It’s been over seven months since we came back from Alaska, and I didn’t think I’d get around to writing anything about the trip. At the time when memories were ripe for recording, I instead became preoccupied with other ways of spending the remainder of my summer break—visiting my mom in Oregon, helping plan a baby shower, and getting pregnant myself. But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had not, apparently, forgotten about our trip. A few months ago it sent me a hefty envelope containing a survey on my fishing activities, along with maps of the state’s rivers and illustrations of the various fish I may have caught, so that I could provide the most precise information possible for their records. Upon seeing the greeting “Dear Angler” on the cover letter, I casually tossed the whole thing in the recycle bin. Surely, I had not earned the title during the four hours I spent joyfully harassing some salmon in the Russian River.

Cut to last week, and the same very official looking packet appeared from amid a stack of campaign mailers. “DEEARRRR…ANGLERRRR!” the letter now read. It was the same letter, but it added that my prompt response would allow the Department to cease its mailing of future surveys. Fine! I had Ben complete it since it involved filling out a rather complicated looking grid and he likes that kind of thing. Besides, he’s the only one who actually caught anything worth keeping.

Like anyone else, we were drawn to Alaska by the promise of experiencing its legendary wilderness. We wanted to see rugged mountains, rushing rivers, and moose crossing the roads (at least until I read about all the bad car accidents caused by moose crossings). Some people go to test out their survival skills and to camp where no one has camped before, but we looked forward to seeing grizzlies from the safety of a tour bus and sleeping in a hotel here and there. We planned out an itinerary that would let us see much of Denali National Park and a swath of the Kenai Peninsula. We packed two extra-large duffel bags with camping gear and clothes for all kinds of weather.

After landing in Anchorage and picking up our rental Prius at dawn, we had a few more camping items to rent, including a can of bear spray. The young lady working at the store assured us that only one of their customers ever deployed a can, but that he was part of a bachelor party and the can wasn’t directed at a bear at all. We stocked up on groceries and beer at Fred Meyers and then made our way to Denali.

After setting up camp, we took a long afternoon hike to get acquainted with Denali National Park. While we didn’t have any run-ins with big animals, we did come face to face with a porcupine and we studied each other for a minute before the porcupine lost interest. We asked another couple of hikers if we’d be able to see Denali herself from one of the nearby trails, but it turned out we’d have to get much closer for that. Overall, it felt like we were in a grander version of the Sierras.


At night, we inflated the queen-sized blow up mattress that fits just right inside our tent. Like I said, the goal wasn’t to rough it. I thought of John McPhee who wrote about Alaska in Coming into the Country. As part of his research, he stayed with a couple in their cabin in a very remote part of the state. One night, his desperation for comfort won out over his need to look like a tough guy in front of his “rugged pioneer” hosts, for whom comfort was apparently no longer a human need. “My hand goes into the pack. The pillow is small and white. The cover is handmade, with snaps at one end, so that it can contain a down jacket, which it does. I mumble an apology for this, saying that nonetheless I feel a touch ridiculous—in their company, in this country—reaching into my gear for a pillow.” (Ben fashions a camp pillow in a similar manner, by stuffing his down jacket into the drawstring cover of his sleeping pad.) The rugged pioneer responded, “Don’t apologize […] We’re not out here to rough it. We’re out here to smooth it. Things are rough enough in town.”

On an all-day bus tour of Denali, we saw grizzlies with their cubs, moose, ptarmigan, eagles, and caribou. The caribou, which would amble down the road right in front of the bus, were looking rough from an unusually warm year, with big patches of fur missing. An impactful piece of evidence of climate change. A couple of hours into the ride we started getting glimpses of Denali, which had “come out,” meaning we were lucky. She often hides behind storm clouds. Eventually, we came to a lookout point and the mountain was revealed as a magnificent centerpiece to the expansive wilderness that comprises the park.


The next day, walking along Horseshoe Lake Trail, a beaver crossed our path. He ambled along, unhurried by our presence, towing a sizable branch, and disappeared into the trees. Another cute creature to add to our mental list of wildlife sightings before it was time to leave the park.

Back in Anchorage, we stopped by a Bass Pro Shop for a couple items and I was gobsmacked by all the stuffed wildlife you can see there. I could see the fine detail on a grizzly’s paw that I just couldn’t make out from half a mile away on the tour bus.

Not that we starved while camping in Denali, but once in town, we were willing to let someone else do the work, so dinner was at Glacier Brewhouse, which I highly recommend. The herb-crusted halibut was perfection and the in-house beers are delicious.


