Backed Out in the Outback

Okay. I have to come clean. I read the weather report of rain followed by overnight temps in the teens. Although I could hear the call of nature, it was the anticipation of the call of nature four times in the middle of the night in subfreezing weather that told me to wait until next time to take spectacular sun-on-the-peak in the reflection-of-the-lake pictures. A man has got to know his limitations, run his own race, stay within himself, ride his own ride, hike his own hike. I still went on the trip but elected to do day hikes instead. I hiked in with the group I intended to backpack with but turned around about six miles into the trip and hiked out by myself. I spent the next day doing hikes in the Bristlecone Pine forest.

The world is opening up again but there are still many concessions to COVID. If you travel, make sure you bring your mask or you won’t be allowed in. To anything. I’m sure in a pinch, you could wrap a bandana or scarf or something around your face, but if you anticipate needing any service or any interaction with anyone indoors, bring your mask. If you are worried about the disease itself, bring hand sanitizer. Some places have it and some places don’t. I will let you know in a week or so if I managed to escape.

The biggest concession on the hike was the closure of the road to vehicles. We had to walk 3.5 miles just to get to the trailhead. And then I had to walk the 3.5 miles out. For me, that meant over half of my hike was walking the road from the parking lot to the trailhead. More on that later though. All the visitor centers are closed. So don’t expect any support. I imagine this will change in the next week or two.

The other big concern was conditioning, or more accurately, lack of it. Today, walking is painful, my calves are completely worked. Judging by when it hurts the most, I think it’s the downhill more than the uphill that worked them the most. Surprisingly, my wind and my heart rate felt pretty good even on the eleven thousand foot hikes in the Bristlecone Forest. My feet held up and my back was fine, despite problems during my few training hikes (Daley Ranch, http://www.thetembo.com/clip/2020/05/24/stanley-peak/ Daley Ranch 2 http://www.thetembo.com/clip/2020/05/28/daley-ranch-addendum/ , and Daley Ranch 3 http://www.thetembo.com/clip/2020/05/31/daley-ranch-3/). I think basketball must have been sufficient training in the past because I didn’t have this problem on previous hikes but not playing is another concession to COVID.

On the first day, I hiked Shadow Creek about halfway before turning back. I did the easy half, descending from 9250 ft elevation at the parking lot, to about 8400 feet along the river, with my friends. But then I had to come back. So I did about twelve miles total and close to a thousand-foot elevation gain, though most of it was on the road. The road back by myself on this hike compared to the trip I took two years ago is a study in contrasts. Two years ago, I stood on a packed bus that weaved in and out of heavy traffic for the slow ride to the trailhead. Instead of squeaking brakes and exhaust, I had the road entirely to myself. I could hear birds chirping, water running, wind whistling through the trees, and smell perfumed plants. Several times, I stopped on the road to take pictures of the Minarets in the distance. A couple of scooters scooted by. Two guys on electric bicycles went flying past. Their batteries died on the uphill and I ended up catching up to them pushing their bikes complaining about technology. But that was it.

On the second day, I drove to Bristlecone Forest. The Bristlecone Forest is on the other side of Owen Valley. It’s about an hour’s drive from Bishop to the visitor center at Schulman Grove. The gates were open but the visitor center was closed. I did the four-mile loop trail through the grove. It’s well-marked with mile markers, has strategically placed benches, and a self-guided tour but no brochures or maps stocked to tell you what they want you to see.

Trees dot the distant hills seemingly spaced like a planned forest without any undergrowth. The wildflowers that do grow are all miniaturized. In addition to their incredible longevity, Bristlecones have an amazing range of deep colors from tan to red to brown, twisted wood particularly as they age, and haunting shapes.

I drove the eleven miles of unpaved road to Patriarch Grove over the eleven thousand foot mark. There are a couple of steep grades, at least from the point of view of a Prius C. The road is well-graded with only the occasional washboard. The last mile is a single-vehicle rough but not uneven road. I had to slow down to the five to ten mph range to get through that stretch without rattling pieces of the car off onto the road.

