Late for Nowhere

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Archive for June 2014

Adventures in the US: Mountain biking UFO country

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At the start of the Geology Road in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California is one of my favorite places on the planet. When I lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I made a point of visiting the park once every few months for camping, hiking, and cycling. Now that I live overseas, I still make sure to spend two or three days there whenever I make it back to the US.

There’s nothing like the wide-open spaces, big sky, and near-absolute silence of the desert to clear your head. It’s also a great place to spend time if you want to freak yourself out while camping alone in the backcountry.

As the Weird US website explains: “[T]he Joshua Tree region has long attracted eccentrics living on the farthest fringes of Southern California exurbia. UFO devotees have often insisted that there is a secret spaceship base hidden somewhere in the brush-dotted hills. They say that the strange lights regularly seen in the desert night sky are extraterrestrial craft visiting the base. UFO contactee and cult leader George Adamski claimed that he got a saucer ride from ‘long-haired Venusians’ aboard one of the ships cruising above Highway 177, just east of the park. Other desert residents tell of bizarre happenings in and around the park. They’ve seen camper trucks dematerialize on the Morongo Valley highway, furtive three-fingered aliens buy supplies in Joshua Tree drugstores, and glowing, robot-like humanoids wander across the National Park outback.”

I’ve never had the privilege of encountering such alien oddities in the park, but I can always dream.


Sunset in Joshua Tree NP.

Perhaps fear of extraterrestrials is one reason why the vast majority of visitors to Joshua Tree NP never venture more than a few feet from the main roads. For me, part of the attraction is the fact that getting away from the crowds requires only a small amount of effort and a nominal sense of adventure.

Case in point: During a three-day visit to the park last month, my first excursion was a mountain bike ride on the 29-kilometer (18-mile) Geology Road. I spent about two and a half hours exploring the area, during which I saw only one other vehicle: a slow-moving Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with three people inside. The rest of the time I had the terrain all to myself.


View across a dry lake bed along the Geology Road.

And the terrain is spectacular. Designed for self-guided tours in 4×4 vehicles, the dirt-and-sand Geology Road winds between odd rock formations and black basalt hills; down into an earthquake fault and a dry lake bed; and past manmade features like Native American petroglyphs and a concrete dam built by cattle ranchers in the late 1880s.


Down into Pleasant Valley, part of a local system of earthquake fault lines.


Concrete dam built in the 1880s by cattle ranchers.

On the second day I headed out for a longer ride on the significantly more challenging and less-frequently traveled Black Eagle Mine 4×4 Road, which took me into even more isolated areas of the park.

In fact, I rode so far that I eventually pedaled past the boundary of the national park and into a desolate valley administered by the Bureau of Land Management. During the three-plus hours I spent on my bike, I didn’t see a single other human, extraterrestrial, or vehicle of any description (UFO or otherwise).


All by my lonesome in the back of beyond on Black Eagle Mine Road.

On my last day, I left my bike in the car and enjoyed an early-morning hike in the Black Rock Canyon area on the northwestern edge of the park.

Again, I didn’t see a single other person during my 10km (6-mile) walk, which took me through sandy washes lined with the park’s namesake Joshua Trees, and over a low, rocky ridgeline supporting Piñon-Juniper forestland.


Half moon above Black Rock Canyon.

The lack of people on the trail certainly had more to do with my 5:30am starting time than the location, which was not particularly remote compared to the places I had cycled.


Hiking Black Rock Canyon.

But it was here, walking rather than mountain biking, that I was most able to enjoy the tranquility of the desert: The only sounds were the chirping of birds and the whisper of the brisk morning wind swirling through the trees and across the hilltops.

When I stopped walking, it seemed as if I could almost hear the soft crackling of the sun rising above the rocky horizon.


Cholla Cactus, Joshua Tree National Park.

Adventures in the US: Cycling the high point of Los Angeles

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The lower slopes of the climb to the peak of Mt Lukens.

When I lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s, one of my favorite mountain bike rides was the climb to the peak of Mt Lukens, which at 1,547 meters (5,075 feet) is the highest point within the LA city limits.

The 15-mile ride is elegant in its simplicity: A tough 7.5-mile ascent on a winding dirt road, followed by a screaming downhill run back to the parking lot along the same route.

