The Wheel it Keeps on Turnin'
The Mountainjedi returns after too long in hiding! Since writing last about my visit as a medical missionary to Guatemala and the associated adventures involving volcanic exploration and new friends in Central America, much has happened to me though at times it felt less that I was doing things than that things were happening to me, an important distinction with implications relating to the sense of having control over one's life. Still reeling from the death of my younger brother and the effect that drawn-out event had on my parents and the energy of the remaining family, an already low time sank lower yet with the realization that a main reason for returning home was no longer a valid excuse for avoiding action that would return me to a sense of being in the right place, doing the right thing (for me at least). In other words, regardless of what I did or with whom I spoke, being back in Louisiana where I grew up never felt like a situation that I would gain mid-to-long-term satisfaction from. I had been spoiled by travel and freedom to find the idea of a conventional life somewhat unattractive and to settle back into my hot, flat little overly-developed hometown, charming as it can be, seemed a step in the wrong direction though I certainly struggled with the confusion of simply not having a sense of what the right direction was as the time. Attitude and perspective influence an enormous percentage of our subjective experience of life, and normally I believe we have significant control over our attitude but sometimes our capacity to maintain perspective and keep an even-keeled outlook gets compromised by stress, chemical imbalance, or other factors. Over the last few months I certainly felt myself slipping down what Times Picayune writer Chris Rose called "the Rabbit Hole" of depression. We had both spent years equating needing or seeking help with personal weakness, believing that a down mood was something that ought to be surmountable by sheer force of will. If a content and stable peace of mind was not achievable through pure desire and intent, one reasons that the problem must be with the will, a personal flaw that served only to deepen the sense of shame and inadequacy already characterizing the general state of mind. I'm not afraid anymore to say that there are things I don't have the power to overcome without help, and I've sought that help. Writing today, I can say that while I still do not understand all of the factors that contributed to the depth and severity of my trip down that Rabbit Hole, I feel a great deal better now than I did a few weeks ago. One factor could be that I know what I'll be doing with myself later this year - surely a vast improvement over the miasmic uncertainty that I felt during the first part of 2010. The fact that the new endeavor will take me back to an inspiring mountainous haunt of mine and out of Mandeville, working in a field and for a cause that I can get excited about is all the better. More on that later.
Into the West
In April I saddled up in the 2010 Prius sort of known as "Blue Lightning" and aimed her west on a mission to the mountains of California. We didn't pull back into the driveway here until more than 5,000 miles had passed beneath the tires and my eyes and mind had witnessed a slew of fantastic new sights and experiences. The following is an account of the journey I call Westward Ho 2010. The first Westward Ho I consider to be the drive I made from New Orleans to San Francisco via the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada back in 2003, the year before this blog began. That trip was made solo all the way in a trusty red 1991 BMW 535i with the intention of getting west for a summer job. This time around I was going for a job interview. More on that later.
