A Woman and Her Dogs at the End of the World

My world continues to shrink as the El Dorado fire rages on. Ignited by ignorant party goers, it has now consumed thousands of acres of forest and displaced hundreds of people and animals who live near the forest.

Yesterday dawned cool but smokey. Since the dogs had not had any exercise in days, we headed out to the wash despite the poor air quality.

Smoke shrouded morning sun

I had intended to make it a short walk, but the overcast morning was such an unexpected pleasure, we were loathe to turn back.

The girls were eager to continue despite the bad air.

I felt like the character in A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World as I explored this familiar but now dystopian wilderness.

My favorite book du jour
Refuse, normally overlooked, now stands in mute witness to our blind self destruction.
Fire-retardant bearing helicopters beat overhead from dawn til dusk.

This morning the smoke is too thick to go outside without an N95 mask. Thankfully, the Santa Ana winds that were predicted haven’t materialized, which means the smoke and ash remain concentrated in our valley. The monotony of being housebound is relieved by the company of our evacuated friends, John and Donna, who are staying in my mom’s granny flat while the fate of their home remains nebulous. They are lovely guests and great company!

The unexpected cooler, more humid weather has allowed fire fighters to bulldoze a fire break and ignite back-fires above their house. The back-fire was not entirely successful as it was hindered by the the more temperate weather.

John was planning a stealth trip back to his house this afternoon. The roads are barricaded and manned by law enforcement to prevent people from entering the zone; but we mountain bikers know the trails that circumvent the barricades. His plan was to hike in, have one of his scofflaw neighbors drive down to pick him up out of sight of the officials, and stay home long enough to water the plants and tend to whatever is decomposing in the refrigerator. Then, he planned to ride his mountain downhill to his home-away-from-home with us. His daring plan has now been derailed upon hearing, from the postal clerk, that the road may be reopened tomorrow.

Oh, and One More Thing…

Readers often ask me, when they hear of raging wild fires in California, if they are near my neighborhood. Most of the time, they are so far away that, if we notice them at all, we see only the smokey haze that creeps up our valley at the end of the day. Occasionally, one erupts closer to home which makes ash rain down and subdues the fierce summer sun. And rarely, hell descends upon us.

Good morning! Yes, that’s 83 degrees at 7:00 A.M.

Yesterday, with temperatures nudging 120 degrees and a light wind wafting oven-baked air from the low desert, a spark ignited brush in a newly minted park a scant 5 – 10 miles away. A pillar of smoke quickly shrouded the cheery, decorative clouds that punctuated the flawless blue sky.

By the time I came home from visiting with Sally (we have been unable to ride together because of the excessive heat), the entire ridge was in flames, clearly visible from the freeway twenty miles away.

Approaching home

This morning, we are bracing for another day of 120 degrees AND Santa Ana winds! (just in case the fire fighters were thinking they might make some headway towards containment)

Through the dawn’s early light…
…that banner still waves.

Mike, always the pessimist, predicts our forests will be entirely gone within ten years. There’s no doubt that the warming climate is taking its toll on vegetation, making it more vulnerable to fire. Rain, when it does come, is more inclined to come in brief downpours that wash the denuded soil down into the canyons, burying steams and riparian ecosystems in ashy mud.

We invited John, a cycling friend who lives in the evacuated area, to hunker down in my mom’s granny flat. Initially, he gratefully accepted; but later decided to stay in his mountain home to monitor the water system in their village. He is the chairman of the water company board.

The Village, as it’s called, is at the bottom of the ridge where the fire rages, and on the opposite side of Mill Creek. The creek is only a trickle but it has a wide swath of relatively clear wash-bottom that provides a good defensible space between the fire and the houses. That said, Santa Ana winds could easily carry embers into the wooded village. The highway to their home is closed to outside traffic but I assume, should it come to that, he would be able to drive down the hill.

The Village is nestled in this canyon, just around the curve in the road.

When the World Goes Crazy

Bombarded by news feeds that shrill, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”, even a stoic like me, grows morose occasionally. There are so many behaviors that baffle me, so many inexplicable points of view that make me wonder why mankind assumes it is superior to the rest of the animal kingdom. From my vantage point, man is simply less tolerant and more lethal.

To reset my equanimity I generally put some distance between me and the world by hiking or biking off the beaten path. Just a mile from my front door lies the Santa Ana River, a mile-wide, rock-strewn, paradise where I can wander for hours and the girls can sniff, chase, and roll in whatever disgusting thing they can find. There’s not much that the $#!t-eating grin of a happy dog can’t cure.

