It’s incumbent on the impressively wealthy to build big. Even the summer place, to be occupied only a few weeks a year during “the season,” should have an unmistakable presence. In the U.S., one thinks of Newport, Rhode Island, onetime summer resort of Vanderbilts and Astors; The Hamptons on Long Island, still the weekend and summer getaway for the monied (and would-be) of New York; and other venues ranging from the Biltmore Estate* in North Carolina to the mountains of Colorado and the California coast.

One can travel the length of Florida’s Atlantic coast and scarcely cover a mile without encountering some enclave of the well-to-do. The ur-palace of Floridian wealth may be this place in Palm Beach:

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 067 (640x473)

That’s “Whitehall,” built by the co-founder of Standard Oil, Henry Morrison Flagler, also known as “The Father of Miami” and “The Father of Palm Beach,” towns he respectively founded and brought to prominence in the 1880s and 1890s.

Flagler made one immense fortune building Standard Oil into an oil refining monopoly with his partner, John D. Rockefeller, then set out building railroads to Florida and promoting the area as a destination for both development and recreation. He succeeded on a grand scale.

His name may not be as familiar to you as other successful tycoons of his era — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Astor — but the south and east of Florida today owes much of its popularity to tracks he — literally — laid to pave the way for the state’s rampant growth and prosperity as the 20th Century began. Streets, bridges and colleges all bear the name “Flagler.”

Whitehall, which Flagler built in 1902, was, by design, a showplace of the Gilded Age.

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 114 Grand Hall (640x478)

He intended Whitehall not only to tout his wealth and prominence, but to demonstrate that the barely-developed, backward swampland on which it sat was a city of the future. It boasted electric lighting, telephones and central heating in 75 rooms, including 22 bathrooms in 60,000 square feet of interior space.

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 068 Grand Hall (640x449)

Today, it’s open to the public as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum after having been saved from demolition in the 1960s. 55 of the rooms are restored, furnished and on display. It is clearly not a place in which many of us could imagine living in any particular comfort. It’s meant for show. For example, few of our dwellings possess a Grand Ballroom:

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 078 Grand Ballroom (640x451)

Flagler was no stranger to construction on a grand scale; he was an ambitious builder of spectacular structures. As he extended his railroad and his development activities south from where he began in St. Augustine, he threw up some of the country’s most iconic hotels: Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach (demolished in 1901) and the Royal Palm in Miami. As his vision for Palm Beach as the focus for his efforts grew, he constructed The Breakers (originally the Palm Beach Inn, 1896, which burned) on the Atlantic coast.

The Breakers Brad Nixon 126 (640x479)

I’ve stayed at The Breakers. It’s worth a look inside when you’re in Palm Beach, to get a glimpse of travel from another era, still extant.

The Breakers Brad Nixon Lobby (640x476)

On the “sound” side of the barrier island, just over half a mile to the west of The Breakers (black circle), Flagler built Whitehall (red rectangle).

Palm Beach Flagler Museum map Google

When one owns the railroad, one travels by private railroad car. Flagler’s personal car, #91, is on display in a pavilion on the grounds. It’s open to tour, pending any special events in the pavilion.

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 091 Railcar exterior (640x476)

Here is a rapid-fire tour from a series of photographs I shot during an abbreviated inspection of the museum in 2010. Click on the images for full view and captions. Don’t miss the bodacious custom-cased Steinway Model B in the music room:

The Flagler Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays and 3 major holidays. Check the website here for exact times, admission prices and full details. The museum is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, as is The Breakers.

In the interest of local context, it bears stating that 20 years after Flagler built Whitehall, the wealthiest woman in the U.S., Marjorie Merriweather Post (General Foods), built a 126-room, 110,000 square foot mansion, Mar-a-Lago, about 2-1/2 miles south of The Breakers. At her death, it was bequeathed to the United States for use by presidents. Expensive and unwanted, it was returned to the Post estate. It was subsequently sold to another wealthy American, who operates it as a combination hotel and private golf club, as well as a personal residence when he’s not at the White House.

Have a favorite grand residence: Versailles, Beijing’s Summer Palace, Schönbrunn Palace? Leave a comment.

*Biltmore House remains the largest privately-owned residence in the U.S., still held by George Vanderbilt’s descendants: 135,280 square feet of living space, 250 rooms, 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms. Open for visits.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Map © Google

Years ago, I wrote descriptions of 2 famous Florida hotels from the 1950s located about an hour south in Miami Beach. Respectively, they are the 2nd and 6th most-viewed posts in the history of Under Western Skies:

Hotel Eden Roc

Hotel Fontainebleau


Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 3, 2017

Fort Clinch: Civil War Survivor on the Florida Coast

While you’re in northeastern Florida visiting the scene of the previous post, The White Oak Conservation, there are other things to see.

Directly east, the Florida coast consists of a large island, Amelia Island, separated from the mainland by a welter of creeks and tidal waterways.

NE Florida map Google

Jacksonville is at the bottom of the map. “WOC” marks the location of the White Oak Conservation. West of that (black square) is the significant, large wild area of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve never visited it, but it would be worth exploring.

To the east, the coast of Amelia Island has, like a lot of Florida, its share of upscale resort hotels and private estates, along with more middle-of-the road accommodations and recreation opportunities. The city of Fernandina Beach is near the northern tip of the island. It’s a small town with its share of charm, restaurants, accommodations, galleries and shops.

Fernandina Beach Brad Nixon 2013 (640x480)

The northern tip of Amelia Island is Fort Clinch State Park (circled). The feature attraction is the Civil War-era Fort Clinch.


As the aerial photo shows, the fort was constructed in the classic pentagonal shape that prevailed for several centuries before advanced weaponry made it obsolete.

It has massive walls constructed of nearly 5 million bricks (click on the two photos to enlarge).

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1975 (640x345)

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1980 (640x480)

Every traveler, everywhere across the globe, encounters old military sites, encampments, forts, castles and the like. I have a passing interest, and they’re everywhere. Fort Clinch will be of special interest to military history buffs and to travelers who are in the area and can take advantage of the opportunity to see a relatively well-preserved fortification from the 1840s. There are some things to be learned.

As England, the Netherlands, Spain and France vied to control the newly-discovered area that’s today’s United States, they built fortifications, and from our earliest days, Americans did the same. The entire country, coast-to-coast, is replete with former military sites.

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1976 (640x480)

The structure that stands today was begun by the United States at the end of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Not the proudest passage in our history. There was a fortification on the site as early as 1736, constructed by the Spanish, who controlled Florida from their arrival until 1763, when they traded it to Britain for Havana, then got it back in 1783 (Treaty of Versailles) until the 1820s.

