Camping at Sonora Desert National Monument

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Today I drove from Prescott National Forest to tonights’ camping in Sonora Desert National Monument, with a long detour around Phoenix. Between Prescott NF and the next town was a glorious mountain blooming with wildflowers. Tall pale pinkish orange ones, bright yellow poppies, purple lupine and yellow daisy like sage bushes, then curling flowers of another shade of purple.  The mountain road was twisty and wellused so no good place to pull over for flower photos. Prescott itself was nice enough, but pine forest doesn’t impress me much. The creek was very nice though, and I think I might have seen my first modern in use mining claim.

The Sonora blows it away though.

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My camp among the wildflowers. Tall cacti, chirping birds and bats and scurrying creatures abound. Also better weather here makes me a lot more comfortable. There was a cautionary sign that this is a smuggling area and subject to law enforcement actions, but I didn’t go that deep and hopefully I go unnoticed by those crowds.

Ocotillo Desert (I think)

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4 jets flew by breaking an amazing quiet sunset in this desert.  I believe it is the Ocotillo Desert(that was what Instagram suggested, and the name of a nearby town). I do know I am several miles up a dirt road towards the Coyote Mountain Wilderness, and Buffy and I will hike to Wind Caves tomorrow morning. I believe I’m on BLM land, so it should be all legal. A few other cars are scattered within the surrounding mile.

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Above is a picture of the road in. I wouldn’t have tried it in wet conditions, although it seems unlikely to be a concern here. A Prius is among the other campers, hardily enough. Many of the bushes are in bloom though no carpets of wildflowers around here – instead tiny blossoms on tiny bushes or large ones on spiny tall needled plants very far from my plant knowledge. I’ll post some of that after the Wind Caves hike.

For now, from an inflatable mattress in my truck bed, with the stars just coming out overhead, goodnight.

I begin to remember the inconveniences aka time for a stop in Ojai

Last night: I’ve begun to remember the inconveniences of the road, of camping. I would love a good long hot shower with ideal selections of soap, shampoo, conditioner, loofahs. Anti-itch cream would be a godsend. The bugs are fierce and the poison oak sneaky. A chorus of frogs sounds loud in the gap between songs from another site. Is that tire flat? Over every inconvenience though I remember how much complaining and even the experience of comfort comes from a shared or previous or expected experience. I can reject this inconvenience in so many ways – to give it no further consideration, or to use it to strengthen myself, or even to fix it. Tonight if I’m in anyway uncomfortable the only thing dictating fixing it is my own valuation of what it’s worth effortwise. I don’t consider Buffy to have a voice, but her comfort must also be considered. One more sweater for the night, that was decided.

Today is gray and the hiking nearby is steep. Campsites and swimming were the goal but are less appealing in the cold. So, I drove into the nearby town of Ojai, and went into Bart’s Books. Mostly I’ve been converted to ebooks, but it’s nice to have paper on hand when electricity is scarce. Also, I love bookstores. This was my first time at this bookstore, although I’d heard of it from listicles like The 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world and best bookstores in the world. And how can I turn down an opportunity to go to a place like that? It is a wonderful bookstore, although beauty is for another beholder. It did smell better than any bookstore I’ve ever been, the orange tree growing over the middle both fruiting and blossoming in a common California miracle. Two books purchased, Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild and Thomas F King’s Places That Count: Traditional Cultural Properties in Cultural Resource Management (Heritage Resource Management Series), and I’m off to find a coffee and check in with the world after 48 hours off the grid. The staff at Bart’s Books recommended a nearby coffeeshop called Bohemia and I’m just finishing a delicious latte. I think I was a little late for their pastries, so I’ll scrounge up a lunch elsewhere – in Ojai or beyond.  Overall I recommend my morning, and if you have time to kill in Ojai stop on by Bart’s Books & Bohemia Cafe.

So I’m off – I’ll drive to the wildflowers further inland and then perhaps to the coast where a campground on the beach will offer a sunset view. Miles on the car rather than miles on my feet, so to picture me..  except the surrounding hillsides are a bit more brown here, 100 miles down the coast and 1 week later.SelfieAlongTheRoad

Chasing Wildflowers in Central California

purple wildflowers stretch into the distance, a piece of blurred barbed wire prevents access

March Blossoms

Yesterday I turned 32. I decided to spend it chasing wildflowers in Central California.  I had heard good things about the wildflowers in the Carrizo Plains National Monument, an otherwise often overlooked spot in the middle of nothing. I was already on a road trip, so why not?  Scenic Highway 58 abounded with wildflowers, although there isn’t much else to see beyond the pretty rolling hills and blossoming plain.