We got up at 4 am the next morning and drove down to the Kenai Peninsula for a 6 am rendezvous with Angle 45 Adventures to go fishing. It was dark for much of the drive, but by the time we neared the Russian River it became clear how charming and beautiful the Kenai is. We parked, met up with our guide, and found out that we would be the only members of the trip that day. Private fishing lessons! In the boat, we chatted with our guide, who was younger than us but had a warm and knowledgeable ease about him. Shortly after rowing to the first spot, we were in our waders, standing in a blue-green river, learning how to cast. The early morning sun came through clouds that released an occasional sprinkle. It was pretty easy to get the gist of fly fishing, although it was a modified form of fly fishing that a novice could pick up quickly. Over the course of the morning, I caught a couple salmon, but released them both: a humpy and a too-mature silver. I also hooked a few that got away after an exciting struggle on both ends. Ben caught two silver salmon that we kept. Our guide cleaned and filled them for us right there on the river before we turned around.

After camping right on Kenai Lake where we ate our first meal of fresh-caught salmon–with toasted pine nuts and buttered green beans–we slept in and then continued down the peninsula to Seward, the point of access for Resurrection Bay and the most adorable seaside town you can imagine. We settled into a quaint hotel and went to the delightfully kitschy Thorn’s Showcase Lounge for dinner, not because we were at all hungry after another filling picnic lunch of salmon, but because I have what Ben calls food FOMO. But of course, by the time we finished off our stiff cocktails and the “bucket-o’-butt” arrived on the table, we had no trouble finishing off all the delicious morsels of fried halibut.

At 8 the next morning, we boarded a ferry to Fox Island for a kayaking tour. The island was covered in trees and mist, rising up dramatically from a rocky beach. It was cool and just barely raining. We joined a big group of kayakers, put on our gear, and leisurely paddled along the coast, getting an up-close view of puffins, starfish, urchins, and the like. Afterwards, we enjoyed a buffet of (what else?) salmon and mashed potatoes at the lodge while watching a ranger’s well-rehearsed presentation on the geology of the Kenai Peninsula.

We climbed back on the ferry to continue exploring and learning about Resurrection Bay, looking for wildlife and admiring the gorgeous scenery. Our enthusiastic, verbose, and surprisingly young captain maneuvered us responsibly close—but still closer than I imagined we could get—to a pod of orcas, which was incredible to watch. Ben had made a good call buying binoculars at Bass Pro, after all. We even caught sight of a humpback whale in the distance.

In that long and fulfilling day we got an unexpected glimpse of everything we hoped to encounter in Alaska. All we had left to do was set up one more campsite, try to eat the rest of our salmon, return our unused bear spray, and go back to roughing it in the city.


An Iceland Itinerary for Hot Springs Enthusiasts

My husband Ben and I had the best time in Iceland this July. If you, too, enjoy hot springs, camping, and puffins, or you’ve been wanting to see for yourself what the hype is all about, feel free to use our itinerary.

Day 1

Fly to Iceland with WOW airlines. Stretch out in XXL seats. Don’t get caught sleeping with your mouth open unless you really trust your seatmate.

Lonely Planet FTW!

Stock up on beer and Brennivín in duty free.

Get a brand new rental car–a white Hyundai hatchback will do nicely, but make sure you remember which white Hyundai hatchback is yours each time you try to get in. Make sure it has a navigation system since you’re directionally challenged. Frowning at that National Geographic Adventure map every few minutes isn’t fooling anyone.

Pick up miscellaneous camping gear at Iceland Camping Rental, find a cafe in Reykjavík, get some caffeine in your bloodstream, text everyone that you’re alive and well, and get groceries at Bonus.

Leave for Þingvellir National Park and marvel at how quickly your surroundings turn lush and magical. Set up camp and make dinner while trying not to inhale too many gnats.

Take a late evening stroll to Öxarárfoss, a beautiful little waterfall actually created by the Vikings back in the day.

Day 2

Fortify yourself for snorkeling in 2 degrees Celsius water in Silfra, where you will snorkel between the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates. (Can you observe signs of tectonic activity from dry land? Sure. But you’ll never know what it’s like to drink glacier water and swim in it at the same time.)

Ben goes for the extra credit!

Tour Þingvellir (aka Thingvellir), where Viking chieftains from around the country assembled and held the first parliament. If you’re lucky, your Icelandic tour guide will be moved to sing a few verses of a patriotic song.

The Icelandic flag (far in the background) is near the site of the country’s founding.


Continue your tour of the Golden Circle, stopping at the Geysir Hot Springs area, featuring mud pots, steaming pools of water, and of course a geyser that erupts every several minutes.