The site is strategically important: It occupies the northern point of Amelia Island, looking across the mouth of Cumberland Sound, which gives access to the intercoastal waters. Any ship that attempted to enter the sound would be within range of the fort’s guns. This shot gives you a sense of the distance across the sound to the Georgia side to the north.

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1989 (640x480)

At the beginning of the Civil War, it would have been a rather remote posting. Hot and humid in the summer, subject to hurricanes and storms in the fall, and capable of being a somber, fog-clouded place in winter, as it was the December day I was there. Here’s a panoramic view of a large portion of the interior of the fort.

Fort Clinch, Florida

The Confederacy captured the fort from the Union in 1861 and it became a base for Confederate vessels evading the Union blockade of southern ports. Despite that advantage, the fort had a fatal flaw: The advent of rifled cannon aboard ships meant its immense brick walls — unlike stone or concrete — could be pummeled by artillery and destroyed with relative ease. It had outlived its strategic advantage and was a sitting duck. General Robert E. Lee ordered the position abandoned.

The Union reoccupied the vacant fort and it served as a base for their naval operations in the region for the balance of the war. By the end of the 1860s, it was degarrisoned except for a brief time in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, and eventually decommissioned.

The walls and buildings were restored to Civil War-era status during the 1930s, and it’s a good look at one era in the history of both the United States and in warfare of the period. You can go in the buildings, including the piece de resistance of any fort: the prison cells.

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1993 (640x480)

The State of Florida provides reenactments of military operations at certain times (yes, including firing cannon). Check their website for further information (below).

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1987 (640x457)

Park staff are there regularly present to provide information about life at the fort during the war. On my visit, we had an extremely knowledgeable man dressed as a Union sergeant. Had we three days, we might have exhausted all he had to tell us, but he didn’t even pause for breath in the mere half hour we had with him.

The state park has 3 miles of coastline for seashell and shark tooth hunting, hiking and bike trails, campgrounds, a fishing pier and a nature trail. There’s a $2 fee to tour the fort. For detailed information, visit the Florida State Parks website.

The United States, especially the eastern portion, is replete with Civil War sites (although I’ve even written about one near my home in Los Angeles): monuments, fortifications, battlefields, museums and cemeteries. Rarely does one have an opportunity to catch such a complete glimpse of that most terrible time in our national history in a remote and relatively quiet place. It was all the more evocative on a cool day under low clouds hanging over the choppy water of the sound.

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1977 (640x415)

I found the convergence of ironies to be compelling. Later in the war, the soldiers of the garrison would have had a clearly-defined defensive role: Repel any encroachment by enemy naval craft. But the vulnerability of their fortification made them dependent on the Union’s superior naval forces to ward off any serious attack, because they were at risk. There’s always some dynamic tension between soldiers and sailors — from the time of ancient Greece until the present day. It certainly was operating there in lonely outpost at the swampy edge of the continent.

© Brad Nixon 2017. I relied heavily on Wikipedia and the Florida State Parks sites for the information in this article. Aerial photo By Fl295 at English Wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Map © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 31, 2017

White Oak Conservation, Florida: Saving Imperiled Animals

Every day, the news from Washington D.C. causes me to look around for signs that there are positive things being done to protect and preserve wild lands, endangered habitats and threatened species. Although my articles here focus primarily on how that issue plays out in California and the American West, the United States is a big place, and I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of it. In thinking of what there is that’s positive in the world of environmental action, I thought about a visit I made to a remarkable place in the far northeastern corner of Florida: The White Oak Conservation.

Here’s where we’re going, north of Jacksonville, near the border with Georgia, the meandering dotted line defined by the St. Marys River.

NE Florida map Google

That place name, “Florida,” certainly evokes some set of images in  your mind: It may be Orlando and its theme park empires, Everglades National Park, the hotels and mansions of Miami Beach, or the broad, sandy shores of Captiva and Sanibel Islands and the Florida Keys.

White Oak Conservation is none of those.

Once you’re a few miles inland from the nearly continuous development that lines Florida’s east coast, you’re in a country that not many tourists know (with the exception of Orlando). A low, level plain not far above sea level is covered with pines, oaks and winding, slow-flowing rivers. The forests are dotted with lakes, ponds and swamps. In many of the areas, as on the Florida-Georgia border formed by the St. Mary’s River, there were once large expanses of cypress, now much-reduced by logging from the 18th Century onward. You’ll see immense old oaks hung with Spanish Moss, like this one

Spanish moss Brad Nixon 1939 (640x485)

It’s hot and humid, and the area even became a center for growing rice, introduced from Asia. There are still swamps, and recreation abounds, including canoeing and kayaking.

Florida Brad Nixon 1963 (640x463)

The large, unpopulated areas once provided rich resources for the lumber and paper industries, including the largest paper company in the U.S., Gilman Paper Company. The family-owned business held 7,400 acres of land, used for timber, raising horses and corporate marketing and recreation.

The second generation of the Gilman family transformed White Oak into a center for the protection of endangered and threatened animals, and built an extensive conference center that hosts international events focused on their three fields of interest: arts and culture, conservation and the environment, and public policy. Because I was there in my job as a corporate event producer, I have plenty of photos of the excellent facilities I could show you.

White Oak Brad Nixon 2037 (640x480)

But that’s not my subject today.

Today, at 13,000 acres, White Oak has new proprietors, continuing its program of preserving imperiled animal species, including tigers, cheetahs, okapi and rhinoceri.

Rhinos Brad Nixon 2087 (640x478)

It’s not a zoo, although you can visit it and see the animals. One thing that differentiates it from most zoos is the amount of space in which the animals live, like this large enclosure for the rhinos.

Rhinoceros Florida Brad Nixon 2091 (640x472)

Some of the animals are returned to the wild. One of the world’s most endangered mammals, the Florida Panther, with only about 130 surviving individuals, is a focus at White Oak. They raised an orphaned kitten and returned it to its native Big Cypress Wildlife Preserve.

There are fences, necessarily, but there’s also space. Enough that if you’re there at the right time, you really might see a cheetah run more than 50 mph. I didn’t, during the short time we had for seeing the animals (a corporate event planner spends a lot more time looking at meeting rooms and other facilities than they do at wild beasts, regrettably). I did see a mother cheetah and two kittens.