From an email I sent to a good friend I used to work with in Washington, DC:
... you mention picking up strange men along the way, and, well, you know me! Before departing I actually did go onto Craigslist and posted a notice on the ride share board about my trip west... got a few responses (one from a group of 3 people with three big bags, two guitars, and a DOG on top of it all - I declined that one). Ended up taking three guys all the way from the New Orleans area to Fresno, California. One was an 18 year old food stamp recipient from Seattle who when I met him was wearing a T-shirt depicting a unicorn vomiting rainbows and a hypodermic needle. He also had a knit yarn lanyard around his neck with a knit version of an Amanita muscaria mushroom hanging on it. Those are the Super Mario-style mushrooms, red with white spots and very hallucinogenic/dangerous. Uh, he was a trip, literally. The other two guys were college students from Montreal, both speaking with distinctive French Canadian accents. The three of them had met at a "Rainbow Family Gathering" in Alabama. I'll let you look that up yourself. More of a Hippie Commune in the forest thing than a Dupont Circle style rainbow though. In any case, the three of us had quite the ride driving through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before hitting California and eventually parting ways. We slept out under the stars in our sleeping bags behind rest stops two nights, one morning being greeted by a woman walking towards us from a huge tour bus carrying a platter of deli sandwiches! On the second day, despite driving a 50+ mpg Prius, we got extremely close to running out of gas in the middle of nowhere Texas. The "miles til empty" meter went from 20 to 12 to 6 to 4 to 2 to 0 and we were still not near an exit with a gas station. The Seattle kid and I were in the front trying to drive as slowly as we could to use primarily the electric motor and not the remaining fumes... in the backseat were the two Canadians unaware of how close they were to getting out and marching alongside the scorching hot Texas interstate. Classic. We eventually pulled into a station after driving on empty for 8 or 10 minutes and filled up in a euphoric rush. I told everyone I'd buy them Taco Bell in a spurt of generosity borne of not having to deal with running out of gas after all. Eyes peeled for a run for the border, none were to be found and in the end we ate at some crazy local taco barn place in El Paso where we were clearly the only English-speakers in the joint. The food however was delicious and plentiful, so no complaints. Spicy too, like the chiquitas who took our order!
The big idea was to invite one or two others along on the outbound trip so as to achieve multiple goals. Besides helping with fuel expenses, the passengers get to cross the country quickly and cheaply while keeping the driver engaged and awake. While taking three strangers into a relative new car for a 2,000 mile drive isn't something I'd typically do on the fly, having the chance to speak with these guys on the phone and then hosting them a night at home (during which they cleaned and polished a Tibetan singing bowl I have) gave me what I needed to feel comfortable sharing the trip with them, and it turned out to be a joy traveling that way. Our second night we pulled into a rest stop somewhere west of Phoenix at 10 or 11pm and carried our packs out to an area of desert where the floodlights didn't penetrate so far. Awaking to a crisp cool sunrise surrounded by spring flowers and ubiquitous burrows in the gravely ground, we approached the restroom building and saw a sign we hadn't noticed the evening before. "No dogs beyond this area, poisonous snake and insect habitat." Well, we probably smelled foul enough to deter any of the critters anyhow.
The evening of April 5, our bellies still digesting a lunch from In and Out Burger, that iconic Californian franchise dutifully serving excellent burgers and fries to the west coast car culture, Blue Lightning cruised north along 99 in the agriculture-burdened Central Valley toward Fresno. We'd survived an encounter with a crooked filling station attendant trying to overcharge hundreds of dollars on a credit card, a windstorm in San Gorgonio Pass that destroyed a trailered golf cart just ahead of us on the freeway, and a torrential downpouring of rain that slowed traffic through the Los Angeles area to a crawl before we marveled at the sight of the wildflowers shimmering on the hills in Angeles National Forest. We reached the city, very nearly ran out of gas again, and eventually I dropped my friends and their gear off at an onramp where they would attempt to hitchhike to the Bay area (unsuccessfully, at least the first night). In a rush of unloading, farewelling, and quick hugging, I was alone again, free to make my way out of the valley and into the sierra. I started the day in a desert, but after scouring Fresno for some snow chains that would fit the Prius and threading some narrow and windy roads through the foothills of the Pacific Crest, I would lay my head to sleep in the funky mountain community of El Portal, the western gateway to one of the most famous and inspiring landscapes in the world - Yosemite Valley. Yosemite
Back in the Sierra I reunited with a friend from the Peace Corps and numerous previous entries here, Kingfisher. In South America she and I had climbed to the snowy pinnacle of a dormant volcano above a city of guinea pig gobblers, watched the world whirl in a mystical cave at 13,000 feet, and had scampered among the precipitous ruins of the Inca civilization. Her suggestion had been the impetus for my application and subsequent invitation for an interview, and so it was a treat to have some time to visit before and after the interview process. One day we took a short hike out along the south fork of the Merced River to Hite Cove, said by some to be the greatest wildflower hike in the entire state of California. Not bad for four minutes down the road from home... The sky shone blue and warm upon the twinkling surface of the river as the trail wound along a steep slope liberally adorned with rich orange California poppies and the brilliant yellow of Goldfields. Poison Oak was also out in full force, happily shining leaves insinuating themselves out onto the trail in places. We reached a spot where the trail descended to the riverside and passed a few hours talking, dissecting gummy worms, and soaking up the sun and some good books while the waters caressed the stones nearby. No better way to spend an afternoon than right there in the moment, enjoying the place, the breath, the warmth, the company.
