Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mt. Wilson, Part 1

Monrovia, California

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I’m going to leave off on the political stuff, which seems to be going about as expected. Also, Michigan, Michigan State, Connecticut, North Carolina, and the unlikely Ohio University are out of the NCAA tournament, and we can only hope Ohio State will lose.

Instead, I’m going back to my stock-in-trade on this blog, and recount a walk I took last Tuesday part of the way up Mt. Wilson. Mt. Wilson is a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, the range that runs along the north side of the string of cities to the northeast of Los Angeles—Glendale, Pasadena, Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Azusa, etc., above old Route 66 eastward to San Bernardino.

Mt. Wilson’s claim to fame is that it has been used since the late 1800s as a site for telescopes. In the early 20th century an observatory was built there, containing increasingly powerful telescopes. Since the 1980s the observatory has been gradually abandoned in favor of sites in other countries. I will have more to say about the observatory when I actually get up there and find out more.

Mt. Wilson was named for Benjamin Davis Wilson, 1811-1878, who was the second mayor of Los Angeles and became, incidentally, the grandfather of General George S. Patton, Jr. Benjamin Wilson, known to some as "Benito," started a trail up the mountain in order to get wood for casks for his winery located in what is now San Marino. To his disappointment the wood wasn’t any good, but he constructed the trail anyway, in 1864, and it became popular with recreational hikers. So much for history. Let me now revert to a transcription of the recording I made while walking.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012. It is 10:10 a.m. and I am in Sierra Madre right off Mira Monte Drive, at the beginning of the Mt. Wilson Trail. This is a steep dirt walk that goes up from the present elevation of 970 feet to the top of Mt. Wilson, 5650 feet, over a distance of 7 miles. Because of the steepness of the trail and the fact that I haven’t walked in a long time (although I’ve gone to the gym on a regular basis and have done a bit of cycling), I’m not sure if I’ll make it all the way to the top this time, but at least I’ll make an effort and give myself something to aim at the next time I go.

Clear days are important for this walk, at least from the standpoint of being able to see the wide valleys that become ever more visible as one makes the ascent. Although this isn’t anything like the flat roadside hiking I did across the country, the young and not-so-young people I see jogging in both directions make me realize that I’ve gotten out of shape, comparatively speaking. I needn’t have worried that my workouts at the highest settings on the elliptical trainer were tougher than what I might encounter here. Aerobically, this is by far more difficult. I’m huffing and puffing in a way that my training didn’t prepare me for.

With each switchback the view of the floor of the San Gabriel Valley widens, and though I started in tiny Sierra Madre, what comes into view in the foreground of the slightly hazy distance is the city of Arcadia, which lies between Monrovia and Pasadena along the east-west line at the foot of the mountains. An expanse of concrete and grass gradually reveals itself to be the Santa Anita Racetrack and the large mall adjacent to it.

The dirt trail, although reasonably well maintained, is narrow—perhaps four or five feet wide in most places—and has no railings to keep people from meeting almost certain death should they fall off. At times it’s rocky, too. I see that it would never be a good idea to take this walk during or right after a rain when the stones are slippery and the little groove in the middle of the path is full of water.

Finally I begin to catch my breath, and after a mile or so I stop at a bend in the trail to talk to a toothless old man resting on a large rock on his way down. He’s probably not all that much older than me, but with his gauntness and without the teeth he looks ancient. We chat for a few minutes, during which I tell him it’s my first time on the trail and he tells me he’s been walking it for decades, although he doesn’t go all the way to the top any more—not since the 1980s. He’s just been up to the first stopping point, a place called First Water about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. He also assures me that the steepest part of the walk is behind me, and that things flatten out somewhat from here on and it becomes much shadier. Finally he tells me that the water at First Water is drinkable. “At least to me it is,” he says, with a chuckle that makes his face light up like a benign jack-o-lantern.

With thanks I leave him and take another hairpin turn. I’m wearing my hiking vest—the one I used throughout my journey across the country—with its pockets full of lunch, snacks, camera, cell phone, basic first aid stuff, and a bottle of water in the back. I have so far hesitated to drink much, waiting to see what the water situation will be further up. I have plenty, and it’s not an oppressively hot day. Nevertheless I’ve been sweating up a storm, and I take off the long-sleeved shirt I’m wearing over a t-shirt and tie it around my waist for now.

The going is still steep for now. I realize that most of the people I meet coming down have only gone up to First Water, or at most to Orchard Camp, another two miles past that.

