Monday, May 19, 2014

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Some friends and I spent this past weekend in Joshua Tree National Park.  Although this was not my first time to the park, this was the first time I read up on the botanical and geological make up the area so I could better understand what makes the place what it is.  So, in case you'd like to learn vicariously as we go:

Joshua Tree is a meeting of two desert ecosystems: the Mojave ("high desert" - above 3,000ft elevation, wetter & more vegetated) and the Colorado / Sonoran ("low desert" - below 3,000ft, hotter & sparse).  Where we camped, Black Rock Canyon, and climbed, Indian Cove, are both in the Mojave section of the park.  There are six mountain ranges in the area as well: Little San Bernadino Mountains, Cottonwood Mountains, Hexie Mountains, Pinto Mountains, Eagle Mountains, and Coxcomb Mountains. 

Short note on our climbing this time: there has been a heat wave this past week at home and it was hovering around 95-100 degrees on Saturday out at the park when we rope climbed.  Thus, while we normally would do 2 or 3 climbs in a day, we only each did one this time, and all felt pretty spent.  Still, Pixie Rock provided a fun climb and, since we haven't climbed in a few years, I for one woke up sore the next morning (a glorious sort of feeling in truth, a physical memory of what occurred the day before).  I even got a little tutorial on how to set up ropes top-side, although I'm a long way from setting them up myself.

Joshua Tree was established as a national park on 31 October 1994 and it is 794,000 acres.  The landscape we see today was born over 100 million years ago - molten liquid, heated by the movement of the Earth's crust, oozed upward through the cracks in the Earth's surface, and cooled.  The intrusions of granite rock (the iconic formations that make the park alien-planet like) are called monzogranite.  Erosion and flash floods removed overlying rocks and the soft clay over time, creating the impressive rock piles we see today.  The rounded nature of the boulders can be explained by erosion as well : imagine holding an ice cube under a faucet, the cube rounds away at the corners first.

The tree the park is named for, the Joshua 'tree', is not in fact a tree.  It is a branching yucca, a member of the lily family, and (sometimes) the agave family.  The tree grows slowly, about 1/2 to 3 inches a year, and is typically 5-10 feet tall before the first blossoms appear.  The tallest Joshua tree recorded is 80 feet, but most are 20 feet tall when at full maturity (can take up to 60 years).  The oldest Joshua tree was estimated to be 1000 years old, and most can live to be more than 500.  The concave leaves of the 'tree' funnel water down to the roots.  Native Americans used the plant's leaves to weave into baskets and sandals, and the flower buds and seeds for food.  As legend goes, pioneers thought the plants looked like the Biblical figure Joshua, with outstretched arms in supplication, directing travelers westward. The name stuck. 

Over 250 species of birds have been documented in the park, although most are migrants and vagrants - but a still impressive 78 species of birds nest and raise their young in the park.  From this trip, our most notable encounters where with Gambel's quails.  They would perch on the tip-top of a Joshua tree and create a sort of message chain, spreading the call from tree to tree, seemingly spreading news of some sort.  They became our alarm clock each morning : 0530 and they were enthusiastically making their opinions of dawn being the time to rise well known.  As an aside, they are pretty amusing creatures to both observe and listen to.  Their call cannot really be called "beautiful" by any stretch of the imagination, but I found it endearing in the sort of awkward-adjustment-to-voice-breaking-during-puberty way.  Their signature, forward-drooping head plume (seems to have added no practical benefits to their birds' livehood) and their panicked manner of scurrying across the barren landscape only adds to the hilarity of what they are.  In truth - I could happily observe them for hours and not grow bored.

Enough of the facts - a trip to Joshua Tree always reminds me of the underrated beauty of deserts.  Although I am a nemophilist, I will openly admit that deserts have a captivating allure all their own. Something about the stark vacancy of the place, and the eerie almost alien-like landscape create because of it, makes deserts into quite fascinating places.

 On this trip I brought a desert wildflower guide to take my first stab at  identify things "out in the field," if you will.  So below are some photos of the plant life I saw and my best attempt at identifying a few of the species correctly.  Right or wrong in my identification intentions, the attempt revealed just how bio-diverse and vibrant a desert can be.  I couldn't keep up with all the different types of plans I saw in truth, and in general the process reminded me of the importance to slow down and really look around at what a landscape is composed of.  How much I miss most of the time when I am just in a hurry to hike from one place to the next, to just get to the peak, to just get to the end of the trail.  There is so much enjoyment to be gathered in the details, and details can only be gathered in slowness.

