The Frigate

I’m reading a beautiful book, The Desert and the Sown by Gertrude Bell. She was a fascinating woman, most notably (for me) she was an archeologist. This book is her journal about her travels in Syria and Palestine and was originally published in 1907. I want to be her when I grow up. 

Her journey — as she relates it — is captivating and mildly incomprehensible. I recently traveled (with her) to spend some nights at Krak des Chevaliers. A crusader castle I came to “know” through T. E. Lawrence’ thesis Crusader Castles and the research I did on the Crusades for my book, Savior.

Krak des Chevaliers

After wandering with this incredible woman for a couple hundred pages, it was a relief to reach a place I “knew.” Not that I really care all that much, but a little grounding is nice. She is welcomed by the resident political leader and housed in a beautiful room in one of the towers. After the formalities are completed, she’s able to retire to her room. She is soon visited by the man’s wife and a Christian woman who speaks English. Gertrude Bell spoke fluent Arabic which sets both her hostesses at ease. Dinner is brought in for the women to share. Then, “When dinner was over we returned to my room, a brazier full of charcoal was brought in, together with hubble-bubbles (hubbly-bubbly) for the ladies, we settled ourselves for an evening talk.”

And I’m thinking, “This long-ago British archeologist whom I admire is sitting with Arab women and a hubble-bubble in a tower of the Krak des Chevaliers.” Hubble-bubble is a hookah. 

When I started this life journey — I consider it to have begun not when I was born, but when I was ten — I had a lot of dreams of traveling the whole world and getting to know the people in it. I didn’t appreciate then how big the world is or how many people there are. I didn’t even seriously consider languages. Then that other reality I didn’t know about — money. And, as we grow up and experience life, we are ourselves transformed. That 10-year-old girl is still me but with a little more knowledge. She also wanted a dog and we know how that turned out. 😉

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria were the location of my 10-year-old girl dreams because of David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia which I loved beyond logic. “I am going to be T. E. Lawrence when I grow up.” Yep. I said that. It was my first fixation. I went so far as to go to school wearing a sheet on my head… From Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I learned some Arabic, along with customs and history. In China, many of my closest friends were Chinese Muslims from the Turkic part of China, and, oddly enough, I learned a little bit more Arabic in Guangzhou along with MORE customs, greetings, and their significance. 

Back in the US, teaching at the international school, I taught many Arabs — employees of Saudi Airlines, various Middle Eastern governments, some teachers, and some businessmen. My affinity — sympathy? — must have been obvious because pretty soon the Good X and I were invited to dinner at my students’ homes. In San Diego, far far far away from a castle in Syria, I shared dinners very like the one Gertrude Bell described. 

I imagined Gertrude Bell sitting on the floor and the women passing the pipe between them, smoking tobacco mixed with apricots. I know that sweet aroma and how lovely the custom is. I could imagine being in that tower room in Krak des Chevaliers. In my experience, the hubble-bubble was passed in a mixed, family group, and the women didn’t join. It’s OK. I didn’t want to, but the hospitality was the same. 

Reading about the dinner and the hubble-bubble, I saw that, in a way, my dreams came true. Teaching international students for 15 years, the whole world came through my classrooms. I got to spend time with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, the Emirates, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, and Egypt. 

But to have been Gertrude Bell? To travel on horseback through the Middle East with various guides and protectors so long ago? Before oil, before the current boundary lines, before the ambient continuing horror? Wow. The complexity of political relationships she writes about — and navigates — is beyond my understanding. But…every time she stops beside the road or enters a home she is welcomed with coffee. I understand that…

For years I wore around my neck a tiny, golden dallah, a coffee pot, given me by Salem who jokingly called himself the Epic Legendary Hero. He was a brilliant, hilarious minister from Kuwait who spent two years in the US and got an advanced degree in business. I appreciated Arabic coffee in itself and in the ritual so much that it got to be kind of a joke, but the sweet kind of joke that you love. When Salem gave me the golden dallah he was returning to Kuwait for good. 

Gertrude Bell quotes a 10th-century poet that I had never heard of, Al-Mutanabbi. It’s a verse in which, Gertrude Bell writes, “…the poet puts from him the joys of youth”

Here goes: 

“I have longed for age to still the tumult in my brain, 
and why should I repine when my prayer is fulfilled? 
We have renounced desire save for the spear points, 
Neither do we dally, except with them. 
The most exalted seat in the world is the saddle of a swift horse, 
And the best companion for all time is a book.”

I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the striving years, the holding up the sky years, and these years that I’m now having the good luck to live. I’ve begun a lot of things at “this late date” — I could never “be” an artist before. I could never “do” journalism before. I moved here without knowing anyone and made a life. Maybe those things are the equivalent of Al-Mutanabbi’s “spear points.” I’m no less curious about things than I was when I was 10, but I have a better handle on geography. 

