Monday, September 29, 2008

San Jose State reading this Tuesday, September 30

I will bring Xeroxed waterlogged diaries from the trail, etchings, an early, abandoned cover of the book, a scary self-portrait photo and other artifacts to my reading at San Jose State University, where I am teaching creative nonfiction and essay writing this year. I will speak this Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. on the fifth floor of the beautiful, high-tech Martin Luther King Jr. library.

There will be cheese and wine. Here is a map of the campus, with parking and the library. I will sign books if you like, and this time I will bring along the full assortment of creature and flora stamps (ticks, cow skull, prickly pear, yucca, horny salamander, etc.)The event is sponsored by the Center for Literary Arts here at SJSU.

Later in the week, I will read in my newly adopted hometown of San Francisco:

Books Inc In The Castro
San Francisco, CA
(2275 Market Street)
7:30 pm, October 2 (Thursday)
Books Inc. in the Castro
Reading and signing

King of the trail angels

Here are two of my photos of the late, great "Mayor'' Milt Kenney, who helped up to 60 Pacific Crest Trail hikers per season when they passed through Castella, California. Milt, who appears in The Cactus Eaters, would buy hungry hikers huge breakfasts and enormous Barn Buster hamburgers in Dunsmuir, near Castella. Sometimes, he would even drive them up to Mount Shasta to take a look around. Trail angels are one of the great joys of any long-distance trail. They open up their cars -- and in some cases, their homes -- to long-distance backpackers.You can still hike the .9-mile -- and rather steep! -- spur trail that is named after him. Milt is gone now, although there are plenty of new 'angels' who are trying to keep his legacy alive. I've reprinted these photos at the request of Winohiker. (notice that cool, vintage PCT T-shirt that Milt is wearing. By the way, the mysterious finger that you see is pointing directly at the spot where Castella, CA. appears on the map.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Beef Monster Taco

Back when I was a hardcore backpacker, I spent up to 10 days in the woods. Most of the time, when I arrived at a supply town, I would take a pay shower at a campground, load up my food, and slip back into the forest. In those days, motel rooms were a rare treat. I wasn't discerning at all. A motel had to fulfill four basic qualifications: 1. It needed to cost twenty-eight bucks a night or less, 2. It needed not to be a working brothel, 3. It had to be across the street from a place where you could get a two-dollar breakfast, and 4. it had to have running -- and, if possible, warm --- water. My younger self did not care if the curtains smelled like Salem Lights, or if there were mystery splotches on the comforters and on the ceiling, or if there were shirtless burly dudes hanging out in the parking lot all night, slurping Boones Farm Strawberry straight from the bottle. I didn't even mind if the doors to my room would not close unless you propped a bunch of couches against them. As far as I was concerned, a motel was a motel. Right?

But not anymore. These days I've grown a little soft. For example, I just got back from a whirlwind visit to Seattle. The trip itself was fantastic, but I had some concerns with my accomodations on Aurora Avenue. A certain online cheap reservations service (I can't tell you the name, but I can tell you that it rhymes with Shmavelocity) stuck me in a chain motel room that was exactly seven feet from a Jack In the Box drive through window. I was so close, I could have leaned out and ordered myself a shake at three a.m. All night long, I had to put my hands over my ears because of all the people driving up and bellowing orders: "I WANT A BEEF MONSTER TACO, A STEAKMELT, CHOCOLATE OVERLOAD, TWO PITA SNACKS, TEN ORDERS OF CHEESY MACARONI BITES and A SOURDOUGH ULTIMATE CHEESEBURGER.'' And then the perky woman in the drive-through counter couldn't quite hear them, so she would shout back at them, and then they would shout their order even more loudly until my motel room began to quake. I put several pillows over my head, and even put on the kind of industrial strength earplugs that jackhammer operators use on the streets of Manhattan. In spite of my best effforts, the hungry, shouting customers and the perky-voiced attendant just got louder and louder. Next time, I'm going to stay in a nicer, more quiet place. (Or maybe I'll just pitch my tent in the middle of a Jack In the Box and see if anyone notices.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ursus Americanus

Here is my field sketch of a juvenile American black bear in repose. I have had mostly positive experiences (so far) with California's robust black bear population. Although they seem very peaceable, like overstuffed labrador retrievers, they are truly wild and should not be trifled with. (they can hook-climb a tall tree in a matter of seconds, and can run much faster than any human in the short distance.) Don't ever try to sneak up on one of them, as I once did in a moment of sheer youthful idiocy. And whatever you do, don't feed them or bring camp food, or smelly deoderants or toothpaste, into your tent with you. I've heard of many cases in which bears have ripped down tents -- and in one case, sat right on top of a sleeping backpacker -- to get to the vittles.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pikas: squeaking beasts of the wilderness

