tiny dead end with 3 parking spaces. Of course I took the truck and trailer right in there on the way in - you always stay right, don't you? After some crazy yet dexterous maneuvering I got the truck and trailer turned around and made it to my campsite. It was a picturesque place and my campsite had tiny Morro Creek running behind it.
The following morning I drove to Morro Bay and filled up with gas, had breakfast and bought a few provisions. Morro Bay is one of my favorite places on the coast of California and I've made dozens of trips there in my lifetime. I do not believe I had ever seen it so quiet and serene.
On the way back to camp I drove for a bit on Highway 41 to check out the late winter splendor.
The following day I spent hiking around the camp and on the Cerro Alto trail.
After a morning hike I came back for lunch and then decided to take a short nap. As an aside, I met a woman a few weeks back who had warned me about ticks this spring being very bad in the area I was to be travelling. She had contracted Lyme's disease about ten years ago from a tick and told me she had been sick ever since. Scared the Hell out of me as I've had a lifelong fear of parasites (human and insect) but I was pretty sure that I'd scheduled my trip prior to the big spring "tickfest". I mean, I'm a outdoors man, I wasn't worried.
After I got comfortable on my bed in the trailer, ready for my afternoon nap, I looked up and, boom, a tick about 4 inches from my head. Shit. Oh no. They must be everywhere, right? I thoroughly checked my clothing and scoured the trailer. I showered in my little trailer bathroom. The camp host came by and I asked him about the ticks. He told me, "yep, been around all winter and they're everywhere". Thanks pal, thanks for the encouraging news. I spent the next several hours obsessively scratching and itching. In the end, I never did see another tick. After years of being outdoors I'd much rather deal with rattlers than ticks. I can generally see and sometimes hear the snakes. The ticks are sneaky little bastards.
The next day I drove to Fremont Peak State Park. I was looking forward to going there as it had been Steinbeck's last California stop in his wonderful and inspiring travelogue, "Travels with Charley". It overlooks the Salinas Valley of John's youth and I felt that I would be walking in his footsteps during my visit. I did stop at the Camp Roberts Rest Stop (one of the most scenic in California) and made a few photos of what I consider prime examples of "Steinbeck Country".
The road to Fremont Peak is harrowing and the campground road was narrow, one lane, with fallen tree branches and steep cliffs on each side in places. About halfway there I thought I was completely out of my mind for dragging a trailer to such a place. After finding my campsite I didn't feel quite so crazy. It set on a bluff overlooking the valley with a view all the way out to marine layer covered Monterey Bay. I was, until a few nights later, the only person camping there. Magnificent.
I love that old picnic table in the photo gallery above. It looks like it has been there at least since the time Steinbeck visited in 1960. I imagined him there - peeling an orange and relaxing with faithful Charley by his side.
I was now in full "Steinbeck mode" and decided to spend the next day in Salinas. My first stop was at the "Garden of Memories Cemetery" where the ashes of Steinbeck are buried near his parents and last wife.
I met some workers at the cemetery who told me that 300 old growth oak trees had fallen in Salinas during the series of strong Pacific storms this winter. It was a theme for the entire trip - so many old, stately, and beautiful oaks lost. Heartbreaking.
I then went to the National Steinbeck Center and spent a few hours immersing myself in John Steinbeck. The exhibits are wonderful and cover each major part of his life. I had heard that Steinbeck's truck and camper from, "Travels with Charley" was there and I raced around until I found it. It didn't disappoint.
After spending a few touching hours at the Center I wandered down Central Avenue in Salinas to the birthplace and childhood home of Steinbeck which is a now a fine restaurant staffed by volunteers and fellow Steinbeck enthusiasts.
The journey back to the campsite was not nearly as anxiety filled without the trailer and I did stop to take a few photographs of the drive.
That evening was quiet and serene - literally no one else around.
The next day, a Saturday, I decided to go ahead and truly follow Steinbeck's footsteps and hike to the top of Fremont Peak. I awoke a little later than I'd planned and worried it might be crowded. I needn't have worried - I saw a group of 3 women and a father and son on the hike. There was a 360 degree view at the top of Fremont Peak. It was blissful and I thought of John and Charley the entire time.
Fremont Peak State Park is an unheralded gem. Not only literary history but California history abounds as well. John Fremont and his troops ascended the peak during the Mexican-American war (1846-1848) and it was the first place that the American flag flew in California. It is also a dark sky place of some renown in California according to the stargazers I met on Saturday night. There is an observatory there and many folks just tote their telescopes to the park, set them up, and spend hours observing the constellations. It's quite a place. I'm pleased Mr. Steinbeck sent me there.
I planned to spend the last few days of the trip in Pinnacles and then visit the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Unfortunately, Pinnacles was overrun (the exact opposite of Fremont Peak) and I had a couple of minor issues develop with my Casita which necessitated coming home a bit earlier than planned. Nevertheless I did make some photos of the two days around Pinnacles.
I am a passionate person. Guess I was born that way. And the things I love? Like music and literature and the land? I love them deeply. I love John Steinbeck and I love the topography of my home state. I have my whole life. This trip was one I'd desired to take for many, many years. It satisfied a longing I had and felt as though I'd touched the heart of the golden state.
Haven't read Steinbeck yet? Start with, "East of Eden". Like me, you'll probably never look back.
There was a popular song, written in 1927, called "My Blue Heaven", that my mother would sing to me as a child. Maybe you've heard it. One of the lyrics went:
"Whippoorwills call, evenin' is nigh
Hurry to my Blue Heaven and a little nest nestled where the roses bloom. Just Molly and me and the baby makes three."
The song is filled with imagery and I pictured it in my mind's eye as a young boy. The words and my Mom's pretty voice soothed me and I remember asking her (she would have been 80 today) to sing it over and over again. I hadn't thought of this song for many, many years but on this latest trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument the song jumped into my head and the words naturally changed to my green heaven. The last several years now I have traveled extensively in the West and I've seen magnificent places but there is no place on earth that I feel more at home or connected to than Organ Pipe. The air itself is different. The earth feels differently below my feet. Edward Abbey served as a Park Ranger there and he loved the area too calling adjacent Cabeza Prieta the "finest desert wilderness in North America" and said this:
Transparent and intangible as sunlight, yet always and everywhere present, the desert lures a man on and on, from the red-walled canyon to the smoke-blue ranges beyond, in a futile but fascinating quest for the great, unimaginable treasure which the desert seems to promise. Once caught by this golden lure you become a prospector for life. -
Cactus Ed was right. I'm a "prospector" for what remains of my life.
The Sonoran desert is very different than other deserts in North America. Since there are five seasons; winter, spring, summer, monsoon, and autumn, and two of those can see quite a bit of rain (winter and monsoon) the desert is truly alive. The last few years I've experienced some rain during January visits to the Monument and the beauty and smell of that experience is indescribable. On this trip it was warm and sunny which made for poor photographic opportunities but maximum recreation and relaxation.
