Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 23, 2018

Italian Idyll … Catastrophe … Enlightenment

Every traveler understands the need for a bit of resilience — some willingness to roll with interruptions, delays or disappointments. I had a day in Italy that included some surprises, but concluded in a lesson about the value of taking things as they come.

To see a part of central Italy that fascinated both of us, we booked a week at an agriturismo — a working farm — in northern Umbria, on the border with Tuscany. Agriturismos offer the option of working on the farm to defray expenses, but we were simply guests staying on the property tucked into a forested valley east of the Tuscan hill town of Cortona.

Novole buildings Brad Nixon (437x640)

The Covento Novole was built as a convent in the 16th or 17th Century. The stone buildings possessed all the period charm one could desire.

20031003 Covento Novole buildings Brad Nixon (640x419)

Our quarters were in the former chapel, converted to provide a kitchen downstairs, with a sleeping loft above the small sacristy.

Novole chapel Brad Nixon (640x458)

We shopped in the market town of Camucia, at the foot of the hill beneath Cortona, and enjoyed the experience of cooking “local.” It helps to have a travel partner with some Italian roots and a fair bit of cooking skill, and The Counselor was in her element. We ate well. We had a car, and our plan was that every day we’d visit Umbrian towns: Assisi, Todi, Deruta, Bettona, Montefiore and others, each with its own distinctive history and character. That itinerary left little time for lounging around the property, which isn’t really our style, anyway. We did find time to make use of one of the farm’s amenities: a bocce court:

Novole bocce Brad Nixon (430x640)

That’s another skill The Counselor seems to have inherited from her Italian grandparents.

Day One Dawns Darkly

The plan for our first day was to visit Perugia, the provincial capital and largest city. Our goal was to visit the medieval city center with its piazza, cathedral, Palazzo dei Priori and notable fountain by Nicolo and Giovanni Pisano. We awoke at what we thought was a reasonable hour. The old chapel wasn’t a brightly lighted space at any time, but it was pitch black. There was no sign of light anywhere, and when I tried the small bedside lamp, it didn’t come on. Struggling to find my way downstairs, I determined that the power was out. Outside it was a dank, rainy early morning.

Fortunately, the kitchen had a gas stove, so we made coffee, then breakfast, getting accustomed to our first morning in the old stone building in the Italian countryside.

Italian kitchen Brad Nixon 001-2 (640x457)

Note the wood-burning stove, which was how we heated the place that chilly October. Soon we were on our way along the wet roads of Italy. It’s about an hour and a half to Perugia (red rectangle below) from the agriturismo (blue star), much of it on a major highway that skirts the northern and eastern sides of Lake Trasimeno.

Umbria map Google

I can’t recall when the realization took hold, but by the time we were threading our way through the busy city of Perugia, looking for the best approach to the centro storico, we realized that electric power was off everywhere: every town we passed, every building. No traffic lights were working. Shops were dark and closed.


In fact, almost the entire country had lost power through some fault in transmission lines from hydroelectic sources in the Alps: Milan, Rome, Florence, Turin, and every village, town and house throughout Italy was without power.

The guidebook advised that parking in the historic area was problematic. Our best means to reach the old part of the city, elevated above the modern town, was to park at the city bus station and take a local bus. At the station, we found a rather chaotic scene. Buses were running, but no agents were at the windows, since there was no electricity, and none of the display boards showing routes and times were operating.

Let It Happen

Determined to find someone who might answer a question, I went into the station, while The Counselor studied some route maps posted outside. My search yielded nothing, and I went back out.

Friends, I learned a lesson.

I stepped out to find her standing on the step of a bus. “This is our bus,” she said. Always more capable in Italian than I, she’d done an exceptional job of communicating and had found someone who told her what she needed to know. I, for no reason I can explain, doubted her.

“Are you sure?” I asked. At that point, the bus started to pull away. On it was my travel partner, and if she disappeared into some unknown part of a city I didn’t know, in a time before we had cell phones, goodness knows how I’d find her.

“Are you coming?” she asked with impressive aplomb, wondering if this guy was really going to disagree with a woman who was about to disappear. The bus was moving. She wasn’t getting off.

I hurried to get on, regardless of where it was headed. It was, of course, exactly the bus we should take, as she knew perfectly well.

We saw the ancient buildings of Perugia, despite the chilly rain. With the rain and dim light, I took no photos, but I can assure you it’s worth a visit. Here’s a photo of nearby Todi’s main piazza, taken a few days later, which has something of the same character.

Todi piazza Brad Nixon 001-2(640x452)

Perugia’s 14th-Century cathedral of San Lorenzo looms above the square, massive and stolid. On that dark day, with only candles illuminating the interior, we saw it the way it would have appeared for hundreds of years before gas or electric light. It was an experience not to be missed … although I very nearly had missed it.

I received my own illumination that day. Stop worrying. Not every moment is idyllic. You’re a traveler, dude. Get on the bus. Time to roll.

How about your “lesson learned” travel story? Tell us in a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 21, 2018

Guardian on the Cliff; Point Vicente Lighthouse, California

Lighthouses must be one of the most appealing and evocative forms of architecture. They’re featured in photo calendars, greeting cards and travel posters, perched on a rocky crag above crashing waves, or, in mild weather, serenely poised above the azure sea, like Battery Point Light in Crescent City, California.

Battery Pt. Light M Vincent (640x454)

When I grew up in the Midwest, the closest lighthouse was one of the 20 or so on the south shore of Lake Erie, about 200 miles to the north. I never saw any of them, and associated lighthouses with the ocean, which was 600 miles to the east.