Hot springs at Geysir

You’re only 15 minutes away from the next marvel, Gullfoss–a very impressive two-tiered waterfall.


Day 3

Spend a leisurely morning at Gamla Laugin (Secret Lagoon) in Flúðir, a naturally heated swimming pool built over a hundred years ago. It accommodates multiple buses of tourists and has a modern cafe without sacrificing good vibes and rustic charm.

Secret Lagoon in Flúðir

Hike around Kerið, a volcanic crater lake, where the legendary Björk performed on a raft while the audience sat on the slope.


Stock up on groceries again at Bonus in Selfoss (we probably should have joined a member rewards program) and follow the Ring Road in a counter-clockwise direction. Set up camp at the site of the iconic waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss. Both falls are unique in that they are impressive yet approachable–walk behind Seljalandsfoss, and work your way underneath and around the rock that obscures the bottom part of Gljúfrafoss (the “Hidden Waterfall”). Don’t worry about getting the perfect photo and enjoy the splendor.


Day 4

Visit the black sand beach called Reynisfjara near the seaside village Vík and check out Reynisdrangar, dramatic basalt columns that looks like The Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California. The crowd thins out as you continue walking down the shore, but beware of rogue waves if you choose to do any rock scrambling.



On the way to Skaftafell, you’ll pass otherworldly lava fields covered in a uniform layer of dried lichens for as far as you can see. Don’t pass up a small but beautiful canyon called Fjaðrárgljúfur. It’s a short detour from Ring Road, and a trail takes you along the ledge of the canyon all the way to the waterfall at the end.




You might think you’ve seen all you can possibly see in one day but you’re just getting warmed up. This is summer in Iceland and the sun doesn’t go down for several hours.

Once you get to Skaftafell National Park, you have a plethora of hiking trails to choose from. A relatively ambitious activity that would take some advance planning is a guided glacier walk, or you could do what we did and hike a trail that takes you very close to a glacier, which is pretty neat.

End the day with a trip to Jökulsárlón, a peaceful lagoon filled with icebergs floating towards the sea. Some formations are Gatorade blue and others are streaked black with volcanic ash. Stay awhile and absorb the subtlety and the drama of the place. Keep an eye out for seals and for precariously stacked icebergs that are liable to crash down at any moment.

Day 5

Drive to Höfn, and you’re now in southeastern Iceland. The big ticket attractions are less concentrated once you’ve left the southern region, but the driving becomes even more scenic as the Ring Road follows the in-and-out curves of the fjords. In this small harbor village, fill up on some seafood and walk along the waterfront.

Enjoy the relatively long drive to Egilsstaðir, where you’ll find a popular campsite and hostel.

Day 6

If there’s one must-see town in the east, it’s Seyðisfjörður, situated on the water. With a rainbow colored path leading down the main “street” to an adorable sky blue church, it’s a highly photogenic locale. Burn off some road trip snacks with a steep hike above the town, passing a few waterfalls and checking out the interesting art installation Tvísöngur, which is essentially a cluster of echoing concrete domes. Pick out some hand knitted souvenirs in one of the craft shops before moving on.

The next destination is a fjord called Borgarfjörður eystri, which has one of the most laid-back and appealing campsites in Iceland. It’s also a five minute drive to a wonderful puffin colony called Hafnarhólmi. I suggest you visit at different times of day to experience the area in different lighting and because puffins might congregate in larger numbers at certain times. (We saw dozens in the evening and hundreds in the morning the next day.)

Day 7

After your second or third visit to the puffin colony, each visit more captivating than the last, get ready for another relatively long drive to Mývatn. Stop at the incredibly powerful Dettifoss, taking the route that leads to the protected side of the falls if tourists standing inches away from certain death makes you squeamish.


Stop by a geothermal area called Hverir, where overpoweringly thick, sulfur-scented steam greets you at the parking lot. The bubbling mudpots and steaming fumaroles are delightful to see close up.



The area’s major campsite, Bjarg, is situated on the shore of the volcanic lake Mývatn, boasting an idyllic background that admittedly is somewhat hard to enjoy in the rain. Fortunately, most campsites have indoor kitchen areas and this one is no exception.

After dinner, visit the Mývatn Nature Baths, known as the Blue Lagoon of the North, and in my humble opinion the best Blue Lagoon of them all. (Full disclosure: we skipped the most famous one, near Reykjavík). Relax in luxury, have a lifeguard bring you a beer, and gaze at the surrounding landscape until closing at midnight, when you’ll have the whole place almost to yourself for awhile.

