How about a whole new genre of photography? Night splatter photography. I call the abstract one you see, “Particle Chamber.” As my brother would ask, “Art or Not Art?” If it says more to you than I should invest in a better tripod, I say “Art!”
A murder of crows and a rabble of ravens are nothing to mess around with, but I think an aggregation of corvids should be called a caw-cus. I know the spot where the crows congregate at night by thousands, if not tens of thousands. And I’ve seen the tree with a raven on every branch many years ago. I hear them chat amongst themselves. I don’t know what they talk about or what they are plotting. I know it can’t be good. I just hope their caw-cus is no more effective than a human one.
“I wish to enter the temple, Master Poh.”
“Simple. Just place your palm on the plate of the Mindful Scanner.”
I do so. I approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. My palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.” I jump back, alarmed. “Master Poh, it’s not letting me in. Don’t you have to add my biometrics to its secure digital vault?”
“How does it recognize me to let me in?”
“It is programmed with a keyword. If your mindful state is in accordance with the proper intent, it will allow you to pass.”
“Keyword? What is it?”
Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. The keyword will be humility.” He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands humbly in the doorway. I approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. I think my most humble thoughts. I am nothing. I am a flyspeck on the universe. I am a stain on the planet. My palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.”
I jump back startled and shout, “What? I cannot be more humble than that!”
“Humble is more than thoughts of insignificance.” Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. The keyword will be patience.” He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands patiently in the doorway. I slowly approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. Ever so carefully, my palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.”
I jump back startled and shout, “What? I took my time. How could I be more patient?”
“Patient is not the same as slow.” Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. The keyword will be reverence.” He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands reverently in the doorway. Reverence has me confused. Am I supposed to have reverence for the scanner? For the master? I’m starting to think it’s all a nasty trick on me, but I play along. I bow to Master Poh. I bow to the scanner. I approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. My palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.”
I jump back and shout, “What? Are you f**king with me?”
“Reverence is deeper than bowing.” Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. The keyword will be trust.” He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands trustingly in the doorway. Am I supposed to trust the Master? Or is he supposed to trust me? I say to the master and the all-knowing scanner with a bowed head, “I will be a very good student. But you have to let me in first. Trust me. I will not disappoint you.” I approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. My palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.”
I jump back startled and shout, “What? I trusted it but it did not trust me. The device does not play fair.”
“Trust is earned, not requested.” Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. The keyword will be faith.” He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands faithfully in the doorway. I rub my hands quickly together and say, “You can do this. I have faith in you.” I approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. My palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.”
I jump back startled and shout, “Arrrrrrrrrrrggg. The machine hates me. Why do I continue to torture myself?”
“You must have faith in yourself, not the device.” Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. The keyword will be.”
I yell, “Don’t say it! I think I get it. If I have no expectation, it will let me pass. That is the secret of the scanner.”
He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands quietly in the doorway. “I’ve got this,” I say. I confidently approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. My palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.”
“This is bullshit.”
Master Poh says, “Having no expectation is still an expectation.”
“Double talk and riddles. You just don’t want me to come in, do you? You programmed the thing to not let me in. Why don’t you just say it already?”
Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. I will let you enter the keyword yourself.” He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands identifiably in the doorway. He hands me the app. I enter my name as the keyword. When the app says, “Keyword Accepted,” I approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. My palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.”
“The thing is stupid.”
“The device is not an access code to your accounts.” Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. I will let you enter the keyword yourself.” He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands anonymously in the doorway. He hands me the app. This time I add the word “not” in front of my name to catch the device in a contradiction. When the app says, “Keyword Accepted,” I approach the palm scanner, my hand hovering in front of it. My palm makes contact with the transparent plate. It immediately flashes red and blares, “Access Denied.”
“The thing is just plain broken.”
“You are not your name.” Master Poh places his hand on the scanner. It immediately flashes green and I hear the door lock unlatch. He says, “You may try again tomorrow. I will let you enter the keyword yourself.” He disappears into the foyer inside the temple entrance closing the door behind himself.
Master Poh stands unexpectantly in the doorway. He hands me the app. I hand it back to him. I say, “I wanted to get inside. I wanted to learn.”
“You have already learned plenty. You have learned that you are not humble. You are not patient. You are not reverent. You do not trust. You are not faithful. You are not a name. You are not clever.”
“The temple was my chance at a future. The temple was my chance at a life. All gone. I will become nothing. I am nothing. I get it. I am not getting in.” I sit down on an empty porcelain stool next to the door, defeated. I realize I have no control over what will happen next. I surrender to the inevitability of a future not of my own making.
