Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Remembering my father

I wrote the following in January, 2001, after our first Christmas without my father.

I made pancakes for my family on Christmas morning; it was probably the most important and most difficult meal I’ve ever cooked. Anyone who knew my father knows what I mean.

I learned to cook from my father, although I can’t remember him ever showing me how to cook anything. He certainly never gave me a recipe; I don’t think he ever used one.

My mother was the everyday cook in our family, making sure dinner was on time and school lunches were packed, day after day and year after year. She made the kind of solid, reliable, meat-and-potatoes meals that our generation now calls comfort food.

Dad was the special occasion cook. He would take over when we had fresh-caught salmon or trout; he made breakfast on holidays when the house was filled with relatives; and sometimes he cooked just because he wanted to. Some of his best meals happened when he wasn’t expecting to cook – on those rare days when Mom was sick, or even rarer days when she wasn’t home at dinnertime. He found great pleasure in improvising a meal, taking whatever ingredients were available and combining them into something special. Everyday foods became exotic when Dad was in the kitchen. And cooking for people he cared about, whether it was just him and Mom or a houseful of family, was clearly one of his greatest joys. It was that pleasure and creativity that I learned from him, and I feel his influence whenever I cook, whether I’m making a special dinner for guests or just making something new out of a bunch of leftovers.

Several weeks after Dad died, I had a sudden and stunning realization – that I would never again taste his cooking. It sounds so simple and obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me before, and it took me to a whole new level of mourning. I started to dread the holidays. I asked myself, over and over, Who will carve the turkey on Thanksgiving? Who will make Christmas breakfast? I didn’t have an answer.

The night that he died, Dad was thinking of his mother’s cooking. He had asked Mom to buy some fresh spinach, and the next morning he planned to cook it with scrambled eggs, to recreate one of his mother’s specialties. I’ve wondered, since then, how often in the past 25 years he wished he could taste his mom’s cooking again, to savor her hand-made pasta, her perfect gnocchi, her endless variety of cookies. Nonna told me once that she only prayed for her hands, not for her eyes, her ears, or her voice, so she could continue making things for her family as long as she lived. When I was about 14, she gave me her secret pizzelle “recipe.” There was no written recipe, but I made pizzelles with her, carefully following her instructions and frantically writing notes whenever she turned her back. Like Dad, she never used a measuring cup; everything was done by sight, by feel, and by taste.

It’s been our tradition at Thanksgiving for Mom to cook the turkey and stuffing, and everyone else to bring a side dish. Dad would then carve the turkey at the dining room table. I tried to imagine someone else carving the turkey, but I just couldn’t see it. Nothing I could imagine was acceptable to me. When the day came, and the turkey was cooked, Becky volunteered to do the carving. I think she carved it in the kitchen, but I’m not really sure. I sat at the extra table in the living room, instead of my usual spot in the dining room. It was a relief to have a completely different view of Thanksgiving dinner, rather than the scene I had been dreading – the dining room table without my father.

As Christmas approached, I found myself thinking constantly of our traditional family breakfast. There’s usually a variety of foods, but Dad’s pancakes have always been the centerpiece of the meal. Anyone who was lucky enough to taste them said Dad's pancakes were the best they’d ever had. Family friends have told me they don’t like pancakes, and never eat them – except at my parents’ house. Whenever someone asked how he made them, Dad would just answer that he used Aunt Jemima’s buttermilk pancake mix. Which was true, sort of – he did start with a box of Aunt Jemima’s – but anyone who thought they could get the same results by following the directions on the box would have been very disappointed. Knowing what brand of mix he started with was about as useful as knowing what kind of spatula he used to flip them.

I asked Libby and Annie how they felt about having our traditional breakfast, and they were both in favor of it. Mom also wanted it, but she seemed to want to leave it to chance, expecting a spontaneous meal of eggs and pancakes, without a real plan to make it happen. Eventually I realized that if we were going to have pancakes, I wanted to make them. I didn’t know how my brother and sisters would feel about my taking over, but I was willing to take a chance. 

