Goatsuckers in the Night… Let’s Go Backpacking! Part 1

Putting a pack on my back makes me happy. It means I am heading out for another wilderness adventure. This gorgeous Incense Cedar graced my camp and became the subject of many photos. Incense Cedars are normally found around the 4-5 thousand foot level in the northern Sierras.


I’ve been out on a solo backpack trip this past week at the 5000-foot level in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Interstate 80, about half way between Sacramento and Reno. Peggy drove me up from Sacramento where she was spending time with her 96-year-old mother.


I first started backpacking 48 years ago. Peggy caught this photo as I was prepared to head out on last Sunday.

It was time. Peggy took out her camera for a couple of photos, I shouldered my backpack, waved goodbye, and headed down the jeep road that led to Eagle Lakes. Since it was Sunday, most of the four-wheel enthusiasts were coming out, joyously running their vehicles up and over treacherous rock piles and though waist-deep mud holes. It’s not my thing, but I admire the people who are passionate about the sport. I was raised in El Dorado County, California, home to the granddaddy of all four-wheeling events, the Jeepers Jamboree. Mark Smith created the event in 1953 and it is still going strong.

Does this look like a road to you? It’s the type of challenge that gets a four-wheeler’s heart racing— one they dream of and are long after telling tales about.

I placed my trekking pole on the road to provide a perspective. Yes, jeepers drive over this! As for the dark stain you see, think oil pan…

A series of four-wheel clubs help maintain this road and the camping areas. Most of these groups have a fairly strong wilderness ethic. I thought that the Madhatters was the most entertaining name.

They even carry out their poop!

My goal wasn’t to hike the jeep road, however. It was to hike beyond the jeep road and beyond the numerous four-wheelers who were out for a weekend drive or camping trip. Actually, it wasn’t hard. All I needed to do was to travel a couple of miles past where the jeep road ended. Whereas, four-wheeling isn’t my sport, hiking and backpacking aren’t sports for most four-wheelers. I found a delightful spot and only saw four people while I was there: two hikers and two mountain bikers. One of the hikers, a good Christian fellow, even stopped to bless me… and Peggy… and our children… and our grandchildren… and any pets we happened to own. I was beginning to wonder if he would ever stop, but finally, he ran out of breath. I quickly thanked him and he happily went on his way— his job done.

I didn’t travel particularly far, but it was an adventure for me. I wanted to see how my ‘senior’ body would handle the trip. I’ve been backpacking for 48 years and have several thousand trail miles behind me from the tundra to the tropics, so it isn’t like I’m inexperienced. Mentally, I was ready to go. More than ready. But would the knees, and the hips, and the back, and miscellaneous other body parts agree? Well, I am here to report that they whined a bit. In fact, they whined a lot. They always do on the first outing of the year. But they also knew that whining alone wouldn’t get them back to the easy chair they love so much. I hiked along at 2 to 2 ½ miles per hour, which is a good pace for backpacking in the mountains, and eventually, they shut up.

I was one tired puppy when I found a place to camp, however. I unpacked, set up my kitchen, cooked my gourmet dinner (i.e. boiled water and poured it onto freeze-dried food), put up my tent, and anxiously waited for the sun to go down. I was ready to climb into my sleeping bag. Unfortunately, the longest day in the year (for those of us who live north of the Equator) was only a day away, and the sun didn’t want to cooperate. It lingered until 9:00. There was ample time for the ants, and flies, and mosquitoes, and several other biting bugs to enjoy the fortuitous feast that had arrived in their tiny corner of the universe. And feast they did, apparently giving me an allergic reaction. I sneezed and sneezed and sneezed and sneezed. My nose ran so fast that I had to put on my running shoes to catch up. I was still sneezing when the sun miraculously went down and I crawled into my tent, removing three large ants who had missed out on dinner.

I amused myself while waiting for the sun to set by wandering around taking photos. This was the pond I camped next to.

Lily pads came close to covering the water. This shot reminded me of the work done by the Impressionist painters. Monet would have had his brush out.

Old Man Mountain loomed above me, a reminder that much of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is composed of granite.

This was my view looking up when I arrived and cooked dinner.

The same view later. It was just about bed time!

I walked out to check out the sunset…

And enjoyed the reflection in the pond.

There was no climbing into my sleeping bag, however. It was too damned hot. When Peggy and I had left Sacramento for our 60-mile drive into the mountains, the thermometer was pushing 109 degrees. It was cooler in the Sierras, but still in the 90s. Hiking in the heat was part of the reason I was so bushed. And now, along with the incessant sneezing, it was keeping me awake. I laid there in my altogether on top of my Therm-a-Rest mattress, took an antihistamine, and waited. Finally, things calmed and cooled down. I began to doze off. That’s when the other shoe dropped. The thousand frogs (slight exaggeration) that lived in the shallow lake next to where I was camping began to croak, all at once. I’d just managed to tune them out when the Goatsucker flew over.

Goatsucker? Was I beginning to lose it? Not exactly. For those of you who aren’t card carrying members of the Audubon Society, goatsuckers are members of a fairly large, noisy family of night birds. Whip-poor-wills are an example. My particular nemesis wasn’t a Whip-poor-will with its mournful all-night jabber, though, it was a Nighthawk, who had his own unique way of making noise. You can tell they are in the neighborhood when you hear their distinct “peent, peent” calls, but that’s only the beginning. In order to win their lady-love’s favor, the males climb high into the sky, close their wings and dive bomb the objects of their affection. Just as they reach the females, they open their wings. The wind rushing through their primary feathers makes a loud bloop sound. The bigger the boy, the louder the bloop. Apparently, it turns the girls on.

As to how the family obtained the name goatsucker, there’s an interesting story that goes way back in time to Europe. It starts with the fact that the birds have tiny beaks that open up to huge mouths they use for catching insects. In Europe, they liked to hang about around smelly goats at night that attracted lots of bugs. But the Europeans believed that the birds had a more nefarious purpose in mind. They believed that they were using their large mouths to grab hold of the nanny goats’ teats and suck them dry. Here’s what Pliny, the Roman Elder, had to say about them in 71 CE. (1601 CE interpretation.)

The Caprimulgi (so called of milking goats) are like the bigger kind of Owsels. They bee night-theeves; for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the goat-pens, and to the goats udders presently they goe, and suck the milke at their teats. And looke what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milke, but misliketh and falleth away afterwards, and the goats become blind withall.

They were bad birds indeed. Not only did they steal nanny’s milk; her teats fell off and she went blind as well. Anyway, with this thought in mind I eventually fell asleep to the sounds of nature: croak, croak, peent, peent, BLOOP!

In my walk-about after dinner, I discovered that the Incense Cedar I featured at the top of the post was actually two trees. Fire, possibly set by lightning, had burned out the space between the twins.

I shot up the trunks for a different perspective.

I’ll conclude today’s post with a picture of the twin cedars being caught in the early morning sun the next day.

NEXT POST: Let’s go backpacking: Part 2… An ugly pit viper comes slithering into my kitchen.








What to Do When Attacked by a Herd of Elk… Play Ape

Peggy photographed this herd of elk near the Redwoods last year.

Since I am off backpacking by myself in the wilderness, I thought I would repost a blog from when I was off on another solo adventure. This time I was heading into the Gila Wilderness next to Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southern New Mexico. I had just returned from Alaska and was taking six months off to backpack in the West.

Where I was going backpacking in the Gila Wilderness was something of a mystery to me. I didn’t have a clue.

My pack was loaded with a week’s worth of food and six topographic maps, more than enough to let me wander wherever I wanted and hopefully avoid getting lost. I had started off up the West Fork of the Gila River in the Cliff Dwellings National Monument but soon came across a trail jogging out of the canyon to the right.

