Leaf Litter

Sustainability and Discovery

You won’t find your typical “What I did on my summer vacation” essays here. Biohabitats Environmental Scientists Arjun Dongre and Stephanie Klein and CADD Specialist Joey Weidle share a bit about their eco-friendly travels. Arjun discovers a sense of place and self by vacationing locally aboard his trusty bicycle while Stephanie Klein journeys into the Ecuadorian rain forest and Galapagos Islands and Joey hangs on to a leave no trace camping policy in Joshua Tree National Park.

Article Index

A Summer Vacation

By Arjun Dongre, Environmental Scientist

I believe bicycles have the ability to transform the world; they exude goodness and happiness, in addition to being the most efficient mode of transportation ever invented. Quiet, adaptable, low profile and having zero emissions, bikes will hopefully become an integral part of transportation in the near future. With these premises in mind, I sold my car over half a year ago in hopes of leading a healthier and more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Part of this lifestyle involved using my bike as my primary mode of transportation for my summer vacation. This decision was my first step towards eco-friendly travel. When plans fell through to tag along on a car ride up to Pennsylvania (from which point I would bike back to Baltimore via the Alleghany Passage and C&O Trail), I decided to spend my week more locally and support local business. That was step two. This decision led to a week of discovery – both explicit and subtle.

For the first few days, I worked at Velocipede Bike Project. VBP is a local Baltimore-based effort to help people learn more about their bikes and promote bikes as a way of life. It has a collective membership program: in exchange for volunteer hours or a small donation members have unlimited access to VBP’s tools and services. Volunteers help teach others – regardless of income level or biking experience – how to fix and/or build bicycles. To teach these skills, VBP collects donated and second hand bikes that would have otherwise gone to the landfill. I met a number of fascinating people who were similarly interested in a sustainable lifestyle, and I was also able to spend some time furthering my knowledge of bikes and helping out around the shop.

During the more “touristy” part of my vacation, I rode downtown to climb Baltimore’s Washington Monument, watched a movie at the city’s famous Charles movie theater and spent an afternoon at the Walters Art Museum. One of the highlights of my week was taking the light rail down to Linthicum, Maryland with my bike and riding from there to Annapolis for the day via the Baltimore and Annapolis (B&A) Trail. The trail was built along side the old Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad and is part of the East Coast Greenway.  I knew Maryland was a “mini-USA,” but it’s amazing how fast the transitions occur between the landscapes. Baltimore and its surrounding counties can get pretty hilly, which makes for intense rides, but just a few miles to the east the land becomes flat, really fast. This makes for a fun, easy ride. This was my first visit to Annapolis and I don’t think the experience would have been the same if I had taken a car. By taking the light rail and riding my bike to get there, the trip down felt like an actual journey.

In addition to feeling like I was on vacation, the trip to Annapolis reinforced for me how bicycles allow for a much more visceral connection, not only to one’s environment but also to others. In terms of connecting to the physical environment, the rest of the natural world moves at a much slower pace than humans, and the only way to enjoy it is by slowing down. By switching from car to bike, I have learned to appreciate the subtleties that exist in the natural world. This has also allowed me to start enjoying the simpler things in life. I’ve learned that it’s not always about flying somewhere to see the grand panoramic views (although they can be breathtaking). By using one’s own energy to get somewhere, one gains a greater appreciation for that place and an understanding for its distance, topography, temperature, flora, and fauna. Biking allows you to take in the surroundings with all five senses. I believe this is the only way to acquire the “sense of place” that we all strive for.

Part of that connection to the environment is also the connections made with people. I rode for a bit with a retired Marine on the bike trip back from Annapolis. The man was in his mid-50s and was still riding his bike 40 miles a day, swimming, and running. We enjoyed a great conversation. I don’t remember his name now, but he has become one of my inspirations.

Automobiles have allowed humans to reach a point in civilization where suburbanized, hardened, and monocultured landscapes are not only common, but accepted. The speed and convenience of automobiles have allowed the economy to explode, furthering their necessity. The cost of this “growth” has been the degradation of our landscapes and ultimately our connection to each other. Our landscape, in addition, becomes irrelevant when we are enclosed in a padded bubble – and as urban sprawl continues, this disconnect becomes more of a vicious cycle. This leads to the conclusion that our connections to each other are compromised as well. As our populations keep increasing exponentially we face tougher decisions about how to continue developing the land and our society. That’s not to say that automobiles are inherently bad. They have worked miracles for the medical world, as well as allowing family members to keep in touch and for helping people who have difficulties with mobility. I have my lapses and love being able to borrow my brother’s car for an afternoon when I am absolutely exhausted. However, we as a society need to think hard about how we use automobiles on a daily basis, or for vacationing and traveling. If bikes can facilitate a reconnection to place, then by promoting a bicycle lifestyle we may be able to truly move towards developing a more sustainable future.

