California, Climate Change, and the Calamity of Fire

Smoke rises from a fire near Butte Mountain Road, Thursday Sept. 10, 2015, near Jackson, Calif. Lions, tigers and other cats big and small are being evacuated as California's biggest wildfire continues to spread, possibly threatening the park where they live, officials said Thursday. (Andrew Seng/The Sacramento Bee via AP) MAGS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT (KCRA3, KXTV10, KOVR13, KUVS19, KMAZ31, KTXL40); MANDATORY CREDIT

The fires have ravaged California for months now. Some are so monstrous they’ve acquired names: Valley Fire, Butte Fire, Rough Fire.

The raging flames that have scorched northern California this past summer are approaching Biblical proportion. About 700,000 acres are now barren and black. Over 20,000 people have been evacuated. Approximately 15,000 firefighters have been sent, in packs, to fight the blazes. In the month of July alone, California spent 23 million dollars fighting the wildfires.

middletown

Charred remains of Middletown, California, after the Valley Fire

An entire town, Middletown, has been destroyed. The magnificent, ancient sequoias are now being threatened. And fire officials say the worst may yet arrive.

Why does California (and to a lesser degree the other 49 states) seem to be increasingly plagued by fire?

From April through October, California experiences a hot dry climate. The state is also graced with large areas of wilderness, national forests, and national parks, which contain large quantities of timber and brush.

But unlike similar dry, timber-laden states, California also deals with the Santa Anna and Diablo winds that gust off the Pacific Ocean. This combination of dry climate, wind, and extensive flora creates an ideal tinderbox condition.

Since 1932, scientists have been monitoring wildfires in California. Of the 20 largest fires, 14 have occurred in the last 20 years. The Valley Fire, which has so far killed five people and injured four firefighters, could possibly be the worst fire ever – once the smoke finally clears.

sequoia

Firefighters trying to protect giant sequoias

According to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, 95 percent of California’s fires are caused by man. Power tools, campfires, cigarette butts, downed power lines, arson, and even gunfire are chief culprits, particularly in more populous southern California. As commercial and residential development pushes more people closer to fire-prone timberlands, wildfire activity will only increase.

The California fires and other U.S. blazes are now on track to make 2015 the worst year for fires in the nation’s history. According to International Business Times, “In the Western U.S., the average annual temperature has risen 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, leading soil and plant moisture to evaporate, rainfall to diminish and snowpack to rapidly melt — all factors that increase the risks of longer, stronger wildfires.” fire graphsCalifornia is now in its fourth year of drought, which has dramatically exacerbated the fire quotient.

And there’s a financial cost. According to the research firm Headwaters Economics in a 2013 report, “Federal wildfire protection and suppression efforts now average more than $3 billion a year, compared to less than $1 billion in the 1990s.”

As temperatures continue to rise, some scientists predict that wildfire activity could actually double in the next 35 years.

And as California Governor Jerry Brown said on Monday, watching helplessly as his state toasted like a giant marshmallow: “This is the future… Climate change is not going to go away.”

fire2

Sources:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/post-apocalyptic-level-destruction-caused-california-fires/story?id=33747518

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34238228

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/16/us/the-california-wildfires-an-escalating-crisis.html?_r=0

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140517-san-marcos-wildfires-california-weather/

http://www.ibtimes.com/california-wildfires-2015-how-climate-change-risky-development-are-raising-costs-us-2098496

drought map

Keystone XL Pipeline: Dirty Gold for Uncle Sam?

map

Last week, in the middle of a weeklong tour of Asia, Pope Francis touched down in Manila, Philippines. The Catholic leader is known for deviating from papal precedence and making progressive – albeit cautious – comments about the church’s position and role regarding poverty, homosexuality, women in the church, and well-publicized lapses of human decency and morality by Catholic priests and bishops.

While in the Philippines – still recovering from a 2013 typhoon that killed 6,300 people – Pope Francis offered some lofty yet unequivocal views on climate change and the environment:

As stewards of God’s creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family. When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil, and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling… I don’t know if (climate change) is all (man’s fault) but the majority is. For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps nature in the face.

