The Bunny Whisperer

Manda and fluffernut

Most of us city folk make it all the way through life without partaking in what my little sister Amanda now does quite skillfully, that is, slaughtering small farm animals. But life on a suburban co-op involves certain unpleasantries that can’t be avoided. This particular co-op, where Amanda lives, raises chickens and rabbits for trade with local businesses, and a nearby Georgian restaurant that serves rabbit dishes has her to thank for the raw ingredient.

The perfect slaughter: note the blood draining.

The perfect slaughter: the blood draining from the nasal cavity means cleaning the carcass will be less messy.

My sister took me and Ben on a tour of what is essentially a modern-day hippie commune, thankfully without the presence of a bearded spiritual leader, polygamy or alarming lifestyle practices, although I admit that for some (looking at you, vegans) bunny killing falls under this category. Rather, this co-op consists of a handful of kindred spirits that split the homesteading duties, share meals, play music together and pass around the requisite homegrown weed. I don’t smoke, but I imagine after slicing the jugular of a particularly pecky chicken, a joint or two would take the edge off.

Just chickens...nothing else going on here...

Just chickens…nothing else going on here…

All they need are bees!

All they need are bees!

The house has a big back yard covered in raised vegetable gardens and lined with rabbit cages, a chicken coop and even a bee hive which Amanda built from scratch following YouTube videos and learning to use a saw for the first time. We sneaked a couple strawberries from a tower made from a plastic pipe cut with holes where the strawberries emerge. “My roommate’s going to notice they’re gone,” Amanda said, not too concernedly. We held a couple baby rabbits, and then another roommate announced that there were a couple rabbits whose time was up.

That face! He knows...

That face! He knows…

“Well, this takes a while so I better get started,” she said. “Do you want to watch?” If it wasn’t my sister doing this, I would have politely declined, like Ben, and maybe we’d have called it a day. But come on, my innocent baby sister clubbing a sweet pink-nosed fuzzball with a copper pipe–how could I miss that?

She prepped and sanitized the stainless steel butchering sink and had a bucket of water waiting nearby. She then retrieved rabbit #1 from death row. She wasn’t looking forward to this one, a veritable Easter Bunny. She calmed it by stroking its back, then took it upside down by the hind legs with one hand and reached for the copper pipe with the other. She turned to me to ask if I was ready. At this point I was nervously taking a video with my phone a few feet away.

Finally, Amanda brought pipe down swiftly and decisively. Obviously the last thing you want to do is hesitate. A cloud of white hairs escaped into the air with furball’s last breath. Death happened on impact but there was some postmortem twitching; the tail was the last to stop. Into the water bath went rabbit #1 and it all started over with rabbit #2. Rabbit #2 seemed to require more soothing. It had probably gotten a whiff of fear from the first one’s ordeal. While Amanda held it lovingly, Ben jokingly suggested that Amanda’s job would be easier if she wasn’t so nice to them to begin with. This time I was an accomplice. My fingerprints are all over that pipe from handing it to my sister.

....3...2...

….3…2…

He didn’t want to witness the aforementioned, but Ben came out of the shadows to watch part two, the butchering. A med school friend had once volunteered to come over to handle this part, Amanda told us as she used a basic kitchen knife to remove the skin, working it off the legs and then pulling it up and inside-out over the head, so that it looked like the rabbit died while trying to take off its own sweater.

The entrails were removed, the liver put aside and the feet snapped off like one would snap a branch in half. That noise was the only thing that made me cringe. Amanda proceeded to detach the fur from the head and then then head from the body with a butcher knife. Now a skinny, sinewy carcass, Ben and I helped it into a Ziplock bag along with the liver. She put aside the head to deal with the brain later; perhaps it found its way into a hearty Georgian stew.

Later on, there was ruckus coming from the rabbit cages, so my sister went out from the kitchen where we were talking to investigate and deal with the aggressor. “Is he going to be put in solitary?” I asked. There weren’t any more empty cages, but the chaos was deftly managed. “She’s so good with them,” commented one of the roommates. My sister replied, “It’s easy killing them, it’s keeping them alive that’s hard.”