Now, living by a different ocean, 2,200 miles to the west, I’ve written about an old lighthouse, Point Fermin, a few miles from me. It’s no longer in operation, but there is a far more dramatic one a few miles to the west, still guarding the coast: Point Vicente Light.

Pt Vicente light Brad Nixon 0158 (640x467)

The 67 foot tower was built in 1926. Combined with its location on a bluff 130 feet above the ocean and the 1.1 million candlepower of the light, it’s visible from 24 miles at sea in clear weather. In the next photo, you can see Santa Catalina Island on the horizon, 22 miles to the south.

Pt Vicente lighthouse Brad Nixon 1200 (640x480)

The Catalina Strait between the mainland and the island is an extremely busy shipping lane. The entrance of the Port of Los Angeles is about 8 miles to the east. Ships have sometimes come to grief on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Point Vicente Light map Google

The lighthouse occupies a stunningly beautiful spot on a promontory. The light is now automated and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Aids to Navigation Team. Some USCG staff live on the property. I interviewed a former commander of the Los Angeles USCG base who was billeted there, and he described what a wonderful spot it was for his young family at the time. No doubt!

Pt Vicente light Brad Nixon 0159 (640x480)

Lighthouse aficionados know that the heart of any light resides in its refracting lens and the mechanism that rotates it. Point Vicente Light is noted for possessing its original hand-ground fresnel lens, manufactured in Paris in 1910. The city of Los Angeles was radically different in 1926, and the peninsula was almost entirely open range. But the light still shines from Point Vicente.

Seeing the Light

Point Vicente Light is at 31550 Palos Verdes Drive West, Rancho Palos Verdes, California. It isn’t the most convenient driving destination in Los Angeles. Here’s a map that also references some other Under Western Skies blog post locales, so you can plan an entire day.

Palos Verdes area destinations map Google

Point Vicente is due south of LAX and downtown Los Angeles. Interstate 110, the Harbor Freeway, is the nearest freeway access (map, upper right). It ends and continues on Gaffey Street, south through San Pedro (blue line and arrows). To the left (east) of downtown are the Port of Los Angeles, the Battleship Iowa (red box, right) and the subject of my most recent post, the Harry Bridges memorial. Point Fermin lighthouse is at the bottom right (red rectangle).

Continue through San Pedro and turn right (west) on 25th street, which becomes Palos Verdes Drive South. It’s 7.5 miles from Gaffey Street to the lighthouse. The road hugs the coast, along the top of bluffs, with views across the strait toward Santa Catalina. You’ll pass lovely Abalone Cove, across the road from the remarkable Wayfarers Chapel, designed by Lloyd Wright (blue rectangle).

Wayfarers Chapel Brad Nixon 0709 (640x480)

Once you pass the Terranea Resort, take the next left to access both the lighthouse and the Point Vicente Interpretative Center, which I mentioned recently as an excellent place for whale watching, with experts from the American Cetacean Society on hand during whale season (December-May).

Tours of the lighthouse are available on the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Currently, the lighthouse tower is closed, so you won’t be able to climb up to see the big lens, but you can visit the grounds. Check the website for updates.

A good vantage point to photograph the lighthouse is on your return leg. There’s a pull-off with parking spaces (red star) before you reach Terranea, from which I shot the two west-facing photographs above, as well as this one, looking southeast with Catalina on the horizon.

Pelican Cove Brad Nixon 2188 (640x480)

Do you have a favorite lighthouse? Tell us about it in a comment.

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

© Brad Nixon 2018. Battery Point Light photo © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. Ms. Vincent’s portfolio is available at Maps © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 19, 2018

Wild About Harry … Bridges; Our Man on the Waterfront

This year, I’ll write a number of posts about the Port of Los Angeles. I’ll never “cover the waterfront;” it’s far too extensive. There are 3,200 acres of harbor and channels along 43 miles of waterfront lined with docks, piers, shipping operations, cruise lines and marinas. 7,500 acres of land hold enormous arrays of warehouses, highways, railroad lines and forests of cranes supported by towering gantries.

LA Port Brad Nixon 7180 400 (640x472)

Those cranes load and unload metal containers on and off ships. The containers are typically 20 or 40 feet long. Here’s a closeup of the above scene showing one 40-foot container (red circle) to give you a sense of scale.

Port Gantry circle Brad Nixon 7182 400 (640x480)

The port offers mind-boggling views from the Palos Verdes peninsula to the west. Here’s a shot looking down from the street in front of my house, zoomed in at the limit of the lens I had that day.

LA Port Brad Nixon 5805 (640x472)

That’s a small segment of the port. In the distance is downtown Long Beach, to the east.

Amidst the ships, machines, roads and rails, it’s possible to lose sight of one component of the port operation: people. There’s a human being operating each one of those cranes (a highly sought-after job), and armies of longshoremen (and women), warehouse staff, accountants, inspectors, auditors, logisticians, security, the U.S. Coast Guard, pilots and seamen (and women). In all, the port and its adjunct businesses employ more than half a million people in Los Angeles County, and about 1.6 million worldwide.

Employment in and around the port has undergone significant changes. At one time, the harbor was the base for a large fishing fleet, and fishermen from around the world came here to work. There were seafood processing firms and canneries, with L.A. supplying much of the fresh and canned fish in the U.S. During WWII, the port was primarily a shipbuilding center, employing 90,000 workers. Shipping, although now “containerized,” has always been a mainstay since its earliest days.

A strip of green along Harbor Boulevard in San Pedro on the west side of the port — Gibson Park — has a number of monuments to people who’ve spent their lives working there. The Fishing Industry Memorial features a statue of a fisherman holding one of the big tuna that used to arrive by the boatload.

