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Business Brisk in the Sonoran Desert

The air conditioner was roaring away to keep the room at 68 degrees, a temperature that is normally tolerable yet feels cold when you enter in from 100 degree heat. It was 8 o’clock, the sun had set behind the mountains, and I was sweaty and tired from travel and a long dinner in Tempe. This was my first business trip, the first time I’d have to sit through day after day of meetings followed by evenings socializing with my coworkers, and I was glad that I had gotten in on Sunday to see some of Phoenix prior to the week ahead.

I laid out my clothes for the morning, checked in on the coffee maker, and read for a while before going to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up cold, my head whirling with the sound of the fan, and shut it off, only to wake up again, not long later, hot and stuffy. I made the mistake of thinking that the night had cooled the desert, when it had not; in Phoenix, the climate must be artificially controlled at all hours of the day, for the greater part of the year.

I do not think that I could ever live contently in such a place. I would always long for green pastures and roaring rivers, the lands of plenty that succored my ancestors in the evolutionary past. Having read too many post-apocalyptic books, I would also be concerned about the remote possibility of civilization collapse. In such a scenario, Phoenix’s millions would be left scavenging for food and water in a parched wasteland where the only things in abundance are open space and sun.

In our post-scarcity high-tech economy, open space and sun are exactly the things that has attracted millions of people people and companies like my own, to settle in this sprawling desert metropolis. In this day and age, it makes perfect economic sense to build up the desert. Even from an environmental perspective, it’s not a bad idea, since air conditioning uses less power than heating, and the areas where it is needed are full of solar energy. Wildlife is rare and unremarkable (though some people may disagree), so one’s impact on nature is relatively light. In a weird technocratic future, I could imagine all of mankind being relegated to sparse deserts, while the rest of the land is used for minimal impact farming and grazing, and the lush forests are left open for nature. A city, anyway, creates a kind of desert of its own—so why not put people there in the first place?

There are even some good arguments for human health and happiness. Desert air is clean and clear; the sun puts you in a good mood; there are no bugs to worry about; there is enough space that you can build laterally and give people plenty of acreage for their homes; when the heat is tolerable in winter you go outside, and when not you can sit in the cool of your home or one of the dozens of malls. So why was I still opposed, at an instinctual level, to the idea of a place like Phoenix existing?

The first day of the conference, I wore jeans and a short-sleeve button-down. At noon I changed into a long-sleeve and an undershirt. I doubt that the thermostat was set much lower than 70, but when air-conditioning continues to run, the air gets drier and drier and the soft blow of the cold air can give your skin a chill.

We had imported the brisk, windy climate of business into our halls of work, here in the fiery desert of central Arizona. Cold climate and business go hand-in-hand, and the modern work environment is a product of cold northern Europe. Heat and mentally taxing work don’t mix well; a certain crispness of the air is necessary to keep the brain functioning optimally.

The conference hall, and the hotel at large, had very few windows, and those they had were small. At the back of the hall there were a few that were covered in dark drapes. As you approached, you could feel the heat intensify. At breaks I would go outside to warm up and to experience what I could of the local climate. The air was so dry that it vacuumed all the moisture out of my lungs and throat. Most of the heat seemed to come off the ground. I felt nauseous going back and forth from the heat to the air-conditioned interior.

At night, when the meetings were finally over, I would eat with my coworkers, enjoying the sense of camaraderie, but after a couple of nights, I needed some time alone. After happy hour one night, I slipped out and headed toward a Mexican restaurant close to downtown. The wide Phoenix freeways were hotter than they had been at noon. With the AC going full blast, I periodically cracked the window in amazement. In the heat at night, cars moved across the lanes with nervous carelessness, like nocturnal animals swaggering out toward a feast.

The restaurant called itself a “Modern Taqueria” and served fresh, Tex-Mex style food that appealed to yanquis like myself. I sat at the bar. The waitresses were mostly second- or third-generation immigrants. Tattoos and piercings were common but not excessive. People seemed down-to-earth, focused on their services jobs and making ends meet. After spending days among software engineers and product managers, it was relaxing to be among the woking class locals.

After dinner, I walked around the adjoining parking lot and strip mall. There was a freshness to the earth here; humans had not been living and dying here for centuries. (Unlike Germany, where I had lived and could always feel the presence of the dead piled on top of each other.)

As I was walking back to the car, I stared into one of the giant, mall-like buildings and saw that boys were sliding over a massive ice floor: it was full-sized hockey rink.

Driving back to the hotel, I noticed a baseball field was lit up and little leaguers were playing under the bright stadium lights. At this time of year, October, this was the only time of day they could practice, and they were not going to miss out.

