Wednesday, September 30, 2009


During my first reporting job, I interviewed a horse in Connecticut.

It went about as well as you would expect.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Question for next week: "Do I have to be rich to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? (or the CDT or the AT)

A reader from the Eastern Seaboard emailed me this question a month ago. I'll have a much more detailed answer next week, but my initial response is "Absolutely not.'' I realize that I'm only going on my own very limited experience, which took place quite a while ago, but just about everyone I met out on the trail was not well-off at all (and some were strictly subsistence.) As for me, I left a very low-paying job to do the trek.

Also -- there are opportunities to save money by preparing your own foods and making at least some of your own gear. More on this later.

(by the way, thanks for sending in all these questions over the past few weeks. While I am probably the last person on earth that you should ask for backpacking or survival advice, I can at least refer you to folks who know the answers.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Best American Travel Writing 2009

The best place stories are also human stories. If there are no people in them, no real-life characters, place stories will feel free-floating and listless. That's why you've got to read Best American Travel Writing 2009 with selections by Simon Winchester. There are lots of great stories in there -- in particular an essay by Bronwen Dickey about the mighty, 57-mile-long Chattooga, "The Last Wild River.'' The essay, which originally appeared in the Oxford American's Best of the South issue, combines gorgeous landscape description, great characters, humor and ecology, along with reflections about wilderness and wildness.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Cheap (and free) thrills for book lovers, part III -- Denis Johnson, Mary Roach, Tim Cahill and more

Check out the line-up for the Center for Literary Arts in San Jose, including Denis Johnson, who will deliver the Martha Heasley Cox Lecture in November. Fans of outdoor writing won't want to miss the great Tim Cahill, this year's Lurie Distinguished Visiting Writer.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Question of the week: Backpacking with umbrellas (to keep out the sun)

What a weird coincidence. Today, in my Cactuseaters inbox, I saw a message from someone out in Pennsylvania, asking about the wisdom of hiking with an umbrella to block out the sun and avoid "sliming excessive sunscreen all over the body." The person was especially interested in the idea of taking an umbrella on long hikes through hot and arid places.

How strange; I was just thinking about this very issue. Give me a couple of weeks and I'll post some thoughts when I return.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Your adventurous lives (formerly known as "Cactuseaters readers in the news'')

Here is a compendium of recent Cactuseaters reader adventures, outside and indoors. Keep in mind that this is only the partial version; I will add to this again when I have more time. Send in if you have an interesting story in the coming weeks, (but keep in mind that this isn't an advertising site: no used Passats, junky furniture, etc.)

Imagine taking a year off and traveling around the world. That is what Asa is doing.

This just in from Jorma in Bellingham: Chris Beamish is off sailing around Vancouver Island (BC) right now in his 18' homemade wooden boat. Beamish, formerly an editor at the Surfer's Journal, is off on a sailing odyssey. He sailed halfway down Baja and has done a number of other great trips. Stay tuned.

Edie, a real-life 'character' in the Cactus Eaters, (and my big sister) is having fantastic success with a private-nonprofit that works to provide comfort and support for stray animals. It's called Annie's Blankets; she started it up from nothing, and she (and her faithful crew of supporters) are going strong.

52 Hikes is undertaking 52 challenging hikes in one calendar year; wish him well on this endeavor. 52 Hikes notes that he lives "in the Bay Area with an old cat from Canada who prefers Neil Young's music and Canadian hockey teams."

A few months back, I heard from Bill, whose girlfriend, Novella Carpenter, has been getting many great reviews for her book Farm City. It was great to see Novella read from the hilarious book during her recent book tour. Bill figures prominently as a "character'' in Farm City.

Michael McAllister's successful Barbershop reading series is going to be a venue for LitQuake next month. Congratulations; I'm looking forward to attending this one.

As for me, it looks like I'm going to read locally as well as in the northern Sierra Nevada region pretty soon; I'll post an update when I found out more (I just received the invitations over the past week.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hiking poles: yes or no

I am stumped.

I just received an emailed question about trekking poles and whether or not hikers should invest in them and take them on long-distance or day hikes. The questioner told me that she has some old crappy ones and never got the utility out of them.

