Palm Springs, CA

Our business in Palm Springs was conveniently concluded by noon, which left us a good (and hot) chunk of the day to explore Palm Springs.  As I noted earlier, there’s not a lot happening in the summer, but the heat of summer presents a terrific opportunity to ride up to Mt San Jacinto on the famous Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

Down in the valley it was about 108 degrees, but the Tramway hauls you up to 8,500 feet in about 10 minutes where the air is cool and the pine trees are tall.  Best of all, the tram cars have been updated in the past few years, and now the floor rotates as you go up. Think about that for a second:  you’re floating up diagonally as steeply as 42 degrees over craggy rocks and impossible canyons, swaying as the tram car passes over towers, and slowly rotating all at the same time.  It’s an amazing sensation.

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It’s also a disconcerting sensation at first, so I quickly put the camera down and focused on just acclimating to the ride.  There’s a lot to see and the 10 minutes passes quickly.

With the windows open at two opposite points of the round cars, everyone gets a chance to feel the air changing from a blow-drier to a cool air conditioned breeze. It’s a bit of work for some folks (like me) to equalize their ears all the way up and down, but well worth it for the spectacular view.

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Atop the mountain, there’s a large station with a movie, restaurant, gift shop, etc., but we took a hike along the 1.5 mile Desert View Trail to explore and get more views of Palm Springs far below.  It was impossible not to be seduced by the sweet smelling mountain air, the songs of the birds, the towering trees, and the clear little stream that flows with chilly water.  The views were predictably amazing, showing Palm Springs as if it were just a big map at our feet.  We easily spotted the Palm Springs airport, the huge wind farms, golf courses, and all the major roads.

Brett and I spent a couple of hours atop the mountain and left only at sunset.  When the sun dipped behind the mountains to the west, we started feeling a bit cold. Not a problem, because 10 minutes after boarding the tram car we were once again in the oven of the valley.

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Next stop was dinner, and we decided it would best be found by walking five blocks of downtown.  This gave us the opportunity to explore at a slow pace.  The big find of the day is pictured at left.  Like Hollywood, Palm Springs has a walk of famous residents, along Palm Canyon Drive.  Here I am with Adam West’s star.  You may know him as Batman from the campy old TV series, which I grew up watching.  Somehow this particular star struck me when all of the others didn’t, so we captured the classic tourist shot. I hardly ever do stuff like this.

Next stop on the roadtrip: Phoenix area.  We’ve packed up and are heading out again …

Business trip

OK, fun’s over.  No more playing around on mountains.  We are on the trail of business now. Brett and I have taken the little Honda Fit out to cruise the highways in search of new ventures.  It’s a roadtrip!

coconino-cabins.jpgOur route on this trip starts with a run up I-17 to northern Arizona, in the Coconino National Forest, not far from Flagstaff.   This is an ideal place to go in the summer, because the 7,000 foot elevation means cool nights and comfortable days among towering Ponderosa pine trees.  We snagged a pair of rustic-looking cabins for our night here, thanks to our business hosts.

I set up mine as the temporary World Headquarters of Airstream Life, as usual. Normally I am setting up in the Airstream, but I appreciated the interesting change to a motel-style table beside open windows to the pine forest. It made for a great working environment. Unlike the northeastern rustic locations I have known, there were few bugs and nothing biting, which was nice since the cabin needed a little airing out when I arrived.  I just opened the front door and the back windows, and tapped away on my keyboard while the sweet smell of evergreen trees flowed through.

For whatever reason, I woke up at midnight feeling like I would never need to sleep again.  The fan was running and the windows were open to the night breeze, the forest was quiet, and the air was comfortably dry.  There was enough moonlight to let a shaft of silver light in the window. I lay there and considered what a nice night it was, and how if I had any sense I’d be sleeping through it.  That didn’t seem likely, so I conceded that it was also a nice night to catch up on a few emails and read one of the books I’d brought.

A few hours later I did finally manage to get back to sleep, until it was time to regroup at 7:30 a.m. for the morning’s business meetings.  In a setting like this, almost any business is fun.  We sat in the lodge’s restaurant and chatted with the General Manager, then toured the entire facility before packing up for our next stop.  A long roadtrip lay ahead: 375 miles to Palm Springs, CA, all the way from our 7,000 foot perch in the piney mountains down to sea level in Palm Springs.