Over the next few days I did participate in activities related to the job interviewing process including giving a mock lesson to a small audience and a typical question and answer session, but what set the experience apart were the numerous opportunities to explore and connect with other applicants and the singular environment we found ourselves in. We were housed for two nights in a small staff cabin at Crane Flat, where the 6,000+ foot elevation meant lingering snow pack several feet thick and drifts coming right from the ground to the rooftops. Twice I had the chance to visit the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias with other applicants. Our first night the five of us all rounded up some cross country skis and headed out as the sun set, just arriving as the shroud of night overtook the grove. Having only skid like that twice ever before, it was a good thing I wasn't aware of the steepness of the trail! The second evening one of the three women and I hiked down together on foot and engaged in substantial conversation while taking in the atmosphere of the grove. Several times the immensity of the trees soaring skyward on rust-colored trunks silenced us in mid step, our necks cocked backward and mouths agape, pupils straining to catch sight of a bough trembling in a breeze hundreds of feet above our heads. Venturing farther than the darkness allowed the previous night, we encountered a massive fallen sequoia trunk ten feet in diameter and longer than a bus. The ancient roots were splayed out in an arc like the tail feathers of an enormous wooden turkey in the snow, and at their base we could see a dark bit of negative space ... a passage perhaps? A bit of investigation proved fruitful and the two of us crouched down and passed through the hollowed out trunk of this older-than-old tree trunk for 70 feet or so until a crack in the side provided an exit hole. We learned later that the tree is known cheerfully as "Dead Fred" but agreed that stumbling across it unknowingly was the ideal way to encounter such a majestic former lord of the forest. Before departing we stood in the silent snow beneath another giant named Big Red and just looked up, watching the fading day's light play across the uppermost bark and branches of one of the Earth's most massive living things. 15 or 20 minutes passed as the twilight sky fell into shadow and we held motionless in the moment.
The wilds of Yosemite held other memorable experiences during my visit. I learned an addictive wordplay game called "Contact" with a group of high school students while hiking in the snow to a fire tower above Crane Flat (Anyone who followed my PCT hike in 2008 knows how tickled I was to reach another panoramic fire lookout!). I saw a black bear yawning and lazily waking up under a tree in the crowded Eastern end of Yosemite Valley. I walked out to Mirror Lake beneath Half Dome, which actually turned out to be a wide seasonal pool in a stream with an interesting history since the white settlers took over the area. 50¢ for admission so you can take a photograph of your reflection in the lake? Got a mustache? How about a petticoat?
