Meetin’ n Eatin’ Gator in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

“Where’re y’all frum?” the lady at the Louisiana Visitor’s Center asks as Malaika and I walk in the door.

“What’d she say?” Malaika whispers, looking at me sideways.

“Where are you from?” I interpret.

“Oh, I’m . . . from . . . Australia . . . and . . . he’s . . . from . . .  New York,” Malaika slows down as if speaking to an elderly non-English speaker.

“Well, welcum,” she says.  “What can I dofur ya?”

“What?” Malaika asks, again looking at me.

“She wants to know how she can help,” I say giggling at the scenario: a Southern-American-English speaker versus an Australian-English speaker.

“We . . . want . . . to . . .  take . . . a . . . swamp . . . tour.”

The woman behind the counter pulls out a map and spends the next ten minutes explaining the best locations in the state.  As we leave, Malaika leans into me and says, “I hope you got that, ‘cause I didn’t understand a word!”  We laugh as we climb into the Jeep and head East.  Banjo music plays in my head.

Bayou in Swamp Country

Breaux Bridge is about halfway through the state and is one of the last towns west of the Atchafalaya causeway, an 18-mile bridge (the 14th longest in the world) that crosses rivers and wetlands.  Whereas Texas felt dry and flat, Louisiana feels wet and full of bridges and causeways.  This is swamp country!

After checking into a chain hotel off I-10 next to Waffle House, we change and drive a short distance to Prejean’s, a Louisiana favorite, for some Cajun food.  Our waiter, Joseph, is a native son, recently returned from Los Angeles.  He works as a dialect coach on the HBO series True Blood and wows us with an impressive litany of Louisiana dialects.

“If ya from Nu Orleens, ya tawlk like dis,” he says.

“What’d he say,” Malaika whispers towards me. I shrug my shoulders.

“And if ya here frum deese hur swamps, ya talk like dis,” imitating a Cajun accent.

Malaika and I clap and laugh to each other, then ask ,“What do you recommend for dinner?”

“Gaytur,” he says.

“Like alligator?” Malaika suddenly understands.

“Yes ma’am,” Joseph responds, “some of the finest farm raised in the South.”

I place an order.  When it comes to the table, Malaika tries one piece.  I finish the plate.  It tastes like chicken.  Joseph tells us that farm-raised gators are fed chickens, “In the wild, they taste like whatever they eat.”  My mind runs through the possibilities while a horror movie plays in my brain.  A trio plays banjo music from the stage.  Malaika squeals in excitement and jokes that she should join them with her didgeridoo.

The next morning, we rise early to join Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours.  Bryan, our guide, is a friendly Cajun who tones down his accent for the group (which includes a foursome from New Jersey, an older couple from Arkansas and a few other folks).  He’s operated in these swamps for over twenty years. His tour makes the swamp come alive.  Well, it is alive, but it comes alive in a way I might not have experienced otherwise.  Malaika is happy to see that America hasn’t drained the swamp and filled it over with a parking lot and Walmart.  I am please with this as well.

Gator Guarding her Babies

The highlight of our tour comes when Bryan follows a bayou, which is different from a swamp, upstream to a secluded area.  He juts the boat forward, nearly landing on shore.  As the people in front stand up, a female gator hisses ferociously.  “She guardin’ her bay-bies,” Bryan says.  One of the New Jerseyites hyperventilates and leaps towards the back of the boat.  I climb forward to snap a few pictures.  The gator hisses louder and opens her mouth.  “She’s pissed you ate her cousin last night!” Malaika yells, then howls at her own joke.

Swamp

We survive the swamp and make it back to shore.  The nearly two-hour journey with Bryan comes to a whopping $20; I give him a $10 tip, thankful for people like him who protect and guard such amazing nature.  I fear that if he and his kind where not around, we Americans might just fill in these places with blacktop and strip malls.

As we drive east towards New Orleans, Malaika and I practice our best Louisiana accents.

“Where’re y’at, dawlin?” I ask with an unfortunate stiff upper lip.

“Jus bindown in dem dere swamps, dawlin,” Malaika responds sounding a bit like a drunk Crocodile Dundee.

We laugh at each other then make a pact to stick to our own languages, happy to have at least witnessed some of the local color in swamp country.

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Houston, We Have a Problem

A week before I arrive at my uncle’s house in the Houston area, a cousin posts to my Facebook page: “How do you look in camo?”  I don’t know what she’s asking about—hunting? guns?—so ignore the message.  Maybe I should have done an Internet search.

Camouflage Pants

My father’s family is German and they drink – and celebrate life – like The People.  Oh, and apparently they are like Hobbits when it comes to holiday meals.  I arrive the week after Thanksgiving to my Uncle Ken and his wife, Carola, preparing “Second Thanksgiving.”  Now, lest I be seen as judging here, let me inform you I am all about this new holiday.  I will eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy any time of year!