Talk about a change of environment — our route took us to Flagstaff, then west along I-40 (which is Route 66 territory), and down Rt 95 and 62 into the desert to I-10 and finally Palm Springs.  Counting our start in Tucson, we traveled through a wide range of ecosystems, from the Saguaro cactus of the low Sonoran, to the Ponderosa pine of the Coconino National Forest above the famous Mogollon Rim, through high desert along I-40 in northern AZ, and then down below sea level in California’s Mojave.  This is why roadtrips can be much more fun than flying.  If we’d flown we would have seen a lot of airport departure gates and look-alike food courts, but we saw the country instead.

Of course there’s still the curse of road food.  Our first dinner of the trip was at an excellent steakhouse run by our hosts, where I had an amazingly good brisket (and Brett had a melt-in-your-mouth filet mignon). But then there was the rushed breakfast, the so-so burger in Kingman AZ, and the car snacks. By the time we got to Palm Springs we were looking for something light.

Palm Springs in June is a fairly quiet place.   Temperatures of 109 to 113 (this week) will do that.  We’ve been told the hotels will fill up on the weekends with Los Angelenos looking for an escape from the “June gloom,” but on Monday night we had the downtown to ourselves.  We wandered past a fairly swanky restaurant on Palm Canyon Drive, the type of place where the waiter puts the cloth napkin on your lap for you (as if I had somehow lost the ability to do it myself), and we were the only customers at 7 p.m.

Being not particularly hungry, we ordered from the salad menu only.  I ordered a “salmon salad” and Brett ordered a Caesar salad with chicken, about $9 each.  With four staff members in the front of the house, we felt a bit conspicuous ordering only salads (the profit would not even cover the cost of running the outdoor air misters while we were there), so Brett tacked on a glass of wine for himself.  That glass cost almost as much as the meal, so maybe he overcompensated a little.

My salad turned out to be a fine green salad with homemade dressing plus a large slab of perfectly cooked salmon covering the entire thing.  It was a rather substantial meal despite my intention to have a small one. I can only imagine what I might have gotten if I had seriously regarded this as the prelude to a entree.

Dessert, a single scoop waffle cone with “coconut Macadamia caramel” ice cream, purchased a few blocks down the street, was $5.  The ice cream was excellent but I was reminded of the line from Pulp Fiction about the five dollar milkshake.  I’ll remember that for a while.  It’s not the big miles but rather the little details that make a roadtrip memorable.

Mt Wrightson hike

When we bought our house in Tucson while we were still full-timing in the Airstream, I explained to everyone that we never intended to spend summers here.  Now, three years later, here I am in ARIDzona in June, when daytime relative humidity runs in the single digits and every day is 100 degrees or hotter.

But I really don’t mind, as it turns out. Yes, it’s hot, but I don’t spend my days standing in the direct sunlight.  And in Arizona there’s always a cool respite at the top of a nearby Sky Island, high above the desert floor.

Brett is in town for a few days.  We have to head out for business this week, but it is traditional that when he comes to town I abuse him as much as possible by taking him on a tough hike.  He lives in Florida you see, and as such he is altitude-deprived.  No mountains.  Last year I took him up Picacho Peak, which is a short (2 mile) but challenging trail, especially when the temperature is above 100 during the hike, as it was that day.

He survived that and came back again, so this time I brought out the big guns.  I’ve wanted to hike Mt Wrightson ever since I first read about the trail to the summit.   It’s about 30 miles south of Tucson, not far from Green Valley.  The hike starts at 5,400 feet and ascends rather steeply and steadily up to 9,453 feet.  In addition to being a hike that “everyone should do once,” according to one hiking guide, it would also be the first time I’ve climbed a mountain over 6,000 feet.  Brett, for his part, was game for anything.

Being at relatively high elevation, the temperature at the trailhead was only about 80 degrees when we started, and for the rest of the hike things never got much hotter, since we were ascending most of the day.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that the dryness of the air only gets worse as you go up.  We both consumed about 100 ounces of water, and ran out about halfway during the descent.  All of that water went out through the pores and we were never sweaty, thanks to immediate evaporation.

Mt Wrightson was almost my undoing.  I haven’t spent much time at altitude lately, and I haven’t been hiking much lately.  At about 8,500 feet I started to hit the wall, and the problem was simply that I couldn’t get enough oxygen.  My rest breaks become more and more frequent.  Suddenly, I felt rather old, and it didn’t get better when the 20-something hardbodies from the local university started passing us like we were geezers.  It worse when, during a gasping break around 9,000 feet, a woman passed us on her second complete ascent of the day.  Now that’s just wrong.

