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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hugging the Left Coast

Let’s get back to our California expedition, starting at the beach.

A quick factoid: 54 percent of the people in the United States live within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of our shorelines. That makes historical sense, since settlement naturally began on the east, west, and Gulf coasts and moved inland. So you’d think that packing all those people near the coasts would mean that everybody’s always going to the beach!

Well, not so much in sunny California.

The summertime water temperature in Manhattan Beach — pretty far south on the California coast, where I lived for a year in the 1980s — is 21° (70° Farenheit) at the very most. Usually it’s a few degrees cooler. And prevailing winds off the Pacific often howl, meaning that even on a July or August day, the coast is ideal only for seals and surfers in wet suits.

To clarify, just the surfers wear suits.

California popularized the “surfer dude” culture, romanticizing its sun, sand, and aura of freedom. Remember the Jan and Dean song “Surf City, USA” from 1963? “You know we're goin' to Surf City, gonna have some fun!”

The song was so popular and came to epitomize the youthful beach scene so perfectly that the City of Huntington Beach, just down the coast from my beach, trademarked the “Surf City” name.

Conditions along the 2,000-km (1,242-mile) California coastline may be ideal for catching a perfect, hollow “barrel wave,” but not so much for sunbathing or tame playing in the water. Relocating Mark Twain’s famous line about San Francisco: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer on the California shore.” As a mobster might say, “fuggetabout” bikinis, anywhere north of Santa Barbara. A frigid, nasty ocean current courses along the shore all the way from Alaska to the Central California Coast.

Throw in the treacherous boulders that poke out of the crashing surf and the sheer cliffs practically rising out of the waves, and the Pacific works best as a postcard backdrop rather than a comfortable swimming hole.

And I neglected to mention the blankets of fog and mist that often anoint the stretch of shoreline abutting the northern rain forest. “Rain forest,” as in “not exactly beach weather.”

The California coast is, however, a wildlife-watcher’s delight. Pelicans, herons, crabs, sea lions, two varieties of seals, and a half-dozen kinds of whales frolic in plain sight just offshore. Seals and sea lions, of course, attract sinister denizens of the sea as well. Think “shark!”

The southernmost point on the coast, San Diego, is a beauteous place. San Diego County stretches from the Mexican border at Tijuana to the U.S. Marines’ training base at Camp Pendleton, and eastward from the ocean to the fringes of the Anza-Borrego Desert. But the county is surprisingly mountainous. California Institute of Technology’s acclaimed Palomar Observatory looms high in the Cleveland National Forest.

Balmy San Diego has some of California’s premier man-made marvels, from its world-class zoo and stunning collection of yachts-at-harbor to three old Spanish missions and the grand Del Coronado resort hotel. One of the nation’s most restful places for a quiet interlude, too: Balboa Park, named for the Spanish explorer who first spotted the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

Orange County, sandwiched between San Diego and Los Angeles, might well have been written off by visitors as a humdrum bedroom community had not animated-film maker Walt Disney selected 30 hectares (75 acres) amid an Anaheim citrus grove to build Disneyland, his first amusement park, in 1955. Combined with the rides and ghost town of nearby Knott’s Berry Farm, which preceded it, and the surfing allure at the shore, Orange County morphed into the sizzling tourist destination it remains today.

Orange County has also served as perhaps the West’s mightiest bastion of conservatism. Its international airport, named for the late macho actor John Wayne, supports that impression. The county produced conservative president Richard Nixon at a time when it was home to outspoken members of the ultra-right-wing, anti-Communist John Birch Society. County residents have voted Republican by an average 56-44 percent margin in 12 of the past 13 presidential elections. An anomaly was 1992, when conservative businessman and independent candidate Ross Perot got 24 percent of the vote; Republican George H.W. Bush still won the county’s support, though, over Perot and Democrat Bill Clinton. Spectacular, evangelical megachurches — including the Crystal Cathedral and Saddleback Church — have become tourist attractions as well as conservative-leaning sanctuaries in the country.

One might think that the growing influx and influence of Hispanics and Asians in Orange County might mitigate the conservative tide, but even their party affiliations skew Republican.

A century ago, Los Angeles County, just to the north, was maligned around the state as the “Queen of Cow Counties.” Grazing cattle and lemon groves marked the landscape where today Los Angeles — with 70 independent cities packed within and around it — spreads the blanket of twinkling lights, visible clear to Arizona, that I described in an earlier blog.

Some of them belong to Hollywood dream factories — great movie studios that spread across chaparral canyons and elegant neighborhoods throughout the city. “L.A.” also connotes the swank Polo Lounge inside the “Pink Palace” Beverly Hills Hotel, vibrant shops along old Olvera Street and the “glam” shopping arcade of the rich and powerful on Rodeo Drive, luminaries of the silver screen pressing their palm prints into the wet cement at Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater, jazz under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater, a Ferris Wheel ride at Santa Monica Pier, an elegant trip through history inside the Queen Mary ocean liner permanently docked as a hotel off Long Beach, and a chance to commune with great art at the J. Paul Getty Museum on a cultural campus high in the Brentwood Hills.

Los Angeles also boasts something that I never thought would appear: a subway and light-rail system. Since the city spreads so far and wide, mass transit was long thought to be impractical. But things got so intolerable on the city’s clogged freeways that mass transit caught on. Nowadays there are more than 300,000 daily boardings at 70 different stations on five lines each weekday.

California’s Central Coast calls itself the “Middle Kingdom.” It is a place of staggering beauty and unlimited charm, as old, zigzagging Highway One — still two lanes along much of its length — winds past historic lighthouses, craggy oceanside cliffs, working wharves, and a half-dozen historic mansions. Sun-drenched cities like San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara — the “American Riviera” — are Mediterranean-style masterpieces where life seems like a perpetual festival, and deep valleys and rocky bays carve the coastline.

Northward, that coastline turns wild. “It’s nearly impossible to get to California’s violently inhospitable Big Sur coast,” wrote the Washington Post in 1998. “That’s why everybody wants to.” The newspaper quoted author Henry Miller, who was awed by his visit: “If the soul were to choose an arena in which to stage its agonies, this would be the place for it. One feels exposed — not only to the elements but to the sight of God.”

Big Sur got its name from Spaniards living in nearby Monterey, a provincial capital of New Spain. They called the rugged coastline El Sur Grande — “the Big South.” A collection of small cities defines the good life there. The climate is agreeable, the wines, restaurant fare, and museums exquisite, the sunsets over the sapphire Monterey Bay enchanting, and prices, well, pricey! There are more than 60 fine art galleries in the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea alone. Even the sea lions, crowding onto rocky outcroppings off the scenic, private, but tourable (for a fee) “17-Mile Drive” can’t help but take it easy.

