Reality and Solitude: Getting Immersed in the Winter Desert

Joshua Tree National Park in winter | Photo: Chris Clarke

I don't really celebrate Christmas, but it came early this year. Two years ago some reprobate stole my ancient Jeep and destroyed it. Since then, I've relied on my fiancee's subcompact to get around. It's perfectly suitable for trips to the grocery store and such, when it's running. But for the past couple of years I haven't had a vehicle capable of driving the dirt roads in Joshua Tree.

This month a friend decided to part with his lovingly maintained if slightly battered 15-year-old pickup, and he sold it to me. His signature on the pink slip was barely dry when I hopped behind the wheel and pointed Old Green in the direction of the National Park next door.

The dirt road ended five miles off the pavement, in a valley ringed by crumbling granite peaks. I got out and stepped into the biting wind. I took only a short walk, really, in the scheme of things. Four miles out and back. But it changed me: a gift befitting the season.

False Climate Change Harbingers in Ice-Bound, Drought-Stricken Texas

We should have driven south. Or west. End of story.

We should have struck out for airports in Austin, San Antonio, or Midland-Odessa, all of which had escaped the worst effects of the killer ice storm that last late week locked down much of Texas. What we should not have done was to have driven north out of San Angelo on Highway 87, heading for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Just hours before the powerful winter storm blew down the plains, my inbound flight that Wednesday evening had landed in San Angelo, a mid-sized city set within the rumpled terrain of west Texas and through which the Concho River flows. I was there to speak about the environmental implications of the crippling drought currently wracking the Edwards Plateau and the larger southwest, an irony not lost on the valiant souls who braved sleet and snow to gather within the warm embrace of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts to talk about aridity.

The irony is miscast, though. This storm, which dropped maybe one to two inches of precipitation, will do nothing to replenish the area's diminished aquifers, trickle-thin creeks, and bone-dry reservoirs.

A Tale of 2 Hikes: 18 Miles on Hard Pavement, Then a Walk on Soft Dirt

A view of downtown Los Angeles from Ernest E. Debs Regional Park.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

I celebrated my birthday last week, and aside from small gatherings with friends and family, I've made it an annual birthday ritual to try something new or visit a place I've never gone before. I guess I'm at the age where I've outgrown the thrill of getting free or discounted stuff on my own birthday, in favor of taking advantage of the interesting experiences or places I can enjoy for free here in Los Angeles.

I started the festivities two days before by participating in The Great Los Angeles Walk, an annual Saturday-before-Thanksgiving event organized by local blogger Michael Schneider, who co-writes Franklin Avenue with his wife Maria. This year, in its 8th annual iteration, the walk, starting out some 300 participants strong, made the 18-mile trek from Echo Park to Santa Monica via Sunset Boulevard, Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills, and Wilshire Boulevard to its western terminus overlooking the sea. It was an appropriate jaunt for me, as it passed by my Kaiser Hospital birthplace, among other familiar sights in my life, as well as new discoveries, such as murals in Silver Lake, new development in Hollywood, and a "Kennedy '60" etched onto the pavement by an enthusiastic voter over 50 years ago (and a striking coincidence near the anniversary of the JFK assassination) in pedestrian-deficient Beverly Hills.

What I'm Thankful For, 1,000 Times Over

A big round number | Photo: Brian Wolfe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

We in California typically spend this week trying to get along with our relatives, eating far too much food and watching far too much TV, and occasionally thinking about what parts of our lives we're thankful for.

I have too many Native American friends to get completely behind the Thanksgiving holiday, which probably means I'll never win office in the Coachella Valley.

But as it happens, this is the 1,000th piece I've written for KCET, and so it seems like a good opportunity for reflection on those things in my life, and my work, for which I am grateful. And given the nice round number, I hope you won't mind a bit of self-indulgent sharing of the things I'm grateful for.

President Kennedy Has Been Shot: A Memory

I never celebrated my twelfth birthday. As was surely true for others born on November 23, my party was canceled the instant we learned President John F. Kennedy, that boyish, energetic, and very complicated man, had been assassinated in Dallas.