Education Meets Ecotourism

Stephanie Klein , Environmental Scientist

While earning her Masters in Environmental Science and Policy from Johns Hopkins University, Biohabitats Environmental Scientist Stephanie Klein took part in a two week, university trip to study the rain forest, highlands, and Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. The course concentrated on the flora and fauna of these habitats, but also included study of the history, art, and culture of Ecuador.

While Stephanie indeed enjoyed the wonders of the Galapagos, she will never forget her journey to stay in Sacha Lodge, an eco-resort in a pristine rainforest sanctuary situated within a 5000-acre private ecological reserve in Ecuador’s Amazon region.

The trip to the lodge involved a 50-mile motorized canoe voyage down the sediment-rich waters of the Napo, the largest river in Ecuadorian Amazonia; a 45 minute hike on a boardwalk from which she observed several bird and monkey species, and a paddle through the middle of a rainforest maintained by the Quichua Indian tribe. Once stationed at the lodge, Stephanie and her fellow students were able to learn about the flora and fauna of the rainforest and the ways of the Quichua people through a native guide. Stephanie has traveled throughout the world, but ranks her Ecuadorian experience as among the highest in terms of sustainable travel.

Hanging on a Joshua Tree

By Joey Weidle, CADD Specialist

After two seasons playing and coaching for a small American football team in a suburb of Paris, living in a small, communist block apartment with the team’s general manager, I flew to San Diego, California, where I was determined to learn how to surf.  I rented a garage with a bathroom connected to it, and got a job cooking for a French-trained chef at a swanky resort.  I immediately started surfing.  Perhaps more accurately put, I swam a lot with a surfboard Velcroed to my ankle. The surfing was difficult coming, but eventually, I got the hang of it.  The climate took some adapting too, but after I made the transition, I realized I could exercise every day, and count on it being sunny and roughly eighty four degrees.

It was this climate that led me to indulge in all of my favorite outdoor activities, and it wasn’t long before I was rock climbing, again, after a few years off.  Being short of funds, however, I couldn’t really afford to go to the climbing gym too often. Then fortune struck. The owner of the rock climbing gym wanted to decorate the inside of the gym by painting murals on the walls. I had had some formal art training and arranged, through the manager, Tony, to paint the murals in exchange for a free year of climbing. I painted to the owners’ satisfaction, and was soon climbing on a regular basis, with Tony. He befriended me because due to my football background, I was stout enough to belay him while he tried extremely difficult maneuvers near the top of the climbing gym walls. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, and in no time at all we were friends. Tony would talk, with no lack of energy or shortage of praise, about Joshua Tree National Park. “Just wait ‘til I get you up to J-Tree,” he’d say.  My curiosity was stimulated, needless to say, and I started scraping money together for equipment.

Every year, on the weekend before Halloween, Tony leaves San Diego and drives three and a half hours into Joshua Tree National Park. He camps, climbs, and guides groups that arrive sporadically until the holiday, at which point there is a party of climbers surrounding a rock formation that is a naturally occurring castle rising out of the sweeping, stark, drastic desert. During this particular year, Tony asked me if I would like to be his assistant.  I wouldn’t have to pay for his guide services, only for supplies and gear. I spoke with my chef, months in advance, offering to work with only one day off a week until then. He agreed, and everything was settled.  I climbed three days a week at the gym with Tony, and by the fall, I was able to hang for minutes from one arm, and could sufficiently do over five pull-ups with one arm. I was ready.

Tony and his dog, Tacu, picked me up on a Friday evening, and we headed out. Tony said I would thank him later, because we would arrive at night. I did. The ride was filled with laughing, excited planning, and direction from Tony on how to set up quickly and efficiently at night, because the temperature would be dropping fast as night fell. “It is the desert,” I thought to myself, but listened and made mental notes. It was freezing when we got to Hidden Valley, the camping area. Night had fallen, and I could only see fifty or so yards into the desert.  Shivering, Tony and I set up camp, and ate some sandwiches we had made.  The coyotes had already started their skin-crawling howling, and we curled up in our tents and retired, so we could climb bright and early the next day.

