Dakota National Park Tour – Part 1

Ever since I moved to the Denver area, I had started plans for a quick road trip to explore the three national parks within the Dakota states. I had already had the opportunity to visit the most famous Dakota site on a major road trip I had done with my mother in 2003 – the Mount Rushmore Memorial, but this was my chance to visit Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As the ten day weather report finally showed a period of seventy degree temperatures in the week leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like a perfect time for me to make the trip.

I started out at midday and headed north to Hot Springs, South Dakota, a town just south of Wind Cave National Park. I spent the night at a local motel, then headed up to the park in the morning. Just inside the south park entrance, I and a few other visitors came upon a small bison herd enjoying the hilly grasslands around the visitor center. One male bison decided to take a stand on the road, delaying the small line of cars heading both ways on the road. It was a perfect opportunity to take pictures. Once past the bison herd, I headed up to the visitor center in time to take the first tour of the morning.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave is one of the longest cave systems in the world. However, its passageways were one of the thinnest and tightest I had ever been through. In fact, the natural entrance that our tour was shown would barely allow a baby to pass through and looked more like a rocky rabbit hole. It was because of this feature that Wind Cave got its name. Inside the cave system, the lack of large openings to the outer world was instrumental in the cave being able to maintain a steady air pressure within its passages, but at the small openings where the cave connected with the external atmosphere, the normal changes in air pressure from high and low weather systems outside would cause the cave to “breathe” in or out. In order to maintain this standard pressure within the cave, the manmade entrances that were built to allow tour access have a double door system, an outer door to allow access into a gathering room, then once this outer door was sealed, the inner door was opened to give the tour group access to downward steps into the lower lit passage. The unique geology of the cave provided interesting wall features like popcorn and boxwork, but large stalagmites and stalactites were not evident in these tight cave passages. At one point, the ranger guide turned off the lights to give our small tour a chance to truly witness absolute darkness. Wind Cave is definitely not for the claustrophobic, even mildly.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

After exploring Wind Cave, I headed north towards North Dakota. Just a few miles from Wind Cave, I stopped at a rest stop and took a photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial, still being sculpted in the Black Hills. During the 2003 road trip with my mother, we had stopped to examine the memorial and visit the adjoining visitor center and museum after viewing the Mount Rushmore Memorial nearby. The sculpting of the Crazy Horse Memorial had begun in 1949, but as it is being funded through a nonprofit system, the main progress was just the face and general shape of the mountain sculpture in 2003. Now, looking at it in 2016, I could only see minor progress in the memorial project.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Continuing on into North Dakota, I was able to reach I-94 by around five in the afternoon. I thought I might try to slip into Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit for a quick run-through, but discovered that the visitor center was closed by four-thirty. I was able to stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook just off the Interstate and get some afternoon shots of the striated rock and grassland landscape. My reasoning behind trying to get into the park at this time was due to the somewhat unique outlay of this national park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is actually divided into two major units with a third small unit between them. What is especially unique about this is the distance between the two units of over sixty miles, basically a two hour round trip between the two units. The North Unit could only be reached from one US route, so I could not just check out this unit along the way to the next national park. I checked into the local hotel in preparation of exploring the South Unit in the morning.

Theodore Roosevelt's preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt’s preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I entered the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park the next morning and stopped in at the visitor center. Behind the visitor center was the Maltese cross cabin that Theodore Roosevelt lived in shortly after his wife and mother both died on the same day in 1884, an amazing historical structure. At the visitor center, I asked about what I would see at the North Unit and was told by a ranger that the environment, although basically the same, was more rugged and had a wonderful view of the Little Missouri River along the viewing road. Roosevelt also had another home in the North Unit, but it was no longer there. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the South Unit on its loop road, checking out bison herds, prairie dog towns, some feral horses, hiking trails along badland hills and grasslands, and panoramic overlooks, including one next to a section of the Little Missouri River. As I finished the loop, I debated whether the two hour round trip to the North Unit as well as the potential hour or so traveling the overlook road would add much more to what I had seen. I decided I had explored and come to understand the landscape that Theodore Roosevelt had come to love within the South Unit and decided to move on to the next location where I had motel reservations near Badlands National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

