In the left-hand pocket of Orange County's 5 and 55 freeways, a small, urban park conceals beneath rain-forest flora the Santa Ana Zoo, a blighted gem of cages and artificial rock, as dusty and frivolous as it is enticing to anyone with 4 bucks and some free time after 2 o'clock.
When founded 60 years ago, the zoo's main mission was to house at least 50 monkeys at all times. The many primate cages remain a highlight despite their unkempt manner, and the gardens, a meandering train and a new two-acre grassland, "Tierra de las Pampas," reveal the stops and starts of improvement. It is a city-owned park, after all, marked by the neglect and enthusiasm unique to government-run public projects.
While the zoo does not host the spectacle--or big animals--of nearby mega-zoos like those in San Diego and Los Angeles, it's still worth a visit, particularly to support its conservation efforts, including the breeding of endangered golden lion tamarins. These engaging creatures squeak to their audience as if attempting conversation, climb as if called to perform, and then--distracted by a questionable morsel or bored with their company--turn away with charming indifference.
Because of the zoo's proximity to major transportation corridors, the constant rush of traffic is unavoidable. The animals don't seem to mind the incessant white noise, except for the camels (wayward guests for the summer). They alone appeared nervous.
Join me on a leisurely climb into the watershed ecosystem of Mokelumne Wilderness, high in the Stanislaus National Forest. We travel northward and upward from 7,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level with compass in hand, the reassuring rush of Silver Creek to our east. From the parking lot we fail to find the Woodchuck Basin Trailhead: A long winter has covered its path, and we make our way without an established guide, taking our careful steps, for the most part, atop the remaining resilient tufts of snowpack--even as willowy streams roil beneath them. Founts of cold water, only moments ago trapped in ice, burst forth from limitless sources above; a liquid earth descends from the alpine meadows, overseen by ancient volcanic peaks and broken here and there by remnants of basaltic mud. As the scene transforms from waning winter to the promise of summer, the impatient detritus of spring awaits on warmed snow to return to the earth it knew in autumn. Pine trees slough off the chill and embrace the afternoon sun, a handful of tiny shoots pick out spots in the brightness to arise from the mud, the trickle of a thousand springs descends, and all around us the seasons intermingle in a sensuous entanglement of life and death, of color and light.
Thousand Palms, California. A protected natural refuge in the burgeoning urban desert features Washingtonia filifera, otherwise known as the California fan palm.
Along the edges of the San Andreas Fault, impermeable soil acts as a water trap and sustains these rare oases.
The six-mile Pushwalla trail ends at a large, thriving grove of America's only native palm. It follows a steep climb along the uplift of the Mission Creek fault, a fragment of the San Andreas Fault System that cuts a diagonal line from Southern California toward San Francisco and beyond.
Click on the photograph to follow in sequence a late-afternoon hike.
In northeast New Mexico, as some of you know, there are several old volcano cones, but only one has trees; that is Capulin, which last erupted about 30,000 years ago (if I remember what the video said in the visitors center). For $5 you can drive up around the cone and then follow two or three trails, one that leads into the caldera, long inactive, another around the rim.
The caldera proved to be quite the amphitheater, and I heard a mom down below (unseen here) tell her children that she needed to climb back out because she had to "go potty." Why wait?
The snow on the trees is actually some kind of frost event unique to that elevation and ecosystem; the lichens can be up to 20,000 years old, they say, though I'd never heard of anything living quite that long. Perhaps the writers of such brochures exaggerate. Perhaps only the ancestry extends that far, like everybody else's. I imagine a long line of European immigrants (or their descendants) crossing through the grasslands and hillsides of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles toward the Southwest and coming across this odd monument with a sort of relief: a sign from God in Heaven and all that, a precursor to the glory of the southern Rockies, a place to hide from savage Injuns still untended to by Washington.
A herd of pronghorn hung out on the boundary as I left, like smokers outside a high-rise. They and the cattle seemed both antagonistic and a bit skittish. Maybe it was the cold.
The ecosystem does its thing. Oh, some buildings burn, a handful, on the dry flora fringes of this concrete scab we call civilization. The nation freaks out, as if this is New Orleans. Do we gym-toned, suntanned "victims" look like we're bloated, floating on our backs in a flood of sewage? You can go back to your regularly scheduled programming. Leave us alone. We'll handle it. We have day laborers out here to push windblown eucalyptus leaves from the sidewalks and gutters and more quasi-documented slaves to detail the ashes off our cars. We're good. Half a million people evacuated doesn't mean they'll scatter far. It just means some temporary camp-outs in the living rooms of friends or family a couple miles down the road. Well-stocked schools and stadiums cover the rest, and no burning embers rain down upon them, just good will, particulate matter and smoke-filtered sunshine. In case you hadn't noticed, and you wouldn't, the real disasters are elsewhere: Darfur and Iraq, the Congo and the Yangzte, not to mention Washington. Yep. No real crisis would get so much attention.
