White Rock Canyon

In the canyon. See link at end of post for more images.

Once in his life, a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.
— N. Scott Momaday

There is a great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one’s life. It happens that we return to such places in our minds irresistibly. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them walked in them lived in them even for a day, we keep forever in the mind’s eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there.
— Ibid.

One of my goals on my most recent trip to New Mexico to visit my parents had been to revisit White Rock Canyon, a landscape I bonded with in my youth. It was not even a half-mile from the house I lived in during my teens. Initially, like most, I concentrated my visits in the colder months, because the canyon becomes an inferno in the summer; its black basalt walls collect and concentrate the heat of the already intense Southwestern sun.

Then one June curiosity got the best of me: what would the canyon be like now? What would the hottest and driest spot in the county be like during the hottest and driest part of the year (as June is, in New Mexico)? There was only one way to find out, so one fine scorching afternoon I loaded a day pack with several canteens and descended into nature’s oven.

The cacti were in their typical June defiance. As the most drought-tolerant of plants, they could afford to bloom despite the conditions, and they did. As such, they were richly reaping the rewards of their monopoly on the supply of pollen and nectar; each cactus blossom was teeming with pollinators.

As expected, it was hot. Clouds of powdery, dessicated dust rose with every footfall. It was a challenge to exercise discipline and ration my water so I would still have some on the trip up. The further I descended, the hotter it got. The grasses and forbs were withered and brittle brown amongst the angular black boulders and parched soil. The branchlets of the junipers and even the blooming cacti looked wizened and water-deprived.

Then I turn a corner of the trail and see a view of vibrant, lush, defiant green appear. It seems like a hallucination, so out of place in this dry land in its driest season. It’s the sort of green one might see in Ohio or Louisiana or the Pacific Northwest, a green born of plant life exuberating in a water surplus.

I’ve been here before, so know it is no hallucination. The same descent that brought me into ever hotter conditions brought me ever closer to the water table. At the rim, it was nearly 1,000 feet below the surface. Here, near the bottom, the surface meets it. Multiple springs burst forth and merge into a clear stream.

I enter into the deep shade and rest by the first spring. It is mercifully cooler here among the verdure and abundant water. After a few minutes I glance upstream. Orchids!

Hundreds of orchids, in fact. In full bloom. More wild orchids than I have ever seen in one place. It turns out that these springs are one of the few places in New Mexico where the stream orchid grows, and they bloom in June. Because nobody I know enters the canyon in June, nobody I know knows about them.

That decided it; from then on I regularly visited the canyon, year-round, even though people thought I was nuts for going there in the summer when it was so hot. In August, the area around the springs was more magical yet. Cardinal flowers bloomed in a profusion as great as the orchids did earlier.

I had been wanting to see these rare flowers ever since hearing about them as a younger child in Illinois. I had given up hope of seeing them when we moved west, thinking they were a strictly Eastern/Midwestern plant. The tall spikes of scarlet humming with hummingbirds looked like a scene that belonged more in the jungles of Central America than the high deserts of New Mexico. Yet I could lift my eyes and see that beyond the narrow strip watered by the stream and springs, the austere landscape remained.

Some days I paused on the rim before I enter the canyon, surveying the landscape and choosing an off-trail destination that looks interesting from above. Other discoveries followed: a rock wall covered in dozens of petroglyphs, benches untouched by sheep and cattle where the grasses grew as tall and thick as they did everywhere centuries ago, ancient irrigation works, piles of giant boulders that left one feeling as if an ant amongst grains of coarse sand, unusual ferns (yes, desert ferns), and others I can’t recall at the moment.

Naturally, I had to go back someday, but my parents moved, first to Texas, then back to New Mexico but 100 miles from the canyon. It’s never been convenient to work in a side trip, but I kept saying to myself that someday I’d rent a car and make a day trip there.