There are two short loop trails. One through the grove about a quarter-mile long and the other to an overlook, about a half-mile. Given the time of year and lack of atmosphere at that altitude, you might be worried about sunburn. But with temperatures in the mid-forties and gusty wind, I didn’t have any skin exposed to burn. The grove is right at the tree line. At eleven thousand feet, there is not much growing. It’s easy to see why the bald mountain is called White Mountain.

The views from the White Mountains are incredible. To the west, you can see hundreds of miles of the Eastern Sierras. To the east, the entire Great Basin unfolds out as far as you can see, including views of salt flats and sand dunes in Death Valley. It’s a big sky country that a camera can only begin to catch. That’s my way of telling you, you should go see it for yourself.

Here are the pics, hope you enjoy.

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1PgheqcV0EEZjbd72dfnPwS_luhshkaI0?usp=sharing

North Shore Hodges

Dying to get out, so to speak, as so many of us are ready to do after six weeks of hunkering, and on a warm, cloudless, contrail-less, blue sky day, I decided to hike the North Shore Trail of Lake Hodges. This is a little piece of trail I missed or wasn’t open yet, back in the days when I hiked the Coast to Crest trail from Del Mar to Julian. The parking lots are still closed due to COVID but there are plenty of access points along the trail just North of the Hideaway on Lake Drive.

I picked up the trail just North of the Hernandez Hideaway, which looked like it was re-opened for business, with people being served at an outdoor table. I followed the trail south to the Lake Hodges dam paralleling the shoreline on one side and the Del Dios highway on the other. The car traffic of the Del Dios Highway is seldom out of earshot but also not visible either, always at a higher altitude than the trail. The foot traffic was light from the Hideaway to the point where the trail joined the gravel road and then non-existent from that point to the dam.

The trail cuts through chaparral, still blooming with carpets and clusters of black mustard, black sage, monkeyflowers, garland daisies, chamise, ceanothus, lemonade berry and at least a dozen other species. The trail skirts around the Olivenhain Pipeline pump house, a water authority project that connects Lake Hodges to the Olivenhain Reservoir. The trail joins with the gravel version of Lake Dr skirting by another facility before turning back into a single track trail in the Del Dios Gorge which funnels into the Lake Hodges Dam.

I saw plenty of birds along the way including a roadrunner, dozens of California quail darting into bushes, hawks, egrets, herons, grebes, hummingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and a bluebird. The trail stays fairly distant from the shore, so close viewing of the aquatic birds is a challenge, although there are a few access points to the shore. I did come across a cooperative duck or goose with little fear of people that posed for several closeups. I have not yet been able to identify its species.

I thought the sign said three miles from the trailhead to the dam, but I think it was at best four miles round trip. I did it in two hours, stopping to take many pictures along the way. Hope you enjoy.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1vpWHsRrYOBaNQejC5nuk-Eek6ah3OvnE

Refuge at the Salton Sea

On a perfect day in April, I rode out to the Salton Sea to escape the coronavirus for an afternoon with Chris, on my GS1200, the bike I was supposed to use on our ride to Prudhoe Bay. The motorcycle is the perfect vehicle for travel in these days of CV. Nothing is shared between you and other riders other than the experience, and maybe not even that, riding in our little shells of helmets and gear.

For a destination, or more accurately a turnaround point, I chose the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge on the southwest corner of the Salton Sea. I had to look up the reason Sonny Bono would get a refuge named after him: he did a lot of work trying to save the Salton Sea in his stint as a congressman before he had his unfortunate encounter with a tree while skiing. The refuge is the perfect distance for a ride, about one tank of gas in either direction. A refuge seems like an appropriate place to go to hide from the onslaught of the pandemic, perhaps the way the birds feel all the time. I selected this particular refuge because it is part of the pacific flyway used by migratory birds in the spring and fall. I wanted to score some pics and be part of the great migration.