I don't want anyone who doesn't know her to get the wrong idea about my sister ... this is just the face she puts on for every photo op.

I don’t want anyone who doesn’t know her to get the wrong idea about my sister … this is just the face she puts on for every photo op.

Note: I mostly have still footage of the white rabbit while alive and video of it while not, and visa versa for the brown rabbit, in case you were wondering about the inequity. In any case, the videos are absolutely precious so let me know if you want to see them. I need WordPress Premium to post video. 

Encountering Ruins in Malibu

Maybe if I had printed out a map and studied it for a moment before leaving, like in the old days before my Galaxy S3, I would have made it to the trailhead I was looking for. But knowing that all the directions and practically any information I could ever possibly need was stored in my smart phone, I could just refer to the Weekend Sherpa email if need be.

It was a long weekend and neither my dad nor I had any obligations other than watching over my mother’s dog while she was away. We decided to go on a 2.2 mile hike at Coral Canyon in Malibu, where a winding trail opens up to stunning ocean views, promises Weekend Sherpa. Plus there’s a restaurant right at the bottom of the trail, they mention, which is good because 2.2 miles is enough to rev up my appetite.

Cutting short my long story of technology failure, we reluctantly gave up on finding Coral Canyon Park, found free parking near a sign for Solstice Canyon and decided to embrace the unknown trail before us.

Little did I know that we would come across something more interesting than a lovely seascape. (Not that that should be difficult. I mean, it’s a minor mystery why a view of the Pacific, which is nothing new to me by any stretch, would still hold such power over my psyche.)

The dominant trail in Solstice Canyon is effortless and shady, overrun with dogs and casual hikers, and predictably leads to a waterfall. Less predictable are the ruins we stumbled upon.

Image

The house was owned by Fred and Florence Roberts (or Freddie and Flo as I’d have called them), who made sure the house had an abundance of stoves and fireplaces.

Destroyed by fire decades ago, the house’s concrete foundation and many of its components are still there, and while a palm tree now grows in what might have been the family room, it’s clear that the mid-century structure wasn’t a shabby, humble little home. It is Malibu after all. A sign notes that it was featured in Architectural Digest, and I could imagine its owners being lulled to sleep to the sound of the waterfall right outside the window, provided the area hadn’t been mid-drought like it is now.

Its unlikely, storybook location, tucked away in the woods next to a waterfall, lends the place a cool kind of mystique, even among all the explorers trampling around. Not that it’s shrouded in mystery at all, like some ancient dwelling dug up by archaeologists–we know who built it and for whom and that it eventually burned down. Still I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to live there.

Image

Nelson hams it up.

Image

Just two best buds, standing where a shower used to be.

From the Press Room of the L.A. Travel & Adventure Show

Last weekend I met Andrew Zimmern and Samantha Brown, which, taken together, is basically the equivalent of meeting Anthony Bourdain. Who am I kidding—it’s not. But the other Travel Channel sweethearts are actually very nice, intelligent people who might deserve a bit more credit and less snark from me and other snarky people like Anthony Bourdain.

Andrew Zimmern, from "Bizarre Foods"...so freakin' bizarre!

These encounters took place at the L.A. Travel & Adventure Show, produced at the Long Beach Convention Center. I worked on the publicity side of the event, organizing interviews and such, so I was working in the press room for the most part but did get to explore the expo during opportune moments, like when they were doling out samples of tequila-lime prawns.

Samantha Brown and Andrew Zimmern seemed chummy when they relaxed in the press room with their entourages. Peter Greenberg, on the other hand, is a very serious travel journalist affiliated with CBS. Not to gossip, but as he relaxed with his assistants in the press room, he commented on Samantha’s lack of journalistic integrity (to paraphrase) while conceding her ability to tell a story. Let’s examine the validity of this claim.

Exhibit A: Samantha discusses her hotel room in Vegas, and to convey just how ridiculously extravagant the room is, a photo of the “shower” displays behind her. The shower is so big, there’s a seat in it, and Samantha presumes that the seat’s purpose is to allow the guest to relax while walking from one end of the shower to the other. Many chuckles from the audience.