My last whole day in the area Kingfisher and I aimed to get out to a place neither of us had ever been: The upper Mariposa Grove. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln took a moment out of leading the Union during the Civil War to sign into law the Yosemite Grant, which ceded the valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to the State of California as a state park "for public use, resort, and recreation." More than a century and a half later, the resource is still as impressive as ever and is protected year round for the enjoyment and inspiration of countless visitors, the two of us included. We arrived at the parking area after a 35 minute drive and it was full with a line of vehicles waiting. Hmm. After a scramble to look for an alternative, we settled on a roadside pullout a few minutes down the road and packed up for a good day hike. The road to the larger parking area was still closed due to snow so we had a two mile road walk before the first of the trees appeared. From there a network of paths and trails wound their way uphill among such landmarks as "The Bachelor and Three Graces," "The Grizzly Giant," "The Clothespin Tree," The Wawona Tunnel Tree," and "The Telescope Tree." Countless others rose up around the paths and their shadows trailed into the distance, nameless sentinels watching over the same mountainside for milennia, some of them having witnessed more than 700,000 sunrises and sunsets. Neither words nor images will ever match the experience of moving through the community of beings many times older than modern industrial civilization. Their indomitable power and endurance is at once contrasted with the vulnerability they display in the face of human ingenuity and ambition. Sharing their presense induced simultaneous feelings of enormous power and miniscule impermanence. While the ocassional roaring wildfire only serves to help the species continue, a group of men with saws or other tools can with alarming swiftness snuff out a life whose progeny would not reach the same maturity until the year 4,000. It seems we literally cannot comprehend the scale of processes we have the power to interfere with.
Our hike took us from the lower grove, still buzzing with flip-flop-clad visitors who had also made the two mile road walk, up the hill to where the true snowline was. First we followed a plowed path. When the plowing ended we followed cross country ski tracks over the snow. Soon the tracks turned around, leaving the way ahead a virgin carpet of white. This is what we'd worn boots for, and so we agreed to press on and go for the largest loop possible, despite the slow progress. This proved to be the right choice, and the resulting few hours of complete solitude making tracks among our towering coniferous brethren was a highlight of my life so far. After having the freedom to approach and explore any tree without fear of harming its root system, it is hard to imagine a more pleasurable way to get to know the grove. In the fresh snow we spotted bear, coyote, and mountain lion tracks along with sugar pine cones more than a foot long. Kingfisher and I managed to get off trail (or what we assumed was still the trail under all that snow) and check out some fallen logs that like Dead Fred were hollow inside and offered a thrilling little cave to explore. Appreciation was expressed for the foresight demonstrated by the early (non-native) conservationists who recognized the danger these trees faced in the onslaught of advancing western settlement and worked to protect them for future generations. To play a part in continuing that work is Kingfisher's job at Yosemite and will be mine too when I return in August. More on that later.San Francisco
I left the mountains the next afternoon and descended to San Francisco in a rainstorm to stay with my friends J and R and Braxlee the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel at their new apartment in Buena Vista, very near the exact geographic center of the city. The mayor lives around the corner and their living room boasts two large picture windows looking out over the Castro, the Mission, and beyond to San Francisco Bay. If that weren't enough, I was treated to home-prepared roast leg of lamb my first night in town. Impressive! The transition from Yosemite to San Francisco was almost jarring. One place is a temple of natural beauty, the result of organic forces like wind, water, rock, and ice working in concert with roots, grasses, birds, and claws to become an evolving expression of the planet's wildness. Human impact is measured out at a minimum and care is taken to preserve the qualities of the place as much for its own sake as for its value to humanity. The city, however, is abundantly populated with sights, systems, and structures that defiantly proclaim the mythical dominance of man over nature. The spirit is one of conquest, of profligate construction and spread upon arrival at the edge of the continent. Seemingly every hill is laden with homes and apartments and streets and tracks for cable cars. Here, as in all urban areas, the focus is on people and their sustenance and entertainment. Despite the abundance of hybrid cars, mandatory recycling and composting, rooftop photovoltaic cells, and wind turbines in the hills east of town (all better than the alternatives), San Francisco exists for humanity, and they will keep it. I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with R while her husband was at work, learning about her experiences so far living in "Not New York" and her plans for the future, but the stark difference in my own path and theirs felt sharper than ever and though I didn't want to make a fuss about it, feelings of self doubt and anxiety over uncertainty crept into my mind, distracting me from the beauty and goodness of the present moments. A chance to spend some time talking and having dinner with a friend who shared Zaruma with me as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador helped some of the anxiety subside, but the time to leave was drawing near.
