Friday, April 28, 2017

Look at my Bruise

I got hit in the upper thigh with a slapshot Monday night.  The inner upper thigh, specifically.  In an area where hockey pants have no padding, and for good reason, since most people are facing the shots that they are blocking.  The fronts of hockey pants have plenty of padding in the front for just that reason.  I didn't get hit in the front because I had been turned looking at the right-side point, and when the pass went across to the left-side point, I turned my upper body, but not my lower.  I didn't think there was going to be a shot.  There was.  I blocked it.  It really hurt.

It felt like someone had slapped down on my inner thigh as hard as they could and then squeezed with all their might for the next five minutes.  A Ukrainian Horse Bite that lasted far longer than anyone should have to endure.  There was a great deal of cursing after we cleared the zone and I reached the bench.  It was ok, though, as things could have been way worse had the shot risen higher.  Count your blessings, right?

Anyway, now it's Friday, so I want to share my bruise with the world.  The camera on my phone sucks, which may have to do with the scratches all over the lens, so I enhanced the image contrast slightly using the Sunset filter in Fotor.


I have no idea how the back of my leg looks so much worse than where the puck actually hit, but I'm not a doctor, so I'm just going to assume this is normal.  It is, right?  If it's not, I'll be sure to post updates from the hospital.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Birmingham Trailer Park

You guys!  Great news!  For any of you that have not been going to Burning Man because it's too difficult, too hot, or too stressful, it's not anymore!  It's super easy now, and you should all go!  I agree that in the past, Burning Man used to be this totally exclusionary event where you had to know somebody that went to even find out about it, and then when you got there it was really gross desert weather with dust storms and sunburn, and the event organizers didn't even provide bathrooms and you were supposed to take care of yourself and it was impossible to find your way around because there were no permanent location markers and privacy was nowhere to be found so you had to spend a week with people up your business even when you showered if you could even call it a shower since you at most had a rubber bag with a watering can-esque nozzle to sprinkle water on you.  But now it's not like that (there've been well marked roads and port-o-pots for years)!  Now absolutely anyone can go and have a good time! Isn't that great?!?

First off, let me tell you about how Burning Man now radically includes everyone.  Before, if you wanted to learn about the festival, you really needed to know someone who went, be an esoteric (poor) artist, or a reader obscure zines.  That's not the case anymore!  Any semi-savvy online-media enthusiast knows all about the festival just by following their favorite celebs on Instagram.  This is a very camera-friendly event (and why not, since everyone looks so fab), and it has really opened the event up to a whole new world of attendees, and I think it's great.

Secondly, BMorg has done a great job of making tickets available for everyone.  Not only have they steadily increased festival capacity (38,989 in 2006 vs. 70,000 in 2016), they've created special ticket tiers so that the people who really want to go to the festival actually can!  This year (2017), aside from the free-for-all ticket lottery that sells tickets for $425 a pop, there was a pre-sale of tickets priced at either $990 or $1,200.  Isn't that great?  Now the people who aren't just passive attendees, people who really care and need to be at Burning Man, have a chance to buy a ticket with a price as great as their love for the festival.  Here's a link to ticketing information if you want to learn more!

Third, the desert has been conquered!  Listen, only a sucker doesn't take an RV to Burning Man.  Don't be a sucker!  After you get your ticket, the next two things you need to do are: 1) get your $80 parking permit, and 2) get your hands on a sweet RV.  Once you have an RV, life is magical.  No more roasting in the sun, no more lack of air conditioning, no more dust storms, no more public toilets, no more mandatory interaction with neighbors, no more conditions unbefitting of a vacation!  Great!

Image taken from Van Fleet News Blog

Fourth, and kind of a big one, there are public showers!  Two years ago, there is usually a dance party shower camp, and two years ago there was even a Dr. Bronner's foam party shower camp!  Sure, they're a little creepy because people get to see you naked, but still, you get clean and you don't have to worry about disposing of gray water.  Great Win-Win-Slight Lose.

Finally, and maybe news to some, the hippies have taken over with their friendly-first attitudes!  Most people think Burning Man has always been a hippie festival, but it didn't used to be.  People used to aggressively protect assholery by calling it their "freedom of expression", but now there's a passive calm permeating the desert.  I'd like to think this has something to do with ticket price related gentrification, but it could also have to do with increased accessibility in general as most people are good people, so the more people at an event, the more good people there will be to spread good.  Right?  There's no more need to worry about someone calling you out just because you didn't have time to make a costume so either you didn't bring one at all or you just bought one on the way.  Just do what makes you happy, even if those things are visors and polo shirts!  The event really couldn't be more greatly welcoming and accepting.

Some would say that a trailer park is always a trailer park, and that no matter how much you polish that turd, it's still a trailer park.  I believe that Burning Man has proven those people wrong.  👍👍

Monday, April 24, 2017

Fairy Shrimp: What are you trying to tell me?

Fairy Shrimp, aka Anostraca, are weird little critters.  Weird not so much in their appearance, as animals at the bottom of the ocean are far stranger, nor in mechanism of survival, as locusts do that whole seven year thing that I find bonkers.  Think about how much can happen in seven years!  Say you're a little larva that buries itself deep in the ground and then seven years later you decide to come back up for air, but you can't.  Try as you might, you keep gnawing and pushing, but the dirt seems too hard to penetrate.  What happened?  Oh, that's right, progress happened.  You now live under a highway whose pavement was laid three years prior and are going to die before you figure out how to get around it.  Dumbass cicada.

