Human development is marked by impressive advancements in the use of tools and technology. Our powerfully creative imaginations continually fashion ever more complex means to survive and thrive. That imaginative spark may define the very concept of “human.”

It began, in fact, with a literal spark. Somewhere between 1 million and 100,000 years ago, we figured out how to generate and — to some degree — control fire.

Candle Brad Nixon 9165 (640x480)

The controlled deployment of combustion — often in highly specialized ways — is an inherent part of our advanced civilization.

Even earlier, some distant ancestors began using sticks and stones to help them perform  tasks, and by at least 2.6 million years ago, someone in Ethiopia shaped a hand axe rather than simply using a rock. Since then, the imagination of Homo sapiens has never ceased developing more complex and better tools. I probably own at least a couple hundred tools.

Tools Brad Nixon 9159 (640x543)

Thanks to the unceasing brilliance of human ingenuity, no matter how many tools I have, the one that fastens this screw into that hole always seems to be one I don’t possess.

Screws by Brad Nixon 9169 (640x480)

Humans invented the wheel (see “combustion” photo above), then, not satisfied with using fire to generate steam that drove machinery, employed steam-driven wheels to generate electricity. Wheels still turn today, powering our energy-hungry culture.

San Gorgonio Brad Nixon 6289 (640x368)

That power we generate has been applied in astoundingly diverse ways, including — within my lifetime — advanced machines with yet-untold potential.

UWS Dani 5751 (640x480)

As humans developed all these things, they needed ways to carry their belongings wherever they went. We wove baskets at least 10,000 years ago, although baskets are perishable, and may have been in use as long as pottery, which dates to perhaps 18,000 years ago. From traditional crafts surviving in many cultures to mass produced wares, we still make pots to put things in.

Today …

Our world is woven of the myriad threads of invention, beginning with fire and tools, wheels and machines: a warp and weft of of incredible diversity. Our interconnected, always-on, always-evolving society lets us command the resources of the entire world via electricity (generated by fire and wheels) that powers our computers. We no longer hunt to survive, fewer of us farm, and with increasing regularity we avoid traffic, shopping malls and that trip to the drugstore. We order something we need, and it’s routed to us by vast networks of communication, logistics, supply chains and transportation.

The product arrives, enclosed in the ne plus ultra of containers, direct descendant of those ancient baskets and pots, itself the product of a complex nexus of technologies and resources:

Box Brad Nixon 9163 (640x533)

Whatever’s inside is now ours. Astounding, isn’t it? We did not design or make it: We simply sent for it.

There’s one problem. Or, rather, one of many possible problems:

It doesn’t fit. The color doesn’t match the wallpaper. I don’t like the way the buttons work. We found a cheaper one — not even used — on Craigslist. It has to go back. Or maybe we’ll send it to your cousin in Des Moines; she said she wanted one, didn’t she? She’ll be tickled pink.

Now … Use the Tool!

Because we’re humans, residing at the apex of millions of years of evolution, mutation and adaptation, we have a tool … the tool. This is the tool that, ultimately, gives us complete control of our world and separates us from slime mold and sea slugs, butterflies and bald eagles, from aardvarks, auks, zebras and zygospores.

Dispenser Brad Nixon 9162 (640x535)

The item goes back in the box, we strap it in and send it back. Finis! The circle of creation is complete.

Once word of our achievement in creating the shipping tape dispenser spreads across the solar system and into distant space, it will indicate to the watchers whose UFOs have kept tabs on us for thousands of years that now, finally, we are ready to take our place among the advanced civilizations of the cosmos.

Watch the skies.

Don’t have one? You will. Check your next Amazon shipment to see if the color matches the wallpaper.

Photo notes.

The burned landscape shows Mesa Verde National Park several years after a significant wildfire. The wind turbines are in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs, California, with Mt. San Gorgonio in the background. The blackware pot is contemporary work in a long tradition by Stella Chavarria of Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. The dinnerware is American Modern by the American designer, Russel Wright, circa 1938.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 24, 2018

Forlorn Outpost of Architectural History, Los Angeles

I enjoy writing about and showing photos of the major tourist sights of the world: the canals of Venice, the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park or the rocky coast of Oregon.

I like thinking that a few readers will be inspired to visit the places I describe, armed with some additional information or insight. That extends to notable architecture, like my articles about Watts Towers and the Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Not So Famous …

Conversely, showing you the seldom-seen is part of the raison d’etre of Under Western Skies, especially here in my town, Los Angeles, which is too vast for tourists see more than a slice of. I’m always glad to go out of my way if it gives me an opportunity to show you a part of Los Angeles you’ll never visit. I believe that if you appreciate how replete with diverse sites L.A. is, you’ll visit here with more context for understanding a metropolis that includes 88 cities and towns spread over more than 4,000 square miles.

After WWII, architects began exploring new approaches to form and function, leaving behind the styles of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and classical revival. The firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), founded in 1936, was an influential one, designing significant commercial structures, which have included that Cadet Chapel, above, up to the present day, with the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

One of the architects who worked for SOM was Edward Durell Stone, whose “pavilion” style buildings are icons of 1950s design, exemplified by his 1954 American Embassy in New Delhi, India.

US Embassy New Delhi Soumya S Das (640x374)

All But Unnoticed by the Passing Throng

Today, I was in Gardena, a city 14 miles south of downtown L.A., and drove a few blocks out of my way to see an earlier example of Stone’s work.

Great Western S&L Brad Nixon 9145 (640x410)

In 1952, the Great Western Savings and Loan Association* engaged SOM to design their Gardena office, along the major thoroughfare, Rosecrans Avenue (at red flag on map).