Another thing about this trip - I turned 60 recently and this damn birthday stimulated more than a few hours of introspection and reflection. As I look back I have many beautiful memories but I have also endured my share of pain: losing my parents to cancer and Alzheimer's too early, I was diagnosed with glaucoma at an unusually early age with all that entails, I faced appalling and dishonest injustice instigated and condoned by people I liked and trusted, I've lost several dear friends to death, suicide and the vagaries of time. Of course, I also extensively pondered all of my own terrible mistakes and sins which are too numerous and odious to count.
While contemplating it became clear to me that while life has been, at times, profoundly joyful and fulfilling it has also been deeply sorrowful and painful and often seemed impossible to endure. But, endure I have. I know I've been foolish on occasion but I've gained some wisdom and I've hung on even when experiencing abject hopelessness. It seems clear that I am, if nothing else, resilient, and so it is with the desert. I love the sea and the mountains but, as I get older, and come to terms with my own mortality, my respect and affection for the desert grows more deeply every year. Life is hard, for sure, but the cacti, the creosote, the bobcat, the roadrunner and the lizard thrive against the odds in an often harsh and exposed existence. The resilient Sonoran desert not only gives me solace it inspires me to live my own life more fully and with fewer complaints. Wherever I go it will always remain my own true home.
Remarkably, in this desert milieu live 850 plants and animals. Barren, brown desert? Not by a long shot. An example is the ocotillo (or coachwhip or candlewood). Talk about resilient. The ocotillo looks like an unassuming pile of dead sticks for much of the year. Then, if and when it rains, it becomes a brilliant green. It is a glorious transformation.
It is a long drive (9 hours) out to Organ Pipe for me. I determined to simply relax and meditate on my first day. Perhaps I'd just hang around the campsite in the sun and maybe go for a short hike around the campground. When I woke up I had far too much energy for such sedentary activities. I jumped in the truck and drove to Ajo. I got my permit to travel in the Cabeza Prieta and Barry Goldwater Range and chatted with the BLM folks. I then decided to drive into the Cabeza Prieta and come back to camp via the Bates Well Road and Pozo Nuevo in Organ Pipe. The weather was warm and I drove with the windows wide open. I stopped and talked to whoever was around (except the Border Patrol who were parked in too many places). I met some eccentric and intrepid travelers out there. The desert does attract us oddballs. My people...
In the middle of the day my old bones began to tire after two days of solid driving and several hours of being jostled on rutted and rocky dirt roads. I arrived at Bates Ranch in the northern portion of Organ Pipe Monument and took a few photos. If you find Bates Ranch as interesting as I do you can read more about its' history here. Despite being in the boundaries of a National Monument the ranch didn't actually stop operation until 1976. There is something about old West ranches that seems to ask for black and white photos.
I also made some color photos of this fascinating place.
The next few days I did get some of that sweet relaxation in. For the first time in many years I did not drive out to Quito Baquito but went on several short hikes in the Monument. I found some small hills to climb and meditate on. I studied the scenery. I sat in the slim shade of Saguaro and Senita cactus. I ate snacks in the cholla gardens. I stopped worrying. I listened to the crying coyotes each night. I made a few photographs but it was not a priority. I chatted with my campground neighbors. I relaxed out of my separation from the land. I visited with the Park Rangers. I slowed down. I heard the cactus wren and the ravens. I experienced each moment as fully as I could. I had a damn fine time.
I saved, for the last day, a late afternoon and twilight drive through the Ajo Mountains. I rolled down the windows and crept along the road. A desert breeze blew through the cab of the truck. I occasionally stopped and got out to take photos and take short walks. I immersed myself in the desert. I thought of my children and wished they were with me. As I neared the end of the drive I started missing Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and I hadn't left it yet.
I'd apologize for the mawkish tone of this trip review but it wouldn't be sincere. I may wax tritely and in cliche riddled phrases but I'm at a loss to describe my love for the Sonoran Desert and if it sounds maudlin so be it. If you do get a feeling for my love of the place then I'm pleased. I encourage you to read Abbey, Bowden, and Krutch. They get closer to doing this slice of "green desert heaven" more justice than I ever will.
I count the days until my next visit. Thanks for coming along.
This last photo of dancing Saguaros is one that I enjoy. I must give credit to my friend and photography guru, Alex Kunz, for helping me process it. May you all be healthy, happy, safe and at ease. Until next time...
Last year I had a marvelous visit on my own for the "super bloom" in Death Valley. I decided last Fall that I wanted to go out there a little earlier this year since I'd read that December and January were the least crowded of the year (can you imagine going in, say, August? Who are those people?). I asked two of my dearest friends to come with me. I've known Steve and Marty for nearly 40 years.
I arrived on Monday, at overdeveloped and busy Furnace Creek, and had two days to myself before the lads joined me a few days later. I made a few photos near Zabriskie Point on Tuesday morning.
This night photo is from my campsite. That is the Furnace Creek Inn in the distance.
I spent the next day, in shorts with weather in the sunny mid 70's, hanging out in Furnace Creek. I went to the old Borax Museum and the Harmony Borax site as well as driving the short road through Mustard Canyon. I was also visited by my favorite bird, "El Correcaminos".
On Wednesday I got on the road and listened to the Liverpool match on radio while waiting for Marty. The weather began to change and while the forecast was for rain I figured, "Hey, it's Death Valley. How much could it rain? How cold could it get?" This seemed especially true as I drove through a dust storm in the warm Mojave sun.
Marty finally arrived a few hours late but explained that the drive was so beautiful he had to stop and take photos along the way. Made sense to me.
We got up early and drove out to my favorite Death Valley campground - the much more primitive and isolated Mesquite Springs. Mesquite sits at 1800 feet in elevation. We should probably have stayed in Furnace Creek or gone to Stovepipe Wells which are much lower and warmer but, to me, Mesquite is more scenic. It rained all day (as had been forecast). Steve arrived that day after a long drive from the Bay Area. The three amigos were together and ready for some Death Valley fun because tomorrow had to be warmer, right?
Since it was Steve's first visit I decided to do the "tourist tour" which included Badwater and the Devil's Golf Course.
To my surprise, it stayed cold and it stayed wet. After many years of tent and cowboy camping we felt fortunate to have my little trailer to stay warm. We spent time inside watching a few movies on my iPad and singing folk songs to the accompaniment of Steve's guitar and Marty's harmonica.
We spent much of the next day at the Ubehebe Crater. That's Marty on the far left of the panorama running to take his next photo or perhaps trying to stay warm. Since the weather was so nasty it did preclude us from some off road travel but we're saving it up for next year.
I also made a few black and white photos on the trip as well.
We all went our separate ways at the end of the week but have decided to make this an annual trip. The planning has already begun...Death Valley holds a lifetime worth of fascinations. I will get to see Steve and Marty at the big shindig in Lassen this summer but I'll miss them until then.
Next I'll be heading to the Sonoran desert in Southern Arizona. My hunch? It will be warmer and stunning but, without my amigos, not quite as much fun.
We sadly decided to trade in our failing Nissan Frontier Pro-4X in favor of a new Toyota Tacoma 4x4 Off Road TRD. Unfortunately, Toyota recommends a 500 mile break in period before towing anything. We had scheduled a camping trip to Joshua Tree (like everyone else apparently-record breaking crowds out there) and canceled that trip too. Since I'm headed to Death Valley next week I needed to put some quick miles on the new truck. We all love Pismo and thought a drive up there would do the trick. It's a four hour drive.
