Friday, October 31, 2008

American Journeys: A Quirky Seattle That Won't Blend In (Vladimir Lenin, Hattie's Hat, and the Fremont Rocket Ship.)

Read about my latest adventure in the New York Times Escapes section.

I had a big time up in Seattle earlier this fall. I especially loved the neighborhoods of Ballard and Fremont. Ballard has a maritime theme, and Fremont looks like a psychedelic fever dream. (although I am not saying that from direct experience.)Click here for a Ballard/Fremont mini slide show.

By the way, I mentioned a seven-ton statue of Mr. Vladimir Lenin that was erected some years back right in the middle of Fremont. While in Seattle, I heard that the statue is on sale for approximately $250 K. Try to imagine how this might look in your front lawn. It's a lot more original than pink flamingos.
This is not the first time I've seen a controversial piece of public art or signage go up for sale. A few years back, while at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, I wrote about an attempt to auction off the city's kooky, oversized "WELCOME TO RIVER STREET'' sign, known to Santa Cruzans as "Signzilla.'' However, no one bit, and the sign is still there.

Stay tuned for more 'urban hiking' adventures. I've got another one coming up this winter.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New list of Cactus events -- with Career Day info...

Here is a partial list of the latest events.
I will fill in the blanks when more dates are confirmed.

I will be reading and signing along with Kate Evans, author of the brand-new fiction book, For The May Queen, on Wednesday, November 12 at San Jose State University. Kate and I will read from 12 to 12:40 p.m.. We will be there in support of SJSU's Poets and Writers' Coalition.

The event will be part of SJSU's Career Day. There will also be a great selection of work by other SJSU-affiliated writers and faculty members.

other upcoming events:

San Francisco Public Library
Mission Branch

San Francisco, Ca
Reading and signing
December 10 (NEW DATE!)
630 to 730 p.m

Sonoma County, CA
Dec. 5
private event (Rotarians)

Also, I will lead a nature walk/writing class in the Santa Cruz area in early spring. So far, two of the slots have already been taken. Give me a heads-up if you want to be part of the list.

Friday, October 24, 2008

These outdoor photos are not workplace friendly (they might make you quit your job and hike the Pacific Crest Trail.)

It could happen. The following nature photos are eerily similar to the ones I saw in a slideshow that influenced me to leave my stable employment in New England and hike the trail from Mexico to Canada. In fact, those very similar photographs led me to quit my job during a previous national recession/depression-by-any-other-name.

Yes -- it could happen to you too.

And don't worry. After walking the trail, I did find other meaningful work.


Joshua trees in the Antelope Valley.

Desert scene in the early morning.

Frolicking in suncups under Forester Pass.

Peaceful, alluring meadow under Mount Whatever.

Cascades in northern Oregon.

Cascades, adrift in clouds and fog.

Pasayten Wilderness assorted fungus

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The California Academy of Sciences museum: Worth the Hype?

Monarch the Grizzly Bear: dead and in person at the Academy of Sciences

The crowd was already a quarter mile long at 8:45 a.m. It was a total mob scene; after all, this was the first "free Wednesday'' at a museum that normally costs almost two and a half sawbucks to get in. The people in the line were getting restive at about 9:15. Someone in front of me was trying to stay calm by practicing Tai Chi. People in back of me were glowering because they resented me for having a better place in line, while people in front of me were looking at me as if they feared I would try to steal their spot. A nervous-looking woman kept making calls from her cell phone: "Get here fast! Meet me at the Goethe-Schilling statue!"

But the actual museum -- when we finally got in -- was astonishing. We walked through a steaming tropical rainforest with blue morpho butterflies flapping all over the place and dark creatures slithering in the shallows below us. There were water chestnuts, bamboo palms, and live, dog-faced fruit bats hiding out in a slimy cave. So many butterflies were landing on visitors that a female staff member stood by the elevator and asked people to check their clothes. "Make sure that our butterflies haven't planted themselves on you anywhere,'' she said.

There is a place where gullible people can put their fingers on two pressure points and experience a mildly unpleasant electric shock (in honor of the electric eel, which floats in a tank nearby.) There is also a spot where museum-goers can gleefully spam their elected representatives with emails about Co2 emissions reductions (I sent a few emails myself...), and a creepy albino alligator with pink eyes. The place also has many features that will please younger visitors, including exhibits with creatures whose names sound vaguely like dirty words (Kirk's Dik Dik, and "Prince Berhhard's titi monkey,'' just for starters.)