Buckwheat in its summer colors

In the cool of the morning, we set off with a full hydration pack, a trekking stick with the rubber tip removed, and a small canister of pepper gel. Why the defensive weapons, you ask? Well, the local news source had published a story of a man and his gentle Labrador Retriever being attacked by a couple of pit bulls, only a mile away from our sanctuary. The owner of the dogs stuck around long enough for the Sheriff to show up, but he gave a false address so animal control wasn’t able to take any action. The article included a photo of the man’s vehicle, which included a license plate, so I would imagine he will eventually be tracked down. Sadly, his dogs will suffer for his ignorance.

At any rate, with the violence of the world on my mind, we set off. Taking comfort in the fact that the dogs have had their rattlesnake vaccines, I allowed them to explore off trail, knowing they are not clever enough to catch anything. The farther we got from civilization, the more my mind relaxed. There was ample evidence that others wander “my” trails, sneaker prints, paw prints, motorcycle tire tracks, but little trash. Two girls, wearing matching team running jerseys, greeted me pleasantly as they loped by, and a lone motorcyclist sped down a distant trail, but otherwise, we were alone with our thoughts.

Remnants of the Cone Camp gate

And soon enough those thoughts turned to breakfast; and so our footsteps turned towards home, mind and body restored.

The World’s Shortest Vacation

That was the way my sister, Babs, described our trip to Big Bear Lake. Though it was never intended to be an epic adventure, merely a short break from the oppressive August heat, we did think it would be well worth the hour drive. And, quite honestly, it really was.

A generous friend has a vacation house in the mountain community of Big Bear Lake, about an hour’s drive from my home. When I texted to ask if it would be available today and tomorrow, he said I was welcome to use it as nobody else would be there. Actually, he was pleased that I would go up and check on the place as he had found it with open windows and unlocked doors, full of flies, and the gate not secured when he had gone up last weekend. Evidently, the last people who had used it had neglected to lock up, though they insisted that they had. Since he couldn’t be sure, he had changed the lock on the door and said I should look for the new key on a red flower pot, on the front porch. I keep a set of keys for the place, so I was glad he had told me where to look for the new door key.

I called my sister and suggested she meet us up there, packed an overnight bag and a cooler full of food for the dogs and me, and headed for the hills. I was gratified to see the temperature dropping and a few sprinkles of rain as I ascended the mountain.

A pit stop for the girls to sniff about
Stopped at a construction roadblock en route

No sooner had we arrived at the cabin when it began to rain. I searched the porch for the red flower pot that held the key. No red flower pot, no key.

Babs texted that she was now about 15 minutes behind me at the roadblock.

Scantily dressed, the chill 66 degrees raised goose flesh, a novel experience. It also increased the urge to …well you know… The house is in a regular neighborhood but thankfully, none of the neighbors were visible; so, I made use of what little privacy the tool shed afforded.

Babs soon arrived and when I told her of our problem, she too made use of the lee side of the tool shed. Or now maybe it would be called the pee side of the tool shed. At any rate we were not sorry to see the rain become a serious downpour to eliminate the evidence of our indiscretion.

A response to my text soon arrived from the owner of the house. He clarified that the key was on a milk can, next to the door, on the porch…at his home in Redlands. Minor detail.

We sat on the porch mulling over our options and enjoying the deluge. Popcorn-sized hail stones bounced around the yard and the dogs looked uneasy as thunder shook the porch.

Squatters on the porch

Reluctant to admit defeat, I scoured the tool shed for something to use to break into the sliding glass door that was secured with a simple stick in the track. I could get the door open about 2 -3 inches, just wide enough to get my hand inside.

Burglary tools in hand, I put my new rain jacket to the test.

Of course, nothing worked. So, there was naught to be done but go out for breakfast (my sister’s brilliant solution) at Thelma’s because they have outdoor seating (my deluded idea). We drove into town thinking that the rain would surely slacken and the sun would smile upon us. But no, if anything it intensified and Thelma’s patio was a swamp.

By now, I was soaked and chilled to the bone. I’m bragging here, certainly NOT complaining. Remember it’s 100 degrees with 28% humidity at home. But nonetheless, we decided to take a rain check and head for home.