Wait? Did I say a four hour drive? In reality was a SIX hour drive sitting in traffic on the way to LA, in LA, in Carpenteria, and in Santa Barbara. If you're old enough you can remember when a trip up the coast was seldom "trafficky". California gets worse and worse...
We arrived at about 4:00 PM. We immediately stopped at Pancho's Surf Shop where Lilly had her eye on a cool sweatshirt. It was as busy as I've seen Pismo even during summer.
After the obligatory shopping we walked out to the Pier and I was able to make a few photos. The temperature was cool and the sunset mesmerizing.
My travel companions...
We woke up early the next morning and it only took four hours to get home! It felt like a miracle. This has been a joyous week having Lilly and her friend Kennedy with us. Since the truck is "broken in" next up is Death Valley with Marty and Steve.
One last photo of my enchanting daughter.
Happy New Year to all.
On Twitter it's apparent that reviewing one's photos for the year is all the rage. I consider myself a non-conformist but I kind of like the idea. This is true even if the exercise is nothing more than an oppportunity to review my travels and tribulations for the last 12 months. For me, it's easy to do that and one of the reasons that I started this website. I enjoy sharing the beauty of the West and looking at my photos will be an enjoyable activity. I am not, however, inclined to pick my "favorite" 12 photos. While ranking is cool I think that activity might make my head explode. Maybe next year...
This was my first year traveling with my little travel trailer, a fiberglass egg, called, "El Correcaminos". It is quite different than sleeping in a tent or the back of my truck. In fact, it's so dang convenient that the first few months I traveled with it I'd get in the cozy little space and just want to stay there. This rather defeats the idea of getting a trailer which is to enjoy the great outdoors. I suppose it's natural though, when in a safe cocoon, to want to stay there. However, get out we did!
Here are my some of my favorite photos from my trips this year. I started the year using JPEG and a Nikon D3300, editing using the Nikon software, and finished the year making RAW images with a Nikon D750 and editing them in Lightroom.
The first photos are from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument last January.
For my birthday, the last one of my FIFTIES, Lupe and I took Banjo to Point Mugu.
My next stop in the little trailer was Death Valley. I'd been there before but never during a "super bloom" or for so long. It was a good trip.
In March I visited my Bay Area family. The last 6 years have been challenging for me in many ways but Lisa, Kara and Steve have always been there for me. How I love them... The photo below is of Lisa, Kara and their Dad, Jack. Jack is maybe, just maybe, the coolest guy I've ever known.
In March Lupe and I went to Arizona. We spent time in the Superstitions and out at Organ Pipe. We had a wonderful time. Lupe is the perfect traveling partner.
In late March Banjo and I spent a few days at the other-worldly Red Rock Canyon north of Los Angeles. It's a really cool place and reminded me of Utah or Abiquiu, NM.
In April, I headed out to Utah. I was able to spend time at Zion, Bryce, Escalante State Park and Kodachrome State Park. Magnificent.
In May I spent some time in Joshua Tree and at San Onofre Beach.
In June I was able to visit the newest National Park, Pinnacles, with my remarkable daughter Lilly and her friend Kennedy. Pinnacles is becoming a favorite as it is (relatively) uncrowded and sits in the heart of the scenic part of Central California. I'll be back next March for some spring photography in "Steinbeck Country".
Lupe and I had to forego a planned trip to Glacier but we managed to spend a wonderful week in Lassen Volcanic National Park. When we returned we decided to establish an annual family and friends trip up there and 2017 will be our inaugural event.
In August my friend Marty and I spent a week at Gaviota State Beach and on the Central Coast of California north of Santa Barbara.
The next "big trip" I took was way up the Northern California coast to Redwoods National Park and then I spent another few days near Brookings, Oregon at Harris Beach State Park
In October I visited my thoughtful and smart and long lost friend Eric Flaherty and took a short trip to Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona.
In November I visited the wonderful Mojave. I love it out there...
In December I took a very short trip to a local campground, Casper's Wilderness Park, and my truck began to have mechanical problems. I had to cancel my Anza Borrego trip and deal with having the truck in the shop 3 times in a two week period. Since I was convinced that my troubles with the truck were only beginning we bought a new Toyota Tacoma which will bring less worry to my travels in the next couple of years.
This, then, wraps up my short review of the year's travels. I'm hard at work planning for 2017. I do hope each of you who read this have a magnificent holiday season and that next year is one of the best of your lives.
Like many of us, I suppose, I've been thinking, often, about this bizarre election. In fact, whenever there is an election I try to put it into historical perspective but there really is no history in the United States that could have predicted a right wing white nationalist of epic immorality, stupidity and narcissism would be elected president.
As a child of the 60's I was inundated with politics. I was molded, to a great degree, by the tumult of the times. The Vietnam War was a dark cloud that enveloped the nation and tore it apart. The Civil Rights movement was a beacon of hope in those dark times. My childhood hero was Dr. Martin Luther King. I never understood, as a child, how people could be judged on the color of their skin. Of course, I still don't but it just seems so basic to me. While I had to acknowledge that there were, indeed, racists they were, obviously a dying breed of backward knuckle dragging neanderthals, right?
The 1968 assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and MLK were very, very painful to me. I was 11 years old and, already, the world was beginning to terrify me in ways that have never gone completely away. I was deeply affected by Cesar Chavez and the Chicano movement in Southern California as well as AIM (American Indian Movement). I asked my parents to stop eating grapes during the boycott. Things were changing and I happily subscribed to the notion that, "all men are created equal" and there should be more compassion and empathy and love in the world. The Beatles understood and amplified..."All You Need Is Love".
The 1972 election baffled me. Wait. If all of these social changes were occurring how could Richard Nixon be elected? George McGovern was a kind, smart, decent WWII veteran progressive who promised to end the Vietnam War which was dividing the country and was unwinnable. Instead? It was a massive landslide for Nixon. Ok, so that was weird but I figured people were nervous about changing the president during a time of difficulty.
In 1973 it became obvious that something was seriously wrong with the Nixon administration. In my high school Social Studies class the teacher insisted on watching the Watergate hearings. One day, bored I guess, I said, "Why are we even watching this? Nothing's gonna happen anyway". My calm, relaxed and ultra-cool teacher grabbed me by the arm and took me outside the classroom. In a measured but direct way he said, "Do you understand that this country has a constitution? Do you understand that this applies to everyone? Do you? Do you understand its' importance?". I believe I responded with something like, "Yes sir".
At that instant a light clicked on in my head. My youthful cynicism flew out the window. Of course, Nixon, facing removal from office resigned and I wondered if another Republican would ever be elected again.
In 1976 I was ready to vote for the first time. Jimmy Carter, that conservative from Georgia? No way - I made phone calls and dropped off pamphlets for Shirley Chisholm. I was very excited about Tom Hayden running against conservative Democrat John Tunney for Senator from CA. I put a "Hayden for Senate" bumper sticker on my 1967 Volkswagen Bug and grew my hair out and my beard longer.
