Time Travel through SoCal

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Another installment of the Book A Trip Series

Although we often think of traveling through space and time as an exotic dream or a science fiction story, our minds routinely do this. We travel through the present, plotting the future while constantly remembering the past.

Episodic memory is the ability to recall specific personal experiences from the past. It is a mental time machine triggered by sensory information, including sights, sounds, words, and the memory of particular events. It doesn’t take much to trigger an episodic memory. Conversations, stories, music, and situations all induce our time travel into the past.

Semantic memory is the capability to recall time and experience independent, factual information, like the taxonomy of songbird species in California. Memory, learning, and imagination use the same neural networks. Learning changes memory. We change the person we are just by remembering who we were. Is the self a fleeting memory impossible to truly know? Imagination is a mashup of things we have categorized, playing them out as future experiences. It is time travel to the future.

According to “Why We Remember” by Charan Ranganath, scientists have found that the hippocampus, a small, seahorse-shaped structure deep in the brain, primarily mediates episodic memory. In contrast, semantic memory involves neural networks in the neocortex, the gray matter of the brain. The two memory systems are interdependent. Repeated episodic memories translate into categories in semantic memory, which in turn can trigger episodic memories.

In a shameless plug for the “Book a Trip” series, travel and reading combine all the uses of those neural networks. Travel and reading add to the diversity of our experience and stretch the boundaries of what we can conceive. The brain combines these experiences in new ways. A book and a trip in the present are trips to the past and the future.

ER (previously referred to as GF in other posts) and I traveled through space and time on a Memorial Day weekend trip through Southern California. It takes a violent act of the imagination to picture my car as a DeLorean, but I know you can do it. When we weren’t making episodic memories, we were reliving them. Future episodic memories worthy of remembering are the trophies of travel.

We started the trip listening to Amy Tan’s “The Backyard Bird Chronicles,” a radical departure from her wildly successful book, “Joy Luck Club.” John Muir Law’s “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling,” inspired her backyard observation and drawings. Interestingly enough, the Laws Guide is on my bookshelf. Isn’t it on everyone’s? Okay. I might be off the beaten path on this one. But consider that I have read one book about a man’s observations of a square meter of ground for a year, “The Forest Unseen,” and another told from the tree’s point of view, “The Overstory.” What can I say? It stands to reason I would have the Laws Guide.

Despite their ubiquity, birds only fuel episodic time travel if you pay close attention to them. From my experiences in wild San Diego, I instantly knew that Amy Tan was from somewhere on the West Coast by her bird list. Through the observations of her backyard feeder, she has become somewhat of a bird expert. I will never mistake a Great Horned Owl hoot for a dove coo, but sadly, for me, a sparrow is a sparrow, and a warbler is a warbler. I have never learned to distinguish the white throat sparrow from the golden-crowned or the lesser goldfinch from the greater. Besides, who are we to judge the value of a goldfinch?

A rare sighting of the black-headed grosbeak for Amy is a distinct memory. It is an exciting event for her, and emotion triggers her brain to learn and remember. It is just another memory added into an undifferentiated clump of birds for the rest of us. Our brains lump the familiar and distinguish the different. The daily commute of one day is indistinguishable from the next. I will never forget that one drive on the AutoBahn at 150 mph. It makes sense. Our brains are filters designed to ignore the mundane and only keep what is important. It is the different that causes problems and what we need to remember to survive in the natural and social worlds.  

Charan says the brain works as designed when you forget where you put your keys, even when holding them in your hand. The links to memory get erased over time, especially with similar, overlapping experiences. His answer to forgetting is to accept it. Your brain is doing what it is supposed to be doing. I have yet to take his advice to heart. I find satisfaction in remembering and frustration in forgetting. It still pisses me off that a memory takes five days to percolate to the surface. If the goal of Jeopardy were to answer as slowly as possible, I would be the grandmaster. His one practical suggestion (that I remember) is to take the quiz before you start learning. It preps the brain for learning by setting it up to look for discrepancies. I always hated quizzes.

I formed episodic bird memories on a late lunch break at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. Loons swam just off the pier, which brought back memories of kayaking on Wasson Lake in Minnesota, finding a nest hidden in the grass at the edge of a small island. I didn’t know loons hung out in the salt water, so I learned a new fact to tuck away in my semantic memory. I also had the good luck to spot a surf scoter, a large duck I had not seen before. I would just as soon forget the pigeons scavaging for food at our feet and staining the pier with the remains of their successful foraging. The homeless lady shouting obscenities or the one passed out and face down on the dock amid the heaviest foot traffic, I would prefer to forget. I have entirely too many memories of walking by homeless people.

Amy documents the intelligence of birds, having met her match with persistent blue jays in particular. Birds have the same primitive brains with a hippocampus that we do. Why is it surprising they have episodic memory? The bird and mammal cortexes evolved differently and have different architectures. Bird brains may be tiny but pack two to four times more neurons than mammal brains. A recent article said that crows could caw to four, something previously believed that only humans could do. But why do humans caw to four? The article left me hanging on that point.

Musings over the bird feeder did little for ER’s episodic memory, and even I could only withstand so much backyard observation. So, I surrendered Amy Tan for ER’s playlist. The songs we listened to on the trip fueled the time travel machine. John Cougar Mellencamp sang Hurts So Good, or is it John Cougar? When did he stop thinking that Mellencamp was nerdy and Cougar was pretentious? John Cougar always takes me back to delivering pizzas in subzero weather on the Southside of Chicago for Benny after I graduated from college with a degree in mathematics and physics. Little Pink Houses was the big hit then, and it was his best effort (IMHO).

Blue Oyster Cult sang Godzilla, reminding me of the 70s and high school. Still, no specific memory came to mind besides a quote from a scene in Austin Powers, where one Japanese man screams, “It’s Godzilla.” Another Japanese man corrects him by saying, “Due to copyright laws, it is not Godzilla; it only looks like Godzilla. The punchline of the joke is that the Godzilla in the scene is a plastic facsimile, not Godzilla.

I hadn’t heard the Blue Oyster Cult song Godzilla in a long time, so I enjoyed its replay. I even learned something new about it. One of the verses in the song is:

Rinji news o moshiagemasu
Rinji news o moshiagemasu
Godzil a ga Ginza hoomen e mukatte imasu
Daishkyu hinan shite kudasai
Daishkyu hinan shite kudasai

Translated from Japanese into English by Google gives:

I’ll give you some
I’ll give you some
My grandma is facing the Ginza face
Please give me a hug
Please give me a hug

Go figure. The translation makes no sense whatsoever. Is Grandma staring down the beast, ready to hug it if it chooses to attack? I don’t think she has the same skillset as Mothra. But oh no, there goes Tokyo. Go, go, Godzilla!

But then we wondered, what inspired BOC to pay tribute to Godzilla? Did they wake up one morning inspired by a late-night TV movie with Godzilla battling it out with Mothra and Rodan? Or did they realize that the Godzilla OnlyFans base was underserved?

Not all recollection results in pleasure. I can think of more than a few episodic memories that keep me humble (but I’m not sharing.) If you see me shudder for no particular reason, it was something stupid I did in the third grade.

Overlumping repeated experiences causes pain, too. Honestly, I’m sick of hearing so many overplayed songs from the past, no matter what episodic memories accompany them. I don’t hate the songs; I’m just sick of hearing them. The songs are not good enough to last a lifetime of replaying. Two songs in particular make me want to run from the room: Brown-eyed Girl and Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

We had a lot of time to think and listen, stuck in the gridlock of the 5, then the 405, then the 101. The 101 coming out of LA is the Ventura Highway. Ventura Highway is a song by America, a pretty presumptuous name for any band, let alone one from England. The song wasn’t on the playlist, but the music played in my head, making me time travel to the early 70s, listening to 45s on a turntable in a friend’s basement. Fifty years later, I have this to offer as the start of a rewrite for the undeserved tribute to the unglamorous Ventura Highway:

Ventura Highway, in the gridlocked lanes
Where the smog is thicker
The air is toxic from engine flames,
We’ve stopped again, oh no.

So much for the free wind blowin’ through my hair.

I might have an even nastier verse for the 101 outside San Luis Obispo, where the State Police gave me unwelcome feedback for my fast car. ER claims “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman is the saddest song ever, so I had her read the lyrics to me. Tracy’s protagonist can’t escape the same miserable lives her parents led. The fast car starts as a means of escape from her parent’s dismal lives and ends as a wish to get rid of her partner when he becomes no better than her deadbeat dad. “So take your fast car and keep on driving.”

The Paso Robles bar we bellied up to displayed a John Wayne placard on the wall: “Life is Tough—It’s tougher if you’re stupid.” The quote triggered a memory of the John Wayne movie The Green Berets. I inflicted ER with the movie’s title track, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” which has eerie parallels to Fast Car. The Green Beret protagonist of the song goes off to die on duty, and his dying wish is for his son to follow in his footsteps. My advice to his kid is to get in that fast car and get the hell out of there. The movie “Green Berets” might be one of the saddest movies ever, but I am using a completely different meaning for the word “sad.” The movie was a propaganda piece for our moral mission in Vietnam. No, seriously.

A young couple band played “Wagon Wheel” in front of the bar to the mischief of 40ish women who were there to celebrate one of their 40th birthdays, if I am to judge by the reading of t-shirts. I propose mischief as the mass noun for partying 40-ish-year-old women. “Wagon Wheel” isn’t one I was familiar with, but it takes ER off to some faraway place and time. I have yet to learn to differentiate the many flavors of Southern music.

According to ER, I didn’t fit the general mold of the bar’s clientele. I lacked the necessary facial hair and didn’t have a glass eye. (Okay, I made that second part up.) Still, I’m afraid I have to disagree. I did fit into the bar, and I offer this as proof. When I pulled up the barstool, the burly guy next to me gave me a hard, welcoming slap to the knee that left me white-eyed. The stuffed boar’s head over John Wayne’s placard gave me a welcoming wink. The mounted cowboy boot next to the boar’s head would have approved but didn’t have a way to express its validation for me. I may get my wink when they mount the stuffed cowboy’s head instead of his boot.

We discovered that the couple to the right of us was on their first Tinder date. We empathetically shared a few tense moments while her date stepped out, wondering if he was ditching her or would return. This date was her sixth attempt at eternal bliss. Her success criteria is a partner who “Sees me, hears me, and validates me.” Those might all be the same thing if you think about it. Or I could be off base on this one. Perhaps she meant it more literally, excluding the blind, the deaf, and the psychopaths from her list of prospects. After five rejections, you shouldn’t be so picky. I would be off her list on all three counts. Not to worry, her date returned.

We met another affable, retired couple from Las Vegas while eating dinner at Paso Terra on the street front patio, splitting an order of paella. I ate the one carrot in the paella dish without sharing. It was the best carrot I’ve ever had. My attempt to order a side of one carrot failed. Sorry ER. The man introduced me to the concept of burning rubber. I was holding my hands over my groin thinking about the friction, but what he meant was spinning the wheels of your race car to generate as much smoke as possible before speeding off for a quarter-mile run. As thrilling as that is, it destroys the tires, so the trick is to buy cheap, one-use disposable tires, should I ever decide to burn my rubber. The conversation had several opportunities to go off the rails along differing political propensities, our new friends lamenting the lack of support for our veterans and taking issue with San Diego’s anti-yoga on-the-beach enforcement and AI technology. ER steered us back to neutral ground, pointing out examples of AI use with health benefits that human practitioners couldn’t provide and our new friend couldn’t refute.

Keeping worldview out of casual dinner conversations with strangers is generally a good idea, especially when their German Shepard is staring at you with bared teeth through the driver seat windshield of their truck. I think worldview is more closely related to semantic memory, which defines the interrelationship between things. In my memory meta-model (MMM), I think of semantic memory as the modeling diagrams I make for software, an ontology of the concepts the software will realize. Sadly, bubble diagrams don’t make for interesting dinner conversation.

Semantic memory is more than memorizing facts. A picnic bench at a viewpoint informed us of a new fact: the Chumash are the first people, which is probably news to many misinformed anthropologists. Those anthropologists will have to rewrite their semantic memories to accommodate this new worldview now that we know the cradle of humanity is in the Figueroa mountains just outside of Santa Barbara on the 154.

Armed with new bird and anthropological knowledge, we attempted to summit the 2,624-foot Cerro Alto Peak. We didn’t see many birds on the trail, the most memorable being the spotted towhee and a couple of vultures. The vultures were keeping a close eye on ER.

We did see quite a few people on the trail. None of them appeared to be Chumash, but how would I know? We jockeyed for position with a family of five up the mountain. Dad added a lot of unnecessary stress to the family’s hike by starting on the wrong trail, chastising his kids when they strayed, losing his glasses, and trying to motivate his three-year-old daughter, who would have preferred to play with the dirt. Dad needed to stop and smell the rose-colored flowers of the hummingbird sages. If he didn’t care for those, he could have chosen the chaparral peas, the silver puffs, the wooly Indian paintbrushes, the wooly blue curls, the scorpionweed, the pipestem clematis, the pink honeysuckle, the white globe lily, or the purple chinese houses. The mountainside was a pollinator’s paradise.

I was worried when the little three-year-old girl passed ER on the trail. (I’m teasing. The kid was riding on her dad’s back.) ER prevailed on the 120-floor ascent to her credit, though I was concerned that I might have to take ER to the ER. We picked a good day for the summit; cloud cover was limited to a fog bank that hung over Pismo Beach in the distance. We had 360-degree views, including Morro Rock, Pismo Beach, and a nearby summit with cell towers. I read that you could see to the Sierras on a perfect day, but haze obscured the view of the distant horizon. After the fact I read, you can see the “Nine Sisters,” volcanic plugs along a fault line. Morrow Rock is one. Looking at the trip pictures, I can see at least one other candidate, but not all of them.

After the hike, we started the long trek back. I took the long way home, driving through the heart of Los Padres National Forest, with impressive big-sky landscapes of layered hills and mountains. A stream-following road reminds me of Colorado. I’ve motorcycled this road before, but my brain forgot to store the video and instead categorized it in my semantic memory under spectacular. Why can’t that episodic memory play over and over in my head instead of the shuddering ones from the third grade? The one downside to the gorgeous scenery was the 30-minute stoplights on a two-lane highway with no crossroads.

And that brings me to the end of our time-traveling adventure. If you remember reading this, you have formed an episodic memory. If you remember the facts about goldfinches, the hippocampus, the hummingbird sage, or the Chumash, you have formed or augmented your semantic memory. And if the article is forgettable, it is not my fault. Your brain is working as designed.

Books referenced:
“Why We Remember” by Charan Ranganath
“The Backyard Bird Chronicles” by Amy Tan

Cartoon Images by ImageFX
All photos are originals

Good Bye Earth

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read if you want to watch the K-drama “Good Bye Earth.”  My advice is not to have such aspirations. Some of the story doesn’t make sense and isn’t well explained. Most of the characters are flat despite their backstories. And the backdrops had the full moon on the same horizon as the sun. 

“What would you do if you only had 177 days left?” asked GF, because I mentioned that there were only 177 days left until the asteroid impact in the Netflix K-drama “Good Bye Earth” that I was watching. It’s a fair question, but I didn’t have an answer.

In “Good Bye Earth,” things go to hell in bits and pieces. All the evil people hang out at nightclubs and gambling halls, while all the good guys hang out at a church: depravity or kumbaya. Prisoners escape. They abduct children for nefarious purposes. People stop working. Supplies dwindle to nothing. The military holds out, but dwindling ammo limits their effectiveness. A child dies of a fever because there are no antibiotics. You would be lucky to survive long enough to experience the end of days. 

Interestingly, “Good Bye Earth” seems to fall short on reconciliation and long on betrayal for those who abandon others to save themselves. It is short on forgiveness and long on revenge. Why should bad people live to see the end? They need to go now while we have the satisfaction of killing them for what they have done. Rest easy, for revenge is not on my list of things to do. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few people I would like to have kicked in the balls over the years (men and women alike), but I think that kind of satisfaction has to happen in the moment unless some damn white whale has bitten off your leg. 

Doing whatever it takes to survive the last days is the realistic answer, but it misses the intent of her question. Implicit in the 177-day question is the assumption that all hasn’t gone to hell and one still has some agency. It’s a bucket list question about what you’d like to do if you had to decide, with the bucket list on a short leash. Also implicit in the scenario is the futility of a long-term legacy. If the Earth is going bye-bye, there is no need to worry about the world the children will have to live in. There won’t be one. We can burn off a tank or two of gas without any global warming guilt.

So, how would I find gratification if the world only had six months to live?

Our plan for the day was a hike on Ladder Trail in Painted Canyon on BLM land outside Mecca just north of the Salton Sea by way of motorcycles. It was six months since my last ride. The oil line was up to where it should be, but was the oil any good after six months of decay? The front tire looked low. Chris said not to worry. I trusted his judgment. Sunny skies were in the forecast after a few morning clouds. It was supposed to be nice inland but hot in the desert.  

The whole day was weather-diverse. We rode in a fifty-five-degree marine layer that was taking its time burning off. We emerged from the clouds on the S-79 outside Santa Isabel, but it stayed chilly at altitude. That changed quickly as we dropped nearly four thousand feet in altitude to Borrego Springs from fifty-five to eighty-five in less than half an hour. At the first gas stop of the day, we shed layers in front of the fashionable club of Ducati riders. I can’t imagine they planned much more riding in the desert heat wearing their thick black leathers. 