The Mývatn Nature Baths at closing time

Day 8

The Nature Baths may be the ultimate highlight of Mývatn, depending on whether or not you’re a huge Game of Thrones fan, in which case another hot springs competes for #1. The water filled cave Grjótagjá used to be a popular bathing spot, but the hot spring itself is now off-limits to the public. Now, it is known for being the location of a steamy scene involving Jon Snow. (I’m not a GOT fan myself but it was pretty cool.) From there, hike on over to the humongous crater called Hverfjall, which measures over a kilometer across at the rim.


Another sight worth seeing is Dimmuborgir, a lava field where jagged, towering rock formations and caves inspire stories about trolls.

A rare sighting of one of Dimmuborgir’s legendary Yule Lads emerging from his cave dwelling.

Continue one of the final legs of the Ring Road trip, stopping at Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri. There is plenty of shopping, dining and drinking to do in town, not to mention an interesting church and botanical gardens to explore. However, we spent most of our time at Hamrar, another awesome campsite featuring a ropes course and other remnants of a kids’ sleep-away camp.

Day 9

One more fantastic hot springs experience awaits you. Set the GPS to Hveragerði, not far from Reykjavík, completing your circumnavigation of the island. From a convenient parking lot near the campsite, a trails leads up and along the springs river, with green rollings hills and steam rising up everywhere you look. After passing several boiling pools, you’ll come to the part of the river, marked with partitions to change into your bathing suit, where the water is just right for a soak.


Day 10

Spend the day in the capital doing whatever your heart desires. The National Museum has a fascinating collection of artifacts from the Settlement Era as well as religious art and contemporary objects. You can even try on traditional women’s riding garb (it’s very cumbersome).

While going out is expensive anywhere in Iceland, there are happy hours to be found all over Reykjavík, and we even chanced upon some free live music. Find the locals’ favorite hot dog cart for a relatively cheap snack.

For dinner, definitely go to The Sea Baron restaurant in Old Harbor for lobster soup and salmon skewers. There were probably ten ingredients total in our meal and it was perfect.

Old Harbor, Reykjavík

Day 11

Squeeze in one more activity, or just find a good breakfast spot, and begin your journey home.

Art vs. an Oasis in the Sespe Wilderness

I’ll admit I find modern art kind of baffling. I doubt I’m alone in this, since there’s no objective way to label a thing art or not art. But a new installation piece called Social Pool has me more than confused. It’s a puny bathing pool in the middle of the Mojave Desert, made all but inaccessible (on purpose!), and its very existence has me inexplicably peeved.

The artist hopes that visitors will have an epiphany about their role in a society dominated by consumerism, or something like that…that is, if they can even find the pool. And if they fail, well, that also says something about consumerism and the pursuit of luxury, supposedly.

Social Pool

Social Pool

One LAist writer dubbed Social Pool “obnoxious,” while another LAist contributor went to the installation and didn’t have anything snarky to say at all. Without going for myself, I can’t say for sure whether it’s a waste of water or whether it’s a worthwhile experiment. Because I suspect the former, I’m going to offer up one of my favorite places to take a dip–the Bear Creek Campground swimming hole–as an alternative to Social Pool, so that you don’t have to get lost in the Mojave Desert and die.

In order to sit in Social Pool, the visitor must first visit a museum to pick up the key and the GPS points, because the pool has a locking cover and no signs or markings to find it from the highway. Plus, it’s a considerable walk over the hot sand from the road to the pool’s location. Here’s another idea: Google directions to the Piedra Blanca trail head, in the Los Padres National Forest’s Sespe Wilderness Area, and drive there. Park for free. There’s a large trail map there–no need for GPS points. Follow the well-worn trail about 4 miles to Bear Creek campground, where you will find the swimming hole.

Bear Creek swimming hole

Most accessible pool goes to: Bear Creek Swimming Hole. While there’s a fun scavenger-hunt aspect to Social Pool, I don’t have the patience or flexibility to go to a museum to pick up a key that may or may not be checked out already. If it’s a challenge you’re after, reaching Bear Creek requires enough effort to make the swim feel well-deserved.

Social Pool is the size of a small hot tub and the rules allow only four occupants at once. At Bear Creek there is sufficient water for actual swimming, even in summer during a drought. There is room for you, a few friends, other hikers and their friends, and so on. You can sun your pale skin on a wide, flat rock, dive in when you get too hot, and repeat.

Bear Creek Campground

Best pool for swimming: Bear Creek, obviously.

