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Entries about deserts

San Javier and Swimming With Sharks

Mexican Road Thoughts, A Cow's Perspective, San Javier, Whale Sharks

sunny 75 °F

I had finally gotten to bed at about 3 am. I had given two tarot readings after getting of work at 1 am. I woke up to the mirror rattling in the door, then the bow thruster of the ship turned on, which sounds like a cross between an industrial sized blender/chainsaw. It was almost impossible to sleep through. Then my alarm went off with my own voice whispering at me, “PSSSSST HEY BUDDY….” It was time to get up, and get ready for the field trip. I had gotten 5 hours of sleep.

We climbed into the van, slammed the doors, and pulled into last position of a caravan of vans that were stretched into a long white train. Our destination was the three hundred year old mission in the sleepy village of San Javier. It was a long drive of about an hour and a half through the beautiful mountain desert that climbed high into the Sierra De la Giganta, the coastal mountains on the east side of Baja California Sur.

The roads at first started out very good; smooth and narrow asphalt, on highway 1 that was a main thoroughfare between La Paz and Loreto. Our driver drove fast, but everyone else drove faster, and we quickly lost the lead cars of our caravan. No matter, we turned west just south of Loreto, and began our long drive into the gorgeous mountains that make up this region of Baja Sur.

Mexican Road Thoughts:

It was good to be traveling by van again. I missed having the wind through my hair while traveling down roads, I had never been on before. As an added bonus, I wasn’t driving, so I could look off into the desert for as long as I wanted.
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The landscape was amazing. As we drove up switch backs up into the mountains, I was surprised to see a copse of palm trees growing in the low areas nearest to the water. The green dread locks of the top of the palms made a nice contrast to the rest of the desert full of the usual suspects of Cardon, cholla, ocotillo, pin cushion cactus, among many others. At the bottom of the shady side of the ravines, only the very tips of the branches of the trees and cactus were caressed by the low sunlight. The mountains were jagged, and appealing. Giant rock spires of ragged rock stuck up in numerous spots, and the dry arroyos were calling me to come and explore them, as they most certainly led to desert wilderness. There’s grandeur in these mountains. I’ve started reading Steinbeck’s “The Log From The Sea of Cortez.” It’s his actual account from a trip he made to this region in 1940.

The road began to deteriorate as we climbed. It changed into a ragged asphalt, to a gravel road, to a rough gravel road, and finally to a washboard hell that we bounced and jounced along for the rest of the way to San Javier. We couldn’t keep the windows open, as we would’ve ended up eating dust, and we couldn’t use the AC because it would’ve clogged the air filter. So we suffered in silence, bouncing along and baking slowly in the sun. I read a bit, stared out at the desert, and wrote in my journal. My hand written journal looks as though a second grader was writing on top a spinning washer during an earthquake.

I saw a small ragged group of cows staring dumbly on the roadside in some shade. What the hell do cows eat in a desert? Every plant and animal has a sharp spine attached to it. I can’t imagine being the first cow in this prickly environment. “I wonder if I can eat that (to speak cow correctly, you need to draw out and deepen your voice in a very slow cadence)? OUCH! That’s sharp! How about that thing? Yowch! Nope…” Soon enough, the cow had tried everything, and she figured out that there was nothing to eat. Her tongue was pierced completely through, like a gothic punk rocker. And that’s how the cows looked--emaciated, hungry, hot, and pondering their fate in life.

I thought about this, and tried to put myself in a cow’s perspective. These ragged, hungry looking and isolated cows probably never heard of the fields of the Midwest, where a cow could probably find plenty of grass to eat, shade trees to lie under, and a stream or two to quench the thirst. A cow paradise? Who knows? The point being (I‘m hoping eventually I‘ll have one) that if a Mexican desert cow did know of these things, how would it react? Would it be jealous of its northerly cousins living in the land of plenty? Or would it take a live and let live approach, and try to make the best of a stacked deck. Long rides over bumpy roads tend to bring out weird topics of contemplation in me.