Someday was Monday. It being in a town I had lived in for eight years, I drove directly to the trailhead with no missteps. There is now a fancy sign with an elevation profile and rules. I did not read the rules. Other than that, there were not any big changes. No new enlarged parking lot, no big crowds at the trailhead; it was basically the same as I had remembered. From the rim, the familiar landscape of river, semi-desert vegetation and Toreva blocks came into view.

It was winter, so no sightings of wildflowers this time (though the ferns are evergreen and were still there). There was still the unique fragrance of the canyon, a mix of sagebrush, basalt, and dust. It was still surprisingly free from human sights and sounds for a place right on the edge of a town: canyons lie below the surrounding land, frustrating the ability for sounds to enter them. It’s the converse of how you can see and hear signs of distant civilization from a otherwise remote mountaintop.

I found and climbed the boulder pile (easy to find, it’s close to the trail) and visited the petroglyph wall (less easy, it’s a detour off-trail of at least a half mile through terrain that is in places quite rugged). The latter spot was no longer completely my own, as others were obviously visiting and admiring the ancient artwork, as evidenced by the faint trail, marked by cairns, and trampled vegetation at the site itself.

Overall, however, the canyon has changed far less in the intervening 35-odd years since I last saw it than many attractions in that state have. Part of it is it’s not really a tourist attraction: it’s a county park, not a state or national one, and the county really doesn’t publicize it much (there’s no signs directing one to the canyon from the nearest major highway). Mostly, it’s a spot for the locals.

Halfway through my visit I realize how much that place is still part of me today, how its lessons in harsh beauty have influenced my own outlooks. I just can’t get on board with so much New Age stuff because it strikes me as all soft and mushy and friendly and cute; the world isn’t all soft and mushy and friendly and cute, sorry. Ditto for a good chunk of politically liberal beliefs that think all problems can simply be loved away; sometimes things must be fought for. I care even less for right-wingers and their cheering on of capitalism and its subjugation and domestication of the wild.

The natural world exists on its own terms, and it’s not simply good and bad according to our own metrics (nor should it be). The canyon can outright kill (and has killed) the unprepared, the foolish, and sometimes the simply unlucky. Hazards abound: extremes of temperature, a disorienting terrain, rattlesnakes, and sheer cliffs among them.

Would those orchids have been the experience they were if it was easy and pleasant to get to them, if I had expected them because I had heard of them from somebody else first and gone to see them, if there had been crowds and paved trails and a gift shop there? If there had been signs and rules and regulations and profit-making capitalists charging money everywhere, instead of the freedom to explore and wander that I had then? If the weather had been comfortable and temperate?

No, I don’t want a world engineered to be nice and safe, or a world engineered to be efficient and profitable. I want a wild world, a free world.

More photos here.

Back to Safari… for Now

Circa 2011 I dumped Safari for Firefox. Safari had come out with what I term a “turkey upgrade” that made it painfully slow. Plus, Safari’s Javascript engine has always tended to suck. Add to that the recent slowness factor and it was worth putting up with how Firefox’s UI sometimes annoying departs from normal Macintosh standards.

Now Firefox has come out with a turkey upgrade of its own: Firefox Quantum. It’s almost hideously ugly and un-Mac-like. There’s so much clutter up top that the box that you enter the URL to browse to in can almost never display the whole URL at once any more.

Worse, the designers made the atrocious decision to devote the entire top part of the window to the browser tabs; there’s not much place to click on if you just want to move the browser window. You must fight your way to one of the far top corners in order to do that (and “fight” is the correct word, given that it makes it needlessly difficult to move the browser window).

What happens, of course, is that I’m used to Firefox acting how it used to (and, for that matter, how every other Mac program works), where the entire top most part of the window can be used to grab and move it. So I end up grabbing a tab and moving it. Which of course causes the tab to become a window of its own. This is something I almost never want to do. Congratulations, Firefox, you’ve made it easy for me to do something I almost never want and needlessly difficult to do something I often want.

