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In the early morning of July 9, 2020, I spoke with my friend Ralph in Washington to decide on whether to cancel my planned trip via Amtrak to Tacoma, Washington last minute. I hade not packed a thing at this point and the train was scheduled to depart Santa Barbara in about 3 hrs. The previous day, Ralph had called to warn me he hadn’t been feeling well over the past few days.
On the morning of the 9th, I reluctantly returned Ralph’s call, expecting to hear that the trip was a no-go, but instead he said he felt better. It was the chaos of COVID-19 this year that proceeded to make the next 20 minutes perhaps the most indecisive moment in my life. I had ample reservations about decisions in the past, but this year was different. Between the chaos of the current White House administration and the political biases of the news, I instinctively assumed the worse; that Ralph had COVID-19 and despite him feeling better, it was irresponsible to head north.
This is where the decision should’ve been easy. The CDC, over the past months had urged people to stay home. It was nebulous however, depending where you lived, whether ban on travel was mandatory or optional. It was instinct that told me, error on the conservative side and stay home. Instead, I proceeded to vacillate on whether to go or not. I told Ralph that I appreciated his honesty and assured him that I was ok postponing the trip, despite it being last minute. Then I flipped my reasoning thinking that I’d winged it any time there was risk, most memorably my decision to hike over the south end of the San Juans via the Creede cut-off in a day. A succession of poor decisions following the initial decision to attempt to hike 35 miles to Pagosa Springs in a day, lead to a near predicament in a blinding snow storm on an exposed 12,000 ft ridge. I knew the risk back in Creede, but made the decision off the cuff because I had already stayed 2 nights in a motel and was bored.
Perhaps it was boredom that pushed me to end up going, or that life, lately seemed to be passing me by at increasing speed. When would the next opportunity be if ever, that I’d enjoy an adventure with Ralph and his two oldest sons before tgey left the house. Statistically, at least lately, the chances were better than zero. Twice, Ralph rendezvoused with me on the PCT, the first time, July of 2016, and the last time in 2019 about the same time as this visit.
In the end, I reasoned that I had the ticket, Ralph was feeling better, and if he were to digress back to illness, I would turn around and head home. Ralph agreed with that reasoning. Finally, despite all the fear mongering fired up by the media, there was reason. Reason to believe that Ralph had been mindful enough to take all the recommended precautions prescribed by the CDC, unlike half the country’s population who followed the president’s irrational claim that the virus was going away.
I boarded Amtrak from the Santa Barbara Station at about 12:40 pm. I had walked from my garage on Pedregosa up to State Street and through the barricaded, apocalyptic zone, where the traffic signals were perpetually flashing red and the street closed to through traffic over the remaining 4 blocks. Local restaurants had constructed temporary wood porches towards the middle of the street. I met with Cristina for a quick bite to eat at The Project, a newly opened, pricey Mexican fusion cuisine. topographic map of Mt Rainier, WA and the Wonderland Trail
south view of Mt Shasta, CA, from the Amtrak lounge car, July 10, 2020
Klamath Falls, OR Amtrak station, July 10, 2020
Ive been back from Hawaii for about three weeks. Once again I had this mysterious premonition to leave Hawaii on a random date as I did in New Zealand a year ago. Two weeks after my departure orders to self quarantine. On March 2, when I returned home, things seemed normal. Restaurants were open, and commerce was booming, then the media changed everything. Lock downs of entire cities were in mandate. Life as I knew it had grown strange, unfamiliar instantaneously.
The social media, particularly Facebook, which I had recently reactivated after 5 months hiatus, had gone wild with the atmosphere of doubt and conspiracy, intertwined with fear. A large part was due to the divisive president downplaying the crisis and assuring Americans that everything was under control, after later admitting that he knew all along, even before it started that it was a pandemic. He had been gaslighting his own base up to only a week ago when he suddenly changed his tune and addressed the nation with his somber, message that it was serious and that they were doing everything possible to stop the increasing rates of infections. Even then, he continued with his false rhetoric that a vaccine was weeks away when it was still likely months away!
So back to the conspiracy. Yes, the virus is killing people rapidly, and one conspiracy that it was a fabricated virus shot down by scientific comparison of this present strain with past strains of corona virus. But, does it have to be fabricated to be used maliciously for political gain? Was it plausible, that a third party in China knew the the source they had was infected with a naturally occurring variant that they new was deadly by someone locally infected? Could such evil be lurking on this planet? My instinct despite the chaos and confusion was that no one could be that evil. That this was merely a consequence of human exploitation of wild animals infected with the wild card of viruses.