Fisherman Mem Brad Nixon 9288-2 (476x640)

The commercial ships are crewed by merchant seamen from many nations, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans’ Memorial honors American seamen who perished aboard ships in peace and war.

Merch Marine Mem Brad Nixon 9270 (640x472)

Then there’s this bronze bust.

Harry Bridges Brad Nixon 9284 (480x640)

You may not know the name, Harry Bridges. If you live in a western U.S. port, there’s a good chance you do.

If you’re at all familiar with the history of industrial employment in the U.S., you know that the early 20th Century was fraught with confrontations as workers sought to establish labor unions, often opposed — sometimes with extreme prejudice — by employers and the government, often working together.

At the Port of LA and other ports, primarily on the west coast of the U.S., British Columbia and Hawaii, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) represents more than 32,000 workers. The critical event in the ILWU’s history was a 3-month strike in 1934, which closed every west coast American port. The strike was organized by a predecessor union, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). Violence erupted in many locations, resulting in the shooting deaths of two strikers here in San Pedro. A police shotgun blast killed two more in San Francisco on “Bloody Thursday,” July 5, 1934, a date still commemorated by ILWU members.

Every movement has its heroes. Harry Bridges organized the ILWU as a breakaway from the ILA and led the organization for 40 years. As a young Australian inspired by Jack London’s stories, he’d arrived in Jack’s town, San Francisco, in 1921 as a merchant seaman. He stayed on to work on the docks and became a member of the International Workers of the World, an activist union. He became a U.S. citizen in 1945, and was a galvanizing figure in the U.S. labor movement. The monument above is one of several in his honor in west coast port cities.

The U.S. government made a number of attempts to reduce Harry’s influence or remove him from the scene entirely. Twice the U.S. Supreme overturned convictions the government had secured that would have led to his deportation, once because the statute of limitations had expired before the government made its case, another when the high court ruled government witnesses were unreliable.

I’m oversimplifying the life and work of a contentious, controversial individual. Harry was, essentially, a hard-liner aligned with the Communist Party, although not actually a member for most of his life. He didn’t agree with the union’s decision to arbitrate the end of the 1934 strike, proposing instead to continue, but lost that effort. He did revise his previously anti-Roosevelt stance in 1941 in favor of accelerating the pace of work to support the war effort, and sponsored a no-strike policy for all unions during the war, earning some enemies within the labor movement.

The complexity and scale of any of the world’s large ports makes it difficult to fully understand the multiple, interlocking workings of systems, processes and machines. Ultimately, though, they’re all places that only function because people make them work. Now when you visit L.A., you can stand in Gibson Park and look out across the Main Channel with one more thread of its warp and woof in mind. Harry doesn’t have to be one of your heroes, but if you’re in San Pedro on July 5th for the Bloody Thursday observance, keep it to yourself. He has a lot of friends here.

Gibson Park begins at the intersection of 6th and Harbor in San Pedro, California.

San Pedro Map Google

Harry’s monument (red star) is a few hundred feet north. For the next couple of years, parking on the water side of Harbor will be limited while the port rebuilds the waterfront, just beginning as I write in February, 2018. You can park in downtown and walk across Harbor to access Gibson Park and the nearby L.A. Maritime Museum. The U.S.S. Iowa’s within walking distance a few hundred yards farther on (top right), but if you’re going there, the Iowa has plenty of parking.

Say hi to Harry. Another immigrant who made good.

Harry Bridges Brad Nixon 9285 (480x640)

Most of the 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. Map © Google

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 16, 2018

Signifying; Rhetorical Analysis at the Traffic Light

One of an ongoing series of posts about signs — sign posts.

I pass one of those storage space rental facilities nearly every day, a mile from home on busy Western Avenue. They display this sign:

Shredding Brad Nixon 0876 (640x305)

Stopped at a traffic light, no other thoughts in my head (apparently), I wondered about the construction of that sentence. Wouldn’t the ordinary speaker of English simply say, “We Shred Paper?” Hemingway would, you can bet. But, so far as I know, Hem never wrote sign copy.

At least it was grammatically accurate. The mere presence of the “to be” verb indicates fluency as a native speaker; many businesses here in multicultural, multilingual La-La Land might have a sign reading “We Shredding Paper” or “Shredd You Papers Here,” not to mention “Trituramos Papel” (perfectly appropriate in much of the metropolis).

This is what happens after too many years spent parsing and examining obscure phrases in books. Everything becomes fodder for the linguistic shredding of rhetorical analysis.

The more I considered it, the more I liked their present continuous tense construction; it was immediate, compelling. We’re not simply standing by, waiting to shred paper, should any be presented. It’s not mere capability to be employed at some indeterminate point in the future. Brothers and sisters, we are shredding, right now. There’s a sense of urgency, because although we’re shredding now, we may not be shredding when you’re ready. It’s happening, so if you’ve got paper to shred, get it in here!

Extremely influential, insanely well compensated advertising agencies have been paid astronomical sums of money to construct far less persuasive messages. We can all think of examples. To wit: “No one doesn’t like Sara Lee” (except perhaps the three people who actually bought and consumed “New Coke” before it was taken off the market).

Just before the light changed, I’d concluded that scruffy little building might harbor the great advertising genius of the 21st Century. Perhaps the next David Ogilvy, who galvanized advertising in 1951 with his “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt” campaign featuring a devil-may-care-looking fellow rakishly sporting a black eye patch:

Hathaway ad (430x561)

(a style and tone played upon fifty years later to immensely good effect by “The Most Interesting Man in the World” beer campaign).