As bizarre as Phoenix was, I could not conclude that it is much different than living in Alaska, where you have to heat your home 10 months out of the year. The only reason it strikes us as more acceptable is because heating has been part of our past for much longer. It’s also worth recalling that our reliance on technology has been true of every epoch. Before we settled into civilization, our stomachs had already evolved to require fire-cooked food; our exoskeleton had shrunk in adaptation to our tools for hunting and protection.

The adaptation to new places through technology and the shedding of unnecessary skills, is all part of the great human endeavor. Today, in places like Phoenix the trend has accelerated, and the amount of technical knowledge required to maintain this civilization is astounding. Civilization is no longer a choice or convenience, but a necessary adaptation. I suppose in Alaska, though, you can build your cabin, cut your own wood, and hunt to survive. In Arizona, you rely upon the collective to provide you with air-conditioners, solar panels, and irrigated or imported food.

I hate flying. I have a darker imagination than most, and I’m willing to take it to the extreme. As we took off, en route to Oakland, I imagined the cabin ripping open and our heads exploding under the pressure. Burning up in igniting jet fuel, we turned into char and then ash in a matter of minutes.

When we landed in the Bay Area, I caught an Uber and headed home. We were in the first days of fall. The seaside was close, and I could smell the fresh air even at the airport. While I’ve never felt at home in California, I was glad to be back, and felt like I was in my element now. Maybe the feeling is relative.

Yet I was fooling myself if I thought I was somehow less reliant upon civilization out here than in artificial Phoenix. Even the short drives rely upon cars and freeways, and the brilliant engineering minds who developed them. What concerns me is that, while our civilization provides us with many great wonders, it is expensive and fragile. It needs constant maintenance just to get off the ground safely. Most troubling of all, it tends toward being all-consuming, spreading into every location in search of cheaper land and resources, given the opportunity by its latest technical advances. There is no escaping it. And once it has taken over a region, there is no turning back the clock, because everyone has been made reliant upon the conveniences it provides.

Phoenix epitomizes this state of affairs, and constantly reminds us of it, which is why it is more troubling than the more temperate regions of the earth. Either that, or I just hate the strong sun and heat.

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Posted by on November 27, 2017 in Travel

 

Horsetooth Mountain | Hike in Fort Collins, Colorado

Horsetooth Mountain is less than a half an hour drive outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. The preserve provides multiple options for hiking as well as the best view of the plains of northeastern Colorado. IMG_3006

At around 5 miles long, the standard hike to Horsetooth Rock is ideal for a vacation day, not too short and not too extreme. There is a fair amount of elevation change, but it is gradual and scenic. And the uphill portion is on the way up, so you’re not met with a grueling last sprint to get back to your starting point.

However, there are also multiple other trails and routes you can take if you are looking for something different or more strenuous.

Parking is limited, so it’s a good idea to get to the lot early—definitely before 11 AM on weekends, and even earlier on holidays or summer days. There is also a fee for parking—I believe it was $6 or so. (To my knowledge, there’s no street parking close by.) The lot is along on the other side of road from this location on Google Maps. “Horsetooth Mountain” on Google takes you to the actual mountain peak, which you can’t drive to. IMG_2982

The hike to Horsetooth Mountain is marked well and the maps at the entrance explain how to get there. You might have some confusion later on when you’re approaching the peak, but just stay to the right and look out for the Horsetooth Rock in view and you can’t miss it. By this time, you’ll probably be getting tired from the elevation and the long uphill stint, but it’s worth it to make it all the way up to the summit—and to hike on top of the rock. The way back is all downhill….

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2016 in Hiking

 

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Day Trips in Anza-Borrego State Park | Fonts Point Badlands

Like most people, I had heard the term “badlands” before visiting Fonts Point, but I had no visual notion of it in my head. Badlands are actually a very distinctive landform and remind me of something out of Dante’s Inferno. The brownish red hills are devoid of all vegetation. Being so dry and rootless, when the rain comes in torrents every five years or so it carves grooves into the sides, flowing in several directions. With each rainfall and the daily winds these grooves deepen further, making the distinct scraggly look the Badlands hills are known for.

At Fonts Point, just outside of Borrego Springs, California, you can get an overlook of the Badlands that stretch across Anza-Borrego region and down into Mexico.IMG_2758

For this trip, I recommend that you take a Jeep or another 4WD or AWD vehicle. A Subaru should be fine to get to the overlook, but if you don’t want to do any additional exploring you might need a Jeep or truck.

There is a hiking option, but it’s through a dry, dusty, flat, region with no vegetation or sights (and no shortage of sun)—so unless you really want to get some exercise, driving is preferred.