I also realized my choice of footwear (flip-flops) was a bad one, especially if the van broke down. Walking on gravel roads in flip-flops is bad, and it would’ve been a long road to walk to get anywhere. Luckily, our vans held true.
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The mission was set on the far end of the small village of San Javier. Sleepy is the right way to describe San Javier. The town has one small main boulevard, a collection of small comfortable haciendas, a few shops, a two room police station, and a couple of small restaurants. It was charming. We stepped out into the bright mid-morning sun, and we headed towards the mission for a brief introduction.
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I skipped out on the introduction, choosing my own path and getting away from the large group of guests to which the tour was for. I sat in the cobblestone square in the shade of one of the many orange trees, and took it all in. San Javier is set in a beautiful mountain valley in the middle of the mountains. It is a true oasis, with a good river to provide water for the small population. There were small farms on the outskirts of town, palm trees, orange trees, dates, figs, and even a gnarled old olive tree. The buildings were well lived in and comfortable. A black chicken was pecking contentedly at the cobblestone. I made the acquaintance of three healthy looking dogs, two of which stayed around for a good scratch behind the ears (good karma). The dogs seemed to be on a mission (ha! Get it?) roaming around searching for something, but for what will remain unknown.
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I’m not a religious man, so the story of the mission and its religious effect on the region was lost on me. I enjoyed the old architecture of the place. The high arched ceiling of the main alter area were impressive, and I was surprised at how narrow it was. From the outside, it looks a lot bigger. There was very old art, and artifacts upon the walls and on display, and by all accounts it was considered beautiful.
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I was more into wandering around the small village, petting the dogs, looking at the birds, and napping in the shade of the vibrant flower beds, and taking pictures of the fickle butterflies and bees that fluttered and buzzed around. I’ve one regret, that being not getting something to eat from the small restaurant. I wasn’t hungry at the time, but I should’ve gone for it anyway. Our field trip was over, and we loaded back into the vans to head back the ship, and back to work.

Swimming with Sharks

Have I told you why I really like this job? One of the biggest reasons why I like it so much, is the fact that the company encourages you to go out and play as often as you can. In this case, a dozen of us had loaded up into two of the zodiacs at 8:30 in the morning and were headed north across the bay just north of La Paz in search of whale sharks. We hoped to swim with them. This might sound dangerous and a bit of a fool’s errand at first glance, but in reality, it was quite all right.

The reason being is that whale sharks aren’t like their meat hungry cousins. They eat plankton, and other tiny invertebrates. While their mouth is full of shark teeth, they are tiny, and not meant for ripping flesh off of bone. In fact, they don’t even use them, whale sharks gulp in huge amounts of water, filtering the water through their gills, entrapping the plankton.

We searched for about forty minutes before we spied them. The only way to really see where they are is to notice their small dorsal fin break the surface of the water. The sea was calm, and so spying the dorsal was easy. We were told by our naturalist that there are two rules to swimming with whale sharks: No. 1. Don’t touch the sharks. No. 2. Don’t touch the sharks. The reason being, that if you touch them, they will most likely swim away, to deeper waters, not to be seen again. With this in mind, I jumped overboard and experienced one of the more amazing mornings of my life.

The visibility was pretty good under the water, but not excellent. I expected to see the sharks from a distance, but as it turned out, the gentle giants just sort of appeared out of the gloom less than 8 feet away. It kind of catches you off guard, when you see a massive fish swim straight towards you from out of nowhere.

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It was magical to swim next to these amazing creatures. Under the water their skin is blue/gray with light colored spots all over their back. In Mexico they are also known as “pez dama” or “domino” due to the spots. The whales we swam with weren’t full size, the largest being about 25 feet long. Full size adults can reach forty feet long.

Even with all the knowledge I had about their docility, to actually swim with a shark that size was still a rush. My favorite moment occurred when I was swimming along side of the larger shark. To keep up, I had to kick fairly hard with my flippers. I was watching it just in front of me when it suddenly turned and completely crossed directly in front of me, not 4 feet away. I had to tuck my feet in order not to touch it. As it passed, I saw its beautiful markings from head to tail. After it passed I swam after it again, until it dove down deep. I love seeing those huge fish simply disappear into the depths. Like magicians, they melt into the depths leaving you wondering if they were ever there.

After a while, another boat showed up, a tour boat offering snorkeling with whale sharks. A couple jumped into the water, and began what I would call spastic motions intending to mimic swimming towards the whale shark. The first thing the guy did when he “swam” close, was to reach out and touch the shark. Like that, the shark was gone, swimming fast, and as hard as it could away from us. Whale sharks don’t swim fast, but a lot faster than any of us could swim. Apparently, the guy never heard about rule no. 1, or 2. Jack Ass. Ah well, he deserved it, I hope he paid a lot of money for his moment in the sun.

As it was, I had an excellent morning, and one I won’t soon forget. I swam with whale sharks! Long Live Whale Sharks!