Exhibit B: Peter Greenberg discusses the tragic closed-mindedness of most

Peter Greenberg wants you to go to Egypt! Now!

Americans, especially when it comes to venturing to countries undergoing natural or social instability. “How many people have been to Egypt in the last five months?” he asks. Not enough people raise their hands. Go to Egypt, is Peters advice. The people will love to see you there because you’re the only visitors. You’ll be supporting an economy that could greatly benefit from your spending money there. You’ll come back with unbelievable memories. And so on.

The verdict is that I don’t really care who the real journalist is, but both of them made me want to go travel.

While the idea behind a travel show is to encourage people to go out and use their passports, domestic destinations were heavily represented, namely California and the Southwest. I picked up some pamphlets from desert cities, including some information on a wildflower festival in April and a flyer for the 10th Annual Joshua Tree Music Festival in May. So you’ll find my camping out in the desert for about a month. Come join me in the Magical Mojave!

Aside from a newfound urge to start planning a trip, something I literally took away from the L.A. Travel & Adventure Show: a recipe book from the Louisiana booth subtitled “Experience our Culture” including a recipe for Squirrelly Rice, which I’ll produce here for you in anticipation that you’ll ask for it anyway:

4 tough cat squirrels
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Black Pepper
1 ½ – 2 cups rice

Cut squirrels up and put in large crock pot with plenty of hot water. Add salt and pepper. Cook on high until meat falls off bones easily (about 6-8 hours). Remove squirrels from water but save the liquid in the crock pot. Remove all the meat off the bones and shred. Put the liquid from the crock pot in a 1 gallon pot. Add 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Bring to a cloil and add rice and squirrel meat. Cook until rice in done. Add water if needed. Should be almost soupy. This works with squirrels, wild turkey legs and thighs, duck, venison or for a mixed flavor dish. I often cook 2 or 3 of the above in the same pot.

I have so many questions. What is a cat squirrel? If you don’t shoot them yourself in Union Parish, LA, where the recipe was sourced, will it still be authentic? Can I get them in Los Angeles? What sort of moonshine goes best with this dish?

Also, what is the best time of year to visit Union Parish? I’m afraid I left the L.A. Travel & Adventure Show with more questions than answers.

Venice of America

Having a dog to take care of is a great excuse to enjoy long, leisurely walks, without feeling like you should be doing something more productive. And Marina Del Rey is a dog-walking paradise.

I set out with Nelly—a puppy of some mix that resembles Falcor from Neverending Story–from my mom’s place, just several blocks from the Venice Pier and steps from the sand. Right away I came across others walking their furry friends. Nelly engaged in a sniff-out with a somewhat unfortunate looking Pomeranian…named Boobalicious, his owner told me nonchalantly. “Isn’t that a big name for a little dog?” I asked. Response: “No, he can handle it.”

Moving right along, we came to the Eastwind Gardens, a small community garden. Most plots looked rather untended and shaggy, which could be attributed to the fact that it’s winter, hopefully not due to neglect. Still, I was concerned by the conspicuous absence of snap peas and cabbage.

Fruit trees, ornamental vines, cacti and, I presume, some veggies grow willy-nilly at the Eastwind Gardens.

Nelly attains Enlightenment by standing on a Buddha garden statue.

Continuing down Pacific Avenue toward Venice, we crossed Washington Boulevard to the south end of the Venice Canals. In 1905, entrepreneur Abbott Kinney dreamed of creating a “Venice of America,” complete with light-strung canals and gondolas, fashioned after the original Venice. (If only he could have lived to join in the singing of “That’s Amore” at C & O Cucina, or better yet try their garlic rolls.) His vision materialized, putting Venice, CA, on the map in a big way. Tourists came in droves in the 1920s for the amusement and pleasure pier, to take a gondola ride and to stay at the beach. But between fires, Prohibition, the Great Depression, political maneuvers, the need for roads and general neglect, much of Venice of America deteriorated, was demolished or buried under concrete. In the ’90s, though, the remaining canals were restored along with arching bridges and sidewalks, so that all may look upon the sparkling water and gorgeous homes (most go for at least $2 million) with envy and appreciation.