What I remember of Christmas morning is a collection of unconnected moments. I stayed focused on the pancakes, and I remember beating the eggs, scalding the butter (one of the secret ingredients – don’t tell anyone!), and almost forgetting the molasses. Mostly I remember the family all crowded into the kitchen, cooking the eggs and slicing the ham, and offering help and support while I tried to imitate one of Dad’s most admired creations. I was the one mixing and pouring, but I felt like we were all making those pancakes together. And I remember his presence in the room; I think every one of us felt it.

The pancakes?  Mom said they were great.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Crossing Mesa Arch

Every trip seems to have its defining moment, the one detail that's remembered long after everything else has become a blur. It might be a close encounter with a bobcat, or my first glimpse of a rare species. Or it could be a memorable quote from a local character, like the waitress in Montana who had lived in a tent for three years: "It was the seventies, I thought I was Sacagawea." Or Sam, the tow truck driver near Baker: "I been out in this desert twenty-five years and ain't seen one God-damn flyin' saucer." In Canyonlands National Park, it was Laurie.

Even if you've never heard of Mesa Arch, chances are you've seen a photo of it. It's not the tall, flat-topped one that's pictured on Utah's license plates – that's Delicate Arch. Mesa Arch is long and low, and curves gracefully out over the canyon below. What makes it unique – and attracts a crowd of photographers every morning, each of them planning the perfect shot – is the way the rising sun lights up the underside of the arch.

As a Californian, I've grown accustomed to having my wilderness experience punctuated by warning signs and guard rails, the result of too many people in too little space. But the parks in Utah are different, and nowhere is that difference more apparent than at Mesa Arch. There might be a caution sign at the trailhead, but once you get to the arch you're on your own. You're expected to know what gravity is, and how to avoid getting too much of it.

The arch is located at the edge of the mesa, on a cliff that would make Wile E. Coyote nervous. On my topographic map of the area, all the contour lines between about 5,000 and 6,000 feet are squished together into one solid band. In other words, if you were to stand at the edge and drop a rock held out at arm's length, it looks like that rock would fall about 400 feet before hitting anything, and then roll for another 600 vertical feet before finally coming to rest a thousand feet below you – and still less than a quarter mile away horizontally.

Now that I think about it, if you were to stand at the edge for any reason I'd have to congratulate you, because that's something I wasn't able to do. I've never thought of myself as being afraid of heights – I've scrambled up and down some pretty steep slopes – but whenever the distance from my feet to the edge of the cliff was roughly equal to my height, my legs would just quit working. The only way I could look over the side was to lie on my belly, keeping my feet as far from the edge as they would reach.

Geologically speaking, it's a pothole arch – a piece of rock that is eroding away from the rest of the mountain, and will eventually land in a pile of rubble at the base of the cliff. The south end looks like it's barely holding on, an illusion created by the way it attaches to the cliff face about twenty feet below the edge, leaving a four-foot gap at "ground level." The north end, on the other hand, appears firmly attached, and in fact a person could walk from there right out onto the arch – that is, if a person really wanted to walk across a narrow, uneven strip of slippery rock with a thousand-foot drop on either side.

And that's where we met Laurie.

My cousin Jeff and I had shot a few photos and were mostly just enjoying the grandeur of it all, when suddenly we saw her. She walked from the north end, moving with long, confident steps, neither hesitating nor hurrying. At the center of the arch she paused to look over her shoulder at her boyfriend, and then continued to the south end, where she turned around and walked back. As she turned around, Jeff turned away, saying he just couldn't watch. Meanwhile, I was in emergency shooting mode, running and crouching here and there, looking for the best angle and background for a moving subject. In less than a minute, she was back on solid ground.

Well, what could we say? She was either the bravest or dumbest person we had ever seen, so the least we could do was show her the photo on my camera's monitor (and ask her to sign a release, of course). And for the rest of the trip, whenever our hiking brought us to a particularly challenging situation, we asked ourselves, "What would Laurie do?"