The famous newspaper publisher and “yellow journalist” William Randolph Hearst certainly did at his “Hearst Castle” at San Simeon, in the mountains high above this scene. Over 30 years beginning in 1919, Hearst and Paris-trained architect Julia Morgan designed and built a lavish home that he called “Casa Grande.” It became the nation’s most elaborate, and most envied, Shangri-La. Hearst installed his mistress, Marion Davies, and exuberantly entertained Hollywood stars at Casa Grande, in the estate’s enormous “Neptune Pool,” in its sumptuous gardens, and in guest houses the size of mansions.

Like California’s “Southland” that we explored last time, Northern California has an ugly smudge of urban sprawl. Its “Bay Area” stretches from San Francisco southward through the Silicon Valley to San Jose, then back up the east side of the Bay to Oakland and Berkeley. Unlike the case in the Los Angeles area, though, there is no need to search for a core. Sophisticated San Francisco is “The City” for the whole region.

Grapevines were introduced to the ranchos surrounding Northern California missions by Franciscan friars in the 1770s. Later, more than 300 varieties of European grapes — from chardonnay to pinot noir — thrived in the sandy soil of the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco. California introduced the deep-red and fruity Zinfandel, the only California grape varietal grown exclusively in the United States, so far as I know. I can’t swear that some international visitor didn’t snip a vine or two and stick them in his suitcase.

California’s more than 800 wineries still dominate the U.S. wine market. There is even a Napa Valley brandy distillery. Awaken at a hacienda-style inn in California’s Wine Country, look out upon the sunswept hillsides planted in arrow-straight rows of vines, and you will swear you were in Greece or the south of France. You can take a “wine train” ride out of Napa and enjoy gourmet dining and a wine tasting along the way.

A Mustard Festival is celebrated throughout the Napa Valley in the late wintertime, too. It’s yet another excuse to drink good wine.

California’s northernmost counties are heavily forested, save for the northeast corner, where oddities like lava tubes — natural conduits through which lava still flows — dot the otherworldly landscape. The coastline of Mendocino County is so unspoiled that it is called the “Lost Coast.” Not irreparably missing, though; Carol and I found it!

Aside from quaint fishing centers like Eureka, abundant freshwater lakes, and the majestic Cascade Range, extreme Northern California is marked by boundless stretches of ponderosa pines, Douglas fir, spruce, giant sequoias and redwoods. Some of the redwoods and sequoias are simply colossal. Cars look like toys, and you like ants, beside the giant redwoods, some of which have been dated to 500 A.D. or earlier.

The California Northland does not lack for rain or snow. The dominant landmark is massive, usually snow-capped Mount Shasta, and the region abounds in ghost towns, historical museums, and Victorian homes ¬— 75 in little Yreka (not to be confused with Eureka) alone. Nearby Gold Country — site of the mineral’s discovery and a frenzied rush by prospectors 161 years ago — features old Folsom Prison, still operating next to a modern penal institution. You can pan for gold (good luck finding any!), ride a stagecoach, and sip sarsaparilla in Columbia State Historical Park at a preserved mining town.

Wait a minute!! This just in regarding your chances of striking it rich: I’m now told that geologists speculate that 70 percent of the gold that once lay under California has yet to be discovered. Carol, grab the suitcase and my pick and shovel!

To sum up before I head for the hills, California is variegated, unpredictable, delightfully wild, and suave all at once. As I indicated a couple of postings ago, though, part of me sides with radio and television comedian Fred Allen’s assessment half a century ago when he remarked that “California is a wonderful place to live, all right — if you happen to be an orange!”

Speaking of San Fran

(The locals will tolerate that abbreviation, but never “Frisco.”) A couple of postings ago, I indicated that I’d devote an entire blog to the City by the Bay — forgetting, during a prolonged senior moment, that I had done so some time ago. Rather than repeat myself, I invite you to check out my impressions.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Chaparral. Scrubby desert land, dotted with low bushes.

Denizen. An inhabitant of a place.

Glam. Newspaper tabloid slang for “glamorous.”

Sarsparilla. A drink similar to modern-day root beer that derives its flavor from the roots of the prickly sarsparilla plant found throughout Latin America.

Variegated. Multi-colored.

Yellow journalism. An early name for sensationalized, even made-up, stories printed by viciously competitive newspapers in New York City in the late 1800s. The name was taken from a character, “the Yellow Kid,” who appeared in a popular comic strip in one of the papers.

Zigzag. To travel ahead making sharp turns in alternating directions. Lightning bolts are often depicted to make such jagged turns on their way to the ground.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Good as Gold

We already stuck a toe into California — and quickly pulled it back out when it landed in the searing Mojave Desert. But let’s tough it out and take another look at the Golden State. Golden, as in sunny, and golden because of the fortunes made by the lucky few who found gold high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains a century and a half ago.

California is often described as two irreconcilable entities, north and south. In 1859, nine years after statehood, the legislature voted to slice the enormous, elongated state in two, somewhere around Fresno. The measure died only because the U.S. Congress back east — which would had to approve such a radical idea — was nervous about creating new states as a drumbeat for civil war was growing louder. So it ignored the “two Californias” proposal.

Today Southern California, in and around the Los Angeles Basin, is called the “Southland.” Funny, since nobody seems to refer to San Francisco and its environs the “Northland.” That might conjure up wacky images of ice-fishing off the Golden Gate Bridge.

California is warmer and colder, higher and lower, more rural and urban, more heavily populated and sparsely peopled than many Americans realize. And it’s bigger, drier, more forested, agricultural, ethnically diverse, historic, and beautiful than even some Californians imagine. There is plenty of room for paradoxes, since it’s a long, long way — in distance, culture, and lifestyle — from San Diego on the Mexican border to the Oregon Coast, 1,250 km (777 miles) to the north.

Rambunctious California defines the New West, but it retains countless elements of the old one as well. Far-right conservative in places, wildly liberal in others, California boasts “genuine article” cowboys, lumberjacks, roustabouts, and miners. But it also has its share of what the Center for the New West once called “cow-free watering holes for weekend cowboys and coastal yuppies looking for a shake-and-bake wilderness experience.” California politicians who hold statewide office must somehow meld the interests of ranchers, fishermen, farm workers, actors and filmmakers, business executives, environmentalists, minivan-driving suburbanites, and almost every imaginable ethnic and gender interest group.

California has never stopped being a state of immigrants. Not just the highly publicized legal and illegal newcomers from Latin America and Asia, but also an influx of American arrivals — lately slowed by the long national recession — looking to “reinvent” themselves or their lives. California offers what Time magazine in 1993 called “liberation and excitement . . . as the ultimate, myth-making destination, tantalizing the daydreams of restless souls itching to pick up and move.”

California’s terrain is amazingly diverse as well. More than 50 peaks in the Sierras top 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), including Mount Whitney at almost three times that height. I’ve already told you about the other extreme: blistering Death Valley, where the Badwater Salt Flats lie 86 meters (262 feet) below sea level. Besides the San Andreas Fault — the world’s largest fracture — there are other geological battle lines along the earth’s tectonic plates beneath California, or just off its coastline. There are also dormant volcanoes in Owens Valley, whose mountain passes are now adorned with turbines to harness the ever-blowing wind, and a lush interior basin drained by occasionally raging rivers.