Mecca is a taqueria for hungry travelers who skipped breakfast. It’s also a tiny town on the north side of the Salton Sea.

From Mecca, we drove ten miles on an out-and-back graded dirt road to the Painted Canyon trailhead. The overly cautious sign warned that the road required a four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle. The road was hard-packed and well-graded, with only a few sandy patches. Deep sand is one of the things I hate the most on a ride. I’ve managed to topple over about five or six times, but never at any significant speed. I watched Chris wobble through one, instinctively extending his legs for balance, which is probably an excellent way to break both legs if it ever came to that. Even the best riders struggle in the sand on heavy bikes that aren’t made for it.

Painted Canyon was a pleasing juxtaposition of color arrangement from the outside with green creosote in the foreground, beige, brown, and red hills, and a blue sky in the back. It’s a maze of trails on the inside. Ladder Trail veered off the main canyon and disappeared into a crack in the wall face. Three short ladders provided access to the slot’s entrance. The slot canyon rivals “The Slot” in Anza-Borrego, with high walls and a path just wide enough so you don’t have to force your way through or turn sideways. The trail emerges onto the roof of the mesa, providing a panoramic view of the canyon and the mountains beyond. Jacinto towers to the west, snow patches still visible on its flanks. 

Once on top, we were exposed to the heat and the sun. My water bottle had leaked over half its contents on the ride out, leaving us to share a half liter of water on a five-mile hike, a cause for concern but nothing we couldn’t handle. At the farthest reach of the hike, we dropped back into the canyon and headed downhill for the trek back. Desert bushes were laden with pollen-saturated yellow catkins. The ocotillo plants had leaves indicating recent rain. Wildflowers proliferated in their sparse desert way. Black and yellow birds scattered too quickly for a photo capture. Every bend seemed like a new picture. We descended to the lower canyon trail using an essential rope and ladder before returning to the trailhead and the road.

Mecca is a taqueria for dehydrated hikers who challenge the desert heat with a pint of water. 

On the ride back through the desert to Borrego Springs, a steady wind blew snaking sand ribbons across the highway. Deep sand is the only thing I hate more than gusting winds on a motorcycle, but gusting winds are potentially more lethal. I’ve been blown five feet by wind gusts before, enough to push you into the oncoming lane or off the road if you are ill-positioned. The winds were strong enough to fatigue my neck muscles but not so strong to knock me off my line. 

We pulled off the desert road to take stock of the weather. Nothing in the forecast prepared us for what we encountered. The blowing wind kicked up a sandy haze over Clark Dry Lake. The marine layer of clouds peered over the mountain wall to the west, which held back their ambition. The dark edge of a black cloud crossed over the desert floor from north to south at about Borrego Springs. The ominous cloud had two cyclonic-looking formations underneath. I’ve never seen a formation quite like it. It reminded me of the final scene in “The Terminator,” when Sarah Conner was standing at a gas station, heading off into the lightning-struck mountains of the Mexican desert. 

As far as I know, these clouds were not harbingers of the apocalypse. I think they were lenticular clouds because of the layering visible at the edge of the front. According to people who keep track of such things, lenticular is from Latin, meaning shaped like a lentil. Take a look at a lentil for yourself. It’s a plausible explanation. The word was first applied to lenses that have the shape of a double-convex lens, curved on both sides.

Lenticular clouds are a standing wave pattern formed when winds blow over a fixed structure like a mountain. As humid air is pushed up and cools, it condenses into a cloud. The cloud dissipates as the air sinks back down and overcorrects by dipping lower than its original path. Layers of hot and cold in the stream give the lenticular cloud the pancake look. I have only seen these clouds in isolation, looking more like a stack of pillows than tornado breeding grounds. I speculate you get this unusual formation when combining a storm front with a standing wave pattern.

We were filling up for the motorcycle ride home at a gas station in Borrego Springs. The marine layer told us we were heading back into the cold, and we geared up. The fifty-two-degree temperatures confirmed our expectations.

What would I do with 177 days left? I want a few more days like this in the 177. With time short, I wouldn’t worry so much about kicking the bucket in a wreck. Kicking the bucket might even be a blessing in an actual apocalypse scenario. My usual thought when I leave the house on the motorcycle is to make it back alive. I wouldn’t have so much to lose if one of those cyclonic cells dropped out of the sky and swept me off to Oz. There is something exhilarating about surviving the ride, witnessing grandeur in the big and the small, and hiking through narrow slots and up and down ladders. I’m not sure it is something you can plan for. Maybe that is the source of the exhilaration. Put a few days on that list where you head out with a minimalist plan and see what happens. Take a pass on the kumbaya and depravity.

Urban Oasis

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Amidst the towering smokestacks of steel,
Nature’s emergence seems almost surreal.
The rush of traffic, the sound of the wind,
A secret spot, for wildlife to hide in.

The city hums with machines and gears,
As the birds and bees dim in my ears.
The concrete jungle rises tall and proud,
While trees and flowers hold their ground.

Transmission towers with commanding might,
Like ancient oaks in the fading light.
Electric lines stretch to the sun,
Like a spider’s web that cities have spun.

The sun sets behind factory’s walls,
Stars peer through smoking squalls.
A contrast stark, yet somehow the same,
Industry and nature both lay claim.

Nature forges in a world of steel,
Surrounded by slag, melting its heel.
Amidst the chaos, a glimmer of hope,
A chance for nature, a way to cope

Assist by Grammarly AI.


Reading Time: 16 minutes

Author’s Note: See the first in this Astronomical Series: Totality

 Day 1: 220 miles. Escondido to Kelso Dunes

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Annularity is totality’s brighter cousin in a rare competition where being dimmer is better. We aim to seek annularity in the backcountry of Nevada, an event predicted to occur on October 14th at 9:30 a.m. near Ely, Nevada. I wouldn’t have planned a trip so close in time to a trip I just finished. But a celestial event is on a rigorous schedule that you can’t slip to the right, no matter how skillfully you bargain with the cosmos or Sir Isaac Newton.

It’s already 2:30 p.m. before we launch and 550 miles to Ely. We, a convoy of two motorcycles and a Compact Prius, want to cover 220 miles of it to Kelso Dunes. There is no way to beat LA traffic this late in the afternoon. In Riverside County, the afternoon temperatures hit the low 90s. I’m expecting the cooler temperatures of San Diego County and the higher elevation of the desert. Long underwear is a poor wardrobe choice. The only way to beat the heat is to lane split through the on-again and off-again stalled traffic of the I-15, something I am loathe to do because it is the cause of so many motorcycle accidents, trying to wobble our way through cars and trucks. If the vehicles pay attention, they split like Moses parting the Red Sea. Sometimes, those two fearless classes of motorcyclists, the leather-bound speedsters in crotch rockets and the half-helmeted Harley riders in jean vests blaze through the stopped traffic like a hot knife through butter. I’m just trying not to get killed. 

We fuel up at the Outlet malls in Barstow and wait for our Prius to catch up to us at a Del Taco, which boasts of being the original. A little research uncovers that the first Del Taco was at Yermo, just down the road, and that another Del Taco by Barstow Station is the oldest. But I digress. 

An earthclipse occurs at about 6 p.m., completely dimming and obscuring the Sun and accurately predicted by scientists. We watch the Sun fade over the horizon, which means we will be night riding the hundred-plus miles to the Dunes. Riding up Kelbaker Road north from the I-40, the temperature drops into the upper 50s as we summit. The long underwear is a good choice now. Gearing up and gearing down is the ongoing battle of any long-distance bike ride. The only guideline I can go by is that the next road segment will not correlate with the previous one because of the altitude, the time of day, changing weather conditions, and even traffic conditions.

We head down the dirt road that fronts the Kelso dunes, looking for a spot to camp, a challenging feat in the dark. One that I’m not up to. I see an open area on the side of the road that isn’t marked with a no camping sign. I slow down to see it better in the dark, hit a sandy spot, and drop the bike. It is a slow-motion fall, and I walk off the bike as it goes down—just like old times. 

The campsite is just down the road, though. They’ve added vault toilets since the last time I was here Singing Dunes, a welcome addition as far as I’m concerned. We have a few drinks and finish up the Indian food brought for the ride, but no one is hungry after our snack at Del Taco. We compete on shooting star counts in the Milky Way banded sky. The urban glow of Las Vegas and Los Angeles show on either horizon. After everyone else turns in, I stay up for another hour to work on my nighttime photography skills.

Day 2: 330 miles. Kelso Dunes to Ely, Nevada

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The morning light illuminates the dunes from the east, making nice shadows on their west sides, perfect for Dune photography. Sand verbana and chinchweed add a lovely purple and yellow color to the landscape. 

The big decision of the morning is whether to drive to Baker or Primm. Baker is closer. We know we have enough gas to make it. Primm will save us nearly an hour if we cut across the Mojave National Preserve, but the gas situation would be precarious. Outside the major cities, gas stations are a precious commodity for those riding on a motorcycle. Take advantage of every opportunity to fuel when gas stations are fifty to seventy-five miles apart.

So, we opt for Primm, turning right at the Kelbaker train depot down the creatively named Kelso-Cima road, which takes you from Kelso to Cima. We keep the speed at a gas-saving 65 mph, which gives us the time to soak in the creosote-lined valleys that lead up to the rugged mountains in mid-distance. As we reach higher elevations, we roll through a Joshua tree forest, a sparse arrangement of spikey-leaved trees where tree neighbors give each other a wide berth. Hole-in-the-wall campground is just twelve miles down the road. I hear its frigid, windy hillsides calling us for a future visit. 

We make it to Primm, not exactly brimming with fuel but enough left to get us there without panic. Primm has an interstate vibe with high-volume gas stations and a motorcycle club blaring out music at top volume. We stutter our way through Vegas, admiring its skyline but not so much its traffic. 

On the Highway 93 turn North into the heartland of Nevada, I ignore my advice never to waste an opportunity to fuel up. The next town on the map is Alamo, about seventy-five miles north. I expect a sign saying, “next services in so many miles,” but I never see it. There is no guarantee that we can gas up there. 

The 93 is a road where, one day, someone said, “We need a route from the I-15 to Alamo.” An engineer took a ruler and drew a line from one place to another. The road skirts the Desert National Wildlife Range on its west side, which has abundant water for an October desert and a veneer of green. We pull into the Visitor Center a few miles short of Alamo. I have to think that Lisa Williams, the ranger in charge, doesn’t see that many people and welcomes our interruption. Lisa advises us to visit a BLM office on the way up to Ely to find a decent place to camp. Why I remember her name, I don’t know, but the imagined isolation of her mid-Nevada outpost piques my interest in the type of person that could endure it. 

We fill up at Alamo and decide to head up the 318 instead of the 93 to Great Basin. It’s already getting late, and we want to avoid wandering around in unknown territory, trying to find a place to camp in the dark. The 318 is a more direct route to Ely, where we must gas up after the 150-mile trip, a road devoid of gas stations.

As we progress, the roadsides become more vibrant, with yellow rabbitbrush (ID not confirmed) lining the road, patches of white grass in matts of red, and a veneer of green. It’s a full spectrum experience. The road cuts through a gorgeous cliff section that comes up to the shoulders and opens into a long basin surrounded by mountains. The beauty of the roadside flowers, the mid-distant green, and the mountain-rimmed horizons astound me. But my riding companion tells me not to be fooled. The remnants of Hurricane Hilary came this way and dumped more water in one day than it usually gets in a year. We witness a second spring, the plants either taking advantage of or fooled by this watery aberration. We are seeing the brochure, not the Nevada we would return to.

In Ely, the register lady at the gas station says to head out of town and pull off at any dirt road. She says they expect tens of thousands of people, a regular Woodstock event, in my estimation. In Ely, or somewhat north of it, we find an ad-hoc campground next to a horse track willing to put us up for the night for a mere sixty dollars cash, a little bit of event gouging in my opinion. Wasn’t Woodstock a free concert? We pitch our tents on the volleyball courts of a local park and set up a kitchen on one of the park picnic benches. Another scientifically-predicted earthclipse obscures the Sun from our view. The temperature drops to an overnight low of thirty degrees. The long day of riding and the cold night send us to an early tent.


“The black dragon swallows the sun, everything is silent; the moon has eclipsed, and the white rabbit has eclipsed.”(黑龙吞日,万籁寂静;月有食色,白兔已蚀

Ancient Chinese Eclipse poem, possibly manufactured by ChatGPT.

In the morning, the worry is the clouds. A thin layer obscures the Sun when we first wake. The Sun is covered but visible. Still, it is not the ideal viewing conditions when a thick band of clouds intervenes between you and annularity. But the clouds drift off, and the moon takes its first bite out of the Sun, a nick in the perfection of its sphericality. The event is on.

The complete unfolding of a solar eclipse is not exactly a horse race, and in the interim between viewings, we discuss the celestial mechanics of a solar eclipse. 

Begin Digression: Fast forward to the story’s future, now my past. The trip resumes at “End Digression.”

As the eclipse progressed, I explained the annular version of the solar eclipse as the difference between apogee and perigee. But later, it occurred to me, what are the odds that apogee and perigee line up precisely at the point where the moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic? That would be an extraordinary coincidence if solar eclipses depended on that alignment. Why wouldn’t the eclipse occur at some other intersection point of the moon’s orbit with the ecliptic? Spoiler alert: it does. But I’ve never heard anyone describe a thick “ring of fire” or a “thin ring of fire.” And in retrospect, I do not know how close we were to full annularity.  

I waded through at least fifty different online articles, seeking an answer. Either I couldn’t ask the question the right way, or the general understanding of the qualitative mechanics of an eclipse needs to be better understood. I suspect the latter, but I finally hit an article that explained it in a way I understood. I will regurgitate (my understanding) here. 

An eclipse occurs at syzygy, the configuration of the Sun, the Earth, myself, my companions, and the moon in a straight line, like the pieces on a shish kebab skewer. Syzygy has no common etymology with Zzyzx, the exit to nowhere from the I-15 in the Mojave. They don’t even rhyme. But again, I digress.

It took me a while to visualize all the different orbital motions. So, let’s start with the most basic. The ecliptic is the plane of the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. The plane of the moon’s orbit about the Earth is inclined by five degrees with respect to the ecliptic. The nodal line is where the plane of the moon’s orbit and the ecliptic intersect. 

There are two nodal points. The ascending node is when the moon goes from below the ecliptic to above. The descending node is when the moon goes from above the ecliptic to below. And if you follow the path of the October 14th eclipse, it cuts across the Earth from Northwest to Southeast. The April 7th eclipse of 2024 will cut across the Earth from Southwest to Northeast. In the first case, the moon moves from above to below the ecliptic. In the second, the moon is moving from below to above. 

The Earth is at one of the two focus points of the ellipse of the moon’s orbit. When the moon is at perigee, it is closest to the Earth. As a side note, when the full moon corresponds with perigee, it is called a super moon. When the moon is at apogee, it is farthest from the Earth. The line from apogee to perigee is called the apsidal line.

An eclipse can only occur when the nodal line points directly at the Sun, sometimes referred to as the eclipse season. A solar eclipse occurs during a new moon when the new moon crosses the ecliptic in front of the Earth in relation to the Sun, and a lunar eclipse occurs during a full moon when the full moon crosses the ecliptic behind the Earth in relation to the Sun. 

The orientation of the nodal line with respect to the line from the Earth to the Sun changes as the Earth moves around the Sun. In three months, the nodal line will be perpendicular to the line pointing directly from the Earth to the Sun. In three more months, the nodal line will again align with the Sun, but this time with the opposite nodal point facing the Sun. So, you would expect to see an eclipse every six months.

So far, so good? 

Now, we start with the complications. First, the most eclipses recorded in a year is five, not two. One of those extra eclipses is a happenstance of the calendar. The first eclipse of that year occurred in early January, the second in June, and the third in late December. In other words, the eclipses occur every six months, as expected. They happen to fall on the year boundary.

Each of the other two extra eclipses occurred one month apart from another eclipse. I infer that the nodal line orientation had a similar aberration to the calendar in that there is a window for an eclipse of about a month. If the first eclipse occurs at the beginning of that window, the second eclipse occurs at the end. So, occasionally, you can sneak in an extra eclipse in a month. In the record year of five eclipses, this happened twice.

The second complication is that eclipses aren’t on an exact one-year cycle. In other words, the nodal line will not be in the same orientation with respect to the Sun after a complete orbit. In fact, it will be off by 1/18.6 of the Earth’s orbit or about three-quarters of a month per year. The nodal line has an 18.6-year precession. It takes 18.6 years for the nodal line to return to the same orientation at the exact location in the orbit. Ancient astronomers could predict eclipses based on this cycle without knowing celestial mechanics. Good day to you, Mr. Newton.

The third complication is that total and annular eclipses do not necessarily alternate every six months. There is even something called a hybrid eclipse, where the eclipse starts out as totality but ends in annularity.

Now, we can go to the part bugging me, which I could find little about. If the apsidal line is perpendicular to the nodal line at syzygy, the moon would always be at the same distance from the Earth when an eclipse occurs. The focal point is equidistant from the ellipse perpendicular to the apsidal line. If this were always the case, the eclipse would always be the same kind. It would be either annular or total eclipses or even hybrid, but whichever one, it would always be the same. 

