Independence Day

Sitting on the front porch of this Federal house on the intersection of two quiet country roads in upstate New York, I discover it was once a gentleman’s farm. Apparently he grew apples and tended poultry here in the summer, and in winter he went across country to California to farm there. East coast and west coast: two different worlds on this vast continent called the United States.

On this July 4th Independence day, as my north-eastern friends quietly celebrate this important birth day with food cooked on the barbecue and intellectual conversation, I am only half listening to what is being said. My mind is wandering over the Redwood forests and Pacific coastline, through low desert and high desert and into the great plains that I have just ridden across in my faithful VW camper van. My body arrived on the eastern seaboard a day ago yet my emotions and spirit are trailing behind, holding onto wonderful memories that are worthy of savoring for months to come.

I take a quick look at a journal that I had begun way back at the start of this year in northern California, and recount the strong political voice of environmentalists talking of the Redwood forests, sustainable farming and local communities. There is a flavor of the wild west in California that I had not realized before, distinctly different from the apparently more detached air of the northeast.

As my mind continues to wander through fields of corn and pastures of cattle, I remember the warmth and friendliness of the mid west states of Oklahoma and Missouri and the people I met on old route 66, young and old alike attracted there by the values of a bygone era. This “the mother road” of America, the first interstate that connected the heartland with the wild west, is undergoing a resurgence, it seems. As people search for meaning and interconnectedness in a world that has moved at a pace too fast for the human psyche to follow, is there still a common thread that unites this land and its people, I wonder.

How can I possibly begin to describe this great land and what it is to be American? How do I write about ‘the true spirit of America’ that I have been in search of while driving from west to east all these months?

This vast continent is one of states as large as some European countries, each proud of its way of life and often at odds with a government whose center is a long way away in distance and in its thinking. The wild west of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas is about as different as you can get from the cool intellectualism of  New Jersey, New York, and New England. Yet even in this day and age where the optimism of the American dream is eclipsed by the worst recession that most have experienced and daily news of the Gulf oil disaster brings more doom and gloom, there is still an underlying belief that this nation will prevail. Despite all, there still exists the intensity and desire to be ruggedly independent and to create one’s own order.

Does this fiery spirit come from those immigrants who left the confines of Europe to break free and create a new dream or is it in the earth itself, and what is it that keeps it alive?

Perhaps it is the vast open backdrop of this huge and wide continent that keeps the American spirit boundless, alive and free. When the terrain is so vast and its people so varied, it is not possible for the human psyche to do anything but expand beyond the horizon of what the eye can see or the ear can discern.

And as I listen to the voices I have heard and recall the surprise of Californians who thought they had no accent, Texans who smiled when I joked that I sounded just like them and Oakies with their rich, golden tones, I pause to find one word to sum up the spirit of America.

And then I chuckle, for it’s most apt today of all days. The one word is Rebellious!

Rebellious! So very obvious really and I laugh aloud as if I had never thought of it before.

Day 2 ‘Road to MA’ (Wed 16 June) Burbank>Bakersfield, CA

I sleep well and leave my overnight street parking slot in Burbank by early morning. My first stop is at Castaic for gas and breakfast, and then, when I see Pyramid Lake glistening in the sunlight to my left on route 5, I just have to stop again.

A view of Pyramid Lake from the visitor center

How lucky is this, for I’ve never heard of the Vista del Lago visitor center and its exhibit of the California water project. This is a MUST SEE!

There are so may interesting and informative exhibits here, including a movie that is projected onto a model of the state of California. Some of my favorite displays are ones that show how much water it takes to make certain foods or meals.

If you get the chance go to this visitor center and exhibit, do please go. It is an amazingly creative presentation of California’s water supply. Basically the state is an arid desert, the only water coming from the north. It is piped almost a thousand miles down to LA. How lucky we are to have this water clean and fresh. I take a moment to think of third world countries where people have no water where they live either, the difference being they cannot afford to have it pumped it all.