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As people always say at the end of a brutal hike, “the view was worth it.”   But I’ll be honest with you.  The view was spectacular in every direction, but it wasn’t worth it.  What made the strenuous 10.6 mile hike worth doing was simply the feeling of achievement.  Now I’ve hiked to nearly 10,000 feet.  Now I’ve seen a hundred-mile panorama from the tiny summit of Mt Wrightson: Tucson to the north, Patagonia and Sonoita to the east, Green Valley and the copper mines to the west, and the mountains of Mexico to the south.  Now I don’t ever have to do it again.

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Hiking down again, of course, is much easier.  But I could have done without running into the woman who was on her way back up for a third complete ascent in one day.  At that point Brett and I were both feeling every bit of the late-40s man, complete with twinges in the knees and muscles begging for Advil. The uber-hiker woman didn’t look too happy either, on her way back up again, but she at least had the excuse of being (A) about 22 miles into it; and (B) obviously, completely insane.

When we landed back in Tucson, it was about 102 degrees but we were told we missed the real heat of 109 earlier in the day.  So I guessed we picked the right place to be on Saturday.  The rest of the evening was recovery: showers, re-hydrating, a quick trip to Bookman’s for cheezy paperback sci-fi novels to read during evenings of our business trip,  a pair of burritos from Nico’s Taco Shop, and a really early bedtime.

Take a walk in the sun

I once read in National Geographic of an experiment involving a French scientist and a deep cave.   He was left in there with all the comforts of home, except for a clock.  He found that without the natural signals of daylight and night to cue him, he gradually evolved to very long periods of being awake, followed by proportionally long sleeping periods.  Basically, he worked like a crazed squirrel and got a little loony in the process.

This is exactly what I’m trying to avoid.

I came back to Tucson alone with the primary goal of getting a lot of work done, and that part is going well.  Every day I wake up about 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. (trying to stay close to Eastern Time, for convenience) and air out the house for an hour or so while the morning temperatures are in the low 70s.  Work starts immediately, even before I dress or eat. I work steadily through about 3 or 4 p.m., mixing in a little housework just so I’m not at the computer all day.  If things are busy, I’ll work right until 6 p.m., four hours after the east coast has left the office.  I drink a lot of water to combat the very dry air (typically single-digit percentages of relative humidity), and eat very little.

The problem is that I’m in the house alone all day.  So each day I also build in a little time to go do something, anything, that get me out into the Tucson sunshine.  This is probably why I don’t mind the intense heat of the day.  Every day this week it has been between 100 and 105 in the afternoon, and I like how walking around in the sun recharges my mental batteries.  Of course, minding Bill Doyle’s admonitions about sun safety, I wear my broad-brimmed hat and light colored clothing, and slather plenty of sunscreen on the exposed parts. (I only go out in my full-coverage hero costume if heroic measures are required.)

On the other hand, it is turning out to be a pretty fun arrangement for me.  Eleanor and Emma are with me via telephone and occasionally video chat on the computer, so although I miss them I get to see them regularly.  The rest of the time I’m free to do whatever I want.  For example, yesterday I broke free of work at 3:30 to go shopping at the local hiking store and then see a screening of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (very well done, intense, thriller, foreign language with subtitles). It’s amazing to experience the complete freedom of Temporary Bachelorhood: no consideration of other people at all, no worries about schedules, eat when I want, sleep when I want, etc.

In other words, the good and the bad of this situation are the same: solitude.  I still wake up at night looking for Eleanor in bed.  There are times that the house is too quiet.  And there are times when in a moment of boredom I find myself doing things I wouldn’t normally do, like shopping.

man-in-the-maze-pendleton.jpgThe shopping in particular can be dangerous to one’s wallet.  Normally I’m fairly immune, but lately I feel rather vulnerable to suggestion.  On Sunday Fred sent over a link to a limited edition Pendleton blanket featuring what we call The Man In The Maze icon, and the next thing I knew, I’d bought it.

The symbol is properly known as the I’itoi Ki, the sacred symbol of the Tohono O’odham, who live near here in the southwestern Arizona desert.  The blanket can only be purchased through the Tohono O’odham (they have outlets in Tubac, AZ and Sells, AZ).  I love the blanket and it will definitely travel with us in the Airstream next winter, but I think I should probably try to avoid eBay for the next few weeks.

I did don my TBM costume to do a few minor manly tasks.  I dealt with the weeds in the yard, swept off the back patio, cleaned the bathroom (in a very manly way, I assure you), etc. The dishwasher had a sort of residual stink after washing the three moldy plates that had been “stored” in there since early May, but I resolved that in a classic TBM way: I ran it again. Problem solved.