Gardena CA map Google

Unlike some of Stone’s memorable structures ─ including the New Delhi embassy ─ the Great Western building is made entirely of cast concrete, without the pierced screen walls or Middle Eastern motifs Stone adopted in later work. In a sense, it’s pure, form-follows-function design, with a degree of admirable directness.

Great Western S&L Brad Nixon 9136 (640x480)

The Original Look

It looks less than imposing now, but with some imagination, it’s possible to see the creative vision that’s been obscured by a number of changes. Here it is in a photo taken in about 1968.


The core design has worn well. Were the building in better condition, and had the landscaping been maintained, one would scarcely guess the structure’s been there for 65 years. Stone’s ideas have become so much a part of our architectural vocabulary that we accept them as part of the scene, having lived with innumerable iterations of his approach in industrial parks, civic centers and even shopping malls for an entire human lifetime (mine, at least).

Great Western S&L Brad Nixon 9135 (640x467)

That clear glass box framed by the concrete pylons and roof was a striking statement of the style of the era. Like the neighborhood around it, the building’s suffered a few insults in 7 decades. Especially egregious is the huge blank cube ─ a vault ─ stuck onto the center of the street façade.

Great Western S&L Brad Nixon 9141 (640x473)

The interior was almost certainly an impressive one: a single, open space. I’ll give you the best look I could manage, shooting into the unlighted building through dirty glass.

Great Western S&L Brad Nixon 9140 (640x467)

I hope you take advantage of your next opportunity to steer a cocktail party conversation around to architecture, and casually mention the existence of a little-known precursor of Stone’s famous embassy building. Oh, yes, you just happen to be familiar with it, thanks to your near-encyclopedic knowledge of the fabric of the City of Angels. It’ll be our secret.


The building is located at 2501 West Rosecrans Avenue, Gardena CA, north side of the street, about 4 miles west of the Rosecrans exit from Interstate 110. Or 1.5 miles south of Interstate 105 on Crenshaw, then .25 mile east on Rosecrans. OR about 6.5 miles east of where Rosecrans starts at the ocean in Manhattan Beach. I told you it wasn’t close to anything.

Is there an architectural gem lurking, often unnoticed, in your town? Leave a comment.

*Great Western Savings and Loan Association became Great Western Bank, at one time the 2nd-largest savings & loan in the U.S. More information here.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google.

Initial source information for the building from my bible for L.A. architecture, An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, © Robert Winter and David Gebhard 2003, Gibbs Smith, Publisher. Highly recommended.

New Delhi embassy photo © Soumya S Das – Own work, Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0,

Archival photo of Great Western Savings and Loan building retrieved from and ©, January 23, 2018. Photographer not attributed.

In 1975 or -6, I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s latest film, “The Passenger,” starring Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson. The use of vast, empty space to suggest the disassociation and chaos of modern life was one of Antonioni’s trademarks. So were long, uninterrupted shots, with lots of silence, subtle shifts in movement and character expression, building tension and drama.

The penultimate scene of “The Passenger” is a jaw-dropping bit of filmic legerdemain that encapsulates all those traits. The camera looks from a dimly lighted hotel room, out through a barred window, with the dusty square of a small African town visible outside. Slowly the camera moves toward the window, where some cryptic bits of action occur. That move last almost exactly 4 minutes. Then, the camera continues outward, between the bars of the window, travelling into the square. There, it follows as the action builds: Police cars arrive, people get out, the camera turns to the right, following the people, panning around 180 degrees to look back at the hotel it just exited. In fact, the camera moves up to the same window through which it flew, and we witness the conclusion of the 7-minute scene looking into the room through the barred window from outside.


For a long time, no one knew how Antonioni and his crew did that. Remember, there was no such thing as a digital effect in 1975, and the scene was clearly a single, unedited take. How did that camera move out of the room, boom around the square, turn around and look back at the window set in a solid wall? It was a subject of endless debate in the industry, among students and aficionados of the craft.

Recently, I directed the shoot for a commercial video my partner and I wrote. It was a relatively straightforward piece, with an on-camera narrator showing viewers the craftsmanship of some high-end building contractors in a just-completed house in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a particularly complicated production, although there are always a hundred details to watch, including lighting, shot composition and wardrobe, in addition to making certain the action and line delivery were correct.

Video shoot Brad Nixon 9072 (640x472)

The producer of the show also hired a drone camera operator to add some extra camera movement oomph to the depiction of details in and outside the structure, including the custom, curving stairways.

Drone shoot Brad Nixon 9089 (640x569)

It was my first time to direct a drone camera. It’s not a huge imaginative leap, because there have always been ways to move a camera forward and back, side to side, up and down. But now, high definition cameras the size of a computer mouse can fly, with complete control over zooming, panning and turning in all 3 dimensions.

Drone rig Brad Nixon 9092 (640x434)

The trick, as with any tool, is to be imaginative, but not just to do something because you can. The shot still has to communicate: some judgment is called for.

Still, there I was, using a flying camera to look around inside a room, like this:

Drone flight Brad Nixon (640x452)

… and on one side of the room, there were those doors that opened onto a balcony and … how could I not? Can you blame me?

I tried explaining to the young drone operator who Antonioni was, but that was clearly a waste of time: He’s a techie, not a film buff. I laid out how the shot would go, looking around the kitchen, out the door, flying through the door (which I would open), out, turn, look back and fly in again (going one better on Sig. Antonioni).

In about 3 minutes flat, we pulled off a shot that took Antonioni’s crew several days and a truck full of gear to create (which included building the hotel so it was in the right place). No, that shot won’t be in the final video, and it’s missing that excruciatingly painstaking 4-minute push from the room to the window, anyway.

