Down in the Desert: Visiting Our Exes


Holly, Molly, Barb and Ana

It’s a good lesbian story. My wife and I introduced our exes, they fell in love and we all became besties. That was eight or nine years ago and since then we have been living in different places but we try to visit when we can. Ana and Barb (we call them Barbana) have recently established a new home base in the desert town of Hesperia, California where they’ve fallen in with a subculture of rock hounders and gold miners centered on a rock and mining shop owned by their friends and next door neighbors Cyndy and Lois.

We wanted to get down there before the desert heat set in and so we saddled up our orange Prius, Lucita Papayita, for an April trip on Highway 99 all the way to near the terminus of the old Route 66.IMG_5230

Holly did most of the driving (thanks darling) and we arrived in the midst of a dust storm that had me wearing a dust mask even in the car. The iconic vegetation in this part of the Mojave Desert is the Joshua tree, an endangered species that will in time succumb to global warming. Temperatures here in the summer routinely reach 120 degrees now and continue to rise. Relentless building of freeways and suburban housing adds to the stress on the Joshuas. The new developments–many are gated communities, many with green lawns–back up to the wild desert in oxymoronic juxtaposition.IMG_5324

Weather the next day was calmer and we drove into the neighboring town of Victorville to the Route 66 museum. We were the only visitors and the volunteer docents overwhelmed us, each wanting to tell his stories. Holly and Ana rode the VW love bus and learned to drive a Model T (it’s not so easy) before we beat a retreat. Still I continued singing “get your kicks on route 66” because it’s such a great song and I know all the words.IMG_4376

We knew we were arriving just in time for the big poppy bloom at Antelope Valley, only a short distance away. We drove back toward the Tehachapi Mountains past acres of solar and wind farms out into the desert. The Joshua trees fell away to treeless scrub and grassland but the anticipated orange poppy wonderland evaded us. It just wasn’t a good poppy year said the park ranger, too cold and dry. From the trail at the crest of a hill we could see the snowy mountains above a valley strewn with goldfields (flowers, not gold) whose bloom had peaked. We were warned to watch for rattlesnakes, said to be angry at the unseasonable weather, but we saw none. But desert lizards greeted us, and we discovered a tiny horned toad.

Barbana had visited the Rio Tinto borax mine with the local Women in Mining group and so they got to go into the processing plant. Many women work at the mine in nontraditional jobs including driving the gigantic loader trucks. We couldn’t wrangle an invitation so had to be content with the view from on top of the visitors center. Still, the plant and the adjacent mine–a contoured pit so deep we couldn’t see the bottom–was impressive. The guide, a woman of a certain age, knew the answers to all our questions. I didn’t ask her if the workers were union, but I later learned that they are organized by the ILWU, which won a 105-day lockout in 2010. See the story by Peter Olney here:

Here is something we know about our exes: they both love walking around looking at the ground. We first introduced them at Thanksgiving dinner and afterward all took a walk on the spectacular Sonoma Coast. While Holly and I gazed at the ocean waves, the whales and the birds, Barbana looked for beach glass. Since then we have visited many beautiful places and have pictures of the two of them focused on their feet with wondrous backdrops.IMG_0820

Our exes took us to a secret location on BLM land where they knew we could find chalcedony, a kind of quartz. It can be many different colors, but in this part of the desert it is pink. Especially prized are rocks with druse, or crystals, on the surface. Ana and Holly explored the desert floor while Barb and I walked up a draw to the top of a hill. This was so much fun, partly because we scored! We found several fine pieces of the mineral. And we now have more pictures of Barbana looking down.

Ana and Barb are talented jewelry makers. They take the rocks and glass they find and make beautiful pieces (check out their work on their facebook page Barbana’s Jewelry Designs). They also teach classes at the rock shop. Ana picked out a little piece of chalcedony with druse and polished it to a shine. Then she wove silver wire around it and quickly turned it into a lovely necklace given to Holly. I think the lizard T-shirt she wears it with is particularly appropriate.

Life in Hesperia has changed in the last few years, according to Lois and Cyndy, who have lived here since the 60s. It was a sleepy community of desert rats and miners where you could buy a house for little and live for less until it started turning into a bedroom suburb of San Bernardino, a long 35 miles away, and the LA basin beyond. They call it “going down the hill” from high desert to low. Only one highway connects the two cities so if there’s an accident or a backup there is no alternative. Lois worked as a teacher in San Bernardino for a time and told us she sometimes was not able to get home. Since then the traffic down the hill has only worsened.

On the way home we saw the construction of the high-speed train (hey, California, how about a train from Hesperia to San Bernardino! And while you’re at it we’d like one from Santa Rosa to Hesperia or just Santa Rosa to the East Bay. Please help us get out of our cars!).img_5358.jpg

We loved our desert adventure and we were also glad to return home to Santa Rosa. As we drove back into Sonoma County we couldn’t believe how lush and green it looked after only a few days in the desert. Of course, spring is the greenest time of the year here, after the rainy season when the soil warms, trees leaf out and plants flourish. But as Kate Wolf reminded us, even in northern California the hills turn brown in the summertime.


