Another One of My Favorite Places in the World: Malibu Canyon

It was five years ago when I blogged nostalgic about my hiking memories in the Sycamore Canyon section of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. At the time of that post, the canyon was still smoldering as firefighters got the last sections of the Springs Fire under control.

Five years later and it has happened again.

As I write this, the Woolsey Fire, which began near the Santa Susana Field Lab nuclear research site, is blazing seemingly out of control in and around what I refer to as Greater Malibu Canyon – the Malibu Creek watershed in the area, the only north-south body of water to flow the entire breadth of the mountain range.

The blaze started north of Las Virgenes Road, spreading east towards Cheseboro Canyon and south, through Liberty Canyon and the NPS-managed sites at Peter Strauss Ranch and Paramount Ranch. Earlier tonight, I returned home work to learn that the fire jumped a planned firebreak and spread west towards Boney Mountain (its north-facing massif pictured below), becoming its own, smaller blaze, the Hill Fire.

The picture that precedes the opening paragraph is of Western Town, a façade of “Old West” buildings that was used in TV shows such as “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” (CBS, 1993-98) and in movies dating as far back to “Cimarron,” one of the first Best Picture Oscar winners (1931). Western Town, near Agoura Hills, was owned by Paramount Pictures, who later deeded the acreage to the National Park Service provided that they keep the name Paramount Ranch. A pleasant network of trails depart from Western Town, and comprised one of the best places for “novice” SoCal hikers to break in their boots. I sometimes took out-of-town visitors to Paramount Ranch for a picnic lunch.

Western Town is gone, obliterated by the Woolsey Fire. The picture below is of the ranch house at nearby Peter Strauss Ranch, a vast estate donated by the actor to the Park Service. Trails here wind up a forested hillside, and other points of interest include the largest swimming pool in Los Angeles County, and Buddy, the site’s resident peacock and subject of the photo below. I remember hiking the trails of Peter Strauss Ranch one spring afternoon near dusk while parrots – yes, parrots! – sang from the palm trees overhead. Peter Strauss Ranch is gone – Woolsey Fire once again.

Also gone: the cabin ruins at the bottom of lovely Solstice Canyon (its waterfall pictured below), and the grove of old growth coast live oaks along the nearby Sara Wan Trail, which backs up against the Pacific Coast Highway.

Also gone: the coastal homes of actors and celebs including Gerard Butler, Miley Cyrus, and Neil Young. Actor Liam Hemsworth posted a photo on social media of his home, burnt to the ground. Suffice to say, the photo went viral. Hemsworth and Co. join 20,000 other Malibu residents who were evacuated and escaped with their lives. Others were not so lucky. Two SoCal residents are confirmed to have been perished, and over 96,000 acres have burned. According to the Hollywood Reporter, firefighters (perhaps the most vital – and most thankless – job in California) have contained 35% of the fire, an increase from just one day prior. Still…they have their work cut out for them for the foreseeable future.

In Northern California, things are even worse.

At press time, 48 Butte County residents have perished and 130,000 acres have burned in the Camp Fire blazes, which began along rural Camp Creek Road and, courtesy of high winds and extreme drought conditions, is on track to become the most destructive wildfire in California history. I cannot imagine the horror as evacuees suffocated in their cars during traffic jams on packed routes leading to safety. Chico, the county seat and biggest California city north of Sacramento, is threatened, and the air is surely noxious.

Unlike the Santa Monica Mountains, which I know like the back of my hand (or at least did prior to the Springs and Woolsey Fires), I haven’t done any hiking in Butte County, and don’t have any personal connection. But these fires are damnable, and as destructive as the insensitive words tweeted by President Trump on the subject last week.

You can help.

Below are links to various sites dedicated at least in part to California wildfire relief. I won’t speculate on what percentage of each dollar donated goes directly to the firefighters on the front lines or to the families whose homes were destroyed. Fundraising is complicated. Do some research and help if you can.

https://www.calfund.org/norcal-wildfire-relief/

https://www.calfund.org/socalwildfire/

https://www.redcross.org/about-us/news-and-events/news/2018/california-wildfires-red-cross-helps-as-thousands-evacuate.html

https://www.gofundme.com/Woolsleyfire

https://secure.eifoundation.org/site/Donation2;jsessionid=00000000.app367a?df_id=4520&mfc_pref=T&4520.donation=form1&NONCE_TOKEN=BD586CAC59FBAE663577626DA737EA87

Finally, Airbnb allows homeowners to house wildfire evacuees. If you live in California and have a spare room – or have been displaced by the fires and are looking for a room – click the following link for more information:

https://www.airbnb.com/welcome/evacuees/carrfire

Be safe out there, Californians. My heart goes out to you.

