Sunday, 28 April 2013

Where to Eat in Cornwall: Tabb's

I recently purchased a copy of the 2013 Good Food Guide, which profiles all of the best places to eat in Britain. Since I added it to my library, I've been itching to put it to good use, and I finally had the opportunity to do so last week when we were entertaining some VIP scientists who are as interested in food and drink as they are in biology. I made us all reservations at Tabb's, a highly-rated in nearby Truro. Although Truro has a huge selection of restaurants, Sasha and I almost never go there, so it was fun to finally plan an outing to explore what the city has to offer.

We were all surprised to find Tabb's located right on the border of a residential neighborhood; if we hadn't set out deliberately looking for it, we probably never would have found it. The exterior is very low-key, belying what is in store for you inside the establishment. The only hint of the gourmet food in your future is a selection of stickers in the restaurant's window indicating that Tabb's has been recognized by both the Good Food Guide and the folks at Michelin.

The interior of the restaurant is not large, and on this particular evening it was filled with only two other sets of diners. I didn't get a very close look at them as our party was led to our table, but from what I could see, everyone was dressed up a bit more than we were. Luckily, though, the others finished their meals relatively soon after we arrived, leaving us as the only patrons in the establishment. As a result, we didn't have to feel too bad about being a hair on the casual side (not to mention, this also gave us the undivided attention of the hostess/waitress!).

Curls of butter--which we eagerly spread on the warm, freshly-baked bread brought out to us prior to the arrival of our amuse bouches.

As was the case when we ate out at Oliver's the night before, we were given mushroom soup amuse bouches to enjoy as we waited. These were slightly different than their predecessors in that they did not contain as much (or any) garlic, but did have both truffle oil and creme fraiche. The soup was delicious, though if pressed I might have to rule in favor of the Oliver's recipe simply because I love garlic so much.

My mushroom soup amuse bouche, served in a tiny teacup with an even tinier spoon.

The menu featured many starters that sounded quite delicious; I was tempted by the bisque that Sasha ordered but ultimately decided on pigeon breast with squid ink pasta and a poached egg. I had been intrigued by Sasha's pigeon appetizer during our recent trip to the Hix, and I've always wanted to try something containing sepia, so those novelties are what sold me on that particular dish. The egg was maybe not quite as done as I would have liked, but I'm a little sensitive about that. Everything else was very tasty, and the pigeon breast was really tender.

Smoked haddock bisque with a chili relish

Pigeon breast, squid ink noodles, poached egg, and sun-dried tomato dressing

Everyone else at the table ordered the scallops, which always tempt me, as well; it's hard to go wrong with these, especially if they are locally caught.

Pan-fried scallops and hog's pudding
The hog's pudding portion of the scallop appetizer instigated a long discussion on the origin of the word "pudding." Here in Britain, people use "pudding" as a synonym for "dessert." Americans, of course, associate the word with a particular type of dessert product (a creamy, mousse-y sort of thing). It turns out that the original meaning of the word (which dates back to the 13th century, in case you are interested) is "sausage," which is where "hog's pudding" comes from. In fact, Christmas puddings, which we know today as sweet, fruity holiday desserts, were first developed in the 14th century as a method of preserving meat--hence Christmas pudding in the traditional sausage-y sense, rather than the one we generally use today. The fruity bits were included as a preservative; over time, the sweet ingredients were increased and the meat was decreased, giving rise to the winter treat we know today. Although I've looked through dictionaries and the all-knowing Wikipedia, I have yet to figure out exactly how we made the transition from one meaning of "pudding" to the other, though I suspect the evolution of the word parallels the evolution of the holiday dish. Maybe a dessert-terminology expert will read this post and provide some enlightenment!

In any case, all this conjecture gave us plenty to talk about while we waited for our meals. Since I'd had venison the evening before, I decided to select the vegetarian option this time around: assorted baked vegetables in a light cream sauce, covered in a layer of herby bread crumbs. To my dismay, the dish contained peppers, which I normally detest; to my surprise, however, I didn't mind eating them in this context. For one thing, they were chopped up fairly small, but for another, I think my pepper tolerance is increasing with age. Maybe one day I'll wake up actually liking them!

Several people ordered the duo of venison, which, as you can see from the image above, was beautiful; half of the dish came in an adorable little copper pot that I wanted to steal and take home. The venison was accompanied by potatoes and some wonderful panko-breaded zucchini slices. My meal was not meant to be accompanied by any of the side dishes, but the zucchinis were so good that I couldn't help but eat a few on the sly.

After dinner, I ordered a pot of mint tea; I was interested in several of the desserts but was fairly full and didn't want to indulge two nights in a row.

My colleagues at the far end of the table ordered the Cornish cheese platter, which was too far away for me to photograph. In fact, I couldn't even see it very well from where I was sitting, but I could quite clearly hear everyone making satisfied sounds as they tried the Cornish blue, goat cheese, and cheddar.

