Thursday, August 31, 2006

Travels Southwest

In which we find that not everything is better than it was before

This picture was posted on Flickr and linked to from the Southwest Airlines Blog. These fantastically futuristic '60s flight attendents must have ruled the skies. Stewardess costume is one of those things that has definitely not improved in the last 40 years.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Seth & Teddy

In which we meet a pair of great frontiersmen

The success of the exceptional HBO TV series, Deadwood, has revived interest in a great westerner, Seth Bullock, and in an oft-forgotten piece of Western history, the Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870s.

Theodore Roosevelt, aguably among America's greatest presidents (and my personal favorite), met Bullock in North Dakota in 1884 while serving as deputy sheriff in Medora. The two became lifelong friends. After Roosevelt was elected president, Bullock, according Roosevelt biographer, Edmund Morris, served as bodyguard to the president on his trips west.

I hope to travel to Deadwood, South Dakota, in the early spring of next year.

A Zoom, and a Zoom

In which we feel the need for speed...

Remember pushing pedal to the metal and "topping out" your dad's car when you were a teenager? How fast did you go? 100 miles per hour? 120, or maybe even a little faster? Do you remember the sensation -- the engine screaming, the noisy rush of air; the thrill mixed with fear as you finally got your reason back and eased off the pedal? Now take that feeling and times it by three. 350.092 miles per hour (563.418kph) is the new record for a wheel driven diesel vehicle on land, set at Bonnevile Salt Flats on August 22, 2006.

Good going, JCB Dieselmax team.

For more about the record, check out my other blog, PurEnergy.

For more about land speed record racing, check out an old article of mine on and my previous Travels West post, Fast as it Gets.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


In which we have one of those "only in the Valley" moments

I suppose there must be a shop, or at least a supplier, to fill every need. And if the need is relatively obscure, more-or-less wholesome, and terribly middle class, a resource for it will probably be found in the Valley.

I came across "Bingo! Home of Bingo Novelty World & the Bingo Bugle Newspaper" today while puttering around on my bike. The shop carries all things bingo, from chits and cards to t-shirts and tote-bags. Meanwhile the Bingo Bugle serves the die-hard bingo enthusiast market. It's amazing how much there is to saysay on the topic. Best Bingo Bugle headline: "Bingo player spots tattooed tater in chips." (The article was about a bingo player who discovered a potato chip with what appeared to be letters burned into it. Not as thrilling as a weeping Jesus, but still.)

And my bingo astrological forecast? The Bugle's oracle tells me:

Ever since you were young, you’d wondered about something concerning Mom. Mystery now solved—you understand her better. Be careful not to hook horns with a female in charge the 14th. She’ll think better of you if you speak when she solicits your opinion.

Thanks! Good to know, Bingo Bugle! That thing about my mom has been bugging me for years. Now my mind is at ease. And my boss who is female, does have horns. So good call. Oh, and I'll try those lucky days, the 2nd and the 11th.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Big Trash-unga Canyon

In which M2, once again, gets miffed.

Last weekend I spent considerable time in and around the Big Tujunga Canyon area, hiking around and dodging pit vipers. In the canyon itself are a number picnic area/campgrounds that border the creek that trickles through the canyon floor. These should be lovely riverside spots.

Instead, they’re garbage dumps.

The banks of the creek and all around are strewn with refuse—fast food packaging, plastic and aluminum beverage containers, bits of furniture, papers plates, candy wrappers, six-pack caddies, old socks and T-shirts, and most vile of all, dirty diapers.

I asked a forest ranger about the trash. He said flatly and with a wearied shrug, “Well, that’s just the way they do it in Mexico.”

Well, speak the truth and shame the devil.

The fact is, the canyon is a favorite spot, especially in the summertime, for migrant families, mostly from Mexico and other points south. It’s a cheap family outing and, when the creek is high, an easy way to beat the heat. It’s possible to see literally hundreds of these families lounging on the banks of the creek in the high summer. It seems they bring their whole lives with them: chairs and tables, boomboxes and grills, grandma and grandpa. Nothing wrong with that; it’s what National Forests are for, at least in part. The problem is they leave their trash—tons upon tons of it—behind.

