Diversion #3: The joys of the open road
And how I almost ran over America's rarest bird.
In this weekend edition of DESIRE PATHS:
A road trip in California’s high desert
Entrepreneur Josh Bowden’s big pivot
Readings, recommendations & lots more
And if you’re coming from somewhere else, I’d love if you subscribed…
Every other weekend you’ll get an email just like this, filled with interesting, escapist DIVERSIONS. And every so often you’ll get a deep-dive interview with an entrepreneur or creative person building their own PATH and doing incredible things.
I think you’ll like it here.
I’m Danny Giacopelli, a writer, photographer, traveller and small business fan. By day I’m Editor-at-Large for Courier magazine. This is my personal newsletter, Desire Paths.
Desire Paths is based on the idea that the most fulfilled, fascinating people in the world chase after risky dreams, change careers, make unconventional decisions, and cross oceans to start something new. I go deep with them—small business owners, designers, shopkeepers, farmers, billionaires, hermits, maybe even you—and share everything I learn.
1. Poetry on the road
“Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally...”
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968)
As someone who grew up on suburban Long Island, with malls, lawns and every modern comfort and convenience known to man, I have a weird affinity—an unearned familiarity, even—with desolate, wild places.
Don’t get me wrong. I love cities. I’m a city guy, a city wanderer, a street photographer. I’m at home, in my element, in a place like Ho Chi Minh, Naples or Seoul. But increasingly, I’ve got an urge to get out into nature. Spend time on mountains. Have adventures like a kid. Maybe it’s a phase? I hope not.
In particular, I love the desert. The otherworldly horizons. The light. How quietly alive everything is. The fact it can kill you in an instant if you don’t respect it. I love how I feel in the desert. Maybe I was a nomadic herder in a past life. A bank robber on the run. A coyote.
Of course, moving from London to LA last summer really lit the fire. Head north on the 405 or PCH from my place in Santa Monica and within minutes you’ll see something beautiful. Travel for a half hour and you’ll be dumbfounded by how such a huge metropolis like LA (a city-state, even) can be so close to real wilderness.
But drive for an hour or two? You’ll enter another universe.
I’m writing this from London. I’m spending next week here working and catching up with colleagues and friends. But last weekend I was about as far away from Hackney as you can possibly get—the Cuyama Valley. The middle of nowhere.
If the Serengeti and the planet Mars had a baby and raised it directly on top of the San Andreas fault, it would look something like New Cuyama (pop. 562), a few hours northwest of LA in central California’s high desert. There’s even a sign on a stretch of Route 166 that warns you to gas up and get supplies, because there ain’t nothing for another 50+ miles.
But middle of nowhere is usually what people call places they don’t understand. Right? Places that don’t have a Sweetgreens on every corner.
There are, of course, wonders everywhere.
And in New Cuyama, one of them is a 1950s-era roadside motel called the Buckhorn.
Next week, I’ll share my interview with the Buckhorn’s owners, Ferial Sadeghian and Jeff Vance, who bought the place back in 2018. What began as a hospitality project to rejuvenate a remote gem soon grew into a community project more rewarding than they could have imagined. Keep an eye out for it—it’s a good one.
While staying at the Buckhorn, I spent two days on the open road around New Cuyama, where I drove my increasingly muddy Subaru through deserts, grasslands, mountains and forests.
Below are some images I took on my (increasingly battered) Fuji X100V, in Carrizo Plain National Monument, Los Padres National Forest, and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, where we stumbled upon two—two!—of the few hundred California condors remaining on the entire planet.
It’s supposedly a sign of luck. I’ll let you know if good fortune or a curse comes my way…
It was at this point we had an experience…
The California Condor is the largest bird in North America—a wingspan of almost 10 feet, if you can believe it—and also the rarest. Back in the 70s, only a few dozen were left in the wild. Their numbers dwindled over the years from hunting, lead poisoning (eating carcasses with lead fragments), and other humans generally being bad activities.