Enough logistics! Now, do you like being encouraged to over-think your entertainment and leisure choices? Do you believe that total mental relaxation and detachment from society are for those who lack culture? Then Social Pool could be for you. The difficulty of accessing the installation is meant to provide the visitor opportunity to reflect on why she is willing to go through such pains. On the way to Bear Creek, you’re allowed to think about how pretty the wildflowers are, or about how you wish you’d brought stuff to make s’mores. And then, once in the water, you’re free to let your mind enter a blissful, meditative state, punctuated by the croaking of bullfrogs.

Best pool for unapologetic hedonists: Bear Creek. (You didn’t expect me to let Social Pool win anything, did you?)

And just because we’re talking about art today…

toad and plate

An arroyo toad and his plate


Big Santa Anita Canyon: A post I started and forgot about back in March

It’s mostly true that nobody walks in L.A., but I dare you to try and find an Angeleno who is not all about hiking. This has been the case since the city’s real estate boom in the 1880’s, kicking off L.A.’s “Great Hiking Era” during which the San Gabriel Mountains served as a rugged frontierland for nostalgic urbanites.

High-altitude leisure-seekers could even ride a quaint little funicular, on the Mount Lowe Railway, up a 62% incline (they were a little nutso in 1893) to a glamorous mountaintop hotel. Survivors were rewarded with unbeatable panoramic views, hiking, zoo-visiting, couples massage, hopefully some bottomless mimosas…

Resorts popped up like wild flowers over the years. Alas, due to fires, extra-dangerous road conditions and other hazards, these “Hotels in the Sky” and supporting infrastructure have long been abandoned or torn down, the remains attracting modern-day hikers. But I salute those visionaries who sought to civilize the mountains above Los Angeles. They saw potential for development and profit where we now see potential for the preservation and enjoyment of nature.

But I do sometimes long to be one of those early 20th century ladies, trying to ride a burro up a gnarly trail whilst dressed in a long wool skirt. (I mean, they knew how to picnic.) Now that nearly every corner of the globe and select bits of outer space bear the markings of human civilization, the frontier exists not so much as potential real estate but as a virtual place where new ideas sparkle like the lights of Los Angeles seen from the Mount Wilson observatory. In lieu of true, utter wilderness, all I can ask for is the illusion of isolation, the chance to demonstrate my enviable survival skills (I must be part Australian) some endangered bird-sighting, and as a bonus: hot springs.

There were no hot springs on this San Gabriels trip, where we explored Chantry Flat in Big Santa Anita Canyon, but a creek and waterfalls more than made up for that.

There are 81 cabins in Chantry Flat in Big Santa Anita Canyon (we passed about a dozen on the trail). Needless to say there's no electricity or internet; residents get propane and supplies carried in by pack animals and can make calls on a crank phone.

There are 81 cabins in Chantry Flat in Big Santa Anita Canyon (we passed about a dozen on the trail). Needless to say there’s no electricity or internet; residents get propane and supplies carried in by pack animals and can make calls on a crank phone.


Four miles from the trail head we came to Sturtevant Falls, had breakfast (it was still only about 8:30 am) and picked up some trash before taking a photo.


The trail continues up above the fall where the creek gathers into pools full of WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE'S NO TROUT?

The trail continues up above the fall where the creek gathers into pools full of WHAT DO YOU MEAN NO TROUT?


We still had the whole day ahead of us upon arriving at the campsite, so we hiked to the top of Mount Wilson. The trail  occasionally opens up to these views. Also I thought I heard a mountain lion but it was Ben's stomach.

We still had the whole day ahead of us upon arriving at the campsite, so we hiked to the top of Mount Wilson. The trail occasionally opens up to these views. Also I thought I heard a mountain lion but it was Ben’s stomach.


Ben examines river water for tadpoles before purifying.

Ben examines river water for tadpoles before purifying.

You could do this long hike in one day, but we can’t pass up a campsite without pitching a tent and sleeping next to a river. Try it out and thank me later. And if you go here, keep in mind the parking lot fills as soon as it opens at 6:30. We witnessed an awkward parking spot duel on the way home.

Surfing with Sam (Part Dos)

Continued from

The only sound came from the water lapping gently against my board. I let myself be idle, like a sea lion lazing on a buoy. I hummed a Lady Gaga song that had been stuck in my head all morning, but found I was not annoyed. I wondered what Lady Gaga would do in my current situation, and figured she would feel rather at home in a full-length rubber suit not unlike a catsuit. I could see her now, determined to surf while wearing platform shoes covered in raw meat.

I snapped out of  daydreaming as my board started to rock. There was movement on the horizon and I paddled toward it. Way out there were perfect, mesmerizing little waves forming and folding gently, over and over, as in a wave pool at a water park.