On my end of the table, Sasha tucked in to the sticky toffee pudding with dark chocolate sorbet and caramel sauce. Oddly, he's not actually the biggest fan of sticky toffee pudding, but he just felt like giving this one a try. He seemed pretty satisfied with the result, and the dish certainly looked appetizing:

You might think that there could be no more surprises left after the dessert course, but Tabb's had one last trick up its sleeve. After drinking all that mint tea, I decided to make a quick restroom visit before the trip home. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the toilet seat in the ladies' stall was sparkly! This piqued my curiosity about whether the men also had a sparkly seat, or perhaps had been given a more "manly" theme. So, on my way out of the facilities, I stuck my head in the adjacent stall and, lo and behold, I found that their seat contained barbed wire!

The women's (left) and men's (right) toilets at Tabb's
I don't expect everyone to get as excited about toilet seats as I do, but I think you'll agree that this was a fun and unexpected touch. I found it particularly amusing because everything in the front of the house seemed so proper and genteel, while the bathroom was a bit funky and whimsical. I like your style, Tabb's.

The only other thing to mention about our visit to the restaurant is that our hostess/waitress was fantastic--friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. In the course (no pun intended!) of my culinary adventures, I have gone to a number of upscale restaurants where the waitstaff are really snooty and obnoxious, but our server was very relaxed and friendly, all while maintaining the sort of sophisticated elegance that you'd expect at a Michelin-recommended establishment. Kudos to the restaurant for being classy without being exclusive.

Tabb's Restaurant can be found at 85 Kenwyn Street, Truro, TR1 3BZ, UK. TripAdvisor ratings can be seen here.

Where to Eat in Falmouth: Oliver's

Even though Oliver's has been open a while (1 year? 2 years? I don't even remember now...), I tend to think of it as "new." That's because, until last week, Sasha and I had never had an opportunity to eat there. We've tried on several different occasions, but the restaurant is always packed full of people eager to taste the highly-reviewed, locally-sourced Cornish fare on offer. Thanks to the cool weather, though, the tourists haven't yet started flooding into Falmouth, giving us an opportunity to finally snag a table--and not just any table, but a big table around which we could fit several colleagues and visiting academics. 

We had specifically selected Oliver's to cater (literally!) to the high foodie standards of our guests, and I am pleased to say that the restaurant did not disappoint. In fact, it may have knocked Samphire out of its #1 spot on my list of favorite Falmouth dining establishments, though of course I'll need to do some further research to verify that.

My companions began the evening with wine, but I started off with a pot of mint tea--I thought it might be wise to settle my stomach before cramming three courses into it. We were all given amuse bouches consisting of mushroom and garlic soup, which you can see in the teacups in the photograph above. I think it is safe to say that we would have been quite happy to consume an entire tureen of the stuff, which was amazing--rich, velvety, and flavorful, but somehow still delicate and refined.

For our first course, my friend Sarah and I chose the sweet potato croquettes, which were served with a side salad and beetroot relish. These were very tasty, and, to be honest, I probably could have made a meal out of them; this was a fairly substantial starter. Pretty much everyone else, including Sarah's husband Andy, began with razor clams and scallops:

Andy had previously tried razor clams while dining with us at The Shack, and he was not too impressed. This dish, however, made him rethink that opinion.

Because I was feeling adventurous, I decided to try venison for my main course, and I am so glad that I did. The meat was incredibly moist and tender. Having not ever cooked with (or eaten) venison before, I'm not familiar with how it is supposed to be prepared; I can't imagine that the version at Oliver's was anything short of the gold standard. The meat came with a root vegetable crumble, which was rather like a more posh, non-fried version of bubble and squeak, or even a rosti. The sauce that accompanied these items was one of the best I have ever tasted--including even the amazing ones we sampled at Nathan Outlaw's restaurant in Rock. Like the amuse bouche, the sauce was deeply rich and flavorful, yet still managed to be delicate and not overpowering.

Sarah had hake with mashed potatoes...

...while Andy had the "beef wrap" (also with an excellent sauce, I am told)...

...and Sasha had the sea bass:

Shaky, off-center photo courtesy of Sasha, who just wanted to tuck in to his food rather than photograph it!

Everyone else had a repeat of one of the above, and seemed more than pleased with the result. After all that, it's hard to believe that anyone could have room for dessert, but several were ordered. Unfortunately, people dug in so fast that I wasn't able to get any photos, though I did take a quick shot of my orange Cornish cream ice cream:

I realize that this is not the most stunning of photos, but the ice cream itself was very nice. The light citrus-y flavor was perfect for the final course, since it satisfied my sweet tooth without overwhelming my already full stomach and highly-stimulated taste buds. One day I'll have to save enough room to try Oliver's three-citrus (lemon, lime, orange) dessert sampler.