The horrific news arrived while sitting in Mr. B's sixth-grade math class at Middlesex Junior High in Darien, CT. Over the scratchy PA system, our principal announced that the president had been shot, classes were cancelled immediately, and that our regular buses were already lined up out front, waiting to take us home. Usually, Friday afternoon dismissal was a chaotic free-for-all, a surge of thrilled adolescents scrambling for the exits. Not that Friday. We silently shuffled down the stairs, stumbled outside, and stepped up into the yellow buses, their doors snapping shut.

That Kennedy was a transformative figure I had known since he launched his 1960 run for the White House, and I campaigned for him as only an eight-year-old could.

One Saturday that fall, my father took me to a metallic trailer parked in an empty lot adjacent to the local fire station; it was emblazoned with a large banner reading "Independents for Kennedy." Nothing could have been more provocative in a town that had voted straight Republican since the 19th-century, and I recall my father, an old-school southern Democrat, laughing about the provocation. I didn't really understand this, of course, but I have a sharp memory of standing on the trailer's wooden transom, quickly checking to see if anyone was witnessing our social misstep.

Green Urbanism: Remembering JFK's Major Environmental Achievements

President John F. Kennedy speaking at dedication of Pinchot Institute, Milford PA, September 1963. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Forest Service, Grey Towers National Historic Site

Two months before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy spoke of his hope for a more resilient future. To reach it, he told a rapt audience at the late-September dedication of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation at Grey Towers, conservationist Gifford Pinchot's old home in Milford, Pennsylvania, Americans must recognize that they were living in a transitional moment.

"There is no more fitting place to begin a journey of five days across the United States," JFK declared at this first stop on his cross-country campaign to raise the country's environmental awareness, "to see what can be done to mobilize the attention of this country so that we in the 1960s can do our task of preparing America for all the generations which are still yet to come."

This preparatory labor "looks to the future and not the past. And the fact of the matter is that this institution is needed...more today than ever before in our history, because we are reaching the limits of our fundamental needs of water to drink, of fresh air to breathe, of open space to enjoy, of abundant sources of energy to make life easier." To respond to these pressures confronting urban and rural American would require the creation of new ideas, "the embrace of disciplines unknown in the past." The new organization might bear Gifford Pinchot's name but to fulfill its forward-looking mission, its "active work," of necessity it would draw on a different set of resources and perspectives.

Optimistic about the chances of resolving the pressures peculiar to his generation, Kennedy hoped "that in the years to come that these years in which we live and hold responsibility will also be regarded as years of accomplishment in maintaining and expanding the resources of our country which belong to all our people."

Yet as I argue in my new book, "Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot," most of the president's resolutions remained deeply indebted to the past. The conservation of water resources meant not the reducing of use but the ramping up of federal investments in dams and pipelines. The growing need for energy required the implementation of new technologies to generate more kilowatts rather than finding ways to make energy consumption less wasteful. To meet the booming recreational needs of a society expected to grow exponentially by century's end, he promised to expand the amount of open space.

Appreciating Vacant Land in the Antelope Valley

The view, looking north towards the Tehachapi mountains, of 'The Trinidad Ranch,' an empty parcel of land owned by the author's family, in the western Antelope Valley.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

I've always heard them talk about "the land."

The triangular-shaped expanse of desert north of Los Angeles known as the Antelope Valley is something that doesn't factor into my life too often. I hardly know anyone there, and if I do, I see them when they're here in L.A. to work anyway. But whenever the topic of the Antelope Valley does come up between my parents and I -- from watching space shuttle landings at Edwards Air Force Base to an ex-girlfriend who lived in Lancaster to visiting the California Poppy Reserve to my annual meteor shower-watching parties -- my parents have always mentioned "the land."

"We own a plot of land there," they would remind me.

In the mid-1970s, my parents bought two and a half acres of land in what they have always referred to as "Lancaster." They purchased it, sight unseen, from a family friend who sold real estate as a sideline.

Even back in the '70s, the potential for rapid suburban growth, spurred by a booming local aerospace economy, existed in the land named after the pronghorn "antelope" that once roamed there. At one point, the city of Los Angeles proposed a large "Intercontinental Airport" east of the 14 Freeway to either supplement or supplant LAX, that was outlined for years on Thomas Guide maps.