But Life magazine once wrote that the state’s golden sunshine is “the most valuable ingredient of the California way of life.” The golden poppy is the state flower, and the golden trout the state fish. The name “California” — “abounding in gold” — first appeared as a mythical island east of Eden in a 16th-century Spanish romance novel. The name was at first applied to the Lower (Baja) California peninsula, which that sticks down below the state in Mexico, and later extended to all of Spain’s new holding along the western Pacific Rim.

Like other western states, California is a series of what Phillip M. Burgess and Richard F. O’Donnell of the Center for the New West call “urban archipelagos and large city-states surrounded by vast empty quarters.” Paradoxically, again, California holds both America’s biggest county (San Bernardino) and the world’s most sprawling city (Los Angeles — often lampooned as “a hundred suburbs in search of a city).

California has been an ethnic mosaic from the moment in 1770 that Catholic missionaries ventured north from Spain’s Mexican colony and built missions in an effort to convert the mostly passive American Indian tribes. In 1812, Russians established a foothold at Fort Ross, north of present-day San Francisco, but they were fixated on hunting sea otters, not putting down roots; when the otter supply was all but exterminated, they split.

Mexicans continued to filter north into California after their nation gained its independence in 1822. And, 27 years later, Americans of many heritages broke down the doors to fertile California in a frantic search for gold following its discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Asian migration began with the 15,000 Chinese laborers brought in to work in the mines and on the railroads soon after statehood in 1850.

Still, by 1960, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 80 percent of California’s population. Today, five decades later, the decennial census may reveal that the percentage of non-Hispanic whites will have been cut in half and that Hispanics will have caught or topped them.

As I described last posting, hundreds of thousands of Midwest farm families packed up, fled unbearable “Dust Bowl” conditions, and headed to California in the 1930s. Then for three straight decades as America’s south- and westward “automobile migration” went wild, California’s population erupted. Everything new and improved seemed to start there: big-budget motion pictures, modern weapons design and production, transcontinental television, the personal-computer revolution, and even “surfer” music that extolled carefree “California dreamin.”

California has also become a magnet for individualists, nonconformists, and eccentrics. As New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty wrote in the 1940s: “Iowa gets here and goes crazy.” “Beat” poets encamped in California coffeehouses in the 1950s, and “peaceniks” and runaways hieing to San Francisco in the ’60s were reminded to “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” In their Book of America. Neal Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom called California of the 1970s “an unstratified society made up of communities of strangers.”

In large measure, it still is.

California politics has been marked by a passion for ballot initiatives and referenda driven by citizen outrage — including Proposition 13, the largest property-tax-cutting measure in history, in 1978. The state has had a colorful procession of dissimilar governors, from genial future president Ronald Reagan to distracted “Governor Moonbeam” Jerry Brown to the incumbent, Arnold Schwarzenegger — an Austrian-born former bodybuilder and, like Reagan, B-list actor.

All of this is relatively recent history, as is much of the California story. Early Spanish explorers advanced just above present-day Mexican border. But they turned tail when they encountered Mojave Desert. Imagine them in those pointy metal helmets in the unremitting, hot sun!

It was left to Spanish seafarers to sail the California coastline. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed first in San Diego in 1542, and Spanish galleons called at San Diego on their long, trans-Pacific journeys.

Missionaries spurred settlement along El Camino Real — the King’s Highway — a trail that wound all the way up to San Francisco. Their missions along it, including the famous San Juan Capistrano, visited by returning swallows each spring like clockwork — are marked by roadside mission-bell signs to this day.

Westward American expansion was bound to reach California. As John Gunther wrote in the 1940s, “the United States without California would have been as ridiculous as France without Brittany or England without Kent; the impulse to fill the great bowl of the West was unavoidable and irresistible.” Defeated Mexico formally ceded California to the United States in 1848, the same year that ranch hands found gold along the banks of the American River. Legend notwithstanding, it was not one of them who shouted “Eureka! I have found it,” but the Greek mathematician Archimedes, 21 centuries earlier.

“Eureka!” is, however, the complete and official state motto today.

Much of the gold left California and helped finance the nation’s rise to superpower status. Overnight, San Francisco — which I will describe in a posting down the road — mushroomed from a sleepy fishing port of 1,000 people to a Queen City of 50,000 — at once rich, raucous, and refined.

Irrigation helped create an aromatic, floral, and citrus potpourri in California. Two seedless orange trees imported from Brazil in the 1890s would lead to a giant industry built around thousands of orange, lemon, and grapefruit groves. “Cali,” as the woman who serves me California roll sushi from time to time calls it, also became the nation’s leading supplier of almonds, walnuts, prunes, apricots, eggplants, olives, avocados, raisins, melons, and garlic. So many vegetables and fruits grow in the Imperial Valley along the Mexican border that it’s been called “America’s Truck Farm.” Beef cattle, too, grow fat every day on the lush, irrigated grass in this desert.

One onion field there produces about 160,000 large sacks of onions each harvest. There are 50 or so fat onions to a sack. So that’s 8 million onions from a single field. Pass the breath mints!

Something is always being harvested or planted in this breadbasket in the sweltering desert, where, in mid-summer, daytime temperatures routinely top 40° (104° Farenheit). This agronomic paradise was made possible by an ingenious system of irrigation canals diverted from the Colorado River over in Arizona.

Water flow is controlled by gravity alone, starting with great gushes and ending in a steady flow into cement ditches alongside California’s fields. Nearby giant cities have long coveted that bountiful water supply for sure.

A couple of other landmarks in the California’s Southland: Imperial Dunes, blinding white, ever shifting and changing, but a favorite haunt of daredevils on dunebuggies. And the Salton Sea, which stretches from the Imperial Valley northward toward the posh resort city of Palm Springs. This is actually California’s largest lake. Devoid of life because evaporation created salinity levels in some spots that are 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, it was formed by accident in 1905, when gates to the farmers’ crude irrigation ditch collapsed, flooding the entire Imperial Valley.

This did have one positive effect: the flood pushed millions kilos of good topsoil into the valley.

Closer to the Southland’s bloated population centers of Los Angeles and San Diego, the earth still looks brown and unappealing. But it could not deter the march of civilization — if you consider row after row of tract houses to be civilized. The “Inland Empire,” some clever promoter called this oft-baked place far from the sea. The U.S. Census Bureau even cobbles together the “empire’s” 4 million people in cities like San Bernardino, Riverside, and Rancho Cucamonga and considers it the third-largest metro area in California and the nation’s 14th-most-populous place.

How many Americans could guess that Greater Rancho Cucamonga would be bigger than Denver, Colorado?

