Ghosts of the Utah desert

I had quite a profound and spooky experience exploring a remote canyon in the Utah outback some months back. If you’re interested in reading about this place, here is my story, which appeared in Backpacker Magazine. By the way, I am glad to say that this place is extremely well-guarded and patrolled. It is also quite difficult to reach. I hope that people visit this place and tread lightly here for many generations to come. (As a disclaimer, I should add that this place is pretty subtle. Don’t expect anything too dramatic. For me, it was mostly about the peace, the solitude, the atmosphere and the wildlife — I saw a black bear, many wild turkey, snakes and lizards galore.)

Advice for travel writers

I have some advice for people who are out exploring the world, backpacking around the globe, trekking through Nepal, hitchhiking around Thailand and keeping diaries of their experiences: do me a favor and spend a few extra bucks for a good-quality pen with archival smear-resistant ink —- and a decent weather-resistant journal with durable pages. Here’s why I’m telling you this: When I did a lot of exploring in my youth, I bought thousands of Bic pens with red water-based ink, and dozens of fifty-cent journals with pages made of one-ply toilet paper. This seemed like a sound decision because, hey, I was saving money. Years later, I needed those journals for a writing project — but when I opened them, I saw that water had leaked into the journals. Every once in a while, I would find passages like this: “If there is only one thing that I always…

Among the Giant Slugs

(photo from APTOS, California: It’s hard to believe that the Forest of Nisene Marks was once a stumpy wasteland, with loggers doing their darnedest to hack down every redwood they could find. In the turn of the century, this place was a disaster. Now, the forest offers some of the best hiking you can find anywhere on the Central Coast. You can hike all day on the edge of ravines, splash through streams and ogle banana slugs, which look like slices of overripe mango. Second-growth redwoods grow so tall here, you can barely see the tops without straining your neck and back (like I did!) It’s easy to forget the place’s unfortunate history until you stumble across a stump with ferns and moss growing out of it, a broken-down cabin, or a set of railroad ties fading into the woods. Sometimes you forget you’re near Santa Cruz until you…

Chronicle bestseller list, plus upcoming radio show about food

“Cactus” made the SF Chronicle bestseller list this week in the Bay Area paperbacks category. Also — I will be talking about dehydrated matzo balls and other unusual backpacking foods on KCRW’s “Good Food” program at 11 a.m. (western standard time) August 2. I will post the podcast link when it’s up. If you have any unusual backpacking-food suggestions, shoot me an email; at some point I’d like to do a follow-up post about this subject.


I’m not sure if I told you this before, but I kept two kinds of diaries during my wanderings — a regular diary and a “Comic Book” diary. This entry, from the “Comic Book” version, gives you some sense of what was going through my head during the title sequence from “Cactus Eaters.” Note the facial expression. Also, here are some scratchboard sketches inspired by various critters I saw in the American West. Alas, the grizzly sketch is a memento mori. They’ve been extinct in my native state since the 1920s. Nice going, California.

Range of Light

Now would be a great time to hike the John Muir Trail, which was completed 70 years ago and is still the most beautiful footpath in America (and possibly the planet.) It’s also a genuine adventure; you bag a high-mountain pass almost every day. I guarantee that this path will turn you into a lifetime backpacker. If you can put up with a bit of leg burn, one or two scary creek crossings, and two or three thousand mosquitos nesting in your nostrils, this hike is for you. It also helps if you’re handy with an ice axe. I grabbed this shot with the Behemoth Camera a number of years ago.


Vultures are cool. They are a hiker’s companion. Sometimes, they sweep down close enough so you can see their red faces, their necks and wrinkly baldness. Some people demonize them — so much that the federal government has placed them under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — but I’ve always liked them. I like the way they fly — always wobbling, making constant corrections, as if they think they are going to crash.They are squeamish, and startle easily. If you sneak up on one of them from behind, a vulure might projectile-vomit a foul bisque of semi-digested carrion all over you, and then, hours later, go back and re-eat the vomit. (Waste not, want not!) Equipped with stomachs that are 10,000 times more resistant to botulism than the common pigeon, they also carry enzymes that can neutralize anthrax and hog cholera. Say what you will about vultures….

Eden of the West

I hope you will indulge me in a few more of these color slides from the vault. You should have seen this Monster Camera– an old-school Pentax K-1,000 with a 35-to-75 m.m. zoom. My good friend, John Murray, had to teach me how to operate this thing. It must have weighed five freaking pounds, and I attached it to my chest using a cross-your-heart contraption that looked like Betty Page bondagewear. Every time I walked down a steep switchback, that big fat camera would pound against the center of my chest like a heart defibrillator. These photos have lost a little something in the translation from slide to digital, but they should still give you some sense of the fogbound Cascades in late summer.