No, Fairy Shrimp are weird because they send such a mixed message symbolically!  What are you trying to tell me, Fairy Shrimp?  What's your deal?

I should probably pump the brakes for a minute.  Ok, here's a little background.  In the precambrian era, the ocean ran through parts of the Pacific and Mountain timezones.  Eventually these waters receded leaving lakes that were reduced to ponds then puddles and finally to waterless deserts.  This is why Utah has such awesome natural rocky structures and why the Black Rock Desert is so alkali.  With Utah, arches and hoodoos were carved by flowing water, and in the Black Rock, living organism turned into dead organic matter with high alkaline content.  This is why skin can seem to get burned by the dust in the Black Rock Desert.  High pH, Low pH, All Bad pH.

Now that we've established the Black Rock Desert is really just a dried out lake bed, we can move onto Fairy Shrimp, the critters that once thrived in the now desiccated lake.  Anostraca are non-domesticated Sea Monkeys (Brine Shrimp).  And just like Sea Monkeys, Fairy Shrimp are able to maintain themselves in an egg state for years (up to eight, or so I hear) without dying out.  But unlike brine shrimp, they aren't sold to children in this dormant state.  No, instead they lie just below the top soil, if you want to call it that, of post-lake drylands.  Those eggs lie there in waiting, resisting the heat of the sun and dry of the air, in the hopes that one day, rain will drench the barren landscape, providing them with enough swimming room to hatch and get their freak on with another Fairy Shrimp before the sun turns their happy home into a fine mist floating through the air.

Actual Size

And that's exactly what's been going on for centuries.  Those little buggers lay dormant for years, heavy rains eventually hit the desert, they hatch, they feed, they breed, they lay more eggs, they die, the water evaporates, and the cycle starts anew.  This takes me back to the start.  What are they trying to tell us with their life's story?  Is it a tale of resilience?  A story with a moral rooted in the importance of persistence in an unpredictable, uncaring, inhospitable environment?  Proof that life is important and strong enough to overcome any obstacle given time and patience?  Or is it an example of the futility and meaninglessness of life?  Their lives are brief and they accomplish nothing other than creating more brief, meaningless lives.  Are you trying to tell me that life is hard but entirely worth the struggle or that to spend time struggling is foolish and that life is an unfair joke?  Seriously!  Don't leave me hanging like this!  Ugh, stupid Fairy Shrimp and your cruel ambiguity.  Fine.  Take your secrets to your grave and see if I care.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Breezy: Air Scared

One of the perks of working at 88NV is the chance to get to go up on a flight.  Most pilots don't fly into Burning Man with the intention of parking their plane for the week.  No, their plan is to be up in the sky as much as possible in order to see the city in action.  And also because they love flying.  Why become a pilot if you don't love to fly?  And unless a pilot has a single-seater, they're willing to take people up with them.  Because of this, the airport is clamoring with festival attendees trying desperately to get up into the air with a pilot sporting an empty seat.  Since I worked at the airport, I wasn't going to have to try, all I'd have to do was ask.  Enter the Breezy.  

Do you know what a Breezy is?  I'm assuming you looked at the picture below already, so yes, you know.  Prior to this year, I had no idea that such a thing existed, so I'll describe it for those of you that are the me from last year.  It's a cockpitless plane that is somewhere between an airplane and a horrifying psychological torture device.  It's a flying floorboard.  Paul, one of the pilots and airport crew members, had a Breezy, and while parked innocently in the parking lot so carefully staked out the week before, I had an interest in going up for a flight.

Photo Courtesy of Paul the Pilot

I don't know if I've ever had so much fun being so terrified in my life.  I've gone sky diving and scrambled down rocksliding mountain sides, and neither compared.  The rush was exhilarating, the view spectacular, the experience overwhelming, and the whole time I was convinced I was going to die.  I was letting loose a mix of "holy shits" covering every possible intention of the phrase.  Even though my first impulse was cling as desperately to worst case scenarios as I was to the bottom of my seat, there was a bit of me that was pretty sure that we weren't going to crash.  For starters, Paul was a professional pilot.  On top of that he had a primary interest in not crashing for his own sake, regardless of mine.  My survivalist brain was convinced that I would go flying off the little platform seat, something that really wasn't possible with how tightly I was strapped in.  Maybe the whole seat would just go flying off?  Also not likely since Paul's wife usually occupied that seat on their flights.  Each gust of wind further reinforced the fact that this was going to be the last thing I did on this Earth.  It wasn't until after we landed and rolled to a stop that I finally accepted the fact that I was not going to die.  How ironic would it have been if I had an unrelated aneurysm later that day?  I would've felt like such an idiot for being afraid of the Breezy in the moments preceding my sudden death.

In any case, thank you, Paul!  If ever I get the chance to fly with you again, I can guarantee that I will be just as terrified the second, third, fourth, and n-th time we go up into the sky.  That's probably half the reason I want to go.  Just ask anyone who's watched a horror film with me.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

88NV: It's a Real Airport

Having survived the scorpion fields of eastern Nevada and the meth gauntlets of Reno, I reached my home for the next two weeks, the Black Rock Desert.  For the first of those two weeks, I was going to be put to work.  There was an airport that needed to be built in that desert, and I was just the sort of unskilled laborer to help with the job.