While waiting for the bill, I had a chance to look around the restaurant more closely. The overall vibe is "English country," though this is relatively subtle. Really, the place looks more like a cafe where you might grab a cup of tea or eat a quick lunch, than a gourmet restaurant where you would eat for dinner, so it could easily be ignored by visitors who are looking for somewhere larger and flashier. I love that it is so relaxed and unpretentious--it puts all the focus on the amazing food and doesn't waste time pretending that anything else matters.

I found out after we left that one of our servers for the evening was actually the restaurant's co-owner/wife of the chef. That certainly explains why she was so knowledgeable about all of the dishes and their ingredients. I had spoken with her several times over the phone as I scheduled and then re-scheduled our reservation; she was extremely friendly and helpful with both changing the time of our meal and adding more people to our booking. Just before I left, she thanked us for having such interesting conversation and keeping the staff amused with our chatter about weird biology, extreme stag dos, and eccentric academics. I'd like to think that we helped the Oliver's staff have as good an evening as we did, but I think the quality of their food probably far surpassed that of our anecdotes!

Oliver's Falmouth is located at 33 High Street, Falmouth, TR11 2AD, UK. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews (currently averaging just under 5 stars!).

Friday, 19 April 2013

Geo field trip to California: From Zzyzx to Salinas

By British standards, the drive from Zzyzx to Salinas—the next destination on our itinerary—was pretty significant. By American standards, though, it was rather tame; 7 hours is the sort of “easy” day’s drive I used routinely to do when going on family vacations in the summer, or when commuting between home and college. That said, those drives involved multiple states; this one was conducted solely within the boundaries of California, something that begins to give you an idea of just how large the state is—especially considering that we began and ended several hours from the state’s southern and northern borders, respectively. 

A selection of photos taken out the bus window during our drive between Zzyzx and Salinas

Our route took us through a number of different habitats, some much more attractive than others. We started off in the desert, of course, then drove up into the mountains. At a certain point, we began to see a sprinkling of wind turbines on the highest ridges; more and more began to appear, until eventually it seemed as though every available surface was covered with them. I know many people complain about turbines as an eyesore, but I actually don’t mind them; they’re far more attractive than, say, the wastelands left by strip mining, and they are a lot less damaging to the environment to boot. By the time we reached the far side of the mountains, we were surrounded by California poppies and other blooming wildflowers sprinkled across rolling green slopes. The entire landscape looked like a computer screensaver.

The screensaver-like countryside at the southern edge of California's Central Valley

Sadly, this beauty did not last long. We were entering California’s Central Valley, also known as the “fruit bowl” region. Soon we could see nothing but one farm after another; where in-season plants were growing, the land was green, but elsewhere it was dusty and barren, waiting to be plowed, planted, and irrigated. We passed nearly every crop imaginable; there were, for instance, strawberries, soy, cabbages, potatoes, artichokes, and, occasionally, wine grapes. I probably would have thought this area bleak at any time, but I found it particularly depressing because I had just read Tending the Wild, an anthropology book that describes the incredible diversity of wildlife that existed in this area before European colonists arrived and transformed the landscape into a giant pasture/garden. The absurd amount of (imported) water that is required to sustain all this unnatural growth just adds insult to injury. In between some of the agricultural areas were fields full of oil derricks—evidence that people are trying to extract every last drop of natural resource from California, regardless of the environmental price. It’s all pretty disheartening.

We stopped for lunch around midday, exiting from the interstate into a town whose sole purpose seemed to be to cater to hungry drivers. I made a beeline for the Starbucks so that I could utilize their free wifi (and also, after several days of drinking weak brews at the DSC, consume a proper cup of tea). I wound up crossing the street with a big bunch of students, which is how I learned that British people a) don’t understand and b) are frightened of American crosswalks. In particular, they seem to have difficulty with the concept that a steady red hand indicates “no walking,” while a flashing red hand, displayed after the “walk now” signal, indicates that pedestrians in the crosswalk should finish what they are doing, while nobody else should begin a new crossing. Even though I’d prepared them for our crossing by saying that we’d need to walk fast to reach the other side in time, we experienced a bit of a panic in the median, with a bunch of people stopping dead still in the middle of the road as soon as the flashing hand appeared. I’m glad I was there to act as an interpreter, otherwise we might have had students stuck all afternoon on the concrete divider.

Because I had a mishap at Subway while paying for my lunch, I wound up being the last person to return to the bus. Imagine my surprise when, halfway across the truck stop parking lot where the bus should have been, I looked up and saw it driving away. Unfortunately, I had lent my cell phone to a colleague so she could contact her family back in the UK, so I had no way to call someone up and ask why I was being left behind. Luckily, my absence had not gone unnoticed; actually, the bus driver had (incorrectly) assumed it might be faster for him to drive to me rather than waiting for me to walk to him. He pulled the bus over to the side of the road so I could hop on, and then we resumed our journey.