The light changed and just as I started my left-hand turn I noticed another sign beneath the shredding banner.

Shredding - boxes Brad Nixon 0879 (640x463)

Now, darn it. Why settle for a pedestrian, off-the-shelf sign with a phrase in simple indicative present when they may be sitting on the greatest bit of marketing rhetoric since … well … sliced bread? Why does it not say “And We’re Selling Boxes, Too!”?

So much for parallelism.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Hathaway shirt ad is someone’s copyrighted property. Hathaway closed its factory in 2002, but intellectual properties should be assumed to be in some successor’s possession and should not be used for any commercial purpose.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 14, 2018

The Big Stick: USS Iowa, Port of Los Angeles

A mile or so downhill from where I’m sitting is the Port of Los Angeles. It’s a massive complex of fascinating machinery. There are ships and boats of every description: cargo freighters, cruise liners, work boats, fishing trawlers and tug boats.

LA Port tugboats Brad Nixon 9226 (640x467)

The port also has some highly specialized craft, like the LAFD’s state-of-the-art Fireboat 2.

LAFD Fire Boat 2 Brad Nixon 1273 (571x640)

Towering gantry cranes load and unload container ships.

Port of LA Brad Nixon 7198 (640x413)

The port’s own railroad shunts containers around thousands of acres to and from fleets of trucks that come and go 24 hours a day. Soaring suspension bridges, drawbridges and a maze of streets, roads, water channels and highways connect everything.

One of the largest and most complex objects visible in the harbor is this:

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9240 (640x480)

That’s the USS Iowa, a battleship built in 1940, which saw wartime service in WWII and Korea between 1942 and 1958, and sailed again in 1984 – 1990.

Iowa is 885 feet long, 108 feet wide and draws 37 feet of water. Its crew complement in WWII was 2,788 officers and sailors.

It was the first of four “Iowa Class” battleships constructed at approximately the same time: New Jersey, Wisconsin and Missouri, the last battleships the U.S. built. All, like Iowa, are now floating museums. The Iowa is the most recent to attain museum status, having been towed from retirement to its location in the Port of Los Angeles, California in 2012.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9255 (502x640)

I’m not a naval expert. I’ve assembled a few facts to flesh out a landlubber’s knowledge of what you’ll see if you visit USS Iowa.

At the fore of the superstructure is the enclosed bridge:

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9256 (640x480)

Originally, the bridge was not enclosed, a change that was made in 1945 while Iowa was in San Francisco for repairs before returning to the Pacific theater.

When Iowa arrived in San Pedro, I was fascinated to see that ships, like human service members, wear campaign service ribbons, to indicate engagements in which they’ve participated. The Iowa’s are painted on the superstructure, visible left of the bridge.

Iowa is, first and foremost, a weapon, or rather a platform carrying numerous weapons systems. It bristles with armament. The most eye-catching ones are the big guns.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9239 (640x480)

Each of the ship’s three gun turrets, two forward, one aft, had 3 16-inch (406mm)/50 caliber guns. They could fire twice per minute, each gun propelling a 2,700-lb shell 20 nautical miles, about 20.8 standard miles. Here are vintage projectiles packed in cases alongside Iowa.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9242 (640x417)

They’re 72 inches long, 16 inches in diameter.

Those guns were used primarily to bombard targets on land: airfields, factories and fortifications, or invasion or attack sites. Few weapons of war can deliver the steady, stable stream of firepower of which a battleship is capable. Here is a famous 1984 photo of Iowa firing all 9 guns simultaneously in a demonstration exercise.


Although a common misperception is that the perpendicular “wake” left of the ship is the tons of force from the discharge shoving the Iowa backward, that’s a misconception. Those waves are shock waves from the gun blasts. The guns and turrets are built to absorb the recoil of firing. Thanks to Mark Nixon for pointing out this detail.

The Iowa ships were loaded with other weaponry, including 20 5-inch/35 caliber guns, in pairs.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9244 (640x480)

There were also antiaircraft weapons, because Iowa had to defend both itself and the aircraft carriers it usually escorted from aerial attack.

When the ship was refitted to return to service in 1984, it was equipped with a number of new weapons systems, including several types of missiles. You can see 8 gray missile tubes above the 5-inch gun turret in the photo below.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9247 (640x480)

If you tour the ship, you’ll have an opportunity to examine much more than this wharfside introduction can show you. The power systems, living quarters, communications, fire control and, of course, the basic realities of navigating a 50,000-ton boat capable of 38 mph (33 knots) in open ocean are impressive engineering feats.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9257 (640x478)

The President Goes for a Cruise

One of the most human elements of the ship originated from its early voyage in 1943, carrying president Franklin Roosevelt and other officials across the Atlantic to a wartime conference with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. Crippled by polio in 1921, Roosevelt was unable to use a stand-up shower, the only form of bathing normally available on a ship subject to the rolling of the ocean. Iowa, though, still has the bathtub installed for the president, perhaps unique among warships.


The Big Stick, as it was nicknamed, is now officially the USS Iowa Museum, located at Berth 87 on the main channel in San Pedro, California, just off Harbor Blvd. For directions and descriptions, hours and prices of tours, please visit the museum website at this link.

A Final Note

The Iowa is not a mere mechanical system. It is a weapon of fierce power. In its day, it was used to deliver a fearsome amount of destruction and death. This post is not about flag-waving or the glorification of war. I occasionally write about my interest in works of engineering, from ancient buildings to railroad engines, and I intend this article in the same spirit.

