Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ghosts of the Utah desert

I had quite a profound and spooky experience exploring a remote canyon in the Utah outback some months back. If you're interested in reading about this place, here is my story, which appeared in Backpacker Magazine. By the way, I am glad to say that this place is extremely well-guarded and patrolled. It is also quite difficult to reach. I hope that people visit this place and tread lightly here for many generations to come. (As a disclaimer, I should add that this place is pretty subtle. Don't expect anything too dramatic. For me, it was mostly about the peace, the solitude, the atmosphere and the wildlife --- I saw a black bear, many wild turkey, snakes and lizards galore.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Advice for travel writers

I have some advice for people who are out exploring the world, backpacking around the globe, trekking through Nepal, hitchhiking around Thailand and keeping diaries of their experiences: do me a favor and spend a few extra bucks for a good-quality pen with archival smear-resistant ink ---- and a decent weather-resistant journal with durable pages.

Here's why I'm telling you this: When I did a lot of exploring in my youth, I bought thousands of Bic pens with red water-based ink, and dozens of fifty-cent journals with pages made of one-ply toilet paper. This seemed like a sound decision because, hey, I was saving money.

Years later, I needed those journals for a writing project --- but when I opened them, I saw that water had leaked into the journals.

Every once in a while, I would find passages like this: "If there is only one thing that I always want to remember about this travel experience, it's (ENORMOUS HOLE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PAGE ) Furthermore, I will never forget meeting (UNREADABLE INK BLOB ) who changed my life when he told me about (HOLE IN THE PAGE .) Furthermore, (BLOB )gave me a few words of advice that I will always try to live by: (UNREADABLE RORSCHACH SMEAR.) I will always be greatful for (RIP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PAPER. )''

Monday, July 28, 2008

Among the Giant Slugs

(photo from

APTOS, California: It's hard to believe that the Forest of Nisene Marks was once a stumpy wasteland, with loggers doing their darnedest to hack down every redwood they could find. In the turn of the century, this place was a disaster. Now, the forest offers some of the best hiking you can find anywhere on the Central Coast. You can hike all day on the edge of ravines, splash through streams and ogle banana slugs, which look like slices of overripe mango.

Second-growth redwoods grow so tall here, you can barely see the tops without straining your neck and back (like I did!) It's easy to forget the place's unfortunate history until you stumble across a stump with ferns and moss growing out of it, a broken-down cabin, or a set of railroad ties fading into the woods.

Sometimes you forget you're near Santa Cruz until you see or hear the signs: fat-tire unicyclists on an illegal trail ride deep in the park's interior, someone lost in the sounds of his own bongos, a musician blowing out a melody on the digeridu while sitting cross-legged on a folding chair, and a couple having exhibitionist sex in a Range Rover with the windows down on the fire road, paying zero attention to the small army of moms pushing babystrollers right past them. There are few people here, even on a nice day. Get there early in the morning and watch the steam rising off the redwoods.

Chronicle bestseller list, plus upcoming radio show about food

"Cactus'' made the SF Chronicle bestseller list this week in the Bay Area paperbacks category.
Also --- I will be talking about dehydrated matzo balls and other unusual backpacking foods on KCRW's "Good Food'' program at 11 a.m. (western standard time) August 2. I will post the podcast link when it's up. If you have any unusual backpacking-food suggestions, shoot me an email; at some point I'd like to do a follow-up post about this subject.

Friday, July 25, 2008


I'm not sure if I told you this before, but I kept two kinds of diaries during my wanderings --- a regular diary and a "Comic Book'' diary. This entry, from the "Comic Book'' version, gives you some sense of what was going through my head during the title sequence from "Cactus Eaters.'' Note the facial expression. Also, here are some scratchboard sketches inspired by various critters I saw in the American West. Alas, the grizzly sketch is a memento mori. They've been extinct in my native state since the 1920s. Nice going, California.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Range of Light

Now would be a great time to hike the John Muir Trail, which was completed 70 years ago and is still the most beautiful footpath in America (and possibly the planet.) It's also a genuine adventure; you bag a high-mountain pass almost every day. I guarantee that this path will turn you into a lifetime backpacker. If you can put up with a bit of leg burn, one or two scary creek crossings, and two or three thousand mosquitos nesting in your nostrils, this hike is for you. It also helps if you're handy with an ice axe. I grabbed this shot with the Behemoth Camera a number of years ago.

