Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nine Dragons

One of the many web sites I used to visit each morning with my iPad was called Cycle Chic. The site originated from Copenhagen and focused on the city’s rich urban lifestyle and its on-going love affair with the bicycle. The site has changed recently with new ownership and fallen far behind with its news and updates. A better web site is called ‘Copenhaganize.’ Foreign web sites, especially the ones focused on economic development and urban growth, provide a wonderful cyber trip for me around the world.

It’s fun to visit those web sites and see the enormous physical and social changes the city has gone through over the last forty plus years. Yet even back then, despite its sometimes austere Nordic climate, Copenhagen still had a spirit about it and a freedom that appealed to a rambling boy from the Midwest. Hong Kong had the same effect on my imagination.

Hong Kong like Copenhagen is an ever-changing, constantly evolving metropolitan area. Sharon and I got a taste of that ex-British colony as it was just beginning its transition to complete control by the Chinese government. We were on our last week of a three-week tour of the South Pacific including Singapore, Bali, Thailand and Hong Kong. The trip was part of a Rotary World Convention held in Singapore.

The British held control of Hong Kong from 1841 until 1997. Hong Kong was first established as a crown colony and later designated a British Dependent Territory in 1981. The expiration of their ninety-nine year lease in 1997 effectively marked the end of the British Empire. Decades of British influence is seen throughout the core city of Kowloon, in a transportation infrastructure that spreads throughout the ex-colony and the New Territories and in its densely-packed high rise building that pack the city core and roll up the surrounding hillsides.

Hong Kong put a spell on me back then and still does to this day. Its right up there with London and Singapore as places I’d return to in a flash. So much so, in fact, that I knew I’d have to include it’s famous harbor walk in my latest suspense thriller ‘Follow the Cobbler.’ Hong Kong represents the mysteries of the orient along with the captivating skyline that is in constant flux and change.

Denmark proved to be my first venture outside of the country where I was living on my own and experiencing another way of life. Hong Kong was a return to the same heightened sense of adventure and exploration. It was eye-opening, exciting, scary and mind-boggling all at the same time.

A harbor tour is a must to capture the true feeling of the city. Junks, ferry’s, fishing trawlers, whole ‘water world’ communities and dozens of other types of floating commerce crowd the murky sometimes filthy waters of the South China Sea.

Kowloon is a densely packed urban area of almost eighteen square miles. With a population of over two million, it is one of the most populous urban areas in Hong Kong. The name Kowloon stems from the term ‘nine dragons’ alluding to eight mountains surrounding the harbor and a Chinese emperor. Most of the ‘Green Line’ Ferry’s to the island carry the dragon motif.

Urban life in Hong Kong is a chaotic cornucopia of sounds, smells, textures and densely-packed humanity in movement shoulder to shoulder everywhere. It’s the flip side of a quiet sojourn up a mountainside or a slow walk in the woods. An overdose of humanity that can be taken only in small increments for an introvert like me.

Its funny how things can change physically but not in one’s mind. Time tripping back through old photos, finger-tapping through web sites and probing that old memory vault can bring back a wave of warm feelings. Now safely ensconced back in the states, I get to go back whenever I want to revisit that city by the sea and my memories there.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Hiking the Garstin Trail

The trail climbs up over two miles on old goat paths that switch back and forth and practically stumble over themselves in the process. Elevation rises from roughly 700 feet to 1500 feet up Smoke Tree Mountain. The trail rises to a plateau connecting up with the Shannon, Berns, Wild Horse and Eagle Canyon Trails. Even for the most ardent, experienced hiker it can be a gut-sucking, deep-breathing endeavor. Nevertheless, the views are well worth it.

After another summer of several new self-published books, speaking engagements and play productions, I thought I’d return to my old hiking haunts. My old favorite is an eleven hundred foot climb overlooking the Coachella Valley. One of the first things I did upon my return to the desert…was climb a mountain. I started with last year’s favorite, the Lyyken trail but quickly realized there was another mountain trail, twice as long, that was calling to me. It’s called the Garstin Trail and after a couple of forced summits, I’ve become a true devotee.

The Garstin Trail has no granite plateau like the one often mentioned on the Lyyken Trail . Instead there are over two miles of switch-backs that twist and turn as they wind their way up to the top. Each turn in the trail offers spectacular views up and down the broad expanse of Palm Springs.

From its summit one gets a panoramic view of my neighborhood, Indian Canyon, the San Jacinto and Little San Bernardino Mountains, the depth of Palm Canyon and the broad expanse of the community of Palm Springs. To the east, one can see the entire eastern Coachella Valley.