I invite any better-informed experts to add comments expanding my information or correcting omissions or errors I’ve made. For a balanced, expert look at the Pacific theater of WWII, I recommend The Pacific Paratrooper’s blog.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Iowa firepower demonstration photo originally retrieved from, which no longer exists, public domain. Research courtesy of Wikipedia. Any errors in terminology are my own.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 12, 2018

On the Trail to Nowhere in the National Park System

A subject that is of interest to most of you regular readers is the outdoors, wild lands and the protection of the environment. There are some issues I’ll consider at Under Western Skies in 2018.

Most of you are travelers, many of you are hikers and explorers. You know the difference between traveling to get from point A to point B and more mindful travel. If we’re fortunate, the route to our destination itself is worthwhile.

NM 550 Brad Nixon 3946 (640x480)

Our destinations vary enormously. Sometimes, they’re pure wilderness.

De-Na-Zin boundary Brad Nixon 4347 (640x480)

What is more appealing than trekking a bizarre landscape with no trails, access roads, facilities or signs?

Bisti Wilderness WS Brad Nixon 004-2 (800x558)

Rewards are great, but so are risks. You have only what you carry with you. If you get lost, injured or overtaken by night without proper gear, no one will help you, because there’s no one there.

More often, we follow a trail, however smooth or rough, clearly marked or faintly visible.

Chaco Canyon Wijiji Brad Nixon 4042 (640x433)

Some of you, I know, are dedicated back country hikers, and may follow trails, but often well beyond the reach of a ranger station or any fellow trekkers. Here in the U.S., one of the foremost blazers and maintainers of trails is the National Park Service (NPS). Yes, there are strictly wilderness parks like Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, and many others, like Joshua Tree and, pictured below, Denali, contain vast wilderness areas.

Denali NP Brad Nixon 006_16A (640x424)

Of the 308 million visitors to NPS units in 2015, 62% of them went to 10% of the parks. Other sites, especially remote or wilderness areas, receive relatively few visitors. Park attendance has grown rapidly, increasing 64% from 1979 to 2015. Going out to see the wild is enormously popular, and attracts more people every year.

An Invasive Species

Most of you are aware of some problems this popularity breeds. With a visit to iconic places like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon on the bucket list for millions of people, popular parks are crowded; campgrounds, motels and lodges are full; restaurants, restrooms and even trails and scenic overlooks can be jam-packed. There’s sometimes a long wait in lines of traffic simply to get into some parks.

Here’s the staggeringly beautiful Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Brad Nixon 008 (800x531)

During a Yosemite trip (in midsummer), we never traveled far enough along any trail to have anything like a solitary experience. Crowds.

All those people, their vehicles and associated duffle disrupt wildlife; noise, pollution and litter stress not only the natural environment but visitors themselves, diminishing enjoyment of the outdoors.

A ranger at Yosemite told me that the most dangerous animal in the entire park was inevitably a human being driving a rented RV on a weekend jaunt.

What’s to be done? Do we begrudge our fellow travelers their share of what we value so highly? Do we become churlish and suggest that only real hikers, true aficionados of the wild be admitted, however that’s to be determined? Will there be a hierarchy, with back country wilderness trekkers at the top, descending to the car-bound visitors who pull off at the scenic overlooks long enough to gawk, snap a picture and drive to the next?

One can, of course, stick to less-visited sites. Grand Canyon gets 5.5 million visitors each year, Yellowstone 4.25 million, and a park relatively near me, Joshua Tree, sees 2.5 million. A place The Counselor and I have visited numerous times, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, gets only about 40,000. Most of those confine themselves to enjoying the scenery from the 9 mile paved road and stopping to see the most accessible of the ancestral Puebloan ruins.

Chaco Road Brad Nixon 4174 (640x480)

There are NPS trails through Chaco, though. Climbing the mesas north and south of the canyon is only moderately strenuous, the toughest spot being this one, just above Pueblo Bonito.

Chaco N Mesa cleft Brad Nixon 007-2 (446x640)

That’s doable, and the view from the mesa top is worth every ounce of exertion.

Chaco Mesa MV Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 006-3-2 (640x442)

Keep Wild Lands Truly Wild?

An outspoken proponent of excluding casual visitors from all natural lands was Edward Abbey. You may be familiar with his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey worked as a ranger and fire watcher for the NPS, but was also a bitter critic of national parks. He believed that wild lands should be utterly, strictly wild: no roads, trails, restrooms, accommodations or visitor amenities whatsoever. In his view, if one wanted to see the wilderness, one packed a tent and some gear and headed out there.

Abbey is highly regarded by many supporters of the outdoors, and helped galvanize a number of aggressive preservation efforts. Yet, he was perfectly capable of making camp and enjoying the evening, cheerfully tossing his beer cans into a gorge as he finished them. He did the same thing when climbing Australia’s Uluru, then known as Ayers Rock. Great, Ed. Enjoy your private wilderness.

The Question

As outdoor enthusiasts, where do we stand on this matter? Is there a point at which we start to restrict access to any, some or even all natural areas? Do we abandon public access and leave the wild to the mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and plants whose habitat it is?

Why This Matters

Why I think this issue is critically important right now is that the U.S. federal administration is now an enemy of national parks and environmental protection. The heads of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior (which includes the NPS) are dedicated to reducing or, if possible, eliminating all constraints, regulations and restrictions that protect land, air, water and habitat. In their view, natural lands possess no inherent value for recreation, conservation or scientific study: They are self-avowed disbelievers in science, if such a thing is truly possible. For them, natural lands represent only untapped resources to be mined, logged or farmed. Real estate development is another option, and they have a good friend in the White House who’s the self-proclaimed universal guru of real estate, and he’s gone bankrupt a few times proving it. He’d be happy to help them.

