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    The Road through Baja California

          As you drive into Baja California you shall cross over the Rio Tijuana – a black stream of water coursing through an immense aqueduct where thousands of displaced migrants live in tents and without shelter.  The men and women and children comprise a chain of dispossessed masses stretching along the concrete embankment of the canal.  Beyond this dark latitude of squalor and poverty lies greater Tijuana, the Pacific Ocean, and the shining city of San Diego – a place so close geographically yet so far removed socio-economically that only the drug addicts and Mexican immigrants may be able to relate to the level of destitution endured by those people struggling to survive in the effluence of the canal. 

          After you pass through a third-world realm of collapsing infrastructure, dilapidated soccer arenas, and desolate schoolyards – a nomansland where vagabonds dart across deteriorating highways which are flanked by staggering valleys brimming with tin huts and shanty town shacks – you may find yourself along a grey and hazy coast.  The panorama of this bleak dead zone is cleaved by the intermittent ruins of condemned hotels, abandoned resorts, and the skeletons of billboards rusting in the salty air.  The decaying buildings and billboard shells are the jettisoned remnants of a society that has folded on a blind march toward modernization.  The shattered economies of these tumbledown towns offer little to the residents whom cannot be blamed when they move on in search of a better life that they know to exist, for it is increasingly displayed before them on the television and computer screens that have infiltrated their lives.  

           Past this series of depressed coastal towns lies the substantial port city of Ensenada.  This is a place to drink with Mexican transvestite prostitutes and Crimean sailors whom will rejoice in their newfound Russian nationalism and express their appreciation of you coming from a town that sounds likes theirs (Sevastopol) by attempting to unsuccessfully drink you under the table.  Once you have replaced all the Mexican and Russian flags with Americans ones, the urge to leave this cesspool of self-destructive debauchery will soon take hold, and if you’re lucky you will have the funds to continue your journey southeast toward the Sea of Cortez.

            To get from Ensenada to the Sea of Cortez one must cross the Central Desert of Baja California.  As you drive deeper into the heart of the high desert, the barren mesas begin to morph into a colorful landscape of dazzling cacti and desert flowers that are strewn across the painted hills like gumdrops.  The psychedelic spectrum of green, pink, and purple cacti vary wildly in their appearance: the saguaro cactus (carnegiea gigantea) grows upwards of seventy-feet tall and provides housing for woodpeckers and arachnid colonies; hot-pink barrel cacti and spindly ocotillo plants capable of ejecting spines into your soles are scattered low throughout the desert floor; the lofty boojum tree bends and curves its shaggy arms and appears as though it has paused in motion and will carry on once your back is turned or beneath the light of a full moon.  The desert is an ever-changing and surreal setting of cacti so rich in color and plants so bizarre in shape that they appear artificial – it is like some fairytale diorama or toontown backdrop where little devils with pitchforks leap upon the earthen crucible and dance on the alters with their shadows.  Lightly dreaming clouds shaped like pale horses and ferris wheels and dragon boats drift through the boundless sky, and on the horizon electric storm clouds generate cells of rain that careen across the badlands like cyclones. 

            From the Transpeninsular Highway 1, Mexico Highway 12 cuts east across arid moonscapes of white boulders, vast expanses of stone and sand, and sleepy ghost towns where buzzards peck at grinning skeletons donning summer hats and antique dresses.  Roadside memorials and tumbleweeds litter the sides of the desert highway.  Once past the barren mountains, the desert valleys open up and the air is cool and windy.  The steel blue Sea of Cortez and surrounding islands are visible.   You have arrived in Bahía de los Ángeles, a cerulean bay and remote fishing outpost where the donkeys and chupacabras outnumber the men. Lizards dart across the sandy beaches which are covered with marvelous shells and the stripped bones of giant sea creatures.  The water is cold and pristine, and as you swim amongst the sting rays and curious fish that stir in the bright kelp forests, you will thank your lucky stars that you are alive and a part of this incredible world.    


