Category Archives: places

destination: yellowstone

At the risk of sounding too much like Christian on Project Runway, I’m about to embark on a little “vay-cay.” I leave San Diego on Wednesday in my old Jeep Cherokee for what could be its last major trip to the American West.

gas prices on April 30These days I worry about gas prices, my carbon footprint, and the mechanical reliability of my trusty vehicular companion that I’ve had since it was a baby, back in 1993. My preferred modes of transport the last seven years has been scooters I’ve owned, the first a zippy little Aprilia Scarabeo 150, and now a big Buick of a scooter, a 582cc Honda Silver Wing that weighs over 500 pounds. It has no style, but I got it for cheap. (For all its massiveness, it still gets almost 50 miles to the gallon.)

Above: the Shell station down the hill on April 30, before they raised their prices.

But the thought of strapping two camera bags with three cameras, two serious tripos and a big steel box of film to the scooter sounds a little crazy. And that’s before you factor in the camping gear and multiple changes of clothes to keep me looking semi-snazzy. Important things, you know. Besides, when I floated the idea with John–mostly in jest–his jaw dropped with concern.

“Yellowstone? On a scooter?”

Maybe I was cruel to even scare him like that, particularly after the episode six years ago when he spent seven weeks taking care of me when I was piled into a wheelchair after a little meeting of the body with hard pavement. But the Jeep it will be for this trip. And not only will the trip be in a car, I’ll at John’s urging be packing a cell phone, in case the Jeep breaks down.

That cell is a big move. Even though I’ve been doing email for over twenty years and have had my own web site for well over ten, I’ve been a total Luddite when it comes to cell phones. Yes, they’d be handy to have sometimes, but I’m not willing to chance being turned into one of those people–You know the type: device planted firmly to ear, muttering inanely about foot cream or last night’s pasta salad to whoever will listen, and often doing it in a moving vehicle while driving distractedly like a chauffeur on a Quaalude jag. Pray for my soul, folks.

So, cellphone in pocket, I’ll be heading north through Las Vegas into the Nevada outback, through desert towns with great names like Elgin, Carp(?!), Ely, Pioche, Jackpot and Caliente. (In naming just six cities, I’ve named virtually all the cities on the map on this route that cuts due north through the Great Basin, along the Eastern edge of Nevada.) The nominal destination is Yellowstone, and I intend to get there. But who knows what else I’ll find. There might even be some cellphone reception along the way!

the snake path

I just wrote about Robert Irwin’s terrific artwork in the UCSD Stuart collection. The collection has another piece that I like, Alexis Smith’s Snake Path, from 1992.

From the collection’s page on the artist:

Smith’s work for the Stuart Collection alludes to the complex relationship between nature and culture or, in the context of the university, between knowledge and the landscape. Her Snake Path consists of a winding 560-foot-long, 10-foot-wide footpath tiled in the form of a serpent whose head ends at the terrace of the Central Library. The tail wraps around an existing concrete pathway as a snake would wrap itself around a tree limb. Along the way, the serpent’s slightly rounded body passes a monumental granite book carved with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The snake then circles around a small tropical garden representing Eden. These pointed allusions to the biblical conflict between innocence and knowledge mark an apt symbolic path to the university’s main repository of books. The concept of finding sanctuary within oneself – outside the idealistic and protected confines of the university – speaks directly to the student on the verge of entering the “real world.”

Here’s their official overview picture of the work:

And here are some snapshots from a walk there last week, first a closeup of the hexagonal slate tiles that make up the snake’s “scales”:


…and here are a couple shots of Eden, maybe not exactly “tropical,” as described, but a lush planting that contrasts to the surrounding native vegetation:



The plants in “Eden” are plants that have biblical references or those that somehow look like they’d belong in an eden. In the two pictures above you can see how the Italian cypresses have been pruned in a way that to me recalls some of the plants in the background of Leonardo’s 1470s Annunciation, now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence:


So…you can study garden books on how to prune a plant–or you can study a painting by Leonardo da Vinci!

"garden art"

Set in the fake forest of UCSD’s eucalyptus groves is one my favorite artworks. Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms was installed in 1983 as part of the campus’ Stuart Collection of site-specific outdoor art. The piece, like much of the artist’s output, is a subtle presence that takes a while to absorb.