To be continued…

Road Trip to Denver – Part 3

In four days, I had headed out from Los Angeles in a southeast path to visit Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the Texas panhandle, then turned north to explore the heart of New Mexico, starting with Carlsbad Caverns National Park, then off to stops at White Sands National Monument and Petroglyph National Monument, before reaching the art community of Taos, New Mexico. Now, it was time to head into Colorado and my main destination of Denver for the wedding of my friends’ daughter. I had one stop before reaching the hotel in Denver.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was only recently designated as a national park within this century, being upgraded from national monument status in 2000. Rising up from the San Luis Valley range to the west and pushed against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, the Great Sand Dunes are North America’s tallest sand dunes. What was amazing to me about these sand dunes was the almost artistic coloring of the dune field. As I was driving up to the dunes with the mountains towering behind them, I felt I was viewing an impressionistic oil painting, rather than a natural reality. To walk on the dunes, one needs to cross a wide, shallow, but swiftly-flowing stream. Since I did not feel I had the appropriate shoes to make the crossing, I was content to take pictures of those who braved the crossing and were enjoying walking up the dunes. Anyway, it was time to head to Denver.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind the Dune Field, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind the Dune Field, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

I had arranged to spend three days and four nights in the Denver area. The first day was to get situated and prepared, the second day would be dedicated to the wedding, and the third day would be an opportunity to check on a nearby national park, Rocky Mountain National Park. However, as I drove toward Denver watching distant lightning strikes in the plains alongside of me, I knew I would have to adjust my schedule. When I discovered that my spare day was forecast to be rainy all day, I thought that Rocky Mountain National Park would be a no go. However, when I discovered that the wedding was scheduled for the late afternoon on the second day, I decided to slip Rocky Mountain National Park into the morning before the wedding.

Rocky Mountain National Park is a large park with a third of its area above the “treeline” of 11,400 above sea level. However, the park’s main road, Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest major highway in North America, was mostly closed for the winter and spring due to snow. Therefore, I knew my visit would be restricted to just inside the northeast entrance at West Horseshoe Park, just west of Estes Park. It took me just an hour and a half to get to this entrance, which gave me enough time to marvel at just a portion of the Rocky Mountains, the very backbone of North America. Fresh snow was present at the scenic stops along the road, making me update a common spring adage just for the Rockies, “April snows bring May flows.” It was some spectacular views that I captured before I raced back down the mountains to get back to my hotel in time to get ready for the wedding.

West Horseshoe Park View, Rocky Mountain National Park

West Horseshoe Park View, Rocky Mountain National Park

The wedding was wonderful, and it was great reconnecting with some old friends. The bride and groom had arranged a champagne brunch for the guests at the hotel, so the extra day worked out for me. However, it was now time for me to head back to Los Angeles, and I did not plan to make any extra stops along the way. The rainy day in Denver presaged a snowy morning over I-70 through the Rockies, which actually presented some wonderful views as I got past the snowfall. It took me a day and a half to get back home, and several days to get back into the swing of things in LA. I had another great road trip under my belt.

Road Trip to Denver – Part 2

On the first two days of my road trip, I had driven a lot of miles and had the chance to explore two national parks, Saguaro National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I had also ended the second day zipping into Guadalupe Mountains’ more well-known sister park on the New Mexico side and finding out when the main attraction would be open. Now, at 8AM on the third day of my trip, I was entering the visitor center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, preparing to enter the caverns. Realizing that temperatures in the cavern were significantly lower than the upper desert region, I bought a zippered hoodie sweater in the gift shop and put it on over my short sleeve t-shirt. Now, I was ready to investigate the cave.

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The main body of Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room, 755 feet below the surface, and there are only two ways to reach it. One is by an elevator that was built down directly from the visitor center to one end of the Big Room, where the comfort of visitors superseded nature with the installation of restrooms and a lunch counter. The other avenue to the Big Room was by walking down through the Natural Entrance and following the paved path down. I had time so I went by way of the Natural Entrance. The paved asphalt path with hand rails swaybacked down a nearly vertical shaft to a small open area where bats congregate during the day in the summer months. Since I did not see any bats, it is possible that they had not yet migrated from their winter Mexican home. The path then wound down slowly through a section called the Main Corridor, passing by interesting formations like the Whale’s Mouth or the Witches Finger. It is at the Iceberg Rock that the path entered the Big Room and headed over to the Big Room Trail. All along the way, lighting had been wired into the cavern walls in such a way to allow visitors to see the cave structures without disrupting the subterranean ambiance necessary to understand the natural processes at work. The Big Room Trail circled around in a cross pattern within a somewhat open cavern full of decorative columns, stalagmite giants, stalactited grottos, and small spring pools. One massive stalagmite named the Rock of Ages looked at one part of the trail like a dragon about to spew fire on the defenseless rock creature spread out before it. I was told at the visitor center that it would take me three and a half hours to walk the full trail on my own, but I was able to do the two miles in two and a half hours, more in line with the pamphlet’s estimate. I was also proud that I was able to hold still and take some very good pictures without flash, something I was able to show the park ranger who rode up in the elevator with me from the Big Room. Why didn’t I walk back up the Natural Entrance Trail? That trail was set up as one way only, making the elevator the only way out of the cave.

