Friday, October 28, 2005

NAL logistics – The All-American Canal and 15 MPH through barren desert

Over 80 miles long the All-American Canal is the last great diversion before the remaining water of the Colorado River ripples across the Mexican border. The All-American canal built in the 40's to replace a canal that winded back and forth across the border put the water of the Colorado solely in the hands of America. With the assisstance of the Imperial Dam it now offers irrigation water to 630, 000 acres, helping to replace the arid desert lands with water hungry crops. 98% of the water in the canal is used exclusively for irragtion. A lot a work goes in to the last 2% to make it suitable for drinking. The total length of canals moving water around Imperial Country is over 1600 miles – that's a lot of water moving.

Just miles after crossing to the high side of the canal I wind through ocotillo on rough desert roads. The sun sets a finally feel meet the cool air blowing up of the water and enter Picacho State Rec Area. Canoes full of kids would come in til tomorrow afternoon, I swim, sleep, and wake to flocks of desert quail gurgling about. I chat with the Park Ranger – been livin' in the 200 ft bloody hot desert, generator and solar panels, for 27 years. Not a life I'm planning on pursuing anytime soon.

We'll finish up the NAL trip this morning. Clean some coolers, inventory some equipment, and point the cube truck for Ventura and Joshua Tree. The NAL company Halloween party (aptly named Naloween) is Saturday night. A lot of people who are great friends who never get a chance to hang out all together leads to high energy evening – I'm gonna start saving up on sleep.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dispatch from Yuma, Arizona – Soaking in Crystal Clean Sierra Hot Springs, Swimming in the Dirty Lower Colorado River

So much for every few days getting a post up. The last few weeks have been a lot of moving around and some rugged SoCal country that is dotted with towns that still have the slightest connection to the electronic world. It's actually good to see that those places still exist out there. None the less I found myself in Kernville last week sitting on the lawn of the county fire department, poaching wireless Internet and checking weather and E-mail. The next week I was downloading pictures to my laptop from my tent sitting in the hot desert sun.

A lot sure has happened since I was last killing time in Ventura: two NAL programs, many careless days at the incredible Remington hot springs south of Kernville, belaying 35 kids to the top of Sentinel Peak under deep blue Sierra-fall skies, a great day of climbing and getting back into it in Joshua Tree NP, a huge all-night party at the 20 acre Seth Pool in the desert north of Joshua Tree town (sponsored by Seth's resoling business Positive Resoles), the drive to the Arizona – California border, and now the sleepy job of supporting a group of 40 on the tired Colorado River.

Lets start from back in Ventura when I was counting the hours 'til someone would come along and rescue out of urbanity and into the mountains. Thinking I'd be sleeping in the parking lot I was lucky enough to have Amy come down from Santa Barbara and leave for a NAL program at Camp Whitsett. I talked her into heading for the mountains at 9pm that night and by 1 we were pulling into Remington. Right a long the Kern River, Remington Hot Springs is one of those remaining gems of the West Coast hot springs – I didn't take any pictures, nor will I give out directions (it's that chill and cool!).

Camp Whitsett is another two hours north into the southern reaches of the Sierras in a region called Domelands. Above the camp rises outstanding granite domes with amazing views into the Needles region and down into the Kern River Valley. Since I was just climbing and working on the ropes course the program went quick (thanks to the fun staff and beautiful setting) and before I knew it I was back at Remington with the whole crew. But this time we had a NAL cube truck full of perishable food that had to get eaten and and great group of folks to share the awesome place with. We played board games and made tons of food, all the while planning to leave at 9am. I didn't get headed towards Jtree until 4pm.

But, as always, Jtree is always welcoming and even arriving late in the evening some folks are around to welcome you and share a beer. The next morning Lizzard was really anxious to get climbing so I just followed her around and offered a belay. Being Liz, she excitedly got on a route I can safely say was too hard for her (Pope's Crack, 5.9) and I can't lie, I was amused catching her falls – after climbing all the time its good to remind yourself how well all this safety gear really does work. Whatever the case, she used her unmatchable stick-to-it-ness and got up the damn thing! Liz's 'get after it' attitude convinced me I should get back to leading myself after not having been seriously on rope since my finger blew apart in Italy. So I lead a couple mellow things (Continuum at Split Rocks is beautiful) and it felt great to be back, roaming around in Josh and climbing.