Getting to Fonts Point is easy. Take the S-22 (Borrego Salton Sea Seaway) out of town going east. When you get past the campgrounds and the small edge of the Santa Rosa mountains just to the north, keep a lookout on your right (south) for the Font’s Point Wash dirt road. It’s approximately here on Google Maps. Take the dirt road 4 miles to Fonts Point.IMG_2759

The overlook is, well, spectacular for someone who has never seen anything like it.

Beyond this, there are numerous Jeep drives you can take through the region, including the Palo Verde Wash, Vista Del Malpais, and Thimble Trail. But make sure you bring plenty of gas and water!

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Posted by on May 10, 2016 in California, Deserts, Drives, Tourism

 

Day Trips in Anza-Borrego State Park | Calcite Mine

Although considerably less popular than Palm Canyon, the Calcite Mine trail is a hidden gem for those seeking those odd, moonlike environments commonly found in the Southwest’s deserts.IMG_2716

The whole hike is only about 2.5 miles and can be done in 1-2 hours. I went in around 4 p.m. and had plenty of sunlight to make it there and back. In fact, because this hike is essentially free of vegetation and through dusty old mining trails in one of the driest, hottest parts of the world, you’ll probably want to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Besides, the low angle of the sun makes for more surreal sights.

There are basically two parts to the hike, the trail and the slot. The trail is kind of boring, and there isn’t a whole lot to see of the actual “mine” when you get there, but on the way back (or on the way there), you’ll want to make your way through the slot, where you can see the sandstone rock formations of the canyon and wind your way through the slot.IMG_2751

The hike is very simple. Just stay on the main trail all the way to the mine at the end. Then, on your way back, make sure to turn left to head up the slot. About a mile up the slot, take a right to get back onto the main trail and back to the parking lot. Make sure not to miss this trail, as you can go on for miles into the slot and it can be easy to miss.

More reading about this hike:

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2016 in California, Hiking

 

Day Trips in Anza-Borrego State Park | Palm Canyon Trail

The most popular hike in Anza-Borrego is the Borrego Palm Canyon trail to the Borrego Palm Oasis. This hike is right by the Anza-Borrego park headquarters, which is off the main strip in Borrego Springs. The visitor’s center is also worth a quick visit to get a grasp of the region’s history and terrain.

You can walk to the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail from the headquarters, which adds some distance (about a mile) to the trip, or you can pay the entrance fee to park directly at the campground close by and save yourself a fairly boring walk each way. In total, the trip to Borrego Palm Canyon and back can be as short as 2.7 miles, depending on where you park, or can be extended to 4+ miles. (More on extensions later.)IMG_2663

You do get quite a lot of sun and wind on this trip, so you’ll want to make sure to have a hat and some long sleeves, not to mention loads of water.

When you get to the main trailhead, keep right. The hike to the first palm grove starts out upward sloping over sandy terrain with views of the cactus plain and the mountains closing in on either side as you move up the valley. The rock, mostly sandstone, has some color to it, a soft shade somewhat pinkish. Although the hills are covered in flaky rock and almost entirely barren, the color gives it a netherwordly feel that is at least more inviting than the completely brown hills of the deserts in Nevada.

While walking, remember to keep your eyes open for any Bighorn Sheep. (Borrego actually means Bighorn Sheep in Spanish.) I unfortunately did not catch sight of any while I was out. Apparently the earlier you go the better. Arriving after 11, I was evidently too late.IMG_2680

You’ll have no trouble finding to the first palm grove. The oasis is a peaceful place that provides some moisture and water. You can bathe under the waterfall if you’d like and have a picnic. One thing worthy of catching sight of were the wonderful little frogs that make their homes in the river. They are tiny creatures, and must barely manage to survive as tadpoles throughout the summer.

After the oasis, you can begin the journey back or, if you want to extend the journey, you can hike further up the ravine through treacherous, unforgiving terrain. There are, ostensibly, two more oases upriver, but the hiking is very strenuous and requires the agility and gear to hike over wet, slippery rocks. Keep in mind that this extension is for adults only and it’s best not to go on your own as I did.*

On the return, it’s recommended to take the opposite route back. You can find the alternate route by continuing straight back from the oasis. A sign points you in the direction to the right not far past the oasis, right before a river crossing over a plank that has been laid across.

The alternate route affords you a view of the unique desert forest that blooms in this area. The Ocotillo cactus blooms in spring, its short flower shooting out like the painted fingernail on a made up lady. Desert plants here remind you of life under the sea; if you were floating you would not feel out of place, and the thought of water is refreshing.IMG_2671

*Extension (SPOILER ALERT): Since there was recently a flood, there’s really not much to see when you go through all this. But just so you know, the possibility is there to stretch your hike out to 5 miles or more if you really want to do so.