Their solutions to overuse and overcrowding in the parks might consist of a) shutting down some or all park operations b) charging for admission based on “surge pricing,” as Disneyland does, which might make a day at Yellowstone cost $150 (I’m guessing) or c) ending the national park system entirely and putting them in the Bureau of Land Management. BLM could then issue mining, logging and ranching permits, or perhaps build dams in likely spots like Yosemite and Grand Canyon. Hunting elk, bison, pronghorn and wolves could be a lucrative business, too.

Abbey was, at heart, an anarchist, who thought federal governments and organized religion should be eliminated, along with national parks. I doubt that adopting his point of view will help us deal effectively with the current situation.

There’s more to say on this topic in later posts. What do you suggest we the people ask our legislators to do, before someone else does it for us, without a vote? Please leave a comment. And call your legislator.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 9, 2018

My Winter Olympics Preview

With the opening ceremonies completed only a few hours ago, I’ll take a look at some of the new events being contested this year in Pyeonchang, South Korea.

Beach Volleyball

While not new as an Olympic event, the decision to move the beach volleyball competition to the winter games has been met with a certain degree of resistance. The refusal of the American delegation to compete has opened up the field, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the remaining nations deal with the challenge of playing volleyball outdoors on an icy beach dressed in heavy clothing.

There was a great deal of discussion about wearing gloves, types of gloves that might meet approval, etc., with the final decision that the difficulty of judging the fairness of hits precluded their use, despite the extremely cold temperatures expected in South Korea. Ouch!

Skate Jumping

Extending the “X-Games” trend of adding extreme winter competitions like half-pipe and other snowboard pursuits, this event promises to be a real crowd pleaser. There’s some disappointment that in this inaugural year, the skaters will only be sliding down a “small hill,” just under 50 meters. Even so, watching men and women crouched low, on skates, not skis, moving downhill at tremendous speed and then soaring into the air for distance and attempting to land safely on a sheet of ice should be thrilling to the max.

I have high hopes for the future of the event, if, as planned, the skaters will someday be expected to perform a routine to music after landing. Ultimately, the real thrill will come in 2026, with the introduction of Pairs Skate Jumping, sliding downhill side-by-side before jumping, landing and performing their on-ice routines (if they survive).

Figure-Eight Crossover Bobsled and Luge

Commonly but inaccurately referred to as “Demolition Derby,” everyone’s looking forward to what may be the ultimate extension of the “X-Games” mentality. Competing sledders race downhill on parallel 1,200 meter downhill bobsled/luge runs with a typical number of banked curves. At about 900 meters, the tracks intersect and cross one another. Competing in two- and four-person bobsleds, or on those funny little lying-down-feet-first sleds, competitors race through the tremendously high, fast curves. Then they reach the intersection with the opposing track. Needless to say, the stakes of getting there a few seconds ahead of the competing sled, moving at more than 100 kilometers per hour, are high.

Due to the newness of the event, and with competitors coming from nations with dozens of languages, no precise terminology is commonly agreed upon for the crossover point. They range from the bland “Intersection” favored by the English-speaking International Committee to Finnish kuolemaa, which means something like “death point.” Personally, I like the Spanish team’s term, Cabello se eriza, “Hair stands on end,” and hope it catches on.

A lot of attention is being placed on the draws to determine which teams are paired against one another, with more than the usual amount of whining, bellyaching and pouting from all quarters, exemplifying the true Olympic spirit.

6-Degree Incline Ice Skating/Ice Dancing

With construction delays on the complex mechanical works of the venue jeopardizing the start of competition until just days ago, everyone’s looking forward to this innovation as more and more skaters land multiple previously unattainable multiple quad jumps, making them just another day on the ice. Freezing and then tilting the entire surface of the rink six degrees out of level, making an uphill and a downhill direction along its length is just the thing this sport needed to add some excitement.

Skating uphill, competitors will be required to complete at least one triple rotation. The other direction, it’s a free-for-all. With the additional speed and distance possible from skating downhill, some quintuple spins may be in the offing! Pairs competition should be particularly enthralling, and I look forward to seeing whether some of those couples ─ who always look like they’re on the edge of having an argument, anyway ─ come off the ice pointing fingers, openly arguing or simply not speaking to one another, ever again.

Rumors are that the Canadians, Swedes and especially Russians have the advantage, with Arctic streams that sometimes freeze solid overnight, providing natural, sloping frozen surfaces they’ve been able to practice on without constructing special facilities.

Ice Football

The beleaguered FIFA organization makes a pre-World Cup attempt to regain credibility with this introduction of football (“soccer” in the United States) played on a standard-size ice hockey rink. No one knows what to expect, frankly, and the complete absence of any of the world’s top football players makes handicapping the teams a matter of guesswork. In fact, Brazil and Argentina would have refused to compete, had FIFA not made participation a precondition to World Cup entry, but we certainly won’t see Ronaldo, Messi or any of their teammates. As it turns out, North Korea has a longstanding ice football tradition, played at indoor sports arenas that couldn’t be heated, due to lack of resources, and may be a surprise medalist.

As I write, there’s still disagreement on the size of the goals, and it may be unknown until the first teams take the pitch … I mean ice, some time early next week. Look for something much less than the standard 7.3 meter width, but I hope they’ll be significantly wider than a hockey net, or there may be a lot of shoot-outs.

