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    Spring Migrations in West Sonoma County

              If you drive from Sebastopol along the Bodega Highway, through the Russian River Valley, you’ll traverse green hills and pastures where dairy cows crop the grass and an occasional cat picks its way across a field.   Oak and palm trees line the road westward past apple orchards and vineyards, countryside homes and cafes, fruit and vegetable stands, barns and nurseries, taverns and inns and bygone brothels.  A man who sells smoked salmon from the trunk of his car may have set up his hand-painted sandwich board sign featuring a salmon smoking a pipe. The road opens up as you pass the small town of Freestone where smoke from the bakery there can be seen traveling up from the chimney against a backdrop of douglas fir and redwood tree forests which rise north toward Occidental.  Past these old stone and logging towns through which the North Pacific Coast Railroad ran over a century ago is the hamlet of Valley Ford where an elderly couple sell homemade beef jerky at the general store.   Winter rainfall has drenched the land, bringing forth new plant growth and resurrecting dormant mosses and lichens which thrive and fluoresce in the trees.  Toadstools carpet the forest floors where pink calypso orchids bloom, birds hunt exposed worms in creek beds while raptors watch from treetop or telephone pole perches and vultures wheel slowly through the sky.  In the higher elevations to the east the ridges of the Mayacamas Mountain Range are dusted in snow and the peak of Mount Helena is snowcapped.  The entire area stirs with life after the seasonal rains, which have extinguished the forest fires and bring the rivers to flood, seemingly heralding the hemispherical beginning of yet another planetary orbit around the Sun and another annual chance in our limited lifetimes to experience, explore, and revere the world around us, as well as to strive to heal that which we have damaged.  When the leviathan storm clouds disperse rainbows appear by the dozens, cats can be seen flying through the sky, spiders climb up water spouts, and cruising down the wet country road is the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

              Continuing west toward the coast you’ll past the little town of Bodega, with its fire department, church, saloon, and graveyard all located within a stone’s throw of one another.  Bodega Highway ends where Highway One begins, and if you travel north past the eucalyptus groves, windswept cypress trees, and sand dunes you’ll arrive in Bodega Bay, where crab and fishing boats crowd the marina and foghorns toll at regular intervals.  The coast is home to billions of intertidal creatures and plants which are the resilient members of animal phylum and plant divisions whose age of speciation span multiple geological epochs.  North of Bodega Bay lies the coastal prairies, and had you come here during the late-Pleistocene epoch 1.8 million to ten-thousand years ago, you would have seen pre-historic megafauna such as giant armadillos, ground sloths, woolly mammoths, and bison herds roaming the grasslands.  Today you will mainly find humans hiking along the coast or watching for any grey whales migrating offshore.  In the winter, as the water turns to ice in polar seas, the grey whales swim six-thousand miles from the arctic to breeding and calving lagoons in Baja California.  They return north in the spring, some mother whales with little calves in tow, to return to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.  In the late-spring salmon will perform the return phase of their epic migration which is more mind-boggling than that of the whales: having spent their entire adult lives at sea the salmon will somehow swim back home, finding the very rivers of their birth to spawn and then die.  Not to be outdone, monarch butterflies are engaged in an equally astonishing multi-generational migration, with the first generation leaving the cooling Rocky Mountains in the fall and fly to the same coastal hatcheries as their great-great-grandparents to overwinter. In the spring they will begin their journey home, but their entire migrating generation will lay their eggs and die en route, as will then next one, and the next one, until the fourth generation finally arrives at the Rockies having never been there before, only to fly to California in the fall as their forbearers before them have done.