The exhibits do not gloss over the many ways in which we have trashed and thrashed our delicate ecosystems here in the Golden State. It was hard not to feel outraged when I saw the mounted, stuffed form of "Monarch the Grizzly,'' one of the very last California grizzlies (the last of them was gunned down in 1922.) Monarch was one of the lucky ones, in the sense that the bear at least died of old age -- but the beast lived most of its life in capitivity, right here in Golden Gate Park...)

So the answer to the above question is a resounding yes. It is absolutely worth the hype, and I will be back next month to check out the planetarium.

Monday, October 13, 2008

World's youngest pot dealer?

As you already know, I always see a lot of strange goings-on in Golden Gate Park when I'm in training. I mentioned the young couple I saw last month, trying to light up an enormous spliff with a magnifying glass. Well, it happened again during a recent training loop through the park. It seemed like every person in all of the park's eastern side was trying to sell me something exotic -- "sticky green bud", ''skunk," "pre-rolled fatties,'' etc. These offers surprised me, because these are the kinds of products that you normally don't try to sell to someone who is running right past you at six miles per hour in marathon-training gear, and is obviously in the middle of a big, sweaty workout. Anyhow, I made my way up to the famous Hippie Hill, and there, at the very top, sat a little boy, about 25 feet from two people whom I assumed were his parents. He was probably five years old or so -- no older than six -- and had a peaceful demeanor. I said, "Hey, kid, how ya doing?'' and waved hello.

"Fat nuggs?'' he replied.

(I swear I'm not making this up, although, in retrospect, I have a very strong suspicion that he was just imitating what the people around him were saying, and was not actually a pot dealer!...)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Stink-off: Quantifying and comparing foul odors

This article attempts to quantify the human smell, and compare it to the smells of other smelly creatures -- namely stink bugs and skunks. A selection from this piece appears on page 238 of The Cactus Eaters, but some of you asked to see the article in full.

WHO SMELLS THE WORST? A skunk, a stinkbug, or a Pacific Crest Trail Through Hiker

SKUNK (yes, I drew this field sketch. What can I say? Skunks are hard to draw.)


POTENCY Noxious spray can render dogs temporarily blind

There's a compelling reason why Pepé Le Pew is condemned to a life of celibacy. The chemicals in a skunk's spray are so potent that one of them-3-methyl-1-butane-thiol-is on the EPA's hazardous substances list. A natural-born sharpshooter, the skunk can nail predators-or you-from an anal gland with surprising accuracy from 10 feet away. Similar to tear gas, skunk spray is one of the most effective defense systems in the animal kingdom; only the great horned owl is savage enough to prey on the stinky polecat once it unleashes its pungent potion. Bobcats, coyotes, and pumas hunt this nocturnal animal only if other prey is scarce. Even in death, the skunk's vile, sewerlike odor doesn't let up. Its gas sac often leaks fumes postmortem, creating-for the unwitting taxidermist-the mother of all occupational hazards.



POTENCY Bitter ooze can leave humans nauseous

This diminutive insect recently made the Discovery Channel's short list of the foulest-smelling animals on the planet, beating out such also-rans as the beaver. Like the skunk, this shield-shaped insect defends itself by excreting a noxious liquid from slits under its body that repels snakes, birds, and other insects. If a predator somehow gets past the sharp, acidic smell and eats a stink bug, it immediately spits it out because the nasty liquid tastes as foul as it smells. If a spider finds a stink bug in its web, it will cut it free instead of eating it. No wonder. Chemically speaking, the stink bug's spew contains tridecane, a compound found in gases and some cigarettes. What's worse, the stink bug is everywhere-more than 300 species are found in the front and backcountry across the United States .



POTENCY Ripe odor can clear a coffee shop

He climbs in the front seat beside you. Politeness stops you from turning away and pinching your nose. Yet you momentarily consider using that tree-shaped air freshener as a gas mask. What possessed you to give this thru-hiker a ride? After 3 weeks in the chaparral foothills of California , he now smells like the rhino enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. His suffocating reek comes not from sweat itself but from the bacteria that feed on the amino acids, fats, and oils found in human perspiration. The bacteria emit a putrid blend of chemical compounds including ammonia and methylbutanoic acid that cling to the clothes and body-and multiply with each passing day. Opening the car windows will only help so much, but at least it spreads the misery. Depending on wind conditions, someone could pick up this hiker's aroma from 100 feet away.