Enjoy the Olympics, everyone. I hope your teams do well and everyone exemplifies the Olympic Creed: Faster, Higher, Richer.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 7, 2018

Bits and Pieces from the Notebook

I stab around at a lot of subjects, gathering material that I think may become blog posts or — probably too often for my own good — attracts my interest when I should be focusing on the subject at hand. Many are dead ends. They languish in draft form or in a page of notes, sometimes for years, but never materialize as a finished article. Here are a few.

Heavy Lifting

Learning about marble as part of a home remodeling project, I started thinking about the use of marble in sculpture, and wondered if Michelangelo went to the quarry in Carrara, Italy to pick the stone for his statue, “David.” I learned that the block of Carrara marble from which he carved the statue was acquired by a group of Florentine citizens commissioning statues to occupy niches on Santa Maria Novella Cathedral. In 1464, they had an enormous block of marble moved from the quarry for one of the figures. First one, then a second sculptor undertook the commission, working on the rock before each in succession abandoned the project. The huge stone then lay idle for 26 years before the commissioners resolved to get things moving again. They put out the word that they were looking for a sculptor.

In 1501, nearly 40 years after the block arrived in Florence, 26 year-old Buonarotti convinced the committee he was the man for the job, and spent two years creating his immense statue. Finished, it was 17 feet tall and weighed 6.2 tons. Suddenly the commissioners had a new problem: It was too heavy to lift to its intended spot 80 feet above the ground. A 30-member committee, including Leonardo and Botticelli, was convened and recommended placing it in Piazza della Signoria. It took 40 men 4 days to move it the half mile from near the Cathedral.

Read more at this link on the website of the Accademia Gallery.

In Search of Lost Paintings

Reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or just the first of the 7 books, Swann’s Way, you encounter descriptions of paintings. Charles Swann is something of an art critic, and introduces the young narrator to a number of artists, including Giotto. Swann sets his critical writing aside once he falls in love with the beautiful Odette, instead devoting himself to finding her likeness in the works of the masters, particularly Botticelli.

Another character, Elstir, is a painter, probably based on a Proust acquaintance, James McNeil Whistler. These are just two examples of a steady stream of references to painters and paintings throughout the novel. I didn’t appreciate the extent of Proust’s painting citations until some friends who know my admiration of the book sent me Paintings in Proust, by Eric Karpeles. His book cites more than 100 places in Proust’s novel that refer to specific artists or paintings, and reproduces either the specific work or a representative piece. It was a revelation of something I’d noticed, but not really focused on.

I labored to absorb as much as I could of Proust during the year it took me to read his book. Now have a reason to do it all over again. Lucky me!

Keeping Up with the Windsors

When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother admired two stalwart institutions of her British upbringing: the royal family and Sir Winston Churchill. I never understood why an impoverished girl from Hull should admire a gang of overprivileged aristocrats. I did like the Queen Mum, partly because she and I shared the same birthday. I’ve since understood that for my grandmother, the Queen Mother represented indomitable British tenacity during the war, having been described by Hitler as “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” an epithet anyone would be proud of.

I better understood her admiration of Sir Winston, and it was a sad day for her when we watched his massive state funeral on black and white television in 1965. Looking into it, I’ve learned that the broadcast was viewed by 350 million people around the world. All nations of the world save one ─ China ─ sent an official representative to the funeral, and only the Republic of Ireland did not carry the live transmission. Those facts say something about the world in 1965.

Linguistic Treasures Hidden in the Desert

A final tidbit has stymied every effort I’ve made to fashion it into a blog post, despite the fact that it touches some of my favorite subjects, including libraries, language and ancient manuscripts. I summarize from an article in The Atlantic.

The oldest operating library in the world is purportedly at the 1,500 year-old St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. There, due to the vicissitudes of war, religion, geography and good and bad fortune, a library containing thousands of ancient parchments has been preserved, many of them containing remnants of otherwise extinct languages. When conflict or other events interrupted parchment supplies, the monks tasked with copying manuscripts would re-use older parchments, scraping off the old ink and bleaching them with lemon juice.

However, scores of those documents still hold faint traces ─ palimpsests ─ of the original ink or even pen impressions. With sophisticated technology, researchers are painstakingly reconstructing the vanished writing from beneath the later inscriptions.

As a result, they’ve recovered scores of previously lost manuscripts, including the only two surviving texts in Caucasian Albanian, once used in Azerbaijan until the kingdom was destroyed in the 8th and 9th Centuries. Another poorly documented language, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, combining elements of Syriac and Greek, disappeared in about the 13th Century. It was the language in which many original texts of the Christian New Testament were first recorded, and now linguists have some important new exemplars.

Read the full article on the website of The Atlantic at this link.

One never runs out of interesting things to learn. Were there only time to pursue it all.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 5, 2018

Thar She Blows! Watching the Big Mammals Swim Past

It’s whale hunting season here in Southern California. No, we’re not sharpening our harpoons and boarding three-masters to sail the briny deep in search of Leviathan. A more accurate phrase is that it’s “whale watching” season.

Each year, nearly all of the nearly 20,000 Gray Whales in the eastern Pacific migrate from the Bering Sea southward to lagoons on the coast of Baja California and the Gulf of California in Mexico, a one-way voyage of 5,000 – 6,800 miles. They leave beginning in October, and as they travel, they can be seen from a variety of spots along the west coast of the U.S. They typically reach us, just south of Los Angeles, beginning about Christmas. A small number of them pass through the Catalina Strait (red line, below) between the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Santa Catalina Island.