Master Poh grabs my wrist and pushes my palm up against the scanner. The light flashes green, the lock unlatches, and the door swings open. My jaw drops to the top of my bare feet. I look at the master astonished.
He says with the faintest hint of a smile, “You are right, you are nothing. You may enter if you choose. There is nothing more I can teach you. But if you wish, I can help you to understand what you have learned.”
I bow to him and say, “I would be grateful.” I bow to the scanner with reverence and a humility born of fear and awe for the spiritual device that knows me better than I know myself.
Boris creeps up, his four legs on each side moving in a rhythmic waviness, practicing a menacing stare with his thirteen eyes, but his pincers are hidden behind a cloth mask with a black web imprinted upon it. I can tell by his eagerness that he doesn’t know. I have to break the bad news to him.
“What? Halloween is cancelled? Are you serious?” Most of his eyes stare at me intently to ascertain the truth of my statement.
“Yep. That’s what the boss told me.”
“Well, fly shit! They can’t do that. It’s the biggest day of the year. I get more on Halloween than all the other days of the year combined.” His head and thirteen eyes droop to the floor before he regains some semblance of composure. “Did he say why? Is it because of COVID?”
“Ostensibly, yes? What in the hell does that mean? We all take precautions. We are evil distancing.”
“Some say that’s the problem. I mean, how scary is it when a vampire or a werewolf wears a mask? Half the scare is in the teeth. The boss says it’s a question of artistic integrity. Don’t you feel your scare loses its impact when you wear your mask?”
Boris squints his eyes and moves his gazes about the room trying to impress me. He flares his legs to make himself look bigger. It doesn’t work.
Boris says, “Okay. Okay. You win. I don’t like it, either. It’s not as scary with the mask. but if they can play sports with a cardboard crowd and sound-tracked crowd noises, and baseball can play seven-inning games and best-of-three playoff rounds, we can make a few concessions too. Don’t we owe it to our victims? Professionalism dictates that we get there and terrorize the populace. We owe it to the people!” He slams down his front four legs.
Ghosts flit about the room with the energy of his determination. Ghouls lift their heads and their eyes shine red in our direction.
“I admire your enthusiasm, but I think the problem is really much deeper than that. This year has scared the shit out of so many people already, and with a presidential election just a few days later, well…”
“So what are you saying?” Boris asks. “You think the real problem is scare fatigue?”
“How could it be worse? You don’t mean…” Now Boris looks like he is shaking.
“Noooo.” I can hear Boris’s knees knocking back and forth in fear like Newton’s cradle.
“No one is terrorized anymore. I read a blog from one guy that said he would love to transfigure himself into a werewolf and rip the guts out of some people.”
“Oooh,” Boris retracts timidly covering his eyes with his pedipalps.
“And another that says living forever with sex slave vampresses doesn’t seem so bad.”
Boris’s spinnerets fall to the ground and his fovea flattens to the floor, the lift leaving his eight legs. Or is it ten? Or twelve? He has lots of appendages.
“No one is safe. Not even me,” I say. “Do you know I looked up goblin? It says I am and I quote, ‘A mischievous, and usually very unpleasant, vengeful, and greedy creature whose primary purpose is to cause trouble to humankind.’ That doesn’t narrow it down much when you think about it. I have to compete against politicians, lawyers, CEOs, stock analysts, and customer support people. Seriously. All I have going for me is green skin and bad dentition. It’s the same for all of us. We have to be more scary and evil than all of a black and orange Halloween decade that has scared the crap of anyone paying any attention at all more than we ever have. They are stealing our business.”
“So now what? There must be something we can do?”
“Yes. I think so,” I agree. “First, take some time off. Enjoy some gourmet fly carcass.
“And then,” I proclaim loudly, “we have to regroup.”
Ogres and ghouls and gargoyles straighten and stand from their sitting hump-backed positions.
“We have to become more scary than pandemics!”
Witches on brooms and ghosts circle over head dancing like electrons about a nucleus.
“We have to become more fearsome than global disasters and Greek-lettered hurricanes and state-wide firestorms!”
Jackalopes leap in bounds between Boris and myself with their evil antlers.
“We have to out-terrorize a population on the verge of a civil war!”
Werewolfs bay at the full moon. Bats echolocate at unhearable frequencies. Salamanders up their level of slime.
In the middle of my fantastic, albeit empty rant, the cheap elastic band snaps and my mask pops off. A collective gasp of cold evilness runs through the crowd and it disperses as fast as a viral news story.
“Next year,” I conclude under my breath and under my mask as I try to hold it back to my face.
All thirteen eyes on Boris’s hairy face are coated with the moisture of sadness. We each turn and go our separate ways.
In my head, I planned on a challenging hike but as the day wore thin, I settled on the familiar territory of the North Shore of Lake Hodges choosing to focus more on exercise than on photography. Nevertheless, I follow the first rule of photography, always have your camera ready, even though your expectations are low.