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Once I had finished exploring Carlsbad Cavern, it was off to Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument. I headed north, then cut west over a mountain pass to get to the Tularosa Basin. After stopping off at the visitor center for preliminary information, I drove down the ten mile Dunes Drive into the Heart of the Sands. The white starkness of the sand was amazing to view and created some amazing images in my camera. Usually, white gypsum is rarely found as sand because it dissolves quite easily in water and is quickly carried off to oceans or seas, but the Tularosa Basin has no access to external rivers, so the gypsum remains when mountain water runoff quickly evaporates in the arid conditions. The result is white sand dunes. After getting my pictures, I headed back to Alamogordo to check into my motel.

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

The next day, I headed north to Albuquerque to explore Petroglyph National Monument. This protected rocky section on the westside of Albuquerque features some amazing early Native American communication art. Because the rocky terrain was formed by volcanic outflows over 200,000 years ago, Native Americans discovered that they could scrap the darker exterior of the rock, revealing a lighter rock underneath, thus forming the image and message to others. Many of these images are nearly 2000 years old and are considered sacred to many American Indians. The visitor center directed me to the Boca Negra Canyon trail as one of the best viewing spots. A small rocky trail up to a shaman’s circle gave me a chance to view many petroglyph images, a stark view of the five volcanic cones to the west, and a wonderful overview of Albuquerque to the east.

After enjoying the petroglyphs, I headed north to Taos, the small art community town up in the mountain foothills of north New Mexico. The town is well-known as a haven for local artist as I found out when I checked into my motel and found a small gallery of art in one of the lobby hallways. In front of the motel was a genuine Frederic Remington statue. I walked down the small main street and went into one of the local galleries to enjoy some amazing artwork for sale. Unfortunately, all I could do was admire, not buy. After enjoying the creativity, it was time for sleep, ending the New Mexico portion of my trip. Tomorrow, it would be off to Colorado.

To be continued…

Road Trip to Denver – Part 1

Just last month, I was invited to the wedding of the daughter of some good friends of mine in Denver. Instead of just flying in, I decided to make a road trip out of the journey in order to check off some more national parks and sites from my bucket list. I had been fiddling around with a southwest trip itinerary on my computer for about a year and decided to incorporate these plans into this trip, one that would take me to five national parks, a couple of national monuments, and one notable art community.

I started out early on a Sunday morning and headed east on I-10. Interstate 10 is the southernmost east/west Interstate Highway that reaches coast to coast. It has always had a special significance in my life as I grew up near the eastern terminus of I-10 and am now currently living near the western terminus. I stopped for gas just east of Palm Springs and the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park at a small stop called Chiriaco Summit and discovered a hidden treasure next to the gas stations, the General Patton Memorial Museum. I did not have time to actually visit the museum beyond taking pictures of the statue and memorials outside the front, but it added somewhat to the significance of traveling I-10. It was the ease that General Patton had in moving US tanks across Germany on the Autobahn system at the end of World War II that convinced Eisenhower to champion the building of the Interstate Highway System during his presidency. I contemplated this as I headed east towards Arizona.

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

My goal that first day was to reach Tucson and Saguaro National Park by mid-afternoon. Saguaro National Park is somewhat unique in that it preserves two separate sections of the Sonoran Desert on either side of Tucson. During an earlier road trip around Arizona a few years back, I had visited the eastern section next to the Rincon Mountains, but had arrived after the visitor center had closed and had to be content with taking pictures in the late afternoon before the gates closed at sunset. This time I wanted an opportunity to check for playing cards at the visitor center, and it made sense to use this return trip to see the western section next to the Tucson Mountains. I was not disappointed. The saguaro forests seemed more plentiful and photogenic in this western section. There was also a special treat along the loop drive at a spot called Signal Hill. A quick walk to the top of Signal Hill revealed a small section of petroglyphs, symbols marked into the rocks by early Native American cultures, basically an archeological treasure.

