Saturday, December 26, 2009

Quail Mountain

Bill and I send warm holiday wishes to one and all. Thank you for being in our lives and for keeping up with our doings through this blog. We love you!

A few weeks ago we went on a walk sponsored by the Mojave Desert Land Trust at the base of Quail Mountain--a 955-acre, privately owned property that the Land Trust is currently in the process of acquiring.

This beautiful, undeveloped area borders Joshua Tree National Park. The above photo was taken looking towards "Tortoise Flats," where over 20 desert tortoises make their home. It's the place where I saw my first desert tortoises last spring. Bill and I used to walk there regularly when we lived in Joshua Tree, as it was only about a mile from our house. But this hike started from the other end of the property, where we hadn't been before. (The tortoise photo was taken in May 09)

Along with the tortoises, this area provides habitat for bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcat, gray fox, coyote, badger, and mountain lion. We were told that when it rains, there's a waterfall on Quail Mountain. Hundreds of Joshua Trees cover the lower elevations and rocky slopes.

The walk was led by naturalist Pat Flanagan, Resource Advocate for the Land Trust. That's her with the short grey hair and no hat, despite the cold and blustery day.

Once the property is purchased, the Land Trust will donate it to Joshua Tree National Park so it will be preserved in perpetuity. We recently joined the Land Trust because we believe in their work. To learn more, click here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ghosts of Camels Past

I just had an article published in The Sun Runner Magazine called "Ghosts of Camels Past." The article appears below. To check out the entire issue (the theme is "The Mysterious Mojave") click here:

Mention camels, and most people think of the Middle East, China, Mongolia—anywhere but Southern California. Yet camels left their mark on this area not once, but twice. The first time was between 44 million and 11,000 years ago, as shown by the fossil record at the La Brea Tar Pits and Anza- Borrego/Joshua Tree National Park. The second time was in the mid-1800s, when the U.S. government authorized an experiment known as the Camel Corps.

After winning the Mexican-American War, the United States gained 529,000 square miles of western territory. The cost of feeding horses and mules to cross vast desert tracts was astronomical, so a few forward-thinking individuals promoted using camels instead. They pointed out that camels could carry huge loads, travel long distances without water, and thrive on a diet of native desert vegetation.

The idea found a supporter in Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy). In 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000 to import camels and test their abilities. Two shipments of camels arrived in Texas, and in 1857, their moment of truth arrived: 25 of them accompanied an expedition to survey a wagon road to the Colorado River.

(This photo shows a reenactment by the modern-day Texas Camel Corps. Visit their website here.)

As pack animals, the camels exceeded all expectations. Expedition leader Edward F. Beale said, “Certainly there was never anything so patient and enduring and so little troublesome as this noble animal.”

More might have come of the experiment if the Civil War and the Transcontinental Railroad hadn’t intervened. There were a few half-hearted attempts to make further use of the camels. Some of them remained in military forts until 1863, when the government ordered that they be rounded up and auctioned at Benecia, north of San Francisco. A number of camels ended up in mining operations, others went to circuses, and still others escaped into the desert. Camels imported by civilians during this time period sometimes became feral as well.

For generations, wild camel sightings were common in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. Over time they grew less frequent, but the reports never completely stopped. The most notorious story involved the “Red Ghost,” a camel that supposedly roamed Arizona with a human skeleton strapped to its back. Legend has it that Hi Jolly, the renowned camel driver who accompanied the Beale expedition, died in 1902 alongside a camel in the Arizona desert.

In the early 1900s, tales of camel sightings circulated in Imperial County, especially around Borrego and the Chocolate Mountains. In 1929, a wild camel supposedly stampeded horse herds near Banning. In 1941, a camel was reported on the shores of the Salton Sea. It’s been said that the last sighting of a wild camel in North America was in Baja California in 1956. But some folks believe wild camels still roam the remote deserts of the Southwest.

Stranger things have happened…so if you’re ever out in the back-of-beyond and hear a rumbling growl that sounds like Chewbacca—remember, it just might be a “ship of the desert” plying the sandy seas.

