Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top 10 Ways to Revitalize Top 10 Lists in 2010

Top 10 lists are on their way out. If you spend any time prowling around blogs, Facebook, or especially Twitter where the top 10 list has become a mainstay, you can see the signs: people are finally getting tired of top 10 lists, and it's about time.

On the other hand, the data seem to contradict this hypothesis. Even if you account for link decay in Google listings as pages disappear from the web each year, the annual growth of the internet and the concomitant increase in content duplication, the pattern is clear: we've gone top 10 crazy and it's gotten much worse in recent years. Despite this skyrocketing graph, here are the top 5 signs that a top 10 backlash is imminent:

1. Direct expressions of frustration: "There is no more tired, cynical trope than the end-of-the-year Top 10 list," states Newsweek's Steve Tuttle, who then mysteriously proceeds to give us his own tired, cynical trope of a top 10 list.

2. Resignation: People at Blog World Expo talked about the top 10 list as if it was an abusive spouse that they simply couldn't leave. "They're terrible, but I can't seem to break away and I always get a lot of hits," one blogger told me.

3. Experimentation: Desperate for a spark of innovation and trying to distance themselves from the herd, other list writers have resorted to using wacky numbers like the Top 51 Photos of the Decade, or the Top 211 Twitter Users Who Will Follow You Back, or the Top
6,692,030,000 People on Earth That Would Feel Depressed, Confused, and/or Hungry While Reading That Previous List.

4. Subtle expressions of frustration in the form of rebellious acts of meta-irony (e.g., Leif Petterson's Top 11 Top 10 Lists That No One Made in 2009) and absurd levels of self-referentiality (e.g., Andy Murdock's Top 10 Ways to Revitalize Top 10 Lists in 2010) that began to appear more consistently in 2009.

5. Overkill: I can understand why one might click on a link sent by your old friend Joe to the Top 10 Stupid Poses In Front of Statues by Joe, but there are only so many top 10 lists one can enjoy and more than enough floating around cyberspace for us to need any more. The existence of sites devoted to top 10 lists, like top10list.com, boggles the mind.

Taken together, these are clear signs of a forthcoming sea change in the increasingly important world of pithy online content designed for hordes of information consumers with a pathological fear of paragraphs. While a paradigm shift may be on its way, it's naïve to think that top 10 lists will ever disappear entirely, so it's worth thinking about ways to refresh the medium.

Top 10 Ways to Revitalize Top 10 Lists in the 2010

1. Get rid of numbers

Numbers are standing in the way of innovation when it comes to listing things. Why do we need them? What has a number ever done for you? Ranking is the best excuse for using numbers, but there are many other ways to rank things:

Top 10 quadrilaterals for the 2010s ranked by horribleness of font

2. Get Nerdy

Instead of a boring old list, why not chart the elements in an n-dimensional hypervolume or use a thin plate spline for a 3D graphical representation?

The top famous athletes I've seen eating in Baker's Square

3. Get Symbolic

Why restrict yourself to words when the web allows a broad multimedia palette that gives you the ability to add layers of symbolism?

4. Get Darwinian

Sometimes lists have internal structure and it makes sense to show how list elements relate to each other. When Charles Darwin sat down in 1837 and first sketched a tree-like structure to describe the nature of evolution, he never could have foreseen how far this idea would be taken in the future. Let's take it one step further now and appropriate the cladogram - this may at first seem frivolous, but using this type of diagram can add new and interesting layers of information to the top 10 list concept.

5. Get Old-School

I'd wager that I'm not alone in thinking that we don't see nearly enough Venn diagrams these days. They make me nostalgic for the dog-eared text books or yore and those wonderful old science films with space-age Raymond Scott background noises.

Top celebrities I have recognized sorted by my ensuing reaction

6. Get Elementary

Speaking of nostalgia, why not resurrect art media from your childhood to add a personal touch to your top 10 lists? For example, you could create a list of the
Top 10 Best Pasta Names out of elbow macaroni and Elmer's Glue:

Don't limit yourself to small macaroni elbows - you can do amazing things with glitter, string, paste, and Play-Doh.

