Category: U.S. West

American Galapagos

I can’t count the number of times over the years that I’ve driven the Pacific Coast Highway from Ventura to Santa Barbara and passed the silhouetted Channel Islands without giving them a second thought.  It was a visit to friends and family in Ventura that created an opportunity to give them a serious look.

Ventura harbor, California

It’s overcast as I board the ferry from Ventura harbor to cover the 20 miles to California’s largest island, Santa Cruz.

Its 100 square miles of terrain and 77 miles of coastline make it the centerpiece of the Channel Islands National Park.

Seal lions sunning on channel buoy

Along the way we pass seals sunning themselves on a channel marker. Oil rigs dot the water in the distance.

Sea caves from above, Santa Cruz Island

Kayaks ashore, Santa Cruz Island

As the ferry approaches, the Island’s rugged mountain ranges loom larger, and coastal tidepools, beaches and sea caves come into view.


The Island’s Painted Cave may be one of the world’s largest and deepest and a big draw for divers and kayakers, but I’m ready to be back on dry land after almost an hour on the ferry.



Santa Cruz Island kayaks 04

Kayaks in tow

We anchor in Scorpion Bay and I take to the trail and a climb to a better view.

This island is home to more than 600 plant species in ecosystems range from marshes and grasslands to chaparral and pine forests.

Millions of years of isolation have resulted in adaptation to the island’s unique environment by many distinctive plant and animals species, including 9 found nowhere else in the world.

Santa Cruz was first inhabited more than 9,000 years ago by Native Americans, and here the Chumash tribe produced shell-bead money used by tribes throughout California.

Europeans first arrived on the island only late in the 16th century, and more than 200 years would pass before a Mexican land grant established what would become the largest privately owned island in the U.S.

Scorpion Ranch, Santa Cruz Island

It also marked the beginning of a ranching operation which introduced non-native species including French Merino sheep to the island, and the herd swelled to over 20,000 head during the Civil War as demand for wool army uniforms peaked.

Scorpion Ranch house, Santa Cruz Island

Ranching continued until 1984 through several changes of property ownership. The ranch houses, barns, blacksmith and saddle shops, and wineries all still survive.

Scorpion Ranch farm implements, Santa Cruz Island

Scorpion Ranch cellar

The introduction by Europeans of non-native animals and plants is responsible for the severe disruption of the island’s native plant communities and its archeological sites.

Rooting by pigs gone feral has created bare ground that is easily eroded and colonized by invasive weeds. It has also damaged a large number of Chumash archeological sites.

Feral piglets provide a year-round food source for golden eagles, and the eagles’ growing numbers drove another of their prey – island foxes – to the brink of extinction.

The Santa Barbara Island song sparrow and the Santa Cruz Island monkey, once found only on these islands, are already extinct.

The Nature Conservancy acquired much of the island’s property in 1987 and the Federal government completed acquisition of the remaining land in 1996. In and effort to rescue 10 species from the brink of extinction and to protect more than 3,000 archeological sites, the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy embarked upon a long term program to restore Santa Cruz Island.

Their eradication of feral pigs, European rabbits, sheep, and burros has already enabled a tremendous natural recovery. In addition, a captive breeding program for island foxes has successfully re-established a wild population and golden eagles have been captured and relocated to northeast California.

Native bald eagles – the last of which perished in the 1950’s from DDT poisoning –  have been reintroduced to drive off any returning golden eagles, and for the first time in more than 50 years bald eagle chicks have hatched unaided from two separate nests on Santa Cruz Island.

Coastline, Santa Cruz Island

Now hikers encounter sweeping ocean and mainland vistas almost completely free of human imprint, broken by deep canyons dotted with year-round springs and streams.

Cypress tree, Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz deserves far more than a day trip, and there’s overnight camping available on the Island. Just remember that whether you’re an over-nighter or just a day-tripper this rule applies: You pack out everything that you pack in.


What happens in Vegas…

I went to Las Vegas this week for the first time in over 10 years, and it took some of my expectations by surprise.

Neon-lit balloon, Paris Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas

Parts of The Strip are virtually unchanged.  At night the neon is as brilliant and animated as ever and the Chippendale strippers still pose on posters and billboards.

Cirque de Soleil and Blue Man Group and LaReve are all still alive and well, if moved to new venues in a Las Vegas version of musical chairs.  New faces fill the perennial marquee slots.  Comics, country singers, and tribute bands.

The Steve Wynn hotel casino extravaganzas built during the run-up to the Great Recession, however, have rendered some long-familiar stretches virtually unrecognizable.  There are new pedestrian bridges and added miles of monorail.  The slot machines are now all flat screen digital, which is appropriate since Vegas seems to be one big virtual reality video game.

High-rise condos stand against the night sky speckled only occasionally by the lights of neighborless occupants. A vacant lot right on The Strip is unmarked by any sign of impending ground-breaking.  A bit further on construction looks long interrupted on the steel skeleton of a new building.

The Strip’s panhandler population has grown exponentially and dogs sit at the feet of so many that it can only be presumed they earn more than the cost of their keep.  The homeless sleep hidden in the shadows of lush landscaping only a stone’s throw away.  Handouts must come more easily within earshot of a slot machine payoff.

Donnie & Marie at the Flamingo

Donnie & Marie at the Flamingo

The looming billboard images of a forever young Siegfried & Roy are conspicuously absent, along with $5 Prime Rib dinners and all-you-can-eat buffets.  Even in Vegas there appears to be no free lunch anymore.

Throngs shuffle along the sidewalks in opposing streams, and the obvious carb-and-fat addicts among them seem more numerous and even more super-sized than I’d remembered.  It seems like anyone not drinking is talking on a cellphone, anyone not walking is playing a video game, and everyone else is texting. At times the sidewalk hustlers passing out photo cards of near-nude escorts seem to outnumber the tourists.  High unemployment seems to have swelled the ranks of sex trade workers.

The crowd seems both younger and more Asian and Latino than before.  This may be simply a reflection of America’s changing demography, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s also because unemployment has disproportionately stricken the older, whiter Americans who have been Vegas’s historic mainstays.  One day in the not too distant future I expect to see the few surviving Baby Boomer grandsons and granddaughters of European immigrants from the Midwest make their last stand at Caesar’s Palace.

As I scan the face of the oncoming stream it strikes me that few in the crowd are laughing or even smiling as they wind their way from casino to casino.  Many, in fact, are downright grim, as if Vegas has failed to shake whatever weighs them down back home.

I’ve often wondered at foreign tourists who, faced with the daunting task of touring America’s coast-to-coast vastness, opt for Orlando’s DisneyWorld or L.A.’s Universal Studios or Las Vegas as their windows into the American experience.  Americans tour Europe to see the cultural settings from which more of us than not still remain in some way descended.  Europeans come here to see America’s self-parodies.

As I walk The Strip for the last time I see in the dark sky far above the bright pinpoints of planets in their once-in-a-lifetime alignment, and it drives home the transiency of this unnatural desert oasis.

Perhaps the long-separate Vegas reality has at last converged with the broader American reality.  This time, it’s what’s happened outside of Vegas that has stayed in Vegas.

Glass art lobby chandelier, Bellagio