Back to Safari for now.

Coleman 425E Experiences

No “Liquid Fuel” Stove Works Like Your Kitchen Stove

You have to go through a process to light them, because they don’t actually run on liquid fuel: they boil their liquid fuel, then run on the resulting vapors. That’s because it’s difficult to directly burn a liquid fuel cleanly and efficiently.

But a cold, unlit stove can’t boil any gasoline, so it must be briefly operated directly (and inefficiently) on some sort of liquid fuel (typically its own gasoline) to heat it up to the point where it can boil its fuel and get running normally. The exact procedure varies a great deal from model to model and manufacturer to manufacturer.

That only takes about a minute, and Coleman actually came up with one of the best such procedures, but it does still take a minute. You don’t just turn on the gas valve of a cold “liquid fuel” stove and have an instant clean flame ready to go. Worse, it looks strange to the uninitiated, who often tend to worry that the stove is about to cause a conflagration of explosion when in fact it’s just acting normally for a cold start.

This was not a surprise to me, but I figured I’d mention it, just in case some random person unaware of it happens to read this post.

The 425E Is Even Less Like a Kitchen Stove Than a One-Burner White Gas Stove

Not only is there a lighting process to go through, but the burners don’t operate independently of each other. There’s a main burner (whose heat vaporizes the fuel) and an auxiliary one (that piggybacks off the vapor made by the generator and main burner). For flame control, there’s a valve that controls the fuel going to both burners, and one that controls the auxiliary burner only.

If you want only one burner on, that has to be the main burner. If you want one burner on high, and the other on low, it’s the main that must be the one on high. Upshot is you often end up swapping pots around instead of (or in addition to) just adjusting the burner flame level.

All of Coleman’s multi-burner gasoline stoves are like this, not just the 425E. None of the above is a surprise, because I remember how my parents used such a stove decades ago.

It Does Simmer, and It Is Stable

The tippiness and the limited simmering ability of my one-burner Coleman 440 were the main motives for wanting an alternate liquid fuel stove.

No More Annoying Wasteful Canisters

What are the annoyances of propane canisters? Let me count them:

  1. There is no legal way to refill a canister. You throw the empties away.
  2. Recyclers typically don’t take the empties. They go in the trash, not the metal recycling bin.
  3. Don’t want to take a partly-full canister on a trip? Too bad; see point No. 1 above. Either suck it up and take it, or add it to your growing collection of partly-full canisters and take a new full one.
  4. A canister is a declining source of power. The emptier it gets, the worse its performance gets. Below 1/4 full, performance is seriously impacted if the temperature is below 50°F/10°C. Which of course is precisely when you most want a nice, hot meal.

I’m Still Keeping the Propane Stove

Why? Revisit the first two sections. White gas stoves intimidate many people, particularly when first lit. That’s a minus on group camp-outs, where you want something simple that won’t surprise or startle novice users. The other 95% of the time, however, I’ll be using white gas from now on.

All in All, It Seems to Be a Good Deal

For one quarter the price of a new one-burner MSR Dragonfly, and one-half the price of a used one in unknown condition, I got a reconditioned, known-good, Coleman two-burner stove. The Coleman stove was also approximately one-quarter the price of the necessary hardware (tank, hose, adapter) to run my two-burner propane stove from a refillable tank instead of those annoying and poor-performing canisters.

The only real downside is the vastly greater weight and size of the Coleman stove compared to the Dragonfly. Since I only very seldom backpack, that’s a minor issue, and basically countered by having an extra burner to cook on. I already have two stoves suitable for backpack use, anyhow.

Deals Galore in Mount Vernon

Last fall, I took my old single-burner Coleman stove camping. It was the first time in decades I had used it, but I knew how badly canister stoves acted when temperatures were in the forties, and this was a trip to Wyoming, where lows could be expected to be in the twenties each night.