That night I got word of the 2nd annual Positive Resoles Party out at Seth's. Last year Becca and I had been the first folks out there and ended up patting out burgers for Seth and helping him with all the set-up. This year I got there well after dark and was happy to see so many of my Joshua Tree friends out and about – the best thing about a party like this is that all the old-school climbers are meeting all the young feisty ones. Non-climbing locals, who are the colorful folks that are the heart of Jtree, were all out, some in costumes, and reeking of that L.A. cultural vibe mixed with that touch of desert crazy. Slacklines were set up between telephone poles, the DJ was amazing and had this guy that could human beatbox and play sax on the mic, there was great camping in the desert, and two great fire pits. Seth assures me next year will be just as fun – I have no doubts. And send all your climbing shoe resoles to Positive Resoles!!!

I left the party early morning, stopped at my favorite Joshua Tree eatery (Crossroads, although Country Kitchen comes in a close second) for too rich raspberry stuffed french toast, and connected with J. Rose to get a ride to the middle of nowhere desert along the murky Colorado. Along the way we passed through the gross Palm Springs that during that day was unblessed with intense winds bringing the smog straight in from L.A. The windmill power plants looked eerie and necessary shrouded in the metropolitan smog.

There is little smog in the Cibola Wildlife Refuge along the Colorado. The pollutants here are now suspended in the aqueous medium brought from the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. This land, the Imperial Valley, is the largest lettuce producer in the world. Perfect weather and gallons of water make these SoCal lands, just above the Mexico border perfect for growing everything from cotton to alfalfa – of course that means the chemicals necessary to grow these crops in such large systems goes straight to the river, add the entire outflow from Las Vegas and other river cities, and the innumerable hydroelectric and agricultural dams and the Colorado River is no longer the mighty natural machine that explorers came across 100 years ago. If it were not for the 1.4 million acres feet that Mexico is entitled to under treaty there would not even be a river here for us to play and float on. But for now we are riding the water on its way across the border. I've got to go buy some lettuce.

Photos: Jeff, Amy, and myself atop Sentinel Peak; Liz and I in the JTree sun;
Rob angry at Ragady for her drinking

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Killing time in the NAL warehouse
Ventura, CA

Surrounded by stacks of coolers and endless Rubbermaids, I finally have a chance to get some computer work done and catch up on the business end of life. I'm sure many naturalists would agree the NAL office and warehouse, located in a strip mall right off the 101 in Ventura, is the closest thing to a black hole in California. I pulled my truck out of Joshua Tree this morning and navigated a familiar stretch of I-10 through Hollywood and up into Ventura. The saving grace of leaving the rugged desert and entering the metropolitan mess around LA: wireless internet, a cool sea breeze, and a paycheck in my mailbox.

The weather is what people dream about when they decide to move the whole family to California. Blue sky, perfect days – the fall temps keeping the smog down and making people reasonably friendly. This morning in the desert was unmatched, and the crowds of climbers haven't made the migration from the more Northern venues yet. So, Hidden Valley campground these last few days felt like our private reserve. Supported by NAL road kill, fueled by jam sessions, climbing, and a few beers the team of waiting for work educators fell into the relaxed, family vibe so often emanating from the Joshua Tree campsites.

We made music, food, told stories of old, talked about climbing routes, teased, roamed the sand, stretched to meet the sun, put our hands in cracks, reunited with old friends, made new connections and were reminded of how these years, in jobs like these, have awakened in us a sense of what is truly important. We laugh about how people might think we are missing out, living a fringe, cubical-less life .... when we are truly living it up.

Photos: (1) J. Rose and myself sporting the new NAL hats.
(2) Sunshine - I wanna climb like her!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Naturalists-At-Large Program – Joshua Tree National Park

My second week of program with NAL has brought me to Indian Cove Campground. Nestled at the edge of the park and low in the desert below the forests of the namesake Joshua Trees, Indian Cove sees a lot less visitation than some other area of the park. This is undoubtedly a good thing, since our impact on other users is limited and the remote feel of the site adds to the experience. These 75 students, the school's faculty, and the NAL staff are camped in group sites that overlook an empty desert (across a distant wash one can pick the buildings of the expansive Twentynine Palms Marine Base) – a far cry from the scattered family campsites we were occupying in Yosemite last week.