And that’s all there was to … what? Oh, you want to know how the master did it back in’75? I’ll be brief.

The camera was on a track hung from the hotel room ceiling. The bars were hinged to swing open imperceptibly as the camera reached the end of the track at the window. At that point, a gyroscopically stabilized crane outside hooked onto the camera, took it away and executed the outdoor movements. By the time the shot returned to the window, the crew had closed the bars again, giving the appearance that they’d never opened.

Read the full description at this link, which includes a video of 6:11 of the full shot (that’s Jack Nicholson on the bed at the left). Wikipedia has a description with more detail.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Grazie mille, Signore Antonioni.

© Brad Nixon 2018

En route to see his parents in South Carolina, a man drives 600 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona to Amarillo, Texas. On the phone that night, he tells a friend about the scenery he saw. Here’s what he describes.

AZ desert Brad Nixon 3814 (640x479)

“That’s all you saw for 8 hours?” the friend asks. “Yep,” he says. “There’s nothing out there, other than a couple of towns and one city. No big attractions at all.”

We’ll forgive our traveler. Perhaps he knows otherwise and ignores the facts, because he has all that distance to cover: He passed a gigantic meteor crater, spectacular canyons, dramatic cliffs, mesas and buttes, innumerable variations in flora and fauna and thousands of prehistoric sites, villages, pueblos and even small cities with ruins, petroglyphs, burials and monuments of ancient native people.

But no “big attractions.”

We travelers owe it to ourselves to be as curious as possible. The more we investigate, the better chance we have of understanding a place. Paris is more than the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. China is more than the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

Travel writers can be complicit in promoting the “big attraction” idea of tourism. I’ve done it. Here’s an iconic site, familiar to many travelers in the American west.

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9799 (640x480)

That’s Cliff Palace ruin in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. The cliff dwellings in the canyons of Mesa Verde are the focus of attention for more than half a million visitors each year.

Not so highly visited, but familiar to Under Western Skies readers, is this ruin, also an ancestral Puebloan dwelling, 80 miles southeast of Mesa Verde:

Pueblo Bonito pano 1 Brad Nixon (640x221)

That’s Pueblo Bonito, largest of the “Great Houses” in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Forebears of the community that built Cliff Palace constructed Pueblo Bonito, about 150 years earlier.

I’ve written numerous articles from several visits to those memorable places. There’s much more to write about than the major structures, though, because Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and other sites preserve far more than just visually stunning ruins. They had a long history of occupation by successive cultures that evolved from hunting and gathering, to pithouse dwellings and above-ground pueblo-style architecture, but they’re not nearly so dramatic:

Mesa Verde ruin Marcy Vincent (417x640)

Mesa Verde’s mesa tops and canyons include hundreds of prehistoric sites. Not all are marked or accessible, some are off-limits to tourists, but there are enough marked on your visitor guide to give you a fuller appreciation of the fascinating evolution of human occupation there.

Chaco Canyon contains more than 2,400 known archaeological sites, not just the Great Houses. Some date back through successive waves of occupation and migration, probably spanning 8,000 years.

When you visit, though, you’ll be hard-pressed to find time to explore the “major attractions …”

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9769 (640x480)

… probably giving short shrift to the less spectacular sites.

I’ve sometimes done the same in this blog, highlighting the attractions, motivated by my enthusiasm for the parks and the importance of preserving them.

The massive amount of information archaeologists and associated researchers have compiled about the 8,000 years of human occupation in the area is worth exploring, both in geographical breadth and chronological depth. It demonstrates the enormous capacity humans have to adapt to a changing climate, respond to shifts in population and weather patterns and adopt new technology and crops.

We know a lot about how people lived in the area from one era to another. As visitors, taking advantage of the opportunity to broaden our view to include more than the major ruins lets us better appreciate the power of human ingenuity. Knowing more about the phases of cultural evolution helps us construct better narratives about how those before us lived, and perhaps gain some insight about coexisting with the natural world, ourselves.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2974 (640x468)

One thing we know is that those cultures relocated again and again when conditions worsened though drought or overhunting. It happened when the ancestral Puebloans abandoned Chaco in the 12th Century, then left Mesa Verde at the beginning of the 14th. They didn’t mysteriously disappear. They did what humans had been doing in the area over thousands of years: They moved to places where there was more water, more reliable rainfall, and adopted new modes of living — especially farming  — that allowed them to survive. They did survive. They’re still there.

I know that, because I’ve visited them. I’ve walked in their settlements at First Mesa in the Hopi reservation, the awe-inspiring Sky City of Acoma Pueblo. They’re two of the longest-occupied places in the United States: nearly 800 years. Perhaps most memorable of all, I saw some reflection of the dances and rituals that the ancient ones practiced in the plazas of Chaco Canyon a thousand years ago. On the annual feast day of the Kewa Pueblo, along the Rio Grande south of Santa Fe, lines of male and female dancers, impressively arrayed, performed a powerful series of ritual dances I’ll never forget. They preserve some deep memory of the ancient world.

Despite the gulf of time between now and then, some portion of the ancestral Puebloans is still here. I have no pictures of the Hopi First Mesa, Sky City or the Kewa Corn Dance, because those are sacred spaces, and I have only memory and words.