At 1.5 miles I reach First Water. It has taken me 50 minutes to get here. I see that it’s a little stream about two hundred feet down from the trail on an alternate path. I have read that it is not advisable to drink from the rivers up here, and I think I’ll be prudent at this point and forgo this water, since I still have plenty. If necessary I’ll drink here on the way down. Who knows what that old guy looked like before he began drinking the water up here? Also, I really don’t want to waste the time or energy to walk down to the stream and back up to the trail. So I proceed to Orchard Camp, which the sign here tells me is in 2.0 miles.

It occurs to me suddenly that today is the first day of spring, although that term and designation means a little less here in southern California than it might in the north and the east. But just as I think it I become aware of a chirping bird. Here the feeling of spring is evident at the beginning of February, in a subtle way. Nevertheless, this is the day of the vernal equinox.

About a thousand feet into the next leg of the walk I pause on a rock to rest and to contemplate the sheer absurdity, if not utter bullshit, of what the skinny jack-o-lantern man told me about the steepest part of the walk being behind me. The trail is every bit as steep where I’m walking now as it has been all along, although it is a bit shadier and I've put my outer shirt back on. And indeed it wouldn’t make any sense for the trail to be less steep, given the additional elevation ahead. The total climb is 4680 feet in 7 miles, or an average of 670 feet per mile, and the first leg of 1.5 miles was 1000 feet, which is pretty close to the average. So no, it doesn’t get less steep, you crazy old coot. Maybe for a short time, but then it would have to get even steeper to make up for that.

At a clearing looking south, I take another look at the expanse of Santa Anita Racetrack and the Westfield Mall, which have become smaller and now sit in the middle of large expanses of residential real estate of Arcadia and beyond, even as far as the gravel pits of beautiful Irwindale. It feels good to be walking again. I turn around and get a look at the cluster of towers and TV antennas on the top of Mt. Wilson. Closer, but still a long way up.

About 3.5 miles into the walk I reach Orchard Camp, the halfway point. It’s no camp, in any ordinary sense, just a flat area with some low concrete and stone sides, perhaps twenty feet square, under some shade trees. I turned off my cell phone about an hour ago, since there was no reception and the search mode was sucking down the battery power. I turn it on for a moment to check the time. It’s 12:20, so it has taken me two hours to travel this far. Obviously it would take at least that long to do the remaining half of the ascent. I’m beginning to make up my mind to go only another mile or so beyond this point and then turn around and call it a day.

As I get closer to the top I can see that white areas I sometimes mistook from the highway for patches of snow are really just outcroppings of bare rock. It does snow up here sometimes, but rarely, even in winter, does the snow remain all day. The vistas to the south, instead of getting wider, are now narrowing due to the fact that I’m getting further back into the mountain range as I proceed. As bright and clear blue as the sky is, down below on the ground the haze puts a greyness on everything, making it less than ideal for viewing the valley. I suppose only a strong breeze from the west can really clean this area out. Back in the 60s and 70s the San Gabriel Valley was known for having some of the worst smog in the greater LA area. It blew from the west across the city and got trapped between mountain ranges. But air quality improvements, largely in auto emissions, have dramatically reduced smog overall, and made the valley a desirable place to live. In fact (and maybe due to the improved air quality) the City of Arcadia is listed as having the second-highest per capita income of all cities in the U.S. with populations of over 50,000. Greenwich, Connecticut is number one.

The vegetation up here changes rapidly. Deciduous and live California oaks, mesquites, huge cedar-like evergreens, scrub pines, you name it. Though I’m not afraid (too tired and focused on putting one foot in front of the other) I find myself wondering how many people over the years have slipped off this trail to their deaths down the steep rocky hillsides on this railingless trail. Don’t know if Google will give me the answer [it didn’t, at least as far as I looked], but there must be some statistics. Well, my job at this point is to not become one of them.

I decide not to press on to Manzanita Ridge, another 1.9 miles past Orchard Camp, and instead turn around at what I reckon to be between 4 and 4.5 miles. I mark my stopping point by photographing a large dead cedar or redwood tree, so I’ll know if I get past this point on my next foray. Mt. Wilson, I’m beginning to see, is something to be worked at, just as the entire 70 mile round trip length of the San Gabriel Bikeway is.

Walking down steep hills is a rigor of a different kind. Not as aerobically challenging, to be sure, it uses the legs in ways they really weren’t intended to be used. Each step is both a progress and a putting on of the brakes, as it were, and soon my knees and the fronts of my thighs begin to tell the tale. While I can move a bit faster, I can’t go too fast for fear of tripping. I reflect on the fact that most injuries from stairs occur on the way down, not up. Occasionally a young person comes down from behind me and passes, jogging, often with a dog in tow.