The Cactus Eaters in the Boston Globe

The author Steve Almond wrote this detailed review of the Cactus Eaters for The Boston Globe. In other news, I am adding several speaking dates in the Bay Area and points south; I will give more specific updates very soon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Vultures are cool. They are a hiker's companion. Sometimes, they sweep down close enough so you can see their red faces, their necks and wrinkly baldness. Some people demonize them -- so much that the federal government has placed them under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act -- but I've always liked them. I like the way they fly -- always wobbling, making constant corrections, as if they think they are going to crash.They are squeamish, and startle easily. If you sneak up on one of them from behind, a vulure might projectile-vomit a foul bisque of semi-digested carrion all over you, and then, hours later, go back and re-eat the vomit. (Waste not, want not!) Equipped with stomachs that are 10,000 times more resistant to botulism than the common pigeon, they also carry enzymes that can neutralize anthrax and hog cholera. Say what you will about vultures. They keep our deserts tidy.

(by the way, that great photo is by Robert Bernstein. I found the photo at

Monday, July 21, 2008

Eden of the West

I hope you will indulge me in a few more of these color slides from the vault. You should have seen this Monster Camera-- an old-school Pentax K-1,000 with a 35-to-75 m.m. zoom. My good friend, John Murray, had to teach me how to operate this thing. It must have weighed five freaking pounds, and I attached it to my chest using a cross-your-heart contraption that looked like Betty Page bondagewear. Every time I walked down a steep switchback, that big fat camera would pound against the center of my chest like a heart defibrillator. These photos have lost a little something in the translation from slide to digital, but they should still give you some sense of the fogbound Cascades in late summer.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pacific Northwest stream

I brought a huge, clunky SLR with me on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was kind of a pain, but some of the images are really nice. Here's one from the North Cascades.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Urban hiking and the ghosts of Haight Ashbury

Next week, if I can find a spare hour and a half, I will take that scary "ghost tour'' of the Haight, the one where you walk up and down very steep hills and get to meet the ectoplasmic presences of Hendrix, Joplin and so many others.

If I survive, I will provide a full report right here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Easiest Hike in the World?

Every week I get dozens of messages from readers who are out doing extremely adventurous things. Just the other day, I heard from someone who is about to camp 40 miles out in Alaska's deepest backcountry among the grizzlies and eagles, at a lake so remote, it isn't on any map. I hear from people who are in the middle of hiking national scenic trails, running some truly frightening endurance races and doing other crazy things. But every once in a while, it's good to know about "slackpacking'' options that give you access to views and libations with no effort at all. One such hike is out here in California, not far from Muir Woods. All you do is drive up Highway 1, turn right on the Panoramic Highway and park your car at the Pantoll Ranger Station (if you can. Parking there is kind of a pain.) Then you strap on your running shoes (who needs hiking boots for such a short walk?) and head toward the ocean. On a clear day, you will see some astounding views, and the redwoods are beautiful. It's almost all downhill (or flat), and you wind up in lovely -- if somewhat sharky -- Stinson Beach for fish and chips and perhaps a beer or two -- so long as you've brought a designated hiker-driver along with you. Then, when you are finished with your dining, shark-watching and libations, hop on the West Marin Stagecoach ((415) 526-3239), which will take you and your friends right back to Pantoll for dirt cheap. Calories expended? Zero. In fact, this may be the one hike in the world where you get fatter as you walk along. In other words, it's my kind of trail.

(by the way, this is NOT to be confused with the Tourist Club/Beer Woods hike that I wrote about a short while ago.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

You know it's time to replace your disgusting backpack

It's time for me to get real.

My filthy, animal-bitten, smelly backpack has got to go. I think it's beyond rehabilitation at this point. True, it's got a lot of sentimental value. The pack was with me for every step of the Pacific Crest Trail. It almost drowned me in Bear Creek. It weighed me down on a thousand switchbacks. And, most recently, I used the pack as a toboggan to help me escape from the Kentucky backwoods.

Now, sad to say, I'm probably going to get rid of the thing. And I'm not the only one who should think about doing this. Here are a few quick rules of thumb for those of you who simply can't let go of your backpack,even though its time has come...

1. You know it's time to replace your backpack when people you've never met start stuffing five-dollar bills into your hand.

2. You know it's time to replace your backpack when you go to the airport and get pulled out of the line by the "special security check team.'' And they're wearing HazMat suits.

3. You know it's time to replace your backpack when you walk down the streets of Haight Ashbury and no one tries to talk to you. Not even Greenpeace.

4, You know it's time to replace your backpack when the EPA puts it on the "National Priority Superfund'' list -- right between "Falcon Refinery'' and "Humboldt Smelter.''

I will add more to this list when I think of them.

If you have suggestions of your own for this list, please send them along ...

The Cactus Eaters in The San Francisco Chronicle and Elle Magazine

This morning I walked down to the food market in search of non-mealy organic nectarines. Glancing beneath a teetering pile of fruit, I saw a bunch of San Francisco Chronicles, thumbed through one of them, and saw this really good review of The Cactus Eaters in the book section. Also, Elle Magazine named The Cactus Eaters its top readers' pick of the month for August, which means that I get to go on and compete with the top readers' picks for every other month of the year. I'm very happy about the readers' pick, although I kind of get the feeling that the judges would not grant me any decision-making authority if we all went on a long-distance desert survival hike together.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Speaking in San Francisco on Tuesday, July 15, at 12:30...)