7. Get Green

The green movement is really catching on right now. Everything is green, from green vehicles to green MBA programs, and I think top 10 lists can also ride the green wave. How? Remember the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It takes time, effort, electricity, and disk space to make a new top 10 list, not to mention the time and electricity we waste reading them, so next year let's try (1) writing fewer top 10 lists to conserve resources, (2) reusing old ones when they suit the topic you're discussing or when most people have forgotten the first incarnation, and (3) recycling old content and reworking it into new products. I'll probably just repost this whole thing next year in the spirit of being green.

8. Get Artsy

Show off your art skills and get your top 10 list noticed. What would you rather look at, a dull text-only list or this?:

Top 10 underappreciated adorable animals as reflected by a Parisian puddle

9. Get Honest

Okay, be honest, is your "10 chocolate shops in Belgium" list really about helping people find chocolate in Belgium? Wouldn't it be refreshing if we were all a bit more honest about the purpose of writing top 10 lists?

Top 10 Chocolate Shops in Belgium
  1. Read my blog
  2. Tell your friends to read my blog
  3. Retweet me
  4. Think I'm funny/cool/more worldly than you
  5. Validate the vast amounts of time I spend online for purposes that are quite unclear even to me
  6. Click on my Google AdSense links - I'm trying to break the $1/month income barrier
  7. Buy my e-book based on my travels through Belgium
  8. I'm checking my Google Analytics right now to see how many uniques this post is generating
  9. Wouldn't I be amazing on The Today Show talking about Belgium?
  10. Offer me a book deal/bag of money/free trip to Belgium to eat chocolate

10. Get Idealistic

This is the most daring proposition of all: don't try to revitalize top 10 lists. In fact stop writing them all together. Produce articles of value to the world, rich with detail, emotion and personal voice. Write pieces that move and inspire people. Engage readers' minds and encourage thoughtful interaction with the world. Stop prescribing and start empowering. Fight the lazy, reductionist tendencies of the internet and embrace the nuance and complexity of the world.

Can we do this? I certainly hope so, not only because I just ran out of numbers and I have no room for "Get Pessimistic," but because I'd be genuinely excited to see what's coming next.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Julmust: The Christmas Soda

I love the foods of the holiday season. They suddenly appear one day and they're gone just as quickly, and somehow this makes me love them all the more. It's similar to Girl Scout cookies: if I could get Samoas, Thin Mints and Tagalongs year-round they would almost certainly lose their appeal. Having a food suddenly appear after a long absence makes it totally irresistible.

Damn I want a Samoa right now

Christmas beverages also undergo a similar disappearing act, but partly this is due to the fact that they suit the winter season: hot cider, mulled wine, eggnog all work well with the cold winter weather. This undoubtedly differs in the southern hemisphere — I can't imagine hot apple cider being a popular beverage during the holidays in Australia, for example (correct me if I'm wrong, Australian friends). I also look forward to the seasonal winter beers, often dark and spicy to suit the season, so perhaps it's not so surprising that Julmust, a dark and mysterious Swedish Christmas soda came about.

Julmust is a member of the proud family of beverages resulting from temperance movements around the world, a Scandinavian cousin to root beer, sarsaparilla, cream soda, ginger ale, etc., but probably closest in concept to shandy. It recently popped up next to the Glögg at Cost Plus World Market, often a good source for unusual sodas, so I had to give it a try. As a lover of sodas, I'm sorry to say that shandies really don't float my ice cream, so to speak, so the ingredients of Julmust made me a bit worried. If I want something to taste like beer, I'll drink beer not beer-flavored soda.

Mmm, hops and malted barley soda.