Whatever memory and words we can capture from the past must serve us. The sun still shines, the rain and snow still fall. The piñon and juniper now grow where people farmed maize and beans, hunted rabbits and deer. We owe it to ourselves to understand as much as we can, examining more about how those ancient ones were connected to the landscape, winter snow and summer thunderstorms. We’re subject to the same natural world, just as they were, although we don’t always take time to consider our place in it. We have a lot to learn. Sometimes we have to turn away from that compelling picture and look at other details. They may be less photogenic, but may count for more. It may be something that can’t be photographed at all. Our survival may depend on it, as did theirs.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 17, 2018

Visiting the Dead; New Orleans Cemetery Tourism

At first glance, traveling across the U.S. reveals a degree of similarity from state to state, region to region. Although the weather and vegetation change, the highways in and out of our cities and towns are lined with identical retail businesses; the shopping malls, restaurants and big box stores provide little to differentiate Indianapolis, Atlanta, Denver, Jacksonville from a hundred other towns.

The differences, though, are myriad, if sometimes subtle. Geography, climate, architecture and a thousand other details vary. Agriculture in Pennsylvania is different from farming in Missouri. Generations of exposure to mass media and increased mobility have softened some regional accents, but they’re still with us.

A Place Apart

Most travelers who’ve seen a wide variety of the American scene agree that one particular U.S. city is not only noticeably different, but unique, with a character and je ne sais quoi pas unlike anywhere else: New Orleans.

New Orleans balconies Brad Nixon 9147 (640x520)

Thanks to a convergence of climate, geography and history, the Crescent City is a riot of difference: architecture, food, speech and music. Founded as a French city, ceded to Spain, then briefly returned to France before Napoleon sold it (and much more) to the new United States in the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans is an amalgam of cultures.

New Orleans leafy balcony Brad Nixon 9140 (640x480)

Interestingly, all but a handful of those landmark 18th Century buildings in the French Quarter — le Vieux Carré — were constructed during the period of Spanish control.

New Orleans 2 balcony house Brad Nixon 9105 (640x515)

More influences intruded as the 1804 revolution in Haiti flooded the city with refugees, doubling its population and shifting the demographics to more than 60 per cent persons with black skin, from extremely different cultures than the rest of the United States. Their presence permanently influenced nearly every aspect of life in New Orleans.

Cities of the Dead

As I’ve explained before, I don’t go out of my way to visit the resting places of even the most famous individuals. Despite several trips to Paris, I’ve never seen the most visited cemetery in the world, Père Lachaise, to pay my respects to any of the giants of literature buried there: Wilde, Proust, Balzac, Molière or Jim Morrison. I live in a city with numerous cemeteries chock-full of deceased celebrities, but can’t tell you off the top of my head where Marilyn Monroe or Groucho Marx are buried. (A word about visiting the L.A. resting places of celebrities appears below.)

In New Orleans, one can find interesting architecture not only along the streets of the old quarter, but in its cemeteries, too. In my opinion, they’re distinctive enough to warrant spending an hour or two visiting them. Thanks to the city’s elevation at or below mean sea level and the surface of the Mississippi River, subterranean burial isn’t practical. The cemeteries are replete with a diverse array of mausoleums.

NO St Louis cemetery Brad Nixon 9166 (640x497)

The oldest of the New Orleans cemeteries is St. Louis Cemetery Number 1, established in 1789. It’s a chaotic jumble of funerary monuments in a welter of styles.

NO St Louis cemetery Brad Nixon 9169 (640x480)

Expressions range from traditional to genuinely eccentric.

NO St Louis cemetery Brad Nixon 9170 (640x480)

As it happens, that pyramid is the intended final abode for the actor, Nicholas Cage.

As you roam around New Orleans, you’ll encounter other old burial grounds. You can stroll through most of them on your own, like Lafayette Cemetery Number 1, from early in the 19th Century, in the Garden District.

New Orleans cemetery Brad Nixon 9095 (640x480)

Lafayette is more formally laid out than St. Louis, with broad avenues to accommodate funeral processions. It contains some well-known residents, including notable fictional ones: the Vampire Lestat and the Mayfair witches.

After all, the supernatural and occult have a place in the New Orleans mystique. Those Haitians, as well as African slaves who fled to the city brought more than lifestyle, music and food; they brought Voodoo. (The roots of New Orleans Voodoo are a complex hybrid). When you visit New Orleans, you’ll encounter Voodoo shops, souvenirs and experiences, including offers of Voodoo-oriented tours of the cemeteries. The Voodoo tour of St. Louis Cemetery Number 1, for example, promises a visit to the resting place of the purported Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. There are also tours of haunted buildings, etc.

I’ve taken and recommend the St. Louis Cemetery tour offered by the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries. Yes, they’ll show you Ms. Laveau’s tomb, as well as many others, providing a look into the city’s history and heritage, with a rich sample of interesting personalities interred at St. Louis (or the other cemeteries they tour). Plus, much of your tour fee contributes to maintenance and preservation of the old cemeteries.

Memento homo ….

Do bear in mind as you walk through any cemetery that it’s not a theme park; a degree of respect and decorum is appropriate to both the living and the dead. Many of the monuments are in precarious condition; leave them alone.

NO St Louis cemetery Brad Nixon 9177 (480x640)

Visiting St. Louis and Lafayette Cemeteries

St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 is at 425 Basin St. at the intersection with St. Louis St. on the north edge of the French Quarter (map below, red flag). You cannot enter St. Louis #1 except on a tour. Reservations are recommended; check the website here for schedule and details.

Lafayette Cemetery #1 (map, red rectangle)is at 1416-1498 Washington Ave. You can enter and see it on your own, as I did, but tours are available at this link.

New Orleans cemeteries map Google

A Word on L.A. Celebrity Cemeteries

In keeping with my “western skies” mission of informing you about the world of Los Angeles, I can recommend an expert on “who’s where” among my city’s famous dead (there are a lot of them).