At half-past noon, I will speak at Stacey's Bookstore on 581 Market Street in San Francisco. I will read a brief but scary "cliffhanger'' section that takes place in the arid hinterlands of Southern California. After this reading, which is a joint event with Vincent Carrella, author of "Serpent Box,'' you should linger in this great neighborhood, which is close to a lot of great museums and coffee, (and serviceable bagels.)
By the way, thanks to Book Passage for a terrific reading. Before speaking there, we hiked part way up Mount Tam, where I saw a lot of fat, healthy redwoods, ferns, frogs, streams, and some of the largest, scariest dragonflies I've ever seen. (They looked like oversized knitting needles with wings.) About halfway up, I saw an incredible view of the whole SF Bay. When I have a free day, I'll head back up there and do a long trail run up to the summit and back.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

This Saturday: Book Passage two-fer in Corte Madera

This Saturday (July 12) I will speak at Book Passage, at 51 Tamal Vista Boulevard in Corte Madera, California, at 4 p.m. Don't leave the premises afterwards, because Zoe Ferraris, author of the acclaimed "Finding Nouf,'' will be speaking there, on the very same day, at 7 p.m.!!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Who knew that you could freeze-dry gristle? (updated post)

I'm going to be on a food program very soon, talking about a subject that is dear to my heart -- namely the bowel-crimping, stomach-churning, monodiglyceride-filled foodstuffs that I choked upon while dwelling in the backcountry. I'm talking about "Big Bill's Beans N Rice" and the "Sweet And Sour Supper Surprise In A Bag.'' Anyhow, this frank conversation about foul, and not so foul, outdoor meals will air on KCRW, So.Cal's mighty NPR affiliate, on Saturday, August 2, from 11 to noon, Pacific time. The show is called "Good Food'' with Evan Kleiman, a restauranteur, (she owns the Angeli Caffe on Melrose, down in L.A.) interviewer, and one of the founders of the Slow Food movement. I'll give a heads-up when it's about to come out and then post it right here. Also, to help you cope with your Fourth of July camping adventures, I've added a couple of items that I inadvertently deleted from my list of backcountry camping don'ts, listed below, three blog entries down...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

I just blew my golden opportunity to swear on the radio

I was just on the Jay Thomas show on Sirius -- and it was my golden opportunity to swear up a storm for 15 minutes straight. But the best I could manage was to say one little "Damn'' on the air. Gosh darn it!!!

Things you should NEVER do in the backcountry, redux

Backcountry "Don'ts'' (the unexpurgated version!)

NEVER bring a fondue maker into the woods with you. The bread crumbs, fruit wedges, gas and molten cheese will form a white magma that will spew all over you, leaving fourth-degree burns all over your entire body.

NEVER cook a meal while sitting inside your tent, even when it’s raining outside. (Trust me. Your tent will explode.)

NEVER forget that “freeze-dried’’ and “chili’’ is a very bad combination. (Trust me. You will explode.)

NEVER try to reason with anyone riding an All-Terrain Vehicle --- especially if he or she is drunk and holding a 12-gauge Mossberg hunting rifle and wearing a knit cap that says "I Like Big Jugs.''

NEVER try to make your girlfriend, or boyfriend, hike faster by calling out a military cadence in a fake Southern accent. ("Sound off, sound off, one, two, three, foe!")

NEVER attempt to brush your teeth in total darkness. Preparation H does not fight gum recession. And it tastes fishy.

NEVER bring artisan-quality cheddar cheese into the Mojave Desert with you in mid-June. A horrid white pus will extrude from the cheese, and you will vomit.

NEVER set up your tent in the middle of a mule trail in the North Cascades. Brighty, Big Snort and Old Thunder will trample you to death in your sleep.

NEVER underestimate the amount of toilet paper you will use in the backcountry. Sticks and stones won't break your bones but they will leave nicks and abrasions on your derriere.)

NEVER camp at a suspiciously beautiful, yet strangely empty, lakeside campsite. It is probably empty for very good reasons (think “flood plain,’’ “poisoned water’’ and “spaniel-sized mosquitoes.’’)

NEVER eat the freeze-dried stroganoff. It has been mummified and sealed away for good reason.

NEVER cut the handles off the toothbrush “to save pack weight.’’ Toothbrushes weigh less than an ounce – and if you try to brush your teeth with the head of a toothbrush, it will fall down your throat and lodge in your trachea, and you will die.

Please feel free to send in your own suggested "don'ts." Eventually I will update this list.