I reached my highest point at 1:00, two hours and forty minutes into the walk, and it takes me until 3:00 to get to the bottom. I had thought in advance that it might take half as long to go down as it did to go up, but this wasn’t quite the case.

Easing back behind the wheel of my car it feels as if I’ve done a day’s footwork. Next time I’ll go beyond, maybe not to the top, but closer. It’s been a good walk.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Go Home And Blog

Monrovia, California

Friday, March 9, 2012

All right. I’m done with political predictions. I was wrong when I said Mitt Romney would wrap it up on Super Tuesday, but I still think he’ll get the nomination eventually, and that no one will seriously threaten that. Tuesday night on MSNBC the commentators were in a particularly good mood. I wondered for a second why they were reporting the doings of the Dark Side with such enthusiasm, bordering on giggly bravado. Then I realized that of course they’re happy. The longer this clown show goes on, and the crazier the Republican Party gets before it finally gets behind someone, the better it will be for the incumbent. Well, let’s hope so.

Where I’ve erred is not so much in terms of understanding who will eventually get the nod from the GOP to run against Obama. My mistake has been in drastically overestimating the power of the Republicans to police themselves and put together an organized campaign for the presidency. Could it really be that this party, which has had such a fearful and mendacious grip on the country since 1980, whether its president is in office or not, is starting to come apart at the seams? Such things do happen when power becomes too entrenched, but I hesitate to feel very confident of it. Certainly they continue to have a decent hold on the airwaves. I wonder whether their most valuable asset—the easy boredom of the public that has let them simplify their message to a few infantile refrains—has finally become their undoing.

Then I think again. Without a doubt the legacy of the Republicans remains intact, and strong, and will be there no matter who wins in November. Obama’s victory in 2008, in fact, has proved to be only the hesitant promise of change so far. The legislature stays in the hands of the most venal and conservative elements in the nation, even when they operate as a minority, as in the Senate. What we now take for granted—the naked prerogatives of the wealthy and of big business to comport themselves as they see fit without any checks by the government, and the complete insinuation of radical right-wing Christianity into the national debate—will not change any time soon. Only those of us old enough to remember such shining beacons of rationality and progressivism as the graduated income tax, the Warren Court, the Civil Rights Movement, and Roe v. Wade will ever know the difference. Younger folks will only feel, as they seem to do, the vague sense of unease that has produced the Occupy Movement, a mishmash of discontent signifying relatively little, with great potential as yet unleashed because it has no single solidifying issue other than malaise. It is like a child’s tantrum, which the parents (smarter now than the parents of a generation or two ago) wisely and indulgently allow to go on until it is finally spent.

The lessons this country learned from the Vietnam War have been solid ones—not with respect to the foolishness of military adventurism, to be sure, but in terms of how to handle unrest at home so as not to create a situation where the whims of the public can interfere with national policy. First and foremost, the government must control the press and if possible get them on board. Embed them. Make them feel as if they’re part of the team. It doesn’t hurt that the press of the 21st Century came of age during the right-wing revolution of the Reagan Administration and doesn’t know the difference. If the media feel they are important to the war effort they will bend over backward to report favorably on the war. Propaganda is essential here. No one believes their own bullshit as much as the news media do. Just give them the right crap to disseminate and the job is done. The second lesson is don’t draft anybody if at all possible, and keep the body count down. That one is simple. Third, honor the returning soldiers, whether they're alive or dead. Never mind how much it might insult the intelligence of even the dullest of wits, tell the nation that every national guardsman and jarhead who comes back from the bumpy, mine-laden roads of Iraq and Afghanistan is a HERO, who has been over there PROTECTING OUR FREEDOM. Thank them profusely. It was this lack of thanks that disgruntled so many Vietnam vets. Today, in addition to the sober pronouncements of the news heads, it’s the little products of the propaganda machine, like the fawning banners hanging on small town streets, lauding the unfortunates who have no option but to serve in the military, that help to maintain support for and fuel our country’s permanent volunteer imperialist army, fighting endless wars to maintain the Pax Americana, propped up heroically by stable dictatorships all over the world. Looking back, it’s really hard to believe that news reporters actually helped to sow discontent for the war in Vietnam. Today they are, in a manner reminiscent of the era of the all-out effort of World War II, simply tools of the government, endlessly repeating a Big Lie--in the present case that the systematic hunting and killing of Muslims somehow protects the United States from selective airline hijackings. There’s a bizarre disconnect there that few people have ever commented on publicly.

