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Friday, October 17th, 2014

Furniture & Lighting: Father & Son

Saturday, January 18th, 2014: Arts, Design.


Family Legacy

My dad grew up making his own toys; as a young adult he experimented with art and music but settled into a career as a rocket scientist. Our first family home was furnished in midcentury modernist style: a sharp break from the antiques of my grandparents. While my dad’s lifelong need to work creatively with his hands found an outlet in a series of hobbies, the works that had the greatest impact on me were his furniture designs: two elegant modernist pieces that furnished my childhood bedroom and grad-school apartment.

But my dad himself was mostly absent, and my grandpa raised me to build practical things in a strictly functional vein, using the tools and materials at hand, “cutting corners” whenever possible to save money and effort. I went to college in Chicago, where I was surrounded and inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s functionalist architectural legacy, and in my third year, when I rented my first unfurnished apartment, I began designing and making my own furniture and lighting.

Dad’s Furniture

My dad’s “golden year” between college and marriage had been spent in the bohemian milieu of Chicago’s postwar jazz scene, hanging out in clubs and occasionally jamming with the cool cats, so it’s not surprising that both of his furniture designs had to do with music.

He didn’t have any experience with, or tools for, fine cabinetry, so he drew up the plans for these pieces and hired a local cabinet-maker to build them. Unfortunately, when we were younger, we took them for granted and didn’t realize how special they were. My brother eventually inherited the bookcase, and sold it decades ago. I unloaded the hifi cabinet on a roommate when I moved into a group house after grad school. And none of us, including Dad, ever thought to photograph these priceless works, so the only photos I have show them unintentionally in the background, obscured by less important stuff.

Music Bookcase

More a work of art than a piece of functional furniture, this irregularly stepped pyramid was sheathed in golden veneer, probably maple, and made to house a vintage phonograph in the compartment at lower right, with a door which swung downward, forming a shelf for your 78 rpm records. The records themselves could be stored in the specially-sized cavity below. Ironically, this piece of furniture was finished just as 78s became obsolete and the hifi revolution began, so my dad’s next furniture design had to address that new challenge.


Hifi Cabinet

With the explosion of long-playing 33 1/3 LP records, Dad surrendered to his passion for music and transformed our living room into a listening environment, with two large pieces of furniture custom-designed to house a Heathkit high fidelity audio system and his growing collection of jazz and world music.

The massive speaker cabinet took up most of a wall by itself, but the tall, futuristic hifi cabinet served as a room divider, with its upper record compartment and cantilevered preamp shelf supported on columns of shimmering copper tubing. Whereas the earlier bookcase design was a modernist echo of ancient monumental architecture, the hifi cabinet looked like an apartment building of the future. The record storage and amplifier compartments were all enclosed behind sliding doors to protect them from dust, while the record-changer turntable sat in the open between the copper columns.

I was 5 years old when this was created, and I helped my dad assemble the audio components, which came as a kit. The resistors for the preamp looked like colorful jewelry; when the power amp was completed and turned on, vacuum tubes glowed with a mysterious blue light inside their metal cage with its elegant perforated patterns.


Max’s Furniture & Lighting

I was poorer than most students at the University of Chicago, and I had been taught to make what I needed. So when I needed to furnish an apartment, I began scavenging the alleys and dumpsters of our Southside neighborhood for promising materials. I designed functional items partly on the basis of salvage, and partly using the cheapest building materials from hardware stores and lumber yards, including raw timbers I sourced from a country sawmill back home in Indiana. Neighbors tended to hate me because I ran my grandpa’s circular saw on the back stairs.

Like van der Rohe, I wanted to foreground the structure of each piece, minimizing the materials used, bolting the unit together for easy disassembly and transport, and completely omitting decoration. The shelving units were the purest example of this; my road sign tables were more whimsical.

Small Room Divider Shelves

Talk about minimal materials! This lightweight unit made of cheap, common pine with long cantilevers on both ends became surprisingly stable when bolted together and weighted with books and knick-knacks, because the support columns were made from 1x2s glued together to form a rigid L-shaped cross section. I made it in 1972, but recently discovered a similar piece from 1981 by the celebrated Italian designer Andrea Branzi in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.


Glass-Top Table and Pipe Lamp

On a scavenging trip to the famous Maxwell Street Market, I scored about a hundred pounds of heavy thermal glass intended for oven doors, and designed this table to accommodate one of the panes, framed in cheap pine painted black. And in our back alley I found a small but heavy piece of cylindrical steel stock, which I used as a base for this lamp. The problem with basing a design on salvage is that you sometimes have lots of trouble sourcing the right materials to finish it. I needed some sort of “sleeve” of the perfect inner and outer diameter to hold the pipe in the steel cylinder base, and that took me to an industrial rubber company on the far west side; the unique mirrored light bulb came from a boutique distributor on Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile.”


Drawing Desk & Chair

I was scrambling for work in a depressed economy in the summer of 1972. One attempt was at graphic design; I answered a call for cover designs for a new magazine, and created this desk and three-legged chair to work on it. The desk was made of common pine and masonite, with a hinged drawing surface which could be raised to the proper angle.

The chair had a leather-covered foam seat cushion and a tiny back support, also foam-padded and leather-covered, that was hinged to conform to the angle of your back. Unlike today’s fancy ergonomic chairs, it was all made with the cheapest and most common materials from our neighborhood hardware store.


Large Room Divider Shelves

When I transferred to engineering school and began to get paying jobs, we moved to a nicer apartment on the North Side, but it still had a combined living room and kitchen, so I created this massive shelving unit, based on my earlier design, to hide the kitchen, which we barely used, from our bright and airy living area. The cantilevered shelves were reinforced by longitudinal “joists” so they could support the weight of a TV or aquarium, and the vertical columns had a T cross section for extra rigidity. But like the smaller shelves, the whole thing could be quickly dismantled and stacked compactly for transport.