Camel Fun
• In 1963, the New Christy Minstrels recorded the song “Hi Jolly the Camel Driver” on their album Ramblin’.

• Hollywood latched onto the Camel Corps story in 1954 with Southwest Passage, a 3-D western starring Rod Cameron, John Ireland, and Joanne Dru (not yet available on DVD). There’s also Hawmps!—a 1976 slapstick comedy with James Hampton and Slim Pickins that’s short on history but darn funny.

• Camels can be very vocal. A camel growl was one of the sounds used to create Chewbacca’s voice in Star Wars.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Last weekend I joined my friends Jean and Phyllis on a trek to gather desert birdcages. We found them in a wash, way out in Wonder Valley. What are they, you may ask? So did I--that's why I went along!

The story is this: the plant is called the dune primrose. In spring it has beautiful, showy white flowers. Here's what it looks like, growing next to some equally beautiful sand verbena. (Thanks to Phyllis for this photo!)

While the flower stalk is upright, the plant also has many branches that radiate outwards along the ground. When the plant dries up, those branches curve upwards around the central stalk, forming the birdcage. (I've read it's also called a "desert lantern").

Here are some birdcages in their native habitat. We gathered a carload of them, along with some interesting rocks and some palm fronds from back in 29 Palms. We had all been at the 29 Palms Art Gallery earlier that morning for the annual Xmas Crafts Show. Thanks to Jean and Phyllis for a great day!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Borrego Springs

After our adventure at the Camel Dairy last Sunday, we spent two nights in Borrego Springs. It's been eight or nine years since we were last there, but the little town has hardly changed at all. That's what we love about it--there's a whole lot of nothin' in Borrego!

Our big advantage on this trip was a four-wheel-drive vehicle, which allowed us to go where we've never gone before. The view above was taken off Mine Wash Road, where there's a Kumeyaay village site with mortreros in the rocks.

We love interesting rocks, and Borrego is full of them. These photos were also taken off Mine Wash Road.

One new attraction just outside of town is a bevy of giant metal sculptures by Ricardo A. Breceda. This one represents the Incredible Wind God Bird (Aiolornis incredibilis), a creature that lived in the Borrego area millions of years ago. One paleontologist said, "Think of it as a T. rex with feathers."

We took another side trip to Seventeen Palms Oasis, about 3.5 miles down the roughest dirt road we've ever traveled. As you can see, it was worth it. The palm oasis is in the Eastern Borrego Badlands, which is rife with fascinating geology. Between two palms there's a "desert mailbox" filled with journals where you can leave a message. We did!

On the way home we stopped at Salton City and ate our lunch by the shores of the Salton Sea. Sea and shore birds are arriving for the winter. Lots of white pelicans. Our last stop on the way home was the Oasis Date Garden, where we stocked up on a half-dozen varieties of dates. Here's Bill with a date shake--mmm mmm good!

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Years ago we saw the Oasis Camel Dairy on Huell Howser's TV show, "California's Gold." We've wanted to go there ever since, and last weekend, we finally made the 2.5 hour drive to Ramona (not far from Julian)--what a treat!

The camel dairy is located on 34 acres of rolling pastureland. It's run by Gil and Nancy Riegler. That's Nancy in the green shirt in the photo above. The Rieglers have over 20 camels, all dromedaries (the one-humped variety). At this time they use the camel milk to make soap; they plan to sell the milk for human consumption at some point in the future.

The amazing thing about the camels is how intelligent, sensitive, and friendly they are. Seems like they have a bad reputation, but in fact, they behave like giant puppies. They lined up at at the fence to be petted and couldn't get enough.

This mother, named Tula, stayed close to the fence while Gil talked to us about her and her baby, Storm, who romped all over the corral.

There's one kind of camel that needs to be handled with kid gloves: an uncastrated male like this one, named Flash. According to Gil, they're extremely unpredictable--"Never turn your back on a bull camel," he says. Flash made constant gurgling noises--he sounded like the mud pots at Yellowstone--and certainly could have spit, bit, or kicked at the slightest provocation.