Cheetah Brad Nixon 2057 (640x479)

We were limited to a quick tour, and my business meant discussing logistics, not making pictures. I grabbed a shot of an Eastern Giant Eland (Tragelaphus derbianus gigas).

Eland Brad Nixon 2056 (640x480)

I was less successful capturing a double-wattled cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) while our van was in motion.

Cassowary Brad Nixon 2085 (640x531)

And a distant but appealing view of an entire field full of cheetah kittens.

Cheetah kittens Brad Nixon 2061 (640x589)

I guess there’s not much more uplifting than a field full of baby cheetahs zipping around — unless you’re a mother rhinoceros admiring your little bundle of joy.

young Rhinoceros Brad Nixon 2089 (640x489)

I’ll stop there, with new arrivals swelling the ranks of vanishing species. It’s reassuring to know that there are people working to keep our fellow inhabitants of earth alive. If you have an opportunity to pull off Interstate 95 and explore northeastern Florida, you can tour White Oak Conservation Center (and you’ll have more time for photos than I did). Tour information is on their website.

What happens where you are to help preserve our threatened species? Let us know by leaving a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Map © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 29, 2017

Gonzo Journalism and the Black Shadow

Nothing is more dangerous than literature.

You’re all readers, so I don’t have to provide a list. You can think of books that your parents or teachers considered dangerous (and you were determined to read them for that reason, if for no other). There are books that are dangerous because they’re full of wrongheaded or flawed ideas, or ones that aren’t inherently dangerous until people with misguided or defective reasoning embrace them. Some books contain unpopular or annoying truth which makes them threatening to some elements of society, or to a particular culture, religion or political ideology.

As long as books have existed, some have been declared “unsafe.”

Ah, the dangerous books I’ve read: Catcher in the Rye (prohibited for a time at my high school, so of course I read it immediately), Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Some books are perfectly acceptable, ipso facto, but can be dangerous if embraced by naive or credulous readers. It’s okay, for example, to get a kick out of reading about ol’ Howard Roark’s exploits in The Fountainhead. It’s another matter entirely to adopt a worldview in which some Randian, ubermenschian persona becomes one’s role model.

Having a book banned or restricted from publication or distribution does attract publicity.

Breaking rules, crossing boundaries — intentionally creating a “dangerous book” —is one pathway to garnering attention and — in the final analysis — sales. Engaging in hyperbole gets one noticed, if not respected. William Randolph Hearst allegedly said, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” His business was selling newspapers, not truth. If you don’t think that philosophy pays dividends, go visit Hearst Castle.

In the 1960s and ’70s, a group of writers endorsed a reportorial approach called “New Journalism.” New Journalists rejected traditional objectivity in which the reporter was an anonymous observer, providing only objective facts to the greatest degree possible. They strove, instead, to determine not mere fact but “truth,” with the differentiating judgments provided by an incisive and observant reporter who applied his or her own interpretation of reality.

New Journalism appeared in the pages of magazines like Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper’s and Scanlon’s Monthly. Work from authors including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion sold a lot of magazines.

One of the most notable practitioners of New Journalism was Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s immoderate style generated a lot of attention for his subjects and himself. He wrote a number of memorable pieces of journalism, but the work that’s indelibly identified with his byline is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Fear and Loathing appeared first in Rolling Stone magazine, then became a book. It evolved from Thompson’s idiosyncratic and fevered approach to a series of overlapping journalistic assignments covering police corruption, a motorcycle race, a meeting of the  National District Attorneys Association and the illicit drug culture. Thompson’s personal participation in the drug culture became part of the narrative, suffusing the book with a distorted and hyperbolic tone reflecting the writer’s extreme form of New Journalism, which he called “Gonzo Journalism.”

Gonzo Journalism, itself, became — along with Thompson, himself — the subject of his book, taking New Journalism about as far as one could extend the genre. It also became a dangerous idea — at least to many critics of journalism — because those definitions of fact, truth and “reality” were blurred by their presentation (distortion?) through Thompson’s less-than-objective lens.

It’s also a hilariously entertaining book. Danger is fun when described by a maniacally madcap participant with a knack for knock-your-socks-off first-person narrative.

At the core of Thompson’s approach is his zest for exaggeration. Nothing is ordinary in his world. I was reminded of his penchant for making everything larger than life a few months ago in a museum, of all places.

In the portion of the book that derives from Thompson’s assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400 off-road motorcycle race (an assignment which he failed), Thompson described some of the motorcycles the competitors rode: Triumphs, BSAs, Indians — big monsters with lots of horsepower. But there was one titanic, legendary bike, inflated in Thompson’s description to mythic status. The fastest production motorcycle ever created: the Vincent Black Shadow.

He wrote,  “If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die.”

So extreme, so over-the-top was Thompson’s description of the Black Shadow that when I read Fear and Loathing more than 40 years ago, I thought he’d invented it. It was, I assumed, his Moby Dick or Frankenstein’s monster.

Last September I visited the Petersen Automobile Museum in Los Angeles (I wrote about it here). In one of the hallways connecting room after room of vintage and collector’s item vehicles was a display of motorcycles, including this one:

Vincent Black Shadow Brad Nixon 5222 (640x480)

A 1948 Vincent Black Shadow.

In truth, the jig was already up on my appreciation of the Black Shadow’s existence. I’d previously learned that the British firm Vincent Motorcycles had built something fewer than 1,700 Black Shadows. They were, in fact, ferociously fast, one having attained a speed of 185 miles per hour. Not mythic, but extreme, by any measure.

I’d also seen one other Black Shadow, a 1951 model, in the San Diego Automotive Museum

Vincent Black Shadow Brad Nixon 7111 (640x417)

Those are mere objects: cleverly-crafted assemblies of metal. Dangerous in the wrong circumstances, but in the hands of a master manipulator of language, behemoths of threat and peril. Adopting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a lifestyle template would be far more dangerous than riding a Vincent Black Shadow at any speed, but it’s certainly a thrilling ride. I was happy to stand there in that clean, air conditioned space and bridge the gulf between the inert metal of the Black Shadow and the sizzling psyche and charged hyperkineticism of Thompson’s writing. In an era of “alternate facts,” we might benefit from his apoplectic overreaction to the absurdity of our world.

Have a favorite “dangerous book?” Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Quotation by Hunter S. Thompson © Cycle World, March 1995. The Petersen Automotive Museum and San Diego Automotive Museum, respectively, own the rights to any use of the images.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 27, 2017

National Library Week: Work to Be Done

I’m looking forward to the annual observance of National Library Week, April 9-15.

