Tuesday, November 30, 2010

rocks, sand and stars

What you must understand about Southern California is that, basically, it's a city. The entire region is an unending sea of buildings, commercial and residential neighborhoods which themselves compose independent towns. Some of them are packed so closely together that it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. (It IS possible to tell where Redlands ends and Hemet begins, for reasons which Karl Marx could rattle off half-drunk; but that's beside the point.)

It's a macrocosm, really. SoCal is put together much like a town in itself. Each city is a different neighborhood, each neighborhood with its own—ahem—unique character. Over on the east side you've got the low-rent district, full of hicks and wife-beaters and layabouts and canned-beer drinkers, living in vans and campers down by the river; the west side is the plush, breezy, hoidy-toidy coastal resort with miles of beaches, bungalows, and palm trees; the south side is the middle-class, (relatively) peaceful and (somewhat) clean area where the parents and grandparents live; the north side's hilly and scrubby and jam-packed with administrative buildings and the cookie-cutter houses, whence the morning commuters come; and in the smoggy, filthy, eccentric center of town reside the sin and vice and glam and sophistry and commercialism of California's recycled-paper heart.

I live on the east side, which is composed mostly of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, the Colorado River, the San Andreas Fault, a few dozen small- to medium-size cities and hundreds of dead-end, ramshackle towns: 29 Palms, Barstow, Hinkley, Boron, Amboy, and Needles. Some of those cities are nice places with green golf courses and big stucco mansions and expensive restaurants, like Palm Springs. But for the most part the Mojave is Podunk, devoid of moisture. There's a few national parks, some military bases, a couple of mountain ranges and a big salty lake thrown in for good measure.

Just west-southwest of this desert is the Los Angeles Basin, which is composed mostly of Los Angeles (blargh) and all of its innumerable suburbs and outlying districts. That literally IS one big city. You can walk from Burbank to Irvine to Fontana to Long Beach without touching the ground. Just hop from rooftop to rooftop. You may need a vaulting pole to cross the interstate highways; you may need a ladder to get over the skyscrapers; the palm trees would be handy for moving from one Malibu estate to the next; and Mount Lee might require an extra-large jump (what with those big white letters and all). But you get the picture.

Southern California is a massive metropolis, a single titanic municipal entity, possessing a great many postal codes, enough freaky religions to put Jim Jones off his Kool-Aid, more palm trees than ought to be countenanced by a sane god, and about 20 million people—most of whom spend their time either sitting in traffic or being crabby. Or both.

For someone who hates cities (like me), it's a deplorable situation.

Subjectivity aside, there are a LOT of buildings down here.

AND a lot of lights.

That makes it kind of tough to stargaze.

You can stand anywhere in Southern California at night and it's guaranteed you'll have to deal with some kind of light pollution: either from the beehive of Los Angeles to the southwest, or Laughlin and Las Vegas to the northwest.

Nonetheless, Miss H and I saw a hellacious load of stars on the night of October 11. We were in Joshua Tree National Park, which explains why.

Not too many people know about this hidden gem of the desert. Not even the people who live here. It's not like it's some big secret. Joshua Tree lies just south of the small town of the same name (itself east of Yucca Valley and west of 29 Palms) and north of Indio and Palm Springs. It covers over 1,200 square miles (nearly 790,000 acres, or 320,000 hectares, if you prefer that sort of measurement). Contained within that expanse is some of the prettiest desert country you could ever hope to find in Southern California. As-yet unsettled by fat, beer-soaked hicks and their rusty cars, that is. It's got some epic scenery, too. The park is coated with massive piles of Cretaceous granite (quartz monzonite to be exact, rough stuff), eroded into oblong boulders and jumbled in the most wanton manner imaginable. Most of these piles are so unique in appearance and so gigantic in stature that they've garnered themselves unique nicknames, like the Hall of Horrors and the Giant's Marbles.