My father flew into SFO and joined the traveling party on April 13. The intention was for us to take our time driving together back to Louisiana, using the opportunity to talk, bond, share, and create new memories while we had the chance. We wasted no time in investigating our surroundings. Fried Chicken and Waffles(!!!) at the Little Skillet. A walk around AT&T Park and the South Beath Park dock. A drive along the shoreline embarcadero and the famous piers. Taking the Prius down the impossibly crooked section of Lombard Street. Becoming confused and almost crossing the Golden Gate Bridge before exiting and exploring the cliffside defensive batteries south of the invigoratingly windy channel. Making our way south to Golden Gate Park and wandering among the botanical gardens while a car just in front of us was broken into, Police surrounding the vehicles when we returned causing unecessary concern. Encountering a squirrel with a penchant for burying Tic Tacs. Eventually returning to J's hilltop neighborhood and taking in the emergence of the twinkling cityscape below before going burrito hunting for dinner. I contend that we had a full afternoon in the city, and after breaking our fast at a fancy bakery cafe near the historically gay Castro with R the next morning, we aimed ourselves towards the Golden Gate and began our winding journey homeward.Across the Sierra
Next stop was just north of the bridge: Sausalito, CA is home to an unusual collection of residences that we had to pull over and see. Following the closing of a shipyard decades ago, people began setting up homes on teh remains of old boats and barges in Richardson Bay. Bohemians and Hippies took to the lifestyle in the 50's and 60's and the community grew through various legal challenges into the colorful and unique attraction that it is today. The vessels range from massive professionally-designed and luxuriously appointed floating houses to truly ramshackle amalgams of spare parts and a half-assed attempt at some vaguely artistic flair. There's a houseboat for every taste and style it seems, from the exclusive penthouse to the junkyard scrap heap and everything in between. Strolling among the homes on a wobbly network of planks exhibiting varying degrees of buoyancy, we spied cats and cacti living out their niches in the delightfully odd place. Like temporary specters from a less watery world, we took our leave as suddenly as we had arrived, continuing north.
A long drive and a brief visit to Muir Woods took me back to Marin County where I trained in preparation for leading wilderness trips in 2003. We circled around the north end of the huge bay and met with the freeway heading through Sacramento and then the Pacific Crest. In a couple of hours the temperature outside was plunging into the 40s and snow was lining the roadside. At Echo Summit the car crossed the Pacific Crest Trail for the second time on the trip, just south of the Desolation Wilderness where I spent a few days hiking with Wild Child and Glitter Bomb two years previously. Our destination this day was the resort town of South Lake Tahoe, current home of A and his brother, who had agreed to host us for a night. After pizza and local brews, we delved into True Stories, a film I'd never heard of featuring David Byrne of The Talking Heads. It was unlike anything I've ever seen and thoroughly campy and weird but in a very good way. Perfect entertainment for our surroundings: A well-used apartment piled with equipment for making music and sliding down streets and snowy slopes at high speed. The zealous Afghan wolfhound who cohabited with our hosts spent the night playing with his rope toy, jumping on us, and chewing into our luggage. Der humpink indeed.
SLT provided a bit more fun the next day as we sent a birthday postcard, procured rations for the next few days, and visited a chilly coarse sand beach on the shores of the second deepest lake in the country before hitting the road and zipping over the last pass remaining between us and the descent to the eastern side of the sierra. Cresting the final rise and looking down to the valley thousands of feet below, the power of a distant vista to inspire the soul was evident. The primary corridor for travel along the eastern sierra is Hwy 395, so we aimed Blue Lightning onto it and began the scenic ride south with the snow and glaciers of the high country on our right.