Road Sign Tables

On a visit to Indiana I found these unused road signs and quickly turned them into personal tables which we used for dining in (mostly breakfast, since we usually went out for dinner). The eccentricity of the signs inspired me to make them asymmetrical in height.


Rolled-Foam Sofa

I made this airy sofa by rolling sheets of foam around three longitudinal cores of pine and sheathing them in fabric. Note the Nelson-style midcentury coffee table I found at a garage sale.

Terra Incognita Loft

By the time I moved into this vast raw industrial space, my aesthetic had become much more nuanced, my standards more demanding, and most of my construction efforts went into building out the space itself.

But once the space was fully built out (it had to be done twice), it seemed like I was driven to continue building something, no matter how small in scale, at least once a year, and it’s been like that ever since.

Cabinet Steps

These cubist cabinets formed steps to the sleeping loft of our guest room. I covered each step with industrial carpeting in a charcoal blend.


Stairs to DJ Deck

This little gem was designed with small bevels between the stringers and the steps, which I painted in random pastel colors to liven up our otherwise stark black and white interior.


Firewood Bed and Street Lamp

During my years in the loft I’d evolved from sleeping on a ledge above my art studio, to moving my girlfriend’s bed into the studio, to breaking up with her and taking another room as my studio in the last year, when I finally decided to build my own ultimate bed. My heart belonged to the desert at this point, and I wanted my bed to feel anchored in the earth, albeit I was two floors up above San Francisco in a building that was slowly disintegrating. I started with oak logs from our firewood stash for legs, built a rigid frame of 2×6 douglas fir with a platform of 5/8-inch clear plywood, and sheathed the sides with redwood. I joined everything together with wooden pegs and glue so there was no metal anywhere in the bed. On top of the firm plywood platform I placed heavy Japanese tatami mats, and the sleeping surface was a combination wool and cotton futon. It all weighed a ton, but could be dismantled into pieces, including the solid frame, each of which could be carried by one person. So I continued to take it with me to most of the 15 different places I’ve lived in since then, and like some other beds I’ve known, this dream bed has always been a rich source of memorable dreams, including the dreams I still have of my vanished San Francisco loft.

A few years later when I was living in Oakland, I found two roughly triangular pieces of heavy redwood burl, which I attached to the head of the bed as wing tables, again using wooden pegs, but removable.


Hybrid Desk/Table

This piece began with a laminated drawing table top which I found lying around in Oakland. Shortly afterward I discovered these turned redwood pieces which had actually hung as decorations from a Victorian stairway, and added them as detachable legs. I liked the contrast between the synthetic, minimalist table top and the ornate, organic legs. After using it for years as a desk then as a kitchen table, I ultimately transformed it into my current music workstation here in New Mexico, with speaker stands above and a sliding keyboard shelf underneath.


What I’ve Learned About Furniture & Lighting

I feel so lucky to have been born into midcentury design and organic abstraction! The abstract organic patterns of my parents’ living room curtains were an inspiration for the forms in my later art. And my parents’ living room furniture set the standard for the furniture I love today.

I’m allergic to house dust, molds and pollens, and all surfaces in my home need to be easy to clean and free of clutter. Carpet, which both collects and produces dust, has always been taboo. But even more importantly, experience has taught me that no home is permanent and all my possessions need to be portable.

Hence I love midcentury furniture with its lightweight frames and spindly legs that make it easy to move and clean around and under. I like my interiors to resemble comfortable campsites.

The camping aesthetic extends to lighting, which I’m even more passionate about, since it sets the mood of an interior.

Ceiling light fixtures and chandeliers are an abomination because they impersonate the sun and turn night into a false day. Our bodies evolved with natural overhead lighting that rose, waxed, waned and set with the sun, to be followed by the ground-level light of a campfire, so I make sure that my ambient lighting is positioned low in the room (see photo below).

Whereas lighting designers tend to make lamps into fetish objects, I prefer to downplay the design of the lamp and focus on the light itself and the way it affects the environment. Indirect lighting bounces the light off a wall, so it takes on the warmth of the wall color and more closely simulates campfire light. Task lighting at a desk or table is the only kind of downward-pointing light I use.

Because I’m no longer interested in designing lamps as objects, I mostly use cheap industrial clip lights for indirect ambient lighting. But when I opened my office in San Francisco’s North Beach during the dot com boom, I acquired a set of reproduction 19th-century pharmacy lamps which are adjustable and very versatile for producing the kind of reflected, campfire-style lighting I love to live with.

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Listening Outside Your Comfort Zone

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014: Arts, Music & Dance.

I was brought up on eclectic music, but I have had my obsessions, like the early 70s when I only listened to classical, or the 80s when I only chose to listen to African music. Yet even during those times, my girlfriends and roommates played other kinds of music constantly all around me; music listening had not yet been privatized via iPods and earbuds.

Obsessions were part of my youth, when I was more worried about rebelling or establishing my identity. Later I gave that up. I’d much rather learn and evolve than get stuck with an “identity.”

Now that private listening has become the norm, my younger friends are migrating to streaming services. As others have noted, even when it’s “curated,” streaming music delivers primarily that which is already familiar to you. Pandora creates “radio” based on your favorite artists. I’m sorry, but that’s no way to discover new music.

As an artist committed to, or rather, dependent on, lifelong learning and unlimited exploration, I have only limited interest in listening to the kind of music I already know and like. That’s one reason why I still listen to terrestrial radio with live DJs. While I’m working at home, I stream a handful of stations that play eclectic music that often surprises me and turns me onto something I didn’t know and like before, including one internet-only station that happens to play my music. I’ve discovered these terrestrial stations during my travels, by actually being in the places where they’re located, places I developed a connection with, and having them available online is the icing on the cake.

