Wednesday, May 07, 2014

California Desert Tour - The trip of a lifetime in four days

Ever since I got back from my April road trip, I've had writer's block of sorts. Not full-on, "I can't write" writer's block. Just laziness and ill-focus writer's block. Which is probably more lethal because it can drag on and on and turn into something called "life." At least with the I-can't-write variety, you know you can't do it. Like you lost the ability somehow, so you get to move on and take up something more realistically challenging, like knitting, rock climbing.

It doesn't help that I have no set deadlines and no publishing plan (yet), so I'm writing for the sake of writing. That is, to get good at it. I've always written, since I was three years old (I still have the short story about a guinea pig who wants a tail, to prove it), but my fictional output has been, we shall say, sporadic. And I want to write fiction. Don't know why. Why does anyone knit or rock climb? 

Because some people have stories to tell. It's just a genetic/brain thing. Like people who paint still-life portraits of pottery and fruit. They just have it in them. I have stories in me, but shaping them so that other people enjoy the output—that is the challenge. It's not as hard as ballet, and definitely easier than learning to play the guitar (but not learning it well). It's somewhere in the realm of being proficient in golf—nearly impossible but perhaps within reach.

Anyway, this road trip, which has simultaneously cleared my head and left me floundering to get back in my daily occasionally productive writing routine. Keith says I made it happen, but all I said was, "Remember that time we briefly drove through Death Valley on our way to Las Vegas? I've always wanted to go back there." Within a day, he had checked out every travel book on the area in two libraries, looked up hotels, restaurants and routes on the Internet, and brought out the suitcases in time to pack for a late Spring Break--last week in April. Pretty much your last hope of walking around Death Valley without suffering severe heat stroke, until cooler weather in the fall. And we were on our way.

We thought Highway 101 was preferable to I-5 (it is, always), and we first stayed on the coast in the most adorable beach town in California (I think—I'm not a big beach-town person in general), Carpenteria. Its main street is lined with historic (there's a plaque) palm trees, planted in the 1930s. The buildings are California old, like from the Depression era and beyond. And it's quiet and friendly there. There's no big-box stores or much in the way of a mini-mall. In short, developers have been kicked to the curb in Carpenteria, unlike 90% of most small-sized California towns and cities, where retail development pretty much runs the show. The state beach is free, and you can camp in the park next to it. It's so cute, I wanted to move there and sip coffee in one of several beachy cafes immediately.

Low tide

We missed Coachella by a few days (thank God). Not that I want to snot all over a big, successful music festival that helps a desert region economically survive. But I'm too old for such things. Even in my teenage years when Bill Gram Presents hosted Day on the Green (featuring a dozen bands in a ball field full of drunken, stoned fellow youth), I shuddered at the vast humanity and poor sound quality these events promised. But I will say this, the guys from British Columbia who stayed at our hotel and decorated their vehicle for Coachella did a great job. And I commend them. And this is as close as to Coachella Fest as I want to get, and it's highly entertaining.


Keith wanted me to take a photo of the four of them as they drank a last brew before heading home, but I didn't need to, because these self-portraits on their car, captures them perfectly.


I'm not a big fan of snails, but I guess when you travel from the far north to the desert, perhaps you miss your mollusk friends from the damp environs.

The land snail as muse
Good vibes from this crew. Hope they enjoyed the music and hand a good outing.



Los Angeles! We visited the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Keith and Jackson had never seen them. I practically lived up the street from them when I was five, so they're like a second back yard to me (in my mind). What's changed is the hoity-toityness and science-y nature of the Museum now. You can even watch researchers pick through fossil finds with toothpicks and brushes in their fishbowl-like enclosure.

Really different from my last visit a couple decades ago when the one human skeleton found in the pits was 3D-diorama-altered to resemble a young Native American woman whose closest modern relative, as depicted, would be Cher. I guess someone along the line realized that was not very respectful. That display was changed to a saber-toothed tiger alteration. So that's good. The human skeleton is represented by an imagining of its owner on a mural, and she looks more like a person, less a celebrity.

There's remnants of cheese though, if you look hard enough, and I always do. More on that here. 

Oh dear

LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) has also changed, morphing into multiple modern buildings lining a huge city block. We only spent the afternoon in L.A. so I'll have to go back and visit a few collections (I'm sure it would take a few weeks to see it extensively). But outside there's fun stuff to see for free. Like this plastic-tube sculpture, Penetrabile, by Jesús Rafael Soto.

 Walk through it.


Give it a hug.


It's a big hit with toddlers and other curious people.


Or you can walk beneath the boulder in Michael Heizer's $10-million assemblage, Levitated Mass. I did, and I feel great. I just have writer's block. Otherwise, can't complain. Ten million, well spent.


Heizer conceived of this installation in the 1960s and finally got enough funding for it recently, so hat's off to him for hanging in there with his vision. It's a good piece, referencing the urban and natural and man-made aspects of our modern existence. That big rock. Sometimes walking under a suspended rock is the thing to do.



Onward! I didn't get many photos from Palm Springs. We were only there for the night and for breakfast the next day, but what a cool, fantastically retro place it is. I want to go back and savor the mid-century architecture and try some hiking in the imposing mountains next door. And by next door, I mean, the mountains rise up immediately next to the city. Your first inkling that plate tectonics are in control here, not us.

The affordable Caliente Tropics Resort features this pool, table-tennis, a lawn, and several large and delightful tiki statues.