Along the various routes I saw poppies, lupine, blue eyes, Munz’ sage, fiddleneck and the ever present wild mustard. Here’s a closeup of a couple of the varieties.

Some of the flowers of Carrizo Plains
Some of the flowers of Carrizo Plains

For more info on various wildflowers around California check out

Rural Windmill in Field of Wildflowers
Highway 58 runs through ranches, farms and oilfields. It was in bloom yesterday.

Carrizo Plains

The Carrizo Plains National Monument is administered by the BLM, which means free camping among other things. Well, mostly lack of other things – this is kept pretty wild and so no there are very few amenities. Pack in your own water, pack out your trash, and find your own campsite.. actually there are some established campgrounds, but I didn’t go there, so …

Carrizo Plain National Monument roadsign with dog looking out the window
Buffy checks the road signs like a good navigator.

The plains are a naturally alkaline area formerly mined for chemical deposits and ranched upon. Ranching is common in the area, as well as oil fields to the east and extensive solar farms in the surrounding valley. There is a bit of clay in the soil which can mean water doesn’t easily sink in, so the road floods sometimes. I was driving along not much past dawn, and slowed down to maybe 25 mph for a muddy patch, and next thing I know I’m stuck in the ditch on the side of the road. I got a hold of AAA luckily enough(1 bar of intermittent service that cut out when a truck drove by) and they said 2 hours for the tow truck to come pull me out. 30 minutes later the second vehicle of the day passed me by and had a tow hitch and a friendly local pulled me right out. I cancelled AAA and continued on my adventure with much more respect for the mud. Luckily there were plenty of pretty and interesting things to see to make it worth the stranger’s trouble.

tumbleweeds along the fenceline
Tumbleweeds are common in the area. Here they catch along fencelines bordering the road.

Rolling hills border the long flat plain where the majority of the wildflowers could be found. They’re pretty and picturesque and isolated and don’t have a lot of safe places to pull over, but also not much in the way of traffic. The flowers below are in the flats and you can see the hills in the distance.

purple wildflowers stretch into the distance, a piece of blurred barbed wire prevents access
Highway 58 stretches from Buttonwillow along the 5 in California’s Central Valley to the 101 in Santa Margarita along California’s Coastal Range. Wildflowers abounded in early March 2015.

A walkway along Soda Lake(which is dry right now, with the famed wildlife staying out of sight except for a few hawks and a lone deer) detailed some of the varieties of wildflowers as goldfields, larkspur, and Munz’ daisy. The signs descriptions of white dust devils rising off the dry lakebed tempted me to visit again in the summer. Also, then I can go further off the road and not get stuck and maybe check out the San Andreas Fault up close and personal where it runs through the monument.

wildflowers separate into a rainbow of color
Several varieties of wildflowers were in blossom, and they’d form great patches of color sometimes blending together and sometimes not.

For more info on the Carrizo Plains checkout

A little bit on California Highways and Routes

My route went from Highway 5 – the unlovely highspeed backbone of California’s highway system – along Highway 58 in search of these wildflowers. It handily enough ends at Highway 101, a more lovely coastal highway which goes through almost all of the places I’ve called home in California. The most lovely highway in California is of course the 1, sometimes called the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH. That’s best immortalized in the Red Hot Chili Peppers Road Trippin’ song.  It’s a distinction of whether you are NorCal or SoCal whether you say “The 101” or “1” when speaking of highways.

I stopped at the Firestone Walker Taproom in Buellton, home of arguably the Central Coasts best beer, for a late lunch and was back on 101 South shortly thereafter. There are a ton of great spots for drinks and views along this stretch of 101 (this is also the area where Sideways was filmed). The 101 and 1 merge for a bit and there is a free spot for an amazing sunset near the tiny town of Gaviota. Just follow the signs for “Vista Point” to get a good place to pull over.   This is what I picture when they say “West of the 1, just a mirror for the sun”

Gaviota Sunset with the ever present wild mustard.
Gaviota Sunset with the ever present wild mustard.

Reblog: Hubcap Animal Sculptures, check out My Modern Met

http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/ptolemy-elrington-hubcap-sculptures hubcap animal sculptures
Hubcap Owl

The above owl is made from hubcaps.

