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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Enchantment Under the Sun

I stumbled into my first trip to the desert. I was in southern California on business, and decided to stay an extra couple of days. After work was done, I took the four-hour drive east on I-10, through the San Fernando Valley and San Bernardino (traffic was surprisingly light), and past hundreds of hypnotizing wind turbines, each of which seemingly beckons you to drive off the shoulder and take a nap (hopefully in that order).

I had not planned to visit the park, it was almost a spot decision. I managed to throw my hiking shoes and day pack into my luggage, so I wasn’t totally unprepared, but I did not do any meticulous planning nor any research into sites to see. Fortunately, it didn’t matter: Joshua Tree is a beautiful park, a perfect way to start touring desert terrains, and is basically an open book. There are no “secret spots”, they’re all out there, easy to find. I fell in love with it almost immediately, touring the Cholla Cactus Garden, driving up to the Keys View vista, and making the trek out to the Lost Palms Oasis. Joshua Tree NP a beautiful place to visit: if you find yourself in Southern California, it’s definitely worth a day trip, even if all you do is a drive through.

At least, I’m hoping it’s still worth a day trip. I was heartbroken to hear the park suffered extensive damage by dirtbag vandals during the 2019 government shutdown. Then there’s the possibility that Joshua trees are going to be extinct before too long. Like everything else that’s beautiful in this country, it’s in danger because we can’t act like responsible adults.

Iconic Place, Iconic Art

The Joshua trees themselves are surreal. There are some stellar photographs of the park out there on the web, it’s remarkably photogenic. Sunsets in particular are fantastic, probably because of Southern California air pollution. I didn’t have a camera when I toured there, but I did buy the photograph shown above from the visitor’s center. I couldn’t find the artist on-line anywhere to give proper credit, and it’s so similar to stock images, I may have been duped. It doesn’t matter: it’s a great photo and I love having it on my wall.

I’m not the only one who found the place to be so fascinating. The most obvious example of art inspired by the park is the 1987 album by U2. Interviews with the band confirm that the harshness, blankness, and mystery of the desert provided inspiration for songs on that album, one that would propel them into megastardom. It’s a great album from a great band with a great motif.

The Joshua Tree wasn’t the only work inspired by the park. The cover of the Eagles debut album contains a photo of Joshua Tree. The delightfully twisted film Seven Psychopaths was partly filmed there. John Lennon recorded The Joshua Tree Tapes nearby. Jim Morrison apparently did acid trips with friends either in J.P. or in the nearby Mojave Desert. That story may be apocryphal, but if you want to read a sadly bizarre true story, read about the funeral of Graham Parsons. Plus hey, you can get some cornball wedding photographs taken there!

It’s so obvious, upon visiting, why deserts are so enchanting and inspiring. The desolation, the parched landscape, and the unbroken vistas makes one think about the vastness of it all. The presence of life, even in such harsh settings, reminds you that damned near anything is possible. Or it may be the heat making you a tad loopy. Either way, it’s a great place to sit and think and get inspired (just bring enough water and remember where you parked).

Bottom line: 5 stars out of 5. Plan to see it if you’re ever in southern California. Like nearly everything else, see it before it’s gone.

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I meant to post this immediately after my Denali posts, but forgot. Life kinda gets in the way of blogging, ya know? Anyway, Grizzly Man is a film, by noted director Werner Herzog, about Timothy Treadwell, a surfer-turned-actor-turned-grizzly activist who decided to spend several summers living amongst bears in Alaska, to “bring awareness to their plight”.

Grizzly Man

This recommendation dovetails not only into Denali, but also into my Chiricahua post. That post was about man’s stupidity (specifically my own stupidity) in the face of nature. That post and this film tell a valuable story: nature is not to be trifled with. It doesn’t care who you are, or what you do, or how “in tune” you think you are with it: when nature needs you to be food, you will become food, regardless of how high-minded you think you are or how many trees you hug.

So here’s the spoiler: Treadwell eventually gets eaten. Well, it’s not that big of a spoiler really, it’s pretty much said right up front this story is a tragedy. What makes this film so compelling is you see what’s coming, the ending is so patently obvious, yet Treadwell plods right along to that ending, making bad decision after bad decision, all leading up to a certain, gruesome fate. I won’t spoil it any more, it does have to be seen to be believed.

Some watch Grizzly Man and feel sadness for a poor, kindhearted soul who only wanted to do the best for the poor bears and paid the ultimate price. I see this as the story of an egotistical idiot who, like Steve Irwin, though nature was his playground, mealticket, and the means to inflate his own arrogant self-worth. In his case, like Irwin’s, nature turned its mighty claw and gave him a swipe.

