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April showers and local flowers

April 26, 2016

A few stray showers earlier this month added incrementally to our rainy season total: under 5 inches so far (as posted on a NOAA data page).  The paid professionals who talk about “rainfall averages” like to proclaim that my home area in Orange County “averages” 13 inches of rain each year . . . which drives me mildly bonkers.

Am I the only one who thinks there is no such thing as “average” rainfall in this Mediterranean climate of a long dry season (~April through November: no rain)  in between cool-but-never-cold rainy seasons (November or December through March or April)?!

What is “normal” or “average” for this climate is . . . a lot of rain one year, not much another, some the next . . . in other words: it’s supposed to be variable! The native plants are OK with this, and have all sorts of strategies to thrive in these conditions (and so what if their thriving includes shriveled or lost leaves in the summer . . . it’s NORMAL for them to do this . . . another kind of spare beauty, if you only know and appreciate what is going on).


Enough ranting for one afternoon.

The bit of rain received this season has produced some exquisite wildflowers blooms in the last few weeks; my runs have been happily interrupted by my trying (and rarely succeeding . . . drat you camera-with-a-lackadaisical-focus) to “capture” (think about that word: totally inappropriate when it comes to landscape photography . . . I am not trying to capture as much as create an image that will speak beauty to me during those times I cannot find the flowers) . . . where was I . . . oh yes . . . trying to capture (or not) some of our local fast-fleeting flowers in bloom.

Let the non-capturing commence:

The Catalina Mariposa lilies shown above have received the California Rare Plant Rank (CRPR) of 4.2 . . . this means they are “moderately threatened in California (20-80% occurrences threatened / moderate degree and immediacy of threat).


Splendid Mariposa lilies! A perfect name for these stunning pink lovelies that hover like butterflies over the few remaining scraps of native grassland. (Mariposa = Spanish for butterfly). This is Orange County’s most common Mariposa . . .


Another “cup-like” flower not to be confused with the lilies (which have separated petals), our local native morning glory twines along the ground and has a cup-like blossom that is all one piece (if you think of a morning cup of coffee cup . . . it’s one way to remember which is which).

When goldenstars are in full bloom, their inflorescence (fancy word for flower cluster) reminds me of an exploding firework. April! Goldenstar time in the foothills of Orange County!


(And who doesn’t like to create “shadow tattoos” whilst out and about . . .)

Prickly pear have just begun to burst with blooms! If I were friends with this plant on FB, I would “like” everything it posted . . . with lots of smiley faces:)


Here’s a slick transition . . . from prickly pear to pincushion plant. This white Chaenactis artemisiifolia  was all alone along the trail . . . a special find, as these plants are more abundant after fire, according to the beyond-amazing Wildflowers of Orange County by Allen/Roberts; the most recent fire swept through here in March of 2007.


Another fire-follower: chaparral bush mallow. I love the delicate pink flower sprays of this plant so much I bought one at our local native plant nursery; it did really well in my little back yard garden.

Really really really well.

I had to remove it eventually, as its roots had a clever way of creating new plants . . . everywhere. Sigh.

Now I just enjoy it along the trail. (By the way . . . all of these images are from the Barham Ridge trail network between Irvine Park and Santiago Oaks Regional Park.)


Here’s a “common” plant of the coastal sage scrub community: black sage (Salvia mellifera). It adapts to the dry times by shriveling and dropping its leaves, as mentioned above, making some folks think it’s dead and ugly . . .

. . . as dead and ugly as all the trees in New England that drop their leaves for the winter? We don’t expect hardwood forests to look lush and green all year . . . so let’s give black sage a break as well . . . (around these-here parts, we call it “drought-deciduous”).


Fringed spineflower . . . another April-blooming beauty.


One more definite signal it’s April: blooming spires from our impressive local yucca: Hesperoyucca whipplei. Throughout the Southwest, yuccas are important ethnobotanical plants . . . native people have long used pretty much all its parts for soap, food, and fiber (think twine for nets and rope as well as fiber for sandals and skirts).

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As an added bonus, I got a serenade from this unusually bold gnatcatcher . . . a bird that more often than not hides as soon as I come around a bend in the trail. It was so focused on making its (scratchy, mewing) voice heard by nearby friends/foes/potential mates that my camera-fumbling presence did not even faze it.