    Robert Louis Stevenson State Park

          Robert Louis Stevenson State Park is spectacular and dynamic landscape of evergreen forests and rocky canyons.  Part of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, the park’s lofty mountains can be seen for miles and are dusted in snow in the winter, and in the spring colorful wildflowers deck the grassy slopes.  From the panoramic peaks one can see the neighboring mountains – some perennially snowcapped and thousands of miles away – and at dusk you can watch the town of Calistoga light up below you like a circuit board.  Robert Louis Stevenson State Park is officially located in Calistoga and is accessible from the St. Helena Highway (CA-29), which separates the park into east and west borderlands.  On the west lies Mount Saint Helena (elevation 4,341 ft.), the peak of which is a five-mile trek from the parking lot and begins on a switchback trail which connects to a fire road.  Here are some pictures taken from the Mount Saint Helena side of the park:

          On the east side of the park are trails that lead to Table Rock, a two-mile hike from the old parking lot.  The trail winds through shady pine forests and purple manzanita groves that bloom pink flowers which look like tiny lanterns or jellyfish.  Dry scrubland hills spill-out into a strange and arid dreamscape of drifting spores, red stone labyrinths and alien cairns – a lurid shadow zone where twisted roots squirm beneath your feet and lichenous stones turn in your wake.  There are desiccated riverbeds comprised of white clay, emerald streams of cool water, and gnarled volcanic rock formations that curl and fold like brain coral.  The pale basalt surface of Table Rock is reminiscent of a lunar wasteland - craterous and serpentine.  The sheer three-hundred foot cliff is home to mountain banshees and wyvern swallows which nestle in the face of the cliff and dart through the blue and perfect sky.  Here are some pictures of the trail to Table Rock and beyond:

          The Palisades Trail trailhead can be found at Table Rock, and leads to the Historic Oat Hill Mine Road  four miles away.  Treacherous at points, the trail hugs the side of mountain slopes and cuts through antediluvian rock forests and arcadian meadows bursting with flora and teeming with fauna such as crocodile ants and singing trumpet lizards that hide amongst prehistoric fungi and dinosaur fern.  More elusive creatures include hunchback troglodytes and interstellar apocalypse hawks that dwell within the magellanic clouds above.  The Palisades Trail weaves through a stunning array of environments, worlds apart from one’s material lifestyle, and yet compared to the isolation that one can experience elsewhere on Earth, it is prosaic, yet still totally worth a trip.  If you ever need to clear your head, sharpen your mind, or serenely contemplate this melancholy and beautiful world, head to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park for a day (although most any location outdoors and remote should suffice).         


    Beautiful Disaster

    Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP

    Mudslide near Arlington, Washington.  Rest in peace.

    The earth shall move by wind and rain
    By whim, by force of time
    Savage nature eats away
    At all that's civilised

    -Walter Lloyd Waterson, Elemental Forces


    Leapord Seal Sunset

    Here's an awesome video (that's somewhat soothing to watch) of a Leopard Seal swimming through icy seas in Antarctica at sunset.  Watch the penguins running when they see the seal coming at the 4:50 mark.  The original can be found on the National Geographic website.

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
    Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea…

    Excerpt from Xanadu, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


    Ode to the Elephant Seal

    In the waves the truth doth lie
    Like God the ocean speaks

    All souls rise and drown in time
    So too shall worlds in cosmic seas

                                                                                    -Walter Lloyd Waterson, Preface to The Lives of Sea Creatures

     They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

                                                                                     -Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

           Elephant seals are magnificent and majestic seabeasts that cruise vast stretches of the worlds oceans.   They spend the majority of their lives in the water, and breed and molt on shore.  Colonies of the northern elephant seals gather annually in established breeding areas along the Pacific coast of North America, and California rookeries can be found in Ano Nuveo, Point Reyes, and Cambria.  Here’s some footage of a lone elephant seal swimming and chuffing in the waves off Chimney Rock in Point Reyes:

           Elephant seals are social, vocal creatures capable of extraordinary feats; achieving numerous superlative titles in the animal kingdom.  Northern elephant seal bulls grow to tremendous proportions: battle-class alpha males can exceed 5,000 pounds and reach a length of sixteen feet.  Southern elephant seals, which live in the southern hemisphere, can exceed twenty feet in length and weigh over 8,800 pounds.  They’re capable of holding their breath for over an hour and a half, and they dive (possibly while simultaneously sleeping) thousands of feet in search for prey.   Northern elephant seals have recently been tracked at depths of 5,788 feet, over a mile deep.  They migrate further than any other mammal in the world, traveling 13,000 miles annually.  Males swim along the continental shelf from California to feed in Alaska, while females make two foraging trips a year throughout the northeast Pacific.  They spend between two to eight continuous months at sea, and always return to the same feeding areas and rookeries at the same time year after year.  When they arrive at their breeding grounds in winter, male elephant seals battle for dominance over harems of females.  Here are two boardwalk street fighters throwing down on the Point Reyes waterfront:


           In the late 1800s, humans slaughtered hundreds of thousands of northern elephant seals for the oil contained in their blubber.  By 1892, a sole colony of fifty to one hundred elephant seals remained on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California, and these were protected by the Mexican government.  Throughout the 1900s, a resurgent elephant seal population skyrocketed, and the current population abounds at approximately 160,000 members.  Due to the fact that the existing population arose from a limited gene pool, northern elephant seals share very similar genetics, which makes them more susceptible to contracting diseases should a virus spread throughout their species.  Here’s some footage of elephant seals families lounging on the beach below the cliffs of Chimney Rock:

           In the beginning of the clip, you can hear the guttural cries of little elephant seal pups.  Like many newborn mammals, they’re virtually defenseless and rely on their mothers for protection and sustenance.  An elephant seal mother will nurse her young (sometimes adopting lost seal pups) for about a month, during which time a pup will gain around nine pounds a day from consuming the rich milk (55% fat) of the mother.  They young pups will grow and then severe their bonds with their mother. (I wonder if some animals, like elephant seals or birds look at their young and identify distinguishable and distinct personality traits that are unique to each of them, so that a mother bird can watch the erratic behavior of her son and say, “There he goes, he’s just a crazy bird...”*)  If they’re males, northern elephant seals will live to be about thirteen, and the lifespan of females is around twenty.  Their lives will be filled with adventure and mystery as they explore the dark and gloaming depths of the oceans in search for food to stay alive; their survival as adults linked to the seas which they depend on as much as they depended on their mothers who nursed them into being.  They will drift beneath stars and full moons, through whale song seas and bioluminescent tides, and bask upon the sundown shores of this world.  They will live profound and beautiful lives, each perceiving their own existence as one who is at the center of the universe,** yet perhaps possessing a deeper understanding, however fleeting, that they are part of greater order which is owned by no one. 



    *In the Web of Life lecture from the Out of Your Mind Lecture Series, Alan Watts brings up a funny notion about sea shells critiquing other sea shells, and ties this into a larger, more serious concept related to the way we humans tend to separate ourselves from the world around us.  He says:

    I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing – something to be condemned – to take your own individual life seriously in dead earnest, and to have all the problems that go with that.  Do understand that being that way, that being a real mixed-up human being is a manifestation of nature that is something just like the patterns on the waves out here, or like a sea shell.  You know we pick up shells – I always keep one around as sort of an example for many things – and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.”  Now I wonder, I wonder if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat?  Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced.  Pssshhh.”  Cause’ that’s what we do, see we don’t realize that all of us in our various goings on and behaviors and so on are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at, you know every one of them – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous.  And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful.  But we have specialized in a certain kind of awareness that makes us neglectful of that.  You see we specialize in more or less briefly concentrated, pin-point attention.  We look at this and we look at that, and we select from all the things we might possible be aware of, only certain things.  And as a result of that, we leave out of our everyday consciousness, generally speaking, two dimensions of experience;  one: amazing beauty of experience that we never see at all, and on the other hand, a very deep thing:  the sense of our basic identity, unity with, oneness with the total process of being.  See, because we are staring, as it were, at certain features of the landscape, we don’t see the background.  And because we get fascinated with – you know I could go into details of this shell, as I said, and put myself in the mind of a conch or whatever it is that lives in this thing and say, “Hmm, that’s not so not hot that one,” Like that you see?  And so, I wouldn’t see the whole thing!  But when I look at it like this, when anybody looks at it like that we say, “Oh my God isn’t that gorgeous?”