Posted by Rhombus 16:46 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains snorkelling oasis flowers mexico roads deserts baja sharks photography cows missions Comments (2)

A Vagabond's New Year

Hiking Isla Catalina, New Year Celebrations, Favorite Pic's of the Week

sunny 76 °F

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The Isla Catalina is probably the greenest, most lush desert island I’ve ever had the pleasure of hiking. It’s home to two unique species, one being the rattle-less rattlesnake, and the other being the giant barrel cactus. While I haven’t seen the rattlesnake yet, I am intrigued by its genetic evolution. I can imagine its thought process, “Well hell, every time I move to nab that mouse my damn rattle gives me away. Who needs it?” and over time, stopped growing one. Isla Catalina is quite deserted, so another possibility could be that predators to the snake are also probably few, so with no need to warn enemies, it learned to do without.
Desert Scene

Desert Scene


The giant barrel cactus is something I have seen, and I am quite fond of it. It lives up to its billing. It’s quite large. It’s very stout, and has a bright green trunk, about the diameter of a telephone pole. It ranges in height from a foot high to well over my head (roughly 6 feet). They are dotted all around the island, sometimes growing right next to another in a small copse of funky cactus. The barrel cacti aren’t the only inhabitants of the island; there are massive clumps of cardon, interesting clumps of cholla, and other wildflowers, sharp desert shrubs and plants.
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In starting my hike, I chose the road less traveled. Not only was this a better way to travel, it allowed me to completely lose my sense of civilization’s grip on me. I saw nobody, I heard nothing manmade, and I was free.

The overcast skies were leaden gray, and it was surprisingly cool. I hadn’t been cold in many weeks, but I loved being in cooler temperatures again. It was probably only 70 degrees, but the wind was steady, and it felt good to my body.
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I really enjoyed hiking through this amazing desert. I swear Dr. Seuss designed the landscape: giant clumps of weird cactus, some looking like lumpy offset stumps, others like land borne octopus. I stopped often to marvel at these amazing plants. I found another of my sacred places. I have sacred places all around this planet of ours. Usually, they are small little areas of land that appeal to my sense of order in the universe. In this case, it was a small sandy area, maybe 20 feet in diameter, it was devoid of any visible presence of life, and on the fringes were clumps of desert fauna. In the distance, I could hear the rolling waves of the ocean crash on the beach. I could see the rocky crags and hollowed out holes of the nearby cliffs. It smell like a desert, and I was immediately smitten. It was like sitting in a desert shrine, dedicated to the simple beauty of earth, this time in a desert format. It was peaceful, energizing, and I could’ve stayed there for hours, and possibly days, drinking in, and enjoying its finer features.
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Eventually, I found a jungle of desert shrubs; bright green, thick desert growth that looked like it was going to be very painful to try to cross. Luckily, I had a dry wash to follow through the tall carpet of impassable spines. The wash led to a beautiful little cove tucked into a wall of steep rock cliffs. The sound of the rolling waves was very nice, as I walked around looking at amazing and interesting shells scattered all over the beach. I had fun crawling among the rocks, watching the quick and agile crabs clatter away from me. I crawled through the eroded rock tunnels and explored the beach before turning back again. I didn’t have a clock, and I really wasn’t sure what time it was. One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to be the guy who missed the last ride back to the boat.
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New Years Eve, Vagabond Style.

We loaded into our inflatable zodiacs at about 8:30 pm, sure, it wasn’t close to midnight, but it was midnight somewhere, and we had work in the morning. Our team consisted of eight highly trained, crack-shot pyrotechnicians, recruited for our penchant for rocketry and night ops. We drove a quarter of mile through calm green waters, our wake glowing alien green from bioluminescence. Do I have to explain bioluminescence? More on that later. We landed, anchored the boat, and chose a firing location. A million stars were shining bright in the dark sky. We grabbed our parachute rocket flares, lined up, and waited for the countdown. None of us had ever shot off flares of this kind before, and we really didn’t know what to expect. They were rated for 1000 feet, and we figured it would be pretty cool. The countdown began, and we at …1 we fired them off in unison. Holy Crap! These things are serious! A powerful hiss, and the rocket shot off, a blinding orange light in the night sky. Then the chutes opened and they fell slowly down to the sea, extinguished in the cool waters off Ispirito Santo.
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After cleaning up our trash, reloading in the zodiac, and making our way back to the ship, we decided to top off our night by swimming in the bioluminescence. “Bio” are tiny microorganisms that glow in certain areas of the oceans when agitated. The wake of a boat will cause it to glow, a passing dolphin, or my favorite: Swimming. To swim in bio is to immerse yourself into cool liquid smoke, lit up by millions of fireflies and glowing an eerie green. It is beautiful. It is amazing, and it is probably one of the all time coolest things I’ve ever done. If you get an opportunity to swim in it, go for it, you won’t regret it.
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What an end of a tumultuous year, and a righteous beginning to the next. I’m quite optimistic about this years travels. I’m already situated in a beautiful desert locale, and I have some other plans to be fully developed by May. Any suggestions for a good month long trip? I’m all ears, and ready to go.

