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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Rocky Mountain High: Encounters with the Continental Divide Trail and its Denizens

Setting off for another day on the CDT

Kids certainly complicate—and enliven—your life. Last week Tammy and I found ourselves on the overnight California Zephyr train from Sacramento to Denver. Considered America’s most beautiful train ride, our journey crossed the Sierra Nevada the first day, and the Rockies the second, following the Colorado River 238 miles through gorgeous canyons in Utah and Colorado (Ruby, Gore, Glenwood). After a night in Denver near Union Station, we set out early over the continental divide in our rental car to Steamboat Springs, where we were to meet our daughter Ashlyn near the midpoint of her 3,100-mile backpacking trek along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) from Mexico to Canada.

She had begun two months earlier at the border in southern New Mexico, hiking with a buddy she’d made two years earlier on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). In the CDT’s first week they found themselves fording the Gila River 200 times one day and nearly as many the next, bulldozing through willow-dominated streamside vegetation that left whipmark gashes on their legs. Several weeks later they hiked through Georgia O’Keeffee’s Ghost Ranch, Read More 

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A Tale of Water--or the lack thereof

Arizona Springs Beach on the Colorado River

We sloshed through the narrow canyon’s trickle of water, sheer walls rising 40 feet above us on either side. These slot canyons off the Colorado River meander endlessly, but our attention was on the water wetting our Crocs: was it getting warmer? Another curving 25 yards: yes. Distinctly warmer now. Our kayaks and gear were some quarter mile behind us, tied up to bushes along the river’s bank. Another turn, and a solid wall 20 feet tall loomed before us, with a narrow ribbon of—hot!—water snaking down its right side. On the left side: a rickety metal ladder slapped against the wall. I looked at Al: would we trust it? Pondering this, we heard noises from above, beyond the wall. I stepped gingerly onto the first rung, my mind made up. There was clearly a party going on up there!

Getting here had been a tale of almost as many twists and turns as this canyon. Back in January, Al asked if I wanted to join him in a “Geology of the Mojave Desert” course, to be held at a field station smack in the middle of that southern California desert. In February, yet (it’s a high desert, quite cold in the winter).

Desert rocks don’t fascinate me as they do Al, but I’d come along for the ride. A jaunt in Al’s new Yaris (mileage equal to a hybrid) 400 miles south to L.A., then another couple of hundred miles due east to the Mojave. While Al was rock-sleuthing, I’d camp and explore nearby Afton Canyon, Read More 

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The Laggard, Part 3: to San Francisco--and back!--on sunbeams

A view from Crissy Field

Plotting our first trip out of town in our Chevy Bolt EV (electric vehicle)—and back—was approached like a military campaign. The route to oldest daughter Heather (and our precious grandkids) was as always: over to Hwy 5, south to below Williams, Hwy 505 southeast to Vacaville, then Hwy 80 into San Francisco over the Bay Bridge. A distance of 175 miles or so.

We had charged up the Bolt on the sunny afternoon before we left: somewhere between 200 and 238 miles of sunbeams hummed in the battery, depending on a variety of factors: our speed (faster gave us fewer miles), our smoothness (pronounced acceleration and deceleration ate up miles also), and how much juice we devoted to heating (seat warmers were negligible; making the interior cabin toasty decreased our miles). On the other hand, using the “regenerative braking” paddle on the steering column diverted energy of braking back to the battery. Cool.

While we were happy with the deal we got from the dealer (end of the year, 2018s due in soon), they had prepared us not at all for the task of recharging the vehicle on a trip; not a word of advice or a hint of how to proceed. We googled charging stations,  Read More 

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What Would John Muir Do?

A look at Muir's adventures and worldview

“Every excursion that I have made in all my rambling life has been fruitful and delightful, from the smallest indefinite saunter an hour or two in length to the noblest summer’s flight…All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go.” –Muir journal entry June 1890
“One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books.” –Journal entry late 1872

Recently a couple of outdoor-loving buddies have told me about opportunities they have to contribute to the education of kids about the natural world. My friend George is a child psychologist in Boston, who’s meeting with New England Aquarium folks to chat about how he might contribute to their excellent already-established youth programs. My friend Richard is the caretaker of a swatch of shortgrass prairie in Oklahoma, with a lodge nearing completion on site. What might they contribute, and how? Did I have any ideas for them?