              The days grow noticeably longer as the spring equinox arrives and the sun sets further north on the horizon.  Vespers glow beyond the twilight skies in the immensity of space where comets fall and suns explode.  God know what other amazing settings exist within the zones of warmth of other suns, in ours and other galaxies, but if what we can see from here is any indication, then they must be beyond extraordinary.  We often wonder what types of mysterious creatures live elsewhere in space, yet if we step back for a moment and remember that we inhabit a planet floating around a sun in the vastness of the universe, then we’d realize that we need not look further than Earth and its incredible past to view life in space.  We live on the most glorious and bountiful planet that we will ever know, and it is an absolute miracle that we are here.  There are a finite number of seasons we’ll live through and be able to appreciate the whales and salmon and butterflies.  There will come a time when you and I will no longer hear a chorus of frogs or a symphony of crickets in the spring and summer nights, or the swoosh of owls or honking geese as they fly overhead.  As the grey whales move north through the swells at night beneath full moons and starry skies, they emerge from the fathoms to breech and breathe. One can only imagine what they must think of us and the great and often destructive changes we’ve exacted upon the shores and in the seas.  They too have a limited number of seasons on Earth, and possess an equal right to enjoy them.  Perhaps the mother whales look to their young calves whom they have just reared, then look warily at the lights of the structures on the shore, the headlights of the cars on the road, the planes in the sky, the ships on the water.  Perhaps they look at us and wonder why we are always there, and they sense a fearful connection between our presence and the decimation of their habitat.  Perhaps they can somehow sense that our species has a predilection for murdering them and that only a little over a century ago did we pushed them to the brink of extinction.  Maybe they know what is at stake and as they look to us onshore they sing to us: don’t screw this up.  Then they dive into the dark water and push on. 


    Big Sur: Of Cordilleras and Condors 

    He sat up the better to look at the great mountains where they went piling back, growing darker and more savage until they finished with one jagged ridge, high up against the west.  Curious secret mountains; he thought of the little he knew about them.

                                                                                                                         -John Steinbeck, The Red Pony


    Miles shrink in California’s South Coast Ranges.  Surveyors have plotted other states from here, and astronomers have plotted other galaxies.  Exotic wildlife from all corners of the globe roam these mountains as if they were native. And California condors, having once soared above the continent form Florida to Canada to Mexico, have built the last nests of their species here in areas measured by acres, not miles.  

                                                                                                                         -Russell B. Hill, California Mountain Ranges


              The below photos were taken in the late summer in Big Sur, namely along the coastal Highway 1 through Big Sur and on the trail to Cone Peak.  The town of Monterey makes for a perfect launching pad for one’s southerly expedition (if you stay in Big Sur you may want to stay at the hostel there).  As one would expect, Highway 1 is particularly crowded on the weekends, especially when the sky is blue and the sun is shining upon the vast ocean and the burgeoning kelp forests offshore, but the traffic is not unreasonable and makes for some good people watching at Nepenthe, where you can stop to have a drink. (If you do drive down from Monterey, be sure to check out Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and Andrew Molera State Park, as well the view of McWay Falls in Julian Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where I snapped some pictures of some lucky paddling up to the beach where the waterfall is). On the drive down toward Cone Peak I happened to pull over to pee at the right spot because a family of condors was hanging out just off the road.  There are only 463 California Condors living in the wild, so I saw a little over 1% of them. Like the elephant seal and otter, the condor almost went the way of the grizzly bear, jaguar, and wolf in California, but populations recovered before going extinct.


             The Coast Ridge Road to Cone Peak is doable in an economy car, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  For the half hour that it takes to traverse the winding 5.5 miles I was constantly questioning the wisdom of continuing in my modest car and whether or not it would be smarter to pull over and start walking, thereby obviating the possibility of popping my tire on one of the many large rock shards on the dirt road.   Located in the Los Padres National Forest, Cone Peak – which stands at 5,182 feet and is three miles from the coast – is the highest peak in proximity to the ocean in the lower 48 states.  Cone Peak is part of the Santa Lucia Range, which is part of the South Coast Range, which, together with the North Coast, Klamath, Peninsular, and Traverse, Ranges make up the California Coast Ranges.  These five extensive mountain ranges are part of the even larger Pacific Coast Ranges which span the entire Pacific Rim and is comprised of the mountain ranges stretching along the west coast of North America from Alaska to Mexico.  Furthermore, the Pacific Coast Ranges are part of a greater geological system of mountain ranges, plateaus, and basins ascribed to the North American Cordillera (which means mountain ranges), which is part of the American Cordillera, which goes from Antarctica to South America, and includes the volcanic arc of the Eastern Pacific Rim of Fire, and God only knows what that’s part of.