As I start the hike, a man passes by asking me if I am “Gitten any?” My camera is strapped over my shoulder, and I know what he means, but the immediate in-my-head response is, “not in a long time.” I actually respond with the truth from all perspectives. “Trying.”
I have a couple of hours before sunset, so I decide to walk the upper rim of the Lake Hodges Canyon to see if it meets up with the trail to the summit of Bernardo Mountain, which I know would take me back to the main trail, preferring a loop trail to an out-n-back anytime. I tried once before but ran out of daylight and had to head back the same way I came.
The problem with the overlook trail is that it is marked obsessively with “No Trespassing” signs. According to the signs, the truck trail is for access to sewage lines by the water authority people only. The tire tracks of a hundred mountain bikes say otherwise. So do other signs that say we grant you passage as long as you don’t sue the pants off us for your issues. So I pin my water authority badge to my chest and march on.
A turkey vulture circles overhead playing tag with the sun, at least from my ground perspective, as he rides the thermals. A small two-foot gopher snake, with its spotted backside, almost matching the dimpled patterns of the bike tread stretches across the truck trail. It doesn’t seem too perturbed by my presence, which is a little bit worrisome, because if it stays stretched across the road for any length of time, the patterns on its back will become an exact match to the treads of an unwary mountain bike. I try to get a picture of it forking its tongue at me but the critter is uncooperative. I held the camera in place for a hundred count a couple of times. Of course, as soon as I gave in, the uncooperative creature forked its tongue at me. I finally gave up and moved on, the day not growing any longer on my account.
A little way down the trail, the sparkling sunlight off the lake catches my eye, inspiring me to try to capture a blurred bokeh with the glint of the snaking lake in the background. Lake Hodges is a dam lake that follows the curvature of the San Dieguito River canyon.
On a previous outing, near this spot, I came upon a roadrunner being harassed by a mocking bird. Instead, I find a tree full of lesser golden finches. Lesser than what and by whose standards, I don’t know and they are not telling.
I push on. As I round a corner, I see a mule deer on the road. It surprises me to see one so out in the open. His antlers are just starting to come in. This is the second sighting of mule deer I’ve seen in two weeks. I’ve been hiking in San Diego County for forty years and I’ve seen at most twenty-five in all that time. I’ve never seen any in this area before. He lets me get a little closer before diving into the bush. He gives me one last look over the shoulder to see what my intentions are. My intentions are to take advantage of the photo op.
The sewage access road turns into a driveway but a single track trail dives into the riparian woods surrounding a small creek that feeds into the lake. I take the trail and I’m pleasantly surprised when I end up on the flank of Bernardo Mountain, not quite as far into the mountain access as I envisioned but happy when the trail emerges onto the Bernardo Mountain trail. I don’t have to do an out-and-back. I snap a few thistle remains, still photogenic in my mind, even without their brilliant neon blue day-glow flowers.
I rejoin the main trail that traverses the length of the North Shore interrupted only by a couple of crayfish, or do you say crawdaddies, at the creek re-crossing on the main trail. I didn’t expect much on the way back other than a lot of bike traffic. I stopped to take a failed photo of a very Suessian orange and white buckwheat flower shaped like a soccer ball or a flavorful dangling lollipop.
As I walked under the I-15 expressway, I checked under the bridge to see if any swifts were out and about from their mud nests that hang under the eaves. Instead, I had an encounter with a praying mantis hanging out on the top of a post of a chain-link fence. He thrust and parried a few times to chase me off but then went back to his praying.
With a snake, a deer, a praying mantis, some landscape, and some previously undiscovered trail, I remembered the guy I met when I started the hike. Yeah, I got me some!
I was standing under an oak tree trying to take pics of a Blue Heron near the shore when I heard the unmistakable sound of a bird taking a crap from overhead. Fortunately, I wasn’t right under it. I looked up and saw a Black-Crowned Night Heron perched deep in the branches near the trunk. It was getting dark out and the inside of the crown of a tree is a tough shot. I was close but not really close enough to think the flash would work. I was pleasantly surprised while examining the pictures at home when I saw the radioactive glow from his eyes.
I stepped back and still checking around in the tree, I noticed another. And then another and another and another. I found their hangout! I went back again on another day with a bit more sunlight left in the evening to see if I could get some better pictures. Sure enough, I found at least a dozen birds hanging out in a row of oak trees facing the lake.
The younger birds are easily identifiable by their mottled brown plumage with white spots. I don’t think the hangout operates as a rookery, though, as all the birds are of adult size. The metamorphosis into an adult is quite a dramatic change in appearance. Check out the differences in the pics as the plumage changes from spotted to tannish to black-capped. I also read that the bill of the adult birds is all black. Most of the ones I saw had yellow, green, and black coloration on their bills. So I think this is a pretty hipster young crowd.