My uncle and cousins live scattershot in the northern suburbs of Houston (although one cousin recently moved to Western Massachusetts, to the chagrin of some of his family).  However, they are actually native Californian born and raised, just like my dad, on the beaches of San Diego (though full disclosure, my uncle is . . . [wait for it] . . . a New Yorker!).  They have adapted quite well to Texas, which, incidentally, was a country before it joined the United States.  This fact explains much about the state and is something, I suspect, many residents might regret.  But I digress.

Sara, the cousin who Facebooked me, greets me on the back patio of Ken’s house with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  “Do you wonna ryde?” she asks placing emphasis on the last word.

“Ryde?” I ask back, searching the other cousins’ faces for help.  None offered.

“You’re in Texas, boy, do yooo wonna RYDE?!”

I have no idea what she is talking about, but figure this city boy is up for whatever my Texas cousins can dish out.  “Hell, yeah!” I say back.

“He wantsta ryde, David” she says to her husband, a tall Wisconsin transplant.

“Well, then, we’ll have to get him some camo,” David says back to his wife.  Then to me, “Do you have any camo?”

“Camo?” I’m starting to feel like a parrot.

“Camo, boy, camouflage clothing.”

“Why are you referring to me as ‘boy’?” I wonder to myself.  Then as if seeking to impress, I respond, “Why yes, I have a camouflage hat . . . and gloves!  Are we going hunting?”

The cousins snicker at my response.

David says, “No, we are not going hunting, but our 10 year-old daughter bagged her first boar just last week. Show him the picture honey.”

A blonde-haired small person walks up and shoves a phone in my face, “Here.  See?” she tilts her head to one side and smiles.  There on this pre-tween’s cell phone is a picture of her with a dead pig, tongue hanging out to the ground.  The little blonde one’s eyes are large and wide, and she grins from ear to ear.  Now I’m a little nervous.

Dinner is an opportunity to catch up with this side of the family whom I have not seen for a while.  It amazes me that time goes by so quickly and then—pow!—we’re all decades older.

My uncle asks, “What do you want to see in Houston?”

“I plan to attend a service at Lakewood Church tomorrow morning. I hear it’s the largest in the country.”  Everyone at the table knows the church . . . and has an opinion about the preacher.

“Oh, that’s Joel Osteen’s church.  It’s nyce, but a little too New Agey for my taste,” Carola comments.  “I need God in my church.”  She and my uncle suggest another church, in their neighborhood, that is like Lakewood.

After dinner, the cousins and I head over to Sara and David’s house a few miles away, cruising in a literal caravan of SUVs.  Sara rides with me to ensure I make it.  She comments on the way, “I’m glad it rained.  It will keep the dust down tonight.”  Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a wide smile on her face.  “The entire state has been in a drought for most of summer and fall.”

At the house, chaos ensues.  Sara sets about finding outfits for the gang, giggling to herself the whole time.  David sets the kids up making Rice Crispy Treats, although they would rather “ryde” with the adults.  “Kids don’t ryde after dark.”  I pet the dogs as I watch the whole process progress.

All Terrain Vee-hicles

Once the Treats are setting in the fridge and the kids are set up with a movie, cartoons, guns or something, David pulls out two All Terrain “Vee-hicles,” also known as four wheelers, out of their garage.  These are what we will be “rydin’” tonight.

Sara secures enough camouflage clothing for everyone in the party to be dressed head-to-toe in the stuff.  With each layer I pull on, she chuckles, points, and then takes a picture.  First the pants, “Oh, my gawd, look at our cousin everyone.  I have to take a picture.”  Snap.  Next, the jacket.  “Ha ha ha” she laughs.  “Now look at him!”  Snap snap. “I’m uploading this shit to Face-book.”

Dressed and ready to go, I climb onto one of the ATVs with Sara in front, driving.  The whole scene feels like a combination of Deliverance and National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, but all that changes as we hit the trail.  The quads are great fun; in no time we are splashing through mud puddles two feet deep and ducking under branches.  If we stop suddenly, my helmet slams into the back of Sara’s like a cartoon.  We both laugh.

After a time, Sara asks, “Are you ready to DRYVE?”

“Drive?  Me?  Yes!” I yell back through the dust-covered helmet.  She jumps on back and, I swear, crosses herself.

Driving an ATV is an interesting experience.  The brake is where you think it would be, by your foot.  However, the gas “pedal” is under your thumb on the steering column.  It takes some getting used to, and the first ten to fifteen minutes Sara and I crash helmets constantly.

