Category Archives: Travel

Francois Bon: Speed Rider, Crazy Mofo

I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine that was running a feature of the “Best of Adventure” of 2008 when I came across a little blurb on Francois Bon’s amazing trip down Argentina’s 22,834-foot Aconcagua.

What makes it so amazing is the way he came down the mountain.  Bon trekked all the way to the top just so that he could slap on some skis and a parachute, then fly down the side of the mountain 9,000 feet (in only four minutes and 50 seconds!).  Bon was airborne for most of the ride, occasionally touching down on the snow.  Watch the YouTube video of his “speed ride” here.  Trust me, it’s worth watching the whole thing, unless you get sick…

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More backpacking: Point Mugu State Park

 

Looking out over the Pacific from Point Mugu

Looking out over the Pacific from Point Mugu

I probably shouldn’t have gone backpacking two weekends in a row, but I knew school was about to get hairy, so Amy and I decided to head out to the trail to squeeze in one last weekend trip before law school took over our lives again.  I actually had lots of work to do that weekend, and I’m still paying for going on the trip – work-wise and physically – but you know, sometimes “shit comes to light” and you gotta say, “Fuck it.”

 

This was only my second backpacking trip, one that was very different than the first.  Most importantly, there was very little danger of getting lost on this trail, which begins at the Ray Miller Trailhead off PCH in Ventura County and winds its way along the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains to Point Mugu, then down into La Jolla Canyon on the other side of the mountains rising out of the ocean.  All the trails in the Santa Monica Mountains are well-worn and easy to navigate.  The prior weekend, there wasn’t really a “trail.”  The “trail” consisted of a number of canyons, which isn’t too hard to follow as long as you know when to cross over into what canyon at what mileage and what elevation.  In the desert, we never reached the campsite.  When the sun began to set on Mike and I in the desert, and we were nowhere close to where we needed to be, I feared breaking my ankle on a giant boulder, then falling uncontrollably into a razor-sharp cactus.  I imagined dragging myself through the scorching desert like Daniel Plainview in the beginning of There Will Be Blood.  

 

You can’t really imagine those kinds of situations in the Santa Monica Mountains because, frankly, someone – maybe a 5-year-old hiking with his family, or a helicopter flying overhead – would find you.  It’s not that there aren’t beautiful, secluded, wild places in the Santa Monicas – there are, and we saw them – but it’s not the desert.

 

The plan for Amy and I was to hike for three days at a relatively leisurely pace.  We started late on Saturday, probably around noon, zig-zagging along the western ridges to Point Mugu, the highest point in Point Mugu State Park.  As I expected, most of the people hiking the bottom part of this trail looked at us as if we were crazy.  Questions like, “Wow, how much does your pack weigh,” and “You guys are real troopers” were around every bend. 

 

 

Channel Islands, as seen from Mugu Peak

Channel Islands, as seen from Mugu Peak

Mugu Peak offered impressive views of the Pacific, with Malibu to the south and Port Hueneme to the north.  But there were still too many people, so we quickly moved on.  The descent from Mugu Peak into La Jolla Valley was the first highlight of the trip for me, with tall yellow grasses covering the entire valley, with a few groves of trees here and there, for a scene that looked straight out of Africa.

 

 

La Jolla Valley

La Jolla Valley

After about 7 miles, we reached La Jolla Campground and found a giant tree where we’d set up camp.  After we’d done everything to settle down, we began hearing loud voices through the trees, about a quarter mile off.  A group of men, yelling loudly in Spanish, suddenly turned what was sounded like angry bickering, began speaking in…tongues?

 

“Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh!!!  Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh!!!” 

 

I can live with coyotes yipping at night, or weird animals rustling in the nearby bushes when I’m camping in the wilderness.  But ultra-religious people speaking in tongues scare the SHIT out of me.  There’s a reason I think The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever made.  Dogma, when it takes hold of people and makes them speak in tongues, is a frightening thing.  When it’s happening right outside your tent, it’s more than just worrisome.  