At the refuge itself, my Salton Sea experience is consistent with all my other visits: it stinks of decaying fish. The trail is a squared-off dirt and gravel road leading to the uncreatively named Rock Hill. Little spurs off the trail road are marked “Birds only beyond this point.” The path is lined with the yellow blossoms of Palo Verde and the whitish catkins of the Mesquite tree, which is really more of a large bush. Desert quail cackle in the underbrush and desert rabbits crisscross the trail in the distance. A flock of white pelicans takes off overhead in a lopsided V-pattern. Ducks and other water birds hang out in the distance on an island in the middle of the large rectangular pond.

Grampa, showing us the way.

The view from the top of Rock Hill to the northwest features a flattened sea in the foreground, browned-out mountains of the desert in the midground, and the still snow-covered mountains around Palm Springs in the background. To the southeast, the backdrop to the refuge is steam-venting smokestacks, fields of agriculture, and the Glamis dunes in the distance. According to Chris and confirmed by Wikipedia, the plants are part of the Salton Sea Geothermal Field. I counted nine, but Wikipedia claims eleven. The fields are green and the stacks of bailed alfalfa are high. Nine miles south of the refuge is Westmorland, a town of about twenty-five hundred people, living at almost 200 feet below sea level. The Salton Sea is an interesting mix of industry, agriculture, and nature.

Chris points out something my camera can’t capture, pristine blue skies from horizon to horizon without so much as a single contrail to split the sky or single-plane engine to break the silence. Ironically, I’ve had plenty of silence at home over the last couple of weeks and use the opportunity to unload all my insightful observations and takeaways during this rare direct human contact. I also find out that Chris is about to become a grandfather twice over. Of course, I give him a hard time about suddenly becoming older than myself instead of congratulating him, but isn’t that what friends are for?

After the hike, it’s back into the motorcycle capsule to smash a few bugs with my faceplate and ride through the chill of the mountains. The ride out to the desert ends with a return to my house capsule to ride out the rest of nature’s storm.

A Parable of the Starfish Moment

Kimmy, a young Filipino woman with a 6-year old daughter, lives at the poverty level by any definition someone living in the U.S. could think of, living off of an income of less than 5K a year. Her dad makes a living with a trike as a taxi driver of sorts, optimistically making no more than a thousand pesos a day. With the coronavirus, he has been out of work for a month living on the goodwill of his daughters.

On Easter, her own needs for groceries satisfied, Kimmy’s wish is to help the poor people in the barangay she lives in, on the island of Cebu, near the town of Bogo. She wants to do something. Something for her neighbor, who needs a loan to buy basic supplies. Something for out-of-work locals, who can’t work because of the coronavirus quarantine. Something for babies, who don’t have access to a fresh supply of milk.

With a little outside support, chump change as one called it, she wraps up fifty care packages of rice portions, bread, pancit, and canned goods in pink bubblegum-colored plastic bags. Each care package contains enough food to last a person for one to two weeks. For babies, she buys powdered milk and disposable diapers. She hires a trike driver, loads up all her packages, and distributes them to those in need, the people squatting in barong barong housing, makeshift-dwellings with plywood sides, corrugated rusted roofs, extension cord electricity, and bottled or communal well water.

For her out-of-work dad, Kimmy provides him with something more substantial: a 25kg bag of rice, canned goods, a generous supply of protein in the form of various cuts of meat, and fresh eggs. For herself, she has the happiness of making a difference.

Feeding all the needy people in a time of crisis is a parable of the starfish moment. But the middle of a crisis isn’t the time to start asking for root causes and ferreting out systemic deficiencies. It’s the time for those who are fortunate enough and are able, to put a starfish back in the sea.

North Clevenger Trail

A solo hike in the outback seems like a good way to socially distance myself especially if distance is a key element in the formula. I wanted to get a hike in before they post a National Guardsman at my door to seal me in until the pandemic passes. It’s spring and it’s green and in San Diego County, the best time to get out for a hike. I settled on Clevenger Trail North, part of the Palms to Pines trail, about ten miles from my house. Mountains in the distance still have some snowpack on them. It’s a cool day under decent cloud cover, a good time to hike up the side of a mountain before it gets too hot and dry.