All Geared Up! (Before the Mud)

Sara is intent on getting me stuck in the mud.  “It’s a right of passage,” she yells in my ear as we dive into a deep puddle, which nearly covers the four wheeler to the mud flaps.  I lift my legs to avoid getting my boots wet.  She laughs.

At some point, the other ATV with Dave and cousin Kimberly, comes to a complete stop.  They are at the edge of what appears to be a vast interior mud puddle.  It takes up the entire width of the dirt path and rounds the next two corners.  Dave gets off his machine and approaches on foot.

Seeing this, Sara jumps off the back of the ATV I’m driving and into the driver’s seat of the other one.  She guns her thumb and the quad rushes headlong into the brown muck.  Mud and water fly in all directions.  Dave and I watch as Sara and Kimberly bob left, then right.  They stop, apparently stuck, then get unstuck.  Steam rises from their engine, but they make it to the other side.  Sara gets off, removes her helmet and lights a cigarette.

Dave walks back to my quad and climbs on the back.  “Ok,” he says.  “Follow them exactly.”

“You want me to drive . . . through that?” I yell back.

“Yes, you can make it!” he says. “Gun it!”

I look at Sara who now has a camera in hand and push my thumb as hard as far as it will go.  The ATV jerks forward.  We leap into the puddle.  Dave’s helmet slams into mine.  The four wheeler sinks slightly, then gains traction.  Water and mud pour off the back wheels as we bob left, then right.

Then, just as Dave yells, “Keep gunning it!” the machine sinks lower and stops moving forward.  “Reverse, hard!” Dave yells.  I do.  No movement.  Only mud and goop fly up—straight up—and rain down on us.  I notice Sara jumping up and down on the opposite shore while the flash from her camera lightens the dark night.

“Again!” Dave yells.  I do with the exact same result – mud everywhere.  I feel it seeping into my boots and down my neckline.  He climbs off and we use a winch to pull the vehicle out of the mud.

Sara continues to laugh and snap pictures.  “I’m Facebooking this shit!” she says dragging on her cigarette.

Once on the other side, I laugh.  So does everyone in the quadravan (that’s a four-wheeler caravan).  It is one of those I-have-never-had-so-much-fun-in-my-life laughs.  You know the kind where you laugh so hard your stomach hurts and you can barely breathe.  “Let’s do it again!” Sara screams with her fists in the air.

“I have to go to church in the morning,” I say laughing.  We push on into the cold, muddy night.

Back at the house, well after midnight, I strip off my muck-covered gear and wonder if I will make it to Lakewood in the morning.  I am exhausted and filthy.  Mud has worked its way down the front of my clothes practically to my waistline.  Cold and smelly!  I strip, shower and head off to sleep in the 10-year-old’s bed (I feel for kids who have to give up their beds for guests).  That night I dream of dead pigs and mud.

Whiteout in the White Sands National Monument

From space, the White Sands National Monument looks like someone spilled WhiteOut on the the New Mexico map.  Up close, the sand is as white as snow and unlike anything I have seen in this country.  Dunes, twenty to thirty feet high, carve the landscape for as far as the eye can see.  This quickly becomes one of my favorite – and most surprising – places.

White Sand Dunes are, um, White

I arrive in the late afternoon at the Ranger’s Station to register for a campsite.  There are only ten primitive sites in the entire park.  A friendly Asian woman staffs the desk.  As I register she smiles and says, “It’s very cool out there.  Oh, and tonight, it’s going to be cold!”  I think to myself that rangers are like news reporters: they like to give bad news with a grin on their face.

She runs through some rules before issuing my camping permit:

“No fires in the dunes.  Please bring plenty of water.”

“Carry in and carry out whatever you need.”

“There are no toilets out there, so bring your own toilet paper.”

“Most people who get lost do so because they set out after dark, so if something happens, just stay put for the night, then make your way back in the morning.”

“What cell phone carrier do you have?” she asks.

“AT&T,” I reply.

“It won’t work out there,” she says.  “If you have an emergency, go to campsite 2, they have Verizon.  Don’t go to 5 – they’re German and their phones don’t work here.”

“I’ll be just fine,” I smile back at her.

“I’m sure you will,” she say as she closes the registration book . . . with a smile.

Camp 2 Neighbors

At the Backcountry Camping parking lot I repack for the night.  The campsite is only a one-mile hike, so I take only minimal gear: tent, sleeping bag, food, water and toilet paper.  I leave the Thermarest Pad, assuming the dune field is soft enough for sleeping.  As I hike, I begin to sweat.  The weight I have gained eating too many burritos and fast food hamburgers feels like steel bars around my midsection.

Campsite 4 is sandwiched in between two 30-foot white sand dunes.  The sun is low in the horizon and colored clouds make an appearance just above the mountains to the West.  I set up quickly, grab my camera and climb up the hillock to watch the sunset reflect off the gypsum.