In this context, I regularly listen to shows featuring styles of music I don’t like, because sometimes a single track will stand out and teach me something.

Still, I know a lot of older musicians who should know better, who only listen to the one or two kinds of music they’ve identified with: folk, country, rock, jazz, world, etc. Musicians who revere jazz or traditional music and make sweeping judgements against rock, electronic or punk. And of course the nostalgic baby boomers with their classic rock addiction. That’s a great way to stagnate, dudes.

Or you could try listening outside your comfort zone – you might learn something and have some unexpected fun!

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Protected: Max’s California Trip, Spring 2014

Sunday, April 20th, 2014: 2014 Trips, Road Trips.

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Birthday Miracle

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014: 2014 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

Note: The photos below are viewable in high resolution. After clicking on the thumbnail, you can really get a sense of being there by clicking on View Full Size at lower right of the photo.

First view of my destination - the mountains on the horizon - from New Home Bench, above the Escalante River Canyons

A Spontaneous, Poorly Conceived Trip

Out of work, betrayed by faceless bureaucracies, threatened with financial ruin, sick for months with a mysterious infection that kept coming back, filling my aching head with mucus, making me disgusting to be around, slow and stupid, weak and tired from lost sleep, waiting in waiting rooms and in line at pharmacies, traveling sick in airport lines and crowded shuttle buses and crammed in airplane seats…

And now my birthday was coming up, and I had nobody around to celebrate it with, all my family and close friends were a thousand miles away – because we had drifted apart, I had moved, my attempts to make new friends were frustrated.

Antibiotics seemed to be working, but still tired and weak…needed to get out of my rut, to fool myself somehow into feeling good…a change of scenery? Couldn’t really afford to travel, even by road. But that seemed the only option, a camping trip. The cheapest place would be my land in the desert. What the hell, you only live once.

I immediately notified my partner in ownership – I never go out there without telling him – but it turned out he had already planned a trip without me, a father and son gathering with his son’s friends.

A sudden decision, no planning – a self-imposed deadline for departure – it was a setup for more stress, desperation and inevitable mistakes as I raced to pack, load the truck, get the house and my pathetic affairs in order. A heat wave was beginning. I have an impeccable list for these trips but I was two hours past my artificial deadline, the day was getting hotter, and I skipped the list.

A Desert in Ireland

Driving west across the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau on I-40, just past Holbrook, gently undulating steppes all the way to the horizon, 50 miles away on left and right. Suddenly I’m in haze, like fog, lying over the ground and obscuring the blue sky and scattered cumulus clouds above. The sagebrush and juniper look out of place, like a desert in Ireland. It’s been a hot drive, the AC is on, a curious harsh smell coming through the vents. Takes me a while to recognize it as smoke from a distant wildfire.

I drive through the monstrous tongue of smoke for more than an hour, and then there’s Flagstaff, with a dark sky of low clouds hanging about the San Francisco Peaks, which I glimpse through an opening, draped in fresh snow.

Wearing shorts, I stepped out into cold mountain air at the market, and it began to rain hard as I shopped for groceries and beer. One benefit of these trips is getting IPAs I can’t get at home. The beer shop had a new, lower-alcohol IPA from Stone that turned out to be a great new summertime beer.

Disgusted with the overwhelming generic yuppie landscape and cutthroat competitive traffic of Flagstaff – which I first knew as a sleepy little railroad town – I briefly tried to relax over a plate of carnitas in an upscale strip-mall taqueria, then raced onward through the black silhouettes of forested mountains toward the sunset and my cheap motel, where I could see lightning blinking above a dimly glowing horizon.

It wasn’t until the following noon in the Mojave, cresting the pass at Mountain Springs Road, that I suddenly felt happy and at peace, returning home to my golden mountains of stone riding like ships above their pale alluvial basins as far as the eye could see. On the way up the alluvial fan, while I was grinning at the summit peak over on the left with a suggestive white cloud hanging over it, a mature red tail hawk flushed out of the low roadside shrubs and swooped theatrically over the gravel road in front of me.

When I reached camp, met the LA crowd and saw their impressive array of expedition gear, I realized I’d forgotten my folding camp chair. Fortunately my partner generously offered me one of his for the rest of my trip.

Sleeping in the Open

Few clouds in the blue sky, little wind, warm but not hot. The rusty golden slopes, cliffs and peaks of ancient stone embraced the broad valley below us as I relaxed with the fathers in the shade of their canopy – the campsite has no natural shade – while the kids climbed around over the granite boulders. Their elaborate cooking gear and wheeled ice chests sat nearby in a ceremonial circle like Stonehenge.

We talked through the rest of the long day until sunset, when they burst into chaotic labor, trudging back and forth between their individual camp kitchens and their vehicles parked below in the sandy wash, servicing their kids’ needs and getting them ready for bed.

After dining, they all retired to the confinement of their tents, while as always I slept out in the open, watching the sky darkening, the stars emerging, and the Milky Way reassembling its vague, mysterious shape overhead. For some reason, on this trip I slept better on the ground than ever before; my 30-year-old ergonomically-designed sleeping pad felt so good that even with my bad back I could rest easily in any position.

I saw a falling star immediately on lying down, and woke sporadically through the night to enjoy the westward progress of the constellations and the galaxy.

Theriodonts and Chemehuevis

Warmer in the morning. The fathers were already preoccupied with leaving, returning to their deadlines and crises in the city, working hard to break camp and load their vehicles, while I fried bacon for everyone. With his father busy, one of the kids I hadn’t interacted with much gravitated to me and we talked about our favorite dinosaurs. I told him about the theriodonts, reptile ancestors of the mammals that provided evidence for continental drift. But in my mind I was regretting the way dinosaurs are used to pimp for Big Science.