We didn't stay here, but many of our students probably wish we had; problems with their rooms ranged from broken faucets to windows with no screens to a lingering smell of cigarette smoke.
We reached Salinas in the late afternoon and went through the predictably complex process of simultaneously checking 40-some people in to the same motel. When it came time for the instructors to meet up for our walk into town for dinner, we were surprised to see that a group of students had lingered behind their peers so that they could walk with us. What kind of 20-year-old on a field trip wants to hang out with the old folks? The answer, it turns out, is a 20-year-old who doesn’t feel comfortable in a new town/state/country. It wasn’t just the crosswalks, either (though those were a factor!); people just generally seemed unnerved by differences in the way things looked, the way people sounded, and how things worked. I found this really surprising (and a little sad), because I’ve always felt pretty nonplussed about these differences; if anything, I’ve found them interesting.  I later discovered that some of the students had Googled “Location of Deliverance” during the trip; if that’s what they think all of America is like, no wonder they were uneasy!

The Salinas main street, as seen from outside the National Steinbeck Center

Our dinner, at Monterey Coast Brewing Company, was quite tasty—though, again, the portion sizes were out of control. The real culinary treat in Salinas, however, was our breakfast at Sang’s Café the following morning. Sang’s is such an unprepossessing little place that you could almost walk past it without noticing; in fact, this is what our students did, passing it up in favor of a cute little café down the street. As we stood outside looking at the menu, a woman came out and told us that we should definitely eat there, because the restaurant serves the “best breakfast in Salinas.”

The menu at Sang’s was absolutely massive, as was every dish; each item came with a host of side dishes including, at a minimum, some type of bread (“whole wheat toast or English muffin or rye toast or sourdough toast or white toast or pancake or French toast or biscuit and gravy or whole corn tortillas or whole wheat tortillas or whole wheat pancake”) and some type of meat (mmm, American bacon). I was surprised when my British colleagues asked for clarification about some of the options—“biscuit” and “pancake,” for example—but it’s true that Brits and Americans use the same words to refer to very different types of food. Our breakfasts were all delicious, but I think the best part of eating at Sang’s was having the opportunity to see locals and get a feel for the “real” Salinas—something that is very difficult to do on a field trip and in a touristy area.

Stephan and Kate outside Sang's Cafe

After breakfast, we headed over to the National Steinbeck Museum, where a docent gave us a brief overview of the facilities. The Museum contained three major sections: an area devoted to Steinbeck himself, a display from the agricultural museum (which, I think, was in the process of moving between buildings), and a gallery of local art. Caitlin and I had to tour this rather rapidly since we were expected at the Salinas Enterprise, where we were picking up the second of our rental vehicles. Caitlin’s plan was to ride north to Half Moon Bay and do some reconnaissance ahead of our official arrival there the following morning; I, on the other hand, was going to stay with the rest of the group and visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium later that afternoon. I only had to visit the rental office in order to show them my driver’s license; once that was done, I could head back into town.

Outside the Steinbeck Museum

I probably should have gone back to the Steinbeck Museum in order to tour it at a more leisurely pace, but it was nice to have the opportunity to wander around Salinas and see what it had to offer. Its main street wasn’t flashy and glamorous, but there was something very appealing about it: It was an old-fashioned city center with a variety of thriving, non-chain businesses—something of a novelty these days. I photographed a couple of the old signs and then ducked into the Cherry Bean, a wifi café, to avail myself of their Internet and have a bite to eat. I ordered a Peruvian wrap that was absolutely delicious. It was only a pre-packaged, microwaveable burrito, but I really enjoyed it—it went quite well with my mango smoothie. Also tasty was the opportunity to be by myself and do exactly what I wanted for an hour or two.

After lunch, we drive the 25 miles between Salinas and Monterey in order to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and nearby Cannery Row. The trip should only have taken about 30 minutes, but the town and its environs were absolutely heaving with traffic. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so really it was no surprise that there were people driving, walking, biking, jogging, kayaking, sailing, and shopping. Even before we got out of the bus, I was able to spot some sea lions out in the bay, along with scores of sea birds bobbing up and down on the waves. I love that even in the most anthropogenic of habitats, it is still possible to see interesting wildlife.