Yup, in a place where, as California crime writer Raymond Chandler once wrote, hot winds “come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” millions of people have pushed out most of the cows and lemon growers.

If you’re in the construction business, even this dusty, brown patch of California has become golden.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Covet. To long or wish for something, often enviously.

Rambunctious. Incredibly active, exuberant, full of energy.

Roustabout. An unskilled laborer, often on the docks or in oilfields or railroad yards.

Unremitting. Persistent, never-ending. To “remit” is to reduce the intensity of something, but unremitting intensity never wanes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hot and Hotter

You name it. If it’s beautiful, California probably has it. Too bad the first view lots of people get of the state is bleak and monotonous.

I’m talking about the Mojave Desert, which people driving into Southern California run smack into. Every time I’m there, I think about Tom Joad as well as the waves of economic migrants called “Okies” who passed that way during a traumatic time in American history.

These were the one million or so unfortunate folks in the 1930s and early ’40s who abandoned their homes in places like Oklahoma and Arkansas to escape the unrelenting wind, dust, and drought that had descended upon them.

In battered old trucks and automobiles that we call “jalopies,” they carried everything they owned toward what they imagined would be a California paradise. In the eyes of local sheriffs and other hateful people along the way who ostracized these downhearted and weary migrants, “Okie” was another word for “scum.”

Writer John Steinbeck wrote a book, "The Grapes of Wrath," about these Dust Bowl travelers. It became a classic. So did the movie based on it, in which Henry Fonda played Tom Joad, a gritty Okie who organized the hungry, hated migrants into unions once they reached California.

I’ll tell you about a precious few remnants still left from those days in a bit. But let’s return to their point of entry: the desert that confronted the Okies as they reached California.

When you’re in the Mojave, often spelled “Mohave,” all your stereotypes of California — the tangled freeways, fancy homes and swimming pools, giddy theme parks, and sandy beaches — disappear. That is, all but the sand part.

As far as the eye can see are scruffy little plants; rumpled, chocolate-colored hills — and did I mention the sand? It’s the perfect place to pull out your “Guide to Western Flora” or some such, and brush up on vegetation such as . . .

. . . the sagebrush, a word you’ve heard if you’ve seen western movies or read “dime novels” about cowboys. This is a scrubby little bush, dusty green in color, that pops up in sandy soil. One of the differences between the windswept, treeless deserts of the Middle East and California’s Mojave is the color that this little plant adds to the horizon. It also holds loose soil in place and helps keep precious — and infinitely rare — rainwater from running off and being wasted.

Palm trees, mesquite bushes and cacti dot the Mojave Desert as well; there’s even a tourist town called “Twentynine Palms,” which has more like 200 Washingtonia palm trees and backs up to Joshua Tree National Park, where many more palm varieties grow.

Cacti come in more than 600 versions. It feels like I’ve bumped into or stumbled over the prickly thorns of all of them.

The mesquite is a tree of life for small desert creatures. It provides shade for animals in places where refuge from the sun would otherwise be impossible. And its seed pods drop nutrients like nitrogen into barren soil. But since burning mesquite wood gives off a fragrant scent that Americans love to smoke into their grilled steaks and chicken, scavengers rip mesquite out of the ground to sell to dealers, severely damaging the ecosystem.

You’ve probably seen photos of the mightiest desert cactus, the giant saguaro, but it grows in one place only: the hot, sandy hills of southern Arizona, one state away. The saguaro cannot tolerate more than a night or two of freezing temperatures. After routinely subjecting plants to temperatures greater than 38° (100° Farenheit), the Mojave Desert can drop below freezing for days on end weeks later.

For a few days each spring, the Mojave explodes in color. Normally drab plants sprout lovely blooms, and vivid wildflowers pop from the rocks and crunchy soil. That’s when a clicking noise disturbs the desert solitude. It’s the sound of thousands of shutters snapping in cameras from Needles to Barstow.

I spent a month in Barstow one day, as a stand-up comedian might say. It’s a dusty piece of shade where 24,000 people and uncounted lizards and scorpions, tarantula spiders, and the most poisonous rattlesnakes in the world — the Mojave green — get along just fine. The locals advise you to ignore these “critters” unless one gets in your shoe.

You see a lot of box cars in Barstow, for it holds the world’s largest rail classification yard. There, sweltering workers shuffle cars among the hundreds and hundreds of freight trains that roll west to Los Angeles, south to San Diego, north to Seattle in Washington, or east to who-knows-where.

Why would anybody want to live in these parts, where it’s so beastly hot that gets only about 8 centimeters of rain — I repeat, rain the depth of your thumb — each year? A pleasant woman in a cowgirl outfit who was venturing out in the withering middle of the day reminded me that it’s clear and refreshing once the sun goes down. “Dress warmly if you’re riding your horse out in the gulches under the stars at night,” she advised me.

Out with the critters after dark? Surely she was jesting.

It takes a rosy eye to appreciate the cruel Mojave. “Devil’s Playground,” they call one bleak stretch of brown earth and sand where you can see heat shimmering off the desert floor. There’s “Fiery Gulch,” too.

And let us not forget America’s most ominous place: the aptly-named “Death Valley.”

The lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere, Death Valley is also the hottest and driest part of the United States. There’s no creek, for instance, in Furnace Creek there, save for the rare times that a cloudburst spawns a flash flood. But there are certainly furnace-like temps. Fifty degrees (122° Farenheit) is a common reading in the heart of the day. So is 38° at MIDNIGHT.

Dervish winds blow sand in your face from great, rippling dunes. Salt, too, from a long-dry lakebed, 86 meters below sea level. It’s this wind that inspired classical composer Ferde Grofé to write the fourth movement of his “Death Valley Suite” about sandstorms.

Even hardy American Indians steered clear of Death Valley. Whites discovered it the hard way in 1849, when prospectors, hurrying to the goldfields in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of there, almost died en masse crossing the blistering-hot desert. No one but lizards, kangaroo rats, sidewinder rattlesnakes, scorpions, and coyotes would have bothered with the place had not borax been discovered.

This borate material was called “white gold” because it could be used for everything from soaps to pottery glazes. Death Valley’s famous “20-mule teams” — actually 18 with two horses — pulled wagons full of the stuff out of the desert. The bigger horses, posted last in line, had the strength to get the heavy wagons going from a dead start.

To this day, a 115-year-old borate laundry “booster” that sponsored the TV show “Death Valley Days,” starring future president Ronald Reagan as the “Old Ranger” in the 1950s, is called “20 Mule Team Borax.”

But you don’t have to rough it in Death Valley. Visitors swim in the pool at the expensive Furnace Creek Inn, scout wildflowers such as the evening primrose, and play golf — if you can believe it in such fiery air — on a course called “the Devil’s Golf Course,” which is full of fantastic ridges and pinnacles of salt. There’s even a huge, 1920s-vintage Mediterranean-style villa called “Scotty’s Castle” in Death Valley. Its story is remarkable; check out the link!