I wasn’t prepared for the natural beauty waiting for me the next morning. I lingered in my sleeping bag to hold onto the last remaining bits of heat, but my excitement finally got the best of me, and I tore open the bag and unzipped my tent.  I stepped outside and saw a crystal blue sky, dotted with puffs of white cotton higher up than I had ever seen, and around me a general elbow-bumping party of granite rock formations over a flat, cactus covered landscape. Tony handed me a cup of “cowboy coffee,” with the grinds swilling to a sludge at the bottom, and I skimmed a few warming sips from the liquid top. Within seconds we were a few yards away, and I was barraging him with questions about the first Joshua Tree we came up to. The projecting arms, the irregular bend of them to what appeared to be a pinkish purple floral explosion was amazing to me. The Pennsylvanian forests of my youth seemed so boring, when faced with this new terrain. Cowboy movies came to mind. Never one to dally, Tony dragged me away, and we were soon covered in gear and heading up the side of a cliff.

We climbed in eyesight of camp so as people began to arrive they could see us, set camp, and head out to where we had already set up top ropes. People arrived. Over the next three days of sun bleached, skin losing action, the entire rock formation of Hidden Valley became surrounded by tents, climbing gear, and fire pits.  From outcroppings that barely had room for more than a few bodies, high atop the desert floor, inside the deep blue California umbrella, our camp area looked like a swarming ant hill with smoke wisping up from the two main fire pits.

More than a few of the climbers there were line cooks, like me, and the food served was anything but rustic. I had brought a wok, traditional for cooking over a fire because it is thin and heats up rather quickly. I had tons of fresh vegetables in my tent, and Tony and I lived off of stir fry.  One morning, I fried bacon in the wok, and then used some of the reserved fat, and chicken stock to make bacon risotto – the kind of meal one still feels many climbs and hours later. One chef brought numerous racks of ribs he had been marinating for over a week. You plan to lose weight on a trip like this, though, because clinging to granite, with your life in your hands tends to burn more calories than you can account for with your diet.

Cleaning ourselves meant finding a crack in the granite near the tent, where no one else could see, and pouring a clean gallon of water in a bowl. I had a stainless steel mixing bowl. No one shaved. Everyone smelled. One girl asked me if I was going to pop this huge zit that had formed on my forehead.  “What zit?”  I answered. It occurred to me that I hadn’t looked in a mirror for days. I eventually took care of it using one of the side mirrors on Tony’s truck, but even that was the next day. I wasn’t there to look pretty.  I was there to get up as many of the climbs as the torn skin on my fingers and aching muscles would allow me to. I was an adult playing, and had no time for frills.

Halloween soon came, and all of the champagne, whiskey, and beer everyone had been saving came out around the campfire with guitars, banjos, drums, tambourines, and tanned, muscular, smiling climbers.  There was a feast. Following tradition, at midnight, Tony climbed, quasi-safely, up the main formation at HiddenValley with a jack-o-lantern in tow.  He made a speech.  He thanked everyone for coming, climbing, and loving what he thinks is the best part of the country for climbers. Then he let out an answer to all of the grief the coyotes had been giving us all week, as we tried to sleep. Then he launched the pumpkin down from his perch, and it exploded in a burst of shouting, whooping, and laughter from the onlookers.

The morning after, we cleaned up.  “Leave no trace,” is the motto of the park and Tony.  We lingered much longer than everyone else, because as the main guide, Tony is personally responsible for the condition of the camp area. By the time everyone left, Tony and I had cleaned up every trace of our stay, including the burnt up pieces of the exploded pumpkin.  We did circular walks picking up soda can tabs, cigarette buts, and tons of things that had obviously been there long before we ever arrived. Previous park users stuff plastic bottles, cans, and sometimes whole bags of trash into cracks in the rocks. Tony explained that he liked to top off his truck with this extra trash as a way of being a steward of the park. On our way home, Tony played Paul Simon on his truck stereo, and Tacu stood on my lap, and we both stared intently out the window. Neither Tony nor I spoke until we well onto the highway back. I just reflected. I had taken in so much raw perceptive data, that it would take me days to sort through and quantify it. After paying for gas, food, and some climbing equipment, the entire eight days cost me about three hundred dollars. I have paid almost that for concert tickets.

I remember images from high atop the ledges. I remember Tony helping through fear and pain to some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. I still communicate with folks I met around that campfire.  Tony took me into the desert, and helped me to make it one of my places on the earth. The landscape at Joshua Tree helped me to be braver, think faster, and believe a little more in myself. It was a small repayment to pick up some trash, and help the park be every bit as glorious for the next visitor. The “leave no trace” mentality stuck.  Even now, in Baltimore’s Patterson Park, if I pass a loose bottle, I pick it up. What is the difference between Patterson Park and Joshua Tree National Park, really? Well, Tony might have a strong bias on that one.

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