the journal


Joshua Tree Trip Report – March 21-22, 2009

Filed Under local travel, photography

Note: This trip report is so huge, I’ve posted two versions on both of my blogs. The stories will be the same, but the photos will be different. On this blog you’ll find mostly the travel photos I snapped on the trip while on my other blog, bugshutterbug.com, you’ll find the bug photos.

I arrived into Joshua Tree National park at 1:30am early Saturday morning. This would be my second trip of 2009 and my fifth in a year. Unlike my other visits, I decided to enter the park from the southern entrance, which is a longer drive for those coming from Los Angeles than the western entrance. Even in the moonless night, I could see signs that this trip would be worth the two hour drive. In my headlights, color flashed by on the sides of the road. Purples, yellows, reds, and whites – wildflowers have come to the Sonoran Desert. Every mile or so, a kangaroo rat would bounce across the road through my headlights as if playing a game. (Losers of this sport end up on the road permanently.) I spot the tail of a kit fox before it disappears into the desert darkness. Moths and other insects parade over my hood and windshield.

I pull up into the Cottonwood Campgrounds, about nine miles into the park and the first campsite from the southern entrance. It’s Saturday on a warm weekend, so I’m not surprised that all of the 62 sites are filled. In fact, they have flipped open their road signs at all of the entrances informing visitors, “CAMPGROUNDS ARE FULL.” No matter. I was prepared to sleep in my car for the night. I park near the campground’s public restroom – one of the few in the park with running water and flushing toilets – and stretch my legs. In my walk from my car to the restroom, just 30 paces, I spot two types of beetles, a few large unidentified scavenging ants, and a golden huntsman spider (Olios Fasciculatus). I’m not 20 minutes into my weekend trip and I’m more successful at finding wildlife than my entire last weekend trip to the park, just five weeks ago. Spring has sprung in Joshua Tree!

After an uncomfortable night’s sleep in my car, I began the day before the sun rose. It was clear to me after reading the Desert USA Wildflower Report that it shouldn’t be difficult to find fields of blooms (even though their “Wildflower status” scale is at 5 of 10). My search area would lie to the southeast, outside of the park and a half hour from the California-Arizona border. With the sun up, it was obvious that my quest to photograph flowers would be successful: the entire stretch of the Twentynine Palms Highway leading from the park entrance south to the 10 freeway was lined in wildflowers. I parked and stepped out of my car, immediately taken by the strong aroma of flowers. Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), chia (Salvia columbariae), Arizona lupine (Lupinis arizonicus), and brittlebush (Encelia farinose) stood at attention 6-10 feet deep, as if lined up for some Gary Larson-esque Rose Parade in which the floats are artistically covered in people.

I headed east on the 10 and exited Eagle Mountain Road. This area of the Sonoran was swathed in blooming brittlebrush. I spent time up near the beautifully oxidized Eagle Mountain Railroad, which offered many photographic opportunities.

I continued my journey east along an old road paralleling the 10 freeway until I reached Kasier Road, just 50 miles from the California-Arizona border. Here I found a town that has been reclaimed by the desert and forgotten by Time. Gas stations, cafes, and small homes shut their doors many years ago are now washed in desert dust. I stopped at a dilapidated community center just a stone’s throw from the 10 freeway. Inside, chairs were stacked neatly, a typewriter was left on a counter, and two pianos sat facing each other, their keys as crooked as a British farmer’s teeth. A chalk board in the corner of one room has the word “POOR” permanently etched upon it. As I walked over the fallen roof tiles and made my way through broken doorways, I could almost hear the voices of the locals who once used this building. The stage, with its thin wooden planks slowly losing their permanence, creaked with the memory of its last speech. I imagine a town leader standing here, where he had the unfortunate job of solemnly informing the gathered residents that their doors would be permanently shut. I have a feeling that the closure of the Eagle Mountain railroad in 1986 lead to the demise of this town.

Outside, among broken glass and pieces of roof tiles, stand old farming equipment which must have been standing here long before the building closed. In a land as harsh as the desert, these oxidized monuments must have proudly shown those passing by that the people here once tried to control this land. Now they seem to represent what eventually happens to all desert dwellings: nature wins in the end.

As I turned back to the freeway through the ghost town, hundreds of painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) danced through the air. I counted 2-3 every second bouncing off of my windshield. I had happened upon the annual mass migration of painted ladies as they head from Mexico to as far north as British Columbia, Canada. It was a magical moment and I feel lucky to have witnessed it.