The closest city of any size is Las Vegas, Nevada, 150 kilometers (93 miles) away. On the same day in the winter or early spring, you can leave four meters of Yosemite National Park snow in the Sierra Nevadas and descend 3,000 meters to 40-degree Celsius heat below sea level in Death Valley.

There, National Park Service rangers keep a sharp eye out for visitors who would take home rock or plant specimens or tear up the fragile desert. A good example is the Eureka Dunes, the largest dunes in California. Sandboarding down them using boards similar to ocean surfboards has become popular, but it’s endangering small plant species that live on the dunes. Dirt-bike riders are a menace, too. In too many spots, they have so compacted the fragile, porous soil that precious raindrops cannot get to plant roots. The water runs away, and the vegetation dies.

There were once fearsome stories about Death Valley — that it was ruled by Satan or that there were monsters or poisonous gas in the desert that would kill those who dared cross it. But gold and borax miners — and now tourists — tamed this hottest of America’s hot spots.

Carol and I were among those tourists who made that amazing descent from snowy cold to boiling hot one day. We arrived at the Furnace Creek Inn well after midnight, but it felt like high noon in hell when we stepped out of the car and inhaled the hot, stifling air.

Then we made two poor decisions. Carol turned on a bedstand light in order to read for awhile. (Having driven for hours, I fell right into deep slumber). Little did we know that a door to our balcony had been left open a crack, and as Carol likes to put it, what seemed like “everything that slinks, crawls, or hops” snuck in from the desert. Soon after she turned out the lights and fell asleep herself, Carol awoke and let out a blood-curdling scream! One of the slinkers had dropped from the ceiling onto the bed covers. I jumped up like a jack-in-the-box, certain that the police would come running. No one did. Folks there in Critterville must have been used to ear-piercing screams.

The other dumb move was mine. In order to gauge the severity of a sandstorm that had whipped up as we were leaving Furnace Creek, I buzzed down the driver’s-side car window. The extent of the storm was immediately recorded by the couple of centimeters of sand on the front seat and bridge of my nose.

Speaking of sand, let’s return to my opening story about the migrating Okies. “Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air,” John Steinbeck wrote about the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s that had shattered so many lives back home. “It settled on the corn, piled up on the wires, settled on roofs. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now. The men were silent, and they did not move often. After a while, the men’s faces became hard and angry and resistant.”

Having endured so much sand, and so many indignities on the road west, they were then greeted by the inhospitable Mojave Desert when they arrived in California. Right there, their dream must have seemed like a nightmare.

I met a man named Earl Shelton, who was four years old in 1937 when his mother died on the family’s Oklahoma farm. Then the cotton gave out for lack of water or fertilizer, and Earl’s father, Tom, eked out a living catching and skinning skunks and opossums for ten cents a hide. But he gave up and piled Earl, his brother, a nephew, and himself into a rickety 1929 Model A Ford and set out on what the Okies called the “Mother Road” — legendary U.S. Route 66 — to California.

In early 1941, the Sheltons made it through the forbidding Mojave and then crossed the last pass in California’s Tehachapi Mountains. There, at last, they beheld the fertile valley of their imagination. “Hey, you could see ever’ vineyard, ever’ orange grove, ever’ alfalfa field,” Earl told me. “Potatoes. No pollution. It was absolutely a fantasy picture.”

Like the fictional Tom Joad and his family, the Sheltons were fortunate to secure a spot in one of 17 refugee settlement camps set up under President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration. It was the same camp near the tiny crossroads town of Weedpatch, California, that Steinbeck described thusly:

“Got nice toilets an’ baths, an’ you kin wash clothes in a tub, an’ they’s water right handy, good drinkin’ water, an’ nights the folks plays music an’ Sat’dy night they give a dance. Oh, you never seen anything so nice.”

Tom Shelton and the boys were first assigned a tent amid the sagebrush, then a better tent on a concrete slab. Eventually they got their own tin shack. Earl told me he had fond memories of a childhood spent in the Weedpatch camp, where today the only three remaining wooden buildings from the entire California resettlement effort of 70 years ago still stand. He remembered dances, pie suppers, “sewin’ by the women,” church services, and cakewalks — prancing steps by couples for which the best performance won a cake or other prize.

It was plenty hot in the tin cabin. “My brother and my dad would take a bedsheet out,” Earl recalled. “And there was faucets for ever’ four cabins. Well they would wet that bedsheet, and we’d use that for covers. Well hey, that wet sheet would keep you cool!”

Since there was no woman at their place, the women of the Weedpatch camp helped with laundry and kept an eye on Earl and the other boys after Tom Shelton sank into alcoholism. “For eight years, he never drawed a sober breath,” Earl told me. “And so after I was 12 years old, I raised myself.” The Shelton boys traveled the migrant circuit, picking crops and eating pork and beans and free fruit. Sardines, too, since they were cheap, rich in protein, and high in salt content — a helpful asset when stooping to snatch beans in the hot sun.

It was hard child labor. Earl Shelton harvested potatoes into what were called “stubs,” or sacks that held 25 kilos (56 pounds) of potatoes. For one stub, a kid earned a cent and a half. “I prolly made 30 cents a day or so, you know,” said Earl, who added that he wears the name “Okie” as a badge of pride to this day.

Each October, some of the few hundred Weedpatch campers still alive come together for a “Dust Bowl Festival,” in which everybody revisits Weedpatch’s little buildings and washtubs and cotton scales. There’s dancing, too, though few folks are nimble enough to cakewalk any more.

In the same place where tents and tin shacks once sheltered the displaced Okies, tiny cement cabins stand today. They are home to another wave of migrant workers — Mexicans — who pick beans and onions and melons in the hot California sun.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on  it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Gulch. A narrow gorge carved by a river. In the hot, arid Southwest U.S., there’s often no stream remaining.

Ostracize. To banish, exclude, or expel someone from a group. To be ostracized is to be shunned by others.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

California, There They Go

On our journey through the American West, it’s about time to mosey into California, America’s most populous state by far.

To give you an idea of just how popular this “land of milk and honey” became, California is only 1½ times bigger than another western state — Wyoming — but it has 74 times more people. Of course Pacific Ocean beaches, gorgeous fruit groves, a mostly snowstorm-free climate, 14 major-league sports teams (Wyoming has none), six PGA golf-tour events (none, again, in Wyoming), enough vineyards to qualify as “wine country,” more world-class universities than you can count, several theme parks and gorgeous zoos, and the workplace and playground of movie stars make California awfully enticing.

I didn’t even mention the entire forest of awe-inspiring redwoods — the world’s tallest trees.

So why is everybody leaving?

That’s a rank exaggeration, of course. But alluring California, where easterners were once assured “the streets are paved in gold,” is barely holding steady in population. Many of its moderately wealthy elite are leaving or are gone.