I told him about the Chemehuevis and their 10,000 year cultural memory of the extinct horse. He seemed relaxed amid all the bustle of departure, enjoying my stories and our conversation, whereas one of the other kids had already had enough, immersing himself in computer games on his dad’s laptop, anxious to get back to his comfort zone in the city.

As they hurriedly piled into their vehicles, I asked them about the bag of trash they’d left. They all said they didn’t have room for it, apparently unaware it was theirs. This was the second time in a row they’d left me with trash to dispose of, but fortunately this time it was only half a bag. Last time it’d been two full ones that I had to sort for recyclables in the heat of Las Vegas. But hey, at least I got a chair out of it, that more than made up for a stinky load and a little dirt on my hands!

Amazing how much packaging trash and garbage families can generate in a couple of days – after an entire week of camping I can’t even fill a small grocery bag, let alone the full size hefty bags they bring. But then it takes me months to fill my city garbage can at home. They have the families, the urban lifestyle and high-pressure careers; I’m lonely and poor, but have plenty of time to focus on the little things.

Sweating in Silence

It was already quite hot when they left and I packed to head up to the shade house. I figured I’d spend the heat of the day in my hammock in the shade, then go for a hike around sundown. But I wasn’t thinking straight. Sundown would be very late.

I wanted to park at the overhang midway up the Gulch and take the shortcut path up the alluvial bench, but driving up the sandy wash I realized my 2wd truck probably couldn’t handle the deep sand of the first sharp bend, so I stopped in the narrows just beyond the beginning of the shade house road and filled my pack. Starting up the road I discovered that someone had recently driven up it – quite a feat since we’ve considered it undriveable for more than 20 years. Of course, this entire area is private property with a No Trespassing sign, but as any rural property owner knows, to many people that’s a challenge not an impediment.

Someone had obviously seen this as a Jeep commercial, one of those extreme off road opportunities with two-foot boulders to drive over. In the process they’d destroyed 20 years of beautiful native vegetation. With the sun directly above, the morning’s heat radiating from the 2,000′ rock walls above me, and still on antibiotics, I had to stop frequently to rest, even though it’s only about a half mile and a climb of 300 feet or so. At the shade house, I found a few cigarette butts lying around, and the macho trespassers had dumped out the old can of artifacts the kids had collected on previous trips: historic pottery, purple glass, and interesting pieces of metal.

I strung my hammock and began to read the library books I’d brought from home, but soon I was sweating in the shade, and it was only early afternoon. I had to go up on the roof and do some more patching to keep rays of sunlight from scorching me. I was sure it wasn’t as hot as when I had lived out here in the summer of 1992, but for some reason it was affecting me more now. I was uncomfortable for the rest of the day, and knew I wouldn’t be able to do any hiking, which is the main reason I come out here. Later, when I got back to civilization, I checked the temperature history of locations that match our land, and found that day’s temperature was likely 100 degrees, so in retrospect I didn’t feel like such a wimp!

In mid afternoon I became aware of an eerie silence. The night before, I’d strained to hear a single cricket intermittently chirping in the distance. I hadn’t seen any birds yet. Now, in the springtime, there should be an abundance of both birds and insects. The day before, we had talked about how the desert willow seemed to be blooming sparse and late. At camp I’d noticed how dark and shriveled the leaves of the creosote bush were. A female phainopepla appeared briefly at the shade house, but otherwise there were no birds and no bird or insect sounds throughout the entire day. It might have been the driest, and most dormant, I’d ever seen this place.

Finally, by 6:30 pm, the sun dropped behind the western ridge, and I began to pack for the trip back to the truck. I was so weak at this point I didn’t even feel like hiking the short distance up to the seep to check the motion sensor camera. The next day was my birthday, and I wondered how the hell I was going to celebrate in this unbearable heat?

Maybe it would be better to lie on the sand under the overhang in the Gulch, which is in shade from late morning. But I still wouldn’t be able to do any hiking, and I would probably exhaust my reading material early in the day. Sadly, I realized I’d have to leave my land and drive to someplace cooler to spend my birthday in comfort.

Driving back to camp I passed two cottontails huddled together under a bush.

I was staging my meals in order to make best use of the meat I had brought. The chicken would spoil first, so I had to grill it tonight. I waited until 9pm to start a fire; it was still uncomfortably hot out, but the chicken ended up tender and succulent. Finally, by about 10:30, the night started to cool off and I went to bed naked. There had been no moon either night, so the stars had it all to themselves.

Air Conditioning and a Pool

Awakening on birthday morning, I decided to head in the general direction of my favorite mountain range in southeast Utah, where I knew there would be moderate temperatures, alpine hiking, and shady camping in aspen groves. It was a long day’s drive and I didn’t want to spend my birthday driving, so I would need to find a comfortable motel, somewhere in the hot desert not far from here, to break up the trip. I envisioned air conditioning and a pool, someplace with little traffic, but I didn’t know where that would be yet.

As an omen of the day to come, by the time I had broken camp at 8:30 am, it was already too hot to exercise. I bid a sad farewell to my home in the Mojave, flushing a big jackrabbit out of the desert willows near our gate.

My route would inevitably take me through the southern tip of Nevada, but I wanted to avoid the madness of Las Vegas at all costs. Between Goffs and the 95, I stopped to top up my tank with the gas from the extra can, and checking the map I found there was a long way to bypass Vegas through the Lake Mead recreation area, which I knew to be fantastically beautiful. I would look for a historic motel in Boulder City, which I knew from old desert trips, when one of my biologist friends was living there.

El Rancho Boulder turned out to be perfect. I had the large, clean pool all to myself for a birthday swim. What relief after the extreme drought and heat! Decadent, yes. Wasteful and unsustainable, for sure. I spent my calendar birthday in a motel, but my spiritual birthday was yet to come.