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

After spending the night in Tucson, it was back onto I-10 eastbound to El Paso on the way to the next national park. At El Paso, I left I-10 and headed directly east to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park protects a section of the Guadalupe Mountains as they extend into Texas from the New Mexico border. These mountains were formed from a horseshoe reef that grew in a tropical sea that covered this section of Texas and New Mexico hundreds of millions of years ago. As the sea disappeared, the land uplifted and exposed the now fossilized reef as the Guadalupe Mountains. The highest point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak at 8750 feet along this Capitan Reef. However, this park did not have any roadways into the mountains, only hiking trails for dedicated campers, so I was limited to taking photos from a small hiking trail around the visitor center.

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After I finished exploring the little trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I realized I had time to make a quick stop at the star highlight of this road trip, the much more recognized sister park just north on the New Mexico side of the state border, and find out when the star attraction would be opened in the morning. I got to the visitor center as the park rangers were lowering the flag for the day and got my answers, so I took exterior photos on my way back down to the nearby motel where I had reservations and had a relaxing night’s sleep in preparation of entering Carlsbad Caverns at eight-thirty in the morning.

To be continued…

Collecting Playing Cards

Nearly everybody finds something to collect within their life. For some, it is an investment in worth, consolidating items of value as a security measure. For others, it fulfills the goals of completing sets or items in a list for display or self-satisfaction. Still, others collect and store items that connect or remind them of a history that provides a sense of identity. However, most of us build collections out of a combination of all three of these reasons – value, achievement and history. For me, I find these reasons behind my main collection of playing cards.

Both of my parents grew up in rural upstate New York where the family game of choice was Pinochle. At weekend gatherings on my grandfather’s farm, a small group of his friends and family would gather around the dinner table, partnered in two teams, to prove their worth in serious games of Pinochle. Children were not allowed to join in until they could prove capable of playing at an adult level. My parents brought the game down with them to Florida to play with their friends on occasion. Pinochle combined both the concepts of laying down sets of cards as in Poker and winning tricks as in Bridge, building scores through both methods. What is particularly special about Pinochle is that the game uses a special deck of just the Ten through Ace of each suit doubled. A Pinochle deck will also include Nines for use in a game variation. Because of this, it often was difficult while I was growing up to find a normal deck of fifty-two cards in our closet to play the children games of War and Rummy with visiting friends. This led me to start buying my own deck of cards for these instances. This is how I came to notice that playing cards were often sold as souvenirs at tourist locations and started me on a path of collecting decks.

This collection has not demonstrated much in the way of being an investment. I have a few decks that may have some historical value, but playing card decks have not been known to be that rare lost attic treasure like baseball cards or comic books. Among my decks, I have Bicycle decks from the Los Angeles and Atlanta Olympic Games, a double set of Air Force One Ronald Reagan cards, a tenth anniversary M*A*S*H double deck, and a Kennedy Kards political satire deck from the JFK era. Despite the historical significance behind these decks, I have no illusions that these have any significant monetary value behind them, but I cherish having them in my collection.

In general, I would buy or receive decks during my travels or attendance at events, but as friends and colleagues began to learn of my collection, they would get me decks on their travels. This got me close to completing representative sets, which would lead me to the Internet seeking a missing deck in a set. It was last year that I finally able to complete a representative set of souvenir decks from each of the fifty US states and the District of Columbia. I may not have visited every state yet, but I now have at least one deck of playing cards from each one. It may be a little more difficult to find a deck from each European country.

However, most of my decks have become a symbol of where I have been, what I have accomplished and what I hope to accomplish. The decks I have from the Los Angeles Olympics remind me of being able to be at the LA Coliseum during those games. Souvenir decks from European countries, famous art museums, and US National Parks remind me of the places I have seen and experienced, as well as places I have yet to visit. Magic decks and science decks demonstrate the knowledge I have gained. Decks with special face card characters and non-standard card decks ground me in the history of multiple cultures. Playing cards represent the evolution of gamesmanship in humanity, and I am fascinated by the history behind the games. I have almost one thousand decks in my collection from five continents. There is still plenty of space on my shelves to cross that thousand mark barrier.