Longtime readers know I’m a fan of libraries. Libraries matter to people around the world, and not only provide access to books, but community resources and important tools for learning and development, with assistance from professional librarians.

I’ve visited libraries across the U.S. and around the world. Some are grand edifices with long, illustrious histories; others are in cities, towns, remote villages or even simple boxes for sharing books in residential neighborhoods.

Albuquerque Little Free Library M Vincent 4148 (640x512)

Every community is different, and libraries reflect the character of a community. They range from the sprawling diversity of a metropolis like  Los Angeles, whose Central Library is the hub for a system of 72 branch libraries ….

LA Central Library Brad Nixon 3444 (640x480)

… to a place like Las Vegas, New Mexico, population 14,000, where the 1904 Carnegie Library in its lovely square still serves the town.

Las Vegas Carnegie Brad Nixon 0817 (640x493)

The Carnegie Foundation enabled the construction of 2,509 library buildings around the world between 1883 and 1929. I’ve written about a number of Carnegie libraries, listed in “Categories” in the right-hand column. This year, during National Library week, I’ll write about 3 Carnegie libraries still serving their small communities: one in southern California and 2 in rural Indiana.

The Carnegie libraries have a special place in my universe, because both the library in my hometown (still serving the town) and the one at my university (also extant, converted to other uses after my time there) were built with Carnegie funds.

Miami University

As I’m always at pains to say, my admiration for Mr. Carnegie’s libraries isn’t unalloyed by awareness of his faults. His mills and works operated on harshly capitalist principles; human concerns took a back seat to profit and efficiency, sometimes to a horrific degree.

Still, Carnegie had a fierce appreciation for the role that access to books (hard-won, for him) played in his rise from abject poverty to extraordinary success. He acquired one of the world’s largest fortunes through ruthless business practices, but he dedicated an immense portion of it toward learning and intellectual advancement: much of it to libraries. Let some other arbiter judge the net balance. Hundreds of the libraries still operate, like this one in Ephraim, Utah.

Ephraim Utah Carnegie Willard Nixon (640x480)

The reason I’m writing this prelude to Library Week is that there’s something to be done before it arrives.

I ask all my U.S. readers to take action before April 3.

Another wealthy and powerful individual in the U.S. is now in a position to influence the support for libraries. He, however, is determined to end support for them.

The president of the United States proposed a fiscal year 2018 federal budget that would end federal funding for libraries, closing the principal federal agency that does the work, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). While libraries receive funds from a variety of sources, federal support is one component — unless the president has his way.

The House of Representatives apportions funds for the IMLS through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and supports the provision of school books and materials for the country’s poorest children through Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL). The president’s proposed budget terminates both programs.

The president proposes, but Congress disposes. Legislators are our representatives, not the president’s. Time is short before Congress acts. Call your representative and encourage them to sign two letters of support now being circulated: for the LSTA and the IAL. If you can’t call, send an email.

You can find your Representative’s contact information by entering your ZIP Code at the following link:

There is a civic principle at stake, not just an economic one: Are we a nation of businesses and profit centers, or are we a nation of people? Do we value things beyond what contributes to some bottom line, perhaps to the intellectual welfare of our fellow citizens?

Representatives need to hear from you by April 3. Your phone call will probably be answered by a friendly staffer. Identify yourself by name, as a registered voter in the XXXXX Zip Code, thank the Representative for his/her ongoing work, and encourage them to sign the two letters being circulated supporting the funding of the LSTA and the IAL. It takes one minute.

Note, April 9, 2017: The ALA reports success. 1/3 of the House of Representatives signed those letters, representing a significant increase in support. Check the ALA site for next steps.

I look forward to celebrating National Library Week with you. With your help, we’ll still be supporting them.

For my readers in other countries, you might send a note to any U.S. citizens in your circle, bringing this matter to their attention.

You can show your support for the IMLS by tweeting the hashtag #SaveIMLS. The president likes tweets.

Do you have observations about the importance of libraries? Please leave a comment.

Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Little Free Library photo © Marcy Vincent 2017. Lebanon, IN and Royal Center, IN library photos © John Nixon 2017. Ephraim, UT photo © Willard Nixon; all used by kind permission.

Here is more information about supporting libraries through the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services:

Below are links to my blog posts about the libraries mentioned above:

Little Free Libraries

Los Angeles Central Library

Las Vegas, New Mexico

Ephraim, Utah; Miami University (and others)

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 24, 2017

Ye Bigge Sleep, Conclusion: Convergence à Nice

Summary: It’s my toughest case yet: An apparent 14th-Century manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, only the 2nd ever discovered. Genuine or fake? It’s my job to find out. From Los Angeles to Bologna, Venice and Croatia, everything has come down to having all the players in one place: Nice.

For links to earlier episodes, see below.

I sat as far back in the restaurant in the Vieille Ville of Nice as possible.

Nice Brad Nixon 6829 (640x479)

I’d been in Nice for two days and had nearly everything arranged. If Chip Wroxton didn’t walk through the door, I could still pull everything off, but I hoped he’d show.

I’d set some wheels in motion before I left the monastery on the island of Kosljun in Croatia, more of them as I drove back to Trieste, then caught a plane to Nice. There were a lot of moving parts.

Everyone but Wroxton was in place, ready to meet at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis the next afternoon. It had taken a lot of phone calls, a lot of persuasion, and more than a little creative storytelling to convince everyone they needed to be there. Not everyone got the same story, but they came. I hoped the motivation I’d given Wroxton had been enough to get him off his canal boat in England.

Outside, there was brilliant winter sun.

Nice Brad Nixon 6828 (640x480)

I recognized him ─ barely ─ when he walked in, peering into the dark interior after the brilliant sunshine of the square: tall, loose-limbed, still slender; older, of course, grown into the stoop-shouldered, donnish man he’d been in training for as a young Medievalist when we were students at Göttingen. He sat down and looked at me.

“So … good to see you and all that. Will you tell me exactly why I’m here in France, of all places? You need me to look at a manuscript you can’t bring to England?”

“I’ll give you a preview,” I said, and set the first facsimile page I’d printed on the table.

He looked at it for ten seconds, looked up and said, “Cotton Nero A.x. If you need me to tell you that, then you’re slipping, old man.”

“Here’s a detail of lines 1686 and -7,” I said, setting down the second page.

He myndes ȝe bigge sleepe

That bides but an more nyght

“Bloody hell. What’s this? ‘The Big Sleep?’ Is this some sort of prank?”

“If it is, no one’s laughing, and the prankster’s trying to pass it off as a previously unknown manuscript of Gawain.”