Since Brett is coming here on Thursday, and he is planning to sleep in the Caravel in the carport, I plugged it into 30 amp power and fired up the air conditioner for a test.  That AC unit hasn’t been run since 2004, so there was a legitimate question of whether it would work.  It did, so well in fact that the interior of the trailer was soon meatlocker-cold despite outside air temperatures of 99 degrees at the time. (Of course, that was in the shade of the carport; it wouldn’t do so well in full sun.)

It is still a challenge to have a list of things to do outside the house, so that when I’m ready to break from work I have something to do in mind.  I take about half an hour each day to browse the local Events calendars and collect possibilities. There’s a certain discipline involved in not becoming a shut-in.  A computer is a great communications tool, but eventually you have to go outside and walk in the sun, too.

Temporary Bachelor Man!

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There’s a new superhero in town …

… a superhero for modern times …

He’s TBM!  (Temporary Bachelor Man)

Superpowers include the ability to make manly fires, type 100 words per minute, and hike tall mountains slowly.  Note the details of his costume:  A torch symbolizing his ever-readiness to do “guy stuff”; Wrist protectors look cool and guard against Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; Yin-yang symbol indicates his constant quest to balance work and play;  Sunglasses protect against desert sun (shade hat not shown); Khaki jeans hide dust and sand; Hiking boots protect feet on long trails; Belt with the symbol “T”.

Yes, this is what a superhero looks like at age 46.  (Actually, his musculature and hairstyle are just slightly exaggerated.)  If I don’t look like this in photos from Alumapalooza, because I normally hide in my secret identity as a mild-mannered magazine publisher.

Although I am separated from Eleanor and Emma, there is plenty of sunshine and heat to keep me energized, and lots of stuff to do.  In fact, my “to do” list is so long I wonder if I’ll work through it before Eleanor arrives in 19 days (noooooo, I’m not counting).  I have house stuff to do, light yard work, and tons of magazine work.   I also have a new bike that is just begging to be ridden in the cool early mornings, so I’ll try to stay on Eastern Time and get up at 5 a.m. with the dawn. It’s reliably 69 or 70 degrees every morning, and stays cool until about 8 a.m., so the cycling is primo for early risers.

Tucson is just loaded with interesting things for a TBM to do.  One great perk of being here is that we have Saguaro National Park just 15 minutes away.  When we are traveling we always gravitate to the National Parks, so why not visit them when they are right in our front yard? Last night a volunteer was leading a night hike through the park, which is a relatively rare offering. A small group met in the Visitor Center and then walked down one of the popular loop trails as the sun set.

If you’ve never done a sunset hike in the Sonoran Desert, this might seem sort of crazy.  After all, it was still 100 degrees at 7 p.m. last night, and all the critters come out at night (scorpions, snakes, gila monsters, bats, etc.)  But that’s exactly what we were hoping for.  Our group was equipped with water bottles and flashlights — even a few blacklights to spot scorpions, since they fluoresce under black light.  Also, the views from Saguaro National Park at sunset are absolutely stunning.  The Rincon Mountains turn pink, then purple as the sun goes down.  The saguaros make fantastic silhouettes against the twilight glow.  A sunset walk in the desert is one of the “must do” activities when you’re out here.

We heard fledgling elf owls calling to each other from their nests inside tall saguaro cactus.  We saw numerous bats flitting over our heads.  We saw a pair of Lesser Nighthawks chasing each other.  We talked about the traces of ground squirrel activity, and packrat houses along the trail.  The two-hour adventure went very quickly.  It was a shame we didn’t spot any snakes and found only one scorpion, but it’s still early in the season. As the monsoon gears up in July and August, the tarantulas will start to get active, too.  There are a lot of interesting creatures that live here, and believe it or not, it is rather rare to see them (except scorpions, which get into people’s houses in rural areas).

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According the the weather service, it is going to get hot by Wednesday.  Since our back porch thermometer indicated 104.7 yesterday, I am not sure how only Wednesday gets the designation of Hot, but perhaps the delineation is at 105 degrees.  Those three-tenths of a degree might make all the difference.  But the difference I’ll feel is probably in the overnight lows, rising to mid-70s.  That means no more cool mornings to open the windows and chill the house.

In cases like this, TBM seeks higher ground.  I’ve got a hike planned for Friday or Saturday, starting at about 5,400 feet and ending just below 10,000 feet.  The “Sky Islands” of southern Arizona always provide a cool getaway when you need it.

But in the meantime, I’ve got to don my costume and grab my torch.  It’s time for TBM to do manly errands around town.  Adventure awaits!