Chisholm and Hayden were crushed. I began to sense that maybe I was not a part of the political mainstream in California and the USA. It was nice, however, to have most of my college professors agree with my stances. Smart and educated people got it. The answer was EDUCATION! If there was to be a real American Dream then it, of course, had to begin with a proper public education. I started studying Education with an eye toward becoming a teacher.
Remember I thought in 1975 that another Republican would never be elected for many, many years? I remember Hunter Thompson writing, "What is to become of Ronnie Ray-Guns"? In 1980 - a reality check of epic proportions- I mourned the election of the "Seen one Redwood, seen them all" Ronald Reagan. HST and I couldn't have been more wrong. He was, until 2000, the absolutely worst president of my lifetime. I detested the man. I could write another long blog on all the reasons why but that would be another depressing exercise.
During the 1980's I was focused on my teaching career but environmental issues became more and more important to me. While disgusted and distressed by US foreign policy, in Latin America for example, I began to seriously worry about the biggest issue of our time - the preservation of the earth. I read Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner and Carl Sagan. How I hoped for a president who had a progressive agenda that focused on protecting the planet.
Let's fast forward to 2008. I was, finally, vindicated. A progressive was elected (No- Bill Clinton was NOT a progressive). At age 51, what I thought would happen in 1976 happened. Obama still wasn't progressive enough for me. I hated his drone program. I hated his emphasis on surveillance. His choice for Secretary of Education was despicable and shockingly all wrong. He bailed out Wall Street. But, at least he was smart and capable and measured and he and his wife were dignified and classy. I was proud that he represented the USA abroad.
As the 2016 election approached I figured we were in trouble again. Police shootings of unarmed blacks were the news of the day (after all these years- like it was new). Mass incarceration was acknowledged. The neo-liberal (a euphemism for soft Republican) Hillary Clinton, a champion of mass incarceration, would be the obvious nominee for the Democrats. I thought maybe Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee. I was frightened of "junior Joe McCarthy", Ted Cruz, as a possibility. Donald Trump? No way. He's a two bit hustler, a huckster, a game show host, a conspiracy theorist, a greedy landlord, PT Barnum without the intelligence. In short, a joke of a candidate. We needed better choices.
Then, a candidate, a true progressive, emerged from the shadows of the great state of Vermont. I'd been following and admiring Bernie for many years. It's a rare thing to find a candidate who you agree with on literally 99% of the issues. Therefore, I knew he had ZERO chance. He was Tom Hayden and Shirley Chisholm again. Hell, he even called himself a socialist. To my amazement, Bernie was suddenly speaking for more people than just myself. Despite the Clinton cronies calling his supporters "Bernie Bros" and people like Gloria Steinem (of all people) saying girls wanted to follow Bernie to meet boys (what happened to YOU Gloria?), he did very well in the primaries. In fact, he was mounting a serious challenge to the Democratic status quo. It was, of course, too good to be true. Hillary finally emerged as the victor through what some may label as dubious tactics but - regardless - she garnered the nomination.
Even odder than the Bernie phenomenon was the fact that an obvious racist was winning some Republican primaries. It was clear that Trump was appealing to what I like to call the "lowest common denominator"...the racists and xenophobes and haters of the most vulnerable people in our society. The truly ignorant. I wasn't worried. To me, Trump was just another Alabama George Wallace. He called Mexicans "rapists and thieves" and that had to disqualify him right? He had an insanely egotistical and nutty twitter account where he demonstrated his mendacity, bigotry and stupidity on an hourly basis. He denied climate change and called it a "Chinese hoax". He would make his points with the term, "many people are saying" to show he read internet crazies and wasn't interested in facts. He showed no dignity or class. He criticized the press constantly. He called for a national registry of Muslims and when asked how that differed from what Nazi Germany did to the Jews responded with, "You tell me". He said he would build a "Big, beautiful wall" along the Mexican border. He mocked a disabled reporter. He was a demagogue, the village idiot with a microphone, a disgusting, vile human being.
He won the nomination. He was, without doubt, the biggest fool to ever gain this kind of support in my lifetime. He made George W. Bush and Reagan look like great statesman. I still wasn't that worried. He'd be crushed by Hillary. In fact, I was kind of glad that he showed how many racists and fascist leaning people there still were in America. It was sobering but important to know.
The polls were pretty clear that although this imbecile had some support Hillary would easily defeat him. Then, to make it more obvious that this guy was a despicable, thoroughly un-electable and rotten person a video surfaced that showed him laughing about grabbing women "by the pussy" or, as it's more commonly known, "sexual assault". He was done, cooked, history. It was clear that we had some serious problems in the country but at least that lunatic would be out of the picture.
Somehow Trump stayed in the race. I was stunned. Wikileaks, the Russians, and unbelievably the FBI were all playing some shady role in supporting Trump who, it was now clear, was an unfit sociopath for president. Still, we would weather the storm. Gas prices were low, the economy had been slowly recovering from the Republican mess of 2008, unemployment was very low, our country was OK.
In November the country, as I suspected, voted for Clinton. Of course, unlike any other democracy in the world we in the U. S. have this odd thing called the, ahem, "electoral college".
I still don't understand it. The fact that 60 million people in the United States cast their vote for this guy is something I'll never fathom. I thought when I was young that the world would become more comprehensible to me. Just the opposite has happened. I always believed in some semblance of good in America, a country that did things like win WWII against outright evil, outlaw slavery, repudiate McCarthyism, send a man to the moon, create the Peace Corps, recognize collective bargaining, lead the world in freedom of expression and innovation, and, one day, be a force for global good. I just don't get it. I do understand one thing very clearly though...I am not in step with many of my fellow countrymen. Of course, I'm rather used to that...just not to this extreme.
My lifetime hopes came crashing down this November. We are at a new place now. Recent revelations appear to confirm that Russia participated in our election and supported Trump (serious irony there...see American involvement in Latin America or Iran for example). Early cabinet selections show that Trump is exactly who we thought he was. America's national nightmare is just beginning.
This country is, I believe, at a crossroad. Democracy itself may be at stake. My greatest hope at this point is that this mentally unbalanced sociopath doesn't launch a nuclear strike. It is a time for us to cling tight to our democratic constitutional system. A system I have criticized many, many times but, ultimately, have great faith will eventually work.
We must resist. We must do all we can, daily, to preserve our planet. We must take good care of ourselves in order to do what must be done for our children and grandchildren. We must be good and just. We must remember the legacies of Gandhi and MLK and Cesar Chavez. We must be kind whenever we can. We must be vigilant and wary and protect "the least among us". We must support all institutions of Education and focus on facts which will mold our beliefs. We must act with integrity. We must endure. We must "do the right thing". Passivity is the enemy. Little things count. Resist.
BIRTHDAY PARTIES and LOCAL CAMPING
For many reasons this has been an interesting period of time. I've been attempting a blog post, for a month now, about my revulsion regarding the US Presidential election but I'll save that and for now just tell you about the birthday party for my twin grandchildren in LA and about some time spent nearby in the Casper's Wilderness Park off the Ortega Highway near San Juan Capistrano.
Joaquin and Finley turned two in November and here are a few photos of their party at a park in the San Fernando Valley. I know this is a travel blog and not Facebook (thank heavens) but I'm hoping you'll indulge me just a bit for my family pride.