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. . . just another April morning floating along through my fantabulously bio-diverse local wildlands, feeling grateful for good health and strong feet to help me enjoy it all.

Happy April trails!










Barefoot on the Bright Angel Trail (topping off a shoeless week below the rim of Grand Canyon)

April 12, 2016

I think my smile says it all:


This is me on April 6, heading up the Bright Angel Trail after five nights at Phantom Ranch.

Since I was working as the WFR (Wilderness First Responder) for a six-day backpacking/natural history class offered by the Grand Canyon Association Field Institute, I figured it might be good idea if I kept up with my fellow (booted) hikers . . .  so for the first couple of days I had to hike in my Merrell sandals (the “Pipidae Wrap” model; unfortunately, long discontinued).


Here I am on the first day, at the S. Kaibab trailhead: With 35 pounds on my back (including a emergency satellite phone and first aid kit for ten), it seemed prudent to don sandals and socks for the 7-mile descent of the South Kaibab Trail (which loses about 5,000 feet via . . . hundreds . . . of . . . step-step-steps . . .)

Then . . . stuff got real. On the second day, two of the members of our group began to show signs of heat stress while on a particularly challenging section of trail; I was able to use my WFR training to recognize what was going on, and to facilitate a change in plans for the safety of the group.

Long story short: the three of us hiked back to Phantom Ranch, where we spent the rest of the trip doing short day hikes and relaxing in camp along Bright Angel Creek as well as along “Boat Beach” — a historic place where Colorado River runners have stopped for decades to take a break at the  historical Phantom Ranch.


Old-school wooden dory and crew at Boat Beach.

Although we ended up hiking about 26 miles over six days (including seven miles in down the S. Kaibab Trail, and nine miles out the last day on the Bright Angel Trail), our group of three did not log the 20+ extra miles our compadres did as they completed the scheduled adventure to Clear Creek.

Was this a good or bad thing?

Maybe these photos will shed some (Canyon-colored!) light on this question:


Oh, to be “stuck” along Bright Angel Creek for five days again!


Although I am not a fan of alien tamarisk shrubs, which have invaded so much native plant habitat in the arid West, I did appreciate the lovely mottled shade-cave offered by this friendly specimen . . . where for a couple of days I got to follow Bob Dylan’s instructions and sit and watch the river flow . . .



Another view from my perch on Boat Beach: the endless drama of folks crossing the S. Kaibab Trail bridge . . . here are some mule riders at the end of what must have been a long hot dusty day of jouncy downhill mule stepping.


A like-minded edge-of-the-River connoisseur . . .


Another highlight of our changed plans was the opportunity to hike up the North Kaibab Trail a bit to explore Phantom Canyon (named by John Wesley Powell on a wispy-foggy day, the story goes).


Lovely Phantom Falls . . .


. . . and the dipper bird who makes its home in the turbulent water. We spent a fabulous hour watching the dipper scooping up stuff from under water and flying it back to its nest behind the second waterfall.


Fantastic flying critters of Grand Canyon: the endemic (appears only in this area) Kaibab blue swallowtail.


Springtime in Phantom Creek (which flows into Bright Angel Creek which flows into the Colorado River which flows into my kitchen faucet).


The view from the bridge over Bright Angel Creek . . .




My little home under the cottonwoods . . .






Not quite “Brighty of the Grand Canyon” (the subject of a book that was my first introduction to Grand Canyon), this beautiful mule carries on a long tradition of creatures helping people get in and out of this remote place (all food and goods are packed in by mule train every day; all trash is packed out the same way).


Although I did not make it all the way to Clear Creek, I did get to experience the first several miles of the meandering Clear Creek Trail along the Tonto Platform. We were just in time for the beavertail cactus bloom.


One of the challenging aspects of the Clear Creek Trail is that it climbs over a thousand feet in its first mile or so . . . a breath-taking experience leading to breath-taking views  (apologies for the punning) of both the S. Kaibab and Bright Angel Trail bridges as well as some Phantom Ranch outbuildings (red roof in upper middle of photo).




Pink cactus green river red rock blue sky oh my . . .