Favorite Pictures of the Week.
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For now, look for more desert stories, and descriptions. I love Baja. It is heaven on earth, and I’m enthralled that I’m here to explore it.
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Posted by Rhombus 19:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged me boats islands wildlife mexico deserts oceans baja cacti photograhpy Comments (2)

Time Management and the Modern Explorer

Blue Whales, Sharks, Unapologetic Time Management "Problems"

sunny 85 °F

The boat slowed, and I knew we had spotted some sort of sea creatures, but I didn’t yet know what it was. I was in my head (bathroom), getting my day started. I knew that whatever it was, was probably going to be pretty cool. Therefore, I spit out my toothpaste, grabbed my fully charged camera battery and headed up to the bow. The guests had gathered, and I found a group of crew ready to go with their fancy cameras ready to shoot.

I learned we had stopped for a Blue whale. The blue whale is the largest animal on planet earth. This thought alone, gave me a small charge of endorphins coursing though my veins. I couldn’t believe I was going to be lucky enough to witness one at a reasonably close distance.

The sun was bright, and the day was hot (as it always is). There was a soft breath of hot breeze, and the seas were softly rising falling like the contented breathing of someone asleep. Red clouds of krill and invertebrates willowed around like smoke in the water. These smallest life forms come in a variety of shapes and designs, but ultimately most of them end up in the same place: digesting in a fish or mammals stomach. It’s amazing to me that these tiny creatures are the start of the ocean’s culinary chain. These tiny creatures are very important to the ocean’s ecosystem. Without them, none of the spectacular wildlife I’ve seen would be here, and it’s possible we wouldn’t be here either.

Blue whales feed on krill, and while growing can pack on 200 pounds a day. The length of a blue is 100 feet long. Look at the comparison to other animals to give it some perspective. We humans are but a mosquito to these giants. One of our wildlife naturalists on board told me that there are about 50 year round blue whales that live in the Gulf of California.
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We were very fortunate; this Blue whale wasn’t diving down for long periods. They typically dive for 10 minutes at a time; however, the one we were watching was only going below for half of that. It would surface, blow, swim at the surface for awhile, then arc it’s lengthy back and dive down deep once again. I was in the right place at the right time, and was able to capture its fluke, the tail of the blue as it dove down deep. Seeing the fluke on a blue I’m told is rare, so I feel fortunate to not only see it, but can take this memory with me.
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I witnessed my first shark here in Baja. I was snorkeling among the vibrant corral reefs on the Isla Manserate, looking at the beautiful varieties of fish swimming below. In front of me, a school of some of the larger fish suddenly shot past towards shallower water. I thought to myself, “Well, they don’t just bolt for no reason,” and I looked in the direction from which they came. I saw in the distance the sharply angled v-shape of the shark, a gray body and a lighter underbody. It was significantly larger than anything else under the water, and in two strokes of its tail was gone. Awesome! That was a rush. I don’t fear sharks, but I am aware of the fact that while I’m snorkeling, I’m nowhere near the top of the food chain and there are many creatures much larger than I am. I continued my snorkel occasionally glancing ahead to see if it would return. It never did, but I hope to see another shark soon.

Author’s Note: Before starting my contract on the ship, I watched a shark documentary called, “Shark Water.” One man wondered why people feared sharks so much and set about to find out why. What he found is that, as usual, humans don’t understand sharks. We stereotype them into a man eating monster. Not only that, but he exploited the ruthless and needless killing of the sharks for there tails. The shark tail is considered a delicacy in some countries, and will pay top dollar for shark fins to make shark fin soup. It was an eye opening documentary, which I found informative, entertaining, and visually amazing.
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Landing on the small beach on the island of Ispiritu Santo, the first thing I saw was a small shark head bobbing in the froth of the small waves. It was frowning. I guess if I was decapitated and had my head thrown into the sea, I would frown as well. What does this unfortunate shark tell us? Somebody is killing sharks, but to what end? As it happened, I was in a “protected” national park of Mexico, this isn’t reassuring.

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December 23rd, 2010
“This is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I’m sitting atop one of the high, rocky overlooks on the Isla Danzante. Turkey vultures are soaring overhead, gliding effortlessly on the wind, the far off “SMACK” of a breeching manta ray down in the bay makes me turn and pull out my binoculars to watch it for awhile. Who knew? I never knew that rays loved jumping out of the water, until I saw it with my own eyes. All around me are endless views of the beautiful desert meeting the sheer rock cliffs that drop down into the sea below. All around me are more islands, uninhabited, beautiful and wild. The hike was enjoyable, it’s easy to hike in sandals which is a definite bonus, the thought of hot hiking boots seems intolerable at this point. I’ve swam in the ocean every day this trip, mostly on deserted beaches well away from anyone. This is the life. I haven’t worn pants since December 5th. I work very hard (12 hours a day), but the rewards are this: access to the magnificent desert islands that make up Mexico’s national parks, which I can explore as I want. This job is more a working vacation than a regular job.”