Top Ten Westerns

Have you ever seen “Tombstone,” that 1993, Kurt Russell-starring depiction of the events that led to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral? The movie, a box office smash, was the first of two films released within six months to introduce us to legendary marshal Wyatt Earp, his loyal brothers, and his sickly, but loyal, pal, Doc Holliday. It wasn’t taken seriously by critics, but I rewatched the western recently, and deem the general critical panning as unfair, especially considering that “Tombstone” is not only less boring but also more historically accurate than the Kevin Costner-starring “Wyatt Earp” that premiered six months later and that offered a different take on the events. And Russell, joined by a strong cast that included Val Kilmer (a scene-stealing Holliday), Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton, turned out to be a natural for the genre.

After rediscovering “Tombstone” a few weeks ago, I followed up my recent viewing of that with one of “Bone Tomahawk,” a little-seen, 2015 indie that also starred Russell, and that combined the western and horror genres to gruesome and mostly good effect. While neither film was what one would consider high art, I enjoyed both of them more than Russell’s other 2015 western, the Quentin Tarantino-directed “The Hateful Eight.” And while the average film critic might cringe at that statement, I found Tarantino’s overlong oater to have better production values than story values.

As for Tarantino, he fared better in the genre with 2012’s “Django Unchained,” and I can’t help but think what a terrific film that would have been with better discipline and less of the director’s usual tendency for dialogue scenes to overstay their welcome. Do “Tombstone” or “Django Unchained” crack the genre’s top ten list? Not quite, though they might make the top 20. Before I talk about films 11-20, however, I must start with 1-10. Here, then, are my picks for the top ten screen westerns:

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Haunted Houses around the U.S.

Ah, October. Second only to summer in general, October is my favorite month of the year. I am indifferent to pumpkin spice everything, but what I like about October is the fall colors, the end of stink bug season, and the abundance of horror movies and haunted houses. I have posted before about the former but never about the latter.

I suppose this post could have come earlier in the month, as we are just three days away from Halloween-proper as I write this. Still…better late than never.

Below is a selection of three haunted attractions from around the country that I have had the opportunity to visit. Keep reading to learn more…if you dare. Continue reading “Haunted Houses around the U.S.”

Photo Locale of the Month – October 2018

Although it has been awhile, I have written before of my love affair with Germany, arguably Europe’s most dynamic country…and certainly the continent’s contemporary economic powerhouse. From the picturesque crags of the Alps in the south to the liberal port cities of Hamburg and Bremen in the north, Deutschland has something on offer for nearly everyone.

The most famous river in Germany, the Rhine, is lined with a series of factory towns that contribute to the country’s robust economy. It is along the southern banks of a different river. the Moselle, that one of my favorite cities resides…just far enough off the beaten touristic path to feel perfectly undiscovered. Trier, the oldest city in Germany, is home to a cluster of Roman ruins, the northernmost collection in mainland Europe.

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A Moving Experience

This past weekend, Morristown, TN, midway between Knoxville and Johnson City, played host to the Vietnam Moving Wall. A half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, the Moving Wall has been traveling around the U.S. since 1984.

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And Yet Still Another Ten Good Horror Movies (#41-50)

I noticed something weird when re-reading last year’s blog post on this subject. I was ranking the 31st  40th-best horror movies when I realized that some of my rankings were way off. “Get Out,” which I ranked as #32, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – a first for the genre. Surely it deserved a higher slot than #32. The film before it on this list, “It Follows,” though just three years old, remains wholly re-watchable, and its stylistic and tonal similarities to 1978’s “Halloween” make it, like “Get Out,” a high water mark in horror cinema during the genre’s recent quality resurgence.

In hindsight, surely both of these movies should rank higher on this first-part list than, say, “The Cabin in the Woods,” a meta-horror comedy from 2012 that, while equally original, likely won’t age as well. I will posit that they should even rank higher than “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which I enjoyed in the 1980’s but which rarely comes up anymore in discussions about great horror movies. And yet I ranked “Cabin” at #10 and “Nightmare” at #18. Of course, I hadn’t seen “It Follows” when I compiled the first two posts on the subject; and “Get Out” hadn’t even been made at that point.

What can I say? Like every other post on my site, I leave the written content as is (grammatical corrections notwithstanding). The content is what it is, and I’m certainly not the only critic – amateur or otherwise – to rethink a movie’s rank or rating after voicing his or her initial opinion about the film. With that being said, below is my latest list – the fifth in a series – of great horror movies:

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Photo Locale of the Month – September 2018

Do you ever feel like disappearing into the mountains for a few days as a way of leaving your troubles behind? Yeah, I do, too. A few days of breathing clean – but thin – mountain air and taking in sub-alpine vistas can really cleanse one’s soul, and even though the journey doesn’t truly offer a permanent escape from whatever ails you, the trip can at least help put life’s crises into manageable perspective.