Our trip leader, Stewart Aitchison, did an excellent job of making Grand Canyon come alive with all sorts of natural history stories . . . the people, plants, critters, and rock that have made–and continue to make–this place so significant.



All good things must come to an end . . . this is the beginning of the end . . . the lower stretches of the nine-mile-five-thousand-foot-elevation-gain Bright Angel Trail.The last time I had hiked this trail was in October with an injured river runner who had dislocated his shoulder upstream at Hance Rapid . . . seems he had been ejected from his raft and tumbled around underwater for quite a ways. It’s a long story (that I’m still working on writing), but I happened to be available to help a friend in need hike out, and count him as a friend indeed now.


And the western redbud! What a display!

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Here’s a few of our group posing for the obligatory “we made it” photo at the Bright Angel trailhead. The gentleman next to me wore his Vibram Fivefingers for most of the way up due to issues from his hiking boots; then, when even the Vibrams began to chafe, he chucked them as well and experienced the glorious canyon rock foot-to-stone.  He’d actually done some barefoot running back home in New England; it was nice to chat with someone who didn’t think I was completely crazy for not wanting to cover my feet. With heavy boots. That chafe and constrict and cause blisters and black toenails. (Yikes . . . the painful-looking feet and raw ankles of some of the folks I saw cooling their toes along Boat Beach during my time there . . .) I did not even bother to take a picture of my feet after the hike ’cause there was nothing “newsworthy” to photograph . . . just happy feet that had (finally!) been freed to backpack the last five miles up the Bright Angel Trail without even the sandals . . . there are some water crossing just below Indian Garden that are just too nice to pass over with shoes on . . .


Final/favorite photo: from our first day hiking down the S. Kaibab trail . . . a mile or so into the canyon. (It was April Fool’s Day . . . )

Happy Trails! I’ll be back at Grand Canyon in June to lead my second Grand Canyon Association Field Institute “Writing on the Edge” workshop at the North Rim . . . all are welcome, no matter what kind of writing (or hiking) experience you’ve had. We’ll do easy day hikes through the forests . . . which will lead us to stunning views of the Canyon, and we’ll stop along the way to pay attention and jot down notes of what we’re observing . . . enjoying the connections as the writing makes them happen!






My first ultra race (yep. here comes another race report)

March 22, 2016


Monument Valley. Never been there; always wanted to visit.

When I found out that Ultra Adventures was putting on a trail race there, I immediately began planning/training/trying not to get injured.

. . . because getting injured seems to be a sad pattern when I sign up for a “big race.” So I really really really tried to under-train and not over-do my mileage leading up to March 19, 2016.

But it’s just so much fun to blast (at my 56-year-old-granny-snail speed) down hills here on my local trails; yep, I stressed my very sensitive (so sensitive I can’t let it watch the nightly news) left knee on a bugs-in-my-teeth-cause-I’m-smiling-so big run in February.

A visit to my personal magician . . . I mean physical therapy doctor . . .  confirmed my suspicion. “It’s a little inflamed,” was Dr. Derrick’s calm diagnosis. “Go ahead and run and have fun.”

Now that’s a positive attitude . . . and so for the first 18 miles I aimed for fun, taking it easy in the miles of soft sand, enjoying the company of such fabulous rock formations, mostly walking, jogging level spots, letting it go a bit more on the lovely sandy downhills . . . until that familiar stabbing pain in the middle of my knee-cap returned. Less intense than in the past, but still enough to keep mostly MOSTLY mostly walking the remaining 15 miles (total of 33.75 miles . . . or 55 kilometers).

But I made it up to the top of Mitchell Mesa (where the above photo was taken) and got to soak in the huge views before plunging back down the insanely rocky trail (which my bare feet much preferred to the too-sticky stickers) and the final miles to the finish line . . . in about 10 hours and 42 minutes. My exact time? Unknown, since I lost the timing chip I was supposed to tie onto my shoelaces, only I didn’t have any shoelaces, so that was that.

Monument Valley.

I’ve been there! I can’t wait to return! (The Navajo people who make their homes there were gracious in allowing the race to venture places where the general public is not usually allowed; many tribal members also assisted in race logistics, patrolling the course on horseback, providing food–traditional fry bread and mutton soup–at the aid station, etc. This made the event even more special, as did the fact that the Vice President of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan M. Nez, gave an interesting and inspiring speech at the race meeting the night before the race . . . and then ran the 50-mile event on Saturday.)