Some hang out on the outer branches of the oak trees surveying Lake Hodges looking like they are ready to get about the business of the evening; others are buried deep in the trees and eye me suspiciously as I try to find an unobstructed view for a shot to permanently record their visage. They don’t seem so skittish in the protection of the trees. The ones hanging out on the shore or on the dock don’t let me get too close before flying off with an angry squawk.
Here is a link to more pictures from the Lake Hodges area. Hope you enjoy it. [https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1yzM4PiJWfZGwXnaOSPRX6vAnbnLmRjCq?usp=sharing]
A sunset set. (And I slipped in one or two sunrises).
Who doesn’t like a sunset? Or is just old age getting the better of me? Set to John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” Maybe a bit sappy, but if you are of a mind to, have a listen and a look. Scroll to the lyrics.
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high
If I had a day that I could give you
I’d give to you the day just like today
If I had a song that I could sing for you
I’d sing a song to make you feel this way
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high
If I had a tale that I could tell you
I’d tell a tale sure to make you smile
If I had a wish that I could wish for you
I’d make a wish for sunshine for all the while
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost all the time makes me high
Sunshine almost always
A Road Trip with Stephen King in Southern CA
As if an unwanted birthday wasn’t enough, my twenty-seven year old, freon compressed, central A/C decided to die of bad capacitance and a burnt-out motor a day before the two weeks of 100+ and 110+ degree weather. A subject matter expert came out to give me an estimate on a replacement unit. As he inspected the bowels of my house and noted problem points, he doubted the efficacy of my A/C efficiency to the tune of about 10K.
With the demise of the A/C, my living space was reduced to the inner sanctum of a single 10x10x8 room that contains all my connections to the outside world: the temporary room AC, the TV, the work laptop, the personal laptop, and the iPhone. I once read that the entire biomass of humanity individually put in 9x9x9 cubic foot containers could be stored inside the Grand Canyon. I don’t know if that is still true or not because the population has expanded by a few billion people since I was informed of that fact. I don’t think the Grand Canyon people-fill generated a lot of enthusiasm in the real estate market.
At work, dumped from two projects this year and waiting four months and counting to start a new one while COVID drove everyone from their offices to their homes, my living space also turned into my workspace. With time on my hand and inspired by the insane politics of the time, I read Hannah Arendt’s book “A Report on the Banality of Evil.” In the evilest empire of modern times, people hid behind platitudes. State a positive to overlook a negative. The road to hell is paved with platitudes. That is the banality of evil. I’ve had months to contemplate the platitude that made my pending work assignment once palatable, “Peace through Strength.” My workspace feels really small.
COVID had me in storage. Work had me in storage. An oppressive heatwave had me in storage. Regardless of the venue and with a milestone birthday imminent, I for one wanted out of storage. I decided to take the week off from work to get my head around my descent into decrepitude and to evaluate the efficacy of my own efficiency. Somebody called it a symbolic milestone, but the symbolism escapes me. It feels pretty real to me.
So what do you do for your symbolic milestone birthday in the age of COVID to get out of storage? Road trip! Particularly when you have Hetal and Chris for friends. Separate cars! Separate rooms! Stay outdoors wherever possible. Masks and hand sanitizer. We were going. As Hetal said, birthdays are a big deal.
The general plan was to head to Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. The reason for this particular destination was my desire to visit Kings Canyon. I’ve seen Kings Canyon from a distant overlook and technically, I’ve been in the park before because of the small isolated piece of it on the road to Sequoia that contains General Grant. I’ve never made it into the canyon proper mostly because I have visited the area in the offseason on late-year holiday trips when the only drivable entrance to Kings Canyon is closed off. Not at all complaining about the beautiful overlook into the canyon but just seeing it from the rim is a teaser, like flying over in an airplane. If you go to one park, it is a wasted opportunity not to visit the other if you can, so Sequoia is in the mix even if it is a several time repeat.
I was strongly advised to get reservations for a campground because of COVID constraints and crowds. Indeed, my search through the campgrounds proved them all to be full and the first-come, first-serve campgrounds closed on account of COVID. So I made reservations at Eshom Campground in Sequoia National Forest, which looked pretty close to the parks on a small map. This was the part of the trip I did plan in advance.
During an unrelated astronomical conversation concerning the identification and alignment of planets, the topic of the trip came up with Phil, a lifelong friend I met at the age of 9. A potential hike I was considering to Mist Falls was also on Phil’s to-do list. So he would be joining us for a night of camping and a day of hiking in Kings.