The Black Rock Desert is the home of Burning Man.  It's a sprawling alkali flat with nothing for miles in all directions, making it the perfect place to create a pop-up city for a few weeks.  Nobody lives on the land, nobody lives near the land.  Keeping people off of that land is the blazing sun, caustic soil, blinding dust storms, and its remote location.  That last bit means anyone attending the event needs a way to get there.  While most people drive, and the occasional person rides their bike (Troy Mustache, 2013), there are others that fly in.  Before going off on a rant about affluence and appropriation, I'm not talking specifically of the celebs and Silicon Valley execs that get dropped off for the weekend so they can pose for photos in $10,000 light-up jackets before hiding in an RV to rip through brain melting amounts of blow.  I'm talking about pilots and their associates.  Think about it for a second, what better place could there be to be able to fly?  Not only do you have one of the most unique cities in the world to look down upon and giant black rock mountains all around, everything between the city and the mountains is a potential landing strip.

People have flown to Burning Man for years, and as the amount of pilots increased, so did the need for safety measures, until POOF!  88NV was created.  88NV is the FAA Identifier for the Black Rock City Airport, a temporary, FAA regulated airport that pops up in the middle of the Black Rock Desert for a little over a week in the late summer.  And that's where I going to be unskilled laboring.

I just realized I don't have a single photo from the airport without CB in it.

How does an airport in the middle of nowhere come to be?  It's actually pretty straight forward.  First, all airport team members line up along the eastern boundary fence that keeps trash from flying out of the festival into the open desert.  Next, we all strip completely naked.  After that, the lead air traffic controller distributes the ceremonial daggers.  Finally, we sacrifice a family of goats and paint ourselves with blood and dust while loudly chanting to our pagan god, Larriel, The Keeper of the Hot Winds.

No, wait, that's something else.  To build an airport, a surveyor first goes out into the open desert to mark out miles of runway and plane parking (according to a certified plan).  While that's going on, the non-surveyors take inventory of goods and start building the different structures (traffic control tower, customs, ticketing, gates, etc.).  After the desert is surveyed, it's marked off clearly so that planes know where to land and where to park, leaving the surveyor free to mark off internal roadways within the internal airport setup.  More buildings go up, roads are clearly marked, bus stops go up, a filling station is added with tons of warning signs, windsocks are erected, and assorted runway markers are put in place.  That all takes a little less than a week, and then the planes start landing.  From empty desert to functional airport in no time flat.

That first week, I hammered posts, put up walls, pounded concrete stakes, marked survey spots with lathe, took broken tools to welders, and pretty much anything else they told me to do in order to help get the place in order for the party.  By Thursday, we were good to go.  We had everything you could need to run airport, including air traffic controllers from all over the world.  Including a giant tripod tower with a crowsnest for watching the rest of the city build itself from the ground up.

At least he has the aviator glasses for the job.

Once built, I was able to head into the city to meet up with my campmates.  As much fun as the airport was, I wanted to be in the city center during the event.  But I was sure to still go out for visits during the week.  One of the nicest parts about the airport is its remote location.  Far enough removed from the heart of the festival, the thumping bass from the playa can almost be ignored.  Far enough removed that random drugged-out passerbies don't pass out on a shaded couch after talking your ears off about the meaning of life from the perspective of a fairy shrimp.  Far enough removed that you can escape the whirling frenzy going on a mile away without being pulled back in by its cyclonic tendrils.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Taking the Lane

I don't know how to broach this subject without being labeled a traitor to cycling, but please hear me out.  I am not a fan of taking a lane.  My problem isn't really with the concept of taking a lane, it's more with the people who do it out of a sense of entitlement rather than safety-driven necessity.  For leisure cyclists that steer clear of municipal throughways, "taking the lane" refers to the times when a cyclist (or cyclists) ride in the middle of a car lane.  In the City of Philadelphia, bicycles have the same rights as cars, so this is a perfectly legal maneuver.  I don't know the legality of taking a lane in other cities and states, so for the sake of this post, please know that everything I'm talking about is from a Philadelphia perspective.

The reason this is fresh in my mind is that the other day while leading a bicycle tour down South St. near the Magic Gardens, a car drove past us as we pulled up to a light.  This car did nothing wrong and gave us as much space as it could considering the cars parked on both sides of the road.  The car made it through the yellow and we stopped at the red.  Nothing about the interaction even registered in my mind, but a pavement-standing, rage-faced on-looker quickly caught my attention.  He began yelling not so much at, but in support of, us.  "You don't have to let those cars go by," he hollered over at my group, veins bulging from his forehead.  "Cars can't drive close to you, and you have every right to take the [gal-durn] lane."  He continued for a while, furiously preaching the rights of city cyclists to a row of nodding heads.  That light couldn't turn green fast enough.

He was what reminded me of why I hate taking the lane.  There are perfectly valid reasons to take a lane, the most important of which is safety.  Cars are obligated to give cyclists in Philadelphia four feet of riding room.  This seldom happens, often out of the unavailability of space, not from malice, so taking a lane forces drivers to relent.  Aside from granting room, it increases a cyclist's visibility.  Ironically, cyclists can be more difficult to see in the day time, as at night, flashing rear lights typically provide exceptional proof of the existence of an upcoming cyclist.  In the daytime, though, cyclists can easily blend in with the city blur, and a driver preoccupied with expedience or texting can easily fail to notice their presence.  Right-hand turns are the enemy of cyclists, and taking a lane is supposed to prevent this sort of accident.  Taking a lane for the sake of safety is never a bad thing.