I head back into Joshua Tree National Park, pass the Cottonwood Visitors Center, and continue north. I’m curious to see if the northern half of the park is as colorful as the southern portion. Joshua Tree National Park straddles two of the four desert biomes found in the United States. The Mojave Desert covers 22,000 square miles of land in southern California and Nevada. The much larger Sonoran Desert, with an area of 311,000 square miles, covers land in California, Arizona, and Mexico. These two deserts meet in the middle of Joshua Tree NP.

Along the Twentynine Palms Highway where these two deserts converge lies one of my favorite locations in Joshua Tree NP: the Cholla Cactus Garden. In this unique transition area, the teddy bear cholla cacti (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) flourish in great numbers. It’s a strange site to see while driving along the highway through the park. For just a mile or two, where the altitude and climate work together to allow these spiky plants to congregate. Although they are named for their furry appearance, don’t be fooled! One has to be constantly aware of these prickly cacti when in their presence. Their barbed spines can attach to clothing, soles of shoes, and if you’re unlucky, bare skin. I’ve been attacked by these cacti on more than one occasion, most recently in October of last year, where I documented my struggle on film. (please excuse the mumbled obscenities).

I spent an hour at the gardens, walking the well-groomed walking path looking for insects. They tend to stick out among the yellow cacti, but who knows how many camouflaged arthropods I’ve missed. The hover flies are out, but are difficult to photograph. They tend to startle easily and land infrequently. I did find two beetles: a blister beetle (possibly a Nemognatha lurida) and a purple leaf beetle. Only got one shot of the leaf beetle before it flew off, but the blister beetle didn’t mind the paparazzi. I also found an approachable side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana), which allowed me to take a few shots of it’s back with my 65mm macro lens.

I headed further north into Joshua Tree, spotting a desert iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) as it sped across the road like a Jesus lizard crossing water. My bumper almost greeted two Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii). No wonder the speed limit in the park is 35-45 mph. Despite the wildlife I encountered, the Mojave portion of the park is not in full bloom yet, but there are some beautiful flowers to be seen. The beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) is in bloom throughout the park. Near White Tank Campgrounds, I photographed desert sunflowers (Geraea canescens), desert poppies (Eschscholzia glyptosperma), and Arizona lupine (Lupinis arizonicus).

I had lunch at Denny’s in Twentynine Palms (where I was able to snipe someone’s wireless connection for a bit to check my e-mail) and headed back to Cottonwood Campgrounds, stopping again at the Cholla Cactus Gardens around 5pm. I kept my SLR camera packed away and simply enjoyed the sunset-lit teddy bear cholla. I knew I wouldn’t find any insects at this time of day. By this time, the wind had picked up and any smart winged insect wouldn’t find itself anywhere near cacti. Last year I found a hover fly that had been skewered on a cactus in this garden, becoming a part of the garden’s naturally pinned insect collection.

I was spared from sleeping in my car for a second night thanks to two rock climbers from San Diego. In exchange for a couple rounds of beers, I got a piece of their rented real estate to set up my tent and nice conversation around a campfire. At 11pm or so, I grabbed my headlamp and some vials and searched for nocturnal invertebrates. I find they are easy to spot on the white cement pathways that snake through the campground, connecting the amphitheater and public restrooms. In just fifteen minutes, I found three darkling beetles: A stout Coniontis with its beautiful and subtle purple coloring; A large (30-35mm) gigantic eleodes (Eleodes gigantica), which is also known as the desert skunk beetle or stink beetle. The third is yet to be identified, but is of similar size and look of the gigantic eleodes.

I also found a few spiders, all yet to be properly identified. A crab spider was found exploring the stucco wall of a building. An orbweaver spider was found loitering on a plant. A possible ant-mimic spider (3-4mm) and a black mouse spider (possibly Scotophaeus blackwalli) were found roaming the relatively vast landscape of white cement which made up the 5-foot wide path. I captured them, took photos of them at a makeshift studio set up on the cement bench at the campsite, released them, and went to sleep.

Sunday morning I was motivated to get out of my tent by something I overheard a nearby camper say to his 5-year old daughter: “Honey, want to see a scorpion? Come here and check it out.” In five minutes, I was over at their site with a jar. I photographed the adolescent stripe-tailed scorpion (Paruroctonus silvestrii) and released it away from any campsites. Although their sting doesn’t have any lasting effects, it’s probably wise to remove it from the area in order to protect both the campers and the scorpion. It reminded me to check my boots twice before putting them on that morning. Where there’s one scorpion, there’s most likely a dozen more.

