On being taken somewhere special.

Part of the “let’s all panic about the future of science” narrative is, for me, finding things that remind us that we are more than just our jobs. Sometimes it is hard. This latest post of mine, over at Greenfriar, is about shaking yourself out of the fevered torrents of panic that can grip you by getting out in nature. I hope it speaks to you particularly loudly as all of the nature in the Bay Area is being awakened by the rain we’re having, and the wildflowers are going nuts.


UPDATE, 9/2014: Since the Greenfriar redesign, this post has been removed. I’ve included the original in its entirety below.


Sometimes life happens to you all at once. Things are fine, or at least as fine as they ever are, and then life throws you a crisis. And crises, like hyenas, travel in packs.

In the midst of such crises, it’s normal to think, “Man, I could really use a vacation.” But this time, that was exactly my problem. I DID have a vacation planned. A vacation in sunny Palm Springs, California, the Florida of the West. I was scheduled to meet and to charm my partner’s entire family, at close range, for four straight days. And I was completely unraveling, with no end in sight. I wailed in self-pity. There wasn’t time for a vacation, with everything crumbling around me! I began to tumble freely within a vortex of psychotic, rueful laughter.

But fortunately, I hunkered down. I beasted all of that by the time vacation time rolled around. Or at least, enough of it. I also, unfortunately, whined incessantly. I flopped despondently on the couch, buried in a sea of papers, and asked my partner repeatedly to remind me what lay ahead of us. You be George and I’m Lennie, I’d say. Tell me about Palm Springs. Tell me again.

Despite my being a morose brat who deserved no patience whatsoever, he humored me. Palm Springs, he told me, is a beautiful desert oasis, a magical place where you can lounge poolside with a margarita, or go for a hike surrounded by mountains and palm trees, or go on a thrifting binge. As it turns out, Palm Springs is a haven for gays and the elderly, and as such, it boasts incredible thrift store pickings. While I did lounge like a lizard, and I did leave with a stuffed suitcase full of what looked like prime picks from Rue McClanahan’s estate sale, what I found most wonderful was, of course, the nature. Nature was the only thing that could save me from myself.

Have you ever been taken somewhere by someone who is just giddy about it? Someone who just cannot wait to show it to you? It is a different thing. Fred, the paterfamilias of the Marshall clan, has been coming to Palm Springs once a year since he was a kid. And there was one place he always found to be just super magical. So off to Indian Canyons we went.

I was told this wouldn’t be a strenuous hike, and it wasn’t–I’d say we covered a mile at most. It was just such a densely interesting mile that it was hard to move very quickly. We went a bit early in the morning, giving ourselves plenty of time before it got too hot.

As you go down into the canyon, you can see that the palm trees have sprung up where there’s water. They have to, in the desert. The rest of the hillsides are covered in barrel cacti and creosote bush, plants that seem to require no water and are impervious to heat. But down in the canyons, you see a ripple of palms where the water flows. It’s strange to me that my childhood cartoons’ depictions of desert oases were spot-on: some palm trees, some water. I’m thinking like Sega Genesis Aladdin cartoonish. Maybe the palm trees are dancing. Usually they were mirages, though, in the cartoons. These ones are real.

Because they are so very real, though, there is one main difference: these palms were wearing long skirts. I learned, upon visiting the well-appointed little visitor center, that that is what they are called. Skirts. The dead palms flop over and become part of the skirt, and if some of them are wearing short skirts, it’s only because some punk kids were playing with matches back in the ’80s. These trees don’t shave their leg hair–it’s society that trims its landscaping palm trees to suit its tastes.

But you’re not sad these aren’t landscaping palm trees. They look even crazier and more Lorax-y than you expected. They, like all the plants here, are hairy and covered with spikes. If you’re used to hiking among pine trees or redwoods, it makes sense that your eyeballs might strain and your mind might have to reach a bit to find a context for these. Besides the Aladdin flashbacks (god, I could never jump just right on that stupid camel), my early life exposure to palm trees, and places with no snow in general, had been limited to such cinematic gems as Encino Man, which depicted a world not unlike Palm Springs in that everyone had a pool (except for that geeky wannabe with the shovel). Palms Springs differed in a few key ways, I guess–for instance, no Pauly Shore. When it came to shaping to my child-of-the-90s worldview in which palm trees were exotic others, there were other movies too. But as ever, when talking about Encino Man, were there, really?

What I’m saying is, away from the mansions and medians lining the SoCal of my childhood imagination, or the pixelated Arabian desert, palm trees in their natural habitat were different. They were just….hangin’ out. They were huge, and they were just hangin’ out where there was water and sunshine. They were doing aaaallll right.

So, surrounded by these monsters, you felt you could really just hang out. You could look around.

When you looked down, you started to see that really, every single inch of this place was interesting. There were little craters in the rock that were actually mortars & metates carved out by the Cahuilla people. As we looked at the palms all around us, we could imagine how fortuitous it must have seemed that nature had gifted them these tough things for making baskets and thatched roofs and sandals and whatnot. On their own, the palms provided shade without humans could never have survived.