A New Year

The holidays and bowl games are behind us, and 2014 is fully upon us. So, as I do a quick audit of the past year, I wonder how was my 2013? Well, in the debit column, after a couple hundred resumes uploaded and positions applied for, a few phone interviews and attendance at several networking events, I am still unemployed with my unemployment benefits about to expire. My medical insurance and covering of my deductible for one medical procedure that confirmed I was perfectly healthy took up one third of my basic expenditures last year. A discarded newspaper that swept up into my radiator grill as I was going through the Sepulveda Pass on the 405 Freeway was all it took to cook my car’s engine and leave me without personal transportation for two weeks while a rebuilt engine was installed. My base savings account has definitely taken a hit. However, in the credit column, my retirement accounts are solid and have grown, my home is secure with good equity and a healthy emergency investment account is still at my disposal. My somewhat regular bike and walk schedule through the year trimmed thirteen pounds from my weight. I kept busy donating my time to a worthy education non-profit organization, 826LA, by volunteering as an afterschool tutor for 1-5 grade school students twice a week during the school year and a month long summer camp. The rest of my time was focused on promoting my novel by the expansion of my social media presence and by re-releasing it through AuthorHouse to increase the distribution outlets through which it would be available

One part of my promotional campaign was to connect with fellow independent authors, many of whom were reaching out to me. I began to buy and read from the selection of self-published works being presented to me over Twitter and several author websites. After reading, I would write an honest review and post it on Amazon, Goodreads and Shelfari, then announce the review on Twitter so the author would be aware. I realized that in the current online environment of book retailing a growing number of broadly and honestly received reader reviews were important to elevate a book to the recommendation level on Amazon and other online booksellers, and hoped that some of my fellow indie authors would find time to read and honestly review my book to add to my count. I was able to read 22 indie books in 2013, ranging from several murder mysteries, some character relationship dramas, a few sci-fi and fantasy opuses and some historical romances. There were flaws and issues with some of the works, but in general, I was impressed with the creativity and passion within many of the books I read. It makes one realize that the art of storytelling and emotional revelation is not limited to a few master writers in history, but appears to be an integral part of our collective DNA.

So where does this leave me for 2014? Basically, I have the strong hope that I have built a good promotional foundation for my book as more readers discover it. The job market appears to be improving, but maybe I will have time to focus on my next book. I feel the assistance I have provided to the students in the 826LA program will give them the foundation to be major contributors within their generation. And I hope I am prepared for the new challenges that are always around the corner no matter what year we are in.

Volunteering for 826LA

This week is Spring Break. Students have the week off from the public school system, and I have a week off from a volunteer mission I began two months ago. Late in January, I was walking up to pick up dinner from my favorite neighborhood Chinese take-out and passed by what appeared to be a new store next door. Outside the new storefront, a young woman was writing up a request for volunteers on a chalkboard two-sided sign. It turned out that the “new store” was in actuality the new location for an 826LA tutor center. As I discovered, the 826 organization, founded in San Francisco, have started up volunteer centers in cities across the country to provide free afterschool tutoring, in-school tutoring and projects, and field trip/workshops focusing on literary creativity for students. Los Angeles is the only city to have two locations and one had just moved into my neighborhood. For me, education is a core tenet in my charitable activities. It is a basic foundation for growth, discovery and success. Based on my current time availability, I signed up as a volunteer, making myself available on Tuesdays and Thursdays for three hours to provide afterschool tutoring to elementary students at the local center.

The basic procedure for the afterschool tutoring is to focus on the student completing his/her homework first, then to encourage the student to find something to read and/or write a story. A theme or project is posted on a blackboard to give the students direction on what to write, but if a student wants to write in another direction, he/she is not discouraged in doing so. The key is to encourage creative writing in general. When a student writes a story, he/she takes it to the coordinator for approval. If approved (based on whether the tutor has directed and corrected grammar and spelling errors), the effort is announced to the entire group, and the student puts the paper in a publishing box and gets to ring a bell to celebratory applause. The stories are collected over a period of time and published in a small volume that is sold in the volunteer center storefronts to support the programs of 826LA. Whenever a book is published, a book party is held at the center with the student authors reading their stories to fellow students, tutors and parents. Last week, we held one for the newest book of stories, “A Fireplace with Cold Fire in It,” focused mainly on Denver, whose central zip code is 80206.