~Journal entry from my hand written journal
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I’m having trouble finding time for anything else other than work and exploration. This blog is suffering because of it. I haven’t made time to try and keep up with my explorations. Every day I work 12 hours. That’s one part of my day, then I catch the zodiac ride to the beach and explore for 3 to 4 hours, after which I only have time to edit my pictures and go to bed to do it all over again. Every day I’m at a new beach that I haven’t seen, and I have my choice of either hiking, beach combing, snorkeling, kayaking, or lying still. To do justice to every exploration, will take time, so please bear with me. To be perfectly honest, I guess I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm seizing every opportunity I have to explore this area, and that after all, is my billing.

I live in a world of exploration and monontony. The endless repetition of a deckhand is completely offset by every day of amazing exploration, discovery and play. I am loving my life right now.

Today, on Boxing Day (for Canadians), I’ve finally made it back to La Paz, and I have some time to catch up with my writings, but words fail me. This region is a desert paradise. Here are some pictures that hopefully will give some insight into my desert world of discovery.
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Merry Christmas From The Dusty Vagabond!
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Posted by Rhombus 14:06 Archived in Mexico Tagged boats flowers whales deserts sunrise oceans baja sharks photography jobs Comments (2)

Savoring This First Taste Of Baja

La Paz, Desert Hikes, Snorkeling and Dolphins, Reflections

sunny 85 °F

The hours of my day fly by in a frenzied rush of work and play. It’s very difficult to make time to write so far, and I’m not optimistic about my future chances. The reason why I’m struggling so much to find time, is because this region of the world is so very beautiful and alluring, that any free moments I have, I’ve been spending them playing outside in this gorgeous desert landscape. To describe Baja is not easy, as words fail to encapsulate the expansive beauty of this region. To put it simplest, Baja is where a diverse and lush desert landscape meets a beautiful and thriving ocean landscape.

Where to begin?
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La Paz
My first views of La Paz were of the outskirts of the city at a fueling dock and marina full of sailboats. The land struck me as a cross between Arizona and Southern California. The land was a misarranged collection of foothills, jagged and rocky. Desert plants thrived, and I saw the tall Cardon cactus for the first time. The cardon is very similar to the Saguaro of southern Arizona, and at first that was what I thought they were. Tall palm trees soared skyward in clumps, which brought me back to southern California (see Hollywood and Venice Beach). It was hot. The sun baked the earth without mercy.
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La Paz has all the hub-bub of a bustling city, home to roughly 200,000 people. I was limited in my exploring for two reasons. I was on foot, and I had only a couple of hours to spend on each jaunt. I was very excited to finally land in La Paz. It marked my first steps in an international city, in a country that I didn’t understand or speak much of the language. This Dusty Vagabond goes international, and I this is only the beginning.
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We were docked at the municipal dock which was right next to the busy shopping district along the Malecon. Since I didn’t have any agenda, or inside knowledge of the city, I started out by enjoying an ice cream cone at a nearby ice cream shop. The transaction went well, and I stumbled through my limited Spanish to purchase what I wanted. Fortified, I struck out at random, hoping to find a nice park for an afternoon siesta. I mostly judge cities by there parks and recreation areas and I wanted to sit in the shade for a spell.
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I wandered through town, through the narrow, dusty, hectic streets of Central La Paz. La Paz has a rectangular grid system of streets that make it relatively easy to keep your mental map aligned, and I had no trouble. I saw fenced in school yards, full of chattering kids at recess (I could relate, as I was at recess myself, my only fence a clock). There were shops and restaurants of every variety selling everything imaginable. Some of the shops were humble affairs; others were attempting to appeal to the trendy crowd. Working my way roughly south, I found myself in the “Tarp Market” block. A huge collection of blue tarps were set up open market style, taking up a whole city block. I felt like a mouse in a maze as I made my way through, mildly interested in what they had to sell, but knowing I had nothing to buy.
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So it went, I wandered for several hours, looking in vain for a park, but getting a good first taste of La Paz. I stopped to smell fresh growing flowers along the boulevard. I saw an orange tree which tempted me to pick one, but I’m no thief.

My favorite part about La Paz (so far), is the dark streets protected from the harsh sun by buildings and tall protective trees. I found the quietest street in La Paz. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle of cars, pedestrians and shops was a perfect Eden of silence. I walked onto a street, sloping downhill back to the water, and I took a few steps into the blissful shade when I realized it was eerily quiet. There was no sound of the city, only the feel of the soft desert wind on my sweaty face. I loved it. I walked deeper into the shade, and looked ahead. There was only one old lazy dog sleeping in the gutter--content and peaceful. I took a wide circle around it, remembering the old adage to let sleeping dogs lie. I saw an old man sitting on a stoop, and like the dog he was nodding off almost asleep. I smiled, and moved on.

“La Paz” means something like ‘quiet tranquility‘. When I learned this, I realized that I found the essence of the city in walking through my shaded oasis of that quiet street.