Here are some reasons why:

In the 1980s, California accounted for more than one-quarter of the growth of the entire U.S. population, in part because of a massive influx of legal and illegal immigrants from Latin America and Asia. But since 1991, caught in the crash in home values and the loss of millions of jobs in two severe economic downturns; daunted by increasing gang lawlessness in some of California’s biggest cities; and fed up with earthquakes, killer fires, and mudslides, an estimated seven million people have left the state.

In the early ’90s, a Bekins Company executive reported that the moving company was loading three times as many trucks heading out of the state as it was unloading in California. The exodus has slowed, but even last year, according to the American Movers Conference, the percentage was still 60-40 in favor of departures.

Californians have relocated in droves to the brainy, beautiful Pacific Northwest and in the sparsely settled mountain states. States like Colorado and Utah encouraged the rush by actively luring high-tech firms away from California. Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming enjoyed population spurts of about 2 percent — at least twice the growth rate of most other states — from July 2008 to July 2009, the last period reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. So, to quote the New York Times and reversing a popular phrase of the 18th Century, the new rallying cry is “Eastward, Ho!” out of California.

Out With the Rich, in With the Poor

Thomas Cargill, an economics professor at the University of Nevada at Reno, has observed the California exodus with interest. “The people who are leaving the state are the more highly educated, the upper-income groups,” Cargill told me. “People who are entering California, especially from outside the United States, are what economists call the “low-wage category.” They are not all poor people, but people who because of their educational and skill levels can’t command very high wages in the marketplace. And that has a very serious long-term impact on the state budget.”

Cargill told me this long before the current economic recession made things even worse. Just ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger, who today is battling a $20-billion budget deficit and 12 percent unemployment.

Not the kind of rosy circumstances that keep people in-state.

Experts say some of the departures are due to “white flight” from California’s ever-growing racial diversity, or disgust at the state’s regulation of everything from tent specifications to CO2 emissions. As a grocery company executive told me after he left California for a more quiet life in little Scottsbluff, Nebraska, “There’s too much social nonsense out there.”

Another transplant, Bill Beck, took his family of four from fashionable Newport Beach in 1991 and moved to Idaho’s bland capital city, Boise, where he got a good job as president of a development company. He told me — and this was years ago — that his family’s cost of living had exceeded $100,000 a year in Southern California. A lot of the money, he said, went just to keep up with his neighbors. At parties, he told me, a favorite topic of conversation was getting out of the California “rat race.”

“They used to call them ‘ABC’ conversations,” he said. “It meant, ‘Anywhere but California.’”

Perhaps a Bad Match

I can relate. My family and I lived in a beach suburb of Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and we found lots of annoyances that made it, shall I say, bearable to leave California after one year.

At the first cocktail party that I attended, a fellow came up to me, shook my hand, offered his name, then asked, “What do you do, man?” I started to tell him about my new job at an L.A. radio station. “No, no, man,” he interrupted. “You do grass, coke, what?”

He wasn’t asking about my lawn or my preference in soft drinks. Such encounters, and rising drug problems in our kids’ new schools, left us to wonder where “laid-back” L.A. ended and “stoned” began.

My neighborhood was lovely — full of flowers. But it seemed that everyone, including me, was from somewhere else. On our first day in town, a chipper older man who lived across the street stopped by with a plateful of cookies, welcomed us heartily, and invited us to stop over any time to borrow a rake, a cup of sugar, anything. I thought this was quite neighborly.

But he was back the next day, and the next, and the next, asking if there was anything he could do for us. Pretty soon it was evident what he wanted in return. “By the way,” he finally told me, “I’m an Amway distributor, and if you need any soap suds, shoe polish, lipstick for the Missus, I’m your man.” (Amway products are sold from people’s homes rather than big-box stores.) Before long, he was pestering me to come over and watch a video about becoming an Amway products salesman myself, with him as my supplier. Finally, I had to tell him to leave us alone.

The very next day, a note in delicate calligraphy appeared in our mailbox. It read something like, “Hi!! We saw the moving van and knew you must have come quite a ways. We live just down the street, and we’d like to help make you feel at home in Manhattan Beach. Please stop by!!! We’ll tell you all about the community.” The note was signed with the couple’s name and their address a few houses away.

Then came this postscript: “By the way, we represent Amway products, and if you ever need something, we’ve got it for you!”

The town was crawling with Amway salesmen!! An anomaly, no doubt, but the experience was the first of many that gave us the idea that, to get ahead in fast-moving, competitive California, you had to have an “angle.”

On the Road to Nowhere

Our home was 40 kilometers (25 miles) from my workplace in Hollywood, north of Los Angeles. L.A. is ginormous — gigantic and enormous —as you can see if you fly in from the east at night. After hours of virtual darkness, you cross the San Bernardino Mountains and behold a dazzling spectacle of lights below, clear to the Pacific Ocean.

A 40-kilometer commute to a really good job would have been tolerable if the spaghetti tangle of freeways between south and north L.A. had been passable. But even five or six lanes on each side of the road — it’s seven now in some spots — were not sufficient to keep traffic moving. So I took what Los Angelenos call “surface streets,” as if freeways don’t have surfaces. Each day was a cat-and-mouse game, trying to beat this light, get the edge at that intersection, find new shortcuts through somebody else’s quiet streets.

No wonder people at the radio station were cranky before their work even started. Only when they talked about their avocations — their skateboarding or surfing or wine sampling — did their countenances brighten. They had daydreams if not dreams, none of which made the job of motivating them any easier.

One day, a Manhattan Beach patrol car followed me for three blocks as I strolled down to the beach. I wasn’t a menacing figure, I didn’t think, but the patrol officer pulled alongside, buzzed down his window, and asked me what I was doing and where I was going. When I told him, he replied, “OK, no problem. Most people drive around here.”

Californians even have their own lingo about it. They speak of the 5, the 99, the 405, the Santa Monica, the Pomona, and so forth. Freeways all — the “free” being a misnomer when it comes to open lanes or making good time.

“They used to call them ‘ABC’ conversations,” he said. “It meant, ‘Anywhere but California.’”

My Kingdom for a Maple

I also longed for eastern greenery and even humidity. And for seasons. Los Angeles has three of them:
•A perpetual spring from March through December, when daytime temperatures are moderate, nights are ideal for barbecuing, but the air is often afoul with automobile exhaust. • A quick, cool winter in January and February, when storms off the Pacific prompt mudslides that can send fine homes sliding down the bluffs above Laurel Canyon and Malibu. • And a week or two of summer sometime in July or August, when broiling “Santa Ana” winds off the desert blow westward, blocking ocean breezes and turning the L.A. basin into a terrarium of smog.

For decades, most Californians had gladly put up with it all in return for the state’s amenities — not to mention the astronomic increase in their savings and home values. Yes, the cost of living was high, but ordinary people grew extraordinarily rich. At least on paper.