Monterey Bay shortly after the clouds started to roll in

The Aquarium sent a staff member out to our bus to give us a quick introduction to their exhibits; she then escorted us into the facility via a back door that allowed our group to bypass the long lines at the main entrance. I had very much been looking forward to our visit to the Aquarium, but from the moment I stepped foot inside, I couldn’t wait to leave. There was more traffic in the building than there had been on the streets outside; it was impossible to get close enough to any exhibit to really enjoy it. I made a half-hearted attempt to see a few things: the sea otters and auks swimming in their respective tanks, the jellyfish, the fish in their giant indoor aquaria. My favorite part of the visit was the view I could get off the Aquarium’s balconies; they overlook Monterey Bay itself, and with the help of my binoculars I was able to see wild sea otters and probably a dozen different species of sea bird.

After maybe a half hour, I just had to leave the Aquarium. I felt bad about not seeing all the different exhibits, but I couldn’t torture myself with the crowds any longer. I was also interested in walking up to some of the vacant lots I’d seen at the top of the street; they were not the type of place that most people would find aesthetically pleasing, but I wanted to get a few photographs of the interesting urban decay. I bought a cup of tea to drink as I walked, and within a couple minutes I discovered that it was splashing all over my clothes with each step that I took. The lid was not quite tight enough to prevent leakage as the tea sloshed around, so I solved my problem by ducking in to the nearest store and purchased a Monterey Bay travel mug in which to dump my tea. The only reason this particular anecdote is interesting (assuming it is!) is that this was the third mug I had purchased so far during the trip; the first was an unusual ceramic hand-warming mug I’d found at Calico, and the second was a Route 66 mug I bought in order to provide some revenue to the wonderful people at the Mojave River Valley Museum. Considering that we’d not even been in California for a week, I was, on average, buying a new mug every other day. Ridiculous.

Wildflowers growing amongst the old building foundations at the far end of Cannery Row

Even though the streets of Cannery Row were just about as packed as the Aquarium had been, I enjoyed myself much more. The vacant lots were thronging with photogenic wildflowers, plus I found some interesting plaques embedded in the sidewalks. I took a walk on the pedestrian/bike path that runs parallel to the main road, and there I discovered some of the older, less commercial, and more historically interesting buildings left over from the town’s canning days. I also watched some tandem bicyclers run their vehicle into a bollard and then hold up traffic while they laughed hysterically.

Tandem bicycle mayhem

Once our visit to Monterey was complete, the only thing left to do was drive the remaining hour or so to our lodgings in the redwood forest. Luckily for us, the bulk of our drive occurred as the sun was setting; this gave us spectacular views of both the coast and the Pacific Ocean as we drove along the much-adored and very scenic Route 1. At one point we even saw waterspouts from a whale, though I failed to ever see the animal itself (which didn’t stop me from putting it down on my species list!).

I was sad to say goodbye to the dazzling scenery, but soon after we turned off the coastal highway, we were introduced to a whole new type of beauty: the beauty of the dark and mysterious redwoods. The section of forest where we were staying was logged about a century ago, so none of the trees was more than 100 years old. Nevertheless, they were still pretty magnificent. I was surprised by how much the scenery reminded me of places I’ve visited in Appalachia—in particular, Ohio’s Hocking Hills region. There were a number of small farms and cabins tucked into the trees, and I’d have been more than happy to set up shop in any of them.
Our destination for the evening was Redwood Glen, a Christian camp and conference center located adjacent and/or near to several different preserves. Since the University of Exeter is decidedly not religious, I’m not sure why this is where we stayed; I’m guessing the answer has something to do with a good price. The students were obviously a bit uneasy about encountering Christian slogans and propaganda everywhere, since that is just not something that they see much of in Britain. The staff were all quite professional, however, so there was never any awkwardness associated with the fact that Brits are much more secular than Americans.

Not the greatest photo in the world, but it gives you a decent idea of the kind of scenery we saw while driving along Highway 101

All the faculty were assigned rooms that were on the ground floor but which overlooked a large, downward-sloping lawn; this allowed us to have elevated balconies that provided excellent views of the redwood wildlife. Within moments of arriving, I was standing out on my porch with my binoculars in hand, looking to see what the forest had to offer. It was quite late in the day, however, and the forest was much cooler than the desert; so much so that we could even see our breath. I withstood the chill as long as possible but eventually had to head back inside.

Our lodge at Redwood Glen

The University of Exeter group had an entire building all to itself, which was great considering how much younger all the camp’s other guests were. In addition to housing all our rooms, the building also had a library, ping pong and foosball tables, and a large common room with tea facilities. Because we’d arrived so late, the camp’s staff had thoughtfully arranged to send our dinner (pizzas) over to our common room. After eating and having a brief organizational meeting, we dispersed to our rooms to rest up before beginning the final phase of the trip: research projects in the forest (for the physical geographers) and in nearby Half Moon Bay (for the human geographers).

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Geo field trip to California: The Mojave Desert

No matter how hard I try to combat jet lag, I rarely win, which is why I found myself awake at 2:30 AM on our second day in California. The only benefit of this misfortune was that it allowed me to get online. This was the only time during the trip that I was able to detect and utilize a 4G connection via my iPad; during the rest of our visit, our remoteness prevented all Internet access--something I found simultaneously freeing and infuriating.