My guiding principle in these questions has recently become to ask myself: “What would John Muir do?” This determination is a result of several decades of outdoor adventuring in conjunction with a close reading of Muir’s reflections on his own (much more impressive) “saunters”. Never have I encountered a person with a clearer vision of reality and a better understanding of what it means to be fully human than John Muir.

Muir was clear on two things, particularly. First, we are children of the universe, particularly our own planet earth, and to know ourselves we have to know our foundations. This means getting out of cities and away from smartphone screens on regular and frequent sojourns in the natural world that is our home. “Every excursion that I have made in all my rambling life has been fruitful and delightful, from the smallest indefinite saunter an hour or two in length to the noblest summer’s flight…All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go.”

Second: we get to know our foundation not through reading books about it, but by experiencing the natural world, what he called “the wild world.”  Read More 

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The Laggard, Part 2: Driving on Sunbeams

Powered by sunbeams

November’s first Tuesday was mainly sunny in Northern California. The heart of our solar system showered an abundance of free energy on my roof, which was promptly captured and converted to electricity by the solar panels we put there this spring (see May 9 blog, The Laggard, Part 1). That electrified sunshine passed to my garage and via a charging port straight into our newly-purchased Chevy Bolt EV (Electric vehicle). By late afternoon, we had 238 miles of juice in the car. We’ve been driving on sunbeams for three weeks now.

And the surprising thing is how extremely enjoyable the Bolt is to drive. I never dreamed saving human civilization on the planet would be so fun. It’s been a kick, for several reasons. First: no gas stations. No standing around like sheep while we all pump explosive material (!?!) into our cars. Did I really do that?

Second: EV’s are silent and clean. No more clatter and sputtering as an engine warms up and struggles to move the vehicle. No more engine! No more oil to keep track of and maybe drip under the car. We depress the pedal, and the EV pulls away effortlessly, eagerly, smooth as silk.

Third: Remember those scenes in Star Wars when Hans Solo jumps the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace, leaving the stodgy craft of the Empire far behind? Our Bolt EV can’t do Solo’s “.5 past light speed,” but it does go from zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. Seriously.  Read More 

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Kayaking through history: the Potomac River and Manchac Swamp

The Manchac Swamp west of New Orleans

Though my train trip from California to the east coast and back was full of pleasures (old high school and college friends; the vast American landscape; new acquaintances on the train; a roomful of Monets at Chicago’s Art Institute; a Nats-Giants game in WDC; a plethora of Georgia O’Keeffes at the National Gallery, plus several of Alfred Stieglitz’s (in)famous photos of her), I must admit that among the highlights were my two kayak trips, the first on the Potomac into Chesapeake Bay, the second into the Manchac Swamp west of New Orleans.

I had followed the Potomac River out my train window for several hours and well over a hundred miles upon awakening on the overnighter from Chicago and drawing closer to the nation’s capital. It is a placid river in its youth, flowing amongst densely wooded banks in West Virginia. At Harper’s Ferry the equally scenic Shenandoah joins it, flowing up from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on the west side of the Blue Ridge mountains. On a river packed with history, its Harper’s Ferry phase stands out.

Thomas Jefferson sat on a rock outside of town overlooking the Potomac here in October of 1783 on his way to Philadelphia with daughter Patsy. You can sit on “Jefferson’s Rock” these days and it’s still a fine view, tho hardly “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” as Jefferson described it.

Several years later George Washington passed through,  Read More 

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Heading Home: the South and Southwest by Rail

Petrochemical corridor, Louisiana ("Cancer Alley")

After a marvelous college-roommate reunion, I boarded Amtrak's Crescent route in Greenville, South Carolina (home of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which I bicycled along the Reedy River) and headed for New Orleans in a long day of riding the rails. The Crescent here traverses the cradle of two distinctly American phenomena: folk music of gospel, jazz, blues, country; and the Civil Rights Movement, both amply represented in the small and large towns I passed through this day.

Which set me to wondering about the connection between art and tragedy. In town after town, the legacy of slavery and poverty seemed intertwined with epochal musicians. Coincidence? Or the bitter yet beautiful fruits of struggle?