Sugarloaf Ridge State Park Is Open

One of our favorite parks in Sonoma County, Sugarloaf was closed for more than four months after the devastating fires that tore through Northern California in October. A huge portion of the park burned, and park employees had been working long hours to restore trails, remove fallen trees, and make the park safe for visitors. We wanted to see for ourselves and so on Valentine’s Day we went for a hike in the newly reopened park.

This is one of our favorite spots on the way into the park where the road crosses Sonoma Creek. The picture on the left is from the wet winter of 2010 when the creek ran high. Now in the wake of the fire, our lovely moss-covered Bay Laurel has been felled.

We started up the Bald Mountain trail and could see where the fire had stopped. The greening grass now covers the burned areas and the part that didn’t burn still shows last season’s dried stalks of grass.

Sugarloaf’s oak forest is blackened but looks like it will survive. The chaparral–manzanita, coyote brush–was burned but is already starting to revive. Some big trees were burned right down to the roots and into the ground.

By mid-February early wildflowers, oak and poison oak were happily flowering.IMG_4531We got a great view of the east side of Mount Hood. It’s hard to tell that the mountain was almost totally burned. Now we can’t wait to return to see how our park is doing. There will be lots more wildflowers and oaks and Buckeye will be leafing out in March.

Sonoma County Parks Opening After the Fires

Two months after firestorms raced through Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties, parks that had been in the path of the fires are starting to reopen. When we heard that Shiloh Ranch Regional Park had opened to hikers, we decided to take a hike and to see what damage the fires had wrought.

Shiloh is an 860-acre mixed woodland of oak, chaparral and fir forest on the hilly east edge of the Santa Rosa plain that had once been a cattle ranch. About 93 percent of the park burned. Firefighters lit backfires through the park to help defend the city of Windsor and stop the fire’s spread. They also used bulldozers to carve fire lines. So we expected to find a treeless burned out mess.

View of the Santa Rosa Plain from Shiloh

What we found was remarkably like the park we had known before the fire. Crews have removed dead trees and installed erosion control wattles on burned slopes. Underbrush had burned and the forest looked more open, but most of the trees should recover.

So my worry about the fate of the oak forest was unfounded. I don’t understand this. How could a fire so hot that it burned thousands of buildings to the ground leave the forest only singed? I do know that this landscape has always contended with fire as part of its natural life cycle and in some ways even depends on it.

Already we can see signs of new growth. Soap plant and Douglas iris poke through the blackened earth. Trees send up new shoots at the ends of their branches. The plants and their communities are healing.

As we drove back home to our neighborhood in the northeast part of Santa Rosa, we passed some of the burned out sections of the city. Chimneys jut from blackened lots and the carapaces of cars and metal appliances wait to be collected by cleanup crews.

Back in our neighborhood, we walked the few blocks to our little patch of open space, Paulin Creek Preserve, a spot of oak woodland that escaped the fire and, thanks to a group of savvy neighbors, also escaped development. It is among the many things for which we are thankful.

Paulin Creek Preserve


Don Edwards Shoreline Park

Ever since I learned that citizens had organized to protect this part of the San Francisco Bay shoreline from development, I’ve wanted to visit Don Edwards refuge. It’s situated just east of Highway 101 in Redwood City about 25 miles south of San Francisco. (Whipple exit).

Thanks to environmentally savvy neighbors in the South Bay, we can now enjoy this spectacular piece of wildland. Walk out onto one of the old dikes (remnants of salt production) and you are right in the middle of a bird sanctuary. It feels far from civilization, even though you are surrounded by cities and development on all sides.

This place is bird watching central. We saw egrets, stilts, sanderlings, ducks, ground birds and shore birds. And from one of the posted signs we learned about a bird, the Alameda song sparrow, that is able to drink salt water and is found only in these marshes!

Love this marsh and we will return for a longer walk.


Glimpses of Shasta

Driving north from the Bay Area on Interstate 5, we look for the Magic Mountain to materialize to ease the monotony of the flat, straight highway. She first appears somewhere in Yolo County, just barely visible above the level horizon. The vision, beckoning down to the plains, always makes me gasp.

We rejoice as she grows bigger. She holds the promise of new environs, lush snow-covered fir forests. This year she is glimmering, whiter than I’ve ever seen her. Contrast these photos with the header picture of a bare Shasta, taken in late summer a couple of years ago during a historic drought.

We stopped for lunch at the Sundial Bridge which spans the Sacramento River at Redding. Walk out to the middle of the bridge and you get another view of Shasta. Swallows nest under the bridge and you can look right through the glass into their nests to see parents feeding their chicks this time of year. The Turtle Bay Discovery Park is still being developed and now there is a 17.5 mile paved trail from the park all the way to Shasta Dam. On the other side of the river is a dirt path. I really want to walk or bike it some day, but on the day we visited in early May, it was already too hot for a hike. It’s on my calendar for next April.