Luckily, the sugar and powerful artificial flavorings mostly overwhelm the beery elements of Julmust and it's actually a fairly pleasant if somewhat artificial-tasting soda. If I had to approximate a recipe of Julmust, it would be something like this:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Andy's Pseudo-Julmust

10 oz. Coca Cola
2 oz. Grape Soda
1 oz. Tonic Water
1 oz. Orange Gatorade
1 oz. Pellegrino SanBitter
A splash of Hubba-Bubba Bubblegum Soda

Combine ingredients, let sit until half of the carbonation has been lost, bottle and slap an out-of-focus Santa label on it. Drink and be festive.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

On the plus side, Julmust doesn't taste like beer-soda, in fact it mostly just tastes like a fruity spin on cola. If Dr. Pepper had a Swedish cousin, say perhaps Björn Peppar, he would probably taste like Julmust. Is Julmust Christmasy? Does it taste like Winter? Not to me honestly, but then I didn't grow up with it to form those associations, so who am I to judge?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Books May Be Dying, But They're Trying To Kill Me First

"Print isn't dying — we're reading more words than ever, we're just not reading them on paper."
This was a comment made in a talk last week by Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler. It's an interesting and provocative assertion, and one could run with this statement in many directions: the future of publishing, the death of the newspaper, the rise of the e-reader, etc. However, because I went through a move this week, this quote resonates on a much more personal scale with a question I've been pondering, namely:

Why do I own so damn many books?

There's nothing like moving to make you question why you hold onto certain things, and having 7000 lbs. of words on paper somehow makes books jump right to the top of the shit-list. Right now I think print should die, simply because I don't want to carry it around anymore.

If the only time I see most of these books is when I pack them into boxes for a move, do I really need all of these books? Determined to get an accurate picture of the situation, I did a detailed quantitative survey of the books on my shelf, the results of which are summarized in the following pie charts:

Firstly, I found that my books could be broken down into 11 functional categories:
  • Reference books. I adore reference books, but I came to the realization recently that I don't use them any more. It's sad, because I love flipping through a real atlas, or pulling out the magnifying glass to use with my condensed OED, but it's extremely rare for me to find the need to consult these books thanks to the wonders of the internetz. Fact: Your computer will never smell as good as an old dictionary.

  • Cookbooks. Cooking is one of my favorite hobbies, but my meals cooked to recipes used ratio is something on the order of 1000:1. A few books get heavy usage, others (I'm looking at you, Batali) just sit there full of potential recipe energy (PRE).

  • Trashy airport books. Perhaps "trashy" is a bit strong, as I would never call Ian Rankin or George Pelecanos trashy. Lee Child, on the other hand... Either way, the pulp mysteries and thrillers get a place of shame hiding behind more respectable books. Also, they're small, so they actually fit behind other books.

  • Books to establish nerd cred. Predictably perhaps, my shelves have more than their fair share of books that do little beyond proving to anyone that may look that I'm a total nerd.

    Nerd credentials firmly established

  • Ye Olde Bookes. I'm not an old-book collector to any notable degree, but I have a few that I've pieced together over the years that always get a prominent place on my shelf to draw eyes away from the trashy airport books.

    Ye Olde Bookes look better in sepia

  • Books I'll honestly read (or re-read). A small fraction of the books I own might actually get read or re-read at some point. I'd like to think it's a larger fraction, but I keep buying new ones, so I never make any progress on the old ones.

  • Books I'll never read again but am still attached to. God, there's a lot of these. I took a course on modern Italian literature in college that I absolutely loved, so I have lots of Calvino and Pirandello lurking on my shelves. I went through a phase of reading every Philip K. Dick book I could get my hands on. This made sense when I was 18, but now I can't imagine reading them again.

    A shelf full of Philip K. Dick books that haven't been touched in years

    This purchase must have been deemed necessary at some point in my life.
    At this point I'm only keeping it for the title.

  • Classics that I just can't seem to part with. No, I'm probably never reading The Odyssey again, but you can't get rid of Homer, right? Well, wrong apparently, because there are several dozen free versions online right now.

  • Long out-of-date travel guidebooks. Following this study, this fraction is now much smaller than depicted in the pie chart as I decided to recycle almost all of these, saving only the mid-90s edition of the Lonely Planet French Polynesia guide, because it had a good recipe for poisson cru in it.

  • Books I've been meaning to read for years. I've started Love in the Time of Cholera three times now, so maybe I should just accept that I'll never finish it. I want to, and I've liked it every time I've started it, but somehow I always get distracted by something shiny and put it down. I once convinced myself that I needed to learn to play Go, so I bought not one but two books on the game. I still don't know how to play Go (although I might if I ever actually opened the books).