Chaos emerged rapidly in the stock market in direct response to daily announcements in the White House, with a massive sell off. The Dow Jones that was above 29,000, plummeted below 20,000 losing all its gains over the last three years. The greatest question remained. Was this real? Was this someone’s devious plot to upset the elections only 8 months away? The timing of all of this came coincidentally with Trump’s acquittal by the GOP majority senate on December 18, 2019. It became clear that the Constitutional checks and balances had failed. We knew the outcome of the Impeachment Trial before it began, but did someone know about the so called Wuhan corona virus? After watching the entire series of Burn Notice, I could not help but find the timing of this crisis extraordinarily disturbing. Could humans be so evil as to release a deadly strain of virus on the world to “dethrone” an individual who saw himself in the light of oligarchs such as Kim Jung Un and Vladimir Putin. It became clear after the impeachment that Trump was untouchable while everyone around him was being convicted.
Conspiracy theory was the very thing that lead to the “perfect” phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, elected the recent 6th president of Ukraine. Trump clearly and deliberately had held up military aid to Ukraine, who had been our ally and had been at war with Russia since February, 2014 to the present, demanding the president provide information on Hunter Biden’s controversial business with Ukraine during Joe Biden’s term as Vice President in the Obama administration. There never was any evidence. In Trump’s own words, it was a ‘hoax’. His hopes to hinder his political rival, Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential elections were squashed by a single ‘whistle blower’ on the inside.
Despite the overwhelming piles of evidence that supported the Democrat’s abuse of power article of impeachment, and his blatant obstruction of congress, he gave the country his middle finger. The trial lead by GOP majority leader, Mitch McConnell in December 2019 was a sham. The GOP provided no intelligible arguments to justify the President’s phone call or his stonewalling of Congress, acknowledging that he did withhold military funding, and was entitled to do it. It set the precedent for every future president to do what ever it took to win the election. It was now ok to allow foreign government to intervene in our elections. Regardless of this sinister action against the rights of every American to have their vote count, the President’s base still supported him because of the booming economy.
The economy was the President’s only pilar of strength. He gloated to the media how the employment rates were up and the stock market booming because of his administration. Those who were smart knew that his only interests were to line the pockets of special interest goups that supported his cause and support corporations that directly benefited his own financial interests. The economy was booming until February 20, 2020, when the grim news of the COVID-19 was announced. A pandemic swept the globe like the raging conflagration that consumed the east coast of Australia at the end of 2019. hit national news across the globe. AAPL and every other company plunged over the course of the following week. who informed viewers on national TV that he’d be working closely with the President’s council to end the trial rapidly in his fa
life has been far from normal in the age of technology, where news, most often false news, travels at the speed of light across the world. Most of us take for granted our ability to connect ourselves to anyone at any point in time from a device that fits easily in our back pocket. The same device is paving the way to our eventual extinction, filling our heads with conspiracy, misinformation, and fear.
The White House downplayed COVID-19 as just another virus like the common flu, that was not serious and under control. The queue here, is that in most instances, there is seldom talk on the news about deaths by flu, said to exceed those presently caused by the COVID-19 strain, said to have originated in Wuhan, China through the selling of wild and exotic animals; animals that contained the virus.
I returned from Hawaii, crammed next to a young Chinese man wearing a mask and playing games on his oversized smart phone, thinking nothing of the virus. It was March 2, 2020. I had spent the last two months walking and biking across the filthy city of Honolulu, while the virus was rapidly spreading through China and apparently on the mainland.
Without tainting this blog too much with the unwanted poison of politics
I left Honolulu at dawn, barely! The Boeing 737 taxied across several runways before making the final turn for take-off. The westerlies and intermittent showers that had swept across Oahu over the weekend had oddly cleared, at least for this moment. As gusts forced their way through my brother’s apartment the previous day, he had told me that it was urgent to check the flight schedule. He argued that the daily high volume of air traffic into Honolulu often merited delaying flights so that numerous planes weren’t circling about the airport waiting for more stable conditions to land. I touted that Wellington, New Zealand was the windiest city in the world and that the daily flux of flights from this city were seldom influenced by the gales crossing the harbor. I was confident from this experience that there would be no delays. the take-off was smooth and the bumps from turbulence insignificant compared to my arrival flight.
I had stayed up much of the night with my brother experiencing what he considered the quintessential experience for a last day. I got to sleep about 1 am and slept until about 3. We decided to walk to IHOP, before I departed on Bus 19 across from the 24 hr restaurant on Kuhio. I ordered the spicy poblano omelette which must have been drown in Serranos. It had burned my throat and made my eyes water. I waited about 15 minutes for Bus 19, said goodbye to my brother, and off I went, looping around Honolulu, stopping at a dozen stops before the Daniel K Inouye International Airport, south of Pearl Harbor. I had initially planned to pay the 23 bucks to take Uber directly from my brother’s apartment, but he insisted that locals take the bus.