Whoa! Slapping nature in the face??  Talk about being brutally honest!

pope francis

Pope Francis, looking green

In my country (the United States of Amnesia), the biggest environmental issue on the table at the moment is the Keystone XL Pipeline. On one side of the debate are environmentalists and President Obama, who are opposed to construction of this pipeline (although the president continually seems to be “evolving” – or “devolving,” depending on your perspective).

On the other side, shovels poised in their plump little hands, are oil-thirsty conservatives and a Republican-controlled Congress, who support the pipeline’s construction.

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Pipeline being laid in North Dakota

Pipeline being laid in North Dakota

Well, here are a few facts about the pipeline – an abbreviated “Pipeline for Dummies” (like me):

  • Keystone XL is only one of four phases of oil pipeline in the Keystone Pipeline System. The other three, extending from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and comprising 40 percent of the system, have already been constructed and are in operation
  • The sole owner of the Keystone Pipeline System is TransCanada Corporation, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada
  • Keystone XL will extend from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, extending 1,179 miles across the U.S. Its main controversy centers on its environmental impact, which includes the potential for oil spillage and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (which promotes higher global temperatures, i.e. climate change)
  • The type of oil used in the pipeline is derived from oil sands, or tar sands, or bituminous sands, a mixture of sand, clay, water, and petroleum. Instead of conventional drilling, this glop is strip-mined, then fossil fuels are expended to suck out the crude. A 2011 study by Stanford University identified oil-sand crude as being as much as 22 percent more carbon-intensive than conventional oil
  • Construction of Keystone XL is predicted to last from 1-2 years
  • TransCanada CEO Russ Girling claims Keystone XL will create 42,000 “ongoing, enduring jobs.” But the U.S. State Department counters that only about 50 pipeline maintenance jobs will remain after the 1-2-year  construction
ross girling

TransCanada CEO Ross Girling, in front of “greenish” looking company banner

Will oil from the pipeline lower gas prices? The State Department says it will have no effect. Without tar sands oil, prices have already fallen to around $75 per barrel.

Where will this tar sands oil be marketed? A 2011 study by the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank in Canada, predicts that much of it will be consumed outside of the territorial United States.

Will this “dirty gold” increase global warming? The State Department says oil pumped through the pipeline will not have “any significant effect” on greenhouse gas emissions, noting that the tar sands will be developed even without the pipeline.  But critics of this assessment argue that the pipeline would boost oil production by 830,000 barrels per day; the extraction process will boost carbon emissions; transportation of the oil by train, truck, and barge, will boost greenhouse gas emissions; and production and burning of dirty petroleum coke, a co-product of tar sands oil, results in 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions.

 ____________

 Here’s longitudes’ view of the subject:

protesters

Protest against pipeline in Washington, D.C., February 17, 2013

A Canadian company wants to build a pipeline for its oil through the heart of the U.S., then have U.S. refineries process the crude for China and other foreign markets. Despite what the U.S. State Department and TransCanada claim, this oil will have a significant effect on global warming. The pipeline construction will create some American jobs, but these will be temporary.  A pipeline spill could threaten U.S. ecosystems, not to mention Native American cultural and historical sites (though it’s debatable whether many Americans even care about our country’s indigenous peoples). The strip-mine method of oil extraction destroys Alberta forestlands.  Toxic runoff, caused by steaming of the sands to separate the oil, is another environmental threat.

Tar sands oil is to energy what a McDonalds triple quarter-pounder with cheese is to human health: it’s mouth-watering to some, but ultimately it’s carbon-loaded crap that will subvert development of clean, alternative energy sources. And it will have little or no effect on American jobs or gas prices.

Verdict: the cons far outweigh the pros.

______________

Getting back to Pope Francis… I don’t agree with him on everything, but in this case I have to applaud him for having the guts to stand up for the “beautiful garden” known as planet Earth.

Now, if we could only get a few more clear-thinking tree huggers like the pontiff elected to the ugly cesspool known as the U.S. Congress (current Gallup Poll approval rating: 16 percent).