Looks good to me, I thought to myself and started climbing. I was determined that wherever I went for the week would be based on random decisions. So much of my wilderness experience had involved leading groups or scouting out potential routes for organized trips that the sense of abandon felt delicious.

Consequently, years later, it isn’t exactly clear to me where I went. I was more than happy to hike 4 to 5 miles in one direction and then 6 or 7 in another. The only thing I tried to avoid was backtracking. I do remember wandering through Woodland Park and Lilly Park as well as climbing in and out of several canyons.

I had brought along two science fiction books for evening and early morning entertainment. Southern New Mexico is UFO Country. I was also carrying my usual field ID book and one serious read, Aldo Leopold’s “Sand Country Almanac.” Leopold had been responsible for the creation of the Gila Wilderness in 1924, making it the first specifically designated wilderness area in the United States, and, I might add, the world. People who love wild country and understand its intrinsic value owe a great debt to the man for his vision. I had read the book before but reading it again in the Gila Wilderness added a special significance.

I declared a layover day so I could savor it all at once. I was camped on a small stream located in a minor canyon and hadn’t seen a soul for four days. It was the perfect setting for getting lost in a book.

At some time in the early afternoon, a loud “Woooeee” shattered the silence.

Big Bird, I thought to myself. Big Bird on steroids. Aldo Leopold would have been up in a flash to discover the source. Of course, he would have had his rifle with him. He was quite the hunter. As usual, my only weapon was a dull three-inch pocketknife. Still, the mountain man in me demanded I get off my lazy tail and go exploring. I grabbed my binoculars and climbed out of the canyon. I was greeted by a broad, flat expanse of Ponderosa Pines but no Big Bird. “Woooeee,” I heard receding into the distance.  I put on my stalking cap and begin to sneak through the forest.

“Woooeee!” Big Bird shouted behind me. I whirled around only to catch a glimpse of something disappearing behind a bush. Big Bird it wasn’t. Nor was it the ghost of Geronimo, whose territory I was wandering through. It looked suspiciously like a cow elk that had morphed from stalkee to stalker. I wasn’t sure that I liked my new role but decided to play along.

“Woooeee,” I called out and jumped behind a Ponderosa.

“Woooeee,” I heard a delayed three minutes later. I stepped into the open to discover that my female companion had come out from behind her bush and was staring intently at my tree.

“Woooeee,” I shouted at her as she once again disappeared. We had a game. A cow elk was wooing me.

Years earlier I had discovered that much of the higher animal kingdom is quite curious about humans that don’t act like humans. I once had a similar experience to my elk chat with a coyote on the American River Parkway in Sacramento. First I would hide and then he would hide. Finally, out of frustration, the coyote plopped down in the middle of the trail, raised its head, and began howling. I plopped down in the trail as well, raised my head and joined him. We had quite the discussion.

The elk and I continued our game for about 15 minutes when I changed the rules. I sat down in plain sight with my back against the tree. Instead of hiding, she stood watching me for several minutes. I could tell the wheels were grinding away in her mind.

Suddenly she charged. I didn’t move from my seat but my adrenalin cranked up several notches. She was all of 10 feet away when she slammed on her brakes, lowered her head, stared me in the eye, and woooeeed again. Half fascinated and half frightened, I didn’t budge. Several hundred pounds of frustrated female were looming over me. I had zero doubt that she could kick the stuffing out of me. She held my gaze, snorted in disgust, shook her head, and trotted off.

While smaller than the bull elk, there is nothing puny about the females. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Whatever conversation we had been having was over. I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to camp. My first chore was to get out my guidebook. Female elks, it noted, can become rather aggressive and dangerous in the spring when they have calves. I’d been both ignorant and lucky.

After dinner, I went for my evening walk following an animal path that ambled along beside the creek. I heard a snort and looked up. Five elk were standing on the canyon rim staring down at me. The old girl had recruited some buddies to check out the weird human.  Unfortunately, this time I knew enough to be worried. I was an intruder in their territory, a possible threat to their precious babies.

My worry level turned to panic when all five came charging down the canyon wall. One moose had been scary; now I had the whole damn thundering herd! Running was out of the question. Think, Curtis, went dashing through my brain. The only thing I could dredge up was something I had fantasized I might do if charged by a grizzly bear in the wilds of Alaska. I started jumping up and down, scratching my armpits, pounding on my chest, and screaming ooh, ooh, ooh! It worked for great apes, why not me.

For the second time that day, I heard the screeching of elk brakes. This time there was no standing and staring, however. The herd turned as one and charged back over the canyon rim, disappearing into the night. Somewhat satisfied with myself, I returned to camp and the security of my tent.

I wandered around for another two days, keeping an eye out for UFO’s, steering clear of cow elk, and visiting sites where this or that pioneer had been killed by Apaches. The pioneers also did a pretty good job of killing off each other, not to mention the Indians. With my food running low, I finally ceased my wandering ways and hiked back to the National Monument.

NEXT BLOG: A beaver comes to visit in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.

Note: I am still out backpacking and will respond to comments when I return.



Stuck in the Snow with Tania… On Meeting a Terrorist Group in the Sierras

Patty Hearst, holding an automatic weapon, proudly posed for a photo in front of the seven headed cobra symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army.


I’ve now written about two of three adventures from my 20s when I was hunting and fishing: one about escaping from a lightning storm and the other about searching for a lost friend in a snow storm. Both of them were on the scary side. This tale fits the category of being scary, but it was also strange.

“Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.” —Motto of the Symbionese Liberation Army


The final of our three adventures was more in the nature of a scouting trip. We had driven up into the mountains early in the spring to look for likely fishing holes. Trout season was only a few weeks away. The mountains were still coated with snow. We drove up an ever-narrowing road until a snow bank suggested that further progress was best left up to animals with big furry feet. Stopping fifty feet before the end, we parked and got out to stretch our legs.

We had wandered no more than a few feet when a white van came roaring up behind us and tried to slip by the right side of our car without slowing down. Normally it wouldn’t have been more than an irritation but the narrowness of the road combined with the snow left just enough room for one and one half cars, not two.  We watched in slow motion disbelief as the van barely missed our vehicle, slid into the snow, and became seriously stuck.

“Yes!” we said in unison, there is justice in this world. Right about then the side door of the van opened and disgorged a polyglot group of rough-looking characters. “Whoa,” I mumbled more quietly, “we had better keep our opinions to ourselves.” While two or three of the men bent down to look under the van, a not so rough, in fact an attractive young woman, disentangled herself from the group and came strolling over to where we were standing.

“I am in love,” Hunt mumbled. Bob and I joined the admiration society while an elusive thought began tugging at the back of my mind.

“Hi, guys,” she smiled at us, becoming even lovelier. “Do you have any guns in your car?”

My tiny elusive thought suddenly became a very large insistent nag. Pretty girls don’t normally start conversations by asking whether you are carrying weapons. Hunt, on the other hand, was beaming. He liked guns and girls that liked guns.

“I have a twenty-two along,” he announced proudly.

“Oh,” she replied, apparently a little disappointed at the size of Hunt’s gun. “My friends taught me how to shoot automatic weapons in the Bay Area. We are up here to practice.” It was stated with the same type of pride a new mother might talk about her child’s first steps or words. My large, insistent nag turned in to a three-stage fire alert. What was a pretty girl doing in the mountains hanging out with a scruffy looking group blithely talking about shooting automatic weapons?

Meanwhile Hunt had suggested that he and his new friend take the twenty-two out for a little practice since it was obvious that the van wasn’t going anywhere quickly. I don’t remember how I managed it, but I pulled Hunt and Bob aside sans beauty for a very quick and quiet conversation.

“I am not one hundred percent sure,” I began, “but I think the young woman who likes big guns is Patty Hearst, aka Tania, and that her friends over at the van are members of the SLA. If I am right, we are in a very dangerous situation.”