    **In philosophizing about the idea of reincarnation, Alan Watts makes some interesting (although possibly impossible to prove) points about the way that sentient objects perceive see things around them.  This is from a lecture called Every Incarnation is this One, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series:

    And the Buddhists thought that one over, and they said, “Crazy…we found a way of samsara – the wheel of birth and death.”  And somebody one day said, “But, isn’t that rather selfish?  You get yourself out, what about all the other people? Don’t you have any feeling of compassion?”  “Oh yes,” they said, “Of course.  We forgot that didn’t we?  Let’s come back again, and uh, help all these people out.” Then they got very sophisticated about it and they said, “Look, if nirvana is release from birth and death, then they’re opposed, and so nirvana and birth and death go together and they will have to imply one another.  So you’re really only released if you see that, if you see that nirvana and birth and death are the same thing.” 

    Now I’m gonna pull a fast one on you.  So every time an incarnation occurs, it feels like this one.  See, it might be quite different – we might we reincarnated in another universe as beings in of altogether different shape, see?  Not at all like human beings, but because we were used to it we would feel that that was the human shape.  We would say, “Well that’s natural, obviously, obviously, that’s the way things are.”  So naturally, if you appeared in the form of a spider, you would look around at other spiders and say, “Well yes, of course, this is, this is a natural place to be in, this is the human shape.”  Something that is not us looks at us and thinks we look perfectly terrible.  I mean imagine how you look to a fish: clumsy, cumbersome, stupid looking thing.  Whereas a fish is so elegant and graceful and can slide through the water so beautifully.  The human beings can’t even swim properly. 

    So don’t you see, that in every world that comes into being, or could come into being, it seems just like it seems now, and every species that you could belong to would seem like this one.  It would have its up end of what is highly intelligent, and its low end of what is not so intelligent.  You would be aware of superior forces and inferior forces; otherwise you wouldn’t have the idea of mastering a situation unless there were situations you couldn’t master.  Now we are not aware of species of beings above us unless you cultivate those forms of psychic awareness when you think you’re in touch with angels or something of that sort.  But the things that appear to be above us are great natural processes, only we think they’re rather stupid, only very tough, too strong for us: earthquakes, the elements, also some little ones, see the virus is a very troublesome being.   And this is where a human being really finds himself at his wits end in dealing with molecular biology.  So, you know, if the monsters don’t get your, the ministers will – the insects, you see. 

    But at any rate, whatever level you’re on, it always appears to be the same one.  Now we...therefore, naturally, don’t we, we feel we’re in the middle.  We feel, for example, with the telescope, that there is a world greater than us that is infinitely greater; we feel with the microscope there’s a world below us that’s infinitely smaller, and we seem to stand in the middle.  Of course you seem to stand in the middle, every creature stands in the middle because if you stand on a boat in the middle of the ocean and you turn around through an angle of three hundred and sixty degrees, you will see the same distance in every direction.  That’s because you see, and your sensitivity to sight or the intensity to light is the same in every direction, so you’re in the middle.  You’re always in the middle.  Where else would you be?  In other words, anything that perceives anywhere is always in the middle.  Anything that grows anywhere is always in the middle.  It’s betwixt and between.  And the middle always has, therefore, extremes.  It has extremes in space – as far west and as far east as you can think, as far on and as far back.  And there’s always a beginning and there’s always an end, just as there’s a left and right, or a top and a bottom. 

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