    Challenge me to a game of Go, you'll win. In fact, all you have to do is tell me that you've won and I'll believe you.

  • Instruction manuals for graphing calculators. I don't do much graphing on calculators these days, but if I ever need to know the integral of a parabolic cylinder function, I know where to turn. I don't even own a VCR anymore, but at least I have the manual so I'll know how to program the clock if my old VCR suddenly reappears in my living room.
Other ways to look at the books on my shelf:

Books I don't actually need (shown in 3D for emphasis)

Does this mean the digital revolution will solve all of my woes? If all I was concerned about was weight and space, then yes. Digital books have the same content and the same cover art — the content is all there. But clearly that isn't the whole story, as this next chart shows:

There are some books that I should simply get rid of: I don't use them, and I don't even want to use them, I just haven't mustered up the energy to get rid of them because, face it, no one else wants them either and recycling books just feels like a waste. I'll keep the rest of the books around because I want them, not because I need them. This may be foolishly sentimental, especially when I have to move heavy boxes full of books I'll never look at again up long flights of stairs while cursing the paper they were printed on, but the simple fact is that I like having a book collection.

If albums and books all go digital, they're invisible. What goes on our walls? This may sound silly, but I don't think this is a trivial question. When you put books and music on your shelves, you're declaring to the world, "This is me. This is what I like. This is what I toiled through in school. I display these because they represent who I am, who I was, who I want to be, and who I pretend to be when I think no one is looking. I place that one there because it makes me look smart, whereas the one hiding behind it makes me look like someone who desperately needed something to read on an airplane. I keep that one over there because it has a funny title. Oh that? That came with my graphing calculator." At least we still have art, but if we use books and albums as external manifestations of our personalities, what fills the void when they disappear?

Whatever the answer is, I hope it's lighter than books.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

iPhone: The Backpacker's Best Friend?

How much technology do you need with you when you go on a backpacking trip in the wilderness? Or, perhaps more to the point, how much do you actually want with you?

My general rule with packing for a backpacking trip is to bring as little as possible, and only as much as you're willing to carry. When a friend brought his iPhone on a recent backpacking trip, I scoffed at the idea. Why on earth would you want to bring that confounded device into the wilderness? There won't be any signal, and you certainly can't pound in a tent stake with it.

The iPhone compass: because real compasses are a snooze-fest

As often happens post-scoff, my initial skepticism softened over the course of the trip as it became evident that the iPhone might in fact be worth considering on your packing list.

With an iPhone you get all of these:
  • Camera
  • GPS & Compass
  • Light
  • Emergency contact (if you happen to have signal)
  • First aid info
  • Taking notes, writing journal entries
  • Plant/animal identification apps
  • Dictionary to settle important arguments
  • Calculator for adding up your score in Rummy
  • Level: you can check to see if your campsite is level (it never is)
  • Entertainment: games, podcasts, music, showing friends stupid pictures/movies
  • Fending off bears
  • More potentially useful stuff hidden amongst the thousands of other apps
There are some drawbacks to many of these functions, in fact I'd venture to say that it's not particularly good at any of the important things. The camera is pretty abysmal and has no flash, but it does well enough as a point-and-shoot during the day. The GPS functionality is limited. The light is no match for an LED flashlight. Note taking takes longer than a pencil and paper. Many apps require connection to the internet. As an emergency contact device, the iPhone is not the best phone for maximizing reception in low coverage areas. Battery life on iPhones can be pretty bad, especially when you're, say, using it. The speaker on the iPhone is hopeless. Needless to say, the iPhone isn't built for withstanding the elements. On the plus side, for all of these functions, limited as they may be, the iPhone is light and extremely compact compared to carrying an individual tool for all of the above functions.

But here's the rub: by using an iPhone in the wilderness, you might just be reserving a special room in hell. You'll get to share this room with people that talk on cellphones while riding horses, smoke on chairlifts destroying the air for everyone behind them, blast loud music or have a gas-powered generator for their television in campgrounds, people on snowmobiles that zoom by while you're cross-country skiing, and a suite of other people determined to spoil the experience of nature with unnecessary bits of modernity.

