Thursday, May 25, 2017

San Diego May 2017: Also, The Sonoran Desert is Better Than the Sahara

When I was in Morocco in April, I went for a run in the Sahara. While now I have points for being in the Sahara, I found myself - underwhelmed. "We've been in better deserts than this!" my jaded wife and I both said. Knowing that in a month I would be in San Diego, I decided to do something I'd long thought about: go running in Algodones Dunes, thus proving once and for all that California's desert is better than the Sahara. If you're reading this though: don't be so quick to go to San Diego - there are all sorts of miscreants, deviants and otherwise unsavory elements of society that populate this place, as I was reminded through various visits in their company - much against my will mind you - to homes, drinking establishments and even the top of Black Mountain. Shudder.

The Algodones Dunes from space, with south basically at bottom - the black lines near the bottom are the All-American water canal and I-8. Thus, witnesseth! that in the U.S. we have our own ergs, AND nearby Mexican food and beer. And San Diego beaches are a mere 2.5 hr drive away, which I also made use of. And even a good Moroccan restaurant if you so desire! See? Vastly better than the dumb Sahara.

If you drive from San Diego to Yuma on the 8, you pass through the Dunes 15-20 miles before you cross the Colorado and enter Arizona, and they extend north as far as Brawley. You can't miss them: high golden sandy dunes, more on the north than the south side of the freeway. At one point I had the brilliant, stupid idea of running the whole thing from north to south, documented on this very blog. People I mentioned this to had several important questions: first, was I on drugs; and second, how many drugs was I on. So I abandoned the idea of running the whole thing, but my experience in Morocco reignited the idea of at least going out there.

My plan was to get the car as close as possible to the ergs off the 8, run out in them to where I was isolated and couldn't see anything but sand, then run back. Original plan: leave SD at 6am to be there at 8:30, since the prediction was by 8am it would be 80 F, 10am it would be 90, with a high of 105. But leaving at 6 would have required an early bed time, and as you know one must hydrate before such exertions! Therefore I went out in North Park Saturday night, and got to Algodones about 11:15. NOICE! SWAYT!

This is from the Gordon Wells exit, #151. The other side is Grays Well #156. (This picture is facing ENE, and those mountains are somewhere in Arizona northeast of Yuma.) You can get to the dunes, which extend north, from 78 just east of Brawley too, about the same drive time from SD. When it's cooler there will be far more ATV's and dirt bikes, other than the preserve north of 78. I should add that when I called BLM in El Centro they were extremely helpful in planning this little excursion (and no I'm not being sarcastic for once.)

When most people (including me) think of the Sonoran desert they think of saguaros and areas that can actually get a little green from monsoon moisture - not this. But then I remembered that the northern end of Baja's Gulf Coast is very sandy like this, and loaded with saguaros, so even by that definition it still sticks. So whatever. (When I was there I thought this was part of the Mojave. Mojave, Colorado, Sonoran, I can't keep them straight.)

Running down a dune isn't so hard, but otherwise, the annoyingness of running on soft sand for any length of time cannot be overstated, which I had forgotten. I will grudgingly give the Sahara a point in its favor for having firmer footing, but then again I wasn't running on ergs there. On the beach you can either run on the packed hard sand near the water, or leave the beach. When you're in an erg zone, there is neither water, nor leaving the beach. (If you've ever run "the sand ladder" during a certain Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco, that's not even close to as irritating as this.) Even the high dunes, some around 100', have a sharp edge at the top, which always fascinates me.

I only saw one person, a very kind dirt bike rider who was kind enough to ride basically from the horizon to see if this goofy black-wearing runner was okay. (Black? Safety first; always wear light clothing.)

In this area, the border with Mexico is only a few hundred yards south of the 8. Kind of looks like we already have a wall...

And after you're done being an idiot in the desert, you can go to the beach! Pics are between Torrey Pines Beach and Black's Beach. I hate food photos but I'll post one here, to emphasize the basic truth that I was eating rolled tacos at Cuatro Milpas, and you weren't.

CONCLUSION: the Sonoran Desert is better than the Sahara. Thank you.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Cozy Village in the Faroes

I've never been but have always been curious, especially because of the exploding whale (really, you should click that, it's neat, especially if you're eating sausage or there are children nearby.) I'm amazed that people have managed to make a living on some of these islands. Yes, there's a town there, at the base of the hill, set back from and above the waterfall. Full slideshow from Outside Magazine.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"People Made It Happen"

Q: What's one thing that you wish more people know about [Mt. Tam]?