Here’s how you might encounter it, approaching on a path through the trees:

The piece is pretty unassuming and is almost not there. Stainless steel posts raise two V-shaped runs of a tight blue-violet colored chain-link mesh up into the tree canopy. That’s basically all there is to it, materially at least, which of course would be basically saying the same thing as a Mark Rothko painting is a piece of stretched cloth with some paint applied to it.

Once you add some light, the magic happens. Depending on where you stand and depending on how the light hits it, the piece’s panels are either almost transparent or absolutely opaque. What looks transparent subtly darkens and colors what you view through it. The panels that appear opaque accept shadows of the surrounding branches gracefully.


Move around the work and things change. What starts out transparent turns opaque; what begins as opaque dissolves into a blue-violet vapor. Visits during sunny weather end up being subtly different from those on overcast days. Like the living trees around it, the piece responds to the weather and its surroundings.



To the general public Robert Irwin is now probably most famous–to me unfortunately so–for designing the Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA. It’s a beautiful and interesting garden, but not one that shows off what he does best. The Getty website talks about the garden as “always changing, never twice the same,” which any gardener would say about their own garden. But it also is a description I’d apply to the piece at UCSD.

It’s interesting that the Running Violet V Forms, from 20 years earlier than the Getty garden, also has a botanical element. The Stuart Collection description mentions that “[p]urple flowering iceplant, echoing but not matching the color of the chain link, is planted under the fence.” When he was working on the Getty garden, Irwin was quoted declaring himself not to be a gardener, and of his working with plant consultants to complete the design. This is where bringing in a plant consultant at UCSD might have resulted in a different artwork. Today, the iceplants live on only as one or two little mounds that almost never bloom. You wouldn’t take them to be intentional parts of the artwork. Planted in the fairly deep shade of the understory, these sun-loving succulents live out a meager existence, deprived of the very light that gives life to the artwork high overhead.

a fake forest

Last time, I wrote about going to the eucalyptus groves at UCSD to look for wildflowers. I’ve always been fascinated with these areas of the campus. Boston ivy growing on brick buildings might define the look of certain East Coast schools, but here it’s the eucalyptus trees.

At first your eye follows the trunks on these trees, in the summer covered with beautiful exfoliating bark, up to the high branches and out to the weeping branches that come back towards earth, often with vivid red coloration on the stems, contrasting with the slender gray-green leaves. Individually the trees are striking, and growing together they give the impression of a light, sunny forest. Pay some attention to how they’re planted, however, and the initial impression of pristine nature falls apart. Below I’ve taken a picture and drawn black lines that accentuate the rigid rows that were used to plant the “forest.” Not so natural after all. Southern California, home of the simulacra manufactured in Hollywood, the fake features of Disneyland, and the artificially buxom women of West-Side L.A., does it again.


You probably know that the trees are native to Australia, and may know that down under they’re sometimes called “widow-makers” because of their tendency to drop their branches onto people. You may even know their history in Southern California, that they were planted by the millions as part of various get-rich schemes in the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries, with promises that they’d grow wood for railroad trestles or ocean piers, or that they’d yield essential oils with all sorts of miraculous properties. A great article in the Journal of San Diego History goes into some of their fascinating past.

The plantings that remain throughout Southern California are beautiful stands. The occasional grove even harbors monarch butterflies on the migrations. (An area of the UCSD groves used to be alive with monarchs during the winter in the earlier 1980s, but I haven’t seen more than the occasional monarch since then. Too bad, for sure.) But these groves of perfectly-aligned trees for me talk about culture and nature, and of the ways accidents of history shape how the world looks today.

into the wild

A couple posts ago I mentioned dichelostemma blooming in the garden and I was thinking that they were probably also blooming wild in the natural spaces around me. I took a lunchtime walk through one of the semi-wild areas on the north part of the campus of the University of California, San Diego. The area has been set aside as a natural preserve, although “natural” in this case is actually a canyon of native plants mixed in with some earlier 20th century plantings of eucalyptus. Fake as it may be as a genuine Southern California chaparral ecosystem, the edges where the grove meets the scrub starts to take on more native flavors.

There had been heavy rains this past January, followed by occasional wet periods, so the ground was still moist in spots. The weather was now turning warm, sunny and spring-like. Grasses were growing exuberantly. It wasn’t long before I started to notice occasional flowers in the understory. Although the spaces under the eucalyptus prove hostile to most flowering plants other than the occasional also-imported black mustard, the blue dicks were pretty content to be there, a single plant here, big rafts of them there.