While hiking through an old-growth Douglas fir forest in the Marble Mountains, I thought I heard people behind us. I stopped to listen; I could hear thin, distant voices, but couldn't make out where they were or what they were saying. Were there people gaining on us from behind? I doubted it, as we were hiking at a fair clip on a rarely used trail and hadn't passed anyone. When my iPhone-toting friend walked up, I found the source of the voices: he was listening to a podcast about the state of venture capital in the current economy through the tinny speaker on the iPhone.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Hmm? Oh, listening to a podcast. I already finished Madeleine Albright at the Commonwealth Club - you can listen to it later if you want."

I wasn't inclined to take him up on this offer and instead pictured myself snatching the phone from him and crushing it under the heel of my hiking boot with a satisfying crunch.

Now I'm the last one to fight the future – after all I have multiple Twitter accounts, blog in several places, and recently got a little too excited by seeing Chad Vader and Kevin Pollak in a hard-fought bout of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots — but there are times when the trappings of technology interfere with our enjoyment of the world. This was one of those times. I go on backpacking trips to get away from tweets and touchscreens: I want to build fires, swim in pristine lakes, hunt down wild onions for making soup, make seats more comfy by padding them with bracken fronds, and bore my friends to tears by explaining the concept of buzz pollination. No offense to Madeleine Albright and venture capitalist podcasters, but I would be happy if they stayed at home. Well, unless they wanted to carry the tent and some extra beef jerky.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fabulous Bathrooms of the Nevada Desert

It's safe to say that most people visiting Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada are not there to see the bathrooms. I wasn't there to see the bathrooms either, I was there to see the red sandstone formations and the sweeping desert landscapes — or, more accurately, I was in search of an antidote to Las Vegas. Finding out en route that Valley of Fire was where they filmed Captain Kirk's death scene in Star Trek Generations was nerd-icing on the cake. Had I been there earlier in the year, the nerd factor would have been even higher, as I would have been on the lookout for the rare Golden bearclaw poppy, Arctomecon californica, which despite the name has never been found in California. Red rocks, Vegas remedy, Shatner, and rare misnamed poppies, but not bathrooms — after all, who goes out to the desert, much less anywhere else, to look at bathrooms?

But when confronted with a bathroom like this, how can you not take notice?

This bathroom has it good

Entering the Valley of Fire from the east, coming from Lake Mead, you have to pull over to pay the $6 entry fee (which happens to be the best $6 you'll ever pay). Most people will ogle the bizarre water-pitted rock formations that extend up the road, but if you turn around you'll find this bathroom sitting quietly in the most stunning, lonesome setting, not even appreciating how lucky it is to be there.

This bathroom was not a solitary occurrence: at nearly every stop in the park you can find a bathroom set amongst the most improbably dramatic scenery. At the rock formation called "The Seven Sisters," you get:


And this

And this

And then amongst all of this mind-boggling natural beauty, you find this:

Another fabulous bathroom

Further up the road you come to the sadly bathroomless Silica Dome, which is where Captain Kirk perished in Star Trek Generations after foolishly hurling his corpulent self onto a precariously dangling catwalk in search of an errant garage door opener [watch for yourself]. You can see why they chose to film Star Trek here: the terrain is otherworldly with stripes of colored rocks smashed together like Neapolitan ice cream.

View from Silica Dome

After a brief intermission at Silica Dome, the spectacular bathrooms continue when the road ends at White Domes.

Bathroom, bollards, and boulders

To continue your bathroom tour of the southern Nevada desert, why not visit the nearby Hoover Dam? Just over an hour away, Hoover Dam is one of the most frequently visited tourist destinations in the area, but again I doubt anyone comes to see the bathrooms.

Coming from the Nevada side as most visitors do (it's free to park on Arizona side, but you do have to walk a bit further), you're treated to a marvelously useless sign intended for visitors who somehow failed to notice the massive, impossible-to-miss, 1244 foot-long Hoover Dam stretching across the gorge.

Where's that confounded dam?

Oh, is this it?