The sky is orange, an apt color for this County of Orange, a place which long ago gave up the historical meaning of its name to suburban development and freeways, tollways, oh, and parkways, on which, coincidentally, you can drive 55. Not so on the 405, ever, and particularly when fire plays tag in the hills, and all the side roads north have closed down to keep lookey-loos (and naughty boys with matches) away from the windswept, combustible pre-developed landscape, staked out; its future high-end, luxury estates still in the planning stages. Not to worry, say the disembodied TV commentators, voices backed by the thrum of helicopters, their faces replaced by God's-eye images of His apocalypse: the fire in Irvine (an enormous swath of land, master-planned) lingers in an area only slated for growth; the flames skim over the top of concrete foundations, but nothing is built there--yet. For now, the natural disaster upstages the human disaster that has ravaged this poor land. None of us will ever live to see the recovery of that. For this landscape and its native ecosystem, this section of California, there is no recovery to come. We have zero containment on sprawl.
I park, after some hesitation, twenty miles west of that artificial megalopolis, a street hyper-urbanized for its appeal to sin-seeking tourists (and not, as defenders claim, to clean, green living).
It takes me nearly an hour of suburban navigation, red-light, green-light, to get this far, and now a family of Spanish-speaking neocolonialists falls out of a Chevy beside me, with--of all clichés--an unleashed chihuahua and five children similarly free. The parents unload peekneek baskets, and a grandfather, viejo hombrerenuente, takes his place in the back of the line, his thick fingers engaged in a tug-o-war with something lodged behind his molars.
So I don't know... I don't know if I want to hang around here, at the end of a week of work away from home. I suffer a particular consternation when faced with large families and the crescendo of their jubilance, their indifference to the public space they occupy. But what choice do I have? This is the option afforded stubborn 21st-century American single men with day jobs. We can't get very far before we have to return, and we are too tired, too cynical, to take this kind of amateur exploration seriously anymore. Small wonder. The mountains rise high toward the same blue sky that ceilings the Venetian and the new-and-absurd Caesars Palace, Mandalay Bay and Bellagio. These mountains, not supervised by engineers or even built by cheap labor--merely deposited, composited and then revealed, over time, by all the processes that continue on despite everything--will last longer, almost certainly, than that trash heap of metal and sewage down the hill. I succeed in hightailing it away from our neighbors among us, and I follow a steep embankment equidistant from two rock climbers. They stop to unpack their clanking equipment, and I descend what appears to be the "designated trail" indicated by a small sign placed obscurely on a post beside a stunted Joshua tree. Boot prints seem concurrent, and the scarce vegetation not trampled elsewhere assures me, somewhat, that I won't defy the limited direction implied by fine print: "Area of Ecological Concern."
The east wing of Red Rock Canyon "National Conservation Area" has a name, too, "Calico Hills," and numerous other assignations historically significant to no one in particular--the Paiute and Patayan, the inestimable numbers of wanderers before that--people long dead. Lucky for them, they had the place to themselves and could whoop it up, they could chase around on the rocks and score pictures of fauna and flora into the desert varnish without the consequences of a misdemeanor charge or my irrelevant frown. But the prehistoric marks of man yield less fascination than the geological casualties I find: fallen pieces of uplift collected at the bottom of the cliff like soldiers thrown off a battlement, their contusions caused by eroded iron ore collected within the sandstone. For at least a mile I wade through this carnage until the "trail" joins up with a dry wash, again designated only by the evidence of other hikers; the brand insignia of their heels in the sand, discarded wrappers, water-bottle caps. Then a stout, sturdy American Pit Bull Terrier, glistening brown, rises up and freezes on the jut of a white boulder ten yards ahead of me. That puts me at a standstill, too, until its owner calls out the beast's name and appears--a young man in camouflage shorts and a tan shirt, dog tags, with a lithe girl who says something; I can't remember the words. They grab hold of their pet's collar and hold it tight to their bare knees, but the animal still growls and barks something unintelligible that echoes like mortar fire; it flings pebbles from the pads of its strong feet and lurches, strains, a muscular mass of fury, made-to-order to mangle passersby.