Dude just found some hubcaps and made an owl. I dream of doing stuff like that. I found some fake silver leaves in the street the other day, brought them home. They’re staring at me, still plain fake silver leaves. Today I went on twitter briefly, next to the leaves, intending only to get a quick few pieces of semi-businessy things done. Then I was seduced by the amazing post Abandoned Hubcaps Transform into Amazing Animal Sculptures – My Modern Met.  @MyModernMet  rocks – highly highly recommend following them. They find the coolest stuff on the internet.  Today they linked to http://www.hubcapcreatures.com/, see the cool owl photo? The site of artist Ptolemy Elrington (and does that name sound fake or what?) showing off his reclaimed metal sculptures – not just hubcaps to be clear, he just did one using shopping carts(‘trollys’ in brit speak).  Hubcap art makes me think of street kids, and this specific art is more steampunk than street, though not strictly that at all.  I guess I can see the artist being into steampunk from the photo – yes I’m massively stereotyping. Somehow it seems strange to me that Brits would be into steampunk, partially because steampunk is so.. brit-loving. But Dr. Who definitely gets steampunky every once in a while, so.. sure.

Why are you still here? The pics are elsewhere

Anyways, hie yourself off to check out the source websites for more cool art photos(and the art itself if you’ve got the cash!).  Oh, and if you feel like giving me something – I know he’s got a squirrelfish, but the triggerfish is just that bit cuter…please?  Oh, and someone should get Mozilla that fox.

No-Bake Holly Cookies Recipe – Recipe Review

corn flakes are mixed into the marshmallow butter green goo
corn flakes are mixed into the marshmallow butter green goo

These were a favorite as a kid. Easy recipe even an 8 year old’s clumsiness never ruined.  I’ll make them again for Christmas this year – and maybe with my little cousins too!   They’re sort of like rice krispy treats.  I’m weak and can’t handle the Red Hots, so I’ll probably substitute some other red candy – maybe red M&M’s?  I’ll update with pictures after I make them for the Holiday Cookie Exchange.    Unfortunately the finished, although beautiful, were the victim of shaky camera work.  I used red sour candy balls as the candy and the generic corn flakes from the grocery store.

ingredients for delicious cookies

No-Bake Holly Cookies Recipe – Kraft Recipes.

Book Review The Art of Thinking Clearly

from https://www.flickr.com/photos/akitzmil/3455932653/in/photostream/
Amazon link
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
Format, Ease of Reading & Understanding

I ‘read’ the audiobook version on the Scribd app. The Art of Thinking Clearly is widely available in all of the regular book formats and has been out long enough to probably be in your local library. It’ll most likely be under Behavioral Economics or Applied Psychology, but could get shelved under Business or Management. I’d rate it as Easy/Introductory reading level for both the language and the way it addresses the subject matter.

What is The Art of Thinking Clearly?

As the author describes it, this is a list of basic fallacies people fall into. He has fleshed out each idea into its own chapter with brief stories and examples. One idea that he describes is “The Law of Small Numbers”. The Law of Small Numbers is the idea that in a small sample any deviation will be more significant – he gives the example of revenue losses in small rural stores versus large urban stores – if you have a single shoplifter they’ll seem more significant in the smaller store.  He tells a story on how you could be fooled if you were in charge of the stores, making it a bit easier to read. There are around 100 ideas in the book and very short chapters.

If you have time, read the books that inspired this one.

I finished it, but felt The Art of Thinking Clearly was repeating things I already knew. He distills many of the ideas in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, and some of the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb into one quicker, easier read.  I think if I hadn’t read the others, I’d probably have enjoyed this one more, but as it was.. it was just okay.  If you have the time, I recommend Kahneman or Ariely’s books over this one.  The one virtue this book has is that it is perhaps easier to understand, and definitely a faster overall read, than its sources & competitors. So, if you’re not that interested in the subject and just want a quick overview on not fooling yourself or letting others fool you… here’s a big list of foolish things.  If you become more interested, I’d suggest stopping immediately and switching to one of the other books.

TheSquirrelfish’s Review of The Art of Thinking Clearly

If you have the time and are really interested, I recommend The Irrational Bundle: Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty (eBook Bundle). It’ll cover all the same content and is generally better.  The one virtue this book has is that it is shorter, and definitely a faster overall read.

Book Review: The 50th Law by 50 Cent, Robert Greene Audiobook

authors and 50th law cover
Amazon Link

The 50th Law: Fear Nothing

Did you know 50 Cent was a Stoic? The 50th Law is to fear nothing.  Stoicism is part of this, but not all of it. A fearless philosophy is what you need to grow from a hustler to a media mogul. I just completed the 50th Law by 50 Cent and Robert Greene audiobook. I originally started the book because I was looking for The 48 Laws of Power. Then I saw this one, by the same business author and I thought “Narrated by 50 Cent” meant he’d actually be reading it. That was naive – he is way to big for that. The other author, Robert Greene, is the reader, although 50 Cent does speak briefly to explain the main idea for each chapter. It is then explained with historic examples, examples from 50 Cent’s life on the streets and a mix of philosophy, logic and other supportive concepts for why you should follow that way of life.