The stereotypes surrounding “old age” have never been wholly true. Reading this bit of a poem written more than a thousand years ago, I thought of how literature opened a larger world to me than time, money, a profession, and destiny (spelled d-o-g-s) allowed. And I thought of how my friend Lois — who’s in her sixties — bought a beautiful horse last year, a horse she helped train and loves with all her heart. ❤️ 

There is no Frigate like a Book 

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the human soul

Emily Dickinson

The prompt for today is “Chautauqua” — And I wrote about that here! Chatauqua

P.S. A movie was made about Gertrude Bell not that long ago. It stars Nicole Kidman. I found it unwatchable.

May Services in the Big Empty

Yesterday Bear and I sneaked out. The weather forecast promised the chance of rain and the word “breezy.” Breezy here means winds under 30 mph — perfect on a summerish day. It keeps the bugs at bay and the skin nicely cooled. There was little rain, but the breezy definitely panned out.

We had the Refuge to ourselves except for the legitimate residents who, during the day-time, this time of year, are nesting birds, raptors, ravens, garter snakes, frogs, and (you’re lucky if you see one!) tiger salamanders, along with the invisible small and large mammals.

Hither and yon (always wanted to write “hither and yon”) were the shells of duck eggs. In one spot, there were six broken eggs. That spot, a turn-out with several large boulders to keep people in their place, is a favorite of weasels. Judging from the interest my dogs show in the nether realms of those boulders, I’m sure a few weasels have snug little burrows down there. (Always wanted to write “nether realms”)

The dogs don’t get to explore the edges of the road until October. I have not seen a rattler at the Refuge, but if I were a rattler, I’d live there. There is lots of food, water, and hiding places. Bear and Teddy are used to the change and have stopped yearning to examine the road’s soon-to-be-overgrown grassy horizons.

A red-tail hawk observes the world and hunts from four trees across the Big Empty. In all likelihood — and hopefully — he has mouths to feed at home. He and his spouse nest in some old cottonwoods near an abandoned ranch. Red-tail hawks are my oldest raptor friends, and I love to see them. I get homesick for California (I admit it) and seeing this guy and his lady connects my worlds. He was trying so hard to find food, but the little birds — red-winged blackbirds, Meadowlarks, and the like were persecuting him almost beyond endurance. They’re right to be vigilant. Both they and their eggs are hawk food. The last I saw him, he was perched in a tree near my dogs’ favorite trail, one we take in winter.

On the other end of our walk, two ravens were fighting the same battle. While one hunted, the other drew fire. I don’t know if this pair — which has been here since last fall — nests nearby. I think they must.

It looked like the hawk and the ravens had a deal, “OK, Dude, you take the prey from that grove of trees west, and Harriet and I will take the east, sound good?”

Spring is hard. I watch it from start to finish, and I think it is exhausting for everybody. The birds arrive in March/April and follow their instincts, instincts that, to a human, look like “hope” and “love” in all its slow-greening beauty and libidinous frenzy. Bachelor birds preen, strut and call. Seeds beat their future against the still frozen earth. “C’mon! We only have a few months!” Raptors arrive adding an airborne danger to the ambient canine danger. Voles and mice shudder in their little shoes. Rising waters flood muskrats out of their homes. Everyone’s hungry — in the real world, food is scarce in spring. All the beings do the best they can. Summer’s bugs — which I hate — are somebody’s food. And then? Late summer brings the May Fly (sign, to me, of good things to come) and plenty to eat, seeds, harvest, and the whole show, and DAMN! After all that, we’re tired!!! I believe that nature welcomes winter as gratefully as I do.

I paused to look at the golden sedges I painted after a beautiful snowy walk with Bear this past February. The sedges are beginning to fall over, surrendering to the next sedge generation.

I watched the wild sky, with storm cells desperate to form, fighting high pressure and warmth and wind. Virga tried to reach the ground. Mammatus clouds built and dissipated. And there between earth and sky, the avian hunters, and lower still, my dog and I.

Mammatus clouds forming.

Then I came home and had a cup of tea 🙂


The news and Facebook (social media) diet continues, and I don’t imagine returning though I haven’t deactivated my Facebook account. Even to me that seems a little anti-social since my FB friends are mostly really friends. It is NOT about them. It’s something else. Over this past month I’ve realized some things that surprised me.

My “habituation” (I call it addiction, but whatev’) started in 2020 though the slide began during the Presidential election of 2016 when I got the idea that I needed to watch the debates. I actually didn’t need to watch the debates. They introduced me to the evil, swirling vortex, or train-wreck, that is difficult to turn away from, impossible to stop, impossible to change. This wasn’t a real “problem” for me until 2020 when the ambient train-wreck reached a new level of horror in the reality of Covid 19. It was impossible for me NOT to watch TFG, Dr. Scarf and Dr. Fauci give their almost daily presentations on the “progress” being made against the virus. Then the news outlets made their comments and commented on each other and on and on and on ad nauseum. It seemed like yammering from an insane asylum.