I've yet to see someone actually paddling in their canoe, but they're a nice touch.

While the canals still aren’t as heavily trafficked as the notorious Venice Boardwalk, which is probably a relief for homeowners, it’s clear that residents know the eye-candy value of their homes, and they maintain them accordingly.

This resident expressed her (or his?) holiday cheer with a garland of silver ornaments, disco balls and neon paper flowers.

A pelican takes off from the water and swoops underneath a bridge, right underneath two squealing tourists.

I stood and stared at these lanterns for a minute. They're unexpected and elegant at the same time.

I took Nelly out again for an afternoon walk to the Venice Pier, hoping to catch the sunset, not realizing this would occur as early as 4:50pm. I started speed walking, turning my camera on just as a beachfront bar called the Whaler erupted in cheering and cowbell-ringing, heralding the disappearance of the sun behind the horizon.

If aliens studied this microcosm of the human race, they might think we were all crazy, sun-worshiping pagans and leave us alone.

Conversations With People Who Have Sweet Jobs, Part One

The first installment in my investigation into the perks, pitfalls, and methods of entry into various coveted occupations.

Job: Freelance Travel Writer
Pro: Ken McAlpine

Honestly, who wouldn’t want to get paid to travel around the country, perhaps even the world, and write about it?

Here’s the rub: the travel writing industry has taken a huge wallop in post 9/11 years, as magazines have folded, made cuts to staff, or gone web-only, making it rather tricky for writers to land a full-time gig and a reliable paycheck. Which isn’t to say someone with enough drive and talent can’t make money, and one of the ways to do so is through good old-fashioned freelancing. (The avenue of New Media demands its own story.)

I called up an acquaintance I met through work, Mr. Ken McAlpine, for his perspective on the risky yet rewarding occupation. Ken graciously agreed to help me out, and offered some wonderful insight. A dedicated family man with over twenty years of freelance experience, he’s a seasoned pro who contributes regularly to pubs such as Sunset Magazine and takes the kids surfing whenever the waves beckon. A sweet perk of the job, no?

Since I don’t have a transcript of the interview, which loosely started out as one and melted into a more natural conversation, I’ll recreate and condense some of the highlights from memory and shoddy note taking. Hey, I never said I was a qualified journalist.

On his life before chasing assignments: “I was working at a small paper called the Ventura County Reporter. I always tell people it’s not a good idea to quit your day job and start freelancing because assignments won’t come streaming in right away. [Editor’s note: Oops…] I did stay at the Reporter, although it wasn’t too chancy to up and leave since the pay wasn’t that great anyway.”

On his first published stories: “I started sending stories in unsolicited, and my first piece to be published was a story on winter surfing in Surfer Magazine. [Editor’s note: not too shabby!] Then I wrote a first-person story that Sports Illustrated invited readers to submit, so I sent in a piece about trail running and rattle snakes, and that was how I first got in Sports Illustrated. Since then I’ve had about 25 pieces published there, but that first one was great to have under my belt while pitching editors elsewhere. I’ve written for Outside Magazine and other outdoor magazines; I tend to write about things I’m interested in, so yes, it’s often outdoor activity related.”

On the burden (or blessing?) placed on freelancers at the time: “Freelancers were usually given assignments that involved weird, quirky aspects; I once did a story on a one-legged climber…stuff like that.”

On the evolution of freelancing: “The biggest change actually is how short articles have gotten. [Editor’s note: You mean, not how the Internet has taken over? Interesting.] Before, you had space to craft a story, but now I think what magazines want, or what they think readers want, is quick information. Assignments seem to get shorter and shorter: 125 words on ‘eat here, stay here, drink here,’ and something’s being lost. You can’t really do a place justice in 125 words.”

On his other work: “I’ve had the chance to write a couple books, which gave me room to really tell the story I wanted, and the freedom to have a sense of humor, and to use language you can’t use in most magazines.” [Editor’s note: I think the dirtiest word Kevin in our interview was “heck,” so I’ll be on a close lookout for usage of questionable vernacular in his books.]