Hold your horses. I know that Mexican migrants are not the only people who litter. But I have also been to Mexico and have seen the casual disregard with which average people there treat the land. I've seen how trash is heaped in piles just anywhere; have watched as people simply tossed bags of trash out of car windows. It’s a huge problem in Mexico, and one that Mexican immigrants are clearly bringing with them.

I am in favor of gradual amnesty for most so-called illegals. I believe most Mexican migrants are honest, family-oriented folks who, in many cases, make better patriots than native-born Americans. But the callousness with which I have seen these immigrants show for public land and property is utterly unacceptable. It is incumbent upon Latino community leaders to educate their constituents in the proper respect. Respect for public land is a thing that we insist on from every American, and we must insist on it from very would-be American as well.

Valley Oddities

In which we explore the strange, the peculiar & the slightly off-kilter

Hortense Castle
Who has not, at one time or another, wanted to live in a castle? As a people, Americans are unused to castles, which could explain their allure. Every miniature golf course has one, as do the numerous municipal “fairy tale town” parks. There are castles—or, rather, castle-esque houses—all up and down the California coast, from Pacifica to San Diego. There’s even one alongside Interstate-80 in Sacramento, with a canon on the front lawn, just in case.

The castle on Hortense St., however, stands out, unique in that it’s the only castle conversion of its scope that I have seen on a suburban lot. Not satisfied with the usual mission revival hacienda common to the ‘hood, the residents of this abode set out to create a space nobler still.

I have to admit, I love the turret. Perhaps Gandalf is inside mixing the elements for his magic fireworks. I am a little concerned about what goes on in the tower, though. With the TV aerial on top, I am afraid that the Dark Lord, Sauron, has become a couch potato.

Well, Hearst had a castle. Why can't Hortense have one?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Siren Song of My People (er... white people)

In which we get all post modern on your ass

Granted, this has nothing to do with the American West or Southern California, but I love it nevertheless. In short, it ranks among the funniest commercial music videos, ever. Thank you, Smirnoff Vodka, for hiring a savvy ad agency. And thanks, also, for bitch-slapping my liver numerous times with your cheap fire water. You bastards.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Fauna Report

In which we find, the hard way, SNAKES on a TRAIL!

Set off for what I had hoped would be a long, 8-plus-mile hike Sunday in Trail Canyon, just off Big Tujunga Canyon. It’s a lovely, wooded trail in the Northwestern corner of the San Gabriels with a brook running down from the mountains, a few private cabins, and a 30-foot waterfall.

It was an easy enough hike for the first two miles along the stream and then up a steepish slope that wound up the side of the canyon. Here I met a mother-and-son pair coming down. They’d seen what they thought was a bobcat and had turned back for fear of ending up Kitty lunch. I almost laughed. People, afraid of animals? Ha! What kind of food-chain inferiority complex is that? Why, a bobcat’s like a big house cat and will only try to harm you if you corner it or harass its kittens. I crept along the path, camera ready, hoping for a snap, but no dice. Mega-Fluffy had fled the coop.

I pressed on. The trail wound back down into the ravine—or, rather the ravine wound up to meet the trail—and I found myself scrambling over boulders along the creek bed, losing, then finding, then losing the trail again.

I’d gone maybe half a mile upstream when it happened. The trail became overgrown and deeply shaded, dark even; definitely not my favorite sort of place for a hike. That’s tick country, and I hate those little bastards. I was sort of weaving between the bushes, trying to avoid dense patches of poison oak when I heard the buzz. I thought it was a cicada. Then, as I stepped forward, I looked down to see where my foot would fall. And there it was, coiled in a figure eight—the biggest fucking rattlesnake I have ever seen in the wild. But it was too late: I’d already committed my weight forward. I planted my right big toe right on the thick of its back. I leapt off of it—shrieking like a little girl who’s just gotten a glass of ice water poured down her blouse—and it leapt after me. From now on, I will thank my fencing coach every day for putting me through those seemingly endless and painful drills back and forth across the gym floor. I turned and leapt simultaneously—a sort of reverse-balestra demi-volte—as the evil son-of-a-bitch sprung up at me, trying to bite me in the crotch.