Bladder Sage
Evening Primrose
Wild Buckwheat

Beaver Tail

Joshua Tree

Creosote Bush


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day & Mother Oak - San Clemente, CA

My mom and I spent Mother's Day morning out in Mother Nature visiting Mother Oak in the Richard and Donna O'Neill Conservancy.  The conservancy is a privately owned preserve - a mitigation for the Talega housing development in San Clemente, California.  The land is closed to the public, so you can only access it via guided walks.  My mom and I saw it through the "Mother's Day Walk to Mother Oak" put on by The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo.

We met at the parking lot near the trail head for a 3-mile round-trip walk on Gato Road led by our most-knowledgeable guide Geordie.  Before we began she gave us each a Mother's Day gift (mothers and non-mothers alike) - a small pouch of tumbled rocks.  She gathers the rocks locally from trails she frequents and then shines them up to a glossy beauty in a rock tumbler she has in her garage.

The group of 13 began the 3-hour tour promptly at 0830, through a locked cattle gate our guide had a key to.  On the way out we stopped frequently for Jordie to identify plant, tree, and flower species we came across.  She is also a certified tracker, so we paused when we came across animal prints or scat for her to identify those as well.  I was blown away by the depth and breadth of her knowledge of all things trail worthy and wild...and I picked her brain about her journey to such knowledge so that I might replicate some of her steps myself.  She encouraged us to add our own knowledge to the discussion and ask questions as we went.

I learned quite a few factoids and we stopped to ID many plant species, so here is a bullet list of what we saw that I can recall / that I wrote down in messy chicken-scratch as we walked:

  • Golden Star

  • White Sage
  • Mariposa Lily
  • Monkeyflower 

  • California Sycamore
  • Coastal Deerweed 

  • Curly Dok
  • California Blackberry (leaves look similar to poison oak)
  • Poison Oak
  • Sweet Fennel (invasive)
  • Earthstar (mushroom!) 

  • Golden Bush
  • Coyote Gourd
  • Elderberry

  • Mistletoe
  • Lemonade Berry (you can put the berries in water for light flavoring)

  • Milkweed
  • Dove Weed
  • Witch's Hair
  • Coastal Paintbrush

  • Coyote Bush
  • Wine Cup

  • Scarlet Pimpernel (invasive)
  • Tobacco (invasive)
  • Coast Live Oak

  • Artichoke Thistle (invasive)
  • Yarrow
  • Gall / Oak Apple
  • California Sagebrush
  • Mustard (invasive)
  • Cucumber Vine
  • Mule Fat
  • Morning Glory
  • Narrow-leaved Bedstraw (my personal favorite spotting of the day)

  • Turkey Vulture
  • Scrub Jay
  • Toad (well - his prints anyways) 

  • Tarantula Hawk (type of wasp)
  • You can tell a canine print from a feline print by whether or not you can draw an "x" through the pad imprint
At 1.5 miles in you reach "Mother Oak" - a coast live oak that is 500 years old.  There is evidence of woodpeckers in her trunk and also (although we didn't see them) a family of barn owls living in the branches.

All-in-all, a great way to spend mother's day morning.  And, I highly recommend the resources, lectures, volunteer opportunities, and guided walks offered by The Reserve at Rancho Mission Viejo.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Typical SoCal Saturday? - Taco 5K, Orangic Burger Bunker Stay, and Free Comic Day

Just a typical So-Cal Saturday...or...not so much.

My friend and I began with a drive to Long Beach for the 2nd Annual Beer & Taco 5k.  It was an uncommonly warm (sweltering for coastline CA) May morning, and by 9am it was already well over 75 degrees.  The race course is nothing to speak of, really, it is more for the Cinco de Mayo-esk festivities that make the event so popular.  As part of your post-race experience you get a free beer and a free taco...and of course a medal with a beer opener on it.

After the race we drove to LA to get lunch at Pono Burger.  Shortly after you are seated in an old WWII bunker, the interior refinished to be the text book of minimalist-modern, a cheerful waiter (if you get the same one we did) will over-enthusiastically explain almost every menu on the item, emphasizing the organic elements.  Not complaining, but rather stating there was no lack of enthusiasm for the menu offerings.  You can swap out any beef-patty item for a mushroom or turkey alternative.  And I'm a sucker for fennel these days, and they had a fennel salad. And don't overlook the burger with fig-jam nor the strawberry milkshake on the menu either.

After that I headed to Santa Ana to meet two co-workers at Biggy's Comics and Games to partake in Free Comic Day.  The store not only has a great selection of classic and up-and-coming comics, but also has arguably the most welcoming and jocular shop owners ever.  Even if you are not a comic-book aficionado, you should just go to the shop to talk to the owner.  And you might just end up a convert in the process.

I left a happy customer, with 10 items for under $5 dollars after sleuthing through the $1 and 5-for-$1 boxes.

happy comic-book customer