In Hot Water
Bridgeport, California is not a big place, but it holds a big spot in my memory as home to one of the most enjoyable stops along the way to Canada. This is not due to a restaurant or a motel or even the view of the mountain range, which is undeniably picturesque. Just outside of Bridgeport one finds Travertine Hot Springs, a naturally occurring melding of hydrological and geological features that spells one thing for visitors: Delicious relaxation in the outdoors! Minerals dissolved in the hot spring water have been forming mounds and terraces above the valley for thousands of years, and human visitors have shaped the outlets to produce various pools with different forms and temperatures in which to soak ones cares away. I knew that if we were going so close, I had to show this place to my dad. Going off pavement in a Prius is not something I intend to repeat very often, but the surface was dry and the reward well worth it. Channels cut and coaxed along massive travertine ridges diverge and trickle their piping hot contents into the soaking pools via organic little cascades providing visual and auditory stimulus to all who enjoy the waters with their unobstructed view of the alpine spine of the westersn states. Dad is not typically an easy person to impress, but I think he enjoyed the unique experience of Travertine as much as I did.
Received a bogus citation after leaving the springs. While safely passing a very slow vehicle with a trailer that had pulled over and signalled for me to do so, my left tires crossed the yellow line. Arghh. Funny thing was, dad was sitting in the passenger seat in just his underwear, hoping to dry off more before reapplying his vestments. You can imagine, having two officers of the law standing outside while you're in your boxers and nothing else. Silliness. Hopefully we can get our explanation in front of someone reasonable and put it behind us.
Mono Lake. Cold. Not many birds this time of year. Not a single picture taken. Moving on.
Lone Pine. We arrive late and opt to sleep in the car in a parking lot across from McDonald's. Gross. Dad is cold and we wake up with fogged windows and a funk in the air that ought to be outlawed. It is the first and only time we sleep in the car during the trip. In contrast with the funkiness of our breath and maybe our moods, the rising sun is hitting the sierra head-on now, and we gaze up at a wall of mountains crowned by the white-capped Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The day's plan is to enter another world of extremes, where snow is nothing but a cruel joke. The largest unit of the National Park System outside of Alaska is Death Valley, and we ready ourselves to enter the vast and legendary expanse of sun-parched desert.
Ranger Bob, we're very disappointed in you. Your performance has been lacking for some time. Now we aren't going to fire you, but we will be transferring you to a post in another park. Somewhere more ... remote ...
The hottest ambient temperature ever recorded in the new world was 134 degrees Fahrenheit, taken in 1913 at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level. Again, words fail to express what a place that can reach such temperatures is like. Only first hand experience can convey the true meaning of salt flats, of shimmering dry heat radiating from the ground, of corrosive brine, of isolation and despair and the inhospitable conditions possible on this Earth. Sure it sounds like I'm whining about one lousy day driving through the place, but Death Valley challenges us to define it in terms not applicable to other locations. In short, I loved the place for the same reasons it has achieved infamy. Barren, sprawling, indifferent, uncomfortable, inscrutable - the landscapes merit all these descriptions and more. The place is a jumble of stones, an expanse of sand, just as much as it is a back full of sweat, an involuntary squinting of the eyes, a painful split in a chapped lip. The place is a dare made in bad taste. It seems to exist out of the grasp of time, for things feel frozen there, as if change is only a story told by the stones to keep the sky amused. "Sure there was water here once, have a look at this smooth marble!"
"Oh yeah, loads of water," answers the sky, glaring hot and blue like a stove flame. "And I assume there are flowers down there too, right?"
"Ahh, so you've seen them? I told you they're real!"
"Gimme a break." And so the eternal bickering spans the passing centuries, the elements teasing one another as the world dances its dance. Our visit did happen to coincide with the arrival of the spring flowers though, and between fields of black volcanic stone and the blinding off-white of the salt flats we flew past more yellow and pink than the eye could absorb. How the insects that pollinate those flowers tolerate the 120+ degree days and 100+ degree nights of the summer I'll never understand, but the balance of life they maintain is amazing. Having spent hours exploring Panamint Valley, Mosaic Canyon, an old borax processing plant (Hell of a place to make a living), the shockingly landscaped visitor center (Must have a well there), the Devil's Golf Course, and the incredible, inedible Badwater Basin, we were baked beyond belief and a consult of the map saw us cruising into Nevada for an evening in Las Vegas.