On PR professionals…and PR “professionals:” “Some PR people are good friends and send great ideas, and they don’t send too many. There’s one person who sends about four pitches a day, and it’s the kind of thing where, if I was Borat I’d be interested, but seriously, what the heck? … When a firm pays for a trip it can be a difficult and uncomfortable situation, especially when the experience isn’t a positive one. And I can’t lie about it. It’s not always rosy. But there are only a handful of negative reviews I’ve given. PR is actually a great function in that it brings to attention things you wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.”

On the biggest perks and challenges: “My biggest perk is that I get to enjoy a great family life and have personal time. I was freelancing and working from home before both my kids were born, so I got to walk them to school each day, coach their soccer teams, take them surfing…Financial uncertainty is a drawback, and after 9/11 it was a struggle, but I’m very lucky. With my wife’s income as a schoolteacher, we were able to make it work. I’ve had the chance to travel the world, meet some amazing people, and I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

On haters: “I would never discourage anyone from writing if they want to do it. Just follow your dreams.”

Progress

The last few attempts with my poor battered board have been rather encouraging. It’s been a while since I’ve tried something new and crossed that threshold from complete incompetency to the emergence of confidence, however fragile it might be. Hopefully the sense of relief and surprise when I catch and briefly ride a wave will soon turn into one of familiarity, but I expect the happy part will remain.

Mammoth in July

Another post that is not only quite late but also nothing to do with surfing, unless you generously compare snowboarding to surfing; and I did of course foolishly hope that a proficiency in the former facilitated the learning process of the latter.

I’ve never had a white Christmas, but I have had a white Third of July. I could make this nice and tidy by saying it was July 4th, but alas I was back to sea level for fireworks by then. Besides, we celebrated our much cherished and yet taken-for-granted freedom all weekend long by doing exactly what we wished, which was to frolic around Mammoth Lakes and shred up the slopes with what snow remained at the resort that is so dear to my heart.

Ben and I arrived at the decided-upon camp site late at night and met up with other half of the party to arrive, backcountry extraordinaries Jesse and Serena. I love pitching a tent at night when it’s pitch black (there was no moon at the time) so that the landscape is a complete surprise come morning. We were in the high desert, so the ground is covered in snow in winter but covered in green shrubs and grass by spring. In the not-so-far distance, the mountains rose up dramatically. Being camped near some grazing land, a herd of braying cows woke us up and peered at us warily from time to time as we set up a fire for breakfast.

Nearby our campground, which was really just a clearing without amenities or national park fees, there was a smattering of hot springs, and I was intrigued because I’d never set foot in one before. Fortunately the springs weren’t highly publicized and Jesse knew about them from a previous stint camping in the area, so we were the only ones there. Brilliant!

Mammoth Mountain, the ski resort I am now referring to (keep up!) had been pushing this “We’re open for the 4th of July!” concept pretty hard, because that’s just kind of a ridiculous feat in California, so naturally I had high expectations. I barely recognized the resort at all, what with all the brownness showing through the snow, oh, and a zip line for the kids… And yet I was still overcome by a nostalgic familiarity with the gondola tracing steadily up to the top of the slopes and the graceful(ish) curves of snowboarders and skiiers harmoniously intertwining like ribbons on a maypole.

At first I lamented the fact that we couldn’t access Dave’s Run or take Chair 23 among other favorites, but there was still a lot to do and plenty of groomed terrain to cover. And instead of getting overwhelmed with the multitude of runs to take and fighting over which side of the mountain is best, which might happen during peak season, we calmly found a hiding/chilling place in the snow for some PBRs and returned to this spot now and again for relief from the blazing 3rd of July sun.

A reminder regarding apparel: while a bathing suit top makes sense in exceedingly warm temperatures on the slopes, it offers the arms and torso no protection from the sun or from gritty snow preserved with salt. So, wear a gallon of SPF, and don’t fall. Violá, you’re golden.

All photos courtesy of Serena Butler. Stupid cations courtesy me.

Hey cows, the roosters called. They want their jobs back.

