Kahili Ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) is a fragrant flowering plant native to eastern India. It is also ranked in the Global Invasive Species Database as one of the 100 most destructive invasive species on Earth. Its manner of propagation depends in large part on Homo sapiens‘ marked affinity for its deeply alluring scent and vibrant colors — its introduction to the Hawaiian Islands is blamed on the ornamental horticulture industry. Upon entering the glade in which these plants had taken up shop, we became so intoxicated by their sensuous odor that we mistook this most vicious of invaders as being endemic to the island of Kaua’i.
Kahili Ginger is a mortal threat to many endemic species and can choke entire forests — blocking out the life-giving rays out of the sun, slowly suffocating whatever seedlings that have the misfortune of being rooted beneath its slick, wide leaves. It is a particular menace to the native rain forests of the Hawaiian Islands. But still so easy on the eyes and nose.
This salmon-colored starburst of Lovecraftian horror is Aseroë rubra, a name that translates from Greek to English as something like “red fungus with disgusting juice.” The rotted-meat-scented juice of this Australia-native fungus — also known as a sea anemone stinkhorn — is brown in the specimen pictured above; this seems apt given that it is smeared around the fleshy, gaping orifice that serves as entry point to its hollow stalk.
The juice — let’s go ahead and clarify that it’s actually a spore-laden gel called gleba — is quite viscous, which prevents it from washing away in the frequent rainstorms that break over the Alaka’i Swamp. Its odor — alternately described in terms of shit and dead flesh — attracts flies and other carrion-feeders, who then spread the spores in their own foul little poops: Witness the gleba-gobbling fly on the 2 o’clock tentacle.
A black and white photo of just such a specimen as the one pictured — discovered in a tattered old trail guide — is what convinced the Into The Green mission to explore the Alaka’i Swamp, a tropical moist forest located just under 4,000 feet in altitude in northwest Kaua’i. The mountain range in the horizon from our earlier set of Kaua’i Photos — click here to read about our first night on the island — separated our Wainiha Valley cottage from these fetid highlands. Part of Kaua’i’s imperviousness when it comes to development is a result of the fact that no road divides the center of the island, nor circumvents its shoreline. Thus a location just some 18 miles from the Wainiha Valley can only be reached via automobile by traversing 75 miles — nearly the entire circumference of the island. The other alternative being an epic days-long trek through the soggy wilderness.
And finally we have this bushy lichen of what we believe to be the Cladina species. It is frothing up from a decaying tree stump, sparkling with the rain that falls approximately every 20-40 minutes in the Alaka’i Swamp.
The first time I walked up Mt. Islip — an 8,000 foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 50 miles from my house in Northeast Los Angeles — I came down by moonlight sort of by accident. I tend to get a late start on a lot of my hikes, mostly because I enjoy weekend mornings zoning out on my porch listening to Francoise Hardy, drinking a cherry-walnut smoothie and watching my cat Spider run around in the yard.
The trail is an easy three or four miles one way, and I arrived at the top just as the sun was starting to set, barely making out the towers of downtown Los Angels through the orange haze. I hung around on the peak — bald rock with four chunks of cinder block, the foundation of a long-gone fire watchtower from the 1930s — until the light was mostly gone. It wasn’t until I was making my way down in the dusk when it occurred to me that the woods were still crawling with hunters. It was the heart of deer season, November 5, 2006, and the Islip Saddle parking lot had been full of pickup trucks and camo-sporting Latino dudes hanging out with their freshly-killed deer carcasses rather than the usual crowd of white granola-types and their Subaru Outbacks.
The moon came up over the mountains about an hour after dark, illuminating every crooked branch of the trees on the fire-scarred ridgeline above me. It glowed and sparkled silver on the rock that sloped up from the fire road I was walking, and it shined in the arc of pee that I sent running down the closed, two-lane blacktop highway that I’d followed to the trailhead. (The Angeles Crest Highway has been closed with a heavy gate at mile 64.1 for months now, I think because of some rockslides further east.) I was singing a jolly country song about a guy who killed a woman in Tennessee and was now running for the Mexico border when I realized that two hunters, sitting by the side of the road, had been watching me from a distance as I ambled along, dancing and urinating gratuitously in the middle of the road. Yeesh. “Buenas noches, cazadores,” I said, remembering the word for “hunters” from a tequila bottle. “Uh-huh,” they replied, understandably unimpressed. They asked me if I’d seen their friend, who was long overdue at the parking lot. I told them I hadn’t seen anyone, and walked on.
The Gabrielino Trail runs almost 30 miles from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Chantry Flats, winding its way through the turn-of-the-19th Century human ruins that litter the front range of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. A kind of “hiking boom” in the 1890s had gentleman wood-walkers rambling about these hills with their fancy moustaches and OG L.L. Bean gear, building huts, cabins, bridges and dams.
Most spectacular among these intrusions into the wilderness is the work of Professor Thaddeus Lowe. An entrepreneur and self-trained scientist, Lowe spent the Civil War years doing aerial reconnaissance of Confederate positions from a balloon. He moved to Pasadena, CA in 1887, started a bank and in 1893 opened a railway that scaled up 3,250-foot high Echo Mountain, where he’d constructed a chalet. Several years later he opened another hotel and tavern on the mountain. By 1905 the mountains had rejected all of these structures, destroying them by way of fire and flood. All that remains are a few cement foundations and an abandoned train tunnel, along with the decaying roadways and stone walls that are peppered throughout this wilderness that abuts the affluent suburbs that spread east along the foothills.
I returned to seek the Royal Gorge on a hot Saturday afternoon, the first weekend of July. The Gabrielino Trail is an easy walk for the first few miles as its an old road. Bridges with truck-weight specifications span the lively creek, thick glades shade the trail and stonemasonry juts out of the hillsides: terraced gardens of agaves that mark old campgrounds and graffiti-marked foundations of what look to be houses. Occasionally the trees are scarred with more graffiti, the older it is the higher it lies on the trunk.
Another classic from On The Natural:
My first attempt at the Royal Gorge, a swimming hole in the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, ended with me squealing like a pig and scrambling like a goat over the rocks, logs and boulders of Long Canyon. I’d failed to reach the gorge itself; I decided to turn back while suspended on a rock wall over a murky pool of algae-choked water. I’d just hurled my walking stick over the pool and was unbuckling my pack to throw that as well, intending to leap after these accessories and continue the quest. I paused for a minute and watched a California Newt paddling in the muck below. Read More