Kelly Peterson, a commercial banker who left for a better job in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the mid-1990s, described Southern California as “a love affair gone bad.” “Growing up elsewhere,” he told me, “I always thought California was the perfect place to live. For [our family], I guess the dream was broken. It let us down. In the end, it had gotten to the point where I don’t think the California that most people think of in their minds really exists anymore.”

Others told me they left because they feared gang violence, the spread of drugs into suburban neighborhoods, and what some described as a “valley girls” mentality. “Valley Girl” was a 1983 movie that depicted a bored, spoiled, hedonistic California lifestyle and gave us phrases such as “totally, dude” that, like, you know, made the whole nation, like, seem like slackers.

For two decades now, Californians have taken what, in many cases, was considerable money that they accumulated in California and moved to cleaner, safer, less crowded, more scenic mid-sized towns elsewhere. There, they easily qualified for good jobs and bought magnificent homes dirt cheap, by California standards. That left enough money to open trendy boutiques, gift shops, art galleries, and fresh-fish markets that seemed an odd fit in the dusty towns of the Old West.

Their free spending drove up the cost of housing for everyone else and turned many of their new neighbors against them. “If they want to come to our rural states and tell us how to live our lives,” a Pocatello, Idaho, electrician told me, “then they’re not welcome.”

Emmett Watson, a Seattle, Washington, newspaper columnist, groused to me that “Californians come up here, and what they’re like, they’re like a cat that adopts you, you know. He comes to your doorstep. Well, that cat comes in and just takes over. And it never occurs to the cat, or the Californian, that we can do without them very easily.”

On the other hand, even Kelly Peterson, whose disillusionment with California led him to leave for Nevada, got his back up about California stereotypes. “I have every right to move to a place just the same as anyone else does,” he says. “I’m sorry if I’m from California and been exposed to whatever culture I’ve been exposed to. Wherever I’m from, if I choose a new place and try to make a lifestyle that’s comfortable for myself and for my family, I would say to those people, ‘Deal with it.’”

There’s a Catch-22 at work here. The influx of Californians raises the sophistication, cultural and educational levels, home values, and product options in what had been rather ordinary western towns. But the newcomers’ very presence destroys the beauty and solitude that drew them there. Wildlife habitats have been disrupted by the intrusion of housing tracts. And pristine valleys fill with traffic and pollution, just like the smog clouds that Californians left behind.

“It’s not a good idea to say you’re from California,” Bill Beck in Boise told me. “Californians tend to tell the people in Idaho, ‘You’re a country bumpkin, you’re a hick. I’m going to show you what a nice house is like, how to run a company, what makes a good restaurant.’ Pretty soon, people resent you.”

Despite all these troubling vibes about California, I look forward to sharing stories of some memorable — though not all beautiful — places in the “Golden State.”

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on  it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Calligraphy. Practiced and beautiful handwriting. Some people actually make a living by writing in delicate, florid longhand.

Catch-22. A predicament in which no option or solution really works. An example: You need a car for a certain job. But without a job, you don’t have money to buy a car. The term is taken from the name of a 1961 satirical novel by Joseph Heller

Garrulous. Talkative, gabby, especially about trivial matters.

Terrarium. A bowl, glass box, or other confined container in which to grow plants.

Friday, March 12, 2010


You get your history first in this posting.

The oft-told stories of America’s development often paint an incomplete picture. Schoolkids learn how the British, French, and Dutch colonized the East Coast of North America; about the slow but steady subjugation of native tribes there and beyond the Appalachian Mountains; of Spanish missionaries’ seeding the faith in what is now California; and about pioneers’ migration through and eventual settlement of the desolate inland West.

But Spain’s other adventures on the continent get short shrift. In 1565, 42 years before the first British settlers even reached North America at Jamestown, Virginia, Spanish admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles dropped anchor and settled down in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. He planted the Spanish flag and claimed all of Florida for his king and queen.

Menendez and his troops quickly obliterated Fort Caroline, a meager fortification that French Protestant Huguenots were trying to establish nearby, then set off to explore the rest of the Florida Peninsula. In time, Spain would claim and halfheartedly control the entire Gulf of Mexico coast as far west as present-day Louisiana.

By that time other Spaniards were entrenched in the Far West as well. Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capital city, was founded in 1610 — 166 years before Americans got around to declaring independence from their British colonizers.

So for a couple of hundred years, Spanish, as much as English, was the language of the land, and a string of Spanish missions ran all the way from Texas, across New Mexico — which included what is now Arizona — and up into California as far as San Francisco.

But today, let’s zero in on New Mexico. Again, it was the very northern part of New Spain above the Rio Grande River, and later Mexican turf, long before Americans got hold of it via a brief war with Mexico in 1846-47.

To this day almost half of New Mexico’s population speaks Spanish regularly, many as a first language. And the people who preceded the Spanish — American Indians, primarily Navajos and Apaches — are an integral part of the culture. Living primarily in 19 pueblos, or villages, they make up 10 percent of the state’s population. Indian pueblos are tourist attractions, and the native people’s turquoise jewelry and multicolored, hand-woven rugs are spectacular.

Much of New Mexico was so empty and arid that the U.S. government felt free to develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos and White Sands in the New Mexico desert in the 1940s, and the personal computer was invented in the state’s largest city. That’s Albuquerque, a place of half a million people whose name few people I’ve met can correctly spell.

Nor can New Mexico itself, apparently. The name is borrowed from a Spanish town, Alburquerque. That place got its name from the Arabic “Abu-al-Qurq,” or "Land of the Cork Oak” from the days when North African Moors controlled the area, on the Portuguese border.

The story of how New Mexico lost the first “r” in Alburquerque is an interesting diversion: In 1706, the settlement in the New World was founded and named for a duke from the Spanish place, and spelled “Alburquerque,” with both r’s, just like the duke did. It was only after gringos — the Americans — took over the little New Mexico town two and a half centuries later that the first “r” disappeared on maps and signs. Apparently we, today, aren’t the only ones who find the name hard to spell!

As you read on, visualize a “Land of Enchantment,” as New Mexico justifiably calls itself. Every clear day in full view of many lucky New Mexicans, the shimmering sun dances among low purple mountains and the higher, redder Sange de Cristo range. Sangre de Cristo: Spanish for “Blood of Christ.” Red rays even stretch in four directions on the New Mexico flag to emphasize the state’s reverence for the sun.

Years ago, Tim Gallagher, then editor of the Albuquerque Tribune newspaper and now a California public-relations man, traveled extensively across America and enjoyed it. “But,” he told me, “I love no land like New Mexico in the morning.”

Each morning when he watched the sunrise over the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, he thought of the English writer D. H. Lawrence, who once visited New Mexico and was enthralled. “‘Touch this country,’ Lawrence wrote, ‘and you will never be the same again.’”

Thousands of artists have moved to New Mexico just because of its vivid, yellow light. Georgia O’Keeffe — the legendary painter of weathered cow’s skulls and flowers and desert landscapes mixed into the same painting — was one of them.