A female friend of mine once referred to these piles as "God's Legos," which just about says it all, I reckon.

We'd been meaning to take a camping trip for a while, Miss H and I. Then, one week, I unexpectedly wound up with two days off in a row. So naturally I seized the carp and arranged things with my lady forthwith.

My father, fortuitously, is an avid outdoorsman. We have enough camping supplies in our garage to put an Arab caravan out of business: tents, folding chairs, tarps, pots, pans, cups, tin plates, lanterns, matches, lighters, med-kits, water bottles, ropes, stakes, poles, walking sticks, knives, hatches, multitools, candles, sleeping bags, air mattresses, camp pillows, cots, cooking stoves, gas canisters, the works. Each component would drive a psychometrist out of his mind. There's so much pain, exhaustion, exhilaration, sweat, torture, exertion and triumph wrapped up in these inanimate bits of equipment. Each has a story to tell. A mountain climbed, a rocky trail conquered, a valley explored, a tent pitched in a hidden glen, a hot meal cooked and devoured lustily. Aching calves. Bursting lungs. Throbbing hearts. Backs soaked in brine. A cool breeze welcomed with religious fervor. Sunlight on the leaves. Blinding snow. Birdsong in the distance. A half-glimpse of some forest creature. The chuckling of a stream. The savory chill of mud and water on red-hot feet. Compass needles and maps. Trails and trees. Rocks and roots. Sun and stars. Earth and sky and everything in between.

From this trove (and its memories) I selected the gear I figured we'd need for two people and one night in the Mojave Desert in autumn. We had a tent, a couple chairs, some sleeping bags, an air mattress, a battery-powered lantern, the camp stove, some silverware and dishes and cups, a tarp for a ground-cloth, and a medical kit. I loaded my travel vest with whatever else might come in handy: my Bowie knife, my survival card (more about that later), my three-in-one sporknife (exactly what it sounds like), a deck of cards, a flask of brandy, a good novel, and various other accoutrements. And by "accoutrements," you know I'm talking about more booze. I packed my traveling cocktail set with 500 milliliters of vodka and a similar amount of sweet 'n' sour, just in case we felt the need for some libations in the evening.

We loaded all this into my faithful Jeep on the morning of the eleventh, picked up some grocery items in Lucerne Valley, and headed for Joshua Tree.


The hour-long drive was just as scenic as I remember. Once you crest the hill just east of Yucca Valley and begin the quick descent down the torturous 247, and the town opens up beneath you, rock piles and cactus spines and red tile roofs, with the stark and blasphemous granite mountains rising up behind...

A quick left on the 62 and a right on Park Drive had us at the gates of Joshua Tree inside 20 minutes. All civilization faded away, except for the two-lane blacktop we drove on. All had suddenly changed to desert at its most elemental: sand, rocks, mountains, and the titular Joshua trees, arms clutching at the empty sky like an agonal prophet.

The immaculate clarity of the place dazzles the eye and the imagination: all is reduced to lines and colors, the green spikes of the Joshua and the agave standing out against the beige-brown of the sand and shrubs and the blue-hot ocean of sky overhead. Heat waves trick the eye, mirages dance on open ground, and the merciless sun limns all with a harsh white glare. It's been said before by better men, but one can truly believe, standing in the midst of this unyielding and eldritch environment, that one is standing on the untamed surface of an alien planet.

...which does not and should not detract from the charm of the place. Not one little bit. Joshua Tree is beautiful. The park is a feast for the eyes, far more enchanting than many bits of more extreme deserts like the Kalahari or the Gobi. There's more in it, for one thing. The Mojave and Colorado Deserts boast a more rich and diverse biosphere than many wetter ecosystems. On any given day you can see coyotes, roadrunners, rattlesnakes, scorpions...and that doesn't even compare to what comes out at night.