In no hurry, I drove slowly and when I left the rain behind, I rolled the windows down and breathed in the aroma of heaven. There is nothing like a freshly-washed, Southern California forest. I detoured to a hiking trail that I like, but signs informed me that the San Gorgonio Wilderness was closed due to the Apple fire.

By now, I was feeling lethargic from the lack of exercise, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I figured a nice piece of fresh, fruit-of-the-forest pie, a la mode, at The Oaks restaurant, would be just fine. But, of course, they had only pecan pie, easily resisted.

Now this might have all added up to a disappointing vacation if viewed as a series of thwarted plans, but it was absolutely not! There was the anticipation, the beautiful drive, the thunder storm, and time with my sister, all condensed into one day.

The Man Cave – A Wife’s Salvation

Ladies, have you noticed lately that your man seems to be more annoying than previously, and by previously, I mean pre-Covid?

We live in a modestly sized house on a proportionally large lot which normally works out pretty well for me because I’m not crazy about being indoors. However, the house has grown noticeably smaller with both Mike and me (and three cats and two dogs) home almost ALL of the time. Then factor in the Southern California August weather, 108 degrees with 16% humidity, and you have two normally active adults hunkered down, sharing said shrinking space.

But here is the marriage saver: The Man Cave.

The Man Cave

Mike has been building guitars in his spare time for many years, and now that he’s retired, he works at it almost full time. He claims the work is either boring or stressful but I gather there is something therapeutic about it since he’s currently working on numbers 10 and 11. He imagines that he will someday sell them, but since neither of us have any marketing skills, they continue to pile up, each one more beautiful than the last.

These classical, nylon string guitars are more sensitive to humidity than more robust instruments and so are kept in a humidified room. Bear in mind, today’s 16% humidity is uncomfortably high in these parts.

The man cave also serves as our bike shop.

Mike’s Bike Shop

Visitors are welcome so Molly, Sadie, and I visit just long enough to remember how annoying our constant companion can be and then trot back to our own space where I turn the produce of my garden into my own works of art.

Listless in Mentone

The long, lazy days of summer stretch even longer and lazier with Covid reduced work hours. Awake before dawn, I lay wondering at the fact that my neighbor’s three little dogs had not awakened me all night, a rarity. Just moments later their sharp, hysterical yips pierced the stillness. And moments later, my own normally self-possessed dog barked a single warning. I went to the front door to see what had the canine neighborhood watch on high alert and saw one of my cats sitting on the front porch. A split second later, she bolted for the back yard and at that same instant I spotted a ghostly coyote in pursuit up the driveway.

My first thought was to turn my dogs loose on the hungry intruder but good sense prevailed and I stepped outside and yelled. He evaporated into the predawn ether.

Now fully awake, I resigned myself to beginning my day. The usual chores: make coffee; feed the dogs; tidy the house; then when daylight permits, harvest the garden and set sprinklers. Summer weather has finally settled in with temperatures well into the triple digits, so any outdoor activities are best done before mid morning. Any dog walking is best before the sun crests the mountains to the east.

By 8:00 we had our bikes loaded on the truck and hydration packs filled, ready to head up the mountains for a morning ride. Even with mountain temperatures being about twenty degrees cooler than the valley, we were motivated to hit the trail early. Mike wore the Go Pro camera to film the ride; he gets a kick out of following me on the singletrack. I think he secretly hopes I’ll go over the edge so he gets good footage.

We were home by lunch time and spent the heat of the day watching the video of our ride, napping, reading, and binge-watching Nurse Jackie.

“In Beauty May She Walk”

Have you ever noticed how the less active you are, the more tired you feel? The more tired you feel, the less inclined you are to pry yourself away from your blog to get some endorphins flowing and the more blue goo settles in your brain.

With Sally gone for the summer, through-hiking the John Muir Trail, I was without my favorite hiking/biking companion. So, I pottered around in the garden, ruining my back with digging, weeding, and harvesting, telling myself that because I was exhausted at the end of the day, I was getting exercise. No! Exercise is when your heart pounds so hard you can hear it in your own ears and you’re breathing so hard that you’re sucking up small pebbles off the ground.

Well, my girlfriend’s back and I’m happy again! Sally’s return got me back on the bike and we rode our favorite trail, the Santa Ana River Trail. We’ve ridden it dozens of times and I’ve described its harrowing exposures, technical stream crossings, and wild descents here more often than most would care to read. So, suffice it to say, heart pounding and heavy breathing ensued. In fact, it dispelled the summer’s ennui so effectively that yesterday, I loaded up the dogs and headed for a mountain hike.

