Fabulous Peak Spring continued this past weekend. The highlight was the Big Shoreline ride I did Saturday afternoon with my next-door neighbor- let’s call him “Chris.” “Big Shoreline” is what I call when I ride from my house up to the zoo, then get on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, ride it over behind the U. Hospital, up Dry Creek, along the ridge, down into City Creek, then up the other/West side of City Creek , regain the ridge, ride to the dirt road, and then grind up the dirt road all the way to the top/third antenna tower (view from turnaround below, right). Then I turn around and do the whole thing in reverse. It’s a big, great ride that takes between 3.5 and 4 hours, depending on how much time I kick back at the turnaround.
This past weekend, and probably all this coming week, is probably the best week of the year to ride Big Shoreline, because a) there’s great flowers the whole way, and b) the Scrub Oak is leafing out more and more each day. I’ll talk about both in a moment, but first let’s talk about Chris.
All About Chris
Chris has been my next-door neighbor for the past 6 years. I couldn’t ask for a better neighbor. He’s smart, fun, helpful and considerate. We’re of similar age, and have similar-aged kids attending the same school (he and Awesome Wife take turns walking our kids to the bus.) He’s also one of these neighbors who has like every tool you might ever need- star-fangled screwdriver, compressor, whatever- and is happy to lend them to you for as long as you like. And- most relevant to this post- he loves to bike, both mountain and road, and does so at a similar level of ability to me.
Wow! What a great guy! Why haven’t I blogged about him before? Why don’t I do like, well, all my riding with him? Because our schedules almost never line up. In Chris’ family, he’s responsible for most of the domestic-type stuff: getting the kids to school, managing the house, etc. In the Watcher Family, Awesome Wife handles most of that. So when I ride, Chris is usually hustling to get kids fed, dressed and out the door. When he rides, I’m usually at work.
So on the one hand, Chris and I have pretty similar lives, but on a daily basis they’re way different. And this is as good a place as any to bring up something I’ve been asked about repeatedly in relation to this project, both directly, and through occasional comments, and that is the whole Work-Life-Passion balance thing.
The 5 Axes Of Life
I really believe that the central life challenge of virtually all middle-aged married outdoor-heads with children is determining and managing the appropriate balance in their lives between 5 key “axes*”: their spouse, their offspring, their career, their friendships and their passion(s). Ideally, we want our relationships to excel with all 5 of these axes all of the time. But in the real world, with limited time, resources and focus, we can’t manage that, and so we constantly make judgment calls and trade-offs to live the best balance we can.
*To be clear, I am speaking of the plural of “axis”, not the thing you use to chop down a tree.
On each of these axes, at any given time we’re in a Green Zone, Yellow Zone or Red Zone. Green is of course where we want to be. Red is where we know we need to avoid ending up. And Yellow is where so many of us find ourselves so often; managing but not thriving. Here’s a graphical example of the various zones on each axis.
If you think of your own life, or that of people you know well, you can probably “map” yourself or them into various zones on each axis. It’s really hard to wind up in the Green on all 5. And what so many guys do is they chuck Axis #5; they give up on their passions, intending to apply their focus on the first four.
But here’s the weird, ironic thing about the Axes of Life: If you chuck Axis #5, you pretty much doom yourself to always be Yellow on the other 4. I don’t know why this is, but after a decade+ of watching friends marry, have families, navigate careers and try to make their lives work, I’ve become convinced it is true. If you can’t make your passion work, ultimately nothing else will ever shine for you.
Chris and I clearly have overlapping passions. But the life-balances we’ve worked out for ourselves are different enough that despite all we have in common, how well we get along and how close we live together, we only ride together a handful of times per year.
Tangent: I feel the need for a tangent here, for 3 reasons. First, I’ve started this post on a somewhat somber note, and feel I should lighten the mood a bit before diving into geeky botany stuff. Second, having used Chris to illustrate my point, I feel I should include something “fun” about him. And third, my posts of late have been peppered with all sorts of gratuitous references to Selma Hayek and Le Caille waitresses and hairstylists; I feel I need throw a little something in for the ladies.
So here’s another thing about Chris. He is widely acknowledged to be the Neighborhood Hunk. Hunky as in Very Handsome.