We spent a happy afternoon touring the park. Up to Keys View, to look down upon the Coachella Valley from 5,000 feet up; Indio, Palm Springs, and a myriad-phalanx of date palm farms laid out beneath us. To the west was Mount San Jacinto, the loftiest of the Three Saints, a massive blue-green beast of a landform, stretching to 8,319 feet. At its feet, winding away toward L.A., lay the deceptive San Andreas Fault, ready to blow any second. To the southwest, the grayish-blue void of the Salton Sea was clearly visible; and beyond that, just at the edge of perception, sat Signal Mountain on the Mexican border, ninety-three miles away. Even Coachella's ever-present smog (and that of Los Angeles, drifting in from the west) couldn't prevent us from seeing these miracles.

Good thing I brought my binoculars, though.

We got some unusually clear pictures up there. There was some kid in a white shirt and a baseball cap with a $3,000 camera hanging around his neck, sitting on the stone partition and looking bored out of his mind. I walked toward him to ask him to take our picture. Before I'd even opened my mouth, he was standing up and reaching out his hand for my trusty red Canon.

He took good pictures.

It was a bit warm to hike to Barker Dam, but we settled for strolling through the Wonderland of Rocks.

We got to the campground at about 4 o'clock and pitched camp.

I had picked Jumbo Rocks for a campsite because I was vaguely familiar with it. I'd picnicked there before. I seemed to recall that it was a locale straight from Tolkien or Verne, an epic sort of place with titanic boulders sprawled everywhere, bushes and trees and stretches of sand elbowing in where they could.

My recollection was right on target.

Miss H and I snatched a registration form from the box and drove around looking for the most photogenic campsite (farthest from anyone else). Fortunately, even on Columbus Day weekend, the park was deserted. Miss H and I found our site with relative ease. We filled out the form, raced back to the entrance to get registered, and then came back and set up camp.

Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is what a functioning campsite looks like.

Night fell swiftly. Miss H and I climbed up on the rock to view the sunset. Then we broke out the camp stove and the chili and began to cook dinner.

Now, let me first explain something to you about can openers. They come in three main varieties. The first is the electric can opener. Craven, rump-fed poltroons employ these in their Malibu condominiums to obtain the Fancy Feast necessary to prevent their fat-bastard Persians from pissing on the carpet.

The second type is the rotary or hand-actuated can opener, in which the operator "clips" the blade and its rotating gear to the can, holds the apparatus steady with one hand and turns a knob with the other. The blade proceeds around the edge of the can's lid, neatly severing it from the can proper.

The third type is the manual or hand-operated can opener, which is basically a metal flange with a wicked hook carved into the bottom edge.

There's a trick to operating this latter type.

You have to go around the edge of the can with the blade instead of going straight for the middle.

Guess which stratagem I attempted first?

One mutilated can-lid later, Miss H hit upon the brilliant idea of going around.

Things worked much better after that, and we were soon spooning hot chili into our gullets by the white light of a battery-powered lantern.

After that it was time for some s'mores. I, in my infinite wisdom, had remembered every single solitary piece of camping equipment that we'd need, but had neglected to (a) buy bread to go with the lunch-meat we'd purchased, and (b) had overlooked what method we'd use to toast our s'mores. Propane flames don't really impart a desirable flavor to the marshmallows, you see. Natural flames are preferable. If a little bit of the smoke gets into the graham crackers, well, so much the better.

We didn't have natural flames (we'd brought a camp stove instead of firewood, for the sake of portability).

So we settled for eating 'em cold.

Yeah, okay, I know. We're blasphemers. Apostates. Communists. But hey, a cold s'more is still a s'more, same as cold pizza is still pizza and a bad cigar is still a cigar.

And then came the night's grand finale: we made ourselves comfortable at the cement picnic table, turned off all the lights, craned our heads back, and looked at the stars.

And looked and looked and looked and looked.

There were millions of 'em.

The night-black sky was speckled with tiny flecks of brilliant diamond-white, like granules of sugar scattered in a coal scuttle, spotlights streaming through bullet holes in a black wall.

