Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 19, 2018

Tehachapi Festival: Street Food and Streamline Moderne

Tehachapi, California is a city of about 13,000 people at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, between the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert. It’s primarily a farming town, and that includes a significant number of fruit orchards, a major crop there.

The town got a major boost when the Santa Fe Railroad line opened in 1876, with a depot for passenger and freight traffic. The depot closed in 1971, but a restoration stands on the original site, and is a railroad museum. Conditions prevented me from photographing the exterior, but here I am in the former freight room with a museum docent.

Docent BN M Vincent 2346 680

We went to Tehachapi to see the town’s annual Apple Festival, celebrating one of the area’s most important products. The affair was a classic small town Autumn festival.

Tehachapi festival Brad Nixon 4257 680

Street festivals can be a mixed blessing for towns. They draw visitors in the thousands —  sometimes tens of thousands. Typically only a small portion of the visitors go into local shops; they can’t even see them, obscured by festival booths on the street.

Tehachapi festival Brad Nixon 4285 680

Local restaurants and gas stations may do well enough, but clothing, hardware and other stores don’t get much of a bump.

Here’s Tehachapi’s location, about a 2-1/2 hour drive north of Los Angeles (on a good day).

Tehachapi map Google

We were a bit disappointed in the festival, although it was interesting. Only a handful of local fruit growers had a presence, and we’d expected to find tons of apples, fresh from the orchard. The Apple Festival was primarily crafts displays, local organization information booths and typical fair food, not apples.

Festival food Brad Nixon 4298 680

Why, yes. That’s a hot dog surrounded by a spiral-cut potato and grilled — or maybe deep-fried — accompanied by split hot dogs grilled to look like little octopi. No, that cholesterol disaster is NOT mine. I was happy to simply shoot pictures.

Grill meat Brad Nixon 4248 680

Street food Brad Nixon 4299 680

Several times during the day, the town’s railroad heritage showed up in the form of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train rolling through the crossing at the end of Green Street.

Tehachapi festival Brad Nixon 4252 680

We did get a look at Tehachapi beyond the festival scene. The town has a telltale pattern: numerous gaps where buildings obviously once stood, and the architecture even in the oldest parts of town lacks any period style continuity. That’s a hallmark of towns that’ve suffered a disaster of some sort. I think of Roseburg, Oregon, where 30 blocks of the town were leveled or damaged when an explosives truck blew up there in 1959. Hundreds of towns show similar results from flood or fire that destroyed buildings on a large scale. Some were replaced in newer styles inconsistent with the earlier architecture, while others were never rebuilt, particularly if the disaster occurred after a town’s prime growth had occurred.

Tehachapi’s disaster was a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in 1952 that wrecked a considerable portion of town. The walking tour available from the Tehachapi Museum lists several locations as the “former site of” historic structures.

Fortunately, many buildings survived, including three interesting examples of Streamline Moderne architecture from the 1930s. Their cast concrete structures withstood the temblor that shook down many brick and frame buildings. Since I’ve mentioned the museum, I’ll start there.

Tehachapi Museum Brad Nixon 4260 680

There’s a southwestern Pueblo-style flair to the 1932 building, which was built as the town’s library.

Tehachapi museum Brad Nixon 4264 680

The interior still shows the configuration it owes to its origin as a library, although it’s difficult to discern details amidst the exhibits that fill the floor space and line the walls. The collection is relatively small but spans a considerable amount of time and a variety of historical themes. There’s a gallery dedicated to the Kawaiisu tribe of Native Americans who occupied the area before European settlers arrived. Worth a look when you’re there. 310 S. Green St.

A contemporary building, from 1932, is the BeeKay Theatre.

Beekay Tehachapi Brad Nixon 4308 680

Originally a movie house, the building had a checkered history after it stopped showing films in the late 1970s. Then building burned in 1997, leaving the concrete shell, although revealing the Art Deco styling that had been covered for at least a few decades. The city and its community theater group sponsored an ambitious reconstruction, including the recreation of the original marquee and what had been Tehachapi’s first neon sign. It now seats 120 instead of the original 312, and hosts the community theater productions. The interior was apparently never ornate, but is compact and comfortable. Even moderately skilled actors could make themselves heard, unamplified. 108 S. Green St.

We strolled one block west of Green to Curry Street, which shows the wide, unoccupied spaces attributable to the quake. One remaining structure catches the eye immediately.

Tehachapi IOOF Brad Nixon 2355 680

Thanks to the local Heritage League’s plaque outside, I learned it was also constructed in the early 1930s by the local International Order of Odd Fellows. That recess above the door would certainly once have announced “I.O.O.F.,” a familiar name in towns across America.

I have no other details than that the building’s durability has earned it an impressive list of tenants, including labor hall, dance hall, movie theater, church hall and hotel, to mention only a few. It’s now a shelter operated by a local philanthropy, and I didn’t get a look inside. 112 S. Curry St.

Obviously, Tehachapi was growing in the early ’30s, despite the Depression. It’s interesting that of the three structures above, only the Museum building might have been built with WPA funds. The other two were privately funded. That’s no mean accomplishment in an era when farms were being foreclosed and farming communities suffered as severely as the rest of the nation. Perhaps Tehachapi’s ranchers and farmers did a little better than the norm.