Not being aware of what awaited me, I went for it. Not far in, having surmounted many slipper rocks and other obstacles, I saw a group of people and asked them if the “next grove” wasn’t far off. The guy paused for a moment and said it was pretty close, about half a mile. I asked him if the terrain got easier, and he said it did. There was a strange look in his eye. I powered on, now hiking straight through the river and having to work my way through a lot of weeds and brush at times.

At last I made it to the palm grove, but there was nothing but a single palm which was partially burned. I was exhausted and stopped for a snack. There was a nice cool shade against the side of the ravine. I searched the hillside for Bighorn Sheep but the hillsides were barren and lifeless, no animals and hardly any plants there to speak of.

I continued on a ways, thinking that I might not have met the grove yet. After another half an hour of ragged, rocky terrain, I came in view of a bend and decided I didn’t want to continue on further to round it. I figured that the third grove was not far off, but I had been debating ever since if I even wanted to get to it, given how rough the walk was and how sharp the rocks were. At times, I had to make my way over dangerous rock faces just to continue further and I was worried I might slip and fall and not be heard due to the rushing water.

More reading about this hike:

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2016 in California, Hiking, Parks

 

Day Trips in Anza-Borrego State Park | Staying in Borrego Springs

If you’re interested in exploring the vast, mysterious Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, you’ll need somewhere to hang your hat during the adventure. Borrego Springs is an obvious choice, featuring plenty of motels, resorts and camping spots.

When coming from the coast, you arrive in town after winding out driving over the Santa Rosa mountain range on your way out of Temecula. If the roads are clear, it makes for ecstatic, frenzied driving, provided you’re willing to accelerate around the occasional dopey motorhome. Time and time again, I’m shocked at what great (and sparse) driving you can still find just outside of the huge metropolis of Los Angeles. Once you get over the mountain range, you’ve reached the rain shadow and the fascinating terrain that Anza-Borrego is known for.

The town itself is more of a retirement community and there isn’t a whole lot there apart from a coffee shop, a few Mexican joints, and a bar or two. There are some permanent residents, but given that it can get up to 120 degrees in the summer—and stay there, for weeks on end—it is more or less inhospitable place for full-time settlement. But that doesn’t matter—you’ll mostly want to be out hiking and exploring the surrounding areas. Winter and spring are the best times of year to visit. See the next entries for things to do while you’re there.

Hikes:

Drives:

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2016 in California, Hiking, Parks

 

All the Hiking You’ve Been Missing in the East Bay

Get out there and start conquering the East Bay’s underused regional parks.

When you’re in the mood for a day hike, do you head over to Marin more often than not? Or even drive all the way to the Santa Cruz mountains, where you spend more time in traffic than outdoors?

Here’s a notion: You can easily avoid all the drama of these crowded, picked-over places by staying the East Bay. Within 20 miles of Oakland—the land of Oaks—there’s an abundance of sparsely populated hiking trails, with a great variety of terrain, all waiting to be trod by your hiking boots, still muddy and moldy from your humid hikes along the coast. And there’s no need to cross any bridges and pay tolls or sift through any traffic to get to there.

You’ll notice right away that East Bay hikes have more open and rougher terrain, drier land, plenty of oaks and great vistas, fewer people, and no problem finding free parking. So heed the call—Yes, In My Back Yard (YIMBY)—and get out there exploring.

Some regional parks to get started are Redwood Regional, Lake Chabot, Briones and Las Trampas. Once you’ve conquered those, you can move on to parks as distinct and diverse as Sunol, Black Diamond Mines and Morgan Territory.

If you’re looking for a particular route, you can always go to the Regional Park District’s website at ebparks.org for trail maps, but I tend to prefer bahiker.com, a private website that does an impeccable job of organizing 60 Bay Area hikes within 60 miles of San Francisco.

There are many great things about bahiker.com. First of all, the map lets you see all of the locations, so you can find something close to you and waste as little time as possible in the car. Jane Huber, the author, provides a route that winds you through the highlights of each park, and gives important information such as the mileage, estimated time and standard weather conditions per season. The routes are mostly easy to follow, but there’s always some adventure involved, since most of the articles are over 10 years old. (And hiking guides in general seem to enjoy leaving a fair amount of ambiguity in the directions.)

For those of you who know of the site and haven’t visited it in a while, you’ll be surprised to know that it’s been updated. The browser version is a lot snazzier and the mobile version now readjusts to your device, so you can look forward to a lot less squinting and twisting your phone when attempting to follow the trails. On that note, if you’re relying on the phone to guide you, don’t forget that you’re bound to lose reception in most parks.

Happy trails. I hope to see you out there.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2016 in California, Going out, Hiking, Tourism, Travel