The pump didn’t pump well when I tried it. After some research with a search engine, I fed it a couple drops of household lubricating oil and waited a few minutes. It pumped perfectly. I filled the tank and did a test firing. The stove operated just as I had remembered it from years back.

And it was very nice to have a stove the just belted out the heat, no matter how chilly it was. Gone forever was the “tank is only partially full, so performance sucks in cold or even cool weather” syndrome. But it was tippy, vulnerable to the wind, and difficult to make it simmer reliably.

I had been lusting after an MSR Dragonfly, but those are way too spendy to rationalize on my presently limited budget. So I’ve been keeping an eye on the local Craigslist instead. Most of the Dragonflies there were still $70 and up. Then I spied a Coleman two-burner car-camping stove on sale for $35, about $10 less than the norm for such things, in the “items available in nearby areas” section. Its picture showed it in very good condition, atop a stack of other such stoves, and the ad mentioned the seller being hard of hearing. Ah, thought I, a fully checked-out and restored stove from a retired tinkerer with a hobby business to pass the time. Probably every bit the deal it appears to be.

It’s not lightweight like the Dragonfly, but I seldom backpack anyhow. My Dad had (still has) one and used it for years on camping trips and (when burn bans were in place) picnics. It never let him down. It was not tippy. It simmered easily. It performed acceptably in the wind.

But it was for sale in Mount Vernon. Add the ferry tolls and gas and it’s totally not a justifiable expense. Except that I was going to Lopez Island this weekend, and Mount Vernon is essentially on the way there. So I contacted the seller and said that if it was still available Sunday (today), I was interested in buying it. It was, and the seller was basically as I had sussed him out. He demonstrated the stove worked, we chatted a bit, and I left with it. It set me back 1/4 the price of a new Dragonfly.

My ride partner had asked to be dropped off downtown, so he could visit a used book store he liked. While the proprietor was ringing up my friend’s purchases, I remembered a highly-regarded (and out of print) book on mosses I had been wanting for some time. I asked where the botany section was and darted off. And there it was, priced at $9.95. It sells for $40 and up on Amazon. It followed me home, too.

More Curmudgeonly Smartphone Bashing

A few months ago I had the opportunity to use an iPhone. Unbelievably, the thing took eight keystrokes to simply hang up an in-progress call. Eight! I am not making this up:

  1. After 30 seconds or so of idleness, the phone locks itself due to security measures. (The phone for some reason considers itself to be “idle” even though it is actively in use for a call at the time.)
  2. Given virtually all calls last longer than 30 seconds, that means you must first get the attention of the now-locked iPhone. Press the one and only actual mechanical button offering tactile feedback the device has (1 keystroke, 1 in total).
  3. It is now time to enter the unlock code for the phone (4 additional keystrokes, 5 in total, and counting).
  4. Despite the device being a phone, and a phone call being actively in place, for some reason you are now in the phone’s default mode, which has nothing to do with making or managing telephone calls. Tap the icon that puts the phone in phone mode (1 additional keystroke, 6 in total, and counting).
  5. Despite there being a phone call actively in place, when you enter phone mode you are placed in the mode where you can make an additional call, not for managing the existing in-progress call. You must manually select the current call (1 additional keystroke, 7 in total, and counting).
  6. You are finally now presented with the desired icon to click on that will end the call. Click on it (1 final keystroke, grand total of 8).
  7. Congratulations! You have at long last managed to hang up.

By the time that’s all done, odds are at least 50-50 the other party has long since hung up already and the call has timed out before you could hang it up.

Why would I want to have a device that packs so many non-phone duties into itself, and implements its total set of duties so poorly, that using it for its primary intended purpose is then severely compromised? The nearly 40-year-old 2500DM set on my desk never has firmware to update, will never radically and unexpectedly change its user interface, and has a set of hook switch buttons that are always there waiting for me to use them on a moment’s notice whenever I want to hang up on a call. Even the cheapest flip phone has an END button that’s always there waiting for me to use it. Neither phone decides in the midst of an in-progress call of all things that it’s “idle” and now needs a password to be unlocked.