The SLA, or Symbionese Liberation Army, was one of the more bizarre and misled of the radical groups to be born out of the ferment of the late 60s and early 70s. Viewing itself as an urban guerrilla movement, SLA’s first action of note had been to gun down Dr. Marcus Foster, the black Superintendent of Oakland Schools, and seriously wound his deputy, Robert Blackburn. Blackburn had earlier served as Peace Corps Director of Somalia and then gone on to work for the Philadelphia School System. He had been responsible for recruiting my first wife, Jo Ann, and I as teachers when we left the Peace Corps. It would have been hard to find two people more committed to helping disadvantaged inner city kids in America than Foster and Blackburn.

SLA’s next major public statement was to kidnap Patty Hearst, heiress to the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearse, while she was a student at UC Berkeley. At some point, Patty switched from being an unwilling kidnap victim to willing participant in SLA and adopted the name of Tania, who had been a girlfriend of Che Guevara. The common assumptions were that Hearst was brainwashed or a victim of the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response through which a kidnap victim comes to associate with his or her captors. Certainly, the young woman we talked with was proud of her skill with automatic weapons and had the freedom to come over and chat with us. She hardly seemed like an unwilling prisoner.

In 1974 Patty participated in a San Francisco bank robbery and then moved to Los Angeles with the SLA where several members of the group met their death in a fiery confrontation with LA police. Some 400 LAPD officers had surrounded a house occupied by SLA and emptied over 5,000 rounds into the structure. Patty, who wasn’t there, watched the whole confrontation on television. She, along with William and Emily Harris, then fled to Pennsylvania for several months before making their way to Sacramento and another bank robbery.

There was enough connection with Hearst and the SLA that I suggested we go over to the van, smile a lot, and help the nice folks get unstuck— which we did. They drove up to the end of the road, turned around, carefully edged by our car and headed off down the mountain. We waved and smiled vigorously as they disappeared.

Was it Patty Hearst and the SLA? The timing was right, the young woman looked like Patty, and the group could have fit a description of the SLA. I have often pondered the question.  In May of 1975, the SLA robbed a bank in Sacramento (Carmichael) and a young mother, Myrna Opsahl, was shot and killed. Patty Hearst drove the get-a-way vehicle. It was one more sad and sordid event in the history of the SLA. In most ways this group of want-to-be revolutionaries was a group of losers. Their murder of Marcus Foster was regarded with disgust by most members of the radical community. It was their kidnapping of Patty Hearst and, even more so, the fiery shootout in LA that gave the organization status.

As for Hearst, I have no doubt that the Stockholm syndrome played a role in her behavior. But I am also convinced there was more. The atmosphere of the time encouraged radical thinking and Patty, who was something of a rebel, was living in a cauldron of dissent at Berkeley. I suspect it wasn’t all that hard to slip into a role of radical chic.

NEXT BLOG: What to do when an elk attacks: Play ape.

NOTE: I am away backpacking and kayaking. I’ll respond to comments when I return.




Playing Dodge Ball with Bounding Boulders on Big Sur’s Iconic Highway 1

Waves crash against the shore along Big Sur’s picturesque coast.

It was raining hard and our view of the Pacific Ocean was limited to pretty much nothing. We were working our way north through Big Sur country along California’s iconic Highway 1 perched on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean. An orange Cal-Tran’s (the California Department of Transportation) sign warned us to be prepared to stop. And we were. You pay attention to such things when you are driving on a wet, narrow, curvy road with the threat of an all-to-brief flying lesson.

“There’s the flagger,” Peggy warned, and I slowed down from turtle to snail pace. No one else was in line so I stopped at where he was standing. He signaled for me to lower my window. I expected him to tell us that the road was one-lane ahead. Closures are to be expected on Highway 1 during the winter. Either the downhill side is sliding into the ocean or the uphill side is covered with rocks and dirt. This time it was different.

Lane closures are to be expected along California’s coastal Highway 1 north and south of San Francisco.

“We have a spotter just up the road,” he told me. “He’s watching for rocks bounding down the cliff.” I looked ahead and saw the spotter 100 feet ahead. “As soon as he is sure nothing is crashing down, we’ll give you the go ahead to cross the area. Don’t stop.” Don’t stop? Talk about unnecessary advice. A rousing game of dodge ball with bounding boulders has never appealed to me. I was just sorry I couldn’t race through at 100 miles an hour. So were Quivera the van and Peggy. I made my way across at a nervous 30 while Peggy looked up the cliff for rocks— mentally forcing them to stay put while floor-boarding the gas pedal in her imagination. I’m pretty sure her right foot was cramped afterward.

Landslides along Highway 1 are frequent during the wet months. The nature of the rocks and soil in the area, frequent California earthquakes, and ocean waves crashing against the cliffs all contribute. When water from rain or springs is added to the equation as a lubricant, portions of the hillsides go tumbling into the ocean far too often. Highway 1 through Big Sur has been closed over 55 times since it was carved out of the cliffs in 1937. The heavy rains this past season have made for one of the worst years ever.

Crashing waves are responsible for some of the Pacific Ocean’s most scenic views, but they can also undercut cliffs leading to landslide danger. Note the lone fisherman with a red coat perched on the rock trying to catch fish in the pounding surf.

I had planned to drive down the Big Sur coast from Carmel to Hearst Castle on my recent trip to the Central Coast but the road was blocked 20 miles down the road. The rains had caused the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to crack and it couldn’t be repaired. Cal Trans was forced to knock it down. The transportation department estimates the bridge can be rebuilt by September. A landslide was also blocking the road further on. Businesses along the highway were suffering. The normal thousands of visitors had slowed to a trickle. One resort had even turned to flying in guests by helicopter.

And it was about to get worst.

On Saturday, May 20, four weeks ago and one week after I had left the area, over one million tons of rock went sliding into the ocean just north of Gorda, about 60 miles south of Carmel/Monterrey. It’s in the same area where Peggy and I had played dodge rock a few years earlier. Locals are calling it the Mother of all Landslides. One third of a mile along Highway 1 is now covered by 65 feet of dirt and rock and there are 13 acres of new shore front property. Someone (with apparently too much time on his hands) has estimated that 800 Olympic sized pools could be filled with the dirt.

Who knows how long it will take to clear the area, but Cal-Trans is working away. Keeping the road open is a priority, regardless of time and expense. Highway 1 is regarded as one of the most scenic highways in the world. And I heartily concur. In addition to driving the road many times and camping out along the ocean, I have also bicycled it, which was an incredible experience.

A scenic view along Highway 1 in Big Sur.

The area’s renowned beauty has also served as a prime attraction to writers, artists and counter-culture types. One was Henry Miller, who has a memorial museum located just south of the now defunct Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Miller moved to the area in 1944 while his semi-biographical books, The Tropic of Cancer and The Topic of Capricorn, were still banned in the US for obscenity. I had managed to pick up copies and read them in the early 60s, before either they, or I, were yet legal. I don’t remember anything about the sex, but I do remember Miller’s incredible power of observation and description. It totally transported me to another world. (The museum has been temporarily relocated to the Barnyard Shopping Center in Carmel.)

If you keep driving south on Highway 1 another 20 miles or so below the Miller museum, you come to Esalen, known worldwide as a center for the human potential movement and new age thinking. The shotgun-toting writer, Hunter S. Thomson, served as a caretaker for the Big Sur Hot Springs before it became Esalen. At the time, the old hotel on the property was occupied by a Pentecostal group while the hot springs were normally filled with gay men from San Francisco. (It’s difficult to imagine Thomson, the Pentecostals and San Francisco gays in close proximity during the late 50s.)