Apart from getting to take a shower, this place was an abomination. Sex and sleaze and false gold glitters and litters the desert here. The city will eat you up, though I can recommend nobody eat anything at all at the Circus Circus dinner buffet. I had been to Las Vegas once when I was 12. It has grown like a cancer since then. Perhaps there is really nothing at all wrong with Vegas, the issue is just that I'm not the kind of person the city is marketed toward. Thanks for the shower, but your water was hard and the soap was crappy. And hey Pallazo Resort at the Venetian, who needs a cell phone that costs $7,500? Sheesh. Edward Abbey was right about you.
The next day. Hoover Dam. Building a new bridge to span the Colorado so private vehicles will no longer go over the dam. Edward Abbey was right about you too.
Arizona. Sedona. Red RED rocks and psychics and energy vortices and the gullible with discretionary income. A unique chapel perched on the side of a beautiful rock outcrop. Below is a private home that greedily gobbles the attention of all visiting the chapel. Selling for tens of millions of dollars? This place is beautiful, but too many people degrade the atmosphere. Let's get out of here, come back in the off season. Giant Saguaros along the road to Phoenix. They look annoyed at the interstate. I thought that they may only have primary arms and not "hands" on the arms. I was wrong. Phoenix is large. Let's go to Tuscon tonight. Ok.Worlds: They Don't Make Them Like They Used To
Side note: The Motel 6 we stayed in outside of Tuscon was the nicest I've ever seen. The room was totally redone with pleasantly bright colors, the bathroom was gorgeous, functional, and comfortable, and there was a sustainable and durable bamboo laminate floor in the room that felt great underfoot and looked even better. Gideon Bible be damned, the place was really nice.
Our morning began with a late sleep, a nod to the long day coming from Vegas. Not sure what to do in the area, a local publication revealed a generous coupon for entry to Biosphere 2, the once exciting experimental science facility from the 90's that looks like a space station from a B movie. Now run by the University of Arizona, Biosphere 2 was originally built with the intention of creating a prototype living facility suitable for colonizing other worlds. How to figure successful design? Apparently, construct the largest closed ecosystem on the planet complete with an ocean, desert, rainforest, wetland, and savannah, stick a few people in there with a small area for farming food and raising goats, and seal the thing up tight. Airtight. Not a breath goes in, not a breath goes out. For two years. People under glass. A world under glass. Stupid human tricks in the Arizona desert, you gotta love it! Bases on the moon and Mars, here we come! Well, not so fast. The bionauts or whatever they came to be referred to gave the experiment a solid go, but oxygen levels in the recycled air began dropping and so did the daily calorie intake of the subjects. The vitamins and minerals the bionauts took in were sufficient, but the energy they received from their meals was lacking considering the hard work it took to keep the farm and other experiments running. Ants somehow made it into the sealed building and wrought havoc. The airlock was broken and oxygen eventually had to be brought to more livable levels artificially. Was the whole project a failure? Were allegations of secret food caches and fudged scientific figures merited? I can't answer those questions, but I can comment on my impressions of the place as it is now, and I would recommend the tour to anybody in the Tuscon area.