I made it to the airport about 5:45 am, which I knew was cutting it much closer than I wanted. I was forced to check in one of my backpacks and was held up because the automated kiosk failed to print out a proper ticket. After burning precious time in a security line hoping to skate through with the luggage claims ticket, I was forced to run back to the main checkin and wait for United to print a ticket. I ran to the furthest security checkin hoping the line was shorter. When I arrived, there were two lines that snaked back and forth around delineators before the X-ray booth. I was in panic mode now. No way did I want to miss my flight from the torpid security personnel whom could care less about someone missing their flight, nor have my pack full of expensive gear arrive ahead of me! I knew I’d piss off a few people, but fuggit, I would be on a different airline, assuming the gate didn’t close before I arrived. Out of pure luck, only one woman asked what I thought I was doing cutting out at least 30 minutes of line. I said simply, my flight is leaving in 30 minutes. After the standard inconvenience of having your personal belongs rumaged through and being frisked after the full body X-ray, which clearly indicated that getting X-rayed was a complete waist of time, I ran down the long corridors to Gate 7. I was the penultimate passenger.
The flight on United was one of the most miserable that I had been on in a long while, particularly in contrast to the luxurious Airbus of Air New Zealand. The difference in comfort was about $2k! You get what you pay for, especially going in blind with the online travel agency, Travelocity. I had found a return flight for under 200, and figured I would only have to suffer 5 hours, about the equivalent time of sitting in a car non stop from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. I set my watch two hours ahead, and monitored it in between naps. It was a seemingly long 5 hours. FINALLY! The 737 approached LAX from the north-north west, over familiar baren topography in contrast to the lucious verdant Ko’olau Mountains that I had gazed at for two months from my brother’s third floor balcony.
I gazed out the tiny oval window over the vast landscape of Ventura County, the familiar dendritic drainages incised into east-west ridges. I guessed from the scale of Casitas Lake, one of many reservoirs created by dammed canyons and valleys, that we were still close to 10,000-ft with about 75 miles until landing. The outdated aircraft lacked the modern conveniences of a USB port and monitor displaying the flight bearing and elevation. In the final descent, over the greater Los Angeles basin from the east-north east, I could see the dense cluster of familiar towers that defined downtown Los Angeles, and the 1,000s of track homes, commercial zones, and freeway systems, that dwarfed Honolulu. My sense of freedom was intimately tied to the vast landscapes of the mainland. California had taken two months to cross the length of by foot, where the entire island of Ohau could be traversed in a long day. I was so excited to be back home and reconnected to friends.
By the time I arrived at the baggage claim, carrousel 1, I had 45 minutes before my scheduled shuttle arrived from Santa Barbara. Luggage transfer to the main conveyor was delayed by the lack of space resulting from abscent luggage owners. I waited patiently for about 20 minutes before I spotted my MLD burn looping its way around to me.
I faded in and out of consciousness, sleep deprived, dehydrated, and hungry, as the large shuttle bus made its way through Santa Monica traffic to the coast highway at Pacific Palisades. My intermittent naps passed the time quickly. I arrived in Santa Barbara by dusk. The breeze in contrast to the balmy 70F of Honolulu only a half a day ago, was about 40F. I was dressed in shorts and sandals when I stepped of the bus after 3 more hour of sitting. Only a tinge of orange existed over the Palm-lined mesa to the west. I enjoyed a quick bite at a popular Mexican market and taqueria on the West Side with my friend who had picked me up at the bus stop, before driving and hour and a half up the coast in the late evening to San Luis Obispo. I parked my van for the first time in two months back in the neighborhood, across the street from the duplex I once rented. I was home.
In between passing weather, I embarked on a short hike to a prominent ridge above the rails that sliced through town, passing by the old track home where Chako, my beloved chocolate Labrador had resided the past 5 years. He had aged rapidly in recent years, no longer able to walk the distances and steep terrain I once walked with him effortlessly. I gave him his allotted hugs and kisses, before leaving him to ascent the steep cat walk that initially followed a natural drainage.
The reddish hues of the cracked, clay-rich soils were more burgundy brown than the bright orange-red volcanic soils of the Ko’olau mountains of Oahu, likely attributed to manganese oxide and different states of iron oxide. The grasses, scrub, and scant clusters of California Poppies and other wild flowers were unique to the largely serpentinized ophiolites of the region. In New Zealand, the Te Araroa passes through a very similar region of geologic terrain in the Richmond Range at the top of the south island. The landscape was almost lunar in contrast to the dense bush and Beech forests that populated much of the other tracks.
A jogger had crept up on me about 2/3 of the way up the ridge. I finished snapping another photo of the surreal landscape, looking west along the conical eroded volcanic necks that defined the morros, before I regained my rapid pace. I was short of breath, but it felt good. The jogger could not gain on me unless I stopped to take a photo. I pushed to the top at a steady pace, panting, though motivated to see if I still had what it takes to hike long distances. The Arizona Trail and Hayduke were still very much on my mind as I traversed the rocky ridge line towards the Cuesta grade.