Steve Goldstein’s devoted decades to tracking down and recording “The Famous, the Infamous, and the Just Plain Dead” in L.A. cemeteries. Much of the information is available at and in his book, LA’s Graveside Companion, Where the VIPs RIP.

Have you been to New Orleans? What were your impressions? Leave a comment.

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 2018. Map © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 15, 2018

Rejavination! It’s the Brew, Not the Scenery

When does a cup of coffee taste good? What about while sitting in the sunshine of the French Riviera, looking out on the Mediterranean?

Mediterranean Brad Nixon 6693 (640x411)

Or, perhaps you savor that perfect espresso at a table, in, say, Rome, looking onto Piazza Navona?

Piazza Navona Brad Nixon 030(640x439)

The more adventuresome might say that the perfect setting for that steaming cup of joe is poured from the thermos on a trail high in the mountains.

Sandia View Brad Nixon 4533(640x427)

Ahh, these java fanciers declare: This is how to enjoy a cup of coffee!

To them I say, nonsense. You, friends, are coffee wimps, coffee pretenders, coffee poetasters; you expect little of coffee and derive even less.

What — be honest — would not taste delectable in those settings? Day-old beer? Pureed Brussels sprouts juice? You’re not enjoying coffee, mes cheres, you’re basking in ambiance. Mr. Outdoors at the crest of the Sandias overlooking the desert, above, might well exclaim, “Mmm boy! Nothing like a jolt of pond scum here at the edge of the wilderness!”

If your appreciation of the caffeinated brew requires conditions — setting … ambiance — you’re not providing coffee an arena in which to test its mettle, strut its stuff, show what its made of. You’re selling coffee short, propping it up, letting it off the hook. Put your coffee to the genuine, acid test.

Take, instead, a drizzly, January day with the temperature outside hovering between discomfort and misery, the sun unlikely to show its face for days or perhaps weeks. Deadlines are looming, your computer hard drive has locked up, the drains are clogged and the car won’t start. There’s little prospect of getting everything taken care of before it’s time to fix dinner, and, besides, you checked the refrigerator and the vegetable broth you were counting on is three weeks past its “best by” date.

THAT is when you want, desire, need and require coffee! Then is the moment in which you uncap the beans, pause and breathe in the dark-roasted scent. Beans in the grinder, and the irritating jangling, whir is — to your expectant ears — a symphony of angelic tones. Ah, then, spill that cache of granular promise into the basket, screw on the top and delight to the “whoomp!” as the flame lights beneath the pot.

Bialetti Brad Nixon 9069 (480x640)

Only moments now to wait. You select your cup — but with care! Volume, color, heft and style all matter when existence itself depends on the success or failure of the experience that awaits you. Will it be your trusty decade-old pottery mug, or perhaps a vintage coffee cup from the collection, with some fresh banana bread?

AmMod Coffee Rattan Marcy Vincent (640x511)

No, not the the chipped and stained “McGovern ’72!” souvenir. Maybe the hefty cup from a long-closed chain of diners, with a plate of delectable madeleines ….

mads coffee on blk Marcy Vincent 5886 (492x640)

How about a colorful, hand-painted demitasse from Deruta, sitting in the sun by the pool

espresso-pool Marcy Vincent 8772-3(480x640)

All right, so I sneaked in some ambiance. But as much depends upon the choice of vessel as the treasure it will carry.

The sounds of perking — you didn’t hear it there on the Mediterranean (nor did Sophocles, long ago on the Aegean). The aroma! Something you missed in your charming Italian trattoria, distracted as you were by the fountains. Nor was the atmosphere suffused with heavenly scent there on the trail until you opened the thermos and poured. Only now, mired in the quotidian glum of a fractured day can you fully relish those moments of sensory anticipation.

Then, the moment of exquisite pleasure: the pour. Perhaps, in the end, a cloud-white cup for that potent black brew.

White cup Brad Nixon 9066 (640x490)

You gaze, relishing the way light gleams on the surface of the liquid; you watch tendrils of steam rise, swirl and evanesce. The moment has arrived: coffee time!

This is the job coffee was sent to do, the destiny it was meant to fulfill, the apotheosis of java!

The reeking sump of life is now forgotten; you are armed against the slings and arrows of bills, clients, bosses, schedules, budgets, obsolete machinery, ineptly engineered vehicles and aging plumbing. Nothing matters beyond that cup and what it contains.

It needs no seaside vista, no view of ancient monuments, no rocky trail between the Douglas firs. It exists in and of itself, in the moment, of the moment, and you are there, solely, nowhere else. Other pressures, demands, requirements and contingencies will eventually intrude, shouldering aside the guards at the gate of heaven to wreak holy hell on paradise, but not yet. Not yet.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2018, available on Click on photos to access them on the site.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 12, 2018

My English Teacher Lays Down the Law and Tells It Like It Is

Cross my heart and hope to die, as I live and breathe, I’ll never forget the day. If I live to be a hundred, it’ll still seem like it was yesterday.

The holiday break was over, we sharpened out pencils, gritted our teeth, girded our loins and headed back to high school. Little did I suspect ─ I had no clue ─ it would be the moment that changed my life, turned me topsy-turvy and ─ I kid you not ─ made me the writer I am today.

First period was Mrs. Drake’s Senior English class. She was one of a kind. They broke the mold after they made her: firm but fair, a heart of gold beneath a steely exterior. She laid it out for us, spelled out the requirements for the year’s big project: research reports ─ every Senior’s bête noire, avenging angel and day of reckoning.

