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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year in Mazatlan

I've been living in Mazatlan for about two months now. It's a steamy port city at the entrance to the Sea of Cortez, directly east from the tip of the Baja peninsula. From high places in any part of the city, you can always see water on three sides, as its curving half-moon bay is pinned by two deep harbors, where two rivers make their way down from the Sierra Madres to the east. In the shelter of the islands at the north end of the bay, where the beaches are broadest and the swimming is best, glitzy hotels and high-rise condos elbow for space with nightclubs, jewelry stores, and american chain restaurants. La Zona Dorada, "The Golden Zone". No one ever found El Dorado, but the Mexicans seem happy enough with this place. Walk the streets or the sands around there looking remotely like a tourist, and you will be assaulted with offers for taxis, timeshares, diamonds, city tours, cowboy hats, parasailing... all in various approximations of English. I get this almost every day.
At the south end of the bay, the old city pours over three hills, and runs up against the ocean on two sides, and the harbor. Here, the crumbling old spanish buildings, with their graceful high windows and ceilings and ornate ironwork, are hidden on narrow streets among more utilitarian cinderblock houses. Some, nearest the beach, the theater and the two old cathedrals have been well cared for, and are beautifully painted and surrounded with trees. Others, especially near the gritty riot of stores and street vendors surrounding the market, are covered in graffiti and falling in on themselves. Between the two main parts of the city, a boardwalk along the water. And a maze of cinderblock buildings with unevenly paved streets around the southern harbor, giving way to more ramshackle buildings and dirt roads in the outlying parts of town.

My apartment is in the old center, perched on one of the hills above the market. From the terrace on the roof, you can see most of the city. To the east the Pacifico beer factory, hulking cruise ships in the harbor. The old town, cathedral, and a glimpse of the lighthouse to the west, three islands in the bay and La Zona Dorada to the north. Three airy rooms and a small balcony of white walls and red tile on the top floor, all mine for $150 dollars a month. I have been enjoying having space all to myself for the first time in my life. The sink nearly fell off the wall last week, I've only managed to furnish it with an air mattress, a mat, and two plastic lawn chairs, and every once in a while, the lock jams my door closed and I have to dangle shoelaces or pens through a crack in the door panel until I can pull the catch open from outside... but that said, I love it. It's always full of light and fresh sea air. And I've never lived anywhere so peaceful.
Every morning, I wake up and do some yoga watching the sunrise from the east facing window in my room, then throw on some clothes, lock all three locks on my door, and drop down the stairs and the steep hill I live on to the market. All the busses stop at the market. Vendors are just opening that time of morning, so its too early for the delicious street tacos and fresh coconuts, and you have to dodge puddles of filthy wash water, and men carrying buckets of vegetables and pigs heads into the market building. But the juice stand on the corner of the market opens early, so I'll grab an orange juice or a liquado for breakfast, and then hop on the bus to La Zona Dorada to go to work. Recently, I've been biking there down the boardwalk on the clunker bike Silvestre lent me, or picking up tourists at the cruise ship docks as well.
My work is with an ecotourism company in the heart of tourist-land. The building has fake mayan sculptures, an artificial waterfall, and a climbing wall in front. It was the climbing wall that made me poke my head in and ask if they needed guides when I first walked by. And three days later I was working there... belaying kids up the climbing wall, sending people down the zip line to the beach, and more recently translating all kinds of things for their website and guiding kayak tours on the islands as well. It's been fun, if not exactly what I expected. I've been spending more of my time trying to keep them organized doing the most basic things, recently, instead of developing new programs. But I'm learning a lot about how business works, in the process. And after work, I am free to swim and watch the sun go down. I've been doing a lot of reading, and I still drop in for dinner with Silvestre's family. He's been teaching me how to drive his motorcycle, and I've been teaching him English. My other good friend in Mazatlan, Issac, just sold the supermarket he ran near my work, so I can no longer drop in on him at any hour... but we've gotten out fishing by the cliffs of the lighthouse a few afternoons, and I think that might be worth the trade.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Chihuahua and Copper Canyon

Well, I convinced Ashley and Jarret from the crew to put off their flights home and come to Mexico with me when work finished up. So this tuesday our crew parted ways in El Paso, and three of us headed south. El Paso is a wasteland of chain stores and freeways, much like LA but without the grace of trees. You can walk across the border from downtown. It starts to look like Mexico before you actually cross - all the signs in the stores are in spanish, and all the people stop to stare at you with your white skin and big pack. There's a forbidding looking concrete bridge over the Rio Grande, a sad muddy trickle no more than six feet wide, with political graffiti on its concrete banks. So this is one of the mighty rivers of America. Men in fatigues with machine guns on the other side just wave us past to the touristy main street of Ciudad Juarez. There are tons of pharmacys, doctors and dentists there for those who cannot afford such things in the States, intermingled with bars, strip joints and kitshy shops. But it took us more than half an hour of wandering around and not understanding directions in rapid spanish to find an immigration office and get our passports stamped. We got some pesos and took a taxi to the bus station as soon as possible.