Vivian Creek Trail is often crowded at the trailhead because there’s a waterfall within a quarter of a mile of the picnic area. For some unknown reason, there were two porta-pots stationed in front of the permanent restrooms, perhaps due to the overflow crowds induced by Covid-19. Both were disgusting! Ignorant city folks had dumped all sorts of trash into the toilet along with their usual effluent. Pity the poor guy who has to pump that tank!

Thankfully, the trail itself is too steep for most of the day trippers so, a mile away from the parking lot, we had the trail to ourselves.

https://www.relive.cc/view/vwq1YdBxALq This is a link to a Relive video of my hike and ten of the photos taken along the route. I have the free version so it’s limited to ten still images. I love this app and may have to upgrade. It would be nice if the app would turn itself on automatically because I invariably forget to start it until I’m well into the hike.

The strenuous climb, the soothing sounds of the forest, the company of my dogs, all combined to wash away the concerns of a world gone awry. The few hikers we encountered politely donned masks before passing and greeted us cordially, all reminding me that “all will be well” as I walked in beauty.

Cupcakecacheblog Inspired

What a joy it is to find blogs in my inbox inviting me to squander time! And even better, to find blogs that impel me to elaborate on a theme.

Today, Cupcakecache entertainingly meandered about, sharing banter, musing about her sunflower germination failures and plant shopping success, and generally reveling in the day’s tasks ahead, which prompted me to do the same.

Yesterday, I received a box, shipped from a friend in Oregon. She had some books that she didn’t want to send to the thrift store and thought I’d enjoy them. And while she was at it, she stuffed the box like a Christmas stocking. She has a quirky sense of humor, appreciated and shared by her family, and so she tossed in a collection of gag gifts that I presume she had received over the years, along with other random useful items. Perhaps the quirkiest of the collection was a rubber lip enhancer (size XL) and the most useful was a pair of socks. The books were primarily The Best American Science Writing (2000 – 2010) and The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2000 – 2008), of which I had read only one. She also sent three novels of which I had already read two, which illustrates why we remain friends even though we have lived in separate states for the past 35 years.

Being lazy readers, my husband and I are fighting over who will be the first to read the Carl Hiaasen novel.

I bore you with these details for two reasons: One, a joy to be appreciated has to be shared, and what a joy her box of pleasures is! And two, perhaps it will inspire others to do something similar.

One of my other pleasures, is my garden.

Judy’s Food Pantry

In the foreground the garden is ringed by Teddy Bear Sunflowers, purported to be favored by birds and bees. I didn’t get very good germination but I kept replanting to fill in the gaps which will actually be a good thing as it will ensure a longer supply of blossoms for the bees and seeds for the birds.

Immediately behind the sunflowers are the beans, which I hate to pick but can’t resist planting anyway.

Behind the beans are cucumbers that I’m trying to train to climb the trellis. Like the butternut squash in the back ground, they are wayward and resist my gentle ministrations, preferring to choke the walkway between them and the apple tree and tomatoes.

I have three kinds of squash which are hemmed in by Marigolds that are three feet high. I kid you not! I never dreamed when I planted them for pest control, that they would present such an impediment to harvesting the squash. I fear the local fruit stand is suffering from my competition as I’m supplying all of my neighbors, my mail man, my sister, and my boss with squash, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Among the joys of gardening, are the feral pets that move in, various birds (who hopefully look for insects to eat), pollinators, horned tomato worms, and a Southern California Toad.

I would like this guy to settle down and raise a family here, so I plan to create a hospitable habitat for him/her. I think toads may be on my side in the organic gardening battle with the bugs.

Now, I must delve into my box of goodies. I think I’ll start with The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000, edited by one of my favorite authors, David Quammen.

I Pledge Allegiance…

Remember chanting the Pledge of Allegiance when you were a kid in grade school? We recited it every morning and it meant almost nothing to children who had no idea what liberty and justice really meant. Once committed to memory, it was just a ritual, like the Lord’s Prayer. Then there came a time when the words did stir something inside me when my history books told of my country making huge sacrifices to save the Jews from Hitler. And then, I read outside of the prescribed curriculum (thanks to a good teacher’s suggested reading list) and learned how, like the slavery issue in the Civil War, the welfare of the Jews was quite secondary to the true motives of this country’s participation and initial lack thereof.