“Not bloody likely, with voiced final e’s like that. It leaps out and gobsmacks you.”

“Once a certain investigator found it, of course.”

“Then if the investigator is so brilliant, why did he drag me to a country without a single decent glass of beer in it?”

“My client would like corroboration from an authoritative working scholar. I stretched a point and described you as ‘working,’ and the British Museum believed me.”

“The BM?”

“My client.”

I sketched out the entire story for him, start to finish, concluding with the fact that the next day, Wroxton would examine the MS to corroborate my evidence that it was a forgery. His testimony and one other scholar’s would be used with mine for the BM to determine if there was fraud involved, in which case an antiquities detective of the French police and a representative from Interpol would take over the case.

“Who’s the other scholar?” he asked, making my day. I smiled at him.


I saw him flinch before he could stop himself.

“She’s here?”

“I saw her in Bologna. She looked at the MS there.”

“How is she?”

“Oh, you know, brilliant, charming, beautiful: same ol’ Luciana.”

Poor Wroxton looked as if he wanted to put his head in his hands. I laid it on.

“She asked if I’d seen you … how you were.”

“Hell. I don’t believe you. She wouldn’t ask. Didn’t you say that if I helped you solve this case there’d be a reward?”

“Not exactly what I said. I said it should be rewarding.”

“Spending a couple of hours reading scribbled Middle English doesn’t sound particularly rewarding.”

“Be patient, Wroxton. It might be more interesting than you expect.”

“Enough of this. I need a drink.”

I gave Wroxton a card with the address and all the contact information for the next day, and told him I’d see him at the University at 1:30 the next afternoon.

The Final Confrontation

I got out for a run in the morning through the Promenade des Arts, trying to clear my head.

Nice Brad Nixon 6814 (640x478)

My mind was racing, playing out the next few hours in advance … and all the things that could go wrong. If this didn’t play out, I’d have wasted a couple of weeks of constant travel, considerable money and the time of some busy people.

At one o’clock, I found the classrooms that had been arranged in one of the university buildings. Soon after that I was joined by Davidson Gettle, my British Museum contact. With him were Capitaine Gerard Parerre of Interpol and Lt. Cloiseux of the French National Police, responsible for investigating piracy and antiquities theft. Cloiseux had arranged our meeting place with the university.

I reviewed the plan with them. The officers went along with it, although they clearly weren’t happy taking direction from an American civilian on their own beat.

Wroxton showed up on time, met Gettle, and I sent the two of them off to a classroom next door with the erstwhile Gawain MS so Chip could examine it. I was confident he’d find the same thing I had, but Gettle wanted authentication.

I left Parerre and Cloiseux for my appointment, walking to the building next door: a conference center where a three-day literature symposium was in progress. One of the presenters was Luciana Notastere, and it was her presence that had suggested Nice as the place I could assemble all the pieces of my case. She was also the shining beacon that had provided me with the means to attract Udo Vaht into plain sight.

I spotted him in the busy atrium: older, heavier, still the big head of dark hair, hawk nose, deepset eyes. He did me the favor of pretending to be glad to see me, and I did the same for him. I explained that we had half an hour before we were to meet Luciana on the scholarly matter she wanted to “consult” us about, and we sat on a bench in the atrium while I spun my tale to him.

Luciana had sent me a draft of her address, and I’d used it to create an imaginary problem of scholarship that — I hoped — sounded believable and fit somewhere within the realm of Vaht’s limited range of expertise. I only had to be convincing enough to get Vaht to believe Luciana was really interested in our opinions. I knew that the mere opportunity to spend an hour with the incandescent Signorina N. was enough motivation for any man who knew her to fly to Nice.

She came out of the conference hall doors, spotted us and walked toward us. The atrium was full of people, but no one could capture attention like Luciana: still lovely. Una bella figura was too pallid a phrase.

We stood as she approached and greeted one another. I’d seen her less than a week before. Vaht hadn’t seen her for forty years, so far as I knew. I started us walking back to the building where the policemen and Gettle were waiting, ostensibly to go to “an office” where we could talk. Luciana did a good job of sticking to small talk with Vaht, catching up on the years that had passed since we’d shared those doctoral-student days in Germany. She knew what was up with Vaht and the manuscript. I knew she wasn’t happy with the role of femme fatale I’d cast her in, but she made the best of it.

When Vaht started probing about the purported scholarly matter, I explained that Luciana had a Medieval manuscript with some puzzling lines in it. It would be the subject of a panel discussion during the next day of the conference, and I had thought to bring our former colleague into the consideration of the matter.

Vaht seemed to buy it, and then we were at the door of the classroom.

It was showtime. I opened the door, waited for Luciana to enter, then Vaht, walked in and closed the door behind me.

Gettle, Parerre and Cloiseux were seated where I’d assigned them: at the closed end of a U-shaped arrangement of tables, like a hundred seminar meeting rooms Luciana, Vaht and I had sat in during our academic careers. The men stood.

“Dr. Vaht,” I said, “Please meet Dr. Gettle, Capitaine Parerre and Lieutenant Cloiseaux. They’re interested in the manuscript we’re discussing, too.”

There was one other person in the room ─ someone Vaht knew: Ms. Valerian from the scriptorium Vaht directed in Croatia. Ms. Valerian looked sheepish, confronted by her supervising professor. I’d told her what was going to happen. Vaht looked stunned.

I got everyone to sit, but remained standing, walked over to Gettle and picked up the Gawain manuscript from the table in front of him.

“A few weeks ago, Dr. Gettle and his colleagues sent me this manuscript, which appears to be a 14-Century parchment copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s on 14th-Century stock, and the bindings are of the right period. Dr Gettle’s institution was invited to acquire this item for a considerable sum. If it’s genuine, it’s only the second known copy of the document in existence. They asked me to determine its authenticity.”

Vaht was watching me. I could tell that Parerre and Cloiseux were watching Vaht ─ closely.

“Dr. Notastere examined this manuscript and reached the same conclusion I did. There is one difference between this text and the original, and it is remarkable because it’s utterly inconsistent with the 14th Century English present throughout the rest of the text.”

To his credit, Vaht said nothing, although he was probably trying to think of a way to simply stop what was happening. He was outnumbered.

I turned to the head of the table.

“Tell me, Dr. Gettle, did our additional authority, Dr. Wroxton, agree with the opinion Dr. Notastere and I had?”

At that, for the first time ever, I saw Luciana Notastere lose her composure.

“Che cosa? Wroxton?”