It was amplified in my state by news focusing on anti-maskers crashing restaurants, the local outcry against closing businesses, and the campaigning for the 2020 elections when it became very important for people to let everyone know their politics. Then the election, all of that drama, then the still unbelievable events of January 6, 2021.

And then….the ONLY information about Covid vaccines that was relevant to me was posted on Facebook. Facebook is the daily news of rural communities.

It wasn’t like I could DO anything except find the vaccine bus and roll up my sleeve.

I realized the other night what had happened. I was watching a film. A character was dying of cancer. It suddenly hit me that more than 1,000,000+ Americans have died of Covid, never mind the world. I KNEW that on an intellectual level, but had not KNOWN it on the level on which it should be known, the level of horror and sorrow. I wept. Poor Bear was looking at me like, “Why? Everything seems pretty good to me, Martha.” I remembered the acrimony and politics surrounding the spread of a virus which was/is basically out for its own survival. All of it was irrational, and in that irrationality the equivalent of half the population of Denver died.

Allegedly scrolling releases dopamine into our brains. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t think it’s the scrolling; I think it’s the distraction and that we share it with a bunch of people who are in the same “cyber place,” creating a kind of community.

Why didn’t that hit me before?

I thought about what it has all been. “What food did your grandmother fix that you wish you could have again?” “What was your favorite outfit in high school?” “What were you doing 50 years ago?” “You’ve been tagged.” Scroll, scroll, scroll, click the news, “Classified documents have been found in TFG’s posterior aperture” “MTG opens her idiot malicious mouth yet again and garners reactions because she’s what she is.” “Your Congressional representative persists in whoring, and you can’t stop her or make her care about what matters to you.” Etc etc etc etc.

Distraction, distraction from hopelessness with the illusion of being informed, of belonging.

Driving home from the Refuge yesterday I found myself behind a guy on a bicycle. The bike was laden with full panniers, orange, matching the guy’s sweater. The road is 65 mph, two lanes, narrow, with ditches on both sides, and is the province of hay trucks and the like. I slowed way down behind him, looking for the chance to get around him safely. My opportunity came and I pulled around him. When I regained my lane, I looked back. He was a bearded codger in a cowboy hat — yeah a helmet is probably smarter, but… I waved at him in my rear view mirror and he waved back. I got misty. Why?

I thought of the early days of the pandemic when everyone was sheltering and isolation was the thing. I remembered leaving the Refuge and passing one of the farm houses. A guy sitting on a picnic table caught my eye. He waved and smiled like “Hi, human!” as if we were each on a deserted island. I waved and smiled back with the same spirit. I then thought today (as the speed limit went from 45 to 30) and the guy a retreating orange dot in my rear view mirror, “It’s easier to be angry than it is to be sad, easier to be angry at outside things we can’t change than to face what’s happening inside us that we can’t understand or change, either. Anger is a good emotion for cloaking sadness and fear.”


Before I saw the bike rider, I passed a farm house. The woman was walking the long driveway to her mailbox, followed by a very happy Border Collie. She was staring at her phone. In real life, she was surrounded by a lovely afternoon with a wild sky and shifting shadows. Her dog imagined going somewhere. But…

We humans seek it. I’m distracting myself by writing this now, but I’m also expressing myself and, god-willing, I’m doing a half-way decent job.

I thought that the whole thing might — for me — come down to the quality of our distractions. Ideally the distractions we seek GIVE us something. Just a personal example, finding that folder, sharing and typing those stories about dogs and Mission Trails was, for me, a positive distraction. Today I got a comment from someone who wrote, “That’s my back yard!” Wow. To learn that another young woman is hiking there and loves it?

Going to the Refuge with Bear and Teddy, and writing articles are also, for me, positive distractions. Getting rid of stuff is another positive distraction. My yard and garden are positive distractions. My blog here is a distraction and, I think, a constructive one. I think my grammar and typing are improving slowly, anyway. 😀 My survival doesn’t depend on any of these things.

The reward to me so far of the changes is I’m less depressed. That’s important. So what’s depression? It’s a lot of things, but one of the things is it can be the result of shoving emotions into inappropriate pockets in the soul. Some people have defined it as “anger turned inward,” and I think that’s an explanation some of the time. I am angry over quite a few things but anger is information and needs to be questioned. It’s so unpleasant that any reasonable person would want to get away from it (IMO). I’m sad, scared and angry. It’s so much better to recognize this, I think.