Desert Hikes
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The desert islands of this region that we explore are very lush and thriving with life. I’ve made two jaunts into the desert and have found a plethora of blooming flowers, multiple varieties of cacti and ground shrubs, lizards, spiders and birds. I had a few hours off, so I made the hike across Isla Espiritu Santo in the Archipelago De Espiritu Santo National Park due north of La Paz. The trail was rugged, twisting though a jumble of smooth boulders. The trail was surrounded by the giant cardon cacti. I really like this cactus, it’s very similar to the Saguaro, but it doesn’t have as many spines, and it has more stalks that rise up from its root system. I followed the dry wash high up into the hills that lead to an amazing view of the rugged coast of the eastern side of the island. I was 700 feet above the sea, and felt like I was king of the world.
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Hiking through most deserts sounds a lot harder than it actually is. There are a lot of plants that carry sharp spines waiting to stab you, but in this desert they are spaced far enough apart to make cross country travel relatively easy. I think this is because of the limited water supply, and each successful plant that grows has claimed its own territory to grow. Think of a side-winder, that snake that moves sideways over the desert sands. Its tracks are a long continuous “ess shaped” snake pattern. This is how to walk cross country in a desert. The trail is rarely straight, but if you look hard enough you can find a way to cross without stepping on fragile plants or hurting yourself.

Snorkeling and Dolphins

I marked another first yesterday, namely, I went snorkeling for the first time. It was a hurried affair of grabbing gear (which I didn’t know how to check) and jumping in the zodiac to get to the dive boat. My friends were already in the water and far away, so I had to figure out how to do it by myself. I squashed my goggles on my eyes, put in my mouthpiece and fell backward into the water, so far so good. In the water, I blew out the water, and tried to breath through it. Nothing but cool salt water heading into my lungs. Damn! I paddled out of the water, tried again. More water into my lungs, coughing and hacking. At this point, I decided that snorkeling sucked. More or less it was a way to slowly drown yourself. I knew something was wrong, so I swam out to my friends and told them my problems. One pointed out that my mouth piece was broken, and missing a re-breather. She was a competent diver, so she gave me hers, and let me use hers. That made all the difference! From then on, I was happily exploring the nooks and crannies of the pinkish corral. I saw many varieties of fish, which I’ve yet to learn the names, but the few I learned were Angel fish, the “puffer fish” and some skinny sea stars.

At one point I swam though a school of small golden striped fish, and I grinned from ear to ear. It is so cool to swim and watch fish in this way. I attempted a few shallow dives, and those went well. I was stung on the leg by a small translucent jelly fish maybe about the size of a chicken egg, another first. It’s kind of like a mild bee sting; it’s noticeable, but not extremely painful.

I’m going to snorkel as much as possible for the rest of my life.
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We were sailing north around Isla Santa Catalina when we saw the pod of dolphins. They were feeding along the surface, and there were hundreds of them swimming, jumping, diving, and squealing to one another. It was impressive, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Our engineers have set up an undersea audio system for our ship that cancels out most of the ships noise. This allowed us to hear the squeals and cliques of the dolphins over our sound system while we were watching them. Dolphins are cool. The dolphins seem to roam in packs, taking occasional opportunity to jump through sky. We were all enthralled, and we sat and watched them for 40 minutes in the hot sun of late afternoon.

Reflections On The Journey So Far

I keep expecting myself to wake up from this amazing dream. Every day, at one point or another, I realize this amazing dream is my life. Every decision I’ve ever made has led to this point, and I love my life right now. I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this! To be honest, and I think if they paid me in sand I would still happily come to work. Baja is an amazing place, and I’m infatuated with its beauty and diversity of life.
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Onward!!! Let’s see what else is out there!

Posted by Rhombus 10:45 Archived in Mexico Tagged boats sea deserts oceans life snorkeling photography philosophy cacti Comments (3)

On Climbing

An Essay On One Of My Favorite Pastimes

Author's Note: I wrote this awhile ago, lost in bout of memories of my youth. Currently, I'm back in Michigan, spending time with my family after our loss. I'm returning to the Sea Bird on the 2nd, and so I have about a week of down time until then. Early winter in Michigan doesn't offer a whole lot to a vagabond. It's cold, and wintery; not enough snow to ski, unfortunately. So I thought I'd post this little piece and share some thoughts and stories about my climbing exploits.