If the apsidal line is coincident with the nodal line, we would have both annular and total eclipses separated by six months. On one side of the Earth’s orbit, the apogee would be between the Sun and the Earth, while on the other side of the Earth’s orbit, the perigee would be between the Sun and the Earth. Six months from the annular eclipse of October 14th, there will be a total eclipse on April 7th. 

But this alternation is only sometimes the case. It turns out that the apsidal line also precesses over 8.85 years. See [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apsidal_precession] for a good graphic showing this. The apsidal line will change with respect to the nodal line so that you wouldn’t expect an exact six-month progression of annular to total eclipse. It reverses after 4.425 years. If a total eclipse occurs in October, 4.425 years later, the annular eclipse will occur in October, not correcting for other factors.

Syzygy, nodal line procession, and apsidal line procession are my deeper, qualitative understanding of the eclipses. I know a lot more than when I started. Regardless of what I know, the fact that I showed up at a time and place predicted to have an annular eclipse, which it did with flawless precision, is a tremendous and tremendously underappreciated accomplishment for astronomy and physics.

End Digression: Return to the story present.

I check the eclipse’s progress every few minutes and snap a picture. The annular eclipse doesn’t viscerally move me like totality. You can’t see it without unique ISO-rated sunglasses. The Earth doesn’t go dark, only a little dim. If you are observant, you might notice that your shadow gets slightly fuzzy, with the two light sources coming from either side of the horns.

Still, watching the moon’s progression covering the Sun is a thrill. I’m not sure if the black dragon eats the Sun or the Sun puts its fiery jaw around the moon, only to find it indigestible and have to regurgitate it. The event culminates when the U of fire becomes the ring of fire, achieving syzygy. Even at this juncture of conjunction, the Sun is far too bright to look at directly. I snap some pictures and put the camera aside to take the time to appreciate what will likely be a once-in-my-lifetime event.

When the ring disappears and the regurgitation starts, the event is over for all except the high-end photographers who want to film the entire end-to-end progression. The Woodstock event is twenty or thirty people watching and photographing from the dirt parking lot beside the racetrack. Most of them pack up their equipment and tents and leave. For me, it’s like a baseball game. You can only go after the last out in the ninth inning. When that last dark node at the edge of the Sun’s perimeter, a black diamond if you will, disappears, it’s time to return to more Earthly pursuits.

Day 3: 200 miles. Ely to BLM land somewhere south of Alamo.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

With the return of full sunlight, the temperature has soared to 50 degrees (sarcasm). I wear most of my warm-weather gear as we head out of town. We plan to procure one of those lakeside campgrounds we saw at the Desert National Wildlife Range, just north of the visitor center we stopped at, taking the long way to Alamo, heading east toward Great Basin National Park on U.S. 50, then following 93 south to Caliente. 


As we turn south onto the 93, we stop for a photo op of Wheeler Peak, the 13,000-foot peak inside Great Basin National Park I climbed six years earlier on my trip to achieve totality. I remember sucking oxygen back then. Six years later, I doubt I have the cardiovascular endurance to summit. I will stick to safer things like driving five hundred and fifty miles back home on a motorcycle through Riverside traffic.

Great Basin is a vast geographic area extending over Nevada, Utah, California, and Oregon. We ride in a basin within the basin that stretches for a hundred miles, lined with distant mountains on either side and lots of cold in the middle. After reaching Pioche, we drop in elevation, and the world becomes a warmer place.


Just after Pioche, we stumble onto Cathedral Gorge State Park, a hidden gem in the heart of Nevada. A scenic overlook provides spectacular views into the weather-eroded gorge and a self-guided walking tour describing the sparse but not barren flora. The namesake feature is a cathedral structure jutting upward from the canyon’s floor. The lengthy gorge has an extended, rippled wall banded with tans and browns, fronting a distant mountain range.

 We stop for gas at Sinclair and food at the J&J fast food restaurant for greasy and unsettling fare. Exiting the town through a narrow canyon and passing more scenic country, we elevate through the picturesque countryside of juniper trees, descend into another basin, and pass on the opportunity to hunt for trilobites. Fool! How often will I get the chance to mine for trilobites? Torschlusspanik. So much to do. So little time.

 Our dreams of a lakeside campsite in the Upper Pahranagat Lake campground evaporated like gasoline on a Nevada highway. In the Paiute language, Pahranagat means “Valley of Shining Water.” I translate it as mocking water because all the campsites were fully occupied, the Visitor Center was closed, and the park was infested with Park Rangers, making a stealth camp impossible. 

 Our leader finds us a stealth site on the other side of the highway, down a dirt road to nowhere, as far as I can tell. We have the place to ourselves, but the price for primitive camping is the open-air, wallless bathrooms. We aren’t the first to camp there but benefit from this arrangement with boards and half-burnt firewood to start a fire. We watch the hillsides paint red in the sunset of another Earthclipse and speculate on the previous owner of a sizable, carnivorous jawbone. After dinner, we start a sizable fire that lasts late into the night, and so does the drinking. The conversations are all a hazy memory. We talked about seeing totality next April and, at some point, decided the benchmark of outdoor experience is how often you’ve taken an outdoor crap. Such is the talk of campfires.

Day 4: 400 miles. Somewhere south of Alamo to Escondido

“…we gotta go and never stop going ‘till we get there.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

There’s not much to say about this day other than I elevated my outdoor ranking leaving more than footprints buried at our primitive campsite. We slog all the miles, fast miles, on the long, straight highways and the I-15, eating at gas-station restaurants and concentrating on negotiating through the post-eclipse traffic. In Riverside, the temps soar to 102, a seventy-degree temperature swing from the freezing temperatures of Ely, still wearing my long underwear. But after a long day, we all make it home safe and sound, and I like to think better for the experience.













Never Been To Spain

Reading Time: 22 minutes

A stream-of-consciousness regurgitation of a trip to the Iberian Peninsula in the “Book a Trip” Series.

“Well, I’ve Never Been to Spain, yeah
But I kinda like the music,
They say the ladies are insane there,
And they sure know how to use it…”
Three Dog Night – Never Been To Spain”


I’ve been to Spain twice but couldn’t stop the “ohrwurm” (a German word literally translating to earworm), despite its lack of relevance, from playing the song in my head or sharing it with those around me. You have to appreciate the contradiction of singing the song while you are in Spain. It’s an interesting thought that the song was playing in my head because we weren’t listening to music, filling a music void like the missing frequencies hissing in my tinnitic ears. Without an externally given purpose, does my head also fill in intentional voids, a kind of existential “omwurm”? Does the brain abhor a vacuum?

I visited Spain and Portugal with family back in the early 80’s. I remember the names of the places we visited because I liked to read maps to know where I was going. Besides the names, I barely remember anything about the sites we visited, aside from an unforgettable trip to Tunis that involved seasickness, pure panic, and a hotel towel turban (I have yet to write this piece, but when I do, you will find the link here,) —and watching a bullfight, which I thought was more of a bull slaughter than a fight no matter how close the matador let the bull get to him. There are two reasons why I remember so little about the destinations apart from the intervening forty years. First, we traveled by tour bus, so much of the experience was sitting on an air-conditioned bus doing whatever we used to do to occupy our brains in the days before cell phones, not having to make any decisions or navigation.

Second, I had no connection to the places. Malaga, Seville, Granada, Lisbon, and Madrid were just names on a map. I want to say I visited Toledo, too, because I have recollections of the bus driving through a gate in a stone wall surrounding a city, and I can’t think of any other place that might be. Without a story, one cathedral or castle is as good as the following, and droning tour guides seldom provide more than dry, disjointed facts. There is nothing wrong with adventure for adventure’s sake except the missed opportunity to appreciate what you see. 

So, to give my latest trip more context, I chose two books: an audible book, “The Alchemist,” and a print book called “In Diamond Square.” I was looking for something to give me a window into what living in that region was like. I prefer a story for its intimacy rather than some overarching historical dissertation of events.

Although “The Alchemist” was initially set in the sheep-farming hills of Andalusia, it was a hero’s journey fantasy book of a boy following his literal dream to find treasure near the pyramids of Egypt. It reads like a self-help book as the boy pursues his “personal legend” on a voyage across the Sahara, offering nuggets of wisdom like, “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” In defense of non-allegorical self-help books, most of us don’t have supernatural powers. You might need more than self-help if you start talking to the winds and the sand, and they answer back.

According to the boy’s mentors, “… when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” The ostensible reason for our Portugal destination was something my friend wanted. He wanted to evaluate the Algarve region as a retirement option. I have yet to succumb to retirement planning. So, this journey wasn’t about my “personal legend” but in support of a “personal legend.” I tried to play my role as a part of the conspiring universe to help achieve this dream, but it was DOA. My friend was already thinking of other, closer places by the time we undertook the journey. But, “When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he has never dreamed of when he first made the decision.” Despite the premature conclusion of all personal legends, the currents of the original decision were still strong enough for us to proceed with the trip anyway. 

“In Diamond Square” was somewhat more relevant, set in Barcelona before and after the Spanish Civil War. We visited Placa del Diamant in Barcelona, sitting down for a Damm beer, learning that the only free about the Free Damm was its freedom from alcohol. The square wasn’t much to see: two lime-green city workers hosing down a fenced-in playground with high-powered water guns, a family overseeing the courtyard from their balcony, the graffiti-tagged roll-up steel doors that front most stores, men unloading grain from a truck, a woman disappearing into a door within a door apartment entrance, a few trees, the park benches haphazardly arranged to face the center of the courtyard, and a mother breastfeeding a kid who was old enough to ask. 

In the corner near the patio restaurant is a statue of Natalie, the protagonist of “In Diamond Square,” trapped with her pigeons in the sheet metal matrix with an expression that reminds me of “The Scream.” I’ve never evaluated a statue on its ability to capture the essence of a book, but I thought this effort represented. You be the judge.

Compare the figure to the passage:

“…I put my arms over my face to save me from whatever was about to happen and let out a scream from hell. A scream I must have been carrying deep inside me for years and a little something else ran from my mouth alongside that scream that was so vast it was hard to get out of my throat, like a cockroach made from saliva, and that little something else that had been shut up inside me for so long was my youth that now rushed out screaming something or another…that I’d been forsaken?” 

The imagery of “In Diamond Square” puts you in even the most mundane scenes. One passage is the best description of drizzle I’ve ever read: “Drops of rain played chase on the washing lines and, sometimes, one dripped down and, before it fell, it stretched and stretched because it seemed a huge effort to let go. It had been raining for a week, drizzle, not too heavy or too light, and the low clouds were so full of drizzle they dragged their swollen bellies along the roofs. We watched it rain.” I’d like to see more sculptures trying to capture Merce’s graphic descriptions: the 45-foot-long tapeworm popping its head out of Joe’s mouth that somebody must pull from Joe’s body without leaving any segments to regenerate; the unborn rat fetuses extruding from its mother sliced in half by a trap; or the dove filth that she finds herself imprisoned in. 

Goya Style by Craiyon

Her imagery is as haunting as the Dark Paintings of Goya. Goya appreciation was an unexpected outcome of a checkbox visit to “Museo Nacional del Prado” in Madrid. My appreciation of art runs less than skin deep, but surprisingly, some works grabbed my attention. Goya’s Dark Paintings are both metaphorically and literally dark. The most memorable is the image of Saturn eating his son. Goya portrays Saturn as a wide-eyed, ragged, and fearful god, cannibalizing one of his sons before he can overthrow him, as is prophecized according to Greek and Roman legend, with appropriate name changes. In Greek/Roman mythology, the story ends happily when Zeus/Jupiter grows up to defeat Chronos/Saturn, forcing him to regurgitate all his brothers, happily for the brothers, anyway, assuming they are reasonably undigested. In the Dark Paintings, Goya draws his figures with black eyes accented by their contrasting white sclera in a sea of dark colors as in the “Witches Sabbath” or haunted expressions as in the “Pilgrimage to San Ysidrio.” (I looked those titles up in Wikipedia to remember.) He also did the La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida, two versions of the same woman, the nude one being controversial in its day because the woman doesn’t show any shame in the display of her naked body. I might be confused because I think I only remember the clothed version of the painting, though the article says the two are displayed side-by-side. His works that appeared to be commissioned depictions of royalty were otherwise dull. The other piece that grabbed our attention was the Velázquez painting “Las Meninas.” Las Meninas means hand-maidens, though they represent only two of the eleven characters in the picture. Two are identified as dwarfs, though they look like ugly kids to me. After the visit, I googled this painting, only later discovering that there is a controversy about whether the king and queen in the mirror are watching the painter from the viewer’s viewpoint or are the reflections from the painter’s canvas. 

The museum has its fair share of wall-sized medieval paintings, with seraphs and twisted necks, which I still find disturbing. (My other experience at the Louevre with medieval art, another story also not written up.) We visited a Raphael room to complete my lifelong quest to see the artwork of all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael (wink emoji here). For whatever it says about me, my favorite rendering in the museum was a t-shirt with a flask of beer portrayed on it, saying, “Technically, beer is a solution.”

The Prado has one very out-of-place Picasso that should have been in a room alone because it seemed so out of context with the paintings surrounding it. I subsequently read that Picasso didn’t much care for Goudi, the surrealist architect from Barcelona, though Salvadore Dali did. Salvadore Dali painted the melting clocks called “The Persistence of Memory,” a painting I’ve admired several times in articles and books associated with Einstein’s general relativity. But Goudi is new to me. We visited the Park Guell in Barcelona to see Goudi’s work. I have mixed feelings about it. Walking through the irregular patterns (an oxymoron?) of leaning stone archways and flowery columns was a Seussian experience, but I didn’t care much for the gingerbread houses. I once read that surrealist paintings try to capture faces at different times on the same canvas. That characterization makes sense when looking at the multiple expressions on the same face in a Picasso painting, but I’m unsure how that plays out in surrealistic architecture. There may be something barren and ugly about the straight line. Still, I want architecture to express the pragmatic sciences of metallurgy and physics rather than the whimsicalness of surrealistic art. As impressive as the skyline-dominating Sagrada Familia cathedral is, I’m pretty sure that is not where I would run to ride out an earthquake or weather a storm. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t see the interior of the Sagrada Familia as we failed to book a reservation sufficiently far in advance, as we learned during lunchtime gone bad. Our guide, host, and reason for visiting Barcelona tried to take us to one of her favorite outdoor cafes on the median boulevard strip, but it was closed. We settled for the Plan B Sagrados Cafe restaurant, which served us an undercooked, runny Spanish omelet and a crunchy, undercooked green pepper dish that she disgustedly returned to the kitchen. The server committed a customer service foul by defending the oozing dish as classic. Meanwhile, as we speculated whether Sagrados translated into undercooked food, a sunburnt, pot-bellied, middle-aged man set up his open-air music venue on a park bench next to our table, trying to make a few euros with his singing. And as if channeling the inner thoughts of our distraught hostess, he started singing Elton John’s “Sorry,” pouring great emotion into a line, then pausing like a school kid reading a textbook to look at his phone for the lyrics, then pouring equally great feeling into the next line. 

“It’s sad (So sad),
so sad
It’s a sad,
sad situation
And it’s gettin’ more and more absurd
It’s sad (So sad),
so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh, it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

I don’t know if there is a German word for when so many things go wrong, the situation becomes so absurd that you can only laugh. But if there isn’t, there should be. I’ve submitted the request by email to Germany. On the upside, “Sorry” replaced “Never Been to Spain” as my “ohrwurm” for a short while, and I came away with the notion that we should all have a minstrel follow us around and channel our mood and thinking into song like Brave Sir Robin in Monte Python’s “The Holy Grail.” I gave our minstrel two euros, not for the quality of the singing, but for his impeccable timing and unwittingly perfect choice of song.

I wasn’t laughing at the Centauro car rental place when we first arrived in Lisbon. We lost the fight to get on the transport bus from the Lisbon airport to the rental car facility. Still, we beat the next bus by taking the thirty-minute walk instead lugging our luggage in the heat over uneven sidewalks and roads so I “didn’t have to end up hating all these people.” I lost another battle with the kiosk machine that issued numbers to queue up to see an agent at the facility. The uncooperative machine demanded a reservation number, which I didn’t have handy. Instead, I only had the confirmation number from Expedia, which the kiosk rejected out of hand. When I tried to ask an agent for help, she chastised me to wait in line like everyone else. I lost more battles to the wireless connection I needed for my laptop to try to log in to the Expedia website. Once I found that, I lost the struggle to find the reservation number. Perhaps the ultimate insult, the Expedia website refuted the existence of my reservation while, at the same time, sending me an email asking me to rate my Centauro experience. Germany never responded to my email either.

Finally, one of the agents showed me the errors of my ways. If you can’t find your reservation number, the kiosk doesn’t print a receipt, but it gives you a number you must remember to see an agent, who will then provide you another number based on the looked-up reservation. The agent tried to put the fear of God in me. Aside from the sixteen-hundred dollar deposit, he threatened me with 250 € payments for every dent as big or bigger than the size of the head of a hammer. I imagined a little person hiding in the rental car’s trunk, taking every opportunity to jump out and pound it with a hammer so Centauro could abscond with my sixteen-hundred dollar deposit. Where is my minstrel now? How about a rousing chorus from “Humans Are Such Easy Prey?”