With fond memories of these rides, Mt Lukens was where I headed for the first real mountain bike excursion of my recent trip to the US.

Back in the 1990s, I could finish the climb in less than 1 hour and 10 minutes (my record time was somewhere around 1:07), and then make the return descent in about 20 minutes. Now I’m older, fatter and (as a resident of Yangon in Myanmar) primarily a flatland cyclist, so I knew the mountain would pose a greater challenge than it used to.


The dirt road to the peak.

I’m also apparently quite a bit stupider than when I was younger: After pedaling about half a mile up the hill, I realized I had left my water bottles in the car – so I had to ride back down to retrieve them, and then start the climb all over again.

Still, the ride wasn’t as devastating as I had feared: I made it to the top in about 1 hour and 30 minutes, including three or four brief stops to take photos.


Around the midway point.

The cool morning air helped prevent the ride from becoming a death march. The natural scenery of Angeles National Forest, along with the smell of sage along the track, supplied additional inspiration.

At one point a family of three mule deer trotted across the path in front of me, and then paused in a meadow to watch me ride by. Toward the top, there were even a few small patches of snow on the north side of the mountain, something I didn’t expect in Southern California in mid-May.


Looking northeast from just below the peak.

The air was reasonably clear when I reached the peak, allowing me to see across the Verdugo Hills, Glendale, downtown Los Angeles, and well beyond. It was an odd but familiar feeling, looking down on a city of nearly 4 million people but having the mountain peak all to myself.

I enjoyed the view, the solitude, and the frigid mountaintop wind for about 15 minutes, and then remounted my bike to ride back down the path and rejoin the teeming masses below.


The view of Los Angeles from the peak of Mt Lukens.

Written by latefornowhere

June 18, 2014 at 4:26 am

Adventures in the US: Urban wildlife and haunted picnic tables

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Sunset in Los Angeles, as seen from the apartment where I stayed during my recent visit.

Last month I took a trip to the United States for the first time in more than three years. Among my goals during my three-week visit – aside from hanging out with family and friends, and eating as many burritos as possible – was spending a substantial amount of time on my mountain bike, which I brought with me from Myanmar.

I started my trip in Los Angeles, where I had lived for 10 years before moving to Myanmar in 2003. I stayed in the Silverlake apartment of my friend Robert, who was on holiday in Hawaii during the start of my visit, so I had the place all to myself – all I had to do was take care of his grumpy Siamese cat, a creature of odd habits such as hissing at invisible threats and loudly rummaging through kitchen cabinets in the middle of the night.

The apartment is only a few miles from Griffith Park, a place where I had spent many, many hours cycling during my time in LA, and that’s where I went for the first ride of my holiday. The park’s dirt roads are closed to mountain bikes, so the main attraction is a network of paved roads (closed to motor vehicles) that wind through the wooded hills.

Although it had been more than 10 years since my last ride in Griffith Park, all the same pavement cracks and potholes still seemed to be there. It’s an urban park, but still fairly wild (an automatic camera even captured an image of an adult mountain lion in the park in 2013), and during my 30-mile ride I managed to spot several forms of wildlife: one coyote, one mule deer, three circling hawks, and one Hollywood film crew grazing at the catering truck.

Along the way I stopped at the infamous Haunted Picnic Table 29, located in a quiet corner of the park just off Mount Hollywood Drive. The area is supposedly guarded by the angry spirits of musician Rand Garrett and aspiring actress Nancy Jeanson, who were crushed to death by a falling tree while indulging in some nocturnal fornication on the picnic table on the night of October 31, 1976.


Wooden post marking the location of Picnic Table 29 in Griffith Park.

Sound unlikely? The story actually seems to date back to a hoax story that appeared on the Los Angeles Times website on October 30, 2006, but some park visitors insist they have encountered the ghosts.


The “haunted” picnic table, complete with the miraculously preserved tree that supposedly crushed two lovers to death in 1976.

Disappointingly, no angry specters chased me from the picnic table. But the fallen tree was still there (a friend pointed out that dead wood from nearly 40 years ago would have rotted away long ago, but what does he know about phantom plant life?), and someone had used green paint to scrawl “RIP 10/31/1976 Rand + Nancy” on the top of the picnic table.


Tribute to Rand and Nancy.

The legend lives on.


Another Hollywood sunset.