For dinner I prepare Backcountry Pantry Teriyaki Chicken and Rice followed by freeze-dried spumoni ice cream, which sticks to my teeth in an un-ice-cream fashion.  Exhausted, I check the time to see if it’s anywhere close to bedtime.  5:54 pm.  I scan the sky. It’s dark, midnight dark, maybe my watch is wrong.  I crawl into the tent to rest my eyes.  I dream about magical creatures with bells.

Middle of the night:  I wake, cold and stiff from the hard sand.  “It must be 3 in the morning,” I think to myself.  “Perfect for night writing!” – the long exposure photos I enjoy taking.  I unzip my tent and crawl into the cool desert air.  I shiver, rub my arms fast, then pull on every layer of clothing I have: two sweatshirts and a thin Spring jacket.

Evening in the Dunes

At the top of the drift, I see Holloman Air Force Base shining brightly in the distance.  I snap a few pictures, but it’s too cold so I slide back down the dune to my tent.  Maybe I can get a couple more hours of rest before the sun comes up.  I look at my cell phone.  I was completely wrong about the time.  9:53 pm.  Damn, it’s going to be a long night!

3:00 AM: A chorus of amphibians outside my tent.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  I dream of toads dancing hand-in-hand in a circle around my campsite.  I unzip my tent and shine a light.  Nothing.  Silence.  I zip up and close my eyes.  Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu.  Their dancing resumes.  Maybe it’s a special ceremony.  Maybe I am the guest of honor.  Or perhaps the human sacrifice?  I snuggle into my sleeping bag.

5:00 AM: The amphibians have moved off in the distance – maybe onto another sacrifice.  I lay awake cursing the sand for jabbing my rib cage and thigh.  Turning on my back doesn’t help.  I unzip my tent and crawl into the freezing pre-dawn dunes.  The sky is changing color, ever so slightly.  What a wonderful time to snap photos!

I scramble to the top of the tallest sand pile.  “That would make a great shot,” I think to myself looking at the next dune.  I walk.  “That one has no footprints.”  I walk.  “That one is angled differently.”  I walk.  This goes on for some time and I chase the composition in my lens from dune to dune.  As the sun rises into the sky, I strip off one sweatshirt and tie it around my waist.

Time for breakfast!  Starving, sweaty and thirsty, I make my way back to my tent.  The dunes look different now.  Light changes their configuration.  The horizon is different too.  I walk.  And walk.

I don’t find my tent; it’s not where I placed it on the map in my mind.  The sand looks defiant now, angry.  I see one set of tracks leading in the opposite direction.  I compare my imprint – no match.  I follow them anyway.  Then, they fade away into the earth.

Dune Shadow Play

Next I find many tracks: bobcat, snake, barefoot person and hiking boot.  I mentally compare the night horizon with what I see in the distance now: a water tower, mountains, sand dunes.  Can’t figure it out.  I use my camera lens to scan.  I see four tents all set up in a row.  If I can make it there, I can trace the trail back to my tent.

Approaching, I see that they are not tents at all, but picnic shades.  No one here.  Dammit.  I curse the 275 square miles of white gypsum dunes that stand in between me, breakfast and hydration.  I climb again to scan the whiteout.  There I see my salvation: a trio several mounds away.   I practically fall down one hill and crawl up the next.  I come to a road – THE road – saved!  Except, I could be anywhere on a ten mile stretch.

I lunge towards the couple and their teenage daughter, whom I saw in my lens.

“Are you camping?” I ask, screaming “Help!” in my head.

“No,” they reply.  “Are you?”

“Yes, but I lost my tent.”

They laugh, looking at each other.  The daughter comments, “See mom and dad, we should have camped.  That’s how we get sunrise pictures of the dunes!”

“Did you get some good pictures?” she asks.

My mind races, “I’m completely fucking lost and first you laugh, then you ask if I got pictures?  Can’t you see I haven’t eaten anything this morning and have been without water?”  Then, I hear, “Yes, I got some great pictures” come out of my mouth.

“How long have you been lost?” the girl asks.

“Two days,” I lie, looking for a reaction.

Their eyes light up, “Two days?!”  There is the sympathy I seek.

“No, I’m joking.  Just since this morning.”

The group is of no help in figuring out where I am on the road or in the park.  They left their map in the car.

“Good luck!” they yell as I walk down yet another hill of white sand.

“Good luck?” I think to myself.  Good luck that I don’t find your car and have a sharp object in my pocket!

I strip off clothes and follow the road.  It doesn’t matter which direction I follow.  My stomach flip flops eating itself for sustenance.  I walk.  Then, a miracle.  My car!  Dusty – the amazing lesbian Jeep that has carried me thousands of miles.  True salvation!  Only, my keys are in the tent.  Dammit again!  But, at least I know where the tent is now.  Only a mile away.