Of course, the ideal is better than the reality. The student/tutor ratio could be 5 to 1 on some days with the students coming from different schools and grades, so a tutor often has to shift from first grade spelling to fifth grade social studies on to third grade math. Many students would rather be playing than doing homework and are easily distracted, so it might take the full three hours just to get a student to complete homework. I would not doubt that a few of the parents who take advantage of the free tutoring for their children are seeking an extra three hours of free daycare, but they are definitely in the minority. Like any job, volunteering is challenging work, but the rewards are different. Yes, it is heartening to see the light in a student’s eyes when they get it or to feel the joy when you have made a difference in someone else’s life. However, there is a selfish satisfaction in knowing that in a small way, I am improving the social and environmental structure around me that will improve my life and society in general.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.

Biking Along the Venice Beach Boardwalk – Part 2

In my previous posting, I had described my fairly regular bike ride to Venice Beach up to the central Windward Plaza. The trip continues…

Beyond the main plaza, the bike path wavers near the boardwalk north until it reaches a unique attraction, the Venice Beach Freakshow housed within an extended patio building. On weekends and in season, a loud speaker announces in barker fashion the various wonders visitors will see for a nominal admission price. Occasionally, I have seen a fire-eater performing on the patio to bring customers in to see the show. This freak show is currently the focus of a new AMC reality program, so it is attracting more tourists to the boardwalk. I must admit that as of this writing, I have not tuned in to see the series. Nor have I stopped on my bike rides to see the show itself.

At this point, the bike path snakes outward and around a series of grassy palm tree patches. Visitors and homeless alike gather on these knolls to view the waves coming in to the shore. My goal is reached when the bike path slides back to within a foot or two of the boardwalk, two short blocks away from the Santa Monica border. I get off my bike and walk it across the short sand strip to the red-stripped “no vendor” entry area on the boardwalk. Then I cross the pedestrian traffic to a small store called N’ice Cream on the north side of Thornton Court. The store sells gelatos and sorbets, made fresh every morning in their main shop on Abbott Kinney Boulevard, just blocks away. I choose one of the four fat-free sorbet flavors of the day and get two scoops in a cup. I enjoy the watermelon flavor when available and thought the champagne flavor during New Years was very creative. I take my cup and sit in one of their chairs to enjoy the broad variety of visitors walking along the boardwalk.

I mentioned the “red-stripped” no vendor area on the beach side of the walk. This provides an open entry area to the beach within the marked spots all along the beach side of the boardwalk where artists, musicians and small vendors can license a position to set up a canopy and pitch small souvenirs and artwork to visitors. At N’ice Cream, these spots are taken up by an artist selling colorful framed paintings, a small vendor selling marijuana design t-shirts, and Tom the photographer selling a small selection of 8×10 souvenir prints of Venice. It has only been a few cold and quiet weekdays when I have noticed their spots to be empty.

It is during this time of people watching that I realize just how famous worldwide this stretch of beach and storefronts truly is. I have heard just about every language and accent pass by me – German, Japanese, Spanish and more. Winter appears to be the season for European tourists, while summer is perfect for Aussie tourists. However, the bohemian flavor of Venice attracts a broader flavor of travelers, those seeking to explore the wilder side of human nature and enjoy the starving street performers populating the boardwalk. I was amused recently by one nattily dressed pedestrian who was walking his dog down the boardwalk. The dog was leashed per the law, but the man had trained the dog to carry the other end of the leash in his mouth, scolding the eager pup whenever the leash was dropped. A dog walking himself! I just had to shake my head.

Having finished my sorbet, I toss my cup into the ice cream cone-designed trash bin and walk my bike back over to the bike path. It’s time to head home by backtracking my trail and re-navigating the bike path with fellow bikers, Segway renters, skaters and seagulls. The bike path is posted as being for bikes only, no pedestrians, but many visitors find the concrete path to be a lovely walk on the beach without the sand or crowds. There would be no issue passing a group of walkers going single file along the right side, but many tend to bunch into conversation groups or pair up as couples holding hands in double wide formation. If they are called out for being on and blocking the bicycle lane, they have no problem glaring back or giving out a not-so-mild invective even as they stand on the large white bike icon painted regularly along the trail. All I can say is that it is just part of the challenge and experience of keeping fit and enjoying this world famous location.