Strip mining to get tar sands oil

Strip mining to get tar sands oil

“Journey”: A Wolf Too Famous to Kill

OR-7

His official name is OR-7. No, he’s not a robot from the latest installment of “Star Wars.” But he is a star.

OR-7 is the first gray wolf to be sighted in California since 1924 (when the last wolf in that state was shot). He crossed the border from southern Oregon on December 28, 2011, having traveled over 1,000 miles from a small pack in northeastern Oregon.

Since then he’s returned to the Cascades of southwestern Oregon and mated with a black female, who has given birth to at least three pups (this family is now referred to as the “Rogue Pack”). And just a few days ago, another wandering wolf was photographed by a trail camera west of Keno, Oregon (GPS tracking showed that OR-7 was far away at the time).

Not long after OR-7 was sighted, a conservation group, Oregon Wild, held an art contest challenging children to come up with a more interesting name for the wolf (OR-7 was used by biologists because he was the seventh wolf radio-collared in the state of Oregon). The winning name was “Journey.” Fans of Journey track his wandering activity, and a documentary was recently made of him.  His fan club hopes that this celebrity will engender awareness of wolf conservation, and they refer to him as “the wolf too famous to kill.”

pups

Two of Journey’s pups, peeking from den

I can’t think of a reason why anyone would want to kill a gray wolf. Aside from the fact that Canis lupus is an intelligent and majestic creature, a cousin to “man’s best friend,” and a symbol of North American wilderness, wolves are just not the bloodthirsty creatures that populate so many fables, storybooks, and films. Yes, they’re carnivorous. But they pose little risk to humans. They do pose a threat to livestock, but only when wild prey has been depleted.

The history of wolves in America is not unlike the history of Native Americans. Originally, the mammal occupied most of continental America north of the Florida keys, including all of the eastern U.S. As human settlement and agriculture expanded between the 18th and 20th centuries, wolves followed their own “Trail of Tears” and gradually dispersed northward and westward. As hunters brought the American bison to near-extinction, wolves lost a major food source and also disappeared from the prairies. By 1960, guns and poison had eradicated the gray wolf from all of the U.S. except Alaska and parts of northern Minnesota.

Then they began a slow comeback. Bounties for wolf carcasses ended in 1947. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act gave them protection in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Then in 1995, amidst a flurry of publicity, 66 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Remote capture photo of one of Journey's pups

Remote capture photo of one of Journey’s pups

Some of these wolves eventually migrated to northeastern Oregon, and three separate packs were soon confirmed there: Walla Walla, Wenaha, and Imnaha (Journey’s original pack).  There are now nine packs in Oregon with an estimated 60-something wolves.  Wildlife biologists tend to key in on whether a pack has breeding pairs, which determine the pack’s long-term viability.

Oregon Wild believes that much of Journey’s success in relocating and mating is attributed to his utilization of Oregon’s wild and roadless areas, where both roads and development are prohibited. This was a direct result of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, initiated during the Clinton administration.

Map of Journey's journey

Map of Journey’s journey

Despite the recent good news about Journey and other wolves in the U.S., their comeback attempts are fraught with difficulty. In 2003, due to political pressure from hunters and the livestock industry, wolves were reclassified from Endangered to Threatened (a weaker designation).  In 2005, the Bush administration diluted the original Roadless Rule and capitulated to livestock lobbyists, allowing states to determine their own roadless areas (Bush’s actions were eventually overturned by the courts). And Alaska has its own way to decimate wolves: in that state, wolves can be legally shot from helicopters during hunting season.

Unfortunately, despite public pressure and polling that indicates vast support for wolf reintroduction, there are still vocal minorities who would rather treat wolves, as the National Resources Defense Council phrases it, “like vermin rather than an endangered species.”

If wolves like Journey, his mate and pups, the lone wolf near Keno, and other reintroduced wolves are to survive and proliferate, it’s important that Americans speak out in their defense.  As thrilling as the story of a celebrity wolf is, we should be reframing “a wolf too famous to kill” as “the mammal too magnificent to murder.”  As Oregon Wild notes, “the extermination of wolves is one of our greatest environmental tragedies. But their return represents an opportunity at redemption.”