Then she gave us some writing advice, and it really rang my bell; you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. It landed on me like a ton of bricks, although for the rest of the kids it went over like a lead balloon. I didn’t know which end was up, whether I was coming or going; I was fit to be tied. It packed a wallop, carried the day, filled the bill, and that very moment, I woke up and smelled the coffee. I jumped for joy and felt like a kid in a candy store. Just wait ‘til I tell you; it’ll knock your socks off.

At lunch in the cafeteria that day, I sat with the guys, Jeeks and Ho-Jo, the genius and the jock. Lunch was the usual: looked like fish, tasted like chicken, smelled like a locker room. We bemoaned our fates, faced with the dreaded specter of the research reports. Jeeks lightened our load with some choice words about being back at school that had us laughing like hyenas.

At that very moment the cutest and smartest girl in the class, the apple of everyone’s eye, sashayed past us. Ho-Jo dug deep and gave her his best shot: “So, Cassie, got your research report written yet?”

Without missing a beat or batting an eyelash, she was on that quip like white on rice and rolled over him like a freight train. She lowered the boom and settled his hash.

“At least I know how to write, Ho-Jo.”

I flipped out, Jeeks blew his cool, snorting with laughter and Ho-Jo simply lost it. He was down for the count, flat on his back, dead as a doornail. She’d laid him low, locked him up and thrown away the key.

Let’s face it, gang, when it came to girls we were all a day late and a dollar short. I was glad I’d held my tongue because there but for the grace of God went I. No doubt about it, those were halcyon times.

What did Mrs. Drake tell us about the secret of writing success that never-to-be-forgotten day? It was the piece de resistance, the frosting on the cake and it hit me like a thunderclap:

“Under no circumstances ─ ever! ─ give me writing that uses clichés. They’re the indication of a lazy mind, the product of careless thinking, and proof you have nothing worthwhile to say. You must be cognizant!”

As you can see, it was a word to the wise and I bend over backwards to put it to the acid test. To this very day I thank my lucky stars. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Katherine Drake was the memorable individual who taught my freshman and senior English classes. I hope she’s laughing, somewhere. If not, I’m in trouble. Thanks, Mrs. Drake.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 10, 2018

The Free Harbor Fight – Los Angeles, 1890

One of an ongoing series of posts about the Port of Los Angeles.

You see them everywhere. In public squares, in the grand halls of civic buildings, on mountain tops: the statues. Statues of statesmen, kings, queens, mythical figures, religious icons, industrial barons, generals, poets, artists and musicians. Visitors rarely have time to examine them, determine who’s depicted or why their statue is there. You know there’s a story, but there is more to see, and too many statues. Here’s one I photographed in a piazza in Verona, Italy.

Verona Dante Brad Nixon 6440 (640x480)

The inscription said “Dante.” I don’t know if that’s a first or last name. I have to look him up. No doubt some famous local figure.

If you visit Cabrillo Beach, at the southern end of San Pedro Bay, where Los Angeles Harbor meets the Pacific Ocean, (see map, below), you’ll find this bronze statue:

Stephen M White statue Brad Nixon 1594 (440x640)

The plaque on the pediment indicates the individual is Stephen M. White. Who was he, and why is his statue there? Ah, there’s a story. I’ll compress it as much as possible.

The Fate of a City

In the late 1800s, the growth of Los Angeles was limited by its lack of a natural harbor. The center of the city was 15 miles inland from Santa Monica Bay to the west and 20 miles from San Pedro Bay to the south, but neither offered deep water sheltered from the ocean. San Pedro’s harbor had been the de facto shipping and fishing port since the earliest days of Spanish dominion, but needed a breakwater to protect against the open ocean in order to realize its potential growth. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce sought federal support to build the breakwater for a port to serve the city.

The Tycoon

The wealthy and influential Collis Huntington, proprietor of the Southern Pacific Railroad (among others), saw an opportunity: Build a rail line west from Los Angeles to a manmade pier extending into deep water at Santa Monica, and use his clout in Washington, D.C. to secure federal funding for a breakwater to protect it. If he accomplished that, the harbor of Los Angeles would, in effect, be a private monopoly ─ freight and passengers moving from Huntington’s wharf via Huntington’s rail lines along rights-of-way Huntington and associates owned.

Huntington used his considerable power (including bribery) to block approval of the San Pedro breakwater and generate support for his. His enterprise began building the massive pier into Santa Monica Bay: the Long Wharf, nearly a mile long, carrying dual railroad tracks, north of the current Santa Monica Pier. It was completed in 1893, the longest wharf in the world. Shown here in 1895:


Enter the Native Son

Confronted with the prospect of a private enterprise controlling — and charging fees for — freight moving in and out of the city port, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce sued to stop Huntington’s lobbying effort. The suit was led by the brilliant L.A. district attorney, Stephen M. White. They coined a rallying cry for the effort, “The Free Harbor Fight.” The battle lasted 7 years, during which time White became California’s first native-born U.S. Senator. In 1897, a federal commission decided in favor of the Los Angeles San Pedro Bay project. Breakwater construction began in 1899 and was completed in 1912.

Here is the San Pedro breakwater, shot on a misty morning early in 2018.

IMG_0532 (640x337)

The port it protects is now an immense complex of channels, piers and shipping operations, the busiest container port in the U.S. That is why there’s a statue of Stephen M. White a few hundred yards from the base of the breakwater, looking out at what he helped create.

IMG_0545 (640x389)

Demise of the Long Wharf

Huntington’s Long Wharf continued to operate until 1913, its success hampered by vulnerability to ocean waves and currents. Failing to compete against San Pedro harbor, it ceased operating and was entirely removed in the 1930s. Today, no sign of it remains other than a plaque at Will Rogers State Beach.