I will ask around about this, but meanwhile, if you have any experiences you wish to report about hiking poles -- or a particular kind that you like or don't like -- let me know, and I will incorporate your ideas into my answer, which I will post right here on

Personally, I've never used the retractable, shock-proof, store-bought hiking poles, although I've always been curious about them; I usually improvise with ski poles or twigs or something like that. Also -- I often hike in forbidding terrain that requires two free hands for scrambling up and down slopes (making it impossible for me to hold poles in my hand.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Triumph and agony on the JMT

In case you missed this, the Chronicle ran an interesting story (reprinted in the Seattle PI) about the quest for speed on the mighty John Muir Trail. The author of the article is the Chronicle's Tom Stienstra, who has also written many good trail guides and walking books.

Bear in mind

This strange photo is 60 years old. I found it at a vintage paper fair up in San Francisco. Apparently the person who took the photo tried (unsuccessfully) to kill this bear up near Mount Shasta, and then took a potshot at a deer, which he also missed. I find this photo vaguely sinister, though I'm not sure why this is so.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Big hairy bat

This is one of my first wilderness scribbles, dating back more than 10 years ago. I've always admired the bats that swept through my campsites at dusk on the PCT. Their quick, jerky movements and darting shadows provided a bit of entertainment while I was setting up the tent.

I made this picture in a summer-session wildlife illustration class at UCSC. I thought I'd lost it, but I found it by accident the other day. Now I'm blogging it, mostly to preserve it in case I misplace it again.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Coffee to the People is my office

Coffee to the People is where I get most of my writing done, and grade most of my papers, and send most of my emails these days. For me, this place captures the best of the Haight -- and I think it has the best people-watching of any cafe in the city. I can usually be found at the Black Panthers-themed table. In other news, it looks like the used bookstore, very close to the coffee shop, shut down, even though it was called Forever After. I wonder what will take its place. Not another crepe restaurant, I hope.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Speeding along the JMT, part two

The broken JMT speed record is a remarkable achievement. Here is an interesting story by someone who made a valiant attempt to do the same thing a while back. It will give you a pretty good sense of what lies in store for you if you attempt to break the existing record.

Incidentally, when I hiked the JMT, I had to dig very deep just to throw down nine miles a day!! It's incredibly beautiful but quite rugged, snowbound and sometimes icy -- and as you well know, resupplying is rather challenging too.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

John Muir Trail record smashed!!!

This just in. Apparently, Brett Maune has smashed the speed record on the John Muir Trail.

According to the forwarded message I received this morning, "He ran UNSUPPORTED from Whitney Portal to Yosemite in 3 days 14 hours and 13 minutes, taking 5:47 off the old *supported* record and over 19 hours off the unsupported record!!! Wow."

Click here for details, and thanks again to Mike for keeping us all posted.

Stay tuned for even more details when I can get them.
(Rest assured that I am not a speedy backpacker but I'm impressed by people who can pull this off.)

Father lets toddler cavort in filthy birdbath

You're not going to believe this. Today I was hanging out around Golden Gate Park when I saw a dad let his son splash and play in the unspeakably filthy pond close to the tunnel near the main eastern entrance.

I'm talking about that reflecting pond near the Roach Motel, the tunnel with the faux-stalagmites leading toward Hippie Hill. Anyhow, the kid was up to his belly in the slick green water, a special favorite of local waterfowl.

A man rode past on the bike and tried to get the dad to remove the kid from the water. In the father's defense, the bike rider's approach left something to be desired. He wasn't exactly diplomatic. In fact, he kept pedaling away from the father and son while yelling, "HEY YOU!!! YOU SHOULDN'T LET THAT KID NEAR THAT DIRTY WATER YA BOZO!"

Not surprisingly, the dad didn't do anything in response.

I was going to intervene but the dad finally lifted the tot out of the water and placed him back on dry land. Sheesh! Some people.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Spike Jonze profile by Saki Knafo

Congratulations to Saki Knafo for his fascinating portrait of Mr. Spike Jonze. In case you missed it, it was on the cover of yesterday's New York Times Magazine.

In other news, the fiend who stole the Ashbury sign is still at large. Now, the famous intersection just says Haight and nothing. I will do my best to apprehend the thief single-handedly and bring him to justice. I'm presuming it's a him.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Cactus Eaters makes top 10 bestseller list, outsells Obama (details below)

Finally. At long last, the Cactus Eaters cracked the top 10 bestseller list.

Yes, it's true. More than a year after the tome was released to bookstores, it has reached the top of the heap.

For the past 13 months, it has outsold a popular book by Barack Obama and has even overtaken Olive Kitteridge.

At some point in this blog entry, I should probably point out that this bestseller list applies to one book store, called Cover to Cover, in Noe Valley, San Francisco.