Despite my mid-night web browsing, I still awoke well before my alarm went off, and had plenty of time to take in the scenery before breakfast:

Sunrise over Soda Lake

Early morning at Soda Lake

Male phainopepla--one of many species that I saw for the first time during this trip

I was impressed to see that many of the students were also up and about; a dozen or so climbed up the hill behind the DSC in order to see the sunrise from on high. I don't think any of the students packed binoculars, which is a real shame; there were many interesting things to be seen in the Mojave and, later on, in the redwood forest. The most common species at the DSC was, by far, the house finch; hundreds of the chatty birds could easily be seen flying around the oasis in big, noisy groups. There were also some smaller flocks of cedar waxwings and lesser goldfinches, the latter of which was another new species for me. I saw a number of black phoebes, dozens of ravens (some flying around displaying nesting material in an obvious bid to gain a breeding partner), and--to my tremendous excitement--greater roadrunners.

Greater roadrunner with a dead lizard in its bill. I first located the bird by ear; having a full mouth didn't stop this male from singing repeatedly from his hilltop perch.

Of course, there were many other interesting species, as well--not just birds, but also plants, reptiles, and insects. Some of these could be found right outside our doors:

Unknown beetle species found just outside my room at the DSC

Although I could easily have spent the day wandering around looking at wildlife, I had been given a very different itinerary: Caitlin and I were taking our group of human geographers to Calico Ghost Town, about an hour away from the DSC and not far outside Barstow. Calico is a very odd place, which is exactly why we took the students there. It is an uneasy mixture of history, culture, and, above all else, commercialism. One can learn about the town's past there, but only through a good deal of effort; by both chance and choice, its primary purpose is to cater to tourists who stop there for lunch while driving between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Calico Ghost Town, as seen from the outlook point at the far side of town

Within about five minutes of entering the town, I was convinced that I was going to have an incredibly difficult time spending 7 hours there. To my surprise, however, I ended up quite enjoying myself. As a group, we spoke with the town's manager, an incredibly friendly and plain-speaking woman who welcomed both our questions and our feedback; she gave us a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what it is like to run an attraction/preserve/historical monument on a small budget, all while generating enough funding to support not only that site, but also several others in the county. Talk about pressure.

All of us also did quite a bit of people watching--something that became much easier from about 11 AM onwards, as busloads of tourists began to pull up and descend upon the town to eat burgers, drink milkshakes, snap photos, and maybe pick up a few souvenirs. The vast majority of tourists were Asian; according to the manager, Koreans are particularly common there. Many of them spoke little or no English, which made me wonder whether they actually thought they were getting a genuine "Old West" experience (they weren't).

In their reports on Calico, several of the students referred to it as "cheesy." Indeed, much of the "culture" there was very calculated and inauthentic.

Native Americans are all but ignored at Calico, despite being the original inhabitants of the region; the only Indian references I could find was a pair of tribally-dressed dummies sitting on top of the general store roof, and this wooden carving near the restrooms. Pretty sad.

Calico schoolhouse in front of some of the area's remarkable geology

Only a couple of Calico's buildings are original; the rest are replicas built sometime since the park opened in the first half of the 20th century. I'm not sure how well the other replicas mimic their original counterparts, but the schoolhouse is amazing--there is a plaque showing a 19th-century photo of the first schoolhouse, and you really cannot tell that it is not the same building that is there today. I thought it was a shame that you couldn't go in and look around; all you can do is peer through the dirty glass of the front door.

Probably my favorite activity was climbing up to the lookout point and sitting in the sun while the desert breezes whooshed across the hilltop. Although the point is only slightly removed from the rest of the town, I couldn't hear any of the activity down below me; the only sound was the wind. I was hoping that the perch would be a good spot to do some birdwatching, but I failed to see or hear any avian wildlife. However, I did spot a Nelson's antelope ground squirrel--one of the few mammals that I observed during our adventure.

I was not close enough to the squirrel to get a good photo--this one is courtesy of

The Calico train, exploring old mines where silver and borax were once unearthed by people who worked 12-hour shifts underground

The overlook also provided a good view of the Calico Train, which offered short tours of the mines and their environs. I probably should have taken a ride on the train, but, like everything in Calico, it was very expensive and gave little information in exchange for the fare. So, I just looked at it from afar.

Eventually, the crowds began to thin and the students wrapped up their one-day research projects, so we headed back to the DSC. We didn't have any activities planned for the evening, so we were able to take in the sunset, enjoy another filling dinner, and then turn in early (hoping in vain for an end to the jet lag).

Alkaline lakes are the perfect habitat for flamingos--of both the feathered and plastic variety. These two are basking in another lovely desert sunset.