A few more images:


We didn’t trespass, but the race trails took us to otherwise-off-limits parts of this culturally important place.


I’ve got a pair of sandals strapped to my back and Sockwa sock-shoes tucked in my waistband; neither were as comfortable as just. Plain. Barefoot.

Monument Valley stickers

. . . Until I encountered the dreaded stickers. Over and over. So I kept slipping the Sockwas on and off through stickery areas.


The Mitchell Mesa “trail” winds its way up about 1,000 feet from the valley floor. Who doesn’t love ROCKS!


The finish line: a demonstration hogan (traditional Navajo home) offered a vivid contrast to the special technology used to record racer times via the blue mats which were supposed to sense the computer chips we were supposed to have tied to our supposed shoelaces. But what about those of us sans shoelaces?!


UPDATE: (April 7, 2016) The good folks at Ultra Adventures did add me to the results, even without a shoe chip. They are such an organized and friendly bunch . . . I highly recommend their races! AND . . . I just found out I won “judges choice” in their race photo* contest on Facebook . . . swag is headed my way . . . can’t wait! * The winning photo is the first one on this blog post . . . the view toward “The Mittens” over my toes from the top of Mitchell Mesa . . .

March springs forth with welcome rain + wildflowers

March 10, 2016


Yikes . . . talk about “wild” flowers . . .  the above assault on the optic nerve is a recent result of my never-ending quest for the “ideal” running short.

My chief requirements: so comfortable I don’t have to think about them while running; NOT a solid color (so they don’t show sweat stains); and NOT capable of clinging on to the “eau de locker room” generated by the previously mentioned sweat.

My current store-bought “Moving Comfort” brand shorts are comfortable, but solid gray, and reluctant–even after repeated washings with bleach–to remain smell-less.

While at a local fabric store buying curtain material, I walked by this loud-and-lovely green and yellow print and felt it calling me (the reason why I try to stay out of fabric stores . . . I like to think my fabric-hoarding days are behind me . . . ).

Loosely referring to my Moving Comfort shorts, I made a pattern and then put together a garment that was definitely . . . colorful. But I made them too big, and the swinging of the extra leg fabric was distracting on my one try-out run. They definitely helped me levitate, however:

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On my next thrift store visit, I came across a men’s golf shirt with potential in the color (tiny stripes!) and stretchy comfort departments:


Here’s all that was left after making the shorts (using the previous pattern, but doing more adjusting and measuring along the way). I gave them one seam pocket on the right side (for runny nose hanky), and a patch pocket on the left (for bits of trail trash).


I am now happy to have a complete running kit (LOVE this word; thanks UK friends) made out of thrift store finds: a gray wool t-shirt (from EMU Australia) and my gray-and-blue stripey shorts.


This afternoon will be the test drive . . . back to my favorite currently puddley trails at Irvine and Santiago Oaks Regional Parks; the two share a border called “Barham Ranch,” home of some rare native plants as well as the endangered California gnatcatcher.


On the Roadrunner Trail heading toward Barham Ridge.

Below is my first mariposa lily sighting of the season along the Barham Ridge trail this week; we have six species of this delicate bloomer in Orange County . . . this is a Catalina mariposa lily, with a rare plant ranking of 4.2, according to the definitive book Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains.


There’s been a lot of recent damage to the trails in this area by someone intent on creating as many bike jumps as possible, endangering plants such as this mariposa lily and her ephemeral friends.

Read the signs, folks:



Two new jumps that magically appeared after last week’s rain:


Trailside damage to get dirt for the jumps . . .


Grrr . . . .

Time to relax with some aroma-therapy  . . .  courtesy of the fabulous California everlasting (Gnaphalium californicum) now in bloom along the Mountain Goat Trail. According to “The Book,” this plants smells like “maple syrup, pineapple, citrus, or curry” depending on the person doing the smelling.  It reminds me of an exotic citrus.