In the 80s, every condor was captured and taken to zoos for breeding to prevent them from becoming extinct. Today, thanks to the efforts of humans who are great, some condors have slowly been released into the wild.
There are now 347 of them out there, somewhere.
We were in Los Padres National Forest, and I crossed my fingers we’d see a tiny black blip, high up in the sky.
And then we turned a corner…
Right there, high up on the edge of the cliff, staring down into the valley for their next meal, were Condor 62 and 70.
They looked like huge turkeys, but more dignified, and also from another planet.
Kim and I sat in the car next to them, in awe, for probably a minute—but what felt like ten.
And then we went on our way.
2. A true pivot
Back to the city, back to LA.
I love learning about business founders who began their journey making X, before pivoting to making Y. Years ago I interviewed Jason Goldberg, the founder of Fab.com, and heard how he turned the company from a social network for gay men to a furniture brand valued at ~$1B. That’s a pivot.
I also enjoy when an internal, DIY, scrappy tool put together by a company with glue and paper clips becomes so effective that they spin it out into a product. Sometimes it even becomes the main product—the business itself. I like it because it shows how random acts of serendipity are often the invisible hand of business. You might remember Jack Dorsey originally created Twitter as an in-house comms tool (twttr) for employees of the podcasting company Odeo. Wild.
I was reminded of all this when I met up with Josh Bowden the other day.
Josh is co-founder and CEO of the sustainable packaging company noissue. They’re based in New Zealand and they make packaging for some of the world’s most well-known consumer brands. It’s an incredible company. They’re killing it.
But Josh wasn’t always making biodegradable bags. He used to make glasses.
Back in the day, he and his buddy Augie Gruar ran an eyewear company called Lewis Fredericks, which made frames from waste materials. They were stocked at places like Mohawk General Store. They even did a collaboration with my old pals at Monocle.
But when Josh and Augie were investigating sustainable, quality packaging solutions for their products, they realized there weren’t many good options. And when they finally sourced and cobbled together their own beautiful, sustainable, custom packaging, they found that the retailers they spoke with were more interested in the packaging than the glasses!
These are signs from the gods, friends.
They promptly quit the eyewear industry and got into packaging.
Noissue was born in 2017.
Opportunities, they’re everywhere. Just keep your eyes open.
Tabs, links & people doing cool things.
“Meet the Cambodian Cowboy, a Texas Barbecue Pitmaster in Long Beach” (Eater).
‘Long Beach chef Chad Phuong’s life sometimes feels like a triptych, three independent panels in time that collectively portray a full scene. There is Cambodia, the place of his birth, where he bore witness to genocide before escaping with his mother. There is Long Beach, where he arrived as a refugee and found a whole new life. And there are the grazing fields of Hereford, Texas, considered one of the nation’s centers of beef production. Phuong has channeled all three into his current life as the community-dubbed Cambodian Cowboy, a meat-slinging American Cambodian character who smokes and grills from a mobile setup that he attaches to his Toyota Tundra, selling food under the name Battambong BBQ.’
“Meet the Alaskan Brewers Making Sustainable Beer in One of the World’s Most Remote Cities” (Modern Farmer). Married couple Marcy Larson (an accountant) and Geoff Larson (a chemical engineer) moved to Alaska back in 1982 and eventually found their way to extremely remote Juneau. They decided to start a beer company. There were just a few minor problems to solve…
‘The Larsons were aware that Juneau’s isolated location would present very specific challenges for them. Tucked between the Gulf of Alaska and steep glacier-filled peaks reaching up to 4,000 feet above sea level, Juneau is remote even by Alaska standards, reachable only by air and sea with no road access. “When we told our malt supplier it needed to travel on an ocean-going container, they were shocked—they’d never done that before!” says Marcy.’
“Where are all the stories of Black adventurers? This L.A. native’s mission is to find them” (LA Times)
‘Have you heard about the Buffalo Soldiers, Black servicemen who served as some of our very first park rangers? Or the cyclist who attempted to bike to the South Pole? What about the French alpinist who could’ve been one of the best in the world, had he not died tragically on the highest peak in South America?