I packed my car full of camping equipment, coolers, and clothes. I chose Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft” on audio for company. Listening to King on the way to Kings seemed fitting. The reservations were for Sunday and Monday. We left on a Saturday. We had an unplanned night before the visit to the National Parks. When Chris and Hetal showed up at the house, I still wasn’t sure where we were going first.
I offered up the idea of the Kern River but the final decision was Ojai with the possibility of continuing onto Paso Robles. It wasn’t a completely random destination, we had discussed it at the beginning of the summer for a possible motorcycle trip but the stars and planets didn’t quite align. In a previous motorcycle trip through Ojai with a different crowd, I did little more than take a quick lunch break before cruising through the picturesque Los Padres National Forest on CA-33 on our way to Paso Robles and beyond.
While Stephen King struggled through his childhood for the next couple of hours and without any hint of what his rambling had to do with the craft, I began a text-while-driving negotiation to meet Ann who lives in Ojai, a friend I haven’t seen in the six months since we collectively went into storage back in March, to give her fair warning of our impending arrival instead of just showing up at her house and telling her “Surprise, we are here!” Not so much because I’m courteous but only because I don’t know with any precision exactly where she lives. Even in COVID, LA traffic accommodates my texting session with stopped traffic in the middle of the freeway for no other apparent reason than to allow me to continue my conversation without the risk of driving. Over the course of the four-hour trip, I learned that Ann will meet us somewhere for dinner after she finishes painting houses in Ventura.
After nearly four hours of talking, Stephen King is still only five years old in his memoir. I suppose five was a watershed moment in my life too, but all I have to say about that is you can’t trust old people. I think I could make a case for that lack of trust setting me off on a youth filled with long hair and informality and iconoclasm and introversion. With any luck, in five or ten years, I can inflict you with my own memoir on the craft so you can judge for yourself if my case has any merit.
Ojai is a tourist town and a gateway to the wilderness recreation in the coastal mountains outside of Ventura and Santa Barbara. The downtown has an adobe feel to it. Outdoor seating and drinking beckoned but our first stop was to Bart’s, the world’s greatest outdoor bookstore. Bookstores aren’t dead yet although it doesn’t hurt to have a quaint outdoor setting and a great reputation. I asked the kid at the register how they choose their books and he told me the books choose them. Fair enough. So I asked the books how they choose the store and each had its own story to tell. Haha. I couldn’t resist. Sorry.
We started our night on the town at the Ojai Pub. At Ann’s recommendation, we redirect to Topa Topa Brewing company where we finally meet up, and then from there to Ojai Beverage Co, all with outdoor seating and plenty of beer and food, a great way to spend a Saturday night. As much fun as I have in the inner sanctum of my personal storage drinking my homemade wine telling my dogs the errors of their ways, it just doesn’t compare to a warm night on an outdoor patio, eating someone else’s cooking for a change, and telling my interactive and three-dimensional and charming friends the errors of their ways. Ann is a gracious host.
After an overnight in Carpenteria and a coffee at a coffee shop to which people coagulate on a Sunday morning on a downtown artery of Santa Barbara, we headed out the scenic 154 for a panoramic view of Cachuma Lake and an involuntarily slow drive-by of a smoldering blackened car. We crossed over from the coast to Visalia through the golden hills inside the coastal range outside of San Luis Obispo. The yellow, gold, and tans with just an occasional splotch of tree were painting and picture waiting to happen.
Stephen King has been chatting me up as we cut across the state still talking more memoir than craft. He finally gets around to the topic of writing. He hates adverbs, I recall ruefully. He vigilantly culls his drafts for adverbs, but even he cannot purge his work of them all successfully. The road to hell is paved with adverbs, he says angrily and bitterly and ardently and abjectly. Abjectly sounded good when I wrote it but I actually had to look up its definition. Stephen hates pretense. Don’t fluff up your sentences with pompous and pretentious and supercilious and resplendent words that you don’t know the meaning of just to sound more erudite and educated.
He tells me half of writing is vulnerability. Stick your jaw out there, it will most certainly get punched. So far, when I’ve put my jaw out there for the punch, I’ve been hit hard by the harsh hands of irrelevance and invisibility and a complete lack of marketing skills. Needless to say, the other half of writing is about paying the hospital bill.
It pains me to no end that my fifty IG posts average about five hits compared to tens of thousands of hits in a single post of a hot babe in a pretend bikini telling me that life is an adventure. On second thought, maybe the other half of writing is about paying the shrink. In either case, my book sales to date won’t cover the cost for the phone call to set up the appointment.