My parents aren't wealthy, but they both hail from the rural Philippines, where land ownership is a cultural value, usually passed down as a family heirloom. Where even the poor own their own real estate.They purchased the land as investment property, perhaps intending to sell it at the right time and at the right price, to put one of their children through college. They also own parcels in southwestern Nevada, and in central Colorado.

My interest piqued when, after taking my parents to the California Poppy Reserve for my mother's birthday a couple years ago, they dug out the property records and we finally pinpointed the parcel via Google Maps.

Horrible Toy Commercial Accidentally Says Something Important About Nature

The deception revealed | Photo: Toys R Us

A toy store ad making the viral rounds has raised the ire of quite a few nature-lovers, and for good reason. It's a nasty, mean-spirited piece of work that manages to make almost everyone involved look bad. And that mean-spiritedness has managed to penetrate the jaded exteriors of quite a few world-weary enviros, provoking some very pointed mockery and even anger.

The commercial portrays bored kids reacting gleefully when their scheduled "nature field trip" turns out, once they board the bus, to be a chance to rampage through the advertiser's chain toy store. The plot is crass, full of cheap shots and stereotypes. The ad insults kids, educators, environmentalists, viewers, and for that matter trees.

But insults thrown at the environment and education are nothing new. The news media bring us fresh evils every day, and most of the time they provoke nothing more heated than a sour stomach and a press release. Why has this ad gotten to us? I suspect part of the reason people in the environmentalist camp have gotten so angry at this sorry little bit of advertising is that its creators have hit us in a sore spot. We've got a problem with how we view "nature," and it's actually got very little to do with kids.

A Self-Guided Tour of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

The Los Angeles Aqueduct cascades in Sylmar.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

This week's 100th anniversary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is being observed with a commemorative L.A. Department of Water and Power event, historical photos, discussions about water usage, museum exhibits, and even a 100-mule train. But despite the events and media coverage, most of the recipients of the Aqueduct's water still have no idea where the water conveyance system is, much less what it looks like, or how it functions.

Last year, during my first visit to the Owens Valley, I was able to not only experience the Aqueduct first-hand, but meet the very people who have been impacted -- both positively and negatively -- by its presence. Since then, I have made two more visits within the past year, learning more about the Aqueduct every time. Although, most Angelenos who don't already ski, fish, or hike in that part of the state probably wouldn't care to make the four-hour drive to the Eastern Sierra just to see water being carried.

But the Aqueduct can be much closer than that. At 233 miles, the southernmost sections are just minutes away from urban L.A. I've designed this self-guided tour, complete with map links and driving directions, to give us city folks a chance to see the Aqueduct for ourselves, from our geographical perspective, and learn a little bit more about how our water gets to us, and the issues that surround the one commodity that we cannot survive without.

Most descriptions of the Aqueduct follow the water's flow from north to south. However, this self-guided tour of the 100-year-old built Aqueduct is designed to be traveled south-to-north, from Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley to Aberdeen in the Owens Valley, giving the opportunity for city-dwellers to make the trip as short or as long as they please, whether one wishes to make a long road trip out of it, or experience it in multiple trips.

Remember the Timbisha the Next Time You Revel in Wild Death Valley

There has been some good news for Death Valley National Park. The National Parks Service recently announced much-anticipated proposals to enhance the wilderness values at the three-million acre park.

Faced with a growing number of visitors eager to rough it, administrators have established new limits on the size of camping groups, on the extent of commercial and non-commercial use of this rugged landscape, and on the location and timing of specialized recreational activities like sandboarding, canyoneering, and caving. By instituting greater managerial control of these and other uses, the Wilderness and Backcountry Stewardship Plan expects to make this wild land a little more wild.

However paradoxically the notion that human management of wilderness is essential to preserve it as wilderness, that's not the most striking aspect of the Park Service's report. It wasn't too long ago, after all, that most Americans thought the harsh Mojave Desert contained nothing worth protecting. For most it was but a vast wasteland, a place of threat (its name is not a misnomer), to be hurried through, or to be gouged of its mineral riches. It's hard to find anyone back in the day who thought it should be preserved for its own sake.