“It can’t be bargained with.  It can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.  And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

That could be over the top, but it would have channeled my inner vibe. As a side note, I don’t think the AIs or the aliens are out to kill or torture us. They are prankish teenagers who get a kick out of driving frustrated users crazy, like giving peanut butter to a dog. But the three-hour delay wasn’t all bad. GF made friends with a retirement couple that fled to Portugal from the politics of the United States, and we learned how to identify cork trees stripped of their valuable bark, a helpful skill for the car ride to the Algarve.  

Torture is the province of human-to-human interaction, as the “Museo de la Tortura” in Toledo well documents, which we visited, possibly to fill our existential void or to ponder the imponderable. Why do people torture? Is it unbridled hatred? Or sheer perversion? Or just fear and insecurity? Cue the minstrel. He should be singing the sounds of silence in the background with all the anger of Disturbed.

“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again.”

It’s hard to imagine the line of torture thinking. Someone had to have the thought, I want to crush someone’s skull, then go out and build a device that can do it, and then actually use it on someone. The iron maiden has adjustable spikes. At some point, someone had to realize that skinny people weren’t receiving the full benefits of the spiky garment or fat people wouldn’t fit in it. So they sent it back with new requirements for a one-size-fits-all redesign. Some devices were designed for humiliation, some to extract a confession. Some instruments were designed to inspire fear in those watching the torture, but that was not always the case. The Spanish Inquisition tried to keep a low profile. I bet you weren’t expecting me to mention the Spanish Inquisition, were you? Because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. 

It would be easy to torture a Millenial: put them in a room without their cell phone or any access to social media. They wouldn’t have to put a pig mask over my head if they wanted to humiliate me. They could tie my hair up in a bun, loop a man purse over my shoulder, and force me into those skinny jeans that taper just above the ankles. 

Torture has evolved into erotica, self-mutilation, and Mad Max movies. On the upside, I have a few new ideas for a GF birthday gift. We passed on the opportunity to visit the “Erotic Museum of Barcelona.” Yes, it exists. But sadly, I don’t have the data to further report on the topic here.


For what it says about us, given Toledo’s rich history, the torture museum was the only attraction we paid to enter. Every cultural center charges something to visit, and getting nickel and dimed to death is annoying. Or is it eurod to death? Nickel and dimes would have been easy. Our guide, hostess, and reason for visiting Madrid suggests that all the exhibits should be free so everyone has the opportunity to learn about the culture, not just those who can afford it. Amen, sister! The effect of monetization of culture warrants more profound thought. When does the culture become a caricature of itself, catering to consumerism rather than vitalism? Does a culture get to bitch about appropriation when they are selling mass marketing their heritage?

Social capital is another essay in itself. I see it as a selfie with the Grand Canyon in the background without turning around to look at it. I see it at all the stores that sell trinkets and pins to cater to the social capital of its purchasers. My hat is off to our two hostesses and guides, who have immersed themselves in the culture, learning the language, living and working in their respective cities, and finding something beyond transactional interaction. A sign of authentic travel is when the reality of isolation and uncertainty replaces the romanticism of the pre-trip, when your thought is, “What the f**k did I get myself into?” Our hostesses are doing better than I am at authentic travel, but we tried for something in between.

I like doing hands-on stuff, following the advice of the adage: I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand. In Barcelona, we attended a cooking class. We learned how to devein shrimp with a toothpick, debeard a mussel after first checking that it is alive, cut onions without crying, and put them all together to make paella in giant paella pans and burners you can buy on Amazon anywhere from 75€ to 5000€. We also socialized with other travelers over Sangria:

  • A young couple of corporate lawyers from Slovakia.
  • Another young couple from Germany, the boy an aspiring farmer from Korea.
  • A crazy lady who solved the problem of getting me to smile for a photograph. “Smile, asshole.” (Side note: I tried it, and it also works on others.)

In the interest of deep appreciation, I aspired to take flamenco and bullfighting classes, but neither panned out. We settled for a Flamenco show in Madrid and a walkabout in the old Bullfighting Ring in Barcelona. Flamenco dancing was not performed by flamingos but by dancers, a cube-shaped bongo player, a guitarist, and a singer. (NOTE: The bongo is cube-shaped, not the bongo player. Technically, it is called a Cajon.) In the intimate setting of a stone-walled cellar, the intricate, pounding footwork dances its way viscerally into your body. By the way, if you’ve never seen the dance of the Flamingo, you should view it on YouTube.

In Portugal, I aspired to do bird-watching at the “Parque Natural da Ria Formosa,” but it turns out birds get up early in the morning, unlike the rest of us. Only city birds like the Egyptian goose, parrots, Eurasian magpies, and sparrows keep to a more humane schedule. We settled on a four-hour afternoon cruise from the port at Olhão to the islands of Culatra and Armona. Cruise is a poor choice of words. It was more like a chug, listening to our guide attempt to shout information over the engine’s noise. In my mind, I saw him yelling at home as if it were an ordinary thing. I asked him if it bothered his wife. She screamed from the background, “I’M OKAY WITH IT.” 

We stopped for a Super Bock and lunch at a patio restaurant in the quaint town of Culatra. Afterward, I made a mad dash across the island, half of the walk down a sidewalk gauntlet of pastel-colored, patioed houses and the other half on a boardwalk that cut across sandy berms to the ocean-facing side of the island. I only had time to dip a foot in the ocean before returning to catch the boat. We stopped for another half-hour at Amona to stroll through the town and back up the beach. I took a quick swim in the cold water against a receding tidal current that I could have used as a resistance swimming pool. In retrospect, I don’t know what gives it the classification Parque, but based on empirical evidence, I would say that it means underdeveloped, sandy islands. The only birds we saw were seagulls. The flamingos are dancing out there somewhere, but I booked us on the wrong tour.

Our one-hour kayaking expedition didn’t quite live up to my expectations either. I envisioned working my way up the coast, photographing rugged rock formations and water entrances to caves. Instead, the outfit restricted movement to a narrow band in front of the town’s beach. The best excitement was watching my friend turn sideways in the wave and get dumped in the sand. Still, getting out on the water for sun and exercise is better than idling the day away. 

Despite the setbacks, the rugged coastline of the Algarve is very much within the scope of my “personal legend,” if I have such a thing, perhaps a pursuit of nature in the daytime rewarded with hanging out on balconies drinking socially at night. (I notice I don’t have too much problem with my anti-social drinking either.) The universe conspired in our favor with the boat ride adventure along the Benagil coastline, highlighted by the famous Bengali cave, a deep ocean swim, tunneling through a small water cave entrance smaller than the boat at the top of the swell, and capped off with a high-speed beaching of the ship. 

Another highlight was standing on Farol do Cabo de São Vicente, the end of the world, the furthest southwest point of Europe. The promontory reminds me of the Irish coastline (although I’ve only seen it in films), with sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet from protesting waters that crash at its feet. Despite my best efforts at pictures, the landscape is too big. It is one of those spots you have to see for yourself. Another simple pleasure was seeing the ear-to-ear smiles and enthusiasm of a Japanese father and daughter pair conversing with GF in Japanese, offering to take a picture of them together against the dramatic backdrop of the sea cliffs, penetrating a language and personal barrier I couldn’t. Ironically, the connection suggests how isolated you can be in a foreign land. 

The Fortaleza de Sagres is one of the many vantage points for the rugged coastline. The fort hides a significant hike and a great view back to the Cabo. Fishermen drop their lines from the top of the precipice into the Atlantic below, traversing more air than water. Prince Henry the Navigator built the fort in the 15th century to protect the town of Sagres from Barbary pirates, although I don’t see why those pirates wouldn’t just pay a few euros for a meal and Super Bock, like everyone else. The wine and beer were incredibly well-priced relative to any stateside restaurant or bar, typically coming in at under 15€ for a decent bottle and 5€ for a pint. I think I know where the pirates went. We took a picture of the facsimile of Prince Henry for GF’s mom, who trained with him back in the day (wink emoji here).

As much as I tried to minimize my food intake, trying not to come back five or ten pounds heavier, food was a big part of the trip. We found the most authentic meal in Grandola on the ride from Lisbon to the Algarve. The expressway sign suggested food at the Grandola exit. It turned out to be five miles off the highway. We found the Colher De Pau Café-Restaurante, a small, unpresumptuous restaurant that served the blue-jeaned, working men their late afternoon beers. I’m unsure if the restaurant was open, but the mother-daughter team served the one item from the one-item menu: a pork sandwich on plain white bread. It tasted like a tender piece of bacon.

My favorite venue was the Food Temple in Lisbon. After having a panoramic view and a beer at Miradouro de Santa Luzia, we strolled down a dark, narrow alley into an otherwise non-descript cobblestone square with laundry hanging out a window, satellite dishes pointed to the sky, and entrances to modest apartments. However, the outdoor seating was on a stone stairway with tables strategically placed at different tiers. The wood-board tables were custom-fitted to the height of the stairs, with no legs on one end for the higher stair. We dined on olive appetizers and vegetarian entrees and split a bottle of red wine. I asked our waiter what the backstory of the Food Temple was. I tapped into an enthusiasm unparalleled at any restaurant I have ever visited. The other question I asked was how a vegan restaurant can serve butter, but it was some spice spread. The experience was augmented by the performance of the now classic sitar and synthesizer piece, “Take a Shower with a Friend. Save water,” by the immortal Project Mr. Bubble, our first minstrel of the trip. The lyrics and the title are the same. No offense to my good friends, but stinky and dehydrated would be better choices. I’m sure the feeling is mutual. 

The cup of melted chocolate with churro dipping sticks at the Chocolatería San Ginés in Madrid was the most decadent meal, if it can be called a meal. It’s like squeezing the contents of one of those Hershey’s genuine chocolate-flavored syrup bottles into your mouth. I’m unsure if the genuine refers to the syrup or the chocolate flavor; Hershey’s sounds like cheese food to me. But I can’t be a denier, the real stuff was great.

We strolled the streets of Alfama in Lisbon, highlighted by the Elevador de Santa Justa and the views of and from the Castelo de Sao Jorge. We received some of the slowest customer service at one of the outdoor restaurants of the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. We speculated that our server went on break or the cook was busy raising the cow and growing the barley. The poor customer service is attributed to the lack of tipping. In South Korea, servers perform because that is what they are supposed to do. The tip is in the cost already. It sounds so civilized to me. I could easily live without tips. In Portugal, supposedly the servers don’t perform because they aren’t incented to. People warned us early on in the trip not to expect decent customer service. The difference between the two countries suggests that culture has something to do with it. 

Not all service was poor, of course. I think of the little cafe across from our hotel in Barcelona where the cafe owner gave us a free croissant. GF conversed with him in French, speaking in another foreign tongue, like some James Bond character who speaks any language in any country. The owner suggested ideas for our stay in Madrid, at least that is what James Bond told me. I was pranked twice by a waiter at Tasca 26 in Porches, Portugal. Since I ordered the wine, I sampled the initial pour, swirling for viscosity, sniffing, and tasting as if I knew what I was doing. After I approved, he filled up everyone’s glass but mine and walked away with the bottle, over my immediate protests. Of course it was a joke. Then after dinner, I turned down the offer of a desert port wine, only to get my sampler in a glass the size of a gold fish bowl. It was all in good fun and taken that way.

Some people work for tips or their equivalent. Plenty of decent street musicians perform with their instrument cases open for contributions, including guitarists, violinists, and even celloists. I hope they play for the sheer joy of it, using the tips only to measure their ability. In the Praca do Comercio, we encountered a furry Panda posing with tourists for tips. Straight begging might be better than standing on your feet for hours in the heat in a heavy Panda suit. We later met these critters in the other big cities. I don’t know what Panda says about Lisbon or any other place, but there is a fatal attraction to these photogenic fellows. We speculated that stealing a photo with one of these guys might result in subsequent Panda attacks. Why take a chance? What if they are all interconnected and looking out for one another? After all, it is a networked world, even for Pandas.

Street peddling seems like a hell of a way to make a living, like the small army of Black salesmen ( a description, not a judgment) who unbundle their parachute full of purses and shoes and anything else light enough to carry into squares and plazas of Madrid. I saw them starting with packed parachutes at noon and still selling at ten at night. 

The big cities are not without their homeless and deformities:

  • A man on his knees face to the ground with his cup in supplicant position.
  • A man supine on a busy sidewalk by the train station with no shoes, feet cacked in black dirt, and disgusting toenails.
  • A gypsy woman working her way up the street with a paper cup asking for money.
  • Hambre signs on cardboard.
  • Deformities too gruesome to describe.

And so on. The west coast of America is no stranger to these sights.  

So does my head fill in intentional voids, a kind of existential “omwurm”? In real-time and in the absence of the pursuit of a personal legend, my head fills with all the worst-case scenarios. I try to turn those into humor by finding the most absurd worst case. Bad customer service turns into cooks running out to grow the vegetables and raise the animals. Intimidation at a car rental agency turns into a person hiding in the trunk with a hammer. The misery of working for meager tips in a Panda suit turns into a Panda pursuit. The yelling over a boat motor turns into a scene from the loud family. And so on.

My head should fill itself with gratitude. According to an article, only 5% of the world’s population has been on a plane. I empathetically took two trips via books and took one via jet. I lived the pursuit of a dream of a boy traveling across the Sahara desert and a woman suffering through a half-hearted marriage and the collateral damage of the Spanish Civil War. I saw natural wonders and explored historical yet vibrant cities, putting in over a five-mile-a-day average through trails on the Benagil coast, the cobblestone streets of Barcelona, the historical sites of Lisbon, and the busy streets of Madrid.

I had great times traveling with my girlfriend, socializing with friends on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic, and with surrogate family in the restaurants of Barcelona and Madrid. I sat at countless outdoor restaurants, sharing stories, food, and wine with my companions and crumbs with the sparrows and pigeons. I connected with our Catalan friend, impressed that I read a book about her culture. I had so many tapas they blur into one giant continuous meal, and I could drown in the vat of wine I drank. 

A good metaphor for the trip would be the brilliant fireworks display exploding over the sea cliffs of the Portuguese Atlantic, an unexpected and welcome surprise. Gratitude is something that comes after the fact. Hopefully, this piece fills that void.

Remains of the Father’s Day

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Spoiler Alert: If you plan on reading “Remains of the Day,” you may want to save this for another day. 

It’s not my habit to use earbuds while I hike. It defeats the purpose. But I want to finish an audiobook, “The Remains of the Day.” So when my lens cap undoes its clasp and its tether detaches from the body of the camera, and falls to the ground, I don’t hear or notice it. 

I’m a quarter of a mile up the trail when I try to remove the no longer present lens cap from my unprotected lens. It was there when I started, but I could have dropped it anywhere between here and the car. Judging by the empty parking lot and walking on an out-and-back trail, I figure I have a better than 90% chance of finding it on the return trip to the car. There is no one else on this trail to take it. So I let it go, resolving to be mindful not to bang the camera around with its exposed lens and to recover the lens cap on the way back.

I’m not sure what prompted me to pick up the “Remains of the Day,” and I’m not even entirely sure why I continue to read it. The story is about a butler: not a man who works as a butler, but a man who IS a butler. It reads like a handbook for the craft of the butler narrated in the first person. Is there such a word as butlerness, the essence of the position? 

On the other hand, Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing is compelling. I unabashedly acknowledge it qualifies as craft. The cadence, tone, interactions, and meticulous descriptions of thoughts and perceptions are rich, unrelenting, and consistent throughout the book. But is it a story? I am starting to wonder. 

In his ongoing recollections, Mr. Stevens recounts several encounters with Ms. Kenton, who was part of his staff. She caused professional and, in the most subdued of ways, sexual tension between the two. The two servants never once reveal their first names to each other or even to the reader. When they overcome the sticking points in their professional relationship, they share some brief informality together in the evenings passing the time by sipping tea together in the kitchen. Still, he is uncomfortable with it and quickly dispenses with this inappropriate activity at the first opportunity to terminate it. Formality is the protocol of the butler, and the butler is never off duty, even when he is. 

Subdued might be an overstatement. The K-drama thirty-second love stare scene screams sexuality by comparison. In case you are unfamiliar with what that is, the love interests in the K-drama stare into each other’s eyes but never actually kiss, touch, or even exchange words, and later deny that such a moment occurred. When I watch these scenes, my Hollywood brain threatens to explode, demanding satisfaction, shouting at the two, “Shag each other rotten already!” 

The hike slogs on like the book. The trail is seriously overgrown, partly from the super bloom, but also, I suspect, because this trail is low use. It might be especially low use today because it is Father’s Day. All the more reason to hike it. The North and South Clevenger trails are on Route 78, about five miles east of the Wild Animal Park. The South Clevenger Trail is the drier of the two. Both take you up the side of the canyon walls to scenic vistas. The road, the orchards, and the isolated buildings that have claimed the ridgeline are never far from sight. But if you look in the right direction over the rugged terrain, you might think you are in the Nevada desert somewhere.

I use my hiking poles to push aside the overgrowth rather than using them to propel me up the seventy-five-story, two-mile climb. The temperature is in the mid-eighties, and today is one of the few days I’ve worn shorts all year. The starthistles prick at my exposed legs. A starthistle has a pretty yellow flower on a ball-shaped bulb with pointy spines resembling a party favor packaged in a miniaturized medieval mace. Blossoming deerweed with its tiny red and yellow pea flowers grows out over the trail closing in from both sides and sometimes from the top. I duck under overgrown bush mallow pushing through with my hat, hoping I don’t pick up any ticks. There is no relief. The trail is overgrown, brushing against my body and poking at my legs the entire trek.