I enjoyed my brief visit to Tehachapi, and look forward to seeing more of the town when the festival isn’t booming. I still need a photo of that depot.

High resolution versions of most photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Special thanks to the friendly, informative conversations with our docent at the Tehachapi Depot Museum, the volunteers of the Tehachapi Heritage League at the Tehachapi Museum and members of the Tehachapi Community Theatre who showed us their fine old playhouse. Map © Google with my emendations.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 18, 2018

Civics 101 — Reblogged from “The Task at Hand”

Here’s a thoughtful and timely post from the always well-written blog, “The Task at Hand,” apropos of the looming U.S. election.

The Hungarian Uprising, 1956 ~ Erich Lessing, Magnum Photos On October 23, 1956, I celebrated my tenth birthday. There was cake, ice cream, and a small party with balloons and crepe paper streamers. On that same day, in a world utterly removed from my cozy Iowa neighborhood, other children watched as friends, parents, and neighbors dared to cheer an […]

via Civics 101 — The Task at Hand

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 17, 2018

One of the Seven Wonders (Railroad Category): Tehachapi Loop

Most people around the world who recognize the name of Tehachapi, California, probably associate it with the truck-driving song, “Willin’,” written by Lowell George, originally recorded by Little Feat, and then a hundred other singers and bands.

I been from Tucson to Tucumcari …
Tehachapi to Tonopah.

Mountain biking enthusiasts know about Tehachapi’s growing popularity as a great place for their sport. Wind energy proponents identify the Tehachapi Pass as the location of a large-scale wind turbine farm.

Wind turbines M Vincent 2219 680

Here in southern California, we associate the town with the products from its apple, pear and other fruit orchards.

Apples M Vincent 2280 680

Tehachapi (te-HATCH-eh-pee), population 13,000, at 4,000 feet elevation, is nestled among hills at the south of the Sierra Nevada range, between the San Joaquin Valley to the west and the Mojave Desert to the east (see map, below).

The elevation, rainfall and climate favor orchard agriculture.

But If You’re a Railroad Fan …

… “Tehachapi” signifies only one thing: The Tehachapi Loop. A significant work of engineering, it’s considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the Railroad World.”*

Before I show you a picture, some background will help it make sense.

San Francisco to Los Angeles, 1874

The Santa Fe Railroad line from San Francisco to Los Angeles was nearly complete in 1874. From San Francisco, it already crossed the broad San Joaquin Valley southeast as far as Bakersfield (map, blue line). The line north from Los Angeles had reached Mojave (map, red line) many years earlier, and was the shipping point for mining and agriculture north of there.

Tehachapi map Google

The missing link was 60 or so miles of southeasterly passage through the Tehachapi Pass at the foot of the Sierras, 28 miles of it requiring a steep grade. Highway 58 now traverses the same general path.

It was a stern challenge. The valley climbs steeply and is narrow. Trains of the era required a gradient of no more than approximately 2%, and the Santa Fe engineers plotted a route that wound back and forth across the valley in order to provide as much linear run as possible, and to minimize excavation and tunneling.

One place stymied them. About 14 miles northwest of Tehachapi (map, red square), they were out of room in order to lift their trains onto a useable bench along the southern side of the valley, from which they could build the route to the pass.

Chief engineer William Hood solved the problem by designing a helix or spiral loop 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) in circumference. The track heading southeast would bend to the left in a circle, cross back over itself and continue curving back to the southeast. Here’s an aerial view. Top of the photo is approximately north.


From the left is the lower level climbing up from Bakersfield. By the time the track reaches the crossover, it’s 77 feet above the lower level. A train 4,000 or more feet long will cross over itself.


Most of the work was with picks, shovels and blasting power, done by thousands of laborers, including 3,000 Chinese workers. They excavated cuts, bored tunnels and hauled thousands of tons of fill. After that, crews installed the steel rail. The project was driven at a terrific pace, and Santa Fe completed the line in two years.

The Loop

Tehachapi Loop is relatively easy to see, but difficult to render in a photograph. Here is a panorama. The curving dark gray lines are the track.

Tehachapi Loop Brad Nixon 680

The picture is from the most easily accessible site, looking almost due north. The tunnel beneath the crossover point is obscured by the terrain near the center of the photo. Follow the markings on the version, below.

Tehachapi Loop marked Brad Nixon 680

Southeast bound trains come from the left, through the tunnel. The yellow line indicates where the track’s out of view. The track (red line) emerges from the cut and bends north. It crosses behind a hill — blue line — then comes into sight again and continues around the circle toward Tehachapi on the right.

I did not wait for a train to pass through, which would make the scene easier to appreciate.

As it turns out, I wouldn’t have had long to wait. After leaving the site, I encountered this train headed up toward the Loop, which it would reach in another 10 minutes or so.

Freight train Brad Nixon 4338 680

Freight train Brad Nixon 2393 680

Visiting Tehachapi Loop

The simplest access is the Route 58 exit for the miniscule village of Keene. The Keene exit is marked, and there’s a California State Historical Society sign for Tehachapi Loop. The exits from both east or west meet Woodford-Tehachapi Road. Turn right (east). Drive three miles. The viewpoint has space to pull off, and two monuments guarantee you’ve found the spot.