Just to remind him, and us, who’s boss, I suppose.

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Autumn in Denali

Autumn is the best time to visit Alaska and especially Denali. Of course, being far north, Alaskan autumn starts in the last week of August, so plan accordingly. But it’s a great time to see the Last Frontier.

Valley and Pond © 2009 America in Context

The first thing about Alaskan autumn is it does get chilly, so dress accordingly. And that’s awesome for tourists. See, I’m a firm believer that our National Park sites should be experienced. This means getting off your dead ass and getting into the park. Hike a trail, paddle a river, climb a mountain, dive into the ocean. Do something, anything, whatever is appropriate to the park, but also do it out there, in the wild.* And in the Alaska parks, where it’s winter 7 or 8 months out of the year, the least you can do is experience it in the colder weather. How can you possibly experience Alaska without layers of clothing and a bit of a chill? Summer travel is for wussies. You can get better deals at the end of the season anyway :-P.

* Note: when I say “go into the wild”, I don’t mean drop all your worldly possessions and live in the wilderness. All I’m saying is get away from the visitor center and out of your car and walk a trail. The wonder of these places can’t be seen from a roadside overlook. And safety first: travel in a group, carry the right equipment, don’t overextend your abilities, etc., etc., etc.

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Purple © 2009 America in ContextIf you haven’t been to Alaska’s interior before, let me give you a primer. In Denali, there aren’t as many pine forests as you might think. The nature of the tundra doesn’t lend itself to big trees. But there is fall color out there. There are great swaths of birch and other low trees & shrubs, which do turn gold and red. The real autumn glory rests right on the ground, a low carpet of moss, grasses and other tundra-loving plants native only to this particular latitude and altitude. This is where the beauty of the Alaskan autumn comes from: a cavalcade of color coating all the hills, vales, and even some of the glaciers, a carpet you can walk on and, if you’re wearing the proper waterproof gear, sit on for lunch. This is the foliage of interior Alaska: a kaleidoscopic carpet covering the scenery, and if you walk out in Denali, you’re towering above it all.

Speaking of scenery, well, I shouldn’t have to tell you Alaskan scenery is fantastic. It’s world famous, so unless you’re spending all your days playing Second Life, you should have heard about it. But there’s special coolness in the Alaskan scenery in autumn. Winter comes so quickly to Alaska, you can see the changing season in just a few days. When I arrived at Denali, the lower mountains were bare, but by the time I left, only three days later, these same mountaintops were frosted with snow. It was great, an evident change of seasons. The other thing in play was the sun, moon and stars. The long days of summer are over in late August, there’s more of a balance between day and night, which means, yes, you can see an aurora borealis and thousands of stars in a sky devoid of light pollution during the regular tourist season. True, auroras are rarer that time of the year, but it’s still possible. One occurred when I was there, it was a nice touch.

Pine and Brush © 2009 America in Context

But, by far, the coolest thing about autumn in Alaska is the wildlife. Again, the fauna of Alaska is world-famous, and fall brings it out in droves, and in great glory. I saw lots of bears out on foraging runs, doing last-minute feedings in preparation for long hibernation. I saw ptarmigans turning from summer brown to winter snow-white. I saw packs of wolves stalking caribou, not for hunting (yet), but on training runs with the younger members of the pack. I saw more moose than you can shake a stick at (which would be a bad idea, by the way). I saw one of the most beautiful animals in North America, a northern fox with a gorgeous winter coat. The neatest thing I experienced, though, was a close encounter with caribou.

I took a heli-hiking tour of the tundra region in Denali State Park (you can’t heli-hike in the national park). Basically, they take you up into the higher regions of the area via helicopter, drop you off with a guide and you trek down the mountain for a few miles and radio in for a pickup. It’s incredible! The wide-open spaces, far away from civilization, just you, your companions, and miles and miles of colorful, mountainous, utterly incredible scenery. Our guide was a strapping young guy who clearly loved his job (how can you not, I wonder?). He was pointing out all the various features and critters: the wild blueberries, the turning fireweed, the Dall’s sheep on the mountainside, the moose in the birch thicket, and, of course, the caribou. We caught sight of a big bull out in the distance. Binoculars in hand, I watched the beautiful beast. He was accompanied by a couple of females, one older and one younger, all nibbling their way across the fields.