    Dread in the Fall and Making Hay While the Sun Shines

    Twirling round with this familiar parable,
    Spinning, weaving round each new experience,
    Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this 
    Chance to be alive and breathing…
    This body holding me reminds of my own mortality,
    Embrace this moment, remember we are eternal,
    All this pain is an illusion…

    -Tool, Parabola

              Fall is quite the spectacular time of year here in West Sonoma county.   The temperature drops, the sun sets further south and earlier on the horizon, the first rains arrive, washing away some of the colorful foliage and inducing verdant new growth in the countryside and hills.   The farmers harvest the last of their vegetables before their farms fall dormant.  Rafters of turkeys wander through green orchards where lingering red apples cling to the branches, squirrels gather their nuts for the winter, and the hawks and buzzards patrol crisp blue skies through which white clouds billow and drift. 

              The fall serves as a reminder that life can be ephemeral and transient, and that we have a limited amount of seasons in our lives to explore, create, and improve ourselves before it’s too late and we’ll have moved on or become too feeble, decrepit, or dead to do anything exciting or constructive. Often in the fall or spring, when the landscape is lush and flowing with water, I remark to myself that I must venture through the nearby Mayacamas Mountains while the peaks are vibrant and the foothills are still green, thereby capitalizing on the brief window of time preceding the arrival of the dry season which desiccates the land.  Alas, I continue on my drive to work day after day, rationalizing my deferment by concluding that there’s always next year.  Similarly, I’ll watch a blazing neon sunset from the windows of my work and vow to be at the coast to bear witness to the next one, but that opportunity fails to surface.  The whales and birds migrate, the trees lose their leaves (I almost said feathers), dreams and goals pine away, ships sail over the horizon as twilight falls upon the wasted day, and the topsy-turvy world is plunged into utter darkness. The fall seems to brings a melancholy sense of closure to the year, proclaiming: “Better luck next time, buddy.”

              Yet there is another, more optimistic perspective and message bestowed upon us by the fall.  And that is that it is not the end of anything but merely a part of an ongoing seasonal cycle that has no beginning or end.  Instead of signs of death, the barren trees, decomposing leaves, and frosty mornings should be celebrated at harbingers of life, for they assure us that the cycle is underway and is operating correctly.  Furthermore, while dreary autumnal weather sweeps across the region, the sun is still shining above the overcast skies and basking over other parts of the planet enjoying their warm springs or hot summers. So in that sense, the message of the fall is: “Make hay while the sun shines, appreciate the rain, spring is right around the corner.  Here are some mushrooms.” 

              Underlying or contributing to any mistakes or poor decisions that we’ve made in our personal lives, a greater, more comprehensive sense of emotional dread and anxiety derives from the uncertainty of the stability and direction of our society, species, and its negative impact on the natural world. It is just a matter of time before a major economic crisis (perhaps related to an ecological one) or serious breakdown of order strikes, so the best we can do seems to be working toward securing adequate practical possessions (property and material), capital (both social and physical), survival supplies, and useful skillsets in order fend for ourselves and loved ones during any downturn or strife.  A sense of dread also lies in the frightful and somehow increasingly probable prospects of nuclear weapons being used by warring nations.  What then? If we do not die in the impact or aftermath of a nuclear blast or holocaust, how would we endure a nuclear winter?   (We can’t all flee to New Zealand).  The answer is we could not and would not survive.  Our species would have made the ultimate mistake and it would be game over.  While it is true that over 99 percent of all species that have ever lived on Earth have gone extinct, a nuclear slugfest would be the most efficient method of expediting the implementation of this statistic so that it would apply to homo sapiens as well.   With such great uncertainties looming before us and the many other marvelous creatures with whom we share this planet, what are we to do?  Due to my hypocrisy and selfishness, I’m the wrong person to ask. Instead of doing anything to resolve the issues afflicting humanity and Earth in my free time I’m riding a motorcycle around the countryside and taking flying lessons.  I did pick up 12 Rules for Life though, and I think Jordan B. Peterson is on to something in the advice he offers:

    How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other?  The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone the shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.  We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world.  We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated.  It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking everything.  But the alternative – the horror of authoritarian belief, the chaos of the collapsed state, the tragic catastrophe of the unbridled natural world, the existential angst and weakness of the purposeless individual – is clearly worse. 

                                                                                           -Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos


    Some footage from my flying lessons:



    Austin Creek State Park - Between the Rain

                  On Thanksgiving I drove to Armstrong Woods, through the redwood grove, and up the winding road to Bullfrog Pond.  The rain clouds were gathering and blanketing the few remaining patches of blue sky, but there were several hours before any real downpour was to occur, so I began my hike to Austin Creek.  The hike starts off downhill from the Vista Point trailhead which merges with the East Austin Creek Fire Road.  This easy decline lead to a rapid pace, which contributed to my optimistic outlook and affirmation that I had made the right decision to go hiking during a break in the rain.  The first heavy rainfall of the season had occurred the night prior, and I had wanted to see what the first rain had brought out.  The answer was banana slugs, newts, and mushrooms. 

                The fire road bottoms-out at a bridge where the trail splits between the fire road and the inviting Gilliam Creek trail, which I took. The creek trail was damp and lush, covered with fallen leaves and pine needles. The forest floor was filled with ferns, which also grew from the stumps of trees.  Moss coated the tree trunks and branches, from which lichen hung in long laces. The creek itself was stained dark brown with the tannin of decomposing leaves saturating the creek and diluting the water.  I wanted to write that part about the tannin in my notepad, but when I reached for my notepad in my pocket it wasn’t there.  I had lost it at some point on the hike, perhaps when I had written down my last note which had nothing to do with the hike (the last note pertained to a short story outline and read “Caligula – banging on his chest like a gorilla.)  So I hurried back along the trail for a half mile before I found the notepad, and then turned around to resume the hike.

                The trail traversed the creek three times, and I managed to stay dry during each crossing.  Having neared the edge of the park, I ate lunch on a log and watched the falling leaves and flowing water.  There was not a soul around for miles and, satisfied with having ventured into a sufficiently remote region of the park, I decided to call it day.  After all I had been invited to eat dinner with some close friends and looked forward to seeing them.  It was around this time that I realized my car keys were not on my person.  I stopped and checked my bag, but they were not there either.  I still was not worried, for worst case scenario I would miss the dinner, spend all afternoon walking out of the park and to the nearest town, and then call a cab home. 

                The rain began to fall and still, I did not worry. It was only when I realized that I had gone the wrong way on the fire road and wandered into an altogether different part of the forest that I became concerned.  I didn’t know if I should continue down this way in hopes of linking up with a trail that would somehow bring me back to where I wanted to be, or if I should cut my loses and turn around, going back to the way I came  The road become muddy and grim.  Dilapidated shacks with broken windows and run-down barns with caved-in roofs appeared in the forest.  The yards of old homes were littered with rusting appliances and rotting or partially-burned lumber.  Private property signs hung from fences and hand-painted no trespassing warnings were nailed to trees. I peered over a gully and there was a car that lay smashed upside-down at the bottom.  Warily, I kept on going forward, turning around on occasion to see if anyone was behind me.  It was like The Blair Witch Projectmeets Deliverance, and I was concerned I would see an apparition of a ghostly woman in a broken window, or the horse-head people suddenly standing behind me, or the girl from the Ring inverted and crawling on all fours, her head fully rotating around her neck.  It was time to turn around and go back the way I had come.

