Friday, May 1, 2009

Desert Wildflowers, S-Curves, And The Importance Of Being An Excellent Camper

IMG_9498 Let’s start this post off with a bang. I went down to the desert looking for wildflowers, and wildflowers were what I got. When I woke up Wednesday morning, still in my bag, I rolled my head to the left, and 3 feet away I saw this. Seriously, if you don’t think this flower is one of the 10 most beautiful things you have ever seen in your entire life, then You Have No Soul*.

Bag Lily*This is only an expression, as I don’t believe in distinct metaphysical soul, but thought it had the kind of a zinger-like melodramatic impact I was looking for. Technically, it would have been more accurate for me to say, “…in your entire life, then you are a real loser.” But it just didn’t have the same zing…

Petal Sepal DLily It’s Winding Desert Lily, Calochortus flexuosus, one of 3 Calochortus species native to Utah (another is the Sego Lily, our state flower.) Like the Glacier Lilies we’ve been watching this month up here in the Wasatch, it’s a monocot (key clue= petals in a multiple of 3), but it’s structurally pretty different from a traditional Lily in that the petals are clearly distinct and separate from the sepals.

IMG_9496 We saw Desert Lilies throughout the day, both up on the Bench and down on the Floor. An interesting thing about this flower is that we usually saw it leveraging another shrub- often Blackbrush (pic left)- for structural support, to behaving almost like a climbing vine.

Side Note: Climbing vines are uncommon in Utah. Two we looked at last year were Western Clematis, and my old nemesis from Twin Corral Box Canyon, Poison Ivy.


IMG_9368 I saw a ton of other great flowers (way too many for one post), but before we continue, let’s back up and talk about the trip. I cooked up this 1-day quickie trip because I wanted to catch the desert wildflower bloom down around Hurricane and St. George, and I planned to do it solo partly because it was short notice and a lot of driving, but mostly because the “regular” friend I would most likely have been able to recruit on such short notice for a desert mtb trip was OC Rick. I planned to stop a lot and take pics of wildflowers, behavior that invariably drives OC Rick totally batty, and I feared we would end the day not speaking to each other during the 4+ hour drive home.

IMG_9399 But then I thought of KanyonKris, whom I’d recently met and biked with. Kris seemed flexible, open to a quick down & back trip, but most importantly, he didn’t yet know me all that well, which meant that he still didn’t realize how single-minded, annoying and quirky a travel companion I am. And so I was able to talk Kris into joining me.

As it turned out, KanyonKris was the ideal companion for this trip, for the following reasons:

1- He’s friendly, flexible, and easy-going.

2- He’s a strong biker

3- He has a sharp eye. We’ll come back to this later in the post.

4- He is an Excellent Camper.

The Importance Of Being An Excellent Camper

About a decade ago, there was a movie called “The Tao of Steve”, a somewhat sappy and fairly forgettable romantic comedy, which you really don’t need to see, because a) it was only OK, and b) I’m about to tell you the best part right here. DaveSteve In the movie, a side character, “Dave”, asks the protagonist, “Steve”, for advice on getting a girlfriend. Steve outlines a multi-step plan to win over the girl in question, the second step of which is to “be excellent in front of her”, meaning that whatever one is excellent at- say juggling, strumming the guitar, or playing the William Tell Overture on your face*- you should figure out how the prospective girlfriend can be exposed to you doing this excellent thing.

*I can do this. It is one of my 2 musical talents, the other being that I can sing the entire James Taylor song “Handy Man”, in Spanish.

Dave considers this advice, and goes off worried that he may not in fact be “excellent” at anything*, but he returns in a later scene and cries, “I got it! I know what I’m excellent at- I’m an excellent camper!” And sure enough Dave is an Excellent Camper, leading to a camping seen/musical montage in which he wins over the girl.

*A scene which included the best line in the movie. Dave: “What if I’m not excellent at anything? Steve: “Then you got bigger problems than finding a girlfriend.” OK that’s it, I’ve told you all the good parts.