As I listen to the audiobook, I wonder if the overgrown trail is a metaphor for the density and ponderousness of the book. Or perhaps it is the other way around. The butler, Mr. Stevens, is on a road trip to the English countryside, but his stops are brief interludes for deep dives into his memories of his lifetime of service. The pacing is deliberately slow, and what passes for action is off-camera, so to speak. Mr. Stevens stands just outside the doorway for however long he must in case his services are required, not specifically knowing what transpires within. A butler must be attentive precisely when it is demanded and invisible otherwise. (It sounds like the role of a father.)

The essence of the great butler is dignity. It doesn’t matter that his father is dying or that his master makes a horrible staffing decision or the world is crumbling around its feet with the onset of World War II. Mr. Stevens maintains his dignity, which for a man of servitude, is the opposite of what you or I construe as the execution of the concept. Dignity for a man of service is never giving in to one’s own thoughts and sentiments in the performance of duty. Dignity is staying faithful to your superiors. Dignity for anyone else is maintaining and defending one’s views and opinions in the face of inconvenience and adversity. One butler’s strength is another man’s weakness.

Speaking of adversity, with the heat and the elevation gain, I stop for a drink of water. I take a swig out of my water bottle but notice something floating inside. Upon closer inspection, it’s a drowned spider with its eight articulated legs folded into a point like a cephalopod. It looks a little fuzzy, too, like fungus has already started to attack and decompose it. It reminds me of a sci-fi movie with alien specimens floating in tanks of tarnished water deep in some Area 51 secret bunker or lab. I hope the water I just drank isn’t contaminated enough to kill me. Inside my head, there is not a lot of dignity going on. I share my thoughts with mother nature in a most undignified anti-butler way, “How the f**k did a spider get inside a sealed water bottle?”

I think of a spider on my bathroom sink a few days ago. When I turned on the light, I startled it. It dashed for the cover of my toothbrush but then changed its mind and tried to hide under the toothpaste. It was a speedy, dark brown spider. Usually, I try to catch and release (outside, of course), but this one was too quick, and I didn’t have a suitable container to trap it with. So I smashed the bugger and flushed him. The life of a spider is an uncertain thing. Is this a haunting? A punishment for my failure to set the spider free in the great outdoors? Is the collective spider community conspiring to exact its revenge? 

The hike is only four miles round trip, and even with the heat, I can endure a little thirst. So I press on to the high point and my turn-around point of the trail, marked by a massive white granite rock. As I ascend, Mr. Stevens has finally arrived at the last stop on his six-day trip. Only upon his arrival do we learn that the purpose of the trip is to visit Ms. Kenton, who left her employment some twenty years ago. He reconnects with her, responding with concern for some melancholy remarks she has made in her letter correspondences. Even in an outside-of-work informal context twenty years later, they continue to address one another formally. We discover that Ms. Kenton left the employ to get married and have a family. In the not-so-big-reveal, Ms. Kenton acknowledges at the bus stop just before her departure into eternity that she left because she had feelings for Mr. Kenton. Although Mr. Stevens expresses something like regret, it is clear that he is incapable of love. In his deep memory dives, his one moment of thought for her comes when he pauses outside her room, knowing that he made her cry. He described the paused moment as an eternity but stated it was probably only a few seconds. And then he continues on his way never to otherwise acknowledge the moment to fulfill his most essential duty of supplying the politically-important guests with brandy. 

When I reach the high point of the trail, I’m regretting the shorts, the lack of spider-free water, the heat, the overgrown path, and the missing lens cap. But I can’t complain about the canyon view or catching the tail end of the super bloom. All the late-flowering plants are still putting on a show—swathes of deerweed cover the trail and the sides of the mountains. The corkscrew California Centaury plants and the hairy yellow blossoms of Calochortus weedii poke through the stems of chaparral bushes. White inflorescences cover the chamise bushes like a dusting of snow. I shimmy between a crevice in the great white rock to swallow up the view of the orchard below and the hills beyond. It’s all about me—the anti-butler. 

Mr. Stevens has no I. Zen believes that the self is an illusion and Mr. Stevens intends to prove it. But the Zen master lives for compassion, not for service. The difference is profound. Mr. Stevens stands behind his master, no matter how poor their judgment. He passes on life’s moments of love and grief. Even when he visits Ms. Kenton because of concern for her happiness, the moment would have passed him by if Ms. Kenton did not insist on him escorting her to the bus stop. Compassion and duty are the oil and vinegar of one’s moral compass.

When the book concludes, I want to poke my eyes out with a fork. Nobody could be this tedious and dull. But fortunately, I still need my eyes to navigate my way back to the car. Tiny faded-blue butterflies dart past all the pollen opportunities, too impatient to pose for a picture. A cicada clasps to a stem. I see a tall spike of what I think are golden eardrops and the white-colored version of the ordinarily magenta canchalagua. Canchalagua is the flower with the corkscrew stamens I’ve featured several times on Insta. I even find my lens cap. I’m glad I keep my eyes after all. 

Is it a story? One of my writing books suggests that character-driven is the essence of the story. She complains about meandering and meaningless plot points wandering without an inner purpose. This book is the opposite. It is character-driven without a plot. And the protagonist doesn’t change.  

Only Ms. Kenton changes. She escapes from the prison of servitude to get married and start a family. Ms. Kenton says it took seven years for her to find love in her husband’s familiarity. She expressed moments of uncertainty in her correspondence but declares that they were fleeting, and she has overcome them. But the protagonist is the story. We spend all our time in Mr. Steven’s head, not Ms. Kenton’s. And he never deviates from his butler mindset.

Mr. Stevens offers a pretense of regret. But even his regret is short-sighted and for the wrong thing. He doesn’t regret the lost opportunity for love or a missed life. He regrets that he can no longer serve with the perfection he once commanded, making little but unnoticeable mistakes now and then as his career winds down. There is no change, but that is the genius of it. Mr. Stevens is so trapped that there is no escape. 

In a conversation Mr. Stevens has with a local at his final stop, the man describes the “remains of the day” as the time left in the day, the time after work people enjoy the most, an allegory for Mr. Stevens to live the rest of his life for himself. But remains are also a person’s body after they are dead. I don’t know if a pun was intended, but as far I can tell, Mr. Stevens is already a zombie. Even as he contemplates change, it is not change. He endeavors to learn to banter, insinuating that he is willing to tolerate informality, but only because it might please Mr. Faraday, his current master. There really is no hope for the guy.

As for the remains of my day, I can sometimes relate to the feeling of being invisible. Where are my Father’s Day texts? In the good old days, dads used to get ties. These days, a meme is going out of the way. Mom’s Day rates three in holidays, while Father’s Day rates twenty. But I will stick to the time left in the day definition rather than the zombie definition and aspire to use the remains of my day wisely. A hike was a good start.

Note: My texts came later in the evening, and my daughter spent the previous day working two hours in the backyard weeding the superbloom overgrowth. I was just trying to get into the spirit of the story.

Hiking Butler Art by Craiyon

Puerto Rico Trip Log

Reading Time: 18 minutes

(Saturday night)

A slight breeze blows through the palms. We consume a continuous supply of fruity rum drinks. It’s a beautiful, warm Saturday night, perfect for sitting out and recapping our respective journeys. A car, an airplane, an airplane, and a car ride later, we are sitting on the front porch of our host’s home away from home in Hatillo on the north shore of Puerto Rico, some eighty kilometers west of San Juan. 

The patio is open-air and a foot above the sidewalk. An inviting couch bed was pushed up against the front wall of the one-story house. There were two wicker chairs, a round, glass-top table, and two more expanded camping chairs. The deck faces north toward the street, the “Parque Pasivo Hatillo del Mar” fitness park, and the ocean beyond. The surf line hides behind shrubs and the twenty-five-foot drop to the shore. We could hear the waves crashing but couldn’t see them. Palm trees create a little forest in the linear fitness park, lit with white and red lights. 

We are told that the park lighting scheme has to do with sea turtle migrations. The endangered hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles nest in Puerto Rico. Baby turtles use differences in lighting levels between the land and the sea to figure out which direction to go. Bright white lights screw with the sense of direction in adult turtles, too. The experts recommend low-wavelength lights in amber and red. The white lights contradict the hypothesis. I wasn’t thinking like a turtle then, so maybe the white lights were pointed inland and the red lights outward, but that is not the way I remember it. Hopefully, no confused hatchlings or turtles are trying to make their way up to do laps and yoga in the park.

(Sunday night)

A slight breeze blows through the palms. People walk laps in the park. Cats casually stroll down the street. We consume a continuous supply of fruity rum drinks. It’s a beautiful, warm Sunday night, perfect for sitting out and recapping our day in old San Juan and ranting about whether or not all the software we write should be encoded into a chip. 

We parked outside Old San Juan, lucky to score a parking spot across from the “El Capitolio de Puerto Rico,” and walked into Old San Juan. San Juan is the second oldest European settlement in America, after Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic, established by Columbus in 1496. We enter the neighborhood through the Plaza Colon, whose centerpiece is a statue of Columbus on a pedestal. The cobblestone streets lined with color-coordinated wooden houses with balconies as narrow as a human bust would have quickly lost their charm in the struggle to negotiate narrow streets and extremely limited parking. 

Colon and Columbus are one and the same, though how he ended up with two names is somewhat obscure. The explanation offered is that Columbus is the anglicized version of his Italian name (a third name), and Colon is the name he took when he moved to Spain.**

The human bust I refer to is the statue kind, which I saw on several balconies, guessing they were too ugly to keep in the apartment. The color coordination and selection of the buildings isn’t a happenstance. It’s part of the modern codes for buildings in the historic district. The plaster walls must be a different color from their neighbor’s, and I’m pretty sure they are limited to a pastel palette of yellows, tans, pinks, purples, and reds. And interestingly, the cobblestone in the cobblestone streets comes from the waste product, “slag,” from iron production. So there is irony in walking the streets of the historic district, preserving an Old San Juan that didn’t exist. Still, it has its charms.**

We stopped to drink martinis and sangrias out of fancy toroidal vases and listen to music at a street restaurant behind the fort’s old wall overlooking the bay. I made a mad solo dash to immortalize the fast-sinking tropical sunset over the “Bahia de San Juan” from the strategically positioned, west-facing fort walls that guarded the narrow entrance to the San Juan harbor. While I was gone, my friends abducted a baby and a single mom (Malaya and Katalina). After finishing our drinks, we forced the young lady and her daughter to wander the cobblestone streets of San Juan aimlessly for hours. The mother and daughter later escaped in an Uber.

On our meandering walk through the streets, we stopped for pictures at the umbrella street, “Los Paraguas de la Fortaleza,” I had stumbled upon during my sunset absence. Walking up and down the streets in the dark, we passed the “Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista,” the second oldest cathedral in the Americas, and the “Iglesia de San Jose” constructed in 1532, oblivious to their historical significance at the time. In the square outside the latter stands a statue of Ponce de Leon. I hadn’t realized that he came with Columbus on his second voyage and that he had been the governor of Puerto Rico for a couple of years, putting down a Tainos uprising. He was ousted by Diego Colon, the son of Christopher, before setting out on his exploration of Florida and the fabled quest for the fountain of youth. The statue is also said to be made from melted-down old British cannons**, replacing weapons with a memorial to bad memories for the Tainos descendants still on the island. 

(Monday night)

A slight breeze blows through the palms. We consume a continuous supply of fruity rum drinks. People walk laps in the park. Cats casually stroll down the street. It’s a beautiful, warm Monday night, perfect for sitting out and recapping our snorkeling and hiking adventures of the day.

We entered the delightfully warm water early afternoon, and the breeze was strong enough to qualify as wind. The beach, if you can call it that, is lined with rock and reef. We entered the choppy waters through an opening in the rock and headed toward an exposed outcrop about five-hundred yards from the shore. With our attention fixed on seeing marine life, we drifted about two-thirds of the way to the rocks in a few flips of the fin. When we turned around to see how difficult it was to swim back to shore, we discovered how strong the rip was. Testing the waters, so to speak, and watching the rivulet patterns of sand on the bottom, I saw that I was making little progress swimming against the current. We were warned to wear fins, which might have been life-saving advice. Fortunately, everyone was comfortable in the water and a decent swimmer. I remember the story of my cousin who lost a friend in a rip current in the waters of Puerto Rico. Nothing like death to ruin the tranquility of a vacation. 

Afterward, we drove to the Cueva del Indio Nature Reserve. I missed the tourist entrance and ended up parking on the side of the road at a foot trail that led directly into the park. I read after the fact that theft rates and car break-ins are common, but we didn’t have any problems. The trail led to a rocky cove where a surging surf pummeled the rocks. We followed a treacherous path to the roof of the cave. I wouldn’t recommend a night hike in this area, as there are plenty of manhole-sized openings, and one misstep would lead to a far closer view of the hidden petroglyphs inside the cave than you would want. But the view from the top was beautiful, with vistas of eyes and arches and waves crashing into the cave walls beneath. 

On the drive back, we stopped by to admire another statue of Columbus standing on the deck of his ship, looking out over the expanse of the Atlantic to the North. 

Again, after the fact, I found this, “The Birth of the New World (SpanishNacimiento del Nuevo Mundo, colloquially known as La Estatua de Colón or literally Columbus’ Statue) is a 360 foot (110 m) bronze sculpture located on the Atlantic coastline of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. When completed in 2016, it became the tallest sculpture in North America…” (Wikipedia)

For reference, the Statue of Liberty is only 305 feet tall. The statue is so tall it has a red light on top of it as a warning to aircraft. I thought Columbus might have given up exploring and taken an air traffic controller job. Also, how do the neighbors feel about the birth of the new world in their backyards?

Safely back on our porch, we watched a spectacular post-sunset of horizon-hugging ribbon of day-glow orange to rosy pink stretch from the point of the sun drop to nearly its opposite while dining and drinking with neighbors. The night was busy with walkers taking evening strolls at the fitness park. Parrots nested at the top of the taller palms. You could hear their squawks, but getting a clear or close enough view for a picture through the foliage of the tall palms was a challenge.

The moon and what I thought was Venus lit the western sky. It turns out that Venus is actually satellite 1443 put up in the sky by some nefarious company to watch over us. Strange that it didn’t move like most satellites you usually see drifting across the sky, but I suppose that is part of the camouflage. 

We saw the camouflage store trying to hide near Walmart a previous day. One wouldn’t expect to see a camouflage store, but there it was in plain sight.

The party and dinner guests migrated to the second-story deck of neighbor Fred, the seventy-seven-year-old retired mailman enjoying the work on his Puerto Rican home, and his extended family of Ida, Angel, and Maria. The revelry was broken by personal space violations by the local schizophrenic, who traces his roots back to Napoleon, Jefferson, Einstein, Hitler, and Rockefeller, to mention a few. Despite the hiccup, the night was spent street viewing, pool playing, tug of warring with Luna (dog), tequila shots, and despite vehement protests of things you can’t unsee, dancing. Undaunted, I did me. 

(Tuesday night)

A slight breeze blows through the palms. People walk laps in the park. Cats casually stroll down the street. We consume a continuous supply of fruity rum drinks. It’s a beautiful, warm Tuesday night, perfect for sitting out and recapping our El Yunque National Forest adventure. 

El Yunque National Park is on the east side of the island, making this the fifth transit of the length of the island in four days. I vaguely remember talking about expatriates. Expatriate used to mean someone that was kicked out of the native country. Now it means someone who voluntarily leaves their native land. Leaving the country is a frequent conversation among my friends approaching retirement age. Technically, you aren’t an expatriate if you live in Puerto Rico since it is a U.S. territory and you haven’t left the country.

The gatekeepers had my name on a reservation list and checked it. So a cautionary note if you go, make sure you have a reservation. The drive to the top was slow and twisty. Our carsick passenger was leaning to the window, preparing to leave more than footprints in the National Forest. She was in much better shape once behind the wheel.

Our first stop was Yokahu Tower. A placard informed us that there are over 200 species of trees in the forest. I can’t vouch for the diversity, but I can vouch for the density. From the top of the tower, we could see the rainforest in any direction, and to the east, views of Culebra and Vieques Islands, also part of Puerto Rico. 

We set out on the La Coca trail, a 1.8-mile trail in the thick of the rainforest. The path goes downhill on the slippery rock for about a half mile to a river crossing. It then goes downhill on even more slippy rock and mud for another half mile to another river crossing. We didn’t make the last eight-tenths of a mile, but if the pattern persisted, it would have been steeper and muddier than the rest. The trail is rated as difficult; each step tests balance and agility, negotiating downhill mud, roots, and rocks, not all of which were passed. No names will be mentioned.

The tropical rainforest is covered with hanging George-of-the-Jungle vines and large-leafed trees. We saw the scale-like flowers of wild heliconias, the enormous leaves of philodendrons, and the Jurassic Park-like ferns. I could fit my extended hand inside a hand-shaped leaf of a Trumpetwood without my fingers extending to the finger-like lobes. And I could have used a giant philodendron leaf as a blanket. The giant philodendron is poetically called Giant Elephant Ear. I looked hard for mushrooms, but surprisingly not that plentiful. Still, I was rewarded with some interesting finds.