 

But we proved to be lucky – the religious cult left after an hour of incomprehensible banter and we were left in relative quiet.  The coyotes started yipping, and I felt safe.  We built a great fire, watched the flames jump and tried to capture them on camera but failed, then waited for the flames to die down before retiring to the tent.

 

That night we slept longer than expected.  We would hike a good 12 miles that day, switching from the Backbone Trail, which snakes along a ridge that separates La Jolla Valley from Sycamore Canyon, to the Sycamore Canyon Trail, then back along the Backbone Trail again.  The morning was filled with dodging mountain bikers, who love to fly down the side of the mountain, and attempting not to pay attention to the fact that my feet – both of them – were killing me, especially when I stopped on ground that wasn’t level.  I need new trail shoes.

 

But the trail only got more scenic as we descended into Sycamore Canyon.  This was my favorite part of the trail, crossing several dry streams while never knowing what would appear around the bend.  More hikers, less bikers. 

 

The Sycamore Canyon Fire Road is a wide, easy road that tons of families from the West Valley use for day hikes.  This was the least enjoyable part of the hike because we had decided to find a good place for lunch once we hit the Fire Road, but as soon as we hit the Fire Road there were no good places to sit to be found.  Two miles later, we found a decent spot to stop for lunch and took a load off.

 

The second half of the hike that day was spent ascending the Backbone Trail to meet the Overlook Trail that would take us back to our camp at La Jolla Valley.  While my experience in the desert the prior week had taught me not to take 12 miles lightly, we strolled into our camp around before 3 pm, with several hours of daylight to spare.  This rest was welcomed, though, as I spent a good 45 minutes lying on the wooden bench at our camp with my shoes off, finally, and staring at the leaves above me.  Working hard has such rewards.  You don’t know relaxation unless you’ve had suffering.  I remember how good a Gatorade tasted after playing football for two hours without a water break.  I still remember that taste.  It’s never tasted as good since, because my body has never needed it as much.  I nearly fell asleep on the bench that afternoon, and the only thing that kept me up were the afternoon flies that buzzed around my face.

 

 

It's what the generations of man have strived for

It's what the generations of man have strived for

As the sun fell on another day, Amy and I walked through the savannah grasses in La Jolla Valley waiting for the sun to go down and experimenting with our cameras.  This was the best part of the trip (despite the shooting pain in my leg near my knee, which came as a result of stepping on my foot the wrong way to avoid the pain).

 

 

Again, we overslept and got a later start on Monday than we had planned.  But we knew the last leg of the trip was only about 5.5 miles, so it didn’t really matter what time we left.  Monday, unlike the first two days, brought cool weather and a little wind as we crossed back over to the western ridge of the mountains.  Although we made it back to the car by 11 am, this was the most painful day for me, since walking mostly downhill forced me to put a great deal of weight on my leg, causing shooting pains.  But it was a short day of hiking, so I tried to enjoy as much of it as I could, while looking forward to getting back to the car.

 

After 23.1 miles of hiking, we reached the car, satisfied with our trek.  Amy had bought a new 65 liter pack for the trip, and it had worked out really well.  I had pains in my legs, but it hadn’t ruined the trip.  Ultimately, I wouldn’t do anything differently.

 

 

She looks like she could go for a few more days

She looks like she could go for a few more days

We pulled into Neptune’s Net a few minutes before it opened, so we crossed the street and watched the hoardes of surfers fighting for waves.  We sat down at Neptune’s Net and had giant 22 ounce beers, relishing in a hike well-hiked, and maybe looking forward to our next one.

 

Backpacking through Rockhouse Canyon

On a small ridge running through Mojave Valley

On a small ridge running through Mojave Valley

 

Well, I took my first backpacking trip.  I got my last piece of “necessary” gear – a packable stove – and I had a few days left of vacation, so there were no more excuses.  It was a success!  Mostly. 