There were monstrous flowers that, before blooming, looked like botanical fruit roll-ups, or bats. In bloom, they unfurled into improbably delicate, pale purple blossoms. Because the Marshalls are a congenitally positive bunch (a tendency which I’ve benefited from greatly, as a reflexive pessimist), I felt tied to the spirit of the OG California wanderer, John Muir, when encountering such wonders in their presence. I was reminded of something I’d read in the biography I’m still hacking away at, which depicted a time Muir was lost in a swamp in Ontario:

For days in June Muir plodded along, feeling more and more weary and discouraged. Then one warm afternoon he came upon the orchid Calypso borealis blooming on a barren hillside. Suddenly he was lifted up, thrilled to the point of tears by its unexpected beauty, “so perfectly spiritual, it seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator.” The Bible taught that the world was cursed with weeds and that they must be cleared away by human sweat, but Muir rejected that view. “Are not all plants beautiful? or in some way useful?…The curse must be within ourselves.”

As we explored the canyon, all of my worries began to disappear. I noticed a thousand things that reminded me that we are small, petty things living on a planet that was not made just for us. There were, for instance, little froggies who had adapted just remarkably to their surroundings.

There was even…another canyon! Lots, actually, but we went to just one more before it was time to go eat sandwiches and lounge by the pool. Andreas Canyon, just a stone’s throw away, was calling us, so we said goodbye to Palm Canyon. And what a splendid goodbye it was, drenched in that California sunshine that makes you understand why the grapes soak it right up, photosynthesizing til they’re just giant sacks of sugar liquid bulging debaucherously off the vine, ready to pop or be coaxed into fermenting themselves silly. Whichever comes first.

Pulling into the parking lot of Andreas Canyon, you get a preview of what outfits the thrift stores have to offer, because you’re waiting for lots of them to cross, at glacial speeds, from massive Buicks to the picturesque creek or back again. It’s a picnic area, and these people are living life, let me tell you. This place must just be like a constant low-key gathering of tan retirees from cold states finally knowing what it is like to not feel their joints ache anymore. They are all so happy. I can only hope I’ll be drinking in parks long enough to ever experience such a utopia.

This canyon has some geology. It’s clearly made by some combination of earthquakes and maybe melting or pressure or erosion or glaciation or….ok, I am no geologist. Recently a science teacher friend had her kids make some ‘metamorphic rock’ out of crayon shavings and she showed it to me and I thought that was pretty cool. But other than that, I can’t say I know much. So, rocks. Sometimes they jut out, and it looks like they may have gotten there sort of violently, and you are once again reminded of how small you are in the universe.

Sometimes they look like layer cake.

And if you look closely,  there are little rainbow-colored lizard buh-uh-uh-uuuuhddies around here too, scrambling around on the rocks and all up in the beardy skirts of the palms.

Behind me, Fred says something about an ‘egg rock.’ Something about how he’d found a perfectly round rock there the other day (they’d arrived earlier) but had left it there because take only pictures, leave only footprints. And oh wouldn’t it be great if we could find it again, but that’ll never happen. As he was saying it, I saw it. Egg Rock. Sitting on the path in front of me. Is this it, I asked. It was. Egg rock, just sitting nonchalantly right where he’d left it days before. The place was littered with memories from years ago, and also days ago. Simply magical stuff going on out here.

In case you hadn’t noticed, at this point in the hike I was no longer a pitiful wreck, mumbling doom and gloom from the couch. I was finding Egg Rock. I was out there in a big ol’ world, seeing wacky stuff. Giving piggy back rides. Getting piggy back rides. Getting a popsicle after emerging from the canyon, just as the sun was starting to get high in the sky. Down there in the palms, there was rushing water and the sunlight was filtered through these impossibly glossy spiky shaggy hippie trees. Some ponies walked by.

I’d agonized over whether I could take a couple of days off for spring break. Spring break means nothing whatsoever for grad students, and yet the emptied-out feel of the campus instills the itch to bolt in even the most motivated/terrified of us. So, having talked my partner down from a week to 4 days including a weekend, I long ago had agreed to a vacation in some distant future. Even then, just looking at a blank swath of March with just one meeting to reschedule, I was waggling my nervous brain like an insecure Pomeranian, with that special look of nervous dread that comes only with the possibility that you might NOT get the treat, but…you’re going to get the treat, right? Right?

I hadn’t anticipated that I’d be in such a weird place when we took this trip, mentally, emotionally, existentially. But being taken somewhere special turned out to be an important thing to drop everything and do. I had done my best to get done what I could prior to our departure, but I hadn’t done everything. Work still awaited. But when we left the canyons, I was no longer panicking about all of the work I wasn’t doing. I was trying to figure out how the dead palm skirts squared up with the bark of the palms and why so many things had spikes and seriously, what DID make those rocks that way? These issues had become pressing. I was in nature, and later I was going to eat a sandwich, maybe find a new sequined top, splash in the pool, or just do nothing for the rest of the day. What the hell did I have to complain about? Going someplace special with special people, whether you think you have time for it or not, is sometimes an important thing to do.

Because do you know what? We got back, and I finished everything on time. Even the things I had had to trust myself to get done after the trip, going against every fiber of my tightly wound being. But in the end, it was fine. Everything was fine. I was fine. We were all fine.

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1 Response to On being taken somewhere special.

  1. dodgysurfer says:

    Enjoyed reading this, particularly the way you happily share where your imagination took you. Trees hanging out. Nice photos too. Love the texture in the last one.

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