Biking Along the Venice Beach Boardwalk – Part 1

I have been lucky to travel and see many amazing places in the US and Europe, but my recent unemployment has reminded me of an old truism – one often forgets to visit the wonders in one’s own backyard. Shortly after I had purchased my townhome on the westside of Los Angeles over a decade ago, I purchased a bike to enjoy an occasional ride to the beach, but I allowed my job to turn that occasion into an annual or biennial event on the Fourth of July or Labor Day weekend. When I was laid off over a year ago, I suddenly had extra time on my hands which I used to write and publish a novel as well as get myself into better shape by riding my bike two or three times a week down to Venice Beach. Just off the boardwalk, a concrete, two-way bike path snakes it way from Washington Boulevard to the Santa Monica pier and beyond towards Malibu. I found that I could head down Venice Boulevard straight to the bike path, turn and bike up to the northern end of the Venice boardwalk, take a pause and head back home all within an hour. Add an extra half hour and I could add the Santa Monica Pier to the round trip.

The boardwalk basically begins at Venice Boulevard North on the south side. The pedestrian strip does extend farther south to Washington Boulevard, but the adjoining buildings are all residential, out of sync with the eclectic vibe from the stores and sights to the north. A stark indication of this vibe is the first store at the Venice corner, a medical marijuana dispensary whose clerks come out into the boardwalk in green scrubs announcing, “The doctor is in.” The bike path at this location is separated from the boardwalk by a city parking lot. During mild weekdays in the winter, parking is a reasonable five dollars and readily available. Film and TV crews will often take up half the lot during these off season periods. During mild weekends in the winter, the parking rate doubles as traffic backs up on Venice. When the weather really warms up, the lot full sign pops up and the backup traffic is forced to turn around and find a way out of the jam. I wave to them as I navigate my bike through the traffic into the lot to the bike path entryway on the other side.

As I bike north on the path, I catch glimpses of the open-air gym of Muscle Beach, the handball and basketball courts, and the children’s playground grouped north of the parking lot. The bike path curves in just past the police station and then curves back north between Windward Plaza and the skateboard park. This is the busiest area of Venice Beach as Windward Plaza is the beach side’s extension of the open area plaza signifying the central entry point to Venice Beach and its boardwalk. Next to the skateboard park, a modern art sculpture of five iron bars stands vigil over two flat-top concrete cones and a couple of concrete walls painted over with graffiti art. Navigating through the pedestrian crosswalk and skateboarders can be tricky at this point even during light off-season days.

Past this point, the bike path curves in toward the boardwalk, turning back north to snake along in close proximity. Near this point in the boardwalk, there is an open air restaurant with a faded red-and-white canopy over the eating area that extends over the entry of a small independent bookstore, Small World Books. I pitched them to carry my book in their store as a local author, but the owner let me know that the store is too small to carry unknown books on consignment. One day, I hope to sell enough books to entice them to stock a few copies of Legacy Discovered on their shelves.

To be continued…

Valentine’s Day

It is Valentine’s Day and for the second year in a row, I have not been able to carry out a personal tradition of mine to celebrate the day. When I first graduated from college, I got a job driving a messenger route for a title insurance office. I got to know many of the receptionists and representatives in the escrow offices well on my route, so on Valentine’s Day, I would buy a couple of dozen carnations and hand out single carnations to the women along the route. When I finally found a job with ABC Television and later transitioned into the publicity department, I carried the tradition over to my female co-workers in the office. Every year, I would bring in two or three dozen carnations in mixed colors and allow each woman to choose one from the batch as I brought them around. The only year I knowingly passed on my tradition while working for ABC and Disney ABC was in 1994 when Valentine’s Day came less than a month after the Northridge earthquake. Instead, I sent all of the women a message that instead of flowers that year, a donation was being made to the Los Angeles Food Bank to assist victims of the disaster.

I truly believe that a little act of acknowledgement makes a bigger difference than a grandiose display. It does not create a heavy sense of gratitude debt or imply a hidden agenda. It simply says I notice you make a difference, a message spread evenly to all of my female co-workers. As for my fellow male compatriots, there never were any jealous reactions – either in not receiving their own acknowledgement or in the momentary interest I presented to each woman. Instead, I helped represent the male side of the staff, gave a lift to the female side of the staff and helped raise a more pleasant interactive atmosphere to all members of the staff.

However, this will be the second year that I have not had a job on Valentine’s Day, so there has not been a group to distribute flowers. Instead, I have had to be content sending out a virtual acknowledgement to my Facebook friends. Still, the message is the same in acknowledging that they make a difference in my life.