So many things in our daily life are mysterious. The old Hispanic guy to whom I have often given rides around town? Once he told my neighbor he’d walked to Del Norte. My neighbor didn’t believe he’d really walked to Del Norte (14 miles), but somehow I didn’t doubt it.Last week I was in Alamosa. He was there and he was walking home. That’s 18 miles. I wanted to stop for him, but something he said to me one morning stopped me. I had asked him that day, “Where are you off to?”

He said, “I don’t know. I’m just going walking.”

When I saw him so far from home last week, I began looking for a way to pull over but there was none. Then I thought, “Maybe he’s just walking.” He looked peaceful, purposeful and happy. Now, though, naturally, I’m on the lookout for him. It’s entirely possible he just wanted to go to McDonalds and went.

Seeing him there made me think of a poem I saw in the late 80’s in Tijuana, written on a red board with white letters in Spanish and English. I cannot remember all of it, just the last 2 of four lines,

“Y ni lo me detengo,

but still walking can be real.”

(…and I don’t even stop it, but still walking can be real)

It doesn’t make a lot of sense like that, but the idea stayed with me, that all kinds of shit happens, but “still walking can be real.” As I drove past this person I wanted to pick up, but didn’t, that was in my mind. Anyway now I’m on the lookout for him.

BUT — my grandmother made the best apple/raisin pie. My favorite outfit in high school was a long, wool vest, a navy blouse, navy and white plaid culottes that hit mid-thigh, navy tights and oxblood shoes that defy description. In the featured photo I’m wearing that outfit. Fifty years ago I was probably in an American lit class at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was unhappily married and scared shitless. In other words, situation normal; all fucked up. 🤣

XV — People Gotta’ Get from Here to There, Dammit!

Mission Trails



“Is your dog friendly?”

“Oh yeah. She loves children. Your kids can pet her.”

“Nice evening.”

“Sure is.”

“Did you see any deer?”

“Just tracks.”

“I haven’t seen deer up here since three years ago.”

“I saw some last December, there on that hill.”

“Well, that’s good. It’s good to know they’re still here. Who knows what will happen when the road comes through.”

“What road?”

“Oh, they’re joining up with the 52.”


“Back there someplace. Near the boundary with Miramar.”


“Well, they’ve had it the works for ten years or more.”


“To ease the traffic on Mission Gorge. Of course, what’s the point? Those people in Tierra Santa keep voting down the bridge, so they’ll never get Jackson Drive through.”

“What if this road is built?”

“It’s being built. Go on down to Santee. You can see how they’re doing it.”

“They’ll be building it all winter? They’re going to have equipment here all winter?”

“Yep. They don’t want to have those workmen walking around here now with snakes all over the place.”

Boring factual background: The “52” was a highway that ended up going from Santee — a burb east of San Diego to La Jolla, by the ocean. The western part had existed for a long time and until the eastern suburbs started to grow, I don’t think anyone thought it would need to be longer. But those suburbs DID grow, and so the 52 “had” to extend WAAAAY out there.

Tierra Santa was a comparatively new community just west of Mission Trails. People in that community did NOT want the traffic going through their community. I don’t know what deals were brokered to make that happen.

When Mission Trails became a park, and I began working with the board, I learned how deals like this work. There was another place where a different major road was supposed to cross the landscape from north to south. It was never built. That turned out to be part of the deal. Another part of the deal was a “mitigation area” where the highway department had to pay for returning a damaged part of this landscape back to its original state. In my stint on the board, I learned that deals like these are complicated and take years to finalize.

The road also had to provide significant animal crossings which were, of course, under bridges. Because of the mitigation agreement, the bridges had to be built a certain way to provide for the happy prowling of ungulates, canids, bobcats, and mountain lions. Part of the mitigation was a long section of a new (to me) canyon, Spring Canyon. It was a beautiful canyon and I got to know it well.

In late spring of 1992, after the Good X had moved out, I hurt my left knee — an ACL tear that, because I had no insurance, was treated “conservatively” rather than surgically. Grrrrrr…. The immediate upshot was I was not allowed to hike for 3 months. The long-term upshot is that I have a fucked up knee. I spent half of those three months in a knee brace and walked with crutches. When those six weeks were over, my “doctor” cleared me to walk cautiously BUT I was allowed to ride a bike. I get that a bike is low-impact exercise and easy on knees, but I got a mountain bike. One bright spot of that period of my life was learning how fun THAT is. Because of my knee, I absolutely refused to fall. Spring Canyon became my favorite place to ride, and I never fell. 🙂 The only bad thing about mountain biking was that the dogs couldn’t come along.