White died in 1901 at age 48, his end reportedly hastened by the stress of the Free Harbor Fight.

Locations in This Post

Port of LA map Google

Cabrillo Beach is at 3720 Stephen M. White Dr., San Pedro, California. The statue (red flag at bottom of map) is immediately outside the park entrance.

The former location of the Long Wharf (red star in upper left) is at the lifeguard headquarters on Will Rogers State Beach, 15100 West Pacific Coast Highway.

The overlook for the wide view photograph of the breakwater, Lookout Point Park, with views of the Port of Los Angeles, is 3433 Gaffey St., San Pedro.

Is there a statue in your town that tells a little-known story? Leave a comment.

The photographs of Dante and Stephen M. White, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google. Photograph of the Long Wharf is public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia 1/9/18; immediate source, Los Angeles Water and Power,

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 8, 2018

Two-Wheeling in Los Angeles; Can You DO That?

Foreign visitors to my city, Los Angeles, are often daunted by the requirements of getting around in this vast metropolis. Not every traveler wants to rent a car and brave our legendary freeways.

LA 110 - 105 interchange Brad Nixon 4290 (640x469)

Public transportation options here are limited. Until recent years, they were virtually nonexistent, beyond the relatively large network of bus systems operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) and other LA-area cities.

The cityscape is changing. Metro now operates several light rail lines that converge at LA’s Union Terminal on the edge of downtown, like the Blue Line from Long Beach.

Long Beach PO metro Brad Nixon 8770 (492x640)

When I came to LA 25 years ago, there was NO light rail system. Progress!

Bicycle Sharing Gains a Foothold

Transportation in most American cities has been predicated on the notion that the majority of people drive everywhere, even to and from the termini of rail and bus lines. That’s changing in the form of bicycle sharing systems, which are multiplying rapidly to provide “final mile” connectivity to destinations.

I never expected to see it here in LA, despite the mild weather and the fact that much of the city is relatively flat. We’re drivers. However, we’re witnessing the introduction of two approaches to bicycle sharing: docked and dockless.

What’s Up, Dock?

You retrieve a docked bike from its station by entering your passcard, credit card or other ID at a kiosk, ride the bike and return it to a docking station. That’s the approach adopted by the LA Metro Bike Share pilot program.

Cabrillo Metro bikes Brad Nixon 9043 (640x453)

The docking stations are being tried in four areas: downtown, Pasadena, Venice and the Port of LA. The one pictured above is at Cabrillo Beach, at the southern end of the port near the ocean, near the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. From there, you can cover the waterfront, including the LA Maritime Museum and the Battleship Iowa, 2.7 level miles north.

Dockless (Even on the Bay)

Many bike sharing enterprises operate without docks. Bikes reside almost anywhere — on sidewalks or parking areas, campuses, transit stations, bus stops. Users unlock them with a mobile app, ride, and park them wherever they end up. That’s the approach taken in LA by private operator LimeBike. Below is a group of LimeBikes parked 100 feet away from the above-pictured LA Metro docking station at Cabrillo Beach.

Cabrillo LimeBikes Brad Nixon 9059 (640x419)

The bike sharing trend is good news to travelers looking for a better way to navigate urban areas. Downtown LA, for example, is a fascinating place, not nearly so dense or extensive as New York City (which also offers bike sharing). One could reasonably pedal from Union Terminal to the happening area around LA Live, or to Little Tokyo, the Fashion District and other parts of downtown, reducing walking, eliminating struggles with bus routes. You could ride from Union Terminal to the bike dock at Broadway and Third in just a few minutes. Right there, you could visit the Bradbury Building.

Bradbury Building Brad Nixon 3433 (640x458)

Once you’ve gawked at that location of the final climactic scene of Blade Runner, cross the street to eat something at Central Market (lots of hip options), exit the other side of the Market and ride the 1901 Angels Flight funicular up to Grand and see Disney Hall!

Angels Flight Brad Nixon 3449 (640x480)

Some limitations of docked bikes are obvious. You have to return the bike to a dock. That requirement kept us from trying the Biketown system in Portland, Oregon earlier this year.

PDX Biketown Brad Nixon 7853 (640x469)

There was a dock down the street from our apartment, but not enough places to re-dock them specifically where we wanted to go in PDX.

Undocked bikes solve that problem. But you’re at the mercy of locating one or more available bikes on your mobile app, and they could be anywhere … or nowhere.

One advantage seems clear: cost. Like the system in Portland ($2.50 per trip), the LA Metro Bike Share is more expensive than LimeBike’s $1 per ride: $2 for the first 30 minutes and $3.50 per 30 minutes after that.

China has sparked a revolution (pun!) in dockless bikes: 15 million of them. When I was there a dozen years ago, I thought bicycle use was already high, as here, in Shanghai.

20050427 Shanghai street w bikes 2

Those millions of new undocked bikes have made ridership soar further. It’s a trend that could even affect us here in car-obsessed LA. A bicycle won’t get you comfortably from Venice to downtown, but it will help bridge the gaps in local areas.

A lot will have to change, though, including how drivers deal with cyclists.

Caveats: Cycling in a U.S. City

American city drivers aren’t acculturated to cyclists, which are sometimes viewed as intruders in the land of the automobile. By law, cyclists are entitled to use traffic lanes (except on freeways), but motorists aren’t habituated to sharing the road. Legally, a driver must allow 3 feet (one meter) of clearance between her car and you if she passes you. Regulations are fine, but they won’t help you if you’re struck by a heedless, careless or impatient driver. Take care.

There are an increasing number of bike lanes on the streets of LA area cities, but not everywhere. Again, drivers are not yet accustomed to a cycling culture and may turn across your bicycle lane without paying attention.