A: It just wasn't always public; people take these things for granted. In 1900, every bit of Mt. Tamalpais was private. And over the next century, that completely reversed. And it happened due to people who cared and who were passionate and who worked hard. That's the story I'd like people to know: It just didn't happen. People made it happen. And they need to cherish what they've got—and to keep battling to keep it that way.

Good to remember! That's Barry Spitz, author of Mount Tamalpais Trails, interviewed on the Parks Conservancy Web Site. As a side note, something I found oddly comforting: there are few who can claim to know and love that mountain more than him, but regarding his measuring the mileage of all the trails, he described it as "tedious". Too much of anything is boring!

View of Mt. Tam from Berkeley.
From (sorry) Damn hippies.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Together At Last: Igneous Rock Separated 200 Million Years Ago at the Triassic-Jurassic Boundary

It sometimes happens that a volcanic system appears at a plate boundary, and then is split into two parts and separated by many miles over the eons. One example of this is Pinnacles National Park and Neenach volcano. Today they're about 250 miles apart, but they used to be the same system, and they're riding the San Andreas Fault. One of them has drifted north as the Pacific Plate grinds northward (Pinnacles, inland from Monterey) and the other is inland from Los Angeles.

Whenever this happens, two sets of rocks slowly drift apart, never to see one another again. This makes me sad.

Top: the San Andreas, with the two halves of the old volcano marked. Middle: Pinnacles National Park, the northern half on the Pacific Plate. Bottom: Neenach Volcano, the southern half on the North American plate, with fault relatively visible. (photo credits Structural Geology of Weebly, National Geographic, and Michael Rymer respectively.

In December I discovered that Berks County, Pennsylvania has volcanoes, which are part of the CAMP, the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, a large area of eruptions that occurred at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary just as the Atlantic was starting to open (coincidence? We don't know yet.) What we do know is that since the Atlantic was just starting to open, the CAMP is split on both sides of the Atlantic. Some in Pennsylvania, some in - Morocco, in the Atlas Mountains, which gave the Atlantic its name. Long lost cousins, long gone across the ocean.

Above: the CAMP as the volcanoes erupted just prior to the Atlantic opening; Palisades Sill, a northerly continuation of the igneous rock seen in the Jacksonwald/Wachtung Outliers; and the CAMP layer is visible in the Middle Atlas, Morocco. From Paul Olsen at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University; Wikipedia; and Eric Font at the University of Lisbon, respectively.

When I learned this I already had a vacation scheduled to Morocco, which you can read about here.

I knew there was only one thing to do: collect samples in the High Atlas and bring them back, to reunite them with their long-lost cousins.

And now: it is done!


I'm ashamed to admit that I was not high when I conceived of this, nor even when I carried it out.

You'll be pleased to know that they spend their days catching up on plate motions and weathering. And they have earned this much-awaited rest and snuggling.

I feel as though I've made a difference.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Canary Islands (Gran Canaria and La Palma) April 2017

tl;dr The Canaries are pretty photogenic, but if you're too important to read the whole thing then scroll down to the pictures from the top of the volcano (pretty obvious).

Of the Ryanair flight from London Stansted to Gran Canaria, we will not speak, except to say that I learned that "chavs" are clearly not vertebrates, and cannot be meaningfully said to have conscious awareness the way other animals do. Also, they appear to come from a gas giant planet whose atmosphere is entirely made of cologne. (More on this in the England section of the trip.) For the Moroccan part of the trip, go here.

Brief background: the Romans knew about them (see the histories of Pliny the Elder) but didn't explore them. Before them, the Carthaginians certainly did, and that contributes to the mystery of the origins of the Guanches, the people who were there when the Spanish arrived in earnest in the 1400s. Genetically they look like Berbers, and the less developed islands have a stronger signature. A leading theory is that the Guanches were Berber workers (slaves?) that the Carthaginians took to the islands, which they ultimately abandoned; in any event ancient Berbers were not notorious for their nautical abilities. (There are many other mysteries about the range of the Phoenicians which I think we haven't heard the last of.) The Guanches carved caves out of the soft volcanic rock, and developed a whistled communication system (called simply "Whistle", silbo) that is still in use on La Gomera, by shepherds calling across the canyons. (While I'm glad Silbo is protected and it's recently been re-invigorated, I use the phrase "communication system" because despite enthusiastic claims to the contrary, it is clearly not a language. Read to the end to see the argument.)