Naturally, I chose Rockhouse Canyon in Anza Borrego State Park as my first destination.  For those of you who know me, I’m obsessed with the desert, and more specifically, the Anza Borrego desert.  I’ve gone there nearly a dozen times over the last six or seven years, and every time I discover something new.  This visit was no different.  I had been on Rockhouse Canyon Road before but had never taken it the full 9.6 miles to the junction between Rockhouse Canyon and Butler Canyon in the northeast corner of the park.

The challenge before Mike (my roommate) and I: finish the Rockhouse Canyon loop, measuring 24.7 miles, in two days.  Lowell and Diane Lindsay describe the trail in Backpacking California, a sizeable compendium of short backpacking hikes all over California put together by serious backpackers.  The Lindsays note that the trail should be completed in two to three days.  I only had two days to hike, so were left with little choice but to complete the hike in those two days. 

Mike and I arrived in Borrego Springs, the small town surrounded on all sides by state park, at 11:30 at night on Thursday, planning to pitch a tent at a primitive site near town.  Whenever I arrive in the desert this late, I always choose to camp at Yaqui Well, which lies at the intersection of S-2 and S-3, across the way from the more developed Tamarisk Grove campground.  Yaqui Well is a great place to pitch a quick tent at night because the ground is relatively flat.  It’s in a wash, so the dirt is soft to the touch.  And the vegetation is mostly friendly, with very little cactus in the area.  For people who have never been to the desert, Yaqui Well is a rehearsal for the real show.  It’s relatively close to the highway, so the desert silence is intermittent, as you’ll probably hear cars drive by in the night.  For some reason, I couldn’t sleep much that night.  Once I got it in my head that I couldn’t fall asleep, it was all over.  I was destined to toss and turn all night. 

Sun rising at Yaqui Well

Sun rising at Yaqui Well

Friday morning came, and the first order of business was to grab a hearty breakfast at Kendall’s in The Mall.  We ordered Kendall’s Big Breakfasts, and big breakfasts are what we got – two pancakes, two eggs, hash browns, two sausages, two bacon and giant slab of ham.  We were done by 7:15, so we headed out to Rockhouse Canyon Road, about 5 miles northeast of town.  Traveling at a safe speed, it takes about 45 minutes to get to the junction of Butler and Rockhouse canyons.  You can either drive the next 3.1 miles if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, or you can hike it.  I was borrowing my dad’s SUV, so I decided not to risk breaking down in the middle of the desert from slashing a tire and damaging the undercarriage.

We set out for the hike at about 8:30 am at the canyon junction (elevation 1200 feet), eager to knock out a good number of miles before we broke for lunch.  I put my pack on for the first time since I backpacked through Europe and my back was aching within 5 minutes!  I almost panicked before I adjusted the waist straps so that most of the weight was sitting on my hips.  Much better. 

The first 3.1 miles are kind of drab, following vehicle tracks to the beginning of the canyon.  At 3.6 miles we reached Hidden Springs, which is kind of a misnomer.  Yes, it is hidden, because it barely exists.  But that means it’s not hidden because it’s not there in the first place.  How about “Springs Just Kidding,” or “Bet Your Guidebook Says There Are Springs Here.”  Just as another blogger had warned, the only water at Hidden Springs was indeed hidden behind foot-long reeds but contained only about two cups of water.  But we didn’t come here for no water!  After all, we had packed 5 gallons of water for two days, and it was already taking its toll on our backs, legs and waists.

 

The "Hidden Springs" near the beginning of Rockhouse Canyon

The "Hidden Springs" near the beginning of Rockhouse Canyon

The real treasures of Rockhouse Canyon lay beyond Hidden Springs, where the canyon begins to narrow, and giant boulders of all types of rock are strewn in different formations across the shaded canyon floor.  The guidebook instructed us to hop a few boulders about 15 yards before a huge granitic barrier blocks the way up the canyon.  It took us about 15 minutes to figure out how we were supposed to get up, but we eventually spotted a few ducks left by previous hikers and scrambled our way up the canyon. 