The next day, Caitlin and I hit the road again in order to take our human geographers back to Barstow to visit the Mojave River Valley Museum. Because she hadn't heard back from the museum staff for several weeks, Caitlin wasn't sure what we would find when we showed up; she half expected that the museum might be closed. Instead, we arrived to a friendly welcome and a magnificent spread of food--fruits, veggies, dips, chips, bagels, spreads, English muffins (just for a laugh), and hot beverages. The museum staff had invited several local experts to come speak to us and usher us around both the museum and several other sites in the Barstow vicinity. Also at the museum was a reporter from the local newspaper; his story about our visit made the front page of the Daily Press the following day.

Mortar stone used by local Native Americans to crush various types of food. I had read about these in Tending the Wild, the book I read and reviewed on my airplane ride over to the US. It was neat to see one in person; this one was located in the outdoor portion of the Mojave River Valley Museum.

After we had finished looking around the museum's indoor and outdoor displays, our hosts escorted us to the Desert Discovery Center (DDC) a couple streets away. The DDC is primarily an educational facility, as well as the home of the Old Woman Meteorite--the second largest cosmic rock in the country. However, the most interesting thing at the DDC was not from outer space--though it was so weird that it might as well have been. I'm referring to our host there, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management. To my knowledge, I have never spoken to anyone under the influence of cocaine, but I imagine that such a person would act like this guy; he was a hyperactive fast-talker with a love of conspiracy theories and an inability to self-censor. He divulged that he had been on a "spiritual journey" for the past several years, and that this journey had involved "alchemy." I don't know what, exactly, that means, but I'm thinking that he probably does lots of drugs (simultaneously).

A fuzzy cell phone photo of the Old Woman Meteorite in Barstow
From the DDC we went to Daggett, about as random a location as I could possibly have imagined. This is what it looks like:

Not much going on out here

Daggett is no booming metropolis these days, but it used to be more exciting back when there was more mining activity in the region, and when there was more money to be made from railroads. We didn't really go there to see Daggett itself, but to meet with Bob, the president/director of the Mojave River Valley Museum. Bob, who is a professional blacksmith (yes, they still exist), generously spent his entire lunch break chatting with us; he wanted to show us some old wagons and tell us a little bit about how the blacksmiths of yesteryear used to fashion wheels and other metal bits and pieces.

Old wagons in Daggett

Bob was another real character--someone who looked like he had walked off a movie screen. As we chatted to him, we were standing outside, in a desert, under the midday sun, and yet he was wearing a woolly hat (with ear flaps), jeans, some sort of insulating undershirt, and a quilted flannel jacket. I was hot just looking at him. He was a wiry guy made lean and tough by years of smithing and, to judge from his comments about hiking, exploring the nearby desert. He was also incredibly knowledgeable about history, and I wish we'd been able to visit when he had more time to devote to answering questions and telling tales about his adventures in the Mojave.

Our final destination was the Marine Corps Logistics Base--or, to be more precise, a pile of rocks at its entrance. Many of the rocks were decorated with petroglyphs of unknown age; some were definitely hundreds of years old, others may have been thousands of years old. Those, of course, were made by the region's original inhabitants, though there were also some markings added by settlers later on.

Petroglyphs on rocks outside the Marine Corps Logistics Base just outside Barstow

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to see the petroglyphs, and impressed that the folks at the base had thoughtfully fenced in the rock pile to protect it from vandals and developers. It's amazing to think that the Mojave Desert is full of artifacts like this--petroglyphs, old spearheads, mortar stones, even plants that still bear evidence of historical management by Native Americans; they're all just waiting to be discovered by people with the fortitude to venture out into the unwelcoming land and do a bit of searching.

It would have been great to spend the rest of the afternoon learning from Barstow's local historians, but we had to get back to the DSC in order to make the van available for a post-lunch physical geography day trip. Although I was predominantly working with the human geographers during our time in California, I had been asked to act as chauffeur to the other students on this occasion because I was one of only two people with an American driving license. I was more than happy to oblige because it gave me an opportunity to see more of the desert and to learn about something I had pretty much no experience with whatsoever: volcanoes.

A view down Kelbaker Road, which runs through Mojave National Preserve. The dark stuff on the left is a hardened lava flow.

My colleague Kate is an expert in volcanoes, so she organized this side trip in order to give the physical geographers something more exciting to see than an alluvial fan (which is what they had been visiting for the first day and a half). The trip involved three main attractions: one of many lava flows by the side of the road, a lava tube at the end of a dusty dirt track, and the many cinder cones spread out between the first two destinations.