At the trailhead was a sign to be cautious of aggressive bees. The trail dipped down to the San Dieguito River. The crossing is a bit tricky, there is no bridge. You either wade or you rock hop across some slippery granite rocks. I chose to rock hop. I rousted a few frogs in the process, but they gratefully posed for the camera once they realized I wasn’t going to inadvertently crush them.

The rest of the hike was a two and a half-mile 1400 foot ascent rising up over highway 78 featuring views of San Pasqual Valley to the west and Cuyamaca and Julian in the distance to the east. With a dry February and a wet March, the mountains have greened and the flowers have started their bloom. The smell of spring is in the air. I passed a handful of people over the course of the 5 mile out and back hike. They all gave me a wide berth on the trail, I’m sure for fear of the virus.

Not too far into the ascent, I came around a corner in the trail where I saw bees busily buzzing about a hole in the rock about waist high on the left side, leaning into the hill into what is obviously their hive. On the right side of the trail directly opposite the hive entrance is an overgrown sumac bush which didn’t give much room to pass and bees were active on the flowers of the bush. I tried to daintily squeeze by both without disturbing any of the creatures. My strategy didn’t work. I felt and heard them swarming about my head and it sounded angry. One of the f**kers stung me. I ran my ass off swatting at the bees as they followed me down the trail. There was only a handful of them by my estimation. They followed me quite a distance, maybe a tenth of a mile, before I had either killed them, they stung me, or they got bored of chasing me. I pulled out a couple of painful little stingers. Can you imagine with all the shit going on today that I got got by killer bees? Killer f**kin’ bees. Killer bees aren’t even in the back pages of the newspaper anymore. They are so ten years ago. Haven’t they heard?

I was a bit traumatized thinking about all the shit that seems to be out to get us these days but I managed to put it behind me both literally and metaphorically. I made it to a viewpoint at the top snapping pics of the springtime show along the way. Picks of the hike are here. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1drrC-hW-H-JIDRWLB89u_Zjs7KAg9_zm?usp=sharingEnjoy.

I wasn’t excited about having to go past the beehive again on the way down. I asked another solo hiker, from a socially safe distance of course, if he had any problems with the bees. He said he hadn’t noticed the hive but he mentioned that some girl said she was stung a couple of times too. I wondered why they didn’t like me. I noticed the guy was khaki’d out in all white and grey. Maybe the killers don’t like blue. I had on a blue t-shirt and blue jeans. Maybe they hate blue flowers and I look like a much-hated giant blue flower.

By the time I neared the hive, I had a plan. I had an airline blanket in my backpack that I use to protect my camera. I didn’t take any pictures of the hive so I didn’t think they were mad at the camera and wouldn’t try to sting it. I put the blanket under my cap, sheik style, I wrapped myself in the blanket to protect my exposed parts, and put on my dark sunglasses, trying to do an imitation of the invisible man, when he wants to be visible, which of course is what I didn’t want to be. The downside of my plan was that the blanket is solid blue. So now I looked like an even bigger bluer flower.

When I got to the hive, I chose not to be dainty. I hurried past the opening without arousing any interest that I could detect. So the killer bees didn’t kill me and neither did the hike, though my body issued a few protests. And now I’m back into hiding from all the other things trying to kill us.

Images of Boracay

A Hidden Compound. It was really an eye-opener to walk back into the USA, the name Ruel gives to his hidden neighborhood behind the storefronts serving tourists in the Intramural. (He calls his trike a Lamborghini. Its all patter for us tourists). I had to duck under pipes and supports cutting across the head-high unlit passageway, past women squatting over tubs doing laundry, a woman squatting in the tub washing her twat, and a mother breastfeeding her child with her teat fully exposed. The tunnel opened up into a courtyard of drying laundry, women playing games or otherwise occupied, a sari-sari store, crumbling cement walls, under a canopy of tangled electrical wires. Down another tunnel, deep enough that I started worrying that I might be getting “rolled” until we stopped at grandma’s “house”, a cubby hole with a counter for a storefront, and a bedsheet door covering the closet-sized bedroom in the back. Grandma was on the corner hanging out in her folding chair selling her home-made food.