This scene really resonated with me, because although I’d never considered myself actually excellent at, well, really anything, I realized that I am in fact an Excellent Camper. And as an Excellent Camper, I derive great satisfaction from camping with other Excellent Campers. And KanyonKris, I am happy to report, is an Excellent Camper.

Twin A Camping caption An Excellent Camper is defined not by any specific technique or trick or piece of gear, but through their overall comfort level while camping. The Excellent Camper doesn’t dread camping, or resort to it as a last choice; he/she looks forward to it, and sleeps, cooks, washes and relaxes out in the open as comfortably- or perhaps more so- than in their own home.

The opposite of the Excellent Camper is the- and I intend no pejorative here- Lame Camper. Lame Campers may have all the cool gear in the world, but they are fundamentally not comfortable sleeping out-of-doors. On the drive into the backcountry they seem a bit worried or jittery. They ask a lot of questions about where we’ll camp, or what we’ll do if we don’t find the site we’re looking for. When they arrive at camp, they’ll sort of busy-shuffle around, “looking for the best tent-site”, while semi-attempting to engage you in conversation and ultimately get you to “endorse” their site selection. And in camp they have a perpetual “so-what-do-we-do-now?” vibe about them.

IMG_9466 If you are a Lame Camper- and you know if you are- then here is the one piece of wisdom* I have for you: We Excellent Campers can sniff you out a mile away. So don’t try to fake it. Just be up-front and ask questions directly; we’re happy to help you out.

*You probably though I was going to tell you some cool camping trick- like how to start a fire in the rain with nothing but a piece of flint and a Hanson CD or something, right? Haha! No.

Tangent: Lame Campers don’t bother me at all. Armchair-Blowhard-Non-Campers-Who-Know-All-About-Camping do. They’re the ones around the office who always have the apocryphal horror stories to share about camping, which invariably involve “a friend of mine.” My favorites include the guy who had his ear chewed off by a skunk while he was sleeping, and the one last week- told to me by a coworker- about the friend of a friend who awoke to find a rattlesnake coiled on top of her stomach.

Back To Desert Wildflowers

IMG_9345 So I awoke to a thoroughly awesome flower. But, a bit to my chagrin, the Bench level is not yet in full-on bloom. Nonetheless, we encountered many, many excellent- if dispersed- flowers. (pic right = Blackbrush flower)

Lemons-Out-Of-Lemonade Tangent: My loss = your gain. I’m predicting bench-level peak bloom to be the weekend after next- May 9/10th. If you’re mulling a trip to Southwestern UT anytime this Spring, I recommend that weekend.

IMG_9436 Another interesting first-timer for me was this guy, Nevada Onion, Allium nevadense, (pic left) or Single-Leaved Wild Onion. Onions are monocots, and the onions you buy at the supermarket are (usually A. cepa) are just one of over 1,200 species. IMG_9360 Other supermarket-species include garlic, chives, shallots and leeks. All onion species have umbel-type flowers and an underground bulb. I believe most (all?) of the bulbs are edible, but many of the wild bulbs are both tiny and deep, making them not worth screwing around for 5-10 minutes trying to dig up out of rocky soil before losing the stalk, as I did.

IMG_9362 Desert Mallow (pic above, right) and the occasional early-blooming Cliffrose (pic left) were common sights on our first ride, the JEM/Gould/Hurricane Rim loop, as well as Prickly-Pear blossoms (stuck nice pic up up above in part about Lame Campers because I ran out of room down here) and Desert Paintbrush. Cliffrose is a particular favorite of mine; their little white flowers (pic, below, right) have a crazy number of stamens, and are super-popular with tiny wild bees. Stands of blooming Cliffrose are always abuzz with activity.

IMG_9363 Side Note: Cliffrose is closely-related* to Bitterbrush, which has similar- though different (skinnier, more widely-separated)- petals and which occurs in a few stands alongside Shoreline trail, between the top of the Above-Dry-Creek viewpoint, and the base of Heart Attack Hill. Watch for the bloom in late May.

*In fact in the past I confused the two here.