The strangest thing we saw was a not-too-slight woman carrying a baby in her arms up the treacherous trail. She had no backpack, diaper bag, or carrier of any kind. She didn’t look like the kind of person that hiked trails regularly or on any basis. If I didn’t know better, I would swear she found the baby in the woods and decided to keep it.

We stopped at the second river crossing to admire the cascades and eat a late lunch on the river rocks. After one mile, knees already sore from the descent and worried about making it out before the gates were locked, we headed back. Not to my surprise, we made better time up than down. It’s a more strenuous effort to climb but not nearly the struggle to keep from falling. We made it back, bedraggled from the hike and the humidity, but successful nevertheless.

On the drive out, we made one last stop at the La Coca Falls, slight streams of water tearing down black rock framed by giant fern fronds and thick forest, where I mean tearing in the sense of crying tears, not in the meaning of ripping something apart.

(Wednesday night)

A slight breeze blows through the palms. We consume a continuous supply of fruity rum drinks. Bats race up and down the street, consuming lacy insects in the blue hour. It’s a beautiful, warm Wednesday night, perfect for sitting out and watching one of us work under the gazebo in the park, where we usually see Zumba and yoga classes in the later and cooler hours of the evening. While she works, we recap our Gozalandia waterfall adventure. 

The Gozalandia waterfalls are a short drive into the interior. We found the not-so-obvious detour at the reservoir that took us up one of the steepest grades of any paved road I remember. We became familiar with the word lomo, a yellow diamond road sign used to caution drivers of a hill with an obscured view of traffic from the other direction. While I drove, the girls discussed the color schemes and investment opportunities of the properties along the way.

Gozalandia has an upper and a lower waterfall. We chose the ten-minute, snake-infested walk to the upper waterfalls first. (Okay, I exaggerate, one of us nearly stepped on a tiny snake that quickly darted into the underbrush). The thirty-or-so-foot waterfall is a strong bathroom shower of water onto a pile of rocks with a deep pool at its base. A jumping rock to the side gets a lot of use. I foolishly jumped from the highest level and managed to tweak my previously injured shoulder on entry. It wasn’t a bad jump, but enough to jolt my weak shoulder. I’ve had this kind of injury before, and I knew it would swell even if it wasn’t that painful initially. As of this writing, a week later, I still can’t raise my arm above my shoulder, and it hurts like a son-of-a-bitch. 

We visited the lower falls. The lower falls are higher and broader, and the more picturesque of the two, and of course, the more crowded. Most attention is centered on a thirty-foot jump about halfway up the sixty-foot face. Quite a few people did it, and definitely, a few that shouldn’t have. It’s pretty nerve-wracking to watch, but no one injured themselves except one guy that back-flopped. One positive thing to note is that if you kill yourself on the falls, it will all be on video, probably posted before they get your body to the hospital. And sadly, there are such videos on YouTube. Nothing like death to ruin the tranquility of a vacation.

After, we stopped at the park restaurant for mojitos and mofongo. Mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish with plantains as its main ingredient. I didn’t order any, but it’s the first time I’ve heard or seen the plate.

(Thursday night)

Not even a slight breeze blows through the palms. We consume a continuous supply of fruity rum drinks and listen to Harry Belafonte and Island Music. Satellite 1443 is back in the exact spot where I would have expected to see Venus. We learn to tell time by the position of the Big Dipper. Clouds inspire Rorschach test images. Ewok eyes poke out from hole-shaped breaks in the clouds. It’s a beautiful, warm Thursday night, perfect for sitting out and recapping our non-cave, non-bioluminescence adventure. 

Well, my shoulder injury tanked our kayak ride on the bioluminescent bay. So we opted for a trip to Parque Nacional de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy. While they don’t require reservations, you need reservations because they have daily quotas. When we showed up, the park had already reached its quota. So the gruff guy at the entrance refused to let us in. 

So the third choice was to drive to the west coast and loop back along the northwest coast. After an hour or so of driving behind big trucks and the rumbulance, we finally emerged from the interior at Aguadilla Pueblo, a small town with an extended coastal boardwalk overlooking a boulder-strewn shoreline and deep blue seas. We could see the small Isle de Desecheo Marine Reserve in the otherwise empty waters. There was some debate as to whether or not we could see Hispaniola, but at eighty miles, it would have taken some elevation and perfect clarity to see that far. We over-ordered at the Sal de Mar restaurant, escaping the nearly ninety-degree outdoor temperatures in the air-conditioned diner. The fried fish and cheese were perfectly cooked, but the fried plantains and hushpuppies were dry and tasteless.

From Aguadilla Pueblo, we drove to the Ruinas del Faro. The ruins are a lighthouse that failed to survive a 7.5 magnitude 1918 earthquake. It is a surf beach and an outdoor park for motorbikes and mountain bikes, but it is not much of a hiking place. We followed dusty roads and mountain bike-filled trails, trying not to get run over. We passed by the other airport, the narrow streets of Isabella, and yet another medical van hoisted up on a post like a billboard. 

Back for dinner, our gracious host took the night off as our personal chef. We dined down the street at the Rancho Del Norte Hatillo, a restaurant oddly situated by itself within the El Gran Parque del Norte. This time I really did have the shrimp mofongo. No one took advantage of the romantic walk in the moonlight.

(Friday night)

A slight breeze blows through the palms. We sit out late after the ballgame, so there are no walkers or joggers. I’m drinking the rum straight. All that fruitiness is giving me indigestion and too many calories. A police car makes its nightly rounds by the park with its flashing blue lights. With the trip coming to a close, there isn’t much talk, but I will recap the events of the day, nevertheless. 

We settled on Sardineras Beach, just a mile or so to the east of Hatillo. As intriguing as Crash Boat Beach sounds, we had already taken the long drive to the west coast the day before. Sardineras Beach is uncrowded, with a protected pool perfect for snorkeling. A flock of royal terns perched inside protective outer rocks as waves exploded in the background. Plenty of marine life lives in the rock reef, including barracuda, well-camouflaged-in-the-sand flounders, and a den of lionfish. I was excited to find the spiny and poisonous lionfish but learned they are invasive and problematic with voracious appetites. The only behavior I observed was them hiding out in a protective hole in the rock. 

After our snorkeling excursion and retrieving my camera, we hiked the mile from Sardineras Beach to our Hatillas del Mar home. The entire shore is rocky and unswimmable but beautiful in its own way. We have the whole coastline to ourselves, almost like a scene out of Castaway: no people to erase from the pictures on our phones. I capture my trophies on the camera while others find them in the remains of washed-up ocean life.

Back at the house, I talked baseball with Freddy. Sadly, he is a Yankee fan. The Yankees stuck the Cubs with Alfonso Soriano, but the Cubs have their revenge in unloading Jason Hayword. After the fact, I remembered the Cubs traded Jason Heyworth to the Dodgers, not the Yankees. I’m a poser as a baseball man, mostly just following the Cubs, not interested in the behind-the-scenes. The best Puerto Rican baseball player of all time and one of the best players of all time is Roberto Clemente. I remember him playing, and I read his biography long ago. He died in a rickety cargo plane that crashed just off the shores of Puerto Rico on a humanitarian mission to deliver aid to Nicaragua earthquake victims. The best current Puerto Rican player is up for debate. Yadier Molina just retired, and there are a couple of up-and-coming stars.

The Doble A minor league game we watched was a blowout. A few guys on the home team looked decent, one good enough to go to the pros. But on the whole, there were a lot of little-league errors, making the game hard to watch. The price was right at six dollars a ticket and seven dollars for a double shot of rum drink. By our estimates, the attendance may have been about a hundred. At least three were bored, expressionless girlfriends working their phones for most of the game, but they were offset by the enthusiasm of a whistle-blowing guy and two trumpet-noise-making-instrument-operating girls. All foul balls were retrieved, and we speculated on the ball polishing skills of the genderless ball person. We left after six innings with the home team up 12-0. 

(Saturday night)

A car, an airplane, an airplane, and a car ride later, we are back in Southern California, back in real-time and not island time. The trip is over. It is cold again, down in the fifties, and we are not hanging out on a porch listening to waves crashing but hiding inside, oblivious to the faraway drones of the nearby freeway.

Before our flight, we had time for one more brief foray into Old San Juan to visit the Museo De Las Americas. I wanted to see Tainos artifacts up close since I had written so much about them in “The Death of Baracutey.” There really wasn’t much to see from pre-Columbian times, though I don’t think we made it to all the exhibit rooms in the short time we had. The visit to the museum was depressing as it documented many of the horrors of slavery, including a mockup of a slave ship with a documentary of slaves in shackles receiving morsels of food. 

Regarding my description of a San Juan museum in the book, I would replace columns with a pastel color. But I’m thinking ahead to the next book. An anthropological museum should capture the authentic identity of a culture through its history. Identity and authenticity are two themes I’d like to pursue if I do a follow-on to the “Property of Nature.” A search for identity is the common motivation of a pilgrimage and a search for roots: a space race who return to their origins on Earth and of a native species in pursuit of its evolutionary roots. Authenticity is an issue when two culturally different groups interact, like when a city tries to serve the twin purposes of tourism and historic preservation.

We are off island time after two flights and a late-night car ride. For me, it’s back to work and writing. I’m a goal-driven person that doesn’t idle and fit the island mentality well. I won’t complain about sleeping late and drinking early, but I always feel I should have done more with the day when I live on island time. 

If it is up to me, there will be another trip. Now that I have the lay of the land, I have an agenda to see more of the island and the nearby islands and do at least a few things I couldn’t with an injury. If I ever spend a long time there, I have to figure out how to keep up with the writing and push my ass out the door before the day is half gone. Island time, and I will have to meet halfway. But for now, it’s back to treadmill and rat race time.

*Island Time. in italics

** To be fair, this information is based on other blog reports, not direct knowledge of the codes or official sources

The Om-Velt of the Desert

Reading Time: 12 minutes

A desert is a place for mysticism in the dancing shadows of a night fire and appreciation of the grandeur of nature on the trail. So what better companions for a desert trip than Anil Seth’s “A New Science of Consciousness,” on audio, and “An Immense World” by Ed Yong? Seth’s book is a journey into the source and meaning of consciousness. Yong’s book explores the strategies employed by living organisms for processing and making sense of the world. The inner world of an organism and the outer world of the environment confront in the desert, where life is harsh and spectacular.

My purpose for the trip was rather mundane compared to the lofty themes of these two books. I wanted to glimpse the super bloom and catch it on my new camera. The camera has become an extension of me, like a third eye or a third arm. When I hike, I see the world in photo ops, looking for scenes and frames, hunting for subject matter, and checking for patterns and lighting. The camera has become a part of my extended umvelt. The camera extends my visual umvelt to see farther, in more detail, and at different frame rates than my eyes alone can see. 

Umvelt is a great word. Yong explains, “Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, and electric and magnetic fields. But every creature can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world … the umvelt is part of the environment an animal can sense and experience – its perceptual world.”

Umvelt is a great word to think of while blowing sand exfoliates my skin and tries to knock me to the ground and blind me despite a protective pair of glasses. Yong dedicates an entire chapter to the unwanted sense of pain, glosses over internal sensations like balance, and instills a new appreciation for the power of human vision in the animal kingdom. I rendered all these sensations more succinctly in a video clip capturing the fury of gusting wind driving razor grains of sand swirling across dunes and pavement. 

My mind automatically partitions the world into photo-worthy scenes and those that are not. But I still take comfort in the fact that sometimes you just have to be there. The camera doesn’t capture the absence of the snow-covered mountains in the obscuring tan haze of the disturbed desert. Or the white-knuckled driving up the I-8 grade with sand-filled gusts pushing the car from one side of the lane to the other while weaving through the traffic of a tractor-trailer on its side, a trailer ripped from the back of a pickup truck, emergency vehicles, and vehicles stopped to assist or wait it out. 

Still, the desert has much to offer in the way of photo-worthy images, especially in this spring of abundant rain. The super bloom has yet to kick in fully, but pixel flowers are everywhere. Pixel flowers are those tiny pinky fingernail-sized flowers that dot the landscape like a Le Grande Jatte pixel painting. Or larger flowers in the distance yet to overgrow into a matte of continuous color. The browns and greens of the verdant desert still dominate, overwhelming both types of pixel flowers unless you are looking for them. 

I found one early super bloom. At the Imperial Dunes, clusters of violet-hued sand verbena carpeted the sand, broken by patches of light and dark green desert shrubs. Or, as ChatGPT more poetically puts it:

“A tapestry of violets, strewn upon the sand, 
Dotted with desert shrubs, verdant and grand, 
The hues of light and dark, a mesmerizing sight, 
A masterpiece of nature, painted with pure delight.”

Even amid a desert spring blooming with life, the rawness of the desert is a great place to immerse in the determined inspiration of nature. Wrinkled green and light-blue tinted mountains are backdrops for washes of desert shrubs like ocotillo, brittlebush, cholla, and the ubiquitous creosote. A bent barrel cactus grows out of the side of a rock wall before twisting sunward. Cholla gardens sparkle in backlit sunlight while sending prickles up and down my arms at memories of pulling their spines from my hand. Optimistic wildflowers stake out a nook in a crag. A lone shrub somehow pokes out of a mountain of sand. Desert tadpoles take advantage of the brief respite from dryness. Life finds a way.

Seth informed me that life is a boundary. He quotes that the better an organism’s model of the world, the better its ability to navigate and survive it. He defines consciousness as the ability to detect differences between the senses and the prediction and respond to them. Modern biology reduces life to the statistical mechanical principle of minimizing free energy (in the thermodynamic meaning of the phrase) required to align the senses and prediction. Or, as Max puts it, “Life is lazy.”

Lazy is relative. The snow geese I saw at the Sony Bono reserve migrate from the farthest reaches of the Arctic to the saltwater flats of the preserve to minimize the free energy of being a snow goose, one of nature’s many diverse solutions to the free energy problem. Their umvelt may include the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field to guide it from the Arctic tundra to the Imperial County desert.

The Costa hummingbird flaps its wings at a frantic 50 beats per second. I don’t think lazy is the right word. Focused, lean, or efficient might be better choices.

The fagonbush is another solution to the free energy problem. Is the common fagonbush focused? It’s a small bush I nearly stepped on in a wash while trying to take some landscape pictures of teddy bear cholla, barrel cacti, and ocotillo on a hillside. The inconspicuous shrub must have an umvelt to perceive the sun and dig its roots deep for water. 

Seth cautions me to distinguish carefully between sentience and intelligence. But I will let the AI explain the difference,

“Yes, there is a difference between sentience and intelligence.

Sentience refers to the ability to experience sensations and perceive the world, including emotions, pain, pleasure, and other subjective experiences. Sentient beings are capable of feeling and conscious experience.

On the other hand, intelligence refers to the ability to learn, reason, solve problems, and adapt to new situations. Intelligent beings can understand and process information and use it to make decisions and take action.

While there may be some overlap between sentience and intelligence, they are distinct concepts. For example, some animals, such as dogs or dolphins, may be considered sentient but not necessarily highly intelligent in problem-solving or cognitive abilities. Conversely, some artificial intelligence systems may be highly intelligent but lack any form of sentience or subjective experience.”

In the above AI-written passages, I take some consolation in the fact that I used my grammar AI to correct my concept AI and that, on some occasions, both are wrong. I take issue with the AI’s contention that dolphins are sentient but not highly intelligent. Technically though, the AI is not wrong: you can consider anything to be sentient but not intelligent. I’m sure a few people came to mind when you read that.

Yong and Seth warn against our limited ability to perceive the world as another creature and against our tendency to anthropomorphize. Our biases divert us from other creatures’ sensations and thought processes. But I wonder if Yong and Seth have over-limited themselves to the animal world of motion because neither attributes perception to plants or fungi. Plants may not appear mobile, but I have a picture of a poppy with its flower yet to unfurl in the morning sun. Is it a choice? Plants release secondary chemical compounds when under insect attack that warn other plants. Is this perception, or is it just a reflex? Fungi don’t appear to move, but they can destroy mycelia in some spots while creating it in others, effectively creating motion through growth. Does consciousness require the electric field of a neuron? One SA article informed me that the discharge of a neuron is a side-effect of ion movement. Plants and fungi move ions. Can plants and fungi perceive? Can plants and fungi misperceive? Can they change that misperception in the future? Wouldn’t that be conscious, free-will behavior, as Seth defines it? 

I drive from the desert marsh of Agua Caliente to the outlooks at the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Reserve to the Imperial Dunes near Glamis, viewing the many faces of Imperial County: the Salton Sea, the geothermal plants spewing out vapor from their stacks, the many facets of hay processing from field to piles to storage, and the dunes both as beauty and recreation.

Just like the transitions of driving from one spot to another, my thought processes frame ideas as potential stories. The umvelt and free energy of real and imagined creatures and systems are an excellent basis for the beings of a sci-fi story, including AI entities, remembering that the ChatGPT AI has already warned me about confusing sentience with intelligence. Still, writers must venture where science and AI bots fear to tread. As a writer, I will endeavor to tread, staying within the framework of umvelt and decision, though unafraid to try it out on the universe’s many biological and non-biological possibilities for sentience and free energy minimization.