Whale route map Google

I live on the Peninsula, and most of our regular walks have a view out toward Catalina. That means we have an excellent place to watch for whales as they swim past us, either southbound from late December to mid-February, or on the return trip north from then until April or May. Note that when I say we “see a whale,” most commonly we see only a spout of water, a mile or more, sometimes much more, out across the surface. If the whale’s close enough, we might catch a glimpse of its back as it arcs upward to breathe. Less often, one can catch a glimpse of the tail ─ flukes ─ as it powers itself down and forward, lungs full of air. They’re not out there flipping and jumping around; they are seriously, intensely motoring along, swimming nonstop, night and day, covering about 75 miles every day, from the Bering Sea to Mexico.

So far this year, here’s my best photo of the whales we’ve spotted.

Look all you like, you won’t see a spout. We have seen zero whales so far. Great, you say, here I’ve read 300 words of a blog post that has nothing to show me. Instead, though, I’m going to introduce you to a couple of ways you can improve your odds of seeing a whale if you visit during migration season, rather than taking your chances on an evening walk with The Counselor and me.

The Whale Watching Experts

The serious whale watchers, volunteers with the American Cetacean Society (ACS), staff a whale watching station at Point Vicente (map, red star), the westernmost point of the Peninsula, in just about the center of the map above. From December 1 to late May, they’re there during daylight hours, looking through fiercely serious binoculars, counting whales. The location is officially the Point Vicente Interpretive Center (PVIC) details below. It’s a spectacular vantage from which to view the ocean. Here I am, earlier today, getting a photo of it from the conning tower of the Under Western Skies Cetacean Observation Vehicle.

Pt Vicente M Vincent 0761 (640x480)

Here’s what the point looks like, at the edge of the continent.

Pt Vicente Brad Nixon 9184 (640x417)

The buildings on the right are the PVIC , and there’s a broad patio where the volunteers sit. They maintain a running count of whales, that looks like this:

Point Vicente Brad Nixon 1197 (640x519)

If there’s a whale passing by, they’ll see it, and let all the spectators know, usually well before it’s within view of the unaided eye. While you’re there, you can enjoy the view of the Point Vicente Lighthouse, with Catalina Island beyond.

Pt Vicente lighthouse Brad Nixon 1200 (640x480)

You can follow this year’s running count of whale sightings (452 as I write) and the daily counts (20 today!) at the ACS website, at this link. Obviously, you want to hang out with the ACS cats to see whales, not me. As their chart, below, shows, the whale count is below average, running a little late this year, so I’m not entirely to blame for being so far without a sighting.

Whale sighting Chart ACS


Another option is to board a whale watching boat that will take you out into the Strait and, if there are whales to be found, take you to them.

Voyager Brad Nixon 7161 (640x480)

The tour operators keep tabs on passing whales, and they have a good success rate. You’ll be close enough to actually see a whale as it surfaces to breathe. I’ve done it, including one never-to-be-forgotten time when there were Blue Whales in the area, which I wrote about here. I’ve sailed from King Harbor in Redondo Beach, a little north of the Peninsula, and also from San Pedro at the Port of LA, just to the south. If you’re visiting other western ports during the season, inquire, because there may be a whale watching excursion available there, too.

For this Midwestern-born landlubber, merely being out on the ocean is still a marvel. Here’s the view back at the Peninsula, sailing out of San Pedro.

PV Ocean View Brad Nixon 1277 (640x419)

No, even though I was out there, within a few hundred yards of more than one whale (the boats maintain a legally imposed distance), I do not have a photo. I had a choice: Look with my eyes at something I might never see again, or use one of the opportunities to try to take a photo that might or might not be worth anything. As I often repeat, sometimes it’s preferable to have that visual memory to carry with you as long as memory lasts. A giant mammal, swimming at 5 miles per hour, day and night, making a round trip of thousands and thousands of miles! I hope you see one … or more.

Have you seen a whale? A spout? Where? Leave a comment.

Some Logistics

Please see the map for the general location of King Harbor and the Port of Los Angeles. Addresses for the tour operators are at the website links above. The Point Vincente Interpretive Center is at 31501 Palos Verdes Drive West, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275. Further information at the website link above.

© Brad Nixon 2018. One photo © Marcy Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. Chart courtesy of the Los Angeles branch of the American Cetacean Society. Map © Google.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 2, 2018

Winter Strikes the Southern California Beach

It’s February: winter. Yes, it’s winter here in southern California, too. I went down to the beach to shoot some photographs on a bright, sunny morning, with a high tide and not much swell. Just to give you an idea of the conditions here.

Abalone Cove Brad Nixon 0677 (640x389)

Not too terrible: 80 degrees at about 8:30 a.m. That place is a few miles from my house: Abalone Cove Shoreline Park. There’s a sandy beach, covered by high tide when I shot the photo. You can make out a classic Los Angeles lifeguard station, to the right of the red pickup; you know, the Baywatch guys. I’d never gone down to that beach, and I was puzzled by two things: those buildings to left of the picture, and the two large patches of brilliant white; one in a long strip and the other, closer to the water. Here’s a closer look from farther down the unpaved trail.

Abalone Cove Brad Nixon 0679 (640x465)

When I made my way to the other side, I learned two things from a couple of people who were there: teachers. First, the buildings belong to a preschool for 3-to-5 year olds. It’s been there since 1953. Welcome to California.

Second, I discovered what those white patches were. This:

Abalone snow Brad Nixon 0694 (640x506)

That’s right, they’d trucked in snow from the mountains to replace the regular slide with a snow slide (they had little sleds) and, of course, a snowman. The land mass on the horizon is Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles offshore.

There it was, waiting for the kiddies to arrive. Just another day at the beach.

Abalone snowman Brad Nixon 0683 (640x459)

How’s the weather where you are? Any snow?

© Brad Nixon 2018


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