Mmmm . . . I’m feeling a bit less stressed already. Now for a glimpse of the lovely red paintbrush blooming along the Bumblebee Trail, and my blood pressure might find its way back to normal:


Yep. Happy again (and appropriating a bike jump for my own wild purposes):

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One final mud moment to sooth my soles. (Ouch. I really try not to make these kinds of puns, but sometimes it just happens . . . )


Happy (almost-spring!) trails . . .




No super-bloom, but still beautiful: Anza Borrego at the end of February

March 3, 2016
death valley superbloom 2005

Death Valley super-bloom in February 2005.

Lots of folks have been posting about this year’s “super-bloom” of annual wildflowers in Death Valley National Park.

I was one of the  lucky ones who got to witness its last occurrence back in 2005 (photos above and below).


Another image from 2005 during Death Valley’s last “super- bloom” . . . “I can see for miles and miles” . . . and it’s all desert gold.

Because desert rainfall is such a locally variable phenomenon, during last weekend’s visit to Anza Borrego Desert State Park we witnessed no such massive color show.

There were, however, plenty of desert shrubs providing startling beauty for us and pollen/nectar for critters:


Vivid chuparosa: hummingbird magnet. (And ocotillo about to bloom behind it.)

Almost as rare as a super-bloom: spotting the elusive desert bighorn sheep (the “borrego” in Anza Borrego).  Saturday morning I had such an encounter: 6 am, slanted light, a cracking noise–like rifle shots–echoing off the sheer rocky slopes of Indian Head mountain, and a rowdy band of curly-horned males bouncing around and smacking horns.


Other highlights of the weekend: our annual family trek up Palm Canyon to the waterfalls. My first camping trip here was in 1963; now I count myself blessed to be able to introduce my grandchildren to this fabulous place in all its rough beauty.


Me, two granddaughters, and one great-nephew being photobombed by one of my sister-grandmas.

(And to see my son and nephew and great-nephews taking off their shoes to hike parts of the trail . . . so much fun! Sure, I’m known in our family as the crazy barefoot one, but bit by bit some of my relatives are seeing for themselves how fabulous it is to go without shoes on God’s green–or sandy and rocky–earth.)


My computer-industry son and his elementary school principal cousin: out from behind their desks and on the trail, barefoot!


This little guy told us he was going to do some yoga. And he did! He also hiked a lot of the Palm Canyon trail shoeless . . . upon witnessing which, the trail docent/volunteer told my brother (the little guy’s grandpa) “that’s borderline child abuse!” Glad I wasn’t there to hear that . . . I would have given him an earful about what’s good or bad for kids’ feetsies . . . 


My niece and her spunky one-year-old daughter resting at the palm oasis . . . the next generation of shoeless pioneers!


Speaking of spunky kids: all the rugrats had a good time rock scrambling, shoeless or shod. Here’s my oldest granddaughter . . . imitating a bighorn sheep?


A loggerhead shrike, just before dawn, perching . . .  waiting. These interesting birds sometimes impale their prey on thorns, and come back later for a snack. Yikes . . . 

Sunrise over Font’s Point! I take pictures of it every year, and it never. Gets. Old.


Early morning, desert light, water to reflect . . . although it’s heavily impacted by hikers during the day, just before dawn Palm Canyon is a place of peace.


So . . . no super-bloom at Anza Borrego this February, but still a magical place/time to visit.



Dusty days are here again (and a few wildflowers)

February 16, 2016

Dear Orange County:

We regret to inform you that although the much-hyped El Nino has brought an epic big-wave season to your coastline, the much-much-much-hyped rains send their regrets that they will not be attending your nightly news weather forecasts in the foreseeable future.


The Atmosphere

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Not only is it not raining, it’s been ferociously HOT for weeks, with temperatures near 90 F every day . . . which has transformed winter’s sticky clay trails back to their more usual “poof dust” condition.

The few inches of rain we did receive back in early January invited some shrubby bloomers to play-act at spring . . . and a few annual wildflowers have also begun to blossom recently. Here’s some from this morning’s run around the hills near Irvine Park:

(Clockwise from upper left: wishbone plant, nightshade, fiddleneck, wild cucumber, encelia, snakeweed, wild hyacinth)

And, of course, our reptilian friends are lovin’ this break from winter chill:

It’s rarely un-smoggy enough to see the white cliffs of Catalina Island (26 miles from the coast, and my vantage point on Barham Ridge is another 20 miles inland) like this . . . but today was one of those mornings:


While we take all this fine weather for granted, winter storm Olympia is serving up ice and snow in the eastern U.S. . . . difficult to imagine here in water-rationing-land.