Michael Murphy and his friend Richard Price leased the land from Michael’s grandmother in 1962 with the idea of creating a center for non-traditional studies free from the restraints of academia. Encouraged by Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Gregory Bateson, they founded Esalen. Workshops on encounter groups, sensory awakening, and gestalt awareness were soon being offered. The faculty was close to a who’s who of the human potential movement. Included among the luminaries were Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow, Arnold Toynbee, Ansel Adams, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Linus Pauling, Carl Rogers, BF Skinner, and Fritz Perls.  I was amused at how many of these people have written books that I’ve read over the years, which I guess says something about me.

While my trip down the coast wasn’t to be, I did drive the few miles I could and captured enough photos to provide a feel for Big Sur country— but the dramatic, thousand-foot cliffs you find further south along the coast are absent. Those will have to wait for another trip. Maybe I’ll take a class at Esalen and re-up my New Age credentials. (grin)

Big Sur is noted for its classic bridges that were built during the Great Depression of the 1930’s as a means of putting people to work. This is the Garrapta Creek Bridge built in 1931.

Another of the Big Sur bridges I photographed on my trip.

And a third. Bright colors at the base caught my attention.

Even these classic reminders of another era can’t escape graffiti.

Numerous flowers, such as this Milk Thistle decorate the roadsides in Big Sur.

The Milk Thistle gets its name from the white sap that flows through its veins.

This beauty belongs to an Ice Plant, which is actually an invasive species.

I assumed that this was a morning-glory.

Another shot.

No trip to Big Sur is complete without visiting the beach, assuming you can get to it.

Crashing waves are a given. Hear the roar! Feel the spray!

Each wave has its own personality, which varies per second.

Crashing over rocks adds another element of beauty and drama.

An old-time black and white rendition.

Another perspective.

And another.

Impressive rocks always catch my attention.

I’ll conclude today with this blue-gray shaded granitic rock that contrasted sharply with the gold-colored sedimentary rocks beyond it.

NEXT BLOG: Join me as I encounter Patty Hearst, a.k.a. Tanya, and her kidnappers/comrades, the 1970s terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I’ll be out backpacking by myself for several days, which means I will be totally away from any internet connections. I did pick up a Spot Gen 3 Satellite GPS messenger at REI yesterday, however. If I break a leg, I can hit the SOS button and shoot out a message to local emergency responders with my exact location. Peggy worried enough about me when I went off traipsing in the wilderness by myself when I was a brash young man of 60. Now I am an older, more mature fellow of 74, she worries even more.


Lost in a Sierra Snow Storm… When the Stakes Are Survival

There is beauty in freshly fallen snow, but there can also be danger. Avalanches, hypothermia and getting lost are three frightening possibilities. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)


This is the second of three stories about  my years of hunting and fishing during my 20s. I wrote about escaping from a massive lightning storm in my last post. This time I am going to write about another hazard of wilderness travel: getting caught in a snow storm. Once again, I was out hunting with my friends Bob and Hunt, along with another friend we had grown up with in Diamond Springs, Phil Dunlop. As usual, I was enjoying the excuse to be out in the woods. Deer season had come down to its last weekend…

Pushing the season to its limit meant risking bad weather. We were hunting north of Highway 50 in El Dorado National Forest about 30 miles west of Lake Tahoe one Saturday afternoon in late October when the snowflakes started drifting lazily out of the sky.

It wasn’t much to worry about; we zipped up our coats and continued hunting. If anything, the gently falling snow added an enjoyable element to the trip. But it kept snowing and the flakes became more serious. After a couple of hours there were six inches of the white stuff on the ground and my tracks were beginning to disappear. I decided it was time to make a judicious retreat to the T-bone steaks that were waiting for us back at the jeep. I soon ran into Hunt who was walking with Phil.

“Have you seen Bob?” I asked. He and I had parted an hour earlier at the edge of a large thicket of brush where Bob had been convinced he would jump an evasive buck.

“I haven’t seen him since it started to snow,” was Hunt’s reply. Phil hadn’t see him since lunch. Normally we wouldn’t have been overly concerned; we were used to traipsing around through the woods on our own. But evening was coming, the temperature was dropping, and the snow was continuing to accumulate.

“Maybe Bob has more sense than we do and has already returned to the jeep,” Phil suggested. That seemed logical so we made the short 15-minute walk back to it. No Bob.

“This is getting worrisome guys,” I said in a definitely worried tone. It wasn’t like Bob to be late for dinner. “Let’s go back to where I saw him last and see if we can find his tracks.” The advantage of snow is that it leaves a trail even a city slicker can follow, assuming that it hasn’t already covered the tracks. Even then there is usually a remnant of dimples in the snow.

These turkey tracks show how clear tracks can be in the snow.

Unfortunately, no tracks or convincing trail-like dimples were to be found. I did spot the tracks of a very large deer, but they disappeared at the edge of the thicket.

“It looks like the buck stops here,” I said to Phil and elicited a weak groan. I suggested we split up and look around.

“We need to meet back here in 30 minutes,” I urged. “Don’t go far and pay attention to where you are going. It is getting close to dark and the last thing we need is a second person missing. If you come across Bob’s tracks, fire your rifle and we will join you.” My degree of concern was reflected in my bossiness. Normally we were a very democratic, almost anarchical group.

Ten minutes later I had made my way to the other side of the thicket and found nothing. Neither had I heard any rifle shots announcing neither Hunt nor Phil had success. Discouraged, I turned around to rejoin my fellow searchers. It was then I spotted tracks leading out of the thicket. Up went my Winchester and I fired off a shot.

“Bang!” the sound of another rifle being fired resounded from the direction Bob’s track had headed. I quickly levered in another bullet and fired again. There was no response. I did hear Phil and Hunt making their way through the brush toward me, though. They sounded like a pair of large bears. We held another council. Once again, we decided to split up.

Phil would return to the road where the jeep was parked and flag down a car. His job was to get a message through to the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department that Bob was missing. Hunt would cut back through the thicket and wait on the jeep trail where the thicket began in case Bob made his way back there. He’d fire his rifle if Bob appeared. I was going to follow Bob’s tracks until dark to see if I couldn’t catch up with him. There was only about 30 minutes of daylight left so the odds were slim. My concern was that Bob had somehow injured himself and was stranded, or that he had become disoriented and become lost.

Following the tracks was a challenge. They would be clear for a few yards and then disappear under the snow. It was continuing to fall and beginning to drift, whipped on by a strong breeze. Each time I lost the tracks I would work forward in a zigzag pattern until I found them again. It didn’t help that Bob was tending to wander or that I was tired from a full day of tramping over mountains avoiding deer. Dusk was rapidly approaching when I came across another set of tracks that crossed the trail I was following. They were fresher, and they were also Bob’s! I yelled but the only response was the silence of the snow filled woods. It seemed to me that Bob was beginning to follow the classic lost person syndrome of wandering in circles.

I wanted to go on, needed to go on, but knew that the decision would be the wrong one. Dark had arrived to reduce an already limited visibility. I was tired, close to exhaustion, and cold. Hypothermia was a real threat. Ever so reluctantly I turned around and begin to make my way back toward Hunt, leaving Bob behind to face whatever fate the dark and snow and cold had in store for him.

The realization of how tired I was really hit me when I came to a downed tree and couldn’t persuade my leg to step over. We had quite the discussion. I reached down, grabbed my pants cuff and gave the reluctant appendage a boost. Hunt was waiting where we agreed and I filled him in on my findings as we made way back to the jeep through the ever-deepening snow.

Phil had had more luck. The vehicle he flagged down had a CB Radio and the driver was able to contact the Sheriff’s office. A team with snowmobiles would be at our jeep at first light, prepared for a full search and rescue operation. Bob, who was manager of Placerville’s newspaper, The Mountain Democrat, was well-known and liked in the community. We knew we would have lots of support in our search.