A shower and a load of laundry will quickly freshen up the thru-hiker. And a stink bug's nasty odor lasts a mere 60 seconds-nothing compared to the multiple days a skunk's stench could cling to your clothes if you don't wash them with bleach (the surest cure we've found). Smelliest goes to the skunk.

Outdoor tortures, part II: deafening, snoring tentmates

Have you ever tried to sleep in a tent with someone who snores just like a foghorn? Have you ever wondered how one unconscious human could make such a racket? A while back, I wrote a magazine piece in which I tried to quantify -- and compare -- the loudness of snoring backpackers to the hideous noises made by cicadas and loud, shrieking barred owls, using scientific methods. The results appear below ...

Showdown: Who’s the Loudest? Backpacker versus cicada versus barred owl.

Latin name: Magicicada Septendecim
Sound and fury: Can drown out the roar of a revving power mower
There's a very special place in hell for the male periodical cicada. Its screeching "song" may be irresistible to potential mates, but it's pure torture for humans. This nectar-sucking bug owes its distinction as one of the noisiest insects to its tymbals, ribbed vibrating membranes that stretch along its abdominal cavities. These hollow chambers act like built-in megaphones, amplifying a metallic screech that can be heard 440 yards away. Populations lie dormant for more than a dozen years before bursting into the wild with a collective scream that registers in excess of 100 decibels, roughly the volume of a Green Day concert. Now imagine if you stumbled into camp only to find what scientists discovered in 1969: 1.5 million singing cicadas in a single acre. No wonder entomologists wear earplugs while studying the bug.

Latin name: Strix Varia
Sound and fury: can do a dead-on impression of a shrieking monkey
It sounds like the beginning of a bad horror movie in the tree above your campsite. A crazy woman cackles; a dog barks frantically; and an owl belts out a surprisingly loud and penetrating "who cooks for you." But the head-rattling cries are not sound effects; they're part of the barred owl's headache-inducing vocal repertoire used to mark territory, signal aggression, and attract mates. Amazingly, the owl makes all this racket without any vocal cords. Its voice box produces low-frequency sound waves that carry over great distances in forested terrain, fooling you into thinking the bird can cackle in your ear. The volume intensifies when the barred owl rallies other birds to song. Frightened by its laugh, wild turkeys will break into a chorus of demented gobbling. Reach for the Excedrin. It's going to be a long night.

Latin name: Unconscious Obnoxicus
Sound and fury: Can damage his own hearing.
You wiggle down into your bag and are about to say "good night" when a series of loud snorts halts your reverie. You brace yourself for the inevitable: a long, rising, relationship-threatening snore. For the rest of the night, his labored breaths cause his palate, throat, and uvula to vibrate, producing a wet rattling noise that makes you bury your head under your makeshift pillow. Unfortunately, the wine you two enjoyed at dinner relaxed the soft tissue in the back of his throat. The result: a deeper, more amplified snore. Add his allergies, which demand that he breathe more forcefully, and suddenly the tent is equipped with surround sound. You try nudging him, then kicking him. It's no use; he snores in every position. Spongy earplugs only help so much. After all, the world's loudest snores measure 93 decibels, rivaling the rumble of a bulldozer.

Sure, the cicada is deafening, but it only raises the roof every 15 years or so. The snoring tentmate? You can always push for a trip to the doctor. But a nocturnal noisemaker that sounds like a mockingbird on acid? We bow before the resounding victor.

(this was originally published in Backpacker.)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Hike Pine Mountain, Channel Daniel Boone (my adventures in wild Eastern Kentucky.)

Read all about my latest backpacking adventure in the New York Times.

I loved touring the Pine Mountain Trail and Whitesburg, one of the friendlist small cities I've ever seen. I call it the Santa Cruz of the Southeast. I had a great time talking to documentary film makers and broadcasters at the legendary Appalshop, and listening to its excellent old-time/bluegrass/Americana station -- WMMT --- as I explored the backroads from Glomar to Hazard. I also hiked to a waterfall, hung out at the general store where parts of "Coal Miner's Daughter'' were filmed, and talked to ecologists who are trying to fight off the deadly woolly adelgid, an aphid-like creature that is slaughtering the state's historic hemlocks.