Tehachapi Loop Brad Nixon 2392

Be careful on that road. It’s narrow, winding, and the scenery is lovely and distracting.

There are some additional opportunities for viewing and photographing the Loop if you have time, provided at this site:

Will I See a Train?

That BNSF line is now one of the busiest rail routes in the west. On some days, it carries more than 40 trains a day. If you’re determined to watch (and video tape!) a train traversing the Loop, go prepared to wait, but you probably won’t need to wait much more than an hour. Rail traffic is often highest on weekends.

If you want more, it will take you only seconds of online searching to find hundreds of photographs and videos of trains in the Loop.

*Although the American Society of Civil Engineers designated Tehachapi Loop as one of the “seven railroad wonders of the world,” it’s unclear what the others are, or if such a list actually exists. What’s your nomination? Leave a comment. We’ll create our own seven railroad wonders.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Two photographs © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. “Willin'” © Lowell George or his agents or designees. Map © Google with my emendations.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 15, 2018

Furusato, the L.A. Town That Is Not There

Early in the 20th century, commercial fishing was booming in San Pedro Bay, the port of Los Angeles. Shipping and railroads were ramping up to serve the port, providing the infrastructure necessary to carry the catch from a large fleet to markets across the continent. Word spread far, bringing immigrants from fishing communities around the world. The port town of San Pedro, near the mouth of the harbor, grew apace, its growth still evident today.

San Pedro view Brad Nixon 2212 680

The Melting Pot

San Pedro’s population today reflects that influx of people: descendants of Croatians, Serbians and Italians from the Adriatic, and Greeks from farther east on the Aegean. Walk around San Pedro and you’ll see shops, restaurants and community organizations in the port town bearing names from those cultures. The American dream. Click on any photo to enlarge it.

The Fishing Industry Memorial along San Pedro’s Harbor Blvd. near the port’s main channel includes a sculptural tribute to the fishermen of that era.

Fisherman Mem Brad Nixon 9288-2 (476x640)

The Other Immigrants

Another population of traditional fishing people moved there, too. By 1940, a community of approximately 3,000 people of Japanese background lived on Terminal Island, across the harbor’s main channel. They owned an estimated 250 fishing boats and provided much of the labor in the large tuna canneries on the island. In addition to their houses, Japanese Americans established shops, community centers, shrines and temples. They called their village Furusato — “Home Town” or, more colloquially American, “Home, Sweet Home.” Here it is in an undated photo from the 1930s.

46082-japaneseoverall San Pedro Bay HS

By 1940, three generations lived in Furusato: Issei — first generation immigrants; Nisei, the second generation; and their children, Sansei. Most were either citizens by birth or naturalized citizens of the U.S. The American dream.

You can visit Terminal Island and walk along Tuna, Cannery and Barracuda Streets. You won’t see Furusato. It disappeared 75 years ago.

Terminal Is Brad Nixon 2183 680

Terminal Is Brad Nixon 2181 680

In February, 1942, U.S. Executive Order 9066 required all residents of Terminal Island to leave within 48 hours. Most male Issei were declared “enemy aliens,” but all persons of Japanese ancestry in a “Wartime Exclusion Zone” — California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, plus many Issei in Hawaii — were taken into federal custody by the country in which most of them were citizens — men, women, children.

Forced Exodus

Residents sold whatever they could to speculators in the two allotted days at panic prices — fishing boats, houses and belongings — gathered what they could carry and were loaded onto trains and buses. Most of the Furusato residents were taken 300 miles north of Los Angeles to a concentration camp in the Owens Valley: Manzanar War Relocation Center.

Once they were gone, the U.S. Navy bulldozed every house, shop, shrine and school of Furusato, and constructed a shipyard to build ships for the war.

SP warehouses Brad Nixon 1888 680

The shipyard employees did impressive work, building a powerful fleet that helped win the war. I don’t deprecate their accomplishment in any way.

The residents of Terminal Island were the first of more than 110,000 people sent to one of ten concentration camps for the duration of the war.

Manzanar auditorium Brad Nixon 1112 680

Four years later, the “detainees” were released, given $25 and a ride “home” with whatever they could carry. For those who looked, Furusato didn’t exist. Nor does it now.

Terminal Is Brad Nixon 2168 680

Terminal Island Japanese Memorial

In 2001, survivors, descendants and supporters established the Terminal Island Japanese Memorial, squeezed into a narrow area between the old cannery/shipyard works on the main channel and Fish Harbor to the east.

Japanese memorial M Vincent 2137 680

The figures stand under a Torii, a Shinto gate emblem marking the transition from mundane to sacred space.

Japanese memorial Brad Nixon 4097 680

Fishing boats still call the harbor home, in vastly smaller numbers. The primary business of the port is container shipping operations, and the gantry cranes tower in the distance.

Japanese memorial Brad Nixon 2131 280

Aristotle told us that tragedy, enacted, elicits pity and fear and then effects catharsis (viz: relief – purgation – cleansing).