The second wolf sighted, near Keno, Oregon

The second wolf sighted, near Keno, Oregon

Here are a few links where you can learn more about OR-7 and make your voice heard (the first link will take you to an article featuring a SoundCloud button where you can actually hear the howl of Journey’s father, OR-4).

http://www.oregonwild.org/wildlife/wolves/the-journey-of-or7

http://www.or7themovie.com/#!watch-movie/czpx

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dnagami/good_news_for_wolves_californi.html

Forever Green: Voices for the Wilderness Act

50 years

tree silhouette

Fifty years ago Wednesday the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The act gave a legal definition to the term “wilderness:”

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Nine million acres of public land were initially designated as wilderness. The act is one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in American history, because it concerns land and water already designated as national park, forest, or wildlife refuge, and forever protects these wild areas from damage due to logging, grazing, mineral extraction, road-building, construction – or any human manipulation, good or bad. The act essentially says “Enjoy these places and life forms, but don’t alter them.”  Keep Them Wild.

Last spring I touched on this anniversary in a couple blog posts (The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things and Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight). Not everybody is as ardent about conservation as I am. I’ll just offer some pertinent quotes from a few friends of American wilderness. Voices, more impassioned and eloquent than mine, that helped bring the Wilderness Act to fruition and are intent on making it work. Like Ed Abbey says, we need more voices like them.

yellowstone

 

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

– Gary Snyder

 

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

– Wallace Stegner

 

“Without enough wilderness America will change. Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication, must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths — animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies — or it will dwindle and pale.”

– Walt Whitman

grizz

 

“The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts.”

– John Muir

 

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”

– Ansel Adams

 

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.”

– Rachel Carson

desert

 

“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.”

– Bill McKibben

 

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

– Aldo Leopold

 

“Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise, what is there to defend?”

– Robert Redford

 

“We humans are a funny species. We can’t look death in the eye, yet we accept the environmental degradation and poisoning that breeds cancer… Something isn’t working.”

– Walkin’ Jim Stoltz

 

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.”

– Edward Abbey

 

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

– Wendell Berry

 

coral

 

“There is just one hope for repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every inch on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom and preservation of the wilderness.”

– Bob Marshall

 

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are, in fact, plans to protect man.”

– Stewart Udall

 

“All good things are wild and free.”

– Henry David Thoreau

 

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

– Lyndon Johnson

 

HAPPY 50th ANNIVERSARY TO THE WILDERNESS ACT!

sky

The Rain, the Trees and Other Things

yosemite

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones… God has cared for these trees… but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

– John Muir, from Our National Parks (1901)

In Austin, Texas there’s a Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) called the Treaty Oak. Its branches stretch 127 feet across and it is believed to be over 500 years old. The tree was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. According to folklore, Texas icons Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston paid respects here. In 1989, a vandal dumped buckets of herbicide around the base of the Treaty Oak. Two-thirds of this monumental tree is now dead.

In Trinidad, California a mighty redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) known as the Crannell Creek Giant stood for an estimated 3,000-plus years. Until a few decades ago, it was the largest living tree known to man, estimated at over 400 feet tall. But in the mid-1940s it was cut down by a logging company.

In Birmingham, Michigan, a patch of woods stood at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Lincoln Street… just across from Seaholm High School. In 1968-‘69, my friends and I box trapped small animals there. Some of these traps we built from scraps of particle board and coat hanger wire. Seaholm Woods was one of the few wild enclaves near our suburban Detroit neighborhood. We formed a “Safari Club” and spent countless hours scrambling through the hardwoods, feeling the scrape of briars on our skin, and peering into a small murky swamp abundant with strange, hidden creatures. But like so many other wooded glens in the ‘burbs, Seaholm Woods fell victim to a housing development. The raccoons, foxes, opossums, crows, grackles, and bullfrogs have long since disappeared.general-sherman

Tree and rock, bird and mammal, swale and swamp. Wild places provide nourishment to the soul. Fraught with hidden activity and complexity, the rainforests, alpine meadows, deserts and rivers also give us tranquility and space. Whether we realize it or not, wildness is an essential antidote to industrialization, commercial and residential sprawl, and an increasingly mobile and high-tech culture that seems to be dragging us further away from not only each other, but also the earth.