Weather . . .

It must be watched, of course, but it is well to remember that Nature has a way of her own in adjusting these matters, and the position of those dependent on her benevolence is exactly described by the late Mark Twain when he said that he heard a great deal of complaint about the weather, but no one seemed to do anything about it.”

But did Mark Twain really come up with this observation? See this interesting bit of literary detective work, and then decide . . .


Warning: (barefoot) race report ahead

February 2, 2016


Caution: if you are allergic to hearing runners go on and on about their insane weekly mileage, negative splits, PRs, aching quads, hitting the wall, and/or carb loading, stop here and go outside and enjoy the company of a neighborhood critter.


Cooper’s hawk in our birdbath

Otherwise: read on . . . ’cause I finally ran a race!

[For a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with running pain), I did not enter any trail races in 2015. (I usually only race a couple of times a year anyway, because trail running is something that doesn’t need an organized race to make it fun.  Street running/racing? Yuck. I can’t imagine doing that with or without race fanfare. But that’s a rant for another blog.)]

Since this new year is off to a much more fabulous-free-flowy running start, I was happy to discover that the generous race promoter of Rock It Racing would trade an entry for some help before/after the race . . . perfect for our tight sabbatical budget.

So . . . I got up a little earlier than usual last Saturday, and made it to the race site (Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park) by 6:15 am to unload supplies and then work the sign-in table.

It was a pleasure to meet and assist so many cheerful trail runners!


The 12k race began at 8:15, so about 8 am I left my post in the good hands of another (non-racing-that-day) worker, and went to my car to remove my socks, sandals, fleece hat, sweatpants, down vest, and a few other layers–while it had been a bit chilly for standing around for two hours, this was perfect running weather!

After a few sets of 60 crawling “steps” (which I tried to do away from the crowds, as it still feels a bit odd to “crawl in public”) I was warm and ready to run.


We all headed over to hear the last minute race directions. “Yellow flags” . . . something something  . . . follow the yellow flags,” was about all I could hear from the crackly bullhorn, but that was enough. I knew there would be plenty of people ahead of me to follow, and even if I got lost, it was a beautiful cool and cloudy morning to run in circles for a couple of hours . . . and Whiting Ranch is not that big of a place, so I knew I’d be able to find the parking lot easily again.

And yes, some of the fast folks in front did get mixed up when it came to the turn-around section of the course; even though they ran an extra mile or two, they still finished the race a half hour ahead of me. It was so inspiring to see them flying on by as I was trudging up the last incline before the turn-around . . . and most of them shouted out not only encouragement (“you’re almost to the top”) but also instructions on how to keep on course (“turn around when you see the three yellow flags”).

Runners . . . gotta love ’em (even if they tend to go on and on about about their obsession . . . )

On a sadder note: 12 years ago, Jan. 10, 2004, a mountain biker fixing his bike on the side of the trail was mauled and killed by a mountain lion here at Whiting Ranch.

Not too many attacks in recent years, though, so I decided to go “minimalist” . . . no anti-mountain-lion sprays/bells/guns, no hydration pack, and absolutely no iPod-iPhone-FitBit-GPS-heart rate monitor-watch, etc. Not even my trusty little camera.

Just me and my bare feet.

Just fun!

The 12K (around 7 miles) course took me 1:27:20 to complete its seriously steep dirt roads and single track–and although I tried hard to keep my breathing controlled and only in and out my nose, I caved a few times and had to gasp my way up and up and up some sections.

But the trail surface! Lovely damp sandstone with only a sprinkling of rocks here and there . . . over which I (literally? at least in the photo below) floated my way to the finish line (finishing 72nd out of 123 runners).


. . . and photobombing other runners along the way . . . (yeah, my wool long-sleeved t-shirt got a little warm on the never-ending uphills).


Whiting Ranch 5K and 12K 2016

Whiting Ranch 5K and 12K 2016

Thanks to Foggy Bay Photos for the great shots, and to RockIt Racing for a well-run event.


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