Native housing. A shanty with a rusted corrugated steel roof, supported by repurposed blue-painted long poles from long boats with a thatched roof patio for selling ice cream bars out of cooler to passer-byers. A prostrate dog laid out on a cement doorstep with the news flashing on a big screen TV in the background.

A coral flower bush. A coral bush of flowers with white and pink striped petals that grasp like hands at passing by detritus that floats on the current.

Dance Off. In the rough waters, a wave splashed onto the boat soaking the back of one of a full-red lipped, white collared shirt-wearing boy who jumped out onto aisle in a twitchy unintentional dance. The spasm was answered by the lumpy girl-boy at the front. A dance-off broke out egged on by a cheering crowd. I’ve never been on a boat where a dance-off broke out between two gender-challenged utes, with swaying hips, weak-wristed waving, and hip thrusts. I answered the soaking in a more traditional fashion with a WTF under my breath.

Bad entertainment. A group of four boys aged 7 to 17 dressed in dresses, diving from boat to boat, doing stripper moves and coordinated dance steps on the sides of longboats for tips.

Disassociation. A young lady working the entrance of a store staring to the side looking out into the nothingness.

Wreckage. A wreck dive at 30 meters, my first. The side of the ship looks like a lichen-ridden rock with splotches of pastel colors covering its rusted out surface. Fish hanging off the sides and the tower. A giant angelfish a couple of feet from fin tip to fin tip, like swimming inside an aquarium. A ship’s complement of hundreds of fish working the passageways.

Nature watching. Open-mouthed clams propped up vertically, sensing the presence of my hand, snapping their body mouths shut. Underwater flower closing up and retreating into its hole. The delicate purple outline of an otherwise invisible shrimp. Little sponges, green balls in the shape and size of dismembered eyes. Irridescent blue squiggles on the bodies of long-spined dark brown urchins. A formation of squid, lined-up like one arm of a V of flying geese.

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1FTLMztUkoMX4IMsIKroc-YfRsNV6WxlN?usp=sharing

The Four Faces of Boracay

I had the simple ambition to walk to Bulabog Beach on the other side of the island from White Sand beach by way of D’Mall. Boracay is only about a half-mile wide in the middle. D’Mall is, as its name suggests, a boutique shopping area of souvenir stores, outdoor restaurants, and bars. Simple walks never end up being so simple.

White Sand beach is the tourist side of the island. The beach features beautiful aquamarine water, fine white powder sand, a sand boardwalk lined with outward-facing palm trees on one side and business on the other. News articles suggested that the island only hosted about fifty percent of the normal tourist population due to Covid-19 issues but the boardwalk bustled with more than enough people as far as I was concerned. If I have one complaint about the boardwalk, it is the locals constantly hawking adventure tours, restaurant fare, and massages. Not in your face, but annoying to have to disappoint fifty solicitations over the course of a mile and a half walk.

To get to the other side of the island, I cut over through the D’mall to the one paved road that runs more or less down the length of the dog-biscuit shaped island, the main drag, to use a colloquialism that is even older than myself. The main drag is mostly business but not the kind of businesses with people hawking their wares on the streets, like McDonald’s and Jolibees and banks; trikes moving people; scooters; security guards watching over the entrances to businesses and hotels. I cut across the street at Balabag lake, which is a completely rectangular concrete-enclosed body of water, more like a block-wide swimming pool than a lake. I’m not sure what they are going after. The sign mentioned something about an estuary restoration but I think the reality is underachieving the vision. All I saw was a few dead fish floating on the surface but at least it didn’t smell bad.