IMG_9403 Tangent: I should also mention that even if we hadn’t seen a single flower, it would’ve been a great day. The weather was perfect, and the JEM/Gould loop is a fast, thrilling ride, featuring repeated, high-speed “S”-curves as well as several fast and exposed sections along the Virgin River Gorge (pic right). And if you haven’t figured it out by now- I love exposure. Bonus Video: Kris throwing rock off cliff into river.

SCurve But on the upper section of the Gould’s Rim Trail (between the corral and Highway 59) there’s a unique stretch of trail with 2 flowers not seen on any other part of the ride. This piece runs across a sidehill consisting of a distinctive clay, which is both impassable when wet, and just a bit different than the various clays encountered anywhere else on the loop.

IMG_9387 The first flower here is the attractive and easy-to-ID Prince’s Plume, Stanleya pinnata.(pic left) They’re tall, striking and- when we passed- abuzz with Bumblebees (pic right). IMG_9390All Stanleya species (there are 6, all native to the western US) are highly toxic to livestock, because their tissues concentrate selenium, which they obtain from the soil. I’m guessing that the distinctive clay of upper Gould’s is rich in selenium.

IMG_9389 Selenium Tangent: Selenium (non-metal, atomic # = 34) is an essential trace element for both plants and animals (it’s an antioxidant), although toxic in excess to most (Stanleya is one exception; Astragalus is another) of them. There’s been much recent research regarding links between selenium deficiency and several diseases, including TB, diabetes and cancer. Some of the most fascinating research has been regarding the link between selenium deficiency and HIV/AIDS infection. Most of sub-Saharan Africa features selenium-deficient soils. Senegal is an exception, and strangely Senegal has significantly lower rates of HIV/AIDS infection than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

IMG_9377The other cool flower in this little Upper-Gould-microclimate is this guy (pic right). I’m pretty sure it’s some species of Phacelia, possibly Scorpion Weed, Phacelia cranulata, but haven’t yet made a firm ID. Elevator Umbel The flower structure is simply fascinating; check out the layered elevator-style multiple umbels, one on top of the other. And at the center of each umbel, you can see a mass of little purple-colored leaflets (or sepals? Not sure.) These aren’t part of the flowers themselves, but they’re also colored, presumably to make the blossom more visible to pollinators.

IMG_9383 If it is Scorpion Weed, I hope I didn’t handle it too much; it causes a contact dermatitis (i.e. Wicked Bad Rash) similar to that caused by Poison Ivy, though via a different chemical agent.

Here’s particularly cool one of those Mystery-Phacelia, in that it is being parasitized by the IMG_9392 Desert Paintbrush, Castilleja chromosa, growing within/among it (pic left). Like Dwarf Mistletoe, Castilleja species are hemi-parasitic, meaning that while they photosynthesize some of their own food, they get much of their carbon from host plants, whose roots they latch onto and penetrate. And speaking of parasites…

IMG_9449 After we finished the JEM/Gould loop, we ate a quick lunch and then drove down to St. George, on the ”Floor”. We rode a new/old favorite of mine, Barrel Roll, which has recently been expanded with the addition of 2 new trails, Precipice and Sidewinder. IMG_9469 The newly expanded network is a wonderful ride and I strongly recommend it. Down on this lower level, Spring is much further along. The Creosote (above, right) is blooming , and scattered Larkspurs (genus = Delphinium, species uncertain) (pic left) add dashes of blue to the shrublands. Brittlebrush1 Another common flower down here right now is our old friend Brittlebush (pic right), which we saw just starting to bloom back in February down in the Sonoran, but which is just blooming now several hundred miles to the Mojave in the fringes of the Mojave.

Side Note: Larkspurs are also toxic to livestock, a topic which I covered in this post last year.

But the find of the day was spotted by KanyonKris. IMG_9458One of the cool things that’s happened to me a couple of times over the course of this project is that in researching various plants I’ve learned about something I haven’t seen before, mentioned it, and then later on, run into and recognized it. 3 weeks ago, when I was blogging about Dwarf Mistletoe, I described a fully-parasitic plant (holoparasite), in order to help define the term “hemiparasitic.” The plant I chose was Dodder, which I’d never seen (or probably rather “noticed.” Wednesday afternoon, KanyonKris, who knew of Dodder only from that post, spotted it along Precipice Trail.