Stephen ignores my pathos and moves on. It’s all about him. He lets situation drive his writing rather than plot. Plot is unnatural and forced and for him, at least, arises naturally from situation. Plot is emergent. Situation seems like an appropriate metaphor for a trip that was at least in part unplanned until its start day. Write this situation: what if we go to Ojai without a plan or a place to stay in the middle of a pandemic while the state is burning down?
In Exeter, we provisioned up at a little mom and pop grocery store that has only a mom and serves mostly the same fare as a gas station. The dairy section of the store is a single rack behind a glass cooler and there is no bread. But the lady is nice and sacrifices two sandwich bread loaves from her deli for our campout meals. In another encounter a day later, my vegetarian friend Phil stopped at a sandwich shop in Exeter and they gave him the Philly cheesesteak despite repeatedly clarify his order for something else. He’s pretty sure he could have ordered anything from the guy and he would still have ended up with a Philly cheese steak. So there you have it, the good and bad of Exeter. How many people even have the experience of being there?
From Exeter, we drove to our desolate campground in the Sequoia National Forest. We veered off to scenic back roads that narrowed into one car lanes and roughed ever bumpier and wound into ever tighter curves and bends. As the road turned to dirt, Google Maps told me, “Arrived.” I looked around. The only thing I saw was trees. In yet another unimpressive performance of the app, it had dumped me about a half a mile from the entrance to the campground. Google Maps once rerouted me in LA in the middle of the night down a freeway that ended, sent me into some dubious neighborhood, then cut out and dropped the image of the map while looking for its connection. I had no idea where the f**k I was. I once followed it in Idaho and it took me down a road that disappeared from the map while my impatient guide suggested over and over that I, “Return to the route. Return to the route. Return to the route,” as if it were my fault. They tell me AI is going to take over the world. Ha. Really? Wait. Now that I think about it, maybe that is one small step in its master plan.
It didn’t take long to set up camp, then play catch with Chris and a real baseball, sneak glances at the two pretty lesbian (that’s how my mind processed it) girls in the campsite next to ours, and snap a picture of a gopher that looks like he is up for a game of whack-a-mole. Gophers at home have eaten far more from my attempts at agriculture than I have. Don’t let those cute buck teeth and that cute furry muzzle fool you for even a second. The road to agricultural hell is paved with gophers. And rabbits. And squirrels. And seed-eating birds. And snails. And insects. There is a lot of traffic on that particular road. It might work out for me if I trick the gophers into eating adverbs instead of corn and cucumbers.
Of course, I find my way into the alcohol and have a beer or four with my teetotaling vodka-drinking friend Hetal, commiserating over the last few minutes of my now spent middle age.
I awoke in the morning from my bivy sarcophagus to a new decade. In my head, I heard the voice from Google Apps say, “Arrived,” having dumped me in the middle of existential nowhere. A big part of the trip is over. It was what it was, it is what it is, and it will be what it will be. That’s the wisdom I’ve accrued over the years. Not having much shit on my shelf, I figure it best to go talk to the 3000-year-old Sequoia trees to find out what their wisdom is. After all, they’ve survived millennia of fires and fungi (but they do seem to be at the mercy of men and climate).
The campground is only fifteen miles from Sequoia National Park as the crow flies but an hour-and-a-half to get to as the car drives down circuitous and curvy roads. With another half-hour delay added to the ride for road maintenance, I gave up on my ambitions to hike deeper into the backcountry. There are always plenty of trees on the Big Trees trail to visit. General Sherman was way too busy showing off his massive girth to the hordes to have much of a conversation. Hordes was his word. He pointed out to me that its the same word I use for mosquitos.
I found an ancient that wasn’t so preoccupied. This is what it said to me, “I put out hundreds of seeds per cone and thousands of cones per year. Conservatively, over the course of my two thousand years of life, I might produce 200*5000*2000 or more than two billion seeds. I only need one success in two billion to be successful.”
F**king optimist. If I were 3000 years old, I’d be an optimist too. But they are resplendent and grandiose and flamboyant and Stephen King is turned off for a couple of days until I get back on the highway. So thinking with my cup half full, I agreed with his Majestic-ness. But then re-thinking with my cup half empty, it means there are two billion less one failures. So big trees suffer from confirmation bias even after all these years they have had to get their shit together. When I confronted them, they ignored my protestations and insights. The big trees spoke of resilience and perseverance as they looked down on me. I didn’t hear what the two billion less one missing trees had to say. Probably, the same thing I had to say. “Humph.”
Enough talking to the trees, I had to race back to the campground to greet Phil. Fortuitously, I saw him on the Big Trees trail hiding under an Illini baseball cap and behind a bandit’s mask. I was within two feet of him before I recognized that twinkle in his eye that makes him him. Two life long friends of over fifty years could have sailed past each other on the trail without a glimmer of recognition just like that. Easy come, easy go? It was a fortunate encounter. I didn’t have to rush back and he didn’t have to get lost in the middle of the night trying to locate the campsite. Well, maybe he has better luck with his maps.