When the wind gusts started to pick up, I packed my gear and headed out of the park, stopping briefly in the canyons between the Cottonwood Visitors Center and the south entrance. The ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens) were just starting to bloom and I wanted to search a new area for insects. Again, I found many hover flies (Syrphidae family) but with the wind, they didn’t stay too long in one area. I spotted a large harvestman (order Opiliones) backing into a burrow on my approach, but wasn’t able to entice it to come out for a photo shoot.

As I headed home on the 10 freeway, ominous clouds began to form over the Coachella Valley. Wind gusts of up to 60 mph blew cars around on the freeway, making everyone drive as if they’re under the influence of alcohol. At one point it was sunny and seemingly clear out the side windows of my car, yet rain was pelting my windshield like I was in a car wash.

With such incredible weather came an idea, which lead to a two-mile hike into the wind farms of Cabazon, California. Throughout the valley, hundreds of large wind turbines (windmills) line the valley floor. They are responsible for providing much of Riverside County with its electricity and able to generate enough clean energy in one hour of 35 mph winds to run an average household for a month.

After some wrong turns, I eventually found the correct gravel road that cut across the valley to a wind farm operated by Edison. There stood 49 white behemoth turbines making a sound I can only describe as mechanical wind. Each turbine stands 15 stories tall, their three blades measuring 75 feet in length. It takes no more than three seconds (by my guess) for the turbine to make a complete rotation. They zip around so quickly, the tips of some of the blades whistle.

I walked the perimeter of the farm along the barbed-wire fence, hoping to find a good angle to photograph the wind turbines and the dark clouds. Despite the wind gusts and sudden bursts of rain, I found it to be an enjoyable hike. The area was in bloom. I was walking in a huge wash consisting mostly of sandy soil, but much of it was covered with dark green grass and a sprinkling of small yellow, orange, and blue flowers.

Who knew that my favorite photos of the weekend would be taken during this small unexpected detour on the way home? I discovered a gathering of seven-spotted ladybug pupae (Coccinella septempunctata) on the underside of a twisted branch. I was really excited to stumble upon this. I’ve never seen ladybug pupae before and I had just been reading and blogging about the ladybug life-cycle!

I went home happy to have seen so many wonderful things this weekend. But the craving to explore more of it is still strong. I made a new year’s resolution to visit Joshua Tree NP every weekend in April and I tend to do it. I know that no matter how many times I go to the desert, it will always hold something new to see.


Prepping for a weekend trip

Filed Under bugshutterbug.com, entomology, local travel

Here’s a checklist I go through when getting ready for a weekend getaway.


  • Clear CompactFlash and SD memory cards
  • Charge batteries for cameras and ring flash (rechargeable NiMH)
  • Clean lenses of dust
  • Clear GPS and change batteries
  • Change batteries for Spot Satellite Messenger
  • Charge laptop
  • Pack extra batteries


  • Pack sleeping bag, tent, and air mattress
  • Pack backpack with a change of clothes
  • Pack medical kit & emergency kit
  • Pack hiking pole
  • Pack firewood, newspaper, and matches
  • Pack cooler and beer (very important!)


  • Pack a few field guides in a box
  • Pack millimeter stick, forceps, and tweezers
  • Pack vials for temporary specimen collecting (catch, photograph, release)
  • Pack container for insects (catch, photograph, release)
  • Pack journal (to write down notes when observing and photographing insects)
  • Pack insect & butterfly net (which I’ve not used yet, but there’s always a first)

Events: Free Photography Workshops

Filed Under local travel, photography, urban-explorers.com

I run small workshops every once in a while called Shootin’ Up LA. In the past, they’ve been for friends only, but I’d like to make the activity a public event for anyone living in the Los Angeles area (free of charge). Here are the details:

Shootin’ Up LA IV – Good Timez in 09

Thursday, February 19, 5:30PM

It’s about time again! Join me for the fourth installment of Shootin’ Up LA!

Let’s get together Thursday (Feb 19) for a bit of photogging. Who can stay indoors in the evening on days like these? Anyone with a camera is welcome to come, no matter if you own a top-of-the-line SLR or just a disposable. As the saying goes, “It’s not the camera that makes a good shot, it’s the photographer.”

I find that photographing with other people inspires more creativity and sharing of photographic ideas. After work on Thursday (5:30-ish), meet us at the Mission Goldline Station in South Pasadena. After spending an hour or two (or three) shooting stuff in the area, you’re free to grab a bite to eat at one of the superb dining establishments in the area. You can meet us in the area if you can’t meet us at 5:30pm.  Contact me via e-mail on how to do that.

Most of the evening will be played by ear, following our eyes to the next interesting thing, but before the sun sets, I’d like to run a small workshop on macro photography and provide tips & tricks on how you can take quality shots of really small stuff with your camera.