IMG_9460 Dodder may not look like much, but it’s an impressively sophisticated parasite. It located suitable host-plants through airborne chemical cues, then grows toward and wraps itself around that plant. In other words, this is a plant which appears to smell its prey. It grows specialized hyphal tips called Dodder haustoria schematichaustoria with which it penetrates into the vascular system of its host. After it successfully penetrates and begins to feed off its host, the Dodder’s original ground-root dies. One individual Dodder plant can parasitize several different plants (of different species) simultaneously. This is one tough, advanced parasite; the Borg has nothing on this guy.

In this post I’ve mentioned probably only around ~10% of the spectacular flowers we saw Wednesday. Last month when I talked about some goals for year 2 of this project, taking more frequent days off was at the top of the list. Wednesday was the first, and it was a home run. I’m going to be doing this more often.


WheelDancer said...

Awesome post! Being an excellent camper is very helpful but perhaps even more helpful is being matched with your camping partner. The Sweetie and I are both excellent campers which is very nice but I do know of couples that are pseudo-lame campers but since they are perfectly matched, it works. For them.

I liked the graphic on counter-steering but you might have mentioned that when it's needed but not applied, that's when you don't make the turn and get a much closer view of the surrounding vegetation than you were hoping for. This performance is generally followed by a comment like, 'gee, I made the turn and THEN lost it'.

KanyonKris said...

I wouldn't say I'm an excellent camper, but if by excellent you mean "comfortable camping" then I guess it fits.

I'm not a fan of winter camping because every time I've done it I was cold and spent the whole night awake shivering. But now I have a good winter sleeping bag and my friend assures me that changes everything. I'm still skeptical.

It was a good trip and although my legs were missing some snap (due to RAWROD) and my enthusiasm for technical stunts was lower than normal, the riding was great and the company too. Thanks for taking care of most of the logistics.

Fatty said...

I'm the very definition of lame camper.

KB said...

If most mountain bikers don't 'counter-steer', then what do they do? How do they get around the curve? If I get around the curves without falling, does that mean that I counter-steer?

I didn't know that paintbrush were hemi-parasitic. When they bloom here (months from now, I'm sure), I'll have to look at them more closely.

I know exactly what you mean about camping. Once my husband and I get away from civilization, we can't bear to return, even for real showers or a restaurant meal. We settle right into the camping lifestyle.

Watcher said...

WheelDancer- good points re: both camper-level-matching and counter-steering failure. In my case though, I usually experience ~1 corner-negotiation failure/vegetation encounter per year, and the reason is usually not skills failure, but rather space-shot-forgot-about-that-switchback-coming-up…

KKris- your friend is right; a good winter bag changes your world. I don’t do much traditional winter camping (i.e. snow camping) but I do a fair amount of sub 20F desert camping in winter, and it always sucked until I got my current bag (REI Elements -25F)

Fatty- you’ve always been very up-front wrt your camping, er, lame-ness, but that’s totally cool and admirable. It’s the Fakers who earn our (Excellent Campers) contempt, not the Earnest Lamers.

KB- “If most mountain bikers don't 'counter-steer'… How do they get around the curve?”

They lean. Which works just fine. But as speed builds to ~>20MPH, the increased angular momentum of the wheels makes the bike feel “heavy” in response to changes in lean angle, which means that changes in lean angle are slower, even sluggish. Which doesn’t matter, unless you’re trying to negotiate rapidly alternating curves at speed, and need to change lean angle quickly. Conscious counter-steering snaps the bike over- changing lean angle- faster.

(To convince yourself of the angular momentum thing, take off your front wheel and hold it out in front of you while standing up. Tilt it from side to side- easy. Now repeat the exercise, but do it while the wheel is spinning fast. The wheel will feel “heavy”, and resistant to change in lean-angle.)