There wasn’t anything else we could do. We were too tired to set up the tent so we climbed in the jeep, grabbed a bite to eat, downed a Bud, and prepared for a long night. Hunt got the front seat—it was his jeep— and Phil and I shared the back. It was beyond uncomfortable and even exhaustion couldn’t drive me to sleep. Somewhere around two I finally managed to doze off only to be awakened at 5:30 by Hunt’s cussing about how damn cold it was. And it was. Our sleeping bags hadn’t kept us warm and the doors had frozen shut. We had to kick them open. We soon had our Coleman lantern blasting out light and our Coleman stove cooking up a mass of bacon, eggs and potatoes. We were expecting a long day and knew we would need whatever energy the food could supply. The storm had passed, leaving an absolutely clear sky filled with a million twinkling stars.

The Sheriff’s team arrived just as the sun was climbing above the Crystal Range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, exactly on time. Introductions were made, snowmobiles unloaded and we filled the team in on our efforts of the previous day. The deputy sheriff in charge asked me to climb onto the back of his snowmobile and take them to the point where I had left Bob’s tracks the night before. It was to be my first ever snowmobile ride; except it wasn’t.

Just as the search team was firing up their engines, a wraithlike figure wearing a plastic poncho came slowly hiking up the hill toward the jeep. He looked like a bad guy out of an early Clint Eastwood western. It was Bob. As soon as the sun provided a hint of dawn, he had managed to orient himself and start walking back toward the jeep. Yes, he was freezing, but he was alive. We knew just how alive he was when he demanded his share of breakfast. As we cooked up another mass of bacon and eggs (fortunately we hadn’t eaten everything), Bob told us his story.

He had become disoriented after coming out of the thicket and headed off in the direction he thought would take him back to the jeep. It didn’t. He fired his rifle several times to get our attention but the sound of shots is fairly common in the forest during hunting season. We just assumed a deer hunter had gotten lucky. Bob continued wandering and eventually came across his own tracks. That was when he seriously began to worry.

Knowing he was lost and knowing night was coming on, he gathered wood for a fire. The wood was wet and refused to start burning. Bob’s lighter ran out of fuel but he still had a few matches. He took his lighter apart, placing the innards under the wet wood and used his last matches to light it. The good news was that the fire started. The bad news was that the wind and snow put it out almost immediately. It was some time during this process that I had fired my rifle and Bob had used his last shot to respond. Out of options, he had dug out a packrat’s nest to provide shelter and prepared for the longest night in his life. He had survived in lodging that made Hunt’s ancient jeep seem like a five-star hotel.

“I even fell asleep once or twice,” Bob managed to get out around a mouthful of eggs.

Of course, the Mountain Democrat ran a major story on Bob and he had to take considerable ribbing in Placerville over the next several months. It was a small price to pay considering the alternatives. That Christmas Bob received several compasses for gifts. It was years before he had tolerance for any temperature below 70.

I took this photo out my front door of our home in Oregon. And then went back inside…


The Man: It’s time in my Burning Man series to visit the Man— and witness Black Rock City’s premier ceremony, the Saturday night burn.

Big Sur: Noted for being one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the world, my visit is limited by massive landslides.

Patty: My friends and I were on a preseason scouting trip for trout streams in the Sierras when a white van roared around us, lost control, and ended up in a snow bank. We were about to encounter Patty Hearst and one of the scariest terrorist groups of the 70s: The Symbionese Liberation Army.

A Fangorn Forest and a Really Weird Rock… Pt. Lobos Part II

This sandstone  at Pt. Lobos has worn away to expose the concretions that were created in it millions of years ago. It gets my vote as a really weird rock.

I’ve become used to the idea that concretions can lead to some strange rocks. Several years ago, for example, Peggy and I had wandered about as far south on the Southern Island of New Zealand as you can go and had come across the rocks shown below. Bone, who is about four inches tall, perched on top of the rocks to provide perspective. These large boulders, known as the Moeraki Boulders, are concretions formed from Paleocene mudstone.

Peggy and I found this mudstone concretion in New Zealand on a South Island beach. Bone, who likes strange things, provides perspective.

Another of the New Zealand concretions and Bone.

Up until I found the sandstone concretions on Pt. Lobos three weeks ago, I was sure that New Zealand would win the prize for really weird rocks. Now I am not so sure. For some murky reason, according to geologists, these concretions form as lumps in sand and grow in concentric rings cemented together as the sand turns to rock. The weathering of the rocks at Pt. Lobos exposes a cross-section of the concretion, which is what you see in the photo at the top of the post. Like the rocks in New Zealand, I found them almost alien.

The concretions are found on the South Shore of Pt. Lobos, which is considerably different from the North Shore that I featured in my last blog on California’s Central Coast. Sedimentary rocks of the Carmelo formation replace the granitic rocks and the terrain is more accommodating to roads and parking lots. Consequently, there are a lot more visitors. While I had mainly hiked alone before, a number of people now joined me along the trail. I preferred the ‘splendid isolation,’ but my hiking companions in no way detracted from the beauty of the area.

Carmelo sandstone on the South Beach of Pt. Lobos replaces the granitic rocks on the North Shore. Like the granite, it is moving northward along the San Andreas Fault. This rock has been folded upward by geological forces. The distant land is part of Big Sur.

I found this large chunk of sandstone attractive.

The Sea Lion Trail along the South Beach included a face. The pebbly rock is a form of conglomerate. Cormorants gather down on the point.

Looking down into one of the coves along South Beach.

As might be expected, given that it was spring, the trail around Pt. Lobos was filled with flowers. Having ‘borrowed’ Peggy’s camera since she was playing grandmother in North Carolina, I was able to get up close and personal with several of them.

Monkey flowers.

California Poppies.


Wild Hollyhocks.

Miner’s Lettuce. It goes great in a salad, as the early 49ers discovered.


Indian Paint Brush.

Blue Eyed Grass.

And a rose, by any other name, is still a rose— even a wild rose.

My final view of the ocean from Pt. Lobos was looking south at the Big Sur Coastline, which is where we will travel next on my posts about the Central California Coast. The buildings you see on the left are located in Carmel Highlands. I once stood on one of the rocky outcrops and watched a whale breach just off the shore. The Highlands Inn, a fine old hotel hidden up in the trees, offers fine views of the ocean. I’ve eaten in the restaurant a few times but never stayed there. I could fly to Europe for the cost of a one night stay: $600 to $900. I said goodbye to the coast and hiked back toward the entrance station. Along the way, I met a tree that belonged in Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest. It leaned over the trail and watched me as I passed.

Beach at Carmel Highlands.

I thought these tree limbs were reaching out to grab me. And then I noticed the eyes. I looked around hoping to find Treebeard.

Instead I found this bench with its carving of a Pelican and important reminder. I thought it was an appropriate ending to my hike through Pt. Lobos Nature Preserve.

Next Posts: Lost in a snow storm, Big Sur, and the Man at Burning Man.

Special Note: For those of you who follow Bone’s wandering ways, he has traveled up to northern Oregon and will be out having adventures with Crystal Truelove at Conscious Engagement. Not sure all of what he will be involved in (you never know with Bone), but I think he will be attending a gathering of Cherokees. Last I saw of him he was perched on a beehive at Crystals.

So, You Want to Become a Billionaire… Maybe You Should Go to Burning Man

Burning Man appeals to a wide range of ages and these young women with their floppy ears are on the lower end of the spectrum. Children are rare at the event. Only 1.3% of participants are under 20.