It was the most beautiful sight we'd seen in an eternity. We were far removed from the lights of any town (even Los Angeles was a mere greenish line to the southwest). Constellations which had previously been muted and tired and old now lit up the heavens with renewed energy. The Big Dipper lay suspended in the northwest, glittering as I'd never seen it before, like a rock star playing in his hometown. Hundreds upon hundreds of tiny new stars, too dim to be seen from my backyard, were glowing and gleaming out of the firmament. It was an immensely cheering sight. It did my heart good to think that there were still places in the continental U.S. where you could see starry skies like this (in Kansas, apparently, you can see nebulae...nebulae, for Pete's sake!). It was like the star-spangled opening sequence of Star Wars: a sky literally swimming in stars, every single square inch taken up with twinkling lights.

We gazed for as long as we could. There was far too much to take it all in at once. Plus our necks were getting sore. So we turned in about ten-ish and hit the sack.

I can remember getting up once in the middle of the night for a bathroom break. I was debating whether or not to take the flashlight. I did wind up taking it, just to avoid tripping on (or bumping into) any of the massive boulders that composed our campsite. But I turned it off when I got to my (ahem) lavatory. I looked up at the sky and breathed a deep sigh of contentment.

Then I looked around and realized that I could see by starlight. I had never been able to do that before, not in all the places I'd been or lived. I'd read about people doing it in books (books written in the nineteenth century or early twentieth), but had hardly been able to credit it. Now I could see that it was possible. There was no moon. Nothing but the endless blue-black vault above me, spangled with celestial bodies, the largest and best planetarium in the universe. Everything was dim about me, but I could see. See in the dark. How long had it been since a human being, raised in civilization, had stood in the dark of the world and tried to see his way without a contrivance like flashlight or fire?

We woke the next day about 8:00 a.m., when it was already getting too hot to sleep. We packed up, did one last check around to make sure we'd left nothing behind, paid our camping fee, and left the park by the scenic route. We had breakfast at Denny's in 29 Palms, had a leisurely drive home, and spent the rest of the day vegetating. Not much was said. We were still remembering the stars.

Monday, November 22, 2010

the off-season (or, that's the way uh-huh uh-huh I like it)

Time for a football update! Ladies, shield your eyes.

First I'd like to point out that this is a LIVE blog post. I'm sitting here typing in front of the TV. San Diego is playing Denver. It's half time. Score is 21-7, Chargers' favor.

Now, I'd like to start off by giving you San Diego's current season standings. They're 5-5. For the uninitiated, that means that SD has lost five games and won five games so far, meaning their win-loss ratio is 50%.

By ordinary standards, that would be abysmal.

By the 2010 National Football League's standards, that's actually about average.

This is a weird season, folks. It's all topsy-turvy. Teams which have customarily been terrible have been kicking big-name teams' butts. Teams which previously were best in the nation have been...well, for lack of a better term, gargling balls. (Dallas anyone?)

Yeah, let's take Dallas. They're 3-7. Three wins, seven losses. Two of those wins were garnered just in the last couple of weeks. For the first months of the season the Cowboys racked up an impressive string of losses. Not that I took pleasure in any of it, of course (yeah, right, I was doing handsprings in the living room), but it was still a surprise. Dallas is unofficially known as "America's team." They are/were THE big name in football, one of the most recognizable teams, and their record was nothing short of stellar. Oh, sure, they've had off-seasons before. But this takes the cake.