Approaching my car, I hear “Gud mornink.”  A young couple is smoking by their black Ford 500, both dressed head-to-toe in black spandex.  I smile.

“Morning,” I reply.  These must be the Germans from Camp 5.

“Nice car,” I say.

“Ya, vee thought vee look like Men in Black,” they look at each other and laugh.

I nickname them Boris and Natasha.  I know they are not Russian, but the names seem to fit.  They are from Munich on a six-week US road trip.

“You must be from camp 5,” I say.

“Ya,” says Boris.

“Und yooo?” asks Natasha, blowing smoke over her shoulder.

“Camp 4, but I got lost this morning.”

They look at each other and laugh.  “How deed you git lost?  It’s only one-point-one miles to the camp,” Boris says with some authority.

“I was taking pictures of the dunes.”

“Oh, ya, vell, stay on da trail today!”  Boris says.

“Ya, on da trail,” Natasha adds for emphasis.

They puff on their cigarettes and laugh as I walk towards my breakfast in the sand.

Obviously, I find my way back to my tent, water and breakfast – freeze dried eggs and bacon.  After eating and hydrating, I consider my experience.  I determine it unwise to set out on foot without water, food, and car keys.  But, I also think that getting lost in the pursuit of such immense, otherworldly beauty is well worth the humiliation of a few snickering strangers!

The Fibitz Dune Tracks

Climbing Yosemite Falls, Almost Twice

I arrive at the Yosemite National Park Backcountry Permits office at 1:30pm.  In my hand I hold a topographic map and a copy of Backpacker Magazine with an article about a 3-day hike.  I’m proud of myself for arriving early and being prepared as it allows me to judge the couple in front who are unprepared and haven’t figured out that rangers cannot recommend hikes.  When it’s my turn, I ask for options. He gives me one, then – almost under his breath – lists several others, which sound uninteresting.

“But have you seen the weather forecast,” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “it’s going to rain in two days.”

“Rain and snow – up to two feet,” he corrects.

“Snow? Two feet,” I look at him as though he is speaking Chinese.  It’s September and this is California.

“Yes,” he smiles.

I mentally catalog the items in my Jeep, finding no long underwear, no wool sweaters, no ear muffs.  In fact, the warmest things I have are my jeans, a thin sweatshirt and spring jacket.

“Are you sure it’s going to snow,” I ask.

“Yes,” he smiles again.  “Next.”

As I step back slightly dazed, another couple steps up, underprepared.  I leave the building just as he says “as a government employee I can’t recommend any . . . “

Half Dome in Clouds

Determined to get to the trail head early enough for an overnight, I speed through the park to find where ‘Mr. No Recommendation’ instructed me to leave my car.  Yosemite requires all food to be stored over night in bear-proof lockers, so I move my cooler, water, Oreos and dry goods out of my car into a metal case.  Although no one else locks their container, I pull out a Master Lock and clamp it closed – I would hate to return and find my food missing.  Next, I repack my backpack for an overnight.  Do I take the laptop or leave it in the car?  Take it; again, would hate it to be missing when I return.  By the time I get to the shuttle stop, which will take me to the trail head, it’s 3:30pm. I can still hike for four hours – should be enough time to reach the camp site, which is two miles in.

The shuttle is painfully slow and the driver cheerfully narrates each section, deer, tree and grain of sand along the way.  People, happy and talkative, get on and off the bus.  Several comment, “Wow!  That’s a big pack.”  “Yeah,” I grumble at them.  At 4:30pm the bus comes to a stop at Campground Four.  I ask about the trailhead, to which the driver responds, “Cross the street and parking lot.  You’ll see a campground, veer to the right.  Then just go up.”  “Then go up,” I ask with a scrunched look on my face.  “Yes,” she smiles, closing the shuttle doors.  The shuttle pull away and I follow her instructions.

Timeline of Events
4:40pm: arrive at trailhead
4:50pm: breathe heavy
4:55pm: sweat profusely
4:57pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath
5:01pm: pass sign – “Entering Yosemite Wilderness.  Hike at your own risk”
5:05pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath, determine signal strength of cell phone
5:10pm: call National Park Service to understand lodging options
5:12pm: descend 75 feet to shuttle stop
6:00pm: unlock car, remove food from bear locker
6:20pm: check into Curry Village
8:00pm: enjoy fresh baked pizza and 7Up
 

Yosemite Falls – First Light

The next morning I’m awaken at 5am by people in the next tent.  Half asleep, I decide to make the Upper Yosemite Falls hike, the first section of the overnight hike I was supposed to take.  I reach the trailhead, by car, in no time and start the hike by 6am with a headlamp to light my way.  The switchbacks are killer.  I am sweating and breathing hard in no time, but with daylight coming and a lighter pack on my back, it’s manageable.