I’ve been perusing the 2016 Burning Man census. The organization makes a serious effort to know who comes to Black Rock City each year and I am always curious about the results. Today I will share some of the data. It may surprise you. I will also post photos that Don Green and I took of Burners who attended the 2015 event. (I didn’t make it last year.) In addition to providing a small sample of participants, the pictures demonstrate another aspect of Burning Man’s creativity: costumes.

Costumes are an important part of individual creativity at Burning Man. Captain Jack, for example, looked a lot like Johnny Depp. Maybe he was. Hollywood has discovered Burning Man. (Photo by Don Green.)

Before starting, however, I want to summarize a news story that NBC ran in February. It’s relevant.

In 2001 Google was searching for a new CEO. While Larry Page and Sergey Brin had taken Google to dizzying heights in five years, its board had decided that the 20-something entrepreneurs needed an older, more steady hand around to help run the ever-growing company. A massive search had been undertaken using a variety of metrics ranging from education, to experience, to the ability to crack MENSA-like brain tests— all to no avail. As Brin would tell the press, “Larry and I managed to alienate fifty of the top executives in Silicon Valley.”

There were mountains of talent available in the Valley, but Google needed a special mix that could bring an element of discipline to the company without reigning in the genius and unique approach to work that are the secrets to its success.

My son-in-law, Clay, works for Google in Charlotte, North Carolina and I’ve been to his office. The visit provided an insight into how Google works. All employees, regardless of position, share a common space where both individual contribution and group participation are encouraged and inspired. Creative ideas and problems are thrown into the hopper and anyone with suggestions from throughout the Google world is invited to participate, from the newest employee up to Larry and Sergey. There is a constant flow of action and reaction. It seems like a recipe for chaos; instead, it has proven to be a key to the company’s ongoing success.

When Clay returned to his office after a trip he had made just before Christmas, he found that every object on his desk, including his computer screen, had been wrapped in Christmas paper. It’s the type of hijinks you can expect at Google, where play is taken seriously.

The challenge that Larry and Sergey faced was finding someone who fit in. They decided that desperate measures were necessary to finalize their decision. When they discovered that one of their top candidates, Eric Schmidt, a Berkeley PhD computer scientist from Sun Microsystems had been to Burning Man, they modified their rankings to bring him back in for another interview. Here’s the thing: Brin and Page loved the creative, communal chaos of the event. Their office building in Silicon Valley was filled with photos of employees who had been to Black Rock City and were decked out in Burner costumes doing Burner things, like twirling fire. Each year, Google provided a free shuttle from the Bay Area to its participants who wanted to go. Google’s first Google Doodle was a stick figure of the Man, the symbol for Burning Man.

Page and Brin were a mere two years away from leaving their Stanford dorm room and founding Google when they headed off to the Nevada desert for their first trip to Burning Man in 1998. To let people know that they were out of the office and had gone to the event, they put the stick figure of the Man behind the company’s name, thus creating their first Google Doodle.

They liked what Schmidt had to say and decided to give him the acid test: they would take him to Burning Man with them and see how he reacted. How would he handle the heat, the noise, the dust, and the 24/7 activity? Would he fit in and become part of the team? Would he go with the flow and contribute? Or would he withdraw into himself? The rest, as they say, is history. Eric passed the test and became CEO of Goggle. The company at the time was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. In 2011, when Larry resumed his role as CEO, the company was worth around $40 billion.  Today, Larry and Sergey are listed among the world’s richest people. And Schmidt? He, too, has become a billionaire. Not bad for a group of Burners.

So, what about the rest of us, the ones who don’t qualify as the one percent of one percenters.

The majority of folks who attend Burning Man aren’t exactly poor. In 2016, the average income for all participants was $60,000. 29.5% had an income of between $50,000 and $100,000 while 24% made between $100,000 and $300,000. 3.4% made over $300,000, up from 2.3% in 2013. The education level and age of Burners reflects the income. 74% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median age was 34. Only 1.3% of Burners were under 20 while 32% were over 39.


It isn’t unusual at all to find people in their 50s and 60s, and even 70s, attending Burning Man. (Photo by Don Green.)

This fellow had been around long enough to grow a fine set of horns.

39% of the participants in 2016 were virgin Burners, first timers. Only 13% have been more than 8 times, which, at 10 times, happens to be the category I fit in. Not sure what that makes me. Maybe my synapses are covered in Playa dust; I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve certainly had enough up my nose and in my eyes and ears.

Men outnumber women by 56.8% to 41.4%, leaving a couple of percentage points for ‘other.’ I was amused that the census listed its gender figures under current gender— like it might change at any moment. Ethnicity-wise, close to 80% are white. 20% 0f Burners come from countries other than the US. Within the US, 48.5% of the participants came from California, which isn’t particularly surprising given its proximity and population size. It is a bit more curious that the number two state was New York with over 8%, given that New York City is some 2700 miles from Black Rock City via Interstate 80.

Men outnumber women but it isn’t really obvious at Burning Man. This Burner’s costume was his tattoos.

I discovered this woman with her smile writing at the Center Camp Cafe, an activity that I like to pursue. It is fun to sit there and watch the world flow by while making an occasional note.

This man intrigued me. Although my photo wasn’t as clear as I like, I couldn’t resist including him with my galley of Burners.

My sense is that the diversity of people attending Burning Man has been increasing, but it has been a slow process. (Photo by Don Green.)

The most interesting figures to me are those that relate why people decide to run off to the desert and play in the dirt for a week. Participants were asked to check the reason or reasons they came to Burning Man from a prepared list. I was pleased to see that my reason— wanting to see and experience the art—was marked by 62.5% of the participants, the highest percentage received. Next up was to be with friends or to share an experience with like-minded people. 44% said they wanted to experience freedom and play. Considering you can wander wherever and do whatever— assuming you aren’t doing any harm to another person or the environment— that’s a lot of freedom! Go ahead and parade around naked if that has been your deepest desire forever. You’ll have company. 28% wanted to escape the world for a week. (That number may go up significantly this year.) Contrary to what many people think about Burning Man, only 3.7% said they came to consume intoxicants. But then, would you claim that if it were your reason? 21.6 % mentioned spirituality among their reasons for attending. I discussed the spiritual factor in my post on Burning Man’s temples. While only 6.1% of Burners marked that they belonged to a specific religion, 46.5% in 2016 claimed they were spiritual.

Enjoying and appreciating art is a major reason why people go to Burning Man. Creating art is another reason. This man was standing next to a dragon sculpture he had made out of recycled and repurposed materials.

People also come to watch and participate in performance art. Hula Hoops have always been popular at the event, as is fire twirling.

The opportunity to share the Burning Man experience with friends is one of the top reasons people give for going to the event. (Photo by Don Green.)

Couples are common.

These folks were just down from where we camped and were busily giving away oranges. They told me that they had a large orange tree in their back yard in Southern California that they harvested each year just before coming to Burning Man.

This skinny pair was glad to pose for both Don and me.

Over 20% of Burners listed that they attended Burning Man seeking a spiritual experience. A visit to the Temple at any time of the day or night confirms this.

Enough on figures! If you’ve managed to make it this far, congratulations. On the other hand, if you want to learn more, check out the 2016 Burning Man Census data here. My thanks to the Burning Man volunteers who worked so hard to gather and analyze this data.

A few more photos of the people of Burning Man.

Costumes are important, and expected at Burning Man. Some photographers will go to any extreme to get pictures. Wait, is that a whip?!

One of my favorites. This man works for Burning Man’s Department of Public Works and helps build the city.


Cute smile.

Green feather.

And how could you resist this smile? He gave me a CD from his band.

NEXT BLOG: Back to Pt. Lobos on the Central California Coast.



I’d Almost Swear that Harbor Seals Smile… Pt. Lobos Part I

I don’t know if this could be classified as a smile, but I would certainly call it a look of pure contentment!