As a straight male, I am almost always unable to directly determine whether another man is handsome; to me, all men are hairy, unattractive and sport poor hygiene. It is utterly beyond me why women find any man attractive, and in fact one of my deep-seated fears is that after human cloning is perfected, women will finally get their act together, figure out how much better off the world would be without men* and kill us all in the night.
*Think about it. We start all the wars, commit virtually all the violent crimes and have absolutely no fashion sense.
But I have compelling indirect evidence that Chris is hunky, and this evidence takes 2 forms. First is the behavior of the various Suburban Neighbor Ladies in our neighborhood. When I drive by and see Chris out chatting with any of the ladies in the ‘hood, they always seem just a bit more attentive than when they’re chatting with, well, say… uh, me for instance. They’re always smiling, and seem just a bit too quick to laugh, and touch their hair just a little too often, all of which combine to give off a general, “Hey wow- I’m talking to a Hunky Guy!” vibe…
But second, and more interestingly, he looks like the kind of guy who could be on a TV show. Let me explain: Most of us “normal” people, even if we look OK in real life, are nowhere near attractive enough to be in a TV show or a movie. A good example is Steve Buscemi. The guy always plays “weirdo” parts in movies, and as soon as we see him appear in a film, we think, “Oh OK, here’s the maladjusted weirdo in the movie…” But he doesn’t really look that weird, and in fact if he worked in your office you probably wouldn’t think twice about him; he’s just nowhere near movie-handsome.
That’s how it is with most of us. If they put one of us in a movie, when we appeared the audience would think, “Uh-oh. What’s this guy’s story? He must be a psychopath/alcoholic/victim-of-childhood-abuse/tortured loser… I better keep an eye on this character…”
Nested Tangent: This is a good a time as any to bring up one of my big complaints about TV & movie plots: that any character with the name “Alex” is always problematic and untrustworthy. (As most readers of this blog know by now, my first name is “Alex.”) For years growing up, whenever an “Alex” appeared in a movie or on a TV series, the guy was inevitably a criminal, traitor, diabolical genius, or just tormented, angst-ridden loser. Think about it. The dead guy in the Big Chill, whose funeral they’ve all come out for after he killed himself? “Alex.” Malcolm McDowell’s character in “A Clockwork Orange,” a crazed, brutal, sadistic hoodlum of the near-future? “Alex.” The evil, scheming, diabolical Administrator/criminal mastermind of Salem Hospital in Days Of Our Lives? “Alex Marshall.” Even in “The Bionic Woman”, when Lindsay Wagner is sent to disable a crazed AI-supercomputer controlling a doomsday device, the computer is named- in a godawfully flagrant rip-off of 2001’s “HAL 9000”- “ALEX 7000.” ‘Cause of course anybody named “Alex” is always smart and evil and messed up…
But if you were watching a TV show, like “Law & Order Mentalist SUV” or something, and Chris walked onto the set, you wouldn’t think twice about it, because Chris looks like a guy who could be on a TV show.
Phew- that’s a long intro. So anyway, we had a fantastic ride, and the flowers were blooming like crazy. The Balsamroots are exploding and Bumblebees are all over the Ballhead Waterleaf. Every bend in the trail, when you round it, is another explosion of color, and as you ride along it’s all you can do to keep from saying “ooh” and “ah” aloud.
I saw 3 new wildflowers on Saturday’s ride. (Yes I know the title says “4”; all will become clear in a moment.) The first was this guy, which I am embarrassed to say I saw all over the Wasatch last year and never got around to IDing. So I made sure to get it right this year- it’s Singlestem Groundsel, Senecio integerremus. It looks kind of like several wimpy little yellow daisies atop an unbranched stem a couple of feet high. But it’s not a daisy. A true daisy has multiple layers of sepals at the base of the flower; Groundsels have just a single layer of sepals.
An annoying thing about this flower is that it has like 4 different names, the second most common being Lambstongue Ragwort. I think the “Lamb” part may refer to the leaves, which are covered in fine, soft hairs. But here’s an interesting thing about this plant: over the course of the summer, the leaves will become progressively less hairy, and almost totally smooth. So if you can remember to pick out a clump on one of your usual trails, you can check it out from time to time through the summer.