I started out climbing trees. The land I grew up on had a thick forest of maples, oaks, red pine and apple trees, among others, and I climbed them all. I’ve spent many hours swaying in the thin branches of the tallest trees in the woods. I really liked climbing up high in strong winds. The wind would cause the tallest branches to buck and sway, and for me it was a homemade rollercoaster of sorts. Climbing trees is relatively easy. Most have reliable branches to elevate and descend with. Some of them bear gifts- fruits such as apples or cherries. Sometimes when I’d climb, I’d find the perfect branch, and turn it into a throne, a favorite spot to sit and think, daydreaming the afternoon away. I still climb trees at 29. I don’t climb them as much as I used to, but a couple times a year, I like to recapture my youth…Recapture is the wrong word, I like to reconnect with my past by exploring as a kid. I find that it helps me retain my interest and youthful vigor in my explorations as an adult.

I have to thank my oldest brother for getting me into rock climbing. When I was about twelve, he used to fill my head with stories of his exploits climbing the rock cliffs that make up the Greenstone Ridge of the Keweenaw Peninsula. His tales involved climbing, camping, freedom, friends and youthful vigor. He told his stories well, and I was an interested listener. He inspired me and I wanted to climb. Whenever someone would take me hiking up in the cliffs, I would take every opportunity to climb up a rock face instead of hiking along the trail. I was hooked even at an early age.

During the summer of my 15th year, my dad died. After numbly attending the series of ceremonies that goes with a death, I finally found myself alone and looking for an outlet. I called up a friend of mine, wondering if he wanted to do something. “Like what?” he asked. “I don’t know, how about we go climb up in the cliffs?” I said. “OK,” he said, “I’ll pick you up in 20 minutes.” So began my climbing career.

I don’t remember much about that first climb. I know it was a beautiful day, and that we had a great time climbing the face we chose to tackle. I remember the euphoria running through my body as I clung to the rock high above the pines of the forest below. We were both reveling in the challenge, and the fun of climbing. For the next three years, we spent any free time we had climbing. Some summer days, we’d work in the morning, attend football practice in the afternoon, meet up and climb two or three pitches in the late afternoon before descending down the sheer cliff faces in the dark. When school was in session, we’d climb every weekend, usually on Sunday. During the winter, we didn’t climb, but we still hiked up and down the cliffs, looking for new routes, and sledding back down. We called it exploring, and so it was.

We were purists. For footwear, we wore tennis shoes. No kidding. That was what we had, and so that’s what we used. We wore jeans, as not to scrape our knees on the rocks. We didn’t use ropes of any kind. We climbed the hardest faces we could. We specifically chose the more difficult routes that we could, as we reveled in the challenge. The routes we climbed were anywhere from 20 feet to over sixty feet high. If we fell, we were probably dead, or mangled. Neither one of us wanted to have to be the one to tell the other guy’s mom that his son fell off the rock. Our moms didn’t even know what we were up to, and I was very vague about my afternoon’s adventures when I showed up in the evening sweaty, filthy, bloody, and grinning. We came up with ideas on how to tell our mothers what happened if something went wrong. I figured that if it came to that, that I would take a casual approach. “Hi Mrs. Parks, do you remember Jeff? Oh, you do? Well, about that, he’s going to be late for dinner. He wanted me to let you know that. Why am I driving his car? Well, he said I could have it, as he wouldn‘t be needing it any more…”We were invincible. I didn’t learn that I wasn’t until ten years later, in an unrelated incident.

There was only one time that I was stuck, and had to improvise a descent. In climbing, it’s always easier to climb up, than to climb down. We were climbing in an area that we hadn’t been to before. Typically, we’d each choose a separate line, instead of both of us climbing the same one. Often, if someone was higher, he could call out holds that were unseen to the other climber. On this particular day, we were both climbing a 30-foot wall on two separate lines. I had worked myself onto a tiny shelf that allowed me to stand on it while hugging the overhanging rock above my head. I could shinny to the left, and to the right as far as the shelf went, sliding my feet as I palmed the rock with my hands. I couldn’t find anyway of getting around the smooth overhang. There was nothing.

Meanwhile, Jeff was having his own dilemma. He was perched on one good foothold and had one good handhold. The line he was climbing petered out of holds, and he had a decision to make. He could see a possible hold several feet above him, if he gripped a slender twig of a tree that was clinging in a crack, he could jump up and grab the “handhold. “ If he made it, he would complete the climb. If he missed, he fell twenty feet onto a hodge podge of jumbled boulders. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. He went for it. Luck was with him, and it was a good hold. He pulled himself up and kicked his leg over the top of the wall.

I wasn’t so lucky. I was still hugging the smooth surface of the bulging rock. I was nose to nose with it. I could smell the earthy moss, and ancient scent of the rock itself. Young lovers couldn’t have been closer to one another that I was with that rock. I heard Jeff’s shout of triumph that indicated he completed his climb. I couldn’t see him, as a chimney and an outcrop separated us. I tried shinnying left again, and still I couldn’t find a way. I knew I was tiring, and I knew I had to do something, so I decided to go back down. Climbing down is easier said than done. The same holds you used to elevate yourself are often only useful on the way up. The friction and force of your hands and feet on the rock are different when going up and down.