But sometimes, lane takers (the infuriated pedestrian included) take lanes as a way to stick it to cars.  Since they have a right to do it, they do it, and damn the row of cars behind them.  And this really pisses me off.  These are the same people that get filled with righteous indignation when a FedEx truck is parked in a bike lane or when cars do a slow-and-roll at a stop sign.  They know their rights as cyclists and they have every intention of following to the letter any laws that benefit them.  They are also the same people that weave through traffic and blow through stop signs because they acknowledge the spirit of the law when that better suits them.

The thing is, regardless of what rules and regulations get passed by the city, the most important is the Golden Rule.  For those so atheistic that the mention of anything biblical causes you to shield your eyes like a vampire in Cabo, it can be secularly expressed as, "Don't be an asshole because you don't like it when people are assholes to you."  Taking a lane without reason backs up traffic.  You don't like being stuck in backed up traffic, so why would you do that to other people?  The same goes for all of the other scenarios.  God forbid someone parks in your precious bike lane forcing you to go around it.  Do you know how hard it is to park in the city?  Sometimes you just need to run in for two seconds.  It's not the end of the world.  Put yourself in the position of the other person for one second before you get all worked up.  Life is hard; stop trying to make it harder for other people.

Really, though, what it all comes down to, is that I don't want your indignant attitude to be payed forward to some unsuspecting cyclist that may not share your point of view.  What I'm saying is, I don't want to get run over by some driver who was stuck behind you for ten blocks with no way of letting you know how they feel so they then take their rage out on the next cyclist passing by.  I'm not saying don't take the lane, I'm just saying to think about yourself as something other than the center of the universe.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ringing Rocks County Park

Last week was Spring Break, which meant a lot of Bike Tours.  For parents, Spring Break must be a nightmare.  Not only are your kids no longer absent from the home, they're also no longer someone else's daytime responsibility.  To make matters worse, the weather has finally shifted from unpredictably cold to manageably warm, meaning severe pangs of guilt for plopping the kid down in front of the TV all day.  As a bicycle tour guide, this means a steady flow of families seeking out a way to keep the kids educationally occupied while also managing to wear them out.  Long bicycle tours in historic cities are great for that.  You should take one sometime.

My only weekday sans-tour group was Thursday, allowing me to tag along with a friend of mine and her two kids for a different but similar sort of Spring Break day trip: day hiking + camping.  Hiking is a spectacular way to wear out children.  They get so excited to be permitted to run around swinging sticks and throwing rocks that they never catch on to the fact that it's all just a clever ruse to get them to put themselves to bed without a fuss.  I don't know, can you pick up that giant rock?  Only one way to find out!  Wow!  You did it!  But I bet you can't carry it all the way to the end of the trail...

So Thursday morning, with education and exhaustion in mind, we set out for Ringing Rocks County Park in Upper Black Eddy, an imaginary town in Bucks County (home to fabulous Ringing Rocks Jewelry).  What is/are Ringing Rocks?  Great question.  Ringing Rocks County Park is a small, 128-acre park that is home to a giant rock river unlike any other rock river that I know of, though my knowledge of rock rivers is fairly limited as I can only think of two local rivers of rocks: Hickory Run and Hawk Mountain.

Plenty of places for kids to hurt themselves.

Regardless of my limited rock river knowledge, I do know that Ringing Rocks is special.  Not so much in size or composition, but in that its rocks, when struck by a hammer, can produce chimes similar to that of a bell.  The other rock fields I know of definitely cannot do that.  Observe:

Now, only about a third of those rocks make sounds, and each of those rocks has its own pitch.  As far as I could tell, pitch was entirely unrelated to rock size, as smaller rocks sometimes possessed the deepest tones and vice versa.  And as far as scientists can tell, there's nothing special about these rocks, as they appear to be made up of the same iron and aluminum mixture as most of the rocks in the general area.  The do have a bit of a rusty color to them, though, so for the sake of a lack of empirical evidence, let's just say it's the iron that does it.  In any case, as it's impossible to tell which rocks will ring based solely on appearance, the only way to properly appreciate the park is to jump from boulder to boulder striking them with a hammer.  What kid wouldn't want to visit this park?  Not only do you get to run and climb over giant rocks, you get to hit them with hammers making different bell tones.

After taking a fair amount of swings, and the ten-year-old breaking a hammer, we made our way down the rocky path to a nameless offshoot of the Delaware River.  While only a shallow creek this early in the season, the giant boulders along the wide river bed let us know how powerfully the water could flow during the wet season.  Tired of the precarious boulder balancing act, especially with the added difficulty of maintaining rocky footing while holding hands with a five-year-old that wanted nothing more than to run off on her own even though she would most definitely face-plant if allowed to do so, we hopped off of the rocky path and out onto the slimy river bed.  From there it was onward and upward past a series of small water falls and flowing puddles until eventually we reached the big mama waterfall.

We maintained a positive waterfalls to human-falls ratio.  Not too shabby.