Or look at the Vikings. Minnesota's usually done pretty well. They've never won a Super Bowl, but they've been to several. (Like Buffalo, only, you know, not as embarrassing.) But this season they're in the same boat as Dallas, 3-7, undergoing a pathetic collapse. In my humble opinion, Brett Favre should've called it good when he retired (for the first time) in 2008. He should've gone out on a high note. He should've ridden his legendary career with the Green Bay Packers into comfortable old age. He shouldn't have tried to relive his glory days. He shouldn't have vacillated. He shouldn't have signed with the Jets, and then the Vikings. He should've just quit when he was ahead. But no. He stayed in. And now he's showing his age. Sunday's disgraceful 31-3 defeat against Green Bay (oh, the irony) has sealed coach Brad Childress's fate, and almost certainly Favre's as well. It's almost painful to watch.

On the other hand...

Baltimore has been kicking ass this season, defeating such doughty opponents as Miami, New York (the Giants and the Jets), and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, for crying out loud! What's the world coming to? The Ravens are ordinarily a B-team at best, but John Harbaugh has set them against comers, despite some minor dust-ups in their offensive line. We'll see how they do in the coming weeks, when they face Tampa Bay, Houston and Pittsburgh (again).

Speaking of kicking ass...

I just wanted to let you know that, as of now (four minutes into the third quarter, 7:35 p.m. Western Daylight Savings Time), the score is 28-7, San Diego's favor. YES!!! Eat that, Denver!

This is what I like to see. San Diego playing like they mean it. It's not a shutout, but we're not choking or dropping the ball or turning over incessantly, either. I like the way the Chargers are playing tonight. The defensive line has been on the ball (literally), we've made a sack or two, and we had a respectable turnover in the first half. On the offensive side of things, Darren Sproles is working his usual magic, the running backs are finding all the holes, the receivers are actually catching the ball, and Phillip Rivers's passes are (as usual) dead-on.

This is one of the NFL's biggest mysteries, in fact. Rivers has the most passing yards of any QB in the league, with nearly 3,000. (Denver's Kyle Orton is right behind him.) Rivers's career passer rating is 96.9, number one of all time. Nobody can figure out how San Diego can possibly be losing games when Rivers is throwing so many deep passes on-target...least of all me.

Indeed, the only black spot on tonight's ledger is the fact that San Diego is, as has previously been mentioned, 5-5.

If we win tonight, we'll be tied for second in the division (with Oakland, BOOOOOOO). If we lose...we're in last place.

'Course, it doesn't look like we'll be losing. I don't know what Denver's problem is, but they're dropping balls and running head-on into our defensive line. That makes me happy, of course, but this is something nobody expected to see from the Broncos, who have traditionally done well. It's a balmy 58 degrees at Qualcomm Stadium right now, so it's not like Denver can blame the weather.

There's six games left: Indianapolis, Oakland (BOOOOOOO), Kansas City, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Denver again. Let's see how we do. All we have to do is come out top in the division (AFC West). To do that, we've got to beat Denver tonight (signs point to yes) and Kansas City in Week 14. It's a home game, so I'm fairly confident. We (ahem) lost to the Chiefs both in the preseason and in Week 1, but...let's not talk about that right now.

I can dream of a Super Bowl, can't I?

P.S. It's the fourth quarter now and Rivers just threw a beautiful touchdown pass to Jacob Hester. Score's now 35-7. Marvelous, folks. That's the way (uh-huh uh-huh) I like it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

random travel destinations - the Maldives

Doesn't get much more random than that, does it?

The Maldives, otherwise known as the Maldive Islands or the Republic of Maldives, lies about 430 miles southwest of the island of Sri Lanka, in the Laccadive Sea. The Maldives themselves are, according to good ol' Wikipedia, a double chain of twenty-six atolls running north-to-south over an area of about 90,000 square kilometers. There are over twelve hundred separate islands or islets, of which only about 200 are inhabited.

There's a lively debate on where the name "Maldives" came from. Some say that it's the anglicized form of the Dutch name Maldivische Eilanden, which itself may have originated in Sanskrit. Others insist that the name comes from a passage in an ancient Sri Lankan text, the Mahawamsa, which refers to an obscure island called Mahalidiva, "The Island of Women." The Arabs used to call the place Mahal Dibiyat, the word mahal meaning "palace."