The best part of this week – NAL friends. There is no question the staff working out here this program is the A team; experienced, long-term, committed, and hysterically funny educators that have all been with the company for at least a few season. Most of folks out here are also Program Coordinators (my role this week) and it is by chance that I am coordinating them and not visa versa. For me that means lots of worry free time in the day while the program hums along like a fine oiled machine.

Temperatures in Joshua Tree these last few days have been a bit cooler than what I remember to be the mid October norm. Winds have kept things on the chilly side morning and evening. The nights have been crystal clear, brisk, and starry. A half moon rises above the the granite buttresses to the south early and makes a late night stroll manageable without a headlamp. Coyotes have been infrequent visitors to camp, the desert tortoise (often spotted by groups this same time last year) has remained elusive.

I am settling easily into my cube truck home. At the same time I am constantly reminded that I don't have a car and to live this lifestyle it sooner or later becomes necessary. For folks working here their car is obviously there home, complete with modifications, decorations, and idiosyncrasies that all homeowner must be used to. It's just out here, the Velcro custom bin of pens and pencils on the dashboard of your Subaru is what makes you feel like your 'coming home' – makes you feel like this is where you live.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Climbing Break - At Home in Hidden Valley, Again

In just a few hours I'll be back at work, loading Costco food into the back of a cube truck from a hot, concrete parking lot in Palm Springs. Just when I felt like I was really back to work in California I found myself departing Ventura for Joshua Tree to fill my interim work-free days with desert sun, old friends, and a tease of climbing.

Naturalist-At-Large staff were in full forced in Hidden Valley campground. It is easy to make a shady, boulder-strewn campground into home when every other site is teeming with friends and co-workers. Life feels comfortable when you find yourself missing a essential camping item and only have to wonder through the desert amongst the kind Joshua Tree to find a helping hand.

Another part of this mid-week weekend was getting back on granite - climbing and playing with climbing gear at Atlantis Wall with friends gave me a needed fix. While I guarded my finger throughout the day, I constantly reminded myself to use technique to sneak through the harder sections and finished the day without further injury. Just having rope and aluminum in my hands made the day worthwhile.

I bet there is no need to guess the theme of these writings are. After just a day back in the desert, Joshua Tree really started to feel like home. Old places, familiar mixed with old friends, new friends, and the heady, euphoric vibe that often tints every Jtree experience: sneaking around behind the backs of the campground rangers, showers at Coyote Corner, friends of friends (and the multitude of crazies) at the Jtree saloon, the enduring internet connection (and meatball sandwiches) at the Beatnik. Why didn't I bring my climbing gear down here again?

Monday, October 03, 2005

Old-fashioned weekend

An Old-fashioned Weekend - Yosemite, into the Central Valley, on to Ventura

The end of my first NAL program. The fun parts of Friday - the end of paperwork and cube truck packing, an afternoon with friends along the Merced River and a very chilly dip with the sun quickly setting behind Glacier Point. Yosemite always reminds you of its grandeur, and if you get caught up working too hard or busying around like in the city its not long before you round a corner in the trail and are reconnected to natural place strictly by the view.

I went to Camp 4 to unload (read 'give away') some extra perishable food from my trip and felt immediately at home. I was also immediately again aware that I haven't climbed for over a month now and my finger continues to heal at a snails pace. After a long work week, it's quite hard to turn down an old friend who is ready to go get on the rock. But, I had to..... go there .... get here ...

Working for NAL is often equivalent to working as a long-haul truck driver. Just when I thought I was going to have a normal free weekend I found myself blasting out of Yosemite, passing through San Jose, up to San Rafael, and then returning to Ventura. All this traveling remember is via a E-350 cube truck that gets about 8 miles a gallon. Today alone I spent over $200 dollars in gas.

Pulling always onto I-5 always makes me feel like a true blooded American – the highway traffic on a Sunday is big trucks, RV's, SUV's, trucks pulling ATV's, boats, and trailers of all sorts. I make a phone call to a couple other Natty's leaving Corvallis, OR just as they pull onto I-5; the concrete connection to my friends across the west coast. Again, I am cursing through the land at 70 MPH, alongside the RV's, as I climb the grapevine and descend into the smoggy basin of L.A. Metro.

I send this post from the new wireless connection at the NAL warehouse - another place that begins to feel like home. Ready to leave the city and head for the desert.