Rockhouse Canyon eventually opens up to the Mojave Valley, which houses several Indian rock house ruins.  These rectangular rock houses sit on a small ridge in the middle of the valley and consist of rocks stacked about 3 to 4 feet high.  Some people set up camp inside the houses, but we were only halfway, with several miles to go, so we moved on. 

One of three Indian rock houses in Mojave Valley

One of three Indian rock houses in Mojave Valley

Following the banks of the wash on the western edge of the valley, we reached Alder Canyon, which held even more impressive rock formations.  You never know what the desert holds beyond the bend.  Bland desert landscapes can suddenly turn into gorgeous ridges of sprawling ocotillos, otherwordly wind caves, or narrow canyons littered with fallen boulders.  Like I said, I always find something new in Anza Borrego, and I’m sure the same will be true for my next trip.

The junction of Alder Canyon and Nicholias Canyon

The junction of Alder Canyon and Nicholias Canyon

At 2800 feet in elevation and well into Alder Canyon, we reached a meeting point between Alder and Nicholias canyons.  Of course, the book told us this (well, not exactly), and the elevation listed in the book was almost accurate with my GPS, but seeing as how there were three 10 foot dry waterfalls that we needed to pull ourselves over in order to get into Nicholias Canyon, we figured that it couldn’t be the way.  An hour and a half later, the sun dipping behind the mountains and our chances at reaching Cottonwood Bench Camp at 4800 feet slipping away, we ended up a few hundred feet farther than the point at which we began to doubt ourselves.  We had tried to backtrack to a point where we could scramble up the side of the eastern side of the canyon, walk along the ridge toward the junction, and figure out which way Nicholias Canyon bent.  But the only thing the ridge was good for was cactus pricks, slippery rocks, and virtually no way of moving around at a decent pace.  By 4:15 we were finally in Nicholias Canyon, beyond the waterfalls, but in no mood or position to go any further.  We pitched the tent in the only clearing around, surrounded by cactus.  The wind would be rough that night, and the cold was bitter (at least by my standards).  Mike built a fire while I cooked up some steak and potato soup and dehydrated Mexican chicken and rice (not half bad). 

This clearing in Nicholias Canyon just big enough to fit the tent.

This clearing in Nicholias Canyon just big enough to fit the tent.

So we had reached 4000 feet in elevation where we had set a goal to reach 4800 feet, but I wasn’t too upset.  I knew that I would get back here again and understand how to complete the loop.  Here, we only had two days, so we knew our only choice was to head back down from the camp in the morning.  The wind was relentless that night, but I wouldn’t know because I had a few shots of whiskey and a Tylenol PM that knocked me right out.  I needed the sleep, because I had only gotten a couple hours the night before.

After making a tasteless meal of oatmeal mixed with some leftover trail mix, and a good cup of coffee, we set out for Day 2.  The soreness was evident from the beginning but nearly as bad as I thought it would be, and of course our pace was much faster going downhill.  Ultimately, we were back at the car by 2:30 in the afternoon, and though our feet were killing us for the last three miles, it was generally a relaxing hike (with no fear of getting lost).

Mike getting ready for Day 2

Mike getting ready for Day 2

Back in town, for lunch we headed to the Red Ocotillo at the Palms Hotel and sat poolside with Bud Lights.  The other patrons must have thought we were bums.  We limped to our table, scruffy beards and all, unashamed that we smelled.  A good beer, a great sandwich, and the satisfaction that we had just hiked 25 miles out of shape.  Next time, I’ll finish the loop.

Back at the car, after 25 miles

Back at the car, after 25 miles

 

 

 

Bringing Ixtapa to my table in LA – tiritas de pescado

Tiritas de pescado   

Tiritas de pescado

As I mentioned before, the subjects of this blog would be as wide and varied as my interests, and to prove to you that this is NO LIE, I’m reporting on my official reunion with a functioning kitchen that I’m comfortable with using, and my first dish made since returning to LA from Boston.