Shootin’ Up LA V – Wildlife Weekend

Saturday, February 21, 10:00AM

Join me for the fifth installment of Shootin’ Up LA – Wildlife Weekend!

Let’s try something new and get together on Saturday for a bit of nature photogging. Anyone with a camera is welcome to come, no matter if you own a top-of-the-line SLR or just a disposable. As the saying goes, “It’s not the camera that makes a good shot, it’s the photographer.”

We’ll meet at the front gates of the The Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden at 10:00 AM. If you can’t meet us at that time, you’re welcome to meet with us in the gardens anytime between 10-2pm. Contact me via e-mail on how to do that.

In the gardens, I’d like to run a small workshop on macro photography and provide tips & tricks on how you can take quality shots of really small stuff with your camera. This will be similar to the Thursday evening outing, but location and lighting will make this workshop as different as, well, night and day!

I can be reached at : kahunna@no_spamming_gmail.com


Echo Mountain Hike

Filed Under local travel, photography

It was supposed to rain over an inch today in Southern California.  That’s a lot for us.  Enough for most here to reconsider their weekend activities.  For instance, I was hoping to have made a weekend trip out to Joshua Tree National Park myself, but when the rain came down yesterday, I pictured myself soaked to the bone carrying my camera gear around in 40 degree weather.  Not my idea of a fun weekend.

So I hung out around the house, got some chores done, and worked a bit on my book. Rainy day activities.  Funny enough, though – the rain didn’t come.

So late in the afternoon, I grabbed my rain jacket and hiking pole and headed out to do a little hike in the local hills.  I went to my favorite spot: Echo Mountain.  It stands about 2,500 feet above the San Gabriel Valley and has some cool ruins of a 100-year old funicular train station and hotel.  Along the 3-mile trail, I passed many hikers coming down. When I reached the top at about 5pm, I was alone. Just me, the clouds, and the spectacular view of the Los Angeles area.

I listened to my iPod on the hike and at the top, a Sigur Rós song began to play. Untitled #6. It really added to the mood and thought it would be appropriate background music while you view the photos and videos I took (with my Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS)

February Leaves


Tiny Mushroom

Tiny Mushroom - (Thumb Comparison)

Tiny Growth on Rock  - (Thumb Comparison)

Rays of LIght 2

Los Angeles Between Storms

Rays of Light 1

City of Angels

Echo Mountain View

Storm Rolling In


How Much Does A Trip to Nicaragua Cost?

Filed Under international travel

One of the common questions I get asked by friends and co-workers when I tell them about a recent trip is, “How much did it a trip like that cost?” Many are surprised by the answer. One excuse “someday” travelers make for themselves is that travel is too expensive to consider, especially during our economic crisis. But if you’re a glass-is-half-full, always-looking-for-the-silver-lining type, like my brothers are over at BootsNall.com, you might use this as an opportunity to finally make that Big Overseas Trip. The website specializing in independent travel recently discussed in their e-mail newsletter the opportunity this economic crisis offers: The economic downturn “has caused airlines and hotels to become desperate, to the point that they are slashing prices to unheard-of levels.”

If that isn’t enough incentive to plan – and I mean really plan – your overseas trip, consider the fact that there are still places in the world that you can travel comfortably in for less than US$40 a day.

I recently sat down and reviewed all of my expenditures from my recent trip to Nicaragua. I’m a quite fastidious journal writer when I travel. Among other details, I tend to write down every centavo, santim, pence or penny I spend on an international trip. So allow me to answer exactly how much a trip to Nicaragua cost me.

Keep in mind a few things:

  1. I am a mid-budget traveler. I’ll generally stay at a cheap hostel (“it’s just a bed”) or camp in my tent. If i have my camera gear with me, I’ll usually get a private room.
  2. When exploring a city, I tend to enjoy walking around a place rather than visit a museum.
  3. I’ll spend a bit more on public transportation if it will get me to my destination faster (i.e., a taxi over a bus).
  4. If I opt for a guided trek, I’ll usually look for experience & reputation before price. I don’t care about the amenities they might offer (such as camping gear or food).

With that said, here’s the breakdown of my expenses. Costs are in US Dollars. At the time of travel, US$1 = 19/20 Cordobas.

Nicaragua 2008 Trip Report

November 26th – December 14th
Airline ticket (including taxes): $442
Total amount spent in country: $626
Average amount spent per day: $35


Joshua Tree NP From Space

Filed Under local travel

NASA’s Earth Observatory has posted an image of one of my favorite camping spots in California, Joshua Tree National Park.

NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using park boundary geographic data (GIS) provided the U.S. National Park Service and Innovative Technology Administration’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and Landsat data from the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Rebecca Lindsey.

