Camping in the Desert

I usually camp with friends, which is always enjoyable, especially after the fire is going strong—and supper is ready. Problem is, I know some ambitious hikers. As much as I enjoy being with them, come morning, I invariably find myself facing an 8 or 9 mile hike. More than once, I’ve sat watching the day deepen as these plans were being fine-tuned, only to find myself yearning to remain in the campground to read and write—perhaps go on a short hike in the afternoon.

Lazy Day in Camp

Lazy Day in Camp (Notice the Smile)

I finally decide to take matters into my own hands, reserving a site in the Anza Borrego Campground in the Anza Borrego State Park, which surrounds Borrego Springs, California. Borrego Springs is a sleepy, unassuming sort of place, bathed in dry heat. The town once drew the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and other celebrities who arrived in their private planes for some R & R. That heyday appears to be over. I’ve never spotted a human star in the vicinity, though a lot more people do start showing up there about now. The off-season ends when temperatures drop into the eighties and visitors can enjoy being outside all day long in this fascinating terrain, which includes vast expanses of desert, mazes of canyons, badlands, and mountains. The spring wildflower season tends to be particularly spectacular.

My trip, however, was scheduled this fall. In the beginning, all went well. I stopped in Julian for pie—and still had plenty to time to set up camp before the sun went down. My fire did not sputter out. Dinner was easy to prepare, and I eased into the evening, watching star after star dot the sky. As temperatures were not expected to drop below the mid-fifties, some people in the campground were in a celebratory mood, which remained merely festive during the early part of the evening, but began to feel more daunting by the time most campers had retired to their tents. I was beginning to wonder if it was safe to pass this rowdiness on the way to the restroom. The party also made it difficult to sleep. I could tell other campers were struggling with the noise. Several pleas for quiet went out, loud enough for me to hear. But to no avail.

Dusk in the Anza Borrego Desert

Dusk in the Anza Borrego Desert

As I was growing up, my family often camped in California State Parks. In those days, rangers kept the peace. I don’t remember us ever having to deal with people who were too noisy—or for that matter, music being played over the sounds of nature. We kids – put to bed early – were the ones who were told to pipe down. These days, guests are on their own at night—unless they dial 911, which nobody that evening appeared willing to do. And I don’t blame them. What a depressing way to end a day in nature!

The Next Morning

Children occupying other sites wake up early, and begin busily moving about the campground. The desert light has the effect of making the place feel safe once more. I watch as two young boys – deep in discussion – head down the road. People begin riding past my site on their bikes. Some appear to be hiking toward the Palm Canyon Trail, which is my one planned activity (in the afternoon). I finally get in that down time I’d yearned for on earlier trips. The morning continues to be luxuriously slow. I am visited by birds, not to mention a lone jackrabbit that stops to look my way, remaining still for a long time—its two sensitive and very big ears pointing to the sky.

I finally grab my trekking poles and wind my way to the Palm Canyon Trail. This jaunt (1.5 miles one way) leads to an authentic palm oasis tucked deep in a canyon that often has running water. The trees up in there look like lions, big and shaggy. I head toward the grove, hiking for roughly thirty minutes before a hiker coming from the other direction stops me and says, “There are bighorn sheep up the trail.”

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

And I light up to say, “Thanks.”

“A family of them.”

I begin scanning the terrain. As I walk, more people tell me about the sheep—how they are really hard to see. “They crossed right in front of us!” And I begin to fear I’ve missed them.

Then I spot four females, on the other side of the creek bed, standing on the steep, rocky incline of the canyon. They are positioned at odd angles, clearly trying to blend in. I fire off a few photos, before gazing at these lady sheep that look like billy goats.

Bighorn Sheep

I want the moment to last, but this is a popular trail, and I can’t be upset at the kid who exclaims, “Oh my God! Bighorn sheep!” which ultimately makes the animals begin to trot. Next thing I know, a pack of kids are running up and down the trail, alerting everyone about the sheep. Meanwhile, the four bighorns calmly move to my side of the canyon, and then up and up and up until they reach the very top. The sky above the ridge swallows them whole.





Pumpkin Soup

I love perusing a good squash selection in produce during the fall. It probably has to do with the hibernation impulse—the need to cook heartier meals in line with the changing scent in the air. Some winter squashes are truly works of art. I usually put the ones I purchase on display for a few weeks, before actually attacking them with a chef’s knife. As an aside, I still enjoy a good pumpkin carving event, though my creations tend to fall sadly short of the company they share.

My squash soup, however, isn’t bad. It’s strange how most pumpkins disappear from the stores after Halloween. Pumpkin can be cooked and puréed into fabulous soups, completely proper for the months that follow October. I guess most folks find it too labor intensive to whip up pumpkin soup from scratch.