I hadn’t expected to be hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains when I visited Pt. Lobos just south of Carmel on the Central California coast two weeks ago, but that’s what geologists claim. They say the same thing about Pt. Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco, another favorite hangout of mine. We can blame crashing oceanic and continental plates, and the ever-restless San Andreas Fault, which is responsible for much of California’s earthquake history. Millions of years ago, according to geologists, the Pacific Plate broke off a section of the southern Sierra Nevada Range from the North American Plate and has been carrying it northward along the coast ever since.

I became something of a believer when I ran into granite on the North Shore of the nature preserve. When I think granite, I usually think of the Sierras.

I found this granite outcrop along the North Shore Trail.

And this large granitic island with its colony of cormorants just off the north shore.

I started my Pt. Lobos adventure at the entrance station and hiked over to Whaler’s Cove, which is on the North Shore. Once upon a time there had been a station for hunting whales here. From about 1850 to 1880, men would go out in small boats to harpoon whales and then bring them into the cove for processing. Mainly, they were interested in killing the whales to obtain oil for lanterns. A large Grey Whale produces close to a thousand gallons. Kerosene eliminated that industry, which was fortunate for the whales. A small museum in the cove tells about the whale hunting and other human activities at Pt. Lobos.

This small museum located at Whaler’s Cove once housed whalers.

I found this whale bone carving of the Carmel Mission inside…

And surprisingly, an old deep sea diver’s suit.

Just outside the museum I found a pair of information signs. One featured this carved representation of the prevailing northwest winds that the area experiences in the spring and summer.

And a Monterey Cypress on the other.

What fascinated me most about Whaler Cove were the harbor seals, however. There were a number along the shore: lazing in the bay, rolling around in the sand, and sun bathing on the shore. There was even a mom nursing her pup.  My camera and I were quite busy.

Here is another shot of the Harbor Seal I featured at the top of the post. This time the seal’s eyes are open. The water provided a magnifying effect to make the already plump seal appear even rounder.

This seal was coming out of the water…

And this one was ecstatically rolling back and forth, apparently using the sand for a good scratch.

I caught a pup lined up for breakfast!

It was when I left the cove and hiked up the ridge behind it on the North Shore Trail that I started noticing the granite— not to mention all sorts of other things. There were moss-covered trees, cormorants building nests, lots of gorgeous wildflowers, and several impressive Monterey Cypress trees.

Hiking up the ridge on the North Shore Trail gave me this view back across Whaler’s Cove toward the coastal hills above Carmel. The small, white building seen on the hill is the Carmelite Monastery.

An old trail sign told me I was not lost. The total hike took me around three hours but about an hour of that was devoted to photography.

A group of cormorants was nesting on Guillemot Island, the large granite island I featured earlier.

This fellow was busily gathering nesting materials. I watched as he carried it over to his lady-love.

Flowers were everywhere. I will feature some closeups on my next blog about Pt. Lobos.

I came upon this ghostly, moss-covered tree…

And several dramatic views of Monterey Cypress.

The most impressive, however, was the cypress named Old Veteran.

I’ll conclude today’s post with a view of Old Veteran from the other side. Next Monday I’ll feature the south side of Pt. Lobos, which is surprisingly different.

Next Blog: Lost in a snowstorm with survival at stake. I return to my outdoor adventure series.


This Place Called Black Rock City… Burning Man

Imagine, if you will, having enough port-a-potties to accommodate 70,000 people. It’s one of many issues Burning Man has to deal with in planning Black Rock City.


I always like to include a post on Black Rock City when I am blogging about Burning Man to give readers a view of how everything fits together. Obviously, you can’t throw up a city for 70,000 people in the desert without some serious planning. Think of it this way: For the one week of its existence, Black Rock City is the third largest city in Nevada— only Las Vegas and Reno are larger.

It all starts with locating where the Man will be placed out in the Black Rock Desert a few miles east of the small, northern Nevada town of Gerlach. A ceremonial spike is driven into the ground to mark the placement.  Everything else including the Temple, Center Camp, the surrounding fence and Black Rock City evolve from there. Official Burning Man structures and major camps are built before the event. Sort of. It is not unusual to arrive on Sunday with work still being done on the Man, the Temple, Center Camp, etc.

Black Rock City is laid out in a semi-circle as shown on the 2016 map below. The circular roads are given names based on the annual theme and are in alphabetical order. For example, the 2016 theme was Da Vinci’s Workshop. The road names were Arno, Botticelli, Cosimo, Donatello, Effigiare (Italian: to portray), Florin, Guild, High Renaissance, Italic, Justice, Knowledge, and Lorenzo. The main road that separates Black Rock City from the Playa is always the Esplanade. Roads that cut across the circular roads are numbered clockwise and lead out to the Man.

The large circle on the bottom is Center Camp, the middle circle the Man, and the upper circle the Temple. Both the Man and the Temple are located on the Playa, which continues out to the fence. Shaded areas are for assigned, organized camps; non-shaded areas for everyone else. Space in the non-shaded areas is on a first come, first serve basis and you can have as much as you need for your camp, assuming you come in early— there seems like a lot of space in the beginning. By the end of the week, everything is packed! The total area encompassed within the fence including Black Rock City and the Playa is approximately seven square miles.

The official Burning Man map of Black Rock City for 2016.

The following photos provide a glimpse into what it is like to live in Black Rock City.

If you come in early on Sunday, you feel like you have a lot of space. We always mark out our site with rope and reflectors.

Things fill up rapidly as the week progresses. Quivera, our van, marks one end of our camp. Our goal is to be somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 on H or I.

By Friday, there is no room left. If you haven’t clearly marked your area, you will have guests!

If things feel too crowded, you can always bike out onto the Playa where the Man, the Temple and many of the major art pieces are located.

If things are still too crowded, you can head out farther…

And farther…

And farther. By now you are out in what is known as the Deep Playa.

This is where you come to the fence that limits further exploration of the desert. Actually, during a dust storm when visibility is close to zero, it is good to have the fence available to keep you from wandering off. There is a vast amount of space to get lost in.

Burning Man is serious about Burners staying inside the fence. Part of this is for safety and part of it is to keep people from sneaking in for free. When I crossed the fence for a photo-op, a BM truck came speeding over to where I was.

A substantial infrastructure is required to operate the event. These lifts are located in the Public Works Department lot.

Safety is always a concern. Burning Man has its own safety officers know as the Black Rock Rangers. Of course there are also numerous local, state, and federal law officers present. There is also an extensive emergency medical operation.

Lamps are lit at night to help Burners find their way. The lamp lighters are volunteers who have their own camp.

Providing ice for Burners to keep their food (and beer) cold is also a major operation run by volunteers. A recruitment poster urges Burners to sign up. Ice is one of the very few things you can purchase in Black Rock City.

The tongue in cheek sign at the top of the post refers to the numerous banks of port-a-potties found throughout Black Rock City and out on the Playa. An army of trucks is constantly servicing the outhouses. (Photo by Don Green.)

I found this in one of the toilets.  I imagine that this sign had some city folks checking. (grin)

Sand spiders are more dangerous.

Heat, wind, and dust storms are a part of life at Burning Man. It can also rain.

This photo was taken a few minutes after the above photo. The storm has arrived!

While it is important to be prepared for the heat and dust storms, there is also great beauty and good weather at Burning Man.

Looking out from our camp at the sunset.

And a rainbow.

If things get too rough out in the desert, you can always stop and have a beer.

Next Blog:  Some really cute seals and the beautiful Pt. Lobos nature reserve near Carmel.

The Deer Don’t Have to Pay a $275,000 Membership Fee to Play at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club on the 17 Mile Drive

This ‘lone cypress’ is almost synonymous with the 17 Mile Drive and serves as the logo for the Pebble Beach Resort. I am pretty sure that it is the most photographed cypress in the world and it is certainly the most cared for.Check out the rock-work.  The tree probably has its own arborist.