Paiute Homelands

The next day’s drive was better than I’d remembered, better than I’d expected. The road past Lake Mead became vaguely familiar as I arrived at a massive roadside spring. I had stopped here with a girlfriend, not sure which, returning from a road trip decades ago. The garish clay domes and fantastic redrock outcrops were intimations of what I’d find far ahead in Utah; the Moapa Valley was a bizarre mix of huge trailer parks, irrigated farms, and McMansions on hills.

From my place in the California desert, to my destination in southeastern Utah, is the ancient homeland of the Southern Paiutes, people whose sophisticated way of life was, unlike ours, perfectly adapted to their environment. They were “environmentally sustainable” for thousands of years, until the Spanish enslaved them, the American frontiersmen and military hunted and killed them like wild game, the Mormons and other white settlers appropriated their fertile farmland and forced them into indentured servitude on Anglo farms, culture hero Mark Twain ridiculed them as subhuman degenerates – and now they’re forgotten or ignored by our culture of Mars rovers and Google Glass.

Yet they may thrive again as our tottering society consumes itself.

Back on the interstate, I made the improbable crossing through the monumental Virgin River Canyon into Utah and steadily uphill to Cedar City, where I took a road east that was new to me. After a week of increasingly hot weather I felt the temperature drop rapidly as the road climbed into aspen and fir forest, past lush alpine meadows and extensive snow-packed slopes. Suddenly, the heat was behind me! At 10,000′ there was an overlook from which I could see the towers of Zion far to the south. Then, driving faster because I was concerned I wouldn’t reach my destination that evening, I came upon the Markagunt Plateau, an amazing highland of brown and black lava flows in which an aspen forest has taken root. Snow beside the road, meandering trout streams, lots of roadkilled deer.

Then, descending into the Sevier River valley, with more lush pastures, ponds and lakes, incredibly beautiful country following the river north.

I turned east again across the high Bryce plateau, then down into dry ponderosa forest and the warm, dry Paria River valley with big silver-leaved trees along the floodplain. At the farming village of Henrieville I left all the tourist traffic behind. So peaceful here; I had to stop in the town for a red hen leading 7 grown chicks across the highway.

Climbing again toward dark, heavy clouds dragging tendrils of rain, through badlands divided by small running streams, more lush high pastures and meadows surrounded by ponderosa, and the smell of rain. What a country we’ve invaded, damaged and polluted!

I stopped for gas in Escalante and found the most beautiful gas station restroom I’ve ever seen.

Dropping into the red sandstone of the Escalante canyon, a powerful musky smell and edible Prince’s Plume blooming everywhere along the road, then up onto the vertiginous narrow ridge of New Home Bench overlooking the white domes and canyons of the Escalante Country. It was there that I realized more than ever how roadbuilding is a sin – and paved roads are a cardinal sin.

You will say I’m a hypocrite because I use these roads to quickly reach my favorite places, but two generations ago these places were reached by dirt roads that had vastly less ecological impact, and two generations before that people simply drove their old, high clearance cars across untracked land, getting to the same places that we’ve spent millions to pave. And before that, of course, they went horseback, and before that walked, and because of it were healthier than any of their descendants. All these places were always accessible, but with far less impact, and an unpaved track is quickly reclaimed by nature.

I began to think of the places where paved roads are most evil: Yosemite Valley, Tioga Pass, the Virgin River Canyon, Long Canyon, the Burr Trail, Comb Ridge…the list is endless.

At the edge of Boulder I turned off on the Burr Trail, a road my aboriginal skills instructor called particularly wicked, a road fought bitterly by environmentalists in a losing battle against redneck yahoos. Driving up Long Canyon, which should have been a hiking trail not a road, a fat red-brown marmot bounced across the road in front of me.

Camping on the Edge

The sun was setting behind the cliffs as I crested the head of the canyon, with my first view of the distant mountains that were my destination, dimly silhouetted far in the east, with visible patches of snow on the crests. Below, I saw a dirt trail off to the side and followed it to a campsite on the edge of a cliff overlooking multi-colored hills and canyons and juniper plateaus.

It was still mercifully cool up there, but I knew that down in the canyon lands to the east, it would be as hot as in the Mojave. I gathered just enough small firewood for a cooking fire. I reached into the ice chest for my birthday steak, which I had bought four days ago frozen but had thawed immediately. The lamb sausages had been waterlogged the whole time. I put them all on the grill and overcooked them; I joined the steak with a cabbage salad and saved the sausages for another night. Midges and lacewings attacked me gently after sunset; a bat hunted through camp, and an owl hooted down in the canyons before I went to sleep under clouds that gradually broke up and revealed the stars.

At dawn I was awakened by my first mosquito; the midges were bad in my ears and eyes. I hoped they wouldn’t be like this in the mountains.

Back on the Burr Trail, I passed a big but young mule deer buck standing in a dry meadow staring at me. He was so big I first thought he was an elk.

Down the legendary switchbacks into another long valley where I turned north into that amazing hidden country of sporadic, huge, lush farms and ranches, the prelude to my destination. I’d never approached it from the south before and I overshot my turnoff.

Salivating for Snow

My attraction to these mountains is almost as mysterious as my seduction by the Mojave. I remember driving past them with Katie on our rock art expedition in 1987, and thinking they looked inviting, a high, green, presumably cool oasis in the midst of a vastness of red rock. Somehow that vision got lodged in my mind; more than 20 years later I found myself retracing our expedition path, and ended up climbing to the summit and falling in love. Since then, I’ve found a few others who also treasure this remote, little-known range.

As far as I can tell, these very mountains were the eastern limit of the Southern Paiutes, the tribe I know and admire the most, the tribe that branched and became the Chemehuevis who claimed what is now my land in the Mojave. The group that lived in this area was called the Yantarii. Nothing seems to be known about them; they managed to evade our historical appropriation.