“Yes. He’s just had a look at it, Luciana. He’s in another room, but we’ll see him later.”

Gettle said that, yes, Dr. Wroxton found the same incontrovertible difference.

“So, Udo,” I went on. Does this manuscript look familiar to you?” and I set it in front of him.

Vaht looked down at it, but didn’t touch it. I didn’t expect him to simply give himself away, so I pushed on.

“Since you happen to be in charge of a workshop that produces facsimile pages of Sir Gawain on actual 14th-Century parchment, is there any possibility that this book is a modern copy, assembled from pages stolen from your workshop?”

He looked at me with an expression that suggested he disliked me.

“I don’t see how. We have extremely robust security measures around our work products.”

I thought he’d stop, but he went on.

“Besides, if there are differences in this text and the original, they are not from our atelier. We produce only exact facsimiles.”

Ms. Valerian was already blushing. She knew her moment had come, and I didn’t blame her for being unhappy about it. I picked up the book from in front of Vaht, set it in front of the young woman and opened it to the spurious lines.

“Line 1686 here reads, ‘He myndes ȝe bigge sleepe.’ Ms. Valerian, what does that line read in the original?”

Without hesitation, she had it.

Sir Gawayn lis and slepes.”

“Please let everyone here know why it is that you know a specific line in the poem so well, Ms. Valerian.”

Ms. Valerian showed her mettle, and didn’t wilt. She held her head up and looked at the men sitting at the end of the table.

“I did the lettering on that specific page. I changed two lines so that we could identify the book as our work, and to prevent it being represented as an original.”

Now the most soul-satisfying moment of my career had arrived. Not only was I going to solve my case, but I was going to deliver a long-deserved coup de grace to a pretentious, dishonest scoundrel who had been a thorn in my side when I was an eager, naïve aspiring scholar.

“To save you the embarrassment of explaining it, Ms. Valerian, I happen to know why you replaced those lines with ones that don’t follow pronunciation conventions of the English dialect used in Gawain.”

Ms. Valerian’s eyes opened wide. They were extremely attractive, dark eyes, but still no match for Luciana’s.

“It’s a joke, isn’t it? You and your colleagues figured out that Dr. Vaht has difficulty remembering that final e’s aren’t pronounced in the dialect of the original Gawain poet. He always has, since his student days. We all noticed it, even then.”

The one overt reaction in the room was from ─ of all people ─ Luciana. She burst out in a howl of laughter, then quickly covered her mouth with her hands. Ms. Valerian was trying to keep her expression under control, but I suspected she might be on the verge of tears. It was an embarrassing thing to admit to, playing an in joke on a mentor’s failing.

“I think at this point I can only ask one more question, Ms. Valerian, and then I think the other men in the room will take over the questions. You told me in Kosljun that Professor Vaht himself removed this book from the monastery and took it with him?”

Ms. Valerian nodded. At that moment, Lieutenant Cloiseux stood up.

Assez! Merci, Monsieur Blaknissan. You are correct. Our turn for questions, please. You and the Professoressa may go.”

I nodded at everyone except Vaht, waited at the door while Luciana went past me and stepped into the hallway. She folded her arms and leaned against the doorjamb.

“And now are you going to tell me about Chip Wroxton, since you pretended you hadn’t seen him when you were in Bologna?”

“I told you the truth. I didn’t see him until yesterday.”

“Here? In Nice?”

“You know, Luciana, when I told Wroxton you’d seen the manuscript, he asked me the same question: Were you here in Nice? It’s almost as if the two of you would like to see one another, even though you’ve been pretending that’s not the case for about twenty years.”

“Perhaps it’s none of your business.”

“Oh, really? Two of the smartest people on the planet unable to figure out how they might both have careers and still have one another, too? It’s getting a little late in life to keep being stubborn, Luciana. Maybe if you walk into the next classroom down the hall there, where Chip Wroxton is waiting to find out if he’s needed for further authentication work, the two of you might be able to figure something out. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get you both in the same place, and I’m waiting for you to go open that door.”

Luciana Notastere looked at me with those eyes of hers. She didn’t smile … not exactly. She nodded, placed one hand on my arm for just a moment, then walked past me to the next door. She looked back at me one time, then turned, opened the door and walked in. I hoped she and Wroxton would have a more enjoyable question and answer session than Dr. Vaht was having at the moment. They had a lot to discuss.

Not every case ends as satisfactorily as that one. I’d started out hoping I’d actually been holding another copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in my hands. That didn’t work out. Everything else turned out pretty well. I might be able to pay my rent for a change. And even old Wroxton might’ve found the experience “rewarding.”

I had a plane to catch.

Special thanks to the readers who voted in the polls and sent me to Bologna and Croatia. You played a big role in helping solve my toughest case. Grazie, merci, thank you.

Previous Episodes:

Click here to read Part 1: My Toughest Case.

Click here to read Part 2 Stolen Parchment.

Click here to read Part 3: Beauty and Intellect in Bologna

Click here to read Part 4: La Serenissima

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 22, 2017

Glacier National Park: Wild, Majestic

Perhaps you have those days. You wake and wonder, “Where would I truly like to be?”

Perhaps your imaginary place looks something like this:

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-3 (640x432)

That view was shot in Glacier National Park, in northern Montana. Glacier does, in fact, look like that: the impossibly wild, beautiful country one dreams of.

Glacier NP Willard Nixon 121 (640x480)

Glacier National Park covers more than 1 million acres, encompassing portions of 2 mountain ranges, glaciers, lakes, rivers, a variety of ecosystems which vary across the park’s 7,000 feet of elevation, and is home to numerous species of birds and wildlife, including grizzly and black bears, mountain goats, deer and elk.

Most of Glacier’s nearly 3 million yearly visitors see only a narrow slice of the immense park, because much of it is wilderness, requiring backcountry hiking.

Don’t be dismayed. Even if you’re equipped to hike only a few miles from the road, there is enough of Glacier to fill as many days as you can devote to it. There are innumerable trails in every portion of the park. It’s a U.S. National Park, meaning that the trails are well maintained and clearly marked (at least until the current U.S. administration eliminates funding for the National Park Service).

All the photographs in this post were shot on day hikes. Let’s go.

GNP map NPS (640x481)

In some lower portions of the park, you’ll hike through cedar forests (red circle, along with Avalanche Falls).

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2732 Cedar forest (480x640)

One cedar forest area lies along Avalanche Creek

Glacier NP Willard Nixon 042 Avalanche (640x360)

The relatively easy trail gets you to Avalanche Falls

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2735 Avalanche Falls (480x640)

The falls is fascinating seen from above, looking down at the water boiling through the rocks.