I lived in California for 12 years, and “escaped” into the mountains whenever possible. The 65-mile Backbone Trail, which I have section-hiked countless times, was no more than an hour’s drive from my apartment. That being said, there isn’t a single hiking experience in California that is on par with hiking in the High Sierra. Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest, Sequoia/Kings Canyon…these are special places.

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Farmsteads and Open-Air Museums of Tennessee

As I mentioned in my recent July post about Johnson City, I have made a concerted effort during my four years of Tennessee residency to take in as much of the state’s natural and political history as possible. For starters, I visit my sister in Memphis once or twice each year, and often stop off in Nashville along the way. The state’s two largest cities have much to offer, and my August, 2016 post on the subject remains one of my most-read entries. Secondly, I hit up the state’s spectacular hiking trails as often as possible. Panther Creek and Seven Islands are two favorite tramping spots close to where I live, while Cummins Falls, further afield, has a short, but tough, hike to a spectacular, watery destination. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the jewels of the national park system, is 90 minutes by car with traffic, and I could write pages upon pages about the joys of hiking in the Smokies. Finally, I commute to Knoxville each day for work, and have gotten to know that city almost as well as places like my original hometown of Chicago or my beloved Mexico City.

Tennessee began as a series of settlements in the late 1700’s, farmsteads usually established on or close to one of Tennessee’s many rivers, and grew from there. Few buildings from that time period remain, although you will find some early 19th-century brick “Federalist” architectural gems in towns like Jonesborough and Rogersville, and several in Johnson City. If it is log cabins, moonshine stills, and one-room schoolhouses that you are looking for, however, you’ll have to look a bit harder; most are preserved at various public parks and open-air museums. Here are just a few:

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Photo Locale of the Month – August 2018

In many ways, Scandinavia is the best region of Europe in which to travel. It is safe, clean, and progressive. The fish is fresh, the summer days are long, and the green space is plentiful. Finally, the level of spoken English is often better than even, it sometimes seems, what you’ll find in the United States…making travel here a breeze.

Last month’s photo entry about Suomenlinna, near Finland, was only the first blog post about the wonders of the region; a tremendous narrative oversight by yours truly. For August, let us cross the border to the east into Sweden, my favorite country in the region. The coastal town of Kalmar, which ranked number one on my list of the top ten small cities and towns in Europe, is home to one of Scandinavia’s greatest wonders, Kalmar Castle.

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Top Ten Mexico City Museums

Mexico City, once the biggest city in the world and still the biggest city in the Americas, has more than enough museums to keep its 20 million + residents satisfied: over 100, the most of any city in the world.

An exact count is not really possible considering that new museums and galleries open every month, but seemingly every subject is covered. Do you like classic cars? Check out the Museo del Automóvil (Automobile Museum), in the south of the city. Are you fascinated by European decorative arts? You won’t want to miss Museo Franz Mayer, near the Alameda Central and home to a rich collection of tapestries, furnishings, and garments. Eager to learn more about the struggle for indigenous women’s rights? You should visit the Museo de la Mujer (Museum of the Woman), a few blocks east of Plaza Garibaldi. Curious about the agave harvest? The Museo del Tequila y El Mezcal, (Museum of Tequila and Mezcal) in Plaza Garibaldi itself, is for you – and admission includes a free tequila shot!

Some of the museums are real oddities. The delightful Museo de Arte Popular (Popular Art Museum), housed in an Art Deco firehouse south of the Alameda Central, displays fanciful alebrijes – colorful folk art sculptures that feature in an elaborate parade each October. The Museo de la Medicina (Museum of Medicine), near Plaza San Jacinto in the Centro Histórico, has more exhibits of aborted fetuses and genital warts than even the strongest stomach can handle. The adjacent Museo de la Inquisición (Inquisition Museum), which shares the same building, is of the disturbing-and-yet-I-can’t-avert-my-eyes variety. And Anahacualli, south of Coyoacán, is a cool and spooky stone hacienda that resembles an Aztec temple of sorts and that houses Diego Rivera’s formidable collection of pre-Hispanic idols.

I was inspired to write this post at the suggestion of my fellow blogger William, a retired English teacher who now spends half the year in Mexico City. (Life goals – en serio!) Check out his writings at ilovemexico2013.blogspot.com. In the meantime, here are my Top Ten Mexico City Museums:

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