Seth bursts the bubble on one of my story ideas. He says more recent research has exposed a flaw in the study that claimed a researcher could predict your actions from neuronal patterns in fMRI measurements almost a full second before you are aware of your choice. When I read about the original research, I had the idea that employers could augment their employees’ brains with motivational neuronal work hats. The work hats could replicate the neuronal pattern of a decision to put the thought in their heads to do the corporate work as if they had the idea themselves, so there would be no resistance to the enterprise’s mission. It would be the latest, greatest in workforce motivation. So much for free will, right? But the employees would have their brains back at the end of the day simply by removing the hats. 

In the original study, the researchers only looked at cases where the research subjects decided. But more recent research suggests that the same neuronal patterns also occur when they are about to choose but don’t reach a critical threshold to pull the trigger. Seth makes the comparison with the ring-the-bell carnival game. The original research only focused on cases where the bell rang, e.g., a decision was made. The subsequent analysis included the trials where the puck didn’t reach the bell. Our free will lives to decide another day, so the companies might have to return the hats as yet another failure in workforce motivation. 

With one story lost, another comes to mind. What would it be like to have neural augmentation that enhances our umvelt so I can see infrared with pits like a viper, sense electric fields like a shark or an eel, see circularly polarized light like a mantis shrimp, hear the ultrasonic squeaks of a bat, the subsonic communication of an elephant, or magnetic fields like a migrating bird? It’s one thing to see the ultraviolet translation of a picture in ordinary light. It would be quite another to have that as part of our sensory capability. Instead of asking why our brains are so big, we should ask why they are so small. All that extra processing would come at a steep metabolic price to add in the extra brain processing, but is it one that an advanced civilization can afford? What would it take to integrate our new senses into our existing umvelt?

Seth suggests that consciousness comes from the difference between what our minds predict and our senses report. When the outfielder tracks down a fly ball, he does so by continually trying to correct for being directly in the path of the ball, not by running to a fixed spot determined by physical calculations of force and motion. Free will, or at least our perception of free will, arises from recognizing alternatives. When you realize you could have done something another way, it is your brain’s way of laying down more enlightened processing for the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.

I have always thought that consciousness and learning are intimately intertwined. There is no learning through osmosis. To learn, you must become aware of another way to do something. To become aware means to bring it into your conscious mind. Bringing it into your conscious mind allows you to change the behavior.

Athletes talk about being in “the zone” where they don’t think to perform fluidly. Learning disrupts an unconscious behavior to develop a new model to aspire to. For an athlete, that means slowing down high-performance reaction times. Training minimizes the gap between perception and aspiration, and between awareness and flow. Or, to put it another way, it strives to make a learned behavior automatic, to perform without thinking.

I’m in another kind of zone. The ideas swirl in my head like the desert wind. I have a bottle of soju to fuzzy my awareness and to save some of that free energy while trying to keep warm at the night’s fire. Sitting at the fire, I learned that a bundle of fire burns for about three hours, and I can stretch a bottle of soju for about that time, but not with the mind-altering properties I desired. Next time I will bring two bottles, maybe more. I was striving for much slower response times.

Yong ends his book on a cautionary note. Humans are inadvertently and sometimes advertently destroying the umvelt of the creatures of the natural environment with light pollution that fools moths into dropping dead under a street light, with noise pollution that interrupts interocean whale communication, and even with electric field emitting cables that trick sharks into an attack. Global warming and umvelt destruction are a symptom of a more significant problem: the failure to embrace ourselves as of nature and not apart from it. It’s not hard to appreciate nature in the desert with its rugged mountain, cholla gardens, snow geese in the desert, verbena blooms, and raging sandstorm. Love nature first and let all else follow. 

 So I’ve invented a new word: the Om-Velt. Om comes from the spiritual meditation of om. Velt is a shortening of the word umvelt. Om replaces um, signifying the deep sensory and sentient experience of an organism’s separation from and connection to its environment.

Or, as ChatGPT puts it:

“The “om” part of the word refers to the spiritual practice of chanting “om” in meditation, which has a calming and centering effect on the mind and body. The experience of the “Om-Velt” is a deeply felt, meditative state of awareness.

The “velt” part of the word is a shortened form of “umwelt,” a term coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll to describe the subjective world of an individual organism. In other words, the “Om-Velt” encompasses an organism’s unique sensory and perceptual experiences as it interacts with its environment.

The concept of “Om-Velt” refers to a state of heightened awareness or consciousness in which an organism is acutely attuned to its surroundings, both as a distinct entity and as part of a larger whole. It suggests a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and a recognition of how their environment shapes an individual’s experience.

Overall, “Om-Velt” captures a profound spiritual and ecological awareness and describes a particular contemplative experience.

And here is the soulless ChatGPT’s poetic take on Om-Velt in the desert:

Amidst the sands of time and space 
A seeker wanders, searching for grace
To feel the Om-Velt’s gentle touch 
And know the world’s sacred clutch.

The sun beats down upon her brow 
But in her heart, she feels somehow 
The desert stretches all around 
A deeper sense, more profound.

She sits upon the burning sand 
And takes a breath, a single strand 
Of serenity that settles in 
And makes her feel the world within.

The wind picks up, a subtle breeze 
That whispers secrets through the trees 
Of cactus and of ancient lore 
Of life that thrives amidst its core.

The Om-Velt brings a sense of awe 
That fills her up and leaves her raw 
With joy and wonder, love and bliss 
She feels her world is part of this.

The sun sets low upon the land 
The sky ablaze, a fiery brand 
Of colors and of shifting light 
That marks the end of day and night.

And at that moment, all is one 
The desert, seeker, setting sun 
Are joined in Om-Velt’s holy glow 
And all is well, as it must flow.

The seeker rises, dusts her clothes 
And knows that in her heart she glows 
With Om-Velt’s gentle, loving light 
That shines forever, day and night.

Author’s Note: ChatGPT wrote that poem in less than a minute. I on the other hand, did not finish those two books in two days. It happened that, coincidently, I finished both during my adventure.”

Northern Vietnam Trip Log.

Reading Time: 19 minutes

Day 1 Hanoi

Welcome to the chaos of Hanoi. The humidity and heat hang in the air like a wet blanket. 

Tube Houses on Hanoi Street

Welcome to the sidewalks: tube houses ten feet wide and six stories tall, scooter parking lots, pedestrian walkways, dining areas, shops, and places where people live out their days and work. I’m told the narrow tube houses arose because taxes were based on the storefront size. Post-trip research supports this, but the architecture lived on because the property is expensive and population density is high. It was and is cheaper to build up than buy more land. 


Welcome to the streets: scooter traffic, pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, cart-pushers, car traffic, and places to sell things. The boundary between the road and the sidewalk has nothing to do with the curb. The streets are alive with the sounds of drivers honking at one another and the smells of food grilling on sidewalk barbecues. Intersections are mesmerizing, watching traffic weave its cross-hatched patterns without incident. The indoctrination to Hanoi is crossing a street without getting hit. It is an act of faith and strength, and the weak don’t survive. 

My indoctrination continued with a military jeep tour of the city. Our (Guy and myself) guides were Tring and Huyen, who both have excellent English language command. The famous Hanoi railway that runs within inches of houses was not operating because of an incident of nearly hitting tourists. We stopped by a bridge reported having been built by Eiffel, the same architect that built the Eiffel Tower. It looks like an Eiffel Tower laid on its side. We passed by the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Before going on display in Hanoi, his body survived seven years in a freezer in Russia.

We visited with a Vietnam war survivor, Duc, living in a building complex fronted by a downed B-52 left as a historical marker in a pool. He was born in 1960, the same year I was born. His house was decorated with urns and multiple-framed folk art prints, and he served us astringent green tea and peanut butter brittle. The conversation turned very intense in the tearful retelling of his memories of the war. He has memories of John McCain’s capture. I’m not sure of the translation, but the emotion was unmistakable. My memories of the Vietnam war are through second-hand stories and television reports: “a guy next to me was turned off like a light bulb,” the images of the helicopter lifting off the embassy during the evacuation, the reports of the Mai Lai massacre (they knew that only one man was convicted), and Nixon’s illegal carpet bombings of Cambodia. Duc’s message is that war is a lose-lose proposition. I like the symbolism of the B52 sheet metal that he has incorporated into his garden, literally picking up the pieces, building with them, and moving on. 

On the rest of the long ride, I learned from Huyen that :

* The people’s religion is respect for ancestors and local shrines.

* Water, energy, and communications are state-operated.

* The state provides public health and education but is augmented by private versions, sometimes in the same building.

* The trash all goes to a giant landfill outside Hanoi.

* She studied German; her favorite series is “Never Have I Ever.” 

* She is young enough (22) to never have lived in an occupied Vietnam.

* The youth are angry at inflation, which, while understandable, is not as bad as being angry at someone dropping bombs on your head.

Later that night, Guy had us on a brew tour. Our guide was Lan, an effervescent young lady that smiled for the entire four-hour excursion. She is absolutely adorable. She is five feet nothing tall and led us, and two other big guys, fearlessly about the city. She says she has no fear of walking around by herself at night. What is it with American cities? The night was my introduction to the sidewalk cafe, with its red plastic kindergarten seats, short tables, piss holes in crumbling cement closets, and street food. I can’t say I care much for fizzy, 3.5% beer, craft, or otherwise, but maybe it’s what keeps the streets safe from tipsy drivers in the chaos.  

Day 2 Ninh Binh

The bus for Ninh Binh was leaving at 7 a.m., about two hours before I was planning on getting up. We spent over five hours on a bus for three hours of activity. 

Trang An in Ninh Binh province was our introduction to the fascinating karst landscape of Northern Vietnam. We took a river ride down the Sao Khe River on Vietnamese woman-powered row boats. Unlike other row boats, the rowers face forward. It helps with the steering and lets them watch their passengers. Once I learned I could paddle, I laid into it for most of the trip, mainly for exercise but also to help our rower. I had heard that the daily two-hour rows take their toll on women’s bodies. They chew on some type of intoxicating leaf to ease their pain. The penalty for drug use and trafficking in Vietnam is death. 

We powered our way through the imposing karst landscape shrouded in rain clouds, visiting temples along the way. High water prevented entrance to the caves and flooded the temple grounds. The platform of the water temple was completely underwater. 

After the ride, our tour group dined in the restaurant. In the spirit of trying new things, I sample goat blood sauce. I’m not sure if because I knew what it was or not, but I didn’t like the texture or the taste. Blood of any kind is off my menu.

Running out of time, we had an abbreviated tour of the Buddhist Bai Dinh Pagoda complex, offering incense to giant gold-colored Buddhas and admiring the view of the surrounding Ninh Binh flood plains from the top of the Bao Thap Tower. When I asked how old the place was, the guide told me it was built in the early 2000s. It surprised me, expecting the answer of centuries, if not millennia, old. Post-trip research suggests there is an old temple and a new one, so maybe the guide misinterpreted the question narrowly, thinking I was referring to just the temple at which we were standing.

After the long and tedious two-and-a-half-hour trip back to Hanoi, Guy took us to an expensive 20-course tasting menu at TUNG (Twisted, Unique, Natural, Gastronomic) restaurant. It’s not my style: overeating food makes me feel dirty, and being served too little makes me feel cheated, so it’s a no-win scenario. The portions were small, and I didn’t throw in the towel until dessert. It was a bit overwhelming, and I only remember the foie gras because that is something I had written about in a book. Duck liver is another thing I will never order again. The wine was pleasing, each course was interesting, and the presentation was thoughtful. But would you ski for a minute, jump on a surfboard at a wave machine, skydive in a wind machine, hike up a trail for a tenth of a mile and say you had the experience? 

Day 3 Ha Giang Loop Day 1 Hanoi

Red River

On what would have been the first day of our transit of the Ha Giang Loop, while waiting for the delayed arrival of Chris and Hetal, I rode with Hoan, our guide, the leader of our trip for the next eight days, to Ba Vi National Park to the west of Hanoi. On the fifteen-minute walk from the hotel to the motorcycle shop, it felt like I was wearing the humidity like a winter coat in a heated car, so I rode without my motorcycle jacket, violating my ATGATT (All the Gear, All the Time) training. On the way out of the city, I only briefly negotiated the insanity of Hanoi traffic before Hoan led to a lightly traveled road that followed the red river. 

Huon and Yours Truly

We stopped at a restaurant where an expressionless young lady named Emily served us. I figured Hoan probably had some regular stops where he knew people and maybe even raked in a little commission for the effort. I asked Hoan about tipping, and he told me if I left a tip, that person would remember me for life. So I left a small tip, and as we were suiting up, a beaming Emily came out of the restaurant to see us off and thank us, still holding the dong (Vietnamese currency) in her hand. Her face had brightened from blank to supernova so she might remember me for at least a few days. The tip was worth every dong, unlike most, which feel like a tax. At each of the following stops, we met another Emily. I figured maybe the name Emily was a job requirement, but what I learned is that it is just a way of addressing a person, usually younger and female, em being the word for sister. 

Ba Vi

We rode up the mountain on curving and usually wet roads to a saddle between the summits. I made Hoan hike up the 1200 stairs to the top of the taller twin peaks to admire the Buddhist temple and the view. 

On the way back, we stopped for a half hour to sit out a downpour. 

Hoan wanted to make it back before rush hour to avoid the traffic, but delayed by the rain and the hike, we hit rush hour traffic dead on. I can only describe that experience as a two-hour bike walk and balancing act, trying not to hit the person in front of me and not step on the toes of the people on either side of me. A scooter, bus, or car immediately filled the slightest gap in front of me. Traffic signals are mere suggestions and not rules. While Hoan explained that honking is their way of saying hello, clearly, there is a set of drivers that bully their way through traffic, laying on the horn and riding inches off the back tire of the vehicle in front of them. It took us about two hours to go that last ten kilometers.

Comparing the five-hour bus ride to and from Ninh Binh against the eight hours of riding on the motorcycle to and from Ba Vi was the difference between impatient boredom and exhausted exhilaration.

Day 4 Ha Giang Loop Day 2 Hanoi to Vinh Linh Family Homestay

On the following day, with the full complement of our motorcycle gang now assembled, we headed north out of Hanoi to Yen Binh. Because of the one-day delay, we had to make up time. The drive out of Hanoi followed the Red River. Hoan took us down side roads to the main highway. Farmers use the streets to dry rice on tarps, spreading and turning the seeds with wooden rakes. We had to drive through drying hay completely covering the road. The day’s lesson was that no road is too large for agriculture nor too small for a truck. 

It’s always interesting to see what people will carry on a scooter or how many people can fit. A typical configuration would be kid, dad, kid, and mom all squeezing together on one bike. The craziest carry-on of the day was the guy carrying torpedo-sized propane tanks. I couldn’t help but wonder what his hazard duty pay was. 

A typical “restaurant” stop was a sidewalk cafe with traditional red plastic foot-high chairs and a low table to match. We quickly fell into a routine of ordering a 333, Hanoi, or Saigon beer, drinking the 3.5% beers more like water than alcohol, along with our multi-course lunch of rice, wraps, tofu, soup, boiled chicken (not a fan), and the specialties of the house.

With daylight fading, we ended up at Vu Linh’s family homestay (Hoan’s family homestay), working our way around the workers, blocking the dirt road to the house with a hay shredder. Hoan invited us to dinner with family, including daughter, wife, mother, and father, serving us a multi-course buffet. Dad tried to drink us into the ground toasting each shot with Howmedo’s (Thank you in the local language) with the local homemade rice wine. Mom, daughter, and French lady dressed in traditional garb. Hoan shared his father’s writing of local customs, which is impenetrable in the local language. I love the homestay concept. It’s a beautiful venue for having an intimate and unpretentious encounter with a Vietnamese family.*

Day 5 Ha Giang Loop Day 3 Vinh Linh Family Homestay to Hi Giang City

In the morning, we headed north to the city of Ha Giang, following scooter trails around the eastern perimeter of Thác Bà Lake, crossing narrow bridges, viewing the placid lake with its mountainous backdrop, and driving through agricultural obstacles of drying rice and hay covered roads. The hay covered the entire road for short stretches, leaving no choice but to drive right through it. A man dragging thirty feet of rebar was the strangest cargo of the day.

Leaving the lake and the flat terrain, we rode the busier main highway to take us into Ha Giang. I had one flat tire obtained inbound to the city. I’m not exactly sure where it went flat, but I was riding on a nearly deflated tire when we pulled up to the hotel. My attention on the way in was distracted by another problem. A biting insect managed to land and sting me through my kevlar riding jeans, leaving a welt about four inches in diameter. 

We stayed at Khách sạn Yên Biên Luxury catching up to the non-motorbike contingent of our tour, giving me a nice view of the city from my eighteenth-floor room. As the name suggests, it is an actual hotel, not a homestay. Taking a respite from the Vietnamese cuisine, we convened for pizza and beer at a place called “Pizza Here.”

Day 6 Ha Giang Loop Day 4 Ha Giang City to Phố Cổ

Because the flat was a rim flat, Hoan couldn’t fix the tire. He traded out the spare bike on the back of the support truck. We crossed over the river in the town, then rode out into mountain country and karst formations. On the rural road, I stopped to photograph a woman harvesting rice with her baby on her back, protected from the sun by a purple umbrella, and her mom. Hoan engaged her, and I learned the proper technique for slicing and clumping rice stalks: cut low at an angle, putting three or four handfuls together. Of course, doing that a couple of times is a lot different than cutting down the whole field.