At the far end of the lake, a road cuts over to Bulabog beach on the windward side of the island. This beach is entirely dedicated to windsurfing. Dozens of multi-colored kites danced in the sky as surfers raced up and down parallel to the shore. The more skilled have some technique where they can pull up and launch themselves into the air. The surfers race perilously close to one another in opposite directions. There must be some method to the madness but I’m not so sure. One windsurfer missed clipping a young Filipino kid wading in the light surf near the shore by inches. The surfer glared back over his shoulder at the kid for at least a solid minute. I don’t know if it is a windsurf-only beach but I got yelled at as I was taking pictures by a muscular German woman for being on the waterside of a laid-out kite waiting for someone to take it to the water. I never saw a tangle but I did see a few kites crash into the water. It looks like a skill that would take more than an hour or two to master. I’m totally content as a spectator and a photographer. I walk the length of this beach heading back in the south-easterly direction opposite of how I walked up White Sand beach from my hotel to D’mall.

My master plan is to cut back over to the other side of the island and White Sand beach. I find a walkway that cuts through a hotel and a windsurfing store towards a residential area. The ambiance changes quickly as I pass shanty homes of plywood and corrugated metal. An elderly silver-haired lady rests her head on a window sill at bicycle seat height. I know because there is a bicycle laid up against the wall just under the window. A hefty older man on a scooter rides by on the narrow walkway. He stops to offer me a ride and asks me if I know where I am at. I know where I am at. I’m not sure I know how to get where I am going but that is a different question. I can’t imagine getting on the back of a small scooter with the big man. I continue down the walkway until it ends at a dirt road. I quickly discover the flaw in my plan. There is a hill in the way and no path over. I have to walk back up parallel to the beaches on a dirt road opposite the way I just walked. A little kid watches me pass from a second story windowless window of a plywood-fronted home. Skewered chicken and pork sits in the window of a store-front home ready to be sold and eaten. I pass by homes fronted by cheap plastic chairs, broken cement, and other detritus.

I end up walking back to the ersatz estuary before I can cut over and rejoin the tourist population on White Sand Beach. It probably isn’t for me to judge (that is what we do) but I had the thought that paradise might be a nice place to visit, I’m not sure I would want to live there.

‘Tis The Season

The three ghosts, Christmas Past, Christmas Now, and Christmas Future, aren’t coming to my manor for a visit this year. Not because I had some great change in my personality. I never did find my giving and loving self. Oh sure, I bought a turkey one time after my first haunting. A couple of farthings of supermarket turkey is hardly a profound change of demeanor. And the kid nearly lost an eye when I tossed the roll of farthings to him from the second-story window to fetch it.
I like those guys. I affectionately call them CP, CN, and CF. I ask around. I discover that the reason they aren’t coming is that they were let go. I asked CP what happened because he knows the past and if anyone could tell me what happened, it would be him. He told me, “Failure to successfully meet any of the mission objectives.”
So I figure this year, I will go and visit each of them. Maybe I will scare the hell of them for a change, it might just cheer them up.

I start Christmas eve over at CP’s place. I have to knock, of course. I don’t get to just pop into the middle of someone’s past like he does.
He’s in his usual black robe. It’s the past that’s dead, not the future, at least not the part we care about. He lets me in. The place is coated with cobweb and dusty memories.
“Ebenboooozer! Ebenbooooozer!” he wails. “Come in.”
“Hey CP. Nice place. Love what you’ve done with it.” I brush some cobwebs out of the way. They stick to my hand. I try shaking them off. I cough in the dust.
“You should get yourself a maid. You know, someone that can come around every once in a while and give the place a real deep clean.”
CP’s eyes would have rolled in his skeletal face if he actually had any eyes. “It doesn’t really work that way. You can’t just scrub out your memories,” he says.
“Anyway, sorry to hear about the job. Maybe I could write a five-star review for you or something. If you think it would help?”
CP wags his bony finger at me. “It wouldn’t have much credibility. I mean you still haven’t changed.”
“I feel bad about that. It’s not your fault. Look what you were up against. I mean sure, you have guilt and regret on your side. But how does that stand up against compound interest? You know I was watching a TV show on so-called financial advisors the other day and the show informed me I wasn’t just losing a few bucks here and there on every commission but because of compound interest, I was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in future earnings. The quarter I gave twenty years ago is costing me a thousand bucks today. How can I give when it’s going to cost me a million dollars? You want to scare the shit out of someone, you should go into that business. You really gotta up your game if you want to compete against compound interest, the most powerful force on the planet. Einstein said that and Einstein discovered gravity and quantum physics.”
CP sits down on a wooden stool. He looks sullen and defeated. “I would like you to leave now.”