A flowering head of Dichelostemma capitatum, mixed in with the grasses and eucalyptus

A larger stand of them, with their little flower heads raised up two feet or more in the dappled shade

I was tuned in to what I was seeing, but in the back of my mind I was aware that back in my garden the same species of plants was also blooming. Back home the blue dicks are part of a long continuum of “springtime” flowers that begin with the first narcissus in October and continue into a number of plants that have yet to bloom. But in the wild areas of Southern California this is it. Spring is short and–in a wet year like this one–intense, orgiastic. As the weather warms the rains will stop. The grasses will die out and the flowers will fade out. Soon the long brown season will begin. But in the fictionalized natural world of my garden, spring will be here for several more months. I’ll enjoy it for sure. But somehow it seems a little wrong.

how to have an important newport garden

I’m on a little work trip to Newport, Rhode Island, and I’m just back from a long self-guided tour that included the Cliff Walk, 3 1/2 miles of a fairly good oceanside trail (and a little boulder-scrambling) that takes you on the private, ocean-view sides of a number of the town’s larger ocean-front mansions. Famous among them are The Breakers, the little summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the Astor’s Beechwood. The homes are definitely on steroids, and the gardens are as well. After looking at a number of the outdoor spaces, I’ve come up with a simple guide that anyone could follow to have their very own deluxe Newport-style mansion grounds. It’s surprisingly simple.

1. Begin with a lot. Something about the size of Rhode Island would be a good start.

2. Place the house on the side of the property farthest away from the view so that you’ll see your domain stretching out towards the view.

3. Plant lawn over everything. If seaside rocks get in the way, leave them in place, but plant lawn right up to them.

4. Plant a long hedge on the sides along the property lines with you neighbord. If this hedge closes in on your view, then your lot is likely too small. Return to step 1. A hedgerow along the edge of the property with the view must be considered carefully. Don’t plant one if it would substantially interfere with the view. Reinforce your hedges with chain link fences. Although often paired with trailers and other low architecture in the South and elsewhere, these fences will enhance privacy and be virtually invisible behind the hedges and from several hundred feet away.

The Breakers

Above: The Breakers, as illustrated in an article in New England Antiques.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. To add interest you can try out some of the advanced techniques below:

AT1. Plant trees, preferably deciduous ones, in small, naturalistic clumps towards the edges of your proerty line. Don’t let the trees encroach too much on either your view or the view that people will have of you. Smaller trees–no more than 20-25 feet tall–can make you property appear even larger, while at the same time giving it the sense that it’s emerging from some dark wood.

AT2. Inserting a formal, symmetrical garden is optional. However, it should never be the majority of your property, and it is best to place it towards the side of your property. Placing it in the center will make it the focus of the garden and detract from the view beyond, a technique that should only be used when your view is not as desirable as that of those around you. Remember that there must be more space devoted to a lawn than to a formal garden. Always.

AT3. Smaller shrubs in the 3-6 foot size may be employed symmetrically to accentuate the formal architecture of the house or to provide variety by being planted next to a straight-line planting of hedgerow. Be sure to have your gardeners form them into rounded shapes. Letting the shrubs grow naturally is not an option.
Some random mansion with shrubs employed to accentuate the formal architecture.

AT4. Permanent garden furniture generally should be avoided. However, a single piece, perhaps one small bench may be place far back into the garden, enhancing the sense of distance and space.

AT5. Smaller-scale garden art may be added, particularly to a formal garden. Stone urns, cherubs, and veiled goddess-ey characters are good choices. Human figures must be life-sized or preferably smaller. Naked figures are to be frowned upon in a Newport garden, though the exposure of a single female breast may be employed if done in impeccable taste. Save the less tasteful sculptures for the back yard of your Malibu estate.


I did a little nursery hopping with John in North County yesterday. Inland North County is still in large part avocado country, and in fact they call that stretch of I-15 the “Avocado Highway.” And mixed in with the avocados are various plant nurseries, some wholesale, some open to the public.