My grasp of rhetoric and dramatic theory suggests that Aristotle’s premise relies on the assumption that tragedy continues to occur, which allows us to identify — recognize it in the events of our own lives. If, that is, anything so dire were ever to happen again.

For some photos and description of Manzanar, see my previous blog post, at this link.

Directions to the Terminal Island Japanese Memorial

The memorial is on Terminal Island in the Port of Los Angeles (map, red flag).

Terminal Island map Google 680

The simplest access is from East-West California Route 47, also called the Seaside Freeway on maps (no one here uses that name), also appearing on some maps (incorrectly) as Interstate 710.

Coming south from Los Angeles on Interstate 110, follow the signs and exit for Route 47/Vincent Thomas Bridge/Terminal Island/Long Beach. You’ll cross the impressive suspension Bridge, headed east. Immediately after the bridge, exit right. A sign indicates the turn to the memorial. The exit ends at Ferry St. Turn left. Follow Ferry St. 1/4 mile and turn right onto Terminal Way. Again, there should be a sign. Terminal is many lanes wide to accommodate truck traffic in and out of the shipping berths. Terminal Way bends left and becomes Seaside Ave.  You’ll be driving past shipyards and other harbor works, which once were Furusato.

The memorial is located at 1124 South Seaside Ave., San Pedro. It’s on the left, and there is ample free parking. There is only the monument and some explanatory graphics — no visitor center.

If you come from the direction of Long Beach, westbound Ocean Blvd. in downtown becomes Route 47 across the harbor. Take the Ferry St. exit. The route bends south and becomes Ferry St. Follow the directions above.

To return, backtrack to Ferry St. To return to Long Beach, turn right just before the bridge to enter eastbound 47. To return to San Pedro and Los Angeles, continue under the bridge until a sign directs you to San Pedro and the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Once across the bridge, you’ll able to enter northbound 110.

© Brad Nixon 2018. One photo © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. Archival photograph of Terminal Island is property of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society, retrieved from The Daily Breeze newpaper. Information for this post from Daily Breeze, September 29, 2010 by Sam Gnerre, retrieved Oct 14, 2018.  San, retrieved Oct. 9, 2018. Map © Google with my emendations.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 13, 2018

Return to Manzanar

My recent trip north from Los Angeles along U.S. Route 395 included seeing the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Laws Railroad Museum and Bodie ghost town.

Bodie Brad Nixon 3871 680

The semi-arid area between the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and Inyo and White Mountains to the east has innumerable other attractions which would require most of a lifetime to explore, including the highest peak in the contiguous United States — Mount Whitney — and Death Valley National Park, to name only two.

On the first day of the trip, I stopped for a repeat visit to Manzanar National Historic Site. There is, at first glance, little that’s remarkable about Manzanar except the view. It occupies 814 acres at the feet of the Sierra Nevada, overgrown with sagebrush and high desert chaparral. The views of the Sierras to the west and, to the east, the Inyo Mountains, below, are dramatic.


There’s only one structure of any size: a former high school auditorium.

Manzanar auditorium Brad Nixon 1112 680

What merits designating those mostly empty acres a National Historic Site? There are a few clues. Visible from U.S. Route 395 is a guard tower.

Manzanar tower M Vincent 4076 680

When you drive into the site, you’ll pass these sentry stations.

Manzanar gates Brad Nixon 1093 680

Driving further, you’ll find tarpaper-covered barracks.

Manzanar M Vincent 1098 680

The tower and barracks are reconstructions, representative of numerous other structures that once covered much of the site. It was a prison: Manzanar War Relocation Center. To name it more accurately, it was a concentration camp that held approximately 10,000 Americans of Japanese origin during World War II.


There were ten such centers, all built to hold people of Japanese origin or descent. The rationale was that all people of Japanese heritage — even if they were American citizens — represented a potential source of espionage and enemy sympathy. All the camps were in remote locations, invariably with difficult living conditions. There was summer heat and winter cold of deserts in California, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado; and swampy, mosquito-ridden lowlands in southeastern Arkansas.

More than 110,000 people spent the war years in the ten camps, taken into custody from the “Wartime Exclusion Zone” of California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska. They’d had only a matter of days to arrange what to do with the homes, businesses and belongings they left behind.

Manzanar’s internees came primarily from the Los Angeles area, and they lived at the camp from 1942 to 1945. At Manzanar, many worked at agriculture, crafts and a few professions, including medicine — work for which skilled doctors and nurses were paid a fraction of any existing professional rate.

More than 500 barracks, a hospital, post office and workshops are gone, as they are from all ten former camps. Today, driving around the site, the once-teeming city is evident only as scores of overgrown foundations, remnants of barracks, fields, gardens and playing fields. The Sierras loom in the west.

Manzanar M Vincent 1100 680

The internees formed social clubs, sports teams, churches and temples, and held classes on a variety of subjects. The Park Service has signposted most of the building and facility locations. Notably, residents published a newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press, established by an internee who’d been an editor for the long-running (still published) Los Angeles newspaper, Rafu Shimpo. A sign marks the site of the Free Press offices.

Manzanar Free Press M Vincent 3661 680

The Densho Encyclopedia website at this link provides a great deal of information about the Free Press.