It holds the unsurprising distinction of being the lowest country in the world, hovering at an average of four feet eleven inches above sea level. The highest point on the entire island chain is 7'7" above the water. Let's hope the tsunamis around there never get higher than six feet or so, eh?

Okay, enough with the bloody factoids. Let's get to the rat-killer.

You wanna know why I've featured the Maldives so prevalently on this blog (after such a long absence from these random travel destinations)? Why I want to go there so desperately, when I'm rather leery about the area (those Somali pirates operate not too far west of there, y'know)?

Three reasons.

First, the sunsets.

Second, they've got themselves an underwater grub joint. You can dine 16 feet under at the Ithaa Undersea Restaurant, at the Conrad Hotel and Resort on Rangali Island.

Tell me that ain't cool. Go on, just try.

Finally, and this one's the kicker...

Maldivian Air Taxi is the country's biggest air carrier, and one of the most prolific seaplane operators in the world. Close to 500 flights a week during tourist season. I hear their pilots wear Hawaiian shirts and fly barefoot.

And if they hired me, my office would look like this:

Turquoise water, white sand, tropical sunsets, plentiful seafood, and a de Havilland Twin Otter to fly: what could be finer?

For a writer-cum-pilot with itchy feet (like yours truly), that's darn close to heaven.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

cocktail review no. 41 - Pumpkin Bomb

It's holidaydrinktime again, folks!

Now, just so you're aware, I am not suggesting that you go out and get yourself trashed for the holidays. Save that kind of thing for office parties and raves and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve.

No, this is just a nice little drink you can sip as you snack on Halloween candy, or while you're stuffing the turkey.

It's called the Pumpkin Bomb.

Lay off the Spider-man references before I king you, jerkface.

Here's the recipe:

  • honey or agave syrup
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 ounce Goldschl├Ąger
  • 15 ounces pumpkin ale
  • ½ ounce chopped, toasted pumpkin seeds
Dip the rim of a pint glass in honey or agave syrup. Combine the cinnamon and sugar and coat the rim of the glass with the mixture. Pour the Goldschl├Ąger into the glass and top off with the pumpkin ale. Sprinkle pumpkin seeds and another pinch of cinnamon sugar on the head of the beer.

Now, I didn't have chopped or toasted pumpkin seeds—I carved two pumpkins for my Halloween party (a jack-o-lantern and a punchbowl), but didn't have time to save the seeds. The rest of this stuff I had lying around, though. So I slapped it together this evening just for a lark.

And let me tell you, folks, this drink is smooth, sweet, spicy, and reminds you of all the fun things that you've always loved about the fall season: the cool air, the short days, the fuzzy sweaters, the changing colors, the sound of dead leaves, the carving of pumpkins, the baking of pies, the consumption of copious amounts of turkey...the whole shebang. Up top, we have the spiciness of the cinnamon and the sweetness of the sugar on the rim of the glass; the head of the beer provides a foamy and hop-laden overtone before the plunge is made into the drink proper; then we have pumpkin-beer and cinnamon schnapps warring for primacy on top of your tongue. This sequential approach to taste and the absolute synergy of flavor forge a powerful combination. And as you might expect, the nose is positively ravishing. This libation smells almost exactly like pumpkin pie...pumpkin pie beer. What could be finer?

(Yes, a prerequisite for appreciating this cocktail is, of course, appreciating beer. You have to like beer to like this drink. Otherwise you're SOL. So, if you like beer, try this drink. Have fun with it. Expand your alcoholic horizons. Sip a bit of autumn incarnate. If you don't like beer, start, dammit. You're missing out.)

Lesson over. For my American readers, I hope you had a Happy Halloween, and I wish you a gut-busting Thanksgiving. For my overseas readers, stay tuned for my Christmas cocktails, you poor benighted souls. And have a happy Remembrance Day (and Remembrance Sunday).