I rise quickly above the valley floor and witness amazing views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.  Switchback after switchback means I feel like a zipper going up the mountain.  Reaching the lookout at mile one, I encounter another hiker – the first – who passes me.  “Now the real climbing starts,” he says as we wave goodbye.  “Real climbing,” I question under my breath while cursing him for being the bearer of bad news.

And he’s right – as the Falls come into view, the trail gets steeper.  It’s almost comical to observe my mind while heading uphill. It runs through all the things I could be doing right now: sleeping, eating, having sex.  It says I’m too old, can’t make it to the top anyway, and should turn back now.  Breakfast – no, pancakes – sound marvelous . . . I’m sure I can find some nearby . . . if I just turn around.  I choose not to listen, but instead push onward, upward.

The next level of incline is worse than the one below.  Now, my mind is just getting in the way, so to shut it up, I employ the ‘counting method’ of climbing: each 100 steps means I get to take a short breath break.  I do this over and over, telling my head to “shut up!” many times over the course of the hike.

Arriving at the top of Yosemite Falls is breathtaking and well worth the internal battle of wits.  A smooth, grey granite deck drops off 2425 feet to the valley floor below.  A staircase – protected by a rusty banister drilled into the rock – leads to the outlook.  Looking over I experience slight vertigo.  Trees cling dearly to the face of the mountain.  Wind whips from all directions.

Matt’s Leap of Faith

Climbing a short distance back from the overlook, I find two deep dark pools fed by a river and smaller waterfall.  I make my way down to the base of these falls, snap a few pictures, and decide I haven’t lived until I jump in.  They’re protected – from going over Yosemite Falls – by a few hundred feet of river and rock.  Stripping off my clothes, I leap.  “Waahoo!” I yell, hearing an echo as my flesh hits the near freezing lagoon.  The water is bitter and, unlike my other recent naked dips, so is the air.  I towel off and shiver while eating a lunch of nuts and dried cranberries.

The second hiker I encounter that day – a 24 year old dude from New Jersey – asks about the water.  “It’s awesome,” I say, “Haven’t lived until you jump in!”  He catapults himself from a higher elevation.  I snap a few pictures of his death leap.  He survives.

I sit at the top of the falls for a some time contemplating my accomplishment.  I realize a few things: First, that my body performs better than expected sometimes, even though we have been through hell and back.  Second, my mind gives up too easy and would rather be on vacation.  Third, my soul is ablaze with love and expansion in nature.  I decide it better to listen to my soul more often as I make my way down the mountain.

Mammoth Snow

After brief consideration of lodging options – there is space available at the base of the Falls in Campground Four for $6 – I exit Yosemite via Tioga pass.  That night, I sleep soundly in a Comfort Suites in Mammoth Lakes as two feet of snow fall on the park and surrounding area.

Scoring P*$$y at Baker

It has been years since I have visited  Baker Beach – the famous clothing optional strand within the San Francisco city limits – and I am excited.  SF gets nice weather – the nicest, I think – in September when fog gives way to brief, but much needed, “Indian Summer.”  Mika, the dog I am sitting, is a nudist and she is equally excited to beach while her parents are out of town.  She and I climb into Dusty, who is now furry inside, and head to the oceanfront park inside what used to be the SF Presidio.

We find parking quickly, which is unusual on a warm weekend day, and make the short walk to the shore.  As we hit the sand, Mika overflows with excitement.  She looks at me, the beach, then back at me.  Seeming to beg “let me off this leash,” I unhook her from the chains of bondage around her neck.  She takes off running down the beach after a tennis ball – the back of her butt looks like a bunny hopping feverishly down the sand; it’s cute and comical at the same time.  “Beautiful dog,” one passerby comments.

Dog on Baker

Mika loves to play catch, but with a twist.  I throw the ball, she runs bunny-butt style down the beach and even into the oncoming surf; she chomps on it a few times, turns around to look at me, then drops the ball and walks away.  “Get your ball,” I shout, to which she continues walking the other way.  As I run up to grab the ball before it is forever lost to the unforgiving sea, she turns back around (as if she hasn’t been watching), takes the ball in her mouth and takes off running down the beach.  I wonder whose game we’re playing: mine or hers?  Another person notes: “nice dog! Corgi?”

Besides the nudists, a prominent feature of Baker Beach is the view of Golden Gate Bridge.  It looms large and magnificent to the north, just beyond the rocks where nudist pose and sun themselves.  Mika’s game of catch leads us forward in that direction.  We reach the clothing optional section and notice people of all shapes, ages and colors basking in the sun.  There is different energy about a naturalist beach.  Sunbathers seem friendly and uninterested in the standard of beauty displayed on the newsstand.  It’s refreshing.  In fact, I sometimes love to check out older men, imagining for a moment what I will look like when I am eighty and naked.  I pray that I live long enough to see winkles cover my war-torn chassis and lines lay deep in the foundation of a laugh-filled face.