Visit Manzanar in summer, when the temperature can reach 110 degrees for days at a time, or in winter, when the wind blows down the valley with temperatures well below freezing, and imagine living every day in one of those tarpaper-covered barracks. Although the Sierra Nevadas rising to 14,000 feet are inspiring, I find it impossible to see them from Manzanar without a sense of irony.

Manzanar flag Brad Nixon 1094 680

The most evocative place in the park is the small cemetery, marked by a monument designed in 1943 by one of the internees, a stonemason, Ryozo Kado.

Manzanar M Vincent 1108 680

More than 135 Manzanar internees died during their incarceration. An unknown number were interred there, possibly as many as 80. All but a handful of the remains have been relocated in the passing years.

Manzanar Brad Nixon 3668 680

The three characters visible above — I REI TO — translated literally, say, “Soul Consoling Tower.”

In November 1945, three months after the war ended, the last inmates were released and Manzanar closed. Many were not returning “home,” because home was gone.

These are a few oversimplified facts about Manzanar, offered with a minimum of commentary about context, rationale for what happened or what Manzanar represents to me. If you’re unfamiliar with what happened 75 years ago, I encourage you to inquire further about it and the War Relocation Authority. This seems like an excellent time to discover if we can learn anything from history.

Click here to see my next post, in which I visit the first of the American Japanese communities whose residents were sent to Manzanar.

Visiting Manzanar

Manzanar National Historic Site is located on U.S. Route 395, which is also the road to reach Death Valley, Mammoth Lakes/Devil’s Postpile and the Tioga Pass entry to upper Yosemite Valley (red squares). About 3-1/2 to 4 hours from Los Angeles (below bottom of map), 7 hours from San Francisco (on left of map).


The site is open daily from dawn to dusk. There are no fees. The former Manzanar auditorium is the Visitor Center, where parking is free. The center includes extensive exhibits and artifacts of life at Manzanar. The park provides a driving tour guide brochure, the best way to survey the extensive site. The cemetery contains remains, and while photography is permitted, it merits appropriate decorum. Be careful turning off or onto busy Route 395. Vehicles are approaching at high speed across level ground, and will be upon you quickly.

Have you been to Manzanar? Or Jerome, Rohwer, Gila River, Poston, Tule Lake, Granada, Minidoka, Topaz or Heart Mountain, the other camps? Please leave a comment about what you saw there.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Some photographs © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. Barracks photograph by Dorothea Lange, 1942; The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley. Map © Google with my emendations. Acknowledgment for information from Wikipedia, the U.S. National Park Service, the Manzanar History Association and the Densho Encyclopedia.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 10, 2018

My Neanderthal Genes

It’s a trendy thing now to mail some sample of yourself (no, I don’t want to know what part) to one of numerous companies who will (allegedly) use DNA analysis to determine where your ancestors came from.

The results supposedly tell you from what general part of the world your ancestors came, and in what percentages. Thus, you might find out that your ancestry is 50% northern European, 40% western European and 10% southeast Asian. Or whatever.

This practice has a great deal of appeal in our highly mobile, blended society in the United States. Our “melting pot” tradition has resulted in a country comprised of millions of immigrants from almost every part of the world. European colonists rapaciously eliminated an estimated 90% of our native inhabitants, then shoved those remaining aside in order to occupy the land. Everyone else moved in. The 21st century American population represents a stewpot of ethnicities, including descendants of slaves and indentured servants brought here against their will.

Then, as humans do, everyone started pairing up with everyone else, and in the course of just a few generations, any individual might have antecedents from anywhere in the world.

Some of us have reasonably clear records of who married whom and who begat whom unto the nth generation, but probably the minority.

Many people didn’t grow up with families who told them their history, or other circumstances made it so that they really don’t know “where they came from.”

Genealogy vs. Genetic Science

Does this business of tracing X-per cent of your ancestors to some region bounded by rivers or mountains or ancient nomadic patterns seem satisfying to you?

I once spent time investigating my genealogy. Fortunate to have some memory of talking to one great-grandparent, I had three grandparents living to talk to. A handful of relatives had family records of one sort or another. For my paternal family heritage on the male side, I had access to a detailed genealogy self-published by a distant relative who tirelessly pursued every member of a widespread family. That took my last name back to something like my paternal great-great-great grandparents.

I even spent a few hours in the National Archive in Washington, D.C. looking through microfilm versions of old, handwritten census forms. I believe I got back to 1830, and found some of my forebears there, too.

I learned something important: I’m not just the descendant of people with my parents’ last names. To some degree, those two names are accidents of custom and gender. By the time I worked back to my great-grandparents, I was related to people with eight different family names from several European countries. In the end, it was only mildly interesting that one of those families had come to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands in the 1600s.

Why wasn’t it more interesting? There were no stories. I had names, but could learn little else about the people: nothing about how they got here — why they left Holland or Scotland or anywhere else. What were their lives like before and after?

I think it would be even less satisfying to take the DNA test and discover that my mix of English, Scottish-Irish, Dutch and whatever other ancestry equaled certain percentages. What would I do with that information? Start celebrating Dutch holidays? If I’m more than 50% Scottish do I take up wearing a kilt?