Jackson having breakfast in the "Nixon Booth" at Elmer's. Elmer's Diner is an Oregon institution that for mysterious reasons has its only (beloved) California franchise in Palm Springs. The kid's menu coloring book still features plenty of Cascade-mountains trivia, so we got to relive that brief Northwestern settlement moment in our lives over a delicious and affordable breakfast.

I was so pleased we got the Nixon booth - perverse, I know - I just wanted the full Palm Springs experience

Then we made the mistake (a minor one) of driving through desert towns rather than the freeway, on our way to the Salton Sea. Palm Desert, Indio, etc.—here is where the developers have settled like an invasive species, taking over land that no one should ever populate in abundance. Palm Desert has all the excesses of Las Vegas with none of the charm, if you can imagine such a thing. Thirsty lawns alongside the bulky main thoroughfare. Palm trees on every inch of land not taken up by a shopping mall or gated big-box housing development. There's such a thing. I've seen it. Then you hit the regions not swimming in retirement dollars and that's a dusty situation full of closed gas stations and sad storefronts. And Coachella!

But I forgot to mention the Date farms. Date palms for miles for the harvesting of delicious dates. Stop by Shields Date Garden and order yourself a delicious date shake. Don't ask why. JUST DO IT! You'll be glad. And the owner might give you free admission to the Biblical Garden out back. Jesus would get a date shake, trust me.

The Salton Sea:



This saline-filled sea in the middle of the state is the largest lake in California, sits below sea level and was accidentally formed in 1906 during Colorado River flooding. More than 400 bird species can be seen here and I like that. I saw herons, egrets, some kind of plover, and pelicans, as well as songbirds who could mix it up as well as any mocking bird, yet they weren't mocking birds. Like mocking birds, they could sound like car alarms too. Car alarms have become an annoyance in both the natural and unnatural worlds.

Please don't hate me because I made a Salton Sea bird collage

From there, we drove by more date farms, through a surprisingly picturesque canyon, and into Joshua Tree National Park from the south. Note, there's not much to look at during the initial 45-minute drive through the park. But once you hit the northern regions, that's when stuff starts to look peculiar. Like an area where a particular cactus grows, so it resembles a garden, because that cactus doesn't appear to exist anywhere else in the park.

Cholla Cactus Garden - do not touch the cacti - they hurt

Further north, boulders and slabs are stacked upon each other in toys-of-the-gods way.








And of course, Joshua Trees.



And when you exit the park feeling hungry, the town of Joshua Tree features the Crossroads Cafe, where you will find yummy hippie-diner fare and brew. Plus the Joshua Tree Inn where Graham Parsons succumbed.

Donovan reminisces about the importance and other-worldliness of Joshua Tree to classic American rock music. Cosmic meals, celestial wheels...




I don't want to give Death Valley short shrift. But this post is getting long, and anything I can say about Death Valley will be overshadowed by the experience of being there, and maybe by photos, if the photographer can hold steady enough to do a good job. And perhaps this is the source of my writer's block. No matter what I write, or edit or think up, these areas remain awe-inspiring and inexplicable, even from a geologist's point of view. I can't top that with my puny imagination. There are boulders in Death Valley that slide across the desert floor, leaving trails, and no one knows why or how. No one's ever seen them do it. It doesn't have to be spiritual to whack the soul into a stupor. The natural world and attempts to explain it will give me pause every time. (Update, 8-28-14: scientists have now solved the mystery of the sailing rocks of Death Valley; hooray for science!)

So why write? Eh, why not.

Death Valley. If you go (and you should), be sure to bring along a copy of California Deserts Camping & Hiking: Including Death Valley, Mojave, Joshua Tree and Anza-Borregoby Tom Stienstra and Anne Marie Brown. This simple guide got us out of our car and hiking around the most incredible places we've ever seen in Joshua Tree and Death Valley. It tells you how long each walk is, the terrain, the difficulty, the sights you'll gawk at, and overall: the death knell of the unprepared hiker who doesn't bring enough water. Luckily we arrived the morning after a much-needed rainstorm, so our day was beautifully temperate. But we still brought gallons of water. Geologically speaking, Death Valley is the ultimate freak-show with micro-climates and micro-geological regions every other mile or so. Respect it.

Heading from the south of the park to west on 190, here's what we saw:

Natural Bridge. Stand beneath a big rock at no cost (with park admission). See what eons of rushing water and erosion are capable of.



Badwater Basin, a former lake and salt flat, 282 feet below sea level. Walk out a mile on a road of salt. There's a snail that lives in the sporadic rainfall puddles here that lives no place else on earth. That's a special snail.




The Devil's Golf Course - salt has crystalized into odd formations. If you fall on it and cut yourself—automatic salt in your wound.




Time to abandon the car for some below-sea-level golf. Furnace Creek Resort has a fine course in the middle of Death Valley—the lowest in the world.




And now for a hike in a slot canyon made of marble and dozens of other types of geological matter, including embedded rock that resembles a concrete collage.





So, you've had enough of rocks. Check out one of two sand-dune regions in the park. Mesquite Flat Dunes are around 120 feet high and shift with the winds. The others, to the north are 700 feet high. We'll visit those next time.




On the way home, stay in charming, old-timey Bishop (it's officially fishing season!), and be sure to stop by eerie, fascinating Mono Lake.




2 comments:

linda mcelroy said...

Thanks Lisa! For being my travel agent and making me want to go to Death Valley. Good thing you are suffering from writer's block though, or it would have taken me much longer to read your lovely post!

Dee See said...

I don't know how you do it, but your writer's block is inspirational. And insightful. And hilarious. Special desert snails. Who knew?!