The final lesson from the mistakes of Vietnam is to ignore the protesters to the greatest extent possible. If you take them seriously they might start to take themselves more seriously and organize better and around specific candidates, and the press will eventually pick up on that and the next thing you know a bunch of kids will be telling the country what to do and what not to do, which we all know is a bad idea, because for the most part kids don’t have a lot of money or property and are filled with idealism. For now, fortunately, there’s no real coherent politics involved in the Occupy Movement, just a few slogans, and furthermore, they've focused mostly on domestic issues, primarily because they just don't know much about what we're doing in other countries.

Extremely important to this entire effort, and never to be minimized, is the fact that almost every person in American now possesses a hand-held info-tainment device whose power to draw attention away from anything meaningful cannot be overestimated. In some places, like in the Arab world, these little i-thingies have been the very instruments of revolution, allowing otherwise disenfranchised and heavily censored people to tweet and twit and blog their way to organized opposition, and tell the outside world what’s going on. But not here, never here. We’re not the people who tell the world how messed up things are where we live; we’re the people other people tell things to. When we seem to the rest of the world to be complaining we get reminded that we’re far wealthier and freer to spout off than they are and should therefore be thankful. And we (quite rightly) host a constant stream of the wretched refuse of various teeming shores who, compared to us, really are a lot worse off. We’re like a person who runs a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter or a home for battered women, whose own life might be falling apart but who is nonetheless better off than the people he serves. And we do have games and apps to keep us busy.

How did I get from Mitt Romney and his party to this point? I’m asking myself the same question. But look here. Maybe the Republicans can’t get it together enough to rally around a single viable candidate for the same reason or reasons the Occupy Movement can’t gather much steam in any pertinent direction. Perhaps the answer is that our phone gadgets and the many instant opportunities for entertainment throughout the day have robbed us of the need, or the will, to be mentally organized around an issue or a handful of issues. Poor and middle class people are losing money to the wealthy, and poor kids are going to war, but how bad can that really be when we can instantly post our frustrations on Facebook or just forget about them and play Word Whomp or FarmVille instead? Aren’t the Republicans prey to the same technological seductions as the Occupiers? They know they’re discontented and they sense that the government is somehow not behaving the way they want it to and is too sympathetic to people whose skin isn’t the right color. But they don’t really have any idea of what to do about it, other than to conduct an endless series of debates, hoping some ideas and issues will shake out. And how really steamed up can they get when at the end of the day they can just tweet their frustrations for all their fans to see? Perhaps eventually the voters will ease this crop of Republicans into the background the way the city fathers shooed the encamped protesters away from their parks and from in front of their public buildings.

And everyone will just go home and blog about it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Southern California

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sometimes I wonder about the people in China who make the stuff we buy, especially the knickknacks and gewgaws that are so particularly western as to be just about absent from the life of those who manufacture them. What do you suppose a person in a plant that makes plastic crucifixes, statues of the Virgin Mary, votive candles, and other crazy Christian paraphernalia thinks? I try to picture myself in a comparable situation. I’m on an assembly line, grabbing naked white plastic religious statues of I don’t know who or what—dead, dying, suffering, eyes heavenward, hearts enchained in thorns on the outsides of their bodies—and taking them on a large handcart to another part of the plant where other people paint their blood, or toenails, or wildly colorful garments. Then they go through a drying oven and pop out the other side, where people pack them into cardboard boxes for shipping to, let’s say, China. Someone new, next to me, whispers into my ear, “What are these things, anyway?” “Goods for export,” I reply knowingly.

One of the features of the web site on which I create my blog before publishing it on the blog site itself (that web site is in case you’d like to create a blog and take a stab at it yourself) is an array of information about who visits the site. I can see who, if anyone, has been on it today, and how many have visited this week, or this month, or all-time. It’s a great feature if you love statistics like I do. Click on the tab that says "Stats" then on the one that says “Audience” then on the one that says “Monthly,” and it will give, in descending order, the top ten countries from which blog visits were made and the number of such visits during the previous month. For instance, out of the total of over 16,000 page views since I started the blog back in the fall of 2009, it turns out that about 12,500 views have been from the United States and another 1,500 or so from France. Nothing to wonder about there, really, since my cousins in France are regular readers (thank you, as always), and just about everyone else I know of who reads it lives here in the U.S. (thank you, too). But what’s really interesting is the makeup of the remaining two thousand views. For instance, did you know that my blog has been viewed 91 times in Slovenia, and in addition, 86 times in Belize? It’s not necessarily that 91 separate individuals in Slovenia have viewed it, but rather that the blog has been accessed 91 times by one or more persons while they were somewhere in Slovenia. At least I think that’s what it means. But who goes to Slovenia from somewhere else on a regular basis (maybe my cousin?), much less to Belize? Slovenia, just east of northern Italy at the top of the Adriatic, somehow doesn’t seem as remote to me as Belize does, even though English is the official language of Belize and it’s right next door to Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula. Formerly known as British Honduras, it became independent in 1981, the last area under direct English control on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere. I’m not sure who goes to or lives in Belize and why they might have happened on my blog, but there it is.