Inside the dam gift shop, it's impossible to miss all of the dam jokes. You're greeted by an audio recording emanating from a mannquin dressed like a miner that's filled with multiple dam joks. T-shirst read "My Parent's Got Me This Dam T-Shirt," and mugs say "I went on the dam tour," etc., etc., ad nauseum. "Are you tired of the dam jokes?" I asked the guy behind the counter. Dam right he was. "Hey, where's the dam squashed penny machine?"

Found it

Back outside the dam gift shop, following the sign to the top of dam, you'll soon come to the bathrooms. Unlike the rather unassuming bathrooms at Valley of Fire, the bathrooms at the Hoover Dam are dramatic Art Deco affairs precariously perched on the very rim of the dam.

That's the dam men's room

Snazzy Art Deco ante-bathroom

The bathroom is small inside, but on the plus side the men's room has a pair of unusual Art Deco urinals that look like oversized athletic cups on raised pedestals (an example here). Oddly, they're free-standing and without any sort of stall wall, so anyone entering the bathroom gets treated to a straight-on view of someone peeing (I guess men were less pee-shy back in the days of the Hoover administration).

One of the more interesting bathroom views in the world

Dam towers

For me, there's no comparison between the crowded superficial tawdriness of Vegas and the vast beautiful terrain that surrounds it, but most people come to Vegas to gamble, drink, see a few shows, and never even think of setting foot off the Strip, much less driving an hour outside the city. No bathroom inside a hotel shaped like a cheap replica of the Chrysler Building can compare to the ones at Valley of Fire, no matter how glitzy. To put this in poker terms so the gamblers can understand, Vegas is a full house, but the Nevada desert is a royal flush.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Bigfoot's Living Room

She frowned and almost spat when she spoke; clearly I had inadvertently wandered into sensitive territory, and she was probably tired of the question. How could I not ask? All available space on the restaurant walls was covered in cast iron pans with people's names neatly painted in red and white; there was a sign over a doorway that declared this to be the world's largest privately owned collection of cast iron cookware. One pan proudly held the name of Doug McConnell, host of TV's Bay Area Backroads.

My friends and I had just emerged from a week-long backpacking trip in the Marble Mountain Wilderness in far northern California, and we were in desperate need of some real food. There wasn't much to choose from in the little town of Orleans, so we ended up at a place that simply said "Cafe" outside. A local who had told us where to find food said, "We just call it the greasy spoon."

The Greasy Spoon

“We keep writing Guinness trying to get in the book,” she said pouring the brown stuff that was standing in for coffee that morning, “but apparently they don’t have a category for it.” She paused, thinking dark thoughts about the Guinness Book of World Records editorial staff. “So we’re just waitin’ – what else can we do?” she grumbled.

We changed the subject, "I see you have a stage - do you get bands coming through here?"

"Oh yeah," she said, brightening her mood, "mostly local bands. Sometimes we'll have bands come in from Forks of Salmon."

Forks of Salmon is now without any doubt my favorite town name. Also, any band out there looking for a good name, please consider Forks of Salmon.

To those that don't know California well, it's a land of surfers, movie stars, hybrid driving liberals, and patchouli-soaked pot-smoking hippies. But California is huge, and the more you explore it, the more it defies any simple stereotypes. I was trying to explain this to some friends in London, telling them that even San Francisco isn't at all what most people expect — ironically they had been to San Francisco with their parents and the first thing they saw when they walked out of their hotel was a guy walking down the street in assless chaps. Okay, admittedly San Francisco will have the very occasional assless chaps guy, but the cultural terrain changes dramatically as you travel around the state. Here we were, many hours from anywhere, in a dark, cast-iron-clad greasy spoon where the lumberjacky locals who looked like they had been plucked from the cast of extras on Northern Exposure argued over their card game at the corner table, and bands came in from Forks of Salmon. The road we were driving down was marked "The Bigfoot Scenic Byway" and we had passed an Adopt-A-Highway sign that read "In memory of Critter" and a full-sized billboard reading "Produce the Birth Certificate!" We were no longer in assless chaps territory.