To get down, I knew that I couldn’t use the same holds that I used on the upward climb. They were of no use. I lowered myself gingerly over the side of the shelf, using the edge as my last handhold. The way down was slightly sloped in my favor, I wouldn’t be free falling. I slowly let go, and began a twelve foot slide using only my bare arms and feet as a brake against the rock. Time stood still. I landed on the boulder I was aiming for with a loud “THUMP” on my feet. My arms were in agony. The raw scrapes reached from my palms up to my biceps. My legs also had some scrapes, but overall, I was none the worse for wear, and very happy to be back down.

We compared our stories, laughed at our fortunes, and decided that it was probably enough climbing for the day.
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"KC Rock" Named after the Keweenaw Central Railroad which used to run beneath it.
Our greatest climb was when we took a direct line up “KC Rock.” KC Rock is probably the most difficult climb on the whole length of the ridge. It’s definitely the highest pitch I’ve ever climbed. We climbed the first couple of steep pitches with ease. We were feeling good, in great shape, and ready for the challenge of climbing the big one. Finally, we were perched about a hundred feet above the ground and directly underneath the overhanging “nose” of the rock itself. KC rock is a monolithic rock that sticks out like a nose at the very top of the cliff. The over hand is a flat roof of 20 feet that for us was unclimbable (we still didn’t use rock shoes, protection or ropes).We had to find a way around it. We maneuvered our way to the right side of the rock and there found a chimney that led halfway up the rock. Then it narrowed into a 4-inch crack that led all the way up to the top. It was a climb of about thirty feet. We jammed our bodies into the chimney, using our arms then our legs to force our backs flat against the chimney wall. By alternating arms to legs and sliding our backs along, we made it up to the crack. We jammed our feet and hands into the crack, climbing around a five-inch pine tree that had taken root. We continued upward, until I grabbed the backside of the rock the crack was in and pulled myself over the top. Jeff soon followed, and we had done it! We climbed KC Rock, a feat normally only completed by members the serious climbing club at the local university. We did it in tennis shoes, without ropes.
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Climbing At The City of Rocks, New Mexico
I continue to climb. I’ve given up the death defying routes of my youth, I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. Instead, I’ve become an avid boulderer. Bouldering is climbing in its simplest form. All that I need for equipment is a pair of rock shoes, a landing pad, and a chalk bag, though I only use shoes. In bouldering, you climb rocks close to the ground up to about 20 feet (this varies with the climber). This takes away the fear of falling, so you can try harder moves without worrying. It’s great exercise, a complete workout for the body and mind.

I’m not a great climber. You’ve probably have seen climbers clinging by one finger as they cling to the underside of an overhang. I’m not that good. I challenge myself as best I can, and I have fun. I get into a zen-like state when I’m climbing. I have total focus on the problem at hand. It’s probably the only activity that allows me to forget about everything else, concentrating completely on the climb. It feels so good to lose yourself in the climb. It helps me purge my body and mind, leaving me fresh.
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I have favorite climbing areas all around the country. That’s what is great about this sport, all you need to do is find some rock, and there are rocks everywhere (except North Dakota and Florida). I have a catalog of climbing areas for every state and Canada, so no matter where I’m traveling to, I can find some places to climb along the way. It makes a trip that much more special when I can find a good place to climb.

I love climbing on the shore of Lake Superior. The rock is usually excellent. It’s good for gripping, not too high, good landing areas. Moreover, it’s a beautiful place to climb. I love climbing out over the clear water, testing my mettle against the rock. If I fall, I fall right into the lake, which can be shockingly cold, especially if you fall into the water in late April. That’s a jolt to the system let me tell you.

I was climbing the other day on my favorite wall on Black Beach near Silver Bay, Minnesota. A gaggle of teenage girls came up to me as I was clinging precariously to the rock. “Excuse me, are you climbing?” one of them asked. “No, I’m just hugging rocks,” I replied. “It looks like you are climbing to me.,” she said. “Really?” I asked. “Yes. What’s your name? This went on for a while, each of the girls asking questions, and bantering with one another. Meanwhile, I was weakening as I was still clinging to the rock with my fingers and arms outstretched like an eagle. I decided to try the next move. “Why don’t you just climb up over here? It’s way easier.” One of them pointed out helpfully. Grunting with the effort, I gasped out, “BE..CUZ I like the challenge…” “Well, that’s dumb,” she said. The group finally was bored with me, and moved off letting me finish my climb in peace. It’s not everyday I am interviewed in the middle of a climb.

I’ll continue to climb as long as I can. At this point, I see no end in sight.
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Posted by Rhombus 08:51 Archived in USA Tagged deserts rock climbing travelling philosophy Comments (2)

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