The first of two stops was Las Pilitas Nursery, a large cleared lot surrounded by sycamores, the southern outpost in Escondido of a larger concern up in San Luis Obispo. Most garden centers you go to seem to be packed with easy-to-grow stuff in bloom, plants that whore themselves at you with seductive blooms and intoxicating scents. If you head to Las Pilitas expecting that kind of experience, you’ll be seriously let down, particularly in off-season.

A lot of the plants this trip were on the smaller side since it was still later winter and their stock was living outdoors, not in a greenhouse. And the place isn’t not afraid to have big blocks of dormant things mixed in with the other stock. Some of the dormant things are leafless pots of scrappy looking twigs. Other dormant pots just look like pots of dirt where the twigs have died back entirely. Okay… you do have to take it a bit on faith that you’re really buying a plant and not some nice potting mix. But stick the root mass in the ground and you’ll hopefully have a plant before you know it. Think of it like you’re planting bulbs.

And the plants in their inventory themselves live up to different expectations. Most natives aren’t the high-strung prima donna garden plants at the garden centers. Some take their cues from the dry summers and go dormant in when it’s hot. Other are winter-deciduous. These are plants you take with all their characteristics, and you’d probably not want to put them where you’d expect to have lush foliage and flowers all year round. But there are lots of things that look respectable year-round, along with a few that really are pretty extravagant all the time. I ended up with a pot of dormant twigs–Spiraea douglasii (western spiraea)–three Heucera maxima (island alum root), and one Carpenteria californica (bush anenome).

All that said, the owner, Valerie, is knowledgeable, committed and passionate about her plants. Below are pictures of these three plants from the website. Bear in mind that the plants I bought were little 1 galloners, though 1 galloners that I fully expect to start looking more like their pictures before too long…

The other stop on the trip was Buena Creek Gardens, in San Marcos, a totally different sort of experience. Located on several acres that have been planted like a small botanical garden, the feel of the place is calm and playful, lush and relaxed, where Las Pilitas was more serious and matter-of-fact.

buenairis.jpgThis is one of their demonstration gardens, with some blooming iris and alstromeria, with a cordyline in the background.

buenabamboo.jpgConnecting a couple of their demonstration gardens is this path through a bamboo thicket.

…and in bloom over one of their sales area was this Prunus species, a Taiwanese flowering cherry, I think she called it. The original plant was a shrub, not a tree. So the cool flowering cherry plant was grafted onto a tree to give this great effect. Unfortunately the picture doesn’t do the plant justice.

Some of the cool plants in the ground were available for sale, but, darn!, many were not. Still we came home with six or so more plants. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to resist some splashy plants, even if you’re trying to go with a greater proportion of natives.

Okay, plants. You’ve been in the ground for at least six hours. Isn’t that enough time for the yard to look just like the demonstration gardens?

the mojave phonebooth: part 2, i told you it was weird

[ continued from part 1 ]

My second trip to the Mojave Phonebooth was a few years later when I was leading a photography trip for some fellow photography geeks with the local Sierra Club chapter. My trips are often a little offbeat, particularly for people wanting to pad their portfolios with more photos of rocks and sunsets. (Don’t get me wrong–I still have a weakness for “nature photography” or whatever you call this West Coast, Weston- and Adams- and Porter-influenced way of seeing the world.) The people on this trip were a tad puzzled by my insisting that we visit this phonebooth in the middle of Cima Dome, but I promised them it’d be an interesting detour.

By this point the phonebooth had acquired an international following. I won’t repeat all the details, but through the efforts of a certain Godfrey Daniels, who called and called the phone until he got through to a human being, who logged all his attempts, and who detailed his craziness on the web, the phonebooth began to get a certain reputation for weirdness. People from all over started to make calls to this lost phonebooth, and people would go there to answer them. And then Europe found out. What better thing to represent a romantic European notion of the American West than a lone phonebooth, miles from anything, set in the middle of the desert with j-trees all around it?

My group finally made it there, but we weren’t the only ones that day. A DJ from a Florida radio station was there in a low, battered sedan with “Mojave Phonebooth or bust” signs all over it. He’d been camping out there, taking calls from listeners, and he was looking a little battered himself. In a more deluxe rented SUV was another group of people which consisted of a German film crew and an opera singer. Apparently the opera singer had made a certain reputation for himself by singing arias while standing in the phone booth. Maybe while waiting for La Scala to call him.