This is my field sketch of a pika, a creature familiar to alpine backpackers. If you've walked above tree line, you've probably heard their strange "ook-ook'' vocalizations. Pikas have different squeaks for different occasions (distress squeaks, angry squeaks, etc.) They even have their own Facebook-like system for letting other pikas know if they are dating, interested or available. According to Allan Schoenherr's book, "A Natural History of California,'' pikas will make certain vocalizations to lure other pikas into mating with them -- but they will also make "wailing calls'' to signal the end of a courtship.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hiking and writing in Santa Cruz

This just in. I will be teaching a writing class and leading a nature walk in an event sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz this spring. Bookshop has decided to set this nature walk and discussion in a cool and misty redwood forest instead of a forbidding desert. There are 30 spaces for this, so shoot me an email if you are interested, and I will forward it to the event organizer. It is tentatively scheduled for May. Don't worry; I will take a head count before and after the nature walk. (It won't be like Open Water, where the scuba-diving couple gets left in the ocean.)I will have more specific informmation in the coming months.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Meals Ready to Explode

I'm on the fence about these newfangled eat-them-straight-out-of-the-pouch backpacking foods. I'm talking about those pre-cooked slabs of salty lemon-and-pepper tuna, mushy lentils, squishy soups and gloopy curries that smell like fungus. Sure, they're convenient, and they are -stable. Eat them now, or eat them in 350 years, and you will notice no difference in mouthfeel, taste or quality. They also preclude the need to carry a stove into the woods. But the new MRE's have a couple of slight drawbacks. For one, the "food" looks and smells vomitous. For another, the contents of these pouches are so pressurized that they sometimes explode in my backpack. During my trip to the Southeastern backwoods, a pouch of pumpkin curry self-detonated all over my mess kit, tool pouch, Maglight and sleeping bag. I was able to remove the larger pumpkin chunks, but even now, my backpack has an unbearable stench that attracts varmints, from possums to mice and all the way down the food chain. From now on, I'm going back to Power Bars, protein powders and meat stick.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Getting Stoned with Mr. Science

I love to take day-hikes and backpacking trips when I can, but lately most of my hiking takes place through the streets of my new hometown. I almost always see crazy things during my strolls through Golden Gate Park, where I often head to the bison enclosure and back again. This weekend, I was on the eastern edge of the park when I saw a young man and young woman, both with robes and dreadlocks and standing very close to each other. They were leaning forward but not quite touching. When I got closer, I saw that the woman had an enormous spliff in her hand, and the man was trying to light it. Neither one of them had matches. Instead, he was trying to fire up the joint by holding a thick magnifying glass to the sun and focusing the beam of yellow light onto the rolling paper.
"It's starting to burn,'' she said, her hands shaking in anticipation.
"Stand still!'' he commanded.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Hitchhiking: the thrill of the open road

I am not one to advocate hitchhiking -- it's one of those 'try at your own risk' kinds of things, and in some cases it can be very dangerous --- but I will admit that I've hitchhiked many dozens of times, with no bad experiences at all. Sometimes, unless you've planned a pick-up, or are hiking a loop, it is almost impossible to avoid hitching.
I've hitched in California, Oregon, Washington, Kentucky (to no avail) and in Mexico. In fact, the biggest challenge I've faced is the fact that people were usually too scared to give me a ride because I used to have a very large, curly, red scungy beard and smelled really bad.
In my experience, it's easier to get a ride ...
1. if you are hitch-hiking with your girlfriend and not all by yourself. (People might think you are psycho if you are hitch-hiking by yourself. And if you're trying to hitch-hike in a large group of guys, forget it.)
2. ... if you shave off your frightening beard
3. ...If you cover your body odor with powerful masking lotions that smell like Ivory soap.
4. .. if you target large, wheezing Vans or buses with "steal your face'' stickers all over the windshield and license plates with winking references to either Grateful Dead or Phish lyrics. The drivers are usually hitchhike-friendly. On the downside, the drivers get pulled over by the cops with alarming frequency.
5... if you choose a hitchhiking area where many religious fundamentalists happen to live. Say what you will about religious fundamentalists, but they are the most likely to take pity on you when you are standing by the side of the road. As I mentioned somewhere in Cactus, without religious fundamentalists, many of us backpackers would rot on the roadside in patchouli-scented piles.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Trail of Eternal Peril

I am resolutely anti-vandalism but I do think that this bit of improvised graffiti, on the Southern California P.C.T., is pretty hilarious. (I don't know if the sign is still there -- this was a while back!)