Along with the camels, the Rieglers have a whole barnyard of other animals. Here's Bill with a donkey. The pot-bellied pig is 14 years old and named Byron (thanks to Bill for Byron's photo). The Rieglers raise exotic turkeys (for racing!) and keep many other exotic birds as well--Nancy does an exotic bird show.

The last photos show Bill and me with Clyde. To learn more about the Oasis Camel Dairy and to order camel milk soap online, click here.

Just to round out the camel experience, here's a camel poem I wrote years ago after Bill and I ate at The Brambles Restaurant in Cambria. The poem tells the story--enjoy!

Camels at The Brambles
(Cambria, California)

Someone called this rambling restaurant home,
once, but now it’s a five-star steakhouse
where dozens of diners cluster on Saturday nights.
Promised a spot by the fire, we are taken instead
to a corner booth, surely unchanged in forty-five years—
worn red upholstery, torn wallpaper, a faint glow
from a battery-operated lamp—and over our heads,
two faded etchings: a gypsy dancing in the marketplace,
toes barely touching the ground, as amorous Arabs look on;
and camels bending to drink at a palm-fringed oasis.
One camel’s bundle resembles a peacock’s fan.
We’re becoming unmoored when our waiter, Lawrence,
swoops up. This is my favorite booth, he announces.
I just want to put curtains on it. We agree—
not only curtains, but pillows and a hookah
would make it fit for a desert prince and his princess.
We celebrate our birthdays with Cabernet, surf and turf.
For dessert, Lawrence brings English trifle, two candles
mounting a peak of whipped cream. Back at the hotel,
we watch Peter O’Toole cross the dunes and declare,
Nothing is written. Choose your own destiny
and ride it like a camel, loose-lipped and free.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pyrate Days--Arrrgh!

Last weekend we went to Pyrate Days, which turned out to be great fun for the extravagant costumes, pirate paraphernalia, pirate bands, and more. (The event was a fundraiser for the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce Scholarship Foundation.)

This fellow spent the afternoon "walking the plank."

The highlight of the day was the Pirate Battle, where two groups of pirates fought over the contents of this treasure chest.

They used cannons and pistols with real gunpowder! The explosions were deafening!

Shortly after this picture was taken, this female pirate bit the dust.

The band There Be Pirates did original takes on ballads like "High Barbary."

Turns out "Arrgh!" is the pirates' favorite expression. It comes in handy just about any time!

Thanks to Bill for all the photos in this post.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Geology Tour Road

One of our favorite places in Joshua Tree National Park is the Geology Tour Road. It's an 18-mile, four-wheel drive route with a host of interesting geological and manmade features. This first photo shows Malapai Hill, a striking black basalt outcropping.

The Towers of Uncertainty are visible in the background--they're a group of rock formations popular with climbers. At the time this picture was taken (June of this year) the towers were "closed"--we found out later it was because of the raptor (red-tailed hawk) nesting season.

The next three pictures were taken at Squaw Tank, a site once used by both Native Americans and cattlemen. Molten magma pushed through joints in the rock to form the band you see in the photo above.

Bill and our friend Timothy explore the dam, which was built by cattlemen in the early 1900s to collect rainwater. The area was used by Native Americans for around 1,000 years--water pooled in natural "tanks" here, and there are mortreros in the rocks.

BTW: The light-colored rocks are known as monzogranite and date back 85 million years. There is also gneiss (pronounced "nice") along the tour road that dates back 1.7 billion years!

At one point, sharp-eyed Bill suddenly stopped the car. Turns out he had spotted a large lizard right in the road. We all got out for a look at this long-nosed leopard lizard. He let us get quite close before he finally dashed away, inspiring the following poem.