Long-distance hiker/folksinger/wilderness activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the “Wall Street Journal” how he defined the term “wilderness.” Stoltz thought for a moment. He then offered this: “Wilderness is a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.” I can’t think of a more appropriate definition.

But the term “wilderness” also has a legal definition, at least in the U.S. It was interpreted by Congress 50 years ago, on September 3, 1964. Although it took eight years to happen, eventually the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System and declared that:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.wolf

The Wilderness Act is one of the most significant environmental achievements in the U.S., just as important as the national park system. It designated nine million acres for protection from commercial and recreational use. This has since expanded to about 108 million acres, managed (and sometimes mismanaged) by four agencies: The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Designated U.S. wilderness areas contain 157 ecosystems with extensive flora and fauna, including such endangered or threatened species as whales, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, and numerous migratory birds. The ecosystems encompass national parks and forests, grasslands, wetlands, trails, wild and scenic rivers, monuments and cultural sites.

The 50-year-old Wilderness Act may not have saved the Treaty Oak or my own Seaholm Woods. Had it been around in the 1940s, though, it certainly would have prevented the murder of the Crannell Creek Giant.

But, as significant as the Act is, there are still millions of acres of mountain, forest, glacier, and other fragile eco-habitat without protection; magnificent public lands that are susceptible to drilling, mining, logging, over-grazing, damming, and road-building. And the money-changers won’t rest. If they can’t turn a profit by gouging the planet one way, they’ll find another.

So, if you’ve had the stamina to read this far, and value the concept of “wilderness,” try to make a difference. Sign a petition, make a donation, plant a tree, invest in a rain barrel. Trade in your gas hog for a fuel-efficient car. Avoid synthetic lawn chemicals. Cast a green vote.

America is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring biodiversity on the planet. We all share the bounties of this ecological Eden: tree huggers, free-market junkies, Democrats, Republicans, top 1% and lower 99%. In the long run, it’s about our own physical and mental well-being, but it’s also about the other 21,714 vertebrates and plants in America who share our “home.”

HAPPY EARTH DAY!

centennials

Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight

abbey 1

In 1956 and 1957, a young, iconoclastic writer with a GI Bill education and an FBI dossier found employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in remote and desolate southeast Utah.  While working there, he lived alone in a trailer.  He met and conversed with tourists and a few rangers and ranchers, but he was alone for most of the time.  His solitude allowed him to do a lot of observing and thinking.  Ten years later he published a book about his time at Arches, entitled “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.”

I just finished reading the book.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read something as evocative and hard-hitting.  So I’m devoting this post to “Desert Solitaire” and the philosophy of Edward Abbey, who died 25 years ago Friday at age 62.

Wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains.

Abbey’s writings contributed to modern radical environmentalism; he was a spiritual father to both Earth First! and Greenpeace.  But he was around long before the word “environmentalist” even existed.  Blunt in his opinions, a man whose pen was both poetic and fierce, and who raged against government, the military-industrial complex, unrestrained technology, industrial tourism, and agri-business, Abbey recognized as far back as the 1950s that America was rapidly losing large chunks of pristine wilderness areas… and that desert wilderness isn’t just barren wasteland, but it possesses its own unique vibrancy, mysticism, and spirituality.

Motionless and silent (the desert) evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed… Once caught by this golden lure, you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.

cartoon abbeyAbbey found grandeur everywhere he looked: in the “red-walled canyons” and “smoke-blue ranges” that stretched out hundreds of miles around him; in the constellations that provided a canopy at night; even in a lone juniper tree that grew outside his trailer.  He was one of the last humans to raft the Utah stretch of Colorado River before “bureaucrats” and “pencil-pushers” erected Glen Canyon Dam so that motorboats could buzz over what used to be ancient grottos, natural tunnels, emerald pools, and the pictographs and petroglyphs of mysterious, indigenous societies of long ago.

Half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it is an integral part.  When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.

solitaireAt the end of “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey talks about meeting a park visitor who accuses him of being opposed to civilization, science, and humanity (familiar accusations levied at those of us who feel wilderness should exist on its own terms, and not on man’s terms).