My VOA colleague Bill Torrey, normally a fairly hardboiled reporter, effusively described his first New Mexico visit. “Thirsty trees, mostly cottonwoods, crowd the riverbanks,” he reported. “And an emerald ribbon of irrigated fields leads you south, right into the heart of Albuquerque. Like Santa Fe, it’s a city of tans, golds, and browns.”

Colors again. Colors everywhere, in New Mexico’s art and jewelry, its mountains and missions, and what seems like a sea of adobe in Santa Fe — much of it a faux knock-off of the original. Impish colors, too, on the hundreds of hot-air balloons that waft over Albuquerque during its Balloon Fiesta each October.

The state delivers culinary fire in the palate-searing green chili served in Spanish-speaking villages. Savoring it — slowly and carefully with handy glasses of ice water or beer — you can almost feel the march of the Spanish conquistadors arriving from Mexico. What I like best, though, is New Mexico’s unhurried pace. You don’t see many suits and ties or people with briefcases rushing about. It’s laid-back Louisiana with a Spanish accent.

But there’s a less idyllic side as well. There is wrenching poverty and unemployment in New Mexico’s Indian and immigrant Mexican populations. Ongoing problems with illegal immigration, too. And lots of alcoholism.

Little Spanish Church in the Vale

As Americans retrace our path toward complex ethnic diversity, it’s easy to overlook the small, isolated Spanish settlements in the New Mexico mountains. As I mentioned, the colonial civilization that had intruded from Mexico was well entrenched among the piñion and juniper trees before the American republic was even an idea.

Among the early villages 2,400 meters (7,800 feet) up in the Sangre de Cristos was the farming community of Las Trampas, first cleared by 12 families in 1751. Why it’s called “The Traps,” in English, is not clear, since beaver trapping was not introduced until the 19th Century. The name may refer to the Spanish settlers’ first assignment. Though they were bean and corn farmers, they were asked by the Church to build a barrier against marauding Comanche Indians.

These simple farmers also erected a modest chapel, the Church of San José de Gracia, on the Las Trampas plaza. The church’s adobe walls and crude wooden roof, slathered with mud, were influenced by the nearby Pueblo Indians. But inside, the ornate nave, choir balcony, even side chapels that they somehow squeezed into the tiny sanctuary were high Spanish.

Today Las Trampas, which snoozes on a lightly traveled mountain road between Santa Fe and the stylish art and skiing colony of Taos, is so small that you won’t find it on many New Mexico maps. A few simple house trailers and cabins, a gas station, and a little café form the community. Spanish is still the working language, and residents have resisted efforts to integrate them into the larger, English-speaking society.

Years ago, they even fought attempts to have their little church declared a historic site, for fear Anglo entrepreneurs would open souvenir shops or interrupt the serenity of the mountain with tours.

The little adobe church has survived, thanks to villagers and volunteers who have periodically stepped forward to save its sun-dried bricks from caving in. The walls regularly crack because of microscopic undulation caused by the extreme winter cold, followed by blazing summertime heat, in the New Mexico highlands.

Twice in 20th Century, prominent American architects who had fallen in love with New Mexico and retired there stepped forward to direct the restoration of the chapel. A few years ago, with help from outside volunteers, San José de Gracia parishioners made new adobe mud, repainted the interior walls, and cleaned the icons and artwork.

Outside, the old fortification wall long ago crumbled into dust. Weeds shoot up around the chapel and amid the weathered headstones of the tiny church cemetery. A circuit priest drives up from Chimayo to say mass on Sunday. And even though Trampaseños are still suspicious of strangers, in the summer months visitors are allowed to take a peek inside.

Those who do are amazed at the simple beauty of the ornate wood carvings and icons, and the magnificent painted altar screen, in such primitive surroundings.

Turns out the church at obscure Las Trampas is no trap. It’s a treasure.

Spooky Theater

Let’s close with the story of another special New Mexico place, this time in the big city:

Across America, you’ll find beautifully restored theaters — movie palaces from the golden age of motion pictures in the 1920s and ’30s, or the original homes of great vaudeville and musical-stage performances. Many boasted a stylized neoclassical, Egyptian, or Royal French décor, complete with crystal chandeliers, statues and urns, intricate plasterwork and gilt-leaf moldings, and ceiling paintings copied from the masters.

In those glory days in bustling Albuquerque, an Italian immigrant named Oreste Bachechi made a fortune selling liquor, some of it to movie stars whose cross-country trains stopped to refuel outside of town. He became a movie aficionado and resolved to build Albuquerque’s first palace in which to show films.

But he wanted something different, something in keeping with the Indian influence of his New Mexico surroundings. So he sent his architect, Carl Boller, through the state to inspect native artifacts. And then Bachechi (bah-KECK-ee) built a movie house unlike any other in America. Boller textured plaster ceiling beams to look like logs, disguised air vents as Navajo blankets, shaped light fixtures like war drums, and put down genuine Navajo rugs in profusion.

That was just the beginning. Around the theater, Boller placed amber lights inside buffalo and longhorn-steer skulls, which glowered menacingly at patrons through empty eye sockets. Albuquerque natives remember the terror they felt as small children as the lights went down and the skulls began to glare. Painted thunderbirds and sunbursts adorned the walls and lampshades.

So did swastikas — the American Indian symbols of happiness, life, and freedom. I imagine they sent shivers throughout theater audiences all through World War II, when documentary newsreels were screened showing swastika armbands on goose-stepping Nazi soldiers.

“America’s Foremost Indian Theater,” Bachechi called his creation, though no one could think of any other Indian theaters. To name it, he held a contest. The winner was “KiMo,” which in the Tiwa Indian tongue translates as “mountain lion” but broadly describes anything that is “king of its kind.” Bachechi even gave the snack bar and gift shop Indian names. And he hired 10 “usherettes” in Indian garb to work opening night in 1927, when an Indian baritone was among the featured acts.

Three years later, the KiMo added the state’s first neon lights to its marquee, and it drew capacity audiences during World War II.
Later, as in many other old movie houses, the quality of both the films and the audience declined, and the KiMo survived by showing pornographic movies.

The nation’s “foremost Indian theater” closed in 1968, then sat empty for more than 15 years until Albuquerque’s mayor pushed through public financing that led to a glorious restoration. Today the KiMo Theatre shows classic movies and offers its stage to regional theatre and musical performances.

And the steer skulls glow eerily again.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on  it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Gringo. Latins’ disparaging term for English-speaking foreigners, especially Americans.

Mesmerize. To enthrall someone with almost magnetic charm.

To completely destroy or do away with something.

To thickly spread something, such as suntan lotion on your back.

Vaudeville. A zany form of stage entertainment, popular in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. It featured comedians, dancers, magicians — even animal acts. The origin of the name is in doubt. Some say it’s taken from the French voix de ville, or “voice of the city.” Or it may have come from the Vau de Vire valley in France, known for its satirical songs.