By the time we reached Dunsmuir, the mountain was towering above the highway, peeking out around corners, eliciting new gasps with each curve in the road. To the west we could see Castle Crags, another impressive rock monument. We decided we had to drive up as close as we could get to Shasta, just 14 miles on a decent road up from the town of Mount Shasta. A parking lot at the 6950-foot mark has been plowed to accommodate visitors. We paid tribute to the Magic Mountain with a selfie before continuing on our journey north.

Mt. Burdell in Bloom

We discovered Mt. Burdell in Novato, Marin County, when Holly lived in Santa Rosa and I in San Francisco and we would meet in the middle to hike. Spring is the best time to visit this verdant oak woodland with spectacular views of the Bay Area.

We have hiked all the way up to the top which adjoins Olompali State Park. Near the old quarry we found stone walls built by Chinese laborers employed by the Burdell ranch in the 19th century. This time we just hiked the three-mile loop past Hidden Pond, full of water in this wet year.

A Trip to the Foothills

Redbud was in bloom

Our recent trip to the Sierra foothills to view wildflowers yielded few flowers but we did discover an IPA with 11.1 percent alcohol content in Murphys. We watched fledgling nuthatches from the second floor front porch balcony of the old Columbia Hotel where we stayed and we saw the “Pioneer Cabin Tree” in its fallen state at Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

The old gold mining town of Columbia has been a state park since 1945 but I discovered it on the way home from a backpacking trip in the 1990s while looking for a toilet. We walked out of the public bathrooms onto car free Main Street and stepped back in time to the 1850s when this town was a bustling community of 5,000. We were too grungy to stay, having spent a week in the woods, but we vowed to return and we did.

Open year-round, Columbia gears up in the summer but it was happening this weekend of the vernal equinox. It’s a great place to bring kids, with ice cream and sweet shops, blacksmithing and candle dipping, a gold panning station and bowling in one of the old brick buildings. You can learn history, too, in the many displays set up by the State Park Dept. The two hotels in town are owned and run by the state. The other businesses are privately owned, like the book store, which features the works of right wing ideologues as well as historical tomes.

You can ride the stagecoach around town

The State Parks wants workers to dress in period dress. You know, big long skirts for women with elaborate shirtwaists like they wore in 1860. The men get off easier. They can wear suspenders and bow ties and caps or top hats. We were greeted by the hotelier, a young woman in male drag. Her name is Abby and she told us she has worked for three seasons as a park ranger aide. She leads tours and also teaches classes for kids on the state website ports program. (Ports is a free State Parks distance learning program that uses interactive videoconferencing to help K-12 schools teach common core state standards). She told us she had tried to maintain the dress code, wearing long dresses and aprons, but her short hair didn’t fit with the program. During that time she made up reasons for the short hair on her tours. She’d had to cut her hair because she’s had lice, or she’d had a fever. Someone suggested she wear a wig, and she did that for a season during the hottest part of the summer. None of her colleagues recognized her and the wig was really hot. Finally she just decided to switch genders. Now she wears a cap with a period shirt and pants, boots, suspenders and a black leather vest. She said she rides her motorcycle to work so she’s now ready for anything.

Abby the hotelier and guide

The state classifies the park ranger aides as seasonal, to avoid paying benefits it seems. The only unionized workers are the housekeepers, who are allowed to work full-time. Sidewalks rolled up before sundown. We watched the park ranger aides close up the tall steel shutters (originally built to foil fire) on all the windows and doors. We could drink in the saloons, but there was nothing else going on in the evening. The playhouse doesn’t start its season till April. We hoped for live music on Friday or Saturday night. Nada. Later we learned the place for adults is Murphys, just up the road on Highway 4. A drinking person’s haven where one can taste all the local wines without having to drive all those winding roads to the wineries. Stopping by on Sunday, we discovered we had missed Irish Night the night before, but locals told us we would have had a hard time fighting the crush of drunks. They did have live music though. Maybe we older people could find a happy medium somewhere.

Columbia’s sidewalks rolled up at day’s end

A day trip took us up to Calaveras Big Trees State Park up from Murphys on Highway 4. Since I’d been there several years ago, the California Conservation Corps has built a walkway across the swampy meadow (we heard frogs but saw no newts) and a new visitors complex. Most of the trails are still closed for the season but we could walk to the big stump and as far as the two thousand-year-old “Pioneer Cabin Tree” that fell down this winter. Which was not surprising as a century ago humans cut the heart out so cars could drive through. Actually, it was amazing the tree stood as long as it did.

Driving home we crossed some of California’s iconic Gold Country rivers and creeks, all in good form after the season’s big rains. The town of Columbia is reached by Parrott’s Ferry Road, named for the ferry that crossed the mighty Stanislaus River before a bridge was built. Now the crossing is over the lake created by New Melones Dam, target of environmental protests in the 1970s. Until the dam was built, the Stanislaus was arguably California’s best whitewater rafting river, coursing through the deepest limestone canyon in the West.

We drove into the deep river valleys of the Mokelumne River and Sutter Creek, over Amador and Dry Creeks and the undammed Cosumnes River. Then we crossed the American River on the way into Roseville, and finally the wide muddy Sacramento on Highway 80.

Bridge over New Melones