I can hardly talk. I tend to be an intermittent chef at best, often finding it difficult to sink into the joy of cooking when there are so many other things to do. During the workweek, I won’t cook anything that takes longer than half an hour to prepare. When I do have time to spare, a robust winter squash can lure me into the kitchen.

I tend to look for recipes that will render a thick, golden soup with an unusual kick of some kind—ginger, cheese, apples, beer, or sizzled sage. I hate the ones that call for peeling the chosen squash de l’hiver, before chopping it up and throwing it into a pot of water. Most average potato peelers just aren’t up to the job. Better to slice it in half (still a risky act), slather the flesh with oil, and bake the two halves in the oven.

Pumpkin doesn’t have to be puréed to make a special appearance in a delicious soup. Cubed, it can be a great addition to minestrones, not to mention your basic vegetable soups.

But there are even more creative ways to whip up a soup that includes pumpkin.

The bisque is set apart from other creamy concoctions in that it requires the puréed meat of crustaceans. If you Google “Pumpkin Bisque,” for example, you will find an assortment of soups showcasing unusual ingredients, such as smoked gouda, curry, sage pesto, maple syrup, or sweet potatoes. Chowder, the elegant bisque’s working class cousin, doesn’t have to be so smooth. Indeed, one expects a certain chunkiness, which cubed winter squash can provide (yes, Pumpkin Chowder recipes abound).

Bouillabaisse, a traditional Provencal soup, can certainly handle the weight of winter squash. Search hard enough, and you will encounter the Pumpkin Bouillabaisse. Or you can boil your pumpkin (along with a chicken) before straining it into a fine Pumpkin Bouillon. Another approach is to cook up your pumpkin, and then cool it down before serving it in a Chilled Pumpkin Soup.

For the Pumpkin Consommé, you will want to chop up some of the said squash, along with onions, garlic, and ginger. Consommé, by the way, is a refined broth that comes about through a fascinating process requiring the use of egg whites to round up unsightly pieces of meat and vegetables, all of which are removed in the end to produce a clear soup.

Pumpkin can anchor the dessert soup. Count on adding plenty of sugar and spice! And wouldn’t you know it? There are even some Pumpkin Gazpacho recipes out there. Then there’s the hearty goulash – coming out of Hungary – that generally consists of beef, pork, potatoes, and tomatoes, but CAN include winter squash (you’ll want to get the seasonings right on this one). Pumpkin is good in gumbos, too.

Moving on to the mulligatawny variety, it appears that some mulligatawnies are not complete without the added punch of pumpkin (of course this Indian style soup, based on a chicken stock, and seasoned with curry, can be perfectly fine without a hint of winter squash).

Tired of your average Chicken Noodle Soup? Why not try a Pumpkin Noodle Soup? Most of these recipes seem to come out of Asia. If you’d rather head South of the Border, there’s always Pumpkin Tortilla Soup.

I have never sampled the French velouté, but it appears this particular soup style meshes well with winter squash. I stumbled onto one Pumpkin Velouté that includes wild mushrooms and scallops with hazelnut oil. Vichyssoise, another French creation, is made of puréed leeks or onions and potatoes, cream, and chicken stock. It is usually served cold. Apparently, pumpkin can be added to the mix for the Pumpkin Vichyssoise.

Finally, I ran a search on Pumpkin Wonton Soup. Yep. It’s been done.


To write this piece, I drew heavily from the following website:

Soup Types – Become A Soup Connoisseur: Learn the Different Types of Soup. The Nibble, 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

In Praise of Smokejumpers

Hurricane Odile hit the southern Baja peninsula last night, and here in San Diego County, we continue to feel the heat. Air conditioners are humming—the power grid is under stress. People are crankier than usual. Those in my water district have been living with Level 2 Drought Alert Conditions for roughly a month (other Californians have been on alert since last spring), and the Santa Ana winds season, which usually occurs during October, hasn’t even begun.

Last May, the county suffered under the effects of some 14 wildfires, the result of unseasonably hot temperatures, low humidity, and northeasterly winds. Fortunately, this threat became muted over the summer, though people in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest struggled with their own equally scary fires during these months.

Even as I write this, I find myself noticing a headline: “Hundreds flee 2 California wildfires; homes burn.” These two fires are currently blazing near Yosemite—and there is another east of Sacramento. And yet another in Orange County.

Sometimes it feels like all you can do is sit and sweat and hope the air will cool down.

In late October of 2007, the college I work for in East San Diego County was closed due to several wildfires, including the Witch Creek Fire and the Harris Fire, which eventually prompted more than 10 percent of the region’s population to leave their homes for awhile. A few of us at my college were asked to come in to work, anyway, to meet with the accreditation team, as it was in the process of assessing our school.