We already knew the answer: She'd go for it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Déjà vu

I'm always cautious about thinking I can identify an individual animal, especially where reptiles or amphibians are concerned. In the absence of some clearly unique characteristic – often the result of an injury –  two snakes or frogs of the same species and the same age will generally look the same. It's especially hard to tell them apart when they're young, before they've had time to accumulate scars or other differences that come with variations in diet and experience.

But when I revisit a location and find a snake of the same rare species and the same size, in exactly the same spot on the same log – I'm pretty confident in saying I've found the same snake. In this case it happened on Mount Diablo, where an Alameda whipsnake was hunting for lizards on a fallen tree.

Whipsnakes can move with impressive speed when they need to, but rely on stealth and patience to catch their prey. When dealing with a potential predator – or a pesky photographer – a whipsnake will use whichever tactic fits the situation. This one demonstrated the advantages of moving slowly.

As I approached for a photo, I only had a partial view of the snake, without a head or tail to tell me which way it might be going. The lateral stripes and slender build gave me no visual cues, so I couldn't even be sure it was moving – until the tail passed by, at which point the snake just seemed to get thinner until it disappeared. A minute later, it reappeared about twelve feet away, at the other end of the log. I approached again and saw the same disappearing act, followed by another reappearance in the original spot.
A week later I was back at the same log – and the snake was still there, right where I had left it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Can we still experience wilderness?

A recent op-ed in the New York Times described the proliferation of PLBs – personal locator beacons that send a distress signal along with GPS coordinates so the user can be rescued – and how they have led to an increasing number of unnecessary "rescues." Some of the examples were stunning: in 2009, a group of backpackers in Grand Canyon National Park used their PLB three times in four days. Each time they were met by a rescue team in a helicopter.

At Half Dome, hikers routinely ignore warning signs and/or storm clouds, then use their cell phones to call for help when they find themselves atop a slick granite dome in a lightning storm – and are shocked to learn that helicopters can't fly in that weather.

My first response to the article was that people who abuse PLBs, or otherwise waste the time and money of emergency services, should be billed for the cost of those services – or prosecuted for calling in a false alarm. But the more I think about how that would work in real life, the more complicated it becomes. For those of us who have spent our lives hiking and backpacking, it's easy to say some people are just too stupid to venture off the sidewalk – but of course that won't stop them.

I'm really curious about those guys at Grand Canyon. Had they never backpacked before? Did they not understand the concept of wilderness, the purpose of a PLB, or the definition of an emergency? Were they prone to panic attacks? Did they grow up in extremely wealthy families where calling for a helicopter – and then changing your mind about needing it – was considered normal?

But the Grand Canyon guys are outliers, or at least I hope they are. What about the cases that aren't so clear-cut? Who gets to decide what's a real emergency? When someone calls 911 and says, "I'm having a heart attack," the paramedics respond immediately. If, after a bunch of tests at the ER, the doctor says it was only indigestion or a panic attack, does that mean the 911 call was unnecessary? What kinds of mistakes are forgivable, and which ones should be punished?

I've been hiking since I could walk, and I know how to take care of myself on the trail. But I can think of plenty of times when I've made careless mistakes that could have ended in tragedy.

Twenty years ago at Point Reyes, I climbed down a steep cliff to photograph harbor seals on the rocks below. Halfway back up, I got stuck. Each time I moved a hand or a foot, I felt myself slipping as the cliff started to crumble out from under me. How long did I stay in that position? Five minutes? Half an hour? I really don't know. Eventually, somehow, I found my footing and was able to continue. If I'd had a PLB, or even a cell phone – if they had existed then – at what point would I have used it?

One afternoon in Lundy Canyon I parked at the trailhead and took what I intended to be a short walk, a look around to see if I wanted to take a longer hike the next morning. Before I knew it, I was a couple miles up the mountain, with no water or food, not even a long-sleeved shirt – and I could see storm clouds gathering. I headed back to the car. If I had twisted an ankle, or been struck by lightning, I could have been in serious trouble to say the least.