Hoan advised us not to pay or tip the lady, explaining that it is not good to make it an expectation. I agree. Once such an experience becomes transactional, then I think it becomes significantly less authentic. Is it genuine culture when you sell it? When does the product become what the consumer wants it to be rather than what it is? Commoditizing culture is an essay for another time.

While I am on the subject, kids would wave to us as we rode through tiny villages. Some would reach out their hands for a slap. During the trip, I received the finger six times. One little girl with a big grin gave me the finger. Her finger followed me as I passed her. Given the big smile, I don’t think she understood what she was doing, but someone told her to do it. Other faces had scowls and disdain written on them. It was a tiny minority. I can understand why someone would not be excited about foreigners racing through their town on noisy bikes, stirring up the dust, the dogs, and the roosters. 

From here, the ride headed into the picturesque karst mountains. We stopped for a bathroom break at a spot with an overlook of a Hmong village, people working their gardens and yards. We drove to an incredible overlook of a verdant u-shaped valley split by a ridge terminating into a karst cone. On this narrow, mountain-hugging road, a woman passed me on a scooter, keeping my ego in check. Hetal bypassed this section of the motorcycle ride to go straight to Dong Van. Unfortunately, the driver got lost. She ended up visiting the Nho Que river early but arrived at the homestay much later.

Phố Cổ is built right up the base of the karst mountains. They even use the wall of one as a billboard to advertise the town. I wondered how many advertisements would adorn the mountain if something like this existed in America. All the karsts would probably be named after companies. Our homestay was right across the street from a square with outdoor restaurants and a few storefronts from the karaoke bar. Vietnam will never be the same. As Chris says, you can never unhear that sound.

Day 7 Ha Giang Loop Day 5 Phố Cổ to Coa Bang

Rain. Slick conditions. And heading up the mountain passes on ribbon-thin roads. We stopped at a pass between two karst coneheads for a view. The brave climb the conehead. The courageous step out onto an unprotected black rock tongue. The crazy do it in white clogs and an evening dress.

We continued down this path, my back tires sliding on the hairpin turns onto a paved path, maybe two feet in width, until we reached my point of fear. I don’t have the skill to negotiate ninety-degree downhill turns on a slick path. So Huan, Chris, and I walked the bike down the thirty foot with me not on it. 

The scenery took a turn for the spectacular at the overlook of the Nho Que river. The river is aquamarine and does a near-horseshoe bend around a karst formation. Sadly, we didn’t have the time to get on one of the boats to see the spectacular gorge from the bottom up.

Hmong Outfits

Hmong women sold organics outside the Panorama bar at the overlook. Someone told me the Hmong refused to move to cities at the demands of the Chinese and Vietnamese governments. The story sounds inspirational, but I haven’t been able to verify it. There are Hmong in Wisconsin. A diaspora.  

We completed the day with a ride to the Pac Bo Homestay in Cao Bang. For dinner, we sampled fried bees and bamboo, an unusual combo. 

Day 8 Ha Giang Loop Day 6 – Cao Bang to Ban Gioc Waterfalls

In the morning, the woman proprietor tried to refund us money because we didn’t eat all the bee and bamboo, and the dinner roll was rock hard. We never complained, but actions speak louder than words. The place doesn’t receive many Western visitors, and she wanted us to have a reasonable opinion of the home. I’ve never heard of such an action before, so I have an excellent opinion of her business ethic. 

The weather took a turn for the worse with a promise of rain. I watched a touring Vietnamese girl in pumps and hip-flexor high shorts double up on her scooter with a transparent rain jacket. NTGNTT (None of the gear, none of the time).

To start the morning, we visited the Ho Chi Minh memorial park. With limited time, we bypassed the museum attractions and only took a short river walk to the cave where Ho Chi Minh reportedly hid and worked at a cave office and desk. While waiting on the stairs to the cave entrance, as about thirty Vietnamese men paraded by, I learned that the preferred shoe of men is the black leather penny loafer.

Young women come to this spot to enhance their beauty in the idyllic setting of the river, posing on the rocks with the river and thick trees as a backdrop. We watched a young artist parade all her friends, Ferris Buehler Chicago Art Institute style, down the river bank. Another posed La Grande Jatte style with an umbrella, a pointillist painting also found at the Art Institute.

Hetal made friends with two charming and well-educated English-speaking Vietnamese kids from Hanoi. Many people said “Ha-lo” as they passed, but that is about as far as they go with the English language. 

From the park, we rode in the rain for two solid hours, splashing through orange rivulets crossing the road and avoiding mud orange water buffalo. The rain and splashing soaked my socks and gloves, but otherwise, the rain gear did its job.  

We came to Ban Gioc the back way, down a dirt road paralleling the barbed-wire border. When we arrived, the authorities locked down the town for a fall festival. Only official cars were allowed in and out. So we had to backtrack to the front of the town. We found a very distraught Hetal, having sat with the driver and truck outside the barricade in a questionable spot with suspicious police wanting to know why they were there. Finally, we devised a plan to park the bikes and walk in. 

We checked into our hotel at Ban Gioc with enough time to walk down to the festival at the waterfall. We shared the view and celebration with five to ten thousand of our closest friends, still somehow managing to take a boat ride right up to the waterfalls, illuminated by a changing color palette of lights. After the boat ride, we ordered sausage and meat on a stick from a sidewalk vendor before retreating to the hotel for dinner and later drinks with our late-arriving companions.

Day 9 Ha Giang Loop Day 7 – Ban Gioc Waterfalls to Ba Be National Park

Rushed in the morning to meet a riverboat deadline, we took a no-nonsense ride to Ba Be NP. The conditions were sloppy and wet but without the previous day’s downpour. We saw one truck in a ditch, but the driver appeared to be squatting on the side of the road, talking into his cell phone, uninjured.

We made a brief stop at a knife shop. We watched the men work to make the knives while Hoan bought one for his wife. Talk about digging your own grave.

At Động Puông, we loaded the motorcycles on a river boat and cruised to Ba Be the back way. The river road traveled down a beautiful jungle-coated karst valley, passing through a karst cave on the way to the lake. From the south end of the lake, we road the short distance to the Minh Quang Homestay. The homestay overlooks fields on the south end of the lake. 

We dined with the proprietors on the upstairs patio, participating in the traditional Mot! Hai! Ba! Yo! ritual, drinking plenty of wine to close out the evening. 

Day 10 Ha Giang Loop Day 8 – Ba Be National Park to Hanoi. 

The trip back was fast and direct, attempting to beat the rush hour traffic. We achieved the goal, but Hanoi traffic is still Hanoi traffic, chaotic and close, yet somehow predictable. We said goodbye to Hoan with a few beers at an intersection-facing cafe, watching others negotiate the hazards of the street to their ends. The ride was everything I could have asked for and so much more. **

Day 11 Hanoi.

It’s the one too many. I didn’t have a plan. I went with Jake, his uncle, and his cousin to the Imperial Citadel at Thang Long. The Imperial Citadel has a history of a thousand years, serving many dynasties and kings in the past. Recently, it served as a command center and bunker for Ho Chi Minh during the wars.

After that, I wandered the streets of Hanoi for one last time. Interestingly, I found a Black Swan, a highly improbable event according to the literature. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Well, I proved to myself once and for all that black swan events, well, black swans, in any event, are real. I don’t know if I would call the trip a Black Swan Event, but it certainly was a very memorable one.

All trip pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1QRPSLT2RHgrHL0EvuPIVSui34fCVH6Rn?usp=sharing

  • Review of VuLinh Family Homestay

Beautiful home and accommodations. Spending an evening with the Vu Linh family was one of the trip’s highlights. Hoan welcomed us into his family with an intimate dinner and evening with his family and the other guests. Fantastic food and bottomless shot glasses of rice wine served with pride and enthusiasm. They are sure to make your trip to Thác Bà Lake memorable.

** Review of Offroad Vietnam

If you are brave enough to take on the traffic and back roads, riding a motorcycle in Northern Vietnam is as good as it gets. An unforgettable adventure of spectacular riding from the mayhem of Hanoi traffic to the hidden lakeside byways to twisting ascents over mountain passes to mountain-hugging ledges. Offroad Vietnam tailored the trip to our requested itinerary and provided excellent motorcycles and support throughout the journey. Our Offroad Vietnam guide Hoan is a skilled rider with a decade of riding experience. He showed us roads and trails we would never have found, considered, or negotiated if we tried to ride by ourselves using Google maps. He bridged the language gap for us, making our encounters with the friendly people of Northern Vietnam more personal and rewarding. I wouldn’t hesitate to use Offroad Vietnam again if and when I make it back.

Living the K-drama

Reading Time: 8 minutes

While the missiles were flying from North Korea and the weather forecast for Seoul predicted temperatures somewhere between 25 and a thermonuclear 250 million degrees Celsius, my attentions were more focused on soaking up the K-drama culture in Gangnam and Jeju Island. I knew Kamala Harris had my back with her visit to the DMZ.


My real intent was to spend time with my son Max. He has been living in Korea on and off for a couple of years to pursue his e-gaming career. Max was effectively more jet-lagged than I during my visit since I interrupted his stay-up until 5 in the morning and sleep until mid-afternoon gaming schedule. By the way, he told me Gangnam is pronounced pretty much as you would expect. To me, that was gang-nam, as in street gang and Viet-nam. Of course, it is pronounced nothing like that. Gahn-yum is the closest I can get.

According to the K-drama “Glitch,” food always comes first in Korea, even before alien abductions and end-of-the-world scenarios. Why get abducted or vaporized on an empty stomach? So in the most pleasing “My Mister” style, Max and I visited restaurants with wooden picnic benches, stoves, kimchi bars, and Soju in the restaurant row of the trendy Gangnam District in Seoul. Max did all the ordering, so not entirely sure the names of all the dishes we consumed. It was fantastic watching Max converse in Korean. On the first night, we had Korean beef with lettuce wraps, which I think are called Ssambap. There was a spicy crab side dish that we didn’t know how to eat, so I had our waitress coach us on the finer points of dining. Despite her above and beyond the call of duty effort, we didn’t leave a tip. Tipping is considered rude and frowned upon. Service is always expected to be exceptional. The custom seems so much more civilized to me.

On the next day, after wandering about the streets of Gangnam and pedaling along the Han riverfront, we stumbled across a Kyobo bookstore in the underground Sinnyeon subway shopping mall. I picked up “Crying in HMart,” a memoir by Japanese Breakfast. She takes her name from the orderly perfection of a Japanese breakfast, something that her young life was not. The book is a tribute to her mom, who died young of cancer, and recounts the author’s troubled formative years, often at odds with her mom and frequently through the memory of the Korean dishes her mom prepared. I couldn’t keep up with all the different recipes, but I’m getting smarter. Gimbap is seaweed (gim) rice (bap), the preferred dish of the Extraordinary Attorney Woo. It’s not much different from a California roll. Bibimbap is mixed (bibim) rice (bap). Ssambap is a rice (bap) ssam (wrap).

Underground Subway Mall

Later at night, we had Korean pork and potato soup with enoki mushrooms while watching K-drama customers enjoying each other’s company, sucking down their Soju from green bottles on a Tuesday evening.

After a few days in Gangnam, we headed to Gimpo airport to fly to Jeju Island on Korean Airlines. In my K-drama series and movie experiences, Jeju Island is an out-of-the-way Korean escape from the demands of big city life. In the “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” (EAW), Jeju is a Korean retreat for an office team-building exercise based on the pretext of taking on a case involving 3000 won (about two dollars). The team quests for the best Haengbok noodles in Jeju. In the extremely dark and twisted love story “A Night in Paradise,” Jeju serves as a rural hideaway for a double-crossing young hoodlum. If the movie is any indication, there is quite a gangster population on the island.

For Max and I, the side trip was a two-night gangster-free stay in Jeju City. I wanted to rent scooters since it seemed like an excellent way to tour the island, but it’s surprisingly hard to rent a scooter there. The scooter rental websites aren’t foreigner friendly. Google translated the pages from Korean into English, but that doesn’t work so well on the date picker widget. My forty-eight-hour rental somehow translated into something like four hundred thousand hours, and at 40000 won per day per scooter, that worked out to something thirty-two billion won, just a bit outside my budget. Max wasn’t too keen on learning how to ride anyway. He tapped into his Korean knowledge base, and his friend assured us that we would be able to rent a car without a reservation.

We did manage a car but had a little trouble catching the correct bus. The rental companies provide their private buses to their not colocated remote lots. The lady at the rental counter sent us to area 3, station 8, but everything was labeled as a zone. We stood at zone 8, station 3, for a few minutes until we realized we should be at zone 3, station 8.

Transported to the correct lot, and having acquired a car, I wanted to drive. We headed east along the island’s north side to Hamdeok Beach, a destination chosen because it looked like the first decent thing to see in that direction. Max figured out how to program the Korean Language GPS navigation. The navigation persona insisted on warning us of “Danger Ahead” and advised us to drive at a “Safe Speed.” We saw no accidents and no construction, but after an hour or so of driving, we realized that our Korean Map female voice was warning us of speed monitors. The island is booby-trapped with what Max called “Speed Bumps,” but I call them tourist snares because I’m sure only inexperienced visitors like myself who can’t read the signs or operate the GPS unit get tickets from these traps. The lady should have said is drive at “Legal Speed,” so we would have realized much quicker that the danger was financial rather than physical. As far as I know, I did not get caught, probably because the savvy traffic ahead of me forced me to slow down at the right spots.
Jeju turned out to be surprisingly built up and congested. The driving scene to the Buddhist temple in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is only shot in the scenic Hallasan Mountain area, probably the only road on the island without a stop light every half mile. The scene and others led me to believe the island was more isolated and remote than it actually is. It took a long time in Jeju City traffic to reach Hamdeok Beach.

Hamdeok Beach

Jeju Island is volcanic. Hamdeok Beach has nice contrasts and a spectrum of colors, ranging from the white sand beach to shallow turquoise waters, deeper blue waters, and black frozen lava flows. We also encountered our first grandfather statutes (Dol Hareubang) working as end posts on a small bridge out to a viewpoint of the ocean.

Bridge Guarded By Grandfather Statues

We stopped for a drink and snack before pushing on.

Incredible Pastry

Running out of daylight, we missed the lava tubes, so we headed back to Jeju City to check in to the hotel by an inland route. The eighteen-story hotel thoughtfully (sarcasm) changed its name from the Avia to the Asia hotel to make things confusing.

Jeju City from the 18th Floor

Later, we ate barbecued beef, mushroom, and cabbage at 숙성도 F&B 별관.

Beef and Pork Stock

The server grilled our beef and mushroom dish in front of us over a pot of hot coals.

At the same time, Max and I observed my favorite K-drama tradition, drinking the bottle of Soju, following the excellent practice of keeping the other person’s Soju glass from going empty.

We picked up the trip the next day at the Manjanggul lava tube cave. The lava tube is an impressive underground cave paved and lit for a kilometer in one direction but continues several kilometers in both directions. The public trail terminates at a lava chimney of twenty-five feet, billed as the largest in the world.

World’s Largest Lava Chimney

From there, we drove to the island’s east end to see Seongsan Ilchulbong,” a volcanic caldera with a five-hundred-stair climb. I contemplated the entrance sign warning hikers not to attempt the ascent if they have a heart condition or if they have drunk to excess the night before. On the previous night, we managed to drink a bottle of Soju, but I fell asleep before making much of a dent in the second. The climb rewarded us with views over the “Sea of Japan” and the town of Seowipo.

Sunrise Peak

On the way down the trail, we were treated to the ritual dance and drumming of the mermaid women. The women divers of Jeju Island are famous for their cold water surface dives for sea critters.

Mermaid Women

From there, we drove south for a hike and a view of Seongsan Ilchulbong from the other side.

We drove some sixty stoplight-riddled kilometers along the island’s south side to Cheonjiyeon Falls. The falls are nestled inside the city of Seopwipo. Empirical observation on the short hike to the falls suggests it is a popular tourist destination. In other words, it was crowded.

Cheonjiyeon Falls

We drove through the volcano national park to return to Jeju city, I believe on the same road as Attorney Woo on her field trip. I recognized the tree-canopied, traffic-light-free and danger-free highway from the episode.
For the EAW crew, they came up with a solution of the case to resolve the problem of the 3000 won charge for passage over a road that incidentally routed over monastery land. The team finds a revered chef working in obscurity in a local monastery, having been outmaneuvered and run out of business by a competitor that stole his business but serves a substandard recipe of Haengbok noodles endured by the team. The EAW team always gets their noodle and wins their case.

In the end of “A Night in Paradise,” the vengeful gangsters catch up to the double-crossing hoodlum in Jeju with dire consequences for everyone involved. Spoiler alert, things didn’t work out well for the guy, the gangsters, or the love affair. The ending was perfect for such a dark movie, but that is all I will reveal.

For my ending, I managed to read the entire book, “Crying in H-mart,” while Max slept off his jet lag. I enjoyed volcanic wonders in Jeju and biking along the Han river, people-watching in Gangnam, eating Korean, drinking Soju, and watching Max work magic with his adopted country. I managed to fly from Jeju to Gimpo and take a train from Gimpo to Incheon for the next leg of my trip without incident. It was easier getting out than getting in, but that is another story.