No nettles in Mission Trails but plenty of poison oak.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s. There is one more story remaining. I may post it later today, who knows. 😀

XIV — Time’s Museum


In the canyon, ghosts of ancient Indians grind dreaming acorns on timeless stone morteros, ghosts and grandsons of ghosts, the granddaughters of ghosts, pounding the yucca to fibers, stretched across the water, woven into baskets, sandals. The memory songs are sung, the fires built, the rain caught in the stone-carved cisterns, the soft invisible footfall past rattlesnakes. 

She approached past the fading blossoms of the lilac, the green grass, now tall, no longer the surprising short lawn of early spring. From the beginning, her heart beat fast and cold. The dogs barked ahead of her, surprising a man sunbathing on a rock. They went ahead. The big snake was there, in front, stretched in the middle of the trail, his sand-red body warming, moving slowly beneath the feet of the running dog. “I will lie quietly beneath this foreign coyote.”

A quick inhalation. A scream. “Stay. Cody, Molly, come!”

The big dog danced over the head of the snake who looked up, hissed, and rattled a slumbrous, half-hearted rattle. The dog barked. The snake lifted its head, lulled out of its apathy. 

She turned and ran, the dogs followed. 

All over California, wherever there are oak groves (almost everywhere) and rocks (almost everywhere), a person can find morteros where the various Indian tribes ground acorns into meal. Mission Trails has two prominent sites. There are several in an area that’s been named “The Grasslands” where there is one large flat patch of gneiss or a gneiss flat patch of stone. There are more in the place I named the Indian Kitchen in Oak Canyon where there is a seasonal stream, only a few yards south of a large oak grove. The Indian Kitchen is along a small fissure. The morteros were dog water bowls. 🐾❤️

Kelly O’Dog, my golden retriever, drinking from a mortero in the Indian Kitchen. Molly is looking off somewhere thinking profound Molly thoughts or watching a lizard. Hard to say.

The first morteros I ever saw were on the way up to the Hale Telescope on Mt. Palomar. The juxtaposition of THAT with the grinding holes was a little mind-blowing.

The Indians who lived (live) in San Diego County in the “olden days” wandered from the sea to the desert, an annual migration for food and warmth. Their primary food source (acorns) grew all across their range. Their shelters and containers were made of willow branches. In my time working with Mission Trails Regional Park, I got to work with some of the leaders of the Kumeyyaay tribe to whom this land “belonged” before the Spanish. If you’re interested, here’s a good film.

The snake in this story didn’t strike. I think he was offering Cody a kind of Rattlesnake Avoidance Training. It didn’t work. I realize NOW that observing all these snakes was teaching me a little something, though.

It seems that when I wrote this Cody the First had come to live with us. He was a very good dog — German Shepherd and??? — but somehow I never fully bonded with him even though we did a lot of fun things together. I liked rollerblading on Fr. Junipero Serra Trail (two miles of paved road with little traffic) and Cody the First was a great companion for that. Thinking about it now, I think it’s because he became my dog shortly before my marriage broke up. He was supposed to have been the Good X’s dog, but…

I had him for only a couple of years. He died from something like 16 snake bites from baby rattlers. He was bizarrely attracted to rattlesnakes and ran into a nest. I now think he could smell them and the smell attracted him. The day he got bit, he was leashed, but pulled furiously away.

The snake in this story was a red diamondback taking a nap, maybe following lunch. They are beautiful and, as a fellow hiker and I agreed, they are very mellow. The snake in the Onward Christian Soldiers Story was also a red diamondback. Rattlesnakes are really NOT interested in putting their venom into something they can’t eat. That’s one thing that makes baby rattlers so dangerous. They don’t KNOW anything. Other rattlesnakes were not as “chill.” The Southern Pacific Diamondback Rattlesnake and the Speckled Rattlesnake are more venomous and more “aggressive” — or defensive?

Reading these stories — which are so rattlesnake centered — I wonder what I was trying to work out and whether I worked through whatever that was. In time, I more-or-less accepted them, but when I wrote this?

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

XIII — Summit, Continued, AND More Wild Dogs


Dusk. He tips the beer back and takes a swallow. The parking lot is emptying. “Well, Lucky, we better go on along home.” The big white dog barks. “Who is it? Well, hi there Maggie. Hi there, you.”


“Where’d you go?”

“Up there.”

“On the ridge?”


“That’s far. When did you get here?”

“3:00. What time is it?”


“It’s great up there.”

“I haven’t been up there in a while. Did you go to the wires?”

“I went to the top. It was wonderful. I could see forever, no houses, nothing, just chaparral.”

“Lucky you can git here so early.”

“I know.” 

“You want a beer?”

“Naw. I have to go home. I’m dirty and it’s getting cold. This poor dog.” She pointed at Truffle. “It was tough sledding for her.”


“She doesn’t like to go down hills, see. Her center of gravity is in her chest. I think she thinks she’s just gonna’ go down in somersaults.”