S. integerremus (and several other Senecio species) contains high levels of alkaloids, and can cause liver damage in livestock that graze on it excessively. It’s just starting to be common in the foothills North of Salt Lake.
Tangent: But it’s already really common down around South Mountain/Corner Canyon. And these leads to something really interesting I just noticed last week: Spring is 3-7 days more advanced down in the South Mountain foothills- just 20-22 miles South, but at the same altitude- than it is in the foothills North of downtown Salt Lake.
I did lunch rides on South Mountain trails twice last week, which revealed far more developed blooms of Groundsel, Waterleaf and Bluebells than 20 miles to the North. Here’s a quick example. The Bitterbrush in the photo above right was fully bloomed at about 5,400 feet along the Oak Hollow trail in Draper on Thursday 5/7. The photo left is Bitterbrush at the same altitude and exposure just above City Creek 2 days later.
Higher up, you’ll see this flower pretty much all summer long, so it’s a good one to remember. But be careful. There are a bunch of other flowers that look kind of like it if you’re just looking quick. Here’s one I saw Monday morning up in Mill Creek Canyon. It’s Western Wallflower, Erysimum asperum (pic right, below left). Once you stop and look at it, you see it’s completely different, but if you just pedal past at 15-20 MPH, you could think “Oh Groundsel…” and just roll on by.
Here’s the cool thing about Western Wallflower: it has the greatest altitude range of any Utah plant, occurring from ~2,000 to over 11,000 feet. (OK, so this is the fourth flower- but I didn’t see it on the same ride. Get it?)
The second flower I found while climbing out of City Creek on my way up toward the antenna towers. It’s Blue Flax, Linum lewisii, and it’s a real beauty. It’s never super-common, and doesn’t seem to occur in big groupings. Close-up the veins in its petals have a cool, almost hypnotic pattern and it’s fun to stare at for a bit.
Tangent: I’d argue that this stretch- from City Creek up through the switchbacks in the Maples until it opens up (see map, above)- is the best part of Shoreline, particularly as a descent. The switchbacks down are like zipping through a series of green tunnels, and then the fast stretch from the bottom of the switchbacks- which didn’t even really seem like a climb on the way up- just screams on the way back down.
Here’s something useful about Blue Flax: you can make rope out of the stems. You soak them in water for like a week+ to get the bark off and then twist the stems together to make cord or rope. Another cool little factoid about Blue Flax is an apparent defense mechanism; its seeds contain cyanide. Whether it’s enough to be seriously harmful in small quantities I don’t know, but supposedly it gets removed through cooking, making the seeds edible.
The third flower was the real beauty of the day. As you descend shoreline Westbound toward City Creek, the trail bends through a deep, shady, well-watered draw. And carpeting the floor underneath the Maples is this- spectacular reddish-pink flowers. And unlike so many wildflowers, these smell- and they smell fantastic. I’ve never seen these anywhere else in the foothills, and they were the highlight of the ride for me.
When I returned home I poured through 3 wildflower guides looking for a match. Finally I emailed Sally, who ID’d a likely suspect: Dame’s Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, native to Eurasia and a frequent garden ornamental, which has escaped cultivation and established itself in similar sites nationwide.
That’s right- my favorite flower of the day, the one with which I was absolutely smitten, appears to be an exotic. I have to admit I’m a bit crestfallen, but it really is lovely. Assuming it is Dame’s Rocket, an interesting question is how it got there; it’s at least ½ mile as the crow flies from any house, and more like a full mile by trail. Of course there are plenty of exotics in the foothills, and the hillsides on either side of City Creek Canyon are exploding right now with Dyer’s Woad. But this is the only place I’ve encountered H. matronalis.
Side Note: I blogged about Dyers Woad last year. You can check out that post if you want more info, but here are the 3 cool things about it: Its name (“Woad” sounds so evil), that it is a natural source of blue dye, and its allelopathic seedpods.
Oh before I forget, a cool thing about the Gambel Oak. As they leaf out this week, it’s an excellent time to check out the clonal boundaries between stands. As I’ve mentioned before, Scrub Oak in the Wasatch reproduces primarily by root-cloning, so that big stands are all linked together. During the summer and Winter you can’t really tell where one clone ends and another begins, but as they leaf out, they do so at different rates, and it’s fairly easy to tell from a distance where the boundaries of a given clone lie.