Back on course, across dramatic badlands and climbing up, up the big mountain from sagebrush foothills through pinyon-juniper into the ponderosa and then the alpine fir and spruce. Dark clouds swirled around the summits up ahead and I salivated for that snow! Someone had driven the road much earlier when it was saturated after snowmelt, and their deep ruts, meandering back and forth, had dried rock-hard so that it was very slow going in my bouncy, rattling little truck. It was yet mid afternoon and I wanted to park at the pass and try the summit hike.

I passed a rancher in his pickup truck; these mountains are grazed to the top. I passed groups of mule deer, and a small area of recent clearcut with a pile of ponderosa logs and a trailer. I passed the first aspen groves above 9,000′ and carefully inched my way up the final steep, rocky grade. Entering the fir forest near the pass I encountered an ATV trailer someone had surprisingly parked right in the road; I squeezed past it, rounded a turn and came upon a deep snowdrift blocking all but a couple feet of the roadway. So I backed to a wide place in the road, parked and loaded my backpack.

Talus and Tundra

The pass was only a few hundred yards past the snowdrift. Out of the trees I encountered a gale force wind, as I had in my previous visit. The air temperature was probably about 50 degrees, and the steady west wind was only slightly less than what would knock me down – maybe 60-65 mph.

The pass is 10,500′; the peak is only a thousand feet higher, at the end of a crestline of four progressively higher peaks. The initial slope is a gentle grade, but with my weakness and the relentless wind I felt uncertain starting out and quickly lost heart and breath. I kept having to stop to rest. I thought I might stop at the first low peak and turn back.

The crest line is true alpine tundra, which, I’m guessing, exists unusually in this latitude and elevation probably because of the constant cold wind. Thus the slopes are clear, and the approach is mostly a good trail, with occasional traverses of brittle diorite talus, festively decorated with orange lichen.

I reached the little grove of wind-stunted dwarf spruce and firs at the first peak, and tried to cross a snowdrift that blocked the trail between the trees. At first the snow was hard, then my boots sank deep and I got snow in them so I had to briefly take them off in that harsh environment. I was not feeling particularly robust at this point.

The trail to the next peak was much steeper. It just headed straight up the slope. I forced myself to try it. And somewhere in that difficult climb, in that howling wind, I got my spirit back.

At the second peak I was on top of the world. I could see across all the canyon lands, a maze of red, yellow and white rock to east and west, burning hot way down there while I was freezing up here: the engine of that wind. Ahead of me across the trail to the third peak was a slab of snow hundreds of feet long, with a small cornice facing me. I skirted it along a soggy slope that got steeper, until I had to find a way across the snow.

I found a place where it seemed to be shallower, and tried kicking my boots into it. It was soft but firm and I could climb over it. The rest of the third crest was nonstop talus, with that howling wind threatening to topple me from every loose rock I stepped on. Then there was the steep climb to the final summit, over big, sharp, barely eroded loose diorite chunks and slabs. Occasionally I saw a spider scrambling between rocks; I came upon three ravens; otherwise nothing but lichen and hardy tundra plants hugging the sparse soil.

The clouds were pulling back as I reached the summit. I couldn’t believe I’d made it, feeling the way I had at the start. I was so elated, I made a video for whoever may have wished me a happy birthday, back in civilization.

Coming back down was actually the hardest part, because without the heat of exertion I felt the cold a lot more. I cinched my hood as tight as I could around my face. The next day my lungs were burning and I coughed a lot, but after that it cleared up.

Waiting for the Dark to Fall

With this cold and this wind, my former campsite in an open grove at the head of a ridge was way too exposed, but I knew there was another attractive aspen grove protected in a bend in the road farther down. What I didn’t know was how cold it would get at night; I had only my lightweight summer sleeping bag.

When I pulled out beside the lower grove, I found faint old vehicle tracks that passed the grove up a gentle slope, and walking up I found one of the best campsites I’ve ever seen, in a mature grove of very tall aspens, some of whose trees had started to die, providing ideal bird nesting habitat. It hadn’t been visited or used yet this year; there was lots of dry firewood; there was a woodpecker working loudly high up in the canopy.

I got out one of the lamb sausages, sliced and mixed it with some seasoned black beans and rice I’d cooked days earlier in the Mojave. I started a small fire and sat waiting for the dark to fall. I thought about how I keep making these trips alone, because I have no one else to make them with. I know of only one other guy who might rarely go camping alone. Most of my friends would never venture it, and certainly not the climbs or canyon hikes I do by myself. The arrogant jocks and bullies who threatened me and called me a coward in high school are now all out of shape and in poor health and probably couldn’t handle a single night outdoors.

It was a chilly night, but I slept with all the warm clothing I’d brought, and in the morning I woke to a form of paradise.

Miracle in the Morning

My grove was full of birds and birdsong. The woodpecker was still working. The first bird I saw was a hummingbird, attracted to the red in my sleeping pad or mosquito screen. I lay in bed for a while as sunlight poured over the crest and gilded the high canopy. Then as I prepared my granola and made coffee, I marveled at the avian spectacle all around me. They were working the ground, the middle space, and the sunlit tops of the aspens. I saw flashes of blue and green, tan, red, black and white, all sizes from hummingbirds to jays. Small, sleek swallows kept swooping through my camp. I had my breakfast and while I was eating they all suddenly moved on, as an ensemble, to another grove nearby. Completely different kinds of birds, working independently, yet moving together as a group. I was surprised and inspired.

As I was rinsing my dishes I heard a sudden crashing at the low end of the grove and looked up. There, about 40 yards away, three bison were galloping away through the trees. Apparently they had been grazing their way closer and suddenly became aware of me. I sort of remembered hearing there were bison in these mountains, but had never seen them – and had certainly never seen bison wild, outside a national park or a billionaire’s ranch. Now my birthday celebration was complete! First a spontaneous, poorly conceived trip, then an insurmountable obstacle leading to an unplanned detour, and now these miracles!