Not particularly spectacular in April, it was nice to be able to stroll around underneath it without worry of death.  If you'd like a more spectacular waterfall experience, I'd recommend Ricketts Glen.  Regardless of its magnificence, a waterfall was still a bonus after all the rock hammering.  Also, the top of the 30' waterfall is, for all I's and P's, the end of the loop that started at the ringing rocks.  Only a few miles in total, Ringing Rocks is an easy day for adults, but a real workout for the kiddos with all of the boulder scrambling and slime navigating.  I'd recommend Ringing Rocks to any parents in the Philly area with kids under 15.  There's even a nearby, family-friendly campground if you'd like to extend your vacation by a day so as to include a visit to nearby Nockamixon State Park.  Also, if you go on an April 13th of any year, all Wawa coffee is free (and there are more than a few Wawas on the way up), so like, maybe go then?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Camel Spiders: Scorpion Assassins, Leg Crawlers

Shortly after crossing into Nevada, I needed to take a break.  I had possibly overdone it a bit with the Intense Bold and Stōk, and I needed to get something in my stomach other than coffee and coffee additives.  Fortunately, there was a little gas station/convenience store/bar waiting for me just past the invisible Pacific Time Zone boundary.  Gas station bars are something I don't think I'll ever get used to.  We live in such a strange culture here in the U.S.  We encourage drinking, require driving, and then act appalled when people drink and drive.  How exactly is someone supposed to get home from a bar in the middle of the Nevada desert after they've been drinking all night?

I wasn't sure what I was going to find in that little gas station convenience store attached to a bar, but I figured anything would be fine.  Like, maybe a pimento cheese sandwich?  Nah, that's a stretch outside of the South.  Maybe an egg salad sandwich.  Or maybe even just an egg?  I didn't know, that place was not looking very promising.  It should at least have some old bread, right?

Pulling off the highway and into the sandy parking lot, I parked, hopped out of the Silverado, and headed up to the entrance.  As I walked into the store's fluorescent glow, I found that I was the only customer looking for snacks at that hour.  It wasn't all that late, midnight or so, but that convenience store wasn't all the centrally located to civilization so who knows how many people it saw on a daily basis.  In any case, I strolled into the empty store, and as I took a few steps forward, felt something on my leg.

I had walked into the convenience bar looking calm and collected.  A road weary traveler with time enough for burnt coffee but no time for bullshit.  That façade was quickly shed/torn down by the excited leg swiping that was my instinctual response to the possibility of a tiny insect crawling up my leg.  I don't like spiders!  I don't know how many times I have to tell you this!  Embarrassingly, it's often just a string dangling from my frayed shorts, but one can never be too careful.  Anyway, this is what I saw standing between my legs post swipe:

Solifugae aka Camel Spider aka Sun Spider (Courtesy of People First Pest Control)

Aha!  Justification for dramatic overreaction!  Look at that thing!  It's terrifying!  To be fair, though, and to give some perspective, I guess I should tell you that the one I was looking standing between my legs at was less than an inch long... so... I was a bit bigger.  But that thing is probably loaded with venom, right?

I quickly walked away from that little monster and headed towards the snacks section.  My instincts hadn't been wrong.  My options were limited.  Forced to really search through the rows, I squatted down to see what was on the bottom shelf.  From that lowered view point, I got a good look at the floor, and what did I see?  Another insect monster.  Or was it the same one?  Was it following me???  Oh god, how long had it been following me???  Moab??? Kanab??? JACKSON?????  TELL MEEEEEEE!!!!!!!

Finding success in a pack of overpriced crackers, I stood up and decided to stroll around the bar store to look for more insects.  You would not believe my relief when I found those little monsters everywhere.  That sounds strange, but it's not.  For one thing, it meant that I wasn't being covertly followed by a death-driven poison bug hell-bent on avenging some wrong that I had unknowingly wrought upon it or its family in the desert.  Second, and more reasonably, if there were a lot of them, they couldn't be dangerous.  Were these critters a danger to humans, this place would've been fumigated ages ago (I assumed).  I headed up to the cashier to both pay for my food and confirm my suspicions.

He told me that they were Camel Spiders, and that they were good to have around because they ate scorpions.  He also said that I should watch out for scorpions because now that it's starting to get cold out at night, they like to get closer to the warmth of the store.  And the scorpions around here were the extra tiny ones.  The kind that put you in the hospital, like they had done to a buddy of his.  Well, that was the fastest I've cycled through fear to relief back to fear in my life.  Thank you, cashier.

After finishing the now dreaded flip-flopped walk through the parking lot to the truck (I really wished I'd had my blacklight flashlight handy), I did some Camel Spider research.  While not spiders, they were arachnids that did indeed prey on scorpions.  I was also able to confirm that they were of no danger (ie. non-venomous) to humans.  I also verified that a tiny scorpion can put you in the hospital.  One less thing to fear.  One more thing to fear.  In any case, this served as a good reminder to ignore the initial impulse to squish grotesque bugs as they may just be very ugly friends.