Last year I hiked to Thimble Peak, in the Grapevine Mountains, for the first time. It was a perfect day for hiking – temperature in the low 70s, a light breeze, blue sky, puffy white clouds, a view of Death Valley that goes on forever – one of those glorious desert spring days when nothing could possibly go wrong. And, in fact, nothing did. But as I was scrambling over loose shale, up the last couple hundred feet to the peak, I did have a few thoughts about the consequences of a careless mistake. How long would I have lain at the bottom of that canyon before someone discovered my body?

If any of those situations had turned out differently, I can easily imagine what people would have said about me. How could such an experienced hiker do something so stupid?

Well, the truth is we do it all the time.

Raise your hand if you read Into the Wild and thought, "That could have been me."

A recent blog post by Jill Homer sums it up: as we gain experience with potentially dangerous situations, we become more confident. As we become more confident, we take more chances. Nothing bad happened last time, so everything should be fine this time. If we want to continue to enjoy the wilderness, and survive for our next adventure, we need to be vigilant against overconfidence and the carelessness it produces.

Back to the question of all those electronic gadgets that keep us connected 24/7. What really bothers me is not that they get abused, but that they have led to a generational shift in the definition of wilderness, and how we relate to it. Inappropriate use of PLBs, 911 calls from Half Dome, or just checking email on the trail – they're all part of a world in which we're never really alone.

Hiking has always been a kind of meditation for me. I seek out wild places because of the isolation, the solitude, the distance from the everyday stresses of modern life. I know a lot of people share my perspective, while for others the wilderness is a place to test their limits, whether by climbing, kayaking, or simply surviving in a difficult situation.

Can you really experience that sense of isolation or challenge when you know you're carrying a device that will instantly put you in touch with a rescue team, standing by with a helicopter and all the medical supplies you might need? Or, for that matter, a device that puts you in touch with your boss, your family, and a Nigerian prince who wants to give you $43 million?

John Muir wrote, "Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness."

 Is that journey even possible anymore?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Thank you, Steve Irwin

Driving home from Mount Diablo in the early evening, I saw a pickup truck stopped in the road, with a large rattlesnake crossing in front of it. The driver and his young son had gotten out to take a look, and I pulled over to join them. Forgive me for stereotyping, but based on his appearance – early thirties, muscular, driving a big shiny pickup – he seemed like a guy who, just a few years ago, I would have expected to run over any snake that happened to get in his way, stopping only to cut off its rattle as a souvenir. His actions, though, were just the opposite. His only weapon was a point-and-shoot digital camera, and he kept a safe, but not fearful, distance from the snake. Instead of giving his son the usual warning, "watch out, that thing can kill you," he said things like, "when she raises her head up and buzzes her tail, that means she's scared, so we have to move back." He consistently referred to the snake as "she," though he freely admitted, when his son asked, that he didn't know whether it was male or female.

After we had both gotten the photos we wanted, and the snake had moved on to take shelter under a tree, we said goodbye and went on our way. I thought about how respectful he had been, and how he was teaching his son to respect the snake as well, to admire it for what it is. I realized this wasn't the first time I had been surprised by someone's reaction to a snake, and wondered if our culture's attitude toward reptiles was really changing.

And then I remembered: Steve Irwin called every snake "she." He also took a lot of criticism from scientists for his unorthodox approach and showmanship, but the flamboyant Australian TV star found a way to teach millions of ordinary Americans that the appropriate response to a snake is not "Let's kill it," but "She's a beauty!"

I only saw Irwin's show a couple times, but I think I'm starting to miss him. Crikey!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Telescope Peak

From Badwater or Furnace Creek, look to the west at dawn and notice which peak begins to glow with the first hint of sunrise. From Panamint Valley, look to the east at sunset and watch the same mountain hold the last trace of the day's light. Standing at Dante's View, look down toward Badwater, a mile below the cliffs. Now look up slowly, scanning across the valley, past the salt flats, then the enormous alluvial fans at the mouth of Hanaupah Canyon, and up the mountains to the highest peak in the Panamint Range. You're looking at Telescope Peak, more than a mile above you – more than two miles higher than Badwater.