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2737 above Falls (640x480)

I regret that we can’t follow every trail in such detail. Let’s travel farther into the park.

The sole paved route through the park is the 50 mile long Going-to-the-Sun Road, which was a marvel of engineering when it opened in 1932, and is now a National Historic Landmark.

Glacier NP Willard Nixon 088 (640x374)

(The road is visible as a horizontal line along the mountain at the lower right of the photo above.)

The views from the road are … only pictures can begin to describe them

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-7 (432x640)

While upthrusting geology is responsible for the high peaks, many of them were shaped by — what else? — glacial action. There are some enormous examples of glacial features in evidence, including this dramatic hanging valley, complete with waterfall:

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-6 hanging valley (640x432)

That scooped out upper valley was gouged by a tributary glacier, which would have flowed into a larger glacier in the lower valley. Once the Ice Age ended, only the valleys remain.

There are active glaciers in Glacier National Park — around 25 or so —for now. Here is Jackson Glacier (map, green circle).

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-8 Jackson Glacier (640x432)

Due to our warming planet, there will be no active glaciers left in GNP by about 2030. There will still be ice and snow, but no active glaciers. Global warming is real.

These pictures were shot in early September, 2008. The mountains show about the minimum amount of snow, at the end of summer. However, snow can fall at upper elevations at any time of year, including midsummer. We encountered relatively heavy snow and dense cloud in Logan Pass, 6,646 feet that September.

Coming down from Logan Pass, we reached the point at which the St. Mary River flows into Saint Mary Lake. A number of trails diverge from there, and we hiked several miles to see St. Mary Falls, just visible at the bottom of this photo (map, purple circle).

Glacier NP Brad Nixon R1-12 St Mary falls (432x640)

Here’s how the the falls looks when you get close.

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2767 St Mary Falls (640x480)

Going-to-the-Sun Road ends at St. Mary, but it’s a short drive north outside the eastern edge of the park to re-enter at Many Glacier, an area filled with lakes, trails, campgrounds and Many Glacier Lodge on Swiftcurrent Lake (map, white circle, center).

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2785 Many Glacier (640x469)

That is one of several lodges in the park, with accommodations, dining and services. At this writing, there is no boating anywhere in the park, due to invasive mussel populations in central Montana. Check the park website for updates.

There are several glaciers visible from the area, and we took an easy nature trail around the lake, admiring the shifting views of the mountains

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2788 Swiftcurrent tr (640x455)

The long ridge between the peaks is another glacial feature, an arete, carved by ice.

Along that trail, in some scrubby trees along the edge of the lake, we had what I hope will always stand as the most harrowing wildlife encounter of my hiking career. A mother Grizzly and her cub crashed up from the lake through the trees in front of us. To avoid hyperbole, I officially state that they were 40 yards in front of us. They seemed closer, but I don’t want to exaggerate. She was an extremely large beast, and fortunately either didn’t see us or ignored us. Dad and I quietly backed up and made a long circle around them.

No, I don’t have a photo. I was was busy making myself scarce.

If you can, plan to continue north from the Many Glacier area into Canada. Glacier National Park adjoins Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. Together, they comprise the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park. There are spectacular landscapes, mountains, lakes, wildlife, waterfalls and days’ worth of exploration awaiting you in Waterton. I wrote about it here. To get an ongoing view of the Waterton area, visit the blog of local outdoorswoman Hiking Jess.

South from St. Mary, toward the southeastern corner of Glacier, is another entry point: Two Medicine (below bottom of map). There are more lakes, mountains, trails campgrounds and exploration awaiting you. One interesting trail leads to Running Eagle Falls.

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 3052 Running Eagle (640x480)

The falls is noteworthy not just for its picturesque quality, but for the fact that the river emerges there from a subterranean passage and simply appears out of the ground.

There’s a fascinating Native American legend associated with the name of the falls. I encourage you to pay a visit to the Montana Beauty blog for the story and more photos.

1,000 words can’t begin to describe Glacier National Park, but I hope you’ll go and see for yourself. Finally, I can use the photo that’s served as one of the main headers for Under Western Skies since I started the blog, in its proper place: the mountains over Saint Mary Lake at sunrise.

Glacier NP Brad Nixon 2773 from St Mary (640x435)

Have you been? What tips do you have? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos are 35mm Kodachrome, may it rest in peace. Some photos © Willard Nixon 2017, used with kind permission.

The demise of the park’s active glaciers is all but certain. However, even more dire threats loom at the hands of the current U.S. administration, with soulless idiots who do not believe in science in charge of federal agencies with scientific objectives. Call your legislators to insist that we not end support for National Parks, not only for our recreational use, but for the preservation of environments, habitats and the plants and creatures who live there. If we don’t protest, they will be mines, ranches and logging operations, not preserves. Thank you.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 18, 2017

Chuck Berry: Hail Hail, Rock ‘n Roll

Chuck Berry died on March 18. Not the originator of rock ‘n roll, and perhaps not The King of Rock ‘n Roll, outright, but rock royalty, beyond a doubt: creator of some of the music’s most indelible lyrics, tunes and motifs.

Like anyone who’s picked up a guitar in the rock era, I’ve played and sung my share of Chuck Berry numbers, whether sitting in my bedroom with an acoustic guitar or blasting away with rag-tag trios and quartets in kitchens, living rooms and garages.

A highlight was my annual participation in an ensemble of musicians from around the world — typically more than a dozen countries: the rollicking, massive Global Jam. We played music in a wide variety of genres, but as any performance reached the finale, we dug deep to get a crowd of hundreds of people — representing a couple score of nations — out on the floor, dancing in front of us.

Global Jam Johnny B Goode 0372 (640x427)

(The 13 musicians in that single photo hail from 9 different countries.)

Music was the language we all had in common. What music did we play to bring the evening to a crescendo and sum up the joy of being together, celebrating the incandescent joy of life?

What else?

His mother told him, “Someday you will be a man,

And you will be the leader of a big ol’ band.

Many people comin’ from miles around

To hear you play your music when the sun goes down.

Maybe someday your name will be in lights

Sayin’ ‘Johnny B. Goode tonight’!”

Go, go — Go, Johnny, go!

So long, Chuck. Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2017. “Johnny B. Goode” © Chuck Berry

I wrote about the Global Jam several times. Click here to read the introduction to an impressive set of musicians.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 17, 2017

The Golden Gate Bridge: What Holds It Up?