More Useful Information

What I think would be really neat would be to find out to what degree I’m walking around with Neanderthal genes. According to current DNA research, most individuals with European heritage have a genetic makeup that includes one or two per cent Neanderthal genes.

I think we should all do that. Especially people running for public office.

Neanderthals have a certain stereotypical reputation — and it’s not positive. Recent research is proving those stereotypes wrong, but they die hard. Not only that, since no Neanderthals — so far as we know— are still around, they represent the sole human group we can abuse without being accused of prejudice. Who will defend them?

Just imagine the heated campaign when full disclosure rules require Candidate X to reveal that he has 2.9% Neanderthal genes — a relatively high percentage. His opponent, Candidate Y — perhaps of Asian heritage, possessing none — immediately takes to the stump, asking her constituents, “Do you really trust a Neanderthal to vote on public health or nuclear weapons?”

What fun we’d have.

Dangerous Silliness

It only took about five minutes of developing this silly blog post before I recognized what a seriously dangerous line of thought it reflects. We in the United States are engaged in a perilous public debate about whether certain people should be excluded from the nation — both physically and in terms of full citizenship participation — simply because of which country they or their parents came from, or what ethnic heritage they possess.

Remember: Except for 2.9 million Native Americans — 0.9% of the total population — we ALL came from somewhere else. All.

Joking about imaginary limitations of Neanderthals to hold office or be effective citizens risks amplifying — in a bizarre fashion — arguments for abrogating the Constitution. That document states — unequivocally — that everyone possesses the same inherent rights. Everyone. The notion of using genetic testing — along with checking passports, family records or birth certificates — to determine who’s in/who’s out is no joking matter. If having a Neanderthal gene is one proof of European heritage, before you know it, there’ll be those who demand that we have public servants with as much Neanderthal as possible in their makeup.

If we don’t already have our share.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 8, 2018

Signifying: Curl Up ‘n Dye … and Welcome!

One of an occasional series celebrating the endlessly fascinating world of signage.

I don’t know if it’s actually written somewhere, but there’s apparently a rule that if you open a hair salon in the United States, it MUST have a silly, hair-related pun in its name. I haven’t kept notes, but at least a score of them come to mind without effort: Mane Place, Hairport, A Cut Above, Head Quarters, Shear Heaven, Best Little Hairhouse, not to mention my all-time personal fave, Curl Up ‘n Dye.

I just did a search. Sure enough, there are WEBSITES devoted to this arcane craft, like this one.

After all, it’s a fierce business, with a competitor in every strip mall and on every street. One has to differentiate.

Honestly, if I weren’t certain someone had already done it, I’d take on the job of compiling a coffee table book of photos of the signage, to preserve this precious slice of our cultural heritage. I’m sure someone already has that covered.

I think a perfect marriage would be between a salon owner and a sports editor. You know, the person who comes up with those dorky sports headlines that are ALWAYS puns: “Trojans Slay Spartans,” “Boilermakers Run Out of Steam in Fourth,” and so on.

Granted, some salons dodge this requirement by naming themselves after the stylist, but only a few have that sort of name recognition. The rest are relying on a version of the tried-and-true Roadside Attraction gag to get attention.

In Port Angeles, Washington this summer, I walked past a place that carried the punning to another level, with a graphic on the door.

Walkens Welcome Brad Nixon 680

Maybe that’s a more common gag than I know, but I loved it. I almost Walked En, even though I didn’t need a haircut.

There’s something inherently American about the whole schtick … I think. If this hair salon naming practice is a regular thing outside the U.S. (Canada, I’m looking north at you), let me know in a comment. Or, leave a comment with YOUR fave haircutting name.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Thanks to the website at, simply for being. I’m glad such things exist.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 5, 2018

Visiting California’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

My previous blog post was a video tour of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1420 680

If you missed it, I invite you to click here to watch it.

In this post, I’ll address the practicalities of getting there to see the oldest living things on earth.

Note: There are other Great Basin Bristlecones farther south in the Inyo Mountains, as well as pockets in Nevada and Utah. The forest in the White Mountains is attractive because of its scale, accessibility, established trails and a visitors’ center (open seasonally).

The Schulman Grove, which I visited, is quite accessible, but reaching it requires some driving or a significant amount of hiking (skiing or snowshoeing in winter). Let’s go.

The White Mountains

The White Mountains form the eastern boundary of California’s Owens Valley. The valley’s west side is formed by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, seen here from near the Bristlecone forest.

Sierra view Brad Nixon 1313 680

To reach the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, you’ll start in Big Pine, California (map, red underline), 300 miles north of Los Angeles on U.S. Route 395.

Bristlecone map Google 680

Before you leave Big Pine

You’re about to drive a minimum of 57 miles round trip. Make certain your car has fuel before you leave town.

You’re leaving all reasonable sources of water, food and, yes, even cell coverage. Before you start, have all your provisions. Beyond Big Pine, there is nothing, nada, zilch, rien, niente. They’ll sell you some bottles of water at the Schulman Grove visitors’ center. Unless they’re sold out. Or closed for the season or some emergency. Then you’re stuck.

Primary Caveats

You’ll be hiking at 10,000 feet. If you’re not in some reasonable condition, pay close attention to how you feel, and pace yourself.