The Canaries were finally conquered in the 1400s, and became the gateway to the Americas; for example, it was Columbus's last stop on the eastern side of the Atlantic during his first voyage - so perhaps not surprisingly, Canarian Spanish sounds very American (e.g., dropping s's, limited use of second person plural as well as past perfect - great for an American Spanish speaker!) This also means that the Spanish experience of "pacifying" natives in the Canaries likely colored their actions when they began the invasion of the New World mere decades later.

That's all interesting and everything, but why did we go to the Canaries? We ruled out Menorca because that beautiful water wouldn't be warm enough to swim in yet in April, and we never really talked about the Azores but they're wet and can be cool. So what are the good things about the Canaries? They're sunny; and Chinese writer Echo Chan lived there, and that interested my wife. For another, these islands are kind of like the Hawaiian Islands of the Atlantic - a subtropical chain of submarine volcanoes, except with pine trees, weather that's a little more like San Diego's, and better food. La Palma in particular seems like their Kauai. The down side is that, due to simple proximity, there are more English (although Gran Canaria seems particularly adhesive for them and La Palma is more popular with Germans.)

Within the Canaries, originally I wanted to go to Tenerife because it has the highest peak (El Teide, over 12,000', also the highest peak in all of Spain), but then I looked at images and actually it's just kind of a pointy rock, although I can see why people from Western Europe would be so fascinated by it. (Seriously. San Gorgonio in SoCal or Lassen both look a lot cooler than this thing.) Then I realized that the Transvulcania trail marathon, with its awesome pictures, takes place on La Palma. Boy am I glad we went. My only regret is that we should've spent all our time there, not on Gran Canaria or in Morocco. The picture below (from - and the amazing conjunction of pines, lava, clouds and sky - more than anything is what convinced me.

Also La Palma will eventually collapse and destroy the American East Coast. But hey. No one's perfect. When I was on the trails I tried not to stomp too hard. I'm conscientious.

We went to two islands, Gran Canaria and La Palma. Point of confusion: the capital city of Gran Canaria has the same name as the other island we visited. That is to say: Gran Canaria's capital is La Palma (de Gran Canaria.) La Palma's capital is Santa Cruz (de La Palma.) Got it?


One of the two "capital" islands. Very, very dry-appearing as we were landing, not unlike Baja; I imagine this is more due to development and deforestation than the island's positioning in the archipelago. The southernmost point of the trip was when we drove down to the lighthouse at the southern tip of the island. Despite the tourist development on the islands eastern coast, there are plenty of neat little towns in the mountainous interior, which greens as you climb, and there's even surviving laurisilva forest, the old oak forest that once covered Mediterranean Europe, but was cut down as civilization built up. Laurisilva has many epiphyte plants on it (like Spanish moss, or the hanging stuff that's everywhere in Pacific Northwest forests), which I associate with wet climates; don't understand how it hangs on there. The city of La Palma (de Gran Canaria) seemed like a nicer-than-average Spanish city, though well-planned with lots of new construction. The food of the Canaries consists of wrinkly potatoes (just boiled with salt), tasty basic seafood, and a throw-everything-in seafood stew that literally translates as "old clothes". For some reason they generally refer to it as ropas viejas even on English menus.

Above: a town in the green high areas of central Gran Canaria. Below: trails in the Canaries are amazingly well-marked.

I had already scoped out Tamadaba Preserve (no Flintstones jokes please) and our Airbnb host, also a trail nut, agreed that it was the prettiest and best preserve on the island. Volcanic formations above, and Roque Nublo, the center of the island below.

Above: El Teide juts up from the fog in the distance, and the white breakers of a beach is just barely visible far below. It's well over a mile in elevation here.

Above, the relief on the island is dramatic, as volcanic islands are. Below, looking at the map, I thought "well maybe I can't drive but I bet I could scramble up from the coast." You'd think I'd be smart enough by now to study topos in new terrain if I'm going to try something like that.

Above: Echo Chan's (San Mao's) view when she lived in Gran Canaria. In the 70s the island was much less developed. Below: Echo Chan's biggest fan.

Above, a pleasant town in the central highlands, which for some reason I took a liking to. I consider this the Leesport of Gran Canaria. Below, you can see that the fog layer is below us. I think I've never seen this effect before other than from Marin County.

Above: on the south side of the island, there is a rugged canyon with a trail and caves carved into the rock. Some of them are still people's homes; some of them are now bars and restaurants. Here we sat enjoying the cool cave air at our backs while enjoying a nice Spanish lunch. Times is hard. Next few pictures below are the view during lunch.