Phil and I headed to Moro rock. Despite the haziness of the smoke-filled air and the ominous presence of ravens, the steep climb thinly protected by a knee-high rock wall from a drop of hundreds of feet and a view of distant mountains across a deep valley was thrilling and awe-inspiring. A thick haze obscured our view to the west. After our summit and viewing, we trekked back to the campsite under a pink and red and purple sunset stopping briefly to watch a flock of turkeys crossing the road before rejoining Chris and Hetal for a birthday celebration. Celebration is kind of a strong word for a gathering of four and an event that I would have strongly preferred to keep as a target in the sight rather than a fading memory in the rearview mirror. On the other hand, there are two billion less one seeds telling me to f**k off. They never made it this far, relatively speaking.
Back at the campsite, we all enjoyed Phil’s beers, checked out the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, talked about COVID and politics and retirement and travel and a few other things I probably needed to shut up about already. I scored three sci-fis from Neal Stephenson from Hetal and Chris and a six-pack of Stone from Phil. I never got around to playing “Time Waits for No One” on the guitar. That is how you turn sixty. It was what it was, it is what it is, and it will be what it will be. I heard a bunch of trees groan in the darkness at the thought.
Enough of the moroseness of a happy birthday. Nothing to lift your spirits like the resplendence of a spectacular canyon. Parting ways with Hetal and Chris, Phil and I packed and hit the road for the Mist Falls hike. Kings didn’t disappoint. It was very Grand Canyonish, in fact, even deeper at its deepest point, with the advantage that you can drive down into it. It’s a long slow ride that makes a lot more sense if you camp down there over nights to spend more time participating in the wilderness than viewing it from behind a wheel. The campgrounds we drove past were closed and the road was empty.
At the end-of-the-road trailhead to Mist Falls, we caught up to other cars and hikers but nothing even remotely overwhelming for a national park on a perfect summer day. The first two miles of the Mist trail was flat following the South Fork of the Kings River. The walls and peaks towered overhead in the haze from far-off fires in the Valley. A mule train led by two park rangers passed us on a hot and dusty section of the trail loaded with metallic canisters of unknown cargo. After a mile or so, the open trail ducked under a riparian forest to a prehistoric undergrowth of horsetails and ferns. At the two-mile marker, the trail veered north turning into a gentle climb as it followed the contour of the canyon alongside the river.
We stopped so I could take pictures of the stream. I managed to forget my poles, walking for about a tenth of a mile before realizing my mistake. After I retrieved the damn poles, I contemplated the efficacy of my brain efficiency. It’s just a matter of time before I forget something critical like turning off a stove burner for a night or forgetting to zip up my fly after a bathroom break during an important meeting at work. But instead of getting angry at frustrating times like this, I remembered an extremely useful piece of advice, “ask yourself if what you are doing is helping the situation or not.” I heard it on a TED talk on resilience. Anger and or self-pity don’t help the situation. I know, I’ve tried. That one phrase has so far kept me out of any up and coming Stephen King novels.
A few stretches of the trail are steep enough to warrant a granite staircase. We passed cascades we thought might be the falls. A catch-and-release fisherman regaled us of his multi-species trout catches of the day and told us the falls were just up the trail about a half-mile. A sign marked the spot of the actual falls but once you see the falls, you won’t mistake them for anything else.
The falls were extremely photogenic with a peak off to one side, trees on the rim near the top, and a rock protruding from the bottom pool that allows people to stand right in front of the falls almost as if in them. I usually try to take pics without people but I think, in this case, the people add a sense of scale and contrast. Phil took full advantage of the pool at the base of the falls with a swim in the cool waters. We found Phil’s wheelhouse.
After a hundred photos, a quick jump in the pool, and a modest lunch, we headed back. Most of my hikes these days are solo filled with finding interesting things and composing pics in my mind but this one breezes by with Phil’s company.
On the way out of Kings, we made a quick stop at the Roaring River Waterfalls. It is just off the road on a paved trail and another photo op. A little further down the road, we stopped in Visalia for dinner. Surprisingly, Visalia had a pleasant restaurant row with outdoor seating. We ate at Corby’s Rock N Roll Heroes. Don’t be fooled, it isn’t it a record store, it’s actually a restaurant that plays great classic rock’n’roll with a very pleasant young server who surprisingly does a lot of day hiking on her own in Kings.