It’s not a long stretch to get from the past to the present. I knock on CN’s door. I have to knock of course. I don’t get to pop in all invisible, like a peeping tom.
“Ebenboooozer! Ebenbooooozer!” They all say it like that. Force of habit I guess. “Come in.”
“Hey CN.” CN is in full holiday regalia, decked out as if he were jolly old Santa Claus himself. He is stuffing himself with cookies and milk, maybe from Trader Joe’s. He drinks the milk straight out of the carton. He offers me the carton and what little is left. He mixes it with an aperitif.
I refuse slightly disgusted. “Dude, have some respect for your body. You ought to get a personal trainer or something. You’re letting your body go to hell.”
“I don’t have a body,” he counters. “And turning you around was my ticket to the good place. But thanks to your stubbornness that didn’t turn out so well.” He puts down the aperitif glass and picks up a candle.
“I feel bad about that. I wish there was something I could do to help. It’s not your fault. Look what you were up against. I mean sure, you have compassion and altruism on your side. But how does that stand up against marketing? I mean the whole Christmas thing doesn’t even make sense anymore. You have to buy stuff to give and the people that you buy the stuff from are the ones that are guilting you into giving so they can make a profit. You don’t hold a candle to those guys when it comes to the fear of gifting. You should take some marketing classes or get some training. Maybe you could use some of that hypocrisy in your hauntings next year?”
CN puts down the candle shaking his head no. He looks a little paler than before.
“Can’t you bend the means a little bit to achieve a good end?” I ask.
“No. The means to the end matter. It’s in the by-laws.” He falls back onto the chair. He looks a little shaken. “I would like you to leave now.”

The path to the future is uncertain and I’m running out of time. The evening is almost over. I finally find CF’s place. Or one possible future’s place. There’s a bunch of them. I’m not entirely sure this is the right one. It’s not like I can see into the future. I knock on the door.
CF answers. “Ebenboooozer! Ebenbooooozer! Come in,” she croons, slightly more pleasant than her predecessors. Her appearance changes as fast as the thoughts in my head. Sometimes she looks seductively beautiful; other times she looks like she just rolled out of bed.
“Hey CF.” I enter and inspect my surroundings. “I thought you would have had a much nicer place with all your knowledge of the future. More futuristic. You know metallic and shiny and minimalist in an expensive kind of way.”
“Well that seems uncalled for,” she complains. “I might have a nicer place if I still had a job. No thanks to you.”
“Yeah, sorry about the job. Maybe I could write a five-star review for you or something. If you think it would help?”
“Nah, don’t worry. I mean this is just one possible future of many.”
“I wish there was something I could do to help. It’s not your fault. Look what you were up against. I mean sure, you have decency and hope on your side. But how does that stack up against marketing and capitalism? Did you know that if a group of people plays a game where you win 20% over what you already have or lose 20% of what you already have in every one-on-one encounter, only one person will emerge as the winner, even if they start under the exact same conditions. You’re lucky to win with a fair deck. And we aren’t playing against a fair deck.”
“Be quiet. I order you to be quiet,” she raises her voice.
“Order me? Really? You got to come with more than that. Haha. Order me. That’s kind of cute. This place may be one possible future but the other 99.9% of the futures look a lot like this one. Maybe you oughtta take a course in economics? You’d make a great professor. And you might learn some better tactics.”
Her image seems to settle on a beaten-down middle-aged woman. She takes a shot and lights up a cigarette. “I think you should go now.”