The foggy lassitude that had hitherto dominated my morning was replaced by a determination to paddle with purpose. I focused on a wave, turned around started paddling hard, but it passed by without me. I began to turn around again and was startled to see an anomalous wave headed my way, bigger and faster than the others. Without much time to make a decision I made a quick adjustment on my board and started paddling furiously into it. I felt the wave pick me up, I hopped up to my feet with my signature wobbly grace, and by a stroke of uncharacteristic aptitude I stayed upright.

What took place next can only be described as a fluke. If there hadn’t been any witnesses I wouldn’t believe me either, and even so, I’m not sure my recollections can be trusted. Either way, kindly entertain the possibility that for about five seconds I was surrounded on all sides by a tube of turquoise water, because that, somehow, actually happened.

No one ever told me (nor did I ever inquire) what happens when the barrel closes out because, well, it seemed unnecessary. I just braced myself and sort of fell back and got tossed around for a few seconds, getting thwacked on the side of the head by my board. An undignified end to an otherworldly experience.

Breathless from a combination of shock, euphoria and want of air, I hoisted myself back onto my board and found I was no longer alone. There were several pairs of bewildered eyes watching me.

Down a River in Utah

At certain points, the cliff walls that overhang the Green River seem to be on the verge of crumbling down at any moment, as if they’re carefully holding their breath and the dislodging of one particle of sand has the potential to send tons of boulders crashing down into the lethargic water below. I entertained this thought while paddling through Labyrinth Canyon in a canoe, even though the looser-looking chunks of sandstone above had been resting there for who knows how long, and would likely stay put for the duration of our journey, if not longer.

It wasn’t so much the fear of being squished by a rock that spurred my imagination but rather the wonder at how such a presently tame waterway could cut through the hard, compact earth in such a way as to create this:


The stillness was suspenseful, until I got used to itUnless a flash flood happened while we were there, which would have been super inconvenient, I was unlikely to witness any change at all. I do wish someone could make a time-lapse video of a blind arch becoming (and becoming, and becoming, and becoming) an arch. I’ll check back in maybe five thousand years. 

I’m grateful, of course, that the Green River kept its cool while it transported us through the canyon for the forty-six miles from Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottom. We had a few more things going for us: we were the last group (six people, three canoes) launched by Tex’s Riverways for the year, so there was no one else with whom to compete for places to camp or to contradict the notion that we were intrepid explorers of a unique sort. Also, since it was late October, we avoided exposure to heat during the day (this is desert, after all) and the night chill only made the campfire more enjoyable.

I’ve seen many herons but rarely one of the blue persuasion.

The boys–Ben, Mike and Dane–had a couple advantages being at the back of the canoe. For one, they could trail their fishing lines behind them and cast frequently without snagging their canoe-mates, in theory. No fish were caught; the murky-water dwellers turned up their noses to the Powerbait. I’m not saying that there’s no enjoyment to be derived from even fruitless fishing, but at some point you have to put up the pole and paddle, dammit. The other advantage was that they could simply stand, turn 180 degrees and relieve themselves into the river without interrupting our progress. Since the only permissible place to piss was in the river, this advantage must not be underestimated.

As for the ladies–Liana, Alexis and myself–getting the front seat is the advantage itself.

cloudy skies

We did spend a lot of time on the river but we would pull up to the bank for a leisurely lunch and stop for exploration by foot through some empty river beds whose crust was damp but cracked. After the first docking experience during which we discovered one can easily sink up to the navel in silt, we became more selective about where to land. We (i.e., Alexis) referred to a detailed waterproof map to keep track of our progress and to decide on which bottom, strategically speaking, would work as a camp site.

We explored the riverbed where the temptation to slather oneself with nutrient-rich clay is just too much for some people.

We explored the riverbed where the temptation to slather oneself with nutrient-rich clay is just too much for some people.

Since conventional means of entertainment were absent on this trip, we entertained ourselves with roasting marshmallows, campfire stories and hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps. We found that canned re-fried beans, when placed directly into the fire, behave like a jack-in-the-box. I won’t go into Ben’s display of “freestyle canoeing” here but suffice it to say it made quite a splash.

Here we saw the footprints of either a badger or large bird. Debate goes on.

Here we saw the footprints of either a badger or large bird. Debate goes on.

Within 24 hours of the last meal on the river, while Alexis and Mike went back to Colorado, the rest of us were checking into the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, with its anemic animal sanctuary and cigarette smoke, showering for the first time in five days and then dashing over to the Bellagio for buffet. I saw the big platters of shellfish and thought of Tom Hanks in Castaway, picking up a crab leg from a buffet table after being rescued. The lobby had a stunning fall-themed display with an Oz-like animatronic tree, giant pumpkins, and elaborate waterworks, but it had nothing on our riparian wonderland.