Monterey and Carmel take me back in time, back to the 60s and 70s, back to when the world somehow seemed more promising— it was, after all, the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. I used to drive down to Monterey humming the tune in my Volkswagen Camper, Van-Go, and free camp at a surfer beach just south of Carmel. The surfers are still there riding the waves, but the free camping has long since disappeared, a victim of the times. The welcome sign has been taken down. The hospitality industry prefers that tourists pay for their lodging and the locals prefer that their visitors drive Mercedes.

I considered myself lucky that I could still find a campsite for $32 a night last week when I visited California’s Central Coast. Maybe that’s because the water was unpotable at the Laguna Seca Campground. I noticed the signs after a couple of days of happily drinking away. Turns out the water is laced with arsenic. (If I seem a little strange… But, hey, how would you know the difference?)

The Laguna Seca Campground is located up in the hills here, hidden away among the trees.

While green grass was still growing in the valley, it had turned a ‘California gold’ next to my campsite.

I liked the trees. Our grandkids would have been all over this one.

The campground is operated by Monterey County and nestles on top of the beautiful coastal hills that surround Monterey-Carmel. If you are a car racing fan, you will recognize the park as home to the Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway. I stayed there until I had to vacate the premises. People had signed up to pay $120 per night for my $32 site. It provided an excellent view of the raceway and the Ferraris were coming to town for the Ferrari Challenge.  I watched as 18-wheelers rolled in carrying their precious cargos.

The Ferrari Challenge was the first major race of the season. Crews were out preparing the track.

This site of the track was about 50 feet away from my camp. You can see why it was prime territory.

All of the 18 wheelers you can see in this photo were carrying Ferrari race cars. There was close to a parade of them going by my camp the morning I had to leave.

I don’t know what a Ferrari race car costs, but you can pick up a classic Ferrari 250 GTO for the tidy sum of $57 million. It’s a bit out of my price range— and my imagination. Somehow, I can’t picture myself running down to the store to pick up a carton of milk in one.

Laguna Seca is about 7 miles outside of Monterey on Highway 68, the road that connects Monterrey with Salinas. It’s hard to imagine two more different worlds. Salinas is prime agricultural land and the one-time home of John Steinbeck. (Be sure to visit the Steinbeck museum if you are in the area.) As I drove through, migrant workers were busily harvesting crops, probably hoping to get though before ICE agents showed up to arrest them. I suspect the farmers were even more eager for the workers to finish their job. If the price of your veggies skyrocket this summer, you’ll know what happened.

A trip along the 17 Mile Drive,  which runs along Monterey Bay and connects Monterey with Carmel, provides an excellent example of how the other half, or make that the one percent of the one percent, live. There are folks here who live in mansions perched on the ocean’s edge who can afford to go out and buy one of those Ferrari 250 GTOs— and pay cash.

The 17 Mile Drive is golfer heaven. Think Pebble Beach. Or, if you go back far enough in time, the Bing Crosby Pro/Am Golf Championship. Today it is known as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro/Am. There are several golf courses in the area. If you are an avid golfer, you can purchase an inexpensive golf club membership for $18,000 plus a couple of hundred a month in dues. If that doesn’t strike you as inexpensive, you may want to compare it with a membership at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club for $275,000 with $1045 in monthly dues. Of course, membership is by “invitation only.” How else are you going to keep out the riffraff?

The Bird Rock Hunt Course, #9 on the map below, was once used for equestrian hunt and steeplechase competitions. In the 1920s it did double duty for riding and saber practice for the US 11th Calvary. Now it serves as the Shore Course for the Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Here, deer and golfers share the course.

A green on the Shore Course just below the small grassy hill has its hole marked by a flag. The cypress on the granite rock behind the green adds beauty to the course. The fog adds mystery. Numerous sand traps come with the territory at the golf courses along the 17 Mile Drive.

This cypress was also on the course, just off the road.

A happy, obviously well-fed buck, whose antlers are still in velvet, munches down grass on the course. He is welcome to eat all of the grass he wants and is not required to pay the course’s $275,000 initiation fee,

I’m having a bit of fun here; my apologies to golfing fans. I’m not one. In fact, the only C I ever got in PE was for golf. I was not happy. I’ve held it against the sport ever since. Peggy did much better. In fact, she was goofing around at Mary Baldwin College (or was that golfing a round) and hit a hole in one. The golfing coach happened to witness the event and immediately recruited her for the college team.

I have watched my share of golf matches on TV, however. It turns out that father-in-law number one and father-in-law number two both loved the sport. Bonding included many an hour of listening to the announcer whisper in awe at the difficulty of a particular tee shot. Exciting stuff. I classified my TV golf time as part of my marriage vows under ‘and other duties as required.’

If I were a golfer, or even if I just watched golf on TV for fun, the 17 Mile Drive is an incredibly beautiful location for the sport. The brochure for the route is justifiable in declaring it “one of the most famous scenic drives in the world.” Since the area is privately owned by the Pebble Beach Resort, you will pay a $10 per vehicle fee to visit, but it is definitely worth it. The resort is owned, btw, by an investor group headed by Clint Eastwood, Arnold Palmer, and Peter Ueberroth. They bought it from a Japanese company, possibly in a fit of patriotism.

Clint, you may recall, was mayor of Carmel in the mid-80s. He also owned a pub/restaurant in the town known as the Hog’s Breath Inn.  Being a fan of his spaghetti westerns, I ate there once in the early 70s shortly after it opened. Eastwood wasn’t happy. Apparently I resembled riffraff. He walked over to my table, pulled out his .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 29 and said “Are you feeling lucky, punk?” Just kidding. Eastwood was off making a Dirty Harry movie and we were more than welcome at the restaurant.

Of course there is much more to the 17 Mile Drive than manicured golf courses.  A restless ocean, graceful Monterey Cypress, impressive rocks, and abundant wildlife are all part of the scenery. Following is a map and some of the photos I took.

I borrowed this map from Google. There are several entrances. This time I came in through the Highway Gate on Highway 1 and drove down past the Poppy Hills Golf Course. My first stop was to admire the ‘Restless Ocean’ at #6.

The marker at the site told me that the ocean was restless because of all the rocks that the waves had to break over on their way into shore.

A wave cooperated with me by breaking over a rock.

The fog reduced my view of Bird Rock at #10. Cormorants were the main birds I could see. Harbor seals with sea gulls in between can be seen on the lower right. Fortunately some sea gulls flew over to see if I had any food to offer. I call them my galley of gulls.

Definitely a “Do you have any food?” look.

A bit more laid back.

The feathers on this fellow caught my attention.

I don’t think I have ever seen a darker eye.

Here we are back at the Lone Cypress at site #16. It has hung out on its perch for 250 years. A number of guy wires holding it up are meant to assure that it continues to hang out for many more years.

The road itself is worth the trip. Here it has a bower of tall cypress trees next to the Ghost Tree Stop at #17, which was my last stop.

This is the tree on the left from the above photo. I can see where it might be considered ghostly.

I am not sure which tree was ‘the ghost tree’ but I found a number of candidates.

Another candidate…

One of the 17 Mile Drive Mansions overlooks the Ghost Tree site. This is a different perspective on the tree shown above.

Maybe not ghostly, but I liked the way this ancient downed cypress seemed to drape itself over the rock.

Speaking of rocks, I felt these might have been something that Druids would worship.

The rock in the ocean seemed to fit right in!

Another perspective.

I liked the combination here of a shadowy cypress, rocks and the restless sea.

Another photo featuring a cypress tree, rocks and the ocean.

This cypress, another candidate for the Ghost Tree, seems an appropriate end for this post on the 17 Mile Drive.