I didn’t know any of these stories until I spoke with James Edward Mills, 56, who started the Joy Trip Project in 2009 to cover the people and culture of the outdoor recreation industry, and to unearth buried stories, especially of adventurers of color.’
"‘Anyone who has locked themself out of a car or building knows the panicky feeling of vulnerability that sets in when the door you took for granted will no longer open. The director and cinematographer Ian Moubayed found himself in that exact situation several years ago, when he got locked out of his New York City apartment in the middle of the night. He found a locksmith to help him get back in, and he realized that locksmiths have a unique window on the lives of New Yorkers—they are summoned in moments of great stress, by customers from all backgrounds and with all kinds of stories. That interaction was the catalyst for Moubayed’s short documentary “Keys to the City.”’
“Why Every Fashion Kid Is Suddenly Collecting Old Books” (GQ). I mean, I guess this is okay? Better to collect old books than something polluting the world and terrible? As long as it doesn’t jack up prices and ruin everything for lifelong secondhand book enthusiasts (like me)? Alright, maybe I hate this…
‘Following a few cool moodboards on IG isn’t enough anymore. To attain true aesthetic clout, you need to own physical copies of vintage fashion tomes, lookbooks, and magazines—and a new generation of book dealers is here to help….’
Stuff I’m loving.
LifeWear. Whenever I pass by a Uniqlo, I pop in to grab a copy of LifeWear, their in-house mag. Great editorial direction, stories, photographs, and those sweet, sweet, chaotic Japanese print layout designs. No surprises that Lifewear was launched by Takahiro Kinoshita, Popeye’s former editor-in-chief.
‘Last summer, I was delighted to learn that Eisuke Yamashita, a former Men’s Precious editor, now runs his own website, Mon Oncle (French for “my uncle”).’
I’ve since gone down the rabbit hole. His site is bonkers and refreshing. I love the colours, illustrations and animations. Look at that little pipe smoking guy when you scroll down the screen!
Speaking of websites... Have you ever visited the (very real) website of Berkshire Hathaway? You’re in for a treat.
Danner boots. Always been a fan of Danner’s red laces and old-school styling. I’ve got Red Wings for the city, but wanted something I could beat up on day hikes in the Santa Monica mountains. But nothing too technical or pricey. So I picked up a pair of Mountain 600s. Zero break-in needed. They’re good to go out of the box. The most comfortable boots I’ve owned, full stop. (I’m still saving my pennies for these, though.)
Eating in Thai Town. We took a few trips into LA’s Thai Town recently to tick off some legendary spots. Made it to Sapp Coffee Shop, Luv2Eat, and the dessert shop Bhan Kanom Thai. All were next-level. Get the Hoi Joh—deep fried dried tofu wrapped crab rolls— at Sapp. Get the Moo-Ping—grilled marinated pork skewers at Luv2Eat. And get anything at Bhan Kanom Thai. You literally can’t go wrong at these spots.
Pilgrim Supply’s ‘Ivan Longsleeve’ shirt. This is easily one of the best shirts I own, for one reason: GIANT front pockets and nice thick material. Each pocket can hold a hilarious number of things: iPhone, notebook, etc. Extremely useful when your trouser pockets are full/ tight and you left your cargo shorts in your childhood bedroom. (Fair enough, these are sort like having cargo shorts on your chest). I’ve got it in beautiful indigo which is sold out, but they’ve got one in black.
Next week, a BIG INTERVIEW with Ferial Sadeghian & Jeff Vance, owners of Cuyama Buckhorn. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to buy an old roadside inn and make it shine, give this one a read.
Thanks for reading and have a FANTASTIC one,
Desire Paths is a free newsletter about the wild, winding, lesson-filled lives of fascinating people. I’d love if you’d consider subscribing or sharing with a friend.