This says carpe diem all over it. After my bacon though.

Off to see the Wizard.

...and it was just right.

Mammoth in July. A little dirt never hurt anyone.

Why yes, that is an eight person tent for the two of us. That's how we roll.

Why I need to become a native.

If I could travel to any time and place it would have to be Hawaii in 1866, to watch Mark Twain try and fail to surf with the locals. Even if I’m overestimating the potential for amusement here, at least I’d be in Hawaii.

While on assignment for the Sacramento Union in Hawaii, a job which launched his career as a writer, the 31-year old reporter “came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express-train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom at about the same time, with a couple barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing completely.”

He wrote this in Roughing It. I think it might be my favorite bit of Twain’s prose and I’m inspired to start exaggerating like he did on a more regular basis.

Wiping out and Cashing out

It was the beautiful, sunny, promising Saturday before Father’s Day at Sunset Beach, when I took a spill over the falls. It was one of those moments where you know you’re about to lose complete control of the situation and just say “No, wait!” to no one in particular, and then surrender yourself to physics. Otherwise, nothing too exciting happened. I did notice that there was a much larger proportion of surfer ladies out there than usual, representing. And no, Blue Crush has nothing to do with more girls learning to surf. Personally, seeing Kate Bosworth almost drown had the opposite effect on me.

Later that day I went to the Johnny Cash Music Festival in Ventura with my dad. We got there just in time for the Blasters, who played a great set. Phil Alvin was melting away, his light pink shirt soaked through with sweat in spite the air being a breezy 68 degrees. A few songs in, he dedicated the next one to “All the surfers out there who take the inside break instead of the outside break and stick their nose in the sand.” It was an awesome surf jam. Just for me obviously.

The Blasters, killin' it!

Since I worked on the PR for the festival, we got to hang out at the VIP tent, enjoying some free food and beverages, which greatly impressed Dad, while we listened to Kris Kristofferson. His performance was quiet and subdued, especially after the Blasters brought down the house, but since he has payed his dues in the world of Country Music he can sing everyone to sleep should it please him.

X. Someday I will drive north up the PCH playing "Los Angeles."

Last but not least X got on stage, and all the remaining revelers who hadn’t been paying full attention to Mr. Kristofferson rushed the stage including Dad and me. People got so into it, in fact, that the cops entered the crowd on horses to maintain decorum, not that I saw any overly rambunctious fans or anything close to a mosh pit. It was John Doe who ultimately got people to behave so they could keep playing, and they played fantastically. Clearly time as not been kind to all, at least outwardly, but they still got it. In the words of Dad, “Old people rule!”

This car also rules. The guy in the driver's seat almost makes this one of those Awkward Family Photos, I realize.

I Am a Birder

I did finally brush the cobwebs off my board last weekend, but when I took it in the water at Huntington Beach I mostly just laid on it and watched the pelicans. I tried to catch few waves but was gently rejected, due in part to the fact that I wasn’t paddling ferociously enough, I was told.

Looking around, however, I noticed few people were catching anything, unless you count the pelicans catching fish. Plenty of action there. I generally harbor a benign animosity toward birds, as I’ve been bit and poo-bombed a couple too many times. But I give mad props to pelicans. They are like avian ninjas. Plus, I think if any bird were to be compared to a surfer it would be a pelican. If you see the way they glide into position and then quickly dive to catch a completely bewildered fish, it’s sort of like getting in the right position on a wave and paddling super hard to get picked up.

According to Wikipedia (I don’t care what my teachers said, it’s legit) the species we see in these parts is the Brown pelican, which exists only in North America. It is also the only species out of the six total that plunge-dive. Fact about feeding: pelicans have to drain their throat pouches after catching a fish, and in the process said fish can be snatched away by another thieving seabird. I would like to know exactly what seabird is capable of absconding with a fish from a rather intimidating penguin beak. I can’t think of a common seabird that is bigger than a pelican, and so said seabird must therefore rely on swiftness and cunning. In which case, I might have to add to my list of birds that do not suck. Puffins and penguins make the cut, obviously.