In Yosemite I saw some conservation posters with technical drawings of features like the Giant Sequoias and Yosemite Falls done up with mechanical features like water turbines, carbon fiber tree trunks, animatronic woodland creatures, water recyclers and pumps, synthetic bark material, etc. The point was to emphasize the absurdity of the notion that people could simply recreate majestic examples of nature's creation through technical ingenuity. The underlying implication was that the trees or the waterfalls were truly irreplaceable and that we need to take care of them as the singular and precious entities that they are. This general theme came right back to me as I walked through the Biosphere complex with its cherry picked environments. Where was the volcanic landscape? The Arctic? The Antarctic? The upper atmosphere? The snakes? Mosquitoes? Flu virus? These things, inhospitable or unpleasant as they may be to people, are all part of this planet we live on and to not include them in a recreation of the world is to turn our noses up at their role in the balance of the place we call home. My gut feeling is that the systems at work on Earth are far more complex than any smaller model could ever accurately reflect. Even the largest enclosed ecosystem ever built seemed woefully inadequate for indefinitely sustaining human life. What about all of the outside energy that went into the structure to keep it cool in the heat of the desert? What about the glass not allowing ultraviolet light through, hampering the ability of the bees to pollinate the plants inside? We are interconnected with everything that surrounds us, and the designers of Biosphere 2, though thorough in what they managed to accomplish, still fell far short of an accurate recreation of the systems that are at work here on Biophere 1. Now that's not a scientific analysis, but an impression of the heart. Like I mentioned before, check out the tour if you're in the area. The "lungs" they came up with to prevent the sealed place from exploding or imploding from variable air pressure are really cool. The bowels of the complex underneath the photogenic greenhouse portion are fascinating for their audacity if not their coolness. It feels as if someone saw one of those posters in Yosemite and took it seriously. Seriously?UNDER.
The next day we took off across the dry wastes of the southwest and steered northward outside of El Paso to cut between I-10 and Hwys 62/180. The desert this detour took us through gave the impression of passing through a bad part of a bad part of Venus, minus the temperatures and poisonous atmosphere. Strange dirt trails wandered off from the one paved road, marked with discarded tires. Each seemed to hint at a shallow unmarked grave or two just beyond view of the sparse traffic. The only thing moving was the ocassional plastic shopping bag impaled on a cactus spine or a bit of barbed wire. Maybe not Venus. More like Mexico, or parts of it. I can't commit to that fully, not having visited Mexico much. Anyhoo, we made it to the intended highway and drove up into the Guadalupe Mountains for a stop at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Now here was a breath of fresh air. It's remote. Nothing much of note for miles in any direction. The settlement outside of the park's entrance is a one horse town. It's unassuming. The drive approaching the visitor's center is windy and features a few pulloffs with interpretive signs, but nothing outside prepares you for the spectacle to come. The visitor's center itself is pretty well appointed inside, with plenty of photographs of cave formations and panels about bat ecology and before you know it you're ... what the? Oh my. Well, that is a large and steep entrance. A chasm really. And here we go ... Quite dark in here. Ahem, smells a bit musky. Guano. Better whisper, sound carries a long way in here. Shoulda brought the big Maglite. Oh. My. God.
I write in superlatives. I speak in them too. Guilty as charged. This is partly because I can sometimes be intellectually lazy. It's also partly because I like to go to superlative places and do superlative things. The experience of walking down from an unremarkable arid landscape more than 700 feet nearly straight down into a world of fantastic forms and mind-bending spaces is superlative. It's fricking incredible. I suppose the only thing that really harms the experience is the knowledge of how easily accessible it is. Most of the time that kind of exposure, that brand of wow factor, is farther off the beaten path. I've been caving before and had a blast exploring and crawling around getting filthy. All of that is good fun, but I've never been open-jaw entranced by what I saw underground. Not until witnessing Carlsbad Caverns. I hope it's not the last time. There are other cave networks with over 300 miles of explored passageways. One network! It's a big world out there to get to know...
Aaaaand then we got back home after driving more than 5,000 miles. And look out, because in some places in California gas was $3.99 a gallon. Apart from shooting a 44 Magnum at a shooting range with a friend in Austin, TX the cave visit was just about the last remarkable thing my dad and I did before returning home to Louisiana. Suffice it to say that it was a trip to remember, though things are rarely as good (or as bad) as they seem to be at the time. Now to give these fingers a rest. Photos and video to come soon. Much love. Whew.