We weren’t there long before the phone rang and continued to ring. People from Texas, Florida, Italy, Germany, all over. We didn’t hear the opera singer sing, though the crew got some shots of him standing at the phone, answering a call. Then the film crew turned their attention to my group. Richard got some questions, then someone else, then me. What was I doing here? How did I hear about the phonebooth? Who was in my group? I had no idea if these people were the equivalent of the major American networks, some little cable outfit, or some precursor to Youtube. But what the hell, I’ve been on European television!

The phone booth that day:


Nicole, one of my group, taking a call–in French–from someone in Europe:


Postscript: All this was in the late 1990s, after the Mojave National Preserve came into being officially. The thought of having something so antithetical the mission of a natural preserve rubbed the National Park Service the wrong way, and with the collusion of SBC Pacific Bell (now AT&T) the phone was removed and the phone number ((619) 733-9969) retired forever. While the Mojave Phonebooth was definitely an unnatural feature in the landscape, it was no worse than golf courses in Yosemite or mega-lodges in Yellowstone. But through their greater wisdom the NPS saw it fit to kill off this piece of wacked Americana. So that’s one less thing out in the wilds to makes roaming the deserts such an interesting thing to do.

The Park Service’s action hasn’t ended the weird romance of the phonebooth, however. A film produced in 2006, Mojave Phone Booth, played the festival circuit in 2006 and 2007 and gathered a number of awards.

the mojave phonebooth: part 1, weird at first sight

I first ran across what later came to be known as the Mojave Phone Booth in January of 1993 or 4. I’d been camping that weekend in what was soon to become Mojave National Preserve, and one day was exploring some of the features on the north end of the park-to-be. There the park butts up against I-15 and the thriving tourist waystation of Baker, California, touted on signs throughout town as “Gateway to Death Valley.” Baker is home to what’s claimed as the “world’s largest thermometer,” 134 feet tall–a foot for every degree that made up the hottest temperature ever recorded at Badwater in Death Valley. Baker is also known for the Mad Greek Restaurant, a busy and basically okay eatery that serves up Greek -Mexican-American cuisine in portions that you might expect in a town that owes its success if not existence to travelers heading for that shining shrine of excess, Las Vegas, which at one point in my life was my all-time least favorite swath of soulless human desolation on earth. But enough Vegas-bashing and back to the Preserve…

The most dramatic features on the land are a chain of multicolored volcanic cinder cones. I think of them as single-use volcanoes: Unlike their big brothers that build to some size over long eras, cinder cones mark a short period of eruptions that builds them to a few hundred feet high. And then the eruptions stop, the route to the magma below closes up, and when the ground’s finally ready to erupt again, a new crack opens up, away from the first cinder cone, creating another, separate cone.

Here at the Mojave Preserve there are piles of them–some of them pristine in their perfect pyramidal geometry, others reshaped by mining operations–and they guard the western edge of Cima Dome. Just a few miles south of the world’s largest thermometer, Cima Dome hosts the world’s densest population of joshua trees, and that’s what you notice first. But the feature is called a dome and not a forest, and as remarkable as the j-trees are, growing denser and green as you get farther out on the dome, it’s the geology and not biology that makes this place so amazing.

On a topo map you can easily make out the uniform concentric rings of the dome as it rises over 1500 feet from the lower points around it. In real life it’s a lot more subtle. You look at the ground as it rises, gradually, perfectly, and you get a torqued sensation that something is happening, but you’re not quite sure what. You stare and it looks like you see the curvature of the earth, though instead of flying high over it, you’re standing right on it. Space seems to distort as what you expect to be flat bulges up. Queasiness sets in. Welcome to Cima Dome.

Cima Dome topo

The place has this amazing power and force that the touted 1960s and 1970s earthworks can’t begin to approach. In terms of spatial power, as interesting as they are, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer’s various constructions, and James Turrell’s Roden Crater can’t hold a candle to it. Sorry guys!

So there I was, jeeping through the j-trees and the spatial queasiness, when I encounter a fence, a cattle guard, a power line and a powerline road crossing the jeep track. And next to the road, next to one of the power poles is a phone booth. A phone booth? A dozen miles from anything? A freaking phone booth? But out in the desert you see a lot of…unusual…things. And I stuck the phone booth as another entry in my brain’s cataloging of desert sights and sightings. Little did I know what I’d just seen.

[ go to part 2, i told you it was weird ]