                By the time I returned to the parking area it was getting dark, the rain was falling hard and the wind had picked up and was howling.  I was drenched and my legs were shot.  I had eaten all my food except for one can of sardines.  I was keeping my fingers crossed that I somehow left my keys in my car for if I had to walk back to town I would surely contract hypothermia.  I reached the car and on the door handle the keys had been taped.  Someone had found my keys and taped them to my car.  Whomever it that person is – thank you.  I got into my car, turned up the heat, and headed back home to shower and change before dinner. 



    Coastal Excursions and Taking the Easy Way Out

    If there were no reward to reap,
    No loving embrace to see me through,
    This tedious path I've chosen here,
    I certainly would've walked away by now…
    If there were no desire to heal,
    A damaged and broken man along
    This tedious path I've chosen here,
    I certainly would've walked away by now…
    Be patient.
    I must keep reminding myself of this… 

    -Tool, The Patient

                 Last week in Northern California a thirty-five-year-old man was driving drunk and recklessly at night on a two-lane motorway.  He was speeding and overtaking cars ahead of him, crossing over the double-yellow lines.  A vehicle traveling the other direction was being driven by a twenty-two-year-old female college student, who was returning to Sonoma after attending a family dinner.  The drunk driver collided with the girl and she died in the accident.  The drunk driver survived and was taken to jail and is now facing murder charges, and most likely will spend the rest of his life in prison. 

                Although intoxication-induced tragedies occur regularly, they speak to an ongoing theme amongst humanity that is as historical as it is universal: our fallibility as individuals.  We are the accumulation of our actions, and each decision we make can add or subtract from the meaningfulness and completeness of our lives.  If we are prone to vice and give in too often to bad habits, we increase the probability that we may squander our lives a physical or mental prison.  Each day humans knowingly make choices that lead to the demise of themselves, each other, or the natural world.  As one who has himself often failed to make the right choices in order to reach my full potential, I understand that we are highly susceptible to taking the easy way out.  But the easy way is often the less stimulating and constructive way, and leads to a life rife with regrets and guilt.  On a grander scale, taking the easy way out could translate into taking actions deleterious to entire nations or ecosystems, and result in the destruction of humanity and nature.  All too often it seems that in our individual and collective lives we are walking dangerously close to the edge, and that even in the good times the monkey’s off our backs but the circus is still in town.  

                As with our personal lives, if our species is going to reach our maximum potential filled with meaningfulness and beauty, we cannot take the easy way out.  At the current rate of environmental destruction, saber-rattling, and war-mongering, it’s unlikely that we will make it very far down the road to collective success.  If we continue to make the wrong choices and fail to do the work that needs to be done, we may indeed end up confined to a cell or dead as victims of our own undoing.  In effort to avoid making the mistake of embarking down the wrong road, a useful exercise is to occasionally imagine what we would lose if we were to falter in life or as a species.  I sometimes try to think about what I would lose if I were to fail in achieving my objectives.  Beyond the betrayal to myself and my family, in my mental exercises I try to imagine the implications of losing my freedom to no longer enjoy the outdoors.  Never again would I be able to see the colors of the twilight - the orange and blue bands which paint the purple sky, the rising craterous moon and the black silhouette of urchin trees which stand against the backdrop of space.  Never again would I hear the song of the crickets and frogs as awakening bats and owls swoop through indigo skies, nor see a night sky festooned with shimmering stars and meteors skiving against the atmosphere of this miraculous planet.  On the individual level and collective levels there is so much to lose if we fail to live up to our potential, and so much to gain if we fulfill it.  How beautiful this world is, how vast the range of lifeforms which have evolved and perished throughout the span of time on Earth.  99.9 percent of species that have ever existed have gone extinct.  We'll get there soon enough, there's no reason to expedite our seemingly inevitable demise.  Our species is like the drunk driver, exacerbating through intoxication the already dangerous activity of driving.  If only we could only ease off the pedal, tap on the brakes, put down the bottle – rest and little and sober up – we may be able to make this incredible ride last longer for ourselves and all others that we share the road with.