The hill down the fire road from the top of Fortuna is very steep. Along it are power lines. It was a lot of fun to run down, and I ran down it many many times in ensuing years. Ask me how that worked out for me long term… 🤣

Once coming down that road, my three dogs, the Good X, and I were stopped in our tracks by five coyotes. I held the dogs and the coyotes just looked at us for a few minutes before ambling up the canyon. We continued and turned into the side of the canyon the coyotes had just left. A woman was hiking along saw my dogs and said, “Well, THAT explains all these footprints!” But it didn’t. The coyotes had made the tracks, splashing in the stream. That’s when I realized we probably have no idea what’s going on.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

X — Denoument

Montana Answers

“Yeah, our dogs used to get bit by rattlers. You never knew ’til the dog got sick. I’d say to my dad, ‘What’s wrong with the dog?’ Dad’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just been snakebit.’ Sometimes the dogs’d make it; sometimes not.”

“What happened then?” she asked her uncle. He’d grown up on a ranch west of Billings, Montana.

“Oh, they’d swell all up, here, around the neck. They’d be real sick for a day or two, maybe bleed from the nose, seizures. They’d make it or we’d shoot ‘em. It all depended how much venom they got.”

That conversation with my uncle told me what had killed my dog Maggie. The city vets in San Diego wouldn’t expect a dog to be snakebit, but here in rural Colorado every vet would expect that. Now there’s a rattlesnake venom vaccine. I don’t know how good it is — even vets have given me mixed reviews. I guess its one main advantage is that it slows the progression of the venom so a person has a longer to get the dog help. I also understand that the antivenin has to be matched to the exactly type of rattlesnake.

I was out pretty early this morning with Bear. As we walked I passed a dead garter snake. I had probably run over it. I felt bad for a moment then thought, “Hungry birds.” A raven flew overhead. Later we passed a living garter snake. Bear is no longer interested in them, and I’m glad of that.

I thought of all the snakes I saw back in the day. Most often it was one of the three kinds of rattlesnakes that lived there — but sometimes king snakes — the yellow and black California Kingsnake and the rare and elusive Laguna Mountain Kingsnake with his red, black and yellow/white stripes. Gopher Snakes were always nice to see as were my favorites, the Desert Rosy Boas. Ring-necked snakes are small and beautiful. I guess it was lucky that I have no real aversion to snakes though a snake on a trail will make me scream. Even the skinny little garter snakes I see out at the Refuge.

Rattlesnakes will never be my favorite critters, but I learned about them. Most useful is that they are territorial, and I could expect to see one in certain places along the way. As much as I truly miss my little house in Descanso, CA, I don’t miss living in a place where there could be rattlesnakes in my yard.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

In other news, Tu Fu, Lao She, and Pearl Buck — the Scarlet Emperor Beans — and now Li Ho!!! have emerged and I am very happy to see them. I recently read an artlcle about genetically modified — what does the O stand for? — anyway GMOs. The writer is a farmer and he explained that all seeds are genetically modified just by being grown and harvested. It’s true. I look at my beans, see who is busy pollinating them, and (to me) it appears pretty random. The writer explained the obvious, that hybridization is genetic modification, and people have been doing that as long as they’ve farmed, even unwittingly, just by harvesting what grows. He said that using the seeds that come from the previous year’s crops isn’t such a great idea and that buying new seeds every season will give a better yield. He gave a litany of reasons all of which made perfect sense. But every year my beans (so far) have been very very happy to grow from the seeds of the previous summer. Maybe his assessment doesn’t hold for a handful of beans grown by a lady in a 4 x 8 garden but it should be even MORE true when there aren’t many plants. This is the sixth generation from the TWO seeds I planted from a packet that was a year old. Anyway I will give them my best. They are wonderful beings. Or beans.

Lao She

IX – Wild Dogs


“Listen! Coyotes!”
“Have you heard it before?”
“No. Never.”
Against purple hills, the sun low behind them, invisible wild dogs howled a song which — among other messages — said, “The park is closed. The people are gone. We are free.”

Even back then, there were gates on Father Junipero Serra Trail (road) that went through Mission Trails. The gates only kept cars from driving through. Bikes and foot travelers weren’t blocked out. They opened from sunrise to sunset. In summer, the best time for me to go up there was late, late, late in the afternoon so I was often leaving at sunset. I parked outside the park so my car wouldn’t be locked inside.

In my early Colorado life, the timing of a hike had been different — start early in the morning so the mountains would warm up through the day, and a person could be home (or camped) before the thunderstorms began. In the coastal chaparral it was, for me, the opposite. Start out at 5 pm so the day cooled as I warmed up.

It was wonderful because — as I was near the end of my hikes — the crepuscular creatures (isn’t “crepuscular” a cool word?) were emerging. One afternoon Molly and I were walking through a wash. A barn owl flew beside us for a while, watching me. We briefly made eye contact which was, whoa…unforgettable.