It fell back to earth as I skittered backward through the brush and—what the hell was I thinking?—fumbled with my camera in hopes of getting a picture of it before it disappeared, or killed me.

When I was out of range it slithered beneath a bush, rattles a-blazing. I stood there for a bit, listening to the rattles and—what the fuck was I thinking?—wondering if there was a way I could coax the viper out of its hiding place so I could get a snapshot, or if there was a way around him, so I could continue my hike. After a few moments, though, I started to go weak in the knees and I decided to call it a day. I turned and trotted, carefully, back down the trail, got on my scoot, and headed for my local for a soothing and potent beverage.

Critter Count:
Rattlesnakes: 1 (XXL)

  • Watch where you’re stepping, moron,

  • Remember to bring your snake bite kit—the one you bought for hiking in rattlesnake country, remember?

  • Rattlesnakes sun themselves in the morning. When it gets hot, they head for shade, like the kind you were hiking through, jackass.

  • Rattlesnakes only rattle like babies on speed in the movies. It's a loud buzzing sound that they make, like "ZZZZZZZZZZ." Avoid it.

Trail Canyon Hike
34°25'22"N, 118°28'75"
Rating: ♠ ♠ 3/4

Being Attacked by a Rattlesnake & Living to Tell the Tale
Rating: Priceless

DISCLAIMER: The snake pictured above is not the pit viper mentioned in this article. It is another, smaller rattler, photographed in the Owens River Valley, and at a very safe distance.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Summiting Baden-Powell

In which M2 finally gets on top

Sunday last I made for the San Gabriels and the Pacific Crest Trail for a long morning hike in the high country. After looking at map at the Big Pines ranger station, I decided to try and summit Baden-Powell, the 9,399-foot peak named after Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell, the English gentleman adventurer and founder of the Boy Scouts.

I started at Vincent Gap, at 6,599 feet and wound around a series of steep switchbacks for what seemed like forever until I reached the false summit, where the landscape flattens out a bit. Not my favorite sort of hike, really. Think about doing Stairmaster. Now think about doing Stairmaster for three hours or more. Still, the trail was relatively shady and the mountain air crisp and unseasonably cool, perhaps as low as the low 60s, Fahrenheit. And the views of Baldy, several miles to the east, are often breathtaking.

Finally, I came to the narrow ridge that connects the road-facing part of the mountain to its true summit. Similar to the Devil’s Backbone area of Mt. Baldy (though mercifully shorter) the ridge is solid rock, with a steep slope on one side and a sheer drop on the other. I sped carefully across, not looking down, though in parts I felt the old, strange, vertiginous panic begin to rise. I controlled it, this time, however, and was soon at the top, huffing and puffing and looking over the Baden-Powell monument with its Boy Scout sayings and inspirational messages.

TIP: When feeling vertigo, it’s natural to want to lean away from the drop or precipice that’s giving you the heebie-jeebies. Don’t do it. Leaning away will only enhance the feeling that the ledge you are on is falling away from you. Resist the urge to lean and remain upright, focused on your goal.

There’s something very satisfying about summiting, like you’ve done your good deed for the day.

I hadn’t been entirely prepared, however. At the top I reached into my knapsack to discover that I had forgotten to pack my lunch. Oops. No Boy Scout, me. I only made it to Cub Scout, and then only because I liked the uniform.