I also decided to spend a few days at a local campground. Near San Juan Capistrano, off the Ortega Highway, is a large expanse of land that hasn't been completely over-developed so I guess that passes for a "wilderness" these days...
It was difficult to find locations for photos that didn't include, roads, telephone poles and lines, people and/or cars. I did manage to take a few short hikes which has a bit more of a wild feel but it wasn't a "photo trip" anyway. It got very cold. Down to 30F one night and was I glad I had the cozy trailer. A highlight was that my young buddy Tim joined me for a night. Tim's father and grandfather lived on the same street as my grandparents when I was a child and they both became very good friends of mine. Tim is Lilly's brother by a different marriage. Lots of interesting connections! Timmy has had a lot of challenges in life and it was good for both of us that he came along...
My next plans are on hold right now as my Nissan Frontier Pro-4X has been in the shop for 5 days and the dealership still can't figure out how to fix it. A light on the instrument panel illuminated and, apparently, the greatest minds at Nissan are baffled. Can you say amazed and frustrated? I told them I'm an obsessive vagabond but I don't think they quite understood.
I do hope that each of you, my dear friends, has a beautiful and peaceful Holiday season and let's hope for a good 2017. We may need a little good fortune...but we all deserve it.
If you follow these pages, at all, you know I am a passionate lover of the public lands and National Parks in the West. I haven't been to all of them but I've been to the most popular and well known and some of them several times. I am not a "Park Counter". It's more important to me to freely explore and revisit the places I've found that I love than to check them off a list to say, "I've been there". No offense to those who do that- it's a fine goal but it's inconsistent with my "process not product" beliefs...life is about quality not quantity.
Moreover, the National Parks are certainly not the be all and end all of the best places to visit and explore in the United States. Each of these places were around before they got this "status". I encourage you all to find other public lands to investigate and you could start with visiting the National Monuments and Wildlife Refuges as well as typically serene Bureau of Land Management areas.
I have thought about this blog post for awhile. In particular, what would be the criteria for choosing my favorites? This personal criteria, like the Parks themselves, has definitely changed in the last 40 years. The Parks are now being overrun and it's not easy to find the peace many of us associate with wild settings. For years of my life Arches National Park was my "home away from home". No longer...
The following are my criteria for an ideal National Park:
1. Scenic splendor
2. Places for solitude and reflection
3. Flora and fauna
4. Regional setting
Scenic splendor is MY idea of what is visually pleasing. Only wildlife, I suppose, is mildly objective in terms of numbers. (My next blog will probably be favorite animals and that is certainly a matter of personal taste). Regional setting is simply what I think of the surrounding area. "Feeling" is the most wildly subjective and personal and combines several factors but, in the end, is what we beatniks used to refer to as "vibes" back in the day.
I will preface my list by reiterating this list is evolving. So, in order, these are my favorite five (or six) National Parks:
Number 1. Big Bend Big Bend is remote and still feels wild. Three distinct topographies are found here; desert, mountains and river which create seemingly endless possibilities for exploration. Miles and miles of trails and dirt roads allow for more solitude and reflection. Big Bend, because it's so damn far away from urban centers, is relatively uncrowded and it's easy to lose yourself here both literally and figuratively.
Mountains your thing? The Chisos are beautiful and imposing. Of course, prior to National Park status the mountains were abused by loggers and some areas, nearly 80 years later, are still recovering. Nevertheless, the mountains are picturesque and sharply rise up off the desert floor to provide an alpine oasis for camping, hiking and photography.
Desert Rat? Then you will find the heart of the Chihuahua delightfully all around. When I visited in March 2015 the desert was alive. Yuccas were blooming crazily, creosote and mesquite was everywhere and the desert wildflowers were blooming. Magnificent.
The Rio Grande makes a "big bend" here in southern Texas and is the namesake of the Park itself. Even though, thanks to the water hoarder engineers in the USA, the river is now often dry in Las Cruces and El Paso it flows here year around thanks to the Mexican River, the Rio Conchos. I've spent a few hours on the river banks - completely alone - and the serenity is as good as it gets in today's National Parks. River lovers rejoice...
The flora in Big Bend is, as you might expect, extraordinarily diverse. With mountain, desert and riparian areas well over 1000 species of plants are found here. Trees like the Texas Madrone, Juniper, Mesquite, Cottonwoods, Oak and Ash dot the park. Cacti is, of course, abundant (46 species!) and for a cactus lover like me it's a paradise. Wildflowers are typically found in Spring and Fall. If you have Southwest tastes here are the Sotol, Lechuguilla, Ocotillo, Salt Cedar, Creosote, and magnificent Yuccas.
Wildlife thrives here and spending your days here birdwatching would easily fill your hours. One of my the best mornings I've spent in recent years was while watching a mother and father Gray Hawk feeding their young in a large Cottonwood tree by the Rio Grande. Roadrunners are ubiquitous. Coyotes, javelinas, mule deer, and jackrabbits are easily seen. Bears, badgers and foxes are also here but a bit more reclusive. While not for everyone I suppose, the desert reptiles are here but best seen at night.
Big Bend is my number one favorite National Park. My hunch is, if you asked people, they have probably not heard of it (unless they are Texans!) and it does not crack their list of best National Parks even if they do...That's one of the main reasons it's number one.
If you love the Southwest it doesn't get better anywhere else.
On a scale of 1-5:
Scenic Splendor 4
Flora and Fauna 4
Regional Setting 5
Number 2. Yellowstone. The Granddaddy of them all. There really is no place else like Yellowstone.
Sometimes referred to as the "American Serengeti" the wildlife here is unsurpassed and in higher concentration than anywhere else in the continental USA. I've been fortunate to have spent 3 weeks in the Teton and Yellowstone wildernesses and in one trip alone I saw beavers, eagles, bears, moose, grouse, osprey, falcon, geese, badger, bats, bobcat, coyote, chipmunk, rabbit, bison and elk. It is a wildlife lover's nirvana.
Lots of folks think that the thermal features are the biggest attraction. Iconic "Old Faithful" is found here as well as literally hundreds of other geysers, mudpots, fumaroles, hot springs and even travertine terraces. On a trip there in 2013 I hung out with several "Geyser Gazers" who make an annual pilgrimage to the thermal basins and wait, sometimes for days and weeks, for an eruption. That actually doesn't sound like such a bad life does it?
The scenery? Well, come on... Let's start with the Grand Canyon of the mighty Yellowstone River. There is also the "Falls District" and Hayden Valley and Yellowstone lake and well, forget me trying to describe it- you just gotta go. It is sublime.
Ok- so...if Yellowstone is so great why isn't it number one? You guessed it. People. People everywhere unless you get off the roads. It seems that some of the biggest fools of America like to visit the park. Cars simply stop when they spot a bison and there are hundreds of bison everywhere. I've seen cars stop, doors fly open, and people run, camera in hand, right at the bison (or elk, or moose or anything that moves). It's maddening. Fortunately, Yellowstone is massive and getting out on the trails can get you away- really away - from people.
The area? It's adjacent to stunning Grand Teton National Park and a day's drive to splendid Glacier National Park. Enough said.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 5
Regional Setting 5
Number 3. Grand Canyon. I'm sure some will think I've rated this too highly but that's because; a. haven't been there or b. don't remember their first glimpse of it or c. they're clueless (which could be common- have you seen the presidential polls lately?).