We all assembled in the student center and proceeded to answer questions for the team’s report. I remember stepping outside to take a break, and I could actually see flames on the hills just south of us. Needless to say, the campus was completely evacuated not long after that.

Now my college library hands out fridge magnets—created by the San Diego Office of Emergency Services—that also serve as evacuation checklists. Most people I know have considered just what they will pack in the event of a serious fire threat.

It does feel strange to accept wildfires as a fact of life. They were always a possibility, of course, but somehow they were “over there.” You saw them in the news and figured it was a once in awhile thing. The fires on TV were something daring people attended to while the rest of us continued living in our cozy homes. And some of the most heroic firefighters of all were the people trained to jump out of aircraft into fire zones.

I first learned about this line of work back in the late 70s. At the time, I was a Youth Conservation Corp teen participant under the guidance of the U.S. Forest Service. This group of teens and our respective counselors were spending the summer building fences and digging outhouse holes in Eastern Oregon, when a wildfire erupted not far away.

Our camp was immediately put on alert, though we were not in any immediate danger. While smokejumpers were expected to battle the flames right away—for up to 48 hours at a time without additional help—other crews were already sweeping into the closest tiny town. They proceeded to take over a high school that was closed for the summer (where we also happened to be taking our showers). Their mission was to provide food, showers, and a place to sleep for the smokejumpers and other fire personnel.

As this went on, our own work group received a great deal of information about what was happening (we saw their camp materialize overnight); yet we weren’t allowed into the fire zone until all that was left were some smoky hot spots. We were then treated to a real life demonstration on how to ensure the fire was truly out. Mop up.

In the end, I came away thinking… Well, this doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, we’ve got people trained to get on it. I couldn’t have imagined the efforts it would take to stop the Witch Creek Fire, the Harris Fire, or the earlier Cedar Fire that disrupted San Diego County in 2003. And I couldn’t have imagined this more recent volatile period—one fire after the next erupting in regions I am familiar with, from U.S. border to U.S. border.

Platitudes about how things change just aren’t overly comforting right now.

Update: I encountered this video on Facebook the morning after I posted this piece. It shows scenes from a recent fire in Weed, California.

Waiting for More Time

I used to doodle too much. A Pee-Chee folder was my favorite canvas, but I drew plenty of curlicues and diamond patterns in the margins of lined notebook paper (around all of the insightful notes I was supposed to be taking). Let’s just say… when a lecture went into overtime, I found ways to trump the slowly ticking clock. Yes, I took that clock personally. In school I was known to glare at the minute hand as it made its incremental jumps around its very own face. For some reason, certain activities – class periods, swim team practice, chores – were never over fast enough. I was always thinking, if only it were over.

Time isn’t really the problem. It’s the waiting. Right now I’m waiting to hear if my work has been accepted. I’m waiting to find out if I’ve gotten into a workshop. I’m waiting to learn if I I’ll become a grant recipient. There are times when it feels like all I’m doing is waiting. Like waiting for retirement. I have a few years to go, but I’m being encouraged to attend a workshop so that I can enter a bunch of numbers into a calculator in order to figure out how much time I have.

I should know better. I’ve actually spent time trying to learn how to rest in the moment without feeling like I’m waiting for something else. Those are the moments pregnant with meaning, perhaps even joy. Those are the moments that really aren’t moments at all. The rest of the time – when time kicks in – I’m thinking about what will happen when the wait is over.

It’s easy to fight the mundane—another day of slogging through chores, work, exercise, driving to the grocery store. This is going on and on. I hate this. It’s not easy to feel fulfilled during these routine tasks.

I was once asked why I wanted to sing. The suggestion between the lines implied I wanted it for the wrong reason. Perhaps I believed singing would make me happier when there was really something else to address. Self-expression does seem more satisfying than sitting at the reference desk. It certainly feels more dramatic. But is it more really more fulfilling? It can seem that way to the person who feels joy when she sings and boredom when she is waiting for the next question.

It is said Zen masters are fulfilled in their beingness no matter what is going on. Yet most of us have strong preferences. Most of us are drawn to certain activities—repelled by others. And sometimes we have to stick with an undertaking we don’t like, because it is the only way to keep things together. During those times, we may not have the luxury of enjoying what we truly love to do.

On the flip side, it might be important to think about the best use of one’s time. From a Zen point of view it is impossible to waste time (there’s no time to waste); yet most of us are better at some things than others. Most of us have specific gifts to share—unique to our talents and personalities. When we are thwarted from sharing them, then indeed something valuable is wasted.

If we do try to pursue “the best use of our time,” there’s bound to be a wait. Doodling in the margins might get us through the stagnant periods when nothing seems to be happening on the surface. Or there’s my current habit: obsessively checking my cell phone, particularly for rejections. Learning how to live fully in the “not so interesting” becomes a different sort of challenge.