We were not communicating very well.  All night long we thrashed the matter out, burning up half a pinyon pine in the process… With his help I discovered I was not opposed to mankind, but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology; and not to civilization but to culture.

Regarding the difference between civilization and culture, Abbey offers some analogies:

Civilization is Jesus turning water into wine; culture is Christ walking on the waves;

Civilization is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; culture is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;

Civilization is the wild river; culture, 592,000 tons of cement.

(Ed. note: regarding the second quote above, longitudes does NOT endorse acts of terrorism against living things)

There are many sections of “Desert Solitaire” that left me with my mouth agape.   I was astonished at the John Muir-like care and detail that Abbey took when discussing desert flora and fauna; what he termed the “rare furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning,” and “weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious.”

__________________________

After burning up those pine logs and parting with his tourist friend, Abbey says the man disappeared from Arches sometime before the following evening.  But he did leave “a forged signature in the registration book which wouldn’t have fooled anybody – J. Prometheus Birdsong.  He won’t be back.”

Then Abbey closes the chapter:

“But don’t get discouraged, comrades – Christ failed too.”

Although Abbey may have sent this tourist packing with tail tucked between legs, I wonder how quickly the guy returned to his job in the city – emboldened with blueprint dreams of monolithic dams and soulless asphalt thoroughfares.

Regrettably, comrades, many are the J. Prometheus Birdsongs in this world.

desert

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking-Glass

Big Cedar Mtn2

When I was about 15, my family went on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  Our campsite was near where the Appalachian Trail climbed a mountain called The Priest.  We had some time, so my brothers and I attempted to climb it.  They were younger and became tired, but I managed to get to the top, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view.

While admiring the vista, I glimpsed a tall figure moving slowly along the path behind me.  It was a lanky man with a full beard, ponytail, and a huge pack on his back.  An Appalachian Trail distance hiker.  I watched him disappear from view as he slowly started to descend the mountain.

I never forgot the sight of him, and I swore that I would one day return to the AT to hike it myself.  It took 40 years, but a few weeks ago I finally did it.

***

The Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile footpath through the rugged Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine.  It was conceived in the 1920s by a bookish forest official named Benton MacKaye, who envisioned a series of hostels and wilderness workshops connected by a path.  A young Washington lawyer named Myron H. Avery, more pragmatic than MacKaye, advanced MacKaye’s idea without the hostels and workshops.  Today the trail is a monument to public activism and wilderness protection.  Though the route is continually changing, the terminus points now remain fixed at Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.

There are different types of AT hikers: day hikers, overnighters, section and thru-hikers.  Thru-hikers are a breed apart.  They attempt to do the full 2,100 miles at once, which takes a lot of planning and about 4-6 months actual hiking.  Supposedly less than one-fourth of thru-hikers who start ever finish.

A thru-hike was not for me.  I decided to do a northbound (NOBO) section hike of Georgia.  Though most thru-hikers are NOBO, some begin in Maine and hike south (SOBO).  I would be hiking in early September, so it was possible I’d encounter at least one of these intrepid SOBOs.

After a nervous goodbye to my wife, I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Dalton, Georgia, where I met up with my shuttle driver, Ron Brown.  Ron’s an ex-park ranger and native of New Hampshire who now lives in Ellijay, Georgia, near the Springer Mtn. trailhead.  He makes his living shuttling people like me to and from various points on the trail.

I loaded my backpack in the back of Ron’s Toyota Rav4, and we set off in early morning darkness.  During the drive, he told me about some interesting people he’s shuttled, such as the guy who insisted on carrying his heavy, cast iron skillet.  Also, the obese man who managed only one or two miles per day at the start, but made it all the way to Mt. Katahdin.

“I know he finished because he sent me a photo.  I barely recognized him, he’d lost so much weight.  But it was him.  He was holding up the pants he had when he started, and you could’ve fit three of him inside.”

Ron had all sorts of helpful gadgets in his car, including a charger for my cell phone, and a GPS voice that groaned “Things are getting very strange” as we plunged deeper into the forest.