The killer came when I realized that this is an iPhone, and Apple has a well-deserved reputation for the best-designed system software. That is how the best smartphone on the market implements its user interface. The other smartphones are almost certainly worse.

Two Incompetent Plumbers

So, I’m in this basement where a washing machine has just been installed. Two plumbers are there, having just added the supply and drain lines for the machine. There is also a washtub sink in the basement.

The basement lies below the level of the sewers, so both washtub and washing machine drain to a small tank which has a lift pump in it. Note I said small: the tank was intended to serve the washtub sink only and has not been upgraded to reflect the new washing machine. I point out to the plumbers that it’s almost certain to overflow and flood, and they both dismiss my claim, pointing out my lack of professional experience as a plumber.

The first load of clothes is loaded and the machine started. When it reaches the end of the wash cycle and drains, sure enough, the tank overflows. The plumbers express surprise about this mystifying and unexpected (to them) outcome, and propose solutions that fall short of expanding either the tank and or pump capacity sufficient to prevent further such incidents.

I point out that at minimum, the tank needs to be able to accommodate the maximum volume expected to be drained from the sink at any one time plus the volume of water from the machine, or the pump must be able to accompany the sum of the two corresponding flow rates. My objections are dismissed; there is insufficient space for a large tank and it is considered too costly to replace the line from the pump with a larger one.

At this point I wake up.

Getting Inked?

I was at the grand opening of BARN today and a woman first commented on my style (or would that be my anti-style) then asked me what tattoos I had. “None” was my answer. I’ve never managed to come up with a design I’d want to have permanently on my body, you see.

To which she suggested the text of some quote that was meaningful to me. At that point, I knew immediately what the quote should be. It’s somewhat long, and would have to coil around my arm a bit, but I’ve seen tattooed texts that do that on other people and they are often very attractive. (I am not going to divulge the quotation ahead of time.)

It’s all very early in the process, so this is something that may well never happen. The process is so difficult to reverse that it must be considered irreversible. The regret from a little extra delaying and consideration pales in comparison to the regret for having it done at all.

Well, the Democrats Did It

They managed to successfully ram through a Clintonite to be the next head of their party. This shows that enough Democrats are either terminally clueless and cannot understand the mechanics of the Trump victory, or terminally craven and think risking a further slide into fascism is a price worth paying for continuing to appease the oligarchs.

Either way, I have no stomach for working closer with those bastards. Yes, I realize that there’s an argument to be made for perseverance, one that is basically not refutable (since it depends so much on unknowable future events). It’s just that the chance seems so remote to me, and the need seems so profound for more revolutionary politics, that I cannot in good conscience squander my precious life energy on working within the Democratic Party.

It bears revisiting the point that the Establishment left does not exist to liberate people from capitalism; it seeks to placate people with reforms so that they don’t get uppity and threaten the rule of the elites. As such, the reason that Ellison wasn’t voted in is that he serves no useful purpose to the Establishment. There simply isn’t enough viable threat of social revolution to sufficiently motivate serious attempts at reformism at the present.

So the conflict between following my heart and choosing the most practical route turns out to be illusory; focusing on radical politics is the most practical route.

Re-Acclimating

My parents keep it very warm (about 75 ˚F) in their house. I generally heat mine to somewhere between 60 and 65 ˚F. When I’m there and awake, that is. So often it’s somewhere in the fifties because although the heat is on it hasn’t fully warmed up yet.

Which made for a little bit of worrying about how uncomfortable I’d be when I returned. Answer: not much. 58 ˚F is still plenty comfortable when one is in front of a radiant heat source, wearing sweatclothes, and has a blanket handy.

It’s winter, why should I dress as lightly as if it were a warmer season?