Around daybreak, I found the answer to the question at the top of the post.  While driving on the two-laned, untrafficked US-50, with the rising sun casting extra long shadows out ahead of me, I saw police lights in the distance.  I hadn't passed or been passed by any cars in quite some time, so seeing the light instantly wrenched my stomach.  I'm not sure if I'll ever outgrow that involuntary response, as I've never had any run-ins with the law nor was I doing anything illegal.  I quickly realized that the lights weren't moving towards me, and that I was moving towards them.  Once I got within a quarter of a mile, I saw the flares and realized this wasn't a traffic stop, but a clean up.  Along the side of the perfectly straight, nearly-abandoned highway was an overturned car that appeared to have, of its own volition, flipped a few times, thoroughly demolishing itself in the process.  Either someone hadn't Stōked their Intense Bold or they had spent too much time drinking at a gas station.  Or maybe it was more sinister.  Maybe that driver had killed the one Camel Spider that had been protecting them all along, and a stowaway scorpion stung their leg, inducing behind-the-wheel seizures.  You can decide for yourself.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Caffeination Double Whammy

If there's one thing any good trucker knows, it's staying awake.  An integral part of that staying awake is caffeine.  It's cheap, it's legal, and it's readily available.  If crank were legal, I'm sure every truck stop on the continent would be pedaling it.  But it's not, so there's coffee.  Gallons of coffee.

Truckers also know truck stops, of which there are three main options along US interstates: PilotLove's, and Flying J (I have customer cards for all of them).  Two of those, Pilot and Flying J, are the same corporation, so really, there are only two.  Even then, choice is only an illusion, as they both mostly sell the same items: camo t-shirts with redneck sayings on them (Mud, Sweat, and Beers), driver needs like e-cigarettes and jumper cables, warm showers, cold beverages, roller-heated sausage-shaped meats, assorted snacks, and most importantly, coffee.  Not just a little coffee, a whole boatload of coffee.  Coffee as far as the eye can see.  Columbian, French Roast, House Blend, Et Cetera.  They have a lot of coffee and it never runs out.  Ever.

After my Southern Utah layover, I gave myself 20 hours to get from Moab to Reno.  Even with my lightfoot and grandma-level caution, at the low speed of 60mph I could cover that 700 miles in just under 12 hours.  Provided I could stay awake for 12 hours.  Enter Pilot/Flying J, my personal favorite.  Not that there's anything really wrong with Love's; I'm really just not a fan of the name with it's little heart logo.  I don't feel comfortable associating that feeling with truck stops.  Change the name to Hungry's or Sleepy's, and I'll be all over it.

Another +1 for Pilot/Flying J is that it has an extra special coffee for people driving 700 miles in a single shot: Intense Bold (with the tagline, "Extra Caffeine.  Extra flavor.").  This is bonkers coffee.  The Jolt Cola version of coffee.  My leg is shaking at just the mention of it.  Unrelated, were any of you allowed to rink Jolt as kids?  I don't think I was even allowed to touch a closed bottle of it for fear of transdermal caffeination.

Anyway, Intense Bold is a thrust into overdrive when slogging through hundreds of late night, wide open, undeveloped, desert miles.  Utah and Nevada, with their lack of light pollution,  provide amazing views of the night sky and it's easy to let those twinkling stars lull you into a blissful night's sleep, which is a real problem at 70mph.  Thankfully, I had IB.  If anything, the induced jitters alone will shake you to a wakeful and vigilant state.  Now that's some good coffee.

I know what you're thinking: "Twelve hours is a long time to drive.  A 16oz Intense Bold might be just what the doctor ordered at mile 300, but what about mile 550, when the caffeine is starting to wear off?  Could a second Intense Bold get you as wired as the first one did?"  No, of course not, and it's good of you to bring it up.  But worry not, Pilot/Flying J has that covered.  Behold... Stōk.

It's free yet comes with a warning...

Yes, that's exactly what it looks like it is.  It's a creamer container, but instead of containing creamer, it holds a shot of espresso in it.  It's a shot of coffee to pour into your cup of coffee.  And how much does this warning-labeled caffeine additive cost?  $0.  That's right, absolutely nothing.  Simply grab a handful and go.  If you are on a budget, this is your no-cost alternative to coffee.  It tastes like garbage, but that's not why you drink it.  People, this is actually a thing!

I had 700 miles until Reno.  No problem.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Parable of the Three Water Filters

I was recently on the phone (talking, like, using my voice) with a friend of mine from Moab, and during our conversation, she reminded me of the famous local fable of the three water filters.  I couldn't remember the tale in its entirety, so I called the Grand Country Public Library and had a librarian track down the ancient, sun bleached scroll on which it was written.  From there in the Artifacts and Relics room in the basement, she read these words:
One summer day, under the sweltering desert sun, three weary travelers came upon the same hidden spring.  As they sat down upon the large rock covering the tiny oasis, they discussed the virtues of each of their water filtration systems.

The first traveler was a young man in his 20's, and he carried a gravity based water filtration system.  He stated that his water filter was the best because it required the least amount of effort.  All he needed to do was fill the dirty water bag with one mighty scoop and then hang the filtration system from a nearby rock, allowing gravity to handle passing the water through the filter to the clean bag.

The second traveler was a bearded man in his 50's, and he carried a standard, hand operated, backpacking filter. He claimed that the young man was wrong, and that his water filter was the best because it was the fastest.  Sure, it required more effort with all of the pumping, but the work was worth it, as his filter was 10x faster than the gravity filter.

The third traveler, a man by the name of Troy, also carried a standard, hand operated, backpacking filter.  His filter was different from the old man's, though.  Not in model, as they were the exact same, but in operation speed, as Troy's was only 2x faster than the gravity filter.  He said that he wasn't sure if his water filter was best, but he at least knew it was better than that slow-ass gravity filter.  He also had his suspicions that it might be better than the old man's due to some basic knowledge of how filtration through dense, semi-porous rock worked.