La Palma is paradise. On a trip during which we otherwise felt sick and could not relax, we had a two day vacation from our vacation - a two day stretch where I didn't once fantasize about being at work. I try not to kick myself for not just canceling our flight to Morocco and spending the rest of the time here, but I know I would have experienced severe FOMO and not received my points for Africa. But right from the start the island gods were clearly welcoming us - when I stopped to fill up with gas immediately after arriving, the service station was playing frickin Black Sabbath.

La Palma is largely undeveloped, much greener and covered with pines than Gran Canaria, and what towns there are are heavily historical. The small towns we encountered usually had one good restaurant and we even found a Belgian-owned microbrewery. (Seriously, why did we leave this island?) The summit of the island's main volcano is over 8,000', complete with the EU's largest observatory. We found a place that was about a quarter motel, three-quarters cabins, with small buildings just big enough for two beds, and a separate common kitchen area and self-serve bar - which we had all to ourselves. We watched the fog roll in in utter silence, and we slept very well (except for a rooster that woke us at 4:15 every morning - literally the worst thing about this place. Okay and I didn't care for acorn wine, but there was plenty of other wine.) For US$35 a night. With two cute dogs and a cat, and a very interesting owner who built the place himself. As if all that's not enough, the entire island is covered with a trail network the goes from the beaches to the peak, and every point in between, joining with the roads - so if you want, you can break off from your hike in the pines to get a glass of wine and a snack. Okay now I'm depressed that we're not there so I'll just show you the pictures.

Above: our cabin. Next three below are the view from the cabin.

Above: Camilo the cat. Below: the kitchen, with Charlie.

Above: Charlie did occasionally move, unfortunately, often into inappropriate positions. Below: more of our piece of paradise, with Chacha.

The beginning of the trail network. You can't really call any part of the island a wilderness, but that's fine.

The fog became more prominent as I climbed. I was really amazed at how much fog there was at this latitude (28 degrees).

Soon through the fog it became clear that there was a...discontinuity to the side of the trail. I went a little off trail to see if there was a drop-off. It's hard to appreciate but below, that's a road down there through the fog.

As the fog drifted it gradually became clear that I was at the edge of a caldera - in fact, the caldera, Caldera de Taburiente, which caused German geologist von Buch to start using this term for volcanic craters in 1815.

Looking back to the coast you can see the towns down by the beach; ahead, the trail next to the caldera rim.

Above, an old vineyard. (The trails were originally working trails used by wine growers, shepherds, etc. and in some cases still are.) Above - if I'd had more time I definitely would've tried to make it to the summit. Major regret! I think this means we have to go back.

View from the edge of the caldera, where they're nice enough to put a fence.

La Palma's nickname is La Bonita (the pretty one) and the tourist bureau doesn't have to stamp it on everything to drill it into your head, because it's self-evidently true.

The next few pictures are from the even greener north end of the island, which has petroglyphs left by the Guanches (spiral carvings mostly). For someone used to the American Southwest they don't blow you away, but it would be interesting to compare them to North African petroglyphs. More importantly, right down the road from this area was a service station which sold Malteaser ice cream. And rum made from caramel, which is a La Palma product. (I started worrying at that point that the whole island was a conspiracy to keep us from going home, and that when we rejected its hospitality, it would become angry. The volcano did erupt in the 70s you know.)

Then, the summit, which included the observatory. We saw *a patch* of snow near the very top.

And then the caldera, from the very summit, with Teide in the background. I took so many pictures here I'm going to let them speak for themselves.

I always kind of wonder what crows are doing at these elevations - I've seen them as high as 14,000' on the snow on Mt. Shasta. Of course, humans don't really have a good excuse for being up there either, and both species are smart enough to do weird things.

I mean come on. Below, interesting spelling of avocado that is actually closer to the Nahuatl (Aztec) pronunciation. These look strange and taste about the same, so I thought they might be from an old cultivar brought back from the New World very early on - but they claim to be Hasses, which are all descended from a single tree in Los Angeles less than a century ago.

That valley leads back into the caldera. I had taken a trail that started right in town and continues down this canyon, which we well-remembered driving up. You can see the old stone trail that will take me down there. This island is known for banana production (where else in the EU can you grow bananas?) The side of the canyon was quite dry with a lot of odd endemic-looking flora.

Back to the cabins. We parked along a road and hiked up a hill to the property. My wife pointed out the parking rules here: find a spot where cars won't hit you, and park there. Very alien to an urban Californian, but a nice change. As you can see, flowers were all up in this place.

Above, Camilo was very sweet, and he was a skinny bastid, so I gave him meatballs. Below, we just couldn't get over our view.