In several stops we were at the curiously nondescript depot of Atlanta, Georgia, hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., who would challenge the entire nation in his speeches and marches. The nearby village of Villa Rica was the birthplace of Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, whose Take my Hand, Precious Lord was sung at the funerals of both MLK and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Soon we entered Alabama, the first stop of Anniston being the site where a bus packed with black and white Freedom Riders was firebombed in the summer of 1961. Then came Birmingham,  Read More 

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Across a Continent--by Rail

Country Lane, Iowa

What a quandary presented itself early this summer. I love my biennial reunion of college roommates; we graduated from Yale 50 years ago. But I hate getting from California back to the East Coast, site of our get-togethers. All can agree that airplane travel since 9/11 is no fun: long lines, removing a ridiculous list of clothing articles, more long lines, cramped seats in flying boxes of metal 40,000 feet above the ground (which has never seemed an entirely good idea to me), during which time you face yet more lines if you require a restroom.

And that’s when everything works out. On my return flight two years ago from the reunion, a storm grounded flights out of my Dallas connection, leaving me and several thousand frustrated travelers scrambling to nab overnight hotel rooms and alternate flights the next day (all on our own efforts and own dime, of course, since storms are an “Act of God”). Yikes.

This summer I found a solution to my quandary. A mode of travel that eliminates security clearances and lines anywhere in the process, gives you nothing but spacious and comfortable quarters, and permits you unexcelled viewing of the entire vast, diverse country we are privileged to call home. All at little or no expense above airlines, and but a modest additional investment in time. I took a train. Read More 

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Kayaking After John Muir's Ghost

On the Sacramento River, Fall

Three recent kayaking trips have echoed an incredible water feat of John Muir 140 years ago, and I found myself wondering if I might catch a glimpse of the old fellow’s ghost. Muir is typically remembered for his mountaineering feats in the Sierra Nevada, reflected in his most enduring quotes (“One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books,” and “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”). Yet he was as devoted to water as rocks, and had as many adventures on water (and ice) as on dry land.

The fall of 1877 is a good example. After leading botanists Asa Gray of Harvard and Joseph Hooker of Great Britain (Charles Darwin’s closest friend) on a botanizing expedition to Mt. Shasta, Muir stayed at prominent northern California rancher John Bidwell’s mansion in Chico. Ever restless, Muir wondered if Bidwell’s carpenter might fashion a craft to carry him down the nearby Sacramento River (California’s largest, both in volume and length).

Thus began a week’s solo journey on the great river, covering the 195 miles to the growing city of Sacramento, below which it flows into the Delta formed by its confluence with the San Joaquin River flowing north from central California. The winter rains had not yet begun in earnest, so the river was dotted by numerous snags, the remains of large trees that had toppled into the river from the crumbling banks. These obstacles were (and are) insidious, pulling your craft toward them and the ever-present danger of capsizing. Muir navigated the dangers and christened his little craft “Snagjumper.”

When my buddy Al and I pushed into the Sacramento west of Chico this past fall, the winter rains had already begun,  Read More 

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The Laggard, Part 1: A Difficult First Step

Connecting with the oldest energy source

Laggard: one who moves or responds slowly, sluggishly, hence falling behind an acceptable pace

That would be me. Inexcusably slow responding to the gravest threat confronting humanity in its 200,000 years on the earth. Sluggish in both practice and understanding regarding the effects of fossil fuel combustion on the planet.

Let’s take the practice part, first. A biology faculty colleague had installed an early version of solar panels atop his roof two decades ago. Good idea, I thought. Should do it. Didn’t. A decade ago a family in our Cohousing community fronted a loan to purchase solar panels for the community. Great idea! I didn’t pitch in to make it easier or more extensive.

All around our part of town, solar panels sprouted on rooftops, nearly one a block. Good idea. Somehow never got around to it.

Recently I took to visiting my old high school friend Gary, who lives not far south of me in California’s Silicon Valley. He was kind enough to produce the cover for a book I was writing about John Muir. One visit, he proudly displayed solar panels atop his garage, and patiently explained that paying off the loan to purchase the panels cost less than his monthly savings on his electricity bill. And in time the payments would cease. Duh?! Not too long thereafter I reunited with another high school friend, who powered his home with solar panels and drove a hybrid gas/electric Chevy.

So last month, I finally  Read More 

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