Panoramic shot of cinder cones in the Mojave Desert

As you might expect given that the area contains lava flows, lava tubes, and cinder cones (a variety of volcano that spews dust and rock), the Mojave Desert was once pretty geologically active. These days everything is dormant, but the evidence of past events is not hard to find. Many plants have colonized the lava flows, but it is still easy to see the dark volcanic basalt underneath all the cacti and wildflowers. The flows cover such incredible stretches of land that it is hard to imagine what the area must have looked like when the lava was still hot, spreading out across the landscape and consuming everything in its wake.

Barrel cactus nestled among the hardened lava

Because there was a shortage of hard hats, I never did go into the lava tube, though I did stand in the entryway and inspect some of the hardened lava up close. I was more interested in wandering around looking at desert flora and straining to hear any signs of bird life; I was much more successful at the first goal than the second.

Beavertail cactus in bloom atop a lava flow

Although we tend to think of deserts as barren, miserable places, they can actually be full of life; this was certainly true of the Mojave. Rather than finding the desert bleak and depressing, I found it to be surprisingly peaceful and calming. I'm not saying that I'd want to be there at midday in the middle of the summer, but late afternoon in springtime is certainly quite lovely.

We returned to the DSC after making a quick stop for medicine in Baker; one of the students had developed a severe cold that eventually infected two of my colleagues and, predictably, me. It seems I am not allowed to take a trip to America unless it involves some sort of illness. The cold, however, was not to materialize for a few days; before I got to that I had to weather a migraine that appeared the following morning. I was supposed to go to the lava tube again with the second of three groups of students, but instead I had to hand that duty off to Caitlin and hope that my headache medication would bring quick relief.

Indeed, terrible as I felt at breakfast, I was back on my feet within an hour or two. I took advantage of my remaining free time by exploring the grounds around the DSC. As per usual, I went looking for birds and flowers, but I also checked out the facilities--both the modern ones and the remnants of previous structures. I've always been drawn to ruins, and the ones at Zzyzx are very photogenic.

I love all the old signs at Zzyzx--the font is very "Wild West," though the signs are only about 50 years old.

The interior of the old pool house, plus bonus sunrise in the background.

Perhaps the most photogenic area was the "car graveyard," which contained vehicles that had died anywhere from 40-80 years ago. I had been reminded of the movie Cars while driving along the main street in Barstow, and those thoughts returned to me while I wandered around the graveyard; with their headlights and grills, many of the retired cars appeared to have sad little faces looking back at me.

Sad-faced car

Power lines stretch into the desert
Also interesting were all the old tracks running through the desert. If you climbed up one of the hills and looked down at the lake bed and desert below, you could see the ghosts of old roads and train tracks. The oasis used to be a very important crossroads (as you might imagine for a place that offers water in an otherwise dry habitat), and there is much evidence of all the traffic that used to pass through--though it is not always easy to see from the ground.

After lunch, I headed out for the last of the three volcano trips. During this one, Kate decided to take the students up to the top of a cinder cone so they could look down into the crater. As a result of the elevation, we got an even better view of the desert and the remnants of the geological upheaval that had occurred there tens of thousands of years ago.

There are actually several cinder cones clustered together here, which means that this photo probably shows multiple craters. Craters form when the chambers below volcanoes empty out and can no longer support the weight of the structures above them; in this case, the chambers emptied of cinder, which piled up around the rupture site and eventually caused the underlying ground to collapse.

The rest of the trip was basically like the one the day before, except that a couple of the students had a mishap with a cactus during our visit to the lava flow. One of them grabbed a hunk of beavertail cactus because he "wanted to see what it felt like." While the first student was swearing and clutching his hand in pain, a second student decided to pick up the same chunk of cactus and nibble at it in order to investigate its flavor. Needless to say, he also wound up studded with cactus thorns. I could not muster much sympathy for either of them and, frankly, was more concerned about the poor cactus that they'd injured.

Beavertail cactus bud. Here you can clearly see the fine thorns growing in patches all over the cactus. The beavertail is known as a particularly uncomfortable cactus to encounter because its thin thorns are so difficult to remove.

Most of the evening was spent packing and preparing to depart Zzyzx the following morning. Shortly after dinner, though, Caitlin and I met with the human geographers in order to hear about what they had learned about the area; they had spent the past day and a half reading books, interviewing locals, and exploring the habitat while investigating the cultural significance of the oasis. They did an excellent job synthesizing information on ecology, hydrology, geology, culture, and history--no mean feat considering how disparate those fields are often thought to be.

I don't think any of us stayed awake for too long after the presentations, since the next morning was scheduled to be an early one, followed by a long and tiring day in the bus. Although I didn't waste too much time heading off to bed, I did pause long enough to make one last friend in the desert:

White-lined sphinx--a beautiful species of moth. There were all sorts of interesting night insects that gathered around the exterior lights each evening. I quickly gained a reputation for "staring at walls," though of course I was actually trying to identify flies, moths, and whatever else was gathering there.