Yodel-lay-hee… Oh, nevermind!
I all but ran back down the mountain, jumped in the car and sped back down to Wrightwood, where I stopped at The Yodeler for some grub. This is probably the sixth time I’ve been to The Yodeler, and at least the forth time I’ve head a less than stellar experience. And that’s a shame, because with its rustic, unpretentious interior, outdoor deck bar and simple, hearty pub grub, it’s just the sort of rough and ready mountain place I usually get a kick out of, year-round. But the service has been so inattentive, unprofessional and downright rude at times that I’m thinking of giving up on it. This last time it took 10 minutes just to be noticed and the bartender got my drink order wrong twice because the was too busy chatting with a friend to spare any attention to the tasks as hand. Not really the way I wanted to wind down an otherwise glorious day. You can do better, Yodeler.

Critter Count
Raptors: 1

Vincent Gap to Mt. Baden-Powell Summit Hike
34°22′31″N, 117°45′49″W
Distance: 8 miles, round trip
Elevation Gain: 2,800'
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠

The Yodeler
6046 Park Drive
Wrightwood, CA
Rating: ♠ 1/2

Saturday, August 12, 2006


In which we discover a little corner of the Old West

When people east of the Mississippi think of the West the character that tends to spring to mind is that of the cowboy, riding and roping across the plains. But in the Far West, in the arid high deserts between the Rockies and the Pacific, it’s the prospector and miner that was the predominant type. And it was mining and the hope of mineral wealth, rather than cattle, that brought on the great westward migrations.

Long before and long after the great Gold Rush of ’49, metals and minerals—gold, silver, copper, tungsten, magnesium, and crystals and semiprecious gems beyond count—lured people to the hot, forgotten corners of the West’s desert fastnesses.

Last weekend I made a jaunt to one of these places, a place called Randsburg, California, in a Western corner of the Mojave north of Edwards Air Force base along Highway 395. Billing itself as a “living ghost town,” Randsburg boasts perhaps 80-odd living souls. (And they are, for the most part, odd).

The Kern County gold vein was discovered in the mid 1890s. Rand Camp was built soon after and named for the rich gold country of the Rand in South Africa. The settlement grew quickly, became a town, and its name was changed to Randsburg. The gold, silver and tungsten mines have had their ups and downs, and today what economy there is depends mostly on Off-highway Vehicle aficionados who enjoy the many motocross paths nearby, and the occasional Old West tourist, like me.

First I stopped in at the White House Saloon for a spot of lunch and the requisite shot-and-a-beer. It’s a homey place, with the look and feel of the authentic Old West, operated by an appropriately surly couple in their 60s.

Next I hit up the Rand Desert Museum. Here the docent showed me a large piece of silver ore. The piece he holds in his hands weighs a good 15 or 20 pounds. He also showed me a strongbox used for shipping gold. A box full of pure gold ingots one foot square, he told me, would weigh 1500 pounds. There’s plenty of silver left up there, he told me, but geothermal activity causes temperatures in the tunnels to rise to 200F, making it impossible to extract.

TIP: If you're a savvy mining engineer with a keen knowledge of geo-thermodynamics, there's opportunity for career advancement in Randsburg.

The Joint offers grown-up refreshments to townies and tourists alike. The bartender- owner, Olga, says she’s 95 years old and “still works every day.” Another patron here, a local from nearby Johannesburg, told me that one mine in the area is still in operation and that it extracts something like 1,500 ounces of gold per month. They don’t dig anymore, though, but extract the gold from the mine’s heap leach pads, were the gold-to-dirt ratio is a scant .02 ounces per ton.

The Randsburg General Store and Soda Fountain is a gem. In addition to necessities and sundries, it offers books on local interest and boasts a soda fountain where you can order real phosphates—chocolate, raspberry, orange and so forth. I had cherry. Tasty!

Parts of the town seem mysteriously semi-inhabited, like this building on the slopes of an abandoned mine on the outskirts of town. I was trying to get a snap of a road runner, but he seems to have escaped the frame.

An abandoned mine, derrick toppled, graceful in repose.