Our taxi driver Arturo turned out to be quite the resource. He had run a mechanic's shop in San Diego for ten years, and had a daughter who was a citizen, but returned to Mexico in order to finally get the proper papers. He had been building a taxi business in Juarez and trying to get together enough money to get his papers through. Mexico, he said, was hopeless. The men with machine guns at the border were actually from the Mexican army. Like in Tijuana, the army had come in and disbanded a hopelessly corrupt police force, but was having little success in combating the drug cartels. Arturo's favorite restauraunt had been bombed the day before for failing to pay protection money, he said. We took a bus out of Juarez in another hour, heading for the relative safety of Chihuahua.

We rode a cushy airconditioned bus for five hours, through a sweeping desert of blonde grass with dark mountains rising like islands above it. In Chihuahua, we couchsurfed with three uproarious bachelors that Ashley contacted for us with her couchsurfing account. Koko, Polo, and Gusano, as they called themselves, were a photographer, a professor, and a radio show host respectively. They had opted out of the traditional early marriage and were having a great time sharing a house and hosting lots of travelers. Their house was a simple affair, with smooth brick floors, basic furniture, mattresses on the floor for us, and a few pictures of scantilly clad women. We had a great time with them, drinking and joking and playing puzzle games and taking silly pictures for two nights. It was hard to leave, but Chihuahua itself has little more to offer than a few shady plazas in front of old churches. Gusano said goodbye to us on the radio before we took the bus west into the mountains.

The last four days I've been in a cute little town called Creel, exploring Copper Canyon country. It's been fun meeting travelers at the hostel here. We've adopted Priska, a beautiful swiss ski instructor into our trio, and managed to drag various other travelers out to the bar and riding around on rented mountain bikes with us. Last night we got together a crew of seven to go camp at a hotsprings in the bottom of one of the canyons. We rented bikes and rode the twenty two kilometers out of town with packs. At the bottom, Priska and I were last and we caught a ride with a truckload of raucious police for the last stretch. Ended up having an uproarious evening drinking and joking and singing songs with them in the many hottubs by the river. I had convinced one of the guys who had a bike rack to jerry rig my guitar to the back of his bike and bring it down (yes, I brought the guitar. It was easier than trying to mail it home, and now I'm glad). As soon as I brought it out, all the various groups of people in the tubs were shouting me over and asking for songs and singing along. I met everyone! After sunset fireflies came out above the river, and the hills around us were covered in little blue points of light that turned out to be caterpillars with luminescent eyes. It was lovely.

Tomorrow, I'm headed into the canyon again with Jarret. Ashley twisted her ankle pretty badly a couple days ago and can't come backpacking with us. She was really sad about it until we realized that it just meant she would have to go hang out on the beach with Priska in Mazatlan for a few extra days.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Texas (aka - one month living out of a barn)

West Texas was absolutely stunning. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a steep reef of limestone cliffs and canyons that towers over the northern Chihuahuan desert, to the northeast of El Paso. It is surprisingly lush - green grasses intermixed with chaparral, spiny agaves and cactus. Green even in September! There were many maples and oaks in the canyon bottoms, and a sparse forest of juniper and pine at higher elevations.

My trail crew spent four weeks camped in a meadow at the bottom of Dog Canyon. We had the use of part of a barn, with refrigerators, electricity and running water. I felt like I was swimming in luxury after doing the backcountry crew in Idaho, where we had no fresh food and all our water had to be carried half a mile uphill. The stars out there just overwhelm the sky, and there were dozens of deer that came down to our meadow in the evenings (we tried to get some of the bucks to stop fighting each other and take on Salas, with an improvised rack of antlers made of tools, to no avail). Everyone on the crew was great in their own way. We had a lot of fun together! . Our trail project turned out to be in a wilderness area, so I didn't get to use anything cool like dynamite, but we did have an awesome three mile hike up the canyon and out onto a ridge to get to work every day. Thanks to hiking six miles a day and moving so many boulders to make stone steps I'm in the best shape I've been in in years. That's why I love trail crew!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Half Dome

So I'm almost done with my lab work for Dr. Herbst, and I had a few days to stick around Monterey before going up to the San Lorenzo river for another two weeks of field surveys. I've never climbed in Yosemite before, and so Dave and I decide to go for an extended weekend.