Looking up, I notice one man with a t-shirt, and nothing else, posing on the rocks.  He is next to fully-clothed Chinese tourists positioning themselves on the rocks with their children in front of the bridge.  They’ll rotate with one another so everyone has a chance to have their picture taken.  Naked T-shirt Man (NTM) rotates with Completely Nude Guy (CNG) as they guard and protect their claim to this area.  I snap a few pictures of the bridge, tourists and nudists.

It is not long before I am surround by a small gang or what I surmise are teenage women, maybe just barely legal or even college age (it’s hard to tell from this side of forty).  They are talking about Mika as if I am not there, which is a bit strange, in the worse form of Valley Girl dialect I have heard yet.

Girl #1: “Oh, he’s [sic] so cute, I wonder what his name is?”

Girl #2: “I wonder if he’s friendly.”

Girl #3: “Oh my gawd, I want that dawg.”

Girl #2: “Totally, I want that dawg.”

They continue this banter for a short time.  Mika ignores them and plays in the surf.  “Good dog,” I think to myself.  Finally, the threesome discuss something else – shopping, I think.

A few moments pass and the banter from the gaggle starts again.  “Man, I wish I had brought the pot that I left at home for us to smoke.”  One of the girls says this loud enough for me, and the two men (NTM & CNG) on the opposite rocks, to hear.   Some sort of San Francisco Gen Y mating call?  Another moment passes and their conversation continues, again as if I am not there:

Girl #1: “he’s kind of cute.”

Girl #2: “you mean thaaaat one in the hat?”  (I scan and I’m the only dude in visual distance wearing a hat)

Girl #1: “uh, yeah”

Girl #3: “I’d tap that.”

Girl # 1 and #2 together: “yeah, I’d definitely tap that.”

Baker in Full View

Suddenly, I think I know how women feel when walking past a group of cat-calling construction workers.  I am being objectified, right here on the nude beach in San Fran.  I can’t believe what I am hearing!

Just as the future ladies of the night are about to (gasp) ask me a direct question, a wave douses Mika.  She runs up onto the beach and shakes it off.  I laugh and the girls do too.  Saved by a wave.  I walk up to get Mika.  Glancing up at the CNG on the rocks, I notice he is completely shaved down under.  I wonder to myself why guys do that – it leads to nothing but pimples and uncharacteristic scratching for me.  He nods (and I swear winks) at me knowingly and then looks at the girls.  I shudder, then collect my Corgi companion to we make our way back down the beach to the safety of Dusty.  “Pretty dog” someone shouts as we exit the beach.

Sequoia Hugger!

Redwoods

We arrive in the Golden State just after 5pm and I am worried that we are not going to find suitable encampment for the night.  The temperature has dropped 30 degrees and fog now hugs the top of the redwoods as we continue our westward drive on Highway 199.  Reaching Jedediah State Park and Campground, we pull in and see the “campground full” sign.  We have to pull forward in order to turn around, but before anyone in the car can get a word out, the friendly, young ranger asks “looking for a place for the night?”  Yes, I reply.  “You’re in luck, we just had a cancellation.” I ask if we can we take a look at it.  Yes, he says, “but I get off in 30 minutes, so make it quick.”  We’re back in ten, paying $35 to camp in the keystone of redwood parks in northern California.

In no time, Malaika and Purdie are cooking delicious zucchini succotash using the small backcountry stove I brought along: I’m impressed by what two determined Aussies can pull off with bare minimum.  I set up camp, take a quick walk around the grounds and breathe in the sounds of people talking, kids playing or complaining, parents trying to figure how to set up tent, and RVs running generators.  I’m struck by the desire of human beings to be in nature.  Not everyone wants to be in it in the same way I do, but it is interesting that every year people pack the national and state parks with their family and friends.  It gives me hope.

I return to find Malaika and Purdie discussing America.  It’s been interesting to see the country through their eyes.  Malaika is surprised at the beauty and diversity of the landscape; she had the idea of a barren, overdeveloped land.  Those places exist, I say, but there are also breathtaking sanctuaries that people in this country have worked hard to protect.

The highlight of my evening comes when opportunity meets need.  The girls have never heard of, nor had, S’mores.  Given my food cravings, I am ready for just about anything on a stick.  Unfortunately the only chocolate in my possession at the moment is organic raspberry, large chunk.  Being that this is a S’mores emergency, any chocolate will do.  Over burning marshmallows and melting chocolate on graham crackers we exchange stories of our lives, loves and sorrows.