I flew into LAX last Saturday, and my parents took me to lunch at El Puerto Escondido, a little Mexican seafood dive in Inglewood, right next to the airport.  Nearly everything on the menu is seafood.  I was about to order a plate of octopus sauteed in olive oil, but at the last second something caught my eye, and instantly I knew I had to have it.  Rare are the days when I know exactly what I want at a restaurant without a shred of doubt – but this one of those days, so I threw down the menu and made my proclamation: I would be ordering tiritas de pescado.

Tiritas de pescado is a dish developed in and unique to the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo region of Mexico.  While on vacation on a few years back, my dad and I took a fishing trip into the ocean off Ixtapa, about a mile out, and caught some monstrous fish.  The guys who took us out fishing told us that eating the fish tiritas-style – that is, marinating in lime rather than cooking it conventionally – increases the sex drive.  Why take Viagra when you can eat fresh fish everyday?  I imagined the driver of our boat going home and eating tiritas, then telling his wife, “Hey let’s get down to business, I’ve only got an hour tell this stuff burns off.”  Anyways.

We caught a dozen or so fish, and the boat dropped us off on a small island off the coast, where our whole family spent most of the day resting in hammocks overlooking the sea as our fish was being prepared.  When we were finally summoned to eat, we got a meal fit for a (seafood-obsessed) king, with several fish cooked a la plancha, and others made into tiritas.  Oh boy.  If I could tell you how good they were in a blog, I would have more than 5 or 6 readers, I can tell you that. 

So it’s been about five years since then, and I hadn’t eaten tiritas since.  Turns out it’s a very local dish, and only a few places around here serve it.

Back at El Puerto Escondido, tiritas de pescado arrived on our table just a few minutes after we ordered, a concoction of whitefish (I’m pretty sure it was bonito), sliced red onions, cilantro and a little bit of chile, all soaked in lime.  Slices of tomatoes, cucumber and avocado dressed it up a bit.   I told my parents I would try to replicate it. 

A few days later, I took it on.  The best part of making the dish is how easy it is to make, and how rewarding it is to eat.  Everything I needed I was able to buy at Vons – a pound of whiting (next time I will buy some other whitefish, but this was all they had), fresh cilantro, eight limes, two red onions, eight serrano chiles, an avocado, tomato, cucumber and, of course, Tapatio.  I already had salt, pepper and oregano, so I was ready to go. 

It took me about 20 minutes to cut the fish in small strips that you could lift with a tortilla chip, then another 10 minutes to squeeze the juice of 8 limes into a bowl that would marinate the fish.  I marinated the fish in lime juice, covered, for about 30 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to chop up the cilantro, onions, chiles, cucumber, tomato and avocado.  After 30 minutes, I threw together the fish, which had turned slightly darker from being cooked in lime juice, with the onions, cilantro and chiles, then threw the cucumber, tomato and avocado around the plate to finish it all off.

Pair all this with Trader Jose beer (tastes the same as a Corona, trust me), Tapatio and corn tortilla chips, and you have magic in your mouth.  Well, make that a-little-bit-too-spicy-magic in your mouth, at least for me.  Next time I’ll make it with four to six serrano chiles instead of eight.  But other than that, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

I don’t like to brag, but…(strike that, reverse it) well I DO like to brag, and this is the dish that I am most proud of making.  I never forgot this dish from Ixtapa, and I’d like to think that I stored the details of its distinct taste in the deep recesses of my mind, so that one day, a day such as yesterday, I could make it on my own.  Victory!!!!

On CONNECTEDNESS in the Big Apple

I woke up at the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan around 12 noon with only a slight headache.  My friend Donny and his dad were still asleep, and when I started rumbling around in an attempt to get my day started (and hinting that maybe they should get their day started too), Donny was roused from his sleep with a headache, admittedly much rougher than mine, which I was already able to ignore.