Driving down the Bigfoot Scenic Byway

This was exactly what we were shooting for when we planned this trip. We weren't looking for the world's largest privately owned collection of cast iron cookware per se, but we were intent on finding a remote and quiet corner of California for a backpacking trip. To me, backpacking is all about solitude, so when you plan a trip in the summer high season in California you have to choose your trail carefully. Popular trails in the central Sierra can get miserably busy, and there's nothing worse than a traffic jam on a wilderness trail. I knew we had picked well when I told people that I was going backpacking for a week in the Marble Mountains and I got multiple looks of confusion, one persone that thought I was headed to Vermont, and two people that thought I was going to Danang, Vietnam. While a trip to Vietnam sounds pretty good, these Marble Mountains are a section of the Klamath Range just south of the Oregon border, smack dab in Bigfoot's living room.

Bigfoot in his living room

People in Bigfoot Country take this stuff seriously — it's not just a couple of eccentrics with Bigfoot-shaped mailboxes — the whole area is covered with Bigfoot signs, Bigfoot-branded businesses, Bigfoot power stations (seriously), and more Bigfoot statuary than you would believe. In fact, to add another unconfirmed, non-Guinness-approved world record to the trip, the Bigfoot Museum in Willow Creek has what is supposedly the world's largest Bigfoot statue right in the parking lot.

That's one big Bigfoot

Bigfoot with a couple of grimy backpackers for scale


I have to admit that when we set out on the trail a week earlier, I had some small amount of hope that I would catch a glimpse of something and convince myself I had seen Bigfoot. I didn't actually want to see Bigfoot — that would uncomfortably rattle some core beliefs about science and reason that I'm not especially keen on rattling — but thinking that maybe I might have possibly caught a glimpse of something that could have been Bigfoot (but was probably just the back end of a black bear) seemed like it would be entertaining, not to mention fodder for a vastly exaggerated story I could tell for years to come.

At the entrance to the Marble Mountain Wilderness from Haypress trailhead

I'm sad to say that we saw neither hide nor hair of Bigfoot, in fact we had a megafauna-free trip for the most part, despite being in the area that reportedly has the highest concentration of bears in California. At least in part, the lack of animals was due to a large wildfire that had occurred in the Marbles in 2008, and we spent the first day of the trip crossing eerie burned landscapes.

Luckily we were out of the burn zone by the time we hit Cuddihy Lakes, and we were treated to the green meadows, forests, and rock-walled lakes we had hoped for, and the wildflowers were still putting on a show despite being a bit late in the season.

Walking around the first of the Cuddihy Lakes

Sneezeweed in bloom

A new one for the life-list: Klamath gentian, Gentiana plurisetosa

Fishing at Cuddihy Lakes

Our food rations were light on this trip, so we were hoping for fish to supplement what we carried in. The first lakes we hit had been fished hard by summer hikers and pack teams and apart from giant salamanders there wasn't anything moving in the lakes, and we got no bites.

The uppermost of the Cuddihy Lakes

The ultimate goal of the hike was to reach Spirit Lake, described by California outdoors writer Tom Stienstra as one of his favorite lake destinations in the state and a site considered sacred by the local Native American people. Looking at the map, Spirit Lake doesn't look like much more than a small pond, so we didn't know exactly what to expect.

Spirit Lake in the sun as we arrived

Spirit Lake was beautiful - is it Top 10 list worthy? I wouldn't say so, but it does have some really good things going for it. For one, there are two incredible campsites perched above the lake near some of the best fishing spots, and it's far enough into the Marbles that most pack teams and hikers don't typically make it this far, so there were plenty of fish to be caught. Spirit Lake doesn't wow with grandeur and towering granite cliffs or the like, but it has a primordial unspoiled feel that you don't find many places, so it's a fabulous place to go to get a break from the modern world.

Just a few hours later, the spirits descended

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Spirit Lake is that it's fed by a warm and somewhat salty spring, and when an unexpected cold weather system hit the area just a few hours after we arrived, eerie swirls of fog appeared and were whipped around by swirling winds like ghosts on the lake.
Larkspurs in the fog

Thick fog on Spirit Lake

I kept looking around for Bigfoot lurking in the fog, but he was not to be found. Luckily you don't need to see Bigfoot to feel like you've glimpsed another world, all you really need is a breath of fresh air and wall covered in cast iron pans.