I can’t help thinking aren’t we the craziest of species to do such a thing? All because California is such a beautiful place to live!

After spending a few hours in the visitor center, I get back on route 5 north and head towards Bakersfield. Coming down the mountains into the flat central valley is incredible. Why had no-one told us how stunning this view would be?

Suddenly everything looks sunburned and bleached and dry! Luckily the temperatures are only in the upper 80s and it is dry heat, so it’s really okay. I’m looking forward to getting my van to the mechanic and seeing friends I met just over a week ago at the weekend campout east of LA. More news tomorrow.

Burbank to Bakersfield, CA = 102 miles

More photos can be found in album on our Facebook page: ‘Photos Day 2 trip to MA’.

Whats Up With LA Taking All of the Water?


In our recent jaunts to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, be it to go to the desert, the mountains, or visit the hot springs, we’ve encountered many signs of land and water being “owned” by the LADWP. Like signs saying, “No Overnight Camping Allowed – LADWP land.” After a while, we wondered who LADWP was. Then we figured out that its actually the city of Los Angeles and LADWP stands for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. So why the hell do they own so much land so far away from the city of LA?

It’s because they need to own the land so they could have the right to suck all of it dry! And it’s very apparent when you drive down HWY 395 and look at all of the “lakes” like Mono Lake or Owen’s Lake. In the case of Mono Lake, the LADWP started diverting water out of the river that fed it in the early 1900s and the water level dropped like a rock. Conservation efforts in the 1970s and 1980s stopped them taking as much water as they liked, and now the lake is actually rising again, but it’s still below its natural level. What’s amazing is that Mono Lake is roughly on the same line of longitude as San Francisco, but LA is taking its waters. In the case of Owen’s Lake, it’s even worse. LA completely sucked it dry. It turned from a salt lake like Mono to a salt playa in the 1920s, and now it whips up alkali dust every time there is a wind storm. The people who lived around it complained so much from the dust ‘pollution’ that LA agreed to wet the soil a bit to prevent dust storms. In fact, one of our professors at Berkeley was part of the scientific study which showed how the wind patterns in the Owen’s Valley made the dust storms so bad. She studies how the wind (air) flows over mountains and in mountain valleys. She said that the dry lake bed which was once Owen’s Lake was the largest point source of dust in the western hemisphere! Could you believe that!? After the study was published, that’s when LA decided to start wetting the soil. However, when we drove by Owen’s Lake a couple weeks ago, during a crazy wind storm, we could see the dust storm for miles away!

Owen's Lake Alkali Dust Storm
An alkali dust storm on Owen’s Lake

The wind was really ripping across the Owen’s Valley and picking up a lot of salts and other minerals and dust that cover the now dry lake bed. The cloud formations show just how windy the valley was. The low clouds over the Sierras to the left are caused by condensation of moist air over the mountains. The air is moving very fast downwards into the valley where it dries up, and picks up a lot of dust. In fact, the winds can get so strong that they knock over semi trucks driving on Hwy 395! Then the wind flows back up over the White Mountains to the right, forming this huge front of clouds that runs parallel to the valley. These are the crazy winds that pick up all of the dust and create a hazard when it is windy.

Not only that, but you can’t even camp in the Owen’s Valley because LA owns it to take water from the Owen’s River. Many natural hot springs pop up in that valley and the run off drains into the river, which is tapped by LA. Therefore, LA doesn’t want any new hot tubs built which would interfere with their water supply (even though they wouldn’t at all), nor campers who would just like to enjoy the pleasant scenery.

California musings … Part 2

I am struggling with what to write .. or rather how to express my thoughts in a way that others will find palatable.  Since passing the Santa Barbara line, there’s been a palpable change in the way people behave. It’s as if wealth breeds fear and suspicion (for example, since when is taking a photograph of beautiful iron gates a crime?) and it’s as if there is a level of greed and corruption that is acceptable and now taken for granted.