Footbridge to the old growth

The next morning is quiet and misty.  We’re up early and, after short debate, decide to hike a short point-two (.2) mile trail. We learn later that we have misread the signs and it closer to 2 miles.  In no time, we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mighty giants we call redwoods.  They shoot up out of the land like prehistoric monsters and it is easy to feel as if one has stepped back in time.  Fog embraces the canopy and ferns and tall grasses grow large and green along the forest floor.  We cross a river via footbridge and enter old growth forest, which is larger and more mysterious than its younger counterpart.

As I step close to one colossal giant, which I cannot even see completely, I wonder what we can learn from beings this large and old.  Many cultures see trees as magical beings that bridge realities and walking amongst such presence, there is no mistaking that these sequoia are alive.  I realize this is a silly statement, but let me explain: by alive, I mean conscious.  Not in the way you and I are conscious, but they are aware of us, their surroundings and the world.  I believe that there is vast knowledge accessible to anyone patient enough to listen.

Tree Hugger

Malaika tells Purdie and me about an artist in Australia who hooks up diodes to trees and then has people hug them, which produced unique sounds.  One time, he conducted a symphony by coordinating tree huggers.  To demonstrate, Malaika walks up to a redwood and hugs it as if she is embracing a long-time friend.  Wanting to hear what the tree will sound like (or say), Purdie and I move into to embrace our conifer brethren.  If you have never hugged a tree, or had a conversation with one, I highly recommend it.

Four hours later the gals and I emerge from the hike more centered and peaceful.  We race back to checkout of the campground.  Later that day, I say “so long” to Purdie and Malaika for the moment – human style hugs all around.  Sebastian, my stuffed frog copilot, takes his rightful place in the car, riding shotgun.

More NorCal pictures are available –> here

Dirty Work: Rockhounding in Idaho

Shovel in the garnet area

With the exception of a few moments to send a text or make a quick call, I have little cell phone reception from Glacier National Park through most of Idaho.  I choose to leave the radio in my Jeep off and the windows down, taking in the fresh country air.  I have a day-and-a-half to kill before I am due to be in Spokane, WA to stay with an old friend of my mom’s.  I decide to jaunt down into the Idaho Panhandle National Forrest from I-90 for a night.  A day or so before, I had read about a place where visitors can rockhound for garnets.

Without cell phone reception I have no GPS, so stop at the Idaho Visitor’s Center – it doubles as a miner’s museum – for a map and directions.  I have been impressed by the these information hubs in every state; the staff behind the counters have always been knowledgable and helpful.  In all cases they have given me too much information, but steered me in the right direction – mostly off the major interstates to smaller, more scenic byways.  The man behind the Idaho Visitor’s Center counter leads me over to a large pull-down wall map of the area where I plan to camp.  He traces the road I should take: State Road 3 through the town of Saint Maries to the Emerald Creek Campground.

By the time I leave the center/museum it approaches 3:30 PM and I still have to stop for supplies (which I find in St. Maries) and find bivouac for the night.  On a Sunday night, I am one of three campsites that will be occupied – the encampment is quiet and surrounded several varieties of evergreens.  I’ll gain an hour tomorrow (by crossing into the pacific time zone), so the sky stays light a little later than usual.  I set up tent and settle in for the night.  Again I am able to stoke my relationship with the with the stars, hold a conversation with the trees and watch as the fire dances in her pit.  I roast S’mores and recollect my youth.

Dry sifted earth and rocks

The next day I’m up early and prepare a camp-side breakfast of hash browns, eggs and hotdogs.  I drive two miles to the Emerald Creek Garnet Area, where, for ten dollars, I am given a permit, two buckets and a shovel.  I didn’t realize I was going to be doing hard labor.  The forest rangers explain the process: “fill the buckets, dry sift them in the sifting area, then wet sift them in the washing area.  Look for dark-dark red, almost black, glass-like rocks . . .  and keep anything else you like.”

The washing area

I love rocks and collect them from different places.  Occasionally, I will buy a semi-precious stone from a store.  But, there is something satisfying and fascinating about digging my own out of the ground.  As I work, I feel connected to the earth.  I love that my clothes are increasingly muddy and my hands and arms (and even face) turn yellow-orange from the clay I wash off the rocks I mine.  I love watching the faces of the children – both young and old – standing beside me asking “is this one?” or exclaiming “I found one!”

My prize for the day come in the form of a nearly perfect dodecahedral garnet crystal.  The rangers all agree: “very nice.”  Along with it, I take three grams of garnet (the rangers weigh everything that comes out of the site) and leave with a smile on my face, a song in my heart and stained yellow-orange clothes and skin.  More than that, I leave with the satisfaction that connected with mother earth, I know exactly where my rocks were born.

For pictures of Idaho, Washington State and Victoria, BC –> Click Here