Traversing the Middle Peak

I wanted to stay there forever. But like my LA friends, I had a deadline and a crisis back in town. I felt I needed to somehow get in cell phone range today to call my mortgage officer – today was the deadline for her to call the lender and extend my application. I could just assume she would remember, but if she didn’t I’d be screwed, with a lot of money down the drain. And I wasn’t sure how far I was from a phone connection: 3 hours, or as much as 6 hours. I was really out there.

After studying the maps I decided to try a new route across the mountains. To reach it I’d have to drive back down into the lower foothills. Before that turnoff, there would be others higher up that led to 4wd-only roads I needed to avoid.

But of course I turned off too soon, following a sign that seemed to point where I wanted to go. After many miles of steep climbing on a bad road at 5-10 mph, I realized I was on the 4wd road to hell. But if I turned back, I would likely miss my call. So I kept going.

It took me up across the southwest face of the northern massif. I gradually became confident. I was filling in the blanks of my knowledge of this range. I hadn’t encountered anything undoable. I saw the middle peak getting closer, with its solid granite outlier formation. I began to see exactly where I was on the map. I followed the road down toward the saddle connecting the peaks. Then I came to the bad spot.

Fortunately I was going down. I might not have been able to come up this part of the road. It turned to deep red powder sand with big, sharp rocks sporadically embedded in it. First there was a sharp turn that was just deep sand. Around the turn was a steep downslope of sand and rock. Using gravity, I inched around the turn and carefully lurched down the long rocky hill, and breathed a big sigh of relief at the bottom.

Now I was in an entirely new part of the range. I came into a fairly recent burn area; the entire north and east slope of the middle peak had burnt intensely in 2003 and the ponderosa forest on its slopes was being replaced by thickets of Gambel oak. The middle slopes were gently rolling, with large expanses of grassy meadows and sagebrush flats, with a few small groups of cattle grazing at great distances from each other. The road was, if anything, rockier than ever. I could see the canyonlands desert off in the distance, with its highway that might lead me in calling range, but I couldn’t hurry on this road.

After stopping to make lunch in a sunny flat at about 8,000′, I slowly made my way across and down the east side of the mountains into the desert, dropping into the canyon of a major creek and coming suddenly upon a major encampment of ATV enthusiasts with big trucks and RVs parked beside the stream. A few miles beyond I hit the paved road.

I still had no phone signal; I kept driving southeast through my old familiar canyon country, across the big river and over high mesas, until finally high up on the edge of Elk Ridge I saw three bars on the phone and pulled over to try calling the bank. It was 4:30 pm on Friday; she was away from her desk so I left a message.

I had hoped to do another hike before driving home, but I had used up the entire day driving across the best hiking country in the world, just trying to make a futile, and probably unnecessary, call. I was starting to think about dinner; I drove to the village of Bluff on the San Juan River, where I knew there was a good steakhouse, but as I passed it I realized I still had leftover lamb sausage, beans and rice, so I decided to look for a picnic spot on the river. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed that my old favorite cheap motel in Bluff had re-opened.

Folk History in Bluff

Several miles later I was in a grove of cottonwoods beside the San Juan, starting to unpack my cooking gear, until I realized that my stove was buried under everything else, and there were bugs here, and no good camping spots, and no place to camp on the Navajo Reservation if I kept driving. So I decided to return to the Mokee Motel, get a room for the night, and warm up my leftovers there. The next day would be a reasonable 6 hour drive back home.

Per usual for this time of year, Bluff was hot as hell. After dinner, with the air conditioner rumbling, I intermittently read Richard McKeon’s Thought Action and Passion on the iPad and glanced at a PBS fundraiser on TV featuring mainstream, baby boomer folk music acts of the late 50s and early 60s, some of whom had been part of my childhood. Most of them were insipid, and I was reminded of why I don’t really like folk music. It’s a genre primarily consisting of uptight, overeducated urban white people self-consciously trying to reproduce traditional music divorced from the traditional context. Like professional sports, its another way in which our culture has specialized and commodified the life out of its traditional roots.

Tamales in Chambers

Traffic was light across the Navajo reservation. I was on the decompression leg of my journey. I still had the White Mountains and all the other watersheds of the San Francisco River ahead of me, and the open Gila Country, but first I had to stop somewhere for lunch. There used to be a Denny’s-type coffee shop attached to the motel at the Chambers exit on I-40, so that would be my first attempt.

It was open, and it was now a bare-bones Navajo eatery. A big TV was blasting at the end of the room; a pony-tailed older Navajo was eating and watching from his booth, and an Anglo couple were finishing lunch at theirs. I sat at the counter and a shy young Navajo guy handed me a menu. A middle-aged lady was cooking behind the order window.

I ordered tamales, and they came out looking good, with big whole kidney beans and rice. The tamales and sauce were much better than I’d expected. I took my time, reading from my iPad. The other diners left. The kid asked me if I wanted him to turn off the TV and I said sure. As I was getting up to pay, the cook came out and I told her I liked her tamales. She went to the other end of the room and started a long, soft-spoken reply that I couldn’t understand, so I smiled and chuckled and strolled out to my truck, to end a journey that turned out pretty well after all.

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25th Anniversary

Friday, October 17th, 2014: Stories, Trouble.


25 years ago on this day, I was at work in the Berkeley Marina. My home, across the Bay in San Francisco, was, according to a well-travelled friend, “the most beautiful loft in the world.” But since building it out 8 years earlier, I had known that the tall, crumbling concrete building couldn’t withstand a major earthquake. Only 2 months earlier, there had been a sharp tremor in the early morning that knocked over and shattered a big mirror, and I had spent a week at a friend’s house until I was calm enough to return home.