The first traveler died of dehydration on that rock while waiting for his clean bag to fill.  The second traveler (also) died of dehydration a few days later when he succumb to Giardia induced diarrhea, as his filter was missing a gasket and was not really filtering anything, hence the speed of which he was so boastful.  The third traveler, hydrated and in good health, eventually found his way back to civilization and lived happily ever after.

Moral: Water filters should pump slowly, as proper filtration takes time.  But seriously, gravity?  That's soooooo slow!
Some say that isn't a fable at all. That it's a true story you can still hear faintly echoing off canyon walls if you listen closely enough.  Still others say, "Yeah, that's a lie.  No one died.  The slow filter part was spot on, and the guy with the missing gasket is lucky he never got sick drinking that filthy, standing water, but other than that, this story was parabolic at best and braggartly at worst."  As it's an ancient fable, I guess we'll never know the truth...

This is the filter I use.  I love this filter and have used it all over, never once getting sick.  Please notice the red gasket that's faintly visible near the bottom of the main filter cylinder, just above the widened threaded bottom.  You need that.
(Photo courtesy of MSR)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Juniper: The Best Tree

Do you have a favorite tree?  I do, it's a Juniper Tree.  Ugh.  You're right, that opening question really was disingenuous.  I was just feigning interest in your opinion for the sake of segueing into my own.  That was pretty crappy of me.  Oh well, nothing I can do about it now except talk about the greatest trees in the land.

That's a bold statement, I know.  Redwoods are an obvious answer for the greatest trees in the land, as they are large enough for cars to be driven through them (provided a large enough hole has been cut in the trunk, it's not like they have the ability to phase matter through themselves, though that ability would definitely steal my vote from the Juniper).  Other possible answers include Ash (baseball and America, right?), Birch (birch beer and America, right?), Maple (syrup and Northern North America, right?), and Poplar (solely on the name pun).  But the Juniper really does it for me, and I'm willing to defend my opinion.  Also, that first paragraph makes it sound like I'm regretful for not waiting on your opinion.  I'm not.  I was feigning regret as hard as I was feigning interest.  Sorry, it's my blog.  Go get your own blog if you want to shove your opinion down someone's throat.

What are those Junipers even growing out of?  Rocks?  C'mon, that's crazy.
Alright, defense time.  Here's what the Juniper has going for it:
  1. Toughness/Curmudgeonliness/Emotional Unavailability - The Juniper does not need your love.  The Juniper does not need anything.  It is you that needs the Juniper.  Growing in some of the harshest climates, from the sun scorched deserts of the lower 48 to the permafrost tundra of the arctic circle, the Juniper is one tough tree.  And do you ever once hear it complain?  No way.  The Juniper is a hard ass capable of living wherever it damn well pleases, which ideally, is far from humanity.  Not just in locations that no one currently lives in, but places no one wants to live in.  On the side of sheer drops, in the middle of barren wastelands, anywhere people say, "eh, that's not for me."  And this distance-based inaccessibility is just the physical manifestation of its emotional unavailability.  It doesn't love you, making you love it so much more.  Junipers know how to play the game.

  2. Masters of Self Defense - The Juniper is the only tree I know of that gets more dangerous in death.  While alive, its sharp needles will keep most people from getting too close, or at least learning a lesson that won't soon be repeated if they do.  But in death, it's twisting trunk desiccates and fractures into sharp, outward pointing daggers warding off any potential grave robbers.  Additionally, these wooden knifes have an increased density due to their dehydration, meaning you're going to break before they do.  What other tree boasts this ability?  Most of them just fall down and die.  Junipers are relentless, even in death.

  3. Natural Sex Appeal -If there were an arboreal edition of Vogue, Junipers would be on the cover every other month.  First off, it's impossible to hike past a Juniper without checking out those curves.  Just look at how much that trunk swings to the left and then to the right.  Damn!  Next, look at the style.  The juxtaposition of hard, dull bark against bright green needles and soft, round berries.  So complicated!  Finally, no need to call the stylist, because the Juniper has style down pat.  Look at that rock it calls home.  If I'm not mistaken, that's Late Triassic Navajo with a splash of early-century Crypto.  Somebody's ready for the red carpet!

  4. Inviting Aroma - Forget burning dried sage bundles, Juniper smells immeasurably better.  Well, it's probably measurable, but only on a personal basis.  Ok, in my subjective measurement, I'll give burning sage a 7, and Juniper a 100.  The next time you're camping near Juniper trees, find a dead one and rip off some limbs to add to your fire.  They burn fairly quickly, but the smell is divine.  Smoky and sweet, the scent will carry you off into an aromatic wonderland, doubling down on the desert wonderland you already occupy.

  5. Gin - Gin is made from Juniper berries.  I don't feel I need to add any more to that.
Position defended!  Junipers rule!  Your favorite tree sucks!  Unless it's a Juniper.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Cryptobiotic Soil: Watch your step!