It can be extraordinarily dry up there. The day I hiked, the humidity was in the single digits. Your body loses fluid at a rapid rate. You’ll need far more water than you’re accustomed to. Hiking the Methuselah Trail will require 3-4 hours, and  you’ll need at least a gallon of water per person. Drink it steadily, rather than waiting until you’re in a dangerous condition.

To Schulman Grove

From the north end of Big Pine, drive northeast on route 168. A sign marks the turn from 395.

Continue 13 miles along a well-paved, winding road that climbs several thousand feet. At one point, the road narrows to a single lane, so use caution.

Turn left on White Mountain Road. Signs should direct you.

Bristlecone sign Brad Nixon 1309 680

Once snow falls in winter, the road is closed.

White Mountain Road is paved. You have ten more miles to drive. Don’t believe any guidebooks that tell you it’s ten minutes to the visitors’ center: miles.

Now you wind, climb, wind and climb some more. There’s a turnoff with a spectacular view of the Sierras that you should take a few minutes to see.

>Sierra view Brad Nixon 1316 680

There, you’re above 9,000 feet elevation. A few minutes later, you’ll pass this sign.

Bristlecone sign Brad Nixon 1327 680

Soon after that, the right turn into the Schulman Grove parking lot will be evident. Beyond that point, the road is no longer paved, and the scene looks like this.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1330 680

That road continues to Patriarch Grove, mentioned below.

The visitors’ center is your spot to get geared up. There are “vault” restrooms (that means there’s no plumbing). The new center is impressive.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1492 680

And, yes, those are Bristlecone Pine trees all around.

Three Trails to Choose

If you have questions, the staff will answer them. They’ll explain that three trails lead from the center. All the trails go through the Bristlecone forest, and will give you a look at the high altitude environment in which the trees thrive.

Get a printed trail guide at the center for a small donation. It’s worth it. The guide I got for the Methuselah Trail was thorough, informative and practical.

A one-mile nature Discovery Trail is level and easy. The two-mile Cabin Trail loop involves more elevation changes, and is moderate in difficulty.

Methuselah Trail

I hiked the 4.25 Methuselah Trail loop. It descends 900 feet, then climbs back up to where you started. A few steeper sections are a bit strenuous, but at no time are you scrambling or boulder-hopping. Moderately well-conditioned hikers should manage it without undue stress, but consider the 10,000 foot elevation. There are benches at several points of the trail that provide welcome opportunities to catch a breather.

That is the only one of the three trails that reaches “Methuselah Grove,” a steep, rocky enclave which includes — unmarked — “Methuselah,” a living tree 4,850 years old, although innumerable trees in the grove are 4,000 or more years old.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1464 680

One appeal of the Methuselah Trail is the variety of terrain it traverses. At one point, you emerge from the Bristlecone environment (the soil is different) into an area occupied by Mountain Mahogany trees, sagebrush and a few junipers. There, you have a view southeastward to mountain ranges above Death Valley (purple underline, map, lower right) in the distance, 80 or 100 miles away.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1368 680

Beyond to the Patriarchs

If you have time and energy, you can drive 12 unpaved miles beyond Schulman Grove to Patriarch Grove. There you’ll see the largest of the world’s Bristlecones, the Patriarch Tree. I haven’t visited, and refer you to the USDA website to begin your planning at this link.

Before setting out, remember you have to drive 12 unpaved miles back, too.

U.S. Forest Service Regulations

The forest is part of U.S. Forest Service land, and a protected environment. Camping, fires, collecting and overnight stays are prohibited. Visitors are technically restricted to daylight hours. The nearest campground is Grandview Campground, five miles from Schulman Grove.

The Schulman Grove visitor center is open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. in season. You do not need reservations or permits to hike. The center requests a $3 per person donation. More than reasonable.

Click here for full information.


There are a few motels and places to eat in Big Pine. There are many more in larger Bishop (map, blue underline), 15 miles north of Big Pine on Route 395, as well as grocery, hospital, restaurants and other services. Lone Pine (map, green underline), 42 miles south of Big Pine, is also a popular place to stay and eat.

I hope you can visit the Bristlecones. If you do, I’d be delighted to have you come back and leave a comment about your encounter with the planet’s oldest inhabitants.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1430 680

Licensable, high resolution versions of some photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google with my emendations.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 4, 2018

Encounter with the Eldest of the Living; Video.

We venture onto trails, into forests and anywhere we can experience nature first-hand for a variety of reasons.

I think one motivation is the opportunity it gives us to view our world as something that outlasts our brief human lifespan, and consider the sweep of life both before and after us.

There’s a place you can visit where the environment has persisted unchanged for an unimaginably long time. Not only that, the living things that inhabit it right now were, themselves, already alive when the pyramids and Stonehenge were built.

To show you the place, I’m pleased to bring you the first-ever Under Western Skies video program.

Click on the arrow in the center to watch. It’s three minutes, forty seconds long. Remember to turn on your audio. The first nine seconds of title are silent.

For details on traveling to see the Bristlecones, information about hiking there, accommodations, etc. see the next post in this series at this link.