Arriving at Grand Canyon NP, say at the ever popular South Rim, is pretty but does not prepare you for your first glimpse into the Canyon. My favorite experience in any National Park is to take someone to the Grand Canyon for the first time and listen to them audibly gasp and then see their facial expressions when they view it. It is so large and complex and beautiful it boggles the mind. Think of how many places you could sit for weeks on end and never get bored...the GC is one, for sure.
The mighty Colorado River - red in spring (hence its name) and green in the late summer and fall runs the length of the canyon of course. It rumbles, meanders, courses and slides through the canyon. The opportunities for hiking or playing on the river here are literally endless.
It is crowded. The South Rim can be overrun and feel like an amusement park. The North Rim is not open year around but offers better choices for solitude. The best idea though is to find spots away from the popular places and explore on your own. So finding privacy is possible but demands a bit of planning and work (like most of the parks).
The GC is its' own environment and there are some species that can only be found here. Several fish are native but the number, sadly, has significantly decreased over the years. Bird watching is a great treat and there is tremendous diversity in the bird population. The Kaibab squirrel is seen here and is rare. Of course, coyotes, mountain lions and other southwest mammals make their home here.
I love this part of the country. Southwest and Colorado Plateau beauty surrounds the Grand Canyon. Four Corners is within a day's drive. Often on my trips coming back from Colorado or New Mexico or even Utah I find a way to stop by- if only for a day or so. It's always worth it.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 3
Regional Setting 5
Number 4. Yosemite. Yosemite is, arguably, the prettiest place on the planet and if scenery was the ONLY criterion I was looking at then Yosemite is number one. The granite walls and rock formations and the waterfalls are spellbinding, mesmerizing and leave one speechless. This is the heart of John Muir's "Range of Light". To the best of my fading recollection this was the first National Park in which I camped (Redwood National Park was the first I actually visited). This is a rock climber's mecca and the legends and the ghosts of the legends are everywhere here...
The grizzly that once roamed this magnificent park have long ago vanished. The Yosemite black bears are around and used to be quite the nuisance before measures were taken to limit their opportunities for food. Of course, deer and coyotes are ubiquitous as are small varmints of many kinds. Still, the wildlife viewing is limited compared to Yellowstone or Glacier.
Unless you get very far off trail there is little solitude to be found here.
It's in California, of course and it's proximity to Sequoia and King's Canyon is a good feature but it's too close and too well known to the major population centers.
The feeling here? Stand beneath El Capitan or Half Dome and tell me how you feel. It's a religious experience.
Just writing this has spurred me into considering an early spring camping trip on the valley in my little trailer. March looks good- chilly but good...
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 4
Regional Setting 4
Here is a link to a Yosemite Guide.
Number 5(Tie). Arches For many years Arches National Park was my favorite place on the planet. I literally had an out of body experience when first I visited and I've never quite recovered (nor hope to...). After that visit I read Edward Abbey's masterpiece, "Desert Solitaire" in my thirst for more information about the place and, of course, my world, (literary and otherwise!) was altered completely. I'd found a kindred soul who understood that place and had the skill to explain its' sublimity. That was nearly 35 years ago.
The last 35 years have not been good to Arches just as Abbey dourly predicted. I don't fully understand the reasons for the denigration of Arches - It could be the stupid promotions like "Find Your Park" by the NPS or the state of Utah's ubiquitous and tawdry advertisements for the "Big 5" National Parks but the place has damn near been ruined.
Delicate Arch, the icon of the Southwest was, in the 80's, a popular hike. You might see 20-30 people as you walked the 3 miles there. When you arrived about the same number would be hanging out and having lunch or taking photos. Those days are long gone, vanished, history, forget it...Delicate Arch is a zoo. It's a citified experience. I was there in October 2014 and there was a SOLID 3 mile line to the Arch. When you got there? Dozens of people were crowded around the arch, pushing, yelling, arguing, and jockeying for position to photograph it. If you want to compound your misanthropic tendencies (or create some!) just hike to Delicate Arch at dusk.
The one campground (Devil's Garden) is always full and the entrance road to the park, Highway 191, gets backed up for miles on long weekends. In short, it's a mess and it breaks my heart. Words cannot adequately describe my despair about this, for me, deeply spiritual and sacred place.
Given what I've said above is it even worth visiting? Well, if you haven't been there, it is an unequivocal YES. It is, after all, still amazing Arches and it's not the fault of the land that it's being overrun. The red, desert varnished, geologic formations are, if you can imagine it without the hordes, remarkable and delightful and simply stunning. So, go, go, go. If you happen to be there on some frigid December or March morning you might run into some bespectacled bearded older fella huffing and puffing with a Nikon around his neck on a walk in the Fiery Furnace. Go ahead and say hello but you might just get a grunt in return...
The surrounding area is, of course, crazy beautiful and the great Canyonlands National Park is only a few miles down the road. If you're looking for quiet and solitude- go to the Maze district there. Moab, the town, next door to the park is one of the coolest in the West. Your proximity to the entire Four Corners region and the Colorado and Green Rivers also makes it a gem and a wonderful spot for river activity.
One typically doesn't go to Arches for the wildlife, per se, but it's there if you get away from the people. Look for it. Deer, coyote, fox, bobcat, mountain lion and lots of rabbits and smaller creatures abound.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 2
Regional Setting 5
Number 5 (Tie). Olympic. Given my predilection for the desert it may be surprising that I list this glorious spot but it's too wonderful and diverse to leave off the list.
Olympic, like Big Bend, has three distinct and marvelous topographies. First are the Olympic Mountains with Mt. Olympus towering over the entire area. The mountain hiking here is, in my opinion, is equal to the Rockies and Sierra. Lakes, rivers, peaks, lush and healthy forests, and simply water everywhere makes time and worry fall away when you visit.
Then, there are the Hoh and Quinault Rain Forests. These are certainly not, given the latitude, tropical rain forests. Instead, they are "temperate" rain forests and trees and moss and huge ferns are everywhere. I've never seen any place like it. Just writing this has me planning my next trip. It's been too long.
Then, if you love the sea, you've found your shangri la. Huge sections of beaches - with no one on them- stretch for miles. Trees and rock formations are adjacent and then there are the sandy beaches with an ocean smell that will send you instantly into the present moment. Having lived within a few hours of the beach my entire life I can report that, on the west coast, this is, I believe, the best beach walking, wandering and combing I have experienced.
I haven't been to Olympic in a number of years but I note from the interwebs data that Olympic is the number 6 on the most visited parks with 3 million visitors annually. Since there are no roads across the park from west to east unless you travel the northern edge of the park the people will be found concentrated in certain places. Here is the map. That means, of course, crowds. It also means miles of space for backpacking and like all these parks getting out of your car is a must. Still, it sounds too damn crowded. October might be the right month to go although it will be getting cold in the mountains.
Like other mountain ranges in the West the grizzly is long gone from the area but it is still rife with wildlife- deer, elk, black bears, cougars, otters and the snowshoe hare are here among many others. On the ocean side you'll find harbor seals, river otters and sea lions. At various times of the year you can also see porpoises and whales from the shoreline.