We drove out thursday night when I finished working. Traffic isn't bad on weekday nights, even where they are rebuilding the washouts on highway 140 east of Mariposa. We climb out of the heat of the central valley with the windows open so we could smell the night and feel the warm wind on our skin... Dave is playing mandolin in the front seat while I drive and sing harmony to his songs as we wind along the Merced river canyon. We get into the valley past midnight and crash with Dave's ex. Josie and her group from the Naturalists at Large. They had a campsite in the valley for taking schoolgroups.

Josie is a fantastic trad climber. We share her rack and go cragging at churchbowl on Friday. I love how solid granite feels, and I am glad to get a chance to get used to it. We don't have a place to camp that night, but Dave knows everybody in the climbing community. We roll into Camp 4 and immediately run into his old friend Ton, who offers us both dinner and a place to sleep. We have a great evening trading stories and playing the blues around a neighboring campfire until the rangers come and ask us to quiet down. Ten o'clock quiet time. People go to bed early in the mountains.

The hardest thing about climbing half dome is not the climb itself. On the sloping west face, the climbing is relatively easy, but before you even start to climb you will have hiked 6 1/2 miles and gained 2000 feet just on the approach. And once you've conquered the rock, there are still almost ten miles to descend back to the valley floor.

We start early. 4:00 am we slip out of Camp 4, grab our waiting packs, and hit the trail. Stars give way to grey morning as we walk. Vernal falls is full from all the snowmelt this year, and it throws up so much spray onto the trail that it's like being in a storm. And it's eerie to have the whole place to ourselves. We leave the trail above Nevada falls and cut cross country through a shallow valley, around a marsh, and then up a long series of granite slabs to the base of our climb. Several parties had camped above the falls the night before, and are ahead of us when we get there. It's one of the more popular routes in the park. The Snake Dike is a vein of quartz knobs about two feet thick that runs almost 2000 feet up the west face of half dome, and offers nothing worse than a few five seven slab moves. Which is good, because I've never climbed so many pitches before, and certainly not with a pack. It's prety easy climbing. Dave leads, I follow, and we make steady progress. Eventually the grade lessens and we run out of anchors, so we unrope and scramble up and up seemingly endless slabs on our aching feet until finally a tall cairn, then another and we crest the dome, looking east across miles of rugged snow-capped granite. We take our time on top, and are hiking late into the night, down the cables, along the river, and down many wet stone steps by the falls. Yosemite always fills me with wonder.

Sunday morning Dave and I sleep. My feet are pulpy and painful and my body aches. Dave wants to go all the way to the east side for hotsprings, and I don't want to drive that far. We compromise and go to Tuolumne for afternoon of reading and jumping in the river before heading back through central valley heat to Monterey.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

I chopped off my hair again.

It took me a few days to get used to it, but I like it. I'm living outside again, so I've been cutting down my material existence. Sleeping in the back of my truck or under the stars, these days.

Times are a'changin. And fast.

Well, I done graduated. There was this frenetic flurry of finals and parties and packing and parents my last week at school. I left the day after commencement to start my new job. I didn't really want to go. I've been so happy in Portland. So many of my friends are staying there. And we were keeping that beautiful old wood-stair house. Starting a garden. I hope it is growing well for everyone back there. I am sad I can't be there to tend it with you.

Commencement was sort of surreal. So much formality for a place that I love for its anarchy and iconoclasm. Well, I wore the gown and all, but I put a big bucket cowboy hat on the president's head when he handed me my diploma. Best to go out the way you came, I'd say.

That night friends passed in and out of the house for dinner and goodbyes while Scott and Lizard built an awesome rack to hold milk crates in truck for me and I finished packing. I left, feeling like my whole life to that point was boxed and stacked in the basement of that house.

I have been driving slower, recently. Oregon and Scott have taught me to take a little more time with things. Go the speed limit. It took me the better part of two days to get to Monterey that way. I had a wonderful stop for dinner in Ashland... started playing with a couple street musicians. Slept in the van on a dirt road somewhere and then kept driving.