Helmets typically aren’t available with rideshare bikes. In LA, helmets are required for riders younger than 18. You must provide your own. Rules vary by state and city.

On the other hand, the weather here’s excellent! Far better than rainy Amsterdam and not nearly so smoggy as Beijing (really). Let’s get on our bikes!

I have not yet ridden either an LA Metro Bike Share bike or a LimeBike. I will, and I’ll let you know what I think of the relative merits.

Have you ridden either one, or other bike share systems? Suggestions, likes/dislikes, recommendations? Leave a comment.

Some 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 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 6, 2018

A Twelfth Century Southwestern Winter

Here in the northern hemisphere, it’s early winter. Much of North America and Europe are experiencing severe weather, with record cold and heavy snow, even in unlikely areas like the southeastern United States.

One of our strengths as humans is our ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation. In Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, people may be asking, “What if I lived in Portland, Maine or Mankato, North Dakota, and had to expect weather like this all the time? How would I prepare?”

I try to envision the life of the original inhabitants when I visit the sites of ancient civilizations in places like Mesa Verde, Colorado and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. I’m usually there in summer, when the environment is hot, dry, and it’s easy to imagine the 12th-Century inhabitants struggling to find water, searching for elusive game in dry country and tending crops struggling in the harsh conditions.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 4119 (640x420)

But for the original inhabitants, even in midsummer, there would be a steady undercurrent of thought: Winter is coming. What would that be like?

Winter in the American Southwest varies by elevation. At 3,000 or so feet above sea level, it can be cold, there is some snow, but the climate is more temperate than at the 6,000 – 8,000 foot altitudes of places like Mesa Verde, where sustained cold and deep snow can prevail for many months. Yet all across the southwest, native people built societies that endured for hundreds of years, including here at Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9769 (640x480)

To persist for so long meant that through spring, summer and autumn, they were constantly preparing for winter. If they failed to prepare adequately, they would freeze or starve.

In winter, everything changes. Any naturally-available food remaining in fields and forests is scant, more difficult to collect. Game patterns change, with many mammals reducing their activity and others migrating to lower, milder areas. While tracking an animal in snow has advantages, the difficulty of pursuing it, reduced hours of daylight for hunting and the challenge of being outdoors for extended periods can severely limit success.

The primary element of the communities’ food supply was the crops they grew, which were critical to winter survival and at least somewhat within their control. From the earliest days of human cultivation 13,000 years ago, to the present, farmers have watched the timing and progress of every step: planting, sprouting, growth, ripening and harvest. Rainfall, sunshine and temperature affect everything, and those who depend on the crops’ success know at every stage how things stand: There will be enough food — it’s a bumper crop; or ─ dire news ─ there’s not enough. Winter is coming.

With dozens of generations of experience to draw on, passed on from older to younger, everyone in the ancient communities knew the situation with the maize, nuts, seeds, roots and vegetables in the stone-lined storage bins. It will be a good winter … we’ll scrape by … or, if things weren’t right, there will be long, lean days of hunger and thin rations.

Spring, summer and autumn, in addition to the labor required for daily living, the need to prepare for winter was ever-present: preparing skins and fur for clothing, yucca and wood for sandals and soles, gathering tinder and firewood, chinking cracks against wind and weather. In cliff dwellings of the Gila Mountains and the adjacent Mimbres river valley, northward near the Manzano Mountains in the pueblo city of Gran Quivira, at Hovenweep and Chimney Rock, the work varied slightly with local conditions, but never ended. Remember last winter!

Today, farmers consult complex meteorology reports compiled from data collected by satellites, ocean buoys, mountaintop observatories and the water levels in reservoirs, looking for trends, predictions, expectations for the elements that will mean success or failure.

12th-Century farmers relied on what had come before: generations of knowledge passed along: when to plant and harvest, when rain should fall, when the elk would move, when snow could come. It’s no wonder that nearly every structure-building culture we know of devoted work to establishing some solar observatory, aligned to tell them how long ‘til midsummer and then midwinter, when the sun would touch that far point of its travel and begin to return: so many days or moons until the first new food would sprout on the bushes, then ripen. At Chaco, Cahokia, Fort Ancient and everywhere, the mounds, earthen lines and carefully engineered gaps in walls that marked the sun’s position weren’t there simply to investigate curious phenomena. They tracked the very essence of life. So far as we know, they had no system of writing, no written numbers, but their survival relied on knowing where they stood in the cycle of the sun, the rain and the growth of the world.

A particularly harsh winter, or one without enough snow to provide water once the dry days arrived, could both spell disaster of different kinds ─ one sooner, one later. Throughout the winter, someone had the task of watching the storerooms, pottery and baskets filled with food collected and carefully preserved. Too little food left with too many days before first harvest required delivering the news that there wasn’t enough. The foragers increased their range, seeking overlooked nuts and late berries, the hunters traveled farther, staying out for more days: long, cold days in the snow, searching. Failure wasn’t merely disappointment; it meant starvation.

Even in midsummer at Chaco Canyon, with the temperature at a hundred degrees, I think of it.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4214 (640x399)

Or in Mesa Verde, as autumn colors the deciduous trees in the canyon, it’s easy to imagine…

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9799 (640x480)

…An inner awareness drove those communities in a common purpose: Winter is coming. Too many winters like last one, and what will we do? Too many dry summers and how will the corn grow? This is our home, and our lives are tied to it.

Eventually, something failed. Too many hungry winters. Too many summers of drought. The game animals were too few, too far away. And now there are only walls of stone.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4188 (640x429)

© Brad Nixon 2018

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