Scenic Splendor 5
Flora and Fauna 3
Regional Setting 4
So, there you go. My top 5 (or 6) National Parks. There are probably dozens of legitimate reasons to call this list bogus. First and foremost is its' subjectivity but, I suppose, when you're comparing these places, in the end, after reviewing all the data - it still comes down to which park appeals to you at a highly personal level. For example, here are a only a few of the wonders I left OFF the list:
Note these don't even include Alaska or the eastern parks!
I look forward, in about 5 years or so, to reviewing modifying and adding to the list after I visit other parks and get to Alaska. In the meantime, I offer you these places to consider as a traveling man and a lover of the natural world.
Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to express at least some gratitude to the National Park Service, on their 100th Anniversary, for doing a damn fine job of keeping these places as pristine as possible. I'm not a fan of authority and armed Rangers with nasty attitudes but, fortunately, I've only run into a few of those types. In general park personnel has been helpful and smart and they must have to exercise tremendous patience to deal with some of the idiots who grace our national treasures with their presence. They do this on an absurdly tiny budget. To me this is everything wrong about America - spend trillions on weapons, defense and billions on putting people in jail while we decimate the budgets for our National Parks. The NPS budget is a national disgrace.
When it comes to the future of the parks I'm glad the Park Service has stopped feeding the Grizzly among other not too smart ideas. I hope that they dump the "Find Your Park" promotional garbage and soon. The parks are slowly being ruined by the number of visitors that descend upon them annually and these promotions are, in my opinion, destructive. Limits must be placed on the number of visitors NOW.
I understand that from a political perspective the Park Service needs the population to support them but at what cost? More and more visitors? There is tragic irony in trying to save them by ruining them.
I hope you enjoyed reading about a few of our precious national gems.
Go on now! Get out there!
(In the off season.)
Have you looked around at the great work of photographers online? It's out there and it's ubiquitous and beautiful and bad and everything in between. It's inspiring and awful, and dull and exciting, pap and esthetically sublime. For me, the great work is inspiring and also intimidating. How can I ever be any good with so much good stuff out there?
Of course, I don't truly consider myself a photographer in the true sense of the word:
I don't have a "job" anymore per se. I call myself a picture taker but "shutter bug" is probably apt:
There is no doubt I'm enthusiastic. I often wonder what motivates photographers and, I suppose, it's different for every person who uses a camera. My motivation is simple. I simply want to share the places I've been with YOU.
Unlike a lot of folks who retire I don't miss my "career" and the ego crap and politics associated with it. What I do miss about my work is connecting with others. I had a general hubbub in my life for 40 years and it's not easy just to turn that off- even if 90% of the hubbub was meaningless bullshit. My best years in my career were when I was a High School teacher - just hanging out with my students and sharing was deeply satisfying to me. Sharing is the key word- to me teaching is all about learning and learning isn't filling empty brains with your brilliance- it's sharing and experiencing and learning together. That's when kids get fired up about learning - when they see how fun and meaningful it is by a teacher who learns with them . Unfortunately too much teaching, alternatively, is done to to them which is the primary reason schools fail our kids.
Enough about education- I could go on for days...believe me.
So, even though I'm older, I still have the itch to share. I suppose that's one reason that, occasionally, the internet provides a healthy outlet for me. It is of course true that I'd like my photographs to bowl you over with their magnificence but I ain't no Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange. I know, taking up photography as a passion nearing 60 years of age I'm not going to have decades to learn and hone my craft. That's OK though. Fortunately, photography is art and I can use my heart to take pictures and learn along the way.
I thought about going back to the university and getting a degree in photography since I've always been so academically oriented. But, nah, I've done enough of that! Instead I'm going to UYT (University of YouTube) and I've been blessed by having a few friends that have helped me along the way. I'm enjoying that part of the journey. It challenges my old and slow mind a bit which gets keeps the dread away if nothing else and I've always had a romance with learning. I do think these lessons are improving some technical aspects of my photos...
I am offering a few of my photos for sale but I'm realistic about that and it's hardly the reason I'm driven to snap off hundreds of images on every outdoor trip I go on. In a perfect world I'd like you to feel what I felt when I was there and taking that photo in my Trip Review. I'd like you to appreciate the wonder of the world as I seek to do daily. I'd like you to think about our connection to nature and how important it is that we work diligently to preserve it. Mostly though, in your own private way, I'd just like you to get the feeling of peace and calm and presence that I get when I'm "out there".
Let's talk about feelings and presence for a moment. Friends and family occasionally ask me how I handle setbacks and the answer, as with everything in life, is by staying present. I cannot change the past injustices and losses no matter how much I think about them...I certainly cannot control the future. All I have is this moment (that's actually all any of us ever have). The best way I've found to stay connected to this moment is by using sensory perception and/or through meditation and the practice of mindfulness. As Eckhart Tolle says when you're smelling the morning air you aren't thinking...at all...you're truly present. It's after we smell the morning air that we begin to evaluate it and the mental craziness ensues.
Yes, but what about the technical aspects of photography? Composition? Golden ratio? Rule of thirds? Symmetry? Bokeh? Depth of field? Filling the frame? What about the rules? Rules are fine and important and I use them from time to time and I'm enjoying learning more all the time- but rules are hardly the reason I dig photography.
A good photograph can transcend thought like the morning breeze that you inhale without thinking attached. Thank you to those photographers whose photographs do that for me and may I be fortunate enough to have one or two do that for you my friends.
Come on then...let's go look at some pictures...
"Beauty is and always will be blue skies and open highway".
I grew up in Southern California in the 1960's. I suppose, to some extent, everyone who grows up in the West has a permanent mark left on their psyche from our "car culture".
I remember loving to drive anywhere with my parents in 1965 so I could count the Ford Mustangs on the local roads. Conversations with other boys in school invariably ended up with sports or cars. "Which is your favorite?" "What size is the engine?" "Chevy's suck!" "NO WAY- Ford's suck" "Four on the floor" "Three on the tree". "Mooneyes or Mags?" STP stickers were all the rage. If you didn't know who Big Daddy Garlits or AJ Foyt or Parnelli Jones were or the difference between a 283 and a 389 then, well, you were completely lost and ran the risk of being laughed off the playground.
What is the cliche? The "lure of the open road"? It had us all firmly in its' grip and we were all too young to drive. There was (and is!) romance in asphalt, steel, chrome and the freedom it represents. I have spent many hours trying to determine why I craved and still crave the open road. It's a spiritual, mystical and oddly ethereal concrete symbol for getting the Hell out of my head and out of here.
I fantasized before retirement about just hitting the road as soon as I could...
THAT dream has become a reality. I have been traveling the highways about half the time since June of 2013 but I have been loving highways my entire life.
Recently, on Twitter, I asked my followers to tell me some of their favorite highways. I was surprised at the number of responses I received. It's obvious that I'm not the only one who is in love with the road. Of course, were it not cut into pieces the "Mother Road"- Route 66- might have been on everyone's list. While I appreciate the efforts to preserve or re-create that route, I've done bits and pieces and it's a puzzle to even find it at times and much is gone in favor of the interstate system. So, we won't include that here which is too bad.