I ask, "The trail continues on this way?" Internal alarms swirl and sound; external mechanisms remain somehow unresponsive. "Yeah, but you need to know the mountains." I take unexpressed offense at the boy's response, for this isn't his wilderness. To whom does it belong but everyone? Families out for lunch, enthusiasts who cling to the smooth cliff and gingerly hand each other ropes and metal pitons as they raise themselves higher toward the sun, soldiers on leave with their girlfriends, interrupted.
This place doesn't belong to me, anyway, not in the least. I continue on, and the trail, I think, disappears into a disarray of stones, none of which match, like a drawer full of buttons. I scrabble at my own pace and make it into a ravine of sorts, where I'm sure once or twice a year a good flash flood wells up and pours through like a jungle river. I see evidence of horrific torrents in the twisted cactus roots exposed, the way everything seems upside down and forced against will into an aggregate dump.
For now, all remains still, holds tight and crisp in the autumn heat and waits to see what I will do. The whole Earth waits.
The high-rise shadow of megastructures protects me from the sun in the morning. I think of this as the only advantage to their incredible height and breadth and excess. Every year, four late Septembers in a row, I walk to work on this gaudy, tawdry strip. I dodge tourists with cameras pointed upwards. I wait for the dust behind a bulldozer to settle so I can cross with a crowd at the light. Each time I return, a new stack of several thousand more flights hangs within steel frames, erected by the same handful of developers, paid for by the wide game room at their base and the nickels of seniors, the desperate last bids of the poor, the blank checks of foreign high rollers, the fleeced wallets of the willing, dwindling middle class. And meanwhile, the imploded former icons of garish entertainment augur future projects that make Liberace's coat look like a mud flap.
Yet the people around me disagree in their numbers and in their smiles. They find this place wondrous and exciting, delighted by the giddy thrill of kids at a carnival for adults.
As usual the appeal escapes me. I don't know from popular. I imagine the spectacle of a desert basin left alone, of the green remnant that was "the marshes," "the fertile valley": las vegas, an oasis centered in a wide stretch of baked sand. I live in the wrong time, as the saying goes, but at any other time I would probably be dead. The thing is I live now, not in self-imposed exile but incredulous and pretty much on my own. The billions spent here to erect ever more elaborate houses of cards, expressions of ego and one-upsmanship, could eradicate urban blight, could clothe and house and educate millions, could rebuild Detroit and New Orleans and criss-cross the country with passenger trains, could discover cures or new sources of power, could re-ice the Arctic or figure out a way to replay time so we could witness Rome's ignominy and see in slow-motion the same process of its extremes in full flower here.
As I wander a little on Thursday night on the dark street under the monorail, a skinny fortyish woman in blue jeans and a long-sleeved striped shirt, either a size too large or no longer fitting, stands on the median of Paradise and Sahara. She sees me, her shock of grimy hair caught in the glare of headlights from an SUV, her body backlit by the sheen of the Hilton a couple blocks away. As I pass she raises her cupped hand to her mouth and forms a circle with her fingers, then jerks them quickly back and forth.
"No thanks," would be the answer to the question if she had asked it. I feel the same way about the whole sad, sick, pathological town that stretches out away from us, that hemorrhages, blinking, glittering toward the horizon, far and wide from this wayward and desperate moment.
One forgets or ignores the easy slide of time; like a glacier, it seems so vast and inefficient, but it moves far and fast and does a lot of damage.
A few more rocks have tumbled down the granite walls, and some trees have toppled, split apart, disintegrated both by the crash and the critter aftermath. The wilderness is a majestic place of constant decomposition. It seems timeless, but as I kicked along the trail I viewed the permanence as an illusion, a drawn-out process of constant change. The only reality is change, after all. Isn't that what they say? It is the one thing you can count on and never predict. The Earth is like a perpetual drunk, faltering, reliably inconsistent.
Click here for some photographs if you have time to wait for the flash to download. It's over 5 mb. Such an extravagant waste of unnatural resources.
The collective child in our heads
gains exit through our fingertips,
wildly developing an illicit web
of quiet rage.
Wrapped inside such warm cocoons,
we sleep awake,
trapped within this cyber stage
content, alone, "communicating,"
distracted from our age.
And yet the welcoming refrains
create abstract online alliances;
these encounters, so unlikely,
so remote, in any case,
are like the stars we seem to think
we could carve right from the sky:
a thousand light years from our eyes.