There is probably no bridge that’s been photographed more than the one in California that spans the Golden Strait between San Francisco and Marin County: the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golden Gate Brad Nixon 4349 (640x484)

It’s massive, a stunning design in a dramatic setting. The Golden Gate abides. My overcast-day photo isn’t especially dramatic. I’m certain you’ve seen photos of the bridge shining in glorious California sunlight, wreathed in fog, shot from every possible angle. In 6-1/2 years of writing about California, though, I’ve never mentioned or shown a picture of one of my state’s most iconic sites. Here’s some background for your visit.

History and Context

Completed in 1937, the Golden Gate was the world’s longest suspension bridge main span until 1964. It is, if ever the phrase rang true, an engineering marvel, christened one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Engineers.

Golden Gate Bridge Facts:

Total length: 8,981 feet | Longest span: 4,200 feet | Width: 90 feet | Height: 746 feet

Golden Gate Bridge Design and Engineering

It’s a simple concept: Two cables anchored on either side of the 1-mile wide Golden Strait are held aloft by two steel towers. That carefully engineered, draping curve defines the bridge’s distinctive look and bears the weight of the suspension system, roadway and all the vehicle and foot traffic (yes, you can walk across it).

“Form follows function” says an old adage, and the Golden Gate exemplifies it.

That’s it: only two cables, each 36-3/8 inches (92.4 cm) in diameter. Here’s a photo of a cross section of cable displayed at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center* on the San Francisco side.

Golden Gate Brad Nixon 4344 (640x480)

When you look more closely, the cable isn’t simply one immense cylinder of steel.

Golden Gate Brad Nixon 4347 (640x480)

It’s comprised of 27,572 strands of steel, each one running the full 7,650 feet of the cable.

That’s what holds you up when you drive or walk across, and provides the enormous strength and flexibility for the suspension system.

The vertical lines descending from the main cables are referred to as “vertical suspender ropes,” and are also complex. Click here for some explanation.

These slivers of information won’t be the first thing that occurs to you when you regard the eye-popping, jaw-dropping out-and-out bodaciousness of the Golden Gate Bridge, but I have nothing to rival all those calendars, posters and spectacular photos you’ve already seen. I hope you get to spend time in San Francisco and the Bay Area. I know when you do, you’ll make it a point to see the bridge. Now you know what holds it up, leaving you to concentrate on shooting a truly memorable photo. Enjoy!

*To visit the Welcome Center, take the last exit before you start north across the bridge. There are other things to see there, including old gunnery emplacements and the 1938 Round House Cafe. The center is part of the widely distributed Golden Gate National Recreation Area of the U.S. National Park Service.

Have you seen it? What was your impression? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Golden Gate Bridge statistics courtesy Wikipedia.

That is my cue to mention that as I write (March 16), the president of the United States today unveiled his proposed budget for Fiscal 2018. It includes a draconian 12% cut for the U.S. Department of the Interior, which will impact the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is a good time for all American travelers, outdoorsmen and women, hikers, campers and citizens who care about our environment, history and culture to call your representatives to let them know that you disagree. The amount of money to be saved (approximately $1.5 billion) during the following year is less than the U.S. military budget for a day. Thank you.

P.S. Those budget cuts will eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, in addition to a 31% budget reduction for the Environmental Protection Agency. In case you needed any additional motivation to call.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 15, 2017

Joshua Tree NP: The Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) — backed by granite monoliths — are the marquee celebrities of Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6293 (640x471)

However, the park spans two deserts (Mojave and Colorado), a range of elevations between 2,000 and 5,800 feet, encompassing a variety of landscapes and multiple ecosystems with diverse plant and animal life.

In the transition zone between the higher Mojave and the lower Coloradan deserts, a long eastward slope from the Hexie Mountains into the Pinto Basin is a perfect environment for Cylindropuntia bigelovii, the Teddy Bear Cholla.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6279 (640x480)

The area is named the Cholla Cactus Garden (blue circle on map).

JOTRmap Parkwide 28

There’s a level, easy nature trail through the cholla, immediately accessible from a parking lot along the road that leads southeastward from the upper portion of the park to Cottonwood Spring. Click here for the map on the NPS site.

Cholla cacti are common throughout the Sonora Desert (of which the Colorado is a part), and you’re likely to encounter them in southern California, portions of Arizona and New Mexico and northwestern Mexico.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6271 (640x480)

Do not attempt to “encounter” them too closely. Despite the cute name, they aren’t at all “fuzzy;” those spines are extremely sharp and will easily pierce your clothing and then your skin with extreme prejudice.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6281 (640x480)

One of my favorite aspects of hiking the southwestern deserts is the light gilding the cactus spines.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6262 (640x480)

To take advantage of that phenomenon, we made a point of getting to the Cholla Cactus Garden just as the setting sun was about to touch the top of the mountains, shining almost horizontally through the expanse of cacti. The scene exceeded our expectations.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6264 (640x489)

To the east, the basin was still in full sun, backed by the Pinto Mountains.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6275 (640x427)

As compelling as that view was, my attention was riveted by the cacti.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6276 (640x413)

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6272 (640x480)

An interesting aspect of the cholla life cycle is visible on the ground. The cacti are surrounded by small “cholla balls.” (click on these images to enlarge)

They’re pieces of cacti that have broken off. Many take root and grow into separate plants.

You’ll typically see cholla from 1 to 5 feet tall, but as this photo shows, they can grow higher than I can reach, which is about 8 feet.

Joshua Tree Marcy Vincent 6297 (507x640)

The desert is always changing, everlastingly beautiful.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6269 (640x480)

Joshua Tree is extremely large: more than 1,200 square miles, much of it true wilderness. Don’t try to see everything by spending all your time driving: You’ll fail, and miss the best thing, which is finding some places to get out and let the park embrace you — it’s too vast for you to embrace it.

As I’ve said many times before, one of the consolations of the natural world is the silence. In Joshua Tree, as everywhere, it’s sometimes enough to simply stand and admire how the light falls.

Joshua Tree cholla Brad Nixon 6287 (640x480)

© Brad Nixon 2017. Photo of me measuring cactus © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Two recent posts from Joshua Tree NP:

JTNP, Pictures Are Not the World

JTNP: Valentine Greeting from the Desert (including more cactus varieties)

To U.S. readers: The current administration is arming itself to eviscerate a broad swath of protections and support for clean water and air, wild lands and public well-being. As you learn of such actions, call your elected representatives and express your opposition, and your reasons. Remind them you’ll be voting in the next election. Thank you.

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