On that Tuesday afternoon in October, I was standing in a doorway in our 2nd floor office when the wood frame building suddenly turned to rubber. Walls and floors rippling and swinging me from side to side, bookcases and filing cabinets crashing down, dust rising inside and outside the plate glass windows. Then, as the rolling and tumbling subsided, people began yelling to each other, climbing over furniture, coming together and heading outside.

I knew the moment had come – I had lost my home and studio across the water, and I was in shock – but Mae, my assistant, also had a home, and a partner, in the City, and I felt responsible for her. The phones and the power were out, but I had a new mini-SUV – my previous ride had been totaled a few weeks earlier by crackheads in a hit-and-run.

The long, straight Marina road, facing the UC Berkeley campanile and the Berkeley Hills, had been split down the middle, with the lanes separated by a wide crack, one lane lower than the other. Straight ahead, somewhere near campus and downtown, a mushroom cloud rose ominously, thousands of feet into the sky.

There was nothing but noise on the radio. We were just trying to get home – we had no idea what we would find ahead. When we reached the freeway, we could see it was a solid mass of stopped traffic. We turned onto the frontage road, where traffic was moving slowly, and made it to Emeryville, where we found a chaos of vehicles backtracking and looking for a way out, since they couldn’t get to the Bay Bridge and traffic lights were off.

I suggested that we try to reach my drummer’s house in Oakland. After a while I was able to reach the warehouse district on the other side of the freeway, where the main through street was completely jammed. Putting my new vehicle to the test, I drove over a curb, up an embankment, and across the railroad tracks, and following back alleys and back streets for miles, we finally made it to Mike’s.

“The Bay Bridge is down, and San Francisco is burning!” he shouted when he saw us. His house was fine and the phone and power were on, but we couldn’t get through to the City. On his TV, the same three video clips rotated over and over. In the first one, shot from a helicopter in the north of the city, block after block of fallen buildings were burning, as if they’d been bombed. All the power was out and the helicopter kept a safe distance. What we could see looked like a war zone. Another scene showed a smaller fire that seemed to be closer to the loft, and the third, taken before dark, showed the huge section of steel and concrete that had dropped from the upper deck of the bridge, cars piled up at random angles in the gap.

Mike’s girlfriend joined us, and we all sat around silently watching and waiting. Hours later, the phone rang. It was my roommate, John, calling from the loft. The power was out, things had been thrown around a bit, and a big chunk of concrete had fallen from the wall and crushed the toilet, but the building was still standing. Mae reached her partner, who was safe at home, with the power back on. We decided to try to reach the city by way of Marin County and the Golden Gate.

In the wee hours of the morning, having dropped Mae off at her Noe Valley apartment, I was driving through a canyon of dark tenements down a wide street filled with debris and lined with burning trash cans. All power was out here in the city’s core, and ahead of me, as far as I could see, the black silhouettes of homeless people lurched back and forth between the flames.

It took days for the government to respond. In the meantime, our landlord’s first response was to replace the toilet. Our neighborhood was one of the two most devastated parts of the city – parts of buildings had collapsed, killing people. Communications had broken down across the region, and we didn’t hear about the freeway tragedy in Oakland until days later.

Everyone’s lives and routines were put on hold as the streets filled with officials, cleanup crews, and dump trucks. I didn’t want to sleep in my threatened home, and Mae and her partner offered me their guest bed. Two days before the quake, a new roommate had moved into the loft, a young artist who had had a disturbing dream her first night there. In response, she had created a big spooky drawing, of three figures wrapped in shrouds, that was hanging on the wall in her room. After the quake she had been stranded in the East Bay, so I drove the long way around to get her. That night, we joined Mike and Kele high up on the Oakland Hills, gazing soberly over the vast metropolitan area with its new patches of darkness, freeways mostly empty, the usual rumble of traffic muted.

On Friday, the fourth night after the quake, power had been restored, and Leslie and I decided to sleep at home. The first night, I dreamed I was carried, suspended upright, though a dark tunnel beneath the earth, toward a glow that was the epicenter of the quake. As I approached the center, the glow increased, and I was filled with a growing sense of well-being, a sense that a great tension had been relieved. The earth was showing me what had happened, and why, and I woke up refreshed.

After the weekend, the landlord brought an engineer to look at the structural columns and foundation – all cracked through, with rusted and broken rebar hanging out like spaghetti – and our front door was red-tagged for demolition. It was the end, the end of almost a decade of artistic drama, an ever-changing community of inspired and unstable young bohemians – the highs and the lows, the all-night sessions of drawing, painting, jamming, rehearsing plays, partying, sharing ideas and passions. Could it also be a new beginning?

After packing and moving everything into storage, Leslie and I were brought together in our search for a new home. Property owners had responded to the crisis by raising rents across the entire region – they were asking twice or three times what we had been paying, even in the East Bay. So we slept on friends’ floors and couches. She got a temporary room in a dorm at her alma mater in Oakland, where the doors were locked at sundown and I had to sneak around back and throw rocks at her upper window to get her to let me in.

John had met his new girlfriend just before the quake, and they decided to squat in the red-tagged loft until the bitter end, camping in the ruins without utilities, hauling jugs of water to drink, bathe, and flush the brand-new toilet. They stayed for a month longer, until the doors and windows were boarded up by official decree.

Weeks after the quake, after two episodes of standing in line at makeshift government offices, Leslie and I finally got a FEMA voucher that allowed us to stay in a cheap motel in a poor neighborhood. Using a food voucher, we grabbed steak dinners at Sizzler and a six-pack of beer at a corner store, and climbed the urine-soaked stairs to our room. We ate, it got dark, we drank a couple of beers. We got used to the smell until we hardly noticed it. In the darkness by the open window, with the sounds and lights of the avenue outside, it began to feel like an exotic, romantic place, like a flophouse in Bangkok. Leslie got up, went over, and stretched out on the sagging bed. “Give me a massage,” she said.

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