I think the author of The Wind in the Willows would agree:

`Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING–absolute nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: `messing–about–in–boats; messing—-‘

`Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

`–about in boats–or WITH boats,’ the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. `In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?’

A river’s a great place for reflection.

Situationist for a Night

One or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.  

-The Situationists

Devils Gate

If your car radio is forever tuned in to NPR on the way to work, you’ve probably heard “Hidden Brain” with Shankar Vedantum, on NPR’s Morning Edition. I keep an open mind while listening, but often I wonder if mainstream psychology isn’t just a spin on common knowledge, confirmed by a study. Last week, as one example, the “Hidden Brain” discussion question didn’t really unlock any mysteries: Why do people take boring jobs? It turns out, people make up lovely ideas about a job they’re applying to, only to find out it’s unbearably dull after they take the offer.

Please continue reading in the voice of Ira Glass.

Which brings us to the theme of today’s program: Expectation vs. Reality.

Now switch to the voice of David Sedaris.

I myself have learned not to entertain expectations. I don’t mean the expectations that take the form of delusions (“I will get up at 6am and go to yoga class!”). Oh no, I entertain delusions on a daily basis. I mean the expectations that lead you down a rabbit hole on a quest for excitement and spit you out on the other side, sweaty and incoherent, asking yourself, Why the hell am I here, and when do we get donuts? 

I’d heard about A Passage Of A Few People Through A Relatively Brief Moment in Time (called the Passage Ride for short) on the radio, and was intrigued. According to the website, the Passage Ride is a bike ride that convenes every Wednesday night at a donut shop in Korea Town. The routes are long and ambitious, and every night, of course, has a theme. The organizers send out an email to subscribers–a teaser, if you will–on the day of the ride.

The inspiration for the Passage Ride came from the work of these intellectual fellows called the Situationists and is designed to get people to “drop their usual motives.” Usually, the excursions–from what I’ve gathered–are interested in exploring a certain man-made or geologic feature of the city. Once, the riders rendezvous’d with a giant boulder inching its way down the street on its way to become the art installation Levitated Mass at LACMA.

For two consecutive Wednesdays I was out of town, but read the peculiar emails. The night after returning to Los Angeles, I put my bike in the trunk of my car, gathered a water bottle and LED-equipped reflective vest into a pannier and drove to Korea Town. A broadcast of the original radio adaptation of War of the Worlds was on the air. In it, a terrified reporter dutifully narrates the scene before him: the mysterious spacecraft that had landed in a New Jersey farm was opening up, revealing a gruesome creature. Chaos ensues, and the reporter excuses himself from his audience momentarily while he flees.

It was the night before Halloween, and the ride was called “The Devil May Care”. This time, there was no boulder, no phenomenon to muse over. The Devil may care, but let us tonight be unconcerned. Expectations be damned.

I arrived at California Donuts at 8:30 pm and anxiously waited for others to show for about 20 minutes. At 9:00 we took off. Fumbling with my vest, I fell to the back of the group. We rode for a few miles down a busy boulevard, moving swiftly and in unison like a school of fish. We were in Silverlake before long, riding along the reservoir. After Silverlake was, I think, came Echo Park, then Pasadena, then Glendale. To be honest, I had no idea where we were most of the time. It was both liberating and nerve-wracking. 

We walked our bikes up steep, rocky switchbacks in a park; wandered into flood control areas; off-roaded up a hill to enjoy a scenic overlook; and descended down a ladder to a graffitied tunnel at the Devil’s Gate Dam located in the Arroyo Seco. We lifted our bikes over fences and shimmied ourselves through. Although we must have trespassed quite a bit, it seemed like we had a special permit to bike anywhere we dared.

About 15 miles in, I felt like I was peddling through mud, even on flat pavement. I wasn’t feeling very chatty and I wanted a blood transfusion or whatever Lance Armstrong used to take. Finally, kicking off the final third of the journey, we got to the downhill portion of the ride. I was overcome with relief although I had to keep stopping to give my hands a rest from squeezing the breaks.

At the end of the 4.5 hour, 30 mile trek, the garish yellow light from the donut shop sign was a beautiful sight. My hunger overcame the desire to get home and crawl into bed immediately. I ordered a big donut which I inhaled in the car, while visions of my adventurous new Wednesday nights fell like crumbs in my lap.

Surfing with Sam (Part One)


Image from

The fog was thick. The kind of fog that makes amateur photographers squeal with delight as it rolls through the Golden Gate Bridge. The pea soup-like mist that muffled the sound of  Jack the Ripper’s footsteps. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about it, but fog is foe when you want to go surprise-free surfing.