Ron dropped me off at a forest service road parking lot, 0.9 miles north of the trailhead.  I unloaded my pack, he filled my canister with camping fuel, and we shook hands goodbye.

On the hike south, I found a slightly bowed, chest-high tree branch.  I adopted it as my walking stick, and christened it after a childhood camping buddy.  I also passed a few hikers, the first being a blonde woman who said she was doing a short section to Neels Gap (wherever that was).  I arrived shortly at a large rocky clearing shrouded in fog: the top of Springer Mountain.

plaque

Appalachian Trail bronze plaque from 1933

This was it.  I’d dreamed about this place.  Sure enough, to the right was the 1933 bronze plaque showing a hiker with a hat and backpack.  On the left was a large boulder with a more recent plaque.  Inside the boulder was a metal drawer, which I opened.  I found a slightly damp notebook that contained brief entries of those who’d reached this spot.  I wrote a short blurb about my hiking inspiration and signed it with a trail alias.  Trail aliases are colorful names that hikers make up, or which are bestowed upon them.  I really liked the name that followed the entry directly above mine: “Rainbow Slug.”

Unfortunately, Springer Mountain was so foggy that I couldn’t take a photo of the view.  But at least it wasn’t raining… yet.

Man, it felt good to start hiking.  Just one foot in front of the other, get into a good rhythm, take in the mountain scenery.  I had nine days to reach my destination of Franklin, North Carolina, where I was to meet my wife and daughter, and I calculated I needed to do about 13 miles per day.  Easy.  Heck, my marathon training runs are longer and only last a few hours.  Of course – as I soon found out – hiking on rocks and roots for ten hours, up and down mountains, with 35 pounds on your back is a lot different than running a couple hours on a flat, paved bicycle path with nothing at your back except breeze.

I crossed the gravel parking lot where Ron had dropped me off, and saw a few other hikers unloading their gear.  After a couple hours, feeling pretty good, I started singing an old Bob Dylan tune.  I’d only done a few verses when (as always happens) I noticed someone close behind me, and felt slightly embarrassed.  Should I let him catch up, or keep walking?  What the heck, might as well be sociable.  I walked a little slower, then turned around.  It was a young guy with long hair.

“Thought I heard someone behind me,” I said.  “How far you headed?”

“I’m hiking to Neels Gap.” (Must be a popular spot, I thought).

“My name’s Pete.”

“I’m Dylan.”

“Hey, I like that name!”

Dylan was a 24-year-old from Augusta, Georgia.  Like me, hiking the AT was a dream of his.  His parents had dropped him off at Amicalola Falls, a park 8.8 miles south of Springer.  I later found out that Dylan enjoyed hunting, flounder fishing, and he made the best cherry-blackberry wine this side of Napa Valley.  He also had a girl back home who was pressuring him to get married!

We hit it off, hiked at about the same pace, so we ended up hiking together the next several days.

(If you want to hear about the rest of my hike, and a whole lot more, please check out my book Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker.)

 

Near Winding Stair Gap_1

20-something Environmentalist Blog

20-something

One of the nice things about hosting a Weblog (blog) is that you’re part of a community of like-minded bloggers.  WordPress occasionally publicizes other blogs, and they did so on Earth Day last month.  One in particular stood out for me.  I liked the name, so I checked it out.

20-something environmentalist is a really well-maintained and altruistic blog by Lindsay, who hails from the Garden State (New Jersey).  Lindsay has devoted her own garden in cyberspace to nurturing and sharing ideas about green living.  The fact that Lindsay is only in her 20s gives me hope that our planet’s future is in better hands.

So, rather than dole out my usual curmudgeon claptrap, I thought it would be nice to put in a plug in for a different blog.  Also, I’m always looking for an excuse to take a siesta.

If you would like to see a cool, refreshing, green-ish blog, and maybe pick up some pointers on how to make a positive difference, please check out 20-something environmentalist!

(Note: if you follow this blog, you’ll notice the design and title are different.  My WordPress theme is now “Splendio” rather than “Koi,” and I’ve shifted to “longitudes” instead of “latitudes.”  I just wanted a simpler look and less generic name.  I hope you like it!)