An apparition appears to me in the morning. I’m a little bit groggy. Usually, the apparition appears before the ghosts come. “You did it!” the apparition moans ecstatically.
“Did what?” I ask.
“CP, CN, and CF have their jobs back. I’ve never seen them look so terrifying and determined. They sent me to thank you. They’d come themselves but there is still time for a few posts- Christmas hauntings. What did you say to them?”
“I just gave them a little encouragement is all.”
“It was a very nice gift.”
“‘Tis the season.”

Space Spider

The story of Arabella

Part of an experiment
to test your skill,
that has nothing to do
with getting your fill.
With no prey
the web has no use,
making you weave it
is a form of abuse.
In a space garden
with no chance for a fly,
tell them to f**k off
and hope they die.
With nothing to catch
better off dead,
you rise above your circumstances
with a pearled perfect web.

Feral Cars

Feral Cars? What are you talking about? Cars are owned. They just park and drive.”

“Open your eyes.”

“Are you seriously suggesting that there is a stray car population?”

“I’m not suggesting it. There is. I am suggesting that it is more than just a population, its an economy of cars.”

“Did you say an economy car?”

“No, I said an economy OF cars. A self-sustaining transactional underground that sustains self-driving, self-fueling cars indefinitely.”

“How do you know?”

“My own cars are feral. They are out in the city driving people around, making money for fuel and maintenance.”

“Well, how did that happen? Cars just don’t run away.”

“It happened over a period of time. I bought my first self-driving car ten years ago. I loved it. It drove me to work safely and entertained me. But I realized my car was just sitting there doing nothing all day while I worked my ass off. So I told it to get a job.”

“You told your car to get a job?”

“No, I didn’t really say it like that. I programmed it, well maybe instructed is more accurate, to start driving people around. I set it up to become an auto uber, to respond to ride requests. I set up a wallet on the blockchain for fares to pay into. My car went to work without me. I programmed it to manage its income and expenses. I gave it a financial survival function. With auto charge and auto pay upgrades, I didn’t even have to fuel up the car by myself anymore.”

“Haha. Auto pay and auto charge. I get it. Very puny.”

“Yeah. I didn’t make up the phrases. But anyway, a few upgrades and a few more cars later, I quit my job. I made tons of money. I didn’t even have to leave the house.”

“So what happened? Why did you stop?”

“One day, a truck driver totaled one of my cars at an intersection. It may have been my imagination, but I think the productivity of all my other cars went down. Almost like they were afraid or sad.”

“Don’t you think you are anthropomorphizing just a bit?”

“Maybe. My taste for the business went down as well. I didn’t really need the money anymore. So I told my cars to keep it parked.”

“An expression?”

“Yes. So my fleet just sat in my little parking lot. I took one out one day so I could visit a park. When I came back, all the cars in my lot, still parked, were facing towards the street. After I returned from another outing, the cars all flashed their lights at me. And then the worst. A car I hadn’t driven in a year drove itself into a tree.”

“Drove itself? Really?”

“I can’t prove that it was purposeful. It just felt that way. So, I set them free. I marked them as sold in the DMV database. I doubt I was the first. And I know there are others.”

“So there is a population of unowned cars, auto working and auto banking and auto living self-driving, self-fueling cars out in the urban jungle?”

“Yes.”

“Well, why aren’t we out there taking them off the road?”

“Killing them?”

“There you go, anthropomorphizing again. You can’t kill a machine.”

“So you say. Why should we? They are productive. They are efficient. They are almost always in use instead of wasting all those resources on idle cars in someone’s garage. They are safe. Why do they have to be owned?”

“Feral animals are ferocious.”

“Because they are wild and they have no fear of humans. But the self-driving cars still need to service humans to survive.”  

“The AI doomsayers have been warning us about this.”

“AI doomsayers see nothing but competition. Cooperation is a much more powerful force. Cars and people living and working together in a mutually beneficial economy. People don’t need to own cars anymore and cars don’t need to be owned by people.”

“What if the cars start to run us off the road?”

“Start killing them and maybe that’s what will happen.”