Feet in the sand, I looked out at the gray air and water, one indistinguishable from the other. My wetsuit put up extra resistance as I shoved my arms through the sleeves. The Velcro of my leash’s ankle strap made a prickling noise as a hundreds of tiny hooks snapped free from tiny loops.

There are some people that aren’t bothered by fog. They’ll say, “You can’t see the waves from the shore, so you just have to find out what they’re like when you get out there.” This is one of the ways surfing teaches flexibility and adaptability. You can’t always see what’s ahead. Or what’s about to land on your head. And so on.

There were lots of sets coming through and I couldn’t paddle out to the lineup so I gave up for a while and sat on the sand. Someone else came in, carrying two halves of his unlucky board, white foam protruding from shiny black. He was  smiling in disbelief and muttering about how it could possibly have happened. Then someone chided me for sitting out on the sand so I went back out; also, my hands were starting to turn purple in the air.

I was in the line up almost instantly, inadvertently taking advantage of a rip tide. It gave me the impression that the conditions had mellowed, explaining why it was so easy. I glided up next to Ben, who looked amused to see me. I paddled over a cresting five-foot wave and then another, unsure what to do next. I knew I couldn’t leave the same way I came. Taking one in didn’t seem like a possibility, but pointing myself toward the shore and paddling wasn’t the most appealing option either.

I raced over a wave that felt determined to suck me over the falls. As it passed, the sky started to brighten and the water flattened out. I sat up on my board and scanned the horizon which was now a visible line. There had been several surfers around but now it was as if they’d evaporated with the fog. Looking over my shoulder, the shore was disconcertingly far away.

24 Hours in Point Mugu

Saturday, 7:01 am: Backpacks are expertly packed for optimum weight distribution. We have the equivalent of a 6-year-old in food and water but have a relatively short distance to carry the load.

Tent, backpacks, 4 gallons water, whole pack of tortillas, entire jar of peanut get the picture.

Tent, sleeping bags, 4 gallons water, whole pack of tortillas, entire jar of peanut butter…you get the picture.

8:27 am: Rendezvous with camping companions and stop at Coffee Bean to load up on egg sandwiches and 20 oz coffees for the road. Caravan to Point Mugu in Malibu.

9:07 am: Hoist on backpacks in comical fashion and begin eastward ascent.

9:28 am: Cross fingers that charred, ostensibly barren landscape will turn lush and green just around the bend.


10:50 am: Come to an unclear sign directing to our campsite; speculate as to the  intention of the person who scratched in an arrow. Punk-ass joker or benevolent do-gooder?

11:15 am: Reach campsite, already occupied by rowdy young gents. Breath sigh of relief when they pack up and leave so we have the whole place to ourselves. Situate and spread out.

The so-called Springs Fire may have transformed the landscape but there was an interesting color palette going on.

The so-called Springs Fire may have, shall we say, transformed the landscape but there was an interesting color palette going on, e.g. bright green sprouts emerging from the burned trees.

12:13 pm: Hammock. Flask. Snacks on snacks.


Princess Consuela Bananaflask, meet Juice in a Box.

Princess Consuela Bananaflask, meet Juice in a Box.

3:10 pm: Explore the area above the campsite and climb a ridge overlooking Ventura. Walk over crunchy scorched earth, breeze through the empty space left by the hundreds of burned down trees and tall grass. Only the sturdiest of succulents remain.

5:10 pm: Theo teaches us a funny Russian card game called Durak.


6:02 pm: Gather some kindling for fire. Chop up the charred remnants of a picnic table for wood.


7:19 pm: Try out brand new MSR stove and cooking set. Success!


8:45 pm: Ben searches in vain for the stick he’d painstakingly whittled into the perfect marshmallow roasting device. Mourns and moves on. S’mores ‘n’ s’mores ‘n’ s’mores. Linger by fire until out of fuel.

9:26 pm: Bed time.

1:42 am: Wake up to the noise of some animal walking near our tent. I imagine a raccoon, possum, or maybe one of those “alot” creatures from Hyperbole and a Half.

Click on the alot to learn about this fascinating animal, invented as a mechanism to cope with the incessant urge to correct poor grammar.

Sunday, 7:13 am: Sun is an effective alarm clock. Find I am not sleepy at all but lay there for a while anyway since I’m in no hurry.

9:02 am: Pack up and stuff trash into a trashcan liner, which is surprisingly full. Begin trek back to civilization with its toilets, TV and Korean barbecue.

happy campers

Cheers to Yahaira’s first camping trip!