At 11,049 feet, Telescope Peak is the highest point in Death Valley National Park, and is visible from almost anywhere in the southern half of Death Valley. After a few days in the park, it might start to feel like an old friend. But if you really want to get to know this mountain, you need to hike the Telescope Peak Trail.

The trail can be challenging, but it's always worth the effort, combining the exhilaration of mountain hiking with the wide-open spaces of the desert. In practical terms, it may be the only place in the park where you can find comfortable hiking weather in summer or early fall. (It's also the place where the meniscus in my left knee finally wore out, leading to surgery and several months of physical therapy.) Wildflowers bloom here in July, months after they've disappeared from the valley floor. But it's the views that keep people coming back.

From its origin at Mahogany Flat, the trail leads you out of the piñon-juniper forest, past twisted and gnarled bristlecones and limber pines, and over windswept rockscapes where the shrubs and cacti huddle close to the ground, the only way they can survive. In early spring, the snow-capped peak stands in stark contrast to the arid valleys below. As the snow melts, it supports wildflowers and even some amphibian populations in the surrounding canyons.

With views of Death Valley to the east and Panamint Valley to the west, you can get a visceral understanding of basin-and-range geology, with its deep valleys separated by steep mountains. You can also see very clearly the role of water in that geology, as you look down on what are obviously two huge dry lakebeds.

Mostly, though, you'll just feel overwhelmed by the size and scale of the desert. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Salt Tramway

The first time I saw these three wooden towers – between Saline Valley Road and Salt Lake, at the south end of Saline Valley – I was confused. They're obviously made to support a lot of weight, far more than would be needed for phone or electric lines. Looking the other direction, I saw a couple more towers on the mountainside, and something that might have been the entrance to an old mine.  Oh, of course, I thought, the towers were part of a tramway to bring ore down from the mine. But that didn't quite make sense – why would the tramway extend all the way to the lake?

The real explanation was something I couldn't even imagine. The towers did hold cables for a tramway, but it wasn't for bringing ore down the mountain – it was a system for delivering salt from the evaporation ponds at the edge of the lake. Built in 1912 to 1913, it was the steepest tramway in the United States, climbing to the 8,740 foot crest of the Inyo Mountains and down the other side to a railroad terminal near Owens Lake, a distance of 13.5 miles. For a while, in 1914 or 1915, it also was used to transport copper ore from the nearby Blue Jay Mine. But salt was the main attraction in Saline Valley, and the tramway was (and still is) known simply as the Salt Tramway.

Construction of the Salt Tramway was one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted in the Death Valley area. Parts of the route are so steep that a temporary tramway had to be built to deliver lumber, food, water, and other supplies needed for construction. (Don't ask me how they delivered the supplies to build the temporary tramway.) The tramway's 286 buckets, moving at a speed of about one per minute, delivered their first load of salt in July 1913, but there were still a lot of mechanical problems to be worked out. Two years of tinkering were needed before it could operate at full capacity.

And, like a lot of ambitious projects of the time, it never made a profit. In 1920 the whole system was repossessed by the company that had financed it, and the salt ponds were abandoned. 

In 1928 the Salt Tramway started up again, and was used for five more years – until falling prices during the Great Depression made it unprofitable once again. It shut down for the last time in 1933. Some of the cables and equipment were salvaged for use in other mining operations, but most of the towers, control stations, and other structures are still there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shooting the breeze

Like all photographers, I love sand dunes. Their subtle shadings and sensuous curves make them a classic subject in nature photography. I'm especially intrigued by their endless patterns within patterns, revealing new and surprising compositions on every scale, from wide-angle to macro.

Like all camera owners, I hate sand dunes. Their two basic ingredients – sand and wind – are a deadly combination for photographic equipment. Desert sand can be extremely fine, and can penetrate even the most tightly sealed lens.

Maybe that explains why the overwhelming majority of sand dune photos depict peaceful scenes of a serene and silent desert. Those scenes are beautiful, I agree, but do they really show what a sand dune is? Is it even possible to make a photo that shows the beauty and serenity of the dunes and the dynamic, often violent winds that create them? How do you photograph wind, anyway?