Last week, I spent most of a post complaining about people not issuing proper warnings, and in doing so, putting their viewers at risk.  In the days since, I've realized that there was an important safety warning that I should have issued prior to writing about the desert canyons of Southern Utah.  Not your safety, as I've written about nothing remotely dangerous to humans, but for the desert's safety.  When hiking or camping in that region of the country, with its harsh sun, whipping wind, and towering stone walls, it's easy to forget how fragile all ecosystems really are, and that every step you take could potentially set the environment back decades, centuries, or millennia.  In the case of those dry, stony wilds, there is a teeny tiny microorganism that is (almost) unnoticeably holding the desert together, and if you're not careful, you could easily wipe out vast colonies while dragging your tired feet through the sand.

A few days back (post-wise), I was in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.  Sand dunes are the result of wind having free reign to do whatever it wants with loose sand and fine dirt.  The biggest reason that rolling dunes don't dominate this whole region (as there is enough fine dirt to make many miles of dunes) is a fine crust holding much of the soil in place, made up of opportunistic bacteria living semi-symbiotically with moss and lichen.  This crust, called Cryptobiotic Soil (Crypto, for short), acts as a natural scab preventing the desert from hemorrhaging sand into the surrounding environment.  Here's a picture of what it looks like:

When I say "Crypt" you say "O"!  Crytp! O! Crypt! O!

In the above photo, you can see little Crypto neighborhoods surrounded by loose sand rivers, like a desiccated micro-Venice.  Without those little Crypto pockets, this entire photo would just be of loose sand.  Then, after years of wind gusts and rain, it would just be stone.  Now instead of a few square feet of Crypto, imagine acres of it, with juniper trees, cacti, and Mormon Tea plants growing throughout.  Crypto is everywhere in this landscape, and if it weren't, there wouldn't be a landscape to hold together.

So what is it?  Crypto is created by cyanobacteria that, when wet, move upwards in soil leaving a slime trail.  This trail then hardens in the sun, starting the scab, which allows for moss and lichen growth to follow.  The cyanobacteria then lay dormant until the next rain fall, at which point they start moving around again, forming a newer, higher (fractions of a millimeter) level of crust, which more moss and lichen can grow on.  It is a very slow process spanning centuries.  The highest I've seen in some larger Crypto cities could be measured in inches, which equates to hundreds of years of that bacterial scab holding the sand below it in place.

Aside from providing erosion protection, Crypto also performs the important task of fixing nitrogen in the soil.  For all of you non-farmer out there, sand does not make for the best potting soil.  Yet pinyon pines and juniper trees seem to pop up effortlessly out of the sandy, waterless soil.  What's their secret?  I'll never tell...  No, it's Crypto.  The secret is Crypto.  Aside from making crusty scab slime, the bacteria leaves yummy yummy fixed nitrogen for the plants that want to grow in the stabilized soil.

Now that you know how important Crypto is, and how the Utah desert would be a barren wasteland without it, you're probably wondering how you could do your part to protect it.  That's very responsible of you!  The biggest thing you can do is just leave it alone.  If you walk on Crypto, that's it, you've demolished decades (or centuries) of growth, loosened the soil in and around it, and have condemned it to death by wind gust.  To really hammer that home, here's info from a great article by Jayne Belnap of the USGS:
Because of such slow recolonization of soil surfaces by the different crustal components, underlying soils are left vulnerable to both wind and water erosion for at least 20 years after disturbance (Belnap and Gillette, 1997). Because soils take 5,000 to 10,000 years to form in arid areas such as in southern Utah (Webb, 1983), accelerated soil loss may be considered an irreversible loss. Loss of soil also means loss of site fertility through loss of organic matter, fine soil particles, nutrients, and microbial populations in soils (Harper and Marble, 1988; Schimel et al., 1985). Moving sediments further destabilize adjoining areas by burying adjacent crusts, leading to their death, or by providing material for "sandblasting" nearby surfaces, thus increasing wind erosion rates (Belnap, 1995; McKenna-Neumann et al., 1996).
Scary stuff, right?  So what can you do to help, aside from not visiting the Utah desert?  The easiest thing you can do is: Stay on Trail.  Crypto does not grow on established trails due to the amount of foot traffic they see.  Staying on trail may seem lame, but there's nothing lame about protecting the environment.  And if someone calls you lame for caring, let me know and I'll have a word with them.

That said, if you are unable to stay on trail, here are some other places Crypto doesn't grow.
  • Washes - Washes form after a rain storm.  Crypto can't survive in a wash, since it will be swept away every successive storm.  Walk in washes.

  • Exposed Rock - Crypto requires soil for the cyanobacteria to move around.  Exposed rocks that don't have soil won't have Crypto.  Walk on those rocks.

  • Plants - Oof, this is a tough one and I'm sure fists are already being shaken in my general direction.  Avoid this one as much as you can, since you'll still be doing environmental damage.  That said, the desert is full of scrubby brush.  Scrub brush is a lot more resilient than Crypto.  If you have to choose between one or the other, step on the plant.  It'll bounce back, Crypto won't.
Ok.  I feel like that was a pretty good PSA.  If you didn't click on that link above, you should.  It's a quick read, very informative, and makes no buts about the importance of Crypto.  Here, let me give you the link again.  

So the next time you're in the desert, be Crypto aware.  Don't step on it, don't bother it, don't even look at it funny.  Oh, but you can pee on it: When moistened, the cyanobacterial filaments become active, moving through the soils and leaving a trail of the sticky, mucilaginous sheath material behind. (Belnap)