Aside from the Slovenians and Belizeans and the French and Americans there have been hits from such other locales as the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, South Korea, Ireland, Malaysia, Romania, India, and Indonesia. Malaysia, really? Isn’t that where they cane people for spitting on the sidewalk? Could I be in trouble? Or is that Singapore I’m thinking of?

It could be one person in each country who has visited on all those occasions. Naturally it has occurred to me as well that some of the more obscure places (from my point of view) from which the viewings have occurred might be because of random blog searchers (I think there really are such people, who like checking out blogs for the sake of checking out blogs). Other hits could be from those whose job is to put spam comments on blogs about erectile dysfunction drugs and the like. “Vjagra, Cjalis. Very good price. Best penis.” Really, the most common version of spam I get on the blog is in the form of long entailed messages written in somewhat demotic English that end up offering me a chance to improve my blog. I’m certain there’s a great deal to be done in the way of improvement here, but I doubt the ability of anyone to be of real help in that department who uses verbiage like this: “ is effortless to use for Company and is a single of the most well-liked social networking web sites close to.” Syntax redolent of other languages and other climes. I picture the man with the beard named Peggy in the room full of telephones. Or the Czechoslovakian brothers on the old Saturday Night Live. “Now are the foxes! We are . . . two wild and crazy guys!”

Countries about which I know next to nothing continue to hold some fascination for me, even if I wouldn’t care to live in, or even visit, them. I am content to read a bit on Wikipedia and satisfy my curiosity that way. Slovenia, one of the hobby horses I ride today, is a comparatively new country in its present incarnation, having split away from Yugoslavia in 1991. Like practically all countries, it has a proud tradition of striving for independence, against the historic totalitarianisms of empire, fascism, and communism. Every country, no matter how beleaguered or obscure it might be, wants to have proud traditions. Even North Korea, as messed up as it appears to be, has its Great Leader, its Dear Leader, and now its Halfway Decent Leader to look up to.

All of which brings up a sort of parallel question: how must what I write sound, or look, to the people in these other countries, if they do actually read it? Pop culture references, talk about Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, chatter about American sports. I’m pretty sure that while most folks in other countries imagine they know a lot about the United States based on news stories about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the U.S. military, and the depictions of us in television reruns and movies, they really don’t know much about how the country works, or doesn’t work as the case may be, on a regular basis. People from countries where the national government runs the economy, educates the young, cares for the medical needs of the people, regulates the activities of businesses, and so on, can’t know what things are like here, nor would they learn from episodes of Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, or movies starring Brad Pitt or Jennifer Anniston. The truth we all live with every day, particularly when it comes to the role of the government, is that the President of the United States, however famous he might be throughout the world, can’t do a hell of a lot at the domestic level. He can nuke you, or rain down the wrath of the Valkyrie on some sorry-ass desert hideout in your country, but he has no power over the price of gasoline or medical insurance, or anything else for that matter, in his own country. Abroad the President is seen as the representative of the potency of America; here he’s not much more than a figurehead, even though the people who seek the office continue to imagine they can do wonders once they’re in it. Oh, you say (those of you who have studied the tripartite nature of the U.S. federal system), so it’s the legislature that really controls the government? Wrong. Okay then, the Supreme Court? Nope. It’s business.

And so it would be appropriate if the only interest people took in my blog in the recesses of the second and third worlds was in terms of its potential as a business opportunity—a chance to try to sell me something. The pecuniary spawn of the dot com revolution. Someone in Ljubljana, or Kiev, or Delhi, or Bucharest is looking at my blog. I’m talking about walking through East Jesus, Indiana. I’m crossing the mighty Mississippi River. I’m telling about the Big Easy, or the Naked Book Guy. I’m dipping my toe in the Pacific Ocean. That person is inserting a comment, at random, after one of my postings. The comment suggests that I can do better at reaching a wider audience by consulting a certain web site. Or it is advertising urban real estate in the Ukraine. Someone comes in the room while that person is reading and says, “Peggy, vat you are doing?” Peggy answers, “Business. I’m doing business.”