Educational Content

I think the most heavily referenced historical examples of the fearless idea in this book are Frederick Douglas, Napoleon Bonaparte, Malcolm X, Moses, although they are by no means the only ones. Joan of Arc, Hemingway, Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln.. there are a lot of interesting stories here. I liked the matter of fact way life on the streets is dealt with – stories of slashing faces, rap feuds, and the lessons that could be learned from it.

Why Should You Care About 50 Cent’s Story?

Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss artists, and maybe particularly musicians, and even more specifically rappers as less serious. Yet, there is something to be said for the stories of how someone succeeded from hard beginnings – and you can’t deny either 50 Cent’s success or hard life. His music is for sale everywhere, and he has built a brand and a few companies. The audiobook was recorded in a studio he owns, his media company helped promote it, and I think you can say he succeeded in his goal of:

Summary: The 50th Law by 50 Cent, Robert Greene Audiobook

Overall: A good book of strategy from a rapper, a business author, and lessons from history and hustling.

PS, I listened to it on Scribd, but it’s also available on Amazon if you’re interested, hit any of the links or images 😉

Views & Practicalities from a Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay Horizon with Vietnam Flag

A Ha Long Bay cruise is a must on any visit to North Vietnam. There are ubiquitous boat tours, mostly caught from Hanoi.  This involves a shuttle drive about 4 hours North, then you get loaded on your cruise – you get a lunch break at a tourist shop both ways.  The trips range from a single day to 4 days generally – 2 days seems the most common.  You cruise through Ha Long Bay & possibly Cat Ba Bay taking in a variety of sites depending on your precise tour.

locals seen on Ha Long Bay cruise
A fisherman passes near shore

Booking Options for Your Ha Long Bay Cruise

There are a wide variety of boat options, mostly determined by price – but other factors should be considered, such as your fellow travellers. The big hostels in town run some of the boats which are apparently pretty big party boats – Castaway Tours – I know at one point we could hear music from another boat anchored not too far from us. Other boats might have more children, that sort of thing. Food, drink & room quality varies with price, and there are apparently some shady ones out there as well – so safety is a factor.

Ha Long Bay Horizon with Vietnam Flag
Cruising Among the Karsts

Generally the tour consists of a cruise out among the karsts and a few activities. Mine included a kayak tour, beach visit with hill climb, and a chance to check out some very large natural caves. My cellphone camera wasn’t up to cave photography, but you can find some good photos on flickr – my favorite is this one. I highly recommend checking it out if you like caves – both the photo and making sure your tour includes the caving expeditions. Several of the prime spots are frequented by many boats at a time, as you can see from the photo below. My boat had 8 cabins, 16 people. Some boats had more like 40 – and different luxuries such as a sundeck, outdoor dining, karaoke, a bar…

view of Ha Long Bay cruise options
view from cave entrance

Much of your time will be spent cruising through the karsts, where you can admire the outstanding views nature has provided, and catch glimpses of the locals living off the sea. Beyond the crews of your boat there will be fishermen & women, pearl farmers, tour guides and I’m sure many beyond that.

fisherwoman in Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

Some practicalities about cruising Ha Long Bay

Book ahead if you are short on time, but leave yourself some leeway in case of weather. Food is generally included, but any restrictions or preferences need to be clearly described beforehand – there isn’t a great selection of food. I spoke to a vegetarian who was fine having told them in advance, but this is definitely an area where what you pay will make a difference. The woman who didn’t particularly like fish on my boat was pretty disappointed, because most of the meals involved fish to some extent. Drinks are not included, so be prepared to pay extra – also a bit of a tip is appreciated for the guides and bartender. My boat had a sundeck with chaise lounges, but only a bit of it was shaded, don’t forget sunblock! Each cabin had a private bathroom with showed, boats vary though. We got a swim on the second day, but unfortunately unless it’s on the schedule, no swimming allowed – plenty of chance for sunning though. My boat also had outlets for recharging devices, and I got cell service throughout the Bay through Viettel.

Before & After Your Cruise

If you have a few days extra you can book sidetrips out of Hanoi like Sapa, which is beautiful and very different, or just explore Hanoi more in depth – I had a great time when I ended up spending some extra time there thanks to a typhoon. Great coffee shops, great food, fun to explore on foot, and some of the touristy sites, like the Temple of Literature, are really worth it.