Caribou on Tundra © 2009 America in Context

Suddenly, and without warning, our guide put his hands up in the air and started prancing about like a wide receiver after making that big touchdown catch. None of us could figure out what he was doing – then he started to explain. “See,” he told us, “once spring comes, the great herds of caribou break up and go out on their own. The females stick together in small groups, protecting their young from predators. The males go out on their own, wandering and feeding across great regions of the tundra and taiga over the entire summer. When autumn comes, however, the caribou slowly regroup. They have this big socialization process, basically they prance around like this, and then race each other and, if accepted, the small groups join up. So,” he continued, “are you ready to run with the caribou?”

My brain barely had time to register: “um, what?” The next thing I know, he yells out “run now!” and takes off across the hillside. We all run along as best we can, up and down hill and vale, and over to our right, running along in parallel, is that same big bull and his two friends! It was awesome! Here I was, a tenderfoot product of New England suburbia, running along with the caribou across the Alaskan tundra! It didn’t last long (I run like a bag of wet cement), but it was great. It was the most fun I’ve had on any of my park trips, and an experience I won’t forget until the end of my days.**

** Note: what I did would actually be illegal in the national parks. Don’t mess with the animals in the National Parks, even the herbivores. They are not only dangerous when provoked, but contact with humans can screw up their lifestyle. I was in a state park when I did this, which I suppose doesn’t make it any less unethical, but at least I didn’t break the law.

Buddies for Life, Eh?  © 2009 America in Context

I had an absolute ball at Denali. I recommend that everyone take a trip there once in their life. Make sure you take that heli-hiking trip!

[All pics on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly. Please don’t reuse without my permission. All of my other Denali pics are here. But go to Alaska and take yer own damn pictures, ya rascals!]

Spot of Blue © 2009 America in Context

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Links:

Denali National Park

Michigan’s Tech Aurora Page

Alaska Wildlife Conservation (includes tips on safe viewing)

Encyclopedia of Earth’s article on the Alaska tundra

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Who Cares National Park

Poor Cuyahoga: the Park of No Love. The great national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Acadia, all the others) have huge amounts of visitors and worldwide acclaim. They have spectacular geologies or magnificent trees or rare wildlife. Everyone knows their names, knows what they are about. But no one cares about a little strip of land on a forgotten river nestled between two Rust Belt cities, a little strip of land known as Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Brandywine FallsCuyahoga is a park that preserves a small valley cut in the Appalachian Plateau. The Cuyahoga itself is a meandering river, most notable for a series of canals used as transport in the late 18th to early 19th century (before railroads took over). It’s nice that preservationists lobbied to protect this patch of river. I believe that we should strive to protect all natural areas (not just those with spectacular flora, fauna, or geology) wherever possible.

The problem lies with putting this spot in the National Park System. If you listen to “park-o-philes”, like those on National Parks Traveler, Cuyahoga NP is the result of pork-barrel spending that most Americans heavily despise. I don’t know how to react to that. Usually pork projects only benefit those who win the contracts to build them. Sometimes these projects end up having no value to the community whatsoever, being proverbial white elephants until some future pork barrel project tears them down or repurposes them in an endless cycle of valueless taxpayer expenditures.

Everett Road Covered BridgeBut does government money spent on natural preservation count as “pork”? Many believe so. I don’t. See, I believe that natural preservation is the gift that keeps on giving. Natural lands help clean the air and water, and provide habitat for wildlife and plants. They also act as carbon sinks, something the world needs a lot more of right now. Parks also provide venues for recreation and a chance for urbanites and suburbanites to experience nature (something heavily needed in the manufacturing-laden cities of the Old Northwest Territories).

ButterflySome, especially those who want to profit off land development, think these “benefits” are a crock of tree-hugging bullshit. It’s just getting in the way of progress and economic development. But think about it: do we really need to carve up more of our fields & woodlands? Do we really need to divert more rivers or fill in more swamps in the name of “economic development”? Take a look around: everywhere you travel, you see abandoned properties, empty factories, vacant strip malls. Do we really need to pave over nature to build more crap, when we have thousands, if not millions, of already-paved land just sitting there, doing nothing? Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, redevelop these existing stains on the landscape for economic development? Do we really need to make new stains? That’s what I think is bullshit.

Yeah, turning Cuyahoga into a National Park probably wasn’t the best use of taxpayer money, but at least there’s a stretch of green in the middle of Rust Belt America. I think it’s needed.

Beaver Marsh

[I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Cuyahoga Valley. Pics are courtesy of the National Park Service. Actually, they have some pretty nice photos on their Cuyahoga website.]

[UPDATE: I visited Cuyahoga again since my original post. I now have some pics, located here.]

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Links:

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Benefits of Open Space Preservation: Land Trust Alliance

Citizens Against Government Waste 2008 Report (Dept. of Interior)

Google map to Cuyahoga Valley

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