At the time I first heard coyotes, I hadn’t seen any — yet. Coyotes would become an important and lovely part of my apprenticeship and this love story, but that was in the future.

Coyote, ink drawing, 1996

I’ve heard coyotes only once or twice since I moved back to Colorado. They’re around, but I’m no longer often out at that magical, petillant moment when they send their yips and howls into the sky.

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

VIII — Perspective

Born Again

“Onward, Christian Soldiers! Marching as to war! With the Cross of Jesus, going on before.”
Fifteen college boys.

“Dogs, look! Oh, no. Let’s hurry. Maybe we can beat them to the top.”

Running, running, the group comes closer, closer, closer, singing, louder, louder, her heart beating faster, faster, too fast, too dry. “Damn! Why are they here? There’s a whole world for them, such a little space for me! Come on, we can do it, Molly, Truffle.”

Running, running, running, marching, closer, closer, Bibles held against the chests of the boys like Mao’s Little Red Book. They don’t look down, they don’t look around, they don’t see morning sun backlighting the froth of seeded weed heads, the cool, damp places beneath the stones where small green things grow, where snakes linger.

“Wait, dogs! Wait. It’s a big one. Damn. What should I do? If I don’t tell those boys, they’ll step on it. If I tell them, I’ll have to wait here and I want to go up, ahead, away. Sit, girls. He’s still sleepy. They’ll walk right on him. They’re walking blind. DAMN!!!”

“Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to…”

“Hey, wait a minute. STOP. There’s a big rattler in the trail four feet in front of you.”


“A rattlesnake. In front of you. I don’t want you to step on it. It’s still kind of sleepy.”


“Not two steps from here.”

“Oh! I see it! Man, he’s big! Give me that rock,” the leader called to his buddy.

“Before you kill it, I want to see it,” said another boy. “I’ve never seen a rattlesnake.” 

“Where’s the rock? That’s perfect. Yeah. OK, that does it. Let’s go. Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War, with the Cross (the rocks? the sticks?) of Jesus marching on before.”

The woman looked down at the broken, bleeding, dying snake. “Look at you, look at you. There was no need. I never meant them to kill you. They come, they march, they sing, they pray, but they are blind. Damn, damn, damn, damn them.”

“Hey down there! Come on! It’s safe now!”

The “woman” felt it was far from safe.

The mythology in the book those boys were carrying made snakes the embodiment of evil. And the boys? Ignorant and arrogant. I was prepared to move the snake with the long stick I hiked with, but I didn’t get the chance. I just wanted the boys to stay back until I could do that. Truffle and Molly were sitting, patiently, some distance away. They got it, but the boys didn’t. I went back down the trail — well, actually straight down the hill. I heard shouting and beating, sticks and rocks and then a whoop of victory. Victory over a sleeping snake. All this in less than 5 minutes.

Just because a thing in nature is potentially dangerous to us doesn’t make it evil or malicious. It means its interests might come in conflict with ours. It doesn’t mean it does not have an equal right to pursue its interests. It means we should be aware.

Rattlesnakes turned out to be a major part of my apprenticeship. More than a decade later, when I no longer lived in the hood, but lived in the mountains east of San Diego, my apprenticeship continued. After losing two dogs — Lupo and Ariel — to rattlers that were hiding in gopher holes in my yard, I had to find a solution to this. I didn’t want to lose my two new dogs, Lily and Jasmine, or any other dogs who might come into my life.

My yard was a snake food supermarket. There were mice, gophers, lizards, frogs, and ground squirrels, AND there were rattlers and gopher snakes. There was NO WAY — living out in the country as I did — that I could possibly get rid of the snake food. The dogs had to learn that snakes were dangerous and had to be avoided.

There was a guy at the time who offered Rattlesnake Avoidance Training. A big Irishman — Patrick Callaghan (RIP) — from a California town where, it was conceivable to me, snakes outnumbered people. He had devised a training method to teach dogs to avoid snakes. I signed up Lily and Jasmine, and out we went to a hunt club not far from Descanso.

I was driving a red 2002 Ford Ranger with a topper. I was told to bring in one dog at a time, so I brought out Jasmine first as the more mellow of the two Siberian Huskies. Here’s how it worked — a review from a website from the time:

Patrick holds a rare license from the Department of Fish and Game for handling the snakes. The rattlesnakes are either muzzled or defanged for the training session. The snakes are rotated through the sessions so that they do not become stressed or tired out. The approach is safe and humane for both the dog and the rattlesnake.

The training appears simple at first glance. A handler leads the dog into the presence of the rattlesnake. Patrick uses a remote training collar to administer a low level aversive stimulus (shock) when the dog becomes aware of the presence of the snake.