Late one afternoon last spring, I headed out onto the dunes in Saline Valley, hoping once again to capture that beauty and movement in a single photo. I started my walk in a light breeze, but within ten minutes it felt like a hurricane. The wind was like sandpaper on my face. I could barely open my eyes to see where I was going, and at times I had trouble keeping my balance. Photography seemed out of the question, but I really wanted the shot. I allowed myself a half hour and then headed back to the car, where I spent the rest of the evening cleaning my camera.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


My Costa Rican friend Yamil says crocodiles are "the closest you'll ever get to a Tyrannosaurus rex" – and I have to agree with him. There's something so primitive, so powerful, so just plain scary about these creatures, it's hard to describe the chill you feel the first time you see one up close. Or the second time. Or the third ... We saw dozens of crocodiles in our four days on the Tarcoles River; no matter how many there were, each of them felt as surprising as the first one.

To get this low-angle, croc's eye view, Yamil and I had to lie on our bellies in the mud at the water's edge, while at the same time keeping a watchful eye out for any hungry crocs that might be headed our way.

Yeah, like that would have helped.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My first tropical frog

Blue-sided treefrog, Agalychnis annae

The Hotel Bougainvillea is known for its ten acres of gardens, which attract a wide variety of birds, butterflies, and photographers. Only twenty minutes by taxi from Juan Santamaria International Airport, it's a popular stopover for ecotourists on their way to the various wilderness lodges that contribute so much to Costa Rica's economy. The gardens also include three small ponds that were designed especially as habitat for Agalychnis annae, an endangered species known locally as the coffee frog. You can guess where my priorities were.

Exploring one of the ponds around mid-day, I photographed several Forrer's leopard frogs (also called grass frogs) hiding in the leaves that covered most of the water's surface. Seeing and photographing a new species is always good news, but I have to admit I was disappointed with this one. I mean, it was my first Costa Rican frog – but it was a leopard frog, almost identical to one of the most common frogs in the United States. (It was a bit like discovering that Costa Rica's national bird is a robin.) In spite of the fact that I had never seen this species before – and never mind that I was in a foreign country and a whole new ecosystem, 3,000 miles and almost 30 degrees of latitude from home – everything about this frog looked familiar. It was unmistakably a member of the genus Rana (or Lithobates, if you're keeping up with the latest in herpetology). I wanted something new.

Coffee frogs are nocturnal; I returned to the pond just before sunset so I'd be ready. But ready for what? I carefully scanned all parts of the pond and its abundant plant life. As dusk turned to dark, though, I realized I had no idea what I was looking for. How big are these frogs? Are they likely to be in the water? At the pond's edge? In the trees? I was beginning to doubt whether I'd find anything at all when suddenly I heard a new call, higher-pitched, shorter, and simpler than the weird grunting and moaning of the leopard frogs. I didn't really know what it was, but at least it wasn't a leopard frog, so I concentrated my search around where the new sound seemed to originate.

Shining my headlamp into the leaves of a huge bromeliad, I finally saw what I'd been looking for. It was a few feet in front of me, and bigger than I expected – its body was a little over 2 inches long. Now this was a tropical frog, not an old familiar Rana. Nothing about this guy looked familiar: It was a brilliant shade of green, with blue along the sides of its belly and legs, and huge eyes with vertical pupils. It could turn its head left and right, independent of its elongated body. Its movements were slow and deliberate, almost chameleon-like. Everything about this frog said I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Or California. Whatever.

Naturally, I had the wrong lens on the camera, and the frog was moving away from me. While changing lenses in the dark, I made my way around to the other side of the bromeliad and tried to get to where I thought the frog was heading. As I stepped deeper into the foliage, I was pretty sure I'd end up falling into the pond while trying to avoid one of the spiders that suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Eventually, though, I found the right spot and the frog stepped into view right in front of my camera.

I had photographed my first tropical frog. With its improbable colors, bulging eyes, and thoughtful gaze, it seemed to be welcoming me to Costa Rica.