So, having disabused myself of the notion that my country was the knight in shining armor, the cowboy in the white hat, the purveyor of liberty and justice for all, I read voraciously and indiscriminately, hoping to figure out how and why people sought great wealth and power, sometimes beyond all comprehension, and why they didn’t use those things for the good of their “neighbors”.

I wish I could tell you that I now have it dialed in. I read once that “No man is a villain in his own eyes”. If that is true, then the most ignorant, evil, self-absorbed person, comes from a place where his ends justify the means. And maybe the less introspective a person is, the easier it is to love oneself to the exclusion of others.

But I digress, as is the wont of bloggers like myself and cupcakecache (you must read her “Why We Read Bloggers”). What I started out to write is my discomfort over how the symbol of freedom and equality under the law (that would be the American flag) has been hijacked by the militant supporters of a regime who don’t recognize injustice and suppression of freedom when they see it. Pugnacious, white men drive down city streets with the symbol of freedom flapping from their behemoth pick-up trucks; bearded, pot-bellied white men roar down the highway, flags whipping on their “Big Twin” Harley; bumper stickers proudly display the flag along with slogans that bristle with hate.

I’m sad and fearful when I see what once meant pride in a civilized form of government, now is used to instill fear in people who think “peace, love, and understanding” are worthwhile objectives; when it’s purpose has been twisted from making a ten-year-old’s heart swell with pride to making a person of color cringe; when it bolsters the dubious courage of a bully.

Well, I’m just sick of it. I want to restore honor and dignity to not just the symbol of our country, but to the integrity of every citizen who believes in the principles of equality. To that end, I’m going to encourage everyone who believes that this country can be great without discrimination, hate, and with equal rights under the law, to display the flag tomorrow with the sentiments it should evoke in fair-minded folks.

I heard a pastor say, “Love looks like justice in public.” And that’s what the teachings of Christ mean by, “Love your enemies”. Be just in your dealings with every living thing…especially the powerless.

My Victory Garden

Forced to stay at home, I have reverted to my preferred life style. I had all but given up on vegetable gardening because, between defending my turf from gophers and trying to keep everything watered in 100 degree weather, well, it seemed to be a losing proposition what with being away from home five days a week.

Then along came Covid-19 putting into question the safety and reliability of our food supply. I needed no more motivation.

But…since we were discouraged from going to Home Depot or the nursery for seeds, I ordered from Seed Geeks online. Anticipated delivery: 4 – 6 weeks! Most of the things I plant should be planted early in the season (March/April) so they have a good root system by the time spring temperatures soar. So, I scrounged up some old seed packets that had been stored in the shed for a year, not exactly a cool, dry place as recommended, and planted them…all of them, a dozen squash seeds to a hill. A couple of weeks later, I was thinning, transplanting, and grieving over the intrepid little runts I had to throw on the compost pile. Cucumbers weren’t as hardy but I have one robust looking vine and none of the beans made it, or even broke the surface.

By the time the new seeds arrived I was almost ready to harvest what I’d sown six weeks ago.

One of the nectarine trees is quietly feeding the ants, earwigs, and bees but I get a bite or two from each of the fruits they profligately spoil. My neighbor and I swap nectarines and apricots…not a great combination during a toilet paper shortage. The neighbor to the south brings me eggs, grapefruits and limes. Now if I could just grow cheese and milk, I could make a proper meal.

Organic gardening has its challenges.

MiL persuaded me to take her to a nursery after hearing that it was relatively safe to mingle with the great unwashed outside. She wanted flowers and I figured I could always find room in the garden for something edible. To my delight, I found they had just received a shipment of kumquat trees/bushes.

This little tree is predicted to grow to 4 -6′ tall and equally wide.

In case you haven’t been initiated into the fan club of kumquat lovers, I must extol their virtues. First, their sweet/sour contrasting flavors make for a surprising burst of saliva when added (chopped into small pieces) to salads or breakfast cereal. Sliced into little rings, they make a glass of ice-water absolutely irresistible. And, as if flavor isn’t enough, they contain enough vitamin C to stave off scurvy year round.

The charms of vegetable gardening may not be for everyone, what with the dirt, the back-breaking labor, the constant battle against competing bugs and rodents; but when you see the transformation of a patch of bare earth into a veritable garden of Eden…~sigh~ What a victory over the ennui of isolation!