Cruising, Hiking, Snorkeling and Diving in Komodo National Park

Komodo National Park, famous for its dragons, has even better diving. The snorkeling is also world class, and the boating is, well, you get what you pay for.

Komodo Dragon lounging in Komodo National Park, Indonesia
Komodo Dragon lounging in Komodo National Park, Indonesia

Labuan Bajo is the base for most explorations of Komodo.  Many people go through the Park on tourist cruises, dive liveaboards, or smaller snorkeling excursions.  The tourist boats have safety issues, and sink not infrequently.  In fact, one crashed while I was there.  2 tourists still missing 4 days later, 23 found in several groups. I took the tourist boat from Gili Trawangan to Labuan Bajo, here is the basic info. The tourist boats take 4 days, 3 nights, stopping at several islands on the way for snorkeling and sightseeing, including Komodo and Rinca islands. More on the sightseeing later. There are two classes of ticket ‘deck class’ and ‘cabin class’, as of August 2014 they run about 1.5 million rupiah for deck, or 2.2 million for cabin.  I took the deck class, a picture of the deck is below.  The boats are pretty similar to one another and basically consist of a single bathroom, the sleeping area (or cabins presumably), a wide covered space and the front deck exposed to the sun.  3 meals a day are provided, generally rice, a veggie heavy topping and sliced fruit (papaya, watermelon and pineapple at different meals).  Gado Gado, a mild curry, and fried rice were some of the specific meals.  Breakfast was banana pancakes.

Sleeping area in a deck class tourist boat
Sleeping area in a deck class tourist boat

Your basics are taken care of on the boat, but there are a few things you can bring along to make it a more comfortable trip.  There are no stores so you should be prepared.  Sunblock, aftersun lotion, swimsuits are all necessary. Cigarettes if you are a smoker.  A good book or two because there is a lot of downtime between sightseeing stops.  Sunglasses. About 100,000 rupiah extra for ‘camera fees’ and ‘park entrance fees’. A towel or sarong to put down on deck – there were no seats on my boat, so you are sitting on wooden deck most of the time.  I brought my hammock and it was great.  It got slightly cold at night, so another layer on top of the blanket they give you can be nice too. A few people onboard had windbreakers, I just had an outfit I kept for getting salty – sitting on the front deck was the best for views, but you constantly got a little wet from sea spray.

On the beach, about to swim back to the boat after a waterfall trek
On the beach, about to swim back to the boat after a waterfall trek

About the sightseeing:  At night there were phosphoresent phytoplankton in the water, and by day we watched the flying fish and the passing islands. We stopped at least once a day, usually twice, and swam to shore for a short trek or snorkeled between the boat and the beach.  We would usually have about an hour for snorkeling at each island.  Komodo had more dragons, Rinca had dragons and more of everything else, and was overall the prettier island.

view from Rinca hill top
view from Rinca hill top

Rinca island has a small resort, is easily accessible by day trip from Labuan Bajo, and was my favorite stop along the way.  Unfortunately there was no snorkeling where we stopped (Crocodile Bay), however I’ve seen that there are single day snorkeling expeditions available to the island. You may be able to see the tiny boat in this bay, which might have been dropping off snorkelers or divers.

a short trek along a creek to a waterfall
a short trek along a creek to a waterfall

Many of the treks were unspectacular, but they were an opportunity to stretch your legs off the boat.  I liked the waterfall, although unfortunately the water wasn’t deep enough to swim in.  This was advertised as a shower opportunity, however since you had to immediately swim back to the boat… some of the people on board felt ripped off.

So that’s the above-the-water story.  I also went diving in Komodo National Park while staying in Labuan Bajo. I went with Blue Marlin Diving, and ‘the fastest boat in Bajo‘.  They seemed to be very together, and also slightly more expensive than the competition.  I signed up the day before, and met at the dive center at 8am.  We departed around 9am and arrived at the dive site at 10am.  A quick but thorough briefing and we were diving The Cauldron.  I was with a group of 4 (2 paying divers, 2 instructors).   This was an excellent dive.

An easy descent, exploring a nice sandy bottom, with some interesting little critters (shrimp, seahorse), then into a bit of a hole, some sharks, some walls, then through a tight canyon abounding in giant Trevally and through a ‘shotgun’ of fast current while mantas dip and glide through the waters next to us.  We grabbed on to some rocks for some extra manta-watching time and then eventually swam over to a soft-coral garden for a safety stop before heading back to the boat.

We followed that up with Castle Rock – also great, and the Lighthouse, also good. I’d go on more, but I think you get the idea … there is some really really great scuba diving here.  Some currents, and advanced conditions as well, but if you are here, and you dive, you must give it a try.