Central Park

Central Park

Since Donny would be asleep for the next half hour or so, I decided we could meet up later, so I threw on some clothes and headed out the door.  Apparently we were in Room 3204, which either meant we were on the 3rd floor or the 32nd floor.  I hadn’t taken much notice last night. 

The long elevator ride down confirmed that our room was on the 32nd floor.  The lobby supported whole droves of people running in different directions, some leaving, some arriving, others prepping their daughters for some sort of teen beauty contest, others unfolding their bikes for a city triathlon, and all of them sandwiching the smattering of people lost and confused, looking at maps, awaiting instructions.  I managed to steer a course through the lobby circus toward the automatic rotating door, which presented only minor difficulties – not from the triathlete and his bike, but from catching a glance at the 13-year-old beauty queen with the clown makeup – and then I had my next challenge, figuring out where the hell I was in this giant city.

Turns out I have Google Maps, which means I don’t have to know too much.  I was only five blocks from Central Park.  Easy.

Central Park is much more beautiful than I thought it would be.  It’s also a safe place.  Los Angeles had convinced me that all city parks are dirty, unsafe areas.  You might be able to play a little soccer in an L.A. park, but you’ll probably twist an ankle in a gopher hole.  You could also eat lunch under a tree there, but you’ll be sitting a pile of cigarettes, or you’ll be sitting next to the uncollected, overflowing city garbage can, or in a caked-over mixture of dirt and piss.  I love LA!!! [Randy Newman voice]

Instead, Central Park consists of rolling hills sprinkled with young people tanning, trees, couples with baby carriages, ponds, musicians making an extra buck and having a good time, and people like me, who couldn’t care less that they just spent $3 more than they should have for a little bottle of Gatorade.  It was hot, humid and sticky, but I didn’t mind walking the thirty blocks to the Met (it feels like a lot less).

I sauntered in and around the park for a couple of hours.  I was alone, but I was not lonely.  People seem to be keenly aware that there are massive amounts of people walking around, but everyone respects and retains a certain anonymity.  I found a great spot, sitting next to what Google Maps was telling me was Conservatory Pond, listening to two guys playing Spanish guitar.  One guy provided a basic strum, while the other wrapped his freestyle picking around the strum to provide a nice little tune.  I was completely zoned out – partly because of the drinking I did last night and because I hadn’t had any caffeine – when a woman sitting next to me asked if I could take her picture in front of the lake.  When I took the photo, I realized it such a great photo op that I asked her to do the same for me, and nothing seemed more perfect for me at that moment.  A moment of friendliness, for utilitarian purposes, and nothing more, but I appreciated it, being by myself.

On Sunday I was waiting in line for the Fung Wah bus to head back to Boston.  It took me two hours to get on the bus, so despite my fear of cell phones, I called Mike.  He told me about his weekend, and I described a little bit of mine, which had more to do with my time with Donny and his dad than my walk in Central Park.  Then Mike said something very random, yet perfectly appropriate for the circumstances: Isn’t it crazy that we’re 3000 miles away from each other, yet we can hold these little machines to our ears, and talk to each other whenever we want?

Yes, it is crazy.  And even though I can be an uninspired bore on the phone, I am completely dependent on it.  On Saturday my Blackberry was unable to send and receive text messages.  (I can’t send any texts!…Shit, it erased the entire memory of emails and texts!…What the hell is going on with my phone?…Fuck!  What if someone is sending me an important text right now!  When I don’t respond, they won’t believe me later when I tell them that my texting function wasn’t working!  That’s such a bullshit excuse!) 

Nonetheless, the phone call brought me back to my day in Central Park: I can become connected to people by obvious (yet not insignificant) means, like a phone call, or in subtle ways, like an anonymous stroll through a crowded park.  

More on New York, including photos, to follow.  Unfortunately I can’t transfer photos from my digital camera to my computer because I left the cord in LA.  Good lordy, I feel butt-nekkit without it!