The pinnacle of this mountain top has become my second sanctuary of solitude and comfort. It’s not my granite tabernacle for reflection and contemplation (on the Lykken trail) but instead is a wide slab of rock that warms my bottom as well as my soul. It’s still an escape for quiet soul-searching amid the shadows of Indian lore and homes of the rich and invisible.

I took some visiting friends up the trail recently. Paul’s an old classmate of mine from high school. Both he and his wife, Joyce, are ardent hikers. We stopped frequently for photo ops and to give me a chance to catch my breath. They also taught me the fine art of walking with ‘sticks.’

I’m a little wiser if not a bit older from these many mountain hikes. Reflections seem to trip forth easier with age. Here in my new sanctuary I reflect, I meditate and I plan for the future. These mountain trails are a great place to recharge one’s creative batteries.

Aerial view of San Jacinto Mountain chain

The Coachella Valley is shouldered by several mountain chains which have imbued this area with numerous opportunities to seek solace, quiet reflection, exercise and release from the routine of our daily lives. The Garstin Trail offers it in spades.

Something magical, almost spiritual can happen during a mountain traverse. It’s a physical as well as mental challenge. On one occasion a touring biplane flew below me, almost invisible against the surrounding mountains. Another time, a flock of birds soared below my feet.

At face value, it can be an afternoon of hiking, climbing or finger-probing the rough crags and fissures of the mountain face. On a more spiritual level, it’s an assent into the vaulted realm of oxygen deprivation, aching muscles, sweat-drenched clothing, and overall mental exhilaration…all to put your head in the right place.

I’ve tried yoga, marathons and long trail runs. Collectively they can punish the body all the while soothing the soul. My tabernacle is no different on this mountain top. It just takes a little longer to get there.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Downtown Project

In its heyday, L.A. had its Sunset Strip and Chicago had its miracle mile. Minneapolis still has its Nicollet Mall and Eat Street. Many cities across the country have their own branded tentacles of food, drink, lodging, and entertainment. Now Palm Springs has done them one better with its own small-town village atmosphere cloaked as a 21st century hotspot. Throw in a summer splash party or two and it has become a poor man’s version of ‘Caligula’ for the masses… as long as they’re preferably under thirty years of age.

Old Palm Springs Painting by Melvin Hale

Back in its glory days, Palm Springs was a classic example of heighten expectations clashing with the reality of desert stargazing. In reality, it was only the well-heeled or coastal-connected that got to hang out with the stars. For the average visitor Palm Canyon Drive was just a welcome respite from the normalcy back home even while it harbored high hopes for seeing one of their favorite stars passing by on the sidewalk. Over the last several years, Palm Springs has slowly regained its panache.

The new town is a happening place once again. After years of economic stagnation and entertainment limbo Palm Springs has risen like a Phoenix. However, it’s no longer your grandparent’s vacation spot.

Palm Springs is fast becoming just about the hippest hot spot this side of Brooklyn, Silver Lake, and West Hollywood. West Coast hipsters, designers, remodelers, artists, musicians and actors are all rediscovering what their forefathers knew all along. They’re finding that wrapping those warm blue pools with a healthy shot of alcohol can bring out a hedonistic nature in the best of us.

In the heart of downtown is the Rowen Hotel - a central showcase for the brand new downtown Palm Springs. The new hotel is meant to anchor the many new downtown projects underway. Next door, The Palm Springs Art Museum continues to draw large crowds to its special exhibits. A pocket park will soon be constructed between the two enterprises. Walkability is a key ingredient here to attract the masses; tourist and local alike. The city is even carving up areas around town and giving them distinct labels such as SOPS (South of Palm Springs) and the Uptown Art and Design District.

While the hint of change had been in the air for a long time, it took the turnover of an old motel to kick-start this new makeover process. Most observers would agree that it was the conversion of an old Howard Johnson motel on Palm Canyon Drive into the new hip ACE hotel that became the catalyst for the hipsters to start coming to town. Now there is a whole cache of hotels and motels changing hands and branding themselves as ‘hip.’

The ACE comes replete with its well-earned reputation as a hipster hangout.

The Saguaro is distinguished by its colorful paint schemes throughout the building and its grounds.

The Parker covers thirteen lush acres and has become ‘the place’ where Hollywood hangs out during the International Palm Springs Film Festival and the rest of the year.

There is still something magical about the surrounding mountains, desertscape, warm winter months, and hip happenings all over town. Palm Springs is now a virtual cornucopia of cultural, artistic, sensual, musical, and intellectual stirrings for just about everyone from the art culture-types to the more modest of minds. It all seems to be happening here.

It’s a new era for Palm Springs and I’m lucky enough to be ‘cruising along’ in the middle of it.