Avoidance response stimulation is administered for each of the three senses – sight, sound, and smell. After the visual and auditory recognition experience, the dog is presented down wind to a concealed snake whose rattle is taped so that it cannot rattle. This experience isolates the sense of smell for the dog. Snakes give off a strong and pungent odor that a dog can recognize from some distance. Again, the aversive stimlus is administered so that the dog associates it with the smell of a rattlesnake.

Does this procedure sound simple? It is actually extremely complex. Patrick explains that every dog is different, and the size and amount of reinforcement must be administered according to each dog’s unique make up to be effective. Patrick is able to read every nuance of the dog’s breathing, posture and body language as the dog approaches the snake. It is important that the negative stimulation be tied specifically to the presence of the snake and not to other factors in the environment. Some dogs will require multiple experiences of approaching and leaving the snake to get the conditioning


After the third snake, the dogs were let loose. Well, you don’t let huskies loose as there is no way to know WHERE they would go, so I positioned myself so Jasmine would HAVE to pass me. I caught her and put her in the truck. I brought out Lily.

Both dogs did great. The next spring, I took them back for a refresher. At that time, I was driving a Scion with a hatchback, not the red truck any more. Again I started with Jasmine. After the third snake, she ran faster than I imagined she could run, and not toward me, but to a red truck parked in the parking lot. She tried to get in, too, much to the surprise of the driver and the golden retriever in the back. 🤣🐾❤️

The side benefit of this training is that dogs will then alert their human to the presence of rattlesnakes.

A few years later, after Jasmine had gone to the Enchanted Forest, I realized that there was a large snake in my yard, hopefully a gopher snake (bull snake) not another rattler. I was confident that my dogs would avoid the rattlesnakes, but Siberian Huskies are hunters. Lily — who had the prey drive of a hungry Sabre Toothed Tiger — caught the enormous snake. She didn’t let me near enough to identify it. She held it high in the air and ran around the yard with her trophy. It seemed that from what looked like a narrow, pointed tail, she’d caught a gopher snake. A shame. Gopher snakes were my allies in diminishing the number of ambient vermin.

Here’s Jasmine with a far more benign trophy; a ground squirrel and Lily on Garnet Peak. I put them here just because they were so beautiful, and I loved them so much. Jasmine died of cancer and Lily died of very old age, at 17, here in Colorado, where she got to experience one real Colorado snowstorm.

But many times before that, Descanso turned into a snow globe for my huskies (and me). It was never all rattlesnakes. Sometimes it was:

These are all stories from a folder I found in an old trunk. As I was busy shredding them, I stopped to read. This turned out to be something I didn’t want to shred. I’m sharing it here and I have also put the stories into a little book. The stories are from the very first years I lived with dogs and hiked on my own, with dogs, in the California Coastal Chaparral of San Diego. The stories are a kind of record of the beginning of the best things I’ve done in my life — hiking in nature with dogs. I wrote these stories in my late 30s.

Lychee No More 😭

Though most of my life I’ve lived in places that were pretty sparse, a couple of them were lush. The most lush (is “lushest” a word?) was Guangzhou which sits on the Tropic of Cancer and gets an ungodly amount of rain every year. Things just grew. “Hello. I’m a seed, oops, my bad, I’m a plant, oops, my bad again! I’m food!”

There were seasons, but none that sent things dormant. The seasons were most apparent to me in the four months of rain, the cold in my unheated concrete house, and the changes of vegetables and fruit available in the market. Two of my favorites — a kind of tangerine called “Gam” in Cantonese — and red chili peppers — had definite seasons. Dark times when I couldn’t get them. Never mind the lychee which appeared in late spring/early summer ONLY.

It was always green in Guangzhou, though, judging from photos online, a lot of that green is now gray concrete.

Downtown Guangzhou, 1983, me parking my bike.

When I lived there in 1982/83, my university was surrounded by farms and small villages.

Rice field behind our apartment in Guangzhou

Yesterday I was out with Bear (probably comes as an enormous surprise so I hope you were sitting down) and saw that while the chamisa is greening up, the greasewood aka Chico is still gray and dead looking. The sedges I painted in the winter are still golden, their winter color. When will things turn green?

It’s funny how it happens out here. It FEELS like one day only the grass along the road is green, and the shoots of milkweed and alfalfa and then BAM! Suddenly? Not the Tropic of Cancer, but a big change, and, relatively, lush. There’s a good reason early explorers and trappers and army guys called this the “Great American Desert” and tried to bring Dromedary camels in as transportation. I have an old camel saddle from those days in my garage needing me to clean it and put it somewhere. I guess I got it when the Hoarder Gene was in particularly fierce form.

Camels are still here. There’s even a place where you can spend the night in a shelter similar to a Navajo Hogan and have camels around you.