All I can do right now, is to pose some questions that have been going around in my head.

Before I do let me say two things:
First, that I had very high expectations for America before I became a legal resident, and still do.

Second, that I am totally perplexed by the contradictions that I see around me and genuinely want to know your answers to these questions …. or for you to write in and tell me the questions that you find yourself asking right now.

So here are my ‘Questions from a foreigner’:

  • Is money and economic justification the decision point for all debates and reform (e.g current proposed reforms are healthcare/health insurance, immigration, environment) or are moral values still a criterion for decision making in America?
  • What are the key questions and decision points to secure the kind of world that you want for your children and your grandchildren?
  • How do you see America’s role in a global world?
  • and the following questions are related to present issues here in California (yet are pertinent to the whole USA) AND are less neutral and far more personal *:

  • Many rich Californians hire illegal immigrants to work around their home. Are you OK with this or would you prefer them to hire legal immigrants or out of work Americans?
  • If you are opposed to the Arizona ruling (to enable the police to stop and inspect people’s papers in an attempt to catch illegal aliens) and you are not in agreement with changing the immigration rules, are you okay with illegal immigrants and their employers breaking the law of the land? And if not, what change would you propose?
  • * Personal – because it took 12 years of being a legal alien/visitor to the USA (visitor, student visa holder, foreign worker visa) living off my savings – before I gained residency and permission to work.

    Quote of the Month

    “In the coming years we will have
    to move thirteen of the major
    twenty coastal cities uphill,
    and we will have to do it collaboratively.”

    Elisabet Sahtouris

    Shifting soil …. and power

    Today I received this Facebook update from Contra Costa County Climate Leaders Program:

    Cities are finding that shifting soil, exacerbated by extreme swings in weather, has led to an unprecedented number of foundation failures in houses across the United States.

    It reminded me of our drive south of Monterey on Route 1, in the stormy weather, where the mud was sliding down the steep slopes of the Santa Lucia mountain range on our left. In that stretch of road there are few homes but further south, around LA, there are hundreds. The fires of recent years have added to the problem of soil erosion so that the extreme weather of the past two months is now taking its toll.

    We love to live in beautiful places, don’t we, but is it always wise for us and for our environment? Is it time that we accept we cannot have everything we want and that the human species in not the superior force on this planet?

    Chile earthquake – the earth is moaning

    Photo courtesy of New York Times article -

    Another earthquake, this time in Chile.
    Is this one important enough for us to take notice?

    When are we going to start moaning to our governments that we need to take more urgent action on environmental issues and climate change?

    Are we yet listening to the earth moaning?

    No Impact Project

    After Colin Beaven’s book was published and he’d received interest from most big media in the USA and around the world, he was contacted about starting a project to spread his example further afield. The No Impact Project was born and if you watch the video below it explains how you can join the NO IMPACT EXPERIMENT and work on lowering your impact in only one week.

    Once you have watched these NO IMPACT videos, please add your comments and let’s start a conversation.

    No Impact Man

    We have just attended an event in Moraga sponsored by four local environmental community organizations. Following some locally produced appetizers, a little wine tasting and some good conversation about local action for a more sustainable local economy and healthier environment, we all gathered to watch a documentary – NO IMPACT MAN – which follows Colin Beaven and his family through one year of their life in New York trying to make zero impact on the environment.

    Do find a way to see this if you possibly can. Here’s a taster from Colin himself …

    We’ve also added a link to Colin Beaven’s blog in our blogroll, which appears in the column to the right.

    Energy saving news from Ukiah

    We met Hannah Bird last night in Ukiah at the Mendocino Environmental Center radio station and just watched a broadcast from her on youtube. We’ll share her video with you a little later … as youtube were doing some work on their website at the time we wanted to post the link here … and it’s not available at this time. Check back later … thank you.

    It’s now here …. Hannah’s Youtube video