Road Trip to Randsburg, Kern County, Calif.
35°22′3″N, 117°39′15″W
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠ 1/2

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Say Hello to Hef

In which we meet the original Sophistocrat


It’s a highly loaded and much abused term, synonymous in some minds with riches and snobbery, and in other minds with artificiality and Mandarin complexity, or simple intellectual pedantry. More subtle thinkers understand sophistication’s paradox: the apprehension of complex expressions and their intuitive reduction to primary principles. Sophistication requires considerable education and knowledge, combined with a fundamental understanding of what drives desire. It is a thing difficult to describe but immediately recognized when encountered. It is a quiet, adult, mature, detached quality of mind that, for many generations, ambitious people aspired to. The sophisticate looks on the world’s caprices with a keen understanding—and a confident, bemused smile.

Early issues of Playboy magazine were bastions of sophistication in a media landscape just beginning to grow toward its current baseness. The editors of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy understood the complex interplay of media, symbol and desire. Playboy was more than a stag rag. It was a primer for the young, male, would-be urban sophisticate. Though written from an unabashedly male perspective, the magazine became, for a time, an engine of social change that effected mores across the sexes and across society. Besides the playmates, Playboy boasted an a-list of contributing writers that wittily and pithily pushed the envelope of conventional journalism.

The other day my friend Vebs phoned and asked if I wanted to go with him and his wife to meet Hugh Hefner at Tower Records on Sunset Strip, where he would be signing autographs. I said “sure.” When we arrived, Vebs handed me a box set of DVDs called “Playboy After Dark,” a late night, syndicated TV show that I had never heard of.

I popped the first disc in the minute I got home. The first show was dated October 1959. Here was a variety talk show like no other. The Hef, immaculate in fitted evening clothes and wry smile, invited the viewer into the penthouse, where the party was. He introduced us to guests comedian Lenny Bruce, songwriter and composer, Cy Coleman (Witchcraft, The Best is Yet to Come), Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and of course a bevy of elegantly dressed playmates. Seemingly unscripted, the Hef made the rounds like the confident host that he was, smoking his pipe and asking gently probing questions of his celebrity guests. I found the combination of witty, world-savvy erudition against the underlying backdrop of sexual promise irresistible.

Playboy After Dark, hosted by Hugh Hefner
Playboy Enterprises
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠

Meeting the Hef in Person

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Travels Past: Garden of the Gods, Colorado

In which we revisit favorite places, with the help of modern technology.

Garden of the Gods is perhaps the world's most breathtaking city park. Within the limits of the city of Colorado Springs, the Garden is a formation of red sandstone that stands beaneath the Eastern face of the "front range" of the Rocky Montains, in the shadow of Pike's Peak and overlooking the Great Plains. If there is a God, he probably lives here.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado
38°52'36" N 104°52'49" W
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠

Fauna Report

In which we expound on the critters we've seen recently

Early last Friday morning I went for a hike in the hills behind my place, which stands on the Northeast face of the Santa Monica Mountains. It's a populated area of attractive homes, but one that is shared by considerable wildlife. On the way up into the hills I came across a doe and two of her young. They bounded across the street in graceful leaps and hurtled over a fence, crashed noisily through the brush and out of sight.

Home owners, lock up your kitty cats
Later, on my way back down the hill, I rounded a corner and was confronted by a large coyote who trotted a few yards in front of me. In its mouth it held a dead cat. The cat's head, legs and tail dangled limply from Wyle E.'s jaws as it skulked by me.

It's a bad way for Fluffy to shuffle off this mortal coil, being eaten. Hills-living home owners should keep there kitties under lock and key, at least in the wee hours.

Critter Count
Deer: 3
Coyotes: 1
Cats: 1 (dead)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

So why aren't Angelenos better looking?

In which we get our harrumph! on about LA's creepiest obsession

Clearly, I need a hobby. This morning I was thumbing through the LA Weekly, which is sometimes a good paper, when I got to counting the ads for plastic surgery and other cosmetic treatments. Out of 188 pages, 25 featured ads for cosmetic treatments of one type or another, including rhinoplasty, liposuction, botox injection, hair removal and hair restoration (go figure), breast augmentation, chin, pec, calf and buttock(!) implants, eye lifts, dermabrasion, permanent make-up, teech whitening, straightening, de-gaping, capping and re-filing and more.