But still, it's pretty cool. On a serious note -- if you're a first time author, it's always interesting to see the way books perform in various stores -- even within the same city. A lot of it depends on the bookseller's attitude toward the book and the way it's displayed (or whether there is a shelf talker.) In the case of Cover to Cover, the book store has been extremely supportive.

Fiends! ! Haightful vandal steals Ashbury sign

Someone apparently shimmied up the famous Haight-Ashbury marker (where a single signpost holds the Haight and Ashbury street signs) and stole the Ashbury sign. Maybe this was a gesture to drive off tourists -- but an exceptionally large gaggle of tourists gathered around the intersection today because the stolen sign made it an even bigger novelty. Anyhow, I hope you will all keep a look-out for that wayward Ashbury sign, which is probably being nailed to the ceiling of the bathroom of a smoke-filled biker bar even as I type this.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Massive free concert in the park: start camping out now. (Neko Case, Lyle Lovett, Doc Watson, Robert Earl Keen, John Prine, Nick Lowe and more.)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass -- which takes place in Golden Gate Park this year on October 2, 3, and 4 -- is like some strange vision of the afterlife. It's heavenly in the sense that the music is always fantastic, the crowd is mostly very spirited, and it's absolutely free. And it's slightly hellacious because so many of those bands end up playing at the same time so you have to make some hard decisions. Also, because it's free, some people in the audience don't feel quite as invested in the music, and so they end up yapping into their cellphones or talking throughout the entire thing. This can be annoying. Last year I couldn't pay attention during the Gillian Welch set because these drunken dudes in front of me spent the entire time talking loudly about how hard it was to find each other in the crowd. Like, who cares?

Anyhow, this year's lineup is pretty amazing: among many others, there will be Tom Morello, Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, Galactic, John Prine, World Party, Jorma Kaukonen, Buddy Miller, Robert Earl Keen, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Boz Scaggs, Nick Lowe, Steve Earle & the Bluegrass Dukes, The Flatlanders featuring: Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Butch Hancock, Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Richie Havens, The Tim O'Brien Band, Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, Guy Clark & Verlon Thompson, Reckless Kelly, Old 97's, Austin Lounge Lizards, Billy Joe Shaver, Gillian Welch, Booker T. & the Drive-By Truckers, The Del McCoury Band, Earl Scruggs, Aimee Mann, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Mike Farris & the Roseland Rhythm Revue, Amadou & Mariam, Allison Moorer, Doc Watson & David Holt, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Allen Toussaint, Elizabeth Cook, Neko Case, Rodney Crowell, Billy Bragg, The Knitters, Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3. See you there-- and please don't yap during the performance or talk loudly or spill any warm beer on me. That would be hugely appreciated.

One more thing: if you haven't booked a hotel room, you'd better do that soon. (sorry, but you can't stay with me. I barely have enough room as it is.)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

"Girls in Trucks,'' Wolf Larsen and much, much more: The Barbershop reading series marches on

Congratulations to Michael McAllister for the continuing success of his "Barbershop Reading Series'' -- button-pushing literary events held right in the middle of an actual barbershop.
This Saturday at 8 p.m
A literary "barbershop quartet'' will kick things off this Saturday at 8 p.m. at Joe's Barbershop on 2150 Market Street (between Church and Sanchez) out here in San Francisco.

This month's barbershop quartet includes:

KATIE CROUCH, whose debut novel, GIRLS IN TRUCKS, about Southern debs gone bad, was a New York Times Bestseller.

KEMBLE SCOTT, author of the bestselling novel SOMA, whose new novel, THE SOWER is a twisted thriller about a San Francisco bad boy who becomes the sole carrier of a manmade virus that appears to be the cure for all diseases.

WOLF LARSEN, singer-songwriter, wowed everyone at our opening event this past June with her beautiful voice.


The organizers suggest arriving a little early, especially if you want to kick back in one of the barber chairs.Suggested donation: $5. That donation helps to cover expenses and buys you Kettle Salt and Pepper potato chips, baked goods, cold beer, and a Diet Coke or two.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Yoko and more

Drat! -- I accidentally erased this. Anyhow, I am trying to set up an online clip file of old stories, essays, etc. For starters, here is a Sentinel story revolving around an interview with Yoko Ono. As I mentioned before, the person who set up the interview warned me not to ask her if she broke up the Beatles (the truth is more complicated, actually; see this month's Rolling Stone cover story.)