The Stand

The driver stops at the body,
then backs up. Four pairs of feet
exit the vehicle. Faced with odds
that would dwarf a lesser creature,
the leopard lizard stands fast
on warm spring earth.
Colors of sand and scrub
secure her desert camouflage,
strung with rusty patches—
the pollen of mating season.
Flawless from long nose
to long tail, with splayed feet
and the legs of a sprinter,
the lizard stays rooted
until a sneaker kicks up dust.
Then she turns trickster,
snapped into creosote flats
below metamorphic rocks.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bill at 29 Palms Gallery

The closing weekend of the Hwy. 62 Studio Tours included the opening of a juried show at the 29 Palms Art Gallery. Bill won third place for his photograph of a shore bird titled "Intent." Yay Bill!

We spent the weekend tooling around artist studios in Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, and Wonder Valley with our friends Timothy and Judy Hearsum, also formerly of Santa Barbara. Our favorite acquisitions were these ceramic pieces by Anahita King. The teapot is the stuff fairy tales are made of!

This week a coyote has been coming to drink at the water dish just outside the dining room window. He was not too shy about it, as you can see here. Usually we just have bunnies and birds...though the larger animals are definitely catching on. In the past couple of weeks I've seen a hawk in a tree nearby.

I'll leave you with a couple of sunset views from our backyard. Fall seems to be a great time for spectacular sunsets. Tonight we'll be watching for the space station as it passes overhead around 5:45 pm!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hwy. 62 Art Tours

We’re in the middle of the most exciting time of the year in the hi-desert—the Open Studio Art Tours! The website for the tours is here. This event is held on the last two weekends in October, with around 100 artists participating. Last weekend we visited a dozen different studios. We bought a few things that I’ve photographed for this post. Click on the artists’ names for links to their websites or additional work.

This first piece is a giclee by Tina Bluefield titled “Pinto Mountains and Wash.” Tina’s studio is way out in Landers and has that peaceful, in-the-middle-of-nowhere feeling. She does incredible abstracts as well as desert scenes. BTW: the Pinto Mountains are at the far eastern end of Joshua Tree National Park.

“The Orange Bird” is a monotype by Karine Swenson. This year Karine turned her entire house into a gallery and displayed the work of three other artists as well as her own. She was our neighbor when we lived down in Joshua Tree. Like Tina Bluefield, Karine does lots of abstract work. She’s prolific—check out her website and blog!

The third piece is “Tropical Isle,” a digital creation by one of our current neighbors, Ray Yeager. Ray has a sometimes wacky, sometimes wicked sense of humor which comes through in many of his altered photographs (you’ll see one of them if you click on his name)—that’s not so much the case with this piece, but we liked its color, shapes, and feel. BTW Ray is an astronomer and weather expert as well as an artist.

The last photo shows a giant kinetic sculpture by Steve Rieman, an iconic hi-desert artist whose commissioned pieces can be found all over California. The Riemans’ compound in Landers has to be one of the ultimate expressions of an artist’s life in the desert—it’s a not-to-be-missed stop on the tour. The photo below shows the same sculpture moving in the wind.

So for all of you who’ve been meaning to visit us…mark your 2010 calendars for the last two weekends of October and come for the Open Studio Tours! (Not that you have to wait that long...)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Day in the Life of...Captain Watty Prettypaws

Hi everybody! Captain Watty Prettypaws here. This is my favorite spot, where I sit and watch the bunnies and the birdies outside the window. Even though I'm not allowed to go outside, I know them, and they know me.

This is my ficus tree. Sometimes I take a flying leap and grab the trunk. But it happens too quick to catch on film.

This is my favorite chair, and my favorite box with one of my many mice inside.

Who says cats can't read? When the meow shows on the bottom of my dish, I meow and get more food, just like that.

I like to hang out up here after dinner, while my mom and dad are watching something on Netflix. I'm not usually into TV myself.

Here's something I really love. When my folks inflate the air mattress on the sofa bed, I ride it all the way up--it's the coolest thing to feel the mattress expanding underneath me.

Once in a while I write poems, so I'll leave you with one here. Til next time--Captain Watty

Oh, once I was a city cat, as fine as I could be,
But now I am a country cat, and that's the life for me.