When Joshua Tree National Park was first proposed for preservation in the 1930s, the suggested name was “Desert Plants National Park,” because of the 700 plant species, including cacti and succulents, wildflowers, desert palms, and hardy shrubs that manage to survive in the desert climate. The plants support the park’s wildlife, among them 25 species of snakes; mammals such as bighorn sheep, ground squirrels, and coyotes; hundreds of migratory and resident birds; and thousands of species of insects and arthropods, including tarantulas, fairy shrimp, scorpions, and more than 150 species of butterflies and moths.

From space, all this biodiversity is far less visible than it is on the ground, but the reason for the diversity is apparent in this Landsat satellite image captured on May 28, 2003. The high levels of biodiversity are the result of the adaptation of plants and animals to three major topographic and climatic zones that meet in the park. The north-northeast part of the park intersects the southern edge of the Mojave Desert, which is higher in elevation and slightly cooler and wetter than the Colorado Desert areas in the eastern and southern parts of the park. A third topographic zone is provided by high altitudes (above 4,000 feet) of the Little San Bernardino Mountains at the far western edge of the park. Natural springs, forced to the surface near geologic faults, also create five rare desert palm oases in the western part of the park.

Ultimately, the park was given the name of its largest, most iconic, plant resident: Yucca brevifolia, nicknamed the “Joshua tree” by European settlers. Rangers have described the plant as the “canteen of the desert” because its tissues hold water during dry spells. Although its spiny leaves and thick bark discourage all but the thirstiest animals, the living tissue of a Joshua tree is often the last source of moisture for animals during times of extreme drought. Ecosystem and climate models suggest that climate-suitable habitat for Joshua trees could dramatically shrink in coming decades as a result of global warming.


Valley of Fire State Park 2007 – Gallery

Filed Under galleries, local travel, photography, Uncategorized

After looking at the photos in this gallery, you might be surprised to hear that they were taken just an hour or so from Las Vegas. Valley of Fire State Park is usually lost in the shadow of the less natural activities in Sin City. When I went in the spring of 2007, I found myself alone quite frequently. But while exploring an ancient land painted in reds and oranges – without a casino in sight – I was not complaining.


Goat on a Cow

Filed Under retrotravels.net

As you might have read in the archives of this site, I’ve been working on a project called retrotravels.net.  The site will allow you to explore some of my collection of guidebooks used during the Golden Age of travel (1880-1939). You will be able to peruse books not for what is printed on the page (which is interesting in itself) but rather the lingering proof that the book was used by its previous owners. Notations and marks on the pages (called marginalia). Museum or transportation tickets. Scribbled notes. A pressed flower that has made a home between two stained pages for over 70 years. Little pamphlets on a tourist location folded into the pages. I believe that these books hold a forgotten history of a overseas trip and, if studied carefully, can reveal what the traveler from the past did with the book, where they traveled, and what they saw. I’m still working on some major layout and design issues and how to express my fascination with the books.

Luckily, I’m not alone in this fascination.  RadioLab, a weekly NPR program about… well… everything.  One episode was about the history of War of the Worlds and its effect on those who heard it when it was broadcast.  Another hour-long broadcast was about the language of music and how the brain processes sound.  Another was on the history of sperm. All of their programs are well-produced, entertaining, and discuss fascinating subjects.

For their July 29, 2007 episode, they discussed detective stories:

Forensics, archeology, genealogy, and genetics are devoted to figuring out what really happened. In this hour, we hear surprising stories of playing detective and finding that what really happened in the past is not at all what you’d expected.

One of the three stories they discussed was about a mysterious pile of old letters found on the side of a rural road. If it wasn’t for the spotting of a goat standing on a cow, the discovery would probably never had happened. I suggest listening to the program and hopefully you too will understand my fascination with these ghosts found in ephemera.


Gallery Page Updated

Filed Under galleries, graphic design, photography

I was bored by the previous look of my Gallery section, so I redesigned it.  This new look combines my love of photography with my love of vintage stuff.  As with most of my graphic design work, the objects I use are photographs/scans of real items I have in my collection. You might recognize the following: a 1956 Rolleiflex medium format camera (which I use from time-to-time), a Kodak Stereo Camera (35mm) from 1958, a box of old slides I purchased at an estate sale, a 1960s light meter, a shutter release timer, and a couple of blue flash bulbs (both from the 1950s). Click on the image below to visit the new-and-improved gallery:

Let me know what you think!


Nicaragua 2006 Gallery

Filed Under galleries, international travel, photography

My first Central American trip was to Nicaragua in 2006.  Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite photos from the 2-week journey.