Chacha and Charlie were also sweet, although where food was concerned, a bit more insistent. Below, more of our home away from home, which I can't believe (and much rue) that we were only in for two days.

This right here connected to the trail network. And below is the outdoor bar, where I took my meals. There was even Wifi for crying out loud.

Our last day we went to the other side of the island, to the "city" of Santa Cruz. The ocean wasn't warm enough to swim comfortably. The city is known for its old balconies.

Monument recognizing both the first Spanish settlers and the Guanche resistance.

We then went to a large preserve on the northeast part of the island. Quite steep and green; again I was bummed that I didn't have time to try to run up to the top of the ridge, as we were flying out that night. Although the island is green, agriculture thrives only with extensive irrigation and careful redistribution of water, and there are water tunnels carrying it through the middle of the island, many of which are on these trails - and which of course connects to the rest of the island's trail network.

From there, it was on to Morocco.

SUPPLEMENT. Why Silbo is Not a Language

Silbo, the whistled "language" of La Gomera, is clearly a remarkable part of the Canaries' unique heritage, one that I hope continues to exist far into the future. You can listen to examples here, here and here. I emphasize this because my argument that it is not a language is not an argument to diminish its significance in this regard. But language is a strong interst of mine - I almost went back to school to study linguistics - and Silbo is not a language, and I've carefully referred to it as a "communication system" for this reason. (If you run across this blog post and you have counterarguments or evidence to the contrary, I'm not a Silbo expert, so by all means educate me!) Canarians are of course proud of their heritage and it's difficult to receive criticism of a belief about something so central to cultural identity as language, and we've encountered this problem right here in the U.S. (see #2). Here is why Silbo is not a language.

1. Silbo dates to the days of the Guanches. Guanche was a distinct language, unrelated to Spanish. As a Berber language, Guanche likely had a very restricted set of vowels, uniquely suiting it to a whistled form which by some estimates has only two vowels (as linguist Ramon Trujillo argued in his 1978 book.) Yet the modern version of Silbo is clearly whistled Spanish. The ability to translate Spanish (or any language) into a whistle, and have someone understand any of it, is remarkable. But this shows that Silbo is a manner of intonation of an already-understood language, not its own language. (If you object: can someone from Germany learn Silbo, but not learn Spanish? If two German-speakers in Switzerland start whistling German to each other across the valleys, is that Silbo, and could someone from La Gomera understand them? The answers are no and no. It's not its own language.) I would like to see sets of "blinded" participants communicating to see what the lossiness of Silbo is - I predict much more than actual language. Normal spoken language is about 50% redundant.

2. Silbo is used in very limited circumstances - to call long distances across valleys (for which it's a brilliant innovation), and to discuss very limited topics of obvious immediate import (where are my sheep, is it going to rain, etc.) No ritual oration has ever been given in Silbo, no political discussion, no business deal (unless it was a very simple one across a valley involving something immediately present like sheep. Note that in one of the links above they're talking about red wine, etc.; this is a tourist performance, and no one is actually communicating.) True languages are used constantly, in every social setting. You have to work hard not to use them, and children exposed to them start developing language at a young age, without any special effort to teach them. I would be shocked to learn that children of four are whistling without being specifically taught, and I also have not read any traveler, ancient or otherwise, reporting the ear-splitting qualities of conversation in a village of La Gomera - because people speak. An example of a language-like entity that has become culturally important here in the U.S. is what people call Chinook, but is really Chinook Jargon. It's a trade pidgin, a mish-mash of true Chinook (a real language), English, and some Russian, Spanish and French. It has little to no morphosyntactic structure, is not learned by children, and is not spoken outside of trade settings. Nobody goes home and speaks Chinook Jargon to their wives or husbands, they speak Chinook, or English, etc. and that's what the children learn. The children may grow up and learn Chinook Jargon - as adolescents or adults, by deliberate effort. So as with Silbo, Chinook Jargon is a fascinating and important part of the Pacific Northwest's history and heritage, and I wish its enthusiasts well - but it's not a language.

3. Finally, "non-standard" phonemes (like whistles) can certainly be part of languages - but they're never the whole language. In fact, possibly the strongest argument here is that there are languages with clicks, and nasal vs oral or even whispered vowels, and (probably!) even whistled vowels, but no language uses entirely one or the other. So if Silbo is a language, then two prisoners whispering in English between their cells have invented a new language called "Whisper", as long as the other prisoners catch on and use it. (Silbo was successful because it carries over long distances; it's kind of the anti-whisper.)