The job is with an ecology lab in Monterey. They're basically doing a state-wide survey of how sediments are impacting the physical habitats and the biological organisms in streams. This is important because no one knows what exactly happens with river sediments when you dump a bunch of road fill, or mine tailings into a watershed, or when you log or graze on the slopes above a river. We have a crew of eight... all guys, all with masters degrees, and all but one over thirty. And me. They're good guys, though. I am starting to get to know them. The work itself is simple enough. Every day is five or six hours of standing in a stream and measuring several variations on how wide and how deep it is, and how big the rocks on the bottom are. Then driving to the next river, stopping for burritos in whatever town we pass. Getting to camp after dark and sleeping out under the stars. Bless you beautiful California weather. I haven't needed a tent yet.

The best part is how much of California I have gotten to see. We've been up and down some amazing roads around the coast. I'll be heading out to the Sierras tomorrow... more news from there.

Anyway, for the last week I've been at home. We had a break from sampling, so I went back to see friends and hang out with the family. It's been relaxing and rather lazier than I would like. But I have done many things I needed to do.

Mom and Dad and I did go out sailing to Catalina Island for two days. That was fun. Easy sailing in a light wind. It was a little too cloudy for the snorkeling to be good where we anchored, but the kayaking was great. We found an old wrecked boat on an empty beach. The hull was all buried and filled with gravel. I saw a sea lion eating a leopard shark. And dolphins, crossing the channel.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Beautiful Day


I went up to Mt. Hood yesterday. The sun broke out this morning and stayed all day... and Oregon glowed green and gold and blue in it the whole day. I woke up early and biked to school to do a day of avalanche school, and we went up blessedly above treeline to ski and dig test holes and practice tranceiver searches. It hasn't snowed since January and the skiing was icy and hard, so we mostly sat and basked in the surprising warmpth. You could see all the way across central oregon, and south down the cascades a line of jagged snowy crowns thrusting above the trees. Mt. Washington. Jefferson. The three sisters. Broken top. Mt. Bachelor. Black Butte.

The sun is setting later these days. We were back in time for me to climb out on my roof with my guitar and watch it. It was beautifully warm and the people on my street were out on their porches eating dinner. If you ever read this, Vimal, I wrote you a song.

And because it was Saturday night, and we had planned it, I treked up to Laurel's house to work on our sculpture. A bicycle powered contraption... complete with water wheels, noise makers, and umbrellas. It is joyfully absurd... and it's coming together nicely. The two of us glued and cut and pounded things until two in the morning, when I finally layed myself down.

I couldn't have asked for a better day.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I'll be home from Christmas...

Just got home to Portland today. I had a quite hectic packing experience, planning on leaving early the next morning. I managed to actually leave two hours later than I had planned, after mom had stuffed my cooler with food and given me lots of huggs and money, and dad had checked my engine, replaced the cooling fluid, gotten my brothers to wash the car, and replaced two of my hubcaps. They love me.

Andrew and I went up the coast highway to San Francisco our first day. Once we got towards north LA it was spectacular. There was a big sailboat race off the coast in Malibu, with hundreds of graceful boats filling their colorful sails. We stopped frequently, standing on rocky bluffs, wandering down along tidepools for quick breaks from driving. We had a red sunset over the water, then cut inland to speed up our late drive to San Francisco.

Andrew's sisters share a very nice house in Oakland. They put us up in fold-out couches with high threadcount sheets, took us out to a nice but very delayed breadfast and then convinced us to stay one night more. I wanted to go hiking in the redwoods on the way back, so I agreed, and we embarked on a short hike through redwood regional park which, disappointingly, was full of oak trees, with a handful of small secondgrowth stands. It was good exercise, though.

We got a nice early start the next morning, and made good time up the I-5. Stopping to buy olives from a farm, goggle at Shasta Lake, and play frisbee in Ashland. There is a big pass on your way into Oregon. We came all the way up from San Francisco in brilliant sunshine, and coming over it, we saw a thick bank of grey clouds stretching away below us. We descended into it and haven't come out since. Welcome back to winter.

Yesterday, a hike up the salmon river canyon with Chris Black and his folks. We spent lots of time looking up plants in field guides and seeing how many people it took to reach around each huge old growth tree. I love that hike. I've been there every year since I moved here, and I will take you one day.