So what criteria did I use to determine my favorites? In two main ways- how the road makes me feel and whether I'd recommend it. That's not too subjective, is it? Well, of course it is but it's also very simple...
Here's the list:
1. California State Route 1 Growing up in SoCal this one was king. Commonly called PCH it stretches from San Juan Capistrano in the south to Leggett in the north- encompassing some of the world's most beautiful scenery and vistas. Big Sur and environs is typically considered the most beautiful part of the drive but there are little stretches - from it's southern terminus to it's northern end that are emblematic of everything that represents the "California culture". The drive from Santa Monica to Oxnard is an example...waves, surfers, sand, seafood, fishermen and the shaka sign.
2. Highway 101 is also known, in places, as "PCH". This, if I had to pick, is the highway that I think I've loved more and longer than any other. As a young man I read and was captivated by John Steinbeck and his descriptions of the land (I still am). Highway 101 (one oh one) traverses the heart of what I think of as "Steinbeck Country"; the rolling hills with large oaks that are shimmering green in the spring and golden in the autumn. The world changes as you approach the Gaviota Pass and I cannot describe how glorious it feels to go through the Gaviota tunnel heading north - I simply leave all the Southern California bullshit behind me, get out of my overthinking mind, and embrace the visual poetry of the drive.
There have been times, I'm not ashamed to admit, when the stretch between Santa Barbara and the Bay Area has literally brought me to tears. It's also known, of course, as "El Camino Real" and even that name, as a child, filled me with romance as I pictured Californios walking the Royal Road. I feel more "connected" to the 101 than any other Highway.
Now that I've taken up photography as a passion I'll be traveling more on 101 in Oregon. Most of the highway skirts the Pacific there and the sights are as peaceful and stunning as these eyes have ever seen. When I met my wife Lupe one of the first places I wanted to show her was the Oregon coast.
3. Highway 395 - this highway, lesser known than the coast routes is a gem. The granitic Sierra Nevada, sloping and gentle on the western slopes is completely different on the eastern side. On the western side you see the mountains off in the distance, on 395 they rise seemingly straight up, off the valley floor. I believe that I will probably spend more time on this highway than any other in the next few years. In fact, next month I'll be fishing with my sons in the Bishop Creek area and then I'll be exploring the Alabama Hills in October.
Of course, this is a federal highway and runs to the Canadian border from the Mojave Desert but I do not know the Oregon and Washington sections very well having only traveled them a few times. I believe in the next few years I'd better correct that.
4. Highway 89 - Strong arguments could be made that this is simply the best highway in the West and, therefore, the entire USA. If someone were to ask me to "show them the West", I'd head right for Highway 89. Highway 89 used to run from the Mexico border to the Canada border but that was changed in 1992 and now there are two sections.
Remarkably, Highway 89 links seven National Parks. In addition, 14 National Monuments are located close to this route. It is mind blowingly beautiful.
Here is a list of highlights:
Saguaro National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and near Casa Grande National Monument and the Hohokam Pima National Monument. There is Tuzigoot National Monument, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Sunset Crater National Monument, and Wupatki National Monument.
Zion National Park, Bryce National Park. Two sections of U.S. 89 in Utah have been designated Scenic Byways. The Kanab to Mt. Carmel and Long Valley Scenic Byway is a designated Utah Scenic Byway. From Logan to Bear Lake is designated as the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway by the National Scenic Byways project.
This stretch, bordering Utah, does not have a National Park nearby but it's pastoral and enchanting as it goes through Montpelier and you know you're getting closer to the mountains and grandeur of Wyoming's National Parks.
Here you go. Highway 89 leads to Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park which is, of course, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park - the granddaddy of National Parks and subject of my next post.
The highway winds through the state, with breathtaking scenery along the way, to magnificent Glacier National Park.
My friend, Eric Temple, who I've mentioned previously, is the creative force behind Highway 89 Media. Our man knows how to name things...
If you have the time you'd be smart to put this road first on your list.
5. US Route 550. I was on this highway two years ago and it is an unforgettable and spectacular drive. It is known as the "Million Dollar Highway" as it stretches from Durango, CO to Montrose, CO. The road goes through and around some of the most impressive mountains in the United States. It is glorious and if you have not been on this road, as I suspect a few of you have not, I encourage you to make plans to see it post haste. I guarantee you will not be disappointed- just check the weather forecast. You can see some of the sights on this road if you scroll down my Trip Review Page to September 2014.
6. Utah Highway 12. While Highway 395 was my inspiration for this blog the first other highway I thought about was this dramatic road. It's only 125 miles from beginning to end but what an irresistible stretch it is. Starting at Bryce Junction (off Highway 89) and ending at Capitol Reef National Park it captures Southwestern Utah and its' uniquely sculptured magnificence. It travels through some of the most picturesque country in the West. Red Rocks, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Kodachrome State Park are along the way. While Highway 89 may be the highway I would recommend to "See the West" it is a long route. If you have limited time then get yourself over to Highway 12 and check out its' wonders. I offer a 100% money back guarantee that you'll love it.
7. Beartooth Highway. Many people consider this the most beautiful drive in America (including none other than Charles Kuralt according to the always reliable Wikipedia page). This is the Northern Rocky Mountains at their very finest. It leaves Yellowstone and then twists and turns and switchbacks all the way to Red Lodge, Montana. I've only been on this road four times but I can remember each drive...the clouds and sky...where I had lunch and those breathtaking mountains. It's that unforgettable. It is notorious for its' unpredictable weather and summer snowstorms, while rare, are not unheard of. I have a dream of doing this drive some early September morning and stopping every few miles along the way. It's a nice dream. I hope to make it a reality quite soon.
There are other roads that I must mention even if I don't give them the words they deserve. I drove Interstate 93 through Massachusetts and New Hampshire about 15 years ago in October which started and ended my career as a "leaf peeper" but I'd go back in a heartbeat. My teen years and first years of driving were on the "Rim of the World" Highway 18 in the San Bernardino Mountains and I still think about it often...I drove it for 20 years in my career as well from the little town of Running Springs to Lake Arrowhead through every possible kind of weather and I'll always love it. On those rare clear days you can still see Catalina Island. A current favorite is Highway 70 in New Mexico that runs by the Organ Mountains and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico along the way to Alamogordo Going over the La Veta Pass on I-25 from Pueblo, CO to Santa Fe, NM is another fave.
So, there you have it. My top 7 American Highways and some honorable mentions. My hunch is lots of folks would disagree with this list and that's great. Educate me (but be gentle). I know that my eastern US knowledge is fairly weak and I probably missed some great roads in the midwest too. I also know there are many local highways that may provide for your escape and, perhaps, your inspiration too. The terrific photographer Alex Kunz mentioned, for example, California Highway 78 which runs from the beach to the desert and is an underrated heavenly drive that has inspired much of his remarkable work. Tell me about yours and I'll put it on the list of my future travel destinations...
I plan on sharing more of my "favorite places" in the coming months. Next up will be my favorite National Parks and, I guess, I'll try and limit that to seven as well... it won't be easy.
See you on the road...
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.
All content (C) Jeffrey C. Hubbard. No re-use without express written permission