Stephen King rejoined me for the ride home to San Diego but he’s not such pleasant company on this leg of the trip. In 1999, he ended up getting run over by a callous man trying to stop his Rottweiler from digging into his beer supply instead of paying attention to the road. If not for the quick response and impeccable treatment by the first-responder, Stephen assured me that he would have died. As it was, he had a crushed leg that looked more a bag of marbles than a bone, a punctured lung, broken ribs, and bent frames on his eyeglasses.
Stephen told me that the inspiration credited to drugs and alcohol is a myth. He should know, he was an addict. I read somewhere that after decades of abstinence, he fell off the wagon again. I don’t know if he has once again kicked the habit. I do know he has published over 60 books. Two roads to hell and one to redemption.
He tells me I have to write, write, and write, and then write some more. He also tells me I have to read, read, and read, and then read some more. Damn it. I have a job.
Stephen finally shut up and I finally made it home. I watched the grittiness of the backcountry wash off me in black streaks swirling down the shower drain.
So one symbolic milestone came and went. I continued to doubt the efficacy of my efficiency and I learned that the road to hell is paved with platitudes, adverbs, and gophers.
I imagined myself plotting out the road to hell in Google maps. Same road as Stephen King’s and Hannah Arendt’s. And herds of gophers. I followed its direction. I got stuck in purgatory. I paved the road with colorful phrases like, “Where in the hell are you taking me?” No adverbs were necessary. With any luck, I permanently lose myself at the end-of-the-road on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
I heard my internal map app voice speaking in my head, “Return to the route. Return to the route. Return to the route.” I’m sixty years old and I dumped me in the middle of nowhere. What route? What map?
I look at my older self in the mirror and say, “Now what?” He snarls his lips in disgust and disdain, stares back from inside the mirror, and says, “You live with it.”
Someone asked me how my day was and I said “Bobcat!” Okay, I admit I’ve totally lost my ability to interact in any ordinary way. I blame COVID. I’ve been in isolation for the last six months.
I’ve been hiking in this area for the last 36 years and this is my first bobcat siting. It darted across my path in Kit Carson Park in the middle of the day. Unmistakable. Too big to be a cat. Too fleeting to snap a picture. I know bobcats aren’t rare in these parts, but that’s not the point. The point is that it was a cool moment for me in a time when cool moments are hard to come by.
It’s still summer and it’s still hot. The best place to be is on the beach and the closest, wildest (for wildlife, not parties) beach for me is Torrey Pines. On this particular hike from street parking in Del Mar south to the north end of Black’s beach, the tide is rather low. I can see the crescent moon in the sky so I know it is not quite the lowest tide but pretty low given the expanse of beach to walk on. I do most of the hike shoeless and in ankle-deep water. I read the water temperature is up from the low 60’s of my foggy trip to the upper 70’s of this heatwave. Wading and swimming, I don’t have any trouble believing the report.
I bring my camera because the ocean and sunset never get old, at least in my humble opinion. With the tide low and golden hour light, I get some lovely shots of the cliffs with their reflection in the surf. The golden glow of the sun brings out the pinks, reds, yellows, browns, and oranges of the cliffs and in the reflections. I tried catching mirror images of the cliffs and shooting straight into the sand for more abstract shots. The play of light and water and color is fantastic facing back towards the cliff in the shallow surf, but I think I need to improve my camera work as the photos are little on the dark side. I think I will make a point of getting on the beach at Torrey Pine’s when the low tide is at sunset on a perfect day until I perfect my craft.
It is not too often I can walk on the ocean side of flat rock without fear of water-damaging camera equipment or getting smashed up against the rocks. The last hike, I couldn’t even get on top of Flat Rock from the beachside approach because of the high tide. This time, I casually walked around flat rock no problem. I took pictures of the matted anemones on its top side and barnacles on its underside. I can see fish working the surf and lots of fishermen trying to work the fish. A little boy charged with filling the bait well with sand crabs feels compelled to give me a close up of one.
Given the heat and the perfect weather, the beach seems relatively empty. Maybe its because the low tide has people spread out so much but the leg from the south parking lot to Flat Rock is sparse enough that I take plenty of people-less shots. Zoom in on the pan and look for people if you don’t believe me. The stretch from Flat Rock to North Black’s Beach is even more deserted. Black’s Beach itself looks as popular as ever but that is a story for a different venue.
I time the hike just about perfect to end up back at river’s mouth at sunset. A paddleboarder helped my cause by surfing back and forth in front of the setting sun making for some nice silhouettes in the orange glow. And while I was doing that, I saw dolphins skying out of the water in the distance. My perspective may be off because of the distance but those dolphins looked like they were getting serious hang time. Enough for me to look out, find them, and snap. It looked surreal to see these creatures leaping out of the ocean into the sky. If they had been in the line of sight of the sunset for a dolphin silhouette against a deep orange sun, I might have ** with excitement. Insert your own inappropriate metaphor there.