Thank you for watching. It was a pleasure to show you the Bristlecones.

Bristlecone Brad Nixon 1430 680

All content © Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 2, 2018

Iliad and Odyssey. Yet More in Realms of Gold

All readers have That List: those books — few or many — they’ve always intended to read.

It may not be a written list. All the same, those books are there, waiting.

I recently read two books that’ve spent decades on my list: The Iliad and The Odyssey, written in about 850 B.C.E. by the Greek poet, Homer.

In short, I found The Iliad and The Odyssey to be more than worth the modest effort to read. In fact, it was little effort whatsoever. Rather, it was an enormous pleasure to discover them. Now I understand why they were a raging success in the ancient world, and why they’re still touted not just as mankind’s first literature, but great literary works.

Many of you already knew this. For any of you who haven’t read them, I recommend the experience. Here’s some of what I learned.


Yes, there are some obstacles.

It’s Poetry

It’s an antique poetic form: unrhymed dactyllic meter. For most of us, some translator will have done the work of rendering it into a modern language in a manner that may or may not attempt to capture some sense of Homer’s line. The translator of the version of Iliad I read was primarily a scholar. The translator of my Odyssey, a poet who emphasized the importance of recreating some degree of Homer’s metrical line. I enjoyed both. As for language, I enjoyed my poet’s rendition of the verse a bit more, but both adequately showed that the original language, composed orally 2,800 years ago, was powerful, indeed.

It’s Another World

All the cultural, attitudinal and interpersonal frameworks of the stories come from an unrecognizable, alien experience. Relationships, culture, religion all followed rules and conventions different from ours. One is often forced to rely on an editor’s notes to grasp exactly why some situation represents a conflict for characters, or why some things matter so very much.

Underlying those differences, though, are human beings instantly recognizable for their human qualities: pride, honor, lust, greed, courage, intelligence, craftiness. Homer breathes genuine life into his characters, and they are not at all the wooden, archetypal forms one might expect from such an ancient book.

Those GODS!

Gods are always a problem. And the gods have a lot to do with what happens in both stories. They’re capricious, nasty, selfish, quick to anger, slow to forgive, and they do whatever the heck they want. After all, they’re gods!

Here, there may be a lesson for us into how an ancient culture structured their universe. Life is full of inexplicable tragedy, shock, surprise and disappointment. Why not blame the gods?


Both poems are shockingly violent. In the course of the two poems, thousands of people die in nearly every way available to the 9th century B.C.E., including being eaten by monsters. In the climactic scene in Ithaca, Odysseus, Telemachus and a couple of loyal retainers lock the doors of the palace and polish off all 108 of Penelope’s suitors. With extreme prejudice. Homer’s endlessly inventive in dispensing mayhem. I don’t know if this is a positive or negative aspect of the stories. It was clearly an elemental fact of ancient life.


Friends, these are tremendous stories. If you’ve never read these poems, they are almost certainly different than how you imagine them. There are multiple intersecting narrative lines, interweaving conflicts, dialogue, interior monologues, flashbacks …. I was taken aback by the sophistication and complexity of the storytelling, especially The Odyssey.

In The Odyssey, we get much more than the long drama of Odysseus’ travel home to Ithaca from Troy, although that’s an excellent tale. In fact, we only hear about most of his journey in the midst of a later scene when he relates it to a group of listeners. Circling that retelling are multiple threads to follow regarding the life of his son, Telemachus and his wife, Penelope, who’ve been waiting 20 years for Odysseus to return.

The multiple points of view, narrative line and the way Homer moves back and forth between present and past stunned me. I expected a straightforward, rather episodic relation of “and then that happened, and then this happened.” Homer shows us what’s happening in Ithaca, then follows Telemachus on a journey, then leaves Telemachus in the middle of that journey to go see what his father is up to in some unknown part of the ocean. Suddenly we’re on Olympus and the gods are about to change all the rules. Because they’re gods! Inexplicable storms, wars, disease, lightning ensue.

Weaving back and forth, both in time and space, Homer keeps us guessing — even now, when we think we’ve heard this story before.

That’s a Thumbs Up

Reading Iliad and Odyssey shattered every preconceived notion I had about them. I was entirely wrong about the first: It’s only about events during a short period in the ninth year of the Trojan War, not the entire conflict.

For the second, I thought the stories of Telemachus and Penelope were ancillary to the tale of Odysseus’ journey. In fact, they’re as fully drawn, central characters as he is. There’s an argument to be made that it’s really Penelope’s story, and everything else is to be viewed in perspective against her unwearying, indomitable loyalty and love.

There are countless translations and renditions of these stories in poetry, prose, film and drama. I don’t know how one chooses which to study. I had multiple versions available from my library, made my selection, and I’m happy with them.

I suggest you choose a version with some substantive introduction as well as text notes. Homer’s world is remarkably different from ours, and there’s a great deal to explore. Here’s what I chose.

The Iliad, translation, introduction and notes by Barry B. Powell, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014

The Odyssey, translated by Edward McCrorie, edited by Richard P. Martin, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2004

Having read my share of epic poetry, I’m happy to finally have sailed the wine-dark sea and seen rosy-fingered dawn.

© Brad Nixon 2018

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