To mark my emergence from the Pine Mountain backwoods, I bought two bottles of top-shelf bourbon in Lexington, Kentucky, and wrapped them very carefully in brown bags and newspapers to survive the long trip home. They made it to San Francisco all right --- but as it turns out, they sell both brands right here at the Bevmo on Geary!!

In other news, I want to thank the staff of the beautiful Livermore Public Library and the great crowd that turned out for my latest Cactus reading -- in spite of the fact that the Obama/McCain debates were going on at the exact same time. (Don't worry. The people in the audience said they were going to watch the whole thing later on Tivo.) Also, thanks to Tori at Firehouse Bistro and Books for her help setting this up. I also enjoyed talking to everyone at my reading in The Castro, including my youngest reader -- or at least the youngest one that I know about.

I will be doing more readings and events in the winter and spring, with two firmed-up dates in San Francisco and Sebastopol, and one in Santa Cruz.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello in the park (for free.)

We backpackers love cheap thrills. Free ones are even better. That's why I saw so many backpacker types at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Golden Gate Park's legendary free music festival. It's hard to pinpoint the greatest moment: Ralph Stanley serenading the crowd with "O Death,''; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss trading vocals on "The Battle of Evermore,'' with that eerie mandolin riff echoing just behind them; Elvis Costello doing his barnstorming version of "Friend of the Devil'' -- my third-favorite Dead tune -- and a rave-up of Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,'' with Jim Lauderdale harmonizing. The legendary Emmylou Harris motored right past me and waved to the crowd as event staff rushed her from one stage to the next. It was an unforgettable day in the park.

Also this weekend, I took part in the Bridge to Bridge 12 K run, on what must be the loveliest urban footrace course on the planet: the Embarcardero, Fort Mason, the Golden Gate Bridge and up into the Presidio. It was not free, but it raised money for a great cause -- the Special Olympics. I ran at a desert tortoise's pace, but who cares? These days, it's all about the experience, not the stopwatch.

also, in other (unrelated) news: I will be speaking at the Livermore Public Library this coming Tuesday (October 7) at 7 p.m.
The event is part of their Authors, Arts and More series

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Fixin' To Do Something Dumber'n Hell

This week's San Francisco Bay Guardian compared me -- or at least my younger self -- to Llewelyn Moss, the none-too-bright protagonist of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men. In the movie version, directed by the Coen Brothers, Llewelyn Moss is played by Josh Brolin, who also plays a major role in the upcoming biopic of real life SF hero Harvey Milk, who lived in the Castro, where I am speaking Thursday evening at Books Inc on Market Street. And the real-life evil psycho played by Josh Brolin in that very movie just so happens to have the name "Dan White.'' (who, I should add, was in no way related to me!!!!) A creepy coincidence, to say the least ...

The SF Bay Guardian review isn't online but here is the cut-and-paste version.

"I'm fixin' to go do somethin' dumber 'n hell, but I'm goin' anyways." These were not the words of Dan White. Still, the words of No Country for Old Men's Llewelyn Moss could easily apply to the decision White made when he thought it would be a good idea to make 2,650-mile trek along the Pacific Coast Trail with his girlfriend. The couple were completely unprepared for the monster awaiting them, and encountered myriad hilarious, taxing, and occasionally life-threatening predicaments that White candidly chronicles in his buoyant The Cactus Eaters (Harper Perennial). While the decision may have been "dumber 'n hell," he got a brilliant book out of it, which is more than Moss got for his quest.

The New York Times, The Castro, and other Cactus news

I have a few updates for this week:

Look for my article about wild Kentucky in the Escapes section of the New York Times this Friday. (I also have some cautionary words about trying to make your way through the steeply slanted Kentucky backwoods with no GPS!)

In other news, the second printing of the book is in stores this week. It is slightly different from the first version. For one thing, my Mother In Law is in this one. She did not appear anywhere in the previous version. Mea culpa.

And finally, I am very excited about doing a Cactus reading in San Francisco for the first time ever.

the event will take place at: Books Inc In The Castro
San Francisco, CA
(2275 Market Street)
7:30 pm, October 2 (Thursday)

Also, I wanted to thank everyone who showed up last night to the Steinbeck Center for my reading last night -- many SJSU undergrads, family, the new Steinbeck fellows Cora Stryker, Jasmin Darznik and Cristine Gonzalez, and a few of my students, too. It was a great time.